“Email them to me and I’ll read them tonight.”
He looked at me, disappointed. Our class was almost over, and I was beginning to regret telling him I’d been published in a few minor literary journals. It was inevitable he would ask me to read his work. I thought of my student as a man with little else to do except write stories and beg for readers in a bungled effort to make friends. I felt sorry for him but I was also tired and wanted him to leave.
He snapped the elastic around his notebook. “I’m not very good with computers, but my flat’s only around the corner and there’s not very much work to show you. One story. Two stories at most. I’d like to know what you have to say.”
We were in the café where the warm air smelled of real Parisian croissants and the windows misted over to protect us from the smog outside. There were two young men in the corner, drunk on whatever, whose fingers were tangles and whose eyes sparkled at each other. I wanted to know these men, to overhear their conversation and to later write about them.
“Bring them tomorrow, then. Our time is nearly up.”
My student, which is a strange thing to call him because he seemed very old, said “I could pay you for the extra time. Double, if it matters to you.”
I was new to Paris and, having arrived in a hurry, was making ends meet by giving English lessons. The man had an excellent command of the language and spoke without an accent but he wanted to discuss literature and had no one else to do it with. I said, that so long as he paid me for my time, I would talk about anything he liked. We considered Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and how their histories have shouldered the greater part of the Parisian tourist industry for almost a century. He was very interested in them and would have talked forever if I let him. The conversation was draining but the extra money was welcome.
“Alright, but I can’t stay long. I’m meeting my boyfriend for dinner.”
I believe that every woman travelling alone can benefit from an imaginary partner. Mine was very understanding, commanding my time when I wanted to get away and never giving me any crap for showing up late if I was enjoying myself.
The man stood and smiled at me. I saw that he was tall and that his clothes were very old. A lank velvet waistcoat hung loose on his bony frame. The tails of a threadbare coat flapped depressed about his ankles. He waited while I collected my things. Taking a final glance around me, I committed to memory as much of the two lovers as I could. The way one thumbed circles around the palm of the other. How they drank up each other’s banal conversation. I would write them down later and make up other things.
The man held the door open like a gentleman from another place and time. “Have you ever heard about the Wordsmiths?”
We stepped into a burnt orange sky where the dimming light buffed away the edges of the city. We walked and the horizon wavered away from us. I dare say I had never seen anything quite so beautiful.
“Are they a writer’s group?”
“Wordsmiths are the ghosts of the lost generation.”
“Is that a tourist board marketing thing? I’ve never heard it before.”
He shook his head and with one hand smoothed back a peak of wired hair on his balding scalp. I was getting twitchy. Torn between the urge to leave, the need to get paid and the guilt. It didn’t feel right to shut down the kitchen on someone so starved for attention.
“Do you write ghost stories, then,” I said. “About the Wordsmiths? A Hemingway haunting, that sort of thing.”
“It’s very serious. They haunt the shadows of the city to steal the stories of the living.”
“That doesn’t sound very frightening.”
“It can be, depending on your perspective.”
“That’s true. I imagine the ghost would read it quite differently.”
He smiled at me again. It was an awkward smile as if it was something he used to do but was now out of practice. I couldn’t think of anything more to say, so I fell into my thoughts and we walked together in silence.
After a while, the man stopped at a side street, turned to me and said, “Down here.” I looked. It was a narrow and twisted lane of broken cobblestone. A set of crooked windows made the buildings sneer. They threatened to swallow me whole. A disembowelled pigeon lay in the doorway of a bar that must have been shuttered for some time. My fingers began to palpitate, and I felt the old anxieties rise inside me. It was the same feeling I’d had when I’d left my husband in Illinois. An overwhelming panic that flushed through me at the very thought of being needed.
“Maybe we should wait till tomorrow. My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I’m late.”
“It’s much nicer on the inside. He could meet us here. I’d be more than happy to meet him.”
“No. I’d just be distracted and won’t be able to focus on your work. It wouldn’t be fair. Tomorrow. In the cafe, at the usual time,” I said, and abandoned the man on the corner of that ugly street.
I walked away, fast at first and then slower, taking in the tourists and the people on their way home to their families. None were as interesting to me as the lovers in the café. I bought a galette that oozed a volcanic and buttery cheese and ate it while I walked down to the river. On the banks of the Seine, I read ‘The Signal Man’ from a book of short stories, which I enjoyed very much, but the evening was uneasy with me afterwards and it made me think about the Wordsmiths the man had spoken of. The ghosts of the lost generation. I gave a silent incantation that some ghosts would appear to me now and deliver me from myself but when they appeared, they were nothing more than the ghosts of my life. The past has a way of sticking in the brain and right then my husband’s diagnosis overwhelmed me again. With careful management, he could live a full life. Ten more years, at least. Ten years of lost dreams. Ten years of cleaning and carrying and sacrifice. A decade of hard labour that was mine to give away, but for what? The end was the same. So, I fled to Paris and, with a stomach full of dairy and a head filled with ghosts, the old anxieties came again. Whether I had fought for his life or ran, as I had done, to chase a weird nostalgia for lost generations the end was the same. The anxieties were the same. I couldn’t outrun them. I was lonely here and missed him and felt the fool for ever having gone away.
A group of young women passed me, squealing and staring in delight. I had been talking to myself for some time and suddenly felt like prey. Thoroughly shaken, I walked back to my shared apartment. Finding no one home, I went straight to my box room with a bottle of wine. I tried to write about the young lovers through the first glass but they were gone from me now and all I could write were things that had happened in the past. I didn’t want to do that. So I sat on my bed, paralysed, and fell asleep with a promise to return to Chicago and to my husband. If he would have me.
“I apologise for not taking your Wordsmith story seriously.”
The man looked at me with an interested face. He would have been within his rights to be insulted for the way I had left things but appeared glad that I had kept our appointment. He had forgotten to bring his stories again and we had left the café to go to his flat and read them. I explained that I would be leaving Paris in a few weeks, as soon as I had saved the money for a flight home. He made the generous offer of paying me triple if I would only take the time to review his work. I was reluctant to go with him but had resolved that my husband was my priority now. I would have to put my unwarranted fears behind me and do what was necessary to get back to him as soon as possible.
“It’s not a story,” he said.
“Well your idea, then. I should’ve said that ghosts don’t have to be terrifying. The ghost of Christmas present is a jolly old thing, partying with Scrooge, like it’s 1899.”
“Wordsmiths are far more malevolent. They feed off stories. Makes them young again.”
“You have a vivid imagination,” I said. In truth I thought he was a bit weird but, in a few days, I would be back in Illinois and would cultivate a generous spirit in the meantime.
We reached the tall dark door of his apartment building. It creaked as he pushed it open. I followed him into the hallway and found that it was draughty and dark. For a moment, I was completely blind, but as I fumbled towards the stairs, the darkness was cut by a thin shaft of an early evening moon coming from an upstairs window. Dust particles twinkled briefly as they passed through it and had their lives cut short, swallowed by the shadows.
We began to climb. The man seemed to be slower now and older than he had looked in the café. I tried to keep his pace, but every step forward seemed to pull me away from him. His bony spider-leg fingers twisted around the ancient bannister. His free hand coiled around the edges of his coat and he pulled at it so that he could watch his feet take each uneven step.
“Let me help you,” I said and let him rest his wasted hand on my shoulder.
“Too kind,” he said, his breath on the back of my neck. “I never told you how the Wordsmiths do it.”
“How they do what?”
“Take your stories.”
I didn’t much care for what they did, but again, I was trying to be generous.
“Tell me then. How do they do it?”
“First, they stab you in the neck with a poisoned fountain pen. Your body goes weak and they hang you by your feet from a hook. Next, they peel the skin from your body, stretching it out until one can almost see through it and using a knife, they scrape off your hair and muscle and sinew until you are smooth as paper.”
“That’s absolutely vile,” I said, but the man was not finished.
“If you survive, the shock of the flaying, they drain a little of your blood with a quill made of bones and collect it in small glass jars. And that isn’t the worst part.”
“What, in the name of all things holy, is the worst part?”
“They keep you alive until you have told them all of your secrets. They write your story onto your paper skin with a pen filled with your inky blood. Only when they have written the end will they let you die from the pain.”
For some reason, the story brought to mind an image of my husband. It wasn’t the crestfallen eyes that nearly broke me as they stared through the window of the cab hired to take me to the airport. It wasn’t the way I normally thought of him either, a universe of kindness and complication in chequered pyjama bottoms. A man that needs far too many gadgets to make a morning cup of coffee. No. It was how I thought he might be a year from now. Maybe two. When the pain begins to make its presence felt and the specialists stop talking about the next steps and begin using phrases like ‘pain management’.
We were at the top of the stairs and the man’s arthritic hands fumbled with old keys. Eventually, the door cracked open. Dank air escaped from the hallway, causing me to flinch. We went inside and he set about lighting a gas lamp of the sort that scouts might use for camping trips. He made no apologies for the lack of electricity or for the cold, dark home he had led me to. However, I felt sorry for him then, imagining all the tragic turns his life must have taken to bring him to this place. He pointed to a door on the right. “In here,” he said, shuffling forwards. I followed him inside.
“This way,” he linked my arm in his with a surprisingly firm grip and gave me the gas lamp to hold. The ceiling of the room was high, but how high I could not tell you since the glow from the lamp was dull and the room was mostly silhouette. All I can say is that we were in a library. The tang of iron and leather infected my senses. I sneezed once or twice as dust mites crawled up my sinuses.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said. “Do you own this place?”
“The library is my own creation. It took lifetimes to build but it is mine.”
He squeezed my arm tighter and guided me towards his writing desk, as old fashioned as the man himself. Several glass jars, almost empty of ink, were lined up on top of the wooden drawers. Loose reams of thick paper were filled with elegant cursive penmanship. Beside them, lay a black and gold fountain pen. The old anxiety rose in me again. I should have listened to it but it was already too late. It was the last good thing I would feel. The last thing that wasn’t pure searing pain. The sound of scratching echoed around the library. The ripping of skin tore through the air. The scraping. The dripping. The screaming. There was a rhythmic craftsmanship to my pain. Sharp. Spasmodic. Endless.
“I’d like to know what you have to say,” he said.
I told him.
About the lovers in the café.
About the sunset over the city.
About eating a galette and reading my book by the river.
About my husband and how I missed him and wanted to get back to him.
He listened to my life and when we were done, he wrote it all down, everything I was. Everything I am. Nothing more than words on a page.