First it took her an age to get ready, and in the car you’d have thought Jean had ants in her pants the way she fidgeted about, fiddling with the radio, tugging at her seatbelt, jabbering away ten to the dozen. Geoff waited until she paused for a breath, then gently lay his meaty hand on her knee.
“We don’t have to go.”
His wife of thirty-three years blinked with surprise then wriggled to a stop.
“No, no, no. Ignore me.”
She settled then, sort of, staring out the window into the distance, just the occasional fidget betraying her nerves. It was their daughter Gaby’s idea to make the trip down to Brisbane. It would be a distraction, she said, and they bloody well needed one of those. Retirement was all well and good but it gave a man and his long-suffering wife too much time to think. DIY was Geoff’s idea of therapy but their new townhouse was sleekly perfect and they rattled around in it, the weekly dinners with Gaby and her family and the treatment schedule the only things giving their lives any shape.
Geoff pulled the car into the car park of a strip mall on the outskirts of the city and Jean shuffled over the centre console into the driver’s seat, adjusting the seat and the mirrors by habit. Driving in the city made Geoff cranky and Jean couldn’t bear the shouting. She hated driving on the highway though. Gaby said they were like Jack Sprat and his wife but Jean preferred to think of them like yin and yang. A perfect whole.
Even the driveway of the hotel was impressive and at the door a morning-suited concierge took charge of them and their Landcruiser. Jean was a little embarrassed by their little weekend bag, so meagre amidst the marble and gilt, but Geoff handed it to the man confidently and shook his hand with a brusque ‘Thanks, mate’. In the lobby she felt more out of place, their special holiday clothes suddenly seeming provincial. If Geoff felt the same discomfort, he didn’t show it, so she decided to follow his lead. She slipped her hand in his and gave it a little squeeze. He squeezed back.
There was a queue at reception so they had time to inspect the lavish foyer. Jean thought she saw a picture of the Eiffel Tower down the corridor a bit but when she looked back all she could see was a trolley piled high with bags and she chided herself for being foolish. But when they got to the front of the queue, right there on the counter was a little cardboard cut-out of the iconic tower, complete with fireworks and an impossibly beautiful couple gazing into each other’s eyes. She picked it up.
“You can wun a trup,” the receptionist said, a strong Kiwi accent distorting the vowels. Jean put the tiny tower back on the desk and was about to say they wouldn’t be interested but the girl charged into her spiel while she checked them into their room.
“It’s a spicial promotion, we’ve jist been taken over by a Frinch company – will you be paying by card? – and everything is Frinch-themed. Tonight there’s a spicial theme night in the Pandanus Room – would you like a paper in the morning? – Frinch food, Frinch wine and an a-maay-zing band, I heard them rehearsing earlier. I can book you in if you like?”
Geoff looked down at Jean but she wouldn’t meet his eye and she had pink spots on her tanned cheeks, so he said no. Neither of them said anything as they made their way to the lifts. The giant version of the cardboard cutout in the lift lobby didn’t even provoke comment. But when Jean spotted the sign reading “Plaza Hotels welcome the Funeral Directors’ Association of Australia” she let a mew of disbelief escape. It was like a sick joke.
Jean had dreamed of going to Paris her whole life. It had been part of her so long she couldn’t even remember what first roused her interest. In the lean times, when she and Geoff had to clean the rooms and cook because the motel wasn’t making enough to pay staff, it was the vision of Paris that shone like a beacon from the future. She kept a map of the world pinned up in the tiny office behind reception, and every time a guest came from overseas she’d stuck a tiny coloured pin in to mark the spot. There were lots of visitors from Texas, quite a few from Argentina – because of the beef farming in the area – and even some from Africa, but no one had ever come from Paris. Talking to the guests about their homes and lives far away was her favourite part of running the motel and she would have loved to talk to a real Parisian but the closest she ever came was an English couple who had a home in the South of France.
When they started making concrete plans – putting the motel on the market, looking for a place near Gaby and Dean, finally contacting a travel agent – she found it hard to believe it was real. When they did the handover with the Bevans, the young couple from WA who bought the lease, Lily Bevans had gushed with excitement over their plans and Jean found herself giddily detailing them, thrilled to finally have a willing ear besides Geoff. She’d been dreading the moment they’d have to leave the pencil marks on the kitchen door frame that measured Gaby’s growth, from the hibiscus that marked the graves of Snuffin and Splasher, from the lifetime of memories echoing around the cool besser brick walls but when they drove away that afternoon she’d felt nothing but elation. She and Geoff had laboured their whole lives together, barely taking a break except for the time they took to bury their parents. But that day, they were the ants in winter, triumphant over the grasshoppers who sang in the sun.
Then the doctor said Geoff had prostate cancer, and all bets – and the trip – were off. And now, here they were, trying to distract themselves while they waited to find out whether his treatment had worked or not.
The lift doors opened and they stepped inside, where another Eiffel Tower taunted her.
“You know what?” she said, in the tone Geoff knew better than to challenge, “We’ll bloody well go. Sod it all.”
But the defiance didn’t last and when it came time to get ready to go out she regretted the decision. She felt sick with anxiety. In the shower the thought that a theme night in Brisbane might be the closest to Paris they’d ever get literally brought her to her knees, the silent jags of sorrow doubling her over like a physical pain. The hot rivers of water from the shower washed away the tears and the snot but not the fear, and when she’d cried herself out and joined Geoff on the bed for a cuddle, a grey blanket of dread had draped itself over her.
Geoff saw her puffy eyes and felt a stab of anger at his impotence, but he didn’t say anything to her until he came out of the bathroom and found her standing in front of the mirror in her undies, using her hands to lift her breasts into full, round globes.
“Where does the 48 bus stop, vicar? At my age, below my knees,” he said, waggling an imaginary cigar in her face, Groucho-style.
“Can’t you ever stop joking around?” she snapped, and stormed off into the bathroom. He felt tears prick at his eyes. So much for the bloody distraction. When she finally emerged, he told her an innocuous story from the news and she pretended to be interested. They finished dressing in silence.
“How do I look?” she said before they left the room.
“Bloody gorgeous,” he said, and meant it. In the lift he leaned over, lifting her soft brown curls away from her ear. “It’s true your boobs aren’t where they were but guess what? I don’t have my own teeth.”
And she looked up at her husband and the wrinkles and the broken veins and the grey hairs all faded away and she was gazing into the eyes of the young ringer who’d stolen her heart all those years ago.
“My mother warned me about silver-tongued men,” she said, as she had then.
When the lift doors opened and a sign gave them the choice of joining the funeral directors’ annual ball or the French theme night, Jean knew they were doing the right thing. No matter what happened in the specialist’s office on Monday, they’d always have Paris.