chapter07


Décoiffer's manufactured foliage and flowers and mainly sold them to small suppliers and the fashion trade. When the founders were young it was a very important business, but now it was declining. The successors were both in their sixties and they had trouble keeping the business afloat. The wife dealt with the sales on the square, in the winter, a porter accompanied her; during the dead season in the summer, the porter was sent away.  The husband remained in the workshop where he cut, moistened and prepared the work for the flower makers. 


Mr Ernest Décoiffer was a grey-haired man; he was tall, thin, and had regular features. He used to be a handsome young man and he liked telling that a very rich lady wanted to take him away when he was playing the violin in the salons that his family was frequenting. He had studied music at the Conservatoire and he had dreamed of becoming a musician. He was proud to have met Princess Mathilde; he praised Napoleon III's Empire because people then knew how to throw parties. He was convinced that he could have been as good as Massenet or he could have become a painter like his brother Louis. Louis' paintings must have been on par with Raphael's because when the painter died, he left a pretty fortune to his widow who subsequently broke all contact with the Décoiffers; she found them too common. When Mr Décoiffer was telling that story, he blinked and looked at his wife Annette. He, Ernest, was well-respected by his family and especially by his mother's. The latter was a matriarch who ruled the house with an iron rod. After the death of the father, she ordered Ernest to take charge of the business and he sacrificed his genius.  Then, tired of having oppressed husband, children, son and daughter-in-law, for years, she retired to live on her savings. Despite everything, life bode well for Ernest, thanks to his vivid imagination and his artistic tastes which the florist trade did not prevent him to use, he would not become famous, but he could become wealthy. But then he met Annette.


Annette was one of his workers, a young and swanky girl from Bordeaux. As Ernest was not a strong-willed man, he had not found the courage to marry Annette nor throw her out when his mother was alive. Yet, Annette was running the place. So when mother Décoiffer came to visit her son - and this happened three or four times a week - Annette locked herself in a closet inside the workshop which the workers unlocked after the mother's departure. Between his mother and his mistress, poor Ernest lived in perpetual fear of some disaster. His mother had always terrorized him and his mistress had seduced him. Initially, Annette thought that she had made a good deal; later she found out that this was not the case: For twenty years, Ernest, usually such a stickler for conventions, had forgotten to marry Annette. In the end, Annette became Mrs Décoiffer. That day Ernest thought that he made the greatest possible sacrifice, conferring her an honor that many envied and yet none else had been suitable.  Annette's confidence soared up to the skies.


Work was fun. There was Julie, a small woman aged fifty, she was little chubby and dressed in black with a small white collar around her neck. Her hair was black, dripping with pomade, on both sides of the forehead it formed kiss curls. She usually missed work once every three days. On those day, she suffered from colics. Armandine claiming that this happened because Julie ate her food without having anything to drink in order to save money. She worked very slowly and hardly earned more than one franc fifty a day. Nevertheless, she managed to buy face-powder, rouge and eye-pencil to make up her face; she had very small, auburn eyes and almost no eyelashes , nor eyebrows. 


Martha was a charming, seventeen-year old girl. She was tall, well-built, with nice, brown, wavy hair which shimmered in copper tones. Her face was matt and white, with regular features and a small nose. Her small lips were always open and formed a mocking, ambiguous smile. She had wonderful black eyes, their glance was almost unbearable. When it took her fancy, she asked Mr Décoiffer  to assign a particular task to her and even if he had not intended so; he would be eager to do her a favour so that Martha averted her eyes from him. she also had turned the carrier's head, more than once the unfortunate man returned with his boxes, and dropped them. He was a tall, red-haired fellow, he was also married, father of two children and constantly flirting with her. When Martha was leaning out of the window - soon men were gathering on the sidewalk. Nobody knew any precise details about her. She said that she was living near Javel with her mother and her three brothers. The brothers drove around and at night, they caught fish in the Rivers Seine and Marne, with their nets. Martha also said that she had a lover, 'in the slammer', in the Prison of Poissy.  She was proudly saying that apart from her lover, she had never been with anyone under ten francs, and, was only on the game, when it suited her. "Heavies" wearing flat caps often whistled after her under the windows. she said that these were her brothers, she said. Sometimes, she sold all sorts of things at ridiculously low prices: purses, wallets for calling-cards, tie pins, items from the department store. Everyone said that her lovers had stolen those. When she opened the collar of her blouse, a scar - of a knife wound as they said -  could be seen. Finally, people were also gossiping that she had an abortion. Nevertheless, Martha was well-respected and much feared. She almost always seemed to have money. Only she and Charlotte were wearing hats. She was working quickly and well, but irregularly, and only when she wanted. At noon, when the others were eating their lunch, Martha leaned out the window, although Annette Décoiffer had expressly forbidden it. If she saw something of interest, she adjusted her hair, took her hat, and shouted:

"Take what's in my bag, Fifi."


Initially, these hasty departures dismayed Charlotte. But Armandine only laughed. Lili, lost in her dream, was not surprised about anything; Julie, Mrs Ravage and Mrs Toriol were morally offended. The latter and Fifi completed the staff at the workshop.


Josephine, called Fifi, who inherited Martha's breakfast was certainly the poorest of all creatures. She was twenty-eight years old and repulsively filthy. The skin on her face and hands looked sallow and mottled, almost like snakeskin. She had delicate features. Her pale blue eyes looked vacant. Her fair hair could be called beautiful if it was not so covered in dust. The poor thing has no abode, sleeping here and there at friends. When no one wanted her, she stayed with her sister, who was a peddler in the suburbs and whose lover was a porter at the food market. They made Fifi to sleep on compost, between baskets of fish and foods. Once, one night, she poured a basket of crabs over herself. When she told this story with a laugh, Charlotte shivered. Fifi was almost always drunk. As soon as she had earned fifty centimes, she asked to be paid, went to the tavern downstairs and drank absinthe.  She was able to eat lunch only thanks to Martha's generosity. When Fifi was quite young, she was seduced by a man who abandoned her. She gave her child up to adoption. Then she worked as a maid in a hotel and a waiter became her lover. The latter also had a relationship with the hotel owner who dismissed Fifi. Then Fifi manufactured powder puffs, and earned fifty centimes a day, then she cleaned windows and mounted pictures at a frame-maker's; at two francs daily, that job was better paid but she had to put up with the manager. The monster left her with child and sent her away. When she worked as a kitchen-maid for a household, she went into labour and was accused of throwing her child into the oven. She was arrested, sentenced to two years in prison. Since then she had become insane. No one could stand Fifi. When she ate, she was asked to go outside. Only Armandine and Martha defended her, arguing that she had never done anyone any harm.

 

Armandine was getting a lot of respect, because she was a nimble worker. The workshop could not do business without her, so it meant that they were listening to her. And they also had to take Lili into account. Lili was sicker than Charlotte had thought. She could not walk fast, nor climb stairs without getting palpitations. Her lips and her cheekbones were purple, almost black, due to a heart condition. "A mysterious illness, we don't know where it’s coming from," Armandine had said. Everyone liked Lili, with the exception of Julie and Mrs Toriol who did not like anyone. They were interested about her illness and they only knew that it had something to do with her heart.


Mrs Ravage and Mrs Toriol represented the elite of society: both were married in the eyes of the law. Mrs Ravage was a tall, thin woman with equine features. Her husband was a worker in a sugar-factory on a ridiculously low wage; most of the times, he did not work at all. Mrs Ravage had six children. On Saturday, her husband came and collected her wage. She gave everything to him. Often, he also came during the week, inquiring about the amount of money his wife would be getting; every time, a grumpy Mr Décoiffer replied that that wages were only paid out on one particular day. Sometimes, Mrs Ravage's eldest daughter came, she was wearing only a pink linen dress and she was shivering in the cold. She was carrying her infant brother in her arms. This was the most awful sight: The young girl, thin hair, wax-colored face, swollen eyes (all the children of Mrs Ravage, and herself suffered from conjunctivitis.)  and her little brother, a poor, sickly, shapeless lump of flesh. The sister was collapsing under the weight of the frail bundle. The mother gave her fifty centimes to buy bread. Martha sometimes slipped money to her in secret:

" Don't let your father snatch it off you "


Mrs Toriol was thirty years old. She was tall and strong, with a flushed face. Originally from Belgium, she had come to Paris to work as a housemaid. Her life seemed eventful although she did not give many details about it, only that she had trained as a florist by chance and married a watchmaker. Her husband was fifty years old, he had grey hair and he was sickly. However, he constantly argued with the servants. Mrs Toriol often rolled back her sleeves, so that everyone could admire her arms. She hated Martha because the girl never missed to scrutinize the watchmaker, when the man came to pick up his wife.  Martha kept saying to Mrs Toriol that she was exhausting him and nicknamed her ' Mother Bluebeard '


Thus, the workshop was divided into two sides: the respectable part of society, Mrs Ravage and Mrs Toriol as well as Julie, who used to be kept by a rich man.  The other side: Armandine and her daughter plus Martha and Fifi . The first side deeply despised the second; the latter was taking revenge with laughter and perpetual banter. The first side had the moral support of their employers, however, the second side had Armandine and that meant a great asset for the business when there was a lot of work. Therefore, they were always in a good mood. So the Décoiffers gave favours to the one or the other side depending on the volume of orders, and they were friendliest to the people they least respected.


Still surprised and bewildered, Charlotte only spoke very little. She was getting acquainted with workers. These women were like the ones she used to meet when she herself was a small employer and she needed to apologize when she could not pay them on time. Charlotte could not understand why her mother had so little respect for them. That kind of behaviour, the way Lise spoke always had made Charlotte feel uncomfortable.  Like everyone else whom she had met so far, except for her teachers, there was only one word, only one concern: money. Hunger and love were the two driving forces of the worker's actions. Mr Décoiffer, Mrs Toriol and Julie also wanted to feel better about themselves. Charlotte had dark feelings, she felt that she was even more worthless than the others. She was very fond of Armandine and Lili. She felt attracted to Martha because she was as young as herself and because she was pretty. But Martha also frightened her. She was intimidating and she had power.


A prostitute's power would be frightening indeed, if her desires reflected the true nature of our world: Continually wavering between self-abuse and saleability; Understanding how to sell and to lie or the requirement to buy and being told lies. But Martha's heart belonged to her Koko who was a thief. She felt good about giving something away and being sincere. As long as there were prostitutes, there will also undoubtedly be pimps. Revolting against their own downfall, was their raison d'être at the side of these unfortunate creatures. Hence they were suitable to embody an ideal beyond their current misery, and, as exploiters, they avenged their protégés from a deeply inhuman society which allowed people to be used as latrines. Martha's heart belonged to Koko, who was in Poissy trapped in the slammer. She proclaimed it proudly to Charlotte. When Martha was absent and the workers spoke against her (sometimes she only came back from lunch at three in the afternoon), the confused Lotte heard Armandine praising Martha: 

" Indeed girls, yes, I tell you, because of that, she’s better than all of you. "


When business was pressing very hard, the workshop employed two outside workers. Mrs. Tardy came down from Belleville, sometimes with her tall strong and arrogant son, nicknamed 'the Darling of Lilas' because he was known for bedding several young ladies from that part of town, a feat for which his mother showed great pride. When she came with him, she shouted at the door:


"I'm bringing my rooster, hide your hens. "


The lad made eyes at Charlotte. The young girl was afraid and did not give him any reply. Martha, who was sitting next to her, poked out her tongue at the boy and pushed him away:


" Damn it, sweetheart, you don't bother a girl like that. can't you see that you are boring her, you big eejit?"


The second was Mrs. Guerret, and she was renting a room at Grange-aux-Belles, scraping and surviving very frugally. She was a widow, who had kept rather sad memories from her marriage, and at each delivery, she kept on talking about her wedding night and the terrible disillusion experienced by young girls. Herself, she had never recovered from hers when she saw the next morning, when her husband got up, that he had dirty feet.

When the workers arrived at about eight o'clock, they met Mr Décoiffer as he was sweeping the workshop. He was always wearing a stained old work-coat full of holes. He could afford a new one, but he had no time, besides, when the workers were teasing him, he bragged about his wealth, by pinning banknotes over the holes. He usually took the money out of the strong box the day before wages were due.   He loved to tell stories full of nasty innuendoes, Charlotte watched him laugh and tried to make sense of them, and, mostly, they had none at all. He also mimicked a marionette, imitated the cries of various animals, sang ignominies on melodies from comic operas. Armandine usually sat by the window watching for the Annette's arrival with the carrier, and as soon as she saw them, she said:

"Shush, old man, your boss doesn't have your sense of humour."


Annette worked in sales. In his days of prosperity, her husband once saw a friend and, turned away so as not to greet him. Since then, he preferred to let his old companion go out in all weathers and procure orders. What would the clients with whom Décoiffer used to be on equal terms, think of him if he had been his own usher? Besides, Annette looked like a salesperson.

 


Once Annette was fairly tall, now her back was a little bent. His face was wrinkled and her hair was grey. She always wore a black hood lined with tea roses and a Scottish plaid in red and green tartan. She was prudish and irritable. Deep down, she was a very kind woman. Every morning, before leaving, she put a pot of stew on the stove for the young Ravage girl - if she came - or for Lili, who only drank the broth. She was fond of Armandine's daughter and incessantly lectured her about morals regarding Anatole telling her that girls would never leave their mothers, if only they knew.


"Yes boss," replied Armandine "I can't say that you're wrong about it but in order to know, you need to learn."



Usually, Annette left very early in the morning with the porter - if he came - because he was unreliable. When he did not turn up, she went to Place du Caire and hired another porter. This was where out-of-work porters and flower cutters met, waiting for someone to come and hire them. Annette regarded of all them as thieves, scoundrels, only good for the hangman's noose, and she thought the same about the clerks who came to the house bringing commission documentations or freight notes. She had a huge black cat, Charlotte could not look at him without thinking of her Minou; but he was very nasty and hissed at everyone passing by. Before leaving, Annette locked him up in her bedroom to prevent the workers from teasing him. When she came back, she opened the door again and the cat darted after her. 

"And there he is" Mr Décoiffer muttered.


When Annette worked at the bench, the cat sat next to her on a chair. Once he disappeared and the whole house was in uproar. Everyone had to look for that cat. Annette directed her anger at those who could not be bothered searching and especially against Armandine and Martha, who were rolling with laughter. Then she remembered that the clerk came to the workshop earlier that day so surely he had taken the cat; at once, she put on her hat and her plaid and went to claim it back. Usually, these kind of incidents were greeted by outbursts of laughing and since then no usher failed to ask Annette about Cachemire's wellbeing. On that day, when she came home after a fruitless search outside, Annette found Cachemire sleeping peacefully on his chair, blissfully oblivious of his fame. So she assumed that either Armandine or Martha, - the devil's daughter - had hidden him.



" Look at this pretty lady, I’m bringing to you." Armandine had told Mrs Décoiffer when she introduced Charlotte to her.


Annette Décoiffer stared at the young girl and, muttered:


" Bugeot, Bugeot , I 've heard that name before. I sold flowers to Bugeot's, it was a long time ago, I think. Does it belong to your family?"


" No," the young girl replied; blushing because of her lie. From then on Charlotte always dreaded to hear the name of her father, when Annette talked about her sales.

Comments