by Ken Clay

Paris attracts the lovelorn like those ultra-violet destructors attract
flies. I went there to escape Vivien and that acid mixture of lust and suspicion which corroded my guts whenever I thought of her. But Paris was more her kind of town than mine. She seemed to be everywhere, like the plaster gargoyles of Notre Dame. Was she really lurking in the Latin Quarter looking for revenge? Even now, in the tranquil ity of this peaceful institution, I can recreate those days in every vivid detail - and they tel me I was deluded! Who said foreign travel was a good antidote to a fractured affair? Probably some French scribbler. How wrong he was! I came to know the eroticism of the railways - all that jogging, wobbling, and boredom. And then the fluorescent vacancy of the station snack bar with the constant presence of girls; some chewing sensually on hot-dogs, some in fetching uniforms, asking if you want black or white, pressing change into your hand and arching their bodies into seductive curves. I came to know the briny squalor of the cross-channel ferry and the voluptuous visions due to high winds and steep stairs. Finally on arrival, I discovered further perils; the professional sirens of Montmartre and the Avenue Foch in their black leather mini-skirts, wired bras and fishnet stockings. Perhaps I should have gone to Harrogate instead. Even before this, France was the thing we had in common. I was in my radical politics phase - a student of revolution. She was a bored housewife interested in the literature. But it was the politics which brought us together. I hadn't seen Podge Rathbone since we were in the sixth form five years earlier. Initial y I’d supplied the Black Dwarf to a local newsagent but later I became converted by two disparate doorknockers who seduced me into a more durable brand of radicalism. One night, out with the Party trying to sell the - Morning Star, I knocked on his door and he invited me in. His face stil looked like a frost-damaged potato but he also retained a touchingly earnest concern for social justice. We talked about Party policies and he asked hard questions about voting in the USSR, the Soviet- Fascist pact and why Trotsky's head had been rubbed off photographs but not his shoes. I answered as best I could but found myself transfixed by the vision in the opposite armchair. Vivien was a black-haired, blue-eyed half-Irish hybrid with something almost Egyptian about her high square shoulders and long thighs. She was taut and tanned and her movements had a subtle but self-consciously erotic quality. She gazed at me from under slightly hooded lids; an appraisal that was languid but penetrating. I quickly concluded she was capable of anything in the pursuit of her appetites. But what could she see in the odious Podge? His only claim to this prize was a lucky adolescent pregnancy. She was just getting the little girl ready for bed. Mother and child! What could be more erotic? Single girls have never appealed to me. In order to get invited again I turned in a comic account of Star sales on the knocker. She seemed to find this entertaining enough. It was, I learned later, a brightening of the gloom surrounding the end of her I promised to come again and bring more literature germane to our discussion. I figured I'd take the monumentally boring pamphlet on Inner Party Democracy hoping he would fall asleep as I unravelled its tortuous sophistries. As it turned out he did, but I guess that had more to do with the barbiturates she crushed onto his ham sandwich so that she could give me a lift home. Paris, I soon discovered, is geared for pleasure. Even the architecture proclaims this truth. Everything built since the Revolution strives to please: it's all kitsch. The Opera, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur; they're all brazen assaults on Jacobin Virtue. I reflected on this as I strolled down the Boulevard Haussmann in search of the Maison Proust. This was the ambience I needed after the bleak Puritanism of England. Yet how plain French girls seemed. Wel dressed and poised though, and possessed of a tantalising, civilised veneer which seemed to invite violent penetration. I sidetracked into the Galeries Lafayette where there were even more highly polished examples of the genre demonstrating A small group watched a model being made up. She looked impassively self-contained while he darted nervously with his little brush, like one of those birds which groom the rhinoceros. This certainly beat Renoir and the Jeu de Paume. Then he became more menacing with a thin, silver eyebrow pencil. I remembered it was near here that Proust attained orgasms by sticking hat pins into rats. She'd read Proust twice and cultivated some of his perversions. No hat-pins were stuck into me but I recall being invited to whip her with one of Podge's leather ties, in the absence of anything more No Maison Proust, not even a plaque on the wall (the rats I suppose). This, and the amnesia towards Robespierre (I exclude the dingy Metro station of that name) was a great disappointment. However there was a tiny museum which just happened to be celebrating the centenary of Proust's birth. I went in. It was like an up-market antique shop. Letters, old photographs, furniture and paintings recreated the opulence of the period and fil ed the rooms On one wall the famous Blanche portrait depicted the young genius's face floating in darkness like a cuttlebone seen under three feet of seawater by the light of a torch. An adjacent display case held the framed signature of Robert de Montesquiou, well over a foot long, floundering across the paper like a beached whale. What self-sufficiency! I was briefly infused by the fortifying spirit of dandyism. These lucky buggers had no problems with the opposite sex! The aquatic similes are a nod in the direction of the master. He liked to get glass between himself and reality, a window to peer through, or the walls of an aquarium. I began to see the virtue of that detachment. But where were the bloodstained hat-pins and wire cages? I checked my pocket dictionary and fired a long, complex question on this at a somnolent, uninformed, uniformed guard. He looked puzzled, then shrugged and suggested the Jardin des But how she would have loved it al ! It was then, just as I surreptitiously violated the TOUCHEZ PAS notice resting on the deep blue silk covering of his deathbed, a counter-pane suddenly reminiscent of hers on which I could stil see her perfect body, prone and invitingly spread - one of those mysterious mental snapshots which do not fade as time passes - it was then that the idea that she might be in Paris first crossed my mind. She'd surely know about this exhibition and might choose to combine revenge with recreation. When I got back to my hotel I was accosted by the gross, crop-haired, black-booted concierge. There had been a phone call; she pronounced my name perfectly, a feat well beyond her unassisted monolingual French. There was no message but she eyed me suspiciously. I knew the type. Years of arguing with the language mistress over subscriptions to the staffroom coffee club had taught me a lot about lesbians. The call must have been from Vivien; she was checking on my whereabouts. But how had she dropped on the squalid Hotel de Tours in the Rue Jacob? The only person I'd mentioned it to was a colleague in the Art department. It puzzled me as far as the rue Bonaparte but then I forgot it as I searched the street for Jean-Paul Sartre. Probably at the Cafe de Flore I guessed as I carried on expectantly down to Saint Germain des Pres. I took a table outside and sipped a large Ricard whilst awaiting some il uminating incident in this heartland of existentialism. I was not disappointed. After an initial disgust at what I had just seen I perceived that it encapsulated all the arrogant male chauvinism which confers on the French that cocky invulnerability from the anxieties of lost love; that capacity to transform women from the category of threatening Other to the category of pleasure- object. She was a quite outstanding specimen, tall, statuesque, swaying and rippling under a tight red dress, perhaps a hint of agitation in her hurried, high-heeled walk along the Boulevard St. Germain. Very like Vivien except for her blonde hair. Men turned to ogle. She dived down the steps of an underground toilet but reappeared almost immediately; it must have been closed. Then a swarthy yob, approaching as she resurfaced, pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows and held out, invitingly . . . a cupped hand. Inflamed by this spectacle I went to the Louvre. There, as expected, I found the most delicious assortment of girls. They were lightly covered in the late spring heat and floated through the air-conditioned gal eries like iridescent tropical fish, nosing up against the art-works, swirling wide-eyed and distracted in colourful eddies between the drab exhibits. Semi-transparent blouses buckled open as they bent over some worm-eaten chunk of Egyptian bric-a-brac; tight, soft jeans stretched and bulged; I smelt the fragrance of these transient masterpieces from America and Japan and briefly brushed against their loose tresses as I too pressed for a gander at the ruined torso of Priapus. The more static paraphernalia occasionally caught my eye. Da Vinci's Madonna with St. Anne was a congenial subject. But most enchanting of all was the little Aphrodite au colier, a knee-to-neck fragment of magnetic beauty. So bewitched was I with this piece I bought a life-sized plaster reproduction from the front entrance shop and staggered back with it on my shoulder like a character from Poussin's Rape of the Sabines. One might have expected the Gertrude Stein of the hotel lobby to welcome this addition to her dreary dosshouse - but all I got was a glare of disapproval. I found a restaurant in the quarter which claimed to be the oldest in the world. It wasn't far from the statue of Danton and my guide-book said that many of the revolutionaries used to eat there. This was information I had not come across in the histories of Lefebvre and Soboul. After a spiny wrestle with a large trout I felt the urge to tackle an equally prickly problem. My trip was, after all, intended as a recuperative break and what better tactic to despatch the demons of jealousy than a calm, written analysis. I got out my exercise How disconcerting though, throughout this enterprise, to be interrupted by a slim-hipped young nymph, surely no more than seventeen. She had all the delicate clarity of feature one associates with girls that age and repeatedly solicited, in a soft feathery voice: 'Vous desirez?' An honest answer would have put me out in the street. How could I possibly ask for an introduction to her mother who, I guessed, was larger, sterner and certainly no less than thirty five. So I just kept saying: 'cafe noir'. What I also desired was a release from that gorgon Vivien. With head throbbing and ears ringing at the onset of a caffeine narcosis I attempted to get it all out on the page. My first mistake was not to recognise her disease. She enjoyed a chronic infection of nymphomania. This might seem like the young stud's dream but soon (well certainly after a year or two) the frequent demands on one's person coupled with the other's eerie absence of repletion withers the mind as well as the loins. To her the orgasm was unknown. It existed as a hypothetical entity like Voltaire's concept of God. At first it was flattering to be dragged into bed in the lunch-hour or have one's pants ripped open on the motorway, Another favourite manoeuvre, on my regular visits to see them both, was to send poor old Podge out to the off-licence for a loaf so she could have a quick rut on the rug or up against the sink. Podge never seemed to question this regular dearth but I did and she admitted to drop-kicking vast quantities of bread over the hedge into next door's garden. Birds in that area must have had trouble getting airborne. Fortunately Podge was strapped for cash and the roaring exhaust of his Fiat often summoned us back to a kind of flush-faced decency. Occasionally our underwear would get transposed; I am not sure this was always an accident. I stil have some of those relics. In our first year we met frequently and took risks. It was a mutual intoxication. Fortunately teaching provides many opportunities for fornication; this is its principle charm - long holidays, elections, outings. I would often drive 5C to the baths and then take off in the mini-bus for a rural copulation ful length between the seats. I don't recall anyone drowning in my absence. In the long summer breaks we would have more leisurely conjunctions while Podge slaved over his computer twenty miles away in Carlisle Chemicals. At first I was amazed at his blindness but later, after our constant threesome had become regularised by habit, I was equal y shocked by outsider's al usions to the oddity of our relationship. Adulterers think only overt acts can expose them; getting caught in bed or having a passionate letter intercepted. In fact their condition is apparent to everyone. Everyone that is except their spouses on whom nature confers a protective myopia. I know now that if I had seen the three of us in the country pubs we used to visit I'd guess straight away what was going on. But even our tripartite dream-world was vulnerable to nasty reality. One Christmas Podge's sister, a hysterical alcoholic, married, as if she weren't afflicted enough, to a Hungarian fascist twenty years her senior, began screaming abuse at her guests. Each victim was lashed in turn. I smugly considered myself insult-proof but the whole room went quiet when she pointed a fat finger and blurted out: 'And you! . you! . ' It seemed as though the onlookers had stopped breathing. Would this drunken trollop deposit her disgusting secret like a dog turd in the middle of the room? She wobbled, lurched and finally spat out: 'Stop it!' Everyone knew just what she meant, probably even Podge. Like most communists I had few sexual scruples. I saw myself in the great tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They say even Brezhnev tried it on with Jayne Mansfield when he visited Hollywood but I doubt if that counts - he was hardly a communist. So the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality and the fetishes concerning paternity during a period of inherited capital accumulation did not hamper me. The other liberating factor was a large dose of French cynicism from Vivien. We read the great French moralists – immoralists more like - and sometimes translated their withering maxims when no English version was available. It was like opening a manhole into hell. I exercised this new ethical melange, suitably abstracted, in my conversations with Podge; usually by way of a reprisal after one of his tedious monologues on BASIC or COBOL. Our relationship, like rhubarb, was artificially forced - it was like sharing a cell. We were indeed strange bedfellows. It was de Sade, I think, who observed that we are quickest to suspect others of the crimes we are most likely to commit ourselves. This explained her groundless jealousy which used to whip up out of nowhere like a tropical tornado. An orange cat hair on my lapel was evidence of a rapacious redhead, a small square of cellophane on the floor of the car was off a packet of contraceptives, and the first night I gave a lift home to the PE mistress exposed a long-standing liaison. I'd return late to my garage to find her calling card - a pair of tights tied to the padlock - warning that my absence In contrast I remained unperturbed imagining this deranged possessiveness signified an exclusive obsession. It was during my reading of Proust that things began to look different. Not only was the world suddenly ful of evil inverts it was riddled with infidelity and self delusion too. This new vision was vindicated when I refused to see her following an attempt to limit my freedom. Lifts for the PE mistress became more frequent. I liked her. She took my part in staffroom battles and invited me to feel her bicep which was like marble. But when Vivien saw us together she blew a fuse. Not only did she pursue the girl, glaring at her from the Fiat as she walked into the house and finally making an obscene gesture, but she then raced after me, forced me into a lay-by and harangued me in a quivering rage, demanding I never give lifts again. I refused and laughed. She threatened that I would regret it. When I turned up the following Wednesday for my usual family visit she wasn't there. It was unprecedented. Podge said she had gone to her mother's and would be back soon. As I sat listening to a long talk on the storage capacities and access times of the hard Winchester disc I had plenty of opportunity to imagine what she was up to. The cold coils of jealousy were now squeezing me. I left early in a barely suppressed frenzy. Podge agreed I didn't look well. 'What a pity' he added, 'For once we've got plenty of bread.' We had a special spot down by the river near the power station water intake. I was certain no-one else knew about it. I left my car on the main road and ran over the moonlit fields. The Fiat was parked in our bushy recess. I crept up on it and peered through its misted windows. White masses were moving on the other side of that opalescent screen. Then a match spurted flame and I recognised her on the back seat naked and splayed like a biological specimen. That match seemed to go off in my brain too as I felt the hot explosive horror of betrayal. I yanked open the door and bellowed 'Whore!' To the guilty fornicators it may have sounded like a non-specific howl of anguish. The man, dressed only in his shirt, bolted down the narrow track. I never thought of myself as violent and it was with amazement that I found myself in the car with my hands round her neck. Then, as we grappled, I considered a more appropriate method of inflicting pain. Her convulsive responses and ambiguous groans led me to believe she was having her first orgasm on this our last coupling. As she lay in a crushed, exhausted heap I told her that her secret infidelities were over. I scooped up her clothes, got out of the car, and with the wire cutters I had brought for that purpose, chopped off all four tyre valves at the rim. Back home, stil buzzing with an excited agony, I wrote a long letter to Podge cataloguing our affair in explicit detail, describing the debacle on the river bank and finally stapling to those pages a square cut from her dress. Why should I suffer alone? She had to be hobbled and bound and forced to suffer for the pain she'd inflicted on me. Retribution is the best improver of morals. The image of her trapped in dreary confinement with Podge while I went on to better things gave me a brief gleam of pleasure. The restaurant where Danton and Robespierre used to eat was almost empty. I put down my pen and ordered a Cognac. The tangle of black italics before me recalled the speeches to the Jacobin club and the National Convention which had been written in this room. At the time mine too seemed like a liberating act - but would there be a reaction? Something told me it wasn't over yet. My vague fears were focused when I got back to the hotel. On top of the opened wardrobe drawer into which I had emptied my hurriedly packed case I noticed her knickers. The cal ing card! Here! In the middle of Paris! In the gloom of that fifth floor garret I slowly, fearful y, lifted them to my nose. And then, in a rush of vivid sensation, I relived our first tryst in the tiny sun-fil ed back bedroom of the Chateau Podge when, after a marathon performance, as she dozed, I lifted these same knickers to my nose and then up to the light which blazed scarlet, with a promise of erotic riches, through its thin satin gussets. It was a moment of nostalgic despair. Eventually I slipped into an uneasy sleep. Next day, renewed, I awoke with a steely resolve. Before I went out, as a gesture of independence, of exorcism, like the cupped hand of the lout on St. Germain, I tied the knickers on to the plaster Venus and strolled out into the hard, bright light of the morning. In search of something tougher and more durable than the consolations of introverted aestheticism I found myself heading towards Les Invalides. Not that this military ideal was crystal ised by the exhibits in the Army Museum. Those lumpy, pop-eyed horses bulging with over-enthusiastic stuffing! Those tattered, threadbare flags and faded uniforms! Those endless cabinets packed with the tawdry tools of the slaughterhouse! No women cruised these barren shallows - just a few brittle veterans with medals, walking sticks and hooks instead of hands. I left on the point of suffocation hoping Napoleon's tomb might prove more inspiriting. It was certainly - cleaner and less cluttered but now irrelevance gave way to vulgarity. The mad giganticism marked yet another example of post-revolutionary kitsch. What a desecration after the stark simplicity I did feel one emotion as I circled that vast sarcophagus - lust, at the sight of the huge marble breasts of the ten foot guardian angels. I tried to think of Austerlitz but couldn't get past the vision of myself, hanging off those collar-bone wing roots, in search of some satisfying crevice. This must be how, the male spider sees his mate. It was only on the way out that my instincts were proved right. There was the fortifying example I'd been looking for. A sharp young sentry, scrubbed and polished, fit and fearless, gazed across the cannon- studded quad. Another inspiring archetype of masculine independence - not the soft inversion of Montesquiou and Proust but the courageous stoicism of the warrior braced by the barracks. In the afternoon I marched to the Eiffel Tower for a final reconnaissance. The half-term holiday would soon be over. Perhaps altitude would shrink this city's strange power. In the lift I felt my new strength drained by the close presence of a Scandinavian girl. Her bulging bleachstreaked Levis pressed warmly against my groin. At the second level I staggered out shakily and, by way of a steadying diversion, looked through my zoom lens at the fountains below. A jolt of adrenalin squeezed my heart. I recognised Vivien's favourite blue dress among the crowd on the terrace. Even after I'd twisted to ful zoom she looked no bigger than a cat seen from a back bedroom window. Her image, flattened by the telescopic lens, rippled in the heat, but this was it! My first certain sighting! No lift so I made for the stairs and a clattering, dizzying descent. I raced towards the Pont d'Iena. What vast open spaces! Between the tower and the Chail ot palace was an asphalt desert, an inhuman vacancy worthy of Albert Speer's Berlin. I seemed to be running for ever. Gasping audibly I tottered up the final incline. Gone! Of course! I guess everyone had noticed my mad dash. Then suspicion slowly spread like a sweatstain on coarse cloth. She knew I was not in the hotel. Just as she knew the other night when she went to plant the knickers. What might she do next? No-one could hide on this featureless plateau; she must have gone down into the Metro. I I had not gone far down the rue Jacob when it happened. The shutter banging open against the wall made me look up at the fifth floor window of my room. A white shape flew silently over the iron rail. As it fell my stomach fell with it. Too late. There was nothing I could do. It was the Venus. She looked like a diver in a topless swimsuit as she tipped to the vertical, gathered speed graceful y, and smashed with a hollow bang onto the polished cobbles. A shower of plaster fragments splattered across the street. I picked up the largest, a piece of buttock, to which the knickers were stil attached. On the third floor I met the lesbian coming down. Forgetting she 'Where is she? That mad bitch! Why did you let her in my room?' She wagged a finger and laboriously intoned: 'There must be!' I yelled pushing past her, 'She's up there now!'. 'No girls in my hotel' she repeated. I plunged into my room. Empty. She must have dodged into one of the toilets until I'd gone past. I went to the window and looked down at the street. Nothing except the white residue of the torso and the foreshortened figure I flopped back onto the bed. Further resistance was useless. I was drowning while she cruised the city like a fish in a familiar pond. Worse than that Vivien and Paris seemed to be two aspects of one malignant power, each taking turns to do me down. It offered fleeting remissions and hints at salvation only to destroy them with increased ferocity. Absent-mindedly I blew my nose on the knickers, booted the plaster fragment through the open window and


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