Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 4

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It was early morning when Olivier arrived at the de Florian apartment. The street cleaners had not long moved on, leaving the tarmac of the road still wet and smelling like rain. Two waiters from the Boulangerie opposite were busily arranging tables and chairs along the footpath in preparation for the morning’s trade.

The delicious aroma of fresh coffee and caramelised sugar emanating from the portals of the Boulangerie proved impossible to resist. Olivier succumbs and orders a takeaway coffee and a warm flaky croissant filled with cheese. Eschewing the inviting arrangement of tables and chairs on the footpath, he crosses the street to the apartment.

Once inside the flat he moves decisively through its rooms, opening the windows and shutters. The morning sunlight, followed by a sharp zephyr of breeze quickly disperses the shadows and the cloyingly stale, torpid air.

In Marthe’s boudoir, Olivier takes a paper napkin and carefully wipes clean the dust from a pretty hand painted table. Setting his breakfast down on it, Olivier then makes himself comfortable in a commodious Louis armchair, ignoring the great plume of dust exploding around him as he settles into its seat.

With greedy alacrity the buttery croissant is soon disposed of, and, after wiping clean from his fingers the clinging flakes of pastry, Olivier pulls forth from his leather satchel, Marthe’s journal.

Just a few pages, he vows to himself, while I’m finishing my coffee and then I will start working.  Casting a quick glance at Marthe’s portrait, almost as if he were reassuring himself of her luminous beauty, Olivier eagerly opens the journal…..

Marthe’s Journal 1880 – 1884.

Its enviable the fearlessness of youth. The belief that all things are possible. The wonderful ability not to see or perhaps, to deliberately ignore, the potential pitfalls or dubious consequences once a course of action has been decided upon.

It was the nescience of youth that gave me the confidence and self-belief  to approach Monsieur Edouard Marchand, Entrepreneur and Manager, of the famous Folies Bergere Theatre.

I could sing, I was a natural mimic,  and I was more than passably pretty. What further credentials were required of an actress? I didn’t aspire to be a Grande Dame of the theatre.  The Folies Bergere with its repertory of musical comedy, operetta, short plays and exotic dancers suited my modest talents perfectly.

Its reputation as the theatre where the most beautiful actresses were on display night after night, attracted gentlemen of discernment, usually very rich, very generous and  extremely desirous for the company of a beautiful woman. It was perhaps for that reason alone I was most keen to become one of its players. It would be, hopefully, the perfect vehicle to showcase my beauty and launch me into the upper echelons of the demimonde.  

I was hopeful Monsieur Marchand would find inspiration, if not in my blushing abilities as an actress at least then in my undoubted comeliness.

It was indeed fortunate for me that my mother could claim a tenuous acquaintance with the well known theatre manager. She had, while still  enjoying the protection of the kind Monsieur Delacourt, met Edouard Marchand on various social occasions. The two men had been friends and business associates .

The financial patronage of M. Delacourt and his deep abiding belief in the entrepreneurial skills of the talented theatre Manager had led to some of the of most extravagant and successful spectacles ever witnessed in Belle Epoque Paris. The partnership propelled M. Marchand to the top of his field and had helped establish the Folies Bergere as the most  glamorous and famous theatre in the whole of Europe.

It was I suspect, the association my mother had enjoyed with his dear friend M. Delacourt, that Edouard Marchand agreed to meet with me. He also however, may have heard of the parlous circumstances in which my mother and I now found ourselves and was moved to act in kindness.

On the day of the interview I woke feeling miserably nervous and just as I was about to leave  the apartment, the panic of doubt swept swept through me. If it hadn’t been for my mother’s encouraging words – “You look beautiful darling. Monsieur Marchand cannot but be moved by your loveliness” – I doubt I would have made it out the door.

When I arrived at the theater however, and adjusted the bodice of my gown, borrowed from my mother, to show better the pert fullness of my breasts, the stage door attendant gave a low whistle; I laughed and gave him an impudent wink. Suddenly I felt much reassured.

“I’ve come to see Monsieur Marchand. He’s expecting me. May I go in?”  The young attendant made bold by my flirtatiousness, cheekily demanded, “And who may I say is asking for him?”

It was on the tip of my tongue to answer Mathilde Beaugrion and then I remembered, this was my new beginning. An opportunity to reinvent myself, to leave Mathilde behind, to leave behind the awfulness of poverty and the attendant despair associated with that dreadful state.

“You can tell him, Marthe de Florian is here to wait upon him.” I said, very pleased with the satisfying, aristocratic sound my new name had.  

Opening the door wide the man gestured for me to follow. It was dark inside for the only illumination came from a huge chandelier that hung above the stage. There was a sour smell  of human sweat but overlaying that was the more pervasive smells of greasepaint and stale perfume.

“Mademoiselle de Florian to see you Monsieur Marchand.” , announced the man into the darkness of the auditorium. Turning to leave, the attendant whispered, ‘“Good luck Mademoiselle” and then he was gone, leaving me to stand alone in the circle of light on the stage.

“Your mother tells me that you want to go on the stage” a disembodied voice called from the shadows, I hesitated and then cast my most alluring smile; the one I had practiced in the mirror just before leaving home, in the direction from whence the voice came.

The corners of my mouth began to quiver and I felt slightly breathless. “Yes I do. Will you give me a part?”

Edouard Marchand laughed softly and then out of the shadows he emerged. A tall man with carefully manicured moustache and side whiskers, dressed in a tailored suit of pearl grey silk.

“Let down your hair and walk around the stage, so I can look at you.”

Removing the pins from my hair, allowed it to fall in heavy tawny waves around my face. I knew my hair to be glorious and holding my ribs high to show off my full pert breasts and small waist, I walked the length of the stage.

Coming to a standstill in front him, I was asked to raise my skirts to above my knees. After having appraised me carefully as a man might do when buying a horse, he asked, “What else can you do Mademoiselle, besides looking beautiful?”

“I can sing and I can dance.”

Marchand nodded,“Good, that’s half an actress’s business. But can you read a part?

‘Yes”, I replied, although I had never tried.

“No need to worry about that now. But I would like to hear you sing.”

For a moment I hesitated then clearing my throat  I began to sing.  I chose a saucy street-ballad about mistaken identity and lost love. I have a full, voluptuous quality to my voice  which can make a far more innocent song seem suggestive and exciting.

I moved gracefully about the stage, acting out the lines of the song, all my self-consciousness gone in my passionate determination to please.

When at last the song came to an end I sank to a deep curtsy and then lifted my head to smile at him with eager questioning eyes, he clapped his hands.

“Bravo Mademoiselle! You are spectacular!  In a week’s time we are giving a performance of “The Mistress’s Dilemma” Come to rehearsal at nine tomorrow morning and I will have a part in it for you.”

I had no expectation of playing the lead but I was seriously disappointed to discover the next morning I was to be merely one of a crowd in a Ball scene and had not so much as a single word to speak.

Monsieur Marchand  encouraged me by saying that if I were to attract the attention of the audience as he felt sure I would, he would put me in more important parts. Pretty young women were very much in demand for the stage, and if the gentlemen liked you, bigger and better roles would surely follow.

I had rather naively expected camaraderie from the other women players but they had already formed a tight clique and were jealous and suspicious of any outsider trying to break into their closed ranks. They ignored me when I spoke to them, tittered and whispered behind my back, hid my costume on the day of the dress rehearsal, all in the obvious hope of making me so unhappy I would leave the company.

I was soon to learn that other women were not important to my success or happiness and I  refused to let their pettiness and jealousy trouble me. Marthe de Florian was here to stay and more importantly she was here to prosper!

At last the day of the performance arrived and after a restless night  spent tossing and turning, wracked with doubt and apprehension I awoke, very anxious to begin the day.

I arrived at the theatre at noon, well in advance of the play’s starting time, which was at three in the afternoon. I wanted plenty of time to apply my stage make-up and not have to fight the other women for a share of the mirror. The common dressing room was a crowded, damp space, smelling of sweat and cheap perfume.

It was also a utility room used for storing costumes, false – hair, false- beards, false -noses, fanciful stage scenery and other mysterious – at least to me – theatre paraphernalia.

These chaotic working conditions were for only the most lowly players of which I happened to be one. The more successful and sought after actresses enjoyed private dressing rooms where there was ample room to dress, and to leisurely paint their faces and, if they were so inclined, to take a glass of champagne before their performance. Champagne was believed to give an extra sparkle to a woman’s beauty and an exciting verve to her performance.

For some older actresses, fearful their allure was fading and that their performances were lacking youthful energy there was the more sinister and intoxicating elixir of champagne laced with cocaine. This concoction might invigorate and give you a marvellous sense of invincibility but it also could lead to a debilitating addiction.

Because it was so early I found the entire theatre empty but for a couple of backstage-hands moving scenery and the lighting person preparing the enormous chandelier that was to hang above the heads of the audience.

In those days the theatre-goer expected the auditorium to be as brightly lit, as the stage itself, if not more so, thus allowing the audience – should the entertainment prove other than engaging – the opportunity to raise their Opera – glasses and scan the pretty faces in the surrounding private boxes.

By the time the other actresses began to arrive I was painted and dressed and had left the stifling confines of the dressing room. I wanted to watch the audience from behind the curtains.

The pit was already full with dandies, grisettes, prostitutes and pretty girls selling fruit and refreshments, all of them noisy and laughing and shouting to acquaintances all over the theatre.

The galleries were still mostly empty except for a few men and women anxious to secure a good seat. They sat fanning themselves with their programs for the great chandelier above  them irradiated considerable warmth with its many gaslight candles.  

Finally the boxes began to fill with splendidly gowned and bejewelled ladies, languid self-absorbed beauties who were already bored with the play before it had even begun.

I stood looking out,  my throat dry, and my heart beating a fierce tattoo in nervous anticipation, when suddenly a howl of pain came from the direction of Hortense d’ Albert’s dressing room.  She was the star of the play and Queen of the Folies Bergere, famous for her a great beauty, and notorious for her, capriciousness , mean spiritedness  and vindictiveness, making her possibly the most feared woman in the company.

She jealously guarded her position as the premier star and was ruthless in her determination to see off all possible rivals. It was she who had orchestrated the campaign of hurtfulness toward me and encouraged the other actresses to carry out small acts of sabotage, like the hiding of my costume at dress rehearsal and putting ground chillies into my rouge pot. An old trick used to temporarily disfigure a rival’s beauty by causing burning and swelling.  I quickly learned to take my paint home with me and not leave it the dressing room where it could be tampered with.

A small group of players had gathered at the open door of Hortense’s dressing room. I could see the actress sobbing, obviously in pain and  frantically sponging her eyes with a moistened towel. Her panicked maid was shrilly demanding a doctor be called and for someone to fetch Monsieur Marchand.

Within moments Edouard Marchand was striding through the group, effectively silencing our whispered speculations by demanding we should make ourselves scarce and find something useful to do.

Suitably chastened, the crowd melt away and I returned to my position behind the curtain. I was consumed with curiosity regarding the drama that was unfolding in Hortense’s dressing room. What had happened to the actress’s eyes?

“Pardon me Madame.”, a deep voice sounded from behind me. Startled, I turned to see a tall  handsome man, elegantly dressed with deep set eyes and soaring cheek bones . His smiling, sensuous mouth revealed strong white teeth, made even more so, by contrasting with a luxuriant black moustache.

“I’m Monsieur George Clemenceau. I believe someone needs the services of a Doctor. Although I no longer practice these days, I may still be of some use.”

At first I’m flustered by the intensity and  brazenness of his gaze, then quickly regaining my composure, I  say, “Its Madame d’Albert you’re looking for. Please come this way.”

And, as I walk I’m suddenly possessed by the discomforting feeling that despite being fully clothed, the gentleman following me is completely cognisant of my body and it’s form. It felt as if I were parading through the theatre in my natural state.

Arriving at Hortense’s dressing room I knock on the door. I can hear raised voices and crying coming from the the other side.

Suddenly the door is flung open, revealing Monsieur Marchand looking worried, angry and almost at his wits end. Ignoring me, he demands of my companion, “Are you the Doctor?”

“ Monsieur Clemenceau at your service.”, says the doctor, taking the theatre managers hand in a firm grip. Edouard Marchand, his relief patently evident says without further preamble, “Your patient is inside.”

As the Doctor moves into the room he turns to me smiling, his hooded eyes, obsidian and glittering with suppressed desire. “A good day to you Madame and I hope to meet again, soon.”

With the deliberate emphasis on the word soon, his eyes lock with mine. Seconds pass until the spell is eventually broken with an interruption from the increasingly impatient Monsieur Marchand, “Monsieur if you please. Your patient waits! ”  

The doctor bows his head a fraction, in acknowledgment of the rebuke and moves into the dressing room, closing the door quietly after him.

Monsieur Marchand turns to me,“Marthe, listen to me carefully.”, the urgency in his voice immediately drives all thoughts of the attractive doctor from my mind. “Madame d’Albert has sustained a serious injury to her eyes and I have no doubt she will not be able to play her part this afternoon.”

Although Hortense d’Albert was no friend of mine I could no but help feel some concern for the actress. “Why, what’s the matter with her eyes? A fleeting look of frustration crosses his face only to be replaced immediately by one of tired resignation.

“She is a victim of her own colossal vanity.”  Taking a moment to compose himself he continues, “She has blinded herself with the stupid overuse of belladonna drops. I can only hope it is a temporary condition and not a permanent one.”

I’m appalled. Belladonna or deadly nightshade as it is more commonly known,  was widely used as a cosmetic, especially in theatrical circles. A small drop to each eye causes the the pupil to dilate thus giving the eyes a deeply mysterious luminosity.  A dangerous practice  often causing nausea, blurry vision and to the serious devotee even blindness.

Monsieur Marchand takes my hand in a desperate grip and its with incredulous disbelief I hear him say, “ Marthe, I want you to take her place!” But as I open my mouth to vehemently protest he puts a finger to my lips. “Stop! Listen to me! You can do it ! I’ve been watching you in rehearsals. You know the part  and I’ve heard you singing the songs. You’re the right age, the part is really one for an ingenue, Hortense while undoubtedly beautiful is technically too old for this part.”

My heart is pumping I want so very much to say yes, but what if I fail, what if everyone laughs  at me and I’m ignominiously booed from the stage. “There must be another actress you can call on, someone more experienced than I.” I cry frantically.

“Marthe, Marthe! Trust me you can do it. I wouldn’t put you on the stage if I didn’t truly believe you will make a success of it. Sure, I have more seasoned actresses I can call on, but the part calls for the freshness of youth and your beauty is without peer.  Will you do it?”

Tumultuous emotions rage through me, fear, pride, hope but the premier feeling is one of complete exultation. I knew the part, and the songs. An opportunity such as this comes but once in your life. Of course I would do it. And without further deliberation, banishing all doubt from my fevered mind I say to M. Marchand, “Yes, I will do it!”……………….

Olivier closes Marthe’s journal and quickly slides it into his satchel. He has heard footsteps on the stairs, then moments later a knock on the apartment door. The assistants, as promise by Marc Ottavi to help with the cataloguing of the de Florian estate, have arrived. Olivier reluctantly makes his way to the door, he would have so much rather stayed in the company of the fascinating Marthe…… to be continued.

                                             

AN APARTMENT IN PARIS..PARTS 1 AND 2

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Marthe de Florian as painted by Giovanni Boldini

PROLOGUE.

Paris 1940

In 1940 as the German Army marches inexorably through the green fields of Belgium towards France. Many citizens of Paris begin hasty preparations to evacuate, throwing treasured possessions willy-nilly into hand carts, horse drawn carriages, the baskets of bicycles or, if your were indeed fortunate enough to own one, into motor vehicles. But the vast majority simply took to the road on foot, carrying their meager estate, tied in a bed sheet or stuffed into battered suitcases.

As in all catastrophic upheaval, be it a natural disaster or one caused by man, to choose what to take or what to leave behind can be, for some, just too overwhelming. These individuals simply walk away with nothing, melt into the chaotic, seething mass of humanity, never to look back and seemingly, to disappear and, even with the eventual restoration to normalcy, never again returning to inhabit their former lives.

And so it was for the pretty 21 year old Mlle de Florian. When confronted with the devastating decision of what to leave and what to take she couldn’t choose. She found herself careering wildly through the vast rooms of her deceased Grandmother’s apartment, pulling paintings from the walls, only to abandon them moments later or distractedly rifling through the drawers of cabinets and bureaus but taking nothing.

Eventually realizing she’s incapable of mobilizing coherent thought or action Mlle de Florian just simply locks the flat’s door and walks away.

The apartment and it’s contents are abandoned, perhaps deliberately forgotten. Cobwebs gather in corners, dust settles layer upon layer covering the furnishings in a diaphanous grey pall and over time the dripping tap above the kitchen basin leaves the pristinely white stone indelibly marked with a horrible greenish black stain.

Mlle de Florian lives to the venerable age of ninety-one, never once returning to the flat in Paris .  After her death the executors of her Estate are intrigued to discover the existence of the apartment. It has remained locked, unvisited, untended, for nearly seven decades. What would they find inside?

THE APARTMENT.

Paris 2010

The apartment lay in the ninth arrondissement, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères and the Galeries Lafayette. This area of Paris owes much of it’s beauty to Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s determination to create a modern Paris. A Paris of grand boulevards green spaces and elegant architecture.

The Rue Condorchet is a typical example of classical Haussmannism with it’s monochromatic stone buildings, their façades organised around horizontal lines that often continue from one building to the next and balconies and cornices that are perfectly aligned without any noticeable alcoves or projections.

It’s on this charming street, early one morning, we find Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry, hurriedly making his way to number 110. He had forgotten that rue Condorchet is a one-way thoroughfare and the subsequent lengthy detour to enter the street from the Place Lino Ventura has caused him to run late for his appointment with the apartment building’s concierge, Monsieur Gilbert.

The concierge waits patiently for him on the footpath, apologies made, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is ushered through imposing wooden doors into a gloomy vestibule and from there is shown up the handsome marble staircase to a door on the second floor.

Monsieur Choppin-Janry is here to conduct an inventory and evaluation of contents in the abandoned apartment at the behest of Mlle de Florians heirs.

Politely dismissing the assistance offered by the overly curious concierge, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is left alone to struggle with a resisting lock. After some determined jiggling the lock finally yields and the door reluctantly swings open. He is at last inside the apartment, the first person to have crossed its threshold in nearly seventy years.

There is an all pervading gloom for the power is either disconnected or the light bulbs have long stopped working their efficacy eroded by years of non-use. Making his way carefully along the wide hall towards the formal rooms that overlooked the street, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is acutely conscious of the smell of old dust and the mustiness of mildew.

Entering a large room he immediately moves to the large bank of windows facing the street and with some difficulty forces them open . That done he turns his attention to the wooden shutters. Their rusting hinges shriek in protest as he manhandles them open. The room is now flooded with morning sunlight.

He finds himself standing in a large dining room, a magnificent table covered by a yellow damask table cloth commands centre stage, ornate candelabra their candles showing use, sit either end of it. A large credenza covers almost the entire length of the back wall, its shelves groan under the weight of fine china and to the right of that, is a beautifully carved fireplace and gracing it’s chimney-piece are objets d’art and a sensual second Empire bronze statue of Persephone fleeing Hades.

Heart pumping with mounting excitement, Monsieur Chopin-Janvry quickly moves through the rest of the apartment, throwing open windows and shutters. Rooms that had not seen light of day for seventy years were now revealing their startling treasures. Paintings, gueridons with ormolu, Louis XV chairs, an exquisitely feminine bureau with beautiful inlays of fruit wood and in one of the small rooms overlooking the courtyard a collection of Disney toys including Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig and a moulting taxidermic ostrich.

But the room that interested him most was a room with exquisite moulded ceilings and walls covered in embossed, eggshell blue silk. Unfortunately here, water damage was evident causing the silk to fall away thus exposing the plaster beneath and a dark stain of mildew to disfigure the ornate ceiling.

The furniture is intensely feminine, brocaded Duchesse de Brisee chairs, a hand painted table for playing cards, marble busts and delicate gueridons on which stand, pretty porcelain vases. And along one entire wall is an enormous painted Louis XVI mirror bedecked with garlands of flowers and candelabra. Opposite this stands a marble fireplace and on it’s mantelpiece are large chinese porcelain ginger jars.

French doors framed by faded yellow silk curtains lead to a small balcony and beside this opening is a beautiful dressing table, ornately carved with fleur de lis and griffins. A lovely piece of whimsy. On top of this beautiful dresser were the accoutrement one would expect a lady to use when attending her toilette, silver backed hair brushes, crystal bottles of long ago evaporated perfumes and jars containing powder and unguents.

This room is undoubtedly a Boudoir. Today we might give a room like this the unimaginative title of a dressing room but in the Belle Epoque period this room was used for so much more.

The Boudoir of the Belle Epoque era – from 1870 to the beginning of the first World War in 1914 –  was a combination of drawing room and dressing room. It was where a beautiful woman might entertain friends and lovers, or receive tradespeople such as jewelers, hairdressers and dressmakers.

She would also dress here in preparation for an evenings entertainment at the Opera Garnier or perhaps going to Maxim’s for dinner. Indeed if you look closely at the dressing table you will see candles long past their prime. They’re little more than stubs suggesting the last inhabitant of this room has needed their illumination to see better for applying her maquillage.

Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is suddenly of the opinion that this room has been closed much longer than the rest of the apartment. There is no evidence to suggest that the 20th century has ever intruded within these pretty walls.

In fact he is almost certain that Mlle de Florian never lived in the apartment she may have been a regular visitor but it was never her principal residence. There was too little of the 20th century and way too much of an earlier period. That period being the Belle Epoque.

He moves further into the room there is a chill in here despite the sun flooding in through the  open French doors and a pervasive perfume of roses seems to linger in the air.  A zephyr like breeze eddies around the room causing the pages of a letter to lift from the dressing table and flutter to the floor.

As Monsieur Choppin-Janvry bends to retrieve a page from the floor he notices tucked in behind the overflowing bookcase something wrapped in a silken shawl. It looks as if it’s a painting and a large one at that.

Carefully maneuvering the painting from behind the book case with it’s towering pile of dusty tomes and mindful not to damage the canvas, he carries it to the chaise-lounge. The temperature in the room has grown noticeably cooler and the scent of roses grows stronger almost cloyingly so.

Monsieur Choppin-Janvry hands begin to tremble as he gently disentangles the shawl from the painting. He is convinced he is about to make an important discovery.

The painting is a portrait of a beautiful young woman. She sits, leaning forward in a chair. A chair he recognizes immediately as the very one on which the painting now rests. Her face is in profile, the luxuriant dark blonde hair is piled atop her head,  around her neck she wears a strand of baroque pearls and her long elegant fingers play flirtatiously at the extreme decolletage of a beautiful pink mousseline evening gown.

Choppin-Janvry intuitively understands he is looking at the face of the woman in whose apartment he now stands but even more exciting than that realization, is the painting itself.

He is mesmerized by the flowing brush strokes and the highly stylized positioning of the sitter. “Is it possible? An unknown work by the Master of Swish himself, Monsieur Giovanni Boldini!”

It is with the unconscious uttering of these words that the room is suddenly plunged into darkness. Momentarily confused Monsieur Choppin-Janvry realizes the shutters have somehow broken free from their moorings and have slammed shut thus blocking out the light.

Adrenaline courses through his body and a feeling of unease causes him to hurry towards the chinks of light shining through the closed shutters. And when the plethora of tables and chairs in his path impede smooth passage, panic threatens to extinguish all rational thought. He is convinced he is no longer alone.

With racing heart, he peers around the darkened room, his eyes desperately seeking reassurance that he is indeed alone. And just as he reaches to push open the shutters for better illumination he is distracted by a shadowy movement near where the portrait stands.

“Mon Dieu!”  Through the aqueous gloom a chimerical figure materializes, and with the sibilant whisper of silken gown, suddenly before him, is the beautiful woman from the painting. Her pink mousseline gown glowing eerily in the nubilous shadows.

In that startling moment, just as Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is about to commit to a terrified shriek, two things occur simultaneously: his mobile comes shrilly to life and a mischievous breeze plucks the shutters from his grasping fingers and casts them wide open.

The room is, at an instant, once again flooded with sunlight and everything suddenly appears in it’s natural order. The room is just as it was, a pretty boudoir. Choppin-Janvry, with herculean effort, endeavours to calm himself. His mobile phone continues to ring and after a few moments of deep breathing, he lifts it to his ear and says in a tremulous voice, “Hello?”

“Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry?”

“Yes this is he.”

“Marc Ottavi, I’m waiting downstairs.”

So engrossed had Olivier become with exploring the abandoned apartment he had quite forgotten that the renowned art dealer was to meet him here at the flat. An expert with considerable expertise in art and sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Monsieur Ottavi had been invited to help with the inventory. His role; to establish the authenticity and value of the paintings and sculpture belonging to de Florian estate.

Choppin-Janvry walks to the balcony, leaning over it’s ornate railing, he sees a well dressed man in a dark grey suit. The gentleman’s ensemble is saved from almost funereal sobriety by a silk, canary yellow kerchief, spilling forth from his jacket pocket. He stands patiently at the building’s entrance, a cell phone to his ear.

“The concierge will let you in. I’m on the second floor,”  says Choppin-Janvry into his mobile, then, before his colleague can respond he breaks the connection and slips the phone into his trouser pocket.

Returning to the room he is again drawn irrevocably to the portrait. It’s allure impossible to ignore. A beautiful woman by anyone’s standards and if the tilt of her rounded but determined chin is any indication, a wilful and deeply passionate one, at that.

Who was she and why – if he was indeed correct in his speculation, the picture was a Boldini – would anyone leave such a valuable painting, seemingly forgotten for seventy years in the decaying grandeur of this lovely old apartment?

Monsieur Coppin-Janvry reluctantly removes his gaze from the portrait. He needs to compose himself, expunge from his fevered mind the ghostly image of the woman in pink mousseline and silk, materializing astonishingly from the confines of the painting and appearing wraithlike before him.

He is convinced he had experienced some sort of sensory overload. The apartment exercised a powerful allure causing him feelings of deep disquiet. It was almost as if he had stumbled into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, a place of glamor, beguilement and mystery. It’s seductive ambience, unleashing disturbing, fanciful and hallucinatory thoughts.

Monsieur Ottavi’s footsteps are heard coming along the passage.

“In here. The door on the right.” calls M Choppin-Janvry. Glancing at the splendid Louis XVI mirror he is appalled by his reflection, hair on end and a streak of grime contrasting darkly against the pallor of his complexion. “I look as if I’ve seen a ghost!”

Quickly setting to rights his appearance, he turns to greet his colleague. “I have something I want to show you. I think it maybe of major interest to you.”

Marc Ottavi moves unhurriedly into the room. He walks as if in a trance.  His eyes, huge with wonderment, track slowly around the chamber.  The boudoir is gorgeous, it’s faded splendor reflecting the exquisite taste of the era he’s most passionate about,  the Belle Epoque Period.

So enraptured is he by the room and it’s contents, he doesn’t hear the urgency and excitement in his friend’s voice as Olivier tries, unsuccessfully, to draw his attention to the painting.

It’s only when his colleague takes his elbow and leads him forcibly to the picture does Ottavi begin to focus on the painting. He stands transfixed. Adrenaline immediately courses through his body and with shaking hand he reaches for the painting’s ornately gilded frame, almost as if he needs to reassure himself it’s not an illusion.

With the keen eye of a connoisseur, Ottavi carefully scrutinizes the portrait, eagerly taking in the dashing brush strokes, the vivid use of colour and the voluptuous beauty of the sitter. Breathlessly he searches the painting for the artist’s signature and there in the lower right corner, boldly executed with the confidence of a true master, is the name, Boldini!

“Is it possible? An unknown work by Boldini ?” Ottavi is feeling faint with the enormity of the discovery. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the famous painter’s work, Ottavi is certain the painting has never been exhibited in the public arena or indeed published in any catalogue recording the famous Portraitist’s work.  It has most likely, only ever been enjoyed privately, here in this opulent and most intimate of rooms, the lady’s boudoir, seen only by Madame herself or possibly her admirers.

“And the woman ! Who is she?” asks M. Choppin-Janvry, not realizing the rawness and urgency in his voice has revealed the almost palpable fascination he feels for the mysterious beauty.

Marc Ottavi smiles sympathetically, for he too is not impervious to the woman’s allure. “Ah! The lady, if I’m not mistaken, is the beautiful and talented actress, Marthe de Florian. Muse to Boldini and courtesan par excellence to the very rich and famous.

The men stand in contemplative silence gazing at the painting each pursuing a different train of thought. Marc Ottavi’s main concern is to establish the provenance of the portrait.  He needs a link tying Boldini to this picture. Taking a notebook and pen from inside his jacket, he records the physical details of the painting – style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions and frame.

That done he then turns the painting to the wall and begins to intently investigate the back of the portrait. He is looking for exhibition marks, gallery labels, dealer stamps in fact, anything that may indicate it’s pedigree.

Meanwhile Olivier has become uncomfortably aware the scent of roses is back in the room. It reminds him of a perfume worn by his grandmother, Guerlains L’Heure Bleue. A zephyr like breeze eddies around the boudoir, agitating the silken curtains framing the French doors and causing the pages of an ancient copy of La Mode Illustree to unfold, almost as if they were being turned by an invisible hand.

Ottavi seemingly impervious to his colleagues uneasiness, steps away from the painting and pockets his notebook. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll make arrangements for the painting to be collected tomorrow. It should be safe here until then.”

Laying a friendly hand on Olivier’s shoulder he continued . “ My apologies for leaving you here but I’m keen to get the research team up and running. We need to establish the portraits provenance. In the meantime, if you would search the flat for anything that may tie Boldini to this painting, a receipt of payment, a business card, anything ! Because without provenance the painting is near worthless. It will be always suspected of being a forgery.”

Olivier understands the importance of establishing provenance. “What does your gut instinct tell you?” he asks his colleague.

Ottavi smiles cautiously, “Oh I think it’s authentic alright. Marthe and he were lovers. It stands to reason he would have painted her at some stage during their affair. She was also a famous beauty, a successful actress and celebrated courtesan. The main reason for concern, there is no record of the painting having ever existed and with an uncatalogued work you’re always behind the eight ball when trying to establish its authenticity.”

The two men shake hands and Marc Ottavi takes his leave, promising to call Olivier first thing in the morning with information regarding the time the painting will be collected.

M. Choppin-Janvry is once again alone in the boudoir. The room looks benign, even cozy with sunshine spilling across the faded, but still beautiful aubusson carpet. The sun’s relentless rays however also cruelly illuminate the decades of inexplicable neglect.

The faint perfume of roses still linger in the air but Olivier barely notices its haunting sweetness. His mind is too much occupied by the monumental task of sifting through the room’s clutter, searching of something that may, or may not exist.

Pulling a Louis chair close to the overflowing bookcase, he ignores the grey cloud of dust that envelops him when his derriere hits the chair’s seat. There is not much point for fastidiousness when the entire room is covered in a pall of powdery dust.

Selecting a book randomly he carefully flicks through it’s pages. It’s not uncommon for people to secret things within the leaves of books but he knows he really is just delaying the inevitable. The enormity of the task that lay ahead, has him seeking distraction.

He chuckles when he sees the books title, Emile Zola’s “Nana”. The classic story of the rise and fall of a celebrated courtesan. An amusing coincidence he supposes.

He begins to read and in moments is lost in the world of gaslight , beautiful women and foolish men. The sunlight retreats and the room begins to fall into deep violet shadow. Its only when he has difficulty seeing the written word does Olivier become aware of time passing.

How long had he been reading? The shadowed room suggests some hours have passed. Consulting his watch he’s appalled to discover its nearing 4.pm He has lost the better part of the afternoon.

Unable to resume his search, for there is no electricity in the apartment to light his way. He decides to pack it in. Calculating an early start tomorrow will make up for the time wasted today.  However, while there is still enough light, he needs to secure the apartment.

Placing the book back on its shelf he stands and starts for the French doors only to be overcome by feelings of intense light-headedness. Had he stood too fast causing the blood to rush from his head? Clutching the back of a chair he attempts to steady himself. The room is a blur, he tries to focus, to bring the wavering lines of the room back to their natural, stoic form.

Its then he hears the whisper of silken skirts or is it just the blood coursing through his ears?  There is movement near the dressing table, the shadows seemingly alter, their nebulous quality becoming more defined, gradually a  recognizable figure materializes out of the penumbra.  It’s the woman from the portrait. There is a translucency, a kind of porosity to her form.

She stands with her back to him . “Marthe ?”  he whispers uncertainly.  She turns slowly, an enigmatic smile seeming to play across her exquisite features. Olivier is calm, although when he speaks his voice is hoarse with emotion. “What do want?” he croaks. The wraith says nothing but simply stands there. Then with languid grace she points to the dressing table draw.

He stumbles toward her, desperately rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. With cleared vision the apparition has suddenly vanished and the room is restored to static normality.

M. Choppin-Janvry slumps against the dressing table he’s acutely conscious of the intoxicating smell of L’heure Bleue filling the room. He feels disoriented and the loss of equilibrium has caused him a slight feeling of nausea.

With fumbling fingers he tries to pry the draw open. Finding it locked he begins searching among the detritus crowding the dressing tabletop. After moments of  frustration he finally unearths from under a pile of what look to be lettres d’amour, a key.

It slides effortlessly into the lock and with a satisfying click the draw is open. Inside are calling cards, jewelry,and neatly bound letters, each bundle tied with different coloured ribbon. But the most intriguing item of all is a book. Across the front of it’s beautiful scarlet morocco binding, in embossed gold is the name “Marthe de Florian”

With great care and mounting excitement he opens the book. It is as he had hoped, a most thrilling discovery for there on the first page, written in hand are the words :

“I wasn’t always known as Marthe de Florian. I began life with the far less aristocratic sounding name of Mathilde Heloise Beaugrion.  My parents, young, carefree and in the first flush of their love for each other, were ill prepared the for the event of my birth in September, 1864.”

He held in his trembling hands the journal of Marthe de Florian.

to be continued……

A GIRL IN THE WINDOW

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I wake to the unfamiliar sound of seagulls and the briny smell of the sea. A moment of confusion. It’s then I realise I’m in Amsterdam.

Kicking free of constraining bed sheets, I make my way to the French door and out on to a small balcony. From there, the roof tops of 17th century Amsterdam stretch before me. A mosaic of differing architecture, from the austere to the baroque. In the distance, dominating the skyline is the imposing bulk of the Westerkerk, the early morning sun adding extra impact to its gilded spire and the Imperial Crown of Austria that sits atop it.

Amsterdammer’s are late to rise. Coffee can’t be found on the street before 8.00 am. That’s true at least of the De Wallen district, where my apartment is situated. I’m staying in Monniken Straat, a narrow cobbled thoroughfare lined either side with small bars, cafes and, of course, Amsterdam’s most notorious denizens, the “Girls in the Windows”. De Wallen is still Amsterdam’s largest red-light precinct but its charming medieval architecture is now attracting a new class of citizen. The bourgeoisie and the trend-setters are slowly reclaiming the charming old houses and turning them into smart apartments or restoring them to their former glory as private dwellings.

Eager to be on the street, I quickly dress and clamour down a long narrow flight of stairs. So steep are its treads, it’s more a ladder than a staircase. The steps lead to the front door which in turn opens directly onto the street. As I step out into the crisp air, a working girl taps against the glass door of her cabin – a signal that she is open for business. I’ve seen her before. She is pretty, with long blonde hair, the bikini clad frame seemingly too frail to support her overlarge breasts. I suspect their pneumatic size owes more to cosmetic enhancement than Mother Nature. But the most arresting thing about her is the life sized tattoo of a python winding sinuously around her slender body, its frightening head with bared fangs coming to rest on her breast; the tattoo’s lurid colouring lending the serpent a startlingly reality.

I wave a greeting to the young woman and continue down the street towards the Nieumarkt. Here, the flower sellers are out in full force, their buckets overflowing with tulips and daffodils. Next to them are the poffertje makers. The sweet smell of pancake batter, burnt sugar and cinnamon fills the air. The coffee shop and cafes are beginning to set up for the morning trade.

My destination: a small cafe in Bethlemstraat where the coffee is sublime and the croissants superb. Perhaps the real reason I like this cosy establishment so much is for the company I find there. No tourists populate its tables; just old men in sailors caps and the occasional lady of the night taking coffee before she heads home to sleep

I push open the cafe door and the welcoming fug of coffee aroma and warm air envelopes me. “The usual?” smiles Remi, her pretty face flushed with exertions of manning the espresso machine. “Yes please”. I feel chuffed with the sense of belonging. There are a couple of regulars already seated taking coffee and perusing newspapers. In the far corner tucked under the steep stairs that lead to a mezzanine floor sits Zelda, neat as pin in her dove grey school uniform. She waves; a shy smile plays across her pretty features.

I find Zelda’s demeanour an intriguing mix of the reserved and the exuberant. Her appearance is a study of restraint, from tightly braided hair to the snowy white ankle socks and gleaming black school shoes. The pale oval face is dominated by intelligent navy blue eyes, so large they save it from conventional prettiness and propel it towards the truly extraordinary.

Zelda and I enjoy a tenuous acquaintance. We have over a period of a few days shared a potted biography of each other’s lives. Zelda is six years old, she likes a vast number of things; among them, dancing, colouring-in books, the colour fuchsia and, of course, dogs. I tell her about Beau in Australia. ”Do you have a picture of him?” she asks, excitedly. I nod and fish from my bag the ubiquitous iPhone.

One morning while enjoying coffee, she tells me Remi is her aunt and that she is also the proprietor of the little cafe in which we are seated. When I tentatively ask about her parents, a shadow extinguishes the bright candour of her eye. I sense an evasiveness and unease in her manner. Mentally, I admonish myself for boorish insensitivity and before I can steer the conversation to a less fraught subject, Zelda confides, ”I have just Momma and Tante Remi. I live with Tante Remi because Momma needs to work”. An awkward silence prevails. Obviously the subject is distressful for Zelda and it’s left to me to manoeuvre the conversation back to safe waters.

I take my usual table by the window. It affords ample opportunity for the enjoyable pastime of people watching. On the street it grows busy. The occasional automobile slowly negotiates the ancient cobbled street, it’s progress hampered by pedestrians, people on bikes and the extreme narrowness of the thoroughfare. The coffee houses that sell marihuana are now open and I know the sweet vaguely sick making miasma of gunga will mix with the salty smell of the canals, making a pungent combination that is peculiarly evocative of Amsterdam.

A young woman catches my eye. She wears a cropped fitted black leather jacket and skinny black jeans, the ends of which disappear into high heeled boots. Huge sunglasses obscure her face as does the brim of the trilby hat perched low on her forehead. In her hands, she carries a large box tied with bright fuchsia pink ribbons. She is coming toward the cafe.

With her entrance, the cafe falls momentarily silent. The woman removes her sunglasses. Dark smudges under eyes suggest tiredness. “Hallo Remi”, her voice slightly hoarse. Remi stays behind the counter, ”Hallo Peta.” I sense a deliberate neutrality, almost a wariness from Remi. The conversation is in Dutch but during the discourse, I hear Zelda’s name mentioned and it occurs to me this young woman maybe Zelda’s mother.

My speculation is proven correct when I hear the woman say to the now standing Zelda “Gelukkige verdaarjag Shat”(Happy birthday Darling). She places the box on the counter top. Zelda looks to her Aunt for guidance but Remi’s attention is deliberately engaged working the espresso machine.

”Hallo momma,” says Zelda, moving into her mother’s embrace. Peta holds her daughter close, she speaks softly, a sibilant whisper, no doubt protestations of love, apologies for promises dishonoured and of new promises yet to be honoured and of assurances that circumstances will change for the better. All the while Zelda says nothing. I can see she has heard it all before and these old incantations have lost their power to move her.

Peta delves into her jean pocket and pulls free a 50 dollar note, she pushes it on to the resisting Zelda. With a final ferocious hug and a hasty goodbye she takes her leave. At the door our eyes meet, there is a flash of sudden recognition. I know her, but from where? And as I watch her walk away, she pauses to straighten the trilby and adjust her sunglasses, the movement causing her jacket to flare open and there exposed in lurid colour the distinctive tattoo of a python’s head. Zelda’s mother is the ”Girl in the Window”.

I look back to find Zelda. She has disappeared. The gaily beribboned package on the counter remains unopened, next to it I notice the 50 dollar note protruding from the charity box . The charity’s recipients ? “ Children in Need”

Happy birthday Zelda!

CATCHING A CAB IN PARIS STINKS, NOT THE DOG POOH

I step out into the cool Paris dawn, my trench coat buttoned high to ward off the intrusive chill of the zephyr like breeze as its eddies along the rue de Malte. It’s 5 am and I wait on the footpath for my taxi to arrive.

Across the cobbled street is a bistro where two waiters are busily placing tables and chairs on a narrow terrace in preparation for the early morning trade. With cigarettes clenched between white teeth they call, ”Bonjour. Ca va.” Their cheerful greetings a stark contrast to the surly non-communicative grunt received from the concierge as he let me out of my hotel, resentful, I suspect, at being summoned from his couch at such an ungodly hour.

It’s been my experience the Parisienne are largely undeserving of their reputation for being unfriendly. I found them mostly courteous and patient with my bumbling attempts to speak school-boy French. If it became too excruciating, they would simply slip into English thus saving me the ignominy of continuing in a language I obviously had no mastery over.

Their sense of style is legendary and to be envied. It applauds individuality and ignores the ordinary and the mediocre. Self-expression is encouraged in all things, be it fashion, furniture or food. That’s not to say everyone is elegant or indeed stylish. I did see the unusual and at times the truly bizarre but even then, these citizens of the Ile de France exude a confidence, a self belief by celebrating their individualism.

Dogs proliferate in Paris. They are seen everywhere. In cinema’s, restaurants, cafes, hotels and bars. I have even seen them, along with their owner of course, alight from taxi’s. The French are obviously made of far sturdier stuff than those of us living in the Antipodes. Our constitution seemingly so sensitive to canine germs, councils and state governments have seen fit to introduce a battery of by-laws to protect us from possible infection. When told, in Australia the law forbids dogs accompanying their owners into a restaurant, cafe or bar, the French exclaim in disbelief, “Ce n’est barbares!! “. (This is barbaric!!)

While the average Parisienne may love their dog, they are not so fond of picking up after them. Dog pooh is a major hazard for the squeamish and for the unsuspecting tourist. The Parisienne usually exercise a remarkable pragmatism when dealing with canine droppings. This was succinctly illustrated to me late one afternoon while seated in a cafe on the rue de Rivoli, enjoying a campari and soda.

From where I sat, I could see the comings and goings from that wonderful bookshop, Galignani’s. Its proud boast being it was the first English bookshop to be established on the continent. A more enjoyable way to spend a few leisurely hours, perusing its overflowing bookshelves, would I think be hard to find.

In front of this venerable bookshop I see a dog and its owner come to a sudden halt .When it becomes evident the dog needs to answer a rather untimely call of nature, its owner quickly pretends urgent business on his mobile phone. In moments, the dog has finished it’s undertaking and the pair hastily move on, leaving behind a rather large and malodorous deposit of dog pooh.

Miraculously, it stays undisturbed for a considerable amount of time. Adults stepped over it and children skirted around it. All is well until an immaculately dressed woman, coming out of Galignan’s, her attention focused on her recent purchase and not on where she is placing her feet, puts her Manolo Blahnik-shod foot right in it.

With enviable élan, Madame calmly steps out of her shoes, taking the shoe befouled with dog mess, she scrapes the excess muck off on the side of the gutter. That done, she delves deep into her Chanel tote and pulls forth a plastic bag containing another pair of shoes. These are quickly slipped on and the dirty shoes are placed in the now vacant plastic bag and discreetly secreted into the Chanel tote. With a spray of perfume she continues on her way apparently unperturbed by messy canines and their inconsiderate owners. A triumph for pragmatism.

I sit in a groovy bar in Le Marais. I order in English, the attractive waiter answers in French. I realize he’s asked me a question. I respond with “Oui “. Not sure what I’ve answered yes to, I soon discover when my drink is delivered. Vodka and Fanta! It’s vodka and soda I wish for.

Soda is all embracing in Paris. Coca-cola, lemonade, fanta, in fact all variations of soft drinks fall under its umbrella. It’s at your peril you order a spirit and soda. You must be specific. Unfortunately soda water is an anomaly in most Paris bars and you’re often given sparkling Evian water instead. Not quite the same.

One morning I take breakfast at a pretty Boulangerie. I’m seated at a long communal table. Two young men, impossibly elegant in trenches and scarves sit opposite. No English from them and no French from me. We find ourselves, as the French would say, “dans une impasse “. We make do with eloquent shrugs and apologetic smiles.

Meanwhile back on the footpath it’s turned 5.15. My taxi is late. It was ordered for 5am. I become anxious. What to do? Summon the concierge? He is already grumpy at having his sleep disturbed so it’s with reluctance I push the hotel bell. Minutes pass and just as I’m about to ring again I hear an irritable “Oui?” The concierge stands on a small balcony above me. ”Pardon Monsieur, but my taxi is late. I ordered it for 5am. Would you please ring the company and ask where my driver is”. A look of impatience causes his mouth to turn downward and his eyes upward, ”They will come” he shrugs offhandedly. My Anglo Saxon sensibilities are alarmed by his Gallic insouciance.

”That maybe Monsieur, but I have a aeroplane to catch and I don’t want to be late”. With a shuddering sigh he moves back inside. I can hear him speaking on the telephone. Moments later he is back on the balcony. ”You order it for 6am!” he cries triumphantly.

Before I can protest the contrary, I hear a voice from behind me call out in French. It’s one of the waiters from across the way. They have stopped work and now enter into a spirited discourse with the concierge. A volley of French sails back and forth. I try to interject and demand a new taxi be called. But to no avail, it falls on deaf ears.

It’s then I realize there are old rivalries at work between the waiters and the concierge. My predicament has become a vehicle for the waiters to score a point or two against an old foe, Monsieur the Concierge. The spirited verbiage continues back and forth. I am forgotten and all the while time marches exorably on. My anxiety at missing my flight reaches fever pitch. Finally I can bare it no longer.

”Monsieur! Monsieur!” I cry, passionately trying to interject. My blood at boiling point I angrily resort to using the one Anglo Saxon expletive that enjoys universal understanding. ”Monsieur, call another f*%#…. taxi now!!” My outburst silences all parties. The waiters melt away, quietly returning to their duties. Monsieur the Concierge assumes a look of offended hauteur.Using calm and measured accents not unlike one might use when dealing with a deranged person, he says,” But of course Monsieur. I do it right away”. He then closes the shutters with a decisive click  but not before I hear him mutter “ Que pouvez-vous attendre de I’Australie? Sublime Vulgarite.“ Suitably chastened, I’m left waiting for my taxi, alone, in the cold Parisian dawn.

THE CAT’S OUT OF THE BAG !

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The young woman sits alone, oblivious to the milling crowd around her. At her feet is a cabin bag. Articles of clothing protrude from its various compartments. Evidence of packing and a departure made in haste.

Enormous eyes in a pale face accentuated by smudged mascara caused no doubt by the tears that continue to run freely down her cheeks.

In her hand, she clutches a mobile phone, her fingers working furiously at the keys. A young woman in obvious distress. I take the vacant chair beside her, open my novel and begin to read – at least effect to do so.

It’s not until after some moments that I become aware, an elderly gentleman, seated opposite is gesturing to me. It seems my book is upside down. I quickly correct the oversight and nod my thanks. He grins and winks knowingly, alert to my intentions.

Clearly, he too is also a passionate observer of people and their foibles.

The young woman continues to punch viciously at the keys of her phone, at the same time impatiently wiping the tears from her eyes. Mascara is now in streaks across her face, giving it a rather alarming resemblance to Heath Ledger in his portrayal of the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight”.  Small children begin to stare unabashedly, while their parents urge them forward and away from the potential embarrassment.

She mutters under breath and stops texting. Some moments pass and then the tell-tale “beep” indicating a response to her message. I’m compelled to abandon the pretense of reading and watch openly for her reaction. Tear-filled eyes lock with mine: not good news I fear.

“She has taken him from me.” she finally cries.

Her pain is palpable. Does she expect me to respond? Do good manners dictate I ignore her comment and pretend deafness or is that too cowardly?

I suddenly feel an overwhelming sympathy for her. Who hasn’t at one point experienced the awful realization of unrequited love and the associated heartache.

Before I can offer feeble solace the final call for Virgin Flight DJ932 to Sydney is announced, effectively breaking the tension of the moment and our eye contact. She reaches for her handbag, consults a small compact mirror for damage done to her maquillage, hastily wipes away streaked mascara, powders her nose and reapplies lipstick.

That done, she gathers her belongings, turns to me and says : “So sorry for the outburst.”

“That’s ok. Problems?” I enquire soothingly.

“I’m very upset with my scheming sister. She stolen my Benjy!”

“Oh I see. It’s very upsetting to lose your boyfriend.”

“My boyfriend?. I don’t have one to lose,” she says dismissively, slinging her hand bag over her shoulder.

“No Benjy is my cat and it’s so typically of my sister to pinch him off Mum. I’ve only just left him with her, but my sister couldn’t wait to get her hands on him.  I haven’t even left Cairns yet!”

“Oh … So unfair. Not to mention premature,” I managed to say in neutral accents, careful not  to betray my sense of the absurd by laughter.

With that she is gone: swallowed up by the crowd gathering at gate 2. I hear a chuckle from across the aisle. The elderly gentleman has witnessed the entire exchange and obviously derived immense pleasure from it.

I return to my novel with studied dignity, ensuring this time it is the right way up. I consciously avoid his twinkling eyes for I suspect he’s not laughing with me but more likely at me.

I’m sure it is not so much the woman’s parting comments but more my surrender to vulgar curiosity that’s excited his sense of hilarity.

It suddenly occurs to me, the observer has become the observed.

I do wish they would call my flight. Some people are so intrusive!

POSEIDON IS STILL GOD IN THE AGEAN

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A few years ago, while holidaying in the Greek Islands, I received some sound travel advice – a kindness I’ve never forgotten – from a charming Italian called Giovanni. It was at the end of a month long stay in Mykonos and I was planning a brief visit to the Island of Santorini before coming home to Brisbane.

It had been a glorious summer holiday, with long days spent lazing in the sun, swimming in the startlingly clear, cobalt blue waters of the Aegean Sea, and enjoying languorously protracted lunches of fresh seafood, washed down with a locally produced white wine – it’s dry, slightly astringent flavour an invigorating surprise on the tongue not unlike when the sea connects with skin already tingling from sunburn.

It was at one of these lunches that Giovanni turned to me and said, “Antonio, you mustn’t fly into Santorini. On your first visit, you must always arrive by sea. Flying is so boring, so ordinarie,” his attractive Italian accent lending a heightened glamour to the opinion.

Raising a glass of wine, he smiles, his teeth strikingly white against the deep tan of his complexion, “You will see how magical it is sailing into the great Caldera. Come with us on my boat. There is room for you.”

I demur eloquently. After all, our acquaintance at best, can only be described as succinct in its tenure; my remonstrations, more a nod to good manners than any authentic desire not to be part of Giovanni’s coterie of circumnavigators. Giovanni waves aside my protestations and it is settled: I am to meet them on the morrow at the village port of Tourlos.

Our glasses chink in celebration, I smile, perhaps in acknowledgment of Giovanni’s undoubted charm and generosity but even more for his suggestion that I should sail and not fly to Santorini. Any alternative to flying is always welcome.

And so it came to pass, the next day in the indigo light of early dawn, I along with five other guests find ourselves boarding Giovanni’s gleaming white cruiser the “Belle Helene”.

In the luxuriously appointed main cabin, breakfast was being served, hot coffee, pastries, fresh fruit and greek yogurt. Champagne was available for those confident their sea legs would stand them in good stead even with the warning of choppy seas ahead.

The sun was still low on the horizon when the “Belle Helene” broke free from the picturesque port of Mykonos. Leaving behind the gleaming white adobe buildings and its tranquil waters the cruiser’s elegant prow turns toward the rolling swell of open seas.

The cruiser, inspite of buffeting winds and contrary seas, gave smooth passage and only those voyageurs who braved the bow deck were made aware of the choppy conditions, while inside the luxurious cabin it remained cosseted and calm.

Lunchtime found the party still in high spirits and ready to swim in the sheltered waters of the pretty bay of Paros.

We had made good time and if Giovanni’s prediction that the winds would die down proved correct, we would enter the Caldera of Santorini by late afternoon . “Plenty of time to scale the towering walls of the old volcano and watch the sun sink into the sea,” says Giovanni.

Santorini is a large crescent shaped Island. It, along with the smaller islands of Therasia and Nea Kameni, are all that remains of a once much larger land mass. These islands form the rim of an ancient volcano.

The wind has abated just as Giovanni predicted and the sea is now glassy in it’s stillness. A lethargy has taken hold of the party, the result of too much sun and over exertion in the bay of Paros.

Giovanni announces we are close to entering the vast lagoon of the caldera. A suppressed excitement invigorates the group and we gather on deck for better viewing.

The air is eerily still and suddenly a diaphanous mist begins to appear almost as if rising from the sea itself. And as we move steadily through the water, the fog gains such a viscosity as to render visibility less than a few meters.

Giovanni assures me this phenomenon is not unusual at this time of year and that the mist would lift almost as fast as it descended.

I still feel a degree of disquiet for we are in the world of ancient Gods. Gods that take a mischievous delight in playing with the lives of mere mortals. There is something about Greek Islands that causes you to believe Poseidon, the God of the sea, is always close by.

A  zephyr like breeze starts to stir the thin fabric of my shirt. It slowly builds momentum and the mist begins to move and shift.

The breeze grows more determined and with increasing precipitancy, the mist begins to shred and disappear like wraiths into the atmosphere.

Suddenly, there surrounding us, rising majestically out of the cobalt blue waters of the caldera, are the towering basalt cliffs of Santorini. And perched atop these monumental edifices looking like snow on a mountain top are the towns of Oia and Thira.

It is breathtakingly beautiful and I’m convinced, as has often been suggested, this Island could  well be the birthplace of the legendary magical city Atlantis.

Giovanni comes to stand beside me, giving me a glass of champagne he says, “What do you think? Is it not magnifico?” I nod my head in complete agreement. “ You know Giovanni, you were right, arriving by sea is magical. To have arrived by airplane, would have been just ordinarie !

We raise our glasses. “Salute Antonio.” “Cheers Giovanni.”

ON THE NOSE IN CATTLE CLASS

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The hardest thing I find about planning a holiday is having the wherewithal to actually go online and book a flight. I think my procrastination is due to the dislike I have of flying itself.

Not because I fear the plane falling from the sky or being propelled through the stratosphere  in a machine that’s fashioned from little more than tin-foil and plastic. A flying cigar case as it were.

No, it’s the tedium of having to face the rigmarole of airport security and deal with with the ever increasing numbers of the ‘great unwashed’ who use air travel as their preferred means of transport.

I make no apologies to those whose sensibilities are so refined they find  the above statement offensive. Instead, I would invite them  to cast a discerning eye over the vulgarity that is fast becoming the majority of the airborne public.

Once on a flight out of Singapore, I sat next to a young man wearing board shorts, rubber thongs and a T-Shirt. “What’s wrong with that?” I hear you ask. After all, it was 32 degrees outside and with the humidity at a debilitating 90%, why would he wear anything else?

Our destination just happened to be Amsterdam. And when I consulted my iPhone for an update on the weather expected for our arrival, it said we were to anticipate a balmy minus 1 degree! We were flying into a brutal European winter.

When I drew his attention to the shocking disparity between his mode of dress and the alarmingly inadequate protection it offered against the vagaries of a freezing Dutch winter, his response can be only described as brave, if not, in my opinion, foolhardy.

“She’ll be fine mate. If it’s brass monkey weather, I’ll just chuck on the wet suit,“ he boldly proclaimed. The  broad flattened vowels revealing he obviously “still calls Australia home.” I’m confused and having no suitable riposte, nor indeed any clear idea how a wet suit would help with his dilemma. Perhaps used as a pair of long-johns. I  smile apologetically and seek refuge in my book.

While I’m prepared to overlook inappropriate dress – although it has to be said, boarding an international flight wearing apparel more seemly for the beach is quite discombobulating – I can’t employ an equal sans souci approach towards personal hygiene.

The reality of modern air travel is it’s relatively inexpensive and as a consequence, the airlines pack us in as one would sardines in a can. More often than not, you’re sharing a space with a perfect stranger in proximity more intimate than if you were sharing a bed with them!

And if that person is less than particular regards personal hygiene, you find an already uncomfortable situation made so much worse by the presence of acrid and pervasive body odour. Should anybody begin a journey already ‘on the nose’, you can imagine how hellish it is for the poor soul seated next to them during an extended twelve hour flight.

My friend Hebe is quite dismissive of such niceties. “Darling, the solution is obvious. Travel first class“. This magniloquent observation from Hebe quite puts my teeth on edge. In fact, it makes me so angry my cheeks hurt.

But before I can present a compelling argument, Hebe is quick to deflect any boring bleatings about affordability, by interjecting with the helpful suggestion, “Just take a sleeping tablet, perhaps two, with a vodka soda. In ten minutes you’ll be out like a light.”

I protest: “I can’t do that! You know how alcohol and barbiturates cause me to snore. So explosive is my breathing, I would disturb the entire cabin.”

“Darling, if you’re travelling companions are, as you say, smelly, badly dressed vulgarities, I suspect they shouldn’t mind in the least!”.

There are few occasions when Hebe’s teases don’t elicit a laugh and while I appreciate the joke I can’t help but feel a trifle envious at her expectation that one ought to travel First Class or not at all.

I, of course, can’t entertain such lofty ideals, for to do so would mean always having to stay at home.

So for me at least, the excitement of contemplating an overseas travel is always tempered by the awfulness of using air travel as the modus operandi to arrive at my holiday destination.