Friday, 27 February 2015

Florence la Petite Goth Français Gênante

It was Autumn 1993 and Mandy and I were renting a flat in Derwent Grove in East Dulwich. The street comprised mainly Victorian terraces which had been divided into flats. We shared our front door with the couple who lived on the uppermost floor, and adjacent to the steps leading up to our shared front door were a set of steps leading down to the basement flat, situated below street level. I had moved from a single room in a house in Lewisham, and Mandy had previously occupied a bedsit on the corner of Melbourne Grove.

Our relationship was heavily seasoned with crossed wires and misunderstandings, but with hindsight it was probably exactly what both of us needed at the time. Our union was hardly a match made in heaven, but it beat the alternative. Cautiously approaching thirty, I had become increasingly cranky and terminally single, developing a mournful nostalgia for my previous girlfriend of ten years earlier. Sarah had been my first and was at that point my only, but for a hugely depressing one night stand in the summer of 1987. I had not known the tender touch of a woman in a decade, five drunken minutes of 1987 excepted, so I was wearing black clothes, listening to Death In June records and taking them far too seriously - having not yet realised that there could be anything more sinister to their frowning misery than a simple neoclassical aesthetic. Mandy on the other hand had been interred within a secretarial job which she insisted had been driving her mental, and she had most recently been involved with some guy who sounded less than wonderful from what little she told me. This was to be a new start for the both of us, not least because neither of us had tried living with a partner.

Leaving school, Mandy had spent three years studying at the Cheshire School of Art and Design but became disillusioned and moved to London, ending up in a secretarial job. Eventually she realised that she had somewhat lost her way and would have done better to pursue some more artistic calling. I suspect this was part of my appeal in that I had already done a fine art degree and come out of the other side. When we first met she had already begun to shrug off the somewhat drab persona demanded by her initial career choice, ditching a bubble perm resembling that of a Liverpudlian footballer, dying her hair, buying music, going to gigs, dressing with more flair, and generally making an effort to have the sort of fun she probably should have had in her teenage years. In some respects this was where we contrasted in that I'd never been a party animal, and never would be, and Mandy was always much more of an extrovert than myself; but it was nevertheless good to see her enjoying life, having a blast after so many years in a windowless nine to five.

'Is he a goth?' her friends would ask when they phoned to hear all about the flat and the new boyfriend.

'He has a gothic soul,' Mandy explained, probably in reference to my taking Death In June far too seriously. I'd begun to wear more extravagant shirts, and we had dyed my hair but it had gone wrong and come out navy blue rather than the desired black, which had made life interesting at Royal Mail for a couple of weeks; but I'd never really wanted to be a goth, and I wasn't very good at it.

Mandy on the other hand was now giving it her best shot. She had packed in the secretarial job and signed up for an art foundation course at one of the local colleges. She dressed well and always looked very striking when we went out together, but more than anything she needed goth buddies, a group with which she could compare notes and acquire definition; and this was how she met Florence.

Mandy and I went to gigs and to clubs, but I think she would have liked to go to a great many more gigs and clubs whilst I could have happily lived with fewer. Her appetite for entertainment being greater than mine, it seemed only right that she should branch out on her own, and branch out she did, and specifically to Paris. She went there on holiday with a friend, but investigated Parisian goth clubs under her own steam, and in one such place she had struck up a friendship with a slightly younger, endlessly enthusiastic goth girl called Florence. Florence had an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the scene, of wearing black clothes, and presumably of doing that dance where you make funny shapes with your fingers and wave your hands across the front of your face. She was small, theatrical, and cheery, the sort of person with whom it was easy to imagine yourself making friends.

Mandy and Florence wrote to each other from time to time - these being the days before widespread internet access - and met on at least one other occasion prior to my first encountering Florence. I wasn't really keeping track, it being more Mandy's business than mine. In January 1993 Florence sent a letter written on the reverse of a large colour photocopy assemblage of assorted photographs of Nina Hagen. The letter read as follows:
I hope you're fine and that the new year has begun good for you. I have pictures of Niall Murphy but they're not very nice 'cause he has red eyes on instead of having two beautiful blue eyes! I hope to see when I'll be to London on February. I'll certainly pass my Birthday in London. Do you want I send you Mephisto Walz album?

Have you received my photos and my postal card? Rachel - my penfriend whom you had spoken with by phone - has written me a card in which it was written Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. I'm waiting for your photo and another letters and cards.

Alien Sex Fiend will come in France for a concert on June and Nosferatu on April. Will you come during Easter holidays? I'll be go and see The Addam's Family II to the cinema with friends. I hope is better than the first. I didn't really enjoy it.

Do you like your new flat? Is it comfortable? What is look like? Big flat, with or without a balcony, small kitchen? I have a chinchilla but it bite. I prefer my rabbit which is nice and sweet. The kittens run in all the house. It's a really hell!

I'll come February 13th to February 26th to London but I'm afraid of being put in a family in Heathrow. It's far to your home, but I think I'll go to Slimelight and Electric Ballroom discos. I haven't your new number-phone. I don't know when I'll tell you that I arrived in London or I'll go to pub or something else. This is a problem.

I'm going to do my homeworks now ' cause I have an exam in one week.

The letter is signed love from Florence and French Goths, with a large-eyed biro drawing of Nina Hagen as postscript to illustrate the additional observation of Nina Hagen is wonderful, isn't she?

Niall Murphy was then the singer of Nosferatu, a band for which Florence expressed an unusual level of devotion. She would refer to individual members as though she knew them personally, but then maybe she did know them personally. She was young, tending towards a certain intensity typical of her age group, and as I eventually began to appreciate, she seemed to make more sense in a club environment with the distraction of music, lights, and spectacle where communication was reduced to basic expressions of approval or otherwise. Anyway, this was the impression I got from what Mandy told me of subsequent encounters with Florence. The tribal bond and the sense of belonging to something, the unity of black pointy shoes - these were fine up to a point, but beyond that point was daylight and conversation, and even without any appreciable language barrier, Florence didn't really seem to be interested in much beyond goth clubs, Nina Hagen, and the beautiful blue eyes of Nosferatu's Niall Murphy.

The evening she came to stay was peculiar - this small, flappy Gallic pixie wrapped in ten miles of lace turning up at our home like some exotically twittering bird. She and Mandy were heading out to one of the clubs mentioned in the letter, a place Florence had been meaning to visit for some time. Somehow I had been delegated the task of coming up with an address, despite my having no knowledge of any club scene, goth or otherwise. In the absence of Google or any better ideas, I phoned the offices of the Melody Maker - the music weekly of which I was a regular reader.

'My girlfriend has some random French penfriend over to visit,' I explained to the journalist to whom the switchboard had connected my call. 'She wants to go to a club called the Slimelight, and apparently it's my job to find out where it is, but I've never heard of the place.'

'I haven't heard of it either,' the journalist told me.

I read Melody Maker with enough attention paid to recall that it was usually Simon Price who covered the more conspicuously back-combed artists.

'How about Simon Price? Maybe he would know?'

'Yes, it sounds like his sort of thing,' the journalist admitted, but the man in question was not available to answer my question, and I didn't really care enough to push it further..

The address was found by some other means in any case, and so Mandy and Florence got ready to go out on the town - doing their make-up, getting togged up in their most ostentatiously gothic clothing, and discussing Nina Hagen and Niall Murphy's dreamy blue eyes - at least that was what Florence seemed to be talking about. I was beginning to get the impression of Mandy having bitten off a lot more than she really felt like chewing. It was as though Mandy had mentioned in passing her once having enjoyed an episode of Star Trek, then found herself sat down and forced to watch all seventy-nine episodes back to back whilst being served Star Trek themed snacks by someone dressed as Spock. The whole goth deal was fun for sure, but Jesus Christ...

After an hour or maybe two during which I'm fairly certain I could hear Florence dishing out tough-love suggestions to my girlfriend, encouraging her to become ever more gothic in appearance, they emerged, ready at last to call a cab and head off for a night of doing that dance. They came into the kitchen so that I could take a photograph. In the photograph they stand poorly lit in front of a shelf of my comic books. Florence looks ready to go. Mandy wears the startled expression of someone recently informed of having been adopted, like she's doing her best to adjust to this new information. It isn't that she looks unhappy so much as that she's trying to work out what the fuck just happened.

Their night out at the Slimelight was, so I gather, okay, but not something Mandy wished to repeat too soon. Florence had in the meantime gone off to stay with either a relative or some other friend. She would be returning to us in a couple of nights.


Mandy nodded. She wore the same look of restrained panic as in the photograph, so I left it at that.

The evening arrived without fate intervening to inform us that Florence had regrettably been called back to Paris, perhaps for some last minute expert inspection of a monument dedicated to the striking blue eyes of Niall Murphy prior to its official unveiling. The door bell rang, and we immediately knew that Florence had returned just as she had promised despite our refusing to think about it.

Mandy wasn't moving.

'Aren't you going to answer the door?'

She said nothing and we both looked along the hall towards the front room. The curtains were drawn and the lights were out. The hall light was also off. From outside it would appear as though we were not home. We turned off the kitchen light just in case and sat in darkness.

The bell rang again and footsteps thumped across our ceiling, down the steps and into the shared hallway. Florence was now inside the building knocking upon our inner door. The footsteps of our neighbour thumped back up to his or her own domain, then back down again in response to further knocking. Florence's twittering explanation fluttered around the gaps in the wood towards our darkened kitchen. She had come from France and she did have not our number-phone, but our neighbour had no advice to impart. Only Mandy and myself could say for sure that we were at home, and we were both as quiet and still as statues.

'We're really doing this?'

There was no need for Mandy to whisper an answer. For once we were thinking approximately the same thoughts.

Everything went quiet, and we resumed breathing. We had almost certainly heard the front door close as Florence gave up and went on her way. We tiptoed into the front room and drew back the edge of the curtain just enough to see the girl stood upon our doorstep, not going anywhere.

Shit, I either thought or said very, very quietly. I settled back into a chair from which I intended to discreetly observe Florence's departure before announcing the all clear, when the time came. She remained as she was, thankfully unable to see into our front room, patiently waiting for our return - five minutes, ten, then fifteen...

'Why doesn't she just go?'

'I don't know,' I hissed. 'I suppose she thinks you got delayed and will probably be back soon. She's your friend, not mine.'

'Yes. I'm well aware of that, thanks very much.'

After about half an hour, I realised that our visitor was nowhere to be seen. I cautiously moved around so as to be able to see through the gap between the edge of the curtain and the window frame, looking out onto the street. 'I think she's gone.'

We sighed a mutual sigh of relief and crept back to the kitchen to boil the kettle and make tea. It still seemed too soon to turn the light back on even though it was getting dark. I tried to imagine what it would be like to find oneself alone in a foreign city, and to have the people with whom you were staying turn out the lights and pretend they were out. I'm pretty sure Mandy was thinking the same thing. We were terrible people, but this understanding of our dreadful behaviour was not in itself more painful than listening to Florence talk about Nina Hagen and Niall Murphy's beautiful blue eyes.

We heard more knocking, but different.

'She's gone downstairs.'

'Oh fuck.'

We listened as whoever lived in the basement answered their door, then Florence's twittering explanation, then a door closing but we could still hear the conversation. We returned to our front room on tiptoe and listened. We could hear most of the conversation as Florence explained her dilemma to our downstairs neighbour, then after a while - maybe ten or twenty minutes - we realised she was telling our downstairs neighbour about Nina Hagen and about Niall Murphy and his beautiful blue eyes. This was worse than simply refusing to answer the door. We had forced innocents to take part in our suffering. Florence would not go away. She would sleep on the sofa of our neighbours, twittering on until someone finally called the police. We knew that we had to end this charade and face the music.

We sneaked out of the house, taking minutes to carefully open then close each of the two doors without a sound, and then once we had both crept to the lowest step outside, we made the big, loud show of stamp stamp stamp and well, here we are home at last, and where can my friend Florence be? Perhaps we have missed her...

Bizarrely, it didn't work, further obliging us to wait what we considered a likely time before going down to the basement to ask neighbours with whom we had never before spoken if they had by any chance seen an eccentrically dressed French girl hanging around and looking lost.

'She is here with us.'

Oh really? Well, that's a relief. We were so late and we were worried we might not be back in time blah blah blah...

It seemed to work in so much as our collective conscience wasn't going to be kicking us in the ass for the rest of the evening, although the downside was another endless night of observations on Nina Hagen and the beautiful blue eyes of Niall Murphy. Mandy was knackered and really didn't want to go out clubbing, but was now doomed to do just that by the mighty force of Florence. Neither of us understood how we had been overpowered by something so small and tweety with such an imprecise grasp of the English language, but by now we knew that we had only one option - to do as Florence said and wait for it all to be over. Admittedly I had it easier in this respect. Florence understood that whilst I might have a gothic soul, at thirty I was just a little too old and fat to be bullied into dressing up as a vampire and dancing to Christian Death records. Mandy gritted her teeth, pulled on the lace, and out they went. I guess she had an okay time, or at least as good a time as someone who would rather have stayed at home was going to have.

The next morning was a Sunday, and it was weird to wake with a twittering stranger in our flat greeting the dawn with fluting discourse on the subject of Nina Hagen and just how blue that guy's eyes looked in a certain light. I tried to make conversation that wasn't about either Nina Hagen or Niall Murphy, digging out my copy of the Ronsard album by Déficit Des Années Antérieures, or DDAA as their name is usually rendered.

'They're French,' I explained helpfully, immediately recognising myself as the old man getting down with the kids by digging out his Herman's Hermits collection.

Florence regarded me as though I had just suggested a threesome, then remembered something she had forgotten to tell Mandy about Nina Hagen. It being Sunday, I began to make breakfast, specifically a huge passive-aggressive fry-up. Mandy had introduced me to vegetarian bacon, as sold by the excellent SMBS delicatessen in Lordship Lane, and although It did a poor job of replicating bacon, it was nevertheless delicious in its own right. I supplemented my soya rashers with beans, fried potatoes, fried eggs, fried bread probably. I didn't even like fried bread, but I was really getting into my theme. Florence was the opposite of anything or anyone you would find in a transport café as the sun rose to dissolve all those pasty-faced Bauhaus fans, and so my artery-clogging breakfast assemblage came together as a sort of invocation of whichever forces would send our tweety intruder on her way.

'Mmmm - delicious,' she observed without obvious sincerity as she headed for the door. Within an hour she had gone from our lives, presumably heading back to Paris to spend her fluttery enthusiasm on those who better deserved it.

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