You are on page 1of 9

Place Carnot

I am standing by the window. It opens onto the small balcony of my hotel room. From the pavement below I hear the sounds, the bustle and movement of crowds. I am looking to the room across the street. Every now and then figures move from behind the curtain. The outline is vague and blurred in the peach of the hanging fabric: shapes sketched by the light from the ceiling. As I watch I think of her. Four mornings ago when I arrived the city was quiet. It was just after 7 when I stepped from the train. I knew it was too early to find a hotel. I had a couple of hours to kill. My first impressions were of the white of the buildings, the soft colours of the paintwork, the emptiness of the yet unpeopled streets. The sun was rising. It climbed up over the houses on the hills in the distance. It found its way in over the roofs. It glinted here and there in the mirrors of cars parked along pavements. In the morning cool I shivered. It was a change after the warmth and stuffiness of the train carriage in which I had been travelling all night. I opened my bag and pulling out a light jacket, put it on. I wondered what the city would bring. I wondered why I had marked it on my map. Why, when the previous day planning the last part of my journey, I decided on a detour. I first saw them standing in front of the 1st class section of the train. They were carrying two large suitcases. The suitcases had been set down on the shadowed stone. As they stood looking about them somewhat confusedly, I noticed her shiver, noticed how he stood a little away from her. His hands were in his pockets. His eyes were narrowed and wary. I walked toward them and heard him say loudly, Im thirsty. I sure could kill a cup of coffee. She looked down and opened a small bag hanging from her shoulder, took out a mirror and began to put on lipstick. As I passed she was applying it to her lips. She looked up, caught my gaze and smiled. I was a little way beyond them when I heard his voice call out. For a moment I thought it was for someone else. Then I stopped. I turned around and saw him wave and walk quickly toward me. Say you dont happen to speak English do you? he asked. I replied I did but was unable to help him. Its my first time here, I explained. I am also a traveller and looking for a hotel. It should be possible to find something in the vicinity of the station. He strode back to where she was standing and shook his head.
1

The following morning I sat on the terrace of a caf. I was putting a roll of film into my camera and heard the seats across from me being moved. I glanced up and she was sitting down, the same small bag held out in front of her. I noticed her eyes seemed a little remote. Almost immediately I felt she was annoyed at something. I watched her, watched her put her light jacket over the back of the seat, watched her smooth out her skirt and then cross one leg over the other. And I remained like that. Observing the breeze play with her short blond hair. Noticing her pale arm against the cream of her blouse: and the concentrated light from the table softening the tones of her skin. It was only when I heard the other voice, heard him ask, is a black coffee all right, I looked away. He was standing behind her. Tucked under his arm was a newspaper. In his hands were two cups. His hair, still wet from the shower, was brushed back smoothly off his forehead. There was a tiny scar marking the line of his jaw. She nodded without looking at him. Her face remained impassive. Then she reached into her bag and pulled out a paperback. He put the cups on the table, sat down quickly, his mouth set in a thin line. I did not want them to notice me looking. I was staring impolitely. Something inside me said it was better not to interfere. Yet I could not but admit I was curious. I put my cup to my lips. I finished my coffee and called the waiter over. Then I heard his voice. At first I thought he was also calling the waiter but no, as on the previous morning, he was speaking to me. Hey, did you get fixed up with a hotel. We found one not far from the station, but the other station. There are two here. Did you know that? How about you? I returned my wallet to my pocket. I was already standing. Yes thanks, I managed to find something. Its a small but comfortable place near the Place Carnot. It was too impolite just to walk away. I was wondering if she would again smile at me the way she smiled the previous morning on the station platform. He turned to her. Hey its the guy we met yesterday. The guy who didnt know where we could find a hotel. She glanced up, her mind seemingly still on the words she was reading and stared at me. For a brief moment she frowned and then her eyes softened in recognition. As her lips relaxed into a smile I found myself with a strange sense of familiarity. He motioned to me to sit. I did not really want to. I had already decided on how to spend the day. He turned to her. She leaned over and removed her coat from the vacant seat. He saw me hesitate, gave a wide grin, all his teeth showing and asked if would I like another coffee. Maybe a beer even. She nodded and closed her book, carefully placing it on the table.
2

I felt embarrassed, felt it would be rude to refuse but also saw my plans for the day disappearing. He called the waiter back. I sat down. The following morning I ran into them again. It was she who saw me first. She called out to me as I was coming from my hotel. I crossed the road to say hello. She wondered what I had planned for the day. Were planning on taking a drive in the countryside, he interrupted. Id like to see some of the small towns in the region. Say is this good wine growing country? She looked at me quietly. Why dont you come with us? It will give you a chance to see a little of the surrounding countryside. Her voice was inviting. He looked at her blankly for a moment. Yes, why not. Come with us. I arranged to meet them in the foyer of their hotel. When I arrived he was pacing back and forth. She was still in their hotel room. As we waited he complained about the hotel, saying it was small, that it was cramped, that it cost more then it was worth. I shrugged. Its always the chance you take, I said. Its always a matter of luck if you are not well acquainted with the city you are arriving in. Eventually she appeared and we began the short walk to the car-rental agency. It was a sunny afternoon. Clouds were sparse and pearly white. She wore a light blue blouse, a loose red skirt and a pair of white tennis shoes. As she walked ahead of us on the street, I found myself following the light tan of her legs, following the fluid way she seemed to move over the pavement. He noticed this. Why are you travelling alone? he asked. I explained I was on a trip. I had recently ended a relationship and felt the need to spend some time travelling. I told him I had taken the opportunity to bring my camera. Photography was an interest. He looked at me with a puzzled expression. You never really knew where you were with women, he answered, his voice suddenly vulnerable. I was surprised at the perplexity that appeared in his face. I wanted to say that sometimes it is has to do with the unsaid expectations people have of each other: or the secret images we have of ourselves. I wanted to say it is easier to avoid seeing a situation as it is, easier to persist on seeing it as we would like it to be. Instead I simply murmured, perhaps. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his khaki trousers. We walked in silence. When we reached the office there was a misunderstanding about the car rental. She stood outside with me and we listened to him argue, heard him
3

raise his voice and watched the older man behind the desk shrug his shoulders, gesticulate with his hands. I squatted down on the pavement, opened my camera bag and looked to see what lenses I had. He came out, swearing under his breath and explained that they would not charge the car to his credit card. They wanted him to pay cash. Goddamed prehistoric, he suddenly exclaimed. He asked her if she had any cash. I felt embarrassed and I think she did too but she said nothing. As we drove out of the city he began to sing to himself. He wound down the window and leaned his arm out. She sat next to him, her legs stretched in front of her. Opening her bag, she took out a pair of sunglasses and the paperback she had been reading the morning before. I sat in the back. The air from the open window blew in against my face. The city slipped away behind us. After a while he turned on the radio. He asked if either of us knew if they had any decent music in this country. He fiddled around for a couple of minutes, switching rapidly from station to station. Finding nothing to his liking, he turned it off again. I watched as we drove. It was impossible not to notice he was a careless driver. On more then one occasion we had to break hastily as he attempted to overtake into oncoming traffic. She sat reading, her eyes moving patiently across the page, now and then wetting her upper lip with the tip of her tongue. He began to talk. What do you think of Lyon? he wanted to know. I saw him fix me in the rear view mirror as I answered. Looks good to me. Without waiting for any further reply, he launched into an account of where he had grown up. He told me it was still the most beautiful place he had ever been. He described the mountains, the forests, and the scale, the sense of nature untamed. You could build a couple of highways through it, but it would still make only a dent in its wildness, he added. His eyes lit up eagerly as he told me how when you left the city you could drive along the highway for hours before coming to a town. Then there would be only the neon of a seven-eleven, maybe a diner or a supermarket chain, and yet you felt the isolation. You felt in someway that underneath it was something lonely, something strong and doggedly determined. When he was forty-five he was going to pack everything up and go and live in one of those places. Build myself a house, buy one of them off-road vehicles and go fishing when I want. At this she lifted her eyes from her book and looked at him. Then she turned to me.

Hes just dreaming, she said. He couldnt live for forty-eight hours without the excitement of his work, his TV, his fax, his luxury apartment, all the things that go with life in a city. He glanced at her and then lifting his hand in the air, brought it quickly down as if sweeping her words aside. No way, just you watch me, Ill do it. And whats more youre coming with me. I had already learned their names. He was Hugh and she was Lucinda. He worked in Paris as a commodities-trader. He had a one-year contract with the overseas section of a Wall Street firm. She worked for an English retail company that had just started making inroads into the French market. To me, she seemed the more settled of the two. I was not surprised to learn she was the older. He laughed at this, turned and winked at me and said, yea, but whats age when youve got experience. She did not reply. Watching them, I could not figure out the centre of their relationship. There were times she appeared displeased at things he said, hurt by his straightforward manner. The previous morning in the cafe I felt she was upset. She was subdued. I felt her to be almost trying to shut him out. When I sat down she was at first distant. As we talked she eventually became lighter and showed herself to be interesting. I observed her sometimes look at him with tenderness. It was as if she looked at a boy, someone who needed special care. To my eyes it was this he liked best; he needed the attention. As we drove I put my head back against the seat and relaxed. She remained immersed in her book. He hummed to himself, now and then cursing other drivers as we sped through the countryside. From the corner of my eye I saw the fresh green of fields, rising hills, and above us, a sky soft and blue. Yesterday evening I met them at a point along the river. There are actually two rivers running through the city: two that meet here, that join and flow together, rolling gently southwards through wine country before entering the Mediterranean. It is strange to think of the sea so far inland yet somehow, even at this distance, there was subtle sense of its presence. Hugh complained of having a headache. He was feeling nauseous. They had been driving all day and got as far as Grenoble. I had booked a table in a nearby restaurant. We were all to eat together. At first he was puzzled when she said it would be a shame for me to have to eat alone. He could go back to the hotel for a bit and meet with us later. He shrugged. Ok, he agreed. What the hell? I probably only need some sleep.
5

We agreed on a caf. Lucinda and I found the restaurant and sat down. I was hungry. All day I had been taking photographs. I had walked around the city, the camera tight in my hand, the lens ready, the shutter on standby looking for anything that caught my eye, anything that remotely piqued my curiosity. The mixture of old and new, the contrast and contradiction, the peculiar sense of two cities, one underneath the other, was intriguing. I watched her as we waited on our orders. She seemed strangely dreamy, to be there and yet somewhere else. Her hands rested on the table, curled and apprehensive, her fingers thin and delicate. There was something calm and aloof bout her. It was as if she was withdrawn yet consciously so and capable of sudden intensity. I asked about her day, how she had found Grenoble. She replied it was interesting but they did not really have time to see much. Before I could say she could always visit again, she looked at me, stared straight into my eyes and asked about my photography. In truth I felt slightly taken aback by this sudden interest. I wondered if it had been there all the time: in the background only that when he was around she refrained from showing it. I told her a bit about where I had gone during the day: recounted some of the things I had seen while wandering. The city had revealed itself as somehow binary, as existing in different layers. She put her hand to the side of her face and listened attentively. When I finished, she smiled. I would like to see some of those photographs sometime if that would be possible. I nodded absently. There was more I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her not what I had seen but of the strange way in which I had seen. It is the uncovering I enjoy most. Often the camera seems to indicate to me to another dimension of things. In the simplicity, the details, in the act of looking and being aware I am looking, it seems I come close to another understanding of the world. When I was a child I often took my fathers camera and placed it to my eye. I would walk around the apartment we lived in, or along the street, or through a park. I was a different person. I would feel I was looking from outside in: the world had become contained in the images appearing within the viewfinder. Even then I sensed these images were only ways of narrowing down the picture. They had been plucked out of the whole picture. The whole picture was too big, too complete for the eye, for any camera. Is this not a reasonable representation of life? I never see the whole picture. All I see are the hints that suggest a greater complexity. I realise if I were to see everything at once I would be swept away. It would destroy me. It would be more than my mind could contain. The moments when I experience myself as part of the whole picture are the moments when I am concentrating on only very specific parts of the
6

picture. By isolating parts of the complete picture its existence is amplified. Contracting it to the nature of a series of simple connections, the totality of all other connections is implied. It is similar to noticing the footsteps I make in the sand when walking along a beach. I stop and examine the pattern I have made and gaze back and see its form, where it begins, where it ends, where I stand making it even as I turn. And I see where it will be washed away by a change of tide: or blown over by wind. Is this loss? The sand is still there. It has only altered its configuration and is waiting for other steps, other patterns. It is the forming and re-forming that defines me, not the pathway I temporarily make. The waiters voice interrupted my thoughts. The direction of the conversation was somehow broken. I felt it inappropriate to add anything to what had already been said. So we exchanged small talk. Occasionally we discussed our impressions of the country, her work, or the merits of travelling by road or rail. I waited as she put her jacket on and fixed her bag over her shoulder. We stepped out into the street. The air was warm and humid. I said I thought there might be a storm. We passed under trees, thick and fragrant and all in full June bloom. We came to a square. Stately, grey buildings bordered it. As we crossed its open space I felt my resistance weaken. I asked her about the book she was reading. She glanced at me, her face breaking into a teasing smile. It was the story of a woman who had travelled in India. I watched as she talked, watched the way her eyes became animated, the way she threw her head back, the manner in which her voice suddenly started to linger over words. I wanted to ask her if she had any special interest in India, had she always wanted to go there. I was curious to know why she had chosen the book. Did she always choose books about journeys, or about women? Or did she just read what came before her? Again I felt the need to explain myself. I stopped and turned to her in the evening light. Her eyes looked into mine. I leaned over to kiss her but felt her tighten. She moved as if to step back a little. The look in her eyes, the expression of her mouth, told me it was better to let it pass. Reaching out my hand, I simply touched her on the arm. I reminded her we had arranged to meet Hugh and should start getting back. We walked then in silence. We found the river and strolled along it, following its slow wind. I heard the sound of bird song in the spring-scented trees above us. Her steps were light and I wondered if I just imagined she walked a little differently. We reached the caf where we were to meet him. We stopped to cross the street. She put her hand in her bag and took out a pen. Discovering she
7

had no spare paper, she pulled out the paperback and tearing the blank back page out, wrote an address on it. She handed it to me, saying she thought he was planning on leaving the next morning. He still wanted to go to Geneva. It would be nice if maybe I could send her a copy of some of the photographs I had taken while here. I agreed. From the corner of my eye I could see him sitting at the window, his head half-hidden by a financial newspaper. There was a tall beer in front of him. A trolley-bus passed. Its green and white shape came between us and obscured our view of him. Suddenly she leaned up and kissed me briefly on the cheek. Then we were on the other side of the street, stepping onto the pavement and pushing the door in onto his questioning gaze. The storm held off all night. I left them after half-an-hour and came back to the hotel. About six this morning, I woke to hear the rumble of thunder and then the hammer of rain on roofs. It fell hard. I got up and went to close the window. Pulling on a t-shirt I stood and watched the drops beat against the railings of the balcony, watched them sweep and pour down the empty street. I stood until they died down, until there was just the occasional flicker of lightning, until I could hear only the run of water along the edge of the pavement. I spent today just walking around. This morning I took some more photographs, went back to some places I still wanted a couple more shots of. Around midday he came over to tell me they were going to Geneva. He stuck out his hand and said if I was in Paris to look them up. I said I would. Then with a curt goodbye, he abruptly walked away. This evening I ate alone. I drank a coffee on the terrace where I first met them. When I had finished I wandered back to the square where I listened to her yesterday evening, where I stopped and almost kissed her. I sat and watched the birds dart among the trees. Perhaps it is right I should be standing here. Perhaps when I leave tomorrow morning I will look back and see a line running from arrival to departure. I will sit in the carriage as the train makes its way out through the suburbs. I will feel the footsteps fade, feel the glimpse of the picture slip back into its disconnected patterns. The images I have will settle back into moments, into memories.
8

Somewhere Lucinda will be reading her book on India, reading about the poverty and heat, the vast subcontinent with its great variety of landscape, of life. He will be beside her talking loudly as always, eager to be somewhere, tapping his foot impatiently.

Copyright Peter Millington. May 1996.