The entire street was draped with creepers. I followed his instructions through the gate on the right, down the passage on the left, and round the corner to the white door. Three men in black roll-neck jumpers stood talking Russian in front of it. The smallest of them dismissed the others and turned to me.
“Daisy?” I nodded. “Sergio. Pleased to meet you.” We shook hands and I followed him inside.
We walked under a roof of corrugated plastic, along a corridor littered with bicycle parts, and into a little courtyard cluttered with sofas that had been loved for a decade too long. The remnants of two portions of chips lay cold on the table.
“Please,” he said, his eyes wrinkling into the hint of smile, as he pointed at the most robust looking of the sofas. I perched on the edge of it.
“So,” he said, sitting in the only chair and reclining with one foot on his knee. His faultlessly shined shoe, which could only have been Italian, pointed directly at me. “What are you looking for?”
I mumbled a little, and watched his eyebrows crease in displeasure. So I cleared my throat, sunk into the comfort of my seat, and announced simply: “Artistic inspiration.”
“And you think you’ll find it here?” he said, a smirk lingering in his 5 o’clock shadow.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, challenging him to break the stare first. As he did, I caught a glimpse of his teeth, stained classically with cigarettes and red-wine.
“Do you want to see it?” He stood up, grabbing a glass of something dark.
“OK.” I followed him through a door and up a ladder.
“This is Daisy,” he said as I climbed into an attic room full of people my mother would have described as ragamuffins. Several of them held bowls of pasta, and the rest of them held some variation of a guitar. “This is everyone.” Everyone nodded and we continued on.
After a ladder back down, another corridor containing a dismantled piano, and another courtyard, which was apparently on its way to becoming a theatre, we found the door.
“The room is raw,” he warned.
More like barren, I thought, as we stepped into it. I wonder if there’s space for me to lie down in here. Maybe diagonally?
“Is there going to be a roof?” I asked him.
He snorted a laugh, but he didn’t answer.
“It’s not for you,” he announced as we returned to the courtyard and our seats.
“No,” I agreed. “I need a space with a bit more…”
“…energy,” he finished.
…space, I thought, but I nodded anyway.
“What is your project?” he asked. “Do you want an Orangina?”
“Yes please.” All of a sudden, my head was flooded with the story, the meaning, the reason, the motivation. The “project” that had vacuumed me up from my perfectly aimed life and deposited me in Paris with one suitcase, 175 euros in cash, the promise of an interview, the number of a hostel and nothing else. “It’s a novel,” I explained, and he understood.
“Would you like to see my work?” he said, with a slight wobble in his voice.
“OK,” I nodded, and I followed him down another passage. This time we found ourselves in front of a thick, coded door.
“Is to preserve atmosphere,” he said, his accent suddenly thick.
And then I was standing in a moonscape of dustsheets, in front of it.
I can’t describe it. Subtle light. Gentle pain. Swallowed anger. The hilarity; the absurdity; the confusion.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I…” I paused. “I hate it.”
He hummed. “Really?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Will you explain to me why?”
“OK,” I agreed, and we sat on two stools and stared at 6 years of his work. I told him what I thought; what I felt. Or I tried to. And he explained and challenged and listened and answered.
If we had been in a film by Woody Allen, we would have thrown down and had at it right there in his studio. But we weren’t. So instead, his wife came in and offered me a cup of tea.
“No thank you,” I said. “I better be going.”
“Sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for,” he said.
“I did,” I thought. “I had it all along.”
“Bon courage!” he laughed. “Come back for the parties.”
I decided not to.