Short Fiction Contest-winning story #50 — “And so we left for Paris,” by Sophie Jonas-Hill

March 11th, 2019

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New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Sophie Jonas-Hill of Old Hatfield, England is the winner of the 50th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 11, 2019.

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Sophie Jonas Hill

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Sophie Jonas-Hill has been writing her entire life — inspired by her first writing award in school at the age of nine.  She is since the author of three novels, the most recent of which, Broken Ponies, was published in September by Urbane Books

 

 

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And so we left for Paris

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Sophie Jonas-Hill

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…..And so we left for Paris, you in the green jacket I’d made you with the picture collar and turned back cuffs, and I in my blue pinstripe, which made me look like a handsome young man.
…..“You look like a boy,” you said, laughing as we stumbled to our carriage on the train.
….. “I suppose it would be easier if I were.”
….. “Not at all, darling,” you said, and pulled the window shade down so you could kiss me. “Anyway, who wants it to be easy?”
…..Of course, you had more money than I did; your shoes cost what I earned in a week. You brought your jewelry box and some earrings of your mother’s and what did I have? Nimble fingers, you said, nimble fingers, worth their weight in gold.
…..“You shall become a seamstress in a fashion house,” you said on the boat, holding onto your hat against the force of the wind. “I shall dance and see my name in lights, you just see if I don’t!”
…..“So I shall be working, while you’re famous,” I said.
….. “Don’t frown, Evelyn,” you said, and because the wind buffeted and dragged on us, we were able to throw our arms round each other and stagger along the deck with impunity.
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…..Your jewelry bought us summer, in rooms under the eaves of a white house in the rue Santos-Dumont. I called on Mme. Bernard, the silk blouse with the pleated bib you wore to Ascot in a brown paper bag, along with your letter of recommendation on your father’s notepaper. She engaged me just as you’d planned, and I went to work above her boutique. You wandered through the streets and found a café you liked.
…..“Are you still going to dance?” I asked.
….. “Of course I shall. I’ve spoken with a man and he says his cousin’s the doorman of a club in Pigalle. He”s going to get me an audition.”
….. “I see,” I said as I unpinned my hat and splashed water on my face. “And what have you done for him, that he should do that for you?”
…..   “Evi,” you sighed as you sprawled on our bed, counterpane drawn up round your bare shoulders. “You mustn’t be tiresome, you know you’re the only one I truly and utterly love.”
…..“Is there any bread?” I sat on the bed, my back to you. The mattress springs thrummed as you came up behind me, as your long, white arms encircled me and you kissed the back of my neck.
….. “We don’t need bread, my darling, not when we have love.” Your imperious hands found the buttons of my shirt; fingers greedily seeking the swell of my breast; such nimble fingers, worth their weight in gold.
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…..July stretched in the geraniumscented heat; pavements cracked and the air filled with dust. You started dancing, at the very back of the stage. You got the job after the doorman walked you home. I was in bed and I heard you laugh because all the windows were open and the air thick and sticky, as if the day had burnt and charred into a black night. You must have known I would hear you, that I might look and see you with him.
…..“Don’t be tiresome,” you said again as I lay with my back to you. “What does it matter? I have the audition now and I shall never see him again. Please, I’m not nimble like you, what else can I do?”
…..“You said you would dance.”
…..“I am dancing now, you silly goose!” You rolled me onto my back and spread yourself over me until I relented and took your face in my hands and kissed you.
…..“I want you all to myself,” I warned. “I’m selfish.”
…..“You do have me all to yourself, the part of me that matters.”

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…..So you danced in the back row with feathers in your hair. I sewed the bugles on your costume when they came off; I rubbed your feet when your shoes made them blister and bleed. I came and saw you, lit up like Christmas in July.

…..Mme. Bernard scolded us that we did not keep our hands clean in the heat.

….“What are you, ladies, chimney sweeps or seamstresses? Look how your fingers mark the silk!” She made us scrub our nails every time we came through the door, and we worked stripped to our under garments to keep cool, drew lace curtains over the open windows and the electric fan whirred all day.  When the haberdasher’s boy came unannounced into the workroom, he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of us. In revenge, one of the girls tried to drag his shirt off as he ran. We gave chase, screaming and laughing, until Mme. Bernard threatened us with dismissal if we didn”t behave.
….“She won’t sack us,” one of them confided to me as we worked on past nine. “Not in wedding season.”

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….Like us, the city became nocturnal under the sun’s curfew, the streets stripped to their essentials and bleached by the light. I came home one evening and our room was empty. I saw your note and found you at the café where the Americans went. The artists were there, arguing and not paying their tabs, their models and whores stretching languorous legs artlessly toward the gutter.
….“I’m dancing with ‘La Negresse’ at last,” you said, waving from the table under the street lamp. “I’m dancing with her, with ‘La Negresse!’” You ran to me and kissed me as if we were at home, as if we were alone. Though we were observed, only the man you were sitting with saw us.
….“This is Evi,” you told him. “Evi, you must come and see ‘La Negresse’ dance, she’s a goddess, really she is.” You clapped your hands and the man smiled at me as I sat down. He was American, his dark hair slicked back from his moon slice face. I saw how expensive his suit was even in the gloom. You saw someone else, someone you just had to tell about ‘La Negresse,’ so you left me alone with him.
….“I’m told you’re creative,” the American said, his vowels as long and languorous as the legs of the models and whores.
….“I’m a seamstress,” I said. He poured me a drink.
….“I work for the embassy,” he said, “but I’m like all Americans in Paris.”
….“What are all Americans like?” I asked.
….“Oh, they come seeking adventure, freedom, distracting themselves as they watch the storm clouds gather, waiting for the wind to change direction.”
….“You think there’s a storm coming?” I asked. “Like the papers say?”
….“Not like the papers say,” he smiled. “Gonna be even bigger than the last. How ’bout you, why are you English girls here, so far away from home?”
….“We came to be free too, I suppose,” I said as his hand found my knee under the table. “And she came to dance.”
….“She dances well,” he said. “What ’bout you, you dance also?”
….“I dance with her,” I said and moved my leg away.
….He smiled. “Mind if I cut in?”

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….Our bed was only just big enough for the three of us. I didn’t want him there but I couldn’t seem to stop it, I couldn’t escape his embrace, his arms so much bigger and stronger and browner than yours. It was dangerous, but you and he thought it just another adventure. You let him in to our room under the eaves of the white house, you pulled back our counterpane for him, and you spread me across our sheets for him. You’d drunk too much and smoked too much to be careful but we slept at last, with a precious chill touching our skin.
….When the restless sun nagged at our window, I alone felt its disapproval. I slipped from the American’s embrace and went to the washstand. The day was already half spent and it was wedding season. I looked at you in the arms of the American and knew it was altogether too late.
….Mme. Bernard was livid, Mme. Bernard raged at me, and the guilt of what I’d done would not wash off, no matter how hard I scrubbed my nails in her workroom. The other girls snickered behind their hands, looking at the telltale bruise on my neck.
….“He wants to take us to dinner,” you said that evening. I told you about Mme. Bernard but you waved that away and you were right; she wouldn’t get rid of me, not with my nimble fingers. “The American,” you said, kneeling naked on our bed with your pout and pearls reflected in our mirror.  “He wants to take us to dinner, tonight.”
….“He wants to take you to dinner,” I said as I stood at the window.
….“No,” you held me, but your embrace was impatient. “He wants to take us both out. It amuses him to be seen with us both.”
….“And you?” I gripped your arms, my nimble fingers hard on your flesh.  “What amuses you?”
….“You do, you silly goose,” you said, though I saw the darkness and treachery in your eyes. You pulled away from me and walked too casually to the wardrobe. “Now, you wear your green dress and I shall wear my red silk, and he shall buy us oysters.”
….“They”re out of season,” I mumbled but you did not hear me.

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….When the heat of August was at its most cruel, when it hammered and beat at the streets, I thought of you as I looked around our room. The suitcase and half the clothes gone from the wardrobe, the bed neatly made and the floor swept, the jewelry box bare but for your mother’s pearl earrings.
….Standing in the half-empty room, I wondered if you’d ever thought of me? From the moment we met, when you looked down as I pinned up your hem, kneeling at your feet as though you were you a goddess; did you ever think of me as I thought of you? Did you realize that I waited for you in the park by the London shop for a month? That I followed you, like a dog at your heels until you noticed me, and that when you did, I thought the recognition in your face all the reward I could ever hope for? Until you took my hand in yours and my grey-gloved fingers laced with your red ones and we walked together in Kensington Gardens.
….Even when I woke the morning after you brought the American into our bed, I thought of you first. I thought of you as he opened his eyes and watched me wash myself. You let him in, you did, and you never thought of me, did you?
….“He wants to take us to dinner,” you said, admiring your curves in the mirror and his pearls at your neck.
….But as I looked at our world divided, I stopped thinking of you. I remembered him and how on that first morning, after you let him into our bed, he woke and watched me. I remembered how the American came to me at the washstand and his hands, stronger and browner and bigger than yours, shivered water over my skin. Had you opened your eyes, you would have seen us in silhouette, my body made dark as “La Negresse” against the bright, white light of the window.
….And so we left for New York, the American and I; me in the green jacket I made you, and he in his blue pinstripe suit.

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Sophie Jonas-Hill comments on this story:

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“And so we left for Paris” — which I am so delighted was chosen as the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest winner —  was inspired by a woman I met while running a small art gallery. We had an image of the dancer Josephine Baker on the wall, and an elderly lady in country attire saw it and told me how she used to dance in Paris just before the war, and had indeed danced with Baker, known as ‘La Negresse.’ Both Baker and the characters in my story snatched a brief but glorious moment of freedom in Jazz-age Paris before the German invasion in 1939, and this is what I was hoping to capture. “And so we left for Paris” has gone on to inspire an entire novel, which tells the intertwined story of the three protagonists, but it needs reworking again, as the middle section of Helena’s isn’t right yet. I hope one day that it will be, and I’ll get to publish the full novel, which currently has the title “The Night Orchid,” but that is indeed another story.

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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