Authors: Ian Rankin
The Travelling Companion
“My French isn't very good,” I told him.
“The seller's English. You'll be fine.” Mr. Whitman thrust the postcard towards me again. He had insisted I call him George, but I couldn't do that. He was my employer, sort of. Moreover, if the stories were to be believed, he was a descendant of Walt Whitman, and that mattered to me. I had graduated with First Class Honors from the University of Edinburgh that same summer. My focus had been on Scottish rather than American Literature, but stillâWhitman was Whitman. And now my employer (of sorts) was asking me to do him a favor. How could I refuse?
I watched as my fingers plucked the postcard from his grip. It was one of the bookstore's own promotional cards. On one side were drawings of Shakespeare and Rue De La Bucherie, on the other my handwritten destination.
“A five-minute walk,” Mr. Whitman assured me. His accent was an American drawl. He was tall, his silver hair swept back from his forehead, his eyes deep-set, cheekbones prominent. The first time we'd met, he had demanded a cigarette. On hearing that I didn't smoke, he had shaken his head as if in general weariness at my generation. This meeting had taken place outside a nearby cous-cous restaurant, where I had been staring at the menu in the window, wondering if I dared go inside. Money wasn't the main issue. I had been rehearsing my few French phrases and considering the possibility that the staff, seeing me for a lone traveler, might mug me for my pocketful of francs before selling the contents of my heavy rucksack at some street market in the vicinity.
“Passing through?” the stranger next to me had inquired, before demanding that I give him one of my “smokes.”
A little later, as we shared a table and the menu's cheapest options, he had told me about his bookstore.
“I know it,” I'd stammered. “It's rightly famous.”
He had offered a tired smile, and, when we'd filled our bellies, had produced an empty thermos flask, into which he poured the leftover food before screwing the lid back on.
“No point wasting it,” he had explained. “The store doesn't pay, you know, but there's the offer of a bed. A bed's all you get.”
“I was going to look for a hotel.”
“You work the till for a few hours, and mop the floor at closing time. Rest of the day's your own, and we do have some interesting books on the shelves â¦”
Which is how I came to work at Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue De La Bucherie, Paris 5. On the postcard we boasted “the largest stock of antiquarian English books on the continent,” and added Henry Miller's comment that we were “a wonderland of books.”
It wasn't the original shop, of courseânot that we trumpeted the fact. Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company had opened in the year 1919 on Rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises on Rue de l'Odeon. This was where Joyce, Pound and Hemingway could be found. Mr. Whitman had called his own bookstore Le Mistral, before renaming it in Beach's honorâher own Shakespeare and Co. having closed for good during the German occupation of Paris. The new Shakespeare and Company had been a magnet for Beat writers in the 1950s, and writers (of a sort) still visited. I would lie on my hard narrow bed in a curtained-off alcove and listen as poems were workshopped by ex-pats whose names meant nothing to me. Contemporary writing was not my period, however, so I tried hard not to judge.
“You're from Scotland, right?” Mr. Whitman had said to me one day.
“Walter Scott and Robbie Burns, eh?”
“And Robert Louis Stevenson.”
“Not forgetting that reprobate Trocchi â¦” He had chuckled to himself.
“Stevenson is my passion. I'm starting my PhD on him in the autumn.”
“Back into academe so soon?”
“I like it there.”
“I can't imagine why.” And he had fixed me with one of his looks, before opening the till to examine the evening's scant takings. It was August, and still hot outside. The tourists were sitting at cafÃ© tables, fanning themselves with menus and ordering cold drinks. Only one or two people my own age were browsing the shelves of our airless shop. There was an original copy of
in the window, a siren to draw them inside. But this night it was proving ineffectual.
“Was Paris always your destination?” he asked, sliding the drawer closed again.
“I wanted to travel. Stevenson visited France several times.”
“Is that the subject of your PhD?”
“I'm looking at how his health may have affected his writing.”
“Sounds fascinating. But it's hardly living, is it?” I watched him as he turned away and headed for the stairs. Three more hours and I could lock up before heading for bed and the various biting insects who seemed to feast nightly on my ankles and the backs of my knees.
I had sent postcardsâShakespeare and Company postcardsâto friends and family, making sure to add a few centimes to the till in payment. I didn't mention the bites, but did make sure that my ongoing adventure sounded as exotic as possible. I had actually sent a first postcard home soon after disembarking from the overnight bus at London's Victoria Coach Station. Another had been purchased and sent from the ferry terminal in Dover. I knew my parents would prefer written communication to an expensive phone call. My father was a Church of Scotland minister, my mother an invaluable member of our local community. I was a rarity of sorts in having stayed at home during the four years of my undergraduate degree. My parents had offered financial assistance towards rent, but my arguments about wasted money had swayed them. Besides, my childhood bedroom suited me, and my mother was the finest cook in the city.
Before leaving, however, I had promised to phone Charlotte every two days, just so she would know I was safe. There was a public phonebox just along the Seine from the store, with a view towards Notre Dame which made up for its general lack of hygiene. With the receiver wrapped in a clean paper serviette from a cafÃ©, I would spend a few francs telling Charlotte of any new experiences, in-between listening to her tell me that she loved me and missed me and couldn't wait until I found a place of my own in time for the start of term back in Edinburgh.
“Absolutely,” I would agree, my mouth suddenly dry.
“Oh, Ronnie,” she would sigh, and I would swallow back the inclination to correct her, since my preference (as she well knew) was for Ronald rather than Ronnie.
My name is Ronald Hastie. I was born in 1960, making me twenty-two. Twenty-two and three months as I stood on the banks of the Seine, surrounded by heat and traffic fumes and a sense that there was another world being kept hidden from me. A series of worlds, actually, only one of them represented by Charlotte and her cropped red hair and freckled complexion. Cous-cous and a famous bookshop and morning espressos (consumed standing at the barâthe cheapest option)âthese were all wonders to me that summer. And, yes, the original plan had been to drift much further south, but plans could change, as could people.
“The seller's English,” my employer said, waking me from my reverie. “You'll be fine, trust me. A five-minute walk â¦”
His name was Benjamin Turk and he lived in a sprawling apartment at the top of five winding flights of stairs. When he opened his door to me, I stood there breathless, staring past him at a long hallway filled with groaning bookshelves. I felt light-headed, and it seemed in that moment that the shelves were endless, stretching to infinity. Turk slid an arm around my shoulders and guided me into the gloom.
“Whitman sent you but he didn't mention the climb. That's the reason he wouldn't drag his own sorry rump over here, you know.” Laughter boomed from his chest. He was stocky and bald and probably in his fifties or early sixties, with dark bushy eyebrows above eyes filled with sly humor. His voluminous white shirt and crimson waistcoat could have come from a different century, as could their owner. I'd read enough Dickens to see that Mr. Turk would have slotted right into one of those comedic episodes from
“A drink's what's needed,” he went on, steering me down the hall. Varnished parquet floor stretched its length, and it ended eventually at a wall furnished with a large mirror, in which I glimpsed my sweating face. Doorways to left and right, both open, showing a tidy kitchen and a cluttered living-room. We entered this last and Turk positioned me before an armchair, thumping it so hard dust rose into the air.
“Sit!” he commanded, before pouring red wine from a glass decanter. I noticed for the first time that he had a discernible limp.
“I don't really â¦” I began to apologize.
“Nonsense, lad! This is Parisâyou do realize that? Get it down you or I'll have you deported for crimes against the state!”
He had poured himself a glass not quite as generous as mine, and raised his hand in a toast before filling his mouth.
I realized I really was thirsty, so took a sip. The stuff was nectar, unlike the cheap, weak compromises of Edinburgh lunches and dinners. Cherries and blackcurrants replaced the bitter memories, and Turk could tell I was in love. He beamed at me, nodding slowly.
“Delicious,” I said.
“Did you ever doubt it?” And he toasted me again with his glass before settling on the chaise longue opposite. “Do I detect a Scottish accent?”
“That most Presbyterian of cities, explaining your aversion to pleasure.”
“I'm not averse to pleasure.” As soon as the words were out, I regretted them, hoping they wouldn't be misinterpreted. To cover my embarrassment, I took more sips of wine, causing Turk to spring to his feet in order to refill my glass.
“Mr. Whitman says you're one of his oldest customers,” I stammered.
“We've known one another more years than I care to remember.”
“So you've lived in Paris a long time?”
He smiled, this time a little wistfully. “How about you?” he asked.
“This is my first visit. I'm taking a break from university.”
“Yes, George said as muchâtoo short a break, he seems to think. Your hero Stevenson didn't let college hold him back, did he?” He saw my surprise. “George again,” he explained.
“Stevenson completed his studies.”
“And passed the law exam,” Turk said airily. “But his family expected him to stick to that path, or one very like it, but the bold Louis had other ideas.” My host was swirling the wine in his glass. I found the motion hypnotic, and sensed I was not yet fully recovered from the climb. The room was stuffy, too, with the smell of leatherbound books, old curtains and faded rugs.
“You should take your jacket off,” Turk said. “Who the hell wears a black velvet jacket in Paris in the heat of summer?”
“It's not velvet,” I mumbled, shrugging my arms out of the sleeves.
“But the nearest you could find?” Turk smiled to himself and I could tell that he knewâknew that Stevenson's nickname at university had been “Velvet Jacket.”
I lay the jacket across my knees and cleared my throat. “Mr. Whitman says you have some books to sell.”
“A few boxesâmostly bought from George himself. He says you've memorized the stock so will know if they're worth taking or not.”
“I think so, too. I know only too well how many books are in that shop of his.”
“You're a collector.” I was looking around the room. Every inch of wall-space was filled with shelving, and those shelves groaned. The books all seemed very oldâfew had dust jackets. It was impossible to make out any of the titles, but they seemed to be in several languages. “Are you a professor? A writer?”
“I've been many things.” He paused, watching me above the rim of his glass. “I'm guessing you'd like to be both some day.”
“I've never thought about writing. I mean to say, I would hope to finish my thesis and try to get it published.”