Name: Sally Marshall, Status: single mother, Age: 32. Nationality: ten years in France, yet still English through and through, I like: Living in Paris, playing with my daughter Lila (four years old), the company of good friends, the smell of baking bread...So reads Sally's ad, posted on a French online dating site called Rendez-Vous. Sally left Nicolas, her French boyfriend of ten years and Lila's father, after she discovered that he was having an affair with his secretary. Six months have now passed, and although most of the time she feels as if she's just dashing around like a headless chicken, she's beginning to bounce back. But making a new start is fraught with complications. As she meets freshly single Frederic for a drink, spends the night with charmer Manu and runs away from ex-pat Marcus, she wonders: can she find a way to reconcile motherhood with single womanhood? To what extent can she keep Lila and her love life separate? And is she truly ready to turn her back on Nicolas?
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Catherine Sanderson is a thirty-six-year-old Brit who was bitten by the French bug while still at school and has never looked back. Her first book, Petite Anglaise, a memoir, was published to fantastic acclaim in 2008. Her website of the same name is one of the best-loved British personal blogs. She lives in Belleville, Paris, with her daughter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
If a fortune teller had predicted I’d not only find myself a single mum, but would contemplate joining a French online dating site before the year was out, I would have joked that her crystal ball must be in need of a service.
I’d been living in Paris for a decade, in a state I’d describe, with hindsight, as unmarried complacency, although at the time I mistook it for unmarried bliss. Then, six months ago, the unimaginable came to pass: I left my French partner, Nico and moved out with our four-year-old daughter, Lila. His actions left me no other choice.
And so here I was, hunched over my purring laptop, watching intently as the Rendez-vous homepage loaded, text first, pictures slowly filling out from top to bottom. I wasn’t sure which was hardest to overcome: my lingering scepticism about seeking out some sort of connection online of all places, or my trepidation at the idea of sprucing myself up and putting Sally Marshall back on the market. But something had to be done to plug the gaping hole where my social life should have been. In the daytime I had work to distract me, or Lila for company. But the evenings were barren, and I’d spent far too many of them lately curled up on my sofa with the remote control and a box of tissues.
The Rendez-vous website was an exercise in tasteful minimalism. It had an off -white background, against which the text and borders were picked out in muted shades of purple and green, colours which market research had, no doubt, deemed gender neutral. Having specified at the point of entry that I was une femme who wished to meet un homme, I was amused to see a handful of likely, and less likely, male candidates being paraded across the bottom of the screen as bait. Below the logo of interlocking, pixellated hearts in the top right-hand corner was the infamous Rendez-vous slogan: ‘l’amour en un clic!’ Those words – ‘love is only a click away’ – emblazoned across billboards in métro stations all over Paris, had taunted me for weeks. Until, on this lazy Sunday morning, I’d caved in and made the first click.
The form I’d begun to complete with my personal details was already causing me problems, however. There was precious little room for manoeuvre: a series of tick boxes and drop-down menus seemed intent on bossing me around and putting words into my mouth. Sighing, I removed my hands from the keyboard for a moment and let myself sag back into the sofa. Did I really want to do this? Was I ready?
Lila – whose name I pronounced the French way, Lee-lah – was munching a slice of apple by my side, her mouth open as she ate, her hazel eyes superglued to the flickering television screen. The top of her head almost reached my left shoulder and, flaring my nostrils, I caught a faint whiff of the strawberry-scented conditioner I’d combed through her curls the night before. The slender legs which protruded from her pink nightdress were bruised and scabbed, as usual. The summer holidays had given way to la rentrée only a couple of weeks ago but, judging by the state of her knees, anyone would think four-year-olds engaged in playground warfare. ‘Remind me to clip your terrible claws later,’ I murmured, as my gaze scrolled down to her feet and I registered the length of her toenails. ‘Otherwise you’ll end up looking like Max from Where the Wild Things Are . . .’
‘Shhh, Mummy! I watching my mermaid DVD,’ Lila complained in her accentless English, her eyes coming unstuck from the cartoon for long enough to shoot me a look of pure reproach. On the television screen, Ursula, the wicked octopus witch, was trying to persuade the Little Mermaid to part with her voice in exchange for a shapely pair of human legs so she might step onshore and begin wooing her landlocked prince. I braced myself: having sat through the DVD countless times, I knew the witch was about to launch into a song about ‘poor unfortunate souls’, and the irony was not lost on me. Surely there could be no more fitting backing track to my surfing for a soul mate on the internet’s answer to a lonely-hearts column? I leaned forward again, nevertheless, and laid my hands reluctantly across the keys. I might as well at least go through the motions. There could be no harm in looking to see which of these ‘poor unfortunate souls’ would be deemed suitable company for me. Even if I doubted many people really found l’amour via Rendez-vous, I’d settle for a few interesting nights out to start with, or maybe even a fling.
With a determined click – less satisfying on the trackpad of my laptop than it might have been using a proper mouse – I ticked the box next to ‘célibataire’. Here was a fine example of the kind of word my A-level French teacher, Mr Granger, would have referred to as a ‘false friend’, since it bore a misleading resemblance to ‘celibate’ in the English language. Not that I wouldn’t have been able to tick such a box if Rendez-vous had thought to provide one, mind you. But célibataire in French simply means ‘single’.
‘Jamais mariée’ was my next selection. How relieved I was now that Nico and I had never made it as far as the altar. Moving out and carving up Lila’s time had been heart-wrenching enough, without becoming mired in the quicksand of an acrimonious divorce. The other options, I noted in passing, were ‘separated’, ‘divorced’, ‘widowed’ and ‘married’. I wondered how many people owned up to the latter. My gut feeling was that most would favour the discreet, none-of-your-businesslike ‘je le garde pour moi’ instead.
In the ‘date de naissance’ field, I selected first ‘20’, then ‘July’ and had to scroll an alarmingly long way down ‘année’ (which began, horror of horrors, with 1989) before I alighted on the year of my birth: ‘1975’. From this, Rendez-vous calculated my age without mishap: thirty-two years old.
‘Enfants?’ shouldn’t have been difficult to answer – even I didn’t need to use my fingers to count up to one – but I hesitated all the same. Here was my first real dilemma. Should I leave the ‘children’ box blank, or lay my cards on the table from the outset? Any man with two brain cells to rub together was bound to assume leaving such an important field ‘non renseigné’ was tantamount to an admission of parenthood. But the problem with choosing ‘one’ was that it might well lead hundreds of prospective dates to exclude my profile, filtering me out without so much as a cursory glance at my photo or description.
Lila, her sense of timing unnerving, chose that very moment to grasp my left wrist with her right hand, coating me with sticky apple residue. ‘The witch is a bit scary,’ she whispered, her annoyance at my interruption already forgotten. ‘But she’ll be gone in a minute. I just hold your hand until she goes away. Okay?’
I planted a kiss on my daughter’s head, ashamed of the treacherous thoughts running through my mind. It wasn’t that I considered being a single mother some sort of guilty secret. Nor did I believe any man worth knowing – in the long term – would be deterred by it. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready for ‘long-term’ just yet. And putting a number in that box would label me as a mother in a place where I wanted to be seen, first and foremost, as a single woman, like any other. Was it so wrong to want to keep things separate? To want to be liked for Sally Marshall in the beginning, long before I allowed my daughter to become part of any equation?
Lila’s grip on my hand relaxed. The Little Mermaid was setting her course for the shore, hell bent on seducing her prince and blithely unaware of how difficult this would be without the voice the wicked witch had taken from her in exchange for human legs. In some ways we were in the same boat, she and I. The playing field was anything but level; the odds were stacked against us.
‘The thing is,’ I said to Kate, my oldest friend in Paris and owner of the language school which employed me to teach business English, ‘I have no idea how to play it – if “play” is even the right word. But dating is supposed to be sort of like a game, isn’t it?’ I pushed the remains of my salad around my plate. I’d polished off the most interesting bits – the diced Emmental cheese, the cubes of fatty bacon the French call lardons, the undercooked poached egg which had been perched in the middle when it arrived, with a typical Gallic disregard for salmonella – and now I was left with nothing but a huge mountain of lacklustre salade frisée, smothered in French dressing.
Setting down her knife and fork and smoothing imaginary creases from her black suit, Kate considered my words for a moment, her expression thoughtful. ‘I suppose if you do say you’re a mother, then you’re liable to attract the single-dads brigade and spend your first dates swapping stories about raising children instead of flirting and making small talk,’ she ventured. ‘But then again, deceiving people doesn’t seem like a very healthy place to start either, does it? Any man you meet will have to find out you’re a mother sooner or later. And let’s face it, Sal, you wouldn’t take kindly to seeing a man a few times before finding out he had children, would you? It’s almost as shady as someone hiding the fact that they’re married . . .’
Kate had spent the first half hour of our lunch – a ritual we did our best to observe every other Monday – acquainting me with a disturbing story about a friend who’d caught her husband doing precisely that: surfing Rendez-vous to meet unattached females for a string of one-night stands. If Kate was to be believed, this kind of behaviour was depressingly commonplace. For many men, online dating had become a modern, low-cost alternative to keeping a mistress waiting in the wings. Kate’s cautionary tale was designed, I suspected, if not to put me off the idea altogether, then at least to ensure I kept my wits about me and wore my cynicism on my sleeve. She had a point: I may have bandied about words like ‘lighthearted’ and ‘fling’ in the course of our conversation, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be someone’s side order, married or otherwise. Not after everything I’d been through with Nico.
‘You’re probably right,’ I admitted grudgingly. ‘I doubt I’d last five minutes in conversation without mentioning Lila, anyway, let’s face it.’
‘So you’re really going to do this?’ Kate seemed to be hoping I’d shelve the idea. ‘If you must, you will take precautions, I hope, Sal?’
‘Of course,’ I insisted. ‘I’m not using my real name. I’ll Google people beforehand, meet them in a public place . . .’ The truth was, after spending most of Sunday agonizing over whether to answer ‘one’ or ‘none’ to the children question, I hadn’t even submitted my profile yet, let alone set up any dates. It had taken me over half an hour to come up with my pseudonym, the nonetheless unimaginative ‘Belleville_girl’.
‘It all sounds like such terribly hard work to me.’ Kate wrinkled her delicate nose in distaste. Turning to catch the waiter’s eye, she gave the universal sign language for ‘I’d like the bill, please’. ‘Got to dash off early today, I’m afraid,’ she apologized, her eyes flickering momentarily down towards her lap. ‘James called in sick this morning, so I’m doing his two o’clock at Monceau.’
I grinned as I fumbled in the leather satchel I carried on teaching days, looking for my purse. ‘You do realize, don’t you, that when you’re deliberately vague about work, you sound more like a high-class hooker on her way to turn tricks in a hotel than an English teacher?’
‘But of course . . .’ Kate’s blue eyes glinted with mischief and, for a second, I caught a glimpse of the twenty-two-year-old I’d befriended the summer we’d both worked as waitresses at El Paso, a seedy Tex Mex bar in rue de Lappe, near Bastille, which had long since closed down. But when the waiter appeared at her elbow, Kate’s expression became businesslike once more and, before I could protest, she’d slotted her credit card into the hand-held machine and paid for us both. ‘Oh, and before I forget’ – Kate was already rising to her feet, allowing the waiter to help her into her black trench coat – ‘I’m having a little work gathering at my place on Saturday, a sort of fête de la rentrée, inviting a few friends, clients and teachers, but no Nico. You could bring Lila if you can’t get a babysitter, and put her to bed with my boys. And there’s one person in particular coming’ – she paused for dramatic effect – ‘who I’d really like you to meet.’
‘Whom I’d really like you to meet,’ I corrected, mockpedantically, as I slung my satchel on to my shoulder. ‘Lila’s with Nico all weekend, so I’ll definitely be there . . . But this mystery person: is it a he or a she?’
‘You’ll have to wait and see,’ said Kate airily, her expression giving nothing away. Most definitely male, I decided. Matchmaking wasn’t Kate’s style, but maybe my mention of internet dating had spurred her into pre-emptive action?
We parted at the corner of rue Cambon, by the Paris branch of W. H. Smith, and I paused to watch Kate hurry across the road and disappear down the steps into Concorde métro station, several heads turning as she passed by leaving a pungent trail of Chanel Allure in her wake.
In the decade she’d lived in the City of Light, Kate had acquired the outward appearance of a chic Parisienne: her strawberry-blonde hair pulled back into a chignon, her clothes well cut, her nails manicured and painted a deep shade of red. I envied Kate her poise and that svelte figure of hers – quite how she managed to look so consistently amazing when she had two boys under the age of six and her own business to run never ceased to perplex me – but I wasn’t fond of her husband, Yves. Not that I saw him very often: he had a high-powered job in private equity which entailed frequent business trips and fourteen-hour days in the office. But when our paths did cross, Yves had always struck me as a cold fish, devoid of anything approaching a sense of humour. His bank balance was doubtless awe-inspiring, and he was handsome, if a little predatory looking. But I sincerely hoped Yves had hidden depths or, at the very least, an uncommon amount of talent in the bedroom. Anything was preferable to the idea that my elegant, witty friend might have sold herself short.
Catching sight of my own reflection in the window of a boutique selling vulgar-looking designer clothes aimed at tourists with more money than fashion sense, I was convinced no one would imagine I was anything but British. My wavy light-brown hair was tucked haphazardly behind my ears, my fingernails shied away from close encounters with an emery board and my ‘English rose’ complexion was so pale it was almost translucent.
I was wearing a patterned wrap dress that day, chosen for the forgiving way it draped around my hips and concealed my tummy, which wasn’t too round but had never fully regained its pre-Lila muscle tone. I’d always been what women’s magazines charitably describe as pearshaped: anything I ate seemed ...
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