Ignorance a novel, p.10
Ignorance: A Novel, page 10
The clothes cupboard smelled of cedarwood. He plucked out hangers, scooped up trailing hems, laid his soft burdens on the bed. He left me alone while I changed and then I ran upstairs to join him in the studio. That day he drew me in a white poplin blouse with big black buttons, a three-quarter-length black skirt, black shoes with a buttoned strap. Two days later he drew me in a navy two-piece sprigged with cream flowers. After that in a frock of dark green crêpe de Chine. Each time I turned my face towards him I became someone different, not myself, yet someone who was always the same, the person he’d lost, whom he tried to re-capture on paper. She’d gone but he brought her back. I became her replica. He needed me as a medium, his contact with the world of the dead. I was her young ghost, thin and white as a sheet of paper. He drew on me to make her come alive. He outlined me in charcoal. I smudged where he touched me. He could rub me out then re-summon me, over and over. I rose towards him out of the dark of the wardrobe, the dark of the tomb. I did not speak. Sitting in his studio I composed my face to stay calm.
When I posed naked, I displayed my flesh like a coat. Another painted surface created by his brush. A rose-apricot satin cape. I stayed hidden inside it. His brush stroked the backs of my knees, stippled my shoulders, outlined my ears.
Sometimes he liked me to talk and sometimes he didn’t. My occasional words drifted towards him like pastel confetti, and he flicked them off and let just a few fall into his pocket. My words hummed past him like bees, and he just left them to find their way, bumping around the room, out of the open skylight. He talked with pencils and paintbrushes. A skin language. Concentrating. One mark. Then another. Afterwards, in the kitchen, if he made us coffee, and found me some biscuits, he would talk to me. Fragments of stories, bits and pieces of information. His wife’s name was Andrea. The baby who died with her he called Perdita. I whispered: she was going to have a baby? His face reddened and he shouted: yes! Then he described how to boil up glue and mix egg white into paint. He mentioned that when digging his garden he’d come across lots of bones of dogs and cats. Together we imagined children burying their cherished pets, marking the graves with pebbles arranged in patterns. He told me that the cornmeal biscuits were from a recipe of his grandmother’s. I held the biscuit in the palm of my hand: it held his grandmother’s life. I bit into it gently; kissing her. What happened to her? She was murdered in a pogrom. I put down the biscuit: what’s a pogrom? His mouth twisted: little Jewish girl who doesn’t know any history! I shifted: I’m not Jewish any more, really. He said: OK. I’ll explain. Listen.
One day, wetting my forefinger and pressing it into petit-beurre crumbs, I said to him: I want to learn to draw and paint. He drained his cup then upended it, watched brown drops drip on to his saucer. He said: I don’t know how to teach you.
I licked sweet grit off my finger. In that case, I’d better be off home.
I got up. His black eyebrows twitched together. He thumped his knee. Oh, for heaven’s sake. All right.
Under his instructions I painted a colour wheel. I went on begging for lessons, and sometimes I got them.
After a few weeks I grew bored sitting. Instead I wanted to roam about the house and rummage, peep inside chests of drawers, perch at her dressing table and employ her scent bottle, her powder puff. Our solution: to return to the game of hide and seek we’d played years ago with Marie-Angèle.
He let me draw up the rules. I’d dart downstairs from the studio, select an outfit, don it, then hide somewhere in the house. He searched for me. If he found me before I’d counted up to a hundred, then I’d sit for him for an hour. If he didn’t find me in time I’d go back into her room and play with her things or try to draw, while he returned upstairs and pottered about. After half an hour or so he’d make his way to the kitchen, shout for me, and I’d join him for our goûter. I spread a tea towel over my lap, in case I dirtied my clothes. Her clothes. While I ate and drank he’d watch me in silence. Then I’d go back upstairs and change before running home. On the days I sat for him naked, I’d wear her dressing gown down to tea.
I always left his house by the back door, crossing the garden in the opposite direction from the convent, then slipping out through the wooden gate in the wall on the far side. I emerged into an alley, whence I could hurry on to the street lower down without being spotted by anyone. I got home long before my mother returned from her various cleaning jobs. By the time she came in I’d be busy preparing the supper. Cabbage soup or onion soup or turnip soup or potato soup. You didn’t need a cookery book for these. I learned by watching my mother cook.
If the state of Maman’s purse meant that we had the ingredients to hand, she made special dishes for Sunday lunch: cabbage stuffed with onions, chestnuts and breadcrumbs, roast pumpkin with home-made pickles, potato pancakes, apple fritters, beetroot soup. Maman knew the recipes by heart; she’d learned them from her own mother. Occasionally, though, when I felt bored, or while I waited for the potatoes to boil, I still turned the pages of her cookery book. The title page promised 2,000 recipes for both exquisite and simple dishes. I recited to myself the names of sauces for white meat and for dark meat. What did Sauce Crapaudine taste like? Sauce Raifort? Sauce Velouté ivoire? I studied recipes involving bacon or shellfish. I tried to imagine eating croquettes of shrimps and prawns. Moules à la marinière, with white wine, parsley and chopped onion. I discovered sixty-two recipes for eggs, not including recipes for omelettes. Then I’d declare: Madame is served! and bring on the cabbage soup with a flourish.
While we ate we’d talk. Afterwards, I’d do my homework, and my mother would either sew, concocting new clothes for me out of scraps, or she would read. Political pamphlets, political magazines. The following day she’d tell me about what she’d been reading: you won’t hear this from the nuns! I read too: the small collection of second-hand novels she kept on the shelf. These were your Papa’s, so treat them carefully. Late in the evening, lying awake, I’d tell myself stories. Serials, that continued from night to night. Monsieur Jacquotet and I would never reach the end. There would always be something else happening; some new event. Our story could never finish. I could hide with him inside the story for ever.
His favourite of his wife’s dresses was the red silk one. On the days when I wanted to keep him in a good humour, to make sure the game would go on, I chose to wear it and chose to let him find me. Eventually he used the sketches as a basis for completing a painting, a portrait of his wife he’d begun years earlier.
You could name her clothes according to the time of day. The clock struck, and the clothes changed. A morning dress, an afternoon dress, an evening dress. The best of her frocks, a white silk evening dress, I didn’t dare wear for some time. It seemed too grand. When I riffled through the tight pleats and folds of material in the wardrobe I’d sweep my hands over it, then pass on to something else, softer and more ordinary, easier to get into; something I could cope with. Finally, one day, after we’d been playing our games for some weeks, I plucked out the queen. I felt ready for her, and that she was ready for me. In her unheated room, shivering, I took off all my clothes, lifted up her dress and dropped it over my head. Sleeveless, backless, it swept down to the floor and swirled about my feet. I fastened it together at the side. Tiny buttons, covered in white silk, like pearl beads, slipped into white silk loops. The dress captured me. It held me, stroked me, like two hands in silk gloves.
Sprays of artificial white flowers encircled the waist and scattered the skirt. On top went a close-fitting little jacket in matching white silk. I drew on white lace stockings and inserted my feet into white high heels criss-crossed with straps of thin white braid fastened with diamanté studs. I teetered a few steps. How did you walk in these?
Just concentrate. Shut your eyes. Imagine.
Now I was wearing her, my second skin. The other one. I’d searched for her; I’d got closer to her, week by week. We’d met at last. For these few moments she was my true self. Then I’d have to shed her and return to washed-out gre
I shouted up to him to start searching and began counting to a hundred. I slithered under the purple silk coverlet of the bed and pulled it back up over my face. Smooth on my cheeks, it smelled faintly of dust. I buried myself in the bed. I flattened myself into the quilt, wriggling until I lay in a trough of down, as thin as I could be. I calmed my breath, breathed as shallowly as possible, so there’d be no telltale rise and fall of fabric when he came in.
His feet clattered down the stairs, across the landing straight to the door. Bang. In he came. Steps across the floorboards. Fifty-six. Fifty-seven. Halt. I held my breath. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine. The cover ripped itself back like a wave of water. His blue eyes, faded no more, blazed at me. Blue water fire. I gazed up at him. He was crying.
I lifted the corner of the quilt. Come on. Get in.
He kicked off his shoes, lay down next to me. I pulled the quilt back up over his shoulders, so that it wrapped us both loosely, softly, and then his arms surrounded me and I tucked my head between his shoulder and chin and stroked his wet cheek with one hand. Trapping his tears on my fingertips, licking them tasting them then stroking his face once more. His bristly skin. Bristly paintbrush. He smelled of turps and soap. He sighed. His hand thrust into my hair, gripped it.
My hand left his cheek, rose up and began to draw him, first in the air an inch away from him and then closer, until I touched him again. I traced the angles of his jaw. I undid his collar, slid my hand inside, felt round, caressed the back of his neck. I unbuttoned his shirt, taking my time, while equally slowly he undid the buttons at the side of my dress, one by one, slipped his fingers into the silky gap, caressed my waist. Warmth began. He shut his eyes and I shut mine too. Black brilliance alive with tiny stars dancing on my bare skin. Our names fled; all the words separating us. Our ages melted; our selves. Dissolving. Held in warm darkness. Our joint breath, joint heartbeat. Rolled in the plump feather-filled quilt, satiny, a floaty cloud. Very light touch. Just brushing my side. My long, sloping curve. Our fingers our skin then time began again and we lay curled up two warm animals smoothing each other’s fur.
We opened our eyes, lifted our heads from the pillows of each other, propped ourselves on our elbows. Distinct now: his messy hair, his nose. The air got in between us and I shivered. Suddenly he smelled sour and I wanted to push him away.
All right, then. Art lesson. Downstairs in the kitchen he gave me pencil and paper, tried to teach me about forms made by light and shadow. Blackness didn’t mean what you couldn’t see, didn’t mean absence. It showed the shape of something on the other side of the light. I was the light. I looked at him, my gaze illuminating his flesh, his bones. I wanted him to take off all his clothes and sit for me naked. I wanted to use the pencil to trap him in outlines, but I couldn’t. The line wavered, ran to the edge of the page, got away. Heavy pencil strokes crowded in, cramping his shape. Shadows rubbed him out. He shrank, vanished.
No good, I said in disgust: let’s tear it up.
My dear little Jeanne, he said: everything’s finished. You’d better not come here any more. It’ll do neither of us any good. It’s over.
No no no no no.
He refused to listen. He chased me off.
As a parting present he gave me some sticks of charcoal, some pencils, some oil pastel crayons. I hid them amongst my folded clothes at the back of my shelf in the bedroom cupboard. I twiddled a stick of charcoal between finger and thumb. Its thinness invited me to snap it in two. A stick in each hand, I’d beat him until he bled. How dared he abandon me?
I turned fourteen and left school. I could begin to earn my living, go out to work as a daily servant, like my mother. She said: be grateful for what you can get.
If I was old enough to find a job I was old enough to have a baby. If I had a daughter I’d call her Andrea. No, Andrée.
Once she got born she’d become herself. I’d have to study her, learn her. She’d summon me, instruct me. She’d gaze at me and tell me what she needed me to know. I’d listen to her babble and translate it. What would she be like when she reached the age I was now? Perhaps she’d sulk sometimes, as I did. But I’d coax the words out of her.
I didn’t know anything much about my mother. Her name was Jeanne: I clung to that. Could you miss someone you’d never met? Sometimes her absence felt solid as lentil purée, pressed on my heart like a weight on pâté. Sometimes she sneaked up, just behind me, blew on the back of my neck. I’d whisk round, trying to catch her, but she’d melt away on to the flagstones. I’d try to melt with her, but I’d be shaken back to life by Sister Dolorosa clapping her hands, snap out of it will you, and I’d lurch back into the convent kitchen, soapy scrubbing-brush dripping suds down my skirt.
On the day of my Confirmation, when I was thirteen, Marie-Angèle Blanchard showed me a photograph of herself and my mother. The nuns left us alone together in the parlour while they went off to sing Compline: Andrée, you’re to keep your godmother company. Madame Blanchard said: we’ll have a little chat, won’t we, and you can tell me how you’re getting on.
She plucked out pictures from an envelope in her black leather handbag. Now, Andrée, which is which? A glossy shot of her seven children, lined up, tallest to smallest, their smiling faces turned to the camera. All dressed in sailor suits, hands on the shoulders of the one in front. Behind them rose a grand house, a high wall topped with spikes. Oh, Andrée, surely you remember all their names? Now, you know who this is! A picture of herself outside the front door of the big house with its rows of shutters, another picture of herself standing on her wide lawn set with flowerbeds like a park.
My godmother fished in the envelope again. Her red nails gleamed like enamel. Her cheeks too. Two glasses of dessert wine, two slices of Sister Dolly’s buttered honey cake, sweet words from Reverend Mother and the curé: our dear benefactress! So good of Monsieur Blanchard to spare you to visit us!
That spring day, despite the sun shining my godmother wore her fur coat, I suppose to show how rich she was, and black suede high heels. Gold clips swept up her blonde hair. In the parlour she tossed the coat on to a chair, peeled off her gloves, dropped them on top of the coat. Her pale green dress, crisply ironed, seemed brand new.
She pulled out a small photo with deckled edges. Her brows drew together: I’d forgotten there were any copies left of this. I thought they’d all been given away. That’s your mother and me. Goodness.
The black and white print showed two little girls in bunchy pale overalls buttoned on the shoulders and tied at the waist with strings. They stood on the pavement outside a shop. Fair curls bounced around Marie-Angèle’s plump face. My small, thin mother had wavy dark hair and intense eyes. I knew her family name was Nérin, and that she had abandoned me as a baby and run off, and that soon afterwards her mother, my grandmother, had died of TB. Knowledge I’d always had, part of me like my hands and feet. In the photo Maman was a little pale ghost. There and not there at the same time. What was she like? I’d put this question before, and always got the same answer. No better than she should be, Madame Blanchard said: she turned out badly, I’m afraid.
My pudding mother, released from her mould and not standing up properly but collapsing, like a drunk. Smelling of rum and vanilla sugar. Madame Blanchard snorted: after all my mother did for hers!
She was reciting her part in the ritual, so I recited mine. I said: but where did my mother go? Madame Blanchard said: how many times do I have to tell you! She went off to England to get a job. She wanted a fresh start. Remember you’re not an orphan. You’re illegitimate.
The word rolled on my tongue like a ball of spit, slimy-sour. Did other people hear with their mouths? I thought with mine too. If only the school had been made of pastry I’d have eate
Madame Blanchard nipped the photo back from me and tore it into little pieces. I cried out. She said: I don’t need it any more. It’s better that way. No use dwelling on the past. You’ve got to live for the future. You know I worry about you so much. I pray unceasingly that you won’t turn out like your mother. The pudding erupted from its fluted tin, dumped itself over her head, cloaked her in hot batter buttoned with sultanas.
The door opened and the nuns came back in. I stood up, moved out of the way. Bits of talk fell on me, hot splashes of batter. Good Catholic home. Modern girls.
Confirmation marked the end of my schooling. I stayed on at the convent, working as a live-in servant, which Madame Blanchard thought best. I agreed: the outside world felt prickly. Everybody in town knew everybody else and so everybody knew me. They pursed their lips as I banged past with my basket of bread. I tied on a blue headscarf, knotting it behind my head as the postulants knotted their black ones, and tried to become invisible. My mother was a ghost. I wanted to be one too.
I hid in my stone shelter. Along stone corridors I drove lines of schoolchildren. Swing your arms, step out one two one two and try to kick Fatty Andrée in the back of the knees. Up and down the black tarmac playground enclosed by high walls, secured by a bolted gate.
Locked doors held us tight. Most people in town had put bars on their ground-floor windows straight after the war, Mother Lucie explained, to keep out the homeless and jobless men who roamed about. Groups of tramps, red-faced and shabbily dressed, silted up the corners of the park. Some of the homeless men lived in a hostel near the parish church, where they ran a dépôt-vente, selling donated furniture and so making a bit of a living. Others slept rough. As children we feared all of them. Ne’er-do-wells. Crazies. Thieves. When we went out for exercise we kept close in our neat crocodile and hurried past them. Wild men, who lived outside the rules, who might lunge at you and touch you. At least there were people worse off than I was. Nonetheless they claimed me: hello, little girl! Sometimes boys kicking footballs jeered at me: how’s your mother, Fatty Andrée? Fatty batty Andrée! Your mother!
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes