Authors: Jamie Rowboat
Tags: #Fiction Young Adults
The airport was packed as usual but, somehow, Gemma managed to thread her way through the throng straight up to the British Airways first-class counter. The young man didn't take long with the formalities and within ten minutes they were through customs and walking towards gate number ten and the 2.55 to Paris. Marie could barely contain the excitement that was bubbling up inside her. The memories of the last few days had been lifted from her head and the lightness of travel was rapidly replacing them. The flight was uneventful, but luxurious, and Marie only wished that it had been a little bit longer than the hour that it took them to reach the mammoth Charles de Gaulle airport.
Outside the airport, there was a large queue waiting for taxis, as it was pouring with rain, but Marie didn't care. She was happy soaking up the freedom that she felt being away from England and the heaviness of all that was taking place there. Paris had an immediate effect on her and it felt as if she were returning home to somewhere she'd always known. Gemma's little house on the left bank turned out to be an exquisite four-storey mansion in one of the oldest and prettiest streets in the area, La Rue de St Michel. It was covered from head to foot in Boston Ivy and the huge picture windows that lined the street frontage sat framed by the dark-green leaves and orange shutters. The whole house was immaculate, with fresh paint and carpets throughout.
"Gee, they've done a wonderful job," said Gemma, standing at the bottom of the huge staircase that dominated the hallway. "I was tempted to sell this place instead of bothering with the renovations, but now I know why I didn't," she said, looking at the picture of delight on her young friend's face.
"It's wonderful," was all that Marie could manage in response.
"MADAM," came a scream from the front door, which was wide open.
"Bonjour Cecile," said Gemma.
A tiny woman stood silhouetted in the doorway. As Gemma turned around, she came rushing over in recognition of poor eyesight reassured. She didn't say anything, but clasped Gemma to her tiny body as if her life depended on it and there they stood for quite a while, swaying together in the reverie of reunion.
"It has been too long," said Cecile, when she eventually released Gemma.
"Yes, it has, Cecile. Ever since John died, I haven't been able to face Paris. I'm sorry, I have missed you so much. But now, I would like you to meet Marie, who is the reason for my reinvigorated view of things. Marie, I would like you to meet Cecile, the main reason that Paris has stayed like home to me."
With that, she drew the ladies together and Marie found herself staring into the eyes of an elf. Or, at least, that was the first thought that went rocketing through her head as the old lady grasped her hand and gave her a slightly hairy kiss on each cheek.
"I am delighted to meet you," she said, with a lovely French twang and enough kindness to fill the room.
"Enchantez," Marie said in her best French.
"Tu parle francaise," said Cecile, with delight.
"Oui, mais juste un peu," she answered.
"Well then, we shall speak English until you have become more comfortable eh," said Cecile, still holding Marie's hands. "But now, I am forgetting myself, you must be tired. I will show you to your room so you may freshen up. Then, I will make you both a nice snack in the kitchen."
"That would be lovely," said Marie, deciding not to explain that she was full of more energy than she could ever remember.
The bedroom was just as she had expected. She threw open the window and looked down the avenue across the tops of the plane trees and she felt a great knot of emotion rise in her stomach. There she stood, in tears for quite a while, without really knowing why. She didn't feel saddened by the tears, but in some way relieved. By the time she had soaked in a deliciously deep bath, she was quite stable and in very definite need of a major shopping expedition. She wafted downstairs, tracing her hand along the wooden banister as she went, its touch sending her off into a new dream of remembrance. The enormous crystal chandelier that hung in the centre of the hallway caught the splashes of afternoon light that gleamed through the picture windows and sent it cascading around the room into a thousand separate rainbows. The effect was spellbinding, and Marie had to stop halfway down the stairs to watch it properly.
"Hello there," said a voice from the hallway. It was Gemma and she was dressed as if she were ready to go out.
"Where are you off to? Aren't we going to have a snack with Cecile in the kitchen?" asked Marie.
"Well, we can if you want to. It's just I remember my first time in Paris and, if you feel anything like I did, then the last thing you would want to do is sit in a kitchen having tea with two old dears. I've spoken to Cecile about it and she understood. So, what are you waiting for? LET'S GO SHOPPING!" she screeched.
"Yippee," said Marie as she came tearing downstairs. She almost bowled Gemma over in her excitement, but managed instead to regain her footing and link arms with her, the momentum of which carried them both whooshing through the front door.
"Wow, that was quite an exit," said Gemma. Before Marie could say anything, Gemma was striding into the middle of the street to hail down a taxi. In minutes, they were part of the traffic that streamed along the Champs Elysses and Marie felt like she could faint from happiness.
"Where are we heading?" she asked, without really caring.
"Ah well, I thought we might visit the granddaughter of the lady who made the jacket that you like so much. You know, the silk number with the Chinese pattern on it? In the twenties, when I lived here, I was a great friend with a lady called Michelle Bouvoire who was a fine, fine tailor and ran one of the trendiest fashion shops of the time. It was nestled in a tiny backstreet, but anyone who was in the know visited her. I've bumped into royalty in that little alley and you know, they were waiting along with everyone else to have a fitting. I had an incredible affair with a duke's son who I met outside her shop, and."
"Whoa, you're drifting Gemma, you lost me with the duke, and I've still no idea where we're going."
"Sorry, it's just this place does it to me every time. It's rich with passionate memories for me. We're going to the same shop in that tiny street, because Michelle's granddaughter, Francine, has carried on the family tradition. She is as every bit a master tailor as her grandmother and almost as well-known."
"What about Michelle's daughter, was she a tailor too?"
"Ah no, she wasn't," said Gemma, before going quiet for a moment.
"Oh no, my question hasn't brought up another dreadful memory has it? God, when will I ever learn?" said Marie, with a laugh.
"You are lovely and yes it was another horrifying time. Then again, it was World War Two and pretty much everyone got caught up in the horror of that one in some way or another. You see, Michelle's daughter, Francine, was with the French resistance. In fact, she was the head of the Partisan Movement, which meant that the Nazis wanted her more desperately than anyone else. For a long time, they didn't know her identity and had falsely assumed that she must be a man to have been so successful in her leadership of such a small resistance force. Eventually though, she was betrayed," said Gemma.
"Why, what happened?" blurted out Marie, before she could stop herself.
"Well, one of her most trusted lieutenants was caught by the Nazis while he was attempting to smuggle two English pilots across the border into Switzerland. Francine knew he would never give way under their interrogation, but they stormed his farm and grabbed his twelve-year-old daughter, who they dragged in for questioning. They had him then, he only had to listen to a few minutes of her screaming before he cracked."
"How terrible, but.."
"Before you ask, they shot them both and dumped their bodies in the river."
"Oh no, I can't stand another one of these stories," said Marie, with a shiver.
"We're just about there anyway. All I'll say is that they are a beautiful family with a long and interesting past that I have been very much connected with," she said, as the taxi rounded a corner into a tiny little laneway. The cobbled street had buildings on either side of it that were so close together that you could almost jump between the windows. Having just heard a story from when Paris was under siege, Marie could easily imagine such desperate deeds taking place right above her. She was pulled out of such imaginings as their taxi pulled up outside a small shopfront. There was no signage of any description, except for a tiny wooden door to one side of the shop, which had the words
Madame Francine Boisson -Tailleur
written on a brass plaque in the centre of a red painted panel.
"This is the best dress shop in Paris," mumbled Marie, standing on the pavement, waiting for Gemma to negotiate a suitable waiting rate with the taxi driver. Gemma swirled around and grabbed Marie by the arm.
"I know it's not much to look at, but you just wait. This is Aladdin's cave," she said, with a large grin.
The waiting room they entered provided no further clues to the potential treasure that lay beyond. There wasn't a dress in sight, just a couple of well-worn leather sofas and a pile of out-of-date fashion magazines lying on a rickety, old coffee table. The air smelt vaguely of lavender and it reminded Marie of her grandmother, who always wore some behind her ears. None of this helped Marie's mood, which had become decidedly dark since leaving the taxi. She had quite a specific mental image of the glamour of Paris shopping and this wasn't it. They waited there for a few minutes, with only the sound of muffled voices to keep them company. Then, a small door in the back of the shop opened and a woman of about sixty strode in, carrying a silk ball gown. The dress was so large and billowing that, initially, the lady's view of her new customers was obscured.
"Bonjour," she said in a flat, uninterested voice. But before either of them had a chance to reply, she had placed the dress on the table and turned her focus upon them.
"Oh, mon Dieu," she screeched suddenly, recognising Gemma. "An angel has walked into my shop and I did not even feel it," she said, approaching the two of them.
"Hello Francine," chuckled Gemma, embracing her friend. They stayed like that for a few moments until Francine released her grip and turned towards the closed door at the back of the studio.
"Hugo, Hugo, viens ici, viens ici," she screamed, in the general direction of the door. There was a pause and then the sound of a man's voice could be heard faintly from somewhere nearby. The door opened to reveal a portly man of about the same age as Francine, who inspected the contents of the room across a pair of glasses that were resting precariously on the end of his nose. He was wearing a bright yellow waistcoat that had seen a lot of wear, but which sat on him as a sacred possession.
"Ayyaar," he proclaimed, as his focus rested on the two ladies. "This is unbelievable, of all the people who I might have guessed it could be. I had given up hope of seeing you again," he bellowed, before grasping Gemma's hands to kiss them both.
"Oh Hugo, I'm sorry it's been that long. It's just I had lost my heart for Paris. Ah, but poor Marie, this has been happening to her all day," said Gemma, turning towards her friend while still holding Hugo's hands. "Hugo and Francine, this is my friend, Marie, who has given me a new lease on life. I have brought her here to meet you and I have told her boldly that this is the best clothes boutique in the whole of Paris, but I have to say that still now, I think she may be doubting my judgment."
"I am not surprised," said Francine, stepping forward to kiss Marie on each cheek.
"You bring her here to our lowly workplace when really she wants the glamour and beauty of true Parisian shopping," she said, stepping away from Marie with reproach in her eyes for her old friend. "Is that not right?" she said, in Marie's direction. Marie just nodded lightly, which was all the encouragement Francine needed.
"Bon," she said, without the merest hint of consultation in her voice. "En y va, we must go. Hugo, get my coat. Gemma, did you hold the taxi you came in?"
"Yes," said Gemma, timidly.
"We will close the shop and I will take you to all of the best boutiques that we supply and a few that we don't. I hope you have stamina and a clear head for making decisions. I will accept nothing less than an unfailing commitment to serious shopping, is that understood, my young friend?" she said, with genuine sternness in her voice.
"I will not let you down," said Marie, saluting earnestly.
"Bon, now I know," said the old lady with softness suddenly appearing in her face. "You are so beautiful, and your eyes, they are so deep. Truly I know why you are with Gemma," she said, in a way that made Marie stagger inwardly. Still their hands remained locked together and as Francine continued to look into her eyes, Marie could feel a surge of energy passing between them, to the point where she began to shake slightly. The light in the room changed and everyone disappeared in a bright light that began to dominate Marie's vision. Then, after a few moments, she blinked a couple of times and they all began to reappear and her body felt normal again. Francine turned to Gemma and nodded, with that, they all paraded out of the little shop as though nothing had happened. As they approached the car, Gemma took Marie by the hand.
"Are you okay? I'm sorry but I forgot to mention that Francine is a gifted clairvoyant," she whispered playfully in Marie's ear.
"Yes, I'm fine. I'm getting used to your kooky friends. Besides, it felt amazing when she touched me like that. I wonder what she saw?" replied Marie, quietly.
"Oh, I'm sure she'll tell you in due course," said Gemma, smiling.
The drive into the centre of the city was noisy and intense. The old friends in the back seat hooted with laughter as they attempted to catch up on lost time and the driver cursed and screamed at anyone who was unfortunate enough to get in his way. Marie didn't mind the noise, she just sat and let the interest of the new city wash over her as she gazed out of the window. The boutiques Francine planned on visiting were all in the same area of town, so once they had paid for the cab, the rest of the expedition was on foot. Every trendy label Marie had ever heard of was there. The boutiques were works of art themselves, reflecting the outrageous prices you were expected to pay if you were game enough to enter them. The welcome they received was similar in all the shops they visited and it soon became obvious to Marie that Francine had a hefty amount of clout in the Paris fashion scene. The managers in each place seemed to go visibly pale as they recognised her and only regained their composure when the nature of the visit was explained to them by Hugo. He would approach each of them to soothe their frayed nerves, while the ladies cruised around the selection of exquisite clothing that hung in endless rows. By the time they had reached exhaustion and were sitting sipping coffee in an open-air cafe on the bank of the Seine, Marie had a collection of bags around her that any spoilt super-model would have been proud of.