From a short story collection:
‘In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty’…
The lunch was too extravagant, but I knew it would be. Thanks to the generosity of aunt Maude -who still referred to it as the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon –where she’d once dined with Coco Chanel and her lover ‘Boy’ Capel. Le Train Bleu as it was now called had seen better days. I sat contemplating its faded splendor, imagining my aunt sipping her champagne amongst the magnificent wall and ceiling murals with the gilt extravagance of this Belle Époque room. As my eyes cast around there were nymphs and gods lolling indulgently, above tall banks of windows amid miles of gilt embellishment. Massive chandeliers illuminated the many scenes of various locales in southern France –my proposed destination.
I had travelled to France many times before and since, but that time was different. Paris in May 1968 riots raged on the streets, although I didn’t know it then, I played a very small part, in what was to be the eventual downfall of Charles De Gaulle and the fifth Republic. I had found myself marooned in Paris, during the ‘les événements’ – the student revolt that led to a general strike. I had arrived in Paris alone (saving some travel money by using one of the Captain Herbert methods*). Friends had left earlier with the promised use of a family villa near Fréjus, but I had been delayed. My original plan was to buy a rail ticket at the Gare de Lyon, but I’m easily distracted, and lingered too long in the capital; it was too exciting to leave.
After finishing my Rum Baba and savoring the last drop of Pommery, I settled the bill leaving some francs as a tip and walked out into the sunshine passing the restaurant cat, who I had glimpsed wandering through the establishment. Outside, pausing fully replete I decided to walk. Strolling along Rue de Bercy then turning left towards the Pont d’Austerlitz crossing to the left bank, occasionally stopping at various riverside bouquinistes cabinets. I ending up by browsing in the ramshackle Shakespeare & Company, a bookshop located in the Rue de la Bucherie on the Quai opposite Notre Dame. It specialised in English books and I loved the place, and its eccentric people. Originally, Sylvia Beach, an American, founded it in the Rue De Odeon way back in the 1920’s. She had outrageously published James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. It became the hub of the literary world, frequented with regulars such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, T S Eliot, and Esra Pound. It was closed down during the war, but re-opened at the new address in the 1950s by another American, George Whitman. Amongst the higgledy-piggledy shelves of books, I chanced upon, and on an impulse bought, a copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. After leaving, I continued towards the ‘Boul Mich’ as the Boulevard Saint Michel was affectionately known, and into Boulevard Saint Germain.
That afternoon, I sat alone reading in the Café de Flore. It was known as the writer’s café, frequented by the likes of Sartre and his mistress Simon De Beauvoir. It had the lingering scent of Gauloise and Gitanes tobacco, great atmosphere, and a perpetual buzz. I preferred it to its rival, Les Deux Magots, on the adjacent corner. Overhearing a heated discussion, I looking up from my book, caught the eye of a young man, who, pausing from his argument with a group of men, had slumped back in his seat in resignation. I don’t know why, but we often tend to act differently in a foreign land, as he gazed my way, I raised my eyebrows to him with a sympathetic facial acknowledgement. In a moment he had sauntered over to my table and speaking in good English introduced himself. His name was Philippe Dumas. Trying to be sophisticated (but probably failing), I replied in passable French saying, “Trois heures, c’est tourjours trop tard ou trop tôt pour tout ce qu’on veut faire”, quoting Sartre and then asking him how he guessed I was English.
He responded, “Only an Englishman would be…”, pausing he continued “ironique”, reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ at such a time”. Declaring “It is the best of times – for you; but, it is the worst of times for us”, he miss-quoted. “Touche” I smiled –tilting my head slightly in replied. “May I sit down?” Philippe inquired with perfect manners, and continued in English. I asked him who he had been arguing with, and he replied shrugging his shoulders, nodding towards another table, “that’s Guy Debord, – drunk as usual, -hates what he calls Anglo-Saxon culture, a lecher too”, he said with feeling. “Really, – it doesn’t surprise me he hates the English”, I responded. “I heard he visited England last year to recruit revolutionaries -most didn’t bother to turn up and the one’s that did preferred to watch football on television and drink beer- rather than listen to him, so I gather he departed.” Philippe thought for a moment assimilating the comment he laughed and exclaimed ‘you English’. Relaxing, we slipped into easy conversation, and the discussion passed quickly from Debord’s absurd situation-ism to politics. It was the start of my ‘French leave’.
The troubles had started in a small way, on one or two campuses, and then spread to universities across the country. Around the Sorbonne, the government’s heavy mob Compagnies Rêpublicanes de Sécurité, the CRS – took over the streets in that menacing and heavy-handed way they have, with tear gas and truncheons. At first, drawn along by Philippe’s enthusiasm, I thought it was just a bit of fun, a diversion, but it wasn’t long before things became serious and the fighting began. The barricades grew higher; trees were felled, cars were set on fire. Now the CRS really got going. Hundreds of people were arrested and hundreds more were seriously injured. They attacked indiscriminately: men and women, demonstrators and passers-by. I had witnessed some of the worse street fighting at first hand in early May during the rioting in the Rue St Jaques.
Slowly, the country came to a standstill. The universities were closed, thousands of students affected. There were no trains, no buses, no planes and no ferries across the Channel. I was running short of money. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to Belgium and then England, but I would have been a deserter. Wordsworth, when travelling through France during an earlier revolutionary period with his French lover Annette Vallon, wrote “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” It summed up my feelings brilliantly. The air in Paris was intoxicating: a mixture of champagne and tear gas (you could taste it) – one breathe and you were tipsy. I cashed my remaining Travellers Cheques at the Cook’s travel office in the Place de la Madeleine and joined the struggle.
Intoxicated, the words of Sydney Carton’s speech ran through my thoughts, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”–. For me, I was now taking part in a re-enactment of Hugo’s Les Misérables; the Commune, barricades and the heroics of little Gavroche re-lived over again. On the left bank, the students reoccupied the Sorbonne and most of the faculty buildings in the 5th and 6th arrondissements. They gave their own lectures, directed traffic, ran the commissariat and covered corridors with superb graffiti: “L’imagination prend le pouvoir”; Exagerer, c’est commencer d’ inventer”; “Dessoules paves c’est la plage”; “Plus je fais l’amour, j’ ai envie de faire la revolution.”
We also produced and displayed posters of Marx, Chairman Mao and of course our icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. (He’d been killed the year before somewhere in Bolivia) He was to become history’s most photogenic Marxist guerrilla, and we fixed these posters to the columns outside the faculty buildings. I threw myself into the fray with Philippe. After a street meeting at the Gare de l’Est in mid-May, he was now taking orders direct from the charismatic student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit – ‘Danny le Rouge’-on account of his politics and hair colour. I played a small part on the fringes of one or two battles. I sat in lecture halls and listened to speeches and debates. I made new friends and there were endless impromptu dinners, the conversation going on for hours. It was amazing – the tension, the adrenaline. It was surreal days -everything was possible.
I forget what night it was, but the CRS were attacking the great barricade in the Rue Gay Lussac. I was trying to make my way to Philippe’s apartment somewhere beyond the Place Monge where I had a mattress on the floor. The air was thick with gas and cries of fear and anger. The CRS had blocked off one end of a side street just as I entered it. As I turned to retreat; there were more policemen behind me. I attempted to merge into the shadows, but I had been seen. I heard a shout. I was an easy target. I ducked into a doorway. Running footsteps came towards me. I was a foreigner – and English too, sticking his nose in where it wasn’t wanted. I was scared.
Then the door behind me opened. A girl’s voice said, “Suis-moi”.We were all “tu” and “toi” in those days. She grabbed my arm and quickly pulled me through the doorway and closed it quietly. In the darkness she led me across the hallway to the staircase. We paused listening silently, I heard heavy running footsteps pass the door, then she climbed the wooden staircase and I followed. After three or four flights we arrived at the top of the house, to a tiny landing with a room beyond. The door was ajar and the light revealing a narrow bed, with a poster of Che Guevara on the wall. I stood still, my heart still pounding; she quickly walked to the window, opened it and listened. In a moment, she turned to face me, and I blurted out “thanks, you saved my life”. She replied without smiling, “Je vous en prie”, pausing and glancing back at the window saying “les flics sont parties”!
I visibly relaxed, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, for the first time took in her gamine like appearance. She was dressed in a dark green velveteen collar-less jacket, buttoned down the front with a patterned silk scarf around her shoulders tied in a knot at the front. She was slim and slightly shorter than me, and wore black leather trousers. It was her Mediterranean skin, and fresh open face, with her straight, black hair held back behind her head, a style which for some reason I have always associated with French girls since. But most of all it was her hauntingly beautiful doe eyes that had me entranced.
She broke the spell by moving towards me, reaching behind me to the door of the room, and quietly closed it. Seeing me standing awkwardly, “it’s alright to sit down”, she said brushing past, in a waft of scent, waving her arm toward the bed. She then continued in English, “I’ve seen you with Philippe n’est-ce-pas?” “Yes”, I said in surprise. “You are the Englishman”. “Why”? “Why am I English’? I replied foolishly. She continued “les évènements, – it’s our struggle, n’est-ce-pas”?
I wanted to say something profound, but couldn’t. Instead I reached into my jacket pocket for a packet of Gitanes. Pushing the pack open with my thumb I offered her a cigarette, I was then searching for a match, when she took two and walked towards a curtained off part of her room. She pulled back the dark green curtain to reveal a small kitchenette with a gas ring on a small table. She opened a box of matches, putting both cigarettes in her mouth she struck one match and lit them both. Exhaling the smoke with that familiar aroma, she passed one to me, and for the first time gave me a little smile. She sat at the top of the bed, cross-legged and faced me. She persisted, “Pourquoi”?
I still had the Dickens with me and on impulse took it out of my inside pocket and gave it to her. “Your answer is inside”, I replied seriously. She frowned and looked at me curiously, then studiously flicked through the pages, closed it and carefully placed it alongside a framed photograph of two young girls in a garden that was resting on a record player – doubling as a bedside table. Then looking directly into my eyes she inquired, “What’s your name”? I paused and without realising, I’d answered “Sydney – Sydney Carton”. “So, are you ‘ungry Sydney”? She inquired in that ‘Franglais’ accent of hers.
We made an omelette and she opened a bottle of red wine. Her name was Francoise Javal. She told me she was a communist like Philippe, and for some reason seemed to find my ‘Englishness’ amusing and insisting on speaking in English. To this day I can still hear the sexy ‘Franglais’ pronunciation of my newly adopted ‘nom de guerre’ – “So, are you ‘ungry Sydney”?’ It had started to rain -pattering against the window, through which we could hear the distant sound of battle raging in the street below. But for the moment in her garret we remained secure in our own world as we continued to talk.
I learnt she was a music student studying at the Conservatoire de Paris. I asked what instrument she played when she quickly slipped off the bed and knelt down beside me, pulling a battered navy blue case from under her bed. “Voila”! She exclaimed opening and taking out the violin. She explained it was very old and had been her grandfather’s. He had been a musician too, but was dead now – “in the war you know”. She then turned serious and added sadly, “Les sanglots long des violons de l’automne” –it’s from a poem. It was broadcast to us in France by the BBC telling the resistance that the invasion would be very soon. But they shot him’ -but she didn’t elaborate. ‘I’m sorry Francoise’.
During the pause, I glanced at the bedside photograph again and changing the subject inquired, “who’s the other blonde girl with you Francoise?” Francoise mood lifted and she replied “That’s my eldest sister Camille – she’s an actress you know Sydney”. I remember asking her to play something. “Non pas ce soir” she replied firmly, shaking her head she replaced the violin and case under the bed. Instead we played some records, one Donovan track in particular, we played over and over. We sat closely, quietly listening and contemplating the words: “In the chilly hours and minutes / Of uncertainty / I want to be / In the warm hold of your lovin’ mind. / To feel you all around me… ”. Since then, whenever I hear Donovan and particularly ‘Catch the wind’ my thoughts are with Francoise and Paris. We continued to talk. Her English was expressive and accented, lapsing into French when she became enthusiastic about something, which was often. We finished my cigarettes and another bottle of wine. After a while, it seemed perfectly natural to go to bed, and we did.
She got up naked the next morning, bringing some coffee made in her cafetière à piston. Enjoying her closeness, we shared the last of her grandmother’s home-made petite madeleine dipping it in our coffee. I watched her from the bed as she move about the room, gathering up the memory of her for the future, remembering the things we had said, how we had made love. It was with Francoise that, for the first time, I had experienced that uninhibited joy, a special texture and warmth of the flesh made tangible. I have never forgotten her or that moment in time. The way she moved, her gamin like charm, the way she emphasised her speech with hand gestures and particularly those mesmerising lovely doe eyes. I remember these things, when I day dream – the feminine scent of her black hair, her gentle soft lips and her uninhibited yielding mouth.
The next morning as I was leaving, I took the ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and inside the cover wrote “It is a far, far better thing that I have ever done;” signing it ‘ton ami anglais SC’, the initials of my ‘nom de guerre’. She took the book, slowly looked at my inscription, smiled and gently kissed me on the cheek, squeezing my arm and murmured softly, “Merci Sydney”. Looking away, she walked to the door, I followed and we silently walked down the stairs to the street entrance. I glanced quickly in each direction along the street, then pausing before leaving, “pourquoi”? I enquired, wondering why she had rescued and taken me into her bed. Her answer was perfect for that time that place – so much so that later that day, I took a paint pot and added her words to the philosophical graffiti that was scrawled on the walls of Paris. “Il n’y a pas de pourquoi.”- There is no why!
* * *
After Paris I had written several letters to Francoise but received no reply. Then years later, I was in London making my way along Knightsbridge heading away from Harrods when by chance I vaguely recognised someone striding towards me. Although dressed in a business suit, it must have been something about the walk, as he drew nearer we looked at each other – and a simultaneous recognition dawned on both of us. “Philippe!” I exclaimed. “The Englishman with two names”. Was his droll reply. We stopped and greeted each other in the French manner. Quickly exchanged the ‘how are you’s’, ‘what are you doing now’s’, and then pausing to glance at my wristwatch enquired “do you have time for a drink”?
We strolled through the back ally-way to the Grenadier pub in Wilton Row for a pint. Sitting at a little table in the cramped bar, I learnt that Philippe was now based in London, an attache at the French Embassy. We laughed at this situation. “Ironique” I quipped, adding, “does your government allow revolutionaries to work for them these days?” He smiled in good humour with a Gallic shrug. Conversation turned to our times during ‘les évènements’. The worst and the best of times Monsieur Carton, he remembered. I inquired about Francoise. Philippe’s face became serious.
“Didn’t you hear mon ami”? He paused, looking at my bewilderment; “Francoise was killed a few days after you left us”. Stunned, I stammered, “Oh God no – but how, – when”? He levered himself from the chair, “I’ll get us something stronger” Philippe replied. Returning with two cognacs, he touched my glass with his, murmuring “a votre santé”. Holding my eyes with his gaze, he leaned forward and continued, “she was hit by a CRS van late one night -it was raining, it swerved on to the pavement to avoid some barricade and she was killed”. Seeing the shock in my face, he pushed the cognac glass towards me and reaching for my arm exclaimed “killed outright – she felt no pain Sydney. We all attended her funeral and her sister was there too. She attracted a lot of press as you can imagine. It was reported in L’Humanité of course – even Le Figaro.”
After this news, our conversation stalled, we agreed to meet again and exchanged telephone numbers. We left the pub, shook hands in the English manner and I walked alone towards Victoria station. It had begun to rain, pulling my collar up I continued deep in thought. Passing a bookshop, on impulse I entered and began to browse distractedly. My eyes fell on a paperback collection of the Hulton Getty images of the 1960s. Flicking through the pages, I recognised ‘Danny the Red’, in the ‘Protest’ section, as memories started to flood back, pausing to study various images of the Paris student riots. Turning the page to the ‘Entertainment’ section, revealed a photograph I immediately recognised as Brigitte Bardot dancing with her hair swinging provocatively. Reading the footnote a sudden revelation dawned on me. The caption quoted ‘Camille Javal, better known as Brigitte Bardot from her 1966 film ‘Two weeks in September’’. Javal! -I repeated slowly, then my subconscious heard Francoise’s voice, “That’s my eldest sister Camille –she’s an actress you know Sydney”. “Why”? I exclaimed out loud causing heads to turn in the shop, then hearing her soft ‘Franglais’ voice replying “Il n’y a pas de pourquoi”
*Explained in another short story ‘Jenner’s Tie’