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The looking glass, p.1

The Looking Glass, page 1


The Looking Glass

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The Looking Glass

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  Title Page

  Copyright Notice












  Also by Michèle Roberts


  for the muse this time


  I am grateful to Lennie Goodings and all at Little, Brown/Virago, and to Gillon Aitken and all at Gillon Aitken Associates, for their hard work and support. Thanks to Susie Honeyman and Jock McFadyean for telling me a ghost story and showing me the café in which the haunting happened, to my mother for introducing me to Etretat, and to Paul Quinn for taking me to visit Mallarmé’s flat in Paris and house at Valvins. This novel, though it concerns purely fictional persons and events, is partly inspired by details from the life of Mallarmé, as recorded in the biography of Mallarmé by Jean-Luc Steinmetz, as well as by details from the life of Flaubert, as recorded in his own letters, and as celebrated by Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot. My gratitude to all these writers. Thanks too to my family and friends.


  It is the sea I miss most: the music of the dragging tide over the loose shingle, shifting it back and forth; the surge and suck of water. The waves advancing in tall ranks, one after the other, into the little bay between the cliffs, folding over, toppling, collapsing into ruffles of white, leaving just a silver tracery behind; foam lace, that soaks away quickly into the pebbles on the shore. I miss the dancing light, and the energetic wind blowing mist and spray, tiny beads of moisture, onto my clothes and skin. The gulls swooping and crying overhead. The smell of salt and seaweed and fish; the way the curved stretch of water sparkles in the sun, changing from green to dark blue to turquoise; and, clinking under my feet as I slither down the wet ridge, the stones on the beach rubbed by each other smooth as eggs, grey-blue, lavender blue, milky blue in the gleaming intensity of late afternoon.

  Could I ever return to the house in Blessetot? I don’t think I’d have the courage to try. The nightmares warned me to stay away. Dreams of a ghost who haunted me and wished to punish me for what I had done. A ghost who loitered speechlessly at the tight, twisting turn of the steep stairs. I thought she was drowned and gone for ever but she kept drifting back, that body washed onto the beach like a piece of driftwood or a dead starfish, flotsam and jetsam tossed up by the receding tide. Her eyes were open and staring, her face bruised and bloated. Black ribbons of seaweed draped her shoulders. Water streamed from the sodden rags of her dress. I had not managed to kill her after all. I thought she was dead but she had come back to life and got into the house somehow; she was barring my way to bed; she was waiting for me. She was very patient. She would get me in the end.

  I would wake up from this dream crying out as though I were a child again, one who had a mother close by and could be comforted; trembling and sweating, praying desperately to a God I rarely summoned otherwise not to allow me to fall into the ghost’s clutches. The fear stayed with me even when I shook myself out of sleep, sat up and lit a candle. Fear can flourish in the light just as forcefully as in the dark. The ghost would retreat, dissolve to the shadowy corners of the room, but I knew she was still there. My flesh still crept. The hairs still stood up on the back of my neck. The night air stayed icy cold as seawater, and now it was I who was drowning.

  When I left that house in Blessetot I swore to myself it would be for good, that I would never go back. I thought I could cut myself off from the past and take myself far away from it, out of its power to hurt me, to make me remember what had once been. But the past walks with us, shoulder to shoulder, like an invisible enemy or friend; it kicks inside us like an unborn child; it embraces us like a lover; it will outlive us and lay us out, like a wise woman, when we die. The past has lodged in my brain and cannot be pried loose. It is my country and my prison and my home.

  I saw Blessetot for the first time in the spring. A fishing village all year round, it became a holiday resort for Parisians in summer. The railway from Rouen to Le Havre running as far as Etretat, a few kilometres further along the coast, meant that the whole area of the pays de Caux, once written off by outsiders as savage, dull and remote, had become increasingly opened up, and was newly considered to possess a certain primitive beauty, to be just the kind of wild and unspoilt landscape to refresh the jaded palates of city-dwellers.

  The painters arrived first, and then the tourists. These summer visitors began exploring northwards from Etretat by pony and trap. Driving along the coast road that ran across the high chalk plain to Fécamp, they discovered the little coves and bays hidden at the end of the steep gullies cutting down through the cliffs. Blessetot was the name given to the settlement that had grown up in one of these, a straggle of houses lining the dust-white road to the beach, and a cluster of homes, two streets deep, sheltering under the curve of the cliff. Too small ever to become as fashionable as Etretat, with no fine promenade, no elegant bars or hotels, no market square or formal flower gardens, less dramatic and picturesque cliffs, Blessetot was nonetheless pronounced charming and quaint.

  Its appeal lay precisely in its simplicity. The flint and brick cottages had roofs of slate or of thatch, and shutters painted grey or dark green or a bright blue that celebrated the seaside. In their tiny front gardens, edged with large flints from the beach, people grew any flowers, like sea-holly and sea-pinks, that could withstand the salt winds. Some of the smallest houses, nearest the front, were simply huts of white wood, with tiny verandas and porches. The fishermen’s shacks lining the top of the steeply shelving beach were constructed of oak, the warped, salt-seasoned timbers stained a glistening black. Nets and lobster pots sprawled nearby. There was no confining wall to separate the village from the sea. Like an urgent animal the water simply bounded up the pebbles, dashed itself on the tideline in flurries of white-topped green waves, and ran away again. Halfway up the cliffs a few recently built chalet-style holiday villas made splashes of red; brick faced with white stone; steeply pitched wooden roofs; and their façades ornamented with fake-rustic balconies whose lines imitated the branches of trees. Two streets back from the sea there was a café, and it was here that I arrived to take up my job as maid-of-all-work for Madame Patin.

  I travelled by horse and cart. Sister Pauline had relatives who farmed just outside Etretat, near Bénouville, and she arranged for her brother-in-law to collect me from the orphanage early in the morning and take me most of the way to Blessetot. This was substantially out of his usual road, and there was no question of his doing me a favour. I was to pay for the cart hire out of my first month’s wages.

  I said goodbye to my few friends in the orphanage, and to Sister Pauline. No one was sad to see me go, for I had not had the trick of making myself particularly liked. The other girls thought me stuck-up and standoffish, since I rarely joined in their games at break, preferring to read a book. The farmer arrived on the appointed day to collect me. He wore a blue woollen cap pulled well down over his head for warmth, and his bushy eyebrows shaded his slits of eyes. He grunted at me and helped me climb up into the cart. I sat behind him on the dusty boards, facing sideways, clinging onto the wooden side with one hand, an empty sack under me as cushion.

  We jolt
ed out of Etretat and onto the coast road. Fine rain blew into my face. The creak of the worn leather harness, the clopping of the horse’s hooves, the clatter of the iron-rimmed wheels, all made an urgent song and dance in my ears. The finish of an old life. The orphanage had been my home for sixteen years, but now it was behind me. I was nervous of what lay ahead, but I was also exhilarated. The freshness of the rain on my cheeks pleased me, and the wind whipping my ungloved hands, and the salt tang in the air.

  The road ran up onto the plain under an enormous sky of billowing clouds. The hedgerows and ditches were spiky with green weeds and grass glittering with dew. Clumps of pale yellow primroses spread along the banks. All around us were ploughed and sown fields showing the tips of crops. In the distance majestic farms reared up, enclosed by high banks planted with beeches. Through the openings in these massive squares of trees I glimpsed half-timbered houses and tall dovecots, stone-built barns decorated with red stripes of zigzag bricks. My eyes seized on everything: the swaying rump of the horse just in front of me and the strip of leather harness confining its black tail, the crows flapping and cawing above the furrowed earth, the stinging green of hawthorn hedges, the shimmer of bluebells, like stretches of blue water, in the long grass beyond. It was all new to me. I had never stirred outside Etretat in the whole of my life.

  The farmer did not bother trying to turn round and talk to me as we bumped along. He held the reins in one hand, and a small clay pipe, at which he puffed from time to time, in the other. His bent back, perched up above me, looked quite remote. He was sunk deep in his own thoughts and left me in peace, huddled on the swaying floor of the cart, to look about me and plunge into mine.

  I wondered what I was going to, and wished I had someone to give me good advice. I should have liked to have known my parents. If I had known them, of course, my life would have been different. They would have protected me and seen that I came to no harm. At the very least they would have tried to teach me how to recognise harm when it does come, disguised as love. As it was, I had to get on without them. They had loved each other enough to create me, I could not bear to think otherwise, before fortune intervened and my father went away and my mother was obliged to give me up to the nuns. She had been a teacher. That was all I knew about her. She had been unable to keep me, not being married, and so she had had to put me into the orphanage, in the back streets of Etretat, whose high walls blocked out all sight of the sun, all sound of the sea.

  Once a week, on Sundays, we were marched through the town in crocodile, on our way to High Mass, so that people would see us and remember to give generously to the charity boxes in church. We were rarely taken to the beach, except on feast days in summer. But just being out in the street was better than nothing, even when it was raining. You could watch the water swirling over the cobbles and along the gutters at the side of the narrow road, hear the gulls shrieking, and smell the sea even if you could not see it. Freedom twitched suddenly close at hand, that taste of salt on my tongue and the wind tugging my cape and the sun glinting bright on the puddles reflecting the blue sky. Treading through rainwater we trod in bottomless sky that gleamed like mussel shells, the backs of mackerel.

  As we plodded back after church, and approached the orphanage once more, my heart would sink. As the heavy door scraped open and we filed in, bending down in turn to take off our wet and muddy boots, my spirit, likewise, had to bow, to shrink itself as though it were being forced into a dark, airless cupboard where it would gasp for breath. Back into that cramped place where we all lived on top of one another, where the furniture was cumbersome and ugly, where the light was shut out and we were shut in. However wild and wet the weather, I would always rather have been outside. I hated the muffled house, its smell of wet wool and furniture polish like a hand over my mouth stifling me.

  The nuns enforced strict rules of deportment and behaviour, as you might expect. Walk close to the walls, eyes lowered. Don’t answer back. Silence at meals and in the dormitory. Our guardians did not see themselves as unkind. To keep thirty boisterous girls in order they considered themselves bound to inflict severe discipline. If we failed at self-control then the cane was there to teach us better. They were preparing us for the harshness of adult life outside the walls, as they were also attempting to ensure we could reach heaven. Girls to them meant mess, chaos and noise. Qualities to be suppressed. It was impossible to believe they had once been children themselves and had hungered for caresses and understanding. They were not happy women, most of them, and so they could not love us. Even while I disliked them, I felt sorry for them. They would never get out, whereas one day I would. One day I would walk out of that door and never return.

  I was convinced my mother had been forced by others to give me away, that she had loved me. Had she not fitted me out in a beautifully stitched and frilled nightgown and cap, a soft shawl, before handing me over? So the nuns said, that I was one of the best-dressed babies they had ever received. Of my father they could tell me nothing, only that he had been considered unsuitable by my mother’s parents and sent packing. My mother had loved him, so I passionately believed, and perhaps he thought of me sometimes, and perhaps I looked like him. The nuns refused to tell me my parents’ names. They baptised me Geneviève, after the patron saint of Paris, and invented a surname for me, Delange. Saint Geneviève had been a brave woman who encouraged the citizens during a great siege and went up on the ramparts to exhort them. She was a nun, but one with an exciting life. In the picture in the book I was shown she looked beautiful, with a warm, smiling face, a rounded body under her habit, and her arms tenderly cradling a child.

  I prayed to St Geneviève when thing went badly, but I was doubtful she heard me. I spent the greater part of my days working my way back and forth along the orphanage corridors wielding bucket and brush, scrubbing the stone floors. The coarse soda blistered and reddened my skin; my palms and knees were permanently calloused; I stank of carbolic. All part of the punishment for being born a bastard. As a consolation for these hardships I daydreamed. Fantasies of revenge, of wild adventure, of exquisite pleasures in fairyland. At night I became the orphans’ storyteller. I whispered my tales to the others in the chilly dormitory and thus secured my safety. Even the bullies wanted my stories, and so they let me alone; they did not steal my food or rub coal dust into my hair or lock me in the privies, their favourite tricks when the nuns’ backs were turned. They mocked me by day, in the classroom, when I got all of my dictation exercise right, or came top in the spelling test, but they listened to me, night after night, when I told them stories and led them wherever I chose, into a world where I ran on just ahead, towards the unknown. They always wanted more. For the story never to end. When I started each evening’s instalment I would feel their attention pressing onto me in the darkness. I would shiver all over and then language would fly out of my mouth and it felt as though we all held hands and jumped off the cliff together and then above us the great silk wing of words would flare out and float us away to the magical island across the ocean where we were free.

  The nuns always warned against storytelling and daydreaming, which they said meant lying, an escape from truth. To me it was the opposite. Those bright pictures were the most real thing. Now, daydreaming again, letting myself dwell on all those hardships which were over and could therefore be looked in the face, I had forgotten where I was. I was brought back to the present by a change in the horse’s gait, the floor of the cart rocking less abruptly. We were slowing down. There was a crossroads just in front of us, marked by a tall Calvary, with fields stretching away on four sides of it, and here we stopped. The farmer held his pipe away from his lips and jerked his head in the direction that I was to go, then waited while I clambered down over the tail of the cart. He threw my little cardboard box of possessions after me, clicked his teeth by way of goodbye, then shook his reins and grunted at the horse. I stood for a moment, watching them lurch off, the cart wheels tilting as they ground along, the farmer’s shoulders slum
ped forwards, his whip trailing from one fist. Then I shook straw from my skirts, and straightened my wind-buffeted cap. A gull flapped, crying, just above my head: The whole landscape blinked and winked as the sun darted out of the skidding clouds. The patch of blue sky that appeared meant, I was convinced, good luck. I picked up my box and started off towards Blessetot.

  The rutted road dropped through a tiny, steep valley, the cliffs rising up on either side. Two kilometres’ descent or so and I turned a corner and suddenly saw a blue-green triangle of sea dipping below me in the gap between the chalk bluffs. Nothing could be too difficult if the sea was nearby. I fell down that last narrow stretch of road as though I were being born.

  * * *

  The mirror covered part of one of the side walls in the bar. Every time I came in to sweep and dust I looked at myself in it. I had not lived in a place with mirrors before. This particular one was a tall oblong, surrounded by a black plaster frame painted with curlicues of gold, very fine. While I blew on its spotted surface then polished it with my cloth I would squint at myself. Being able to see my reflection made me feel different. When I wanted to forget myself in safety, and daydream, I could, and then when I needed to know where I was again I had only to glance in the glass and see the frowning girl that was me. A skinny hazel-eyed girl with short fair hair, more like a boy, who appeared, then disappeared, then returned again. I could hide in the mirror. In the orphanage, in the daytime, under the nuns’ sharp gaze, I had not felt able to vanish, even when daydreaming. It was only at night, in the dark, that I had been able to let go of myself and disappear into stories. But here the mirror kept a friendly eye out for me; it tolerated my going away and coming back; and I could behave as though it were night, climbing over the black frame and jumping down into a secret room on the other side, whenever I felt the need. The mirror doubled everything. The café, the bar, me.

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