Paris 2009: I am wandering aimlessly, killing time, amidst a multi-cultural throng beneath the gargantuan feet of that iron monolith that is the Eiffel Tower. The glorious Eiffel Tower set within the finest of all cities. The heat this day is stifling and I think threatens my mortal status as my pores release a constant flow of perspiration. Dehydration first, then perhaps the collapse of my vital organs, unconsciousness, pneumonia, and after, a lonely death in a hospital bed abroad in the care of a petit, attentive young French nurse – perhaps there is a bonus to snuffing it in France!
Just ten minutes ago I had made it successfully to the first level of the Tower, climbing its steps with a determination and vigour that belied both my age and the fact that my left leg, is, as my antipodean friends would say, ‘about as much use as a fart in a thunderstorm.’ Only vertigo and the fear that is its sibling had prevented me from a greater ascent. The view from that initial stopping off point, as magnificently panoramic as it is; as an aerial portrait of just how profoundly romantic the architectural efforts of mankind can be, still scared me shitless. Coming down, for some obscure reason I cannot quite put my finger on was significantly more frightening than the going up. Unlike the grand old Duke of York on his fabled hillock of the English shires I shall neither be up nor down again in this lifetime, of that I am sure.
It is then, consumed as I am in dark thought that I am accosted by a peasant girl, blessed with an Islamic look, or perhaps a ‘gypsy-esque’ beauty in her long flowing robes of autumnal colours and pattern. A matching headscarf frames olive skin and reveals just glimpses of what I suspect is very long raven hair. The flows of her dress hug pert breasts and silky slim hips. I suspect her naked figure is fine. I consider the point that, in my mind, I have plainly broken one of the Commandments, but hey, I’m an atheist so it doesn’t count! Regardless, she speaks with her eyes this one, those big sad eyes. I note, somewhat curiously, that her fingernails are painted gloss rouge. She cannot be more than twenty years. In the palm of her hand she holds a grubby postcard, edges frayed, upon which is written, in Queens English, the story of her flight from Romania and the fact that she is the sole member of her family left alive save for her junior cousin, just five years old, who has leukaemia and who she has to support. The note on the card concludes with a request that its reader donate whatever small change as is affordable to assist with her cousin’s plight. In a strained heavily accented recital she asks me, ever so politely, if I am English. I nod in the affirmative. It is only then that she thrusts her card toward me. In the first instance I say ‘no’, for, it is obvious to even me that she is, most probably running a scam here. At this her bottom lip quivers and her eyes, those lovely big brown eyes well up. Her tears are pearls. That this is rehearsed I have no doubt, yet ever a sucker for a pretty face I hand over a few euros. “Zank you,” she responds, her eastern cadence as heavy as it is appealing.
“What did she want? I hope to God you didn’t part with money. Did you?” Shirley, who couldn’t face climbing the Tower, has joined me having vacated the shade of the tree she had been reading and resting beneath, keeping out of the midday sun. I sense I am likely due a telling off.
“Oh, yes. I did give the poor girl a couple of euros.” I lied just a tad as it had been a ‘worthwhile’ quantity of said currency. I then set about explaining the plight of the poor girl as was detailed on her card. This explanation of my charity falls on deaf ears.
“Idiot. Haven’t you even noticed them? Loads of them, all dressed the same, all carrying the same begging letter I’ll wager. Look over there, and there. See, loads of them. Twat. I’ll lay odds they beg here by day and at night they are probably on the game. Don’t you think it an amazing coincidence that at least a dozen Romanian tarts have congregated here, all supposedly with young relatives dying of leukaemia, or did you think that they were going for some sort of world record – maybe the biggest gathering of beggars by day, prostitutes by night, peasant girls all from Romania and all with cousins dying of exactly the same disease as would fit beneath the Eiffel Tower record?” A picture of those red painted nails flashed in my mind. As usual Shirley was probably right. After she had added an additional, “Twat,” for good measure, she says, “Anyway, you can get me an ice cream now.”
Dutifully I go to the ice cream van and purchase a simple one scoop cone I estimate to be the most expensive in all of France. It is the price I pay for my stupidity I suppose. As I hastily make my way back through a veritable an unburdened coach load of rather large (from Florida I suspect), noisy and aged American tourists each with a pearl white gob full of gnashers nature never designed and who clearly think they own the place, moving painfully slowly as they are, some gnawing upon baguettes, others small talking, I notice that Shirley herself has now been approached by one of these Romanian girls – possibly even the one I had just favoured with a charitable donation. The closer I get I hear Shirley explain that ‘we’ have already given, and I get the distinct feeling that her patience (never her most enduring of attributes) is running short. The girl persists with her scrounging though. I am close enough to see that yes, it is the same girl and that, disarmed by Shirley’s refusal to add to her coffers the girl is, once more, on the cusp of blubbing. Before I can intervene, Shirley her face as close to the wayward refugee as is humanly possible bellows, “Why don’t you just piss off?”
Piss off she does, like tumbleweed in a tornado. As she departs, her back to the totally indifferent Shirley, her gown flowing wide like the wings of a vampire bat in flight – such is the ferocity of her stride – I note a single finger of universal common insult thrust above her head and overhear the words, “F**k you too.” I guess the girl is probably bilingual as well as a beggar and a whore. Mind you, a very pretty whore! Shirley and I have a laugh.