Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
Have you been there? Octavio said.
In my travelling days, Grenelle replied.
It was said that Blind Grenelle had left home at fifteen: an idle boy with nimble fingers and uncanny hearing. He could listen to any mechanical mishap—a skipped gear, a sputtering valve, the gritty scrape of a wheel—and know within seconds how to fix it. Pocket watches were full of such problems. His small work, Grenelle liked to call it.
Grenelle apprenticed for a time, resetting baubles and calibrating clock weights, with a jeweller in Lyon.
After a year he grew tired of toiling for someone else. He fashioned a tool case out of old suitcases, slung it over his shoulder then travelled from town to town offering appraisals, repairs and restorations. He loved the wandering life, the work of gluing gems smaller than a grain of sand, rewinding coils as fine as human hair, polishing a locket to reveal a long-forgotten promise of love. It was suspected in the bakery that there weren’t many places Grenelle hadn’t been in his time, and a few whispers claimed there weren’t many hearts the man hadn’t broken along the way. Hard to imagine, the gossips would say, our blind tinker wandering into a village, stringing a broken necklace, smiling a winning smile, caressing an appreciative neck as he re-clasps the chain, finding a dry straw bed in the barn out back, then vanishing before the sun comes up. Hard to imagine, but weren’t we all young once?
When Octavio asked if the rumours were true, Grenelle would only smile.
You shouldn’t believe all that you hear, my boy, but I have been here and there.
And where, exactly, is that? Octavio said. Here and there.
Here was the place I usually found myself in, Grenelle replied. It wouldn’t take long to lose its excitement.
There was the place over the next hill, in the village just up the road, around the next corner. There was never where I was, and there always seemed more promising.
I wish I could do it, Octavio said. Go there.
Leave the bakery, you mean? said Grenelle. Why couldn’t you?
Look what happened to Maman. Or Papa.
People leave for a lot of reasons, my boy. Some have no choice. But some just want a bit of adventure, a change from the routine of life. The place I call there is not as cruel as you may think and you don’t have to go far to reach it. Sometimes all you need do is walk to the end of the street and turn the corner. And remember, no matter how far you wander, here will always be here.
On the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, the Sunday newspaper contained a collage of hand-tinted photographs framed with banners, flags and crossed rifles: an anniversary commemoration of the bravest generals the war had known. Octavio pointed to a waxed moustache, a cap decorated with laurels, a chest heavy with medals. Monsieur suddenly spoke.
—need to move—been here too long—the snipers have ranged us out. We’ll catch one between the eyes if we stay here—need to move—out of the mud—find
dry ground. Captain says—keep the sun behind us boys—the Boche—can’t see us when they look into the sun—Captain is a fool boys—don’t believe a word of it—our friends across the way—can see us—as sure as I see you—perfect silhouettes we make—might as well wear a target on our heads—the Boche don’t miss—they never do.
Monsieur struggled to stand, his eyes wide and afraid, sweat beading on his face.
Time to go boys—left right left right—face to the sun—one two one two—let it fall behind you—you’re a dead man.
Octavio gave up on the newspapers. They did nothing but frighten his father now. He pulled the
from under his bed and blew off a layer of dust.
As Octavio turned page after page to what had been their favourite pictures—the cave of thieves, the sailors in their flying ships, the boy and the golden lamp—his father would only stare. Until Octavio revealed the picture of the princess in her red flowing robes, whispering in the king’s ear.
The important thing, Monsieur suddenly said, was that it was red.
Madame Lafrouche was paying for her sourdough when she asked after Octavio’s father. Octavio told her of his frustration. How the newspapers upset him, how their favourite illustrations in the
no longer raised much response. His father was disappearing more and more every day.
You need to leave this place, Madame Lafrouche said. There is too much history, too many memories. Your father needs a change of scenery.
Octavio thought the worst. Glimpses of his father marching away into a summer sun, his mother huddled under a street lamp, the Sisters lifting their lengths of cane flashed in his head as though it had all happened yesterday.
You are a good son, Madame Lafrouche said.
But—where would we go? Octavio said.
Goodness me, nowhere in particular. Just go for a walk, wander around for a while, find some new pictures. You might try the Louvre.
How far is that?
Closer than you think, Madame Lafrouche said.
Blind Grenelle watched as Monsieur clutched at his son’s elbow. One foot landed in the street. Octavio stumbled but then caught the balance for both of them. He looked back at Grenelle. The watchmaker smiled.
Remember, he said. A left turn then two streets then turn right. Another two streets then right again. That should get you on your way.
Got it, said Octavio. Left two right two right.
Father and son took another step.
Face to the sun, Monsieur said.
Octavio looked into the sky, then down at his feet. Yes, Papa.
Slowly the Notre-Dame men approached the corner. Grenelle watched them as they vanished.
In the beginning they would make a nervous pair, their strides wary, their pace guarded.
They set out with Grenelle’s instructions. Left two right two right, the watch man repeated. That’s enough to get you started. He had written the code on the palms of Octavio’s hands:
on the left,
on the right. Octavio remembered the
his mother had marked on the toes of his shoes when he was a boy.
Then you should have no problems, Grenelle had said.
Within weeks the Notre-Dame men had established their own system: a sequence they would follow every Sunday, like a trail of pebbles one could retrace if they ever found themselves lost.
There was the barbershop a few streets away. The proprietor had set one of his chairs, an extravagance of wrought iron with levers and handles and gears for raising the seat or adjusting the headrest, on the pavement outside. More often than not a customer was reclined in the chair, laid flat on his back, his face covered in lather, obligingly holding a hand mirror as the barber strapped his razor.
Next to the barbershop: a pedicurist’s establishment. A line of men, bored and restless, squirmed on wooden chairs under the shop’s window. As Octavio and his father passed the queue, they invariably heard someone ask whose turn it was to go inside and see if their women’s nails were dry. The man being shaved would grumble that he would be along in a moment.
Around another corner, if they had kept to their schedule, the Notre-Dames would stop to watch as an old woman, dressed in much finery, stepped from a long black automobile. As her chauffer held the door open, the woman would turn and summon five tiny dogs to follow her in a tangle of leashes into a nearby park. As they waited for the procession to pass, Emile Notre-Dame would name each dog. Henri, Henri, Henri, Henri, Louis, he would say.
Next came the man selling chestnuts, leaning beside a blackened old tin pan, offering his small paper
bags. He wore a tattered beret and a pencil-thin moustache. With one trouser leg folded up and tucked into his belt, he balanced on a well-worn crutch. There would be no words exchanged, no formality or ceremony, but Octavio’s father and the chestnut man would salute each other as they passed.
And there would be the pigeon woman. In a heavy winter coat, no matter the weather, she sat on a bench with a loaf of bread, pulling crumbs and scattering them to a large crowd cooing patiently at her feet. A few bolder birds sat on her shoulders, while two or three others flapped and hovered above her head, waiting for a perch on her head.
Octavio could always count on the woman and her birds to bring a smile to his father’s face.
They were a nervous pair to begin but curiosity would come to steady their walk. As they wandered Octavio and his father would peer through shop windows, poke their heads in mysterious doorways and around blind corners; stand aside as people rushed about their days.
After a few Sundays they managed to cross the eighth, arm in arm, hand pressed into hand, the son steering, the father keeping up as best he could. And as the weeks and months passed, Octavio could sense something come over his father, like a series of gentle
tugs on puppet strings, pulling him more upright and strengthening his gait.
At the end of the Champs Élysées the sky opened wide, a great yawn over the Place de la Concorde, as though the city had tired of its tree-lined thoroughfare and needed a good stretch. The square was a blur of traffic. It was all Octavio and his father could do to avoid being run down. Monsieur gripped his son’s arm and Octavio remembered his mother’s hand squeezing his as they came home from school. Father and son walked on.
Two wheels, four wheels, pushed and pulled and pedalled, grinding brakes, wheezing fumes, yelled obscenities filled their ears. And beyond the square the gardens of the Tuileries beckoned, offering a chair or two in the shade, a chance to catch one’s breath after a morning of walking and a minute of braving the mad Concorde whirlwind.
Near the boat pond a groundsman stood on a ladder leaning against the statue of a nymph. The fellow braced himself on the woman’s cold stone breast. His other hand held a heavy brush with which he scrubbed the pigeon droppings from her hair. He appeared not to notice the young man pulling two chairs to the edge of the pond.
Octavio checked the position of the sun, adjusted the chairs, and helped his father settle in a comfortable spot. Propping his feet on the water’s edge, Octavio closed his eyes, the sun’s warmth glowing through his eyelids. A voice shouted behind him.
A fine mess you’re making of my gravel, monsieur.
The groundsman was waving his brush. Octavio fell forward and struggled to his feet. His father hunched his shoulders and covered his head with his arms. Octavio looked up and apologized.
We were heading for the museum, monsieur. We just wanted to rest for a moment.
The groundsman grunted and thrust his thumb in the direction of the Louvre, looming through the trees. Put the chairs back when you leave, he said.
The baker stumbles from the cake-slice. His hair juts in clumps from his head; his fingers as curled as hooks. He doubles over, grasping both knees, gulping air still heavy with smoke, fighting the urge to vomit. Drops of sweat fall on his Sunday shoes, raising tiny puffs of ash as they land.
The crowd closes in. Give him some room, the elderly woman barks. For heaven’s sake let the poor man breathe.
The old man with the thick spectacles puts an arm around the baker’s heaving shoulders, patting him on
the back. He murmurs in the man’s ear, as though singing a lullaby.
All done now, my boy.
All done now.
sabeau Normande became a restorer, working as long as daylight glowed through the dingy cellar windows of the Louvre, coaxing grime and neglect from its collections. She had learned her craft at the elbow of one Madame Tessier.
There was no way of guessing how old the woman was, nor in the years Isabeau would spend with her did Madame T show any sign of aging. She arrived at the museum each morning in the same wrinkled state, but from where no one could say.
Naturally there were the myths and legends, hearsay
and lazy notions shared among the custodians. As an infant, like Moses in the reeds, Madame T had been left in a basket on the steps of the museum’s grand entrance. That she would outlive them all. That if the woman ever died, she would be interred beneath the armless Venus de Milo or know the reason why.
They met not many days after Isabeau’s eighteenth birthday, the spring of 1928, a dark morning of sleet and rain. Isabeau had found her way through the tangle of corridors beneath the museum for her interview. Madame T said nothing as she waved Isabeau to a stool beside her worktable. As Isabeau removed her scarf and adjusted her lock of hair, she noticed a painting spread out on Madame’s table.
The woman turned from her work. So mademoiselle, tell me something about your—
Isabeau’s nervousness took hold. I see you’re working on the
, she blurted. Spanish isn’t it by Murillo if I remember correctly first name wait don’t tell me Bartolomé yes that’s it you know I’ve always been an admirer of his work and this one particularly so dramatic the way he throws the sunlight across the boy and the detail he manages with the basket of fruit why you can almost taste the shrimps and the strange way he poses the boy tells quite a story don’t
you think when I was little and started coming to the museum I am a devoted visitor you know madame I would spend hours wondering who the boy in the painting was and what was he picking at under his shirt and why were his feet so dirty my goodness I even gave him a name Pedro I think he is such a beautiful boy—
—self, Madame T interrupted.
Isabeau squirmed on her stool. Forgive me, madame. To be sitting
cellar, is more than I could have imagined. I can get carried away.
So I see, Madame T said. Allow me to explain something, mademoiselle. The problem is that you are much too much in love. You are here because your parents mentioned your name to someone who mentioned your parents’ name to someone who mentioned your name to my superior who suggested that I might find a position for you. And so here you sit blocking my light and dripping on my floor, eager to tell me that you love the paintings in my museum. That you have known them, admired them, dreamt of them since you were a little girl. I wish it were otherwise but all this means nothing to me. Everyone who has sat on that stool has claimed your devotion. They have dropped to their knees and confessed that they would do anything, even throw themselves into the Seine, if it would
preserve and protect my paintings. As though such foolishness could restore beauty to its rightful place. No, mademoiselle, I need no more suitors here. What I need is a cleaning girl, a scrubber with a vacant head and careful fingers whose fondest wish is to do only as I tell her. On the face of it, you are not that girl. And for that I am sorry.