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The looking glass, p.8

The Looking Glass, page 8


The Looking Glass

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  —Are you from Paris? I blurted out.

  The man lifted an eyebrow but put down his knife and spoke with perfect courtesy.

  —We’re not Parisians, no. We’ve driven over from Etretat.

  I had wanted to make him speak to me again. I wanted to feel a link, however tenuous, with these strangers; I wanted to believe there was a world outside Blessetot in which there was the chance for people to be happy and good, and these two, I was convinced, lived in it, and so seeing them again I could imagine that I did too and that I still belonged to my days of innocence of a year ago.

  —I grew up in Etretat, I said: perhaps you know the place? The orphanage behind the market square?

  The man shrugged.

  —No, I’m afraid not.

  His voice was good natured enough, which encouraged me. I hesitated, thinking of another question to ask, to try and prolong the conversation. But Madame Montjean called for me from the kitchen and so I picked up my tray and went out of the bar. I heard the young woman laugh as I went off, a brief, scornful laugh. She said something I couldn’t catch.

  I didn’t care. She couldn’t hurt me. I had plenty of words in my head I could have used against her if I’d wanted to. She and her companion weren’t from round here. For us, the word tourist, or foreigner, could carry a certain amount of contempt. Like the word Parisian. A mere bird of passage with more money than sense. Someone from another planet who swanned in then swanned out and knew nothing about the real world. The young woman didn’t know that behind our politeness we could regard people like her with indifference, a touch of amusement. So I was well armoured against anything unpleasant she might say or think about me once she had deigned to notice my presence.

  I watched them drive off half an hour later. I hovered by the café door, patting their horse’s nose, while they climbed up onto the seat of their trap. The woman sat well back, pulling down her veil to swathe her hat and unfurling her parasol against the sun. I untied the horse and threw the bridle back over its head. The man tossed me down a coin, picked up the reins, twirled his whip, and shouted at me to stand clear.

  The horse backed obediently, then turned. It strained, then bounded forward under the whip too harshly applied. They went off up the street with a terrific clatter. White dust blew up under the rim of the wheels. I stepped back hastily with stinging eyes. Soon the carriage had vanished over the brow of the steep road out of the village.

  Its departure sketched in a line for me, between here and there, a straight line arrowing off into the unknown. They weren’t afraid of that road they’d entered and were travelling down, that road I couldn’t see from where I stood. They sped off into it. Perhaps they were so confident because they had money. Perhaps because they believed that they were not wicked but good.

  The tourist couple gave me a parting gift more precious than any coin. They enabled me to begin believing in the future, that it was possible and real. They allowed me to believe that one day I would leave Blessetot, and begin my life all over again. They handed me a map of escape with the route marked. I could become invisible, as they had done, to any watcher who stood outside the café and shielded his eyes from the sun and looked for me. I could go.

  Up until now I had always escaped backwards, into the mirror, into daydreams. Now for the first time in my life I considered the physical reality of going away forwards, letting my legs carry me off into the everyday world I did not know, just seeing what would happen next.

  I discovered a new version of time. I was not, after all, stuck for ever, revolving in a nightmare game, like the hands of a mad clock; I was not condemned to repeat the mermaid story from now till eternity. I could grow up; I could move; I could get away.

  Back inside the house, later that day, I sat on my bed and counted my money. My wages were low in the extreme, but since I had so little to spend them on, my meagre stock of coins had nonetheless mounted month by month. To me the hoard looked like a treasure trove. I thought that if I could somehow hitch a lift to Etretat then I might have enough for the train fare to Le Havre, even to Paris. The further away the better. What would I do when I got there? I would get a job as a maid in someone’s house, or I could work in a restaurant kitchen. I could even be a cook or look after babies. I had a moment’s unease when I considered that I would need some kind of reference before getting accepted by strangers. Then I reasoned that I could go to visit Sister Pauline in Etretat, give her a carefully edited version of my story, and ask her to write me a letter of introduction. I was not at all sure that she would do it without first kicking up all sorts of fuss and wanting to contact Madame Montjean, but I could think of no better plan. It would have to do. I went downstairs again feeling I had achieved something. Now I had learned that the future existed, all I had to do was wait for the right moment to run away into it.

  The annual village feast had once more arrived and gone past. The harvest festival was approaching. This year it was held on the last Sunday in August. A team of villagers decorated the church. Sprigs of corn, tied up in bunches with ribbons, were hung at the ends of the pews, and garlands of corn were put over the heads of the statues of the saints. This year the festivities had an additional meaning, for the Montjean baby was going to be baptised during the mass. His parents had finally decided on a name by the simple expedient of combining their choices. He was to be known as Jean-Louis.

  There was a certain urgency in getting him baptised. He was ill, with some ailment that did not get any better. From being a fine, thriving baby he had become a weak, crying infant whose survival was now in question. If he died without being baptised he would not be able to be buried in the churchyard but would find his last home at a crossroads, to signify that he was in limbo, for all eternity, with other good souls, like virtuous pagans, not sinful enough to merit purgatory. But he would never get to heaven, and nor would they, because none of them had been christened first. Not until the very end of the world, when Christ came in majesty and opened up all the graves and summoned out the dead to rise and be resurrected.

  Madame Montjean was too distraught about her child’s health to think much about the necessary preparations for the day. She paid for all kinds of experts to come and diagnose her poor baby: the doctor, the local midwife, the local sorcerer. Each one in turn prescribed different medicines and spoke out against the other two. The sorcerer made a little ball of herbs, wild garlic and feathers, which he hung over the cot, to chase the evil eye away, for he said there was someone around wishing the baby ill, and this malevolence had to be fought off.

  I removed myself from the scene of sorrow in the kitchen and concentrated on practical things. I planned the vin d’honneur we would have after the festival mass. I cooked food for the christening lunch. I cleaned and decorated the bar.

  This year the dahlias had bloomed in great profusion. They were planted in rows at the end of the garden, tied to stakes to stop them flopping over. A regiment of strictly marching flowers: hot pink curled pom-poms, and raggedy heads of salmon pink, spiked, like little starry explosions; Catherine wheels. In my first summer of helping Madame Montjean in the garden, I had not been sure whether I really liked dahlias or not. I had thought them too perfect, too tightly whorled, somehow unapproachable, but as soon as you picked a few, took them away from the formality of the massed bed, held them in your arms and then put them in a vase, you could see them better, how beautiful they were, so juicy and fresh. Raindrops nestled in the flaring petals, glittering, like beads on a frilly skirt. When you lightly shook each pink frou-frou ball, earwigs dropped out from their hiding-places inside. When you dipped the tip of your little finger into the rolled petals, they felt cool. I liked their smell, which was rough rather than sweet, and I liked their coarse, deeply indented green leaves. I put a bunch on each table in the bar, mixing flowers with buds, and planting a few sprigs of corn, begged from the harvesters, in among the stems.

  Madame Montjean came in to inspect my handiwork. She walked from the bar to
the kitchen, obviously noting the changes from how she had done things last year. She lifted the lids of pots standing ready on the stove and looked inside. Her face was wan and white with worry and exhaustion but her tone was sharp as she handed out her criticisms.

  I held my tongue and said nothing. But I knew I was frowning at her as I bit my lip. I wanted to justify myself and whine: but I was only trying to help, when this is such a difficult and anxious time for you; and it’s your fault as well; you taught me to be so capable; is it any surprise I want to test myself against you sometimes? But I thought she probably wasn’t complaining about domestic work, and so I kept quiet.

  We all duly went to church for the combined harvest and baptism mass. One of the godmothers, a relative of Frédéric’s, had not turned up, but the christening ceremony was performed anyway, halfway through, with Monsieur and Madame Montjean walking over to the font at the back of the church, and the other villagers turned round in their pews to watch. I stood nearby. The priest handed out candles, and was busy with chrism and holy water.

  A local farmer and his wife stood in as the main godparents. When it came to the moment for them to speak on behalf of the child, to renounce the world and the flesh, in particular to renounce Satan and all his works, they muttered the words in shy voices. The baby began screaming. I couldn’t help myself; I stretched my arms out to him; but he only cried harder.

  For some reason everyone glanced at me. I could see them thinking this was a bad omen. The priest carried on, splashing the baby with holy water as he baptised him, and the baby struggled weakly in his mother’s arms and would not stop crying. I saw people’s faces harden as they stared at me, and heard indrawn breaths like hisses, a whisper or two. My status as a villager, as one of them, had slipped away like a shawl falling off. I was the outsider, their looks said, the orphan, the bastard, the odd girl who prowled the beach and the cliffs for hours on her own and had no friends, and perhaps I had brought the family bad luck. Then I convinced myself I had imagined it.

  Afterwards people surged into the bar for tumblers of wine, and toasts, and I nipped about serving as I always did, and tried not to notice some of the women’s stolid faces come suddenly alive with inquisitiveness and malice.

  After the christening lunch the house hushed and emptied itself. Madame Montjean retreated to lie down in her bedroom, and watch over the baby in his cot; Frédéric took a gun and went out with a couple of other men to shoot the crows which screamed over a neighbour’s fields; and I tackled the washing-up. By the time I had finished it, my half-day holiday was nearly over. A thick drizzle had begun to sprinkle itself against the windows, so that I was disinclined to go for a walk down to the sea. I banged out of the kitchen and into the empty bar, bored and restless and uncertain how to fill up my time.

  I rearranged some of the nosegays which stood about. They had begun to wilt already in the atmosphere of heat and tobacco smoke. I found a half-empty bottle of red wine and poured myself a couple of glasses which I drank quickly, wanting to dull how I was feeling. I thought I’d like to get drunk and see what it was like.

  Then I found myself sitting on the edge of one of the tables which was drawn up close to the mirror, and gazing at my reflection. Sometimes it felt like having a sister who looked back at me and joined in the discussion about what I should do. Sometimes the mermaid flicked her tail at me and laughed and swam away as I got up, dissatisfied. Sometimes a good girl appeared opposite. More often these days, a bad one scowled back.

  Today there was just myself. I was alone. I knew it was my own face peering out, frowning and flushed. There was something I was searching for but I didn’t quite know what it was. There was something I couldn’t see. Mirrors are supposed to give you back yourself as you are, but my self-portrait was incomplete.

  The mermaid had had a mirror. She had been able to hold it between her legs and discover whatever it was she had there, even if that could not be told in the story. I too was curious. So I lifted my skirts, and bunched them about my waist, wriggled my drawers down about my ankles, brought my knees up on either side of me and spread my legs wide. I thought I looked just like a dahlia, so neat and furled and pink.

  I’d done it without thinking of danger. But I’d worked the mermaid magic; I’d summoned the man. And this one would capture me; he would hold me up in his net for all the villagers to see; and then he would kill me with his huntsman’s knife. I was too panicstricken at being caught to cry out when Frédéric swam up, when he appeared in the mirror behind me and came close; he stepped rapidly round in front of me, standing in between my thighs and blocking out my view, ramming his rain-misted jacket against me and holding me fast in his arms. Then, almost at the same time, it seemed, Madame Montjean was upon us. She shouted. She cursed and cursed.



  To me the river seems alive, like an animal. Flexing its long back, muscly and rippled, writhing across the plain like some great serpent swum in from the sea and now uncoiling itself; thrashing past forests. Swirling wide and deep, it dominates the landscape as far as your eyes can reach. In some places chalk cliffs, white veined with yellow, sweep up from its gravelly shore, while elsewhere they have tumbled and settled, heaps of great boulders with paths cut through them, edged with silvery sand, down to the water’s edge. The river is a clear, pale green, flowing fast, busy with cargo traffic, dotted with the bright sails of ketches tacking to and fro. Some stretches are fringed with willows and poplars, others with marshy shallows pricked by irises and reeds. Wooden landing-stages and quays jut out, rowing boats bobbing alongside, and from my bedroom window I can watch, through a veil of fine rain, the ferry ply back and forth, and the great barges, coming from the direction of Le Havre, shoulder aside all the smaller craft as they make their stately way upstream, loaded with timber and coal, towards Rouen and Paris.

  Here, surrounded by water, we seem cut off from the rest of the world. The Seine encloses us on both sides. Monsieur Gérard spread out the map on the dining-room table to show me. The village of Jumièges is set inside a great dangling loop of river that outlines a teardrop shape; a bag of land whose strings are drawn narrow at the neck; a clutch of fields, gardens and pastures as self-contained as an island. It boasts a ruined abbey, clusters of thatched half-timbered cottages, many apple orchards full of cows peacefully cropping the grass. The Colberts’ house is tucked away round the back of the abbey, between its park and the forêt de Jumièges. Monsieur Gérard ran his finger along the dotted line of the boundaries to show me that his garden used to be part of the abbey farm, before the Revolution. He has long brown hands, with very clean and well-manicured nails, but he has inkstains on his shirt cuffs. Shaded by two oak trees, the house is about a hundred years old, low and square, built of contrasting layers of brick and flint, with a blue slate roof, a small neat garden in front and a bigger one behind. Two rows of windows are closed by blue-grey shutters, and a little oeil-de-boeuf window projects from the attic. To the side are a yard, a barn and sheds, and a narrow vegetable plot. It’s all distressingly primitive: no gas upstairs, for example; I have to go to bed by candlelight.

  Monsieur Gérard met me off the boat train in Paris. We had two hours to spare, so he hailed a cab and had us driven around the city. We stopped briefly at a smart café on one of the grand boulevards. I drank a cup of hot chocolate and ate a macaroon stuffed with chestnut purée. Overdressed ladies of strenuous and ostentatious elegance, their eyes flirtatious and their cheeks shamelessly rouged (courtesans, perhaps?), idled in groups at the round marble-topped tables, chattering, fondling their little dogs, their feathered and beribboned hats swaying to and fro like poppies on long stalks. My first encounter with quite a different sort of society to the one I am used to in Surrey!

  Policemen stood in twos and threes, discreetly to one side, keeping a sharp eye on all the comings and goings; the air smelled of lime blossom and hot dust; my host lit a cigar. He slumped unapologetically, like an animal, in th
e warm sunshine. He lifted his chin, pursed his lips, and blew out clouds of smoke, his head tilted back, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Quite a few raffish-looking men, strolling past, stopped to greet him. Quite a few overdecorated demi-mondaines smirked at him as they went by. Then it was time to catch the train. We got out at Rouen and came the rest of the way in a hired carriage.

  Monsieur Gérard was very polite. He bowed when we met, looking after my luggage, and handed me in and out of the train as though I were a duchess rather than his niece’s new governess. He is rather ugly and quite old; thirty-five or so. He has bushy dark hair which bursts from his head in all directions, a large nose jutting out above the thick moustache which hides most of his mouth, and bright monkey eyes. He smells of tobacco, and of some eau-de-Cologne that’s more like a fancy-woman’s perfume than a real man’s, a mixture of limes and flowers and spice. No Englishman I’ve ever met smells like that. Arthur certainly does not. Nor did my poor Papa.


  Out here my French is not as fluent as it seemed in England. I feel like a dunce. Little Marie-Louise chatters away so fast I have constantly to stop her and ask her to repeat what she’s just said. I don’t like appearing so ignorant in front of my pupil but it can’t be helped. Madame Colbert says not to worry; I shall improve with practice. She is a majestic person, who holds herself very erect. She is short and stout, with frizzy grey hair and brown eyes that turn down at the corners. She speaks with formality, her turns of phrase very precise and polite, and when she addresses me she enunciates extra slowly and clearly. This is both humiliating and embarrassing, though I know she does it to be kind; I can see her graciously trying to set me at my ease; but I seem to blunder more when speaking to her than to anyone else.

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