Corner of the Sky
In the light of day, it was easier to see why the room was only costing fifteen francs a month. The roof was intact, but the windows - one a bull’s-eye, the other a fine, large, square dormer - did not open. The walls were covered in flaking whitewash over peeling wallpaper. Feuilly felt all around the low ceiling above the windows, into the dormer itself, but there appeared no obvious leaks. Dampness usually would have made bubbles under the paper that would finally burst, but the peeling occurred only at the top of a couple walls, as if the glue had been less thickly applied up there. The overall effect, in the plentiful grey winter light, was profoundly depressing. But Laforêt’s presence was something of a comfort - it was hard to concentrate on heavy thoughts with another living being in the room.
Feuilly tried to shake some of the dust from his blanket as he folded it - the first order of business had to be to get a broom and a bucket. “I already tried,” he told Laforêt, who was trying to open a window. “And it would be rude to just piss in the courtyard the first morning.”
“Bloody hell.” He thrust his feet into his boots and took off down the stairs.
“Hey, you got the key?” Feuilly shouted down after him.
“You’ll let me back in, right?”
“Bastard,” Feuilly muttered. Turning back to the flat, he thought he saw one of the other doors open the slightest crack and rather hoped it was not Laforêt’s girl verifying that she had indeed recognised the voice.
Laforêt was back soon enough, though, looking sheepish. “First thing, maybe we need a chamberpot.”
“And a bucket. And a broom. I don’t think the bull’s-eye has any hinges.”
“Is the other just painted shut?” He went over to examine the frame himself.
“Just let it alone. It’ll be a bigger worry come summer if we’re still here.” Feuilly had to sit down for a moment - the room was starting to sway a little.
Laforêt wandered up and down, making his own examinations. Feuilly was unsure how many passes he took before asking, “Did you eat yesterday?”
“Yes,” Feuilly answered defensively. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Takes a couple days to get used to short rations, that’s all.”
Laforêt strode the two steps across the hall and knocked. Feuilly, in his utter embarrassment, could easily hear the neighbour girl ask, “What in the hell do you want?”
“Good morning, Ada. It’s a pleasure to see you.” They must have rowed fiercely, Feuilly thought, from the false cheeriness in Laforêt’s voice. “It’s not for me; it’s for my friend. Have you got anything in there? Wine? Crust of bread? Sip of water? He didn’t eat yesterday and I think he’s going to pass out.”
“I am not going to pass out,” Feuilly tried to shout, though the shadows were closing in fast. He closed his eyes. They would pass in a moment, then he could make it down the stairs. What had he eaten the day before? He couldn’t remember. Probably only a bit of bread. “I didn’t think moving in with you meant I was getting someone’s bloody mother,” he muttered at the approaching footsteps. Sounds were starting to echo. He took a deep breath. It would pass in a moment.
Then he heard the rustle of a skirt. “Well, let’s see what mess you’ve got yourself, Thierry. Pick yourself up a girl? Oh lord, you’re white,” the girl suddenly exclaimed. She fell to her knees at Feuilly’s side and pressed a cup into his shaking hand. “It’s wine. Sip it slowly.” The alcohol burned in his empty stomach, but a couple of sips did chase away the shadows so that he could see clearly. The girl was probably their own age, her blonde hair falling over her shoulder in a single plait - Laforêt had likely interrupted her dressing. She could not compare to Sophie in beauty, but she was not unattractive. “I’m called Ada.”
Feuilly managed to thank her. “I’m fine. Thank you.” Indeed, the shadows were entirely gone, replaced by the expected headache.
“Drink it all, dear. You moved in last night? How do you know Thierry?”
“We worked together.”
“Worked. In the past tense.” She turned on her former lover. “What happened? Why are you here?” Her questions came out stiffly, each word enunciated in barely controlled anger.
“Cartoux had to close up shop. Made sense to save some money, consolidate households.”
“It didn’t make sense to move in across the hall from me!”
“For fifteen a month, where else can we get anything half as good?”
“The windows don’t open,” she told him in the superior tone of one who thinks herself a good judge of quality.
“We figured that out ourselves.”
Feuilly made it to his feet. “Thank you, mademoiselle. I’m sorry to have put you to any trouble.”
“He can stay,” Ada announced to Laforêt. “He has manners. I’m not so certain about you.”
“You’re not the landlady. Mère Fablet has our month’s rent anyway.”
Whatever row had parted them, it had neither healed nor entirely broken the attraction. Feuilly knew these rows, the shouting that spilled out into the streets, sometimes ending in the couple making up against the wall of an alley, the woman’s screams of rage softened into groans of pleasure. The sort of argument where a stranger was out of place for fear it would end. He found the key on the mantle and slipped it in his pocket. “I’m getting a copy of the key made. Yes, I’ll eat something,” he added before either of them could mother him again.
The cold, damp air outside chased any lingering shadows away. The shutters were off the shop windows now, and a man was setting up a work table under a hanging lamp. Feuilly took a moment to piss into the gutter before walking over to the market.
The rue Quincampoix was behind the Halle, and that was where Feuilly directed his steps. The fishmongers’ auction had just finished, the buyers still carting their wholesale purchases to their stands, when he entered the market. The noise was overwhelming to his aching head, but he could spend a few centimes on an apple or two and a bowl of coffee and wait for a locksmith he knew to open up. Gransard was rarely awake before nine.
“I need a key copied, as soon as possible.”
“What do you of all people need a key for?” Gransard was probably the source of the false key Babet intended to use for the jeweler job.
“I’d rather not break into my own damned flat every day.”
“So you’ve got a girl in there now? Congratulations.”
Feuilly let him think whatever he liked. “When can I pick up the copy?”
Gransard took an impression in wax and handed back the original key. “Tomorrow?”
“Come on, that’s the best you can do for a comrade?”
“I’ve got jobs in front of you, you know.”
“Tonight. I’ll come by late. When the cafés close.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Laforêt was gone when Feuilly returned to the flat, so he knocked at Ada’s door. “He’s at the Robillard,” she told him before he even had a chance to ask.
“I just wanted to thank you for this morning.” With an apologetic smile, he offered her an apple. “I don’t usually meet the neighbours through fainting spells.”
“Shouldn’t you be the one eating this?” But she took it anyway.
“I had a couple already. I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot. Daniel Feuilly.”
“Ada Chollet. I should get back to work.”
“Of course. I should, too. You wouldn’t have a broom I could borrow by any chance, would you?”
She gave him a strange look. “I do.” But she handed it too him and closed the door without further comment.
Feuilly shrugged it off. Whatever she must think of him from the events of the morning did not matter. He usually never met his neighbours in any case.
He did catch her watching him some time later, as he pushed his piles of dust toward the open door. “I’ve never seen a man sweep out his own flat.”
“Laforêt lived in abject filth?”
“I never visited his place.”
“There’s no shame in being able to look out for yourself, if that’s what you’re implying. The place may be empty for a while, but it doesn’t have to look like the underside of a bridge. You’ve seen a man sweep out a workshop or a café before, haven’t you?”
“Of course,” she answered defensively. “But you’re a little old - or a little young - to be pushing a broom without making an utter hash of it.”
“I suppose you don’t carry your own water, being a little too old - or a little too young - to stoop to heavy labour.”
She flushed. “Point made, monsieur.” She disappeared back into her flat after that, leaving Feuilly somewhat disappointed. She obviously thought him effeminate, and he couldn’t really blame her after the way he had made her acquaintance, but she had been company of a sort.
Most of the dust brushed out into the hall, he looked again at the windows. Why there was a bulls-eye on the courtyard side made no sense to him, but it did explain why the room was as large as it was - it would have been an invitation to destruction to rent a room in which the only window did not open, and it was too expensive to replace a perfectly whole window with something with cheap hinges that would probably leak. The other was only painted shut, and Feuilly cursed the police for having stolen his knife. What had the previous family done with their slops? he wondered. The walls had certainly not been repainted in months, more likely years. Laforêt could deal with it if he had his own tools, Feuilly decided.
By the time he arrived at the café Robillard, it was busy with local workmen taking a mid-day break. Laforêt introduced him to a thin, gingery man whose name Feuilly promptly forgot. When the gingery man left, Feuilly handed over the key. “I’ll pick up the copy late tonight. I’ll probably be in after that, but I’ll know the actual plan tonight. Oh, and the square window is just painted shut, so if you’ve anything sharp, you can loosen it yourself. The coppers kept my knife, remember?”
“You’re going already? You just got here.”
“Need to see about a job, don’t I?”
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Yes. I don’t need you to mother me,” he muttered. “And don’t worry, I’ve got a girl who I think will give me dinner tonight.”
“See you tonight, then.”
Feuilly had no idea what he was actually doing. Perhaps Laforêt was right, that work came out of the cafés. But he had promised to run down the miniaturist who had insulted Sophie, and he remembered the printer who did the dirty pictures. The printer might have something for him or know of something.
The printer was named Duret. Feuilly was shunted off to one of the journeymen at first, but he kept insisting on speaking to Duret himself. “No, he doesn’t know me, but he knows my work! I tell you, we’ve friends in common.”
Duret finally came in. “Who the hell are you?”
Feuilly removed his cap and bowed. “Daniel Feuilly. I bring regards from M. Cartoux.”
“What is it?”
“I’m available for work if you need any help.”
“And why would I care?”
“The special plates a few months ago?”
“Oh, that was you! Come in back.”
With the door closed to the shabby office, Duret was somewhat more friendly. “Those sold well. Worth every sou I paid you. The police have been sniffing around, damn them, so I haven’t got anything for you at the moment, but come see me after the new year. I’m told you draw as well?”
“Bring some sketches then.”
“And in the meantime?”
“I don’t mix the two sorts of business.”
Feuilly thanked him and turned to go.
“Why’d Cartoux let you go?”
“Lost his license. He’s selling up what’s left, and we’re all out of work. I’ll see you in a couple of months.”
“Wait, come back next week. I’ll ask around. What did you apprentice at?”
“Nothing,” Feuilly admitted.
“The modern way. Colourist it is then.”
Feuilly bid him good day. He had talents - what did it matter that no one had paid a sum for some man to teach him the things he could easily learn on his own? It was not even reasonable to suggest that he had apprenticed to a locksmith, as he had never been taught how to file a blank key. “The modern way”, Duret had called it. But Feuilly remembered some of the printer’s boys from his youth: they were hooligans who knew how to read, that was all. Boys who knew how to read and had parents willing to pay a fee for their “training”, which consisted largely of learning to curse, to brawl, and to look down on the street boys who did not share their intellectual attainments. Because Feuilly could read, he had been permitted to run with them for a time, to mock the various notices posted around the city and jeer the prettiest actresses before they were forcibly removed from the theatres they had managed to sneak into. But he had gone to work soon after, the sort of work where one swept floors and carried buckets and tended fires, where one hid that one could read and deserved better, if only he had had any money in the first place. Five years later, more or less, and he still found himself behind all the rest, now journeymen, who were permitted to set the type and mix the ink and crank the press, tasks that could be taught in an hour. If the rest of the world would simply catch up with the “modern way”, perhaps there would be more choices for a literate man of talent.
As it was, the miniaturist turned out to be no exemplar of the literate man of talent. He was fat, of middle age, rather greasy, and he seemed to look at everyone as if he were undressing them. Feuilly did not bother to introduce himself, stating directly, “I heard you were looking for an assistant.”
“I’m sorry, no. You must be mistaken.” The man did not look confused at all, as an honest man would should someone come to him with an inquiry based on patently false information. An honest man would wonder who was putting about such information, wonder where the inquirer had gotten his information. But this greasy fellow seemed to know the game.
“Mistaken?” Feuilly asked with feigned innocence. “Perhaps the position was already filled. A friend of mine applied for it but wasn’t selected. I’d be willing to take my clothes off for five francs a day.”
The miniaturist turned beet red. “I think you had better go.”
“Gladly. Lechers like you disgust me. And picking on immigrants is even worse.” The door would not slam, unfortunately, but Feuilly hoped his exit was theatrical enough without it. It was bad enough to have seen a melodrama play out in real life.
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