“Oh my god,” said Sarah, staring at the mural. “That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about.”
It was a garish Lautrec-style painting on the side of a house. The woman’s face was devoid of features – a peachy splodge under a black, lacy hat. Her dress, draping the rest of the brickwork as though dressing the house, was the brightest red. It was pulled up around her hips, white bloomers and underskirts everyplace, frills in captured motion. Dodging around the dancer’s feet were spray-paint words in broken English – Live Hard. Sex Long. Dance the Night’s Away.
Sarah was a ball of sparks. She may have commissioned the mural – it was so about her. The danger, the sexy energy. We’d already been to the famous windmill but she’d been disappointed. “It’s like they’re relying on the reputation to bring people over. You’re supposed to know already what’s going on in there, so the outside’s kept conservative. And not French-conservative, either. Icky British conservative.”
“It’s a massive crimson windmill,” I’d countered, to no avail.
At least the mural was a winner: “Get your camera out right now.”
I shined my phone lens in her direction. She bounded over to the house and draped herself across the canvas of its wall, her face in the dancer’s bloomers, her hands reaching up in a star-jump towards the rafters. I took a few snaps. She turned to face me, her tongue out. She bent over, her eyes wide and hungry. I snapped away. She was very good at posing. She lifted her own skirt and echoed the dancer’s pose, French knickers for the world to see.
“Think I’ll keep these for myself,” I said, clicking away.
“These photos are for everyone.” She turned and showed me her arse. “It’s exhibitionism. You want a private show, you can claim it later.” I turned my phone to landscape. “Here.” She reset her skirt and moved over to the text, framed the word SEX with her hands. Snap, snap, snap. She kissed the word, tongued it – I came in close for detail.
“How much?” said an accented voice. Two beanpole boys were watching the display. They were grinning with that look boys get. I ignored them and continued to take pictures but one of them nudged me in the back. “Hey. How much for photos?”
“They’ll be on Instagram later if you want to get off on them,” Sarah called.
“Maybe I’m not on Instagram.”
“Sucks to be you then.” I hissed at him. He nudged me again. I turned to face him. I squared up to him. His body odour was pungent. “You wanna get castrated by an English lesbian?”
“Hey,” said Sarah, running over to get my back. “Watch it.”
I shoved the boy. He stumbled backwards and tripped over his friend’s foot, sprawling in the dirt. He shot to his feet, shame and anger in his face. He brushed dust from his shabby clothes. His friend stuck an arm between us. “Pardon my friend,” he said, in not-as-good English. “He is, how you say, hot headed.”
“Cold blooded, more like.”
“Let us buy you a café. Apologise.”
“No thanks.” Sarah took my arm and hauled me around. We skittered away.
“This isn’t your France!” the first boy shouted from behind. “You remember, yes?”
I was still seething a few streets away. My skin was sweaty and trembling. Sarah put her brakes on and guided me to a stop with a hand on each of my shoulders. “Hey.”
“Hey.” I tried not to meet her eyes.
I resigned to look at her. “I wish we didn’t have to share it sometimes, that’s all.”
“No privacy settings in Paris. And we always draw attention.”
“You always draw attention,” I snapped, regretting it immediately. I’d done my fair share of drawing attention in the trip. We were free spirits in Paris, just like in the movies. We were both beaming outwards.
“You know I wanted those pictures.” She didn’t seem upset with me. “Pictures make it real. Provable. We were actually ‘here’.”
“Sorry.” I felt heat in my cheeks. Sarah gave me a quick peck. I pulled away from her. “I asked you not to do that.”
“Where I can’t do anything about it.”
“Where you choose not to do anything about it. I’m an exhibitionist, remember?” Her eyes had naughty fire.
I pushed my hand in her face. She licked my palm before relenting. She took my hand and dragged me down another side street. It was narrow with painted houses lining each curb. The smell of fresh bread was wafting in from a quintessential bakery. A few twists and turns, a few more streets, and we were good and lost again.
“I know Paris is more of a me thing than a you thing,” she said, stopping to point out some street art – a small mosaic of a space invader from the ancient video game.
“Because I have standards?”
“Because you prefer privacy.” I stopped at the remark. She pulled on my arm as though I was a stubborn carthorse. “No. Come on. Don’t get all huffy.”
“What’s wrong with privacy?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Nothing’s ever really private in Paris, so why bother, right?”
“No. I get it. You know I do.”
“What’s the problem with wanting to keep a tiny morsel of you all to myself?”
She pushed me back into the wall. She pinned me to the brickwork. Her face was close to mine. “Now I know you’re being offended on purpose.”
I nodded. “I am, yes.”
“You know exactly what I mean, don’t you?”
She licked my cheek. She knew I hated it. She let me go.
“Where do you want to cause a rumpus next?” I said, submitting to her mood but wiping my cheek of slime. “Should we find ourselves on the map?”
“Don’t you like being lost? I love being lost. It makes all the rules melt away.” She walked up the centre of the cobbled street as though balancing on a beam. She was swinging the hem of her dress around. She did a spin and it billowed out. It was a dance. It was playful. It was pushing all my buttons. “Lost here. With me. In Paris. Can you hear that?”
“There’s no music.”
“Yeah, there is. Remember The Young Girls of Rochefort?”
“Was that the Umbrella film?”
“Close. You get Jacques Demy points, at least. They blend into one a bit for me, too. The Umbrellas of Rochefort. The Young Girls of Cherbourg.”
“Jump cuts and dancing and in-and-out of love every three seconds. So very reality.” I snorted. “Music doesn’t tend to appear out of thin air on a street.”
“It’s not a real street though, is it?” Sarah began to sing her words. Her voice was a sweet, breathy timbre that I’d never heard before. It was a jolt of mad magic: “How do you know we’re not in a French musical?” She swished her skirt around and danced back towards me. “How do you know we’re not on a set?”
“How do you know a camera isn’t watching?”
“Oh, I know one is.”
“How do you know this is all faaaaakkkke?”
She elongated the last word into a trill and swooshed it into a crescendo, fell silent on the phantom beat. She gave me a look that would’ve made a movie star quiver.
I took the bait. I started singing too. I was ecstatic to see her eyes light up. “I know this isn’t fake,” I sang. “I know this all is true. I know this must be real. Because I’m here with you.”
“I know you must be right,” Sarah sang. “I know things must be fine—”
And then together, harmonising: “When everything we say is yours and miiiiiiine.”
A beat. A look. Another peck on my cheek. Breath panting. Eyes widening. Pupils twinkling. Holding hands.
She waltzed me around and we pattered up the street together, sending the duet into full flow:
“I can’t believe my luck—”
“This really can’t be true—”
“I am here in Paris—”
Together: “And I’m here with yooouuu.”
“There’s magic in the air—”
“No-one around to stare—”
“On this quiet little street—”
Together: “We both will fiiinnnd…our feeeeeeeet.”
The street opened out into a square of cobblestones with houses all around. A fountain in the centre was sending up its sprays to accent the rising and falling of the synced, perceived music as Sarah whirled me around the space. Suddenly, I could dance. I was sure-footed, light as a cloud, years of training downloading into me in an instant. Sarah’s face was full of joy as she moved me in syncopation around and around the square. The music swelled into a billowing, smothering urge. The fountain was spraying its mist – the flying of the jets was accenting us and only us. Sarah let me spin away, and I spun in loops, twirling, until I landed on the edge of the fountain to catch my breath on the beat as the music swelled to a peak of silence…
I was bending backwards towards the water. Sarah was breathing heavily, her face inches away from mine. The inhabitants of fictional Paris held a collective breath.
The orchestra was waiting for our cue.
And the music trickled back in as Sarah pulled me out of my bend and took up the words, slower now, quieter now – a private moment between the two of us: “I know that this is real. I know the way you feel…”
My reply: “I feel like I’m myself. I can be no-one else…”
Together: “And that is all the ‘she’ I want…to…” (The final word seemed to catch in the air between us before it announced itself into the scene) “…beeeeee.”
The imaginary notes signified the departure of the moment.
We straightened ourselves up.
I felt awkward. “Did you plan that?”
“You did. What was it?”
“A musical interlude. A fantastic infection.”
“Our moment of privacy.”
She tried to look innocent. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Besides, it was more Disney than Demy.” She was gazing into the jets of the fountain. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“If you mention La Dolce Vita, I’m going to chloroform you.”
She gave me manga eyes. “Please, Kate. Nobody’s here. Nobody’s watching.”
“You’ll get soaked.”
“I’ll take my dress off. Just a few snaps. For the feed.”
“You’re gonna do it anyway.”
“You can stop me. If you say no, I won’t.”
I sighed. “I’m not going to stop you. But I’m not getting in with you either, so you can get that idea out of your head.”
“Deal. Unzip me, please.”
We added a ton of photographs to the tapestry of moments that make up an externalised life. We never spoke about the musical again.
I still don’t know how she did it.
I’ve never wanted to ask.
David Lawrie is a writer who grew up in Hull and now lives on the coast in Northern Ireland with his wife Gemma. You can find him on Twitter @ConstructGlue.