The Silent Sin

From Chapter VIII

In late December I woke to find a thin layer of ice on the water in my washjug. When I pressed down on it, my fingers broke through easily, as if it were a layer of partly congealed fat on a pot of broth. It worried me: I had no heating in my room and the coldest months were yet to come. But that day, before I had a chance to mention it, Monsieur laid two extra blankets on my bed. Like me, he must have been feeling the cold at night.

His solicitousness was comforting and I used the blankets that same evening. Before going to bed - after working all day I was often too tired to read or write to Suzanne - I drank my mug of hot aniseed milk and dripped poppy oil on my forehead in the hope of falling asleep sooner. I arranged some old rags on the windowsill to block the draught. Outside it was quiet: the city gates were closed, the streets were deserted and the windows were all shuttered. I began the night on my side. Many others had slept on this mattress before me and curling my body around the sag in the middle was the only way to avoid waking up with backache. The blankets weighed down on me like a mound of soil. As usual I did not fall asleep immediately, but lay there thinking about the events of the day, even though nothing special had happened. The vegetables had been expensive. I had burnt my fingers on the stove. At the fish market I had once again failed to strike up a conversation. Monsieur had skipped a meal - and that when I am so happy to see him eat.

I rolled over onto my other side and imagined us talking in front of the fire. It had not happened again since that one occasion, but thinking about it had become one of my rituals. I knew it wasn't wise, but my imagination was too strong for me. At night I was unable to recall what we had really said or not said to each other, whereas in the daytime our conversation was still clear in my memory. I found myself fantasising about things that could not possibly happen in reality, things I would rather not specify. At the same time I tried to force myself to think of other, more practical matters. I knew that I mustn't delude myself. For Monsieur I was simply a maid. He wouldn't go out to take the air with a monkey either. Sometimes women who were interested in him would come into the shop and insist on being served by him personally instead of Peter. Monsieur had plenty to choose from. But then I told myself: I am the only woman he sees often and the only one he speaks to for more than a few minutes at a time.

When my thoughts ran away with me, I would get out of bed and say a prayer in the hope of calming myself. “…and through this night, watch o'er me till morning light.” I kept repeating that sentence, just as I had as a child, hoping to recover the sense of security I had felt at that time. Often I prayed to the Lord for happiness for Monsieur and Suzanne as well. I wished that she might find an appropriate partner to share her life with and hoped that she too had a bed of her own to rest in, and enough blankets to keep her warm. I couldn't help but wonder whether a stranger would be able to bear the discomforts she caused.

For years I shared a bed with her and more than once she slapped me in the face with a limp hand when turning over or kicked me in the shins while writhing in her sleep and calling out names: great-aunt's or the name of some man. I was seven years her senior and, because of that, it seemed to me that all the things that had happened to us must have been worse and harder to understand for her than they were for me. I had been able to bask in the warmth of our family for longer. My education had been completed. On top of that, I hadn't been subjected to the confusion of a man abruptly breaking his promise of marriage once it became clear that the dowry had gone up in flames with our house. I felt sorry for her and, when she started thrashing again in the night, I tucked up my legs and waited patiently for her to stop kicking.

Despite all the inconveniences I had put up with, I missed our whispered conversations and the warmth of our two bodies under the blankets. I felt more at ease with her beside me. Not because I was afraid of prowlers or anything like that, no, it was because of certain longings that had arisen within me in my solitude and grown more and more urgent the longer it lasted. Stubbornly, I tried to turn my thoughts to something else.

Meanwhile I could hear Monsieur in the reception room, singing quietly to himself and pacing back and forth. He enjoyed working late into the night when there was no risk of being interrupted by a customer wanting to chat to the son of Andreas de Malapert. He sang low, then suddenly high, as if imitating an entire orchestra and switching rapidly from a bass instrument to a flute. He had once told me that if he concentrated while reading a score he could hear the music in his head, as if it were being performed before him. To me that seemed extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, but he claimed that it wasn't that hard. He said it was like imagining a palace that only existed as a builder's drawings.

Although the extra blankets kept me warmer than I had been the night before, I still felt cold. The muscles in my back grew stiff and my feet seemed to be slowly freezing. Despite that, I made no attempt to rub them warm. In bed I touched myself as little as possible and avoided adopting positions that were anything less than honourable. Again I tried to think of something else. In my thoughts I told myself: Buy a new overskirt, one made of thick fabric. And if you have enough money left for a lined jacket afterwards, look for a greyish-green that matches your eyes. I thought of the wages I had received for my first six months and the bonus Monsieur had given me. Soon, come Christmas and New Year, there might be gratuities as well. I didn't want to spend my money at once and was determined to save at least some of it. Unfortunately, thinking about such things was almost no help at all.

I knew very little about my body. Once, when I was thirteen, I had tried to talk to my mother about it when we were sitting together on the bench in front of our house. Her answers to my first questions were curt and her wording was uncharacteristically formal. She called the body, for instance, “the temple of the Holy Ghost”, something that belonged not to me, but to Him. It was an expression she often came back to: “Those who defile a body commit a terrible theft. Whether it be their own body or someone else's, it doesn't matter. They have stolen something from God. They besmirch the soul and that is something that must be prevented at all cost, because how else can the Holy Ghost live there?”