14390 words, novelette
The Gift of Angels: an introduction
2019 Finalist: BSFA Award for Best Shorter Fiction
The noise outside his door made Vincent feel as if he were back in college, in the dilapidated hall of residence where he had spent the first year of his degree course and where the corridor parties often went on until the small hours. A continuous, muted hubbub, generously interspersed with outbursts of oafish laughter. Especially at weekends, like this one, when everyone had either handed in their weekly seminar paper or definitively failed to produce one.
Vincent had found himself on the right side of the door a fair few times, especially towards the end of the year when he had come to know the others well enough to be able to slope off early without being summarily branded boring and a knob. Mostly he’d stayed in his room, simultaneously furious and indulgent, imagining them as any writer might imagine them, standing around drinking unchilled white wine that tasted like goat’s piss and talking about nothing: just listen to those shiftless wankers, what a waste of an evening . . . But it was what people did.
At the age of fifty-three, Vincent believed he had earned the right to expect people not to make that particular noise in the place where he slept and worked. He could, he supposed, throw on a T-shirt and jeans and go and join them. He would be welcomed now, accepted. The wine would be chilled—the students drank a better class of goat’s piss in Paris, so there was that. He could even make a splash if he wanted, a moderate one at least. A sizeable minority would have heard of the September Queen books. Those who hadn’t read them would probably have seen the film adaptation of Cold Harbour. Vincent was someone people were interested in meeting. Even if he turned out to be boring and a knob, they were still interested.
But he is not interested in meeting them. He does not want to know how they wound up in this converted nunnery pretending to be artists. He does not want to exclaim artificially over the beauty of Paris, and how marvelous it is to be here, finally. It is not marvelous, not right now, because of that noise, because he should have booked into a hotel instead, even though it would have been more expensive and less . . . hip. He wishes they’d all just piss off. Goat’s-piss off, in fact. That can’t stay in, Vincent thinks as he writes it. He writes it anyway, then smiles. Maybe it can.
That’s how I was planning to begin this story but I don’t think it’s right. When I started the project I felt strongly that I should write down everything that happened, everything I thought, exactly as it happened and as I thought it, that I shouldn’t edit my feelings or leave things out. Such writing embarrasses me, though. I don’t like to be caught out being angry or not enjoying myself. I prefer to filter my impressions, checking each of them for excess before presenting them for scrutiny. That corridor party turned out to be a one-off, in any case, a private view for a photography exhibition. Everyone was gone by eleven, which hardly counts as discourteous, let alone unreasonable, even by my draconian standards. So I’ll begin this way instead:
My mother and father met in Paris. It was a fluke in a million.
Sounds better, doesn’t it? Less whiny, more demonstrably about something. Already we have two characters. Already I have conveniently provided my reason for being here. And here’s the clincher: my mother was—is—Jocelyn Tooker, one of the six astronauts who took part in the first manned mission to Mars. You won’t have heard of my father, but his name was Simon Colbert, and he was a secondary school art teacher. My name is Vincent Colbert, and I am the author of nine science fiction novels about the voyages of the space freighter September Queen. I’m not famous—not Harry Potter famous, not Game of Thrones famous—but successful enough to keep me writing and, after the film came along, solvent enough to be able to take a trip like this and not have to worry too much about not just breaking the bank, but blasting the bank and myself into oblivion.
I don’t take trips like this, in the main, because I prefer to be at home. I still enjoy writing September Queen, believe it or not. I like wandering down to the seafront on an afternoon, watching a detective series in the evening then Skyping with my friend Christina until we’re too tired to speak. But my father died three months ago, and I’ve come to understand that if I’m ever going to write this book it has to be now. Vincent is fifty-three, after all, and you never know, do you?
My publishers weren’t keen on “Vincent Colbert” as an author name—too many “t”s, apparently. I write as Vincent Swann. Swann was my mother’s second name, and her mother’s maiden name.
Jocelyn Swann Tooker.
It should have been Phoenix.
My father always claimed that for him, the moment he first set eyes on my mother was like his favorite still from Chris Marker’s film La Jetée, a moment struck out of time, as an ingot is smelted and molded from its ore.
In the image he talked about, the woman’s mouth is partially obscured by her hair as it blows back across her face. In my father’s moment of epiphany, Mum’s head is thrown back as she laughs uproariously at a joke made by one of her companions. They are seated around a table outside a cafe on the rue Linné, in the 5th arrondissement. The sun glints off cutlery, coffee cups, the rims of glasses. My father is walking past them, away from the Jardin des Plantes and towards the metro. Hearing my mother’s laughter, he turns his head. He looks straight at her, gazing into her eyes as into a painting.
In another life, my mother stops laughing abruptly, straightens her posture and in a glancing sideways movement snaps my father—a skinny black man carrying a tatty-looking rucksack, some random gawker—out of her existence forever. In this life, the life she is living, she stares right back at him, the laugh still on her lips, her eyes, which in so many of the official photographs glint narrowly with the directly provocative light of her mission statement, are wide open, liquid with sunlight, an invitation rather than a challenge.
“Who are you anyway?” she says. “The local joke inspector?”
My father, flustered, mumbles an apology: he was just passing, he is no one, he is sorry.
“No,” my mother says. And she always claimed afterwards—according to my father—that she had no idea what came over her, she’d never done anything like that in her life before, she was never normally interested in anyone who wasn’t part of her inner circle. Why would she suddenly accost a stranger in the street? “I think you should join us. There’s room.”
She points to a spare chair, not beside her but opposite, barely two feet away across the table. My father swings his rucksack from his shoulders and—unaccountably, improbably—sits down. I still find it difficult to believe he actually did this, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Simon Colbert was a shy man. Not a timid man, but shy. It took him a long time to get to know someone, to move beyond the accepted formulae of small talk and common politeness. For him to sit down with a bunch of noisy Americans must have taken something—some reserve of intent—he had not previously imagined he possessed.
“I’m Jocelyn. Joss,” my mother says. She reaches across the table, shakes his hand. She begins introducing the others seated at the table but for my father their names flash past in a blur, never gaining traction.
“Simon,” says my father. The short “i” reveals him at once for what he is, a Frenchman, though his English, learned from the age of six—his mother and father were both students of American literature—is perfect and spoken almost without an accent.
“Ah, Simon, c’est bon!” someone says. Everyone laughs, including my father, from nervous relief. Joss, Simon is thinking. Her name is Joss.
My mother is in Paris to celebrate the birthday of her friend Serena Stubbs. Serena, seated next to her at the table, has recently completed her doctorate in astrophysics. There are seven of them altogether, seven who have been friends since their freshman year. They meet up religiously, every twelve months, on one of their birthdays. Whoever’s birthday it happens to be gets to say where. They’re all earning good money now, and so these annual celebrations have become more extravagant. Serena chose Paris, and so Paris it is. They are sitting here, in the rue Linné, because Mishell, who majored in botany, insisted they go and visit the famous hothouses in the Jardin des Plantes.
Simon Colbert is not earning good money because he is an art student. He has saved for this trip all year by working the night shift at his local supermarket, stacking shelves. It has long been his cherished intention to visit the Muséum national d’Histoire naturel. The natural history museum forms one of the key locations in Chris Marker’s film La Jetée, a movie he has been obsessed with since the age of sixteen.
Chris Marker was a journalist and filmmaker, one of the French New Wave and yet apart from it, an artist of ironclad personal integrity and obsessed with recording human existence in minute detail. His own existence remains mysterious, his place and date of birth a matter of contention. His films and writings came under scrutiny during his lifetime for having Marxist leanings. Some were even banned.
A century later, his work still seems fresh, unrepentant, radical, perhaps because the methods he used—montage and assemblage, voice-over—were already considered obstinately anti-commercial at the time of making.
Marker didn’t shoot films so much as create multimedia essays. He cared as much about the written word as for the photographic image. His films have the instinctive, lateral-thinking logic of dreams. Like dreams, they tug us in unexpected directions. Watching a film by Marker is like opening a scrapbook of our own memories.
La Jetée takes place in the future. A third world war has devastated Paris. The survivors huddle underground, hacking out scant lives for themselves in the abandoned tunnels and galleries beneath the Palais de Chaillot. A sinister band of scientists prey off these survivors, capturing individuals and subjecting them to lethal experiments. The unnamed protagonist clings to memories of his childhood from before the war, and in particular the face of a woman he once glimpsed on the viewing platform at Orly airport, a face that seems to encapsulate everything that was once beautiful and meaningful in human existence.
The doctors ensnare our protagonist and force him to participate in their experiments in time travel. They explain that unless they are able to access technology that will alleviate the current crisis, humanity is doomed. In order to do this, they are attempting to make contact with scientists from the past—scientists who know nothing of the disaster to come. So far, everyone they have tried to send back has either died or gone mad. The protagonist, they believe, has exceptional powers of recall. His memory of the unknown woman will act as a psychic anchor, enabling him to travel to the past and return with his sanity intact.
La Jetée is just thirty minutes in length. Even if you have never seen it before, you will find something inevitable and timeless and poignant in the way it plays out. The man returns to the past, where he recognizes the woman from the airport the moment he sees her. The two fall in love. They explore Paris together. The protagonist tells his lover nothing of the war that will consume them. The woman never questions where her time traveler disappears to or when he will return. One afternoon, waiting for him on the jetty at Orly airport, she sees him shot and killed by a mysterious gunman, one of the doctors from the future who has decided that our protagonist knows too much and must be disposed of.
A young boy, who happens to be at the airport with his mother, looks on in horror. He sees everything as if in slow motion: the man with the gun, the dying victim, and most of all the woman, her hair blowing across her face, the tenderness in her eyes bright enough to light up the world even as it is extinguished.
The man, we understand, was the boy. The moment he clings to so fiercely as an affirmation of life is the moment of his own death.
Apart from one brief motion-capture sequence lasting less than five seconds, La Jetée is composed entirely of still images, filmed sequentially in a kind of montage and overlaid by Marker’s own voice-over commentary. Marker delivers his story simply and without affectation, like a reading you might hear on the radio late at night. The images are as devastating as the film is quiet: Paris destroyed, laid waste, frontline dispatches from an apocalypse that hasn’t happened yet.
In its terrifying visions of nuclear war, La Jetée is the quintessential Cold War movie, yet much of what we see reminds us of scenes we already recognize from WW2: Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to rubble after the bombs were dropped, Hitler’s orders to his general, Choltitz, to burn Paris to the ground. The doctor in charge of the time travel experiments is later referred to in Marker’s commentary as “the camp leader,” whilst the scientists who monitor our protagonist’s life signs whisper to each other in German.
We should remember that when La Jetée was released in 1962, the audience’s memories of WW2 would still have been fresh. Fresher than my own memories of checkpoints going up along the Irish border, or of the day my father told me that NASA had lost contact with the Second Wind.
“They’ve lost the signal, that’s all,” my father said. “That doesn’t mean the signal has been extinguished. No one knows what it means. Not yet.”
One thing I’ve never forgotten about that day is the word my father used—extinguished—the unusual sound and texture of it, a word he would probably never have chosen if he had not been caught in the grip of his own emotions. I was seven years old. I knew what extinguished meant. An image came to me of the fire extinguisher in the door alcove of my form room at school, red and rotund and bursting with latent action. The word still startled me though, I think because I had never heard it used other than in connection with a fire drill.
It was a book word, a dictionary word: to be put out, to be suppressed, to be starved of oxygen.
Starved of oxygen, I remember thinking later. That can’t be true.
I have tried to remember other things about that day—what I watched on television, what I ate for supper, what the weather was like, even—but nothing comes. There’s just that word—extinguished—like the woman in La Jetée, her hair blowing across her mouth, hiding her face.
My father first saw La Jetée when he was still at school, as part of a course module on the history of French cinema. He knew already that he wanted to be an artist, but it was Marker’s film that showed him the kind of artist he wished to be.
Simon Colbert grew up in the département of Charente Maritime, in western France. He studied art at La Rochelle, mainly because it was easier for him to finance his degree while still living at home. He dreamed of being in Paris, though the more he learned of the attitudes there—a snobbish dismissal of anyone and anything that came from outside—the more he rebelled against the capital and yearned for elsewhere. He did consider returning to France, and in particular to La Rochelle after my mother—what? Took flight? Took off? Simply went?—although in the end he decided it would be better to stay where we were. On account of my schooling, he insisted, “you seemed so settled,” and of course there was Claude. Claude made for complications—he might have said that was his purpose in life—and I do not like to think what a childhood without my half-brother would have been like.
In reality though, the main reason we stayed in Gourock was the same tendency towards obscurity that had initially led my father to reject Paris. “The journalists won’t bother us here,” I remember him saying, and in the main he was right, although there were always a couple—the younger ones, mostly—who imagined they would get their big break by scooping Dad’s story. Mine too, if they were lucky—the motherless boy, the child who was left behind.
Gourock is a long way to come on the off-chance though, so they mostly didn’t bother. They scraped stuff off the Internet, like everyone else.
I first heard about Les Récollets from my French publishers, who were able to assign me a residency in exchange for a couple of book signings and maybe a radio interview. A former convent and later a military hospital, the building is now a center for international artists and scholars, funded by a bursary from the French government and sponsored by a number of cultural bodies within Paris. There are eighty studio apartments, a laundry, cafe and common room, private gardens and reception.
I flew in from Glasgow on a Thursday. I had been to Paris before, for short publicity tours to coincide with the publication of French editions of the September Queen books, but never for such an extended period. I could not have claimed to know the city at all well. I think it was partly my father that kept me away—that, and my dislike of travel generally. I prepared myself in advance, making a note of the train I would need to catch from Charles de Gaulle to the Gare du Nord, the quickest way to walk from there to Les Récollets. It all looked fairly simple, which in fact it was, although I had reckoned without the heaving queues for train tickets that slowed my exit from the airport.
My studio is comfortable and, now that I have grown accustomed to the noise from the children’s playground in the park outside, far better suited to my purposes than any hotel room. The convent lies within easy reach of the metro, a small supermarket, some excellent bistros, the Canal Saint-Martin. I am as at home here as I could be anywhere that is not my home. I especially love the floorboards in my studio, which are pale and ridged and warm underfoot. I wonder if they are the original floorboards, as once trod by the nuns. I find I like the idea.
As the days pass, I am reminded more and more of the time I spent in Prague, when I was a student. I was less than half the age that I am now. What I remember most is the intensity of that time, the sense that things were finally falling into place for me. I took to the landscape of the city as if I meant to stay there forever, to lose myself in the maze of backstreets and river walkways and odd subterranean restaurants. I was trying on a new life, I suppose. Pretending I could leave the old Vincent behind.
Perhaps it is easier, when you are young, to grow a second skin. Now all I can think about is how impossible it is, to inhabit an alien landscape, to bring anything to it other than one’s own ignorance. It takes decades to truly know a place, to understand its rules. To know which street thugs are just lads being idiots and which might be killers. To read the discarded sweet wrappers in the gutters and feel filthy with belonging.
Here, I am just a tourist. Perhaps it might feel different if I were here with someone—Christina, say. Perhaps I would laugh more and feel less foolish, less untried. As things stand, I go where the tourists go, look where they look. I have a job to do. Once I have done it, I will go home.
I met my paternal grandparents once or twice, though mostly we skyped. They had a strange way of pronouncing my name—Van-son—which as a young child I found simultaneously curious and annoying. Being reminded that Dad was French made me afraid, I think—afraid of losing him. And no, I didn’t blame that on my mother.
Dad always called me Vincent, enunciating all the consonants—carefully, tenderly—in the English manner. I was Vinnie to no one but Claude, the forbidden diminutive a badge of intimacy between us. Claude was four years my junior but—the early years aside—he always seemed older: more streetwise and more capable, more switched-on. You’ll ask why he was given the name Claude when his mother—Margaret, Maggie—was Scottish, a Glaswegian to boot. The only answer I can give you is the one she gave me, later, that she wanted to give her boy something romantic, a glimpse of his heritage. “I just loved the sound of it,” Maggie said. “And he looked so like his dad, you know, when he was little.”
It’s true. I’ve seen the photos. I look like Dad now, but I didn’t when I was younger. I looked more like Mum, or at least I liked to think so. You will remember our nine-day king, how like his mother he was as a boy, how like his desiccated, world-weary father as he entered middle age.
Dad was never with Maggie, not properly. He turned to her—used her, some might argue, though they cared for one another too much for it to be that simple—during the months immediately following the launch. This will sound like I’m making excuses for him, but I have come to believe that Dad’s affair with Maggie was his attempt to delay my mother’s departure from his life. To prolong that sense of warmth, of belonging to someone.
When he learned that Maggie was pregnant, he stopped seeing her. There was a period—about eighteen months, I think—when he literally did not see her, just put money in her account with the bank reference BABY.
I knew nothing about Claude, not until I was six and he was almost two. When he was five he started visiting us on Sundays. Maggie would drive him over, sometimes she would stay for supper but not always. I liked Maggie. She was easy to be with in a way my father never was. She liked crap TV and silly jokes. She let Claude and me eat junk food, the kind my father would never allow in the house. When I was about fourteen I started sneaking off to visit her, catching the bus after school, telling Dad I was with friends. When he eventually found out what I’d been doing he could hardly stop me. I was almost an adult, and Claude was my brother.
The novelty of being in Maggie’s home: chemistry textbooks open facedown amidst a welter of film and fashion magazines, cereal cartons on the living room table, stacks of washing in the hallway waiting to be taken upstairs, Maggie and Claude constantly bickering like an old married couple. Explosions of anger and domestic crises, blowing in and out again like minor typhoons. Maggie, handing me a peanut butter sandwich, telling me I was welcome to stay for supper, “only make sure and call your dad, won’t you, you know what he gets like.” An absence of sadness I could barely comprehend.
This is normal, I thought. This is what it is like, to have a mother.
Dad’s love for me, unstinting, rooted in a tragedy I couldn’t fathom.
How Claude coped with his name at school I have no idea. Punched a few people, probably. No one there knew who his dad was and even if they had they wouldn’t have cared.
I never discussed my mother with Claude, not even once. His mum was Maggie, to both of us. He might have called her Mum in private but I don’t know. It was almost as if the word had become a taboo.
I started reading science fiction in secret. I was afraid that books with spaceships in them might upset my father. My passion began with a book I kept seeing in the window of the newsagent’s on Kempock Street. The Martian Chronicles, it was called. The letters of the title gleamed gold against a velvety background.
“Mars” was another word that was never spoken in our house. Mars was either “the mission” or simply “there.” The sight of it displayed so openly was almost shocking. I hoped the book would tell me something different from what I already knew.
I was around twelve years old at the time. I didn’t get much pocket money—Dad didn’t believe in it, though he would have bought me any book I asked for, within reason. I didn’t dare to ask him for The Martian Chronicles, and it took six weeks of saving every penny until I was able to go into the shop on the way back from school and buy the book for myself. I told no one. I can still remember the way it felt between my hands: smooth as lacquer, with those gold foil letters, the extra weight of it in my backpack, going home.
And then of course there was the story. I believe I encountered it at just the right age: still young enough to be gripped by wonder, old enough to understand how terrifying The Martian Chronicles actually was, not only because of the aliens but because of the humans.
The novel was a century old when I read it, and the idea of Mars as an analogue for the Western frontier had passed from being innovative through being fantasy to being a newer, harsher version of our current reality. Bradbury’s stories did not help me imagine Mars in a different way—how could they?—but they helped me understand how dangerous the Earth had been, once. How the families of those who set out to explore it were no different from my own.
Until I read Bradbury I had felt isolated in a way that held no equivalent. Now I knew I had comrades. Even though they were long dead, they had existed. Children who understood how it felt not to know what had become of their mothers, or fathers. Not to know, but still to hope, even when the safe return of the one who was lost was all but hopeless.
Not lost, I thought, just far away. Far away from here. In a different place.
My mother left this place in the month of September. I named the craft that appears in all my stories the September Queen.
Of course, my publishers were keen to use my family history as a marketing tool.
For years I wrote—as I had read—more or less in secret, publishing my first short stories in small-circulation magazines to little or more accurately no fanfare. My father had done his best to keep my name out of the media coverage and to his credit he had largely succeeded. No one had heard of Vincent Colbert, and when the first of the September Queen novels was finally accepted by a publisher the only comment they passed on my name was to ask me to change it.
It was only when my third book came out that someone—I never found out who—told my publisher who my mother was. They became giddy with excitement, an enthusiasm they were forced to curb when I told them that although I would do nothing to stop them using the information in publicity material, I would not be answering any questions about my mother—or my father, come to that—in interviews or panel discussions.
I thought that was the smartest response, given the circumstances, but over time I became less sure. The more the question was out of bounds, the more curious readers became. Fake stories sprung up everywhere, rumors bloomed, proliferated, spiraled out of control. At every convention, every book launch I attended, there would always come the inevitable moment when some journalist would attempt to wrong-foot me and I would be made to look uncharitable or foolish. Not surprisingly, my publishers found ways to adapt the situation to their advantage. If they were forbidden to market my story they would market my silence, especially since there were plenty who believed my silence was a publicity stunt in any case. As an author who lived alone, with no hint of past scandals or expensive proclivities, I would otherwise have come across as pretty dull. The questions surrounding my mother provided mystery and poignancy. They provided the reason I had become a writer in the first place.
Like my life in general, my reasons for breaking that silence now are undramatic. As mentioned previously, I am getting older. None of us knows how much time is left to us, or what that time will be like. More than anything I want to get to know her. Jocelyn Tooker the person, the explorer, the spacewoman, the wife, even. I want to try and understand who she was.
I haven’t told my publishers yet. I want my discoveries to remain private for as long as possible.
Will this be a memoir? I hope not. I prefer to call it the exploration of a life.
On my third day in Paris, I take the Line 7 metro to Jussieu and walk down the rue Linné to the Jardin des Plantes. It occurs to me that I am literally following in my father’s footsteps and I wonder if he in turn had imagined himself as someone else—the unnamed protagonist of La Jetée, for example, who went to the museum in search of lost time.
I begin to understand that this is what time travel actually is: we can each of us go back in time a little. We extend a hand to the one behind us and they travel back a little further.
It is a slow process, and deeply inhabited. A process of necessary sharing that cannot be bypassed.
The only way we can explore the future is to reinvent the world.
On my twenty-first birthday I received a letter from my mother.
It was her handwriting on the envelope, although there was no way I could have known that. The stamp was new. The postmark—Greenford—was dated the day before. It’s rare to receive a personal letter through the post these days, less so back then, though it was still unusual enough to be noteworthy, whoever the letter was from. My father still wrote letters—to his university friends, his parents—and I knew some people at college who were into snail mail as a statement of retro-hipness. But other than birthday cards from Maggie and the odd postcard from Claude, sent in a moment of cheery camaraderie from wherever he happened to be squatting and usually displaying signs of having been used as a beer mat, I couldn’t remember the last time I had received one. Perhaps I never had. The letter’s arrival unnerved me. An image flashed into my mind of the dove bearing the olive branch in Zvyagintsev’s film The Ark.
My darling Vincent, the letter began, and for a moment—just a moment—I thought the letter must be from the man who had recently left me, a computer programmer named Marek who had suddenly decided to join the Jesuits. I felt elated, thinking he must have changed his mind, or at least relented enough to agree to a final meeting. But Marek never wrote in longhand—I don’t know if he could, even—and he had never called me darling. I let the thought go, ploughing up pain with the twists of its body as it slithered away.
My darling Vincent,
Today is your birthday, and as I sit here writing this letter I am intrigued—honored, delighted—to wonder what kind of person you have grown up to be. I find I can imagine you, quite easily. Of course it could be that I am simply picturing your father as he was at your age, or myself, and projecting that image onto you, but I hope not. I trust that it is you I see, that this—this gift of angels—has somehow been allowed as a dispensation, because I know already that I will not be there to congratulate you, to embrace you, to celebrate this day with you myself.
You will think it strange, given what you know of me from videos, from articles you might have read, from your father even, that I can speak of angels, that I would even consider the possibility that such beings existed. I would not admit this to everyone—this is just for you and me—but I do believe. Not in the avenging Biblical angels with their flaming swords, but in something. The microcircuitry of the universe, if you prefer. Miracles we grope for, as moles with their spade-like fingers dig the soil for grubs. Under the microscope the grubs are revealed as mythical beasts, their subjects massed in a drop of rainwater, thrashing their limbs in awe as they ascend to the promised land.
Until we invented the microscope, their world and everything in it remained invisible.
Will you understand me any better if I tell you that I am drawn—compelled—to dedicate my life towards discovering the universe? That sounds ridiculous perhaps—hubristic—but it is the truth. My truth, anyway, the best I can give you. I don’t want fame—I know fame will come, of a kind, it is the drug used by some of my comrades on this mission to conquer their fear, the knowledge that their names will go down in history. But I know I will see things, Vincent—things no other human being has seen yet. Does your heart flutter, even for a moment, as you read these words?
I can only fulfil this dream because of your father. Because of the love I know he will give you—love enough for ten children—and because of the life I know he will make for you, whatever the circumstances. How could I ever have thought of leaving otherwise? Yet these are the certainties that drive me forward.
I will not tell you how you should think of me. I leave that to you, to your own nature, to your own sense of purpose. But please know, my darling Vincent, that I do love you. That if Mars is my mission then you are my sun, lighting my journey, igniting my joy, warming my bones.
With all my heart, forever,
Your mother, Joss
My breath stopped in my chest.
She is speaking to me, I thought.
My father did not know about the letter. I watched him closely that day—his body language, his demeanor, every word he spoke—and I felt convinced of it. The letter, as my mother had hinted, was truly our secret.
One other person must have known, of course—the person who posted it. Someone who lived in Greenford, though I knew I could not be certain even of that. Eighteen years ago, my mother had given someone—a friend, a relative—the task of posting a letter on a particular day some two decades in the future, no matter what happened in the meantime. Someone she had trusted enough to feel certain that trust would be repaid. A person she trusted as I trusted Christina, although I wouldn’t be meeting Christina for another ten years.
For the first time I felt real curiosity. An active desire to know what my mother had been like, who her friends had been. That simple act of hers—writing a letter in the past to be delivered in the future—told me something important about her, something more personal than anything I had been told, or learned in secret, up until that moment.
The Grande Galerie d’Evolution contains a vortex of beasts. They flood across the main concourse, a great river of migrating animals that is supposed to represent the ecology of the African savannah but reminds me more of the two-by-two procession into Noah’s Ark, or better still the diagonal stripe of endangered species that marched across the covers of a book I had when I was a child. Vanishing Animals, it was called, its light blue background color contrasting vividly with the striped and tawny bodies of its precarious subject matter.
The screams of children mingle indiscriminately with the recorded whoops of gibbons, the roaring of lions. The hippopotamus is vast, vast and black like an armored limousine, or like the alien sea tanks that rise up out of the ocean in The Kraken Wakes. I want to reach out and stroke its hide, to discover if it is real or simply a model, though there are signs everywhere warning the public that the animals are fragile and should not be touched. The hair on the antelopes, the impalas, the zebras—I recognize one of the zebras instantly, from La Jetée, as familiar as a known face in a crowd—certainly looks real, as real as the hair on a cowhide handbag or a sheepskin jacket.
I conclude that all the beasts must be real, a century old and more, the same animals photographed by Marker in La Jetée. I cannot decide if the knowledge is calming or grotesque.
The light is also the same, the ochre, honey-glazed dimness of a watchmaker’s shop or a corner tobacconist’s, the kind of businesses that continued to thrive right through the middle years—the years between the end of the second world war and the first moon landing—but that are now gone entirely. We imagine we remember such places from childhood, buried splinters of memory, whereas in fact we know them only from films, and I think about the light in La Jetée, the rows of vitrines, the march of dead animals, the tendency to show rather than tell.
Museums these days are all about telling. Children are encouraged to touch screens and push buttons, to measure themselves for size against a goat or a rhino. Museums are interactive now, even this one, even though it is beautifully done and with that magic light preserved. We are told that children will take no interest in dusty cases, in difficult words on faded strips of yellowing paper, that if our march toward knowledge is to continue we must change the nature of our museums to engage their attention. Children like moving pictures and recorded whale song and flashing lights.
I suppose they must be right. Having no children of my own, it would seem inappropriate for me to poke my nose in. Yet looking around me I cannot escape the conviction that none of the children who have been brought here are truly engaged. Within moments of glimpsing the dinosaurs, the white rhino, the mammoth, they feel disappointed. This is not what they were promised, and they are bored. They would rather be dashing about outside, or watching “real” dinosaurs chasing humans through the Jurassic in CGI.
A dodo’s skeleton, the Crowned Pigeon, named for a queen, Goura Victoria, a half-grown panda, scrabbling for release from her octagonal cage. The panda died a hundred years ago—more—yet still it seems wrong to keep it imprisoned here, as wrong as the stockpiling of shrunken heads, African battle dress, the Elgin Marbles. What are museums but colonialists’ swag bags, granite memorials to our heritage as thieves? The panda, as she gazes outwards, seems to affirm this. My heart clenches as the sight of her. I stand vigil for a couple of moments, and then move on.
We are trying to do better, say the display notes. The museum has replaced their stash of rhino horns with resin models in order to draw attention to the illegal trade in animal parts, to stand in solidarity with those who risk their lives on a daily basis against the poachers. I wander amongst the vitrines, thinking how none of this is enough, how nothing could be enough except to put everything back the way it was before we came down from the trees. I think about how a museum is in spite of everything a place of wonder, how no interactive display, no matter how ingenious, can be weighed against that moment when a certain child—my father, say—finds themselves transfixed before a case of beetles, or seashells, or a faded piece of parchment embroidered with the signature of Carl Linnaeus, and realizes they have found that elusive something they were looking for.
That light in the mind, that moment. How can one explain?
My mother hated museums, my father told me. She used to say they were like coffins—coffins for information, stuffed with the desiccated corpses of our crimes as a species. She preferred the Internet. All this useless stuff, she said. All those dust mites. She didn’t care for art museums, either.
I finally find what I am looking for in the Espace Historique, a tiny section located way up on the third floor displaying some of the museum’s original specimen drawers and, open at the title page, a first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. Some original hardwood vitrines, their contents hand-labeled in sepia and showcasing the laws of natural selection in moths, the common scallop, the common earwig.
I reach out to touch the glass—I cannot help it. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end, and I can feel both of them here: my father gazing upwards, his face bathed in the golden light of the museum’s interior, yearning for the past to be transposed upon the future even as he knows it’s too late, too late, the shot has already been fired. My mother, her eyes filled with purpose, who will take this step because she has to, because she must.
“I always knew about the mission,” my father said. “She never tried to hide anything from me, especially not that. When we first met I thought it was romantic. As if she were a goddess, returning to the stars.” He laughed. This must have been—what—a year before he died? I had finally begun asking him some questions. I think I had decided already that I was going to write about her, and had suddenly become convinced that if I did not speak to my father now it would be too late.
His death, when it finally happened, was sudden and completely unexpected.
He sighed. “I think I believed that having you would make a difference. I was so angry, for a time. Even before she went. If I regret anything at all in my life it is that anger.”
“And that’s when you met Maggie?”
He turned his head away. Even now, fifty years later, he could not forgive himself for Maggie.
Maggie visited my father at least once a week, right up until he died.
“He doesn’t get out enough, your dad,” she said to me once. Dad liked to walk almost as much as he liked to paint—miles sometimes—but I knew what she meant. Maggie never married. “Why would I?” she said. “Once you sign that piece of paper you always seem to end up doing their washing.”
The only time I knew Maggie to cry was when Claude went to prison. Forging passports, would you believe. He got five years, reduced to eighteen months for good behavior.
“Why couldn’t he have been a painter, like his dad?” Maggie said. She sniffed and wiped her eyes against her sleeve and we both burst out laughing.
He is standing in front of the display on natural selection, clutching a book I assume must be a guide to the museum but turns out to be a copy of Jacques Littell’s new novel Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Why do I speak to him? Because he is holding a book? Because we are alone in this part of the museum, almost as if we have come here specifically to meet? Because—like the unnamed protagonist of La Jetée—I feel I already knew him, and that not to speak would be like ignoring a friend?
You spoke to him because you thought he was good looking, you will say. I’m not denying that I find him attractive, but if you think I would find it easy to approach someone just because I fancied them then you don’t know me at all.
I read an article about form constants the other day, about the iconography of patterns and shapes hardwired into our brains since Neolithic times, a sort of baseline imaginative fingerprinting that signifies humanity. One of these forms constant is the lattice, or honeycomb, a universal grid of regular intersections, a built-in map that we carry with us from the moment of birth.
If each node on this grid represents a meeting, who can say that such meetings are not preordained? How many opportunities are lost, missed, or sidetracked without our knowing? Our lives as an endless labyrinth of paths-not-taken.
This is one path I do take, at least part of the way. I can’t say why.
I say something to him in French. He smiles, looking embarrassed.
“Je suis Americain,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
Shoulder-length hair and a blue canvas backpack, scuffed trainers. I’m dressed more or less the same but I realize, belatedly, that I will look old to him. This man is still in his twenties, probably. I shouldn’t even be talking to him.
“I was just saying how good it is to see some of the old stuff here. From the original museum.”
“I came here specifically to see this. I’m a Botany student.” He pauses, assessing me. “Do I know you?”
The simplehearted confidence of the American abroad. I shake my head. There is a chance, I suppose, that he recognizes me from the author photo on the dust jacket of one of my books, but I dismiss the idea as ludicrous, a narcissistic fantasy. I am not the kind of writer readers come up to on the street demanding autographs or selfies or even the simple confirmation that I am who I am.
“They say the world’s a village though, right?”
“That’s what they say.” I hope he’ll drop the subject, but he is still staring at me, still trying to place this face that he is sure he recognizes. I smile awkwardly. I am beginning to feel uncomfortably like one of the museum exhibits, on display behind glass, like that pathetic stuffed panda downstairs.
“I do know you.” He snaps his fingers. “You’re Vincent Swann. You wrote the September Queen novels.”
“Well, technically I’m still writing them.” I can feel myself blushing, the color flooding into my cheeks like an injection of ink. I feel as if I have been caught out in an act of deceit, as if I am not Vincent Swann at all, or at least not the Vincent Swann this young man is hoping for.
“Oh, man.” His face lights up. “I love those books. I’ve been reading them since I was a kid.”
He speaks as if this—his being a kid—were a long time ago, ancient history. Is this an attempt to place us on an equal footing, or merely his way of saying oh jeez you must be ancient now? The impossibility of this conversation—of any connection between us beyond the fleetingly casual—is curiously calming. “I’m glad you like them,” I say. “I’m here in Paris doing research, actually.”
I am careful not to say I am researching a September Queen book, even though that would be a lie only in the most literal sense. If I were to tell him more specifically what I am here for he would probably be excited. He would be bound to ask questions, and I don’t want that, not while the material is still mysterious, even to me.
“For real?” He hesitates, and for a moment I feel positive he is going to ask if he can take our photo. Then he steps backward, as if consciously rejecting the impulse. “I hope you don’t think this is weird, but could I buy you a coffee?” he says instead. “If I’m bothering you, just say. I really don’t want this to be weird.”
“No,” I say. “I mean no, it’s not weird. I’d love a coffee, thanks.”
He laughs, and so do I. I like to imagine we are both overcome by the strangeness of the moment, its randomness, as if it has singled us out from the maelstrom of time. I can see this isn’t the case. He is looking embarrassed again, wondering if he’s made a mistake, and what the hell is he supposed to talk to me about? I am using him as a conduit for old memories—Marek, Denny—and feeling terrified in case he suspects even for a second that I am seeing him this way.
The light though is beautiful, and he is beautiful in it, like a greyhound, like a roebuck, and what corny, stock images they are. It comes to me from an odd side-avenue of memory that the bar of my old student union was called The Roebuck, a fact I’ve not thought of in years and maybe decades. I wonder if it’s still there.
We step out of the museum and as the daylight hits our faces I wonder if he might not be a little older than I first imagined. He could be thirty anyway, at a push.
David Peoples and Janet Peoples, who wrote the screenplay for Terry Gilliam’s film Twelve Monkeys, were not fond of hearing their movie referred to as a remake. The credits state that Twelve Monkeys is “inspired by” La Jetée, and in the documentary on the making of Twelve Monkeys, The Hamster Factor, the Peopleses seem eager to confirm that Marker’s film is “a masterpiece,” and therefore unique. They seem a lot less happy to talk about how closely Twelve Monkeys follows its inspiration in terms of its content, but watch the two films back-to-back and you’ll see how this is so. The way Gilliam mirrors the visual imagery is particularly striking: the peculiar goggles worn by both sets of doctors, the museum, the department store with its roof smashed in an almost identical pattern to that of the destroyed roof of the Natural History Museum in La Jetée.
I don’t see anything wrong in this—it’s a magnificent act of homage on Gilliam’s part—so why does no one admit it?
My father hated Twelve Monkeys. He told me the film had been the subject of one of his first ever arguments with my mother.
“I still feel bad about it,” he said. “She thought she’d been so clever, finding this film for me, and I watched half of it and then turned it off. I told her it was a travesty. She tried to make a joke of it, because that was the way she was, always wanting to see the good side of things, but I said that when someone steals a perfect work of art and makes a cheap mockery of it then that’s almost as bad as plagiarism. She laughed and I stormed out. I was an arsehole.”
What my father didn’t tell me was that my mother had written about—or at least obliquely referred to—the argument in her diary. There is a list she wrote—“Ten Guilty Secrets No One Knows About Me.” At number 7 she wrote: “I like Twelve Monkeys much better than La Jetée. I think La Jetée is bleak and pretentious. Twelve Monkeys is really clever and I love the ending. Don’t tell Simon!!!” The “don’t tell Simon” is underlined, several times, the exclamation marks seeming to indicate that the joke is still running.
“Do you still love her?” I asked my father.
“Of course.” He didn’t hesitate, even for a moment. “Jocelyn was the only woman I ever loved. I know she would be angry with me for that—she would have wanted me to stay with Maggie. But your mother was right—I’m a fool.”
I didn’t even see Twelve Monkeys until after Dad died. The first time I watched it I agreed with him—the new film was a bigger, noisier, longer version of the same story but it didn’t really add anything to the original. It gave the action a political background, but so what? La Jetée was magnificent precisely because of its simplicity, because it didn’t rely on extraneous detail and flashy stunt work.
Since coming to Paris I’ve watched Twelve Monkeys three times more and—don’t tell Simon—I’m beginning to see my mother’s point of view. Remember when Cole and Railly are hiding out in the movie theater? Hitchcock’s Vertigo is playing in the background and Cole says something about how the movie doesn’t change because it can’t change, but the film has grown older and so have you. Every time you see it, you notice different things.
It’s not that I admire La Jetée any the less. It’s more an acknowledgement that Twelve Monkeys is doing something different, and doing it well. The film is beautifully scripted, and the way Gilliam balances the screenplay with his own directorial vision—the trail of visual clues, the use of music and intercut film soundtracks—seems proof of not only how clearly he understood Marker’s intentions but of his being daring enough to riff off of Marker, to follow his own instincts, to be a little bit vulgar, even.
And like my mother, I admire the ending. It’s a good ending. An American ending, my father would scoff, and maybe, but why not? What is so vulgar about hope?
One thing no one seems to remark upon in their comparisons is that there is no “jetée” in Twelve Monkeys. There are no public viewing platforms at airports now and there haven’t been for decades—you can’t get anywhere near the airplanes unless you’re booked on a flight. To make his scenario believable, Gilliam had to shoot the scene with the gunman inside the terminal building instead.
As I sit here writing this, I realize the ending of Twelve Monkeys has the same kind of effect as what I’ve been trying to achieve all these years with September Queen.
The amazing things Gilliam does. The pattern of tigers on Cole’s Hawaiian shirt, for instance. I love stuff like that.
We sit down at one of the tables outside one of the cafes in the rue Linné. The sun is shining—a rich autumnal gold that echoes the ambience of the museum. I do not know if this is the cafe where my mother first met my father, because my father didn’t tell me the name of it—perhaps he forgot—just that it was one of the cafes on the road leading down to the Jardin des Plantes.
Even if he had remembered the name, I realize, the cafe would most likely have changed hands by now. I am in the right ballpark, though. Whichever way you look at it, I am less than a hundred meters from where they were sitting.
“I’m Stewart, by the way. Stewart Priddy.”
I find myself blushing again, because I’d not thought to ask, because he is so deeply enmeshed in my memories already that he scarcely needs a name. The Stewart part of it is made for him—tall, straight, fair—the Priddy portion less so, a self-conscious halfway house between pride and prude, hinting at a buttoned-up gentleness, a reticence that maybe belongs to him, after all.
“What brings you to Paris, Stewart?”
He shrugs. “Well, my father just died and he’d been sick for a while, so. There was some money. Not much but enough for me to think I should do something special with it. I’ve always wanted to see Paris, so here I am.”
He puts on a smile, but in that moment he looks so sad—lost—that I find myself wanting to tell him everything: about how my own father, too, is dead, so recently deceased I still catch myself thinking I should call him this evening. About how when I went through his things trying to decide which I should keep and which should go to charity shops I discovered two of my mother’s diaries, one written while she was still in high school and another from the twelve months leading up to the mission. About how I’m still so angry with Dad for not telling me about the diaries that I want him to be alive again just so I can yell at him, so I can tell him he was wrong to hide the diaries, that keeping the diaries from me was selfish, not the act of a father. About how often I’ve run a film in my mind of me saying those exact words—not the act of a father—and then cried afterwards in secret because my father is dead.
Well, you didn’t tell him about your mother’s letter, either, Stewart Priddy might say if he were in the film.
Fuck you, my character yells, and storms off somewhere to brood.
About how it was finding the diaries that finally brought me to write this story. So Stewart and I are both in Paris because of our daddy issues. How Spielberg is that?
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say instead. “It sounds like you were close.”
“I guess. Not so much recently but he was my dad, you know?”
I nod, and if I were writing him I would have him thinking how strange this all was, sitting here with a virtual stranger and rambling on about his dad.
As things stand, I haven’t a clue what he’s thinking.
“Tell me about September Queen,” he says suddenly. He shrugs again, as if forcibly jerking himself from the past into the present. “How did you come to start writing that? I hope you don’t mind.”
I shake my head. “Not at all,” I say. “What I usually say is that I don’t really know where September Queen came from, that I started writing the series because those were the kind of stories I liked to read. That’s true, but if I’m honest I think I created September Queen as a way of talking to my mother. I liked to imagine a world where people could go into space and have adventures and still come home again. Sometimes, anyway. Going into space didn’t have to mean you were gone forever.”
I can feel tears in my eyes. I know the situation is ridiculous but unfortunately that doesn’t prevent it from being real. On the cinema screen I would cover my face with my hands and begin to cry. I don’t do that—not quite—but Stewart Priddy does place his hand—however briefly—on my shoulder. I can feel the warmth of it there, the steady pressure. In another life I would let it stay there, let it be the start of something. In this one I straighten my back and turn towards him, a gesture that dislodges his hand whilst letting him know that he did nothing wrong, that things are all right between us, that I appreciate his gift but understand it would be madness to accept it.
“I’ve never told anyone that,” I say. “I must be getting old.”
“Will you—I don’t know—will you write about it? About her?”
Stewart Priddy looks dazed, as if someone just shone a light in his eyes. I have wormed my way into his memories, I realize I am a part of his time here now, a still photograph of a man seated at a table outside a cafe near the Jardin des Plantes. The man is middle-aged and unremarkable-looking but he is there. He will be there forever, and for me that must be enough.
“I think I might,” I reply. “But it won’t be the kind of book people are expecting.”
I am becoming used to this city, at least at a surface level. I am beginning to see how a life might be lived here. The metro especially has become familiar, a magic portal that transports me effortlessly from one historic vista to another. I think of the two years I spent living in London after I graduated, how at first I did not trust myself not to get lost and so used the tube for even the shortest journeys, only gradually and with the help of my A-Z linking familiar area with familiar area like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle until finally I could walk with confidence and with pleasure from one side of the city to the other across three whole travel zones.
I can see how I could do this with Paris also, given time. Online maps make the process easier. I walk the streets for hours as a virtual ant-man, experiencing a shudder of déjà vu when the following day I make the identical journey as a real person. Only my dreams—intense and disturbing, hard-focused on events that never happened and on people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years—still hint at my sense of dislocation from this world, my desire to return to where I properly belong. My sleep is deep and cleansing—my body seems to insist on shutting down completely—but I still wake each morning with the feeling of being in transit. The days pass quickly, nonetheless. There is always somewhere to go, something to write.
Three days after my first meeting with Stewart Priddy I take the metro to Trocadéro so I can look at the Palais de Chaillot. This is where Marker imagined the survivors of his apocalypse hiding out, and again, there’s this strange WW2 connection, the now infamous photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower with Speer and Breker, perhaps the most potent symbol of the Nazi occupation of Paris. When you step out of the underground and onto the wide, marble piazza that links the two vast wings of the Palais de Chaillot the first thing you notice—because you can’t avoid it—is the Eiffel Tower. The second thing you notice is the long line of people queuing up to have their picture taken at the exact spot where Hitler and his architects were photographed more than a century ago in 1940.
At first I find it macabre, that anyone would choose to stand in his shoes. Then I realize that I am mistaken in my assumption, firstly because many of these young people will not be aware that the photograph exists—some will not know who Hitler was, even—and secondly because this particular photo opportunity never belonged solely to Hitler in the first place. He was simply the latest in a line, a line I see continuing in front of my eyes.
It is where anyone would naturally stand to get a shot of the Eiffel Tower: at the head of the steps, against the balustrade, the tower behind and the whole of Paris spread out like an embroidered carpet beyond. I dislike tourist traps—the incessant attention renders them flat, oddly colorless, postcard-sized—and this place is no exception yet at the same time I cannot deny the power it holds. The tower is huge—much bigger, somehow, than I was expecting—and it is such a strange object, retaining its alien vitality in spite of its fame.
I find myself liking it, not least because it has defied my expectations. Yes, there is something of the meccano set about it, but then I have always loved meccano. My first sketches of the September Queen were built from meccano, more air and sunlight than metal, and this tower is the same. The Palais de Chaillot itself is another matter. It is a horrible building, blockish and stalwart, an attempt at the Classical style with neither the grace nor the refinement that style exemplified. What it reminds me of—ironically—is the vainglorious, megalomaniacal vision of Breker and Speer. Later, I read that the Palais was built in 1937 for the International Exhibition, that the old and beloved Palais de Trocadéro was demolished to make way for it.
A child of its time, then. I read also that Marker’s vision was prescient in more ways than one, that sometime in the 2010s urban explorers took over the network of passages beneath the Palais de Chaillot and created a secret cinema, various sleeping quarters, and several bars. There is a community of these explorers, a kind of brotherhood. The idea is unsettling and at the same time heartening, a reminder that not all of a city’s citizens can be accounted for. I wonder if Marker knew about the underground brotherhood—les cataphiles, as they are called. Knowing Marker and his interest in fringe figures and outsiders, there is a good chance he did. Perhaps La Jetée is an expression of solidarity with them, who knows?
I leave the Trocadéro and head back into the city. Before returning to Les Récollets I fulfil my promise to Maisie and visit the stamp market on the carré Marigny. Maisie is Christina’s daughter. She is nine years old as I write this, and the closest thing to having my own child that I will ever know.
I often wonder how I would have managed without Christina in my life. We met two years before The September Queen was published and not long after Denny and I split up, at a science fiction convention in Nottingham. I was standing in line at the bar—there was a long queue for drinks—and Christina happened to be standing behind me. Because of what happened with Denny I was still in that porous, unstable state that made it easy for me to strike up a conversation when normally I would have stared at the floor or gaped vapidly around the room rather than meet the eyes of the person next to me. Christina was still in a state of high excitement after meeting Annelise Ryan at a book signing.
“Wasn’t her Guest of Honor speech amazing?” she said. She told me later that the only reason she had found the courage to attend the convention was knowing Ryan would be there.
“I liked Hadrian a lot,” I said. “I’ve been planning to go there, actually, check out the locations.”
There was a light in her eyes, a light that said consulting semi-defunct bus timetables and trekking for hours through the sodden Border country was about the most thrilling way she could imagine spending her time. She was wearing faded, vaguely unfashionable jeans and a black T-shirt with some sort of cephalopod stitched across it in purple and gold. We carried our drinks to a corner table and I told her I’d just had a story accepted at Intergalactic. She seemed as excited by the news as I had been myself.
“Are you a writer, too?” I asked.
She shook her head, vehemently. “That would spoil it—I mean it would for me. It’s why I dropped English at school and concentrated on Geography instead. I didn’t want anyone to tell me how I should feel about books, which books I should read, even. I never want to lose that feeling I get. Do you see what I mean?”
I said I did, even though it was something I had never thought about. Christina works for a firm of chartered surveyors. The jobs she enjoys most involve compiling reports of buildings at risk.
“The places I get to see,” she still says to me, often.
We did the Northumberland trip the following summer, staying in grotty bed-and-breakfasts and rooms above grotty pubs we liked pretending were haunted.
Perhaps some of them were.
Maisie’s father doesn’t even know he has a daughter. Maisie is still too young to mind about that, but she will, I know she will. Maybe I’ll be of help to her when that time comes, maybe I won’t. There is every chance she might even blame me, for not insisting Christina should tell him she was pregnant before he flew back to America and to the family he already had there.
So Maisie is half-American, like me. Her new passion is for stamp collecting, a hobby she pursues with a focus and a seriousness that might be disconcerting if it wasn’t so Maisie. I have no idea what sparked her initial interest and neither, she assures me, has Christina. If letters were rare in my mother’s time they are doubly so now. Stamps are still produced and still issued, but solely for the purpose of supplying the collectors’ market. Maisie, in her peculiar wisdom, seems to know this.
“I want old stamps,” she insists. “Like when the Queen was still alive.”
It is still not too difficult to find such things—at car boot sales and in junk shops, caches of old documents, online. Most have little value but this doesn’t seem to bother Maisie, who has already filled two albums as well as a sizeable number of envelopes she refers to as swaps.
She seems unable to articulate as yet exactly what it is about this hobby that so entrances her. Or perhaps she could, but doesn’t want to, perhaps her delight feels too private. When I ask her if any of her classmates collect stamps also she shakes her head and glances quickly away.
What she will talk about, incessantly, is the provenance and individual qualities of individual stamps: the year of issue and relative rarity, the occasion or personage it was issued to commemorate. How she keeps all this stuff in her head is another small miracle. I have no knowledge of philately myself, and before Maisie no interest in learning. I love hearing her talk, this eagle-eyed professor in a girl’s body. I have told her I will try and bring her some stamps from France. I want to keep my promise if I possibly can.
The stamp market is in the carré Marigny. I understand that the market is famous, that it has been going for more than a century. Nonetheless, when I emerge from the metro at Champs Elysée Clemenceau I feel convinced that I’ve come to the wrong place, that there can be no stamp market here. The sudden barrage of tourists and traffic is bewildering. I am swept across the street in a wave of sightseers just as the lights change, with barely time to confirm that I am headed in the right direction, the Avenue de Marigny, a small park on my left as the map suggested. The tourists leave me stranded, streaming off upriver towards the Place de la Concorde. Away from the Technicolor glare of the Champs Elysée the light seems different—limpid, less insistent, tinged with green. And there, lining a narrow graveled cul-de-sac bordering the park is the stamp market: a broken, uneven line of covered stalls and trestle tables, a static carnival, a hushed breath of intimacy in this public place. A phenomenon so out of time it appears sepia-tinted, a postcard of itself. Customers stroll from stall to stall beneath the overhanging trees.
You can see the market for yourself if you go on YouTube. Just search for “Charade stamp market” and you’ll soon find a clip taken from near the end of the 1965 spy caper starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, shot on location at the marché des timbres in the carré Marigny. The market now includes stalls selling pin badges and used phone cards and movie merchandise, but the stamps are what people come for and even in a few brief moments the film does a good job of capturing the market’s ambience. What surprises me most of all is how many customers there are, all these people still interested in stamps, still knowledgeable about them, still swapping stories. They are not all old people either. I imagine some of the younger customers have never stuck a stamp on an actual letter in their lives.
Many of the stamps on sale seem prohibitively expensive. I am made nervous by my inexperience, my inability to tell a bargain from a costly mistake. I linger in front of one stall in particular, my interest caught by a line of shoeboxes filled with old letter envelopes, on sale for a euro each. The stamps on the envelopes are all postmarked—I know already from Maisie that this makes them more valuable. As I shuffle through them I find myself more captivated by the envelopes themselves than by the stamps: crumpled and blotted, many with small rips and other, unidentifiable marks. Some are stained with coffee rings, their faded, brownish arcs bisecting the handwriting beneath.
Addresses in London, Rome, Luanda, outlying districts of Paris that I will never get to see. For a moment I feel a flicker of the fascination Maisie finds in these artifacts, or that I imagine she finds, the sense that all these letters are snippets of history, a physical manifestation of time’s passing. I smooth my fingers over an air letter that was posted in Russia. I cannot read Cyrillic, and so cannot decipher the name of the sender or the address of the recipient. The portrait on the stamp is familiar though: Milena Vasilieva, the Russian cosmonaut who took part in the first manned orbit of Mars in 2033. The mission, which made use of the Hohmann transfer orbit, took just twenty-seven months to complete and kick-started the push for a manned landing on Mars some eight years later.
All six crew members were returned safely to Earth, although two of them—Janson and Field—experienced severe long-term health problems as a result of living in zero gravity for such a long period. Milena Vasilieva was one of two female crew members. My mother’s diary—the one written in the year leading up to the mission—mentions her often.
I feel light-headed and slightly nauseous. I grab the letter and five others—a random selection I don’t even look at until later—together with a packet of mixed stamps labeled “timbres commemoratifs (France).” The combined package costs me twenty-five euros. The following day or the day after I purchase a decorative box from a gift shop in Montmartre and place the stamps inside. I hope Maisie will like the gift. I feel unaccountably relieved to see that the envelope with the Milena Vasilieva stamp does not stand out from the others, that it is just one of several items in the box, no more and no less interesting than the others. I do not imagine that Maisie will focus on it unduly, though I cannot entirely escape the notion that in giving her this stamp I am passing something on to her: an obsession, a preoccupation, a code she will most likely not recognize as such for now but might—could—decipher later.
When this book is published, for example. She will be able to find out where her stamps came from and why I bought them.
If she reads it, that is. A boring book by a boring uncle. Who says she’ll even care?
The thing is, I don’t remember my mother, not at all. I have memories, yes—memories of her image on TV, memories of people talking about her and sounding upset, of Dad endlessly never mentioning her at all—but that’s not the same thing. Up until three months ago, all I had was her letter and what I read in the media.
What I have now, since I found her diaries, are her memories of me.
“It must have been like—I don’t know,” Stewart says. “Even just seeing her handwriting.”
He exhales, as if he has just set down a heavy object and is trying to regain his equilibrium. I can read the words that are flooding his mind so easily it’s as if they’ve been flashed onto a screen above his head: it must have been like she’d come back from the dead. I can read them because I have thought them myself. It’s what we do when the unthinkable happens—reach for the soap opera clichés, because they’re the only way we can process what has occurred.
The words aren’t accurate, actually, although I had to hear them in my own head first before I understood that.
Jocelyn Tooker had never been dead to me because she had never been alive. Not properly, not as someone I could remember as a physical presence. Joss had been an idea—an idea I was supposed to respond to but didn’t know how.
Finding her diaries changed that. Her words made her real.
When Stewart called and asked if I’d have dinner with him I said yes, but only if he let me pay. “Dress up,” I said. I felt like an idiot as soon as I ended the call. What if he misconstrued me? What if he didn’t have anything to wear except a T-shirt and jeans? As it happens I am right—except the jeans are skintight Armanis and the T-shirt is of the kind you see on runway models.
His hair is combed back from his forehead and I see he is wearing a single drop earring, a beautiful gold skull.
“Fancy,” I say, quietly.
He laughs. “Not fancy enough. I was worried they might not let me in here without a tie.”
The restaurant I have chosen for our rendezvous is on a side street near the Opéra, one of those places you read about in the Sunday supplements and ridiculously expensive but why not? I will be leaving Paris in less than a week. I am aware of myself, constructing a memory, but there again, why not?
Later, as we are finishing our main courses, I want to tell Stewart that he is the first person apart from Christina that I have told about my mother’s letter, but that would mean explaining Christina, and I find I don’t want to talk about her, not tonight, not now. Instead I ask him what comes next for him, what he is intending to do when he returns to the States.
“Finish up my Masters, apply for jobs.” He shrugs. “I want to go and work in Alaska, actually, so long as my sister’s OK with that. She and Dad were close and if she’d rather I stuck around for a year I’ll keep on with the gardening work until she’s more settled, but hey, I think she’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. Forestry management. I love it up there.”
Once or twice, our hands touch. When eventually we are outside on the street again I think—I wonder—about kissing him and then think again.
“We’ll be keeping in touch, right?” Stewart says.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I tell him what I really want, which is for him to delete my number from his phone, right now, and then go back to his hotel, that we should resist the temptation to try and stay in contact, that this should be it. “I want you to be—” I stammer, but never finish the sentence, which is pretty corny. “I want to think of you over there in Alaska, reading my books and living your life and sometimes wondering how I am. Does that make sense?”
His face is partially in shadow, and hard to read. After a moment he gets out his phone and I see him scrolling through his contacts. He touches the screen, once, twice.
“Done,” he says.
Does he get it? I can only hope so. I hope he’s not angry, or upset. If he is upset I think—for this moment at least—my heart would break.
We stand there in the street, facing each other in the silent space outside the restaurant. After a moment we kiss after all. Then Stewart Priddy turns and walks away. I watch him cross the road, heading towards the metro. He does not look back.
I think: this is something you do, the same as when you broke up with Denny. It’s as if you can’t allow yourself to believe in the future, as if—
As if what? Having my mother leave me for Mars when I was three made me terrified of commitment?
A convenient fiction, but I know it’s bullshit. The truth is that I am happier alone. I have been for years. I work better that way.
Two days before my return flight to Glasgow, I take the metro back out to Jussieu, walk once more along the rue Linné to the Jardin des Plantes. I do not buy a ticket for the museum—I have seen what is in there. I sit on a bench in the gardens instead, watching the people come and go and wondering if I will ever visit this place again.
After the Indian summer of my first fortnight in the city, the temperature is beginning to fall and for the second time in the last three days I am wearing my puffer jacket. The sun is still bright, though. Last night when I skyped with Christina she told me frost had been forecast.
I am longing to be home. Now that I have finally made the decision to write my mother’s story I am eager to begin the work in earnest: the gathering of information, the research, the interviews, the gradual piecing together of a life. Paris has been—what?—an anteroom, a prelude, a space to draw breath. A test of nerve, even. I have never tried to write in this way before. Am I capable? Let’s see.
My father once said to me that he went to Paris with his heart full of dreams. He expected that trip to be the beginning of his life as an artist, a kind of baptism. I have always imagined my mother’s time in Paris as a joyful time, an inconsequential but happy episode, a celebration with friends before diving back into the business of reality. Her meeting with my father was pure happenstance. It made her time in this city important, but not specifically. If they had happened to meet in New York, or at Euston Station, then nothing about their lives together would have been different.
And yet, in her diaries, there are passages that suggest the opposite. A trip to Notre Dame, where she lit a candle, she said, “for all of us, for the danger we face.” A memory of an historic tree in this very garden, Pinus nigra, planted by Antoine Laurent Jussieu in 1774.
“I feel I want to cling to this tree, to communicate with it somehow, to wrap my arms around its trunk and whisper sorry, sorry, sorry, oh, we are so stupid . . . ”
As if Paris, for Joss, was the culmination of something, the moment that decided her, the end of her life here on Earth. I think of her, like Marker, imagining the ruins of Paris and feeling a woe so raw that she cannot not act. My father, caught in the final, future moments of his own enchantment. How tempting it is, to read our own lives into a film. But then maybe that is what art is for.
I wish I could tell my mother that her tree is still here, that I have rested my hand against its silvery trunk and felt that curious power that all trees have, like a heartbeat but different, the steady, greenish pulse of an alien life force.
I know that Joss was here, that the tree was here also. And that is something, too.
The Bruce Willis character in Twelve Monkeys is a direct analogue of the unnamed protagonist of La Jetée, only he has more agency. He is desperate for his mission to succeed. The man in La Jetée seems not to care about the fate of the world. What he wants, above all, is to return to the past.
It is Saturday, the last Saturday before the clocks go back. There are many people here in the Jardin des Plantes, enjoying what may be the last of the autumn sunshine. Tomorrow it will rain, and I will be filled suddenly and unexpectedly with the ache of leaving. A few moments before I get up to go, a young woman walks past, gazing about herself as if she has lost something, vaguely anxious. The sun shines on her hair, which is wild with curls, held back from her forehead in a floral bandana. A second later a child dashes up to her, a boy in knee-length khaki shorts and a Breton T-shirt. He looks to be about four years old, maybe five. He is skinny as a matchstick, but bursting with health.
“Maman!” he cries. “Maman!”
He slips his hand into hers, the action fluid and casual and molded by certainty. He knows the hand will always be there, he does not have to think. He is chattering excitedly about a tree, a tree that is three hundred years old, or nearly, that it’s just over here and she must come with him to look at it right now.
“Three hundred years?” the woman laughs. “As old as Papa?”
She ruffles his hair with her free hand and lets herself be led towards the historic pine tree. She is smiling, and when she turns momentarily towards me her smile does not fade.
I would like to say that our eyes meet, but they don’t, not really, she is looking across at some other people, two women, perhaps she knows them. She holds her boy by the hand, and in that moment it is as if I am the child, that this is my memory, that it was not my mother who told me about the tree but the other way around. Even though I know I was never here in this place before now, that this moment could never have happened, I feel the warmth of her fingers in mine, hear the words she thinks to herself, soft as a whisper, strong as steel—my son.
To Sylvie Martigny, Jean-Hubert Gailliot, Caroline Boidé Brénaud, Olivier Chaudenson, and everyone at La Maison de la Poesie and Les Récollets for their invaluable help and support throughout my Paris residency in 2017.