Paris. Yesterday. Watery November sunshine on glossy cobbles. A rime of sleet melted by breakfast. With sullen aplomb the waiter scooped our plates and coffee cups from the table. My daughter's hands were raw and scraped from shucking four hundred oysters the night before, her knuckles badged with tiny, brilliant, forming scabs. I saw, as she handed me back the letter and the old guidebook, that her fingernails were bitten half- way down to the cuticle. She looked beautiful, I thought, but deadly tired, her beauty draining from her.
"Who's the little girl with Grandma?" she asked. "No, great-grandma."
I took the photograph from her. "You look malnourished, Millie," I said. "It's your great-aunt Sarah."
"Malnourished ... all chefs are malnourished," she laughed. My daughter had been working in Paris since the summer. "Do you know where you're going?"
"I'm heading for Metz."
"Well, drive carefully. What's gotten into you, anyway? I thought you were on holiday. Is this wise?"
"I am on holiday. I'm seeing you. And I'm going to St Julien. I have to be there on the fourth." I handed her a cutting from a French newspaper. "This was what inspired me."
She read the cutting: MAVROCORDATO S'EST SUICIDE.
"I still don't get it, Dad. Who's Mavrocordato?"
"He's a film director. Was a film director."
The man lit his cigarette from the butt of the one he had just smoked. The girl reached across and lifted his sunglasses from his face and put them on. Lifted the sunglasses from his face and put them on. She stared sulkily through the windscreen, making a moue with her lips. "I'm tired," she said, "I want to stop." "Okay," the man said, "We'll stop at the next town," he turned and looked at her, "Baby." "Never call me Baby," the girl said, "Never." "Okay, Baby," the man said. From the car, a roadside indicator could be seen flashing by: it read - St Julien 3 kms. Through the windscreen there was a hazy view of a town ahead. A small town on a hill. An ancient church surrounded by cypresses. The man glanced over at the girl. (The naked woman is standing in what looks like an artist's studio, one knee, her right, resting on a chaise longue. Some sort of ornate wall-hanging behind her. She is completely naked, her upper body turning slightly towards the left. In her left hand she holds a looking- glass into which she stares. The fingertips of her right hand touch the underhang of her left breast, gently. She has bobbed, badly permed hair and the heavy make-up and dark lips of a soubrette. Nineteen-twenties, definitely, perhaps earlier. Her shoulders are thin, girlish, and her head seems ever so slightly too large for her body. At the foot of the picture someone has written her name in a bold, cursive hand: Irene Golan. ) "Okay, Baby," the man said. He threw his cigarette out of the window. Exterior, day: the car turned off the route nationale and made briskly, at a careless lick, for St Julien, snare drum on the soundtrack going tssssss-tup-a-tssssss, tsssss-tup-a-tssssss, tssssss, tssssss, tssssss.
"Dear Mrs Culpepper
Thank you for your letter. I do not know if I can be more precise but I will try. The village was in near complete ruins and was called St Julien, I think. I remember we crossed a railway line and then a small stream. There was a lower town and up on a hill beyond there was a church and other buildings, all fairly knocked about. I remember three fine ancient cypresses all broken down from artillery. The lower town was quiet, a few bodies here and there, but well cleared out. Captain Shaw sent our platoon forward up the road to the church. It was about three in the afternoon, quite mild, with a light rain falling. This was 4 November 1918 ..."
In the photograph my grandmother is standing holding her daughter's hand in front of the sign. "St Julien" stands out starkly, black on white, in what is a rather fogged, sunfaded print. All around them lie the ruins of the lower town. On the hill behind is the church with its shattered cypresses. My grandmother stands stiffly (I wonder who took the picture?), her daughter (my aunt Sarah) has turned her head slightly in her direction, as if to ask her a question. The date is 1920, some two years after my grandfather died.
I deduced that the noise must have been caused by a spontaneous rally of 50 dumpster trucks deciding to have a revving competition on Seventh Avenue, many floors below, true, but the sonic vibrations were palpable up here. Incredible. I was trying to listen to Variations on a Theme of Haydn on my tape recorder and, at the same time, was going through my notes of the previous night's concert. The effort it was costing reminded me forcefully of the main reason why I left New York. I had just turned up the volume when my breakfast arrived. "It's open," I called, not looking round, hearing the metallic rattle of the room-service trolley and the clink of glass and silverware as it made its shuddery, percussive way over to the window.
"Ah, Brahms," said the waiter, organising the table setting (now I did look round). His voice was light, the "R" rolled slightly, in the French way.
He turned. That is, she turned. She was in full waiter's rig: starched bum-freezer jacket, black trousers, lace-up shoes, a black bow tie. Blond hair held back in a taut chignon. Late thirties, I calculated, older than me.
"Aimez-vous Brahms?" she said with a smile, holding out the slim folder with the check for me to sign.
"I'm writing a book on him," I said, noticing simultaneously the sudden hollowness in my chest and the fact that her name tag said "Jay". Odd name for a woman.
"I love Brahms," she said.
"Me too," I said. "More than life."
"...We were almost up to the church when the shells started exploding on the road. A whole bunch of us took cover in the graveyard but they had that targeted too. Lieutenant Povitch shouted at us to head back to the lower town. John and I with a dozen others had jumped over a low wall that bounded the cemetery. Ahead of us up the hill to the left we could see a ruined farm house and a big stone barn. It made more sense to take cover up there than risk the descent to the lower town. We set off, John was right behind me ..."
My grandmother and her daughter Sarah stayed at the Hostellerie du Coq Hardi in Rochette, "the original kitchen of which", according to their guidebook, "has preserved its ample proportions and innumerable copper utensils." My guidebook makes no mention of this establishment but I have decided to stay in the town anyway, if only to approximate to the spirit of this impromptu pilgrimage. The road from Paris is quiet and I am finding, to my vague surprise, that I am actually enjoying driving. I will stay somewhere in Rochette and proceed to St Julien tomorrow, taking my time, making sure that as I walk up the hill from the lower town it will be around about three o'clock in the afternoon. If a light rain happens to be falling, so much the better.
That Haydn did not write the melody that inspired Brahms's celebrated Variations is well known, but the designation is firmly established and so - so what? So we might as well stick with it. How to express that more elegantly? How to say that the notion that this fool has found a "missing" variation is a crock, a brimful, steaming, grade-A crock of -
Jay came into the bar and I put down my notes with barely a tremble, scarcely a rustle of paper. She was wearing a short black dress and her hair was still up, but more loosely, the result of some artful manipulation of pins and tortoiseshell combs.
We shook hands - it seemed unduly formal, but she was foreign, remember, she was not American - and she sat down beside me. She smiled at me as I Sieg-Heiled through the gloom at the idle waiter.
"How's the demolishment going?" she said.
"The stiletto has been inserted between the seventh and eighth rib. We are half-way to the hilt."
"This new variation was meant to go where?"
"Another vodka Martini and -" I said to the waiter and glanced round at Jay.
"- And another vodka Martini, on rocks."
"Between two and three. Variation 2 (a), I suppose. Absurd."
"Obscene. May I?" She took one of my cigarettes from the pack on the table, broke off the filter tip and put the shortened, filterless cigarette to her lips, a little off-centre. I reached for my lighter but she was there first. But she frowned, not lighting her cigarette, thinking (thinking about Brahms?), the cigarette between her lips, slightly off-centre, three uneven creases between her fine darkblond eyebrows. This is how I will always remember her, frowning, trying to imagine what possible kind of variation could have gone between number two and three. This is one of the ways I will remember her.
The man leant against the window frame of the hotel room and placed his forehead against a cool pane. There was a flushing of water on the soundtrack (over) and the man did not look round. Irene Golan's round, impassive face, then the camera tracked down her body. Her small breasts, the swell of her stomach, her neat divot of pubic hair, her knees, her feet. Her name. Irene Golan. The man in profile: he closed his eyes. The girl was in the room, now, a stronger light coming through the left-ajar bathroom door. She wore a loose white T-shirt (the man's?) and black panties that did not quite conceal the cleft between her buttocks. The man moved away from the window. "How many times did you sleep with Urbain?" he asked, in a reasonable voice. "You can tell me, I don't particularly mind." The girl was sitting down at the room's solitary table. Leaning forward slightly. From the configuration of the folds of her T-shirt, the convexities and concavities, it was possible to imagine that, beneath her T-shirt, her breasts were just resting on the table top - the underhang of her breasts just grazing the table top. She had an unlit cigarette in her mouth, just off-centre, and had frozen in the act of removing a match from a book of matches. She frowned, possibly, you imagined, considering a response to this question. She looked directly at you, looked directly at you, and with two fingers took the unlit cigarette from her mouth, and said, "France is really a beautiful country." Cigarette from her mouth, turned and looked at directly at you, and said, "France is really a beautiful -"
Jay carefully picked a shred of tobacco from the pink point of her tongue.
"Do you want to - " I cleared my throat, "Eat, stay here, try - "
" - I'd like to go to a movie," she said. "I'd like to see, more than anything, Visions Fugitives . It's playing downtown."
"Anything you say, Jay," I said.
She looked curiously at me. "Why do you call me Jay?" she asked. I explained.
She chuckled. "Oh, that. I was only helping Jay out. I forgot to take his name off the jacket."
I felt that slipping and sliding inside me once more.
"Well," I said, "you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name. I thought I knew yours."
"It's Irene," she said.
"... All the way up to the farm building John was right behind me. He was saying, 'Come on, Bob, let's go, let's go, Bob.' When we reached the farm we could see that it was in full view of the trench lines and gun emplacements in the upper town. Other men who had run up from the churchyard had taken shelter behind the barn whose walls were three feet thick, an ancient building. 'Over there, Bob,' John said to me. 'That's for us, buddy.' I can hear his voice in my ears as I write this. There was a four- yard gap between the end of the farmhouse and the gable end of the barn. John pushed me in the back and I hightailed it, ran round the corner of the barn and fell over. That's when I heard the explosion. Some tiles were blown off the roof and there was a lot of smoke. There were some hens inside the barn and they set up a mighty squawking ..."
According to my grandmother's note in the margin of the guidebook she and Sarah ate "some kind of stew" the night they stayed in Rochette, but neither of them had much appetite. I find a room in the Hotel du Cygne (two stars) in the Place des Halles and, dutifully, eat a cartilaginous daube de boeuf in the Brasserie Centrale, five minutes from the hotel, an overlit establishment as doggedly functional as its name.
Walking home at night I reflect that there are few places quite so firmly closed and shuttered to the traveller as a French village after-hours. Even the hotel front door is locked and it takes half-a-dozen rings to summon the amiable patron from his flickering TV.
I stand in my room and look down at the silent street, the shine of the street lamps picking out the dead cars in dewy, night-time monochrome. I have that sensation - you must know that form of selfconsciousness that comes from being strangely alone - when every gesture, every scratch of the head, every throat-clearing acquires a curious, mannered significance. I feel I am performing, I feel I am being filmed. I feel I am playing out an abandoned scene from Visions Fugitives.
The man sat in a wooden chair, smoking, and watched the girl sleeping. Birdsong, morning light squeezing through half-open shutters. The man was clothed but the girl - most of her beneath a sheet - was plainly naked. Irene Golan's face. The man picked through the girl's clothes searched her fringed suede handbag went through her coat pockets lit another cigarette sat down stood up walked round the bed. Smoking his cigarette walked round the bed and crouched down staring at her. The girl's face. The man's face. Irene Golan turned through 90 degrees. The man stood by the closed window. Stood by the open window. Two gendarmes in the street below. The man recoiled, turned and kicked the leg of the bed. "Hey, get up. I'll bring the car round." The girl woke and sat up in bed, slowly. Her right arm gathering the sheet to her breasts, modestly. She looked as if she had really been sleeping. The man left the room and the girl sighed - bored, irritated. With her free hand she pushed strands of hair back from her slumped and sleepy face. She yawned and a corner of the sheet slipped and nearly fell free. You wondered if they had made love the night before. There was the sound of the key locking the door. The girl did not even turn her head.
"...John was lying on the ground in the gap between the farmhouse and the barn. He was rolled onto his side. And he was very pale, white as chalk. But there was no mark on him, not a drop of blood. It must have happened instantly - I was told that concussive force of certain explosions can do this to you. There appears to be no evident cause of death, apart from this unnatural pallor, as if the blood as well as the breath has been driven from you. We pulled him into the lee of the barn wall and we waited until dark at which point we made our way back to the lower town. I am sure it happened in a split second and it is inconceivable that he knew a thing. This is exactly as I remember it. I hope this is of some comfort. I should only add that he seemed very peaceful. The next morning our battalion was withdrawn from St Julien and we remained in billets at Verdun until the armistice.
J Robert 'Bob' Quentin."
Visions Fugitives (1961). Un film de Jean-Didier Mavrocordato. Avec la participation d'Alain Hoffman et Julienne Jodelet ... I remember the poster. I remember the revival house in the Village running a season of nouvelle vague films from the Sixties. I remember certain scenes in the movie with the recall of the the most pedantic cineaste. But the rest of it remains opaque. It was not that long ago, either. Twelve years, thirteen. I have never made any attempt to see the film again. The memory, with all its gaps, remains sharp, perfect but fragile, and I do not want it disturbed, do not want to shatter its perfect fragility.
"Mavrocordato is Swiss. I am Swiss. I think he used a village in Switzerland for this film which I know. St Julien, it's not far from my home."
The lights dimmed. The film began. On the screen the credits rolled and the abrasive, badly recorded jazz score filled the cinema. Tinny trumpet blare, hiss and tap of wire brush on snare drum. I don't think I had seen a black-and-white film in the cinema for over a decade. I watched, with the curiosity of an anthropologist, as Alain Hoffman and Julienne Jodelet strolled hand in hand along a promenade. Nice? Villefranche? Beaulieu? Juan les Pins? I find it hard to recall much more of the opening sequence of the film. In the shifting silver of the semi-dark I felt Irene gently take my hand.
Who was this Irene Golan? Why did Mavrocordato use that old photograph in his film? Cutting back to it repeatedly? As if it was a vision of absolute torment to taciturn Alain Hoffman, on the run with the exquisite Julienne Jodelet... I lie in my lumpy bed in the Hotel du Cygne, my head resting on the solid bolster that passes for a pillow and shuffle the images that slip into my mind. I will not sleep, I know, my mind going now in the perfect shuttered blackness of the room, in that dead calm of hotel noiselessness - which is not noiseless at all. A distant lorry changes gear on the route nationale, the chuckling of the central heating, the unexplained creaks and thuddings of an old building, the confessional whisper of a toilet flush somewhere below. Shhhhh.
You know those unhindering hours of the night when your thoughts will wander free, sometimes freighted with despair, but sometimes inspired and almost miraculous - this is one of those nights. And just before I begin to doze I think I have it, my Theory of Everything. It is to do, I decide, with mysterious parabolas - as if an event, a moment, is launched at your life like a projectile - a stone, a dart, an arrow - sent soaring in the direction of your life. One day it will descend, following its parabolic curve and hit you, or glance off you, or near-miss. It seems to me in the dazzle-dark of this shuttered hotel room that at times our individual lives are peppershot with these mysterious comings-to-earth. Much of the time they pass unacknowledged - or, if they are, we are only half aware of something happening to us. We stop and turn and take our bearings - we shiver, we ponder, we forget - but do not really understand that we have just intersected with a mysterious parabola. Even if we do, even if we grant that something has happened, something has changed, we do not understand because we cannot trace that parabola back to its starting place. We all know these moments of fleeting significance that touch our lives. The great problem, the abiding problem, is to make some sense of them...
The bizarre death of John Culpepper in St Julien on 4 November 1918. Brahms' Variations on a theme of Haydn. Jay turning into Irene. (There's one: she recognised Brahms. What if she had not?). Visions Fugitives. Jean-Didier Mavrocordato's decision to film his nouvelle-vague masterwork in the small town on the Meuse where my grandfather had died. Irene's misconception that it was filmed near Lausanne provoking our argument. Mavrocordato's suicide (that touched me, glanced off me, that one, but only because I am here in France). I would not be lying in my unyielding bed in the Hotel du Cygne if John Culpepper had not pushed his friend Bob across the gap between farmhouse and barn first, instead of going himself.
"Brahms chose something deeply obscure and through the special alchemy of his genius transformed it into one of the best known tunes in the orchestral repertoire. The melody he chose has nothing to do with Haydn, it forms the second movement of a partita, probably by one Ignaz Pleyel, which may in turn come from some older, even more forgotten source ..."
Irene stopped reading. She was sitting at the desk in my hotel room, my typescript in front of her. She was leaning forward slightly, resting on her elbows, and one could imagine, from the convexities and concavities of her dress bodice, that her breasts were just touching the desk top, that the underhang of her breasts was just grazing the desk top.
"Interesting," she said. "I didn't know that."
"Keep going," I said. "It sounds better when you read it. Your accent makes it sound more intelligent."
"I'm thinking of Brazil," she said. "I really think I should go to Brazil next. "
I poured some more whisky into her glass and added some ice cubes. My throat felt thick; I could think of nothing, absolutely nothing, to say. She put my typescript down and picked up the leather-framed photograph of my wife and children, my travelling photograph.
"What are your daughters called?"
"Millie. And Lucy. Lucy and Millie."
"How old are they?"
"Six and four. Millie's the oldest."
She stood up, her eyes distant, and strolled round from behind the desk, coming over towards me to collect her drink.
"It's wonderful that, no?" she said, "to take something so obscure and make it so memorable."
"What? Oh you mean Brahms, the Variations."
"But we all do that, I suppose, don't we? In our own lives, in our own way. Or at least sometimes we try. We should try, when we have that chance, to do what Brahms did."
"Yes. It's not so easy. I suppose we - "
"- Or maybe I should go to Mexique. What do you think, Brazil or Mexique?"
I took a few steps away from her, I had to, just at that moment. "You know," I said, "There's no way that village was in Switzerland. That village was not in Switzerland, that St Julien. That was France, definitely. "
She laughed. "Shall we have a row?" she said. "How can you be so sure? Prove it."
The man locked the girl in the room and she did not even look round at the sound of the key turning in the lock. When the man returned and opened the door again, the girl had gone. I can't remember if we saw her leave. I can't remember how the girl got out of the room.
It is almost three o'clock, overcast, with low, packed, mouse-grey clouds, but no light rain falls as I walk up the steepish street from the lower town to the upper, although now all trace of a division has been erased by almost 80 years of building and development. I pass a dry-cleaner, a newsagent, a grocery store, a flower shop, an estate agent, and an empty patisserie with a "For Sale" sign slipped between the Venetian blind and the dusty window pane.
The church still stands some little way apart, islanded by a wide grass bank and a gravel path and the cemetery wall is high enough to obscure all but the tallest of tombs. I walk around the foot of the cemetery and pause a while in the lee of the wall looking up at the solid stone farmhouse on the hill's crest and to the left, beside it, a splendid old stone barn. Now there is a single-track, metalled road that winds up between back gardens on one side and a field cropped short by sleek beige cows. I think of John Culpepper and his friend Bob Quentin sheltering here by the cemetery. In their place I would have made for the farm and those thick stone walls too.
The sunlight was bright. The glare was over-bright, fuzzing outlines as if the exposure was wrong. It was difficult to make out the features of buildings in the street. The man stood there, in sunglasses, smoking. He stopped a passerby and asked him a question. It was impossible to hear what was being said because of the noise of the score and of the snare drum's insistency. The man's face looking up and down the street. The man walking towards his car. People passing turned and stared: it was clear that they knew this man was an actor (I remember thinking that, I remember noticing their expressions); they were bemused to see a film being made in their small town.
"You know, I've had a disturbing thought: he wasn't really your grandfather," Irene said, moving to the door.
"No. But we always called him grandfather Culpepper. I always thought of him as a kind of grandfather. My grandmother always talked about him, how he died in the war, a week before it ended. That's how I know about this St Julien place, where he died. I've seen a photo. I recognised it."
"Your grandmother married again - "
"In 1927. Had another child - my mother."
She thought, pushing out her bottom lip. "I tell you what, I'll bring you your breakfast."
She leant forward and kissed me again, but quickly, on the lips. I reached for her. "No," she said. "I'll see you in the morning. I have to go now."
"Black coffee and croissants. For two. What was your disturbing thought?"
"Oh yes. Do you realise something?" She was standing in the doorway, leaning back in the doorway, her body canted backward, pleased with herself. I could taste her lipstick in my mouth. "If your grandfather Culpepper hadn't gotten himself killed at St Julien - you wouldn't be here. Goodnight."
She straightened, showed me the palms of her hands, shoulders shrugging, eyebrows raised, smiling - the girl who had won the prize with the last question of the quiz show.
"Black coffee and croissants," she said. "For two."
How was I to know I would never see her again?
The duty manager looked at me patiently, and not at all intolerantly, as if his training had prepared him for all manner of bizarre requests, far more bizarre than mine.
"We do have a waiter named Jay," he said, "who works in our coffee shop. Jay Duveen. But he's been on vacation for four days. We have no member of staff with the name Irene. Not on our computer, anyway."
He pronounced her name "Eye-rain."
He smiled, his smile was not unkind. "If you could remember her last name, sir, it would be invaluable."
Invaluable. It would be invaluable. Indeed.
"She's Swiss," I said. "Mid-late thirties, tallish, blonde. I imagine a friend of this Jay."
"There are over five hundred employees in this hotel, sir. And I can't begin to tell you how many dozens of temporary staff we hire on a day by - "
"You've been most helpful."
The gap between the gable end of the farmhouse and the corner of the barn is wider than Bob Quentin had remembered. I pace it out - 16 yards. The farmer and his son stand respectfully some way off watching this strange, middle-aged American investigate a banal angle of their farmyard. "Come on, Bob, let's go, let's go, Bob," John Culpepper had said. I step out from the gable end of the farmhouse and pace out eight steps, stand equidistant between the farmhouse and the big stone barn. Beneath my feet is longish grass, muddied, trampled somewhat. Below me is the cemetery and beyond that the ugly semi-industrial outskirts of St Julien, the garages, the discount stores, the agricultural depots. The railway line is there and the slow-moving Meuse. I suppose, near as dammit, I am standing on the spot where John Culpepper died.
The afternoon light up here by the farmhouse is pewtery and cold, and a tarnished silver gleam comes off a loop in the river as the sky clears for an instant. I say goodbye to the farmer and his son ("Mon grandpere, ah, etait tue ici, en, ah, mille neuf cent dix-huit") and I walk down through the dewheavy meadow towards the church. When I'm about 200 yards from the church I pause and look back at the farmhouse and the barn and the gap of refulgent white sky between them. "Over there, Bob, that's for us, buddy."
Turning again, I see a small figure coming round the cemetery wall. A woman, wearing a dress - or a sweater and skirt - of the palest blue, striding out with a long, confident stride, setting off up the hill towards me. A blonde woman with loose, shoulder-length hair. She waves and calls, and I think she calls my name, but I can't be sure. I can't be sure of anything any more because she looks familiar. Coming towards me through the dewladen grass of the meadow on this cool, grey afternoon is a vision, a vision of Irene.
"On leaving St Julien take GC 38. The road is interesting but in bad repair, and care must be taken for the next few kms. The view is impressive. Hill 238, across the valley, is literally ploughed up by the shell-fire, while not a single tree is left (see photo, page 18). After crossing the bridge over the Aisne and entering the town, the house on the left, no. 8, should be noticed. This is the old post house where Louis XVI was recognised during his flight in 1791. When the royal carriage stopped near this post house in broad daylight the postmaster thought he recognised the king. His fellow citizens mocked him, accusing him of seeing visions. The postmaster, convinced he was right, followed the carriage all the way to Varennes, where he caught it up, confirmed his suspicions and had the royal family arrested.
Several comfortable and reasonably priced hotels are to be found in the rue Chanzy." !Reuse content