Marie came to Paris in a pique of independence that left her hair bobbed and her traditional Breton parents open-mouthed with dismay at the thought of losing their only daughter to ces dégénérés modernes. She moved into a small apartment in le Marais with Nadia, the bastard daughter of a land baron and an Algerian farmgirl, who spent her days sleeping and her nights whisked away to parties hosted by people with names like Fitzgerald and Baker. That was down to Christophe, a stocky, handsome Marseillais of questionable means and fine taste, who could knock a man out cold and turn to lavish affections on Nadia in the same breath.
(To be fair, Nadia was an equal match for her southern Mafioso, as Marie learned the night they were waylaid by a scruffy lowlife who definitely emerged from the encounter the worse off. “Lessons learned hard and learned well,” Nadia had said, after.)
It was also down to Christophe that she met Gaétan and Melinda.
Gaétan was a Parisian, born and raised, but Melinda had come from Manchester five years earlier to be a writer. Sweet, beautiful, dark Melinda who spoke in soft tones and could capture the poetry of a crowded street in a line of prose. Gaétan with the fair coif pulled back from his face, drink in hand more often than not and a disillusioned laugh upon his lips. A perfect balance, Marie had first thought.
As time passed, however, and long hours spent in their apartment on the edge of Buttes-Chaumont turned to nights and sometimes weeks passed before she returned to le Marais and a knowing something in the corner of Nadia’s eye, it became apparent that all was not so. A ghost lingered between Gaétan and Melinda, an echo of something, the empty shell of what had once bridged the unnatural distance that endured between them.
The small things gave them away. The way Melinda stopped at times in the middle of the street, as though unsure she should really be walking that way. The way that Gaétan would glance behind his shoulder, as though expecting the presence of someone else to share in a private joke, and the way the laughter would die on his lips. The way he would suddenly fall silent and retreat to their bedroom, leaving Melinda with closed eyes while continuing to chat about Louis and Zelda over her tisane. The way she would delve into fits of religion at times, clutching her rosary, an ornate O dangling alongside the cross.
The fights. Christ, the fights.
The way she would throw her notes across the room, declare viciously that she was giving up writing altogether, only for Gaétan to snatch it up from where it had fallen, prompting Melinda to shriek and bat his arms away with her fists, finally giving into his embrace in heaving sobs. The way she would lock herself on the balcony afterwards for hours on end, scribbling away, while he placed a hand on the small of Marie’s back, quietly suggesting they see themselves to a café.
It was Christophe who told her of Onésime, a much-beloved friend, the husband of Melinda, the lover of Gaétan, the man who passed away of consumption no more than eight weeks before Marie herself arrive in Paris all those months before.
It was not Christophe but Nadia who took her outside the bar one night. “You have saved them, my friend,” she said, and Marie did not need to ask who she meant by them. “They were dying, before.”
After Sébastien, Marie had sworn off widowers, but this was a different matter. She began to see Onésime everywhere – fragments of description taken from casual mentions, the skin like ink, the kind face of stone – and she did not think it was arrogance to believe she would have had his blessing the first time she came to Gaétan and Melinda’s bed.
Instead, when she woke to the sunrise of a new world, Melinda’s dark hair framing her face in curls damp with sweat, a smile more sincere than memory can recall upon Gaétan’s lips, Marie could have sworn it was not the wind but a deep, soothing voice in her ear, whispering his thanks.