After that no one even looked up at my window, though I counted over sixty heads--scarves, berets, hats drawn down against an invisible wind--but I felt their studied, curious indifference. They had matters of importance to consider, said their hunched shoulders and lowered heads. Their feet dragged sullenly at the cobbles like the feet of children going to school. This one has given up smoking today, I knew; that one his weekly visit to the cafe, another will forgo her favorite foods. It's none of my business, of course. But I felt at that moment that if ever a place were in need of a little magic ... Old habits never die. And when you've once been in the business of granting wishes, the impulse never quite leaves you. And besides, the wind, the carnival wind, was still blowing, bringing with it the dim scent of grease and cotton candy and gunpowder, the hot sharp scents of the changing seasons, making the palms itch and the heart beat faster.... For a time, then, we stay. For a time. Till the wind changes.
* * *
We bought the paint in the general store, and with it brushes, rollers, soap,
and buckets. We began upstairs and worked down, stripping curtains and throwing
broken fittings onto the growing pile in the tiny back garden, soaping floors
and making tidal waves down the narrow, sooty stairway so that both of us were
soaked several times through. Anouk's scrubbing brush became a submarine, and
mine a tanker that sent noisy soap torpedoes scudding down the stairs and into
the hall. In the middle of this I heard the doorbell jangle and looked up, soap
in one hand, brush in the other, at the tall figure of the priest.
I'd wondered how long it would take him to arrive.
He considered us for a time, smiling. A guarded smile, proprietary, benevolent; the lord of the manor welcomes inopportune guests. I could feel him very conscious of my wet and dirty overalls, my hair caught up in a red scarf, my bare feet in their dripping sandals.
"Good morning." There was a rivulet of scummy water heading for his highly polished black shoe. I saw his eyes flick toward it and back to me.
"Francis Reynaud," he said, discreetly sidestepping. "Curé of the parish."
I laughed at that; I couldn't help it. "Oh, that's it," I said maliciously. "I thought you were with the carnival." Polite laughter; heh, heh, heh.
I held out a yellow plastic glove. "Vianne Rocher. And the bombardier back there is my daughter, Anouk."
Sounds of soap explosions, and of Anouk fighting Pantoufle on the stairs. I could hear the priest waiting for details of Mr. Rocher. So much easier to have everything on a piece of paper, everything official, avoid this uncomfortable, messy conversation....
"I suppose you were very busy this morning."
I suddenly felt sorry for him, trying so hard, straining to make contact. Again the forced smile.
"Yes, we really need to get this place in order as soon as possible. It's going to take time! But we wouldn't have been at church this morning anyway, monsieur le curé. We don't attend, you know." It was kindly meant, to show him where we stood, to reassure him; but he looked startled, almost insulted.
It was too direct. He would have liked us to dance a little, to circle each other like wary cats.
"But it's very kind of you to welcome us," I continued brightly. "You might even be able to help us make a few friends here."
He is a little like a cat himself, I notice; cold, light eyes that never hold the gaze, a restless watchfulness, studied, aloof.
"I'll do anything I can." He is indifferent now that he knows we are not to be members of his flock. And yet his conscience pushes him to offer more than he is willing to give. "Have you anything in mind?"
From Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Copyright Joanne Harris 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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