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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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She kisses Maria and me on the cheek and announces that she is taking her troupe home with her. ‘I need a ring of safety until I reach my front door. You girls will understand.’

I’m a little disappointed that there is no protestation on any of the young men’s parts. But Agnes had decreed that she needs their companionship the whole way home, and nobody was going to object. Maria and I link arms and heave each other up the cobbled streets towards home. Throngs of people are milling about, their shadows partnering up under the lights of the Boule Noir and the L’Élysée dance halls. We are in that lovely part of the night where bellies are full and heads are light and people fall reluctantly and unthinkingly into their homeward strides until only echoes remain like lingering, watchful ghosts.

* * *

‘It’s only me,
Maman
.’ I whisper softly so as not to startle her. She often falls asleep on the chair when I am out for a long
time. She worries and I think feels lonely. I fold her shawl into a triangle shape. She is like a bird, bony and fragile. Her thin neck seems too weak to support her head; her buttoned boots seem abnormally large attached to her twigs of ankles. I am always afraid that she will topple over or take flight on an unexpected gust of wind. My role is like that of scaffolding, something she can hold on to, brace herself against and feel supported by. I shoe-shuffle her towards the bed we share. It is late, so I just unbutton her boots and pull the blankets up – three of them because they are each tattered in their own way. A prayer is mouthed towards the ceiling in the belief, no doubt, that you can speed them heavenward if the trajectory is correct.

I need to do some clearing up. My propensity to ignore clutter has led to some rather unpalatable discoveries such as mouldy bread, and once a mouse living in the fabric of a chair. I evicted it and vowed to reform my habits, or at least modify them, so I try to make the effort before falling into bed.

There is a small plate of cured sausage and some left-over bread which I’ll cover with a cloth. Both can be used perhaps, for breakfast. I clear some papers from the fireside chair in case she sits on them and I also move the hat to a safer place. A hat? This is not mine. My mother has not owned such a confection in a very long time. It is soft to the touch like the fur of a kitten. Is it velvet? The rim is wide and floppy, the ribbon: green satin; the decoration: a little bird. I crush it towards my face … and smell patchouli.

A
IRY
F
LORAL

Hiding in plain sight. It’s the trick of scoundrels and renegades and I know I am neither, but who will believe me? I can picture the scene from an observer’s point of view. There is a gaggle of about a dozen young ladies strolling around the various stalls of the
fête
, gossiping and munching on toffee apples and waffles. An older woman is chaperoning them as they pause by the bandstand to listen to the booming brass sounds. There is one girl looking out of place. She is hanging back a little and isn’t paired with any of them in particular. She is clutching a large Japanese-print bag with bamboo handles, and not the frilly parasols of everyone else in the group. And while the others all wear splendid bonnets decorated with flowers and fruits, this one young lady is bareheaded. And that would be me. I am unsure where I left my hat in these mad few days since I flung myself down those stairs in an undignified escape attempt. He wouldn’t stop mauling me and I had only come to be painted. I probably
should have slapped him the first time he tried, but I was concerned I may have been overreacting in the company of a sophisticated artist. I cannot explain the rage that bubbled inside of me though. It shocked me. I did everything in my power to supress it and to present myself only as a scented scabbard from which he could draw his genius. I know now I should not have drunk wine with him as that must have seemed like an invitation, or at least approval of time spent in his company. The wine, the fumes, my newness to Paris – how did I so easily allow all of that to blunt my judgement, my common sense, my perception? How did I so easily and willingly forget my past? To forget those other hands that mauled me? Is there something about me? How am I still so foolish, so stupid, so naïve?

The confusing thing is that I felt perfectly safe when I was completely disrobed and arranged on his couch. I did not sense a single flicker of lust as he divided his attention between me and his large canvas. It was not until I began to dress that somehow there ceased to be any censorship in his behaviour and that last time, when I was layering my clothes on behind the screen and he creaked one panel ajar to step around to where I was, I knew. He was unbuttoning himself even as he steered me by the back of my neck towards the couch and as I lay face down with my camisole and petticoat pushed far up my back I tried to focus on the cravat that I was somehow holding in my hand. It had been hanging on a hook behind the screen and I must have lifted it off just as he reached around for me. It wasn’t mine. It was, however, oddly comforting pressed against my nose and wafting of summer gardens. I closed my eyes to block out the brutish rhythm, and became lost in soft pale rose petals and geraniums and lavender. With a final withered grunt, he rolled away. I slid
off the couch and slowly made my way back behind the screen, then finished dressing with a newfound urgency before finally dashing hurriedly down the stairs. And then things become a bit disjointed. I recall bumping into a
gendarme
. I was tear stained and dishevelled and insisted he take down my details as I had just been the victim of a brutal attack, but there must have been something disbelieving in his eyes as I did not get the sense that he was prepared to do anything about it.

I’m still viewing the sequence of events at the
fête
as an outsider to try to piece it all together. After several musical renditions, the chaperone claps her hands, telling the girls to fall in line, that it was time to head back to the school. The young ladies, many of them hooking arms, sway back towards the railway station in giggles and gossip. The bareheaded girl sticks close by them. They secure a carriage and after a few minutes, the train groans off. The girl with the cherries on her hat nudges her friend.

‘There’s that strange creature again. See her with the odd bag.’ Both girls strain to take in a side view.

‘She doesn’t look very well. She seems to be nodding off and look there’s sweat on her forehead.’

‘Madame Gouloumes!’ Both girls scream as they watch the stranger tumble forward to the ground.

Which is why when I opened my eyes, I was aware of a cool cloth on my forehead with a pink-cheeked lady stroking my cheek and telling me I had given them such a fright. Standing rigidly behind her is a heavy-bosomed woman with a stern face.

‘Now let me get you some tea.’ The pink-cheeked lady seems to be cooing, not actually speaking. I finger the lace scalloped edging on the crisp white sheet which is tucked
tightly, entombing me in this softly corpulent mattress. Everything about this room is fresh and airy, from the soft blue stripes of the wallpaper, to the white floor boards, to the delicate curtains daintily pirouetting in and out of the open window frame. But that conversation is seeping like a grey pall over this shimmering haven. The conversation I overheard while sitting on the omnibus. At first it was nothing but random words, punctuating my trailing thoughts. But then they became more fluidly insistent and focused. The two men were discussing the gruesome story of a painter who was found dead. I listened just long enough to suddenly realise that I knew who they were talking about and I had a rising sense of dread. I gathered up my few belongings and wandered aimlessly before falling in with a group of girls on an outing. And now here I am, in a strange bed, wearing somebody’s nightgown. The lady with the stern face has not moved.

‘Your skirts and underskirts were all stained, with mud or paint or something.’

The soft-cheeked lady nods in agreement. ‘Yes, and you were burning up.’

‘We weren’t sure how long it was going to take you to come around, so I sent for the police. I thought they could help. Is there someone we can get in touch with for you, now that you are awake?’

I elbow myself up into a sitting position against the ballast of soft pillows surrounding me. ‘Honestly, I’m fine now. Where am I?’

‘You have found your way into Madame Gouloumes’ Boarding School for Young Ladies. But lie back and rest; you are not ready to get up yet.’

I would love to lie back and rest, but that could be my
undoing. I have to be forcefully matter-of-fact. ‘Really. My mother will be waiting for me. She will be so cross. We are going on a trip, and I was meant to meet up with her, only I got distracted by the
fête
.’

‘But how did you get into such a weakened state?’ Of course they are going to want to unravel the mystery of the strange girl who collapsed among them, so I must find my clothes. The look of disbelief that I saw in the
gendarmes
’ eyes makes me want to just go back home, home to the Loire Valley, without any further explanations to anyone about any of this ill-conceived adventure here.

‘I was being careless and had a bit of a tumble in the park, and I also forgot to eat. I thank you so much for your kindness, but my mother will be worried by now.’

‘Very well then, if you really feel you are up to it.’

My clothes are brought over to the bed and laid out piece by piece, as if dressing a cloth mannequin. On hearing the door pulled and clicked shut, I anxiously begin layering my clothes on, knowing that my haste will not be misconstrued, as they all believed my mother to be waiting somewhere for me. The banister is highly polished and my free hand skates in one long sweep until it is stopped at its end, by a large carved acorn. I can hear the voices of a man and a woman coming from a small front room. Clutching my bag in front of me – there it is a mere few steps away – I see the front door. I am nearly there, but I first have to pass the room with the voices.

‘Ah, Babette.’ Madame Gouloumes is calling me from just inside the open door. Glancing in, I can see a neatly set table with a dainty cake-stand, cups and saucers and patterned plates with Madame earnestly pouring tea from a small silver pot. The policeman nods his appreciation.

‘The Inspector here wants to speak with you.’ With that, Madame rises as if taking flight from a nest, a gracefully upward soaring and she leaves the room, closing the door behind her. This room is different. It is more of an upholsterer’s paradise, in complete contrast to the clean lines of the bedroom. I feel sure that the young ladies are normally not allowed in here because there is something louche about the way the chairs and sofas are over stuffed and their backs overly swayed. They seem to be an invitation to relax one’s elegant posture and instead to lounge and sprawl gracelessly. How else to arrange yourself on such designs? You would have to almost fight against their shape for the more fitting attitude would be to simply slouch. Except of course for the chairs at the table where the policeman is still sitting and which Madame has vacated.

‘Mademoiselle Fournière, I’m glad I’ve caught up with you.’ The inspector’s words are muffled as he wipes his mouth with a large starched serviette.

‘Sir?’

‘Have a seat, please.’

I quietly obey and rest my bag on the floor beside my chair.

‘You see there are just a few questions that I feel you may be able to help me with. Maybe coincidences, always possible.’ He is smiling, but it is not a reassuring gesture. His arms are now crossed and he is staring at me, unblinkingly – which makes me double my own nervous blinking in an effort to compensate.

‘You are familiar with a painter called Manuel. Is that correct?’

‘Monsieur …? Let me think.’

‘No, Mademoiselle, you may be misunderstanding me, but this is not a parlour game. A young laundry girl was able to
tell me that you were probably the last person to see him alive.’

I am genuinely confused. ‘I’m sorry sir. I don’t think I know such a laundry girl.’

‘She said you stumbled out of this painter’s apartment in a distressed state late on Thursday evening, and she came to your aid.’

Of course. There was the slightly inebriated young girl who had come to see why I was upset and crying. I must have told this young stranger how I had just been attacked. I do remember her trying to comfort me, because to my shame, even in those moments, I was aware there was a mouldy smell rising in vapours from her dress when she went to give me a brief embrace. In a disjointed tumble, she asked me my name, the painter’s name, how much I was being paid for the sitting and whether I had any intention of going back.

‘Now when I think of it, yes, I do recall coming across a young girl.’ Was it before or after that, when I unloaded my misery to the implacable
gendarme
?

‘So the next morning, that very same painter who you admitted had callously assaulted you, is found dead. Then today, I get a message from this fine establishment for ladies that they are in care of a waif who could only mumble her name before passing out. And look at you now, all poised as if to leave. Are you going somewhere?’

‘I can assure you, that painter was very much alive when I ran out of his studio.’

‘Yes, well, mademoiselle, if our work could rely on assurances alone, our jobs would be so much simpler. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that thieves often assure me they haven’t robbed and murderers that they haven’t killed.’

He stands, in a much more laboured way than Madame and not in an unkindly way, takes my elbow directing me too to stand. ‘There are just a few things that need to be cleared up. You’ll appreciate that.’

Hugging my bag, I am steered out of the room and towards the front door. Many of the girls who were at the
fête
are standing like primly arranged ornaments on the buffed stairs, with the pink-cheeked lady and Madame Gouloumes like two mismatched bookends standing at the bottom. I can just about hear one of the girls whispering behind her hand to her friend on the step in front of her, ‘We could all have been murdered.’

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
2.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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