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It is 1939, and young American art student David Halifax has ventured to Paris - just before the outbreak of the Second World War. An art dealer puts some of his paintings on the market, attempting to pass them off as the work an Old Master, but when the ruse is uncovered, it is Halifax who is arrested, and charged with forgery. As the Nazis converge upon Paris, Halifax is then press-ganged into service by the Resistance. Halifax is painfully aware that this unwanted commission is one that could cost him his life..
I reached Paris in the summer of 1939, at the age of twenty one.
All my life I'd dreamed of coming here. A thousand times I had pictured myself as I was then, getting off the train at the Gare St Lazare. Now that the moment was finally here, it seemed to me even more glorious than anything I had imagined.
This lasted about ten seconds.
Halfway down the platform, one of my suitcases fell open. Tubes of paint, brushes and palette knives scattered on the ground. I swore quietly, got down on my hands and knees and began to gather them up. Travellers stepped past, shuffling to get around. Then a pair of boots appeared in front of me. They were black and mirror-polished. Slowly I raised my head, squinting in the sunlight that beamed down through the glass roof of the station.
It was a policeman. He wore a black uniform with a row of silver buttons down the front and a stiff-brimmed cap set squarely on his head. He had a short moustache and eyes as dark as his boots. The man held his hands behind his back. He was not smiling.
Someone had trodden on a tube of crimson paint, tracking red footprints across the platform.
'You're a painter?' he asked.
'Yes, sir,' I told him.
'Just what we need,' he said. 'Another artist.'
The month before, I had received a letter notifying me that I'd been awarded a scholarship by the Levasseur Committee for Fine Arts. After a show of my paintings in New York City, I'd been interviewed by a French art magazine called Le Dessin.
Not long afterwards, I heard from the Levasseur Committee. The scholarship entitled me to three months' study at the Atelier Alexander Pankratov, ZT rue Descalzi. A stipend was included for living expenses and an apartment would be rented for me. I hadn't applied for any scholarships and I'd never heard of the Levasseur Committee, but no one had to talk me into going.
My ship was late arriving in Cherbourg. By the time I got to Paris, classes had already begun.
I took a taxi straight to the atelier. It was five flights up a set of wide and worn-down stairs. No elevator. Outside the atelier I stopped to catch my breath and set down my suitcases. I wiped sweat off my face with a handkerchief, then opened the door.
The atelier was one huge room. An entire wall was filled by a window that overlooked the city. The panes were old and gave a rippled view of houses, trees and roads, making them seem drunk and crooked, like a hundred-piece puzzle that had been forced together even though the pieces didn't fit. The rest of the room was panelled with dark wood and patched with cork board, which had been nailed up haphazardly for the display of student sketches.
In the middle of the room was a platform. On it was a naked woman. She was sitting on a chair with her back to me, so all I could see was the slightly freckled sweep of her shoulders and dark hair ponytailed down the middle of her back. It was about the most beautiful hair I'd ever seen. Dark and shining as oriental hair, but glimmering deep lacquer-red among the silk-fine strands, like wine held up to sunlight. Perched around her on high-legged stools were the other students in the atelier. But only two of them: a woman and a man. They were both sketching at their easels but stopped to look up when I appeared. I wondered where the others were. Surely there have to be more, I thought.
'Change!' boomed a voice. 'Begin again!'
The noise sent me stumbling backwards. I peered into the gloom, trying to see who had shouted.
There was a shuffling of paper. The naked woman shifted her position. A new round of sketching began.
It took me a second to pinpoint the source of the voice. Now I saw a man sitting in the shadows. He was short and broadshouldered, with a tattered fluff of grey hair that made him look like someone emerging from the smoke of an explosion. His eyes were slightly narrowed, as if waiting for another detonation. He had the slightly jutting chin and crumpled lips of a man about to spit.
The man slouched in a flimsy chair made of wood and canvas. The armrests were leather straps and the canvas seat and back were held in place by a rope that threaded through a series of brass grommets. It all looked as if it might at any moment dump its owner on the floor. My first thought, however, was that the chair, like everything and everyone else in the room, was so terrified that it would never dare to fail him.
I stood in the doorway, waiting to be asked in.
The man appeared to be ignoring me. He rested his elbows on the straps of his chair and touched the tips of his fingers together, just in front of his face. His eyes stayed closed and his mouth twitched as if he were counting to himself.
I lugged my suitcases over to an empty stool, smelling the sharp sap reek of turpentine, which knifed through first one and then all of my senses. I felt the closed-off trance that came when I was painting. I looked up at the shelves along the walls and saw the dirty bottles filled with linseed oil the colour of tea. Their tops were stuffed with dirty rags, like an arsenal of gasoline bombs.
I got hold of a piece of charcoal and some paper from my suitcase and squinted at the model, ready to draw.
She was staring right at me, sitting slightly bent forward with her hands pressed together between her knees. Her feet were set apart, resting on her curled toes like a ballerina. She had a very round face. There was something almost Asiatic about her eyes and the height of her cheekbones, but her skin was pale and she was tall and full in her body and seemed so completely at ease with her nakedness before us that she gave the impression of someone who did not understand the point of clothing.
I had drawn precisely one line when the man's eyes popped open. He lanched himself out of his chair and shouted "Stop!"
A sigh passed through the room. The two students sat back from their work and laid down their pencils.
From far below in the street came the sound of cars shifting through their gears as they gathered speed down the Rue Descalzi.
The model stood up from her bench and stretched, raising her arms above her head and locking her fingers together, bending them back on themselves. The whole sweep of her body stretched in one unbroken smoothness from the muscles of her thighs up to the tendons of her neck.
The man paced behind us, saying nothing. Now that he was on his feet, I saw he was shorter than he'd first appeared. When he reached me, he stopped. I heard him stirring his toe in my open suitcase, shifting the jumble of paint tubes. Then his head appeared over my shoulder.
'You are Monsieur Halifax,' he said. He pronounced it 'Alley-fax'.
'Yes, sir,' I replied, not turning my head to face him because he was too close.
He nodded slowly, looking at the single smoky line that I had drawn. 'Alexander Pankratov,' he said, as if that were not his name but an elevated state of mind, which I would never fully grasp. 'You speak French,' he told me.
'Yes, sir,' I said, wondering how he could judge that from only two words. My mother was French-Canadian and had taught me French at the same time as she had taught me English. Some of my Quebecois phrases might have sounded old-fashioned to the French, but I could make myself understood.
'You have come a long way,' he told me.
'Yes, sir. From America.' I rummaged in my jacket for the acceptance form that carried his signature. 'I have the Levasseur scholarship. I'm signed up for . . .'
'I know you are signed up,' he snapped.
Slowly, I let my hand slip down from my inside pocket.
Pankratov moved on to the others.
It was only now that I had time to study them. My first instinct was to look at their work, even before I looked at them, but the easels had been arranged in such a way that I couldn't see what they'd drawn. Both had been issued white smocks, which made them look like hospital patients.
The woman looked to be in her mid-forties. She kept her chin raised in a gesture of dignity and defiance, but the way her eyes followed Pankratov's every move showed what lay behind her barricade of confidence.
The young man had dark and bushy hair, a broad nose and heavy lips. His complexion was rough and red, as if maybe he drank a lot. He had two pencils in his mouth. He ground his jaw and the pencils waggled like antennae. The ends were chewed to splinters. He seemed very pleased with his work, tilting his head from side to side in admiration of the drawing and brushing at the charcoal lines with the side of his thumb to blur the edges. When he stood to take off his apron, I noticed he was heavy in the chest without being overweight. His hands were strong and muscular. He dragged his fingers down the stubbly shadows of his chin, which made a gentle tearing sound and left a dull grey smudge.
He had taken off his smock and left the cord around his neck, so that the white sheet trailed down his back like a circus ringmaster's cape. The young man realized I was looking at him. He turned his head and smiled at me. He held his charcoal pencil as if it were a dart he was preparing to throw at me. 'Pankratov likes you,' he whispered. 'He didn't give you his withering stare.' He hardened his gaze into an evil squint to imitate Pankratov. 'He's quite mad, you know. I mean, a genius, of course, but quite mad.' The man leaned forward and murmured, conspiratorially, 'He drinks turpentine while he's painting.'
I had heard about some artists who did that. Sometimes I felt the same temptation. When the clean burn of it is pinching in your lungs and nose and its vapours are washing cold through your blood, it is hard not to want to feel it even stronger inside you, to have the essence of your own painting suicidally pumped by your heart.
'We're all going down to the cafe afterwards,' he said. 'You ought to come.'
'Monsieur Balard!' barked Pankratov from the other side of the room.
'Yes, sir!' answered the man.
'You are always talking about what will happen after the class.'
'Yes, sir!' said Balard again.
Pankratov mumbled something unintelligible, which made him sound like a clockwork machine running down. He turned away to face the window.
Balard rolled his eyes at us.
I realized that Pankratov was watching Balard's reflection in the window. I winced, waited for him to explode; but he pretended not to notice. It occurred to me that Pankratov might be fond of Balard, despite his tone of voice. Maybe he was glad to have found someone who would stand up to him.
I, however, joined the ranks of the intimidated, unable to shake from my mind the bowel-cramping memories of schoolmasters with their cannon-fire voices and chalk-throwing, head-slapping, hair-pulling punishments.
The day continued in this fashion, with Pankratov ordering us to sketch the woman on the platform and then to stop and sketch her again. It was all sketching, interrupted by his pacing round the room to inspect our work. He made only one comment to me. After one series of sketches, he took the paper from my easel and held it up in front of him, as if he were holding up a banknote to see its watermark. 'You have come along way,' he said, 'to be here.'
He handed me back the paper. 'And if you cannot be here on time and do better than this, you will have come a long way for nothing.'
I jerked my head around. That was too much for me.
He was right there, inches away. Come on, he seemed to be thinking. Talk back to me. Talk back and see what happens.
I didn't talk back. My face grew hot with frustration and shame.
There was a knock at the blurred glass window of the door.
We all turned to see who it was.
I saw the pink smudge of a face and then a hand, tap-tapping a ring against the glass.
'Fleury,' said Pankratov. ' What the hell does he want now?'
The door opened slowly and a frail, well-dressed man poked his head cautiously into the room.
'Well, Fleury?' demanded Pankratov. 'What is it?'
Fleury cracked a smile. He held out a fan of little cards. 'Tickets!' he said. He stepped into the room. 'Tickets to an opening tonight at my gallery. Everyone will be there. Free champagne. Little cheesy things. It will be grand. You'll see.'
Now I got a better look at Fleury.
He was my age, but his clothes made him seem older. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses and an expensive-looking navy double-breasted suit, which nevertheless did not fit him. His wrists and hands hung down so far below the sleeves that it looked as if he had dislocated his arms. He was tall and gaunt, and his hair was short but studiously unkempt, as if designed to clash with his otherwise impeccable appearance. He still held the tickets, like someone about to perform a magic trick with cards.
'I won't prevent it,' said Pankratov, 'but I certainly don't recommend it.'
Fleury didn't seem to hear. He was staring at the woman on the stage.
She was half-turned in her chair, not shy about her nakedness. She smiled at Fleury. 'Hello, Guillaume,' she said.
'Oh, hello, Valya,' he replied quietly. 'Will you come to the show?'
'I might,' she told him. 'The free champagne sounds nice.'
'It is,' said Fleury, nodding and looking vaguely stunned. 'It will be. Valya.' He said her name softly, by itself.
I thought, There stands a man in love.
'Come along, then!' Pankratov snapped his fingers, as if to wake Fleury from his trance. 'Give me the tickets and push off.'
Fleury held out the tickets and Pankratov snatched them away.
'You have a new pupil,' said Fleury, jerking his chin in my direction.
'Yes,' said Pankratov. 'All the way from America.'
'Oh, this is the American?' asked Fleury. 'The one . . .'
'Yes, the one I told you about,' snapped Pankratov. 'Now, if you don't mind, I'm running my class.'
Fleury made his retreat. 'I hope to see you all there,' he announced to the room. 'And you, Valya. I hope you'll come tonight.'
'We'll see,' she said.
When Fleury had gone, Pankratov sighed violently. 'Stay away from that man,' he muttered.
I wondered if he was telling all of us or only Valya.
'Why don't you want us to go to the show?' I asked.
The man and the woman stared at me, surprised that I would dare to open my mouth.
Seeing their expressions, I immediately wished I hadn't.
'You be careful around Monsieur Fleury.' Pankratov wagged one finger slowly in the air, as if it were too heavy for his hand. 'You might think you are an artist, Monsieur Halifax. You might actually be an artist. But Monsieur Fleury, he is something quite different. Monsieur Fleury is a dealer.'
Before I had a chance to reply, Pankratov wheeled around and clapped his hands. 'Begin again!' he thundered.
I returned to my drawing, blind with obedience, forgetting everything else.
Outside, the summer day filed past in brassy sunlight and only when the brass had turned to copper, warped through each distorted pane of glass on the great window of the atelier, did Pankratov allow us to leave. He smashed his palms together in the dusty air and told us all to be on time tomorrow. Then he hooked his thumbs into the thick leather belt around his middle. The buckle of this belt was a large slab of brass, on which I could make out an ornate spread-winged eagle with two heads. The eagle was holding a sceptre in one claw and a crown in the other, and there was some kind of royal crest on the eagle's front.
I tried to get a better look at it as I walked up to Pankratov, holding out the papers of my scholarship. 'I wanted to ask you,' I said.
He raised his eyebrows. 'Ask me what?'
'About the Levasseur Committee.'
'What about them?' he asked.
'Well, I wanted to thank the committee. There's no address on their letter. I wondered if you knew where they are.'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'Perhaps they like to remain anonymous. I'm sure if they want to talk, they'll come and find you.'
Slowly I folded the papers and put them back in my coat pocket.
Pankratov busied himself with a broom, sweeping with wide and violent strokes across the bare wood floor.
On the way downstairs, I felt the relief of having been set free from Pankratov's pacing behind our backs.
So did the others. The nervous woman seemed to have grown a decade younger on her walk down to the street. She introduced herself as Marie-Claire de Boinville. Her features were fine, her nose aquiline and dignified. The dark and narrow chevrons of her eyebrows stood out against her cedarblonde hair. She had kept the beauty of her much younger years and she knew she was still beautiful. She carried herself that way, without arrogance or effort. Her clothes were dark and conservative, but there was a sultriness about her shortcut jacket draping across her shoulders and the way her footsteps seemed to trace a line from stair to stair, as if she were walking a tightrope. 'This was one of Pankratov's good days; she said, 'if you can believe it.'
'I was wondering how he would be.'
'Oh, he can be worse. Much worse. He's so moody.' She waved one hand dismissively. On her ring finger was a large diamond engagement ring flanked by two rubies, and a heavy gold wedding band. 'He just has to be endured.'
'Where are the other students?' I asked. 'I mean, are there any others?'
She shook her head. 'So few people can stand him.'
'What does he have against dealers?' I asked.
'Oh, Pankratov has something against everybody.'
The man with the black curly hair spoke up behind us. 'Pankratov is a genius. Even people who hate him agree.'
'How many do you think there are who hate him?' asked Marie-Claire. 'Do you suppose it runs into the thousands?'
The black-haired man set his hand upon my shoulder. 'My name is Artemis Balard.'
'David Halifax,' I said. We shook hands awkwardly, as he reached down from the step above.
'You mustn't take it badly,' he said, 'if Pankratov comes down hard on you. He's a good judge of art. You just have to accept that. He criticized me once, back when we first started.' Then he slapped me on the back. 'Good to have you along.' Artemis Balard galloped past me down the stairs, pom-pomming some tune of his own invention.
Then it was just Madame de Boinville and me. She smiled faintly. 'Artemis is very sweet, but sometimes he doesn't think before he speaks. He's right about Pankratov, though. The man may be a genius, but the truth is I don't know how much more of him I can take. Do you suppose all geniuses are like that? I mean, I don't think I've ever met a genius before. Not a real one, anyway. Unless of course, you're a genius,' she added after a moment. 'In which case I've met two.'
I shook my head and smiled.
'Well, I'm glad,' she whispered, and rested her hand for a moment on my arm. 'One is about all I could stand.'
I didn't go to the cafe that first day, despite Balard's invitation. I had promised myself only work while I was here. No lounging in coffee shops. For as long as I could take it. Only work. I'd set myself the goal of twelve finished paintings within the first two months. I'd brought no pieces with me. Nor had I arranged to have a gallery represent me. Once I had the paintings, I'd set about finding one. There was something about starting out fresh in this new city that had appealed to me before I left.
My apartment building was number 50 on the Rue Descalzi. I rode to the top floor, three flights up in a cage of an elevator whose suspension cord creaked and grumbled as it hauled its cargo of the old landlady and me. Her name was Madame LaRoche. She had tightly curled grey hair, and wore a flower-patterned housedress with clumpy black shoes. The first thing she did after shaking my hand was to point at a large and gaudy coat of arms, carved out of wood and painted, which hung in the main entranceway. 'My family,' she said. 'Very noble.'
'Yes,' I said.
'And your family?' she asked, her voice rising.
'Not very noble, I guess.'
She nodded severely, to show it was a problem that could neither be helped nor overlooked.
The apartment was a one-room studio divided into kitchen, bathroom and bedroom by three heavy velvet curtams, which hung from brass rings on wooden rails. It had a window at the front and a window at the back. Slowly I set down my cases. Then I straightened up and clenched and unclenched my hands to get the blood flowing again. I went to the front window. It looked out at a large advertisement that had been painted on the wall of a building across the road, which was some kind of warehouse. The advertisement was bone-white with a wineglass in the middle. The glass was half full of red wine. Below it, in black letters, was: 'Buvez les vins du Postillon.'
'Beautiful,' she said, and gestured out of the window. 'The view.' She didn't sound very convincing.
'When does the sun come in?' I asked. 'For how many hours a day?' I wanted to know if I could get any painting done here.
'It depends,' she said suspiciously. 'The clouds. The time of year. Most of the day you will get sun. You don't want to see the kitchen?'
'That's all right,' I told her.
Madame LaRoche squinted with suspicion. She held out the keys, pinched between her thumb and index finger. 'You are an artist,' she said.
'That's right,' I replied.
'If this committee weren't paying your rent, and paying for it in advance, I wouldn't let an artist stay here.'
'Yes, ma'am,' I said, wearily. I'd heard talk like that before.
'The only other exception I have made is for Monsieur Fleury. He lives here, you know, in one of the luxury suites downstairs.' She emphasized the word 'luxury', letting it roll off her tongue in slow motion. 'I expect you have met Monsieur Fleury. Everybody has. Everybody here likes Monsieur Fleury. He is a very charming artist.'
'I did meet him,' I told her. 'I think he's a dealer. Not an artist.'
She looked me up and down. 'You are an artist at making paintings. He is an artist at selling them.'
`I guess you could see it that way,' I said.
'I see it,' she told me, 'just the way it is. And I tell you one other thing I see: I see people who come to Paris because they think that the city will make them into what they want to be. Actors. Painters. Musicians. But it doesn't, you know. It doesn't work that way.' Having made this pronouncement, she went out into the hall and pressed the button for the elevator to take her back down.
I walked over to the window and hauled it open, hearing the iron counter-balance weights rattle inside the frame. Warm air coming off the sun-heated slates on the rooftops brushed against my face. I leaned on the lead sheeting that plated the narrow sloping rim of the building, and looked out across what little of Paris I could see. I listened to the noises of the city, squinting in the glare of sun off the Postillon wine advertisement.
Already, I was starting to feel lonely. I looked down and was surprised to see Fleury standing in the middle of the street.
He was looking up at me, his hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket. The whites of his teeth showed when he smiled and the sun winked off his glasses. 'I see we're going to be neighbours,' he called out.
Madame LaRoche heard his voice. She came in from the hall, pushed me aside and wedged herself half out of the window. `Hello, Monsieur Fleury! Have you been working hard?' .
'Madame LaRoche!' Fleury filled the air with her name. 'You look lovely today!'
'Oh,' said Madam LaRoche very quietly, then glanced about the street to gauge how many people might have heard him call her lovely. She waved and then stepped back into the room. 'You see,' she said to me. 'He is so charming. A gentleman of the old days.'
'You should come to the show,' Fleury shouted to me.
'I ought to work,' I told him.
'But it would be work,' he said. 'Now that you're here, you'd better start making connections.'
I held up the ticket, to show I hadn't thrown it away, and gave him a non-committal smile.
He gave a short wave and walked towards the cafe at the far end of the street.
I set up my easel in the corner of the room and then, from my suitcase, I brought out a little pyramid-shaped box. Inside it was a metronome, the kind that people use when they are learning to play the piano. I started it ticking on the table in the kitchen, very slowly, with the easy swing of a grandfather clock pendulum. Whenever I came to a new place, unfamiliar sounds always got in the way of my concentration.
With this apartment, the noises were mostly from the warehouse across the road. I spent a few minutes observing the nearly constant line of trucks that pulled up outside the front gate. They were loaded with crates of wine, the bottles packed in straw. The bottles clinked as they slid on to the flatbed of the truck. Each shipment was checked by a man with a long moustache and hobnailed boots. The sound of his footsteps echoed up and down the street. After inspecting each truck, he banged the flat of his hand against its side, to signal that it could drive off. I found myself waiting for the next thump of the foreman's hand, or wondering why the hobnails had momentarily stopped crashing on the cobblestones. And later, at closing time, I was startled by the thundery rumble of large rolling metal doors with Defense de Stationner painted on them as they were pulled down and locked in front of the Postillon warehouse. There were indoor sounds as well. Water dripping. Muffled conversation in the room across the hall. Someone sloshing in a bath downstairs. The metronome helped to clear these distractions from my head.
It was dark outside now. From down in the street came sounds of laughter. Breaths of music reached me high up in my dingy apartment, which smelled of old cooked meat and coal-tar soap and the faint sourness of milk. In my newness here, I could pick out each individual odour of the place. I wondered how long it would be before they merged together in my senses and I would find them comforting. I brushed aside the red velvet curtains. The way they partitioned the space gave me the impression that I was living in the chambers of a heart. I lay down on the bed, too exhausted even to take off my clothes or roll back the sheets or care that the bed was too short.
I thought about the people I had left behind, my mother and my brother. I wondered what they would be doing now. After my father had been killed in the Great War, she had used her widow's pension from the army to buy a small boarding house in Narragansett. Her days were caught up in the flow of visitors from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. They came to walk the beaches and maybe catch a glimpse of Newport high society, like children staring through the window of a pastry shop. My brother was a trawlerman, a job for which I alternately admired him because of the risks he took, and pitied him, because of those same risks. The hurricane season was approaching fast, and soon there would be news of boats going down, as they always did, under the greybeard rollers off Cape Cod. I remembered being disappointed at how easily they took the news that I'd be leaving for France. It wasn't that I wanted them to talk me out of it. If I was honest with myself, it was more that I had wanted them to try, the same way they had once tried to talk me out of my career as an artist. I realized that, for them, Paris was so far away it was as if I'd slipped into a world of dreams and was unreachable. In their minds, I had become as distant as my father.
The days spent on the ship on my way here had left the faintest rocking in my skull, the slow pendulum swing of the Atlantic's deep-sea swells. I dropped away into sleep with the vertigo rush of falling off a cliff.