The war was over. The family were staying with a friend of my grandmother's in La Ciotat, a small harbour town near Marseille, our normal home. I remember a dark apartment, ships' masts, a smell of tar, iron and iodine, grownups. My father said, 'Je vais t'emmener au cinéma ce soir voir La Ruée vers lor.' 'I am going to take you to the pictures tonight to see The Gold Rush.' I did not know what 'cinéma' was, it was one of those wonderful and unimaginable pleasures like La Semaine de Suzette and its doll Bleuette, which the war had taken away. Grown-ups would evoke them discreetly, so as not to make you envious, not to corrupt you with impossible desires. They would say, 'Avant guerre, tu vois, il y avait ...' 'Before the war, there was ... ' My grandmother had a beautiful satin box with flowers painted on the cover. She hoarded ribbons in it. She said, 'You see, before the war, this was given to me as a present, and it was full of chocolates.' I could not imagine what they were, apart from an unattainable marvel, part of a world gone forever. I thought that the ribbons were beautiful, all the colours of the bunch of flowers painted on the cover.
Now all these things were returning, one by one. Cinema was one of them.
We went late one evening. I remember dark streets, and walking hand in hand with my father. I had misunderstood the name of the film, and not dared ask too many questions. You were supposed to be bright if you took things in quickly. I liked to play at being bright. I had vaguely understood something about a press of people, and was surprised to see the streets so empty. I had heard, not La Ruée vers l'or, 'ruée' being quite outside the bounds of my vocabulary, but La rue Everlor. Everlord, everlaure, Héverlore, Aiverlaur? It would be foreign, magical. Each of the streets through which we went might have led to it. I remember I kept saying, 'Is this it?' and my father said, 'No, a bit further'. I loved my father, and he loved me. It was so intense and we were both so strung up, uneasy about it. But exalted. All this spare passion between us, which we did not know how to show. So we were exceedingly well-behaved towards each other. I was promising myself to be very quiet, whatever it would be. He was coaxing me to walk a bit further without having to carry me, by promising that it was just a bit further. It was all part of the Rue Everlor.
When he did say 'nous voilà'! I just didn't get it. It was a house, a kind of shop with a rather dingy entrance. People were queueing to get in, but without ration stamps.
I never twigged what the gold rush was. It took me years to finally comprehend. But the house hanging over the cliff got me into agonies of suspense, and I was amazed, when the dark came without bombs, by how the black on the screen, especially the black of Charlie Chaplin's suit, his moustache, hat and rolling intense eyes, fitted the darkness of the little cinema. And how the white, the snow, the sheet that was the screen, was the light, and you forgot yourself when you were watching. The hunger that made Charlie, Charlot, chew the boiled slices of boot, moustache toing and froing under his nose, I understood as well or as little as the hunger of the grown-ups around me, my mother eating the woodworms along with the oats and the silence as everybody stopped to watch her. I was lucky, thin as a rake and never hungry.
I remember the terror though: when the bear comes out of the wood and stalks after unsuspecting Charlot on the steep, cliff-edged mountain path. I remember screaming and my scream breaking into ecstatic laughter and relief as the bear, instead of eating Charlot, started walking splay-footed in imitation of him, then went back into the wood. Yes, the war was over. And Charlot never even noticed.
copyright Nicole Ward Jouve
From Seeing in the Dark (Serpents Tail)
ed. Ian Breakwell & Paul Hammond