I felt self-conscious holding up the scarf this time. I knew my supervisor was watching me. ‘You have beautiful colouring,’ he murmured, reaching into his pockets for the money as I swiftly removed the scarf and began wrapping it in tissue.
‘I’m sure your wife will be delighted with her gifts,’ I said. My skin burned where his gaze had landed.
He looked at me then, the skin around his eyes crinkling. ‘Where are your family from, you with that skin? The north? Lille? Belgium?’
I pretended I hadn’t heard him. We were not allowed to discuss personal matters with customers, especially male customers.
‘You know my favourite meal? Moules marinière with Normandy cream. Some onions. A little pastis. Mmm.’ He pressed his lips to his fingers, and held up the parcel that I handed him. ‘À bientôt, Mademoiselle!’
This time I dared not watch his progress through the store. But from the flush at the back of my neck, I knew he had stopped again to look at me. I felt briefly infuriated. In St Péronne, such behaviour would have been unthinkable. In Paris, some days, I felt as if I were walking the streets in my undergarments, given how Parisian men felt at liberty to stare.
Two weeks before Bastille Day there was great excitement in the store; the chanteuse Mistinguett had entered the ground floor. Surrounded by a coterie of acolytes and assistants, she stood out with her dazzling smile and rose-covered headdress, as if she had been more brilliantly drawn than anyone else. She bought things without caring to examine them, pointing gaily at the displays and leaving assistants to gather items in her wake. We gazed at her from the sidelines as if she were an exotic bird, and we merely grey Parisian pigeons. I sold her two scarves: one of cream silk, the other a plush thing from dyed blue feathers. I could see it draped around her neck, and felt as if I had been dusted with a little of her glamour.
For days afterwards I felt a little unbalanced, as if the excess of her beauty, her style, had made me aware of its lack in myself.
Bear Man, meanwhile, came in three more times. Each time he bought a scarf, each time somehow ensuring that it was I who served him.
‘You have an admirer,’ remarked Paulette (Perfumes).
‘Monsieur Lefèvre? Be careful,’ sniffed Loulou (Bags and Wallets). ‘Marcel in the post room has seen him in Pigalle, chatting to street girls. Hmph. Talk of the devil.’ She turned back to her counter.
I flinched, and spun around.
‘I’m sorry.’ He leaned over the counter, his big hands spanning the glass. ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you.’
‘I am far from frightened, Monsieur.’
His brown eyes scanned my face with such intensity – he seemed to be having an internal conversation to which I could not be privy.
‘Would you like to look at some more scarves?’
‘Not today. I wanted … to ask you something.’
My hand went to my collar.
‘I would like to paint you.’
‘My name is Édouard Lefèvre. I am an artist. I would very much like to paint you, if you could spare me an hour or two.’
I thought he was teasing me. I glanced to where Loulou and Paulette were serving, wondering if they were listening. ‘Why … why would you want to paint me?’
It was the first time I ever saw him look even mildly disconcerted. ‘You really want me to answer that?’
I had sounded, I realized, as if I were hoping for compliments.
‘Mademoiselle, there is nothing untoward in what I ask of you. You may bring a chaperone if you choose. I merely want … Your face fascinates me. It remains in my mind long after I leave La Femme Marché. I wish to commit it to paper.’
I fought the urge to touch my chin. My face? Fascinating? ‘Will … will your wife be there?’
‘I have no wife.’ He reached into a pocket, and scribbled on a piece of paper. ‘But I do have a lot of scarves.’ He held it out to me, and I found myself glancing sideways, like a felon, before I accepted it.
I didn’t tell anybody. I wasn’t even sure what I would have said. I put on my best gown and took it off again. Twice. I spent an unusual amount of time pinning my hair. I sat by my bedroom door for twenty minutes and recited all the reasons why I should not go.
The landlady raised an eyebrow as I finally left. I had shed my good shoes and slipped my clogs back on to allay her suspicions. As I walked, I debated with myself.
If your supervisors hear that you modelled for an artist, they will cast doubt on your morality. You could lose your job!
He wants to paint me! Me, Sophie from St Péronne. The plain foil to Hélène’s beauty.
Perhaps there is something cheap in my appearance that made him confident I could not refuse. He consorts with girls in Pigalle …
But what is there in my life other than work and sleep? Would it be so bad to allow myself this one experience?
The address he had given me was two streets from the Panthéon. I walked along the narrow cobbled lane, paused at the doorway, checked the number and knocked. Nobody answered. From above I could hear music. The door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it open and went in. I made my way quietly up the narrow staircase until I reached a door. From behind it I could hear a gramophone, a woman singing of love and despair, a man singing over her, the rich, rasping bass unmistakably his. I stood for a moment, listening, smiling despite myself. I pushed open the door.
A vast room was flooded with light. One wall was bare brick, another almost entirely of glass, its windows running shoulder to shoulder along its length. The first thing that struck me was the astonishing chaos. Canvases lay stacked against each wall; jars of congealing paintbrushes stood on every surface, fighting for space with boxes of charcoal and easels, with hardening blobs of glowing colour. There were canvas sheets, pencils, a ladder, plates of half-finished food. And everywhere the pervasive smell of turpentine, mixed with oil paint, echoes of tobacco and the vinegary whisper of old wine; dark green bottles stood in every corner, some stuffed with candles, others clearly the detritus of some celebration. A great pile of money lay on a wooden stool, the coins and notes in a chaotic heap. And there, in the centre of it all, walking slowly backwards and forwards with a jar of brushes, lost in thought, was Monsieur Lefèvre, dressed in a smock and peasant trousers, as if he were a hundred miles from the centre of Paris.
He blinked at me twice, as if trying to recall who I was, then put his jar of brushes slowly on a table beside him. ‘It’s you!’
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