Corner of the Sky
The building works did not keep Laforêt busy through Easter, unfortunately. Feuilly came home after a day of five and six colour borders only to find a few additions to the pile of wood and broken chairs that had sat for three weeks. The additions appeared to mean the end of the contract.
Laforêt was looking thoughtfully at the mess. “Can you come straight back here after mass tomorrow?” he asked without any other greeting. “I’ll need your help stringing the bed.”
“That’s what this is?” Feuilly asked, pleasantly surprised. He had assumed it was some preparation for more “projects” of an unknown nature, collected early for when unemployment would again descend, as he expected it had now done. The pieces of a bed would explain some of what had just been piled up. At least Laforêt’s late earnings had begun to match Feuilly’s expenditures if he’d bought a bedstead.
“It will be if I don’t fuck it up. If I don’t do anything fancy, it can’t take that long to knock something together.”
“I know nothing about any of this sort of thing,” Feuilly reminded him.
“You don’t need to. I’ll get these cut and bolted together while you’re at mass, then I should just need you to hold the rope taut while I string. Full bedstead by tomorrow night, if all goes as planned.”
Cut? Looking more closely at the pile of wood, Feuilly realised, “You’re building it from scratch?”
“You’ve seen what half-rotted shit is going for. I got a deal on the wood from my last employer.”
“Appropriated from work since you finished early?”
“I’m back in a bit next week, but the holiday, well, you know. I did pay up fair and square for some of this. But I may have implied it was a favour to Ada,” he admitted.
Feuilly had to laugh. How was he suddenly the one on the straight and narrow? “And the chairs?”
“Cash money. Lampin at Deslandes’ shop pointed me to a junk man.” Deslandes was one of the chairmakers for whom Laforêt had hauled wood. Somehow, Laforêt had gotten in very well with the turners despite his training as a joiner, a friendship of great benefit through the dreary winter. “They aren’t worth much with the seats completely broken out.”
“Not to us, either.”
“They’re good to me now. Wait a couple of weeks. Once this ends and I have time, you’ll see what else can be done with them.”
Feuilly returned from Palm Sunday mass to find the floor a mess of wood chips and sawdust, Laforêt scraping the end of a long piece of wood into a tongue, using the broken chairs as a sawhorse. “It’s taking a little longer than I expected. A couple more hours, maybe, before I can drill, then this’ll go together really fast. You could have had dinner with Mlle Sophie after all,” he apologised.
“No, I couldn’t. There was no invitation to decline.” There had not been one since Tłusty czwartek, and Feuilly kept vacillating over if it was for the best. Sophie cared something for him, it seemed, but perhaps Pan Wojciech was growing suspicious as the nature of that affection. Or was inviting M. Bahorel in his place - better a rich Frenchman than a poor Frenchman if it had to be a Frenchman at all. M. Kalinowski had not seemed to want to take Sophie himself, regardless of how much he had praised her beauty and education. Despite his exile, or his fraternising with the exiles, he could probably find a bride with a dowry. “What can I do to help?”
“That you won’t ruin?” Laforêt joked. “See the posts?” He pointed to a neat layout of four pieces of wood with slots carved into their sides. “Take a file and smooth out the top and bottom edges so they don’t catch on anything.”
“Like this?” Feuilly confirmed, holding the rasp at an angle but not daring to make any move that could ruin all Laforêt’s hard work.
“And the bottoms, too,” Laforêt approved.
Laforêt worked with practised ease, while Feuilly felt every move he made was awkward. Scraping floors had felt easier. Laforêt had to stop his own work a couple of times to correct him, for which he apologised perhaps too profusely.
“The apprentices are usually younger, but that’s not why they aren’t any better on their first day. We were all worse than useless once.”
“Thanks,” Feuilly told him sarcastically.
Laforêt laughed. “You’re a lot better than useless. Just keep the strokes going like that and not too much pressure. It’s just like having a wank - you’ll know when it feels right.”
It was sunset by the time everything was swept up and the frame was bolted into place. Then Laforêt pulled it to pieces again, to Feuilly’s surprise. “Help me wax it - this needs to go back before anyone notices.” He had borrowed a jar of wax polish in anticipation of the day’s activity.
“You are working tomorrow?”
“Under pressure to finish this week, and we don’t get Friday or Saturday. My head is worth a lot more than a jar of polish.”
With much rubbing, the eight pieces that would form the bed were coated in the liquid solution and propped against the wall to dry. “Looks like we’ll have to string it tomorrow night,” Laforêt apologised. “It takes a good six hours to cure. I thought the construction would have been finished a couple hours ago.”
“It’s fine,” Feuilly assured him. “This is really bloody amazing.” He had expected that one day, they would put together some money for an old bedstead, not that either of them would ever own something new. Though the shelves were useful and appreciated, he found a bedstead far more impressive.
Over a late dinner, Laforêt explained, “I know it would look better if I knew any of the turners well enough to get lathed posts, but I just can’t abide the idea of used furniture like this, which is all we can afford. A table or chair, that’s one thing, but a bed? They put the mattresses through sulfur, but not so much the bedsteads. Do you know how many bugs could be hiding in one of those things, in the holes where you string the rope? I can’t do it. Not when I could build it myself for the same cost.”
Feuilly had to agree that the smell of freshly cut wood was much nicer than the sulfur had been when they brought the mattress home, even if he felt that such a preference as expressed by Laforêt demonstrated a more effeminate domesticity than he had expected. But he had grown up on the streets and in flop houses and with men who had abandoned all traditions of marriage and family, so perhaps a distaste for a few bugs was ordinary among the educated workers who could strive for a proper home.
Indeed, the following evening when they assembled the bed and strung the mattress support, Feuilly had a much greater satisfaction than when they had brought the mattress home. Here was something brand new, the unpainted wood bright with its shiny coat of wax, that was only theirs, that they had brought into being with their own hands and Laforêt’s ingenuity. Simple as it was, it belonged to them more than anything else in the flat.
“I’ll knock up some seats for the chairs next, then see what I can do for a table,” Laforêt promised as they looked at their carefully made bed with the reverence it deserved. Despite the broken chairs and the leftover chips of wood, the place suddenly looked like what Feuilly had once hoped it might - no longer a fugitive hovel but a respectable dwelling, a proof that they were no longer in exile but had taken a place in society again. “Once there’s a table and chairs, we might have a bit of a party, maybe. A housewarming sort of thing, like the girls sometimes have.”
“Is that a women’s thing, or is it just that women are more likely to have furniture?”
“It’s a thing when a person can afford a couple bottles of wine and has some friends. It’d make up to Ada a bit for all the hammering.”
“She didn’t like the shelves?”
“She liked the ones I put up for her two years ago. She didn’t like the banging when I was putting ours up.”
Easter at last brought Feuilly a reprieve. Pan Wojciech hurried up to him after mass, catching him by the sleeve. “You will break your fast with us, will you not?”
“Isn’t the invitation a little late?”
“You come to the café no more.”
“And the rest of Lent?” Feuilly was not so much belligerent as confused. Palm Sunday had been the time an invitation should have been issued, but instead, Pan Wojciech had merely acknowledged him with a polite nod.
“It is the penitential season. We do not entertain guests.”
“Of course. Forgive me, pan. I am more accustomed to less pious neighbours.”
“It is a degenerate country,” Pan Wojciech agreed. “You will come?”
“Of course,” Feuilly agreed with a smile. Whether or not the excuse was legitimate, the invitation was real. He had been given a reprieve, however impromptu and possibly brief.
They met Sophie near a side chapel, where she waited with a basket. “M. Feuilly will join us,” her father informed her.
Her face lit up, and Feuilly’s heart rose. “I am so glad to hear it. Go on, you need not wait for me.”
“What is she doing?” he asked her father as they walked back to the Chrzyszczewski flat.
“Having our meal blessed. The priests here will not do it on Saturday as they do at home.”
“She will wait to be noticed, then have to come home and start cooking?”
“Oh, no, no. It is only tradition. A few eggs, a loaf of bread, a sugar lamb. We will eat the eggs when she comes. The real dinner is cold, done yesterday, waiting for us like all festival days.” Feuilly had forgotten that for the Chrzyszczewskis, the difference between hot Sunday dinner and cold Sunday dinner was any relevant saint’s day.
Sophie was not long behind them, which surprised Feuilly. “Do they expect you to come now?”
“Abbé Michel was waiting for me.” Her face clouded briefly, but she shook her head and forced a smile. “But the basket has been blessed.” She spread the covering white cloth over the table, then carefully laid out the tiny lamb made of sugar, the loaf of bread, the salt cellar, and eight beautifully decorated eggs. “Please,” she beckoned to Feuilly. “An egg for us all.”
“Who are the rest?” Were there other guests, perhaps a beau for Sophie?
“One for your friend. Even in this country, we thought we might see him at Easter as we saw him at Christmas,” Pan Wojciech told Feuilly.
“M. Laforêt,” Sophie explained. “Please take it to him.”
They had been noticed at Christmas after all? “Are you sure? Is there no one to whom you would prefer it go?”
“It is for M. Laforêt,” she insisted. “I shall hold dinner if you wish to go and fetch him.”
“I haven’t the first clue what he intended to do with himself today,” Feuilly admitted. He had gotten up for mass; Laforêt had rolled over, groaned, and muttered something about it being too damned early for Christ to be risen. Feuilly’s well-intended question as to whether he should see his flatmate after mass had been waved away. The new bed was getting excellent use in its first day off.
“Then take him the egg. It is good fortune for the year, since it has been blessed by the priest. Zosia will take the others to your other comrade and her family tomorrow.” Pan Wojciech then prayed over the eggs one last time, and Sophie handed the most beautifully decorated of them all to Feuilly. “He is risen. Wesolego alleluja.” Their hands touched as he took the egg, and she let her fingers linger in his for a moment.
But only for a moment. Her father was watching. “Wesolego alleluja.” Pan Wojciech cracked open his egg. Sophie did the same. But Feuilly examined his a little more closely. Such an intricate work of art, tiny leaves on vines like some of the wallpapers he had been examining, but on an egg, pale against the deep gold of the dye.
“Did you make these?” he asked Sophie.
“Of course. The men of the house are not permitted to touch the eggs - they will spoil the decoration.”
“It is too beautiful to eat.”
“Eat it you must,” Pan Wojiech ordered jovially. “It is your luck for the year.”
Holy eggs, sprinkled with holy salt, began their feast. Only then did Sophie bring out the ham, the beetroot soup, the pickled cucumbers, and the sweet cake they called sernik, made of soft cheese and sugar, a very odd sort of sweet.
He had been out in the cold for even longer than the forty days of penitence required for Lent, yet the Chrzyszczewskis acted as if none of that time had passed. They politely asked if he had found steady work yet and were pleased by the wallpaper corrections, though Feuilly did not tell them that he expected the real holder of the position to return someday soon. A broken wrist should not entirely end a man’s useful working life.
But it was a pleasant afternoon so long as he set aside his doubts. And it was even more pleasant to find the flat something of a mess when he returned, as Laforêt had taken his holiday as the opportunity to fit seats to the chairs.
“I’m almost done,” he apologised. The air was thick with sawdust, but he had put in a good day’s work, sanding down the old paint and trimming wooden planks to fit over the top of the old rushes that had finally been cut away and were now strewn across the floor. “You can paint them sometime if you like - they’ll take paint very nicely, I think.”
“Here, Sophie told me to give this to you.” He passed Laforêt the carefully etched egg.
“Her father expected better of you. Caught us at mass on Christmas and thought you’d religion enough for Easter.”
“My religion is this,” he claimed, patting his saw, “and that,” pointing to the flask sitting on the mantle, in easy reach.
“Hell with religion. They call it luck for the year.”
“I take the luck gladly.” Laforêt suddenly turned serious. “Thank her for me. I didn’t expect a kindness like that.”
“They had eggs blessed for Mme Pinon’s family, too.”
“Good. Nothing but kindness to it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“How many times have you figured out she won’t marry you, and you hang around her anyway?”
“It’s Easter. Of course I was glad Pan Wojciech invited me to dinner. It’s a feast day. How am I to see an egg for you as a love token for me?”
“A man in love can see anything as a love token.”
Feuilly took a swig from the flask on the mantle. His stolen flask, but filled by Laforêt with a very rough brandy, or at least a strong alcoholic substance possibly related to brandy. “I think it’s from Pan Wojciech, not from Panna Zofia.”
“Trying to address her in her own language is just going to send you further over the edge.”
“I mostly don’t. I address her father in his language. The man likes me, and I like the company he keeps. Yes, politically. Wanting a free Poland won’t get me arrested, so forgive me if I prefer to concentrate on their repression instead of ours.”
“No one agitates for a foreign country unless he’s in love or well paid for his troubles.”
“There’s always Byron.”
“Pfft. Englishmen don’t count. Particularly mad Englishmen.”
“Then I’m already gone, and no egg can push me further over the edge, nor warning bring me back. Do you hear what you’re saying?” Feuilly argued.
“Do you hear what I’m saying?” Laforêt argued back. “She isn’t for any of us, and I don’t particularly want to watch what happens when you finally figure it out. One friend going mad over a woman was more than enough for me.”
“Did he throw himself in the Seine?” Feuilly asked sympathetically, all his annoyance dissipated at this revelation.
“No, but it was a close-run thing, involving a lot of sobbing in the middle of the pont Louis XVI. Right next to Cardinal Richelieu, I think.”
“After everything else I’ve done, a girl not falling in love with me is hardly going to drive me to a bridge. I know she’s not for me, or anyone else. It’s her father’s fault. But that doesn’t mean I should just stop seeing her, or her father. I like that they want me in their company. And she likes me in one sense, so I’m not burdening her the way her father does, bringing people around when she has to do all the work in the house. She’s said as much, that I’m always welcome.”
“And that keeps you going back, ready to be stomped on again.”
Feuilly had not told Laforêt all about Tłusty czwartek, but his annoyance must have been more evident than he had thought. “It was just a feast day. And you were invited, too, if you hadn’t preferred to sleep rather than attend mass.”
“I just hope that stays all it is.” Feuilly took another swig from the flask; Laforêt stared at the egg. “Nice work on the egg, though. Really fancy. Sophie do this?”
“Of course. Not because she’s the artist in the family, but because she’s the woman.”
“Thank her and her father for me next time you see them. Since there’s apparently going to be a next time.”
Feuilly shrugged it off. “Tell me more about what you’re doing to the chairs.” He’d rather hear Laforêt be right about something he was a real expert in rather than a subject Feuilly wished he did not know so much about.
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