April 25, 2014 7:43 pm

A sore point in Paris

‘Why do minor ailments bring such pride? Do they add purpose and focus?’

In Paris I wasn’t seeing la vie en rose so much as la vie en elastoplast beige. I had a very sore finger – no calamity, you’ll agree, but it did seem to colour everything. When you have a bad finger, the Eiffel Tower, a strong coffee by the Seine and even 12 hand-painted pink dessert plates for €30 the lot lose their charm. I was being so brave, only mentioning my finger every hour and a half or so. Sore-finger fatigue in those around me was being managed very well. I live, for the main part, in a kind world.

I had a comedy poultice on me that extended my index finger by about two inches. It smacked of Tom and Jerry injuries, or Charlie Chaplin having to wash 20,000 dishes in a fancy resturant because he could not foot the bill. The plaster itself was folded over my fingertip. It looked a bit like it had a brown paper bag on its head. There was a look of shame and sheepishness to the digit, like a person consuming alcohol while driving on the motorway. God, it hurt, but there were another 45 minutes to go before I could mention it. I popped a Nurofen, but what I really needed was distraction.

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Susie Boyt

We decided to visit Versailles. I’d never been there before. On the RER train some American girls were talking loudly about the delights of spicy buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce. It was a sort of torture. As luck would have it, a trumpet player and an accordionist boarded and the American girls ceased their talk. A holiday mood spread about the carriage. My feet tapped quite wildly.

A visit to Versailles would not, of course, be without its challenges. I gave myself a little preparatory talking-to. A small part of me feels worryingly comfortable in palatial surroundings. Moats, Watteaus, tasselled stools in raspberry silk damask – all these I find very soothing. Outdoor colonnaded chequered marble ballrooms have a powerful allure for me. I hummed a little of the song I used to croon with my dad in the nooks of Piccadilly restaurants: “I wasn’t born to stately halls of alabaster/ I haven’t given many balls for Mrs Astor.”

“Please don’t get chandelier envy,” I chided.

As we walked into the palace, my seven-year-old asked me to explain the French Revolution. I did my best. “Quite often in life, in history, it’s when things improve very, very, slightly, and no more, that people feel they can’t take it any longer and rise up,” I told her. “It’s when they have the courage to  . . .”

“Rise up?” she echoed. It was the Easter weekend and she had already looked askance at a new face cream I had been given that promised not just rejuvenation, but resurrection.

I distracted her with talk of cakes.

. . .

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles was a source of disappointment, chiefly because its name – Salon des Glaces – had created the expectation of ice cream. I was not impressed with the palace: room after room where, whether you’re a king or not, you couldn’t possibly have had a cup of tea or a chinwag, let alone a strawberry cornet. It was one of the least hospitable places I have ever been. “If you lived here and you had a bad finger, you would think about it all day long,” I muttered.

As an antidote, we then went to the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette experienced the first moments of privacy in her strange life. Utterly charming, every room in that house boasted delicate feminine instincts. I braced myself for the stab of jealousy I would feel when I saw MA’s collection of china but luckily there was hardly any on show. PHEW.

My finger was now throbbing and the skin beneath the bandage was scarlet. I looked at it admiringly. Why do minor ailments bring so much pleasure and pride? Is it possible that they briefly resolve some identity issues? Could they be said to add purpose and focus?

Perhaps I even need to see my doctor. I admire my doctor greatly and we don’t meet nearly often enough. Yet surely he would think less of me if I came with just a sore finger. Would he consider it a mask for a major psychological episode?

It was time to go. The palaces were shutting up shop. I bought a large amount of pink Marie Antoinette stationery, notebooks, rulers, erasers, pencils. Don’t ask me why.

As we walked towards the station, I remembered that a friend with a very bad finger recently went to casualty and, when she apologised to the doctor for her footling ailment, he said, “Not at all. We had a man in this morning with dandruff.”

“No!” she roared.

“And, what about this: he came in an ambulance!”

I am not alone.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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