A guest blogpost by Brendan Howley
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There’s an office building in Paris which belongs to one of the less important security branches of the labyrinthine French intelligence empire. On a frigid January morning twenty years ago, I rode the century-old elevator to the third floor; I was the guest of a mid-ranking French diplomat I’d met on assignment in Cuba: I’d helped him with one or two delicate enquiries regarding the equally labyrinthine Cuban foreign ministry.
As a signal of his gratitude, my acquaintance, knowing I’d an espionage novel under my belt, had wangled me a pass to visit him in his native habitat, on the third floor of a courtyard building in the VIIth. We were to speak about the French role in investigating war crimes in former Yugoslavia, then destroying itself for all the world to see.
I have a miserable sense of direction, which, combined with a native curiosity, sent me the wrong way once I’d bid farewell to my escort to the building, Kazimierz Brandys, a noted Polish émigré writer who’d lived in exile in Paris since 1978. Brandys, who had a delightful sense of history, had charmed with a series of stories about the Napoleonic incursions into Poland and his exile’s misadventures with the present-day French civil service. “C’est folle, mais ça fonctionne,” he warned me, grinning a very Polish smile and tapping me on the shoulder as we parted.
The third floor hallway was ornate, deathly quiet and smelt faintly of cigarettes and that inky aroma of officialdom and rubber stamps. Lost, confused and in terror I’d be caught with my pathetic stamped orange pass in the wrong place, I heard an ominous clanking noise behind me. I could see nothing; somewhere a clock bonged quarter past eleven. I felt as if I’d walked into a Hitchcock film. I did the logical thing: I sat down on a chaise longue and awaited events.
The clanking sound grew louder and I turned to take in its source. An elderly woman, all in black—the de rigueur uniform of the French civil service in those days—navigated an even more elderly art nouveau coffee cart, complete with sufficient demi-tasse, silver spoons, canisters, filters and sugar cubes to provision the entire secret service.
She approached, her face set: she resembled the great English comic actress Liz Smith, all nose and false teeth and hair like barbed wire. When she reached me, she stopped the cart, gently, like a limousine. The lid of the bowling-ball-like ceramic coffee pot on her cart’s prow, clattered for a moment and then settled, like a spinning coin coming to rest. She fixed me with strange look, as if I were a houseplant in need of attention.
Gravely, she began the Zen-like process of pouring off boiling water from the great steel cylinder, lit by a tiny ring of blue flame, which she adjusted with infinite care. Silent, she worked like a puppet-mistress, graceful and focused. After a choreography worthy of Baryshnikov, madame presented me with a perfect café pressé in a perfect Limoges cup and saucer, accompanied by two waxpaper-wrapped lumps of cane sugar. The coffee’s rich round flavor I recall to this day: strong and full and almost like cognac in its liquidy efflorescence on the tongue.
Then she moved off, guiding her cart down the hall, clanking like an old suit of armor. I watched her go, her bird-like legs carrying her, lithe and upright and not a day under seventy-five, like a duchess. I leant back against the wall, sipping my coffee, marvelling at this Gallic hospitality.
My acquaintance never did turn up; an associate offered ornate apologies for the inconvenience but some minister apparently required his services at short notice. The duchess’ coffee-service was so satisfying I didn’t care a whit. I finished the coffee and left my cup and saucer with the concierge.
Back in the damp cold of midwinter Paris, I had something more than a warm belly: I’d seen something of France behind closed doors…and loved every moment.