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Paris for One(5)
Jojo Moyes

The wine is good. She takes a sip and feels the tension of the day start to ooze away. She has another sip. The steak arrives, seared brown and steaming, but when she cuts into it, it is bloody inside. She wonders whether to send it back, but she doesn’t want to make a fuss, especially not in French.

Besides, it tastes good. The chips are crisp and golden and hot, and the green salad is delicious. She eats it all, surprising herself with her appetite. The waiter, when he returns, smiles at her evident pleasure. ‘Is good, uh?’

‘Delicious,’ she says. ‘Thank – er, merci.’ He nods, and refills her glass. As she reaches for it, she manages to knock half of the red wine onto the waiter’s apron and shoes, leaving deep red stains.

‘I’m so sorry!’ Her hands fly to her mouth.

He sighs wearily, as he mops at himself. ‘Really. It’s of no matter.’

‘I’m sorry. Oh, I –’

‘Really. No matter.’

He gives her a vague smile, and disappears.

She feels her cheeks burning red and pulls her notebook from her bag, to give herself something to do. She flicks quickly past her list for sightseeing in Paris, and stares at an empty page until she is sure nobody is looking.

Live in the moment, she writes on the clean page, and underlines it twice. It is something she once saw in a magazine. And maybe don’t spill stuff.

She looks up at the clock. It is nine forty-five. Only about 39,600 more moments, and then she can get back on the train and pretend this trip never happened.

The Frenchwoman is still behind the reception desk when Nell returns to the hotel. Of course she is. She slides the key across the counter towards Nell. ‘The other lady is not back yet,’ the woman says. She pronounces it ze uzzer. ‘If she returns before I finish I will let her know you are in the room.’

Nell mutters a thank-you and heads upstairs.

She runs a shower and steps under it, trying to wash away the disappointment of the day. Finally, at half past ten, she climbs into bed and reads one of the French magazines from the bedside table. She doesn’t understand most of the words, but she hasn’t brought a book. She hadn’t expected to spend any time reading.

Finally, at eleven, she turns off the light and lies in the dark, listening to the sound of mopeds whizzing down the narrow streets, and to the chatter of happy French people making their way home. She feels as if she has been locked out of a giant party.

Her eyes fill with tears, and she wonders whether to call the girls and tell them what has happened. But she is not ready for their sympathy. She does not let herself think about Pete, and that she has been dumped. She tries not to imagine her mother’s face when she has to tell her the truth about her romantic weekend away.

And then the door opens. The light flicks on.

‘I don’t believe it.’ The American woman stands there, her face flushed with drink, a large purple scarf draped around her shoulders.

‘I thought you would be gone.’

‘So did I,’ said Nell, pulling the covers over her head. ‘Would you mind turning down the light please?’

‘They never said you were still here.’

‘Well, I am.’

She hears the clunk of a handbag on the table, the rattle of hangers in the wardrobe. ‘I do not feel comfortable spending the night with somebody I don’t know in the room.’

‘Believe me, you were not my first choice for tonight’s sleeping companion either.’

Nell stays under the covers while the woman fusses about and goes in and out of the bathroom. She hears her scrubbing her teeth, gargling, the flush of a loo through walls that are far too thin. She tries to imagine she is somewhere else. In Brighton, maybe, with one of the girls, drunkenly making her way to bed.

‘I might as well tell you, I am not happy,’ the woman says.

‘Well, sleep somewhere else,’ snaps Nell. ‘Because I have just as much right to this room as you. More, if you think about the dates on our bookings.’

‘There’s no need to be snappy,’ said the woman.

‘Well, there’s no need to make me feel worse than I already bloody do.’

‘Honey, it’s not my fault your boyfriend didn’t turn up.’

‘And it’s not my fault the hotel double booked us.’

There is a long silence. Nell wonders, briefly, if the woman is about to say something friendly. It is daft, after all, two women fighting in such a small space. We are in the same boat, she thinks. She tries to think of something friendly to say.

And then the woman’s voice cuts across the dark: ‘Well, just so as you know, I’m putting my valuables in the safe. And I am trained in self-defence.’

‘And my name is Queen Elizabeth the Second,’ Nell mutters. She raises her eyes to heaven in the dark, and waits for the click that tells her the light has gone out.

Even though she is exhausted and a bit sad, Nell can’t get to sleep. She tries to relax, to calm her thoughts, but around midnight, a voice in her mind says: Nope. No sleep for you, lady.

Instead, her brain spins and churns like a washing machine, throwing up black thoughts like so much dirty laundry. Had she been too keen? Was she not cool enough? Was it because of her list of French art galleries, with their pros and cons (length of journey time versus possible queue)?

Was she just too boring for any man to love?

The night stretches and sags. She lies in the dark, trying to block her ears against the sound of the stranger snoring in the next bed. She tries stretching, yawning, changing her position. She tries deep breathing, relaxing bits of her body, and imagining her darker thoughts locked in a box and herself throwing away the key.

At around three in the morning, she accepts she will probably be awake until dawn. She gets up and pads over to the window, pulling the curtain a few inches away from the glass.

The rooftops glow under the street-lamps. A light drizzle falls silently onto the pavement. A couple, their heads close, make their way slowly home, murmuring to each other.

This should have been so wonderful, she thinks.

The American woman’s snoring is louder. She snorts, sounding like someone choking. Nell reaches into her suitcase for ear plugs (she had brought two pairs, just in case) and climbs back into bed. I will be home in a little over eight hours, she thinks, and with that comforting thought, she finally drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Five

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