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Authors: Helen Harris

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“I’ve sort of got something in mind,” Edward lied.

“You have? That’s great. Where is it?”

Edward thrashed around. “I haven’t seen it yet. It’s just the estate agent told me this morning she had something a bit more promising sounding. I’m afraid I don’t remember the address exactly.”

Mrs Hirshfeld marked an infinitesimal pause. “Well, take down this number anyway,” she instructed him. “It might not be what you want. But I think it is worth looking into.”

The number, she explained, belonged to another teacher at the school where she taught art. By a complete coincidence she had been talking to this other teacher in the staff room a few days previously and she had happened to mention that a flat which she and her family rented out was standing empty. It was the last chapter of a long story involving an unsatisfactory tenant. Anyway, she, Mrs Hirshfeld, hadn’t given it another thought until a couple of days ago Henry had quite by chance spoken at dinner about Edward’s difficulties and she had remembered Mademoiselle Iskarov. She had spoken to her about it again that morning when she went into the
lycée
and it seemed the flat was still vacant and the Iskarovs, who only let it via personal contact and not through advertisements, would be happy for Edward to come along and have a look at it.

Drearily, Edward took down the address and then the difficult name as well. Mrs Hirshfeld spelt it out, “I-s-k-a-r-o-v”, and then she added enthusiastically, as though it were a recommendation, for some reason preferable to teaching maths or gymn or biology, “She teaches Russian.”

Edward decided he would wait for a few days in the hope that the choosy Iskarovs would have found somebody else by the time he rang. He had to ring, of course; his initial brief temptation to lose the piece of paper with the address and the telephone number was not an option. If Henry didn’t think to ask why he hadn’t been to see the flat, the Russian teacher was bound to.

That weekend he had too much to drink; on Friday night in an Indonesian restaurant and on Saturday night in an Afro-Caribbean night club. He had spotted the club just a few streets away from his hotel and put its closed door and red light bulbs in the category of places to steer well clear of. But he had already drunk enough to have shed a few preconceptions as he walked back to the hotel on Saturday night and, seeing the door flick open to admit a group of loudly protesting West Indians who had been beating on the locked door, he gave way to a moment’s fatalistic curiosity and followed them inside.

Downstairs, where the air was thick with heat, tobacco and other smoke, and the insistently thudding rhythm of a five-piece band, white customers were in a self-conscious
minority. Edward bought another drink and squeezed into a seat rather too close to the pounding
“Soleil
du
Sén
é
gal”.
Although hardly anyone looked at him and no one spoke to him, he felt peculiarly pleased to be there. Resolutely turning their back on the European city outside, the West Indians were creating a concentrated version of what they were homesick for; more tropical than the tropics themselves.

 

The address intrigued him. Finally, the following weekend, he could not put off any longer contacting Mrs Hirshfeld’s teacher friend. He had seen two more impossible flats in the course of that week, and a third which was to all outward appearances perfectly acceptable but, he knew, totally wrong. It was in a large, beige, slab-like block built, according to the date stamped at the bottom left-hand corner of the façade, in 1927. Its entrance hall and stairs had marbled walls which looked like cross-sections cut through an immense pudding. As you climbed the stairs, you could identify darker veins which looked like trickles of a syrupy sauce. Unless he could find an alternative fairly soon, he saw he would end up living there.

As he ran his finger over the seventh
arrondissement
on the map, trying to find the puzzlingly named street in which the Iskarovs lived, an unmistakable sensation of defeat settled over him. It had been ridiculous to suppose he could set out on a worthwhile journey within a stationary city. He might as well reconcile himself to living inside the pudding, where he would spend a pampered, stifled, utterly pointless year. For he had no intention of renting anything from a colleague of his boss’s wife.

However, if only for the sake of good manners, he had to
go through with it. Once he had located the Cité Etienne Hubert, a blunt cul-de-sac off the Avenue Duquesne, he tried telephoning. There was no reply on Saturday morning and he was considerably relieved. He spent the best part of the day wandering the grimy northern reaches of the Boulevard Barbès and La Chapelle. Henry had let drop in the office that those neighbourhoods were the closest you would come to the Third World in Paris. Edward thought maybe he could write a piece about them; a spoof travelogue as a rather dismal private joke. But the misery, bitterness and hostility he thought he could read in the inhabitants’ faces were not conducive to a jokey treatment. Besides, he was propositioned too often for comfort by some spectacularly stomach-churning prostitutes. On the Boulevard de Rochechouart, he came upon a loathsome rubber doll in a brightly lit glass case; when a passer-by inserted a coin, the doll’s vacant eyes and lumpen breasts rotated mechanically for thirty seconds. A surreptitious coin dropped as Edward approached drew an immediate small crowd.

In the late afternoon, he tried the Iskarovs’ number again and he was a bit put out then that there was still no answer since viewing the flat would have been a convenient way to fill in the time before the evening.

On Sunday morning, there was again no answer. By then, it seemed clear they had gone away for the weekend. Edward didn’t try again and spent most of the day, it was wet and cold, reading on his bed: a couple of hours each of Theodore Zeldin’s
The
French,
Richard Cobb on France’s war record, and Borges. Consequently, he was more than slightly indignant when he rang one last time out of boredom at half past six and was immediately told by the woman who answered the telephone that they had been waiting for him to ring for days.

“Come over and look at the flat now,” she suggested. “I’m not busy.”

Edward leant across from the bed and lifted a corner of his lace curtains. Long ropes of rain were slapping against the window and it was almost dark. He said, “I think I’d rather see it in the daylight, if you don’t mind.”

To his irritation, the woman at the other end positively snorted. “There is electric light there, you know.”

Edward thought, ‘If you’re not going to bother to be polite, I really don’t see why I should either.’ But, mindful of the constricting connection with the Hirshfelds, he ad-libbed, “It’d be difficult timewise too tonight. I’ve got a dinner appointment later. Could I come and see it during the week?”

There was a clatter at the other end and then a long silence as though the receiver had been accidentally dropped,

“Hello?” said Edward. “Hello? Hello?”

He was wondering whether or not to hang up and also whether or not to bother to redial afterwards when the woman returned.

“I’m not teaching on Wednesday or Thursday mornings,” she informed him. “Or on Friday afternoon. Could you make any of those?”

“Wednesday morning would be fine,” Edward said. “What sort of time?”

The woman gave a gusty sigh, as if contemplating many weary hours filled with a round of unwelcome chores. “Eleven?” she suggested.

“Fine,” Edward agreed. “Fine, I’ll be there. Eleven o’clock on Wednesday. Number Nine, Cité Etienne Hubert.”

“It’s the last but one house in the street,” the woman said. “On the left, the last but one.”

Edward reflected, as he dressed against the rain to go out and get some dinner, that the Russian name and Mrs Hirshfeld’s enthusiasm about it seemed distinctly irrelevant. The woman had sounded to him like a typical, hard-hearted Parisian bitch.

He made sure to mention to Henry where he was off to on Wednesday morning although, to be fair, Henry didn’t seem in the least interested. He asked the taxi for the Avenue Duquesne, since the Cité Etienne Hubert was such a small street, and being in good time, he got down at the southern end of the avenue and strolled up.

It was a grey day and there was little difference in colour between the weighty apartment houses on either side of the wide avenue and the sky. The brightest things in the streets were the yellowing autumn leaves, which were just beginning to fall, and reflected a cheering yellow radiance off the
pavements as he walked along with his head bowed. Until he reached the corner of the Cité Etienne Hubert, everything ran along predictable, ornate Parisian grooves.

It was hardly a street at all; that was his first thought as he confronted the high wall in which it ended so abruptly only a few hundred yards away. There were about six apartment houses on either side, all of the same stolid mould, and then, immediately, a towering blank wall which ran from façade to façade of the two end houses and blocked off all perspective, views or passage. It rose to fourth-floor height at least, covered completely by a flourishing dark green ivy whose tentacles were just beginning to encroach on the adjacent houses.

‘No wonder,’ Edward thought, feeling his first inkling of sympathy for Mademoiselle Iskarov, ‘no wonder she had made such a point of not living next to the wall.’ The closer he came to it, the more overbearing it seemed; the last two houses looked grimly overshadowed.

Number Nine, like all the other houses, was a pompous seven storeys of stone wreaths and stone fruit: pebbly grapes and fossil pineapples. Because he had been looking at Paris apartment houses for nearly three extremely long weeks, Edward noticed it had been built, like its neighbours, in 1901 and the architect was one F. AD. Bocage. Bocage! Small wood or copse? Edward felt a sudden warmth for the man who had covered his otherwise dull creations with his own bucolic symbols. That, surely, must be the explanation of the stone greenery up and down the street: Bocage’s trademark across Bocage’s facades. In the moment before he arrived at the front door and rang the brass bell coldly labelled “Ring then Push”, he indulged in a very brief but entertaining fantasy in which houses built by Monsieur Rat were adorned with rodents, by Monsieur Dubonnet with appropriate bottles and by Monsieur Lamour with erotica. It was the sort of joke which, if Guy and Roland had been there with him, would have gone on for days. It put him, as he rang then pushed the immensely heavy glass and green ironwork front door, in the first spontaneous good mood he had been in for a fairly long time.

The lift was at the ground floor waiting for him so, as Mademoiselle Iskarov had told him her flat was up on the fifth floor, he took it and, as it rose, shivering and giving
out a weird mechanical moan, he thought that he wouldn’t mind living in this building at all. Immediately, even before the lift had travelled another floor, he remembered that the flat he was coming to view was, of course, somewhere else entirely.

The door was opened by a handkerchief. Or at least that was Edward’s first impression, as a muted honking noise behind the door gave way to a small woman obviously suffering from an outsize cold. Her face was almost entirely covered by a man’s checked handkerchief. Apart from her watering brown eyes, he could not see anything of her looks or even particularly of her age. He registered vaguely that she was wearing a rather fashionable and dramatic black and maroon knitted outfit, which did not, to his taste, go awfully well with her tinted auburn hair.

He said, “Oh dear, I’m Edward Wainwright. It doesn’t look as if I’ve chosen an awfully good day to come.”

After a severe spluttering cough behind her handkerchief, the woman let out a dramatic groan. “I completely forgot you were coming.” She hesitated, one hand on the edge of the door and the other still clamping her burka-like handkerchief to her face. “I’m afraid I can’t possibly come over there with you. I’ve got the most terrible cold.”

“I can see that,” Edward answered, he was aware, a trifle ungraciously. “But can’t you give me the key and tell me how to get there? I mean, I’ve taken time off work specially to come over here and see it.”

The woman eyed him up and down and, unexpectedly, considering her indignities of streaming eyes and spluttering, Edward felt at a sudden disadvantage for she was so protected by the handkerchief.

“Come in,” she said, evidently not needing any further persuasion, which he couldn’t help but be marginally flattered by. “I’ll find the keys and I’ll explain to you how to go there.”

She shut the door behind him and led him through an overfurnished hall, sneezing so explosively, he really did feel rather sorry for her.

He said, “Gosh, I hope you’re treating yourself to a couple of days off work with this.”

She nodded miserably and then said quite distinctly through the handkerchief, with surprising vehemence, “That
lycée
is the source of every sort of sickness.”

She showed him into a huge living-room and said formally, “Please sit here. I’ll go and get the keys.”

Like the hall, the living-room was crowded well beyond the point of cosiness with dark bulky furniture, overloaded bookcases and dressers and standard lamps trailing a tangle of flexes across Oriental carpets. At first, as in any house he might have found himself in, Edward got up to look at the view from the living-room windows, but since it was only a mirror image in the form of Number Ten, Cité Etienne Hubert across the street, he turned his attention back to the living-room. It struck him as an inappropriate backdrop for someone as relatively young and dynamic as Mademoiselle Iskarov; it must surely be the family home. She was distinctly too old, though, however old she was, still to be living at home with her parents. Edward began to examine the contents of the living-room considerably more closely. Whereupon it dawned on him, belatedly, that a high proportion of the objects in the room were indeed Russian: there was a silver samovar and some old photographs of bearded men in boots and smocks on one of the dressers; some of the pictures turned out on proper investigation to be icons and, yes, all the books in the bookcases were in Russian.

When Mademoiselle Iskarov came back, she had changed her handkerchief. She had also, Edward was astonished to notice, combed her hair and pulled her knitted top and skirt into shape so that he could see, whatever her indeterminate age, she had a well-endowed if round figure.

She held the keys out to him. “I’ve written down the address for you. It’s not difficult to find. It’s off the rue Saint Dominique. You can either go up the Boulevard de Latour-Maubourg or Avenue Bosquet. Bosquet is less direct but more pleasant, I think, less –” she hesitated and squared her shoulders, “less designed for victorious military processions, you know.”

Edward laughed. “I know exactly.”

He unfolded his map and Mademoiselle Iskarov pinpointed the rue Surcouf. It all sounded excellent: two bedrooms, a
good-sized sitting-room, the rent was reasonable. Edward thought what a pity it was that if the flat were even halfway decent, he would still feel obliged to turn it down because of his scruples about mixing work connections and housing.

As Mademoiselle Iskarov showed him to the front door, he thought he heard a very faint noise somewhere off the hall. Through an open doorway, he thought, but wasn’t certain, he caught a grey blur of movement. He must have looked concerned for Mademoiselle Iskarov raised her voice to call something in Russian in the direction of the open doorway and she explained to Edward: “My grandmother.” While they stood at the front door and clarified the final details of locks and keys and
concierges
, Edward became clearly conscious of a quavering voice holding forth uninterruptedly from the unseen room.

He had his hand above the ground-floor button of the lift when he heard the door of the Iskarovs’ flat flung open. With one of the worst pronunciations of his name he had yet heard, Mademoiselle Iskarov called, “Mister Wenwright! Mister Wenwright! Please stop!”

Edward pushed open the lift door and said, “Yes?”

“You don’t cook a lot with curry, do you?” she panted and then, seeing the exasperated bemusement on his face, explained, “Our last tenant was an American follower of Hinduism. He made the most awful mess of the kitchen. The neighbours complained of his smells. We had to tell him to leave. Well, he was mad too.”

“No,” Edward answered shortly. “I don’t.”

“Very good,” said Mademoiselle Iskarov. “Then, if you wish, you may rent our flat.” And, in a flurry of horrible coughing, she vanished behind the front door.

The appropriateness of the rue Surcouf was obvious as soon as he turned the street corner. The Iskarovs’ flat was only two or three houses along, in a low, by Paris standards, shabbily off-white house. Its neighbours were a similar house and a small, workaday baker’s shop. He had come via Mademoiselle Iskarov’s recommended route, walking along the bustling commercial length of the rue Saint Dominique. The neighbourhood seemed to him much closer to what he was looking for than anywhere else he had yet been. Behind these
façades, he could imagine muzzled poodles and simmering
tripes à
la
mode
de
Caen,
but not marbled stairwells or bidets on silver-gilt paws. When he identified the house, he felt almost frustrated that somewhere so eminently appropriate had to be out of the question because of his scruples.

BOOK: The Steppes of Paris
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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