On the short walk from the Metro I thought, today Paris ought to have been filled with grey fog or rain, as it often is in November. It would be less of an ache for Ned to be leaving. Instead the sun sailed in and out from behind the clouds in the bluest of skies.
My first look at the Gare du Nord station stopped me. The building was unexpectedly pleasing, in the Romanesque style, with huge rounded windows and broad white pillars. Yet the scale was human, so that people in it didn’t appear dwarfed. And now and then the spidery rays of the sun turned it into a shimmering gold palace. The round clock told me I was 10 minutes early.
Inside, the station was crowds, noise and bustle; yet it wasn’t hard to find platform number 10, where the train for Le Havre stood. Porters in blue moved up and down wheeling suitcases and trunks, or stood waiting to help.
I threaded my way through, looking for compartment 54C, noting passengers had already boarded the train. Conversations in a half-dozen tongues besides French and English were in the air, and just about everyone held onto a lighted cigarette. I strode on past people tearfully embracing; past a couple holding up a baby to be kissed, and almost tripped over some men arguing passionately. By now, I had passed more than half of the train. Where was 54C? Peering toward the far end, I saw a familiar flaxen mop. My heart jumped. It was Ned leaning out the window.
When I reached him, we just gazed at each other, smiling a bit. He broke the silence. “Glynne. I’m getting down onto the platform. Stay there.”
And then his arms were around me and he was kissing my cheeks and my eyes. He paused to say, “Now — where’s your chin?” which made us laugh. He brushed his lips over it before I felt his mouth urgently opening mine, his fingers in my hair. I forgot the train standing there, a current of warmth shooting up my body.
When we separated, both breathing heavily as we moved back into the world of trains, passengers, and announcements, we felt close and happy. “Well,” he said, “a moment like — that — it’ll be always be there for me whenever I’m lonely for you . . . and for Paris. But Lord! Glynne — before I forget — I have something for you.” He reached into a burlap bag on his shoulder and handed me two beautifully wrapped packages. “The red paper is for you, the pink is Cathy’s.”
“Oh Ned, you shouldn’t have.” I meant it. “Everything’s been so wild for you these last days — you’re mad, quite mad to have worried about presents. You’ve already given me heaps of books and records — I’ve given you bloody nothing — except that antique tie pin from Marche aux Puces, and . . . you may have even paid for it. Really I. . . .”
His hand covered my mouth. “Darling! Don’t start being ‘quid pro quo’. Presents are fun for the giver, never an obligation — didn’t you know that?”
“I don’t believe in tit for tat, either” I said, liking the way Ned dropped a common Latin idiom into his speech. “But in — ”
“Stop it, Glynne, don’t rob me of the kick I get from getting you a few small nothings.”
“Okay,” I beamed. “Keep right on. But tell me what’s inside. I . . . I can’t tear open these gorgeously wrapped things here.”
Ned slung his bag over his shoulder. “Whoops!” he said. “Dammit! Hold on . . . I’ve got to get back on the train for a sec. I left a suitcase — locked — with some pretty hefty bills in the overhead compartment rack. When I closed out my account with Credit Lyonnais I changed the francs for dollars, then stuffed the whole wad in that case. It’s okay, likely still on the rack . . . I’ll just make sure.” He headed for the steps, turning back to say, “When I left the compartment there were just two women — by now any oddball could be in there, too.” He glanced at his watch. “We’ve got less than 20 minutes before the train leaves.”
A moment later a man in a navy blue uniform blew a whistle and began shouting through a megaphone, in French first, then English. “All passengers must board the train immediately.” He marched the length of the platform repeating the order.
Soon Ned and I were back to our earlier position — me on the platform and Ned on the train. He greeted me at the window with a thumbs-up sign. “It’s still up there. And guess what? Two new passengers have arrived — Englishmen, I think; five of us, all told.” His eyes gleamed, “More than enough for a rubber of bridge, wouldn’t you say?”
I nodded, grinning at him. He was incorrigible. “Low stakes . . . naturally,” he added, and lighting a Gauloise, he inhaled deeply. “Okay, the presents. I found a motherly looking mouse for Cathy. Its eyes — they swivel like this,” — Ned demonstrated, wiggling his eyeballs fast from side to side. “Cathy will know her the instant she sets eyes on her checked apron and floppy chapeau. Guess who she is?”
I began to laugh. “It’s got to be the wise Madame Souris (Mrs. Mouse),” I said. “Cathy will hit the ceiling with joy.”
Ned looked pleased. “As for you — I got you records, not for a change. One is the new long play album of Yves Montand. I listened to a part — It’s something else. . . . Knocked me over. Write and say which songs you like most.”
“Oh Ned, “ I wailed, “We won’t be able to listen to it together.”
“It’s rough.” He gave a weak smile. “C’mon darling, we’ll get through this separation one way or t’other, as you say.” After a pause, he said, “You know what really galls me is why the devil in the nearly five months we’ve known each other we’ve never slept together — I mean never leisurely made love. Why in the hell was that do you suppose?” Ned was rarely confrontational.
“You want an answer?”
“Right. If a fellow appeals to me, I don’t usually leap into bed with him. For the first three months we were getting to know each other — you, me, and Cathy. And we were close. Then a bad thing happened. Remember how we were both looking forward to the Yves Montand concert?”
“Yep, the time I cooked the gala dinner,” he said.
“It promised to be a perfect evening. The coast was clear: your friends were away for once and Cathy was with David and Tamara. That was the morning — the hideous nightmare took place. Theo’s visit. And that’s what killed the possibility of lovemaking that night and longer. But you know all this.”
“I know it . . .but —” he left the sentence hanging.
“Anyway Ned, one thing I never understood was your friends. A couple who came to live in Paris — but always stayed in the house. In Paris — they never went out!”
He smiled apologetically. “They did spend a lot of time making their nest.”
“Gosh!” I said, “All that industry went to making it so uninviting. Think of that mud color on all the walls, ugh! The only birds who’d want to nest there would be cuckoos — they’re lazy and like living in ‘nests’ they don’t have to make. Oh! Good heavens Ned!” I gasped, “Why am I so catty about your friends?”
“Because — perhaps it brings me to something I want to ask you. I sensed you didn’t want me to meet me them often. You never arranged a foursome dinner? Or a movie for us all. Did you feel you’d be compromising me or something like that?”
Ned’s tongue moved to a back tooth, for a few seconds.
“Maybe,” he said laconically.
He wasn’t going to pursue matters. I continued, “The reason you couldn’t stay over at my house . . . sometimes Cathy wanders out into my room and says, ‘Can I snuggle up with you?’ I didn’t want her to see you in my bed.”
“It’s okay. Still it’s a darn shame . . . that . . . we didn’t. Isn’t it?”
“Yes. But after I heard Edith Piaf singing, ‘Rien . . . Je ne regrette rien’ — I regret nothing — in that gravelly voice, that strong, wonderful voice, Ned — the words have become part of my credo. Get on with living because you can’t reshape the past no matter how much you try. Do I sound preachy?”
His reply had little to do with what I’d said. “Glynne, I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss you. Lucky you to be in Paris. You’ll make other friends — you will — it’s your nature, but never give me the brush-off.”
“What a beastly thing to say, Ned. Retract. Say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
He lowered his chin. “Christ, I guess I’m halfway in love with you. And already jealous of the guys you’ll be seeing.” He stopped and bit his lip thoughtfully. “You know it’s incredible, but I don’t have any picture of you. Not one. I’d give all my money up in that suitcase” — he jerked his head back — “okay, half of it,” he said genially, “for just one nice photo to remind me in case I forget.”
“I have none of you, either. Send me one, promise.”
He nodded, then said, “Hey — I’ve got to see a man about a . . . be back in a jiffy.”
In that moment I knew exactly what to do. What gift to give him. I took out my green-backed passport from my purse, then my Salvation Army knife with its neat little scissors. In less than a minute I’d cut out the oblong picture inside my passport. I studied it. For an identity photo it wasn’t at all bad. When he came back, I was excited.
“Here Ned. I’ve got something for you.”
He took the photo, and immediately noticed the passport still in my hand. He looked at the photo, then gasped, “Glynne . . . you haven’t — I mean . . . what the hell have you done?”
“I have. The picture’s for you. It’s more than year old, but it’s the only one I’ve got. It’s quite nice.”
His jaw was open. He snapped it closed and took in some air. “I can’t believe what you did.”
“Oh please, Ned. You’ll spoil the present. It’s only a picture, after all. I can replace it with another. I can explain my way out of it if they fuss. I may go to the embassy and — after all they’re not going to kill me.”
I told him what my sister Sally had said when I had lost my matriculation certificate. “Always remember that whatever stupid thing you do, Glynne, you won’t be the first. Someone has done it already. There’s a standard way to deal with it.”
Ned looked at me glassy-eyed. Then his eyes seemed to twinkle. “Darling, Glynn, in this instance, you know, you just may be the very first.” He was smiling, shaking his head. When the whistle blew for the last time, we both were convulsed with laughter.
With a shudder the train began to move. My jaw aching from laughing, I watched Ned hanging out the window waving while kissing my picture until he disappeared from view.
Glynne Hiller’s work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Travel and Leisure, The Nation, and other publications. This piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir “At Sea in Paris,” was written in the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop.