A Conversation for A Place to Call Home
Minorvogonpoet Started conversation Nov 19, 2020
As soon as Danielle turned the corner into the Rue du Quai, the neighbourhood became more run down and dirtier. Number two was a narrow slice of a shabby block, with broken shutters and peeling rendering. As she approached, she saw rats running round a dustbin near the doorway. She stopped at the foot of a stairway which smelt of urine. Although she cringed, she knew she couldn’t afford a better lodging and felt she could trust Charlotte’s information. She knocked on a battered door on the ground floor. The woman who answered might have been aged somewhere between fifty and sixty. Her clothes hung off her, as if she had lost weight and there were deep pouches under her eyes. She looked at Danielle, her eyes travelling up from feet to hair.
“Are you going to bring men back?” she asked.
“No” said Danielle, blushing.
“Not that I would mind but the landlord, that’s Monsieur Dupont, would want to know.”
“There’ll be just me and my little boy.”
“Very well. Third floor on the right. I expect Monsieur Dupont will be round. He’s a two -faced bastard that one. And I'm Marie-Claire Garcia.” As if amused by some memory, she smiled and laughed, then started coughing.
Danielle climbed to the third floor, struggling because Jeannot seemed to be growing heavier all the time. The room was part of the attic, which had been divided into two, separated by a landing with a shared toilet and kitchen. The ceiling sloped down so far she needed to stoop at the lowest point. The only furniture was a wardrobe with a broken door, one wooden chair and an iron bedstead. Danielle ran her hand over the mattress with suspicion, wondering if there were bedbugs or fleas.
The window was dirty but, when she looked out, she could see a plane tree and a glimmer of light on the River Tarn. There was nowhere for Jeannot to sleep but she built a kind of nest for him out of the clothes she’d brought and set him down. She sat on the bed and looked out the remaining food she’d brought: bread and sausage, an apple and a flask of water. It was only when she had shared the food with Jeannot that she realised how tired she was.
She had trudged across the town, carrying both Jeannot and a pack of clothes and other essentials.
Now she was in this grimy lodging , she could only reflect on the losses she had incurred. For the first time, she asked herself whether the work she and Michel had done for the Resistance had been worth the trouble. Although she understood the arguments about freedom and national identity, they weren’t the source of her motivation. That was love: primarily for her father, Michel and Jeannot, although she also felt a sense of compassion for struggling humanity. Her father had disappeared and now she had parted with Michel too. She thought of him, remembering his deep set eyes, chestnut hair and the smile with which he so often greeted her. He had gone into danger, she was sure of that, and she found herself wishing she could pray for his safety. He might already be dead, or injured, but she didn’t want to think of those possibilities. She was determined to remember him, think of the night they’d spent together before they parted, and hope to see him again. For once she regretted losing the faith she'd been brought up with. Even if she had known an appropriate prayer for the safety of a lost husband, she no longer knew if there was a God to whom to offer it. However, the thought she might lose Michel made her more determined than ever to protect her son. She swept him up and gave him a hug until he cried and wriggled to be free.
When she woke the next day, Danielle shared a simple breakfast of bread and butter with Jeannot, then carried him down the stairs and out of the dingy house. As she reached the yard, a man walked past, stopped and smiled. He was well built, with receding brown hair and glasses. Danielle noticed he wore a good quality leather jacket, which made him stand out against this drab background.
“I haven’t seen you here before. Have you just arrived?” I’m Guillaume Dupont.” He spoke with a confidence that suggested a man of education and means.
Danielle gave her name and added “And this is my son Jean-Jacques.”
Guillaume smiled, showing perfect teeth. “If there’s anything you need, let me know. I’m the landlord.”
Despite the smile, Danielle felt a certain wariness. It seemed odd this man, who looked affluent, owned this decrepit tenement and she wondered why he didn’t give the place a facelift. She remembered what the woman on the ground floor had said and resolved to be wary. “Thank you. I’m all right at the moment. I’ve got work to go to.”
She arrived at the children’s house in good time and stood uncertain, in the centre of the lobby. After a moment Madame Lopez came hurrying out of her room, wearing a pleated skirt and dark jersey.
“Your little boy can have new clothes and nappies. We buy clothes for all the children. Many of them arrive with almost nothing. And some of them don’t speak proper French. We have to teach them.”
“Thank you, Madame Lopez.”
“Call me Charlotte. I’ll show you the room were the little ones play.”
Charlotte showed Danielle a large ground floor room, which gave a view over a garden to the rear of the house. It was well equipped with toys -- wooden dolls, although some were obviously home made, a rocking horse, a slide and a doll’s house that had been recently repainted. A cupboard stored paper and crayons, as well as balls, skittles and wooden bricks.
Soon, the children arrived, shepherded into the room by a plump little woman, who greeted her with a broad smile. “I’m Jeannette and I’m glad you’re here.”
The children were clean and neatly dressed, although one little girl seemed reluctant to let go of Jeanette’s hand. Danielle started the morning with songs, then brought out the bricks and persuaded the children to build towers. Although Jeannot was the smallest, he crawled over to play with the others. Sometimes she had to capture him before he knocked down a tower, or was pushed over by a bigger child.
From time to time, he made sounds that sounded like words. When these included ‘Papa’, Danielle thought of Michel but she didn’t know whether Jeannot was thinking of his missing father, or simply repeating empty sounds. As soon as Danielle thought of Michel, she was filled with a sense of sorrow that Jeannot would be growing without his father. She told herself they might soon be reunited but a sadder voice murmured somewhere in her heart that their parting could be forever.
At meal time, Jeanette put her head round the door and told her to lead the children to a dining room. The chairs were arranged along tables according to their sizes. Danielle led her charges to their places and persuaded them to sit down. A rotund man with a cheerful face, who turned out to be Charlotte's husband, read a Hebrew grace. By the time the day’s activities finished and Danielle left to return to her lodgings, she felt sure she could be happy in this place.
Minorvogonpoet Posted Nov 19, 2020
Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor Posted Nov 19, 2020
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