The 7th of August, 1983, Notre Dame.
Along the Seine the sun skimmed reflections off the water into the arches under the bridges. Through the leaves of tree-lined streets it cast patterns onto pavement cafe awnings. It lit up the small figures of sightseers on Notre-Dame's towers and warmed the stones of the open square before the cathedral. It shone on the crowd of tourists gathered there, chattering as they gazed up at the great Western facade. It shone on the lavender seller, leading his donkey and cart passed the cathedral doors.
It still shone as the crowd's chatter stopped short, as if all the air had been sucked out of the square on one quick intake of breath. In the silence came a muffled 'thud'.
There was a chill despite the sunshine as I turned, as everyone turned, towards the sound and to where a group of women in Sunday black fluttered around a pile of black and yellow cloth, now lying on the stones in front of the church doors. A pile of cloth, unstrung limbs and a white mask of a face, that had been a girl in black, and another in a yellow summer dress.
Scattered cries broke the stillness and set off protests of rejection among the crowd. Medical students ran across the square, white coats flapping, stethoscopes flying. They slowed to a halt as they neared the pile of clothes. There was nothing they could do. They stood as helpless as the crowd, looking down at two lives gone in the sunshine.
A clanging ambulance arrived. The students walked back, defeated. Church officials busied around with screens and attempts at consolation. The crowd came slowly back to life, then ebbed away, accepting with reluctance, as I did, that there was nothing to do but to go. The gendarmes were taking charge, organising everything away until there would be nothing to see and another chattering crowd would gather before the cathedral.
For the rest of the day I saw more that mask of a face and the tangled heap of clothes than the sights of Paris. And wondered over and over 'how?' How two? Had one lost her hat to the wind, leant too far to catch it and taken a friend, trying to save her, over the edge? Had one jumped and the other tried to stop her? Had they been laughing and fooling around? What would it be like slipping past that point of no return, knowing the finality of what was to happen? What would it be like to watch someone you cared for go past that final point - would it be better to grab and go with them than to watch and stay? In dreams that night the hat had white daisies and the girls were laughing, because no one wears yellow for suicide.
The next day's papers answered the how. They told of how many people chose to end their lives at Notre-Dame and of how this was not the first time bystanders had been killed. They told of neighbours of the girl in black who had stories of a love turned to pain. They told of the girl in the yellow dress who had come from Canada with her younger sister to visit her aunts and cousins. Of how they had been with her that morning, how her sister had been standing beside her, outside the church doors, when the girl in black hit her as she fell.
But the papers didn't explain why. Why the girl in black jumped, why she could find nothing worth living for, why she was blind to the sunshine, to the possibilities, why she was so turned in on her pain that she had no thought left for others and took someone else's life, someone's daughter, someone's sister, with her. They didn't explain how something so terrible could happen so quickly and so irretrievably. Or how life can return to normal so soon. C'est la vie, with a French shrug? No.