Ignorance a novel, p.20
Ignorance: A Novel, page 20
Can I help you? Need a hand with anything, mademoiselle?
A male voice, speaking French with a foreign accent. I looked round. I hadn’t noticed him drift up and stand next to me. A gentle presence; almost apologetic. The young officer I’d seen come on board. My height, young, with an open face, a high forehead. Brown hair already beginning to recede. He wore a dark uniform with gilt buttons and yellow stripes on his cuffs and carried a peaked cap under one arm.
I’m the ship’s purser, he said: Bernie Mathers. At your service, mademoiselle.
I said: you’re English? He said: certainly.
The shouts of men down below on the quay, undoing the hawsers, mixed with the blare of the ship’s hooter behind us. I glanced back: clouds of black smoke belched from the funnel into the black sky. The unfastened ropes were flung up on to the deck, caught by the sailors. A dark gap appeared between us and the edge of the stone quay. It widened. The sailors rapidly coiled the thick hairy ropes, which poured like water from their hands, into neat heaps. You need somewhere to sleep? Come with me, mademoiselle.
Bernie Mathers picked up my suitcase and took me below, clattering down metal companionways in front of me, turning round from time to time to check I was following him. The cream-painted passageways were busy with travellers, with porters hefting cases and trunks. Nobody took any notice of us. We walked deep into the ship, past the noisy engine room, then went back up two short companionways to deck level. Bernie Mathers escorted me to a cabin he assured me I wouldn’t have to pay for. No one except him would know I was using it. The stewardess wouldn’t be along, because these were the crew’s quarters. He made me a little mock bow, smiling.
I said: you speak good French. He said in his odd accent: I’ve got to go and do my duty, but I’ll be back soon and then we can have a drink. What d’you say?
I said: what’s your duty? He explained. As the ship’s purser, he sat in his office below decks, behind a little window, and checked the passengers’ passports. He did this twice: when they got on and before they got off. That was the rule. They just had to stand patiently in a queue and wait for him to check and stamp their documents. He also opened his office at a certain moment during the voyage in order to change people’s money, from French banknotes into English ones or vice versa. He was kept busy: he snatched just a few hours’ sleep during the crossing.
He said: you don’t need to queue up outside my office. You’re OK. Stay here and get some rest. He pulled down the bunk, sheets and blankets tightly tucked in, from the cabin wall. Lavs are along there. He waved his hand in the direction of the corridor. The door shut behind him.
An open leather grip stood on the metal chair. It must be Bernie’s. The one I’d seen him carry on board. This was obviously his cabin. Too late to do anything about it now. The floor of the cabin rose and fell, rose and fell: we had left harbour and were putting out to sea. When I pulled aside the little grey curtain, the round grey metal porthole showed blackness tumbling past. A round grey-lipped mouth wanting to spew black bile.
I forbade myself to feel seasick. I removed my woollen hat and threw it into the wastebin, took off my jacket, kicked off my shoes, lay down on the bunk under the orange blanket. I shivered, then grew warm. The waters rocked the ship and the ship rocked me, up and down, up and down. At least no one could find me here and scream at me. I was crossing over, between two lands, two parts of my life. Tearing myself in two like a piece of coloured paper. Bits of paper dropped into the sea. Disintegrating. Sinking. The sea received me, closed over my head. I sank, spiralled down into green depths green seaweed green-bearded mussels all of us green water.
A click. Strip of brightness, then wedge of yellow light as the cabin door opened and the stewardess peeped in. She wore a white veil over her wavy brown hair. Her dark eyes gazed at me. No, she was the Blessed Virgin, doing her rounds for the night. No, she was my mother, tying on her lace mantilla before going out dancing. Dance with me, Jeannette, come and dance. She nodded at me then twirled off to find Monsieur Jacquotet.
The boat rocked on, over undersea continents, all the people I’d lost, coral-clad, fish-bejewelled, waving with feathery green. My mother, a compact island, rose up, surrounded by white breakers. I rowed to her, docked in her little bay. The salt water of her words met me; her sharp spray. Seagulls nested in her wild hair. I stumbled up the wet grey sand of the beach. Debris marked the shoreline: pieces of broken green glass rubbed to emerald, seashells, grey-blue pebbles glinting with quartz, bladderwrack, starfish, tiny bits of white bone, fingernails, teeth. A child’s cry startled up. My daughter lay, struggling, in the shade of a rock, waving her fists in the air. All mouth. Wailing and wailing.
It was that woollen hat, Bernie said: any girl wearing that hat had to be a real personality. Jeanne. That’s Joan, isn’t it. Named after Joan of Arc were you? Proper Joan of Arc hairdo you’ve got there.
Tiny squares of coloured paper whirled in the air. Confetti. Military flags. Red white and blue bunting. I shut my eyes but a blade forced them open. Sun-reddened faces. A blister of heat. All round me people gabbled and shrieked. Turkeycocks with wobbly red throats, pimpled and ribbed, opening their beaks to cackle and screech. Banging of drums, shrill trumpets, clashing cymbals, a roar like fire sweeping up. Tears stuck, scraped like grit in my throat. I wanted to throw up. I hiccupped and the fire and the banging drums faded. I tilted more whisky into my mouth.
Bernie had come back into the cabin once his duties were done for the night, snapping on the light and waking me up. Now we reclined at opposite ends of the bunk, propped up on one pillow each, my legs tucked next to his under the blanket. He wore blue pyjamas and I wore a sheet wound round me. We passed his silver hip flask of whisky back and forth between us. He said: it was my dad’s. Just about the only thing of his I’ve got.
Harsh taste of smoke. At first I just took sips, then swallowed more. It warmed me inside, an amber flame scorching my stomach. Bernie called it a nightcap.
He’d brought in a couple of sandwiches and offered me one: thought you might be hungry. A Friday sandwich: thick yellow slice of cheese, yellowish bread. I reached out, took the sandwich, bit into it, devoured it. Bernie said: how about a kiss to say thank you?
The squares of coloured paper drifted down, along the pavement. I shook my head. Bernie held out the second sandwich: go on, then, have this one as well. I polished it off.
My eyes kept closing. He said: babes in the wood, you. He switched off the light. Sweet dreams, mademoiselle Joanie. We fell asleep, clutching each other’s feet so that we wouldn’t fall out of the narrow bunk that tilted back and forth like a seesaw.
We docked at Southampton in the early morning. Bernie departed to check passports. I went up on deck, case in hand, wanting to see England.
Mist blurred the edges of the harbour. Grey, rainy sky. Seagulls swooped overhead, mewing. The quay teemed chock-a-block with porters, officials, clumps of overcoated people under umbrellas. To one side of them stood a tall nun with a calm triangular face, thin body encased in a long black raincoat, a transparent plastic hood tied over her black veil. Her black-gloved hands clutched a black handbag. Her gaze swept the deck. Was I supposed to carry a sign so that she’d recognise me? What would it say? I painted out those words, in a rush of dawn tints. Colours jumped up, intense in the wet greyness: red printing on notices, the blue paint on the window frames of sheds, a yellow sou’wester. The red words translated themselves to me no no no and I decided to obey them. Do not cry do not let them see you mind do not give up do not fall down.
Go where you can. Enter where they let you in. Around me on deck everyone was talking a foreign language. French had been put away into their suitcases. The crowd collected itself, pressed forwards, taking me with it. We flocked towards the gangway. What should I do? Let the nun claim me? Hang back? I crossed the deck like anyone else and nobody looked at me more than once. All too eager to get on to land. Here came Bernie hurrying up, changed into civvies, leather gr
The railway terminus opened off the far side of the Customs shed. Just two sets of tracks: hardly a station at all. Black lines stretched away into not-France. Bernie left me hopping from foot to foot on the wind-scoured platform and went off to get us tickets. In his severe, hard-edged blue uniform he’d looked like a boy pretending to be a man. Now he seemed even more boyish; but more real. He hurried back, waving. He opened the carriage door: after you, mademoiselle.
I said: thanks for buying my ticket. I’ll pay you back as soon as I can. Bernie said: that’s OK. Later on is fine.
He pulled shut the carriage door. Clunk. The seat received me and defined me. Back upright, knees together. I leaned my head on my arm on the elbow rest. The rackety clatter of the train, very regular, gave me an excuse to look as though I slept. I half-dozed all the way to London. As we slowed, entering the grey and yellow brick suburbs of the city, I sat up and said: but aren’t you supposed to be back at work? Shouldn’t you be on the ship? Bernie lit a cigarette and flicked the match out of the window: I’ve got a few days’ leave.
Tumbling out of the carriage at Waterloo, jostling through the crowd past the uniformed ticket collectors at the ticket barrier and across the concourse, under the arched roof, I felt tiny, adrift in a stormy babble of foreign voices, accents, indistinguishable words. Above me: a sculpture on a plinth of an enormous striding man in a flapping coat, knee-breeches, a rakish hat. I’d entered a cathedral and this must be its patron saint. That’s Johnny Walker, Bernie said: that’s what we were drinking last night.
Outside the station we had a late breakfast in a café smelling of hot grease. More like lunch: fried eggs and chips and toast. Brown sauce, out of a bottle, tasting of vinegar. Thick, sweet coffee, also out of a bottle. My eyes smarted with not enough sleep. The café’s colours banged me: the silver steel of the hissing hot water urn, the orange lace curtains looped back with yellow ribbons, the red-topped tables, the blue and pink flowered wallpaper peeling where it met the windows. Behind his counter the patron darted to and fro in a cloud of steam, shaking his pan of sizzling bacon. He turned a tap on the urn and a jet of water drove down into a big brown enamel pot.
Bernie lit a cigarette and smoked. I stared at the congealing rind of egg yolk on my plate, the lacy flap of egg white with crisp golden-edged holes. I pushed grains of fallen salt back and forth on the table top. Music blared on the radio. I said: it’s kind of you to help me when you don’t know anything about me. Bernie stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. You can tell me in your own good time. First things first. I’m going to take you to meet my mother. She’ll put you up for a bit. She takes in lodgers to make ends meet, so she’s used to people just turning up. She’ll fit you in somewhere.
I said: but she’s never met me. Bernie said: any friend of mine is a friend of hers. Then we’ll see about getting you a job.
We boarded a tall red bus like a little moving house, stairs twisting up to the top deck. We sat at the front, so that I’d get a good view. The clippie whirled the handle of her little silver machine: punched pale mauve tickets shot out. She twanged the cord above our heads: ping ping! Off we rumbled. Bernie leaned back and lit up. We trundled across a bridge slung above grey water. See that? That’s the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
The city flared open around me. As though the bus were a knife, tearing into flesh. A wounded city, pitted with craters, like Le Havre. The city had fallen into the gaps made by the bombs. Houses teetered, their fronts cut off, their side walls missing. A brown-tiled fireplace dangled from an edge three storeys up. Other houses had tumbled to heaps of bricks, tufted with green weeds. Roadworks everywhere, protected by low wooden barricades. Men digging in pits half-roofed with corrugated iron.
I wanted to buckle the bus on to me like red armour. A red corset. Shiny red bus would fly away like a ladybird, fly me away with it. I stopped looking out of the window and listened to Bernie talking, telling me about his father who’d died in the war.
We pitched out of the bus in a district Bernie called Camden Town. Shabby grey shops held each other up behind broken pavements. We halted in front of a small house in a side street. Bernie explained: Mother lets the ground floor and the upstairs rooms. She lives in the basement.
We opened a gate in a row of black iron spears and dropped down a flight of steep steps. We ducked under some wreathing greenery and found Florence sitting at her kitchen table, smoking and reading a newspaper. A rounded, hazel-eyed woman, with a mass of curly, greying fair hair falling out of its combs. She wore a grey skirt, a faded pink blouse and cardigan, and fur-edged short suede boots. She gave me a steady look. She poured cups of a mahogany-coloured liquid she called tea. Thé? No. Tea. She brought out a blue-spotted plate of biscuits she called digestives. I said to Bernie: in France that’s a drink! He said: not digestifs. Digestives. She says she’s been saving these for a special occasion.
Green and white striped spider plants in pots jostled begonias and cacti on the window sill. A budgerigar in an orange wire cage swung to and fro and chirruped. A radio stood on a small red side table, a scarlet armchair next to it. Bernie and his mother chattered in their language I could not understand. He translated. Mother says you can stay here for a while.
That night, Florence unfolded a bed for me in the kitchen and set it up. Narrow strip of cream canvas held tight by wooden poles threaded along the side seams. She and Bernie wrestled shorter poles along the top and bottom edges, yanked them to meet and fit into the longer ones. She went off to find blankets and sheets. Dad’s camp bed, Bernie explained: Mum likes having his army things. In the loft she’s got his bivouack case, his service medals, all his stuff.
I slept wedged in next to the cooker. I dreamed I was a ship with multi-coloured satin slips for sails, rocking up the river Thames. A tidal wave broke over my head and I woke up, my heart bumping. Wind shook the house, rattled the window sash. A cat yowled outside. Something scratched in the wainscot, trying to get in. I wrapped the sheet round me, pulled it over my face.
Next day I got up feeling wobbling, light-headed. Florence put me into her red armchair, brought me cups of her brown tea. She didn’t try to talk. Just let me be. I pretended to doze, so that I wasn’t there. I wasn’t anywhere. Gone away.
In the late afternoon Bernie declared he needed some fresh air, took me out for a walk. My legs kept bending. The world had enlarged itself: England, London town and London suburbs. Too many opportunities, which might have sharp points; might pierce me. The streets in Camden Town wavered and swayed, as though the bombs were still falling. The pavements rose up at me like stone hands. Break my knees. The walls shoved me along. Swaying. I leaned against a metal rubbish bin: hold me up. My skin felt rattling and loose; uncoupled like a train carriage. I might spill out. I might crash. I needed to hang on to someone or something.
I said to Bernie: shall we have a drink?
The pub embraced us, drew us in. Glittering and dark as a chapel. Warmth smelling of beer and tobacco. Glass-glinting bar, shelves threaded with strings of lights, the bottles posing calmly as saints. Drifts of blue smoke like incense, big engraved mirrors with bevelled edges.
Bernie bought beer, a pint for him and half a pint for me. I mopped my eyes. He patted my hand: everything’s going to be all right. I tipped down my rich, sweet glassful and asked for another. Warm froth swilled round me, blurred the edges of the world beyond the pub table. Brown polish brown as the beer. Bernie propped his chin on his hand and gazed at me: you Frenchwomen are so emotional. You’re adorable. His words scooped into my insides, a spoon seeking sweet love. He looked so defenceless, beaming at me with such affection. I wanted to shout: take care I don
Golden glow of alcohol soothed my jumping insides. Bernie dipped his forefinger into a puddle of beer and drew squiggles. He said: I don’t want to go on living with Mother for ever. If I were married I could get on to the waiting list for a council flat.
Night-time, and again I couldn’t sleep. Piece of paper thrown into the sea. Almost disintegrated but not quite. The tide had washed me up here in Camden Town. I’d fetched up on a stranger’s folding bed in a stranger’s kitchen. Yellow light from the streetlamp outside reached through the thin cotton curtain drawn across the window above the sink, gleamed on the cream enamel edge of the gas cooker, the metal handle of the oven door. Sizzled-fatty-meat smell of the lamb chops we’d had for lunch. Bernie, eyeing the bloodstained paper-wrapped package Florence took out of her shopping basket, had said: Mother must like you. That’s her meat ration for the week. Florence displayed three tiny scraps of grey meat. Grilled, they had been gristly and tough. Bernie said to me: there are French restaurants in Soho. We’ll go to them together. Just you wait and see.
Over the meal they called high tea, bread and margarine and a hard-boiled egg divided in three, Florence and I had taught each other some words: fried, roasted, baked. Bernie had said: she says she’ll teach you to cook English dishes and you can teach her to cook French ones.
I lapsed back into silence. Not understanding English: a good excuse for not speaking. What could I have said? People who don’t know who they are can’t speak. Florence eyed me, tilted the white spout above my cup. I dropped in two sugar lumps, stirred the brown liquid. I couldn’t speak, but I could act. I seized the bread knife, picked up the loaf then cut the bread in the way I’d seen Florence do the evening before, curving my arm around the loaf to hold it close, spreading it with margarine then shaving off a paper-thin slice. Florence smiled, and said something. Bernie translated again. She says she can tell you’re the resourceful type. He passed me my crescent of egg: you’ll make a go of it here, Joanie, I know you will.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes