Read The Paris Apartment Online
Authors: Lucy Foley
A few minutes after the knocking I watched through the windows of my lodge as the first figure entered the courtyard, his
hood pulled up. Then I saw a second figure appear. The newcomer, the girl. Clattering that huge suitcase across the cobbles
of the courtyard, making enough noise to wake the dead.
I watched her on the intercom screen until the buzzer stopped ringing.
I am good at watching. I sweep the residents' hallways, I collect their post, I answer the door.
But also, I watch. I see everything. And it gives me a strange kind of power, even if I'm the only one who's aware of it.
The residents forget about me. It's convenient for them to do so. To imagine that I'm nothing more than an extension of this
building, just a moving element of a large machine, like the lift that takes them up to their beautiful apartments. In a way
I have become part of this place. It has certainly left its mark on me. I am sure the years of living in this tiny cabin have
caused me to shrink, hunching into myself, while the hours spent sweeping and scrubbing the corridors and stairs of the apartment
building have winnowed my flesh. Perhaps in another life I would have grown plump in my old age. I have not had that luxury.
I am sinew and bone. Stronger than I look.
I suppose I could have gone and stopped her. Should have done. But confrontation is not my style. I have learned that
watching is the more powerful weapon. And it had a feeling of inevitability, her being here. I could see her determination. She would somehow have found her way in, no matter what I did to try and prevent her.
Stupid girl. It would have been far, far better if she'd turned and left this place and never returned. But it's too late
now. So be it.
My heart is beating double-time, my muscles tensed.
I look down at the cat as it weaves its way between my legs, purring, a blur of movement. Slinky, black, a white ruff. I put
a hand down the back of my top. My fingers come away with a sheen of blood.
The cat must have jumped onto my back from the counter next to the door, digging its claws in for grip when I fell forward.
It looks up at me now through narrowed green eyes and gives a squawk, as though asking me what the hell I think I'm doing
Jesus Christ. I start laughing and then stop, quickly, because of the strange way the sound echoes around the high space.
I didn't know Ben had a cat. Does he even like cats? It suddenly seems crazy that I don't know this. But I suppose there's
not all that much I do know about his life here.
“Ben?” I call out. Again the sound of my voice bounces back at me. No answer. I don't think I expected one: it feels too silent,
too empty. There's a strange smell, too. Something chemical.
I suddenly really need a drink. I wander into the little kitchen area to my right and start raiding the cupboards. First things first. I come up with half a bottle of red wine. I'd prefer something with more of a kick, but beggars can't be choosers and that might as well be the motto for my whole bloody life. I slosh some into a glass. There's a pack of cigarettes on the side too, a bright blue box: Gitanes. I didn't know Ben still smoked. Typical of
him to favor some fancy French brand. I fish one out, light up, inhale, and cough like I did the first time a fellow foster kid gave me a drag: it's strong, spicy, unfiltered. I'm not sure I like it. Still, I push the rest of the pack into the back pocket of my jeansâhe owes meâand take my first proper look around the place.
I'mÂ .Â .Â . surprised, to say the least. I'm not sure what I imagined, but this isn't it. Ben's a bit creative, a bit cool (not
that I'd ever describe him that way to his face), and in contrast this whole apartment is covered in antique-looking old-lady
wallpaper, silvery with a floral pattern. When I put out a hand and touch the nearest wall I realize it's not paper after
all: it's a very faded silk. I see brighter spots where there were clearly once pictures hanging, small rusty age spots on
the fabric. From the high ceiling hangs a chandelier, curls of metal holding the bulbs. A long strand of cobweb swings lazily
back and forthâthere must be a breeze coming from somewhere. And maybe there were once curtains behind those window shutters:
I see an empty curtain rail up above, the brass rings still in place. A desk plumb in front of the windows. A shelf holding
a few ivory-colored books, a big navy French dictionary.
In the near corner there's a coat stand with an old khaki jacket on it; I'm sure I've seen Ben wearing it before. Maybe even
the last time I saw him, about a year ago, when he came down to Brighton and bought me lunch before disappearing back out
of my life again without a backward glance. I reach into the pockets and draw out a set of keys and a brown leather wallet.
Is it a bit strange that Ben's gone but left these behind?
I open the wallet: the back pocket's stuffed with a few euro notes. I take a twenty and then, for good measure, a couple of
tens. I'd have asked to borrow some money if he was here anyway. I'll pay it backÂ .Â .Â . sometime.
A business card is stuffed into the front of the section that holds credit cards. It reads:
Theo Mendelson. Paris editor,
And scribbled on it, in what looks like Ben's handwriting (sometimes he remembers to send me a birthday card):
PITCH STORY TO HIM!
I look at the keys next. One of them's for a Vespa, which is odd as last time I saw him he was driving an old eighties Mercedes
soft top. The other's a large antique-looking thing that looks like it might be for this place. I go to the door and try it:
the lock clicks.
The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. But he might have another set of keys. These could be spares, the set he's
going to lend me. He probably has another key for the Vespa, too: he might even have gone off on it somewhere. As for the
wallet, he's probably just carrying cash.
I find the bathroom, next. Nothing much to report here, other than the fact that Ben doesn't appear to own any towels at all,
which seems bizarre. I step back out into the main room. The bedroom must be through the closed pair of French double doors.
I walk toward them, the cat following, pressing close as a shadow. Just for a moment, I hesitate.
The cat squawks at me again as if to ask: what are you waiting for? I take another long slug of wine. Deep breath. Push open
the doors. Another breath. Open my eyes. Empty bed. Empty room. No one here. Breathe out.
OK. I mean, I didn't really think I was going to find anything like that. That's not Ben. Ben's sorted; I'm the fuck-up. But
when it's happened to you onceâ
I drain the dregs from my glass, then go through the cupboards in the bedroom. Not much by way of clues except that most of
my brother's clothes seem to come from places called Acne (why would you wear clothes named after a skin condition?) and A.P.C.
Back out in the main room I pour the remainder of the bottle into the glass and neck it back. Drift over to the desk by the large
windows, which look down onto the courtyard. There's nothing on the desk beyond a ratty-looking pen. No laptop. Ben seemed surgically attached to it when he took me for lunch that time, getting it out and typing something while we waited for our order. I suppose he must have it with him, wherever he is.
All at once I have the definite feeling that I'm not alone, that I'm being watched. A prickle down the back of my neck. I
spin around. No one there except the cat, which is sitting on the kitchen counter. Perhaps that's all it was.
The cat gazes at me for a few moments, then turns its head on one side like it's asking a question. It's the first time I've
seen it sit still like this. Then it raises a paw to its mouth and licks. This is when I notice that both the paw and the
white ruff at its throat are smeared with blood.
I've gone cold. What theâ
I reach out to the cat to try to get a closer look, but it slinks out from under my hand. Maybe it's just caught a mouse or
something? One of the families I fostered with had a cat, Suki. Even though she was small she could take down a whole pigeon:
she came back once covered in blood like something out of a horror film and my foster parent Karen found the headless body
later that morning. I'm sure there's some small dead creature lying around the apartment, just waiting for me to step on it.
Or maybe it killed something out there in the courtyardâthe windows are open a crack, which must be how it gets in and out
of this place, walking along the guttering or something.
Still. It gave me a bit of a jolt. When I saw it for a moment I thoughtâ
No. I'm just tired. I should try and get some sleep.
Ben will turn up in the morning, explain where he's been, I'll tell him he's a dick for leaving me to basically break in and
it'll be like old times, the
old times, before he went to live with his shiny rich new family and got a whole new way of speaking and perspective on the
world and I got bounced around the care system until I was old enough to fend for myself. I'm sure he's fine. Bad stuff doesn't
happen to Ben. He's the lucky one.
I shrug off my jacket, throw it onto the sofa. I should probably take a showerâI'm pretty sure I stink. A bit of B.O. but mainly of vinegar: you can't work at the Copacabana and not reek of the stuff, it's what we use to sluice the bar down after every shift.
But I'm too tired to wash. I think Ben might have mentioned something about a camp bed, but I don't see any sign of one. So I take a throw from the sofa and lie down in the bedroom on top of the covers in all my clothes. I give the pillows some thumps to try and rearrange them. As I do something slithers out of the bed onto the floor.
A pair of women's knickers: black silk, lacy, expensive-looking.
. Christ, Ben. I don't want to think about how those got here. I don't even know if Ben has a girlfriend. I feel a little
pang of sadness, in spite of myself. He's all I've got and I don't even know this much about him.
I'm too tired to do much more than kick the knickers away, out of sight. Tomorrow I'll sleep on the sofa.
A shout rips through the silence. A man's voice. Then another voice, a woman's.
I sit up in bed listening hard, heart kicking against my ribs. It takes a second for me to work out that the sounds are coming
from the courtyard, filtering through the windows in the main room. I check the alarm clock next to Ben's bed. 5
: morning, just, but still dark.
The man is shouting again. He sounds slurred, like he's been drinking.
I creep across the main room to the windows and crouch down. The cat pushes its face into my thigh, mewing. “Shh,” I tell
itâbut I quite like the feel of its warm, solid body against mine.
I peer into the courtyard. Two figures stand down there: one tall, one much smaller. The guy is dark-haired and she's blonde,
the long fall of her hair silver in the cool light of the courtyard's one lamp. He's wearing a parka with a fur rim that looks
familiar, and I realize it's the guy I “met” outside the gate last night.
Their voices get louderâthey're shouting over one another now. I'm pretty sure I hear her say the word “police.” At this his
voice changesâI don't understand the words but there's a new hardness, a threat, to his tone. I see him take a couple of steps
” she shouts, sounding different now, tooâscared rather than angry. He takes another step closer. I realize I'm pressed so close to the window that my breath has misted up the
glass. I can't just sit here, listening, watching. He raises a hand. He's so much taller than her.
A sudden memory. Mum, sobbing.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry
: over and over, like the words to a prayer.
I lift my hand to the window and slam it against the glass. I want to distract him for a few seconds, give her a chance to
move away. I see both of them glance up in confusion, their attention caught by the sound. I duck down, out of sight.
When I look back out again it's just in time to see him pick something up from the ground, something big and bulky and rectangular.
With a big petulant shove he throws it toward herâat her. She steps back and it explodes at her feet: I see it's a suitcase,
spilling clothes everywhere.
Then he looks straight up at me. There's no time to crouch down. I understand what his look means.
I've seen you
I want you to know that
, I think, looking right back.
And I see you, dickhead. I know your sort. You don't scare me.
Except all the hairs on the back of my neck are standing to attention and the blood's thumping in my ears.
I watch as he walks over to the statue and shoves it viciously off its plinth, so that it topples to the ground with a crash.
Then he makes for the door that leads back into the apartment building. I hear the slam echoing up the stairwell.
The woman is left on her knees in the courtyard, scrabbling around for the things that have fallen out of the suitcase. Another
memory: Mum, on her knees in the hallway. BeggingÂ .Â .Â .
Where are the other neighbors? I can't be the only one who heard the commotion. It's not a choice to go down and help: it's
something I have to do. I snatch up the keys, run down the couple of flights of stairs and out into the courtyard.
The woman starts as she spots me. She's still on her hands and knees and I see that her eye make-up has run where she's been crying. “Hey,” I say softly. “Are you OK?”
In answer she holds up what looks like a silk shirt; it's stained with dirt from the ground. Then, shakily, in heavily accented
English: “I came to get my things. I tell him it's over, for good. And thisâthis is what he does. He's aÂ .Â .Â . a son-of-a-bitch.
I never should have married him.”
Jesus, I think. This is why I know I'm better off single. Mum had exceptionally terrible taste in men. My dad was the worst
of all of them though. Supposedly a good guy. A real fucking bastard. Would have been better if he'd disappeared off into
the night like Ben's dad did before he was born.
The woman's muttering under her breath as she shovels clothes into the suitcase. Anger seems to have taken over from fear.
I go over and crouch down, help her pick up her things. High heels with long foreign names printed inside, a black silk, lacy
bra, a little orange sweater made out of the softest fabric I've ever felt. “
,” she says, absent-mindedly. Then she frowns. “Who are you? I've never seen you here before.”
“I'm meant to be staying with my brother, Ben.”
,” she says, drawing out his name. She looks me up and down, taking in my jeans, my old sweater. “He's
brother? Before him I thought all Englishmen were sunburnt, no elegance, bad teeth. I did not know they could be soÂ .Â .Â .
so beautiful, so
.” Apparently there aren't enough words in English for how wonderful my brother is. She continues shoveling clothes into the
suitcase, a violence to her movements, scowling every so often at the door into the apartment building. “Is it so strange
I got bored of being with a stupid fuckingÂ .Â .Â . loser
? That I wanted a little flirtation? And,
I wanted to make Antoine jealous. Care about something other than himself. Is it such a surprise I started to look elsewhere?”
She tosses her hair over her shoulder in a shining curtain. It's quite impressive, being able to do that while crouched down
picking your lacy underwear out of a gravel path.
She looks toward the building and raises her voice, almost as though she wants her husband to hear. “He says I only care about
him because of his money. Of
I only care about him because of his money. It was the only thing that made itâhow do you sayâworthwhile? But nowÂ .Â .Â .”
she shrugs, “it's not worth it.”
I pass her a silky, electric blue dress, a baby pink bucket hat with JACQUEMUS printed across the front. “Have you seen Ben
recently?” I ask.
,” she says, raising an eyebrow at me like I might be insinuating something. “
? Why do you ask?”
“He was meant to be here last night, to let me in, but he wasn'tâand he hasn't been answering my messages.”
Her eyes widen. And then, under her breath, she murmurs something. I make out: “
AntoineÂ .Â .Â . non
Ce n'est pas possibleÂ .Â .Â .
“What did you say?”
, nothing.” But I catch the glance she shoots toward the apartment buildingâfearful, suspicious, evenâand wonder what it means.
Now she's trying to clip shut her bulging suitcaseâbrown leather with some sort of logo printed all over itâbut I see that
her hands are trembling, making her fingers clumsy.
.” Finally it snaps closed.
“Hey,” I say. “Do you want to come inside? Call a cab?”
“No way,” she says, fiercely. “I'm never going back in there. I have an Uber comingÂ .Â .Â .” As if on cue, her phone pings.
She checks it and gives what sounds like a sigh of relief. “
, he's here. I have to go.” Then she turns and looks up at the
apartment building. “You know what? Fuck this evil place.” Then her expression softens and she blows a kiss toward the windows above us. “But at least one good thing happened to me here.”
She pulls up the handle of the little case then turns and begins stalking toward the gate.
I hurry after her. “What do you mean, evil?”
She glances at me and shakes her head, mimes zippering her lips. “I want my money, from the divorce.”
Then she's out onto the street and climbing into the cab. As it pulls away, off into the night, I realize I never managed
to ask whether what she had with my brother was ever more than a flirtation.
I turn back toward the courtyard and nearly jump out of my skin. Jesus Christ. There's an old woman standing there, looking
at me. She seems to glow with a cold white light, like something off
. But after I've caught my breath, I realize it's because she's standing beneath the outdoor lamp. Where the hell did she
” I say. “
” I'm not even sure what I want to ask her.
Who are you
What are you doing here?
She doesn't answer. She simply shakes her head at me, very slowly. Then she's retreating backward, toward that cabin in the
corner of the courtyard. I watch as she disappears inside. As the shuttersâwhich I see now must have been openâare quickly