“Come to my family’s house for dinner” he’d said. Told her, in effect. And suddenly there she was, amid a whirlwind of French woman, in an apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Fast-moving, fast-speaking nervous types, they were. Fussing. Chopping. Rinsing vegetables. Clattering dishes and pots. Jabbering in French. Giggling. Bickering. Two were his sisters. One, his mother. And another woman. A friend perhaps.
“This is Josephine, she’s from England” he’d said. In English. Then he’d left. Left her feeling a little bit alien, a little bit amused. “Can I help with something?” she tried. A set of knives and forks were thrust into her hand and she busied herself placing them on the timber table already laid with patterned place mats.
She’d only met him a few days ago. He’d offered to help her pack her parachute after she landed a jump. “No I can do it” Josephine has answered, and started laying it out flat on the grass. He helped anyway.
They had crossed paths in the office before that. She’d been carrying a tray of takeaway espressso and pastries. He carried nothing but a mobile phone and an air of self-assurance. He’d half smiled at her and she blushed and looked away.
Her colleagues knew her as the new girl who hardly spoke. No one knew it was because she barely understood French. And no one realised just how completely alone she really was.
Just six months earlier she’d stepped off a plane with nothing but a suitcase, a parachute and a fierce resolve to make a fresh start, and to make it alone. Somehow, she’d managed to find a secretarial job on the Champs Elysses and a tiny studio apartment nearby. Her pay barely covered the rent.
Months passed and the loneliness began to fade. Her French improved, but her pay did not. She saved what she could and promised herself a trip back home to the south of England. But before she could save enough, another option materialised. A dozen pamphlets pinned on the office noticeboard advertised a cheap skydiving package. One weekend, six jumps, travel, food and accommodation included. It was easily affordable.
Josephine stared at the leaflet. She recalled her last jump. It was three years ago and the Cornwall sky was grey and drizzly. Visibility was low but they decided to go up anyway. Half a dozen fellow-skydivers crammed onto a tiny light plane with no door. The engine rattled and they had to yell to be heard. Josephine’s boyfriend at the time had been still packing his parachute beside the runway.
“Come on Dave, we’re all waiting for you!” she shouted out to him. He smiled and waved and hastily shoved the rest of the cords and canopy into its bag before jumping aboard.
Dave had been jumping for years and years, so he insisted Josephine should try it too. She loved it from the start. Craved the rush, the adrenaline. Mostly though, she loved floating, drifting, once the parachute had opened. She loved the stillness. And each time she landed, she landed with a renewed peace and a fresh perspective.
On that drizzly Cornwall day, they hurled themselves as usual from the plane, one-by-one. Joesphine first. Dave second. Then another four or five skydivers after that.
Moments later, Dave nose-dived to Josephine and stretched his arms toward her. She grabbed them. Eyes locked, wrists gripped, freefalling in unison. He pulled her in. Grinned. Winked. Kissed her. Then the pair let go and Josephine pulled her rip cord. The parachute unfurled above her like a blossoming flower and brought her to a halt, mid-air. Dave continued to plummet directly below her. Soon he was a blurry figure in the distance at her feet.
Josephine knew something was wrong immediately. He began to spin and spin, spiralling down, down, down, out of control. This was not a stunt. Josephine screamed wildly in horror. Dave thrashed and struggled and flailed in desperation and terror. Then he disappeared into a layer of thick grey clouds. That was the last she ever saw of him.
She landed in the middle of an empty paddock. A crowd swarmed in the distance. They stomped carelessly over his parachute, flattened and muddied on the ground. A huddle formed tightly around his lifeless shadow. There were panicked yells. Shrieks. Running, back and forth. She tried to approach, but strong arms gripped her, held her back. She thrashed against them. She collapsed to the ground. She drained of something, of everything. She turned hollow. There were sirens. A blazes of flashing lights. They took him away. She lost all sense of time, all sense of herself.
They later told her how his skull had cracked open on impact. His brains sprayed across the grass. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing dear” they said. “It’s likely he went unconscious well before landing” they said. The detectives said his parachute had not been packed properly. The reserve parachute was old and it too failed to deploy.
Josephine blamed herself. She stopped jumping. She closed down, punished herself for years. She existed. Then after three years she simply upped and left. Paris she’d decided, for no particular reason. It was one of the only places she hadn’t visited with Dave. It was her desperate and final attempt to forget, to move on.
But as she stood there, so alone in that office in the heart of Paris, Josephine realised there was still one thing she needed to do. She needed to jump again. She ripped a leaflet off the noticeboard and the next day she signed up for the trip. That’s where she met Jean-Luc.
“I think you are the quiet English girl in the office?” he asked by way of introduction. It turned out, Jean-Luc was one of the skydive instructors, “It’s my second job and my number one passion”. He was also the only one on the trip who spoke an ounce of English. The rest of the group comprised of a middle-aged couple trying to salvage their marriage and a mixed bag of backpackers chasing the ultimate rush.
On the first day, Jean-Luc insisted Josephine jump first. When she hesitated, he shoved her out the plane and into her very first free- fall in three years. And she free-fell in every way imaginable. She let go and let herself go. She savoured the rush, bathed in the adrenaline, relished the serenity under the open parachute. The wind rushed past her, through her hair and through her very being. She breathed more deeply than she had done in years. She landed heavily on the ground and it jarred her through to the core. She sat in that spot in an open field, partly blanketed in her parachute, and she wept. She wept for Dave. She wept for herself. She wept for her heavy heart and its eternal aching. She wept because the aching was duller, blunter now. She wept because she could had allowed herself jump again and because she loved it.
“Can I help you pack that?” Jean-Luc asked from a distance, pointing at the swathes of material wrapped around her. No. He helped anyway.
After that, the pair found each other in the communal hall, at mealtimes, and spoke about their first jumps, night-time jumps, landing in water. They drank beer and played ping-pong and on the last day, Jean-Luc invited her over.
And that’s how she ended up laying the knives and forks in a kitchen packed with frantic French women. A large glass full of red wine thrust into her hand. She gets seated at a table of total strangers who don’t feel at all like strangers. Jean-Luc beside her, fails miserably in his attempt to translate the incessant chatter of a dozen excitable relatives. But it doesn’t even matter. Josephine understands more now than she has in years. She breaths, finally. She has stopped blaming herself.