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
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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