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Ignorance a novel, p.5

Ignorance: A Novel, page 5


Ignorance: A Novel

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  I said: I’m drunk. Maurice laughed and said: you need more practice.

  My face felt warm. My limbs relaxed against the seat. Maurice put out his hand and touched my knee. The brandy glow spread all over me. A couple of kilometres outside town, he turned off the road on to a track leading towards the forest. We swerved in, deep under the chestnut trees, into green silence. Once we were well out of sight of the road, he stopped the car.

  He handed me a twist of white waxed paper. Go on. I know you love them. Chocolate drops: I ate the lot, while he smoked. You want to smoke too? He lit my cigarette from his, handed it to me. He sighed, blowing out smoke. With his free hand he pulled off my beret, pulled off the ribbon confining my roll of hair, tossed out my hair so that it fell down all over the place. He put his arm around me and pulled my head down on to his shoulder. The soft nap of his overcoat caressed my cheek. Like the friendliest of animals. I wanted a coat like that. I wanted a fur cape like my mother’s. I wanted a new dress. I wanted the war to end. The impossibility of all of this tasted, despite the brandy and the chocolates and the cigarette, like a fistful of filth scooped up from the gutter and pressed into my mouth. I wanted to cry. I wanted more chocolates, and more cigarettes, and more brandy, to stop me feeling so awful.

  Maurice began to stroke my hair. He stroked its surface, over and over, smoothing it, going from the top of my head to my neck. Sweetness fizzed up inside me, all over my skin, coursed up and down my spine. Gently he spread out his fingers and plunged them in, picking up handfuls of hair, moving his fingers through them, around my scalp. He played with my hair for what seemed like a long time. We said nothing. When we’d finished our cigarettes he drove me home. He stopped outside the shop, came round to my side of the car, opened the door. In you go, little one.

  The next time we sat together in the parked car, a week later, his fingers slid around the edge of my ear. He traced my cheek, my forehead, my chin. I liked the way his hands felt big, holding my head. I felt safe as well as excited. Something to do with the way the strong metal body of the car curved round us and smelled so expensive, its clean leather and petrol smell, the lemon verbena and damp cashmere smell of Maurice. The good tobacco smell that we shared.

  I blurted out: have you got a girlfriend? He frowned. He pitched his cigarette out of the window and drove me home in silence. He made me wait another ten days. All these moments I stored away in my memory. First meeting. First touch. First kiss on the cheek.

  Mid-June, in one way, was just like midsummer in other years. In the countryside all round town the peasants got on with the haymaking, the cuckoo called from the woods. In another way, everything had changed: I had grown up. Maurice and I drove into Ste-Madeleine on business. We drank brandy in the bar in Ste-Madeleine again, and I’d had nothing to eat, and felt tipsy. I spotted Jeanne in the bar, sitting in the far corner, with a German. This time all got up in a dark blue crêpe de Chine frock with a tiny lawn collar, and a little blue velvet hat, and high heels with cork wedges. She’d painted her mouth dark red and rouged her cheeks. She shot us one anxious look then swivelled her eyes away. Maurice looked back in her direction for a second, then moved his chair so that he had his back to her.

  I pretended not to see her. My stomach burned with brandy but also with scorn. The make-up made her look so common. That day I was wearing a skimpy dress made from two old ones of my mother’s cut up and stitched together. Marks on my skirt showed where the hem had been turned down twice. I still wore my school coat, and my school shoes. Maurice had noticed me looking at Jeanne. He lifted an eyebrow. Just someone I thought I recognised, I said. Maurice said: my dear Marie-Angèle, you don’t know girls like that. They’re nothing to do with you.

  In the car I shrank inside my coat collar and stared through the windscreen. My bare legs felt itchy and hot, my ankle socks damp with sweat. I forbade myself to scratch; stuffed my hands into my pockets and pressed my knees together. When Maurice turned off the road and stopped the car on the track through the woods I willed him to lunge at me, grab me, do anything: just kiss me. I wanted to snarl, to burst into tears. Just get on with it! I stared at him in silence. He had to make the first move. Then it wouldn’t be my fault.

  His mouth tasted of brandy and tobacco. His skin smelled of lemon verbena. Sunlight and green branches surrounded the car. We got into the back seat, leaving the door open. Maurice said: you’re so beautiful, so sweet, I need you so much. He stroked my hair. He whispered: let me, please let me, you know I love you. The forest closed round us and Maurice’s arms closed round me and I gave him what he wanted. It hurt a lot. He said I’ve got to, I’ve got to. He held me in his arms while I cried and kept on doing it and I knew he loved me.

  Next day he brought me a ribbed silk scarf: blue, with a yellow stripe at the ends. The most sumptuous thing I’d ever owned. In return I gave him my photograph. The only one I had was the one posed with Jeanne, both of us aged nine, standing outside our shop. My mother had two prints of it; I persuaded her to part with one of them. I tore the picture in half, so that it showed just myself. Maurice burst out laughing. Darling, ridiculous little girl. I adore this. He stowed the photo in his inside pocket. Sweetheart! I didn’t return the torn-off image of Jeanne to the box in the cupboard. She no longer belonged in a respectable house. I threw her half of the photograph into the waste-paper basket. I prayed for her. God might help her, but I couldn’t. At school she’d had a chip on her shoulder about being poor, not having a father. She didn’t accept help gracefully. I didn’t suppose she’d changed.

  Maurice held me, kissed me, caressed me. After the first time the pace increased. He’d seize me: now! The car became our little house: crammed together in it we were runaways, rebels, newlyweds. Afterwards we’d smoke. I copied his way of holding a cigarette, nipped between finger and thumb. I liked the way he wanted me so much, pulling me into the back seat, his hands unfastening my coat so confidently. When he’d writhed and cried out the first time I’d felt surprised, but then I got used to it. After our expeditions, he would give me gifts. A pair of kid gloves with jet buttons, a powder compact lidded in mother-of-pearl, a lipstick in a chased-gilt swivel case, a tiny pot of rouge. A bar of lemon verbena soap. I went out with him smelling as sharp and citrony as he did. My mother’s powder compact, old and cracked, was empty, and her lipstick worn right down. I didn’t put on my new make-up in front of her. I did my face once I’d got into the car.

  He was so clever, so much more experienced than I was. I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. I could hide my ignorance most of the time, because if he felt like talking he just wanted me to listen. One day, however, parked in the woods, he said: talk to me. He lit cigarettes and passed me one. I didn’t know what to say. I offered him stories of my childhood. Memories of Papa making me a doll’s house, of Maman stitching me doll’s clothes, teaching me to read and to say my prayers. Maurice tapped his fingers on the wheel: you don’t know how lucky you are, having a proper family, parents who care about you. Go on, tell me some more. I told him about the Mad Hermit, and his crazy studio, his secret door into the school attic. Tales of hiding and of playing charades, outwitting Bluebeard, escaping into the street. Maurice whistled and flicked my cheek and held me close: I don’t believe a word of it!

  I left Jeanne out of these tales. We’d been thrown together as children, purely by accident, we’d had a sort of friendship for a certain time, but we couldn’t mix now. I preferred to concentrate on positive things. That was how we were getting through the war. We tried to continue a normal life. Because of the curfew, we couldn’t go out to dances any more: very well, girls down the street organised secret dances at home to the music of an accordion. I didn’t go to these. Too juvenile. I preferred to wait in for Maurice. He and he alone transformed the difficult present. 1942: my year of grace, when I fell in love.

  One afternoon, later in June, he took me with him to collect some paperwork from someone in Ste-Madeleine. I carefully did not ask him what
sort of paperwork. I prided myself on staying calm and adult, showing no curiosity. He didn’t need my help. He just wanted my company. After being held up in a roadblock we got back an hour later than arranged. Maurice dropped me off and I got in to find my mother pacing the shop, fretting about not knowing where exactly we’d gone. Wretched girl! Why had we taken so long? I fobbed her off with some excuse as I removed my beret and fluffed up my hair.

  Everybody else in this house is longing for supper, she remarked, watching me take off my coat: except you.

  I’m full up, I said: it’s the chocolates Maurice brings me, I can’t resist them.

  You could still fetch some spuds for our dinner, my mother said: some of us are hungry, my fine lady. If dinner’s late it will be because of you dawdling about and keeping us all waiting.

  Her tartness was unfair. She benefited from Maurice’s generosity just as much as I did, and she benefited from my bravery in accompanying him in the car, too. She got some cooking oil out of one of these trips, or a packet of margarine, or a block of lard. I said nothing. I thought: when I’ve got my own house I shall do exactly as I please and you’ll have to ask permission to come and visit me and perhaps I’ll say no.

  We kept the potatoes in a sack in the back shed, together with all the under-the-counter provisions stacked in locked boxes. I took down the big iron key from the hook next to the shop door. Out I went into the yard, bowl in hand. Twisting the key in the lock, I discovered that the shed door was already unlocked. How careless my father had become. I’d have to mention it to him and hope he didn’t hit me for criticising him. I pushed the door wide open, to let in enough light for me to see into the darkness. Sunshine fell on to lumpy shapes of piled logs, barrels, crates. As I filled my bowl with potatoes rats rustled suddenly in the recess at the back of the shed, making me jump.

  Not rats. Walking further into the shed I found not just potatoes but people too. A woman and two little children, dressed in coats and hats. Three suitcases, one big and two small ones, bound with leather straps, stood nearby. The sunlight blazed through the open door on to their very bright yellow hair, which peeped out from under their hats. Some sort of odd game? Hide and seek? Were they play-acting? They gazed at me. I opened my mouth to speak, to blurt out their names. Madame Fauchon put her finger to her lips. The children clutched her coat. I shut the door on them, locked it. I locked them back into darkness.

  My mother called: hurry up!

  I clattered back across the yard. I felt I needed to make a lot of noise, for some reason. Upstairs in the kitchen I scrubbed the potatoes, working the bristles hard. The muddy skin paled. I gouged out rotten bits of potato while my thoughts jumped about. Madame Fauchon and her two younger children were trying to steal our food. They’d crept into our house and stolen the key to the shed. Then returned it. Why? They’d brought suitcases to fill with our potatoes. Why had they bleached their hair with peroxide? Robbers needed a disguise? Surely she had four children? Where were the older two? Presumably it was harder to go thieving with four children in tow. Where was her husband? I chopped the potatoes into greenish-white slices, slimy with starch. The cold water in the tin basin rose up my wrists and made them itch. I put the potatoes on to boil. The water leaped up and down. My mind sloshed with uncertainty. I couldn’t tell my parents, summon the gendarmes. We didn’t want police poking around our shed, finding our secret supplies. I’d ask Maurice what to do. He’d know. Until then, Madame Fauchon and her two little ones were my captives and deserved reasonable treatment.

  I said to my mother: next time I go to the shed I’m going to take a candle. It’s so dark in there you can’t see a thing, even in the middle of the day. She answered: don’t waste good candles. Take an old stub if you must.

  I made a large saucepan of potato soup, thinning it out with extra water. While my mother went next door into the living room to check on my brother, who was supposed to be getting on with his homework, I scanned the top shelf, on which my mother kept moulds and crocks she didn’t use every day, and took down, from the back, a little tin flask. I ladled some soup into it, screwed the lid on, went downstairs and out to the shed. I didn’t speak to Madame Fauchon. I couldn’t say her name. I needed her to remain at a distance and not come too close. I didn’t want her to talk to me, and so I pretended not to recognise her under her disguise. Her eyes spoke to me. Her eyes told me that Maurice had hidden her and her children in our shed. Her eyes wanted to tell me more. I turned my eyes away and concentrated on putting down the flask on a wooden box.

  I did my best for those Jews: I gave them soup, a candle-end, matches. I shoved in a bucket, too, so that they could do the necessary. I went back into the house and got back upstairs without anyone realising where I’d been. We didn’t have a telephone. If we had had one I would have telephoned Maurice and said get rid of them, you’ve got to get rid of them as fast as possible.

  I worried that my mother might notice some disturbance in the orderliness of her kitchen. She knew exactly how many plates, cups, pots, dishes she owned. She had too few things to lose any of them. She’d spot the gap where the tin flask had stood.

  I needed to keep her out of the kitchen. I went back next door, into the living room. She was sitting by the stove, ticking off entries in an account book. My brother, perched at the table where we ate, was shifting to and fro on the straw seat of his chair. His shorts hardly reached to mid-thigh. He’d outgrown all his clothes, as I had. Dreamily he turned the pages of his stamp album.

  He scratched the back of his bare leg. He said: perhaps if I make friends with a German soldier he’ll give me some German stamps. My mother glanced across at him. Her brows constricted. She said: how can we lay the table for supper if you sit dawdling there? If you don’t get on with your homework and learn that poem, you little brat, I’ll tell the Germans to come and take you away!

  I spoke in a low, soothing voice: Maman, I’ll finish getting the supper, you stay here by the stove and keep warm.

  My brother folded his hands, put on a pious expression and recited his lesson: oh dear Marshal Pétain I’m such a good boy, if I’m top of the class will you give me a toy? He bent double with laughter. I tapped his cheek, pushed him out of the way, laid the table, brought in the soup. My father came in and then Maurice arrived, as I expected he would, to drink soup with us. He shook hands with my parents, handed Maman a couple of food coupons. She nodded at him to sit down in his usual place next to Papa. He had his own napkin now, his own raffia napkin ring.

  Marc gazed at him with admiration. We all did. His clothes, as ever, looked expensive and new. His navy suit looked freshly pressed, his fingernails looked very clean. Who laundered his shirts for him? His landlady, perhaps. Or that saucy girl, whoever she was, who sometimes left a dark hair on his collar. A buxom landlady, with crimped blonde curls, a woman of the world. Her man away. Lonely at night, no doubt, lying awake, inventing excuses for calling Maurice into her room when he came back of an evening. Simpering at him, asking him to adjust the wireless set or fix the blackout more securely in place. Whereas the forward girl would be a blowsy brunette with a reddened mouth and cheeks. Whether blonde or brunette, the laundress was someone for whom he procured big packets of starch. His collar and cuffs, thick unfrayed poplin, gleamed crisp and white.

  He glanced across the table at me, winking, as I passed the soup plates. Papa said: give me some bread. Maman offered him the basket. He said, as he always did: bread! Putain bordel! You call this bread? We all knew perfectly well that bread now meant a sawdusty composite scratched together from bakers’ rations, bulked out with nameless substitutes. Papa made the same complaint at every meal. Maman said: why do you have to go on about it? Why remind us? Papa said: the word bread should mean bread. His mouth worked. His face flushed red. I clasped my hands together under the tablecloth, praying he wouldn’t start shouting, and stared at the greasy water in my plate. Maman said: eat up! Don’t let it get cold! My brother chewed his bread and read the comic l
aid over his knees, out of my father’s view. Maurice fingered his moustache. Glossy black brush looking newly trimmed. I wanted to reach out a forefinger and stroke it. I pleated and unpleated my napkin in my lap.

  My parents began discussing the news, that’s to say Papa talked and Maman half-listened as she spooned down her thin soup. She glanced at the empty bread basket. Tomorrow she’d have to queue for hours again, and perhaps no bread at the end of it. She interrupted Papa: you spend too much time thinking about the war, no wonder you feel so dismal. Papa jerked, and frowned. The muscles at the sides of his mouth started to twitch. I braced myself for him to start bellowing. Maurice smiled at my father and said: so what’s the news?

  These days Papa’s nerves were worse. He kept to his chair by the stove, leaving most of the work of the shop to my mother and me. We were the ones who had to put up with customers’ grumbling whispers: we cheated on weights and prices, we watered the milk, we kept certain goods out of the window. Papa would shout: tell them I’ll know what to do! An empty threat: he was the one who’d get into trouble. Now he threw down his napkin and started off. Usually, like Maman, I ignored his rants. But because Maurice was listening politely, I listened too. France, with enemies in her midst gnawing her like woodworm, needed loyal sons to restore her to vigorous and fruitful life. We’d been weakened by letting in too many immigrants, aliens, refugees. Now we were paying the price. That the Occupation could have happened at all demonstrated our rottenness. On and on he fulminated to the sound of our swallowing, the rustle of my brother’s pages as he turned them. All undesirables should be rounded up and put into camps. For the duration. While we decided what to do with them. For the sake of France and her purity and her strength. Creepy-crawlies, said my brother vaguely: you just pour boiling water on to them. I kept my head down over my plate. The word soup still meant soup, just about. The word Maurice still meant reliable; true gold.

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