Ignorance a novel, p.14
Ignorance: A Novel, page 14
Maman’s lily-of-the-valley scent approached. Her light tap on my shoulder: time to go. Walking home, she hummed a polka tune. Footsteps clattered behind us. I said: hush! Someone might hear you. She said: so what if they do? She loitered. She just wouldn’t hurry. I dragged along beside her, fists in my pockets. She said: what are you sulking about? I was trying to give you a treat. Don’t go spoiling our last evening. I burst into tears: I’m not sulking!
A hulk of male bodies ahead on the street, blocking our way. Drunken voices punched the dark. Jeering. Someone called: Jewish whores! Maman straightened up double quick. She grasped my hand, pulled me along. She thrust her key into the lock and we fell indoors.
In order to walk the ten kilometres to Ste-Madeleine and arrive on time I had to leave early in the morning, while it was still dark. I put on my old school coat. Maman held out her boots: wear these. They’re smarter than yours. She held my face between her hands. I shut my eyes. She kissed my eyelids, my cheeks.
Entering Ste-Madeleine, I walked from the end of night into a grey day smudged with pink dawn, the sky runny and wet like a watercolour. I’d try to paint this freshness, this creamy crescent moon. Monsieur Jacquotet had chosen to paint me. Not my mother. He mixed the paint on a grey china plate. His fingers squeezed pink paste from a silver tube and I added the water. He’d do this landscape on cartridge paper. He was hiding behind a zigzag cartridge paper screen. He folded it into an origami bird and flung it at the sky and I followed a frilly-winged pink and grey pigeon swooping ahead and forgot to look at the street names and so lost my way. Riffle of paper, riffle of unfolding images. A fountain. A marketplace. A church. Tiny squares surrounded by tall houses. A bell chimed the hour and a whole flock of pigeons flurried up.
Narrow cobbled streets, seeming identical, led away in every direction. How to choose? Lured by the smell of baking bread, I turned left. Dark blue shutters hid the bakery. Street door closed, blind drawn down, gold light framing its edges. Next to it, a yellow oblong: a café, its door propped open by a wooden crate. Someone had just washed the floor and released a dark swirl of water, lacy with white scum, across the pavement, to flow towards the gutter. Smell of coffee and cigarette smoke. Clatter of aluminium. A woman’s hoarse voice. At the edge of the kerb someone had dropped a matchbox with a red and white label. I put down my heavy basket and stretched.
A blue-clad workman came out of the café, clumped across the soapy wet. He had a lively expression, sharp brown eyes. Morning, petite. I said: I’m a grown-up, if you don’t mind. I showed him the patronne’s letter with the address written in copperplate. Can you give me directions to the rue des Lilas? He gave me a quizzical look. New girl in town, are you? Working girl? He whistled. I said: what? He explained matter-of-factly. The tarts’ house. The patronne’s not a bad sort. Everybody knows her. I’ll show you the way.
Behind me the bakery door opened, letting out gold light, the smell of warm yeast. Soon, people would start arriving to buy their morning loaves. Take them home to their families. Eat breakfast with their mothers, just as they did every day. I wanted to dive into that yeasty scent, that shop full of loaves warm as mothers. I wouldn’t find her. She’d gone. A warm dent in her bed left behind. Absence warm as a loaf. As a child I’d often shared her bed, my arms round her, my head on her shoulder. Snuffing up her warm bed scent. Too old for that now. I scrambled my hands into my pockets, found my handkerchief and blew my nose. The workman said: my name’s Émile. Allow me to be your escort. He offered me his arm very grandly and I took it. I laid my hand on his blue sleeve. Workmen at home wore these blue jackets in heavy cotton, these blue trousers. A line of men, arm in blue arm, stretching all the way back to Ste-Marie. My mother in her blue apron at the end of the line waving hello to me. Waving goodbye. I said: my name’s Jeanne.
Together we walked through the town, Émile carrying my basket. He said: I remember you. The little girl who was crying, that evening near the bridge. Your face is just the same. He swivelled his glance over my coat, my hair twisted up under my beret. I said: it’s rude to stare.
Émile pointed out a side street: I work in the garage down at the end there. You can come and visit me, if you like. Tell me how you’re getting on. I said: I’ll see. Perhaps.
The girls worked at night. They got to bed at dawn. On that first morning there I cleaned the downstairs of the establishment while they still slept. A non-committal building, it seemed, from the outside, in a non-committal street lined with tall stone houses with blue slate roofs. A small round woman opened the door to me. She wore a shiny blue rayon dressing gown, frilled with black lace, which waved round her ankles, pink high-heeled slippers with blue pom-poms, her hair snailed up in pins under a brown hairnet. Small dark eyes expressionless as currants, face glistening with cold cream. Her glance dug into me, checking, assessing. You’re Jeanne Nérin? Take your basket downstairs. Your room’s the little one off the kitchen. Leave unpacking for the moment. You’ve work to do.
She drew me inside and closed the door. We stood in a dim hallway smelling of pastry and fried potatoes. A rubbed green velvet curtain hung across a doorframe jutting forwards on the left. A varnished door with an elaborate golden-gilt handle led off to the right. The kitchen’s down those stairs there, she said, pointing to the back of the hall: and the salon’s through there. Clean the salon first. Later on you can bring me a cup of coffee.
She pulled aside the green curtain and tapped away up the staircase it revealed. The curtain swung back into place behind her on its brass rings. Entering the salon, I inhaled; sneezed. Wine dregs, stale tobacco, musky scent, sweat. I pulled back the pink rayon curtains, pushed up the turquoise lace blinds, opened the windows. I piled a lacquer tray with dirty glasses, empty bottles and full ashtrays, took them down to the kitchen in the basement. I brought up an armful of cleaning things, then a basket of logs. I swept out the stove, brushed the rugs, collected up crumbs and shreds of tobacco, dusted the little occasional tables and the fluted pink china vases of mauve roses on the mantelpiece. I fingered the stiff crêpe-paper petals, blew on them, re-aligned the vases with the red-flowered porcelain cigarette box and black embroidered fan displayed between them. I swished a miniature feather mop over the ruched lengths of pink artificial silk, gathered in festoons tied up with gold braid, which draped the walls.
The pink brocade sofas were fat and plush. Cosy armfuls you’d call them if they were girls. They lolled about the room sleepily, brazen and half-bare, their covering tasselled shawls, gypsy-bright, slipped to the floor. I flung the shawls back over their tight upholstery, smoothing the purple folds scattered with crimson poppies, straightened their lacy antimacassars, plumped up their yellow silk cushions, pulled their gilt fringes straight. Sprawling in the white sunlight the seats and divans looked tawdry and tired. They didn’t like mornings. They blinked and yawned. I half-lowered the blinds, so that you wouldn’t notice the armrests’ worn patches and frayed edges. I coaxed footstools into tête-à-têtes, drew armchairs into friendly groups, patted fashion magazines into place near the radiogram. The sofas nudged up against each other and settled down.
I descended once more to the basement and rummaged about my working and sleeping quarters. My whitewashed room off the kitchen, little more than a windowless cupboard, seemed clean enough. A crucifix, threaded with a spray of palm, hung over the narrow bed. I unhooked it and threw it into a corner. I dumped my basket on the blue blanket serving as counterpane, pulled out my nightdress and placed it underneath the thin pillow. No chest of drawers, so I left my changes of underwear in the basket, and hung it on the back of the door. In the chilly kitchen I riddled the range, blew on the embers, put on another log, boiled water, made coffee in a long-handled metal pot. No milk anywhere to be seen. I poured myself a cup of coffee, found a heel of bread, sat down at the kitchen table, propping my feet on a second chair. I allowed myself to think about Maman for just five minutes. I poured the patronne a cup of coffee, put it on a tray and carried it upstairs.<
On the small first landing a door stood open. Her voice called me: enter. A lamp-lit room. Pictures on the walls of curly-haired little girls playing with kittens and puppies. The drawn-down blinds fastened in the smell, choking and sweet, of violet face powder, violet scent. Seated, taking out her curl-pins, at her dressing table edged by muslin flounces, she was still only halfway between night and day. The bed the same, its tumbled pink sheets not yet put straight. Night-time at noon. Falling asleep at breakfast time. I soon discovered my role in the house: to connect night and day, darkness and light; for people who’d somewhat lost their way. A small brandy at six a.m.? Certainly. A footbath at four in the afternoon? Of course. Massage your shoulders at lunchtime? All right.
The patronne liked the way I found my way about and got on with my work without needing her to stand over me, give me orders. After a couple of days, watching me upend a kitchen chair and dust underneath it, she said: your mother’s trained you well. She made her sound like a boss in a uniform, not like my mother, who couldn’t stand the scratch of wool next to her skin, who could recite the alphabet backwards, who told me the names of stars. Who’d snatch my man and dance the polka with him. Sometimes, before going to bed in my cupboard-sized room in the patronne’s house, I kicked my mother’s boots, which stood on guard by the door. Sometimes I patted them. Around the house I wore canvas slippers, cast-offs of the patronne’s. The boots waited; ready. As long as they stayed in place I’d be all right. I tied their laces together in a bow. I was one boot and my mother the other.
After that first week’s trial the patronne took me on. I didn’t tell her the trial worked both ways. As an employer she’d do. I saw how to manage her. I learned what she liked, then provided it. Bathwater, sprinkled with gritty lavender crystals melting to slush, at just the right temperature. Hot coffee in her favourite green and gold cup. Sheets well aired, properly tucked in, pulled taut. Clean stockings dangling ready over the back of a chair.
On my first afternoon in the house I met the four girls who worked there. Puffy-eyed, yawning, tangle-haired, they thumped into the kitchen for their late breakfast. They erupted: a burst of stale scent, a pattern of pink and blue. Their red-nailed fingers clutched the edges of cotton kimonos sprigged with azure flowers and dotted with rose butterflies. They shuffled in grubby fur-trimmed mules, growled for coffee and cigarettes. Scratching their heads, they grunted to each other. Give us a fag. No, you owe me one. Give us a light, then. One of them, a plump woman of forty or so, started fluffing out her hennaed hair, combing her fringe with her fingers. She blinked as I brought the pan of hot milk to the table. Who’s this chickychick? Another, younger one, with tired brown eyes, her mousy curls tied up with a length of green net, rubbed her nose. She said: the new skivvy. Fucking slow she is too. Leaning her elbow on the table she crooked her finger: where’s the butter? Skip to it, skinnyskiv! A third girl, with a flood of yellow hair, massaged her forehead, groaned with headache. After a shot of brandy in her coffee she perked up. The fourth, olive-skinned and black-eyed, with long, crinkly black hair, a wide mouth, sat silent.
I learned their routine. While I cleared away the dirty crockery and cleaned the range they would play cards, tell fortunes, poke grumbling fun at the clients, do each other’s hair, paint each other’s toenails. The blonde, milky-skinned and green-eyed, her thick frizz bushing over her shoulders, was the youngest; sixteen or so. The others created youth with wigs and make-up. At night, Madame turned the salon lights down low and the girls put on their fancy names: Desirée, Hortensia, Violetta, Pivoine. I peeped at them from the doorway. Decked in skimpy pastel crêpe de Chine slips, arms and legs bare, feet swinging high-heeled satin mules, eyelashes brushed black, mouths transformed to sharp red bows, they waited to be bought. Sugary sweeties on a confectioner’s shelves. The men paid, chose their bullseyes, their lollipops, took them upstairs. Madame la patronne, coiffed and corseted and rouged, wearing a high-necked pink georgette blouse and plain black satin skirt, pin-heeled black shoes, kept a businesslike eye on the goings-on. Ping! Her bell declared time was up. In 1940, when the Germans arrived, she gained extra customers and made extra money and swelled up with content.
Inside her establishment the girls tried to hide from the war. They lowered their eyelids like window-blinds, and blinked. They clutched each other, merged, like lengths of blackout stitched together. They became a sealed house, its eyes glued shut, which didn’t have to notice rows of trucks rumbling past, people being beaten up, posters appearing overnight depicting devils with hooked noses and pendulous lips, slobbering over fistfuls of banknotes. They got on with business as usual: men taking their trousers off and demanding service.
The patronne would send me out to queue for food. Outside a grocery shop, a bakery, a butcher’s, the lines of women waited. Waited. I crossed my arms and tucked my hands in my armpits, to warm them. I jiggled from foot to foot. I studied the bricks on the wall next to me, dark red veined with yellow and blue. Standing well back behind the press of people, I scratched at the edges of posters, lifted them, tugged them. The paper peeled away in jagged strips I screwed up and put in my pockets. The devil lost an eye, a thumb. The queue shuffled forward. Back at the house the crumpled paper came down to the basement with me and got stuffed into the range.
Sometimes, returning with the bread ration, my pockets plump with paper, I would make a detour to visit Émile. On the first occasion I hovered outside the garage until he saw me and came across the yard. Slender body in bulky overalls. Sharp features softened by his smile. Wiping his black, oily hands on a rag, he offered me just his wrist to shake. I’m finished with this in a couple of minutes. Want to come up and see my room? Inside the open kitchen door his landlady had her back to us. She lifted a pot lid and steam flew out. We slid past her, mounted the stairs. Lino with a worn pattern of red and blue squares. Both of us holding our boots in one hand. Émile’s darned grey woollen heels.
Émile sat on the bed and I on a wooden chair. He produced roll-ups and we smoked. The patron grows his own tobacco out in the back yard, he sells it to friends, and I get it cheap for keeping my mouth shut.
Harsh stuff, which made me want to cough and spit. Shreds of tobacco stuck on my lips. D’you like music? I like jazz. Émile had been to Paris once and heard jazz in a nightclub. He tried to whistle some bars of it for me, to give me a taste. The radio didn’t play jazz; only German tunes. In return, I told him about my attempts at drawing: would you sit for me? No way, Émile replied. He sprang up and walked around the room: I can’t sit still for too long! Come on, let’s go out. We crept back downstairs. Arm in arm we walked through the backstreets. Émile had a message to deliver.
Messages meant bundles small enough to slip into my bag: newspapers, pamphlets, small pocket-sized flyers, produced in someone’s basement. We rolled up the flyers as though they were cabbage leaves and slipped them into people’s shopping-baskets in food queues. We spread them out as though they were lost handkerchiefs and slid them behind the windscreen wipers of parked cars. We were correcting German propaganda; giving people the facts.
New facts punched in, winded me. All I could do was try to make sense of them.
One fact was the census being made of Jews. I knew my mother would refuse to sign up to it. In the night she shouted to me from far away: they’ll use this against us. She hid in her flat, as I hid in the patronne’s house. So far, my mother and I had got away with our identities as Catholics. In the night my mother whispered: for the moment. Then we’ll see.
My mother’s words combined to form a dream-telegram; I filled in what her dream-message did not say. Strips of white paper, printed with black type, pasted on to the pale slip, delivered a warning. You regarded it fearfully. You read it over and over again. You translated it, tried to make it mean what it did not, put it on the kitchen mantelpiece, fenced in behind iron candlesticks. It glared at you, crouching, ugly. Finally you permitted it to growl, to bark. It alerted you to the future: the police banging o
Another fact was having to live by German time, set our clocks by Berlin. I marked times and dates keenly, a way of grappling with the facts of the war. You pinned facts down by noting the date. The summer of 1939 had meant the first time that women and old people got the harvest in by themselves, with the men away fighting. June 1941 meant Hitler invading Russia. For Émile and his comrades, this brought new clarity, new urgency. For the house, it worked as an additional layer of felt, denying the possibility of more bad news. For my mother, a tight-lipped wariness as she read the flyers I brought home.
On my rare visits, she spoiled me with caresses, little attentions. She stitched me new petticoats from old pillowcases. She gave me one of her geraniums, grown from cuttings, for my room. Put it on your window sill, water it well, and it’ll have pink flowers. Lovely coral-pink.
I held the little green plant in its red earthenware pot, fingered the edge of a frilled, rounded leaf to release its harsh scent. I said: have you seen that man again? The one you were dancing with that time? She said: I bump into him sometimes, at the Fauchons’, when I visit them.
She smoothed the table top, brushing off crumbs of earth. She said: we’ve begun holding meetings there. We’re all in the same boat. We keep an eye out for each other.
I handed her the geranium: I haven’t got a window sill. Let alone a window. She pushed it back at me: so put it somewhere else!
We sat at her kitchen table and drank weak, re-boiled water smelling of the memory of coffee. She showed me the toy animals she was making for the Fauchon children from wool scraps: the parents don’t approve of me but at least now we talk more. She criticised Marie-Angèle: a great big girl like that, lolling around at home! She’s so lazy! She accepted the gifts I’d brought her: two little blue and yellow coffee cups from a junk shop, half a bar of soap stolen from the patronne.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes