House of Wallflowers


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1. Beginning

 

I paused mid-bite, lowering my fork so that it lingered indeterminately between the lace tablecloth and my mouth. Chewing the food, I stared across the café. My eyes sought out some sign of humanity. Although the café was teeming with clusters of people, there was not one amongst the crowd who I could call… alive.

 

They all seemed to be an intricate backdrop to my afternoon of pleasant solitude. They provided the soundtrack – the clinks of china, the melodic tumbles of laughter, the anxious, probing silences, the premature punch lines and the half-explained anecdotes.

 

What I loved most about this particular café was the complete variety of patrons it had to offer – from the portly, ruddy complexioned Monsieur Baudhuin who was twice a widower and turned irrevocably bitter to bundles of chic women from the art colleges.

 

A young waitress paused in front of me, “Would you like another coffee, sir?”

 

She was pretty – but only that. I supposed she received a lot of attention from men. She was very short and slender, with large blue eyes and a pretty set of lips. Her hair was unremarkable, falling just below her shoulder in brown waves. There was something of a brightness about her face – a youthful vitality that kept her in constant animation. You saw hundreds of girls like her walking around Paris.  However, she was not beautiful.  

 

Only a truly interesting person could ever fit the word beautiful comfortably. They wore beauty like a well-tailored suit. With a sharp mind, wit and a certain measure of self-deprecation, I could consider a woman beautiful. There was no doubt that this waitress was… aesthetically charming. And yet there was no quirk, no question posed in her eyes. She was the sort of person you’d pass every day but never remember beyond meeting her.

 

“No thank you, but may I ask you…” I paused, “Are you happy?”

 

The waitress was, of course, perplexed. Caught up in her own thoughts, she was suddenly beautiful. The sunlight just caught the side of her face, as she tilted her head to one side. I thought for a few moments that I could have married her. The beauty lasted only moments, until it was replaced with disappointing certainty.

 

“I think I am, yes, sir. Would you like the bill?”

 

I shook my head, retreating to my thoughts. I took another bite of the salmon and sighed wearily. Glancing at my watch, I grimaced. I’d have to return to my office soon. I worked a dissatisfying job. I spent seven delightful hours a day spellchecking the labels for potted plants and flowers. If you go in to any florist in Paris, you can more or less guarantee that I’ve been partially responsible for whatever you buy. It corrupted the beauty of flowers – turned them in to something formulaic and dull. I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy flowers for women anymore. I was all too aware of all the dreary processes that led to the bouquet being available for blundering men to buy for women, for busy relatives to buy for their ill loved-ones, for girls to buy for their friends and for business men to send out en masse to their illicit lovers.

 

Originally from a grey concrete mass of tangled skyscrapers and council estates in England, Paris had posed to me romance and intrigue. How disenchanted I had since become. Society was the same wherever you travelled to – perhaps people will smile differently, or maybe they have different views on eye contact and the correct etiquette on removing shoes when entering a house – and yet the world still works in the same way. Most people are still shallow, uninterested, ignorant and unwilling to change no matter what the local cuisine. There had been very little of the promised romance, and even less of the intrigue in Paris. Oh it was beautiful – the beauty of it all often overwhelmed me, and yes, there was some smoky, cool feeling that radiated from the backstreet bars and cafés, but it was not enough to keep me entirely interested.

 

Moving to Paris had only alienated me further. I lived in a darker part of Paris, in a dishevelled apartment above a legally questionable casino. Perhaps I had expected too much, had envisioned a romance that unsettled my life and a career I enjoyed. C'est la vie. I had, instead of gaining freedom, put myself in a more charming cage.

 

Abandoning the food on my plate, I called for the bill and sifted through the crowd until a cool October breeze embraced me. Stopping by the curb, I lit a slim cigarette and strode with a stream of people across the street and found myself walking to the parc de la Tour Saint-Jacques.

 

“Pascal!”

 

I turned around and smiled widely – one of my closest friends, Arthur Crowne, sat on a bench with a crumpled newspaper folded on his knees. Arthur was from England, and had moved to take up a managerial position in a patisserie by the Rue de Seine. Like most men who fled to Paris, he was also an aspiring novelist. I had never read anything he had written, for he was painfully sensitive to criticism. I sometimes believed he had written nothing at all – one was never quite sure what to believe about a man like Arthur. He was painfully simple, but had a strange sort of magnetism that attracted rumours and gossip. It was often whispered behind raised hands that he had killed a girl, that he was a mean drunk and that he worked as a spy on the bourgeoisie. I rather suspected that either all of it was true (meaning I had vastly underestimated him) or that it was all an extravagant attempt to make him seem more interesting.

 

“Arthur – how long has it been? What have you been doing?” I asked, sitting down next to him on the bench.

 

He looked about himself as though he worried someone would be listening. When he was satisfied that we were alone, he smiled nervously, “Well, I went to the states, didn’t I? Took some of my work over, you know – the novel stuff, and tried to see if I could get some interest. And… something odd happened, old boy.”

 

I lowered my brow questioningly, monitoring his facial expressions. He was full of a nervous excitement that bordered upon mania. I looked deeper in to his glossy eyes and saw a dash of fear mixed in with the anxiety. He was pale, had dark bags under his eyes, and to match the newspaper he tore with his contorting hands, his clothes had a tattered appearance.

 

Perhaps he only startled me when I realised how much he had changed. Arthur had once been a champion of a man. He was a strapping six foot three inches, had a barrel like chest and a thick head of curly hair. The only correct rumour I’d heard about Arthur, now I thought about it, was how he constantly broke hearts. As he was now, I wouldn’t have thought he’d be up to womanising, having almost shrunk in size and stature.

 

“How to put it?” he paused, as though searching for a reluctant word. “Look… can we meet at yours in an hour? I’ll go a different way. I don’t want to be tailed. It’s weird, Pascal. I can’t let anyone else know.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, catch a cab with me, Arthur –“

 

He leant in, his huge eyes ready to burst.

 

“They might follow us,” he whispered. “Your apartment. In an hour.”

 

With that, he leapt up and was lost in the crowd. I stood, hoping my height would give me an advantage, but his mousy hair was lost amongst a crowd of blondes and brunettes. I was suddenly quite worried about Arthur – he was a peculiar individual, and incredibly sensitive. I sighed and looked for a phone box. There was no point contemplating working in the afternoon with Arthur as he was.

 

I smiled and apologised accordingly down the phone, as I was confronted with a stern voice telling me I was close to being fired.

 

“Really Pascal? You must have another afternoon off?” my boss reasoned, attempting to appeal to me with a calmer tone.

 

I tapped my fingers against the glass impatiently, wondering if I could end the call and apologise later. I sighed. I needed the job. “Unfortunately one of my friends is very ill. I must see him in hospital this afternoon.”

 

“Very well. And ah – a girl turned up at the office today. Said she was here for you. She was quite young – perhaps only twenty. Something wild in the way she said she needed you. I didn’t get a name.”

 

I frowned. I couldn’t think who knew about my job – which girl had I given the address of my office to? I shrugged. Perhaps one of my brief encounters had been industrious and had found a way to contact me.

 

“Said she knew a fellow called Arthur Crowne?” my boss continued.

 

“Ah. Well, thank you for the time off. I’ll be in tomorrow.”

 

I put the phone down, straightened my suit and slung my satchel over one shoulder. If I timed it right, I’d get to the apartment just as Arthur arrived.

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