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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

The Memory of Scent

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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For Charlie and for Neil and Ethan


Title Page





















The scent is patchouli. It took me a while to place it. Her head must also lean against this very cushion, must also watch as the painter strokes and separates the bristles of his brushes and runs his thumb through them one by one. My mother always wafted lavender. Her friends moved in drifts of irises and violets. But here, propped up against this prickly, horse-hair stuffed cushion, I can smell only patchouli.

Its mustiness coils through my nostrils and makes me think of old, battered leather or something woody like over-turned earth or the damp carpet of a forest after a spring shower, at first lush and seductive, then sweetly stabbing like walking barefoot on moss. It clouds behind my eyes until the sound of the painter crossing the parquet floor is nothing but a soft shuffle. I try not to clench my toes, because he likes me looking wistful and sensuous. ‘Like a Venus sprite’, he said. I don’t know what he means. My nakedness is a lumpen and mottled sheath, struggling to distinguish itself from the colours
and textures around me. That small stove is not enough to heat this large vaulted space. I need to channel a Venus sprite, to somehow inhabit her, but my veins are throbbing like angry blue rivers and my pimpled flesh should be slapped on to a butcher’s counter ready for cleaving and not presented in a gilt-edged frame.

I am sure she knows instinctively how a Venus sprite should appear to him. I imagine, with her everything is delicate and nubile. Her hair probably naturally fans out on the pillow like silken rivulets. My frizzy tufts could instead be used to stuff this pillow that has been so heavily indented by my head. She passed close by on a few occasions. I knew it was her by her scent. And once, I held the door open for her as she made her way down the stairs just as I was arriving. I saw the buffed lace boots clip lightly down toward me, then the swish of the green velvet hem and the white scalloped underskirt as they grazed each step. Next the narrow leather belt and cinched-in waist came into view. As she neared the bottom, she adjusted her velvet hat with its little decorative bird peeping out from some netting, all fastened loosely at an angle under her chin in a thick ribbon. Her skin looked fresh and pink, her loose hair the blackest black under her broad-rimmed green velvet hat. As she passed through the doorway she dropped one of the white gloves she was pulling on. We both bent to pick it up at the same time. We smiled shyly. I could see why he would want to paint her. Her violet eyes would be just the kind of detail that a painter would get excited about. She walked as if bathed in a shimmer, while the beam of sunlight seemed only to amplify my blandness.

I have spent hours in this bare studio. Several of the canvases leaning against the wall remain blank and virginal, primed for the first lacerations of colour which he will build
on stroke by stroke, curve by curve, nurturing and attentive until she is staring defiantly out at you, perhaps seductively, daring you to look for longer. Others are in rows against the wall and are a constant source of anxiety to me as I compare myself to the tangles of peach limbs, cascading hair and the coy over-the-shoulder glances.

I have to remind myself that he did choose me from among all those at the models’ market in Place Pigalle. Sunday after Sunday, I stamped my feet trying to keep warm, while I milled around with young laundry girls in grey muslin, all praying for a sitting, for a few francs, for the next meal, all standing for hours on end while newly urbanised painters weaved around us in search of alabaster. They were met instead with reddened skin, chapped hands and untamed hair. Where did he find her I wonder?

‘Fleur, drop that right shoulder just a little. The right shoulder’, he says, as if I’m just a collection of body parts.

My mother never actually told me why she named me Fleur, but I know that it was in the expectation that I would live a life of fragrant gracefulness. There were always flowers freshly picked and bunched in surprising places around the house. Her needlework was exquisite, her deportment refined. I took on the awkward gait of my father, probably out of mimicry, because I adored him so. He also gifted me with the unfortunate thicker wrists and ankles more becoming of a son.

I wonder does the patchouli girl open her thighs for him, this man who is only referred to as the ‘Spanish painter’. He does not look at me with any urgency, any tension. The patchouli is still strong, so maybe he is satiated. She cannot be long gone. Shafts of light peep through the olive-green shutters and lance little specks of dust. There is a plate of discarded
bread and cheese and an almost empty bottle of red wine abandoned on a long, low wooden bench. There are two stained glasses on the floor and one chair. Did he straddle the bench while she sat on the chair? Did he take the glass from her before placing it on the floor? Did he turn towards her, his hands tracing her ankles then slowly hiking the gathered layers until he reached the top of her stockings? Did he begin to gently roll, downwards, silk tipped fingers …

‘… and then that will be sufficient.’

‘Pardon, Monsieur?’

‘Next Thursday afternoon. If I need you then after that, I will ask you. Are you still at Café Guerbois?’

He has finished with me. One more session. How did my friend Maria beguile a man forty years her senior so completely that he now pays a regular stipend to her, even though he no longer paints her? She never spoke of lovemaking, nor did I ever press her for the no doubt unpalatable details of his crêpe skin and angular bones covering her and prodding her. It would be like a crow alighting on a field of strawberries. She only ever spoke of the grandeur of his Neuilly studio. Hers is a stubbornness that defies convention; she sees no reason why she should not be as great a painter as any man.

I am dispatched. I slowly pad my way to the oriental screen and, even though I boldly turn to face him, he has already begun to divide his brushes into the different jars according to the thickness of their bristles. I slip on my chemise and tighten my corset so that my apron looks trim on me. My petticoat could do with some starch and I may as well not have bothered wearing my favourite puff-sleeved blouse for all the attention it garnered. To think I spent wasted moments wondering: broach or cravat, cravat or broach. To think I generously tipped the long glass neck of
my mother’s jasmine scent on to my fingertips to dab some allure behind my ears and on to my neck. I don’t have too great a choice when it comes to skirts, though I am straining at the fastenings of this one. My mother can let it out again. I can see him through the hinges of the screen, removing his paint-spattered smock as I bend to pull up my stockings. I lace up my boots and drape my shawl over my shoulders.

‘I’ll be leaving now.’ But he waves indifferently over his shoulder without even rotating himself fully towards me. The steps are pockmarked from scores of women clicking their way up and down this stairwell. Some of the steps are so badly scuffed that you could trip quite easily if you were inattentive or distracted. I need both of my hands to pull open the front door and the lion’s head seems to wink at me as the sunlight catches its brass. I fall into the bustle of these narrow streets, treading carefully around clumps of horse manure and rotting slimy vegetables. Weaving through the street stalls, I have to hitch up my skirt or else the putrid-smelling seepage coursing down the cobbles would leech into my hems. I am aware that the lace of my boot is dragging along the ground but I don’t want to grab its sodden tip with an ungloved hand, so I ignore it. Gradually the grim littered doorways become fewer, the streets become wider, the strolling ladies better groomed and soon I am rounding the corner on to Rue Batignolles where the familiar row of canopies bulge and billow into view. I wave to the shop boy at the front of the colour merchant’s store as he sweeps its entrance clean.

‘You’re late.’ The
of the café is angry with me.

‘Mademoiselle, I am getting tired of your excuses and your absences and your disappearances. There are a dozen other girls I could hire like that.’ He clicks his tobacco-stained fingers
for emphasis. I know that he is right. I see them – young girls, perfectly pleasant and polite, knocking at the back door, asking to speak with him. But he likes me, and the customers seem to as well, and when I am here, I do work very, very hard – most of the time.

has been in a bad mood since his wife left him for a clerk, a strange sullen man whose merits are mysterious. He seems to cast his own brooding shadow no matter how luminous the daylight. But many times, on the pretence of visiting her husband at his work, the
’s wife would brush past the clerk’s table and linger with her back to him. An odd habit I always thought, until I caught a glimpse of his hands on her hips beneath her shawl, tugging her gently towards him. He briefly nuzzled his head towards the small of her back, one florid cheek resting on her bustle. It was why he always chose to sit in the far booth. These furtive cameos play out with the randomness of paint splattering. One vast moving canvas, these walls its frame.

Walrus had his own reasons for sitting with his back to everyone.

‘Psst … you’re late!’

I normally don’t mind being late, though I feign distress about it for the
. But I do hate when I’m late and am immediately thrown into a flurry of busyness. Today is such a day. The café is filled with stragglers from the luncheon service, their hats still balancing on the wall hooks where they were tossed several hours earlier. Others are arriving in small groups, flicking up their frock coats to better arrange themselves on the metal chairs and around the small marble-topped tables. I stand in the middle and tie my apron at my waist as customers brush by me. With one extended sweep, I wipe a cloth over the bar counter which stretches along
one wall of the café. I then bring my cloth over to the wood panelled booth where Walrus likes to sit, his thick arching moustache quivering at a point beneath his chin as he mocks my tardiness.

‘What was it this time? You saved a duck from being bashed on the head by a boatman’s pole?’

‘You, Sir, given the chance, would have deliberately bashed it in, only to serve it up on a platter. No, I had a sitting.’

‘Did you manage to prise his Catalonian fingers from his brushes long enough to stroke the back of your neck?’

Much to my annoyance, I feel my face flush. ‘No, of course not. Nothing would have interested me less.’

He is not the slightest bit convinced. He settles his large rear in café after café and restaurant after restaurant, ostensibly out of his love of food, but it is more because he is a gourmand of life, greedily ingesting all round him. He lives vicariously through observation and can unpick the pretences and restraints that people swathe themselves in for the sake of social order. With one raised eyebrow, he can shatter any carefully constructed tableau and cut straight to its sweaty underbelly.

‘Mademoiselle, you are annoyed that the handsome man from Catalan had reduced you to nothing more than brush strokes. You feel you could just as easily be a vase or a bowl of fruit, but you must know that a model is a mere vessel, nothing more. You can’t blame the artist for that.’

‘Yes, but when your toes and fingers are freezing and your skin has turned a shade of blue, don’t you think the painter should at least notice … should remember you are human and care just a little? Unless he wants to make love to you of course, yes, then he’ll recall you are flesh and blood and not just some … what did you call it? … some vessel.’

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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