The Artist of Montmartre

I woke as we landed.  I’d taken a sleeping tablet to avoid a repeat of the last time I made this flight. This time I would arrive refreshed.

Charles de Gaulle Airport, definitely not Brisbane International. People, eyes turned to avoid any unwanted attention, a fusion of languages sounding like the staccato of a machine gun. Fortunately I’d been here before. I knew where to find the RER train station. With my one bag, almost empty, wearing coat and carrying warm gloves I moved with the crowd.

Jane wrote, ‘I’m on the third floor, the lift is small and unreliable…the steps are steep and narrow… don’t bring too much.’

So I’d listened. She’d moved apartments since my last visit.

‘The winter sales are on,’ she’d forewarned me. Paris sales are legendary, hence the empty bags.

The RER took me into central Paris where I changed to the Metro. ‘Get out at Anvers,’ Jane emailed, ‘walk ten minutes up the Rue de Steinkerque to Place Saint Pierre. Look for the three story building with big red double doors, number 6.’

I loved this area, Montmartre, with its two hundred and twenty step climb to Sacre Couer; the artists square, cafes, shopping, the funicular and views across Paris.  It was early morning, the traffic was just gathering momentum and pedestrians were minimal. I breathed in the atmosphere, what you focus on with your mind, you attract into your life. I repeated the words, my mantra since losing Alex.

I stopped at number 6 and entered the code. The lock clicked open and I stepped into a cool, marble tiled tunnel.  Large clay pots dotted the corners, colourful flowers overflowing each one.

I entered the courtyard. A garden bed took centre stage, full to bursting with blue, red, purple flowers, their name unknown to the non gardener, me, but their beauty appreciated none the less.

‘Take the first left,’ she’d said, ‘up the lift to apartment eight, you’ll find the key under the mat.’

It was 10.30am. Jane was working. I sent a text, telling her I’d arrived and all was well.

‘Gr8 dinner out 2nite can’t w8,’ came her reply.

Friends for thirty years, the two Jane’s. She travelled the world with her job; I’d stayed home, family and business taking precedent until now.

I showered. Refreshed, I decided to walk to Montmartre. It was lunchtime, the traffic had intensified, and cars were parked, like only Parisians can, on every kerb and pavement space available.

Paris was my favourite city. Alex and I spent a week in the Hotel du Louvre Paris in 2007; before his heart started to fail. We visited art galleries, palaces, went to the Opera. We followed the crowds on the Da Vinci Code walking tour. We fell in love with Paris and rebuilt our relationship. But was it too late, maybe not. We had a further wonderful three years, added to the previous thirty.

All these thoughts ran unabated through my mind as I wandered along narrow cobblestone streets with high rock walls.  It was September, autumn, the leaves had begun to fall leaving a soft red and yellow carpet over the pavement.

I found a seat at La Boheme, opposite Place Salvador Dali—the Artist’s Square, and ordered coffee and croissants. Alex and I had spent many an afternoon here crowd watching.

Today was no different.  Artists filled the square; some sat, some stood; some had set up under trees, some under colourful umbrellas. These colours mingled with their paintings to create an artists palette.  For the unsuspecting passer-by, a stop to chat or a lingering look at an unfinished work, made them fair game to the artist and would almost certainly result in a purchase.

Sitting at the cafe, I watched, presumably unobserved. Then I saw him, paint brush in hand, under an umbrella, watching me watching the crowd.  I looked away, opened my book and feigned interest in the contents. I glanced up. He was watching still or again, I wasn’t sure. He smiled, such a beautiful smile I couldn’t help myself.  Immediately I regretted my unguarded reaction.

He was gesturing to me to come over, ‘Mademoiselle, si belles, sont assis pendant que je la peinture.’

My French was limited. Not sure what he’d said, I held up my coffee and said ‘attendez’.

He smiled and continued painting, looking my way occasionally.

I took the opportunity to observe him; late 50’s, tall with curly grey hair, fine facial features, tanned and sparkling blue eyes that  enveloped the space between him and where I sat. Not your stereotypical Parisian. His features and clothing, jeans and white shirt, were more familiar. I closed my book, paid the bill and walked towards his corner of the square.

He put up his hand. ‘Stop, pas fini, à une minute.’  He pointed to a chair. Sitting; it occurred to me, he was painting my portrait. ‘Si belle, une telle tristesse dans tes yeux.’

I sat quietly, saying nothing captivated by the moment and his presence.

Finally he motioned for me to have a look. Tentatively I walked to where he stood. A gasp escaped my mouth, no words. I stared in awe at the painting; me, sitting in front of the café. He had exposed my soul and revealed my sadness.

My hands went to my face and I turned to leave, ‘mes excuses, Madame.’

Looking into his beautiful blue eyes, I said, ‘No apology needed, you only painted what you saw.’

‘I knew you weren’t French,’ he said in a beautiful Aussie accent that made me laugh away the impending tears.. .’And such sadness can’t be disguised.’

Maybe not, I thought, but I knew it was time to open my heart to happiness.

I put out my hand, ‘Hi I’m Jane, how much do you want for the painting?’

‘David, David from Maroochydore. It’s priceless,’ he said taking my hand.

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    • Sharon on September 15, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Having sat for a portrait in Montmartre, reading your moment of discovery brought the experience back. There is that “a-ha” where you cannot believe someone who is a stranger can stare into your soul and capture it in pastel. I really was caught up and I love the happy ending.

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