The looking glass, p.20
The Looking Glass, page 20
As we went along the sun increased in strength and the streets got busier. Now there were plenty of people in country clothes about, laden with heavy baskets and pushing barrows, obviously making for the market. I mingled with them, slipped along in their wake.
The fruit and vegetable stalls were setting up on a place not far from the cathedral, connected to it by an ancient street dominated by an enormous clock. I walked up and down this thoroughfare a couple of times, liking the view, then turned back into the market. Tightly packed rows of curly cabbages and lettuces glistened with water, and behind them, beyond the rooftops, the enormous holy building reared up like a monster snail happily anticipating grazing on this abundance of salad. I lingered, relieved to be anonymous amidst the bustle of people and animals, the stallholders yelling jokes and cheerful abuse at each other as they hauled their wooden handcarts, piled high with bunches of green-topped carrots and whiskery onions, creaking over the rough pavé. Ducks, chickens and rabbits occupied their own special section, with crates of chirruping ducklings and chicks to one side. The charcuterie stalls came next, hung with saucissons and displaying earthenware terrines of glossily crusted pâtés rimmed with rich grease, dishes of galantine gleaming with chopped jelly, bowls of solid mayonnaise packed in ice, on the counters. Tubs of mussels, wheels of herrings and mackerel, shone nearby. Next I inspected cheeses, baskets of eggs laid on straw, and buckets of cream, and then a rack of men’s work-shirts in rich Rouennais indigo.
I knew I was just putting off the moment of doing what I had come to do, and then the succeeding moment of knocking on Madame Isabelle’s door. I told myself that my delay was because I did not want to disturb her too early, but that wasn’t true. I was nervous. My heart thumped and banged in my chest like a dog jumping against the wire walls of its run. Passing a baker’s shop and smelling newly baked bread, that powerful scent of yeast and sweetness gushing out and enveloping me, I was suddenly faint with hunger, punched in the belly; if I didn’t eat something quickly my knees would give way and I would collapse.
Why was it so difficult to enter a shop and buy myself some food? In this place I didn’t know it seemed an aggressive act, to require all the courage I possessed. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette of shopping in a town; people might laugh at my accent, stare at me and snigger. I looked down at my boots. Wooden-soled, hob-nailed, canvas bound with leather strips, stoutly laced. I plaited my hands together over my coarse brown apron and glanced at them, red from years of immersion in hot soapy water, the nails chipped and black-rimmed with earth from gardening. I remembered Madame Isabelle’s dismissive glance in Blessetot all that time ago. No point dwelling on that. Either she’d let me in or she wouldn’t.
I drove myself forward. I pushed open the tinkling door of the boulangerie, entered the warm, bread-lined interior and bought myself a large roll. Not wanting to arrive empty-handed at Madame Isabelle’s house, I bought a whole loaf as well, a nice round one, and dropped it into my basket. I had brought away from Jumièges the housekeeping money for the week, in lieu of the wages Monsieur Gérard owed me, stowed deep in my pocket. I could afford to eat, for the moment anyway.
The woman behind the counter served me calmly and without fuss. She waited patiently while I managed not to get into a fluster, to count out the correct number of sous without blushing or dropping coins on the floor. She had floury forearms, like white gloves. When I asked her for directions to the junior school of the lycée in the rue des Pénitents she glanced at me without surprise and indicated that it was quite close by, a turning off the far end of the rue Martainville which led away from the church of Saint Maclou behind the cathedral. I thanked her and went out tearing at my heartening breakfast, the crusty bread still hot and doughy from the oven.
Hunger appeased, bravery was now simple. I walked to the rue des Pénitents, found the school, which announced itself on a brass plaque set into the high wall, and paced slowly past it on the other side of the street. I was in luck. The high wrought-iron gates, lined with sheets of metal, had been pushed open, their bottom edges scoring half-circle sweeps on the wide gravel path, and I could see in. It was the hour of delivering children to morning lessons. The white stone buildings, several-storeyed, with long windows, rose austerely in the background, looking onto a paved area edged with flowerbeds. Little groups of maids, white-capped and decorous, stood about chatting at the edge of this playground, while their charges tore up and down, running races and yelling, or jumped back and forth over swinging skipping-ropes. No one who looked like a teacher was yet visible, that my eyes could discover. I crossed over the road and came back along the pavement, making myself saunter, as though I were completely at ease. Sweat coursed down my face but I didn’t stop to wipe it away. I slipped in through the gates and stood quietly under the plane tree that shaded the gravel path.
My one fear was that the boarders would not take part in this early morning recreation. I need not have worried. I saw Marie-Louise almost immediately, seated alone, some little distance away, on a stone bench, swinging her legs, her head bent, and her arms crossed over the bodice of her blue school wrapper. How removed she seemed from all the others. As though she had already begun what I would complete.
I gazed at her intently, willing her attention. She soon looked up and saw me. I smiled and put my finger to my lips. She jumped up and ran over to me. I crouched down and opened my arms and she hurled herself into my embrace. Her grip was so strong. She didn’t want to let go. While we hugged each other I whispered urgently in her ear.
—I’ve come to take you home. We don’t have to say goodbye to anybody. We’re just going to walk straight out of the gate. It’s like a game. All right? Come on then.
I drew us both to our feet. Still clutching Marie-Louise’s hand I led her as casually as I could over to the gates and out into the street. We walked away rapidly. Nobody seemed to have noticed our departure. There was no outcry behind us, no sound of running feet, no watchman’s whistle blown to summon the police. Nonetheless I quickened our pace until we had turned the corner, hurried to the end of the next street and got back into the rue Martainville. Here I felt safer, and let myself slow down.
Marie-Louise was intrigued for the moment, looking around at the old half-timbered houses whose upper storeys hung out over the street. She was swept up by the sights and smells of freedom: a cat, sunning itself on a windowsill, that she stopped to stroke; the lemony scent of a pot of geraniums on a stone ledge by a front door; a curl of white lace behind a small dimpled window. I had quickly to decide what to do next. But I felt so tired, suddenly, that it was difficult to think clearly. Lack of sleep over the last few nights was curdling my brain. I had set out to rescue Marie-Louise because it was obvious to me, from hearing Gérard read out her weekly letters home, how bitterly unhappy she was, shut up in that school. I was afraid for her, that she would suffer some damage, that something bad would happen to her as a result. She might be scarred for life. She might never recover. I had managed to get her away. But I had not thought sufficiently about the next steps I had to take.
My original plan had been to take Marie-Louise to Madame Isabelle’s house and ask her to help me. I’d found her address easily enough; it was written on the back of the envelopes containing her letters that Monsieur Gérard kept in his Japanese cabinet. I had reasoned that taking Marie-Louise immediately to her uncle in Jumièges might accomplish nothing. Gérard might explain he still could not cope with a child all on his own and would therefore despatch her straight back to boarding-school again. Whereas if Madame Isabelle brought his niece home to him, he would realise how grateful he was and how much he loved them both, and how he couldn’t do without them.
Perhaps he would marry Madame Isabelle, and so provide Marie-Louise with an aunt to love in the home she was used to. They would be a real family. They would be happy together and live happily ever after. Madame Isabelle would forgive me for having slept with Gérard. She would love Marie-Louise like a daughter. I would
Something was getting confused. My head ached. I wanted just to lie down and go to sleep, but I couldn’t, because I had the child with me, and she was starting to grizzle a bit, not frightened, but puzzled. The lath-and-plaster façades of the old shops were ceasing to intrigue her. The sun was hot. She dragged her feet and grumbled.
—Where are we going? I want to go home.
—It’s not much further, I said: we’ll be there soon.
The problems in my plan rose up, one by one, squinted at me, mocked me.
Gérard might have me arrested for stealing the housekeeping money. And the basket. Madame Isabelle might refuse to help. She and Gérard might be so angry with me that they would turn me over to the police, who would have me put in prison. Kidnapping was a very serious offence, I was sure of that, and I would be in prison for a long time. It would be like the orphanage all over again; those cold years of deprivation. I knew I could not bear it.
Marie-Louise tugged at my hand.
—Let’s go home now.
—In a minute. Just a minute.
While I had been coaxing Marie-Louise along I had been making my way mechanically down the street without being particularly aware of the direction in which I was going. Now I felt an urgent need to get out of our hot, dusty surroundings and find somewhere quiet, free of passers-by. I hesitated, and looked around. Ahead of us was an ancient fountain, and, to the right, a stone doorway. I towed Marie-Louise in here. Suddenly we were inside a shadowy, sheltered space, a yard surrounded by old half-timbered buildings. The ground floor was made up of galleries, which were now closed in. Decorated arches rose up around us, like the frilly stone arcade of a cloister.
I knew where we were; I recognised the place from the engraving hanging in Gérard’s study. L’Aitre Saint Maclou. The old plague cemetery. The charnel house. In the cool, undemanding company of the dead. They had been ill once; they had been damaged and scarred; but now they were safe, because they were dead, and their bones neatly ranged here, sorted and filed like the poem-papers in the little drawers of a Japanese cabinet.
I drew a long breath.
—Let’s sit down in here for a moment. I’m so tired. Let’s rest a little while. Then we’ll go straight home, I promise.
Marie-Louise wandered about, her attention diverted by the grotesque carvings on the columns, showing Death dancing with the plague victims. Above them was a frieze decorated with images of grave-diggers’ tools, skulls, crossbones. She took great delight in working out what these strange motifs represented, and calling out her discoveries to me. I listened only vaguely. With one eye I watched her, to make sure she did not stray too far and get lost, and with the other I dreamily saw again the landscape of the early morning. The pink dawn sky unfurled like a sail. Nothing had yet happened to shatter hope. Sinuous as a green serpent the river wound to the open sea.
—Look, Geneviève, Marie-Louise said, pointing at one of the capitals.
I stretched my neck up and out like a serpent and looked. It was so hot that my eyes were watering. I wiped them, and concentrated, peering across to the far side of the courtyard where Marie-Louise stood. From here, the carving the child was showing me looked just like the other engraving in Gérard’s room, the lovely sculpture from Autun.
Eve swam gaily above my head, floating on her side, one hand waving at me in greeting and the other pointing towards the apple on the tree. Her little breasts were half veiled by the spreading tendrils of her hair, while below the waist her body was invisible, caught in tangles of greenery like seaweed. Her good hand welcomed me and her bad hand stretched out to grasp the forbidden fruit. Her smile was arch, knowing.
She was the mermaid. She had come to remind me, to show me the way.
Sooner or later the mermaid had to return to the sea, which was her only true home. She couldn’t survive on land. She had tried her best but she had failed. No shame in admitting that. Once before she had attempted to go back, but it had been too soon. But now the time was right.
I would hold Marie-Louise’s hand, so that she would not be frightened. It would be a game she was used to: going paddling in the ripples at the sea’s edge. We would wade further in together, taking it very gently, giving Marie-Louise plenty of time to get used to the deep, dark green water, the buoyancy of the salt waves. We’d be laughing at our absurdity, going swimming in our clothes, watching them balloon out around us. Then she would be so tired that she would want to fall asleep, and the sea would hold us in its arms and rock us like a cradle. We would lie down together in the water and be transformed by it and take on our true mermaid shapes again and then nothing more could hurt Marie-Louise; she would be safe for evermore; and I would have finally accomplished my task and could rest and not have to wake up out of this comfort, this story.
Marie-Louise suddenly began to run, clapping her hands and shouting, past the columns on the far side of the yard, back towards the pointed stone doorway. A bat flew up, startled, a black streak whistling past her head. She cupped her hands to her mouth and made trumpet sounds.
—I’m going to play hide-and-seek like we did in the forest. Bet you can’t find me.
She vanished from my sight.
I was on dry land again. Beached here in the everyday. My back had been sagging against the cold spine of a column. I was half asleep. Dazed, I sat up. Got to my feet. I staggered. I was feeling sick with fatigue, and my headache was worse, as though I’d received a blow.
—Marie-Louise, I called: Marie-Louise, come back.
My voice was feeble, cracked. She could pretend not to have heard me. I picked up my basket and ran, the basket bumping against my knees, past the skeletons and crossed bones, the grinning skulls. Apart from its dead, the place was empty. Marie-Louise was nowhere to be seen.
I hastened back out into the street, dodging through the low doorway. Sunlight struck down onto the cobbles. Doves cooed somewhere nearby. Almost immediately I decided I must have come out of l’Aitre Saint Maclou the wrong way. I’d got confused in my hurry, turned right rather than left and emerged through a back entrance. This surely wasn’t the stately porch I had entered earlier. This debouched onto what seemed a different street, sunnier and more open than the rue Martainville, forming one side of a little square set with plane trees.
Then I spotted Marie-Louise. She was dawdling at the far end of the higgledy-piggledy stretch of old houses, looking into a shop window. She hadn’t seen me.
I crept towards her. I gained on her stealthily, as though I were a poacher creeping up on a rabbit, tiptoeing through wet grass, coaxing it not to take fright. Oh but not to kill the rabbit, I swear, just to capture it for its own good and pop it into my basket and return it to where it belonged.
I reached her. She was studying a display of hats in the window of what announced itself to be a dressmaking establishment. I looked at the name painted in curly flowing script on the glass and sighed. So we’d got here after all. I stepped forward and rang the doorbell.
Madame Isabelle opened the door. Her black hair was loose on the red and yellow flowered shoulders of her cotton dressing-gown. She was frowning, but then she began smiling. Her smile gathered us up; we abandoned ourselves to it.
—I thought you were my sister-in-law. Thank heavens, you’re not. It’s rather early to be receiving guests. But since you’re here you’d better come in.
She stepped back inside the hallway and motioned us to go past her. She pulled the door to behind us.
—We were just thinking about having some breakfast; she chatter
She pushed us gently towards the staircase which spiralled up from the end of the hall. It had a polished wooden banister and wide, shallow treads. Madame Isabelle, the skirts of her dressing-gown bunched in one hand, leaped nimbly up ahead and Marie-Louise and I followed obediently. We stopped on the first floor and the stairway coiled on to the floors above.
—In here, she said, opening a panelled white door.
A tiny hallway, with two other doors opening off it, led into a long narrow kitchen which made me think of what a train carriage must be like. Sunlight flooded in through the open window, which was framed by the branches of a climbing rose, waving languidly as the breeze moved over them. The roses were round and full, white, with creamy hearts, and their scent, carried on the spring air, mingled with that of the coffee keeping warm on the little stove. The walls were tiled blue and white to two-thirds of their height, and painted white above. A table, covered in blue oilcloth and flanked by two cushioned chairs, fitted in by the window, and a white-stained wooden cupboard, with a basket hung from its handle, and more baskets piled on top, completed the furniture.
I took it all in, a second’s glance around sufficing to give me a sense of the tranquillity of this clean little interior. What was completely unexpected was that Miss Milly was seated on one of the chairs at the table by the window, and looking up, as astonished to see us as we were to see her.
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