chapter 06

" Little lamb, little lamb - no, who would have thought that! How strange life is! I recognized you -  You know - right away - Your little, wrinkled face, your big cat eyes - sixteen years old you say? You poor thing, you still look like a little chick.  Indeed, we all get older.  So you thought of me? how did you manage to find me? No, really? - you know - I still can't believe it. "


Lucie Parent was pacing inside her big room lit by two windows. Two beds, a rickety table, some chairs, clothes hanging from the walls or lying around everywhere. Shoes in front of the small round stove which was red hot, its pungent smell mingling with the fumes from the oil table lamp that had no lampshade. On the mantelpiece, next to a drinking-glass, in which some flowers were withering, there was a comb full of hairs.


Lucie was a tall woman of no particular age. Her breasts were bouncing under her open jacket. Her hair was permed, her face very powdered and very faded. But still she had her naughty - yet deceptive - demeanour. Charlotte, sitting on a chair, in tears, was looking at her box on the ground by her feet. Her story was simple:  mother scolded her, she ran away. she did not know whom to turn to and so she wandered down the streets and wished to die. When she stood in front of the water, so ugly, so black, so fearsome, she suddenly remembered Lucie,who had been kind to her when she was young and lived in the Rue des Mignonnes.  Mignonnes - of course 'Mignottes' - such a pretty name.  Only she had to ask at every house on the street because she had forgotten the house-number. Finally, one caretaker told her that Mother Parent had died. Her son and her two daughters had moved to Rue Mercadet, in Montmartre:


" If they are still there! " 

" And we are still here - luckily we didn't move to Montrouge, that would have been a long walk for you! Into the water! -  little girl, you're breaking my heart.  Oh, come on - you know you always were something special - but isn't it funny.  Incidentally - my brother -  he left us in the lurch." 

- ah !"


"Yeah. I don't miss him, just so you know You seem to take an interest in my family. Georgette and I, we get on very well together. It's just that silly hen always needs a man and once she's found a decent guy, she can't cope staying with him. Tonight she's on the tiles. You know -. my man is doing his military service And he's younger than me, so stupid of me. I had sworn to myself not to fall for any man -. Suddenly it got me.  You see - it's better to get started with it, because that's how it ends -. He is very nice, you'll see when you meet him. He's jeweler, by trade a real one.  As for myself -. I won't have any men during his absence. It's not grand in here, but still better than sleeping under a bridge. When Georgette gets itchy feet: I tell her: 'Off you go!' Oh, she always returns, she never stays away for too long, she's happy to see me again. Tell me, Lotte, do you have any money?"


 "I have fifteen francs!"


"What a fortune! I hope you don't intend to retire on it. "

 

"I'll work. I've learned the trade."


" You have learned. You poor silly girl, of course you have! When you were small - you always had wits and common sense. You certainly... you had no dinner and here's me chattering and chattering! You look so befuddled . . . Well, I'm speechless. If someone had told me that! Take your rags off. I have soup and coffee, little lamb, my little lamb. Can't believe it. Say something! 


" Forgive me, Lucie, I've come from far away. It was very far. "


Charlotte could not eat anything, exhausted she collapsed.  Lucie needed to undress her, and put her to sleep in one of the beds. She slept soundly.


The next morning, when she woke up at seven o'clock, she saw Lucie in her shirt kneeling in front of the stove, she was about to light the fire. Lucie turned her head, she smiled at the young girl:


" Fancy a drop of milk? Stay in the can. It will do you good. you don't look so grand. Today’s a holiday. Tomorrow ... sure you don't want to go back to your mother's?"


" I’m sure, Lucie."


" You'll find out soon enough that life's no picnic.  Well - that your choice - Listen, I've been thinking: I can't keep you here.  First, your mother will be looking for you -  she could bite someone's head off that one. And where would she look?  Here at old friends. She must be astonished that you're not back.  Second, Georgette will show up and sometimes guys come to see her - if they took a shine to you, then you're finished. Are you crying?"


" No, Lucie - it doesn't matter. I understand. I'm leaving."


At first, Charlotte had thought of Miss Buchs. But then the teacher might have brought her back to her family. Now she thought about it again, maybe she could wait for her outside the school and implore the teacher to let her stay with her. Lucie started again:

"It's not right not to help a poor girl in trouble… Hang on! Rue Flocon, very close from here, I know there's a room for rent from January 8th. You don't have to pay a deposit, and it's available now.  You take this bed, I don't need it, and I'll give you a chair, some bits and bobs -.... et voila: the young lady is living with her own furniture; then tomorrow morning, you'll go to Décoiffer Workshop, Rue de Cléry and tell them that I sent you. A decent place, damn busy! They did ask me, but I work somewhere else, otherwise .... But I have a friend there, she's called Armandine, and you can confide in her as you do with me, she will protect you, little girl.  So - does this arrangement suit you?"


"You're so kind, Lucie."


"You're so sweet. Always the same little girl, do you remember?"


They drank their milk. Lucie hugged the girl, put her back to bed: 

"This is necessary, you have been up and about for so long." 


They chatted until eleven clock, exchanging old memories. Then Lucie stood up, she was going to buy lunch.


"Take some of my money , Lucie . " 

"Are you crazy? How are you going to eat all week?" 


Charlotte let Lucie invite her. She was broken, she felt nothing, could not think. In the afternoon, they spoke to the caretaker in the Rue Flocon. She gladly accepted to lease the room, because this was such a young girl and Miss Parent's niece. Her husband helped them to move the bed and the chair. the women carried old sheets, a blanket, as well as odds and ends, including Charlotte's box. As they unpacked, Lucie chatted. What a strange idea to bring books, and what kind of books! mouse food:

 

" Did you drag all that with you yesterday? - Na I have to say - you're in pretty good shape!"



Now Charlotte was set up in a small room on the sixth floor. It only had a metal bed, a chair, very few clothes, a blue dress, a small rug, a wash bowl ,  two towels .  At a store, Charlotte purchased a hairbrush, a comb and a glass. From an old cotton rag, she sew a curtain for the window. The view over the rooftops was glorious. Lucie laughed, she said that everything was looked well and advised:


" It isn’t going to be warm in here. Buy a small stove as soon as you can."


Charlotte replied that she spread her clothes on the bed at night. She already owed Lucie three francs, because she had given that money to the caretaker in gratitude for her kindness. Lucie only wanted her money back when Charlotte was able to able to earn some: 


" Put those three francs, aside for me. Give them to me when I'm broke (and you aren’t ."



Charlotte carefully stored her room key in her purse. As she was leaving, Lucie said:


"If you're not too tired, I'd suggest we visit Armandine. I don't see her very often. She lives in the sticks, outside in Ménilmontant."

"That's a good idea, Lucie because of the job tomorrow."

"I thought so - then you'll know everything right away."                             


Lucie wanted them to take the omnibus. saying Charlotte had walked enough yesterday, she would be whacked tomorrow. They only arrived at Armandine's after four o' clock. Armandine lived in a small apartment on the fifth floor, in Rue Oberkampf. She was a stout small woman aged forty-five. Her brown hair curled over her forehead. She had round, red face, with small eyes like screw holes, her nose was flat and looked very small and on her face more like a point more reddish than the rest. Armandine was wearing a garnet-coloured skirt, a green blouse with white embroidery. The outfit looked odd. Fists on her hips, she was standing in front of her door, calling:


"Hey - where did you come from, girl?"


Behind her a lean, lanky boy aged fourteen yelled:

" Oh hell, it's the Grimace! Look at the face on her."

In the room, there was also a chubby, bare-chested blonde girl, white and pink; she was laughing.  There was also another young girl, of sickly and shy appearance. She smiled gently. As Lucie leaned to hug Armandine, Charlotte became visible.



"I'm bringing a friend. "


Deep silence. Armandine twirled on her heels and bowed down:


"Step aside, brood. Come in, young lady. Welcome! These are my children. My son Albert – Bertie - fourteen years old, eight days ago he was a hardware salesman, since yesterday he's working at a book printer's. In the future, we'll see. It's good to have several irons in the fire, isn't it? This is my daughter Rosa, only proficient in eating soup as you can see she's enjoying herself. My daughter Helen call her Lili -, eighteen, flower maker like me and she works with me. I have two other daughters, young lady: Leonore twenty-three years, a bad apple - well, nothing I can do about it - you have to have something of everything -. she is a dyer and she's getting married. My oldest, Adele, thirty years old, my love-child, she is a nurse in Tenon. Would you like to visit our humble abode? There's nothing here but beds - I dislike overcrowded rooms. My bedroom is also my daughters' bedroom and my son's bedroom, it is also the dining room, the lounge, the dressing room and the kitchen. Things are much more convenient by having everything in once place when you're as busy as we are. Less time wasted moving around. Isn't it true, children?"

 

"Hurrah, drumroll for mother, she has spoken very well, let's drink to her health!"


Bertie began to sing in a booming voice. For several minutes there was an indescribable din. All were stamping with their feet, clapping their hands, Bertie was meowing frantically. Charlotte was stunned, and confused. then Armandine's quick sharp voice on top of all that:


" Enough, enough, that busybody of a caretaker will be up again"


" Couldn't care less about her. "


"Enough Bertie - when will you finally learn some respect for authority? Otherwise we might have to move, young man. Will you get us some beer?


 " Syrup, I want syrup. " Rosa called.


" Look here, as if you are not sweet enough," her brother said, " By the way - hide your baps. It's disgusting "


"Disgusting - disgusting- hey Mister.  You'll look long and hard before you find some like these!"


" As if you don't know already? I'm so over women.”

 

" Oh you don't say? "


"Rosa, Bertie - come on - what is the young lady going to think? She'll believe that you have been badly brought up, because you argue in front of everyone. Sit down, young lady. Darling daughter, button up your blouse. My daughter thinks that we are living in Eve's times. She means no harm, but when we get visitors -there are people who don't like that.  This is why she's lost every job so far. I found her a job at a doctor's, in our district, not much to do, and a very fine gentleman - he dismissed her..."


"It's not him, mother - it was Dollface who came to visit him - what a tart she was.  On the contrary - he told me: 'Make yourself quite comfortable, young lady ...', so he said.”


"He didn’t certainly do anything to hold you back. When I came to get you, he told me. 'Understand me, dear lady' he said, 'I can't keep your daughter, she's too much competition: when she opens the door and my patients see her, they say they are healed! ' one thing for sure - you won't find such a gentleman soon! He told me. 'Let her become a model for a painter, but - my poor child - painters - how would I know any of them? In the meantime, nobody will pay you proper respect. "


" The doctor's never denied me proper respect. "


"Well - If I may say so," Bertie said.


"What's your problem, beanpole? "


" I speak for your own good: you have no sense, hen; when they see your display - it's just too much - off-putting."


"You - wait - let me get you! "



Armandine needed get up and separate the children:


" Rosa! Bertie! - and put down your bottle. I have told you already -. Don't overdo it or I’ll forget my good manners. I don't want any arguments in here. United we stand If someone want to get angry at the other, they must run along.  you're wrong, Bertie Let your sister in peace. In here she is free, don't look at her if you find it embarrassing. Gosh, again - … gang! " 



Armandine banged the table vigourously :


" Peace - come here - give me a hug -. United we stand!  "


Gentle Lili stood up and took the bottle from her brother's hands. Charlotte noticed that she was limping and her back was crooked. Glasses were standing on the table, Armandine poured. Here and there a voice shouted: 'There's not enough foam!". They toasted each other. Now at last, Lucie was able to tell Charlotte's story. The young girl added timidly that she intended to work. Armandine accepted to take her to Décoiffer's the next morning. They should meet at eight clock at the Porte Saint-Denis. " There's enough work round there. " Charlotte would be well received. Lucie asked:


" And how's your man?”

 

" Her man - mother's bloke," replied Bertie, "I've thrown him out - two days ago. I'm patient, but there are limits "


As Charlotte looked on with a horrified face, Armandine felt the need to explain:

Fourteen years ago, the father of her children died when Armandine was pregnant with little Bertie. The father was a good man, a boiler-maker by trade. When she was fifteen years old, he took her in. They loved each other, they did not marry because they could not find the time for that. Why waste money to support pen-pushers? That did not prevent them from having five children. There were certainly, some 'bad moments' but also some good times. Armandine was probably not pretty when she was young, no, and she wouldn't say otherwise, but she was fun. Bertie said:


"And you still are, Mother. "


" Therefore, my boy, you need to be more forgiving. You see, The older you get - the less time there is to have fun . "



In the end, her partner overdid work and pleasure. He became ill with his chest. This is what the doctors said at the hospital, and they also gave him soup that had been standing for eleven hours. Rosa protested:


"Don't say that, Mother, you admitted so yourself that my employer was a good guy."

 . 

"Without any doubt, he was very polite to me, and he gave me some good advice - there are good people in every walk of life. You’re right, Rosa -. one shouldn't have rigid opinions. And still -. your father is dead. Ah, your father, children - he loved you so much! I still see him, so pale, emaciated, in his bed in Lariboisière, and how he cried: 'My poor Dina, what will become of you and all the children and the one you’re expecting? ' And I said to him: '. Don't distress yourself, my little lamb, don't fret I know how to get by, I'm going to be fine.  Just make yourself comfortable in here while they’re nursing you.' And he died, children, he died, your father. This thought will never leave my mind: This happened because they wouldn't let him smoke his pipe. Ah, dear man, I'll never get over him, never, Children."


Armandine took out a large checkered handkerchief from her pocket, and wiped her eyes. everyone was silent. Suddenly a sob could be heard from Rosa:


"Don't talk about Father, never talk about Father, this makes me so sad. O my God! "

 

"You see, Bertie, so be nice to your sister she has such a big heart. Well… howling won't bring him back - it's not fun for our guests."



After the father's death, Armandine explained that she had to raise her young children. The oldest, Adele, had just given birth to her own child, and she had her own household.


" Oh, my son-in-law was very good - he was as old as me - he was too serious so the damsel ran off after a short while. She left her child with me, such a poor like mite - I had to hand him over to the children’s home for adoption. Ah Lucie! My heart is breaking, when I think about him. Even today!"


"Don’t talk about little Polo, Mother - it's too much - O, my God," Rosa started sobbing again.

 .

" Stop howling. This is getting ridiculous."


In order to raise her children, Armandine took lovers in, not for fun, really, although ... Well, you get the idea. Her dream was to find a serious, single, hard-working, quiet man been happy to find her and a cheerful home. she did not ask for a lot, he had merely needed to suit the children; she did not expect him to be rich, only to be working, and pay his share of the food. On Saturdays he could take the kids to the circus. A single man on his own didn't know which way to turn - but a woman like her, she would not ask for much and by doing everything together, everyone could be happy. But men were so demanding! What she had to put up with! At first, her lovers were all sugar and spice, no sooner had they put their feet under the table, they felt the need to lecture everyone. Of course this could not work. So they needed to tighten up their belts when going out, as there was not even one centime at home. One Sunday Bertie was asked to cook a soup from old breadcrusts and water, and he decided to throw an old boot in the pot, to make the food tastier.


"Well - Lucie - the boy cried like a fountain, because I didn't find his idea ingenious My Bertie, good kid. – not a moment of boredom, everyone made sure of that.  Once, when the troops were parading in Longchamps, I was selling soda water and Bertie shouted. "c'mon - right at the spring" We've never failed to celebrate on the fourteenth of July:  Great idea from our forefathers to take the Bastille in the summer. Only Rosa worries us, because she can’t stay still anywhere … what can you do? I say: in life, we have to get on with each other "


Then Armandine believed to have found the fulfillment of her dream. Her last man was an ordinary bloke, not evil. He was a bit grumpy. "But who 's perfect anyway? " . The day before yesterday, he found dinner a resounding failure, and really - it was bad - but Bertie became angry for no reason, and said harsh words to the unfortunate man left right away.  


"He did like me, Lucie, I felt so sorry, I was getting really used to him, really I feel sorry, but as I said to him: 'What can you do, you have to suit my kids', I did not bring into this world to hurt them. In here united we stand, this has always been my motto. But you don't want to offend me, my children. He will find you, Bertie. Don't be a bad boy, son."



Bertie grunted:


"Let's wait and see. What does he want that old man? At home, He was bored stiff like a dead rat behind a suitcase, we offered him a family, a shack and bags of entertainment, what else did he want? I'm willing to listen to him, mother, but he shouldn’t try and be clever. Well he's certainly very fond of you, because you're funny So - he needs to behave well, I don't want him using you "

.

"Nobody wants to use me, my boy. Knowest thy mother, getting used! That guy isn’t born yet. But we need to help each other. I'm in favor of that. United we stand. But hell, it's not easy. Hear this, Lucie, once I had a lover who was leering at Rosa. Na -. I sent him packing, she won’t be exploited. she's not like Lili -. no - Look at my Lili! "



For a month, Helen had been in love with a guy called Anatole known as Totole. He was a porter, carrying the boxes at the department store where Armandine and her daughter worked before they started at Décoiffer's. Not a bad fella, this Anatole but he had no proper job! What kind of job is that: porter? He was such a poor devil, spending entire mornings walking up and down the streets and delivering boxes. The customers let him wait at the gates as long as it pleased them. In the afternoon he was hanging around with despicable people, some of them had been in prison, - of course this did not mean that they were worthless, but still - it wasn't pretty. 


"Please understand, Lili, I don't want to preach morals -. what a nonsense that is - and I can't hold you all on a leash, can I?  When I was your age - I had my pleasure and, I don't regret it. So I won't moralize. If it grabs you, then it grabs you, there is nothing you can do about it, but I won't allow you to commit such a blunder, you are so delicate and you meet such a plank. A thick, bloated guy, soft as rubber which will let you starve to death! Remember what Rosa's employer said when I asked him what was wrong with you? He said, it's better for you not to get married. How I told him: 'My daughter is limping, but this should not prevent her to enjoy her life.' You find this funny but you wouldn't want to be in her place. -.. so I won't let you commit such a blunder I won't let you go, no, I won't not let you, Lili. children, tell this fool! "


Lili burst into tears, her brother and her sister screamed:


"You can't leave us, Lili, we'll keep you with us, Lili."



Bertie even grabbed the large kitchen knife which was lying on the table:

" If Totole comes sneaking again around here, I'll sort him out. "


"We need to get back home," Lucie said


" But - please stay for dinner. It's not every day that we see each other. We have beef. Dinner time, dinner time! "

 


Everyone rushed to help set the table. This gave a new excuse for Bertie and Rosa to quarrel. The lamp almost fell to the ground. After unity was restored, they all sat down. Charlotte was seated between Armandine and Lucie. Although Charlotte seemed very confused by her new friends' strange behaviour, she ate with a more appetite than the day before. Armandine said to her:


"Look here, Charlotte, I may call you that, since we'll be colleagues. You see, life’s not always a rose garden, but together, I and the children, united in the evening - lit up by the same lamp - that has always warmed the cockles of my heart.  When there was nothing on the plates, I would tell my brood: 'you've come to this world without asking for it, you can't do you want, but you what do you can. I've not been able to provide you with an education, and I didn't have any myself. ' When I was little, there were just beatings but the educated ones, they just pose, pretending to be the bee's knees but look closer - … They don't manage any better than us. One should never despise. in order to judge someone, you have to know their circumstances, and who can do that for everyone? We are together, children, let's stay together as long as we can. Is not that right, Lili darling? "


Lili was still crying:


"I love him, mother, I don't ever want to leave you, but I can't help myself."

" I understand that, my darling. You were sick, you've never been in love with anyone, the first so to speak, ' inherits everything '. You don't see things clearly, and the same goes for him:  they have always hit him. So he is infatuated by your kindness but think about our situation. If you end up pregnant, no one will be able to help you out. Explain it to her, Lucie."

 .

"When you’re in love… " Lucie started


At that moment, Bertie brought an apple tart, and he put it at the centre of the table:


" No, hens, love is so boring! Do you all have cholera or do you want us transform us into crying fountains? If you don't start singing soon, I'll scarper. "


Armandine started to sing the romance of Heloise and Abelard with a shrill tremolo. During the refrain everybody raised their glasses, toasted each other and repeated :


" Alas , Mama ! Alas , Papa ! "



Charlotte was listening and observing, she remained quiet and serious. Armandine laughed:


" Charlotte, perhaps you have a loved one too? "


" Oh , Madame ! "



Outraged, Lotte blushed. Great amusement around the table. 



" So much the better, girl, so much the better - stay a child as long as you can, the rest will come sooner than your pension. "


And again she started singing:


" Soon, I had two lovers,

One was young, the other was old. "



At ten clock, Lucie and Charlotte wanted to leave. Armandine stood up on a chair, and brought out a lamp from the top drawer of the cupboard. she gave it to Charlotte as a gift. Bertie said that he would complain to the caretaker for cutting off the gas at ten clock on the dot -wasn't that a terrible thing to do? Then he climbed on the handrail, and slid all the way downstairs. He accompanied the girls to the omnibus.


In her small room, well tucked in her bed, Charlotte was unable to sleep for a while. She felt that she had become another human being. She was alone, all alone. In her mind, she reviewed the events of the day. The previous day was already far behind, and nothing tied her to her future. She did not even try to predict what was going to happen. Everyone had been friendly with her, she could not complain. As Lucie had said when she hugged her on the doorstep:


"You see my little lamb, many girls would like to take your place, even if you're still in trouble."


The building was quiet, nothing could be heard except a faint creak from time to time. Charlotte sat up and listened, feeling a bit uneasy. then she fell into light sleep, she dreamed that she was leaning over the black water - deep at the bottom yellow flowers were shimmering. Around her, people were making a lot of noise. She did not like that - this dirty water! - she fell into - found herself on the floor, so she got back into her bed again, and fell asleep again. Mother was screaming: 'Your lover, your lover'. Lucie was kind. Armandine loved her children, Lili was sweet, and they all had lovers.

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