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The looking glass, p.4

The Looking Glass, page 4


The Looking Glass

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  She was standing at the kitchen table, rolling out the pastry for the apple tarts we would serve the following night. I set to in a hurry, oiling tart tins with a brush dipped in melted butter, and then peeling the apples. I’d been dawdling in the bar, her sharp glance reminded me, and I had some catching up to do.

  I quartered and sliced a basketful of apples, sprinkled them with sugar and set them aside. I hadn’t done as many as we needed, so I ran upstairs to fetch down another tray from the storeroom next to my bedroom.

  The door to the first storeroom was open. I went to close it, thinking as I did so how I still hadn’t got around to oiling the hinges after all this time, and glanced casually inside. The bed which stood under the window, piled with old curtains and sewing-things, had been cleared, and freshly made up with sheets, pillow and quilt. The sacks and boxes of dry goods that normally crowded the centre of the floor had been moved and neatly stacked against the wall. The seat of a wooden chair, which I recognised as one of our kitchen ones, supported a basin and jug, and a white towel, neatly folded, one of Madame Patin’s best, had been hung over the chair’s back. I stared, wondering, then went into the neighbouring attic and picked up a box of apples.

  Back downstairs Madame Patin was fitting circles of white pastry into tart tins. She did it very fast, picking up each floppy halo by pushing her flour-dusted palms half underneath it, lifting it off the table-top, up into the air a little, flapping it dangling over the rolling-pin and then flipping it forwards. The pastry landed softly, slumped, and she shook and eased it in, a loose white covering that hid the tin in drapes of dough. She inserted a knife at the edge of these folds and ran it round, cutting off the plump overhang with quick strokes, then pressed the remaining disc lightly down and against the fluted sides of the tin. Finally she crimped the top edge, pinching it between finger and thumb to crease it into ripples, and pricked the base with a fork. The pastry went into the oven for a few minutes to bake blind while I sliced apples for the filling as fast as possible, my hands clotted with sweet juice I paused from time to time to lick off.

  She knew what I’d seen upstairs, of course. She also knew I wouldn’t ask her about it. Her life and her house were hers. It was none of my business.

  Oh but it was. It was. It was in her house that I had started living for the first time. Up until then, because I had known no better, I had been merely existing; holding my breath; until my real life could start. At the age of sixteen, when others start to feel grownup, I had been allowed to have a second go, a childhood all over again, with her at its centre as the person I loved. Her well-kept little house, and every object in it, was saturated, for me, with the most tender feelings and memories, my earliest experiences of joy. Everything in that house was beautiful, to me, because I looked at it with love; the house held me; and I held the house inside me at the same time. The twig broom with which I swept out the poultry sheds, the wire basket in which I swung the salad dry, the little porcelain dish, oval and white, in which radishes were served for the hors-d’oeuvre, the pierced tin bowl next to the sink that held the nail brush and soap, all these were precious to me. They were themselves, simple and pleasing and useful, and also they glowed with particular meaning. They constructed my self; they had witnessed my beginnings in that house; they preserved my history. When items in the house got moved or disarranged, something in me moved too. I didn’t want other people coming in and disrupting us. Madame Patin was the house, and I had begun to believe that I was also. The house was us, was ours; we shared it. So a guest coming in snarled up our pattern like a snagged thread. I wanted to wield my scissors and cut off the loose end, make the weave smooth again.

  I loved her too much. It wasn’t obvious to me then. I had few words for what was happening inside me. I’d had little practice in thinking about what I felt. I hadn’t known it mattered. In the orphanage we were merely brutes, to be kept docile and clean, to be of use. No one there, for all the lip-service paid to religion, had ever suggested that the individual soul had any importance. Now, loving Madame Patin, I discovered I had a soul.

  Looking back, what I also see is the ferocity of my love. My desperation; my possessiveness. That wasn’t her fault. She’d seen how starved I was, and had been kind to me. She hadn’t bargained for me to cling to her fast as a limpet to a rock. It wasn’t her way to scold me directly or prise me off. Ever since that day when I cried over my basket of crabs she had tempered her briskness with moments of gentleness. She accepted my peculiarity, which made me love her all the more; she was trying to help me grow up, to teach me better by treating me as a sane person worthy of affection and esteem. But, God knows, I was not sane; I was a hungry child; I was a lover; I wanted to stay with her in her house forever; I wanted nothing to change; and I wasn’t ready to admit there were others she might love.

  I watched her eyes flicker as she considered whether to say anything. Her face was slightly pink, which meant that she was embarrassed. She gave a tiny sigh, which I translated easily. She had decided it would make her life easier to tell me and just get it over with. It was characteristic of her, at the rare moments she felt awkward about something, to announce it obliquely, as a fact she was not responsible for. She owed me no explanations, after all, yet obviously she wanted to give me the information. So she tossed it in, like a pinch of sugar onto the apples. She pretended it was something I knew already. Her hands were very busy picking up leftover strips of dough and kneading them lightly into a ball. Her voice was casual.

  —After this I want you to grease the spits and take them over to the square ready for putting up tomorrow afternoon. Have you ever roasted lamb on a spit before? It’s quite a skill. But I dare say my cousin will give us a hand.

  I kept my eyes on the blade of my knife, the coil of shiny peel looping over my fingers. I made my voice sound as offhand as hers.

  —Your cousin?

  Now, since I’d asked her, she could tell me. It was my fault for exhibiting curiosity, not hers for inviting strange men to stay in the house.

  —Yes, of course. We’ll be one extra tomorrow night. My cousin is coming to stay for the fête, as usual, for a few days. Go and fetch the apricot jam, will you? I want to start making the glaze.

  A little later we stood back and admired our handiwork. We had filled the sweet-pastry shells with flat spirals of apple slices tossed in butter and calvados; we had glazed them with apricot jam boiled down to a syrup; we had lined them up in rows on the kitchen table, to cook in batches of four at a time. Now Madame Patin left me in charge of the oven while she went off to the wine cellar to count out bottles of cider. I checked that the first lot of tarts were turning the requisite biscuity gold. Then for some reason, driven by an impulse too strong to ignore, I walked straight across the kitchen, opened the door of Madame Patin’s bedroom, and slipped inside.

  In all these months of living with her, I had opened that door only once before, and that without permission. She guarded her privacy, and I had respected that. When we needed clean tablecloths or towels, it was she who went to fetch them from the linen cupboard she kept in there. The bedroom was her domain which I did not enter, just as she let my little attic room alone and left it to me to clean and tidy it. We had our own, separate places, which was important in such a tiny house. You would have been forever tripping over each other unless you had learned, as we had, how to dart and swivel round each other, that kitchen ballet of being handy and neat, that other gift of knowing when to be silent and not talk, leaving each other in peace. But the most sensible rules tempt you, at some point, to break them. The most fascinating rooms are the ones you are forbidden to go into. My urgent and sudden need to see again what the room was like cut across my knowledge that what I was doing was wrong, I said to myself that I just wanted to take another tiny look; I wouldn’t be doing any harm.

  This time I went right inside. It was a small, square apartment, which the double bed nearly filled. The linen cupboard took up almost all one wall, and the sm
all night-table next to the bed was wedged in alongside the washstand under the window. The shutters were open and folded back, and the casement was pushed wide, to let in the summer air. Her two big square pillows lay quietly side by side, like two friends sleeping next to each other, resting on the bolster with its starched cover fastened by drawstrings threaded through its frilled edges. The white coverlet was folded back over the wooden foot of the bed, revealing the blue quilt. I quickly put out my hand and stroked all these things just so that I could say to myself later that I had. An urge inside me dictated what to do, and I obeyed it. I inspected her billowy white nightdress, which was flung across the corner of the bed, the stencilled pink geometric pattern on her enamel basin and jug, her brush and comb and bottle of eau-de-Cologne, the pair of black ankle-boots that stood under the window, the photograph of the dead sailor that graced the night-table. A second framed photograph, that I had not noticed when I looked into the room before, was propped behind the first. I lifted it up to see it better. It showed Madame Patin standing stiffly and unsmilingly next to her husband. They both looked very young, and as though their clothes hurt. I thought perhaps they had posed for that picture on their wedding day. I looked back at the bed. I walked quickly round it, and pressed my face briefly onto each of the pillows in turn, cheek to cheek with the smooth linen, resting my head on its softness that smelled of her, just for a moment, then smoothing out the traces with my hand. Then I went out, closing the door gently behind me, back into the kitchen. When she came in, I was squatting in front of the open oven, removing a tray of perfectly browned and gilded tarts.

  Next morning we went to High Mass, along with everybody else. We slipped out just before the end, to open up the bar. First of all, though, since we had been fasting from midnight in order to go to Holy Communion, we made ourselves a feast-day late breakfast. Hot chocolate and a piece of brioche. More substantial than the papery host I had received on my tongue twenty minutes before. The brioche, leavened with yeast, had been baked in a tall flared tin from which it had burst exuberantly like a mushroom, with a domed top that was shiny and brown. Under this crisp crust the brioche was fresh and spongy, tasting of eggs and salt and butter, a yellowish wedge of lightness, spun holes, in my fingers. I tore off soft shreds one at a time and tried to eat as slowly as possible, to make it last.

  Madame Patin laughed at me and cut us both another piece. We drank strong, bitter black chocolate that had been sweetened with sugar and whisked to a froth with milk. Sunlight streamed through the open window and sparkled on the blue and white tiles surrounding the white porcelain sink. This was my holy mass; this was my praying and my Communion; sitting for ten minutes with Madame Patin in the light-filled kitchen; goodness and plenty in the land of milk and honey; the land of spices; paradise. Then we jumped up, put on our clean aprons, and went into the bar.

  When I turned round an hour later, picking up a tray packed with glass towers of tumblers, to carry it through into the kitchen, there he was. The bar was starting to empty, as people began to drift away for the midday meal. The door onto the street was open, curtained in a transparent haze of blue tobacco smoke with the sun striking through it. Sun patched the wooden floor and held dancing motes of dust in its beams. Sun haloed the men’s heads and burnished their profiles. They were red-cheeked and smiling, telling each other jokes, making friendly digs, teasing Madame Patin as she darted in and out of the little groups with her jug of cider clasped in her hands, a cloth tucked by one corner into her waistband, her face flushed under her starched cap. She gave as good as she got, shooting back repartee smartly as she passed, turning her head, as she went off, to have the last word. And there he suddenly was next to her, his head bent to listen to what she was saying, his hands rolling a cigarette. I hadn’t seen him come in. He stood in the middle of the floor as though he’d been there all morning, relaxed, completely at ease. He was tall and solid, with eyes black as sloes in his weatherbeaten face. He had closely cropped black hair, and a black moustache. His mouth, under that silky mound of blackness, looked very red. He was dressed in town clothes, some sort of tweed suit, as though he’d been travelling. I spotted his valise, which he had put down by the door.

  We ate in the bar that day, with the curé, and a couple of old people Madame Patin had invited because they were on their own with no family to go to. We pushed two tables together, end to end, and flung a cloth over them, and put benches along the two sides. I did the serving, which pleased me, because it meant I could watch everyone’s faces and try to work out what was happening. Madame Patin sat composedly next to the curé, and Frédéric Montjean on his other side. The two men seemed to know each other, and exchanged politenesses.

  —So how’s life in the china trade? You’re looking very well on it.

  —Not too good, father, in fact. I’m tired of being a salesman, on the road all the time. I’m thinking of looking for a different job altogether.

  I passed round the plates of rabbit terrine, then sat down to eat mine at the end of the table, next to our neighbours, the old lady whose house abutted ours on the left-hand side. She didn’t speak to me and I didn’t expect her to. I was too young for her to be interested in anything I might have to say; I was not related to her; I was a servant; and, besides, she was concentrating on the delicate task of chewing her rabbit with the few teeth she had left. I ate my helping as fast as possible, then got up and went into the kitchen to dish up the roast chicken. When I came back in with it, I hesitated, not sure whom to give it to. Madame Patin caught my eye and jerked her chin. I set down the platter of chicken in front of Frédéric Montjean and watched him carve it as though he were indeed the man of the house and dished out the food as a matter of course.

  Cider foamed into tumblers. There was silence while food vanished off plates and then everybody talked at once. The curé, protesting in order to save face, accepted a tot of calvados in between courses, just like everyone else. Finally he took the old people off with him, sleepy and pink-cheeked, back to their houses, to have a nap. I got on with the washing-up, of which there was plenty. Frédéric Montjean lounged on at the table in the bar, his chair pushed back, his legs stretched out in front of him. Every time I turned round and glanced back through the hatch I could see him in the mirror, talking to Madame Patin.

  She had moved up a place, into the curé’s seat, and sat leaning forward, her face animated and dreamy by turn, her left elbow on the table and her hand supporting her chin, the fingers of her right hand playing with the crumbs on the cloth, sweeping them into little hills. They chatted companionably together, relatives who got on well, two apples off the same tree. I reasoned that she had known him all her life; they had perhaps grown up together; of course she would treat him like a friend; they had news to exchange, family gossip to pass on and enjoy. But I felt dull and heavy, as thought I’d eaten too much.

  He accompanied her when she brought their coffee cups into the kitchen. I’d left the pots and pans till last and was up to my elbows in creamy black suds. My apron was wet; my face was hot; I was sweaty with effort; I was tired. I glanced round when they came in then got on with what I was doing. He reached a hand past me for the matches, which we kept on the right of the sink, just as though he were in his own home, and lit his cigarette. His freedom with her things really affronted me but I was determined not to show it. I concentrated on scrubbing grease off the bottom of the roasting tin.

  —So you’re Geneviève, he said: hello Geneviève.

  I thought that he’d had all lunchtime to be introduced to me, only he hadn’t bothered. I didn’t like him making so free with my name, either.

  —Geneviève Delange, I corrected him.

  —What kind of angelic name is that, he said, laughing: Mademoiselle Delange, you must have had a heavenly conception like the Virgin. Too much of a mouthful for me. I think I’ll call you Jenny.

  Madame Patin unloaded the cups and saucers one by one onto the draining-board.

  —She’s not
a pet, she said: her name is Geneviève.

  He went out, still laughing. He came back, carrying his valise, and she helped him lug it upstairs. I heard their footsteps tapping to and fro across the wooden floor as she showed him his room and where everything was.

  I got through the rest of the day. There was plenty to do, and to see. In the evening I took my turn at the spit; I helped fry vats of potatoes; I ran back and forth in between the long tables with dishes of meat, baskets of bread, serving all the villagers. The café was closed; we had set up a makeshift bar near the cooking place. Everyone stayed at table for a long time, until it began to get dark and the Chinese lanterns were lit. Later on, withdrawn into the shadows, well away from the lights, I watched the fiddler and the accordionist tune up, and the dancing begin. Later still, while the ball was still going strong, Madame Patin found me sitting on a cider barrel yawning my head off, and shooed me away home.

  —Go on, she said: you’ve worked hard all day; you’re not dancing; go to bed. Next year we’ll find you a partner. Trouble with you is, you’re too shy.

  She clapped me on the shoulder and smiled at me. I went without a backward look. I fumbled my way upstairs, pulled off my clothes, extinguished my candle and fell gratefully into bed. Tired as I was, I lay awake and listened for the music finally to die down and announce their return, the back door opening then shutting, the bolts being drawn across. His footsteps did not clump up the stairs. The door of the room next to mine did not creak open and shut on its unoiled hinges. The only creaking sound came from her bed downstairs, directly under mine, as loud and regular and rhythmic as the dancing in the square.

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