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The looking glass, p.12

The Looking Glass, page 12


The Looking Glass

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  Lying in bed, propped on my huge square pillow and fat bolster, I pretend I’m swimming underwater. Through the open window I can see blue sky, and below it, seemingly just outside my windowsill, a gently descending slope of pebbles, then an expanse of wet shingle, drawn up on whose ridge are three fishing boats, their hulls glistening and black. Dropped beyond them is the blue-green sea dazzling with light. Gulls cry and swoop, and the long white muslin curtains flutter like gulls’ wings. The air blows in onto my face, salty and fresh. I’m floating between sea and sky; I’m surfacing into a dream from which I don’t want to wake; the quilt lies lightly across my knees like a fat white cloud. I want to stay here for ever, caught in this moment of purest happiness, suspended, idling in the brilliant light. But now I must get up and dress and go next door to see to Marie-Louise.


  It turned out that Geneviève had got up early and gone out, forbidding Marie-Louise to accompany her, bidding her wait for me. She said to Marie-Louise that she couldn’t help it, she just had to go outside and look at the sea. I can understand that. I fell asleep last night to the repeated soft crash of water onto the beach, and I believe I heard it all night long, waking up into it, as though the waves were surging into my room and wanted to take me away with them. Geneviève came back just in time to help Madame Colbert do her hair. We breakfasted hastily then went out to make a cursory exploration of the little town.

  The valley opens out like a mouth, for the sea to rush into, and Etretat sits in it, wedged between the steep chalk cliffs rising on either side. It’s a small town, triangular shaped, a maze of narrow streets tight with old houses and cottages, some half-timbered and some built of flint, with back alleys leading to tiny gardens tucked in between. Wherever you go you hear the gulls crying overhead and you smell the sea. We saw the sights which tourists are obliged to visit: the Romanesque church, the old marketplace, several ancient and picturesque café-restaurants. Gérard turns out to know the town well and squired us about. Geneviève stayed behind in the hotel to organise finding a washerwoman and getting our laundry done.

  Déjeuner was a big bowl of moules à la marinière followed by grilled mackerel with sorrel and butter sauce. The fish is caught in the morning, sold on the stalls at the top of the beach, cooked a moment later then whisked onto our plates, as fresh as can be. After déjeuner, Gérard vanished outside to smoke a cigar and to talk to a couple of old acquaintances he had met who were also staying at the hotel; painters, he said, who come here every year to paint the changing light. Marie-Louise pleaded to be allowed to forgo her nap, to go out again immediately and walk beside the sea. Madame Colbert did not argue. She was drowsy with food and wanted her own doze. She settled herself in a wicker chair behind the glass wall of the hotel sun-porch, which gives onto the broad esplanade running between the two sheltering wings of the cliffs. We left Geneviève on duty beside Madame Colbert, ready to chat to her when she woke up, and we ran off like children given a day out of school, down the broad flight of steps onto the beach.

  Once there, you’re in a new element. You jump down onto the damp stones; you smell fish and the sharp salt breeze; you become transformed; another creature. Freer. More daring. Not caring about how you look or what other people think. Marie-Louise felt it too. She grabbed my hand and shouted aloud with pleasure.

  We slipped and slithered down the steep shelf of pebbles, digging our heels in, leaning backwards. Then we reached flat shingle. The tide was now going out, leaving behind a fringe of seaweed, broken shells, dead starfish, bits of cuttlefish. We crunched to the sea’s edge and bent down to dip our fingers into transparent water. It was so cold our hands felt gloved in ice, but nonetheless we took off our shoes and stockings and paddled in the shallows, letting the spent waves ripple over our feet, enjoying the shock of the chilliness. Quite quickly we were warm again, standing in the sun, covered all over by it; like a coat. You could feel the power of the tide under your soles, the grit sliding around your toes as the sea tugged against them.

  We wandered back and forth, looking at the views, the great arches of cliff that dive out at either end of the beach and plunge into violet-shadowed sea. Then, still barefoot, we picked our way slowly over the stones as far as we could go to the left, past the start of the cliff path and down towards the flat black expanse of rock. We teetered over heaps of floppy brown seaweed and peered into pools like tiny steep pockets of water among the crevasses, floored with fine sand, with cushions of feathery green moss so vividly bright you blinked, swarming with tiny white crabs, so pale they were translucent. Of course at this point I had to carry Marie-Louise’s shoes and stockings so that she could have her hands free, first for waving in the air to help her balance on the slippery surface of the rocks, and then for scooping down into the rock pools, trying to catch crabs, to prise off stubborn limpets. If you caught these unawares, you could shift them a fraction, just for a second, before they took fright and hunkered back down, leaving no jellied gap between fluted shell skirt and rock. While Marie-Louise hunted, I picked up pebbles. I liked their coldness and smoothness inside my clasp. Soon my pockets were weighed down, bumping against my knees, and my fingers, when I licked them, tasted strongly of salt.

  Next time I looked round, there was Gérard standing on a boulder, quite close to us, hands in his pockets, staring out to sea.

  I didn’t move, or wave. I just waited. I was content simply to be near him. His presence made me happy. Nothing else had to happen. We were together, by the sea; we shared the rocks and the green waves and the sky; that was enough. I wanted the moment to last. Then, somewhere behind us, a dog barked, and Gérard glanced up, saw me, and came towards us.

  We trod out further over the platform of rocks. The tide was now so low that you could walk through the great archway cutting under the cliff, towards the next bay, picking your way over yellow boulders already scoured dry by sun and wind. Right in the centre of this tunnel-like path, the cliff wall gaped to reveal an opening. Bending over, we crept into a cave that reached back into darkness. Under our feet was wet sand shaped into ripples by the departing sea. Difficult to walk over. So we sat down near the mouth of the cave and rested, out of the sharp breeze, and Marie-Louise and I put our shoes and stockings back on. I wore my stockings rolled down around my ankles like socks. I couldn’t very well do otherwise, with Gérard there. I didn’t want to waste these precious minutes of his company finding a boulder to retire behind. I didn’t want to be coy and have him laugh at me.

  Apparently the sea lends you a cave like this just for a short time, before the tide turns and the waves come racing back. These are dangerous places, Gérard told us, these caverns along this stretch of coast, that rise into chimneys reaching right up through the cliffs; people have perished here, coming out to explore but then forgetting the hour of the turning tide, becoming cut off and trapped by the rising waters, unable to get back to the safety of the main beach.

  Marie-Louise loved feeling a little frightened by Gérard’s tales. She wanted to stay on in the cave and play houses, but we were cold and wanted to get back into the heat of the sun, so we coaxed her out.

  We were too tired, suddenly, to take the walk we had planned, up the cliff path and down again. I promised we’d take it tomorrow. We sat on Gérard’s coat on the ridge above the tideline, instead, and skated stones down the beach towards the far-off water. Marie-Louise, who had missed her usual nap, suddenly dropped, worn out by sun and fresh air, felled by the salt breeze. She curled up between us and fell asleep.

  —We’ll be her windbreaks, Gérard said to me: her sentries. You’re not desperate to go back yet, are you?

  —No, I said; I’d rather stay here.

  At first we sat propped against the steep slope of stones at our back, looking out to sea, knees drawn up, chins resting on folded arms, and then we turned to face each other, reclining on our elbows, so that we were looking at one another as we talked. I don’t know how I managed this. He was so close to me that I fe
lt I was trembling. I wanted to touch him so much I had to concentrate fiercely on keeping still. I could scarcely speak. I could hardly form an opinion let alone shape it into words; I felt tongue-tied and stammering. When I said anything I thought how stupid I must sound. This intimacy was what I desired more than anything in the world and yet it unnerved me. Something powerful, a tide of wanting, was drawing me towards him and pushing me back, forward and back, like the rhythm of the sea itself, the waves falling urgently onto the beach. My insides leaped about in a mad ballet; I lay there a hand’s touch away from him, but not quite touching him; I thought I might turn to water.

  I’d emptied my pockets of my collection of pebbles when we sat down, and now his hand kept picking them up, one by one, and caressing them, examining them one by one in his palm, then stroking them slowly with his forefinger. I can’t remember all we talked about. It’s his nearness I was conscious of, that I was reclining on his rough old coat, next to him on the damp stones, as though we were on a bed. We talked a little about our childhoods, and he told me about his life in Paris, before his father died and his mother came to live with him. He has been to London twice. He said he’ll never forget the smell of the London fog which crept under the window sash and swirled about in his rented rooms, gritty, smelling of soot.

  Marie-Louise began to stir, and it was clearly time to go. Gérard leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. He looked at me for a second then made to do it again. I quickly turned my face so that the kiss half landed on my mouth.

  Then we scrambled to our feet, and lifted Marie-Louise by her elbows, and took her back to the hotel for her tea. All evening I have been restless, in a fever of not wanting to sit still, which I have tried to hide. All I want to do is talk with him, stay close to him, and of course I can’t; I mustn’t. It is a relief to have come up to bed early, pleading tiredness, and to be sitting beside the open window scribbling this. After supper Gérard went out for a stroll. My soul has flown out with him to walk beside him, invisible in the fragrant salty night. I imagine I can smell the scent of his cigar and see its red tip winking in the darkness. Like a beacon marking the harbour and I’m the ship making for the shore.


  I am writing this down as though I believe it but I can’t. Gérard is not going to stay with us in Etretat after all. He is going away. He accompanied us here simply to settle us in and will depart early tomorrow morning.

  I don’t know where he is going because Madame Colbert did not say. She gave me this news idly, as though it were not important, as I was helping Marie-Louise sort out the bucket of shells and stones she had brought back from the beach. She spoke quite casually but her little eyes were sharper than buttonhooks. That woman is my enemy. She does not want me to be happy; she wants me to suffer. And I am suffering; my entire body feels as though it is being torn slowly in two and I feel sick and couldn’t eat any supper. All the time Madame Colbert watched me speculatively as though I were a spider she had found in the bath and she was wondering whether or not to scoop me out or simply squash me.

  Marie-Louise was distraught at the news, and comforting her helped me to pretend that I wasn’t.

  —Of course Uncle Gérard is going away, the hateful woman informed Marie-Louise; we can’t expect him to spend all day doing nothing, merely keeping us company by the seaside; he has work to do; he can’t hang around here indefinitely wasting his precious time.

  I was pleased with myself. She wanted to hurt me; she stabbed me to the heart with her cool words, which she flung out as though they were meaningless and ordinary, like the florets of seaweed Marie-Louise was arranging in patterns on the tray; but I did not let her see her words’ effect; I refused to grant her that satisfaction. The victory is mine. I glanced at her as though what she had said was not very interesting, far too banal to bother with over-much, and I murmured: oh, really, yes of course. And then I watched my fingers pick up a fragment of mussel shell and fit it neatly into place in the child’s mosaic. Her words ripped me open; I began to bleed; but I felt my mouth stretch into the grimace of a smile and heard my voice say, quite unconcerned: it’s time to tidy up, chérie, it will soon be lunchtime.

  I don’t know what else happened today. Gérard did not reappear. I have not seen him since breakfast when he sat behind the paper in silence. I have crawled through the day. I had the sensation of pinning my lips together so that I would not cry out; my mouth could not spring open and release a scream of anguish. Now I’m upstairs, in my nightclothes. I heard everybody come up to bed, their doors close, their bedsprings squeak once, twice, as they sank down on their mattresses. I am waiting until she, my enemy, his mother, is fast asleep. I am waiting for the entire hotel to settle down. Then I am going to creep upstairs and find Gérard. I have got to know when I shall be able to see him again. He must tell me. I don’t understand what is happening and he must explain. I must go upstairs and find him and be with him. He will talk to me and he will tell me everything will be all right. I’m sitting here crying and shivering, crying very quietly so no one will hear. I must dry my eyes, wash my face and brush my hair. I must go upstairs.


  Gérard departed this morning, immediately after breakfast. He shook my hand and said goodbye.


  The only thing to do was to get out of there as fast as possible. I fled from Madame Montjean’s house, from Madame Montjean’s husband, from Madame Montjean’s sick child. I escaped what the curé would have called the future or possible occasion of sin, by putting distance between myself and it, but I took with me the memory of Madame Montjean’s face, of Madame Montjean’s voice. Etched into my flesh like acid, a burn of shame.

  Frédéric had backed off, stood leaning against the wall. Now he shouldered forwards. Perhaps he was going to hit me. I hauled up my disarranged clothes then flung myself at the door. My legs were shaking but I managed to get out. Somebody was howling but you couldn’t hear the noise.

  The air seemed full of collisions and cries. Then came a long moment of silence. I avoided whatever happened next. Leaving the two of them facing each other in the bar, I darted out into the kitchen and upstairs into my room. On the top shelf of my cupboard reposed my neatly folded woollen cloak, and, on the one below, my leather purse, swollen with coins. I grabbed these, then slunk downstairs again, out of the back door, across the yard, and into the street.

  The village drowsed in its afternoon hush. I saw no one as I blundered through it with my belongings scrambled under my arm. My breath heaved and sawed painfully in my lungs as I ran; tears and snot flowed down my cheeks; all my bones scraped. Moments later I had got past the outlying cottages and was heading away from Blessetot, up the steep chalk road that led inland. When I met the main coast road, I turned right into it and began to make my way towards Etretat.

  I trudged along with my apron pulled up over my head, a makeshift veil, so that my head and shoulders were screened from the hot sun of early afternoon. Behind this shelter I could cry in private, with no one to see me. With luck no one would be able to say which way I had gone.

  Arriving in Etretat, I made for the orphanage, not knowing what else to do. I was dull and stupid from so much weeping, from walking through the hot afternoon. My feet led me to the pointed gate in the high wall, and my hand, of its own volition, stretched up and tugged the iron bellpull. I had no idea what I was going to say to Sister Pauline. Words were something I seemed to have left behind. But convent rules saved me from having to dig for language. The nuns’ routine was not to be broken by chance visitors arriving as supplicants. The portress who peered at me through the tiny barred window that flew open in the gate was a young sister whose bony face, framed in the well-remembered white coif and black bonnet, I did not recognise. Her hand, resting on the catch of the casement, was looped with a rosary of black beads. I had interrupted her prayers. She moved her thin lips impatiently but said nothing.

  I mumbled Sister Pauline’s name.

; The nun lifted her sandy eyebrows. Forced to speak, she sighed. She said in her pinched voice that Sister Pauline was of course in chapel, singing the Divine Office, and could not be disturbed. She glared at me as she spoke. Clearly I was an idiot heathen not to know at what times the nuns sang the Hours in choir. Worse, I was probably a prowler up to no good; perhaps she would have me driven away. I did not dare ask if I could leave a message. I stuck my hands in my pockets and stared at the nun’s chin. She had a mole on it, wrinkled and brown as a currant. I had forgotten how much time the nuns had to spend in church. I felt sorry for Sister Pauline. I couldn’t imagine how she survived all those hours on her knees. But I felt envious too. She might be bored but at least she was safe. She was not in trouble. I realised I couldn’t possibly explain to her what had happened to me. It was a blessing, really, that I wasn’t given the chance to soil her ears with an account of my wickedness. I could protect her. Her innocence could survive intact. For a nun that was important.

  —Come back on Monday, said the portress: that’s our day for giving alms. I will see to you then. But for now, be off with you.

  The little window in the door slammed shut. I sat down on the kerb and wondered what to do. The late afternoon felt fidgety and hot, full of edges that rubbed and cut. The street was my only house now, but it was too shaky a place to shelter in. The market hall was shut. I could not creep inside and take refuge there. All the houses had turned themselves inside out and thrown me out; the roofs had all blown off; the walls were of straw; the wolf was prowling near. If I curled up and escaped the difficult afternoon by going to sleep, as I longed to do, my back would feel too exposed; I’d be too vulnerable; someone might come and attack me. Only bad people loitered in the streets of bars and cafés behind the market-place, that was clear. Good people had homes to go to. A passing woman frowned distantly in my direction and twitched her skirts aside. I suddenly felt afraid that the police would appear and haul me off to a cell.

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