Ghosts of Montmartre

In the heart of Montmartre, it all came flooding back to me the moment I saw the restaurant. It hadn’t changed. Or perhaps, if it had, it was in no more than trivial detail. Le Relais de la Butte, a true staging point halfway up Rue Ravignan, where it opened out, since 1911 upon Place Émile Goudeau. Poulet a l’estragon, chicken breast,pan-fried with tarragon and served in its copper skillet. We ate as though the meal was our last. It was. Conversation was stilted. We thought it was love at the time. It wasn’t and because it wasn’t, I would never again recognise it’s like. In the tiny square, bounded on two of the sides by the restaurant and by the hotel in which we had stayed, love faltered.

The old man, coughing and spluttering periodically on his Gauloise, saw you twirl and my camera flash. Tres jolie he called out. You smiled, and although I could not see it in the dark, I know you blushed. The old man knew it. You looked a million dollars and if I remember nothing else of you any more, I shall never forget that image. Your silk dress, the colour of lobelia, hugging your body, achingly slim and pale. The old man knew it. And this young man, too stupid and gauche, let you slip through his fingers.

In these buildings, Le Bateau-Lavoir,a creaking artists garret, Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein had painted and written. A wooden clatter that echoed along the street, I threw back the shutters, letting in the moonlight. A dog barked. I can remember the sound of your dress as I stood behind you and loosened the clasp. It slid down in a crinoline cascade and I cupped your breasts in my hands as it fell away. You turned to me, shoulders curved into feline submission. Your pale body phosphorescent in the moonlight, shivering, each breath fast and shallow, nipples like thimbles.

Something passed between us that night. Or wrote, like a blunt red wax crayon, through our hopes. A fleeting moment I cannot forget.