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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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* * *

If that observer in the park could describe me now, she would see someone in a state of absolute shock and terror. She would have watched as I stood in the dock, pleading my innocence while I was being referred to repeatedly as a ‘wretched creature’. She would have listened as someone, I’m not sure who, spoke on my behalf using terms like ‘delicate damsel’ and an ‘inherent piety’ and she would have witnessed a gruff, whiskered
calibrate my distress with somehow being directly responsible for it and she would have heard it concluded that I was indeed, some kind of deviant from which the world needed to be made safe. All this has been recorded for I watched intrigued, as reporters condensed the proceedings and my upset for the leisurely fireside reading of others.

All I can see here through this high grilled window are two cell-cars clattering out of the cobbled courtyard on their way to the Justice Palace with more prisoners. It looks almost elegant. One of the covered cars being drawn by
two black horses, and the other by two white horses. The two drivers up front have blankets across their knees and if I make my eyes squint I can imagine that these women are being taken to a ball.

* * *

This place is a noisy clanking hell. From the very first day that I passed through the arched front entrance, it has been as if I was clamped in armour of fear, rigid and cold against my skin. With that first tentative walk down that long corridor, an ocean of noise swept over me. The corridor seemed to narrow as I got closer to the dormitory where I would be staying. My first glimpse of the room was of a dimly lit space with a dozen or more beds looming like shadowy humped-back beasts. Wherever there was a hint of brightness, it was caged in grilled mesh. My eyes are slowly adjusting, but my bed is not the sanctuary that I crave from the chaos. I used to love that sensation of sinking deep under the covers when the night turned inky, but here I lay down my fearful throbbing head and pray for dawn. My fingernails tear at my skin each night as the bedbugs and lice gorge on my compliance.

If I was one of those reporters in the court, I would make a note of each class of humanity thrown here together, from the streetwalkers to the petty thieves to the murderers. I would easily describe them all as ‘wretched creatures’ and I so completely out of place. Several of these women have killed their husbands or lovers in what are dismissed as ‘passionate accidents’. ‘Passionate accidents?’ I would make a note of that. I feel no safer here in my sheath of womanhood than I did with that brute of a painter. Each night, on this pathetically thin mattress, I try to close my mind to the night-time activities of the other women around me. Though I attempt to
make myself as small as possible, more than once I have felt a hand reach in under my covers and snake across my breasts. My first instinct was to scream, but it only seemed to cause amusement. I did not know that other women would do such a thing. My pleading to be moved to another cell was greeted by the nuns as if they were deaf and me an unstable mute.

The brief walk across the cobbled courtyard to the chapel blows fresh air on to my face. It is the softest of reminders that there is something else out there, an otherness, and a power generating a life that can not be confined by the sheer height of these walls, that there is still a God. Every single part of me feels as if it has been breached and a briefly soothing puff of air on my face is like a mother’s kiss. Yes, you can still hear bird song, but to my ears it is like a taunt.

It is clear that the nuns deliberately pay no attention to the sordidness of the darkened dormitories. On the other hand, they do dislike people being loud or disruptive and intervene immediately. I have resorted to screaming
‘La Marseillaise
’ at the top of my lungs each night until they move me to a cell which holds older prisoners. Any ensuing punishment for my bad behaviour would be worth it to be able to ease into even one night of peaceful rest. But I need more time to get my bearings and to work out the rhythms of prison life.

The workshop is not much more pleasant. All the women sit in rows on wooden slat-back chairs facing the same direction, while a nun perches on a high stool at a desk, supervising the mending work. It isn’t a very big room and even though there are a few ceiling lamps, they do not throw light very effectively so we all sit here like ill-defined spectres. The stove has a reassuring solidity. I have given myself a few pin pricks because there is an elderly woman rocking back and forth in the front row, and I keep glancing at her.
She is like a disturbed metronome, her straggly grey hair the texture of fraying wool.

‘Don’t stare at her.’

Cécilia is the nearest thing I have to a friend here. I was initially very wary of the coarse young girl with her calloused hands and scarred chin. I am still not convinced that on my first day in the workshop, when I went to sit down and ended up crashing to the floor, that it was, as she claimed, an accident and that she hadn’t deliberately pulled my chair too far back for me to sit on. But when the nun slipped down from her stool and, pushing chairs aside, brandished a long stick over Cécilia as if to strike. I apologised profusely, blaming my own carelessness. I knew from Cécilia’s wry smile that we would probably be friends. The young prostitute who was also a thief, had been in and out of this prison three times now, and her unperturbed attitude is vaguely comforting. I am still in awe and my naiveté is fodder for the amusement of the unscrupulous.

‘See that bonnet she is wearing; you’ll see some of the women with the same bonnet. It is a sign that they have syphilis. She has gone a bit mad. She is meant to be confined to silence, which is also driving her crazy – not that she needs much help.’

‘What is she in here for?’

‘Who knows at this stage, probably arsenic in her husband’s chocolate drops or something?’ We try to muffle our giggles with our sewing. ‘A lot of these crones could just as easily chop the pricks off their men for messing with other women, but arsenic is easier and cleaner. There are some very good poisoners in here.’

‘Not so good if they’re in here.’ When did my humour get so black?

‘Tell me Babette; are you sorry you ever came to Paris?’ Cécilia is giving me a friendly nudge. I lower my head to better conceal my whispering.

‘You could say that. Do you know: I miss the smell of lavender. I thought for a second when I stood at an open window this morning that I could smell lavender. I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath, but nothing.’

‘Floor polish probably.’

‘Our housekeeper wore some kind of lavender perfume around the house and she would give me these crushing hugs, and I could smell lavender off my own skin even after she left.’

‘So you had servants and a housekeeper, and she wore lavender perfume and gave you lots of hugs and one day you woke up and thought: life is too easy, I think I’ll go to Paris! You didn’t want the famous Saint Lazare Prison to be one of life’s mysteries?’

I came to Paris to have an adventure, in part to escape. How feeble sounding is that? How stupid? I can’t even remember what calculated construct I gave to my mother by way of justification and reassurance. It wasn’t duplicitous, just outrageously optimistic. I began to miss home almost the minute I stepped off the train. I had wanted to re-invent myself, to be more strident and daring. It’s why I began to wear patchouli. Patchouli was free-spirited knee tremblers in back alleys. It was absinthe that burnt your throat on the way down and made you bang your glass on the table and let out a loud whoop. It was desire and recklessness. Patchouli was Paris. Lavender hinted at warm bread and plump maternal women. It spoke of well-behaved young ladies who blushed easily. It gave a nod to chaste couples stealing kisses under apple trees. It was a pleasant hug from a housekeeper.

But I can feel the tiny hairs on my forearms bristling even now, when I think of how it transported me as that foul painter violated me. That sweet-smelling cravat that I was able to bury my nose in and think of butterflies, as if summer had brushed my lips. It had to be hers, because she moved in a floral symphony, her eyes so vivid they made me think of lily ponds. She looked soft and rounded and kind. The young laundry was able to point me to her home. I have no friends here yet. The girl remembered being given money by her. ‘I’m not ashamed to beg’, she kept saying … and I didn’t care. I just wanted to know where the bright-eyed girl lived. The girl thought she lived with her mother. Fleur. How appropriate a name.

I pushed the door open when no one answered my knock. It was an impoverished home with little welcoming about it. I could see a small pile of linen with a sewing box resting on top of it. There on the table was a plate with some strong, almost rancid-smelling meat partially covered by a plate and some bread that was slightly mouldy. A shawl was draped over the back of one of the fireside chairs and two plump red cushions, the only thing of colour in the entire room, popped out from the jaded tapestry of the couch. I was afraid to loiter. I quietly stole out of the room again. Now that I think of it, that must be where I left my hat.

The old woman at the front here is getting more agitated. She is rubbing her arms and legs vigorously and under these dim lights; it’s as if she is rubbing them raw. I am unable to continue sewing. Cécilia is leaning into me.

‘She thinks she has leprosy. This used to be a hospital for lepers, oh two hundred years ago. She’s convinced she caught it from something here.’

The woman is now standing up and swaying. The sister is angrily climbing down from her stool. It’s a comical
manoeuvre as she is short legged, so there is an unseemly pivot of the hips before she can manage to plant both feet on the ground. She is trying to settle the old woman with a stern tone and the air is bristling with anticipation. And there it is, in the flash of a second, the old woman lunging forward and placing her two hands, palms down, on the stove. She screams in agony and the smell of singed flesh clings to the air like gauze.

She is hauled away, screaming and dragging her legs.

‘I don’t want to be shot. I don’t want to be shot.’

I feel suddenly convulsed in shivers as if my heart will jump out of my chest and I am winded of breath. I feel Cécilia’s arm around my shoulder.

‘Hey there. She is only a mad bat.’

‘I didn’t do it, Cécilia. I shouldn’t be here.’ My words sputter between snatched breaths. She just nods.

‘None of us should. We’re survivors, struggling in the only way we know how, and they punish us for it. They should give us a medal.’

* * *

My name is being called – a strange, hollow echo reverberating off the bars. I can feel its vibrations as I press my cheek to the closed hatch.

‘Babette Fournière. Would Babette Fournière make herself known?’

The key is unlocking our door even as this request is being hollered, so they know I’m here. I stand to attention. I am learning to respond to commands with the compliance of a beaten puppy.

‘You’re leaving here, gather your things.’

I’m leaving? Of course I’m leaving. Somebody has realised
their terrible mistake. I swiftly gather my small bundle of things. I am standing in the plain grey prison dress with the striped apron that everyone is assigned on arrival. My blood is pumping as I follow the guard down the long corridor. I allow myself a small smile. I’ll have to write a note for Cécilia to say my goodbyes. Why has the guard stopped so abruptly? I nearly bump into him. He growls and with two large keys unlocks the door and pulls it ajar. Something has gone wrong. I am standing at the other side of the door, numbly aware that it is being locked again leaving me on the wrong side of it. I can feel a pathetic whelp rise through my tightened throat. There is a gap in the door and I must be heard.

‘Wait, you’ve made a mistake. I’m Babette Fournière. I should be getting out.’

Someone is laughing. Laughing? Swinging around I see two young girls, one only slightly younger looking than me. The younger of the two is imitating me.

‘I should be getting out’, she mimics. I can hear myself scream, an involuntary convulsion that would under any other circumstances have embarrassed me hugely, and one by one I throw each item that I have been clutching at the young mimic who is swinging this way and that to avoid being hit. From somewhere near me, the older girl walks over and picks up my pieces of clothing while chastising the young girl for being nasty. I slump on to a bench, the only furniture in the cell.

‘Here, you’d want to be very careful about hanging onto your outside clothes because one day you will need them. Many a girl has nothing to wear when it’s time to leave. They could be stolen from you at any time, so I wouldn’t go flinging them about if I was you.’

I suddenly am aware of how grimy I am. I feel as if I have been dipped in something. My face must resemble – I don’t know – probably these ugly children swarming around me.

‘Why was I moved here? I thought I was leaving.’ The older girl is the only one I feel has the wit to respond sensibly.

‘What age are you?’

‘I’m sixteen. Nearly seventeen.’

‘Better to say you’re fifteen, nearly sixteen. You probably should have been brought here first. This is a children’s cell. Well for younger inmates anyway. I’m Paulette.’

I am a little embarrassed at first to take her outstretched hand because I feel so dirty, but then Paulette is even filthier, though she does have a pleasant face. She gestures to a corner of the room where I can roll out a mattress and without saying another word, I nestle as best I can and try to fall asleep. There is no stillness in this place. It is as if we are trapped in the belly of a beast. We have been swallowed whole and everything is just rumbling around us. We are swirling innards and I feel as if I can’t breathe.

* * *

I must somehow have slept because this morning is sharp and clear and I was able to find Cécilia so we could walk around the courtyard.

‘Babette, you must not let this place get you down. Look, you are too pale already. Keep your shoulders back. There is a Saint-Lazare walk that I would recognise from two streets away. It’s a broken walk, as if holding up your head was too much of an effort.’ I feel her thumb and forefinger prise up my chin. ‘I’m warning you now, the minute you start thinking like a prisoner, you begin to look like one.’

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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