‘I’m just nipping out to the shops — make yourself a cup of tea.’
At least I think that’s what she said, but the details are fuzzy and I may have made it up. I am standing in the bathroom, peering through a slit of the Venetian blinds, watching my mother walk down the slope in front of the terrace, a tartan shopping bag clutched in her hand. I know every crack in those pavings. Alas, I must be such a disappointment to her.
The taxi came to collect me yesterday afternoon. The driver assured me I had a nice smile. I don’t recall smiling at him. I stepped out of the car and scrambled up the grassy bank in order to avoid the cracks in the pavings. And here I am, in my mother’s bathroom. I have two pills to swallow and I’m worried they will stick in my throat.
I need some distraction; it’s horribly quiet on this estate. Even the wood pigeons have fallen silent. There is a kind of slopping noise, though. I peer sideways, but can’t see anything. Probably Mrs. Squires next door wiping down her window sills. I go over to the sink and fill a glass with water from the tap. The pills nestle in my hand. They are my only hope. I move back to the window. In the old days the wash basin used to be here. Now there is just the bidet, squatting below the sill.
My palm is sticky. Oops. I have dropped a pill into the bidet. It rattles around the bowl with the manic energy of a roulette ball. The bidet seems like an interloper, somewhat misplaced, and you have to be careful you don’t bark your shins on its thick squared-off lip. If only the wash basin was still here; I miss the view when I clean my teeth. Mum always wanted a bidet, as a kind of statement, I guess. I remember her discussing the subject with Mrs. Squires. The phrase ‘on the continent’ was used quite often, and Mrs. Squires’ facial expression was enough to confirm that from an English point of view, there has always been a certain mystique about how one should use a bidet. This bathroom is my mother’s Taj Mahal — renovated shortly after my father died. She summoned a young handyman called Sam, who set to and pared away the old floral wallpaper, tiling everything from top to bottom. He took apart the sarcophagus of hardboard surrounding the old turquoise bath and sawed the tub in half and carted it away.
A new bath tub, gleaming white, was installed with a funny ceramic pommel on the side that you are supposed to grip. New loo, wash basin, towel rail and a bidet, of course. The elegant uplighters screwed into the corner of the mirror above the wash basin are not aligned; I don’t know why — it is the one off note in a perfectly executed scheme. I look down into the bidet where the pill has come to rest wedged inside the partly raised stainless steel plug.
The red and white capsule sparkles, then twists into a curious shape like a pasta bow or, more accurately, a bow tie. A large bulbous thing sprouts out from it and then another protuberance like a nose. I kneel down on the floor and gaze in awe at the embryonic form taking shape.
I soon have to make room, as a perfect stranger is attempting to extricate his long legs from the plughole. He is now perched on the side of the bidet. He wears a tweed jacket and a smart yellow waistcoat and check trousers. He dusts himself down with a handkerchief.
‘Bonjour, I am Monsieur Mérimée, Spirit of the Bidet — here are my credentials.’
The stranger hands me a black-edged business card with his name embossed upon it. He has a pasty complexion, and I have seen his profile before in an old school atlas. His nose is somewhat retroussé, and his nostrils may be aligned with Strasbourg. His eyes, watery and pale blue, fix upon me.
‘Boyfriend trouble?’ he asks. His voice echoes around the bathroom and the tiles seem to turn turquoise. His accent does not sound very French to me — perhaps he is an imposter, but he has made an enormous effort to emerge from the bidet, so perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt.
‘Yes,’ I lie. I cannot say that the trouble is an extended essay, due to be handed in at the end of the month — that would be too pathetic.
‘Your name is familiar.’
‘Yes, I have the same name as one of your father’s favourite authors. In fact I am the spirit of your dead father, once removed.’
‘You don’t sound very French.’
‘Well, that is to be expected. I’m wearing the tweed jacket of his old French master at Bideford Grammar; it still has chalk dust on the cuffs.’
‘Oh. How come you — live in the bidet?’
He crossed his legs and shifted his lean bottom on the porcelain rim.
‘No-one was using it, so I thought I’d make it my home.’
A pause. He looks around. ‘Well, I’d give it three stars. Reminds me of the ensuite at the Hotel Renoir in Montparnasse. By the way, I’m dying for a cigarette — would you like to come to Paris?’
‘Really? How on earth? I mean, do I have to — ‘
‘Just close your eyes.’
‘But I haven’t got anything to wear and my hair needs washing — ‘
‘Oh, don’t worry about that — we are going back to 1947, anyway. When the French didn’t wash very often and clean hair smelt of Marseille soap and almond oil, if you were lucky. Your father was over there for six months. Did you know?’
‘Close your eyes, then.’
There is a whooshing noise, and soon I find myself walking along a pot-holed boulevard, Monsieur Mérimée, striding beside me. We pass a dingy tabac and a small épicerie. Outside there are pears and apricots displayed in wooden crates, but the colour has been bled out of them — they could well have been carved from marble.
‘Why is everything so monochrome?’ I ask.
‘Ah, yes. These are the photographs your father took. He wrote on the back of each one: Paris, 1947.’
I think of the photo album in the hall cupboard. Street corners, bridges and monuments caught by the prosaic eye of the Box Brownie. People and cars looking tiny and insignificant, like insects. An awful lot of foreground. Not terribly interesting.
‘But this is one your father didn’t take.’ We are now walking by the River Seine, which I’m guessing must be the colour of dishwater, though dishwater has a distinct sepia tone. Monsieur Mérimée comes to an abrupt halt by a stone parapet and makes a gesture towards the paved walkway below.
A young woman is seated at a trestle table, typing on an old fashioned portable typewriter. Her wavy shoulder-length hair is blowing about in the breeze. She is wearing a jacket over a summer dress and her pale legs are bare. On her feet is a pair of heavy lace-up shoes. People walking by don’t acknowledge her at all. They are carrying dark coats over their arms, and despite the bright sunshine they seem stooped and weary, even the younger looking ones. One old man pauses for a moment, turns his head in the young woman’s direction, but he is simply adjusting his hat in the brisk breeze and continues on his promenade.
We are some distance away, but it is as if I have the acute vision of a bird of prey. I can make out her rapt expression as her fingers press down on the keys. Her cheeks seem to flush pink, and her wavy hair looks reddish blonde, but perhaps I am imagining these colours. One foot, in the clumpy shoe, rests upon a pile of papers, the edges ruffled by the breeze. I think of my extended essay carpeting the floor of my student digs.
‘Your father saw her from where we are standing. But he did not take a picture of her. He looked at her for a long time, though.’
‘Who is she?’
Mérimée shrugs. Suddenly he seems more French. ‘We will never know. She is just a girl he saw — once — but she made a big impression on him; he never forgot her.’
A thumping noise and something like a stage backdrop falls down over my eyes, and there is an awful lot of dust. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in a small bar in a basement somewhere. Monsieur Mérimée is slouched beside me on the cracked red leather seat, dragging on a cigarette. There is curling blue smoke everywhere. I’m glad that we are seeing colours now. In front of me is a glass containing a whitish liquid that looks like dissolved aspirin.
‘I’m not sure why we are here,’ I say.
‘No one is entirely sure, mon petit chou,’ replies Mérimée, after an especially deep drag of his cigarette. He now looks as if he is on fire; there is so much smoke billowing out of his nostrils.
‘Let me tell you something. I had a wild life before I was given the deeds of your father’s spirit. The bidet became my retreat. You could say it saved me, like a religion, almost. I needed the quiet life of contemplation. I used to carouse ‘til the early hours with les demoiselles des égouts, those sirens of the sewers. Such bad girls, so wanton in their ways, holding up their skirts showing their dirty legs to all and sundry. My favourite was called Albertine, she used to carry around this pet rat perched on her shoulder — ”
I interrupt him mid-flow, which is probably rude of me. But this is so obviously a dream and I’m sure les demoiselles des égouts, lovely as it sounds, will make no sense at all, once I wake up. ‘Oh, look, isn’t that Dad over there?’
A young man is standing at the corner of the bar in a gabardine coat with a camera strap over his shoulder. He is wearing a beret and a pair of wiry-looking spectacles. He looks rather glum. His shoes are all dusty, as if he has walked the streets all day in search of something.
‘Yes, hard times,’ says Mérimée, taking another drag of his cigarette.
A woman with dark eyes and painted eyebrows approaches my father. She leans into the counter to tap her cigarette into a nearby ashtray and touches him on the arm, as if by accident. They are talking now. Her features seem indistinct apart from those brows. My father seems pleased but flustered. I imagine some hesitant French tumbling from his lips. She laughs, a silvery laugh that rides the blue haze of smoke and carries over to where we sit. The woman has short-cropped hair and wears a three-quarter sleeved emerald sweater and a dark pleated skirt. A gold bangle on her bare forearm catches the light. She is very different from the young woman we saw at the typewriter.
Another big thump and a thick cloud of dust rises once again. ‘Oh, pooh! I wanted to see what happened.’ We are back in the sterile confines of my mother’s bathroom.
‘Sorry, but our time was limited. I have to retire now.’ Monsieur Mérimée has shrunk somewhat and is climbing into the bidet. He has already become the size of a hobbit, but with longer legs.
‘But — who were they? Those women?’
‘I have no idea. It is the mystery of life. Something your father failed to catch with his camera. He may even have dreamed about them. Fleeting images caught in the visual cortex of his brain, like flies in amber. Oh, before I go — ‘ Monsieur Mérimée picks at his front teeth, extracting something. He places it in my hand. ‘Au revoir.’
I am staring into the bowl of the bidet watching a spider scuttling into the plug hole.
I glance down at my clammy palm — there are my two pills and in my other hand, the glass of water. I can hear wood pigeons cooing and then a key grinds into the lock of the front door. I put the pills in my mouth and take a large swig of water.
LISE COLAS writes poetry and short fiction and lives on the south coast of England. She used to work in the archive of Punch magazine.