For many years, Claire had dreamed of visiting Valletta, the capital of Malta. But it wasn’t her dream. It had been slipped into her consciousness like a card in an envelope.
That happened in Paris, where she moved after graduating from the Beaux-Arts school in Rennes. She had found her first job, as an editorial assistant for a small design magazine, and a room that she rented from a chain-smoking couple in Barbès. She loved the city, or at least the idea of it. All winter she was brutally homesick.
At the New Year’s party in their apartment, she met Guy, who was an accountant for a wine exporter. He had grey in his temples and a hand-tailored suit. It was a complete mystery how he ended up at that party. But they didn’t speak much, mainly he just ravished her under a pile of coats in her bedroom. The coats smelled of their owners, perfume and onions. Claire found herself close to tears as she clung to this stranger under the warm layers. Time seemed to expand and wither around them, still unformed in the first hour of the year.
A few days later he called her mobile phone. “I had a dream about you. And I believe in omens.”
“Who is this, please?”
“I had a house at the seaside. A glorious view. I was just sipping champagne on the veranda, just relaxing, you know, when I heard this frantic pounding on the door. And it was you.”
“Guy, isn’t it. Yes, about the other night.”
“It was you, I swear, and you weren’t wearing a thing.”
Claire heard the blood whisking in her ears. She swallowed. “Well, did you let me in?”
Late winter in Paris. All the dusks and dawns merged into a gloom that was noon. Claire was confined to a basement office in La Villette, her only window giving a view of the pavement. She kept a candle burning on her desk and pretended that another Christmas was coming. Shoes passed incessantly, shuffling like rumors. Claire worked in a daze. It was part of her job to skim the photos and artwork that the magazine received every day from hopeful freelancers. She was supposed to make a preliminary cull, to use her judgement, but after a while the images blurred in her mind to form a collage. She panicked: I have no taste. This thought often provoked a migraine.
On her metro ride home, it seemed that the other passengers emitted an almost toxic smell of weariness. She pressed into a corner to avoid touching them. Sometimes she simply had to flee above ground and make the long walk home in her kitten heels. When she caught sight of herself in the shop windows, in her tan coat brushed by the cleaners, she felt the old excitement again. Her scalp tingled with all the life ahead.
She could walk until her toes were numb, but still she climbed her stairs reluctantly. She was never sure what to expect in the scruffy little apartment. Once she’d found a whole ska band, post-rehearsal, boozing on the floor in a snow of ashes and potato chip flakes. Though that was somehow preferable to meeting her surly housemates alone in the kitchen. Claire was only rent relief to them, she knew that, so most nights she carried a plate of cold food to her room and flew off through the Internet in her earphones. Once a week she rang her mother, who had started calling her “the refugee”. Why did Claire insist on staying in that despicable place?
“It’s in the thick of things,” she protested. “If I’m going to live in the city, it has to be the real city, where stuff is happening. What would you know about it?”
Sleep came grudgingly after such a phone call. Claire wound herself in the duvet and waited for her dreams to bubble up like mud.
When she began spending the night at Guy’s vast studio in La Défense, her dreams changed dramatically: crisp visions came to her of animals and galaxies, pursuit and flying, nightmares so aesthetically striking that she didn’t quite regret them. It must be all the restaurants, she thought, the sense of theatre as much as the rich food. Or the pillowcases that sweated Guy’s Eau Sauvage. Her lover slept like a sphinx with swollen eyelids.
Claire, awoken by her dreams, had to get up and move quietly around the studio. It was a collection of sharp, polished edges, with windows so thick that the urban hum barely penetrated from the street far below. It felt slippery in there, and cold. Claire carefully poured herself a glass of water from the sink and lowered herself onto the sucking leather sofa. She was reminded of camping as a child—all the glints in the darkness like tent poles and stars, and the sense that morning was far, far away.
“I had a horrible dream.”
It was Easter morning. They were in Guy’s childhood bed, in his parents’ house in Valence. A hot oven smell came up the stairs with a clashing of pots. The sky showed electric gray through the clerestory.
He had hardly seemed awake when he twined around her, crushing her ribs. She said his name a little desperately, but he didn’t open his eyes until he was done. Then he lay on his back and studied the ceiling slats he had known since he was a baby in a crib.
“I’ve had this dream before, I think. They bury me alive. Totally naked.”
“And the worst thing is, I’m just lying there. No fight, no resistance.”
“That sounds pretty unpleasant.”
“But this time a bird was circling above me. A seagull, I think. Doesn’t that seem like a good omen?”
Claire stroked his chin. “Maybe that’s me.”
At last, his dilated pupils landed on her face and he kissed her. “My bird of paradise,” he said.
Claire entered both of Guy’s dreams in her sketch-pad diary. The images appeared to her so vividly, she forgot they weren’t hers. They floated on top of her awareness like the shapes in a migraine. He saved her, she saved him; they were both naked as the day. What did it matter if she changed the details a little? It was a shared project, a corridor of white curtains rippling behind their eyes.
The last time he told her a dream, they were hunched on metal chairs in the Tuileries. The huge fountain was bright as a foundry blaze. It was likely to be the last Saturday of the Indian summer, and the heat had a vengeful quality, as of a ball thrown too hard. Claire could feel the damp in her clavicles.
They had been to lunch at an osteria, then quarreled about whether to get an ice cream. Claire could tell that Guy didn’t want her to come back with him to the studio. Her suggestion of a stroll was a ploy to extend their meeting into cooler hours, when everything might change after a drink or two.
But now, leaning on her knees in the glare, Claire regretted that she had contaminated her beloved garden with this bad memory in the making. She felt a headache building out of Guy’s tobacco smoke. He had stopped talking on the sixth cigarette. Although maybe, thought Claire, this was a good silence, the portal to a more rugged intimacy. Maybe this was how people reached the next stage of love.
Guy peered into a tiny mirage at the end of his Marlboro.
“I had a dream last night.”
Claire wanted to snap that she had dreams every night. She bit her tongue.
“I was dreaming about Valletta,” he said. “That’s the capital of Malta, yeah? You wouldn’t believe how clear it was, how lifelike. I’ve never even been there!” He gaped at her, amazed by himself, or God, or that place where the two intersected.
“Tell me what it looked like.”
He squinted. “It was a city made all of stone and sun. Hot. But I was on a balcony, you see, high above everyone else. There were flowers all around. A view of the ocean. Most of all I remember that a cold wind was blowing off the water—but I knew it was a good thing, somehow. Like…”
“Forgiveness.” But this last word was too much for him, after all. He flicked away the cigarette and chewed on his thumbnail.
Claire felt herself slump with tenderness. “Maybe I was the wind this time?” She smiled.
Guy glanced up, smiled back at her, exuding all the cold of the sea that he was still seeing in his mind.
“No sign of you in Valletta.”
She finally visited Malta during her first pregnancy. It was her husband’s idea, the last trip “just the two of them”. They stayed in the north of the island, in a half-empty hotel with a view of the bay where St. Paul was supposed to have been shipwrecked. The April weather was cooler and breezier than they had expected, though the light was brilliant. They spent a few days sauntering on the promenade and reading in the hotel lounge. They took the ferry to Gozo and toured the ramparts of Mdina. And finally, on a sunny afternoon near the end of their visit, they rode one of the battered yellow buses down the coast to Valletta.
Claire had never told her husband about Guy, or much at all about the thirteen months she’d spent in Paris. “A failed experiment,” was how she summed it up. “I wasn’t meant to be a city person.”
Now she didn’t mention either that her heart was in her throat. Why? It seemed impossible that the memory of someone else’s dream could still flicker so stubbornly in a corner of her mind.
As they rounded the bend, she caught her breath.
It was so much grander than she had imagined. Dense yet light, a mass of rock floating over the water. Il-Belt, the Maltese called it: The City. To Claire it seemed like the pure idea of a city, ghostly and resplendent. She couldn’t believe anyone really lived there.
After lunch they bought postcards and sat down in a café to write them. Claire discreetly chose one, a view of Valletta under a red-gold patina like the skin of a violin. All its windows were black in the picture. It was unmarred by any sign of human occupation. In block letters Claire put down the Parisian address she had never forgotten; the rest she left blank. She shuffled the card into the mix and later took them to the post office herself.
Back home at their cottage in Brittany, Claire sometimes found herself at the window, gazing straight through the boughs of the apple tree. The baby was asleep in her crib and the eaves were dripping softly. But Claire was far away. She was watching Guy come home in his creased suit. Maybe he poured a brandy before he even picked the mail from the floor. A postcard—odd—no name. Valletta. The image touched a spark to his neck. Hadn’t he dreamed of that once? He leaned against the door, frowning.
Claire saw him dozing on the plane to Malta, flirting with the stewardess, buying cigarettes in the airport. She saw him arriving in a hotel room with a concrete balcony and an ash tray on a little iron table. From the balcony he stared out over the water, dark and tufted by evening gusts, and he waited for a sign.