For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by depictions of the future – or, to put it another way, a possible future. On Twitter, I follow the excellent History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) and have been intrigued by their periodic inclusion of a series of postcards produced at the end of the nineteenth century. Principally the work of an artist called Jean-Marc Côté, these cards depict France in the year 2000 as a place where much goes on in the skies. Vehicles and planes are held aloft by great flapping wings and propellers that looked like buzz-saws. The people in this imagined future dress very much like upper-class Frenchmen and women of that century. Most of all, technology has transformed life while retaining a definite flavour of the old world: levers, pulleys, brass speakers resembling trumpets, contraptions on scurrying wheels, and awnings on buildings such as you’ll still find in French cities.
And so, as we tremble forward each day during this Covid-19 crisis, I plan to put online five vignettes written to tell a story accompanying five examples of this exquisite and evocative foretelling of a possible future. I hope you enjoy them.
1. Air Cab
Air cab station by Jean-Marc Côté.
I am late. The cab is late. But I am a punctual woman and I arrive on time to meetings. I present myself professionally. I embody elegance. My suit is pastel coloured. My shoes are from Hera in the Place des Vosges. My suitcase has a buckle that gleams and will self-lock. My hair is styled every month by Monsieur Roger. He’s the most sought-after coiffeur in Paris. I am impeccably coutured in public.
Oh, I know that sounds egocentric. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is the truth. You will decide.
But I must arrive on time. Louise said I should walk there; after all, the bank is only in the seventh arrondissement. But I do not care to walk to meetings, especially ones as important as this. In this meeting – no doubt I will be the only woman present – I will propose the construction of a building that will be the tallest in the world. Eiffel’s folly will wilt in its shadow. My tower will demonstrate the glory of France. It will embody the might of our country, the genius of our vision, the fruit of our sweat.
I must not sweat, however, by navigating through the streets. So I wait for the air cab. The rotorwhizz of a propeller buzzes nearby. I see an enormous dragonfly homing in. This must be mine.
The cab hovers at the end of the platform and the chauffeur tips his cap to me.
“At last,” I say.
“We’re behind schedule, madame,” he replied. “My apologies.”
I step inside the cab. The seat belt fastens itself round me when I touch the black button on the panel in front. “Why behind?”
“The President’s airship was tethered over the Place de la Concorde and we were held up until it moved on.”
“Can we go? I have a meeting in ten minutes.”
He nods and we are thrust forward and up. We soar above the teeming streets of Paris and over its magnificent buildings. I grip my briefcase. Within lie my plans. My edifice will preside over this great city and, when it is complete, Parisians will look up to the sky, marvel at my tower, and they will say: in the Year 2000, Isabelle Dumont dared to dream, and her dream transformed our future.
2. Electric Scrubbing
Only forty minutes until I am in Jacques’ arms. Meanwhile, I’m getting furious with Madame’s new cleaning contraption.
“Brigitte,” she cooed, “I have bought something new for you to use.”
“Yes, madame?” I am always polite to her. She’s a decent employer. I think she trusts me. Yes, she does. She knows that I saw her being embraced by Phillippe Favre. He’s a handsome man, I admit that. Not as much as my Jacques, but his beard is neat and his eyes sparkle. She trusts I will say nothing to Monsieur about what I saw.
Anyway, I’m daydreaming again. This maddening machine she purchased is meant to relieve my back from scrubbing our marble floors. It annoys me.
It reminds me of a crazy windmill. It might be scary but it’s comical. When I first saw it, I didn’t think it would work, but it does. It’s true that I’m not bending down as much to take a brush to the lobby stone, but I have still to bend to change the brush and rollers on the infernal thing, and there’s a danger it will run amok.
“How are you getting on with this marvellous invention?” Madame asked this morning.
“I am getting used to it, Madame,” I said.
“Perhaps one day these machines will put maids out of work,” she said.
I set my mouth to prevent any rudeness escaping. “Perhaps,” I said at last. “I would hope maids would always be needed.”
Madame flounced off. Just then, the scrubbing machine fell over, like a drunkard on the Rue de Rivoli.
My Jacques never gets drunk, He’s a chauffeur for the Emile family. He looks so smart in his uniform. He has ambitions and I love that about him. He wants to drive a rocket to the moon.
“To the moon?” I asked. We were lying with our bodies laced together, with my arm on his broad chest, his hand on my breast.
“Why not?” he replied. “They’re testing them again and calling for aero-pilots. I am going to apply.”
“Yes, you should,” I said. I thought that such a profession sounded very sexy. “What a world of newness!”
“True,” he whispered, “but some of the old things are still the best.”
I moved my hand down his chest. “Like the things humans have always done?”
“Yes, Brigitte, exactly.”
Technology is all very well but it’ll never take the place of what a man and a woman can offer each other. We are in the year 2000 but I say that in a thousand years, even if our rockets have gone to Jupiter and machines make our food and clean our streets, a caress between two people will still be the foundation of life. I hope so.
3. A Whale-Bus
There is no traffic under the sea. Not the sort of traffic, anyway, that you would encounter zooming around Lyon. No rattling autobuses barrelling down the Rue des Belges; no taxi cabs with their pipe-smoking drivers (is that a requirement, that they smoke?); no wheedling cyclists who think they are part of the Tour de France. It’s bliss to be out of the city.
Under the sea, your trip is majestic. A pleasure. First of all, only people of a certain class can afford the fare. It’s an exclusive club. That is be celebrated. Public transport is, unfortunately, too full of the public. Oh, it’s not that I don’t appreciate my fellow Frenchmen and women. I do, but I do it best at a distance. On a motorised autobus, for example, one can lurch uncomfortably into a fellow passenger. Happened a month or so ago, when I was reading my paper and the driver, for Heaven knows what reason, turned sharply left and I was thrown against a man who was part human, part walrus.
Better it would have been to have been jolted against the fragrant Mademoiselle Garnier. My children’s tutor. Too young for me, I know. But she smells of apples. Her skin is unmarked. Her eyes have a clarity you find when looking to the skies in the countryside.
Clarity – that’s what you get when you travel on a whale-bus. You see fish and all kinds of ocean life as you proceed smoothly through the waters. I have seen sharks, fish like impudent scamps, and sea creatures I could not name.
How they harness and compel the whale that propels the carriage I do not know. Whales – I think they use orcas – are truly marvellous creatures. I do feel a twinge of guilt that we have pressed them into service. But who knows: perhaps they enjoy their collaboration with us? We have long used animals for our purposes: at least, on this kind of bus, the whale is still in its natural element. We are not in ours, but I have no fear. The windows of our carriage are robust. They are a barrier keeping us safe from drowning, but they also transparent, of course. They present to us a world of wonder. To us, the ones who can afford the ride.
We are approaching La Rochelle. I shall be sorry to emerge from the waters, even into the wonderful sunlight you always find on the coast. I have a business meeting, and then I shall walk around the town. Tomorrow, I shall travel back by Whale-Bus once more. It costs a pretty penny, but I am worth it. Tonight, I shall think of Mademoiselle Garnier to steel myself for the return home and my sharp-tongued Suzanne, my wife. I will be calm with her, as calm as the sea journey I have so relished – a voyage underwater that is a miracle of our modern age.
4. At School
Monsieur Baptiste is a sadist. Aren’t all schoolteachers? Not my sister’s. Her teacher, Madame Xavier, is so gentle and encouraging. Mine, in contrast, is a man who hates boys. From the moment he walked into our classroom, we knew he was uncompromising. We knew he didn’t like the male species, even though he seems to be a member of the group.
“Don’t slouch, lad!” he yelled. This was directed at Gaston. He was slouching, actually. So was I, but perhaps it wasn’t as noticeable.
“Is that handwriting or is that an idiot’s drooling on the page?” This to Pierre.
Pierre tried to answer back. He was pummelled by Monsieur Baptiste.
I admit I was shaking. I didn’t want to be hit. I straightened my back and told myself to write neatly. Just like my sister. Her handwriting would be suitable for a queen. If we had one anymore, that is.
But everything has changed in our classroom. I no longer fear bodily punishment. Baptiste the Bastard (our not so secret name for him) is still there, still supervising, but he has given up his primary role of screeching at us in favour of books.
Yes, books. We don’t simply read books, though. In fact, we don’t even open their pages. Instead, they are fed into our brains. Yes – fed. It’s marvellous!
I never really liked reading. My sister loses herself in silly novels. My mother too. You never see my father’s face as it’s always covered by a newspaper – either scanning it or using it to block out his wife’s conversation while snoozing.
I don’t snooze in class. Instead, one of us cranks a handle, just like on a turbo, while Baptiste loads his choice of texts for the day into a peculiar machine.
Seated in our usual rows, we wear what are known as headphones. Wires descend from the ceiling like evil spider webs. At the end of these wires are cups which cover our ears. We sit at our desk and listen to history being explained to us, then mathematical calculations being spelt out. We copy and explore them. Later, it might be French literature.
The great Moliere could never have imagined his words would pierce the heads of numbskulls centuries after his death. But such is our inventive world!
Yesterday we heard a reading of Flaubert. A bit saucy. We guffawed.
If I never read a book again in my life, I will be happy. Let knowledge come to me down spider wires. But what would make it all better would be for some beautiful young ladies to read our nation’s great literature. I don’t mind a bumbling old fool teaching us algebra via the headphone, but when it comes to matters of the heart, and what can take place between a man and a woman, I want a breathless young soul reciting to me. Bliss in a classroom.