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Ignorance a novel, p.7

Ignorance: A Novel, page 7


Ignorance: A Novel

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  My mother hid Maurice’s gifts, for the duration of the war, along with her other treasures in her cupboards. Maurice and I watched her lock the cupboard door, pocket the key. I stayed sitting at the table. My belly showed less that way. I had indigestion, and my legs ached, but I didn’t want to make a fuss and draw attention to myself. Maurice got up and put his arm round Maman’s shoulders. Her hand came up and gripped his.

  He said: you’ve got plenty of storage space downstairs, mother-in-law, haven’t you? Would you look after something for me? Just for the time being? Until I get settled?

  When a big painting arrived, soon afterwards, enclosed in an old coverlet, Maman left it in its frame and propped it, wrapped in sacks, against the wall of the shed. Everybody had things hidden: their wine and spirits and cider; anything valuable. My mother locked away all my precious gold for me. She said: I’ll take care of it until after the war. Then you can bring it out and enjoy it.

  Hubert was born in March 1943. By then we’d moved into our new house. When I got back with the baby from the clinic, when he was a week old, Maurice gave me a gold ring set with tiny diamonds. He said: it’s for eternity. You and Hubert, for ever. He began crying. He sat on the edge of our big marital bed, holding me holding the baby, and said: I will take care of you always. My darling, my darling. His tears wetted my face. I folded my arms closer around Hubert. My father cried when he was upset. Men weeping like babies: where was the use in that? Maurice had a soft heart where other people’s suffering was concerned, all very well, but at this moment I needed him to be strong, so that I could depend on him. I still felt very weak, very tired after the birth. I said: this is supposed to be a celebration! Maurice apologised, got up, opened his bag, produced a bottle of Taittinger. I said: miracle!

  He had found us our new home a while back, an abandoned house up at the top of town, which was going cheap; all the furniture thrown in. He kept the transaction a secret, wanting to surprise me. I wouldn’t have chosen that particular house, but I knew Maurice needed to live somewhere dignified and spacious, befitting his good job in the town hall. He exulted in the elegant proportions of our salon, the graceful curve of our stairs. He’d had some preliminary works done on the house, the walls whitewashed and the floors re-sealed, as an extra wedding present. The day after we were married we moved. I put my few things in Maurice’s car, kissed my parents: now the future could begin.

  For the moment that meant cleaning and restoring. I scrubbed and scoured the shabby rooms, poulticed with dust, smelling of dead mice and turps, polished the shabby old furniture. In the wild, overgrown garden, Maurice dug a vegetable patch. Come summer 1943, I could pick big handfuls of spinach, cram them into a string bag, take it down to my mother.

  Having promised me to run no more risks, to do nothing that would endanger us, Maurice concentrated, now, on his job, on us, his family. I ceased worrying so much about his safety. Life became simpler, centred on marriage, on home. We went on surviving. From day to day. You just got on with it. What choice had we? None. We were living under a harsh and vicious Occupation. Anybody who wanted to be a hero and defy the Germans got imprisoned, tried and then deported or shot. That was that. Communists ran the Resistance. We weren’t going to get mixed up with Communists. We were just ordinary people, doing our best, trying to stay decent and kind. I locked up my thoughts about the war. For the sake of my health. You can make yourself forget if you try.

  Jeanne, that poor, stupid unfortunate, was not allowed to forget. In November 1943 she returned from Ste-Madeleine and hid in her mother’s flat. Madame Nérin began doing extra laundry and charring, to support her daughter. Jeanne took in sewing at home. I wanted to help her and so I sent her some mending to do for me. I didn’t go to see her: I was too busy looking after my son and my husband, going to visit my mother and giving her a hand. Jeanne remained someone with whom I could not mix. Maurice preferred me to keep away. When I got restless, cooped up indoors, he would take my hand between the two of his and squeeze it. He’d hum some dance music, waltz me about, spinning, until we bumped into the furniture and got breathless. I depended on him to look after me. When I complained, he comforted me: what would Marshal Pétain say? Be brave, little soldier.

  Jeanne’s problem was precisely that it showed. Everybody could see her condition and everybody knew she had no husband.

  We all know how she’s spent the war, my mother said.

  I’d come to keep her company for the day. I’d done her ironing for her, her sweeping and dusting. Now, in the late afternoon, we were sitting in the salon over the shop, wearing our overcoats because she’d no fuel. The clock sounded loud in the hush. Like a heart beating. The clock would go on ticking, and we would go on, and the war would end. We could allow ourselves to hope for that now.

  Marc was out at his youth group. Maurice and my father were off on business somewhere. Little Hubert was tucked up in my mother’s bed, the only warm place. My mother and I were knitting, making a jumper and blanket for Hubert with variegated wool from jumpers of our own we’d unknitted, working by the light of a candle as the electricity was off. I looked at my mother’s wasted face, her jutting cheekbones, her fingers knotted with arthritis. Her deep-set eyes were sunk in shadows. At lunchtime she’d given half her portion to Hubert. Jeanne hadn’t gone as hungry as my mother.

  Madame Nérin came to do Maman’s laundry as usual. As often as I could, I went down to help the two of them. Jeanne’s mother looked skinnier than ever in her washed-out black clothes. Face seamed with wrinkles. One day, in early December, she began coughing into the wash, and my mother had to stop the mangle and make her sit down on an upturned bucket. She ended up recounting all her troubles, that’s to say Jeanne’s troubles. The child was due any day now and Jeanne hadn’t been well. But she must go to the doctor, my mother exclaimed. Madame Nérin said: we haven’t the money.

  My mother clenched her fists and cast up her eyes at this fecklessness. Nom de Dieu! When she saw someone suffering, she couldn’t abide it. She wanted to stop the suffering. It hurt her too much. Sometimes you had to drown kittens, if there were too many of them. Sometimes it was right a child died at birth, if he’d been born unfit in some way. Sometimes you just had to admit defeat with yellowing pot-plants and tip them into the dustbin. What could be done with Jeanne?

  I felt obliged to visit my old schoolmate. The following morning, leaving Hubert with my mother, I wrapped up well in my fur coat, a woollen hat and scarf, and made for the Nérins’ flat in the lower town. I walked briskly through chilly mist down towards the smithy, the river. I told myself: just get it over with.

  The ugly tenements rose up around me. Rusty window-frames, broken panes patched with cardboard or tin, paint peeling off doors. I wasn’t too happy to have to go into such a poor district, nor to have to be near Jeanne. Thinking about her made me itch, as though she were a flea biting me. She was like a flake of skin I longed to dislodge. I didn’t want to be seen entering her flat, even though I was on an errand of charity. At the same time I felt a sort of fascination: how would she behave?

  Madame Nérin opened the door. Thank God you’ve come. She had on her coat and hat. She pulled me inside the brown-painted entry. Quick, quick. Jeanne’s waters have just broken. Stay with Jeanne, will you, while I go to fetch the midwife?

  How familiarly she spoke to me in her urgency. She called me tu: I felt quite put out. She took no notice but banged out, and I went into the bedroom.

  Light filtered under the lowered dark red blind. The poky little room smelled newly scrubbed. Cold air and cold bleach. Brown walls and brown floor. Little furniture: two iron beds, a chair, a chest of drawers. Jeanne without her gaudy make-up looked like a brown mouse. Sweating. Biting down on her lip with her little white teeth. I stood at the end of her bed. When she whimpered I flinched. I tried to be kind. I told her to keep her courage up. I felt frightened, being here with her all alone, having this unwanted responsibility forced upon me, and so I became the soldier self
Maurice loved, dutiful, on guard, keeping watch. Jeanne seemed like my prisoner, but not one I could respect. She’d collapsed into the pains. They were rushing her away, like the current in the nearby river swirling debris under the bridge.

  Giving birth is a lonely business. The nuns in the maternity clinic had been brisk, not kind. No one had comforted me. In the labour ward I was just left alone to get on with it for a night and a day. No visitors allowed. When I went in, my mother signed a cross on my forehead. Be brave! Then she left. I wanted to run after her but was felled by a pain. A nun gave me an enema and shaved me. I remember the shiny metal rails around the bed and the pale green lino floor, polished so clean they hurt. Steel rods everywhere, inside me and outside. Finally I tore apart and exploded. I felt I made a terrible mess. I didn’t dare look. The baby existed outside me. The nuns whisked him off. To clean him up.

  Jeanne gasped and screamed my name. I went round the bed and gave her my hands and she gripped them. She panted, she yelled good and loud. She didn’t seem to care a bit about the animal noise she was making. Her pink nightdress was creased up round her waist and she’d kicked off the blanket and sheet. Her opened thighs, gripping the painful air between them, looked so strong. Her bare feet shifted, stamped. Don’t push, I cried: I can see the head, you mustn’t push, you’ve got to wait for the midwife. Fuck that! Jeanne shouted. She howled. A baby shot out as though greased, fat as a codfish. I cried out too. I caught the baby. A girl, red and creased, all slimy against the sleeves of my fur coat.

  I studied her black eyebrows, her licks of black hair, her blue eyes. Jeanne, sunk in pillows, tried to sit up. She said: is she all right? I said: I think so.

  The crimson, crumpled baby took a breath and began bawling. I put her into Jeanne’s arms. Jeanne lay back, holding her. Mother of God, it hurts! Damned holy Virgin, why does nobody tell us what it’s like? She pushed her nightdress off one shoulder, put the child to her breast. Immediately she began to suck.

  What a smell in the room: blood and urine and worse. I disliked seeing Jeanne flopping so helplessly in her bed in her mess, floundering in her soiled bedclothes. I pulled the sheet back up and said: well, did you ask the Holy Virgin to help? You’ve left it a bit late, haven’t you?

  Jeanne said: I loathe you, Marie-Angèle. Her voice cracked. She glared at me, put up a hand and pushed her hair back. She was sweaty, pale as a pig, and shivering. The baby stopped sucking and began to wail. I didn’t know what to do. The room seemed jumping around me. I couldn’t quiet it. Hush, I wanted to say to the room: hush. I wanted to smash my hand over the room’s mouth until it shut up.

  Madame Nérin arrived with the midwife, a big, blonde woman in a skimpy grey coat and skirt. I didn’t know her. She took over. I backed away, stood near the window. Madame Nérin started crying. She kissed Jeanne, over and over. I held on to the blind. My fingers found the little wooden barrel knotted on to the end of its string, and clasped it. Madame Nérin held Jeanne’s hand while the midwife cut the cord, washed the baby, wrapped her in a towel and put her back in Jeanne’s arms. She began to suckle again. Jeanne seemed to drift off then, to go elsewhere.

  After a little while she opened her eyes, looked at me and winked and said: Christ, I could murder a cigarette. You haven’t got one, have you? I bet Maurice keeps you supplied with fags, doesn’t he, lovely treats?

  She was babbling now. Hysterical. I said: calm down. Jeanne said: he can get hold of anything, can’t he, that boy? What else does he get for you? That’s a nice row of pearls you’ve got on. Maurice give them to you, did he?

  Madame Nérin was wiping Jeanne’s face with a damp flannel. Hush, ma chérie, she murmured: just hush. She turned her head, flicked a worried look across the room. I couldn’t bear it that she should gaze at me apologetically, as though she knew a secret I didn’t. I wanted to slap Jeanne. I should have. Instead, I stopped twiddling the cord of the blind, walked away from the window, held on to the back of the chair by the washstand. I looked down at it. What a mess! I began putting things into order: brush and comb, little bottles, sponge in saucer.

  Jeanne said: you know, he used to love coming to the house in Ste-Madeleine. He couldn’t get enough of it.

  The midwife, four-square in her felted grey skirt, seated between Jeanne’s splayed legs, stitching her up, swivelled her attention, looked up at me inquisitively. I said to Jeanne: shut up. Jeanne said: oh, Marie-Angèle and I keep each other’s secrets, don’t we, darling?

  I said: I’m going now.

  Outside I leaned against the frosty wall for a bit. Then I walked along the street with my knees feeling like india rubber, hands shoved into the pockets of my coat. My feet knew the way home, or else I don’t know how I’d have got there. While I stumbled along I pretended to be a girl at school again. When people passed you nasty notes in class, under the desk, you tore them up. If necessary you put the tiny pieces into your mouth and swallowed them. Tiny papery bits, like tiny hosts. Then you could deny they’d ever existed. That was how you forgot words. Lick them, suck them. Ink swimming over your tongue and down your throat.

  I concentrated on the approach of Christmas and the New Year, the approach of the birth of my second child. In April 1944 our daughter arrived. Little angel, I whispered to her. She flung herself into the world and gave us fresh hope. She heralded the Liberation. Joyful shouts banging along the street. Church bells clanging. More military vehicles grinding in. People bursting out of their houses and running along the square. I heard them rather than saw them. My world had shrunk to my bed, the baby in the cot next to it. I was sleepy and I was warm. I wanted to stay in bed for ever and never get up. I dozed, then fed the baby, then dozed again.

  Everybody gave the troops the best welcome they could. My parents too. My mother repeated the story for years afterwards: a group of American soldiers, invited in for a drink, emptied their glasses of Benedictine at one go, then held them out for more. They finished the entire bottle in five minutes. My mother had guarded that bottle, well hidden, throughout the long war years, and now in the blink of an eye it was gone.

  September brought the celebration of Liberation. The town councils of Ste-Marie and Ste-Madeleine decided to join together, to demonstrate unity and solidarity, to hold the festivities in Ste-Marie. They pooled resources: double the size of brass band, double the number of flags, two mayors marching abreast, two lots of choirboys and altarboys at the thanksgiving Mass. The gold-fringed velvet banner of Ste-Marie waved next to the silver satin banner of Ste-Madeleine.

  Maurice and I, plus our two little ones, joined our neighbours to watch the victory parade. My mother stayed indoors. Papa, wearing his service medals, left early, to take his place among the veterans. Maurice and I, carrying the children, walked down all the way through town from our house in the square. We descended flight after flight of stone stairs cutting between narrow streets. Every step of the way resonated with memories of the last five years. I was not yet properly well again, and still very tired, but I wanted to be with my compatriots, to offer thanksgiving. We all wanted that. To be together, to merge into one another, all joined up, whole, perfect, full of light, a simplicity, a pure feeling, all united all part of one another part of the crowd. The old skin of unhappiness cast off, wrinkled, dirty, and the new beautiful self of France rising up reborn, intact, after so many years of deprivation and distress.

  Maurice gave both children into my care so that he could stand like a soldier, heels together, shoulders back, as upright and erect as possible. People pressed three deep on the pavements, spilled along the kerbs. Tricolores tying up women’s hair, worn as armbands, worn as sashes. Down the centre of the street marched the bandsmen, in braided maroon uniforms and gold-trimmed képis, carrying their golden instruments, followed by the mayors, all the local dignitaries, the military, the police, the veterans, the two church choirs, the nuns, the church youth groups. Then the crowd fell back, and made space.

  Jammed up against the entrance to a shop, at first we
just heard the cries, not the words at that point, just the angry shouts, the shrill jeers of children, and then we saw the bald creatures thrust forward through the mêlée of townspeople, men and women hollering and cursing.

  No hair. Not just bare-headed. No hair. That made them seem utterly naked. Just the gleaming domes of their skulls. Whiteness of skin and bone where hair should be. All that was female ripped off them. Young ones. Middle-aged ones. One fat one seemed really old: sixty or so. Wrinkles. Mascara rather than eyelashes. Rouged, pendulous cheeks. The fat one and the thin ones; the old one and the less old ones. They staggered along, faces turned aside, eyes cast down.

  The men propelled along the things they held between them. One gendarme on each side, gripping them by the forearms so that they couldn’t escape. They were going fast, half-dragging them. They hauled at them so fiercely they seemed to be pulling them apart. The bald women stumbled in their high heels over the cobbles. They looked stupid as beasts being driven to market, terrified as beasts being driven to the abattoir. The fat, old one looked the most ridiculous, bosom bulging out of her décolletage. One young one seemed a kind of heifer, in a white coat like an overall flapping loosely over the dress beneath, her bald head bent down over the wailing child clutched in her arms. I knew her, but at the same time she was not a person you could know or name. Shaved, she was no longer human. Words whimpered in my brain. I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to. I gripped Maurice’s sleeve and held on. I heard my own bewildered voice crying: Jeanne, Jeanne.

  They’d seized her and shaved off all her hair so that they could parade her, part of the procession of tarts, let everyone know she’d been with Germans. Baldness her sign of betraying France, her badge of shame. She was a repulsive sight and she was stripped of all disguise she was a mockery of a woman she was a disgrace to womanhood. The citizens of our town looked on triumphantly and judged the creatures: outcast; alien; lowest of the low. Filth. I felt sick. I swayed against Maurice, my handkerchief to my mouth.

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