Life before yoga: Was I Petite Nicole? 9. A fly on a bourgeois wall…
A fly on a bourgeois wall
As I waited for Pierre to return one evening, Delphine was busy in her room studying, I looked around their apartment, my eyes tripping over the eclecticism of decadent olde world English and French. There were no cosy, lose yourself sofas, soft throws or rugs to lie on anywhere in the apartment. Only upright, stiff and hard backed chairs stood in rooms barely touched by human hand except with a duster by the femme de ménage. The Art on the walls in ornate golden frames and the antiques on display, together with the elaborately laid table, made for an air of pomp and ceremony. Ornaments that could have been from the 1900s perched on the mantelpiece while the chairs stood to attention in the palatial drawing room at the front of the apartment. Pushed together, almost out of sight were rows and rows of cds; the Beatles and Janis Joplin sat at their feet, slightly dusty and severely unloved for some time. Cream was the signature colour of the room with accents of green and a huge rug disguised the cold, hard, wooden floor. It was separated from the study, which housed Pierre’s antique, walnut desk and upright piano, by French doors so the drawing room looked as though it were in a glass cabinet – to be admired but not touched, or photographed for Harper’s and Queen. I wondered if I, like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, would turn into an ornament if I touched anything.
There was no TV to be seen in the guest areas of the apartment and the dining table at which I had sat for my ‘once over’ was laid religiously every evening with fine silver and crystal by the femme de ménage who daily would ask, ‘Will Madame be dining with you this evening Sir?’ and invariably the response was, ‘No’. On the odd evening that she did return before I left, she would come to the kitchen, fix herself a gin and tonic and disappear into the recess of the bedroom. Bookshelves decked with Margaret Thatcher, Nixon and George Bush biographies sat snugly alongside Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and works by Kafka and Balzac. However I noted that if you looked a little closer, there were cracks in the paintwork and the floorboards whined where they were becoming loose with wear and tear. I later discovered that there was a TV in the house but out of the way of the prying eyes of visitors in the parents’ bedroom and certainly not in the drawing room. The bedroom hid the secrets of the house. It was resplendent with burn holes in the bedspread and curtains, born of Quentin the 15 year old son’s anger and frustration; a desperate cry for attention, audible to me alone it seemed. If you lifted the bedspread just a chink, you might also see, the evil to which it was linked. Some mornings before the femme de ménage had cleaned, a glass would sit malevolent with the scent of gin and the ghost of Chanel Rouge lipstick around its rim.
A few weeks into my new role, it soon became clear that I was not going to find myself accompanying Delphine on long rides through the woods on weekends – as I had romantically imagined. Nor would I find much reason to generally interact with society at large except on those occasions when I would prop up the bar in a café alone, having exhausted my phone list of 5 friends, forced to chat to the waiting staff in the hope that some similar minded punter might think it worth swapping a sentence or two. In order to learn French, in the absence of the supposedly compulsory French lessons that all au-pairs should be enrolled upon, I secretly paid Delphine to converse with me in French as her father had explicitly banned her from doing so with me.
“Why are you speaking in French?” he demanded of me one evening after Delphine and I had chattered our way up the stairway. “You will speak to the children only in English. That is what you are here for,” he said, his anger almost permeating my skin. My mornings were therefore spent, poring over my French verb book and a French novel I had managed to sneak away from Madame’s collection to try and teach myself.
In addition to the tension between myself and Pierre as he virtually sneered at me from the platform of his snobbery, positioning himself on some pedestal far above me, giving me full view of his nose hair, I also faced a daily battle with Quentin. Amy’s (the femme de ménage) declarations came daily and varied from, “Nicola! Quentin is burning Madame’s bedcovers again!” To, “Quentin is throwing the stones from the fruit all over the bedroom,” and I, daily, was exasperated. On confronting him, I would be told to, “Fuck off,” or “Get lost and die.” Despairing of how to deal with him, I would inform his father when he returned home, not knowing what else to do. This usually ended in a screaming match with his father, who would march down to his room in a cloud of rage yelling ‘Contan!’ (Quentin in a French accent).
Most evenings as I dished up the food prepared by Amy I would be presented with a look of disgust by Quentin accompanied with something like, “Why the fuck doesn’t Amy give us something different to eat? Every week it’s the same thing. Bland. Boring. I’m fucking sick of this shit,” as he threw another plate of gratin in the bin. On suggesting he add ketchup he’d look at me as though I had grown a second head. I would battle with him at his father’s request to try and get him to eat the salad with his meat and bread but it would fall on deaf ears. To be honest, he had a point. When Amy shopped, the list was the same each and every week and when I tried to find out the origin of the problem, the waters became ever more muddy. Amy would tell me that she was only given a very small budget for purchasing groceries and that Pierre requested detail on what the children ate. It later emerged that she was also obliged to purchase the bottle of Bombay Sapphire that Madame inhaled each week along with paying for other minor repairs needed to clothing at the dry cleaner’s etc. I later discovered what this detail meant when a few weeks later, to try and give them more variety, I offered to cook and the following day, I was confronted by Pierre who angrily shook the empty spice packet from the fajita mix he had extracted from the bin, “The children will not eat this packet rubbish. I will not have them eating anything that has been pre-fabricated Nicola. This is not acceptable.” I thought it probably best not to highlight the fact that chocolate probably isn’t all that good for you, nor the patisseries that they indulged in from time to time.
On teaching myself how to make a crêpe complet (Cheese, ham and egg omlette) some weeks later, I won myself loads of brownie points with both kids who were very happy to eat something that to them wasn’t foreign but was at least a change from what they were usually given. I also tried a pasta dish that I used to cook for myself which was simple enough that I couldn’t see anything that Pierre might find fault with: tinned tomatoes, pasta, mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil baked in the oven. I found that I was wrong when yet again, I was confronted by a boiling Pierre who shouted at me, “The children will not eat food that comes from a tin. I will not have it!”
The next time I made the dish, I took pounds of tomatoes and skinned them to make tomato sauce from scratch. Though from a jar, sauce was apparently fine! I too was bored with the food but anything more exotic than that would usually be met with a Pierre-like sneer from Quentin accompanied by, “Why can’t we have hamburgers and fries? Why do the English call them chips? That’s so stooped,” in his irritating American accent. Though I heard that Madame was rather fond of my cooking. On the evenings that Pierre was home, I would attempt to keep peace and quiet in the kitchen between the two of them, trying to make sure they ate everything they were supposed to before they retreated to their rooms and cleaned the kitchen according to Pierre’s strict instructions. Knowing that the kids were both ready for bed and finishing whatever it was they had to do for school the following day, I would wait in the kitchen with nothing to do whilst Pierre worked on the other side of the apartment at his desk. The only sound audible was the kitchen clock in the lifeless apartment and I wondered when the CDs in the drawing room had last felt the warmth of the CD player’s laser. As quietly as I could, I would tiptoe around the kitchen, reading the back of the label on the bottle of Cheval Noir that Amy had opened to breathe in anticipation of Madame’s return – her favourite – or slicing off a piece of the Reblochon cheese that had been left to ripen to room temperature. I began to wonder though, when the children ever saw their mother as it was in Pierre’s care that I left the children most evenings. I also looked after them on Saturdays when she would be busy shopping in the ‘Grand Marque’ boutiques that lined the streets where I lived, of which I had only ever seen the facades. Occasionally she would return home from a trip early and I would be leaving as she pulled her fingers through Delphine’s hair and I might catch a snippet of conversation, “Hmm, maybe we should look at getting you some highlights, they’ll look good for your photo-shoot for your modelling portfolio.” I heard on my way out of the door one afternoon as Delphine winced at the thought.
On those days that she was home early, it was often good for me as she would ask quietly, “Did Pierre pay you yet?”
“No, he hasn’t.”
“Hold on!” she said, pulling out 130 euros from her Chanel purse, placing it in my hand and quietly saying, “Don’t tell Pierre!” (An extra 30 euros). It was at those times that I rather liked her. In fact, it was kind of difficult not to be enamoured with her striking looks and warm demeanour as she swept in and out of the apartment like an autumn leaf on the breeze, though I wished she would spend more time with her daughter before she hit 20 and would find herself looking back wondering what happened. Fights would break out almost daily between Quentin and his sister on the many nights that I awaited the return of their parents. They would be sparked by anything from the remote control, to Quentin forcing Delphine to let him play computer games on her computer as his had been confiscated. Unfortunately, he was bigger than me so my meagre attempts at intervention usually ended with him pinning me against the wall, calling me a ‘fucking bitch’ and snatching the remote or whatever else it was back off me. It wasn’t so far from the relationship I’d had with my brother – he once rolled me up in a rug and catapulted me down the stairs. Luckily, this wasn’t an option for Quentin given that there weren’t any stairs in the apartment. Besides, with Quentin involved we could have been talking fractures rather than just the odd bruise, though I guess the cricket bat my brother chased me across a field with once could have inflicted some serious damage if I hadn’t slipped away in the woods that time. (He has since apologised for his caveman like behaviour).
Their childhood however, was a far cry from mine. As soon as the daffodil’s bells chimed in the Spring breeze, my sister and I would knock on the door of the house opposite to ask whether Matthew and Peter were free to play outside. They were only too happy to accommodate us in their back garden and conservatory and we would spend hours on their swing, or playing at making tea in their conservatory, talking nonsense. Often, they were the only kids guaranteed to want to play with me, as at my slow pace, I wasn’t much of a challenge for games of chase. Years later it turned out they were gay. That could explain why they didn’t mind joining in our attempts at making perfume from rose petals, or playing in our wendy house. Ah, bless the little petals. Nevertheless, at least a few times a week, when I’d been forced to get my nose out of my book and go outside, my sister and I would while away hours of our childhood with other kids, down in the woods. If we felt really adventurous, my brother and I would cycle down to the park outside our local leisure centre leaving our younger sister crying forlornly after us as she was too young to come along. Sometimes, I would go off on walks across the fields at the bottom of our estate, in the hope of glimpsing one of the ponies that lived in the garden of one of the posh houses at the bottom of Thong Lane. Generally, our childhood was characterised by freedom.
Delphine and Quentin however, were usually under the eye of some adult or other (rarely their parents), Quentin less so because of his age. Whether it was at guitar practice or piano practice, swimming, art or ballet; you name it, they were studying it outside of school hours. When they weren’t taking part in an activity they would be busy with the hours of homework delegated to them by their private school. Quentin of course, rebelled against this by escaping for hours with his skateboard or, on occasion, wrecking the floorboards of the hallway inside the apartment, riding up and down it, demonstrating the flips he’d taught himself. I would also put his – slightly unnerving and bizarre penchant for pyromania – down to this rebellion too, though when I tried raising the issue with Pierre, it was met with disgust, anger and resentment. “He does not, nor ever has had a problem with fire. I will thank you to keep your nose out of business that does not concern you. Quentin is like any other normal boy his age.”
Pierre’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder became ever more evident as time went by. Not that I was qualified from the one year A-level I studied in psychology to diagnose him but it was difficult to come to any other conclusion. I made the fatal mistake one evening of going to place my plastic Monoprix bag on a dining chair whilst taking notes from Pierre on his movements for the next week or so. This was remedied with a swift motion of Pierre’s right hand grabbing the bag mid-air before it landed on the pale green fabric of the chair (god forbid). “Don’t put that on there!” he yelled at me. This did mean that when he wasn’t around, I would take pleasure in rubbing a plastic bag or two over it and I did consider taking it a step further and spitting on his toothbrush but couldn’t really see the point. Likewise, Madame’s little ‘quirks’ slowly bubbled to the surface through Indian Tonic Water as Amy would replace yet another bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the larder. “Ah, Madame!” she would exclaim, at the cupboard “…it is the second bottle this week I must replace.”
I soon began to realise that, though she was ahead of her years in emotional development, conversation with Delphine was not going to be stimulating enough. Neither were the odd evenings with Robbie and Alex (and the odd one with Lauren) were not going to sustain me alone as they weren’t always available. On the evenings I spent with Robbie they would often begin with a text message: ‘I’m outside Shortie’ and I’d exit my building to find him circling around on his bike in his black leather jacket. Hopping off he’d lock it up and we’d take a stroll down to one of the cafés in St Germain. Sitting outside at one of the little tables we would linger over a coffee (which he’d often treated me to because at 4 euros a pop, my meagre 100 euros would soon disappear), marvelling at the madness that enveloped us, discussing the whys and wherefores of the bizarre language of French. Other times I would meet Robbie and Alex at Pierre and Robbie’s flat where I would update them on the latest craze in the Poulain household or tell them about the latest disaster which had befallen me such as getting the days mixed up and turning up to pick Delphine up from school only to find that class had been let out early that day and she had been waiting for me for an hour by which point she was so angry she’d turned puce.
These evenings were some recompense for the lack of social interaction I had during the day as I was usually in my own company until 4.30pm and then often, would spend about an hour or two with Delphine before dropping her off at her activities and then listening to Quentin’s inane questioning of my ‘bizarre English cultural habits’ – eating fish and chips being one of them. Additionally, being copied in to the silly banter emails (Facebook hadn’t kicked off then) that went between my best mate’s boyfriend and some of his friends gave me some relief and the picture here demonstrates the kind of silliness to which I am referring. (Barry Lundie being my best mate’s boyfriend at the time). On the frequent evenings that I didn’t have company, I would borrow a DVD on the family’s account at the local video shop, arrive home around 9pm, pour myself a glass of the 2 euro wine I’d purchased in Casino and settle myself in bed to watch it on my laptop. However there were many evenings where it was difficult for me to borrow a DVD without Pierre finding out and it was on those nights that the absence of my friends at home and my cat’s nose nuzzling my arm would cut deep. On those evenings I would rehearse my verbs and try and make headway with the French novel I was wading through, resolving to get up early to go to McDonald’s and use the Wifi to email the London crew.
Ali’s latest email read:
“No news this end really – I spent Friday and Saturday painting my bedroom (which looks bloody brilliant if I do say so myself) so didn’t do anything all weekend except drink, paint, smoke, drink, paint, smoke etc.”
It conjured up a reassuring image of her standing in her bedroom in a pair of old jeans and a boob tube, hair tied back, paint brush in one hand, joint in the other and a can of Red Stripe resting on a step ladder next to a tin of paint. I realised that the important things would always be there for me and actually, most things were staying the same. It felt that it was only me that was changing. Some days my plans would be scuppered as I couldn’t find a free power socket because half of the students in Paris had cottoned on to the free Wifi racket and since my laptop was far too old to work without a battery, I would find myself waiting for an hour or so until eventually a spot was relinquished. Seeing Delphine was the high point of my day. Fixing her snack in the evening or spending the afternoons with her on a Wednesday. Having admitted that I didn’t have a boyfriend, she bombarded me daily with enquiries. I was a constant source of entertainment, even more so as the previous au-pair (Gussy) had led a gossip free life in Paris maintaining a relationship with a boy from at home in The States (her reason for wanting to go back in fact). I would tell her about the boys who tried to ‘woo’ me, whether it was the 80 year old man I sat next to in a café who asked to buy me an aperitif or some young waiter. I would complain about the Arabic boys who had no respect for women and accosted me in the street and about the Valentine’s card I’d received from Alex.
“Oh wow. That’s so sweet,” she exclaimed. “He’s in love with you?”
“Well. That’s what he said. But I don’t want to be with him. Because he has a girlfriend. And because I don’t really find him attractive.”