By Tamzin Mitchell
We walked through the park twice a week, when Mama was out shopping and Papa’s friend Sabine visited. Papa would mutter something about my needing fresh air, and shove me out the door with my older sister. He was serious about it, too; he locked the door behind us and wouldn’t let us back in for an hour and a half, until Mama got back from the marché. My sister started taking me to the park, so that I could get fresh air and she could smoke a cigarette.
Saturday began much the same as any other. At precisely 2:20, ten minutes after Mama left, Papa coughed loudly. “Thérèse,” he said, smoothing his tie as he addressed my sister, “Claire could use some exercise. Why don’t the two of you take a walk?”
Thérèse, who was already wearing her jacket, sighed. “Oui, Papa,” she said. “Claire, let’s go.” She tugged me toward the door, and I was still struggling with the button on my sweater when we heard the click of the lock behind us.
“Thérèse, I forgot my hat,” I said, turning to ring the bell.
“Tant pis,” she said, grabbing my outstretched hand. “Come on already.”
I skipped along, pretending that I had high heels like Sabine’s, as Thérèse walked behind me down the street. She was always in a bad mood at the start of our walk, probably because she had to bring me along. She was in her last year of lycée, and one afternoon in September Papa had shooed us out the door with instructions that she should make herself useful and take me for a walk. Confused, Thérèse had taken me down to the nearest patisserie, where she bought weak tea in amber-stained ceramic cups. I had marched the sugar cubes along the rim of my saucer while Thérèse tore idly at a croissant, watching the woman at the counter ring up customers. When we got home, the door had been locked, and we sat on the step for another hour while I anxiously questioned Thérèse: “Is Papa angry with me? What did I do? I didn’t do anything!”
What had then been a strange afternoon was now quite regular, except that we no longer went to the patisserie, the door was unlocked by the time we got home, and I knew that Papa wasn’t angry, he only wanted the house to be quiet when he had company—sometimes I could watch from my window as Sabine came up the walk. That, and I knew that I shouldn’t talk to Thérèse until she stopped frowning.
Now we turned the corner and walked past the small shops that dominated our neighborhood. When Thérèse stopped at the newspaper stand to flip through Glamour, I knelt by the stained gray wall and clicked my tongue. A thin white cat—or at least, white when she was clean; she usually matched the wall—lived nearby, and I had been bringing her table scraps for three weeks. Sometimes she let me pet her, but sometimes she scratched, so I offered the food carefully, ready to pull away fast.
“Oh, Claire, not again. I swear, it’ll give you rabies or something. And who will they blame then? Me.”
“Wait,” I said. “She won’t bite! Look. She likes me.”
Thérèse tossed her hair, a move that had been much more effective before our cousin Andre had put his gum in her braid and she had had to cut most of her hair off. “How do you know it’s a she?”
“Duh,” I said, tossing my own hair. Thérèse got very angry at Andre again whenever I did that. “She’s too pretty to be a boy cat.”
She studied the cat for a moment, lines forming between her thick eyebrows. “Under all that dirt, you mean? Yeah, maybe.” She nudged me. “Dis, if we hurry you can make a wish in the fountain before the park gets too busy.”
I knew what the nudge meant. This, too, had become normal, although not as frequent as our walks. While Thérèse paid the magazine woman for a bar of chocolate, I slipped out of her sight and slid my hand over the scratched glass counter. After thanking the woman, Thérèse nudged me again, and I waved goodbye to the cat.
When I could see the park’s iron fence only a block away, I pulled the two packets of cigarettes from my pocket and handed them to Thérèse. She grinned and reached into her own pocket for the chocolate, which she gave me with a kiss. “Merci, Claire,” she said. “You won’t tell Mama about the chocolate, will you? She wouldn’t want you to ruin your appetite.”
“I won’t, I promise. Look, Thérèse, I can see the birds.” The birds were made of stone, each the size of Mama’s fist when she was angry at Papa. They sat at the concrete base of the park’s fence, a foot from the ground, some pecking at invisible grains of food and others preparing to take flight. Some had old gum, black and hard with age, stuck to them, and others were chipped or had entire wings or beaks broken off. When the sun hit them right, though, the birds sparkled. I always swore to Thérèse that they could really fly, even the broken ones.
Inside the park, Thérèse stopped to ask a skinny, redheaded man to light her cigarette. He did, smiling slightly as he touched his burned-down cigarette to her fresh one. I shivered in the light wind and tugged at her navy sleeve to pull her toward the frog fountain at the other end of the park. The redheaded man laughed at my impatience and stepped back slightly so that we could pass.
The fountain, my favorite part of the park, was as chipped as the birds at the gate. Instead of old gum it was smeared with bird droppings, and I couldn’t remember the water ever being clear. Thérèse never let me touch the fountain. I was allowed to toss in my coin, but then I had to move back so that Thérèse could smoke without worrying that I’d fall in or stain my dress.
Today there was something lodged in the frog’s mouth, making the water bubble instead of spout. I eyed it, wondering if I could get close enough to see what it was without Thérèse noticing. I glanced at her, but she was still watching me, slowly blowing smoke in my direction.
“Go on,” she said. “Make your wish.”
I sighed and tossed the coin in, even though the fountain wasn’t as lucky if it didn’t have as much water. Then I stepped back, far enough that the water wouldn’t splash me. Thérèse nodded, turning away to sit on a wooden bench. She blew more smoke at me and smiled. “Want to try?”
Now she frowned, putting the cigarette back to her lips. “Really, no,” she said. “I was kidding. You’re not old enough. Mama would kill me.”
I pouted. “But I got them for you.”
She glared at me. Reminding Thérèse of how she got her cigarettes was another good way to make her scowl. “Claire. Eat your chocolate and be quiet.”
The red-haired man must have started going for walks, too, because we saw him a lot in the park after that. He was always standing by the path, smoking. When he saw us coming, he came forward, sometimes carrying a small square of candy for me. The first time he offered the candy, Thérèse accepted it for me, tucking it in my pocket and telling me to “Save it for later, okay, Claire?” As I started to unwrap the crinkly pink plastic on our walk home, she took it from me and tossed it in the nearest trashcan. “No candy from strangers,” she said sharply. “I’m serious.” Then she started humming, so I guessed she wasn’t angry.
The red-haired man fell into our walk routine, and Thérèse was always happier on the way home if she had seen him. I didn’t care much whether we saw him, since he smiled at me a lot but only talked to Thérèse. If he put her in a good mood, though, I didn’t mind him. Once she even let me eat a piece of caramel that he brought. He asked her all sorts of questions, like how old she was and why she didn’t have a boyfriend, until I got bored and started tugging her away.
I had skipped off to watch a squirrel chew at a nut from the safety of a tree branch one afternoon when I heard Thérèse shriek. I ran back to see what was wrong, but all I saw was Thérèse glaring at the red-haired man, who was fumbling with his pants. His face matched his hair. Thérèse grabbed my hand. “We’re leaving,” she said, and I didn’t dare complain that I hadn’t made a wish yet. The next week Thérèse took me walking along the Seine instead, and I thought that would be the end of the redheaded man.
One Wednesday, Thérèse hesitated when Papa told her, as usual, to take me out to get some air. “Papa, it’s going to rain,” she said. “Look outside.”
He peered out the window and frowned. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “You won’t be out long.”
“It’s okay, Thérèse,” I said. “I don’t mind.” I wanted to go back to the park. It had been raining all week, and I hoped that maybe the fountain would be clean.
She gave me her shut-up-or-you’ll-be-sorry look, which I ignored. “Papa,” she tried again.
“If it rains, you can come back,” he said. “I don’t want you to catch sick, but you both need to spend more time outdoors.”
“Please, Thérèse?” I said. “Just to the park and back?”
The thunder started then, so we didn’t find out what she would have said—maybe no, because she didn’t want to get wet, or maybe yes, because we hadn’t seen the redheaded man in a while. It didn’t matter, though, because Papa sighed and agreed that it was probably time for me to start my homework. “Thérèse, go help your sister. A friend of mine is coming over but won’t stay long. Then I’ll come check your homework.”
“It’s all your fault,” I muttered at Thérèse while we climbed the stairs. “I wanted to go.”
She didn’t answer, so I stomped away to my room, where I stood at the window and watched the rain splash down against the road and make muddy puddles on the sidewalk. My room looked out over the front of the house, so I could watch all the people go by without them ever realizing that I was there. The woman who lived in the house across the road came hurrying home, cradling her baby close to shield it from the rain, and I tried to see if it was sleeping or not. Next door to her, a bald man I didn’t know rushed outside to close his car’s windows, stopping to yell at the sky. Outside our house, Sabine’s small silver car pulled up, and I watched as she ran up the sidewalk and rang the doorbell. She held one hand over her yellow plastic rain hat to keep it from blowing away. Downstairs, I heard the door opening, and my father saying something I couldn’t hear. Sabine disappeared into the house, and I was left with a view of the gray steps.
There were more muffled sounds of talking from downstairs, and the not-so-muffled sound of Thérèse’s music from across the hall. The rain was coming down harder and I was getting bored with my view when I saw someone else I knew come down the sidewalk: Mama.
Mama probably wouldn’t be happy to see Sabine. I didn’t think they had met before, but Mama never seemed to like Papa’s friends—she was always polite, but it was a nasty polite. It was too bad, really, because Papa’s friends were nice. Nicer than the women Mama said were her friends, who whispered when she left the room and clucked their tongues whenever they saw me. They didn’t see me often, though, because I usually saw them first.
I imagined that I could hear the key in the lock as Mama tried the door, found it locked, and looked in her bag for her house key. Her dark, wavy hair was flattened by the rain, and she almost dropped the keys before she managed to open the door. My view again limited to the boring outdoors, I went to my door and listened instead.
There was the sound of Mama’s bag hitting the floor, and her clear voice calling out “Marc? I’m home—il pleut!”
For a moment there was silence both downstairs and upstairs, as Thérèse turned down her music and nobody said anything. Then I heard Sabine’s surprised exclamation, and Mama’s angrier one, and then Thérèse turned her music on again and whatever was being said downstairs turned into three sounds: Mama’s shouts, Papa’s rumble, and Sabine’s quieter voice nervously asking for something—Mama to stop shouting?
Thérèse knocked on my door, startling me. “Claire,” she said, “come listen to music with me.”
“Thérèse, Papa’s angry,” I told her.
“Mama’s angrier. Don’t worry about Papa,” she said.
“But Papa never gets angry,” I said.
She sighed. “Yes, well, Mama’s never come home when Sabine was here, has she?” She paused as there was a fresh bout of shouting from below. “They’re arguing about us now. You shouldn’t listen.”
I didn’t see why Mama was angry about us—we hadn’t gone walking, true, but we hadn’t gotten wet, either. “What did I do?”
“She’s not angry at us, dummy—oh, never mind. Look, just stop listening, okay?” Thérèse left my room again, and two doors slammed: hers, and the front door. I darted back to my post at the window. It was Sabine, running back through the rain to her car. For a long moment there was silence downstairs again. Then more shouting, this time from both Mama and Papa.
Thérèse’s music stopped, and I heard her door again, but she didn’t come back to my room. Her hard, rapid footsteps were on the stairs, and Mama and Papa’s argument stopped short when she got downstairs. She said something, and then the front door slammed again, and I saw her—short hair, black boots, an old raincoat—walk down the steps and away from the house.
Mama and Papa both called out, “Où vas-tu? Where are you going?”
She didn’t answer, but I knew where she was going.
We didn’t stop for cigarettes the next time we went to the park, but I saw the white cat. She was cleaner than usual, but I didn’t know if someone had given her a bath or if she’d just been rained on. Thérèse walked slowly; this time, Mama was the one who had sent us out. “Your father and I need to talk,” she had said. I was happy to be missing the shouting, but Thérèse wasn’t. The week before, we had returned just in time to see Mama packing a suitcase for Papa. Now he was staying in a hotel.
“Thérèse,” I said, stopping at the gate to the park, “why can’t I go live with Papa?”
She frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t think you’re old enough to have a choice yet.”
“If Papa said that I could go with him, do you think Mama would let me?”
“That’s not the point, Claire.” I didn’t think she was listening, though; she kept looking toward the path we usually took. I kicked one of the stone birds, hard, and followed her in.
Thérèse was walking too fast now, but she ignored me when I complained. The red-haired man wasn’t at his usual spot, so I turned toward for the fountain. Thérèse didn’t follow. “Alain?” she called. “You go ahead,” she said to me. “I’m going to sit here for a minute.”
I hesitated, surprised. Thérèse never let me walk in the park alone. I wasn’t complaining, though, and neither of us wanted to talk much, so I didn’t stay.
I looked back at her on my way to make my wish that Papa wouldn’t leave. She was sitting on a bench, tapping her finger against her knee and looking around anxiously. I watched for a moment, then turned and walked back toward the fountain.
It had just come into view when somebody stepped in front of me, causing me to stop mid-step. I was going around him when he stepped in front of me again, and I almost ran into him. I looked up. It was the red-haired man, who wore a small smile on his long face. I knew he was nice, but I backed up anyway and started to mumble an apology even though it wasn’t my fault.
He smirked. “Where is your sister, little one? Did she let you walk alone?”
I backed away farther and pointed back toward my sister. “Non, non, Thérèse is là-bas. Over there.”
He smiled, and this time I relaxed. “It’s okay,” he said. “Do you want to see something neat?”
I hesitated. “Thérèse—”
“She won’t even know,” he said.
I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea, but I liked the idea of doing something that Thérèse didn’t know about. I was going to say yes, but just then Thérèse came around the corner, probably looking for me. Her eyes looked red, but when she saw us they lit up. “Alain!” she said, looking relieved and happier than she had in days.
His face changed, and all of a sudden I was glad that Thérèse had come when she had. “I didn’t think you were here,” she said.
He shrugged. “Afraid I wouldn’t come?” he asked.
She laughed, although it didn’t sound like her normal bubbly laugh, and tried to toss her hair. “No,” she said. “Miss me?”
He liked her answer, I thought as his face, too, relaxed. “Maybe,” he said.
They turned back to their normal conversation about cigarettes and weather. Bored, I headed over to the fountain. There was still something stuck in the frog’s mouth, and I grabbed a stick to dislodge it, but Thérèse could still see me. “Claire,” she called, “don’t even think about it. Let’s go.” She looked at him again. “Maybe I could come back,” she said tentatively.
I stomped back to Thérèse, but the red-haired man shook his head. “No,” he said, “you should go.” He dug into his pocket and offered me a foil-wrapped piece of chocolate, but then he lifted it out of my reach, laughing. “Just like your sister,” he said, “trusting a man in the park. Maybe you’ll come back alone sometime.”
I didn’t understand, and I didn’t really want to go home to Mama yet, but Thérèse’s face whitened and all of the relief that had been in her eyes earlier drained out. She put her hand on my shoulder. Together we walked around him, back toward the park gates. As we walked out, I glanced at the stone birds on the ground and thought that perhaps, after all, they couldn’t fly.