a change of ways
THE TOWN SQUARE, OR 180 Degrees
It was several miles from Paris when I started to wish I had accepted a lift from Jean-Claude and not tried to walk all the way back to my flat in the centre of Paris on the Ile Saint Louis. It was a warm spring day but dustier and muggier than I expected.
The road approaching the river at Chatou sur Seine stretched out like a scene from a painting by Monet even thouh it was 1960, a hundred years since he first painted it. I decided to give up my heroics when I reached Chatou and take the train into the city and then take a taxi from the Gare Saint Lazare. The welcoming station was just about in sight as I entered the town square and stopped at a Tabac for a cold beer and sandwich to keep up my strength. I thanked the young waiter but nearly choked before I even got the bread near my mouth.
“And consider yourself lucky you’ve got off so lightly! I usually prosecute thieves.” A small crowd gathered round a young girl lying exhausted on the cobbles, many of them spitting at her and making obscene gestures. One old haridan even went so far as to almost scream at her, “and if you haven’t any money make some the way you usually do! We don’t have whores in this town. We are a respectable community. On your way!”
I was quite simply horrified. Regardless of what she may have done she was obviously destitute and I was never so glad in my life that I spoke fluent French. As I walked over to the poor creature I could not resist shouting at the loud mouthed spokeswoman for the crowd, “Your husband must have very sore feet having to walk so far each evening.” Then I helped the girl to the place where I was sitting and asked what she would have. She looked at me as though I was mad. The waiter looked admiringly at me but out of his depth. I repeated my question and the owner of the cafe came up to me.
“I am sorry, Monsieur, but we do not serve girls like Nicole. It is house policy. Do please have your beer and sandwich on us.” I could not believe the double standards in what he said. But I silently took he sandwich and drink and stood up. All I said was,
“How do you know she is called Nicole? She seems too young to be your sister!” And he was so offended, and indignant in his stuttering reply, that Nicole had time to drink half the glass of beer before I took her by the hand and she ate the sandwich as we strolled to the station. It was only when I bought two tickets to Paris that she pulled up abruptly shaking her head. “Non, Monsieur, my appartment is further on by the river.” She was scared of me now and in an odd way for both of us. She was not exactly shabbily dressed but her shoes and thin jacket gave away the state of her finances. I was so set on helping her that I just sat on a bench outside the station and beckoned to her to join me.
“Now Nicole, I assume that is just your name for today, why can’t you make any money as you usually do? Are you ill, and what are you scared of?”
Then she told a tale straight out of an opera. “Oh Monsieur. It is true I have been working as a prostitute for more than two years now and I am not yet twenty, but I have never had any parents. The nuns at the orphanage assumed that all the girls there would become nuns and all the boys priests. They lectured us to death until one day I accepted an offer from a rich middle aged man to have dinner with him. Need I tell you the rest?” I shook my head. But I did ask one more question,
“You seemed very scared back there, what are you frightened of?” Her story was dreadful. After her first protector had finished with her she was roped into working in a brothel but she was scared that she was possibly pregnant. She was not sure, but her pimp told her he could get rid of any possibility of that. Then one lesson the nuns had taught her that had impressed her came back. All life was sacred and she could not kill an infant no matter how young. Life began with conception, she had been taught and she believed this. Even being uncertain that she might be pregnant she would never kill a baby. Her pimp gave her two days to reconsider and then he would make her wish she had never been born. She had no money and did not know what to do. So I told her.
“Well, to start with, what is your real name, I am only going to help you,” she told me it was Janine.”Eh bien, Janine, if you want to try to settle into a happier and less frightening life, I can help you. I am extremely wealthy and live on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris. I am in my last year at university at the Sorbonne and then hope to work at UNESCO for the United Nations. You know what all these organisations are?” She nodded but could not see how this would help her.
“Well, Janine, I have only six weeks to go at University and then I want to start writing a book on internatonal cultural relations. I shall need a secretary and I assume they taught you to read and write well at the orphanage. Would you like the job? You speak with quite a pleasant voice and nobody need know about your past?”
It was obvious the idea was magic to her, but she knew nothing about me. I could see this and did not know what to say to convince her I meant what I said. Then I had an idea. I could see her jacket had pockets in it and I slipped an envelope into one of them. “Janine that will cover all your needs for at least a month.” It was $5,000 in French francs and my address written on the envelope. I gave her one of the train tickets I had bought and said I hoped to see her very soon. When the train came we got into different carriages. I said a silent prayer for her and made my own way back to my luxury appartment.
For nearly three weeks I kept a daily look out for her but she never came. I had put my first name only on the envelope and had almost given up hope when I was intrigued to notice a man very obviously keeping an eye on me in my local bar and favourite restaurant for three days in a row. On the fourth day, wearing just a shirt and slacks I let him get close to me when I spun on him and pinned him to a drain pipe. “Why are you following me, who are you. Be quick or this knife in my other hand will really hurt.” He was sacred stiff.
“You are Monsieur Paul?” I nodded. “And this is yours?” He handed me my envelope without a note spent from it. He was smiling now. “I have been looking into you and your affairs for nearly a month now and am satisfied that you are a good man, a rich man and a clever man. You are also, I can see, a very compassionate man.”And he held out his hand.
We went into the bar and over a glass of wine he told me he had been at the orphanage with Janine and had been trying to get her to give up her way of life for some time, but finally gave up.
It was she who came to him on the night we met and told him about me and how much she wanted to work for me. But she was scared of me because she knew nothing about me at all. She gave him my money and he had been looking after her until he knew enough about me to be sure she would be safe working for me. His name was Pascale Boncourt. He wanted to take me to Janine at once and we went to his appartment near the pont d’Alma. She was in tears on seeing me and flung her arms round my neck.
I accepted the $5,000 I had given her and could see Pascale had bought her clothes and anthing else she needed.
I had started writing my book but suddenly realised it was in English and might be far too difficult for her. It was, but I told her all I wanted was a clean copy typed version and there was no rush. She might even learn some English at the same time.
“Janine, I own the first and second floors of this building, facing the river, a total of 14 rooms. Also there is a lift to all five floors and I know that there is a four room appartment to let on the fourth floor, so if you are happy to work for me for $1,000 a month that should keep you in all you need. Oh, by the way, are you pregnant?” She shook her head and added,
”I have not yet met the right man!”
I start work at UNESCO in two weeks time and that is our situation as of today. Oh, in what way was any of this a complete turn about in my normal behaviour? Well it was the first time I ever picked up a whore in the street.