A TALE OF TWO CITIES AND ONE MADHOUSE

To say that I was now coasting would be to exaggerate the degree of activity. Somewhere along the way I'd decided, without really deciding anything at all, that I would either survive or not and that it would be interesting to see which. Julia had collected and sent the last of the money that had been owed to me and I had wined and dined myself for a couple of days with the proceeds, after which there remained but the faintest jingle in my trouser pocket. Once that was gone: nothing.

It was mid-evening and dark, I was out walking for something to do, when suddenly a discreet brass plaque winked at me in the dim street lighting, as if to say Here we are, old boy, just step this way, we'll look after you. I thumbed the British Consulate's bell-push. The mellow old building wasn't ablaze with light, but it was worth a try. When the door wasn't immediately drawn back and welcoming arms thrown around me, I rang again. Still no response. I put my ear to the door. Not a sound. I settled my thumb on the bell and left it there, like a squatter.

In a while I thought I detected movement on the other side of the door. I removed the thumb. Shuffle, pause, cough. Someone was listening to me listening to him. I gave the bell a couple of sharp pokes and heard a strangulated growl, which was followed by an irate wrestling with ancient bolts and chains. The door creaked reluctantly back. A rumpled man in his thirties stood there in striped trousers and disgruntled braces. His sandy hair looked as if he'd just whipped it off a passing moose.

'Yes?'

'Is there someone I could see about a loan?' I said.

'A what?'

'A loan. I'm a bit short.'

'This is the British Consulate,' the man said. 'Not a money-lender's.'

'I don't need much,' I persisted. 'A few francs.'

The chap in the pinstripes and braces scratched his hair, which shifted to one side. While adjusting it his gaze dropped to my feet. I hadn't polished my shoes since early December, on the other side of the Channel.

'You are... British?'

I nodded energetically and he clucked a bit and went all sulky.

'Well. I suppose you'd better come in.'

The door closed behind us with the kind of thud that is usually described as dull. The bolts were redrawn, the chains relocated. I was on British Soil. The man with the moose on his head gazed disapprovingly at my left shoulder. He didn't seem to want to meet my eye. Either eye.

'I can't promise anything. This isn't really on, you know. We have hours.'

He led me through a labyrinth of economically-lit corridors decorated with discoloured oil paintings in chipped, over-elaborate frames. If there was anyone else in the building he or she was keeping well out of sight. I was ushered into a not very large, not very imposing office with a big old oak desk and a brace of leather easy chairs. My escort waved a hand at one of the chairs, as though greeting it. I sat down in it and he went out, closing the door behind him. It was about ten minutes before I was joined by a man in his fifties who, from the look of him, I had dragged out of an early bed, or the bath. He wore a red paisley dressing gown and tartan slippers. I imagined he was the Consul, though he didn't actually introduce himself, simply asked what the problem was as he sank wearily into the chair behind the desk. I came straight to the point and told him about my cash flow problem.

'Ah, money...' he mused, like one who's sure he's heard the word before but can't quite recall where.

He eased himself back into the creaking leather depths of his chair and prepared to deliver the lecture he'd been refining for half his career. Before he could launch into it, however, I banged in a quick request for a sub against the time my boat appeared on the horizon, which obviously caused him some disappointment. Rallying, he shook his head sadly from side to side.

'Sorry, no can do. Government policy...'

We danced around the subject for a few minutes, but he was adamant, in a mild, diplomatic sort of way: no handouts from HMG. I floated another option. Amusement puckered his lips.

'Deported? Or do you mean repatriated?'

'Well...' I hedged, stuck.

He lurched forward suddenly, planted his paisley elbows deep in his unsullied blotter, squinted at me over steepled fingers.

'What is it – done something naughty, have we?'

'No, I've run out of cash, that's all, and if I don't get some soon or get home I'll probably starve.'

The tiny spark of interest that had seeped into the corner of one eye was extinguished by a single blink.

'Don't you have friends at home who might send you a few bob?'

'I wouldn't ask,' I said.

'You're asking us.'

'I thought that's what you were here for.'

He looked affronted. I had demeaned his position.

'We're here for many things, old son, but it is not a part of our function to subsidise vagrants.'

'I'm not a vagrant, I'm just broke.'

'I'd be very interested to learn the difference.'

It was common knowledge that the American Consulate readily flicked Uncle Sam's nephews and nieces back across the water the moment the hamburger funds ran a bit low. It was less well known that good old Johnny Bull adopted the Marie Antoinette approach: if a British citizen ran out of bread, well, he'd just have to go out and find himself some cake, wouldn't he?

In other words, bugger off. I buggered off.




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In the first half of the 1960s I was a photographer in London. I photographed politicians and pop stars, took pack shots for Sainsbury's, cover pictures for publishers, various things for advertising agencies, and made hundreds of prints of young women without any clothes on for Bob Guccioni, limbering up to launch Penthouse Magazine. By the end of 1964, however, I was bored with all this, and when an American friend (a Beatles press officer) announced that she was going to Paris to set up a press agency, I decided to go there too. And I did, and in spite of meeting Coco Chanel on a fashion catwalk and receiving a commission from a picture agency to photograph a naked model, I fell on such hard financial times that I was soon without a roof over my head or any kind of nourishment to keep my strength up. The following extract describes the way things were just a bit before they became utterly unsustainable.

WORDYSOD : Michael Lawrence                                    www.wordysod.com

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