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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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‘But he didn’t want to make love to you, am I right? And that my young lady, if I am not mistaken, is the source of your irritation. You are insulted that he didn’t even give you the right to refuse him.’

I snort slightly; an entirely affected attempt at being dismissive. Walrus taps his podgy hand on mine as I stack his plates with renewed efficiency.

‘Mademoiselle, I know for a fact that he is not a nice man. That young girl who was found dead in the alleyway just off Rue Notre Dame des Champs, she kept regular company with him. Granted, that street contains more studios than any street in Paris, but he did take her in. They were then evicted from their apartment because no rent was being paid. He just left her to fend for herself. She was a rural girl whose only real possession was her coat. She pawned it and died on the streets, probably of exposure. There were bruises on her body.’

Walrus is speaking quickly and in hushed tones so that I won’t appear to be dawdling during a busy service. Stories of lost girls are nothing new. It’s a sad world. I know that from my early days here. Walrus can be very dramatic. It keeps him from being bored. I can hear
chef
calling me from the kitchen. Walrus pats his moustache with a napkin, lifts his hat from the wall, and hefts his way out through and around the other customers. I know that by the time he reaches the front step, several small objects will have teetered and crashed to the floor. I go to fetch a small brush.

The Café Guerbois has its own rhythms, from the light luncheon clatter to the more animated evening sessions when the air becomes thick with the smoke which curls high around the paintings hanging on the wood panels while the young
serveuses
dart around taking orders and serving drinks. Artists corral themselves into one section and hold
charged discussions on painting styles and the best moment to varnish. Poets and students idle in dark corners with watered-down beers in contemplation of life. I like to soak up the streams of café conversations as I would spilt wine – a dab here, a trickle there. Poverty is a recurring theme. I quietly scorn their notion that the more poverty you endure, the more noble a life you live. I once heard them speak in awe of an old friend who wrote ‘An Ode to Poverty’, and then died of starvation. So many of them spend all their time drinking on credit and avoiding actual work. Men do not realise what a rarefied life they lead in their industrious pursuit of leisure. Women must remain busy or all around them would crumble.

And here is George. There is something intriguing about him, from the way his long fingers tap the stem of his goblet to the way he smells, which is a mixture of lavender cologne and tobacco. He is almost as handsome as the Spaniard and has the casual air of entitlement that comes from being adored all of his life by governesses, elderly aunts, and a besotted mother, an endless parade of validation for his every utterance, his every bowel movement. I have learned that he dropped out of school before completing his
Baccalauréat
because he was fixated on becoming a painter. To the general agreement of those present, by even the loosest of standards, he was never going to be any good. So he turned to writing, at which he seems much more comfortable. He managed to get an essay published to much back-slapping relief.

I want to dislike him for his ease of passage through life, but he is unfailingly polite and respectful. He once even half stood up while I delivered his food to the table, before he realised what he was doing and sat back down, as was completely appropriate to our relative positions.

Circumstances shape people and some are more blessed than others. I try not to let my annoyance become too obvious that this world in which I am now anchored, through which I am dragging myself with cracked and dirty fingernails, is a mere source of adventure and new impressions for unmotivated students and untalented artists and writers. That really my friends and I are just bit parts in the fanciful montage of young men who come to Paris to earn their stripes and then be gone.

Where has the time gone? The hour of the ‘Green Fairy’ is soon here, and I must lay out more sugar cubes. If I was blindfolded, I could tell you the time of day it was simply by raising my nose in the air and sniffing. Mornings have the sizzling, buttery comfort of frying eggs; late mornings start to choke up with pungent cigarettes and coffee; then, my favourite, the steaming wafts of soup; before the dreaded hour where absinthe is ordered in enthusiastic rounds and then slowly, you can actually witness a palpable descent into sadness.

You see, here we are a safe-house from the visceral, gut punch of rejection by dealers, lovers, friends, publishers. Some handle it with table-thumping bravado and another round of vermouth, but the absinthe gently finger-tips others towards the edge. They think they are being soothed but as I serve up yet another glass of the iced, opal-green elixir, their shoulders slump a little further, their breathing sinks a little deeper, their eyes take on the flinty glaze of the browbeaten. Within a few hours, their demolition will be complete.

Today I will take my time walking home. I am tired and limp and these streets act like bellows, pumping vitality back into my lungs. I love the brutish pursuit of the aesthetic that is typical of Paris. To think that an administrator with
Napoleonic ties could just decide, for the sake of the promenading upper middle class, to cut though and obliterate what was once a chaotic mess of narrow streets and transform them into great tree-lined avenues. People can now stroll to see and be seen. To then demolish medieval streets and alleys so that the noses of the better classes could be spared the stench of their foul-smelling subordinates? I can understand it. Why would you not want to annihilate things that are messy, smelly and complex and replace them instead with simplicity and refinement?

But here, as I begin to thread my way through the rabbit-warren of dirty streets which lead to my own front door at the top of Montmartre, my breathing becomes easier. It’s strange, as much as I love the scale and grandeur of the finer parts of the city, it is in Montmartre I find my comfort.

And of course, there’s young Joseph in his threadbare, old man’s coat. He is collecting horse dung. He balances his large basket on his hip and scoops up his ‘investment’ which he will later mix with straw and sell on to fertilise the finer gardens. He has been doing this since he was five years of age. The two prostitutes who have taken him in regularly take turns flinging buckets of cold water on him after his hard day’s work because of the stink. He can be heard cursing at them. He is a young man of twelve years of age now and is more precious about his nakedness than he used to be. I have tried to teach him to read, just a little, and he does, just a little.


Maman
, I’m home.’

I go straight over to the small grate to poke the fire, trying to keep it spitting warmth, but its crackle is that of a winded old man. I feel overwhelmed with tenderness for my mother and I’m consumed by a ferocious urge to protect her. Our home is a jumble of rickety cast-off furnishings, shreds of
matting on the bare floors, sagging mattresses and one large cracked mirror. Can lodgings ever really be considered home? My early days were spent in a place with climbing roses over a front door, with a parlour and proper bedrooms, a large kitchen and a laundry and a pantry. Here in this converted outbuilding, where our ceiling is somebody else’s floor and the chairs of upstairs lives can be heard scraping above us, I have two carefully placed, red velvet cushions. I plump them each morning and prop them against the frayed arms of the sofa. My pride is something sheathed and stitched in dimpled red velvet and delicately positioned for inspection. It is evident in few other places.

Though her fingers are pale and stiffening, my mother continues to sew with her sewing box resting on the blanket on her knees. She mends table linen for a few restaurants and hotels, making the threadbare look refined. It brings in a little money.

‘No word from Rue de la Paix yet then?’

‘None,
Maman
. I’m sure any day now, something will come up.’

When I picture Rue de la Paix in my mind I see one vast emporium of opulence. The very best milliners are concentrated on that one street. I have tried on many occasions to find my mother work there, but they prefer young girls, pretty girls, probably because the customers are free to wander about the shops, watching the girls at work. The idea seems to be that if you are trying to sell something well-crafted to a discerning customer, even the nimble-fingered hat maker has to be visually appealing. There are small and busy ateliers where the hats are crafted and assembled and there are vast parlours of indulgence where, when you step through the doors, you can feel the lush carpet through even the crudest of soles.
The hats there are so exquisite that they are displayed on tall bronze stands so you can perambulate around them, admiring the elaborate confections of ostrich plumes and feathers, silk trims and ribbons, felt, velvet and lace.

I once dreamt that I was a lady in the mood for a purchase, and was led to a wide, marble table where I sat on a cushioned chair in front of an enormous gold-gilded mirror. The air was perfumed with freshly cut flowers, and an offertory of hats was presented to me, one by one, by slimly elegant young ladies. As I sipped Champagne from a sparkling, crystal flute, I waved them all away with one imperious white-gloved hand. I could never find work for my mother in a place like that and, much to her irritation, I don’t have my mother’s fine skills with a needle nor the required patience.

My mother, the once elegant Madame Delphy, knows that I had mentioned the possibility of her working with some master milliners. Her thoughts have become frail and loose and she seems to have no perception of time at all. Time has become a fluid and itinerant thing that her mind randomly plucks at. She harvests her memories as she would apples in an orchard, scooping up the healthy fruit, while discarding the bruised and damaged. She knows that her husband, my father, is dead, but has forgotten that he died leaving colossal debt. She knows that she had loved him, but forgets that he often disappeared down to Marseille under the guise of his engineering work where he would take up with prostitutes and find willing players for high-stake card games. She knows that she often doesn’t feel very well and that is the confusing thing for both of us as her mind and body seem in the interminable grip of a cloying melancholy. Sometimes she aimlessly picks at the wallpaper as she lies in her bed at night, creating a jagged gash that cruelly mocks me. ‘Your
mother is ill,’ that wallpaper wound taunts me as the sun rises each day and blinks into darkness each night.

‘Yoo-hoo, ladies of the house?’

Maria waves from outside the window before she bursts through the door carrying a small posy of flowers and some bread. ‘These are for your mother.’

‘Ah how sweet. Let me put them in water. She is a little tired so is having a rest. I’ll make us some coffee.’

Maria pulls the chair that isn’t broken, towards me and whispers so that we are not heard. ‘How has she been?’

‘Very confused. Sometimes she wakes me at night with her moaning and I find she’s covered with sweat.’

The fact that we were both fatherless forged an immediate bond between Maria and I when we first met as young girls. However, while I have fond memories of a tall man tapping up the path with his silver-topped cane and then tossing his hat on to a bench, scooping me up, all in a tobacco-scented whirl, there was nothing for Maria. She would joke that she was, ‘Marie-Clémentine Valadon, Father-Unknown’, because that’s what is written on her birth certificate. Maria is fingering the wide blue ribbon of her bonnet.

‘Another new hat, Maria?’

‘It’s Henri. He spends far too much time going in and out of the milliners picking up hats for me. I tell him that it’s much cheaper to paint me in the nude, instead of in these creations. But what can I do?’ Her smile tells me that she wouldn’t be protesting too much about this.

‘Yesterday we went to that lovely wild garden behind the Boulevard de Clichy with the lemon trees and the lilac bushes. It was a slow day’s work, some painting, a little wine and pâté, and then more painting in that very crisp, sharp light. You didn’t make the party last night?’

‘I hadn’t the energy, so I just stayed home after work. How was it?’

‘The usual: noisy and lots of fun. It was in one of the dilapidated streets near the Louvre. Somebody painted three large banners with the words, ‘obligation’, ‘order’ and ‘responsibility’ in big dark letters. They were hung on the wall and the men had a spitting competition to find out how many of the banners they could hit. Heads flung back, and then ‘phwat’. There was one poor soul, a small timid writer who didn’t manage to reach any of them, so he was tumbled out onto the street where he was pelted with tomatoes and everyone shouted ‘traitor’ after him. Henri and I stayed far too late, of course.’

Henri is a bit of a night owl. I like him. I think his insecurities make him comfortable to be around and he is instantly recognisable, a little bearded man with the bulbous nose and checked trousers. He adores Maria, which is probably why he paints her so much. ‘Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’. His name has the ring of the nobility which he does indeed spring from, but I would say he is more at home among the girls of Montmartre. They all love him because he is the first with the gossip.

‘Did he hear anything about the girl in the alley, the one that was found dead? Walrus was talking about her earlier.’

‘Well, he didn’t know her. Very few did. She was often with that Spanish painter. I heard that she had pawned her coat so he went to the pawn shop to get it back after she was found, and then he and a few friends went to the Jardin des Tuileries to hold a farewell ceremony for the girl. They placed her coat on the ground, sprinkled petals on it, and set it on fire. They called it a ceremony of release and drank until dawn.’

‘They probably didn’t even remember her name by then.’ I can, in a way, see how he would easily show such a callous
disregard for a young girl. But actual cruelty? That I can’t imagine. And yet, why couldn’t he have retrieved her coat for her while she was still alive? No doubt he would have if she had only asked. I’ll hold that thought.

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
6.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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