First Love

1995.07.01

Daily Mail, 1 July 1995

My friend went off to bed. I headed for Georges’s flat

TO SOMEONE who’d just spent six years in the bland, boring suburbs of New York, there was no word more enticing than `Paris’. So the thought of spending a week’s holiday there – sans Mum and Dad – was pretty sensational.

I’d been invited to stay with my friend Magdi Meray, a sweet girl with a rather bohemian nature which appealed to me. Our fathers, both writers, were old friends.

It was 1972 and I was a drama student in London, not quite 20, and beginning to feel very grown-up. I’m not sure why. I still lived a sheltered life with my parents. My mother did everything for me. I’d never even cooked myself a meal. I’d never smoked a joint, either, and considering I’d grown up in the Sixties, that was quite a feat.

Meanwhile, my college classmates were sharing digs with shady characters and staying up all night. They went to murky Soho dives, smoked roll-ups and lived on tins of baked beans. They liked to tease me. To them, I was Miss Goody-Goody: non-smoker, very modest drinker. And a virgin. (Funny, how they can always tell about that.)

In spite of all these things, I did feel quite mature and knew it was high time I had a little adventure. It was the Easter break from drama school and I felt suddenly unleashed. Eagerly I packed my mini-skirts and a navy beret bought specially for the occasion. I was so corny.

I’d never been to Paris before and as soon as I got there I knew it was everything I’d wanted it to be. It was Bonjour Tristesse and striped cafe awnings, chic women and the smell of hot bread. London was a dreary affair by comparison. I fell for the place.

When I arrived at Magdi’s flat (which, by the way, was also perfect: up a steep flight of stairs, views over slanting rooftops, paintings of nudes on the walls and a cat sleeping in the fruit bowl) she had good news for me. Her parents were leaving the next day for their country house in Pontoise. We’d have the place to ourselves. Bliss!

Magdi was studying at the Sorbonne and that evening she invited a few of her student friends over. It was all incredibly Parisian. We sat around on the floor, drinking red wine, listening to Juliette Greco records. I felt thoroughly existential. Anything can happen in a place like this, I thought. And anything did.

In the morning Magdi took me to view the Mona Lisa, so I could see what all the fuss was about. It was lunchtime when we arrived back at her apartment house on a narrow Left Bank side-street, not far from the Eiffel Tower. As we walked through the main door into the building’s dusky hallway, we bumped into a man on his way out.

`’AlIo, Georges,’ murmured Magdi. She introduced me to her dark-haired, dark-eyed neighbour. He was in his early 30s and extremely handsome. His top two shirt buttons were undone, revealing the silver chain around his neck.

At first Georges looked a little solemn. Then he took my hand and smiled at me. With a smile, he looked even better.

Upstairs, Magdi told me that Georges Nojaroff was a photographer. He took very good pictures but he was lazy and rarely got up before noon. He’d never been married, but there was usually some glamorous woman hanging around the place.

I had to see him again. Having set eyes on suave, worldly Georges, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending another evening sitting on the floor with Magdi’s bearded student pals. I insisted that we invite him to have a drink with us. Magdi gave me a slightly odd look. But in the end she shrugged, said OK and trudged down to his flat.

Georges, to my surprise, offered to take us both out. In a dither, I got myself ready and we were downstairs ringing his bell at eight o’clock. He was in a more perky mood now. We got into his little car and zipped off towards the Seine. There was something reckless about him (he raced around the terrifying traffic at the Etoile without looking), but I found him irresistible. Maybe it was being in Paris. Maybe I was in a highly susceptible state. Whatever it was, I just knew l had to take it to the limit.

He took us to a big, bright tavern. We stood in the gallery with our drinks – something cold in sugar-coated glasses – and looked down at the animated crowd. My French was rotten and Georges spoke only broken English, but it didn’t seem to matter. We laughed a lot, I remember.

We drove home in silence. Magdi dozed off in the back seat. When we got home, she went straight to bed. I went straight to Georges’s place.

His flat was tiny and chaotic. There was photographic equipment lying around, and teetering piles of magazines, shirts hanging from light fixtures, and taking up an armchair, a saddle smelling strongly of leather polish. Georges, it turned out, was a keen horse rider.

His desk was too big for the room. But unlike the rest of the place, it was quite neat. In the middle of it was a rectangular sign: `Danger! Le Boss est explosif.’ It set my back tingling.

He put on a record. Michel Sardou, or perhaps Charles Aznavour. I remember standing in the middle of his bachelor’s jumble, feeling suddenly awkward, not knowing what to do with my hands and feet. Then, a moment later, he was kissing me very tenderly and all the gaucheness evaporated.

I stayed with Georges that night. For me, it was a monumental event. For him, perhaps only another slice of pleasure. Back then, having had no experience of such things, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew only that his warmth and passion had made me feel extraordinary things. Was it love? Did it have a name at all?

In the morning the sunlight woke me up, and Georges was standing by the bed in a towel. Blinking, I gave him a lazy smile. I thought of my sniggering classmates back in London, and felt very, very happy.

Over breakfast he announced that he wanted to take pictures of me. We’d hop in the car and drive around the city, stopping at good spots. Up and down the boulevards we sped, with frequent photo shoots – beside a Metro sign, on a park bench, along the river.

He told me to walk ahead a little, up some steps towards a grand public building. `When I say, you turn and look back at me!’ he instructed. I did, and the camera clicked.

We spent the day together, and the night. I was having the time of my life and there was no one to disapprove. Georges was now the most important person in Paris. Every day we grew more intimate. Strange women rang him sometimes while I was there, but he seemed interested only in me.

`Ma petite Monique . . .’ he’d breathe into my ear, and my head would start spinning.

What amazing luck! Here I was, having my first real relationship, and it was with a mature, sensual older man, not some callow drama student who was sick on his way home from the pub.

Parting at the airport was dreadful. But I was in a sort of dream and barely realised what our `Goodbye’ would actually mean.

I thought about Georges incessantly for, perhaps, two months. I sent him a letter but he never replied. I told myself it was because of language difficulties. Then, gradually, my feelings receded.

Two years later I married, and then there simply wasn’t space for him in my thoughts any more.

I had no contact with Georges Nojaroff for 22 years. Then, last summer, I went to Paris to visit my old friend Magdi. And for the first time I felt compelled to see Georges. Since our distant affair I’d been through a long marriage and was single again. I didn’t intend to rekindle the old passion, but perhaps the possibility that it might happen subconsciously spurred me on.

He has never married. He still lives alone in the little flat, still beneath Magdi’s now elderly parents. He still wakes up late and takes pictures for a living.

We spoke on the phone, and one evening I called on him. He’s changed very little. The thick brown hair, now mixed with grey, is still combed back from his forehead. The dark eyes are just as magnetic. He seemed pleased to see me, looking hard at my face, smiling and shaking his head.

His flat was smaller than I’d remembered it. Isn’t that what people always say? Unbelievably, that sign about Le Boss being explosive was still on his desk. But if he hadn’t exploded by now, I reckoned he never would.

We sat in the kitchen and he opened a bottle of wine. His English hadn’t improved, and neither had my French. He had often asked Magdi about me, so he knew the general course of my life. I showed him a picture of my two sons. He told me about the horse he had owned, which had died in an accident a few months earlier.

There was something sad about him, which I now realised had been there all along. But I couldn’t quite understand it, and I don’t suppose I ever shall.

We talked in our fractured sentences, drank the wine, drew closer and then – more for the sake of our memories than anything else – tumbled onto the bed. But it was an empty exercise, and immediately afterwards we both knew it.

`Turn and look back at me,’ he’d said that day when I was 19 and he was taking my picture – the portrait of a young romantic, with a face full of hope.

Well, two decades later I looked back again. When you’re reaching out for something that you’ve lost, it’s easy to look back. But as for going back, that, as they say, is a different kettle of fish.

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