Ignorance a novel, p.8
Ignorance: A Novel, page 8
Jeanne’s child focussed the crowd’s hoots and cries. Alone of the tarts, Jeanne blundered along bare-legged. Women, her own age and older, respectable, clad in skirts and blouses, ankle socks and sturdy shoes, their hair neatly pinned up, followed her, a chorus of good women staring and catching each other’s sleeves and pointing, then joining in to scream insults. Everyone around her, a troop of little children included, pulled at her dress as she passed, got as close to her as they could to yell at her, to spit on her. She was lower than a cockroach. Really there were no words for her. I felt the crowd feeling all this and I was part of the crowd and I felt it too.
Two days later, when I had calmed down, I went to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. The glowing red lamp recalled me to my duty. I realised that Jeanne needed help to get back on the right path. She’d come from a bad home, she’d been led astray, she’d fallen by the wayside, like a little sparrow. Now she needed a second chance, to be given a fresh start. I decided to take charge.
Through fine rain I went back to Madame Nérin’s mean little flat. Madame Nérin didn’t offer to shake hands. She said in a dull voice: oh, it’s you. She didn’t look grateful at all for my visit, but she could hardly not let me in. She told me Jeanne was asleep, with baby Andrée, in the bedroom. So I sat with her in the cramped kitchen, at the oilcloth-covered table jammed in between the stove and the sink. Madame Nérin’s mouth set hard. I tried not to let her see how much her squalid surroundings depressed me. Brown oilcloth, brown lino floor. Nappies soaked in a tin bucket. A rack of damp clothes tilted against the food cupboard. The place smelled of milk, soup, soap, bleach. Not a crucifix or a statue in sight. Did her religion no longer matter to her?
How chilly it was in here. The mild autumn didn’t seem to exist. I kept my coat and hat on, pushed my gloved hands into my wide sleeves. Madame Nérin, having observed me in silence for a while, roused herself, made me barleycorn coffee. She pushed away a pile of books, served the coffee in little cups whose stencilled blue and yellow pattern had almost completely worn off. How those cups affected me! I didn’t want anyone I knew to have to drink from such cups, chipped and saucerless. Nonetheless I accepted and drank the coffee: Madame Nérin needed to feel she could give me something, so that she’d be less beholden. She pulled her sleeves down over her wrists, chafed her hands. She’d obviously run out of fuel. How cold it was! Much too cold for a baby.
I said: now, please listen to me. Beggars can’t be choosers, you know.
I spoke as tactfully as possible. However well-meaning Madame Nérin was, with her shaky health there was little she could do to help. Better for everyone, and especially for Jeanne, if Jeanne went away for a while, far from shame and humiliation, to a place where no one knew her.
Madame Nérin frowned down at her folded arms. The fingers of her right hand tapped her woollen sleeve. She said: there was a man in Ste-Madeleine Jeanne mentioned, who I think wanted to marry her.
I said: well, he won’t want her now.
The following day I consulted the curé, and the nuns. The convent in London, the daughter-house, was the obvious choice. Reverend Mother fetched a sheet of writing paper from one locked drawer, pen and ink from another. She peered round. Blotting paper? She put on her spectacles. She dipped her pen, hesitated: we’ve been out of touch for so long, because of the war. I can’t be sure how well they understand French. I said: they’ll have someone teaching French who can translate it, don’t worry.
I took the letter away with me, bought a stamp, went to the post. Two weeks later the reply arrived, written in bad French you could just about understand. The English nuns agreed to take in our little penitent, find her a job and a room. Maurice and I got Jeanne a passport, bought her ticket to England. Maurice had a discreet word with the town hall authorities, who let Jeanne off having to report in every week, and agreed she was better off moving away.
Andrée being weaned, Jeanne could now give her up for adoption without any problem. Unthinkable to keep the child. Unmarried mothers, and particularly one in Jeanne’s situation, should try to bury their shame. Better by far to leave the child in the care of the good sisters.
Jeanne sipped her cup of tisane. She’d tied a gaudy yellow scarf around her head. From time to time one of her hands went up to touch it, explore the knot. Then she’d fiddle with the handle of her cup. I said: Jeanne, are you listening? She glanced at me but said nothing. She seemed stunned; apathetic. The ease with which she allowed other people to take over her responsibilities shocked me. I couldn’t believe she really cared about the baby. A few weeks later she signed the necessary papers, relinquishing all maternal rights, swearing complete severance from the child, and departed without any fuss.
Madame Nérin proved the difficult one. She didn’t want to let go of the baby. She insisted on keeping little Andrée with her. I was all for informing the town hall, consulting a lawyer, but Reverend Mother counselled patience: she’ll come round soon, just you wait and see. No need to involve the authorities just yet.
Just as the nuns thought, the new arrangement did not last long. Small Andrée needed constant attendance, while the grandmother had to go out to earn her living. She took the baby with her, but this of course made her working life very difficult. Then, to make matters more urgent, Madame Nérin fell ill with some chest complaint. Confined to her bed, she could not properly care for her little granddaughter. She kept the baby with her in her bedroom. That was not hygienic.
My own situation made it difficult for me to give Madame Nérin the help she needed. Maurice and I had already decided to leave our house at the top of town. We wanted to start life afresh. We required money for that. So we sold the house to an elderly couple moving to Ste-Marie to be near their children. They appreciated the dignified architecture, the generous proportions of the rooms. We moved temporarily back with my parents while Maurice went down south to look for a new job. At night the children slept on makeshift cots in the living room. There was certainly no room for an extra child. I had no time to look after one: soon after the war ended my mother had a bad attack of nerves.
She crumpled; just let go. She became very forgetful. She denied all knowledge of the things she’d been keeping for me in her locked cupboards. She lost control. She would burst into tears and wail: putain! Everything’s been taken away from me. You’re trying to take everything away! She retreated to her armchair by the stove, sat in silence with her neck poking forwards, her head bent. In her lap she gripped her black iron ring of keys.
What could I do? Nothing. You don’t ask your own mother for receipts. My father shouted from his chair opposite her: merde! Just leave her alone!
My mother’s decline upset me so much that sometimes I could not bear to look at her. I brought her meals on a tray, because she didn’t want to sit at table. I tucked her napkin over her front, like a baby’s bib. I kept her clean and washed her clothes. I did her cooking for her, and her housework. I found her radio programmes to distract her, brought home magazines for her from church. I told her: you’ve got to make an effort!
One morning I was so tired, the children having wailed and griped all night, that I lost my temper and cried out to her: why won’t you try to help yourself?
She thinned her lips, said nothing. I shouted: no one helps me do anything round here. You’re in no fit state to help me. I’m going to have to deal with this all by myself.
Maurice was travelling down towards the Midi, testing out business opportunities, factories, looking at houses. Before he went he said to me: just do whatever you think is right. He sent me cheerful postcards, urging me to hang on, everything was going to turn out well, I just had to have faith. When I wrote to his poste restante addresses telling him how exhausted I felt, begging him to return soon, he wrote back exhorting me to be brave, to stand fast.
I burst into tears. My mother shook her head at me. Her white skull gleamed through her thin grey hair. My father gripped the arms of his chair, turned and said: I can’t stand
The following afternoon I left the children with my parents and walked over to the presbytery to consult the curé a second time. He said: the nuns are there to help. They helped with the mother and now they’ll help with the child. It’s all about timing. Now is the moment to act.
He accompanied me to the convent. Reverend Mother, with two of the senior nuns, received us in the parlour. Reverend Mother agreed: let’s take the little one immediately. And then we’ll have to have her baptised. I said: I’ll be her godmother. Poor little thing.
Reverend Mother rang the bell for refreshments. A big black foot pushed the door open, held it wedged. In came a bulky black figure: Sister Dolorosa, carrying a tray. Her cheeks pushed out from her white coif. A smile split her cheesy face. Dear Madame Blanchard! I submitted to her kissing me on both cheeks. Her blistery skin repelled me. I said: dear Sister Dolorosa. So you’re still with us. That’s very good. She served us with a glass of Muscat each, a couple of macaroons. She stood back, feet splayed out, near the door, grinning stupidly; poised to refill our glasses and plates. She did indeed look like a big black Dolly. A sort of golliwog with huge dingy teeth.
The curé said: I myself shall inform Madame Nérin of our decision. And then I’ll see that she goes into hospital. I’ll be able to reassure her that little Andrée is in good hands.
Reverend Mother said: my sisters in England understand how to deal with delinquent girls. They’ll know how to handle Jeanne if she becomes difficult.
The curé finished his Muscat. Such an unfortunate family! The child’s far better off away from them. With one hand he flicked macaroon crumbs from his soutane and with the other he held out his glass: Sister, you spoil me.
I fetched the baby myself. For the last time ever I forced myself to walk through those miserable streets on the far side of the bridge. The wretched grandmother coughed into her handkerchief, turning her face away from the baby tucked in beside her, rolled in a quilt, fenced in by pillows. The damp flat shocked me all over again. Even wearing my fur coat I shivered. That confirmed my judgment: no fit place for a child.
I pushed Andrée through town in my own perambulator. When it began to drizzle I pulled up the hood of the pram. She gazed at me. Not really an appealing child. Pinched little face. Wispy brown hair. She didn’t look like anyone in particular, which was just as well. Now, little one, I said to her, leaning forward over the handle of the pram: be good!
The walk from Madame Nérin’s flat took perhaps twenty minutes. Plodding up through the grey back streets, I felt weighed down by indigestion. I kept hiccuping. Bending over the iron handle of the big pram, my stomach convulsed, twisted into knots. The road surfaces gaped with potholes, tarmac pocked with deep puddles after the recent heavy rain. I steered carefully around them. We reached the very top of town. I crossed the Place Ste Anne, the pram, its springs failing, jolting over the uneven paving-stones. A scarred and battered space. Someone ought to mend it. Do it up. In its ruined state it upset me so much I couldn’t bear to look at it any more. I turned my attention back to the pram. The baby stared at me.
I halted outside the front door of the convent and rang the bell. The baby began whimpering. I jiggled the handle of the pram, hoping to hush her. Soon she would have to learn to comfort herself.
My thirteenth birthday began with a gentle tug on the ear: up, lazybones! My breakfast treat: coffee with an extra dose of sugar in, to mask the bitter chicory taste. Monday morning, the sunbeams showing up the dust on the kitchen window, shaming the bare yard outside, where our two skinny chickens jerked back and forth beside the rabbit hutch. Yesterday’s stale bread: I dipped my tartine into my coffee, softening it. Maman said: what shall we eat tonight? We should celebrate.
I got down her cookery book from the shelf. Her Bible, she called it. I Want to Cook, by Brigitte Marisot, the title and author’s name printed in well-spaced black capitals, tall and thin. As a child, desperate for something, anything, to read, I’d studied the recipes, night after night. Juicier than the poems I had to learn for school. I chanted these little songs about partridges, pheasants, capons, pigeons to myself. Other recipes told you how to make sausages from the blood. Madame Marisot, showing you how to dismember a duck, wielded a sabre-like chopping knife. Mrs Bluebeard.
Papa had given Maman the cookery book. For their engagement, she told me. He’d inscribed the flyleaf in brown handwriting: for Liliane, most affectionately, from Josef. The blue cloth covers had begun to work loose, parting from the spine. You could see where the pages had been stitched together with looped and knotted white thread.
Madame Marisot provided opening chapters on food science, hygiene, table manners, kitchen equipment, domestic economy. She adjusted her puffy white hat, her starched white overall, wagged her forefinger. She posed in the centre of a vast white-tiled kitchen hung with shining pans, her batterie de cuisine lined up in front of her on a well-scrubbed table. She inspected her troops for dust, for spots of grease. Look sharp! The ladle, egg whisk and wooden spoons stood to attention. The rolling-pin and cake-moulds saluted. The nutmeg-grater and cheese-grater wheeled round smartly.
Since we did not eat meat, because we could not afford it, I turned to the chapter near the end which proposed sample menus, suitable to particular seasons, for vegetarians. I read out the autumn one: Délicieuses au fromage, potato purée, Russian salad, pears with cream.
Maman wiped off her coffee moustache. She said: it all depends, doesn’t it. What have we got?
Coughing, she got up, untied her apron. I checked the food cupboard: oil, flour, salt, sugar, a decent-sized heel of gruyère. No potatoes, pears, eggs, beetroot or cream.
I said: I wish I didn’t have to go to school today. I wish I could leave.
Maman said: don’t grumble. You should be glad you’re getting an education at all.
I blew out my cheeks at her: you sound just like one of the nuns. Her hand whirled up. She frowned. Then she poked my ribs: behave!
That evening she came in smiling. She advanced her hand, her fingers petalling around two eggs balanced on her palm. Look what Madame Fauchon’s given me. We’ll have Délicieuses for supper, and we’ll have pancakes as well. We’ll be eating better than the nuns do, that’s for sure.
She didn’t want me to complain about being at a Catholic school. She’d been glad when the nuns proposed I continue to stay on, in return for helping with the little ones, because she wanted us to blend in with the Catholics. Just in case of trouble. What trouble? Wait and see.
She beat the Jewish egg yolks into the Catholic flour and folded and beat them together. She flipped discs of brown lace into the air and they looked identical.
She piled the sugar-sprinkled pancakes on a plate. Your Papa used to love these. Don’t you remember? I shook my head. I hardly remembered him at all. A voice telling me stories at night. A blue trouser-leg. The scent of hot grass under a blue sky. Memory failed there.
Maman cleared the table, putting the cookery book back on the shelf: I really must mend it. On to the pancakes she poured a few drops of Liqueur 44: now that you’re a young lady, you can try spirits.
Silly name, I said: why is it called that? Maman said: it’s the recipe, everything comes in measures of forty-four.
Dark liquid, tasting both sweet and bitter. I swallowed my dessert as fast as I could: it’s like medicine!
To begin our supper we ate the Délicieuses: the two egg whites beaten stiff then gently folded with grated gruyère, taken up in spoonfuls, dropped into the pan of boiling oil and quickly deep-fried. To test the eggs’ freshness before she cooked them, Maman held the bowl of beaten whites upside down over her head. Nothing fell out. She always did this, to amuse me, and I always gasped and laughed. One of our kitchen games, which
Monsieur Jacquotet had blended in by retiring inside his hermitage-house. Going to and fro from school I would glance towards its façade. Closed shutters and closed door. He didn’t know I’d had my thirteenth birthday and that I was nearly grown-up. I couldn’t tell him. I wished I could.
When he and I met again, I didn’t know what to say. Girls of thirteen didn’t broach conversations with grown-ups they hardly knew. Not in Ste Marie-du-Ciel.
It happened by accident. I walked to school under a pale blue November sky spotted with grey clouds. In the afternoon rain spurted down, drumming on the high window sills. Cooped up in the airless sewing room with a child’s blouse spread over my knees, surrounding the raw edges of buttonholes with tiny blanket stitches, I wanted the walls to crack, let in rainy freshness. My needle, stabbing through cotton, pricked my forefinger. A bead of blood welled. I sucked it. The metallic taste pleased me, gave me an idea. I put up my hand, went to the podium, mumbled to Sister Dolorosa, who supervised the sewing hour, that I had cramps. She swung her head towards me, pushing back her black veil. Under the dark muslin her white bonnet smelled of starch. Inside her coif her cheeks looked soft as ripe cheese and smelled of carbolic soap. She whispered: are you expecting your visitor? I nodded yes. Sister Dolly said: have you got a towel with you? I shook my head. She sucked in her spit with a hiss: dirty girl. Get off home, then.
Sheets of rain fell past my face. I’d forgotten my beret: I put my arms up to shield my head, ran into the square. Wetness hammered my shoulders and nails of rain pierced me. My feet squelched inside my flimsy boots. Water drove down my neck, off my nose, off my eyelashes, soaked through the front of my coat. No separation between me and the weather: I’d dissolved into the rain, become sludge, like melted sugar at the bottom of a cup. Sludge that wanted to dance and go a bit crazy.
by Michèle Roberts have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes