Ignorance: A Novel, page 1
A Note on the Author
By the Same Author
The first time I tried to use paints, in his studio, I didn’t know where to begin. At the edge of the paper? In the centre? He shouted: just get going! Just make a mark!
Smudges of black and white and grey. The colours of that winter afternoon when I spoke to him for the first time. The man Marie-Angèle called the Mad Hermit.
If he had glanced out from his garden at the school building, sheering up next door like a cliff, he might have noticed Marie-Angèle and me. Two children peeping out of a high window. Two white dabs of faces.
He did see us. He waited for us. He knew that sooner or later we’d come.
Late January: season of chilblains, discs of ice glazing the necks of our pitchers each morning. Thin nimbus you cracked with your fingernail. We skipped washing as often as we could get away with it. Grubby angels with shattered ice haloes. But you don’t feel dirty when it’s so cold.
A black and white feather began it. A magpie’s perhaps. We called the novices magpies: black habits and white veils. The nuns, in plain black: holy crows. Or holy hens. The young curé, strutting plumply among us with pursed lips and folded arms, was Chanticleer, from Marie-Angèle’s story book. The nuns pecked and flapped for his attention. His words of wisdom. With Marie-Angèle and myself he didn’t have to pretend to be cleverer than he really was. He told us about his two little sisters back home, whom he missed. He said they liked liquorice and aniseed balls. He told us jokes, too, and blushed that we found them so funny.
The feather came spiralling down out of the sky, twisting and turning on a current of air. From the dormitory window, standing on chairs so that we could see out, we watched the little plume swivel and drift above the garden wall.
Later, Mother Lucie asked me: what happened?
I hadn’t the words to tell her. How could I know the words to say? They’d have been the wrong ones, fetched me a slap. She forbade us to speak of the matter to the other girls at school. She forbade them to ask us questions. Of course our classmates disobeyed. Whispering behind their hands, letting sentences tail off. Different versions of the story got out, elaborated and grotesque, coiled around the little town, darting down alleys, sidling up to back doors, hissing in dark corners of shops. My mother seemed not to know what had happened, because her friends protected her from the gossip. Marie-Angèle’s mother tutted: it’s best forgotten. But sooner or later, the thing came back up in my mind; it kept on surfacing, like stones erupting in a field you think you’ve cleared.
My mother and I had helped Marie-Angèle’s parents prepare the tiny piece of land they’d rented on the edge of town. They were going to grow vegetables on it, but first of all they had to pick up all the stones. Monsieur Baudry made us heap the rocks together in a cone shape in one corner. He turned this hollowed pile, which he painted white, into a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. The nuns gave him one of the old statues from their attic; just her nose chipped, and the tips of her fingers missing. As though she’d been punished for trying to run away. I dreamed of her climbing out of the window and the sash rattling down with a crash on to her hands. Then the guard slammed her fingers in the train door. So she went back to the convent and hid under the dusty rafters bracing the roof. Damaged goods that no one wanted.
Marie-Angèle didn’t stop me from going after the feather. Down in the convent garden she didn’t take me by the hand and pull me back indoors. She wanted something to happen just as much as I did.
Sunday afternoon: the orphans out on a walk with one of the nuns, the day girls absent, the weekly boarders likewise gone back to their families, leaving the two of us, the only full-time boarders, alone. The curé, who would normally have come in to talk to us about the sermon he’d preached at Mass that morning, to make sure we’d understood it, was laid up in the presbytery with a bad cold. Mother Lucie had retired to the sisters’ side of the house, shut their big black door. Not a peep from any of them until supper-time. We had our books to read: a copy each of The Lives of the Saints. Our other book was the volume of fairy tales Marie-Angèle had brought from home, but Mother Lucie had confiscated it and locked it in her cupboard until Monday: unfit for Sunday reading.
Marie-Angèle and I sat drumming our heels in the cold classroom on the ground floor. Whatever racket we made, no one would hear us. She leaned at one end of the bench and I at the other. High windows, their sills level with the crowns of our heads. Such a clean, tidy place you felt crushed. So empty you rattled in it and when you talked your voice came out in a squeak. Smell of ink, chalk dust, the soda crystals the novices used for scrubbing the floor.
I dared Marie-Angèle to come with me up to the dormitory.
But we’re forbidden in there in the daytime, she said: what if they catch us? They nearly did last time.
I sang it out. Little Miss Mealy-Mouth, little Miss Preachy, little Miss Prim. I’ll go by myself then.
What d’you want to go up for, anyway? she said.
Because. We could look out of the window and see if he’s around.
‘He’ was the Hermit. The first time we’d peeped down at him, I’d asked: why do you call him the Mad Hermit? Marie-Angèle had said: just look at his clothes, stupid. To do his gardening he wore an old pink waistcoat flapping open over a collarless blue workman’s shirt, shabby grey and yellow check trousers with the red braces showing, a green woollen cap, brown boots laced around his ankles. He grasped his scythe, raised his arm, swished at clumps of nettles, at ropes of brambles throttling bushes. Whack! Whack! Whack!
None of the townspeople down on the ground knew what his garden was like. Only Marie-Angèle and I, when we got the chance to climb up to our eyrie. You couldn’t see his garden from the street, if you were walking past. It remained hidden, like a secret you’ve sworn not to tell. The bulk of his house reared up in front of you as you went by. The shuttered façade gazed back like a blind man wearing eyepatches.
While we watched him, that first time, Marie-Angèle had pointed out she’d never spotted the Hermit in church. You didn’t see him standing chatting on the square after Sunday Mass, then making for the café, as the other men did. Just occasionally she’d glimpse him going to buy tobacco, or bread. He carried a wicker shopping basket, as most people did, but the handle of his was bound with orange ribbon stuck with pink and red paper flowers. He was mad all right.
I heard his story for the first time on the day I started attending the nuns’ school. My mother had to go into hospital, and Madame Baudry, Marie-Angèle’s mother, organised for the nuns to take me as a boarder until Maman came home. Waiting for the iron to heat, Maman spat on it, to test it. Her spittle fizzed, water-beads dancing. I set up the ironing board, pulled its white cover straight. Why do I have to go? I want to stay here. Smacking the iron across her best nightdress, Maman frowned. It’s an act of charity. Madame Baudry means well. So do the nuns.
Her mouth turned down. She looked pale without her usual red lipstick, her newly washed hair pinned back from her face showing her cheekbones too much. Her stick-thin legs ended in narrow feet in slippers. She turned her lips up again at the corners, to fake a smile. You’ll just have to cope. As I do.
Before Papa’s death, the three of us had lived in a flat over a jeweller’s shop in the middle of town, and Papa had worked downstairs selling earrings for weddings and repairing watches and clocks. Maman sang a mocking song: we were poor but we were happy! Then Papa died.
That Monday, Madame Baudry wanted me at her shop in the rue de la Croix as soon as it was light, so that she could take me up to the convent with Marie-Angèle in good time and not be late. I couldn’t eat my breakfast. Blackberry pips gritted my teeth. Maman and I had gone blackberrying together, and I’d helped make the jam. It hadn’t set properly. It slid about, dripped from the bread on to my plate. The bread was snivelling. Purple-red tears. Maman said: you’ll have to make up for it at lunchtime. She stuck two pieces of bread together with a smear of jam, wrapped them in a piece of paper and put it in my pocket. She kissed me, pushed me out, closed the door.
Greyness, with a hint of blue, as night turned into early morning. Wobbling spots of yellow light got bigger: people on bicycles rode past, making for the factory. One or two dark shapes waved, but I didn’t return their greetings. I forced my feet to drag away, past the shuttered smithy and towards the bridge. Mist hid the water. I trailed my hand along the low stone parapet, dampening the fingers of my woollen glove, counting the slabs as I crossed. One mother two mother three mother four. My mother’s face hard as a paving-slab. Be off, darling. I must get on. Away with you. With a stick I wrote her words in the dust on the far side of the bridge, in the dip before the pavement began. I threw the stick in the river. Then I headed towards the main road.
Blueness deepened as grey lessened. I plodded along the blue-grey paving-stones. My route zigzagged under stumpy plane trees up towards the parish church and the town hall. White boulders set at the corners warned of more steep bends to come. When I was younger, Maman would haul me up this ascent: come on! Come on! No one to leave me with when she went out washing, so she took me with her. At the Baudrys’ she’d sit me down with a basket of pegs, and I’d play with them while she worked.
Ste-Marie-du-Ciel squatted on a dumpy little hill. The oldest part of the town, with the château, convent and school, perched right at the top, streets and houses running down on every side. They pooled below, in the bottom town, where we lived, by the smithy and the river. Behind our building a shared yard let the women hang out the wet clothes. Over the wall, a wasteland made a space for the boys to play football. Beyond, the town allotments stretched to the factory.
The Baudrys lived over their grocery shop halfway up the hill, in a side street off the market place, near the cobbler’s. The Baudry shop smelled of sawdust and ground coffee, and the cobbler’s of leather, beeswax and oil. Monsieur Fauchon, the cobbler, kept his door propped open winter and summer. Inside, at the far end of what seemed a dark cupboard, he hunched over his counter, tapping at a boot propped upside down on a last. A bibbed canvas apron the colour of café au lait wrapped him. Linen strings tied in a bow at the front. Tools stuck out of his breast pocket.
His chin jerked up as I went by, and he nodded to me. A thin man, with a long face, big dark eyes and a beard, like someone in the Bible. He was a Jew, like my mother had been before she converted and got baptised. Maman had told me the tale of Madame Baudry clasping her hand: I’ll be your sponsor! She gripped her too tightly. Maman yelped in pain, which Madame Baudry took for delight.
Now Madame Baudry came out of her shop with Marie-Angèle beside her, both moving stiffly in their thick winter clothes. Look sharp, Jeanne! Stop scowling, Marie-Angèle! Madame Baudry’s words puffed out as frosty clouds. She shooed us up the steep, narrow streets between grey buildings fitting together like teeth. From time to time we stopped, to give her a rest. Her navy-blue coat no longer closed over her belly. Her brown felt hat shaded her eyes. I clumped in my newly mended boots we had collected from Monsieur Fauchon the week before, banging my feet down as hard as possible on the transparent ice sheeting puddles. It cracked, shattered into dark glass stars, which sank. My wooden soles tapped morse code on the paving-stones I want to go home I want to go home.
We climbed up a series of stone staircases tucked in between tall houses. The town rippled down at us like icicles. A frozen grey waterfall. I hung on to the iron handrail and kicked each worn step. The grey morning, freshening with misty drizzle, smelled of horse dung. Church bells clanged somewhere ahead. I dawdled as much as I could but Madame Baudry tugged me along. Be good! You’ve promised to be good!
Hand in woollen hand, the three of us began to cross the Place Ste Anne just below the château, making for the door in the high façade opposite. Above this entrance, on a ledge, stood a statue of Sainte Anne, with her little daughter, the Virgin Mary, leaning against her knees. Sainte Anne held a copy of the Old Testament, so that the Virgin could learn to read. The New Testament ended with everything burning up. Everyone dying in flames. I had got to walk in under the statue, under the stone book. I crossed my fingers the end of the world wouldn’t come yet; that we’d be saved. That Maman wouldn’t die.
The convent and the school sheltered behind a granite veil pierced by peepholes. Square barred windows at ground-floor level, rows of tall rectangular windows on the upper floors, œil de bœuf windows right at the top. Round, sleepy eyes gazing out under stone eyelids. Where the wall of the school ended, the next building began, on the left-hand side. On the right of the school: the convent, and next to it the chapel, a gold cross on its roof.
Oh, my legs, said Madame Baudry, panting. Catching her breath, her hand at her side. We paused. She was gasping. Holding herself in. I could tell she didn’t like our seeing how weak she felt, and so I looked away, towards the flat front of the building joined on to the school. Following my gaze, Madame Baudry pursed her mouth. She straightened up, adjusted her hat. Now her voice sounded strong again. He does all right for himself. All right for some. They know how to manage, those Jews. We let them in, we let them have jobs. And now, the money that they’ve got squirrelled away!
My nose was running. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief. Maman had no money. Had she ever been a proper Jew? Marie-Angèle sang: squirrel squirrel squirrel! Madame Baudry glanced at me, then added: well, of course, as long as they try to fit in with us and be like us, they’re all right. Live and let live, I say.
Marie-Angèle pinched my arm. I looked up. The door opened and a man emerged. White, gaunt face. Untidy black hair. He hunched inside a big overcoat. Madame Baudry immediately called out, saluting him. Bonjour, Monsieur Jacquotet! She wished him good day, I knew, because she liked to be recognised by everybody, but he just looked from side to side, like a shy kid in the playground. Madame Baudry persisted, because she was used to everybody knowing she was there, and that she mattered. Serving in the grocery shop, she wasn’t a woman who worked so much as a queenly mother who enjoyed the way people needed her provisions. Briskly she wrapped up their packets of macaroni, sugar, chicory, flour and salt. Sometimes, if I’d been summoned up from the bottom town to keep Marie-Angèle company, and we’d run out of games to play, Madame Baudry let us help her serve customers, dip the wooden scoop into the bin of dried beans, tip them out on to the scale, fiddle out the brass weights from their wooden box. The curé used to buy his sisters barley-sugars from Madame Baudry’s shop and post them home. Once we started boarding, he’d bring some in for Marie-Angèle and me. He said: you two mopes need cheering up! On his Sunday afternoon visits to the convent he gave me news of my mother. He visited her in hospital, so that he could tell me how she was keeping. She’s fine, Jeanne, never you fear.
Marie-Angèle poked me with her elbow. She whispered: look at his big nose!
He was pretending he hadn’t seen us, hadn’t heard Madame Baudry’s greeting. He jerked his face away. He withdrew, back inside the house, and slammed the door.
Distracted from her aches and pains, she was in a better mood, so I could risk asking her a question.
What’s a recluse?
So she recounted the tale. Marie-Angèle began smiling now, because her mother was keeping us company for five minutes longer, before delivering us in at the high wooden door. She could still hold her gloved hand, look into her face as she spoke. Coming from a foreign background, he was always a bit of a misfit. He and his wife didn’t mix with their neighbours. They kept themselves very much to themselves. He kept his wife hidden away. Then, when she died, he went a bit crazy.
Marie-Angèle corrected her mother: he kept his beautiful young wife hidden away. Then, when she died, he went a bit mad.
Madame Baudry continued her recital. So now he pretended that he was gone too. He kept the shutters fastened in the daytime and took no notice when boys threw stones at them, rarely went out, crossed to the other side of the street when he saw people coming. Goodness knows what he found to do, alone in that house. He was certainly a bit peculiar.
Marie-Angèle said: you forgot to tell the bit about his eating such strange food!
Madame Baudry shrugged. I understood he might soon cease interesting her. A lost cause. Other stories would press in, replace his. But Marie-Angèle’s eyes gleamed. She said: and nobody knows how his wife died. Madame Baudry said: well, let’s say she died mysteriously. Marie-Angèle chimed in: Bluebeard!
I’d only dared read that story once. The young woman trapped inside the courtyard, no way out, the sun beating her head like a gong of death, the enraged husband, the huge Blackamoor, striding nearer and nearer, his upraised sabre about to whistle down, slice her skin, cause her unimaginable agony. He was coming to get you. You had no choice, you couldn’t hide, you were powerless, your death advanced second by second, closer and closer. A gilded purple turban, a gold coat and gathered gold trousers, slippers with curled-up toes, his black eyes shot red sparks, his beard sprang out like blue spittle. He would hack at you and hurt you, his curved scimitar blade jabbing and slicing your flesh while you writhed and begged for mercy, he laughed, his blade twisting inside the mouth of your wound, blood everywhere, blinding you, you’d slip in your blood and fall and he’d lean over and stab you repeatedly, your blood spurting out while you screamed. Then you’d die.