Nilam Ashra-McGrath – Rouen

Nilam Ashra-McGrath – <em>Rouen</em>
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The February evening is sharp as I step out of the hotel. A walk through the cobbled streets of Rouen clears my head and brings the blood pumping back into my legs. I sniff the air; the central Vieux Marche has a stench of alcohol and stale urine, jarring the senses. The wind carries the smell across the river, leaving a trail that hovers over the city like a dark unspoken secret. So very anti-tourist. The cathedral is a dark hue, magnificent on the horizon at the end of the narrow alleyway. It is flanked by designer shops; Hermès and Hugo Boss sit below the stone carvings of angels and gargoyles. The still figures watch over the homeless tucked into the damp doorways of its arches and curled under the warm fluorescent lighting of nearby shop doorways. A kilometre away, the cathedral is already imposing, but like an optical illusion, it remains distant as I walk towards it through the damp streets. The shoppers are beginning to drift home, and their conversations are replaced by the clatter of shutters. The town is closing for the evening.

The town carries his presence from afar. He is the man in the supermarket who stands behind me, eyeing my choices. He is the long-haired tramp, reeking of alcohol at 8am on the bus to Mont-Sant-Aignan, waiting to see if I acknowledge him. He is in the red, swollen eyes of the drunks who sit on their stone benches, urging me to come over.

He was reserved the morning I left, watching me in silence as I washed the dishes, his eyes unreadable. As I finished and turned around, his body pinned mine to the sink.

“Don’t forget, I’m thinking of you.” He pulled the top of my blouse closed; one side, then another and ran his fingers down my arm over the bruised skin. I tensed, held my breath for a few seconds. “I hate the thought of all those men staring at you.”

“It’s just a conference.”

He stared, moving his features deliberately to show that he was searching for something. “Will there be anyone there I know?”

“Like who?”

“Well … any exes that I should be aware of? Any hidden skeletons?”

“What? No,” I tutted softly.

“What about your boss? He’s always had a thing for you.” Again, his face searched mine.

“No he hasn’t.”

“You got a promotion pretty quick.”

“And that’s nothing to do with my research, you think?”

He threw his arms open. “Of course it is. You know what? We’ve never really celebrated that. Why don’t I come with you and we can go to Paris after, make a long weekend of it?”

“I have to get back Nick. I’ve got lectures on Monday.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.” He lowered his voice and wrapped his hands around my hips. “It’ll be romantic …”

“No, really,” I shook my head, “let’s leave it for now.” I pushed him away, gently, so the rage didn’t rise. “I have to pack. My flight.”

The anticipation of freedom, of being able to take a breath when I got away from him has eluded me, and now there is a restlessness stirring in my bones. I haven’t socialised with anyone this year. Instead, I’ve left the conference swiftly each afternoon to pace the streets of Rouen, ignoring any text and phone messages, replying only once when I got here: Am fine. Hotel fine. Speak when I get back. x.

For four nights, sleep too has eluded me. It has come in snatches, light and spiralling downward so that my body jerks me back into the room filled with flickering television lights. My dreams are filled with images of me running to catch a train that is steaming away from the station – a station I don’t recognise – with the porters clinging to the sides of the carriages, gripping the brass handles and urging me to clamber on board. The only face I can see is kind, black and moustachioed. He is dressed in a way that makes me think it’s the Orient Express, but from the 1940s. I wake and wonder if this type of journey is still possible and the porter’s face remains firmly imprinted in my mind as I stamp through narrow alleys each night, skirting round the homeless clustered throughout the old town.

As I reach Place de la Cathedrale, a fine drizzle appears like string from the top of the cathedral onto the benches and pathways snaking below its bell tower. Amongst the mist, I see the lights of Ali’s Saladerie, it’s windows beginning to steam with the dishes being carved together on the stove. A group of bodies is silhouetted against the bank of windows. One slams a skateboard onto the pavement and pushes it back and forth, grating the cobbles underneath. Small rounds of ash blink amongst them and they stand fixed in front of the door as I try to enter.

Excuse-moi.” I see now that they are all boys, and one moves a fraction to let me in.

This is my fifth and final night in the city, and each night I have eaten here. The waiter nods as I enter and I nod in return. Every table is taken, so I sit at the counter overlooking the chef. As soon as I sit, the place feels claustrophobic. My jumper scratches at my neck and the air is hot and thick with cooking fumes. I order and as I wait for my food, I thumb through my text messages and see that there is something new: Looking forward to seeing u. Have surprise for u. My heart is ill at the thought of seeing him.

While eating, I recognise a woman I saw yesterday. In a small boutique near Rue Socrate, whilst looking at jumpers, she emerges from the changing rooms. Her burgundy dress is tight and cuts across her body, showing the shape of breasts perfectly. She is tall – upright and proud – and admires her own figure slowly and with surety in the full-length mirror. She moves her hands over her behind, then over her breasts. “C’est une belle robe,” say the two assistants, who have stopped to watch her.

I move to another rack, passing a mirror, and catch my reflection. The dark, oversized jumper hides the shape of my upper body. My trousers, sagging at the hips, are wet from the knees down. My coat sleeves almost cover my hands. The entire outfit has been chosen by Nick. Years before, my hair used to flow in curls into the small of my back, so that men stared, but is now almost permanently scraped back into a rough bun, tied with a cheap hairband. “Maybe not the right look for a woman your age,” he started saying, until my hair was cut and tamed, my body covered, and I was tethered. I look again at the woman. She is in another outfit: a lilac silk camisole, a tight, cream pencil skirt. She is almost certainly older than me by several years, but she exudes youth. Her hair is wavy and dances on her back as she adjusts herself. Remember? says a voice in my head, and I watch her for several more minutes, but can’t bring myself to look at my reflection again.

That night, when sleep comes, it comes with a dawning. It’s 2am and I’m watching a poorly dubbed film. The girl is heartbroken; moody, dependent and foolish. She believes she loves her man more than her own life. I can see that this is what we’re supposed to feel, to love someone more than life itself. I understand that he thinks he feels that way about me, that his choke is actually love.

Today, waking from a fitful sleep, I lie looking at the line of daybreak through the curtains. “Enough,” I whisper into the shaft of light and forget my duties for the day. Instead, I stop inside l’église Sainte Jeanne D’Arc and glimpse the features of the saint trapped in the curves of the stained glass. Her colours flutter over my body and I close my eyes to feel warmth on my face for the first time in days. I’m there for an hour and when I step outside, it feels like I’m coming out of hibernation. I go back to the boutique and am surprised when the assistants recognise me. I pick up the burgundy dress and take it to the cubicle. I pull my jumper over my head with a slight crackle, and leave my trousers on the floor, stepping on them as I carefully slip the dress over my shoulders and wrap its softness around my waist with a small knot. I try on a baby-blue, cashmere cardigan, jeans and a wool jacket. The clothes are tight and smooth around my curves and I am breathless looking at my forgotten shape.

And now, the woman from the boutique is here, in the café, with a flash of burgundy showing beneath her tailored coat. She doesn’t know what she started in me. In a butter-like Italian accent, she asks for l’addition and is met with a smile from the men around her, her stilted French earning her much praise. They ask if she will come again tomorrow. “Non.” She shakes her glossy mane. She is at a conference, she says, and I stiffen and turn my face away. This is her last night and she is taking a train to Italy in the morning. She turns back to the rest of the café – her audience – to wave and the waiters wave back and mouth “Au revoir, merci,” over the din. The boys are still outside, dragging on their cigarettes, and part to let her through.

I finish my meal and head back. Hearing the woman’s voice has roused an urgency that makes me want to leave the city immediately. I walk quickly past unlit doorways, placing a scarf over my nose to dampen the smells that come drifting across my path. From the Vieux Marche, I turn into the hotel courtyard and a group of students recognise me. They stop for small talk, and as they walk away I ask “Where are you from?”

“Trieste. Italiano,” they call back.

As they disappear to start their evening, thunder claps overhead and sheets of rain come down hard. I turn to face the hotel reception and there he is, through the window, and I start. I’m frozen, in the rain, glaring at his face as he watches television and eats a sandwich at the bar. He is here. He has found me. He is waiting, and all I can do is stare. I stand for a long time until the receptionist comes out with an umbrella and manoeuvres me inside.

He stands, smiling. “Hi baby.”

“What …?” I shake my head, “I thought …” I feel the strength I found earlier hiss away.

“You’ve been a long time, where’ve you been?”

“Eating.” I shiver in spite of the warmth of the hotel lobby.

“Who with? Who are they?’ He jerks his head to the empty courtyard. He must have seen me talking.

“Students, from the conference.”

The receptionist hands me my key and I turn and walk to the lift. He follows, saying in a low voice, “You don’t seem very happy, anyone would think you don’t want me around.” In the lift, he eyes my body. I rest my head against the mirrored walls and watch the lights take me to the fourth floor.

“I asked you not to come,” I say, pushing past the slowly opening steel door. In the room, I slump onto a chair and hot tears slide down my cheeks. “Why are you here?”

“I told you, we’re going to celebrate your promotion, go to Paris.”

“I already told you, I can’t.”

“Well, you see, I checked with your mum. You’ve got some time off she says. Funny, you never mentioned it.”

A tightness forms around my chest and I look at him. “I don’t want to go to Paris.” Then quietly, to the floor, “I want you to leave me alone.”

“Why would I do that babe? You know you’re mine now. You’re my girl.” He’s on the floor, kneeling in front of me as I wipe tears across my face. “Why the tears babe?” He holds my shoulders and shakes them a little. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” When I sob in return, he speaks again but with steel in his voice, “Aren’t. You. Glad. To see me?” I nod. He gets up, switches on the television, slips off his shoes and lies on the bed, and all the while, I’m crying, thinking of the Italian woman and of my own reflection.

We are silent for a long time until I stand and take my sodden coat off. My suitcase lies open with clothes stacked in each half. A flutter of hope rises when I realise that I have packed my new clothes away earlier; he has seen nothing.

“I have to do things for the closing session tomorrow,” I say, my cheeks burning, and spread papers out across the desk, bed and suitcase. He is oblivious to what I’m doing, happy in the knowledge that he has locked me away tonight.

“What time is check-out?”

“Eleven.” I continue to shuffle papers. If I look at him now, he’ll see the quivering in my chest.

“So we can get up late.”

“Well, you can.” The quivering has helped me tune my voice. “I have to run a session tomorrow, someone dropped out and they asked if I could step in. But I should be back here before twelve.” I can feel his eyes on my back. I turn to him, “Or you could meet me at the conference, after you’ve checked out?” He is reassured by this, by the idea that he remains my shadow. His face eases and he returns to the television screen.

He has brought wine, and I say “No, I need a clear head for the morning, for the session.” But I stay up, wide-eyed, watching war films with him until he eventually falls asleep, the entire bottle consumed by him. I creep to the suitcase, pull out my new clothes, and place them in a pile near the door. It’s 3am before I fall into a shaky sleep, waking every hour until I cannot lie still any more. At 6am, I pad to the door, put on my new jeans, the blue cardigan buttoned over a bra and the wool jacket. I fold my burgundy dress into the smallest square and put it into my handbag, next to my passport, purse and phone. I collect the papers I need to keep me sane on the journey. In the dark bathroom, with its cold tiles and haunting mirror, I know that I must go now. Now, before he wakes. Whatever I have in the bathroom, l leave. My old jumper, trousers and coat are still on hangers; my suitcase lies open. I crouch by the door, pull on my socks then zip up my boots slowly to soften the ripping sound. I pull the door handle gently and slip through the slimmest gap I can make for myself without letting in the stark hallway light. I do not look back.

Outside, the sky is the cobalt of dawn. Rue Jeanne d’Arc’s lamplight guides me past Square Verdrel to the station lit in the distance. I stride, almost jog. My feet are light; there is little baggage. I dash across Rue Verte and onto the station concourse. When I reach the counter, I ask the woman if I can get to Italy from Paris. “Oui madame, a Paris Bercy, près de la Gare De Lyon.” She sells me two tickets. Arrivée Roma Termini is printed on one, and a trembling begins inside me. I’m on the direct train to Paris and my heart is rattling in my ears for most of the journey, past the graffiti-daubed buildings and stretches of flat land, until la Tour Eiffel flickers between offices and apartments.

I step outside St Lazare station; the air is crisp and the sky clean. The morning is spent at Printemps: new luggage, shoes, underwear. When I reach Bercy station, I am humming with nerves. The fluttering in my stomach is permanent since the abuse began at lunchtime. I eat at Cafe Chambertin, fragile from the morning, and climb the stairs to the concrete and glass structure, where I am directed to the lounge upstairs. Dusk comes late in the afternoon, giving me time to sit in the deep leather chairs, with my feet tucked under me, and watch the passengers below. I imagine him waking up to an empty room and beginning to pack my things, wondering why my coat is still hanging there. I imagine him checking out, and the receptionist not meeting his gaze. I see him waiting at the conference and the fury that follows, the fury that is always there.

I study the trains and know that when my train comes, my carriage will be the third one along. When it arrives, I walk along the platform slowly, glancing in at the berths. The sky is punctured by platform lights and the passengers’ feet are hidden by steam rising from the tracks. “Madame,” says the inspector, tipping his hat and guiding me on-board. I watch France speed past my window until my bunk is lowered and I am rocked into a deep sleep. I do not dream; my mind is clear. 

Nilam Ashra-McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector. She is currently writing a book based on her summer writing residency at Huddersfield Library. You can read extracts of her book on her blog (http://nilamsnet.wordpress.com/category/writer-in-residence-2/). She also writes a blog dedicated to anyone living and working overseas, who are feeling homesick (http://feelinghomesick.wordpress.com/) for the UK. Rouen is her first piece of published fiction.

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