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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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Laurie and Eveline decided to make their escape before the mob turned into a frenzy and before they could be roped into helping to clear away; and they bolted up the aisle like a runaway bride and groom.

Chapter seven

They raced past the concierge who was always asleep and up to Laurie's rooms. How she loved Laurie's rooms – so quiet, so peaceful. She liked to poke her nose through the small round window and gaze down on the higgledy-piggledy back streets behind the Rue d'Enfer with their overgrown gardens, crazy washing lines and filthy latrines. She tried to imagine the lives that went on behind the finger-smudged panes and patched-up curtains, developing all sorts of strange theories and complex interrelationships between the houses that fell within the parameters of Laurie's window.

‘Mr 50 is in love with Miss 49,' she would announce solemnly after a few moments' speculation. ‘They are going to elope. Mr 43 beats his wife!' These deductions were based on such trivial points as the fact that Mr 43 possessed a walking stick and Mr 50 had once hung his hand mirror out of the window at the same time that Miss 49 put her petticoat out to air. Singularly strange coincidences according to Eveline. She would have been most disappointed to discover that Mr 43 was a widower and had no wife to beat though he did have a carpet; that Miss 49 took in ironing and hung her petticoat out to signal her availability as a washerwoman, not as an ahoy to Mr 50 who, poor man, was up to his ears in debt and no more dreamed of eloping with Miss 49 than with the taxman.

‘Up to your old tricks again?' Laurie demanded, taking her arm and pulling her gently away from the window.

‘I am not up to my old tricks as you put it,' Eveline replied, flopping down on the cane chair beside the bed and grinning wickedly. ‘I am simply an observer of humanity.' It was one of Laurie's own phrases and she brought it out deliberately to show him that she did listen to him. Sometimes.

Laurie smiled. ‘And what did you observe tonight? That everyone was fast asleep in their own beds, even Mr 50 and Miss 49, and that nobody, not even a mouse, was stirring.'

Eveline pouted. ‘One day you will see that a woman's instincts are a great deal sharper than a man's… a man's… silliness,' she finished at last, feeling quite aggrieved that she had indeed seen no sign of life, only black­ness and stars and in the distance the square-topped belfry of St Jacques.

‘I can offer you a coffee of a sort. A species without milk or sugar, an evolved coffee, Darwin might say. A coffee that has adapted to the environment.'

She nodded and agreed – so long as it wasn't made in the vermicelli saucepan. It was a long-standing joke between them. Laurie kept a vermicelli-spattered saucepan on the spirit stove after the fashion of
Victor Hugo – though Eveline thought he did it to annoy her and whenever he offered her a drink or a bite to eat she always told him it had better not be in the vermicelli saucepan. She watched him bustle about, his fair hair gleaming in the lamplight and listened to him going on about the war, his nights at the ramparts and the poem he'd just finished which contained the line:
Only in the contemplation of flowers and moonlight may all men be equal.
She had thought it very fine and told him so. It could only be a matter of time, they both agreed, before his remarkable talent was spotted.

‘And you,' he enquired gently, bringing over his new species in a cup. ‘How are you? Your legs must be freezing to death!'

Eveline didn't want to tell him that her only clean pair of stockings were tied up in knots. ‘Everything goes on much the same,' she replied. ‘Jacques is Jacques and father is… well, father.' She turned a little red. ‘I should christen this the Victor Hugo cup for it tastes of vermicelli to me!'

Laurie smiled. ‘Did you know that when he was writing
Leaves of Autumn
he walked up to the top of Notre Dame every evening to watch the sunset.'

‘Why ever did he do that?' cried Eveline. ‘Does it look different from there than it does from the ground?'

‘I imagine so. Else why would he have done it?'

‘Perhaps because he is a madman who keeps pots of vermicelli on his stove!'

Laurie laughed outright. ‘You caught me that time!'

They chattered on then for a while about everything and nothing, Eveline settling back with her cup of
Victor Hugo. Laurie wanted to know all the details – nothing was too trivial for him – of what she had eaten, where she had been, how she had felt since they last met and she struggled to remember the spaces and moments of her days, the dull and necessary in betweens, the routines and the rubbish. It seemed to her that she simply waited, waited for him to come home and spell out the meaning of her existence, see the poetry beneath the squalor of her life. She didn't always believe there was any poetry, and it made her fearful sometimes that he was deceived in her. It was then she pretended to be even more what she knew he wanted her to be, taking an interest in his books, his ideas on Darwin and evolution, bending herself to an understanding and appreciation of the planes of reality he lingered on, delved into. At other times, a demon got into her and she wanted to upset the peace and quiet of the little room with its shelves of ordered books and sheaves of white paper by bringing out a string of coarse words or bursting into a bawdy song she'd heard her father sing:
like teeth behind lips, the strawberry spreads its sweet breath
…

‘Are you well, Evie?' Laurie's voice was all concern. ‘You seem a little… strange this evening.'

‘Oh fine,' she assured him. ‘It's just that sometimes, I don't know, I wish that I could do something.'

‘What do you mean, do something?'

‘I don't know. I just feel so helpless sometimes, sitting around doing nothing.'

‘But you do so much. You look after your father and Jacques.'

‘Oh yes, I do that alright. And I am sick of it. I'm sick of sitting at home and looking after them. Getting no thanks for it. I wish I could go out like you do and fight.'

‘Fight?' Laurie stared at her incredulously. ‘What do you mean, fight?'

‘There are women battalions,' Eveline replied a little defensively. ‘I heard a girl talking about one the other day in the queue at Potin's. They have their own uniforms and guns. They train just as the men do, fight just like the men do.'

‘But it is a ridiculous notion,' Laurie smiled. ‘You cannot possibly fight!'

‘Why ever not?' Eveline demanded with a flash of anger. ‘You're always saying I'm strong as a horse and fearless as a lion.'

‘Yes, well.' Laurie looked a little taken aback and could only think to repeat: ‘But you do so much already. You have even tended to the wounded in the Palais de L'Industrie.'

‘I do not want to simper at the bedside of a gangrenous soldier,' she replied dismissively. ‘I leave that to the society women and the
cocodettes
.' In truth, she could not bear to see the dead stacked up like biscuits in the green and foetid death shed – it filled her with an impotent disgust.

Laurie smiled distractedly. ‘I hope you would simper at my bedside… but what about your father and Jacques?' he repeated.

‘What about them? It is always about them. It is never about me.'

Laurie said in a gentler tone: ‘That is because they rely on you. Without you they would,' he wanted to say ‘starve to death' which was probably true, but instead he said, ‘they could not manage. They could not manage without you, Evie. You know they could not manage.' He saw the stubborn set of her mouth and went on: ‘There is precious little glory in war, Evie.'

Her eyes travelled to the uniform hung up behind the back of the door and the chassepot rifle propped against the wall; and she shook her head, angry at his not understanding. ‘It is not about the glory,' she muttered. ‘You of all people should know that it is not about the glory.'

He did know. She was too modest and lacking in vanity for it ever to be anything to do with glory. He knew, too, that in a world grown topsy-turvy the only thing that kept him sane was the thought of her back home where she belonged with her father and Jacques, doing the most simple, harmless things: making soup, cleaning the floor, worrying about the overgrown vine and searching for food. He wanted to keep her there on a pin in a corner of his mind, simply for his own comfort; though one day she might wriggle out of his grasp and fly away in all her beauty.

‘I just don't want you to get hurt,' he said at last, looking terribly upset and she smiled back at him.

‘How could I ever get hurt?' She leapt up from the cane chair, galloped over to the little round window and peered out of it. It was still all stars and blackness and in the distance the square-topped belfry of St Jacques. Nobody, not even a mouse, was stirring. There was no need to be afraid. It is only when we wait, Alphonse had said, that we need to be afraid. She turned suddenly and cried out impulsively: ‘Kiss me, Laurie, kiss me. Right here. Right now! Let me stay with you.'

Laurie stared at her in astonishment, wondering if the drink at St Nicolas had been too much for her. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glittered like a maenad's. He did not think he had ever seen her look so beautiful, framed as she was before the porthole window, her chestnut hair aglow, her wide red mouth trembling with emotion, her luminous skin… He got up quickly and took her in his arms so that she did not catch sight of the perturbation in his face. He wanted the first time to be perfect, when they were married, when they had their own establishment, when he had published a volume of poetry… not now. Not on the eve of an enemy attack. Not after some wine and a slight disagreement, in a moment of hot-headed foolishness. Love in the middle of war? What could be worse?

‘Not like this,' he murmured into her soft, silken hair.

‘What do you mean?' She pulled away from him, her eyes glaring.

He kissed her gently but firmly on the forehead. ‘You would regret it, my love, and so would I.'

‘Oh
well
.' She tore out of his grasp and made a great show of finding her coat, not even smiling (as she always did) when the cuckoo clock on the wall sprang into action for the eleven o' clock, its yellow beak popping in and out. ‘I should like to go home now,' she announced coldly, fighting the tears of humiliation that prickled at the back of her eyes. ‘As you say, Papa and Jacques rely on me.'

He walked her home, or rather, lagged a step behind as she marched silently through the cold empty streets, an occasional lamp throwing down a circle of light like a pool of moon glow or scrap of gold dust. He chattered on about this and that, knowing it would make no difference now. He asked himself if he could have behaved any differently but his principles and character told him he could not. Still he cursed himself for being so clumsy, so obtuse, for brushing her off like an insect, for not understanding. It was as if he got the impression of things rather than the things themselves. There they were walking along the Rue du Faubourg and yet he felt one step removed as if he were watching the process from afar. Sometimes he even composed a sentence about himself in the third person and the past tense –
He walked down the Rue du Faubourg with a heavy heart
– as if his real self had been and gone already and he was simply observing the clues left in his own wake. He was the Detective Claude
7
on the trail of his own self, so to speak. It worried him sometimes and he shook off the feeling of guilty indolence that often came with it and took her hand.

‘I can never get used to the smell,' he remarked as they stepped into a pool of moon glow. ‘And petrol is so different from the blue tone of gas.'

‘Yes,' she replied, tight lipped and embarrassed, thinking that reality rarely matched her dreams. When he was away at the ramparts she imagined him almost a god and now here he was trotting along at her side like a lapdog, so eager to please, filling her with a sense of disdain.

‘Do you miss your work?' he asked quite out of the blue as they stepped onto the Ramponneau. It had suddenly struck him that this could be the culprit, this could be the cause of her ennui, her moods, her excitability.

‘Not really,' she sighed. Why ever should he think she missed greasing the heavy metal bread moulds, the flour stuck under her nails, the sickly sweet odour of yeast at the crack of dawn. ‘No, not really. I'd like some bread but I don't miss the work.'

‘You know I just want it to be perfect.' He stopped, forcing her to look at him. ‘I just want it to be perfect, Evie.'

‘Really?' Her lip curled in scorn.

‘Yes, really. Believe it, Evie. Believe it. When we are married…'

‘You assume too much,' she answered stiffly, wrapping her coat about her and moving on.

He knew that voice and face and shut up until they reached her door where he bade her a tense ‘sleep well' and left.

She stared angrily after him into the darkness then went inside.

Chapter eight

Aggie lay huge and suffering on the small white bed beneath the large wooden crucifix; and the baby lay swaddled in the bottom drawer of the antique tallboy which had on the front a carmine engraving of the immaculate conception. Aggie had succumbed to a fever, a fever that raged around her body like a caged animal, drumming at her temples and stampeding up and down her veins, and Bernadine had brought her into her own room the easier to attend her. She watched them both without reprieve, jumping up at the least little sign to wipe a cooling flannel over Aggie's brow, spoon a few mouthfuls of the broth Brother Michael had made between her dry, parched lips, soothe the tiny blue baby's cries. She barely heard the angelus though it must have sounded for dawn, midday and dusk. Night and day had become indistinguishable to her as she watched and waited. There was nothing to be done but wait and pray, wait and see. Sometimes she clasped the Holy Book to her knee, feeling the gilt-cut edges with her fingers, and stammered out a few verses in a high contralto as if it might do some good.
My beloved is mine and I am his. He feedeth among the lilies until the day breathes and the shadows flee away.

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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