Marthe de Florian as painted by Giovanni Boldini
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 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……
Hebe is always late. It’s a constant source of tension between us. Today it’s been arranged we should meet at a café in the Village. Even though I have timed my arrival fifteen minutes later than the appointed time, Hebe is, as usual still yet to arrive.
Then I see her – a tall willowy figure, striding through “The Great Unwashed” toward me. She wears a metallic-coloured Sass and Bide tunic that falls in soft folds just past her waist, longs legs encased in skinny black jeans and on her feet are gravity defying Christian Louboutin mules.
Hebe is indeed beautiful. At fifteen paces, she could be mistaken for thirty. At close quarters she looks a youthful forty. A definite compliment when you take into account she celebrated her 60th birthday last march.
“Darling, so sorry I’m late.” she leans forward, kissing the air either side of my cheeks in the European manner.
I’ve learnt from past experience not to press for any explanation. Hebe subscribes to the maxim “never explain and never complain.” Instead, I ignore her tardiness and offer to buy her coffee. “That would be lovely,” she responds graciously.
Bad feelings avoided, we arrange our chairs either side of the table, facing out, thus allowing the best view of the passing crowd. It’s become a habit for us to meet on Sunday mornings; to catch up on each others news but, more importantly, to indulge our passion for people watching.
It’s not long before I feel a sharp kick from beneath the table. Hebe draws my attention to a cyclist dismounting his delicate machine. He is a tall man, past his prime but still enjoying a certain vigor due to past athleticism. His body is large, tending towards plumpness, meaty muscular thighs and a heavy bottom.
That in itself isn’t a crime but to have the before-mentioned body squeezed into puce green and purple lycra is, at the very least, an offence against good taste.
“The indignities to which lycra is subjected.” I hear Hebe murmur from behind her coffee cup. Avoiding her eye so as not to succumb to laughter, I opine, “Well at least he is exercising.”
‘That Darling, I applaud, but to do it in such a conspicuous manner? Clothes do not maketh the man and , in this instance, they certainly don’t make the sportsman”.
It’s then I remember, Hebe isn’t fond of cyclists, having been run over by one speeding at great velocity along the Riverwalk. It wasn’t so much the sprained ankle she resented but more the broken heel of her favourite Jimmy Choo’s.
Of course, the incident did leave Hebe with a somewhat jaundiced opinion regarding most bike riders. She has been heard to say: “I resent them as a pedestrian and as a driver of a vehicle. They are neither fish nor fowl. On the footpath one moment, then on the road the next. It’s as if they consider themselves exempt from the law.”
When it was bravely suggested that perhaps more of us should take to bikes and lessen our carbon footprint. Hebe’s response was mischievous: “The human species enjoys a great many sterling qualities but, collectively, restraint isn’t one of them. I suspect we shall go the way of the dinosaur, despite our valiant efforts to avoid doing so. As for your suggestion we should all hop on a bike to help save the planet, consider the exacerbating effect the collective flatulence of all those bike riders will exert on global warming.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting bike riders are more prone to wind than anyone else?” expostulates her inquisitor. Hebe smiles broadly her eyes dance with merriment. I can see she is enjoying the tease tremendously.
“Darling, have you ever been downwind of a group of cyclist as they endeavor to climb Teneriffe Hill ” It would be foolhardy to light a match in any proximity such is the level of methane they’ve generated.”
The corpulent cyclist has finished his coffee and returns to his bike. Obviously impatient to continue the ride, he quickly straps the helmet to his head, swings his leg over the slender bike frame and settles his large derriere on the narrow seat, enveloping it entirely with lycra clad flesh.
“Good Lord ! says Hebe, almost choking on her coffee. “Forget about the indignities done to lycra. It’s nothing compared to that experienced by the poor bike seat.”
Coffee done, I walk with Hebe to her car. A young cyclist passes us, his muscular legs and buttocks pumping the pedals with effortless rhythm.
“You see, Darling? That’s how lycra should be worn,” says Hebe. “He reminds me of the Bette Midler joke about the onion and the donkey.”
“What joke is that?” I ask.
“What do you get when you cross a donkey with and onion?”
“I have no idea, ‘ I respond dutifully.
“Well Darling, most of the time you get an onion with very long ears but, occasionally, just once in a blue moon , you can be lucky enough to get a little piece of ass that makes eyes water.”
I’ve just arrived back in Brisbane. It’s been two wonderful weeks in Bali. The six hour flight leaves me feeling groggy and irritable.
In the taxi heading home, I sit glumly, staring out the window, sunglasses obscuring my eyes, my down-turned mouth testimony to the onset of post-holiday blues. Our Indian driver, handsome in a spotless turban, fiddles with the dial of the car radio in search no doubt of an audible radio station. The loud crackling of static only further exacerbates my irritability.
At last, he settles for the soothing though unctuous voice of an ABC news reader. My attention is caught by his words ”Toowoomba floods “. I focus on the menifluous tones of the news reader and his almost dispassionate delivery of news so shocking I can’t at first absorb its devastating enormity.
I hear the portent of tragedy. After a day of torrential rain, a wall of water – an inland tsunami if you will – tears through the city centre of Toowoomba, sweeping everything before it. People going about their everyday business are suddenly confronted by a ferocious wave of mud-red water, biblical in its proportions and fury. A mother and child swept to their deaths, while others more fortunate, cling desperately to tree branches, car roofs or anything that will enable them to a survive the onslaught of this cataclysmic cataract. How is this possible? Toowoomba is 700m above sea level and has no real river to speak of.
My becoming aware of this news is made all the more shocking for that same flood of water,8m in height, continues its rampage and plunges over the Toowoomba range down into the Lockyer Valley. It’s fast and furious momentum, devastating small towns and villages that stand haplessly in its path. Lives are lost. People are missing.
I open the door to my house, the musty smell of dampness assails me, It’s been closed up for 2 weeks. For the same period of time, almost constant rain. Fresh air will quickly dispel the miasma of abandonment and neglect. A quick reconnoitre of the refrigerator and pantry reveals the lack of victuals. Supplies are needed; a trip to the village is in order.
In Coles, it’s absolute bedlam. Panic reigns. Row upon row of empty shelves. No bottled water to be had. People push shopping trolley’s laden high with provisions; enough I suspect to last much longer than Noah’s flood of 40 days and 40 nights. I’m here merely for bread, eggs and milk. I leave with a side of smoked salmon, yogurt and chocolate. At Cibo, while tossing back a restorative coffee, I’m urged to prepare for the worst; the floodwater is expected to go higher than ‘74 flood. In the village, shops are closing and proprietors busily sandbag their doorways.
At home the telephone rings.It’s my sister Susan: “Do you think you should leave?’ I can hear my mother’s worried voice in the back ground: ”Tell Tony I’m not letting that little dog go back to New Farm!” Beau has been staying with my parents while I holidayed in Bali. Susan and I manage a momentary laugh. “It’s comforting to know Mum is more concerned for the welfare of dog than her only Son,” I opine. We exchange goodbyes, with assurances from me everything will be fine.
My friend Rod arrives with a shovel and conspicuous energy. He wants to help sandbag my garage door and move everything up and out of harm’s way. ”Go away.” I say, tiredness causing petulance. ”I’m not moving anything out of the garage. If flood waters should get that high, the whole of New Farm is under”. Never-the-less I find myself shovelling sand into plastic bags as the sun burns the back of my neck. So I help him load his car with bulging sand bags. He is off to help another mate in Bulimba, a far more appreciative recipient of his boundless energy and helpfulness than I.
That night after a solitary dinner of smoked salmon and chocolate, I fall into a fitful sleep. During the night I’m woken by my neighbours’ hushed conversations. They keep vigil, watching the floodwaters steadily rise. I return to the embrace of Morpheus comforted by the knowledge, should Armageddon arrive, they will sound the alarm.
Wednesday, 5.00 am.
It’s begun! I make my way to New Farm Park. The Brisbane River, usually placid, is now a raging torrent, fast and furious. It’s boundaries, new and unfamiliar, made all the more frightening for that. I see a child’s wooden cubby-house, looking very much like a house boat, sweep past; along with parts of pontoons and garden furniture. Water bubbles up though the storm drains like a fountain and the corner of Sydney and Brunswick streets are soon submerged under cafe au lait coloured water. The sunshine is promising a new day and a beautiful one at that, an incongruity really, as we wait in trepidation for the devastation of flood water that will follow.
The village is deserted and I’m at a loss at what do for coffee. I try the French Patisserie. It’s open but in the short time it takes to buy coffee and a pastry, Brunswick street has become a lake. People gather to marvel. An atmosphere that is almost party-like, prevails.
At home in Lower Bowen Terrace, I find my neighbours worriedly observing the water frothing from the storm water drain at the back of our garden. It inches forward with slow determination. The festive atmosphere gives way to concern, at least for the elderly. They have been here before in ’74 and respect absolutely, the power of an old foe: the Brisbane River in full flood.
I stand with a group of my neighbours and watch as the water continues to steadily rise. The back garden resembles a billabong. While looking bizarrely picturesque, the smell would suggest raw effluent is now part of the soupy mix of river silt and rotting vegetation. Number 7’s garage is under water and the flood inexorably makes its way into the garage of Number 6 . Peak tide has come and the muddy water is now inching towards Number 5. I’m Number 3 and further up the hill. Surely it won’t reach that far! The ultimate flood height predicted to be a further 1.5 meters higher than it is now, and to arrive at 4.00am tomorrow. I begin to regret my cavalier refusal of sandbags and Rod’s help.
The power is cut. I face a night without lights and no electricity to recharge my mobile. A text arrives from Hebe, ”Darling! How fare you? Join me I’m at Tina’s on her pontoon.. bring something to drink … you’ll know everyone” A party in progress it would seem. I text back, “No thank you … a little too like, Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns for me..but in this case while Brisbane sinks”. Hebe’s response, “Get a grip Darling…why so priggish? … nothing to do now except wait .. and appreciate the value of good champers “.
Thursday 3.30 am
I wake disorientated, a different bed and an unfamiliar room. I’d decided, in the absence of my essential utilities, to spend the night at Rod’s house. He’s conveniently fled the city! Unable to sleep, I get dressed. A sense of urgency prevails. I want to get back to New Farm. Had the flood reach it’s predicted zenith? As I approach the city, I become aware of the stench, a horrible cocktail of earth, rotting vegetation and the unmistakable stink of effluent. Slowly I make my way down Lower Bowen Terrace. As I turn into my drive, the car lights arc downward, illuminating the drive and the encroaching flood water. Had my little house been spared? Yes! Yes it had! My relief almost palpable.
The peak of danger has arrived. And passed with equal anticlimax; at least as far as my humble abode is concerned. I am movingly conscious that others will not be similarly unscathed.
I answer my mobile and the voice on the other end is Hebe’s: ”Darling, the Riverwalk gone!
”Gone? What do you mean it’s gone? Don’t tell me they actually blew it up!” my gut tight with disbelief and, most surprisingly, grief, I loved that Riverwalk. I’m not alone.
”No Darling the river was just too strong for it and it just broke up. A great piece of it is being manoeuvred out to sea by a brave tug boat Captain as we speak”.
”Oh Hebe thats the end of it then. They will never build it again” I say despondently. “Darling don’t be sad. Of course it will be rebuilt,” says Hebe ever the optimist.’ “Campbell has no choice but to rebuild. The whole success of those bloody useless hire bikes depend on it. No-one will tackle that hill travelling into the city, especially on those clunkers!”
- What to do before, during, and after a flood (smartsign.com)
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!
- Holiday in Amsterdam (raymondegast.wordpress.com)
- I Amsterdam (hopelesswanderer1.wordpress.com)
- Amsterdam, Netherlands- June 2013 (passportsandcoffee.com)
- Prostitution in the Netherlands: ‘Paying for sex? It’s strictly business’ (theguardian.com)
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.
- French cafe charges rude customers more (telegraph.co.uk)
- Taxi !!! Our top tips on hailing cabs around the globe (arrangementsabroad.wordpress.com)
- Venez avec moi, monsieur – the restaurant where looks decide your seat (telegraph.co.uk)
- La Parisienne (jrenaebux.wordpress.com)
My friend Hebe is never shy when admitting she has “work” done: “Darling it takes more than good genes and water to look this good at my age.”
She is right. Hebe looks fantastic. At sixty, her skin looks plump with a youthful dewiness. Her body, voluptuous yet slim, is the envy of women half her age. Hebe is indeed fortunate in being a beautiful woman and she uses the discreet cosmetic procedures to maintain her beauty rather than try to create or alter her good looks in a dramatic way.
Many famous and beautiful women have approached cosmetic surgery with far less discretion than Hebe, often with disastrous results. Their sad stories are endlessly recounted in magazines and on television.
Cosmetic unguents and procedures have been with us throughout history. Some women ( and men ) have been foolhardy, to say the least, in the pursuit of preserving or enhancing their beauty, often destroying the very thing they sought to preserve: not only their looks but in many instances their health.
So, over a lunch of delicious crab salad and a bottle of dry white wine. I proceed to regale Hebe with stories of known exemplars of the art manicured excess……
Diane de Poitiers, a renaissance woman of great beauty and powerful intellect, who became mistress to Henri ll of France, a man twenty years her junior. To preserve her beauty she drank large quantities of liquid gold. This beauty elixir , she believed, would keep her youthful and therefore strengthen her hold on the much younger King. When her body was exhumed in 2009, it was discovered that high levels of gold were stored in her hair and body tissue. It’s now believed that Diane’s beauty elixir may have killed her.
“Darling, the woman was sixty six years old when she died and she outlived the King,” Hebe protests. “I’d say the elixir was a success when you consider the average life span in the fifteenth century was thirty five. Do you think she was the original cougar ?” I ignore her flippancy and continue my discourse.
Two centuries later, the beautiful Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth with their flawless beauty and the machinations of indefatigable Mama, managed to leave the peat bogs of Ireland and take London society by storm. The beautiful Misses Gunning parlayed their considerable beauty into advantageous marriages: Elizabeth to the Duke of Hamilton and Maria to the Earl of Coventry. It was Maria whose star shone the brightest.
Many considered Maria the more beautiful of the two. She was mobbed whenever she appeared in Hyde Park, her manner of dress much emulated by high-born ladies as well as those of the lower classes,. The Paris Hilton of her day?
Hebe laughs, choking on her dry white: ” That’s hardly a recommendation. Did she come to a tragic end?” I nod. She took to applying a thick white powder over her pretty complexion and rouging her cheeks to a hectic vermilion.
We would consider it an absurd look today but it was thought to be unbelievably stylish by Maria and her contemporary’s. Unfortunately the make-up was lead base; it’s noxious effects causing skin eruptions and finally death from blood poisoning, Maria died at twenty seven, a victim of her cosmetics.
Hebe is silent. Not, I suspect from the lack of something to say but more from having her mouth crammed with crab salad. I continue.
Gladys Deacon, the exquisitely beautiful Bostonian heiress, unhappy with a slight dip near the bridge of her nose, decided to inject paraffin wax into the offending hollow. It’s the early 1900s. Not the most enlightened time for experimenting with injectables but Gladys is willful and she obsessed with the imperfection of her profile. The procedure is carried out with devastating results. Her beauty is destroyed. The paraffin wax is unstable. Obeying the laws of gravity, it leaves the dip where it was placed and travels to Gladys’ jaw, forming a large disfiguring lump.
Years later the diarist, Chips Channon tells the story of having visited Gladys at Blenheim Palace. Gladys, by then was the Duchess of Marlborough having, despite her disfigurement, married extremely well. It is winter and the vast opulent rooms of Blenheim are very cold. They sit close to an open fire and, while they chat, Chips observes Gladys holding her face very near the fire and with long fingers, slowly manipulates the softening wax beneath her skin into a more acceptable shape.
Hebe reflects on these snippets of history; “Darling. So sad and bleak. Those poor women. Is it a cautionary tale?”
“Yes I suppose it is, “I respond, somewhat pointedly. “Does it worry you that you inject your face with poison and hyaluronic acid?” I ask.
Hebe smiles: “Darling I’m sixty years old. It’s living that worries me more than dying and if a little Botox or restalyne makes it easier, then I’m all for it”.
- No Distancing Oneself From the Familiar Odour of Guilt (offtherecordbytonyjones.wordpress.com)