He was a man with a pinboard, and that boosted him a hundred points in her nervy evaluation, the first night she saw his room. On the pinboard were tickets, a laminated backstage pass, a wrapper from a Swiss chocolate, all those things that could wait for drowsy burbling nocturnal stories in the dark, the recounting of Times Before Her recited off like threaded beads. All thrillingly making up the prelude, the teaser, the set-up before the main feature and all its rightness. Discussion of dreams, explanations of scars and tattoos. Former crushes. Photos from real photobooths, with different haircuts, a smile she would tease him about, maybe a picture on his parents’ mantelpiece of him as an awkward partner at a débutante ball and the one of her on her parents’ mantelpiece in braces, in those overalls. Yes, yes, all this would wait, resting, to be edged into place. For now she would borrow a book – because he was also a man with books. Another hundred points, another daring row of five hopeful, shivering stars.
‘You see this movie?’ she said, pulling out Gatsby, and so what if it was only a reissued classic and not a collectible; one day she would lie under a tree in a park with her head in his lap and he would read her the last paragraph.
‘Yeah, but I didn’t like it. It’s like a curse, that book – nobody can make a decent movie out of it no matter how much money they throw at it.’
Kirsty nodded and stood with her eyes roving over the artful arrangements on the pinboard. ‘You know what I’d like to have a collection of?’ she said. ‘All the stuff you find between the pages of old books. Just a whole heap of forgotten page markers lined up on a blank white gallery wall.’
‘Money and old letters and shopping lists and boarding passes.’
‘That’s what I mean. Lost half-finished love letters. Phone numbers. All that.’
He had a big Ikea bed, the kind with storage underneath. The whole room smelled faintly of his cologne. She felt a sharp ache for him; something new and unknown to inhale.
‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘Do you collect anything?’
He tilted his head towards her appraisingly. He was sitting back on his bed now and she thought if he kicks off his shoes I won’t stay, if he puts his hands up behind his head and tries to say something seductive and obvious then I’ll just go and text for a taxi at the end of the street and I won’t bother borrowing a book tonight I’ll just wait and see.
‘This is going to sound weird,’ he said. ‘But I collect grammatical mistakes. The ones that make – I don’t know – Freudian slips.’
‘You know, like the way people say “to all intensive purposes”.’
She felt a grin starting way down low, tugging itself up to her mouth like something on a pulley.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t it just appeal to you, though? Purposes being intensive?’
A spreading warmth. She nodded. ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she said.
‘Do you want to borrow that, by the way?’ he said. One Blundstone boot hooked into the heel of the other one and it dropped to the floor.
‘Don’t need to,’ she said, a bit breathless now. ‘Got it.’
He got her another copy anyway, two months into the relationship, with a card marking a page around the middle. Nothing written on the card, but she could tell it was special – a black-and-white postcard of a couple in the middle of a kiss. A tiny pin-hole at the top of the card; not something he’d hastily bought at the gift counter, something he’d had on his pinboard, something already heavy with history, something he was now giving to her. A famous image – she’d seen it on posters many times, and in arty card shops. Grainy black and white, the couple frozen in a tender moment as the world moved distractedly around them. Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville. Robert Doisneau. French. You could tell by the way they were dressed, but not only that. By the man’s tucked and stylish scarf, the blurry Parisian buildings behind them, the beret pulled down square on the bespectacled man behind them, unaware of the beauteous moment, trudging on to catch his train. That was the world, grimy and faintly sepia,the people inhabiting it just extras in a romance, walk-ons framing those special blessed ones who were truly in love. That was them now, her and him; poised in a melting kiss that others had to look away from, too consumed by longing to observe. A private world of two.
‘Just looked in real estate agent’s window,’ she texted him. ‘How would you like a house that is maliciously renovated?’
Then she sat down on a bench and, carefully and slowly, read both pages the card had separated. Nothing underlined, nothing highlighted. Nothing really jumped out at her.
She sipped her coffee as a text came back from him.
‘Keeper,’ it said. ‘Someone in the library just told me they had a self-depreciating sense of humour.’
Oh, he was perfect. Absolutely perfect for her. She had not a thing to worry about.
‘Another agent’s window,’ she texted back. ‘This one’s situated in a quite complex.’
‘Why are you looking at real estate?’ came back to her phone. After five minutes. Like after a pause. Or a hesitation. Or an awkward silence.
She typed ‘no reason.’ Then she deleted it. ‘I’m muscling in on your hobby,’ she wrote finally. ‘Like my nana used to say, I don’t want to mince hairs.’ Squinted at it for a while. Pressed ‘Send’.
‘My mum was given that card of the couple kissing along with a big bunch of flowers from my father when she told him she was pregnant,’ he told her later. Her house this time, on the op-shop armchairs in front of the oil heater. Her bedroom was the smallest one in the share-house, so they hardly ever slept there these days.
‘No way! Pregnant with you?’
‘Of course with me. 1988.’
‘So it says here on the back he took it in 1950.’
‘Yeah, for LIFE magazine. But it didn’t really become famous until the eighties when someone bought the rights to make it into a poster. Then it just really exploded in popularity. My mother said it was everywhere in the late eighties. Just the era for retro black-and-white postcards.’
‘He didn’t write anything on it.’
‘He didn’t have to.’
‘No, I see what you mean.’ She studied the image again, experienced the same tug of longing. To stop in the street and just kiss spontaneously, to be serendipitously snapped by a street photographer, all that movement blurred around you, your boyfriend’s hair perfect, your own posture so miraculously poised. The girl’s arm disappeared around the guy’s back; his left hand, with infinite Parisian cool, didn’t even grasp her, just delicately held his cigarette. A Gauloise. She’d say it but she was not entirely sure how to pronounce it. Or a Gitane. That’d be a soft ‘g’, she was fairly certain, but she couldn’t risk him laughing. She gazed at the boy’s bone structure in the Doisneau photograph, his bending towards the girl, so charged and intense, like they’re waiting for the lights to change, say, and he’s just turned her shoulder towards him and leaned to kiss her. Hungrily, but gently.
This was what she wanted. Love like this. Because look at the poor loserbehind them in the tortoiseshell glasses and embarrassing beret, look at the wistful wariness of the doughy woman next to him, walking alone into her lonely future, all of them missing the point, looking away.
‘I love this picture,’ she said. ‘I love the way they’re not even clinging to each other.’
‘Exactly,’ he answered.
‘Thanks for the book, too,’ she said, resting her head in the spot she loved, between his shoulder and collarbone. He would just have to move his hand, she thought, bring it to the side of her head, and turn her face towards him, leave the other hand hanging casually at his side, over the edge of the chair, and she would respond, wordlessly.
‘I’m still thinking,’ she said when he didn’t move, ‘what there is on that particular page of the book that’s significant. I mean, I’ve scanned it, just a couple of times, but…’
‘What page? What?’
‘The page with the card tucked in it.’
He burst out laughing. ‘Shit, there’s nothing. I just stuck it in the first page that opened.’
She laughed too. It didn’t matter, it absolutely didn’t.
‘It’s just, you know, my intensity dials,’ she said, ‘go all the way up to eleven.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Now was the perfect time, she thought, for the caressing pressure on the shoulder, the turning in sync, the moment of lips meeting. Doisneau must have felt moments like this all the time. The tremble of sensing it coming, yearning for it to fall into place, raising your camera and just knowing, knowing, you’d caught it all there in a lightning fast second. She counted fifteen seconds silently in her head and felt the light shift, the world move on, that window lost.
‘That’s pretty much recognised as the most romantic photo in the world,’ he said now.
‘I’m sticking it up on my wall, over my bed,’ she answered. She would get a pinboard, covered with real ephemera, not just waste time with virtual stuff on Pinterest. Anyone could just surf links and then cut and paste other people’s ideas when they had nothing else to do, but she had a yen now, could feel it settling as a great fit for her, a look – this love of retro postcards, those old vintage typewriters with the round black keys, the double-breasted jacket the guy in the picture wore, the absolute effortless bohemian coolness of it.
The next day she saw it on his Facebook page. ‘Gave this to Kirsty,’ he’d written, ‘with her fave book.’ Underneath it said ‘ps – SPOTTED: ad for housing estate, “your chance to secure an envious lifestyle”.’
Pretty much recognised, he’d said. The way people said arguably, a word that meant nothing, as if experts were busy arguing the point. Arguably the most romantic photo in the world, laying down the challenge like that, inviting dissent. Just possibly, just arguably … a bit pedantic. She didn’t care. She’d already put a bid on a vintage Olivetti typewriter on eBay, googled where she might get ribbons for it, looked in the op shop with the retro rack for a black cardigan, seriously considered buying a CD called Parisian Café.
In fact, she was going to get him something in return. And not online either, but from the art prints shop on Johnston Street. Something he would get.
Something to put on that pinboard, tacked like a prize specimen next to the fortune out of a fortune cookie, the Camel cigarette pack, the Astroboy keyring, the pressed-flat Easter egg foil like a shred of gilt. They shimmered with embodied stories, those objects. Things that could have easily been found lost between the pages of books, treasured then misplaced, a life richly, carelessly, intensely lived. And she’d commit to a message in hers, too. Don’t want to mince hairs, but my feelings for you are quite complex …
The bell dinged over the door of the shop.
‘Doisneau,’ said the woman behind the counter, dreamily. She was lining up card in a machine, running a bevelled blade along to make a mount. She blinked, and Kirsty saw the streaked kohl around her eyes needed reapplying.
‘Doisneau. We’ve got quite a few of his. Lots of lovely ones of kids playing on the street. And the ones of the couple kissing, of course.’
‘There’s more than one? I’ve got the one of two people kissing outside the Hôtel de Ville.’ The woman laughed, her fingers measuring the mount squarely into place. She looked down at the print it was framing, considering.
‘You and two and a half million other postcard collectors,’ she said. ‘Hang on a sec.’ She came from behind the counter, went straight to a cylindrical rack. There were dozens of postcards, rich and glossy: portraits of Pablo Picasso and Virginia Woolf, someone standing holding an umbrella over a cello, kids climbing a statue. The woman plucked one out. ‘This one, right?’
‘That’s it. There’s more of his, is there?’
‘Oh, yeah. Have a browse. I’ll just get back to …’ she gestured vaguely at the counter.
She didn’t move, though. She stayed next to Kirsty, both of them studying the picture. Kirsty opened her mouth to say my boyfriend gave me this, in a copy of The Great Gatsby and the woman would answer oh my god that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.
Instead she said suddenly, ‘He faked this, you know.’
‘It all came out in the early nineties, I remember, before he died. They were actors. He got them to pose. Well, they were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time, I think, but still. Took three shots of them kissing at the City Hall here, another one on the Rue de Rivoli, and another one somewhere else. Spent the morning walking round Paris getting this couple to kiss.’
As Kirsty hesitated, her mouth still open, the woman slid the card back into the rack and pulled out another one.
‘See this? Same people. Holding a bunch of jonquils in this one.’
She was right. Kirsty could see the man’s pale scarf, the familiar planes of his cheekbones.
‘This girl tried to sue him for copyright, I think, years later. That’s how it came out. But it doesn’t detract from the beautiful composition, does it? That’s the real art of it. Because he posed everyone in the shot – this guy on the chair, the people walking past, everything. He set it all up. Amazing. Because when I first saw them – I mean, me and a hundred million other people, I couldn’t help fill in a bit of back-story here about the photos. The flowers, the kiss, the fact that the building behind them, in this one, is the Paris City Hall. I thought: they’ve just got married in the registry office! He’s bought her those flowers! And this guy’s just snapped them!’
Kirsty finally found her voice. ‘I know what you mean,’ she said.
‘Anyway, have a browse,’ said the woman. ‘Pick a couple out. They’re all gorgeous.’
She walked back behind the counter to finish the framing as Kirsty tugged another image from the rack: a couple looking into the window of an art shop, the man casting a covert sideways glance at a nude on the wall.
‘People still love those old cards,’ said the woman, fitting glass into the frame. ‘But Doisneau’s Kiss – Jesus. Pillows, hankies, posters, calendars – you name it. I think it’s even a shower curtain. Check online. Do you reckon you’d want it on a shower curtain?’
‘No,’ said Kirsty. ‘I wouldn’t.’
And what did it matter, honestly, that the couple were actors? The kiss was real, wasn’t it? She checked online – they’d broken up nine months later. Doisneau, the woman said, was absolutely adorable. There it was, though. He’d died in 1994, LIFE magazine folded in 2000, and here she was, twenty-two years old, decisively switching off her computer and going to meet her boyfriend for hot chocolate and churros. He would photograph them, she was sure, when they arrived on the plate in front of him. Update his status with a selfie. Dawdle up the road with her, scanning the windows of real estate offices to find typographical and grammatical errors.
Here he was now, hair swept with unkempt grace, lanky in – what was that? a belted coat – and as they walked along she allowed herself to think, for the first time, that there might be others like him, yet to come. It surprised her, this detachment, this fine, airy carelessness. She put her hands in her pockets; it was a grey, cool afternoon.
She heard the slow tap-like blip of the pedestrian crossing as they paused, felt her boyfriend’s hand position itself around her shoulder, his head turning. She lifted her own head towards him without preamble, their lips meeting dutifully, almost experimentally. We’re kissing she thought, conscious of passers-by making a space for them, and she didn’t even have to open her eyes to know that his other arm, the one she could not help thinking of as his spare arm, was stretched away from them, the hand not holding a burning cigarette but his iPhone, and she had to fight the urge to put up her other hand and just clasp him lovingly around his neck or waist, her fingers on his collar, for instance, holding on, but it wouldn’t be right, she knew that, it had to feel real in every detail. So she straightened her posture, tilting back her shoulders … God, so much to focus on! – the angle, the kiss, the pressure of the kiss, the exquisite tilt – and in the back of her mind she could hear a voice. Guiding her. Just hold it there, it said. The arm right there. Good, that’s perfect. Now keep kissing.
'Doisneau's Kiss' by Cate Kennedy placed third in the 2014 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.