February 20, 2010

Every so often I catch up with Edouard.  We have just had coffee at the Gare de Lyon and it has gone as it always does: Edouard looks much the same, although this time he sports a rakish haircut for a part he is playing in a 1940s series.  Filming starts tomorrow.  He can’t tell me much more, just waves his hands about as if half-heartedly chasing a fly away when I ask him what it is about.  He has learned his minor part, looks forward to collecting the cheque for his troubles and the rest is surplus to requirements.

The fact that we are here at all is down to Edouard’s telepathic powers.  Each time I venture up to Paris (not often given the distance and shedding of responsibilities involved), he somehow knows and tracks me down.

Last night when I called home I was told that Edouard had called out of the blue and was likely to tap up at the hotel.  He is just as hopeless as I am at keeping a mobile phone a) charged b) about his person c) with the same number, for any length of time.  All things considered, we don’t do badly when it comes to communicating.

It goes something like this: E suddenly decides to call, he does so and finds that I have gone to Paris, he finds me.  We drink coffee or wine, depending on the time of day and the quality of either depending on our cash flow.  He rolls himself a cigarette and gesticulates wildly, updating me on politics and the hazy world of the arts he inhabits.  We always laugh a lot and part happily, not knowing when we will meet again but somehow knowing that we will.

I met Edouard in Zimbabwe through a friend.  She had met him at a foreign film festival and he asked if she knew of a cottage to rent.  He was in a traveling artist studying Shona sculpture in Zimbabwe.  I had three young children at the French school in Harare and was happy to have a francophile around the place to keep up their French during the long summer holidays.  We had a small cottage in the garden so Edouard became part of the family.

I have to be honest and say that there are a few stretches of the imagination peeking out from behind the above statements:  Our cottage was more of a hut in the garden; the extent of Edouard’s knowledge of Shona sculpture thus far was what he had gleaned during the last five minutes of a program on TF1 television; his French certainly sent us on a linguistic adventure and raised eyebrows when repeated by my toddlers at school; Edouard was a fugitive from his own family.

It transpired that in the midst of marital strife, Edouard’s very beautiful but very temperemental wife had yanked a stilhetto shoe off her foot and struck him on the hand.  Being an artist the said hand was a tool of his trade and he was incensed.

Ca suffit!”

“I am leaving!” he exploded, no doubt with accompanying hand movements, injuries allowing.

“Oh yes, and where do you think you are going?”

Her wry smile had infuriated him and without a second thought he had spun around and pointed at the television.

“There!”  he said

And suddenly that was the course his life would take.

His quivering finger was pointing at a young African man hunched over a hunk of stone from which he was liberating a smooth form.  Later I discovered this was filmed at Tengenenge, a farm-turned-training-centre for Shona sculptors.

I don’t remember the name of the man who started the training centre, just that he was very charismatic with a big beard and a piece of rope holding up his trousers.

Edouard stormed out of his house, and with each step that took him closer to the bank his smile broadened and he was convinced he was on the right path.  He cleaned our his account, more of a light dusting really as there was only just enough to cover his ticket and a few days in a hotel.

In all the time I have known him, Edouard has seldom been without a bright young thing on his arm, usually an aspiring actress or artist.  Artiste.  He soon established himself on the social circuit in Harare but I noticed that he never formed very strong attachments to these companions.  It seems as if he can take or leave “la vie en couple” and I am astonished when I think I see a moistening of his eyes during our last meeting when he says,

J’en ai mar, vraiment! I am really fed up with all this relationship stuff!”

He takes a drag on his cigarette and leans forward conspiratorily.

“Must be why we are still friends,”

“My little sister,”

“Never had any of that nonsense to deal with.”

I smile at the impossible thought of Edouard as anything other than an erratic and eccentric dear friend.

He notices the glint of amusement in my eye and stubs out his cigarette and smiles.

D’accord.  I know I am not easy.  I am maybe a little complicated.”

And therein lies the understatement of the century.

There is one thing that is reasonably certain, and that is that Edouard is called Edouard.  Things get a little shaky when it gets to his surname – he has a choice of two, spelling uncertain for both.

His parents must have been very determined to be together.  His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic and their union was more than frowned upon.  It is not clear if they were married or not, probably not, but what is sure is that churned out seven children and placed each of them in the care of the State as they made their appearances.

He was raised by foster carers, some kind, some not and by the time he was in his early teens, pretty much took care of himself.  This probably explains why he is the freest spirit I have ever met, for better or for worse.  I can quite understand why people are drawn to him and can quiet understand why they are sometimes driven to attack him with their shoes.

Not long after I left Zimbabwe for France, losing his ever-changing contact details along the way, he called.  The last contact number he had for me was several defective Zimbabwean phones ago so I was somewhat astonished to hear from him.  He was having an exhibition opening and invited me up to Paris.  I had recently met Dan, now my husband, and we thought it would be a good excuse to travel across France from Provence.

Of course, being Edouard, the whole thing was all very last minute and the only seats on the train were in the smoking section of an overnighter.  Nowadays smoking is banned thankfully and we are whizzed up to Paris in a sleek TGV bullet train.

We chugged our way up to Paris in a fug of exhaled carcinogens and arrived smelling like ashtrays.  Generous-spirited as always, Edoaurd had said we could stay with him in his apartment.  (And here I catch a glimpse of another misconception peeking our from behind that word).  For “apartment”, which I will use out of courtesy to Edoaurd who will doubtless be reading this, please read “broom cupboard”.

Edoaurd’s generosity knows no bounds and he had extended the same invitation to a large and immaculate trucker he had grown up with and his latest conquest, a jangly Parisian jewelry designer.

We went directly to the gallery and changed into something less toxic and ventured into the exhibition to view his work with our bloodshot eyes.  There were a lot of important-looking people there.  I am astounded by all the connections Edouard has and the amount of dirt he has on the Great and the Good.  He certainly doesn’t seem to be plagued with as many administrative woes as the rest of us, he usually just makes a phone call, shoots the breeze and all is sorted.

We mingled with Grandes Dames in fur coats with cigarette holders pursed between their lips, men in smart suits and others who were decidedly scruffy and almost had you rooting about in your pocket for spare change.

After the exhibition opening a motley mismatch of characters, including us, went to a small restaurant with tables outside.  We joined them all together and had a riotous end of the evening.  By this stage we were a bit jaded and looking forward to a good nights sleep.

Edouard apologized that conditions “would be a bit cramped” and led us down numerous alleyways near Montmartre.  We were instructed to keep as quiet as possible as we climbed the creaky stairs, no mean feat for the rotund trucker, and I suspect the need to go undetected was probably related to unpaid rent.  But then again, maybe it was out of concern for the sleeping concierge.

We had to squeeze through the door single file where two towers of records stood entry.  Among his many talents, Edouard is a music producer and owns a label.  As a teenager he ventured into the music business and signed two of his friends, Michel and Louis Petrucciani, now giants of jazz in France.  Sadly Michel died very young due to a congenital disease and Edouard continues to  be kept in money for black coffee and cigarettes thanks to the musical ability of his friends and his own wits.  He has since had a square in the 18th Arrondisement named after Michel.

The apartment was what they call a “chambre de bonne”, or a maid’s quarters.  It occupied the space under the eaves and was just big enough to contain a double bed, a chest of drawers, towers of records and books and the smallest bathroom known to man.  Surprisingly it housed a washing machine in the bathroom too with a hastily written caution not to shower whilst it was in use and a jagged lightning symbol with a smiley face underneath it.

As the five of us crowded through the doorway, four of us had the same thought going through our heads.  Where in the world were we going to sleep?  The only unconcerned party pulled the mattress off the bed leaving the support below which he gallantly offered Dan and I along with 2 sleeping bags.  The trucker looked doubtfully from his childhood friend to the mattress and bedding on the floor and Edouard shrugged and laughed making some comment about even if he were gay, he just wasn’t his type.  The jewelry designer appeared to be in shock.

We fell into an exhausted sleep only to be awoken by what sounded like distinctly amorous sounds coming from the mattress, followed by the trucker leaping out of bed and crying,

“Try that once more and you are a dead man!”

The jewelry designer shrieked and once again, the only unconcerned party was our host .

Calme-toi! It was an honest mistake!  I had forgotten I had you in bed with me – thought I was cuddling up to my girlfriend in my sleep.” he chuckled.

It was all too much for the trucker.  The light was flicked on and he hastily through his things in his bag and headed for the door.

So far Edoaurd has participated with varying levels of success in painting, sculpture, music and acting.  His most recent foray was into stained glass restoration.  From the bare facts of his life you would not say that my friend has been blessed by Providence.  He has had to bring himself up and has to live by his wits.  He does have extraordinary good luck sometimes too though, as if at birth he was handed a challenging life with a ‘get out of jail card’ to keep in his back pocket.  He has never been in jail, and never will be but he has used that card to get out of some scrapes.

The ink was not dry on his Certificat de Competence as a stained glass restorer when a gale hit northern France and blasted helpful holes through many of God’s houses.  A period of intense work followed until one day it came to an abrupt halt.  Edoaurd turned up on my doorstep in Provence as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  His timing wasn’t great as I was trying to put together a human rights proposal for a project in Rwanda and had a friend staying from London who had come to help me work on it.  I asked him what had happened and he said that things were becoming “complicated” at the convent in that one of the nuns had become obsessed with him and kept pouncing on him in alleyways.  He put in extra hours until the window he was working on was repaired and then high-tailed it out of there.  I was assured that he had resisted her charms.

On another occasion he arrived at our house in London having just got out of Algeria by the skin of his teeth.  I asked him what had happened and he said that it was just a massive overreaction on the part of his hosts, some Tuareg nomads he had been traveling with in the desert.  He had been greatly amused that whenever evening prayers were called, one of the billy goats would prick up his ears and amble over to the men gathered on their prayer mats.  As soon as heads were bowed and touching the sand the goat, who seemed to be enamored with one of the more senior members of the congregation, would wonder over and try to have his evil way with the praying man.  Tradition did not permit the prayers to be broken to push the goat away and so his rude behavior was duly ignored.  Until Edoaurd arrived.  With his camera.  The rest is history.

Aside from his artistic pursuits, Edoaurd has also enjoyed a brief political career.  He had stumbled upon an abandoned village in Provence with the unfortunate name of Moncou.  In French with a small stretch of the imagination, if you separate the words to read Mon Cou it translates to “My Arse”.

This was reason enough to go into politics and Edoaurd jumped through the various hoops to become the sole candidate, and indeed, sole resident, of Moncou.  His ambition was to arrive at L’Elysee with pomp and ceremony and have to be announced as the Mayor of Mon Cou.  One of his political connections dissuaded him from this in the strongest possible terms.

This time I was a little sad at our parting as we will be moving to Canada in summer.  When I say this Edouard nods his head with a twinkle in his eye and I am heartened to know we have not seen the last of him.