She told me when she was younger she worked in a second-hand bookshop in the south of France. It was in the mid-seventies, and a well-known actress had moved into the apartment across the way. The actress was one of the better known stars of the sixties and yet, unlike three or four of the others, she never appeared to seek publicity: while she wouldn't quite shy away from the camera, she always seemed shy in front of it. This seemed to be so whether appearing on screen or in the newspapers, and as Elise offered this observation, I concurred. I had seen the actress in a couple of the films from the late sixties; my memory of her in the movies matched Elise's memories of her at the time.
I met Elise here in Edinburgh around five years ago. She was then, as now, running an international bookshop in the city, mainly selling books in English, French and Spanish. I walked in one day looking for a couple of authors who she told me were almost never asked for, and this instigated a conversation. I would pop in in every month or so after that, and around two years ago Elise started serving tea and coffee in the shop for the modest price of 50p. She could no longer pay anyone a wage, but all donations went to the volunteers who would come in twice a week and help out. I sat supping my coffee and discovered it was more than an hour later when I finally left. Usually we would talk about books for fifteen or twenty minutes, but on this occasion, as I sat on one of the chairs she had introduced in the front half of the shop for those caring to imbibe, we chatted more personally about them than we ever had before. After that I ventured in roughly every other week, and in time, even though she was more than thirty years older than I was, we became friends.
Sometimes she would talk about her time in the south, and when I noticed some photos of various French actors and actresses up on the walls on that first visit, I asked Elise about Sandrine Leconte: that was when she talked about knowing her and of her shyness in front of the camera. But it wasn't until a couple of years later that she told me a particular story about this very private woman, and that it took her so long to tell me about it, suggested to me that she hadn't told many others.
One afternoon, back in the mid-seventies, Elise was sitting outside the shop, a couple of tables laden with books, and there was another, compact round table where she was sitting having a coffee. Her duties were minimal: to serve customers and to chat. The owner did all the buying and pricing himself, and really employed her only to keep the shop open so that he could have a couple of days off a week, and sometimes another afternoon. Two and a half days a week suited her; the rest of the time she would read, act in a local theatre company, and think about her two dreams: to make a living as an actress until she was forty, and then open her own second-hand book store. Anyway, that afternoon Leconte was passing along this narrow street that would be wide enough for a couple holding hands but not much more. There was no space for traffic except the human, and it was a busily convivial lane well known for the bookstore, a cafe at either end, and a record shop a few doors along on the other side. Leconte would often say hello to her as she entered the building directly across from the shop, and sometimes exchange a few words with Elise, but this time she stopped and said that something very strange had happened to her earlier that day. She asked if she could take a seat and as Elise poured her a coffee, Leconte started by saying a month earlier she had been at a festival in the north of France promoting a film where she played the mistress of the married, leading character. After the screening, a fan presented her with a T-shirt that said: "I love your husband." She joked with others that she could hardly wear it when she went out, but it is always good to have T-shirts to wear around the house. She was wearing it that very morning when she went out onto the balcony and watered the plants. Here her voice dropped an octave as she said that across the way the woman on the top floor came out as she was bent over the plants and asked if she could take a photo. She had what looked like the latest Kodak instamatic, and Leconte assumed that she wanted to test it, and why not do so by taking a picture of the well-known actress across the way. She didn't take only one photo, but about five of them. After doing so, the woman laughed with the assurance of someone who had caught another in a trap: saying "I can see through your little game."
Leconte knew very little about this neighbour, she said, except that she was tall, always elegantly dressed even while seated on her balcony or moving about her flat, and that her skin tone and features indicated she might be from India, perhaps Sri Lanka. She was probably in her mid-thirties, and about the same age as Sandrine. Elise realized that the actress didn't only want to tell her what happened to her that morning, but wanted Elise to tell her the little she knew about the woman on the top floor apartment across the way and above the shop. Elise was quite happy to do so because unlike Leconte and most of the neighbours, Mme Roubaud had never once said hello to Elise. She would walk past the shop and key in her code as though there were only the inanimate objects sitting outside the store, and yet her husband was always friendly - except when he happened to be in the company of his wife. Elise explained that Mr Roubaud was a lawyer whom the owner, Yves, knew moderately well, and someone to whom he had sold a few books, always on the same subject and always at a high price: rare tomes on erotica. Yves, who would have been about fifty and the same age as Roubaud, said this one morning when they were sorting through a couple of boxes that had come in, and found two pieces of erotica from the 19th century and believed they would be perfect for Roubaud if he didn't already own them. Realising his indiscretion, he nevertheless didn't retreat from it but instead elaborated, and told her that Roubaud had been visiting the shop for years and always bought erotic literature. He never mentioned it again, and whatever erotic books Roubaud bought, he always purchased them from Yves.
Perhaps she was being indiscreet, even vengeful, telling Leconte this, but she reckoned the complicity she was feeling with the actress was more pronounced than any negative thoughts she had for Mme Roubaud. As far as she knew, the Roubauds had no children, rarely had visitors, and she didn't know of any extended family either. Leconte said that she couldn't recall ever seeing the husband, and now assumed that he must be a very attractive man if such a beautiful woman was so fearful of others' interest. Not at all, Elise insisted. He was a few centimetres shorter than his wife, had a thick neck and a full waist on short, trunk like legs, and his hair was long on the sides and his head shiny on top. When they walked along the street together they looked an odd couple, but what was odder still was Mme Roubaud's adoration of Mr Roubaud, and his affectionate but hardly devoted interest in her. When they walked she was always the one touching him, grasping for his hand, snuggling up beside him. He looked like someone who was happy with the attention, but never in need of it.
Leconte was herself a married woman, her husband a documentary filmmaker who worked away as often as Sandrine but on completely different projects. His last film was on tribal rituals in Africa and he had been absent for six months. When Elise saw them together she saw they seemed equally tactile, equally in need of each other's affection.
It would have been about three months after Leconte's anecdote, at the end of a summer so warm that Elise spent more time sitting outside the shop than inside it, when a delivery van pulled up at the end of the road, and, by the end of the day, the two men who got out had filled it with the Roubaud's things. The next afternoon when Elise came in to let Yves off for a few hours she asked where they had moved to: it was another street in the same city. Elise assumed it was because of Mme Roubaud's jealousy.
In September of that year Elise took a one year course in acting, working in the book shop between classes. By July she had a secondary role in a classical play performing in Avignon, at the theatre festival. The leading part was to be played by Philippe Regard, an actor best known for his theatre work but who appeared occasionally in films, usually playing roles that weren't large but where the paycheck allowed him to continue doing theatre whilst still making a comfortable living. It was how he described his film work to Elise one evening when a few of them went for a meal after the rehearsals, and she could see in Philippe's personality that there was a need to confess. Unlike many actors she would get to know over the years, Regard never regaled people with stories: he always seemed someone who was looking to talk to just one person and never the crowd. Though he frequently played major theatrical characters, he was often cast as insinuators, conspirators and treacherous men: he played Macbeth, Iago and Cassius, but never King Lear, Hamlet and Coriolanus. Yet what were portrayed as negative qualities on the stage, were positive ones in life. He took you to one side because he wanted to create a sincere complicity with you, she believed, not to generate mistrust and disloyalty.
Over the next couple of weeks of rehearsals, and during the two week festival, Regard often sought Elise's company after the show, and she wondered whether this was an attempt at a gradual seduction. Yet Regard's reputation with women was well-known, and interviews in major newspapers would ask him about it and he was honest in his replies. He didn't have difficulty in getting women, was known to have been in an open marriage that had ended a couple of years earlier, and didn't like hanging around if he was sexually interested in anyone. I of course at this moment wondered how attractive Elise happened to be in her early twenties, and it is as though she noticed my thought as I looked at her bone structure and saw the jaw was modest, the nose petite and straight, the eyes wide. She would have been at the very least pretty. Elise said she didn't want to claim every man she met wanted to make love to her, but here was one who wasn't slow in sleeping with many others, so why not her as well?
Well, one night after a performance where Elise felt that she was utterly inside the role, and where Regard was playing his with all the confidence unanimously good reviews usually provided, they went together for a meal and for a drink. Elise was excited, but Regard appeared subdued. Was he not happy with his performance, she asked; was he perhaps not happy with hers, or with the audience? He shook his head slowly, saying there was no problem with the play.
As they started to eat, he said, presumptuously but with no evident arrogance, whether she was surprised that he had never made a pass at her. She replied more playfully than his mood seemed to merit that he knew women well enough to know when he was likely to be refused. He smiled, but there was no lightness in it, and then said he was surprised since she knew so much about his capacity for loving that she hadn't noticed he seemed to have no female company in all the time he had been in Avignon. He then explained why. He had been having an affair with a well-known actress, named her and told Elise not to tell anyone about what he was divulging. Of course the actress happened to be Sandrine, and the affair had ended shortly before rehearsals began. She would not leave her husband, and he would not accept any longer to be merely her lover.
Elise asked Regard when the affair had begun, a question that might have seemed half irrelevant to him, but entirely relevant to her. He waved his hand and said around a year earlier, and Elise wondered whether it had started before or after Leconte had come to Elise and told her about the neighbour and the T-shirt. To ask for precise dates would have seemed both impertinent and insensitive, so she never did find out whether Sandrine was telling a lie within her confessional anecdote, whether she had no idea that soon she would be aptly wearing the T-shirt, or if she wanted to test Elise: to see how someone would react to the possibility of her sleeping with a married man. Perhaps there had been no T-shirt at all, and Mme Roubaud hadn't taken any photos, nor shown signs of jealousy.
The latter hypothesis she admitted was very unlikely, and here she was a year later with evidence suggesting Mme Roubaud's jealousy wasn't completely misplaced. For the few remaining days of the play Elise would eat each night with Regard and, the morning after the final performance, they met for coffee and a croissant at the railway station. He admitted he had never before enjoyed the company of a beautiful woman so chastely, and perhaps for all his unhappiness during this time she had taught him something important about the Platonic. As Elise offered this, she added that she could tell this story as she was telling it to me because she was no longer that beautiful woman, but it was as though now she was another person altogether. It was as if she was content to stop the story exactly there, as though the coincidence of knowing these two famous actors, and recalling a time when one of them had perhaps lied to test her reaction, and another confessed to her about an affair while commenting on Elise's own beauty, was enough of an anecdote.
But hadn't Elise hinted at the justification for Mme Roubaud's jealousy; didn't she give me details in the story that might make me question whether Elise was telling the truth? Concerning the latter, didn't Regard ask her where she had been working before coming to Avignon; would he not have worked out it was in the same street where Sandrine lived? Elise said it was a fair enquiry, it showed I was paying attention and that I was good at asking questions, something Regard, she had to admit, for all his impressive qualities, was incapable of doing. When they talked he talked about himself. If he asked a question it wasn't about Elise, but what Elise might have thought were Leconte's motives. No, there was no hole in the story concerning Regard's curiosity: some people are not interested in other people unless those people directly concern their own feelings. Regard was such a man, and Elise said I should remember that though Philippe was a great actor, he always played roles within a narrow range.
Elise went back to work in the bookshop after her time in Avignon, and at the end of this particular summer the removal van was taking away the furniture of Sandrine and her husband. They had decided to live in Paris, she had told Yves, with her husband promising to travel far less and make more documentaries in the capital. Elise noticed the two removal men were the same as the previous year. They nodded to her and she smiled back
Elise worked in the shop for several more years, with Yves willing to give her time off when she needed it for an audition and even for extended periods when she appeared in a play. During this time, though, most of the theatre work she did in the city, and she also started making money from acting workshops. She had an affair with an actor, one who was in a supporting role in a play where she was the lead, but most of the time she was single. She also started thinking about a second-hand bookshop of her own; that she would combine acting work with the store. Yves had for many years allowed the shop to support his work as a novelist, well aware that the writing was never likely to make him much money, a prediction that had entirely come true. Elise had read and enjoyed all four of his novels, but they were neither commercial enough nor experimental enough, he believed: they neither got him an agent nor any sort of university position. He published through a friend, and while of course this didn't make the books bad, it hardly made Yves feel good. He hadn't published in a decade, and the shop was now the centre of his life.
Of course Elise offered me this as though expecting me to view her life likewise: I knew she hadn't acted in many years. But it was as though she commented on Yves less to point up his failed promise; more to emphasize her own, and yet I think I saw in both of them another type of success. I had no such youthful ambition, though I still happened to be in my mid-twenties, but my wish was always to hold to some notion of a centre, an uncompromising belief not so much in myself as in the notion of self: in the idea that we all have centres we have to hold onto but that society is constantly pulling us in various directions. From my point of view both Yves and Elise were thus successes.
Anyway, Elise said one of the books that Yves had written was quite erotic, and perhaps she noticed this less in the reading of the book, than when, a couple of years after Mme Roubaud and her husband had moved out of the street, much of the material found its way back there again. Mr Roubaud had passed away, and all his books, magazines and various erotic paraphernalia had made it from the top floor of the apartment block, across the city, and now returned to the ground floor. It was Elise's responsibility to look through all the material, and amongst the books was none other than one by Yves. That all the material delivered to the shop was of an erotic nature indicated that Mme Roubaud had kept all the other books in their new apartment, and she found it amusing to see Yves' book as part of Mr Roubaud's erotic imagination.
What she was even more surprised to find, however, were two early films made with none other than Sandrine Leconte. She took them home that evening and watched them: they weren't pornographic, but they played on Sandrine's sexuality, and no less so on her shyness. If she had been a more flamboyantly erotic star then the films might have lacked that private sense of revelation, the feeling that someone had made them as if for a lover. And so they had been: these were early fiction efforts made by her husband who would afterwards devote himself to documentary. Most surprising of all however were the very photos that Mme Roubaud had taken of Leconte. Were they discovered by Mr Roubaud and then added surreptitiously to his collection, had Mme Roubaud looked through the collection at all, or just dropped the boxes off to the shop? Were the photos even taken specifically as part of the erotic love life of the Roubauds, with the films already augmenting their desire? She took the films and the photos, and never told Yves about them.
Elise offered this with a shrug that suggested she had little more to divulge, but instead said that over the next eighteen months she kept buying second-hand books, and by the time she left the south to open her own compact store in the fifth arrondissement in the capital, she owned four thousand and bought another two thousand very cheaply off Yves, who was pleased that she was following in his bibliomaniacal footsteps, but with an adventurous move to Paris. There was no shop with the same name as Yves's in the capital, and so it carried the same nomenclature. If people thought hers was an extension of Yves's then she wouldn't mind. Yes, over the next decade sometimes people would come in and ask if it was owned by the same people behind the beautiful, sprawling shop on two floors they knew from the south of France. Elise would enigmatically reply that they were distant relations, and it was always the phrase she used to describe them until one day, around four years after the store had opened, Leconte's husband came in, and asked the question people would ask, but this time she answered that the shops were like husband and wife. She had never talked to him before; he had never been in the shop in the south when she was working there, but there she was wondering what qualities he might have possessed that led Sandrine to return to him. Unlike Regard, he wasn't outgoing; he was ingoing. He asked questions that turned the other person into an expert, and at the same time revealed much about himself in the asking. How long had she owned the shop in Paris, he wondered, and after she told him it was three years, he said that he could never own a bookshop: he would either only sell books he liked which would have been too painful to sell, or sell lots of books he didn't want to own and that would have been painful to have on the shelves. The bookshop, perhaps all bookshops, are a compromise between the two positions she supposed.
I mentioned to Elise a passage I had read in a Scottish paper only a week or two earlier. The Scottish poet and translator Alistair Reid had passed away, and the journalist, who knew him well, talked of Reid only having in his library books that he had read. Once while visiting the journalist at the journalist's home, Reid asked him how much he had paid for the wallpaper, for the floor to ceiling tomes: the sheer volume of volumes led Reid to see a man who had no more than books furnishing a room.
Elise asked me if I recalled the journalist's name. It happened to be someone she knew well: he would have bought a few of those books from her. I apologized for interrupting and asked her to tell me more about Mr Leconte's visit. There isn't that much more to tell, Elise believed, but by the time he exited twenty minutes later the impression he left, somehow indented, was as powerful as that of Regard, with whom she had been in the company of every night for a fortnight on the stage, as well as in rehearsals and for meals and drinks. No doubt it lay partly in the biographical connotations Leconte carried with him, that she knew he was Sandrine's husband, had directed her in early erotic films, had been cuckolded by an actor whom she'd shared a stage. Yet it was more that he knew how to talk to people, a much subtler gift than merely being a good listener. She had seen one of his documentaries and recalled reading a couple of reviews that said no documentarist in France brought out the inner surprise of each human more than Leconte. He had the ability to make people interesting to themselves, they said, and meeting him she understood why.
About a week after Mr Leconte's visit, Sandrine came into the shop, and while her husband hadn't known Elise at all, Sandrine recognized her immediately. They hugged as if old friends even though Elise did wonder whether Sandrine might have possibly seen her as a love rival for Regard's affections, but as they talked over a coffee on the small, round, metal table and chairs that she had purchased from Yves along with a couple of thousand titles, so she seemed pleased to see Elise and treated her like a younger cousin, as someone with whom we feel both familiar and distant. Yet this distance wasn't at all an emotional aloofness; merely the way one happens to be when we haven't seen a person to whom we used to be close. Yet of course Elise and Sandrine had never been friends, but sitting between them as if with an unspoken complicity rather than a subtextual rivalry was Regard. Sandrine must surely have known that her lover had been acting in a play with a young woman who also happened to be a neighbour, and she might have suspected that Regard would have confided in, perhaps slept with, this actress he worked alongside after the affair was over, if that is what it had happened to be. However, while the play had of course been public knowledge, with Elise's and Regard's name on many a poster in Avignon, and with the play reviewed in several papers, Regard and Leconte's affair was never in the public domain.
Nor were other details about Sandrine Leconte's life, and while Elise may have felt she possessed information about Sandrine the actress must have known Elise knew, Elise also had in her possession the photos and videos from Roubaud's erotic collection. While they talked, the curious complicity of sharing the absence of a secret Elise thought should be matched by revelations elsewhere. After an hour, Sandrine said she should go. She had a shoot early the next morning at Versailles: she was in a TV miniseries that would pay for the repairs on the flat in Montmartre. Her husband might be one of the best documentary filmmakers in France, she said, but spouting a few lousy lines in period dress would pay the plumber and the decorator.
As she got up to leave, Elise asked her to wait a moment. A minute later she returned with the two films and the photos Mrs Roubaud would have taken. Elise handed them over and Sandrine looked at her initially with puzzlement, and then with that shyness one would see in films and photoshoots. Mr Roubaud had passed away a few years earlier, Elise said by way of an explanation, and Sandrine curiously blushed, before shaking her head and saying that Elise should keep them: perhaps some day they would be memorabilia.
Elise never saw Sandrine again, just as she had never seen Regard after they had performed in the play together. She would read about them occasionally, but nothing more. But a couple of years ago, when she was back in Paris, there was a film playing which starred both Regard and Leconte, directed by her husband. It was the first fiction film he had made since those two early erotic films, and he used footage from one of them to draw out the contrast between the youthful Sandrine when she would have been nineteen, and in the new film where she would have been seventy. The casting of Regard as an ex-lover she meets again was odd and apt, and yet it was in keeping with a director who had documented his wife's beauty when she was a teenager and filmed the lives of numerous people since. Why not one of his wife ex-lover's too? As she concluded her story I found it unbelievable, but not at all unverifiable, and so I asked her what she happened to do with those early films, with the photos Mme Roubaud took. She still had them, she said, and proceeded, as she had done years before with Sandrine Leconte, in another city, in another era, to leave someone standing there as she went off to look for them.
She came back after a few minutes, and her eyes were moist while she handed two tapes to me and some photos. The tapes were heavy and less rectangular than I remember: they were Betamax, the forerunner to VHS. The instamatic photos were equally of their period, and as I looked at them, I couldn't easily separate the feeling of snatched time the technology allowed for, and the moment of snatched time from this actress's life. She would have been in her late twenties in the photos, bashfully allowing another woman from across the way to photograph her in the T-shirt that was about to prove more true than she would have thought, or was worn with the brazen ostentation of a purloined letter. I can only say I was moved by time, this strange tragedy from which no one can escape as I looked at Elise's face, a face showing more of time's workings than mine. It was a beauty I hadn't before seen when on each occasion I would go in and view an older woman sitting behind her desk, surrounded by books and bric a brac, and where, before properly talking to her, I had never given a thought to the life she had accumulated as readily as the books on the shop's shelves. She put the tapes on the desk, looked at me firmly, and said she worried that soon the very idea of the type of shop we were standing in would seem as quaint as the betatapes we had both just had in our hands.
I looked at my watch, itself an object that increasingly belonged to time past, and saw that three hours had gone by: I had ten minutes to get to a class I was teaching on the other side of town, and hoped my bicycle would get me there on time. As I said goodbye, she gave me one of the photos, saying somehow she felt it was in safe hands. While cycling off I wondered about the coincidences riddling the story she told me, but felt that the combination of evidence offered and a feeling of truth explored meant we had more than simply been passing time.
© Tony McKibbin