My first day in France! I surely must have known that the French drive on the wrong side of the road; nevertheless it took me completely by surprise. It is only by sheer good luck that I have even survived my first day. Paris may be romantic arm-in-arm with your lover but for a woman alone and disorientated, it is nothing short of terrifying. My schoolgirl French turns out to be hopeless. I might as well be surrounded by people speaking in chemical formulae or algebra equations.
Throughout the miserable grey drizzle of the channel crossing to Calais, I was dizzy with nerves and a sort of horrified fascination at my daring. By the time I stepped off the train at Gare du Nord in Paris, my anxiety had billowed into blind terror. I had been given directions to a hotel booked on my behalf, not far from the station, and spent a good part of the journey poring over the map obsessively.
Exiting the station, I was ambushed by a beggar thrusting her filthy hand at me and gabbling wildly. I would have happily given her something as I have been furnished with some French francs for incidentals (although it was impressed upon me that every centime must be accounted for) but daren’t reach for my purse lest she snatch it. So, ditching all dignity, I sidestepped and scuttled off with my suitcase clasped to my chest. What a blessing that the map was seared into my mind – proof that anxiety can sometimes be good preparation.
Now, ensconced in a tiny hotel room, Paris life seethes all around me but I’m too nervous to leave my room. Whatever made me think I could do something like this? Thankfully I packed some sandwiches and a thermos of tea to keep me going; that will be my supper tonight.
Paris is all behind me now. Leaving the hotel in the blur of dawn, the taxi thudding over cobblestones and careening down narrow streets, I was fearful I’d be lost deep in that city, never to be found. I made a feeble attempt with the driver but apparently my pronunciation of Gare de Lyon was not to his liking as he snarled, ‘Garrrrderrrrleeoon!’ On reflection, I may actually have said guerre which I am almost certain means war, not railway station – my first diplomatic blunder.
I am now on the train travelling through flat, rural landscapes comfortingly reminiscent of the home counties. It is quite a journey down the length of France to Cannes but I have my book – Miss Christie’s latest – should I get bored. I had hoped to refresh my thermos with tea at the hotel but that proved well beyond my language capability. Really, did we learn a single practical phrase in Mrs Barker’s French class? You would expect being able to order tea would be the highest priority.
Initially it seemed I might have the first-class compartment to myself, which would have been ideal as I barely slept a wink last night. But as the train pulled out of the station, a handsome young man burst into the compartment and flung himself into the corner next to the window. He exuded the pleasant yeasty smell of decadence and was dressed in the style of the Romantic poets: emerald-green velvet jacket over a white voluminous shirt. No luggage. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and was asleep in trice.
An older gentleman then arrived in the compartment and spent an inordinate amount of time settling his bag into the luggage rack, removing his coat and hat and making himself comfortable on the bench opposite me. He has infused the tiny space with the acrid odour of French cigarettes undercut by a cloying eau de cologne. He offered some pleasantries and I apologised for being English, but now, despite my ignoring him as I write, he watches me with a suggestive smile as though he finds me mildly amusing. Behind that smile I sense a ruined man, one with that dark, rotten place concealed inside many men these days; those who endured the horror of not one but two wars. Suffering hollowed out their core, gouged away any tenderness. As it did my father, who had a fury simmering inside him that could reach boiling point in a split second.
Dear departed Father, difficult as he was, impossible as he could be, in the right frame of mind he could be witty and clever and excellent company. He read widely and voraciously and was deeply knowledgeable. In earlier days, and especially when it was just the two of us throughout the war, we had many pleasant evenings in front of the fire. His mood mellowed by alcohol, he talked to me about politics, history, literature, philosophy . . . We discussed a great many things over his last years. The only taboo subject was that of Mother. But enough about Father. If the only thing I achieve with this venture is to crawl out from under his shadow – that would be a marvellous thing in itself.
I have been instructed to wait in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes where my new employer’s driver will collect me. However, when I arrived this evening and saw how impossibly grand it is, I decided to park myself on my suitcase on the pavement outside. Then, realising I was conspicuous in my shabby tweed coat, I began to worry that I might be mistaken for a refugee from some impoverished Eastern European country. On top of that, there was a salty wind gusting off the bay, so I have now relocated to an armchair in the lobby and probably look quite important scribbling in my notebook.
My train journey did improve. The young man awoke an hour or so into the trip and asked me the time. I really have to stop being startled when spoken to in French. This is France. It’s unavoidable. On discovering I was English, he was immediately curious and peppered me with questions. The unpleasant older man was so disturbed by our chatter that he made quite a show of departing for more peaceful climes.
The young man, Alexander, also from London, had gone to Paris for a party and was now on his way home to Cannes. I am not normally in the habit of conversing with strange men but there was something kindly about him – a depth beyond his years – and, despite his bohemian bravado, a curious vulnerability. He was terribly impressed at me resigning my position after seventeen years in the civil service for a short-term post in the South of France. The need for honesty led me to disclose that, far from being one of those intrepid, independent women who welcomes challenge and seeks adventure, my best strengths are procrastination and obstacle enumeration. His laughter is the bubbling, infectious variety that encouraged me to make further self-deprecating observations and feel rather witty.
We talked all the way to Cannes and, although he revealed little detail about himself, I found myself chatting with him as though we were already friends. He asked me what possessed me to make the rash decision to leave my job for this little jaunt and I explained it was because of Colleen and my dear little cat, Mitzi.
Colleen was my closest friend in the department. There are so many things I like about her, one being that she smells of generosity and kindness which is very comforting, like the aroma of warm scones or flannelette sheets. She has a wild Irish sense of humour and can even wring a laugh out of Mrs Mickelson, the cantankerous tea lady who inflicts her bitter tea and soft biscuits on our section twice a day.
On Fridays, Colleen and I always had lunch together, just the two of us. Rain, hail or shine, we’d walk briskly to the Lyons’ Corner House on the Strand and secure our seats before the lunch rush set in. Colleen always teased me about having the same dish – grilled gammon – but it suited me because supper could just be bread and butter and a pot of tea. On the way, Colleen always bought the latest copy of The Lady (she is endeavouring to become more refined) and would read the Personals aloud to me, particularly the advertisements of gentlemen seeking secretaries or housekeepers with the object of matrimony ‘if suited’. These secretaries and housekeepers are invariably required to be attractive, refined, discreet and sometimes to have ‘means’ as well. Younger women are preferred, regardless of the age of the gentleman. Occasionally there are specific preferences such as a particular weight or must like children, dogs or hunting, and the more jaded advertisers added the caveat, ‘No triflers’.
Colleen would always urge me to enter into correspondence with any gentleman she thought suitable but truly my only qualification is that I am definitely not a trifler – more’s the pity. I did sometimes wonder what my requirements might be. Certainly no expectations about appearance. So long as he was tender, kind and fairly interesting, I wouldn’t mind a little stoutness or even jug ears. I would draw the line at knock-knees or a stoop, however. Good posture is important to me. Attentive, affectionate, but not overly so. I wouldn’t care to be pawed. A sense of humour would count for a great deal too . . .
Where was I? Back to the day in question. Colleen’s attention was drawn to a particular ad: ‘Shorthand typist required by English speaker in the South of France. Live-in, full board plus salary commensurate with experience. Appointment for 3–4 months.’ She looked up from the newspaper, her face radiant with excitement. ‘Iris! That would be the making of you. South of France!’ She ripped it out with a flourish and passed it to me.
‘I don’t see how I could possibly go away for so long,’ I said.
She wasn’t listening, but pointing out the details. ‘You have to apply in writing to a solicitor in Belgravia. Come on, what do you say?’
‘Are you trying to get rid of me?’ I teased.
She clasped my hands in hers. ‘Iris, you’ve been in the civil service for seventeen years! You’ve given your youth to it. You’re thirty-five years old! Your life is half over. I cannot stand to see you mouldering away in that dreary mausoleum for the rest of your life without ever having done anything . . . anything impulsive or outrageous. Without ever having properly lived.’
‘Colleen, I am living. I’m perfectly happy with my life.’ (That part was not strictly true.) ‘Besides, what would I do with Mitzi?’
‘Oh,’ she said scornfully, ‘I didn’t think of that. Of course, your devotion to your cat would certainly be a valid reason not to embark on any sort of adventure.’ Devotion, she pointed out, is not a feline trait. Mitzi was as pragmatic as any other cat. ‘She’d be perfectly happy with Mrs Whats-it next door. If you think about it, Iris, that’s just an excuse. And a rather feeble one at that.’
There was not a whisker of a chance I would do something like this of my own accord but when Colleen realised she couldn’t bully me into it, I caught a glimpse of the same disappointed resignation in her eyes that I had recently seen in my brother’s. And I felt that same chill as though seeing myself quite dispassionately. I know that Alan has given up on me, but to lose the respect and affection of Colleen would be almost unendurable. And if that wasn’t enough to propel me into action, a week later my dear little Mitzi died, taking my last excuse with her.
Mitzi was my friend and companion; she was family. One evening during the blitz when I couldn’t face another night sleeping packed in like sardines in Balham Station, I hunkered down in the cupboard under the stairs with Mitzi. That very night a bomb dropped right into the station and killed all those poor people sheltering there. The only time I ever saw Father cry was when he returned from his Home Guard shift and found us alive. I felt vindicated that I did not have Mitzi destroyed at the start of the war when the government convinced people to put down tens of thousands of pets because they weren’t allowed in the public air raid shelters. I took the chance. I saved her life and she saved mine. I wouldn’t have chosen to stay in the house alone. So we were bonded, and I took her passing as a sign.
It wasn’t just that. There was also an incident at work that gave me pause for thought.
One lunchtime a few of the girls in the department went off to the King’s Head after work to celebrate Shirley’s engagement. I was invited by default, simply because everyone was going. It’s not that I’m disliked or unpopular, just often overlooked. Shirley is the opposite. Around the office she was considered quite the honey pot and it’s hardly surprising she was engaged. When she first joined the department, like many of my colleagues I was in something of a thrall. We all wanted to be her friend and bask in her radiance. But it was not to be.
That afternoon at the pub, she had gone up to the bar to buy the first round and we girls – six of us – were settling ourselves in the snug. Irene offered to take coats. I was cold so kept mine on and shimmied around on the half-circle banquette so the others could sit either side of me when they had finished happily piling their coats on Irene. I was enjoying the warm, convivial atmosphere of laughter but because of the shenanigans with the coats I was alone on the banquette when Shirley came back with a tray of drinks. She saw me across the table and said, ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry . . .’ She then half-turned toward the empty seating closer to the open fire.
I didn’t know what to say. There was a long awkward moment before Colleen realised Shirley’s error and whispered my name in her ear. To give Shirley credit, she was mortified and could not apologise enough. ‘Iris! I’m so dreadfully sorry. I’m half blind without my specs, you know,’ she laughed. ‘With the light behind you . . .’
‘I understand,’ I said. ‘Please don’t worry.’ The fuss simply drew more attention to a moment that could just as easily have slipped by unnoticed. It is one thing being overlooked, but quite another being made the centre of attention at the same time.
Colleen slipped in beside me, laughing. ‘Dear ol’ Iris – you’re a chameleon. It’s your gift. She thought you were part of the decor.’ The girls all laughed. I broke out my smile and tried to join in. I realised in that moment that I was part of the decor in the department too. Like an outdated but useful piece of furniture, I was requisitioned to other departments and returned when not required. I still remembered a time when I hoped for much more. It was the final glimmer of that hope that made me take this chance. And here I was on my way to the French Riviera.
The atmosphere in the carriage was charged by Alexander’s enthusiasm for my adventure and my spirits lifted as the landscape began to change for the better, more reminiscent of picture postcards of the French Riviera. The flat landscape gave way to undulating woodlands. To our right, the sea glittered in the sun. The trees were strange twisted pines and thin pointy ones, interspersed by cream stucco villas with red terracotta roofs. To our left, the landscape was all cliffs and rocky escarpments.
I told Alexander about my interview for the position with my employer’s solicitor, Mr Hubert. On offering me the position, he had made a slightly worrying comment that it was ‘a bit of an odd situation’ and therefore better suited to someone of my maturity. The phrase captured Alexander’s imagination and he spent the last part of the journey speculating on all kinds of outlandish scenarios. These seemed amusing at the time but less so now that I am here dwelling on them while waiting for the driver.
When we parted at the station in Cannes, Alexander kissed me on both cheeks and then, on second thoughts, hugged me warmly. ‘The French don’t approve of hugging unless you’re a dog or a child,’ he said. ‘So this will have to last until we meet again, my dear.’ He evidently imagines that I come from a place where warm embraces are commonplace. He gave me his telephone number and made me promise to get in touch soon and put him out of his misery concerning the ‘situation’.
So here I am in the Carlton lobby, jittery with anticipation. From this vantage point, I have a good view of the brightly lit portico and the luxurious motor cars that pull up outside the hotel. It is really quite amusing to watch the doormen fly out to open the car doors as though the vehicle were on fire or the occupants giving birth but the folk who step out of those cars stroll into the hotel in the most leisurely way. It’s hard to imagine why the panic apart from the obvious, that the privileged need wait for no man. Let alone a doorman.
I was almost overwhelmed by fatigue by the time the driver, a wiry, jockey-sized fellow, strode into the foyer and glared at me. ‘Anglaise?’ Reading my startled expression as affirmative, he picked up my suitcase and with a flick of the head indicated that I should follow him. I was soon seated in the back of a smart black Citroen, being whisked out of Cannes and up the dark, twisting hills behind the city, all the while hoping he was my driver and not an opportunistic kidnapper. We drove through the streets of several villages and out into the darkness again and down winding country roads until he slowed to turn in through a set of wrought-iron gates at the entrance of Villa Rousseau.
As we pulled up outside the house the lights came on and Miss Brooke came out to welcome me. Let me dwell here for a moment so as not to skimp on my first impressions of my new employer. People often describe someone as ‘once’ having been a great beauty, which assumes that one must be young to achieve this sort of acclaim. But in Miss Brooke’s case it seems possible that, in middle-age, she could be even more beautiful than in her youth. She possesses the sort of fine features and bone structure that may have once been merely pretty but a few decades of bedding in have resulted in a very pleasing effect. Her clothes are cut from the finest fabric, as is she. Her accent is less cutglass than sterling silver, the product of generations of ‘good breeding’. But despite her smiling welcome and firm handshake, I caught a dark undercurrent of something complex: my best interpretation would be apprehension and mistrust; a stagnant decaying sort of odour like rotting leaves. It quite disoriented me for a moment. But she was kindness itself, expressing her concern at how exhausted I must be and her delight at my safe arrival. She guided me to my room, gesturing left and right to indicate various rooms (which I barely had time to take in) and then up three sets of stairs to the top level of the house, emphasising that I must make myself entirely at home – when I had never felt further away from that dear familiar place.
While the hallways and presumably the bedrooms we passed were rather sumptuous, this all ended abruptly on the third floor which is surprisingly dilapidated. I imagine this was once servants’ quarters but she assured me I had the upper floor and the bathroom all to myself. It took some effort to disguise my disappointment when Miss Brooke opened the door to my room which is terribly shabby and spartan. Just an iron bedstead with white sheets. Not a rug or even a little vase to soften the effect. The only saving grace was a good-sized window with an old desk beneath it and the welcome sight of my trunk, which left London two weeks ago. The driver, whom Miss Brooke had introduced as Monsieur Lapointe, arrived with my suitcase which he placed at the end of the bed, leaving without a word. I was aware that this was not a form of subservience. There was plenty of time in the car to pick up the unmistakable smell of pure hostility. I have a high level of accuracy with this odour, which has an unpleasant ring to it, a bit like metal polish.
‘You speak a little French – oui?’ I struggled to think of a single word but Miss Brooke just shrugged and glanced around the drab little room with affection as though imagining all the good times I would experience here. A meal was offered, but my appetite had vanished and Miss Brooke bid me goodnight. Despite the lacklustre accommodation, as I sit here at the little desk, fresh from my bath and diligently recording the day, there is a vast sense of relief at having arrived in one piece. I feel almost intrepid.