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Ignorance a novel, p.11

Ignorance: A Novel, page 11


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Now that I’d begun working as the convent servant, I had to go out in public whether I wanted to or not. I had to run errands. People nudged each other in shop doorways as I went by. Their sly glances said something, which I couldn’t understand, about the war and about my mother. Against their nasty looks and hissed words I built a wall of family. I gave myself a gallant, eagle-eyed father, a hero of the Resistance. I gave myself soldier grandfathers, ranks of them stretching back and back. When anyone insulted them they kicked them up the arse. Take that, fuckwits.

  I escaped the town whispers by scowling at the ground, pretending I hadn’t heard. I took back routes down flights of stone steps tucked in between buildings. I dodged through narrow alleys. I hopped past bombed houses, open-fronted and roofless. I watched the streets change, as wartime damage was gradually repaired, rubble cleared, the clumps of old tenements beyond the bridge torn down. Three-storey blocks of flats, neat villas, reared up in their place, tidy and sharp-edged. A Monument aux Morts was built by the veterans’ association, listing the dead men’s names. Their children swelled the numbers in the orphanage. Rows of ancient plane trees were lopped, replaced by long beds of evergreen shrubs and bedding plants. Soon only the old people would be able to remember how the town had once looked and what had gone on in it.

  When I prodded her, Mother Lucie sometimes dug up a few more memories. Car headlamps having to be painted blue. Eating animal food such as maize cobs and parsnips. But her mind was wandering now. She never reached the point of her stories. In the cupboard, she would say. Or: I thought they had such nice little coats. Her rambling tales trailed off into silence. Once she said: their mother obviously took good care of them. I asked: so what were they doing in the orphanage, then? Mother Lucie shook her head.

  The convent rattled with nuns; a pepperpot with too few peppercorns. Sister Dolly pointed to a high kitchen shelf, a stack of white china bowls we never used. She had to make do with the helpers she could get: good-for-nothings like me. She sucked in a whistling breath through her teeth, turned back to the sink. Big enough to wash a cow in. The plughole gaped like a huge mouth. When you pulled the plug you might gurgle down the waste pipe along with all the dirty water. Then you’d swill along the sewers and drown, with your mouth full of turds.

  Sister Dolly picked up a slimy-looking dishcloth, frowned, and wrung it out. She said: doubting Thomases, girls today. They want to go off and train for jobs. Her face sagged. She flung the dishcloth back in the sink: you haven’t rinsed it properly. Kneel down and say sorry.

  The cold floor struck my knees. I stared up at the little lumps on Dolly’s nose, the red blotches on her pale cheeks. She picked up the saucepan I’d just scoured and put on the rack to drip, upended it, inspected its dented aluminium bottom: you call this clean?

  Dolly kicked me into shape, gave me plenty of housework practice. Get a move on! Hauling my bucket I plodded along what seemed kilometres of shadowy pathways, vaulted and windowless. Everywhere was dimly lit, in order to save electricity. Stretching away into darkness, all the clammy stone corridors looked the same. Staircases rose at both ends, connecting them floor by floor. Thanks to my labours, they all smelled of polish and eau de Javel.

  For daily Mass, I joined the black-scarfed postulants in their chapel. Most were local French girls. Just one or two arrived from England every year. A grille separated us from the altar, the golden tabernacle. Beyond this, an identical grille guarded the chapel opposite of the novices and the professed. At right angles to both these chapels, facing the altar, the schoolchildren and the orphans knelt in their rows the length of the nave. The postulants and the nuns formed the outstretched wings of a bird and the children its body, the rounded tabernacle its head. A dove, like the Holy Ghost in the picture on the kitchen wall. Rising up in the sweet smoke of incense, smashing its way through the roof and up into the sky, shaking off anyone who didn’t cling on tight. I gripped its black and white feathers and flew with it. High in the sky the bird turned into a winged golden mare. Her name was Horsechild. She pranced past the women whispering over their shopping baskets, kicked at her enemies with golden hoofs and bashed their heads in and then took off with golden mane and tail flying and never got caught.

  Coming out of chapel, I had to tail meekly behind those holy slugs, the postulants. I had to keep to the back stairs, the back corridors, use the back door, never the front. No short cuts allowed through the old part of the convent. The entrance hall here, with its twisting oval staircase, was out of bounds. Once a week I made an hour’s visit to it, swiping at spiders’ webs. The Bishop, visiting Reverend Mother, wouldn’t want to catch sight of a fat, sweaty girl, with a red face and red hands, lugging pail, mop and broom. After I’d made the gold-brown parquet shine, after I’d dusted the white porcelain stand, with its pot of pink cyclamen, at the foot of the stairs, I had to retreat. The wrought-iron handrail and marble steps curved up out of sight.

  What’s up there? I asked Mother Lucie on one of her good days. Sunshine seemed to help her get herself back. Light slanting in through the high windows knocked on her mind and re-opened it. Batty old Mother Lucie. Much battier than I was.

  The nuns’ recreation room had a bare floor, a black funnel-like stove at one end. We sat there on two wooden chairs, under a huge crucifix. Mother Lucie stitched at a black woollen stocking pulled over a darning mushroom. She stared at her needle, its eye threaded with black. Just lumber rooms, she replied: we haven’t the means to restore them. All in disrepair. Nobody goes up there now. She held out the stocking to show me her neat, close darn. Now you try.

  Her black woollen shawl looked as crumpled as the skin on her creased face. I wanted to bend forward and put my cheek against hers, lay my head on her knees and have her stroke my head. She reached out and gave me a push with her gnarled hand: come on, stupid child, concentrate.

  At night the convent came alive and breathed, guarding a secret, holding me off, but I managed to slink inside it. In my dreams I wasn’t fat but lean and nimble. I leaped up the curving stairs that rose from the convent entrance hall, arrived on the top floor, entered the attic. A long, narrow space, like a corridor, linking the convent and the school. Somehow it led into the attic of the house next door. Something unknown and nameless lurked here, blocked my way and trapped me. Fear stuffed itself down my throat, choked me. The convent and school buildings were separated by a thick wall from the house next door. Only at the very top could you get through. Each time I tried I’d wake up bleating and shaking in a tangle of coverlet.

  The house next door was empty, its front door boarded up. The old couple who’d bought it at the end of the war had died and the family hadn’t yet got round to selling it. The house dozed; our shuttered, silent neighbour. I told no one about my nightmares. Nobody to tell, except Jesus. I received him in holy communion every morning, bowed my head over my hands as I’d been taught. God the Son’s body and blood. God fed you with Himself, better than any earthly mother. You hadn’t to touch the sacred host. Sister Dolly told tales of Jews who’d stolen hosts from church tabernacles, torn them up and stamped on them. The hosts poured with blood and wailed in the street.

  We were supposed to work in silence, but Sister Dolly couldn’t do without words. You and your raptures! You don’t fool me! She would scrape away at a blackened oven dish and address prayers to her knife: dear Lord, why did you send me this girl? She’s ignorant as a beetle.

  I was fat but flimsy. She knocked me out of the way like a bluebottle. She shut me up like a drawer. If she caught me eating stolen leftover crusts, rather than putting them in the pig bin, she’d make me kneel down on the floor, holding them in my outstretched hands. Sometimes, when she wanted her kitchen to herself, she sent me to join the postulants at Recreation in their community room. I plumped down on a stool by the door. Seated in a circle, the black-caped girls sang songs or were read aloud to as they sewed. Unpowdered noses red with cold. Thick, unplucked eyebrows. Those who liked each other sent half-smiles
sailing across the empty space they rimmed. At least nobody pointed at me and hissed. If nobody spoke to me either I could tell myself that that was the Rule.

  One afternoon the postulants grew very animated. One word repeated and repeated. Homesick.

  Next day, watching Sister Dolly do the cloth-twiddling she called dusting, I asked her: do you ever feel homesick? Do you ever miss your family?

  Homesickness smelled of warm candlegrease and dust and damp wool. Rags soaked in polish tied over my feet, I was working my way along the red-tiled floor of the windowless passage linking the convent to the school, a dark stretch of vaulted hallway sealed by black doors at either end. Dolly was working in the shrine that opened off this red passage like a big doorless closet. Opposite, a couple of steps led up to Reverend Mother’s office.

  Dolly straightened the vase of blue hyacinths on the Virgin’s altar. She stuck her nose into the waxy flowers, sniffed, sneezed. She said: you know perfectly well that nuns are not allowed to talk about our pasts. Her voice thickened with catarrh. She said in a pious tone: my home is here, with the Lord. She fished in her sleeve, blew her nose. Her handkerchief, flaking with green crusts, bulged with fresh snot.

  I jerked away, and made my cloth-bound shoes start rubbing again. I put my hands on my hips, to better my balance, and swerved my shoulders and feet forward, first the right and then the left. I hummed a tune, military time, to keep my feet marching. A polish and duster dance.

  Dolly said: hoity-toity! Pretending you’re better than you are! Like your mother, aren’t you!

  She’d hooked me. I was her fish. I turned round: what was she like? Was she pretty?

  Dolly grunted. I’d asked her these questions before, and she always shook her head at me: you know I’m not allowed to say. Today, gripping a gilt candlestick in each hand, her face furrowed into red frowns, she said: in your mother’s line of work she had to be pretty.

  I stood still. My hands dived into my pockets and clenched biscuit crumbs, grainy in the seams. I said: what do you mean?

  Dolly sucked her teeth. She was a tart. Everybody knows that. Don’t pretend you don’t know! She was a whore.

  My mouth filled with acid bile. I kicked the rags off my feet. Redness patched Dolly’s face. Her voice shrilled: she did disgusting things with German soldiers, she loved it, she got paid for it.

  The walls of the passageway trembled, fell down, nails and timbers scattering around us. The shrine lunged towards me with spikes. I pulled my apron up over my head. Canvas; not strong enough. The convent was fragile as a cardboard box. We tore up old cardboard boxes to get the bonfire going in the kitchen yard, to burn refuse. I was the bonfire, the refuse, the box being torn up. I was a heap of black ash.

  My hands over my ears, I lurched away over the red tiles. I got to the garden door, wrenched open the cupboard where the nuns kept their clogs and shoes, blundered in past the sharp edges of shelves. I plunged into the runny-cheese smell of sweat-soaked leather. Giant boots swung at me, kicked me in the belly. Eyes pierced my darkness. Voices slid under the door and poked me. We know all about your mother’s history and you don’t ha ha ha.

  Horsechild drooped her golden wings, turned into Whoreschild who sat in the dark and hated Dolly. She’d ripped my mother out of me. Too much space inside. Fill it up fill it up. I could have stuffed down a whole loaf. I could have gone on to chew the air, the rain, the cold, to bite down on glass, splinters flying apart on my tongue, shredding me to bloody flesh. Words of blood.

  God was useless. He did not exist. Next morning in chapel, when I received the host as usual, I did a test. I let the host stick to the roof of my mouth, licked it, chewed it a few times, spat it into my palm, put it back into my mouth, chewed it again, swallowed it. I did not pray. Nothing happened: no blood; no wailing. When we stood up to sing the final hymn I kept my hymnbook shut. The nuns’ thin voices quavered out words insipid as watered milk.

  Routines of work and sleep held me up like walking sticks by day. Towards evening they crumbled and snapped like stale baguettes. At night, Whoreschild grew her own red feathery wings, longer than Horsechild’s, flew down, trampled Dolly with her red hooves. When Dolly squawked at me in the kitchen I put my finger to my lips. Batty Andrée can’t talk!

  Autumn brought the start of the new school year and the arrival of the new batch of postulants. They wore lumpy skirts and jumpers and clutched black cardboard suitcases. Later they came into chapel, awkward in their black serge dresses, their hands going up to check their headscarves, tug at the edges of their little elbow-length capes.

  The dark convent sank into the pit of winter like a mouse drowning in a latrine. Every day I sluiced away muddy footprints from the cloakroom floor. Crawled on hands and knees to knock out spiders from the greasy black cave behind the range. They scuttled inside to escape the cold and I had to turf them out. I caught them in my palms and carried them to the back door. They scared Dolly. If she saw one scurrying across the flags she’d scream then stamp on it.

  In the new year, my godmother summoned me. Dolly, loitering in Reverend Mother’s office when the call came through, pieced together the news and passed it on. Her mother having died, Madame Blanchard was coming up north to clear out the flat and the disused épicerie in the rue de la Croix before putting the property up for sale. Her brother was too busy at his electrical goods factory near Amiens to help her sort things out. She needed a sturdy girl to do the heavy work and so she’d asked for me.

  I went on dealing with a stack of used plates, scraping thick smears of grey slime off them into the bin. The cold scum reached up from the plates’ undersides and clotted my fingertips. I shivered, wiped my hands on my apron. Dolly said: Reverend Mother wants you in her office right away. Jump to it!

  I knocked, entered. The small brown room smelled of damp, and of unwashed woollen cloth. I hovered in front of Reverend Mother’s desk. Hands hidden in her black sleeves, she peered at me out of the white frame of her bonnet. Jutting and stiff, it enclosed her gaunt face like blinkers. I’d ironed that bonnet myself. It didn’t do much for her. Young women looked pretty in anything, even absurd coifs like frilled white paper cases in a charcuterie window. But old women ought to be allowed something less fancy. That was one of the reasons I liked helping Mother Lucie dress for bed. Seeing the white wisps of her hair curl out from under her soft white cotton nightcap. Smoothing them into place. Then she looked like the picture of a dear, sweet grandmother in a book. Even if she didn’t behave like one. Fist hitting the air. Shouting rude words. Making brown smears on the sheets.

  Reverend Mother said: how long is it since you cleaned in here properly? Months, surely.

  Dust outlined the bookshelves, marked the angle of wall and floor. She never opened the window; no wonder the room smelled musty. Sour as old farts. She sat throned in a big wooden chair, its high back carved with pinnacles. Behind her on the brown wall a brown oil painting showed a brown palm tree, a hollow-chested Jesus droopily astride a brown donkey.

  Reverend Mother said: that poor old woman. So proud, she didn’t want people visiting, she wouldn’t let people help her. It broke dear Madame Blanchard’s heart, having to put her into the hospital.

  I shifted from foot to foot. She glanced at me, as though I’d said something critical. She sighed: in the old days, families were able to take care of their own.

  A bell rang: a handbell, wielded by someone in the passage just outside. Reverend Mother said: I’m due in chapel now, to speak to the postulants. Give this room a good clean. Tomorrow you’re to go and help Madame Blanchard.

  The morning smelled of fresh vegetables and horse dung and earth. I loitered in the marketplace, watching the stalls set up, then continued down to the rue de la Croix. New weeds, feathery and green, sprouted in the cracks between paving-stones, clung to crevices in stone walls. The wind flapped at my skirts, tugged at my headscarf. Cold air smacked my cheeks. A bitter green perfume sharp as a chisel was cracking me open. The longing for spring chi
pped at me and the wind pushed me and pulled me and I giddied along.

  Though the black paint had faded and cracked, you could still read the legend stencilled above the lintel: épicerie. You’re late, Madame Blanchard said, opening the door: we’ll have to hurry, there’s so much to do.

  I stepped inside. She kissed the air in front of my cheeks. Waft of eau de Cologne. She had on her fur coat, a little red hat, carried her leather handbag slung over one furry arm. Deep, wide sleeve, revealing the rich brown silk lining it. She led me through the chilly shop, smelling of stale air and mice, and upstairs to the flat.

  When I first opened the door to the kitchen and walked in, picking my way over the sticky lino, something whined and shuddered. I disturbed an atmosphere that was both cross and needy. It settled round me and clutched me. The place stank of sour milk and drains. Around the base of the stove flakes of loose plaster fallen from the walls mixed with mouse droppings, ancient crumbs of fried food hardened to spiky clumps, hair-coated balls of greasy dust.

  Madame Blanchard’s face twitched. Her skin, coated with pale powder, looked as though no dirt ever came near it. Her lipsticked mouth puckered into a moue of distaste. She pulled her fur collar up round her throat and patted her blonde perm. She frowned and said: she really did let herself go. You’ll just have to do the best you can. She left me to it and went into the sitting room next door.

  No broom or rubber gloves to be seen. I pinched up a grimy litter of old cardboard boxes and empty tins from the middle of the floor, threw them into a heap at one side. I forced myself to open the stained cupboards which looked as though someone in a fit of rage had poured soup down them or hurled cups of coffee at them. Sooty fingerprints smeared the surrounds of the doorknobs. Jammed inside were rusting pots and pans. Eventually I found a bucket and approached the tarnished tap at the sink. Drips from long ago had left green-brown tracks down the enamel. I filled big pots of water and set them to boil, in preparation for scrubbing. I found scouring powder and soapflakes on an open shelf looped with spiders’ webs, amid a clutter of broken lampshades and chipped rillette pots, but couldn’t see a mop, floorcloth or brush anywhere. I went next door to ask my godmother what to do.

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