They found him where he had always been, living quietly on the rue Fournier. It was August. The man sitting across from Charles was a curator at the Louvre called Monsieur DuPont. He wore large rubbed spectacles and smoked seven cigarettes during the time he was in the house. His hair had sparks of grey in it – new ones leapt out when he turned his head in the sunlight bearing through the window. The cigarette smoke, ascending, was gold-tinged; Charles was reminded of misty mornings when he was a child in Normandy, how the sun would glow behind the mist, and the cows sidle through like gods.
He told M. DuPont about these mornings. He was aware he did this often now, telling people things they hadn’t asked to know. (He was getting old, past sixty.) In response, M. DuPont asked polite questions about his childhood – it suited his purpose, Charles realised, because it led him up to the hotel: when had Charles come to Paris? How had he got the job at Le Meurice? Did he remember his first meeting with the artist, Soutine?
M. DuPont was on his third cigarette. The room was a misty morning in Normandy. Charles was in a back corridor, a tray in his hands, cups shuddering, a streak of cold coffee running to the rim.
Did he remember the first meeting? He remembered the room. The smell of paint. His voice? Hard to say; he wasn’t good with voices, he’d never been able to do impressions. He couldn’t put his finger on the first time, no. Did he remember how he’d been asked? How many times, roughly, they had seen each other before then? It couldn’t have been often, because Charles wasn’t used to him yet, and you did get used to guests if they stayed long enough. Monsieur Soutine had asked very straightforwardly, man to man, like making any sort of deal; except Charles was young, he hadn’t bartered the price up, but simply accepted what was offered. He would have done it for nothing, he suspected, knowing himself as he was then. It was exciting, having your portrait painted – it would be exciting now, still. He’d been flattered; he’d showed off about it to his pals, not too much or it might have started to seem funny, one man painting another in his hotel room. In fact, Charles remembered M. Soutine making a point of saying that he wanted him with his clothes on, in his uniform – that the uniform was the important part. He’d supposed that was true when he’d seen the picture, though he made no claims to be a judge.
M. Soutine was quiet when he was painting. Concentrating of course. Smoked a lot – like you, M. DuPont, Charles said to him, smiling. Sang a bit, can’t remember what, not singing properly anyhow, sort of mumbling to a tune, out the corner of his mouth. There was the smell of the paint. The sound – he’d got used to the different sounds, the brush sliding this way or that, fast or slow, bigger or smaller amounts. He’d liked guessing, seeing him choose one colour or another: what it was for, where it was going to end up. He got it wrong both ways. He’d guess the red would be for doing his waistcoat, and then it would go too high or too low; later he saw red on his ears, and on his hands.
The pose? He’d been asked to put his hands firmly on his hips – it was the way he used to stand, after bringing the food or the wine up: ‘Anything more, sir?’ Looking round the room, trying to spot a problem he could solve without being asked, or discern some desire he could satisfy before it was spoken. With his hands on his hips. On the lookout.
He’d liked the job: being a waiter. Had liked the hotel, taken pride in it, fussed over it; swiftly removed any marks he found, picked bits off the floor, straightened the picture frames. It pleased him. Naturally the hotel wasn’t as comfortable for staff as it was for guests – the back corridors and rooms were nothing like the rest of it. But the truth was that you spent the majority of your time in the nice parts, more time than most guests, so it wasn’t crazy to think it belonged to you more. And if it belonged to you, it was worth looking after.
Still, it wasn’t a job for a married man. And that’s what he’d been from the 19th of May, 1928.
He’d met Josephine at the hotel. She was a chambermaid. He was angling for her already when he’d let himself be painted by M. Soutine. He’d stood there, listening to the brush on the canvas, sniffing the paint, hands on his hips, thinking of her, surveying the future. Asking himself: what’s to be done? Wondering what problem he could solve, what desire he might be the answer to. They were both curious, later, about what had happened to his portrait. Josephine always said she’d like to see it, see him as he was then, thinking of her, scheming to catch her. This was when they were first married, when they had just opened their shop selling satchels on the rue Joubert; when all their memories were of falling in love and not of everything that came after, experience piling up like dirty laundry.
After his sixth cigarette, M. DuPont produced a photograph of the painting. He hadn’t done so earlier, he said, because he wanted to be absolutely certain he had the right man. Even though he could tell as soon as Charles opened the door.
M. DuPont laid the photograph delicately on the coffee table. Charles laughed and his eyes unexpectedly filled with tears, so that the colours in the picture ran. When he blinked them away it became familiar again. He’d not seen it since it was painted, in 1927, more than forty years ago. He realised how much he had forgotten. How strong and bright the colours were: a greeny-blue behind, segments of red waistcoat on his big white shirt. And what a strange shape he’d made of him! His head and his ears stretched and rolled like dough, his arms out in great hoops. But it was undoubtedly him, as M. DuPont said. He recognised his old face.
‘It’s wonderful,’ he breathed.
‘Truly,’ said M. DuPont. ‘Did you think so at the time?’
‘Yes,’ Charles said. ‘I thought I was very wonderful.’
When M. DuPont had gone, Charles opened the window and looked out onto the street. The shadows lying across it had a warm sleepy look. There were a few regulars sitting outside the bar. A car came past and he smelled the exhaust. He fancied a drink. Turning back into the room, he stared at the photograph left for him on the coffee table. There was to be an exhibition. There were lots of pictures like his, apparently – of waiters, pastry cooks, valets, bellboys. He’d known he wasn’t the only person at Le Meurice who’d been painted, but he hadn’t realised how many hotels M. Soutine visited. He was very highly esteemed as an artist now.
Charles took his wallet from his bedroom, and then went into the hall and got his jacket off the peg. He hadn’t needed to be told that M. Soutine had died; he’d learned it from a newspaper during the war or just after, when lots of people were dying and it hadn’t seemed so important, only a shame. He must have thought about his portrait then, but merely as something from his own life. It had stopped existing in a real sense; he’d not imagined it being anywhere in particular. Now he knew that it was on its third owner already. They called it ‘The Room-Service Waiter’. Strange to think: that for all these years, even with the hotel long behind him, he’d been waiting on someone. And – as he walked out into the rue Fournier with a thirst in his throat – that M. Soutine had gone on being dead, all the way up to now.
It was spring before the invitation to the exhibition opening arrived. Charles was delighted to see it – he hadn’t forgotten about it, not at all. Soon after, M. DuPont telephoned and asked if Charles would mind being interviewed by a newspaper. The interviewer was a woman journalist, only a little younger than Charles, very pleasant and interested and knowledgeable about M. Soutine’s life. He told her everything he’d told M. DuPont – about the smell of paint, and the sounds of the brushes, and his pose, and how M. Soutine used to sing in that mumbling way, with a cigarette jogging at the corner of his mouth. And then he added the only other significant detail he’d remembered since the summer: that when the time for each session was up, M. Soutine would make one last stroke or touch on his canvas, look at Charles and at the picture, and quietly say ‘Bravo’. At first Charles imagined he was saying it to him – a thank you, for having kept so still – but eventually he realised M. Soutine was saying it to himself.