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Ignorance a novel, p.12

Ignorance: A Novel, page 12


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Had I approached the wrong room? The carpet had disappeared under a whirl of chaos, as though an earth tremor had caused a landslide and avalanches of rubbish had poured in through the windows. Madame Blanchard knelt in the centre of the disarray. Her red felt hat had flown off and perched on a chair. Her blonde hair crackled like straw in the weak light. Her fur coat flowed around her.

  Not an earthquake. She’d turned into a burglar. She’d pulled open the cupboards set in the panelling of the walls and ransacked them. Bureau stood stripped. Armoire and buffet gaped, doors swinging free. The outside of the furniture was polished wood, carved and golden. The doors’ insides, plain and unvarnished, seemed shocking as nakedness. Dark empty interiors. Stuff heaped up round my godmother’s kneeling figure. A glass dome with a wreath of pinkish waxy flowers inside. A mauve lustre vase. Shallow cardboard boxes, albums, trays, bundles of papers and envelopes, clusters of jugs, ornamental baskets. Tall wobbling piles of plates, napkins, cloths.

  She was consulting a list, ticking off items. So intent she didn’t hear me. I stood in the doorway and watched as she put down her paper and pencil, untied a packet of pale blue envelopes. She opened a few, drew out what looked like letters scrawled in blue ink. She threw these down, then undid the little gilt clasps on a flat plywood box stuck with a colourful frilled paper label like a big postage stamp. She upended it and shook it out. Empty. Next she lifted the knobbed lid off a white porcelain soup tureen. She fished inside it, drew out a bulky packet wrapped in white tissue paper. She unfolded the soft white layers methodically. Her face concentrating. Her gestures very steady. A big white-petalled daisy lay in her lap. She picked it up, tipped out the contents.

  Gold shone on her palm, streamed into her lap. A tangle of gold bracelets and gold chains. Gold rings. They glittered like the candlesticks in church. She sat back on her heels, very still, and concentrated, looking down. The white tissue paper billowed across her tweed skirt. Bowing her head so reverently, she looked like the priest at Mass, holding the gold paten and chalice. She breathed in, held her breath. So did I. Then, without closing the door, I retreated to the kitchen and coughed loudly, to break her reverie and alert her to my presence. I knocked on the half-open door, paused, and came back in.

  Blank-faced, she looked round. Still red mouth; calm lips. Her hands shook, though, cupping the sheets of tissue paper. She squeezed them together, as though they were nothing but crumpled rubbish needing disposal. She looked up at me gently, just a nice housewife interrupted in her housework by the silly maid. She stuffed the billowy paper into the open mouth of her handbag, fished in her purse for money, sent me off to the quincaillerie to buy what I needed. In her confusion she gave me a big note. I pocketed it without outward comment. Silly rich bitch.

  When I returned, she was sitting in an armchair, knees together, head bent, dabbing at her mascara with her white handkerchief. She’d taken off her fur coat, revealing a pleated silk dress printed with a diamond pattern in navy and emerald. I clocked her little high-heeled ankle boots, soft grey leather laced with grey silk strings and cuffed with grey fur.

  Oh poor Maman, said Madame Blanchard to her handkerchief. She cast the flimsy square of lawn to her lap, laid her arms along the arms of her chair, opened her hands wide, gazed down sadly like the pietà.

  I’d never met the old lady who’d drowned in mess. I got to know her through rolling up the striped stained mattress, with its flat felt buttons, of her bed, emptying her shapeless skirts out of her cupboard smelling of camphorated mothballs, removing her tin of caked denture cleaner from the shelf over the sink. I folded her pink candlewick dressing gown, frayed and balding, her faded grey nightdress, collected up a pair of slippers and a pair of outdoor shoes. Why had she left these behind when she went into the hospital? Perhaps Madame Blanchard had bought her new things, so as not to feel ashamed of her. Perhaps the old people wore uniforms, like orphans and schoolchildren and nuns. What did whores wear? Gorgeous silk and satin clothes, like Mary Magdalene, to lure the men upstairs. Everything brand new, unwrapped from creaseless tissue paper, and smelling delicious.

  The old lady had so much stuff. I wanted some of it. I wanted a souvenir. I waited until Madame Blanchard went to the lavatory then scrabbled through her mother’s leavings. I picked up one of the scattered blue envelopes. I’d like a dress that colour. A cardigan to match. I stuffed the letter into my pocket. Now it was mine, and so I hadn’t stolen it. Now it belonged to me.

  At midday, Madame Blanchard released me: go back to the convent to eat. I nodded, but once outside the épicerie stayed in the streets. What was on the nuns’ lunch menu today? Purée of split peas, black bread, half a tumbler of cider each. Hunger suddenly mattered less than roaming about, free because unseen. I halted at the entrance to the park, peered through the railings. No tramps visible, and so I dared to sit down on a bench. I was a respectable citizen, out taking the air, just like anyone else.

  I fished out the blue envelope. A square gap at the top right-hand corner showed where the stamp had been torn off. Address written in blue ink. Madame Marie-Angèle Blanchard, care of Madame Baudry, rue de la Croix. Smudged, faint postmark. I pulled out the sheet of blue paper the envelope enclosed. The letter bore no date. Half a page of French words. My mother’s name at the bottom.

  The blue words leaped up and down. She loves me she loves me not. Warm sun pressing my face, cold wind blowing up my sleeves and down my neck, chilly fingers dressing me in a vest of ice. She loves me she loves me not. I folded the fidgety words back into their paper case, got up, walked briskly along the gravel path. I left the park, went back into the street. I studied the dishes of pâtés and saucissons and rillettes in a charcuterie’s window. The pâté was called: she loved me, she said send Andrée my love. The saucisson was called: she wrote to find out how I was, to ask for news of me. The pot of rillettes’ true name was: she felt sure her letters to me had gone astray, wouldn’t Marie-Angèle help, she begged her. A tray of jellied brawn spelt it out: had I received the handkerchiefs she’d sent me for my birthday?

  All afternoon, Madame Blanchard kept me in the kitchen, scrubbing. From time to time I peeped round the door, watching her sort good things from tat, pack china and small pieces of furniture, wadded by straw, into deep wooden crates. The blue letters had all disappeared. Looking at that empty space they’d left behind on the floor, I wanted to cram myself with bread. Stop up my mouth, stop myself yelling. My empty stomach growled and I told myself: later, just wait, it’s all right, later on I’ll find something to eat.

  Madame Blanchard called me in to fill sacks of rubbish for the dustmen to collect. I nailed down the lids of the crates and she stuck address labels on them. Some of the crates were destined for her own house, others for her brother’s home near Amiens.

  A grey van arrived, parked. Like a large tin can, with metal pleats and fins. The driver loaded up, rattled off. I made up a bed for Madame Blanchard in the back bedroom, the one she said she’d slept in as a girl. Before leaving for the night I fetched her a fresh baguette from the baker’s, and the greaseproof-wrapped supper she’d ordered from the traiteur. I laid out the dishes on clean plates: a big vol-au-vent stuffed with creamed mushrooms, a fat piece of poached salmon in shrimp sauce, some salade russe in mayonnaise. Back with the nuns, I stuck my spoon into my portion of Dolly’s cabbage soup, to taste it. I pushed my bowl away. Dolly said: that’s not like you. You’re usually the first to stick your face into the trough! I said: pigswill is for pigs! Reverend Mother tapped the tabletop: Andrée, you’re a disgrace.

  Next morning I returned to the disused épicerie. Your final task, said Madame Blanchard, driving me up the stairs: is to help with the furniture. Goodness, you move so slowly! You really should go on a diet.

  I was fat as the furniture she didn’t want. Her mother’s ugly, weighty pieces she was donating to the church dépôt-vente run by the homeless. A dark blue lorry duly rolled up the street. The driver, in blue work-clothes, was short and
slight, with a bristle of grey-white hair, a bruised-looking brown-red face, faded blue eyes. Slowly he mounted the couple of steps to the front door, rocking a bit, stiff-legged. Like someone on stilts. He wore solid boots with metal toecaps. He smelled of tobacco, alcohol and sweat. Madame Blanchard welcomed him most graciously but flinched when he put out his seamed brown hand to shake her pale scented one.

  Georges Duchamp, at your service, madame. You’re the charity and I’m the homeless.

  Madame Blanchard said: but I spoke to Father Duval about this. I was expecting him to send a couple of youth volunteers. However will you manage? These pieces of furniture are very heavy. Georges Duchamp said: we let Father Duval man the telephone but we run things ourselves. He winked at me, then scowled at my godmother: don’t you worry, madame. I’m good and fit. Fit for anything! Madame Blanchard took a list out of her pocket, and a pencil: Andrée, stop gawping.

  I said to Georges: I’ll give you a hand.

  Together we manoeuvred the dismantled beds down the narrow stairs. The buffet and wardrobe tilted between us, like little houses. Easy does it! We managed well, calling instructions to each other, swaying, lifting, the bulks of wood rising and falling as we nudged round corners. From time to time we rested, while Georges drew a breath. Fuck this leg of mine! We got the kitchen table downstairs, the armchairs, heaved them up into the lorry. Along the street aproned neighbours emerged into their doorways, stood with folded arms silently watching us. Madame Blanchard stayed invisibly indoors.

  Georges closed up the back of the lorry. He said loudly, for all the neighbours to hear: thanks, Andrée, you’re a good girl. I cringed but he gave me another wink. The neighbours withdrew, closed their doors. Madame Blanchard called from inside: hurry up or I’ll miss my train!

  Georges checked his watch: I’ll be late. I’ll cop it when I get back.

  He shook my hand, tugged down his cap, opened the cab door. I stood on the edge of the kerb, balancing back and forth. I said: everybody in this town knows everybody else. Have you always lived here? Did you know my mother, Jeanne Nérin? Climbing into the cab, Georges glanced over his shoulder: sure. Just by sight, mind. Madame Blanchard shouted again from inside. Georges slammed the door. He rolled down the window: she left before the war. She went off to work over in Ste-Madeleine. See you! He revved the engine. Away he drove.

  I helped Madame Blanchard transport her hand luggage to the railway station. She was too mean to pay for a taxi, so we borrowed the convent handcart and used that. I tugged it bumping along over the cobbles, while she tittupped next to me in her high heels. Before the train moved off she said to me: as your godmother, I’ve always done my best for you, I’ve done all I can, just behave yourself and you’ll come to no harm.

  The carriage window framed her. She’d pushed down the window glass and leaned out. Behind her, above the seats, her suitcases and boxes crammed the racks. She spoke her farewell then turned her face this way and that so that I could aim kisses at her cheeks. I seized the gloved hand that rested on top of the pushed-down glass and gripped it. Ridged seams of fabric fingers. The whistle shrilled. Madame Blanchard tried to wrest her hand away. I held on. The whistle shrilled again. The train jumped, jolted, began to glide past the platform. I stumbled along, keeping pace with it. I called: so where is my mother now? Madame Blanchard cried out: oh for heaven’s sake! I let go of her hand. She shouted: I don’t know, we lost touch years ago. And in any case remember that she didn’t want to have anything to do with you.

  She ducked back as the train moved off. I yelled after her: you’re a liar! She slammed up the carriage window and disappeared behind it.

  I started back towards the convent, my hands in my skirt pockets. I fingered notes and coins, the change I hadn’t given back to my godmother after buying cleaning materials at the quincaillerie. She’d forgotten to ask for it. Just as well. I needed it for running away.

  I heated up the nuns’ leek soup, sawed slices of bread. These days the professed community comprised just twelve sisters. They used just one of the oak tables in the refectory, five sisters on each side, with Reverend Mother at one end and Mother Lucie at the other. The novices and postulants ate at the table opposite. A single bulb swung from the ceiling on a twisted brown cord and leaked pale yellow light. The nuns folded their hands and stared at their brown pottery bowls.

  I stood at the serving trolley, ladle in hand. We all bowed our heads while Reverend Mother intoned Grace. She should have thanked me for that good soup, not God. The nuns tucked their brown linen napkins under their chins, picked up their spoons. Mother Lucie sang out to no one in particular: we worried we’d not have enough to feed them, poor little things. But they didn’t stay with us all that long, in the event, did they?

  Clink of metal on earthenware. Click of someone’s dentures. The older nuns dunked their bread in their soup, to soften it. They swallowed noisily. Another Grace. Scrape of benches pushed back. The nuns filed out, in the same order as always. I pushed the serving trolley, laden with empty bowls, into the corner of the kitchen. I’d do them tomorrow. Or not.

  While the nuns went off to say Vespers I washed the kitchen floor. How many hundreds of times had I done that? I waited for Mother Lucie outside the chapel, helped her up the back stairs to the nuns’ dormitory. One arm firmly under her elbow. Her fingers clutching mine. With her other hand she gripped the banister. She panted and wheezed, lifting one foot then the other. I felt her mind clench, instruct her muscles, I felt her will instruct her legs to shift, whatever the pain grinding in her joints. If I went away, who’d help her? Perhaps they’d just leave her to rot in bed all day. Over the slippery lino floor we lurched. I pulled aside her white cubicle curtains. I sat her on the edge of her metal bed and knelt in front of her to tug off her slippers. She gripped the bed with both hands, trying to keep herself upright. She closed her eyes, toppled into my arms, already falling asleep. Hey, come on, ma mère. I tapped her cheek. We’re not done yet. Let’s get these off. A docile old child, she raised her arms to let go of habit, petticoat, vest. She mumbled: we lost the children. She leaned back against her pillow, shut her eyes, began to snore.

  I retreated to my own cubicle at the end of the postulants’ and novices’ dormitory and closed my curtains. They jigged to and fro. The draught whistled in from under the distant door, rattled the ill-fitting sash windows. I sat up in bed and wound the sheet around my hands lest the wind tug me forth. The wind won. Whoreschild neighed softly. This is your last night here. Your last chance to go exploring.

  I got up, put on my dressing gown, glided out of the dormitory into the vestibule at the far end. Thick darkness. I didn’t dare switch on a light. I’d have to find a candle. I slipped down the stairs, flight by flight, to the ground floor, passed the refectory, approached the big black door marking the boundary of the convent. I pushed through, entered the school, the red-tiled passage. A red glow from the shrine: a flame inside a red glass holder. I entered the shrine, lifted down the stubby candle in its red cradle, set off again, back towards the convent.

  Beyond the big black door, I turned right not left. I crept into the convent’s oval entrance hall. My red light gleamed on the columns bracing the front door, the porcelain stand bearing its pot of flowers, a marble lip of stair, the curled-over end of the balustrade.

  I peered up into the darkness. Nothing up there, Mother Lucie had said. What did nothing mean? Heaven was always referred to as up there. You couldn’t see it but you had to believe in it. At the top of the stairs might be ghosts, or monsters. There was something up there. If I didn’t go up I’d not find out whatever it was. It waited for me. Did I want to meet it or not?

  I ascended the staircase, pressing up into the dark, testing each step. Whoreschild spread her red wings and hovered above me. I held the votive candle in one hand and gripped the handrail with the other. The long, ornate iron curl spiralled upwards into shadows, tugging the wedges of marble to curve up with it. I reached out, held on to Whoreschild
s red mane, which twined round me.

  On the first floor an oval vestibule echoed the shape of the hall below. It led, through two sets of double doors, into a salon. Curtains of mossy greyness, old hangings swagged with dust, let me through. I slipped across a curved, comma-shaped parquet floor, between walls of grey shadow. Lofty room draped with cobwebs, piled with spiky shapes of broken furniture, soft mounds of what must be yet more dust in the corners. Neglected spaces, smelling of rot. A girl in a long white robe advanced towards me, one hand outstretched. I jumped and squeaked and almost dropped my little light. The ghost-girl met me and struck me: my hand on a clammy mirror.

  The steps to the second floor were of wood. They creaked under my bare feet. Now the house narrowed, shrank to a little panelled entry containing a single door. This opened into an oblong room, empty of furniture, the dust rolled into bolsters of fluff along the angles of floor and walls. I swivelled my candle-glass around, swept my glance up and down. Round dents in lino. Eight tiny punches. I bent closer, moved my flickery flame to and fro. The marks of little wheels. Trolleys? Beds? Perhaps the nuns had once used this room for an overflow of orphans. Mother Lucie probably knew the details, but I’d not get the chance to ask her now. She might have forgotten, in any case. She was no longer reliable. I could hear her quaver: they cried for their mother, but what else could we have done?

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