The Dressmaker's Gift

Instead, I step forward to shake the hand of the receptionist who has come around from behind her desk to greet me. The first thing I notice about her is the mass of dark curls which frame her face and tumble over her shoulders. And the second thing is her effortlessly chic style. The little black dress she wears hugs the curves of her figure and the flat ballerina pumps on her feet add very little to her diminutive height. I immediately feel awkwardly tall and ungainly in my high heels, and stuffily formal in my tailored suit and tight-fitting white blouse, now creased from my journey and the heat.

Thankfully, though, the third thing I notice is her friendly smile, which lights up her dark eyes as she welcomes me, saying, ‘Hello, you must be Harriet Shaw. I’m Simone Thibault. Very pleased to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to having the company – we’re going to be flatmates, sharing the apartment upstairs.’ She nods toward the ornate cornicing on the ceiling above our heads as she says this, making her curls dance. I warm to her immediately and am secretly relieved that she isn’t one of the snooty, skinny French fashionistas I’d imagined my colleagues might be.

Simone stashes my suitcase behind her desk and then ushers me through a door at the back of the reception area. I am immediately aware of the discreet chirping of telephones and the low murmur of voices in the busy PR office. One of the half-dozen or so employees – the account managers and their assistants – stands up to shake my hand, but the others in the room are completely absorbed in their work and only have time to nod briefly as we walk past. Simone pauses before a panelled door at the far end of the room and knocks. After a moment, a voice calls, ‘Entrez!’ and I find myself standing in front of a wide mahogany desk, behind which sits Florence Guillemet, the director of the agency.

She raises her eyes from her computer screen and removes the dark-rimmed glasses she’s been wearing. She is immaculately dressed in the most elegant trouser suit I have ever seen. Chanel, maybe? Or Yves Saint Laurent? Her streaked blonde hair is cut in a way that shows off the height of her cheekbones whilst flattering a jawline that is just starting to show the first signs of softening with age. Her eyes are a warm amber-brown and they seem to see right through me.

‘Harriet?’ she asks.

I nod, struck dumb momentarily as the magnitude of what I’ve done hits me. A year? In this professional, A-list public relations agency? In the fashion capital of the world? What am I doing here? And how long will it take them to discover how ill-equipped I am – fresh out of university – to contribute anything of any value to the work they do here?

And then she smiles. ‘You remind me of myself, many years ago when I started out in the industry. You have demonstrated both courage and determination in getting yourself here. Although, maybe it feels a bit overwhelming just at this moment?’

I nod again, still unable to find the words . . .

‘Well, that is only natural. You’ve had a long journey and you must be tired. For today, Simone will show you up to the apartment and leave you to settle in. You have the weekend to find your feet. Work starts on Monday. It will be good to have an extra pair of hands. We’re so busy with preparations for Fashion Week.’

The anxiety that I’m feeling, which the mention of Paris Fashion Week – one of the most important events in the couture calendar – only serves to deepen, must show in my expression, because she adds, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to do just fine.’

I manage to find my voice again and blurt out, ‘Merci, Madame Guillemet.’ But then the phone on her desk rings and she dismisses us with another smile and a wave of her hand as she turns to answer it.

Simone helps me lug my suitcase up five flights of steep and narrow stairs. The first floor, she explains, is used as a photographic studio, rented out on a freelance basis. We poke our heads around the door to take a look. It’s one vast room with clean white walls, empty save for a pair of folding screens in one corner. With its tall windows and high ceiling it’s the perfect space for fashion shoots.

The next three floors are sublet as offices. The brass nameplates on their doors announce that the rooms are occupied by an accounting firm and a photographer. ‘Florence needs to make the building pay its way,’ Simone says. ‘And there are always people looking to rent a little office space in Saint-Germain. It’s a condition of the lease, though, that the top floor rooms cannot be rented out, so that they can be a perk of the job. Luckily for you and me!’

The top floor of the building, tucked in under the eaves, consists of a series of small rooms, a couple of which are used as storage, filled with filing cabinets, boxes of old office materials, defunct computers and piles of magazines. Simone shows me the cramped galley kitchen where there’s just enough space for a fridge, cooker and sink, and the living room, which has a round, bistro-style table with two chairs in one corner and a small sofa pushed against the far wall. Its compact size is more than compensated for by the sloping roof light set into the low ceiling which allows sunshine to pour in. If I stand on tiptoes and crane my neck a little, I can see the Parisian skyline and glimpse the roof of the church from which the Boulevard Saint-Germain takes its name.

‘And this is your room,’ Simone says, pushing open another door. It’s tiny – there’s just enough space for a single iron bedstead, a chest of drawers and a utilitarian, free-standing clothes rail which looks like it may have been salvaged from a warehouse at some point in the distant past.

If I stoop beneath the sloping ceiling, from the small square of the dormer window I can see an ocean of slate rooftops, across which a flotilla of chimney pots and television aerials are scattered, under a clear blue September sky.

I turn to smile at Simone.

She shrugs apologetically. ‘It’s small, but . . .’

‘It’s perfect,’ I say. And I mean it. Because this tiny room is mine. My own space, for the next twelve months. And somehow, even though I’ve never seen it before in my life, I have a sense of belonging here: it feels like home.

An old, long-forgotten photograph, discovered by accident in a box of fading memories, is my only tenuous link to this place. But then I don’t really have any other strong connections in life and so this most fragile of threads, as fine as a strand of age-worn silk, has become the only lifeline I know, binding me to this tiny bedroom in an unknown building in a foreign city. It has drawn me here and I feel a strong compulsion to see where it takes me, following it back through the years, back through the generations, to its source.

‘Well, I’d better get back to work.’ Simone glances at her watch. ‘Another hour to go before the weekend can officially begin. I’ll leave you to unpack. See you later.’ She leaves, closing the door of the apartment behind her, and I hear her footsteps fade away down the stairs.

I open my suitcase and dig beneath the layers of carefully folded clothes until my fingertips connect with the hard edges of the frame, wrapped for safekeeping in the folds of a woollen jumper.

The eyes of the three young women in the photograph seem to be fixed upon mine as I search their faces for the thousandth time for clues about their lives. As I set the picture on top of the chest of drawers beside my narrow bed, I am more conscious than ever of how rootless I am and of how vital it is for me to find out more about them.

I’m not just searching for who they are. I’m trying to find out who I am, too.

The purposeful sounds of people who are homeward bound at the end of another working week float in through my window from the street below. I’m just hanging the last of my clothes on the rail when I hear the apartment door open. Simone sings out, ‘Coucou!’ She appears in the doorway of my room and holds up a bottle, the glass beaded with dew from the chilled white wine within. ‘Would you like a drink? I thought we should celebrate your first evening in Paris.’ She lifts the shopping bag she holds in her other hand and says, ‘I got a few bits and pieces to accompany it, too, as you haven’t had time to explore the shops yet. I can show you where things are tomorrow.’

She looks around the room, taking in the few personal touches that I’ve added – a couple of books sit by the bed alongside my bottle of perfume and a painted china trinket box of my mother’s that contains the few items of jewellery that I own: some pairs of earrings and a string of pearls. I keep the charm bracelet in it, too, when I take it off at night.

Noticing the photograph, she sets down her bag of shopping and stoops to look at it more closely.

I point at the blonde on the left of the group. ‘That’s my grandmother, Claire, outside this very building. She’s the reason I’m here.’

Simone glances up at me, a look of incredulity on her face. ‘And that,’ she says, pointing at the figure on the right of the trio, is my grandmother, Mireille. Standing outside this very building with your grandmother Claire.’

She laughs, as my jaw drops in amazement.

‘You’re joking!’ I exclaim. ‘That’s an incredible coincidence.’

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