The terrible destruction of Notre Dame had me rummaging through photos of my last trip to Paris. I had stayed near the Cathedral on Ile Saint Louis in an apartment with my friends Lucy and Courtenay. I arrived first and had a night alone before they got there. I was jet lagged and woke up wide awake at 4 am. I decided to go for a run. (Very unlike me. Only time I have ever done this).
I ran through the dark streets with only the garbage men and street sweepers for company. I must have been mad. I crossed the Seine, awkwardly managing the cobblestones, down an empty street with a massive edifice looming over me. I suddenly realised I was next to Notre Dame. I ran to the front of the Cathedral and craned my head up to see the towers, dark silhouettes against the lightening sky. There was nobody there.
I had the entire square, the whole Place de la Cathédrale to myself. The building had an eerie presence. It seemed to be waiting. I could just make out the contorted faces of the gargoyles in the first traces of dawn light. There was a sense of foreboding. It seemed very very big and I felt very very small. I sensed the weight of history there. All the souls who had worshiped there, the marriages, burials, coronations. I sensed the great cast of French history, all glaring down at me. Little, tiny, insignificant me, staring back up at its great facade, eyes wide, mouth open, frozen. For a moment, it seemed as though a portal had opened and the past was right there, so close I could reach out and touch the robes of the King, or Napoleon’s horse, or hear the soft chanting of the monks.
Footsteps behind me stirred me from my dream. It was a nun. She turned her head to look at me as she passed. She went to a small door on the left hand front of the cathedral and opened it with a key. She paused and said as if to make sure, “La cathédrale n’est pas ouverte”. (The Cathedral isn’t open) She then disappeared into the building and closed the ancient door behind her with a clang.
A shiver went through me and I ran as fast as I could back to the apartment.
In the bright light of mid morning I went back to the Cathedral. There were masses of tourists, the square was buzzing with activity. The menacing heaviness had been replaced with cheerful brightness. I went into the Cathedral and sat for a long time sketching. My fear from the early morning had disappeared.
Lucy, Courtenay and I later came back and did the tourist thing. We took happy photos in front of the world famous tourist attraction.
I had forgotten my solitary experience at the cathedral until today when I saw footage of the fire. Had I seen a ghost? Had I felt a time warp, a flexing of the here-and-now to a time before? Or did I simply glimpse my own mortality?
Perhaps I just imagined it all?
Lucy and I doing the tourist thing in the light of day.