There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
(W. Shakespeare. Hamlet I. V.)
It was almost like a dream, yet so real and crystal clear that every little nuance is etched in my memory, preserved with such fine details, almost as if it was recorded on videotape. I only wish I could play it back as such… project it onto a screen in full colour with sound, like a movie…
The telephone rang just as I entered my hotel room. I was tired after a full day of lectures and seminars at the convention and disinclined to pick up the phone, but at the same time I could not ignore it. I thought the call must be from home, as I was not expecting any calls from anyone else.
Reluctantly I picked up the receiver. The voice on the telephone was instantly recognisable, although I hadn’t heard it for a couple of years at least. It was unmistakably the voice of Angela, a second cousin on my mother’s side.
- Hello, you blockhead. Surprised? I heard through the grapevine that you are in Paris. Do you want to meet me?
My chin dropped. This was more than a surprise. Last I had heard from her a couple of years earlier she was living in Siena in Tuscany with her Italian boyfriend. What the hell was she doing in Paris, how did she know that I was in Paris and where to find me?
- Are you still there? Helloooo? I spoke to your wife about an hour ago and she gave me your phone number. You lost your tongue?
Typical of her, I thought, as I wondered if she was reading my mind. She never referred to my wife by name. And my wife hardly ever called her other than “your mad cousin”; being convinced that I had an affair with Angela just before we married and very possibly since. There never was anything else but resentment between these two.
Angela was a stunning natural beauty, with blazing red hair, a will-o’-the-wisp character, an infectious laugh, crisp and incisive intellect, a twisted sense of humour and a big heart. I loved her very much, but we were never lovers. As kids and young adults we were very close and never stopped teasing each other. The teasing was always in good humour, intimately personal, with hidden innuendoes, which – I suppose - could have been easily misinterpreted by an “outsider”.
What was she doing in Paris now?… Within the next ten minutes or so – whilst sitting at the edge of the bed, listening to her chatter on the phone - I found out that she broke up the relationship with the “Mafioso” – as she referred to her ex-lover – about a year earlier, moved to Paris and worked in the research library at the Sorbonne. She now lived on her own and was not very happy living in Paris. However tired I felt I simply could not refuse to meet her. At the same time I could not help wondering why my wife would volunteer the information that I was in Paris and why did she give her my telephone number when she never trusted her. Was this some kind of test of fidelity, or were there some more unfathomable reasons why she disclosed my whereabouts?
Paris can be a lonely place in late November… Angela felt lonesome and I felt genuinely sorry for her. We agreed to meet at quarter to eight that night in the Ile de la Citė, on the Pont Neuf where it overlooks the Square du Vert-Galant and the moorings for the Vedettes de Paris below the bridge. Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris, right in the heart of the City. I had forty-five minutes to get there from my hotel, a small hotel near the Porte Maillot; a relatively straight journey by the Metro right to the Pont Neuf Metro station at la Samaritaine, with only one change at the Palais Royal. I was there in less that half an hour, with some time to spare. From the Samaritaine I crossed over the road and walked slowly towards the Ile de la Citė on the right hand side of the bridge. This bridge is built entirely from natural stones and along the sidewalks on either side of the bridge there are half-round bays, like balconies overhanging the water below. The view from the bridge, over the river, is indescribably beautiful at any time of the year, day or night. It is probably the best panoramic view within the City, with the Muse du Louvre on the right bank of the river and the Tour Eiffel in the distance on the left.
There was a brief light drizzle earlier as I left the hotel and the pavement was still wet, reflecting the streetlights and the headlights of the passing cars. The City’s illumination was magnificent as ever; Paris sparkled in the early night and the shimmering reflections on the wet pavement and on the stone parapet of the bridge added a touch of magic to the panoramic view. It is easy to fall in love with Paris… it is easy to fall in love in Paris… if you meet the right person that is – I mused as I walked towards our place of Rendez-vous.
As I had time to spare, I had time to think and I was rekindling old memories of our childhood and youth, when the two of us spent many carefree and mischievous hours together in Budapest. She was such a marvellous companion in those days; I simply loved being with her. How come I never fell in love with her – the thought came to me like a sudden shock of recognition of a missed opportunity – she was an irresistibly pretty and vivacious girl, we were always very close, always very open with each other and after all she was a second cousin once removed. We were not direct blood relations; we could have been lovers without the slightest feeling of guilt. Could a lonely evening spent together in the City of Lovers suddenly change everything?
I shook my head, trying to chase away the thoughts, but they kept returning, as my mind conjured up the image of her face from my memory cells. Maybe the image I recalled seemed more beautiful than she was in reality. An old memory recalled in a lonely romantic moment of an evening, in a magical city like Paris, is almost like a seductive mirage that is hard to resist.
- “I am a married man with a family, I did not come to Paris to fall in love with my cousin” – I kept repeating it inside my head hoping to chase away all temptations. But by the time I reached the place on the bridge we were to meet, I realised that my warm anticipation of seeing her again, after so many years, had an undercurrent of unexpected desires.
The late autumn air had a definite chill, yet I felt warm with keen anticipation of meeting Angela.
I could hardly wait to see her again.
The appointed time passed, she had not arrived. I thought nothing of it at first; it was not out of character for her to be late. She was – after all – a will-o’-the-wisp. Back in our youth it was this intangible, free spirit, almost elf-like like character that both attracted me to her and frightened me away from a more romantic relationship. To be frank I was afraid of rejection, I was afraid that she would break my heart. As the minutes ticked away, my apprehension of her not turning up started to grow stronger. Then nearly an hour went by and I felt let down and deflated. It started drizzling again and my previous warm anticipation turned into irritation. She had let me down before in the dim and distant past, but when I talked to her on the phone I never thought that she would leave me hanging in thin air. I was angry with myself for agreeing to meet her and even more angry for forgetting to ask for her address and telephone number. I felt deeply disappointed, irate and empty. The drizzle got heavier with a brisk breeze blowing from the river and the bridge started to look deserted.
I was about to turn to walk back to the Metro, when I noticed a solitary female walking towards me from the direction of the right bank. I had been expecting Angela to arrive from the opposite direction, from the left bank; she told me on the phone that she would be coming straight from work. The Sorbonne is in the Latin Quarter on the left bank… could she have gone home first before meeting me?
But the young woman approaching did not bear any resemblance to Angela. Even from the distance she looked far too demure as she walked towards me, with a slightly swaying, graceful motion, giving the impression as if she was almost gliding on a thin cushion of air. She looked somewhat out of place and out of time, the way she was dressed and walked with an elegance reflecting a long past century. She had a long dark cape over, what seemed to be, a full length white, full-bodied, laced ballroom dress. Her dark auburn hair was carefully coiffured in curls, waves and locks, crowning and framing a very beautiful oval shaped, pale face. Her eyes were dark, large, bright and alert and her whole demeanour radiated an indefinable air of genuine refinement and distinction. She looked breathtakingly beautiful, just like a vision out of the past.
I was standing very near to one of the half round bays, with both of my hands resting on the cold stone parapet, facing towards the river and watching her approach, with slightly turned head and from the corner of my eyes. I thought that she was making her way to some fashionable gathering, perhaps a fancy dress ball and would pass behind me on her way. I also thought it somewhat odd that she was walking to her destination in the drizzle, but this was Paris after all… To my utter surprise she stopped right by my side, turned towards the river and stood so near to me that we almost touched. She than placed both of her hands on the stone parapet and the little finger of her left hand touched the little finger of my right hand. I felt the warmth of her flesh and the pulse of her blood and was surprised that in the chill of the evening and on the cold stone how warm her touch felt. That touch sent pleasant shivers up and down my spine. I was nonplussed and felt hot and cold all at the same time. Her face looked vaguely familiar, but I felt that I did not really know her. She was definitely not Angela. I hardly dared to look at her and did not now how to react. As I finally turned my face towards her, she looked me in the eye, leaned over, gently kissed me on the right cheek and whispered in a hardly audible whisper: “Je t’aime”.
At that moment I heard a loud bang from my left, which sounded like two cars colliding right behind us and without moving my hand away from hers, I turned to look to see what happened. The bridge was deserted, not a car or anything else in sight.
I still felt the touch of her finger. Feeling puzzled about the disrupting noise that made me turn, I turned back towards her.
She was gone. Vanished, disappeared in thin air… yet I still felt the touch of her finger on mine. I looked down at my hand… right next to my little finger, touching my skin, was a single white camellia… I felt absolutely perplexed… I reached out to pick up the flower, when a sudden playful breeze blew it off the parapet, into the darkly flowing river below… I stood there stunned and confused for minutes… I was trying to make some sense out of the events, but I couldn’t.
I walked back to the Metro and returned to the hotel, churning the events over and over in my mind, all the way back to the hotel. Nothing made any sense at all. It was just after half past nine when I entered the hotel room. I decided to phone home. Being an hour behind Paris time, in London the evening was still young. I knew my call would not wake my wife. She picked up the receiver after the second ring.
- “Hi Love, how are things at home?”
- “What do you care?” – was her response.
- “What do you mean, what do I care? Of course I care, that’s why I am calling.”
- “Sure” – there was a touch of scolding and annoyance in her voice as she responded – “If you really cared you would have phoned earlier. You were probably out having a fling with a French tart.”
Now it was my turn to get annoyed.
- “A French tart?” - I raised my voice – “Thanks to you giving my phone number away, I just spent an hour out in the cold rain waiting for Angela.”
- “Angela who?”
“Come on… Don’t play dumb games with me, she told me you gave her my phone number.”
“Angela who?” – she repeated – “I spoke to no Angela or anyone else and I certainly did not give your telephone number to any one and if by Angela you mean your mad cousin, she would be the last person in this world I’d give your phone number to. You know damned well I would never trust the two of you together and especially not in Paris. I’d like to know why are you making up stupid stories. What have you got to hide?”
She sounded sincerely annoyed with me and in a fighting mood. Now was not the time to make things worse, but rather to shut up, so I tried to pacify her and after a brief conversation about the kids I said goodbye, put the receiver down and went to bed. I did not sleep well that night, kept waking up, trying to figure out what really happened that evening. When I went home after the convention, I tried to tell the full story to my wife. She did not want to listen; she would not want to believe me. She was convinced that I had a fling in Paris and fabricated the whole story. I could not blame her; in the cold daylight my account must have sounded phoney.
To me, looking back on it, the entire chain of events was almost like a dream, only more dream-like, yet so real and crystal clear that every little nuance is still vividly etched in my memory. I tried to locate Angela; I got nowhere. My wife swore she never spoke to her, certainly not in the last few years. It was a couple of years later that I found out from a mutual friend what had happened to her.
She did break up with the Italian boyfriend, moved to Paris and worked at the Sorbonne.
But she was desperately unhappy and after a long exchange of letters with her old flame, one fine day she decided to give up her job, pack her bag and move back to the Italian. She hired a car, crammed all her belongings into the car, left Paris and was driving back through the Alps.
On the 18th of November 1970 around 7 o’clock in the evening – just about the time I was having a conversation with her on the telephone (and in 1970 cell-phones were not in public use yet) – on a steep mountain road somewhere in Italy she lost control of the car, hit the barrier and rolled down into a ravine, the car landing upside down in a river. She died instantly. She is laid to her final rest somewhere in a village cemetery in a low Alpine valley in Italy.
I could not afford the luxury of shedding tears for her openly. Not knowing the exact location, I could never visit her grave either. Whenever I am in Paris I visit the grave of the Lady of the Camellias in the Cemetery of Montmartre and place a single white camellia on her gravestone. There in the quiet solitude I can let go and shed a few tears for both of them. I am an old man now, but the memory of the events of that evening is as vivid as ever.
I consider myself to be a rational man, I don’t believe in ghosts. Whatever happened, the whole experience, after so many years feels like as if it happened in a dream… and it seems entirely possible now that the dreamer of that dream too, was somebody in someone else’s dream…
© P. J. Oszmann (2003) (Based on a sketch written in Hungarian in 1971.) Revised (2005)
©Illustration: Photo-composite Created in Photoshop from: Detail from a portrait of La Dame aux Camelias, B/W photo of the Pont Neuf by Night by Brassai and a digital photo of a pink Camellia.(2005)