Authors: Helen Harris
‘I prefer autumn. In autumn, I am at my best. It will be one of my lasting regrets, when you are gone, that we won’t have known each other in autumn…’
Edward had hoped for Latin America, but the newsdesk sent him to Paris. In Paris there were no machine-gun-toting revolutionaries with faces like icons. Instead there was Irina, exotically Russian, desirably statuesque, and ten years older than Edward.
In an icy Paris winter, Edward and Irina are drawn together.
The Steppes of Paris is an elegant and bittersweet story of unpredictable love in the City of Light – from the highly acclaimed author of
Angel Cake and Playing Fields in Winter.
‘I have never read a novel that describes so well the plight of the ex-pat in Paris … the fraught progress of the affair is described with sharply wry observation’
‘A breath of spring, although with two acclaimed novels already to her credit Helen Harris’s talents are well past the budding stage … wry, beautifully exact and bubbling with life’
‘The couple’s story is colourful, often funny and absorbing’
Eastern Daily Express
‘An attractive, well written portrait of a young man and elderly Russian family … well worth reading’
‘Excellent … an intriguing tale, ultimately leaving the reader with the slow, cringing sense of horror as the book reaches its climax’
The Huddersfield Daily Examiner
He had hoped it would be South America, The whole city smelt of perfume on the late summer evening he came to live there and as he walked the dense boulevards, scorning the scented women and their apparently equally scented dogs, it seemed to him that instead of travelling somewhere crude and vital which would invigorate him, he had been consigned to a florist’s shop, full of elegantly rotting memories, where he would inevitably be smothered.
The newspaper had kept him in the dark right up to the last minute: Sao Paulo or Lagos, Harare or Lima. For weeks, he had been over-eating, over-drinking, and generally indulging in every lush and decadent comfort London had to offer, in nervous anticipation of the imagined hardships ahead. Mentally, he was already living in bare, once white rooms where mosquitoes, outsize ants and cockroaches whirred and clattered in a re-enactment of a nearby war. When, in the end, they had told him Paris, he could barely believe his ears. He had walked out along Fleet Street in a stricken daze. The opaque windows of the last remaining newspaper offices looked down on him in jaded amusement and, holding their drainpipe arms akimbo, hooted with laughter at the casual but ridiculous cock-up some only relatively senior editor had just made of his life. For it was merely, he knew, a snap decision,
made by some burdened bureaucrat between breakfast and lunch. Whether Wainwright was sent to La Paz or Paris was a matter of supreme indifference to everyone but Wainwright.
Briefly, the space of pavement between one confectionery and cigarette shop and the next, Edward considered chucking it in. The satisfying style of the gesture would not make up for the year’s training in London: the dreary word-processor courses, the bullying condescension from older journalists whom he considered in every way his inferiors, the salary which could be divided, humiliatingly, more than twice into those of his university friends who had gone into the City. There would be a brief burst of admiration – “Hey, did you hear what old Eddy did?” – but then there would be unemployment, disillusionment or even disgust with his chosen profession, and the difficulty of settling for something else, which he might turn out to be stuck with forever, as second best.
He wished he smoked. He would have liked to go and stand on Blackfriars Bridge then, drawing deep on a slim white shaft. He would inhale and exhale steadily, his almost imperceptibly shaking hands the only sign of his distress. Instead, after half an hour’s directionless walking, he went into a fug-filled café at Ludgate Circus and ordered a black coffee and, on second thoughts, a fried-egg-and-bacon sandwich and thought about the immediate although less serious difficulty of telling his friends his farcically undignified destination.
The more he thought about it, chewing, the more angrily disappointed he became until, in a paroxysm of fury and frustration, he wondered what option he had other than to hate the place. In Paris, he would surely find nothing to compete with the fantasies which had sustained him at the word-processor. In Paris, there would be no Amazon and no Andes; no machine-gun-toting revolutionaries with faces like icons, saintly with the right of their cause; no obese cigar-smoking dictators ripe for overthrow; no mean colonels in sunglasses with whom Edward would argue wittily, trenchantly for his press pass and his justice; no poet-prophets with whom he would somehow obtain exclusive interviews and dispatch them back to London, thereby making his name in literary circles as well as press. There would
be no larger-than-life Hispanic dramas of absolute evil and absolute good: shrieking and tearing of hair and beating of large, flapping breasts; no natural cataclysms – earthquakes, landslides – in whose aftermath Edward, notebook in hand, would witness human suffering that would etch its lines and whittle down his still-too-youthful, podgy, fresh face.
In Paris – it really did not bear thinking about – he would wake in the mornings in some cushioned apartment and there would be no alien dawns outside his window, no new winds or rains, no sounds or smells or tastes he did not know by heart already. There would be no encounters with rampant women soldiers who would seduce the Englishman with their khaki-rimmed cleavages and unshaven armpits. The egg yolk clogged Edward’s throat and he had to put down his sandwich and stand up and leave the café. He went out into the street where, although it was mid-July, a steady mildewing rain was falling, and he walked back to the newspaper office to face his colleagues’ reactions.
He was quite alone in his disappointment for the older men on the paper all made jolly, envious comments to him when the news came out. They reminisced, as they browsed through files of tired clippings for their next pieces, about favourite restaurants and favourite meals. For them, Paris, indeed the world, Edward frequently thought, was nothing but an immense dining-room. They didn’t remember wars, historic happenings or meetings with great men when they recalled their younger, more active selves. They remembered
and 1961 Nuits-St-Georges. The fine profession of journalism was for them, or at any rate their journalism was for Edward, nothing but a means to eat the most meals in the most restaurants at someone else’s expense. And Paris, as a city exceptionally well supplied with excellent restaurants, naturally rated highly as a destination on their scale of priorities. There weren’t many four-star restaurants in Lima. They licked their pendulous lips at Edward’s luck. One of them, a man Edward particularly disliked for his habit of ruthlessly mocking the less pretty secretaries with a barrage of sexual suggestion, even called Edward a “jammy bastard”. Edward hated them all.
A small but especially galling footnote was that Foster was to be sent to Khartoum. Jas Foster, Edward’s fellow-trainee for the past year and pet hate, had evidently entered journalism because he saw in it an opportunity to develop his alcoholic inclinations to the full. On the few occasions he was by chance quite sober, he expressed complete cynicism for the ideals and principles of the profession which had appealed to Edward. Whether drunk or sober, he subscribed boisterously to the school of thought that the goodies of the world were now his to be consumed, at somebody else’s expense. Free drinks, free meals, free junkets here and there; that was what journalism was all about and Wainwright was a poor fool not to know it. Edward could all too easily imagine the life Foster would lead in Khartoum: an idle round of government offices for the useless officialese briefings, and the rest of his days spent propped at the bar of the press hotel, lamenting with his cronies the dearth of decent restaurants in town. He would sweat and grumble every time he had to go anywhere sandy in a Land Rover and at the end of his time in the Sudan he would still not speak more than a word or two of the local language. (What language, Edward suddenly worried, did they speak in the Sudan?) The one consolation in which Edward could uncharitably take comfort was the likelihood of Foster’s contracting some nastily exotic and perhaps penicillin-resistant strain of venereal disease. He couldn’t help but rage at the fate which had wafted undeserving Foster out to the Sudan and sent him to fester in Paris. It was bad enough for the fate which directed his future to take the form of a middle-aged incompetent in a London office. But for that fate to be both arbitrary and unjust was more than he could swallow.
He was beset by humiliating comparisons with “pretend” childhood journeys as he went through the small rituals of preparing for Paris: a five-year-old Edward on a beach somewhere, bested in argument by his older brothers and sisters, and setting off staunchly with his bucket and spade to dig his way away from them through to the other side of the earth. He remembered a miniature green rucksack, which his mother would fill with egg sandwiches and Kit Kats for him when he wanted to go “exploring”. He would set out, sternly wearing the rucksack, to go and eat his picnic by himself on
a piece of overgrown and jungly “wilderness” adjoining the family garden.
In the weeks which preceded his departure – August, with Fleet Street invaded by Crimplene-clad, immensely buttocked Americans looking for Dr Johnson’s house and the Cheshire Cheese – Edward developed a slow-burning grudge against the paper. He decided he would have his revenge by taking from them all that he could in the form of training and experience and, after a year or two, when he would be a more desirable acquisition, he would move to another paper, to a more prestigious position on another paper, and they would send him to Santiago. It was all very well publicly to save face by repeating what a good move Paris was career-wise. As far as he was concerned, in Paris he would regrettably, but it now seemed inescapably, just be marking time.
His friends greeted the news with a variety of equally irritating reactions: some said promptly that they hoped he would get a large and comfortable apartment so they could come and stay often. Others, who had always privately felt he was far too confident of his own success, jeered, “Bit of a let-down from Ouagadougou, what?” and a girl called Rosie, whom he had been looking forward to leaving far behind when his Varig-Aerolineas Argentinas-VIASA plane taxied for take-off, clasped both his hands in a wine bar and breathed, “Oh, Eddy, thank God, thank God, thank God.” Even though Edward really wasn’t all that keen, his friends decided they would hold a goodbye party for him.
The stuffy warm embrace of the party brought home to him what a non-event this departure was. Instead of awe and excitement at the distance Edward was to travel, and the titillating dangers he was to face, there was cheery indifference. Instead of raising their glasses in toasts which should long be remembered, his friends went in for a lot of “Ooh-la-la-ing” and, late in the evening, a roistering all-male can-can. Those who saw nothing to rage against in being sent to Paris (frequently female) annoyed Edward by listing the city’s trite attractions. Those who, in his place, would also have been disconsolate (frequently male) rubbed in his disappointment with jokes about Nicaragua and hiccuping cries of “
As the evening advanced and, one after another, his friends’
faces ballooned out of the dancing to hoot,
Eddy!” and “
Eddy!”, he retreated further into apparently drunken remoteness.
His best friend Roland and his best friend Guy were sitting out on the stairs, drinking from a secret cache, and abandoning the party, he went to sit there with them. From this perch, he surveyed the party ebbing around them and willed it to be over.
He did take a small, smug pleasure in the number and enthusiasm of the acquaintances who had come to clap him on the back and kick up their legs in fun at his destination. Only he wished he were sorrier to leave them. The
seemed devalued by his impatience for it all to be over, and by his pervasive regret that there would not be wider oceans than the English Channel to separate them. Rosie spent the evening noticeably always in a different room, publicly reproaching Edward for his desertion, now he had made it clear her visits would not be called for. Her attitude convinced him more than ever that, in the long term, she would have been no good as a companion. In any case, as far as he could see, there had been no way of handling the problem gallantly. He and Rosie had been sleeping together intermittently for the best part of a year but, on this Edward was adamant, there had been no agreements made between them. Rosie came to his house, her nylon sausage bag slung over one shoulder, or she came without the bag, or she didn’t come at all. But none of the three options was supposed to signify anything beyond the day on which it occurred. Sometimes, when Edward woke early in his room behind the insufficient curtains, he did not know without turning his head whether Rosie was beside him. And Rosie’s feelings for him had, until now, never much concerned him either; she seemed, in her cheerful way, to be quite contented with their arrangement. If anything, she seemed perhaps too contented. Edward didn’t like to find trailing items of her underwear forgotten under his bed or a blue box of Tampax tucked prudently in his chest of drawers. He never went as far as saying anything to Rosie about not becoming too much of a fixture. After all, she knew perfectly well that when his training period was over, the paper would send Eddy to the ends of the earth.
Although Rosie was generous and sweet-natured, obliging and affectionate, there was no doubt in Edward’s mind but that would be the end of it. For he had known all along, and had some trouble reconciling with his image of himself as someone who behaved well to women, that there would be no room for Rosie in South America.
Her attempts to treat his demotion to Paris as a happy pretext for prolonging their partnership infuriated him. He realised it would be asking too much of someone with Rosie’s aspirations to share his disappointment. But her open joy offended him. Instead of bringing what there was of a relationship to a painless close by simply putting several thousand miles between them, there had to be tedious explanations, pressure, scenes and tears. This, on top of all the other irritations of his last weeks in London, contrived to destroy any remaining affection he had for her.
He sought and found consolation in the inebriate company of Roland and Guy. The three of them had been friends since university and, in any sort of adversity involving women, tended to close ranks. The most frequent refugee, as a matter of fact, was Roland, simply because he risked his neck the most often. Fortunately, he was also the one who generally cared the least about the outcome. He had surprised everyone by getting a much sought-after job as a television researcher a year or two out of university and, assigned to a salacious late-night chat show, had quickly found his naturally promiscuous inclinations legitimised. Guy who, before admitting defeat and becoming a stockbroker, had waged a long and bitter battle to get a job somewhere civilised as an English lecturer, was altogether more reticent in his approach.
Sitting blearily between them, Edward concluded that these were the only two individuals whom he would be sincerely sorry to leave behind. But, at the same time, he congratulated himself on being the one who was leaving. Guy and Roland were both already on predetermined paths whereas he, by going away, had the whole world ahead of him. He had a vision of himself squatting between them; popular, yes, laughing, yes – at a girl called Sophie who was blowing joke kisses up at him from the hall – not bad looking, the man most likely. He was meant to stride away from them all now, wearing wide shorts
and a cocky smile, and only reappear years afterwards, with a tanned skin and a wise expression.