The Babysitter


"Privately, Kate knew that her daughter-in-law found her too distracted or too slow to take care of a toddler amid the many dangers of Paris."

Fiction by Paula PaigeSummer/Fall 2016


The baby screamed violently, his little face tomato-red, his platinum hair lighting up the dark hallway like dandelions gone to seed as he flung his head back and forth.  He clutched at Kate, pulling away from his new French baby sitter, Françoise.

“You’re going to the park now,” Kate said, “and when you come back Nana will give you lunch.”

Oliver went on thrashing and screaming.

Françoise said: “Laissez-moi sortir.  He will stop when he doesn’t see you anymore.”

Kate nodded, prying off his plump little tentacle-like arms and legs, and Francoise got him out into the hallway.  She closed the door and leaned against it, breathing hard, wiping her own tears as the screams went on, then were, finally, mercifully swallowed up by the elevator’s creaky descent.

Kate was about to go out to the market; she had her granny cart ready, so that she looked like an old-fashioned Parisian housewife.  She’d just give them time to get around the corner on their way to the garden.  But then she hesitated.   She went over to stand by the window, looking out at the courtyard, at the unusually cloudless blue sky, at the white cat named Claude sitting in a window in the apartment across the way, next to a pot of geraniums.  What a nice place this was that her son and his wife had rented, but they didn’t seem to spend much time here:  he was buried most days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, working on his latest book; she worked in a neighborhood café on hers.  And Oliver went off every morning with a series of teenaged babysitters, whom they’d declined to replace with Kate for the short time she was in Paris.  Privately, Kate knew that her daughter-in-law found her too distracted or too slow to take care of a toddler amid the many dangers of Paris.

Claude blinked up at her in the June sun, and all of a sudden Kate thought: to hell with the market!  She was only here for two weeks, and she wanted to see Oliver.  She stowed the shopping cart in the kitchen, grabbed the paper, and walked down the circular staircase, out through the front courtyard with its ivy-covered buildings, where children kicking a soccer ball muttered “Bonjour!” as she went by.  She knew where Françoise and Oliver had gone: the courtyard of the Hôpital St. Louis a block or so away. 

The Rue du Faubourg du Temple was a vibrant, tacky street that seemed to be the cheap shoe capital of Paris.  High platform sandals were piled on tables on the sidewalk; bright sundresses in patterns that made you seasick waved like banners in the breeze.  Kate turned down a side street that led to the hospital, a mostly Muslim street full of small shops in front of which men stood smoking and staring at passersby. Once she saw a woman’s face eclipsed by a black chador peering out from the darkness of a shop.             

Up ahead loomed the hospital, with its gray slate roofs atop rose and beige patterned walls, like the Place des Vosges.  She slipped around the car barrier and walked under the arch into the courtyard, a typically French green island of calm in the midst of the noise and hot cement of Paris.  Ahead of her was an oval hillock planted with purple pansies and pink begonias, ringed by a gravel path and then grass, where children were actually permitted to run.  Young mothers and nannies sat on stone benches, surveying their children or charges.  A few hospital patients were sitting out, too, in the morning sun, one an evident burn victim in a wheelchair—the hospital specialized in dermatology.  Kate spotted Oliver toddling around on the grass on the other side of the garden mound.  Françoise sat talking nearby with another nanny.

Kate sat down on a bench from which she could see Oliver but not be seen by Françoise.  At least, she hoped not.  She put up her paper as a screen, pretending to read about Strauss-Kahn and his humiliating treatment by the New York City police.  Peering around the edge of the paper, she saw Oliver trip and tumble.  Françoise called out “Olivier!”  She came to scoop him up and they passed out of Kate’s sight behind the flowered mound.

A few minutes later, Oliver set forth again.  This time, he went farther afield, headed for the figure in the wheelchair, swathed in bandages, who had wheeled himself closer to Kate.  The man—the gray hair looked like a man’s—was smoking, inserting his cigarette among the bandages that crisscrossed his face.  Only in France, Kate thought!  Oliver watched in fascination, standing a few feet away, staring at this strange figure, at the cigarette going into the dark hole, at the blue smoke rising in the sunlight.  It was quite possible that this privileged child of Northern California had never seen anyone smoke before.

And then the man seemed to speak to Oliver, holding his cigarette to one side.  Kate heard something that ended in “mon petit prince.”  Despite the bandages, Oliver smiled.

Kate stood and walked a bit closer.  She saw that Françoise was absorbed in texting, and that the man was perfectly presentable.  In fact, he seemed to have a rather aristocratic way of speaking, and he wore a green silk ascot around his neck.  He acknowledged her from a distance: “Madame.”  It was a lovely moment.

All of a sudden, the man seemed to nod off, and dropped his cigarette on the grass beside him.  Oliver stood transfixed for a moment or two, then began to run toward the spot of flame glowing in the grass.  Kate did, too.

“Oliver!” she yelled, before Françoise had any idea what was going on (she was still texting, and jumped up in surprise when she saw Kate running around, and indeed through, part of the flowerbed).  The baby stopped and turned; then his face lit up in a grin and he toddled to meet Kate.

“Na-na!” he cried.  It was the first real word she’d ever heard him say.  She caught him up in her arms.

Then the force of French society came down on her:  Françoise came over to claim her charge, looking daggers at Kate because she probably thought she was a spy planted by her son, but also a bit shamefaced, as well she should.  A dark-skinned gardener dressed in green appeared out of nowhere, berating Kate for walking on the parterre, gesturing at the crushed flowers.  In vain did she plead that her petit fils was in danger of being burned by a cigarette butt; the gardener looked at her skeptically, and handed her a fine for 25 euros, payable to the City of Paris.

But the man in the wheelchair moved in, speaking with the authority of the privileged.  “Je suis désolé, Madame.  This is all my fault. Permit me.”  He reached into the pocket of his pants—very nice gray flannel pants-- and pulled 25 euros out of a brown Hermès billfold, which he handed to her.  Then he bowed and wheeled himself away.

Françoise was still standing there, looking at Kate warily, hot and flustered in her tight jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, her reddish hair falling in her face.  Kate felt sorry for her.

“I wasn’t spying.  I just wanted to watch him,” Kate said.  “I don’t get to see him very often.  That’s why I followed you.”

Françoise’s hazel eyes widened in surprise.  “Really?  You mean you’re not going to tell your son?”

Kate laughed.  “No.”  What a dark view of human nature the French had!

The girl smiled and handed her the baby.  Kate stood holding him, inhaling his infant smell of new skin, powder, and poop.  Then she kissed him, handed him back to Françoise and went off to make lunch.


Paula Paige is an Adjunct Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures emerita at Wesleyan University in Middletown,CT. She travels frequently to France and Italy, in order to keep up her fluency in those languages.

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