LIFE IN PARIS
I had started thinking more about God. Although I had decided at the age of fourteen that I did not believe in him, and was no longer a churchgoer, my curiosity and my enquiring mind had never let the subject drop altogether. I had decided to call myself an agnostic, rather than an atheist – I just did not know.
I began going inside the Catholic churches, of which there many in Paris. Some of them had dim, dark interiors, with perhaps one guttering candle penetrating the gloom, with a strong smell of incense and dust; others were like stage sets with a blaze of candles, statuary, gold, paintings and stained glass windows, and again the smell of incense. These made me catch my breath. I felt I was in fairyland. I looked at the people kneeling in the pews, listened to the chanting of the priest and the congregation, and I was filled with the sense of devotion which I felt was emanating from them.
I decided to go and see a priest. I chose a church near to where we were living. He was bald, with a large paunch, and looked as though he did not see much of the outside air. He listened to me quite kindly as I shyly confided my desire to become a Roman Catholic. He told me that I would need to receive instruction before I could be admitted into the Church. I made an appointment to see him again.
When I told my mother, she was horrified.
“There’s never been a Roman Catholic in the family!” she declared.
That this was illogical did not seem to enter her mind, since she was an atheist. My desire, however, plummeted as quickly as it had arisen. It was not, it seemed, based on any firm foundation. When I returned to the priest I told him, with some trepidation, that I had changed my mind. His face immediately became very stern. He said, in chilling terms, that he hoped “that Grace would not be withheld from me forever.” With these words ringing in my ears, I turned my back on religion.
I must have met Jean-Pierre on one of my outings with Arlette. He was an Algerian, what was known in those days as a “pied noir.” This was a term given to people of European descent in North Africa, meaning “black foot”, who returned to France after Algeria became independent in 1962. He was also a Jew.
He asked me to go out with him. He was small, dark, serious and intense, and some years younger than I was. I looked younger than my age, and in terms of life experience I was much younger than my years. He was also ardent and passionate, qualities which appealed to me, so I said yes.
The years went by. I became tired of working like a slave for M. Woirin, with his endless dictation. Typing was never my favourite occupation and I was not very good at it. I applied for a higher grade and began working in the Political Research Section for Mr. Newton. He was a quiet academic man, very reserved, and there was little rapport between us. He had health problems, a rather red face, and I knew he kept a bottle of whiskey stashed away in the drawer of his desk. He liked to take a nap in the afternoon, with a large white hanky over his face and his feet on the desk. He did not like to be disturbed. I had as little work to do in my new office as I had had too much in the old, so I became very bored. At least I had little typing.
The flat near the Arc de Triomphe was soon giving us problems. The only outside light we had came in from the courtyard, which was surrounded by other flats and tenants, so we were living in a permanent half light. The adjoining streets were not very salubrious and my mother did not enjoy doing her shopping there.
Once again I began the search for a new home. We found one in a quiet cul-de-sac, rue du Gènéral Clergerie, a stone’s throw from NATO and near the fashionable Avenue Victor Hugo, which was in the 16th arrondissement. * The owner was Belgian, which meant that the flat was in perfect order, freshly painted, with all the proper accoutrements, cutlery, china, kitchen equipment, in complete contrast to the French people’s more slapdash approach, who rarely bothered over such details.
But it had one great disadvantage, which was that it was very tiny and not really suitable for two people. It was on the ground floor and was entered through a small garden, straight into the bed sitting room. There was a double bed, one armchair, a wardrobe and a dining table in the corner with two chairs. This led into the bathroom, with a wash basin. Attached to a cupboard door in the bathroom was a baby Belling electric cooker which folded away into an alcove, where all the cleaning and other kitchen materials were kept. It was a remarkably economic use of a small space, and for this reason it was priced at a rent that we could afford.
We were once more seduced by its attractive appearance and location, and setting aside our better judgment, we decided to move in. There was simply nowhere else available.
* ‘arrondissement’ means a district of Paris