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The looking glass, p.14

The Looking Glass, page 14


The Looking Glass

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  Poor little mite. She had no mother, and her father was gone away; she was a kind of orphan too; and there was I, supposedly in charge of her at night, scaring her with my anxieties. I was not behaving like a good nursemaid should; I was not looking after her in a responsible way. I wanted to promise her I would keep her from all harm and grief; I would never abandon her, never betray her, never let her down. I wasn’t quite such a liar and a hypocrite. I kept my mouth shut and clasped her close to me, so warm and soft, and it was she who comforted me, she who gave me renewed strength as she snuggled her head between my breasts and my chin, she who consoled me with her trusting embrace, falling asleep in my arms as though I was a good person who loved her and would not hurt her, someone for whom there might yet be hope.

  It was on our third night at the hotel, when I had settled Marie-Louise back to sleep in her own bed, after I’d woken both of us up crying out in a bad dream, that I heard Miss Millicent get up and creep out of her room. Her bed creaked, the door handle opened and shut with a springy rattle, her footsteps pressed along the uneven boards of the corridor and up the stairs. I decided to follow her and see what she was up to. I knew this was spying, but I could not restrain my curiosity. I knew, of course, who slept on the second floor. I wanted to know whether it was his room she was visiting. My excuse to myself was that if she was walking in her sleep then she might come to some harm and so it was my duty to follow her. I didn’t believe this for a minute.

  She glided up ahead of me, trying to tiptoe in her loose slippers that thumped on the carpet, her dressing-gown clutched about her, her hair in a plait down her back, a lit candle in one hand. I kept well back, in the shadows.

  Straight to his door she went. Paused, leaned forward to listen, tapped very softly, once, twice. Turned the handle gently, slid in. Light was extinguished. I hovered in chilly darkness. Outside somewhere a dog yapped, thought better of it, quieted again. Here inside the hotel everyone seemed asleep in the hush of midnight.

  Eavesdropping is wrong but that is what I did. Pressing my ear to the door I caught their two voices, his deep and abrupt, hers high and protesting. Then silence. Then a loud creak of bedsprings, as though someone were getting out. Or in. Then silence again.

  I shifted from foot to foot and shivered, feverish and guilty, trying to imagine what was happening inside that room. I wanted the door to dissolve and let me pass through it insubstantial as a ghost; I wanted to creep close to the bed; to touch their hot skins and watch their mouths meet, their hands play; I wanted to know how people behaved when they desired each other and chose freely to make love. I was so ignorant. I wanted to learn from a safe distance; I wanted to watch passion enacted while remaining securely separated from it. They couldn’t see me but I’d see them.

  Another creak inside the room. Footsteps. Like a warning. Turning me back.

  Now I suddenly felt ashamed of myself. Miss Milly was in love. At least she had had the courage to do something about it. She had made a decision and acted on it. She might not get very far, but at least she had tried. I envied her that bravery and simplicity. I had no business behaving in this disgusting way. I ran downstairs and into my own room. Five minutes later I heard Miss Milly fumble open then shut her door, sink into her bed. I heard her move restlessly around. She cried for a bit and then was quiet.

  Next morning Monsieur Gérard went away on business. We stayed at Etretat another week. Then, her three months’ governessing cut short, and in a state of great upset, Miss Milly left, to go to Paris and thence return to England. Madame Colbert and I settled back into our old routines at Jumièges. Her health was increasingly bad, which worried Monsieur Gérard. He spent more time with her in the evenings, and the doctor was frequently called. Monsieur Polpeau told us bluntly that he did not expect the old lady to live long. We would be lucky if she survived the coming winter and made it to spring.


  Gérard liked to describe to me the baths he had visited in north Africa, room after pillared room dense with billowing clouds of hot steam, the alcove where he lay on a stone bed and the attendant rubbed him with aromatic soap and oils then scraped him down with a wooden strigil, the curls of dead skin dropping to the wet marble floor like shavings of wood in a carpenter’s shop. In that hotel room behind the place du Saint Esprit where we used to meet we played a similar game, taking it in turns to massage and be massaged. Or we washed each other in the bath, rinsing and caressing, then fell into bed damp and smelling of carnation soap. To this day the scent of carnations brings him back. That powerful, almost choking combination that hits your throat: cinnamon sticks mixed with the rough sweetness of pears. He loved a particular eau-de-Cologne too, a fusion of lavender and limes, and I used to buy him bottles of it from the perfumier round the corner from my shop. Glass-stoppered flasks fastened with a blue paper seal, and an oval label printed with a branch of green limes. The sharp fragrance mingled with the smell of tobacco which clung to him; essence de poète I used to call it. I wanted to give him presents all the time, and had to restrain myself. I wanted to give him all my best things. I wanted to cook for him. To give him myself over and over again. I kept these desires a secret, so as not to embarrass him.

  After my husband Armand died, Gérard altered. As a married woman I had been safe, our adventure perfectly understood on both sides, to both our tastes, a liaison conducted with humour and gaiety, but as a widow I was dangerous. Potentially fully available. Too serious. Our time together now shrank like woollens washed in over-hot water and became just as unsatisfactory and intractable. I couldn’t pull it back into a shape which pleased me. As a lover Gérard constricted himself: fewer scribbled notes spilling words of affection, fewer bunches of violets tied up with silver string, an end to the boxes of nougat and Turkish delight he used to bring me, whipping them out with a flourish from his coat pocket, leaves of waxed paper flying open, powdered with icing sugar, a hint of vanilla.

  Before Armand’s death, Gérard would meet me once a month or so. Now, I hardly saw him. He rationed himself more meanly than the jellied fruits and sherbet drops that you dole out to a child on Sundays, a reward for good behaviour, no bawling or whining; he locked himself away like a fine Médoc that you keep in the cellar for weddings and christenings. People should not, I suppose, be viewed as edible; it sounds disrespectful; but nonetheless he brought those hungers alive in me. Only at the moment he started to back off did I clearly realise how necessary he had become to me; how truly I loved him.

  I’d read those poems of his stating that love is admiring and generous, like the worship of a troubadour for his lady; wishing only the best for the beloved. All very well, very lofty and fine; but now I discovered love’s greedy side too; its need and desperation. Now I starved, wanting him; desire twisted and knocked about in my empty belly, and I had to find a way of feeding myself, filling myself up with loss, provoking and tempting my appetite with memory, gorging on fantasies of a shared future. In his absence I feasted on the thought of him, what he had said and how he had looked last time I was in his company; playing with those morsels of our skimpy joint history; rolling them over my tongue where they tasted of sadness and were insubstantial and soon melted away.

  Our love affair had lasted sixteen months. I met Gérard for the first time when I was twenty-five, and became his mistress at the age of twenty-six. I fell in love with him comfortably and quickly: I wanted someone to love, and there he was, clever and funny and kind. Ugly too, but that didn’t matter; he could be so charming. On the second occasion I went to bed with him, when we were in less of a hurry, I discovered I could come. Before that, I’d thought only men did. I’d been a lonely child, strictly brought up, no brothers and sisters, no little playmates, not a cousin even, for me to experiment with. No secret games in the long grass at the end of the garden, such as my schoolmates described, while the adults slept off their Sunday lunch. Now, when I doubted it existed, just a figure of speech invented by poets, I began to experience sexual plea

  Gérard and I were good lovers together; we were sensual and inventive and we made each other laugh. He was as attentive to me as I was to him; we were equals who enjoyed finding out what we liked in bed; responding to each other. Sex was like writing poetry, he informed me: you didn’t expect to get it right first time but took it through many drafts; you had to listen to your lover/muse; practise; discover and refine the techniques that produced your artless, spontaneous effect. What a pedant you are, I told him. But since this theory described such happiness, I agreed with it. I added my own understanding: how desire fitted bodies with each other like well-cut clothes. Without desire you couldn’t cut or stitch. Then he told me I was as much of a pedant as he. No, said I: merely a poet.

  I believed I was a lighthearted and sophisticated mistress. I dressed for the part as for a role in the theatre, swathing my hat with a black spotted veil so that I could arrive at our assignations without being recognised. A couple of hours with Gérard in our little pink-washed hotel room, and I would glide away again, down the unpolished stairs, gripping the banister as though it were Gérard’s hand, and back out into the street. I was home five minutes later.

  My alibi concerned an old lady whose existence I made up, called Madame Flaubert as a salute to our city’s eminent novelist, a demanding and exacting client, whose fittings took a long time. I discovered the fine art of lying; I developed my talent for inventing stories as neatly as I tucked and draped sleeves; I pinched the truth into finicky pleats of my own fastidious design.

  My hunger for food diminished. Dinner interested me less than the illicit Communion wafer I ate in private: my insubstantial fantasy that Gérard loved me as I loved him. I lost weight. Regular customers exclaimed, coming into the shop, and said that business must be good; clearly I was dashing about delivering innumerable frocks; the kilos were dropping off me. I smiled at them silently, turned, stretched up and reached down the rolls of cloth they wanted to inspect. Armand tweaked my waist and grunted and enquired whether I were ill? Oh no, I replied: I’ve never felt better in my life. Passers-by in the street, when I went out shopping or delivering orders, glanced at me appraisingly. I had enjoyed eating well and becoming plump and now I enjoyed the reverse process. Aussi mince qu’une Parisienne. In my line of business a trim figure is an asset, anyway. A dressmaker who’s a good clothes-horse is going to attract more customers. It’s obvious. This is not merely a question of frivolity and vanity but good business sense.

  That’s what I used to tell Armand’s sister Marie when she came for lunch and supper on Sundays and frowned disparagingly at my new lace collar or ribbon bow or whatever it was. She noticed every little addition to my clothes, every little gift from Gérard that I could not resist wearing. Waving these flags under Armand’s unsuspecting nose. Flaunting my bad behaviour. Marie was fifteen years older than I was, ten years Armand’s senior, and wore black, not just because she was a widow but because it did not show the dirt. I enjoyed people taking a second glance at me in the street, their eyes catching mine telling me I looked stylish and well dressed, and so I informed Marie in a moment of misjudged candour one day. I suppose I wanted to provoke her. Our tiffs were usually my fault. I could not stop myself from goading her. I was bored and she provided sport. She was the bull and I danced round her, planting darts in her heavy flesh.

  She was standing on the table in the dining-room while I adjusted the hem of the serge skirt, black of course, that I was letting down for her. I had pinned it in place; we had agreed on the length; and now I was going to tack it. Marie’s feet, in cotton stockings, were damp, stained dark brown at the toes with the dye off the inside of her canvas boots where the rain had soaked through. Though it was early summer, it was pouring outside, good Normandy rain sheeting finely down, and Marie had brought the warm steaminess of the day inside with her. That unsettled me, made me remember those tales of Algerian bathhouses, summoned images of Gérard, naked, excited by someone else.

  Once or twice he had boasted to me, in bed, of his youthful exploits with whores; his prowess and their exotic sensuality. I used to snap at him that he was paying them and that therefore of course they faked it well; that was their profession. He seemed to have thought, in those days, that all Eastern women were whores by nature. I told him that as a good Rouennaise going about our city and port on business I had encountered plenty of prostitutes; they were simply working women. He didn’t know a thing about their lives. I didn’t like the side of Gérard that gloated over his adventures with these women; I preferred not to hear of his escapades with them. He would call me a prude; the conversation would end with a pillow-fight.

  I wanted to throw the windows wide and let in the scent of the climbing rose flowering outside in the yard, its long branches, laden with curled white blooms, trained to scramble up a trellis under the sill. Gérard had given me this rose in the November of the first year I met him, before we began our affair, a cutting from his own bush in Jumièges, a vigorous plant that grew rapidly. Of course I saw this as an emblem of our friendship. In return I gave him a book of poetry. I couldn’t open the window, however, because my sister-in-law was afraid of draughts. These crept up, stealthy and maleficent, on the back of your neck, smote you like mysterious visitors breaking and entering to steal your goods, caused you to drop down with untreatable wind-induced illnesses. The workroom was airless and close and Marie smelled strongly of perspiration after her brisk walk through the wet weather to my shop. I had sewn dress guards into all her clothes for her, little triangular bags of lavender that hid in her armpits and were supposed to sweeten their hairy depths, but they rotted quickly; they spoiled under the onslaught of her sweat, musky and pungent.

  Gérard’s sweat, now, I liked, because he was my lover, but Marie’s, raw and harsh, made me wrinkle my nose. Disgust, I started thinking, was a relative matter of strangeness and intimacy. When you loved someone and shared their bed, you liked everything about their physical being, even the smell of their shit; you didn’t mind it, anyway; what came from them was good. But a person you disliked had a body that repulsed you and made smells you considered noxious. A person you had once desired, and no longer did, produced the same effect. Disgust was only the other side of desire, after all. The one slipped easily into the other. Disgust protected you from feeling desire, perhaps; the wrong sort, anyway. My God, did that mean I desired Marie?

  As a dressmaker I’d met many women I considered attractive and desirable. I enjoyed helping them to choose new clothes whose cut and flow would make them even more so. I helped them off and on with their clothes and admired their bodies, so varied, so differently shaped. I liked the way women were made: the little swell of flesh at the tops of their arms, their breasts which were either pointed or round, the long ovals of buttocks and hips. In order to fit them properly I was trained to look at women this way, dispassionately, assessing their good points and bad, and it doesn’t sound kind, but I looked with affection; I felt tenderness for all that soft flesh that clothes often merely squeezed and confined.

  It wasn’t only men who could appreciate women’s beauty. A woman, I thought, could look at a member of her own sex and pay her homage. I began to wonder why, if that were the case, I had never been aware of wanting to go to bed with another woman. Lack of opportunity, I concluded. Marriage had cut me off from the women friends I had as a girl, and I worked so hard I had no time to make new ones. The only woman I was really intimate with was Marie, whom I saw every day, and I was sure I didn’t desire her. I couldn’t imagine going to bed with her. I could never imagine her going to bed with her husband either, however often I tried. But perhaps one day I would find myself in bed with another woman.

  I realised that Marie was talking to me. Responding to what I’d said before my mind flew off onto questions of sexual philosophy. Her opinion was of course that now I was married I should have settled down, adopted a convenable style of dress and given up on fripperies, and not be wasting Armand’s hard-earned house
keeping allowance on decking myself out like someone seeking to attract male attention, therefore no better than she should be.

  —You see, Isabelle, she droned: Armand won’t tell you but I will; your hair style, for example, it’s much too young for you; it makes you look as though you want to be thought still a girl. It’s quite unsuitable in your station of life.

  My hair was drawn up and back in one thick, glossy plait which flopped over my shoulder, nestling there like some friendly animal, a cat or a tame rabbit, that I carried about with me. I liked my plait. It was a new style for me. I liked doing it up rapidly in the mornings, my fingers darting between the three silky strands, flipping them one over the others into a slippery coil, a sequence of fat knots, and I liked shaking it out at night, my head bent and my hand shrugging through the loose weave to unravel its slick length down my back. Gérard liked my hair. He would gather it in his hands and bury his face in it, kiss it, wrap it around both our throats, tying us together. To Armand it was just hair.

  Marie tried my patience when she lectured me in this pompous and ridiculous way, even though I’d invited it with my badly timed confidences. I couldn’t answer her back immediately as my mouth was full of pins. I swore to myself instead, one of the good sturdy oaths Gérard had taught me, and I reminded myself for the umpteenth time that Marie was a broken-hearted widow who had not to be teased but treated with special consideration. That was why she had come on honeymoon with us, and why she took so many of her meals with us, because she needed company and cheering up. She had accompanied us on all our walks around Etretat, on our wedding journey, several of our jaunts along the coast, and now that we were ensconced in our flat and shop in Rouen she dropped in to visit us every day. I was an excellent cook, with the knack of stretching money and provisions a long way, and Armand felt it was our duty to let his sister share in the good things I served up. Also, since I was so gifted at sewing I made many of Marie’s outfits for her, charging her practically nothing. She saved a lot of money, having me as a sister-in-law, and she was not as grateful as I thought she should be. Armand, when I put this to him, pointed out that Marie, having no children, would leave all her money to us when she died and that this was yet another reason for being kind to her.

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