Ignorance a novel, p.13
Ignorance: A Novel, page 13
I retraced my steps back out to the landing. One more floor to go. I edged up a short, straight flight of ladderlike steps to a small wooden door. Opening this, I entered the open space of the attic. It ran off right and left, ends lost in shadow. Rafters reached down, bracing the sloping roof that skimmed my head. To one side, a low row of round windows faced out. I walked forwards over unpolished wooden boards, past a row of broken statues. Moonlight splashed on to battered, noseless Virgins, pale paint peeling from their moulded cloaks, their chipped hands clasped in prayer.
At the far end: a tall cupboard. I tugged at the white china doorknob, pulled it open. Two pairs of little wooden-soled boots spilled out. The cupboard was very shallow, its back a wall of raw brick, the cracks between blocks oozing hardened curls of mortar.
Perhaps the wall had been built to stop up an entrance. Perhaps my dreams had got it right: from here you’d once been able to get through, into the house next door.
I went back down the steep little stair to the second floor. I felt sleepy now, as though I were melting, part of the grey shadows. As I paused in the little foyer the place woke up, stirred, rustled. A kind of yawn took place inside me, outside me. Something, the fabric of my life, parted and tore, my skin peeled back and the world rushed in, I forgot how old I was, the wall cracked and something erupted through. Footsteps clattered on the staircase below, the steps creaked and shook, wooden soles bumping on to the bare treads, a child wailed, a young woman’s voice whispered hush, be quick, be quick. I shivered. I felt I’d been slashed with a knife to the belly, I bowed over, wanted to cry, but knew I must make no sound. When I shivered again the crack in the wall mended itself, whatever had escaped went back in, the night folded back around me, I stood alone once more on the landing.
I returned to my cubicle, lay awake for the rest of the night listening to postulants and novices tossing on their hard mattresses, coughing and farting, one or two moaning in dreams. When the bell for rising clanged, I got dressed as usual, in grey blouse and skirt, blue overall and blue headscarf. I shoved the filched letter into my pocket, along with my money. I pushed back my cubicle curtains, joined the end of the short file of beginner-nuns processing past their stripped beds, sheets and coverlets all folded back. I stilled my breathing, bent my head, took neat steps.
The stone-floored chapel felt as chilly as ever. Kneeling to one side of the row of postulants, I blew on my hands, rubbed them together to try and warm them. Opposite me, beyond the altar, in their fenced-off chapel behind their grille, the nuns faced forwards in their stalls, fingers knotted on top of their prie-dieux. Backs as straight as they could make them. Faces turned towards God. Prayer stilled them to a black and white pattern of devotion. Like a photograph I’d take away with me. I was looking at them from a distance, saying goodbye. Set apart from me, suddenly they seemed holy, and powerful in their holiness. Not just ordinary women whom I knew well, their peculiarities and weaknesses, but so good. They accepted serenely what God sent them, whether he spoke to them or not. They had real faith, and lived their lives according to that faith, bravely dealing with loneliness, boredom and cold.
A voice growled in my ear. Sentimental rubbish. Why don’t they ask questions? Perhaps they are scared?
I jumped. Sister Dolly would have said it was the voice of the devil but I wasn’t sure. A puff of dust whirled up near the door at the back of the chapel as though someone had just gone out and let in the wind from the cloister.
I walked for the last time from the chapel to the kitchen. My convent-city: I could have strolled it blindfold. I laid a tray ready for someone to take up to Mother Lucie, who was still in bed. My fault: I’d not helped her get up. I was abandoning her. No other word for it.
Dolly stormed in, pointed at the trolley, stacked with unwashed supper bowls: leaving dirty crockery out overnight just encourages mice. Whatever’s got into you? It’s all this jaunting about. She grumbled on, while I ran water into the sink, kept one eye on the coffee urn, the big pan of milk. Washing up in a hurry, I didn’t rinse things properly. Lifting crockery from basin to draining board, I dropped a bowl. Coated with soap, it slipped through my fingers and smashed on the floor. Smashed plate smashed mother smashed Whoreschild smashed me.
I knelt down to pick up the fragments. Thick pottery bits, painted with glittery brown glaze. I gathered them into one hand. Sister Dolly’s big black shoes parked themselves in front of me. I ducked my head and studied the shining tiles, those old friends I’d washed last night. Suddenly I wanted to kiss them. I bent over, let my lips touch the cold surface. Smell of linseed oil and soap. Goodbye, floor. Peace descended on me. Thank you, floor.
For heaven’s sake! shouted Dolly: no need to exaggerate! Stop showing off!
I got up, threw the broken pieces into the bin. Dolly jerked a greying tea towel between her hands and picked at its frayed edge. I was the tea towel. She wanted to give me a good shake but couldn’t. Holy charity forbade it.
Sink lapping with warm water bobbing with slivers of onion. Rimmed with grease. The used smell of our woollen clothes. Not enough air in here: windows all sealed shut. I said: I forgot the handcart at the station yesterday. May I have permission to go and fetch it?
Dolly folded the tea towel against her belly, smacked it smooth, hung it over the empty rack on the draining board. She blew out her breath and said: away with you. Off you go, you daft creature. You’re in no fit state to serve breakfast. I think you’ve gone mad.
I lowered my head, started untying my apron. Why were warm drops falling on my fingers? Knots. Why were the strings wet? Dolly hesitated: sorry I shouted. I shouldn’t have.
She made me cry so that then she could be nice to me. Stick the knife in then pat the wound. Shout more. Don’t be kind. How will I manage to leave if you start considering my feelings? Whoreschild turned her head in anguish from side to side, neighing and trampling. Just let me out. I arched my neck and whinnied, reared on my back legs, striking my hooves on the door. I banged out so that Dolly wouldn’t halter me with a soft word. Stay cold, Dolly. Stay hard as the floor. Remember after I’ve gone that I kissed the floor rather than you.
I’d turned Dolly to stone. I turned myself into a trolley on quick wheels. The corridors stretched ahead, very quiet and clean. I bowled down them. Another wave of my wand and I became the solitary ball of dusty fluff blowing along, the sole piece of grit fetching up against the doormat. I swung open the front door and the dustpan-house tipped me out into the square.
Behind me the chapel bell tolled eight o’clock. My scarf, fastened behind my head, felt too tight. I untied it, re-arranged it, knotting it loosely under my chin in the style of the women of the town. I pulled it forward, to shield my face.
The early air smelled fresh. Cobbles still wet with dew. A couple of men, holding newspapers and baguettes, stood on the corner. They took no notice of me. A dog trotted past, lifted its yellow leg to piss against a lamp-post, trotted on again.
I descended the steep street that led towards the parish church. Wind flipped up the point of my headscarf, chafed the back of my neck.
My pace began to slow. Such a cold morning. I had no coat and no jacket. Should I turn round and go back? They wouldn’t have missed me yet. Dolly would simply suppose I’d flounced off in a huff. She’d be expecting me to return with the handcart sooner or later, once I’d had a good sulk, to get on with the vegetables for lunch. A hill of turnips awaited me. I could slip back in, no questions asked. Be safe again. I wanted a gendarme to tap me on the shoulder and demand to know my business. I wanted to scream: capture me! I’ve run away! Take me back!
I called to Whoreschild to follow me, stuck my hands into my sleeves and marched into the park. Dark flowerbeds put up ramrod stems. Evergreens dripped and gleamed. When I passed the tramps’ bench, the shape slumped there stirred, spotted me and sang out. Hello! Hey, Andrée!
White-grey crewcut, creased reddish face, bald brown coat, brown scarf. Georges Duchamp patted the bench. Com
Georges patted his pockets. Dearie me. Hey, what’s this? He proffered a squat bottle.
I took a sip, not wanting to hurt his feelings by saying no. Deep, dark taste. Sugared and fiery, it hit the back of my throat, made me splutter and cough. Georges dug his hand back into his pocket and brought out a broken bit of petit-beurre biscuit. He folded my fingers around its pleated edge. He laid his hand on my arm: bon appétit.
My lips began trembling. Words jumped up from somewhere deep in my stomach, flew out of my mouth: what happened to you? Why are you homeless?
He wiped the neck of the bottle on his brown coat sleeve and handed it to me again. I shook my head. He sighed, flattened his wrinkled eyelids over his eyes. People were supposed to be in charge of their own faces but his loosened far too much. His cheeks plumped, sponges to soak up tears. I whistled, summoned Whoreschild, who leaped over the park fence, trotted up. I murmured to her; she swished her tail, backed off, nibbled grass. He said: who wants to employ a mutilé de guerre? Who gives a fuck? No one. Then if you’re out of work you can’t pay rent. So you’re thrown out.
I said: you’ve no family left? Georges shook his head. Let’s say the bastards don’t want to know me. Gone to the bad, haven’t I? He mused for a while. I ate the piece of ancient biscuit, stale and soft. He said: I lost touch with most of my friends during the war. I’ve had to start all over again.
He opened his eyes, took another swig. His breath smelled thick and sweet. His mouth worked. He said: what with one thing and another. Thousands like me.
I waited for him to put some more words into the right order, tell them to look sharp, but his words wouldn’t obey. His lips parted, but the words flew out soundlessly and escaped over the treetops. The spirit I’d drunk felt like a knife scouring my innards. I said: we need something to eat.
I could take Georges to a café, pay for breakfast with Madame Blanchard’s money. Rolls with blackcurrant jam. Real coffee, not mixed with chicory, served in thick green cups with gold rims. Sugar cubes wrapped in paper. No need to rush. Bask in the heat of the café, the pop music on the radio, the sight of men’s caps and hats on the hatstand, the smell of their tobacco as they lit up and inhaled. I’d wait as long as necessary for Georges to feel like speaking. Warmed and fed, smoking a cigarette, he’d tell me what he remembered about my mother. Perhaps he’d help me think of a way to discover where she was living. Someone at his hostel might know what you had to do. Where you went to find out. I could ask them to help me. Then I could write to her. Suggest a meeting.
I couldn’t leave him just yet. His brown coat sleeve implored me to stay. At least twenty years old, that coat. Brown wool, shiny and rubbed. Smelling of tobacco. Perhaps she’d touched it once. I could touch the place where once she’d leaned her hand.
Georges said: you’re a good, practical girl, aren’t you. We could do with someone like you at the hostel. Want a job?
What kind of job? I was good at cleaning but I’d had enough of it. Laundry ditto. Nuns’ vests, nuns’ bloomers, nuns’ bonnets: someone else could pound them, starch them, iron them. Never again would I have to plod out to that little back yard on a raw winter day, my cold slippered feet sliding in my clogs. In windy weather the sheets flapped and cracked on the line and smacked me as I tried to unpin them. Dolly’s job to cope with the laundry now. Good luck to her.
Georges said: we could do with a decent cook. Someone who really knows what’s what.
What was their kitchen like? Big enough to walk to and fro in, with a back doorstep where you could sit and feel the sun on your face while you topped and tailed beans. I could be in sole charge of it. No one bossing me around and ticking me off. I’d wear a smart white cap and apron and dip my ladle into the pots, tasting and testing. If anyone gave me grief I’d whistle up Whoreschild, get her to rear and kick and frighten them.
Then I would leave, when I was ready, to find my mother.
Georges said: you’d get paid. Not much, but something.
What did my mother look like now? If we met, what would we say to one another? Would we feel able to speak at all? It would be hard for us both. That would be our point of meeting. That difficulty. Would we get through it? I didn’t know.
I said: I’ll come and help you out for a bit, if you’ll help me in return.
I pulled him to his feet. He said: for fuck’s sake! All right, all right.
Just before the war broke out, soon after my eighteenth birthday, I found new employment; in a house in nearby Ste-Madeleine.
News of the vacancy zigzagged towards me like a paper dart. Neighbours picked up the dart, read its message, sailed it on. The fact of a job becoming available pleated itself into the way we learned of it. Madame Fauchon heard about it from her husband who heard about it from the man who had married the young maidservant in Ste-Madeleine. The newly-wed couple had moved to lodgings in Ste-Marie, where the husband had found temporary work at the forge. The husband brought his boots into the cobbler’s soon afterwards, and fell into conversation with Monsieur Fauchon. Monsieur Fauchon mentioned to his wife that the young woman had left her housemaid’s job. Madame Fauchon told Maman the job was going. Maman told me.
She shook silvery raindrops from her hair, stamped on the mat. She unbelted her coat, fished in her pocket. She unscrewed a scrap of paper. Here’s the address. Near the railway station, I think.
I took the paper from her, and her coat. I hung the sodden coat on the peg near the door, put down a wad of newspaper to catch the drips. The kitchen filled with the smell of damp wool. The cold came inside with the thick wet smell, muffling my mouth. I laid the draught-extinguisher against the bottom of the door. A patched bolster-cover stuffed with stockings past repair. Only just wide enough. You felt the wind trying to lift it aside at either end; whistle in.
Maman said: sounds like a lodging house. She bent, pulled on her slippers. Her dark hair showed grey threads. Write this evening.
I wrote on a leaf of paper torn out of an old school exercise book. My prospective employer wrote back on pink notepaper with deckled edges. A small hand, with neat loops and flourishes. Pale blue ink. The patronne suggested a week’s trial. She offered me my meals, a bed, my servant’s uniform. Maman said: you’ll be able to save your wages every week. She tied on her apron, began scrubbing a celeriac root at the sink. She spoke to the basin of water: I wish you didn’t have to go away from home. My mouth felt crowded with spikes. Bite down on thorns, on blood.
We didn’t own a suitcase, so I packed my clothes, books and art things in the old basket we used for collecting firewood. I mended the handle with string, and salvaged a box from the Fauchons to hold our kindling. I waited in their shop while Madame Fauchon emptied out a stream of silver nails. Monsieur Fauchon said: I wouldn’t like one of my little ones to go so far. Such times we live in! He handed me the box. But your mother’s always had her own way of doing things. His wife folded her arms. Just you watch out for yourself, that’s all.
The day before I left was a Sunday. In the afternoon we got dressed up and went to the dance hall near the factory. I wore Maman’s old yellow frock, taken up and taken in. Maman wore its sister frock, in coral. She put on lipstick and powder, pinned up her hair into a glossy black roll. The lights in the hall burned red and yellow and blue. Men thronged at the bar, while women and girls sat on benches at the side. I found a vantage point behind the benches, in the shadows, peeped out between bare necks, ridged hairdos. Bare, shining floor. Fizz of fiddles. Smell of fresh sweat, lavender, musky perfume.
Plenty of men asked my mother to dance. They whirled her in fast waltzes, as though she were a spool of ribbon they were unwinding and shaking out. They spilled my mother tumbling coral silk across the floor and she gripped them and gazed at them seriously as they spun her round.
Halfway through the aft
My mother ran up to take part, joined a row of neighbours from our street, fell into step with them, advancing, pointing her toe, jigging forwards and back. People were grave-faced, concentrating. Only my mother smiled. The country dance finished and the wheel disintegrated. People scattered. A polka began. Maman hovered near me, under a yellow light.
Monsieur Jacquotet got up, crossed the floor, held out his hand to her. She flowed towards him, fitted herself into his embrace. A group of boys holding glasses of beer blocked my view. I pushed round them, peered past them. One of them glared at me, swore: mind out, big nose! His friend hissed: Jewish cunt! I ducked away. Couples merged into a mass of circling bodies. Maman’s red frock kept flicking past. The music dictated the swerve of her narrow, spirited waist, her thin ankles. She was whippy and quick, her skirts twirling. She’d forgotten me completely. A chisel drove into my belly, twisted its point round. Tearing flesh. Spill of blood and guts. I wanted to howl. Hold in the howl, hold in the chisel. Gouged inside, chisel twisting to and fro like polka music.
The polka finished and movement stilled. The dancers became individual figures once more. Monsieur Jacquotet bowed to Maman. He smiled. Took a pace backwards, into the crowd. One face among many. A blur. He vanished into the dark jostle of bodies. The air closed on his absence, on the smell of beer and hot flesh and cigarettes. I looked down at the scratched, muddied floor. The tips of my shoes. I hadn’t let my shoes dance, though they’d wanted to. Too shy. Anyway, no one had asked me. Anyway, I didn’t know the steps.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes