It was the beginning of the conference, and Jim knew already that he was out of step with the Europeans. For one thing, he was too big. They seemed such tiny guys, these French and Spaniards, these Italians and Belgians. They nipped round him like tugs round a liner. And they nipped about intellectually too. While he was trying to work out the language, they were on to something else. He felt out of things; his high-school French stilted and plangent, his accent risible with its slow childish drawl. He listened to the Europeans slipping smoothly between one another’s languages – and felt a fool.
He’d managed to deal with breakfast only because there’d been a woman at his table. Babette had seen his hesitation with the waiter, had guessed his problem. ‘He asks if you want coffee with milk. And if you want bread or croissants.’ She smiled encouragingly. She wore a yellow scarf wound round her head and was smoking a cigarette.
He’d seen her the night before, at the opening seminar. She’d asked a question in French. He didn’t know what she’d said – someone had forgotten to translate it. There’d been a bit of a linguistic free-for-all after that, and he’d felt like he was the only one who didn’t know what was going on. Some of the delegates got very excited. A woman with long blond hair had walked out, shouting. The chairman, French, had given a shrug of theatrical proportions.
Jim smiled, first at Babette, then the waiter. ‘Oh, oui. Milk – lait. And some croissants, please. Merci.’
The waiter rushed off impatiently. Jim turned to his rescuer. ‘Gee, thanks. I haven’t got the hang of this yet. I’m glad at least someone speaks English.’
‘Not very well, I regret.’
‘Well, better than my French.’
‘Perhaps you can speak German? A lot of people –’
‘Not really. Hello and goodbye. Things like that.’
He shook his head. ‘I guess I only speak American.’
He felt ashamed. He’d spent hours with the phrase book on the flight over. He’d begun to feel confident as his school exercises returned to his memory. He’d counted to twenty, he’d asked himself the time, he’d enquired after his health, he’d reminded himself of colours, he’d asked directions to the Town Hall. But the moment he landed, it all went out of his head. In Customs, in the Arrivals Hall, in the queue for taxis, he’d been assaulted by a barrage of vowels and consonants crushed unrecognizably together. Everything he tried to say was met by a series of blank, cross faces. He felt like a deaf man, asking everyone to repeat everything. ‘Je ne comprends pas!’ became the one phrase he could state with conviction.
Babette had noticed him the previous night, too. How he’d stood out. Not just because he was so tall and broad in the chest – and tanned in the comprehensive way only Californians could make look natural – but because he’d looked lost and disarmingly puzzled. He’d carried a notebook, rather obviously new, but had written nothing in it. He’d chewed his pencil instead, watching people’s faces and gestures; clearly oblivious to most of what was being said. The translation service hadn’t found its feet yet. Philippe had skimped on that, asking delegates to volunteer on a rota basis, but they’d got caught up in the arguments themselves and had forgotten their duties. Philippe would have to sort that out, she thought. But she wasn’t convinced he would; he was already edgy trying to cope with last minute cancellations, rearranging the schedules of the key speakers, making sure all the lodging arrangements were satisfactory.
‘Is your room okay?’ Babette knew Americans expected high material standards; student residences didn’t always fill the bill. One professor had refused to share sanitary arrangements with some other participants and had had to be moved out to a three-star hotel.
‘I guess. I was so jet-lagged I’d have slept in a barrel.’ But as she’d brought the subject up, he thought he’d probe a little. ‘Although I am a little confused as to bathroom etiquette round here.’
‘Bathroom etiquette?’ Babette frowned.
‘It’s just kinda public.’ He winced. ‘This morning, for example, the women –’
The waiter slid himself between them, deposited a bowl of café au lait in front of Jim and laid a basket of croissants on the checked cloth, muttering something.
‘What? What did he say?’ He watched the waiter. His efficiency with the tray and the cloth and the dishes exuded contempt for the non-francophone.
‘Just bon appetit.’
‘Oh, right. So let’s tuck in.’ Jim looked round for a plate. There was only a small square of flimsy paper napkin in front of him. He reached for a croissant, and bit into it self-consciously. The flakes of pastry fell all over the table: ‘Excuse me.’
‘But you were saying – about the women?’ Babette’s eyes were round and prominent and golden brown. Bedroom eyes, he would have said. She was a good deal younger than he was, but those eyes were well-travelled.
‘Well, I didn’t like to ask. I mean, I thought I’d made a mistake. They were all – well – hardly dressed. I mean they were wearing T-shirts but just covering . . . you know . . .’ He gestured, hand cutting across his lap.
Babette finished her cigarette, ground it into the ashtray, smiling. ‘How terrible for you.’
Jim watched her small fingers prodding the cork tip. As the acrid smell drifted upwards he couldn’t help commenting, ‘Say, don’t you have a no-smoking rule in restaurants round here? Back home you can’t smoke anywhere now. Except the john. And even that’s getting problematical.’
Babette shrugged, watched his eyes. ‘You Americans think too much about health.’
‘Well, I guess it’s important. That’s why we’re all here after all.’
‘Of course.’ She was gathering her stuff together – a stylish handbag, a serious-looking cardboard folder heavy with manuscript. ‘Excuse me, I have to talk to someone. Perhaps we can meet later. You can tell me what else you have observed about – bathroom etiquette.’
She got up and went over to another table. It was dominated by the loud voice of Philippe Leconte, expounding in three languages. Every so often there was a burst of laughter. It all sounded mature and witty. As he saw her bend elegantly over Leconte’s shoulder, Jim felt envious, embarrassed. He was an unsophisticated middle-aged man with unsophisticated anxieties. How could he have said all those things about ‘bathroom etiquette’? Okay, it’d been on his mind all morning, but why did he have to blurt it all out like that, like he was totally naïve?
But he felt naïve. He’d been feeling that way since touchdown on French soil. His customary props – language, status, know-how – had been knocked from under him. He no longer felt secure as an adult, let alone a tenured professor of fifteen years’ standing. He was still recovering from the shock of finding himself taking a leak in mixed company. He’d opened the door marked douches/sanitaires, seen the urinal in the corner, and assumed in spite of the absence of the word hommes that this was the safe haven of the men’s room. He’d had a hell of a shock moments later to find half-clad women walking past him to the showers, as he stood there dick in hand.
After breakfast, he walked to the conference hall. He looked round for Babette. She was sitting next to Leconte, looking chic in her light brown suit. Its colour seemed to merge with her skin. She looked up, caught Jim’s glance and waved almost imperceptibly with her fingertips. He waved back more clumsily, feeling conspicuous as he towered head and shoulders above everyone around him, a Gulliver in the midst of the Lilliputians.
The translators were operational this morning, and Jim could just about follow the introductions and opening speeches. He wasn’t sure how he was going to cope for a whole week; the concentration needed for flipping between two languages was something else. He studied the schedule for the day. As usual, interesting speakers were always on at the same time. But he decided to stay put for Hans Muller’s talk on aspects of memory loss. It sounded relevant to his own research. And more to the point, Germans usually spoke English.
But before Dr Muller could begin, Leconte was on his feet again, explaining, in rapid conversational French, something about lunch. It was very important, he seemed to be saying. There would be two sittings – delegates would possess either red or yellow tickets and should make sure to do . . . something or other. This something or other was vital – imperatif. At the end Leconte asked in English if everybody had understood: ‘Okay?’ he said, grinning around at everyone. There was a general murmur of assent. Jim gazed quietly at his blue ticket, but guessed that if he followed the others he’d manage. Everybody round him seemed very much at home, busy in conversation with one another. A Babel of voices rose around him like walls. But he had no-one to chat with. Babette was miles away.
He wondered if he’d made a mistake coming here. He was a bit old to start this kind of thing. Not that he was new to the conference circuit – over the years he’d regularly gone north to Toronto and Vancouver, south to Mexico City, and west to Japan. And at some time he’d visited most everywhere in the States that had a department of neurophysiology worth its salt. But he’d missed out on Europe; as a student, as a tourist, and as an academic. That’s what had made him come now. France, in particular, with its reputation for gaiety and romance, had attracted him. He’d suddenly realized that his life had gotten a whole lot duller since Betty had divorced him, and the worst thing was he hadn’t noticed. His daughter had said it would be great for him. She was a Europe veteran, a much-travelled member of the Spring County Episcopalian choir. ‘You’ll love it, Dad,’ she said, her warm voice hugging him down the phone.
His son had gone for the underbelly: ‘You can’t speak French, can you? D’you reckon you’ll be okay?’
‘Who says I don’t speak French?’
‘Well, you never helped me any.’ Charlie always whined. Even at twenty-four he was remembering high-school grudges.
‘I don’t remember you ever asking for help.’
‘I didn’t. I thought you only knew science and math.’
‘So I can still surprise you. Anyway, I’m going. It’ll be an opportunity to get a response to my research paper.’
‘Hey, don’t say too much before publication. You don’t know these guys.’
‘I think I’m old enough to look after myself.’
He wondered now if that were true.
Babette was only half listening to Hans Muller. She’d heard him before in Vienna. And Amsterdam. It was the same sort of stuff; not really her area of interest. So it was easy to concentrate on Philippe, his profile judiciously grave in the next seat, his body thin under his designer shirt. Stress never stopped him looking immaculate. He was inordinately vain, something she had initially rather liked about him. It had amused her. ‘You’re pleased with yourself, aren’t you?’ she’d said, that first time in Bavaria.
‘Of course,’ he’d said, showing a larger-than-life set of perfect white teeth. ‘That’s why I’m so good to be with.’
It had been true. For three years, those snatched meetings in European cities had been the highlights of her life. International fornication; no time to get into boring habits. But he’d been tense recently, preoccupied; not so much fun. She had seriously wondered if there’d be any point coming here this summer. She had to finish her current project by October or her increasingly paranoid Head of Department would freak out. She’d almost not filled out the application form, but the prospect of the Loire valley had been an inducement. Philippe had said they’d go to Blois and Anjou, take a picnic, find a dégustation, get drunk. ‘But not too drunk, you know,’ he’d said, laughing seductively down the line. It sounded for a moment as though things would be on their old footing.
But now she was here, he wasn’t finding time even for breakfast together, let alone anything as romantic as déjeuner sur l’herbe. He’d booked them both into a hotel (two kilometres from the university in discreet consideration for his wife and daughters in Toulouse), but he’d been so busy he’d not set foot there yet. He’d whispered to her in a corner the first night: ‘Babette, my sweet, I’m so sorry – but you know Gregoire has left me with everything to do – and none of the speakers are coming at the right time – either a day early or two days late. I’ll be up all night working it out. It’s crazy.’
Babette didn’t want to make demands. She left that to the wife in Toulouse. But she knew that the hunger had gone from their relationship. As she watched him, saw his mind so wholly concentrated elsewhere, she began planning to end the affair. Vanity had had its day. A little humility might now be piquant. And she had a fancy for the big, blundering American.
‘How ya doin’?’ A welcome voice whispered at the back of Jim’s head as Hans Muller’s applause rippled away and the audience stared to disperse. He turned. A pale man with horn-rims was extending his hand. Jim recognized him vaguely.
‘Roger Greenberg, Columbia, remember? Guess you’ve just arrived.’
Jim pumped his arm gratefully. ‘Hi there, Roger. Jim Benchley, California Institute. Great to see you again. It’s a real relief, finding a fellow American. I was feeling all at sea.’
‘Not been to Europe before?’
‘That obvious, is it?’
‘Hey, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it – get your eye in, so to speak. Or should I say ear?’ He laughed, wheezily. ‘And this is my wife, Sophie. We come every year.’
‘Wherever something interesting’s going on. Madrid last year. And I hear talk of Milan or Frankfurt next spring. The important thing is to book early, get your own en suite.’
‘Is that the trick?’ Jim laughed. ‘But I don’t think I’ll be making the trip again . . .’
‘Oh, gee, why not?’ Sophie wrinkled her little blue eyes. She put her hand confidentially on Jim’s arm, as far as her five foot nothing would allow. ‘You get to know people real well.’
Jim’s gaze rested on Babette, standing near the door of the hall, smoking. ‘Is that so? I have to say I’ve been feeling kind of detached.’
‘Oh, we’ll introduce you to everyone.’ Sophie whisked him off to meet Hans Muller, Daniel Frink, David Donovan and Alicia Rodermeyer. They all spoke English. They all smiled kindly at him. ‘We’ll take you to lunch. Tickets? Oh don’t bother with that nonsense. Sit where you like.’
They all sat together. Jim sat by Sophie. She gave him a potted biography of everyone in sight, munching and waving her fork. She eventually got round to Babette. ‘Oh, now there’s a dark horse. She’s been having some sort of thing with Philippe. But they’re real discreet – he’s married, of course.’
‘Why of course?’
‘Jim, honey! A man like that! Of course he’s been snapped up.’
As if on cue, Philippe caught Sophie’s eye and gave her his dog-smile, all flashing white teeth.
The Americans are all on the same table, thought Babette. Seeking cultural reassurance. Eating in that funny way. She saw both Sophie Greenberg and the big American look at her simultaneously, then look away. They were talking about her. She wondered what they were saying. And then she knew, as their glances switched from her to Philippe. She was aware that he was touching her knee under the table in an abstracted fashion; a substitute for his attention, a casual gesture of apology. She withdrew her leg. Philippe appeared not to notice.
‘It’s kind of small.’ Jim looked at the tiny cup of coffee he’d been given after asking proudly for un café.
‘Well, it’s un express. That’s what you get after a meal. Unless you ask for un grand – that’s a big cup –’ Roger’s Brooklyn vowels were insistent. He was in instructional mode. Jim could imagine him in the classroom.
‘– But it’ll always be black,’ Sophie added. ‘Unless you ask for it au lait.’ (She pronounced it olé – as in Spanish.)
‘Same with tea,’ said David, who was English and wearing a summery T-shirt with a terrible design. ‘They never bring you milk unless you ask. And then it’s hot and frothy.’
‘I see I’ve got a lot to learn.’
But he felt happier, more relaxed.
‘You look happy. More relaxed, perhaps.’ Babette was walking in step with him as they crossed the courtyard. ‘Is that because of Mrs Greenberg? She is very easy, I think.’
‘Easy-going. “Easy” means something else – not very polite. But I guess you’re right. It’s a relief to speak your own language.’ He was evading her eyes, watching her feet on the gravel. She had nice feet, neat and brown, in neat sandals. He wondered if the rest of her was the same, compact and understated. He couldn’t think what to say. He blurted out, ‘What’s your field, then?’
‘Specialism.’ He paused. ‘Sujet spécial.’
He blushed. ‘Pardon me?’
‘Impotency – is that right? And too-sudden ejaculation. What about you?’
‘Me?’ He stared at her in horror. ‘Oh, no problems like that.’
‘I mean your – sujet spécial.’
‘Sorry.’ He blushed again, wincing inwardly at his idiocy, trying to remember what it was that he did for a living. ‘Brain damage.’ He touched his head. ‘Post-CVA patterns of learning.’ He caught her blank look, tried again. ‘CVA – that’s “stroke” – you know that word?’
‘Not as interesting as sex, I guess.’
‘Oh.’ She shrugged. ‘Many statistics, like for everyone. It is an occupation only.’
Jim couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. Except that it was perfectly natural and easy.
‘I have a hotel room,’ she said. ‘It’s just two kilometres away.’
‘What’s that in miles?’ he asked stupidly.
‘Not far,’ she said. ‘Even an American could walk there.’
‘I’m fit,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’
She was so matter-of-fact as they strolled along that he wondered whether he might have misunderstood her offer and was about to make a faux pas of a horrendous kind. Maybe all that talk of sex had given him the wrong idea. Maybe his sense of cultural alienation was affecting his judgement, and her invitation was just a friendly gesture, colleague to colleague – a chance to chill out, away from Philippe and the gang. If he made a move, she might be embarrassed by his crassness. Then he’d have to spend the next two weeks avoiding her eye. He couldn’t face that: he really liked her, and she seemed to be his one chance of fitting in. He told himself to take it slowly; keep his eyes open for every nuance of meaning, be ready to back off. But when they got to her room, she locked the door, kicked off her sandals and slipped her hand under his shirt in a way that left no room for doubt. All his confidence came back, then. This was a language he knew by heart.
She had a body just like he’d imagined. And a few ideas he hadn’t imagined. He was a bit afraid that he might suffer the too-sudden ejaculation, but he focused his mind on Roger Greenberg’s coffee lecture, and managed to keep control. ‘Olé!’ he cried out when the moment came.