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Ignorance a novel, p.9

Ignorance: A Novel, page 9


Ignorance: A Novel

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  The door in the façade of Monsieur Jacquotet’s house swung open like the cover of a book, revealing the black oblong of a page. He stood against it, brightly coloured as a picture in a comic paper. He wore a blue coat, like an overall, flapping open, a yellow waistcoat, a red spotted scarf tied round his throat. He’d cut his black hair short. He seemed thinner. He beckoned to me. Come in and get dry – come into the warm.

  The dark passageway smelled of vanilla. Through this tunnel of warm scent I blundered after him. In the kitchen he unbuttoned my coat, drew it off me and hung it up on a hook near the fireplace. He produced a rough towel, blue and grey stripes with frayed ends, threw it over my head and rubbed vigorously at my dripping hair. He took the towel away and considered me. Poor child, you’re nothing but a puddle. Sit down.

  I leaned my hand on the back of a wooden chair. The nearby table was littered with little glass bottles, saucers smudged with paint, yellow Ricard ashtrays, red-stained corks, paper bags, boxes of matches, newspapers and magazines. Tables at home in our tiny flat did not tolerate such glorious mess. They invited hands to get busy sorting and piling, sweeping tides of rubbish into waste buckets. They urged dusters and polishing rags to approach. Then they breathed bare and silky for a moment before they got covered with oilcloth or blue linen depending on the day of the week, the time of day. Here, the table could not know whether it was a mealtime or a Saturday or anything. It obviously just got layers added to it. At one end a fluted green glass dish bore the scrapings of what looked like white beans in dried-up gravy. A half-empty pale grey coffee cup held dead flies floating in its scum. Tumblers lined up, crusted with yellow dregs of cider. A crumpled green and white checked handkerchief lay next to a hill of breadcrumbs, mixed in with blue glass beads, a broken string of pearls, bits of gilt, razor blades, slivers of pink soap, small pages with handwriting in red ink.

  My mother would have put her hands on her hips, demanded to know who was going to tidy this lot up. Perhaps Monsieur Jacquotet’s wife would have spoken similarly. Inside myself I felt the same confusion as the table did, words muddled together seeming to sway up and down. The table bore all the bits and pieces without complaint. Time vanished, meaningless: a fresh pain au chocolat, surely bought this morning, perched next to a splatter of black and white photographs obscured by dust.

  The table turned into a mountain: to hold everything, so that the mass of stuff wouldn’t slither over its edges and spill across the floor, it built itself upwards, a tower of used plates, railway timetables, dark yellow brass candlesticks branching like trees, squares of plum velvet edged with gold lace, a pair of reading glasses, a papery bouquet of dried honesty.

  My still life, he said, with a little bow, smiling.

  I hardly heard his words. I’d gone into a dream. I was warm, and colours jumped out at me from all around, caressing me. The wide cushion on my chair, worn cotton patterned in orange, red and pink paisley, plumped up around me. With my forefinger I traced the frill-edged comma-shaped curls of the design. I lifted my eyes and stared at his green brocade waistcoat, its silver buttons. Take your boots off, he said: and your socks too. He stood the boots on top of the range and hung the socks on the rail in front of the oven, in between two brown floorcloths, their coarse weave dyed by filth. He obviously didn’t know how to clean floors. First you did them with a scrubbing brush, to get the worst off, and only after that with a cloth.

  He looked at my bare feet, their cold whiteness studded with red chilblains. Dear little feet. He knelt down in front of me and clasped my toes gently, taking care not to touch the chilblains. He cupped my heels, one after the other, and massaged my soles. He said: wait here. He came back with a pair of grey woollen socks, some blue felt slippers. I put them on. They fitted exactly.

  Silence opened up, surrounded us. Inside this quiet I could tell the truth, at least try to. I said: I’m sorry about before. What happened before. I’m sorry if I got you into trouble.

  Would you like a bite of something? He opened a pale green cupboard and took out a battered tin, its dented sides patterned with red and white squares. He poured a stream of yellow biscuits on to a turquoise ceramic soup plate: go on, help yourself. The biscuits had sugar sprinkled on top and black speckles inside. They tasted of butter, cornmeal and caraway.

  He took up a biscuit. He said: Monsieur Fauchon explained it to me afterwards. Don’t you remember? You told him all about it when he brought you back.

  What had I said? I remembered crying, down by the river, and the young workman taking me by the hand and tugging me back up the hill. The orphanage, is it? I wailed no. No I won’t. Lights burned in the cobbler’s shop. Its door stood open. Monsieur Fauchon’s voice called from inside. That’s the Nérin child. Jeanne. Jeanne, what are you doing? The young man delivered me in to the shop, then left. The Fauchons asked what was wrong. They spoke quietly. I felt them trying not to frighten me. I choked; speechless. I felt ravaged by shame. People could see me but they shouldn’t see me. That was my fault.

  Monsieur Fauchon waved me towards his high stool. I shook my head. He scooped me up and perched me on the counter. He wore a brown linen apron tied around the waist with brown string. His fingers plucked at this hairy twist, fiddled with the frayed ends, as he hovered in front of me. His wife stood next to him, her black-haired baby, wrapped in a white shawl, curved in her arms. She had big dark eyes, glossy black hair swept back in thick waves. Little gold studs shaped like open flowers, a pearl in the centre of the petals, decorated her earlobes. She wore slippers, a pintucked blue pregnancy blouse. The baby rested on top of her swollen belly. Both of them gazed at me as I wept. They waited patiently for my tears to stop.

  The shop smelled of leather. Rows of exhausted shoes had halted on the shelves, some with curled-up toes, some with holes in the soles. Bulging shapes of brown paper bags, pinned with numbered tickets: shoes awaiting collection. A silver till next to me. Tools with wooden handles. Gradually the warm smell of leather comforted me, calmed me down. Leather had been an animal once. A cow’s hide. Living and breathing creature, giving milk. Spurting from teats, frothing warm into the pan. I leaned my head against the cow’s flank. Hide in the shed and watch a woman pull on the cow’s udder, milking her.

  Had I fallen asleep? I fell back into time: Madame Fauchon brought me a cup of warm milk and persuaded me to drink it. Her husband put on his overcoat. Come along, little one, we’d better take you back. His wife spoke briskly: nothing else for it, with your mother in hospital. You’ll just have to try and make the best of it.

  In his kitchen Monsieur Jacquotet and I munched our biscuits. I looked around. He’d put up more decorations since my previous visit. Now not just strings of dried apples but also bunches of blue-grey sage dangled from knotted cords looped all along the beams, mixed in with stiff plaits of onions and thinner twists of garlic, spiky little nosegays of dark green thyme. Along the mantelpiece he’d arranged a row of oranges with stubs of candles set in between. He’d covered the walls with paintings done on large squares of brown paper, which he’d pinned up in groups. Some consisted simply of thick lines of white and of black, zigzags and circles painted on to the brownness. Others were fat stripes of colour like mad rainbows. They made you see how beautiful brown paper actually was. How even more beautiful a brown paper bag might be if you painted the right kind of pattern on to it. Brown paper bags from the stationer’s, plump with rubbers, pencils and pens, with twisted ears you spun; seized and swung up between your hands.

  Bags didn’t yelp with pain when you pinched them but children did. Bags of sinful mess the nuns gripped by the ear. Sister Dolly, paddle under her arm, had hauled me from the parlour into the classroom, where she thrashed me. I turned my head and watched her red hand whistle up and down. Afterwards she was angrier than ever because I denied it hurt. I’d won, and she knew it. Later, in the dormitory, I stuffed the sheet into my mouth so no one would hear me cry.

  Monsieur Jacquotet’s hands weren’t red but brown. The
y knew how to make fine old messes in his kitchen, how to let the mess take care of itself, not get swept away. His were capable hands, which wielded awls, brushes, hammers and nails. He didn’t like mops and brooms so much. I wanted to forage in his mess, find bits and pieces I liked, get him to make me something with them. I wanted to make something myself.

  He said: so what shall we do now while we wait for your boots to dry? I remembered the attic studio, those big canvases stretched on frames propped against the wall. I know, I proposed: I’ll pose and you draw me. I swallowed the last bite of the biscuit and sat up very straight on my wooden chair. Monsieur Jacquotet said: I’m going to draw your feet. I’m going to draw you wearing those socks and slippers. Stay still and don’t move. He picked up a pencil and pad of paper from the table, where they lay on top of some cabbage leaves.

  He encircled the pencil with his fingers, waited. The pencil quivered, zigzagged, jumped up and down, drew his hand across the paper, back and forth, feathering. I stopped watching and just concentrated on staying still. My muscles began to hurt. He said: that’s half an hour gone. Your things will be dry by now. You ought to be getting home.

  My socks, thin wool, bore black toecaps of the dried mud that had seeped in through the cracks in my boot soles. My boots had stiffened to husks of cardboard. I forced them on over my chilblains. Stepping into the street, I found that the rain had stopped. The wet cobbles glistened. I got home at exactly my usual time. My stomach-ache returning, I thought it was the caraway seeds in the biscuits.

  My first ever visitor came on later that evening. Bravo, ma chérie! My mother patted my cheek, took me into our shared bedroom, showed me how to fold cotton rags into a pad held in a net of gauze. She foraged in her underwear drawer, produced a mauve silk ribbon: you can have this. She knotted the ends of the gauze on to the ribbon tied about my waist. The shreds of material pressed against me kindly and softly. They drank in my metal-scented blood and made me feel comfortable.

  Back in the kitchen, my mother got out the two sponge fingers remaining in a tin, reached down the bottle of Liqueur 44 and tilted it over two tiny glasses. Just a sip. It’s a powerful god! She toasted me and I toasted her back. This time the taste seemed less bitter.

  In between drinking drops of the dark liquid we nibbled the sponge fingers, sugary and crisp. I asked: forty-four what? What d’you put in it?

  She re-corked the bottle and recited the recipe. Forty-four coffee beans, forty-four lumps of sugar, forty-four small tumblers of squeezed orange juice from forty-four oranges given forty-four stabs, forty-four small measures of eau-de-vie. Leave for forty-four days then tap the bottle forty-four times.

  Later that week I paid a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the parish church on my way home from school. I wandered to and fro. I hung about in the side chapel dedicated to the Ste Vierge, rattled through a few Hail Marys while kicking the ends of pews. I was the fastest prayer-sayer in town.

  I hovered near a prie-dieu set in front of the Virgin’s statue. She stood on a lace-covered plinth, her bare feet level with my raised eyes. Not a woman: child-sized. She had a rosebud mouth, brown hair pulled back under a white veil, a crown of stars, a white cloak, its yellow revers painted with golden swirls. Her chapel, a baby church within a mother church, had a pointed, painted roof and held her inside carved and gilded panels. Shadowy place, smelling of incense and wood rot and dust and polish. Darkness clouded it like candle grease running and thickening. Red and blue glass glowed in the window.

  The hush settled round my shoulders like an arm. He pressed us to him. One child on each knee. My dear little sisters. Let us pray.

  How did prayer work? Why did no one explain? Like the telephone? A miracle: that was that. Second miracle: the Virgin could see through closed doors and knew everything I did. You hadn’t to do anything that would upset her. Don’t disobey your mother or turn Communist. Millions of excommunicated souls shrieked and writhed in hellfire and it was their own fault. To avoid that agony you kept on the straight and narrow. Not like my mother: she believed in workers’ rights. One day, Jeannette, women will get the vote. I was brushing her hair for her, one of my treats. I tugged at a tangle: did you really have to convert, though? She said: it seemed the best thing to do at the time.

  When she converted, my mother had changed her name from Nerinski to Nérin. Did that count as lying and deceit? Would my mother go to hell? Had the Virgin’s blank eyes seen the curé stroke our necks? Her pinched lips couldn’t name his favourite game. Darlings, oh darlings. He pressed our faces into his soutane smelling of old sweat, crusted with soup stains, and nearly choked us. Promise never to tell a soul or you’ll be punished and thrown out of school. He set us down, made us stand in front of him. The sweets in his pockets came newly to life. Fat, squirming. With both hands I had to hold him, swollen up inside the black cloth. I tucked the soutane around it. Like dressing a baby doll which could wriggle and bounce. While Marie-Angèle watched, he pulled my knickers down. He gripped me in his arm, he panted and moaned, looking up to the ceiling. I can’t help it! I can’t help it! His black puppy leaped in his lap, barking and biting. I couldn’t hold it any longer. Marie-Angèle reached out. Just trying to help? Curious? Mother Lucie told me that I invited touch. My fault: I was bold.

  I stuck my tongue out at the Virgin, left the church, doubled back up the street and went to see the Hermit.

  I led the way to his studio at the top of the house. He followed me up the curving wooden stairs. Milky sunlight leaked in through the square window set in the roof, flowed down the rolls of canvas leaning against the walls. I lifted some sheets of paper, testing their weight, ran my fingers along their sharp edges, and waited for him to suggest a pose. He wrapped me in a knitted blue shawl, arranged me on a low chair covered in a mauve and yellow bedspread: I just want to get the outline of a shape. He put one forefinger under my chin and the other in the small of my back, lifted with one hand and pushed with the other. I straightened my spine, tucked my legs down to one side. The next time I donned a little black silk cape, a black hat he pinned on to the side of my head. The clothes lay there ready, draped across a trestle. I just put them on over my school pinafore. He wouldn’t let me look afterwards. It’s none of your business!

  I relied on his instructions. Just a fingertip touch on my knee and I’d spread out the long red skirts of my dress. I held up my head under its unaccustomed weight of combs, headdresses, feathers. As the days went by we experimented more. He’d roll my front hair over a ribbon and pull it back, put my back hair up into a chignon. He’d fetch the brush, combs and pins from one of the rooms downstairs. When I offered to help he pushed my hand away. He bent towards me and smoothed my hair and I smelled his coffee breath.

  One afternoon he went downstairs and hunted for a scarf he wanted me to try. I heard him open a door on the landing below. So that was where all the clothes were kept. Had I seen that room? The shapes and colours of the house whirled inside me like a spangled cloak. A small white bedroom? A big wardrobe? Perhaps he’d changed things all around, moved the furniture, the beds. Perhaps I’d made it all up. I imagined a wardrobe big as a house, in which you could get lost, vanish, and then be found again. I imagined this wardrobe full of women rustling in satin, in layers of crisp petticoats, who’d draw me into their arms, wrap me up in a scented embrace. When they let me go again they’d stretch their arms lazily along padded hangers. They wore little bags of lavender, to repel moths, slung around their necks. High above their heads, on a shelf, perched their striped green and white hat-boxes, their handbags, their piles of gloves: woollen and lace and kid. A forest of women bending towards each other over my head, gossiping like the wind rustling leaves, and I in the centre of their circle in charge of the game.

  Inside their wardrobe-house the wives wore different coloured negligees: red with black lace, pink with silver lace, black with grey lace. Perhaps he took them to bed with him one by one, night after night, his silky harem. Perhaps he chose a different
favourite each evening, laid her down next to him, caressed her, murmured to her, hugged her close. Inside the wardrobe the wives struggled for power: choose me!

  One afternoon, when he stomped off to the lavatory, three flights down, out in a shed at the back of the house, I descended, on stockinged feet, to the floor below. Which room was which? I chose at random. I seized an egg-shaped china doorknob in my fingers and twisted it. The door opened. In I crept.

  Just a bedroom. Had I seen it before? Red wallpaper patterned with big golden vine leaves. A high double bed covered in a purple silk bedspread, a black cabinet on twisty legs near it, a low, red-upholstered chair with a dimpled back and no arms, a washstand set of bowl and jug stencilled with pink half-circles. Pictures, framed and unframed: blurs of colour. A tall, wide cupboard with a panelled door carved with flowers stood against the wall facing the bed. The key, a knot of black iron lace, projected from the black mouth of the lock. I turned the key and pulled open the door.

  Behind me he said: those are her things.

  His voice tickled the back of my neck like the point of a knife, teased down my spine. I turned. His face was flushed red. I said: you didn’t tell me not to come in here. You didn’t tell me not to touch them. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

  My voice came out in a bleat. He looked at me impatiently: no, of course you weren’t. But having got this far you’d better help me choose.

  He plunged his hands into the concertina of material. He eased out the edges of skirts and frocks, caressed them in his long fingers, rubbed his thumb over the hems. He stroked a yellow satin cuff, a blue polka-dotted chiffon frill.

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