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The looking glass, p.7

The Looking Glass, page 7


The Looking Glass

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  Wearing one of her altered dresses, and her cap, I made my appearance in the bar that Sunday. I watched myself in the mirror. I had borrowed not only her clothes but her mannerisms, her gait. I walked as she did, my tray balanced easily on one hand. I imitated her way of threading quickly and smartly between chattering groups without upsetting my burden. I turned my head and put up my chin as she used to do, when the men teased me. I thought I might borrow not only her gestures but her husband too. He might loan himself to me. He had taken my place. Now I could imagine taking hers. It was a way of being close to her again. Stepping into her shoes, fitting my feet to their shape. Pressing myself as close to her as her shadow. I was her young ghost, dancing along behind her and imitating her every move. So I smiled at Frédéric when we passed each other; I followed him with my eyes; I preened for him. I liked him looking at me and discovering that I was a pretty girl. There was a very sweet and confused feeling in all this. He had thought I was disagreeable and awkward, a misbehaved child who had to be tolerated because she was useful around the house. Now he discovered that I had some power to make him see me differently.

  At dinnertime, I sat down with the two of them as usual. But contrary to my usual custom, instead of slumping silently at the far end of the table, I joined in the conversation. I laughed and chattered. Once or twice Madame Montjean looked at me in vague surprise, but she didn’t seem to care very much what I did. The energy she had spent on dressing me and cutting my hair had gone, and she had relaxed back into a kind of cocoon of pregnancy. A lot of the time these days she lived inside herself, obviously thinking about the baby and praying that it would be safe and born healthy. I saw her registering a mild relief that I was at last being so friendly to her husband, before her mind drifted back to her own concerns and what was going on inside her.

  But she should have minded what I did and how I behaved. I needed her to know what I was up to, to berate me and then forgive me. I needed her to act as a check on me, to confront me, to block me and wrestle with me. I needed her to behave like a mother. But she wasn’t my mother; it was unreasonable to expect her to behave so; and anyway I was acting as though I were grownup and didn’t need a mother at all.

  The more she stared dreamily off into the distance, the more I flirted with Frédéric and the more angry I grew. Don’t you realise I could be dangerous, I wanted to shout at her: don’t you realise I could do you harm? She trusted me but her trust was worth little because it was based on ignorance and not caring. Long ago she had cared about how I behaved but that was over now; it was he who mattered to her, and now, most of all, the coming baby.

  Frédéric found me upstairs that afternoon, when I was doing the ironing in the attic lingerie and she was laid down asleep on her bed, like a great beached fish. I did not hear the door open, so well oiled now were the handle and hinges, but I felt him come in. I felt the change of air, and I smelled the macassar oil he put on his hair. I had a double sheet hung on the line between me and the door, and saw his boots pause underneath it, standing quietly side by side, just as they did by the bed downstairs.

  I wanted to laugh, and also I felt afraid. For a moment there was silence, and then he made it clear what he wanted and what I was to do. I could have refused and I did not know how to refuse and I did not dare refuse and did not want to. How could I ever have explained that in the confessional? Sin was sin and that was that.

  This was to be my newest service to him: to become the confessor myself; to attend, like a confessor, welcoming and tolerant and intimate, on the other side of the sheet; to bend my head and listen to his furious mutter about how his wife had lost interest and fobbed him off with talk of headaches and thought only of the baby and how tired she was and fell asleep so early at night, even before he came to bed. On and on he went, while I said nothing, and ironed, and the big sheet of their bed hung between us so that I could not see but only hear how at last his angry sad complaint turned into gasps and then into a groan. Then the boots disappeared, and the door clicked open and shut, and the treads of the stairs creaked, one by one, as he went down.

  That was how we went on for some time. Since he never touched me, he swore that he was doing nothing wrong. I understood him to mean I was helping them both, by taking care of him while she was unable to. I was a place where he could put things, a kind of cupboard to contain him. I felt flattered and excited that he needed me so desperately and also I knew that I was wicked. I had imagined taking Madame Montjean’s husband away from her and now that fantasy had come true.

  The obscenities he recited to me, and the desires he whispered; the things he said he wanted to do to me; frightened and excited me. They aroused my curiosity. My heart dropped to between my legs, where it beat and throbbed, where it swelled, grew big and soft. This frightened me even more. So I would jump a step ahead. I would say: and then? And then? As though I were in control.

  The feelings were too powerful. I was too powerful. I longed for Madame Montjean to find out what was going on, so that it would stop; I longed for her to rescue me; I knew I must have totally alienated her affection; I dreaded that she would throw me out of the house.

  * * *

  Once more the summer visitors came exploring along the coast and arrived in the bar asking for food and drink. Once more the harvest season flourished and the workers were out from dawn until very late, past moonrise sometimes, if the moon were bright enough to work by. Sometimes, to get a field finished, before rain threatened to spoil the standing wheat, the harvesters hung lanterns on their carts to give them just enough light to see by. They looked half crazed with tiredness when you met them next day, their eyes glittering in their thin brown faces. They had no choice. The harvest had to be got in and any sort of normal life had to be suspended for the duration.

  It might have been logical for Madame Montjean to send me off with the baskets of provisions to the labourers in the fields, while she stayed at home with the baby, but she said she wanted to get out; she had been stranded in the house for six months, because of bad weather and pregnancy; and now she longed to be in the open air and to see her friends again. So that she could feed the child she took him with her. I accompanied her, carting the two baskets of food, while she carried the baby in a wicker affair with handles. She would set him down in the field being harvested, in the shade, under a hedge. He wore a floppy linen bonnet with a deep frill, so that even if a ray of sun crept into his makeshift carry-cot it would not burn him. She would send me back to the house, to get on with my work, and stay out for two or three hours. The baby was always in view, and she could hear him if he cried. She could drop her pitchfork and be at his side in a moment. Then I walked up to fetch her later in the evening, and helped her carry the baskets and baby home. Sometimes I arrived to find her sitting on the ground, leaning against the two empty baskets piled one on top of the other to make a chair back, the baby in her arms, feeding. She talked to him while he sucked, a continuing love song about what a fine splendid fellow he was, what a greedy little pig, oh her darling, king baby, her little duck, her duckling, the sweetest bundle ever seen in the history of the world. He didn’t have a name yet. They couldn’t agree on one. She called him by a thousand names, nonsense words and endearments she made up like poems.

  I no longer spent Sunday afternoons ironing. The sun shone and lured me out to the beach. Sometimes I climbed up the cliff path and lay sprawled, daydreaming, in the soft grass at the top, as near to the crumbling edges as I dared to go. Sometimes, at low tide, I left my sabots behind me on the beach and scrambled my way across the rocks, slithering barefoot over the wet seaweed, curling my toes into crevices to get a good grip while I peered into rock pools and watched tiny crabs dart about. I came home with a pocket full of pebbles and shells, which I arranged on the windowsill of my room, altering the design from week to week, shifting it about as the whim took me. Sometimes I carried the baby down to the sea with me, and showed him the waves and the clouds and the wheeling gulls.

>   —Thanks, Geneviève, Madame Montjean said when I returned from one of these expeditions: you are a good girl.

  Ashamed, I looked away, pretending I was about to sneeze and had to cover my face with my handkerchief.

  Goodness in a girl meant chastity. It also meant helpfulness. Goodness in a baby meant not crying too much. Our nights began to be broken and noisy. The child, so quiet and peaceful at the beginning, now woke often, and cried. He cried if he was hungry and needed to be fed, and he cried if he had colic and needed soothing. Perhaps babies dream, and perhaps he also cried if he had bad dreams, and needed comforting. Sometimes he wouldn’t go to sleep at all but just carried on with his evening crying and refused to believe it was night. I didn’t always hear him, from my room upstairs, every time he started up, but of course his mother and father did, because his cradle was next to their bed. In the mornings they were grumpy and red-eyed with tiredness.

  To try and avoid Frédéric being disturbed, Madame Montjean would get up when the baby started to cry, pick him up and carry him into the kitchen, and feed and soothe him there, so that her husband could get back to sleep while she paced up and down and jiggled the bawling child.

  —One of us must get some sleep, she told me: and he’s got to be up to open the bar. At least I can snatch a nap sometimes in the afternoons when you take the little one out.

  In the mornings Frédéric would yawn gustily over his breakfast.

  —How long is this going to go on? he would grumble: when am I ever going to get a decent night’s sleep?

  She had to comfort the baby, and she had to comfort her husband. The strain showed on her face. She looked older, her grey-blue eyes sunk deeper in their sockets, surrounded by creases of worry and tiredness.

  One day she snapped back at him.

  —I’m tired to death as well. Why don’t you think about me?

  He snatched up his cup of coffee and stormed off with it to the bar. Madame Montjean burst into tears. Never once had I seen her cry. I scooped up the baby and took him outside to the yard to say hello to the dog, to give her time to recover herself. Really I was escaping, just like Frédéric, because I didn’t know what so say. To see her so vulnerable unsettled me. I thought perhaps it wasn’t only tiredness that was the problem, but I didn’t want to know.

  When I came back in she was blowing her nose. I fetched her a hot cup of coffee and made her stay sitting down to drink it while I changed the baby’s nappy. Practical things I could do for her, but I couldn’t talk to her and listen to her, and help her that way. I had listened to him too often; I had done her too many wrongs and betrayed her too much. I wasn’t going to add hypocrisy to my list of sins. I went on thinking only of myself. I told myself she had plenty of women friends among the harvesters. She could tell them what the matter was, get sympathy from them. It was better for me not to be too involved.

  That afternoon I coaxed her to lie down on her bed and try to sleep. I abandoned all pretence of housework and made the baby my priority, doing everything in my power to keep him quiet so that he wouldn’t cry. Frédéric came through the kitchen and went upstairs. I heard him tramping to and fro overhead in the middle attic, seemingly dragging heavy objects across the floor. It sounded as though he were moving furniture. Later on, when I got the chance to run up and peep in, I saw that he had cleared the storage boxes to one side, dismantled the ironing table, and got out the truckle bed again. He had flung a couple of sheets onto it, from the laundered pile I had left up there and had not yet put away, and he had carried up a pillow and quilt.

  Madame Montjean did not go out to the fields that evening. She admitted her exhaustion, in so much as she slumped in her chair by the fire, but she could not allow herself not to work. Her body was like a heavy sigh but her hands moved nimbly, topping and tailing the beans we were going to eat for supper. The baby fretted by her side in his carrycot. He was wailing and querulous, fighting her when she picked him up, turning his head angrily from side to side when she put him to the breast.

  —I think he’s coming down with something, she said: oh God don’t let him fall ill. I couldn’t bear it, d’you hear, my precious?

  I went outside and milked the cow, then packed the two baskets of provisions and carried them out to the fields. When I got back, she was pacing up and down the kitchen holding the baby to her while he cried.

  —I’ll sleep upstairs tonight, Frédéric told Madame Montjean at supper: catch up on some rest.

  She nodded. He gave a little grunt, like some kind of affectionate word that he was too shy to utter, and then someone shouted from the bar and he got up and went to the hatch.

  I shut the poultry into their sheds, let the dog off its chain, locked the back door, fed the stove with wood for the night. I did all these jobs more carefully than usual, as a kind of bargain I was driving with fate. If I fastened the shutters with especial precision, without rattling or banging them; if I made the kitchen rigorously neat and swept up every bulky crumb from the floor; if I saw Madame Montjean comfortably settled into her bed and took her in a cup of hot milk; then perhaps Frédéric would keep the bar open until late; perhaps he would be so drunk when he came up to bed that he would fall fast asleep, and then nothing terrible would happen.

  I extinguished my candle and lay wide awake in the dark. I thought of St Geneviève, how she climbed up onto the battlements of the city of Paris to repel the invaders. Singlehandedly she resisted the enemy; she called on God for help; she roused the citizens and made them fight so bravely that the army of evil slunk away defeated. I was not as good and courageous as St Geneviève and therefore could not repel one single man. When his footsteps trod gently up the stairs, along the little corridor, and rested outside my room, I stiffened. I pretended I was a fallen tree-branch in winter, rigid under a quilt of snow. The door handle twisted open with the smallest of squeaks.

  He put his hand over my mouth. He breathed into my ear.

  —Be a good girl.

  After that he did not speak. If he said nothing and if I could not, with his tobacco-smelling fingers clamped against my lips, then he could go on pretending that he was not there; and so I did the same; I began ferociously to tell myself a story about a mermaid; only this time she would not die; she would escape; she would dive into the depths of the sea and hide there; she was not speechless at all she shouted out for Madame Patin Madame Montjean to come and rescue her she shouted sorry sorry sorry and she certainly had nothing between her legs and so she could not be interfered with but swim swim swim.

  In the morning I decided I had made it all up. It was untrue. It was a nightmare. Too much daydreaming. Letting my imagination run away with me. I was a wicked girl even to imagine such things. It was all my fault.

  * * *

  The young woman boasted glossy hair so dark it seemed smokier than black, with a shine like that on the wings of blackbirds, that sheen seeming slicked with oil, reflecting blue lights. She lifted off her hat with reverent care and plumped it down on the chair next to her, then put her hands up to the nape of her neck, checking her hairpins. She had a long neck, which she moved to and fro gracefully, and with her chin tilted up she looked like a wader pecking elegantly along the shore. Her hair was brushed back behind her ears and coiled into a loose knot, so heavy that it looked like slipping undone down her back. Around her slender neck twisted a rope of salmon-pink coral. She wore a red skirt, and a white blouse with a sailor collar, and she unbuttoned the front of her blouse a little way, when she sat down, protesting and exclaiming, because it was so hot.

  Refusing to seat herself on the backless bench, she perched on the chair I brought her. She pinched up and forwards the pleats of her blouse, and shook them up and down with exaggerated humourous sighing, like a child showing off. Then she leaned back languidly, with a sigh, and flapped a newspaper in front of her face to cool it.

  Everything she did seemed designed to make her companion notice her afresh and admire her prettiness. Her olive skin didn’
t protest, sweating, at the heat. It stayed fine-grained and smooth. Her eyes were black. Her little mouth pouted. To me it was odd behaviour, to seem so disconsolate with the fine summer weather, whereas of course we were so pleased because it meant all the harvest would be got in before the hot spell broke and it rained.

  Her companion sat and looked at her. His brown face was creased with amusement and affection at her antics. His eyes traced her narrow sloping shoulders, her tiny waist, her rounded full lips. He lit a cigar and puffed aromatic smoke-clouds at the ceiling. From his pocket, as though absentminded, he fingered out a sketchbook and pencil. Laying down the cigar, he began drawing her.

  While I served them the snack they had ordered, carefully setting down their glasses, pouring the cider, putting out the basket of bread and the plate of pâté, I tried not to look at them too obviously in case they caught me staring and thought me rude. I remembered them from last year. They were the couple who had come in and asked for food when we were not in the habit of serving it, and in that sense they had been my first customers.

  I stepped back and hesitated. I twisted my apron corner around my hands. I wished they would look at me. I wanted them to recognise me as I had them. They were so confident, so well dressed, so careless, that it almost hurt to watch them. They were clinking glasses, quite oblivious of me, unrolling their napkins and shaking them out onto their laps.

  My voice came out in a croak. I coughed and started again.

  —Will that be all? Is there anything else that you would like?

  The young woman shot me one impatient glance, as though to say: what’s that creature still doing here? She did not deign to reply. But her companion spoke to me pleasantly.

  —No, thank you. This is all we require.

  I supposed they must be from Le Havre at the very least; they were so fine and spoke in such a distinctive way, without a trace of local accent. I had spoken to them in my good orphanage French, being careful to let no patois creep into my speech, of which they wouldn’t have understood a word. Quite possibly they were from even further afield, like so many of the other summer visitors.

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