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Paris for One(2)
Jojo Moyes

Nell climbs onto the train and stows her bag, wondering how ‘jell’ Trish would be if she could see her now: a girl beside an empty seat going to Paris with no idea if her boyfriend was going to turn up.

Chapter Two

The train station in Paris is busy. She emerges through the platform gates and is frozen to the spot, standing in the middle of the crowd of people, all pushing and shoving. She feels lost among the glass kiosks and escalators that seem to lead nowhere.

A three-note chime sounds on the loudspeaker and the station announcer says something in French that Nell can’t understand. Everyone else is walking briskly, as if they know where they’re going. It is dark outside and she fights panic. I’m in a strange city and I don’t even speak the language. And then she sees the sign: Taxis.

The queue is fifty people long, but she doesn’t care. She scrabbles in her bag for the hotel print-out, and when she finally reaches the front of the queue, she holds it out. ‘Hôtel Bonne Ville,’ she says. ‘Um … s’il vous plaît.’

The driver looks back at her, as if he cannot understand what she says.

‘Hôtel Bonne Ville,’ she says, trying to sound French. ‘Bonne Ville.’

He looks blank and snatches the piece of paper from her. He stares at it for a moment.

‘Ah! Hôtel Bonne Ville!’ he says, lifting his eyes to heaven. He thrusts the piece of paper back at her, and pulls out into the heavy traffic.

Nell sits back in the seat and lets out a long breath.

And welcome to Paris.

The journey takes twenty long, expensive minutes. The traffic is terrible. She gazes out of the window at the busy streets, the hairdressers and nail bars, repeating the French road signs under her breath. The elegant grey buildings rise high into the city sky, and the coffee shops glow in the winter night. Paris, she thinks, and feels suddenly that it will be OK. Pete will come later. She will be waiting for him at the hotel, and tomorrow they will laugh at how worried she was about travelling alone. He always said she was too much of a worrier.

Chill out, babe, he will say. Pete never got stressed about anything. He’d travelled the world. When he had got held up at gunpoint in Laos, he said, he had just chilled. ‘No point getting stressed. They were either going to shoot me or they weren’t. Nothing I could do about it.’ Then he nodded. ‘We ended up going for a beer with those soldiers.’

Or there was the time when he was on a small ferry in Kenya, which overturned. ‘We just cut the tyres off the sides of the boat and hung on till help came. I was pretty relaxed about that too – till they told me there were crocodiles in the water.’

She sometimes wondered why Pete, with his tanned features and his endless life experiences, had chosen her. She wasn’t flashy or wild. He once told her he liked her because she didn’t give him a hard time. ‘Other girlfriends are like this in my ear.’ He mimed a nipping motion with his hands. ‘You’re … relaxing to be with.’

Sometimes Nell wondered if this made her sound a bit like a DFS sofa, but it was probably best not to question these things too hard.

Paris.

She winds down the window, taking in the sounds of the busy streets, the scent of perfume, coffee and smoke. It is just as she’d pictured it. The buildings are tall, with long windows and little balconies – there are no office blocks. Every street corner seems to have a café, with round tables and chairs outside. And as the taxi heads further into the city, the women look more stylish, and people are greeting each other with kisses as they stop on the pavement.

I’m actually in Paris, she thinks. And suddenly she is grateful that she has a couple of hours to freshen up before Pete arrives. For once she does not want to be the wide-eyed innocent.

I’m going to be Parisian, she thinks, and sinks back in her seat.

The hotel is in a narrow street off a main road. She counts out the euros according to the sum on the taxi’s meter, but instead of taking it, the driver acts as if she has insulted him, waving towards her suitcase in the boot.

‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand,’ she says. Then, after a pause, she anxiously gives him another ten euros. He takes the money, shakes his head, then puts her suitcase on the pavement. She stands there as he drives off and wonders if she has just been ripped off.

But the hotel looks nice. She will not let anything upset her. She walks in, and finds herself in a narrow lobby. Already she’s wondering what Pete will think of it. ‘Not bad,’ he will say, nodding. Not bad, babe.

‘Hello,’ she says, nervous, and then, because she has no idea how to say it in French, ‘I have booked a room.’

Another woman has arrived behind her, huffing and puffing as she scrabbles in her bag for her own paperwork.

‘Yeah. I have a room booked too.’ She slaps her own paperwork on the desk beside Nell’s. Nell shifts to the side, and tries not to feel crowded.

‘Ugh. I have had a nightmare getting here. A nightmare.’ The woman is American. ‘The traffic is the pits.’

The receptionist is in her forties, with short well-cut black hair. She glances up at the two women with a frown. ‘You both have bookings?’

She leans forward and examines the bits of paper. Then she pushes each one towards its owner. ‘But I have only one room left. We are fully booked.’

‘That’s impossible. You confirmed the booking.’ The American woman pushes the paper back at her. ‘I booked it last week.’

‘Me too,’ says Nell. ‘I booked mine two weeks ago. Look, you can see on my bit of paper.’

The two women stare at each other, suddenly aware that they are in competition.

‘I am sorry. I do not know how you have this booking. We only have one room.’ The Frenchwoman makes it sound as if it is their fault.

‘Well, you will have to find us another room. You must honour the bookings. Look, there they are in black and white. I know my rights.’

The Frenchwoman lifts a perfectly plucked eyebrow. ‘Madame. I cannot give you what I do not have. There is one room, with a twin bed or a double bed, depending on how you want us to arrange it. I can offer one of you a refund, but I do not have two rooms.’

‘But I can’t go anywhere else. I’m meant to be meeting someone,’ says Nell. ‘He won’t know where I am.’

‘I’m not moving,’ says the American, folding her arms. ‘I have just flown six thousand miles and I have a dinner to go to. I have no time to find somewhere else.’

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