Emma & Elodie
Ok guys, so here is my first ever piece of creative fiction I'm publishing on Bambi Jane (feel kinda sick right now). I wrote it last week, and it's inspired by Paris, but also by the expectations imposed on us by social media. Give it a cheeky browse if you're looking for something to read on this lazy sunday morning.
Also, for some reason I like the idea of this being posted on a Sunday morning. I think might try to post some fiction at this time every week, to keep me on schedule, what do you think? Anyway, I digress. I hope you enjoy.
Audrey Hepburn was wrong, Emma thought as she found herself faced with another graffiti-splattered dead-end. Paris was not always a good idea.
She’d been trying to find a pharmacy for almost an hour. Well, not just any pharmacy – she’d come across plenty of those, with their neon green crosses flashing at her through the gloom – but one in particular: City Pharma. All the beauty bloggers raved about it, and Emma had seen the pictures – tanned, petite girls in Converse and crop tops lolling on the wall outside, coffee in hand, mouths wide open as if they'd just heard something hilarious.
It should have been easy to find, but Emma’s phone had died, and so she’d just been wandering aimlessly around Saint Germain. She kept finding herself down meandering alleyways with high, shuttered walls on either side and disused water fountains filled with old newspaper. And now it had started to rain.
Emma leaned against a building and sighed. Surely, this wasn't Paris. Maybe it was just another part of tired, sorry London she hadn’t seen yet. On Instagram, Paris was floral and pretty and pastel-coloured. It looked as though it would always smell like Parma violets, and that people would saunter down the streets in oversized sunglasses and heels, smiling through red lips. But the people who shuffled down the alleyway past Emma didn’t look much different to the commuters on the tube – crumpled, irritated and vaguely disappointed.
The drizzle turned into a juddering downpour that soaked Emma in seconds. She hurried down the alley and came across a square, where a dingy-looking café lurked in the corner like a child forgotten by a mother a long time ago. Reluctantly, Emma took shelter under the awning, checking that all of her electricals were still dry.
Phone – check. Backup charger – check. Camera, spare lens, iPad – all check.
When it became clear that the rain wasn’t stopping, she slumped down into a rickety wicker chair. She hadn’t realised how tired she was from all the walking. The waiter appeared beside her, but rather than saying anything, he simply cocked his head to one side and tapped his pen on his notepad.
Emma knew some basic French from school but had thus far been too self-conscious to speak any. When faced with a vacant stare, the words always turned to putty in her mouth. They would sound ridiculous coming from her; and people would only reply in English, anyway.
“Just coffee please,” she told the waiter. He nodded and moved away.
Emma picked through the menu absent-mindedly. She was hungry, having not eaten since a soggy croissant at the hotel that morning.
“Croque Tartine Parisienne…” she read out loud, and her stomach responded with a growl, approving. Layers of egg, cheese, and bread – delicious, but not remotely Instagrammable. She decided against it. Luckily, she still had a macaroon in her pocket from her trip to that fancy bakery earlier.
The day had started well enough. She’d taken the Metro to the Champs Elysées and found the bakery straight away – it was the favourite of all the biggest and best bloggers, after all. She'd been disappointed when she saw the queue snaking out of the door, but she reasoned it would be worth it, and waited.
When she finally reached the till, she ordered a small box of six macaroons and almost dropped her coins all over the marble counter when the cashier, close-cropped and pierced, told her in a monotone; “€45, please”.
Emma had put her coins away and inserted her credit card without saying a word.
She got a pretty enough picture of the macaroons, but when she popped one in her mouth, it disappeared in a mouthful. Emma swore under her breath. €45 for an hour’s wait and a puff of sugary air?
“Delicious macaroons in the city of lights,” she nevertheless typed furiously, before uploading the picture to Instagram.
The Eiffel Tower was her next stop. It was very pretty, and she was about to take a photo when she was elbowed out of the way by a bumbling gaggle of tourists armed with smartphones as swords and enormous puffer jackets as shields. She stumbled backward into a grubby teen with layer upon layer of flashing plastic Eiffel Towers around his neck.
“Sorry…” she mumbled, her hands over her camera.
“You touch, you buy,” the teen barked back at her, holding out a palm. “Six euros.”
Emma had to run to get away from him, and she didn’t stop until she reached a forgotten back alley. And then she remembered City Pharma. Overpriced French makeup – that would make her feel better.
But of course here she was instead, in a nondescript café god-knows-where. One look at the dim lighting, broken tiles and faux-Renaissance prints told her that no blogger had been here in the history of the internet. She sighed into her cooling coffee.
A weekend in Paris – how could she have been so wrong? On Monday, she was going to catch the train down south to her uncle’s farmhouse to spend the summer, before starting her corporate job in September. An ad agency, London, copywriting intern. The idea didn’t thrill her, so she was making a last-ditch attempt at blogging. She knew people could make a real living at it, she’d seen it: the shiny items overflowing from PO boxes, rose gold watches and high-end makeup and events every night. Hence, Paris – if she could just come up with some amazing content, she could make a real go of things.
But maybe she just wasn’t cut out for it.
The rain had evolved from a staccato to a symphony. Through the mist, Emma could make out a woman running across the square in the direction of the café, holding something small over her head in a futile attempt not to get wet. She was approaching so quickly that Emma thought she would come crashing into the table, but instead she landed on the seat next to Emma with impeccable aim. She hissed something in French, which Emma could only guess was a curse.
“Belle météo, non?” she exclaimed to no one in particular, shaking out shoulder-length black hair. Her skin was the colour of unblemished paper.
“Erm, sorry, I don’t…”
The woman smirked as she sat back and lit up a cigarette. “Ah. English.”
“Yes,” Emma replied. She wasn’t particularly in the mood for small talk. She just wanted to wait here, alone, until the rain stopped. Then, she’d head back to her hotel, putting an end to the whole sorry weekend. But the girl seemed perfectly comfortable, one leather-clad arm thrown over the back of her chair. Her eyes were hidden beneath many layers; thick-rimmed glasses and lashings of black eyeliner.
“How do you like Paris?” the girl asked her. Her English accent was near-perfect, apart from the word “Paris” – the last syllable of which she pronounced with a gentle hiss through her front teeth.
Emma thought of her dismal morning. “It’s beautiful,” she said flatly.
“Hmm,” the girl murmured. “Where have you been so far?”
Emma felt herself getting more and more irritated. She didn't feel like lying or justifying herself. The girl was dripping rainwater all over the table. Luckily, her camera and phone were both in her bag at her feet. "The Eiffel Tower. The bakery with all the macaroons," she said eventually.
“Ha!” the girl barked, taking her by surprise. “That is not Paris. That is TripAdvisor. A pretty daydream, nothing more. No wonder you hate it.”
“I don’t hate it…”
"Yes, you do.” The girl smiled, her expression wry. “Paris is beautiful, just not in the way you think.”
Emma shrugged, beginning to feel profoundly uncomfortable. Despite the rain, she wanted to leave. She was about to get up when the girl thrust out her hand.
“Elodie,” she said, so definitely that Emma felt compelled to shake her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Emma.” Elodie leaned back in her chair and lit another cigarette. Emma hadn’t even seen her finish the first.
“Your English is very good,” Emma said.
“Thank you,” Elodie replied in a monotone. “I spend a lot of time around tourists.”
This struck Emma as a strange thing to say - Elodie didn’t seem like the helpful local type.
“The way I see it,” Elodie continued carefully, her eyes never leaving the deserted, rain-pummelled square, “there can only be beauty in the truth of things. The Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées – pretty, yes, but not the truth.”
Elodie had a way of speaking that made each word sound new, lovingly formed. Emma found herself suddenly enraptured, the coffee in her hands long-cold. “And where is that, the truth of things?” she asked.
Elodie paused, sighed. A few too many seconds went by, and Emma thought she wasn’t going to reply. But then she said, quietly, “In accidents. In chance. Things you could never plan for.”
Somewhere in the distance, bells rang out, the sound reaching them over and through the rain. It seemed to trigger something in Elodie, to remind her of something.
“I will write down some suggestions…” she said quickly, scrabbling around in her backpack and leaning far forward out of her chair. As she did so, her glasses slid down the bridge of her nose and onto the pavement with a light crunch.
“Shit,” Elodie swore. She knelt down and fumbled around under the table, spilling the contents of her backpack in the process. Emma tried to help, but Elodie shooed her away, looking embarrassed. Emma ended up staring awkwardly into space.
Elodie seemed to take an awfully long time getting her things together, and when she finally popped back up, her face had changed. Gone was the vulnerable openness, the honesty, and the fluidity of speech, replaced by something hard and tired. But it could just have been the way the glasses sat askew on her face – broken, like they’d been broken many times before.
“Are you ok?” Emma asked.
“Fine,” Elodie snapped, lighting yet another cigarette. She seemed to have forgotten all about writing down a list of suggestions, and Emma didn’t want to remind her. “Rain’s stopping,” was all she said instead. It was. The air smelt metallic, and the wet cobblestones gleamed like the city had been scrubbed clean.
“It was nice to meet you, Emma.” Elodie stood up. Emma thought she was just going to walk away, but after she’d taken a few paces, she turned back and said, “Be careful in Paris, Emma. It may be beautiful, but it’s no daydream.”
Emma didn’t know what else to do but nod, and Elodie disappeared into the new freshness of the day, walking quickly as if she suddenly had somewhere she needed to be.
Emma watched her go, feeling as though she was waking up from anaesthetic. There was something profoundly affecting about Elodie’s presence – being in her company felt like being underwater. After a few moments, she reasoned she should be getting back to the hotel. She’d ask the waiter if there was a way for her to charge her phone. Absent-mindedly, her hand skimmed the bottom of her bag.
It was almost completely empty.
“Fuck,” Emma hissed, bringing it up to her lap to look inside. Her camera, gone. Her phone, gone. Her purse was still there, open, and briefly rifled through, but still containing her wad of receipts and €50. Apart from that, there was only her old notebook and pen.
She pushed her fingers into her temples and leaned back in her chair, trying to settle the nausea bubbling in her stomach. So that’s what Elodie had been doing as she scrabbled around on the floor. How could she have been so stupid? Mugged, literally in broad daylight. There was no point going after Elodie; she’d be long gone by now.
After a moment, she felt her nerves simmer and settle, and she thought back over the events of the last half an hour. Be careful Emma. Paris is beautiful, but no daydream. Those words felt like a kick in the teeth now. But still – for some reason, Emma couldn’t quite bring herself to be angry. She felt thrilled, affected, stirred, the most alive she’d felt all day. It was like a filter had been removed; everything seemed brighter, more urgent, more colourful.
Beauty is in the truth of things, Elodie had told her. How could it be anywhere else?
“Anything to eat?” The waiter had reappeared behind her and was gesturing to the menu on her table. She thought of the note in her purse. Enough for a metro home, and plenty more besides. Fuck it, Emma thought.
“Yes please,” she told the waiter. “I’ll have the Croque Tartine Parisienne.”
His face burst into an open smile. “Excellent choice, mademoiselle,” he beamed as he clapped the menu closed.
Left alone, Emma’s hand instinctively reached for her phone, the neuron firing without her asking it to. She hadn’t realised how fully formed the habit was.
With nothing else to do, she surveyed the square. The rain was nothing more than a sparkling mist now; it settled on everything it touched, a glittering veil. People were beginning to emerge from restaurants, shops, cafes, scuttling like beetles underneath their shiny black shells of umbrellas. In a high house opposite, a warm light glowed in the coming dark, revealing a woman in a nightgown singing into the mirror.
The waiter set down her Croque Tartine Parisienne. She’d had been right – it was ugly, a cacophony of cream and brown, Instagram hell.
She took a giant mouthful, and closed her eyes as the flavours hit her palette; tangy cheese, sweet, honey-edged ham, and the persistent crackle of salt.
“How is it, mademoiselle?” The waiter asked.
She opened her eyes. “C’est délicieux.”
The waiter left with a bow. Emma took one last look at the square, pulled out her notebook, and began to write.