Jonathan Kemp’s short story ‘Waterlilies’ recounts the experiences of Lynn – a woman caught in an unhappy marriage – as she wanders around Paris with her husband. The narrator retells Lynn’s story through piecing together fragments of her journal, blurring the divide between Lynn’s reality and the narrator’s imagination. Kemp – whose published work includes the two novels London Triptych and Ghosting, and a short story collection – will publish ‘Waterlilies’ in The Mechanics’ Institute Review on September 25. Read the opening here.
A bolt of anxiety shook Lynn awake at around 4 a.m. She lay there as if trapped under a paving stone until the alarm went off, then hauled herself upright and prodded Nigel awake.
Even though it had been her suggestion, a few days in Paris for her fiftieth birthday, she didn’t want to go on this trip. She needed a break – but a break from Nigel. After twenty-seven years of marriage their relationship had withered into something she no longer recognised. They seldom spoke any more because they rarely agreed on anything; he would dismiss her with, “You’re talking out of your arse, woman,” leaving her in tears. Maybe this weekend would improve things between them. If nothing else, at least – at last! – she would get to see Paris. She’d always dreamed of seeing Paris.
Ian, their youngest, dropped them off at Hook Station, where they caught a train to Waterloo. Once they were settled in their Eurostar seats, Nigel fell asleep. Lynn removed from her handbag a small notebook she’d bought the previous week, on a whim; she’d never been one for keeping a journal, but something in her was pushing for expression. Opening it to the blank first page, she wrote: If the whole holiday is like this I will have forgotten what my gob’s for by next week!
She looked at Nigel’s sleeping face, the deep lines around the mouth exaggerating his permanent sneer. She’d showered that face in kisses once upon a time, unable to tear her eyes away from its stern beauty. Now it was as familiar to her as her own, yet at the same time (again like her own) so radically other that she sometimes felt as though she was gazing on a stranger.
From Gare du Nord it was a short walk to Hotel Jarry. Their room, No. 8, was on the second floor. By 2 p.m. Nigel was snoring his head off on the bed while Lynn sat by the window, smoking and writing. I have the diary in front of me now.
I have this depressing feeling I am going to sit at this window a lot, looking at the dingy Hotel de France just across the road. It looks so close I am sure if I leaned out I could almost touch it.
Nigel woke around 3.30 p.m. and they went for a walk, stopping at a supermarket to buy some milk, butter, cheese, bread and a bottle of red. Lynn tried engaging him in conversation but got so irritated by his monosyllabic responses that she gave up. By the time they returned to the hotel they were exhausted and crashed for an hour.
That evening they went to a restaurant called Chartier she’d read about in the guidebook. A really old place where, in the words of her journal, the waiters scurry round like ants and wear long white aprons. The journal tells us she had mushrooms in garlic butter to start, followed by steak in pepper sauce with chips. For dessert, chocolate eclairs. All washed down with a bottle of rosé. They ate in silence mostly, and she asked a waiter to take their photograph. She smiled for the camera, while Nigel remained stony-faced. He wasn’t much of a smiler these days. Which was a shame because his smile was the thing she’d loved about him the most when they first met. She used to love how it brought the beauty of his face alive. She told him once he had a generous smile and he replied, with more than a little truth, “That’s because it doesn’t cost anything.”
After dinner they walked up to Pigalle and past the Moulin Waterlilies Rouge. A prostitute approached them, opening her coat to reveal the lingerie-clad body beneath. Nigel smiled and gestured with a nod towards Lynn, and the woman closed her coat and clicked her tongue against her teeth.
They both laughed – she couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard him laugh – and he put his arm around her shoulder. I imagine she savoured the contact, for it was all too rare and sometimes she thought she might die through lack of it.
On the way back to the hotel they got lost, walking in circles for what seemed like hours before finding it. Dog-tired, they went straight to sleep.
They rose at 8.15 a.m. and drank coffee, then made their way downstairs for breakfast. On discovering it wasn’t included in the price, Nigel said, “I’m not paying ten euros for two rolls and a cup of tea!” and stormed off back to the room.
As she ate her continental breakfast, Lynn took in the other guests. Mainly couples. She tried to ascertain whether they looked happy. Concluded none of them did.
They spent the morning at Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre, where Lynn bought a couple of small oil paintings of Parisian scenes from a street artist. When she asked Nigel if he liked them he asked how much they were. When she told him he said, “He saw you coming.”
The journal records that the weather was cloudy and quite chilly, the sun struggling to break through, but as she wrote later: I didn’t let it spoil my enjoyment.
They arrived at the Pompidou Centre to find it closed. Nigel complained to the air, huffing and puffing his displeasure, but Lynn enjoyed the eccentricity of the architecture, recording also that she loved the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures in the fountain. Their colourful surrealism would probably have made her smile.
That night they dined at Café Drouot, where Lynn tried escargots for the first time, which the journal says she enjoyed. But her main course proved inedible – a plate of what looked like boiled beef and carrots, when she thought she’d ordered something else entirely. She ate what she could but even covered in salt and pepper it was pretty tasteless. Chocolate mousse for dessert, followed by a portion of strawberries.
Later, they took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower to see it floodlit. Walking along the Seine, wandering and wandering, feeling like she might go mad with the beauty of it, the trees leaning over the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the lights of the bridges, all reflections carried away. No one to whom she could communicate even a fraction of it. Nigel by her side, yet galaxies away.
And the moon, watching everything.
The next morning the same rigmarole over breakfast, Nigel wolfing cornflakes from the box because there was no milk, while she ate alone downstairs.
At the Louvre, Nigel strode ahead and was soon out of sight. Lynn stopped in front of each painting, reading the card and spending time trying to see it, to use it as a window into alterity, much as I am using her journal.
Afterwards, they browsed narrow shop-lined streets, stopping at a bar for a chocolat. Like pulling teeth, she wrote, getting him to say anything. Exhausting after a while. She asked him which artworks he’d enjoyed and he went into a rant about modern art and how it was all a load of crap. She thought about how tiring it must be to foster such negativity towards everything all the time, and what a lonely place in which to dwell.
Finding themselves in the Jewish Quarter, they decided to visit the Duc de Richelieu’s palace. On the way they came across a gallery exhibiting some nudes by Francine Van Hove. Later, Lynn would write:
The nudes were wonderful. I wish we could have bought one but they were very expensive. Nigel seemed to relax a bit, and didn’t race off but stayed by my side as we wandered, though I don’t imagine it was for my benefit – the nudes grabbed his attention, of course! He said I am never interested in what he wants to do, but then nobody ever knows what he wants to do because he never says anything.
That night they dined at La Canaille, where everything Nigel said, which wasn’t much, was a complaint or a criticism – the wine wasn’t chilled enough, the steak too rare, the service too slow – till she felt like crying, though she stopped herself.
Jonathan Kemp’s ‘Waterlilies’ is published in the The Mechanics Institute Review #15. To buy a copy, visit http://mironline.org/