Short stories

La Temps et La Reve

I could only have been watching her for three or four minutes before she met my gaze with such eyes that for the first time since I was a child, I blushed and blushed – and I assure you, pink does not suit me.

‘It’s only,’ I found myself explaining, and in truly bad French for we were sitting in a creperie on a small street in Montparnasse (56 Rue du Montparnasse, with the waitress with the crooked fringe), ‘It’s only that you seemed to ascend the spiral staircase like a girl from a different world.’

She raised her eyebrows and smiled. ‘Pretty good guess actually.’

So - she was English. Young - with an old fashioned bob. Red and white blouse. I couldn’t see a coat. She stretched her arms like a cat. ‘I…’ drawing it out for effect, ‘I… have just come directly from the Tolly Gunge Club in Calcutta. That’s India. Terribly hot. Lots of flies and weak tea. Everyone gossips. Talk, talk and nothing ever said. And always the heat. I wanted something cool.’ She looked wistfully out at the windows of the brasserie. It was spitting slightly, there had been winter sun that morning. ‘Something to quieten me.’

I should I know have flown then and there, I should have grabbed my mac and hat and run from the street, should have gone anywhere and done anything – shopping, a film, a concert. Notre Dame, the Tour Eiffel. Anything. But no - she had me. So leave I did not. I stayed. I was slightly bored, in Paris with no aim - I was on holiday. I was not particularly happy – and it was a Thursday. The reasons stack up. Now let’s be honest, when did anything ever happen to you on a Thursday?

And so like a fool, I said: ‘I don’t much like the cold myself. India must be beautiful this time of year.’

She leaned over. She smelled of coconut and vanilla pod. ‘Do you know McCrystal as well?’

‘McCrystal?’ I hedged my bets. ‘Alas, no. But I’d love to meet him. Would you take me?’

Before I knew it she was up and taking me by the hand, ‘Leave the crepe, it will keep.’ We passed the waitress with the crooked fringe, the pictures of Paris on the café walls, a nun who was taking her time over a chocolat chaud. ‘We’ll have to use the portals. You do know the portals don’t you?’

‘I know nothing of the portals.’

‘Of course there are thirty-three in Paris, and then the one in Chartres. Here hold my hand and take this -‘ she placed a small crystal in my palm.

I thought we would exit the café but instead she led me like a lamb towards the spiral staircase. It was wooden and thin and would have killed a drunken man. I should have hesitated but didn’t. What had she in mind? Would she take me in the basement? On the eve of potential disaster, I didn’t seem to care. The waitress avoided my eye. Even if I’d needed help I would have got none. The steps of the staircase were steep, her hand was soft – had she ever worked a day? One, two, three… ‘Will I need a coat?’ I said. No reply. Four, five… ‘Should I pay the bill?’ Seven, eight. Slowly I picked up one foot in front of the other and trod them down gingerly, nine, ten, though on the eleventh she turned her bob to me, ‘I forgot to say, we’ll be coming out into 1939 - is that OK?’

1939 - was it OK? Time seemed to dwindle and disappear on the steps, you couldn’t label it. Was I awake, was I asleep? I was happy. Twelve, thirteen, steep as Everest. And so on what must have been the third step from the last, I picked up my foot and placed that foot down in - Calcutta.

‘McCrystal! McCrystal!’

She must have run me across two European looking boulevards and through an oriental bazaar as thick with animals as people. There was colour and heat and dust – though not dirt. Smells of kerosene and marigolds. Khaki uniforms, cotton saris, black men in white cloth, white women in shirt and sleeve. Donkeys. An elephant. Dogs. But the pavements were clean and old fashioned cars drove aside them.


We pulled into a shack of a stall with huge dirty crystals and a single couch on which a man with a ginger beard sat.

‘McCrystal, look what I’ve brought back from Paris!’

‘Most impulsive. What have I told you about shopping in Europe?’

‘Oh but he wanted to come. He wanted to meet you!’

He looked at me. ‘Flying visit dear fellow?’

It occurred to me to ask, ‘Am I dreaming?’ but before I could say so, he said, ‘Would you like to be dreaming?’ then held up a hand. ‘I must stop doing that. Awful habit. My advice to you Sir is just - enjoy yourself.’

‘Enjoy my dream?’

‘Ha ha, very good. As you like. You have a few minutes. I never let her bring back tourists for long.’

She clapped her hands excitedly and waved goodbye to McCrystal. ‘We don’t have much time. Let’s get you a keepsake!’ she said, and pulled me out through the bazaar into a crowded thoroughfare lined with palms which ended in a cemetery. ‘Oh this is good,’ she said and ran up to a little seller of religious artefacts close to the cemetery gate. She picked up a tiny bronze figure of un-shapely elephant. ‘Ganesha – only here he is standing. You will be blessed with a very busy and fruitful life. Always running round.’

‘I’d always chase after you,’ I said.

She smiled sadly. ‘But you’d never catch me. The portals.’ And as if to prove the point she sped off and I ran after, running into the cemetery where a group of Indian boys were playing cricket among the tombs. The boys hit a ball into the undergrowth and I like a fool went to fetch it. I found it triumphantly and threw it back, standing on a flat tomb as I did so.

‘It’s been such fun,’ she said and threw me another catch. I should not have raised my hands, I should have been on my guard. I didn’t want to leave, I was on holiday, it was Thursday, I was bored, there was so much hope. But I caught it – another crystal - and an in instant looking up at her with the streets of Calcutta a blur behind I was suddenly on that wooden staircase, walking up as I had disappeared down.

My crepe was still hot. The nun was still blowing on her chocolat chaud.

‘Un autre café Monsieur?’


I sat numb on my seat. I had worn a watch but it mocked me now. Time had passed, time had not passed, there was meaning here, there was no meaning. I was mad. Was I mad? I was in the first stages of hallucination. In French I asked myself, ‘Qu’est qu’il se passe?’ something my mother used to ask me in my childhood when I was day-dreaming. I remembered the cemetery and fumbled in my pocket. Nothing in the right, but in the left and still warm with the glitter of Calcutta sun – Ganesha. My keepsake. Keep this for my sake – well she hadn’t said it, but she could have. I did not know her name, and she had not asked for mine. ‘You will be blessed with a very busy and fruitful life,’ she had said. But how could I be busy again? I felt I would hardly run again. Instead I would wait.

I would wait, I would wait. And either I would wake – or I would leave the café at 56 Rue du Montparnasse and never come back again.

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  View other short stories:
  Butterfly Kiss
  The Burton Sisters
  Dark Hearts & Dinosaurs
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