INTERESTING TIMES 11: SUMMER DREAMS AND DISILLUSION

By Andrew Maben 

Maben CoastFor the first, and I hope the last, time in my life I slept standing up. The train from Paris to Marseilles was so packed with Parisians making their annual summer exodus that there was no room to move. All the seats had been reserved and the rest of us were crammed into the the corridors, so tightly that I couldn’t even bend my knees, and I thanked the stars that I didn’t need to piss, because it would have been totally impossible to get to the toilet, and anyway someone was probably using it as a bedroom. So, my little cardboard suitcase gripped between my calves, I finally fell into a semblance of sleep at around three in the morning.

But even this discomfort could not dampen my soaring spirits. After I saw Sally off on the bus back to Seaford, I convinced myself that at last our love was to be consummated in an idyllic Mediterranean setting. On Monday I had visited the office to collect my check, which I immediately cashed to buy my ticket to Nice…

In Marseilles many passengers left the train and I was able to prop my case against the wall of the corridor and sit at last. I gazed out at the passing coast, dazzling whites and my first glimpses of the famous blues of the sea. Toulon, Hyères, Cogolin, Fréjus, Cannes, Antibes, and at last: Nice! Tired as I was I didn’t feel like trying to hitchhike, or even find a bus, and decided to splurge on a taxi. Ah, the mounting excitement, anticipation, expectation as we drove along the cliffs of the coast road! Finally we passed the sign for St. Jean Cap Ferrat, and moments later turned off the main road and began the descent to the harbour. At the bottom of the street the driver told me he could go no further and gave me directions to the villa. Full of joy I walked the path to the edge of the harbour and found the house easily enough. It could hardly have been in a better location, right at the water’s edge. The white walls were topped with red terracotta tiles, an imposing front door of some dark wood. My whole body seemed electrified as I reached out to ring the doorbell…

It was some moments before the door opened and a girl I did not know poked her head out.

“Yes? Who are you?”

“I’m Andrew. Sally invited me..?”

“Wait a moment…”

The door was closed, and I stood awkwardly on the step, waiting… The wait, which surely was only momentary, seemed eternal. Then the door opened a crack, and the same girl stuck her head out again.

“I’m sorry. Sally asked me to tell you that she’s in bed with the boy she met on the beach this afternoon, and would you please go away.”

I had no chance to respond, even had I been able to muster a response, before the door swung shut with a finality that mocked my dreams of romance even as it seemed to slay them…

God alone knows how long I stood there as my world broke once more into a million little shards scattered on the ground around my feet, though I suppose it was mere seconds. I picked up the suitcase and began the weary trudge back up the village street to the main road, feeling that I may as well just take the night train back to Paris, and then home. I could comfort myself that at least there’d be a seat in that direction…

But when I arrived, tired and sweating, at the top of the hill, there was a café with a patio overlooking the sea, and I remembered that I was hungry. May as well have a glass of wine and something to eat. Taking a seat I ordered a glass of red and a salade niçoise. As the first sip of wine suffused my tired body and downcast spirit, I began to take stock of my surroundings. The sun, lowering in the west, cast a rosy glow across the western sky, at the foot of the cliffs the sea glittered in blues that hitherto I’d imagined only existed in the wild imaginations of painters. And then the waitress brought my food to the table. Used to stingy English salads of a few withered greens, with a tomato slice or two and perhaps some cucumber and spring onions if you were lucky, I was completely unprepared for the feast that was set before me: a giant bowl of lettuce, liberally laced with, yes, tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions, but also olives, green and black, slices of hard-boiled egg and big chunks of tuna, along with a basket piled high with crisp, warm French bread, and liberal servings of butter. I set to, as they say, with a will, gladly accepting a second glass of wine before the salad was half gone. As I lingered over coffee and a slice of tarte aux pommes, my mood began to lift. Fuck it, here I was, beside the Mediterranean amid glorious surroundings with at least a little money in my pocket. Nothing awaited me in England except the necessity to live with my disappointment, so why not stay a while and seize some enjoyment? The nights promised to be a lot warmer than England, and if I could sleep on the beach in Cornwall, I could surely do so here. Thus heartened, I paid my bill and walked to what looked like a good spot to stick out my thumb…

No more than five minutes had passed before a guy on a mobylette pulled up. I remonstrated, protesting that I could not possibly ride with him. He insisted amiably. The more I protested, the more he insisted. If only to demonstrate the absurdity of his offer I took a precarious seat on the little luggage rack behind his saddle, suitcase awkwardly balanced across my thighs, and off we set. To my astonishment the arrangement worked rather well and he wended his westward way along the winding clifftop road, until we rounded a cliff and Nice’s bay lay spread out below us. As we descended, accelerating, the long downslope into the town, my companion began to sing.

“Sing!” he commanded. “You must sing!” And he expounded the lyric to me until I had more or less memorised the words and raised my voice in hideous untuneful unison with his. And so we entered Nice in an unholy blast of sound, a medley of our unlovely singing joined in discord with the puttering roar of the overtaxed mobylette‘s little motor.

“Here’s where they sleep,” he told me, pulling over at what appeared a random spot on the Promenade des Anglais. I bade him farewell and walked to the edge of the promenade, overlooking the beach a few feet below, and sure enough, there were dozens below, boys and girls sitting or lying on blankets, towels, sleeping bags. I found steps going down and settled myself in an unoccupied spot at the edge of the encampment and lit a cigarette.

Soon a tall nordic fellow strolled up.

“Do you have a light?”

And, as I handed him my matches, “Mind if I sit down?”

I nodded assent and he sat, holding out his hand, “Erik.”

“Andrew.”

As we sat smoking in the gathering twilight, he asked what I was doing, and I told him my sad little saga. He laughed wryly.

“Me too. My girlfriend’s doing a summer course at the University and invited me to come too. But when I got here she had some French guy in bed with her. So here I am…”

Noticing that I had no blanket, Erik offered me his: “It’s ok, I also have my sleeping bag.”

Soon after, exhausted both physically by the journey, and emotionally, thanks to Sally’s cruel volte face, I rolled myself up in Erik’s blanket and fell asleep.

The days that followed are a blur of comfortable lassitude, lazing under the warm sun, smoking an occasional joint, now and again strolling into the old town to get something to eat.

There must have been twenty or thirty dossers on the beach, but there was little or no pilfering – it was quite safe to leave one’s belongings, even for hours at a stretch. Little comes to mind in the way of incident, though a couple of people have remained in my memory ever since. There was, Andrej, a Pole, effervescent, voluble in his severely limited English, and obsessed with the streetwalkers who haunted a nearby park – in fact his command of English seemed limited to “hodjus curls”, which he would offer with his wide innocent smile to anyone who came within range. At last someone explained that what he was trying to say was “gorgeous girls”. How he had managed to escape the Iron Curtain to join the rabble on the beach was a mystery that was never elucidated… And Binh, a cheerful little Vietnamese kid with spindly legs withered by childhood polio. He did not seem to regard this affliction as any kind of handicap, in fact he had in some sense turned it to his advantage, folding his legs into a full lotus, walking on his knees and performing some remarkable acrobatics, both for our entertainment and to earn coins from passing tourists. And it was here on the beach that I was first introduced to Henry Miller, an American girl was reading Sexus and swapped it for whatever I had been reading, a bargain that decidedly broke in my favour, at least in terms of sheer number of pages. Through that summer and autumn I waded through all three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion, mesmerised by Miller’s torrential prose, titillated by his voracious sexuality and naïvely blind to his misogyny.

One evening I was sitting apart, near the water’s edge and daydreaming into the sunset sky, when I glimpsed a distant figure making its way towards me through the shallow wavelets at the water’s edge. As the figure came closer, I noticed first that it was a girl, and then that she was a lovely redhead. When she came abreast of me she turned and walked towards me. Sitting down beside me she smiled and asked if I would like to share a joint. We passed the smoke back and forth, as she told me she was a music student at the Sorbonne, spending her summer walking the coastal path the length of the Côte d’Azur and sleeping rough in the clifftop woods. I was sorely tempted to ask if she would let me accompany her, but my suitcase was singularly inappropriate for such an endeavour and I let it pass. The joint smoked down to the filter, she soused it into the waves and we sat awhile in companionable silence until she climbed to her feet, bade me farewell and strode off along the beach…

“What are we doing here?” Erik asked one morning. “Why don’t we go somewhere? We could hitch to Spain.”

Sounded like a great idea to me, apart from our meagre funds. We decided to tackle that problem by spending a day pavement drawing, went to buy some coloured chalks and found a bare patch of pavement on which I composed some kind of psychedelic swirls while Erik composed a message explaining our tragic situation. Even as I drew, coins began to shower into the circle Erik had drawn for donations, and by nightfall we had a tidy little bankroll for the trip.

We were up at dawn the next morning, packed up our impedimenta and walked to the road out of town. After a few rides that took us past Cannes, a young couple in a battered red 2CV stopped and picked us up. We had not gone far when the wife turned and asked, “Have you been to St. Tropez?” and when we told he that we had not insisted that “Everyone should visit St. Tropez!”

“But we’re on our way to Spain, we don’t have time.”

“We’re going. We can take you into town and if you don’t like it you can always turn around and leave.”

Well, by now it was already well into the afternoon, so perhaps we could spend the night there and move on the next morning…

They dropped us at the harbour side and we walked along a dock and sat on a low wall to admire the picturesque scene, each relieved to have left behind our bitter memories of Nice. After five minutes or so two young guys walked up.

“Hey, you want to buy some hash?”

“Not this evening, we still haven’t found a place to sleep and we don’t have much money. But we’re going to do some pavement drawing, so maybe tomorrow…”

“OK. You want to smoke now?”

Of course we wanted to smoke now. They introduced themselves. Jean swarthy complexioned, with a big aquiline nose, shoulder length black hair and a brigandish air, and Patrick, “Le Dorze”, with a more hesitant presence and a bush of curly black hair. Jean rolled a fat joint with some nice black hash, which the four of us shared before they left us stoned on our wall with a promise to meet us here tomorrow at six in the evening.

“I’m starting to like it here,” I said as they walked off.

“Yes. I am too,” agreed Erik. And indeed there was much to like: the blue water of the harbour, with fishing boats and luxury yachts moored at the quays, cafés lining the waterside, a long mole shielding the moorings from the open sea beyond, blue hills on the distant far side of the bay and the quaint village rising up the hillside behind the harbour.

A little red sports car pulled up in the car park, close to where we sat, and two girls, a blonde and a brunette, climbed out and started to walk in our direction. We looked to the end of the quay, supposing that they were headed that way, presumably to meet someone. But there was no one else.

“Someone you know?” asked Erik.

“I don’t know anyone here.”

“Well, they’re definitely coming our way…”

And indeed, here they were.

“Hi!” from the blonde.

Bemusedly we returned her greeting.

“Um. I wonder, do you know where we could get some hash?”

“You should have been here five minutes ago, there were a couple of French guys… But we’re meeting them here tomorrow at six, if you want to come back.”

That seemed an agreeable plan.

“I’m Devon, and this is Anne,” said the blonde.

I laughed. “Devon? That’s where I’m from.”

“My dad’s a geologist. He named me for the Devonian Era.”

She was a pretty girl, unabashed by the terrible acne that marred her skin, but somehow failed to subtract from her beauty. Anne, perhaps a little less attractive in spite of her clear complexion was evidently the junior partner in their friendship.

They walked back to the car and drove away, and Erik and I set off to find a place to sleep. Jean and Patrick had told us of a likely spot, and we set off around the harbour and turned along a small path leading over low cliffs behind the village until we reached a tiny cove, overhung by an ancient gnarled fig tree.

“This must be it.”

We climbed down the rocks to the sand and found a space of soft dry sand, encircled by boulders and sheltered both from view and wind.

When we had staked our space, we headed back into the village to see what was going on, and to see about something to eat. The evening harbour side was bright with lights, couples and groups sitting around tables in front of the several cafes, others gathered more ostentatiously on the decks of expensive boats. We turned away from the harbour, looking for something affordable to eat. As we climbed a narrow bright alley thronged with holidaymakers, Erik caught my sleeve.

“Someone’s calling you.”

“No, nobody knows me here.”

“No, listen.”

I followed his backward glance, in time to see and hear Devon as she hurried, Anne at her side, towards us.

“Andrew! I’m so glad we found you.”

“?”

“Oh. My brother’s been drafted. He’s flying back to the States tomorrow for basic training…”

Uh huh. After which he’ll be off to Viet Nam…

“So we’re having a dinner to see him off. We’d like you two to join us.”

“No, no. We couldn’t…” How can we intrude upon so intimate an occasion?

“Yes. You must.” And behind her smile, I thought I glimpsed a small fearful plea. Perhaps it occurred to me that they might welcome us exactly because as strangers we might open up that intimacy, keep strong emotion at bay. Or perhaps that notion only struck me later. But anyway.

“Well, if you…”

“Come, It’s this way.”

They led us into a low ceilinged restaurant, filled with soft warm light, timbered walls and ceiling, to a long table. Devon introduced us to her parents, her brother Jack, and two other parents with a son, evidently Jack’s friend.

We sat, were offered menus and bidden to have what we liked. Our glasses were filled with red wine. I don’t remember how the meal passed. Small talk I suppose. It may have been here that Devon told us her geologist father was in the employ of one of the large internationals and based in Paris. But I do remember eating a very tasty steak.

Afterwards we stood outside on the cobbles, saying our goodbyes.

“So where are you staying?”

“We found a spot on the beach up there,” pointing vaguely.

“Groovy. Well, goodnight, we’ll see you tomorrow evening.”

Next day we were woken to the sound of a couple of flics making their way down the beach rousing the hippies and vagabonds. As we stowed our bedding one of the cops told us there was a pump a short way up the hillside where we could bathe.

“Look, there’s fruit,” said Erik as we climbed past the fig tree. Indeed. The fruit was ripe and delicious, the first fresh figs I’d ever tried. The water from the pump was bright and clear and chill. Each pumped for the other as we drank, then washed and shaved.

We meandered through the day. Found a square of pavement by the harbour wall where lots of people passed. My hippy pseudo-psychedelic swirls, (or were they simply smears?), had little, I fear, to recommend them – awkward, irregular curves and abstract squiggles, executed in bright pastels. But we soon discovered that it was the explanatory plea, written in stilted French, that got results. We would write these messages beside a chalk circle which we primed at the start of every session with whatever coins we had, and if possible a note or two. At first we had taken a respectful and submissive tone, but gradually the descriptions of our distress, the demands for succour, became more exaggerated. The more exaggerated the message, the wider the viewers’ smiles, the more frequently their hands would dip into their pockets, the more coins, and even notes, would fall into the magic circle. And for years, pavement drawing would remain the highest hourly rate I ever earned.

Someone who stopped to chat pointed out a guy leaning against a red Ferrari flirting with a girl.

“See him? He makes his money playing guitar in the cafes in the evening…”

At last the sun began to go down and we went back to our arrival perch to meet Jean and Patrick. Fifty francs got a good chunk of black Pakistani hash, generous enough for us to take a nice little cut before passing it on to the girls. Again the four of us shared a fat joint before Jean and Patrick left to return to their campground out at the edge of town.

Right on time the little red Alfa pulled up in the car park. The girls were delighted with their hash, so of course we had to smoke another joint. And then they invited us to have a glass of wine, and we strolled around the harbour to the Café Sénéquier, where the morning’s Ferrari driver, now dressed in a rumpled shirt, torn jeans and sandals, sat playing his guitar, its case filled with banknotes. Over the wine, Devon suggested we might like to join them tomorrow for a day at Tahiti Plage. It’s not as if we had anything better to do so we planned to meet here the next morning.

After the girls left we bought some bread and cheese, pȃté and a bottle of cheap wine and strolled under the moonlight to a quiet spot on the cliffs past our encampment, where we ate, drank and smoked, and talked, before heading for bed.

Needless to say, after being roused by a none too gentle prodding from the boots of the flics at six, we arrived early at Sénéquier, so it was with some slight apprehension that we ordered the coffee and croissants we could barely afford. But of course the girls showed up, if a few minutes after the nine o’clock we had agreed on. They joined us and ordered coffees for themselves. When the time came to pay the bill, Erik and I each half-heartedly gestured our willingness to pay, but with a laugh Devon picked up the slip and paid. As we walked to the car we passed the two flics who had woken us, leaning against their police van. They seemed a little nonplussed as Erik and I perched in the back behind the girls and Devon accelerated away.

And so we fell into a more or less regular lazy routine. Les flics must have been impressed by the Alfa, as henceforward they would wake us with a respectful cough: “Bonjour, messieurs. Six heures, faut s’éveiller. Il fait beau, passez une bonne journée”, made a pleasant contrast to the boot in the ribs that our fellow beach dwellers still enjoyed. Fresh figs from the tree and ablutions at the pump, morning coffee at Sénéquier, where the girls would meet us on most days. Pavement drawing, lounging on the beaches, watching boules on the square, getting high with Jean and Patrick, drives in the Alfa. A summer idyll…

One afternoon Erik and I were walking through the lanes at the edge of town and sat down to rest under a tree in front of a little cottage. As we sat smoking, I noticed a sheaf of papers with a pink cover and bound with a cheap clip. The cover carried the title Barbarella and some credits, while inside was written a brief note to “Brigitte” from “Roger”. Yes, an early script of the film which was to star Jane Fonda. I read the script in an afternoon as an interlude in my ploughing through Miller’s Sexus, and for several years I managed to keep it before it finally disappeared – I hope someone found and kept it, it was probably worth a few bob…

All too soon it was time for Erik to head back to Copenhagen to resume his studies, and early one morning the girls drove us out to the edge of town to hitch back to Nice…

We made it back in good time and found the group on the beach still there, some had left and others had taken their places. Andrej was one who had recently left, apparently he had carefully hoarded his money and on his last night had blown all he had left on one of his “hodjus curls”, but Binh was still performing his acrobatic contortions.

Erik left the next afternoon, and after seeing him off at the station I went to sit on a bench on the sea front, where I was meditating on my situation when a pretty dark haired girl asked if she could share the seat.

Sophie was English, and had been studying at the University for the summer. I told her about Erik’s sad story, and my own, and of our St. Tropez sojourn.

“I have a room at the University. You’re welcome to stay tonight, if you’d like.”

So we chastely shared her narrow bed. As I prepared to leave for the station, she jotted a phone number on a scrap of paper.

“Get in touch when you’re back in London.”

I promised I would, and tucked the slip away in my wallet.

The train north was much less crowded than it had been coming south, and I managed to snatch a few hours sleep before arriving early the next morning in Paris. Following Jean’s advice, I made my way to Place St. Michel. Dozens of students and hippies sat on the low wall around the fountain, and I found a spot for myself.

I soon made myself a part of this loose congregation. I learned to avoid the sporadic police sweeps, found a good spot for pavement drawing, and joined a little coterie who slept under the Pont St. Michel each night.

Early the next week I took the Metro up to Brochant and walked to the address Jean had given me on Rue Guy Môquet. His mother opened the door, and when I asked for Jean, invited me in and offered me tea. No, Jean wasn’t back yet. She had no news, but no doubt he would return, I should come back whenever I liked…

One afternoon on Rue St. André des Arts I found myself caught. The police had blocked each end of the street and shoved all of us who didn’t manage to escape into the back of a police van. They drove us to a police station and put us all in a big holding cage. It was here I met two girls from Sweden, Ulla and Kirsten. Ulla was quite pretty, with brown hair, big blue eyes a healthy complexion and a nice figure. But Kirsten was a beauty, with her white-blonde hair and milky skin, soft pink lips and limpid grey eyes, lithe, lissom figure, her soft voice and otherworldly manner, she seemed a fairy ice-princess.

Eventually the police let us out one by one, and after a cursory inspection of our papers we were released. I met up with Ulla and Kirsten outside the police station and we walked together back to the Quartier. They had the use of a friend’s flat while he was out of town, and invited me to join them. I was utterly entranced, as I’m sure you have noticed, by Kirsten, so of course I leapt at the chance. Besides, although there might be some kind of romantic cachet to sleeping under the bridges, the nights were getting chilly and it would be a lot more comfortable under an actual roof…

The girls had a routine that put my efforts at pavement drawing in the shade. They’d simply walk down the Boulevard St. Germain and within moments would be invited to lunch by some man or other. They would politely refuse at first, but with further persuasion reluctantly accept and have a sumptuous meal. Parting from their victim with vague promises of future encounters they would then resume their promenade, until again invited to eat. But now they would coyly reply that they had just eaten, but suggest that perhaps, as they had very little money, the gentleman would be so kind as to offer a few francs towards their dinner… When they had collected enough cash, which seldom took more than an hour or so, they’d meet me at the Café St. Michel, where I’d be nursing a coffee while I waited, and then take me for a prix fixe lunch at one of the many local restaurants…

I also made some cash of my own by pavement drawing, or simply la manche. I soon found that a polite “Excusez moi, monsieur, vous n’auriez pas un franc, pour manger?” was far less effective than an aggressive “Donnez moi un franc!”, which as often as not would garner not one franc but a five franc piece, or even a note. Kirsten, who did not so much rebuff my shy advances as seem utterly unaware of my besottedness, seemed to live in her own ethereal world, and I felt privileged to be allowed the occasional glimpse within. When not with the girls I simply wandered the streets, spent time in the Jardin du Luxembourg or Tuileries, going once or twice to the cinema, and eating wonderful Tunisian sandwiches with mint tea at one or other of the little shops off Place St. Michel, and roast chestnuts or crȇpes from the many street stands.

All too soon the girls told me their friend was coming back and they would be leaving town the next morning. But that night I was in for a delightful surprise…

The three of us went to a nice restaurant for dinner, and I promised Kirsten I’d collect a suitcase she had left in London and send it to her in Sweden. They planned to hitch to Italy before going home, and it seemed unlikely we’d ever meet again…

Back at the flat we arranged our bedding on the floor and settled down to sleep. As I lay sleepless in the dark, suddenly I found someone slipping beneath the covers beside me.

“Shhh. Come here.”

It was Ulla. Slow and silently we made love, then lay a while in each other’s arms before she kissed me softly and slipped back to her own sleeping bag…

Still waiting for Jean to get back to town, and with Ulla and Kirsten on their way to Italy, I was again at a loose end, idle days on the Carrefour de Buci. There was always a group of us foreigners there, ebbing and flowing with the demands, stricter for some than others, of our lives back home. For me by now those demands were practically non-existent. Although past mid-September, the days were still long, the nights still warm, my simple needs catered to by an hour two of la manche – though I certainly missed the lunches and dinners with Kirsten and Ulla.

For a while now there had been a girl who shyly hovered at the fringes of the laughing groups of friends, never seeming part of any clique. We had noticed her, the Swedish girls and I, and commented with the casual cruelty of the young on her awkwardness, her shyness. And now here I was on my own, and with the girls gone not really feeling any great need to join any clique. So when she made to sit down next to me on my doorstep, I was happy enough to smile and make some room. And of course she was, as shy people so often are, a sweet person, gentle, kind, hopeful. She wasn’t ugly, far from it, just a bit overweight, but sadly aware that she had neither the ethereal beauty of a Kirsten, nor the earthy sex of Ulla. Just sadly aware, not bitter or angry, that she would never be the first to be invited to dance. To my deep shame, I don’t remember her name – and she surely deserves that small respect as much or more than so many others who have touched my life. So I will call her Greta.

We fell into the habit of spending time together. Most days I would walk, or take the metro if I could bum a ticket, up to Brochant to see if Jean was back yet. Or over to the Champs Elysées to visit Devon and Ann. Or simply wander the streets, spend idle hours in the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Garden. But sooner or later I’d be back at Buci, and there she’d be. I was vain enough to take pleasure in the way her face would, gently, light up when she saw me walking up St. André des Arts. We would talk, perhaps stroll down to Place St. Michel to sit on the fountain, watch the people, laughing. Friends.

Then one late afternoon I found her talking to a rather shabby looking guy. He seemed much older, but I was twenty and I don’t think Greta was much more than eighteen, so what did we know. Heck, twenty five was already middle-aged to us. Thirty? Positively geriatric. Anyhow she introduced him as, let’s say, Ali – certainly an arab name. He greeted me warmly enough, though there was something dark in the back of his eyes that I didn’t quite trust. A taxi driver, apparently he’d been telling Greta he’d like to take her on a tour of the sights of Paris. Her eyes were shining at the thought. She had come alone, with who knows what dreams in her head about the adventures she might have in the City of Light. And she had spent her time mostly alone, god knows how lonely, in a corner of the Latin Quarter. She had seen girls like Kirsten, girls like Ulla, bewitching the boys and beguiling the bourgeois. She had watched us laughing, she’d been left out of so many parties, so many little outings to the Ile de la Cité to smoke beside the Seine. Perhaps she had ventured to Notre Dame. I know she hadn’t seen the Eiffel Tower, except as a distant silhouette.

“Won’t you come?” she asked. It really didn’t sound like such a great idea to me. But her voice was so hopeful, her eyes so eager, that I hadn’t the heart to dash her hopes by voicing my misgivings. God forgive me – I don’t imagine that she ever will. And so we agreed that Ali would meet us here the next day after his shift was over, at about 5 o’clock.

Sure enough, there he was, only a few minutes late. Greta, looked happy about it. I was not, but I did try to at least appear to be as enthusiastic as she, as we climbed in and settled into the cramped back seat.

Off we went. Ali did treat us to quite a tour: Montparnasse; back down Bd. St-Michel; Notre Dame; the Louvre and Tuileries; Concorde; Champs Elysees; Etoile; Eiffel Tower; Sacré Coeur. We didn’t actually stop anywhere, but Greta was rapt at the sights, sweet to see. Then Les Halles and to a little brasserie, where Ali treated us to a cognac. Obviously this had been the highlight of poor Greta’s visit to Paris. I had quite enjoyed it, too, and we all three seemed to be relaxed and pleased and at least somewhat at ease.

And so, back to Buci. As we drew close, Ali told us he’d prepared dinner “in our honour” and we must come to his apartment to eat. It struck me as a singularly bad idea. But Greta, in her innocence, declared that it would be ungracious to refuse his hospitality, and “Besides, aren’t you hungry?” As a matter of fact, hungry had become pretty much a permanent condition with me recently, so of course I had to admit that in fact I  was ravenous. End of discussion. We parked in a side street close by, and Ali led us to a rather decrepit building, walls still covered with tattered posters from May. A dingy hallway. But really, who was I to judge anyone’s living conditions? At least he had a place of his own, I’d been sleeping under the bridges as often as not. A dark and dirty stairway and several flights of stairs, “No elevator,” Ali apologised.

At last he fumbled for his key and unlocked a door. He ushered us into a tiny, sparsely furnished piaule. There was a small table with rough wooden chairs, a counter-top with an electric ring and tiny sink; a little gas water heater and a small fridge. The one window covered by a ragged, soiled bed cover, and against the wall was a narrow bed. Once again my instincts rebelled at the sight of a form, apparently sleeping, stretched out on the bed. I signalled to Greta that we should leave. Right now. Once again she insisted that we stay.

Ali spoke softly as he told us the sleeping figure was his roommate, we should ignore him.

“Please. Sit. Let us eat.”

We sat. Ali produced three bowls of dandelion leaves, oil, vinegar, a baguette and a far less than half-full bottle of a cheap rouge. Greta and I waited expectantly for the dish that he had ostensibly prepared. But as he sat, telling us “Let’s eat. I hope you will enjoy my simple dinner.” we realised that this was going to be it. He poured us each a small measure of wine, pouring the rest of the bottle into his own glass. I tried to tell myself that I should appreciate this generosity from a poor man. But by now I was deeply uneasy. There was something distinctly furtive about the way he looked sideways at Greta, made only the most desultory of attempts at conversation. His eyes kept flicking momentarily towards his sleeping roommate. And he completely avoided my eyes.

I wanted to get out of there as soon as I possibly could. As soon as we had all finished our salad, and it was completely clear that that had been dinner in its entirety, I stood.

“Many thanks, Ali. It was a wonderful tour. And thank you for sharing your table with us. But we must be on our way now. We both have places to go.”

As Greta also got to her feet, he barked something unintelligible.

A look of pure malice. “No, no. You do not leave yet.”

I saw he was holding the empty wine bottle, by the neck. His stance hostile, threatening. And now the roommate was on his feet.

I was frozen. Frozen in astonishment, dismay. No in honesty frozen in fear, rank cowardice. In that moment I might have acted…

Then the roommate was holding the point of a carving knife to my throat, backing me up to the window.

Greta was pale, trembling, eyes wide, as Ali said “Now I will have her.”

And to the roommate: “Make sure he watches…”

He pushed her to the bed. Savagely he fought to unfasten her jeans as she began to sob.

“Tais toi!”

Back-handed he struck her face.

“Tais toi, salope!”

She began to whimper as he pulled off her jeans, her panties. Her pale innocent flesh exposed. And for an instant she looked at me. Pitiful. Imploring. Terrified. Despairing.

And all I did, all, I tried to tell myself, that I could do was stand there, the knife-point pricking my throat when I tried to turn away, close my eyes.

I shook with fear, with rage, disgust and utter shame. Greta’s whimpers had turned to a terrible, quiet keening as the thug opened his fly and climbed on to her. Brutally he pushed apart her thighs. She gave a strangled scream as he entered her, which earned another blow to her face. A few convulsive movements and it was done.

Ali got back to his feet. As he refastened his fly he glanced at the now softly sobbing girl. A look of contempt, of triumph, of vindictive hatred. For a brief instant his eyes met mine, then he turned his gaze back to Greta. He seemed somehow to collect himself, threw a towel to her crotch.

“You want a turn?” he asked the room mate.

To give a small measure of surely undeserved credit, he did look shame-faced as he replied, “No.”

“Get dressed, bitch, and get out!”

Still convulsed with sobs, she wiped her thighs. She looked at me again.

“Andrew, please help me.”

I took her hand, helped her to her feet. She leaned on me as she dressed, tried to arrange her clothes, wiped tears from her face, her eyes. The sobs stopped. She took a breath. Looked at me. Utter devastation was in her eyes, despair, a terrible solitude, hell.

“Get the fuck out of here. Do not speak to the police, or I will kill you.”

Both her hands on my shoulder, we staggered down the stairs into the warm air of the street. The sky was soft and pink. And the world will never again be a safe place for her to be.

We hurried away, as best we could. She was still weeping, but more calmly now.

“We must go to the police. Right now.”

“No, no. I can’t.”

“Can’t?”

“My visa has expired. I must return to Sweden. An investigation will take weeks. I don’t have enough money. I will be the one they put in prison. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Please. Please, no!”

“Then..?”

“Please, just go with me to the metro. Then I’ll be alright.”

I didn’t think she would ever be alright again. Nor I. But we walked together to the Place St. Michel. Rode the escalator down into the station. At the turnstile I asked if she would really be ok.

“Yes. Thank you. It is alright now.” She turned, walked through the turnstile, and away.

And I? I do not know where or how I spent that night. The shame of my cowardice is with me still. That night shame, with sorrow and despair, was the whole of my world.

But the next day I was back at the Carrefour de Buci. And so was Greta. Our eyes met. And as I turned away, in hers a look of pity. Oh. Will I ever forget? The pain, the despair still there. But that pity condemns me more surely, cuts deeper into my soul, than her hatred or anger. I wish it could have been anger. I would have welcomed her hatred more, far more than the love I may ever have yearned for from any other. But I must live with her pity. And my shame. Forever.

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