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Up the smooth marble steps of the church Claire scrambled. She didn’t want to look back until she reached the very top. When she got there, she whipped around to see the skies, now blue again, over the most breathtaking view of Paris. The square, tiny from up here, was once again filling with tourists. The city beyond was ethereal. She took out her camera and snapped photos from different angles. Her memory card was almost full from the many shots taken in the past few days. There were endless vistas around every corner and she would come back and capture them all. But one thing at a time.
So let’s go in and see this famous church, she decided. Sacré Coeur was the only thing about Paris that she remembered Emily, her mother, talking about. Claire wanted to walk in young Emily’s steps and feel what young Emily felt before life turned her joy into bitterness and recrimination.
Claire stepped solemnly through the massive wooden doors and into the cool darkness. The incense tickled her nose and she heard the murmuring of many voices. Some were praying but most were tourists whispering and snapping illicit photos. At a statue of the Virgin Mary, Claire decided to light a candle for her mother’s soul. Mother would have liked the gesture, she thought. She realized that she had finally forgiven her. There really was no point dwelling on the past and the pain. The coins clanged noisily to the bottom of the metal box. Claire found an unlit candle and claimed it. She even said a quick prayer despite her cynicism about religion. “Jesus, I’ve never asked you for anything but I really need to find my father. Yes, I know he might turn out to be a jerk or some washed-up old cynic who doesn’t want to know me and I’ve prepared myself for that but if he could just answer a few questions, it would mean so much to me. Please look after mother. I hope she’s up there with you playing her harp and smiling. Amen.”
With God possibly on her side now, Claire pushed open the heavy door and walked out into the sunshine and down the slippery steps. The square was packed now. He’s somewhere here, I can feel it, she thought. She walked the perimeter slowly, looking at every artist. She stopped to make inquiries of a young woman who was packing up her stand.
“René Duclair?” the woman said. “Ah, yes, everyone looks for René. Over there.” She pointed to a far-off stand doing a brisk business. “But, I am telling you this — long wait. He is très populaire. Au revoir!” She evaporated into the melee.
Hey, I’ve waited this long, thought Claire as she wangled her way to come up slowly behind him. Her face was burning. She felt faint. Get a grip, girl, she told herself. He, on the other hand, looked so cool: the long hair, the paint-spattered jeans. He was bent over his easel sketching on a little fold-up chair. His subject was a petite Chinese girl. Her parents stood close by, grinning proudly. His movements were quick and fluid. He captured her essence in just a few brush strokes with his long tapered fingers.
“Et fini!” The artist unclipped the heavy paper and handed it to the parents. Money was exchanged and the next person sat down to pose. There really was a long line-up. Claire didn’t want to disturb him in the middle of his work so she went to the back of the line and waited her turn. Her eyes were glued to her father. She took photos of the square and surreptitiously turned towards him, zoomed in, and fired off a dozen shots of him working. If nothing else she would take him home digitally.
He sensed someone staring. He looked up, found her face and looked right at her. She smiled idiotically. He gave a puzzled grin and went back to work.
Finally it was her turn. She sat on the little canvas stool as he addressed her in English.
“You wish a charcoal, mademoiselle? It will be 30 Euros. All the money I make goes to charity for students at Sainte-Hélène.”
“Yes, please,” she said.