Ignorance a novel, p.6
Ignorance: A Novel, page 6
It wasn’t yet dark, but the blackout needed putting up in good time. I swallowed the last of my soup. My father clattered down his spoon. Dishwater, he said to my mother. She snorted. What d’you expect! I got up. Maurice said: I’ll give you a hand with the shutters. Down we went.
Sawdust felted the floor of the shop. It looked soft. I wanted softness. I wanted Maurice to stroke my cheek and stop me worrying.
He explained rapidly in a low voice. You could say, another form of contraband. Just a package to smuggle out.
I said: but why d’you want to get involved with these people? How come you know them?
Maurice raised his eyebrows. He stuck his hands into his pockets, clinked his loose change: they’re human beings in need of help and so I’m going to provide it.
I pressed on: why our shed? We’re not the only people living close to them.
Maurice sighed. He said: I knew where you kept the key. I’ve carried stuff in and out of there often enough. I left the door open so that they could find somewhere to piss outside.
We padlocked the big shutters at the front. At the back, the shutters were smaller. I watched Maurice’s hands twist out the bolts, push them into place. Curly black hairs protruded from his cuffs, curled over his wrists. His fingers worked deftly, quickly.
But my mother’s bound to discover them, I said: next time she goes to the shed to fetch something.
Fetch it yourself then, Maurice said.
I shivered. My stomach shook. My mouth shook. I already understood some of what was happening from the titbits of information Maurice gleaned at work and brought back. I didn’t want to think about the situation too much, because it made me feel so hopeless, so helpless. What was the point of getting upset? But Maurice said: forewarned is forearmed! So, thanks to Maurice, I did know the Germans needed a large labour-force back in Germany, for the war effort. They’d been asking for French volunteers, and in return releasing French prisoners of war. The supply of volunteers having dried up, they’d decided to conscript. They would conscript where they liked. They were planning to take Frenchmen: fair enough they should take Jews too. First of all they were taking the foreign Jews, who didn’t belong in France anyway. Those without citizenship were gradually being rounded up and deported to Germany to be resettled there. I felt sorry for the Jews, having to start again in a new country and work in factories, but I felt just as sorry for the Frenchmen who’d be taken away to labour camps. What could I do? French families all around us had already lost sons and husbands in the fighting; the families coped heroically. Soon they’d lose more. We couldn’t stop the Germans organising things in their own way. We weren’t in charge. We had to survive. People who made even small gestures of resistance got punished. A young woman down in the bottom of town who had embroidered a V for Victory on her blouse had been arrested and taken away to prison in Rennes for three months. Madame Nérin reported to my mother that a big crowd of her neighbours had gathered to see her go. The same neighbours welcomed her back. They hailed her as a heroine but I thought her foolish. She wouldn’t have done it if she’d had children and had to consider them.
Maurice, however, I discovered, was thinking about the Jews and what he could do for them. Once we’d put the shutters up and come back inside the shop to pull the blackout curtains he said: don’t go back upstairs just yet.
We pinned the heavy edges together. Maman had said: if we have shutters surely we don’t need blackout curtains too? Papa had got agitated: not a single chink of light must show! The thick material smelled of dust. It hid us. We didn’t turn on the light. We stood close together. Certain conversations were better had in darkness. A kind of test of love. When I couldn’t see Maurice, but just feel his face held between my hands, I overflowed with trust for him. Darkness bound two people together. In the shadows, not seeing his face, you could concentrate more on what the other person said, just from the solemn note in his voice, and also he could tell you more of the truth. He didn’t tell me all of it: I didn’t expect that. I knew he protected me from knowing too much about the risks he was running, just as I was protecting my mother from knowing she had some Jews hiding in her shed.
The scrape of a match. Spurt of sulphur smell. Flare of blue-yellow lighting up Maurice’s fingers as he lit cigarettes then handed me one. A red spot of light sprang out behind his cupped hands. I drew on my cigarette too hard and the nicotine hit the back of my throat and made me cough. He put his hand on my arm, hushing me, then talked in a low voice. My brave girl. I wanted to scream at him: I am not brave. I breathed in nicotine and breathed my words into silence and breathed them out as smoke. He said: I can’t just stand by and do nothing.
I said: everyone knows how clever you are, how good your contacts are, no wonder they ask you for advice. But all the same you must get rid of these people quickly.
Not just advice, Maurice said: I’m running a taxi service here.
He stroked my bare forearm. He put his cheek next to mine. He said: I’ve started using your shed as a transit point because people know I often come and see you. No one will think twice about seeing my car outside your yard.
I shook more than ever. The Germans would punish us if they found out. We’d be shot. How can you imagine dying? You can’t. But I was terrified of the pain before the blackness came. I couldn’t allow my mind to get close to that.
Don’t worry, Maurice said: they’re leaving tomorrow afternoon, well before dark. Just one more night in your shed and that’s it.
I asked: where are Monsieur Fauchon and the two older children?
Maurice said: there’s been a bit of a hold-up with getting their new papers. Shouldn’t be long now.
I didn’t go back to the shed to check on the Jews. My mother might have become suspicious. I didn’t dare take the Jews any more food. If they’d been sensible they’d have made the soup last. There was nothing more I could do for them. They’d looked quite well fed. They wouldn’t starve. I went to bed early, to get away from my mother’s glance.
Next morning, Saturday, my father decided to go to the men’s fellowship meeting at church. Maman said: don’t stay too long in the café afterwards. He snorted, brushed past her and out of the door. Maman said to me: haven’t you got any work to do?
I could not settle to sweeping and dusting. Finally I took the basket of darning and sat in the shop with it, picking up one of my father’s socks, lacking a heel, stabbing my needle in and out of the blue woollen weave. My mother, doing her books at the counter, shot me frowning looks from time to time but said nothing. Papa didn’t reappear at midday. My mother struck her hands together in exasperation, and served our soup. Afterwards she sent Marc out to bring my father home, then sat down by the stove to take a nap. When I heard Maurice’s car come along the street, go past the shop and turn the corner, I went down.
He parked behind the shop, on the far side of the yard, behind the gate there that led into the little back street. I threw on my coat and beret and ran to meet him, carrying my silk scarf and my kid gloves, so that anyone seeing us would think oh there she goes, off with her flash boyfriend, lucky girl.
Peroxide, I said: you need to get them more peroxide, though. They need to do their eyebrows.
No time for that, Maurice said.
The Jewish woman and her two children came out of the shed, holding their suitcases. She didn’t speak to me. She should have said thank you but she didn’t. So rude!
We hid the Jews in the back of the car, making the woman lie down on the seat and the two children crouch on the floor, and covered them with a layer of sacks. We drove them into Ste-Madeleine, to drop them near the station. I stayed quiet on the journey. No need to talk. Maurice had explained his plan before we set off. They were going to take the train south, armed with the false papers Maurice had had made for them, the tickets he’d procured. All part of the taxi service. We drew up in a side street, near a garage. Their three backs turned the corner and disappeared. Starting the car, Maurice said:
As we drove home, I started chewing the fingertip of my glove. He reached across and pinched my cheek: don’t ruin those. They cost a lot of money.
I said: I’m sorry. Maurice frowned. Don’t make a fuss. It’s all right. I know the dangers involved.
We bumped into Ste-Marie over potholes. I loved my town more than ever, because we’d got back to it safely. I loved every cobble we bounced over, every heap of rubble we passed, because they marked the way home. The rue de la Croix was shuttered and quiet. I ran indoors, looking neither to the right nor the left.
Maurice helped save quite a few people. I didn’t know precisely how long he’d been using our shed, nor precisely how many Jews he helped reach the next step of their escape routes, nor where they came from. Paris? Not my business: I didn’t ask. Nor did I praise him openly for his bravery. He was modest; he didn’t want praise. He’d look at me with his dark eyes: those are very vulnerable people. We’re all in this together. We’ve got to help each other.
He looked after me, and he looked after my parents and my brother too. He gave Marc boxing lessons, and he found a new battery for our wireless set. For my parents’ wedding anniversary he gave them fine presents: a gold watch for Papa and a gold bracelet for Maman. He produced them one Sunday night, over supper at our flat. Casually he placed two little boxes on the cloth.
My mother wiped her mouth on her napkin. She looked carefully at the treasures, assessing them. She said: you’ve been given a rise, have you? You shouldn’t be spending your money on us! Maurice smiled at her: but you’ve been so good to me. She got up. Well, I know where these need to go. She fished in her apron pocket for her keys, locked the boxes away in her cupboard. She made no more comments. Maurice’s face fell. He didn’t yet understand that that was just her way. And she didn’t understand the full reason for his generosity. Only I did. It was a kind of wish: that Maman and Papa be protected from harm. Even if they didn’t know it, my parents were in grave danger. It was their shed the Jews were hiding in.
Until the end of July Maurice ran his rescue operation. After that, he didn’t seem to be needed any more. I didn’t know why. In any case, to my relief, he stopped.
My mother appeared not to have noticed the comings and goings in our backyard. She tapped the side of her nose and repeated: ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. She did notice the way I’d changed. Throughout that summer we squabbled. She berated me often: you’ve become so cheeky! Stop answering back! What have you been up to, madam? I hope to heaven you’ve not become involved in any political nonsense.
August brought my birthday. Maurice gave me a string of pearls. I wore them every day, buttoning my collar over them when I went down to serve in the shop. In the countryside the peasants got the grain harvest in, the main benefit of which went, of course, to Germany. Our bread continued to be mixed with whatever was available. The maize crop, likewise, went to feed German cattle. That was just the way things were. We kept our heads down and continued to cope as best we could. September brought the hope of a good apple crop, the fruit reddening on the trees in the orchards lining the road to Ste-Madeleine. My mother didn’t want to notice that my belly was swelling up round as any apple. She didn’t want to notice that already I moved differently, my centre of gravity altered. She didn’t want to let on she heard me throw up in the mornings. She regarded in silence my new patience with Marc. His kicking me under the table at meals or pulling my hair no longer had the power to irritate me. I just ignored him.
Eventually, one morning in October my mother cornered me. I was pulling empty dry goods bins into place. Maman stood between the shop counter and the door to the stairs. Hands on hips, she scrutinised me, eyes sliding around my waist. I straightened up and stared at the brown varnish on the doorframe.
You haven’t had your visitor, have you, she said: not for months now. You’ve sent no rags to the wash. How could you do this to me, you wicked girl? How could you bring such shame on us?
I said: oh for heaven’s sake, spare me the sermon.
She clouted me, burst into tears, took me to the doctor, who confirmed what both of us knew. The doctor wore a long white coat and gold pince-nez. His face was sunken and very tired. He looked me straight in the eye as I sat up on the cold leather couch, then turned his back to wash his hands. His cramped office smelled of rubber and disinfectant. His voice sounded disinfected too: I can’t help you. Abortion is now illegal, a capital offence. I burst into tears that he could mention such terrible things.
The following morning, sitting in the parked car outside the shop, Maurice whispered to me: if you want to get rid of it I could find someone. I burst into tears again: abortion is a mortal sin! I’d go to hell! Maurice looked at his watch, shot his cuffs. He said: I’ve got to go now, I’ll see you soon. Away he drove.
My coat pulled round me to hide my condition, I stood on the pavement, crying. I was afraid to go indoors. But I couldn’t stay outside. The houses and shops on both sides of the street were shuttered and closed, but anyone might be watching. I couldn’t bear to be looked at. I couldn’t bear the thought of neighbours pretending to feel sorry for me. Being mean about my downfall. I forced myself to stop crying. I scrubbed my eyes on my coat sleeve and went in.
My mother told my father the news at lunchtime, once we’d eaten. He got up, pulled me away from the table. He slapped me twice round the face: count yourself lucky! Maman shouted at him: that’s enough! He sat down, shaking. Maman pursed her lips. This isn’t the way things should be. I wanted a proper wedding for you, with everything nice.
On the following day, the shop was closed. Papa, by the unlit stove, had his back turned to us. As soon as Maman went into the kitchen I put on my coat and beret and went out.
I met Maurice at the back of the church, as we’d arranged. I didn’t want to go to the park, anywhere public. Maurice could no longer take me out in the car. No petrol. Was petrol scarcer than ever or did he not want to be seen with me? I didn’t ask. I followed him into a pew. He dusted the dark wood with his handkerchief, then knelt beside me.
The heating was off. The church seemed solid with cold. Smelled of cold. Both of us shivered, despite our coats and scarves. I crossed myself, bent my head and stared at my gloved hands.
I waited until Maurice said: OK. Let’s sit down. I heaved myself to my feet, settled myself on the bench. Too small for me: I had to concentrate so that I didn’t slide off it. Maurice folded himself up next to me, his feet on the kneeler. He rested his black cashmere arms on his knees and gazed at his polished black toecaps and said: all right then, we’ll get married.
Organ music pealing out, tall cut-glass vases of yellow gladioli, the choir singing, warm sunlight streaking the floor as I glide up the aisle in a white silk dress with a long train. Gently he’ll put my lace veil back from my face and kiss me and slide the gold ring on to my finger and I’ll carry a bouquet of white lilies and green maidenhair fern bound with white satin ribbon. Honeymoon in Paris. A huge pink and gold bed. Dinner and dancing at the Folies Bergères.
I said: well, you’ve always said you wanted a family. You’ve got one now.
Smile, I wanted to beg him. Say you love me. He glanced at me. He looked very young. Scared, sulky. He shifted on the pew seat and pulled his collar closer round his ears. I leaned my shoulder against his, put my hand on his knee. He said: well, I suppose we’re business partners, after all, aren’t we.
I said: you know, eventually I’ll inherit half the shop. It’s rather rundown but I think it’ll be worth quite a bit, when the war’s over.
I felt like crying. He should have been glad to marry someone like me, hard-working and capable, with good prospects, from a decent family. And I knew I was pretty. He’d told me so often enough. I was much prettier than a shrimp like Jeanne. He ought to have been glad to find such a good wife.
Maurice sighed. We sat slumped for some minutes. The cold reached into me. We were the only people in church. The red san
I’d laid up my trousseau as a young girl, stitching away over the years at a stock of household linen. Even with the war, I’d managed to hold on to it. I’d refused to let my mother have it to replace her worn-out stuff, the sheets she’d lost at the start of the war, the tablecloth with indelible wine stains. Now Jeanne’s mother came in to embroider my new initials on to my sheets, to sew new nametapes on to my drying-up cloths and towels. My mother threw a couple of thin, old sheets at me: you can have these! From them Madame Nérin stitched me a wedding dress. She did quite well. Over each darn she embroidered a white flower. She made buttons from bunched discs of leather snipped from the uppers of Marc’s worn-out shoes then covered with linen. She cut strips of drawn-thread work from the top edges of the sheets and sewed them into a frilled collar and cuffs.
She fitted the dress in silence, pins held between her lips. She knelt at my feet, adjusting the hem. I said: how is Jeanne doing? She mumbled something. Looking at her bowed head, I felt a rush of pity. I said: I’ve been saving some hand-me-downs for her. Remind me to give them to you before you go. She mumbled again.
Maurice gave me a fur coat. Second-hand, obviously, but new-seeming. I hugged it and buried my face in it. Fresh, gleaming fur, tawny and gold. My mother had her marten cape, and now I had a long fur coat, its deep sleeves lined with rich brown silk. On our wedding morning in November the church was unheated as ever, but in my coat I felt almost cooked. The curé blessed us, shook holy water all over us, and said to me: have lots of children for the Church and for France.
On the afternoon of our wedding day Maurice and I lay together on my narrow bed, on the pink coverlet. Maurice embraced the curve of the child: I swear to take good care of you both. As a token he gave me a gold ring, elaborately chased, and a gold chain, and he gave my mother a gold bracelet. He gave my father a gold signet ring.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes