“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘truth in advertising’, Henri?” she asked before answering for him. “Obviously not.”
His smile stayed in the place. “I can’t imagine what you mean, my dear.” Sensing the ‘my dear’ hadn’t help his cause, he added: “ … I’m confused. Your letter was so inviting.”
She sniffed. Either she was savouring his new cologne or testing the air for humbug. “Your profile described you as a tall, blond, 29-year-old bringer of joy. An artist and a gentleman of independent means.” Another sniff. “Book early to avoid disappointment, the advertisement said.”
Tilting his head, he mouthed: “So?”
Her open hand swept upwards, “For starters …”
“Let me stop you right there. I know what you’re going to say. I’m not blond.”
She shifted closer. “That too.”
“There’s something else?”
“When I read the word ‘tall’ in a personal column advertisement, I expect the writer to match it.”
Taking off his hat, Henri brushed dust off the crown and slipped it back on. It sat firmly atop his ears. “But ‘tall’ compared to whom? To you? I can name you countless women who …”
“Spare me,” she said. “I want what it says on the packaging.”
He lifted his chin. That must have added another centimetre or two, he decided. “What could a taller man do for you that I can’t?”
“I want someone I can walk down the street with while I rest my head of his shoulder.”
“You could do that with me. Try it.” He took her vigorous head shake as a “no”.
For a moment, he considered retreating but he’d only paid for a one-way Metro ticket. Deciding to save the delicate matter of lack of money until a more appropriate moment, he pressed on. “As the advertisement also says, I bring joy. Would you care to experience it?”
The resulting shudder seemed to be another “no”.
He ignored it. “Brace yourself.” From behind his back, he drew a tambourine. “Something with a gypsy flavour, perhaps?”
The jingling and his piping voice carried over the wet, cracked pavement. Along the street, windows slammed shut.
“Perhaps not,” she said. From the folds of her silk gown, she produced a cigarette, lit it and blew smoke in his direction. The cloud passed a metre over his head. “Rehearsals start soon. Goodbye.”
“So, dinner tonight is out of the question?”
The closing door banged on his outstretched tambourine. His last chance. “I’m also a painter.”
“Thank you, but wallpaper is all the rage these days.”
“… of people. I’m quite well known in some circles.”
Like a magician’s dove, a folded newspaper appeared from her gown. Squinting, she read out his name from the personal column: “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec”.
“Ah, you’ve heard of me.”
His tambourine, stuck in the doorway, creaked with strain as she pulled on the handle.
“I paint dancers. The critics say my work is heartbreakingly beautiful. If I paint you, men will be in awe of your grace for eternity.”
The door flung open. Both Henri and his tambourine sighed with relief.
“Or thereabouts,” he said, squeezing past her and finding himself amongst the theatre’s gloomy backstage clutter. Long legged dancers scampered by, their dark stockings setting off white petticoats. “Remind me what this place is called.”
“The Moulin Rouge.” She smiled for the first time. “Where would you like to paint me?”
He hitched his trousers a little higher. “The dressing room is always a good start.”
# # #
Copyright © 2012 GREG FLYNN