Porte de Bagnolet


It was a croque monsieur sort of day.   Really good bread, sliced thickly enough to still be a bit soft in the middle when toasted, with melty cheese and a slice or two of ham… Elaine could almost taste it. Especially the cheese. Emmenthal cheese. Mmm. She’d been thinking about cheese all morning.

Or maybe a croque madame. Egg, or no egg? Elaine skipped quickly down the steps into République station, contemplating this important question. There was a cosy little bar on Rue St Maur, just a couple of stops away, that made really good croques, and she should just have enough time to get there and back before her meeting at two…

Distracted by thoughts of melted cheese, Elaine nearly didn’t see the door until she was through it. It was glass, strangely non-transparent, marked with the silhouette of a woman doing her hair in the mirror. Elaine shook her head. She really wanted her lunch, so the door would have to wait. She turned aside. The door followed.

She stopped entirely.

“Je vous en prie, Mademoiselle,” came an irritated voice behind her. The man shook his head at her as he passed. She was holding up traffic. Still… she turned again, only to find that the door was once more in front of her.  Evidently, there was no escape.

With a sigh of farewell to her lunch, Elaine pushed the door open and stepped through.

She was in a small turret room, and there was a heavy weight on the back of her head. She looked around her with some difficulty, then looked down. The floor was covered in hair. Piles and piles of hair. And it appeared to be hers.

Just what she needed. A Rapunzel story. And there, right on cue, was the sound of hoofbeats below her window. Elaine sighed, and stepped towards the window, kicking her tresses out of the way with her bare feet as she went. She was going to have to find a way to manage all this hair… which would going to be a challenge if she was all on her own up here.

She looked out the window. The horse and rider had stopped below her tower, and the rider now looked up at her. He was dark and lean and handsome, and he was also familiar. He grinned up at her, and she sighed.

“Hello, Elaine,” he said, cheerfully. “My, what a lot of hair you have.”

She looked down at him. He was far too happy to see her. “I don’t suppose you know anything about how this came to be,” she suggested, carefully avoiding any hint of a question. Questions were dangerous with this particular man.

His grin widened, and he shook his head. “Oh no. You don’t get any clues from me. That’s not how this works.”

Elaine simply looked at him, and he laughed. “I tell you what. How about you let down your hair for me, and I’ll climb up to you. Who knows? Maybe I can help.”

Elaine was pretty sure she knew exactly what would happen if he came up to her tower. She felt a blush warming her whole body. She ignored it. Desire was simply one of his weapons. “And I suppose there would be nothing in this for you,” she noted.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There would be the pleasure of your company. Maybe a lock of your hair. Nothing you would miss. Much.”

Indeed. Elaine smiled serenely down at him. “Thank you for your kind offer, monsieur, but I believe I will decline.”

He shrugged. “A pity. I brought lunch, but I suppose I must find someone else to share it with.”

The smell of melted cheese floated up to her, diabolically tempting. He cocked his head invitingly, and she shook her own, her lips pressed firmly together.

“Your loss.” He tipped his hat to her, turned his horse, and cantered away, singing as he went.

She watched him go, through the long fields of barley and rye that lay along the banks of the river, until he met the road. The smell of croque monsieur lingered behind him. Elaine turned away.

Despite being trapped in a tower in a pile of her own hair, she felt rather calm. There was something serene about the landscape, with the towers of a castle in the distance.

Still, she did need to do something about this hair. There seemed to be several metres of it, and she had a horrible feeling that it was still growing. She wasn’t going to be able to braid it without help. Also, at some point, she was going to need to eat. And, for that matter change her clothes. And use the bathroom. Her dress, while appropriate for Paris in the spring, was less suitable for a high tower with no heating, in a season that looked suspiciously like early autumn. She would be fine for now, but if she was stuck here until nightfall, she was going to be very cold.

Elaine turned, slowly, looping some of her hair over one arm to control it. There must be a way out of this room somewhere, though she couldn’t see a door. The walls were all window, which was beautiful, but impractical for anyone who didn’t have wings. Still, nobody built tower rooms with absolutely no exits. She hoped.

If she stood very still, she could hear a quiet, rhythmic thumping coming from below, suggesting that she wasn’t the tower’s only occupant. This was promising. Perhaps there was a trapdoor?

Elaine kicked and piled her hair out of the way – she thought about flinging it out the window, but she didn’t entirely trust her nemesis not to return. Also, she was beginning to wonder uneasily how much her hair might weigh. The idea of being pulled bodily out of the tower window by its weight was not pleasing.

The stone floor was covered with a large round rug in rich tapestry – too rich for the floor, really. She rolled that back, too, and there it was. A wooden trapdoor, with a metal ring set into the stone. Could it be this easy to get home?

Carefully, Elaine bent and opened it, peering down. The thumping noise was louder, but still muffled, and the floor seemed to be piled with embroidered fabric. Which was good, because there did not appear to be a ladder, and that was a good three or four metre drop.

She manoeuvred herself carefully around to sit on the edge of the trapdoor, dangling her feet through and arranging her hair on the floor around her, wondering briefly what would happen if the Metro was not on the other side of this door. Something told her it would not be, in which case the more pressing question became whether she could be killed in one of these worlds. Or break a leg.  Still, she couldn’t stay up here indefinitely, and with luck, the friction of her hair against the stone and wood would slow her fall.

Her hands grasping the opposite side of the trapdoor, she wriggled further into the edge of the hole, took a deep breath, and pushed off, dangling by her hands. She heard a surprised exclamation from below, but didn’t have time to think about it, because it had been quite a few years since she had last played on the monkey bars, and her arms were not going to hold her weight for long. She closed her eyes, and let herself drop.

She landed hard, her ankle twisting under her.   Her hair landed on top of her, heavier than she had expected. And she was definitely not in the Metro. “Ow,” she muttered.

“And who is this that so rudely invades my chamber?”

Elaine pushed hair out of her eyes. It took both hands, and the better part of a minute. The woman standing over her was, Elaine thought, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, with flowing red-gold hair bound back from her forehead with pearls, and eyes as green as her silken gown. But the lady, lovely as she was, faded nearly into insignificance before the tapestry behind her. Covering the whole wall from floor to ceiling, and draping across the floor to where the final threads were still on the loom, it was a glowing impressionist reflection of the fields and river beyond the tower.

In the foreground of the tapestry, a familiar figure sat on a horse.

Elaine struggled to her feet, but her left ankle would not support her, and the lady had to grab her hands to prevent her falling. She had a surprisingly strong grip. With her help, Elaine hobbled to a chair, where the woman knelt down before her to inspect her ankle.

“You have a sprain, which is no more than you deserve for leaping into my home from above. A week or so of rest will fix it. But first, you will tell me your name, and what you are doing here.”

Elaine nodded, obediently. Her ankle was throbbing. “Of course. And I’m sorry for dropping in on you so… literally. My name is Elaine, and – excuse me, but who is the man in your tapestry?”

The lady looked at Elaine, then at the tapestry, and sighed. “Oh dear. What has Lancelot done now?”

“That’s… not the name he gave me.”

“It rarely is. Come, my dear. You can tell me all about it. My name is Elaine, too, and I am also under a curse, so you see, we have much in common already. I must keep weaving day and night, and never look out the window, lest some terrible thing happen to me. Though I’m beginning to wonder what could possibly be more terrible than endlessly weaving for years on end, and only looking at the world through a mirror. I’m half sick of it, frankly. And – excuse me, but is your hair growing?”

It was.

“I think it has been since I got here,” Elaine said, gloomily. “Is that what you mean about me being under a curse?”

“Well, I meant your hair generally, since it looks far too long for one woman to manage. Have you noticed that all these artistic, feminine curses that are visited on women like us invariably have the effect of keeping ladies mewed up in towers, where they can be ornamental and frankly useless? Because I have. However, I believe I have just the solution to your problem.” The lady reached into her basket and brought out a pair of golden scissors, brandishing them gleefully.

Elaine was beginning to get the impression that this particular lady had been mewed up in a tower, weaving, for maybe a little bit too long. She held up a hand.

“Before you do that – and believe me, I’d be very glad to be rid of this – I should tell you that if there is a curse, the hair is only one part of it.”

The lady looked… unsurprised. “Oh?”

“I’m not actually from here. I went through a door, back home, and found myself in your tower. With a lot of hair.”

“Ah.” The lady nodded wisely. “Yes, that sort of thing can happen, especially when Lancelot is involved. Drat the man. One of these days I will have to do something about him.”

She looked closely at Elaine, then nodded. “Still, I am quite certain that the first step here is to get rid of some of that hair of yours. But I think we should comb it first.”

Elaine laughed. “Be my guest. I just hope you can comb it faster than it grows.”

The Lady smiled. “I have been weaving night and day for nigh on seven years, my dear. Believe me, I am very efficient with natural fibres. Just sit still, and I will sort you out.”

And it was, indeed, not long at all before Elaine’s hair was neatly wound into twelve skeins of smoothly combed hair. She regarded herself in the magic mirror. “I don’t think this style is going to catch on,” she commented.

The lady laughed, merrily. “It doesn’t need to. But if you will just take the scissors, my dear, and snip each skein off, I think all will be well. The curse requires you to cut the hair yourself.”

Elaine reached for the scissors, then stopped. “Wait, how do you know that?”

The lady smiled. “I have some experience of curses, my dear. Both enduring them, and casting them. And I need to get out of this room.” She offered the scissors again, her expression suddenly less charming. “Take the scissors, Elaine. Cut your hair.”

Elaine felt herself reaching for the scissors, unable to stop herself. “What will happen to me if I do?”

The lady shrugged. “No more than has happened to me. You will weave by night and day a magic web of colours gay, and I will be free to go down the river to Camelot and deal with Lancelot. Believe me, he needs dealing with.  It is for everyone’s good.”

Against her will, Elaine’s fingers closed on the scissors, snipping the first skein of hair away from her head. “I’d be the last one to argue with you about Lancelot, but why do I need to be trapped here?”

“Someone must weave the end of the story, Elaine. Surely you see that.”

The second skein of hair fell. Elaine felt queasy. “You realise that I don’t know how to weave.”

“You don’t need to. The loom knows, and once your hair is woven into the tapestry, you will be part of it and know all its secrets. Keep cutting, my dear.”

The third skein fell.

“So… did you bring me here, then? The door was yours?”

“If I could do doors, I would have left by now. The door was Lancelot’s.”

The fourth skein fell.

“But the hair was you.”

“Oh yes. I told you – I’m good with natural fibres.”

The fifth skein fell.

“Hallooo, the tower!”

The voice outside the window made both women freeze. The lady recovered first. “Keep cutting, Elaine. Do not look out the window.”

Elaine froze, mid-turn.

“Look out the window, Elaine,” commanded Lancelot’s voice, full of seduction. “Let me see what my old friend has done with your hair.”

Unwillingly, Elaine felt herself turn toward him.

“Ah, most becoming,” he laughed. “You should have accepted my offer, my dear.”

His attention flicked away to the Lady, who still had her back to the window, and Elaine felt herself able to move again. Unfortunately, this meant that her hands went back to the golden scissors. The sixth skein fell.

“And how is my other Elaine?” the voice continued, mockingly. “How fares my Lady of Shalott?”

“I am not yours, Sir Lancelot,” the Lady said firmly. “Begone. I will deal with you later.”the_lady_of_shallot_looking_at_lancelot

“Oh no, my sweet. You should know by now that you do not command me. I am not one of your hapless victims.”

“And nor will I be yours. My time here is at an end, sir, and I have learned much in my weaving. You will soon regret what you did to me.”

The seventh skein fell. Elaine began to panic. The Lady of Shalott had moved towards the window to continue her antagonistic exchange with Lancelot, but refused to look out. She was certainly distracted, but not distracted enough for Elaine to escape her compulsion. The eighth skein fell. Lancelot was still taunting the Lady of Shalott.

“Ah, but have you? Without your magic web, what can you do to me? I trapped you, my dear, but I gave you power, as well. Will you still have that, when you are free?”

The eighth skein fell. Elaine’s eyes narrowed. She couldn’t stop cutting her hair. This was a given. And cutting her hair would somehow bind her to the Lady of Shalott’s curse. This, too, seemed inevitable. So what would happen if she embraced it? Would it throw the Lady enough off balance that Elaine could escape? Deliberately, without compulsion, she cut the ninth and tenth skeins.

“You gave me nothing. I earned this power – I learned it from my weaving, from watching the mirror and learning what questions to ask. It is mine, and you can’t take it away from me.”

Elaine cut the eleventh skein, and felt the compulsion loosen. One skein left, but she didn’t want to cut it quite yet. Instead, she let the compulsion draw her towards the loom, looking for the loose thread at the end of the weft. The Lady of Shalott had not lied in this – the loom knew everything there was to know about handcrafts. Carefully, she took three of the hairs still attached to her head, and began to twist them with the thread.

“Very true. I can take nothing that is not freely given. But then, you gave me so much, did you not? Nearly as much as you are about to give to my other little Elaine. Do you have any idea what she is doing over there?”

Elaine snipped off the thread, and began, awkwardly, to weave her hair into the tapestry. With her own head still attached to the hair, it was virtually impossible – indeed, it should have been entirely impossible – but the loom wanted it, and so somehow she was able to make it so.

The Lady of Shalott turned with a cry and lurched forward to prevent her. Elaine held up one hand, and she stopped, frozen in place. Elaine smiled. She snipped off the last skein of her hair.

“The curse has come upon me,” she informed the Lady of Shalott. “And upon you too, I think.”

“I’ll leave you two ladies to it,” came the cheerful voice of Lancelot below the window. “And Elaine – remember. You owe me.”

And he rode away, singing ‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra’ in a highly aggravating fashion. Elaine found herself exchanging a look of sympathetic frustration with the Lady of Shalott, and turned away, quickly.

The Lady of Shalott sat down, heavily. “What will you do to me now?”

Elaine wove, steadily. Her fingers were nimble, and she could hardly tear her eyes away from them, but this was not how she planned to spend the rest of her days.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you going to curse me again?”

The Lady shook her head. “There would be little point. I’m still stuck here, it seems.” She gestured about her. “There are no doors, after all.”

Elaine thought about this for a few rows. She didn’t much like the Lady of Shalott, but revenge would serve no practical purpose at this point. And she could see how countless years of weaving could warp a woman. Already, her own life before the weaving was beginning to feel unreal. The loom, she sensed, wanted this, but she didn’t feel angry about it. Instead, she felt calm, empty of emotion.

The loom wanted that, too.

The shuttle moved back and forth under her fingers.

“You said that you don’t do doors,” she said, finally.

“I don’t. I can’t. That’s a whole different form of magic.”

Elaine nodded. “But you do textiles. You are not bound to the loom any more, but can you still remember how to weave?”

The Lady of Shalott made a face. “Actually, I’m better at crochet. Or plain sewing. And better still at horse-riding and shooting a bow and arrow, as it happens. But naturally, the curse couldn’t make me do something I actually liked doing. It had to be a properly feminine occupation.”

Elaine shrugged. She had a feeling that she would normally feel quite sympathetic to this, but the spell of the loom made it very hard to care about anything.

“What if we could weave a door?”

The Lady looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“Like a tent flap. Or a curtain across a doorway. Cloth doors exist, and if we use this loom, and both your hair and mine, surely there would be enough magic here to make it work.”

“That… might work. I never had enough hair to make more than the first few rows that bound me into the tapestry, but with your hair as well, we might be able to do something. Especially as you came through a magical door to get here. That should give you an affinity for the work, if we do it soon.”

Elaine’s hands were still busy at the loom. She gestured with her head. “The scissors are over there, and I think I saw a spindle in the basket.   I see no reason to delay. Bring me your hair when it is ready to weave.”

The Lady of Shalott moved obediently away towards the basket, and for a long time the room was silent, except for the thunk of the treadle at the end of each row. Elaine wove the top of the doorframe, and then began weaving downwards, twisting darker threads of hair into the warp threads to give the suggestion of planks. Night fell. At some point, the Lady of Shallot brought her a skein of red-gold thread, which Elaine wove into a handle and a keyhole.

It was nearly dawn when Elaine at last put down the shuttle. “There. If it’s going to work, it will work now.” She snipped the thread.

The Lady of Shalott helped her carry the tapestry over to a side wall, and pin it up. The door was a little on the short side – they would need to duck to go through – but it looked like a door, and in the pre-dawn light, it looked almost ready to open.

“Do we need to cut it open, do you think?” Elaine asked, quietly.

The Lady of Shalott shook her head. “No. You should never cut a tapestry, particularly not a magical one. But we might need a key. Something to take us where we want to go.”

“But we want to go to different places,” Elaine pointed out.

The Lady of Shalott smiled for the first time since Lancelot had arrived. “My dear, you have just woven a magical door out of hair. If it works at all, and I believe it will, I don’t think it is going to quibble about sending us to different places. Now, do you have a key?”

Elaine frowned. Her handbag had disappeared when she came through the door – hopefully it would reappear once she was back in the Metro system.   But… her dress did have pockets. She reached into the left pocket, and her fingers closed on something rectangular. She pulled it out, and laughed. “My Pass Navigo. That should get me back into the Metro, if anything can.”

She stepped towards the door, but the Lady of Shalott held out a hand to stop her. “Wait. I owe you an apology,” she said, quietly. “And my thanks.”

Elaine saw no reason to argue. Or to linger. “Accepted,” she said, and pressed her card into the keyhole. The door opened, and she stepped through onto the Métro at Rue St Maur. The number three train was pulling out of the station, and Elaine turned towards the stairs.

Behind her, a sweet voice sang ‘tirra lirra’ as a door swung closed.

The Lady of Shalott was going after Lancelot.

And Elaine was finally going to have her lunch.


Suburbs and Hair

Porte de Bagnolet is one of the newer stations in the Paris Metro, having opened its doors in 1971 when Line 3 was extended to Gallieni. It is named for a door in the Thiers wall, built to defend Paris in the mid 19th century.  The door leads to the Bagnolet district, which was probably named for the Roman baths.

None of this has much to do with hair, but when I went to look for ideas for this station, I discovered that the word Bagnolet or Bagnolette was an old word for a woman’s hairstyle.  I have not been able to discover whether this referred to a specific hairstyle, or just women’s hairstyles in general, but either way, I liked the idea of translating Porte de Bagnolet loosely as Gate of Hair, because really, who doesn’t want a gate of hair?  I then pilfered merrily from Tennyson’s well-known poem The Lady of Shalott to find the rest of the story.

You can find the Tennyson’s poem here.  The illustration I have used is John William Waterhouse’s 1894 painting, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot.  I don’t know if he meant her to have such a predatory expression in her gaze, or if I’m just projecting, but I don’t like Lancelot’s chances when he meets this particular Elaine in person.

This is the second story featuring Elaine, who first appeared in The Garden Door.  Lancelot also appeared in that story, though under another name. He has quite a few names, but we haven’t heard his real one yet.  There are many, many other gates and doors in the Paris Métro, so you may be certain you will be seeing them again.  You can find the next chapter of her story at Porte Maillot, in Between the Seams


fleur3left Porte de Bagnolet
fleur3right Gallieni

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