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The Umbrella

He’d stopped walking so quickly now that they were in the Place des Vosges. The colonnades flickered past like the strips in an old film. Each frame had the chilled pigeon colours of the northern hemisphere that she had already caught in photos and sent to her mother: the greyed whites, opaque browns, the damp black of leafless branches and wrought-iron handrails, micro differentiations of grey-black asphalt and greyed biscuit stone, a thin glazing of green when it wasn’t ground colourless into the gravel. 

It was as well that he’d slowed down because it helped her to think. She intended to persevere with her French now, the whole day if she could, and although it was dispiriting to find herself coming out with the same few words, the same few constructions, it was no matter: she was speaking in French

Didier’s English, however, was much, much better. All the way to the Marais he’d been able to describe in detail the work he’d done for those mausoleums of pumice-dry bones he’d just taken her to: the palaeontology and comparative anatomy galleries of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. He’d once been asked to do research on their nineteenth-century collection of anatomical abnormalities and so he told her about the fragile yellow-white skeleton of infant Siamese twins he’d pointed out in their shallow glass cabinet at the far end of the building. While she skipped to keep up with his scissoring steps and the scientific expressions he half swallowed in his enthusiasm, she couldn’t help picturing Didier bent over the little mute skeleton, his long rubbery face quite still with concentration as he examined where the eggshell skulls were joined above the ears like a tiny set of animal hide drums. She imagined herself beside him there, close against his familiar black nylon jacket in the sweet cool of an imagined archive underground. She’d held her breath and closed her eyes.

But once in the Place des Vosges, he had stopped in the middle of his story. He had turned to her, the weak sunlight leaving them, so that his face had had a bluish light on the soft underside of his nose and his jaw. 

‘Welcome to my favourite place in all of Paris.’ His hands spreading out, suddenly enormous.

She looked out and away from him. She could still see the dis­integrating records and the mummifying corpse of the Siamese twin, lying as it apparently once did among baskets of apples and broken chairs in the cellar of a country house near Valence. 

C’est très jolie,’ she said without thinking. In fact the colonnade would have been something, she imagined, like the place where the parents of the infants would have had to come, the corpses having come to the attention of some vague nineteenth-century authorities.

Didier put an arm around her shoulders. He kissed her hair. Then he stuck his hand out in front of him, its reddish palm flat towards her to indicate that they should make a circuit of the colonnades.

Bien sûr, c’est jolie,’ he said, ‘like an oasis, don’t you think?’

He led her northwards, gently, ambling. She could feel him looking at her, his head on one side like he was talking to a child. 

‘You’ve never told me anything about your family. About the way you lived in Australia.’

 And so, with some reluctance, she’d begun to tell him, this time all in French if she could manage it: first about her job, her flat in Balmain, the steep hill down to the water. 

As she talked the images were pulled into the space between the colonnades. It was Sydney in winter. The blue slicing down through the trees. But in the telling the blue had muted. She might have been describing a suburb of Paris, and so, guessing that he was expecting something brighter and stranger, she began to describe the orange haircuts of her sister in Byron, the lip-piercing that scraped at her teeth, the car she’d painted all over in pink and purple hibiscuses; all this she described as if it had once been herself. 

Instinctively a hand went up to her lip, to conceal the hole that might have been there. 

Didier was walking even more slowly. Had he guessed she was lying? She then began to describe her brother Simon. She tried to be a little more accurate. Her brother had moved his bedroom to their parents’ garage so he could set up his exercise machines around the walls. Lisa used simple words, most probably faux amis, and the same few verbs stretched over the stories like string tied out to sketch in a garden. She was glad that Didier didn’t try diverting what she was trying to say into English and for a while her truncated French pressed around her, each word a bold coloured flag. Encouraged by the immediacy of her effect she began to tell the story about Simon swimming across Sydney Harbour for a stunt, and despite the limit­ations of her language, the rust-pointed green and yellow ferries lifted out of the ink-dark dips in the swells and her brother’s pale arms sliced the oil-filmed green. She described how the reporters had turned up at her parents’ place, their red and chocolate- brown sedans blocking up the drive: les journalistes. She hoped she’d got the right word. Sometimes French seemed just a matter of Frenchifying an English word. It sometimes worked.

Back where the rue de Birague opened out to one side, Didier stopped. Lisa, looking across the square, at the colonnade they’d come through, scratched awkwardly at her neck as she thought about what she had said. 

Didier still didn’t say anything. She saw how he was looking off to one side, where the reflection of the weakest daylight on a wall made his pale eyes glow like an empty window. She had a sudden fear that he was bored and was going to leave her there, alone, in the Marais. 

She brought the side of her thumb to her mouth. ‘Cold,’ she said in English, but quietly like she was talking to herself.

In the rue de Birague a flower shop opened out of the grey stone walls along the footpath. Its front was lined with the frail hold of green­-wound florist wire on stocks and tulips, gerberas, delphiniums and orchids – all recently removed from greenhouses by gentle hands in latex gloves. 

‘I’m sorry. I just remembered something. You will wait?’

Bien sûr.’ It was like she was talking in her head, but he smiled at her and put his hands in his pockets. He disappeared under the maroon flap of the awning, the shine on his black nylon jacket swimming into an ‘S’. What could it stand for: sensibilité; stupidité?

Lisa crossed over to the footpath in front of the shop and shuffled the toes of her shoes among the pale apricot-coloured rose petals that one of the shop assistants must have strewn across the paving stones for an effect. There was a dull, heavy space in her stomach, which she couldn’t explain. After all, wasn’t this a flower shop? Wasn’t it her birthday? She tried to distinguish, through the window display of vases, wreaths, potted fig topiaries, gladioli and birds of paradise, the shape of this person Didier that she had known now for nearly a month. Behind the topiaries she could see a stand of animal-headed umbrellas: dogs, cats, frogs and ducks. There were metallic helium-filled gift balloons attached to a chrome upright at the back of the stand, whose messages were probably simple endearments, like je t’aime and l’amour and ma cocotte, the last with the shapes of hearts in place of the ‘o’s, like that card she’d seen in a department store. Closer to the glass, the birds of paradise leaned out in all directions from their glazed turquoise pot. ‘Pure elegance,’ she mouthed with a French drawing-out of the last syllable, but she was not smiling. It was as if she was mocking her own naivety. ‘Parisian elegance.’ But then she began to let her body sway a little, from one foot to the other. She bent her arms so that they clasped each other’s wrists. So that she could feel her back lengthening and straightening. Like she was a bird of paradise herself. 

When she and Didier had first met a few weeks ago, he had been impressed to hear that she was an Australian. ‘La sauvage,’ he had said. ‘So wi-i-ild. L’Australie, c’est la sauvage.’ And he had narrowed his eyes at her and then winked. Afterwards, whenever they went out together, whenever he talked to someone else – even if it was only to an assistant in a shop – he liked to say that his friend was all the way from Australia (‘si loin!’), as if he had gone on a journey to the other end of the world and taken her from there himself. Even her French, he claimed, sounded different to any French he had heard before, and while he sometimes mimicked what she said, with an exaggeration that still didn’t make her difference any clearer to her, he often kissed her too, at the top of her cheeks, right up close under her eyes, as if she were a fragile creature or an animal not used to the light.

Inside the shop, near the helium-filled balloons, she saw a hand clasping a wallet and gesturing. It was probably Didier’s. She hoped he wasn’t buying her one of those balloons, although it might have been quaint to keep the message, whose ma cocotte kitsch, to her at least, might not have been too bad so long as it was in French. Beneath the balloons the umbrellas splayed their stiff-set necks. She had once been given a similar umbrella. Hers had been a frog, and the absurd thought came to her that the shape of it was so unlike Didier with his long Gallic nose, that she should tease him about frog noses as soon as he came out of the shop. The umbrella she’d been given had had a smooth, slightly flattened wooden head with a wide deep gouge for a mouth. On each side of the head there had been two small wooden bulges fitted with the kind of clear plastic eyes that, whenever you leaned the umbrella to one side, made the frog look with surprise at the ground. Its deep blue material and shiny metal end had made the umbrella seem an opulent even grown up present when she’d got it from a school friend in Sydney for her fourteenth birthday. Now at twenty-nine exactly she might still have had it somewhere, probably packed away in the space above her parents’ garage. She was not one to give away things from her childhood.

Didier came out eventually. He held up his empty hands with comic timidity as if he were surrendering. At the kerb he pretended to have been shot and hammed at pressing his hands to his heart. She was relieved to see this revival of his spirits.

Tu n’avais pas acheté quelque chose?’ she asked, with her arms akimbo.

He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.

‘Do I always having to buy something?’ he said.

He took her arm in his and nodded his head. He was trying to get her to walk in time to his steps. It felt ridiculous but she closed her eyes. She let him guide her down to the end of the street before she opened them again.

Didier had planned a long walking tour that day as it turned out. After the Marais, it was the pyramid at the Louvre (‘Let’s not waste our day there today,’ he said) and then Notre Dame – this time not to look inside but to take the three hundred and eighty-seven steps to the top of the building where, past brooding, famine-lean gargoyles, they could look out on all the greyish splendour of the city. Several times on their journey she remembered the frog umbrella and what she’d been about to say to Didier about the nose. She thought she could teach him some Australian slang for long noses, like ‘snog’ and ‘konk’ and ‘hooter’. A Frog sans konk. But when it came to it she lacked the courage. Only a few days before her English cousin Frank, who had come over to Paris for the weekend, had laughed at the way that Didier had pronounced the word ‘hassle’. 

Ass oll. You know what it sounds like Didier? Arsehole. Trou de cul.’

And Didier had smiled but he hadn’t laughed.

By the time they got to the Luxembourg Gardens it was beginning to rain. Although Lisa wanted them to linger at the Medici pool where they’d first met, Didier had pressed his arms right around her shoulders so that his body, while not quite sheltering hers, insisted on itself over the pretty nostalgia of rickety rain-darkened seats (no longer, she noticed, in the formation they had made of them that Saturday). 

Il faut manger, quoi?’ he said. ‘Are you hungry?’ 

‘A little bit.’

‘Little bitte, little bitte. Ce n’est pas français, a little bitte.’

And laughing at his obscene joke like someone at the end of a fit of coughing, he turned her back the way they had come, making her run towards a little Greek restaurant that he liked, leaning forwards into the rain.

As she stumbled along next to him, already annoyed with herself for inadvertently feeding him the line about the little penis for the second time that day, she wondered that she’d ever worried about what he thought of her.

At the restaurant she asked him again about what he’d bought in the flower shop, but he shook his head and smiled and then looked down with pretend seriousness at the menu 20 euros. His hair, greying and normally curly, had flattened over his forehead. A raindrop beaded at the end of his nose.

After lunch they went wandering again. The rain had stopped and their jackets stuck to their arms and their chests. Lisa was sure that everybody around them could smell the sharp combined stench of their sweat. Although she suggested going home to his place to change, Didier said he wanted to show her a couple of shops that sold furniture from West Africa. Less than halfway there it began to rain again and Didier, as if it had been his idea all along, said that it was time they went home to get dry. 

It was then, while hurrying at his side through an increasingly streaky grey canvas – her legs keeping one and a half times to each of his strides – that thinking again of Didier and her old frog umbrella, she began to think of the girl Sarah who had given it to her. She thought of the girl’s wide, high cheekbones, her strangely slanting eyes that for some reason had always accounted for her slow way of talking. She thought of the straight blonde hair that Sarah used to smooth behind her ears, the translucent ends of her fingers; her pretence at being undecided about things. Yet Lisa could barely remember a single positive thing about their friendship. In fact hadn’t Sarah once said, while they were still in year eight or nine, that Lisa had reminded her of something? Something unflattering? 

Thinking about Sarah used always to effect a slight shift in her perception of herself. Even while dodging, with Didier, the restaurant touts in the streets behind the Quai St-Michel, Lisa remembered how, years ago, when they had been friends in early high school, she had found herself copying Sarah’s way of doing things: the kinds of clips she put in her hair, her way of looking around slowly, the lids on her slant eyes dipping as if there were a film being made of her. It was long ago now but at the time, when they had been friends, you could almost say that Lisa had coexisted in the same being as Sarah, because didn’t she also drag along at her words and at the same time savour the elegance of her hands opening outwards as she talked like flowers? 

Lisa’s legs kept walking and as they walked she thought of her hands as they were now, clenched and cold in the rain. She opened them out as if trying to test them. To remember what they were like. Because of course it had been an unflattering comparison. Something about her eyes. Sarah had said she had bulbous green eyes. 

‘Of course,’ she said, although not loud enough for Didier. ‘Like a frog.’

Once in the flat Didier prised Lisa’s coat from her shoulders and hung it up among the many jackets and scarves and umbrellas that he kept in the hallway. Would she like to see what it was that he had bought for her? ‘Oui,’ she said, and she was conscious of the fleshy, cold shape of her mouth. 

He held up a hand. She was to wait there for him. No, not in the hall. Round the corner. ‘Assieds-toi,’ he said. ‘Somewhere comfortable. You have to wait.’ He smiled at her, his cheeks puckering up so that his nose shone yellow in the light of the hall. She wanted to smile in return.

Then he went out of the flat again. She listened to the echo of his run down the steps.

She went into the middle of his sitting room, among the sofas, the pictures, the objects, the plants: hothouse figs and peace lilies and peacock plants. The whole effect was one of patterning. Everything blended into everything else through its curls, angles, latticework, serifs, stylised flowers; everything in ochres, rich burgundies, pinks, coffee browns and the lightest tints of cobalt, ultramarine, and jade. He’d said he’d travelled widely. She could spot each of his destinations in the room: the rugs from Peru and Nepal; a Turkish saddlebag hanging at an angle on the wall; vases that had to be from China because of the figures she saw lost in the porcelain landscapes; on the floor, a slender, tall spouted copper water decanter he must have bought in Egypt or somewhere else in North Africa; an Indian-style shell inlaid letter holder by the phone; and on a small wooden table with verdigris legs a sculptured boat that was very likely from Indonesia, the closest he’d ever come to her country, to Australia. There was a mirror on the wall. It was set in a tangle of polished ebony bodies. Too late she saw herself in it, her wide green eyes like things made of glass. 

The frog umbrella.

How was it that she had never connected the two things before?

The front door opened. She heard him shuffle off his shoes. ‘Bouges pas,’ he called but she still couldn’t see him. ‘Just one minute please.’

Then soundlessly in his socks he came towards her. He took her hand and began to lead her down the hallway towards the bedroom. And at this moment when she might have blown wide and fragrant like the scattering of rose petals on the pathway in the Marais, she felt herself to be growing smaller: smaller and smaller into the last remnants of what must have been a very public, very humiliating joke.

In the doorway to the bedroom, Didier put his hands over her eyes. He led her into the room. Then he turned her around and took his hands away. On the desk by the bed was a huge bunch of thick and tendrilled flowers in a jug of water: red and yellow grevillea, fringed white orchids with butter-yellow tongues, black tufted protea, the crude pointed testicles of swan plant starred with copper cymbidium and, deep in the centre, the curled pink-tipped anemone of a single flame red waratah.

‘Didier!’ She didn’t know what to say. She put out her hand as if to try to persuade herself that the flowers were beautiful.

Touches pas,’ he said jokingly. ‘They’re for looking only. To remind you of home.’

‘Home?’ She no longer even felt like speaking in French.

It was true that most of the flowers were probably from Australia, at least seeded there once, some decades ago, but at this moment when she tried to think of the plant life of home, all she could think of were the dusty azalea bushes in her parents’ garden, the stiff buffalo lawn like a sawn mat along the concrete, the scattering of sickle­-shaped leaves on the driveway from a tree trailing long, dried strips of skin. And all of it in single shots, as if her hands had been cupped round her eyes. 

And then there was the frog umbrella. Its smooth bulging eyes in an obscenity of three dimensions against a blue, very blue slice of sky.

She turned towards Didier but tried to avoid looking at him. He bent his hair into her face as he kissed her neck. Then he pulled off her jumper. Her arms collapsed though the sleeves. She had retreated to the furthermost point of her mind and it was from there that she heard him as he busied himself with her zipper: a vagueness, a proximity only. She felt the sly removal of her underwear with some surprise. But how the surprise? What was she thinking?

Didier pressed his whole body up against hers and the warmth of his member was odd against the chill of her stomach. For an instant she wanted to squirm and pull away, to retreat where there were no tongues, no eyes, but already she had found the reflection of their bodies in the mirror of the wardrobe. She watched the undulations of the skin along his back as he pressed and pressed and pressed himself against her. Then she grabbed his shoulders. Dug her fingernails into his flesh.

‘Wait. Wait.’ He appeared to be laughing. ‘I have something else. Something I couldn’t resist when I saw it.’

Hopping in his pants back towards the flowers, he took a long white parcel. A parcel in the shape of an umbrella.

She sat on the bed.

‘You bastard.’ 

The tears were hot like her face was melting.

‘But Lisa. You haven’t opened it.’

She snatched the parcel from him and ripped off the paper. It was an umbrella all right, almost exactly like her frog umbrella at home except for the bold striped pattern of its fabric.

‘What do you think of it?’

‘What do you mean, what do I think of it?’

She kept turning it around so the head kept looking up at her and then at the ground.

‘It’s not a frog.’

‘Why would I give you a frog, ma biche? To make you think of me all the time? To my mind this one looks like un kangourou. What do you think? Un kangourou. Better than those sad old stupid bones in glass boxes.’

‘For the woman who once had a hole in her mouth.’ He was grinning. ‘What do you think?’

And it was only at that moment that she remembered that it hadn’t been a frog at all. It had been a fish. Sarah had once said that she’d looked like a fish with her flat white cheeks and her glassy eyes.

Lisa lifted the head of the umbrella so it faced her. Turned it sharply into profile.

‘Why didn’t you give it to me when it was raining?’

‘But I didn’t have it. I arranged all of this from the shop.’

He began to pull up his trousers. 

Mon Dieu, Lisa. You have no sense of occasion.’

He was looking down at her now, his long face gone slack. His bottom lip had a tiny lozenge-shaped shine on one side from the unshaded light in the hall. He took her face between his hands, bent over so that his stomach concertinaed into folds of flesh. And with a small sucking sound he kissed her very gently on the nose.

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