Carole Hamilton

Mademoiselle
On the Rue De Mange at the bottom of the steps between the Poissonierre and the Brassiere
 

I’m glad it’s morning. The night has been long and Baltic cold. I move around to soften my solid body. My fingers and toes nip. Pulsing throbbing chilblains through the caked woollen socks. A cold shudder runs through my back even though I have on several layers. At times like this I wish I lived inside. Paris normally has mild winters. This year is an exception. Hard frost and snow are the pattern most days. I blow on my hands, some breath escapes turning to a funnel of white mist. Monsieur Bovey brings me a paper cup of coffee, which I drink gratefully. The early morning bustle begins. Madame Bussey walks back from the morning market with full arms. She’s first there when it opens at eight. Bunches of flame red carrots with green soft heads bound in blue tape. Leeks for her soup and a bouquet of white tulips. They’re for her mother who’s has flu. She’s in her eighties and flu can wreak havoc with
the old. Madame Bussey was in hospital recently, women’s trouble. That was last month. Her mother got ill when she was left on her own.
  I smell boiled ham and cabbage coming from Pierre’s stall. He’s carving fresh pink meat for his sandwiches. It’s mixed with the strong aroma of local cheeses. My stomach rumbles like horses clopping over stones. I bend over griping sore with hunger and the cold.
  Monsieur Ames swings along the road with his arms in front, then behind. His weight’s always on his right side. He has a limp a wound from the war. It makes him lurch to one side. Touches his beret when he passes on his way to the post box. He corresponds with lots of people. Nobody knows who he writes to but whoever it is writes back as many letters as he sends. The post girl’s always at his door. Every day he greets her with an anticipatory look on his face. It is half past eight now, the postal workers step out the sorting office. They amble along the road in a straight line of attack. Trolley bags full of the day’s deliveries. Jostle each other for space on the pavement. Falling into single file when they meet someone.
  On the fifth floor of the building opposite, Madame Champney looks out her window, past the wrought iron railing around the balcony. She’s hoping for a letter from her son who disappeared twenty five-years ago. He had been playing in the park opposite when someone snatched him. Her face is weary, sad with continual disappointment. Sometimes she sees me and waves down. I like to look out for her. In the summer she sits on her narrow balcony balancing a cup and saucer, watching the parade of people below. Her plants outside are dying of cold. Nobody’s paid them any attention for a while. Below her window the new occupants, a young couple, kiss and cuddle. They’ve got large green plants covered in a sheet of plastic to protect them from the frost. They attend to each other mostly, but never forget their plants. When they walk out together she holds onto his arm, their noses never more than two inches apart.
  Under them and above the striped canopy of the Artisan Boulanger lives another newcomer, a petite middle aged Madame. She has a young daughter with long shining brown hair, two small Christmas trees either side of the ledge, one green, and the other pink with
a gold star on top, perfect pupils. Every day she walks her daughter to school, looking like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Marie Claire. The mother stops at the Brasserie on the way back, spins out a pot of tea over the morning, reads the papers and magazines strewn along the counter. At one she collects her daughter for lunch. Today her hair is dried out, dusty looking but still stylish, with a clip that holds it back from her oval face. A seal-skin fur collar around her neck over a heavy brown knitted cardigan, a small gold cross dangles over the edge of the fur. She’s in the seat that I’ll sit at later, holding a white hankie embossed with roses to her nose, catching drips.
 
All day I watch the flow of people, a tidal wash, making criss-cross patterns on the pavements. The predominant colour they wear on the bottom is denim blue, and on top various shades of black or dark. I haul the checked rainbow blanket up to my neck, the one that Madame Bussey made for me before she went into hospital, as some raindrops fall to the ground. The colours are bold, stitched together from bits of old material she’d gathered up in her linen cupboard, the warmest wool and thick brocades. My neighbours call it my cloak of colours. I hold it round me hoping that the pockets of air will generate some heat.
  I used to live along the road from Madame and her mother on the next block. I think about how I’m where I am now, the event that led me to here on this part of the street but it’s hazy. I had a two bedroom flat on the fifth floor. It had the best view down the street; bending around a wide corner, boomeranging past three zebra crossings to the large corner café where four streets meet. I could look straight ahead at eye level and see the Notre Dame cross sticking up and a piece of roof angle back from it like any roof, grey slate, nothing special from the perspective I had. Behind it, a bit of a distance away, another dome, always coated in city mist, a shadowy sketch with a wavy outline. I never go there anymore. Sometimes I visit the chapel in the Rue St Martin, in the next street, but only if they’ve a special event on.
  I try to spin out the day, waiting as long as I possibly can to go for tea in the Brasserie. Today it seems to take forever till the lunch customers go. Madame Devereux is busy in the mornings, till after two. She doesn’t mind me sitting in the seat below the window when the customers have left. It’s a tight space to squeeze into and for paying customers there’s a draft even though a heavy damask curtain hangs over a brass pole at the door. Madame is very understanding. She’s seen a lot of life. Slim as a whippet, wears a polo-neck jumper, silk scarf with fancy birds scrolled on it, tied cravat style. A plain gold band on her wedding finger, but you never hear her talk about a husband. I see the entire goings on in the café. A lot of men like Madame Devereux. They come in dribs and drabs, stand at the counter sipping espressos trying to gain her attention. They like her matter of fact no nonsense businesslike manner. Sometimes she reminds me of the person I once was, before the illness and all the details I’ve forgotten.
 
In the afternoon I spin out my tea as long as possible. It feels like home listening to the sound of the coffee machine whirring, people chattering, the clip-clop of Madame’s highly polished brogue shoes on the wooden floor. Most customers acknowledge me, nod, say bonjour, and hide the squeamishness that flashes across their faces when they get a whiff of me. Very occasionally I get an all-over wash. In summer I go to the public baths, but I’ve had these clothes on for more months than I care to remember. The radio announces it’s to be minus thirteen degrees tonight. It frightens me, the night, especially these freezing cold ones. Sometimes I think I won’t wake up. I get numb when I’m stationary for too long. I like daytime best, no matter what season, watching the world at work, my neighbours going about their business.
  I wait anxiously for the darkness to pass, a fallen star, voiceless on the ground.

Carole Hamilton © 2008