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Ignorance a novel, p.16

Ignorance: A Novel, page 16

 

Ignorance: A Novel
 


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  My mother and I argued over what to do with the two small potatoes she possessed: whether to add them to the broth or save them for tomorrow. She pardoned the potatoes, put them back into the hanging wire cupboard outside the back door; they could live another day.

  She cleared away her sewing things, laid the cloth. She winced, sank back into her chair at the table. My asthma’s worse.

  Her shoulders drooped and her back humped. Suddenly I could see how she’d look as an old woman. Steam issued in clouds from the saucepan, beaded the wall. Living in this damp flat, she was prey to the moisture that seeped up from the lino covering the earth floor and through the flaking plaster. Sunshine leaked around the small window, reminding us it was summer outside. Nonetheless I kept my coat on: the kitchen felt chilly as well as damp; the cooking-stove gave out little heat. Maman grimaced: the landlord comes round for the rent all right, but he won’t do any repairs, the bastard.

  I tied an apron over my coat, pushed up my sleeves, began scouring the sink. My mother’s voice jumped up behind me: I know what goes on in that house where you work. One of the neighbours told me. I want you to leave the job and come back home.

  I turned round. Crossly smoothing the oilcloth, filling the pepper pot, the salt shaker, she looked small as a child. A child I could punish. When you’ve got a child you’ve got power over her. You can hurt her. You can ignore her, try to have all the fun. You can push her away, flirt with her man, dance with him, leave the girl out.

  I said: I’ll make my own decisions, thanks. You don’t know what you’re talking about! And we need the money, you know we do.

  My mother said: I’m ashamed of you. Letting yourself be degraded like that. Where’s your self-respect? Her face quivered. I could not let myself feel tender towards her. Instead I felt tender towards the sink, which was something I knew how to deal with. I wiped the white enamel as though it were a child’s face. I wriggled a cloth into the ends of the taps and cleaned the green slime from them as though they were a child’s nostrils crusted with snot. My mother set out plates and spoons, a jug of water. Glancing at each other, tacitly we agreed a truce. She opened the cutlery drawer, rattled her hand inside it. She produced a new subject of conversation. Marie-Angèle had a boyfriend. She’d heard all about it from Marie-Angèle’s mother, when she went up to the rue de la Croix to do the washing. She said: a good job, wonderful prospects, apparently. If she gets married she’ll probably need some sewing done. So that could mean a little extra money coming in.

  Maman began inspecting the cutlery. She looked up from polishing a spoon. She said: I’ll manage, you know.

  Steam from the cooking pot cocooned her. I couldn’t reach her. I wanted to jump up and down like the lid on a boiling saucepan. She lined up the spoons with her fingertips, patting them into place. She said: why should I leave? I’m not a refugee Jew. I’m a French citizen, I’ve lived here all my life and my parents before me. Across the kitchen the yellow scraps bundled on top of the sewing-box rose up: tiny gendarmes thumbing their noses. I said: you know as well as I do, if the Germans decide to de-naturalise you, that’s that. Maman said: where would I go? And what about you?

  I chopped up the moment into a collage. Two white soup plates, fluted rims stencilled with worn green chevrons, on the red and white checked oilcloth. A pair of brown hands. Stars of yellow material. Her gold wedding ring. I studied the bits of images as I ladled out our watery mush. Later on I’d draw them. I said: other people you know must be leaving. She agreed: the Fauchons are going down to Spain, but they’ve had to get new papers first, it’s cost them their life savings. I haven’t got money like that.

  Other people. Fauchons, Jacquotet, Nérins. Names on papers, on cards. A long silver nib reaching down, marking them with indelible ink, then long silver tweezers plucking them up, lifting them out, dropping them into a hat. Pick a card. Any card. This one will live this one will die.

  I said: how are they getting hold of the papers?

  Maman said: someone who works in the town hall, apparently. She stood the salt pot and pepper pot side by side, like a bride and groom. She glanced at me: obviously, they don’t know his name. Sleek as a seal, Monsieur Fauchon described him, very well-dressed. Black hat, black overcoat. Sounds a pretty sharp customer to me.

  The long summer evening would confine me to the same room as my mother. Night would pack me into my narrow bed in its corner. My mother seemed to think I was still a child she scolded, forgave, tucked up. She was clutching at me. I wanted to clutch her back and also I wanted to break out, break the curfew, run up and down the street, shouting, just to prove that I could. My mother sewed. I watched. She bit off the end of her thread, wrapped up the children’s clothes in a piece of brown paper tied with a length of old string: you can take these across in the morning. Make sure you ask for the paper back.

  When darkness fell we moved niftily around each other, checking the blackout was properly in place, undressing, extinguishing the lamp. I was imprisoned by anxious dreams in which I lost my way home. I kept kicking the coverlet off and waking up sweating. Over and over I dreamed that Monsieur Jacquotet was calling for me from where he balanced, trapped, on the roof of his house. If I reached him in time I’d be able to put out the flames. He gazed at me sorrowfully. Where are you? Why have you abandoned me? I burst into tears. But you told me not to come back!

  I woke late next morning. Maman had gone off to work in a hurry, leaving an unmade bed, a toss of clothes. When I took down the blackout yellow light spilled across the room. Too bright. Noisy, like the blare of a military trumpet. I couldn’t control the light, the noise. Instead I tidied the room, did up my hair, smoothed the creases from my clothes.

  I’d run out of books to read. The kitchen shelf was bare except for the cookery book: pamphlets and magazines all gone. I searched for Maman’s store of novels, at length discovered them hidden under the bed, wrapped in a dustsheet. I picked out a couple and shoved them into my coat pocket.

  Maman had put out a piece of bread for me on a plate. A jug with the last of the milk. I covered them with cloths, against the flies. Childish slop. Let her have it for supper. I wanted a slice of saucisson, a tot of eau-de-vie.

  More than that I wanted to see Monsieur Jacquotet. My soft parcel under my arm, I took the back ways to the top of town, hurrying up the stone staircases fitted between buildings, scurrying up the steep alleys. The town was quiet, the shops all closed. I met nobody. My path was deserted, as though everybody had left in the night.

  Emerging into the Place Ste Anne, I began to cross it in the direction of the school. Monsieur Jacquotet’s front door stood open. Wood panels fragile as a biscuit. Ste Anne and the Virgin stared down from their niche next door. Just outside the high gate of the convent, a group of townspeople had collected; a small crowd standing to one side, watching. A band of children loitered on the pavement, shifting and shoving. Why had they come out of school? Some of them clutched what looked like pieces of paper. I went closer. The gutter was scattered with torn-up photographs, little white bones, dead mice, dead voles. The lid of a cake-tin. A string of dried apple slices. The children poked each other, giggling. They darted forwards and picked up more scraps of paper, waved these talismans in the air. One boy said to another: they found lots of bones buried in the garden. The corpses of children! The second boy said: they need little Christian babies. They need their blood! They hissed dramatically, stamped their feet and waved their arms, mock-roaring. A third boy said: once he kidnapped two little girls who were never seen again!

  Voices called in German inside the house. Two German soldiers emerged from the dark opening of the front door. They shouted at the children, who ran away, letting fall their spoils. Drifts of torn-up black and white photographs. A breast. A triangle of fur. A hand. The Germans bawled at the silent group of men and women. They averted their heads, dispersed. I turned away, pressed myself into the school doorway, tried to vanish.

  The Germans came back out, carrying
paintings. They threw the canvases into a pile on the ground beyond the gutter. Some framed, some just on stretchers. A big, jagged heap. A higgledy-piggledy tower, like a sculpture of a star. The soldiers poured liquid from a can on to the stack of wood, set a match. Flames roared up, wavery scarlet, transparent in the still air. Painted canvas flared and crackled as the fire bit into it, and smoke billowed out in thick grey clouds.

  Maurice came out of a side street, his black coat folded over his arm. He stood still for a moment, swivelling his gaze about, taking in the scene. He skirted the bonfire blaze, walked up to the open front door of Monsieur Jacquotet’s house, watched by the children from their safe distance. He spoke to the two soldiers: a few French words, a few in German. They nodded, stood aside. He went in. The soldiers followed him, banged shut the door.

  I waited a few minutes, then strolled off as casually as I could. Once I was out of the square I ran down to the rue de la Croix, to the cobbler’s shop. A large sign hung over the window: Jewish establishment. The drawn shutters sealed the shop away from my gaze: look all you like; we’re not here; we’ve gone for ever.

  I rapped on the Fauchons’ door, pushed at the handle. The locked door pushed back. Go away. Leave us alone. Madame Fauchon’s voice whispered: who is it? I tried to magic my voice into a key: it’s Jeanne. Her indrawn breath. Silence. A scrape of iron. She let me in.

  She’d turned into a blonde with bright yellow hair. She wore smart clothes: pleated wool blouse, woollen skirt, highly polished shoes. She stood back, gesturing. Come in, quick, quick. She bolted the door behind me. We shook hands. She looked pale, and almost as thin as my mother. The shop was bare: someone had cleared out all the shoes. Run off with them. The shoes had run away. No rows of brown paper bags on the shelves, no scuffed boots toppled in heaps on the counter awaiting mending. Three brown leather suitcases, one big and two smaller ones, secured by straps, stood to one side. Madame Fauchon’s glance followed mine. Her hand went up to her earlobe, touched the red spot where her earring had been, then flung away.

  I held out my parcel: here’s the sewing from my mother. Madame Fauchon put her finger to her lips: the little ones are having their nap. She picked up a broom and began sweeping sawdust out of a corner. I put the parcel on the counter. I smoothed the brown paper, pulled the string straight. My lips formed shapes of words I couldn’t utter.

  If you asked a question you risked getting an answer you couldn’t bear. I managed to whisper. Do you know where Monsieur Jacquotet is? She said: he’s staying with us. He’s been ill with bronchitis, but he’s getting better.

  Hide him in the house of your friendship. Your fragile house. We were small as mice, ants, birds. We tried to hide in our houses woven of straw, our houses of feathers, our houses of twigs. The Germans saw through our walls and could smash them any time they liked. Just one blow of a fist. They’d do it deliberately, as a punishment. Coldly. Not losing control. They’d calculate the force necessary and just beat the house until it collapsed, broken and bleeding. Marie-Angèle’s book of fairy tales fell open at the page of the big bad wolf. Huff and puff huff and puff and I’ll blow your house down. The wolves spared some houses because they could be useful. They appreciated the graceful proportions of Monsieur Jacquotet’s salon, the elegant spaces upstairs: they were civilised wolves. What would they do with all his furniture? Chop it up for firewood, perhaps. What would they do with his garden? Dig it up for vegetables.

  I said: can I do anything to help? Madame Fauchon didn’t bother replying. She worked the shavings into a heap in the centre of the floor. I skipped out of her way as her broom knocked against my feet. I looked around, saw a dustpan behind the door, stooped to pick it up. She said: it’s kind of your mother to help me. Say thank you for me.

  She clutched her broom as though it were a child she were trying to calm down. You held on, steady and tight, while the child thrashed in a tantrum. No. Herself she was holding on to. Studying her broom’s sturdy handle, its clogged bristles, she spoke in a low voice: the two little ones are coming with me and the older two are staying with their father and Monsieur Jacquotet. Just for the moment, until their papers come through. They’ll catch up with us as soon as possible.

  I crouched in front of her, holding the dustpan steady. With one strong push of the broom she swept the pile of debris into it. Voilà!

  From the room above came a child’s wail. Tuneless music of distress. A moment’s pause before a second piping cry joined in. Wobbling, then insistent. Madame Fauchon said: I must see to the children. Go up to Monsieur Jacquotet if you like, but don’t stay long. He’s still very tired. He’s in our room, at the top of the stairs. I said: I’ve got to get back to work, in any case.

  Dark wooden bedhead, white pillow. White sheet pulled up to his striped flannel collar. His eyes opened, saw me. I tiptoed forward. Hello. He wasn’t asking for anything. He just lay there. I said: pyjamas. I didn’t ever imagine you wearing pyjamas. I sat down on the bed, took off my shoes, swung up my legs. We lay on our sides, holding each other. He felt frail, as though he’d been wounded, then mended. If I embraced him too hard he’d shatter. He was light. If I didn’t hold on to him he’d float out of the window, away away. Perhaps that was where he wanted to go. Away away. Behind his shoulder, on the night-stand, a white plate bore a small green apple, a brown-handled knife, saw-edged, laid across rim to rim. A tumbler of water, a folded newspaper.

  His breath smelled syrupy, medicinal. He whispered: I gave him a painting as payment.

  Ironed white linen cloth, lace-edged, on the night-stand. Tiny brown stain. In one part of my mind, time collapsed. We’d always be here, together, and we’d find our way towards each other clumsy sure silent confident. Why did language break up when I most needed it why couldn’t I speak why didn’t I know what to say? In another part of my mind someone warned: two minutes left to us, perhaps, before the rap at the ceiling: time to go, be off with you Jeanne. If only I could have known him longer, loved him longer. If only we’d had more time. I wanted to heap love on to him, give him everything I hadn’t been able to give before, make it up to him, rescue him feed him happiness tell him how much I’d always loved him, but it was far too late for that indulgence, I had to hang back, just meet his gaze, tell my fingers to remember for ever the touch of his cheek. Under my hand his heart beat steadily.

  I walked back to Ste-Madeleine. In the early evening I joined the girls in the salon. They sprawled around the room. Their faces seemed anonymous and closed as shops. I asked them if I might do drawings of them. They sat up straighter. Suit yourself. It makes a change from cards and manicures.

  Monsieur Jacquotet had once described to me Degas’s prints of tired whores posed thighs apart on couches, their rucked-up chemises showing their private parts. Drooping shoulders; frizzed hair; battered expressions. Pictures for other men to look at. You fucked the whore, all brightly painted up for you, and then afterwards you looked at her picture, her dead eyes, the exhausted slump of her face, and mused: oh poor girl. Or you praised Degas’s brutal, uncompromising honesty. Whereas the girls in the patronne’s house wanted portraits that made them look their individual best, just like anyone else, done up in Sunday frocks and hats with their hair nicely set and waved. Photographs were good to give to their families, but who could afford the photographer’s studio? Anyway, a pencil sketch, coloured in, was proper art. And done by me it was free. So I set to with pastels, rubbing and smudging.

  Oh, you’re so good at drawing, the girls exclaimed. My pictures were as skewed as those of Monsieur Degas, perhaps; but in the opposite direction. He painted girls looking pathetic and desperate; I drew them looking prosperous and well dressed, rosy-cheeked. I drew them as they wanted to be seen.

  That night, in the hall, I let Maurice kiss me and fondle my breast. I stroked his cheek smelling of lemon verbena and said: why should I give it to you for nothing? You pay the girls, after all. Maurice said: little miss cock-teaser. Little miss hard-to-get.

 
; Did Marie-Angèle guess what he got up to on his visits to Ste-Madeleine? What did he get up to with her? What would he look like with his clothes off? I put on a schoolgirlish voice: I’d like to get to know you a little bit first, that’s all.

  His arm tightened around me until I gasped. He let me go: skinny ribs! He pinched my thigh through my frock. We arranged to meet next day in the local bar. Late morning, the girls and the patronne still fast asleep, I took a chance and slid out.

  Later on I’d try and turn it into a sketch. Maurice’s black hat on his black knee. His hand on my red crêpe thigh. The Germans packed in around the little tables, drinking tall glasses of golden beer. Grey-green legs stretched out, blocking the space. Blue spirals of smoke. Blue eyes summing me up: Maurice’s bit of skirt. I’d draw the scene very correctly. I was behaving very correctly, according to the rules of the patronne’s house. A knowing, come-hither smile. Legs crossed, feet pointing in parallel, one curled-over hand tipping my chin. I’d draw my gestures: tilt of head, crook of finger, flap of eyelash.

  The scenes I’d lived through with Monsieur Jacquotet had been freely invented by us both according to no rules. Was that true? How could I know? Anyway, those images had to be cut off, kept invisible, safe inside me. Perhaps one day I’d go back to them. Anyway, that had been love. Nothing to do with sex. No. Don’t lie. Both. I didn’t know what to call it. Why weren’t there words for it? Words were no good. They separated everything. They could not possibly explain what you felt. Red-hot wires pierced me. Don’t think about him. He’s absence, he’s got to depart, I love him, I’ll never see him again. I wriggled my shoulders at Maurice and simpered and said: it’s so nice to get out of the house sometimes. Life in there can be so dull. This is a real treat.

 
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