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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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CELESTINE WAS A MYSTERY. CELESTINE
was surly lips and a sudden outbreak of laughter, bursting from her, loud, like a bark.

Celestine was dinner for two at Balzar, where, after dinner and cigarettes, every waiter knew to bring her a small glass of a
digestif
made from Normandy apples.

Celestine was Saturday mornings sitting on the sofa with the sun streaming in the curved windows, trying to read
Le Monde
with her feet on your lap. A French singer you have never heard before played on the sound system behind your heads, mournful, low, filling you with happiness.

Celestine was languor personified. She did not appear to have worries, or cares, or problems. If she ever had any, she must have decided long before to shrug them off, so that nothing settled. She resembled Catherine Deneuve in her later years, a less formal version, more disarrayed. Celestine's hair was always in her eyes, there was ash on her blouse, ink on her fingers.

Celestine was mordant wit; ‘mordant' from the French
mordre
, to bite. She bit off the heads of shop assistants and anyone she considered foolish. Because she did not often smile, she sometimes appeared forbidding. She often looked cross.

Celestine was a neat, compact body with muscular legs. Every morning she jogged twenty laps around the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Celestine was evenings in bed, not entirely abandoning yourself in her arms. You were too self-conscious, too aware of the strangeness of kissing a woman. Throughout, part of you remained off to one side, observing like an anthropologist the sexual habits of the bisexual French woman. She loved both men and women, youths and maidens.

Celestine was the surprise of finding out what one woman did to another in bed.

SEVENTY-SIX
The legs pumping

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE
said for the legs pumping the pedals of a bicycle, for the thrill running up the ankles, the calves, the thighs. There is something to be said for the feeling of life moving through the body, the press of the powerful muscles of the leg on the downward pedal. I have known the sensation of flying through the air on a bike, my hair streaming, pushing into oxygen.

SEVENTY-SEVEN
A pencil

I AM AN ARTIST OF
the fingers, of the hand sweeping across drawing paper, the
shush shush
sound of the edge of the hand shuffling across a page, and the small scratching of a soft lead pencil. I am an artist of the journey between object, eye and hand, of bringing to the page what the eye sees.

What I put on the page is usually a clumsy rendition of what my eye sees. A tree, a chair, a sleeping dog, a passing face, none of it technically correct or rendered well, none of it the work of a trained artist. And yet my eyes and hands have been schooled by life, by the shape of the clouds, by the branches of trees, by the face of my baby son. I drew him sleeping, a milk blister on his upper lip, still part of that great cloud of unknowing, unfurled as a bud. Object lover: a new Faber-Castell 5B pencil, fresh from the shop, the pointed steel-coloured tip emerging from the smooth blond wood. The softest leads make perfect dark lines across the white of the page. Holding a new pencil gently between the thumb and the forefinger and pressing it for the first time against the page.

SEVENTY-EIGHT
Brasserie Balzar

IN TAKING UP WITH CELESTINE,
the Suspicious Wanderer was granted entrance to the set behind the film that was Paris.

She discovered curious things, such as the fact that the average Parisian married at around twenty-two and had two point five children by twenty-five, which possibly accounted for all the beautifully dressed young families she saw about the place. Unlike her own country, unlike England and America, where women supposedly kept one ear cocked to the ticking of their biological clocks and at the age of thirty-five rushed off in a panic to have a baby, French women calmly birthed their babies while their flesh was still firm, before going off to a clinic to have their cellulite dealt with and their bodies massaged. All the while, rich or poor, pregnant or not, they still flirted expertly with men as if they had never heard of feminism, as if Simone de Beauvoir had never existed.

Even behind the film, Paris still maintained its mysteries. It was a mystery seeing Celestine at a party full of young things, her chic abandoned, clicking her fingers to that embarrassing French idea of a rock star, Johnny Hallyday. All the young men and women dancing to Johnny were conservatively dressed and worked as accountants or as civil servants (
fonctionnaires
). What had happened to the
soixante-huiters
who plucked the cobbled stones from the streets to hurl at police? Where were the artists to
épater
le bourgeois
? The young danced old-fashioned rock-and-roll-style too, with partners, as if they were at a 1956 high school dance wearing bobby socks and petticoats. ‘
C'est le roc
,' said Celestine, snapping her fingers.

Parisians always took their holidays in the same place, year in, year out. They worked only the hours they were required to work, eating lunch cheaply on government and employer-sponsored meal tickets, and then retired on fat pensions. They poked fun at low-browed peasants from Normandy, at funny-accented folk from Languedoc and at
les rosbifs
. Unlike the English, who still made tired convict jokes about Australians, the French regarded Australians as impossibly exotic, marooned in a faraway Gauguin-coloured land peopled by tigers and brightly coloured parrots. Celestine took to calling the Suspicious Wanderer ‘
mon petit kangourou
' and unveiled a secret wish to visit
la roche rouge.

The Suspicious Wanderer wouldn't live with Celestine. For a start, it turned out she was impossibly rich, amusing herself with a job as Bertrand's assistant (although a real secretary did the actual work). Her surname included a ‘de', which meant she was born into that class which lost its collective head in the revolution. She was a
soixante-huiter
herself, and still had Communist Party associations. She had given a lot of money to various causes but the cause most dear to her was Médecins Sans Frontières. In this, Celestine was not a dilettante; she had worked in Sudan and the Côte d'Ivoire, managing the administerial set-up of bases for field workers, and she still worked as a volunteer one day a week in the MSF headquarters in a street off rue de la Roquette.

The Suspicious Wanderer was scrupulous about paying half for everything, which meant they couldn't eat out as much as Celestine would have liked. One blue spring evening, after the Suspicious Wanderer had saved up for a dinner at Balzar and they had finished their meal, they sat outside on the pavement with their coffees and
digestifs.
The Suspicious Wanderer retrieved from her purse her carefully saved fifty-franc note, placing it under the saucer of her coffee cup in advance of the bill. Just as she did so a man raced up, snatched it, and ran off down the street. The Suspicious Wanderer and Celestine looked at each other open-mouthed.

At the same moment an ageing waiter happened to be emerging with the bill. He shook his head. ‘
Les pauvres sont toujours avec nous
,' he said sadly.

‘
Ils ne devraient pas être
,' Celestine replied.

He screwed up the bill.

‘What did you say?' the Suspicious Wanderer asked Celestine.

‘I told him the poor should not always be with us, as he suggests. We are rich enough to have no poor.'

The ancient waiter bought them another two
digestifs
, to steady their nerves. He refused to accept payment.

The Suspicious Wanderer enjoyed being marooned outside language. While she still studied French, and her comprehension skills improved and she could more easily read
Le Monde
without a dictionary, she could never quite remember the structure of a French sentence. She always spoke in the present tense, for example, and often spoke French sentences as if they were English ones. Frequently the subjects and the verbs of her sentences were completely askew, so that she sounded like an unschooled four-year-old, or an idiot. She noticed that not completely understanding what people were talking about was oddly restful. You could dream in peace and imagine every conversation was full of wit or significance.

With Celestine she travelled to the Vendée, to the family holiday house at Brétignolles sur Mer where Celestine had spent every summer of her life. For days they lay dazed on sand as crunchy as raw sugar, walking naked and brown around the old stone house and out into the garden. They lay in the chilly arms of the Atlantic and, later, in the warm seductions of the Mediterranean off Corsica.

She was with Celestine one late spring day when she met the man she knew she would marry. The knowledge came to her body first, a sensation that felt like intuition, a knowingness, a feeling of great calm and certainty. At the same time she experienced a rush, a tilt of the earth, much like the feeling that followed the first drag on a cigarette when she had not smoked for some time. Sounds came to her abnormally clearly: a motorbike backfiring, a man shouting out the price of vegetables, the scrape of a café chair against cement. The spring air was spicy, fresh, she distinguished coffee, croissants, the smell of the Seine. They were sitting in a café not far from the river. It was a Saturday, and a passing bride in a simple satin sheath dress was holding a posy of ivory roses. The Suspicious Wanderer looked at her future husband, and her future husband looked back, and everything they needed to know about each other passed between them.

She had not been practising romance all her life for nothing.

SEVENTY-NINE
The bath lover

HOW COULD I FORGET THE
poetry of the bath? The limbs collapsing, swimming, cupped warm and safe, the skin and nerves and fibres of the heart surrounded once again by comforting water, as warm as amniotic fluid.

EIGHTY
That delicious equation

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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