Channeling Ernest

Short Stories Oct 9, 2022

He fled the steadily increasing rain. Down the stairwell and into the sheltered  bowels of Les Gobelins Metro station. Others had the same idea. Refuge from wind and rain. His umbrella had failed him after being turned inside out and he’d discarded it in a streetside bin on the Boulevard Saint-Marcel. It lay forlornly atop the carcass of another umbrella; its structural spines splayed and broken. There are no degrees of umbrellaness. They either function or they don’t.

Inside the Metro, a hubbub of French was punching out. Protruding top lips and excitable jaws danced with the volume of modulating conversations. Hands were flailing demonstratively. French must be spoken rapidly with lips, jaws, eyes and hands. It’s the law. It is immutable.

At 4pm it was the beginning of rush hour and bodies of commuters began to close in on personal space. There is no personal space at this time in the Metro. Herded towards the ticket gate by the impetus of the surging swarm, he wheeled abruptly and pushed his way up the stairwell. A solitary salmon leaping upwards through a waterfall of wet, Gallic workers.

“Désolé. Désolé,” he muttered to nobody in particular.

He crested the top of the cascade and darted across the boulevard against a red crossing light. Head down against the rain, he narrowly avoided several electric scooters in the velo lane. With no sound from electric motors, and capable of speeds of other traffic, these silent predators prowl Paris’ streets seeking witless pedestrians and tourists. They hunt in packs, pods of urban orcas, quietly appearing from nowhere. Green pedestrian crossing lights are like blood in the water. They merely alert the scooters of a potential feeding frenzy.

Le Café Premier’s lights refracted on wet stone pavement. Its red awning and welcoming outside tables beckoned. It was a scene lifted from a Van Gogh painting. Aaaah. D’accord. Almost home. The sudden downpour eased and should soon cease altogether. Perhaps there was time for a glass of Chardonnay before returning to his small rented studio on Rue Pascal in the 5th arrondissement, the Latin quarter. Vanity had suggested he could channel Ernest Hemingway’s literary talents by frequenting Hemingway’s haunts of the Paris of the 1920s. Somehow, it would rub off. The miracle of osmosis.

The second glass of Chardonnay was even better than the first, but the third was liberating. Seated at the café’s covered terrace on the street, feasting on baguette, olives and cheese, the whole world seemingly passed by. A vanguard of beautiful people on electric bicycles and scooters, then a procession of even more beautiful people promenading purposefully, and finally a rearguard of beautiful people speaking animatedly on phones or sucking on vapes. Hemingway couldn’t have envisioned the sight of electric scooters on the streets and crooked lanes of the left bank of the Seine. Bereft of ideas for his next writing project, the Hemingway channeller quickly downed his third glass of Côtes-du-Rhône. Perhaps it was the wine, possibly just his wish, but he sensed Hemingway’s invisible cloak had descended and enveloped him. Could he have been gifted literary talent by merely drinking cheap wine on the Left bank? Could upskilling be any easier? Calling “L’addition s’il vous plait, Étienne,” he paid, leaving a small tip, and bid Étienne, “Merçi, bon soir, au revoir.”

The rain had ceased. A hint of late afternoon sun squinted through clouds relieved of their burden of rain and he pondered his next move. He could return to the studio to stare at his laptop, waiting for the blessing of an opening paragraph to plummet from a window in the heavens. Or he could take a stroll through Le Jardin des Plantes and reach the Seine in time to watch the sun set behind the restoration site at Notre Dame Cathedral. Which would Ernest Hemingway have chosen? Probably neither. Hemingway would have enjoyed a fourth and fifth cheap wine before purchasing a cheap spirit to bring home and share with his wife Hadley.

Three eminently drinkable chardonnays skewed his decision-making. He elected for the sunset option. Standing on the glistening left bank of the Seine, forty metres from the Pont de la Tournelle, the magic of Paris was revealed. It transcended the contradiction of dog turds on pavements or beggars on corners. It was greater than the sum of its parts; more captivating than all the city’s beautiful people. City lights sparkled, night lights on moored barges framed the heart of Paris. Above him, a family crossing the bridge shared the joie de vivre with the would-be writer. A child squealed.

And then there was a tiny splash in the Seine not 20 metres from him. Then a child’s frantic scream from high up on the bridge.

“Bébé! Bébé! Bébé!”

It wasn’t quite dark, he could see the eddies of water at the splash site and a small body on the surface close by. He looked around frantically, hoping, hoping, hoping. No, he was the closest to the baby, and perhaps its only hope. Casting his wallet and phone to the footpath he leapt headlong into the Seine, thrashed clumsily through the murky water and made a gallant recovery.

By the time he’d reached a stone staircase cut into the bank 80 metres downstream, the French family had descended the bridge. They helped drag his partially intoxicated and thoroughly waterlogged frame from the bosom of the Seine. There was an air of excitability in the immediate conversation but he couldn’t comprehend much more than the rapid-fire, “Merçi monsieur, merçi monsieur!”

He returned the drenched plastic doll to the petulant infant who had thrown it from the bridge. She grabbed it thanklessly and clutched it to her chest, mouthed “Bébé” soothingly, then hid behind her maman’s skirt. Gathering wallet and phone, he cursed silently through gritted teeth and Chardonnay breath, then sloshed away from the Seine towards his studio on Rue Pascal and his waiting laptop. The veil of his writer’s block was now lifted. He had his Paris story.


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