Paris, Île de la Cité
White sheets over shapes in a darkened room, that’s what I remember. It was when I went to pay the rent. Nothing has been the same since. I was living in a medieval enclave with cloisters where that priest and the nun, Abelard and Héloise, secretly courted nine hundred years ago. There was an old well in the centre of the cobbled courtyard where two centuries previously, so I understand, women used to wash their laundry all the time moaning about how poor they were and what the King was or was not going to do about it. That’s what the history books say, anyway.
But in this, my modern world, I had other more up-to-date and practical things to think of, such as paying the rent for my small flat in the building from where I could admire the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. The cathedral bells had just stopped ringing; something had told me that I should wait for those bells to stop. It was a Saturday, I remember. I left the flat, walked down the three flights of stairs, crossed over the courtyard and came to the entrance of her part of the building, cash in hand. The Comtesse, my landlady, had told me over the phone that she wanted the rent in cash, no question of a cheque.
I stepped into the hallway, over the black and white tiling, passed the old oak chest strapped tight in iron bars, the red velveteen sedan chair, the stone bishop bent over his staff, and reached the staircase. She’d told me to go to the third floor. The worn, wooden stairs sloped dangerously downwards but I seemingly floated up them and a quick shiver ran through me, particularly when I saw those solemn portraits of her aristocratic ancestors, so many of them crowding the stairway walls and all of them silenced, stuck in their frames. I knocked quietly on an oak-panelled door. Only after a long silence did it creak open.
She was bent, old, white and wispy, and a smile brushed her face as she turned away beckoning me in. I followed her closely, past a rosewood cabinet with walnut marquetry, red velvet chairs with heart-shaped carved backs, a chaise longue with an ebony headrest, and a long, veneered mahogany table with room for a banquet of twenty or more. I stroked my hand over the well-polished surface.
‘Ne touchez-pas!’ her voice came in a thin shriek and I snatched back my hands because somehow she’d seen me as if through her back.
‘Des beaux meubles, beautiful furniture,’ I heard myself mutter and the feel of the smooth wood on my fingers felt somehow familiar. She gave me a glare. “Les miens – mine,” I thought I heard her say. We came to another room which was much darker, and it was there that everything was covered in white sheets. The shapes underneath were angular, like bones, but they were no doubt more pieces of furniture, tables, cabinets. Drifting through this room I didn’t dare touch anything and she led me to a little office where I gave her the cash and she sat down at a small rosewood desk, took a long pen and booklet from the drawer and filled in the sum.
Ever since then she’s been sending her nephew, the Vicomte, over to my place to collect the rent. The Vicomte is very thin and I see him from my kitchen window floating down those sloping stairs like a shred of paper, wafting round the well and across the courtyard towards my building. He gives me the creeps. In fact he’s hovering on my doorstep this very minute but I won’t let him. I’m wary of letting him anywhere near me, there’s just something about him that’s not quite right. Anyway, he’s going to ask for cash again and I’m going to insist on a cheque because they have no idea what it’s like being a young woman carrying all that cash from the bank across the city back home. I mean I could be robbed. I mean, it’s happened once to one of my colleagues in my office and they never got the money back.
The Vicomte’s face is too pale. He’s like one of the ancient portraits on the staircase: sad and drawn. He reminds me of someone I once knew and liked, although I can’t quite place who that was.
Two of my windows overlook the Comtesse’s domain across the courtyard and I realize that ever since I touched that table she’s been keeping her veiled curtains drawn so that now I can’t see in. This is the reason I’ve stolen over here again. My fingers have been tingling ever since; I can still feel the sleek surface of smoothed mahogany on them.
Her lights are out and there’s no-one around. It’s very quiet. I’m already up the stairs past those dumb portraits, back on her third floor, looking at the Vicomte in the painting. He is cast in shadow – as I am now – but a faint light from the moon allows me to see the date the artist painted him, there on the bottom right hand side of the picture: ‘1657’. So he’s three hundred and fifty years old. I notice he has his hand on the back of a chair in front of him and that the chair looks empty. His wife should be sitting there with him but it’s all in shadow so perhaps she is and I just can’t see properly. The frame is embellished with floral carvings and matches the carved frames round the latticed windows on the other side of the staircase. These windows look out onto the cloisters below and I remember it was down there that Abelard and Héloise had their clandestine encounters, hiding their secrets just as the landlady is hiding hers behind the veiled curtains, behind this door.
I peep through the keyhole. White sheets over shapes, she has covered them all. But sheets slip easily off shiny surfaces, especially over such exquisite perfection as the smooth cut across wood, the flow of the grain. I push the door but it won’t give. I try again. It’s the table I want, the polished smoothness. Even if the sheet is covering it, I could still slide my hand under.
I look again through the keyhole. It looks as if the sheet is moving, slipping off the table. It’s taking on some kind of form. The sheets on the chairs – or what were the chairs – are moving too and they’re coming towards the keyhole. I’ve managed somehow to open the door. I grab them, pull at them, push them aside but they fly past me out the door but somehow it doesn’t matter and I turn round and see a hand on the table. That’s my hand! It’s stroking the surface – small, slow circles with a cloth which is black with varnish. I’m slowly rubbing in the oils, then a thick paste; round and round and that deep red lustre is coming through but how can I see colour in this darkness? And my hand is buffing it up more, the deep blush of mahogany under my touch, the white sleeve of my blouse flapping at my arm. Then I’m picking up the chisel on the chair behind to smooth down the fault on the leg, here. I’m checking the joints; they are perfectly fitted to dovetail perfection. But the corner here is chipped. So I pick up the plane.
Because, you see, I’m under orders. After all, it was I who made this table; I made it for all the ancestors and their royal guests and I must get it right for them. You see I am the Lady Carpenter, Dame Charpentier. It’s 1657 now, or is it 1658, I’m not quite sure. Look, here’s the Comtesse. She’s handing me the sheet.
‘Here, not there. You must rub here!’ she’s pointing to a smaller table, ordering me in that shrill voice. She throws another sheet at me. ‘This one here. Rub, rub!’ But I don’t like her manner. I turn to the Vicomte on the wall out there on the staircase. He doesn’t seem to like it either because he’s shaking his head disapprovingly. I understand from the way he is reacting that the Comtesse has always been difficult, that she is never satisfied, neither in life nor death. But that’s her problem; I’m going to polish and chisel on, where I see fit, because I happen to know that the King is due soon and we can’t let any of these pieces of furniture look uncared for when a King comes, can we? Everything needs finishing. They say Dame Charpentier’s hand is fair and works beautiful objects for connoisseurs – so beautiful that the King wants them for his private collection. So I have to live up to this reputation.
You will ask why the Comtesse hides all this furniture. Why does she cover it all with those sheets of hers? Why does she hide everything? Well: I’ve found out. First of all, hiding comes with this building. There’s Abelard and Héloise with their love secret, for one. The Comtesse hides my furniture because she knows how valuable it all is. She hides everything away. Even my rent, which she counts at her bedroom window, packing the notes and the coins away in her little envelopes, opening them up every evening to count yet again. Yes, I found that out, too.
She wants to keep Dame Charpentier’s works of art all for herself; her money, too.
But you can’t fight a King, I say, and I must work fast because he’s due any minute whether she knows it or not. Faster! Faster! All has to be fit for a King. And not just any old King. This is King Louis XIV, after all.
I’ve found out that the King isn’t due until tomorrow after all. So I can rest. Good. I needed to get away from her high pitched voice. I’ve slipped back home to my part of the building. My place is small in comparison with her vast domain. I have just two rooms, with windows looking out onto both sides: one looking onto the cloisters, the other onto Notre Dame where I can see the trumpeting angels all lined up in a row on the steeple. You’ve probably understood that this building is all part of a bigger complex with an abbey and cloisters. It was the Comtesse landlady who took it upon herself to divide it all up into small flats so she could get all that rent money out of us all.
I’m sitting in my green velvet covered oak chair with the cushioned armrests, looking out my window onto the South Rose window of the Cathedral. An odd kind of tinkling noise is coming from the courtyard. You know, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. I don’t know what it is, yet it has a familiar ring to it. It has a habit of starting up every time the sun goes down over the walls of the courtyard: a kind of irregular ringing of tiny bells. Much, much quieter – and nothing to do with that wonderful deep, loud bell of Notre Dame. But however soft these little bells are, they are mighty irritating because I need to get some sleep before the King comes. The trouble is that they always tend to get louder as the night turns blacker. You see, even if I block my ears, like this, they’re still there.
I go to bed and burrow under the blankets. But the noise is there, too. I throw back the blankets. Perhaps after all it’s all in my head? But it’s getting louder. No: it’s not in my head. It seems to be coming from the Comtesse’s salon down there. So I jump out of bed and run to the window, but the tree’s branches are leaning in far too closely to my window so I can hardly see a thing. They’re like thick arms trying to block my vision. Oh dear, I’m just not ready for a fight. Perhaps I shouldn’t really be spying on what’s going on down there anyway, however annoying and persistent those little bells are. I peer through the leaves; there doesn’t seem to be any light down there. Come to think of it there’s been no light down there at night ever since I tried to get into that salon. You know, I think everyone’s fled.
The tinkling has at last died down. It’s only now that I remember I once had a soft blue cushioned toy as a child. It was shaped like a star with tiny bells sewn onto each point. Those are surely the little bells I’ve been hearing. How can that be? Yet I’m sure it was them. I must sort out my life. I don’t understand what’s going on. I mean, did I really stroke my furniture in that banquet room with the sheets, over there? And the Comtesse landlady: what is she up to exactly? Who is she in reality? And that odd-faced Comte, her nephew? What was that about the King? Where am I, and when?
I put my on my shoes, throw a gown over my back and step out quietly and take the spiral staircase. Because I’m now convinced that the tinkling noise is real and that it’s coming from that salon of hers over the courtyard. I’m crossing over these cobblestones once again, making my way round the well where she’s put out some geraniums – or perhaps the Comte did that – but they look dead here on the ledge. I’m at the foot of her staircase with the door of the salon on my left. The bishop is standing on my right, still as stone as if waiting for me to do something about all this. But the sedan chair has gone. It was here in the foyer. But then she does tend to move things around a lot.
The noise has gone, too; and nothing is happening behind that salon door. I notice that the tiled flooring here in the hall needs a clean; those tiles aren’t shining as they should do. Now it’s my elbows which are beginning to tingle so I wonder if that’s my job. Yes, in that other world which is becoming mine I seem to remember that I’m supposed to be responsible for polishing all the flooring in the building as well as the furniture: wood and tiles are my job. Their lives depend on me polishing their floors; they can only dance like the suave noblesse they are if I polish their floors – so they can swish and glide over the chequered tiling, the well-waxed wood, Lords and Ladies, Marquis and Marquises bowing, sliding over the smooth gleaming surfaces. But they’re not there now, and it’s my fault because nothing’s been done. Now can I? My work is inexhaustible. Making the furniture is just not enough for them, I must scrape and polish or I’ll lose my job. They’ll throw me out. And those bells are back tinkling quite loudly so I’d better start.
I turn to the salon. ‘No, not in there!’ a little voice comes from the first step of the staircase. ‘And anyway, they’ve all gone. Gone away, two by two, back to their houses after the Ball.’
‘Gone?’ I look down to where the voice came from. ‘Gone where? Where do they live?’
The voice chuckles. ‘Where do they live?’ it echoes up the staircase. ‘Live you say? You think they live?’ A tiny light sparkles on the first stair where I see three little peaks of blue cotton with a small silver bell quivering on each end. They shake a tinkle and there’s a miniature face with a large grin across it. I peer in closer to see if it’s my toy and take a step forward.
‘You can’t come up here,’ it says, shaking its head so I can’t quite see, and the bells hurt my ears. ‘Where’s your cloth? You can only come up if you have your cloth.’
It can’t be that toy. I’ll just have to go with it all, I’ll accept it all, there’s no turning back. That thought is quite bothersome but my curiosity is driving me. He’s wearing a thick blue cotton costume and does a little dance with his feet, then shakes his head, setting off his bells again.
‘I tell you, they’re all gone, and now you must polish. Polish! Polish! Or you’ll be gone too.”
He’s beckoning me upwards and I’m going to have to obey because now I last I understand: yes, he’s the King’s jester, and I know the King’s jester reports back when there is any disobedience so I’d better buckle under.
But I won’t go without some kind of fight because I’ve done all the work up there and I’m convinced there’s work to do down here for the King. ‘But they dance in there, I should start there,’ I argue, pointing to the salon.
‘First up here on the third floor!’, his whole soft blue body swings round, bounds up the staircase three by three, all a-jingle and I wonder whether the King hasn’t already arrived.
He opens the door ignoring the Vicomte on the wall opposite although I’m sure the Vicomte gave me a little smile just then from his picture. That alone gives me a bit more courage.
The jester is beckoning me to follow him. He skips through the long room. But I hesitate. I turn to the Vicomte. The Vicomte is nodding. So yes, I should follow. I do. This jester is skidding under my mahogany table, over all those tiles I polished so carefully. He’s avoiding the white tiles, hopping from one black square to the other, leading me rather jerkily up to the kitchen door. It’s all very dark in this corner so I have to follow his sparkle.
‘You have to start here first,’ he twists his star-shape body round to me by the door and he points to some fresh scrapes across the wooden flooring beyond the tiles on the edge by the wall. I don’t know how I missed those. How did they get there? As I hesitate his voice gets mixed up with his bells.
‘Polish! Quick, before she comes back and sees!’ It sounds quite strident
She comes back? I’m not worried about her. It’s the King I’m worried about. Is this little jester teasing me? I try to snatch him up, throw him across the floor. Does he think this is funny? Because I’m fast losing my sense of humour. But I’m grabbing air. There’s something in my hand, a soft, blue cotton cloth. There’s a pot of beeswax on the floor by my feet. I’m now on my hands and knees I’m rubbing in the jester, kneading him into the scrapes, eliminating all trace of them on the flooring, rubbing the wax in, right up to the chair against the wall, one of the set of chairs I carved for the Comtesse’s ball with the velvet upholstery and studded brass pins. I’m polishing the chair legs, polishing again, polishing that jester away from the room.
My eyes then catch a new kind of sparkling, further down. Jewels! They are set in white satin, a white satin shoe: there’s a foot, a leg. I look up: a white dress, white as a sheet and inside the sheet there’s a body, and it’s frail. This is the Comtesse standing over me while I’m at her feet. I can see her faint smile coming down at me and she’s watching my hands going round and round so if I continue I’ll be all right and then perhaps she’ll be able to dance, even if she’s too old to dance across floors now. She’s three hundred years old!
‘Don’t stop! Keep going! If you don’t earn your keep, you’re out! The King is coming any minute now.’
Chapter 2 will be posted later this month.