This story I have no ambivalence about. It is a light piece written in response to a task set at a writers' group to produce a story about two men or women eyeing up a member of the opposite sex.
“She’s looking at you, Leo.” Andreas said as he walked up.
“She is that.” Leo stretched to shake his friend’s hand.
Both men were in their late fifties, with cast-iron calves strong enough to hold up the weight of the stomachs which strained against their jackets. Saying that though, these days Leo was markedly slimmer and his smart dark jacket was gaining some breathing space. As long as he stood beside his old friend he was sure the women would find him the more attractive one.
“I bet she’s got some meat on her.” Andreas said as if reading his friend’s thoughts.
“Well, I bet when she was growing up her folks fed her well. It’s funny how things turn upside down. You remember when we were boys? Well, I expect it was the same in your town as it was over here, but anyway, it was the rich who were the fat ones. It showed they had enough money to eat well. It was the poor who were skinny.”
“Yes.” Andreas said non-committally. “And now?” Guessing that was Leo’s contrast.
“Well now, it’s the other way around. The rich are the thin ones, they spend all their time in the gym, out jogging, or on liposuction if they can’t be bothered with that. It’s the poor that are fat. You see them tramping round here, up from one of the dodgy arrondisements looking like American tourists. You can hardly tell the difference. They wear the same clothes - teeshirts, jeans and baseball caps. They might as well be Americans as Frenchmen.”
“MacDonalds.” Andreas observed.
“I prefer Q-Quick. You know when we were in London, they don’t sell beer in their burger places.”
“I’d heard that.”
The two men fell silent. Leo glanced at his watch, Andreas was still looking at the woman. “Yes, I bet she’s got some meat on her.”
“You can’t see it beneath those clothes. They always say black hides your shape.”
“Black’s popular anyway. Black’s the new black, I’ve heard.” Leo added.
“It’s the old black too.”
The two men laughed.
“What do you think she does?” Andreas asked, casually, walking along the pattern on the floor, gazing first over at the woman then back at his friend.
“Well, with that baggy black dress, I guess she’s an art student.”
“You think so?”
“Well, that guy she was hanging around with, he was an artist. Looked it too, beard, slanted hat. Have you seen him?”
“A couple of times. That TV programme, last year, do you remember?”
“No, I didn’t see it, but I remember Robert talking about it. I don’t know what she would see in a guy like that.”
“Robert said he’s homosexual anyway.”
“Yeah, gay. So I guess he would be safe, he’s not going to be interested in her.”
“Maybe that was why she hung around with him.”
“Well there’s enough artists who fancy her, I’ve seen them having a quick go with their sketch books, even a few of them taking a crafty snap with one of those digital cameras. My grandson’s got one now.”
“He’s a bit young isn’t he?”
“Well he said he needs it for the project he’s doing for his baccalaureate.”
“So he’s getting on.”
“Mm, yes, a proper teenager these days.”
“Does he come in here?”
“Occasionally he drops by, usually round my birthday.”
“That’s nice. Has he got a picture of her?” Andreas nodded over to the woman in the black dress.
“I wouldn’t put it past him.” Leo chuckled.
“I must say, I like her hair.”
“Yes, it’s not common these days for young women to wear it long and straight.”
“No, they’re always bleaching it, braids, extensions, bright red.”
“That sounds like that girl downstairs from you.”
“Who? Oh yes, the Aulards’ girl. They’re nice people. I’m sure she’ll grow out of it. She’s in that surly phase.”
Andreas reached in his pocket to pull out a packet of peppermints. He slipped one into his mouth and offered the packet to his friend.
“Thanks.” Leo said, taking a mint. “No, I certainly like long, dark hair. My Helene had it when we were first going out.” Without thinking, he stroked his hand across his carefully tended silver hair, still thick despite his age.
“Well, it was popular back in the sixties, and I suppose much of the seventies, too. Long, not tied up, it was only the eighties with all that gel and perms and such like that mucked it up. But long, sleek dark hair, like she’s got, catching the light, that’s my ideal.”
“With a flower behind her ear no doubt.”
“Carrying a flower maybe.”
“She’s just standing there, hands crossed, smartly.” Andreas said, nodding back to the woman.
“Well, she’s admiring the artist’s work, isn’t she?”
Andreas glanced at his watch. “Not long now. It’ll soon be time and they’ll all have to go.”
“There’s no hurry. I can still keep looking at her for a while longer.”
“She’s always in here, you’ll see her again.”
“But what happens if I fall under a bus crossing the road, or some lunatic pushes me under a Metro train on the way home?”
“Well, I think by now you could draw her from memory.”
“Okay, okay.” Leo paced off slowly, looking around at other faces. A few moments later he was back next to Andreas.
“Where do you think she’s from?”
“You’ve asked me that before. Why don’t you go over and ask her?”
“Because I would probably get the same sort of answer I get from you: nothing.”
“Okay, Italy. There you are. Like you, like me. I know it pleases you to think she’s Italian, like us, washed up in France.”
Andreas looked at his watch again. “Time to pack up. Time to say goodbye to Leo’s lady.”
“Leonardo’s lady.” Leo corrected. He glanced over at the Mona Lisa for the last time that evening, and moved to shepherd the straggling tourists from the room.