1955 The Summer When… excerpts


I’m woken by a snuffling noise soon after dawn. My eyes stray from the back of the green-striped sofa by my bed to the one facing it, where Madame Magny sat enthroned the previous evening. Spreading upward out of sight is a strange, mottled grey and yellow rough-weave curtain. More snuffling. I hadn’t noticed an animal. It sounds like a snub-nosed pug.

Feet firmly planted on the floorboards, I check that my cotton nightie decently covers me. The mottled grey and yellow isn’t a curtain or huge canvas. It’s a window spreading up two storeys; busybodies could be peering in at me from the building opposite. Number 13 is the first door after turning right into the road edging the cemetery. I expected to peer down at its funerary monuments since Madame Magny had once recounted strange rituals there while offering brandy to a select group of students. Instead, this room faces an anonymous block with mean windows gaping at me, at least four to my huge solitary one. How can I dress under their scrutiny?

The snuffles are increasing in vigour and number to turn into a sequence of short tenor snores, rising in volume until a final crescendo smashes them into silence. Springs complain above me on the balcony as I grab random garments, scurry across the room to creep up the spiral staircase and into the bathroom. I’ve never seen a hipbath before, its enamel crazy-paved with grime. It must be a historic fitting that has seen its day. I try the taps. The system shudders, spewing out a rusty trail of water, and expires. Hardly encouraging. The basin? Only one tap functions, predictably the cold one. Not to worry. It‘s July and hardly chilly. A catlick will suffice. I must get dressed and ready for Madame Magny and her faceless neighbours across the street. I scrub my face, amazed at the bloom, as my mother would have put it, on my cheeks, given how late I had gone to bed. Makeup? A bore, but perhaps it helps when one faces the unknown and needs to impress. A touch of blue shade to match my eyes and pink summer lipstick? I suspect Mike rather likes me to heighten the effects, though he protests that he loves me au naturel. There’s little ‘natural’ left, I think as I brush my now regularly spaced teeth that had tortured my early teens. A huge upper jaw plate had to be screwed wider every day and then forced in to make the teeth lock correctly. I’ve inherited my father’s determined lower jaw. Ugly in a girl, people say.

With men you never know what they really think. The yellow cotton blouse and green skirt hardly match my eye shadow. Too bad. The pink rosebud skirt pattern echoes my lipstick. It will have to do. At least I can tighten the skirt having lost weight after exams on a diet of strawberries and bread during my two-week jam factory slog.

As I return from the bathroom across the wooden floorboards, leaping from one scrap of carpet to another to avoid the splinters, the hem flaps against my calf. Damn it! I’ve forgotten that I’ve started letting my skirt down to give it some semblance of the New Look. To be in fashion is to be free! I take it off in the safety of the alcove, find my emergency sewing kit and settle on the bed to finish lengthening the hem.

Alors, qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?’

A bespectacled moon face is peering down from the balcony, two elegantly tapering fingers balancing a cigarette, a half-full glass in the other slender hand. The
face appears disconcertingly expressionless beneath Madame Magny’s dangling blond hair. Strange. She’s asking me what‘s to be done.

Il faut prendre du café. Allez-y!’

Coffee? I shrink back, startled by a black object that hurtles down from the balcony to land just in front of me. Madame’s purse. I secure the last stitch, wriggle back into my now fashionable rosebud skirt, pick up the purse and make for the door, lift and mirrored hall to run the gauntlet past Madame la Concierge, the Knitting Tigress with narrow eyes. Safely outside, I pause to savour the anticipated nine o’clock Parisian smells: the seductive aroma of coffee, the heady impact of freshly-baked croissants, sensuous odours from oyster-laden fishmongers to the strident appeal of gaulloises hanging from a hundred lips. Instead there is only an empty street along the cemetery wall. A few blocks away I find another crammed with pavement cafés, food shops of every possible variety, street vendors and vegetable carts. Besides the coffee and croissants for breakfast, I buy myself two rollstwo fat slices of gruyère and a peach, carefully paid for out of my own money.

Madame is heating water in a coffee-making contraption inside the minute kitchen. Her eyes loom emotionless from behind the glasses; her attenuated hand reaches out for the coffee. Mission accomplished, she retreats to recline on the faded flower sofa, draws the pale-blue flannel robe around her, lights a cigarette and waits for coffee to be served. I meanwhile rootle around the kitchen cupboards to find plates for the croissants and matching mugsDrat it! I’ve forgotten the milk. Il n’y a pas de quoi.Madame Magny doesn’t want any, just black coffee and plenty of sugar to jolt her mind into thought. She has to review a recent edition of Baudelaire’s poetry as well as a new book, written by a girl my age and attracting much attention. I want to find out more about her, but Madame is ignoring my questions. She’s busy thinking and withdrawing behind her bespectacled mask.

With the hostess too preoccupied to talk, it’s better to retreat.

‘I’m going to explore Paris, and won’t be back till late. I’ll buy a map to find my way around.’


Evidently Madame has no intention at all of introducing her student to the city.

With a dramatic amount of freedom to go wherever I wish, I decide to walk all the way to the Seine to save money and see life. I buy a map at the first bookshop. It takes longer than I realised to reach the Jardin du Luxembourg with children babbling and bustling around under the plane trees hosting gossipy sparrows. It is hot by mid-morning; the flowers round the formal ponds and statues are already drooping. I stop near the Palais du Luxembourg at the centre of a vast gravel semi-circle, thrilled at being right on the axis: behind me the long avenue, before me the main garden of the august palace. It’s looking sternly at me; I return the stare with interest and admiration. That is, until I feel a tap on the shoulder and turn to see a scrawny hand emerge from a grubby shawl. I offer the smallest coin I have and am rewarded with a scowl and a grunt.

Perusinga map in the middle of a public space invites attention.

‘’Vere to go? You want help?’ No peace for the wicked, I object silently and turn away to head for the Rive Gauche, intending to explore the Sorbonne on the way, and whatever else takes my fancy. The young man trying his English out follows at a discreet distance though I pretend not to notice, stopping nonchalantly to buy a red rose from a young gypsy with a baby. I try tucking it jauntily behind my ear; it keeps on falling down so I have to stop and stoop – a natural way to note the developments in my wake. The young man stops when I do, keeping his distance. What’s he plotting, I wonder, but don’t care.

Leaving the gardens, I’m lured by a domed building in the distance. Scattered figures are mounting the steps to disappear under the portico. It must be open, whatever it is. The nearer I go, the more imposing it is until, as I too scale the steps, the dome seems to tip over to peer down at me. Inside, coolness and stark splendour. Arches and domes, edged in dusty gold and cream, echo my steps onwards towards the apse. It’s the Pantheon, shrine of the Great and the Good, of the nation’s heroes. Any heroines? Madame Curie? She’s here, though she wasn’t French. She had married a Frenchman and they did discover things together. Chopin? Another Pole, though always associated in my mind with France – perhaps because of his preference for French women? Not buried here. I purse my lips and pick my rose up from the marble paving. Why not place it to honour the monument or grave of a genius who died young? I’m feeling young and vulnerable. Where is Chopin buried? Doesn’t France have a Keats or Byron, or a Raphael? It must have, but I’m too ignorant to know. A chance look at a monument reveals it is Rousseau’s. Hardly a young martyr to fate.

I don’t feel like bestowing my rose on Rousseau, because he lived a long and contentious life. I’ll keep it until inspired.

My thoughts slide into my future novel, and I wonder what my heroine should do next. Madame is at this moment writing a review of the first novel by an author my age while I’m having fun in Paris. I’ll sit under the portico, eat my lunch and decide where to go next.

As I munch, I’m aware that someone’s eyes are travelling all over me. Dammit. Why not satisfy my curiosity? Straight ahead down the flight of steps there’s only an old man with a white stick, another beggar probably. To my right, a few individuals on their various ways along the far side of the square. Am I mistaken? Oh no! I might have guessed. Peering out from behind the nearest pillar, too close not to be disturbing, a handsome face with laughing eyes above wide, muscled shoulders – that laughing cavalier from the headmistress’s study? More precisely, the young man who spoke to me in the gardens.

No, don’t get entangled. That is that, thank you very much, monsieur whoever you are. I wrench myself away from the come-hither look of the young man who is too handsome for comfort, jump nonchalantly down the steps two at a time – now that our eyes have met I can’t ignore him – and veer right in what I hope is the direction of the Sorbonne.

Its courtyards are only patrolled by two plump cats. Maybe they were sent over with the Americans’ Marshall Plan to solve the problem of rat-infested Parisian sewers? Probably not. Not ferocious enough. The long vacation has started here too. I like the feel of the place, even though all doors are closed and most windows shuttered. Further on towards the Seine, where Boulevard Saint Germain bisects Boulevard Saint Michel, an old building lies hidden behind creepers – the Musée de Cluny.

It is cool, deserted and free for students. I wish my follower would come to talk to me in the safety of a museum and deter the warders who tend to emerge like wraiths from behind the display cases just when you least expect it.

Settling on a worn bench in a hall of tapestries, I contemplate the famous Dame à la Licorne. The maiden stands on a flower-strewn meadow between the lion and the unicorn, attended by a young woman offering her something in a chalice – a love potion? In another section she is framed by a tent held open by the attendant lion and unicorn, with the motto Mon seul désir above her, the servant now offering her something from an open jewel chest – a love token? The tapestries are bafflingly silent, telling of a faraway world with calmer rhythms. The few other visitors are equally absorbed in unspoken fellowship. I linger in delight to emerge into the afternoon shadows as they lengthen towards evening. There are more passers-by making me less conspicuous. Where now?

My map shows that one of the oldest churches in Paris lies directly opposite Notre Dame, but on this side of the Seine. Halfway down a street leading to the Seine is an unexpected patch of green; a place for yet more children to play. Madame Magny has informed me with disdain that the French government is paying the wrong sort of mothers to repopulate the land. What a silly state the world is in! Too many births in famine-stricken Africa and not enough in France.

At last here in front of me is the view from my French grammar book. Across the river, beyond the mass of Notre Dame, beats the heart of medieval Paris – the Île de la Cité.

I expect a small, simple church interior, with heavy piers supporting the roof beams. Inside Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre the profuse decoration overwhelms. I move from the numerous hanging lamps with what seem to be red nightlights glowing inside, to the screen dividing the worshippers from the altar. It is laden with icons that I imagined were only found in Greece or Russia. Eyes of saints and the Virgin Mary are watching me; so many eyes and such deep blue, green, red robes all edged in gold that increases in lustre as I slowly walk up and down the screen, looking at one, then another and another and another.

I’ve done enough looking for the day. Time to immerse myself in street life.

Should I return in time to eat with Madame Magny? Would I be expected to cook a meal? Would Madame have any food, and when do the shops shut? It’s nearly six, too early for much to happen in the cafés at the Seine end of the Boulevard Saint Michel, or ‘Boul Mich’ as Madame calls it. Though it’s a warm evening, I shiver, half wishing I had encouraged that young man. I pause under a striped canopy to consult the map. A waiter by the café door looks quizzically at me. Should I sit down? It wouldn’t be much fun on my own. I head for the nearest metro and beat a retreat to Denfert-Rochereau. Today’s adventure has ended.

Madame opens the door looking grumpy. Why hadn’t I taken a key? Returning to slump down on the flowered sofa, she informs me she has written the review on Bonjour Tristesse, but hasn’t yet been able to arrange an interview with the young author, Françoise Sagan. She’s evidently the flavour of the month and hard to track down, even for someone as influential in the intellectual world as Madame appears to be. She sinks further into the cushions, sips her brandy and lights a cigarette.

I feel a twinge of uneasiness. What’s my role here? At university it is clear: there’s Madame le Professeur, and Valerie the student, mindful of her professor’s brilliance, of someone who stems from France’s intellectual élite, a graduate of the Grandes Écoles no less. Can I just admit that I’m hungry and don’t know what to do about it? Should I go out and eat on my own? Or offer to get something for both of us? I can’t afford to pay for both of us to dine out.

A bang on the front door. Madame nods at me. As I open it, the corner of a huge canvas peeps in supported by a large hairy hand,

Vite! Aidez-moi!’  A dark-haired, middle-aged man with brawny shoulders in a navy cotton shirt appears behind it. I stare, hand on doorknob, not knowing how to

The removal man – who else can this be? – motions me to hold one end, while he hitches up the other. Pain drags down my shoulders as I shuffle half of the canvas back nervously into Madame’s living room, unsure how far I can and should retreat towards the far wall.

‘Ça va.’ No introductions, so Madame obviously knows the tall, well-built individual at the other end of the canvas. He’s holding out his hand, though mine are still holding my part of, I reckon, a two metre square canvas. Hardly a work one can lean against a wall and forget, even in this most informal of places! As I look at him, unable to free a hand to grasp his, he laughs and moves towards me. Carefully checking the frame is resting against the green-striped sofa, he reoffers his hand with,

‘Pierre Soulages, enchanté.’ He has the ruddy complexion of a countryman, and a broad, confiding smile. Though he must be nearly forty, there’s an air of youthful confidence about him. His sudden entrance drove away the pangs of hunger. Now, the drama over but still unexplained, I’m desperately hungry again. All the while Madame has remained impassive with an enigmatic smile on her face. She begins to speak to him in a low purr.

Cher ami, is this the only one you need to save? You can leave as many as you like. When are the dealers coming?’ So that’s the problem. He has painted this canvas and has just won a prix d’estime, so is being plagued by sudden, unaccustomed publicity. Just like that Françoise woman – the novelist my age, and so famous. I feel dizzy, whether through hunger or the unexpected proximity of famous people, and move away to sit on the green-striped sofa.

Qu’avez-vous?’ Pierre is leaning over me, making me feel tiny and insignificant. He probably thinks I’m sitting down because of inherent female frailty, a
male-defined combination of monthly adversities and a weak frame. I straighten my spine in an effort to give some semblance of self-control, and explain I’m hungry.

‘Je le comprends bien.’ He tells me to wait a moment, glances at Madame, and disappears through the door across the landing, to reappear two minutes later and call out that a scratch supper will be ready in half an hour.

Succour for me. For my body, my eyes, my soul. Here we sit, Pierre, his wife Colette, as tiny as he is tall, Madame, and me. All inside Aladdin’s cave, Parisian style. The flat is almost a mirror version of Madame’s, except it overlooks the cemetery and is glowing in sunset light. Of course, these are artists’ studios. Why haven’t I realised before? Embarrassed by my ignorance and intrigued by the canvases stacked against the walls, I gaze around me. Two of the largest finished paintings hang near the top of the only unencumbered wall to the left of the window; another two smaller ones lie next to the spiral staircase, presumably to be placed higher up the studio wall. The balcony above the entrance door must be their bedroom, so Pierre and his wife can lie in bed and contemplate the sunset over the trees in the cemetery. Her kitchen, directly opposite me, is well lit and filled with a familiar jumble of implements, peelings, fruit, vegetables, spices and herbs that promise tasty fare.

‘It’s nearly midnight before we leave Pierre and Colette, and an evening of super food served around a monologue from Madame – less good. Probably because I have heard it before or I didn’t bother to follow it all or I couldn’t understand her French. There also seemed to be a lot of what I assume must be argot. I must pick up some slang. We’ve drunk a lot and I can’t remember what I ate. Or much of what was said, except, I think, Pierre doesn’t want the dealers to carry off the canvas I had helped into this flat. Or Madame’s studio, as I shall now call it to disguise my earlier mistake. To be accurate, we are now hosting another two canvases. He talked of putting them on the wall, as I seem to have shown interest in them. Amazing. I’ll learn what it’s like to live with works by a famous contemporary painter. As I’ll never be able to afford them, I’ll savour the experience right now while I can. I think I must have muttered something of the sort to him. He’s coming over tomorrow, when he can escape from the dealers, to talk to me about his work.’

A lot else I could add to my journal, but I’m too tired. To be honest, I have to say that Pierre is one of the most likeable men I’ve ever met. It’s exciting when he talks, not just to me, but to anyone. I like Colette a lot too. She doesn’t speak much, but smiles, has curly brown hair and a happy feel about her. In all, I am lucky to have met them. Things are looking up.