Ignorance a novel, p.15
Ignorance: A Novel, page 15
I asked her: what kind of meetings with the Fauchons? She clicked her tongue. She said: political meetings, of course. As Jews, we need to resist, we need to be organised. She didn’t mention Monsieur Jacquotet again, and so neither did I. I wondered whether her group knew Émile’s. You hadn’t to ask. You’d be super stupid if you did.
All through the winter I worried about her; all through the new year. Worry scraped away at me: what would be the facts of 1942? Throughout the spring I waited for the moment when something decisive would happen, something that would force me to act. I was poised to recognise it: I didn’t know what it would be.
In May 1942 the patronne offered me a rise. Masked in cold cream, her hair still netted and pin-curled, purple wrapper tied with a red sash, she descended to the kitchen pretending to do a surprise check. Larder shelves scrubbed? Range taken to pieces, scraped free of grease, re-assembled? Her apparent nonchalance, as she prowled about, opening a jar of knife-cleaner, re-folding tea towels, alerted me. I went on swilling out wet soot from ashtrays, waited to see what she really wanted.
She sat down at the table, leaned her bulk sideways, fished in her pocket for cigarettes. She said: I wouldn’t say you’re particularly gifted at housework. I would say your gifts could lie in other directions. Her fat little starfish hands grasped the matchbox. She sucked, puffed, blew out the match. Lipstick from the night before leaked faint red stains into the fissures radiating from her mouth. She smoked thoughtfully. Was she going to sack me? My toes flexed inside my slippers. Ready to make a dash for it.
She said: you’d look a whole lot better if you had some decent clothes.
I stacked the last ashtray on the draining-rack, wiped my hands on my apron. Every morning I donned this enveloping grey garment, similar to my schoolgirl’s overall, tying it over my blouse and skirt. Pulling it as tightly as possible around my waist and hips, I controlled my hunger pangs. Like armour the stiff apron gave me courage to attack the cleaning. In the afternoons, when I played lady’s maid to madame, I put on a little white apron edged with lace. Her stupid whim, which just added to the pile of laundry. I punished her for that by stealing her leftover bits of brioche and sharing them with the girls. In return they gave me cigarettes.
Madame picked at a thread on her cuff. She said: don’t you get bored down here night after night, all by yourself?
She didn’t know that I read the books I’d brought with me, that I practised my drawing. Her old newspapers salvaged from the waste basket met my sticks of charcoal. Over reports of politicians’ speeches, over announcements about rationing and troop movements and our young men about to be sent away to work in Germany, I drew the curé’s cock dancing out, his cock spewing Latin words, his cock fucking the Virgin Mary, his cock first fat as a sausage then curling up like a shrimp. I drew my mother, sitting at the kitchen table in her dressing gown, hands round her bowl of broth. I drew the curve and strain of her back as she scrubbed, wrung, lifted. I drew Monsieur Jacquotet standing thin as a stork on the roof of his house, the town in flames beneath him. I drew Émile, wreathed in jazz memories, lying, feet crossed, on his bed, hands clasped behind his head, roll-up pasted to his lip. The pictures were my witnesses. I was theirs. They were facts.
I turned to face the patronne. Mound of purple crêpe. She stubbed out her cigarette, took a gilt-lidded pot from her pocket. She stroked her forefinger against her cheek, rubbing in the cold cream. She massaged her double chin, her thick wrinkled neck. Old, fat, unattractive woman, even though she dyed her hair and rouged her face and cramped herself into corsets and high heels. I was assessing her, judging her, just as one of the clients would do. Ageing meat, marbled with fat, giving off a whiff of corruption. Ghost of plucked moustache on her upper lip. Moles on her neck. I was looking at her with unsentimental eyes. No: with the eyes of dislike. I might try drawing her again, see if a new picture could turn out differently. She’d have to be kinder to me first. She couldn’t be. She’d forgotten how. And I’d turned into someone like a client, who couldn’t be kind either.
She plaited her fingers together. Dark liver spots on the backs of her hands. So what would happen to me when I grew older? What would I be like? Fat or thin alive or dead? The patronne said: why don’t you come and work for me upstairs? I’ve been given a change of licence. I’ll have more business than ever and I need a new girl.
Her gaze measured me. Her eyes ticked down a list: face, breasts, hips, legs. She said: you’re too thin, but you’re young and fresh, still unspoilt, and that’s what they like. You could learn how to do it. Easy.
The women in Monsieur Jacquotet’s collection of photographs had been plump. Grinning. What made them so happy? Told to smile? I might have liked to pose for a nude photograph taken by a lover: an astonishing pose, dreamed up by him and me together. Privately, though. Just for him to see. Not for anyone and everyone. Monsieur Jacquotet had never photographed me. When I sat for him nude, he didn’t require me to smile. The women in his pictures, half-veiled by their red clothes, looked both haughty and abandoned. Bodies swirled in a wild dance. The nude women in the photographs sat still and spread their legs and grinned. The same poses and gestures repeated again and again. The pictures’ layers of paint replicated layers of clothes. You might try to scrape them off and in the end you’d be left with bare flesh, bare canvas. Holes in canvas. Tiny holes. Women embroidered on canvas. They stabbed their needles into tiny holes. The clients stabbed their cocks into the girls. Pierce people enough times and their blood would leak out and they’d be dead.
I said: no thanks, it’s not for me, I don’t want to.
The patronne frowned. Her face puckered into powdered folds. She lit a fresh cigarette. She said: you’re a foolish girl.
I folded my arms. Sponge, soap, scrubbing brush, bucket. You gripped your cleaning implements, subdued them to your purposes. When you were done you put them away. You were finished with them. Whereas the girls were the soap, the brush, the bucket of water, and the men said what they needed, what cleaning had to be done, and the girls had to be exact and if they weren’t they got into trouble and anyway they had to repeat their housework over and over every night. Scrubbers, everybody called them.
The patronne snorted. Goody-goody! Prude! She got up. She said: well then, in that case I want you to start working as the greeter in the hall. I need someone to welcome the clients and show them in. I’m going to engage a daily servant to come in and do the kitchen work and you’re to help me upstairs.
For my new duties she fitted me out in one of her old frocks, taken in at the waist: dark blue crêpe de Chine with a lawn collar, an embroidered yoke and three-quarter sleeves. I donned black stockings, high wedge heels. She insisted I fasten on a corset, to give myself the right flowing shape. Thick canvas and rubber skin smoothed my sharp angles. She donated a second frock: dark red. It waited for me, flung across my bed. I did up my hair in the chignon I’d learned from Monsieur Jacquotet. The patronne yanked out the pins, raked my hair back down, brushed it up again, into swoops and rolls.
Wearing my new clothes, I tested out becoming a stranger. Sitting for Monsieur Jacquotet I’d been shape, form, texture; the memory of his wife; a sort of daughter. He’d seen me and also he hadn’t seen me. Ghost-hunting our game. Secret. No witnesses. Now I took a step away from all that. The short, clinging dress made me visible to anyone who came in; the first doll you saw when you entered the toyshop.
The job entailed smiles and politeness. I listened for the bell, opened the door, showed clients into the salon. The patronne prided herself on making customers feel special. I had to pretend to each regular who turned up that he was our favourite. Oh, sweetie, it’s you! Oh, do come in! The patronne’s new licence meant that now we catered for Germans. Unbuttoning their uniforms the soldiers turned back into ordinary men, and like them had to be put at their ease.
Unable to understand their language, I studied the clients’ behaviour, sized them up. Their blushes and bashful sideways looks, th
I went on drawing Émile too, from memory, head under the bonnet of a car, or flat on his back right underneath the engine, just his feet, in their patched boots, sticking out. I drew Maurice as well. Officially he wasn’t a client but the patronne’s old friend who’d helped her get her change of licence. He was a special case; his pass for breaking the curfew waved in his hand. The patronne explained to me: he comes when he’s in between mistresses. He’s a good customer. Be nice to him!
He arrived late; outside official hours. The air in the house grown stale, my feet aching from running up and down stairs in high heels, I was shrinking. The tired walls leaned in on me, and I had to prop them up. Brown wallpaper patterned with pink roses. Smell of snuff and our breakfast soup of boiled onions. Rat-tat on the door. Blur of sleek black overcoat, black moustache, black hair. He threw his outdoor things at me, shouldered past into the salon. I peered after him. Hands on hips, legs wide apart, pelvis thrust forward, he posed for his audience. Big laugh showing white teeth.
His hands dived into his pockets, tossed out paper-wrapped packages. He’d brought impossible luxuries: a chunk of saucisson, a pat of butter, a pot of rillettes. The patronne tried to keep her face impassive but her smile broke out as she darted forward to accept these gifts. Maurice’s mouth curled as the girls fell on his bounty. They exaggerated their gratitude, trying to please him I suppose, they put on high little voices and jumped about, exclaiming: Oh, a real country breakfast, just like in my childhood! Their lips glistening with pork fat, they lisped out their praise while he smiled scornfully. Next day I drew Maurice’s hands offering these goods, the patronne’s accepting them, the jangling space between ringing like a till.
He departed at dawn. The saucisson he’d left us sat on a blue plate. We regarded it solemnly, calculating the number of slices it would yield. The patronne said: I can’t remember what saucisson tastes like! She eyed me: you won’t want any of this. Jews don’t eat pork. I shrugged: I wouldn’t know.
She let her face sag. She groaned: I’m exhausted. She dropped her bulk into an armchair, kicked off her high-heeled shoes, burped, farted. The girls and I were all yawning. I said: may I go to bed now? How often will I have to stay up this late? Surely it’s not worth it, just for one client. The patronne tried to flex her toes, winced. Mind your manners, you.
Desirée stirred from her slouch on the sofa. She said: but he’s too rough, that fucker. You have to handle him just right or you’re in trouble.
Violetta dug in her pocket, offered her a cigarette. The patronne said: he’s a moody bastard, that’s all. You mustn’t provoke him.
Handling the men right meant studying them, deciding on tactics, being kindly with some, teasing and playful with others. At the beginning of the night, this was possible. But as the hours wore on, the girls grew tired, bored, brisk. They yawned behind their hands, and sulked. They heaved themselves to their feet when required and stomped off upstairs to get on with it.
One hot night in early June, when business was slack, I sat downstairs in the kitchen and worked on a drawing of an empty sawed-open tin of pilchards. Madame shouted for clean glasses. Up I tramped with my tray. Maurice, the sole visitor, lolled on a small sofa in between Hortensia and Pivoine, waving a photograph. Isn’t she sweet? They were giggling dutifully, teasing him shrilly as required, arching their plucked eyebrows, poking him in the belly. Beside him, on a little what-not, Pierrot the china harlequin, masked, pointing one black ballet slipper, hoisted his lamp. A gold flex trailed down like a tail. On the other side, on a matching spindly-legged stand, the china dancer flung up her stiffened, sequined net skirt to reveal her stocking-tops and drawers. Hey Janny-fanny, hey little Columbine, said Maurice: take a look.
Small girl, aged nine or so, curly-haired and plumpish, wearing a pale school overall tied at the waist. I recognised Marie-Angèle. The torn right-hand edge of the photo showed it had been ripped away from a wider one. You could just see some pale folds of cloth. A second child, in an identical overall, had stood there once. Who’d torn the photo in half? Where was my image now? I’d have liked to have had it, to show to Émile. Marie-Angèle’s mother had promised to give mine a copy of the picture but she’d never got round to it.
I said nothing, just nodded, and carried my tray over to the sideboard. The patronne said: so you like little children, do you, naughty man? The girls squealed and squeaked, as required. Ooh: naughty pervert! They tossed their ringlets and raised their hands and pouted. Maurice handed out cigarettes. The girls lit up, began sighing, talking about their parents, their homes. From the side pockets in their slips they produced their own photographs to show Maurice: look, my baby brother. And this is my papa. And this is my little daughter. The air in the salon seemed to soften. Doves cooed in unison. Maurice looked bored.
Violetta had a hole in the side seam of her tight rose-coloured slip. Her flesh bulged through it. Maurice prodded it. Fatso! She stuck out her lip: don’t be mean, darling! He pinched her. She yelped, and he smiled. The bell in the hall rang. A party of Germans clattered in. Back to business.
Later on, the bell rang again, summoning me to the hall, and I ran up from the kitchen. Maurice was leaving. When I handed him his hat and coat, he thrust an arm around my waist, pressed his mouth on to mine, stuck his tongue between my lips. I jerked my head away. He pinched my neck. Little tight-cunt! So chaste and superior. The girls are more honest than you. Come on. A quick fuck. Just five minutes.
The patronne called me from the salon. I pushed him out of the door and went in to her.
The following afternoon, as usual, I helped the patronne dress. I gathered up her belly and laced her into her corsets, put a net cape around her shoulders, released her hair from its curl-pins, one by one, and began to arrange her coiffure. She lit a cigarette and smoked in silence for a while. I could feel her enjoying the hit of the nicotine. That was my pleasure too, whenever I got hold of a cigarette: the drug stroking me, soothing me. When you felt lonely, cigarettes filled you up, gave you something to bite on, suck on. You were the baby, in charge of your cigarette mother. Also the fags stopped you feeling so hungry. You didn’t bawl for food.
I started working out how to draw the patronne, the muscles deep beneath the flesh. She said: he’s a good friend, that one. So don’t go being rude to him. Be pleasant.
She caught my eye in the mirror: I hope we shan’t lose him once he’s married. Much better he should come here than have affairs.
I peered at Madame’s grey roots. I lifted a fistful of hennaed curls, coaxed them to lie on top of each other and disguise the whitening hair underneath. I combed some tendrils into a fringe on her forehead. The patronne lifted her hand mirror and studied the effect. She bent forwards, groaning and puffing, to roll on her stockings. She said: help me on with my shoes. I didn’t like touching her deformed, bent-over toes, even under their veil of silk. Nonetheless I knelt in front of her and eased her misshapen feet into her high heels. She groaned theatrically: oh my poor corns! She heaved herself up: you should have another day off sometime soon.
I said: I’d like to go home and visit my mother.
She shrugged. All right. Behave yourself properly with my visitors, and you can stay the night at your mother’s.
She forgot about her offer, and I had to prompt her. A week later, she let me go. I walked home to Ste-Marie-du-Ciel under a blue sky. We were moving towards midsummer: the air smelled of ripe grass and warm earth. The fields on either side of the road showed the high green of wheat. Buzzards circled overhead. En route I got stopped twice by German soldiers a
My mother in her black widow’s dress looked lean as a vanilla pod. Older. We hugged each other, sniffing. Look. There’s a cup of milk. I saved it for you specially. Her thin arms, reaching around me like string, looped me to her; a parcel of love. Madame Fauchon had given me a cup of milk. She’d been pregnant with her third. Four little parcels by now to care for.
I drank the milk. Maman sat opposite me at the kitchen table. She’d spread a clean tea towel over the oilcloth, to protect her work. She fiddled with her sewing scissors, a little heap of children’s grey woollen coats and jackets, and watched my every gesture. She said: how’s the job? Her hands teased a spiky shape of yellow material.
I said: what’s that you’re sewing? She answered: it’s for Madame Fauchon’s children, you know we’ve become better friends these past months, we try and help each other out. She began to fold up the coats: now, darling, tell me about how you’re getting on.
I said: may I have something to eat? I’m very hungry. She jumped up immediately: there isn’t much.
Where before she’d saved the outer leaves of lettuces and cabbages as greenstuff for her rabbits, where before she’d nourished her hens in the backyard with the tops and peelings of carrots, the skins of onions, now she simmered them all for soup. The hens had been boiled long ago. The starved rabbits, very lean, had been killed and eaten the winter before. Two rabbits, roasted, stewed, potted, had stretched to many meals, their picky sharp bones then seethed for bouillon. I shelled a fistful of haricot beans. I soaked the pods in hot water, added them to the vegetable stock. I’d stolen some peppercorns and some coarse salt from the patronne’s kitchen, hiding them in separate fingers of my glove. One fingertip could dip into salt and lick it; one into pepper. The soup could be seasoned.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes