A Day in the Life of Louise
by MADELEINE BOURDOUXHE
WHEN melted sugar falls onto the iron stove, it’s really bad luck. It sticks like glue, and you need steel wool and emery cloth to get it off. Louise’s hands moved to and fro as she bore down on the cloth and rubbed with all her might. Her hair fell over her eyes and she brushed it away with the back of her blackened hand. When she stopped for a moment to catch her breath, she looked into one of the glass doors of the cupboard. The curtain which hung inside caused her image to be reflected as if by a mirror, and Louise found herself pretty. She parted her lips in a made-to-order smile. Yes, anyone could see that one tooth was missing on the upper left side. Too bad; it would cost a lot of money to replace it. She started rubbing again, and again her hair fell over her eyes. She was a little wisp of a woman, with every motion full of grace.
Now she fetched a basket of vegetables and began to peel potatoes. There was a ring at he door downstairs. Louise stuck her head out of the window.
“I’ll throw you the key, Odette,” she called down.
Then she went out on the landing and listened to Odette coming up the stairs.
“Were you a good girl at school?”
She smoothed the child’s hair and straightened the blue bow on her head. Then she went on with her potatoes, while Odette picked up the peelings as they fell onto the table, cut them into tiny pieces, and stacked them in neat little piles.
“Are we having them fried, Mother?” she asked.
“We’re having them the way Madame orders.”
“Then I’ll tell her I like fried potatoes, and she’ll surely . . .”
“No you won’t. I forbid you.”
Odette took a cup, stuffed it with peelings, carried it over to the sink and turned on the tap. The water splashed out of the cup and spattered the wall and the table.
“ Yes, I’m going to tell her,” Odette repeated. “And then she’ll order them fried.”
Louise turned around and brusquely smacked Odette’s face.
“I forbid you to tell her anything of the sort. Look now, you’ve made everything dirty. The moment you return, you have to get in my way.”
Odette was taken aback by the slap and raised her arm to protect her face. Louise caught hold of her wrist, shook her and slapped her again. Just then Madame opened the door.
“Come along, Odette. I’ll give you some pictures to look at. You’re getting on your mother’s nerves.”
Madame spoke in her usual calm voice and went away, taking Odette with her, as quietly as she had come. Louise went back to her work, thinking of Madame. Madame was gentle and didn’t talk very much, and when she did there was nothing to be added to what she had to say.
Now the rest of the vegetables had to be washed. She didn’t find it unpleasant to plunge her hands into the cold water. The sink was near a window, and as she worked she could look out onto the street. It was a fine sunny day, and Louise would have liked to go for a walk. She’d do that in the evening, when her work was all done and her little girl had gone to bed. She would stroll along the street, taking her time; she would go into a café and spend seventy-five centimes; she might even spend one franc twenty-five and sit at a table. She enjoyed sitting there, in the midst of so much animation. Men stopped to speak to her, and some of them were really quite nice. When Louise knew that she was free to go out in the evening, she thought about it all day. The cafe wasn’t only a source of amusement; it was a refuge and relief. When she was there, she was in good company.
It was October, and the evenings were cool. She’d look ridiculous in a cotton dress. What she needed was a lightweight coat, a blue one, for instance, with a turned-up Collar that she could button up over her faded dress. Yes, a round, turned-up collar, with a white rep one pinned over it. She’d put on lipstick and fix her hair and look very pretty in a blue coat like that. A man would sit down at her table— Bob, for instance. Yes, she’d have on that coat and she’d run into Bob. Meanwhile, with all these thoughts running through her head, she had let her hands float idle for ten minutes in the water. They were clean and smooth and cold; a little red, but that wouldn’t last for long. They didn’t look as bad as they did after doing the laundry, when they were scrubbed very clean but covered with tiny wrinkles. Louise hurriedly cut up the vegetables and threw them into the saucepan.
Madame came back into the kitchen, with her gloves on, ready to go out. While she gave directions for lunch, Odette stood up against her, with her hands on Madame’s coat, hands which like the rest of her were never quite clean.
“You’ll get Madame dirty,”Louise told her.
Madame paid no attention to this, but as she continued to talk she put her arm around Odette and held her close. Louise didn’t dare say anything more. As soon as Madame had gone, Odette said: “You see, I didn’t say anything about the fried potatoes.”
She made a face, bent one leg, held the foot in both hands behind her back and hopped up and down on the other, lifting toward her mother the face of a scrawny and grubby child, a pointed face, paler than Louise’s but with the same delicate features and big, black, almost feverishly burning eyes. Louise gave her a big crushing kiss.
“Go along with you,” she said. “Go look some more at your pictures.”
LOUISE went back to the sink, and from the window she saw Madame walking along the street. Madame had made herself look very pretty; she had on her three-quarter-length coat, a dark blue coat with a round, turned-up collar. She held herself beautifully erect and walked rapidly along until Louise could hardly make her out any more and finally, after one last glimpse, lost sight of her in the crowd. But Louise continued to stare after her, in fascination, with an idle mind. With her eyes still on the street, she called up a succession of images of Madame. Madame in the morning, upon Louise’s arrival, saying in that gentle voice of hers: “Good morning, Louise. How are you?” Madame never said that Louise had done a bad job; she simply raised her eyebrows, smiled, and pointed to a trail of dust under the table. Then there was nothing Louise could do except fetch the broom and start the job over. She felt that there was nothing to say, no excuse. The trail of dust seemed to her abnormal, a blot on the universe which could not be allowed to stay there and defy the proper order of things. Madame coming back to the house and asking in a strangely breathless way: “Didn’t anyone call me?” Or Madame looking at Louise’s hands with an expression in her eyes which was even stranger than that of her voice and saying: “No mail?” Faced with Louise’s empty hands and negative answer, her look would change. No one could say that she seemed sad or disappointed. The words happy and sad simply weren’t appropriate. You could only say: she has this or that look about her. And this one Louise called the “letterand-telephone” look. But what letter and what telephone call, since none ever came? From her look, one might imagine that she had lost a child. Of course, one never knows much about anyone else, but of Madame one knew absolutely nothing. One day, when Madame was ironing something, beside Louise, at the kitchen table, Louise raised her eyes to look at her and said: “Anyone can see from your face how clever you are. . . .” Madame had laughed quite gaily at Louise’s admiration. She had a damp ribbon in her hand and as she stretched it out on the edge of the table to get the wrinkles out she had murmured, no longer laughing, as if to herself: “Intelligence is one thing, and that’s another.”That? What did she mean ? Louise couldn’t understand. But since there were so many things she didn’t understand about Madame, this that simply stood for them all. Madame was intelligent, and, in addition, she was that.
Then there was Madame’s beauty, the beauty that was hers a few minutes ago, when she opened the kitchen door and when she walked down the street. With other women one could pin down the reason for their beauty: their big eyes, shapely lips, or wavy hair. Madame had all these things, but none of them was the reason for her beauty. What was it? Was it that again? It was all too difficult and confusing. Louise wanted to get back to her work; she left the window, only to return and stare out again at the street, all because of the beauty she couldn’t explain and what Madame had said when she was ironing the ribbon and the fact that she didn’t know anything about her. Louise managed to think up a sort of comparison and took quite a fancy to it. She repeated it several times to herself and then said it aloud.
“Madame is as beautiful as a mystery.”
Feeling somewhat relieved, she left the window, filled a pail with hot water, and went about her work.
Madame came back. It all happened very quickly and Louise was left in a daze. She admired Madame’s coal and asked: “Was it very expensive?” Madame laughed and Louise apologized for her question. She wanted one just like it, she explained.
“Well then, Louise, I’ll lend it to you for this evening,” said Madame.
Louise made some sort of protest, but Madame only laughed again and put it on her.
“You’re smaller than I am, so it will be a fulllength coat on you instead of a three-quarter one, that’s all. It’s very becoming.”
“Madame, you’re not like everybody else,” Louise remembered saying. “... For you to lend your coat, to me, it isn’t . . . normal. . . .”
“I don’t need it this evening and you would very much like to have it. What would not be normal would be for me not to lend if to you.”
And, as usual, Louise could find no reply. Now she was standing with the coat folded over her arm, ready to go home.
“Are you taking Madame’s coat with you?” asked Odette.
The strangeness of it all struck her again. As she led the child away she answered: “Yes, it’s to sew up a seam.”
They sat down beside each other to eat their supper. They ate their bread and ham and drank their wine. Odette leaned against her mother’s arm.
“Don’t you want part of my orange, Mother?”
“Yes, you must.”
“Just a quarter, then.”
Louise put away the dishes, undressed Odette, put her to bed, and then waited until she had fallen asleep.
LOUISE walked across the room on tiptoe. Standing in front of the washbasin she combed her pretty brown hair, rolled the curls around her fingers and pushed some of them up on top of her head, according to the latest fashion. She didn’t have any rouge, but she took some lipstick and applied it skillfully to her cheeks. After she had finished fixing her hair and patting on her make-up, she put on the blue coat. There are small satisfactions in certain lives which for a moment give just as much joy as a major miracle. Louise could not get a full-length view of herself in the mirror hung over the washbasin. She climbed on a chair, and now could see herself from the hips to the ankles; the bottom of the coat was full and hung beautifully around her knees. She went noiselessly out and locked the door behind her.
The city was all lit up, and Louise was happy to walk through it. She stopped in front of first one cafe and then another. Amid the bright lights of the city she was searching for something, she did not quite know what. Finally she made her way to the section she knew best and went into the usual cafe. She stepped up to the counter and asked for a cup of coffee. There was a man there, comically rigged out, who went around from bar to bar carrying an instrument made up of a wooden stem and a sardine tin, on which he mimed the playing of a violin, imitating the sound with his lips. He had a tiny green hat on his head, attached by a narrow rubber band to a pear-shaped squeezer in his pocket, and when he pressed on the squeezer the hat bobbed up in a ludicrous manner. Louise joined in the onlookers’ laughter.
Even after the clown had gone, Louise felt happy. She sat down at a table and asked for a glass of cider, which she sipped slowly, watching the people going in and out of the cafe. From behind the counter the barman called out; “You’re looking nifty this evening!” She answered him with a wide smile, which only gradually faded away, and sipped some more cider. The minutes went by, more and more slowly, until time began to weigh upon her. It must be pleasant to wait, when you know someone is coming. Louise bent her head and daydreamed. She felt very pretty — and very lonely. A vague odor came from Madame’s coat, a faint bodily odor, mingled with scent, as if the cloth was impregnated with something of the body that had worn it before. Another heart had beaten in the place where her heart was now beating. Whatever Madame said, the fact remained that she was very kind. There weren’t many women who would have done the same thing. She was kind and beautiful too. Louise could find only these two adjectives to describe her, but she felt that they were inadequate and wished she had others at her disposal. She closed her eyes in order to recapture Madame’s image and better define her, if not in words, at least in her own mind. There were all her distinctive marks: her long, pensive face; her forehead that was perhaps a shade too high; her smile; the fingers, so slender that her rings slipped around them; her big, somewhat weary eyes that saw through everything. . . . If only these dragging minutes were spent waiting for Madame to appear! To be her sister, or her friend, could mean a lifetime of happiness. If only she were to come into the cafe and sit down at the table! “Why are you so sad, Louise?” “I wouldn’t be so sad, if only Bob loved me.” “You mustn’t be sad, Louise. I love you, you know.” They would go out arm in arm; they would talk; they would confide everything to each other. But none of this happened. Louise was quite alone in the world. She had a daughter, of course, but although a child may provide a woman with company, warmth, and a reason to go on living, she is not a comfort, a help: she is a tender burden.
Louise left the bar and walked toward the wholesale market, where Bob was usually to be found This evening she was quite bold enough to run after him, for she knew that she looked too pretty for him to repulse her. . . . She looked in first one cafe and then another, but every time she was disappointed. Bob hadn’t been there, and nobody had seen him. Finally in one place she did get some news. Bob had stepped out with the boss and would be back shortly. She sat down at a table to wait.
When Bob walked in she did not move to signal to him. While he stood at the bar, with a group of friends, she took paper and pencil out of her bag and pretended to be absorbed in some important calculations. Instead of the figures she was jotting down at random, she wished she could write “Bob” or “I love you,” but she didn’t dare, for fear he might come over to the table. Although she continued to scribble numbers, the pencil took matters into its own hands and traced a tiny M at one corner of the paper, then went over it and decorated it with little squibs that were supposed to be stars and flowers, although they didn’t look like either, arranged in a frame of parallel lines in both directions. The whole corner was thus transformed into her alphabet of love. Louise was waiting, but now time no longer dragged. She didn’t mind how far it stretched, since love and joy might be waiting at the other end. And, sure enough, Bob turned around to look at her.
“Well? Are you writing to your sweetheart?” he asked.
She nodded hello lightly and said: “No, I’m doing my accounts.”
He picked up his glass and brought it over to her table, then gave an admiring whistle.
“All dolled up, aren’t you? . . . You’re quite a handsome piece this evening. . .”
“No fooling?” she said pertly.
“What I say goes, doesn’t it?”
The men at the bar had drained their glasses and gone away. Bob let them go and stayed with Louise. She held in her joy for fear he might see it.
“How about going somewhere for some onion soup?” he asked her.
She pretended to think hard for a minute before she answered. “All right.”
When they went into the restaurant they were told to go up to the second floor.
“That’s real style,” said Bob, laughing.
The stairs led directly into a small dining room, where there were only three tables, covered with paper cloths. Louise sat down near a window, while Bob pushed in her chair and said with mock gallantry: “Allow me, Madame. . .”
Louise laughed: She wasn’t hiding her joy now; it echoed in her voice and was written in her eyes and all over her face as she looked tenderly at Bob. He had on his work clothes; his hair was uncombed and he hadn’t shaved, but this untidiness suited him. Because he was young, ruddy-skinned, with a strong and dashing build, he could get away with anything. The soup was hot and good, and they ate it with relish.
A dog appeared at the top of the stairs, hesitated and went down again. Probably he had left those droppings under a chair, which Bob couldn’t see from where he was sitting. She burst out laughing, without daring to tell Bob the reason why. Then the idea that she was laughing over a dog’s droppings made her laugh even louder than before. The apparent senselessness of it was contagious and Bob joined in. They were both laughing now, louder and louder, all the while exhorting one another to stop.
Finally Bob said: “That makes me thirsty.”
And he ordered a bottle of red wine. If they were to go on at this rate, they’d soon have spent ten francs. This idea only made them laugh the more. Bob was warm and took off his jacket. He had on a dark blue, short-sleeved shirt, open at the neck and with one button missing. Louise had kept on her coat; she ate carefully, holding her left hand across her chest for a napkin.
Bob paid for the onion soup and the wine. Outside, just in front of the restaurant, Louise bought a bag of fried potatoes. Then they walked away, munching them together. It was beautiful and warm outside, more so than before, or at least so it seemed to Louise.
The fried potatoes were all gone now. Bob had put his arm around Louise and pushed her into the corner of a doorway. She stood one step above him, so that her eyes were level with his. He kissed her very gently and then looked into her face.
“Darling . . .” she murmured. Her voice was tender, expiring, and after the word her mouth remained half open.
Bob kissed her again. He led her away, holding her around the waist and lifting her up a little.
LOUISE slept the heavy sleep of a tired woman whom the dawn cannot awaken. It took the clatter of garbage cans thrown back onto the sidewalk and ihe honking horns of the first buses to arouse her. She stretched out a groping arm, then, in disappointment, pulled the bedcovers up under her chin and lay still, with a strange sadness upon her. Bob wouldn’t be back this evening. It might be days or even months before he returned. He had gone off without so much as a word or a kiss. . . . Oh, all that! . . . There was nothing she could prove, but she had a definite feeling that all this could only mean Bob didn’t love her. But hadn’t she known that all along? What of it? Louise shrugged her shoulders indifferently under the bedcovers and buried her face in the pillow, completely crushed. Why aren’t you my friend, why don’t you tell me the reason for the emptiness I feel in and around me? What am I to do? You have the answer, I am sure of that. “You mustn’t be sad, Louise. I love you, you know. Put your arms around me, Louise. . . . Shall we go to the pictures together?” Between the two of them they’d see how things really were. What things? That she didn’t know. . . . “Put your arms around me . . .”
Behind Louise’s closed eyelids there was the picture of a high, pensive, feminine forehead, with another lower and more obstinate forehead beside it, superimposed until they were only one. Nothing made much difference. Embrace me, no matter who you may be! . . .
“Odette, hurry and get up. You’ll be late for school!”
She took the child to the school gate and then went to her job with Madame. The day began all over. Louise scrubbed and waxed the floor and peeled the vegetables. She stayed late because there was ironing to do. It was four o’clock when Madame said: “I’m hungry. How about you, Louise?”
She pushed away the bedspread that had still to be ironed and cleared some things from the table.
“Just set the kitchen table. I’ll have something to eat in here with you.”
Louise was happy to obey. Now they sat across from one another and Madame took some jam.
“Aren’t you having any, Louise?”
“No thanks, I like it this way.”
Madame spread the butter and jam, the little knife graceful in her long, slender fingers, and ate the bread. Louise dipped hers in her coffee and ate very slowly, with a vague expression in her eyes.
It wasn’t late, but the light coming through the windows was already dim. Summer was gently declining. Tomorrow would bring in the autumn, a long train of days, and the lifetime that lay ahead. A slow, everyday life, stripped of all hope, going on just as it had gone before. But there was still this minute when Louise felt good, here, with Madame. Perhaps Madame would say something before this minute died.
Translated from the French by Frances Frenaye