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Rue Vaugirard

Lightly, a breeze blows the curtains open. From the street sounds reach her: a klaxon, footsteps, the murmur of the city. She stands listening, her heart beating, her mind trying to avoid the words. They no longer whisper. Now they speak. They call over the activity from the pavement below: two simple words love and death. When did it first occur to her? Was it those few minutes the train stopped in Lisieux? Her eyes looked up from the book she was reading, her eyelashes quivered in the sudden burst of sun, the smoke of a cigarette curled upwards from the seat in front of her. At first she thought it foolish. The other train was a local train. She sat on the Caen - Paris express. It is that fleeting moment when two trains stop in the same station. Their windows are almost parallel. She looked into his eyes. He did not look away. The newspaper he was reading remained in front of him. He seemed lost in thought, to be looking at her and through her at the same time. His skin was pale and his rimless glasses shone, reflecting light back onto his eyes. She wondered why they were that blue - a sort of sea blue. It made her think of a strand, a sky ragged and grey and turquoise. Then he looked away. Something caught his eye. Until the train was moving, was pulling out of the station and there was a woman sitting down beside her who was overweight, who made a fuss with her baggage, fumbled and complained under her breath with great, heavy sighs. Why in that brief moment did she think of her former husband? A sudden piercing ache, she realised. The way a dentists drill hits the nerve causing you to contract with unexpected pain. Strange for something she thought long finished. It occupied her mind all the way to Paris. As the train wound into St Lazare, she felt an aloneness touch her. At each signal post, the rail lines melting into the autumn sunlight she was thinking of her childhood. She was thinking of afternoons when the trees were still, when the light fell as if it were a shower, as if it were favouring the city with a passing thought. Then the space over the canals would fill with an incandescence. She reached for her bag. Her eyes clouded with an unanticipated emotion and that emotion reached out into the train carriage. It followed in her steps along the platform.

It touches her: like, long cool fingers running down her back. For a moment she feels the floor will give way beneath her. She pulls the curtain back and gazes through the hotel window. Across the street is a small bar. It is near empty. The tiled floor and Formica topped tables are somehow lost. They suggest having given up the fight to stay in tune with the march of time. She watches a waiter come and stand in the doorway to the caf. His white apron and his black trousers are sharp in the soft evening light. In his face, his thin hair, his small beard, his deep-set eyes, she senses earth: the earth where it is dark under trees. Where it is damp and has its own aroma. Where its endless giving and taking of life can be felt. He puts his hand to his chin and strokes his short, trimmed beard. Then he crosses one leg over the other and looks up toward her window. She steps back, not wishing him to see her watching. His eyes move slowly over the railings of the small balcony. They focus on a row of scarlet potted plants. A car slips by. There is the sound of voices speaking rapidly in Arabic. She imagines the faint rumble; the shaking from underneath her is not the city or the metro but a river in full flow.

Before she left Caen, before she boarded the train she wanted to sit by the river. She went to the Tabac to buy some magazines and chocolate. The river was lined with oak trees and crossed by a steel bridge. She found a seat and slowly pulled open the wrapper on the chocolate bar. Then she began to think. It seemed to her everything was moving too fast. Even the river she felt to be moving quickly. And the clouds appeared to be racing across the sky, to be impatiently headed somewhere. Seconds were slipping by even as she thought of them slipping by. Once gone, a second could not be brought back. Every second with its multitude of details, sensations, flavours, passed and then died. Is time only comforting when it contains possibility she wondered? She broke a piece of chocolate from the bar and put it in her mouth.

It is the waste. When I was younger I cared so little. I was careless with time. I thought of time as simply something in which I existed; in which I was. Yet I also felt apart outside it. Only now as time advances, as I became aware of its power, do I realise it is something with which we always wrestle. Its claim is made long ago. It is made the day you first cry, the day in a hospital a nurse lays you on a white sheet in a cot. Then the counting begins. From that moment on time accompanies you, strolls alongside you, silently creeps under your door like smoke from an autumn bonfire. Perhaps time is death. As she waited in the station it occurred to her. Trains also bring to mind death. The sky was feather-like. It was grey and yellow. Around her people were waiting patiently. A station is like waking from a dream she thought. It is a small point on a map. In a station I am aware of the multitude of journeys being made. I am aware my journey only constitutes one of many. Here are other people going places, visiting families, waiting on loved ones, carrying children, doing business. A provincial station is more poignant because it lacks the intensity of a city station. Each of its stories is closer, more intimate. In the provincial station we are touched by the texture of each traveller, each journey. She stood, her travel bag at her feet, her eyes on the timetable. Trains, she thought, remind me of death because they bring me nearer to a destination. They speed somewhere, contract a journey. The physical circumstance, the human reality of space is compressed into hours and minutes. The supremacy of the body is challenged. It is no longer innocent. From the moment I let my body be propelled through space faster than it can propel itself, I am conscious of the fact it is also a prison. And perhaps simultaneous to my existence are other existences. If there are other existences, who am I? Am I nothing more than a fleck of dust in a giant dustbowl? If people had never dreamed of moving faster than the body is capable, would they have remained ignorant or innocent of its limitations? Are ignorance and innocence related? It is only when I question why I am as I am that awareness comes. And love? Does love come into things? Love forces me outside the familiar. It makes me conscious of the singularity of each act, each word and each moment. I can never escape love. I can deny it but not escape it. Love like trains, like stations, brings death to my attention. Why does this concern me now? Love and death. I have loved and not loved. Perhaps it is a deep anxiety about being alone. Not the

physicality of being alone, but the thought that ultimately I, my core self, may always be alone. It is only occasionally, perhaps while taking some defining step this anxiety surfaces.

It was not her intention. The week in Normandy was supposed to give her time to herself, to let her catch up on some reading and relax before returning to Amsterdam and work. She decided to cut it short and spend a couple of nights in Paris. Stepping off the train she thought simply to eat, get some sleep, to be up early the following morning and visit some Museums. Instead she called an old friend. Occasionally when in Paris she saw him. With her marriage finished she felt freed of constraints. There was nothing left to hold her back and she enjoyed his company. Yet he represented a thin thread of continuity. She was the ex-wife of someone they both knew. In a way the attachment was not yet broken. He was with a friend: a journalist who had just returned from an assignment in Chile. As she was introduced she thought of a street she had once been on, Rue Salvador Allende. It was all she really knew of that country except perhaps the poetry of Pablo Neruda. For a moment she contemplated remarking that Neruda took his name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda but wondered if that was sensitive. Why did he lean toward her like that? Each time the space around them seemed suddenly animated and tight. It seemed to be enclosing only them. And there was something secretive about him, like a forest or a heavy summers night. When he stepped out for a moment, she leaned over to her friend and asked his age. Perhaps that was it. The mixture of his physical youth with the timelessness she detected in his voice: like an ocean or a sea. They left her friend at the junction of the Place St Michel and the Rue Danton. Turning from the river they sauntered through the numerous small alleys of the left bank. She felt they were being caught up in the press of bodies. They were like two people adrift, two people who had lost everything. They had only what they stood in. They were two people temporarily released from the demarcation of time. It was like an old movie. The grainy black and white, a war, and the friendship that springs up between a couple; a couple who under different circumstances might never give each other a second glance. Now for these few hours, the artifice of day-to-day living seemed swept aside.

She was strolling through theatre. In the strange gestures of a street performer or the movement of a couple, she felt a curtain was being lifted. A face passed her straight from the deserts of North Africa. Or a body moved by with the grace, the simplicity of the east. She sensed layers of time, of ages packed one on top of the other. Her footsteps were lost in this tide, this stream of animation and energy. With every ebb, every flow of the crowd she was touched by its ease and its melancholy. She imagined the movie. War follows closely on their heels. Stolen moments of togetherness, of freedom. Yet why war? Why conflict? Is it that war drives people to simple choices: life or death? It strips away the superfluous. War is the price paid for disregarding the reality of death: or taking love for granted. And there are wars everywhere. If not over religion or land, there are small wars: wars in homes, in families and now the war between men and women. As they reached a corner, he stopped. He asked her to come back with him. It was not far to where he lived he explained. She hesitated. She sensed darkness. Not darkness as in a lack of light. It was the darkness in of a Cathedral; a darkness animated by the flicker of candles. He stood looking at her. The features of his face were drawn in the streetlight. She caught sight of a reflection in a window. Momentarily, there stood a woman she did not recognise. It was a woman, who in the longing of her eyes, the turn of her mouth was asking what life was: the woman beneath all the trappings, a woman always there: the young woman, fresh and eager to taste life. Then the woman she now was matured somewhat. And there was the old woman. The woman who would one day be a flower that had blossomed. A woman fading with grace, shedding the trappings of her life the way the petals of the last flowers eventually fall on a lawn as winter approaches.

By the window of the hotel room she thinks of him. She remembers the words he gave her, words from a poem. He knew Neruda but it was Milosz he quoted. She goes to the bed. The page he tore from the book is folded in her bag. It is somewhere between her papers, her passport, her bank and credit cards.

Her hand slides into the bags dark. It grasps the piece of paper and pulls it out. She sits on the edge of the bed and reaches for a small bottle of mineral water. Slowly, she unscrews the cap and carefully takes a drink. Then begins to read. The breeze blows again through the curtains and whispers around the room. It is as if the line between inner and outer is weakening: as if, as she finds each word, everything seems to fill with a luminosity. The walls begin to dissolve as though there were fire running through them. From beneath her feet the floor rises to her in waves: a strange sea. She is grasped by a fierce sensation. She is being shook, being split apart by some force. Subtly and powerfully, it reaches into her very existence. There is a rushing sensation and then quietness. Something opens out within her. Every second, every instant of her life is there. She feels light surrounds her. People do not fear death as much as they fear living. People do not fear loss as much they fear loving. It is the small simple fears that hold me back. I get lost in myriad empty dreams. Have there not been times I have felt naked? Have there not been times I have felt as though some protecting layer has been pulled away. Beneath my composure I am often at the mercy of unknown feelings. They rise up from some hidden part of me. Feelings of intense sorrow or joy. Then I would like to be able to touch the whole world. I would like to touch everything from the faces that pass me on a busy street to the tiniest blade of grass in a park. I am aware that were I able to do so it would not be enough. It would still leave me with a sense of an un-reached world; somewhere I have yet to touch. This world is a world I feel I once knew. A world I am always trying to get to: a world where my most secret feelings, my deepest longings are met. She wants to run down the narrow stairs of the hotel, to run out onto the street. She wants to be sure the pavement is real, the sounds, the smells, the noises of the city are tangible. Not that she doubts their existence. Only she feels she has missed them. They are always there in all their complexity, all their intricacy, all their depth and she has grown complacent. She has forgotten their wonder.

She lay with her eyes open and the silence of the room enveloped her. They did not make love. They simply talked, held each other. Sometimes it is better not to taste every pleasure at once. Love, she thought, is a perpetually unwinding thread. It cannot be subjected to will, made obey whims. It cannot be explained in numbers. Crossing and turning, it finds itself a path. It goes where it needs to be. In each of its turns she finds herself and in some additional aspect. Love is a fire that once lit burns silently and long. In the darkness, his words came back to her. She thought of his kisses and how she felt the years between them, the difference in their ages, obliterated. In their intimacy it was as if they had left their bodies. There was a space around them in which gravity played no part: a feeling she no longer needed to lose herself in activity. Now she could be still, could let herself fall into the emptiness and yet it was not empty. It was full of something that sustained. It was like coming to a river and realising the river was a river she had always walked along.

The light fades. The floor becomes solid again. Her fingers tremble and her body feels strangely empty. Somehow in these last few moments she has changed. The street is still busy; only the sky over the buildings is a little darker. She stands and returns to the window. On the pavement are the first of the evenings shadows. Across the street the waiter has disappeared. Through the half-open door she can see the tables, some empty, some with or couples talking or a solitary man drinking a beer. Her ears pick out every sound; the rising stream of voices, footsteps, and her heart beats faster.

Somewhere in a room they lie. It is dark. Only through the window does the city enter: music from a car radio. Her body is curled and backed to his. His arms are around her, holding onto the hands she has brought up together over her breasts. In the darkness, the secret world of the room, nothing moves. The red and white roses he brought for her are on the table. Their petals are curling in the shadows, their colour lit by the warm September moon.

She feels like crying but does not. She feels like crying not for any one reason, but because with the moment, as they find each other, she senses all the moments they will not be together. She whispers to him. When I lie in your arms like this, when I feel the warmth of your body next to mine, it brings a sense of sadness. Being with you I am aware of all the other times, times when even though surrounded by people, I am alone. As we lie here, as our bodies breath together, touch each other, as we let ourselves move out into this moment, the minutes, the seconds, are racing by. They press on and on. She sighs. I have this recurring dream. I am walking through a wood and do not know how I got there. I only know I must keep going. It is night and the moon is full. It is caught in the branches of the trees. I am frightened. I wish only to be clear. The night gets deeper and the moon grows. It is very quiet. There is a seductive edge to the darkness and I feel I could get used to it. Through tiredness or inertia I could give up and lie down. Then I notice the moon is fading and the sky getting brighter. Ahead of me is a clearing. So I walk to it. I step onto soft, lush grass. There is a tree with the freshest, greenest leaves I have ever seen. Beyond is the edge of the wood. The sun is beginning to rise. Suddenly I feel I am near to the end of something. Yet before I can go any further, I look down and see my feet are cut. The skin is torn and they are bleeding and the blood is staining the grass. Its red is all the brighter against the green. My journey has not been without cost. I understand now. Love, the search for love is like this. Sometimes it cuts into me. Not because its purpose is to wound, but because its power leaves no room for indifference. Love propels me into life and brings me closer to death. And yet love is my only assurance in the face of death. Her hands tighten around his. He says nothing. She does not expect him to say anything.

Over the city the moon rises. It sweeps up above the streets of St Michel, over the river and the deserted boulevards. It throws the edges of buildings into relief, stretches in flat arcane planes all the way along the Rue Vaugirard. The breeze still blows gently against the curtains. It creeps in around the half-closed window. A book of poems is open on the floor and a half drunk a bottle of

wine. Her breathing deepens and she whispers to herself. There is simply love and death. And not to face the endless falling away of time would be to deny love meaning. Love and our continuous struggle with death are the music we dance to. They are the melodies we hear in each of our particular songs.

She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees. Czeslow Milosz: Esse. Uncollected Poems 1954 1969.

Copyright Peter Millington 1999

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