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Authors: Lisa Burkitt

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BOOK: The Memory of Scent
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‘What am I going to do, Cécilia? My mother would be too ashamed to come and visit me. I told her how well I was doing in Paris and not to worry about me so I can’t turn around now to tell her where I am. She would disown me.’

* * *

‘I will keep in touch with you. You see, I’m getting out in a few days time. I’ll send you parcels.’

I am shocked to find myself starting to cry at this sudden news. I’m of course happy for Cécilia – but – not really. She looks as if she belongs here, as if this were an extension of her sordid life that she will resume as soon as she snatches that first breath of freedom. I need to sit down. Cécilia is scowling at me.

‘Now listen to me. Don’t be pathetic. Do you think I’d still be alive if I did nothing but sit on a bench and cry?’

I try to extinguish my sniffling with the cuff of my sleeve. Another bastion of respectability gone, in one mucous snot trail.

‘Oh, forget it. I’ve enough to worry about. You have only yourself to rely on once you get out there. The quicker you learn that the better.’

She stands up and starts to walk away. I am inexplicably bereft. She is halfway across the courtyard when she stops and walks back towards the bench again. Standing with her hands on her hips, she shakes her head. Taking her seat again, she starts laughing.

‘Look at you, a pretty girl with nice manners and big words. Do you know what I would do if I were you? I’d find the grandest house, run by the smartest Madame and I’d live in luxury. You get lots of lovely clothes and a nice place to live. A cousin of mine lives like that. Her side got the good looks. My side was fish gutters from way back.’ She turns
my hand over and strokes my palm. ‘See the difference? Your lovely long fingers and my short stubby ones? There would never be room for the likes of me in Madame’s house.’

‘I’ve no idea how long I’m going to be here for.’

‘They can keep you as a subordinate, seeing as you’ve nowhere to live and you’re only sixteen. They could keep you until you’re twenty-one, unless someone claims you. You haven’t been charged yet. If they find you guilty, that’s another story.’

Cécilia tilts her head and takes in my despair with what is clearly pure pity, and this almost makes me feel worse.

‘Can I not contact your mother?’

‘No. She would die of shame.’

‘Is there anyone in Paris then?’

I pretended to my mother that I had secured a position as a companion to an elderly lady and had sent her a letter filling her with the delights of my new arrangement. I had intended to carry out this ruse for only a month or two but damned unfortunate circumstances overtook everything. I know no one in Paris, except that girl. I have kept her cravat tucked in among my belongings. What am I thinking? What succour could I possibly expect when I remember her pathetic little lodgings? She wouldn’t have a clue who I was anyway.

‘No, Cécilia, I can’t think of anyone who would know or care about me.’

We find ourselves walking several laps around the courtyard in a soothing, numbing perambulation, until everyone is summoned inside.

* * *

Staring expectantly at the door of the workshop, waiting for Cécilia to come bursting through, I realised: Cécilia is gone.
Each stitch now is a stabbing reminder of my loneliness, each finished hem another yard of passing time. My cellmate, Paulette, tried to cheer me up by reminding me that Cécilia was a habitual offender and would probably be back. I have mixed feelings about this. I hope for Cécilia’s sake that this wouldn’t turn out to be the case and know it was selfish to wish otherwise, though it didn’t stop me looking longingly at each new intake of women hoping to recognise her face. True to her word, Cécilia sent a parcel with soap and a comb and some ribbon within a week of her departure. She also included a note with her cousin’s address. Sweet of her, as I know in her world to live at the Madame’s house like her cousin would be the height of aspiration, but when I get out of here, I am going home.

I’m wondering what it will be like to leave here. Like an animal adjusting to its environment, I sometimes find my step lighter, my mood even a little jocular. I squabble with my cell mates as if they were my little sisters and not the urchins that I would normally step cautiously around if I encountered them on a street. Sometimes even these bars don’t seem to obstruct my view, and could as easily be curtain panels to be simply parted with one sweep of my hand. The wagons are arriving with another batch of women. Staring at them, you can see the first timers, the way their heads jerk about to take in their surroundings. You can see the disbelief in their faces. Then there are those whose step is arrogant, assured in its defiance, a step of anticipation where they will again meet up with old friends.

‘Babette’. Paulette touches my arm. What is normally a gesture of kindness, in a place like this, usually heralds some bad news. ‘Have you heard?’

I search her eyes, pale insipid pools. Eyes that ceased to be excited about anything a long time ago, despite her very young years.

‘Cécilia is dead. She was stealing in someone else’s patch. You don’t do that. There are rules about them things. Her body was dumped in an alley and her face was smashed in.’

I inhale deeply and nod primly.

‘Thank you for telling me.’ I walk down the corridor away from her and feel my legs buckle and blackness descending.

* * *

The sound of a nun rapping her ring on the bars of their door has disturbed me.

‘Disinfection. Disinfection, girls.’

I pull myself up on to one of my elbows and rub my eyes. ‘What is she on about, Paulette?’

Paulette just groans and pulls her blanket over her face. ‘Not again. They may as well give up the battle against lice, because the lice are winning.
Merde
.’

The youngest girl in the cell jumps up and began to dress. ‘The quicker we get out there, the sooner it’s over. Trust me Babette; you don’t want to be standing around waiting for this.’

I am immune to whatever new misery they choose to bestow on me so throw off my blanket. I have ceased caring about trying to fix my hair, and am no longer concerned about the dirt streaking my face. Everyone lines up with their backs against the wall, so that when the nun doubles back, we are all ready to be marched out. Trudging through several corridors, we eventually fall in behind girls and women of all shapes, sizes and ages, all of whom had shuffled to a stop outside a wash block, where the laundry is normally done.

I can hear the large wooden door being creaked open at regular intervals, while a head count is shouted out, ‘Next four. One, two, three, four. Stop.’ And it is slammed shut again. Soon I am second in line in front of the closed door, and my hands begin to involuntarily clench, but going through that door is the only option.

‘Next four. One, two, three, four. Stop’

As the door is closed behind me, I see I am standing in a white cold room with stone floors. There are several tubs on the ground and two hefty flush-faced nuns with their sleeves pushed up passed their elbows, standing among them.

‘Clothes off. Hang them on that rail. And on your way out, take some of that straw with you for your monthly flow.’

The other three girls are immediately doing as instructed without any fuss, and in my brow-beaten timidity, I simply copy their actions. A nun standing by one of the tubs gestures for me to go over to her. She has a brush clenched in one of her hands and stands with her knuckles on her hips or thereabouts as she is just one squat column of fat without any curves to indicate that she is not a big pasty sausage with an apron on. Again, the other girls, without even a whimper of indignation, walk straight over to the tubs as if they have no awareness of their nakedness. My skin has pimpled with the cold and my instinct is to try and cover myself with my hands and arms. The nun grabs hold of one of my wrists and then the other, shaping me into a crucifixion position.

‘Oh for heaven’s sake, stupid girl. There is no room for modesty here.’ She plunges the brush into the tub and begins scraping on my arms and shoulders and breasts and stomach. The water is very cold and is mixed with something that smells like chlorine. She kicks my legs further apart and drags the brush over the inside of my thighs, then spins me
around while she works on my shoulders, down my back and over my buttocks. I fix my gaze on one tiny squashed fly on the wall in front of me and it calms my breathing from a panicked flutter to a steady piston of strength. With each inhale, I curse this hell hole and everyone in it. With each exhale, I swear that I will reclaim every single raw inch of my skin and will, one day, have it caressed only in silk. I think of lavender. I think of patchouli.

M
USKY
O
AK
-M
OSS

The night of the masked ball has been like a sweetly lingering shower of summer rain on overheated skin. The dance itself a rolling tide of every species of attire and then that hot breath on my neck and the tentative crush of a man fleetingly against me. It is difficult to frame these moments in isolation when my inclination is immediately to audition each male as a potential suitor. I have banished many poor unsuspecting men from being the future father of my children without even their vaguest awareness of my existence. It is, I suppose, easy to do this in the café where men are in the privacy of a convivial meal among their friends. Standards are relaxed and true natures are revealed. I go along, merrily crossing them off my list for crimes against my own contrived notions of what is acceptable: foul language used too frequently – ‘X’; being more disrespectful about women than your average male – ‘X’; surreptitious touching of another male dining companion using the cover of sociability – ‘X, and very confused!’
Sometimes there are subtle things that edge them out, like a certain timidity that would take too much work and effort to help them overcome. Sometimes it is much more significant, like the game playing that an otherwise covetable man starts to engage in when it comes to settling the account at the end of a night. You see them, the ones that fumble in their pockets for those few seconds too long while all around him are gathering up their contributions. In some, it is developed to such an art that only I notice that the game-player has not actually parted with any coins.

And sometimes, I find myself studying a customer and wondering, just wondering. However, the more I feel drawn to a man, the further I will backtrack. There is nothing more deadly than unrequited love and I am unsure if it is more dangerous to be at the receiving end of it or to be in the thralls of it. I ponder this because of something I read in this morning’s
Le Matin
. A few columns to the left of the sport, was the sad tale of a young Alsacienne, a pretty brunette called Marie Herbert. As she entered her room, with her key still in her hand, she was met by a Monsieur Million who worked as the
valet de chambre
of the house. He was in love with Marie but she didn’t want to marry him. He became angry so she turned to leave the room again, but he stood in front of her and then took out a revolver that he had been carrying on his person. With two shots, she lay dead. He had been in the service of M. Dorneth since July 1881 while Marie had only worked there from May of last year. Million confessed all of this to the
Commis de crime
. Her body has been transported to the morgue.

Now she is dead. He, however, is left to live with the misery of what he has done to a woman he loved. It must be like a hundred thousand cuts that he will eventually bleed
to death from. You see for a mere five centimes, a newspaper column can teach you a valuable life lesson. I folded away
Le Matin
and have been quite unable to get Million and Marie Herbert out of my head all day. I need to re-focus my attentions to pleasant and unchallenging men who are not capable of great passion. I think that would make for a much easier life.

* * *

As I approach, I see Maria sitting by the fountain, eating ice cream with her face tilted to the sun.

‘Maria, do you remember telling me once that you could probably survive on ice cream alone?’

‘That’s because it was such a rare treat. My mother would sometimes forget to feed me, so ice cream seemed something I could get for myself. But of course, we could hardly ever afford it.’

Maria was always the more street wise of the two of us, scampering about all wild and uncultivated. There was something wilful and rampant about her which was evident from the first time I came across the tiny girl selling vegetables from a stall. It was shortly after I began working at the café that we discovered we lived in the same area of Montmartre and we vowed with the earnestness of new best friends, that we would never live anywhere else. It was theatre, it was cabaret. The night sky draped like a velvet cloak over the nooks and darkened crannies, tucking us into its folds.

‘Fleur, I have some news for you. I was back at the ladies painting group, you know, I’ve been there a couple times before, and I overheard a young mademoiselle regaling with great drama how a murderess was trapped at her boarding school.’

‘Intriguing.’

‘This girl is a new student – bit of an attention seeker – so I was only partly paying attention, but she said this person was arrested in broad daylight for the murder of a painter and was taken away by a police inspector. Well, when I heard there was a painter involved, I deliberately fell into conversation with her at the end of the class. Honestly, you’d swear I hadn’t been sitting there in the nude for the previous three hours, the look she gave me, as if, who did I think I was, suddenly trying to talk to her. It’s all right for me to be sprawled out all legs akimbo, but to dare to try to strike up a conversation with her?’

‘Maria, will you get to the point!’

‘Of course. Anyway, I wanted to get some information on who the painter was but she had no idea. However, the murderess, as she kept calling her, was a young girl called Babette. She described her as being very beautiful with lovely bright eyes, not ones that you would expect a murderess to have. Then she went on to have a conversation with herself about whether the girl’s eyes were lovely or evil.’

BOOK: The Memory of Scent
12.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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