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Read an extract from Love Letters from Paris by Nicolas Barreau



Love Letters from Paris


Montmartre – that famous hill on the northern edge of Paris, where tourists cluster around the street painters on the Place du Tertre as they create artworks of dubious quality, where couples ramble hand in hand through the lively springtime streets before sinking down a little breathless on the steps of the Sacré- Coeur, to gaze in amazement across the city shimmering in the final gentle rosy glow before nightfall – Montmartre is home to a cemetery. It is a very old cemetery, complete with dirt paths and long shady drives that meander under lindens and maples. It even uses names and numbers, which make it seem like a real town – a very silent town. Some of the people resting here are famous. You can find graves ornamented with artistic monuments and angelic figures in flowing stone garments, their arms gracefully outstretched, eyes fixed on the sky.
A dark- haired man enters the cemetery, holding the hand of a young boy. He stops at a grave known only to a few people. No one famous slumbers here. No author, musician or painter. This isn’t the Lady of the Camellias, either. Just someone who had been deeply loved.


Nonetheless, the angel on the bronze tablet attached to the marble gravestone is one of the loveliest here. The woman’s face – earnest, perhaps even serene – gazes out, her long hair billowing around her face as if being tossed by a wind at her back. The man stands there while the child scampers around the graves, stalking colourful wings.
‘Look, Papa. A beautiful butterfly!’ he cries. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
The man gives an almost imperceptible nod. Nothing is beautiful to him any more, and he stopped believing in wonders long ago. There is no way he can know that here, of all places, something wonderful is going to happen, something that will actually come close to being a wonder. At this point, he feels like the unhappiest person on earth.
He had met his wife in this same Cimetière Montmartre, five years ago at Heinrich Heine’s grave. It had been a sun- drenched day in May, as well as the start of something that had been irretrievable
for some months now.

The man casts one last look at the bronze angel with the familiar features. He is writing secret letters, but he is unprepared for what will happen, just as unprepared as anyone can be for the arrival of happiness or love. And yet both of them are always there. As a writer, he actually should know that.
The man’s name is Julien Azoulay.
And I happen to be Julien Azoulay.

The world without you


I had just sat down at my desk to fulfil my promise and to finally, finally, write to Hélène, when the doorbell rang. I decided to ignore it, and instead unscrewed my fountain pen and straightened my piece of white paper.
‘Dear Hélène.’ I stared rather helplessly at the two words that stood there just as lost as I had been feeling for the past year.
How do you write to a person you love more than everything, but who no longer exists? I had suspected back then that I was crazy to make this promise, but Hélène had insisted, and like every other time my wife got something into her head, it was hard to argue against it. She always came out on top in the end. Hélène was very strong- willed. The only thing she’d been unable to defeat was death itself. Its will had been stronger than hers.
The doorbell chimed again, but I was already far away. I smiled bitterly and could still see her pale face and green eyes, which seemed to widen above her sunken cheeks with each passing day.
‘After I die, I want you to write me thirty- three letters,’ she had said, her eyes boring deep into mine. ‘One letter for each year of my life. Promise me this, Julien.’
‘But what good will it do?’ I replied. ‘It won’t bring you back.’
At that point, I was out of my mind with fear and anguish. I sat day and night beside Hélène’s bed, clinging to her hand, unwilling or unable to imagine a life without her.
‘Why write letters when I won’t ever get an answer? What would be the point?’ I continued quietly.
She acted as if she hadn’t heard my objection. ‘Just write to me. Describe what the world is like without me. Write about yourself and Arthur.’ She smiled as tears gathered in my eyes.
‘It will have a point, trust me. I’m sure that when all’s said and done, there’ll be an answer for you. And wherever I happen to be, I’ll read your letters and be watching out for both of you.’
I shook my head and started to weep.
‘I can’t do it, Hélène. I just can’t!’
I didn’t mean the thirty- three letters, but rather just everything. My entire life without her. Without Hélène.
She watched me with a gentle gaze, and the pity that shone from her eyes broke my heart.
‘My poor darling,’ she said, and I could feel how much effort it took for her to squeeze my hand encouragingly. ‘You have to be strong now, so you can take care of Arthur. He needs you so much.’
And then she said what she had said so many times over the past few weeks since that devastating diagnosis. Unlike me, this admission seemed to give her the strength to face the end with serenity.
‘We all have to die, Julien. It’s completely normal and part of life itself. I’ve just reached this point a little earlier than expected. I’m not happy about it, believe me, but it’s just the way it is.’ She gave a helpless shrug. ‘Come here and kiss me.’
I brushed a coppery curl back from her forehead and pressed my lips gently against hers. She had grown so fragile over these final months of a life cut far too short. Every time I gingerly hugged her, I was scared I might break something, even though pretty much everything was already destroyed. Only her courage stayed intact, and it was much stronger than my own.
‘Promise,’ she ordered once more, and I caught a little glint in her eyes. ‘I bet that by the time you’ve written the last letter, your life will have taken a turn for the better.’
‘I’m afraid you’ll lose this bet.’
‘I promise you I won’t.’ A knowing smile flickered across her face, and her eyelids fluttered. ‘And when that happens, I want a giant bouquet of roses from you – the biggest in the whole damned Cimetière Montmartre.’
That was Hélène. Even in the lowest of moments, she managed to make you smile. I cried and laughed at the same time, as she held out her frail hand. I shook it and gave her my word.