Secretary to a Diva

by Kenneth Keith

It is often the bizarre incompatibility between two materials, which were not meant to be seen together, that creates a thought provoking effect.

Place des Vosges

On her way to Place des Vosges along Rue des Rosiers, Claudine caught herself in the reflection of the Martin Grant boutique.  At fifty-five years of age her figure was still alluring, and tonight she could see in her eyes the magic of being alive.  It had been like this since her return to Paris three days before, though the flaneur in her had dominated every step back from the countryside and her family.  Today, in this early evening, she wanted to stop and make contact.

As she came off Rue Pavee and rounded into Francs Bourgeois, the warm evening breeze caught her hair and gently lifted it off her neck.  How good this felt, replenishment after months of treatment.  A faint sound of music was coming from somewhere nearby.  It still wasn’t completely discernible over the sounds of the closing of the day; the vespas, mobile phones, and the relaxed tones of street conversations, but it was music.

This was intoxication, a piano accordion in the Place des Vosges. Maybe even the fountains would still be on.  As she passed underneath the first of the colonnades along the west side of the Place, she was pressed with a moment of doubt.  Doubt at her freedom and doubt at her strength to reach out.  She could see through the wrought iron pickets of her beloved square a group of people around the musicians, just now obscured from her view by the swaying collective drape of the spectators’ clothes.  The doubt vanished, so she crossed the street and entered the Place with the crunch of pebbles beneath her heels.

She was home, where she felt safest. Seven years had passed since she was last here, six before that, and once prior to leaving France in the late seventies.  Yet this small square in the heart of Paris, with its symmetry and fountains and the passages of the fully foliaged trees that lined the four sides of it, welcomed her like they had been watching from different points of entry for her return.

She wondered what Eric would think of her hesitation.  He had written to her from the Place a few years back, just before she had been told that she was ill.  Maybe her friend had been sitting at the bench she was now passing.  Well, she knew that Eric, being forever romantic, would have told her to look for love, against the back ground of the piano accordion.  She had seen him brokenhearted over love at the beginning of their friendship and, consequently, over the years, putting on a brave face while gently withdrawing himself from the risks of falling in love again.  Still, Eric would be pushing her now to “have a go” right here in the Place des Vosges on this evening of summer breezes in a different time sphere.

By the time Claudine had moved to the outer part of the crowd, gaps could be seen between the bodies that showed her glimpses of at least two musicians: a piano accordion player and a double bass player.  At the edge of her vision, a flash of movement, a leg and an ankle, a stockinged calf, and vibration coming from the ground.  She looked on with a growing feeling of belonging to the energy that the spectators gave off.  It was as though they were not so much watching, but had connected with the dancers and musicians in a unified emotion.

She wanted to cry as she brushed shoulders with a woman at her side who turned to her with a look of joy in her eyes and an understanding of mutual comfort gained from their brief contact.  Claudine knew then that this was what it was about—connection with humanity, whose impending loss she had been mourning.

People moved naturally to accommodate her as she became part of the sway.  This adjustment brought Claudine forward into a better view of the musicians and dancers. Just watching the flick of the female dancer’s heel as it lifted up the gravel and the male dancer’s steely response made her think about bullfighting.  There was something to the dynamic between the two dancers that reminded Claudine of the woman as the bull and the man as the matador.  Maybe it was something to do with the tension of the woman’s movements.  Whatever it was, it was wonderfully sensual and the crowd clapped with a deep and celebratory joy.

The two dancers separated, with the woman prancing, hands on hips, away from the center of the circle with undiminished intensity, while the man moved his gaze across the crowd in his search for someone else to draw into the center.  Claudine felt the rising heat in her face as the eyes of the man met hers.  Such a public display in acceptance of the man’s offer to dance would have been inconceivable two years back, yet tonight, in these days of ephemeral beauty and sadness, everything was different.  She moved through the warmth of her comrades, making eye contact with them as she did so, and then entered the space, which was filled with the warmth of an August evening and layered with centuries of human longing and desire.

How long had it been since she’d been held and felt such tenderness? Thank God Eric wasn’t here to bear witness to this as she took the hands of the stranger and waited for his signal to the musicians to release the music.

One twirl and Claudine was ready to let go, a second twirl and she was already traveling back to Israel and to another time and another man who had also held her on a summer’s eve.  Not only had he held her body, but he had also pressed his heart up against her own, leaving an imprint that she was unable to fully shake off, even after all these years.

On that particular night, so long ago, they had danced, made love, and then slept under a blanket of gods and goddesses in a night-perfumed lemon grove.  Twenty-five years later the simple clean and fresh smell of lemon would take her back to that piece of earth and that man.

It had all been an amazing adventure.  First, her departure from France to work on a kibbutz in Israel where she had met Jeremy, an Australian Jew taking a year’s sabbatical from his Australian life.  After extending her planned stay on the kibbutz to be with him, Claudine followed Jeremy back to Australia for a few intense months together.  Soon, the freedom they had felt, far away from their usual roles, fragmented into insecurities and muted desperation.

The clapping brought Claudine out of her reverie and back into the circle of the friendly strangers in Place des Vosges.  Their faces held a mixture of surprise, delight, and knowing that caused her to glance away before looking down to the hand of her dancing partner that now rested upon her hip.  The intensity of intimacy shared was far too much, so with her “Merci” to the instructor, Claudine made a gentle backward movement away from the open space until she finally found reprieve within the density of the crowd.  Many turned to her with a “Brava” or a gentle squeeze of the forearm.  This physical contact from strangers in the heart of Paris was fitting, but unprepared for and unsettling.

Campari and Soda

“Op-Shop, Rubbish, Op-Shop, Rubbish, HOLD…”

The two of them started to giggle as they realized that Claudine’s directions had turned into a kind of rapper’s chant.  They had moved outside from the coolness of the apartment so she could catch the mid-Autumn sunshine upon her body, although, even with the wrap around her shoulders for added protection, Eric could see his friend remained cold.

He leaned forward over the big plastic garbage bags between them, and said through the giggles that sorting through his friend’s belongings like this made him feel he should be wearing knee high leather boots, jodhpurs, and be known as her chauffeur.  Claudine laughed, but corrected him with an assuredness of mind and spirit that belied her ravaged body, saying Eric would be her secretary: “Secretary to a Diva.” The laughter burst forth from Eric’s mouth with such abandonment that momentarily he thought he just might come undone.

This moment, sitting on kitchen chairs brought outside with Campari and soda onto the concrete forecourt of Eric’s apartment block, was beauty itself.  He knew that the previous two-and-a-half weeks had taken his friend into a realm that no one can prepare for and one that leaves a legacy forever imprinted on those that stay behind.  Somehow though, the laughter and love between them, as they sat sorting through Claudine’s things, with her at times pausing to tell a story attached to a piece of clothing, told them both that all was not yet lost; they were fully engaged in living in that moment.  Life still swirled around them.

Claudine thought they had better check in with the hospital as it was already two hours since Eric had collected her and there was no way they would be back in the allotted time.

Looking at his friend as she watched people passing by, only meters from where they sat, he wondered how she could do it.  How could she be so strong, so focused, when only days before her world had stopped completely and now just sat, waiting for her next move. Life had forced her to show her hand, but once she sensed its pressure, she had decided to face it head on and not allow it to play games, not allow it to reduce her dignity, nor dissolve her essence.

What could he sense?  Only glimpses of what was happening, and that was because his own input, his responses on the periphery of events, were needed for the dynamic to be complete.  Eric understood he had moved into a physical and emotional space never before experienced, one growing inside of him.  Like the other day when Claudine had given him the nod to start cleaning out her apartment and he had found himself in front of her wardrobe.  That seemed OK.  Here was a practical job to which he could apply himself.  Yet when he opened the closet and the perfumes of his friend’s life, with their traces of different stories upon her scarves, jackets, and coats hit him, taking his breath away, leaving him gasping for space, yet gulping in grief, he realized all was not well.  Later, he guessed his body had allowed the fragrances and their messages to show themselves, even if in the following moment his breath started up again as his grief moved from consciousness and settled somewhere deep within his being.

The sun dappling through trees now had very little force and even though they had positioned chairs to catch its rays.  There was not enough strength in them to warm Claudine’s body, so a move inside was followed by a return to the hospital.

A Dusty Pink Shirt

Eric had been wondering what it would take for him to walk straight into the designer shop and tell the world that he was “just looking.” The three or four times he had already passed the entrance and caught a glimpse of the super cool, super clad sales assistants, left him unable to do so.  The thing was that he was still “fresh.” Fresh from the country and milking the family cow, fresh with ideas and ambitions that were formed from watching old Hollywood movies from the ’50s and freshly “out of the closet.”  These combined to make him aware of a certain naivety that seemed to sit on his skin. Just a “Hello” told people that although someone like him dreamed of working for Giorgio Armani, Eric still lived on the surface of himself and didn’t understand what it would take to get there.  Which brought him back again to the entrance of the shop and to the incredibly chic woman now walking toward him.  Maybe she was security, the kind such places hired.  Whoever she was, she had a warm, but quizzical look upon her face. By the time he could process his options, popping an imaginary mask over his ever increasing red face or taking off up Bourke Street in flight, the woman was upon him and greeting him with a French accent, inviting him to come in.  Although the humiliation was complete, or perhaps because of it, Eric decided to take the first step into the store.

The woman’s name was Claudine and she was indeed French, although she had been in Melbourne for more than a decade.  Straight away it was easy to tell she knew her stuff.  Once Eric informed her that he was looking for a shirt, possibly a pink one, everything relaxed as she read that he wasn’t your average Australian male when it came to clothes and therefore might also be open to an exchange.

This pronouncement also confirmed to Eric he wanted to be himself, and the pink shirt, actually a dusty pink, would ideally be like the one he had seen Marcello Mastroianni wear in an Antonioni film.  He knew Claudine’s first comment to him after they had moved over to the shirts about how rare it was to see an Australian man wearing such soft colors was also about her letting him know that she had guessed his sexuality and that all was cool.

Quickly they were in an easy banter with only an occasional lapse on Eric’s part when Claudine would reference a writer or thinker to illustrate her point, leaving him aware of his ignorance, at the same time as he realized that a connection had been made.

The shirt that his new friend pulled out from the rack was the simplest of shirts; pink, with a transparency to the fabric that reminded him of a watercolor.  The buttons were a very soft white with only one on the cuff and a smaller one further up the arm on the vent that exposed the underside of the wrist.  The collar and lapels were reminiscent of the ’50s with just enough weight to them to encourage the opening at the top of the shirt to wave apart and expose a manly chest that Eric had yet to acquire.  He loved it and knew that it would make him feel like the man he was hoping to become. Claudine intuitively suggested he try it on, making sure to come out and show her how it looked.

So across the polished concrete they moved.  Claudine, with the grace and sophistication of a woman who understood beauty and herself enough to be unalarmed by those who would judge her for making no apologies.  Next to her, in juxtaposition, Eric, gangly, unsophisticated, but full of hope and vision of what might be. They moved past the glass counter where Claudine’s colleagues watched in curiosity and envy, how in her company, Eric’s gangly physicality took on smoother lines.

The friendship was cemented that day and would criss-cross through the following three decades before life finally ended it.

Seventeen years later, he wondered if people understood the etchings upon his face were those left by a diva to her secretary.  With leaves scuttling up behind him, Eric wrapped the lime and charcoal scarf closer to his neck and allowed the warm remnants of a perfume long ago applied by that Diva to steady his stride.


Sitting on a bench with the first rays of the morning sunshine upon her face, Claudine marvelled how the magic of Place des Vosges was unchanged from night to day.  She didn’t realize last night she would return the following day, but as she sat alone in the square and waited for the fountains to come on, it all now seemed to make sense.

So she took off the heels that had transported her through many journeys of her life, especially in the last twenty-four hours, placed the shoes beside her on the bench, rolled up the cuffs of her trousers, and then gently dug her feet into the cool smooth sea of pebbles that surfaced the ground.

Looking at her watch, then at the fountain, she started counting down until the first fountain drops were flung into the air, catching the sun’s rays before turning into crystal jewels. Soon the fountain was overflowing, full of intent to be free. Taking one last look, Claudine breathed in deeply, dug her heels in some more, and then closed her eyes as she leaned back into the bench and felt the warmth of the new day upon her body.

  1. Jasmine says:

    Beautifully written and poignant, I can see the beauty and fragility of Claudine and visualise the ‘pink’ shirt.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.