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The looking glass, p.5

The Looking Glass, page 5


The Looking Glass

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  We kept the coffee-pot on a shelf to the left of the stove, along with the jars of flour, sugar, salt and spices we used every day. The jars were of palest green enamel, with a gold stripe running round the upper and lower rim of each, and loose lids topped with little buds you grasped between finger and thumb when you wanted to lift them off. I liked these jars, drawn up in a row like soldiers doing their duty, each one with the name of its contents printed on its chest in dark green and gold. Over the years they had become bashed about a bit, in places the enamel knocked off and patches of black showing underneath, but that only added to their charm. Every item in that kitchen was like a friend to me, quirky and helpful; there was nothing in it that didn’t attract and please me.

  I tried not to have favourites too obviously, for that did not seem fair; all the utensils deserved to be in regular use; I made sure I rotated the usage of saucepans from one meal to the next, so that each one in turn saw the light of day outside the cupboard; and when I laid the table I used different knives and forks every time from our motley collection. I knew in my heart that my favourite fork was the one with the thin tines and the worn black handle studded with tiny gold nails, but I didn’t pick it out for myself every time it came to hand. I let the other forks have a go at being serviceable too.

  The coffee-pot was single, one of a kind, and so could not invite comparisons or suffer from preferences. I loved it because its pale blue enamel surface was mottled and swirled in the manner of seawater. Even the black bruises that patched its battered lid and rim had curved shapes. It was generous-sized enough to make three big bowls of coffee, and so now it came into its own.

  The day after the fête was a Sunday. I got up as I always did when I heard the Angelus bell ring out just before seven o’clock, and went about doing my habitual chores: milking the cow, feeding the dog, riddling the stove then carrying the tray of ash outside. Usually even when I was tired I liked being in on the start of a new day: all its emptiness and promise stretching ahead. I liked smelling the invisible sea on the breeze; hearing the cocks crack the silence like an egg with their exuberant crowing; shivering a bit in the cold, fresh air; seeing the sun glimmer gold behind the mist. All this beauty was renewed each dawn; perfect, because nothing had happened to spoil it. But this morning I felt out of sorts and glum. My insides were knotted up like a bag of stones. Everything was too bright; the brick wall of the yard glared and hurt my eyes. When I stumbled blearily back into the kitchen there he was clattering down the stairs, shameless, as though he’d slept in his own room all night, and calling for his breakfast.

  He had put a clean shirt on, but not a collar. The bulk of white linen flowed about him like a smock, open at the throat, not tucked into his trousers. He was yawning and unshaven, his hair sticking up on end. Great gusts of yawns he was sending out, his hand going up carelessly to half cover his red mouth and caress his black moustache.

  —Make me some coffee, will you, Geneviève, he said through a yawn: there’s a good girl.

  We didn’t always have the treat of coffee on Sunday morning. It was expensive; a luxury. On other mornings we might drink broth, or perhaps chicory, or watery chocolate. It depended on Madame Patin’s mood, and on the state of our finances. Broth was, obviously, the cheapest, being homemade, and capable of being endlessly thinned down. So on lean days that’s what we had. On feast days we had chocolate enriched with milk, and on days of medium rejoicing, days off, which is what Sunday was supposed to be, we had coffee if our finances could stand it.

  I always made the coffee. It was a task I enjoyed, involving the rituals of measuring out the dented, polished beans into the wooden grinder then energetically whirling the metal handle round on top before extracting the grains, minced to a rough powder, from the little drawer below. I put this brown rubbly heap into the top part of the coffee-pot, resting on its black mesh, and poured boiling water through it. Then I removed the filter section from the tall pot, replaced its lid, and carried the coffee over to the kitchen table where Madame Patin would be waiting. I loved the smell of coffee being made, and I had learned that you had to make it strong, or it would never taste as good as it smelled. Fresh hot coffee was as fragrant as some kind of black flower. In your mouth it was both bitter and rich. The hot milk we added to it in our bowls made it taste smooth.

  —We don’t always have coffee on Sundays, I started saying.

  Madame Patin’s voice spoke calmly behind me.

  —This morning we’ll have coffee, Geneviève.

  I whirled round. She closed the door of her bedroom and came into the kitchen on neatly slippered feet. Her hair was covered by a fresh white cap, and her face was glowing from its wash in cold water. She looked absolutely as she always did in the mornings: ready, capable, self-possessed. Confident and normal; as usual. She caught my glance and spoke more sharply.

  —Wake up, child, you’re half asleep.

  From then on he had coffee whenever he felt like it. I hated having to wait on him and serve him but I had no choice. It became one of my jobs. He had moved in without anything having been said, not to me at any rate; he was living with us; and I had to treat him with respect as though he were my boss, which he was not. I especially disliked having to make and then pour him coffee. The weekly ritual of Sunday morning was overturned and knocked aside. The mottled blue coffee-pot was less special now. When I glanced at it during the week it didn’t signify, any longer, the prospect of a precious moment shared with Madame Patin. It was now just a utensil to which he had access whenever he wanted. He didn’t love the coffee-pot like I did. He just made use of it. To him it was simply there to serve him and that was that. I hated him for making me love coffee less. For not respecting it. One morning he was late getting up and then complained his coffee was cold. He blamed me, but it was his fault. I said nothing, just tipped the contents of his bowl out of the back door and put a saucepan of water back on to boil. Re-heated coffee tastes horrible, so I wasn’t going to serve him that and give him the chance to criticise me again.

  He was a fussy and demanding eater. He had a way of sticking his fork into a dish, picking up a mouthful, and tasting cautiously, that really drove me wild. I thought he should be grateful that we cooked him such delicious food, but he treated us as though he were a rich tourist eating in the café, always ready to complain. There he was at every meal, prodding, chewing, considering. Then commenting. The stew was overcooked and therefore tasteless; the fried potatoes were not crisp enough; the salad leaves were too coarse and fit only for the pigs. He would only eat the hearts. Madame Patin mostly laughed at him, but she looked anxious too. She wanted to please him and he was destroying her confidence. From my end of the table I glowered at him in silence. My way of showing how much I hated him was not to speak to him. I didn’t think he noticed my sulks and frowns, but it gave me a small, bleak satisfaction to ignore him. In my private, inside world he did not exist. No words attached to him, so that if I concentrated on looking down at my plate I could pretend he was not in fact there.

  This defence was not enough. I overheard him saying to her more than once: having to eat with that sullen girl glaring at me all the time gives me indigestion, why can’t she learn some better manners, for Christ’s sake? Anyone would think she wasn’t the servant, the way she carries on.

  Madame Patin would reply soothingly that I was just shy, that I needed time to get used to having him around, that I did not mean to be rude, and so on. It was almost worth having to put up with him in order to hear her stick up for me. But even her patience wore thin eventually. I had been pushing her to see how far I could go and she had had enough of it.

  One Saturday morning in early September she said to me: Geneviève, you ought to have some more regular time off. From now on you’re to go out on Sunday afternoons; that’s going to be your half-holiday every week; you take your lunch with you, some bread and cheese wrapped up in your pocket, and do whatever you like. I don’t need you on Sunday
afternoons; the bar is closed then as you very well know; you need to get out more.

  It was my own fault. Who could blame her for wanting to get rid of me for a bit, for wanting to spend time alone with him on the only day of the whole week with some leisure in it? They had to get up reasonably early on Sundays, in order to open up the bar for the customers coming in after the first mass and then after High Mass, but if I was sent out of the way on Sunday afternoons then they would be able to go back to bed together in peace without having to worry that I was listening to them in the kitchen and hating them through the wall. That much was obvious to me.

  —Yes, ma’am, I said.

  —Try and make an effort, will you? she asked; you’ve worked very well here. I should be sorry to lose you.

  We were tidying up the vegetable garden for the end of summer. We still had some rows of late-sown lettuces, some pumpkins swelling up orangey-red, some marrows trailing their huge hairy fans and yellow trumpets along the ground, some early-planted leeks coming up to full maturity, fattening nicely next to the last of the feathery-headed spread of the carrots. It was a golden day, full of sweetness, clear light like blown amber glass, the air sparkling like cider, tart and tingling on your tongue, with a cool wind blowing through the heat of the sun. Yellow leaves had begun whirling down from the trees. The earth smelled of ripeness, of fruits. I was harvesting the beetroot crop, carefully digging up each one with a fork, loosening the soil around it and then tugging it up by its purple leaves.

  Outdoors, working side by side with my employer, my face caressed by the sun and cooled by the wind, I was happy. Nothing else mattered except the autumn day, full in my hand like a bunch of grapes running with juice. The delicate sunlight, the scent of pears ripening nearby, the rough perfume of the pink and rust and salmon dahlias blooming against the lichen-encrusted wall, filled me with peace. I’d forgotten, for the moment, all my sorrows, my jealousy. I’d been able to forget him, because he was back in the house, sprawled smoking in the bar. But at Madame Patin’s words fear filled my heart. My eyes flew to her.

  She was picking over the parsley patch, harvesting bunches of frilly greenness and grubbing up the weeds that grew in amongst it. She was concentrating, as she always did, on what she was doing, wheedling out the roots of docks and stinging nettles and casting them into a pile at her side. To perform a job well, she always told me, you had to pay it sufficient attention. So her voice sounded as calm and detached as though she were pointing out to me how well the brass-coloured marigolds planted around the herb bed were still doing, flowering in their dark yellow profusion as though it were still July. As her fingers, probing for weeds, disturbed the marigolds’ petals, I caught a sudden waft of their powerful scent and sneezed, so that I was not obliged immediately to reply.

  She sat back on her haunches, wiping her forehead with one hand and looked severely at me.

  —If you go on misbehaving like this, she warned me: I shan’t be able to keep you. You must realise that. Be a sensible girl and stop being silly.

  Her house was my home and she was threatening to turn me out. I was drowning in panic. She’d snatched my oars and thrown me overboard and I could not swim. I managed to get a few words out, because clearly she expected me to. I would have said anything she wanted at that point. I blurted out some kind of apology and we returned to the café, carrying our tools and our baskets of vegetables. I felt anger sowing itself inside me, then rapidly ballooning like a monster pumpkin; I could not prevent its growth; it was the season of bitterness; rage was my prize and I watered it in secret and hugged it silently to myself.

  The next day was Sunday. I made the coffee and left the pot standing on the side of the stove, to keep warm. Before they appeared I poured out a bowl for myself and took it outside. I drank it sitting on the back step. I ate some bread. I was too hungry to keep my fast, and so I didn’t go to Holy Communion. I sat as far away from Madame Patin and her lodger as possible.

  As usual, we did brisk business in the bar after High Mass. Customers crowded in, and I poured, fetched, wiped, carried. I listened to the conversations going on around me and replied cheerfully to all the greetings thrown my way. I knew everyone there, and was used to the men, when they were in the mood, teasing me and poking fun. I just got on with the task in hand, banging down their orders onto the counter on top of the hatch. This particular morning I felt obliged to be on the alert, that it would be wise to watch out for possible danger. I was a little too late. I was using my eyes rather than my ears, which meant that all the village knew what was going to happen before I did. Gradually I realised that there was an additional amount of backslapping and ribaldry going on. Watching the curé raise his glass in a toast to Madame Patin, and to Frédéric Montjean who stood at her side, and standing on tiptoe, straining to catch what was being said, I finally understood.

  —May God bless this marriage, the curé droned: may you have a long and happy life together.

  Their Sunday dinner was a pot-au-feu resting peacefully in the oven. I carved myself a thick slice of bread and cheese, wrapped it in my handkerchief, and fled out of the kitchen door, down the road, and onto the beach. I walked to the far end of the little bay and sat down on the pebbles to eat, tucked in out of the wind between two rocks, the cliff at my back. I tossed crumbs for the gulls and watched the waves tumble in onto the shore. No one else was about. They would all be in their houses, eating. If you were a mermaid, this would be the time to slink ashore, when no one was watching. But the sea tossed up no amazing creatures, only its foamy chin. It licked the beach, nuzzled and bit it, then retreated. I decided that I would go on, like the sea, and that I would do whatever was necessary to survive. Then I stood up, dusted the remaining crumbs off my skirt, and walked back and forth along the edge of the sea until I judged it was time to go home, back to Madame Patin’s house.

  That evening I made the soup with especial care, so that it should be exactly as he liked it, the chopped leeks tossed in butter before the potatoes and stock were added, the cooked potatoes well mashed in so that there were no lumps, a spoonful of cream added at the end, and the whole thing served just hot enough so that he did not scald his mouth. When I placed the steaming pot in front of him I arranged my face so that I did not glower. I tucked myself away at the far end of the table, keeping my head down and my elbows in, and jumping up to clear the plates as soon as we had finished. I washed up as quietly as possible, so as not to disturb their conversation, then smiled when I said goodnight and went off early to bed, leaving them comfortably ensconced by the warm stove.

  I kept this up in the following weeks. Acting the contrite maid got easier with practice. He certainly swallowed my reformed behaviour, while she was too much in love to notice anything beyond the fact that I had ceased being such a nuisance. Playing the hypocrite demanded a certain skill, I felt, and I took some pride in it. Small comfort for what felt like the end of the world.

  * * *

  —What I love about our weather, Madame Patin told me at the beginning of October: is the way that it weaves the seasons one into another. Like a good darn. You can’t see its threads in the knitting, and you’re not sure it’s there. It keeps you on your toes all right. You never quite know what will happen next. One day you think it’s summer and the next you discover it’s autumn.

  Later on I realised this was her way of talking about hope, a certain secret wish. Farmers and gardeners here in the country had one way of thinking about time; the yearly cycle of seasons of growth, ripeness and decay. Women, in addition, had their own time, like a layer on top, which was not quite the same. You wheeled through life and death every month, not just once a year. As Madame Patin spoke she was examining a blue stocking she’d pulled out of the heap on her lap. It had large holes in both toe and heel, and all I thought then was that it was perhaps the prospect of mending such wear and tear, making things good in preparation for the coming winter, when warm stockings were needed more than ever, that caused her to link t
he different times of the year, and their subtle changes, to darning and weaving. I couldn’t imagine, really, what she meant. Sometimes these days her train of thought was hard to follow, when her mind jumped about all over the place.

  Here in the pays de Caux, she went on, the seasons were not sharply distinct, as their names made you suppose they ought to be. Summer, for example, as we both knew, was a capricious time on our high chalk plain. In August it often rained, a fine rain that drove at your face and wetted you thoroughly, your hair and your clothes. Your feet slid this way and that in your sabots and so made holes in your stockings, such as these. Here she held the stocking up and tutted, then threaded a large-eyed needle with matching blue wool. The sea might be so rough that you dared not go near it when you walked on the beach, for fear of being knocked down by a wave and sucked into the undertow, and the fishermen waited a day or two for the storms to calm before putting out. Too many men’s lives were lost at sea for them not to be cautious.

  She was in a thoughtful, dreamy mood often, these days. More chatty than I’d ever known her. As though she’d begun learning a new language; new words were bursting up in her; and she needed to spell them out to herself, practise a new grammar. She was the pupil, reciting her lesson, while I listened. Frédéric had largely taken over running the bar, so that she spent more time in the kitchen, where, as of old, I was once more her willing audience. Now she was thinking of her dead husband, it was clear; she was ruminating on the past, remembering her life as a younger woman and how it had changed. She paused, and stared at the tin thimble on her finger. She wouldn’t have to worry about Frédéric drowning at sea because he was not a fisherman and never would be. He was a fisher of widows, that was all, particularly good-looking widows with nice little houses, nice little businesses like cafés that brought in regular money and contributed towards a nice little nest egg for your old age.

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