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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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And the boom of guns again in the distance, an Almighty reprimand.

Chapter nine

The queue for Potin's was swelling by the moment despite the hour, the drizzle and the drear, half-leaden light of the morning. Smiles were wan but resolute, umbrellas up – a sea of stripes in the sombre light – and metal soup tins glimmered in straw baskets, over arms and in red, frozen hands. Here and there a bayonet stuck up in the air, jagged and fearsome in between the umbrellas, indicating the presence of a National Guardsman bundled up and on duty to ensure fair play, an equal distribution of rations and to quell the fights that commonly broke out between the women. Fights that could turn uncommonly vicious, for the women used anything that came to hand: nails, teeth, handkerchiefs, even the spokes of their umbrellas. It was a standing joke amongst the Guardsmen that you had a better chance in arm-to-arm combat with a Prussian than with a woman in the queue for Potin's. Some had been there since midnight, taking it in turns with friends and relations who brought hip flasks, cocoa, mufflers and foot warmers. It was a dirty trick, a ruse,
and a source of great aggravation to the women who had no hip flasks or cocoa, no chairs or foot warmers and no friends or relations to relieve them.

Eveline slipped into line behind a woman in a shawl and a servant's cap, with a little straw basket at her feet. She'd been standing there less than a minute when a smartly dressed woman came up behind in a muffler,
bottines
and wearing an amethyst necklace which reminded Eveline temptingly of a string of candied violets. She wondered why such a smartly dressed woman would be waiting in line and stared hard at the necklace. Perhaps it was paste. People did all sorts to gain respect and curry favour from the men who doled out the rations. It was not uncommon for women to offer themselves up for a scrag end of meat and bushel of potatoes. No subterfuge was too small. Everybody's need was greater than the next: an invalid back home, an ailing mother in law, a tiny baby, a delicate heart. There were those who trickled up and down the line, trying to jostle in higher up, preying on the weak willed, the gullible, the foolish and the holy. The nuns (or the holy crows) came off the worst, too saintly to push themselves forward, too trusting not to trust; and they ended up at the back, a little dark cloud, waiting to snatch up the leftover crumbs. Eveline felt a little sorry for them, they looked so thin and miserable, halfway to heaven already.

The woman in front stood dogged and immobile as a rock. Eveline tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Any word yet?' she whispered.

‘Just soup.' The woman peeked a currant-bun face out of her cap.

Soup, yes. There was always soup. They'd had soup up to the gills. Watery nonsense with something inedible floating around on the top.

‘Nothing else?'

‘Not yet,' the woman replied curtly as if she didn't want to be distracted from her mission.

Eveline stamped her feet and blew on her hands, wishing she'd brought an umbrella. The rut she was standing in was deepening by the second as drizzle dotted holes in the dirty old snow. Never mind, the shutters would be coming off soon and the line would get going. She stood on tiptoe, craning to see above the brightly coloured umbrellas and the hooded heads of Guardsmen. Suddenly, without warning, the queue surged forward and she almost lost her footing as the smartly dressed woman behind stepped on her heels in her high-heeled boots. A sea of umbrellas sheered off to the left like a serpentine wave or herd of sheep as a dozen or so women broke line and stampeded down the pavement in the direction of the Luxembourg. A rumour had started. Now and then a rumour started like a Chinese whisper and the women got wind of it, got the scent in their nostrils of something edible going cheap somewhere in the city. A boulangerie in the Salpêtrière selling croissants and buns for a franc a piece. Roos on Haussmann letting go fresh crabs and chitterlings for the price of old socks. She waited to see what it was this time and pretty soon word came down the line: smoked herrings from a grocer in the Madeleine. Two National Guardsmen had paraded a couple on the ends of their bayonets so it must be true. You could hear brains ticking out loud as women weighed up the risk of heading off for a chance of smoked herring – smoked herring for Christmas. What a feat! – with the safe bet of the queue. Those new to the job, more daring or simply gullible broke the line and ran off after the others while the old hands and those too tired or worn out to move, stayed put. At first, Eveline had dashed off at the slightest cry or excited murmur, but more often than not it ended in a goose chase; even if there had been any truth to the rumour in the first place, by the time you arrived all that was left was a greasy wishbone. She had learnt to stand her ground, firm and resolute amidst the hysteria and commotion. Herrings were tempting, but not tempting enough to get her to budge.

The desertion had caused quite a stir in the ranks: voices were raised, umbrellas flapped, soup tins rattled and banged like a collection of tambourines. What was the hold up? Why weren't the shutters off? The sun must be halfway up the yard by now. Squabbles broke out up and down the line as women accused each other of taking the opportunity to get ahead of them in the queue.

‘And you're no better than you should be!' Eveline heard a shrill voice cry out, presumably at the nun who was wandering up and down the line with a vacant air, begging for milk.

‘Any milk, madame? I have spices to exchange: cayenne pepper and black, turmeric and cinnamon.'

Most people looked straight ahead, pretending deaf and dumbness but it was so rare to see a nun walking up the line that Eveline met her eyes when she passed. She recognised her as a Sister from St Joseph's. She looked like a statue of the Madonna with her chestnut curls escaping her veil, her huge brown eyes black ringed, soft white skin stretched tight about the bones of her face. Bernadine, for her part, had recognised Eveline Renan, the stonecutter's daughter, and wondered as she always did how such a man could have fathered such a beautiful, fresh-faced girl then said a few Aves in repentance.

‘Any milk, mademoiselle?' the nun asked gently. ‘I have spices to exchange.'

Eveline shook her head. ‘I have no milk, I'm afraid, but I will exchange if there is some today.'

‘Thank you,' smiled the nun and carried on up the line. Eveline stared after her, wondering why a nun should need milk so badly.

At last the shutters were off and a shout went down the line.

Peas!

Carrots!

Spuds!

The words flew down the line like golden juggling balls or a magical incantation.

Peas!

Carrots!

Spuds!

And then to top it all, the word beef. Some yelled it, some whispered it in awe or disbelief.

BEEF!

BEEF?

Beef!

Beef?

A frisson of excitement went through the women. Everybody's thoughts were on beef: gravy, stews, broiled, roasted, jellies, sauces, horseradish cream, beef tea, beef suet… What a Christmas they would have! Those idiots who rushed off for a measly herring! And then, just as quickly, following the frisson of excitement came a frisson of fear. Would there be any beef left by the time
they
got there? And then the jostling began in earnest, the prodding, jabbing, poking… as women parried for position like jockeys. The high-heeled boots were doing some real damage to Eveline's ankles and she wanted to turn round and smack the smartly dressed woman but she kept her patience. The one in front was solid as a rock, dogged and determined, not giving an inch but not taking an inch either. And then just as quickly the word came down the line.

No beef. Beetroot!

The woman in front turned her currant-bun face to Eveline. ‘No beef?' she said incredulously. ‘But they said beef.'

‘They lied,' someone cackled drily.

‘But they said beef. How can they be so wicked?' asked the woman, looking quite disheartened.

‘Yes,' Eveline said gently. ‘I think there was a misunderstanding. They meant beetroot.'

‘Beetroot?' repeated the woman, nonplussed. ‘But they said beef.' Her face crumpled up and she wept. ‘Auguste loves his beef so. It would have done his heart good.' And she picked up her little straw basket and stumped off out of the queue, her cap wobbling in disbelief.

‘Wait,' cried Eveline. ‘There's still soup… and carrots… and potatoes.' But the woman didn't turn back, she who had seemed as resolute as a rock had been knocked for six by an empty promise of beef.

By the time Eveline got to the front, there wasn't even beetroot left, just soup – watery nonsense with something inedible floating around on the top – and a potato. She watched the brawny arms spoon it into her tin from the great tureens, glad to be getting that at least. As she turned away, a young woman standing by the hatch handed her a card and she took it automatically before realising it was the girl who'd spoken the other day about the women's battalions.

‘White railings. End of terrace. Next Tuesday,' the girl whispered after her. ‘We'll show the men how it's done!'

Eveline glanced at the card in surprise. It was thick and black rimmed and printed on the front in delicate calligraphy it said:
Elizabeth T, Paradis, 2 Rue de Turbigo.

And on the back the words:
Malheureuse la femme qui fonde sur les hommes son appui
8
. It was a quotation of a sort. Eveline recognised it dimly but was unable to place it. Laurie would know of course but she wouldn't ask him. She slipped the card into her pocket, feeling proud and a little guilty. It was like being invited to join a secret society. The girls on the Rue Ornano and la Païva must get invitations like this all the time: cards for balls, luncheons, dinner parties and dances where the women whispered behind their fans, the men got drunk on champagne, where there were chandeliers and crystal vases, caviar and waltzes…

She swept down towards the Seine, swinging her tin and feeling quite happy: glad she had held out for the soup at least. She loved the river. It exerted a fascination over her as presumably it had for her mother, though Eveline had no intention of drowning herself in it. She loved the way it shone like a pewter mirror when the sun hit it. She even loved the fog that came off it: warm and enveloping like a great yellow overcoat, making you feel that you were strangely invisible. In the old days when she had time to spare, she had browsed among the stalls in the parapets that sold bird seed and liquorice water, parasols and shoelaces. Or sat beneath the rusty old arches of the Pont Royal, playing ducks and drakes in the greasy dark water and listening to the rumble of the omnibuses and wagonettes above her. There was always something to see on the water: flotillas of skiffs and dinghies, laundry boats with their great tall chimneys, barges laden with coal and bright golden apples. Now they were laden with cannon, and the little ‘flies' and ‘swallows' that had steamed up and down on jaunty trips with the visitors and tourists now steamed up and down with the wounded.

Or she used to go licking windows as Laurie put it, staring at the ‘confections pour les dames' – the silk, satin and taffettas in the big department stores and despising herself a little for doing it. Now she was licking windows for real, sniffing out titbits and morsels to eat in the most unlikely of places. One woman had found a dozen eggs in a jeweller's shop displayed like a necklace of great white pearls. Another had found a bit of leathery pork in the back of a shoe shop! You just had to keep your eyes peeled and your nose to the wind. Her favourite hunting ground was the back of a good restaurant which was why she was heading in the direction of Brébant's. It occurred to her that Alphonse might be there but she didn't follow that line of thought too closely. She simply concentrated her mind on the rich pickings that were to be found in the bins amongst the old corks and parings – a bunch of radishes perhaps, some fried potatoes, a bit of black sausage in silver paper.

The sun was coming up now, trickling through the clouds and drizzle. Soon it would set the whole city alight, scooting over rooftops, down chimneys, through cracks and crannies until even the panes of Notre Dame caught flame and the carved suns on the Tuileries burnt red hot. Newspaper sellers were setting up their stalls along the bank, crying out the day's news in their husky early morning voices.

‘
Eugene! Ses amants! Ses orgies!
Read all about it!'

‘Our boys take the Rhine!'

Eveline smiled grimly to herself, not believing a word of it. There was always some tittle tattle about the old Empress – she'd had more lovers than la Païva by the sounds of it; and ‘our boys' had taken the Rhine three times already that week. She wondered sometimes who wrote the nonsense in the papers and for what purpose, for it rarely seemed to have any bearing on reality; though perhaps it was better to read fiction than to read nothing at all.

Even before she turned the corner of the Poisonnière the odour of wine hit her nostrils and puffs of music twisted through the air. The revellers were still at it, stuffing their faces on hot, rich food, guzzling their vintage wines by the casket. Alphonse had told her it was the upper echelons that frequented Brébant's: the aristocrats and bankers, politicians and generals – the generals being apparently the most decadent of the bunch. She should have gone straight round to the back but she couldn't resist taking a look at the Christmas menu. She crept up to the front door which was decorated on either side with a dusty oleander in a majolica pot and scanned the menu.

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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