It was a summer I was meant to be happy. That’s what we’d planned—the two of us walking the boulevards hand in hand, exams over. But happiness proved elusive and all I had was a job in the café beside the Hotel Lutetia. After work I wended my way to a sublet room on the Rue Mouffetard. Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age… The young people I saw laughed and kissed but the one I loved had moved to the other side of the city and was teaching English to some Buddhists. He said he wanted space.
I had a surfeit of space—hectares of pavement, cubic metres of those third Empire buildings that lined the Boulevard St Germain. On the empty mornings I made routines: count the flowers on the balcony opposite. Light the gas. Boil water. Count the stairs. There were sixty-two steps up to the room at the top of the house where I lived. I didn’t take the lift—it was one of those sliding cage ones that shuddered. In my pigeonnier I nibbled at a baguette. Sometimes I made instant coffee on the little gas-burner but mainly I survived on leftovers from the café.
It was a traditional place beside the magnificent Lutétia, with a mixture of habitués and tourists who, to me, were mostly a blur. One woman I noticed because she seemed to be waiting for someone—though hardly a lover, for love seemed impossible after forty. My parents’ generation never referred to it. They spoke of those they were bound to with resigned humour. Determined to be different, I had given my heart away to a fellow student with brown eyes and a denim jacket lined with matted fur. Who had loved me for a while, talking of Sartre and Beckett. My Bernard was as handsome as Camus and I knew myself to be a mousy little waitress despite my fluent French. He had found me out.
Every afternoon Madame G arrived about 2.30. She ordered a coffee, placed a little plant on the edge of the table, opened one of those thick French newspapers and started to read. Her glasses had tortoiseshell rims and her lips were thin. The coffee remained undrunk, escaping the sweep of her paper as she turned the pages. Around her expressos, pernods and coca-colas were ordered and consumed. After about an hour she would ask for a thé à l’anglaise and a little cake which she ate delicately. At 4.30 she would pack up, exchange a few words with the manageress and depart. I thought of her as Madame G. For Ghostly.
Outside the line of duty I didn’t talk much to anyone. Without Bernard I was a husk. I counted things—cups, teaspoons, customers, the diminishing numbers of Disque Bleu in my bag. Counting kept my mind from immeasurables. I didn’t look at the passers-by and my fellow servers were just a swirl of Spanish. Everywhere I went I saw Bernard—still walking away down the Rue Mouffetard. My father would have said I was palely loitering.
‘You don’t do yourself any favours,’ the manageress said one day. She was a manicured monkey of a woman whom I ignored as much as possible. I didn’t wear make-up or sexy tops. Every morning I descended to the unvarnished bathroom where the shower didn’t work, washed in cold water and scraped my hair back off my face. My soul was scraped back as well. Twenty-two years in the land of indifference, six months in the land of love, forty days in the land of despair. Significant numbers—to be embossed on the brain.
That day of the manageress’s remark, a bluff American asked me to translate the plaque on the wall and I reeled off the mythic stuff about the Lutétia and its ‘dark history’ during the war. It was just words to me—bombastic ones about torture, courage and death.
The American had been a GI at the liberation and ended up telling me a few things about the Lutétia.
‘It was where they put up all the poor guys from the camps,’ he said, ‘The ones with nowhere to go. They would throw up all over the place—couldn’t stomach proper food. One got hold of a gun and almost shot me. Said I was Gestapo.’ I looked from him to the gilded hotel front.
‘You can’t imagine it,’ he said, ‘the dinginess, the smell! And so prosperous now.’
Like you, I thought sourly. He hauled himself to his feet and shook a finger at me.
‘Back then, you’d have been running after me, kid,’ he said, ‘I had chocolate, nylons—and muscles!’
But for me he came from newsreel land. Black and white. Like I was with my two pairs of black jeans and four white T-shirts. I did have other clothes—a gipsy skirt and a scarlet shawl—but they stayed in my rucksack.
Later that afternoon Madame G called me over. The wind was flapping the café awnings and leaves were flying along the Boulevard St Germain. Autumn had come and I felt light-headed. I squeezed my mother’s unopened letter, heavy in my pocket. It would talk of home and relatives and the smallness of life. And just last night I had glimpsed someone like Bernard walking along the quays with a crowd of friends. He had not recognised me.
I walked over to Madame: ‘Vous désirez quelque chose?‘ I said thinking of desire and all its futility.
‘Do you remember those cakes,’ she said, ‘the angel ones they used to have here?’
I shook my head.
‘No matter,‘ she said, a little wistfully. ‘You are young, how could you? Slivers of lemon sponge. I used to crumble them between my fingers. I had a sudden longing for them.’
I looked at her white fingers and thought of my grandmother’s piano and the chocolate biscuits she would offer as she told me how her life had been ruined by her husband and his time in the IRA. Then the brown tables swam before my eyes and the next thing I was on the tiled floor and Madame G and Madame the manageress were bending over me.
Madame G took me home with her in a taxi. After I got sick on the floor, I’d just wanted to curl up and die but she was a determined lady. Anyway I wouldn’t have managed the sixty-two steps to my pigeonnier. Her apartment was on the first floor of a grey distinguished building and she kept her hand on my arm as we mounted the stairs. Wooden floors, balloon-backed chairs. Meaningful, Robert Doisneau-type photographs on the walls. Were people’s lives really more significant then?
The guest room was small and austere with a reproduction of the Virgin.
Had not the Irish a great devotion to the mother of God, Madame asked.
‘Are you Catholic?’ I replied, surprised.
‘Moitie, moitié,’ she said. ‘Half Catholic, half Jewish.’
I didn’t know any Jewish people nor any half and halfs. Although I wasn’t very religious I couldn’t help thinking of my mother’s Please Gods, her long policy of appeasement. I knew she was worried, that she had read between the lines I hadn’t written about Bernard. I both wanted her and resented her concern. As I fingered the letter in my pocket, Madame reappeared with a boiled egg on a silver tray. Tears came to my eyes but I couldn’t eat it.
The second day I tried to leave—after all, I needed to keep working. Nineteen-eighties Dublin was full of cutbacks, unemployment, people moaning. My father moaned about the government, me not getting a first and useless young fellows.
When I said I had to go, Madame led me to the bathroom scales. The numbers took me aback.
‘You must gain weight before you can leave,’ she said—her voice steely. ‘I have experience of this. I will build you up to fifty kilos.’
I could run away, I thought but then I got light-headed again. I hadn’t weighed so little since I was eleven.
Despite her bluestocking appearance Madame was practical. She insisted I phone my mother and she collected my things from the Rue Mouffetard. For the first week she kept me away from the café, then she negotiated shorter hours with the manageress—who wasn’t delirious about the arrangement but gave in.
In the evenings she served me classic steak and vegetable meals that I couldn’t finish. Occasionally she took me to the restaurant on the corner for a coq au vin. My stomach settled and I was able to make a stab at the meals—though I couldn’t eat on the scale she required.
My French came out of its shell and we had the intellectual conversations about politics and life that I had once coveted. Madame knew far more than Bernard. Most of her life she had worked in a publishing house and still went there each morning. In the empty apartment I would flick through her books. Philosophy and art mainly, but some about the war.
One afternoon we walked all the way from the apartment to the Lutétia. On a street corner near the Pont Mirabeau she stopped for a moment. Like my father did beside the GPO. The Vél d’Hiv.
‘This is where I last saw my mother,’ she said. ‘In ‘42. She was wearing a green coat and high heels and she got into the bus with all the others.’ It was the first personal thing I had heard her say.
I had read Sartre and de Beauvoir and of course I knew about the Occupation and the camps. But for me it was history. Not a mother in a green coat on a Paris street who was somehow connected to the woman beside me.
‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, feeling my inadequacy, ashamed of my own banal sorrow. She didn’t seem to hear.
‘I was thinking about the school bag I had lost,’ she said, ‘and how cross Maman had been over it. My aunt told me not to wave and I didn’t. I’m not sure she saw me.’
‘I’m sure she did,’ I said—though how could I know? Except that my own mother always did.
‘Things were so scarce,’ she continued, ‘now I understand… Back then I didn’t realise.’
And I was conscious of all the things I didn’t realise even as I overcame my reserve and placed my nail-bitten hand over hers—just for a moment.
At the café she put her little plant on the table and told me more. About her mother’s Jewish family. About her Catholic aunts. About the days of hope when the railway stations spewed out those ghosts in terrible clothes. About the afternoons at the Lutétia after school. About the handsome soldiers and the smell of despair.
‘I cannot abide stations,’ she told me. ‘My brother neither. Though we never speak of those days.’
But she went on speaking. Afterwards she said it was my protruding bones and my not eating that had brought it all back. The deportees were terribly thin—and some couldn’t take food.
Like her cousin whom her aunts fed using all the household’s rations to produce tempting morsels. Which stayed on the plate. Guiltily, I finished my fillet of chicken and even ate a second baby potato. Madame G smiled.
‘We must nourish the life we are gifted with,’ she said, ‘even if we cannot see its reason.’
The last time I saw her was outside the air-terminal. I had passed the magic fifty kilos while she looked diminutive, severe, the sort of woman I might once have called an old spinster. But I knew what I owed her. Although I might stop waiting for Bernard and leave him to his spaciousness, her waiting would never stop. For a woman in a green nineteen-forties coat who had not been able to take the train back.