A short story
by IAN INGLIS
‘Est-ce-que je peux m’asseoir ici, Monsieur?’
I looked up to see a smartly-dressed woman in her mid-thirties standing before me. She was wearing a black trouser-suit and dazzling white blouse. Beneath her outsize sunglasses her features were unremarkable, but the glorious, blazing red hair that fell below her shoulders attracted envious and admiring glances from the other customers – men and women – sitting at the nearby tables under the pavement awning.
‘Mais oui, Madame. Bien sur.’
‘Ah! You are English. London?’
‘Hull. Quite different. But I’m disappointed. I was hoping my French might convince you I was a Parisian.’
I smiled and she laughed.
‘Vous parlez Francais assez bien, mais…’
‘I know. My accent is OK, but it’s far from perfect. Eh bien. C’est la vie. S’il vous plait. Asseyez-vous.’
She laughed again and sat down beside me, nodding towards the crowds of tourists heading across Place Saint-Sulpice towards the church to our right.
‘I think we will speak English,’ she declared, ‘but only if you tell me you are not here in search of the Holy Grail.’
‘So that’s why the church is so popular. No, I’m not. It’s the same in Britain, you
know. In Rosslyn Abbey, near Edinburgh, you can hardly move for seekers of the truth. Dan Brown has a lot to answer for.’
She took a packet of Disque Bleu from her bag and offered me one.
‘I don’t. Thank you.’
‘What can I say?’ She lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. ‘I started smoking when I was twelve. All my friends did. All my friends still do.’
‘With me, it was cider. Then lager. Then beer.’
‘Our first steps on the road to a wicked life! And now?’
I indicated the glass of Chablis.
‘Is that what brings you to France? The wine?’
‘It has done. But not this time. I’m here for a conference at the Sorbonne: European social history in the nineteenth century. I’m a historian. I lecture at the university in Hull.’
‘And are you making a presentation?’
‘Yes. I’m comparing perceptions of social class in the novels of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. I give my paper in the first session tomorrow.’
‘Don’t be. It’s an old topic. It’s been done before, countless times. But it’s the kind of thing that goes down well. And both of them wrote so much, you can always find something new to say.’
The waiter came over to take her order.
‘I too will have a glass of Chablis,’ she told him. ‘And you,’ she continued, turning to me, ‘May I buy you another?’
I looked at my watch. It was 4.30.
‘I’m supposed to be meeting someone here. Someone I’ve not seen for a long time. Someone who is – or was – never punctual. So, yes. Thank you.’
As is often the case in Paris, the sun seemed to be shining more fiercely than ever in the late afternoon, and even under the shade of the awning it was uncomfortably hot on the pavement terrace. I took off my jacket and hung it over the back of my chair. She did the same, and then removed her sunglasses and looked at me directly for the first time. Her violet eyes were even more arresting than her hair.
‘I must be careful not to drink too many of these,’ I said, as our drinks arrived.
‘Oh, you can never drink too much good wine,’ she smiled.
‘I may forget myself.’
‘If you do, I will forgive you.’
After a few moments, I asked, ‘May I know your name?’
She considered this for a while.
‘Oh. I’m sorry…’
‘Not at all. But why do you want to know? Isn’t this more interesting? You can tell your friend that while you were waiting, you met a mysterious French woman who told you all her secrets but refused to give you her name.’
‘Are you going to tell me your secrets?’
‘All of them?’
‘Some of them. Perhaps.’
‘Do I have to tell you mine?’ I asked.
‘Do you have any?’
‘A few. But probably not as sensational as yours.’
For a moment, I wondered if I’d gone too far: the line between flirting and giving offence is something I’ve never been able to distinguish with clarity. Before I could apologise, she shook her head and laughed again.
‘In some ways you are very French,’ she said.
I hurried to move the conversation back on to safer ground.
‘And what do you do? I mean, what is your work?’
‘I work for a market research company.’
‘You interview people about the products they buy?’
‘Oh, no. We recruit students to do the fieldwork for us. My team identifies what it is that our clients wish to discover. Then we design the programmes, construct the questionnaires, analyse the responses, and deliver our report to the clients – the businesses and companies – who commissioned the research.’
‘You help your clients to sell more.’
‘To understand how to sell more. We try to identify and explain the factors that shape the choices that individual consumers make. Mainly women: they are still seen as the principal purchasers, at least of household items. So: how do they reach their decisions? When do they change their minds? When do they not change their minds? What kind of information do they value?’
‘And what conclusions have you reached?’
She took a sip from her glass and leaned back in her chair.
‘That consumer behaviour is no different from any other form of human behaviour. That in most cases, the decisions we make are spontaneous, irrational, unplanned. Our clients would like to believe that a consumer’s behaviour is logical and consistent, that she remains faithful to a product, that she maintains brand loyalty. But she doesn’t. Look at me, for example. My behaviour can be influenced by something as simple as…well, as my sitting here with you and sharing a drink.’
‘Really? What do you mean?’
‘I am on my way home. I had not planned to stop here, but as it so hot today, I decided that I will. When I reach home, I will make a supper for my husband and myself, perhaps cold chicken with a salad. I had thought to buy a bottle of Rose but now, to remind myself of a pleasant time with you, I think I will buy some Chablis. You see, you have impacted my behaviour. I’m not any of those things women are supposed to be – faithful or loyal. Meeting you has persuaded me to think about doing something I hadn’t planned. And I’ve only just met you.’
She turned slowly to look at me again. Her words, the overpowering effect of the deep violet of her eyes, the combination of wine and sun, and her refusal to be offended a few minutes earlier made me unexpectedly bold.
‘And does this work both ways? One person’s impact on another. Is it reciprocal?’
‘Oh, yes. It’s always reciprocal. But it’s very often unpredictable. If I had chosen to sit at another table, or if someone else were sitting here with you when I arrived, we would not be having this conversation, and you would not be saying and thinking what you are now.’
I tried to keep my tone light-hearted.
‘And, as you say, we’ve only just met. Perhaps we should meet again. Who knows what we might persuade each other to do? It would be interesting to find out.’
She stared straight ahead.
‘How long do you stay in Paris?’
‘Then I think that we can meet again. But not just to discuss market research. You know, the novels of Victor Hugo are a great passion of mine.’
‘Do you have other passions?’
‘Oh, yes. There are many things that excite me.’
‘Do you think I would share them? Your passions?’
‘Oh, yes. I know you will.’
I shifted my position slightly and allowed my leg to rest against hers. She returned the pressure and we sat in silence for some minutes.
‘What of your husband?’ I said casually.
Her hand brushed lightly against my knee.
‘He has no passions.’ She corrected herself. ‘No, that is not true. He has passions, but he no longer expresses them.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘We are no longer close. We have our own groups of friends, our own interests. For some years, we have not slept together.’
‘You mean, you no longer have a sexual relationship?’
‘I mean what I say. We have separate bedrooms and we do not sleep together.’
‘I no longer wish to.’
‘And your husband?’
She shrugged, as if this were a question she had never considered.
‘You know that ten years is a very long time to be with only one man. Our lovemaking was enjoyable, then routine, then boring, then unpleasant. And so I brought it to an end. The thought of it is repulsive.’
‘And you? Now?’
‘I did not say that my lovemaking has ended. I merely said that I no longer make love with my husband.’
‘Does your husband know of your…adventures?’
‘Oh, I like that word! When he accuses me, I deny it. He believes me and he does not believe me. But it really doesn’t matter. Are you shocked?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Surprised. Surprised at your honesty.’
‘I don’t see why. Would you prefer me to be dishonest? Did you not want to know my secrets?’
Again, we fell silent. We had been sitting together for perhaps half an hour. Our fingers loosely and surreptitiously touched, hidden by the jackets draped over the backs of the chairs.
‘I would love to see you again,’ I said.
She smiled, and lifted her hand so that it rested for a second on my thigh.
‘Yes, I know. And I also would like that. Perhaps then I will discover some of your secrets. And we can explore my passions.’
‘For Victor Hugo?’
‘But of course!’
‘My presentation tomorrow is from 9.30 to 10.30. After that, I’m free all day.’
‘Shall I come to your hotel? 11.00?’
I gave her the address, in Rue Pommerard. She drained her glass and put the packet of cigarettes into her bag.
‘Now I must go,’ she announced.
As we stood up, a fair-haired man in a green T-shirt and white trousers appeared at the corner of the terrace, and waved in our direction.
We spoke at the same time.
‘Oh, here’s my friend.’
‘Ah, there’s my husband.’ SLQ
Dr Ian Inglis is a writer and researcher based in Newcastle upon Tyne. As a Reader in Sociology and Visiting Fellow at Northumbria University, his books include: The Beatles, Popular Music And Society: A Thousand Voices (2000); Popular Music And Film (2003); Performance And Popular Music: History, Place And Time (2006); The Words And Music Of George Harrison (2010); Popular Music And Television In Britain (2010); The Beatles In Hamburg (2012); and The Beatles (2017). His doctoral research explored the significance of sociological, social psychological, and cultural theory in explanations of the career of the Beatles. Website: https://ianinglis15.wixsite.com/website