Blast | March 14, 2019
BLAST: “Avenge Me on the French” by Gary Pedler
Welcome to the first installment of BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose “anthology,” featuring fiction and nonfiction too impetuous and diverting to be confined between the covers of a journal.
The idea was first suggested to us by a sly, voice-driven story set in Paris, about a love affair gone wrong, that arrived in our slush pile and was simply too much fun not to publish. Our enjoyment was unanimous, and BLAST was born, named as a nod to the short-lived Vorticist journal edited by Wyndham Lewis. If we don’t exactly share all the ardently militant goals of the original journal, we share an ardent desire to publish the best of the many artful prose works we discover in a venue available to readers everywhere. We hope you enjoy “Avenge Me on the French.” Look for our next installment in 8 weeks.
Avenge Me on the French
March 16, 201_
Sorry, darling, this won’t be one of my usual messages, with lots of girlish chit-chat and allusions to our horrible-wonderful school days together. No, this message will be dry and practical, one you can print out and take with you that explains how to get to my flat and how things work there so you can enjoy it to the full during your stay. Yes, my sweet, you will be in Paris, City of Light, while I’m languishing here in London, City of Half-Lights, City of Gray Coffin-lid Skies that Never Change. In London, and back in the family manse at that, back home in my old room at the advanced age of thirty-four. In London, far from him.
First things first – get yourself from Gare du Nord to the Luxembourg station on the RER. I’m sure you’ve had enough naughty weekends in Paris not to need an explanation of how to manage that. Popping above ground onto Boul’Mich, resist the temptation to walk west, toward the divine Jardin. Time for that later, after you’ve hauled that bright yellow suitcase of yours south instead, adding the rumble of its little wheels to the urban cacophony.
Turn left on the first street, rue de l’Abbé de l’Épee. Keep an eye out for my favorite block of flats. This has a beautifully carved stone facade, cabriole legs that end in lion’s paws on either side of the windows, the doorway framed by branches twined with garlands. The man who sculpted it even included his signature, as if it were a painting. Oh for the days when a building facade could be considered a work of art!
Lovely building, but I had a not so lovely encounter one morning with a woman who barreled out of the front door. In her haste, she actually walked right over my toes, without so much as an Excusez-moi, madame. The French are so rude about sharing public space. “Remember to avenge me on the French.”
Turn right on rue Saint-Jacques. Do you know this street, pet? It was the main route south out of Paris as far back as Roman times. Pilgrims set off on it for the long, long trail a-winding to Santiago de Compostela. As you go, picture their phantoms traipsing along beside you, with their wool capes and wide-brimmed hats and long walking sticks. After Baron Haussmann plowed Boul’Mich through, that became the local high street instead. Not such a bad thing, since it meant rue Saint-Jacques was left alone and not Haussmann-handled.
On your right, you pass a school for the deaf, founded in 1760 by the Abbé honored in the street you just left behind. You’re likely to pass a group of people standing before the entrance using sign language. I often imagined insisting that he enroll there, he who could so easily be taken for deaf.
A short ways down, you come to Le Vin Sobre, a good café if you want to snatch something to eat or drink. The Sober Wine, a contradictory name. Fittingly, he of the many contradictions liked spending time there. Sipping his coffee at one of the outdoor tables and turning the pages of Le Monde. Perfectly dressed. Even after a year-long affair, I’m not entirely sure how this was achieved, the unending perfection of dress and grooming. I’ve long suspected some sort of French Perfection Kit is made available exclusively to natives, containing a miniature iron and other useful implements.
If you don’t mind the steep prices, the boucherie farther on is excellent. Through the window and beyond a gorgeous display of dead animal parts, you’ll see M. Plenel and his assistant, always nattily turned out, complete with red ties. He was contradictory, truly. Very French in that he was no help in the kitchen or with housework. That was a woman’s responsibility, even if nowadays the woman occupied a stressful sixty-hour-a-week executive position like he did. He insisted on buying the meat, however. Meat was a man’s business.
See up ahead where the street makes a slight, but definite jog to the right? That’s a signal that you’ve almost arrived. Look for 289. Wave the magic wand of the electronic key over the gray pad on the wall and poof! you’re through the street door. Wave it again over the other pad inside and you’re through the inner door. I love the wand. Whenever I entered with him, I would call out, “Open Sesame Seeds!” He never commented. He was too cool, he couldn’t admit not knowing exactly what I meant, the strange Englishwoman.
Through a third door, not locked, and into the courtyard. Pause to admire the splendid magnolia tree growing here and the small quaint building in front of you where you’ll spend your jolly holiday. See the side of the building that rises behind? Curious, isn’t it? It’s more than twice as high as my building and presents a strange unbroken face, with brown and yellow stones that remind me of a leopard skin. This building used to be a convent, if my downstairs neighbor got his history right. Maybe the lack of windows was intended to discourage nuns from fleeing and scoundrels from intruding. Maybe I would have been better off in the convent. He wouldn’t have troubled me there.
Enter my building and climb a twisting flight of stairs. Pause to admire the steps, each made from a varnished piece of rough-hewn wood. Pause on the first floor landing to see how the stairs continue up another seven steps before ending suddenly in a wall, like a ghost vanishing through solid matter. My neighbor believes our building was originally a hotel serving the convent. Clearly it used to have three stories. When it was converted into flats, the owner sliced off part of the third floor, creating sleeping lofts for the two upper units, with a sloping ceiling above the salon and a skylight.
My door is the one just in front of you as you come up the stairs. You open it with the larger of the two keys I sent you. The other is for the Open Sesame Seeds doors if the wand doesn’t work, though it always does for me.
I hope you like the flat. I do, I love everything about it. The red carpet I admit I didn’t care for at first. The yellow curtains splashed with red parrots that I bought reconciled me to it, and the red sofa. To my mind, the way I placed the two wooden chairs in front of the two windows with the table in between is very French, symmetrical. When I’ve tried other arrangements, the room complains. Please water the marigolds in the symmetrical window boxes. Since it hasn’t rained in two weeks, they’re probably parched. Yes, I’ve been checking on the weather in Paris. Finding it difficult to let go entirely, I suppose.
What else needs explaining? Not much, I think. The flat is very comfortable, convenient. He was certainly of that opinion. “You’ve made your home so pretty and charming,” he would say. “You have everything so well-organized.” We almost always spent our time together here, not at his place.
I suspect I wasn’t so well-organized at the end, in those mad last few days before I bolted. Please accept my apologies if I left the place in a mess, and for my not even being entirely sure.
We stayed in my flat and socialized with his friends. That’s how things arranged themselves. When our affair turned sour and I was moaning to my sister, she said, “What do your friends think of this man?” A good question, and it would have been useful to know the answer. The truth is, my friends hardly got a glimpse of him. Even Sabine only knew him slightly. A friend of hers brought him along to the party where we met.
I imagine you’re looking around the flat, dear, worried he’s left lots of traces, men’s toiletries, underpants. Don’t. He did a good job of keeping himself traceless, like a thief who wipes off his fingerprints as he works. He rarely left things here, only the bare minimum. As if he always knew the relationship might end, would end.
What little did remain, I put in a box and gave back to him. Sometimes I think of all the people in the world who must do this at the end of an affair, return the former lover’s detritus in a box. With everything else marketed these days, has no one thought of offering this for sale, the End of the Affair Box? Specially designed. Reusable on a future occasion by the person who receives it.
He did leave one memento behind, though you may not spot it unless I point it out. A riding crop hanging from its leather loop on a small nail in the kitchen. “You can use this on me when I misbehave,” he said to me once. He did have a sense of humor. He could sometimes be a little sweet and funny.
He’s a horseman, did I tell you? Hence the crop. He would take me to country houses on weekends, and he and his horsey friends would set off on hunts. Yes, who would think they rode to hounds in France, though they mainly hunt stags, not foxes. I can’t say I was thrilled to discover our two countries have this dreadful pastime in common. Nothing for me to do the whole time except read and mooch about in the garden, since I’m terribly sorry, I grew up in Crouch End and not Chipping Camden, and I’m afraid I don’t ride. Their hunting outfits were stunning, though, I have to admit.
As you may be realizing, this man is a class act. The possessor of bac plus cinq. Do you know how that works? In France, instead of saying one has a masters or a doctorate, one says one has bac plus deux or bac plus trois, baccalaureate plus however many years one studied in the university. He’s bac plus cinq, which is quite prestigious. Yes, he’s posh. He has a posh car, a posh ex-wife, a posh flat (not a house, but hardly anyone in Paris owns an actual house), two posh children I had almost as little contact with as my friends had with him.
Maybe I would have been better off with a dustman. “You never compliment me,” I told him once. A rare moment of complaint, for as you know, I don’t like complainers. Pas mal was the best he could do, “not bad.” That may have extended to all aspects of me: my looks were not bad, my brain not bad, my French not bad. One didn’t get a compliment, just a relief from criticism, that something about one wasn’t actually bad. He didn’t deny it, that he failed to give praise. He just said that wasn’t how he’d been brought up. “My parents never told me, ʻYou’re such a fine boy, you did so well on your exam.’ Just, ʻYou’d better do as well on the next one.’”
He was inscrutable. Recessed – that’s the word that always came to mind. He seemed to look out at me from a cave. When I saw him for the first time, I had trouble telling what color his eyes were, though he was talking with Sabine just six feet away. “Why is it so difficult?” I wondered. “What makes his eyes seem so oddly in shadow?” Sabine introduced me, and we started talking. I figured out that several elements combined to create the effect. He had a dark coloration around his eyes, the bones of his brows were somewhat prominent, and his eyelids sagged slightly.
Blue, I determined at last. His eyes were blue.
Do be careful on the stairs up to the loft. As you can see, they’re quite steep and the steps are shallow. It’s more like a ladder than a staircase. Sometimes he would be up there in bed, waiting for me, and as a kind of joke I would climb to him using my hands, my feet, even my knees. I’m not sure that was wise, crawling up to him on my knees.
“Was he good in bed?” you might ask, as one girlfriend to another. Yes. However, I mean that in a particular way. I mean it was in bed that his goodness showed itself the most.
How near you are to someone when you make love. I could smell that particular scent he had, that scent I only smelled when we were making love, were that close. If I’d cooked that night, we’d have the same food in our stomachs. I could hear him breathe, or rather hear his exhalations, his small faint pants. His hand would run down my body, and I would imagine a string of lights switching on at dusk, one after another, one bit of flesh after another coming alive.
I’m sorry, I digress. It’s all the fault of the way I’m writing this. If I were using the old-fashioned method, writing by hand, I would keep more to the point. I’m sure that’s what gives older books their air of restraint. We write faster and faster as one era succeeds another, progressing from quill to pen to typewriter to computer keyboard. The person writing doesn’t have time to think better of putting down certain things. Almost before she knows it, they’ve raced into existence.
Having started down this path, I’ll add just one more thing. A real person looked out at me from the cave, someone who wasn’t all bad by any means. Of course, that was what kept me going with him when I should have stopped long ago. Should have turned away after that first meeting at Sabine’s, after that talk with the man who was so recessed.
You see the bed? That’s where our affair ended. Not with him in it, only me, during that terrible illness I had last month, that French flu or whatever it was. I thought the English did bang-up flus, but this Froggy one surpassed anything I’d experienced on the sceptered isle. Nothing for me to do except lie in bed day after day, staring at the sloping ceiling, the angled skylight. The skylight with the rain pouring over it was like a river. I lay at the bottom of the river, looking up at the gray sky.
I waited for the mobile beside my pillow to ring. I checked it now and then to make sure it was actually working, because it was so difficult to believe he just wouldn’t call for hour after hour, day after day, knowing I was so ill, trapped at home. The bastard. “When I am dead and gone,/Remember to avenge me on the French.” What is that from? Shakespeare, I assume, probably one of the Henrys. It keeps running through my head.
Once I was well again, finally, I called him. I gave him a tongue lashing, and I was happy to do it in French. French is an excellent language for expressing anger, which should suggest something about the culture. “I don’t deal well with illness,” he said. “Yes, poor thing, that’s just how you are,” I said. “It’s your upbringing and your background. It’s maman and papa and the school system and the Académie française, and the Battle of the Marne and the St. Bartholomew’s Days Massacre.” I stopped, and then I thought, I don’t have anything more to say to this man. So I hung up. Just hung up midconversation, something I’d never done to him before.
I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have launched into this story. I’ve been very discreet until now, never even telling you his name for all those months. Or was it just that I felt the whole business would be too difficult to explain?
To conclude the tale now that I’ve begun it. The next day, he turned up at my office. Monsieur Bac Plus Cinq actually showed up at my office in the middle of the work day, forced to admit to the receptionist that no, he didn’t have an appointment. He hadn’t brought a big apology bouquet, as you might expect. Instead, an apology teapot. I’d broken mine and lamented that I couldn’t find one like it here in Paris for making proper English tea. He had managed to find one, an almost identical teapot. The first present he’d offered in a year-long affair, if you don’t count the riding crop. However, by then my mind was made up. “I never want to see you again,” I told him. Luckily I’d brought the End of the Affair Box to the office. I could show him the door with that under one of his arms and the teapot box under the other.
Let’s get back to the flat. I think I’ve told you everything you need to know about it. Once you’ve unpacked, if it’s a nice day, the first thing you should do is pay your respects to the Jardin du Luxembourg. That was the crowning glory to this flat when I took it, that it was a fifteen-minute walk from the most beautiful park in the world. A place where every detail is perfect, down to the bright pink of the geraniums in the stone urns. I remember thinking one day, “Even that cloud above the park is especially beautiful, and maybe it wouldn’t look as beautiful if it were floating over some other, less magical part of the city.”
Oh, hell, go to the park whether or not it’s a nice day, if it’s cloudy, even if it’s raining. It will still be exquisite. Yes, let’s assume the worst case scenario, the scenario that isn’t in truth so bad, that it starts to rain as you set off back up rue Saint-Jacques, along rue de l’Abbé de l’Épee. Only a few drops at first, just enough to make a woman ahead of you dressed in a lavender skirt put up her lavender umbrella. The rain turns a little heavier as you pass through the gate and enter the park, though the dust still rises beneath your feet as you scuff along the paths, rain mixing with the dust. Two guards patrol in blue slickers. Raindrops falling on the metal chairs make chiming sounds, as if they were a strange form of xylophone.
An idea came to me on my farewell walk here on another wet day, with the rain crackling on my umbrella. The idea of inventing a new religion, the Religion of Relaxation. That’s the religion I want to practice. I need to relax more. That’s what everyone tells me, even the doctor I went to see about this rash that broke out on my arm toward the end of the affair. Just relax. I think of so many people throughout my life who should have converted to this religion, like that uptight Mrs. Bradley who sent me to the head teacher because she was so bothered by my talking in History. Remember her? If only she could have Just Relaxed.
The first thing I’ll relax about is one Frenchman in particular, the memory of him. The second is the French in general. Look around you at this park. Don’t you agree that any culture that created a place this beautiful in the past and maintains it as carefully in the present must be great? It was so easy to have that conversation with my Brit friends about how terrible the French were, so this and so that. If we truly thought they were so terrible, we should have lived elsewhere.
I will not dislike the French. Instead, I’ll recall those occasions when suddenly, they could be so nice. Come to think of it, almost my last encounter with a French person, fleeing the city, was nice. When I exited the RER at Gare du Nord, the two sides of the gate grabbed onto my wheeled suitcase like a pincer; my suitcase that’s almost as large as yours, dear. A Frenchman leaving through the gate next to mine gave a pull on one of the pincers, and voilà, I was through. He barely broke his stride, barely looked at me, yet he did take an instant to be helpful to a fellow human being.
It rained on the train ride back to England, too. The raindrops on the windows like tears, with the forward rush of the train brushing them away, putting them behind.
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you where to put your rubbish to be collected. That’s a little complicated. . . .
Raised in Napa Valley and a resident of San Francisco for several decades, Gary Pedler qualifies as a true Bay Area denizen. After leaving behind a white-collar job, he’s spent most of his time exploring different parts of the world and, of course, writing about everything. His forthcoming debut collection is a travel memoir, Couchsurfing: the Musical, scheduled for publication by Adelaide Books in March, 2019.
About this story, he writes:
Writers are thieves. We seldom acknowledge this fact, but it’s true. In “Avenge Me on the French,” I stole the affair gone sour from an Englishwoman I knew slightly and the framework (an explanatory message that spirals out of control to a person who will stay in one’s home) from an actor, who told me he planned to use it to create a dramatic monologue. Even the apartment in the story is stolen in a sense, since it belonged not to me but to a friend.
The story was written during a period when I was traveling long-term—for three years, to be precise, living out of a suitcase, with only one pair of pants to my name. I got the idea of writing a series of stories, each one set in a different country where I’d spent time. The series starts in Singapore and makes its way to Guatemala, with this Parisian story coming about midway in the sequence.