By Hannah Abell
It did not begin (again) because I dropped my things all over the footpath and he stopped to help before realising who I was. It did not begin (again) because I was running late that morning. It began (again) because on that morning, an escaped convict set fire to a large apartment block on the street I usually walked down to get to work; because - thanks to the local arsonist - I was forced to walk down the next street if I still wanted to make it to work on time. The entire reunion between him and I was sparked by one particular coincidence: that the bars on the window of one particular prison cell were faulty, and that one particular cell happened to house one particular criminal with a penchant for arson.
For the record, I did make it to work on time, but not before the strap on my handbag snapped and its contents spilled all over the footpath. It was, of course, at that moment that I bumped into him. I knew he took this path to work in the mornings, and that was the reason I took a different route (when it wasn’t blocked off by fire engines and police officers). His name was Leon, and I had not seen him for five years. When we had been together the first time, we used to walk to work together, down his street and then part ways at the end of it. When we had parted ways for good, I had started walking down the next street to avoid him, but since then - since we had both had time to move on - it had become a mere habit.
When he had stopped to help, I had not expected to feel the familiar jolt deep in my stomach that I used to get when I saw him. I certainly did not expect him to smile when he recognised my face after such a long time - ‘Celia, my God, is that you?’ - or for him to offer to walk me to work with all my spilled possessions bundled in his arms.
What ensued after that one brief encounter was what shocked me the most, however, because of how it ended the first time. Yet there was that jolt in my stomach again, when he had met me outside my building at the end of the work day and said in his gentle voice: ‘Your street’s still blocked off. We had better take mine.’
From that moment, everything fell back into place; just as it had been before, the way it had been all those years ago - a familiar walk down his street, a brief stop at the local café, and then a relaxing hour spent sitting in the park near his apartment building, watching the businessmen on their way home from work, and reading the afternoon newspaper which Leon always bought from the small newsstand across the street from the bench we always sat on. That afternoon’s headline was of course on the topic of the apartment fire on my street.
‘I wondered what was going on there,’ Leon muttered. ‘Crazy bastard.’
I read a part of the article over his shoulder:
… A fire lit in an apartment block in the Le Marais district of inner-city Paris this morning has burned throughout the day, taking fire-fighters almost six hours to extinguish. Fortunately, no-one was harmed, as the building had been undergoing renovations; however some damage was caused to surrounding structures. Police officials allege that the fire was intentionally lit by Marcel Dupont, who escaped from a high security facility earlier this week. Dupont has been described by officials as highly dangerous. He had been an inmate at the facility since 1981, after his conviction for a number of crimes including manslaughter, vandalism, and arson. Dupont eluded capture at the scene of his crime earlier today, and remains at large…
I glanced up at Leon’s face to see if he had realised who Marcel Dupont was, but he read on, flicking the page over dismissively and crossing his legs. He looked almost exactly the same as he had the first time we had been together, except that his hair might have been a little longer. It could have been exactly how it was before, except that Marcel Dupont, the man who had lit the fire on the street I always walked down to work, was not just an escaped criminal. He was an escaped criminal who I had been responsible for sending to prison.
Since Leon didn’t bring it up, I didn’t either. I wondered if he even remembered details of the case I had been working on before things between us started to change; things like the name of the perpetrator I had been trying to prosecute, a name like Marcel Dupont. He probably wouldn’t, I figured, since the whole reason we had called things off had been because he said I was letting my work take over my entire life, said I never talked to him anymore. It made sense that he wouldn’t recognise the name.
But that didn’t change the fact that I did. And the fact that he had escaped and lit a fire directly on my path to work had deeply concerned me. I remember standing so fast that I knocked Leon’s legs from their crossed position. He looked up at me oddly.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Let’s go back to your place.’
That became the routine. I no longer walked down my usual path to work. Every morning (on the mornings that I did wake in my own apartment), we had breakfast at the café on his street; he walked me to work, and then continued on to his office. In the afternoon, he’d meet me on the front steps of my building, we’d sit on our usual park bench and I would read the afternoon bulletin over his shoulder.
No more articles were published about Marcel Dupont, and no more fires were lit. It became all too easy to fall back into the life we’d had before he ever interfered. It was like going back in time. Neither of us ever even mentioned why it had ended the first time. It was as though we had forgotten, or more likely, because we were both happy to put it behind us.
But our comfortable existence did not last forever. We had been allowed to live in peace and without worry for a number of months. It was winter before Marcel Dupont came into our lives once more, through the lighting of a fire suspiciously close to his last target. It was an unusually cold day, cold enough for tiny snowflakes to drift down from the heavy grey cloud overhead. That evening’s newspaper bore the strange image of a fire burning strong while snow fell around it, and it stuck in my mind. Still, I did not tell Leon of my concerns, thinking that I was worrying too much, or that dredging up seemingly forgotten issues would be the end of the happy routine we had fallen into.
Not long after the second fire was lit, Leon travelled to Marseille on business. Without him there, I reverted to my old ways; walking down my street instead of his, going straight home from the office late in the afternoon instead of sitting in the park and enjoying the last remaining hours of sunshine while we read the newspaper and drank coffee together. No, instead, I cooked meals for one and fell asleep on the sofa waiting for Leon to come back even though I knew he’d be days yet. The truth was that I was scared. I was scared that somehow, without Leon there, it would make room for Marcel. Whether or not I was flattering myself with the idea, I was convinced that as an escaped convict, he would have the motivation to come after whoever had put him away. And that was me.
It was the third night of Leon’s business trip when I smelt the smoke. I had been almost asleep on the sofa when the smell of fire entered my nostrils. My eyes had snapped open immediately, but aside from that, I was frozen in place. I knew that if there was indeed a fire in the building I should be running for my life. But instead, I lay still, sniffing the air, for I wasn’t certain yet what the smell was. My fears were confirmed a moment later when the rapid beeping of a smoke detector sounded from outside my door.
That was when I sprang into action. The details of moving between the sofa and the hallway are hazy to me now, but somehow I ended up out there with a small bag of belongings in time to see my neighbour across the hall, Valérie, running out her front door, oven mitt-clad hands in the air and a stained apron around her waist. Smoke wafted from the open door behind her, into the hallway.
‘Merde!’ she said, when she saw me standing across from her with an equally shocked expression on my face. ‘Celia! Help me, the oven is on fire!’
I threw my bag down just inside my door with a glare in her direction, but helped Valérie to put out the small fire she had started by leaving her (already terrible) cooking in the oven too long.
When Leon returned, I told him about the fire in my building, but not that I had originally thought it to be the work of Marcel Dupont. Briefly, I had thought that things would return to normal now that Leon had returned. We fell back into routine easily enough, but the thought that Dupont was after me lingered in the back of my mind. It became so severe that I avoided being outside for too long lest he catch a glimpse of me, convinced that he would find out where I lived and burn the place to the ground.
But he did. Somehow, he did. And if I hadn’t let my imagination get the better of me, and stayed put for the night, I would have burned down with it. Leon had been away on another business trip, that time in Nice, and I was, (again), alone in my apartment. Valérie had, thankfully, not set any more of her baked goods on fire. But still, I was easily spooked. Any unfamiliar flicker of movement in or around the flat sent me into alert mode, and I was reaching a new level of paranoia. For three nights, I (somehow) managed to fall asleep on my own sofa, but on the fourth night, I absolutely could not fall asleep. I was anxious for Leon to come home and I was anxious for Marcel Dupont to be caught and put away.
It was that night that I made the decision to go to Leon’s instead of staying put. I had an important meeting with a client I was defending the next day at work, and I needed to be awake and alert. I had to put Marcel Dupont out of my mind, and I couldn’t do that at my own apartment. So I quickly packed a bag and hurried down the few blocks that led to Leon’s. I didn’t have my own key, but under the pot plant that sat on the windowsill next to the door was a spare, which I used to get inside. I still remember the instant relaxation and relief I felt at being somewhere that wasn’t my own home. I felt far safer here, even though Leon still wouldn’t be home for another night or two. I had found out later that that was not actually the case, with regards to Leon, but at the time, I was blissfully unaware as I took a hot shower, poured a glass of red wine, and nibbled on some cheese before I climbed into Leon’s bed and waited for sleep to come over me.
It took me hours. I was in the limbo between dozing and dreaming when a loud, blaring series of sirens streaking past the house brought me back to reality. Red and blue lights flashed on the walls in strips, coming through the blinds. The alarm clock on the bedside table read three-fifteen. It took me a while to relax once more, but I was at Leon’s house, not my own, and I was safe there. I had to keep telling myself I was safe there. Eventually I fell back into a light sleep and didn’t wake until the shrill ring of the phone sounded the next morning. I shuffled into the kitchen and picked up the receiver from its hook on the wall.
‘This is Hôpital Hôtel-Dieu. We’ve been asked to call you on behalf of Leon Mathieu.’
‘Leon? What’s wrong?’
‘He named you as a family member and asked us to let you know that he’s been taken in for treatment for smoke inhalation and-’
There was a long pause as I processed the information. It shouldn’t have been possible.
‘Is he alright?’
‘The burns are minor,’ the woman on the other line said after a pause. She was clearly taken aback by the fact that I somehow knew of Leon’s injuries.
‘I’ll be there.’
Meeting be damned, I left the house in a hurry and hailed a taxi to take me to the hospital. After finding out his room number, I pushed my way through the busy halls to get to Leon. When I entered the room, two men in Police uniforms were already crowding the small space.
‘What the Hell happened, Leon?’ I said, ignoring the uniformed men.
‘They’ll tell you,’ he murmured, nodding towards them with difficulty. He was covered in bandages.
‘Celia Babineaux?’ they asked again.
‘Please keep your voice to a minimal volume, ma’am; we are in a hospital.’
‘I know that.’
‘Unfortunately it is our duty to inform you that your home was destroyed in a fire last night. We’ll need to ask you some questions.’
My eyes closed. I felt dizzy. I had known. As soon as the woman from the hospital had mentioned smoke inhalation, I had known.
‘It was Marcel Dupont. Wasn’t it?’
Leon gave me an odd look.
‘How do you know that?’ he asked.
‘He’s been after me for months.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I wasn’t sure til now.’
He pursed his lips.
‘What were you even doing there?’ I asked, eager to change the subject.
‘I came home early to surprise you, but you weren’t there. Then I saw this guy lurking around in the stairwells - Dupont, I mean - so I went to see what he was up to. He’d lit the fire in the stairs, and somehow we got stuck inside. Eventually the firemen arrived and helped us out. The whole thing was gutted. Completely destroyed.’
‘So what’s next? Dupont’s burnt down my home, what does he target next? Your block? Where does it end?’
Leon looked towards the police officers.
‘Marcel Dupont won’t be burning down any more buildings, Miss Babineaux. Leon here managed to keep a hold of him long enough for us to arrive.’
‘You could have died,’ I told him, even though he knew. ‘What was I supposed to do if you had died?’
I had felt bad for speaking such selfish words; worrying for myself when he was the one who was hurt. Not to mention that he had been the one injured when it should have been me. Still, I liked to blame it on the fault in the prison’s security, on that one loose screw. But the fact of the matter was that Leon was alive. I had lost my home, but Leon and I were both safe. Just as suddenly as he had burst into our lives, Marcel Dupont was gone.
So in the end, it was Marcel Dupont and his penchant for arson that both began and ended things with Leon and me. Just not in the order you’d expect.