Ditching my crushed velvet tracksuit for a hat, coat, and bag, I zip out the door. You see, last week, over whisky glasses at the Café Saint-Jean in Abbesses, I had shared with Brigitte a tangled skein of a tale. Recently found in a 1922 newspaper at one of the bouquinistes down by the river, I had not been able to stop thinking about it.
As the story went, a young woman took a taxi from Place Pigalle to the Pont Neuf. Arriving at the bridge a bumpy ride later, she handed the driver a five-franc note, climbed up onto one of its nook-like bastions, and tumbled over the parapet. Her body wasn’t recovered until later that evening, some distance downstream.
According to the newspaper, Alice was a seamstress, still sharing a flat with her parents in Montmartre. She had recently fallen head over heels for a pearl dealer from Sri Lanka, but unfortunately her Prince Charming turned out to be not all that charming. He had fled France just before tying the nuptial knot. But had she jumped, or merely slipped? Perhaps it wasn’t so cut-and-dried. Perhaps Brigitte had found a clue.
At the Pont Neuf, she’s easy to spot, enjoying an Instagram moment with King Henri IV. With her teased updo, Brigitte looks rather like a 1960s pop-rock siren, garbed in a coat torn at the shoulder, most likely during a recent shimmy up the rigging of the little schooner she keeps parked at the Bastille marina, her home away from home.
“Affronte ta peur!” she often tells me.
After exchanging kisses, we commandeer one of the bridge’s coveted bastions, and look over the edge.
“Listen, I’m not so sure the broken engagement pushed Alice to the end of her rope. I think maybe that’s a red herring,” Brigitte says. “Or perhaps a golden fish. It’s just barely within the realm of possibility, see, that she was on another mission entirely when she took her unexpected fall.”
Gripping the balustrade, she gives me the lowdown.
Apparently, during the final weeks leading up to Alice’s fatal plunge, a heat wave had plagued Paris. To make matters worse, pet fish had started perishing at an alarming rate – certainly enough of them to make the papers, anyway.
“Paris Mourns Its Goldfish!” read the headlines. Aquariums everywhere had begun sporting ribbons of mourning black after their little gilded denizens had been found floating belly up.
Luckily, it didn’t take long to trace the fish death epidemic back to the water supply. Fearing contamination in the cholera-inducing weather, the city had added a new disinfectant to the reservoirs, “which, excellent as it may be for human consumers, spells disaster to the little fishes, because it renders the water too chemically pure”. Not that bad water would have affected very many people back then, since wine was typically the choice of beverage instead: it was much safer to drink.
Brigitte pulls the newspaper out of her bag and begins to read. “Many a glass bowl today stands empty. Owners of surviving goldfish are being advised to fill their bowls with dirty river water, which is not very easy for inhabitants of Montmartre and other parts of the city far from the Seine.”
I remove my sunglasses.
For the love of her own goldfish friend, could this be the real reason why Alice came down to the river that fateful day? Was it losing her jewel-dealing beau – or trying to save her little living jewel – that had led to her desolate demise?
Of course, we’ll never really know for certain. However, after Brigitte surprises me with a thermos of vin chaud, hauled all the way down from Montmartre along with two thimble-like cups, I can’t help but feel beyond buoyed by the sheer power of friendship.
With our thimbles in the air, we salute big-hearted Alice. May the fish be with you!
From France Today magazine