What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?
I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.
There is magic in play and even more in secrets.
My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…
I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.
She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.
I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.
Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.
I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.
Then I had a thought.
Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.
For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.
But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.
So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?
I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.
‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?
I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.
So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.
Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…
I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.
There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…
It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.
I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.
I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.
I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.
It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.
‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’
I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.
I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.
But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.
I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.
I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.
As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.
I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.
In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.
I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?
She didn’t reply.
But, then, a few days later…
I’ve just landed in LA.
Followed by a photograph…