The velvet hours, p.28
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       The Velvet Hours, p.28

           Alyson Richman
 

  “Let me help you put them on, mademoiselle,” Giselle offered. “Now you’ll always have a part of madame close to you.”

  I brought my hands behind my neck and lifted my hair. Giselle draped the necklace around my collarbone, and then fastened the clasp behind my neck.

  The pearls felt cool against my skin, and the weight of the small butterfly clasp took me by surprise. Grandmother almost always hid it behind her hair, as though it were her little secret.

  The memory of my grandmother’s unique and independent spirit flowed through me as I touched the pearls. The necklace, even though not the original strand Charles had bought her, was a tribute to Marthe’s strength and resilience. I would carry her memory proudly as I wore her elegant pearls. I would even keep the emerald butterfly behind my hair, a secret of my own, its jeweled wings resting against the nape of my neck.

  * * *

  It was Gérard, the concierge, who helped make the arrangements with the undertaker.

  This gentle man, who had lived in the ground-floor apartment and whose father had once helped bring down a gravely ill Charles from Marthe’s apartment, now assisted me with Marthe. The irony did not escape me.

  “Anything I can ever do to help you, mademoiselle,” he said as he lifted his hat.

  “You are too kind,” I told him. “You are so much more than a concierge, I can see why both Giselle and my grandmother held you and your father in such high esteem.”

  “My father always said that the concierge was the gatekeeper to the building.” He paused. “Being a concierge is not just receiving packages. I have a sense of responsibility to be aware of who enters and exits the building. Knowing I could help your grandmother one final time is not only my duty. It is my honor.”

  * * *

  Three days later, as it poured sheets of rain, a dark funeral cortege escorted Marthe to the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

  When I called Marthe’s attorney, as she had instructed me to do immediately upon her death, I was informed that she had bought a graveside plot for herself several years earlier. But what came as even more of a surprise to me as Alex, his father, Giselle, and I arrived at the gravesite and stood there waiting for the casket to be lowered into the ground, was that there was already another engraving on the polished headstone.

  I walked closer and made out the name. Odette Rose Beaugiron 1869–1874. Marthe had never mentioned to me that she had secured a plot in Paris’s most elegant cemetery for her sister, or that she had the girl’s name etched on the headstone that one day would also be engraved with her own. But now, as I saw Odette’s name incised into the dark, wet granite, the gesture struck me deeply and my tears began to flow.

  I felt the touch of Alex’s hand on my waist. I turned to face him, and just seeing his eyes soft with compassion soothed me.

  “Come,” he whispered as he ushered me around the hole of earth that had been excavated in anticipation of receiving Marthe’s casket.

  I had arranged with the undertaker for a secular burial. Since Marthe had never been married, explaining my own relation to her would expose that she had given birth to my father out of wedlock, making it difficult to secure a priest.

  So we stood there, Giselle, Alex, Monsieur Armel, and I. Marthe’s final companions, waiting to say our final good-byes, as two men in work clothes hovered close in anticipation of when they would be needed to lower the casket into the earth.

  Giselle had arranged to bring the flowers. Clasped between her hands, she held two bouquets. One with roses, the other a tight cluster of violets.

  I took the violets, knowing it was Grandmother’s favorite flower, and placed them on top of the casket; then Giselle followed, placing hers. We stood there for several minutes before departing, the petals quivering in the rain, and tried to push out of our mind the sight of her casket being lowered by ropes into the wet earth.

  However, it wasn’t until we made our way to the car that Monsieur Armel had kindly arranged that I saw Gérard standing in the distance. I almost didn’t recognize him standing in his overcoat. In one hand he grasped an umbrella, and in the other he clutched a wreath of white roses.

  * * *

  After the funeral, I politely refused Alex and his father’s invitation to come home with me.

  “Let us take you to lunch, or at least we can sit with you for a few hours,” Monsieur Armel suggested, playing the role of the patriarch since my own father was absent.

  I hadn’t arranged a reception after the funeral, so there were no mourners to receive. I was incredibly tired, having not slept well for several days. “Thank you,” I answered as politely as I could. “But all I want to do is go home and sleep. I’ve told Giselle to go home and do the same.”

  Alex squeezed my arm. “At least let us make sure you get home safely.”

  * * *

  I let them take me as far as the door of the apartment building.

  “Go,” I said, kissing them on both cheeks. “It has already been quite a long day.”

  Once inside the door, I went toward the elevator and pushed the button. I had no strength to climb the stairs. I felt as though I could only manage the simplest movements. I reached into my purse and pulled out the key to open the door.

  My footsteps sounded hollow against the parquet floors. It was impossible to believe I would never again see her floating down the hallway in one of her beautiful dresses, or hear one of her colorful stories or her laughter. I walked past the mirrors and the French doors to the parlor, and headed straight to the small room that I had claimed as my bedroom over the past few months.

  I closed the door and fell on the bed. Only then did I allow myself to cry.

  * * *

  Over the next day and a half I moved through the apartment warily.

  I felt as if I were walking into a painting in which I did not belong. Every room had been created by Marthe’s unique brushstrokes. The oyster gray. The celadon pieces that lined the shelves. The curtains and upholstery, with their deliberate contrast between velvet and silk.

  I stood for a moment and searched the air for her perfume. I half believed that if I looked into one of the gilt mirrors, I would see her standing beside me. I could hear her voice in my ears, the throaty sound of her laugh. Slowly, as though pulled by an invisible string, I made my way into the parlor to sit beside her portrait.

  * * *

  If ever a painting seemed to possess a life of its own, such was the case with Marthe’s. And, although I had always been aware of its pull, with Marthe now gone, its power seemed even more formidable. When I walked into the parlor, I could feel her presence pulsing from the canvas.

  I sat on the sofa, where I knew that Charles had positioned himself when he gazed at the portrait with Grandmother’s hand laced through his own, and looked up at its massive frame. Marthe was as she hoped to be, eternal in her beauty. As her spirit flowed through the room, the painting remained the heartbeat of the apartment.

  Even if she had not asked, I could never have taken the painting down from the mantel or sold the apartment to new owners. It would have felt not only like a betrayal for all that she had done for Alex and me; it would have felt like a crime.

  At night, I stayed tucked inside my tiny room that was cluttered with my essential belongings: my clothes, my notebooks, and my novels. Even the old Mickey Mouse doll from my father, I brought closer to my bed. I felt that if I were to live in the apartment any longer, it would be best to essentially barricade myself in this little room. That way I wouldn’t feel as though I was trespassing amongst all of Marthe’s things. While I no longer felt that I was Marthe’s guest, I was still not the mistress of the apartment, even if Marthe wished me to own it in part after her death and my father was nowhere to be found.

  I pulled the edge of the sheets closer to my chin, as outside the sound of airplane engines rattled through the sky.

  51.


  May 1940

  In the days that followed Marthe’s funeral, I continued to worry that I had yet to receive any response from my father. The radio, which Marthe had never touched while she was alive, I now used more than ever. I carried it with me in and out of every room, to receive the latest news.

  I kept the apartment dark, rarely pulling back the heavy curtains in the rooms that Marthe had always ensured were filled with sunlight. I stayed in my nightgown and robe, believing it wasn’t necessary to get dressed.

  Alex, concerned that he hadn’t heard from me, surprised me with a visit. “Where is Giselle?” he asked. “You shouldn’t be living here all alone.”

  “I told her to take the week off so we could both grieve,” I muttered.

  “You look terrible.” He took his jacket off and draped it over a chair.

  “I’ve been searching for news about my father. I never heard back from him after I telegrammed about Marthe.”

  “With all that’s going on with the war, any communication would be difficult now . . .” He reached over to brush a strand of hair from my face.

  “You look like you haven’t slept.”

  I nodded. It was true. It had been impossible to sleep in the apartment all by myself. I felt Marthe’s ghost everywhere. Wherever I looked, I felt her presence, whether it was in her collections, her painting, or even in the empty vases that in better days were always filled with colorful blooms.

  My tiny room was the only place that didn’t have her fingerprints all over it. But the radio reception was poor in that part of the apartment, so as much as I wanted to cocoon myself in that room with my notebooks and novels, my thirst to hear the news broadcasts took me into the rest of the apartment.

  “I think you should come live with Papa and me . . . I’m worried.” Alex’s concern was written all over his face. “And this is really not your home.”

  A memory flickered through my head of my childhood apartment. The wooden kitchen table, my mother’s bookcases. My bedroom with its flower coverlet.

  “I could go back home, to our old apartment. Papa wanted me to live here because he thought I shouldn’t be alone . . .”

  “Exactly. And that’s why you shouldn’t return home either, but should instead come with me, to a place where people can watch over you.” He touched my wrist. “Please,” he said. “Please, come.”

  * * *

  And so I packed my suitcase yet again. I folded the dresses, placed my journals on top, and wrapped the photograph of my parents in a wool scarf.

  “I suppose I should bring the Haggadah and Zemirot book, too?” I said, seeking Alex’s guidance. “It wouldn’t be safe to leave them here unattended.”

  “No, you should take them with you.”

  “If you can carry my valise, I’ll carry the books,” I offered. I had not looked at them since I showed them to Marthe before our dinner with the Armels. At their suggestion, I had kept them out of sunlight, always wrapped in several layers of brown paper, in a box underneath my bed.

  “It would be my honor,” said Alex as he snapped my suitcase closed.

  I followed him out of the apartment, guarding my mother’s precious books close to my chest.

  * * *

  When we arrived at the Armels’ apartment, Solomon was there with Alex’s father. The dining room table had become a makeshift workshop now that the store had been shuttered.

  The two men were hunched over the table examining what looked like a centuries-old book.

  “I’m sorry for the mess,” Monsieur Armel apologized when he saw me come through the door. “We’re deciding the best way to repair this binding.”

  I smiled. I loved the sight of them examining a book that looked as old as the Haggadah I now carried in my arms.

  “I didn’t want Solange to be in that apartment all by herself,” Alex said as he approached his father and Solomon. “I thought she could sleep in the spare room.”

  Monsieur Armel looked up from the book. “You’re absolutely right,” he agreed without any hesitation. “A young woman shouldn’t be alone during such dangerous times.”

  I felt my cheeks flush. I did not like to think of myself as vulnerable, yet it was a great comfort to know that Alex and his father were looking out for me.

  “Our home is always open to you, Solange,” Monsieur Armel added.

  Solomon wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “Perhaps we can revisit this tomorrow, Bernard. I have to think about the best way to do it. Whether we sew the binding or use glue.”

  “Yes, yes, of course,” Monsieur Armel agreed. He stood up and stretched his back. “But let’s not take too much time. I promised this to the Freys before they leave Sunday.”

  * * *

  Less than a week later, we all sat in front of the Armels’ radio and heard the terrible news. The German army had routed the Allied forces in the low countries. Within a matter of days, they had already conquered Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. They were now well on their way to crossing into France. The speed and relentlessness of their victories took every French citizen by surprise. It made the Germans now seem invincible.

  “If they enter France . . . my father . . .” I could barely get the words out. Alex reached over to me and pulled me to his side.

  “He is at a military hospital, not the front,” he attempted to reassure me.

  But all I could imagine was the rain of bombs and gunfire. My father, who hated chaos, trying to maintain order amid all the bloodshed.

  Monsieur Armel looked pale. He reached over and lowered the volume, but he must have also accidentally adjusted the tuning dial because now all that emerged from the radio was static.

  I looked down at the floor, and part of me wished I could have been like Marthe, capable of shutting myself off from what was happening in the outside world.

  When I was younger, I remember catching my mother in the kitchen happily tapping her heels to the sounds of Charles Trenet. But now the radio was no longer a source of pleasure or entertainment, only despair. The buzzing from the static was ominous. Though we were in a living room, it sounded like we were in the middle of a beehive.

  * * *

  As we had dreaded, the next day, the German army entered France.

  But instead of a huge, thunderous outcry, Paris fell strangely silent.

  It was the second week in May, a time when the city was normally aflutter with spring. Parisian women were typically excited to stroll through the streets wearing lighter fabrics that matched the romantic feelings of the new season. But now Paris seemed to be holding its breath in nervous anticipation, instead of savoring the opportunity to exhale from its long winter.

  “Everyone’s afraid,” Alex said as he stepped toward one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the street. “Did you notice last night they crowned the streetlamps in blue paper? They’re blocking out the light to make it as difficult as possible for the Luftwaffe to bomb the city.”

  “They’ve already sent instruction manuals to most of the apartment buildings. ‘Dim your lights. Close your window shades.’” Solomon shook his head and began to collect his things. “The next thing they’ll tell us to do is to close our eyes . . . They will make the city dark, because if the Germans come, they won’t want us to see.”

  * * *

  Since learning the news of the Germans’ entering French soil, we all continued to be on edge. I could sense how much stress Monsieur Armel seemed to be under, and I wanted to minimize my presence and ease his burden as best I could. I rose earlier than everyone else so I could use the washroom in private, and I dressed before either Alex or Monsieur Armel awakened from their dreams.

  I found the tin where they stored their coffee, and brewed it so it would be ready for them when they awoke. I washed whatever remained in the sink or was left on the table from the night before. Monsieur A
rmel had spent every evening since I arrived working late into the night, and it was not uncommon to see a cup or small plate on his desk.

  That morning, however, when I went into the kitchen, I found Monsieur Armel and Solomon together at the small table drinking coffee in the midst of what appeared to be a deep conversation.

  “I’m sorry . . . I didn’t realize anyone was awake in the apartment just yet.”

  “No need to apologize, Solange,” Monsieur Armel said, lifting his hand from the table slightly in a gesture to assure me. “Solomon and I have just been talking, that’s all.”

  Solomon looked up and managed a small smile in my direction. Since the Seder at the Armels’, we no longer looked at each other as awkward strangers, but as members of the extended Armel family. He had even written a condolence card to me, expressing his regrets when Marthe died.

  Between his fingers, Solomon clasped an envelope containing a few francs. I suspected Monsieur Armel was still trying to help support his one and only employee, who had a wife and children to feed. He quickly slipped it into his breast pocket as if ashamed.

  “I should be going, Bernard.” Solomon stood up and began collecting his things.

  “Give Rachel and the children a kiss for me,” Monsieur Armel said, patting him on the back. “And don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere without the world’s best book restorer. We will all leave here together, I promise you.”

  After Solomon left, Monsieur Armel returned to his seat and placed his head in his hands.

  52.

  May 1940

  I have a proposition for you,” Monsieur Armel said. “I have not told Alex about it yet, as he would never have permitted me to ask you.”

  “Yes, you can ask me anything,” I told him. “I’m forever indebted to your kindness to me.”

  “Let us speak no longer of any debt, Solange. Your grandmother saved my son, so I am the one who will always be indebted to you. But now we have more immediate matters to address, and time is of the essence. Every day that passes, the Germans get that much closer to Paris. I don’t want to be caught in a situation where it’s too late.”

 
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