To Pere-Lachaise

(Copyright 1989)

The small sidewalk cafe was still there. After twenty-five years Charlie had worried that progress might have pushed aside this piece of his past. Many of the surrounding buildings that he remembered were gone - long ago replaced with the soulless architecture that was spreading like a virus across Europe. Yet the cafe, despite being crowded on all sides by bland uniformity, had managed to maintain it's Frenchness like the fragile dignity of a faded movie star.

The Parisian winter was almost over, so Charlie sat down at one of the marble-topped tables jumbled on the sidewalk and ordered a black coffee. He could see the gates of the walled cemetery from where he sat, the wrought ironwork blending in with the naked limbs of the trees scattered among the plots. It looked exactly the same as when he last had been here, which did not surprise him; cemeteries are places of serene finality, where change and movement are unwelcome.

He glanced at his watch and saw that it was barely eight. He had risen early that morning, catching the first Metro he could and emerging from the subway before the crowds made movement along the streets difficult. A quarter of a century ago Paris had seemed crowded enough, but now it was difficult to imagine how the millions of people could possibly work, live and love in the present cramped conditions.

The waiter returned with his coffee, and Charlie sipped it slowly, staring at the cemetery gates, and wondering yet again if there were any point to him being here. It all seemed such a long time ago. Rachel would now be forty - forty today, in fact - and he was nearly forty-five. He unconsciously raised his hand to his head and passed it through his sparse hair. The last five years, since Marcel's death, had been particularly hard on him and his eyes mirrored the tiredness he felt in his heart.

It was because of Marcel that he was here now. They had been fossicking in a country antique shop during their last summer together. Marcel had exclaimed with pleasure when she pulled an old vinyl record from beneath a pile of magazines. The record cover showed a solemn group of young men peering out of a hotel window. Marcel had pointed to one of the figures who apparently had overdosed in a bathtub in Paris at the age of twenty-eight. A simple headstone marked his grave in Pere-Lachaise cemetery and Marcel remembered how, as teenagers, she and Rachel had vowed to make a pilgrimage to the grave on their fortieth birthdays.

Charlie looked down the street towards the Metro station, then back to the entrance of Pere-Lachaise. To one side of the gates a faded blue timber door set into the stone wall marked the entrance to the sexton's cottage, while on the other side a chestnut vendor tended his brazier under the winter-bare limbs of a tree. At precisely eight-thirty, the sexton emerged from his door to unlock the heavy gates, pushing them inwards and latching them to concrete bollards set beside the entrance roadway. He shuffled over to the chestnut vendor and exchanged a few words of conversation while he warmed his hands over the glowing coals.

As a nineteen year old architectural student, Charlie had spent a summer in Paris, studying the old buildings and drinking in the atmosphere - and the wine. He had often wandered through Pere-Lachaise, visiting the graves of people such as Moliere, Edith Piaf, Colette, Balzac and Oscar Wilde, and watching the cemetery cats hunting rats among the mausoleums. The winter, he thought, seemed to suit the cemetery better than that summer of long ago. The grey sky - still threatening snow this late in the season - and the skeletal branches of the ash and oak trees planted among the plots provided a more fitting backdrop.

The streets were filling up with people now. Vehicles of all kinds were rumbling down the cobblestone roadway, beginning to form the continual traffic jam that seemed to characterise the city's thoroughfares. Charlie watched the stream of people passing the gates of Pere-Lachaise, becoming worried he might miss her, even if she was coming.

Suddenly, she was there. He recognised her at once, and with aching familiarity he was reminded of the similarity between Rachel and Marcel. At times, the two cousins had seemed more like twin sisters. Rachel paused at the entrance to the cemetery and consulted the map she held in her hand. The sexton, on his way back to the blue doorway with a paper cone full of roasted chestnuts, nodded to her politely.

Charlie drained the last of his coffee, stood up and adjusted the collar of his overcoat. He took out his wallet, withdrew a couple of the colourful French notes, and wedged them under the saucer of his cup. By the time he had pushed his way through the crowds hurrying to work and dashed across the street, weathering a tide of abuse from Parisian drivers, Rachel had disappeared into Pere-Lachaise. He fought down a moment of panic before he caught sight of her in the distance. He walked after her, resisting the urge to call out.

He caught up to her by the time she had reached the grave. The headstone was a simple squared block of stone, devoid of any carved decoration, but covered in painted graffiti. The name of the occupant was neatly engraved in serif text. Rachel stood at the base of the grave, her head slightly bowed, with her hands clutching her handbag in front of her. Charlie walked the final few metres towards her, his shoes crunching on the gravel pathway.

"Hello, Rachel."

If he had thought to surprise her, he was vaguely disappointed. She didn't turn at the sound of his voice, but he did notice a slight movement of her shoulders, as if she had taken a deep breath.

"Hello, Charlie," she said softly.

"Happy Birthday," he said.

She did turn around then, and his heart missed a beat. All the years melted away in an instant; she was exactly as he remembered her.

"I used to look forward to birthdays," she said with a wry smile. "Now I try to forget them."

She brushed back a loose strand of her long auburn hair and cocked her head to look at him. "I didn't know you were a fan," she said, indicating the grave behind her.

"Not really my style of music," he admitted. "Is it what you expected?"

Rachel shrugged. "I didn't really expect anything, I guess. I'm here more for Marcel than myself."

Charlie nodded slowly. "Somehow, I thought you might have come back for her funeral."

After five years, it still hurt Charlie to think about that day in another cemetery half a world away; it had been raining as they lowered Marcel's casket into the rich red soil; crimson rivulets had cascaded into the freshly dug grave.

"I said my good-byes to her in other ways," said Rachel. "She would have understood."

"Yes, she probably would have. She always seemed to understand everything." Charlie closed his eyes, remembering. "She gave me a message for you," he continued. "When she knew she was dying. She said to tell you that she would have done the same thing for you. She said you'd know what it meant."

Rachel's eyes glistened as they filled with tears. She gave a half-laugh.

"Damn her, I told her I'd never cry for her. She would have known that one would make me."

Charlie handed her his handkerchief. She dabbed at her eyes and took a deep breath. He wanted to reach out and fold her into his arms, to hold her as she let her grief run its course. But he knew she had to maintain her show of self control.

"It didn't have to be like that," he said gently. "You could have come back. You could have visited her - you could have visited... us."

Rachel turned away, so that he couldn't see her face. "No, Charlie, I couldn't have come back. If I had, I couldn't have left again."

"Would that have been so bad?"

"Not for Charlie. You would have had both of us." She turned back to him. "No, you wouldn't have had both of us, would you Charlie? You would never do that. Your principles would not have allowed it."

He flinched. They knew how to hurt each other as easily as they knew how to love each other. "You make principles sound like a dirty word."

Rachel shook her head and smiled at him. It was a genuine smile, full of warmth and affection. Her eyes held his and the years of being apart didn't seem to matter anymore. She was here with him now.

"Oh, no Charlie, don't think that of me. It was believing in you that made all these years bearable. You were the only person I knew who I could've trusted to look after her. Marcel needed someone like you so very much."

"And you didn't?"

Rachel didn't answer his question. "Did you love her, Charlie?"

"Yes, I did. I still do. I miss her very much."

"So do I. I've been missing her for twenty years. And you."

It started to snow, then. A couple of small delicate flakes of whiteness drifted down and settled in Rachel's hair. Charlie reached out and brushed them away. Rachel took hold of his hand and held it against her cheek.

"If I had made you chose - Marcel or me - what would you have done?

"I'd have chosen you, of course."

"Liar," she said. But he knew she was pleased.

"Let's get a coffee," Charlie suggested. "I know a nice little place just outside the gates. The waiters are even polite." He paused. "Unless you have something else you have to do?"

Rachel looked down at the grave. "No, this was all I had to do today."

"Are you in Paris by yourself, or... are you with someone?" As soon as he'd said it, he wished he hadn't. He could have let the question remain unspoken and at least enjoyed the morning with her.

"Yes," she replied, and he knew, suddenly, that everything was going to be all right. "I am with someone. I'm with you, Charlie."

To Pere-Lachaise (Poem)