Good morning, monsieur RoussinBy Neil BISSOONDATH Sofitel Scribe Paris Opéra
So, ma belle, is your little machine switched on? Ah yes, I see the blinking red light. You ready? Well then, you want to know why I decided all those years ago – Oh my, I’d rather not work out how many! – so let’s just say a very long time ago, why I decided to leave the City of Lights and come live in this town where we freeze our buns off six months of the year. But where does this curiosity come from? Why ask me these questions? To keep me occupied? To make me forget, if only for a little while, these legs that are now too worn out to obey my will?
But the reality is there, ma p’tite, in front of your eyes and beneath my backside, this wheelchair that makes my life so difficult in winter that I sometimes dream, for the first time since I arrived in this country of heavy snows, of going back home to France, finding myself a little spot in the south where I could get around as I wish all year long. I said “dream” but it’s really a fantasy, it’s too late. Everybody’s dead and the old country’s no longer my old country, the country of my youth that was pummeled by events you had to survive because they were too dangerous to live.
No, no, be patient, ma belle . At your age, I was impatient too, ready to do anything to fulfill my goals. I’ve learnt that it’s better to wait. Otherwise you run the risk of… In any case, I’ve been living for a very long time in this country that has become mine, far from the one where I was born. Even my language has changed somewhat. I’ve learned to use certain words I didn’t know, words such as… No, no, I won’t allow myself to pronounce them in your presence… They’re a little… strong, let’s say.
You know them all? Yes, I imagine you do. These days, with your ideas of equality and all that, a woman’s got to master rather sharp language. Still, I won’t let myself go there. Let me give you a more innocuous example. Thanks to you and the sports you played as a teenager, football has become soccer for me. Not that there’s a big difference – they’re both English words, aren’t they? I retain some traces of my Parisian accent? You think so? When I speak, my ear doesn’t pick up any accent but it doesn’t matter.
Hey, you haven’t yet answered my question. Where does this curiosity come from? For your doctoral thesis in history? You’re already at university? But you were born yesterday! I’ll never forget the day I became a grandfather for the first time. It was snowing, a massive snowstorm. Your grandmother swore it was a sign of your character. Was she right? Are you a tempestuous woman?
Calm down, ma belle, calm down…
Okay then, on we go. To answer your question, I’ll begin one lovely morning in August, 1944. I no longer remember the exact date but it was a few days after the liberation of Paris, which was on the 25 th . That morning, I was at my job as usual, baggage handler at the Scribe, a great Paris hotel. You know it? You’ve been to Paris, haven’t you? Surely you visited the Opera, it’s just a block away. Anyway, that morning I made a mistake when greeting one of the thousands of war correspondents who had arrived with the Allied forces. A few days before, such a mistake would have cost me my life. But before telling you about it… You think I’m avoiding your questions? Come on now! You’ve got to understand one thing. Heading straight for the goal is not one of my talents – except when it came to women but I won’t tell you about that, ma p’tite, it’s hardly a proper subject of conversation between grandfather and grand-daughter. I’m going to ask you to listen to me without interrupting. Not a question, not a comment. If the phone rings, let it ring, that’s why we have an answering machine. Agreed? Take a breath. You’re becoming redder than your sweater, it’s not healthy. I repeat: Agreed? Good. Just a little sip of water and then I’ll continue.
So, where was I? Ah yes, the Scribe. Even though I was working in a grand hotel, I was living in a room that I rented in a rundown house in another area not far away, close enough that I could still walk to work even when the weather wasn’t good. One evening after a long day of work, I was resting up my tired feet in my room, a pot of insipid soup – water, salt, a few pieces of vegetables and greasy meat, don’t ask what kind, I have no idea – slowly heating on my gas stove. I was feeling a little down. On the walk back, I’d come across a horrific scene. Close to the house, two young men who’d been shot by the Germans were lying on the sidewalk in a large pool of blood. German soldiers were standing around the bodies, smoking cigarettes and chatting about what they were going to be doing later. One of them was talking enthusiastically about a cabaret show he’d seen the day before.
Stop right there! I said no questions! Oh, I see, okay. No, they weren’t speaking French. The Germans had requisitioned the Scribe, you see, along with the other grand hotels, and there were lots of them around. I’d picked up enough of their language to get the gist of what they were saying. This young soldier was going on about the exquisite breasts of the girls which, given the situation, disconcerted me and I inadvertently stepped into my compatriots’ blood. At home, it took me a good half-hour of hard work to clean my shoes. Blood is worse than dog shit, almost impossible to rub out completely. I was determined to make the smell go away. I had only one pair of shoes and dragging this stink to the Scribe was out of the question. So I was sitting on my bed, a little sad, a little anxious, tired, hungry despite everything, when someone knocked at my door. Thinking it was the owner who had mail for me, perhaps a letter from my parents in Bordeaux, I got up and opened the door to find my younger sister Marie-Louise, who everybody called Zizi, standing there. Elizabeth, my older sister, had left for England just before the Germans entered Paris. Her husband was a Spanish refugee who’d fled his country after the civil war and remaining in occupied France wouldn’t have been good for his health.
Hold on, ma p’tite, I know what you’re going to ask: No, I don’t know where Elizabeth ended up, I didn’t look for her after the war and she never came back. In a world at war, there are all kinds of consequences and you’ve got to learn to live with your losses. But Zizi had stayed with our parents and now suddenly there she was, without warning, standing in my doorway. I let her in and, without even offering her a seat, peppered her with questions. I admit it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes. My life wasn’t easy and finding myself responsible for my sister didn’t thrill me. Still, she was my little sister. As a child, she’d followed me everywhere and I’d protected her with all the pride of an older brother. My first reaction quickly gave way to happiness at finding myself with her once more. Her presence somewhat lightened the weight of my solitude in this occupied Paris where you had to think twice before speaking. She calmly answered all my questions. To make a long story short, our parents were well, Bordeaux was boring and she was looking for a more exciting life.
Our parents had grudgingly accepted her decision to come join me in Paris. She assured me she had no intention of depending on me but hoped I could put her up for a few days while she looked for a job and a place to live.
Of course, it was out of the question. My room was tiny and with the small bed, small table and rickety chair, there was hardly enough space to move around. I shared my soup and baguette
with her – she retrieved a block of cheese and a bottle of our father’s wine from her suitcase – and, after having eaten, we went to see the owner to find out if he had a room available.
Unfortunately the place was full but Monsieur Légaré was a kind man. He was in his forties and had lost his wife a few years before to a voracious cancer. It was clear – I could see it in his eyes – that the charms of my twenty-year-old sister didn’t leave him indifferent. With her jet-black hair, green eyes just like yours and her dynamic personality, Zizi was, everyone agreed, the beauty of the family.