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The looking glass, p.18

The Looking Glass, page 18


The Looking Glass

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  From time to time various neighbours dropped in, to see how I was getting along, to bring me gifts of plants for the garden, to ask for a hand with their own spring-cleaning. We all ran in and out of each other’s houses all day long, and so during those hours you couldn’t hide anything. There wasn’t much happening in the daytime that everyone didn’t know about. The nights were another matter. People bolted their doors and closed their shutters and retired inside their privacy. At night you could do what you pleased, beat your wife, rape your daughter, as long as there was no evidence of it visible next morning. Monsieur Gérard and I had not been as discreet as we should, but nobody asked me any awkward questions, during his absence in Paris, or gave me any meaningful looks. They were biding their time, like spectators at the theatre, waiting to see what would happen next. They behaved like friendly neighbours to my face and kept their speculations to themselves.

  The doctor’s wife, who had constituted herself the guardian of my health and morals, was another matter. She believed herself bound to pry into my life and came poking around a couple of times, like a chicken scratching for food in the dust.

  First of all she inspected the garden.

  —It’s much too early to have planted your peas, she scolded me: May’s when you want to do it. You wait and see: they won’t come up; they’ll all rot in the wet, a complete waste of time and money.

  Her eyes swivelled about, piercing and uprooting.

  —You want to get rid of all those weeds. They’re an absolute disgrace.

  Next, she was bustling upstairs, under the pretext of collecting her rosary which she declared she had left by Madame Colbert’s table de nuit. I heard her creaking from room to room, opening and shutting doors, trying to work out who was sleeping where. I had taken care to disarrange my bedclothes every morning, just in case, and when she came downstairs again I gave her the demurest of smiles and bobs. She was beaten back. So far she couldn’t catch me out.

  Over and over I imagined Gérard’s return. I told it to myself like a story, repeating it, refining the details, getting it just right.

  He warned me by telegram, as he’d said he would, when to expect him. The doctor and his wife drove into Rouen to fetch him from the station, and dropped him outside the house. I watched from behind the curtain and saw Madame Polpeau lean down from the carriage and speak to him earnestly. They drove off again, and he waved. Then he came in. He greeted me calmly, and went upstairs to change out of his travelling clothes.

  I laid two places at the table in the dining-room, putting out the best crystal glasses and the red-flowered plates, the big starched napkins normally kept for Sunday guests, the silver salt cellar. I sat down with him there and shared his déjeuner. This was an act of disobedience and disrespect towards the house and the rules that had always prevailed in it, as forbidden and daring as going up to the high altar in church, opening the sanctuary gates, pushing through them and past the little red light flickering its warning and telling you to keep back, not even to imagine entering that sacred space. Only the priest was allowed to approach the altar, where the Real Presence of Jesus Christ reposed hidden in the brocade-covered tabernacle. For anyone else to come close was desecration. Here was I sitting in Madame Colbert’s old place, in her straw-seated chair with curved wooden arms, shaking out my napkin from her silver ring and wielding the silver fork bearing her monogram. This was behaviour demonstrating the utmost insolence. My hand shook a little as I picked up my wineglass and sipped at it.

  We ate the early asparagus he had brought back with him from Paris, with hollandaise sauce, and potatoes from the sack in the shed. After lunch we took a turn around the garden. The sun came out and shone brilliantly from behind the scudding grey and white clouds. The gravel in front of the house glittered, each sharp point distinct, newly washed. Raindrops trembled on the fleshy leaves poking out of the pots of tulips lined up along the path, on the lilac bushes, on the vivid green grass, a flung net of watery jewels glinting in rainbow colours when the light caught it. The cherry blossom snowed down and lay, almost translucent, on the turf underneath.

  —You’ve made the garden look lovely, Gérard said.

  He put his arm round my waist.

  —Poor girl, but it’s too much work for you, all by yourself. The doctor’s wife was saying so, on the way back from Rouen. She thinks you’re much too young to have so much responsibility. She says I should engage another servant, to give you a hand. That would be much more convenable, she says.

  —I can manage, I said.

  I knew what Madame Polpeau had been hinting to him. He knew I understood, without him having to put it into words. I could catch his meaning from his blue eye stealthily glancing sideways at me, his hand tugging his moustache. By now I knew how much he disliked fuss, how little of a ladies’ man he really was despite his occasional swaggering talk, how much he had relied on his mother to run his domestic life and how lost he felt without her. He had begun to rely on me instead, but he had also begun to realise that things could not go on as they were.

  I could see him wondering about the next step. Whether he should consider marrying me. I looked after him well; I made no demands; and being from a lower social class I wouldn’t expect to be taken to Paris and introduced to all his fine friends. In the country he could live with me the quiet hermit’s life he liked, which was crucial to his writing, and then, whenever he fancied a change, he could run up to Paris and jaunt about, knowing that back at home things were ticking over nicely.

  —But perhaps you think I should leave? I asked.

  We went to bed. I exerted myself to please him to the height of my powers, employing every sensual trick I could think of, every gesture and caress I knew he especially liked. I stroked licked sucked ate drank fucked him. Afterwards we lay collapsed. We talked in low voices, addressing each other’s pillows as though, big and solemn in their frilled white cases, they were bewigged judges able impartially to decide our fate.

  —Men don’t marry their housekeepers, I objected: it isn’t done.

  I had given myself a promotion. Housekeeper sounded a lot better, more possible, than servant. And I had constituted myself counsel for the prosecution so that I could enjoy hearing Gérard speak up for the defence.

  —The poet Mallarmé married a governess, Gérard returned: a working woman; it’s not so unusual.

  —If we were married, I pointed out: you wouldn’t have to pay me. You’d save on my wages.

  The verdict was given. It was decided. We fell asleep.

  But it didn’t happen like that. No, it didn’t happen like that at all. I had told myself the false story, which annoyed the true one, and so the true one burst out and took over, a torrent which could not be stopped.

  It began as soon as Gérard had left for Paris.

  The house became filled with icy draughts. However carefully I closed the doors, they jerked open again once I’d gone past, all by themselves, then banged shut and opened again. The wind whistled past my ears and tugged my earlobes. It was sly. It was spiteful.

  The atmosphere of that death chamber upstairs was leaking out through the keyhole and poisoning the entire house. I tiptoed past the door on my way to bed in my own room, at night, making no sound, but nonetheless something inside had become disturbed; something had been roused up and made angry and wanted to attack me.

  Downstairs, in the daytime, I felt a presence, a damp, chilly web of fear that lurked in the corners of the dining-room then draped itself across my shoulder-blades and clung to the nape of my neck whenever I turned my back. Unease like a cold slime hovered in the air, waiting for me whenever I came in from outdoors. Objects moved about when they had no right to. In front of my eyes a plate lifted itself off the buffet, hovered sideways, fell on to the floor. Towels that I had left in a low white pile at one end of the kitchen table reappeared, tumbled and disarranged, at the other. The sewing scissors simply vanished and I never found them again.

  At night I couldn’t sl
eep. I shivered in the darkness, clutching the edge of the sheet, listening to the noises downstairs: doors slamming shut then opening again, saucepan lids rolling clattering across the kitchen floor. Some fierce energy rattled the shutters, knocked back and forth inside the chimney-breasts as though it were trapped and wanted to break free. I shut my eyes, put my head under the bedclothes and prayed to God for help. The fear waited implacably, leaping in to clutch my throat in between the words of my gabbled invocations.

  When the dawn came I would jump out of bed, grateful for the light. I went at my cleaning and gardening tasks ferociously, as though determination were a virtue that would drive my demons away. But by the time afternoon arrived, I would be as frightened as ever all over again, watching the shadows thicken, starting and jumping when a cart creaked by outside. By now I knew there was no escape from whatever it was. Something was waiting for me. Getting gradually closer. Enjoying my terror and wanting to make it worse.

  I didn’t dare tell Madame Polpeau when she came prowling round. When she asked me if I was managing all right I held my tongue and just grunted.

  On the third night the disturbance moved upstairs. Around midnight something crashed to the ground in the room along the corridor that had been Madame Colbert’s. In the morning I bullied myself to go in and check. I twisted the frilled oval top of the iron key in the lock, felt the tongue of the latch click and slither aside, grasped the cold china egg of the doorknob in my reluctant fingers, turned it slowly sideways, pushed the door open.

  Inside all was chaos and destruction. At first I thought there had been a flood, then that I was looking at ice and glaciers. The gilt-wreathed mirror that had hung, tilting and sloping forwards, over the grey marble fireplace now lay shattered on the tiled floor in front of the empty grate, a crazy spread of great glittering fragments like spikes of a frozen waterfall. These jagged shards were widely scattered around, as though the glass had been wrenched off its hook with great force and flung down contemptuously by someone who hated it.

  I was forced to remember the last time I had looked in that mirror, which so acutely reflected what lay on the bed. How on the morning after Madame Colbert’s death the door of her room had been left open by stupid, careless Madame Polpeau, so that running past with a can of hot water for Monsieur Gérard to wash in I had caught a fleeting glimpse of the corpse.

  Once there had been a live person here, a real presence, but she had gone. She had vanished overnight and would never be seen again. In her place was this imposter, this fake, a doll of greenish wax who had arrived in the house secretly, by some unknown means, who had been parked on Madame Colbert’s bed, her flesh seeming stiff but no more solid than blancmange, threatening to yield to the probing finger like a rotting cheese. Her eyelids were drawn down like blinds, over empty globes cold like marbles. She was all shut up and sealed off.

  She was playing a game, pretending to be Madame Colbert, who had gone away, but she was a replica. She was a model in porcelain, a dummy to frighten the children with, smuggled into my employer’s bed as a sadistic surprise. I told myself: don’t be stupid, this is a dead person. Not a person at all. A dead body. But how did I know? The horror was that she might be playing a joke and not be dead at all; she might open her sightless eyes, sit up, stretch out her clammy arms. I edged away.

  I have heard people say that corpses are not frightening, that once the spirit has left the dead body is just clay, peaceful, not threatening, not like the person at all. They should try living with a corpse for three nights and three days, as I had to. There she lay, Madame Colbert’s exact double, her mysterious and terrifying other self, with her hooded eyes and curved nose and jaw, her complete stillness. As though she were stifling her breathing, willing herself not to move. Any minute now she would break the spell, jump up and laugh. Who was she and what was she? What was she up to? She was dead; she was inanimate matter; she was now just rubbish, because her soul had flown off; she wasn’t even a she any more but just stuff, and she should have been got out of the house and put somewhere else, at a good distance, while we waited to bury her. But oh, to have to share a house with her, strange and uncanny uninvited guest: that made me feel she was very much alive, too much so, gleefully hiding under her carnival mask of green skin, and simply biding her time.

  She was as gruesome as the mermaid washed up on the beach then slaughtered. She was that bruised, bloated body that would not drown but kept on resurfacing, shrouded in rags and seaweed, however often the sea dragged her back. She was the wicked girl who did not deserve a mother’s love, who deserved to die, and so the ghost was coming for her and would get her and would not let go.

  Now the dead woman came alive in the grave of the bed and sat up. She wanted her revenge. She wanted to punish me. And so night after night she slunk in through the front door and pattered up the stairs, looking for me. Mind the stairs, someone’s voice sang: they’re steep and narrow; it’s easy to slip and fall. Mind the stairs.

  The stair treads creaked. The floorboards along the corridor uttered their oak warning as she inched along, searching for me.

  She was my angry mother, determined to exact vengeance, and sooner or later she would find me and I would have to be killed and hung up in a net in the church porch while everybody laughed.

  I couldn’t stay in that house and let myself imagine I could love Gérard. That was much too dangerous. I had to protect him from my wicked self and from the cold mother who was hunting for me to kill me.

  I left the day before he was due back. I crept out of Jumièges very early in the morning, before anyone else in the village was up. The sky was pink. The house yawned and relaxed as I abandoned it. The evil spirits went off somewhere else. I headed towards the river.


  This effort of trying to discover and collect my earliest memories of my uncle reminds me of one of my pleasures on wet days in summer. While the drenching August rain tapped on the windows and the roof and chilled the house, I would vanish into the curtained space underneath the stairs. My grandmother’s maid, Geneviève, employed this dark, windowless cubbyhole as a cupboard, in which she kept stacks of old newspapers tied up with string, brooms and mops, the wicker baskets with sturdy handles that she carried to market, and so on. The charm of this place was double: I was hidden inside it; and also it represented the unknown. Squatting in here on the floor, with the flowered chintz curtain pulled across to block out the dim light of the kitchen passage, I had crossed over into a place which was the other side of all that was familiar: I saw the underneath of the stairs above my head, curving up, up, up and round, precise as the steps in a story leading to the denouement. I was below that narrative, in a world both enclosed and limitless, my eyes and fingers exploring the outlines of the coal box, with its sharp handles, and the sewing-machine like a small coffin, sitting still under its wooden shroud. My cave tapered away to a point in the blackness into which I couldn’t squeeze, beyond which I couldn’t go, but I sent my imagination on ahead of me into that new country; I dreamed up what was there.

  This section of my memoir of my uncle which touches on my childhood would not be complete if I did not add to all these memories of the times I was privileged to spend with him a quick account of the day my childhood in Jumièges ended, in which tragedy (to my small mind, at least) he was crucially involved.

  That summer, when I was seven years old, I had an English governess, whose duties were to oversee my studies and to teach me her own language. We spent two months in my grandmother’s house in Jumièges, now the Musée Colbert (where I sit writing this), and we also all stayed in Etretat for a while.

  The entire household shifted to a hotel on the front. With Miss Milly and Uncle Gérard I played on the beach. To a child’s eyes this was a magical landscape prodigal with riches: hills of sea-washed pebbles down which to slide, sand-floored caves to explore, tunnels leading up through the inside of the cliffs, small bays hidden beyond the cliff arches, expanses of tumbled boulders
and rock pools, all kinds of shells, dead starfish and cuttlefish to collect. Nowadays, if you go to Etretat, the beach is often most unfortunately clotted with patches of sticky tar. But in those far-off times it was very clean; you could step barefoot over the stones, and spread out your picnic without fear of soiling your clothes.

  Invalids, and semi-invalids like my grandmother, sat, well wrapped up in shawls and blankets, on the promenade outside the hotel, to breathe good fresh breezes for the sake of their health. It is true; they were invigorating, those damp, salty winds, impregnated with the liberating idea of the sea, with the taste and smell of the sea itself. There was plenty to look at, a constantly changing spectacle of strolling passers-by, the antics of dogs and children, the cries and gestures of the men on the boules pitch nearby, the deft movements of the fishermen putting out to sea with their boats or bringing in their catch, the play of the bright sunlight dancing on the blue-green water, the little wooden canoes, for tourists to rent, drawn up in gaily coloured rows at the top of the beach. My grandmother had plenty to amuse her; she had begun making acquaintances among the other ladies staying at the hotel with whom she could chat and play cards; she was quite happy to see me go off down to the sea. Once I had solemnly sworn I would not remove my sun-bonnet and that I would not sit about on wet stones with wet feet, she gave me a kiss and waved me off.

  Miss Milly had always been a kind governess who could enter wholeheartedly into a child’s games. Uncle Gérard was very similar. With the two of them I spent a happy afternoon, that first day in Etretat, pottering about at the water’s edge, scrambling over rocks, examining quartz-filled pebbles and filling my pockets with them. There was something going on between the two adults, though I was not exactly sure what. I observed them while pretending to be wholly absorbed with my shrimping net and pail. They, of course, assumed that a small girl was necessarily oblivious of grownup emotions. I was a little policeman, suspicious, dogging their steps, wearing my detective’s disguise of childish skipping and shouting.

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