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Authors: Marie Houzelle

Tita

BOOK: Tita
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TITA

 

 

Marie Houzelle

 

 

Summertime Publications Inc.

SCOTTSDALE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Olga Zilberbourg

 

 

 

 

 

Stick

I’d like to be a nun. Or a saint. In the classroom today, after we finish reading the mass like every morning, fast, one paragraph each, round and round, in Latin, mademoiselle Pélican asks, “Do any of you feel called to the consecrated life? Put up your hands!” My hand is the only one, and she looks at me with blatant misgiving. Although I’m keen on everything religious, know all my prayers perfectly, and go to mass on weekdays as often as Mother lets me, Pélican doesn’t seem to like the idea of me as a nun. Because I’m not meek enough, I guess. Because I don’t leave her alone, don’t accept everything that comes out of her mouth as the absolute truth. Who says she’s got the absolute truth?

The
Pope
is infallible, okay. Only in religious matters, though, I forced her to make that clear. She tried to equivocate, but my brother Etienne had read up on this. She had to admit it in the end: if Pius XII himself told me I’d made a spelling mistake and I had the
Robert, my favorite dictionary, on my side, Robert would win. The Pope can decide that the Assumption of the Virgin Mary will be dogma, but he is not infallible as far as spelling is concerned.

Neither is mademoiselle Pélican. When she made an obvious mistake correcting one of my dictations, she refused to admit it. Making a mistake is human, but persevering is despicable. She asseverated (my sister Justine will like this word) that I should never question her corrections. Gave me three hundred lines for insolence.
Insolence
comes from a Latin word that means “unusual”. I looked it up in the Robert, which always starts with a word’s etymology — the most interesting part.

 

Now Group One — the youngest girls — is set to copy a paragraph about saint Agatha, a virgin martyr whose breasts were cut off before she was rolled naked on a bed of live coals; Group Three gets a math problem; and we, Group Two, are given a chapter in our history books to read and summarize: Joan of Arc’s early life and vocation. Nothing new there. Downstairs in the nursery class we learned all about Joan of Arc and her Voices.

Break. I sit on a bench and watch the others buying and selling various kinds of candy. They use holy pictures for money. I have a pocketful of holy pictures, but no interest in candy. Maryvonne, at the other end of the bench, her back pressed against the wall, is looking at her feet.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. She has two younger brothers who often catch colds and flu. Her mother is a widow, and works as a waitress at the Café du Stade. Sometimes Maryvonne stays home when one of the boys is really ill, sometimes she comes to school and worries. Now she’s biting her lower lip. She turns just a bit, to let me see her back. There’s a sign hanging from her neck saying, in bold capitals, “Ignoramus”. 

“What’s that?” I ask.

Maryvonne raises her chin towards mademoiselle Pélican’s house, at the other end of the yard from the school building.

“Do you mean Pélican made you wear this?”

She nods.

“What a beast!”

My friend Eléonore’s mother told me that when she was in school, the kids who spoke Occitan were made to wear dunce caps and signs. But I’d never seen any of these.

Maryvonne laughs. A few tears come out of her eyes at the same time. “That’s because I made eleven spelling mistakes. But I don’t care,” she says, vaguely wiping her tears with inky fingers; “I’ll be out of here in less than three months, as soon as I turn fourteen on June twenty-eighth. My God, I can’t wait!”

Anne-Claude runs out of Pélican’s house, her black ponytail half undone, and yells: “Tita, your turn!” My turn to join Sister Germaine.

“May Pélican roast in hell!” I say to Maryvonne.

“And Sister Germaine too!” she answers. Which is generous of her, because she doesn’t have to put up with Sister Germaine. But she knows. Sister Germaine comes at every break to coach those of us who take piano lessons. And most of us do — most of the paying students. For there are two kinds of students at Sainte-Blandine: the ones whose parents pay, and a few, like Maryvonne, whose families are helped by the parish. The rich (or formerly rich, like us), and the very poor. Nothing in between. I wonder how Pélican makes a living, actually. Upstairs, at the moment, there are only twelve of us; downstairs with madame Riu, about fifteen kids. Everybody else goes to the
école laïque
, the state school.

I enter the musty room filled with dark furniture and heavy drapes, with the smell of beef stew, cabbage soup and homemade yogurt wafting from the kitchen on the other side of the narrow passage, and I start playing my Beethoven sonatina. Every time my finger slips, every time I hit the wrong note or am slightly late or early, Sister Germaine hits my hand with a long stick, the one she also uses to point at the place where she wants me to start again. Down comes the stick on my hands, every other second, and I’m not allowed to stop playing until the bell rings. We’re supposed to stay for fifteen minutes, but it feels like hours. I press the keys, I make a mistake, down comes the stick.

 

Back in the classroom, Group Three is called to the blackboard, one by one, to correct their math. We’re supposed to go over our verbs, but I’d rather listen: a grocer buys ten twelve-kilo sacks of potatoes for a hundred and thirty francs each, then sells them by the kilo. At twelve francs a kilo, what will his profit be? Maryvonne, at the blackboard, doesn’t remember that the sacks are twelve kilos, she makes them ten. Pélican sends her back in disgust and calls Elisabeth, who gets it right.

 

When Pélican gives us back our corrected Joan of Arc summaries, she simpers in my direction and says, “Euphémie is
not
as knowledgeable as she thinks, and this should be a lesson for all of you.” She gave me only 9 out of 10 because I wrote, Jeanne was
tout émerveillée
(all amazed), when she recognized the Voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Michel. Pélican added an e at the end of my “tout”. I’ll have to check, but I’m practically certain she’s wrong.
Tout
is an adverb here, so it’s invariable except if followed by an adjective that starts with a consonant, as in
toute contente
.

 

I learned a lot with mademoiselle Pélican at first. Now, not much. I’ve been in her class for nearly four years. I “went upstairs” when I was not quite four, much earlier than you’re supposed to. In my group, the other girls are ten or eleven, and most of us are destined to go to boarding school next October. The ones who don’t do well enough will stay in Group Two one more year or, if they’re twelve, go into Group Three. Group Three is for the girls who want to leave school when they’re fourteen instead of going on to boarding school. They’ll help their mothers at home, or they’ll work for a while in their parents’ store or restaurant. Until they get married. For the rest of us, the choice is between Assomption, twenty kilometers away, and Sainte-Trinité, which is still farther. We’ll be shut in all week, only allowed home from Saturday after class to Sunday evening. Not something we’re exactly looking forward to.

But Sainte-Blandine isn’t much fun either. Mademoiselle Pélican sits behind her desk in a tight blue cardigan, her face pasty, her eyes suspicious behind her gold-rimmed glasses, her sandy wig sporting inflexible coils. I get restless, cooped up in a room all morning, all afternoon, and mostly doing what I already know how to do. I’d like to study Latin. I’m utterly familiar with the Order of Mass and all the Propers in our missal, and I need to read something different. My brothers do Latin and Greek translations; I too want to learn conjugations and declensions. And why not speak Latin, write it?

Father went to a school where they wrote poems and gave speeches in Latin and in Greek. The school was in the Montagne Noire, between here and Toulouse. There were horses, bicycles, boats, and the boys were allowed to roam the forest, row on the lake. They also put on plays, and sometimes Father acted a woman’s part, because there were no girls in the school. Even now, it’s still a boys’ school.

There doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind for girls. Justine has been in several boarding schools, and she hated all of them. She’s fed up with schools, she’d like to get a job as soon as possible. Legally she could do that: she turned fourteen last January. But I have nearly seven years to wait. Seven.

 

 

Misfortunes

Tuesday.
Mardi
, day of Mars, god of war. In a war, I could get killed and then I wouldn’t have this calamitous day ahead of me. The sun, behind the maroon curtains, is harsh already. The Paris-Portbou night train has just entered the station across the avenue: it must be ten to eight. I can hear Mother in the bathroom next door, warbling
Rossignol, rossignol de mes amours
. “A king’s daughter was locked in a tower and she cried all the time; but a nightingale flew by, bringing her hope.”

Every day, three loathsome meals to get through. Chunks of dead animals, eggs out of a hen’s belly, milk stolen from a cow’s udder for béchamel sauce, rice pudding or flan. I recite in my head La Fontaine’s fable “The Wolf and the Dog”, which I learned last night. I want to be the wolf, live in the forest, run where I please, and never have to eat, like the dog, “cold pullets, pigeons, savoury messes”.

And Mother is going out this evening. Out, like every Tuesday and Friday, with Father. There are cinemas, parties, concerts, here in Cugnac, in Narbonne, Carcassonne, Béziers or Perpignan. All through the day I fret, try to find out where exactly they’ll be, how far from here. If it’s in town, or at least in a house I know, I’ll feel a little better. But they sometimes decide at the last minute. I try to concentrate on Wednesday, one of the two good days when Mother, in the evening, stays at home with us while Father goes to his club; but gloomy, endless Tuesday stretches before me.

             

Loli, our maid, trips into the room. “Good morning, girls.” Her full voice flutters up and down, enthusiastically. Her
r
s are long and rolled, she pronounces every letter, and the last syllable of each word resonates. That’s because she grew up in a village, speaking what she calls
patues
, “patois” (my brother Etienne says we’d better use its real name, Occitan). She still speaks it with her family and friends — with me too, when Mother isn’t listening. Mother hopes that Dolores (Loli’s official name) will learn “better French” by living with us, but I love the way she speaks now. In the still room, I let her sounds slip into my mouth; silently, I try to reproduce her inflections.

Loli opens the curtains, takes clean underwear from a drawer. She’s small and bouncy, with curly black hair in a ponytail. Coralie jumps out of bed, kisses her, and gets dressed. She’s only five, and she hardly needs any help. Just for her shoelaces, and buttons once in a while. I’m seven but slow, clumsy, likely to put on my sweater back to front, my socks inside out; so Loli helps me dress.

When we’re ready, Loli washes our faces with a flannel in our
cabinet de toilette
, takes us across the landing, through the music room and the library, and knocks on our parents’ bedroom door. We could have gone directly through the large bathroom that separates our parents’ bedroom from ours. Not with Loli, though.

Our parents are sitting in armchairs on each side of a round coffee table. Father looks up from
L’Indépendant
to greet us. Loli gathers their breakfast plates, cups and knives on a tray and takes them away. Mother sits me on a low stool in front of her to untangle my hair and do my plaits. She starts with the brush, slowly, then goes on to the comb. It’s torture when she hits a knot, but it doesn’t last. She does her best not to hurt me. I keep very still. The two plaits have to be tightly braided, or they’ll come undone before the end of the day. She ties them with red ribbons. Red is supposed to be my color. Coralie’s ribbons are blue, like her eyes.

Coralie’s turn. She ducks, yells, tries to shield her head with her hands. Her hair is finer still than mine, it tangles up more dreadfully. She’d like it short, like Sophie’s in the comtesse de Ségur’s novels. It’s a very light yellow, an unusual color around here. They say she inherited it from Father’s mother Clara, a Parisian. Our mother is enormously proud of it.

Downstairs in the kitchen, while Coralie gobbles her bread and butter, her bread and jam, her hot chocolate, Loli takes me in her lap to feed me my porridge. God knows, I’m too old to be spoon-fed, but I can’t make myself bring the sticky paste to my mouth. I could eat bread, but bread on its own is not considered sustaining enough. And butter is out of the question, the mere smell of it makes me sick. When I’m angry with Coralie, I call her “Butter Baby” because of the slimy traces on her fingers, around her mouth, in her hair.

Loli shouldn’t have to coax me, so I let her get on with it. I try to forget about my body and what it’s undergoing. I think of
Les Petites Filles modèles
, where Sophie, because her parents have died, lives with her stepmother, madame Fichini, who pulls her hair and whips her. Sophie is much more like Coralie than like me: she loves to eat, to experiment, and she keeps getting into trouble. She cuts up goldfish and salts them, steals a hunk of bread from the horses, makes herself sick by eating a big jar of
crème fraîche
. When she wants something (candied fruit, a sewing basket), she just takes it.

Coralie can’t read yet, so I read the comtesse de Ségur books to her. But what she likes best is when I make up new stories for Sophie, from what’s just happened to us and our friends. She’s always begging for “stories about little girls good and bad.”

As I hurry to school behind Loli, who holds Coralie’s hand, I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why do I fret so much about the idea of Mother going out? This evening, I’ll tell Coralie a story, we’ll scratch each other’s backs, maybe slip out of our beds to explore some of the attics. I’ll forget about Mother and where she might be.

Why do I spend whole days tormenting myself about something that, when it happens, doesn’t really bother me that much? And why do I hate most foods? Other children don’t. I have every reason to be happy. Nobody beats me or even yells at me. I don’t live with madame Fichini. My parents are handsome, elegant, sweet-smelling. They never shout, scowl, whimper, groan, or use bad language. They are so splendid, so perfect, I wonder how other children can bear to have parents who are not them.

BOOK: Tita
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