Mrs Hirshfeld spelt it out, “I-s-k-a-r-o-v”, and then she added enthusiastically, as though it were a recommendation, for some reason preferable to teaching maths or gymn or biology, “She teaches Russian.”
Edward decided he would wait for a few days in the hope that the choosy Iskarovs would have found somebody else by the time he rang. He had to ring, of course; his initial brief temptation to lose the piece of paper with the address and the telephone number was not an option. If Henry didn’t think to ask why he hadn’t been to see the flat, the Russian teacher was bound to.
That weekend he had too much to drink; on Friday night in an Indonesian restaurant and on Saturday night in an Afro-Caribbean night club. He had spotted the club just a few streets away from his hotel and put its closed door and red light bulbs in the category of places to steer well clear of. But he had already drunk enough to have shed a few preconceptions as he walked back to the hotel on Saturday night and, seeing the door flick open to admit a group of loudly protesting West Indians who had been beating on the locked door, he gave way to a moment’s fatalistic curiosity and followed them inside.
Downstairs, where the air was thick with heat, tobacco and other smoke, and the insistently thudding rhythm of a five-piece band, white customers were in a self-consciousminority. Edward bought another drink and squeezed into a seat rather too close to the pounding “Soleil du Sén é gal”. Although hardly anyone looked at him and no one spoke to him, he felt peculiarly pleased to be there. Resolutely turning their back on the European city outside, the West Indians were creating a concentrated version of what they were homesick for; more tropical than the tropics themselves.
The address intrigued him. Finally, the following weekend, he could not put off any longer contacting Mrs Hirshfeld’s teacher friend. He had seen two more impossible flats in the course of that week, and a third which was to all outward appearances perfectly acceptable but, he knew, totally wrong. It was in a large, beige, slab-like block built, according to the date stamped at the bottom left-hand corner of the façade, in 1927. Its entrance hall and stairs had marbled walls which looked like cross-sections cut through an immense pudding. As you climbed the stairs, you could identify darker veins which looked like trickles of a syrupy sauce. Unless he could find an alternative fairly soon, he saw he would end up living there.
As he ran his finger over the seventh arrondissement on the map, trying to find the puzzlingly named street in which the Iskarovs lived, an unmistakable sensation of defeat settled over him. It had been ridiculous to suppose he could set out on a worthwhile journey within a stationary city. He might as well reconcile himself to living inside the pudding, where he would spend a pampered, stifled, utterly pointless year. For he had no intention of renting anything from a colleague of his boss’s wife.
However, if only for the sake of good manners, he had togo through with it. Once he had located the Cité Etienne Hubert, a blunt cul-de-sac off the Avenue Duquesne, he tried telephoning. There was no reply on Saturday morning and he was considerably relieved. He spent the best part of the day wandering the grimy northern reaches of the Boulevard Barbès and La Chapelle. Henry had let drop in the office that those neighbourhoods were the closest you would come to the Third World in Paris. Edward thought maybe he could write a piece about them; a spoof travelogue as a rather dismal private joke. But the misery, bitterness and hostility he thought he could read in the inhabitants’ faces were not conducive to a jokey treatment. Besides, he was propositioned too often for comfort by some spectacularly stomach-churning prostitutes. On the Boulevard de Rochechouart, he came upon a loathsome rubber doll in a brightly lit glass case; when a