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The looking glass, p.17

The Looking Glass, page 17


The Looking Glass

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  Monsieur Gérard was quite unconcerned about what his mother would have thought. Or else he was only too well aware, and was taking a certain pleasure in being able to disobey one of her edicts at long last. He sat opposite her and corrected the proofs of his new book through those three long nights. That upset the doctor’s wife too, that he wasn’t reading the New Testament or some such religious work. Monsieur Gérard didn’t care about that, either. He sat opposite his dead mother in a rich, fragrant fug, unshaven, wearing his old Turkish dressing-grown and red leather slippers, drinking coffee, puffing on his pipe and reading poetry, the long galleys slipping and slithering over his lap like so many serpents. Then, on the day of the funeral, he had a thorough wash and brush up, put on his black suit, and followed on foot as Madame Colbert was carried to the church.

  Boyng … boyng … boyng … The church bells began to ring. They were ringing for Madame Colbert. Just for her. They tolled loudly, a long, slow, regular pounding of iron upon iron that rolled through the village and into the surrounding fields. It was an awe-inspiring and mournful sound, reaching deep into your heart, filling your entire being, as impersonal and majestic and mysterious as death itself. It signified the end of Madame Colbert on earth and the start of her last journey through the village. It was the summons to the grave.

  The coffin had been carried out of the house by four farm labourers, specially recruited for the purpose, and loaded onto a cart draped with black crape. We had been waiting, standing in the road just outside our gate, for the signal. As the bells began their thunderous music we started off. The Polpeaus walked three paces behind Monsieur Gérard, and I followed at the tail. The cart lurched over the dried ruts of mud in the road and the coffin slid back and forth inside it. People stared from their doorways as we passed; children stuck their thumbs in their mouths and didn’t know what to make of our small, slow procession. When we reached the church, the four labourers heaved the coffin out of the cart, carried it up the aisle and deposited it on the waiting bier. The curé lit the tall candles flanking it on two sides, and Monsieur Gérard sat down alone in the front pew, clutching his hat, while the Polpeaus settled themselves just behind.

  There didn’t seem to be any other Colbert relatives. With Marie-Louise parked in her boarding-school, considered by her uncle too young and impressionable to attend a funeral, and her father still in Africa, the family was shrunk down to one man in a shiny black suit, his head bowed. His shoulder-blades looked lonely. I hung about at the back of the church, not liking to go too near the Polpeaus, who would have thought it was not my place. I loitered in the cool darkness, drawing in that holy smell of damp stone, incense, smoking wicks and brass polish. I whiled away the wait by looking at the statues of saints that stood about, perched in niches, like a bunch of friends gossiping at market. Saint Geneviève was not among them. I recognised St Joan of Arc, clad in armour, sword upraised as though to slay dragons or any other monsters bothering her friends’ peace. I was thinking of poor Marie-Louise, of the plaintive letters she wrote home from her exile in Rouen. It was clear to me, when Gérard read these letters to me, grimacing and guilty, that she was not happy. He’d said she’d become too upset if she attended the funeral; it could not be allowed; but it was his own upset, I thought, from which he was protecting himself.

  Eventually the church bells ceased their slow tolling and began to ring the summons that you heard before every mass. A different voice, faster, more urgent, a peal tumbling out telling you to hurry up, make haste, mass was about to start and you should not be late.

  All of Jumièges turned out for the requiem, as was the custom when anyone in the village died; whether they had known Madame Colbert well or not, people tied on their black armbands or black ribbons and trooped along to see her well prayed for then duly buried in the cemetery. Many neighbours came back to the house afterwards for a glass of cider or of wine. They showed their sympathy and respect by taking these previous hours off work, which they could ill spare. Monsieur Gérard showed his appreciation by serving them with something good to eat. He asked me to make brioches, told me not to stint on the butter and eggs; thrift was not the issue for once. The night before the funeral he sat with his mother and I stood at the kitchen table kneading the dough for batch after batch of brioches. At the vin d’honneur I darted around with a tray of these, cut into yellow wedges, making sure everybody got a slice.

  It was an awkward occasion. People wiped their boots anxiously as they came in, then stood in little groups, tongue-tied and shy, the men twiddling their caps, the women huddled together in the corners. No one had any small-talk. Nobody wept or looked sad. That would have been considered bad manners; drawing attention to yourself in public. I moved through an uneasy silence with my big jug. Acting as waitress reminded me of my days in the café at Blessetot with Madame Montjean, made me uncomfortable and clumsy; I knocked people with my elbows as I went past them, and tripped on the frayed edge of the carpet. I recovered myself by hiding briefly in the kitchen and downing a glass of cognac Madame Colbert had kept for visiting tradesmen. Out there, where nobody could see me, I felt better.

  The guests departed into the chilly outdoors. A light, cold rain sprinkled the garden. It was early afternoon. The house was empty, an emptiness that was not a simple lack but charged with something positive, almost palpable. The atmosphere was uncertain and strange, as though the walls were wondering what would happen next. The rooms seemed echoing, as though all the furniture had gone, leaving just bare floors the wind whistled over. But of course what had gone was not chairs and beds but the corpse. The dead presence of the mistress of the house.

  When I had finished washing up all the glasses we had borrowed from the doctor and the curé, and had packed them into baskets ready to be returned the following day, I felt suddenly clammy and depressed, and sat as close to the kitchen stove as I could get. Imaginary portraits of my missing parents whom I had never seen swam up, solemn and unsmiling, two strangers dressed in their best clothes. They hovered just in front of me, twin photographs edged in black, like the faire-parts Monsieur Gérard had had posted throughout Jumièges, as the custom was, to let everyone know his mother had died. I pulled my sleeves over my hands and wound them together in my lap. Hours passed. I was numb; in suspension; I couldn’t feel or think. Yet deep down, underneath, like a creature gliding over the seabed, something stirred, and a decision got made.

  After a long while I realised that I was hungry, and then I remembered Monsieur Gérard and thought that he too might be glad of something to eat. In the food cupboard I found some slices of cold roast mutton left over from yesterday, and some gravy, and some cooked white beans, and so I put these all together into a saucepan and left it to heat up on the side of the stove, and went to find Monsieur Gérard.

  He was sitting in his study, slumped over a meagre fire, pretending to read a book. His eyes were red as the velvet cushions of his armchair. How odd to see him broken out of his usual routine; no pen in his hand; not working. That made him defenceless against the exhausting day just passed, wide open to its curious and exacting freight: boredom combined with grief; long, formal rituals performed under the public eye; and the same tiny conversation repeated a hundred times about what a fine woman Madame Colbert had been, what an excellent mother. He was the chief mourner and so he had had to look after everyone else. He had had to console Madame Polpeau whose sadness made her twitter worse than ever. His own tears had had to wait.

  He would feel more cheerful, I thought, when he got back to his writing. He hadn’t been able to do any properly for weeks. His study felt very empty because he wasn’t sitting at his desk. As though he himself had been ill.

  He had taken off his jacket, collar and tie and put on his shabby old dressing-gown. A signal that he was back in the private domain again, with no one observing him, his doors closed against the village and all well-wishers. I wasn’t the public, so I felt able to disturb him. I’d had enough time by myself in the echoing kit
chen, in any case, and wanted some company. Offering him food was a way of not staying out there all alone, locked into silence, feeling too noisy when I moved, as though I must keep very still and not bruise the air. I think he felt something similar because he looked up and smiled at me when I coughed to remind him I was there.

  —All right, all right, he said: I’ll eat something as long as you agree to share it with me. It will be an act of kindness on your part to have supper with me in the dining-room and talk to me.

  —I can’t possibly sit down with you there, I objected.

  He shrugged and came into the kitchen. My territory. It was the warmest place, after all, being so small, and the table being near the stove.

  Having come to my decision, I acted on it. I spread a white cloth and put a tumbler of daisies in the centre. I took down from the buffet shelves next door the fine porcelain plates painted with red flowers that Madame Colbert had used on Sundays, rather than the everyday white china ones with blue rims, as a sign of respect to mark the significance of this day. Monsieur Gérard lit candles rather than the lamp, so that we kept a kind of vigil. He went into the cellar and brought out a bottle of red burgundy, opened it, and poured some into two glasses. I was used to being offered a glass of rough red wine mixed with water, on special occasions, every now and then, the sort Madame Colbert had kept for the servant, but tonight, the wine being such a good one, I drank it neat. It tasted of cherries and blackcurrants, of tannin and earth. I remembered the burgundy I had drunk with the Montjeans, to toast their child. Now I’d had burgundy twice, and could compare the tastes.

  We talked. We’d always been able to do that. We had been friends, in our own quiet way, for a long time. After we had eaten, and finished the wine, I saw him suddenly perceive what he wanted, what was possible. He got up and pushed back his chair, came round the table, stroked my cheek, then kissed me. That set a seal on the evening. It flowed from the sorrow and strangeness of the day, from our conversations over the last months, and from the need we both had to stare death in the face and spit at her. When he blew out one branch of candles, picked up the other, took my hand and led me upstairs to his room, I went with him willingly and death slunk off.

  The walls of his bedroom were washed a faded blue like seawater. The shutters were closed against the rainy night. The bed stood in one corner, mahogany, with curled-over ends, like a boat. Candlelight shone golden over us swimming between the smooth linen sheets. I felt glad I had washed all over so carefully for the funeral, that my hair was clean, and that I was wearing my best Sunday chemise. I didn’t feel ashamed taking my cap off, stepping out of my clothes; of what he’d see. How warm he was, when I slid under the quilt into his arms and he held me, how warm and vigorous and alive. That almost did for me. It was very alarming, being so close, and I felt rigid, like rusted clockwork, dry as a bucket of sand, with huge, unwieldy limbs. The fear was my bridge to him. Over the mountain of my fear I climbed to him. Telling him how afraid I was made the fear fall off me like a shirt, and then I was perched on the edge then diving in; we were nosing and jostling each other like two dolphins playing in the deep, bumping and leaping; his bed was as inviting as the salt ocean; welcoming; he made plenty of room in it for me. I forgot that there had ever been a death in the house, a funeral. I forgot all about his mother.

  We lived together like that for a couple of weeks. I don’t know what anyone in the village thought, whether they thought anything at all. The doctor’s wife dropped in from time to time, and the doctor. They witnessed me getting on with all my usual jobs just as though nothing had happened. Neither of them said anything to me, so presumably they noticed nothing amiss. Not then, anyway. Not immediately. To them I was just a pair of hands that kept the house running; hard work was what I was for; this didn’t need to be commented on; it was a part of life, useful, dependable and wholly unremarkable, like a hinge on a door. On the other hand their dear friend was a poet, a sensitive creature; he was in mourning and in need of solitude, not to be interrupted too often by tactfully shown sympathy. People brought him little gifts, a bunch of chives, a few eggs, a pot of pâté, which they left on the doorstep, acknowledging his wish for privacy. Then they went away and we remained alone.

  I knew, of course, since he’d told me, that Monsieur Gérard had previously been involved with the Rouennaise lady whom I’d met two summers running, Madame Isabelle, and that they were currently estranged. This made him feel safe, I thought: able to embark on sleeping with me; because this other woman existed, with a prior claim on him. She was a kind of chaperone who protected him and allowed him to keep a certain distance. And for the moment I too felt safe. I could abandon myself in bed but inside myself I held back; my soul remained my own and did not stretch out of me, fly to embrace a soulmate like it had done before; it stayed tidy and tucked in.

  These days, anyhow, I wasn’t quite such a fool as I’d been before. By now I knew perfectly well that men slept with their housekeepers and maids without it meaning anything. It was the employer’s privilege. They took advantage of female servants if they were so inclined and the woman got the blame and your best chance was to keep well out of their way.

  I did not keep out of Monsieur Gérard’s way. He was not exploiting me. I had made a free decision to go to bed with him; I had helped set the whole thing in motion; we were equals. No one would have believed that, of course. But as it was, for the moment we both existed in a simple-minded, comforting cocoon, and somewhere outside it was Madame Isabelle. Gérard was probably relying on her, I thought, to draw the line for him; at some point she would return; something would happen; everything would be all right.

  The proof corrections were all finished and done. He decided to take the parcel up to his publishers in Paris himself, rather than trust the post. The tenants who had been renting the family flat were due to move out, and had to be visited. The family lawyer had to be consulted and the terms of Madame Colbert’s will discussed. These pieces of business were urgent enough in themselves. The trip would give him, also, the chance to get back in touch with his writer and poet friends, go to the literary salon in the rue de Rome that he liked to frequent when he could, catch up on a couple of plays at the theatre. All his friends had written to him to condole with him on his bereavement. The letters lay in a heap on his study table, unanswered. He had decided it would be easier to reply in person to most of them than in writing.

  —I’ll be away for four or five days, he said: perhaps a week. I’ll let you know when I’ll be coming back. I’ll send you a telegram.

  He was sitting on the edge of his bed, buttoning his shirt. I hadn’t even got up yet. I lay luxuriously in the warm space he had just vacated. Nine o’clock in the morning, and our shutters were still closed. Passers-by would draw their own conclusions; the village would start to talk. Gérard was quite oblivious to this.

  I yawned and stretched. I reached out my hand and stroked his back.

  —Fine, I replied.

  I wondered whether he would try to see Madame Isabelle while he was away. I didn’t ask him and he didn’t tell me. I bade him a calm goodbye. I was pleased at the idea of having some time to myself in the house, to do as I liked. He clattered off, with the doctor, in the latter’s carriage, to catch the train in Rouen. I set to and got on with the spring-cleaning.

  It was the season for it. All over Jumièges women were doing the same thing, performing a rite every bit as important as the Easter vigil. It demonstrated that the long, cold winter was past: you renewed your life as you scoured and scrubbed and polished, just as you discarded worn and rotted feelings by throwing out the rubbish and dust. Now that the weather had grown warmer, the winds and rain lessened, doors and windows could stand open, letting in sunlight and fresh air. The village smelled of soap and bleach. Curtains were taken down and washed, hung in the orchard to dry, rugs and carpets shaken then beaten mercilessly. The glass in the windowpanes sparkled, cleaned with vinegar and hot water, dried with crumpled newspaper.
I rubbed beeswax into the furniture.

  All this work of restoration and renewal shored me up, provided me with peace and contentment. I missed Monsieur Gérard in one way, and felt his absence, but in another way he had not departed at all: he was in my mind all the time, for I was preparing the house against his return, creating a surprise and a welcome. I let myself forget that this was not my house. I rejoiced in it as though it were. Alone in the house, I possessed it. I was not pretending. Madame Colbert had gone, and Marie-Louise, and Madame Isabelle, and Miss Millicent. I was the only woman left. I was like a child playing with her dolls, dropping them off the doll’s-house roof one by one. But in my mind this scenario was not a game but real.

  The only room I did not spring-clean was the one upstairs in which Madame Colbert had died. It stayed closed and undusted; the key reposed quietly in the lock; and I left well alone.

  The housework completed, I tackled the garden, giving the orchard grass its first scything of the year and shearing the hedges. Weeds were showing their heads in all directions, unfurling their rolled leaves in a tremendous hurry. I pulled up fistfuls of dandelions, buttercups and speedwell from the flowerbeds and from around the base of shrubs. An abundance of pretty weeds grew at the boundaries of the lawn, where it met the gravel of the path. Here there was space for them to flourish, not drowned out by grass. Wild clematis sprouted here, and crane’s-bill, columbine, violets, early vetch, daisies, herb Robert. To me these were not weeds but wild flowers, beautiful in their own right, not bad but good; I couldn’t bear to pull them up; I decided they had staked their claim to exist there on the edge; they had arrived by accident and I would make room for them. Some of the wild forget-me-nots I even dug up and transplanted into the formal beds. I sowed proper flowers, too: sweet peas, marigolds, morning glory and nasturtiums, using the seeds I had saved from last year. In the potager I planted peas and beans, set onions, sowed parsley and chives. When I put my fingers into the earth I got a shock from how it clung to them moist as a mouth, warm as the flesh of an animal. It made me know the earth was alive.

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