Henri worked in the middle. He was the workhorse: scraping relentlessly, back glistening with perspiration and never an upward glance (at least whilst the clients were there). He was the only one that knew what he was doing, as he had been trained in the trade. Pierre-Antoine toiled to the left (that is, the propriotor’s left), paying attention to detail and looking meticulous. I was the middle-man (albeit on the right), Phillipe, the negotiator of fees, with the most honest face, the most well-spoken of our ragamuffin band. We, the penitent, started as floor scrapers, and earned our wage. Floor scrapers initally, yes, but we were learning. Fast.
Yet we starved at first. Parisien scrapers gained a good reputation by word of mouth initially, and by God we scraped, with our knuckles as well as our spoke-shaves. It got so bad that one week we barely scraped by with bare-knuckle boxing at the fair. We had a long reach, see. It was back-breaking. Yet we stuck to our guns. Built up a clientele. Cornered the market with top-quality varnish (made up of satin perfumes and elixirs plundered from bathroom cabinets of the families themselves). I still feel a little guilt for that. A little. One well-heeled client ( an elderly gent who liked to watch us sweat (though pretended he didn’t) paid for our advertisement, which made us. Our speciality became: ‘vacate your Parisien homes for a day, and return to perfection; floors shining like the Seine at low-tide. Be the envy of your friends once the party season arrives’. It worked a treat. The fumes of the varnish helped. Our clients fled from the funk, leaving us their homes and libraries. We read.
Ah, little did they know. We began work at twilight, and thanks to Henri we were done by Ten in the evening. That left us three advantages: accomodation, literature and address books. With twelve hours to spare before families returned. We indulged (yet left spotless) their homes, and taught eachother the trends and crazes of the time. We evolved. Thanks to the address books, we presented ourselves at tennis, swimming and shooting clubs- securing names and addresses of future clients effortlessly. Fully-clothed, we resembled everybody else at the venues, and we were never recognised when we turned up selling our wares. They only knew the tops of our heads. You see, we peasants learned the rhythms of our betters, and internalised them. So many fresh floors needed there were, and so little time.
I relished and adored it that we clothed ourselves in their never-visited sports wardrobes.We did, I admit it. Yes I know it was dishonest, but we had nothing at first. Just black trousers ant threadbare shirts. I did feel guilt, initially, until I found a crumpled and disguarded 100 Franc note in a jacket pocket and we lived like kings for a week. Then it did not seem to matter. We became skilled at deception.The well to do’s of Paris attributed our muscles to rowing and fencing. Our capacity to drink to boredom. We indulged yes, but we saved.
Within a year we had bought our farm in St Germain En Laye, comfortably removed from the environs of our customers.. We recruited from our own, the disposessed and needy (and ready to learn). Made replica scrapers. Two years on from our first scrape, we still scout out a new contacts at the societies and concert halls (as fully paid up members, don’t you know). It’s funny, but we are never recognised. Not even dressed in our erstwhile client’s clothes. No, all they saw of us in our day jobs was straining muscles, abased, working tirelessly for them. Heads bowed.
Little do they know, we are grinning at them. At their expense.
© Tom Tide 2016