James McDonagh is currently studying at National University of Ireland, Galway for English and Film, set to graduate this year. He has a love of story-telling in all it’s forms ranging from poetry to film.
By James McDonagh
It had not occurred to me that I would ever step foot in Paris again. I detested the city and the endless ways it could make one feel small and slow and overwhelmed by all things fashionable and full of class. It had a certain – I don’t know what – which was impossible to describe to my colleagues in Essex. They, like me, were men of policing and as such only cared for things which were available in their fullest on the outside of themselves. To them, Paris was simply ‘Paris the place’ and for me to describe Paris as not Paris would be beyond the reasoning of their glazed glares. In response to this, I gave up and never tried.
‘Emmenz-nous a la reu Cardinal Lemoine,’ she said. ‘Fait vite.’
I sat in the back seat of the car along with the young French lady, my forehead glistening with the sweaty Summer effort of heaving my luggage into a mean and sparingly spaced boot. The taxi driver had made no offer to assist me, choosing instead to bite and nibble at a wooden toothpick to help along the time. As the car began to depart the public oval drive, swerving slowly around the seasonal parade of dull-footed tourists, the French lady, born in Brie but bred in Paris, turned to me with a wicked and unwelcome observation.
‘Would you like some?’
‘No. I’m fine.’
She shrugged her shoulders chirpily and tucked into her soggy cheese sandwich with all the gusto that conveniently thin women reserve for their food.
‘So then, where is she?’ I asked, trying my earnest to supress the agitated Irishman who had been bellowing at me ever since I stepped off the plane. He had given out to me for coming in the first place. He had scathed at my attempts to recall basic school-level French and familiarize myself with the essential geography of the capital. He condemned me for considering buying a bottle of Eua de Toilette at the duty-free and he condemned me in the car for apologizing through tone and timing for a question I had every right to ask.
‘Sophie? She’ll be at the apartment by the time we get there. She’s taking ballet classes. Is that okay?”
‘That’s alight. That’s fine,’ I said cautiously, assuring not Mary but myself that it was indeed an okay situation.
For the majority of the journey Mary and I sat in deep silence, one which was made even deeper by her typical haughty French whistles and hums. Those petite, famously splendid buildings passed me by one by one, their style made all the more effortless and inevitable when faced with an opera of horns and midday bustle.
‘Do you like Paris?’ asked Mary, her eyes overflowing with hurt and suspicion. ‘Do you like the nightlife over here?’
‘I get my fix. The English aren’t bad for drinking,’ I said, observing closely as the tempo of conversation fell to a level Mary was comfortable with.
‘You Irish are crazy,’ she mused, with a fondness which could not have been born further from me myself. ‘One of my dearest friends is half-Irish. He says he visits his family in Belfast all the time.’
I felt a sharp jolt of excitement run up through my throat at her words but refrained from speaking. I would have my own personal troubles to attend to that evening and the Irishman’s place in the mind of the world was the least of my responsibilities that day.
As soon as the taxi pulled over and allowed my luggage to be freed from its claustrophobic confines, life began to take me as it did four years prior: that maddening, drumming, meaningful noise. Like the beating of an old steam locomotive I was assaulted with sound on all fronts as the endless crack of day broke the silence of empty space. I hurried along through the quarter, following Mary’s natural lead I was happy to escape the native’s open gossip and ridicule.
Free of encircling city-speak, I fond myself in the company of an intimate side-alley. I began to recall those first impressions of Paris as if they were happening in real time. I had been coerced by my two closest friends into coming with them to the French megacity for five days of madness. Their obsession with the city – born from a popular song by an American RnB artist – was not something I shared. But, life being life, I committed to the journey like the diligent fool I knew myself to be. The first three days were sombre and grey and infuriating in the most foreign and irreconcilable way. I felt as if I were walking along hallowed ground and all those around me were conspirers in the historic merry-go-round they had presented before us, and that they would soon slide back into their real homes in the catacombs after we made way. During our time we drank heavier and harder than we ever did back in Cavan. We sauntered along sophisticated and culturally enriched streets at three in the morning with our plastered faces and perpetual Irish poverty proudly displayed for the Parisians to see. I enjoyed the streetlights and found them to be the nicest and cleanest and crispest beacons of light I had ever seen in my life. The drink was plenty and Paris was surprisingly wet for Spring time, with the Cavan boys loving every raised brow we caught sight of in the blurry haze of drink after drink after drink.
But even though I spent the bulk of my visit with the lads, I had never felt so essentially alone. My legs wandered forward aimlessly amidst Paris’ winding, arrogant streets, hoping that I might briefly feel at one with the whispers of buzz and hustle and happiness which enveloped my senses. I wanted them – both the streets and the people – to know that I was not some entitled, bombastic English tourist, and that in fact I was not English at all. I was Irish and was preparing to take the Gaelic language proficiency test to join the Garda later that month. This, in hindsight, was perhaps one of the reasons my visit was further spoiled. I had spent a great deal of effort blocking out any Francais which might seep into my linguistically-limited swamp, yet all the while protesting that ‘Je suis tourist d’Irlandais,’ was insufficient to convey the complexity of my soul. In even further hindsight I wish I had not indulged in my stress as I failed the exam regardless of my efforts.
While my luggage bumped up and down along the cobbled pavement, providing the rumbling base to Mary’s high-heeled step, I began to reconnect with my fondest memory of losing my Parisian virginity. It was the fifth and final night of Paris and the three Cavan madmen, worn and weary from whiskey and wine, gathered their souls together for the finale. We had drank admirably in a bar just off of the Champs de Lyse and finally managed to hail down a cab in the teasing drizzle de soir:
‘Whoa! C’est a nous!’
Being the natural diplomat of our brigade I stepped back chivalrously and offered Eire’s grandest apologies to the gaggle of femmes before us. Meeting the eyes of my opposite number I stopped and watched as the young girl smiled wildly at the idea of getting her way.
‘Maybe we can fit more in,’ she said to me as her three companions slipped inside the tiny taxi cab. ‘You American?’
‘Irish,’ I said, with my thick and deceptive border-twang. ‘You lot going to a nightclub?’
The girl turned to her friends and blabbered frantically, then, turning to the taxi driver, tongue long and lashing once more, she began to wave her hands up and down as if she were juggling the old Turk’s heart there and then.
‘Fine. But keep your heads down,’ he said, with a smile which spoke of the end of all things safe and sane.
We squashed ourselves into the back, with Cavan’s finest footballer occupying the boot for good measure and aerodynamic certainty. The ride to the nightclub was fun and full of a happiness which only comes from warm company and the meeting of bedazzled, sparkling eyes. It only cost two euros a piece, too.
By the end of the evening I had finally touched the underbelly of the city. I had felt its warmth and vulnerability in a way which excited me as a man. Mary, or Maria as she called herself, had a beautiful innocence and enthusiasm which I was lucky enough to experience unabridged, not hindered by time or circumstance or clothes. We played together in a romantic place and I left Paris the next morning feeling happy and exhausted; empty of my hate. That memory was touched upon in the quiet cobbled alley in the way one touches the corpse of a loved one. Looking at Mary’s neck, I wondered how deep I would have to dig to find those purple bruises I had left four years ago. No doubt the layers of time buried them well and reduced their happening to cold scientific notations comprised of ivory teeth and broken bits of blood vessels. It had never been clearer to me the amount of lives I had left behind by the ways of simple choices; Paris and Sophie were simply one of many.
‘It’s not much, but it’s clean and safe,’ said Mary defensively. ‘and it’s close to Sophie’s school as well as having reasonable rent. Sorry, there’s no elevator.’
Heaving my luggage up along the narrow and steep flight of number 74’s stairs, my heart banged and tugged at my veins with a dizzying and lethal concoction of physical strain and emotional excitement. The vessels of my arteries were flushed with swirling waves of blood as my eyes clung desperately to the hellish heel of a Prada boot in an attempt to balance my sweaty, lumbering Bohemian being. Upon reaching the third floor I allowed the wheels of my suitcase to bear the weight of my wear and Mary to shoulder the responsibility of a hopelessly stiff situation.
‘Sophie,’ she called, her natural mother-tongue purring along the roof of her mouth. ‘vous avez un visiteur spécial!’
I peeked my head around the corner of the door sheepishly and made my steps light, knowing well that I was the largest creature to ever step foot in the little girl’s feminine domain. The decor of the flat, so effortless in its place in the world, was covered in drawings and paintings made by a bright mind which was beginning to understand that beauty was not forever. There were drawings of giraffes and crocodiles and hippopotamuses. There were drawings of eggs and frying-pans and city streets. There were drawings and sketches of trees and bees and creatures which did not exist. Some were in three dimensions, others in two, all signed in a Picasso-esq scrawl; Sophie.
‘Attendez une minute!’ shouted back an excited, small voice.
‘Fait vite, little one.’
After leaving my belongings in the spare room I joined Mary in her humble and entangling living space. I sat on the couch, herself on the armrest of a fleshy cream chair. Just beyond the tattered mahogany door to my right I could hear the stomping of feet and an assortment of clings and clicks. Flattered by what I assumed to be flustered preparation I began to tap my fingers with a rhythm which never arrived at a pace I enjoyed.
‘Would you like any coffee? I bought some Nescafe.’
‘It’s alright. Thanks.’
Mary took a purposeful breath, reluctantly sucking back the anxiety which had briefly left her through cordial hospitality. Sitting there in the apartment with Sophie so close to us, I could see how much this meant to her. She had gone through a great sum of effort to orchestrate the unlikely moment in time. After our first rendezvous in Paris she knew, she would later tell me, that she was pregnant. She told me she always knew she was going to get pregnant at twenty-five as it was her favourite number. She told me that after Sophie was born she invested all her power into locating the charming Derek McMahon of the Irish Republic and found nothing matching my description. I had given her little in the way of information during our fling, and failed to mention that I would be in England five weeks after returning from Paris – a circumstance which I could not have possibly divulged even if I wanted to. It was only thanks to the rapid evolution of our digital landscape; with the mounting force of Facebook folding barren meadows of wire and cable into useable and useful mountaintops, that allowed us to be connected in whatever way one could call it a connection. I had joined the network six months after moving to Essex as a means of hoping to see and witness the shape of my family onscreen and realize that even though my mother had died three months after my first landing in England, the rest of my family were still in one piece after the funeral, and that my second subsequent landing in Stansted would not jinx anyone’s else’s life. I always regretted leaving Ireland after my mother passed. I felt that I caused her much stress in our last months together and it was much my own doing which added to her bad heart and its tantrums. Failing to get into the Garda Síochána was the first of our clashes and since then neither of us spoke a word of Irish to one another, as was becoming a custom of ours in the weeks prior. She wasn’t very good, but it was the warm, earthy soup she used to stir that was the real motherly purpose of her nurture, and it was that which she missed the most. It wasn’t until the exam’s results came back that I realized how clinical my failure had been in uprooting the hopes and purpose of my entire childhood.
I continued to tap my fingers anxiously while Mary, both resigned to the situation and retired from pretence, allowed our silence to come to terms with itself. The clings and clicks had ended and I strained my ears to catch the occasional pant of Sophie’s breath. I heard a loud chorus of popular French dance music surge amongst the traffic below and wondered what type of music she liked. I wondered what type of cartoons and books and comics she liked. I wondered if she liked her ballet, or was sceptical like her father. But these things were mostly background noise, and I did not care what she liked as long as she liked me; or at least the look of me. Maybe if she had seen my bulbous nose and bulbous ears the moment she entered the world she might have grown used to me and maybe even grown anxious around the lack of bulbousness in other men.
Mary had sent me many pictures of Sophie, but nothing could have prepared me for how beautiful she would be in the flesh. Her eyes were big and brown and appeared to bend the dim daylight light towards their centres as if she were the starlet of a romantic film. Her hair was mousy and as long as it could be for her age. It framed her face well and brought out my grandmother’s button nose which she so proudly and confidently tilted as she awaited speaking to. The dress Mary had bought for her was very chic and very French, with the rolls of the light scarlet fabric curling up delicately around her small, olive being. She was unmistakeably from the continent only as far as her lips which were thin like mine and full of a vicious cynicism which I knew would one day take hold of her mind as it did with all the McMahon women.
‘Sophie, say hello to your father,’ urged Mary in the most careful of ways.
She stepped towards me with a pair of dainty, Bambi legs which wobbled under their surface. Her gaze was level with mine up until the moment she fell forward into me, her arms suddenly sprawled around my torso. I clasped her frame gently, my gargantuan Cavan hand resting on her head. I could feel the pulse of her neck beat steadily on my chest as I searched every crevasse of my mind as far and wide as I could to find some words to tell her how much she meant to me. But I found nothing; only a parade of bleeding tears which marched down my cheek like the soldiers of a country raped and the river of a language I had long forgotten.