Paris, March–May 2020 • The Corona Chronicles Episode 5
3 May 2020
“Verbalisée” or, as we say in English, “nicked”
Into our eighth week of lockdown. I was doing fine until last Tuesday. Last Tuesday was, let’s face it, a disaster. As Zorba the Greek said, “The whole catastrophe”. OK. . .this is how it goes…
It begins philosophically enough, with my musing on my neighbour. My ex-neighbour. If you drilled a hole in the wall of my study, you might come across his ghost. He lived in the building right next door: Jean-Paul Sartre, the writer and philosopher, who wrote a play where three protagonists are in eternal lockdown, together, in hell, Huis Clos. In which one of them famously says: “Hell is other people”. Sartre’s premise: the way the other person sees you defines how you behave and deprives you of the fundamental freedom to be who you are.
I’m musing on whether it’s better to be locked down alone or locked up with someone else. Stories abound – the woman who pursued her married man lover till he left his wife and family. Now she’s finally got her man, in lockdown, day and night, in a Paris flat – and they hate each other. The couple on their first tinder date, who were having such a whirlwind premature honeymoon they let the lockdown date pass and have been forced to co-habit ever since – but are still madly in love. Stories of love and hate. And terrible stories of domestic violence. True hell.
For me? I think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, and I’m glad I’ve opted for solitary confinement. I can get up when I like, eat when and what I like. And, yes, I’m looking more and more like a pudding, and there’s no one to see me, and I don’t care.
But I’ve got some good habits, too — I’ve taken to getting up at dawn. Deprived of a horizontal landscape (oh, for a beach, or a meadow, or a bluebell wood) I’ve looked to the vertical. I’ve swapped landscape for skyscape. My flat faces east, and I sit and eat breakfast at the tall open windows, waiting for the sun to peer over the higgledy piggledy horizon of grey zinc rooftops and terracotta chimney pots, and watch the pigeons winging across the sky. There’s magic up there, in the morning light.
Then I can dress however I like. I can put on trousers with a hole in them. I can plonk a hat over my uncombed hair. I can Zoom whomever I want, whenever I want. Bonjour, la liberté. So glad I don’t have to put up with . . . other people. Sartre was right.
All until last Tuesday.
It begins at around 8.30 a.m.
I get “verbalisée”. Verbalised. The wonderful French term for. . . well. . . nicked. I’m on my daily one-hour walk, as usual, near the Jardins de Luxembourg. It’s early, but already a woman in her eighties is striding along ahead of me, wearing ankle socks and trainers, brandishing a walking stick. In front of her are a policeman and woman. They stop her and I see her taking out “Attestation de déplacement dérogatoire” — how the French love long words — her bit of paper that allows her to be out and about. I see them fining her, an old lady. REALLY??? Oh-oh. I sidle diagonally across the road. The policewoman cuts me off.
“Attestation, s’il vous plait.”
I smugly produce my paper, with my name, address and date of birth neatly filled out in black ink, as well as two boxes ticked as reasons for going out – shopping, and exercise.
“That’ll be €135,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you’ve filled in the date and time of your departure in pencil. And you’ve ticked two boxes, not one.”
I go on to explain that, as the shops that sell printing paper and ink are all shut, I’m rationing. And you can WALK to the SHOPS and kill two birds with one stone. This doesn’t go down well.
“And you live in the 14th arrondissement, and now you’re in the 6th.”
I point out that we are in fact a hundred yards from the boundary of the 14th.
She is glowering. Don’t argue with a French policewoman. I glower back, aware that I look like a bandit, with a mask drawn up to my eyes, a cap pulled down over my forehead, and sunglasses covering the space in between.
In the end, she wins. Of course she does. I’m €135 the poorer.
Oh well, not the end of the world, compared to what others are going through, with this wretched Covid 19.
Still, better scuttle home. Shut the door. Put on some music. Relax. . . in my own company. Have a bath. I do. Bubbles up to my chin, in my lovely original 1920s bathtub, lion feet and all. I am just drying myself when I notice a lot of little white things on the floor. Strange – they are barely visible against the white of the tiles. I only notice them because they are. . . oh no.. . . moving. Aaaaagh. There they are, hundreds of little larvae. I’d seen lots of tiny flies skimming around the flat the evening before, in the unseasonal spring heat. They must have all given birth during the night, chez moi, on my bathroom floor. Panic. Hell might be other people, but I sure as hell wish someone were around right now. Anyone.
I rummage in the cupboard under the kitchen sink for some insecticide. What’s this? Wet? Really wet? OH NO! A leak. I throw all the contents out on the kitchen floor, all the while wondering how long before the little buggers hatch in my bathroom.
I find some old insecticide. Spray the bathroom from floor to ceiling. Commit mass murder. Pray that the massacre works.
Find an old spanner in a drawer, tighten anything that can be tightened under the sink, but haven’t a clue what I’m doing. Will it result in drought or deluge?
I know it doesn’t say much for me as a feminist, but, hell, I’d give anything right now for BACK UP… a big hulk of an emergency plumber with a good larvae-killing instinct.
Quick, get to the computer, email a friend who lives nearby and may, just may, come to the rescue, masked, socially distanced, all of that…
I enter my password. The one I’ve used thousands of times. A message comes up in red: “Password invalid”. WHAT? Hmmm. . . odd. I reset it, fingers trembling. I’m locked out again.
I’ve been hacked. Years of contacts, bank details, long distance friends, relatives, projects, travels — all gone. Some stuff backed up. Some not. Panic. Phone Google helpline. No one there – of course. Covid 19.
Phone a site that says it assists in emergencies. That there’ll be someone on the line. Anyone, pleeeease! For only €1 now and then only €45 a month. Enter my credit card details. The line goes dead. Quel con! What an eejit!
Have to cancel my credit card. Quick. Remember the supermarket isn’t taking cash. Covid 19. Rush out to the cash machine — DON’T FORGET FACEMASK AND GLOVES — take out as much cash as I can. Cancel my card.
What a day. What a day. What a day.
Back to the flat… the larvae, thank God, look lifeless. The leak looks liquid-less. Now for the clear up – the kitchen and bathroom look like a battlefield. I put on a Barbra Streisand record. That exquisite velvet voice. Oh God. She’s singing: “People, people who need people. . . are the luckiest people in the world”.
I’m thinking she may have a point. OK, I know it’s not ideal to want people when you need them, but where does want end and need begin?
I remember acting in a Tennessee Williams’ play where, nightly, I said the line, “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what’s — hate.” I thought it was pretty cynical at the time. Now, if I’m honest, I’m not sure. For the moment, it’s: Streisand 8 Sartre 2
Later… Dieu merci, the sky is dark over Montparnasse. So glad this day is well and truly OVER. I’ve got no email account, no credit card, but no leak and no larvae. It’s all relative, right?
Pour yourself a glass of white wine. Or two. Or three. Sit down on the sofa. Relax. Watch TV. I have 1,000 channels thanks to a satellite dish installed somewhere high among the rooftops. I press the remote. Some surreal idiot programme where a contestant chooses a partner by seeing their naked bodies revealed bit by bit from the bottom up. Mind you, in Corona days, this might be safer than from the top down. Still, this is not what I need.
Press the remote again. Nothing happens. Screen frozen. Press frantically. Change the batteries. Unplug the cables. Re-plug the cables. NOOOOOOOO! I am stuck on the same image. Am I going to spend the next weeks, maybe months of lockdown, stuck with strangers’ protuberances on the screen?
Go to bed. Pull the duvet over your head.
Go to switch on the overhead bedroom light. Click. Still in the dark.
Bulb gone, and the ceiling is very, very high…
I don’t think my pasta-padded body can cope with the balancing act that would be required to change it.
Barbra 10 Sartre nil
They will discover me, a skeleton, bones scattered across the floor, of one human electrocuted while trying to change a light bulb twelve feet up a metal ladder, having drunk five glasses of Sauvignon while trying to forget her larvae invasion, her police fines, her hacked emails, her stolen credit card details, and her TV screen frozen on alien bums.
But. . . what is this? The skeleton’s mouth is still moving.
One good thing has come out of this Terrible Tuesday.
I think I have my epitaph:
“THIN AT LAST”