Ignorance a novel, p.17
Ignorance: A Novel, page 17
He ordered us a small glass of white wine apiece, gave me a cigarette. We eyed each other and smoked. Around us sonorous German voices lilted. Words melted together into long, warm sentences. Golden as gingerbread. The gingerbread house in the forest. The witch was dead. Cut up for stews long ago. Her gingerbread house ransacked. Ordinary men ordinary speech. Soft and melodious, unlike the abrupt, barking sounds you heard on the street. In here the German language became a rich flow, rising and falling. Their laughter sounded just like the laughter of Frenchmen.
Maurice said: those hand-me-downs don’t suit you. You could do with some decent clothes. He touched my forefinger with his own. He stroked his fingertip across the back of my hand. Smooth touch. Surely one finger was just like any other. One skin touching another. Hundreds of fingers all feeling the same. If you shut your eyes you couldn’t tell one man’s finger from another. Maurice put his hand over mine and smiled at me. So, little Janny-fanny, wouldn’t you like a new dress? Is that what you’d like? Or something else? Tell me.
A man in blue jacket and trousers walked in, glanced at me. Émile. I glanced back, away. He went up to the bar, murmured briefly to the patronne. Maurice asked: friend of yours, is he? All the men here know you, don’t they? His eyes sneered. I shrugged, twirled the wine in my glass. I put on an indifferent voice: never seen him before in my life.
Émile left me alone. He understood me as I did him: business. When he and I made love in his room it wasn’t business, and he wasn’t a customer but a friend. The first time, with just twenty minutes before the garagiste’s wife would shout up to Émile that his supper was ready, we hurried, bumping and struggling on the slippery quilt. Émile took over and I let him, he fumbled and shoved. I wasn’t myself but his pocket and I hated him as he thrust and yelped. Afterwards, he lit us roll-ups and said: I blew it, didn’t I? Sorry.
Our bare shoulders were touching. I wanted my clothes back on. I composed a polite little speech. Never mind, everything’s all right. I stubbed out my cigarette and flung back the sheet.
The second time, on a Sunday, the garagiste and his wife gone foraging in the woods towards Ste-Marie, and their flat empty except for us, silent except for our breathing, the chime of the clock outside, we took longer. Time for a long, wandering conversation. Sex flowed out of talking, into talking, in and out of talking. Émile wetted his finger and smoothed my eyebrows: they’re lovely, Jeannina, thick as caterpillars. All furry and black. When you frown they go all wriggly. He kissed me, put his fingers into me, stroked me. I stroked him back. We found our way: rhythmical, rocking. Then an invented irregular dance. We both burst out laughing at the same time: jazz! Then rhythmical again. He waited for me: we went on for what seemed a long time, steadily, then time vanished, I lost myself, cried out, and then he did, which made me cry out more. Diving into the sky; a great golden parachute expanding, blooming, plummeting down; falling silk collapsing over us.
The sheets tumbled about our legs, we smoked. Émile said: we’ll have to be careful. Just make love at the right time. We don’t want to be making a baby. I watched a tiny spider abseil down from the dusty corner of the ceiling, pick its delicate way across Émile’s belly. An acrobat spider waving its slender legs. I put out my finger and the spider balanced on it. I said: don’t we? Why not? Émile rolled away from me. White shoulder blades dusted with freckles. He said: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I may have to go away quite soon. I touched his back. The spider wrote on his skin. Émile brushed away the spider-words, scratched himself.
Maurice clapped on his hat. He said: until tonight, then.
While the patronne and the girls were busy with clients, I took him downstairs, to my cubbyhole off the kitchen. Looking at the cramped space, the narrow bed, he grimaced and said: it’s like a convent cell. Are you a nun, darling? I’d love to fuck a nun.
Diagrams for gestures and poses existed. I remembered the photographs in Monsieur Jacquotet’s magazines. I remembered Degas’s tiredly expert whores. Maurice knelt astride me. He whispered: say something filthy, show me how dirty you are.
His big hands pressing my shoulders. His cock soft. I wasn’t sure what to say. I blurted out bits of bawdy I’d heard from the girls gossiping off duty. He pinched my breast. Make it more exciting.
The pornography kept in the salon upstairs for the clients to flick through was all pictures, not words. I had to make up my own. I recited all the swear words I’d ever heard used in the street by brawling men, all their insults they could fling at each other like stones. Cunt cunt cunt. Big rude boys shouting in the playground. Next I took up all the prayers that priests had made for the Virgin, their sexless perfect darling who had no cunt at all. I twisted together these two hymns, turned them topsy-turvy. With every half-sentence I uttered Maurice hit me, staccato, his blows on my backside punctuating my tirade. I heard someone whimpering like an animal. Who is she? Where is she that animal? Not here upstairs up up up, I flew up to the ceiling and looked down at a picture. Red black brown white. Her white tits, his brown buttocks lifting and falling, brown shoulders with a black mole, a red cock, cocked, a gun cocked, the man’s cock rises, he shoves into the girl, his redness splits her white. Now just shut up! He increases his speed, fucks her harder. He gasps. You love this don’t you? Ask for it. Ask for more. The girl cries oh yes yes I love it give me more give me more. He leans forwards resting on one elbow slaps her hips plunges thrusts twice ready to fire his shot jerks out of her yells triumphantly shoots across the sheets.
I fell down from the ceiling, landed back on the bed. I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it, I wasn’t there. We both lay still. Winded. He stirred and said: I’m not wasting my come on you. You weren’t a virgin, you little tart.
I brought him a bowl of warm water, soap and a clean towel, washed him. He stood shivering and gasping. Big brown body. Curling black hair. He looked bewildered. Wide dark eyes. The boy waking from his bad dream. He put out a tentative hand and touched mine: you understand me. I can’t control it. Soft towel blotted his words, the tears that stood in his eyes. I handed him his clothes, helped him dress, flung on my dressing gown, escorted him back upstairs into the hall, handed him his hat and coat.
He brushed his hat lightly on his sleeve, stroked his moustache. He said: if you don’t want a new dress what do you want? I said: get rid of my mother’s food card in the town hall. Make her records vanish. So that the Germans can’t find her if ever they come looking.
Don’t ask for too much. Don’t ask him to lose my food card too. Anyway, I was well hidden here. Just a piece of the furniture: a footstool, a doormat, a drinks tray, a chamberpot. Germans saw me every day, knew my name, took little notice of me. On Madame’s orders I kept out of their way. They got drunk with the girls, not with me.
Maurice smiled: what’s the little word? I said: please please please. Looking into my face, he pinched my cheek. Tears started up in my eyes and he squeezed my hand: did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.
He flicked my nose: is your mother’s hooter as big as yours? No good getting rid of a food card with a nose like that.
The following night it rained. He arrived carrying a bulky paper parcel under one arm. He thrust his streaming umbrella at me, his damp hat. He made a fuss about his black cashmere coat, insisting I hang it up extra carefully so that it wouldn’t be pulled out of shape by the wet. Tonight he’d become the wolf on two legs. Covered head to foot in thick dark fur. Those fairy tales I’d read as a child: I fitted Maurice in amongst the book’s pages. I’d illustrate his story. A black-haired prince in slashed sleeves, slashed breeches, who turned into an ogre once midnight struck. Outside in the dark and the rain he prowled on all fours; starving and nameless; lonely. He longed for company. He was cruel because he didn’t know whether or not other people felt pain and he wanted to find out and also he wanted to give them his pain to keep for their own. His blonde fiancée, dressed in white organza, sat at home drinking hot chocolate, toasting her bare feet on the fender, appr
The fairy stories mixed into the girls’ gossip about their clients. Four grumpy princesses discussed the prince clad in black fur. At the drop of a black felt hat yes he could turn into a wolf. He could turn into an ogre. Except you didn’t realise he was an ogre because he looked at you with tenderly shining eyes. What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you trust me? He enticed you in to play with him because he made you feel you could help him, rescue him. Then he hurt you. No, but he doesn’t really mean it. Underneath, he’s just a little boy lost. So you shouldn’t sulk at the things he wants to do. Stupid girl! You should get out of there! No, he told me he had an awful childhood, his foster parents made him sleep in a shed, even in winter. Yes, and they beat him, I do feel so sorry for him. And who amongst us didn’t get beaten, may I ask? No, but for him it was worse. No, one day he’ll go too far and then you’ll feel sorry for yourself, idiot. And who’ll take any notice of that? Idiot yourself. Just close your trap! Get lost go screw yourself!
Once out of the dark, wet street, indoors in the warm house, Maurice turned from glittery-eyed wolf back into charmer. He preened himself as I watched. Raindrops sparkled on his black shoulders, slid to the floor. He dumped his parcel on the floor, pulled off his ogre-skin, threw it at me. I caught it, slung it over my arm, took his hat. He took pieces of torn-up paper and card from his wallet, showed them to me, slid them back. I imagined him eating them, chewing them between his strong white teeth.
He said: you had the right idea. The Germans often wander in and search through the food cards. Looking for Jewish-sounding names. They’ve got good memories.
The shapes of typed letters hanging in the air even when the cards disappeared. Crisp and black, like print on a poster, like a sign over a shop, there for everybody to read. I felt breathless. He was watching me. He said: careful with my coat! He took out his cigarette case, lit a cigarette. I slipped a hanger inside his coat, hung it up on a brass hook. Water dripped from it on to the floor. Names were like coats. You put on new ones and disguised yourself. But Maurice watched, a sharp couturier, pointed a finger: those name-coats don’t fit.
His voice stayed casual. Musing. How a husband might sound, home from work. Preoccupied, shrugging off the working day along with his coat, not quite arrived yet, still in transition, still thinking about the office. He said: they’re very methodical. Checking numbers at the moment. New orders. I don’t know. Lots of activity.
His words translated themselves: fists battering doors frailer than matchboxes, voices wailing. He dropped his match on to the floor, looked at me with kind eyes: do you want help with anything else? I’ll come down later, shall I?
The hallway air shivered. The rainy night pressed at my back like hands. Perhaps he’d just come from seeing Marie-Angèle. She and I had been sort-of friends once. No longer. She had too much of everything and I didn’t have enough.
The girls and I had that in common. When we couldn’t steal, we bartered. Having got to know each other, we made exchanges. Cautiously. With reserve, with our own forms of politeness. In return for my sugar ration they did my hair for me. Plucked my eyebrows. Lent me shoes. They called me the little old woman, they called me monkeybaby, they called me cinnamon stick. I preferred fags to sugar, so parted with it easily. Marie-Angèle’s glossy name stuck in my throat, like a boiled sweet. I’d choke. I said: all right.
Through the crack of the salon door I watched him untie the string, fold back the brown paper wrappings. Master of ceremonies. Jump to it! Shouts and laughter from the sprawled Germans watching, drinks in hands. One by one the girls rolled off their slips, stripped, put on the costumes Maurice handed out. Fancy dress party, shrilled the patronne: on parade, everybody! A white poplin blouse with black buttons. A green crêpe de Chine frock. A red silk dress. A white silk evening frock. The gramophone spat and crackled, the needle bounced then scratched out a waltz. The girls strutted up and down, chins in the air, hands flaunting their rustling skirts. The clients clapped, seized at the swirling material as the mannequins marched past. Hands plucked at sashes, hems. Hortensia fell over, dutifully waved her legs in the air. Pivoine yanked her back on to her feet. Stand at attention!
At the end of the working night Maurice came downstairs. He and I rehearsed our play again. He watched me strip, step out of my unstrapped pink canvas-rubber skin. I tried to smile at him. He caught my wrists, pouted. You’re a rotten actress.
His lip sticking out, he sounded like a hurt child. Did he want me to pretend I loved him? I jerked my hands away, pushed him back on the bed. He whispered: fat greasy dirty Jewish cunt! The girl flew up, hovered just below the ceiling, wore the ceiling on her back like wings. An exquisite blonde angel who only ever felt chaste love. Down below, the little dark-haired devil lowered herself on to the client, leaned forwards, she rose and fell over him, rode him, she pumped away like a machine, he lay back eyes shut arms flung wide, the fuck could have gone on for ever in her tiny room in the lemon-sweaty half-dark with the footsteps going back and forth just overhead, the faint noise of the radiogram drifting down, she felt thirsty, she longed for a drink of water, she wondered if she had some clean stockings to wear in the morning, she wished he’d finish, finally he twisted round, got on top of her, arched up and back, groaned, and she leaped away from him and he shouted out and came all over the sheets as before.
His long cry roped me, hauled me back down. Sticky thighs. Bruised lips. Soreness. I lay in a cold puddle. He bit my neck and pushed me off him, sat up. He pinched my breast, my nipple.
When, at school, I cried in public, the nuns used to command me: pull yourself together. So I did that. My unravelled self. I picked up my dropped stitches. Hands piled with emptiness. I wanted my mother. I wanted kindness wrapping round me soft as new knitting wool. Everybody in this house needed so much kindness but they didn’t get it and never would. Everybody’s mothers were too far away. Gone. Lost. The girls wanted to receive true caresses, just like anybody else. Fat chance. After work ended, they’d run into the kitchen, search for something to eat. They’d fall on their late supper, stuffing themselves with whatever they could find. Usually thin soup, bulked out with stale bread. Madame ate well, but the girls didn’t. They gobbled in silence, serious as cats.
Maurice said: so what do you want now?
I said: a ride in your car, please, please, please, Maurice.
Again I washed him, dried him, helped him to dress. He put his good self back on with his clothes. Dark eyes glowing, he looked at me tenderly. He stroked my cheek, said: I’ll wait for you in the hall. Hurry up. I drew aside a corner of the blackout in the kitchen, craned my neck to squint up at the dark grey sky above the houses opposite. A glimmer of sun. My eyes stung with lack of sleep. I stripped my bed, bundled the sheets into a corner. Washing-day not for another week. I’d have to find myself some clean sheets from somewhere upstairs. I stood in my tin basin, shivering, poured a jug of water over my shoulders, reached for my flannel and washed Maurice off me, got dressed again. I wrote a note for the patronne, telling her that my mother was ill, and tucked it under her door.
Curfew was just ending; we slid through silent back streets. In Ste-Marie-du-Ciel Maurice dropped me near the parish church. He touched my knee, smoothed my dress to lie neat and flat, as though he were my mother tidying me up for school: sorry I can’t drive you back. I’ve got business to do.
But my mother wasn’t here, was she? She didn’t understand my situation. She’d start droning about right and wrong and the rights of women. No time for that now. Shut up, Maman. I slammed her shut up in the cupboard, along with the empty crocks that used to hold flour, sultanas, coffee, sugar, macaroni.
My mouth was watering and that made me feel furious. What was the point of feeling hungry when there was nothing to eat? I started to clamber out of the car. Hand opening door, foot searching for kerb. Maurice held on to me. His brows contracted. His dark eyes gazed at me. He flicked my nose with his leather fingert
I was six years old, with scabbed knees, pigtails tied with tape, fists and elbows jabbing, dancing to and fro on the pavement throwing down marbles in front of the bullies you can’t catch me you can’t catch me! The words shot out of me like marbles. You should be helping people for nothing, not screwing them for money and sex. Maurice’s leather hand drew back then swiped at me. I dodged. His words caught me full in the face. You offered me the sex, you little hypocrite. Nobody forced you. You just can’t admit you wanted it. You enjoyed it.
I didn’t try to visit my mother: she’d be out at work already, and anyway, I didn’t want to involve her. She’d have started arguing with me, insisting on going through her political group, trying to take charge. She thought I was still a child but I wasn’t. I could make decisions for myself. There wasn’t time for meetings, for group discussion any more. I had to act on my own initiative. If I didn’t hurry, it would be too late.
I walked to the rue de la Croix, knocked on the door of the cobbler’s shop. I put my proposal to Monsieur Fauchon. It’s urgent. You know that. He fiddled with a length of string. His eyes were red. I spoke in a brisk and practical way. I was able to sound so businesslike because he seemed a stranger. He’d shaved off his beard. His face looked raw and bare, like the shut-up shop. The semi-darkness in which we stood smelled musty and stale. I had a sense of time stopping, a clock falling on to a tiled floor and breaking, this moment lasting for ever. His wife and the two little ones were gone and so words were gone too. He’d put his words on to a piece of paper inside their pockets: I love you always. Inside my silence rose a cry I seized and strangled. If I let it out we’d collapse. Words had worn out, like old bootlaces, old leather soles: useless; no longer serviceable. The broom leaned in a corner, the dustpan beside it.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes