Steps

Gabriel Josipovici

He had been living in Paris for many years.

Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.

When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.

He was an old-fashioned person, still put on a suit and tie to sit down to work, and a raincoat and hat when he went out. Even in the height of the Parisian summer he never went anywhere without his hat. At my age, he would say, I’m too old to change. Besides, I’m a creature of habit, always was.

He lived in a two-roomed flat on the top floor of a peeling building in the Rue Octave Mirbeau, behind the Pantheon. To reach it you went through the dark narrow Rue St Julien and climbed a steep flight of steps on the right, which brought you out into the Rue Octave Mirbeau opposite the building. There were other ways, of course, but this was the one he regularly used: it was how his flat joined on to the world outside.

From his desk, if he craned, he could just see the edge of the Pantheon. Every morning he was up at 6, had a look to see if the big monster was still there, made himself a light breakfast and was sitting down to work by 7.15. He kept at it till 11.15, when he put on hat and coat and descended. He had a cup of coffee in a bar at the corner, did what little shopping was needed, ate a sandwich with a glass of beer at another nearby bar, and was back at his desk by 1.30. At 4 he knocked off for the day and made himself a pot of tea – he kept a supply of specially imported Ceylon tea in a wooden box with a red dragon stamped upon it, and was very precise about the amount of time he let it stand once the boiling water had been poured into the pot. Afterwards, if the weather was fine, he would take a stroll through the city. Sometimes this took him down as far as the river, or even the Louvre, at others he made straight for the Luxembourg and sat on a bench looking up into the trees. He was always back by 7, for that was the time a table was kept for him in a nearby bistro. He ate whatever was put in front of him and paid by the month without questioning the bill. After supper he would return to the flat and read a little or listen to music. He had a good collection of early music and his one indulgence was occasionally adding to it – Harnoncourt he particularly admired.

Sometimes you went to concerts, his wife – his second wife – would interrupt him. He seemed to need these interruptions, was deft at incorporating them into his discourse. Not often, he would go on, too expensive and, really, after London, live music in Paris was always a disappointment.

We listen a lot here too, his wife would say. Friends who came to stay and neighbours who dropped in on them in their converted farmhouse in the Black Mountains, up above Abergavenny, were indeed often entertained to an evening of baroque music. His wife, a handsome woman still, with a mass of red hair piled up on her head, would hand the records to him reverently, dusting them as she did so with a special cloth, leaving the final gestures – the laying of the disc on the turntable, the setting of the mechanism in motion, the gentle lowering of the stilus – would leave all that to him. I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your head. You had other qualities, he would say.

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