An orphan enchanted by stories and the incantatory power of words, Genevieve lives an isolated existence as a maid to the widow Patin in a village cafe on the Normandy coast in the early 20th century. Forced to flee the village, she comes under the spell of a charismatic spinner of words, a poet who captivates every woman around him -- his mother, his mistress, his niece, his niece's governess, and eventually, his new maid, who soon begins to spin a story of her own.
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It is the sea I miss most: the music of the dragging tide over the loose shingle, shifting it back and forth; the surge and suck of water. The waves advancing in tall ranks, one after the other, into the little bay between the cliffs, folding over, toppling, collapsing into ruffles of white, leaving just a silver tracery behind; foam lace, that soaks away quickly into the pebbles on the shore. I miss the dancing light, and the energetic wind blowing mist and spray, tiny beads of moisture, onto my clothes and skin. The gulls swooping and crying overhead. The smell of salt and seaweed and fish; the way the curved stretch of water sparkles in the sun, changing from green to dark blue to turquoise; and, clinking under my feet as I slither down the wet ridge, the stones on the beach rubbed by each other smooth as eggs, grey-blue, lavender blue, milky blue in the gleaming intensity of late afternoon.
Could I ever return to the house in Blessetot? I don't think I'd have the courage to try. The nightmares warned me to stay away. Dreams of a ghost who haunted me and wished to punish me for what I had done. A ghost who loitered speechlessly at the tight, twisting turn of the steep stairs. I thought she was drowned and gone for ever but she kept drifting back, that body washed onto the beach like a piece of driftwood or a dead starfish, flotsam and jetsam tossed up by the receding tide. Her eyes were open and staring, her face bruised and bloated. Black ribbons of seaweed draped her shoulders. Water streamed from the sodden rags of her dress. I had not managedto kill her after all. I thought she was dead but she had come back to life and got into the house somehow; she was barring my way to bed; she was waiting for me. She was very patient. She would get me in the end.
I would wake up from this dream crying out as though I were a child again, one who had a mother close by and could be comforted; trembling and sweating, praying desperately to a God I rarely summoned otherwise not to allow me to fall into the ghost's clutches. The fear stayed with me even when I shook myself out of sleep, sat up and lit a candle. Fear can flourish in the light just as forcefully as in the dark. The ghost would retreat, dissolve to the shadowy corners of the room, but I knew she was still there. My flesh still crept. The hairs still stood up on the back of my neck. The night air stayed icy cold as seawater, and now it was I who was drowning.
When I left that house in Blessetot I swore to myself it would be for good, that I would never go back. I thought I could cut myself off from the past and take myself far away from it, out of its power to hurt me, to make me remember what had once been. But the past walks with us, shoulder to shoulder, like an invisible enemy or friend; it kicks inside us like an unborn child; it embraces us like a lover; it will outlive us and lay us out, like a wise woman, when we die. The past has lodged in my brain and cannot be pried loose. It is my country and my prison and my home.
I saw Blessetot for the first time in the spring. A fishing village all year round, it became a holiday resort for Parisians in summer. The railway from Rouen to Le Havre running as far as Etretat, a few kilometres further along the coast, meant that the whole area of the pays de Caux, once written off by outsiders as savage, dull and remote, had become increasingly opened up, and was newly considered to possess a certain primitive beauty, to be just the kind of wild and unspoilt landscape to refresh the jaded palates of city-dwellers.
The painters arrived first, and then the tourists. These summer visitors began exploring northwards from Etretat by pony and trap. Driving along the coast road that ran across the high chalk plain to Fécamp, they discovered the little coves and bays hidden at the end of the steep gullies cutting down through the cliffs. Blessetot was the name given to the settlement that had grown up in one of these, a straggle of houses lining the dust-white road to the beach, and a cluster of homes, two streets deep, sheltering under the curve of the cliff. Too small ever to become as fashionable as Etretat, with no fine promenade, no elegant bars or hotels, no market square or formal flower gardens, less dramatic and picturesque cliffs, Blessetot was nonetheless pronounced charming and quaint.
Its appeal lay precisely in its simplicity. The flint and brick cottages had roofs of slate or of thatch, and shutters painted grey or dark green or a bright blue that celebrated the seaside. In their tiny front gardens, edged with large flints from the beach, people grew any flowers, like seaholly and sea-pinks, that could withstand the salt winds. Some of the smallest houses, nearest the front, were simply huts of white wood, with tiny verandas and porches. The fishermen's shacks lining the top of the steeply shelving beach were constructed of oak, the warped, salt-seasoned timbers stained a glistening black. Nets and lobster pots sprawled nearby. There was no confining wall to separate the village from the sea. Like an urgent animal the water simply bounded up the pebbles, dashed itself on the tideline in flurries of white-topped green waves, and ran away again. Halfway up the cliffs a few recently built chalet-style holiday villas made splashes of red; brick faced with white stone; steeply pitched wooden roofs; and their façades ornamented with fake-rustic balconies whose lines imitated the branches of trees. Two streets back from the sea there was a café, and it was here that I arrived to take up my job as maid-of-all-work for Madame Patin.
I travelled by horse and cart. Sister Pauline had relatives who farmed just outside Etretat, near Bénouville, and she arranged for her brother-in-law to collect me from the orphanage early in the morning and take me most of the way to Blessetot. This was substantially out of his usual road, and there was no question of his doing me a favour. I was to pay for the cart hire out of my first month's wages.
I said goodbye to my few friends in the orphanage, and to Sister Pauline. No one was sad to see me go, for I had not had the trick of making myself particularly liked. The other girls thought me stuck-up and standoffish, since I rarely joined in their games at break, preferring to read a book. The farmer arrived on the appointed day to collect me. He wore a blue woollen cap pulled well down over his head for warmth, and his bushy eyebrows shaded his slits of eyes. He grunted at me and helped me climb up into the cart. I sat behind him on the dusty boards, facing sideways, clinging onto the wooden side with one hand, an empty sack under me as cushion.
We jolted out of Etretat and onto the coast road. Fine rain blew into my face. The creak of the worn leather harness, the clopping of the horse's hooves, the clatter of the iron-rimmed wheels, all made an urgent song and dance in my ears. The finish of an old life. The orphanage had been my home for sixteen years, but now it was behind me. I was nervous of what lay ahead, but I was also exhilarated. The freshness of the rain on my cheeks pleased me, and the wind whipping my ungloved hands, and the salt tang in the air.
The road ran up onto the plain under an enormous sky of billowing clouds. The hedgerows and ditches were spiky with green weeds and grass glittering with dew. Clumps of pale yellow primroses spread along the banks. All around us were ploughed and sown fields showing the tips of crops. In the distance majestic farms reared up, enclosed by high banks planted with beeches. Through the openings in these massive squares of trees I glimpsed half-timbered houses and tall dovecots, stone-built barns decorated with red stripes of zigzag bricks. My eyes seized on everything: the swaying rump of the horse just in front of me and the strip of leather harness confining its black tail, the crows flapping and cawing above the furrowed earth, the stinging green of hawthorn hedges, the shimmer of bluebells, like stretches of blue water, in the long grass beyond. It was all new to me. I had never stirred outside Etretat in the whole of my life.
The farmer did not bother trying to turn round and talk to me as we bumped along. He held the reins in one hand, and a small clay pipe, at which he puffed from time to time, in the other. His bent back, perched up above me, looked quite remote. He was sunk deep in his own thoughts and left me in peace, huddled on the swaying floor of the cart, to look about me and plunge into mine.
I wondered what I was going to, and wished I had someone to give me good advice. I should have liked to have known my parents. If I had known them, of course, my life would have been different. They would have protected me and seen that I came to no harm. At the very least they would have tried to teach me how to recognise harm when it does come, disguised as love. As it was, I had to get on without them. They had loved each other enough to create me, I could not bear to think otherwise, before fortune intervened and my father went away and my mother was obliged to give me up to the nuns. She had been a teacher. That was all I knew about her. She had been unable to keep me, not being married, and so she had had to put me into the orphanage, in the back streets of Etretat, whose high walls blocked out all sight of the sun, all sound of the sea.
Once a week, on Sundays, we were marched through the town in crocodile, on our way to High Mass, so that people would see us and remember to give generously to the charity boxes in church. We were rarely taken to the beach, except on feast days in summer. But just being out in the street was better than nothing, even when it was raining. You could watch the water swirling over the cobbles and along the gutters at the side of the narrow road, hear the gulls shrieking, and smell the sea even if you could not see it. Freedom twitched suddenly close at hand, that taste of salt on my tongue and the wind tugging my cape and the sun glinting bright on the puddles reflecting the blue sky. Treading through rainwater we trod in bottomless sky that gleamed like mussel shells, the backs of mackerel.
As we plodded back after church, and approached the orphanage once more, my heart would sink. As the heavy door scraped open and we filed in, bending down in turn to take off our wet and muddy boots, my spirit, likewise, had to bow, to shrink itself as though it were being forced into a dark, airless cupboard where it would gasp for breath. Back into that cramped place where we all lived on top of one another, where the furniture was cumbersome and ugly, where the light was shut out and we were shut in. However wild and wet the weather, I would always rather have been outside. I hated the muffled house, its smell of wet wool and furniture polish like a hand over my mouth stifling me.
The nuns enforced strict rules of deportment and behaviour, as you might expect. Walk close to the walls, eyes lowered. Don't answer back. Silence at meals and in the dormitory. Our guardians did not see themselves as unkind. To keep thirty boisterous girls in order they considered themselves bound to inflict severe discipline. If we failed at self-control then the cane was there to teach us better. They were preparing us for the harshness of adult life outside the walls, as they were also attempting to ensure we could reach heaven. Girls to them meant mess, chaos and noise. Qualities to be suppressed. It was impossible to believe they had once been children themselves and had hungered for caresses and understanding. They were not happy women, most of them, and so they could not love us. Even while I disliked them, I felt sorry for them. They would never get out, whereas one day I would. One day I would walk out of that door and never return.
I was convinced my mother had been forced by others to give me away, that she had loved me. Had she not fitted me out in a beautifully stitched and frilled nightgown and cap, a soft shawl, before handing me over? So the nuns said, that I was one of the best-dressed babies they had ever received. Of my father they could tell me nothing, only that he had been considered unsuitable by my mother's parents and sent packing. My mother had loved him, so I passionately believed, and perhaps he thought of me sometimes, and perhaps I looked like him. The nuns refused to tell me my parents' names. They baptised me Geneviève, after the patron saint of Paris, and invented a surname for me, Delange. Saint Geneviève had been a brave woman who encouraged the citizens during a great siege and went up on the ramparts to exhort them. She was a nun, but one with an exciting life. In the picture in the book I was shown she looked beautiful, with a warm, smiling face, a rounded body under her habit, and her arms tenderly cradling a child.
I prayed to St Geneviève when thing went badly, but I was doubtful she heard me. I spent the greater part of my days working my way back and forth along the orphanage corridors wielding bucket and brush, scrubbing the stone floors. The coarse soda blistered and reddened my skin; my palms and knees were permanently calloused; I stank of carbolic. All part of the punishment for being born a bastard. As a consolation for these hardships I daydreamed. Fantasies of revenge, of wild adventure, of exquisite pleasures in fairyland. At night I became the orphans' storyteller. I whispered my tales to the others in the chilly dormitory and thus secured my safety. Even the bullies wanted my stories, and so they let me alone; they did not steal my food or rub coal dust into my hair or lock me in the privies, their favourite tricks when the nuns' backs were turned. They mocked me by day, in the classroom, when I got all of my dictation exercise right, or came top in the spelling test, but they listened to me, night after night, when I told them stories and led them wherever I chose, into a world where I ran on just ahead, towards the unknown. They always wanted more. For the story never to end. When I started each evening's installment I would feel their attention pressing onto me in the darkness. I would shiver all over and then language would fly out of my mouth and it felt as though we all held hands and jumped off the cliff together and then above us the great silk wing of words would flare out and float us away to the magical island across the ocean where we were free.
The nuns always warned against storytelling and daydreaming, which they said meant lying, an escape from truth. To me it was the opposite. Those bright pictures were the most real thing. Now, daydreaming again, letting myself dwell on all those hardships which were over and could therefore be looked in the face, I had forgotten where I was. I was brought back to the present by a change in the horse's gait, the floor of the cart rocking less abruptly. We were slowing down. There was a crossroads just in front of us, marked by a tall Calvary, with fields stretching away on four sides of it, and here we stopped. The farmer held his pipe away from his lips and jerked his head in the direction that I was to go, then waited while I clambered down over the tail of the cart. He threw my little cardboard box of possessions after me, clicked his teeth by way of goodbye, then shook his reins and grunted at the horse. I stood for a moment, watching them lurch off, the cart wheels tilting as they ground along, the farmer's shoulders slumped forwards, his whip trailing from one fist. Then I shook straw from my skirts, and straightened my wind-buffeted cap. A gull flapped, crying, just above my head: The whole landscape blinked and winked as the sun darted out of the skidding clouds. The patch of blue sky that appeared meant, I was convinced, good luck. I picked up my box and started off towards Blessetot.
The rutted road dropped through a tiny, steep valley, the cliffs rising up on either side. Two kilometres' descent or so and I turned a corner and suddenly saw a blue-green triangle of sea dipping below me in the gap between the chalk bluffs. Nothing could be too difficult if the sea was nearby. I fell down that last narrow stretch of road as though I were being born.
The mirror covered part of one of the side walls in the bar. Every time I came in to sweep and dust I looked at myself in it. I had not lived in a place with mirrors before. This particular one was a tall oblong, surrounded by a black plaster frame painted with curlicues of gold, very fine. While I blew on its spotted surface then polished it with my cloth I would squint at myself. Being able to see my reflection made me feel different. When I wanted to forget myself in safety, and daydream, I could, and then when I needed to know where I was again I had only to glance in the glass and see the frowning girl that was me. A skinny hazel-eyed girl with short fair hair, more like a boy, who appeared, then disappeared, then returned again. I could hide in the mirror. In the orphanage, in the daytime, under the nuns' sharp gaze, I had not felt able to vanish, even when daydreaming. It was only at night, in the dark, that I had been able to let go of myself and disappear into stories. But here the mirror kept a friendly eye out for me; it tolerated my going away and coming back; and I could behave as though it were night, climbing over the black frame and jumping down into a secret room on the other side, whenever I felt the need. The mirror doubled everything. The café, the bar, me.
The bar was simply the front room of the café. It had green walls and a sanded plank floor and was furnished with a few wooden tables and benches, a black iron stove with a tall chimney, and the mirror. The front door opened straight onto the street. Two small windows looked out the same way, veiled in cotton lace that blurred the view. Another door, in the back wall of the bar, had been cut in half horizontally to make a hatch which flapped open and shut for the drinks to be handed through. A piece of plywood, nailed on top of the bottom half, made a makeshift counter. Madame Patin kept all the bottles and glasses in her kitchen cum storeroom. People walking into the bar came up to the hatch, banged on it, and shouted their orders. Madame Patin would open up, slide the glasses across, and get on with her other work on the other side.
The café also functioned as a shop. Since there was no grocer in the village, Madame Patin sold dry goods, such as sugar and flour and salt, which she kept in built-in compartments, like a boat's lockers, just inside the back door. She would lift up the lid of the relevant box, delve in with her wooden scoop, and then pour the contents onto the brass pan of the scales. She had to be very exact with her measurements of rice, or macaroni, or whatever it was. Her customers watched closely, determined not to waste a single sou. Mostly it was women who came to the back door and men to the front. Madame Patin, seated beside her open hatch, could keep an eye on both. She kept an eye on me too. I was only allowed in the bar in the early mornings, when I went in to clean, and at night, after she'd locked up, when I tidied. For the rest of the day I worked elsewhere. I was certainly not supposed to talk to the customers.
If you turn out decent and honest and hardworking, she told me when I first arrived: then we shall get on. If not, then it's back to the orphanage.
She stood waiting.
Yes, ma'am, I said.
What else could I possibly say? I did mean it. I wanted to please her and for her to love me. That, of course, was the cause of my undoing.
She had stood in the café doorway, hands folded across her waist, to watch my arrival. She inspected me with her keen eyes as I tramped towards her, my box under my arm. Keeping my head down so as not to seem familiar, I peered at her. She looked to be in her late thirties, a sturdy woman with grey-blue eyes, egg-shaped cheeks, and a wide, thin mouth. A large brown linen apron protected her blue check dress and a white cap shadowed her face. I found out how beautiful her hair was the first time I helped her wash it, and she shook out her hairpins and let down her thick fair plaits. Unravelled, the hair sprang out in glistening ripples like something alive.
Sometimes when she was in one of her anxious moods, at night, fretting over money, I'd brush her hair for her, gathering the thick tail in one hand and drawing the brush through it with the other, over and over again. It calmed her down. Then I would re-plait it so that she was ready for bed. It is soothing, to feel someone else's hands arranging your hair, stroking and patting it. You don't have to do anything but sit there, leaning back, your whole self flowing away with the brush as it sweeps back from your head. Like being a cat whose owner loves it and grooms it. Her hair was her fur and she liked me arranging it because I was gentle and did not pull hard or snag the brush on tangles. She would sigh with pleasure and close her eyes. When she helped me wash my hair it was quite different. My straw crop was too short for fussing over. Soap rubbed briskly in, water tipped over my head from the jug into the tin basin, then a towel thrust at me and my face plunging into its rough folds, my hands trying to mop the cold trickles down the back of my neck that made my chemise itchy and damp.
On that first day she showed me around the house. We peeped into the bar, where a few customers slouched over their tables. Nobody said a word. Just raised their heads and glanced at us. Then Madame Patin took me around the back, which was divided into two small rooms. One of these was the shop-and-kitchen, and the other was her bedroom. She nodded her head towards the door but did not open it to let me see in.
Too untidy, she said: I haven't made the bed yet. I haven't had a minute.
From the kitchen a narrow staircase, boxed in, coiled up to the attics. Here, three little rooms opened off a low-ceilinged corridor just wide enough for one person to squeeze through at a time. Each small cabin was panelled up to the ceiling in varnished golden plywood. They were so neat and so snug. The floors were likewise of golden wood, and small casements had been let into the roof so that you could see the sky.
My husband did all this work, Madame Patin explained: to be ready for the children we would have. But the children never arrived.
It's God's will. God's will be done.
The words were said mechanically. They were what I'd been taught to say, too, when sad things happened. It meant it wasn't your fault; it couldn't be helped; and the best you could do was just get on with things. I wondered where her husband was now. Perhaps he was dead, or perhaps he had gone away and left her, like my father did. The nuns had told me nothing about my new place, save my employer's name.
The first two rooms disclosed themselves as storage places, piled with sacks of provisions, boxes of biscuits, trays of apples, racks of preserves. She led me past these, and pushed open the farthest door.
This is where I thought the maid should sleep. This is your room now.
Thanking her, I stammered with delight. The room, the smallest of the three, enchanted me. For a start, it was all mine. I did not have to share it with anyone else.
Its simplicity was its charm, and its soothing colours. Worn blue rag rug on the glistening floor, bleached sacking curtains at the little window, faded red and yellow paisley quilt. For furniture there was an iron bed, an iron washstand holding an enamel basin, and, set nearby, a jug, a chamber-pot, a three-legged stool. A cupboard with a sliding panel door had been built in under the far eave, like a little cave. I had practically nothing to put in it but I did not care. I had a cupboard of my own. That was the main thing. I wondered about the previous inhabitant of the room, if there had been one and whether she had liked it as much as I did. What had she been like, the last maid, and why had she left? Or was I the first person ever to sleep in here? These were questions I knew I could not ask. Curiosity was not polite. That had been well dinned into me, along with not staring, eating up everything on my plate, and curtsying every time a nun came by.
Madame Patin did not seem to require to be curtsied to. She was tugging at the casement catch, showing me how to work it. The window being opened, sounds of the outside rushed in: a cock crowing, a dog barking. The air was very fresh and damp and brought with it the smell of the sea. The window was on the side of the house: immediately in front of me were the blue slates of the neighbour's roof, which was lower than ours, and then, when I peered out, one way I saw an orchard, with sheep grazing in it and hens pecking about, and on the other the steeple of the church and a cemetery full of graves. We placed my box on the bed and returned the way we had come, shutting each door behind us as we went. The door handles were of white china, solid as eggs, cool and hard in my palm. They turned back and forth very springily, though the door hinges were a little stiff, and the doors, opening and closing, scraped across the golden wood floor. I thought that would be something I could do for Madame Patin: bring up some oil and a feather and oil the doors. She was ahead of me, grasping the banister rail and setting her foot on the top step.
Mind how you go on the stairs, she warned me: they're very steep and it's easy to slip.
Downstairs, she showed me the privy, which was at the far end of the tiny courtyard behind the house, and the woodshed and wine cellar which were next to it. I liked the cool darkness inside these windowless caves, the smell of their earth floors. Outside again, we looked at the hen coop, the rabbit hutches, and the dog kennel. The dog, a brownish mongrel, was asleep. In the centre of the yard was the well, flanked by a couple of pots of ferns. Behind the yard was a little meadow, with fruit trees, and a cow grazing. The kitchen garden was on the other side of the road, down an alley in between two other houses. An iron gate squeaked open to reveal tidy rows of dug earth inside low stone walls. Not much was showing yet. A few blue-green cabbages had survived the winter on long scarred stalks and looked very tough. Another gate at the far end obviously gave you a quick route to the church. You could just see a pointed grey porch beyond it.
I decided I liked the house and the garden very much. It was all so complete and so compact, like I imagined a doll's house would be. Yet it was real. I liked the way the café tucked so neatly and quietly into the street, the village. I envied Madame Patin with all my heart. For a moment I disliked her thoroughly, almost as though she were an enemy. Pain shot through me: I had nothing and she seemed to have everything. She was like Saint Geneviève protecting her own city from the foreign rabble like me; she was the house itself, perfect and full; and she was the garden, blessed with richness. She held the whole place like a tiny castle in her arms; she bent towards it possessively, as though it were her child. I could not believe she was going to make room for me too. I thought that more than anything in the world I should like to have a little house like hers, to be mistress of such a neat place I could call my own. I wished that her house were mine, and that she were not there. I wanted to steal her house and push her into the street and let her be the orphan, the vagabond. And at the same time I wanted to sit companionably with her in the warm kitchen and be her friend.
These feelings bursting out inside me were like flowers blooming and then rapidly being torn to pieces by the wind. I wanted to get rid of them because they made me want to cry. I almost wished I were back in the orphanage, inside its cold walls, where I had never felt like this.
Luckily for me, the church bells now banged out half-past eleven. Duty distracted my thoughts as my employer exclaimed how late it was. We hurried back inside the café. I was set to peeling the vegetables for dinner while Madame Patin stuck her head through the hatch and checked on her customers. There weren't many. Sunday noon, I subsequently learned, was the busiest time for the bar. The café being so close to the church was very good for business, for after Sunday mass people stood to gossip outside and the men soon got up a thirst and flooded in. And when there was a vin d'honneur, after a communion or a wedding or a funeral, it was Madame Patin who organised it and provided the glasses and the drink. Everybody would squeeze in and stand packed, shoulder to shoulder, the air thick with tobacco smoke and the smell of cider, and the curé as pleased as anyone else to be inside in the warm. The proprietors of the church and the café, I soon discovered, supported each other, their clients flowing back and forth across the road.
On this occasion, hearing the bells, a quarter of an hour later, ring out the Angelus, the call to prayer I'd obeyed all my life at the regulation three times a day, I stood stock-still as I'd been taught, dropped the potatoes I was peeling, crossed myself, then fell on my knees and began to recite the well-worn words. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. And she conceived by the Holy Ghost. I stopped for a moment, wondering. At this time of year, just after Easter, we said the Regina Coeli, instead, didn't we? Which had we said yesterday? I could not remember. I had not been paying attention. I began again. The angel of the Lord.
Madame Patin did not join in and make the response. I looked up, puzzled, and saw her staring at me.
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