The young woman who fell from the sky

In the early hours of January 25th, 1920, while most of the city slept, I was walking along a narrow, cobbled street in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris on my way to the boulangerie where I was serving my apprenticeship when I heard a loud thud behind me and, startled, turned to see a body lying on the ground that I had crossed not more than a few seconds before. With some trepidation, I ran back and found that it was a young woman.

It must have rained during the night for the cobblestones were wet, glistening in the feeble yellow light of a nearby streetlamp. I looked around, mildly panicked, not sure what to do.

At the top of an adjacent building, a window was wide open despite the bitter cold, and behind it, the room was lit; the only one lit in the building, or on the street, as far as I could see. I concluded that the young woman had fallen, or had jumped, from that window.

She was wearing a long, white nightdress that must have billowed up like a parachute as she fell but nevertheless had been ineffective in slowing her descent and now was gathered around her shoulders, revealing her naked torso. Although I was almost certain that she had not survived the impact, I kneeled down and, without thinking what I was doing, pulled the garment down until only her bare feet and ankles were exposed.

Then I remembered that I had passed a couple of bicycle cops having a smoke together on the corner as I had turned into this street, so I ran back down the hill calling “Au secours!” in case they had already resumed their patrol. But I found them, still in the same spot, in the process of stubbing out their cigarettes; and no sooner had I explained to them what I had seen than they mounted their bicycles and started pedalling shakily up the cobbled street.

It wasn’t far to the scene of the accident and I arrived on foot only seconds later to see them standing over the body of the young woman. The senior officer checked the her pulse at her neck in case there were any signs of life remaining; but he found nothing and signified his conclusion by shaking his head gravely from side to side. Then, for reasons that were not clear to me at the time, the he took hold of the hem of her nightdress and lifted it back to reveal her body. Perhaps he did this to assess the extent of her injuries. But the blood oozing from the wound she had sustained to her head, that was now filling the channels created between the cobblestones, seemed to me evidence enough of what had killed her.

Once he was satisfied in whatever investigation he was carrying out, he carefully replaced her nightdress to more or less where he had found it; then he instructed his colleague to summon an ambulance. The other officer obeyed without question, mounting his bicycle and pedalling off down the hill with some urgency. Fortunately, that part of Paris has no shortage of hospitals and the officer who remained with the body had barely smoked half of his next cigarette when an ambulance rattled back up the hill and shuddered to a halt right where we were standing, its engine still spluttering fitfully.

Surprisingly, until that point, all the windows on the street, except the one above that was open, had remained unlit; but that soon changed with the noisy arrival of the ambulance. First of all, lights came on sporadically; then faces appeared at windows, some of which were flung wide to see what all the fuss was about; and finally a few doors opened and some inquisitive souls ventured into the street, despite the temperature and profound darkness. Among these, a middle-aged couple from the building from which the young woman appeared to have fallen. They approached the body, clutching fearfully at each other as though afraid of what they might find. But each step they took seemed to erase a layer of doubt from their minds, forcing them to accept what they feared most.

As she stood over the body, the woman raised her hands to her mouth and screamed a name that will be forever etched in my memory in a voice that rent the still night and echoed persistently among the sombre buildings. Then she sank to her knees, weeping, wailing, with the man bending over her, holding her shoulders, quietly convulsing in his own grief. The young woman was their daughter.

The policeman, who had already learned all he could from me while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, waited for a few minutes more then approached the man with a series of questions that seemed, ironically, to distract him from the emotion of the moment. Some bystanders stepped forward and, with gentle encouragement, led the distraught woman away, back into the building from which she had emerged.

I should have continued on my way at that point too but I found myself fascinated by the story and anxious to know all the whys and wherefores. It turned out that the young woman, only twenty-one years old, had been living with a man who called himself a painter, although according to her father, the claim was both extravagant and deceitful. His draughtsmanship was appalling, the father railed, his proportions were all wrong, there was no light, no modelling to speak of, and the portraits he made of my daughter looked nothing like her. Sometimes, he didn’t even bother to paint the pupils in her eyes, leaving her blank and sightless. (I looked down at the body and thought: how prophetic.) And those nudes, the father spat with rage. How could be paint such pornography? How could she allow him to paint her like that; to be hung on gallery walls for all to gawp at; or in private homes to inflame who knows what disgusting passions? I suddenly felt glad that I had covered up the young woman’s body so that her father would not have to suffer the final insult of seeing her lying naked in the street.

Of course, the father went on, that was never likely to happen. Do you know he had only sold one painting? Just one. Adding incredulously that even his dealer was blind. What little he earned was from drawing sketches for the patrons of the big cafés on the boulevard du Montparnasse; and most of that he had spent on drink. He was a wastrel; a talentless good-for-nothing; a foreigner; and worst of all, a Jew. And it was no surprise that he was dead.

Il était maudit.

The policeman, whose attention had been in danger of wandering due to the irrelevance of what the father had been spouting, picked up on this particular remark, seeking clarification. And I listened in, equally intrigued, to hear that the painter had died not two full days before, of some lung disease according to the hospital to which he had been admitted; although the father suspected that alcoholic poisoning might have been a more accurate diagnosis.

The ambulancemen had completed their on-site examination and moved the body to a stretcher, which they were now loading into the back of their vehicle. Having allowed the father to vent, the policeman began asking him some more mundane questions, gathering facts for his report. The circumstances were already clear. All that remained was to complete the paperwork and the world could move on, minus one young woman and her unborn baby.

I resumed my journey, still thinking about what had transpired, and arrived very late at the boulangerie. The baker was furious, demanding to know where I had been, what time I thought this was to turn up for work. And when I tried to explain to him what had happened, his anger escalated and he thundered at me that, if I was going to lie to him, I should at least invent a story more plausible than that of women falling from the sky. He sent me home, punishing me by docking my pay, warning me that he was going to consider my position carefully and advising me that I should do the same.

My parents weren’t impressed either, neither with my behaviour, nor with the story I persisted in using to explain it; and I spent the remainder of that day and all of that night contemplating what my future might hold. In the morning, I set out even earlier than usual, since I was awake anyway, and took a different route to the boulangerie, avoiding the narrow cobbled street and even the remotest possibility of a repetition of the previous day’s events, of falling women and talentless painters. But the baker’s anger at me had not subsided and after the sternest of lectures on duty, responsibility and the state of the economy, he sent me home again, for good this time.

I had been extremely fortunate to secure that apprenticeship. I was paid a pittance; but the prospect of eventually becoming a baker was more than fair compensation for the inadequacy of my current wages. But now, my future seemed as bleak and uncertain, as that young woman’s must have seemed to her when her lover died. I started looking for other work; but the constant chorus of rejection weighed heavily on me and I began to seek other ways of passing my time that would not be so soul-destroying. If I could understand the story of the young woman and her painter-lover, I thought, I might be better equipped to handle my own situation. I realise now that this was a desperate rationalisation but those were desperate times for me and I was too close to the problem to see it objectively.

I visited the big cafés on the boulevard du Montparnasse and while the owners and many of the waiters (who were merely acting to impress their employers, I suspect) shooed me away with threats of police and violence, some of the patrons were more sympathetic, especially those who had known the painter personally. He had been popular, it seemed; and through my enquiries and in particular my story of the death of his lover which I never tired of telling because these friends of his had an insatiable appetite for hearing it, I eventually met his dealer who, as it turned out, was indeed a blind man. I asked him how this worked, that a man without the gift of sight could be selling something that was irrefutably visual in nature, and he laughed and told me that most salesmen don’t really see what they are selling anyway: all they see is the profit at the end of the sale. But that answer was too glib and failed to satisfy me and my insistence on having my question answered seriously seemed to impress him, to the extent that he invited me to see some examples of the painter’s oeuvre, and judge for myself.

I have to admit that, at first view and to my untrained eye, the paintings were everything that the young woman’s father had said they were that morning as he stood over her lifeless body, his world in shreds. But the dealer, sensing my difficulty, advised me to look at them, not with my eyes, but with my heart. All very well for him to say, I thought; but the more I studied them, not so much that day but as time wore on and I continued to pursue this story, the more I began to understand what he had meant. The distortions, the elongations, the flatness and the vacant eyes began to coalesce into a new language whose vocabulary and syntax I was beginning to comprehend. I felt the paintings, rather than understanding them in any intellectual way, but found it difficult to express in words these feelings, this connection I was increasingly experiencing with the artist and his work.

The dealer offered me a modest remittance to gather the story of the painter and his life and, partly because I could find no other employment at that time, and partly because I wanted to, I pursued my investigations with even greater vigour and now with a clear purpose. My parents thought it was a pointless endeavour. But the money helped mollify their concerns – to an extent.

Sadly, I had missed the painter’s funeral, which, by all the accounts I was able to gather, had been an impressive affair – attended by those who knew him and many more who knew of him – at the conclusion of which he was laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery in the company of the grandes hommes of Parisian art and literature. But what was even sadder, to me and to those who knew and confirmed the story, was that the parents of the young woman who had taken her life rather than live without him would not permit her remains to be interred with those of her lover. In the same cemetery, Eloise had been reunited in death with her beloved Abelard and yet my painter and his lover (I had, by then, developed a proprietorial attitude towards them), whose story I felt rivalled that of Abelard and Eloise in its emotional depth and intensity, were condemned to be separated; and this fact alone would have fuelled my desire to make their story known.

Through my dedication to the task, I amassed a substantial amount of material describing and chronicling the lives of my subjects. I am not a skilled writer, as you can probably tell, but with the financial support of the dealer and the willing advice of the painter’s literary friends, I was able to turn the desultory notes I’d taken into something more cohesive and logical. But it was going to take a writer of much greater talent to convert these pages of dry, factual history into the heroic tale of love and tragedy that the dealer felt they deserved. And so my association with the manuscript and the story ended there.

The dealer handed the manuscript over to a budding writer who did what he could with it and the result was published in a limited edition by a small private press in the provinces. I heard later that the same writer had taken his manuscript to America where he’d hoped that it might be made into a film. The fact that his initials were the same as those of a major Hollywood studio, however, proved to be a false omen. Nor had he enjoyed any advantage in the fact that the hero of the story shared a religious affiliation with the studio owners.

‘Dead Jewish painters don’t sell at the box office,’ he’d been told bluntly, through a cloud of cigar smoke. And that was that.

***

An artist dies and a young woman falls from the sky, killing herself and her unborn child. A father and mother, torn between grief and anger, look for answers, for someone to blame. A young apprentice loses his job, then finds himself catapulted into a world he hadn’t known existed and finds a new direction. A blind art dealer loses a client but sees an opportunity and seizes it. A writer is handed an opportunity but fails to capitalise on it. And two lovers are denied, in death, that without which they could not contemplate living.

But what, if anything, was the purpose behind this set of events? Is there a grand design that we are only allowed to see piece by piece as it unfolds; where today’s catastrophe becomes tomorrow’s catalyst and then yesterday’s anecdote? Or do we simply invent a narrative in order to make the randomness of existence seem coherent because each of us needs to believe that we are more than the product of mere chance, that we are here for a reason, that our lives have meaning and purpose? And if that is the case, how then does one distinguish between the truth and the invention?

***

There is no denying that the past fashions the present. Were it not for that young woman who fell from the sky, I might have become a baker. But on that tragic morning, my life took a different turn; and one that I have often reflected on.

I still wonder why I stayed so long at the scene of the incident that day. Initially – and without even considering that I might do otherwise – I stayed in order to render what service I could to the young woman. But once the authorities had taken charge of the situation, I can offer only my morbid curiosity as an explanation for my reluctance to leave: a morbid curiosity that later cost me my job – and opened my future to unimagined possibilities.

And still to this day, I wander on occasion down that little cobbled street in the 5th arrondissement where all those lives were changed in an instant. It’s often tranquil now; without a hint of the tragedy that I inevitably recall. I see the spot where she lay, not far from the streetlamp; and it feels as though I am the only one who knows the secret those cobblestones hold.

There is no plaque to commemorate her death. And as the time passes, I dare say that there will be fewer and fewer of us alive who are aware of what transpired there so many years ago. The world moves on; and what was once reality becomes more of a fiction with each retelling. But I will never forget the loud thud, behind me in the dark, which marked both an end and a beginning.

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3 thoughts on “The young woman who fell from the sky

  1. Definitely more cohesive. You’ve pared much of the distracting elements, much as the policeman whose attention had been in danger of wandering.

    But I am at the point in my editorial commenting that your protagonist had reached in pulling together the threads of the story. His skills weren’t adequate to write the full story, and my skills are inadequate to render further constructive comment!

    The footnote at the end of the original version, caused me to google for the real-life couple you mentioned. I read quite a bit about Modigliani and Hébuterne. I couldn’t find what “appalling” thing happened to her body? Beyond falling to her death, along with that of the child she was carrying, which is appalling enough in my book, was there more that had happened?

    • Thank you John.

      There are conflicting accounts of what happened to Jeanne immediately after she threw herself to her death that day. One, which I read in a book I bought at a retrospective exhibition of Modigliani’s work held in Paris in 1981, and has been repudiated in a recent biography of Modigliani published in 2011, goes as follows:

      An unknown workman picked up the corpse of JH and carried it to the door of her parents’ apartment on the 5th floor of the building; but they refused to open the door because, as strict Roman Catholics, they were so affronted by what she had done: first living in “sin” with a Jew, then committing the mortal sin of suicide.

      The workman then took the body back downstairs and putting it on a handcart, transported it to Modigliani’s studio in the adjacent arrondissement. Modigliani, of course, was already dead; and the concierge refused to admit the body of Jeanne because she was not the legal tennant (although she had been living there).

      The workman then transported the body to the local police station, whereupon an officer returned with him to the studio and persuaded the concierge to allow the workman to place Jeanne’s body there.

      And there, according to this account, it lay unattended for the remainder of the morning until her friends, Chantal Quenneville and Jean Leger eventually discovered it there.

      Thanks once again for your help.
      Keith

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