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The looking glass, p.9

The Looking Glass, page 9


The Looking Glass

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  The maid Geneviève has a rougher accent than the other three. Her words come out in a singsong rhythm. She’s a very simple character. When she hands round the dishes at lunch she starts enumerating the delicacies she has cooked for us as though she’s reciting poetry, and meanwhile the food gets cold. The Colberts are not Parisians, after all. I’d assumed they were, because Madame Colbert wrote to me initially from Paris, but it turns out they are Normans, like Geneviève. They were both born here, in this house. Monsieur Gérard has a deep, growling voice, and a rapid, barking delivery. He slows down for me when he remembers. But he doesn’t talk to us much. Most of the time he is shut away in his study, working.

  I’m disappointed, I must confess. I shan’t be living in Paris some of the time, as I’d assumed, but here in Normandy for the whole summer. Monsieur Gérard goes up to town regularly for literary evenings with his friends, but he and his mother want Marie-Louise to spend her childhood in healthy surroundings with plenty of fresh air and good food. They want her to grow up in the country. Her father is working out in Africa. Madame Colbert was talking about him last night. He’s performing a service to France, in which she takes great pride. He’s doing his duty, showing the natives how things should be run. Making money too. But he sent his daughter home, because the climate was too much for her. Which is why they needed someone to look after her: me. Thanks to the recommendation of that friend of a friend of Mother’s I’ve got this job, and of course I hope I can demonstrate to the Colberts that English teaching methods have something to be said for them!

  Geneviève told me the background to the story the day after I arrived, when she was showing me where to put everything away in my room. She was helping me unpack. She was smoothing out my stockings, and rolling them up neatly, two by two, into soft little balls she was lining up in a drawer. I noticed the way her fingers and eyes lingered on the silk, stroking it. Her stockings were grey woollen ones, much darned and baggy round the ankles, so I picked up one of my older pairs, only a bit worn, and tucked it into her apron pocket. So then she began to talk to me about the family. Marie-Louise’s mother, Monsieur Gérard’s sister, died shortly after giving birth to her, from some complication that led to an infection, and the sad widower went off to Africa to work for a mining company. They are a tight little family, the mother and her son and the small girl. They curve together, click, like jigsaw pieces.

  But the real reason we are spending the summer months here, and nowhere else, is because of money.

  Geneviève told me this second version of the story yesterday, when she was making my bed and I was sorting out my books and papers on the little table under the window. I shouldn’t listen to servants’ gossip, but I was curious. Apparently, Monsieur Gérard, being a poet, though a very good one, his faithful maid said with comical emphasis, earns little money, and he and his mother have only tiny incomes of their own from their two farms near Etretat, which is a resort on the coast quite near here. So they have decided to let the apartment in Paris, for the foreseeable future, and live full time in this house, which is much cheaper to run. When Monsieur Gérard goes up to town he stays with friends. He often goes on business to Rouen. Geneviève hinted that his business involves meeting a certain lady friend there. I disapprove of prurient tittle-tattle so I cut her short.

  So, anyway, I am having to abandon my dreams of life in Paris and adjust to a far more prosaic reality: a grey-green landscape half blotted out by rain ever since I got here; and a pervading smell of damp. The Colberts seem to receive very few visitors, so far at least, and I foresee that my leisure hours will be dull in the extreme unless I can find some occupation with which to fill them. I can’t study French all the time. And for the moment it is too wet to venture outdoors. That is where you come in, dear diary. Keeping a record of my experiences in France will give me something to do.

  All that I cannot utter in public, my criticisms particularly, I shall put down here. I’m writing this for myself, after all. Yesterday at déjeuner Monsieur Gérard was reading out bits of a newspaper review, to his mother, of a collection of poems by one of his friends I believe; I could not attend properly because I was cutting up Marie-Louise’s slice of meat and persuading her to eat the red part in the centre; and he grew very excited, stabbing at sentences with his forefinger and exclaiming that critics were vultures hoping for carrion to carry off in their claws. He slashed at his own helping of underdone lamb as though he had the critic laid out on his plate and was happily dismembering him. He’s like his mother when it comes to eating meat: they both like it red; they both like the blood; they get Geneviève to tip the blood from the carving dish into the gravy boat; and then, after the meat course, they keep some gravy back to pour over their salad as well. Rather uncouth, I think.

  I had not seen Monsieur Gérard angry before. He offered us more wine on the strength of it. The French may grossly undercook their meat; they sit over their meals far too long; but their wine is really not bad. We drink it at every meal. One small glass, or at the most two, from the corked-up bottle kept in the buffet and ceremoniously produced noontime and night. Marie-Louise has hers mixed with water, just enough drops of wine to tint the water red, but I said I would have mine neat, whereupon Monsieur Gérard pronounced me une jeune fille sérieuse and bowed to me as he handed me my glass. You could not possibly get drunk on the tiny amount we have; one bottle lasts two days at least; but I certainly enjoy it, the sweet warmth, drop by drop, down my throat. I try not to empty my glass too fast but in fact I should like to be able to toss back a tumbler at a time to get more of that intense red feeling. The wine livens up our mealtimes which are otherwise rather dull.

  Our food is quite plain. I imagined French food would be more exotic. We have a lot of vegetables and soups. The cream, poured over the vegetables and stirred into the soup, is the best thing we eat, and is very cheap, so even in this thrifty household we can eat it several times a week. It comes from the farm down the road. Once the weather improves Marie-Louise and I will walk out to fetch it.

  I feel France is making me very greedy. Something inside me is starving and shouting. It’s the same feeling that propelled me abroad. Wanting to bite into the world and seize it. I want to drink a lot of wine, eat a lot of cream, go out for long walks despite the rain, run very fast until I’m exhausted, dance until I’m giddy. Oh dear. How badly behaved and childish that sounds!

  I’m sure it’s not worldly pleasure I want, really, so much as someone to talk to. I miss Mother and I am even beginning to miss Arthur more than I thought I would. He writes to me faithfully every other day and reproaches me for not writing back as often. But I won’t think about him too much. I promised myself I would not. Having claimed three months away from him, having asked him to wait while I make up my mind, it seems rather a waste to be hankering after him already, dear as he is.


  A sketch of my day.

  Geneviève wakes me rudely at seven when she comes clattering in with a can of hot water, opens the catch on the shutters, which squeaks, and bangs them back on either side of the windows. I forgot to mention what Geneviève looks like. She is thin and wiry and nervous. She has a way of standing waiting, poised on her toes like a little pugilist, her feet half rising from her sabots, with her fists clenched at her sides, as though she’s ready to hit you at any moment. She’s younger than I am; eighteen or so. Her hair is concealed by her cap. She has hazel eyes, a little aquiline nose, and fair, sun-reddened skin. Every day she wears the same clothes: blue skirt, brown bodice, brown chemise and grey apron. She crashes out while I wash, and fetches the hot water for Monsieur Gérard, then stomps back in to help me on with my stays. I finish dressing, put up my hair, and then go and greet my pupil.

  Marie-Louise is always awake, waiting for me. She sleeps next door to her grandmother, in a closet-sized space that serves also as Madame Colbert’s dressing-room. Her little white iron bed is tucked in between two wardrobes. The walls in here are papered in blue,
with a pattern of red trelliswork and green vines, and above the bed hangs a framed oval portrait, done in pastels, of Caroline Colbert as a girl, with waxy brown ringlets dangling onto cramped shoulders. She wears a square-necked white dress and lifts one pearl-encircled wrist.

  When I bend over my charge to say good morning she puts her arms around my neck and kisses me. Not so much because she is fond of me; it’s too soon for that; we hardly know each other yet; as because it is polite. Morning and night she has to kiss all of us on both cheeks. This French fuss and formality seems hypocritical to me. A hearty English handshake is infinitely preferable!

  But I do like the smell of Marie-Louise at this hour. Small warm milky animal. Children smell quite different from adults. Madame Colbert smells of violet soap and the mint lozenges she is fond of sucking. Monsieur Gérard’s smell I have already described. Geneviève smells sometimes of eau-de-javel, sometimes of baking, and sometimes of sweat.

  We eat a modest breakfast, bread scraped with jam, in the low, square dining-room at the front of the house. The window looks out over the little garden and the road, so you can watch carts going by, and listen to people shouting to each other as they pass. The dining-room walls are painted a deep crimson and hung with mirrors and pictures in ornate gilt frames. On one side of the window is the buffet, in the top of which the plates, bottles of wine and tablecloths are kept, while the lower shelves are laden with precious objects like antique Limoges coffee services and sets of crystal champagne glasses that we never use. Yesterday after lunch Geneviève was kneeling on the floor, under Madame Colbert’s hawk-eyed supervision, yawning, dragging these fragile objects out to dust, one by one, then replacing them. Huffing and puffing and generally feeling sorry for herself. She’s rather lazy. Opposite the buffet is a set of hanging shelves holding porcelain dishes painted with wreaths of pink flowers and long-tailed exotic birds. The table is oval, with massive legs and feet, filling much of the room. When we’re working at it, it’s covered by a red felt cloth edged with black bobbles; then for meals we fold this up and put a white one on instead.

  We share our breakfast with Monsieur Gérard. He sits hunched inside a battered pink brocade dressing-gown tied with a yellow tasselled belt; he wears red morocco slippers with trodden-down heels and curly toes; he reads the newspaper and doesn’t talk to us. Madame Colbert has breakfast in bed, carried up to her on a tray by her devoted son. Every morning, whether it’s raining or not, he claps on his hat, pulls on his coat over his dressing-gown, darts out into the garden, picks her a nosegay and arranges it in a little glass, pleats her starched white napkin just so across her plate of hot rolls, fills her cup with coffee, then twirls upstairs as dextrously as any one of those waiters I saw in the café in Paris. Having done his duty, he goes off to his study to smoke a pipe, while Marie-Louise and I help Geneviève clear the table before getting down to our lessons.

  After our déjeuner at half-past twelve, Marie-Louise is shooed upstairs for a nap while I prepare our work for the following day. When she wakes up, after an hour or so, we are supposed to take a walk, except that it is too wet, so we run across the yard at the side of the house into the big barn and do some skipping and gymnastics. There’s a swing in there, and a trapeze, so we can do proper exercises. We also do some marching and drilling, which are so good for deportment and self-discipline. My pupil has much need of both.

  More lessons follow, then Marie-Louise’s supper. Then she plays a game with Monsieur Gérard such as spillikins, or draughts. Afterwards she sits on his knee and cuddles him. She pretends he is her horse and feeds him sugar lumps; she pats and grooms him; she combs his springy hair; she tugs his moustache quite fearlessly; then she seizes the ends of his cravat and names them reins; she twirls her handkerchief whip; and they are off around the racecourse. Monsieur Gérard bucks and neighs; the old armchair creaks and groans; Marie-Louise whoops with delight and urges on her steed.

  At the precise moment when the chequered flag is in view, when they are galloping hard and growing really boisterous, her grandmother lifts up her hands in her lap, the signal to stop, this minute, before over-excitement leads to tears or simply to more noise and hullabaloo. She calls the child over, to calm her down, and now Marie-Louise, sulking a bit, has to practise standing docilely in front of the old lady who is pulling her hair and sash to rights again while the child recites what she has learned that day. We three grownups listen very seriously. She is a sturdy little thing, though small for her age. She has pale blue eyes and brown ringlets, a wide smiling mouth. The performance finished, the demonstration of learning accomplished, she circles the little group, delivering her ritual kisses, and then off she goes to bed.

  There is no salon. The house is too small. We females live in the dining-room. So in the evenings, after we’ve eaten our soup, after the lamp is lit, and the shutters closed, after Monsieur Gérard has gone back into his study to get on with his writing, I sit with Madame Colbert by the stove. Madame Colbert sews. Her son’s shirts. Marie-Louise’s frocks. Or else she mends the household linen. When she has patched every worn tablecloth in sight, when she has turned every torn sheet sides to middle with a neat double seam, she embroiders florid initials onto pillowcases for Marie-Louise’s trousseau. She has offered to teach me these skills, but I declined since I rather despise such mindless pursuits. I read a schoolbook in preparation for the morrow, or I write letters home.

  I don’t know what Geneviève does in the evenings. Sometimes we hear Monsieur Gérard in the passage, clattering an umbrella out of the stand and then shutting the front door behind him, going off to play chess with his friend the doctor or just for a walk in the rain. When he returns, he stamps and exclaims, shaking the wet off his coat. I think he wants to stir up the atmosphere a bit. He certainly provides a welcome dose of noise. All I hear otherwise is Madame Colbert’s calm breathing, the ticking of the clock. At ten, Geneviève brings in the tray set with cups of tisane. When I’ve drunk my camomile to the last drop I shake hands with my employer and then I come up to bed and write this. Tonight it is still raining.


  Liberation. This morning the sun came out. We abandoned lessons after just an hour and went for a walk through the village, to collect the milk, eggs and cream from the farm. We took a detour, so that Marie-Louise could show me everything she thought proper for a guest to see. We briefly inspected the ruins of the Gothic abbey, which are indeed most picturesque, but I didn’t experience the awe I expected to feel because Marie-Louise is not in the slightest bit interested in architecture and didn’t give me time to get into the right mood. She dragged me off to the farm, where she insisted on introducing me to all the animals. The farmyard was muddy and smelly. The farmer’s wife gave Marie-Louise a tumbler of fresh milk and insisted that I try her cider. She served it in a saucerless earthenware cup, with a wide handle. It was dry and sweet at the same time, sparkling like champagne. Not that I have yet tasted champagne. If I ever got to Paris again I might. I daresay those demi-mondaines drink champagne regularly.

  Behind the farm is the forest of Jumièges, a dense, brooding mass of oaks, chestnut and birch. At the edge of the forest, beyond the ditch, the sun was striking down onto the bright green ferns growing there, splashing them with gold. So vivid they seemed almost transparent, with the green light dancing over them. Further in, under the trees, was deep green darkness your eyes could not penetrate. We stood on the road and looked. A little path led away from us, plunging forwards into the forest’s heart. Marie-Louise wanted to run in and play hide-and-seek but I held her back. I didn’t want to abandon the sunshine and enter the darkness. I thought we might get lost. So we came home. Immediately, I regretted it and felt I had been foolish and over-protective. However, when Monsieur Gérard heard of the tale of our expedition, recounted to him at great length by Marie-Louise over déjeuner and again this evening, he promised that he and his mother would accompany us to the woods for a picnic, some time soon, if it remains fine.

nbsp; JUNE 26TH

  Women’s lives, in Madame Colbert’s version, are supposed to be unremarkable. If I were truly the person she thinks I am, the person she assumes I’ll become, it would be impossible to write this diary because there would be nothing to say. It would be better to be a novelist and make it all up. Or a poet, who can voice the deepest wishes of the human heart. A poet must not keep silent. He must sing. He must fly about the world, create his own world, not get caught in snares and traps, return and give songs to those who can’t fly with him or after him. Poetry is made in freedom, and offered as consolation. It wakes you up to the existence of other realities in life besides the round of duty. It expands your soul.

  I wish I had brought some of my own books here with me, but they would have weighed down my luggage too much. I should have thrown out the extra pairs of boots and put in some volumes of poetry.

  Madame Colbert does not read books, but she enjoys the serials in her illustrated magazines. Geneviève doesn’t appreciate poetry either. I asked her to recite me some French poetry, because I wanted to learn some; I was trying to be nice; but she just glared at me and shook her head. She is only a very ordinary sort of girl, of course; she spends her days head down working for the Colberts, and has no time for anything else. Madame Colbert seems quite fond of her, in her gracious way, but keeps her distance.

  Yet Monsieur Gérard behaves differently. Tonight I thought he was still out, at the doctor’s. I hadn’t heard him come in. I suppose I wasn’t attending to the sounds in the house, because I was thinking about the walk I’d taken with Marie-Louise this afternoon, down to the river, and how beautiful the water looked in the sunlight. We took off our shoes and stockings and paddled. Tiny waves broke over our feet, stinging and icy cold.

  I said goodnight as usual to Madame Colbert, who was nodding over her mending, half asleep in her chair, and went down the passage to the kitchen, to fetch my candle. I paused outside when I heard Geneviève’s voice; there was no mistaking that forceful and guttural sound. But what surprised me was that she was obviously talking to a friend; she sounded so lively and confident. I didn’t know she had any acquaintances who were allowed to visit her at night; that is hardly the kind of thing that Madame Colbert would permit. I rattled the latch, to warn her someone was coming, then went in.

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