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The looking glass, p.16

The Looking Glass, page 16


The Looking Glass

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  He dropped down dead one day in his workroom, after a heart attack severe enough to fell him in minutes. I heard the scrape then crash of a chair falling over and ran in. I was too late. I told myself afterwards that at least I had tried; my instinct had been good; that I had rushed in wanting to save him from whatever it was.

  Marie had no need for such self-justification. She collapsed, weeping as though she, not I, were the widow. She was a most faithful sister; she cried for two; she sat, red-faced and red-eyed, snorting and sobbing, in my workroom, while I coldly and hastily stitched my black dresses and sewed lengths of black crape onto all my hats. I hated the clothes that custom forced widows to wear, that made you look like a walking sarcophagus; as though you yourself were the corpse; to be hidden under layers of black draperies. People were ghouls, peering at me to see how I was coping. To give the gossips something meaty to chew on I made myself one lovely hat: a black velvet cap with a silky black tassel. Marie squelched into black-rimmed handkerchiefs. I had to respect her grief though I couldn’t share it. On the other hand it annoyed me, because it was such a reproach.

  Gérard kept away from me. Not out of delicacy, respect for my supposed state of mourning, but out of nervousness, I was sure. I knew him well enough to be clear about this. He feared I’d want him to marry me.

  Then Madame Colbert died too, in the spring. I sent Gérard a brief note of condolence, hoping that politeness would force him to reply. But of course he was not polite. He was a poet, and poets spoke the truth. If they couldn’t speak it, then they simply fell silent.

  I was forced into dumbness. I kept quiet. I waited, to see what he’d do. I went on with my life, about my business. I needed something to live on, after all. Armand was a young man still when he died; we had saved nothing. Shutting my ears to Marie’s gloomy predictions of failure and ruin, refusing her offer to come and live with me so that we could pool resources, I set myself to combat poverty. We had rented the shop, and the landlord declared himself quite happy for me to take over the lease on my own. I shut up Armand’s side of the business, and cleared out his workroom. I thought I might turn it into a space I could rent to a tenant, and so I bought an old iron bed from a junk shop, scrubbed and painted it and put a mattress on it, and hung some curtains.

  I got up earlier in the morning, to pack more working hours into the day, as I went to bed later. I stopped advertising myself solely as a dressmaker and expanded my services to include labour I had previously disliked when I had the luxury of choice. Now I took in all kinds of mending and alterations. I cut and sold paper patterns for women wanting to stitch their own chemises and nightgowns at home. I operated a discreet sideline selling second-hand clothes, and I rented out frocks by the week or by the evening. I started making hats; very simple ones, that I could manage; hats for women not wanting too many frills. I decided that I would do better to engage a sewing-woman to help me out, and began to look around for someone suitable.

  I made ends meet. Just about. There was little time for being in love. After the first weeks of my widowhood, passionate thoughts of Gérard receded to the back of my mind, like precious objects you store deep in a cupboard and take out to look at on high days and holy days. At night, before falling exhaustedly asleep, I gazed fondly at his image. It floated behind my closed eyes. The fact that he wasn’t with me no longer caused me unbearable pain. I had discovered a way to cure myself, temporarily at least, and I would reflect on this as I laid my cheek on the cool pillow.

  I could blame the weather. It happened one unexpectedly fine afternoon in May. Even in Normandy we sometimes have cloudless blue skies. I had been out, delivering a frock, and was dawdling home, not wanting to hurry, because it was so warm, and even through my black mufflings I could feel the sun. Pinned to my hat I wore a black spotted veil, that I had thrown back so that the spring warmth could caress my skin. It was the fine net veil I had first bought for my assignations with Gérard. Pity to waste it, I’d thought earlier, finding it on the wardrobe shelf, and had fixed it in place before coming out. It cheered me up to wear this veil; to me, at least, it declared that a real human heart beat under these swathes of black; and I could feel myself beginning to smile as I wandered along, glancing into shop windows and feeling the heat pressing on my shoulders like hands.

  Then I caught a man’s eye. Well-dressed, youngish, reasonably attractive; not repulsive, at least. He was sauntering like me, but he slowed down and took a second look. I looked boldly back. He was a flâneur, and I was—a streetwalker. He hesitated, then approached me. I thought: why not? I liked his face, his swagger.

  It was simple. I let down my veil, took his arm, conducted him to the hotel in the rue du Saint-Esprit, and spent an hour with him there. He couldn’t believe his luck that it wasn’t money that I wanted, that I even paid for the room. He was excited by my being in mourning, so to please both of us I kept the veil on.

  I was performing an experiment. I wanted to discover whether it was Gérard I had to have, at all costs, or whether someone else would do just as well; whether it was simple pleasure I was after, or love and romance also. I didn’t discover the answer to my question, but I found out that the adventure of going to bed with a stranger carried its own erotic charge, flavoured with danger, and thus served not only as a stimulant but also as a palliative for a broken heart. Perhaps I should say: wounded vanity. At any rate, the dose was easily available whenever I felt the need of it.

  As a result, perhaps, of this new experience, my beloved Gérard shifted in significance in my mind. He was no longer the hero, the prince who would ride up to rescue me; he was my dear, my difficult friend, who needed to shut himself away in order to write. He had once said to me: for some, art is a parallel life and for some it’s a substitute one, and for me it’s both. I began, at last, to understand this mechanism, or to think I did.

  He kept a woman—me, or someone else—at a distance, so that her absence could provoke him to desire her, to write a love poem. If the woman had been there with him all the time he wouldn’t have needed to write to her. The poems would have been lost. He couldn’t imagine that others might have come in their place: poems of presence, of enjoying, of possessing. He only believed in loss, in not having. In not being allowed to have. I thought that was the wall he put up against his mother. Who valued him so much, because he was a boy, and her husband was dead, and with whom he had decided to live, I suppose wanting her and rejecting her all mixed up, and, after all, he must not have wanted to be reminded of once being a tiny infant and needing her so much; that might have been the comfort that whores gave him, that love didn’t come into it, and he was the one with the power to say what she should do.

  Oh, I passed many lonely evenings developing such insights, during those first weeks, when things changed between us, when I reflected on all this, sewing, and cursing him for being so tricky; I had plenty of time in which to refine my new theory of sex, all about absence and not having. All about his power, and my having to agree with him, either to go along with him or lose him.

  He liked sexual pleasure, I concluded, but he also liked doing without it for the sake of his work. I wasn’t sure that I had chosen to renounce sex in the same way, but there was no doubt that my love of him could learn to feed on not having him. I learned to become like him in that way. Perhaps he had corrupted me and perhaps he had also liberated me. I didn’t know. In his absence I had a picture of him that I could love. His absence inspired and provoked my love. Should I give up loving him? Could I? Was I harming myself by continuing to love him? I wasn’t sure what the answer was to all this or whether I needed one.

  I did know that the last thing he wanted was for me to claim to understand him. He despised all such speculation on a lover’s part as idiocy and presumption. At this point in my musings I would yawn, ask for God’s blessing, and fall asleep. And then the following day I would refresh myself with a trip into town and perhaps a visit to the hotel.

  Another of my afternoon sorti
es in early May brought me a different kind of encounter. Walking home one day from a dull business visit delivering a parcel of altered clothes to a customer, I ran into Miss Milly. I didn’t know who she was at first, this rather pretty, fair-haired young women in a badly cut navy blue coat and skirt. She was waving to attract my attention. Slowly I realised. I’d glanced at her peeping face, framed in an upstairs window, for five seconds, months ago, when my mind was on other things: how to get in through the front door, past the spear-wielding, lion-taming mother, and find Gérard. I hadn’t really remembered this girl, apart from vaguely noting that she seemed to have that perfect skin of youth.

  Our meeting occurred on a Tuesday. I was walking under the Gros Horloge when she called to me, came across the street, introduced herself and shook my hand. She stood close to me, eager as a puppy dog waving its tail.

  I didn’t want to like her. She had rather a naive priggish look and she was some sort of a rival, wasn’t she? She’d lived in the same house as Gérard, which I’d certainly never achieved. Here she was in Rouen, when Gérard had told me she’d been sacked by his mother months ago, last year, and been sent back to England. Against my will I was intrigued.

  Also I could not help myself; my mind rushed on so rapidly I was scarcely conscious of thinking at all; speaking to her would allow me the pleasure, eventually, of referring to Gérard, of pronouncing his name; a pleasure normally denied to me; and that felt very sweet. For the sake of prolonging and repeating this pleasure I embraced the jealousy that was mixed up with it; salt on my strawberries.

  Milly’s face was flushed pink like a ripe gooseberry. Her fair hair bunched under her hat which had slipped to one side. This was a lumpy affair in dark blue felt that my fingers itched to alter and improve. To give them something else to think about I inspected my black lace gloves, tugging the gathered wrists straight. People were surging past on either side of us. The sun fell hotly on our backs. We were joined together, sharing this cloak of sunlight. So when Milly asked shyly if she could walk a little way along with me I said yes.


  Madame Colbert’s funeral was held after Easter. A cold Easter, as it so often is, the spring like an egg unsure whether or not to crack open just yet. Patches of blue sky showed now and then as the wind tore through the grey clouds above the river, tossing its waters, and rain showers alternated with hailstorms. Bursts of sunshine coaxed the flowers out, bluebells fringing the forest paths, clumps of primroses and cowslips studding the hedgerow banks. Daffodils and narcissi shook out their chilly ruffles in the orchard’s long grass. All around the village the pear and plum trees exploded into clouds of blossom, the promise of a good harvest of fruit in summer if the frost didn’t get the flowers first, nip them in the night with its icy fingers and spoil their perfection. Blight them and kill them stone dead like girls in fairy tales.

  My favourite fruit tree in the Colberts’ garden was the cherry, because its blossom was the finest. I used to wake with the first light in the morning, leap up, run outside and check that the tree was all right. This far north, cherries don’t always flourish. Ours was protected by stone walls and hedges but still I felt obliged to keep an eye on it.

  The cherry tree was a tall cone of white flowers, snowy and fragile. If I was up early enough, before I was needed by the household, I used to sit on the orchard gate for half an hour or so and just gaze at the knobbled black branches which wove together to make a sieve of white foam; I lost myself in a dream of shivery whiteness. I couldn’t tell whether I’d ever see such powerful beauty in my life again so I’d better spend time with it now, learn it well so that I could remember it always, the way it was, delicate and miraculous, before the wind ripped the flowers from the branches and the bunched leaves thickened out and showed jagged green against the blue sky while the white petals showered down upon the ground.

  Jumièges was all en fête, transformed to laciness and froth, an island floating in a sea of white. People drove out from Rouen on Sundays to admire the scene, the yellow and black half-timbered thatched cottages set in the meadows whose green was sharp and new, encircled by hawthorn hedges tipped with white, and the airy blossom shaking its creamy drifts overhead. Later, towards May, the apple trees would come into bloom. Now, there was a sweetness like hunger in the air, an anticipation, the sense of something beginning, forcing its way up out of the earth; it could not be stopped; it was something that had been buried and pronounced dead coming alive again and searching desperately for the light. For me this was my belief in resurrection. Not that of Jesus but my own. The spring cracked me open, broke me apart; I had no choice but to rise up too, like the wobbly-legged calves in the pastures, like the daisies in the grass; and obey it.

  It was the season for weddings as well as for funerals, though I didn’t let myself think of that; I preferred to remain as mindless and ignorant as the sticky buds unfurling on the horse chestnut trees. It’s in the nature of chestnut buds to stop being tightly wound plump spindles, merely promising, and to release themselves, to unclose like fists and thrust out floppy young leaves, so new and tentative they look wet. I was like that. I don’t say this in my own defence. I could have seen what was likely to happen, but I did nothing to prevent it; I even helped it on its way. I was too taken with the coming of spring to bother about right and wrong. Spring was like the mermaid; she summoned you; she made her own demands. The dead nettles lifting their pearly blooms in the shelter of the orchard hedge did not consider morality and neither did I.

  I got on with my work. I thanked heaven that since I was not family it was not my job to nurse Madame Colbert. I cleaned the room in which she lay, brought in the fresh linen, removed slop pails, and that was that. The doctor’s wife came in to look after the dying woman, who had been her good neighbour and friend.

  You could see Madame Polpeau relished having something different to do out of her usual routine, something new she could talk to her husband about every night when she went home. Something different to put in her letters to her daughter Yvonne away at school in Le Havre. While she cared for the old lady calmly and patiently, coping uncomplainingly with all the stink and mess of illness, she did not change her personality. She kept to her normal behaviour. With a captive audience in her hands she gave her tongue free rein, and chatted away in her soft, twittering voice about her favourite subjects: her travels along the coast the previous summer, how hard her husband the doctor had to work for such low rewards, her corns, her tendency to acid indigestion, the lack of manners of the village children. Or she recounted at great length how a corner of wallpaper in her salon was torn and curling up, what the postman had said to her last Tuesday about the Final Coming, how the herrings she had ordered for lunch tomorrow might not stretch far enough, how large the holes in the doctor’s stockings were.

  A dying person requires a certain amount of peace and quiet, to get her soul into shape. Madame Colbert was allowed no such chance. She lay mumbling and dribbling in her bed, poor lady, too polite to tell her friend to shut up. If I had been forced to listen hour after hour to Madame Polpeau rambling on I should have died of desperation or of boredom. Madame Colbert just stared at the ceiling or at the wall.

  But quite soon she was past minding. Passing the half-open door one day, my arms loaded with a heavy stack of clean sheets, folded and pressed, I glanced into the gilt-framed mirror, suspended above the little grey marble mantelpiece, tipping forwards like a single stern eye looking down at a miscreant child, and caught sight of the sick woman’s reflection as she lay with her profile turned towards me. In twenty-four hours her life had ebbed low, had sunk almost out of sight. I glimpsed her death mask: wasted flesh, beaky nose in cavernous face, hooded eyes half open and seeming to stare at me, dropped jaw. I smelled her imminent death. The stench of bodily decay, under a layer of eucalyptus, lavender water and eau-de-javel, forced itself up my nose and into my mouth.

  I tried to blot it out, dipped my head and crammed the fragrant sheets against my
face, fled from the harsh rattle of her breath. You couldn’t just listen to that sound; it got inside your throat and rasped you raw, made you want the poor woman to die as quickly as possible so that the noise, like a blunt saw inexorably worked to and fro, would stop. After that morning I tried to keep well away from my employer’s room. I didn’t want to catch her looking at me again. I wanted to hide from her severe, considering gaze, which seemed to say she knew what I might get up to and condemned it in advance.

  In the evenings the doctor’s wife went home. While his mother was dying, and after she died, Monsieur Gérard sat with her at night and kept her company. You have to sit with the dead for three days and three nights; that’s the custom in the countryside. The body is dressed in its best clothes, the hands crossed on the breast. People come in and out to pay their respects and say goodbye.

  Monsieur Gérard arranged sprays of white spiraea blossoms, which he went out and cut from the bush in the garden, in two vases, one on either side of the bed. On the chest of drawers he put a pot of white crocuses. He parked himself on the armless chair covered in yellow velvet that stood on the far side of the room from the corpse under her white counterpane, opened the window a little way and smoked his pipe.

  The doctor’s wife suggested that smoking in the presence of the dead showed disrespect. It made her uneasy. Madame Colbert had disliked the smell of cigar and pipe smoke while she was alive, and had banned smoking, and surely one should wait a little after her death before beginning to flout her wishes.

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