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The looking glass, p.2

The Looking Glass, page 2


The Looking Glass

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  The bar was simply the front room of the café. It had green walls and a sanded plank floor and was furnished with a few wooden tables and benches, a black iron stove with a tall chimney, and the mirror. The front door opened straight onto the street. Two small windows looked out the same way, veiled in cotton lace that blurred the view. Another door, in the back wall of the bar, had been cut in half horizontally to make a hatch which flapped open and shut for the drinks to be handed through. A piece of plywood, nailed on top of the bottom half, made a makeshift counter. Madame Patin kept all the bottles and glasses in her kitchen cum storeroom. People walking into the bar came up to the hatch, banged on it, and shouted their orders. Madame Patin would open up, slide the glasses across, and get on with her other work on the other side.

  The café also functioned as a shop. Since there was no grocer in the village, Madame Patin sold dry goods, such as sugar and flour and salt, which she kept in built-in compartments, like a boat’s lockers, just inside the back door. She would lift up the lid of the relevant box, delve in with her wooden scoop, and then pour the contents onto the brass pan of the scales. She had to be very exact with her measurements of rice, or macaroni, or whatever it was. Her customers watched closely, determined not to waste a single sou. Mostly it was women who came to the back door and men to the front. Madame Patin, seated beside her open hatch, could keep an eye on both. She kept an eye on me too. I was only allowed in the bar in the early mornings, when I went in to clean, and at night, after she’d locked up, when I tidied. For the rest of the day I worked elsewhere. I was certainly not supposed to talk to the customers.

  —If you turn out decent and honest and hardworking, she told me when I first arrived: then we shall get on. If not, then it’s back to the orphanage.

  She stood waiting.

  —Yes, ma’am, I said.

  What else could I possibly say? I did mean it. I wanted to please her and for her to love me. That, of course, was the cause of my undoing.

  She had stood in the café doorway, hands folded across her waist, to watch my arrival. She inspected me with her keen eyes as I tramped towards her, my box under my arm. Keeping my head down so as not to seem familiar, I peered at her. She looked to be in her late thirties, a sturdy woman with grey-blue eyes, egg-shaped cheeks, and a wide, thin mouth. A large brown linen apron protected her blue check dress and a white cap shadowed her face. I found out how beautiful her hair was the first time I helped her wash it, and she shook out her hairpins and let down her thick fair plaits. Unravelled, the hair sprang out in glistening ripples like something alive.

  Sometimes when she was in one of her anxious moods, at night, fretting over money, I’d brush her hair for her, gathering the thick tail in one hand and drawing the brush through it with the other, over and over again. It calmed her down. Then I would re-plait it so that she was ready for bed. It is soothing, to feel someone else’s hands arranging your hair, stroking and patting it. You don’t have to do anything but sit there, leaning back, your whole self flowing away with the brush as it sweeps back from your head. Like being a cat whose owner loves it and grooms it. Her hair was her fur and she liked me arranging it because I was gentle and did not pull hard or snag the brush on tangles. She would sigh with pleasure and close her eyes. When she helped me wash my hair it was quite different. My straw crop was too short for fussing over. Soap rubbed briskly in, water tipped over my head from the jug into the tin basin, then a towel thrust at me and my face plunging into its rough folds, my hands trying to mop the cold trickles down the back of my neck that made my chemise itchy and damp.

  On that first day she showed me around the house. We peeped into the bar, where a few customers slouched over their tables. Nobody said a word. Just raised their heads and glanced at us. Then Madame Patin took me around the back, which was divided into two small rooms. One of these was the shop-and-kitchen, and the other was her bedroom. She nodded her head towards the door but did not open it to let me see in.

  —Too untidy, she said: I haven’t made the bed yet. I haven’t had a minute.

  From the kitchen a narrow staircase, boxed in, coiled up to the attics. Here, three little rooms opened off a low-ceilinged corridor just wide enough for one person to squeeze through at a time. Each small cabin was panelled up to the ceiling in varnished golden plywood. They were so neat and so snug. The floors were likewise of golden wood, and small casements had been let into the roof so that you could see the sky.

  —My husband did all this work, Madame Patin explained: to be ready for the children we would have. But the children never arrived.

  She sighed.

  —It’s God’s will. God’s will be done.

  The words were said mechanically. They were what I’d been taught to say, too, when sad things happened. It meant it wasn’t your fault; it couldn’t be helped; and the best you could do was just get on with things. I wondered where her husband was now. Perhaps he was dead, or perhaps he had gone away and left her, like my father did. The nuns had told me nothing about my new place, save my employer’s name.

  The first two rooms disclosed themselves as storage places, piled with sacks of provisions, boxes of biscuits, trays of apples, racks of preserves. She led me past these, and pushed open the farthest door.

  —This is where I thought the maid should sleep. This is your room now.

  Thanking her, I stammered with delight. The room, the smallest of the three, enchanted me. For a start, it was all mine. I did not have to share it with anyone else.

  Its simplicity was its charm, and its soothing colours. Worn blue rag rug on the glistening floor, bleached sacking curtains at the little window, faded red and yellow paisley quilt. For furniture there was an iron bed, an iron washstand holding an enamel basin, and, set nearby, a jug, a chamber-pot, a three-legged stool. A cupboard with a sliding panel door had been built in under the far eave, like a little cave. I had practically nothing to put in it but I did not care. I had a cupboard of my own. That was the main thing. I wondered about the previous inhabitant of the room, if there had been one and whether she had liked it as much as I did. What had she been like, the last maid, and why had she left? Or was I the first person ever to sleep in here? These were questions I knew I could not ask. Curiosity was not polite. That had been well dinned into me, along with not staring, eating up everything on my plate, and curtsying every time a nun came by.

  Madame Patin did not seem to require to be curtsied to. She was tugging at the casement catch, showing me how to work it. The window being opened, sounds of the outside rushed in: a cock crowing, a dog barking. The air was very fresh and damp and brought with it the smell of the sea. The window was on the side of the house: immediately in front of me were the blue slates of the neighbour’s roof, which was lower than ours, and then, when I peered out, one way I saw an orchard, with sheep grazing in it and hens pecking about, and on the other the steeple of the church and a cemetery full of graves. We placed my box on the bed and returned the way we had come, shutting each door behind us as we went. The door handles were of white china, solid as eggs, cool and hard in my palm. They turned back and forth very springily, though the door hinges were a little stiff, and the doors, opening and closing, scraped across the golden wood floor. I thought that would be something I could do for Madame Patin: bring up some oil and a feather and oil the doors. She was ahead of me, grasping the banister rail and setting her foot on the top step.

  —Mind how you go on the stairs, she warned me: they’re very steep and it’s easy to slip.

  Downstairs, she showed me the privy, which was at the far end of the tiny courtyard behind the house, and the woodshed and wine cellar which were next to it. I liked the cool darkness inside these windowless caves, the smell of their earth floors. Outside again, we looked at the hen coop, the rabbit hutches, and the dog kennel. The dog, a brownish mongrel, was asleep. In the centre of the yard was the well, flanked by a couple of pots of ferns. Behind the yard was a little meadow, with fruit trees, and
a cow grazing. The kitchen garden was on the other side of the road, down an alley in between two other houses. An iron gate squeaked open to reveal tidy rows of dug earth inside low stone walls. Not much was showing yet. A few blue-green cabbages had survived the winter on long scarred stalks and looked very tough. Another gate at the far end obviously gave you a quick route to the church. You could just see a pointed grey porch beyond it.

  I decided I liked the house and the garden very much. It was all so complete and so compact, like I imagined a doll’s house would be. Yet it was real. I liked the way the café tucked so neatly and quietly into the street, the village. I envied Madame Patin with all my heart. For a moment I disliked her thoroughly, almost as though she were an enemy. Pain shot through me: I had nothing and she seemed to have everything. She was like Saint Geneviève protecting her own city from the foreign rabble like me; she was the house itself, perfect and full; and she was the garden, blessed with richness. She held the whole place like a tiny castle in her arms; she bent towards it possessively, as though it were her child. I could not believe she was going to make room for me too. I thought that more than anything in the world I should like to have a little house like hers, to be mistress of such a neat place I could call my own. I wished that her house were mine, and that she were not there. I wanted to steal her house and push her into the street and let her be the orphan, the vagabond. And at the same time I wanted to sit companionably with her in the warm kitchen and be her friend.

  These feelings bursting out inside me were like flowers blooming and then rapidly being torn to pieces by the wind. I wanted to get rid of them because they made me want to cry. I almost wished I were back in the orphanage, inside its cold walls, where I had never felt like this.

  Luckily for me, the church bells now banged out half-past eleven. Duty distracted my thoughts as my employer exclaimed how late it was. We hurried back inside the café. I was set to peeling the vegetables for dinner while Madame Patin stuck her head through the hatch and checked on her customers. There weren’t many. Sunday noon, I subsequently learned, was the busiest time for the bar. The café being so close to the church was very good for business, for after Sunday mass people stood to gossip outside and the men soon got up a thirst and flooded in. And when there was a vin d’honneur, after a communion or a wedding or a funeral, it was Madame Patin who organised it and provided the glasses and the drink. Everybody would squeeze in and stand packed, shoulder to shoulder, the air thick with tobacco smoke and the smell of cider, and the curé as pleased as anyone else to be inside in the warm. The proprietors of the church and the café, I soon discovered, supported each other, their clients flowing back and forth across the road.

  On this occasion, hearing the bells, a quarter of an hour later, ring out the Angelus, the call to prayer I’d obeyed all my life at the regulation three times a day, I stood stock-still as I’d been taught, dropped the potatoes I was peeling, crossed myself, then fell on my knees and began to recite the well-worn words. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. And she conceived by the Holy Ghost. I stopped for a moment, wondering. At this time of year, just after Easter, we said the Regina Coeli, instead, didn’t we? Which had we said yesterday? I could not remember. I had not been paying attention. I began again. The angel of the Lord.

  Madame Patin did not join in and make the response. I looked up, puzzled, and saw her staring at me.

  —For heaven’s sake, child, we haven’t got time for that. On your feet and on with your work, if you please.

  I got up gladly from the cold tiles. If there was to be an end to so much kneeling I would not be sorry. Nonetheless I was shocked at how an outsider was encouraging me to drop the orphanage ways. That was what made me feel I had really left.

  Madame Patin was whirling around the kitchen, stirring soup, chopping bacon into dice, heating fat in a blackened frying pan. Her back was defensive. I was surprised when she bothered explaining to me. As though it mattered to her what I thought.

  —God takes care of those who take care of themselves. If I don’t have time to pray then he’s not offended. He understands. He knows how busy I am.

  —Yes, ma’am, I said.

  I’d never thought of God as being so kind and ordinary. For me he had always been a distant figure to be placated, a judge who dished out punishments, a baffling father who let his son be tortured and killed. For the first time in my life it occurred to me that perhaps people saw God the way they wanted to. How did I want to see God? I wasn’t sure. I put the problem aside, to think of later, because right now I was too busy, just like Madame Patin.

  I was clumsy that first day, being more used to scrubbing than cooking. Also, working in a new place, with pots and tools I did not know, made me feel awkward and slowed me down. It’s much easier to cook well, I discovered later, once your utensils have become old friends, when you know exactly which battered knife with a worn, thin blade is actually the sharpest, which blunted wooden spatula the best for scraping sauce out of a pan, which spoon holds precisely the right amount of flour. I had to learn how the range worked, which of the several little ovens to use for which dish, how to keep it fed with wood and firing at a consistent temperature. I ended the morning with red burns striping the backs of both hands, fingers scalded from the steam rushing out of the saucepan when I tipped the potatoes into the colander in the sink, and several large grease marks blotting the front of my apron. I had dirtied two of the best linen tea-towels by using them as oven clothes when I shifted the shelves inside the hot range, and I had soaked three others with vegetable water when draining saucepans. Madame Patin raised her eyebrows at my ineptitude. I could see her deciding not to scold me on my first day and hoping to heaven I would improve.

  —Once you’ve done the weekly wash, she remarked: you’ll learn to keep your things clean. You don’t want to go giving yourself extra work.

  We got the dinner onto the kitchen table by half-past twelve. I hadn’t been sure she would want me sitting down to eat with her, and was pleased when she pointed to the chair opposite hers. She did not cross herself and murmur a grace, so I did not either, mindful of my earlier lesson about the Angelus. We ate cabbage soup with a bit of bacon in it, and potatoes fried in bacon fat. It was good food, and she let me eat as much of it as I wanted. I had three helpings. She didn’t talk to me. She poured us a tumbler of cider each and nodded at me to start. We both got on with eating while the meal was hot. I was so hungry I could think of nothing else, and then when I was finished I felt ashamed at having gobbled like a pig in front of her. She didn’t seem to mind. She sat with her elbows on the table, yawning.

  I decided to abandon another of the nuns’ precepts and to satisfy my curiosity.

  —If you please, ma’am, I began: may I ask you something?

  She jerked her head round to look at me.

  —Depends what it is. Go ahead.

  —Did you have a maid before me? I asked.

  She shook her head.


  This pleased me. I was emboldened to put another question.

  —Where is Monsieur Patin?

  —He’s dead, child. He was a fisherman. He drowned at sea.

  She heaved herself to her feet and began clearing the dirty dishes and plates.

  —That’s quite enough chatting. Curiosity killed the cat. Come on, there’s work to do.

  For the rest of the day she kept me busy cleaning the range, sweeping out the yard, and drawing up water. Customers came in and out of the back door, chatting, shaking the coins out of their purses into the palms of their hands, counting them out carefully, one by one, onto the table-top. Their eyes flicked over me and they nodded at Madame Patin as though to say: so the new help’s arrived, then.

  For supper we ate the rest of the soup. I was tired out. There had been so much to learn and I had made so many mistakes. Now my tasks were coming to an end and I was longing for my bed. After the last customers had departed and the café was locked up for the night, I
swept out the bar and was dismissed upstairs. My employer stuck a new candle into a candlestick and lit it for me, bidding me to be careful not to splash hot wax over my hands. She gave me a quick, small smile.

  —Tomorrow it will be better. You’ll see.

  The stairs rose up abruptly as a cliff face. I climbed them awkwardly, my skirts bunched over my arm so that I did not trip on the high treads, the candlestick gripped in one fist and the fingers of my other hand groping for the stair above. I inched up inside my tiny pool of light, until I reached the attics. Inside my little room I blew out the candle then fell into bed exhausted. The mattress was not too hard. Straw-stuffed, it rustled underneath me in its linen cover. The coarse sheets and the cotton quilt were clean, and had the sweet, fresh scent of outdoors. I wasn’t too tired to thank heaven that my new place seemed so comfortable, to hug myself with the pleasure of going to sleep so near the beach and so far from the orphanage. When the wind got up outside I felt I was rocking along on a fishing boat that had just put out to sea, and when the timbers of the roof began creaking it sounded like rigging and sails, to my sleepy brain, all part of voyaging out into the night.

  * * *

  The mermaid had long, golden hair, green eyes, and cold white arms. She was half-woman, and half-fish, a beauty who was also a monster. She seemed to promise men pleasure and then turned dangerous. You couldn’t see at all, at first, that she had a tail, because it was concealed under the water, a mosaic of silvery green scales, a thick, lively muscle that slapped to and fro as she waited for her prey. She appeared far off, naked and slender, behind a mist of spray, sprawled languishing on the jagged black rocks guarding the entrance to the harbour. You changed tack and sailed closer, unable to believe your eyes, thinking the sun dazzling on the water had deceived you, that the pale girl was indeed a phantom composed of dissolving vapour, a trick of the light. Then your boat was dancing and plunging, almost on the rocks, and you saw her clearly. In one hand she held a pearl-encrusted mirror, and in the other a silver comb. Her song, in a high, sweet voice, coiled about you, a snare of enchantment, a net to lure you into her watery world, to plunge like a dolphin down into the translucent green waves, following her, lost to reason. You wouldn’t call it drowning. You’d call it bliss. Only when you were lying trapped in the cold waving arms of the seaweed on the deep seabed would you realise that you were capsized and dying and that you would never come home again; only your bones, perhaps, washing up years later on the beach, white and polished as cuttlefish.

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