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Ignorance a novel, p.19

Ignorance: A Novel, page 19


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Mother Lucie made the cakes. Just once or twice in the year, on those special occasions, she deigned to come into the kitchen. So proud of herself, coming from a baker’s family. Anyone can cook up treats if they’re not on a tight budget. Still, she didn’t know any better and she meant well. She’d get all flushed from the heat of the oven, pull out the tray, cry: they’ve risen! She didn’t know how foolish she looked, her coif slipped sideways and flour smeared across her cheeks. I’d go over to her, stroke the flour off her face, pull her veil straight, generally brush her down. Once she laughed and said: you’re grooming me! And she shut her eyes and purred.

  Another good thing about the convent: we had no mirrors, and so I could forget about what I looked like. It just didn’t matter.

  My brother did sometimes come to visit me. He talked about the fields and the animals, the harvest, and I listened. He was still my brother, and I was godmother to his first child. A girl. Big brown eyes, soft pale skin, thick brown curls. Just like her mother. My brother doted on that child. He brought her in on his visits to the convent, to show her off. When she whimpered and jumped from his lap he’d get up and throw her in the air and let her ride piggy-back on his shoulders. Round and round the parlour, while Adeline smiled. I cautioned him: you’ll spoil her! He said: shut up!

  I said to Adeline: you want to come in?

  She said: if you like.

  We stood in silence, side by side, near the range. Adeline smelled of sweat after her walk from the farm. She threw down her cap. She sighed and chewed her bottom lip. Her short hair, curling like a sheep’s fleece, was going grey, but her thick eyebrows were still black. Her hands were raw and scrubbed but her fingernails were crusted with earth. She saw me looking. Hastily I asked her: so what’s the news?

  She could only tell me new things. She didn’t know the old things. Those were pictures from childhood, before she arrived on the scene. She was from Ste-Madeleine, not Ste-Marie, so as a child I hadn’t known her. In any case, like my brother, she didn’t talk about the past. The two of them got on with each day as it came. But I remembered the goats it had been my job to feed, the calves I’d been allowed to name, the way the small stone house and barns grew straight up out of the green land. No flowerbeds or high walls like the convent. Just a thin fence, and the orchard to one side.

  Adeline said: what d’you think? Trying to manage, aren’t we. Watching our backsides day in day out in case someone informs on us.

  I said: what’s he up to, my brother? Adeline shrugged. She put down her basket on the table, next to her cap, looked around. Trying to catch me out somehow but she couldn’t. The place was all in order. Sparkling clean. Finally she said: the patron’s started supplying someone here in town. Seems an OK sort. Understands the way things are. Not like some.

  She was trying to hurt me. Words like a smack to the belly. I felt winded. That she should show me such contempt! But I wouldn’t let her see I minded. I shoved my hands into my sleeves and just waited for what she’d come out with next. She put her palms flat against the oven door. Wriggled her fingers up and down. He comes with his girlfriend. Good sturdy lass. She helps him carry the stuff into the car.

  I said: I could starve for all my brother cares. My hands jumped out of my sleeves, rummaged in my pocket for safety pins. I fastened back my wide cuffs. I fetched out my mop from the broom cupboard. I said: I must get on. I’ve work to do.

  Adeline said: you’ve always had such a temper! That’s what the patron says and he’s right. Why are you in such a huff?

  She picked up her cap, her basket. She paused. She was obviously trying to think of something nice to say before she left. Then she’d be the good one not the nasty one. But her words squeezed out like rabbit droppings. You don’t know how well off you are. A roof over your head, no responsibilities, no decisions to make. You might as well still be a child!

  We kissed each other goodbye. I said: I’ll pray for you.

  I knew that would annoy her and it did. She stomped out. But I kept my word. Once the door had clacked shut behind her I said a Hail Mary, nice and slow, then picked up that good-for-nothing cauliflower from the table top and balanced it in my open hand. Hey there, I said: you old misery. The cauliflower stared back and said nothing. Before the war, I’d have made choufleur au gratin, with a couple of capers to give it a kick, cream and cheese sauce crusted golden on top. Now we were in 1942 and vegetables had to work harder all by themselves. A bath in boiling water for you, chum, I said: and perhaps a hat of toasted breadcrumbs if we’re lucky. The cauliflower looked at me with its little black eyes.

  Annoying as children, that cauliflower, that cabbage. What are you going to do with us, eh?

  I spent my days working out how to make our rations stretch to feed us all. I had no time left over from all this scrimping and scraping by, yet Mother Lucie refused to see that those two Jewish kids gave me extra work. I was running up and down the stairs after them all day long. We should have kept them in amongst the orphans, hidden them that way, in the most obvious place. In this case, right under the Germans’ noses, with the Jew-man gone from next door and his house made over to some sort of barracks. The children would have been perfectly safe with us in the school. On the farm, you kept the animals together. You took the cows out in the morning, after the milking, herded them into the pasture, brought them back at evening for the second milking. A cow on her own, that meant she was ill, or about to give birth. Sometimes you left cows in labour alone for a bit, to let them get on with it in peace. They didn’t always want you there.

  I admit, I didn’t always want those two children there. They didn’t need special treatment. They weren’t ill. They could have just been part of all the others. Yes, all right, always supposing no one was looking. Always supposing no one was going to tip the wink. But they wouldn’t, would they? People in town respected us. They didn’t enquire into our doings. They didn’t gossip about us. But Mother Lucie had got it into her head that the Jewish children must be kept separate at night, in case someone came in and counted the others. Who was going to do that? Some gendarme was going to storm into the dormitory with a list and tick off the little ones’ names? Why would they bother? Mother Lucie said: please, dear, just do as I say. So on top of coping with two extra mouths to feed I had to climb all that way upstairs to tuck them up at night, keep an ear cocked for their crying.

  I was at my wits’ end over their naughtiness. Smacking them only made them cry harder. So I’d say: if you don’t stop crying, your daddy won’t come and fetch you. That usually did the trick. That hushed them up all right.

  Mother Lucie got it all wrong. If only she had listened to me. But she didn’t.

  That stupid Jeanne. Of course she was seen. What did she think she was up to, bringing the children over to us in broad daylight?

  Jeanne in her fancy get-up, her tart’s clothes. We all knew how she was earning a living. I had it from Madame Baudry, on one of her visits, who’d had it from someone else. She could hardly speak for being so upset. Jeanne’s mother had been her protégée, after all. That poor woman, what must she be feeling? Madame Baudry said: this will break her heart. Oh, she doesn’t deserve this.

  What a cheek Jeanne had to show herself at our door! People were going through so much, suffering so much, and there was Jeanne making mock of good French wives and fiancées. I couldn’t stay in the same room with her. I dashed out and called for Mother Lucie. We’d tried so hard with Jeanne, we’d done our best, but blood will out, you couldn’t expect anything better, not with her background. Of course Mother Lucie took the children in, such a soft heart, but I told her: you mark my words, Jeanne brings nothing but trouble!

  It wasn’t my fault, what happened afterwards. I couldn’t stop them. Nobody could.

  I was sweeping the entrance hall, in the middle of the afternoon. I was still feeling very hurt about my brother’s behaviour, and there was nobody I could tell. I wasn’t due for confession until Friday. Reverend Mother wou
ld have said that I shouldn’t get so upset about my brother, that I lived in the Holy Family now. Mother Lucie might have been too nice and so made me feel even worse. I thought I’d never speak to my brother again, not even if he sent Adeline over to say sorry.

  They hammered on the front door. Two gendarmes. Blank-faced boys in uniform: I didn’t know them. Sorry, I said: what? I let them in, took them to Reverend Mother’s office, then went away to say a prayer. I knelt in the shrine opposite the office, in the red passage, in front of the Blessed Virgin. At one point they raised their voices and so I heard some of what they said. This way there’ll be no fuss, no disturbance. We don’t want any of you good sisters making a scene. Later, when Reverend Mother spoke to me, she said some of it over again. She sighed. She said: I always meant to get that entrance closed off but I never got round to it. It never seemed to matter.

  Her face set white, like a blancmange, then wobbled. She said: I know I can rely on you to do what you’re told.

  When I’d entered, my mother had packed me a bag with what the nuns said I’d need. A change of stockings, a nightgown, and suchlike. She added in her own rosary beads, which she’d been given for her First Communion. That was a mistake, it turned out, because they got taken away as soon as I entered and given to someone else. My nightdress and underwear vanished too. So much for all that careful laundry-marking I’d spent hours on. I lost my stockings as well. They danced away on to someone else’s legs. In this new life you got stockings just as they came from the wash. Ownerless. Often mixed up. You couldn’t be sure everything came in the right pair any more.

  I found two spare pairs of children’s long winter socks, and rolled them carefully into balls, so that they wouldn’t get separated. In the kitchen I gave the little Jews their soup, then tugged them down the corridor and along the red passage, through the big black door, into the convent entrance hall. I took them upstairs to their makeshift bedroom on the second floor as usual. I put them to bed fully dressed, so that I could stuff their coats, extra socks, scarves and nightclothes into a pillowcase for them to take with them. I left their slippers on them, and set out their boots at the ready. I put in two apples, a piece of bread.

  I didn’t want them to get upset. We didn’t want a lot of crying, and Mother Lucie waking up and getting into a terrible state. So I put my finger to my lips and told them: you mustn’t make a sound. Your daddy’s coming to fetch you tonight, because you’ve been so good, but it’s a big secret. It’s a game, like hide-and-seek. So no crying. Your daddy’ll be here soon.

  Good little chaps they were indeed. Quiet as mice. Just sat there watching me, the blankets pulled up round their chins. After a bit they lay back, sucking their thumbs, then their heads lolled and they fell asleep. I did as I’d been told and stayed with them, perched on the edge of one of the beds. I pulled out my beads and said my rosary. When the children stirred I sang to them gently, to lull them. C’est le clocher du vieux manoir, du vieux manoir, qui sonne le retour du soir, le retour du soir. Ding! Ding! Ding!

  Soon as it was nearly proper dark, I heard a thump upstairs. The gendarmes, entering from the neighbouring house. I heard them open the door in the attic cupboard that let them in through the wall. They clumped across the floor over our heads, down the stairs, opened our door, came in.

  I don’t properly remember the order of what happened. All so quick. I jumped up. Their beam of light leaped about. I waved my hand: sssh! I stuffed my beads into my pocket. The children were fast asleep. I started humming, so that if they woke they wouldn’t feel scared. I pulled back the bedclothes and the gendarmes lifted up one child each. I said: switch off that torch! You’ll wake them! They laid the children over their shoulders like little sacks of grain. I followed them, carrying the boots, the pillowcase.

  We went out into the little hallway, climbed the stairs up to the attic, went through the cupboard door in the wall, arrived in the house next door. We’d stepped into some kind of lumber room. Very bare. It smelled of fresh paint. Out of it we went, down the stairs, several flights in the half-dark. The children were so good! As good as gold. They didn’t make a sound. I kept murmuring to them, so they’d know I was close by. Nearly there. Nearly there.

  Out of the house we went, by the front door, into the place. The convent, when I turned to look, was completely dark. Everybody asleep. The truck was parked just in front. A tarpaulin covered its back, its lower part left unlaced. A hand pulled the tarpaulin aside. A white face glimmered. I whispered to the gendarmes: gently! Gently!

  One gendarme handed up the children, very carefully, to those outstretched hands. Then the little pillowcase-sack. The other gendarme pushed the boots back at me: they won’t need these. The truck revved its engine, rattled off.

  Next day, Reverend Mother got Monsieur Baudry to come in and seal up the opening in the attic cupboard. He built a wall of bricks at the back. I left the boots there, I don’t know why.

  Soon afterwards, Monsieur Blanchard bought that house, it didn’t suit the Germans as a barracks after all, and he did the place up. Renovated it, re-painted. A couple of the other lay sisters went over to give Madame Blanchard a hand with the cleaning, but not me. I stuck fast in the kitchen, with my pots. I kept my head down. I waited for the war to end.


  Towards the end of the war I began seeing the days of the week as coloured squares. Andrée was born on a Wednesday, which was green. The Tuesday she went on to solids: dark red. The Saturday morning when I agreed to get a job in England: pale blue. Marie-Angèle delivering me a passport, a few franc notes: a brown Thursday. Leaving France: a yellow Friday. I collected up the squares of colour, arranged them in patterns. Controlled them. They couldn’t stretch arms to me and wail. The colours could clash all they liked. They hurt each other not me.

  Yellow Friday: the curé himself escorted me to the boat, I suppose to make sure I did actually leave. Marie-Angèle sent her brother over with the message. Marc Baudry was only a boy still, but he acted as though he ruled the roost. He just shouted in through our door: you’ll be called for at eight tomorrow.

  I packed my black papier mâché suitcase, a postulant’s cast-off donated by the convent, with my art things, a change of clothes, and Maman’s cookery book, which she gave me as a parting present. Its lavender cardboard covers were crumbled away at the edges. Over the cracked spine she’d pasted a strip of brown paper. Her face snapped shut like a volume someone smartly closes.

  The curé and I took the bus to Ste-Madeleine. He glanced at me slyly when he thought I wasn’t looking. What did he see? A thin, red-eyed young woman, wearing a grey woollen hat, a cheap navy-blue jacket and skirt. He and I didn’t bother speaking to each other. Not on the train to Paris and not on the train from there to Le Havre.

  What had the port looked like before the war? Jagged edges looming in the shadowy dusk, it hardly seemed a town at all. Bombs had reduced it to rubble, poking up in raw heaps, which made you feel broken inside. We picked our way between hills of debris that must have once been streets. Outside a mound of collapsed masonry we boarded a bus to the docks.

  Beyond a low wall, the backs of dark huts, screaming gulls skimmed a black flatness. Coldness came off it. I realised it must be the sea. It wanted to tilt into me, drown me, so I held myself very upright, lips closed.

  The sign for departures pointed us to a bleak pre-fab shed. Inside, the waiting area locked in a crowd of people muffled up in coats and scarves. The curé repeated his instructions. On the boat there’ll be some kind of lounge where you can sit. One of the London nuns will be on the quayside to meet you at the other end.

  He paused. You be a good girl, Jeanne, do as you’re told, and you’ll be all right. He lifted his hand and made the sign of the cross over me. I stared at his black toecaps.

  His raincoated back retreated. A bell clanged. I joined the queue of foot passengers straggling towards a pair of metal doors. Out on to the black quay under the black sky we went, filed up the narrow, ridg
ed gangplank. Black water depth I stumbled across. At the top, sailors reached out and pulled us on to the deck. They glanced at our tickets, waved us forward. We stood in a huddle in the noisy darkness. People pushed and pulled on every side. Children squealed and whimpered.

  If I looked frightened, someone might dart up and hit me. I clasped the cold iron of the handrail, trying to look as though I were admiring the lights of the town strung out in the black night. My fellow passengers chattered to each other, shouted down to the dark silhouettes of people standing on the quayside come to see them off. More people, clutching luggage, straggled on board: families, couples, a young man in naval uniform, peaked cap under one arm, leather grip in one hand. Above me invisible seagulls called and cried. I smelled rust, and salt water. I began to shiver, and to wonder if I dared to find the passenger lounge. Did you need a special ticket to go in? Would it be full of people? What would I say if someone talked to me? I crossed my arms over my thin jacket to try and trap warmth inside me. Perhaps I wouldn’t venture into a lounge. I could lie down on one of the benches lining the inner side of the deck, or under a tarpaulin in one of the lifeboats. No: much too cold. I’d freeze, be found in the morning rigid as a sheet hung out in winter, a panel of white ice.

  I was beginning to feel plated with cold, glassed-in, stiffening up as the night air scraped closer to me. A howl unwound itself in my stomach. I pressed my lips together. My jacket flapped open. The cold formed a layer on top of my skimpy clothes. The wind knifed up my skirt. I clenched my knees together.

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