The train whistles into Gare de Nord and screeches to a halt. I glance out the misted window at the bustle below. A sea of grey pinstriped suits sways about on the wooden quay. Smoke billows onto the platform. People wear agitated looks. I reach into my purse and re-check the address scribbled on a torn envelope. I remove the five francs my mother has given me for a taxi and slip it into my jacket pocket. I slide my suitcase from my lap and lift myself from the worn seat. I brush the creases from my skirt and swallow hard. I proceed to the door and descend the small ladder onto the platform.
The crowd hustles in every direction. I locate the exit sign and forge forward, pushing my suitcase in front of me. Men lift their gaze as I hurry past. I feel their eyes appraise me from the ground up. A man to my right brushes his hand against my waist.
“Charmant, Mademoiselle,” he declares as I push past him.
I lower my eyes and scuttle towards the exit. The crisp spring air cools my skin as the large wooden doors swing open in front of the taxi stand. I stand in line and shift my weight in my shoes. Moments later I slide into the back seat of a cab and inhale deeply. I announce the address to the driver.
“Oui, Mademoiselle,” he replies.
The taxi edges out of the station and jolts into the heavy traffic heading south towards Saint Germain des Prés.
The taxi stops along a narrow cobbled street in the heart of Saint Germain. I slip from the vehicle, take a deep breath, and knock on the large black door of number 324 Rue St Jacques. A petite young woman sporting a green shift-dress and a neat chignon greets me.
“We’ve been expecting you. I am Laura,” she announces. “I believe we will be roommates,” she grins.
Laura steps aside. The furious pound of typewriter keys fills my ears as I enter the commotion of the three-story office building.
“I will be in charge of training you, Rose,” Laura states as she commences a tour of the office.
“Who is your friend?” calls a young man from an office across the hall.
“You just get on with your work, Ben,” Laura responds.
I turn and see Ben and two other men who have gathered to watch the newcomer.
Ben punches one of the men in the arm and they all grin. They stare at us as we continue down the corridor.
Laura turns to me, “You’ve got to watch out for that one. Come to think of it, you’ve got to watch out for the whole damn lot of them,” she laughs.
We reach the centre of the office. Young women sit in rows tapping typewriters. The girls sport smooth chignons and colourful dresses. A dark-haired girl looks up and smiles at me.
“This is where you will start,” says Laura.
I place my suitcase down on the empty desk beside the dark-haired girl.
“But first I have to tell you about tonight,” Laura smirks.
My eyes open wide. I cock my head and I lean in towards her.
“Mr. Davencourt is absent today, but he has asked me to send you to meet him for dinner tonight at The Supper Club. This is a big deal. You will need to leave right after work. And wear your best dress.”
I brush my long hair into a chignon similar to the other girls in the office. The low bun sits at the nape of my neck. I feel elegant with the new style. I powder my nose and apply fresh lipstick. I inspect my reflection. My little black dress falls mid-thigh and curves around my swelling breasts and narrow hips. I smile at my reflection. I hear Mr. Davencourt enjoys pretty secretaries in the office.
I breeze out of the washroom and hand my suitcase to Laura.
“The club is just two blocks from here,” Laura reminds me. “I will take your bag to the apartment and see you there after dinner. The room is tiny, but I think we will get along just fine.” She smiles. “Remember, make the best impression you can with Mr. Davencourt. It will go a long way in your success here.”
I nod and swallow. My heart thumps in my chest. I lift my head and push open the black door leading to the street. I turn left and march towards the club.
A young waiter in a tuxedo greets me at the private entrance on Rue Mouffetard. “Bonsoir mademoiselle. Monsieur Davencourt and guests await you.”
“Merci,” I reply and follow him towards the courtyard at the back of the club.
Low chatter and clinking glasses greet me as I descend the stairs into the softly lit courtyard. The courtyard turns silent. Heads turn. I hear a deep mumble and realise the guests are all men. My heart races under the black fabric of my dress.
A stout man with grey hair and a paunch pushes through the crowd of suited men and approaches me. He raises his arms wide as he strides forward.
“Rose!” He declares. “A rose indeed!”
Mr. Davencourt stops in front of me. I feel his hot breath on my cheeks. He breathes in my perfume. His eyes descend and linger over my cleavage. I spot a balding patch on the top of his head. Sweat beads on his forehead.
Slowly he lifts his gaze to meet mine. “Champagne, Mademoiselle?”
I nod and swallow the lump in my throat.
A waiter hands me a glass of champagne. I lift the flute to my pursed lips and feel the bubbles tickle my throat as I gulp the honey coloured liquid.
“Come,” demands Mr. Davencourt. “Mingle.”
I smile and mince forward into the crowd of men. The energy is titillating. A gentleman compliments my chignon. Another admires my cheekbones. I sense the breath of another on the nape of my neck. I quiver.
A waiter fills my glass. I pour the liquid onto my tongue and allow the bubbles to burst. I smile and tease. I laugh and blush. I feel intoxicated by the attention. I finish my glass and the waiter pours another.
“Messieurs, mademoiselle, dinner is ready,” calls a waiter from the stairs.
Mr. Davencourt swoops in and links his arm in mine. He escorts me towards the stairs. He steadies me as we ascend arm in arm. I giggle. My head feels foggy. I feel flushed.
We follow the waiter into the dining room. An enormous feast for every taste lies before us. I feel the guests enter and crowd behind me. Mr. Davencourt unhooks his arm. He lifts his hand to my cheek and brushes a loose hair behind my ear. He leans in and whispers, “You are finer than the feast, Rose.”
I giggle and stumble. Mr. Davencourt slips his arm around my waist and steadies me. I feel his fingers press into my back. I feel the heat of his body. His damp underarm touches my shoulder.
“Wouldn’t Rose make a fine feast?” Mr. Davencourt asks the guests.
I hear a mumbled response from behind me. I giggle.
Suddenly my feet leave the ground. Mr. Davencourt presses me into his chest. His right arm is under my thighs. His left scoops me close to his face. I look up and see him leer at my cleavage. His breath hits my bare throat. My body freezes.
Mr. Davencourt swings me onto the table between two plates of charcuterie. I teeter in my heels. I stand and look at the crowd. Amused faces stare back.
Mr. Davencourt clears dishes from under me.
“Lie, Rose,” he taunts.
I giggle in response.
“Lie.” He repeats. “I want to enjoy you.”
Blood rushes to my limbs. My heart thumps. My head clears. I gulp and look at him. He stares back at me. His tongue pokes from between his lips and circles around, moistening his lips.
Slowly I lower my frame to the table. I lie on one side and ease my legs out between the dishes. My dress edges up around my buttocks. I reach to pull it down.
“Leave it.” Demands Mr. Davencourt. “It is perfect.”
My stomach churns. Heat rises from my throat to my cheeks.
The guests approach. I feel eyes on every inch of me. My body trembles. I lift my head and look out. A stuffed pheasant sits to my right. A juicy leg of ham sits to my left. A pig’s head lies next to the ham. An apple is wedged in its open mouth. Its glassy eyes stare back at me.
Fingers brush my legs and hot breath warms my neck as the guests fill their plates with the delicate fare.
“May I have a slice?” One man whispers in my ear. His eyes burn holes in my breasts. I want to vomit. I swallow and smile.
Mr. Davencourt approaches. He raises his hand towards my lips. A grape is perched between his two fingers. He pushes the grape into my mouth. His fingers linger on my bottom lip. I hear a groan to my left.
“Come on Rose,” he says. “You must eat too.”
He reaches his hand to meet mine. He pulls me up to my knees and reaches in. He grabs me by the waist and lowers me to the floor. I stand motionless.
“Just a little fun, Rose.” Laughs Mr. Davencourt. “You’re a good sport.”
He reaches around and taps me on the backside. His hand lingers on my skirt.
“I am going to freshen up before dinner.” I muster. I feel tears well behind my eyes.
I lift my chin and swivel towards the door. I feel Mr. Davencourt’s stare as I stride towards the washroom. I close the door behind me. Tears flood my eyes as I sink to the cold tile floor.