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The looking glass, p.6

The Looking Glass, page 6


The Looking Glass

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  —You’ve only seen the good weather here so far, she said to me: you’ve been lucky. The weather was lovely this summer. But we’ll have to wait and see what winter will be like.

  She was sitting by the stove, the basket of mending at her feet, while I stood at the kitchen table and cut up marrows for jam. Frog jam, she called it, because it looked so green. We’d had a glut of marrows in the garden, and we had all grown tired of marrow soup, marrow slices deep fried in batter, stuffed marrow, marrow rissoles, marrow purée. So jam it had to be. The rough greeny-yellow skins of the gourds were tough to peel off. I hacked at them with my knife, pretending they were the bodies of enemies. Frédéric was in the bar, as usual, where he sat after our déjeuner with the newspaper and his cigarettes, and a tot of calvados. Today he was playing dominoes with one of the neighbours. He’d shouted for me to bring him the box from where we kept it on the kitchen side of the hatch. So his wife and I could enjoy a peaceful time together. Like being back in what I now called the old days. Short and precious; the spring and summer weeks before he arrived. That was my idea of time. Time with her and time without her. Time before him and time after him, as rigidly separated as the Old and New Testaments. Except that he was not the Saviour. Only in the sense that he brought not peace but a sword. I heard those words read out in church one day and thought how exactly they fitted our situation, his and mine.

  October was also the time of spiders. They obviously felt the cold outside, the frosty nights, and swarmed into the house. Every day, more or less, one would jump out at me from its hiding-place close to the stoves. Big spiders, on bent, hairy legs, that could move swiftly. They lurked overnight in the folds of towels and tea-cloths, wrapping themselves in these snug little tents to keep warm and dropping out of them in the morning when I shook them or got too close. At first I jumped and shrieked, and Madame Patin had to come with the dustpan and brush to sweep them away. Then I progressed into less fear. I became able to pick them up by dint of inverting a tumbler over them and sliding a playing card underneath. Then I would carry them to the back door and fling them out into the yard, admonishing them not to return. I felt they simply waited till my back was turned and then scurried back into the house. It was so cosy inside, with the red logs flickering inside the stove.

  During the autumn you felt the summer cool down. It slipped away. You couldn’t exactly say when it was gone for good. Day by day the sun grew less warm, the evenings chillier. The late mornings and early afternoons were still golden and sweet, very often, but their light seemed paler and more fragile, nibbled at each end by darkness and cold. The orchard grass became crusted with crackling leaves which we swept up. The winter came closer, like the spiders, like an animal wanting to be let in. You felt it rubbing its nose on the windowpane. You didn’t know whether it was a foe or a friend. You felt it enticing you to go out and meet it. Something dark and mysterious waited there outside for me. It prowled up and down. It pawed the ground. I felt as though I heard it growling at night, behind the calls of the owls, but I hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of it. I hadn’t seen its face and didn’t know its name.

  I accidentally banged my knife noisily on the table. This brought Madame Patin out of her dreamy trance. She became businesslike once more.

  —We need to do some more work on the house, she remarked: that middle attic, for example, badly needs repainting. I’d like you to get on with that as soon as you can.

  Now that they were married, Frédéric no longer had to pretend to sleep in that little room. He openly spent his nights downstairs, with her, without fear of scandal. And she, I kept forgetting, was now called not Patin but Montjean. He called her Jeanne. I stuck to the title I’d always used.

  —Yes, ma’am, I said.

  —There’s some whitewash in the shed, she instructed me: left over from doing the room next door. You can use that.

  —Yes, ma’am, I said again.

  Frédéric had insisted on painting over the wallpaper in her room. He didn’t like the opulent pink roses that clambered vigorously about, twining above the mirror and blooming all round the window. He complained it was like sleeping in a flowerbed. Smothered in roses. He wasn’t having that. So he had bought the whitewash, and a big brush, thrown a sheet over the furniture, and transformed the room from one day to the next. I peeped in one day, while they were both in the bar, to see how it looked. Very clean, and more bare. His brushes and shaving things stood on the table de nuit next to the washstand, jostling her brush and comb, and his clothes were piled neatly on the chair. His nightshirt peeped from under the right-hand pillow, and his boots stood in a row at the end of the bed. The two photographs had vanished. Also the picture of the Virgin had gone, replaced by one of two hunting dogs with pheasants in their mouths. The room smelled different too, of his sweat and soap, his hair oil and eau-de-Cologne.

  He was a person who liked everything about him to be done in a particular way. He was now the master in the house, and so he made the decisions about how things should be organised. The farmers here roundabout tended to leave most domestic business, except for major decisions, to their wives, while they ruled things outside in the fields, but because Frédéric worked at home, running the bar, he supervised almost everything that we did. He had a low opinion of our ability to see to the upkeep of the house, and it is true that even in the few months I had been there I had seen its physical state deteriorate without anything being done about it. We had been too busy to do more than simply notice ceiling corners with peeling paint, or damp patches under windowsills.

  He took us and the house in hand. As we entered November, rain began to fall more often, and the winds to blow more fiercely. Once or twice a slate whirled off the roof and Frédéric had to climb the ladder and fit the slate back into place. He took a long time over the job, making sure he got it exactly right. He fixed the shutters downstairs, so that they did not bang and rattle so much at night and keep us all awake. He replastered the kitchen walls, which were cracked in places we hadn’t noticed. He put up new shelves, and oiled the hinges of all three attic doors, nailed down some planks in the stairs which had come loose, and gave a ferocious cut to the garden hedge.

  —It must have been so hard for you, Jeanne, I heard him say one day: all on your own, with no man about the house to help you.

  She had me to help her, you fool, I wanted to shout: she wasn’t alone. She had me.

  I couldn’t do and be everything for her. There were things he gave to her, and did for her, that I couldn’t. That was the lesson I was learning, day by day, and it went on hurting. I knew this pain was all my fault, because I was still such a child, refusing to accept how the real world actually was. I hated this grownup world, in which women always loved men more than girls. I wished she and I could live together at the bottom of the sea, in a cave made fast with coral and guarded by dragons.

  I didn’t say a word. I made up my stories in my head, where I could keep them intact, safe from being spoilt or laughed at. I didn’t tell them to anyone. I watched him at his jobs around the house, reluctantly admiring him, at first, and then also determined to learn from him so that if ever he left I’d be able to do what he had done. I didn’t say: take this place. It was he who had taken mine. I made myself useful to him, fetching and carrying his chisels and hammers, hanging about to see how he fitted pieces of wood together or got screws into walls.

  He was pleased by these attentions I paid him. He would grunt out his thanks when I held the ladder or rinsed out his paintbrushes. Sometimes he would stop the tuneless whistling with which he accompanied his sawing and banging, and smile at me. I caught myself acknowledging, at those moments, that he was indeed a handsome man. Even through the mists of my jealousy I could see that she felt he was good to her, doing all these things about the house. Caring for the house he cared for her too. He restored and renewed her. I could have done that, I told myself fiercely. Nonetheless, he did it, and made a good job of it. I got a glimpse of what had attracted h
er. I began to see that in her eyes he was more than able; he was kind.

  At the same time I carried on with the tasks she set me. I whitewashed the walls of the middle attic upstairs and polished the floor. I hung new muslin curtains at the windows and turned the old ones into caps, peg-bags and jelly strainers. And babies’ nappies. By December, she had the news she desired, that she was three months pregnant, and she could begin openly to talk of how she wanted the baby’s bedroom to look. At first, of course, he would sleep downstairs in a cradle next to his parents’ bed, but then later on, when he was weaned, he would be up here, and she would get him a little iron cot, and a nightlight, and a picture book. And so on. I didn’t always listen attentively to her murmurings. They were a song she was singing to herself and did not necessarily require an audience.

  Frédéric embraced her when she told him he was a father. At the same time he looked almost aghast. You could see he thought it was too soon, that he had bargained on their enjoying married life a bit longer on their own together without a child arriving to disrupt their intimacy. I was expert at reading faces by now, and I thought I understood what he felt.

  She was in his arms, her face against his shoulder. She hadn’t waited until they were alone together. She told us both at the same time, which did please me. She dropped the news into the conversation in that casual way of hers, as though she were discussing the price of matches or candles. I stood behind her and saw the frown flash across his eyes. Then he leaped up from his chair, where he was lounging waiting for dinner, and hugged her.

  —Open a bottle of wine, Geneviève, he said to me: only wine will do for this occasion. We’re going to drink to the mother and baby’s health.

  I fetched a bottle of the burgundy she kept for really special occasions. I pushed our tumblers aside and got out the best glasses, the stemmed ones, wiping them with a cloth before setting them on the table. After a moment’s hesitation I set out three. This was not a moment for sulking. I knew she would want me to join in and celebrate her happiness. We smiled and raised our glasses. It was the first time I had tasted burgundy. A dense sweetness cut with spice. It was an autumn taste: woody; almost burnt; an elixir of all the fruits of the earth. The wine tasted of her, and of love, and of all the things I could not say. I thought that if I were not the servant but the mistress I would drink it every day.

  All through dinnertime he fussed over her, being very tender and attentive. He really was doing his best to give her the reaction she wanted. She kept smiling with delight. Once or twice she reached over and patted his hand. I sat with them and joined in all the toasts they drank to the future. It was almost like being a family.

  In the afternoon he vanished into the bar and drank toasts with every man who came in. By suppertime he was well drunk, lurching about the kitchen, singing, to convince himself, I thought, how really delighted he was.

  Over the next four months the three of us went on shaking down, more or less, into being able to live peaceably together. I still hated seeing them kiss each other, which I thought they should not do in my presence, as though I were no more than a ball of dust in the corner, not worth bothering about or being embarrassed by, and I still found excuses to leave the room when they were sitting cooing together like a pair of wood pigeons. But I went on being polite to him, and in return he sometimes thanked me for what I did for him, when he remembered to notice that it was I who served his meals and washed his clothes and ironed his shirts.

  During the winter, while the weather was very wet, when the washing could not be carried outdoors and pegged on the line in the yard, we turned the future baby’s bedroom into a temporary lingerie. Here I hung the sheets and clothes to dry, and here I started doing the ironing, carrying up a heated iron from downstairs, so as to keep out of the way. On Sunday afternoons, if it was too rainy to go to the beach, if I grew bored sitting in my little room, hearing the rain pattering onto the roof just above my head, I would get on with the ironing.

  I always liked ironing, because at the end of an hour or two I felt I had really achieved something. It is a satisfying and sensual job, your hands stroking and folding cloth, your dexterity creating neat piles of smoothed and flattened linen. Soothing too. It sets your mind free to roam about; it lets you daydream, as your arm moves to and fro and your fingers know without you telling them just how to tweak gathered edges into place, how to press collars and glide over starched shirt fronts. At the same time there was a confused pleasure in sorting out his clothes for him; I felt I dominated him when I pushed my burning iron into his handkerchiefs and held it down on a checked corner as though I were branding his flesh. While one of the few ways I could show my angry love for her was to iron her things as carefully and exquisitely as possible. I caressed her chemises devotedly then twisted their arms behind their backs; I bowed them over, captive, and they could not resist.

  Out of doors I was less crazy. The sea consoled me. It cured me temporarily, like a blue fizzing dose of medicine. It sent off sparks into my brain which filled me with energy. On Sunday afternoons when it wasn’t raining I worked off my sorrows by wrapping myself in a cloak and ploughing up and down the stones of the beach, pitting myself against the gale and enjoying the violence of the wind stinging my face like slaps or tears.

  On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass along with most people in the village. The crib was set up at the top of the nave. The priest came in procession with the altar-boys, carrying the china baby in his arms, and laid it in the straw-filled manger. Madame Patin sat beside me, smiling and calm. She looked like a madonna already. I remembered the picture of my patroness, St Geneviève. I thought I should pray to her, beg her to help me fight my jealousy, but I was too ashamed of how bad I was; I thought she could not possibly want to bother with a sinner like me. Also I did not want to let go of my jealousy, which was my love, my attachment. Green and bitter, perhaps, but the only fruit that grew on my tree. I didn’t go to confession and ask for help there, either. I couldn’t put my sin into words that I could say to a priest. I hung onto it instead. So to wilful hate and jealousy I added arrogance and pride. God was so very far off, so very high up in the sky, that he was no use to me. I didn’t dare bother him. Madame Patin had been my god for too long, but now she had abandoned me.

  As Madame Montjean, as I must call her, got bigger, she tired more easily. In her seventh month she took to working mostly indoors. She did all the cooking and light kitchen cleaning once more, while I continued to look after the cow, poultry and garden, and went on doing the scrubbing and washing. Also I gave Frédéric a hand in the bar so that he got a break from time to time and could sit with his cronies and play cards or dominoes. I would do the sweeping up and dusting, which I’d always done, stand at the hatch serving drinks, and come in with a tray, when he shouted for me, to clear away dirty tumblers. Occasionally I glanced into the shining surface of my old friend, the mirror, and caught sight of him watching me. A considering gaze, that I returned.

  —Hasn’t Geneviève got anything else to wear? he asked his wife one dinnertime in April: she needs some new clothes. Those rags she’s got on are falling apart.

  Those rags were the ones I’d brought with me from the orphanage, just over a year ago. I was shocked to realise that I’d never written to Sister Pauline, nor to any of the girls I had once thought of as my friends. I had forgotten all about them. I had cut myself off from them as completely as though that old life had never existed.

  Madame Montjean put down her soup spoon and considered me.

  —They’re not just falling apart, her clothes, she remarked: they’re much too small for her. My goodness, child, how you’ve grown. You’re positively bursting out of that dress.

  —You should have noticed before, her husband told her: you should get her something more decent.

  I kept my eyes on my plate. I knew what he meant. I was still thin compared with other girls my age, but I had suddenly started growing. I had turned seventeen, and at this advanced
age I finally looked less like a boy and more like a woman. I had brought two changes of clothes with me from the orphanage. Everything was too tight.

  —And another thing, Frédéric observed: her hair is a terrible mess. You should cut it or something.

  Madame Montjean looked at me thoughtfully after dinner, when we were alone together in the kitchen doing the washing-up. She was measuring me with her eyes, running them up and down and round.

  —I know what we’ll do, she decided: we’ll cut up your two dresses to see whether we can get one new one out of them put together, and I’ll alter a couple of mine for you as well. Goodness knows I can’t get into them at the moment. You might as well have them.

  She would be sewing for me as well as for the coming baby. I was very pleased. I was even more pleased when she helped me to wash my hair, less roughly than usual, and then sat me down in her fireside chair and snipped at my wild crop with a pair of scissors. In the past year my hair had grown to shoulder length. I wore it loose, pushing it inside a cap when necessary. Now she tidied it up. She was puzzled how to do it, at first, and so she took her time. Her comb tugged gently through the wet tangles, easing out the knots. The cool blades of the scissors brushed the back of my neck and made me shiver with delight. She left me with a curly fringe and pulled the rest to the back of my head, coiling it into a tiny chignon, the style worn by all the women in the village.

  —Very nice, she said, standing back and considering: now you’ll need a new cap too. I’ll give you one of mine.

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