Ignorance a novel, p.18
Ignorance: A Novel, page 18
Monsieur Fauchon coughed and we both woke from our reveries. He fingered his naked chin: it’s to go with the photo on the new papers. He covered his face with his long fingers. Brown skin calloused from work. I waited. He knew I was waiting, that he’d have to speak, he’d have to agree. I was resolved not to speak before he did. Finally he murmured: I’d rather consult your mother first.
My mother’s face: pale, big-eyed, dark hair swept back. Hovering in front of me like a photograph. When someone got taken away, if you were lucky, you still had a photograph of them. If you didn’t, for how long would you remember what they looked like? Already, I couldn’t remember really what Madame Fauchon looked like, nor the two elder children. I couldn’t remember the sound of her voice. But of course her husband remembered her. The tiny moments that made up his life with her; her portrait. She stood at the window and put out food for the birds. At night, in the dark, she pulled the sheet up over their heads and whispered her secrets. When she was angry she stamped in a killing dance. Was that true? I didn’t know. Would he find her again and if not what would he do? Perhaps he’d hammer nails into himself; a kind of shoe. Nail down his tongue so he couldn’t cry out.
I remembered what Monsieur Jacquotet looked like. With the eyes of my soul. He’d burned into me, like pokerwork on wood. The touch of his fingers, which helped shape me, which helped give me shape.
I said: we’ve got to hurry.
How much had Maurice charged? How much had the whole operation cost them? Their life savings, my mother had said. Their life savings to save their lives.
Monsieur Fauchon said: all right. Take the children today. I’ve got to wait another couple of days, for the papers, and for my guest to be strong enough to travel.
We shook hands. I said: give your guest my kind regards.
I went out. The sunlight jumped at me like a dog. The light licked me, bit me, forced itself against me. I could see nothing. I didn’t know what time it was. I forgot. I was emptiness in sunlight.
Afterwards I tried and failed to draw it. A picture book for children. Brightly coloured images in comics. See it as the younger Fauchon child seemed to. Seven years old, he didn’t yet live in the grown-up world. Tintin darts by with Snowy. Jagged balloons contain exclamations. Wham! Bam! Monsters! The older child, nine or so, small for his age, clenched himself, solemn and silent. He allowed me to hold his hand. His little brother jumped up and down.
Explosions of noise like gunfire break up the white spaces on the page into black stars. On their coats the children wear yellow stars. German words fly shaped like sprays of bullets. A voice shouts commands in capital letters. The younger Fauchon child claps his hands and laughs. An enormous revolving grey-green broom, a carpet-sweeper, bursts out of a side street, bristles towards us through the place. A broom robot. Rigid arms swing back and forth. Boots flash. Metal helmet shapes a metal skull. Grey-green cleaning machine sweeps the square clear of all rubbish wham bam.
The children gaze, astonished. Child artists compose an adventure story, observe wind-up clockwork gadgets, a busy little army of grey-green sweeper toys. Model soldiers with knifing legs, marching to do their duty. They won’t bother us.
Next image in the comic strip: on the far side of the place, a man in a white shirt and dark trousers, hatless, a dark coat over his arm, opening the door of Monsieur Jacquotet’s house from inside. He comes out on to the step, glances idly across the place in our direction. I close my eyes. Open them. I’m a child too: I turn away my head so that I haven’t seen Maurice and therefore he hasn’t seen me. Nor the two children. Their yellow stars blaze. Maurice goes back inside and closes the door.
Now: the convent parlour. Sister Dolly, who opened the door to us, has gone off with a hiss of dismay, flapping her penguin wings. The two Fauchon children grip my hands, blink in bewilderment at the half-naked figure, nails piercing his hands and his feet, dripping blood, which hangs on the huge crucifix suspended between the windows. It’s not real. We’re inside an illustration in a cookery book: how to butcher meat. The children don’t want to learn to cook. Butchers in our town hang up joints on huge silvery hooks. You don’t nail up live animals. The little Fauchons’ eyes swivel over the brown walls, the stiff brown chairs, the brown oil paintings of holy scenes. You must be hungry, I say: we’ll get you some tea in just a minute.
The two children blink once more as a second penguin waddles in and clucks at them. Mother Lucie’s beak pecks the air: we’ll keep them here in the convent. We’ll put them in the old lumber room upstairs. Then if anyone comes looking we’ll be able to say truthfully we haven’t any Jewish children in the orphanage or the school. I want to scream at her to be quiet. She kneads her rosary, rattle and click, and the children fold up their faces against her.
I wanted to draw a comforting picture in soft pastels near the end of the story book, an image of rescued children safe in the convent lumber room, fed bread and milk for supper then tucked up in bed, told a tale of hide and seek. They gaze at me with their big solemn eyes, nod. I put their little coats into one dust-coated cupboard, their wooden-soled boots into another, run to the clothing store, find them felt slippers, overalls, nightgowns, bring these back up to where they wait, clutching each other’s hands.
I’ve rubbed them out of the picture. I’ve turned them into orphans. I’ve made them disappear. I kneel in front of them, doing up their overalls, buttons and belts. I say: I’ll try to come and visit you very soon. But I’ve got to go now.
I close the door behind me.
I began the walk back to Ste-Madeleine. Wishing I’d thought to borrow Émile’s bicycle, avoided asking Maurice for a lift. Stupid girl. Too late now. Weariness turned the light to spots in front of my eyes. The sun struck down; repeated blows. I plodded along. Little shade from the tall spindly trees in the hedgerows: I started sweating. Flies buzzed round my head. My feet swelled, rubbed on my shoes. I cursed myself for wearing high heels. You couldn’t stride in them. Mincing over the dry ruts of mud underfoot, I kept turning my ankle. Soon I began to hobble. My heels burned as blisters began to form.
Rattle and roar of an engine. Don’t look round. A gleaming black nose pushed alongside me. A German officer stopped his staff car. He wound down the window. I had to look at his pink face, small eyes. He lifted a hand in polite greeting. Fräulein Johanna, isn’t it? Do let me offer you a lift, my dear.
Impossible to refuse. I didn’t recognise him, couldn’t call him by his name. Pig number one pig number two pig number three. I put on a calm and relaxed expression. Like smoothing on make-up. Just one of the piggy-pink clients. Be nice. The uniform-encased driver stared ahead, expressionless. The officer pushed the door open. I got into the back of the car beside him, sat well back on the leather seat, turned my face towards him, managed the movement of muscles called a smile. His cap perched between us like a chaperone. The car smelled soapy, as though it had just been washed. The officer smelled of sharpsweet eau de Cologne. He smiled hesitantly. Nice white teeth.
I chopped him up like a sausage. His fat fingers fell off. His round cheeks. I sliced his ears on to his grey-green shoulders. He mentioned a concert in the town hall next week. Are you fond of Schubert? I am, very. His small blue eyes gleamed in his fleshy face. His blond hair was crimped into crisp waves. His lopped pink hands had well-manicured fingernails. Despite being dead he could still speak, so I minced him into pink and grey-green stuffing while he droned about classical music. He stopped, sensing my inattention, and gave me another shy look. Obviously he liked girls; he meant me no harm. He loved his mother. She taught him to clean his fingernails, clean inside his ears, not to pick his nose in public, to change his underwear every day. Naked in bed he’d be a darling pink piglet with a little curled tail. He was still alive, snorting and grunting. Intolerable. My mouth locked in its rictus grimace. To kill pigs the farmers hoisted them up by their back legs above a wooden tub, slit their throats. The blood poured down in a red stream and the farmers’ wives collected
In Ste-Madeleine he got the driver to park the car outside the bar. Come in and have a drink. He wanted a French girl to sit with, to display. Any French girl would do. He was just a German officer offering me camouflage. Any German officer would do. I owed him for the lift and so I followed him in. The patronne gave me a swift disdainful glance. The German took my arm, shouldered through the café to the far end of the bar.
We sat at a table in full view of everybody. My arms and legs seemed bent the wrong way. I stared at my blue crêpe knees. I looked up as the door scraped open, the bell pinged as feet crossed the mat. Through the haze of cigarette smoke I saw Marie-Angèle and Maurice enter. I turned my head away. So did Marie-Angèle.
Our business concluded, Maurice and I avoided each other. His attention moved to the new women who had arrived in the house. Cheeks, fat or sunken, coated in beige paint. Eyes tinted black and blue like bruises. Semi-destitute and desperate for work. Invisible labels round their necks: willing to do anything. Just like me.
My mother had insisted I did not go back to visit her again. Stay where you are, don’t run any more risks, I’ll be all right. If necessary, I’ll call on Madame Baudry. She’s a decent woman when all’s said and done. It’s not her fault her prospective son-in-law has to work under the Germans.
Inside me: a dark space of loss, bitter and empty. Dark writing on a dark page. A list of names. A dark book inside me, listing the names of the lost. Once, in the night, they called to me from a snow-heavy pine forest. I noted the book’s existence, then shut it, pushed it deep down under snow and ice.
I obeyed my mother. Stayed put in Ste-Madeleine. Kept my head down. Hung on in the patronne’s house. Watched tides of grey-green uniforms washing through. All through the following year we continued with our lives. Pretended we believed in the future. After the war, Émile and I would say to one another: after the war. After the war we’d go on a walking holiday together. We’d sleep under hedges, build fires on river banks, grill fish and drink beer, roam freely wherever we wanted, with no rolls of barbed wire barring the way.
When Émile disappeared, I didn’t cry. What was the use? I summoned a night council in the kitchen. Hortensia and Violetta listed methods. Scalding hot baths jumping off the kitchen table drinking meths poking myself with a knitting needle. Pivoine said: who round here does any knitting, you idiots?
I said: OK, forget it, let’s have a drink. We waited until the patronne had gone to bed then collected wine dregs from upstairs, tipped them into a pan, heated it, added stolen cooking brandy and sugar-beet. Our version of punch. That’ll get rid of it if anything can, Desirée said. At the bottom of a tin Hortensia found a handful of large biscuit crumbs. She said: midnight feast!
I went to bed, waiting for the cramps to begin. Hoping they would, hoping they wouldn’t. I lay facing the wall, which ran with damp. I put out a hand and touched its wet clamminess. I threw up, but the baby hung on.
Maurice’s first-born was a son. He named him Hubert. After the christening he brought the patronne six bottles of Taittinger and a handful of lace-edged paper cones, decorated with blue rosettes, brimming with pale blue sugared almonds. The girls crunched these pebbly sweets while he popped corks but I hid from the party, stayed in the kitchen. In the morning, I poked around between bottles and glasses, trails of ribbon, fragments of icing and nuts. I picked up the empty paper cones, flattened them out into half-circles. Late at night, after work, I drew on one of them with my last stub of charcoal. I put it away with my other drawings, in the portfolio I made from an old cardboard box, tied up with black ribbon I filched from one of Madame’s cupboards. After the war I’d decide which ones to keep.
I climbed into bed. After the war I’d return to Ste-Marie, take proper care of my mother. After the war I’d find Émile again. After the war we’d live together with our child. After the war I’d try to find out what had happened to those lost ones, whose names I could not speak.
After the war. One day. If they felt able to. People might tell each other what had happened. In confidence at first, not in public. Whispering tête-à-tête, as you did in the confessional. As I’d once done. As the nuns, presumably, still did. How would someone like Sister Dolly shape her version of these times? Did she have a confidante? Who could that possibly be? Falling asleep that night, I tried to imagine Dolly, later in her life, talking to a friend. I tried to imagine what she might say.
That hard day began with the rising bell jerking me out of a bad dream. Kneeling by my bed to say my morning prayers I wasn’t fit for God to see. That dream must have come from the devil and I’d let it in. A bunch of evil spirits flinging red darts at me and jeering.
The devil wouldn’t let go of me. My clean coif was missing, and my underskirt. Something had come for me in the night and thrown my things about. At last I found my poor little slipper, hidden under the bed. I had to hurry, not to be late for the Office. In the cloister the devil tripped me up and I cannoned into Mother Lucie, plodding along like a cow off to pasture. That slowcoach. She was sent to try me. She never noticed anything, not my treading on her heel, not my exclaiming and saying sorry. In chapel she knelt in her stall, eyes shut, smiling, as though someone had given her a big present. She never seemed bothered by the cold, nor by how hard the kneelers were. She didn’t need to. She had a soft life, just teaching in the school. She could afford to look so pious and pleased with herself.
The day got worse after lunch with the bang on the back door. Ill tempered and impatient it did sound. I opened up to my sister-in-law Adeline. What a mess she looked! Other women would have got tidied up to come into town but not Adeline. She wore her work clothes. A man’s grey cap well pulled down, shading her eyes, a grey cotton shawl. Her shabby frock, a washed-out blue, flapped round her bony kneecaps. She was bare-legged, in an old pair of lace-up ankle boots, and she was carrying a cloth-covered basket that was much too small. Small as a pumpkin in a bad year.
She pecked my cheeks. I said: I was expecting you an hour ago. What happened?
She pushed past me, into the kitchen. I said: manners!
Her voice leaked out sour as old milk. A gendarme came round with an inspector. Making trouble. Counting our sacks of grain. They nearly caught us.
On the one hand, you should tell the truth. On the other hand, not declaring everything was a way to fight back against the Boches. I didn’t know which was right, so I kept my mouth shut. Adeline scrabbled in her basket, held out half a savoy cabbage, a shrivelled onion, a black-spotted cauliflower: can’t do any better than this. The patron says we can’t go on giving away food for free. We haven’t got enough for ourselves as it is.
I felt very upset. My own family was turning against me. I said: but your duty of charity! Adeline stared at the floor. Come off it. He can’t give you what he hasn’t got. I said: you mean he’s found people who’ll pay for it.
My insides were squeezing together. That my brother should send me such a message! Family was family, even if we didn’t always see eye to eye.
I said: how can you do this? Times are so hard for us.
She knew perfectly well I’d never want to fall out with my brother. He was falling out with me first. It was his fault. I was almost in tears.
Adeline practically spat at me. Times are hard for us too. The patron said to tell you he’s sorry, but there it is.
I could hardly get my voice out. He’s turned very mean. And I know who’s behind it!
As kids, my brother and I had been thick as thieves. We ran about together all day long. When we played priests, we took turns saying Mass and handing out Holy Communion. For hosts we’d use daisies or dandelions. We were the two mischiefs. Always getting into trouble. So when one got beaten, the other did too. He and I, as the two eldest, had to keep an eye on the younger ones, and so we looked after each other as well. At night we slept next to each other in the big bed full of children.
Later on, when I entered, my brother said: good riddance! Les bonnes soeurs, he used to say with a nasty smile, spitting on the ground: there’s many outside the convent just as good as that lot inside.
I didn’t like nuns much, either, when I was a girl. They weren’t like us. Sharp-eyed, always on the lookout. Going on about holy poverty but always asking for money for this or that, not realising we had none to give. Behind their backs my parents would roll their eyes. That didn’t stop me from being bundled off to the convent as soon as I was old enough. One less to feed. Twelve children. Too many girls: get rid of one of them. They chose me. I heard their night whispers: best to let her go, she’s so plain, no chance of her catching a husband, poor thing. My brother said: you fool! I answered: no choice, have I?
He wouldn’t say goodbye, he was out mending a fence when I left, and that was a right blow to the heart. I offered it up for the holy souls but I still missed him.
In fact the life wasn’t too bad. Enough to eat, a cubicle to sleep in all to myself, curtains you could draw right round your bed. Cold and narrow it felt at first, lonely, but the nuns explained: it meant being respected. The Good Lord gave me a helping hand when I needed it. I had no trouble with kitchen work, none with keeping the children in order. You just had to be very firm, let them know who was boss.
Best were our feast days. In May we made lily-of-the-valley posies for the Virgin, dressed her in garlands of white lilac, and took her round the garden on a bier. We sang Ave Maria and then the prettiest child crowned her. For Corpus Christi we made little altars at the edge of the lawn, with lace cloths and red roses. Throwing rose petals and singing, we went before the priest carrying the Monstrance. Gold rays flaming like the sun. We knelt down at each altar as he raised the Monstrance for us to adore. Afterwards we’d have almond cakes and wine at supper.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes