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Ignorance a novel, p.2

Ignorance: A Novel, page 2


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Jesus died in agony, hung from the cross, his flesh pierced by nails. The Jews’ fault: they betrayed him. Was my mother still a Jew underneath? Was I? In church every Sunday we prayed for the conversion of the Jews to the One True Faith, and celebrated the heroic martyrs who died defending it. The martyrs refused to marry pagans like Bluebeard. The Lives of the Saints listed the tortures: slashed with swords, breasts torn off, eyes gouged out, racked on the wheel, made to walk naked into brothels where soldiers waited for them. I wouldn’t be brave enough to stand up for what I knew was right. I’d turn pagan and marry Bluebeard rather than be hurt so much. Then after death I’d be punished and burn in hell for ever more. You could shut all this away inside the slammed covers of your book but at night the book jumped open and red fire swept out and consumed everything.

  Madame Baudry shook off her daughter’s hand and tweaked her blue woollen gloves. She said to Marie-Angèle: you know, becoming a boarder costs a lot. It means behaving. Mind what I say!

  Up until now Marie-Angèle had attended the state primary school, as I had. The nuns’ school was a private one. Madame Baudry’s pregnancy meant she became exhausted and could not cope, once my mother fell ill, and she had to do all her own washing as well as everything else. The nuns had agreed to take Marie-Angèle, like me, full-time for several weeks. Half rates for the Baudrys, because they were such good Catholics. I went free. Marie-Angèle had spelled it out: you’re a charity child, other people have to pay your fees. I retorted: but my father was an educated man. Unlike yours!

  The convent had sent over a lay sister to help the Baudrys. When she arrived they put her in Marie-Angèle’s room. Supposing Madame Baudry died like the Mad Hermit’s wife? Supposing Maman died too? I hadn’t said a proper goodbye to her this morning. I wanted to run back home, not start living among strangers. Stop crying, Madame Baudry said: don’t be so naughty. I cried louder. Her face reddened and she slapped me. Her woollen blow didn’t hurt, but the shock of it did. Hot tears burst from my eyes and I bawled.

  Marie-Angèle started crying too. It’s just as bad for me! That nun’s in my room! Madame Baudry cuffed her round the head. Stop this nonsense. You’ve got nothing to cry about. Jeanne lives in a hovel, her mother’s got to go to the paupers’ hospital. You should be setting a good example. I’m ashamed of you.

  She seized my shoulder and shook me. D’you want me to tell your mother how you’re behaving, when she’s so ill? Do you? Do you? She’ll feel so upset. After all I’ve done for her, too. I don’t know why I bothered with that photograph. You don’t deserve it.

  To mark the occasion of our becoming boarders, we had had our photograph taken outside the Baudrys’ shop. That’s nice for Jeanne, said Madame Baudry: people will see that someone cares about her. Monsieur Baudry took the picture. At nine years old, I was small and skinny, whereas Marie-Angèle was tall and well developed for her age.

  I didn’t smile for the picture. I refused. Once in their school I wouldn’t smile at the nuns, either. You’re hard-faced, Mother Lucie used to scold me. Dressed in our regulation pale grey pinafores, our hair combed back, posed side by side as friends, Marie-Angèle and I were supposed to look as though we came from the same sort of background. Alike as two dried peas. But underneath we were different, as the nuns recognised perfectly well. On their wooden board, with its list of weekly tasks painted in black italic lettering, our names, written on bits of white card, slotted into different places. On Saturday I had to mop the corridors whereas Marie-Angèle only had to dust the statues in our classroom. She didn’t dare go into the larder in the convent-school kitchen, forage for leftovers. Always hungry, I stole food as a matter of course. My punishment, each time Mother Lucie found me out, was to clean the privies. These always stank because so many of us had to use them, and in such a hurry that there wasn’t time for the cisterns to refill, and they often blocked because we put too much paper down, wanting to veil the yellow water bobbing with the previous user’s business.

  Sometimes I’d sit on the lavatory and read a square or two of newspaper before wiping myself with it. Marie-Angèle’s father handed on his newspapers to the nuns. Sitting on the wooden shelf, one hand hoisting up my overall, I learned new words. Words about Jews, which hopped across the pages like toads. I wanted to spring up and chase them away. In the school we had silver-fish in the lavatories, and woodlice, and bluebottles, and ants. You had to squash them. Outside, on the garden paths, slugs and snails lounged along. You were supposed to squash them too. The words in my brain could not be squashed. They wriggled and squelched and inched back and forth.

  Marie-Angèle said I might know lots of words but I was still a baby. I was afraid of the dark, and sometimes at night I wet the bed. Washerwoman’s daughter pissing in the wrong place. All that gave me grace in her eyes was my capacity to tell her the stories I culled from her book of fairy tales. Reading bored her. She preferred listening to my oral versions. Chewing a fingernail. Sucking a strand of hair. The bloodthirstier the stories the better.

  Now from the end of the bench in the schoolroom she hissed at me.

  You’re pathetic. First of all you dare us to do something and then you get cold feet. Are we going upstairs or aren’t we?

  She stood up, in front of the estrade and the blackboard, put her hands on her hips, stared at me contemptuously. She looked so exactly like a little woman that I wanted to laugh. She wasn’t a child at all. You could see what she’d look like at forty. Her plump little face, with its apple-pip eyes, its tight mouth, wouldn’t change. She was already complete and grown-up.

  I didn’t want her to leave me on my own in the downstairs classroom, too close to the front door on which passing tramps sometimes banged for food. If I opened the door to them, what would happen? They’d kidnap me I’d run away with them they might try to marry me I’d never see Maman again.

  All right, I said: let’s go.

  As part of the dare, more chance of getting caught, we went up by the main stairs. This staircase wound about the great well in the centre of the school. It rose through layers of classrooms and dormitories, networks of corridors. The wide wooden treads gleamed, bare and highly polished. During the week, at recreation time, when the bell clanged, a flood of overalled girls would swirl down it, pour out into the school yard. Now only we two remained in the house.

  No windows: we climbed up in semi-darkness. On the second half-landing stood a statue of Our Lady of The Seven Sorrows, her colander heart pierced by seven swords, all the love once in it leaked out like whey. A red gleam came from the votive lamp in front of her. I lifted my feet with caution: too much space around me. Not yet dusk: going upstairs in this half-dimness was more bearable than at night, when I stepped towards bad dreams. Dead mothers waited for me at the far end of the corridor with cobweb mantillas over their faces. They’d pushed up their tomb-stones and escaped. They were lonely in their graves, and so they’d come to the school to fetch some children to play with. They’d pull our bones about then eat us.

  We climbed two flights and slid into the chilly dormitory. Here we fetched chairs, set them side by side, stood on them to peer out of the window on the left-hand side.

  From this height, we could see over the high stone wall that separated the school grounds from the Hermit’s garden. We surveyed a completely enclosed space. Between patches of melted ice the grass gleamed green. Inside his encircling walls he had allowed sycamores to seed wildly in little copses. These untidy saplings he had trimmed and pollarded in extreme fashion, stripping off all the lower branches and shaping the top ones into balls. The sycamores stood in groups: tall, slender ladies with round heads turbaned in brown twigs. Maidens who hovered, uncertain whether or not to walk inside the ogre’s castle.

  Bluebeard’s fiancées, I whispered to Marie-Angèle, and felt her flinch against me.

  A narrow gravelled path twisted in and out between the young trees, like a white ribbon tying them together. The school playground was all sharp angles; the
nuns’ oblong garden marched in straight lines, spotless paths bisecting rows of fruit trees and flowerbeds; but the Hermit’s parterre undulated, all curves. Dark greenery glistening with wet. Clumps of laurels and bay, the narrow trees crowding between the high stone walls, ivy sprawling along the ground. Tumbledown brick sheds leaned together on one side, a few hens scratching about. A flight of steps led up to a terrace. At the far side of this: the back door to his house. No one visible. His shutters on the ground floor were open. Dark panes of glass.

  From our high perch we watched the black and white feather twist down out of the grey sky.

  Come on, I said: I’ll race you to catch it.

  Marie-Angèle hesitated. Supposing someone sees us?

  I blew out my cheeks at her. Cowardy-custard. I dare you.

  Hands skimming the slippery banister, we sped back down the coils of stairs, we fell down through the great, silent house like two pellets rattling out of a canister. We didn’t stop to change our felt indoor slippers for boots. We unbolted the side door by the kitchen and ran out through the playground into the garden between the leafless rose bushes.

  The feather had vanished. We searched for a while along the gravel walks bordering the espaliered apple trees. We hadn’t bothered with gloves or capes. Our noses ran with cold. The chilblains on my hands began to twitch. I distracted myself by noticing other things: the withered rosehips dangling from black twigs, thorny rosaries; the crusts of frost edging the dark earth of the flowerbeds. A few snowdrops stabbing up.

  A ladder lay on the ground by a tall beech hedge, bronze barrier severely squared-off along its length. One of the lay sisters had obviously been trimming it. She would catch it if anyone found she hadn’t cleared up her mess. Heaps of withered tawny leaves, like cut hair, dotted the ground at intervals. Sawn pieces of plait.

  Rapunzel, I said, pointing.

  Pick up the ladder, Marie-Angèle said: I’ll help you.

  Between us we carried it to the wall. I went first and Marie-Angèle followed. One rung at a time. Don’t look round.

  Marie-Angèle swung her leg over, edged close to me. We sat astride the narrow wall, clinging on with both hands, looking down. On the Mad Hermit’s side a few stones stuck out near enough the top to offer footholds.

  From there we can jump, Marie-Angèle said: go on.

  I didn’t want to move. I felt giddy.

  No, I said: this is enough. I want to go back in.

  The dare’s not over yet, she said.

  Halfway down, when the footholds stopped, we launched ourselves out into the air, thudded on to the ground, bumping sideways almost on top of each other. Ice-tipped grass against my cheek, the tang of earth, my arms around Marie-Angèle, the sour smell of her hair.

  We clambered upright. A changed world. We had crossed over. Now we stood on the other side, the convent and school inaccessible, vanished. Nothing to be done but go forward. Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their parents, bravely approaching the dark forest.

  We entered the copse of sycamores immediately in front of us. The trees pulled us into their company and surrounded us. Captives. Captivated. The sycamore fiancées marched with us along the narrow twisting path. Their heads drooped over us and nodded. Yes, you should go in.

  We crept towards the house. We reached the bottom of the flight of steps up to the terrace. We paused, glancing at each other. A creak, a scrape. Our eyes shot up.

  The door in the back wall of the house had opened. There he stood. Smiling. He leaned against the doorpost and lifted a hand. Between finger and thumb he twirled a black and white feather.

  Welcome, my dears.

  Afterwards, I didn’t know what to say. A story they wanted me to tell, only I didn’t feel clear which one. I improvised and put two stories together. Marie-Angèle made me do it. She wanted to. He made us do it. He wanted to.

  What happened? they asked me repeatedly: tell us what happened.

  I couldn’t tell them everything I saw when the Hermit showed us around his house. Too much of it. Some bits and pieces I carried away with me behind my eyes and remembered afterwards, in silence, once I was back inside the school, with the nuns questioning me. Brightly coloured memories blurred past like flicked-over pages in a picture book. The book opened and the pages stood up and time stopped and the pictures jumped out and came alive. Bluebeard-the-Jew’s big blue eyes, his wild black hair, his indigo workman’s shirt, red and white spotted neckerchief, emerald corduroy trousers. The bright bottles of sirop, green and pink and yellow, he brought out of the rose-painted cupboard and lined up on the blue and white checked tablecloth. We could choose: menthe or framboise or ananas. Black slabs of chocolate he fitted between pale lengths of bread before handing them to us with a courteous bow. Mesdemoiselles. The honey-tiled corridor, a dark yellow tunnel, silted with dust rolling light and silvery as fur, which ran through the ground floor of the house, connecting back to front. Cream-painted panelled doors, glistening like sheets of mother-of-pearl, opened off it on both sides. The bare, unfurnished salon, painted scarlet, stencilled with gold garlands. Oh, Marie-Angèle exclaimed: like a ballroom. She spread out her arms and spun, a grey-clad Cinderella.

  The Hermit told us he preferred to sit in the kitchen. This pale green apartment, lined with old wooden armoires and buffets painted pale pink, pale green, pale blue, its rafters hung with wheels of dried apple threaded on strings, had a tiled floor patterned in small turquoise and cream squares. Above the fireplace he had pinned up three rows of small rodent-like animals, flattened, the grey fur and skin split open and peeled back, the tiny claws splayed out. Marie-Angèle shuddered: mice? Ugh! He said: these are voles. I walked over and stroked them. Soft. He said: don’t be scared. They’re dead. They can’t hurt you. I like drawing them.

  Scattered between the sirop bottles on the blue and white cloth lay photographs of fat, loose-haired women, in rucked-up pale chemises, lolling in armchairs. Big grins. Black bows in their dark ringlets. Black triangles of hair between their plump legs. Outside, at the foot of the stairs, three nailed-up moles grimaced in a sort of dance, paw to paw. I’ve got lots more things like this. Come upstairs, if you like, and I’ll show you.

  The staircase was neater and smaller than the one in the school. It twisted up in a tight oval. Like going inside a snail’s shell. Fragile and brown. You wanted to step delicately in case something smashed. Shallow treads tucking in around the corners, a curved wooden baluster. Men weren’t supposed to have dolls’ houses but he did because he was like a child. Smiling at us, hopping back and forth. The sort of child I’d have liked to make friends with, someone with a cupboard full of treasures who’d show me them and let me pick something out and take it home. He gave Marie-Angèle the black and white feather and that wasn’t fair, I wanted it just as much as she did.

  He opened the door to his study on the first floor, full of books and piles of magazines. Next to it, a smaller room containing a shiny black and gold cabinet in which he had arranged the bones of small animals in circles and rows. He let us pull out each shallow drawer in turn, examine the contents, touch them. With our forefingers we caressed the skulls of rats and squirrels, the dry wings of staked-out butterflies and moths, the clean white skeletons of mice, the transparent brown and white tubes of shed snakeskins. Wizened dark pellets he said were owl droppings. Iridescent blue feathers of tits, arranged in fans. Green-gold carapaces of beetles with black claws.

  Up another flight to the second floor. He took us into his two bedrooms. One faced north, out into the place, and the other looked south, over the garden. One big and one small. One painted black and one white. One served for sleeping in during summer, he explained, and the other he used in winter. The small white room held a wardrobe taking up nearly all the space. Beside the black-draped bed in the big bedroom stood an ebony cot. That’s where children sleep, when they come to stay. I love children. They love playing with me. Sometimes we play hide and seek. Do you two like playing games?

escorted us back out on to the landing. His eyes burned blue. You can go anywhere you like, hide anywhere you like, but not to the top of the house. That’s my studio, where I work, it’s not a place for children. Understood?

  He covered his eyes with his narrow, long-fingered hands. I’ll count up to a hundred. Then I’ll come and find you! Off you go!

  Marie-Angèle jerked her head at me. I nodded. Our felt indoor slippers made no noise. So he couldn’t hear us slide past him on the landing, holding our breath, and tiptoe upstairs.

  Just a game. We wanted him to find us and we wanted him to play. He found us. In he stormed. Then he played with us.

  Afterwards, when I tried to remember, the games came back to me in bits. The last one first. Marie-Angèle saying: my turn. My turn.

  She arranged herself on the pink divan under the skylight. Hands clasped behind her head, knees up and apart, face turned, unsmiling, towards him. Her grey pinafore made her look young but her face looked old. A dip in the material between her legs. The feather rested in it. She brought down one hand and twitched her hem higher up, just above the edge of her bloomers. She picked up the feather and flicked it over the strip of white flesh showing between her black stocking-top and her creased-up overall.

  Who am I being now? Guess.

  Bluebeard’s wife, of course. He frowned, looking at her, and stood still. He was stupid not to know, when Marie-Angèle was such a good actress.

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