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Authors: Elizabeth Ross

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BOOK: Belle Epoque
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My basket is full. I hoist it on my hip like a heavy child and navigate the street, which is teaming with omnibuses, carriages and pedestrians. I walk past the butcher, who’s taking down a brace of pheasants, and a flash of Monsieur Thierry gives me
a shudder. A florist throws a pail of dirty water in the gutter and I skip out of the way, almost taking a tumble on the slippery cobblestones. I reposition the basket—the hens would have my guts for garters if I let the clean linen fall in the grimy street.

Restaurant l’Académie is a small neighborhood bistro, which sits between a barber’s and a bookshop. A group of men is crammed into the small terrace out front, smoking cigars, enjoying the mild afternoon. There is a collection of wine bottles and glasses littering the tables; they must have been there a while.

“Excusez-moi, excusez-moi,”
I say, trying to get to the door. They are all talking at once and oblivious to my presence. I lift the basket above my head to squeeze past their chairs.

When I enter the establishment, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark room. The walls are papered a deep red and lined with paintings and bookshelves. The restaurant is empty apart from a waiter drying glasses behind the bar, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

I walk over with a smile. “Linen delivery.” I’m glad the trip wasn’t farther; my arms are starting to ache, and the basket keeps sliding down my side.

He looks up and shakes his head at me. “Service entrance!”

“Pardon me?” I ask.

“Go around back, you idiot,” he says.

I can feel the flush of warmth on my face. “I didn’t know, I’m sorry.”

“The front door is for customers only,” he snaps.

Does he have to be so rude? I hike the basket up onto my hip and retrace my steps. There aren’t even any customers inside—what does it matter which entrance I use? I fling open the door roughly, feeling the sting of Parisian manners.

I say again to the men sprawling across the terrace. Again I am ignored.

The gentleman nearest me rises from his chair to argue with his friend. “Nonsense, Claude. This is the reason that the Second Empire’s policies haven’t changed today—the poor in their place and the rich getting richer.”

While he’s standing, I manage to nudge his empty chair aside with my foot and slip past. But then suddenly their political argument changes into a chorus of laughter and I spin around to see that the young man who just stood is now picking himself up off the floor. I gasp, realizing that it was my fault.

Je suis desolée
, monsieur,” I say immediately.

He gets up, dusts off his jacket, then sits down. “Take the laundress.” He points at me. “Thin as a rail. Barely making subsistence wages.”

“Let’s buy her some supper!” says another man.

Before I know what’s happening, a man with a cigar pulls me toward him and with an abrupt lurch I’m sitting on his lap, my basket dropped on the floor.

“Have a drink with us,” he says, locking his arms around me. I’m utterly repulsed. He smells like fried liver and onions.

I say, tugging at his arm. “Let me go!”

he shouts. “A brandy for the washer girl.” His
breath is saturated with alcohol, and the overpowering smell burns my nostrils. I pull away from his face, but his grip around my waist is strong and I can’t break free.

The waiter appears on the terrace.
“S’il vous plaît, messieurs.”
His arms flap around like an orchestra conductor. “
Je suis vraiment desolé
. She should not have imposed herself on you.”

His words go unheeded and I begin to feel a surge of panic. I thrash my body forward, finally wrenching myself free from the drunk man, bumping into the table and knocking a glass of red wine smack into my basket of perfectly clean starched white tablecloths. Disaster.

I pounce on the basket, frantically pulling out the linen on top, trying to prevent the wine from soaking through to the layers beneath. The spreading stain is like a seal on my fate. I will surely be sacked for this, and then what? Will I have to beg or steal to live? I look up at the cigar man who grabbed me, and he is laughing. A well of anger rises from my gut.

“Have you nothing better to do than sit about and get drunk all afternoon?” I glance at the ruined tablecloths in my arms, pristine only moments ago. “Some of us have to work for a living, as pathetic as that might sound.”

la bretonne
,” says the cigar man on hearing my accent, which is stronger when I’m riled up. “What fighting words! My esteemed friends and I are actually trying to effect some change for the proletariat such as yourself.”

“Cut it out, Claude,” says a voice, and the young man whose chair I kicked aside approaches. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and offers it to me.

I say, accepting it. I can’t do much for the linen, but I use it to wipe my sticky hands.

The waiter grabs the basket of laundry. “Follow me,” he says gruffly through his mustache. Trembling with anger, I follow the waiter through the door meant only for customers, across the restaurant and into the back kitchen. A cook is chopping vegetables and looks me up and down. The waiter removes the few clean tablecloths from the basket, checking for wine stains, and puts them in a cupboard. He picks up a pile of dirty laundry from under the sink and chucks it in my basket; then he grabs the wine-stained bundle from under my arm and adds it to the pile.

“Needless to say, we’ll need an extra delivery of clean linen.” He takes the basket and shoves it into my arms.

I nod feebly. What excuse can I invent to explain this to the hens?

“Next time, go around back. You’re not much to look at, but when the customers drink that much wine, they’re not choosy!”

The waiter gestures to the back door. I flee with my basket and stumble into the alley. My heart is thumping and my eyes prickle with tears and the stench of rotting food. I march away from the restaurant, not sure which direction I’m heading. Those men are just like gulls on the beach squawking at each other. They bicker and posture, and meanwhile, the ocean continues its endless back-and-forth, regardless of their jabbering.

The alley leads me back to the street. It’s dusk now; as I walk, streetlamps come on like little orange stars. The evening
air cools my temper. I breathe deeply, drinking it in. Then I hear a voice.

La bretonne!
Hold up.” I turn around. The man whose chair I kicked aside is walking briskly toward me. I brace myself, wondering when this ordeal will end.

“Here!” To my surprise he stretches out a hand filled with francs. “A collection from all of us. The least we can do after we badgered you back there.” He smiles. “What’s your name?”

My defenses are still up. “I don’t need your charity,” I say, hoping he can’t tell that I’m close to tears. “If only you and your friends had left me alone.” My voice is thin and on the verge of cracking. I turn away and keep walking along the street, but he follows beside me. I keep my eyes focused straight ahead and the basket wedged between us. He doesn’t say anything, but after a few paces I hear the clink of change and see the francs sitting on top of my pile of linen. I stop walking and look at the money. If the worst happens and I’m fired today, I’ll need it. Survival over pride: I scoop up the coins with my free hand and slip them into my dress pocket. “My name is Maude,” I say, throwing him a glance.

“Paul Villette.” He smiles again.

I’m silent as we walk side by side down the street. His kind gesture makes me feel awkward, as if I owe him something.

“I’m sorry about my friends,” he says eventually.

“What are you talking about?” I say harshly. “It was you who singled me out in the first place.”

“I didn’t realize how much they’d been drinking. Good for you, though, standing up to Claude like that.” He breaks into
a laugh. “Putting the world to rights is thirsty work where he’s concerned.”

“The world could do without his help.” I steal a look at Paul. Away from his contemporaries, he appears a lot younger. He can’t be more than twenty. He has scruffy brown hair escaping from under his hat and a smile that reaches his hazel eyes. His suit is ill-fitting, a bit large for his slender frame, and droopy, as if he hasn’t grown into it yet. His tie is loose, as if knotting it was an afterthought on his way out the door, and there are ink stains on his hands. He looks as if he could use a handout more than me.

Paul continues, “They mean well and will feel bad when they sober up.” He shakes his head. “Claude needs a telling-off every so often. When we debate politics, it starts off with a civilized lunch and ends in an argument.”

I suddenly feel self-conscious walking with this stranger after he witnessed an embarrassing display of emotions from me. I want to explain to him. “I really need this job,” I blurt out. “I can’t afford to lose it.”

“They won’t fire you over a few tablecloths, surely?”

“My colleagues aren’t very forgiving.” I nod to the basket. “Maybe they won’t notice that there’s more dirty linen than usual.”

Dusk has turned to twilight when we reach boulevard du Montparnasse. “I’m going this way.” He nods toward rue d’Odessa. “My apologies again, to you and your linen.”

He raises his hat. “Come to one of our musical evenings at Café Chez Emile.” He points to a café down the street. “More
enjoyable than politics!” With a short bow, he turns and walks away.

My gaze follows his figure in the fading light until I realize with a jolt how late it’s getting. I turn away and scurry down boulevard du Montparnasse.

When I enter the laundry, the hens are preparing to leave.

“Well, it took you long enough,” says Agnès. She grabs the basket of dirty linen and to my horror begins sorting it. I can’t watch. I look down at the floor; the checkered tiles dance before my eyes.

“Maude, why are there so many tablecloths here?” Agnès turns to me. “Their standing order is only for twenty. What are you trying to pull?”

My heart pounds. “Nothing. I’m not trying to pull anything.”

“Don’t get smart, mademoiselle,” she replies.

“It was an accident,” I say feebly. “At the restaurant some wine got spilled on the clean linen.” I wait for the inevitable. They will sack me for certain.

“Having a time of it, were you?” Brigitte chimes in, hands on her hips. “Boozing it up with the regulars while we’re working our fingers to the bone.”

“No, that’s not true.” I meet their accusing stares.

“They’ll want a new delivery of clean ones, I suppose,” says Agnès.

Clémence rolls her eyes with disgust. “Dock her pay,” she says to the others.

“We already took off what you owe for those singed pillowcases,” says Agnès, shaking her head. “Maude, at this rate
be paying
every week!” They laugh at the prospect, and I’m glad for the francs in my pocket.

“Well, we’ll see about the new delivery tomorrow,” says Agnès in a softer tone. She pulls a brown envelope from her apron. “Here’s your pay,” she says, handing it to me. “We can’t give you many more chances, Maude.”

Momentary relief: I still have a job. But then I feel the thinness of the envelope and my heart deflates. The hens put on their coats and bonnets and head for the door. Brigitte turns back to me. “Mind, there’s still a pile of ironing to be done before you go.”

My workmates clatter out the door and I return to my ironing table. I’ll be here all night.

It’s late and chilly by the time I’m walking back home. The familiar smells of beer, gas lamps and soot are a welcome change from laundry soap. Usually I take my time on the boulevard, looking in the windows of the bars and cafés, watching the endless party, but tonight I’m cold and exhausted. Even so, when I turn onto Odessa my pace slows as I pass Café Chez Emile. I wonder when Paul and his friends have their musical evenings. I peer in the window but don’t find his face in the crowd. Instead I catch sight of the woman I have come to call “the poor soul.” In her usual spot near the window, she sits alone, her fingers locked around the stem of her glass. Her bonnet is tatty, her expression empty. What were her dreams when she arrived in Paris? Was she a runaway once, like me? I shudder at the thought of ending up like her, swallowed by the city and all alone.

With a sigh I keep walking, then turn down my narrow street, rue Delambre. The main door to my building clangs shut behind me and I find myself standing in near darkness, the light shining from under the concierge’s door the only illumination. Dragging myself toward the dim stairwell—my garret room is five flights up—I place my hand on the stone wall, feeling my way a step at a time. My feet are heavy and ache as though a blacksmith has nailed irons to the soles of my boots. Just then I hear a door open on the ground floor behind me and I look down to find the concierge standing silhouetted against a shard of light.

“Mademoiselle Pichon. Rent is due. Tomorrow at the latest. I won’t ask again.”

“Yes, of course, madame.” I keep climbing the stairs, away from her threatening figure. I don’t even know—do I have enough to make rent?

Once in my room I can shut the world out; no one can bother me here. I toss my hat and shawl on the bed and take a seat at the wobbly dressing table. I light a candle and open the envelope containing my pay, counting out the francs; just as its paltry weight suggested, I won’t have enough for October rent. I fish the francs Paul gave me out of my dress pocket and add them to the pile. Enough for rent but not enough to eat. I’ve only spent a couple of weeks at the laundry, yet with each day my hands become more flayed and my arms throb worse than the day before. Faces from my past crowd around me: my father, Monsieur Thierry and the rest of the village.
She tried to
rise above us
, they sneer, and shake their heads. They want to see me fail. But I won’t go home, I won’t. I bang my fist on the dressing table. The coins jump. I sweep my arm across the surface, scattering the money to the floor.

Drunken shouts from the street below and the faint strains of cabaret music signal that night in Montparnasse is in full swing. At home the idea of coming here was an escape from life in the village; a daydream I indulged in to while away hours at the shop. I used to imagine that living in a beautiful, cosmopolitan city would rub off on me, that just by being in Paris, I too would become beautiful and cosmopolitan. I coveted this life, dressing it up in layers of fantasy and expectation, and now look at me. What am I to do: sleep on the streets?

BOOK: Belle Epoque
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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