The Other Times of Caroline Tangent
Paris, October 1935
We’re in Le Gerny’s in the Pigalle district of Paris, sitting at a table so close to the stage that I could almost reach out and touch it. Jon picks up a bottle of 1930 Château Haut-Brion and empties it into our glasses. I’ve never tasted such delicate wine. The musicians are warming up, playing scales on their trumpets, tapping cymbals, balancing a double-bass. Around us, everyone is smoking; I try not to cough but the low ceilings in the club create a permanent haze above my head.
I lean over to my husband. ‘You know, I forget sometimes how smoky bars can be.’
The bandleader on stage sits with a cigarette nonchalantly dangling between his lips, tuning his guitar. In his suit and tie, he is the epitome of cool.
‘Do you know who that is?’ Jon whispers to me. I shake my head. ‘Django Reinhardt. By this time, he and Stéphane Grappelli are already famous. He’ll go on to tour with Duke Ellington in the States in a few years.’
I catch my breath. ‘And I think I saw Maurice Chevalier earlier. What an era to be living in.’
Jon catches the waiter’s eye and he hurries over, weaving elegantly between the tables. My husband taps our wine bottle. ‘Encore, s’il vous plaît.’
‘Oui, monsieur.’ The garçon dashes off.
A couple at a nearby table glower jealously.
‘Isn’t the wine expensive?’ I say in a low voice.
‘The dearest on the menu. It’d be out of our reach if we didn’t benefit from such an amazing exchange rate.’
We both burst out laughing.
Jon scratches his leg. ‘These trousers are so uncomfortable, Caz. How did people put up with this material?’
‘It was normal for them. And you look very handsome. The double-breasted style suits you.’ I smooth my hands down the front of my silk Madeleine Vionnet dress. ‘Personally, I love the clothes. But I’m not sure if I want to keep this perm.’
The hubbub of voices around us changes from loud murmurs to excited chatter, and a few people clap. I turn back to face the stage. A petite woman dressed in a black dress is walking on. She approaches the microphone and nervously nods at the audience.
I grab Jon’s arm. ‘Jon! It’s Edith Piaf. In the flesh!’
Jon’s grin is as broad as the Seine. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘No, I still can’t.’
‘Me neither. But it really is. And we’re really here.’
‘I wish we could tell our friends how incredible it is,’ I say wistfully.
But we can’t. We never will be able to.
The audience hush, Reinhardt taps his feet and the band strikes up. A few feet in front of us, twenty-one-year-old Edith Piaf begins to sing and I sink back into my chair, my eyes glued on the diminutive artiste.
Perhaps of all our trips, this one is the most unimaginable.
But we don’t have to imagine it. We’re here. In 1935 Paris.
In a few years, Adolf Hitler will invade the French capital; in May 1968 there will be protests and wildcat strikes in the city; and less than twenty years after that, the Musée d’Orsay will open its doors. Fast-forward to 2021 and Pigalle will be famous for its neon-lit red light district rather than smoky jazz bars and artist studios.
But not yet.
Tonight, Edith Piaf sings and we can watch undisturbed.