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Sport 35: Winter 2007

Annie Saumont — Seife aus Paris

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Annie Saumont

Seife aus Paris

There were three of them in the gift set, beautifully presented in a cardboard container. Three pink boxes, each decorated with a little design: the Eiffel Tower, the Opera of Paris, the Church of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. Inside nestled three tiny cakes of soap, the same pastel pink.

You were twelve years old. You didn't like washing. Your mother would lift up your hair and pull down the collar of your blouse. Point her finger at the tidemark separating the clean part from the dirty. Not let you have any chocolate.

No. I'm exaggerating. There was no chocolate in those days. Chocolate for afternoon tea, you only get that in stories with kids who don't know anything about war.

Your mother swore that all through the other war, the first one, she'd had to eat dry bread for her afternoon tea.

No chocolate in those days. And no soap. Instead there was a strange substitute made from ivy leaves that would hardly lather at all. Still would have shifted the dirt from your neck. Got rid of the dividing line between the area that got a splashing every day (go and wash your hands and face) and the rest of your body, given a good scrubbing once a week by Fernande—the maid—who made you crouch down in the galvanised tin basin full of tepid water. The ivy-leaf ersatz smelled rancid.

That gift box with three Paris Soaps (it was marked Seife Aus Paris), you gazed at it as if it were some kind of miraculous gift. When your uncle gave the parcel to Maryse—your mother—when she took it and opened it and showed you the boxes (the soap inside wasn't nearly as interesting to you as the packaging) you murmured, It's so pretty.

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And skipping with excitement you asked, Uncle Jean, is that from the Black Market?

You thought the Black Market was one of those big department stores like Samar or Manufrance.

For a second your uncle Jean looked embarrassed. Your mother said, Be quiet Irene. Adding as usual, Children should be seen and not heard.

You were a well brought up little girl. Who didn't lean her elbows on the table. Went to school and to deportment classes. You were taught to stand up straight, shoulders back chin up, but not in an arrogant way, taught to genuflect in front of the red lamp of the Holy Sacrament and to sketch a curtsy too, to greet your mother's friends sitting together in the lounge, drinking herb tea.

Moved by the contrite look on your face your uncle winked at you, touched your hand and said, Don't scold her, Maryse. She's just a little girl.

Little. Yes. Little but already in love. Madly. With him. Uncle Jean.

Weren't you?

Your father was in a Stalag. His younger brother had taken on the job of providing your mother with food, tobacco, woollen sweaters. And string for her parcels. Uncle Jean who was to have gone off to the Front in July of 1940. In June the Armistice had been signed.

You loved him. Your enchanting uncle. You thought about him all the time. In the evenings you confided your passion to your pillow. Over and over again, I love you I love you. Hitting your head against the bedhead. Making sure it didn't hurt too much.

Jean. You loved him.

When your mother was there you called him Uncle Jean. But in your dreams you said Jean. And if you were alone with him for a minute you asked with a quiver in your voice, tossing your long unruly curls, Jean, will you tie my ribbon for me?

He was good-looking. You hoped that one day he would kiss you on the lips.

You wanted to die for him.

Sometimes your mother said you needed to take better care of yourself.

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Jean would put his arm round your shoulders, At her age, Maryse, I wasn't that keen on washing either, you know. Not to mention brushing my teeth.

He had dazzling teeth. You haven't forgotten his stunning smile.

He was smiling at your mother that day as he confided, I've met with that person I was looking for. Now he was certain of it, André— your father—would soon be coming back from the Stalag. They would say it was for health reasons, he added.

He was always using expressions like that. 'That person I was looking for', 'friends in high places'.

And then he turned to you. He said, Oh sweetie you smell so good today.

He'd recognised the perfume of his Paris soaps.

You sighed. You had no illusions. Uncle Jean didn't feel anything for you but the affection of a big brother. Or a substitute father. What you expected from life was what the young ladies expected in the mushy novels your girlfriends lent you, swooning excitement, amorous transports, ecstasy and eventually the love of the object of your affections, the slender, virile man, dressed in sober elegance in houndstooth suits, the outward sign of his wealth.

And yet you didn't give a fig for wealth and power. At least that's what you thought. But you happily devoured your share of the goodies Uncle Jean used to bring. Supplied by his 'friends in high places'.

You were growing up. You'd just started high school. Private high school. The day began with an ethics lesson. When the headmistress came on her daily inspection all the pupils would get to their feet in silence. As soon as Madame had given a short speech about the virtue of hard work, respect for your family and patriotic devotion thirty young voices broke into song, Maréchal, here we stand. Your teacher had pulled a face when she received instructions to include the song in the group study programme, complaining that she had a bad case of laryngitis. But in the next classroom the teacher was pinning up on the walls a long strip of wrapping paper marked with a stave in Indian ink, the notes of the chorus, ti-re-so, ti-la-so, decorated with stencilled flowers.

I'm not making that up. You told me that.

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And you told me that your teacher sometimes said things that you thought were strange. She would say, Radio Paris tells lies.

And one morning as she opened the roll book she said, Your classmate Louise Cohen isn't with us today, she won't be coming tomorrow either. She added, after a silence, Don't forget her, girls.

At the dinner table that evening you were sullen. Your mother was surprised to see your long face, you told her, and Uncle Jean was listening too, that Louise—a girl in your class who had suddenly turned into your best friend—had left school without even saying goodbye to you. Maryse answered quickly that she must have gone to stay with her grandmother in the country. Uncle Jean watched you dabbing at your eyes with an ink-stained handkerchief and commented calmly, To drink nice fresh milk and breathe the fresh air.

Soon Anne-Lise Frankel left for the country. And then Sarah Blumenthal.

Despite the support of 'friends in high places' your father didn't come home. While Uncle Jean was doing more and more to get the mysterious people he'd been looking for, and found, to intervene, his brother André was dying in the Stalag of appendicitis. Maryse got the official notification one day. She was shattered by the tragedy. That's what you say. And that you didn't know what to say to comfort her. What could you do, or your mother, shut away in her grief? Not much. And for your father? Mention him in your prayers. Uncle Jean was the only one left for you to offer all that unchannelled love.

It was the day before Easter and you were on your way to confession when you met the hungry young man. I hadn't eaten in a long time. I was trying to find a place to sleep.

And there you were, innocent, neither frightened nor bold, ready to put into practice all the resolutions you had just made for Lent, you opened the cellar door for me. You brought me a blanket. And a brown paper bag as well with some bread in it and a slice of roast beef. Prime quality. Like you never saw in the shops any more. You'd spread a little butter on the bread.

Then you took a little pink box out of your pocket. On the lid there was a design in gold, the Church of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. You said, You can't eat this it's soap. You said, I've been keeping it page 54for two years and I've hardly used it, take it, you really need it, there's water in the little room under the stairs. That was where your father used to develop his hobby photos. I held the celluloid box in the palm of my hand, it was still warm from your touch. Seife Aus Paris.

You took me to the darkroom. There were still trays and bottles with labels (hyposulfite, silver nitrate, ferrocyanide). And on a wobbly dresser some photos with dog-eared corners. You showed me the photo of your father, a blurry picture. And then you introduced your Uncle Jean. You said, This is a photo taken just before the war, now that he's older he's even more handsome. This time it was in focus.

I saw a face with a broad forehead, thin lips, a pointed chin. Light eyes, a strangely intense gaze in spite of the pale irises. Quite mesmerising. I said it again, So that's your uncle. You told me that if I had any trouble with the police he would help me it would be easy because he knew 'people in high places'.

I realised you didn't know a thing.

I stayed only one night in the cellar. I was leaving in the morning, I had to contact someone, pass on an urgent message. I looked at the little room under the stairs one last time, the yellowing photos, your father, not much more than a shadow, you as a little girl with your hair in plaits. And then Jean. Your Uncle Jean. Very attractive, sure of himself, sure of his charms. Sure he was always right.

I'm embroidering a bit. Not too much. I've listened to your mother talking for years. And the others. I've listened to your silences too. Because you've never said anything to me about all that.

That morning as I was leaving you—you had slipped some food into my bag and you were opening the door onto the street—I murmured, Mouth shut, right? You nodded. I added, You have a lovely mouth. I put my arms around you. My lips touched yours but you pulled quickly away. No, you weren't about to betray your great love. Or else you were recoiling from my stench. I was taking the soap away in my pocket. I hadn't washed.

I left, bearded, filthy, troubled. I rejoined my comrades. I moved around a lot depending on my missions and surveillance. The bombings. In your private school you were doing Latin proses and algebra exercises. Refusing to think about the girls in your class whose page 55names weren't in the roll book any more. The ones who'd been sent off to the fresh air. The Levys, the Steins, the Blumenthals.

The reason I came back in the end is because your mouth tasted of fruit. Something I hadn't forgotten when the time to love was restored to me.

But long before that, one summer evening in the forest of Compiègne (liberated Paris was singing and waltzing) when the lads with the rifles pushed the young man into the clearing, his strained face, broad forehead, nervous smile, I recognised him at once. They'd tied his hands.

I said, Hey you guys

They were listening, they were waiting and I was silent. Then one of them declared, implacable and solemn, maybe it was just some kind of wild game, Binding judgement. By virtue of article 75 of the Penal Code. Collaboration with the enemy.

I said, But
I said, Couldn't we
I didn't speak again.
Jean didn't look away.
I don't know who fired.

When I found you again, pale and distant, your mouth still tasted of raspberries.

Those minutes in the forest, fifteen years ago already, I never talk about them out loud, but sometimes I tell you about them without saying the words, touching your shoulder, stroking your hair or your cheek, like this evening when you're sitting at the table leaning towards our little boy and helping him to finish his page.

Jean is a calm and serious little boy.

When he was born you said nearly straight away that you would like to call him Jean.

That Jean was never out of fashion and a nice easy name for a boy.