By Kathleen Sullivan
Drawing in a deep breath, Harriet peered out from the window in the lobby of the most pretentious hotel in Knightsbridge. She furrowed her brow toward a sunken sky as autumn gusts blew down the avenue and scattered crumpled, bronze leaves toward her and the intimidating sandstone facade. Round and round the scratching leaves were swept to be caught between the spires of a black railing separating the hotel from the sidewalk. Hypnotized, she looked on in a trance. A succession of late nights and early mornings had impacted a work schedule jammed full of tedious all day meetings. Not to mention her first presentation ever at the corporate level. Harriet had scarcely been so stressed in her life and now, when all the business was done, she found her body physically worn out, but her spirit soared in excitement and anticipation of what was to come next. She was going on an adventure.
Back home on her family’s farm near Rudston Yorkshire, she usually had a lie-in on weekend mornings. But this weekend she had other plans. She knew when she accepted this promotion, three months earlier, it would challenge her, but she had promised herself to reap all the benefits it brought. Today held one such benefit. Besides, a TED Talk she had recently seen on social media stuck with her. It was for young professionals, like herself, and highlighted the importance for finding balance between work-life and relaxation. Usually at home, she would unwind by reading one of her favorite nineteenth century pioneer novelists or take her little dog, Sally, on evening walks to the edge of the luscious, heather-wrapped moors of the East Riding of Yorkshire near her home. This weekend, however, she planned to travel a bit farther. Geographically speaking, she found herself perfectly situated in the south of England for a covert operation such as she had planned. Harriet was about to reward herself for the enormous effort she had put into this work project in order to provide the necessary balance she craved.
“Beep Beep!” Her taxi arrived and drew in close to the hotel entrance.
Her gray business attire matched the weather of the day, but not her mood. A black, designer duck-down winter coat on top, kept her warm. Within minutes she climbed inside, with her purse strap swung across her body, she dropped her rucksack at her feet. The hackney cab took off toward St Pancras Station. It was Friday morning in the second week of September. Harriet had completed her first major presentation of her career to senior executives at the divisional headquarters. It was well received. She had worked hard on it, but was generally more comfortable working from her drawing room at home and collaborating with her colleagues via video conference. This is what she had been doing for the firm in the ten years or so she worked for them. She had an actual office in the city of Hull and often worked on national projects from there. Occasionally, she made trips like this one, but she had never been invited to participate in the action at the annual conference before. She found the entire week, and several weeks leading up to it, to be nerve racking.
Then there was London, which she always felt to be like a distant cousin to her, whom she rarely met, like at family gatherings and such. They got along, but only because they were expected to do so. Usually after these meetings were over she tried to get back up north as fast as she could, mainly because she found city-people to be intense, always in a hurry, but mostly she found their lifestyle to be in sharp contrast to that of country people. However, on this particular morning she paid no attention to that. When the driver pulled-in at the station, she paid him through the sliding-window, grabbed her stuff, and stepped out into the commotion of this bustling city hub. Once inside the huge building, she placed her bags down and leaned against a pillar to scrutinize her itinerary one more time. The information board at the other end of the concourse had been moving and flashing different names and numbers in succession. Finally the one she waited for came up, the 09:35 train from St Pancras to Gare Du Nord, will be leaving from platform 1A.
Off in the direction of the happy train she ambled, passport and e-ticket in hand. She edged her way through security amidst hundreds of travelers attempting to board the same Eurostar express train to Paris that morning. No issues arose for Harriet as her bags passed through x-ray scanners and her passport and e-ticket were easily accepted by French customs officers. However, this proved to not be the case for several other people gathered in the chaos of the security checkpoint. She felt relieved for herself, but a little bit concerned for the others. It was a long line and, as she cleared the top end of it, Harriet looked back in triumph that she had made it through. Unfortunately, there was no-one there to acknowledge it or share her joy. She felt like a stray and a little uneasy at the unexpected close proximity to men in uniform. A sudden stab of loss pierced her heart. In her mind, she saw herself open the front-door of their flat to the CNO, (casualty notification officer), standing outside when he came to inform her that her beloved Harry, a second lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals, was gone.
A tear escaped her eye, but she quickly wiped it away. It had been five years at Christmas since her husband died on the front lines in Iraq, but in moments like this one, it felt as if it were yesterday. That feeling of belonging is such a beautiful, timeless thing, she thought. Out of her comfort zone, she was pushing her boundaries and, for this weekend, opted to leave those warm fuzzy feelings behind her. This was the farthest she had ventured since that day and the events following it. As she trekked along the platform she reminded herself, This is to be a fun adventure. I designed it to be such, away from everything, where I can relax and enjoy my life a little. Her sister, Meredith and husband John, had agreed to care for her nine-pound Shi-Tzu, Sally, until her return. She didn’t like leaving Sally, but once she got going she was OK with it. Besides, Sally was a good little dog and the kids would enjoy having her around for the weekend. She and Harry never had kids of their own, but they had wanted to and planned to start trying that following February when he returned from his final tour.
Safely aboard the train, with her backpack wedged into the space above her seat and her purse tucked under her arm, she placed her tablet on her lap. At last, she had time to catch up on her reading list, time that had to be shelved recently amid the abyss of research of commercial specifications, blue prints, and other technical information which had consumed her in preparation for her big, scary debut in London. Harriet had graduated with a master degree in architecture from Hull university, top of her class. That is where she met Harry. He invested his college days in computer science and he was good at it. While she took her skills into the world of commerce, Harry enlisted in the military. Harriet leaned back in her seat and stretched. Glad to be on this train and heading away into her dreams with all that stress and worry of her first big proposal behind her.
Back in her college days, she imagined she would be creating pretty little cottages and country homes with all manner of towers and turrets, but instead she consulted for a national company that built shopping malls near new residential home developments. She was in the big leagues, but considered her job to be partly community service for all the new little families her company indirectly served. She quietly grieved the loss of her husband and the loss of a future with him, with their eventual kids, and a home of their own. She had buried that dream with Harry in the churchyard in Rudston and now, almost six years later, she had found the courage to move forward to possibly find a new dream.
Clearing her mind, she settled down to read anticipating being swept up into the heady heights of lust in the arms of the passionate Heathcliff, on her very own Yorkshire moors, or even a close dance with the tall, dark, but very aloof Mr. Darcy. She missed the embrace of a man. In her heart she was a forever romantic who considered her internal world of art and literature as being part of a northern European archipelago of sorts, with Jane Austen or Emily and Charlotte Bronte coming from the northernmost island in the group. She relished the idea of stepping out and exploring other islands of this imaginary archipelago packed with artisan refinement, on this trip, or any other clandestine trips she would plan in the future.
Whistles screamed and loud clanging sounds of heavy metal levers and brakes being released resounded as the train shuffled it’s way out of the shackles holding it to the rails. Very soon it flung along the track to reach an astounding speed of one hundred twenty-five miles per hour. Quaint English countryside scenes flashed in the window and were quickly replaced by brief moments of blackness as tunnels punctuated the journey with darkness. Occasionally, she looked up over her reading glasses that fell on her cheeks like petals from a fading English rose in the sun. The train hurled in and out of tunnels going faster and faster. Another tunnel sucked them in and then an even longer one. Are we in France, Harriet questioned? Suddenly the electricity pylons in the fields took on a much more stylish shape. We are in France, she concluded in her mind as the world of Claude Monet opened up to her. The romance of French countryside images kissed her eyes and her imagination soared.
Two hours and fifty-eight minutes after the start of her journey, Harriet stepped out onto Rue de Dunkerque as Paris greeted her like a recurring childhood dream. That is when her heart abandoned her and her inner compass shifted. Dazed from the allure of it all, she took a few steps forward and turned to look up at the majestic stone exterior behind her. She had read online that the station, built in the 1860’s, was one of the busiest train stations in the world outside of Japan. Apparently, this station sees one hundred eighty million passengers a year. It seemed to her that all those people had turned out right there to greet her. The sheer enormity and beauty of it, with glinting statues above all the doorways, took her breath. However fast and busy the people of London had been, Paris had them beat by the power of ten.
Bundled into the back of the car, sent by the hotel in her booking request, Harriet soon discovered it better not to look out through the windshield while being driven at speed through the city of Paris. Many high-speed scooters, traveling randomly through an absolutely unorganized traffic flow, jutted in and out of fast-moving, and sometimes stationary, vehicles crammed into skinny streets. Under the afternoon sun and amid thick congestion, she observed quintessential Parisian-alfresco-cafes squashed onto narrow strips of sidewalk between tall white limestone buildings. Yes, this is Paris alright, she thought, as her pulse quickened. Feeling more like she had mistakenly stumbled onto the set of a James Bond movie, Harriet struggled to remain upright as she peered out through the side window to pair what she was seeing, however fleetingly, with stuff she had studied in college. Towers in Romanesque, Baroque, and Medieval architectural styles crowded over endless red lights on thin avenues choked traffic through renaissance Paris. Forty minutes later the route opened onto rambling parks which appeared, and disappeared just as quickly, as the car cut through a city thick with history. There was a sign, Champs-Elysee. The car crossed over a bridge on the river Seine. That’s when Harriet had her first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower piercing high up in revolt into an iridescent blue sky. Wow, I can’t believe I’m going to be up there tonight, she thought.
With rusty high-school French and a bit of pantomime, she checked-in to the hotel and took the elevator to the eleventh floor thinking that she must have booked this room by mistake. No wonder it cost so much, she thought, judging by a soft white robe and matching slippers, a basket of fruit, and a bouquet of flowers awaiting her. I’m having some wine tonight, for sure, she thought. After a short nap atop a California king bed dressed in sumptuous white linens, Harriet pulled out her e-ticket for the 7:45pm, no waiting, guided ascent of the Eiffel Tower and laid it on the bed next to her evening outfit. The hot shower felt good against her travel weary body. Complimentary shower gel filled the room with an exotic, spicy aroma. Pinch me I must be dreaming. She pulled her clothes on, pressed a dab of eye shadow across her eyelids and a puff of blusher on her cheeks with a swipe of lipstick onto her unkissed lips. She brushed mascara onto her eyelashes, but no perfume tonight. She had entered the world center for such and planned to load up with the latest one Paris had to offer and any others that caught her eye – the ones she had only ever seen in glossy magazines. Downstairs in the lobby, the concierge gave her directions to the meeting point on her e-ticket and off she strode into a warm Paris evening.
Two short blocks from the hotel, Harriet joined a joyful group of tourists at the designated office where they met the tour guide. He led them toward the enigmatic iron marvel, an iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. As they walked along he divulged all the specifications and secrets of its inception and history. Harriet’s brain had been saturated that day, besides, this was Paris, her heart was in charge now. She did not retain much of the information. The benefit of having the group ticket was that she could pass effortlessly through the crowds gathered at the base, through the security checkpoint, and board the elevator without stopping. Slowly the crammed carriage slid up the rail to the first floor, where a few passengers got off, and then on to the second.
The sun was about to set as all of Paris stretchered out before her. Harriet wandered around the second floor deck taking pictures with her phone and gazing in awe out over the city of lights, of love, of fashion and of couture. How lucky am I to have been able to come here? She blew a kiss in the direction of the setting sun with the thought, Sleep well tonight my darling Harry. Lines to the gift shops and restaurants were long, but she waited to purchase small trinkets to take home. It had been a beautifully warm day so far, but the night air had a chill to it. On the way down, sparkly lights came on and randomly danced all over the outer structure of the tower in some kind of orchestrated light show. Magic filled the air and Paris came to life. Harriet had never seen anything like it. In her mind she drew a sharp contrast between Paris and the serene little hamlet of Rudston where she lived. She thought of the standing stone in the churchyard there, the highest megalith in the UK. She had a lot of history there. In that very churchyard, during a school field trip is where her interest in architecture first surfaced.
During the descent of the Eiffel Tower she calculated the dimensions in her head, comparing them. The Eiffel Tower is more than six times higher than the Rudston standing stone, but from what the guide had told them, it was a mere ninety years old, while her standing stone had been estimated to be more than three thousand years old. These thoughts filled her mind in awe, as the two iconic landmarks jostled in her heart for first place.
On the ground, the day was plunged into darkness and Harriet suddenly felt afraid. Her family and friends back home had told her not to go out alone after dark. Shuffling through the crowd in the general direction of the hotel, she kept close behind a middle aged couple nodding her head and smiling occasionally to give the impression she was part of their conversation, so anyone seeing her would assume they were all together. Before she knew it, she was back at her hotel. It was late, but she made her way to the restaurant and was shown to a table in Le Jardin. She ate a dinner of fine local fish and vegetables with a glass of the house white. After about an hour or so, she scooped up her second glass and headed for the elevator to be whisked up onto her own private cloud above the city of light. She slept a sound sleep while evening air billowed in through the window sheers, bringing traces of Paris to her through the night.
In the morning of day two, Harriet headed to the taxi stand with her preprinted e-tickets to Le Louvre and also the Hop-On Hop-Off Big-Red, City-Bus-Tour. At the rendezvous point, the guide escorted an excited group of site seers along a few tight avenues and into the world famous square where morning sun glinted on the glass pyramid entrance. Her prying eyes darted all over the mystifying icon designed by I. M. Pei, a renowned Chinese American architect who was commissioned to create it by the French Prime Minister for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. She had read an article about it in an architectural magazine and now she was standing right there, in front of it. Her knowledge and deep appreciation of the work caused her to take a little longer than the others to enter, but once down the extra-long escalator crowds of people swallowed her up. They congregated here and there along huge hallways and inside enormous rooms. Walls aligned with all manner of statues and paintings, some bigger than the entire front of her family’s modest little house back home, showcased centuries of art of all kinds. She was lost in absolute bewildering enchantment.
Two floors down from the surface, Harriet scoured the hallways in anticipation of an intimate encounter with the five hundred year-old painting she had come there to see. An image of it burned in her mind and compelled her to hasten her step through arched hallways and anterooms galore. Finally she stood in a place where she was able to look upon the beautiful face. It was the face of the one and only Mona Lisa. Secured on a wall in a grand hall and enclosed behind a bulletproof glass partition, the most beautiful face in the world looked out onto the swarming crowd before her. Harriet edged closer through the horde trying to get near enough to look into her eyes. Is she looking back at me? What a thrill! For a few moments in Paris time stood still.
Harriet ate lunch in one of the many cafes and wandered through floors, up and down escalators and stairs taking in all the beauty in absolute awe, until she had no appreciation left in her to give. She had come across a crowd gazing up at the Winged Victory of Samothrace, then another at the Venus de Milo, on a couple of the palatial stairwells. Fascinated by the underground shopping mall deep down inside the museum, she made a couple of purchases of books for the kids and prints of the woman she had come to see, for herself and Meredith. Suddenly realizing she had somehow gotten lost, Harriet was unable to find the way out. Panic set in. Tired and overwhelmed, she asked at the information desk and before long she was above ground breathing in fresh afternoon air.
When the Hop-On Big Red-Bus showed up, she had no hope left in her. Glad of a seat and a little breeze flowing through an open window on what had become a humid last day of summer in Paris, Harriet crawled onto an empty seat. She hooked up her ear buds to the overhead gadget in preparation for the tour commentary. As she settled in and chose her language the male voice, speaking English with heavy French overtones, lulled her. He described each building and monument on the tour. Passing in front of her eyes were, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Moulin Rouge, Trocadero Museum and Arc de Triomphe. During the pauses, exquisite guitar music, and the song Parisienne Walkways by Gary Moore, played. She felt moved by it and fell in love with Paris right there. As the bus navigated along the Champs-Elysee, Harriet listened intently as the tour guide told how it was the most sought after location for leading designers to have their flagship stores. Scouring the rows and rows of shopfronts squashed in behind droves of shoppers on the bustling wide sidewalks, she gave up searching for her favorite ones. On one corner she did see the Louis Vuitton mansion seven stories tall, but nothing of Dior, Channel, Yves Saint Laurent, Nina Ricci or Givenchy.
It had been a long ten-hour day crammed with tourism, heat, crowds, and stunning beauty. Harriet felt it in her bones. When the bus pulled into the Eiffel Tower stop, already familiar with the streets around it, she got off and made her way back to her hotel. Dinner became a sleepy affair before she sauntered over to the elevator to go pack up her things. Down below on the avenues, Saturday night party people came out to play while this weary traveler crept under the duvet in preparation for her train back to London in the morning. An all consuming sleep came easily and took her away.
She had set her alarm to be up and checked out around eight thirty. The train, scheduled to leave at noon, would get her back to London in time for her home connection. Few people were around in the lobby so checkout was a breeze, she was all set. Approaching the taxi stand, Harriet formulated a plan to get a tour of the most exclusive perfume houses en route to the station. Perhaps she could ask the taxi driver to drop her there. She could get another taxi afterward, she mused and maybe even try to get a glimpse of the tunnel where Princess Diana had tragically lost her life. Looking up from her daydream she realized she was alone in the street! Where are the people? What’s going on? There was not one taxi or a solitary soul to be seen on the sidewalk.
Harriet began to hurry toward the Eiffel Tower in the hopes of picking up a taxi on the main road. Still no sight of traffic, she picked up the pace. Startled, by what she saw next, ahead of her in the distance she broke into a run. As she got closer, she saw railings cordoning off the main thoroughfare. Her thoughts started to become panicked. Hordes of people, six-deep lined the avenues on each side of the barricades. Quickly, she made her way along, parallel to the barricades as best she could. Her rucksack, heavier now from the souvenirs she had shoved in it, weighed her down. Her purse, hung across her body, slapping her thighs as she went and her sweaty fingers clutched the string handles of several paper bags stuffed with gifts for family and friends back home.
Four intersections later, there was no way to cross the main road. Suddenly, people appeared in brightly colored shorts and tops, wearing numbers on their chests and running between the barricades. Oh God! It’s a Marathon! That thought bludgeoned its way through her brain! What now? Would she make her train? The entire city center had been locked down! How would she get out of it? Sure she had half read posters, written in French and posted around the city, but had not put it together to realize she might be trapped in Paris for the rest of her life! Oh God, oh God, she prayed in her mind as panic drove her to run faster. Was she competing with the runners? Oh God! I am running in a Paris Marathon, oh God! Gasping for breath, she stopped to consider her options and catch her breath. With her backpack and other packages piled up against a hedgerow, she looked around. Maybe she could climb up the hill, on the other side of the river, towards the Trocadero and get a taxi up there? Loaded up once more, she cut back through a side street to put this cunning idea into action.
Forty minutes later, squinting her eyes to scan for bridges and realizing the closest one was all the way back, parallel to the hotel, she knew she had just lost two hours by coming this way in the first place. She should have gone in the other direction, toward the river, when she first left the hotel. The footbridge was heavy with pedestrians, but she hurried along. Once on the other side, she ran along beside the Seine searching for an opening to a road that went all the way up the steep incline. Harriet felt exhausted in this unplanned mid morning sprint around the streets of Paris laden with packages. Added to that, the sun had come up causing the temperature to rise. It must have been about twenty-six Celsius. She started to climb up the steep hill, four city blocks long, to reach a road at the top where she could see moving traffic glinting in the sun.
Making several stops during her ascent, it was eight minutes after eleven when she finally reached the top. She had to be at the station forty-five minutes ahead of time to make the noon departure. Out of nowhere, a taxi appeared, but had its red light on and not green like she needed. It pulled in close to her and passengers got out. Thank God for marathon spectators, she thought. The driver nodded, flashing a grin in her direction as she begged him in stunted French to please take her to Gare Du Nord. Quickly she bundled into the back, with her bags on top of her, for a mad dash through Paris with minutes to get to the train. Forced to abandon her plan to travel to the station in a more leisurely manner and visit a couple of the many designer stores that she had been informed lay in a Rue just off the Champs-Elysee, here she was back in the James Bond movie she had imagined herself to be in when first driven across the city on her arrival. Harriet found herself strapped into the back seat of a taxi with a considerable G-force as Channel, Gucci, Dior and other glamorous store fronts whizzed past her eyes. Not in tourist mode anymore she had been slammed into survival mode. Unable to muster an ounce of energy or enthusiasm to reach for her phone and snap a few pictures, she surrendered to the will of the universe. Paris had her in it’s grip, her spell forever cast.
She boarded the train with seconds to spare and it soon broke loose from the shackles holding it steady on the rails. Harriet let out a tear of relief, grateful for this serendipitous ride she had taken under the English Channel to Paris by train. Once her heart rate slowed down, she stretched back in her seat, took in a deep breath and just let go. She had dashed to the duty-free shop and exchanged the last of her euros for a bottle of Dior Joy, the newest perfume she had seen advertised all over the city. She considered it to be a parting gift of atonement from Paris, for just like Heathcliff in a wild rage of passion, Paris had held her in a tight grip when she tried desperately to leave.
Through the long journey home, she would come to realize that despite her catastrophic departure, in her heart, joy had become the dominant emotion she felt. Overwhelming joy, for the places and things where she had been and witnessed the boundless beauty shared in passion and love, all of which had transcended time itself. Armed with her bags full of tangible reminders from the city of love and light, Harriet felt ready to embrace the slower life again amidst the lilac and purple heather on the moors of home. She had been on an adventure alright, she had fun, but as far as work-life-balance goes, that will have to be another story.
Kathleen Sullivan is an intensive care registered nurse who writes to inspire and heal. Mother of two, grandmother of three, she has had poetry, prose, articles, and short stories published online and in print format in professional journals, church magazines, and anthologies in the UK and USA. Born and raised in West Central Scotland, she now lives on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in the seaside town of Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. There is always laughter in her home courtesy of the many apps available for video calls with her family, who are dotted around the world.