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Ignorance a novel, p.4

Ignorance: A Novel, page 4


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Tighten our belts, my mother said.

  War fell out of the sky. Planes nosedived, dropping bombs. The local bakery blew up, rose in the air, collapsed. The baker and his wife and their two children vanished under a pyramid of beams and rubble. Hauled out by local men, the bodies were placed in the cobbler’s shop along the street. Monsieur Fauchon was away fighting but his wife opened the door and took in the dead family. Maman was distressed: they should have been put in a Christian house. She and I dodged in, with other neighbours, to say a decade of the rosary. Waxy yellow faces; like shells. Madame Fauchon drew the grey blanket back up over their heads: I suppose we shouldn’t be able to bury them for days. Not until someone gives us permission. Maman and the neighbours prayed Hail Mary after Hail Mary. The prayers made the corpses seem less frightening.

  When the church bells rang to signal that the Germans had arrived we hid indoors, peeped through cracks in the shutters. A motorcade of metal giants on motorbikes, rifles stacked in their sidecars. Next, a parade of open trucks, each displaying a machine gun. Eight stiff soldiers to a truck, propping their raised weapon, ready to fire. The convoy rolled in smoothly, a machine made up of many moving parts, neatly synchronised. So solemn and so grand! Next to me, Marc chanted: nasty buggers! Buggers buggers buggers! Maman slapped him: quiet, you!

  The bells clanged again to mark the Armistice. We gathered in church to pray for Marshal Pétain. High above us, the curé’s red face peered over the edge of the pulpit. He raised the silver crucifix and said: the hero of the first world war has become the father of the nation.

  We filed out of the pews in silence. At the door, the curé shook hands with my father. He said: you veterans suffered so much on behalf of us all. Now, again, you must set us an example.

  Papa hurried us home so that he could stuff the louvres of the shutters with crumpled newspaper, against the blackout demanded by the curfew. We sat and gazed at the photograph of Marshal Pétain that Papa had nailed on the wall behind the stove.

  Needs will as needs must, said my mother.

  Posters went up: handsome German soldiers wagging forefingers, telling us what we could and couldn’t do. They looked like kindly teachers. They did a lot of marching. Whenever you went out you saw them swinging past. No more colours: just a uniform khaki green. Green beans, said my little brother Marc: string beans! The Germans re-named our streets and squares in German, hung swastika flags from our buildings. They moved into our houses. Anyone with a spare room promptly got a German soldier billeted on them. The German military band played German music in the park on Sundays. My mother sighed. Well. At least things have calmed down.

  A month before, Belgian refugees had streamed through our town, making their way south. A chaos of people in cars, farm carts, on bikes, pushing prams, just walking with suitcases, bundles of possessions. We gave them food, as you had to. After the Belgians, a wave of people from Normandy washed up. More food had to be given away. People from Ste-Marie also fled south in panic. Then, gradually, they straggled back. What else was there to do? We ourselves had set out on foot for Bordeaux, pushing a handcart, got fifteen kilometres down the road. Journeying to nowhere. When Papa collapsed, we turned round and came home, like so many others. In her panic Maman had left behind in the back yard the basket she’d packed with her wedding sheets. The yard had been broken into, and the basket of linen had vanished, but we found the shop itself mercifully intact, unlooted.

  Brace up, little ones, said my mother: life goes on. Everyone still needs shopkeepers!

  The men who’d been called up to fight returned home. Not all of them. Some remained imprisoned in German camps. But Monsieur Fauchon from along the street came back. The Mad Hermit, too. Occasionally I spotted him going in to the cobbler’s shop, which had opened for business again.

  Though I’d passed my Brevet, I had not been able to find a secretarial job, and so I helped my parents behind the counter. On the days when we were allowed to sell sugar, the queue stretched round the corner of the block. People grumbled at risen prices. Maman would snap: it’s not our fault! Customers came in with their food stamps and talked about little else but rationing, how hungry they were. We were hungry too. We stumbled through the harsh winter sawed from inside with hunger pangs. When I complained, my mother shouted. You’re not a child any more! Grow up! You’ve just got to cope!

  We crept through the grey-green months of the following year. You can’t sleep properly when you go to bed hungry. I prayed for food. I prayed for the war to end. By my fingernails I clung to my faith that God would not fail us, that he would help us survive.

  Maurice appearing in my life was my miracle. I wrote down the date at the back of my old school exercise book. Only I knew what it meant.

  March 1942. Easter still far off. A dark, raw morning. Rain pattered against the window. Too cold to strip and wash. I got dressed under the bedcovers, put on two petticoats, two pairs of socks. I went out, hooded in an old grain sack, to take the shutters down, came back in and stamped about to try and get warm. We drank our morning broth, then my mother wrapped a shawl round herself and went off in search of bread, leaving me in charge. She said: I don’t want you standing in a queue for hours. She didn’t like German soldiers looking at her daughter. When we went out to church she made me cover my head and most of my face with a scarf. I had to keep my eyes lowered and not look at the invaders. Not give them that satisfaction of being feared.

  In fact I didn’t fear them. I peeped at them without my mother noticing. Inside their stiff clothes they were human beings, just like us. Many of them were young. The contrast between their severe grey-green uniforms and boyish faces made them seem vulnerable, appealing. Many of them must have seen comrades fall and die. They had suffered, just as we had.

  We were allowed to open to customers only on certain days each week. Today we were closed. I sat at the counter on my own. Taking the shutters down had provided me with some light so that I could peer at the books. I was supposed to be checking the accounts. Shivering in the draughts, I hadn’t started yet. Too cold to do sums. I huddled in my coat, my shoulders hunched up towards my ears and my hands tucked into my sleeves. We couldn’t afford to light the stove down here. Oil cost too much. The only way to fight the cold was to try to shrink, to give it less of yourself to bite on. I wasn’t going to let the cold win.

  I wasn’t going to let the shop win, either. Ill-lit, gloomy space, sawdust silting the corners, pockmarked brown lino floor, the brown walls hung with empty shelves. I’d spent my life in it. The shop was like the war. If I let it, it would eat my youth. It would go on and on and never end. Nothing would ever happen to me. I’d grow old and die with the war still going on.

  The shop bell rang; the door scraped open. Large shoulders filled the doorway. Raindrops glistened on an overcoat of fine black wool. No: cashmere. A man with dark eyes, aquiline nose in a bony face, jet hair sleeked back. My eyes gobbled his coat. I’d never seen anything of such quality. The water just slid off it rather than soaking in. Raindrops ran from his shoes, polished brilliant black, puddled on to the lino. He doffed his hat. Soft black felt, looking brand new. His black eyebrows twitched together: he must have been expecting my father, not a girl. He grinned. Even white teeth under his black moustache. He came towards me. He smelled of lemon verbena soap. Such a fresh, sweet-sharp scent in our shop that smelled sourly of damp.

  Bonjour, mademoiselle. Is your father in?

  Papa appeared from the yard, coughing as usual, and took the visitor upstairs. I ran for the mop and swabbed up the pool of wet he’d left behind. My father yelled for coffee. I put on water to boil, ground a few roast barleycorns in the little coffee-grinder. It squeaked a dance tune and I hummed along with it. I took the coffee in on a tray, the cups set on a clean napkin, spoons laid in the saucers. The big, sleek visitor was sitting with my hunched father by the stove. Beside him, Papa dwindled. A fold of loose chin. A flap of stomach. He merely grunted as I set down the tray but the visitor
looked enquiringly at him. I edged towards the door. I slowed, my hand twisting the doorknob.

  My daughter Marie-Angèle, said my father.

  I turned. The man gave me a nod: Maurice Blanchard, mademoiselle, at your service. He exuded aliveness, a smell of money and newness and cleanliness. Under his coat glossy and sleek as fur his muscles flexed gracefully, energetically.

  He stretched out his hand for his cup. His signet ring glinted gold. My father gave the jerk of the head that meant: out you go. Downstairs in the shop I searched for the comb my mother kept on a ledge under the counter. My fingers brushed against woven straw. Maman had gone out with just her purse, leaving her handbag behind. Perching on my high stool, I opened it, got out her compact. Just a few grains of powder: enough to do my face. I ran her stub of lipstick over my lips, found her comb and tidied my hair.

  When Maurice clattered downstairs, my father behind him, into the shop, I put my chin in the air and tried not to notice him. Putting on his hat, he nodded at me again: au revoir, mademoiselle. He looked into my face, winked at me.

  That night, in bed, I hooked my exercise book out from underneath my pillow, found a stump of pencil. I wrote down the date, circled it and wrote a big M for Maurice. Then I hid the book under the mattress.

  Maurice came again a few days later. From his coat pocket he produced a brandy flask: can’t drink this foul coffee otherwise. No disrespect intended, mademoiselle. Into his and papa’s cups went the golden drops. Papa seized his cup, drained it in a gulp.

  To give myself an excuse to stay in the room, I got out the darning basket and started sorting through a pile of clothes. Shirts with frayed cuffs. My brother’s grey woollen Sunday trousers, held together by darns, the darns wearing back into ever bigger holes. Papa said: what do you know about business? Maurice said: it’s a question of seizing opportunities. Unwinding a ball of grey darning wool, I sat well back in the corner, so that Papa would forget I was there. After a few stitches, my hands felt too stiff with cold to sew. I tucked them into my cuffs, fingered my bare skin inside my sleeves. Good shivers now, not bad shivers. Maurice leaned forwards, his hands on his knees: I started at the bottom, and climbed up. A self-made man!

  Papa grunted. Maurice sat back, absentmindedly stroked the arms of his chair, padded with blue material, now balding and shiny. Spotted with grease. My mother always meant to re-upholster the chairs, but never found the time. Now there was no material in the shops so no point fretting. Maurice sat back, looked down at his hands. He took out a big white handkerchief and wiped his fingers. Best thing I ever did was apply for promotion and leave Limoges. The job here gives me far more scope. He glanced in my direction. Inside my sleeves I clasped my hands to my forearms. I’d never been to Limoges. I’d never been anywhere, not even on the annual church pilgrimage to Chartres.

  Maurice turned his gold signet ring, polishing it. Papa said: so this new job of yours entails what, exactly? Maurice explained. From his office in our town hall, he managed the organisation of food coupons for the whole area. He said: everybody’s food cards are on file. Everybody’s name is there. Papa said: so you know who everybody is.

  Maurice took to dropping in quite often. Papa liked him, because Maurice listened to him talk about politics, and treated him with respect as the head of the family. He would spread his hands: sir, I’m afraid I know nothing about war. Papa would say: so I’ll tell you. Maurice’s responsibilities at the town hall had kept him from being called up. Now, they meant that he could find things out, and stay ahead of the game.

  One afternoon he arrived with a warning for my parents. The arrival of another detachment of troops meant more billets would be needed. We’d have a German soldier parked on us in the blink of an eye. Papa smacked his chair arm. Merde! Maurice said: don’t worry, I know exactly what to do.

  He came back later that same night, with Monsieur Fauchon and a couple of other neighbours. Together they demolished the wall between our sitting room and the back storeroom where Marc slept. A rough arch, edged with wood, now framed Marc’s campbed in its newly prominent position near the dining table. The German officer, arriving to inspect the accommodation, admitted he’d been given faulty information about available space, apologised, and withdrew. My father wrung Maurice’s hand.

  Handsome is as handsome does, said my mother.

  She said it to Maurice’s face, challenging him. She’d given him, as her guest, her chair by the stove. She sat at the little dining table, patching one towel with remnants of another. All our towels were paper-thin, held together by my mother’s tiny stitches. I sat opposite her, tearing a newspaper into squares to go in the lavatory. Maurice smiled at my mother, raised his coffee cup. Madame, I’m proposing a deal. She shrugged her shoulders, looked down at her work. Convince me. He said: you’ll appreciate a bit more money coming in. Oh, I’m sure you were doing very well before the war, making a good living, you’re both so capable, but who knows now what will happen?

  Maman hesitated, then said: I don’t want to be rude, but we know nothing about you.

  Maurice spoke quietly. Unfortunately I have no parents. They were excellent people, of good family, who ensured I received a good education, but they died when I was very young. Papa interrupted. He addressed my mother: shut up! He’s proved himself, hasn’t he? He’s a good lad. He wants to help us.

  Maurice ferried goods in and my parents sold them on, under the counter. Maurice supplied anybody who needed what he could get for them, regardless of who they were. Everybody was desperate to obtain food. As shopkeepers we suffered alongside our customers. The peasants on the farms roundabout were grasping and selfish, reluctant to let go of too much produce. We had to shift for ourselves. Maurice simply had the wits to organise things. He knew how to bargain, what prices to pay. From the countryside he coaxed chickens, vegetables, butter, eggs, milk, which my parents discreetly passed on to customers.

  Maurice didn’t have time to organise sales; he needed my parents for that. Thanks to his capacious car he could ferry in not just food but also big bundles of firewood, bicycle tyres, laundry soap. He made daily domestic life possible for a lot of people.

  Yes, we’ve all got to live, my mother said: we’ve just got to cope. My father added: the Germans aren’t so bad once you get to know them. They understand fairness, discipline, they are polite, they are very clean.

  Maurice would tramp upstairs, whistling, for his cup of ersatz coffee. After his first few visits, watching me hover near the door, he insisted I be allowed my own thimbleful. Tasting of dust. In my father’s presence I didn’t dare accept a drop of cognac. Maurice would catch my eye, shrug, open his palms.

  He began to take me with him on his business trips to collect food. Throughout that spring of 1942 we worked together. Time began to exist for me again: no longer uncountable weeks of endless war but precise moments of intense life. I marked our outings in my exercise book; precious afternoons whose dates I wanted to encircle in gold. We were heroes, hoodwinking the Germans. A man and a girl in a car looked like an ordinary couple out for a spin in the countryside; less suspicious than a man on his own. Maurice knew all the back ways; how to avoid checkpoints. I asked him: how do you manage to get hold of petrol? He winked. Business contacts. I didn’t ask for details. I trusted him to know what he was doing and to keep out of trouble.

  Not just groceries and petrol. Information, too, if necessary. Papers. Documents. Whatever people needed. He provided cigarettes as well. My father had been reduced to smoking dried comfrey leaves, but Maurice snapped open fresh packets of tailor-mades. Once he brought a cedarwood box of cigars, the lid sealed with a paper stamp with frilly edges. He taught me to smoke. I smoked only in the car, with him, wanting smoking to stay secret. My mother had her locked cupboards; I had my packet of cigarettes. They helped kill hunger. Maurice feeding me cigarettes let me know he’d picked me out, that I was special.

  One wet afternoon in late May, when we got stuck in nearby Ste-Madeleine, waiting for a de
livery, a parcel of something or other, Maurice took me into the bar in the main square for a drink. We ran in out of the rain, into blessed warmth, acrid clouds of cigarette smoke, a shifting mass of grey-green greatcoats. German voices: a vigorous music of conversation. Maurice ordered us a brandy each: it’s time you tried this. It burned its way down my throat. I kept my coat well pulled round me, to hide my shabby linen blouse, with pale yellow stains under the armpits, and my old blue serge skirt. The soldiers’ green uniforms, well brushed, seemed new. How well fed they were. Pink, plump faces above their high, stiff collars. They called out teasingly to the young patronne, who responded with tight smiles. They nodded at us politely as we left. In my confusion, I nodded back.

  Outside, the rain had turned to drizzle. As we walked to the car, I noticed a young woman hovering in the doorway of a closed shop on the far side of the street. Pale triangular face. Wavy dark hair. Vulgarly bright clothes: a little red hat with a black veil, a thin red dress that flapped above her knees, a little red cape hugging her shoulders. She jerked out of her shelter. Her high heels slipped her away down a side street.

  That furtive air: it could only be Jeanne. Maurice, busy lighting another cigarette, hadn’t noticed her. I didn’t say anything to Jeanne’s mother, next time I saw her. Poor woman: I didn’t want to shame her.

  Maurice and I were both silent as we drove back. I was thinking about having sat in a bar with Germans. Both normal and strange. Germans were our enemies, yet had accepted me in their presence. They showed me no hostility. As Maurice’s companion I had entered the German world. The soldiers made the bar feel completely German, yet it was French. You could criss-cross from one world into another and back again. I was a smuggler, smuggling my self. Or perhaps the worlds existed in layers, like a cake, the German one overlaying the French one. No. More like two soups: the green one had mixed itself so thoroughly into the red, white and blue one that just one soup resulted. Khaki-coloured. Muddled soups, muddled thoughts. Too much brandy.

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