During World War One, Oscar Wilde's niece Dolly went out to France to work as an ambulance driver. Around the same time, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas drove 'Aunty Pauline' around France - delivering food, medical supplies and generally providing aid to wounded soldiers.
In Alice's cookbook, she mentions travelling through Nimes where they bumped into Dolly and she gave them two duck eggs.
It's such an odd, incongruous little story. So I wrote this about it:
‘Good lord,’ I said. ‘It can’t be.’ I look again. ‘It just… it can’t.’
But it is.
There, coming out of a Ford for whom the phrase ‘been through the wars’ should’ve been invented, were two women driving in fits and starts and always forward from another world into this place, here, this never-world of mud cloying at boots and the smell of shit and the grey sky heavy as concrete that the sun ached to crack through and yet never really did. This never-world that has been my world for what seems like forever now and yet how long can it really have been, really, since I arrived here, full of dare? This never-world free from the seasons that used to come and go without me even remarking it in greens on the trees and flurries of yellows and reds bursting out of the ground; the seasons that Paris welcomes when fluffy white seed pods float along the Seine, or soggy autumn leaves gather in luxurious piles in Luxembourg. Here, those two are, arriving from a world where there are more colours than three, and where the only mechanical sounds are the sputters of new car engines; where the soundtrack is birds twittering in a spring that right now exists there and only there, how I miss birds I think sudden and irrational, and the tunes on the barrel organ, and the gramophone music that drifts out from a cafe and loses itself in the hustle and bustle of streets crammed full of faces and figures painted in make up and dressed in bright colours and with their full complement of limbs. They’ve arrived from a world where the smell isn’t of shit but of fresh apples and spitting coffee and thick wine and chicken roasted with a crackling skin, although it’s a romantic lie isn’t it really because after all, Paris smells of shit too.
I had forgotten such places exist in the world, and yet they must do, if these two travellers had made the voyage from there to here. But why would anyone leave that spring and those colours and those sounds to come here, if that spring and those colours and those sounds really did continue to live outside of my memories? (Did they? I no longer knew. I had forgotten.)
‘It is her,’ I said, my voice wide in wonder. ‘It’s Gertrude Stein!’
‘Who?’ said Rose, looking up from lighting her cigarette and following my excited point.
‘From Paris,’ I mutter under my breath, the word too precious to say too loud. She doesn’t hear me.
‘YOOHOO!’ I shout, as loud as I know how, my voice sounding terrible and ridiculous and ever-so English amidst a chatter of French and Belgium and lord-knows-what-else, my cultivated cut glass voice slicing through the stagnant air that hung thick with smoke and battle aftermath.
It’s her, it’s her alright, a solid figure in a shiftless landscape where even the ground is unstable. Her hair coiled up in a rope and burdening down on the top of her Roman Emperor head, wearing - can it be? Can it really be? Yes, she is, she really is wearing brown corduroy and a waistcoat as if this were tea time in Paris and not here, not here at all. And next to her, for where-else would she be? Alice, tall and romantic with her tiny feet, her tiny feet just like a Spanish woman.
‘YOOHOO!’ I shout again and joy, they hear me, they look up and Gertrude salutes, a short and squat captitaine, commanding everything, even here amid Generals and Majors she can’t be outranked. They’re coming this way, my way.
‘Dolly,’ Gertrude says and if I had even doubted it before I couldn’t doubt it now, for that was her voice, and only she has a voice that warms you from your toes to the end of your hairs; a voice that rumbles like a fire and contains in it multitudes. I could listen to her voice all day long, such a pleasant wonderful change from the machine bellows and the screams and the parched whispers and the dreary rattles.
‘Good God Gertrude,’ I exclaim. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
She waves over to the car. ‘Driving,’ she replies. ‘We’ve come to help. We’ve been all over France now all over it. Helping.’
‘Father sent us the car,’ Alice explains.
‘Meet Pauline,’ Gertrude interrupts, gesturing to the car. She’s smiling to see me and I smile too.
‘Father sent us Auntie Pauline,’ Alice continues, picking up her thread cut by Gertrude. ‘We asked him for help, we’re Americans so we asked the Americans for help, that’s only right.’
I can’t reply. I can’t find the words, so happy and so shocked and so homesick for a home that isn’t even mine. How strange it is to be nostalgic for a home that isn't even mine. How strange it is to be nostalgic at all, at my age.
‘It takes a war to know a country,’ Gertrude says. ‘Before, I only knew Paris. Now I know France.’ She looks me up and down and I find myself preening under her gaze, my figure rippling under my overalls, as much as one’s figure can ripple under overalls. ‘And Dolly how do you find yourself here.’ She never spoke her question marks.
‘Driving,’ I say. ‘Just the same as you.’
We stare at one another, assessing the chances, assessing the odds of us finding each other in this vast country, in the never-world. We stare at one another and I find I don’t need to tell her about it; about the bodies on stretchers and the limbs and the blood, or about the freedom and the excitement and the knowledge that it, whatever it is, will never be the same. She stares at me and she knows it and we don’t need to say it.
‘Last night the nuns where we stayed gave us hot chocolate,’ Alice says, smacking her lips together. ‘The creamiest hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It took me right back home.’
Does she mean California or Paris, I wonder.
‘Hold on,’ I say, and rummage my hand in my breast pocket. ‘Here,’ I say.
I hand over the treasure I had kept safe, wrapped up, precious, waiting for the time when I could eat them: my two perfectly blue duck eggs.
‘Take them,’ I say. ‘Please.’
Gertrude smiles at me. ‘Blue as your eyes,’ she says.
‘Will you put that in my portrait?’ I say, giving her a theatrical wink.
She throws back her head and laughs. I laugh too, for what else can you do, when Gertrude laughs?
‘Oh Dolly,’ says Alice. ‘How terribly sweet of you. But surely you want them for yourself?’
I shake my head. ‘Please, take them,’ I reply. ‘They’re yours now.’
Gertrude shakes me by the hand. ‘When this is all over,’ she says, cocking her head to the land behind her. ‘Come to rue de Fleurus and Alice will cook you her poached eggs babouche.’
I kiss Alice warmly.
‘Well,’ I say. ’Til then.’
‘Good luck,’ Gertrude says, turning her back on me and walking towards Auntie Pauline. ‘Not that you,’ she called, over her broad shoulder in its waistcoat, ‘out of anyone, has ever needed it.’