I had just broken up with a woman – the first since F. – and to lighten up a bit I had decided to go on a hike in the country. It was a nice afternoon and despite my unhappiness I took pleasure in the changing views from the train. The concrete flyover. Weed-grown lots. Canal water. Weathered brick and crumbling plaster. Elderberry. Little gardens with plastic furniture and dingy parasols. High-rise flats. Playing fields. The wooded hills beyond glimmering darkly in the sunshine.
A boy came down the aisle counter to the movement of the train. He was about 12 or 13 and had a surly look on his face. Behind him walked a heavy woman whom I took to be his mother. She was looking tired and depressed, and as she passed by me I caught a whiff of chemical soap mingled with the pungent smell of her armpits. For one blessed moment I felt her troubles and forgot my own.
I got off at a place midway between Luzarches and Ecouen. La Plaine de France. Stubbled wheatfields. Pylons. Puddled ruts and open sky.
I was enjoying the light, and the good clean air, but couldn’t fail to notice the telecom tower at Montmorency. It is visible all over the Val d’Oise as is the Eiffel Tower in Paris. F. lives just down the road from this landmark and I have to see it every time I visit the area. I can even see it from my bedroom window in Montmartre.
It has been over a year now, but my yearning for her returned with a fierceness I hadn’t felt for some time.
I could see her with fantastic clarity. Her brown eyes beautiful and transfixing but slightly close together and burning with a kind of feral intentness like those of a chimp. There was great strength in the lines of her face as though it were carved from precious wood, and the slightly olive cast of her skin was beautifully offset by her long, straight, jet-black hair.
I cannot forget how beautiful she looked on the morning after our first night together. She wore a long black dress, her lips painted dark red and her black hair full of static and smelling of tangerine. I cannot forget this bewitching woman who entered my life for a few brief weeks then vanished forever without so much as a cackle by way of goodbye.
The next village I came to was so quiet you’d think its inhabitants had all been turned to stone. The only living thing I saw was a small mongrel dog which cringed and slunk away when I tried to approach him. I wondered if there were women languishing in this place whose empty days were filled with a hunger for sex and love as strong as my own.
Beyond the village was a small airstrip with light aircraft doing circuits and bumps. They would come in low overhead then lift off once again before a grey curtain of cloud, their wings flashing in the sun like tongues of liquid fire.
The Château at Ecouen was clearly visible on the horizon but the dirt road I was on didn’t go in that direction so I took a narrow footpath that appeared to lead there directly. It was very puddled, however, and densely overgrown, and when a bramble lashed my face and drew blood, I realized I had to turn back.
I could reach Ecouen by crossing the open fields, and this I decided to do after resting a while to take in the view. There were no roads nor cars to be seen and, the landscape had a timeless, almost pastoral feel.
The fields were silvered by sunshine and as I gazed out on this pleasant scene a horse and rider came into view, ambling gently across the field at the bottom of the slope. I couldn’t tell the age or sex of the rider, but I wondered to myself if she wasn’t a woman. She and I, however, if indeed she was a she, were not alone in the landscape as my idle fancy would have it. There was obviously a path I couldn’t make out, because a few minutes after the horse and rider had disappeared a cyclist appeared from the other direction.
It was pleasant to dwell a moment in this simple, innocent, and apparently unmotorised world, but presently I rose from my bed of clover and walked down the slope towards the path which I hoped would lead to Ecouen.
I was also hoping the horse and rider might come back the other way, and, as it turned out, I was not out of luck.
Women on horseback often seem domineering on account of their straight-backed posture and their high position in the saddle. But on or off a horse this, for sure, was a woman of character. She was 45 or 50, but very good-looking. Dark, with thick, glossy braids beneath her riding hat. Dark eyes full of warmth and intelligence. Obviously well-bred, and proud of her breeding. When she turned her face in the direction I should go she showed me her splendid hawk-like profile, a strong aquiline nose of striking distinction that gave her the air of a Barbary pirate.
I asked her the way – a pretext of course, I wasn’t lost, – and then we exchanged a few pleasantries. She was easy to talk to, and not at all standoffish, but it is hard to chat up a woman who is mounted on a horse, especially when that horse is skittish. I was self-conscious about the cut on my lip and I’m sorry to say that I ran out of things to say.
But this brief encounter had fired my blood and instead of following her directions I followed her, though with few expectations of catching them up. What I was hoping however was to find the place where her horse was stabled and provoke a second opportunity to strike up a conversation.
The path she had taken emerged from a patch of woodland onto a ridge. There was a splendid view of the château and I felt elated, but there was no sight of the horse or its rider on the lengthy stretch of track ahead of me.
It was at this point that a stirring sight distracted me momentarily in my quest.
Off to my right an A380, – the two-tier behemoth from Airbus, – had just lifted off from Roissy-Charles-De-Gaulle, and, as I stopped in my tracks to watch, it took a long, slow turn towards me then rumbled past overhead, majestic, its enormous bulk gaining height so gradually you almost felt that it wouldn’t stay up.
Coming towards me was a family of gypsies. A gaggle of children first and then the parents and grandparents, their lined faces glowing orange in the early evening light.
I pressed on towards a village on the horizon, and asked the first person I met – a woman in her garden – if she knew of a stable nearby. She thought for a moment then pointed to a leafy street across the way.
I had hoped to find the woman tending her horse in a paddock, but the street led to a redbrick manor house that was covered in ivy. Beyond an imposing gateway was an inner courtyard where horses were stabled. The woman I was pursuing would be somewhere on this property, – I felt quite sure of that – but I was disinclined to trespass and headed back the way I’d come.
I was disappointed, of course, but my delight in the world was unaltered. The light was golden, and there were lovely views in every direction. A few hours earlier F.’s face had loomed before me, superimposed on the landscape as in a Hollywood movie poster, but now, revitalized by my little adventure, I was seeing the world anew. The telecom tower had been in plain sight all the time, but, for the space of several hours, I had completely forgotten its existence.