Life before yoga: Was I petite Nicole? 7. A surprise Valentine
A surprise valentine
I sat at the bar stirring the thick hot chocolate (one of the great pleasures of Paris I’d discovered) around and around the cup wondering whether a solution to my problems might lie at the bottom. Even Monika had left. Having struggled to find any serious interest from collectors in her work, she’d decided that perhaps Paris was not the place to sell but rather, a better subject for her work and fled for Poland before heading off to Spain for film-making. Slowly defrosting after another long day of traipsing around Paris begging for work, puddles grew under my feet (no, my bladder’s not that weak). I’d finished up at le Bottle Shop, in the late afternoon feeling pretty much broken, leaning on the heavy wooden bar enjoying the security it afforded me – the only security I had in fact. It was crunch time. A few days earlier I had conceded that to stay in the country I might have to consider the last straw, bargain bucket option of becoming an au-pair and unfortunately, it definitely didn’t come with The Colonel’s coleslaw. I contacted an agency three days earlier at the same time as booking a flight to Barcelona to visit my friend Alison. I assumed that there was no way I would find a job before I left so decided that if I didn’t find something within a week of returning to Paris, I would go home. I’d exhausted every avenue and was due to leave for Barcelona in a day and a half. Sitting at the bar looking hopelessly at the FUSAC’s job adverts for English speakers made me feel even more hopeless – I understood how the fly must feel when it land on a light bulb. It looks all bright and sparkly until you hit it and it bloody ‘urts. There was not a single advert with the headline “Young, Pretty, Lost Girl Sought for High Flying Creative Career with Loads of Dosh” that was for sure.
I recounted my tale of woe and inevitable plans to return home to the barmaid. Looking around the bar, I noticed a petite, perfectly featured, doe eyed, honey blonde, expensively elegant woman sitting across from me. She looked everything I wasn’t right then.
“Love. Honestly. Paris is like one of the most difficult fucking places on the planet to live, work and fucking die,” she drawled encouragingly. I turned on my stool to face her, the smoke from the cigarette resting in her slim fingers pluming around her sleek hair. She looked like she was in a Dior advert.
“Why did I not think New York might be a better move? Or even Australia? At least I’d have been job-hunting in the sunshine instead of braving the sleet and rain, which punctuates most February days.”
“Believe me,” she continued, “I’ve been here for two years, my husband is French and my son Jack goes to school here and I’m still career-less and lost. Let me buy you a drink…”
“That would be lovely,” I said, thinking blimey, you don’t get strangers buying you drinks this easily in London.
So it seemed that I wasn’t yet to break the Parisien’s scrum – or at least that’s what I called it. The huddle all groups of Parisiens seemed to form to protect themselves and prevent any isolated person making the mistake that a group might be open to a bit of friendship-making banter or general chit-chat. I was however, making an acquaintance in the crazy, Australian, foul-mouthed yet intelligent; brash yet beautiful, fashion obsessed, wannabe writer and general lost soul that was/is Lauren Fraser. Two bottles of red later and I noticed that my phone was ringing. No one ever rang me so I immediately jumped to attention wondering who on earth it could be. I hadn’t even received a response from the agency to say whether they had received my details.
“Excuse me a moment, I just need to answer this.” I ran to the quietest part of the bar I could find and picked up the line.
“Hello, is that Miss Carley?” asked a man’s voice in a slightly bizarre, Anglo-American-French aristocratic accent.
“Yes. It is. Who’s this calling?”
“My name is Pierre. Pierre Poulain. I heard that you were looking for a position, jeune fille au-pair.” He paused but continued without waiting for a response.
“Yes. Well. It just so happens that our current au-pair is leaving, which has rather inconvenienced me. Hence, I have a vacancy for a part-time au-pair. Now I understand that you studied English is that correct?”
“Good. And you have an interest in horse-riding.”
“Oh yes. I love horse-riding.”
“Ah. Good. Delphine does, on occasion, take a ride at the stables in Bois-de-Boulogne. And what are your previous involvements with children?” Already my mind was racing imagining afternoons milling around the stables, riding through the country parks on horseback with Delphine; the trees heavy with blossom… The sound of the toilet door banging brought me out of my daydream.
“Well, there is an eleven year age gap between myself and my youngest sister so I have been looking after her from a young age. I also spent time looking after my ex-boyfriend’s niece when she was a baby.” I said, an image in my memory of me of trying to restrain myself from putting a cork in her mouth after all efforts at appeasing her failed.
“Excellent. I have a daughter Delphine who is currently 10 and her brother 15 who require someone to attend to them in the evenings , Delphine to be collected from school and taken to her various activities.”
“Ok. And would I be living in your house?” I asked, concerned.
“No. We prefer to have our privacy so you would have your own quarters. There is an apartment in St Germain. It is small but it will do for just one person and it’s clean.”
“Could you attend an interview this evening? We would need you to start next Monday”
“No problem.” I said, realising that this was the chance I’d been hoping for and there was no way it could put me off. I wondered if I’d be able to read the Metro map properly to get myself there – it’s difficult enough sober.
“Excellent. I will expect you around 7.30pm then.”
“Great. I look forward to it.” I finished, hanging up thinking it must be a message from heaven as I would be returning from Barcelona the exact day that they wanted me to start.
“I’ve gotta go.” I said to Lauren. “I have an interview for a job. It could be my saving grace!” I said, trying to contain my excitement. I rushed back to the hostel to find Robbie and Alex about to embark on a bottle of gin.
“I don’t know if you remember,” said Robbie, “but it’s Valentine’s day today so happy Valentines day. We thought as you’re in Paris on your own and your friends are miles away you might appreciate this…” and he handed me a box of After Eights.
“Aw, brilliant, they’re my favourite. Thanks! Actually, I’ve gotta quickly get changed and do a runner as I’ve got an interview for an au-pair job in one hour and I’ve got no idea where the place is and I’ve been drinking and I don’t know what to wear and I’m desperate for this job and…” my breath ran out.
“That’s fantastic news. Brilliant!”
“Oh my god. I don’t know how I’m going to get there in time. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m a tad drunk.”
“Ok Nic, chill out. You’ll be fine. They’ll love you. You’re adorable. Here, I’ve got something for you too,” said Alex passing me a card. His hand felt slightly clammy and he held mine for slightly longer than necessary. “Open it on the Metro on the way, it might make you feel good.”
“Ah, you guys are such sweethearts,” I said, accepting the card, deeply touched.
I was even more touched recalling a conversation with Alex about two days previously where he admitted he’d completely forgotten about Valentine’s day and it would be too late to send something to his girlfriend in time. Scraping through the doors on the Metro just as the buzzer was sounding to warn they were about to close I pulled down one of the fold down seats on the train and slid down into it with a long exhalation of breath as I settled in for the 20 minute journey. Opening the red envelope I found a picture of a grey kitten on the front of the card. Smiling, I opened it to reveal the words:
“Dear Nic, I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time but I didn’t know how. I’ve liked you from the first moment you walked into the hostel wearing your rusty trilby hat and a big smile… I think you are a really beautiful person,” …my heart jumped into my throat and my breath quickened as I read on. “I think you’re a wonderful person… I’ve been holding back my feelings… You have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to kiss you but I can’t hide it any longer…”
Oh my god oh my god oh my god: Alex’s face when I got out of the shower and came into the room in a towel… his face watching me apply my make up while waiting for me to go to breakfast together…his laughing at my jokes…walking down the stairs dressed up to go out for the night and his reaction, “Wow. You weren’t kidding when you said you were getting changed – knock ‘em dead you look amazing”…the pieces clicked together like a jigsaw…But he had a girlfriend – even if she was in Canada, Catherine. Alex, someone I considered to be one of my best friends. Someone who made me feel good about myself even though we weren’t having sex. Someone in whom I’d confided my recent sexploit. Panic. What to do? What to do? How should I react? What will I say to him? I don’t fancy him but I don’t want to hurt him? But do I not fancy him because I never allowed myself to think of him in that way because I’ve never had such a close male friend before and there’s a reason we get on so well. Hmmm. I don’t know.
“Oui? Q’uest-ce qu’il y a?” came the broken voice over the door buzzer. My nerves jangled and sweat dripped down my back from my mad rush to try and find the right building. I answered, “Ah, C’est Nicola. Je suis ici pour voir Pierre Poulain.”
“Yes. Do come up.”
Awkward, I would say was my overriding feeling whilst sat or rather, perched, on an antique chair at an antique table in an antique dining room laid with antique silver and crystal in the rather grand Poulain apartment at Duroc. Opposite me, Pierre laid down the paper he was reading, Le Figaro – the right wing French national paper – and looked up at me over his half glasses, the light from the chandelier overhead bouncing off his smooth, hairless, dinner-plate like forehead. The little hair he did possess had been combed and brylcreemed meticulously and although now at home, he still wore his tweed suit and tie whilst a handkerchief protruded courteously from his breast pocket.
“I’m terribly sorry for being late. I came as soon as I got your phone call and I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to find you. Obviously longer than I expected.”
Narrowing his wide-set eyes (of the sort you might find on a child’s toy, black and beady) his features pinched together. “So, what are you doing in Paris? Rather old to be an au-pair aren’t you?” he asked with his tight-lipped, down-turned mouth.
“At the age of 25, I suppose I am but I wanted to get a new perspective. Paris intrigued me. I felt a year out would allow me to reassess my priorities. I have been working in jobs in London that aren’t really giving me the kind of career satisfaction I’m looking for and as I don’t have well-off parents, doing work experience for a company that I was genuinely interested in was never an option. I would have loved to have worked in a publishing house or a design agency for a while but…” I faltered, unsure whether to continue. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers.” I finished.
“I thought this role could be perfect. You’re offering independent accommodation which would enable me to maintain the independence I need at my age.”
“And you finished your degree two years ago?”
“Yes. And I loved it. I miss studying a great deal.” I answered in my non-descript, working class mid-Kent accent.
“At London South Bank University?” he asked raising one of his two pompous eyebrows.
“Yes. I was accepted at the University of London, Goldsmith’s College but I decided to go with South Bank because the course seemed much more exciting. I could study Afro-American literature and literature from other diaspora; the Caribbean; Native America; Aboriginal. Stuff I found fascinating.” He remained quiet. I shifted in my chair. “It doesn’t command the respect some of the more traditional unis afford but we still study the core elements that make up all English degrees – Shakespeare for example,” he attempted to hide his look of disdain with a quick smile as a short silence ensued.
“Yes. Well. Ahem. I studied at Sciences-Po and The Sorbonne. If one wishes to ensure a good education, one must expect to attend one of the best universities. I am of course, heavily involved in the alumni there. I also run a ‘think-tank’ for the Government and am often to be seen commenting on such issues on the BBC and CNN news. One has a rather busy diary as a result and therefore, one needs someone who is punctual and reliable,” he said, looking at his watch, irritated.
I gulped. “My last role was as a personal assistant, as you can see. I am used to organising not just myself but also, the person I’m usually working for too.”
“Ironically, my wife is somewhat late. I did hope that Sophie would be here. She is at her Italian class, which is obviously delayed.” He huffed. “Well, we’ll have to continue without her for now. The job itself is fairly straightforward. We have a maid who does the cooking and cleaning, runs errands and other chores. Can you cook?”
“Yes. I can cook.”
“Good. Occasionally you’ll be required to prepare a light lunch for the children and there’s a possibility now and then that you’ll have to make them some supper but generally, this won’t be necessary. You’ll be expected to meet Delphine at her school at 4.30pm, bring her back to the apartment to fix her a snack which she will take before escorting her to whichever activity she has that evening; art, swimming, ballet etc.
You’ll then need to collect her when she’s finished, making sure that she eats her supper and completes her homework. Sometimes you may also need to get her ready for bed and on occasion, we will require your services for babysitting.”
“That’s no problem,” I hope that is going to be more occasionally than frequently.
“Quentin is 15 and for the most part, can look after himself though you’ll need to ensure that he eats his supper, vegetables and fruit, and completes his homework.” (Here he should have added, and doesn’t kill his sister). He continued, “I don’t know if you are aware but in France, children only go to school in the morning on a Wednesday when you’ll collect her at 12.30pm, bring her here, give her lunch and keep her occupied for the afternoon. I would expect to relieve you by 8pm most evenings although both myself and Sophie have occasional appointments which may detain us after this time.
“You’ll also be expected to be here on Saturdays from lunch time until 4.30pm to make sure the children have their lunch [in spite of the fact that neither parent worked Saturdays] and Delphine often has activities in the afternoon that you’ll need to ferry her to. Gussy should be vacating the apartment shortly. She’s returning to the US, which is why we are looking for someone new. There is a rather limited pool of au-pairs at this time of year.” He said, looking at me intently, the latent meaning in this statement flying straight over the top of my head.
“I trust that all sounds suitable?” He finished speaking, rolled his tongue around his beak and folded his hands on top of each other on the table.
“Absolutely. I said. And by way of pocket money?”
“Yes. You’ll receive 100 euros a week – slightly more than average as you’ll have to supply your own breakfast and lunch, your evening meal on Saturdays and all your meals on Sundays – your day off. I expect you to purchase your own Carte-Orange which you can get for around 20 euros a week and we will not be enrolling you in a French course,” he added, accusingly.
Having finished the summary, he sat uncomfortably across from me making a feeble attempt at conversation whilst wringing his hands over his wife’s tardiness.
“Now. We must arrange for you to meet Sophie. If she’s happy, you can start as soon as you return from Spain.”
“Fantastic.” I said, comparing it with the option of returning to London. “It all sounds perfect, just let me know how best to arrange meeting her.”
“I’ll get her to call you. You can go over to her office at the Société des Avocats.”
“Fine. No problem.” I said, standing up.
“Amy!” Pierre called. “Nicola is leaving.” Amy (the maid or, femme de ménage) scuttled off down the long hallway beetle-like, to fetch my coat.
“Good to meet you,” I said, shaking his claw. “All being well we will see you in just over a week then.”
“A bientot j’espère.” I said, discreetly rubbing my hand on my backside to wipe away any residue. There was certainly no fear of the usual double-kiss greeting come farewell, which I was most thankful for.
“Yes,” he said, refusing to break into French.
I remember taking my coat from Amy’s outstretched arms, stepping over the solid oak floor and disappearing through the open door. As I descended the spiral staircase, my heart felt lighter with the thought that things might finally be weaving together to form a pathway heading in the right direction. Excited, I ran down the steps to the Metro bursting to tell Robbie the news. And Alex. Gulp.
I’ve been trying to hide my feelings…Odeon…Swish…Knocking…Crash…Bzzzzzzz… “I think I’m in love with you”… stomach churning… hot… shallow breath… protruding brow… sallow skin, mousey thin, curly hair… green and white tiles… black shiny floor… smeary windows, faces of strangers…click click, cold handle… Exit.
On my way home, the train doors opened at Ledru-Rollin and the platform disappeared beneath my feet like a treadmill, each stair being eaten by my stride as I climbed, the exit doors banging in my wake. Past the patisserie I ran, past Monoprix; I was still running until rue Trousseau came into view. The flashing neon light of the hostel welcomed me as I pushed through the glass doors and ran up the stairs, bursting into room 152 without pausing for breath. Robbie and Alex looked up from the bottle of gin – now only a quarter full – with expectant looks on their faces. They were just recognisable under the drunken slippage of their features; like warm wax sliding down a candle.
“I think I’ve finally got a job!” I yelled.
“Hooray! Well done shortie. Knew they’d love you.”
“That’s great Nic,” said Alex.
“Well, I still have to meet their mother but it’s almost a done deal by the sounds of things.”
“So how? What happened?” asked Robbie.
“Really good. As far as I can tell he’s really nice, the job sounds really easy. [Or so I thought in my naïve, desperate state] I was even more nervous though as I turned up 20 minutes late having taken the wrong turning coming out of the Metro and walking in completely the wrong direction.”
“We wouldn’t expect anything less,” said Robbie.
“It was pretty intimidating standing in front of the imposing looking building that the Poulain residence is housed in. It’s in a street of very grand apartment buildings. I was buzzed in to a grand mosaic-tiled foyer with a carpeted stairway twisting upwards a few floors. When I got into the elevator I felt like I was in one of those French movies. You know the type with the old lattice doors and red carpet, lined with dark wood and mirrors.
The femme de ménage took my coat and I was shown into the dining room.” Robbie and Duncan listened avidly. “I was seated at the elaborately laid table for two; two wine glasses – one for aperitif, one to accompany the meal – complete with side plate all in expensive china, crystal and silver, just how I like my dining room at home.” I joked. “He gave me a lengthy run-down of the job which seems to be a military exercise of basically ferrying Delphine – the 10 year old girl – around from school to various activities – swimming, art, ballet etc. I have to make sure she does her homework and that her and her brother have dinner.”
“So no cleaning or washing or anything then?”
“No. They have the femme de ménage for that!”
As I continued talking, Alex disappeared. As soon as he left the room, Robbie posed the question he’d been dying to ask, “So?”
“So nothing. He’s my friend. So you knew about the whole thing all along then?” I demanded of him.
“Of course I did. I was the one who had to tell him to tell you how he was feeling.”
“Great. So you encouraged him?”
“But he has a girlfriend.”
“Yeah,” he halted for a second before spitting out, “…but she’s obviously completely wrong for him. He isn’t happy. In fact, she seems to be making him downright miserable.” He said, gesticulating frustratedly.
“That may be true but he’s chosen to carry on with it.”
“Come on. Why would he want her when you are right here in front of him, bowling us all over with your optimism, intelligence – did I just say intelligence? Yep, vivacious, bubbly and beautiful but slightly plagued with the inability to see the worst in people, being good at getting into trouble and pretty damn accident-prone. Of course he’s going to fall for you and I helped him to write the card because I knew he’d probably go crazy if he didn’t,” I looked at him disbelieving.
“So, you don’t feel the same way then? I thought you might do seeing as how you spend so much time together and all those philosophical chats you had.”
“He’s studying Philosophy!”
“And I studied English.”
“So you’re a match made in heaven.”
“Robbie! Aaargh!” I moaned, exasperated. “I’m here for fun, not to make my life more complicated.”
“It’s not complicated. It’s romance.” He said, slightly patronisingly. I raised my eyebrows at him.
“So I guess it’s natural that we might occasionally get into a chat about whether postmodernism is a load of Baudrillard’s Bollocks or whatever. It doesn’t mean that I want a go on his bollocks! I’ve never thought about him that way in the slightest. Just because you’ve taken a vow of celibacy to avoid women, doesn’t mean you can go stirring Why would I? Oh god.” I said, exasperated.
“Oh dear. I s’pose… Well. You need to talk to him.”
“Great. I guess I better had.”
I stormed out of our communal bedroom and turning, saw Alex huddled on the stairs, cradling his tumbler of gin with tears dripping off his pale cheek, breaking onto its surface and making little ripples up the side of the glass. I sat down on the step next to him and put an arm around him.
“I’m sorry, I had to say something.” He said, running his fingers through his curly brown hair.
“Hon. I understand that but, you’re a really close friend – even though we’ve only known each other a few weeks – and I really value that friendship. I guess the bizarre situation we live in at the moment is bound to give rise to friendships and hatreds on a powerful level which is going to be confusing, but I’d never ever thought of you as anything more than that so it’s all a bit of a shock really. Especially because of Catherine.”
“I know. I guess I made a mistake. I’m just so confused about everything at the moment and I can’t even talk to her properly.”
“Well, maybe this is a sign that you shouldn’t be with her because otherwise you wouldn’t be feeling this way about me?”
“Maybe. But there’s nothing I can do at the moment and I’m really scared of hurting her. Her whole life revolves around me. The fact that I’m here at all is killing her. That’s partly why things are so difficult at the moment.”
“Look. I don’t want to lose your friendship and I’m really flattered by your card. Come on. Lets get out of here for the evening.”
Buzzing the door of front door of the Société des Avocats de Paris the next morning, I remember being slightly hungover as I waited nervously to be allowed in to see Sophie Baker-Poulain – Pierre’s wife. A receptionist sat me down giving me time to take in my surroundings, “Madame will be with you shortly.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The floor was carpeted in crimson and the walls were all white with deep mahogany wood finishings and hefty mahogany doors lined both sides of a long corridor. Solicitors dressed in expensive looking suits (mostly male) criss-crossed along the corridor speaking on mobiles or addressing their secretaries in their high-pitched, lilting, Parisien French who busily made them tea and coffee in the adjacent kitchen. Eventually a tall woman entered wreathed in a heavy real fur coat, a Chanel bag slung over her wrist and killer Chanel heels adorning her feet. She had big brown eyes and a cute, pert nose (thanks to a good surgeon no doubt). Her thick brown hair billowed around her shoulders as she removed her coat revealing a seriously cut Armani skirt suit, which sucked at her surgically enhanced, curvy figure. I was quite shocked at her stunning appearance having already met her rather, well, ugly, looking husband. Suddenly I wished I’d brought some smarter attire with me to Paris as I stood up wearing my baggy jeans. At least they were partly covered by my sharp, military style, navy wool coat.
“Hello Nicola, I’m Sophie. Follow me to my office.”
Walking behind her, we entered an enormous office with a great high ceiling. Books spanned the length, breadth and height of the walls, save a section in which a fireplace had been sculpted. She sat down at her majestic desk of the kind one might imagine someone running a country from behind. Covered in books and papers, you could just make out the red leather protection, which sat on top of the mahogany. It smelled like a library. Old leather-bound books mixed with the faint scent of distant coffee and her perfume, also Chanel.
“Now Nicola. You’ve met my husband,” she said, looking at me with her deep, warm, brown eyes with euro signs deeply embedded behind the retina, slightly hazy from drinks at dejeuner.
 It was some time later that I discovered the reason for this need for privacy. I visited the house unannounced one Sunday afternoon to collect some washing I had left in the dryer. I walked in around 3.30pm to find plates and dirty dishes stacked all over the kitchen along with the remains of whatever had been lunch. The breakfast/dining table had not been cleared. The curtains were still drawn and Madame was wandering around in her dressing gown looking her usual lost, pissed soul. I couldn’t imagine an outsider ever wanting to be part of it and felt for those au-pairs who may have ended up in similar, bizarre situations.