The Girls on the Bridge
The sky was blue, an intense celestial blue. Rays of light danced and sparkled on the surface of the river. A gentle breeze agitated the water and tiny waves slapped against the stone buttress of the bridge. It was springtime in Paris and the girls were having fun, beautifully turned out in their smartest outfits. They were both dazzling and dazzled in the April sunshine.
Victor, with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, shouted at the girls to organise themselves and prepare for a group photograph. The girls laughed and chatted. Mirrors were shared, coiffures checked, lipstick applied, stockings adjusted. The laughter and giggles did not improve Victor’s mood. He told Madame Claudine that the photos should be taken early in the morning to take advantage of the bright morning light. He’d been over-ruled by Madame insisting that the girls needed time to make their way from Montmartre down to Place de la Concorde. She demanded that the girls look their best. A hair-dresser and make-up artist had been hired for the day.
Dominique sat on the smooth stone of the balustrade and ran her hands over her skirt. She felt out of place and old fashioned in comparison to the other girls. She had only been in Paris for six months, arriving by train from Cognac, Western France carrying only a battered leather suitcase and a letter of introduction. Now here she was sitting on a bridge in the heart of Paris about to have her photograph taken. She wanted to pinch herself, was this really happening? As the most junior member of the troupe she was exhausted from hours of practise and the brutal regime presided over by Madame Claudine. On average the girls could expect a five year career, a few managed six and very occasionally seven. The star was Monique from Alsace, a strong, athletic farmer’s daughter she’d done more than ten years according to Bernadette the wardrobe mistress. The last five as a principal.
The grating voice of the photographer interrupted Dominique’s reverie. He was barking instructions at the girls; sit side by side, move closer, cross your legs, smile more broadly. The subjects were happy to comply. Lean this way, smile into the camera, raise your left arm. He must have taken a hundred shots, maybe more. Dominique stiffled a yawn. She’d dreamed of living and working in Paris since she was a little girl. Now here she was in the capital, part of a photographic shoot. Her new leather shoes pinched her feet. The smart two-tone black and white was all the rage, she knew in the shop that they were a little tight, but had traded comfort for style.
Madame Claudine was walking slowly behind the girls from left to right observing each person critically, in a proprietorial manner. In just two weeks she and the girls were taking the train to Le Havre and she would fulfill her lifelong ambition for ‘her girls’ to perform on board the transatlantic liner SS Ile de France bound for New York. The troupe would perform each evening in the First Class Dining Room. The shipping company had requested photographs of the girls to offer as gifts to important passengers on the ship. The photograph on the bridge captured the girls in a moment of happiness and relaxation. A time of great optimism. For Madame Claudine this was a personal opportunity too – she secretly hoped she would meet a charming and handsome American gentleman to whom she would become engaged.
Monique, the girl from Alsace, had her own dreams too. After a decade as a dancer she fancied her chances in Hollywood and was planning on taking a train west to try her hand in the movies. She had great presence on stage, so she’d been told, by many an admiring young man. Dominique on the other hand, was entirely happy with her life in Paris. She had Julien her suitor ready to escort her to the cinema or to the park and the overwhelming joy of living in this great European city. She had no idea what all the fuss was about.
Perhaps the most interesting and unassuming of the girls was Alix. She kept thinking about the telegram she had received that very morning, as she carefully ironed her best dress. The telegram requested her presence at the Air France offices that very afternoon. Brought up in a small chateau in Brittany with an English mother and French father, she was fluent in French and English. Alix had worked as a courier for the ‘Free France’ movement in the closing years of the war. Captured by the Gestapo and shipped east on a train she managed to escape and hide in an abandoned farmhouse. She’d then walked back to Paris, almost seventy miles, on foot. The only child of much older parents she was effectively alone in the world. She wondered what the future might hold for her.
Back, let’s get back, to a spring day in Paris, a group of beautiful young women, relaxed, laughing, a myriad of possibilities. Eight girls, eight sets of hopes and dreams, Madame Claudine and one grumpy photographer. All together on a bridge over the River Seine as the sun shines down. Victor’s voice boomed out in an exasperated manner,
’OK ladies let’s get these photos done. On the count of 3…..1..….2…….3…say cheese’. Click. The moment is frozen in time, now and for ever.