Once upon a time in Paris, as I was walking down a quiet residential street in Montmartre, I noticed a brass button inlaid in the wall at eye level. The button was circled by a floral pattern and below there was a small plaque engraved in a most elegant script the following text:
Lost and in need of the toilet?
Press the button and I will let you in.
For there really is nothing worse.
I was most astounded by this remarkable discovery, especially as the text was written in English and not in French as I would have expected. As it happened, I did actually need to go to the toilet, and I had not a clue where to find one without incurring the expense of purchasing a café in one of many bistros (and which would in turn cause me to require the use of the toilet once again not too far into the future). So, not without great trepidation, I pressed the button.
Seconds later, the shutters of a second story window flew open, sending faint clouds of dust drifting down in the cobbled street below. A gentleman craned his neck out, surveyed the scene to the left and right, and then peered down below. I stared back speechless. In short order he retrieved from his breast-pocket a monocle, and proceeded to attach it to his face and ear by means of a small chain.
“Hello down there!” he exclaimed in best public school English. “Did you press the bell?”
“I did, in fact,” replied I.
“What’s that?” he cried.
“Yes, I rang the bell!”
“Ah. Right. Right.” He patted down his various pockets, looked around dreamily, and then as if remembering something important he looked down at me and told me to “wait right there” and that he would be down “in a jiffy”.
After a short wait I heard a key turn in the lock and then the door was flung wide. The gentleman introduced himself as Bruce McFarthing, and invited me inside. I followed him up the stairs and into his apartment.
I glanced around as I stepped through the threshold, taking in the rows of hard-bound books stacked from wall to ceiling, the rich drapings, the oriental rugs, the pressed ceilings, the chandelier, a thick cloud of smoke and an assortment of characters sprawled around the room.
Before I could complete my visual investigation Bruce showed me to the toilet. With relief I attended to nature’s call, and then returned to the salon.
Bruce glanced up from a book and spoke thus: “You’re surely not going to leave without indulging in a spot of tea, are you?”
I made to protest my regrets, but Bruce would hear none of it. “Nonsense! Come now, the tea has already been prepared.” And with that he began to pour steaming sweet-smelling tea from an exotic Moroccan tea pot into a fine tea glass.
“Oh, and look, we have the most delightful cakes as well!” laughed Bruce.
I settled down at a comfortable distance.
“Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft” announced Bruce holding up the volume that he was reading. “The German is not always the easiest language to read, but I feel that it does show a degree of erudition and, and, well frankness.”
I nodded, incomprehensibly. I gazed around at the odd characters in the room. The first thing that struck me was that they were all smoking pipes, long wooden Sherlock Homes types, puffing great clouds of smoke into the already misty room. And they were all buried in books.
“Oh don’t pay any attention to my retinue, they just come for the quiet reading, away from the pestering of these modern librarians we have all over Paris nowadays. I tell you, it was the worst thing in the world to allow women into libraries. Now they do keeps things nicely alphabetised that much is true, but they can so pester a gentleman trying to feed both his mind and his bodily needs at the same time. No eating of biscuits in the library, no drinking of cognac, no smoking of pipes! And the chairs! What horror! A man needs a comfortable chair with great arms to pile books and well-appointed wings into which he can tuck his head if he wishes to indulge in a quiet nap between readings. Is that honestly too much to ask?” Bruce tut-tutted under his breath and continued in this vain for some time.
He turned to me. “You know, I do think it’s getting late, it might be time for dinner.” he reached inside the pocket of his waistcoat and withdrew a pocket watch, which he rubbed with a silk tissue and then inspected up close with his reading glasses. “A bit early,” he admitted with a grump, “but we might as well go nonetheless. You will accompany us of course, won’t you, young, err… young man.”
“It’s Patrick,” I said by way of introduction, “but I really must take my leave I am afraid. I do have a prior appointment.”
“Hah, I’ll wager he’s making that one up,” burst one of the other men in the room to a round roar of laughter.
“Tell me,” asked Bruce, “do you have a last name to go with that fine first name?”
“Good grief Bruce,” exclaimed one of the others, “you’ve gone an let an Irishman in here. You’ll let any stray in I swear it!” More roars of laughter.
Bruce drew nearer and cleared his throat nervously. “You’re not Irish are you?” he inquired in somewhat disturbing tones.
“Half Irish actually,” I admitted. “The other half English.”
“Ah well, you’re at least half English and that’s enough for me,” he chuckled slapping me heartily on the shoulder.
“Come, let us eat.” And with that the gang decamped out into the street, all the while roaring at their dry jokes and puffing heartily on their pipes.