When Bea and I first came to Paris, we were still so wrapped up in each other we didn’t see much of our neighbour, Marie-Louise. She and a Vietnamese couple were the only other people sharing the lift with us. I did notice she was peculiar, with big fuzzy hair that was obviously dyed and glowed purplish against the light. She had a gummy smile, the seldom time we saw it, but as my girlfriend Bea said, that was hardly her fault. There were times when we would meet her down on the street and she wouldn’t even see us.
She rarely had visitors, although she had a mother in the suburbs and a sister who was married somewhere in town. Bea (who found out most of this) swears she actually met the mother once, helped carry her bag up the stairs, and found her strangely unfriendly.
“You fabulate, my dear,” I told Bea that time. “It’s the causal breach. You women are obsessed by it. Spend all your time trying to plug it, searching for reasons and explanations.”
Marie-Louise had a cat. We first got to know her when she asked us to feed the cat one time she went to a clinic to lose weight. I hated the cat, its litter, its smells. I mentioned toxoplasmosis.
“One always hates other people’s cats,” Bea said.
Marie-Louise was clearly obsessed about filling the causal breach, that void between an event and its explanation, something that fascinated me too, although I didn’t say so to Bea.
Marie-Louise had a selection of odd occurrences she brought up from time to time, as if requesting or hoping for an explanation. One story was the day she and her husband were traveling along somewhere in Europe in what she called Our Bug (a VW beetle), on a normal bright partly-cloudy day. The countryside was hilly but the road – an old coach road – instead of going round the hills went up and down each one as it came. This was fun. You could see she was reliving the experience each time she told it.
The climax was that they topped a hill and suddenly there was a line across the road where snow began and beyond it a winter world of white, with several trucks backed up at a service station surrounded by drifts. Her husband, who was driving, got such a fright he almost skidded, and had to slow down gradually before he was able to turn and go back.
Go back? Why? Where were they headed?
She couldn’t remember, and always closed up at this point.
Bea said it was a freak snowstorm, and nothing more.
Marie-Louise worked at the Post Office next door, along with what I considered to be a selection of other social cases, all swollen from a lack of exercise and the drugs they needed to regulate their serotonin. That was how I explained them to myself, although Bea just laughed. “You’re the one with the problem,” she’d say whenever I complained about their queuing system or the fact that they refused to sell me international reply coupons. “We don’t do them anymore,” they’d say firmly without even checking, and I’d have to lope off to another branch.
Marie-Louise and her husband had traveled the world, once: Russia, the east-bloc countries in their darkest days, southern Europe, the great outdoor spaces of the American West. She knew all the most beautiful spots, the have-to-see places in every country, although she often preferred to fix on something peculiar. Her favourite story was of the laughing clubs they’d visited in India. “They’d start with the vowels,” she’d say, then she’d shout: “He! Ha! Ho! Hi! Hu!” Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing they’d done or seen in India.
Those days we didn’t know exactly where the husband was, although Marie-Louise never mentioned being divorced, or referred to herself as a divorcee. Eventually it emerged that his name was Vlasta and that he had come from Eastern Europe and gotten rich, a long time ago. “Ah, Vlasta!” she would say with a despairing wave of her arm. In winter she gave Saturday theatre classes to small groups of people like herself, in an under-sized sitting room lined with cheap reproductions of old masterpieces. She pretended her family had known many of the most famous modern painters and reckoned that, as a young girl, she’d shown her bum to more than one of them. “Small girls do that, you know,” she said. She had gone on to being their model.
At 12 years of age, she had ceremoniously binned her very ancient and much-thumbed copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Tenniel, with its talking sheep and sinister cats. I thought this chain of events worthy of psychoanalysis, but Bea said she was just chatting. Bea sometimes made a cake and invited Marie-Louise to share it. I would come home and find two sets of big teeth grinning over tea and cake, sharing gossip about the building and its occupants.
Marie-Louise called our concierge The Queen of Hearts. “Queen of Hearts giving orders again?” she’d enquire when some directive appeared in our letterboxes. Residents must realize… Residents should note… The Queen of Hearts was a tiny dark Portuguese Catholic, trying to be a tall blond one. She had a small white poodle and a huge Rottweiler (these I referred to as her Manichean aspects). She took lunch with her parents every Sunday in a public-housing block to the west of Paris which had replaced the shanty town where they lived on their arrival in 1960s France, fleeing Salazar and all that. She was convinced that some saint or other had recently saved her kid from certain death in a scooter accident. She also reckoned we were in constant danger of our lives from local hooligans – hence the Rottweiler – and had organized teams of solemn young men in what looked like Ninja-turtle outfits to patrol the yard and gardens. When the details appeared on the annual charge bill at the beginning of the year, I almost had a fit.
“Get interested in your fellow man,” Bea advised. “This one has been coming at us for a while.”
As a teenager Marie-Louise had been propositioned, very correctly, by a painter friend of her parents. Politely, in his car, after school. When she refused, equally politely, he drove off and she never saw him again. The thing was she fancied him terribly and had cried when his wife died and he married a second time. “Wanting things to stay forever in one place,” she said, “that’s kids for you.”
On Sunday afternoons in winter she sometimes went to what she called a “thé dansant” in old-fashioned Paris ballrooms where tea and cakes were served and polite men asked her to dance dances you really had to know: “You can’t improvise a tango,” she’d say. She had some kind of regular dancing partner at these dancing teas, whom she called her “bon ami” and whose name we never learned.
“’Cos he doesn’t exist,” I said.
“You should cut down on philosophy and read more fiction,” said Bea, “they say it helps us empathize.”
Someone pinched my shoulder-bag one day in the metro when I was lost in a book. Bea wasn’t home when I got there, so I knocked on Marie-Louise’s door. I’d even contemplated asking our Vietnamese neighbour rather than getting involved with Marie-Louise. But I knew the Vietnamese woman would have her own story about a woman’s life in Vietnam, how she only ever went out on her own to go to Mass (our neighbours are Vietnamese Catholics) and how even their watches and wedding rings were taken from them as they left Vietnam. She’d told all this to Bea, who concluded they were terrified of anyone with administrative power over them. Rather than question any authority, they paid all bills without question, including the one for the Ninja turtles.
So I knocked and explained why I needed somewhere to wait till Bea arrived. Marie-Louise ushered me into the sitting room with the reproductions. I was halfway across the dark room when I realized there was someone else there.
“Vlasta,” she said simply.
“Get a glass for him,” Vlasta told Marie-Louise, as if he came every day, lived there, or even owned the place.
For a while he interviewed me like a prospective husband for a daughter, then settled into the story of his own life. He seemed to have a wife, although I couldn’t be sure, and he certainly had two teenage sons who seemed to cause him endless hassle. I presumed he’d made them with someone other than Marie-Louise.
“Bought them a 7-11,” he said, “and they’re about to run it into the ground as well – they’re too lazy even to sit at the till and take in the money.”
He launched into wider subjects. “The Americans organized the Twin Towers themselves. Did you see the way they came down?” – it wasn’t a question – “The plane only hit the corner of the building. Had to have explosives planted all over it. And the Americans didn’t care,” he said, “because the towers were full of foreigners.”
Glued to my chair in horror and fascination, all that seemed to be working was my tongue: I tried to move him on to other things, like the newly reduced Greater Serbia. “Yugoslavia was ruled by non-Serbs, but the Serbs got the blame,” he told me. The trouble now was the Albanians. “Import two of them Sheptar,” he said (I thought I saw Marie-Louise wince), “and in no time you have hundreds.”
According to him, Yugoslavia was made to fall apart eventually. “Stalin was a priest before he came to power. He got rid of the soutane and attacked religion. Tito wasn’t a Serb either, no one knows where he came from.”
“Wasn’t the man who killed the Archduke Ferdinand a Serb?” I ventured, glancing at my watch.
“Sure, but he lived in Bosnia,” he replied. So he wasn’t really a Serb either.
“If you meet a Sheptar” – Marie-Louise definitely winced – “on a country path, he marches towards you and you have to step off the path. Then he steps off the path too, to confront you again. Some people are always spoiling for a fight, like the man who comes up to a peaceful coffee drinker in a café and says, ‘Why did you fuck my wife?’ Coffee drinker says, ‘I didn’t go near your wife, what do I want to go fucking your wife for?’ And the belligerent one changes tack: ‘What’s wrong with my wife that you wouldn’t want to fuck her?’”
And so on. My ears were tuned to the bump of the lift, but there was still no sign of Bea. Vlasta couldn’t be stopped, now he had an audience. Marie-Louise busied herself with tea. “Marx and Engels had excellent ideas that were meant to be introduced gradually,” Vlasta continued. “But no, Lenin had to go and have his Revolution. Communism is a complete misnomer. It brought to power men who only knew how to herd sheep. Down they came from the mountains and found themselves addressing crowds. They didn’t know the difference between Communism and Capitalism. They were told that Communism meant if a man has two chairs you take one off him and give it to someone who has none. One of these former shepherds, before a crowd and stuck for words, saw a tramp go by at the back of the crowd with a sack on his back. ‘A capitalist!’ he cried. ‘There goes a capitalist! Take the sack off him and divide its contents among you!’”
Vlasta looked very pleased with himself. Marie-Louise winked at me surreptitiously.
Suddenly Vlasta glanced at a very expensive watch, leaped to his feet and said he couldn’t delay, as if we’d tried to hold onto him.
When he was gone, Marie-Louise opened the window and beckoned me over.
“Come and look,” she said. “He likes me to wave goodbye.”
We waved as Vlasta got into a Mercedes that was several generations old and roared off in a cloud of black fumes. Just then, Bea rounded the corner. We waved at her too.
“I must apologize for Vlasta’s behaviour,” Marie-Louise said. “It is part of why we are no longer together. A lot of things about Vlasta were masked by language and culture, from the start.”
“The original and correct word is Shqiptar,” she said, “from the Albanian language. It’s related to the word for speak. The word Vlasta used is extremely pejorative, like ‘Barbarian’ once was for the Greeks, or ‘Welsh’ for the Germans.”
I’d had enough by then and was in no mood for linguistics. I made for the door in haste, but Marie-Louise caught me by the arm:
“How can you see something in a mirror that isn’t reflected in it directly?” she wanted to know.
She pointed out a rooftop opposite and then to its reflection in a mirror on her wall that lay at right angles to the window.
First I sighed. I could hear the lift. Then I went to a lot of trouble with paper and diagrams and angles and so on, but it was clear that she didn’t believe me. She was convinced it was some kind of magic.
“I had a dream,” she said. “I came into a room and saw a small man – tiny, really – dressed in bulky but shiny clothes, lying, obviously dead, on the floor near a chair. My first reflex was to reach out for it” – she definitely said ‘it’ – “more for tidiness than anything else. Just then a very large speckled bird – as big as the little man, anyhow – took him by the beak and pulled him under the chair out of my reach.”
“So what’ve you been up to?” Bea challenged me as I burst into our apartment.
“Plugging the causal breach,” I said.
I kept it going for a while before telling her about Vlasta. Bea and I had reached that stage in our relationship where the lives of others filled a space between us that we couldn’t fill ourselves.
That summer was the famous ‘canicule’, as they called it here (somehow a deadlier word than ‘heatwave’), during which France killed off some 15,000 of its old folks.
Early on, Bea and I enjoyed the weather, the city. One weekend we rolled out to watch the Queen of Hearts participate in a parade celebrating Portugal in all its aspects. I was truly astonished at the sheer numbers of them, their costumes, their faithfulness to regions and habits. There were groups from all over Paris with banners related to occupations, way of life and regions in Portugal. All in costume, there were brides and grooms, kids, people carrying peasant farming tools, playing music, dancing.
I said, “What, no tools for digging ditches?” I told Bea this was over-the-top folklore, a memory of the times before they all had to flee dictatorship and poverty and getting called up to fight wars in Angola and Mozambique.
The Queen of Hearts smiled and waved as she jigged by in a black and white outfit topped with a kind of lace mantilla.
When I said, “No sign of the concierge’s tools there,” Bea dragged me away.
After that we fled south – “Because they know how to deal with heat down there,” Bea said – until it became too much there too. Then on to Morocco to friends, until I tired of seeing rich people in rich houses surrounded by the poor padding about them, cleaning, cooking, trying for invisibility.
“And they wonder why they want to come to Europe,” I said.
”Don’t start,” said Bea.
Then I had a summer school in Ireland, where my temper improved immediately in the more modest temperatures. Things in Ireland had never been better: you could sit on the grass, swim every day, organize a picnic, all without having a Plan B. Demand was so brisk that every garage and supermarket in the country ran out of charcoal for barbecues.
Late one night after Bea went to sleep, I stuck in my earphone and switched on the radio on my cell phone. A scratchy French station was talking about hundreds of deaths all over Paris. The funeral parlours were overflowing, they said. They were requisitioning cold storage places to put the bodies, there were so many of them.
“What the hell is this?” I said, into the night.
It was all over by the time we got back. Paris had settled into a sinister post-disaster calm. I bought the papers in the station. The media were down to the usual ding-dong about who was to blame: society was at fault, there was no respect for the old. One family, abroad on holidays (I think – perhaps they were only in the south on a beach) asked the authorities if they would hold on to the grandmother’s body till their holidays were over, “She’s dead, she’s going noplace anyway,” they were reputed to have said.
The big heat was over. Our building would be pretty well empty, we reckoned, which was normal for late August. However, when we punched in our code and the door opened stiffly, who should we find standing in the hall but the Queen of Hearts.
“Still here?” we said.
“What with all that happened,” she said.
She had opened the glass door on the notice board and was fumbling with a black-edged handwritten sign. She held it up to us.
It announced that Marie-Louise was dead.
“Family won’t do it,” she whispered.
Before I could ask why she was whispering, she hissed: “Body’s still up there.” She raised her eyes, “They haven’t even appeared once. No one to sit with the body. Think of it. No priest said the last prayers.”
“Left it all to the undertakers,” she concluded, folding her arms and studying us for reactions. “A civil funeral, they call it – they bury people like dogs in this country.”
It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”
“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.”
Marie-Louise had even phoned Vlasta the night before she did it and asked him to come into town. He told her to take a sleeping pill and go to bed. How the Queen of Hearts knew all this is anyone’s guess. When Marie-Louise didn’t turn up at work the next day, the Post Office called around and it emerged that she hadn’t left her apartment.
I pictured the Queen of Hearts in full authoritative mode, a locksmith at her feet fumbling with instruments.
“She was lying on her right-hand side,” she hissed loudly, “The stuff she took was on the bedside table.”
In a way, I thought, the Queen of Hearts’ curiosity was healthier than any French attitude to family. Then, with considerable misgiving, I began to wonder if religion might not have a role to play after all. I was careful not to mention this to Bea.
Later, as we lay in bed studying the cracks in the ceiling that needed redecorating, Bea said, “Just think of her going through that, and us on a white beach in the Aran Islands.”
“I’ve decided Marie-Louise wasn’t bonkers,” I said after a while. “Everything is so complicated, it simply has to have a cause,” I told her.
She sat up on one elbow and looked me straight in the eye.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to fall back on Intelligent Design and all that? After complaining for all these years about how even Descartes leaned on God, in the end?”
I realized it was too late to wrench the subject away from the possibility of supreme beings. It dawned on me that Bea’s was an anger built up over years of packing boxes and moving them with me and my philosophical career.
“You were the one who wanted to come to France – because of ideas, because of the Enlightenment. You fled Ireland because of the priests! We moved here – lock, stock and barrel – because of Reason!”
By now Bea was yelling.
I tried to calm her by telling other stories by Marie Louise – her nightmare about being pursued into a room full of furnaces and another about lining up for punishment by burning. “I was always with other people, always accompanied,” Marie-Louise had said.
Bea rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “Don’t start.”
“We humans are hard-wired to want lies,” I plunged into ever deeper water. “Lies plug the breaches we find in causality. When we don’t have answers, we content ourselves with lies. Fictions and stories comfort us, where the truth – the absence of a cause, the lack of a reason – would disturb us.”
I warmed to my subject. Bea turned away from me and got out of bed.
“Cave paintings were stories people told themselves about themselves too,” I said, as she closed the bedroom door behind her.
Mary Byrne’s fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, and broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.
Nice feeling of Paris with the meek and humble just trying to get by.