You meet her in Paris. You’re 23, a beautiful age, and you’re waiting for the people and the place and someone with whom you’ll fall in love to change your life and you haven’t realized that every day, every second, your life has just changed, but still you go on hoping.
Then one day, when you’ve had enough and have given up the job you found in desperation, someone at the school where you were working says that they know somebody who’d take over your little studio flat. This is the little place high up on the sixth floor under the roof, one skylight and a hot-plate where you warm your soup, which the French call a maid’s room, next to what they also call a toilet but which is nothing more than a hole in the porcelain floor. This little studio is the place where you’ve slept and lain long in bed in hope and intense sexual longing and where you were once ill and feverish and wondered if you were going to make it, if in weeks to come someone would discover your stinking remains – what a waste of a young and beautiful life they would say, next to the toilet not far from the Champs Elysées. This is the place where you open the door to her: this young woman who’s come to see the studio, this unworldly incarnation, this tall apparition all the way from Africa whose skin shines and glows with a dark warmth that you’ve never experienced before, who moves and breathes in her body in a way which takes your own breath away, who is clothed in bright colours that you’ve never thought before could be worn or at least not in that way, who smiles at you and looks at you in a way which had escaped your overworked imagination, who now steps into the little room and declaims its beauty, who says she will take it, immediately, but not before asking after you: who you are and what you are doing here, why you are leaving and what is your life, and what did you think of this book on your shelf that she too has read, and so you too – she says – like this same view in the print in the wall that you have both bought at the Centre Pompidou. This is the woman who straight away says simply yes to your suggestion that you both go eat somewhere so that you can tell her about the landlady, the sunset through the skylight and all the things about your life which you have never told anyone before. So you take her to your favourite restaurant, the one that will demonstrate how much you have succeeded in penetrating the Parisian culture, where there’s a waiter who will recognize you and where you’ll have the opportunity to say something knowledgeable about the local cuisine, where you sit together in a little corner and the waiters in their long white aprons serve you the snails which you would never have ordered if you’d been eating alone. And you look across the small crowded tabletop at each other and talk and smile and she keeps laughing, at nothing in particular, in a way that is so contagious and light of life and wonderful and new that there is no problem when you both return up the little staircase for another drink and sit together on the floor against the bed because there are no chairs, and why would you not lean against each other and go on laughing, and drink to the mystery of all the infuriating and inexplicable things about France which you have both noticed and therefore share and have come to feel some affection for, this place, this land and country and culture which now you are leaving and which she has only just begun to discover, and where she is studying, at the Sorbonne of all places, and reading literature of all things before she has to go back to Africa in a year’s time, of all countries, and where no doubt she is bound to fall in love, probably with an idealistic and dashing yet inadequate young Frenchman, you are relieved to speculate with her, who will not make her happy and may not be the great lover that they all profess to be. So you turn to her and kiss, with your heart beating hard and your body trembling and she welcomes this, she responds with a passion that takes you aback, in your slightly alcoholic haze, as, befuddled, you help her remove the ravishing colours to reveal another one beneath: one that glows with a polished golden-brown hue and which burns and breathes when you touch it, like warmed satin, when you taste, stroke and caress it, when you kiss it, enter it, drink deeply from and adore it all that night long. And the most astonishing thing is that although you are not all that much experienced in love, there is a gift which comes to you in that little studio under the skylight that night, and the gift is a spontaneous kind of confidence and authority along with your self-consciousness and shyness, and another gift with it, which is her smiling acceptance and ease with just how everything is, along with her intentness and then the whole explosive mysterious business of a woman who offers herself up freely to the whole fire within her, and which stuns you, never have you witnessed the force of something so akin to total abandonment, never have you dared surrender yourself in the way that she does now, how many men have, how many can?
When you wake in the morning under the skylight which is still there, you know that you have to leave because there is a plane ticket and a new job that is waiting for you, but that something has at last slipped away from you: a kind of control and predictability which was shed somewhere in the night. It leaves you breathless with unknowingness and uncertainty and you know that you must give yourself up utterly to it, up to love and impetuosity and generosity, to not necessarily knowing what the next day will bring. So you do this, you separate later that day at the station where you take the train to the airport, while you are still wet, numb and glowing from love. You kiss again before turning to the train but you are so dazed and exhausted now that you hardly know what is happening, just that you will come back here, or she to you, or the world will make you meet somewhere soon, in some other cocoon.
She sends you a black and white postcard of an unmade bed streaked with sunlight with the word ‘memories’ written beautifully on the back. You both murmur down the phone all the things that you would now like to do for and give to each other, all the inconsequentialities of your respective days, all the longings of your long nights. And when next you board a plane for Paris so early in the morning it is in order to arrive at her door, which was your door, with flowers and croissants, and to tumble quickly into bed. The weekend slips by and leads to others: in London, Venice and once more under the skylight, then in a couple of months to two whole weeks off together in the south of France, where you brave the still-chilly Mediterranean and bask in warm nights on bad beds in fermes-auberges in the mountains, and where, at last, you dare to broach a possible future, beyond the dreams which up until now you have shared with each other: about living in grand style, or even in poor style, in all of the world’s four corners, as if nothing would ever stop you, never could.
But this time you realize there is a kind of barrier, one that you might not be able to breach simply with your dreams, little jokes and longings. This barrier is the great continent of Africa, and, more specifically, there to where she is soon returning: to a family, an inheritance, and to a man who will marry her, a man to whom she has been betrothed since childhood so that two great tribal families will come together and this for many other reasons that you find you are unable to hear. To your dismay a part of her seems resigned to this future and not even in a negative way. Yet because she loves you, or perhaps knows that she must test you, she decides to risk everything and to leave half-suggested in the air one evening that if you were to marry her then there might be a chance. You astonish yourself by instinctively recoiling at this possibility, for it seems to you, despite the largeness of your love, or because of the fear you suddenly feel welling up in you, that marriage would not, could not, should not be an option. The word is too large, too awful, too final; it would involve your own very very white family, explanations, commitments, no going back. The word doesn’t smack of the frivolous and fantastical way in which you would have travelled the world together, in utter freedom, but instead would mean that your passion – which up until now has been the sole private preserve of two people – becomes the common property and the concern of others, who might not look upon it with unconditional acceptance but rather would subject it to their own judgment and expectations, and which would surely kill it until it were quite dead. And so you hesitate, prevaricate for a few moments, which is long enough for her to pick up the spirit that is less than whole-hearted in you, the voice that is after all cautious and fearful, the smallness which could not honour the scale of the risk that she might have been prepared to take.
Yet because she is stubborn or still perhaps hopeful, she has you meet her father, one evening, when he’s visiting London, unless she had him come over especially to see you but this you will never know. The evening in the little restaurant in Soho does not go well although the man is polite to you: he is a wealthy academic, you are tongue-tied and awkward; you try to describe to him who you might be but without much conviction, and you no longer know which result you’re hoping for, unless it is that this powerful African leader should – in the middle of Soho – magically make everything easier, should reach into your soul to help you find there some resolve, courage and purpose and help you to demonstrate it clearly, something which even 25 years later you are still not sure you know how to do.
This is how, in a kind of desperation, you and she come to live out your last days together in London and you learn at least that it is possible to love, in a way, even while knowing that it is finite: that one can make love, in love, in the knowledge that every time each kiss might be the last. One day near the end you go with her to one of her family’s apartments where some of her brothers or cousins are staying, where you cannot understand all the relationships between them, where the rooms have begun to resemble what you imagine is Africa, and especially where the Oxbridge English that you are used to hear coming from her is suddenly transformed. The sounds are still recognizably rooted in your language but are so steeped in something foreign, so utterly other; and this you realize is the beautiful, holy and long-limbed brown body upon which you have lavished so much of your attention and spent so much passion, this is the version of Africa whom you had thought you knew: this confidante, this lover, once slave to your race and now saviour, this person who was never going to be able to deliver you sufficiently from yourself; here she is, with you, this woman, and yet here she is not; no she is not.
And so you separate, finally, from each other several times, thinking each time the last and hoping that it is not. One day you encounter each other by accident or serendipity with astonishment and dread on a busy train platform and so you wander for the afternoon in Kew Gardens near the great Greenhouse where you admire the orchids and cacti and continue to touch and excite each other, hopelessly, because you think that the longing will never go away. And you are sitting at work one morning when the phone rings announcing that she is downstairs in the lobby, and you just drop the phone and race away, to the astonishment of everyone in the office, then walk entwined together in Green Park, silently, and finally, yes finally, she turns at the Park gate, will not kiss, and walks slowly away. You watch her go, the tall figure in its insolent hat and outlandish colours, wondering, knowing, that she will not turn back.
And all the years you have told yourself this story: different versions of it, no doubt to suit your moods and needs of the moment and according to what you suppose constitutes your memory of it, but you are no longer sure. Looking back you realize that it may not have happened, that something did – but what? You have long gone through the stage when you needed to keep much of it very alive in you, for there have been others, though none you think so profound. Sometimes you wonder how much of yourself you left behind at the gates of Green Park that day: some parts that seem, sometimes (so other people tell you) steeped in a kind of sorrow or regret and yet other aspects which you intuit you are right to cherish, and which honour the passionate heart of that 23-year-old who loved then with as much conviction and courage as he knew how.
Stephen Busby is a traveller, writer and photographer based in the Findhorn Community, northern Scotland. He lived in France for many years. His prose has also appeared online – recently in Cezanne’s Carrot and r.kv.r.y. He runs workshops and events on transformational themes in various countries – see www.stevebusby.com .