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The looking glass, p.13

The Looking Glass, page 13


The Looking Glass

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  Male passers-by, drifting along in twos and threes, glanced at me speculatively. Their glances assessed my flesh; livestock at market. A couple of these men, bolder than the rest, approached me and suggested I accompany them to a nearby café. They mimed to each other, laughing, what we might do next. I was trapped in dreamy panic. My limbs were sandbags, too heavy to lift. The only thing to do was to hide inside this passivity. The only way I could defend myself was to anticipate what they’d do next and act before they did, get in first, as though I were not at all afraid. Forestall being gobbled up by the wolf by throwing myself into the wolf’s jaws. Appear willing; offer to go with them; do whatever they wanted; while the real me hid safely somewhere else altogether.

  One of them put out his hand and touched my breast, while the other nudged and jostled me from the side. Contact was a shock, awoke me and made me jump, goaded me out of lethargy into action. I shouted at them to leave me alone.

  Their faces went blank with surprise, their ingratiating smiles wiped away.

  —Stupid little tart. We were only trying to be friendly. Ugly little whore, who’d want to bother with you?

  They took themselves off, red-faced and muttering, and I stumbled around the corner into a quiet side-street. I sat on a low wall to recover, wiping the sweat from my face with my handkerchief, waiting for my knees to stop shaking.

  The only thing to do was to get out of town altogether. Start again somewhere else. Take a train to Rouen or Le Havre or even Paris, depending on how expensive the journey might be. At least I had money. But when I clapped my hand to my pocket I discovered that it was empty. The two men must have filched my purse, and I’d been too scared of them to notice what they were up to.

  Not knowing what else to do. I made my way to the beach. The esplanade was thronged with people in their summer best taking the early evening air. Arm in arm with each other, little dogs on leads looping about their feet. I edged through them and slipped down the wide flight of stone steps onto the pebbles. Here I stood still for a while, bending over and wrapping my arms around my waist to stop myself from crying, heaving in gulps of fresh salt air laden with wetness. Then I straightened up and stared at the sea. It swelled and sank, calm under golden milky light. The tide was up, and the fishing boats were preparing to put out. Men and boys were lined up on either side of the black hulls, ready to shoulder them down into the waves.

  I slid past these intent groups and went left, towards the great cliff arch which reared up and out and plunged its foot deep into the sea, at the far end of the beach. Here there was just a strip of pebbles to walk on. No rocks showed. The water lapped just beyond my sabots. I was at the top of a ridge which began to shelve where the rippling breakers met it. I remembered this beach well from those rare outings in childhood. It dropped down sharply here into steep depths, a strong current. It would be like jumping off the cliff. Anyone who could not swim would find her clothes gathering water, ballooning then soaking; the weight of saturated cloth would drag her down, so heavy; the sea would rush into her open mouth and she would swallow the sea and drown.

  I wondered how cold the water was, and thought I should find out. I slid and scrambled down the wet hill of stones, plunging through fine spray, into the waves. Chill and glassy green they broke over my skirts, wrapping the thick material around my knees, clogging them. I staggered, then began to flounder forwards.

  Through the splashing of the waves and the shrill calls of seagulls I heard voices shouting behind me. I plunged onwards, throwing myself under a crest of foam; my feet sucked up from under me as I was snatched, spun round and thrown up again; the sea a great mouth spitting me out; then whirled forwards again, gulped down with choking salt streams, gasping, inside a green-veined tunnel; then cruel hands clamped to my waist and took me away; I fought and kicked but they were hauling me, pebbles bumping my face; my back being thumped; and retching, retching, while harsh voices cried above me like birds pecking at prey.

  I was lying on the beach, vomiting seawater, face scoured by the cold wind, flesh chilled to the bone, my sodden skirt lying on me like a stone shroud, while fishermen bent over me and scolded me and I flopped like a caught mackerel in the net of their arms. For some reason the beautiful black-haired woman swam up too; her white face glimmered above me and I thought she was going to have me tied up in a net and laugh; but no; her mouth was a wide red o of astonishment. I shut my eyes which were leaking salt streams because I had not managed to drown.

  Two of the fishermen made a chair with their linked hands and carried me up to the top of the beach. They laid me on something softer than stones. Hairy. Somebody’s coat, perhaps, or a heap of nets. They tapped my cheeks to make me wake up and look at them and prove I was not dead. Above us was the esplanade. People’s hatted heads hung over it; their faces, eager and greedy for corpses, stared down at me. Propping me against the side of the esplanade wall my rescuers produced a bottle, uncorked it, thrust its neck between my teeth and tipped a fiery liquid down my throat. I spluttered and dribbled as raw heat hit my stomach. Somebody seized my hands and chafed them. The beautiful black-haired woman reappeared with her male companion. They collected me up, stomach, face, hands; they insisted I was not just a mess of loose bits but a person they recognised and pretended they knew. I was floating and weak; they had me lifted, taken up the steps to the esplanade, carried indoors somewhere warm, undressed and put into a bed whose shelter I embraced as though I were a loaf going gladly into the oven’s fire not caring whether I lived or died so long as I could be warm. I pulled the covers over my head and felt sleep knock me out, a soft hammer blow that sent me happily down, down, down to depths where there were no dreams, only all-enveloping blackness.

  I slept, apparently, for a day and two nights. I woke up finally empty of cold and of seawater and very hungry. Smooth pillowcase against my cheek. Morning sunlight eased around the iron bedposts. The room was unfamiliar. It smelled of eau-de-Cologne and soap. On the bamboo table by the bed lay a pipe, brownish-gold, and I stared at this for some time, unable to comprehend why it was there. I knew it wasn’t Frédéric’s, but that was as far as I could get.

  The door rattled, opened. An elderly woman in apron and sabots came in. She explained that she was the landlady, that I was in Monsieur Colbert’s lodgings, yes, in Etretat, that he was gone away for a couple of days to escort his friends back to Rouen, and that on his return he would decide what was to become of me. She folded her lips over at this point, like the crimped edges of pastry on a pie, to indicate that he had forbidden her to ask me any questions. Her fluted lips reminded me of those apple tarts I had made long ago with Madame Montjean in the kitchen at Blessetot, how carefully we had pinched the dough into patterns, and I felt tears begin to roll down my cheeks.

  —Come now, don’t cry, my hostess said: whatever you’ve done, it’s over now; nobody’s going to hurt you here.

  I got out of bed, to show her in return for this forbearance that I could look after myself and not be any more of a nuisance, and she brought me some hot water so that I could wash, and my clothes, which she had dried. She took me into her kitchen and gave me a bowl of potato soup and stood over me to make sure I drank it. She disapproved of me strongly, yet she was kind. When Monsieur Colbert returned from Rouen he was kind too. He told me he and his companion had recognised me when I lay as one dead on the beach, knew me from the café in Blessetot. They’d fobbed off suggestions of fetching the police, certain I wouldn’t want them to interfere. Monsieur Colbert spoke to me as though it were quite normal that I should have been fished out of the sea; the merest of accidents that I nearly drowned. He saw how humiliated I felt and chatted away pretending not to notice. He fiddled with his pipe, tamping the tobacco with one finger, throwing spent matches on the floor, while I got used to him.

  I had not wanted to be rescued. He had helped drag me back to life, and I would far rather have been lying curled up on the sand at the bottom of the sea. I had already been back down to the bea
ch and thanked the fishermen. They were as gruff and shy as I was; they nodded and grunted then began making jokes about their extraordinary catch of slippery girl. Nor did Monsieur Colbert want to listen to my blurted and angry thanks. Instead he found me a job. He took me back to Jumièges with him, introduced me to his mother, whose cook-housekeeper had just left to get married, and insisted she employ me.

  Nine months later Marie-Louise arrived, and then, in June, Miss Millicent to be her governess. The house took me in, and in return I swept and dusted it and cared for its inhabitants.

  Madame Colbert was as different from Madame Montjean as she could be. She knew nothing about me save that I needed a job, had come from the orphanage, and had already been in service. Her son’s recommendation was all she required. She demanded no other references and asked me no questions. When she spoke to me she sounded courteous and kind but as though she were leaning down from a balcony. I could not love her, which was a relief. To love someone you have to get close up. You can’t love someone from a distance; you can only revere them or worship them; I knew the difference.

  Not that Madame Colbert required to be loved by her maid. She would have felt surprised, even insulted, if she had been made aware that I had personal feelings about our relationship. We were bonne and maîtresse and that was that. In return for the wages she paid me she expected nothing but prompt, dutiful service, which I gave her.

  Nothing involved her except her family, which she held as sacred as any curé did that of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. People like me might come from orphanages; people like her never. People like me lost their relations and possessions along the way. People like her kept hold of private incomes, inheritances of money and property, heirlooms passed down from one generation to the next, attics full of furniture. People like her lived their family lives behind a wall of inviolable privacy. People like me lived under the surveillance of our betters.

  But Madame Colbert did not bother me. Now that rheumatism and heart disease had shrunk her interest in the outside world, her immediate family was more important and holy than ever. Her son was her fixed star, around whom she revolved adoringly. A calmer, quieter affection was lavished on her granddaughter Marie-Louise. Her indifference to me suited me, gave me a breathing space. I soon settled into the ways of her household. I kept my head down and got on with my work.

  For the moment I simply observed them all out of the corner of my eye. I witnessed the English governess begin to weave her life into a shining love story like a cobweb spangled with rain. I saw her swivel her eyes, rapt and eager, after Monsieur Colbert, alert to his least gesture and word, twitching and turning pink whenever he spoke to her. I watched Madame Colbert reach her own conclusions about this. She was the fiercest of guard dogs, seeing off any woman suspected of threatening her peace, of loosening her son from her love’s grip. She had her teeth firmly sunk in him, because she had nothing and no one else to live for. She was too infirm to go out performing good works; travel did not interest her; she disliked reading. She attended mass on Sundays; she sewed; she sparred with Madame Polpeau; she glanced at magazines; and she fussed over Monsieur Colbert. She threaded her needle with the umbilical cord; she tried to stitch him back onto her, to pink their two skins edge to edge and run a seam along; she wanted him to wear her like a new coat fresh from the tailor.

  All he cared about was his work, and the hours when he could get away from the household and shut himself up in his study to write. Over and over again he ripped himself away from her: he got up and left the room, or he went out and caught the train to Paris; and her careful sewing tore into holes; the layers of fine cotton were rent apart and bloodied and could not be mended. Patiently, proudly, the most affectionate of maternal spiders, she pretended not to notice, and cast out her lasso again, her looping stitches, to catch him and rope him in once more. Docile, appeased by his moment of freedom, he would return, until he began to fidget again under the pressure of so much attention, and had to break free for the hundredth time of the embroideries she cast round him like nets.

  I despised her for the unrequited love which made her so vulnerable to hurt. I thought she was a fool to love him so much. At her age she should have known better. He had to live with her; he had to care for her; I am sure that he did love her as the good mother she was; but she wanted an extra ration of love and would never get it. When she stabbed her needle into the work she cradled in her lap I thought she was stabbing him and herself. He would never love her as much as she desired. Her love frightened me; it was so violent; it laid her open to such sorrow and such despair.

  His work, in any case, was where he lived; poetry was his lover and family; words dancing and making love on paper were the most real life he could imagine. The other, the one that Madame Colbert called real, was something of a shadow by comparison.

  I understood this because he used to come and talk to me sometimes. The kitchen was a peaceful place: bare and plain, with just a stove, a table and chairs, two shelves of pots and pans. It was behind the dining-room, at the back of the house, whitewashed and cool, with a tiled floor and a window onto the garden. I kept the windows open whenever it wasn’t raining, the muslin curtains looped back, so that I could see out as I peeled vegetables or cut up meat, and feel the air on my face. Flies buzzed in, but I didn’t mind them; no point trying to catch them on strips of sticky paper; they simply circled my head and then buzzed out again.

  Marie-Louise would have liked to be my regular visitor but she was not allowed to hobnob with me in my domain; she was not to hang around the servant in case I infected her with some menial’s disease of talking or thinking badly. Since the child was not to disturb my cooking and scrubbing, no one else in the family except Monsieur Colbert interrupted my labours. I was a safe audience; someone to bounce words off. I wouldn’t fall in love with him or ask him to love me. He had his friends in Paris and elsewhere, but while he was at home in Jumièges his only true friend was the doctor, and the doctor was not always available because after all he was married and had a wife and a family. He had to attend to them. He could not spend time talking as though he were still a bachelor with hours to spare; he could no longer sit up half the night over bottles of wine or go off on a walking tour on a whim or simply not bother returning home for supper. Now there was a wife waiting for him, jealously wanting to wean him off his old loves, making her own claims. Monsieur Colbert used to grumble that his friends’ marriages robbed him of the closeness and comradeship he esteemed so highly. A man got married and that was it; he vanished and his oldest dearest friends saw him no more.

  Inside myself I thought: and what about their wives? It’s just the same for them, but no one even imagines for a moment that women need friends too just like men do.

  I could have said this openly to Monsieur Gérard. In one sense I didn’t need to care what he thought of me; after all, it was not he who paid my wages but his mother; and I knew that he was an honourable man; he would never tell her, even if he was cross with me, that he had brought a would-be suicide, sinful and unstable, into her house. But also I needed to maintain my distance from him; I was always struggling not to resent him for having helped to stop me drowning in the sea. This made me angry with him, rather than as cool as I wished. At the same time I wanted him to like me enough so that I could go on living in his house. So when I was annoyed with him I didn’t show it, just got on with cleaning the lamps or whatever else I was supposed to be doing. Set my face into a calm expression and concentrated on trimming the wicks and wiping soot off the glass shades.

  Sometimes he tried to get me to talk about myself. When he prodded me with the fingers of his questions about my past life I clamped tight shut and said nothing. I did want to give him something back, however, to make sure there was nothing too condescending about his visits, no being kind to the poor orphan who nearly died. Eventually I admitted to myself that I enjoyed his visits to the kitchen, our odd, one-sided conversations; I was lured into being pleased that a hu
man voice resounded in the space between the stove and the table; I ended up wishing to join in, to reciprocate in some way.

  So I told him some of the stories Madame Montjean had told me. He swallowed them with gusto, tipping them down his throat like oysters, relishing all the patois phrases I taught him. I served him up further helpings of tales; and I told him the story of the mermaid; her sad end.

  He went on being kind to me. Seeing how lonely I was in the evenings, he brought me the newspaper to read, magazines, books from his library he thought that I would like. I hid these in the woodshed so that no one should know. So the summer went on.

  During the family’s trip to Etretat I mostly stayed away from the beach. I went down to it just once or twice. The sea swarmed with creatures who were dangerous, monsters whose names I knew, to whom I’d given birth, abortions I’d scraped out of my innards then drowned secretly in the waves when no one was watching. Night after night these poor deformed creatures rose from the sea to confront me, holding out their cold white arms and crying to be rescued. Night after night I woke up sweating and panting in my bed in the hotel, Marie-Louise waking too to ask in a frightened voice what was the matter? When she crept into my bed for comfort I was ashamed to have alarmed her and at the same time relieved. Protecting and caressing someone else helps haul you out of the nightmare, stops you being quite so afraid. Wrapping my arms around her, rocking and cradling her, I soothed myself at the same time. I told both of us not to worry; there was nothing terrible waiting for us out there, no sea-beast trying to get in; nothing could harm us here; we were safe; we were surrounded by friends.

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