Ginny. Part 4. Ginny in Paris.
Upon his arrival in Paris Ginny spent many days, in wonder, wandering the wide boulevards and narrow streets of his new home town; Rue Lepic, Rue des Martres, Place des Abbesses, Rue Berthe, Rue des Trois Frères, Rue Chappe, Rue Gabrielle, Rue Norvins, Place Dalida, Rue Condorcet, Rue Milton, Champs-Elysées, Avenue Victor Hugo, Avenue Montaigne, Rue de Rivoli, Passages Couverts, Boulevard de Clichy, L'Esplanade des Invalides, Avenue de L'Opéra.
Those streets became a foreignness mapped in his heart.
Ginny found a room in a fleapit hotel near the Pigalle metro station. The owner, Gaspard, an extremely fat man who had a fresh live pig delivered every Tuesday for the benefit of the guests also performed in a local theatre as a Man of Memory.
Each time Ginny entered the hotel Gaspard made a great show of remembering which key was his.
In his hotel room Ginny had a metal framed bed, a pot, adorned with famous figures from the French resistance, to piss in, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, in all its glory, affixed to a sunless peeling papered wall.
If he went up a staircase, up another staircase, climbed up and out onto the roof he could see this construction itself, a miraculous a-frame pinpointing the horizon.
But Ginny, like many self-aware monsters, was scared of huge constructions, their wide open spaces in which to be chased or attacked, and much preferred narrow doorways, dark alleys, bars you needed to descend down to with waiters who would ignore you.
There were many prostitutes who worked on the street outside Hotel Dix and often Ginny would sit in the Café Pierre and quietly talk about the works of Balzac, Zola, Rabelais, Dumas, Charles Baudelaire with them.
The prostitutes would put Edith Piaf on the jukebox and smoke Gitanes cigarettes.
This feeling, the feeling of being French2, was a better feeling to grow into than feeling like a monster.
It was the fashion back then that the prostitutes all had very tall monumental hairstyles, colourful bustiers, carried ornately carved wooden sticks.
Their well-paying clients, those that weren’t the sailors who had their own specific manner or the American beatniks, carting cardboard cases packed with their unpublished works, would turn up in long black cars with dark windows.
These cars, and the women by extension, were hired from Victor, the hotel owner’s brother and the drivers of these cars, all of them Algerians, lived on the top floor of the hotel.
The Algerians owned one typewriter between them and were writing a novel, taking it in turns each day to write a single sentence each.
This novel was a roman-à-clef, about a group of Algerian immigrants who pick up married men in hired cars and drive them to illicit rendezvous with monumental-haired prostitutes.
Sometimes Ginny would go to their rooms and they would read out sections to him.
Zis man, he wants woman, you see? Paris woman they on strike for the intimacy. Then a shot rings out in the dark. Hit the pedal Jack. A cloud goes over the moon. It is Tuesday. In Africa as well as in La Belle France.
Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée.
Ginny’s favourite place in Paris was the Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée.
He went there at least twice a week and would press his body against the tanks of exotic, watch his breath condensing on the glass.
With its dim lighting, moist warmth, there was something of the womb about the place and he wanted to be reborn.
Take me for who I am!
Neither man nor woman nor beast.
After 3 weeks in Paris Ginny’s stock of 1ps and 2ps was running out and he did not even have enough money for cheese, bread and wine or to pay the rent on his room in Hotel Dix.
He was considering becoming one of the prostitutes, a female one after midnight when he became a woman. Or he would join the young men he had seen plying their trade below the bridges of the Seine. But then one of the Algerian drivers was shot dead and Victor asked Ginny if he could step in and drive one of the long black cars with many windows.
Ginny enjoyed the streets of Paris at night although he was not keen on the men he had to pick up. They were all made in the same factory, long drooping moustaches, fat cigars, dark glasses that they wore halfway down their noses as if the glasses were incredibly heavy or their noses incredibly slippery.
Before the meetings these men would be boisterous, splashing champagne into glasses, roaring with laughter, but afterwards they would become sentimental, sliding grainy photographs out of their wallets, thrusting them forwards and saying they would do anything for their wives.
It was in August of his second year when Ginny found the second hand shop in Montparnasse. Vêtements Vrais was run by two large Germans who, like those gay boys from his school years, were connected to each other with many pieces of string.
The Germans offered a Personal Design Service and because they cared for many stray cats, stalking eyes gleaming amongst the rails of clothes, Ginny took them to be kind and told them about his turning into a woman each night and how he wanted a single set of clothes he could wear in each of his guises.
Standing in front of the mirror afterwards was a revelation. There was his mother’s beautiful boy again. Or girl.
He had never lost who he was but now he had found it.
One night he was involved in an accident. Driving away from a rendezvous the client in the back became enormously sexually aroused by Ginny’s new clothes and started chewing at the seat cover. Turning to calm him Ginny lost control and crashed into one of Paris’s many cleaning carts and went flying through the windscreen.
The next day on his visit to the Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée Ginny sported a number of cuts to his face and a black eye in the shape of a panda. It was as he was looking at the rays that he was approached by a tall man with a drawn on pencil moustache and buggy brown eyes.
The man placed one of his slender hands on Ginny’s shoulder and whispered into his ear that he would very much like to take his photograph.
Charles, Ginny’s old friend from Saltburn-by-the-Sea was living in Berlin now.
He smoked Overstolz cigarettes, wore clothes made entirely of other men’s underpants and signed off each of his long letters with, What about Man Ray?
“Are you Man Ray?” asked Ginny of the man who had touched her shoulder.
“I am a man,” said the man obsequiously, “and that is a ray.”
He pointed at one of the fish circling the tank. Then he pointed at the floor between them.
“In the middle, the emptiness, the truth lies.”
The man lived in a small apartment above the aquarium. In it was a gramophone, boxes of LPs, dozens of umbrellas (all shapes and sizes), many hundreds of hats, fitted one on top of the other so they formed spooky leaning towers, boxes and boxes of old shoes, purses, prosthetic limbs, eye glasses, belts, marbles, plastic combs, monogrammed handkerchiefs, socks, underpants, cuff links, pieces of window putty, a gas mask, several battered teddy bears, piles of paperback books, racy covers displaying half-clad buxom women and titles like J’ai besoin de vous and le branleur, rolled up newspapers, soiled wedding dresses, enormous black dildos, gloves sorted by colour and size, and in a kind of crate, many thousands of letters, slit or torn open.
These were items that had been abandoned in the aquarium then found carefully labelled with the location of where it was discovered and when.
“If they are not collected within 28 days then they are to be sold. This is how I make my living. They think of me as a lost property collector. I think of myself as a collector of lost souls.”
“Our souls,” said Ginny in English, making a joke of it.
The man smiled uncomprehendingly and did that thing with his hand again where he touched Ginny’s shoulder.
“The photographs are a side line. There are shops in Paris which specialise in this kind of thing, drunk orangoutangs, monks up poles and so on. You, I think, are very special. You have a secret, yes?”
Under direction Ginny climbed into a cupboard while the man climbed on top to poke his camera through a specially adapted hole.
He advised Ginny to strike various poses.
Ginny felt both soiled and admired at the same time.
Every time Ginny went to the aquarium after that he would meet up with the man. They would collect lost property together and then Ginny would have his photograph taken.
In one he was laid out under the bed, his legs dramatically spread like he was going hell for leather over a high hurdle, in another his feet could be seen sticking out from a pile of umbrellas, in yet another just his fingertips, clinging onto the window ledge, the Paris skyline looking radiant behind him.
The photographs, it turned out, were to appear in an exhibition taking place in the chimney of a former shoe factory.
“It has a certain history,” said the man putting his fingers together in a way that Ginny didn’t altogether like.
Using a system of pulleys and a small crane the man had positioned all of his photographs around the top of the chimney and when each of the guests arrived they would be handed a pair of binoculars by a monkey dressed as Oscar Wilde.
Ginny had asked for a pair of binoculars himself but had been pooh-poohed by the man.
“A star is looked at,” he said, casting a hand up towards the chimney, “not looked upon.”
As Ginny was standing, being looked upon, a man in a long forbidding hat in the shape of a garrotte leaned into him.
The man sighed deeply. His breath smelt of garlic and aniseed.
Over by the entrance a Jacques Brel record was playing very quietly on an old phonograph.
Bonnie and Clyde were pretty lookin’ people.
Ginny had a lump in his throat.
Garrotte hat wheezed.
“I want to see it disappear,” he whispered, the tips of his lips brushing Ginny’s ear. “I hear you are, how shall we say it, available, these photos a calling card…”
Ginny waited until midnight. As a woman she felt more decisive. When his penis was present during the day she had begun to dress it in funny costumes made for him by the Germans; an anteater, a fire hydrant, an elephant.
It was so much easier to deal with in disguise.
Or perhaps there was an inherent theatre to it, the way it rose and fell, demanded attention like a child.
“I’ll be back,” she said to the man, to all these men, and then, locking himself in the toilet she removed the wooden toilet roll holder and smashed the tiny window with it.
“I won’t be back,” she said and, getting up onto the cistern, climbed out into the Paris night.
Gaspard threw his arms in the air when he saw Ginny standing at the door of the fleapit hotel.
“I have missed you like I would miss a third arsehole,” he said. “You’re back.”
“I have been nowhere,” said Ginny. “Only to some poxy art exhibition.”
“Then we have a problem,” said Gaston. “I have double-booked your room.”
But then Gaston rubbed his chin, smiled.
“Maybe not a problem. You have become a peacock I see. Perhaps this room can be shared. I think you two might get along. Let’s say I can see it written in the stars.”
Jean-Louis le Baptiste worked nights as a street cleaner and slept throughout the day.
He was, thought Ginny, impossibly handsome.
During that first week he and Ginny used the bed in shifts. It wasn’t until the weekend they shared it together.
Having been down this path before Ginny thought it best to bite the bullet before it was shot.
“So you’re a man, you’re a woman, who cares? Cleaning the streets of Paris I see a lot of filth. You, mon ami, are doubly beautiful. Now. Let me tell you your fortune. Are you ready?”
Ginny said they were ready.
Appendix 1. Ginny’s fortune as told by Jean-Louie le Baptiste.
- You will continue to collect books from the Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée on a daily basis until you have enough to open your own stall on the Left Bank.
- You will become both the husband and wife of Jean-Louis le Baptiste on exactly the 2nd anniversary of our meeting. We will have a secret ceremony in the Notre Dame cathedral, the ceremony presided over by an actual hunchback.
- In 1981 we will move back to your home town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea. You will open a slot machine arcade called Ginny’s Palace.
- I, Jean-Louis le Baptiste, will work until my death in 1985 from cancer of the colon, as a street cleaner. I will keep up, to my death, the habit started during our early courtship in Paris, of bringing back my best finds and presenting them to you as gifts. These gifts will include a fountain pen engraved with the name Rothschild, a mahogany bas-relief of a Tyrannosaurus rex chasing a group of fleeing cavemen, a matching set of Hong Kong Phooey pyjamas still in their presentation box, a Rolodex filing system containing the details of only one person, a certain Mr X, a street map of Toronto, a leather dog collar with a dog tag attached inscribed with the name Mr Pickles, a single leather brogue, a stuffed squirrel with each of its teeth broken in half, a tiny stethoscope with a missing earpiece, a complete set of Wild West Top Trumps, the personal journal written by a lady who was clearly being held prisoner in a tall tower, the final entry which read, I fear that this night he will ki…., seven single leather gloves, a Carry on Camping calendar, a set of false teeth, a Wisden Cricketers Almanac, a book of tide readings, a pork pie hat, a set of love poems. And so on.
- These are the things you will remember me by when I die. You will not be sad. You will have been loved. So much love.
Image author's own.