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Billy O'Callaghan is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008) and In Too Deep (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), published by New Island Books, the title story of which won the 2013 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year. His first novel, The Dead House, is forthcoming from O'Brien Press/Brandon Books in Spring 2017. His stories have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world, including: Absinthe-New European Writing, the Bellevue Literary Review, Bliza, Confrontation, the Fiddlehead, Hayden's Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, Kyoto Journal, the London Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, Salamander, the Southeast Review and Versal. He also reviews books for the Irish Examiner and was recently appointed as Writer-in-Residence to the Cork County Libraries for 2016. www.billyocallaghan.ie
The Sense of Rain
I was stretched out in the centre of the bed, reading, when Ellie emerged from the en suite, naked and with her hair down around her shoulders. She stood for a moment, breathing slowly, but then her mouth tightened and she spread a towel over the room's only chair, sat at the dresser with her back to me and began to feed the pins of the gold and diamond studs that I'd bought her for her last birthday into her earlobes. The right, first, and then the left.
Paris was as idyllic as we remembered. Our plush, well-lit hotel room was pleasantly spacious, a rare enough thing in a city known for its cramped accommodations, and ideally located, overlooking the Rue du Bac and the Rue Montalembert and with the Church of St Thomas Aquinas at our back. I'd requested in advance a room on the fifth floor, one of the large deluxe rooms with a huge king-size bed, walk-in shower and a balcony that offered breathtaking views out over the city. Not quite the honeymoon suite of our first visit, some five years earlier, but as much as anyone could reasonably want. An extravagance, perhaps, but one that felt justified. Because we needed Paris now in a way we hadn't then.
We'd arrived on the Friday, late in the afternoon, and almost immediately the world we'd left behind had ceased to exist. All the problems, all the mistakes, and almost all of the grief. That first evening, we unpacked our suitcase, freshened up, and ate an early dinner in the hotel restaurant, an intimate little place run by a two-star Michelin chef that seemed to have overblown its reputation only until the food arrived. By eight, we were back in the room and wrestling one another out of our clothes, as if the miscarriage, and the warnings from the doctors, was misfortune that belonged to other people. I felt light-headed and she seemed possessed, and giving in to the frenzy was like coming to a banquet after a stint on hunger strike. We spoke in whispers and gasps, afraid for some ridiculous reason of being overheard, but urging one another on, helpless to stop. Yet our lovemaking, after the initial collision, had a gentle quality, too, as if we were each in our own way aware of and attuned to the other's fragility.
The door of the bathroom had slipped its clasp and fallen a couple of inches ajar, creating a sliver of white, steamy spillage, and the glow of the bedside lamp, good for an arm's reach, fell across my chest barely enough to illuminate the pages of my book.
“Still Faulkner?” Ellie said, watching me in the mirror. I looked up from the book.
“I'm persevering. Some pages, I think I can almost understand what I'm reading.”
The raven blackness of her hair seemed to swallow the light, and to shine. Wet from the shower, it lay in tendrils down her back and over her shoulders down the hang of her breasts, and made me think of feathers tugged loose or askew by breeze, the road-kill of crows that have paid a bad price with traffic. Her narrow shoulders, and her long slender face and frail body reflected in the mirror, were, because of the dimness, a yellowish lie.
“What time is it?”
“I'm wide awake now.”
“Good. Then come back to bed.”
She smiled. “You've got a half-track mind, you know that?”
I was still watching her. We were watching each other, through a piece of glass, she with her back to me and with the room lying between us.
“So, get dressed,” I said. “This is Paris. We can take a walk, stop in somewhere for a glass of wine. Or a coffee. There are places here that stay open long into the night.”
She sighed. “My impression of Paris is always of rain. Why is that, do you suppose?”
The book lay tented open on my chest, and I picked it up, looked at the page number and tried to memorise it, knowing that without the number I'd never find my place again. And there'd be no question of me ever trying to start over. It was a slim book and I was already well into the second half, but I could only stay with it for so long. Already, my strength had begun to wane. To avoid despair, I stopped myself from analysing or summarising what I'd so far read.
“I don't know,” I said. “But I know what you mean.”
“When we were here last time, there was a lot of sunshine. Remember? But even then, I kept seeing the city the way it wasn't but felt as if it ought to have been. Now, it's right. Forget the songs. This is the season for Paris, I think. Rain suits the place.”
“A lot has happened here. Living and dying. Too much, maybe. That could be why.”
She leaned in closer to the mirror and used her fingertips to stretch and examine the skin beneath her eyes. “Everything so beautiful, the surface of the water flashing, beaded with light, and all the young lovers strolling hand in hand or kissing on benches. And still, this sense of rain. I don't know. Even Montmartre had a sadness, if you let yourself see it. The artists, the sun coming through the trees, a feeling of music. But that there too, underneath. That's what I remember.”
“Don't think about it.”
“Easy to say.”
I tucked a piece of paper, the stub of our flight's boarding pass, among the pages, tossed the book down on the bed and sat up.
“Come on,” I said. “We'll go for a walk and find ourselves a nice café, and tomorrow we'll try the Louvre. You said you wanted to see the Modigliani paintings. Then, even if it rains, it won't matter.”
She turned her head and I could see both sides of her profile, her left side – her best side, she often said – reflected in the mirror. She was looking in the direction of the door, but not at it, at something beyond. The light from the bathroom was in her face now, and turned her eyes to glass. She seemed about to cry, but I waited and no tears came, and when I felt certain that that wouldn't change I stood, pulled on and slowly buttoned a clean blue shirt and stepped into the same day's pair of slacks, then sat down on the bed again to tie my shoelaces.
After a minute or two, she got up and came to the side of the bed, where her clothes were laid out. Standing alongside me, close enough to touch, she began, slowly, to dress. I tried not to stare. When she leaned over, her small breasts hung with exaggerated heft, and when she adjusted the elastic of her underwear between her legs I nearly reached out for her. She'd lost a significant amount of weight over the last few months, but there was a slight bloat still to the flesh around the low part of her stomach, and the skin there had coarsened to an almost grainy texture.
“The Louvre doesn't matter,” she said, her voice all air. “The paintings don't matter. I'll look for them, if there's time. But there's a building in Montparnasse that I'd like to visit, if we could. If we can find it. The face in a lot of Modigliani's work is that of a woman named Jeanne Hebuterne. She was his model, his muse, and his lover, too, the mother of his only child. They'd planned to marry, but her family objected to the match. It's really an awfully sad story. Modigliani was a junkie and an alcoholic, and was nearly twice her age. She also painted, but didn't have what he had. She understood his genius, in a way that few others did. At the time, anyway. And she adored him. Life is always hard, isn't it? No matter what you get, there's always some precious piece either missing or soon to be lost.”
“We can go there,” I said, seeing how serious she'd become. “Of course we can. I'll get directions at the desk. What was it? Their home?”
Ellie shook her head, half-turned and considered her reflection in the dresser's mirror. The blouse, the golden colour of apple skin, went well with the knee-length teal of her wool skirt. The top two buttons were still undone, leaving exposed a pale wedge of chest and emphasising, around her neck, the silver chain, frail as filament, and the small featureless low-hanging cross.
She looked around the room. Her shoes lay where she'd slipped them off, just at the bathroom door. One still upright, the other on its side. She stepped into them, and instantly lifted herself an inch and a half. I picked up my jacket, draped it across one arm, and opened the door for her. We walked down the corridor in silence except for the sound of our footsteps cushioned to dullness by the carpet, called for the lift and stood listening as it dragged itself up through the building, its iron cage groaning like an old sail ship close to death in a windless drift. After a minute or so, it hit our floor and braked with the sound of someone screaming through a gag. I pulled at the gate, stepped aside to let her enter, then shut us both inside.
“His paintings in those days could be had for just a few francs,” Ellie said, not looking at me, looking forward. Beyond the gate's accordion lattice, layers of hotel rose up before us, floors and the concrete and girders lying between. “More often than not, he traded them for food or his next fix. Just try to imagine that, imagine being that great, and no one caring. When he died, destitute, of tuberculosis, at only thirty-five, Jeanne was nine months pregnant, and distraught. Understandably. She was twenty-one. For most people, life is only beginning at that age. The following day, at her parents' apartment, in Montparnasse, she stepped backwards out of a fifth floor window.”
“I know. Makes you want to cry, doesn't it? How far gone does a person's mind need to be for something like that to happen? How deep does that kind of hopelessness go?”
In the lobby, there were a few people milling about. A white-haired man in a fine dark grey suit stood slump-shouldered with two suitcases in the middle of the floor while, alongside, a beautiful young girl – his granddaughter or, this being Paris, as likely as not his lover – maybe eighteen and a little too professionally made up, held a phone to her ear, not speaking but smiling to herself. I followed Ellie past, nodded good evening to the smile of the hotel's receptionist's bonsoir, monsieur, and stepped out behind my wife into the night.
The Rue Lagrange was quiet except for a few slow-moving cars, and I took her hand and we followed the traffic the short distance to the river. Then Notre Dame came up ahead of us, immense in its isolation. Somewhere in the darkness, a violin was playing. We stopped at the river, leaned against the wall and listened. I thought I recognised a Bach sonata, and then something that might have been Rimsky-Korsakov.
I bowed my head. My throat had begun to ache. “Why did you have to tell me that?” I said, when I could.
Ellie looked at me.
“I mean, what's the good in me knowing?”
She shrugged. “Good doesn't come into it. I read it, that's all. And it stuck. I haven't been able to get away from it, and I thought that maybe if I went there, if we went there together, we could just stand outside, and it'd make some sense.”
Her hand was dry and cool against mine, but still with a whisper of pulse. Alive. A small, delicate hand that I'd studied in so many quiet moments, mapping the veins, the spindles of bone that fanned beneath her papery skin, trimmed nails that I'd kissed and then let run across my chest and stomach, savouring their scrape.
“Imagine,” she said, as much to herself as to me, “loving someone so much that there's no air to breathe beyond them. Surely love is only supposed to ask the best of us. I read that there's no plaque, no memorial of any kind to mark what happened. Nothing to show for it. It's almost as if, by ignoring them, the facts can be rubbed out. That can't be right, can it, Mike?”
The river below us was black and lit, the white patches laid down by the street lamps bobbing and sighing against the stone of the banks. But that was just the surface. The darkness beneath frightened me. And on the banks, on this side and across the water, couples were walking by in both directions, even this late and even with the cold, holding hands or with arms around one another's waists. I looked away so that Ellie wouldn't see me watching, and considered instead the lit façade of the cathedral, the Gothic slab with its bells and relics, built more than eight hundred years ago to replace an earlier cathedral that had stood on this same spot for probably as long again. I took a deep breath. Sleep would be slow in coming tonight, which meant that I'd have to be awake while she wept.
“Do you feel like a drink?” I asked.
She was staring at the water as if hypnotised, but after a moment shook her head.
“No? Me neither.” I turned back towards the road and waved down a taxi.
“What are you doing?”
“The driver will find the place for us.”
“Why not tonight, if it's what you need? Even if the taxi driver doesn't know, he can call it in, get directions. And we'll ask him to find a late-opening florist. You can leave a bunch of flowers, maybe say a prayer, if you think it'll help. That'll be memorial enough. Certain pain goes beyond healing. All we can hope for is to be able to carry on.”
Ellie remained by the wall until the taxi, which was parked back along the road on the opposite side, near the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, caught sight of us and drew up to the kerb. Then she came to my side and put a hand on my back. As I held the door open for her, I saw that her tears had come early, in silence. But she was smiling, too. I sat in beside her and in a convoluted mixture of English and broken French helped her explain to the driver, a heavyset man with a thick black and grey moustache clotting most of his lower face, what we were looking for and where we needed to go.
©2016 Billy O'Callaghan
Interview with Billy O'Callaghan at Writerful Books
'On a Wild, Red Dawn': Billy O'Callaghan story at Kenyon Review
'Feeding the Dead': story by Billy O'Callaghan at The Forge Magazine
More by Billy O'Callaghan in Southword Journal