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Ignorance a novel, p.3

Ignorance: A Novel, page 3


Ignorance: A Novel

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I was wandering about, glancing at them from time to time, leaving them to get on with their new game. I preferred looking at the canvases propped against the walls. Shapes of colour that might be women or might not, which grabbed your insides and whirled them about as though you were cartwheeling. What seemed the same dark-eyed woman in a red frock over and over again. In the bottom right-hand corner of each painting he’d put a thick black squiggle: Jacquotet.

  He’d found us easily. Crouching next to Marie-Angèle behind a big propped canvas, in the tent of dark air between its wooden stretcher and the wall, I’d willed him to make haste. End it. Too childish. I wanted to explore his room, see what he’d got. He’d stomped up the stairs, growling an ogre song fee fi fo fum. We heard him through the door. He drummed with his hands on the door and it flew open. We waited patiently. My thighs ached from crouching. Come on, hurry up. As he got closer we jumped up and ran out, squealing. Exaggerating a bit. A show we put on. Bad girls! I forbade you to come in here. What shall I do with you, bad girls? He swayed back and forth in front of the door so that we couldn’t pass him and get out.

  A forfeit, he announced. Now, what shall it be?

  Was he pretending or wasn’t he? We hovered. Marie-Angèle cocked an eyebrow, sizing him up. She wore a look I recognised: shifty, caught out, wanting to wriggle away from punishment, not sure how, putting on a pout. Not a look that worked with Mother Lucie, who knew her too well, you and your tricks, miss, tell me the truth now. It worked better with the curé, bored with testing us on our catechism, those Sunday afternoon sessions in the cold classroom, the three of us huddled against the lukewarm stove, desperate for a bit of warmth. He’d pat our heads, then his black soutane, thrust his hand through the slit in the side, searching for the bump that meant a bag of sweets, his pocket full of caramels: never mind, you’ll learn the answer for next week, won’t you? Have a caramel, my dears.

  Marie-Angèle curtsied to the Hermit. You’ve won. We are your prisoners.

  The Hermit beamed, bowed, handed her the feather. Your prize, mademoiselle.

  The Hermit’s wives, a red chorus, stood around the edges of the studio. They guarded us, making sure we’d not do anything we shouldn’t. Women tried to keep children from getting into trouble. Marie-Angèle’s mother droned don’t touch don’t touch don’t touch you might break something you might get dirty you might make a mess don’t touch. This lot weren’t strong as mothers though. You could punch a hole right through them with your fist. If they came too close you could ward them off with a good clout. They wouldn’t dare touch you after that.

  Now he’d accepted us inside his studio, the Hermit took our arms and pulled us round it, showing it off. A cross between a workshop and a playroom; both messy and neat. He pointed out a cupboard under the eaves: see that? It connects to next door. Your attic is through there.

  I said: liar!

  The space we stood in was so completely unlike the space we’d left that I couldn’t believe the two were anywhere near each other. I felt I’d entered a different country; utterly separate and distant from the bare, cold school. I said again: liar!

  He said: once upon a time this and next door were all the same house, before the nuns divided it in two. It was too big for them, and so they sold off this part to my parents.

  Was he teasing? Perhaps he crept through the door at night, slid downstairs from the attic into the dormitory, sat by my bed, watched over me while I slept. As Maman had told me Papa had done sometimes, when I was small. When she was too tired to rouse herself, when I cried at night, he’d got up to calm me. Did I remember that? I remembered her stories of how he told her he’d held my hand, recited me poems, promised not to leave me. I felt I knew his voice, golden-dark, but did I really?

  Marie-Angèle leaned against me, put her head on my shoulder, whispered. Her breath smelled of boiled potatoes. Perhaps he comes hunting for children to kidnap!

  In the olden days, Mother Lucie had told us, it was said that Jews needed little Christian children. They slit the children’s throats, bled them dry, then used their blood to make Passover bread.

  Marie-Angèle giggled. She said: he won’t bother with you, because you’re not a proper Christian. He’ll want me!

  The Hermit glanced at us. I flinched, pushed Marie-Angèle away. She followed me to the big table in the middle of the room.

  He didn’t mind us touching his things. He let us pick up black sticks of charcoal and find out what marks we could make with them on a sheet of white paper. When the sticks shattered in our clumsy fingers he didn’t get cross. He let us stroke the soft, pointed tips of the brushes packed standing up in old tins, handle the stumps of pastel chalk, smear wax crayons along corrugated brown cardboard, try out hard and soft pencils. He let us open a tin of cakes of watercolour. I leaned over a piece of paper, hesitating. He said: just start! The brush leaped ahead and I followed its pink-red stream. Marie-Angèle tried to use the paint neatly but he shouted at her: no, go on, splash it on, don’t be so mimsy, so niminy-piminy, the whole point is to spread the colour into the water, big bold strokes, get it really wet, look, like Jeanne’s doing.

  The wives looked on. They kept an eye on us. Doing their best, anyway. They were getting bored with guarding us. They twirled away, preferred to dance. Canvas ladies, rather like the ladies in the photographs downstairs with not a lot of clothes on. Curly dark hair spilling down over their shoulders, red frocks falling off their shoulders, arms arching into the air, hips swaying, skirts falling back over their thighs. The studio smelled of the paint he’d painted them with. Oil paint. I snuffed it up.

  While we waited for the water paint to dry we tried to think up another game.

  I know, Marie-Angèle said: let’s act plays. And you have to guess what they are.

  First, I did grocer’s shops. The Hermit wanted to have a go next, but Marie-Angèle waved him back.

  No, I want to do one, you be the audience. My turn.

  She arranged herself on the pink divan. She wriggled her backside into the cushions and locked her hands behind her head. She parted her legs. She looked, somehow, as if she had no clothes on. She looked rather like one of those girls in the magazines downstairs.

  A pause. He gazed at her.

  Stupid pose, he said.

  I turned round from where I stood at the skylight, writing my name in the dust on the glass pane.

  Get up, he said. Stupid little girl.

  He really did look like an ogre now. Cheeks flushed red, eyes snapping blue fire.

  We could play a different game, I said: I know a game. Have you got any sugared almonds? Or caramels? You sit in the chair and hide them in your pocket and we’ll come and sit on your lap and search for them.

  The Hermit advanced on Marie-Angèle. She tried to look bold but I could see she was scared.

  How old are you, for God’s sake?

  She jumped up and skidded towards me. I thought he was going to hit her. The wives shrieked. He was coming closer. In one hand he held a palette knife. He would stab us and we would die. I grabbed Marie-Angèle’s hand and pulled her over to the door, pushed it open. I whirled her downstairs, slippered feet skating over the treads, out of the front door into the street. I pulled it shut behind us. He wouldn’t dare follow us on to the square. Recluse. Out here we were safe.

  Marie-Angèle made for the front door of the convent and tugged at the bellpull to be let back in. I ran away, into the dusk. I shot down the hill, making for home. I scudded through the dark streets. Locked front door a slap in the face, a slap to the heart. Maman wasn’t there. I’d forgotten. She was in hospital.

  The shut door and the blank wall smirked: keep out. I twisted back and forth on the pavement. The wrong place. I’d get into such trouble. I couldn’t face going back up to school and explaining. I was locked out of everywhere. The world had turned inside out, like a pullover, and shaken me off like a ball of fluff. I started crying, keeping my head down so no one would know me. Where was the hospital? I could
n’t remember.

  I stumbled back on to the bridge. The shallow steps rose in a gentle curve. At the top, where the bridge flattened out, a young workman was leaning on the parapet, smoking. How would I get past him? I tried to run. Crying too hard to look where I was going, I stubbed my foot and fell over, and he caught me. Hey, little one, it’s OK. What’s up? Where d’you live?

  He brought me back up the hill. He took me into the cobbler’s shop, the only place with a light still burning. Monsieur Fauchon brought me back up to the school. In the parlour I had to tell what had happened. Marie-Angèle had already confessed and been sent to bed.

  Black wooden chairs lined up around the panelled brown walls, listening. Mother Lucie pulled a chair forward. She stood to one side of it, gripping its barred back, and I on the other. The wooden paddle lay on the seat. I stuttered out the words that came into my head.

  Mother Lucie handed me over to Sister Dolorosa, who thrashed me, because I was a liar who made up stories, and I was the ringleader, the troublemaker who led my friend on, she was too weak, she followed. And as for that Jew next door, she’d tell the gendarmes to keep an eye on him in future and no mistake.

  Afterwards I shouted to Sister Dolly: it didn’t hurt, so there! Hauling me up to bed, Mother Lucie warned me: not a word of this to your mother. Poor woman, she’s got enough to bear.

  She let Marie-Angèle off with a scolding, a fable by La Fontaine to learn by heart. She didn’t want the Baudrys to find out how lax her supervision was. We all understood the bargain that we made.

  Quite soon afterwards Marie-Angèle’s mother had her baby and Marie-Angèle could go home. A bit later Maman came out of hospital, well enough to return to work. For the moment I stayed on at the nuns’ school. Mother Lucie said: when you’re completely returned to health, Madame Nérin, then we’ll see. And in the meantime, heaven knows she needs the discipline.

  We heard that the Hermit caught influenza and nearly died. It was a hard February, that one. Marie-Angèle’s mother got the flu, too. But she survived, and gave birth in early March. She named her son Marc, and invited Maman and me to the christening. A new priest officiated. The curé had been posted to another parish, no one knew where.

  Marie-Angèle acted as her brother’s godmother. Standing at the font, she held him carefully on her left arm. In her right hand she held a lit candle. On his behalf she renounced the world, the flesh and the devil, and the priest beseeched God that Marc be kept from all harm.

  Leaving church, Marie-Angèle and I avoided looking at each other. I wanted to ask her whether she still had the feather. I couldn’t, because I’d have been overheard. I was supposed to obey my elders and not talk to anyone about what had happened. Had Marie-Angèle told anyone the truth about it? I didn’t know. I peeped at her as she swept past with her parents, her mother carrying the fat white bundle in its shawl. Buttoning her gloves, she looked composed. She seemed to have put the event away into the past, like old school exercise books you shove into the bottom of your desk.

  Perhaps one day far in the future she’d want to tell someone. A grandchild, perhaps, whom she loved, and to whom she told stories of her youth.

  I couldn’t imagine us as old ladies. Anyone over sixteen was old. But I did try to imagine what Marie-Angèle’s account might be like.


  Before the war we lived a normal life. That’s to say: each one in his right place. My father wheezed back and forth in the shop on the ground floor, the shed and storerooms in the yard behind, wheeling sacks, boxes, crates. The wooden counter in the front belonged to my mother. Blue-overalled, upright on her tall stool, her fair hair netted in a bun, she served the customers, did the accounts, kept an eye on my little brother Marc running in and out. I’d stayed on at school to get my Brevet, so that I could earn good money as a secretary, but in between bouts of study I had to help with the housework. Maman told me each morning what jobs to do later: I want you to grow up capable!

  Jeanne’s mother came in once a fortnight, to do the washing. She flaunted herself in a navy cloth coat trimmed with brown fur: a relic of better days! She would peel off her fine leather gloves with a sigh: they’re falling apart, but they’ve lasted a long time, they’re of such good quality! She would grimace as she unpinned her hat, smoothed it. Her way of letting us know what a lady she was: not born to this kind of work. No daughter to give her a hand, either. Jeanne had skipped out of school as soon as she turned fourteen, and gone to work as a maid. No laundry duty for her.

  She’s doing well, her mother boasted: a decent employer, decent wages.

  Madame Nérin paused from her hauling of wet sheets. She dropped her wooden tongs and straightened herself, eyes lowered, hands bracing the small of her back. She leaned forwards again, her lips puffing out a groan. The bulk of linen washing, sodden with water, weighed so much that when you dragged it up and started shoving it through the wringer you felt your insides might fall out. Jeanne’s mother hadn’t the sturdy build a charwoman needed. Skinny as a weasel, she wore a black overall, a blue apron tied over it. Her hands, plunging and rinsing, were red and cracked. Her black hair, escaping from its pins, stuck to her crimson face. She smelled of sweat, so I kept my distance.

  And you go to Mass together every Sunday? asked my mother: which Mass do you go to? Not the early one, surely. I never see you there.

  Oh, said Madame Nérin: both of us need our lie-in on Sundays. But Jeanne gives me most of her wages. She is a good girl.

  So I should hope, said my mother.

  I thought of Jeanne on those alternate Monday afternoons, straight after school, when I helped heave up the tangle of boiled sheets from the copper, twist out the worst of the wet from the long steaming coils of linen, feed them between the rollers of the mangle. Moisture coated my face. The skin on my hands puckered and wrinkled. Did Jeanne go out dancing? Did she have a boyfriend? I couldn’t ask, and encourage Madame Nérin to waste time chatting. My mother talked little while working. No energy to spare.

  She said: the devil finds work for lazy hands.

  We did our washing in the backyard, even in winter, chilblains or no chilblains. We hung it to drip on tubs and rails, and then later on lugged it upstairs to the attic to finish drying, suspended from the washing-lines there. I helped with the ironing, also the mending. I had my own darning egg, my own paper of needles. Maman also taught me to knit. With lengths of leftover wool we made cardigans, which the nuns sent off to their daughter-house in London. The English sisters ran a home for delinquent girls, and it was nice for these young women gone wrong to be able to dress decently.

  A stitch in time saves nine, said my mother.

  She kept an eye on everything, tried to look after everything and everybody at once, fought non-stop against dirt and disorder.

  A place for everything, she said: and everything in its place.

  Her rules dictated that certain corners stayed out of bounds. The shelves in the little back room where Marc slept, which doubled as an extra storeroom, bore ranks of bottled preserves, not to be pulled about by childish fingers. The nook by the stove in the front room with the two armchairs belonged to Papa and her. My route from bedroom to kitchen involved steering well clear of the occasional table with its wireless set, tobacco tin, jar of pipe-cleaners. Papa sat here when the shop was closed, frowning over the newspaper. He would beat his fist on the arm of his chair and shout. They’ll take everything we’ve got! We shouldn’t be letting them in! He fitted extra bolts to the doors downstairs, front and back.

  For her part, Maman kept her bunch of keys on her at all times. She guarded her best things locked up in the grey-painted flat-fronted cupboards on either side of the stove. I wasn’t allowed to touch the mauve china vase with its lustre glaze, the porcelain soup tureen, her wedding wreath of pink wax flowers. For my Confirmation, she lent me this wreath, and her lace veil to go under it: I want you not to show me up!

  Jeanne, poor thing, had nothing so fine. She fixed her chea
p square of cheesecloth in place with two kirbigrips concealed under a strip of white ribbon. For the ceremony Maman wore her fur cape, with its two dangling paws. She kept this locked up in her wardrobe, shrouded by an old pregnancy smock. She brought it out just for best: unlike some people, I don’t believe in showing off.

  I copied my mother’s housekeeping ways. Time-consuming practices of thrift.

  Waste not, want not, she said: God helps those who help themselves.

  The government certainly won’t, my father would say. Thinking about the state of the country made him shake with rage. Almost anything could set him off. We tried to avoid upsetting him. Sweeping the floor on a Saturday morning, I’d carefully skirt his chair. If I banged too close, he’d jump, and curse me. His lid would fly off and he’d swipe his fist in the air. At meals, with a captive audience of three, he’d boil over. One Sunday lunchtime, shouting about the cost of living, he thumped the table with his tumbler of wine. Drops flew out and stained the white cloth red and my mother sprang up, crying out. He made to hit her and she cried out again. Calm down! Shut up!

  Papa sat back in his chair trembling and wet-eyed. He poured himself more wine and gave me some, mixed with water. After lunch he took me in his arms and hugged me, pressing my face against his jacket. You understand me, don’t you?

  Maman put the cloth in soak. The stains stayed in, even after regular poundings by Madame Nérin. Pale purple eventually faded to pale blue. That was my one and only damask tablecloth, Maman complained: what’s the point of trying to make things nice if people keep spoiling them?

  Soon after that it wasn’t a question of making things nice. Just of surviving. Making do. We patched and darned, turned sheets side to middle, knitted and unknitted and re-knitted, let down hems and let out side seams. I padded my boots with folds of cloth to keep my stockings from wearing into holes. All through the bitter, insecure thirties, with so many men thrown out of work, with rising prices, we managed. When war came, bringing even greater austerity, we knew how to cope. At the beginning, anyway.

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