This is a better story than the one you are reading. I know it is because I am looking over your shoulder. You are the Japanese man sitting up straight on a marble bench, at the head of the Île Saint-Louis, where it prows into the Seine. The winter sun is propped up on the draughty apartment blocks of the Île de la Cité. You squint over at the river whenever the sun squeezes through the clouds; otherwise your head is bent to the paperback pocket book in your hands. But it’s not as good a story as this one and it never will be.
Beside you is your trusty leather briefcase with its brass buckles and also your thin rain jacket and your hat, discarded in an unexpected light of February. Your bare hair is graveled with grey. You must be about fifty years old.
You lean back to watch one of the tourist navettes as it rumbles on towards the Tour Eiffel. Your interest is gone for a moment from your book. I do not wonder, for it is not as interesting as you thought, is it? In fact, you yawn, teeth straining against lips. Then you rub your hand over your chin, feeling the stubble that wasn’t there this morning. It seems to grow faster as you get older. It seems to grey faster as you get older too. We’re not alone on the bank. A man and a woman twist into each other’s limbs. Three girls sit, legs dangling over water. Two dogs walk a man. Your attention drifts like the current.
Reluctantly, you pull your eyes from the girls on the bank and back into your book. But you’ve lost your place. These things happen more as you get older. You try to start again from a page you remember, but it’s too much. Who is this character? You flick back a couple of pages, forward a couple of pages. Where are they? You frown. This dialogue doesn’t seem right. This description isn’t familiar.
You flick right back to the start of the story, but even the first line looks foreign now: ‘In 1962, a child was born…’ That would make him fifty today, you think to yourself – but who is he? He hadn’t been there before. The book had been about a nineteenth-century poet before you’d got distracted. You put a hand on your trusty leather briefcase for reassurance, but the brass buckles are cold. You shiver as the sun struggles. The words of the book are confusing, making your grey head hurt. It had been about a romantic poet with a flair for society, but now it talks about photocopiers and divorce?
You snap the book shut and sigh. It’s too much. You look out at the water. The sun pushes hard one last time. The girls on the bank laugh. You bend your back and stand up straight. A dog barks at nothing. The navette rounds a corner in the river, beneath a span of the Pont Neuf. Without quite meaning to, you draw back your hand and, with all your force, launch the book out into the Seine. I quite understand, because this will always be a better story than the one you are reading.