by Judith Skilleter
a large cup of milky coffee
She is Jennifer, never Jenny, never Jen. She lives on her own and is quite Okay with that. In fact her whole life has been solitary. She was the only child born to elderly parents, dad in his 50’s, mum in her mid-40’s who, compared to other mums and dads, seemed very old. But Jennifer never felt she had missed out by not having brothers and sisters or having elderly parents. It was how it was; she adored her mum and dad and those feelings were reciprocated a thousand fold and that was Okay.
There were no uncles or aunts and cousins either. Both Jennifer’s mum and dad came from families where their generation died young, never married or were childless. But again Jennifer wasn’t bothered by not having an extended family. It was what it was and that was Okay.
I have to say that Jennifer wasn’t entirely isolated with her mum and dad all her life. She had friends at school, she had had boyfriends and had even had sex once or twice. But the boyfriends and the sex were a long time ago as were the friends. By the time Jennifer reached 18 years the health of both her parents took a dive. They needed not quite 24 hour care - but nearly. Jennifer could not bear the thought of both or either going into residential or nursing care, she could not bear the thought of others looking after her adored and adoring parents, and she could not bear the thought of their threesome being destroyed. So she put her life on hold. Successful university applications were put on hold, jobs were put on hold, her social life was put on hold and friends disappeared to further their education in other towns. Jennifer became her parents’ full time carer. It was what it was and that was Okay
Jennifer’s family was not short of cash: getting by each week and paying the bills had never been a problem. Jennifer’s dad had had a good job followed by a good pension and inheritances from their many single elderly relatives and shrewd investments meant that Jennifer also did not need to work. They did not have an extravagant lifestyle and the family’s bank balance seemed to increase every month instead of decreasing.
But Jennifer is now approaching her 40th birthday. Her parents died fairly recently within weeks of each other. They both died at home in comfort and in peace and Jennifer has no regrets, she could have done no more for them and she felt that they died at the right time before pain and dementia became too much of an issue. She misses them and still cries herself to sleep from time to time but by and large it was what it was and it was Okay.
As a 40th birthday treat Jennifer decided to go to Paris for the day. She went to London the night before her planned trip, stayed in a hotel near St Pancras and caught the first Eurostar the following morning to Paris. She had a passport but it had not been much used in recent years. The last time it was dusted off was her 21st birthday celebration when she and her mum and dad caught the ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge. They had a few days wandering, very slowly, her mum by this time was in a wheelchair, round Bruges. They admired the architecture and ate chocolate and enjoyed chips with mayonnaise in the Markt. Jennifer, after her mum and dad insisted, did a canal boat trip by herself as getting the wheelchair down onto the canal boat would not have been possible. It was a successful arrangement. Jennifer enjoyed a trip on her own where she did not have to look out for others and her mum and dad enjoyed a cold Belgian beer at a nearby pub while they waited for her to return. As for Jennifer she was surprised at this new world she briefly glimpsed that did not have the emotional and physical care of others as a prerequisite. She was surprised how much she enjoyed it and felt very guilty. It was a brief and rare glimpse of another world out there.
As a treat she travelled to Paris on Eurostar first class. She so enjoyed seeing Kent and Northern France whizz by; this other world out there that she have never explored and being pampered by Eurostar staff was wonderful.
Jennifer’s day was carefully planned. Her first stop would be a café near La Gare du Nord where she would take in the air and enjoy a café grand crème and a croissant. She found the perfect café, with glass floor to ceiling windows, dark red paintwork on the outside and round tables and chairs that were a combination of wickerwork and wood. She felt she had seen this café many times on jigsaws. This made her briefly sad as jigsaw puzzles had been a source of enjoyment for both Jennifer and her parents during the many years they had together but she soon shook herself out of this lull and began to absorb and enjoy the surrounding wonderful Frenchness. She tried out her well-remembered A level French with the waiter and he replied in English. Was her Englishness that obvious she wondered?
Stop number 2 was Montmartre and she had planned to walk there. There were a lot of steps up and her legs grumbled so there were a number of stops on the way where she turned around and admired the growing view of Paris. At the top, standing in front of the church, she looked in amazement in every direction; the wonderful milky white church behind her and the fabulous and recognisable places in all the other directions including the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides, where Napoleon had been buried. Napoleon was not her favourite historical character. This came to mind when she remembered her A level history over lunch - a delicious omelette and a glass of wine in a café similar to the one in the film Amelie. This had been a favourite film of Jennifer and her mum and Jennifer felt she had a lot in common with this French heroine. For Amelie too it had been what it had been but Jennifer wondered if it had really been Okay for her.
Her next destination was the River Seine but it was too far to walk there from Montmartre so Jennifer took a taxi. To her delight the traffic in Paris was heavy so she was able to sit back look at and enjoy everything closely and pretend she belonged, pretend she was a Parisian. Everything was a source of delight and Jennifer was so pleased that she had decided to visit this amazing place.
The taxi dropped her at the Musee d’Orsay but there were far too many tourists in the queue to tempt her to go in. It would be a waste of a lovely sunny day so Jennifer decided instead to walk along the river, the left bank, towards Notre Dame Cathedral, so recently and tragically almost destroyed by fire.
As she got there she noticed the scaffolding and the boarding protecting this marvellous creation from the outside world. The shape and fabulous stonework of what had once been and would once again an amazing place was hidden behind the determined work of rebuilding and recreating. The French were attempting to find again the lost wonder that had been Notre Dame but for the moment any newly created wonder and any wonder that had been saved were hidden.
One day, for Notre Dame, there would be life again after this temporary enclosed world. A beautiful butterfly would appear from the chrysalis of scaffolding and board.
Jennifer burst into floods of quiet tears. Suddenly she was seeing her past through very different eyes. Her own very loving chrysalis of love and responsibility was no longer there and she could allow herself to imagine what might have been a very different life in her past. For both Jennifer and Notre Dame much had been lost forever. It had been what it had been but perhaps her anticipated future was no longer Okay.