The French Man by Sarah Gedye

‘I am so stressed.’

A few months prior to this particular morning coffee my neighbour Olivier had bought a flat. He had been looking for a flat to buy for over a year before one had seemingly fallen into his lap: the flat next door to his, of which the previous occupant had stopped paying his rent and promptly disappeared. The landlord was keen to sell this burdensome apartment and Olivier was excited to buy it. Upon buying it and gutting it of all its debris and the previous tenant’s crumbling affairs, he had discovered the decomposing remains of the previous tenant’s wife in a bin bag. Olivier had deemed this awful—and once the initial shock of the discovery had departed, typical. It had slowed down all renovation plans.

‘Everything is so expensive. Everything is costing more than I anticipated. I have to go to the police station again to fill in forms. I have no time because of work. I have not done any work on my book for ages. It’s just awful. Really, I want to kill myself.’

‘No, you don’t.’

‘I do!’

‘Stop saying you want to kill yourself.’

Other people in the café kept glancing up.

‘I am fed up,’ he announced, placing his empty coffee cup on the bar and looking around the café accusingly. ‘I don’t even want the flat any more. It’s all too much trouble for fucking 30 square metres.’

‘I thought it was 25,’ I said pettishly.

‘Exactly.’

Feeling bored with this familiar line of complaint, I changed the subject. It was morning and he wanted to moan, but the subject matter was not so important. I always made an effort to alternate between topics; and whilst there was a set menu, it was nice to pick different things. However, for someone who seemed to take life so seriously, Olivier was often drunk and laughed a lot. He enjoyed people watching, dancing, inviting strangers from the street to his parties. He often climbed out onto his roof to look at Paris and once hit a bad melon into the sky with a baseball bat. He had the fresh mischievous face of a boy who had been running through a garden chasing a cat. He looked much younger than his 32 years, which explained why he was so attached to his moustache; without it, he looked about 18. Its neatly combed line made him look faintly ridiculous and slightly stuck on, like an accountant with poor acting skills who once had a walk-on moment of glory in a bad play.

‘What’s your book about?’ I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

‘Oh, it is a terrible book, so boring. It is my thesis on the French 17th century painter Loutherbourg.’

‘Why are you writing it if it’s boring?’

‘Because no one else has written about him, I am the world expert on Loutherbourg.’

‘That’s good, a world expert!’

‘Chuh. Well, you know, if I could just get my fucking apartment sorted, I would actually have some time to work on my book. The bank is being so shitty with me that I am going to have to spend tomorrow making phone calls and writing letters, you know, when really I would like to do a little bit of work and then go out for a really good dinner, and maybe to a bar. Instead, I will probably just stay in and kill myself.’ He glanced at the clock on the wall. ‘Let’s get another coffee.’

‘Really? Don’t you have to be at work?’

‘Chuh, what’s the point! No, it doesn’t matter, let’s have another coffee.’

He nodded to the waiter and signalled at his cup. The waiter shot him a dirty look before wrenching the expresso device out of the machine and slamming the old granules into the bin.

‘Asshole,’ muttered Olivier.

‘What! I like Raymond, he’s always nice to me.’

‘Yes, men are nice to you because you’re a girl and you are stupid. But this man is an asshole.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Seriously, he is nice to all the girls. This old man with an earring—no girlfriend, but he thinks he has a sort of charm with women.’

Olivier didn’t like earrings, tattoos, colourful hair or wacky clothes; he dismissed them all with baffled fascination and mild horror. He liked old fashioned glamour and for people to be well put together. If he was ever genuinely down, I would ask him to give me some tips on how to improve my general appearance because, as he never failed to remind me, ‘You could really be something if you were less messy with less weird clothes.’ This was fine with me, we were irreconcilably different; a friendship built on mutual confusion about the other’s attire and manner. Our little judgments of each other may have seemed damning or upsetting, but it was our way of saying to each other, “You exist in my world as an important person and I give you my attention.” Negative or otherwise, attention is attention, and this is how we conveyed our day to day affection—it was only truly affectionate when things were truly sad or troublesome, upon which Olivier would exclaim, ‘My poor dear Janis! What did happen? Let us walk!’ Then we would go for a walk, arm in arm like an old couple.

The coffee had arrived.

‘Merci.’ I watched him take a sugar lump, unwrap it, break it into two and place one half delicately on the tea spoon before lowering it slowly into the cup. The coffee seeped into the sugar like litmus paper. He stirred, before looking up around him with hope and satisfaction.

‘Mmm, coffee. You know I really felt like summer was coming this morning. I love that, Paris in the summer.’

Much as he tried to adopt the attitude of a serious pessimist, on the whole he really did enjoy himself. Smells, sounds, and moments would often catch him off guard and make him happy. He found pleasure as frequently as he found irritation and would often beam at me as he announced something as simple as, ‘I had a really good avocado for lunch. It was just perfect.’

Despite his protestations of suicide and solitude, later that night in our classic neighbourly fashion, Frankie and I were sat in Olivier’s apartment drinking wine. I went to the window to light a cigarette. I could see out onto the crumbly moonlit street and into the little stone walled apartment that Frankie and I shared.  We had left our lights on. The top floor of our building was also lit up and there was a party going on.

‘Julie is having a party,’ I announced, blowing a plume of smoke out of the window. Julie lived on the top floor of the same building as Frankie and I.

‘Why do you always leave your lights on?’ asked Olivier, joining me at the window and scrutinising the building.  ‘Before I met you, I said to Mathias you must be American.’

‘Why would that make us American?’

‘Well, you know—these American people.’ I didn’t know. But to pursue this would lead only to an argument I couldn’t be bothered to have. There was no point mounting Olivier’s wild statement horses if you weren’t prepared to dig your heals in. Indifference was the thing to shut him up; let his ridiculousness hang in the air until it lost all its charge and became meaningless.

‘Did you used to spy on us?’

‘Did you ever see us naked?’ Frankie came to the window now and looked doubtfully at Julie’s party, which comprised fifteen or so tidy French women gingerly nibbling on pretzels and taking tiny sips of wine from plastic cups.

‘I saw you, yes. Only for a second.’ Olivier beamed. ‘But not you’—he turned to me—‘You are too much of a prude.’

‘We used to see you!’ Frankie laughed. ‘Always in your pants, smoking at the window. We used to call you man in pants!’

‘Man in pants.’ He breathed it out slowly, pleased with its ring, then added in the same wistful tone ‘Julie’s party. Hey! Julie’s party looks cool. All women. We should go!’

‘Do you know Julie?’

‘Yes, she is crazy! Always having parties and dancing. Not good dancing, though— this shitty French woman dance, when they think they are being dangerous and wild and go out with a shitty man who plays guitar and has, you know, the tattoos.’ He scrutinized the party, weighing up its various female merits and potential male pitfalls.

‘HEY!’ he bellowed out of the window. ‘JULIE!’ He waved enthusiastically with both arms.

‘You look like your apartment is on fire.’

‘You shut up.’

In the end, Julie’s party decamped and came over to us. A stream of women filed into the apartment to drink and dance with us. Olivier was the only male in the room and whenever I caught his eye, he gave me that boyish excited look of his that said, ‘I can’t believe my luck,’ followed by a shrug of the shoulders that meant, ‘But obviously I can.’

Unbeknown to him, Olivier was on the brink of another stage in his life. A new be-suited job at a famous auction house awaited him at the end of the year, and although he was not yet aware of this specifically, he dealt with the looming panic of real adulthood by drinking excessively into every night. In the year following his new appointment, he would often talk thoughtfully of this time and sigh, ‘It was different back then.’  He always made mention of that night, the night where all these girls came over and danced their shitty French woman dance, where they think they are so crazy! He moved from his rental apartment into the dead body apartment next door, which stopped being the dead body apartment and just became his apartment that was ‘too fucking small.’ We no longer spent nights drinking in chaos and pouring over the strange records and photographs we had found in there, because all that was gone; it was a place for adults, who wore shirts with collars and watched films on a projector.

To look at him in his new adult life, there was not much difference, although he now wore smart clothes and no longer had the moustache. (He refused to talk about the moustache except to refer to it as ‘the terrible mistake’). The real difference came with his lack of time; he would lament over this loss in a tone that seemed to rest upon the brink of hopelessness. To suggest that his idealised lifestyle would suit a less demanding job, his eyes would light up and he would hastily retract, ‘No! I love my job!’ His complaining always felt like the final soliloquy of a defeated hero—and I continually fell into the trap of talking him down from the edge, only to find that he was actually just sitting in his favourite chair, with me sat opposite.

 

Gedye author photoSarah Gedye is a 25-year-old MA English Literature student from Winchester. She lived in Paris on and off for four years.