I don’t suppose there is anything on earth to compare with a French student cafe in the late morning. You couldn’t possibly reproduce the same numbers, noise, and intensity anywhere else without producing a riot as well.
This time he really took in my outfit and then that Look that I’m always encountering; that special one composed in equal parts of amusement, astonishment and horror came over his face.
A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.
I felt my attention wandering off. It generally does at the phrase ‘mere child’. It generally wanders off to see if it can’t find some really lurid thought that would shock the pants off the other person, if he only knew.
I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.
I was determined that for once, for just once in my life, when I went to those readings, I would be wearing the ‘right’ thing. The right thing in this case had to be something general; something that wouldn’t type me. To my chagrin, I found all my clothes stubbornly resisting this desired neutrality, splitting themselves resolutely up into three categories: Tyrolean Peasant, Bar Girl, and Dreaded Librarian. It looked hopeless.
I had always assumed that a certain sense of identity would be strong enough within me to communicate itself to others. I now saw this assumption was false. Tout implement, in a tarts’ bar, I looked like a tart.
It always made me sad to see that there were so many unmarried women in the world – sadder still to realize that they were largely unseen because there were so few public places they dared brave without a sense of strain.
The waiters at the Select comported themselves with that slightly theatrical mixture of charm, complicity and contempt that one would expect from servants in Hell. All you had to do was sit there at the beginning of an evening, feeling pristine and crisp, combed and scented, and order your very first drink (it could be something as innocent as lemonade), for them to indicate with the slightest flicker of their merry eyes that they were aware as you that you were taking the fatal step down the road to ruin. By merely clattering up the used cups and saucers on their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, the better to clear the stage for disaster, and repeating your order precisely as given, they could predict for you the whole miracle that was going to take place four hours later when you – the nor transformed, tousled, shiny, vague-eyed you – would emerge, talking the most utter balderdash, spilling beans of shattering truths or equally shattering lies, singing with friends, fighting with strangers, promising favours, promising love, scrambling into bed and clambering out again…all this they could predict for you as relentlessly as any Delphic Oracle, while at the same time it all struck them as so irresistibly funny they couldn’t help chuckling.
I’m a real phoney, one of those half-baked hothouse plants we’re growing nowadays, instead of the honest-to-God two-fisted women we should be, and, neurotic that I am, I shrink like mad from the criminal type. If anyone comes at me with a club, I duck, brother, I duck. And then I run.
I stiffened my spine and tried to dance disapprovingly. Try it.
I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.
‘Thank God you’ve come at last. Such a difficult time with that French crowd over there. I simply can’t make myself understood. Half of them think I’m a snob–‘
‘How blind of them,’ said Rollo.
‘–and the other half that I’m an intellectual!’
‘How deaf of them.’
And the whole atmosphere was so much lighter and less frantic than the other one that I decided – all chauvinism aside – that women simply look more attractive trying to imitate men than the other way around.
Now that I’ve thought about it a bit, I realize that even under ideal circumstances (if there’s such a thing in travelling) I do not travel very well. For someone who likes to get around as much as I do, I really travel quite badly. Planes frighten me, boats bore me, trains make me dirty, cars make me car-sick. And practically nothing can equal the critical dismay with which I first greet the sight of new places.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska