It was mind-numbingly early, and the girl yawned as she fumbled with the tiny key to the cash drawer. Her perfect skin was sealed under a layer of orange-tinted powder, lending her the appearance of a bisque doll’s head left too long in the kiln. She was so very young, with that wide-eyed faun look which is routine here but which I find startling in its untroubled display of fragility. I thought I would burst into tears. I wanted to lean across the counter and ask her to give me a hug, a smile, dispense to me some ordinary human gesture. In the States, in Ireland, I could have gotten away with gallows humour: “Wish me luck,” or “Well now,” delivered in a dry tone and accompanied by an expressive hike of the eyebrows. Something neutrally comic, with the implied outcomes neither disparaged nor revealed as devoutly to be wished. But there was something in her manner beyond the usual distance I sense when women in this part of the world look at me and have no idea how to proceed. My hair shorn to skin at the neck, wearing men’s jeans with a tear in the knee, western boots with fat round tips….she only knew I was a woman because I was holding a pregnancy test. That sort of thing.
Perhaps I was being unfair. Perhaps she was one of these French women who is impeccably très bien élevé, and so it was natural to her to behave throughout the transaction as if I was merely buying a tube of toothpaste. Or she was older than I thought and had lost a child, or wants to “try” and the boyfriend says no, and either way the touch of that box was like iron in Faerie. Perhaps she saw the giddy terror on my face, observed how precisely I placed the box on the counter in order to stop my hands from shaking, and had a vision of herself in five or ten or a year’s time. Perhaps what I mistook for Gallic reserve was sympathy, even pity.
Or maybe she wasn’t thinking anything at all.
Later, at the bakery, I was so distracted that the young woman behind the counter had to help me remember “pain au chocolat,” the second phrase I learned to say in French over thirty years ago. Once she prompted me, it was as if an overstuffed closet had burst open, cartoonishly expelling a deluge of cleaning supplies or broken sports equipment. Without thinking of the target sentence in English, a state I am rarely able to achieve, I said, “De temps en temps j’oublie mon Français complètement.” She laughed, saying that her husband was Spanish and she often had to help him with the same problem. Behind her curly brown head, coffee-scented blasts of steam rose from the espresso maker. She nestled my hard-won pastry in a little wire basket, its interior lined with a red paper napkin. Taking my petit goûter outside, I sat in the late winter sun, and allowed myself to be soothed by watching ordinary people do ordinary things. They parked their mini-vans, shopped, delivered the post. An intricately dressed Arab woman walked away from a car which reversed, at speed, into the roundabout, and then sailed off in a chorus of horns. It being Wednesday, passing buses disgorged flocks of children released from school for the weekly half-holiday. Three teenage girls giggled their way into the bakery, one rail-thin and already model-tall, the colour of her low-top Chuck Taylors perfectly co-ordinated to that of her red skinny jeans.
I try to wrap it all up in a neat writerly parcel. The girl in the pharmacy. The woman in the bakery. Life in France, me, me in it. Because that is what I do when I write. I classify, process, make safe. Tie it into a bundle and carry it, perhaps with a few spiny chitinous legs still squirming out around the edges, into that circular muniment room in my mind where lies my consciousness, my memory. Row upon row of drawers tower over me, a turret narrower at the top than at its base, with no indication of how one reaches items stored out of arm’s reach. At its vertiginous height is an elephant’s eye skylight, from which dusty sunlight filters down to mingle with scattered papers and dead leaves, their edges lifting in faint drafts from sources unseen. Against a half-open drawer rests a tired broom, its wooden handle pitted, its broomcorn tendrils frowsy with age. I slide the pharmacy into a nearby drawer, leave the room without looking back. Intend to lock the door.
But somehow, as always, leave it slightly ajar.
amrh / Mougins, February 2013