Epilogue: City of Light

by / Sunday, 23 February 2014 / Published in Book Excerpt, Dogs, Paris

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I cried for Leo for three months.

There was no summer holiday for me. There was no summer. I retreated into a heart-broken depression that anyone who has lost a beloved pet can understand.

The vet told me that Leo had died of an intestinal haemorrhage provoked by the toxicity of the cortisone treatment over the years. It was one of the known risks. I had been so optimistic. I believed that Leo had many more happy years ahead. But in the end the drug that kept him alive killed him.

I felt defeated. I hated myself for not taking more precautions with Leo’s medication. The vet reassured me that I’d done everything possible, especially as I’d always kept Leo’s dosages low.

“You did the right thing,” said the vet. “Leo lived a longer and happier life thanks to you.”

When I told my stepson David that Leo had died, he fell into a terrible silence. He had become deeply attached to Leo, who always slept on David’s bed when he was visiting. I sensed that their bond was based on David’s knowledge that Leo was ill and fighting for his life. After he learned the news, David posted a photo of Leo on his Facebook page, telling his friends that “my dog Leo” had died and that he was going offline for a while. The comments of his friends in England were deeply moving.

I had Oscar to care for, of course, and we resumed our daily routines. For weeks I was filled with anxiety every time we stepped outside. I felt the stares of my Poodleland neighbours, watching me as I passed by with only one little white dog. Occasionally a lady I scarcely recognised stopped to say: “Vous n’en avez pas deux?” It was that remark, asking where my other little dog was, that I dreaded.

Capture d’écran 2014-02-23 à 18.48.08I eventually avoided those encounters by taking Oscar in the bus to Saint-Germain-des-Prés where I walked him through the Left Bank and in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Oscar, too, was suffering from Leo’s absence, it was obvious in his mood and sad questioning eyes.

At first I’d wanted to have Leo cremated and release his ashes on the Seine between the Alma and Invalides bridges. Then I changed my mind. I had Leo cremated so I could keep his urn. One day, hopefully many years from now, I would bury the ashes of Oscar and Leo together – near Rin Tin Tin, Barry the Saint-Bernard, and Napoleon’s canine mascot Moustache at the Cimetière des Chiens.

The morning the vet called to say Leo’s ashes had arrived, I was so nervous that I asked my friend Paul Okel to accompany me to pick up the urn. At the vet clinic I asked Paul if he would carry the urn. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to carry little Leo in a bag containing his cremated body. At my door Paul handed me the bag, shook my hand, and we said goodbye.

Inside my apartment, I reached carefully into the bag and pulled out the small urn. I collapsed onto the sofa cradling it in my hands, sobbing and moaning Leo’s name. 

 

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When the moist autumn air arrived in September, the streets of Paris were bustling with renewed purpose. I was returning to my role as university professor with students to meet and classes to teach, slowly pulling myself out of depression.

Nicolas Sarkozy was no longer president of France, defeated by the unlikely successor to DSK in the figure of François Hollande, whose main election promise was to make the rich pay. France was once again under Socialist rule. To tell the truth, I didn’t give a damn about French politics any more. For too long I had watched the French betrayed by their elites. Another national disenchantment was doubtless not far off – probably sooner than later.   

One morning a postman came with a registered letter from the Tribunal de Grande Instance setting court date for the appeal to have my casier judiciaire erased. The wheels of justice grind slowly in France, but your day in court always arrives. I was relieved to see that my court appearance fell on a day when I had no lectures.

That day arrived on a warm autumn morning at the end of October. I left Oscar in the flat and took the 63 bus to Odéon and walked down to the Seine. When I arrived at the Pont Neuf near the equestrian statue of Henri IV, I cut through the Place Dauphine. It was still early morning and the ancient square, carpeted with soft brown sand, was magically luminescent with twisted autumn tree branches standing out against the aquatint facades.

I entered the Palais de Justice through the magnificent portico where two giant eagles stand atop a wide neo-classical façade lined with Doric columns. After passing through security I got lost in a labyrinth of musty corridors, finally emerging in a courtyard at the base of the Sainte-Chappelle. For the first time I was struck by the strangeness of this architectural juxtaposition: one of France’s oldest, most sacred monuments, the private chapel of French kings stretching back to the 13th century, was physically engulfed by a maze of buildings that housed a network of modern courtrooms and judicial bureaucracies. Accused criminals of every persuasion facing their day in court crossed this courtyard amidst tourists pointing their cameras at the medieval church.

Capture d’écran 2014-02-23 à 18.52.24When I found courtroom 17, I slipped in discreetly and took a place at the back. The majesty of the panelled courtroom and the elaborate formalities of the proceedings seemed oddly archaic for the nature of the cases being heard – everything from drunken brawls in Parisian bars to daylight muggings for smartphones and laptop computers. Good God, I thought, I’m in with a bad lot here. It occurred to me, however, that perhaps it was to my advantage. My casier judiciaire appeal would seem eminently reasonable following this sad parade of misfits.

When I took a seat at the back of the courtroom, the judge was ruling on the case of two Romanian gypsies accused of stealing copper wires from a rail line in Paris. When arrested their pockets were stuffed with cell phones believed to have been the spoils of petty thievery. The judge, a young magistrate who looked to be about forty, was growing increasingly exasperated by this matter because neither of the two accused spoke a word of French and the translator was having difficulty communicating their plea. The judge curtly ordered the translator to convene with the accused and reappear when called later.

A few minutes later, a clerk ordered everyone present to leave the courtroom for what I thought was an adjournment. I waited outside in the grand hall mingling with the other felons. Suddenly a policeman emerged from the courtroom and called out: “Monsieur Fraser!”

Startled, I got to my feet and marched briskly into the courtroom. Inside I discovered that I was alone except for the judge, the clerk, and the prosecutor. The courtroom had been cleared for my private in camera appearance before the judge hearing my appeal. I was unfamiliar with these special procedures but certainly did not object. My appeal was being heard in an empty courtroom, out of public view. This time there would be no laughter from the gallery at the words “fuck you”.

I took my place at the front of the courtroom, standing erect and doing my best to appear dignified and respectful. The ambience, to my surprise, seemed oddly informal. The woman prosecutor read out my name and profession, stressing that I was a professor at Sciences Po, then briefly read out the details of my conviction and the penalty imposed. Given the circumstances, she added, she saw no reason to oppose my appeal to the court to have my casier judiciaire erased.

The judge turned to me with a smile that almost seemed warm. He accepted the judgement of the prosecutor and granted my appeal.

 “And what do you teach at Sciences Po, Professor Fraser?” asked the judge.

Taken aback, I replied: “Courses on the media and politics, mainly.”

He again smiled and said, “Excellent.”

I rather thought he was going to invite me for a brandy in his judge’s chambers. But after a quick nod I turned on my feet and exited the courtroom. My ordeal was over.

I descended the stairs leading down from the Palais de Justice façade and crossed the road to the Place Dauphine to find myself again in the Impressionist tableau of twisted trees and aquatint facades. This time I remained in the picture, looking all around me, spinning and thinking and breathing. I thought I was going to break down and cry. But fortunately an old lady hobbled across my field of vision and scrutinised me as she passed. I smiled at her and nodded, almost ready to wish her a good day.

I could hear myself saying: “Je vous souhaite une bonne journée, Madame!”

 

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When I arrived home Oscar greeted me as if I’d been away for three days, jumping up and licking my knuckles as I reached down to take him up in my arms. It was still late morning and the day was splendid, so I put on his harness and we set out for a walk in the autumn air.

Just down the road we bumped into the indefatigable Benson, the canine star of the 7th arrondissement, going on his usual rounds in Poodleland. When we arrived at the Invalides esplanade I heard a familiar voice calling in the distance. I looked over to see the French homeless man sitting on his usual bench under the trees with Boulie, the aged black poodle faithfully at his side. I smiled and waved and we walked over with Oscar to chat.

“How is Boulie?” I said.

Bien,” he replied. “Seventeen now.”

Boulie looked up, scarcely seeing us with his glaucoma cataracts. I caressed him so he could feel my energy enter his old and frail body.

I reached in my pocket and pulled out a twenty-euro note. “Here, take this,” I said. “You two have a fabulous day.”

He took the money humbly and made a hand gesture to show his gratitude. As I ambled off with Oscar, Boulie tugged on his lead to follow us.

Oscar was leading me, like my shepherd, pulling me across the esplanade. Just as we were reaching the other side of the wide Invalides lawns, I noticed an attractive woman coming in our direction.

Salut Matthew,” she said.

I stopped and looked hard at this woman. She was thin and diminutive with cascading silver hair coming down from a soft delicate face with large emerald eyes. I had no idea who she was.

Salut!” she repeated.

I looked again at her. I still didn’t recognise her. Who was she and how did she know me?

 “C’est Camille,” she said. “Don’t you recognise me?”

I looked again – astonished. It was indeed Camille. Feeling like a fool, I approached and clutched her warmly. We gave each other an affectionate bisou kiss on each cheek.

“Camille, you look so different!”

“I know,” she said. “It’s a wig.”

Her eyes went sad and she explained: “I have cancer.”

I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say. And so I said, “No!”

“I wanted to call you,” she said, “but I didn’t want to burden you with my health, especially after what you’d been through with your wife. It came suddenly, right in the middle of my divorce. It’s ovarian cancer. I had to focus on my health. I was in the Villejuif hospital for a few months and then there was a period of chemotherapy. But I’m feeling much better now. I want to see you again.”Capture d’écran 2014-02-23 à 18.51.31

Camille smiled at me brightly. Her vitality was so captivating I almost forgot what she had just told me about her illness. She was a gorgeous woman, even in her wig.

“My God, I feel like such an idiot,” I said. “I actually thought you were ignoring me.”

“No Matthew, I just didn’t want to inflict all my miseries on you. I didn’t even know whether I was going to make it through. But I’m fine now.”

“I’m so awfully sorry, Camille,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m going to fight this. I want to live. Life is too precious to give up so easily.”

We looked at each other, searchingly, without saying anything.

“Hello Oscar!” she said. Then she looked up at me and said: “I heard about Leo. One of the neighbours told me. I knew what you were going through. I’m so glad you have Oscar.”

“How is Mooky?” I said.

“Mooky is fine – she’s at my country house in Normandy. That’s where I have been staying while going through the chemotherapy. I needed to be somewhere quiet and out of view. But I think I’m ready to go back to work now.”

We looked in each other’s eyes again without saying anything.

“I’m just going on a walk with Oscar,” I said. “No idea where we’re going. Wherever there are trees.”

 “I will call you,” she said. “Very soon.”

“Okay,” I replied.

We kissed on the cheek again and said goodbye. I turned to follow Camille with my eyes as she walked away, beautiful and radiant.

Oscar was pulling on his lead to walk towards the Seine. As we crossed the esplanade, I looked up at the enormous gold dome of the Invalides glistening in the sunlight. When we reached the Concorde bridge, the Sacré Coeur basilica came into view perched on the Montmartre hill. Crossing the bridge I turned back and looked across the Seine to see the Eiffel Tower standing proudly. I turned again toward Sacré Coeur looking down on the City of Light.

At that instant I felt a bright and warm flash of joy. I reached down and took Oscar in my arms and, lifting him high in the air, slowly spun around towards Sacré Coeur as the sunlight illuminated his fleecy white head.

“You are my little lamb,” I said.

Oscar looked back at me panting happily. I put him down and we headed across the bridge toward the Place de la Concorde on our way to the Tuileries gardens.

I now could say, perhaps for the first time, that we were finally in a place we could call home. I was home again in Paris.

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