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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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‘Maria, I sat for him, the Spaniard, and he was absolutely fine. In fact I have another sitting next week.’ Or was he fine? When I think about it, there were moments where I felt a little frightened, but only because I was so anxious to please him and felt as though I was falling short. Being so talented must be a very consuming business and from such talented people we can’t expect the social niceties beloved of the terminally boring and vacuous. And then there was the cat. It innocently strolled in one afternoon, back arched in anticipation of exploring a new environment. Any distraction can be welcome when you are holding the same position for hours on end. He caught the side glance that was really just a reflex, and swung around to see the source of my brief flickering of focus. The cat purred its entitlement to be there and padded towards one of the jars of brushes sitting on the floor. With the palette firmly wedded to his left hand, he reached for the cat with his right hand and closed his fist around its neck, carrying it swinging and spitting to the top of the stairs. He must have flung it down because I could hear a few thuds and pitiful mewing. It actually didn’t take anything out of him as he just slowly closed the door and resumed painting. I was almost afraid to breathe. How safe was I really? What about the patchouli girl … is she safe?

* * *

The air always seems fresher here in the Bois de Boulogne than in most other parts of Paris, apart, of course, from the clean air of the Butte at the height of Montmartre. I have
been promising Maria that I would come with her out here to the circus where once she spent time as an acrobat. She has left many old friends behind and the odd time I take a day trip out here, there seems to be a certain grace, a casual respectability where ladies with parasols and impeccable men with their walking sticks mingle and casually appraise the red-coated riders as they canter their horses through complicated routines. We pick our way behind the tiered stands, trying to avoid the still steaming clumps of horse manure. Maria looks sublimely happy, as if caught up in a mystical thrall.

‘Is that not the most wonderful smell in the entire world?’ I smile meekly because my only concern is to swat away the flies and to try and ignore the discomfort I am feeling as sullen groups of men work in industrious hives, some pulling ropes, others painting large planks of wood, while all around, calloused hands savagely groom glossy horse flesh with coarse bristled brushes.

‘Uncle.’ I turn in time to see Maria clasping her hat to her head and running towards a large man perched on a very small wooden stool and tending to a horse’s hoof. I watch, charmed, as a broad grin creases his weather-worn face the minute he realises it is Maria. He releases the horse’s hoof from between his knees and stands up, his bulky, scarred forearms gripping Maria in the briefest of hugs. This man, whom one second ago I looked on with misgivings and suspicion, tentatively stepping around him as if proximity would bring me harm, is now bathed in benevolence and awkward charm.

‘My little Marie-Clémentine, look at you. You don’t look like a girl who has come to do some tumbling.’

‘This is my good friend Fleur, and this is my uncle.’

I know he is not really her uncle, but she always speaks so fondly of him because he took care of her. Everyone should have at least one person to look out for them.

‘This little creature was the most fearless acrobat ever to climb up on a horse’s back. There were plenty bigger, but none bolder. And your trapeze work …’

‘Yes, well, my boldness cost me months in bed and my future in the circus.’

‘Oh that was a nasty fall you took, but look at you now, haven’t you grown into the proper young lady.’

I am intruding on this affectionate reunion so I decide to take a look around. I don’t even like circuses. They always seem pompous and artificial and I hate being condescended to, all that manipulation of the audiences’ reactions. All that, ‘Oooooh, he almost fell to his death there.’ ‘Ahhhhh, that elephant nearly crushed his body there.’ Leave me in peace to look at a painting, or walk in a beautiful garden, or eat an exquisitely cooked meal. I much prefer to be a passive observer, than a sawdust-caked participant.

Maria was very happy here so I am happy for her. As I stroll around, I can see how a very strong bond would form between all those involved in this little capsule of existence. They must have to truly trust each other. They must learn to read each others rhythms when their very life could depend on something as tenuous as another’s wrist clasp as they fly through the air. They must know what ropes to haul, what animals to soothe, what smiles to flash, what has to be hammered here and fastened there. It must all come as second nature, as intricate and tuned as the workings of a clock. There is a large trapeze net and a man springing up and down with a rope tied to his waist as two men each hold one end of it. I pull back a canvas flap as I can hear voices inside. It is a huge space with
one long bar area where three young women dry glasses while others flatten out sand heaps underfoot. They barely look up at me, even though they must know, must sense, that I am not of this place. Back outside again, a strong man holds two women aloft, one in each arm. His muscles are slathered in something; his vanity is clearly outstripping the women’s safety for I feel sure they will slide off the glistening and sinewy bulges. His manhood is tucked into folds of cloth, resembling something you would swaddle a baby in, his chest broad and bare.

I feel more inclined now to brazenly lift the various canvas flaps as if peeping through a picture book. There is a whimpering sound coming from somewhere. I slowly step my way towards the source of it, which appears to be behind a wooden screen. There, standing naked with little skinny arms crossed in front of her, is a young girl of about fourteen or fifteen, head bowed with her dark hair falling forward. A man is walking around her as if he is inspecting merchandise. I remember hearing recently that the circus owner likes to stage side-show cabarets for select bands of gentlemen where they are entertained by nude girls. I hear myself shouting.

‘What the hell are you doing?’

The man’s eyes meet mine with a steely gaze. ‘And who, might I ask, are you?’

I am emboldened and move to grab the wrist of the young girl but an unkempt elderly woman sitting on a small stool in the shadows startles me as she presses down hard on her haunches and rears up like an angry beast.

‘Leave my granddaughter alone. Don’t you go near her.’

The woman has a walking stick, and she raises it to hit me but I step back. I feel contempt for this woman rising biliously from deep in my stomach. The man throws a blanket at the young girl.

‘Look, the customers here are high class. This is not some brawling absinthe-soaked hovel. Anyway, I would never hire her: she is far too young and far too skinny. All of you just get out of here immediately and good riddance.’ Then, with a swipe of his forearm, he bursts out through the flap and into the afternoon air. The young girl starts to cry.

‘I am sorry,
grand-mère
.’ She begins to dress herself with the weariness of an eighty-year-old. The woman turns to me with flinty eyes and hisses at me.

‘Why would you do this? Who do you think you are?’

The woman suddenly slumps back on to her stool as if broken. She wipes her eyes, then stands up and limps over to the girl to help her dress. She tenderly smoothes out the girl’s long hair.

‘Don’t worry sweetheart. Your
grand-mère
will find something.’

I slowly back away, knowing that neither the woman nor the girl would even notice. I ease my way out to look for Maria. I want to leave immediately.

* * *

Maria and I drag ourselves slowly up the steep incline of the Rue Lepic where she has arranged to meet Henri in the Bonne Franquette bar. It is painted in a dark green, and the shutters have faded to an anaemic grey. There is little about it that is warm and inviting but still, many trawl up the hill to slay their demons here and it somehow fits my mood at this moment.

‘Ladies, here, try some of this. It will test you.’ Henri pushes his glass across the table towards me and I take a quick sip, nearly spitting it out again.

‘What is this devil’s brew?’

‘A wonderful mixture of absinthe, red wine and cognac,’ he winks.

‘I don’t have your constitution. I’ll have a cherry brandy please.’

Maria requests a small beer. Henri clicks for the attention of the server.

‘Have you heard about the splattering?’ Henri is now poised on the edge of his chair with his eyes glistening. ‘Well, they are calling it that, which I think is most clever.’

I take a sip of this much more familiar drink and wait until he has exhausted his dramatic pause.

‘A painter was found dead at his easel yesterday morning. One of his models found him slumped there and alerted the police. She came rushing out and bumped into a young laundry girl who also modelled for him and the laundry girl kept shouting, “but he owes me ten francs!”’

That seems bizarre, but also teasingly alluring as a topic of conversation over a warm cherry brandy. Henri is in his element.

‘And who was the painter? The very same Spaniard that the dead girl was last seen with. So, poetic justice I would have to class that.’

My breathing is sucked into an involuntary spasm.

‘The police have cordoned off the area and are already asking his associates about his movements and who he spent time with? They are also trying to find the model who discovered him because she seems to have disappeared, and you know what they say about the last person to have seen a murder victim?’

A shiver slithers down my spine. There are some very unsavoury drifters and all manner of low-lifes wandering about: thieves, addicts, pimps and often the most sordid among them gravitate towards each other. Instinctively they
seek each other out, like lambs to a teat. Could it have been poetic justice? Did he get what was coming to him? I am aware that the fingernails of my right hand have drifted towards my teeth, and I am beginning to nip at them. It is a throwback to my childhood, a self-comforting reflex and I have to make a very big effort to force my hands back on to my lap. Who was the model? I am worried about the patchouli girl. I assume an air of casual intrigue so as not to sounds ridiculous.

‘There is one of his models, I forget her name, that I would quite like to find. How do you think I should do it? How would you, Henri … do painters overlap on models?’

‘Only the good ones. The good ones are like prizes. A beautiful model had been the severing of many a friendship. Is your friend beautiful?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you forget her name?’

‘Well, I wasn’t really that close to her, but I would really like to find her. I’m feeling concerned.’

‘Fleur, you do know that Paris is a big place?’

‘I heard the Spaniard tried to poach some of Auguste Renoir’s models. Maybe she was one of them.’

I can see how this is going to unfold as Maria straightens herself on her chair. ‘Well, he didn’t try and poach me and I am one of Auguste’s favourites at the moment.’

Henri is scowling. ‘And don’t forget that. It is only for the moment.’

Maria matches his scowl. ‘He is a little in love with me.’

Henri makes a ‘puh!’ sound and lifts his glass to his fleshy lips. Henri and Maria gossip for another twenty minutes or so, as I try to indicate that I am ready to leave by shifting around in my chair. Maria eventually takes the hint. I link
her arm as we step out of the Bonne Franquette and down on to the street. I am studying the way fresh dirt has caked the grooves of the cobblestones and wondering if it is possible to find a girl wearing patchouli in a city like Paris. I hear its faint buzzing and notice a wayward bee. I duck and spring and flap my arms because they terrify me, but fascinate me also. I remember my astonishment the first time I saw a bee here in Paris as I had always associated them with rural idylls and agricultural living, from everything to do with my life before. And there it was, insistently buzzing its incongruity. But why shouldn’t they live in this great city, with the chestnut-tree-lined Champs-Élysées and the Tuilleries and the orchards of Montmartre? I understand those of the countryside appliquéing their way of life onto the fabric of this new urban world. I understand how so many rooftops were seen as ideal homes for bee hives. I understand how those people, my people, would startle at the rattle and clang of steam-cars and want to taste honey.

* * *

1 pair curtains (lace)

6 table cloths (linen)

Assorted serviettes

I check the items off against
Maman
’s scribbled list and bundle them up into one large strip of brown paper. Maria holds it all down while I tie it with string. I have been punctuating our conversation with references to the Spaniard’s model and I want to find out more about the girls that Renoir would use.

‘Fleur, I know for a fact that Auguste hasn’t been using anyone else for quite some time now. We have just completed
the dancing paintings. In fact, a jealous mistress barged into the studio and attacked me with a broom, because we had been spending such a long time together. Imagine! Mad whore. Chased me away as if I was a rat or something. Even if your friend did model for him, he may not know who she is. For Monsieur Auguste Renoir, women are really just a collection of different flesh tones and not much more.’

‘But where does he start looking for his models? Do they go to him?’

‘You really do want to find this girl?’

Maria rummages through some scraps of paper on
Maman
’s sewing table and reaches for a pencil. She starts to sketch out the head of a young woman.

‘Can you describe her for me?’

I close my eyes and of course, the overwhelming sensation is one of smell. I concentrate, and the beautiful face with its quick dimpled flash of a smile, looms immediately into my mind. Maria sketches as the details tumble out.

‘Her lips are a little fuller, the chin a little smaller.’

She shades and darkens and rubs with her fingers. The face emerging from the scrap of paper is close to what I remember.

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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