Introduction by Jessica Harrison
Miracles and disillusionment, generosity and greed, love and loneliness: these are the classic themes of the Christmas tale, to which every festive story writer inevitably returns. At once bound by tradition and open to subversion, the Christmas story has proven irresistible to countless great writers around the world, including Anton Chekhov in Russia, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis in Brazil, Dylan Thomas in Wales, Tove Jansson in Finland, Italo Calvino in Italy, and many more besides.
It was Dickens, of course, who introduced and spectacularly perfected the modern Christmas story with A Christmas Carol in 1843, offering a glorious narrative of redemption along with the delightful additions of roasted chestnuts, carol singers, snow and ghosts. Since then, many of his descendants have gifted us with cosy visions of Christmas merriment and snow-sprinkled nostalgia: there’s Damon Runyon’s high-spirited, Santa Claus-impersonating jewel thief in “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” for example, or Truman Capote’s tender youthful recollections of hiking to the woods to find the perfect tree in “A Christmas Memory.” Other writers, however, have opted for a chillier view of Christmas, in which want, greed and loneliness are the dark twins of the season’s comfort and joy – the “ragged, wolfish” children who hide under the robes of Dickens’ jolly Ghost of Christmas Present.
Unsurprisingly, this story by Belgian writer George Simenon falls into the second category. Famous as the creator of Inspector Maigret, the pipe-smoking scourge of the Parisian underworld, Simenon made his idiosyncratic contribution to the festive category with his collection Un Noël de Maigret in 1951. “The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes” is a crisp take on the Christmas story, which initially appears to reject the time-honoured traditions of the genre. In Simenon’s gloomy Paris, a “fine rain,” not snow, is falling; his heroine, Long Tall Jeanne, is no angel; and death, not Santa Claus, makes an appearance one Christmas Eve at the quiet restaurant in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Instead of a Christmas tale, we seem to have stepped into a classic crime narrative: there’s a mysterious death, a bad-tempered detective inspector, and witnesses who may have secrets of their own. But as the story unfolds, Simenon reveals his true hand as he depicts, against the backdrop of a seedy and predatory city, an act of pure and redemptive generosity. The spirit of Christmas rises again; here is a true Christmas story after all.
– Jessica Harrison
Editorial Director of Penguin Classics UK
Christmas Alone Is Better Than Christmas With a Creep
“The Little Restaurant Near Place des Ternes” by Georges Simenon
The clock in its black case, which regular customers had always known to stand in the same place, over the rack where the serviettes were kept, showed four minutes to nine. The advertising calendar behind the head of the woman sitting at the till, Madame Bouchet, showed that it was the twenty-fourth day of December.
Outside, a fine rain was falling. Inside, it was warm. A pot-bellied stove, like the ones there used to be in railway stations, sat in the very centre of the room. Its black chimney pipe rose through empty space before disappearing into a wall.
Madame Bouchet’s lips moved as she counted the banknotes. The bar’s owner stood patiently by, watching her, while in his hand he was already holding the grey linen bag into which he put the contents of the till every evening.
Albert, the waiter, glanced up at the clock, drifted over to them and with a wink motioned towards a bottle which stood apart from the others on the counter. The landlord in turn looked at the time, gave a shrug and nodded his assent.
“Just because they’re the last ones here, there’s no reason, why we shouldn’t give them a drink like the others,” he muttered under his breath as he walked off with the tray.
He had a habit of talking to himself while he was working.
The landlord’s car stood waiting by the curb outside. He lived some distance away, at Joinville, where he had had a villa built for him. His wife had previously worked the tills in cafés. He had been a waiter. He still had painful feet from those days, as all waiters in bars and restaurants do, and wore special shoes. The back of his car was filled with attractively wrapped parcels which he was taking home for the Christmas Eve festivities.
Madame Bouchet would get the bus to Rue Coulaincourt, where she would be spending Christmas with her daughter, whose husband worked as a clerk at the town hall.
Albert had two young kids, and their toys had been hidden for several days on top of the tall linen cupboard.
He began with the man, putting a small glass on the table, which he then filled with Armagnac.
“It’s on the house,” he said.
He made his way past several empty tables to the corner where Jeanne – Long Tall Jeanne – had just lit a cigarette, carefully positioned himself between her and the till and muttered:
“Drink up quick so I can pour you another! Compliments of the landlord!”
Finally, he got to the last table in the row. A young woman was taking her lipstick out of her handbag as she looked at herself in a small hand mirror.
“With the compliments of the house …”
She looked up at him in surprise.
“It’s the custom here at Christmas.”
He would gladly have poured her a second glass too, but he did not know her well enough. Besides she was sitting too near the till.
All done! He tipped the landlord another wink by way of asking him if it was at last time for him to go outside and pull down the shutters. It was already stretching hospitality to have stayed open this late just for three customers. At this point in the evening in most of the restaurants in Paris, staff would be scurrying around setting out tables for the late-night Christmas Eve supper trade. But this was a small restaurant which offered a regular clientele modestly priced menus, a quiet place to eat just off Place des Ternes in the least frequented part of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Few people had eaten there that evening. More or less everyone had family or friends to go to. The last ones left were these two women and a man, and the waiter was not bold enough to show them the door. But the fact that they went on sitting at their tables, from which the cloths had been removed, surely meant that they had no one waiting for them.
He lowered the left-hand shutter, then the right, came back in, wavered over lowering the shutter over the door, which would force the reluctant customers to crouch down to get out. But it was now nine o’clock. The takings had been counted. Madame Bouchet had put on her black hat, her coat and her tippet of marten fur and was looking for her gloves. The landlord, his feet turned outwards, advanced a few steps. Long Tall Jeanne was still smoking her cigarette, and the young woman had clumsily caked her mouth with lipstick. The restaurant was about to close. It was time. It was past the time. The landlord was about to say, as politely as he could, the time-honored words:
“Ladies and gentlemen …”
But before he could pronounce one syllable, there was a single, crisp sound, and the only male customer, his eyes suddenly wide open as if he’d been taken completely by surprise, swayed before toppling sideways on the bench seat that ran along the wall.
He had walked in casually, without saying a word, without warning anybody that just as they were about to close he would put a bullet in his head.
“It would be best if you waited here for a few moments,” the landlord told the two women. “There’s a policeman on duty on the corner of the street. Albert has gone to get him.”
Long Tall Jeanne had stood up to get a look at the dead man and, pausing by the stove, she lit another cigarette. The young woman in her corner sucked her handkerchief and, although it was hot there, was shaking all over.
The policeman came in. His cape glistened with rain and gave off a barrack-room smell.
“Do you know him?”
“He’s been eating here every day for years. He’s Russian.”
“Are you sure he’s dead? If he is, we’d better wait for the inspector. I’ve phoned through to him.”
They did not have long to wait. The police station was close by, in Rue de l’Étoile. The inspector wore an overcoat which was either badly cut or had shrunk in the rain, and a hat that had faded to no particular color. He did not seem in a good mood.
“The first of tonight’s crop!” he muttered as he bent over. “He’s early. Usually it comes on them around midnight, when everybody else is having most fun.”
He straightened up, holding a wallet in his hand. He opened it and from it took a thick, green identity card.
“Alexis Borine, fifty-six years old, born in Vilna.”
He recited the words in an undertone, as a priest says mass and the way Albert talked to himself.
“Hôtel de Bordeaux, Rue Brey … Engineer … Was he an engineer?” he asked the landlord.
“He might have been, a long time ago, but ever since he’s been coming here he’s been working as an extra in films. I recognized him several times up on the screen.”
“Any witnesses?” asked the inspector as he turned round.
“There’s me, my cashier, the waiter and the two ladies there. If you’d like to take their names first …”
The inspector found himself face to face with Jeanne, who really was tall, half a head taller than him.
“Fancy seeing you here. Papers.”
She handed him her card. He wrote down:
“Jeanne Chartrain. Age: twenty-eight. Profession, none … Oh come on! No profession? …”
“It’s what they put me down as at the town hall.”
“Have you got the other card?”
“Up to date, is it?”
“Still as charmless as ever, I see,” she said with a smile.
“What about you?”
The question was directed at the badly made-up young woman, who stammered:
“I haven’t got my identity card on me. My name is Martine Cornu. I am nineteen and I was born at Yport …”
The tall woman gave a start and looked at her more closely. Yport was very near where she came from, not more than five kilometers away. And there were lots of people in the area by the name of Cornu. The people who ran Yport’s largest café, overlooking the beach, were called Cornu.
“Address?” growled Inspector Lognon, who was known locally as “Inspector Hard-Done-By”.
“I live in an apartment building in Rue Brey. Number 17.”
“You will probably be called for questioning at the station one of these days. And now you can go.”
He was waiting for the municipal ambulance. Madame Bouchet asked:
“Can I go too?”
“If you want.”
Then, as she left, he called Long Tall Jeanne back as she was making her way to the door.
“You didn’t happen to know him?”
“I turned a trick with him ages ago, maybe six months … At least six months, because it was at the start of summer … He was the sort of client who goes with girls to talk more than for any other reason, who asks you questions and thinks you’re a sad case … Since then he’s never said hello, though whenever he comes in here he always gives me a little nod.”
The young woman left. Jeanne followed her out, keeping very close behind her. She was wearing a cheap fur coat which was far too short for her. She had always worn clothes which were too short. Everyone told her so, but she persisted without knowing why, and the effect was to make her look even taller.
“Home” for her was fifty metrer further along on the right, in the total darkness of Square du Roule, where there were only artists; studios and single-storey maisonettes. She had a small first-floor apartment with a private staircase and a door opening directly on to the street to which she had the key.
She had promised herself she would go straight home that evening. She never stayed out on Christmas Eve. She had hardly any make-up on and was wearing very ordinary clothes. So much so that she had been shocked in the restaurant to see the young woman piling on the lipstick.
She took a few steps into the cul de sac perched on her high heels, which she could hear clacking on the cobbles. Then she realized that her spirits had drooped because of the Russian: she felt she needed to walk in light and fill her ears with noise. So she turned and headed towards Place des Ternes, where the broad, brilliantly illuminated swathe that runs down from the Arc de Triomphe comes to an end. The cinemas, the theaters, the restaurants were all lit up. In the windows, printed pennants advertised the prices and menus of Christmas Eve suppers and on every door could be read the word “Full”.
The streets were almost unrecognizable, for there was hardly anyone about.
The young woman was now walking ten metres ahead of her, looking like someone who is not sure which way to go. She kept stopping in front of a shop window or at a street corner, uncertain whether to cross, standing and staring at the photographs hanging on the walls of the warm foyer of a cinema.
“Anybody would think she’s the one touting for custom!”
When he saw the Russian, Lognon had muttered:
“The first of tonight’s crop … He’s early.”
Maybe he’d done it there rather than in the street, because it would have been an even more miserable end outside, or alone in his furnished room. In the restaurant, it had been quiet and peaceful, almost a family atmosphere. There a man could feel he was surrounded by familiar faces. It was warm. He’d even been offered a drink on the house!
She gave a shrug. She had nothing else to do. She too halted outside shop windows and looked at the photos while the luminous neon signs turned her red and green and violet, and all the time she was aware of the young woman who was still walking just ahead of her.
Who knows, perhaps she had come across her when she was a little girl. There were ten years between them. When she’d worked for the Fisheries at Fécamp – she was already as tall but very skinny – many a Sunday she had gone out with boys to dances at Yport. Sometimes she had gone dancing at the Café Cornu, and the owner’s children were always running around the place.
“Don’t trip over the tadpoles,” she would tell her partners.
She called the kids tadpoles. Her own brothers and sisters were tadpoles too. She’d had six or seven of them back then, but there wouldn’t be as many left there now.
It was strange to think that this girl was probably one of the tadpoles from the Café Cornu!
Above the shops all along the avenue were apartments, and nearly all of their windows were lit up. She gazed up at them, raising her head to the refreshing drizzle, sometimes catching a glimpse of shadows moving behind the curtains, and she wondered:
“What are they doing?”
Most likely they would be reading the newspaper or decorating the Christmas tree as they waited for midnight. In some cases, the lady of the house would soon be receiving guests and was now worrying about whether the dinner would turn out right.
Thousands of children were sleeping, or pretending to be asleep. And almost all the people who had flocked to the cinemas and theaters had booked tables in restaurants for their Christmas Eve supper or reserved their seats in church for midnight mass.
For you had to book your seat in churches too. Otherwise perhaps the girl might have gone there?
All the people she passed either were in groups, already in high spirits, or were couples clinging to each other more tightly, it seemed, than on ordinary days.
Lone pedestrians were also in more of a hurry than on normal days. They gave the impression that they were on their way somewhere, that they had people waiting for them.
Was that why the Russian had put a bullet in his head? And also why Inspector Hard-Done-By had said that there would be more to follow?
It was the day that did it, of course it was! The girl in front of her had halted on the corner of Rue Brey. The third tenement along was a hotel, and there were others too, discreet establishments where rooms could be taken for short periods. Actually it was there that Jeanne had gone with her first ever customer. The Russian had been living until today in the hotel next door, very probably on the very top floor, because only the poorest rooms were let by the month or the week.
What was the Cornu girl looking at? Fat Émilie? Now there was a tart without either shame or religion. She was there, even though it was Christmas, and she couldn’t even bother to walk a few steps up and down so that she wouldn’t look quite so obvious.
She stayed put in the doorway, with the words “Furnished Rooms” emblazoned just above her purple hat. But there she was, old, well past forty, enormously fat now, and her feet, which over time had become as sensitive as those of the owner of the restaurant, were almost terminally tired of ferrying all that flab around.
“Evening, Jeanne!” she sang out across the street.
Jeanne did not answer. Why was she following the girl? For no particular reason. Probably because she didn’t have anything else to do and was afraid of going home.
But the Cornu girl did not know where she was going either. She had turned into Rue Brey automatically and was mincing along unhurriedly, tightly buttoned up in her blue two-piece suit, which was far too thin for the time of year.
She was a pretty girl. A touch chubby. With a diverting little rear end which she wiggled as she walked. In the restaurant, seen from the side, the way her full, high breasts had pushed out the front of her jacket had been very noticeable.
“If any man comes on to you tonight, dearie,” thought Jeanne, “it’ll be your own stupid fault!”
Especially that evening, because respectable men, the ones with family, friends or just social acquaintances, weren’t out wandering the streets.
But the little fool did not know that. Did she even know what Fat Émilie was doing standing outside the entrance of the hotel? From time to time, as she walked past a bar, she would stand on tiptoe and look inside.
Ah! She was going into one. Albert had done her no favors by giving her that drink. At the beginning, it had been the same with Jeanne too. Unfortunately for her, if she’d had one drink, she ‘d have to have another. And when she’d had three, she no longer knew what she was doing. It wasn;t like that any more, not by a long chalk! Nowadays she could certainly put it away before she’d had enough!
The bar was called Chez Fred. It had a long, mahogany counter and the kind of high stools on which women cannot perch without showing a lot of leg. It was virtually empty. Just one man at the back, a musician or maybe a dancer, already in a dinner jacket, who would shortly be going to work in some night-spot nearby. He was eating a sandwich and drinking beer.
Martine Cornu hoisted herself on to a stool by the door, against the wall. Jeanne went in and sat down a little further along.
“Armagnac,” she ordered, since that was what she had begun drinking.
The girl looked at the rows of bottles which, lit from above, formed a rainbow of subtle colours.
“A Benedictine …” she said.
The barman turned the knob of a radio, and sickly-sweet music filled the bar.
Why didn’t Jeanne just walk up to her and ask her straight out if she really was a Cornu from Yport? There were Cornus in Fécamp too, cousins, but they were butchers in Rue du Havre.
The musician – or dancer – at the back of the bar had already noticed Martine and was languidly giving her the eye.
“Got any cigarettes?” the girl asked the barman.
She wasn’t used to smoking, as was patently obvious from the way she opened the packet and blinked as she released the smoke.
It was ten o’clock. Another two hours and it would be midnight. Everyone would kiss and hug. In every house, the radio would blare out verses of “O Holy Night,” and everybody would join in.
Really, it was all very silly. Jeanne, who never had problems speaking to anybody, felt quite incapable of approaching this girl who hailed from her part of the world and whom she had probably met when she was just a child.
But it wouldn’t have been unpleasant. She’d have said:
“Seeing as how you’re all alone and looking sorry for yourself, why don’t we spend a quiet Christmas Eve together?”
She knew exactly how to mind her manners. She wouldn’t talk to her about men or about being on the game. There must be a whole lot of people they both knew at Fécamp and Yport whom they could talk about. And why shouldn’t she take her home with her?
Her place was very neat, very tidy. She had lived for long enough in rented rooms to know what it meant to have a place of her own. She could take the girl there without feeling any sense of shame, because she never brought men home with her. Other girls did. For Long Tall Jeanne, it was a matter of principle. And few apartments were as trim and spotless as hers. She even kept felt undersoles behind the front door which she used like skates on rainy days so as not to dirty the wooden floor, which she kept highly polished, like an ice-rink.
They would buy a couple of bottles, something good but not too strong. There were charcutiers still open which sold different kinds of pâté, lobster, scallops and assorted tasty and attractively presented dishes which they could not afford to eat every day of the week.
She watched her out of the corner of her eye. Perhaps eventually she would have spoken to her if the door hadn’t opened at that moment and two men hadn’t come in, the kind Jeanne disliked, the sort of men who, when they enter a room, always look around as if they owned the place.
“Evening, Fred!” said the shorter of the two, who was also fatter.
They had already taken stock of the bar. An uninterested glance at the musician sitting at the back, and a closer look at Jeanne who, now that she was sitting down, did not seem as tall as she did standing up – which, incidentally, was why she often worked out of bars.
Of course, they knew at a glance exactly what she was. On the other hand they stared insistently at Martine then sat very close to her.
“Do you mind?”
She shrank back against the wall, still holding her cigarette as clumsily as before.
“What are you having, Willy?”
“The usual, Fred.”
They were the type of men who often have foreign accents and are heard talking about horse-racing or discussing cars. They were also the sort who knew how to choose the right moment to give a woman the glad eye, walk her into a corner of the room and whisper sweet nothings into her ear. And wherever they happen to be they always need to make a phone call.
The barman started mixing them a complicated drink while they watched him closely.
“Hasn’t the baron been in?”
“He said he wanted one of you to call him. He’s gone to see Francis.”
The taller of the pair went into the phone booth. The other moved closer to Martine.
“That stuff’s no good for the stomach,” he said, clicking the catch of a gold cigarette case.
She looked at him in surprise. Jeanne wanted to call out to her:
Because the moment she started talking to him it would be difficult to shake him off.
“What’s no good for the stomach?”
She was behaving like the dumb cluck that she was. She even forced herself to smile, probably because she had been taught to smile when talking to people, or maybe because she really believed it made her look like something off the cover of a magazine.
“That stuff you’re drinking.”
“But it’s Benedictine!”
She really was from Fécamp, way out in the sticks! She honestly thought that saying the name was the last word on the subject.
“Of course it is! There’s nothing like it for upsetting the insides! Fred!”
“Bring us another here, for the lady, and make it snappy.”
“But …” she tried to protest.
“Just a drink between friends, no need to be scared! It’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it, yes or no?”
The tall one straightened his tie in the mirror as he stepped out of the phone booth. He cottoned on quickly.
“Do you live around here?”
“Barman!” call Jeanne, “give me one of the same.”
“No. One of whatever it was you just poured.”
“Go on, then.”
She felt furious, for no good reason, and wanted to say:
“Listen, darling, it won’t be long now before you pass out … These guys play dirty … If you wanted a drink, couldn’t you have chosen a more suitable bar? Or gone home and got drunk there?”
Of course she herself hadn’t gone home either, even though she was used to living alone. But does anybody want to go home on Christmas Eve knowing there is no one waiting there and with the prospect of lying in bed listening to the sound of music and happy voices coming through the wall?
Soon the doors of cinemas and theaters would open and out would spill impatient crowds who would rush away to the tens of thousands of tables they had reserved in the most modern restaurants in the most far-flung parts of town. Christmas Eve junketings to suit all pockets!
Except – and this was the point – you couldn’t reserve a table for one. Not least because it wouldn’t be fair on folk who go out to have a good time with friends, not fair at all for you to sit by yourself in a corner and watch the goings-on. What would that make you? A wet blanket! You would see them form into huddles and whisper to each other, wondering if they should ask you to join them because they felt sorry for you.
Nor could you go out and roam around the streets, because if you did, every cop on the beat would eye you suspiciously, curious to see if you intended to use some dark corner to do what the Russian had done, or if, despite the cold, one of them was going to have to jump into the Seine and fish you out.
“What do you think of it?”
“It’s not very strong.”
If her parents really ran a bistro, she should have known about such things. But it was what women always say. It’s as if they’re always expecting to be given liquid fire in a glass. But when it turns out to be not as strong as they’d thought, they stop being so suspicious.
“Work in a shop, do you?”
“Been in Paris long?”
He had teeth like a film star’s and a moustache made of two commas.
“Do you like dancing?”
Oh, they were laying it on very thick! How pleasant the thought of exchanging idle chat like this in such company! Maybe the girl believed they really were men of the world? The gold case held out to her and the Egyptian cigarettes too probably dazzled her eyes, as did the large diamond ring worn by the man closest to her.
“Fill us up again, Fred.”
“Not for me, thanks. Anyway, it’s time I …”
“Time you? …”
“It’s time you … did what? You can’t be going home to bed at half past ten on Christmas Eve! …”
It was weird! Sitting on the sidelines and watching a scene like this being acted out always makes it look so utterly stupid. But to be involved, to play a part in it …
“What a birdbrain!” Jeanne muttered as she smoked one cigarette after another without taking her eyes off the trio.
Naturally, Martine did not dare to admit that, yes, she was, actually, intending to go home to bed.
“Have you got a date?”
“Don’t be so nosy.”
“Got a boyfriend?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Well, I’d be more than happy to keep him waiting for a bit.”
Long Tall Jeanne could have recited the whole script for them. She knew it by heart. She had also caught the look aimed at the barman which meant:
“Keep it coming!”
But in her present condition, the erstwhile tadpole from Yport could have been plied with the stiffest of cocktails and she would have found them not strong at all. Likewise her lipstick: didn’t she have enough on already? Yet she still felt the need for more, to open her handbag and show she used Houbigant lipstick, but also to demonstrate her pout, because all women believe they are irresistible when they push out their lips to receive that impudent little implement.
“Think you’re gorgeous? If you could only see yourself in a mirror, you’d soon realize which of the two of us looks most like a tart!”
But not quite, because the difference is not just a matter of a little more or less warpaint. The proof of this was provided by the two men who, as they came in, had needed only a quick look to pigeonhole Jeanne.
“Ever been to the Monico?”
“No. What is it?”
“Hear that, Albert? She’s never been to the Monico!”
“Don’t make me laugh!”
“But you do like dancing? Now look, sweetheart …”
Jeanne was expecting the word, but later rather than sooner. The man wasn’t wasting any time. His leg was already pressed tight against one of the girl’s in such a way that she could not draw it back, for she was too close to the wall.
“It’s one of the most amazing night-spots in Paris. Regulars only. Bob Alisson and his jazz band. Never heard of Bob Alisson either?”
“I don’t go out much.”
The two men exchanged winks. Obvious where this was leading. A few minutes from now, the small fat one would remember that he had an urgent appointment so that he could leave the field clear for his friend.
“Not so fast, you creeps!” Jeanne murmured, her mind made up.
She herself had also downed three drinks one after the other, not counting the free ones she’d had courtesy of the landlord of the restaurant. She was not drunk, she never was, not completely, but she was beginning to attach great importance to certain notions.
For example, the idea that this silly kid came from the same place as she did, that she was a tadpole. Then she thought of fat Émilie standing in the doorway of the hotel. It was in that very hotel, though not on a Christmas Eve, that she had gone upstairs with a man for the first time.
“Could you give me a light?”
She had slid off her stool and, with a cigarette dangling between her lips, now joined the smaller of the two men.
He was also aware what this meant and was not best pleased. He gave her a critical once-over. Standing upright, he must have been a good head shorter than her, and the way she carried herself was mannish.
“Like to buy a girl a drink?”
“If you insist … Fred!”
While this was going on, the kid eyed her with a feeling close to indignation, as if an attempt was being made to steal something that belonged to her.
“Hey, you three don’t look like you’re having much fun!”
And, laying one hand on the shoulder of the man next to her, Jeanne started belting out the words of the song the radio was playing softly in the background.
“Of all the bird-brained …” she kept saying to herself every ten minutes. “How can anyone be so …?”
But, oddest of all, the birdbrain in question continued looking at her with an expression of the utmost contempt.
But one of Willy’s arms had now entirely disappeared behind Martine’s back, and the hand wearing the diamond ring lay heavily on the front of her blouse.
She now lay slumped – literally – on the red plush seat against the wall of the Monico, and there was now no need to put her glass in her hand because more often than not she herself kept clamouring for it and gulped down the champagne greedily.
Each time she drained her glass, she burst into a fit of convulsive laughter and then clung even more tightly to the man she was with.
It was not yet midnight. Most of the tables were unoccupied. Sometimes the two of them had the dance floor to themselves. Willy kept his nose buried in the short hair at the back of his partner’s head and ran his lips over the pimply skin of the nape of her neck.
“You in a bad mood or something?” Jeanne asked the other man.
“Because you didn’t win first prize. Think I’m too tall?”
“A bit …”
“It doesn’t show lying down.”
It was a crack she had made thousands of times. It was almost a chat-up line and just as vapid as the sweet nothings the two others were whispering to each other – but at least she wasn’t soft-soaping him because she was enjoying it.
“Do you reckon Christmas Eve is fun?”
“Do you think anyone really enjoys it?”
“I suppose some people must …”
“Earlier on, in the restaurant where I had dinner, this man shot himself in a corner, without making a fuss, looking like he was sorry for disturbing us and making a mess on the floor.”
“Haven’t you got anything more cheerful to say?”
“All right, order another bottle. I’m thirsty.”
It was the only option remaining. Get the tadpole blind drunk, because she was stubbornly refusing to realize what was happening. Make her sick to her stomach, so sick that she puked, then all she’d be fit for was to be packed off home and put to bed.
“Cheers, sweetie, and likewise to all the Cornus of Yport town and district!”
“You’re from there?”
“From Fécamp. There was a time when I used to go dancing in Yport every Sunday.”
“Cut it out!” snapped Willy. “We’ve not come here to listen to your life stories …”
When they’d been in the bar in Rue Brey, it had seemed on the cards that one more glass would have finished the tadpole off. But instead the opposite had happened.
Perhaps being out in the fresh air for a few minutes had been enough to revive her? Maybe it was the champagne? The more she drank the wider awake she became. But she was no longer the same young girl she had been in the restaurant. Willy was now slotting cigarettes ready-lit between her lips, and she was drinking out of his glass. It was sickening to see. And that hand of his never stopped pawing her blouse and skirt!
Not much longer now until everyone would be hugging and kissing and that repulsive man would clamp his lips on the mouth of the girl, who would be stupid enough to faint away in his arms.
“That’s what we’re all like at her age! They should ban Christmas altogether …”
And all the other public holidays too! … But now it was Long Tall Jeanne who wasn’t thinking straight.
“What say we go on to some other place?”
Maybe this time the fresh air would have the opposite effect, and Martine would finally pass out. And if she did, most likely the two-bit gigolo wouldn’t try to take her home and go up to her room!
“We’re fine here …”
Meanwhile, Martine, still glaring suspiciously at Jeanne, talked about her in a whisper to her beau. She was probably saying:
“Why is she interfering? Who is she? She looks like a …”
Suddenly the sound of jazz stopped. For a few seconds, there was silence. People rose to their feet.
The band struck up “O Holy Night”.
Oh yes, it was here too! And Martine found herself squeezed tightly to Willy’s chest, their bodies melded into one from feet to foreheads and their mouths scandalously stuck together.
“Hey, you disgusting pair! …”
Long Tall Jeanne bore down on them, shrill and loud-mouthed, arms and legs moving jerkily like a puppet with its strings crossed.
“Aren’t you going to give anyone else a look in?”
And then raising her voice:
“Shift yourself, girl, and make a bit of room for me!”
When they didn’t move, she grabbed Martine by the shoulder and yanked her back.
“You still haven’t got it, have you, you stupid cow! Maybe you think your precious Willy here has got eyes only for you? But what if I got jealous?”
People at other tables were listening and watching.
“I haven’t said anything up to now. I didn’t interfere, because I’m a decent sort of girl. But that punter is mine …”
Startled, the girl said: “What’s she saying?”
Willy tried to push her away but failed.
“What am I saying? What am I saying? I’m saying you’re a rotten little tart and that you stole him off of me! I’m saying you’re not going to get away with it and that I’m going to smash your pretty face in. I’m saying … Take that for starters! … And that! … And this! …”
She went at it with a will, punching, scratching, grabbing handfuls of hair, while onlookers tried in vain to separate them.
Long Tall Jeanne was as strong as a man.
“You’ve been treating me like dirt! You were asking for it! …”
Martine did her best to fight her off, scratching back, even sinking her small teeth into the hand of her opponent, who had her by one ear.
“Calm down, ladies! … Gentlemen, please! …”
But Jeanne kept screeching at the top of her voice and managed to knock the table over. Glasses and bottles shattered. Women customers fled from the battle zone screaming while Jeanne finally succeeded in tripping the girl and putting her on the floor.
“Ah! You’ve been asking for trouble and you’ve come to the right place for it! …”
They were now both on the floor, grappling with each other, spattered with flecks of blood from cuts caused by the broken glass.
The band was playing “O Holy Night” as loudly as possible to cover the noise. Some of the customers went on singing. Eventually the door opened. Two officers from the cycle-mounted police patrol marched in and headed for the fighting women.
Unceremoniously they nudged them with the toes of their boots.
“Come on you two! On your feet!”
“It was that bitch who …”
“Shut up! You can explain down at the station …”
As chance would have it, the two men, Willy and his pal, seemed to have vanished.
“Come along with us.”
“But …” Martine protested.
“Keep your mouth shut! Save it for later!”
Long Tall Jeanne turned to look for her hat, which she had lost in the scuffle. Outside on the pavement, she called to the doorman:
“Jean, keep my hat safe for me. I’ll come and get it tomorrow. It’s almost new!”
“If you don’t keep quiet …” said one of the policemen jangling his handcuffs.
“Aw, put a sock in it, dumbo. We’ll be as good as gold!”
Martine’s legs gave way. It was only now, all of a sudden, that she started to feel sick. They had to stop in a dark recess to let her empty her stomach against a wall on which was written in white letters: “No Urinating”.
She was crying, a mixture of sobs and hiccups.
“I don’t know what’s got into her. We were having such a nice time …”
“Come off it!”
“I’d like a glass of water.”
“You’ll get one at the station.”
It wasn’t far to the police station in Rue de l’Étoile. It turned out that Lognon, the hard-done-by inspector, was still on duty. A pair of glasses was perched on his nose. He was busy, probably writing up his report about the death of the Russian. He recognized Jeanne, then the girl. He looked at each of them in turn, not understanding.
“You two knew each other?”
“Looks like it, sunshine.”
“You’re drunk!” he barked at Jeanne. “What about the friend? …”
One of the policemen explained:
“They were both rolling on the floor of the Monico, tearing each other’s hair out …”
“Inspector …” Martine started to protest.
“That’s enough! Lock ’em up till the van comes on its round.”
The men were on one side, not many, mostly old down-and-outs, and the women on the other, at the far end, separated from them by a wire grille.
There were benches along the walls. A pint-size flower-seller was crying.
“What are you here for?”
“They found cocaine in my posies. It wasn’t nothing to do with me …”
“You don’t say!”
“A tadpole. Don’t try to work it out. Careful! She’s going to throw up again. That’ll make it smell like roses in here if the paddy-wagon’s late!”
By three in the morning, there were a good hundred of them in the lockup at police HQ on Quai de l’Horloge, men still on one side and women on the other.
In thousands of houses, people were still probably dancing around Christmas trees. Digestive systems were certain to be struggling with turkey, foie gras and black pudding. The restaurants and bars would not close until it started to get light.
“Have you got the message at last, you silly cow?”
Martine was curled up on a bench as highly polished by use as any church pew. She was still feeling sick. Her features were drawn, her eyes unfocused, and her lips pursed.
“I don’t know what I ever did to you.”
“You didn’t do anything, girl.”
“You’re a common …”
“Shush! Don’t say that word in this place! Because there are several dozen of them here who might skin you alive.”
“I hate you!”
“You could be right. Even so, maybe you wouldn’t be feeling so clever at this moment if you were in some hotel room in Rue Brey!”
The girl was clearly trying to make a big effort to understand.
“Don’t bother trying to work it out! Just believe me when I say you’re better off here even if it isn’t comfortable and don’t smell so good. Come eight o’clock, the inspector will give you a short lecture that you thoroughly deserve and then you can get the Métro back to Place des Ternes. Me? They’ll give me the usual medical and take my card off me so I can’t work for a week.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh forget it! Did you really think that spending the night with that creep – and on Christmas Eve too – would have been nice? Did you? And how proud of your precious Willy you’d have been tomorrow morning! Do you really think people didn’t feel disgusted when they saw you hanging round the neck of that cheap crook? But now at least your future is still in your hands. And you have the Russian to thank for it, you know!”
“I dunno exactly. Just a thought. First because it was on his account that I didn’t go straight home. Then again maybe it was him who made me want to be Father Christmas for once in my life. Now move up and make room for me …”
Then she added, already more than drowsy:
“Just imagine if, once in their lives, everybody behaved like Father Christmas …”
Her voice grew softer the deeper she drifted into sleep.
“Just imagine it, right? … Just once … And when you think of how many people there are on this earth …”
Then finally, still muttering, with her head on Martine’s thigh for a pillow: “Can’t you stop your legs jumping all the time …”