Paris smelled like piss. Michael Sergeant had always admired its extreme juxtaposition of splendour and decay. Of life and death. He had not been to Paris in a decade. A whole tenth of a century. What had there been in Paris that could have helped him in that period? Paris was not a place of faith, it was the antithesis of religion, it was where one came to celebrate oneself. To smoke, to spit, to drink, to drown, to feast, to fuck. Paris was not a place of faith. But Paris was where he would find Professor Dufort, foremost authority on the psychology of religion.
The last time he had stepped out into Paris, Michael had been hand in hand with Celeste. They had escaped their hotel reception in London, fled like teenagers stealing away from a house party, and made their way to St Pancras. They’d slept on the train, hazy from the wine, tired from the dancing, at peace with each other’s presence enough to lean their heads back against their seats, interlock their arms, and sink into blissful open-mouthed oblivion. The first sleep of their married lives they spent underwater. Celeste thought it was quite poetic. She loved poetry, and Michael loved everything she loved. Fiercely. Indefatigably.
Celeste loved the Eiffel Tower. Most people visit, tick it off their list, and never visit again. It is something to be seen from a distance, rather than experienced. But Celeste loved the experience, the ascent, the changing of the lifts, the suspense, the sight of Paris spreading beneath her feet. She loved the view and the scale, how something that usually looked so small suddenly seemed so big, and how everything else that had seemed so big slowly shrank. It was monstrous and magnificent.
Michael bought her champagne and oysters at the summit. Celeste loved food. She was mad about food. Everywhere they’d travel they would eat. But she’d always come back to Paris hungry. Hungry for the meat that melted like butter, for the brioche that melted like spun sugar, for the fruit on the sides of the road, the figs that fell apart and the strawberries that sang on the tongue.
It was through her travels, led around the world by work that she’d inherited from her father, that she had met Michael. He’d been her pilot. It had been difficult to get the job of flying a private plane, but he had been determined to quit commercial flying. The schedules were brutal and he had seen enough of the insides of hotels. She’d asked to come and sit in the cockpit. No one had warned him she would, but she told him she’d done it since she was small. Whenever her father would take her on trips with him, he’d take her into the cockpit and let her look out of the window. It was the closest they’d be to heaven, he’d told her. She loved looking out of the window. Not down. But up. Perhaps she’d hoped to see heaven. Michael loved to watch her, the slope of her smooth neck, the intensity of her gaze, the way her earrings would lean backwards as she tilted her head, the way her hair would slide off her shoulders. She loved turbulence, she told him. It made her feel alive, at the mercy of the elements. She loved Vivaldi’s Spring, cheap cigarettes, and the smell of nail polish. She loved dancing, to anything at all, she loved the taste of vinegar, dark rainy days when sunset seemed to arrive early, and the feeling of making love on carpet. She loved being touched at the very top of her cheek and across her bottom lip. She loved museum ceilings, psychological thrillers, and white chocolate. Celeste loved life. And Michael loved everything that she loved. Which is why she had to live.
[An excerpt from The Celeste Experiment by Omar Imady]