Isabelle looks for stories.
She rides around Paris on the back of a bus, leaning her elbows on the polished wooden rail as the bus bumps over the cobbles. The platform fills up with dark-coated smokers, and she watches the stories go by.
A man waits at a street corner, checking his watch over and over again.
A middle-aged couple, a man and a woman, sitting at a table outside Chez Louise, not talking.
An old woman in satin shoes, carrying a violin case, waiting to cross the road.
On the bus, the conductor steps up into the saloon to arbitrate a debate between a passenger who wants the window open and one who wants it shut, then, having ruled in favour of the former, strides up to the front to shriek a few words to the driver through the speaking-hole. The bus stops.
Isabelle looks for stories.
An old man shuffles up to the bus, carrying a huge basket with something furry inside. Rabbits? The conductor steps down to give him a hand. 'Good morning, Henri – here you go – make way, let this gentleman sit down!'
A young woman in slacks, on her own, but walking as if she's on her way to meet somebody – somebody she wants to see. Idly, Isabelle wonders if a real writer would get off the bus and follow her. She decides against it on her own behalf. She doesn't know this quarter so well, and Mama Jeanne is expecting her back for lunch.
The conductor is about to ring the bell, but a nun runs up, dragging a little boy by the hand. 'Thank you, thank you!' They hop on board, the nun surprisingly nimble in her heavy habit. Where are they going? Isabelle wonders. There's another story.
The conductor shuts off the entrance to the platform with the little chain. 'Thank you, thank you, ladies and gentlemen!' He yanks the bell chain like a lavatory flush and the bus moves off. But Isabelle has seen another story coming: a man is chasing the bus down the road. Here's an interesting question, like Achilles and the tortoise: is he moving fast enough to catch it, or will the driver have accelerated too much for him by the time he reaches the place where it would have been? Isabelle thinks he isn't going to make it, but he puts on a sudden burst of speed (the way Achilles never does, of course), his coat flapping behind him. The conductor is shouting something, but the man is quite calm. 'I beg your pardon,' he says. 'My wife...'
My wife what? There's another story. Isabelle watches him out of the corner of her eye, but he doesn't say anything else. That's all to the good, of course: the stories are much better that way. His wife is about to have a baby. His wife has run away with a sailor. His wife is a spy, and he has just found out. His wife forgot to buy asparagus. It doesn't matter.
There's the couple from Chez Louise. The woman has her hand tucked into the crook of the man's elbow, but they still don't seem to be talking. They walk jerkily, like puppets, distinct from each other, as if her hand had become attached to his elbow by mistake.
The little boy is holding a hand to his face. Evidently the nun is taking him to see the dentist. Isabelle sympathises.
What about the bus conductor? One doesn't think about bus conductors, but he must have a story too. Does he always do this route, march up and down the saloon, argue about windows, pull the bell, hour after hour, day after day, passing the school and the convent and Chez Louise?
Somewhere, a church bell chimes. Isabelle is going to be late for lunch.
(The sound of a violin from an upstairs window. If Isabelle were writing this, it would be the woman with the satin shoes playing it, and her long-lost lover? - or daughter? - or perhaps simply a friend? - would recognise her inimitable style, and they would be reunited. But there's no way the violinist could have got so far ahead of the bus.)
If she were to get off at the next stop, she could cut back past Ste-Anne and the butcher's, and be home only five minutes late. She wants to ask the old man about the rabbits, but there isn't time. The bus lurches to a halt, and she skips down. 'Thank you!' she says to the conductor. (No doubt she'll see him again, some time.)
She runs all the way home – except for when she sees the woman in slacks walking down the Rue Fontaine, arm in arm with a girl with a red skirt. She slows to a brisk saunter, and watches the pair of them for a few seconds. There's another story.
And then she runs again. You can only spend so much time looking for stories. Now she wants to tell them.