A French Exit

With the afternoon sun on the windows, the train down to Biarritz was stifling. I was picturing waves crashing onto the shore and the walk down to the beach past the bookshop. I was starting to relax, but someone was travelling with some very French cheese and the stench was beginning to choke. The further south we ventured, the more violent it got.

I’d left the high speed train behind and should have been nonchalantly ambling down the tracks without a care in the world, but I had things playing on my mind. The end of a beautiful affair was recent history and I felt emotionally drained, psychologically stuck, and I lacked my usual glass half-full outlook. I looked forward to cleansing my mind amongst the great waves of the Atlantic Ocean on whichever surfboard I could hire. I was set on being alone and melancholic until then. With just my holdall occupying the seat next to me, I tried to lose myself in The Outsider by Albert Camus, which I’d picked up at the St Pancras bookshop.

My eyes had grown tired of words when I found myself eavesdropping a conversation taking place in the seats behind.

‘It may be slow,’ she said, ‘but what is time anyway? It is certainly preferable to waiting around for hours before being herded, like sheep, into cramped seats, on a budget aeroplane.’

‘No, I wish I’d flown actually,’ he said. ‘I could be sitting in a bar with a few beers down me by now.’

‘The airlines have too many customers. They can treat people like merde! Flying was once the dream, now… now it is le cauchemar!  The train is far civilised.’

The energy in her voice made me turn. I had to see her. I looked first at her face, then to the carriage door beyond, as if I’d heard someone enter. Suddenly the seat next to me felt very empty. She wore a white vest top, and a blue headscarf kept her blonde hair from her face. She was strikingly beautiful. The sort of beauty you see in films and think doesn’t actually exist. I turned to get another look while she spoke. It was like looking at a work of art.

I heard the carriage door open, allowing me to turn yet again. Our eyes met this time and her red lips smiled as if welcoming my attention, at the very least acknowledging it.  He was out of shape, unkempt and sweaty looking; a monster in comparison, I smiled.

‘Do you live down South then?’ he asked her.

Oui,’ she said, ‘Biarritz.

Biarritz! She was going all the way with me.

‘Ahh, Biarritz,’ he said, ‘Le Casino.’

‘You’ve been?’

‘I’ve had a few late ones there. ‘He laughed to himself. ‘I can’t remember half of them; I’ve drank that much! Ha ha! ‘I was certain he must be irritating her. He was certainly irritating me. ‘I could take you there tonight? I’m feeling lucky.’

‘I don’t gamble,’ she said. ‘It is for the stupid.’

I smiled again. She was funny and he deserved it.

‘Just for a drink then? I’ll pay.’

‘Perhaps,’ she teased, ‘after you’ve read Proust.’

I laughed to myself, a little too loudly, but I don’t think they noticed. I was enjoying being distracted from my own mind and found the dominance of this woman over this ignorant man entertaining. Yet he continued. He seemed to be drowning in overconfidence; each time he reached out to grab her, she pushed him under.

‘Why don’t you just give me your number,’ he said, more aggressively, ’you know you wanna.’ But this time she just ignored him. ‘Actually, I don’t read much,’ he admitted. ‘Do you like books then?’

‘Yes. I read a lot. I’ve been studying, if you must know; in England, at Cambridge.’

‘Wow, I know a great pub in Cambridge,’ he said. ‘Studying what?’

Philosophie.’ The musicality of these French syllables aroused the drums of my ears. I dropped Camus onto my bag, leaned my head against the headrest and closed my eyes.

‘Fascinating,’ said the man, pathetically. I imagined him gaping at her breasts or thighs. ‘And now what?’ he asked. ‘Gonna be a student forever?’

‘Next I go to la Sorbonne; for a year, may be more. But I believe we should all be learning until we die. So yes, I shall always be a student.’

‘I like to think of myself a bit of a philosopher.’

‘Yes. I imagine you think your glass is always half-full, but perhaps, in reality, it is really half-empty.’

‘Alright! I like a drink, sure, who doesn’t? Life without alcohol would be boring. Don’t tell me you don’t drink.’

‘I have the odd glass of wine, but I don’t drink for sport like so many of you Englishmen. Alcohol is an escape mechanism; the trick is to enjoy where you are and who you are with, without fooling your brain. Maybe you spend too much time in the wrong places with the wrong people.’

‘Oh I enjoy myself, don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘I do know a bit about philosophy though, honest.’

‘Really?’ she said. ‘Your favourite French philosopher is?’

‘Well, there’s so many, aint there. There’s …’

‘Huh!’

‘Sartre. There, Sartre!’ he said, proudly. ‘Now we’ve established we’ve got somefing in common, can I take you out for that drink?’

My eyebrows rose high and waited there.

‘Ahh, Sartre; the short ugly one with the wandering eye!’

I adored her. She was overpowering this man with every sentence, turning each of his efforts, against him. He just kept going though, like a well beaten fighter who wouldn’t fall. I almost felt sorry for him.

‘You think you’re so clever don’t you? Why dress like that if you don’t want male attention? You’re just a tease, you are. You French women are all the bloody same.’ Any sympathy I had vanished at this, he was insulting her country and her gender. I was ready to step in. I would have definitely said something if I hadn’t been so curious about how she would react. There was a pause as she gathered her thoughts.

‘Okay, last chance,’ she said calmly. ‘If Sartre is really your favourite, tell me which ism is he renowned for?’

‘Ism?’ asked the stupid man, shuffling his feet, pushing his bag under my seat and into my heels, demanding my attention.

‘Existentialism,’ I said turning on a centime. Jean-Paul Sartre was an existentialist.’ Four eyes looked at me in shock, as if I walked into a room unannounced.

‘What’s it got to do with you?’ he asked with a scowl.

‘I’m sorry, I said. I just overheard the last part of your conversation and thought I’d help you out.’ I lied to his confused, face, knowing that I was doing quite the opposite. I looked to her. She smiled; her eyes sparkling pools of endless possibility.

‘Well thanks a lot, mate,’ he said with a hostile smirk. ‘Mind your own business in future.’ My nose sensed alcohol and nicotine too, it was even worse than the unrelenting aroma of cheese.

‘No problem,’ I turned back, smugly. I didn’t feel physically intimidated; he looked so out of shape, but I didn’t want an unnecessary confrontation. I stared into the looming darkness outside and picked up my book to avoid any suspicion that I might maintain my attention.

Then I heard him whispering something to her. I felt paranoid and jealous too. I imagined his lips close to her ears, his hand on her arm, or her thigh.

‘Okay,’ she sighed.

I was stunned when, without any sign of a struggle, they got up and left the carriage together. The door hissed. I turned, just to see them disappearing, holding hands; her leading him like a dog. I didn’t want to believe it, but had to assume he’d propositioned her and she’d actually agreed. I thought that maybe I had read her wrong and that she’d been playing hard to get. As unattractive as this man seemed, I’ve often seen beautiful women with men like that. I began to feel foolish. I didn’t know this woman or this man. They were total strangers. Why should I feel anything? I put my head back again, closed my eyes and tried to recall my own problems. But I could still feel his bag at my heels. I kicked it back in annoyance.

‘Would you mind’ she asked, drying her hands on her short white skirt, ‘if I sat with you?’

‘Why would I?’ I said coolly, contradicting my state of mind. ‘I’m sorry,’ I yawned, ‘it’s been a long day,’ I must have dropped off. I had no idea for how long I’d been asleep. I imagined the man was celebrating somewhere with a drink and cigarette. I stood, to place my holdall in the overhead rack, but held onto my book. She was as tall as me in her heels and had shoulders that were athletic looking yet still round and feminine. Her eyes were large enough to miss nothing and she’d let her hair loose.

‘That man had nothing worth saying,’ she said, as we sat down. ‘He was such an irritation; a total waste of air.’

‘To you too?’ I said, rolling my eyes.

Oui,’ she laughed, ‘tres beaucoup. And he smelled.’ I felt drained by the hours on the train, but she was so fresh and alert. She looked at what I was holding. ‘Ah, you are reading Camus! I can’t believe it, my favourite!’

‘You remind me of someone,’ I said; ‘from a book.’

‘Who?’

‘Nadja,’

Breton’s Nadja? Thank God, I was worried you were going to say Lolita or something creepy. I can certainly be surreal, and unpredictable like Nadja.’

‘Nabokov wrote Lolita in Biarritz, didn’t he?’

‘Oui,’ she nodded, impressed.

‘You speak French like a native.’

‘I am,’ she smiled. I have a Dutch father, but I am very French. I’ve been studying in England.’

‘Cambridge,’ I said.

‘How long were you listening?’

I smiled shyly.

She shook her head like a teacher who didn’t know what to do with a new student.

‘Why England?’ I asked.

She shrugged. ‘They offered me a place at Cambridge, I couldn’t turn that down. The reputation, the history…’

‘But there are great French Universities; the Sorbonne for example.

She smiled, pushed her hair back over her ears and bit her bottom lip. ‘But I needed to escape France. She was getting on my nerves. I think I understand why now. I have… a fresh perspective.’

‘Which is?’

‘England is not perfect, don’t think I mean that, and I am proud to be French…’

‘But?’

‘In England, people seem to get on and actually do things. I was raised to defend our culture from Anglo Saxons and I would definitely not move to America, but…’ She looked into my eyes. ‘England, perhaps has the right balance for me.’ I looked at her rose-red lips for more. ‘France is stuck in her past,’ she said, ‘the French spend too much time thinking, never doing. I like to do, to act.’ She smiled at me.

‘Ahh,’ I said, feeling aroused and pleased with my thought of what to say next. ‘France says: I think, therefore, I was.’

‘That’s it, perfect. That is exactly how I feel about France. How did you do that?’ She hit my arm, as if we’d both been waiting for an excuse to touch each other, but firmer than she needed to. ‘Descartes could say what you said about himself and about his country. We study philosophy at school; France educates how to think, but not how to do. I love to travel by train, but look at this train and how long it takes. In China, they’d build a new line in a month and cut the journey time by two thirds. France might have done that once. She has probably been thinking about faster trains down the West coast for generations. They probably have meetings about it each week.’

‘France does theory not practise,’ I nodded.

‘Oui, exactement,’ she smiled and crossed her right leg over her left and towards me. ‘We must listen to the past, but live now. If I feel passionate about something, I do it. I want to live, not just think. I am a strong, independent woman and that is how I live my life; it is my philosophie!’

‘Sometimes thinking too much can make you feel less alive?’

‘Too much or not at all, the latter is of course even worse. We have to find a balance, always a balance, and live within that zone. It is our duty. Camus once said that the fundamental question of philosophy is judging whether life is or is not worth living.’

It was nearly midnight when the train finally reached Biarritz. The air had cooled and I had forgotten about the smell of cheese and the other man.

‘Where are you staying?’ she asked.

‘Actually, I haven’t booked,’ I said. ‘My trip wasn’t really planned. I just thought I’d find somewhere this early in the season, although it is getting late now.’

She thought for a moment. ‘Du Palais is the best hotel, but it is overpriced; you are paying to stay in the past. The Radisson is more modern, but… it has the décor of a capitalist corporation; no soul.’

‘Sartre wouldn’t stay there,’ I quipped.

‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I know somewhere I think will suit us very well.’ She smiled at me and got up and to collect her things. ‘Come on,’ she said excitedly.

‘Your bag looks heavy,’ I said, about to offer to help.

‘Don’t you dare,’ she said, pointing her finger and scolding me with her eyes. ‘I told you, I am an independent woman.’ I held up my hands in surrender. ‘We are each of us stronger than we think,’ she nodded, and turned to lead me off the train; and we disappeared into the night.

I wonder now if the other man’s bag was still there, but I hadn’t thought to look. She was occupying my entire mind. I suppose it must have been. We walked until we could hear waves crashing and see the lights of the hotel up on the hill, which she had chosen. Our room was perfect and our night truly wonderful. Everything past was past. I had forgotten the relationship that I’d been moping about. I had forgotten everything; there was just the moment; a glorious present. The unexpected nature of it all, and how insufferably beautiful she was. I was sure it was the best night of my whole life.

When the sun rose, a whole new world lit up before me, more colourful than I’d ever known. I looked forward to spending more time with her. I smiled with wide open eyes, looked out at the ocean, then noticed she had gone; her clothes, bag, everything. I couldn’t believe it. I searched for signs that she’d ever been there. All that remained was a mark of her red lipstick on the pillow case. I was worried that I’d never see her again. I thought it had been the start of something.

I showered and went down in search of breakfast, wondering if she would be there, sitting behind a croissant, looking at me with those large eyes, smiling at me with those red lips. Instead, I was greeted by two, unshaven Police Officers in the hall.

Monsieur,’ said the proprietor from behind his counter, ‘these officers wish to ask you some questions.’

I frowned and nodded for them to go ahead.

‘Today a man died, Monsieur. Or maybe yesterday, we don’t know.’

I frowned and waited for more.

‘He was killed. He was found in the toilette, on the train… He’d been garrotted, Monsieur; choked to death; with a blue headscarf.’ END

by Peter Sear