Steps

Gabriel Josipovici

He had been living in Paris for many years.

Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.

When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.

He was an old-fashioned person, still put on a suit and tie to sit down to work, and a raincoat and hat when he went out. Even in the height of the Parisian summer he never went anywhere without his hat. At my age, he would say, I’m too old to change. Besides, I’m a creature of habit, always was.

He lived in a two-roomed flat on the top floor of a peeling building in the Rue Octave Mirbeau, behind the Pantheon. To reach it you went through the dark narrow Rue St Julien and climbed a steep flight of steps on the right, which brought you out into the Rue Octave Mirbeau opposite the building. There were other ways, of course, but this was the one he regularly used: it was how his flat joined on to the world outside.

From his desk, if he craned, he could just see the edge of the Pantheon. Every morning he was up at 6, had a look to see if the big monster was still there, made himself a light breakfast and was sitting down to work by 7.15. He kept at it till 11.15, when he put on hat and coat and descended. He had a cup of coffee in a bar at the corner, did what little shopping was needed, ate a sandwich with a glass of beer at another nearby bar, and was back at his desk by 1.30. At 4 he knocked off for the day and made himself a pot of tea – he kept a supply of specially imported Ceylon tea in a wooden box with a red dragon stamped upon it, and was very precise about the amount of time he let it stand once the boiling water had been poured into the pot. Afterwards, if the weather was fine, he would take a stroll through the city. Sometimes this took him down as far as the river, or even the Louvre, at others he made straight for the Luxembourg and sat on a bench looking up into the trees. He was always back by 7, for that was the time a table was kept for him in a nearby bistro. He ate whatever was put in front of him and paid by the month without questioning the bill. After supper he would return to the flat and read a little or listen to music. He had a good collection of early music and his one indulgence was occasionally adding to it – Harnoncourt he particularly admired.

Sometimes you went to concerts, his wife – his second wife – would interrupt him. He seemed to need these interruptions, was deft at incorporating them into his discourse. Not often, he would go on, too expensive and, really, after London, live music in Paris was always a disappointment.

We listen a lot here too, his wife would say. Friends who came to stay and neighbours who dropped in on them in their converted farmhouse in the Black Mountains, up above Abergavenny, were indeed often entertained to an evening of baroque music. His wife, a handsome woman still, with a mass of red hair piled up on her head, would hand the records to him reverently, dusting them as she did so with a special cloth, leaving the final gestures – the laying of the disc on the turntable, the setting of the mechanism in motion, the gentle lowering of the stilus – would leave all that to him. I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your head. You had other qualities, he would say.

In between records he would often talk about his Paris years. After his wife’s death what he had needed most of all was solitude. Not that he wanted to meditate or brood: just that he didn’t want to have to do with people. He took on more work than he could easily manage, needed to feel that when one piece was done there was always another waiting for him. Sometimes, in the early morning or evening, the light was excessively gentle, touching the teapot. I wouldn’t ever have known moments like those if I hadn’t been alone, he would say.

As he strolled through the city in the late afternoons he would occasionally have fantasies of drowning: a vivid sense of startled faces on the bank or the bridge above him, or perhaps on the deck of a passing boat at sea, and then the water would cover him completely and he would sink, shedding parts of himself as he descended into the silence and the dark, until in the end it was only a tiny core, a soul or knuckle perhaps, that lay, rocking gently with the current, on the sandy bottom. He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous perhaps, but he was not unduly worried, sensed that it was better to indulge them, let them have their head, than to try and cut them out altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternate lives. Alternative lives. That’s the foolishness of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives we live alongside the main one. Like Shiva with his arms. In their converted farmhouse in the Black Mountains his wife would serve chilled white wine to anyone, friends or neighbours, who had dropped in to see them, always making sure that no glass was empty. You thought of alternative lives as you climbed the steps, she would say in her excellent English.

Steps are conducive to fantasy, he would say. Going up and down steps lets the mind float free. How often we run up and down the steps of our lives, like scales on a piano.

And always with his hat, his wife would say.

Yes. Always with my hat. On my head. I’m a creature of habit. I would have felt naked without it.

He had to explain to me that a baroque suite was not something you had at the end of a fancy meal, she would say.

You had other qualities, he would say.

And certainly she made life comfortable for him, saw to it that he had everything he needed, was not disturbed by any of the practical details of daily living. He for his part looked up to her, would do nothing without her consent, wanted her to say when he was tired and ready for bed, when he was hungry and ready for a meal.

He had been happy in his Paris flat. His desk was under the window and as he worked he felt the sun warm the top of his head and then his neck. If he gave his alternative lives their head he also knew how to keep them in check. Most of the time I lived just one life, or less, he would say. When he poured tea into his cup in the early-morning silence it sometimes seemed as if all of existence was concentrated in that one moment, that one act. Could he have wished for greater happiness?

But do you always know what it is you want? What it is you really feel? Sometimes the tediousness and unreality of the novels he had to translate was too much for him. It was an effort to keep going till 11.15, and then he couldn’t bring himself to face the afternoon session. One day, indulging his drowning fantasies more than usual, he did not go back to his room after lunch. Instead, he walked down the hill and across the river to the Island, and then across again and up in the direction of the Bastille. He must have walked for two or three hours, his mind a blank, because he suddenly realised that he felt utterly exhausted, could not walk another step. There was a café across the road, so he crossed and went in. It was empty at that time of day, except for the patron in his shirt-sleeves, polishing the counter. He eased himself onto a stool and ordered a coffee. When it came he swallowed it in one go and ordered another. This time he toyed with it a little longer, dipping a lump of sugar into it and watching the dark liquid eat into the white, letting it drop into the cup and stirring slowly, gazing down at the spoon as he did so.

By the time he had drunk this second cup he felt restored, wondered how he could have reached the stage of exhaustion he had just been in.

I want to make a phone call, he said to the patron.

The man stood in front of him, separated by the counter of the bar. He was a large man with a red face, bald but with a bristling moustache and large amounts of hair on his arms.

Could I have a token please. For a phone call.

He thought the man had not heard, then saw that he was in fact holding out his hand, palm upward, and there lay the token on the creased red skin.

He looked up into the man’s face again. The man was grinning, holding his hand out across the polished counter. He lowered his eyes again and looked at the token. There it was, waiting to be picked up. Gingerly he stretched out his own hand and reached for it, but just as he was about to pick it up he realised that it was no longer there. The large hand was open, palm upwards, but it was empty.

He looked up quickly. The man was still grinning. He lowered his eyes again, and as he did so the man slowly turned his hand over, and there was the token again, a small silver circle, lying on the back of the hand. The man thrust his arm forward again, as if to say: Go on, take it. So, once again he watched his own hand going out to meet the other, and this time the fingers closed round the token and he lifted it off the hand and drew it back towards him. As he did so he saw the hole. It was a small round black hole in the middle of the man’s hand, just where the token had been. It was smoking gently.

He must have walked a lot more after that. He didn’t remember where or for how long, but towards the end of the afternoon he found himself by the river again. He tried to look at the books on sale on the quais, but his mind wouldn’t focus. He didn’t want to go back to the flat, but his feet were hurting badly and he felt he had to take his shoes off or he would start to cry. He found some steps and staggered down them to the level of the water. There was a patch of grass at the bottom where a tree grew under the high wall. He sat down slowly, leaning back against the tree, closed his eyes, and fumbled with the laces of his shoes. When his feet were at last free he opened his eyes again and sat motionless, staring down into the water.

When the girl came it had grown almost dark. He couldn’t make out her face clearly, only the mass of red hair that fell down to her shoulders under a little green beret. For a moment, in the half-light, she reminded him of his dead wife.

He must have spoken because she said at once:

You are English.

How did you guess?

I guess.

He couldn’t place her accent.

It’s hot today, she said in English.

Are you English?

She shrugged.

I too will take off my shoes, she said.

He wanted to talk about the token but checked himself.

She took off her beret: Hold it please.

She brushed her hair hard, moving her head in time to the strokes. Then the brush vanished as abruptly as it had appeared, and she took the beret back from him and carefully put it on, though this time it was at rather more of an angle than it had previously been.

He was looking at the lights of the city reflected in the river when she said to him: Do you mind if I put my head on your lap? Without waiting for a reply she did so, quickly settling into position and tucking her legs under her skirt.

Her eyes were closed and he thought she had gone to sleep, but then she began to move her head on his lap, slowly at first, as though trying to find the most comfortable position, then with gathering violence. He stroked her hair; the beret fell off; she began to moan.

They must have got up together. He could remember nothing except that her room was red. Like fire, she said.

He found himself walking again, swaying like a drunken man in the noonday blaze of a Paris summer. His trousers felt too tight, his thighs itched where they rubbed. His body seemed to have been scraped raw from neck to crotch. When he finally stumbled home he was so tired he could hardly get the key into the lock. He fell on the bed fully clothed and was asleep at once.

When he woke it was dark. He didn’t know if he had slept for eight hours or thirty-two. To judge from his hunger it was probably the latter. He found some food in the fridge and wolfed it down. Then he got into his pyjamas and crawled into bed again.

The next time he woke it was early morning. He groped his way out of bed and to the window of the study for his daily look at the Pantheon. It was as he was doing so, craning a little to the left as usual, that he suddenly remembered that all had not been entirely normal in the past few days. Alternative lives, he thought to himself, made his breakfast, and settled down to the novel on his desk.

It was only that evening, as he was having a bath, that he saw the wound in his thigh. It was a long straight cut, like a cat’s scratch, and it ran all the way from the top of his thigh to his knee. He touched it but it didn’t hurt. He dried it carefully, examined it again, and decided that there was nothing to do but let it heal and disappear. In fact, though, it never healed. Years later, in Wales, whenever he talked of his Paris days he would point to his leg and laugh and say: It never healed.

You didn’t want it to, his wife would say. Friends who had known him in the old days would comment on the resemblance between his two wives. Especially when she stood in the middle of the room like that, dusting a record before handing it to him, saying: You didn’t want it to, really. No, he would say, looking up at her. No I didn’t, did I?

He’s so superstitious, she would say. He never went to a doctor about it.

What could a doctor do?

Maybe give you something to get rid of it.

We’ve all got something like that somewhere on our bodies, he would say. Maybe if we got rid of it we wouldn’t be ourselves any more, who knows?

Who knows? his wife would echo.

He would tell of his fantasies of drowning, vivid images he experienced at that time, when he was living in Paris after the death of his first wife. As I sank I would feel quite relieved. I would think: There goes another life – and know I had not finished with my own.

One sprouts many selves, he would say, and look at her and smile. One is a murderer. One an incendiary. One a suicide. One lives in London. One in Paris. One in New York.

One, one, one, she would echo, mocking him.

With his soft grey hat pulled low over his eyes, he climbs the steps out of the Rue St Julien.