Corner of the Sky
Feuilly did not sleep well, and in the morning, he woke with the sun. Colourist. That has to be straightforward. He picked through his attempts at painting and selected his three best - two views of the Luxembourg and a portrait of Lydie. As he was about to leave, he slipped his sketchbook into his pocket, just in case. With his heart in his throat, he made his way through the bustling early morning streets to the address in the advertisement.
The rue Palmiers was a street of warehouses and large workshops, with constantly smoking chimneys and a crowd of people going about their business. He realised immediately that he was dressed improperly yet again - caps far outnumbered tall hats. Nothing for it now, with number 15 straight ahead. It was a narrow building, with many windows in the top floor.
A card at the side of the door said “Cartoux, master fanmaker, third floor”. The stairs were dark and narrow, and Feuilly climbed slowly, becoming more and more nervous with each step. At the top, a flimsy door opened into a long, well-lit room. M. Cartoux had the entire top floor of the narrow yet deep building, and there were windows in gables all along the sides of the roof as well as in the walls in front and rear of the building. Two long tables ran much of the length of the room, with benches along each side, at which an assortment of men and women were working, the early morning light supplemented with hanging lamps.
A middle-aged man with a prominent hooked nose accosted Feuilly. “Who are you?”
“I - I’m looking for M. Cartoux? There was an advertisement. In the Gazette de France.”
“I’m Cartoux. You’re here about the colourist position.” Feuilly nodded. “Come over here.” He beckoned him to a desk in the corner. “What sort of experience have you got?”
“These, monsieur.” He presented his paintings and his sketchbook.
“So you’ve not done this for a living.”
“No, monsieur. I’ve been working in the Temple, for one of the old clothes dealers. But everyone says I’m very good with a brush.”
Cartoux flipped through the sketchbook. “Better with a pen. All of this is yours?”
“What’s your name?”
“Feuilly. Daniel Feuilly.”
“That would have been more appropriate twenty years ago for this business. Ah, well, it is what it is. I pay by the piece, the rate depends on the type of work. You’ll start off with basic tints at three sous a piece. I’ll try you for a week, then we’ll see if I want to keep you on.”
“Thank you, monsieur.”
“Come back tomorrow at 7, prepared to work.”
Feuilly thanked him again. A job! A real job. From someone who knew drawing and liked his work with a pen! Even the heavens seemed to smile on his fortune as the sun appeared properly for the first time in a week, peeking between the tattered grey clouds of Paris in winter. He felt lightheaded in his joy. Mireille had been right. A proper name, honest work - life could still happen. Work with a brush. How lucky that he had been so soundly rejected by the legal profession. What a chance that he had stopped to see Jacquemont. He very nearly danced his way home.
Coming across Lydie in the street, looking frozen and bedraggled after a night of work, he pulled her close and kissed her firmly.
“You’re in a good mood,” she said warily.
“I got a job! Painting!”
“A fanmaker. He says I’ve got real talent with a pen.”
“Of course you do! Good thing he recognised it. So now you’re going to be rich and respectable.”
“Respectable, yes, but I hardly think I’ll be rich. But to paint for a living!”
“That’s lovely, really.” The excitement had already faded from her voice. “Come see me later. I’m dead sleepy, Feuilly.”
“Of course, of course.” But he was disappointed that she cared more for her bed than for his changed circumstances.
He went home and retrieved the rest of the take from his last job from its hiding place. The bits of paste he hadn’t bothered to flog to the jeweler would trade well enough in the Temple, get him appropriate working clothes and, with luck, a new pair of trousers. He owed three francs to Vivienne, but rent was due, and who knew what three sous a fan really meant? The three were set aside, along with the fifteen for the month’s rent.
A few trades later, Feuilly had exchanged his flash wardrobe for something a little more appropriate - a dull short jacket, dark brown trousers, and stiff-soled boots. He kept his gentleman’s boots and tailcoat, however, as it would hardly do to appear in the nicer gardens as the workman he really was. There was no money left to add to his little stock.
He slept poorly in his nervousness, and he ventured forth early to take coffee in the street with his fellow workman. By means of careful delay, he managed to arrive at the workshop just as the church bells signaled the hour. The other workers had already arrived and were setting up for the day under the glow of hanging lamps.
“Your job isn’t to be an artist, understand? If I needed an artist, I’d have advertised for one. You’re a colourist. Colour is your only concern.”
“You come in for the day, you get your paints from that cabinet, and you go straight to work. We work on the cheap stuff at dawn and at dusk; midday, when the light is strong, that’s when the ivory and mother of pearl come out.”
“We work in groups, each person responsible for one colour, that way you don’t contaminate your brush and make the colours muddy. If you fall behind that affects your group’s pay for the day, not just yours.”
“Let’s see.” The tables were nearly full by now. “Aleçon, Laforêt, god only knows if Montant will show up. No, that won’t do. Sophie! Here, Sophie, look after the new man. He’ll join you and Pinon for today.” Two women. The one who had benefit of her Christian name was quite blonde and rather pretty in her way, with rosy full cheeks and round eyes. The other was plainer in all respects - dull brown hair, thin face, narrow mouth, and several years older. “I don’t hold with fraternisation, it’s strictly surnames around here for man and woman, but if you can pronounce Sophie’s name, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Foreigners,” he muttered as he wandered back to his desk.
“Sit here,” Sophie told him. “You can do the background.” Her voice was low, from the throat.
Feuilly took a seat and a brush. “What is your name?”
She smiled. “Chrzyszczewska. My father and I came from Poland some years ago.”
The design was terribly intricate. He had seen fans, certainly, but he had never looked at them closely. They were feminine things of no value to Jacquemont, no other use in the materials, so carefully carved and pierced and painted, when anyone could tell you a penny broadsheet would do just as well.
“Careful, you’re going a little too dark,” Mlle Pinon warned.
“Relax. You’ll never make it all day if you are so tense. And if you relax, you will have a lighter touch,” Sophie said kindly.
He tried. It was odd to be in a place of comfortable warmth and natural quiet. Carts rolled by in the street, people shifted in their seats or got up to get more montures or stretch their backs, the fire popped from time to time, but there was no buzz of conversation, no clatter of metal, no shouts from the foreman. Yet there was no fear, either, no sense that these people were desperate, that a hundred more could replace them at a whim. And when M. Cartoux put the lights out and opened a second crate, Feuilly saw why. He had been hired as a colourist. Others were inlayers, cutting and fitting mother of pearl into tortoiseshell. He continued to work with Mlle Pinon while Sophie set up an entire palette. She was a miniaturist, carefully copying nymphs into the medallions split across several sticks. Every person was an artist of some sort, and watching classical silks flow from Sophie’s nimble fingers, Feuilly felt the full measure of his luck. That he had been chosen to work among such people - his attempts at art had been very good indeed.
“Keep up, keep up,” Mlle Pinon muttered at him. “Some of us have rent to pay, can’t afford your dawdling.”
He redoubled his efforts but soon grew sloppy. M. Cartoux pulled him aside. “Walk if off. Take some water. I’ve never seen a new man that didn’t beg for a break. We’re not machines; we won’t bit your fingers off if you don’t keep up. But don’t fuck up the merchandise!”
Feuilly did as he was told. Watching the carts outside helped the headache forming behind his eyes. And he did catch up while Mlle Pinon took a few minutes for a midday meal. But Sophie worked on. She did not work quickly - she studied the ivory sticks as she worked, careful to keep them identical, mindful of how they would overlap when the ribbon was threaded at last. When her nymphs were finished, Mlle Pinon filled in the guard while Feuilly caught up again with his cheap wooden models.
At the end of the day, Sophie glided off into the night. Feuilly wanted to follow her, but he was exhausted. So much detail. His right hand was sore from gripping the brush too tightly. He went straight to bed, not even stopping for a bite of bread or a cup of watery soup on the corner.
The next day was better. He knew what he was doing. Mlle Pinon did not look daggers at him at all. But the pretty Sophie had no time for him.
On the third day, he and Mlle Pinon finished the final crate of that pattern around noon. She pulled him outside to sit on the stairs with her while she ate a bit of bread as a midday meal.
“You’re doing well. He’ll keep you on, I’m sure.”
“Not everyone lasts a week?”
“Not everyone lasts a day. What’s your story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Feuilly. Too apt to be true, that name. How’d you end up here?”
“I draw and paint. Saw the advertisement in a right-wing rag. Came to check it out. Why does everyone comment on my name?”
“Back in the day - under the Directory was the last gasp, I think - fans were made of silk attached to the sticks. The silk was called the feuille. Not that there’ve been silk fans in twenty years. You were probably born as they went out of fashion.”
“How do you know so much?”
“My mother was a colourist in the silk days. For M. Cartoux’s father. After the twins were born, I needed something that’d pay a bit more if I wanted to afford school fees for the boys, so he took me on.”
“You sound surprised.”
“I’ve not known married women. I’ve been an orphan my whole life. What does your husband do?”
“Upholsterer. Funny how he works with a needle and I work with a brush.”
“Fine industries, though. Is M. Cartoux a good master?”
“Good enough. No slave driver, that’s for sure. Wouldn’t have stuck it three years if he were.”
“What do you know of Mlle Sophie?”
“You’ll stay away from her if you know what’s good for you. No good comes of mixing too closely with foreigners. Especially foreigners like her.”
“Her father’s political. So just keep your head down and don’t pay her any mind. She keeps herself to herself and that’s for the best.”
“She very talented, though. I’d like that job someday.”
“Patience. If you’ve got the talent, it’ll happen one day.”
At the end of the day, he was paid six francs and eighteen sous. It was hardly a large payout, but with only four days of work, slow days at that, he was certain could earn at least ten francs the following week. It was good he had set aside the money for rent before embarking on this adventure in honest living. Sophie, yet again, had disappeared into the night.
Less tired that he had been all week, he gravitated to the tavern. He could only afford a bit of wine, but he wanted to see Vivienne and Lydie, to talk about how good - and exhausting - honest work felt.
Viv was proud of him and brought him brandy to celebrate. Lydie came in and slumped at his table. “I haven’t seen you in ages,” she whined.
“I have a new job. I told you.”
“They don’t work you all night.”
“I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s not easy. You’re tired after your work.”
“Well, mine’s rather harder, isn’t it?”
“Are you really saying I don’t work?”
“It’s not that hard for you, is it, sitting with a paintbrush all day?”
“No harder than lying on your back all night,” he snapped.
Her eyes were wide, and she sounded hurt. “What was that for?”
“You don’t take anything I do seriously.”
“That’s not true.”
“You don’t take anything I do legally that doesn’t involve you seriously. I looked forward to seeing you tonight, but you don’t care. You just want me when you want me. God forbid you be happy that I’m doing something I like.”
“I am happy for you. But Mireille said you’d look after me.”
“Can’t do that with the spectre of prison hanging over me.”
“Image, ghost, threat - Christ!”
“You know I’m too stupid to know all your fancy words.”
He apologised half-heartedly. “I thought you might be happy for me.”
“I am,” she insisted. “But what if things go wrong?”
“Then I’m out of work. If things go wrong with Babet, I could end up dead or in jail. Honesty is best. It’s not as if a life of crime has brought me riches.”
“I have to work. Can I come tonight?”
He kissed her softly on the lips. “I’ll leave the latch open.”
Vivienne set a plate in front of him. “On the house. This calls for celebration.”
“I wish Mireille were here to see. She’d be so proud.”
“She would. And she’s say ‘What luck you’ve got! I always said you’d do whatever you wanted.’”
“There’s a girl there - well, there are a few girls - but there’s this one in particular. Rather pretty - not a full beauty like you are, but pretty enough - which is hard enough as it is. Pretty and modest. But here’s the thing - she’s so very talented. I colour in shapes. She paints the most perfect tiny little scenes, almost entirely freehand. And I have to sit next to her every day. It’s torture!”
Viv sat down across from him. “Is it because she’s pretty or because she’s talented?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met anyone like her.”
“What about Lydie?”
“I’m not in love. I don’t know what I am, but I’m certainly not in love.”
“She’s a nice girl, really. Don’t be so hard on her.”
“I know. I just wish she could be happy for me. Mireille would have been so pleased.”
“I think she is. It’s just her way, expecting disappointment.”
Lydie woke him when she slid into his bed late that night. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, her face buried in his shoulder. “I’m happy if you’re happy.” They made love until dawn.
The work went better the longer he was there, but the rest of his life fell apart.
“A little bird told me you got yourself a job,” Babet said one Saturday night. “Didn’t you learn last time you’re not too good for us?”
Feuilly told him to fuck off. He was only there to wait for Lydie, so he had no reason to talk to Babet and no patience to stay. But he was out of sorts when she came to him that night. “Do you think I’m too good for you?”
“You always have been.” They made love anyway, but she wouldn’t go to mass with him in the morning.
He started attending a different mass every week. On Ash Wednesday, he ran in late, having misjudged the length of the queue for blessings, but M. Cartoux merely nodded him in - it had been a right-wing advertisement he’d answered, after all. He was pleased to see that Mlle Sophie, alone of all the rest, had the cross on her pale forehead. There was a solidarity between them, he thought, now that they were proved the only devout Catholics in the workshop. But still she did not speak to him, and he lost wages that week because his tardiness put him behind.
On Palm Sunday, he accidentally discovered where she went to church. His many ventures had made him braver, and he no longer huddled at the rear of every church he entered. After the service, he turned and discovered her behind him. He nodded in acknowledgement, but she unexpectedly began to speak.
“M. Feuilly! I was certain that was you. You are of this parish?”
“No,” he admitted. “I have no parish. I like seeing the different churches, hearing the different priests.”
“How sad, to be a traveler in your own city. You have no family?”
He shook his head. “My mother died at the new year.”
“I am sorry. My mother died in the winter, too, but many years ago. This is my father, Wojciech Chrzyszczewski.”
“In this country, M. Albert.” His accent was stronger than his daughter’s. “My daughter speaks of you often.” Feuilly flushed at the compliment.
“You should come to dinner,” Sophie said.
“M. Cartoux forbids fraternisation.” It sounded harsh, so he tried again. “I need this job. Please forgive me.”
“Of course. Forgive me for my presumption.”
“Not at all.” Feuilly bid them good day and fled. At work, they made no mention of their encounter, yet Feuilly found himself going back to that church for the Easter service. He stayed in the back, however, and left quickly.
Lydie came to sleep with him one night, but all they did was sleep, and he woke her early, leaving her in the street as he went to work.
Sophie barely acknowledged him, but whether because she thought him rude or because she followed Cartoux’s orders in his presence, Feuilly did not know. It pained him, but he did not know how to satisfy both his needs and his desires.
Cartoux pulled him aside one day after work. “You interested in some extra work?” Feuilly answered affirmatively. “I’ve got a friend. Runs a print shop. Has a small run he doesn’t quite trust to his usual colourists.”
“Is this illegal, monsieur?”
“I wouldn’t call it - well - it’s not strictly on the up-and-up, let’s say. You don’t have a problem with naked women, do you?”
“Of course not. I would appreciate the work.”
“I’ll have the sheets for you tomorrow. On your own time, with your paints, mind.”
He got a franc a piece for them, fifty sheets in all. They took up a whole month of Sundays, and Lydie was furious, but fifty francs - an extra month’s wages. So what if Lydie was angry.
At the end of May, without telling anyone, he gave up his room and took unfurnished lodgings closer to the workshop - and closer to the church Sophie and her father attended. His fifty francs bought him a proper bed, a cupboard, and a table with all four legs; he stole the rickety chair from his previous dwelling.
But he delayed breaking his final ties to the old neighbourhood. He couldn’t remember anywhere else - his earliest memories, assuming grass and his mother were merely a dream, were of Mireille and Vivienne. His whole life had been lived there. But now it was over.
The moment he entered the street, he heard Lydie call his name. “I’ve looked everywhere for you!”
“I moved,” he answered bluntly.
“And didn’t tell me?”
“Why does your voice rise at the end as if it were a question?”
Lydie’s face fell. “You needn’t be so short. You’re a real ass, you know.”
“Took you long enough to notice.”
“Why are you even here if you aren’t here for me?”
“I owe Viv some money. Nice girl, Viv. Honest living. Notions of marriage,” he added cruelly.
“You wouldn’t,” Lydie told him haughtily.
“Ask her to marry you. She’s an old maid already. And you promised Mireille you’d marry me.” She looked at him in triumph. Ass or not, he had always kept his promises.
“Is that what she told you the night she died?”
“You promised her you’d marry me.”
“I promised her I’d look after you!”
“And a fine job you’ve done.”
“I gave you a choice. You chose to be a whore, and Mireille knew I’d never choose to be a pimp.”
She was suddenly quiet. “So you’re here to see Viv.”
“Oh, don’t look like that! I told you, I owe her some money. I’m paying back the last from Mireille’s funeral.”
“I’m sure I believe that.”
“Believe what you like. I’m done with this nonsense. We were children, Lydie. It was nice while it lasted. But I’ve grown up. It’s time you did, too. This isn’t my future. It never was. I sure as hell don’t want to marry Viv and serve the criminal classes the rest of my life. I’m an honest man now. I couldn’t have you for a wife.” He hadn’t meant to be cruel in the end, but he couldn’t seem to avoid it anymore.
“I see how the wind blows. You’ve got a new girl.” He flushed, and she grabbed the upper hand. “Does she let you paint her naked?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. You weren’t even special in that.” Not that Sophie bore any resemblance to the pornographer’s model, but naked women were naked women, and he had honestly painted one.
“As long as it’s not Viv!”
“What would you do if it were? Scratch her eyes out?” he mocked.
“Gladly,” he replied coldly. Best to have it all out, he told himself. Did Mireille really promise marriage? Or is that Lydie’s interpretation of “Feuilly will take care of you?” Not that it mattered - even if she did turn to honest work, he could still never marry her.
“Viv!” he called up to a window where he saw a carpet snap like a long green tongue.
“Feuilly?” her excited voice called down. “It’s been too long! Just go in the kitchen; I’ll be right in!”
Her father greeted him with his usual glare, and Viv quickly pulled him away to the stairwell. “How’ve you been?” She looked at him the way he remembered her looking at the confidence man - it felt as if he had just given her the drawing yesterday, and yet he had been arrested two years ago.
“I’m well.” He found himself stroking her cheek like a proper lover. “I brought the three francs I still owe you. And a warning. I ran into Lydie on my way here. I told her I had a new girl to keep her off my back. You’ll probably hear of it. But it isn’t true.”
“So nothing has happened with that girl at the workshop.”
“Nothing can ever happen unless one of us gets a job somewhere else. I just need Lydie off my back. I can’t do what she wants, and I can’t bear to watch her sink further. It’s pretty well good and dead now. And there’s no Sophie. Or anyone else, for that matter. Is that all right, that there isn’t a me and you, either?” he added gently.
“I never expected a marriage proposal, Feuilly. Who’d want to chain himself to this place?”
“It’s not that.”
“No chains at all for you, is that it? Or are you finally admitting I’m fat and ugly and much too old?”
“Never,” he insisted. “I said you were a Rubens, and I mean it. You are beautiful. But no chains. I can’t climb if I’m not free. I’ve got work with a brush, in any case. I’ve begun. Can’t give in to a wife and brats.”
“Dear god. Brats. Maybe I will be an old maid.”
“You’ll be a fine one.”
“You sound so final.”
“I don’t think I’ll see you again.”
“Just like that?”
“I have to break with this place completely if I’m ever going to do better. You’re the only honest person I know in this neighbourhood. I have to say goodbye.”
“I once thought I loved you.”
“You love every pretty face.” He had meant it as a joke, but the words caught in his throat. “Goodbye, Viv.” He kissed her forehead and slipped a five franc piece into her apron pocket with the dexterity of a pickpocket. She could find it when he was gone.
Part 18 ~ Fiction ~ Part 20 ~ Home