1923 was the summer I fell in love with Alexander Montrose. I suppose I could say it was the summer I met my soul mate, but I have little poetry in my soul. That which I do have, however, was spent upon Alex. Nearly sixty years have passed since that summer, and I am an old man and Alex is gone, but here at least is our story, set down for all time.
It must start, briefly, with me arriving in Paris on the first day of June, in that year 1923. Don’t let the overblown beauty of the cherry blossoms fool you; Paris is at her most gorgeous, most lush, and most inviting when in the full of summer.
Or so I had been told. At eighteen I was still a boy, naive and inexperienced, particularly when it came to women. The girls at home dazzled me and tied my tongue, but the boys at home, especially the farmer’s sons—still lithe and slender, tanned and muscled from their work—ah, they had quite a different effect on me. Young as I was, I still knew better when David (not, of course, his real name) and I met in the hayloft, sharing kisses and gropes, a kind of awkward, adolescent tenderness where neither of us quite knew what to do. It was very wicked of us, or so we had been taught, but that had been a summer of unparalleled pleasure.
Less fond are my memories of early that spring, when David's eye was caught by a buxom, brazen young lass, and he threatened to tell everyone of what we’d done together—of what I had done. It was no longer safe for me at home, and so I packed up what little I could call mine in the world, kissed my parents, and set off for Paris to become a tutor in Latin. For that was going to be my new vocation. I was always particularly good at the language, and I had hoped at one time to lend my skills to the Church, despite having no real calling, or even particular belief. It would be more lucrative, and more comfortable to my bruised conscience, to tutor young gentlemen in Paris on the mysteries of intricate grammar. I could teach during the day and pursue my own pleasures at night.
Such pleasures as they were; I and my broken heart had come to prefer my books and, at most, a corner in a quiet café. I did not speak much and had few friends, but that was all right in those first days.
And so that was my life, a modest one, but contented enough. I found a cold-water flat on the Left Bank, as so many others did. I had learned French already, but remained steadfastly British even in bohemian Paris. My work was unchallenging but paid enough, and I could not complain. My personal life was as I wished it to be in those days: quiet, private, dedicated to learning. On Sundays I would take long walks about the city. Paris was wholly open to me, and though I allowed myself only a small part of her, there was contentment enough in my life.
And then came Alex.
In Which I Disgrace Myself
FAR from showing Paris at her best, the weather was dank and drear, with rainstorms breaking up the low-lying thunderclouds. It was an utterly inauspicious, unromantic day, and I was in a similar mood.
We met on the stairway between the first and second floors. I had a tiny room on the second and highest floor. The slope of the roof meant that I couldn’t stand fully upright in half the flat, but it was beautiful and sunny, and I had a view only of the sky and other rooftops. I did not much like other people in those days, and being so far away from the street made me happy. Alex lived just below me.
He had just moved in, I was sure. I would have remembered meeting that golden man before, even in the foul mood I was that day. He was beautiful, but so was everyone in Paris in those days. We must have made a picture together, myself with my black hair all in careful waves, eyes such a dark brown you can’t tell pupil from iris unless you look closely, and skin gone far too pale from staying indoors all day. Alex bore shining red-gold hair and blue eyes. Sun and moon, we were.
“Bonjour!” he chirped, and I nodded back.
“Ehm. Are you… vous êtes le… l’homme d’Angleterre?” he asked hopefully, in broken French.
“An Englishman?” I found myself illogically irritated by his horrible language skills. “Yes.”
“Oh! Oh. I’m Alex. Alexander Montrose. I live just below you, I think.”
“Michael Clifton. Pleased to meet you.” Although, in truth, I wasn’t, and he probably knew it. I was tired, wet from the rain, and in no mood to converse with one of my countrymen.
“Er. Pleased to meet you as well.” Alex visibly wilted, although, bless him, he tried. “Are you free? For a pot of tea just now?”
“No. Good day.” And, in the most impolite way possible, I stomped off. It’s a miracle the man ever spoke to me again.
It had been a pretty dreadful day, but that was no excuse to be a scrub. It took a full night’s sleep to feel properly ashamed, though, and to leave the man a note under his door on my way to work.
Was awful to you yesterday. I quite understand if you want to write me off, but if you would like to join me in a cup of tea at four today, I should much appreciate it. Either way, please accept my apologies.
I came home early that day, the weather not improved one bit, but my mood slightly lightened at least. I heated water for tea and set out the little cakes I’d bought for us with the last of my week’s pay. I had very little money in those days but could still eat well, although real meals had become a bit scarce. One could eat very well on little money, but money was still needed. Even in Paris, dreams were not sufficient.
At exactly five minutes after four, when the tea had brewed to perfection, there was a tentative knock on my door.
“Alex.” I let him in, the both of us probably sporting the same shy smile. Alex certainly was. “Thank you. I was an absolute beast to you yesterday, and I’m so sorry.”
He grinned, and I went light-headed for a moment. I must have been terribly hungry.
“Don’t give it another thought, please. We all have bad days.” He held up a paper packet. “Ah. I bought us some croissants.”
“Then we’ll have a real feast,” I said, very pleased. I’d not had much of a lunch, and no breakfast that day. Best to fill up on anything for dinner, even if it was sweets. The Bastonnets were to pay me the next day, and then I would be able to afford a proper meal. “Please, come in. It’s not much….”
He laughed and sat at the tiny table against one wall. “It’s fine, Michael. Thank you for inviting me.”
I couldn’t think of an answer to that that didn’t involve lots of hemming and hawing and acting like a proper idiot, so I settled for serving us tea and setting our combined little sweets on a plate.
We tried to be gentlemanly, but everything was so good, and, for my part, I was so very hungry that we concentrated solely on not completely wolfing down our little meal for some time.
“How long have you been in France?” Alex finally asked, when we’d satisfied ourselves enough.
“Not very long—just two months or so, really. When did you escape?”
Alex startled, then laughed perhaps too quickly. “Oh. Ah, just a few days ago. I’m a writer,” he explained. “Mostly for newspapers and magazines. And since Paris is the fashionable place, to Paris I came.” And, indeed, so many were pouring into the city in those years. Alex was hardly alone, writing about the romantic city the whole world was in love with. I still, today, think that he wrote about her best of all of them, described her restaurants and streets and little stories as they were, not as others wanted them to be.
“So I hear.” I shrugged. I was never very sociable. “Forgive me, I’m going to be a dreadful source for you. I spend my days working and the rest of the time with my books.” And my paints, but what good was that to mention? I never sold anything and could not paint to the modern tastes.
Alex’s eyes lit up at the mention of books. “Ah, that I can understand….”
“Then you must go to Shakespeare and Company,” I said, forgetting to be shy in my excitement at finally being useful. “It isn’t far from here. And it’s magnificent. And,” I added, remembering the luminaries I’d caught glimpses of, “Sylvia, the owner, she knows everyone. She will surely be able to introduce you to people, give you what you need for writing.”
“Michael, thank you. I can write a story out of anything, but I need something to get me started.” He saluted me with his cup of tea and smiled, very sweetly. “What work do you do?”
“I tutor in Latin, the classics.” I shrugged. “A bit dull, but it’s a living.” I searched desperately for something polite to say. “What have you written for? Would I have read anything of yours?”
“Honestly, I doubt it.” he admitted. “I’ve not sold much, and what I have has been to American newspapers. Here, maybe….” Alex sighed, and looked out the window. “Here, everything is so different.”
He looked very young, then, the summer sunlight coming in and painting his hair with gold as he gazed out of my window onto the city laid out below us.
“It is,” I said, the “Thank God” not actually appended but, I hoped, understood. “I paint, too.” It was an almost guilty admission; I had no talent, and I knew it. What right did I have to pretend I was creative too? But that had been a part of what brought me to this city, and I knew even then that I could not hide things from Alex. Of course, he became an open book to me, so I suppose all was fair in the end.
“Do you?” His eyes lit up, and I think I lost my heart without knowing it. “May I see?”
“Oh! I mean, I’m no good.”
“So? May I see?”
Well, I had got myself into this, so it was up to me to get myself out, so to speak. There was a little stack of paintings against the far wall of my bedroom, the room itself so small that there was hardly space for the bed and wardrobe, let alone a little decoration. I selected one of the canvases (they were all about the same, pretty and uninspiring) and brought it out to Alex.
“Oh. Oh, Michael. Such a lovely little beach.” He examined the scene, one showing low tide, with fishing boats leaning in the sand like old men who have not quite drunk themselves unconscious. “It’s delightful.”
“Well, you’re certainly not an art critic.” I shrugged and took the canvas when he handed it back, but I was careful when I leaned it against the wall. “I paint for my own pleasure, and I am well aware of it. But thank you.”
Alex bowed his head a little and smiled. “You’re very welcome. And pleasure is as good a reason as any.”
He visited with me a little while longer, until the tea was long gone, and we bid each other happy goodbyes that first day. It seems a shame that I didn’t recognize friendship when I saw it. Not until my own stupidity forced me to, anyway.