Justine quickly walked up the wide stairway in front of the Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles. It was an old train station, built on top of a hill in 1848. She counted the steps aloud as she ascended, her voice growing breathier as she finally reached the last of seven landings. One hundred and four. Just as she’d remembered from her childhood.
She turned and looked down at the city of Marseille below her. She had many good memories of growing up here, and she’d enjoyed her stay, but it was time to go back home now. Time to get back to Theo.
Justine clutched the ticket in her hand. There was a line at the check-in counter nearly ten people long. She brushed her sun streaked hair out of her face and took her place behind an older gentleman wearing a gray suit and tie.
“Bonjour,” he greeted, the light from above glinting in the small, round surfaces of his eye glasses.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” Justine replied with a smile. “Comment allez-vous?”
“Bien, merçi. Et vous?”
“Ah,” Justine said with a dip of her chin. “Bien, aussi. Trés bien.”
And she was very well indeed. She was on her way home to Paris to see her son after playing nursemaid for nearly a month. Juliette was great, as far as sisters went, but no one was better company than her Theo. Oh, how she missed that child.
The line moved forward and soon she was pulling her suitcase behind her toward the train that would take her past Avignon and over the Loire River as it made its way toward Lyon and then Paris. The little wheels spun and jumped as they worked to keep up with her. She glanced quickly at the signs and politely dodged other passengers as she hurried to the designated track.
She beat the train by a quarter of an hour, and by the time it pulled up and the doors opened, she’d memorized the information printed on her ticket. She picked up her suitcase and draped her jacket over her arm before stepping inside.
It was easy enough to find the right car, and once she was there, she tipped her blue eyes upward and scanned the numbers above each row of seats. That’s it, she thought to herself as she arrived at the correct location. A young, dark-haired girl sat near the window. She looked up as Justine dropped lightly into seat number nine. The girl offered her a shy smile and Justine returned it.
“Hello,” the child said, her words dripping with a deep British accent. “I’m Alice. I’m on holiday.”
“Very well then, Alice,” Justine responded in well-practiced English. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She held her hand out and Alice gave it a shake. “You’re rather young to be traveling alone cross country, aren’t you?”
“I’m eight,” the girl informed her. “But small for my age.”
“Hmmm, I see,” Justine said with an understanding nod.
“And I’m not traveling alone,” she admitted. “Mum and Dad are a few rows back. The train was nearly full and I got to sit by myself.”
Justine looked around, surveying the car. “It is full, isn’t it?” She looked back at Alice. “Everyone is eager to visit Paris. June is the perfect time of year for it, you know?”
“I’ve never been.”
“Ah,” Justine smiled. “I think you’re going to love it.”
“Do you visit much?”
“Actually, I live in Paris.”
“On a beach holiday, then?”
“Not exactly,” Justine explained. “You see, my sister, my very, very clumsy sister, Juliette, had an accident. I’ve been in Marseille helping her rehabilitate.”
“Oh, no!” Alice exclaimed. “Was she hurt badly?”
“Yes. It was her leg. Broken, I’m afraid, with a cast up to here.” She tapped the middle of her thigh. “But now that she has done a bit of healing, I’m going back home. My son, Theo, is waiting for me.”
“Have you missed him?”
“You have no idea,” Justine sighed dramatically. The child laughed. “He’s exactly your age. He’s not small, though. In another few years, I fear he’ll be as tall as I am.”
The train had begun moving while the two had been having their chat and Alice turned her head to watch the scenery. “How long will it take to get to Paris?”
“A few hours. Did you bring something to pass the time?”
Alice nodded. “A book.”
“Brilliant,” Justine said, digging into her purse. “How would your parents feel about me sharing some sweets?”
Alice watched as her seat mate pulled out a cellophane bag full of peppermint candies. “Oh,” she said. “They wouldn’t mind a bit.”
Justine smiled and poured seven of the treats into Alice’s cupped hands. “Suck on them, don’t chew. That way you save your teeth and make them last throughout the trip.”
Alice unwrapped one of the candies and popped it into her mouth. “Thank you,” she said as she opened her book and began to read.
In Paris, there are six large main-line railway terminals. Paris-Gare de Lyon was one of them, situated on the north bank of the river Seine in the eastern part of the city.
As soon as the train had pulled into the station, Justine waited until Alice was reunited with her parents before bidding her adieu. After she freed herself from the knot of people on the platform, she found herself tempted by a menu posted outside Le Train Bleu.
The entrance to the restaurant was ornate; golden gilding and carvings, beautiful arches adorned with angels, wings aflutter. Opened to celebrate the Great Exhibition of 1900, the dining establishment had served a list of esteemed guests. The list included Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, and Brigitte Bardot. Justine had eaten at Le Train Bleu a few times, although not with any celebrities. She had read Agatha Christie’s bestselling novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train, though. She’d enjoyed both the restaurant and the novel tremendously.
Her stomach grumbled and she pulled out her phone, touching the screen to bring it to life. It was nearly noon. No wonder she was hungry. For just a minute, she longed to sit on one of the ornate seats upholstered in royal blue fabric and eat a leg of lamb with potatoes cooked with Fourme d’Ambert cheese. Another quiet groan from beneath her belt brought her out of her reverie. She shook her head, and the thought of gourmet cuisine, out of her mind. She had Theo to get to. She’d pick something up to snack on while she made her way to their meeting place.
Justine stepped out into the sunshine and took a breath of summer time air. The sky was a brilliant blue and she squinted, reaching into her purse for a pair of sunglasses. She hailed one of the taxi’s waiting for a fare and pulled her suitcase into the car beside her.
“Notre Dame,” she told the driver after a moment’s thought. She turned her head to catch a glimpse of the ornate clock tower that faced Boulevard Diderot, the street on which they were traveling. She’d seen it many times, and, as always, it reminded her of Big Ben. She smiled when Alice came to mind, and wondered if the child would also see the resemblance.
The traffic was heavy as it always was and Justine tried to relax as the driver deftly maneuvered the vehicle. She’d been sitting for too long and looked forward to the walk she had ahead of her. Theo would be meeting her on the other side of the city. She could easily take the taxi all the way to Quai Branly where he would be waiting, but he wouldn’t be there for another couple of hours. She’d missed her city and knew by taking a leisurely stroll, she’d be giving Paris the opportunity to welcome her back home.
“Ici, s’il vous plait,” she said, leaning forward in her seat. She saw the driver’s eyes move upward in the rearview mirror.
“D’accord,” he responded, pulling the car over on Quai de la Tournelle. She handed him twenty euros and as he made change, she looked up to see that they were near the Pont de l’Archeveche, or Archbishop’s Bridge. It was a road bridge, but quite narrow. As she walked toward it pulling her suitcase along she thought she remembered Theo telling her that it was the narrowest road bridge in all of Paris.
Years earlier, when the Pont d’Arts was relieved of all the love locks that had been placed there, everyone decided to start attaching their padlocks on this bridge instead. There were so many of them, all different colors and glinting warmly in the sun. As Justine walked above the stone arches, she reached her hand out and her fingers skipped along five of the locks. They were warm to the touch and clicked together when she touched them. She and Theo’s father had taken part in this Parisian tradition years before their son had been born. He had engraved their initials upon the metal of their chosen lock before going out and attaching the token of love among the hundreds of others.
But that had been years ago, back when they had been young. Back when Mathis had still been alive. Justine hadn’t retrieved it before they’d cut the heavy assortment of love locks from Pont d’Arts. She imagined that the one that had belonged to them was at the bottom of the Seine, buried among the debris that resided there.
Justine sighed, her head turned to the left. Notre Dame rose high into the sky and she blinked away tears. She veered left onto Rue du Cloître Notre Dame and came upon the cathedral and all the tourists who swarmed around it. Happy, smiling people on holiday, in awe of the sights that lived in her beautiful city.
She smiled and tipped her head, seeing four pigeons perched nonchalantly atop Stryga’s head. The sight made her laugh and she pushed her sunglasses higher on the bridge of her nose. It was hard to see him well from where she stood, but she thought he looked a bit angry with the birds, his chin resting in the palms of both hands, his beastly mouth formed into a rounded pout. He was supposed to be scary, but the pigeons were largely unaffected by his monstrous appearance. Stryga was perhaps the most famous resident of Notre Dame, often called the spitting gargoyle. Justine knew better. He was a chimera. Theo had told her so.
She turned left again in front of the cathedral onto Place Jean Paul II where she crossed the Seine once more, this time walking over Pont au Double. Her stomach protested again, annoyed that it had been ignored for so long.
Justine followed the bank of the river and saw the pyramid in Cour Napoléon wink at her. The sun was reflecting off the glass and metal, advertising the location of the Louvre better than any marquee. It was time to appease the hungry gremlin in her belly, and this was the perfect place to do so. She chose a spot in her favorite outdoor café and plopped herself down as she watched the museum goers move toward the Palais du Louvre.
If there was a better place to people watch than Paris, Justine couldn’t fathom where it might be. She sipped on her café crème, one of three she decided to order, while nibbling the pain au chocolat that rested on a plate in the center of her small table. The crust was flaky and tasted of butter, but the real treat was the bittersweet chocolate, all warm and gooey, that was tucked inside. She took her time with the pastry, feeling the heat of the sun as it shone on her face. She watched as tourists passed by the café, their hands busy with métro maps and their necks adorned with expensive cameras. There was so much to see, and she smiled inwardly at the unconcealed masks of fascination they all seemed to wear on their faces.
Her hunger abated, Justine pulled herself from her comfortable seat and continued her trek. La Tour Eiffel loomed in the distance and she felt a tingle of anticipation stir within her. It had been a long month without Theo. Although they’d spoken on the phone every day, and they’d seen one another on their computer screens, she found that spending time with him from a distance was a poor substitute for the real thing. She loved her sister, but had decided within days of arriving in Marseille that Juliette needed to learn to be more careful.
“Maman!” She started at the sound of his voice and looked up to see her son running toward her.
“Theo!” she yelled back, her heart swelling at the sight of him. “Je suis donc heureux de vous voir!” From over his bobbing blond head Justine spotted Sophie, her dear friend who had moved into the flat she and Theo shared while Justine had been away.
The boy ran to his mother, nearly knocking her over in his excitement. She laughed and mussed his hair with her fingers before bending to take his head between both of her hands. His eyes were wide and round and she gave him two sound kisses, first on his right cheek and then on his left.
“Salut,” she told him, still smiling.
“Je vous ai manqué,” he responded. Justine nodded in agreement. She’d missed him, too.
She opened her arms. “Embrasse-moi serré et ne jamais laisser aller,” she told him. He gave her a dazzling smile and did as she’d asked, wrapping his arms tightly around her in one gigantic hug.