Roses along the Seine
Joshua drank in the sights as they strolled. The Eiffel Tower rose ahead. Nearer sat a building domed in glass. Claire explained the Grand Palais exhibition hall had been converted into a hospital for the war.
Paris was even grander than he’d imagined, photographs failing to do it justice. But while he appreciated Aiden’s observation about the details, he found the formal areas intimidating. He preferred the functional parts – the stations, the markets, the neighborhoods. They felt more human. He shared the thought with Claire.
“Oh, I agree. The neighborhoods are so lively. Of course, being from Lorraine, Paris is new to me as well. Before the war I had only visited once, though it left an impression, memories I’ll cherish forever.” She squeezed his arm. “Now I enjoy visiting Lily, and sharing the city with friends.”
Joshua sighed. She made it easy to feel comfortable. Otherwise he might have pondered the evening, giving in to guilt. He considered thanking her for letting him join them, but doing so ventured too close to the reason he had. He wasn’t that comfortable. “So what parts were so memorable?” he asked instead.
“I’ll show you one.” She released his arm and dashed across the street, entering a park on the far side.
Joshua checked for traffic then followed. Trotting along a curving path, his eyes were drawn to the river. A series of bridges stretched clear to the horizon. Ahead, Claire drew to a halt beside a rose garden. She was still catching her breath when he reached her.
“I’m on my feet constantly, but I never run anymore,” she explained. “When I was little, I used to race all over our village. Mother would scold me, warning it was unladylike. But I loved it so. I felt free.”
He chuckled. “I mostly hiked. It was easier.”
“Aiden said you grew up in the mountains. That must have been fascinating.”
“It was. I dream about them sometimes.” He shrugged. “All the time, I guess.”
Her eyes grew wide. “I know what you mean. Every night, no matter how exhausted, I drift to sleep imagining the fields outside Remenauville.”
She took the blanket and started along a path among the roses. “Mother says the places you love become a part of you, and you a part of them. Your mind takes you back, even if you leave. In her case, Remenauville was all she ever knew.”
“Where is she now?” he asked.
“In Bordeaux, with her sister. We stayed in Paris a short while. But it was too large, and too expensive. We spent all our savings, which wasn’t much. Everything else we left behind.” Claire surveyed the landscape, selecting a grassy spot shrouded in yellow blooms. “Mother hates it. Her letters are filled with talk of going home.”
He helped smooth the blanket atop the grass, recalling Aiden’s description of the destruction. “And you?”
She seated herself. “I’m not nearly as confident. When I arrived in Toul, I made inquiries. Recently I asked Aiden. He was evasive, but I’ve seen the front. I doubt anything remains.”
“So would you live in Paris?”
“Perhaps. I haven’t thought that far. I do well to get through each day.” She met his gaze. “Aiden said you asked about David.”
“I didn’t mean to pry. I had noticed your ring.”
“It’s fine. I don’t hide it. Aiden said you were observant. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re like a young pup . . . poking around, figuring out his world. I think that’s why Aiden’s drawn to you.”
He averted his gaze, thankful when she didn’t press.
“As for my ring, I like wearing it. I refuse to live in mourning, but I do miss my David. It’s why I come here when I visit Paris.”
“I don’t understand.”
She retreated into memory, a smile creeping across her face. “This garden is special.”
Her story tumbled out. “I had known David my whole life. When we were children, he used to tease me. But we had a connection, even then.
“My father was an Englishman, much older than my mother. He was a kind man, encouraging and often spoiling me. I was seventeen when he died, and David was there for me. After that our bond deepened, yet we never rushed. It didn’t seem necessary.
“When the war began, David was at university. At the time we thought it a bump in the road. We knew it was war. But no one expected it to last, not then. Nevertheless, we changed our plans. David enlisted, like many young men. He asked me to meet him before he reported. I told Mother I was visiting Lily and her husband, and travelled to Paris. One afternoon David brought me to this garden, where he gave me this ring. We married a week later.”
He admired the sparkle in the sunlight, unsure what to say. “It’s beautiful.”
She adjusted the band. “It is, isn’t it? Such a promising start.” Her eyes watered.
“I’ve upset you.”
“It’s nothing you have done. It simply overwhelms me sometimes, even now.” She plucked a nearby bloom. “You know, I find it strange. Everything about my life is defined by what it was before . . . where I lived, who I married.
“I imagine it will be different someday. Someday I’ll find a new home, a place where I’ll build a new life. Not now. Not yet. But I can see the possibility.” She hesitated. “Not long ago, I feared I wouldn’t survive at all.”
“No,” he breathed.
She looked up. “Oh yes. You have to understand. My husband was dead. Mother and I were refugees. By the time we reached Bordeaux, we were destitute. My aunt kept telling me I had to go on. But when everything is stolen from you, those words mean nothing.”
“So what changed?”
She sighed. “Me, I guess, with help. I had my family, people who loved me. In time I could hear them. Eventually I was ready to live again. I found a purpose; I became a nurse.” She sniffed the rose. “That, and I held onto the days.”
“All my days with David. I thought of special days, like when we came here. I imagined the early days, growing up in Remenauville. Our first kiss . . . our first fight. I spent hours recalling days, lingering over details, crying over them. It was painful at first, but that changed. I began to recall others, casual ones . . . days that hadn’t seemed special at all at the time. Looking back, I realized they were. They were filled with life, and we were together.” She caressed the petals. “Being together made them special.”
He looked around them. The sun dappled through the trees. The scent of warm grass mingled with the sweet smell of the roses. For the first time he had a glimpse of the man he was, the man he might become. “Today’s a good day,” he observed.
She laughed softly. “It is. The secret is they all are. Every day has potential, no matter how dark. You have to hold onto that promise.”