LIBERTE EGALITE FRATERNITE was split by a drain pipe. The words were carved in granite and the pipe fitted perfectly to separate Liberty from the rest. This was summer however, so the school was closed. A tango Milonga was held in the sports hall every Wednesday night. Bare shouldered women and men in drenched t-shirts congregated in the yard between dances, Enrique Rodriguez and Osvaldo Pugliese rose from the wide-open windows, through Elm branches in the yard, up, and marked the time for everybody in the opposite building – ah yes it’s Wednesday – there also, windows wide open to the night sky. The rest of the week was silent: distant picnickers by the canal, shards of conversation from the street, aeroplanes.
This was Tuesday July the thirteenth, and the following day, there was to be no dancing. It was 7 p.m.
On the first floor, like every floor, two apartments. A: a Chinese family, the parents both secondary school teachers and their son, the butt of all their luxury. He even had reading glasses made of cherry wood from a Scandinavian brand he fell in love with but his bed was a pine bunk above the kitchen table. He slept in his parents’ bedroom for a few hours on Sunday mornings and that counted as a lie in. Then they all went to the market, bought more green things than they could ever get through, and ate steamed dumplings on the way home.
While the son had his lie in, the mother put a bowl of soybeans to soak with a tea towel over them on the windowsill, she cleaned the parquet with dried tea leaves and made herself a pot. Anybody getting their bike from the courtyard got used to walking past that earthenware bowl and the bleach-white cloth. That’s where it lived.
That evening, she had reached the bottom of the second watering of her teapot. Her son was on the laptop watching something online with earphones and her husband watched the TV without earphones. What was left of the tea was the same colour as the pine furniture, the same colour as the cooked beans, the same colour as the edges of her fingernails. She turned her hands around, back, palm, back, palm, examining.
B: a woman in her sixties who liked to think of herself as a concierge since she was always the one who got bothered. People had a package in the communal ‘large mail’ box but didn’t have their key. Could she take their spare key in case they got locked out? Everyone got a glimpse of her kitchen table, the bundles on it, and her crazy-paving lino flooring. She liked her bundles – they made her feel as if her husband still lived there. King of bundles and never sorted them out. She might as well keep it up.
The apartment was always plunged into darkness, but what could she do other than keep her shutters shut on a ground floor apartment. The upper corners greened and gathered shadows, cobwebs. Sour butter and chemical shampoo smells held the whole place together, not just the angles. They stuck around, as did she, there. Opening windows wasn’t an option. They faced the street and that wasn’t ever safe. Never mind. Her eyes weren’t what they were anyway. She played talking books, she played them so loud the kids in the yard had all-day-long crime tales, if they stayed still long enough to catch more than a sentence. Homicides, international smuggling, mafia, crimes of passion.
She was between two tapes that night. One story couldn’t be put on straight after the last. She needed breathing time to let it settle inside her, to mourn the characters she’d miss. She did that and she ate a whole bowl full of peaches and licked her fingers, took off her glasses to cry.
Pinned to the lift door on the first floor were two A5 notices and this is what they said:
La personne qui a déposé les cochons d’Inde dans la cour est priée de les récupérer. Merci.
La jeune demoiselle au piercing nasale du 6e.
Nous avons déjà partagé l’ascenceur, vous dirait de partager un verre?
– Un jeune homme du 2e
Second floor apartment A: the jeune homme du 2e, not yet home. He worked at the Louvre, deep down below the glass pyramid. Often, he was held late and by the time he surfaced, the glass was catching hues of fire, dusk. If he was out at a decent hour, he’d dodge the tourists and take joint photos of couples.
From the Metro, he walked via the petit ceinture and the artists’ studios there. Right where he used to see the odd giant rat a year ago, tonight he saw see a Silkie hen, the poodle variety of chickens, poofed up and quaffed white fluff of poultry and a pin head. It was scared. It ran between a graffiti door and a Ford Fiesta on the other side of the street. Some strangers tried to help it by holding out both hands and approaching slowly. It ran in the opposite direction. Whoever thought such chickens lived hidden away in his street? So he dawdled a while, bemused by life, before deciding he could do nothing to help the strangers or the hen.
2B was empty and had been since a restaurant chef left for a sous-chef position at a French restaurant in Covent Garden, London. The smell of slow-cooked meats and thyme still filled the hall around midday and 8 p.m. every day so it can’t have been just him. Or maybe the walls secrete smells of cassoulet and such at precise belly-rumbling hours: ghosts of hundreds of years of meals in this old building.
3A: here was the building’s token artist. He was soon to be famous; soon, soon, he even had as a mantra to himself at bedtime. He was the street artist known for his paste-up paper people all over the city. His people interacted with real things in the streets – props he called them – any features he found on the walls around. He saw, he planned, he made paste ups, got his wallpaper glue and brush, headed out. Already his urban army included two men carrying a window in the 2e, a woman holding an extractor vent like a book, a man holding tight to a pillar and climbing over the fence to jump over the bridge looking over the Gare du Nord. His people lasted about a month before the elements or someone else got to them: all part of the act. Sometimes he’d walk past one and notice a shard ripped off right through them. People, no better than Metro ads. Then they’d rot from the outer edges and the inner wound. He, himself looked much like the jumping man above the train station, but with a beard.
Tonight he was planning a child for the first time, a girl who would be unconventionally pretty and bouncing from the trampoline shapes of the domes of the Mosque.
3B: a couple, both physicists in their 30s, she Russian and him Spanish, both working at the Sorbonne. Their walls were lined with books and the air was as heavy as papyrus in there. Too many languages struggling for space. English was dominant. His French was imperfect and she just couldn’t stand it. Her Spanish was based on songs, his Russian based on her phone calls home, greetings only and then a mesh he just listened to, like music. English then, held them together and they both had to learn a few things: temples, bellybutton, penis, fried egg.
Often, they squeezed in some friends around an old lab table they could fold away and put under the bed the rest of the time. The more languages the better, then there’d be paella, posted Queen and Manzanilla from home, olives, herring under fur coat salad, along with the offerings from outside – maybe ratatouille, pigs in blankets, Asiago cheese and other ewe products from north Italy, baklava, raw New York cheesecake. On New Year’s Eve they always ate one grape between each gong of the clock. They had started agreeing with each other about one surprising thing: they didn’t have hangovers like this five years ago. The morning after, she loved the leftovers of sloppy beetroot pink herring from her salad and he stood on the 30cm balcony thinking about the year ahead, the countries, the conferences, the countless people he hadn’t met yet and he stared at the scribbles in the sky. He let her have her stinky fur coat salad and watched her eating it with a spoon, life on mute from his side of the window.
Tonight she had made borsch and it reminded him of the year’s passing. She explained her new project and how atoms danced. He said they were more like warriors.
Did you say ‘worrier’ or ‘warrior’, she thought. Did you say ‘enough’ or ‘un oeuf’? I am lost. Help me. Then he took off her t-shirt.
4A: They bought hamsters for the two little ones and kept them without complaining for six months but they reigned in the bathroom and it was just too much. That was the only place they were let out. The mess, oh the mess. By the time they decided that was it, one had an orange spot at the nape of its neck where the mother dropped henna on him. They were called Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard after Michelin Star chefs. The two Alains – girl and boy – were put out near the letterboxes one day last week. Five days they stayed there in their cage, running in the direction of the door every time a human went out, running towards the staircase every time someone came in. The postman took pity on them in the end. They vanished, them and their cage and the little sign saying ‘we are Alain and Alain, we like your home’ after the afternoon post. The mother clutched her handbag strap just in front of her heart and held on tight, just for a few seconds, that day when she came in. Gone.
She was in the middle of telling the kids that she saw who took them. It was the postman. He lived in the suburbs and had a garden. That’s why the guinea pigs chose him. Almost right.
4B: Beautiful, this woman was simply beautiful. Finnish blood and skin that reflected new snow all through the year. Eyes of a child at Christmas, but she glanced downwards if someone addressed her. Ganesh hung on her door and the wood itself smelled foreign. She often had post from abroad and the family on the same floor took care of any packages that arrived in daytime until she came home from work. Always 7.30 p.m. on the dot. Flowers often came, and hand-designed boxes from Berlin. She picked them up with her silver fingers and smiled. Once she made the shape of merci with her lips. That is all.
5A took August, May and Christmas in Guadeloupe. This apartment was their third home as a couple, the downsized one after the adored two rooms in the 5th just down the road from St Michel, where they threw water bombs on the tourists one night, and after the fabulous family home in the 18e which still had a painted-on sky in the kids’ room even when they left. Didn’t have it in them to paint over the sky, not even when the room became an office and a dumping-space.
She controlled his food intake and he was so grateful every time he saw his friends, the ones he went to school with, and his ex-girlfriend’s husbands. Their trouser belts were hidden by bellies, their ankles swollen. He ran the Paris half-marathon every year, maybe not next year. But every day he ran 5k by the canal, up the hill to the Butte and put his feet in the stream there. It froze rarely. Maybe one or two days each January and then he would smash it. This is not how he imagined retirement but it does the job.
Tonight, he was glancing at Le Parisien, scratching the ropey margins with his finger, but really planning his holiday. She was cooking a little memory of holiday – pan fried tuna with bulging roasted cherry tomatoes and rice. She had passed Pierre Herme today though, and just couldn’t help herself. Ready for a little treat after dinner, she had two macarons, just two – both to be shared, sliced with the tomato knife: Velouté Ispahan with yoghurt, rose, litchi and raspberry, and Infiniment Caramel with salted butter caramel. She hoped he’d like her choice. Really, the first one, especially that one, was her taste rather than his. And she couldn’t get rid of a thought. She called these the Macarons Years: treats came in small luxury items like this.
5B A family lived here again, but three children this time. He was often seen with them: one buggy age, one papoose, one trailing behind on foot. He knew all his neighbours, remembered their names and insisted on the custom of kissing cheeks no matter who was late for work or talking on their mobile phones at the time. A plumber, odd job man, he said, business tough right now. But with a smile. His skin, though, had the signs of crystal meth use, sores. He admitted to 4B that his marriage was failing, that he would soon move out. Sad, oh he couldn’t even tell her how sad. He was in love. He just couldn’t live with her. She was the woman of his dreams.
6A was the bathroom of 5A. From the kitchen windows in 6B, tiles like the brick-shaped white of the Metro tiles could sometimes be seen, if the window was open just after a shower. But the wooden grille under the window was rotting and beginning to sag.
6B: from her living room window, down there on the pavement in front of the building she could see chalk art by local kids: doll’s house, octopus, sunshine, snakes and no ladders. She could also see the tops of the trees by the canal and, at night, the moon twice. The moon so large, she would open her windows as wide as they’d go, lie naked on her bed and moon bathe. Every second and a half-ish a weak beam of light crossed the sky, from the rotating light on the top of the Eifel Tower. The swifts would wake her in the morning and slowly, slowly, her day would build back up again in her mind.
She saw that sign. She remembered the guy from the 2e. Her first impression had been – Slytherin scarf. Was that a Slytherin scarf around his neck? And then she opened her door, smiled, put the quinoa to soak.
A year ago, she’d been seeing someone – curly haired, grey-eyed journalist for France Culture with strange work shifts. Designery apartment in the 11e with a shower she just couldn’t get the hang of and always, always ended up flooding the bathroom floor. He loved lunching out, but he had the time – often that was breakfast for him. He liked treating her anyway, showing her that decent Italian really was possible here, Lebanese finger food in streets she didn’t know existed and now can’t find. But he said he just couldn’t any more. He liked his life the way it was, craved his own time. That it was his fault.
On Facebook, she saw he’d had a son with an Asian woman. His ex was Asian. Maybe then… she thought. Had a few distracted nights, then he faded like old newspaper in front of her eyes and she again resumed not thinking about him. But she didn’t want to get involved again.
She had just arrived home. On closing her door, she realised that she had held her breath all the way from entering the code to get into the building, until now. She hadn’t seen him.
The roof of this building hadn’t been re-done since it was built in the 1700s. The time would come, soon, but the syndicat des copropriétaires was avoiding the expense, for now. Rainwater seeped into the sixth floor and left golden stars in the ceiling. It ran down the building, behind and around the drainpipes, connected the roof and the ground in pathways the shape of winter trees.
This building collapsed for no particular reason on July the fourteenth, timed perfectly to the moment an earthquake hit exactly on the other side of the world, off the coast of New Zealand.
In the dust and debris that covered the doll’s house, octopus, sunshine, snakes and no ladders, the marks of those who first ventured near were caught. Chicken footprints which confused most people. Then a human must have passed because he or she scrawled three words in the fallout. They sat there, answering the fractured Liberte Egalite Fraternite in their position, spacing, everything. They said Lux Calme Volupté. It could have been a tango dancer. They arrived as usual that Wednesday but didn’t dance, just shuffled and much as 2A had done in the case of the chicken, went home once they realised they could do nothing.
Nobody survived. Some vanished without even a trace: no limb, no body part, no scrap of hair for DNA, nothing. They might as well have been paper people.
Discussions are underway about the best use for the land: commemorative garden, allotments, apartments made of brick but lots of glass with huge windows looking onto the canal, school, or tax office depending which side the apartment is on. We just don’t know yet.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis