It was, if I’m honest, something in her expression, the brief flash of annoyance when he held out his arm. This man, this Édouard Lefèvre, had the power to make one of Paris’s brightest stars feel dull and invisible. And he had chosen me over her.
I peeped up at him. ‘Just some water, then, thank you.’
We walked back to the table. ‘Misty, my darling, this is Sophie Bessette.’ Her smile remained, but there was ice in her gaze as it ran the length of me. I wondered if she remembered me serving her at the department store. ‘Clogs,’ one of her gentlemen said from behind her. ‘How very … quaint.’
The murmur of laughter made my skin prickle. I took a breath.
‘The emporium will be full of them for the spring season,’ I replied calmly. ‘They are the very latest thing. It’s la mode paysanne.’
I felt Édouard’s fingertips touch my back.
‘With the finest ankles in all Paris, I think Mademoiselle Bessette may wear what she likes.’
A brief silence fell over the group, as the significance of Édouard’s words sank in. Mistinguett’s eyes slid away from me. ‘Enchantée,’ she said, her smile dazzling. ‘Édouard, darling, I must go. So, so busy. Call on me very soon, yes?’ She held out her gloved hand and he kissed it. I had to drag my eyes from his lips. And then she was gone, a ripple passing through the crowd, as if she were parting water.
So, we sat. Édouard Lefèvre stretched out in his chair as if he were surveying a beach while I was still rigid with awkwardness. Without saying anything, he handed me a drink and there was just the faintest apology in his expression as he did so, with – was it really? – a hint of suppressed laughter. As if it – they – were all so ridiculous that I could not feel slighted.
Surrounded by the joyful people dancing, the laughter and the bright blue skies, I began to relax. Édouard spoke to me with the utmost politeness, asking about my life before Paris, the politics within the shop, breaking off occasionally to put his cigarette into the corner of his mouth and shout, ‘Bravo!’ at the band, clapping his great hands high in the air. He knew almost everybody. I lost track of the number of people who stopped to say hello or to buy him a drink; artists, shopkeepers, speculative women. It was like being with royalty. Except I could see their gaze flickering towards me, while they wondered what a man who could have had Mistinguett was doing with a girl like me.
‘The girls at the store say you talk to les putains of Pigalle.’ I couldn’t help myself: I was curious.
‘I do. And many of them are excellent company.’
‘Do you paint them?’
‘When I can afford their time.’ He nodded at a man who tipped his hat to us. ‘They make excellent models. They are generally utterly unselfconscious about their bodies.’
He saw my blush. After a brief hesitation, he placed his hand over mine, as if in apology. It made me colour even more. ‘Mademoiselle,’ he said softly. ‘Those pictures were my failure, not yours. I have …’ He changed tack. ‘You have other qualities. You fascinate me. You are not intimidated by much.’
‘No,’ I agreed. ‘I don’t believe I am.’
We ate bread, cheese and olives, and they were the best olives I had ever tasted. He drank pastis, knocking back each glass with noisy relish. The afternoon crept on. The laughter grew louder, the drinks came faster. I allowed myself two small glasses of wine, and began to enjoy myself. Here, in the street, on this balmy day, I was not the provincial outsider, the shop girl on the lowest-but-one rung of the ladder. I was just another reveller, enjoying the Bastille celebrations.
And then Édouard pushed back the table and stood in front of me. ‘Shall we dance?’
I could not think of a reason to refuse him. I took his hand, and he swung me out into the sea of bodies. I had not danced since I had left St Péronne. Now I felt the breeze whirling around my ears, the weight of his hand on the small of my back, my clogs unusually light on my feet. He carried the scents of tobacco, aniseed, and something male that left me a little short of breath.
I don’t know what it was. I had drunk little, so I could not blame the wine. It’s not as if he were particularly handsome, or that I had felt my life lacking for the absence of a man.
‘Draw me again,’ I said.
He stopped and looked at me, puzzled. I couldn’t blame him: I was confused myself.
‘Draw me again. Today. Now.’
He said nothing, but walked back to the table, gathered up his tobacco, and we filed through the crowd and along the teeming streets to his studio.
We went up the narrow wooden stairs, unlocked the door into the bright studio, and I waited while he shed his jacket, put a record on the gramophone and began to mix the paint on his palette. And then, as he hummed to himself, I began to unbutton my blouse. I removed my shoes and my stockings. I peeled off my skirts until I was wearing only my chemise and my white cotton petticoat. I sat there, undressed to my very corset, and unpinned my hair so that it fell about my shoulders. When he turned back to me I heard him gasp.
‘Like this?’ I said.
Anxiety flashed across his face. He was, perhaps, afraid that his paintbrush would yet again betray me. I kept my gaze steady, my head high. I looked at him as if it were a challenge. And then some artistic impulse took over and he was already lost in contemplation of the unexpected milkiness of my skin, the russet of my loosened hair, and all semblance of concern for probity was forgotten. ‘Yes, yes. Move your head, a little to the left, please.’ he said. ‘And your hand. There. Open your palm a little. Perfect.’
As he began to paint, I watched him. He scanned every inch of my body with intense concentration, as if it would be unbearable to get it wrong. I watched as satisfaction inked itself on his face, and I felt it mirror my own. I had no inhibitions now. I was Mistinguett, or a street-walker from Pigalle, unafraid, unselfconscious. I wanted him to examine my skin, the hollows of my throat, the secret glowing underside of my hair. I wanted him to see every part of me.
As he painted I took in his features, the way he murmured to himself while mixing colours on his palette. I watched him shamble around, as if he were older than he was. It was an affectation – he was younger and stronger than most of the men who came into the store. I recalled how he ate: with obvious, greedy pleasure. He sang along with the gramophone, painted when he liked, spoke to whom he wished and said what he thought. I wanted to live as Édouard did, joyfully, sucking the marrow out of every moment and singing because it tasted so good.
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