Looking at the aged couple bickering in the corner of my Metro carriage, I doubt this is the City of Love. I don’t quite understand what they are saying, but the words “Dans le café encore une fois?” and “J’ai besoin de mes boules” keep cropping up. The woman’s face is as harsh as a citron pressé without the sugar, the man’s as soft as a beignet, but his eyes bead like raisins.
The train screeches round a corner and the lights go off for a moment. I start to make up their story. The man has another woman whom he meets every Friday night to go to the “Formula One” hotel, while his wife sits around reading Harlequins and feeling guilty for watching the “boys band”. Old enough to be their grandma.
I am desperate for things to write about, I’ve been in Paris for three weeks and I haven’t even planned my first novel. And two days after my one-off conquest I am about to face my biggest
challenge: giving a talk based on my dissertation to a class of Maitrisse students.
I fight my way out of the Metro. Outside the light is clean and white, the building are tall and slightly run-down. People mill around calmly, detached from the bustle below. This is the
Marais, the oldest part of Paris. It was the marsh, and these are mainly tourists admiring the old hotels, not a care in the world, except for doing Montparnasse by five o’clock and still getting to see the Eiffel Tower. I get stuck behind Americans playing spot the old building, and I have only five minutes to get to the university.
I enter the university and am immediately confronted with the coolness of these people – there seems to be more cigarettes in the hall than people – and more smoke rings than that. I open
a big red door with no name on it and sit down at the back of the classroom, trying to remember the underwear thing, then laughing out loud, because their underwear is bound to be so much better than my Marks and Sparks three for a fiver big knickers.
I am addressing the class of a certain Mme Martin, a friend of a professor at home. Eleven elegant Isabelle Adjani lookalikes stride past and sit down, after flicking their various black hair whichever way it isn’t meant to go, and then, a cute two seconds later, back again. The most perfect of them all, all glamour and maturity glides in to greet her girls. Mme Martin’s smile is as perfect as a disinfected bathroom.
They talk for several minutes about trips to England in stilted English. They haven’t noticed me, I feel proud that I’ve blended in so well. It must be my new Parisian image. Anything as long as it is black. Except for the cardigan my Grandma knitted me for Christmas, though even that can look swish with bootleg trousers. I cough to get their attention.
Twelve eyes glare.
“Hello class, let me present to you, Aleece Smeets. She is visiting Paris on an exchange, but her professeur Mr. Fortescue-Smyth asked her to give her a talk on her memoir.”
I take it as a cue, and am pleased by the welcoming smiles on the French girl’s faces. “I understand that you are currently studying the works of James Kelman.”
Blank looks for five seconds, then one girl, who looks as if she sleeps in Kookai, says, “Yes we are studying zee decline of zee modern Briteesh Fiction.”
“Decline? OK. Well I’m here to present a paper on the renaissance of British fiction, but I suppose that it’s the furry side of the shellsuit. I will start with a potted history of Post-War England…” A few blank looks, but I get on with it, presenting my run down on angry young men, angry young women until….
“Where are you from?”
“I’m taking a postmodernist perspective, I’m focusing on Booker Prize winners, I’m writing in favour of…”
“But what part of England do you come from?”
This isn’t in the script. “I’m from,” I say frum, “Derbyshire. But…” Is it important?
“Derbyshire, is not that near Kent?” says the Kookai girl.
Nods of approval spread through the class, including strangely enough Mme Martin.
I think I’d better correct them, even if it isn’t relevant to my dissertation. “Well actually it’s in the North Midlands. In the North.”
“Oh, yes near to Manchester, I went there once. Yes your Cream is very good.”
Cream? That’s in Liverpool. I decide to go with the Manchester comment.
“Well it’s a bit south of there: nearer to Nottingham.”
“You are Robin Hood?
Madame Martin addresses her girls. “Well, class, don’t we think that it is very interesting to hear the accent of the North.”
“Midlands,” I say, sheepishly.
“Yes, we are very interested in the accents, though we find it difficult to understand, is it not?”
A girl with girder cheekbones chips in. “We are creating an archive of rural customs, perhaps you could come to the culture lesson and we could record you, no?”
“Well my accent isn’t actually that strong to be perfectly honest.”
“I’m sorry could you say that again?”
I repeat last couple of lines for her then continue with a history of Thatcherism and the miners, Morris and the Minors. Even a little bit about Europe, but it didn’t figure very much in the books I read. I notice a few nods in the audience, though that is perhaps because someone had their music on in their car outside.
“I am very sorry. Could you perhaps repeat that again?”
I’m quoting from James Kelman so I quite enjoy that. “‘Fuck it. He shook his head and glanced up the way…'”
Mme Martin stops me again. “I’m sorry…”
“‘… people – there were people there; eyes looking. These eyes looking…'” It was a point about the all-pervading media, about Big Brother, about close circuit television. I trip up, almost phlegm on the table. Twelve disapproving looks, twelve flicks of the head. And I can swear one of the girls is singing now, “you say silver, I choose gold…”
I try to regularise each guttural “u”, each drawling sound, straining to change my voice. Mme Martin stares hard at the wall as if it is trying to kill her. She is transfixed.
Then she speaks. “Derbysheere, you say?”
Well actually we say Derbyshire, but I’ll let you off. “Derbysheere, that is where there is beautiful scenery, and you have well dressings, no?”
“Yes, in the spring and summertime, all colourful and made of flower petals,” and is it relevant? Not as if I’m not proud of my county, but I’ve moved away. It’s where my parents live. I have warmer feelings for the southern town where I spent three years of uni. I thought being there had wiped out the Derbyshire drawl. I carry on, about Trainspotting and drug culture.
“I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?”
I bet she’s looking at my roots thinking, “you could do with new highlights darling, and how about new glasses – they don’t suit your face shape, you could be so pretty with the right make-up.”
I just started wearing eyeliner, but my elbow slipped off the bathroom mirror this morning, so I took it off again.
I go back into “it’s shite to be Scottish” and “who’s skagging up?” Into Gaelic, and Welsh and Welsh…
“Could you put that on the board please, Christiane cannot keep up with your words, are you sure that that is the pronunciation?”
“Well, it’s Gaelic, but that’s how everyone says it, I guess. It’s my accent.” And one of the girls actually makes a note.
And my best shirt feels like Top Shop seconds, and I am not glowing, or even perspiring but sweating like a bacon pig.
“Oh, sorry, could you put it on the board please.” It’s the bloody Gaelic again, I squeak up an approximate spelling.
But I carry on and conclude with the new movements in East Anglia, with new writers, new hopes for Europe even.
“Thank you, Alison. We all enjoyed this very much class, did we not?”
Mumbled, but ever gracious thanks from the girls.
“And give my thanks to professor Fortescue-Smyth when you see him.”
“I won’t forget.” She smiles a rubbery smile.
“And thank you… for…” I have a quick think, “the experience. It has been very… challenging to approach the texts from a comparative perspective.” That shuts her up. And Madame Martin and her perfume leave the room.
The girls wake up. Kookai woman decides to flex her language muscles. “So where did you say you were from again?” She moves her papers around on her desk, flashing her diamond engagement ring.
After the other girls stop cooing, I answer. “Derbyshire”
“Oh,” a dramatic pause, “is not that where Trainspotting is set?”
I look round at the agreeing faces. “Yes. Yes. Its capital, Matlock, is the heart of the Scottish drug trafficking industry. The local mafia is called the Rams.”
They are writing this down. Suckers.
“Trainspotting is actually set in a city called Ilkeston, where there have been a number of famous shootings this year.”
A few ohs. And a “…and you live there.”
They stop staring at the engagement ring and look at me.
“Yes, but I’m OK as I’m in with some of the gangs, I know the right people you know.” I turn up the collar of my wool cardigan. “Begbie’s actually modelled on my father.”
One of the girls asks me where I got my bag, but I am unspecific, which makes them ask even more.
“Yes the famous football team plays in the same colours as the local, tartan – black and white, it represents the dichotomy between good and evil in the texts.” They write that down too.
“Black and white, underworld versus overworld, though everywhere’s underworld now the mines have closed, a recurring theme in the stories.”
Even Kookai girl looks impressed; she speaks for the group, “Thank you very much for your help. Have a safe journey back to…”
“Derbyshire. Yes thanks and good luck with your exams next week.” As I get up, Madame Martin wafts back in.
“Goodbye. And have we got lots of notes, class?”
Well they have five lines to work on. I was so nice spelling it all out for them so they’d understand. They got it all down.
I leave the stuffy courtyard of the university ready for anything. I am in Paris, and I want to be there. So I can move house, I can meet new people, I already have. I stand on the Pont Marie and throw my dissertation pages into the murky Seine, one by one, like a lizard shedding skins.