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Thursday, October 30, 2003

"J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans."

(Baudelaire. Roughly: "I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old.")

One of the headlines today on the front page in NY is "SAVED BY HIS VEST" , the story of a NYPD cop hero.

Flashback for me to May 1961 in Paris.

I was working for a French law firm in a high-end residential district of Paris. Although I was fluent in French, my written French was spotty to say the least, because most of the education I have was "made in England", where no matter how bad my spelling and grammar were, I was a star in French.

This was my second real job, the first had been working as a clerk in the Press Section Library at the British Embassy, where I met nothing but famous people: the head of Reuters, the head of AFP, the head of Paris Match, etc. I served under Gladwyn Jebb, plain Mister Jebb at the time. And Eddie Tompkins was Press Secretary, he later went back to Paris as Ambassador, but I had long been gone. In 1957, I was presented to the Queen during her state visit "for services rendered to the Crown", age 19, what a lark. It was a great moment, I did my deep curtsey, wore gloves and a hat, and the Queen gave me a gold-filled mechanical pencil which never worked properly.

In the French law firm, I was the most junior stenographer, who had not gone to secretarial school at all, who had learnt to type at home with a chart, and who had learnt steno from a book. I was assigned to the most junior lawyers, four young men, who shared a single office in the small converted townhouse that housed our offices. The office was called the "Bureau des Quatre", the "Office of Four". There were four desks in the middle, facing each other, actually touching each other, and with just enough room around them for people to get into their chairs, and for a very thin person to circulate around them. My place of work was next door, in an attic room with a "vasistas" window in the roof and a slanted ceiling, it looked a little bit like a corridor. I had a roommate and a very old mechanical typewriter missing some of the keypads, some of the letters never returned back to their proper place, you had to manually bring them down from the paper, and I wasn't paid very much, either, but it was all OK with me. I had a job, I paid my rent, I paid my bus fare, I was independent, and I was learning on the job.

The four young men would call me in for dictation at any time they felt like it, and I would transcribe. All the mail had to be ready and brought back for signature by five o'clock every afternoon. The system established was that each young man had a signature book, a "parapheur", which was a bound cardboard accordion folder, in which you inserted each letter in a separate slot, together with its proposed enclosure and mailing envelope, in front of whatever piece of paper had generated the correspondence. So, for instance, if the letter was a cover letter enclosing a draft agreement, you also had to type the agreement, and it came right after the letter and before the mailing envelope or label, according to size and volume.

Those were the days of carbon paper, so everything was typed one plus three, minimum, if you were "copying" anybody, it meant an extra carbon. With a cranky machine, you learnt to be as accurate a typist as possible, and certainly not to make mistakes at the end of a page, because you would never, ever be able to roll back to the right place after rolling up your wad of papers and carbons, isolating the typo under each sheet of carbon paper, erasing the typo on every single copy plus the original itself, where the correction should never, ever be detected, wotchout for the paper surface. Besides, the firm prided itself on "presentation", if you had more than two typos on a page, the clear choice was to start over. As for copies, well these were the days when the Battelle Institute had not even started looking for Rank to develop the Xerox machine. We are talking about times of before the Flood, the flood of making as many copies as you need plus one "just in case" without thinking twice about it.

Anyway, come five o'clock every day, I would knock on the door of the Room of Four, they would chorus "Come in!", and I would walk in, carrying four signature folders. I would be greeted by four pairs of eyes and four very large grins, and I would walk around the room handing each one his signature folder. "Thank you, Mademoiselle", "Thank you, Mademoiselle," apart from the grins, it was a formal ritual, but their grins would get broader, and they would all settle back in their chairs and watch me until I was done, walked out and closed the door behind me.

Within minutes of returning to my cubbyhole, peals of laughter would reach me through the thin partition between the two rooms, sometimes I would hear a: "What did she do for YOU, today?", and more laughter. Eventually, silence, then the phone would ring: "Could you please come in, Mademoiselle?"

I would go back, the four young men would all have tears in their eyes from laughing, and each one would hand me back his signature folder, "Just a few corrections, Mademoiselle," and I would back out once more.

The procedure was that the letters which needed corrections were pulled out slightly from the signature folder, for easy identification, and most days I returned to my cubbyhole with signature folders full of whiskers. And most days, I also had to redo almost all my work product of the day before quitting time.

I made terrible mistakes. But then, the young men also teased me a great deal, they dictated things in such ways that, if I didn't realize that they were joking, I would just type what I heard, sometimes absolutely crazy things. They also enjoyed themselves putting on provincial and international accents, they were all exceedingly talented, it was a huge game, everybody enjoyed it. It was a little bit like being a part of my very own Goon Show. The fact that I was bilingual made it even harder for me to follow accurately, sometimes I myself hurled myself into the jaws of disaster. Example?

Well, one day, in a letter in French, one of them referred to a certain commission, a certain committee, meeting to discuss some matter. He dictated "commission ad hoc". As an English girl, I would have pronounced ad hoc in a different way, with the H of hoc aspirated and a long O; the way he pronounced it sounded to me like a French person would pronounce Haddock, without the aspirated H and a very tight little O. When I came to that point of my transcription and mulled the matter over, I chose to write Haddock, after all, there are many people in France with English names, holdovers from the past two world wars, and even some of them, one hundred percent French, whose genealogies go back to before the Hundred Years War. Most people I knew, at the time, did not lard their speech with Latin phrases (except for my father, but that's another story). Haddock seemed a likely choice.

Well, no, Mademoiselle, Captain Haddock is not in charge right now. What could I say?
"Ah, vous lisez Tintin?". ("Ah, you read Tintin?")

One of the four was Bob. He was the son of a Kabyle Bashaga (Spelling? A Kabyle tribal leader) and had been a famous tennis player. In fact, he was the "fourth" of the Three Musketeers of French tennis. In 1961, there were death threats against him, and the French government had provided him with an armed bodyguard and a bullet-proof car with chauffeur.

He was a very simple man, however, and since he lived down the street, a bare five minutes' walk away from the office, he refused to be picked up outside his home in the morning: it was, after all, the only walking he would get to do all day. So, it had been arranged that the car would come to the office every morning, and take him in charge for the rest of the day, but he would walk to work.

About two minutes' walk from his house there was a police station, and as soon as Bob came into sight, the guard standing outside would call inside, and as Bob walked past the police station, one policeman would walk a step ahead of him, and another would bring up the rear, until he reached the office.

Now, I lived on the other side of town, I had to take two buses to get to work, with a transfer at the Pont de l'Alma. Timing was such that almost every day I would reach Bob's house just as he was setting out, so the two of us would walk together, chatting, and when we reached the police station, we would become sandwiched in, one policeman in front of us, another one behind us. I don't think we either of us gave it any thought, and we certainly never discussed it. In those days, terrorist bombings were part of daily life in Paris, you only talked about it as you would of the weather, when you had nothing better to talk about.

One morning, I was five minutes late. No more, I swear. My second bus had been detoured slightly to free the path for General De Gaulle's motorcade, coming back from a tour of Dauphine.

The first indication I had that something was wrong was when I came across a dying policeman on the ground, between the police station and the office. There was a very small crowd of gawkers huddled over him, who told me someone had already called the police and an ambulance was on the way. Nobody knew anything more. I could see the man was dying, his skin tone had already started changing, and after loosening his tie to ease his breathing and telling everyone to back off, to let the poor man have air, I ran to the office.

"Has Bob arrived yet?" I cried out.

"No, he should arrive any moment."

I ran to the police station.

"Did you see Bob go by this morning yet?" I was breathless.

"Yes, we did."

They told me two men had been lying in wait for him, and had opened fire on him. One of the attackers took care of the policemen, and the other one concentrated on Bob. He had an automatic pistol and emptied his cartridge, or charger, or whatever it is called. Of course, Bob did not stand still to be shot at, but started running and zigzagging in and out of the parked cars. He had already been wounded, and came down between two cars, and the attacker caught up and was trying to reload, to finish him off, and while he was reloading, Bob was trying to unbalance him and bring him down, but the space was too tight, the man's legs were too strong, he was weakening from loss of blood, whatever. The only thing that saved Bob was that when reloaded, the charger stuck, the gun would not fire again, and the attacker took to his heels.

Anyway, those details only came out later, when Bob told me the story. In the meantime, the police could tell me that a passerby had driven Bob in his private car to the American Hospital.

I somehow knew what to do next. I ran to the office and asked one of the other four young men to help me. I thought it would be best for a man to break the news to Bob's companion, rather than to have a young girl like me do it, and I also needed someone with a car to help me pick her up, and to drive us to the American Hospital. So within a very short time, the three of us were waiting for Bob to come out of emergency surgery at the American Hospital.

The interesting thing about the attack, apart from the gun getting stuck, is that the would-be killers were convinced Bob would be wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, so most of the shots were aimed at his head. His face was shot from side to side, his teeth were all gone, the bullet went clear through, the doctors had to wire his jaws. Mystically, his lawyer's tongue, his breadwinner, was unharmed! Then, bullets burnt grooves through his hair, giving him a strange, crazy, haphazard haircut. Only grazed skin, however! He had two shots in one arm, but it was not his tennis arm!

And then the best. He showed us his pocket diary, one of these fancy leather diaries from Hermes, with annual refills, in which he noted all his appointments, which he carried in the inside pocket of his suit jacket, right over his heart. And there, very neatly lodged in a little notch made in the leather, a notch the exact size of the bullet, was embedded one small bullet, all neat and tidy, like a small jewel.

Who would ever have thought that the sight of a bullet could bring such joy and relief to anyone? How we laughed!

Of course, the police took the diary as "evidence". And, of course, it was "disappeared", Bob never got it back and the police denied it had ever existed. But we saw it, and we touched it, and we know what happened.

Bob's father, when he met me at his son's bedside, told me I was very lucky: "You have baraka", he said. I know, I am protected. I am always grateful.

I have been remembering Bob a lot these past few days. At four o'clock, in that long ago law firm in Paris, we used to go down to the basement and have a cup of tea together, all of us, always Orange Pekoe. I have been drinking Orange Pekoe in Bob's honor recently. Maybe I should check the French newspapers. Maybe he has died recently, or is dying now. And I can do toba for him.
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