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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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‘Well, well, well,' said Monsieur Lafayette, shutting the door and smiling at Mistigris who had slumped down beside the counter in a crumpled little heap. ‘Well, well, well! The Cannibal's Delight up the duff? That's quite cheered me up! I'd like to meet the man up to that job. It must be like scaling Mount Olympus!' And with that, he hopped over the crumpled heap of the old stonecutter and began tidying up behind the counter. When everything was set to rights, he peered over the counter to check that Mistigris was still out of the picture and then, with a guilty movement, pulled the lid off the wig box and brought out a small shining key. Slipping it into his pocket, he walked nonchalantly to the back of the shop and pushed aside the blue and white curtain. Behind the curtain lay the fabled mattress and stool as well as a box of hook-like metal instruments, a roll of bandages, a barometer, some worm-eaten chairs and a row of pictures against the far wall. Feeling his way around the varied obstacles for the light was growing dim even for him, Monsieur Lafayette padded softly over to a lewder version of Manet's ‘Déjeuner sur l'herbe', brought the little key out of his pocket and stuck it between the naked lady's lissom white legs. The picture split in two, the cupboard doors swung open and a delightful aroma suddenly filled the air. A mixture of scents all jam-packed together of spices and sweets, candlesticks and tea biscuits, sugar loaves and licorice, pickled eggs and beetroot, boiled hams and cheeses, silver polish and peppermints. Monsieur Lafayette sniffed appreciatively, rummaging through his secret store cupboard over tins of Victoria sponges and earthenware pots and pots of Brittany butter until he unearthed what he knew to be a box of sardines. He brought it out, blew the dust off it then locked the cupboard up again, the picture magically re-composing itself. Then he got up and walked back into the front of the shop, slipped the key into the old wig box on the counter, smoothed his moustache in the fly-spotted mirror and knelt down beside the old stonecutter.

‘I believe I have an invitation to dine chez Renan?' he bellowed into the poor man's ear.

‘Quite,' cried Mistigris, leaping up with surprising agility and throwing his arms out to the counter for support. ‘In our curules, sir. In our curules!'

Chapter four

Eveline Renan stood in the middle of her kitchen, staring in dismay at the contents of the saucepan. There was barely enough to go round, even with the few potatoes she'd found on the stall in the Rue Marcadet. It had boiled away to nothing beneath her very eyes like spinach always did, however much you thought you had at the start.

Well to hell with it, she suddenly decided, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon, keeping it warm at any rate. She did her best and if anyone dared complain she'd throw the saucepan over their head! It was good to vent her feelings like that. She often did in the cramped little kitchen, waiting for her father and Jacques to return, bashing the saucepans, chipping the plates, yanking the door off the larder cupboard which was quite bare save for two carrots and a tin of pears she was keeping for Christmas. The longer she had to wait, it seemed, the more she fell to thinking about all the things that were wrong with her life. ‘Stuck away in crumbling stucco,' she would moan a little dramatically over the chopping board. ‘Barely a woman but with the hands and back of a fifty-year-old hag!' None of this was entirely true, of course, for the house (though made of yellowing stucco as all the houses were in that district) was hardly crumbling; her hands (though no stranger to laborious work) were soft and white as a lily and her back (though admittedly often bent over drudgery) remained straight and supple as a beech tree. But it did her good somehow to work herself up into a frenzy of misunderstood martyrdom. A frenzy which always ended in a list of grievances as long as her arm of things that needed to be done around the house such as the chimney that had to be re-pointed, the leak in the roof that had to be mended and, a particular bugbear of hers, the vine on the south wall that had to be cut back because the grapes had shrivelled to raisins and the wine they produced was sour as a lemon rind. Even her father couldn't drink it! Occasionally she tortured herself by imagining what it would be like to be a shop girl on the Rue Ornano, skimming through a life of bows and silks, sales and crinolines; or la Païva the great courtesan who lived on the Champs Élysées behind a fountain of eau de cologne and a flower-gemmed terrace. Even the life of a lowly dancer seemed preferable to her own, though her father had warned her it was all bunions and besides. Eveline thought that when you were short of the necessaries, a few besides would come in mighty handy.

She lit the lamp with trembling fingers. She always put off lighting the lamp for as long as possible to save on the oil and it was only when the statues in the corner started reminding her of bodies in the morgue that she succumbed to the need for light. The blue flame sputtered and smoked for a moment, throwing ghastly shadows about the room of Mary Magdalenes on top of each other, headless Baptists with begging hands and Jesuses grinning from ear to ear. Once upon a time her father could have made anything he wanted to out of clay, wood or stone but now his forms were a little distorted – the robes too long, mouths stretched too wide, the eyes a little too sly – as if his fuzzy brain and fumbling fingers lingered too long or cut too abruptly. They reminded her of the gargoyles in the Place Vendôme and they piled up in the corner like bones in a charnel house because nobody wanted to buy them. She sighed and set the table, bringing out the old, stained, but clean linen cloth and placing a spoon beside each bowl. One good thing about having nothing to eat was that there was little to lay, little to wash, little to prepare. It was an advantage certainly. If you wanted to look on the bright side then that was it. She smiled at the thought of making a case for lack of food and sending it round to all the cooks, bottle-washers and housewives in the area, distracting herself from the waiting.

She always seemed to be waiting for something: in queues for food, for her father to come home, to stop drinking, for Jacques to grow up, the war to be over, for Laurie to whisk her away to the Place de l'Etoile. Maybe everyone was waiting for something, even the shop girls and la Païva, though they seemed to have everything. Laurie was waiting for his poems to be published so he could afford to whisk her off to the Place de l'Etoile – or so he said. She didn't think anyone would want to buy his poems any more than they wanted to buy her father's statues, not when they couldn't even find potatoes, but when she so much as hinted at such a thing Laurie gave her a look which meant she didn't understand because she was a woman and only read newspapers and recipe books. It was Laurie who didn't understand, she fumed now, deciding then and there that he'd have to beg and plead till his knees were sore if he ever wanted her to go and live with him in the Place de l'Etoile. You couldn't fry poems. You couldn't eat words. And however much a rhythm might nourish your soul it didn't put flesh on your bones.

There was a commotion at the door and Eveline got up to let the two men in, her father staggering under the arm of his sturdy old friend.

‘Two old sodjers back from a campaign. The bullets whizzed! I nearly lost my scalp to a Fritz. What's on the menu, then? Chopped Prussians?' Monsieur Lafayette smacked his great red lips at her – lips which looked, Eveline always thought, as if they'd sucked on too many caramel pipes or been stung by a bee.

‘Sorrel stew,' came her rather sardonic reply.

‘Sard
ine
and sorrel stew,' Monsieur Lafayette corrected, bringing out a small box from somewhere about his person.

Eveline tried to appear disgusted but only succeeded in looking pathetic­ally grateful. She took the box and proceeded to empty its contents very carefully into the saucepan, resisting the urge to scoff the lot then and there with her fingers and be damned to the rest of them. Monsieur Lafayette always brought a morsel with him – she wouldn't have let him come otherwise – something strange and exotic, something she hadn't tasted for months or years, and something you couldn't find on the stalls in the Rue Marcadet or even on the black markets beyond the fortifications. He was a little tiresome and a bore but she put up with him for her father's sake, for Jacques' sake and for her own shrunken stomach's sake.

The fish swam in the juices of the pan, glistening with oil; and she added a few salt flakes, her mouth watering. ‘We won't wait for Jacques,' she announced decisively. ‘Please be so good as to sit yourself down, Monsieur Lafayette, and make sure Papa has his napkin on.' It was like dealing with a child, dealing with her father but it was no longer embarrassing for either of them because she was quite used to it and her father, more often than not, was drunk as a lord. She ladled out the stew, took off her apron and said grace all in a matter of seconds.

‘Maythelordmakeustrulythankfulamen.'

She always said grace because, strangely enough, however drunk her father might be he never touched a particle of food until he'd heard it spoken once at least.

‘Amen,' intoned Monsieur Lafayette while Mistigris sat staring absent-mindedly at the statues in the corner.

‘Forwhatweareabouttoreceivemaythelordmakeustrulythankfulamen.'

‘Amen,' Monsieur Lafayette intoned again with a wink while her father still sat staring at his statues.

‘Please, Papa.' Eveline spoke gently now, picking up her father's spoon and placing it between his finger and thumb. ‘You can eat now. I've said grace. Monsieur Lafayette has brought some wonderful fish!'

‘Fish?' echoed Mistigris doubtfully, dabbling his spoon in the stew as if he were dipping his toes in a cold tub. ‘Who is responsible for the fish?'

Monsieur Lafayette inclined his head. ‘Your servant, sir.'

‘She must have seen fish like these,' Mistigris went on dejectedly, ‘between the reeds and the water lilies.'

Eveline sent a beseeching look to Monsieur Lafayette who smiled an acknowledgement and put down his spoon.

‘Sea dwellers, my good man, not fresh water. Pike perhaps, rainbow trout indeed but not a sardine, dear fellow, never a sardine.'

‘Green! Green, she was, and bloated when they fished her out of the Seine.'

‘Yes, Papa.'

It was going to be a long night. A long self-pitying night if her father didn't fall asleep first. Thank goodness she had an escape route planned in the shape of a meeting at St Nicolas.

‘You are a tragedy king tonight!' Monsieur Lafayette tried to jolly along the old stonecutter. ‘You make the Emperor look positively cheery and he's been exiled to England. Look at what you have here: a daughter dancing attendance upon you, your best friend at your side, a splendid stew to get your teeth into...'

At that moment – as if on cue – Jacques burst through the door, catapulted out of the cold night air and into his chair to make the additional point, so it seemed, that Mistigris also had a son to be thankful for: a sturdy-limbed little urchin of thirteen or thereabouts with carrot-coloured hair, a freckled nose, a forcible chin for one so young and horridly dirty hands. After scolding him roundly for his tardiness, his hands, the state of his shoes and the unpalatable objects she'd found underneath his bed that morning, as well as anything else that came to mind, Eveline served him up his helping of stew and turned to her father.

‘I wish you would support me, Papa. Dinner, what we have of it, is at six o'clock sharp. One day you will both come home and there will be nothing to eat because I will have eaten it.'

Mistigris looked a little ashamed and Jacques hung his head, mumbled an apology and then began spooning the food into his mouth as if he feared she would prove true to her word. By this time a tortoiseshell cat had streaked out of nowhere onto his lap and was purring for all she was worth and poking her nose up over the table to see what her young master had been given for his supper. Jacques tried to work out what proportion of his stew he should be saving for her by applying the weight/balance principle he'd been learning in balloon training. Figuring that Fifi could not possibly be more than half his weight, he concluded (to his great satisfaction) that three fish tails would suffice; and he deftly cut them off with the edge of his spoon and fed them to her under the table when nobody else was looking.

‘There's a butcher on the Boulevard Poissonnière who's feeding up a cat like that for Christmas,' teased Monsieur Lafayette. ‘He's going to present it as a turkey stuffed with mice and onion stuffing!'

Eveline shot him a venomous glance while Jacques cried out in alarm: ‘You must never let her out, Sis. You must never let her out! And if you do,' he conceded, ‘you must watch her!'

‘I can't watch her all the time, Jacques. Honestly, everyone in this family seems to think it's my life's duty just to do their bidding.'

‘There are cat snatchers on the loose looking for prime meat like that one,' Monsieur Lafayette went on unrelentingly. ‘How old is she now, boy?'

‘S… seven,' stammered Jacques warily, clutching Fifi to his chest.

‘Ah, mature but still tender,' Monsieur Lafayette leered at Eveline. ‘Just the way I like it. Clear eyes, wet nose… a butcher would give you seventy francs for such a juicy little bit.'

‘How much?' Mistigris leaned forward over the table.

‘
Papa
!'

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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