I've often thought about writing a short story perhaps about a young woman the narrator finds attractive sitting opposite him in the caf somewhere in the south of France. The narrator speaks no French, and assumes the girl may not speak English. He wants somehow to signal his attraction - or rather to show that she is special. He could go over and hope she speaks some English, but he might not dare speak to a beautiful stranger even if he were in Britain. So he waits, but for what?
He finds out when four attractive girls sit down at the table adjacent to the young woman he had noticed. They were maybe even more attractive than the woman who caught the narrator's attention, and the girl on her own - by virtue of being alone, by virtue of seeing four beautiful girls together - could be feeling especially insecure.
He no longer wants only to admire and comment on the beauty, he also wants to comment on what he perceives is her vulnerability. At that moment, as if feeling especially alone, or desiring to give the impression the aloneness was deliberate, or for some other reason, she takes out a book by D. H. Lawrence. It is his favourite novel by one of his favourite writers. Also, he notices, she is reading it in English. He waits a few minutes. He waits until she is engrossed in her book, but still looks at her occasionally while never looking at the group of four girls. He then takes out his own book. It is not Lawrence, but it is a book in English, and a book he feels the young woman reading Lawrence may also have read.
He does not know whether she has noticed the book he is reading; he doesn't even know if she has noticed him. After around an hour she puts her book in her bag, calls the waiter over and pays for her coffee. The narrator continues sitting in the caf for a while after she has gone, and looks at the four attractive young women sitting talking and wonders why he cannot project the same interest upon them. They lack a certain capacity for intimacy, he believes, but doesn't know whether that is simply his feeling, or anything resembling a fact.
He returns to the caf the following day around the same time, but the solitary young woman does not appear. He waits, and finally after an hour, after glancing around every few minutes, he manages to concentrate on the book. During the second hour, the four beautiful girls arrive, but they do not distract him. It isn't until he finishes reading that he takes a moment to observe them, and he thinks of his belief the previous day that he couldn't see in them the beauty he saw in the reader of the Lawrence book. He looks from one face to the next, and notices that they are almost indistinguishable. They are all blonde, with honey-coloured skin and eyes that are blue, green hazel and brown, yet somehow such is their demeanour, such is their expression, that it is as though any distinctiveness is lost in a general, indiscriminate beauty.
He goes again the next day, again in the early afternoon, and this time the young woman from the first day has returned. She has almost finished the Lawrence book, and as he sits down and starts the novel he had been reading on the previous two days, he notices this time that he and she are seated close enough to each other for her merely to look up to notice the book in which he is engaged. He will be in the town for a further three days, but knows that if he were to talk to the young woman, if he were to go out for dinner with her, and perhaps sleep with her, he would happily forego the ticket he has for Paris. After an hour she gets up to leave, and he assumes she has finished the book.
The following day she is at the caf again, and she is now reading a book by another British author whose work he knows well. He wonders whether she might have bought it in the second-hand English language bookshop he had passed a couple of days earlier, and which in this maze of a city he hasn't been able to find since.
This time it is he who leaves the caf first, having finished the book at last, and goes through the streets looking for the bookshop, wondering if he might find a copy of the book the young woman had just been reading.
He eventually finds the bookshop and browses through the shelves, and yes there are several copies of this particular book; he purchases the one that while not in the best condition had the nicest cover: a painting he had always liked.
He goes back in the direction of the caf and as he approaches he notices the young woman is no longer there.
He nevertheless sits down and starts reading the novel; after about thirty minutes the beautiful girls arrive. Only this time there are only three of them. All he can remember is that they each have slightly different coloured eyes, and notices that it is the green eyed one that is missing. Where before the girls had all seemed frivolous, on this occasion they appear grave, and he notices they are more conservatively dressed than on the other days. Though he knows almost no French, he however comprehends word like death and suicide. Has the green-eyed one killed herself, he wonders, or perhaps a member of her family has died?
The three women all order not their usual coke or orange juice, but a coffee, and finish it more quickly than they usually would their soft drinks. As they leave they go off not in the same direction as previously, but separate ones.
The following day is his second last in the town - he is to get the train early the next morning. He once again goes to the caf in the early afternoon, and once again sees the young woman engrossed in the book that he is also now reading.
As she looks up at one moment and gazes in his direction, where he is sitting only three tables away from her - she seems to notice the book he is reading, and he is sure he sees a smile forming at the edge of her mouth, but nothing so certain that he can differentiate it from a possible smirk.
He finds even the briefest of acknowledgement is enough, though, to generate a feeling of excitement and potential in his body. Yet he also remembers that yesterday he felt a surprising sadness wondering what had happened to the fourth girl in the group, and that this feeling returns when he thinks about it.
Around half an hour after catching the young woman's attention he looks up again and sees that she has obviously finished the book she was reading and starts playing with her mobile phone, A few minutes later he watches as a man around her own age comes towards her and kissed her not on the cheek, but on the neck as he sits down next to her.
For a moment he had believed she belonged to him, but almost as quickly acknowledges that he had only fooled himself; or rather fooled would be the wrong word. He had created no more than the space for thinking imaginatively about someone with the hope that she might also be imaginatively thinking of him. Perhaps she had; perhaps... but probably not.
However at the same time so light is the feeling of betrayal, so superficial the sense of foolishness, that he becomes aware of a deeper sense of wellbeing in his body than he cannot readily justify. It is this well-being that is unusually exacerbated some twenty minutes later after the young woman and her boyfriend leave the caf.
He sees the four girls taking a seat and talking once again as though nothing apparently serious had taken place the day before when the green-eyed girl was missing. He feels reassured, as though he is less a stranger passing some days in a small southern French town, than a benign revenant passing through it. His awareness of various locals, of their all but indifference towards him, makes our narrator feel not at all insignificant, but at the same time hardly implicated.
After sleeping extremely well that night he wakes early and is at the station with enough time to take a coffee and a croissant. As he observes the various passengers, many of whom are waiting to take presumably the same train, he sees the green-eyed girl with a ruck-sack, waiting on the station platform, perhaps taking the same train to Paris as himself. He notices, as she embarks a little ahead of him, that she has in the net pocket at the side of the bag a copy of a book that he had read some years ago. It is by an American writer, but her copy is in French.
He doesn't know if he will try and talk to her, but perhaps he might; perhaps he may not be able to because she speaks no English. Maybe he will wonder if he can nevertheless, with the aid of contingency, make it clear that they have something in common, though perhaps finally they do not. This would be the start of the story, yet in some way maybe it is already finished.
© Tony McKibbin