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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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‘Babette. She could be a Babette. Is it her?’

‘This girl was not from Paris and she had been modelling for a painter who she thinks was Spanish, and all she could tell me was that the girl was taken away by the an inspector.’

My heart is racing and there’s a pulsing at my temples. I know that it is her. I feel it as vividly as if we were two dabs of colour on the Spaniard’s palette and with a casual swipe of his brush, we have bled into one intense swirl.

‘Thanks, Maria. I’m late and have to get to work. We’ll talk soon.’

She is shouting after me. ‘Fleur, that was well over a month ago, at least. I kept missing you.’

It’s strange when your mind suddenly becomes flooded with information that requires teasing out. Maybe it’s just
me, but the more logic I have to employ, the more easily distracted my thoughts become. I see there is a cash sale on at reduced prices. Big bold letters are screaming at me from the large shop window, ‘New & Fashionable Stock, previous to Stock Taking’; ‘Sale of Special Purchase Ladies Dress Materials, Prints, All-Wool Flannels, and Gloves, about 1,000 Pairs of all kinds’; ‘Cotton and Merino Stockings, not in any case more than Half-Price’, ‘700 Men’s, Boys’ and Youths’ Ready-Made Tweed & Black Worsted Suits’.

See now that is a good sale. What must a thousand pairs of gloves look like? How high would that stack? And here in the window of the pharmacy, my goodness there is a cure for everything, ‘Hair Destroyer: Special Depilatory removes hair from the face, neck and arms, sent by post, secretly packed for 54 stamps’; ‘Hair Dye for Light or Dark Colours’; ‘Oil of Cantharidin for growth of hair’; ‘Curling Fluid’; ‘Bloom of Roses for giving beauty to the lips and cheeks’; ‘Skin Tightener for furrows’. And look, there’s even a nose machine for shaping the nose and an ear machine for outstanding ears. Ah now see, this is more what I need, although the Bloom of Roses sounds tempting, it’s Peppers Quinine and Iron Tonic, an English import, which ‘Purifies and Enriches the blood and Animates the Spirits and Mental Faculties’. Bottles contain twenty-four doses. In twenty-four doses I could solve the problem of Babette, if she is indeed the patchouli girl.

All that mental diversion and I did not even notice the walk to the Guerbois. I knot my apron behind me and begin clearing some of the tables. Four men rise from the table nearest the large front window so I turn my attention there, lifting glasses and plates. The sight of one large peacock feather balancing on the ashtray gives me pause. I allow myself a smile. My masked man was here. In fact he must
have just left this second. Quickly stepping out the door, I watch as a small knot of men cross to the other side of the street. The feather feels soft between my fingers. As I turn to go back inside I see, leaning against the wall with his arms folded and a familiar grin, George, the young failed-painter-turned-writer. I swat him on the cheek with the feather.

‘You?’

‘Sorry to disappoint, but yes, me.’

‘You took your time making yourself known.’

He lifts my hand to his lips. ‘I have been flirting madly with you for weeks, but it was getting me nowhere.’

I cannot say that I noticed. Or if I did, I would have banished it as a mere figment of my sometimes nonsensical thought process. Serving him here in this café, it would not have occurred to me that he would even consider conversing with me. When I come here to work I strap on my subservience as I do my apron, and knot it just as tightly, only allowing my mind to be daring. I would need a few doses of Pepper’s Quinine and Iron Tonic to unravel this one. Or just let it be as is. But there’s the question of Babette, and maybe George can be of help. It would bridge a gap and may prove an interesting diversion. Something to talk over that would not highlight the sheer polarity of our existences. This is Paris, a paint-box, so I should not fret too much.

‘The
patron
will be stomping around in there if I don’t go back inside, but come to Agnes’s café this night at nine. I need your help with something.’

‘I’m there.’

George straightens his hat and ambles off. I watch him leave with the swagger of an easy upbringing, the confidence that comes with everything being gifted to you, and an assurance that he wears like a well-fitted coat.
Maman
is rocking herself gently on the fireside chair. It is a very slight movement that I try to discourage as the swaying seems to indicate a disconnection from her surroundings. The chair is not a rocking chair, but she rocks all the same. I miss her busyness. I miss the bustling of my childhood memories where the cook was a source of constant disappointment but mother was always able to salvage everything. She felt sorry for the cook because she simply couldn’t cook and would never find employment anywhere else. Father would sit with his newspaper in dreaded anticipation of what would be placed each evening before him. Sometimes he would mutter, ‘much better tonight’, as his plate was collected. This would make the cook feel even worse as it would remind her how unskilled she must normally be. Then father’s perceived encouragement spurred her to ‘experiment’ just to please him even more. This always proved disastrous. There was the time when she learned to cook things in aspic so we had a parade of jellied delicacies, each more unpalatable than the next. I think the jellied pigeons might have been what broke father in the end as he sent the place-setting before him crashing to the ground with one sweep of his arm. Or maybe that was just another excuse to escape down to Marseilles.

Maman
gathered up autumn fruits and vast sugary, bubbling cauldrons sweetened the air. She plucked recalcitrant weeds with her long delicate fingers. She planted seeds for spring blossoming. While father would plant soft kisses on her cheek in his comings and goings and I knew, just knew, this was never enough for her. He crushed me in his arms with unbridled joy and I worshipped him. How could my mother not want that love? Being an only child, I presumed that it was because I was so special that she wanted no others.
There must have been a reason why there were no more siblings, but it is never something I discussed with her. What would be the point?

I never liked the old priest in the nearby village as his questioning of my personal development was much too intimate for my liking. He would chastise the women of the district from the pulpit for not being in a permanent state of lactation. They somehow were not fulfilling God’s plan if they were not with child year after year until barrenness crept up on them leaving them dry and withered. How joyless, I always thought. Then the old women would gather round and discuss the wandering underused wombs of the women who, like my mother, had underperformed in their heaven-ordained task of procreation. A wandering womb leads to madness, they would say, and the priest would confirm this because, as he often liked to remind us, he spoke Greek. The fact that the Greek word for womb was
hystera
, he pompously declared, is why men never get hysterical and women are practically destined for the condition. As I say, I never liked the man.

My mother is sad and I wish I could brighten her life. I wish I could build a house for her somewhere pleasant with a nice big garden. She used to make me elaborate gingerbread cakes in the style of a Swiss cottage and I would love to build such a cottage for her, with brick up to the first floor and then wood up to the thatched roof with a gleaming white balcony cutting it in two.

‘Fleur, I had a dream last night.’

‘Yes,
Maman
?’

‘I dreamt I was fishing. It was a beautiful clear blue pond and I had a picnic basket and I was sitting on a little canvas stool holding a long rod.’

‘That’s nice.’

‘Yes, but I didn’t put any bait on the rod because I didn’t want to hurt the fish and I spent hours sitting there, wondering what I was doing, but knowing that if people were looking at me, they would think I was fishing.’

* * *

George surges through the door, unbuttoning his coat as he approaches me and I realise I am stirring my
café
much too vigorously. My cup is in danger of shattering into little pieces.

‘How lovely to get you alone, sitting opposite me, instead of you crashing plates of food down in front of me.’

‘I would consider myself a very good
serveuse
.’

‘Yes, but I can tell by the briskness in your step what kind of mood you are in. Do you know that you walk quicker when you are annoyed? And just occasionally, the tableware suffers for it.’

George orders
un café au lait
, and I begin to relay the tale of the girl I had shared the Spaniard’s stairwell and divan with and how worried I am for her safety. George, I feel, is not paying attention.

‘You have such a pleasant face.’ He is smiling at me as I am trying to infuse my tale with the intensity I truly know it deserves. I chastise him.

‘None of that now, we have too much to try to figure out.’ He is beautiful. He is tousled as if he has just rolled from his bed and that is where my thoughts are leading me. His smell is of musky decadence, of sheets that have been slept on for several days or rich leather trunks on luxurious train journeys. If I could touch it, his smell would be the sweat-beaded hide of a deer in flight. I am aware he is speaking.

‘Does this mean you have cast me in the role of some moustached ploddingly dull police inspector? I protest with every breath in my body. I am a cultured man, a man who at the drop of a hat could recite the names of every Greek and Roman God alphabetically, I might add. Yet you sit there confusing me with someone who would collar a scrawny, lice-infested beggar and take pleasure in it? I am appalled.’

All of this because I have asked for his help.

‘My dear George, I know your type. And much as it would shatter you to realise it, you are, my friend, a type. You probably should have become a lawyer, only as you are, no doubt, a younger son, you would have been indulged by an adoring mother and an impatient father. Your studies, though you were more than capable, would have bored you, so at your mother’s persuasion, your father, who probably secretly admires your free spirit, decided to fund you while you slipped off into the world to spread your wings. However, in time you will be recalled, and your wings will be clipped, and you will comfortably slip back to your perch, but all the better for having known me and known Paris at this moment.’

There is a brief pause. George raises his glass to his lips while making utterances to no one in particular. ‘She called me “dear” and she called me “friend” that, in anyone’s book, is a start.’

‘Are you going to have time to be able to help me George? In fact, how much work do you have on at the moment?’

‘It’s building slowly. I had a few poems in the
Chat Noir
newspaper and I wrote several pieces in support of Impressionism. Friends have been telling me to row in behind some sort of movement to have Montmartre declared an independent state, but God knows that would be far too much aggressive anxiety sealed into too small an
area. It would quickly implode. You know how precious and neurotic creative types are. No, thank you. And you, Fleur, is clearing tables to be your life?’

It is a little embarrassing. I am eighteen years of age, nearly nineteen, and yes, from whatever angle I may choose to view it, the occupation of table clearing seems to be unfurling well into my future. When would I have had the breathing space to be able to aspire to anything? Only the well-fed can allow themselves that indulgence. And yet I am surrounded in Montmartre by hopeless dreamers, some of whom even got lucky. I know that I am torn between a sense of grinding responsibility and an admiration for the careless.

‘I feel fortunate to have a job at all and to be able to pick up the odd sitting along the way.’

‘You would make an uninteresting party guest in that case. You need to imagine you are in a room with amusing people and try to decide on what it is you could contribute. It doesn’t have to be huge. The most pathetic wordsmith will confidently climb up on stage and think he’s Baudelaire and would not be scorned for it. Another may warble a song that only vaguely skirts a recognisable key. We used to sit around our dining table and my father would point at me, or my brothers and sisters, or some poor friend who happened to be there and he would bellow, “Make a statement!” And on the spot you would have to make some pronouncement on politics or the Church or the state of the economy or even the colour of the sky that day. “Make a statement”: it’s not a bad approach to living.’

‘It doesn’t sound as if you have a well-thought-out plan of direction either, yet I’m sure deep down, you know much will be expected of you. Do you know where you are going in life?’

‘No need to know exactly. Imagine if explorers had actually sailed the right course to India …? America would never have been discovered.’

‘Then I declare that my mission is to find Babette, so consider yourself enlisted.’

George smiles and snaps a salute. ‘I’ll make enquiries.’

* * *

I stop by Maria’s on my way home and she beckons me into her cramped one-room apartment. She wipes her hands on an old cloth and steps back from the easel. Staring defiantly at me is a self portrait in pastel that she has been working on. The chin is slightly raised, almost scornfully; the hair severely parted in the middle and tucked behind the ears; the neckline of the dress is conservative and prim. The general effect lacked even a hint of flattery. It was a powerful drawing, bold and unforgiving.

‘Maria, that is incredible. I mean as a drawing it is unbeatable. As my beautiful, lively friend on the other hand, you are being unkind to yourself.’

Maria laughs.

‘Realistic you mean. I listen to Monet and Renoir and Degas at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes and honestly, they would paint my nose and your shoulders and someone else’s neck rather than look at any one of us as a whole. So there I am, more than just a composition of elegant body parts belonging to other people.’

She unties the string from a large cardboard folder and spreads out a selection of drawings. Some are of her mother, sitting sternly and glumly. Others are nude self-portraits in charcoal, with strong viscous lines.

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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