Authors: C. S. Richardson
The Notre-Dame household was solid underfoot but slightly out of level, a boat nestled at low tide. The lounge and kitchen were one room, furnished with a pair of arm-worn chairs. The dining table had come
from a café near the cake-slice, a wedding gift from the proprietor. The bathroom floor sloped its own way into a bedroom where Monsieur would cheerfully move the bed should Madame wish to open the armoire drawer. The attic, reached by a circular staircase that rose inexplicably from the centre of the main room, was a space of rough-hewn beams and mouse-hole corners. If Monsieur leaned out the attic window at a particular angle and shooed away the ever-present gathering of pigeons, he might enjoy a view of the chimney pipes of the district.
Honoré, saint of bakers, stared from prayer cards tacked throughout the apartment. An Italian bible, swollen with strips of paper marking Madame’s preferred verses, was the extent of the Notre-Dame library.
Someone new to the Boulangerie Notre-Dame, standing at the distant end of the morning queue, could enjoy a few distractions till their turn came. Having finally stepped inside, they might admire the bakery’s painted tiles. Or watch the stock of baguettes dwindle ahead of them and worry whether there would be any left when they reached the counter. Or turn their attention to Monsieur and Madame bustling behind the display case. An unlikely pair, the newcomer might wonder, tapping the shoulder next in line and asking how this
curiously thin baker and his hefty missus had met. Heads would turn, throats would clear, and the hive of the bakery would come to a halt.
A gossip would say it was strawberry. Another would reply that no, it was raspberry.
As you wish, but I am sure it happened near the river.
In the park, you mean.
Monsieur might slide his arm around Madame’s waist. As I recall we were on the boulevard, he would say.
Well then, Monsieur, it was most certainly a Saturday evening.
Sunday afternoon, Madame would reply, offering a hint of a smile as she spoke, and leaning her head against her husband’s shoulder. The debaters would pay no attention as they circled the newcomer.
You must visualize our baker here, strolling along on his day of rest, his head—
in the clouds as usual, conjuring another story when—
he passes a pastry shop and—
averts his eyes as any proper baker would and—
fails to notice the young beauty emerging from the shop.
Madame would look at her husband. I was eating a tart, wasn’t I?
Monsieur would kiss his wife’s cheek. A treat, he would say. After mass.
There would be the inevitable collision: Monsieur ending up in the gutter, Madame with most of the tart smeared across her face. He leaped to his feet, ready for a yelling match, and turned to meet his foe. There she stood adjusting her shawl, cleaning custard from her dress, blushing and cursing a streak in Italian. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He smoothed his hair and rummaged through his pockets for a handkerchief. Once he had found it, he paused as she nodded her permission. He wiped a dribble of raspberry ganache from the corner of her mouth. She never stopped staring into his shining grey eyes.
So there it is, someone would conclude. I knew it was raspberry.
The important thing, Monsieur would add, was that it was red.
On that dessert Emile and Immacolata built their life together, though none who knew them were bold enough to remark that such happiness had begun, of all places, outside a pastry shop.
There were the Sunday afternoons in a small café near the Boulangerie Notre-Dame: the same outside table no matter the season, her mother chaperoning a few tables away. Emile would arrive with a copy of the day’s illustrated newspaper tucked under his arm, present the
front page with a flourish and weave a tale concerning its illustration. Immacolata would roll her eyes or gasp at the proper moments, not caring that her handsome baker never began his stories by reading the headline.
A front page once featured the unveiling of an enormous marble statue in a far-off museum. Emile spoke of the marble in his own bakery, explaining in a deep voice and with many a dramatic pause that its slabs and tiles had travelled across a sea—teeming with sharks and mermaids, he said—all the way from the quarries of Sicily.
But there is no marble in Sicily, Immacolata said. They have a volcano. There they mould their statues out of molten lava.
But I am sure my marble came from Italy. Certain of it—by boat—across the sea—teeming—
Then your marble began its journey in Tuscany. Like me.
And the sharks—the mermaids?
Immacolata glanced at her mother a few tables away, then placed her hand on Emile’s.
Still swimming as far as I know. I was only little, but I remember watching them through the railing as we sailed away.
The spring of 1901 saw Emile and Immacolata married in an alcove chapel of the Church of Saint-Augustin. There followed a small celebration in the bakery. Emile baked the choux buns for the pièce montée himself, admitting to no one that a week earlier—under cover of a late-night stroll—he had consorted with a pastry man in the ninth to produce the cream filling for the buns.
A few customers had arranged for a duo of cello and violin. Naturally the gossips were first in the queue for a dance with the bride.
On Sunday mornings Madame would drape a shawl over her head, touch the palm of her hand to the nearest Honoré and set off to church. In leaner years she might have been seen shuffling to mass on her knees, and once, as joyful as a martyr, she likewise made the pilgrimage to Chartres by scuffing up and down the aisle on the train from Montparnasse station. Through each mass she prayed to Gabriel, hands clenched, knuckles white, begging for the gift of children.
When his wife had left for services, Monsieur would dress in his one black suit, step out of his clogs and into his Sunday shoes, comb his unruly hair, button his only collar and descend to the bakery. After polishing the counter with his sleeve, Monsieur would step outside, inhale a morning free of flour dust, and place his bony
bottom on the curb. Only then did he lean his back against the bakery’s blue doors and scrutinize the pictures in his illustrated newspaper.
On an afternoon in December of 1907, with a north wind stabbing at the bakery windows, Madame received an answer to her prayers. As though a lover’s breath had wafted across the nape of her neck. Standing behind the counter, she held a hand against her cheek, then crossed herself. She caught her fingers in the closing drawer of the till.
Next? she said, perhaps too loudly.
Through the following summer Madame seemed to double in size. The morning of the eighth of August found her in hard labour in the cellar of the bakery, splayed on the same table where, were it any other Saturday, Monsieur should have been scoring his second lot of baguettes. In spite of the early hour, the day promised to be the hottest of the summer.
Ovens at full heat, rising loaves overflowing their pans, Madame’s ankles balanced on Monsieur’s shoulders, customers filling the shop upstairs and fretting about whether anyone had gone to fetch a doctor, the gossips among them suggesting hot water and cold towels and opening or closing as many windows as possible,
all combined to make circumstances in the bakery more uncomfortable than anyone could have imagined.
By midday a quiet cry was heard coming from the cellar. Everyone in the shop took turns grinning and slapping each other on the back, then left in search of champagne and the good crystal. Monsieur placed his newborn son in a bowl of proofing dough. He mopped his wife’s brow and smoothed her hair and chuckled at his own joke.
Quite a loaf you’ve baked, my love.
Everything in Madame’s head came loose and spun into blackness. Half naked, bloated and torn for anyone to see, she panicked at the sudden emptiness inside her. At feeling nothing for the trembling thing beside her in the bowl, its pink fists wavering above the rim. She waited for the joy, the relief, the excitement, the peace.
Monsieur whispered that the boy would need a name.
Madame looked away, her thoughts tumbling in a thousand directions. She had worn her knees raw in devotion. She had been so correct, so careful, full to bursting with faith in Gabriel’s kindness. She could not remember a day when she had not dreamed of motherhood. She had wanted this child since she herself had been a child. Now the shivers of fear would
not stop. Was this Gabriel’s reward for her selfishness? To give a gift only to turn His back and deny the want of it? Madame stared at her husband, tears pooling in her unblinking eyes, flowing down her face and welling on the marble under her.
I am trying so hard, she said.
Monsieur forced a smile. Rest now, my love. I will think of something.
The boy spent his first night swaddled in the drawer of his parents’ armoire. He slept, as day-olds do, peaceful and unaware.
The following morning Monsieur’s newspaper depicted the moment after a train had collided with an elephant. The surprised animal hurtled through the air as the engineer poked his head from the engine’s cab, the man’s cheeks puffed and pink as he blew on his whistle. The headline told of
A STRANGE RAILWAY ACCIDENT IN SIAM
Another Sunday and Monsieur might have managed a fantastical story, one he could not wait to tell his wife when she returned from mass. Animals, birds, mythical creatures: these were his specialties. The elephant might transform into a mad runaway from an African travelling zoo. Or become a gift to the mayor of Paris, delayed on the outskirts of the city, from the
Maharaj of Calcutta. He would invite Madame to join him on the bakery step, then transform into a fidgety public official rattling his watch to see if it still worked, or a grand and puffy Indian prince, bowing with apologies and trying to keep his turban on his head.
But a new father’s mind is full of other dreams and other worries. Monsieur barely noticed the newspaper’s date:
Monsieur ran through the bakery and up the stairs to the top of the cake-slice. He could hear the fits and gasps of his wailing son. He found his wife in the bedroom trying to nurse the infant, her face turned to the ceiling.
Octavio, he said, stretching the
and waving the newspaper above his head. You see, my love? Eighth day, eighth month, eighth district.
Madame’s eyes were swollen; her hair hung in drenched tangles.
Your son, she said.
His wife did not reply as Monsieur left to warm a bottle of milk. Outside, the skies above the cake-slice sagged in the summer heat, threatening a downpour.
The baker makes for home, west now, his face toward the sun. He carries a bundle tied with twine, three books bound in green linen. The load knocks his shins with each stride; the rough string handle cuts into his hand. He nears the end of a well-travelled route, but on this day it holds no comfort.
It had begun like no Sunday before it. He had set out from the bakery, a head full of possibilities. A week had passed, he thought. Surely she would have found his gift. She could be there even now, at this early hour, in the
gardens waiting and wondering who had left such a lovely thing behind. Would she know it was intended for her?
He had pictured her as he hurried along. She was sitting in her chair by the boat pond, loosening her scarf in the warmth of the July morning, smiling as she read. She was starting to write something. Making a note of a favourite, he was certain, the one tale in a thousand that had always been
Through the morning he had tried to keep his usual pace and schedule. He had visited his favourite bookstall on the quay. Yet he had barely spoken to the proprietor, had rushed through his selections and settled on the green ones without giving them much thought. He had crossed the Pont des Arts almost at a run. He had forced himself not to look as he made his way through the Tuileries toward the boat pond.
But he had seen her empty chair. Was he behind his time, had he missed her? Or had someone else seen it, thought it forgotten, thrown it away? He had waited. The woman never appeared. Finally a groundsman began dragging the chairs strewn around the pond back to their proper places. The old fellow then picked up her chair, brushed off the dust and carried it to the trees nearby. No one had used it for some time.
The baker passes a café, tripping over the outstretched legs of a gentleman seated on the terrace. The man pays no attention as he juggles his newspaper, grabbing at the edges, trying to fold the paper inside out, frustrated that his arms are not long enough. He closes the paper to fold it lengthwise, one hand sliding from the top corner, the other gripping the bottom. He manages only to tangle his wrists in the middle and crease the paper the wrong way. The baker regains his footing and shuffles on.
Through a small park now. Huddled near the carousel, children surround a circus strongman, bouncing up and down as though on their own beds, their fingers stretching for invisible ceilings. The strongman holds a book in one hand. With pretended effort he hoists a chair with the other, his eyes never leaving his reading. In the chair sits a squealing girl. She waves to her friends below, their arms wrapped around the strongman’s meaty legs. On the carousel, white horses pause in mid-gallop, waiting for their distracted riders.
The baker passes a pair of old women sitting on a bench. Each reads an identical copy of a cheap paperback. One grimaces as though stabbed through the heart and slaps her book closed. At the same moment, the other stifles a gasp with her hand, her eyes growing wide.
December wind armed with ice and knives gathered its skirts in a northern sea. It stepped ashore near Calais, dithered before finding the Paris road, moaned its way south through thick and ancient forests, entered the town of Beauvais along the high street, paused in front of the cathedral, circled the market square, then lifted its frozen hems and slipped uninvited under the door of the town’s only clothing shop.