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The looking glass, p.22

The Looking Glass, page 22


The Looking Glass

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No, I can’t tell you who won him, because unfortunately Marie-Louise, being just a child, grew bored with this card game that went on and on and that she could not join in. She wandered out. She went into the dressmaker’s workroom and played with the contents of the button-box. She liked the little compartments, full of discs of different sizes and shapes, the stack of trays you lifted in and out, the sparkle of metal and jet and diamanté between her fingers. Composing patterns of fake jewels she forgot all about the other designing game going on in the kitchen upstairs.

  Thank you. I’ve enjoyed talking to you too, monsieur. I wish you well with your research and I shall be glad if what I’ve told you can be of any use.

  Poor Gérard, adored by so many women. All he wanted, you know, was to be left in peace to write his poems. And then to die before he’d begun his best work. Marie-Louise insists both that he died a hero’s death and also that he didn’t suffer, but how can she be sure when she wasn’t there? More likely alone in unimaginable agony and terror with his mouth full of mud. Of course the telegram didn’t say. It was as deceitful as any work of art or any poem.


  Almond green, eau-de-Nil, apple green: I didn’t know what the colour was called. Sometimes I smelled it: freshly cut grass, new peas, absinthe, thé à la menthe, the juice of emeralds, sage.

  A long, rippling crack spread across the pale green lime-washed plaster of the wall. Though it was only three inches from my face, it looked like the distant shoreline of a dearly missed country held in the vision of someone capsized out at sea and now swimming towards land. That wavering edge might be blurred by a rainstorm sweeping across, or made hazy by an afternoon of heat, but it never fundamentally changed. It was always solidly there, promising and beckoning, though often heavy with exhaustion. I didn’t feel I was getting any closer to it. I swam, slowly and laboriously, towards it, and then, when my strength gave out, I lay back on the waves and let them roll me in. I waited for release, the moment when the surf would tumble me onto the beach and I could just collapse on the stones and know I’d arrived.

  In more lucid moments, when I was less submerged by dreams of this far-off place called my country, to which I was desperately struggling to return, I stared at the crack and saw that it was not a line at all, but an opening into which you could insert your fingernail. The temptation was to scratch the wall, flake more plaster away, create islands and estuaries and promontories, rivers in winding loops that took you, by alternative and enchanting routes, back to your lost home. If I vanished into the crack in the wall perhaps I’d find my house again.

  I slept for a week. My illness spent itself that way; it broke, a storm of fatigue that flattened me. The only thing to do was to lie low. That was how I got cured. I was asleep, and so couldn’t waste my energy fretting, and meanwhile some kind of mending work went on inside. I slept with confidence and reassurance. I knew that I was in the house of friends, though I couldn’t remember their names, and I knew that being ill was a way of slowing down, of stopping for a bit. Like granting yourself a holiday during which repair work can be done.

  When finally I clambered out of bed and stood up my legs wobbled. I had to learn to walk again. Like the mermaid trying to hobble on dry land. But the mermaid had gone. She had swum off and I was left alone, washing my face and putting on my clothes, with a feeling of lightness. Part of that was hunger. My first day up, I was ravenous. I could have eaten the tablecloth and the cups and saucers. Madame Isabelle served up broth with a poached egg in it, and bread, and then rice pudding. She said that these were invalid foods: mild and nourishing.

  —I’m not an invalid any more, I told her: I’m recovered. I’ve caused quite enough trouble, being ill. I’m well again.

  We were sitting at the little table by the kitchen window. Outside it was raining. Summer rain in Normandy has a certain charm if you’re indoors, watching it stream down the windowpane. Cool air moves over your neck; your feet are dry and warm in clean stockings; your hands curl around a blue-flowered bowl of soup; the steam tickles your nose. Outside, the world is full of water, and the view misty and green, the rain-bashed roses dangling brown-edged balls of petals above the sill, but inside everything’s clear, calm. Order, and light, and peace. Like a blessing. Things are in their proper place once more. You can come back to yourself in your proper shape; no more parts of you floating off and wandering about, dissolved and unhappy, wanting to get back in but not knowing how. And so, at a nod from your hostess, you pick up your spoon and begin to eat.

  I found out that I had been sleeping downstairs, in the former tailoring workshop, which was now converted into the tenant’s room. While I’d been away, which was how it felt, while I’d halted, everyone’s lives had gone on without me. The little flat was quiet. Miss Milly had gone back to England, the day after Marie-Louise and I arrived, to visit her parents, and to decide whether or not to return to France.

  —She’s been writing a lot of poetry, Madame Isabelle said: but of course I couldn’t understand it because it’s in English. She tried to translate some into French for me but it sounded rather peculiar.

  The way she tossed out this last word told me it was one she liked. A good distancing word, like a far-off cupboard into which you put everything you didn’t want to look at just now. You could shut the door on it so that you didn’t have to make an immediate decision about whether something was good or bad. You could let it rest for a while, and this waiting allowed you to remain polite. At the same time you were hinting strongly that you didn’t really appreciate the objects in the cupboard. Such as those wedding presents Madame Colbert never used but stored away. Elaborate vases and epergnes and frilly silver trays. Perhaps in fact to her they were simply too precious ever to belong in daily life, but to me, taking them out to dust, they were fussy and ugly. Peculiar. If ever I had a house of my own everything in it would be my best and I would use my best things every day. What was the point of keeping your best things wrapped up in the dark recesses of a cupboard like nuns in a convent? You hoped to protect and preserve them, but then you died, without having enjoyed them, and they too rotted eventually and fell to dust, and that was that. I didn’t want a lot of fiddly, difficult things. Peculiar things. I wanted a few simple things with beautiful shapes and colours, that wouldn’t easily break but would last through daily use. Like that white oval dish of Madame Montjean’s for serving radishes; like that blue coffee-pot.

  —Of course, Gérard’s poems could be difficult to understand, too, Madame Isabelle was musing: but at least, or so he said, that was deliberate. I first fell in love with him after reading his poems, you know. He read them to me, I should say. That first evening, on the beach at Etretat. That was when I knew I was in love with him. That quickly.

  This was a different version of events from the one she had given me a couple of days ago, when she had been chatting to me about her life, telling me the tale of her marriage. Still, she was a dressmaker. She was used to making up frocks, and now stories. I could see that she was trying on different stories for size, checking their effect, wondering which suited her best. She wasn’t lying, as such. It was just that how she saw things changed from one week to another. Memories alter, like necklines and hemlines do. You choose the one that fits the moment.

  She put a pan of water to boil and went on with her news. Marie-Louise was staying with the Polpeaus. Madame Isabelle had contacted the school, to tell them where she was, had sent a telegram to Gérard in Paris, and another to the Polpeaus. I was not in trouble after all; it was assumed by everyone I had meant to act for the best.

  —She wouldn’t have spent much longer at that school, anyway, Madame Isabelle said: thank heavens, her father’s coming back from Africa very soon, and he’ll want her to live with him now. He’s getting married again, Gérard says. We just have to hope that Marie-Louise will be fine. Give her a chance to settle in with the new stepmother and see how it goes.

  She didn’t tell me off for interfering. She poured me
some coffee, in a pretty cup, thin green porcelain with a gold rim, and a wide handle flecked with gold, and pushed the sugar-pot towards me. I wanted, suddenly, to tell her the whole story, of what had happened in Blessetot, and afterwards. I tried to imagine myself doing so, I saw myself opening my mouth and letting it out.

  I would have to tell the truth. This would be extremely difficult. There were things I hadn’t thought about yet, that belonged in the account, but which I did not know how to express, that I hardly dared say. It was one thing to stir them about by myself, in the privacy of my own head, where they existed in a comforting soup of words, hardly words at all, melting, mixed up with each other; it was quite another to fish them up and put them into sentences, into some kind of order and shape; to admit them to someone else. I heard myself stumbling and blurting. I kept going back to the beginning and starting again. I didn’t know where the ending was.

  And also I felt you might lose something precious by making and telling a story, because then all its parts stretched out, beads strung one by one onto a string in time, tangling along from beginning to end; whereas while the unspoken words remained inside you all of them connected one to the other in a mad circling dance which was indescribably beautiful, wholly present in just one second, an eternal now. When you smoothed and flattened and straightened the story out, made it exist word by word in speech, you lost that heavenly possession of everything at once. You bumped down to earth and told one moment at a time. Speaking and telling, you threw joy away and had to mourn the loss of paradise, the shimmering eternal moment which was outside time, me and Madame Montjean together in the kitchen when no one could separate us and when we didn’t have to speak to know we were happy. Perhaps Eve’s punishment, thrust forth from paradise, was to become a storyteller. Not in order to defend herself but simply to have to speak. But I wasn’t ready for that yet.

  Nonetheless I could see that if I did tell my story then it would be done. A job completed. Like cleaning out an old shed, seeing what you’ve got; sacks and flowerpots and bottles of fruit; spiders’ webs and dead mice and worm-eaten pitchfork handles; choosing what to keep, and what to throw away. The story would be put in order and for the moment I would be able to live with myself and it and I might feel free.

  I couldn’t do it. Fear of what Madame Isabelle would think of me tied my tongue in knots. Shame halted me, like a boulder blocking my throat. Like a stone door rolled across the face of a tomb. I’d been dead, and I’d sat up and walked. I’d been raised to life again. But I couldn’t yet speak. That would take time. She didn’t press me. She accepted my silence, and her silence was like a caress.

  * * *

  I have stayed on with Madame Isabelle for the last couple of days, sorting out practical things. I have cleaned her flat and shop from top to bottom, having no other way to show my gratitude; I have chopped wood for her; pressed three weeks’ worth of ironing; been to the market and done the shopping; prepared our meals. She has suggested I look for a job as a cook, and has written me a reference. Gérard has sent another reference, and the wages he insists he owes me. He sent me his sincere regards. He wished me well. I kissed his signature as a way of saying goodbye then put the paper on the fire.

  Before looking for work in Rouen, I am going to take the train and travel to Etretat. From there I am going to make my way, on foot or by hitching a lift, to Blessetot. I might or I might not. If I feel brave enough, I am going to go to the café and visit Madame Montjean. I might.

  I have received three letters in all.

  The first was from Gérard.

  The second was from Madame Polpeau, who wrote to tell me that my former employer had called at her house. She had made enquiries in Etretat at the convent for me; she asked after me in the town; she discovered that I had gone off to Jumièges with a Monsieur Colbert. She came looking for me; she tried to find me; she had something to say to me; and I need to go and discover what it is.

  The third letter was from Sister Pauline, scolding me for not writing to her, and saying that Madame Montjean had called at the convent a second time, on her return from Jumièges, to give her my address. Madame Montjean seemed well, and had mentioned that her husband had gone back on the road as a salesman again. Sister Pauline added that she hoped I was still being a good girl and that of course she was praying for me.

  I miss the sea at Blessetot; I should like to see it again. I’d like to try making friends, now, with those village children who ran and played and shouted on the beach. Young men now, young women, but they would recognise me as I should recognise them. What happened to you? we’ll ask each other: tell me. Their faces laughing and curious. Look. We’re at the very beginning of our lives. Tell us a story. Inside me a jostle of voices. The voices of orphans clamouring in the dark. The voices of mothers and fathers crying for their lost ones to come home again. Crying out for all their lost words to return. I shall walk with them down onto that steep little tilt of grey-blue pebbles, in the hot sun, the sparkling light, to watch once more the waves breaking over and over upon the stones, push and tug, back and forth, back and forth, that powerful unending rhythm, that soft crash, crash of water, the salt foam tracing filigree lines of script onto the loose shingle and then erasing them, repeatedly, the sea endlessly writing its life into ours and into our stories, and all my fears of telling my story dissolving, insubstantial as sea-froth, sinking away into wet stones, in this early summer of 1914.


  A Piece of the Night

  The Visitation

  The Wild Girl

  The Book of Mrs Noah

  In the Red Kitchen

  Daughters of the House

  During Mother’s Absence

  Flesh & Blood

  Impossible Saints

  Fair Exchange


  Food, Sex & God


  The Mirror of the Mother

  Psyche and the Hurricane

  All the Selves I Was

  THE LOOKING GLASS. Copyright © 2000 by Michèle Roberts. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

  Picador® is a U.S. registered trademark and is used by Henry Holt and Company under license from Pan Books Limited.

  For information on Picador USA Reading Group Guides, as well as ordering, please contact the Trade Marketing department at St. Martin’s Press.

  Phone: 1-800-221-7945 extension 763

  Fax: 212-677-7456

  E-mail: [email protected]

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Roberts, Michèle.

  The looking glass : a novel / Michèle Roberts.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 0-312-42083-8

  1. Women domestics—Fiction. 2. Storytelling—Fiction. 3. France—Fiction. 4. Poets—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR6068.O155 L66 2001



  First published in Great Britain by Little, Brown and Company

  First Picador USA Edition: June 2002

  eISBN 9781466854963

  First eBook edition: September 2013



  Michèle Roberts, The Looking Glass



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