It’s Maria. I’m sure of it, even from a distance. A chance in a billion that she and I would be on Rue Montorgueil at the same moment, twenty years since Corsica.
Maria had spoken about Paris a lot during that blissful week in an otherwise long forgotten June. She talked about how she would one day become an artist and live in an upstairs room with white walls and sunlight pouring through tall, arching windows. Now here she is.
The human tide of tourists and street markets bustle between us as she heads south with a purposeful stride. I have only seconds to decide whether to follow.
Images race through my mind – a series of half-remembered conversations and moments. Some still have clarity: the fragments of neon from the bars in L’lle Rouse forming galaxies in red, white and gold across the ocean as we sat on a jetty, our feet dangling into the water; or the time we made love in her hotel room, the moonlight peeping through the vents in the shutters and bathing our bodies in a strange half-light like a black and white film; the silent burden of finality that shackled every bit of joy her company brought me. I remember the sadness above all, as I tried to convince myself that returning to our lives – mine in Britain and hers on Sardinia – didn’t mean an end; that somehow our young, naïve love could still flourish. I missed her for quite some time afterwards. We wrote letters and sent poems, but as the months drifted by they became infrequent, then eventually arrived no more.
I follow, matching her pace through the jostling bodies as I side-step men holding liquor and women laden with shopping bags. I keep her in view as I consider the wisdom of inviting a spirit of the past into the present. Eventually, she stops to sit on a bench overlooking The Seine. I stop too, to catch my breath and collect my thoughts, stood only yards away from her.
Twenty years, but in some ways it seems like entire lifetimes have passed since we were together. Seven thousand midnights would have cast lights across that water since we gazed upon it; hundreds of other young lovers would have sat beneath those same stars, all feeling like they were the first to do so; so many nights would that hotel room have seen, and every human drama would have played out within its walls, from the first seeds of forever to goodbyes and broken hearts. Undoubtedly, Corsica has continued without us, but we have continued on without it too.
For all the romance of youth, I feel so much more disconnected from those times; not older than I was – even though I obviously am – but just so very, very different. I’m comfortable with the life I’ve built and how I’ve come of age, my marriage and the children it has produced. The years don’t make me long for an imagined past, I don’t yearn to re-live long insouciant days or even wish that I could make love to Maria again. No, it is something both more and less than that. What I have often imagined is such: that there would come a time in the future when I would go out walking, as I have done today, and out of nowhere I would see her face in a crowd from a distance and that she’d recognise me. We wouldn’t need to say a word, we’d just smile to each other, a smile that would say: the memory I hold, you hold it too, and it’s something that only we’ll have, no matter how much time may fade it. And if she didn’t notice me, if she was too far away, or if she was wrapped in the arms of another, too busy laughing to turn around and see me – if I could see she was alive and she was happy, then that would be enough.
That would be enough.
But now here I am. And here she is. And my noble ideas are collapsing around me.
I step forward and try to summon a courage somewhere from within. “Maria?” I say, in a voice that doesn’t feel like my own, and she looks up. I see the image of her as I remember from Corsica: frozen in youthful eternity, unburdened by the decades. But of course youth is what I see, as before me is a woman of no more than twenty-five. A remarkable double for a long lost girl, but only someone like her; not her.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I thought you were someone else.”
I turn back and walk away, re-tracing my steps back through the busy streets. Still, she may be here somewhere in this city, if she followed her heart and her dreams. But whether she’s alive, whether she’s happy, it is not my place to know anymore.
And that will never quite be enough.
Neil James is from Stoke-on-Trent, England and pens a regular column for The Oatcake football fanzine. He is a former winner of ITV’s Shoot The Writers, but recently swapped comedy scripts for short stories. He can be found on Twitter.