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The looking glass, p.15

The Looking Glass, page 15


The Looking Glass

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  I wanted to run outside, into the rain, whirl around in it, dance, get soaked. I straightened up, spat the pins into the palm of my hand and burst out: I earn the housekeeping money myself, out of the income from the shop; it’s quite distinct from my clothing allowance which I also earn myself; and you may be Armand’s sister but really it’s none of your business.

  She couldn’t flounce out and find Armand to complain to because she was captive: she had no blouse on, so that I could better fiddle with the waistband I was letting out for her; she’d taken off her boots to mount onto the table; and I had the gathers of her nasty dark skirt fast in one hand.

  She said in her squeaky voice: you misunderstand me, Isabelle; nothing is dearer to me than your and Armand’s welfare; you are part of the family now; I was only trying to give you some helpful advice.

  —My advice to you, I returned: is to stand still so that I can check this hem level.

  The temptation, of course, was to turn bullfighter again, let my hand slip and accidentally prick her thick ankles with a pin, but I managed to desist. Later on we went upstairs to the little flat, and I made us a cup of coffee. As a way of apologising for my rudeness, I served her with my favourite cup, the pale green one with the gilt rim, and offered her a thick slice of buttered pain d’épice, crusted with dark honey and crystals of sugar, which I knew she loved. Not good enough. As soon as Armand came up, from his bit of the shop, the tailoring workroom on the other side of the passage from mine, she said to him, with the corners of her mouth turned down and the words slipping meanly out as though they were greased: I won’t stay for supper tonight, dear. Isabelle’s had enough of me by now. She looks so tired.

  —Of course you must stay, he insisted: and then we’ll all go out to the café for a glass of something. I promised you, and you know I like to keep my promises.

  The kitchen was shaped like a shoebox, with a high ceiling, and a tall window at one end overlooking the street. I was ricocheting back and forth in the narrow space between the tiled walls doing too many things at once: washing spinach and picking it over, making a béchamel, heating water to poach eggs, cutting bread. Marie leaned back, the loose back of her wooden chair creaking complainingly, at the oilcloth-covered table in the corner, tinkling her coffee spoon in her saucer, watching me. Armand sat down opposite her, bending forwards, face reddening, to remove his shoes. There was really only room for two chairs, but I had fetched a third chair from next door and set it down in between them so that they would remember there were three of us needing seats. Waging my silent war against pieces of bulky furniture which didn’t know their place I spent a lot of time carrying this chair back and forth between kitchen and dining-room, but that was better than allowing it to claim permanent residence.

  —You must let me help you, Isabelle, Marie said: you mustn’t always insist on doing everything yourself.

  I decided to take her at her word.

  —Thank you, I replied: then could you take over cleaning the spinach? That will let me get on with finishing this sauce.

  It was a test to see whether she really wanted to help or was just trying to look good in front of her doting brother. I couldn’t trust her to stir the sauce. She had no feel for cooking and would have let it burn. What happened was exactly what I had predicted to myself. While I grated nutmeg and Armand eased his feet out of his shoes, sat up straight again and smiled approvingly at her, she began to plunge the spinach clumsily in and out of the water, splashing her dress and the floor with a shower of drops, clattering the tin bowl against the sink so that it scraped and screeched on the porcelain. Then as soon as he had gone next door into the dining-room to find his slippers she slowed right down. After a couple of minutes she took her hands out of the dirty water and hastily dried them on the towel that hung by the sink. She was in too much of a hurry to rinse her hands properly and so the clean towel I had put out only this morning was now covered in muddy streaks and would have to go into the wash. I objected to her creating extra work for me to do, and at the same time I felt depressed that I had such a petty mind. But nonetheless it was I who had to do the washing and not Marie; it was a major labour and I didn’t need it increased.

  —I shan’t be a moment, Isabelle dear, Marie exclaimed: I’ve just remembered, there’s something I must ask Armand before he gets stuck into the newspaper.

  She vanished next door.

  —Wash your hands in the sink, not on the towel, I recited to the empty air.

  I sounded exactly like my mother, who had often ticked me off for the same crime. Thinking of her reduced me, as though a weight on my head pushed me down, like a plate pressing on a pâté. When I am unhappy I feel short, as though my legs have been trimmed above my ankles. I watched my mother bulge out sideways with grief, like an overstuffed sandwich. I assume my mother loved me in her own silent way, but I got away from her as fast as I could. Now here I was, living a life remarkably like hers, when I had sworn to myself I was going to be free and only do what I liked.

  I carried on with making the supper. When I ran in to lay the cloth and announced I was ready to serve, I roused the two of them from their murmured tête-à-tête, broke through their fond glances, their discussion of investments, of share prices and interest.

  —The spinach can’t wait, I informed them: or the eggs will go hard.

  They glanced up, frowning at my insensitivity. A nice woman would have hovered, apologised for disturbing them, waited placidly for them to finish talking, but I was not nice. The sooner we’d finished eating the sooner I could put on my new straw hat with a white velvet daisy stitched into the band, and the sooner we could go out to the café and I would have other people to look at. Having flung the cloth onto the table and jerked it straight I darted back to the kitchen and fetched my load of food, cutlery and serving utensils. I whisked back in with it, bumping past Armand’s chair just as he began lumbering to his feet, so that the supper nearly went flying.

  Marie roused herself in a bustle. She smoothed her damp skirt, smiling to show she forgave me for not having offered her an apron, and said, reproachfully: oh, Isabelle, why ever didn’t you call me? I told you I wanted to give you a hand.

  I slammed down my heavy tray, unloaded the knives and forks. The plates, and the dish of oeufs florentine. I’d forgotten the bread so had to go back for it. Then I had to make a final journey to fetch the third chair. I ate my meal in silence. They thought I was sulking, and I was.

  I hadn’t expected marriage to be like this. I hadn’t expected to feel so much bitterness and resentment so much of the time, nor to have landed a husband who was apparently more in love with his sister than with his wife. Why didn’t they just get on with it, I wondered, move in with each other, live together and share a bed and all the rest? It was obviously all either of them wanted. They had grown up together and were each other’s best friends. They were physically alike, heavily built, with very white flesh, pale blue eyes, faded reddish hair. Even their sweat smelled the same. They were a pair of twins, really, who should never have been parted.

  I felt justified in taking a lover. I did think Armand should have told me before we married that he was not particularly interested in making love, that it would only happen on Saturday nights, if then, and last ten grunting minutes or so, before he rolled over and fell asleep. It wasn’t something we discussed, at any rate. It wasn’t a subject to be mentioned. My mother was not happy in her marriage and I felt rather than knew this, without her telling me. You saw it in the way she moved and gestured, the hunch of her shoulders, the droop of her head, the shuffle of her feet. I had not let myself love her too much because I was terrified of becoming like her, trapped with a husband I could not esteem. She took herself off to church, and my father went silently to the bar, and I plotted how to get away from that stifling little house filled with their pain.

  Armand was fresh-faced, robust. Our parents talked about how well suited we were, he being a tailor and I a dressmaker, and we smirked at
each other across the Sunday slices of pale cake. Perhaps I should have guessed then, during our brief engagement, when I noticed he bolted his food without savouring it, that he was not a particularly sensual man. I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to my own feelings, to my own desires for happiness. I wanted to leave home, and so I wanted to get married, and so I took the first man who came along, without realising that I was taking Marie too, and a bucket of resentment. Armand was steady and obliging, a hard worker. He wouldn’t let me down. But he had. He did.

  It wasn’t only his fault. I was to blame too because I had married him in haste without loving him. I had assumed I loved him, but I had loved only what he represented: the chance to set up house away from home. Love wasn’t supposed to matter, anyway. People like us were not expected to be romantic. What counted were the realities of working, earning a living. Armand had chosen well, picking me, because I was a gifted dressmaker as well as a thrifty housekeeper. In due course we would produce children, and I would pour my excess nervous energy into caring for them. That’s what he must have thought.

  I suppose his clumsiness in bed was due to nervousness and inexperience but I was unable to help him with it, to turn it into a game that could amuse us both. He resented my whispered suggestions as though I were ordering him about. Worse, these made me seem unchaste, as though I’d done this before. I hadn’t, but I had an idea of what would please me: someone stroking my skin as a dressmaker strokes her velvets and silks. Someone who talked to me, in bed and out. After six months of being poked and shoved, I felt nothing but furious recoil.

  A commonplace story of sexual misery. Uninteresting and boring to anyone but me. But it was my life and I was determined to do something about it. I wasn’t going to waste my youth suffering and whining, watching myself wither while pleasure passed me by. I wasn’t going to give up and resign myself like my poor mother had. Divorce might be impossible but I wasn’t going to act crazily like one of those heroines in books, either, who ended up ruined, in disgrace, and killed themselves. I had read Madame Bovary, that forbidden text, under the desk at school, a copy, veiled in brown paper, smuggled from one pupil to the next, and I had decided on a better fate for myself. I chose a happy ending, not a tragic one.

  I met Gérard on honeymoon. He was staying at the same hotel as we were in Etretat. I watched him come into the dining-room the fourth night that we were there. Armand and Marie, napkins tied around their necks, had their heads down over their steaming plates, big spoons cramming in their fish soup. I was very hungry, but I was waiting for mine to cool a little, because it tastes better then. I looked up and saw Gérard. He had a brown, creased face, very alive, and humorous blue eyes. I thought involuntarily: I like your body; I bet you’re beautiful with your clothes off. I knew straight away I would like his penis. I already knew I didn’t like Armand’s.

  Things progressed easily: exchange of speaking glances, apparently coincidental meetings, introductions, conversations. Armand felt flattered that I had made friends with a poet; it reflected well on him; afforded him a cosmopolitan shine. That Monsieur Colbert is no snob, he exclaimed: fancy him wanting to take up with people like us. Marie said: what’s he got to be a snob about? We’re just as good as him. Armand had no interest in going on too many energetic expeditions and was relieved I had found a companion to squire me about. He was quite content to sit on a rug on the beach with Marie, gossiping gently with her, while Gérard took me for drives and for walks along the cliffs.

  The following summer we all met at Etretat again, and this time Gérard and I became lovers. We occupied the corner of each other’s lives; we were the initials on each other’s pocket handkerchief; and we were content. Mostly we met in Rouen, in the discreet backstreet hotel. Once, when Armand and Marie had gone to visit their mother in Lisieux, and I pretended at the last minute to fall ill, so that I could stay behind, Gérard and I snatched a couple of nights in Paris together. We went to visit some painter friends of his who had become enthusiastic photographers and bought a camera, and we each sat for our picture. We slept the night in the studio, on a bed of cushions, and in the morning, once the light had poked through the blinds, Gérard took some more photographs of me, secret and intimate, which no one but ourselves would ever be shown. I had copies of the two portraits. I kept them under a piece of lace in the bottom of the drawer where I stored my best handkerchiefs, turned face to face, so that our mouths were touching.

  Loving Gérard, who represented my hope for something better, even something beautiful, I could face my life. I didn’t have to feel let down by Armand any more, because I trusted in my image of Gérard. Armand could be unsatisfactory because Gérard wasn’t. Was it merely childish and immoral, to think like that? It did seem easier to have two men, not just one, the second more delightful than the first. I couldn’t believe I was doing wrong because love seemed to be improving my character. Pleasure in bed fuelled me, gave me more willing energy for the hard daily round; happiness made me kinder. Also, I had an ideal now, that I discovered I needed, and I believed in it ardently. Perhaps it could flourish all the more strongly because it was outside my marriage and so less bruised by everyday life. That distance kept it safe. At the same time it was an ideal of marriage and helped keep my marriage intact. It shone secretly in my mind, like a silver statue hidden in a cave, that only I knew was there.

  It wasn’t that I worshipped Gérard as a god, or thought him perfect, or anything so absurd; it was that loving him enabled me to believe people could be humorous, ardent, not simply ground down by existence, playful, full of good things, generous, giving. I didn’t mind if, like anybody else, he also picked his nose or farted or lost his temper sometimes. He represented my desire; I wanted to find out all about him; he awakened my curiosity; and I began to understand love as a voyage, travelling constantly towards the other, departing from the beloved in order to turn round and come back, to arrive again.

  I fitted the image of Gérard around the shape of my husband, a kind of shining but invisible crust or cloak. It was of him I thought constantly, to him I chattered and told jokes and silly stories, for him that I kept myself well groomed and well dressed. It was to him I wrote frequent letters in my head, and it was his arm I took on Sunday afternoon strolls in front of the cathedral. My marriage benefited, of course. I could be less scratchy to Armand, share pleasant moments with him, not grit my teeth so much in bed. I even began to enjoy myself with him there, since now I wanted lovemaking, and ten minutes a week was better than none. I learned how to adapt, to make love at speed, to come sometimes. I complained less. I could sense Armand feeling relieved I had calmed down.

  Thus a million adulterers defend themselves. How banal. How hypocritical. I did no harm, they plead; my love affair made me sweeter and nicer to my spouse. It’s just that in my case I was convinced it was true.

  As well as writing long, imaginary letters to Gérard every day, that were a substitute for being in his presence, and endless conversation with which I indulged myself, I wrote him real letters too. Billets-doux. Hasty messages. Suggestions for rendezvous. I kept them scanty, short, because how could I write adequately to a poet, a master of language? I could dress well on a small income; I could cook; I could manipulate scissors, cloth and thread to perfection; but my prose had no style or elegance; my grammar was weak; my spelling merely inventive. And yet loving Gérard has turned me into a writer, and this is my love letter to him; the real one, the one in which I indulge myself and allow myself to acknowledge my passion for him; the one I don’t dare send; language that can flow and does not have to stop, a long cry uttered in silence.

  I posted my letters to the address of Gérard’s friend, the doctor in Jumièges, so that his mother should not suspect what was up. He did not always reply.

  Once I went to his house and tried to see him but his mother told me he was not at home. His castle was well defended with female troops. All in love with him. His mother glared at me from the front door, repelling my e
ntry with the force of her icy politeness. The servant, Geneviève, peered at me through the back garden fence, ready to fight me off with a pitchfork or a frying pan. I’d been kind to her when she nearly drowned at Etretat; I’d helped to rescue her, yelling at the fishermen to hurry and pull her out; she owed me a favour or two, you’d have thought; surely she could have let me slip in round the back of the house; but no, she didn’t want me going near her blessed master. And Miss Milly, whom Gérard had described to me as the English dragoness who guarded his niece: I glimpsed her peeking at me out of the upstairs window, and rather young and pretty she looked too, not at all the gaunt spinster I had been led to expect. No help to be hoped for from that quarter, either.

  Between them they routed me. I decided to admit a temporary defeat. I turned tail and went back to Rouen. I dreamed of coming by water next time, of swimming quietly along the river from Rouen to Jumièges, disguised as an eel or a carp or some such, slipping ashore, gliding from puddle to puddle, wriggling under Gérard’s study door and landing flop! on his carpet. Then he’d have had to take notice. Scoop me up and put me in the bath and wonder what to do next.

  Daydreaming prevented me from noticing my husband’s state of health. Armand died the following winter. I didn’t know that he had a weak heart. I hadn’t bothered to find out. He might have had warning pains, some inkling of illness, but I didn’t ask him how he was and he didn’t tell me. He probably felt I wouldn’t be interested. He had a way of peering at me reproachfully over his spectacles, pouting a bit, that used to make me feel both guilty and angry. It was too late to mend things. The tear in our fabric was too long and jagged. Our affection for each other had not strengthened but worn out. When you’ve got a bed sheet in that state you don’t waste time trying to patch it just one more time; you rip it into squares for dusters and that’s that. It’s only in marriage that you’re not allowed to admit defeat. But I was defeated and I knew it.

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