When I finally made it upstairs, Hélène was asleep face down on top of our coverlet, still wearing the clothes she had cooked in. I loosened her corset, took off her shoes and pulled the covers over her. Then I climbed into bed, my thoughts humming and spinning towards the dawn.
I glanced up from the display of gloves, and closed the glass case over them, the sound swallowed by the huge atrium that made up La Femme Marché’s central shopping area.
‘Mademoiselle! Here! Can you help me?’
I would have noticed him even if he hadn’t been shouting. He was tall and heavy set, with wavy hair that fell around his ears, at odds with the clipped styles of most of the gentlemen who came through our doors. His features were thick and generous, the kind my father would have dismissed as paysan. The man looked, I thought, like a cross between a Roman emperor and a Russian bear.
As I walked over to him, he gestured towards the scarves. But his eyes remained on me. In fact, they stayed on me so long that I glanced behind me, concerned that Madame Bourdain, my supervisor, might have noticed. ‘I need you to choose me a scarf,’ he said.
‘What kind of scarf, Monsieur?’
‘A woman’s scarf.’
‘May I ask her colouring? Or whether she prefers a particular fabric?’
He was still staring. Madame Bourdain was busy serving a woman in a peacock-feather hat. If she had looked up from her position at the face creams, she would have noticed that my ears had turned pink. ‘Whatever suits you,’ he said, adding, ‘She has your colouring.’
I sorted carefully through the silk scarves, my skin growing ever warmer, and freed one of my favourites: a fine, feather-light length of fabric in a deep opalescent blue. ‘This colour suits nearly everybody,’ I said.
‘Yes … yes. Hold it up,’ he demanded. ‘Against you. Here.’ He gestured towards his collarbone. I glanced at Madame Bourdain. There were strict guidelines as to the level of familiarity for such exchanges, and I wasn’t sure whether holding a scarf to my exposed neck fell within them. But the man was waiting. I hesitated, then brought it up to my cheek. He studied me for so long that the whole of the ground floor seemed to disappear.
‘That’s the one. Beautiful. There!’ he exclaimed, reaching into his coat for his wallet. ‘You have made my purchase easy.’
He grinned, and I found myself smiling back. Perhaps it was simply relief that he had stopped staring at me.
‘I’m not sure I –’ I was folding the scarf in tissue paper, then ducked my head as my supervisor approached.
‘Your assistant has done sterling work, Madame,’ he boomed. I glanced sideways at her, watching as she tried to reconcile this man’s rather scruffy exterior with the command of language that usually came with extreme wealth. ‘You should promote her. She has an eye!’
‘We try to ensure that our assistants always offer professional satisfaction, Monsieur,’ she said smoothly. ‘But we hope that the quality of our goods makes every purchase satisfactory. That will be two francs forty.’
I handed him his parcel, then watched him make his way slowly across the packed floor of Paris’s greatest department store. He sniffed the bottled scents, surveyed the brightly coloured hats, commented to those serving or even just passing. What would it be like to be married to such a man, I thought absently, someone for whom every moment apparently contained some sensory pleasure? But – I reminded myself – a man who also felt at liberty to stare at shop girls until they blushed. When he reached the great glass doors, he turned and looked directly at me. He lifted his hat for a full three seconds, then disappeared into the Paris morning.
I had come to Paris in the summer of 1910, a year after the death of my mother and a month after my sister had married Jean-Michel Montpellier, a book-keeper from the neighbouring village. I had taken a job at La Femme Marché, Paris’s largest department store, and had worked my way up from storeroom assistant to shop-floor assistant, lodging within the store’s own large boarding house.
I was content in Paris, once I had recovered from my initial loneliness, and earned enough money to wear shoes other than the clogs that marked me out as provincial. I loved the business of it, being there at eight forty-five a.m. as the doors opened and the fine Parisian women strolled in, their hats high, their waists painfully narrow, their faces framed by fur or feathers. I loved being free of the shadow my father’s temper had cast over my whole childhood. The drunks and reprobates of the 9th arrondissement held no fears for me. And I loved the store: a vast, teeming cornucopia of beautiful things. Its scents and sights were intoxicating, its ever-changing stock bringing new and beautiful things from the four corners of the world: Italian shoes, English tweeds, Scottish cashmeres, Chinese silks, fashions from America and London. Downstairs, its new food halls offered chocolates from Switzerland, glistening smoked fish, robust, creamy cheeses. A day spent within La Femme Marché’s bustling walls meant being privy to a daily glimpse of a wider, more exotic world.
I had no wish to marry (I did not want to end up like my mother) and the thought of remaining where I was, like Madame Arteuil, the seamstress, or my supervisor, Madame Bourdain, suited me very well indeed.
Two days later, I heard his voice again: ‘Shop girl! Mademoiselle!’
I was serving a young woman with a pair of fine kid gloves. I nodded at him, and continued my careful wrapping of her purchase.
But he didn’t wait. ‘I have urgent need of another scarf,’ he announced. The woman took her gloves from me with an audible tut. If he heard he didn’t show it. ‘I thought something red. Something vibrant, fiery. What have you got?’
I was a little annoyed. Madame Bourdain had impressed on me that this store was a little piece of paradise: the customer must always leave feeling they had found a haven of respite from the busy streets (if one that had elegantly stripped them of their money). I was afraid my lady customer might complain. She swept away with her chin raised.
‘No no no, not those,’ he said, as I began sorting through my display. ‘Those.’ He pointed down, within the glass cabinet, to where the expensive ones lay. ‘That one.’
I brought out the scarf. The deep ruby red of fresh blood, it glowed against my pale hands, like a wound.
He smiled to see it. ‘Your neck, Mademoiselle. Lift your head a little. Yes. Like that.’
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