The Normandie Night
The hidden meaning underneath the second scene of The Siren of Paris.
The opening of The Siren of Paris is unlike any other novel that you may have read in the past. Instead of attempting to hook the reader with some thrilling event in Marc’s life, the first chapter is dedicated to a mystical scene of the assemblage of ghosts, summoned from their graves by a linty of prayers offered by a priest holding a staff with a clock counting down the time until June 18th, 1939. This imagery is more appropriate in a Salvador Dali painting, than a novel. Survivors of this war often remark upon how time warped for them as days or months later felt upon reflection as if they were years or centuries. Marc enters this war through the lens of that warped clock upon the staff of the priest. The following is the last part of chapter one, and all of Chapter two with various images to guide you on this step of his journey.
“May the Lord be with you,” the priest said, his tone gentle as the clock reached June 18, 1939, eight thirty at night. A fear greater than the judgment of hell filled Marc, as he realized he would now watch his life during the war all over again.
The S.S. Normandie’s bow parted the sea as she carried her passengers toward France that Sunday. Marc dressed for dinner in his finest tuxedo. Before taking the last dinner at sea, he entered the chapel of the ship for his evening prayers.
“And may you, my Father in heaven, keep my family in your protection. I pray for my mother, Lynette, my father, Eldon, and my little sister, Elda. Amen,” Marc kneeled alone in the chapel. He made the sign of the cross as he rose to leave for dinner
Marc crossed the foyer to the large double doors entering the main dining room. The maître d’ escorted him through the large three-deck-high room, lined on each side by massive crystal light sculptures. Frosted crystal columns flanked the towering walls. Gilded golden crossbeams covered the room’s ceiling. Bas-relief carvings of peasants, farmers, kings, and soldiers decorated the sides of the entrance.
La Paix, a tall bronze statue of a woman extending an olive leaf, towered over his table. Marc frowned as he searched the room for his traveling companions. None could be found within the nearly empty cavernous room. A silly thought crossed his mind that he somehow had the wrong time for dinner.
Marc’s black hair, parted to the right side of his head, flawlessly hugged his scalp, a stark contrast to his body as he slumped into the chair at the empty table. His eyes scanned the tables between the light sculptures, squinting with disappointment.
Dora descended the staircase, walked over to his table, and said, “I forgot to tell you that on the last night, we like to dine at the grill. We can speak English there without any fear.”
Marc left the lonely waiters and sprinkling of passengers in the golden room to follow Dora up the staircase. Fifty years old, Dora appeared far younger with her hair pulled back into a small, tight bun. She glided through the dining room in a long, slender cream-colored evening dress. Marc walked with a spring to his step and smiled as he loathed the idea of eating alone on the last night. Dora met Marc on the first day out and immediately adopted him into her circle, but he did feel a tint of self-consciousness for he stood out among them, at nearly half their ages.
“Race you,” Dora said at the base of the stairs to the aft foyer.
“You will not,” Marc said.
Marc climbed the stairs and lost her as they both ran across the foyer to the doors of the grillroom perched upon the aft deck of the ship.
“It feels damn good to have a man chase me again,” Dora smirked at Marc as she swished side to side.
“Marc, were you the rabbit or the fox?” David said with a smile as he looked up from his menu.
“You know the answer to that question,” Nigel said. He put down the wine list.
Once they’d dined, Dora tapped her wine glass with her fork. “It is time for a small celebration.” The Café Grill did not have one single empty seat. Some passengers sat at tables with extra chairs. The room was loud, as if they were inside an Irish pub. David’s long, thin face looked up with a curious smile in his bright gray eyes. Nigel rested his head of thin gray hair upon his hand as his round face studied Dora’s intentions.
“Crossings for the gods,” Dora said, raising her glass to her friends.
After each one stood and proclaimed mockingly the number of times they had safely crossed the sea with the help of the gods, David stood. “I, David, have crossed the sea with the help of the gods thirty-two times.”
Nigel teased David. “Tell us your secret to such luck on the waves, old friend?” Dora sat back in her chair and cocked her head to the side. Marc noticed that David’s hand had a slight twitch to it, even as he strained to smile.
He looked out over his friends after a pause and said, “It is simple. I never sail British!”
“Here, here, my friends! A toast—never sail British!” Dora said, raising her glass to meet the other three. The gaze between David and Dora told Marc there was more to the toast than he could grasp.
“Now, let us dance.” Dora rose from the table as they left the Café Grill for the lounge. Marc followed Dora, her arms locked with David and Nigel, down the long staircase into the smoking room. Passing into the lounge, the air sparkled with the tune of Now It Can Be Told. Four fluted light pillars surrounded the dance floor, but only a few were dancing. In the four corners of the lounge, glass murals stretched the entire length of the walls.
While dancing, Dora asked Marc, “So, does she have a name?”
“Does who have a name?”
“The woman, silly.”
“There is no woman. Remember, I am single.”
“Marc,” her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head back to look up at him, “a young attractive man like you does not just run off to Paris for nothing. Either you are running away from a woman, or running toward one,” she smiled. “Maybe both! Am I right?”
“Her name is Veronica and we broke up this winter,” Marc said, his eyes glancing up and away toward the band.
“I see. And the other one?” she pushed.
“There is no other one. Besides, the breakup is really a blessing.”
Marc then looked back at Dora’s face as he warmed up to her charm. He reflected upon her charisma, which made her beauty all the more enchanting, even if she was in her fifties.
“I was a premed student and hated it, because, to be honest, I was only doing it to make Veronica happy. I think this change will be good for me. I have always loved art and this will be my choice. I let her make all my major decisions. It felt good, but it was not actually good for me.”
“Oh God, Marc, please be careful.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t think much will happen with Germany,” Marc said. He believed she had switched to the war talk he had read in the papers.
“I am talking about the women of Paris.”
Marc glanced at each corner of the room as he danced, quickly studying the massive panels of glass painted in gold, silver, and platinum leaf, with designs of ships, gods, and goddesses.
“A game?” Dora said, poking him.
“We will guess which one the other likes best,” she said, glancing at the murals.
“You go first.”
Dora pointed to the one called the Birth of Aphrodite, a collection of massive, tall ships, with a woman rising from the foam of the sea.
“You’re good,” Marc nodded, smiling.
Marc then pointed toward the one called The Rape of Europa. Dora shook her head side to side and then pointed behind Marc to a set of large pocket doors separating the lounge from the smoking room, decorated with a golden lacquer mural spanning the opening. Horses, women, and angels flew through the sky to catch stars and blow wind, a radiant golden sun at the noonday position in the sky.
“It is incredible. I have not noticed it before. Why this one?”
“The sun reminds me of hope,” she said. The band played a new number. “I think you really believe your story about art school,” she said, turning back to him.
“Oh, you think I am a shipboard spy?” Marc joked, matching her dry wit.
“That would be grand. Then you would know who you are and what you are doing. You are sexy enough to get secrets out of anyone.” Marc averted his eyes from her stare and glanced at the murals. Her tone turned serious. “Paris is not the place it might seem to be.”
“I know what you mean. I can speak fluently, and, besides, I belong there.”
“How so, handsome?”
“I was born there,” he said, with a nod.
Dora laughed out loud. “That explains this thick, dark hair.” She ran her hand over his head. “Marc, I was born in Baltimore, but I do not belong there. Paris is my home, but I am still an outsider, even after living there twenty years. You may be Parisian-born, Marc, but belonging there is another story.”
“What called you to Paris?” Marc stared into her right eye.
“A relationship. I thought it would solve everything.”
“Must have been some love?”
“I would like to think so.”
“Well, I think you are being a bit rough with me,” Marc said.
“What a nice idea, but that will have to be another time.” They continued to dance in the center of the floor between the frosted light columns. “Why did you want to leave Veronica?” Dora pressed Marc.
“Actually, she left me,” Marc said.
“You must have given her everything she wanted. Don’t answer that. I am sorry. I can be insensitive when I drink too much,” she looked down and then up, a blushing smile warming her face.
Dora held Marc’s hand as they walked over to David and Nigel talking with some passengers. “Ready to have a nightcap in the smoking room?”
“Brilliant idea,” David said.
They sat in the thick, brown leather chairs in a semicircle, Dora in the middle. Her back faced a giant golden lacquer wall mural. Their raucous laughter echoed through the empty room as they drank, smoked, and joked.
“Please, please, can we have a bedtime story?” Nigel begged Dora.
“Ah, how can I say no to my lovelies? I will tell you a bedtime story,” she said in her dry, nasally voice.
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears were in Paris.”
“Oh shit, they are so screwed,” David said.
“Hush, hush now.”
“Dora, is this going to be another Jewish tale?” Nigel said.
“And they needed to get a room, so Papa Bear, in German, asked someone on the street for a room. But the man said, ‘Parler seulement francais.’”
David’s and Nigel’s laughter filled the large room as passengers continued to dance in the lounge beyond the pocket doors. Marc could see his friends were drunk, but was amused all the same. The cocktail helped him to drop his guard for a bit.
“Mama Bear went to another and asked in Italian for a room, but got the same response. Then Baby Bear went to another and asked in English, but again, the answer was no,” Dora continued, never once breaking character.
Nigel continued to laugh. “Maybe they should have gone to Spain. I hear the war is now over.”
“Hush now, children. Please. This is a serious story,” Dora said with a small smile.
“So, Goldilocks finally says, ‘Fine, I will take care of this myself,’ and she goes over to another Parisian and comes back straight away and says, ‘Good news. We are staying at the Palace Hotel.’ The bears were amazed. ‘Goldilocks, what did you say?’ I just said in Yiddish, ‘Get me a room or I will close your bank.’”
David and Nigel broke into laughter. Marc found it amusing but was perplexed by the joke’s meaning. Nigel turned to Marc. “Never do this. It will not work for you unless you are in a little red dress with three bears. The French will blow you off.”
David could barely speak as tears streamed down his face. “Dora, I had no idea Goldilocks was Jewish. Who would’a known?”
Marc gave each of them a warm good night after Dora finished her story. The others headed back to their rooms, but Marc decided to take a walk. Before he left the smoking room, Dora caught him and said, “I am sorry if my story seemed a bit rowdy. I have had a bit to drink. I want you to keep in touch when you get to Paris,” and then pushed into his hand a small piece of paper. “I know you speak French very well, but it is important to have friends. Here is my number and address. It is not what you think, although I could use a young man. In all seriousness, I want you to know that you can contact me if you need a friend.”
“No problem, I understand, and I would like that,” Marc said, holding her hand.
“I never asked you where you will be studying,” Dora said, looking embarrassed.
“Oh, I am at Fontainebleau from the first of July to the first of September, and then I am not sure. I could be at the École Nationale Supérieure, or I might be starting at the Ateliers Académie Julian. I have not decided,” Marc said, his eyes lighting up.
“Those are wonderful schools, Marc. I can introduce you to my friend Sylvia Beach. She owns a bookshop called Shakespeare and Company,” she said. She smiled and held his hands.
“We can meet after the first of September, when you return to Paris. I can’t wait to introduce you to all the other lost Americans. Oh Marc, what do you need?” she asked.
“Dora, I have everything taken care of. I don’t need any kind of help, but thank you.”
“No, that came out wrong. I meant to say, what do you need to be happy?”
“I don’t know. Friends. Finding love would be nice.”
“You don’t know, do you? I know.”
“Oh, you need to get some rest,” Marc said.
“You need freedom. That is why you are coming to Paris. Freedom. I lied about the relationship. Oh, there was a lover, but my other lover, freedom, is what kept me in Paris.”
Marc began to chuckle and then kissed her on both cheeks. “Sleep well, my new friend,” he said. Dora turned and left for her cabin.
Marc walked out on the promenade, around the nighttime decks. The impact of his decision to leave for France rested uneasy in his mind as he leaned over the rail, looking out at the black sea. The smile he wore for the others had waned while he considered his choices. He continued his walk to shake off his doubts.
Entering through the doors to the upper aft foyer, he stopped in front of the bronze statue in the center of the staircase. He noticed that it was different from the one in the dining room. The bronze woman gazed forward in a proud and defiant pose, holding a wreath to one side.
Marc asked a passing steward the name, and he said, “La Normandie. She is France.”
“And the wreath?”
“For the fallen of war,” the steward replied as he continued toward the grillroom. Marc studied the statue, taking in its full presence.
Descending down the stairs, he walked slowly around the edge of the smoking room, studying each of the massive murals. One had peasants taking in the harvest; another depicted Egyptians on boats sailing the Nile. Marc took a chair facing the large mural of horses where Dora had entertained them with her story. Two men on horseback chased five other horses and had caught one with an outstretched rope. It rose from the floor to ceiling of the room, about three decks high. Though Marc’s eyes were heavy, he was not yet ready to retire, instead studying the mural, holding onto the sweetness of the evening, thankful he was not left to dine alone.
The lights of the Normandie blazed alone through the waves. Wind whistled through windows of the promenade. A couple left the main lounge to their cabin for a drink. The mighty La Paix stood faithful in the dining room as the lights extinguished one by one. Marc awoke to a steward in French, “Il est tard, monsieur. It is late sir, one thirty. You fell asleep.”
“Wait, my watch says twelve thirty,” Marc said.
“Eastbound, we lose an hour each night, remember?” the steward said.
“Oh yes, I forgot. Thank you for waking me.” Marc then made his way through the halls to his cabin and left the golden horses alone for the night.
In the morning, Marc could not help but notice just how few passengers were departing the ship at Cherbourg. He purchased his rail ticket to Paris and turned toward a long line of passengers waiting to board the ship heading westbound. The line of travelers wrapped out of the dock and down the street. Marc glanced at all the anxious faces as he made his way to the train station.
The Crossing of a Threshold
If you knew that you were crossing a threshold into a world that would completely bring you to your knees, then of course you would never go near such a door. People abhor too much change at once and prefer the safety of law and order over the total chaos of war. The problem is that you only know that you have crossed a threshold upon reflection. The Normandie night chapter in The Siren of Paris is not just the last night of a transatlantic voyage aboard an opulent ship. In chapter one, Marc is fully conscious as a departed soul that a threshold crossing awaits him as he reviews his life. Marc as a young 20 year old French born American crossed that threshold completely unaware of the danger which he would face, which is exactly how we live our lives.
The S.S. Normandie rooms may appear to be just various spaces for passengers aboard a ship, but in the mystical spiritual world of Marc’s overall life, they are the chambers of a grand temple where he comes to rest in front of a mural of horses on the run.
From a political perspective, the horses within Jean Dunand’s Gold Lacquer mural represent the seven great nations that will be swept away into a war that will kill approximately 69 Million people before peace is resorted; Germany, France, England, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States.
On a emotional level for Marc Tolbert, the horses represent a force of the chaos of war that will ultimately take away the women he loves in a horrible tragic freak accident.
The ultimate level of existence is that which defies explanation, refuses to be defined, and we generally call the spiritual. Did Marc cross the threshold when he left American, or was it when he left the chapel? Did he leave the world of law, order and peace when he left the dinning room, or when he passed the statue La Normandie on the stairs? I suspect if Marc could tell you personally, it would be none of those thresholds, because knowledge of such events in life is hidden from the mortal human mind.
Marc’s Threshold Crossing into the hell known as World War Two lies hidden from his mind in the mysterious hour of time he lost when he fell asleep sitting in a plush leather chair of the empty smoking room of the S.S. Normandie as he was drawn towards a mural for reasons he did not consciously understand. Just as the clock on the staff in the spiritual world Marc came from as a ghost became the portal back into reviewing his physical life, the mural upon the wall becomes the portal into a war that will change his very soul. In the spiritual the clock can be seen clearly upon the staff, but in the mortal world, the clock of time is represented by the loss of an hour at midnight during an Eastbound crossing. Marc will know he crossed the threshold into World War Two after the first of September, which just a few months away. However, on the spiritual level, the moment is represented by an event which Marc had no conscious awareness of, and that is the exact moment lights are turned out in the Grand First Class dinning room leaving the statue “La Pax” ( The Peace) in the dark.
Marc crossed this threshold, because unlike Rodin’s Gates of Hell depicting the first section of Dante’s Inferno, the temple rooms of the S.S. Normandie were lush, comfortable, and beautifully seductive, which is exactly like most of life’s greatest of regrets. On the physical level, we can only see the gates of hell through artistic creations such as Rodin’s gates because the tragic truth is they are absolutely invisible to the normal human eye.