The Ringmaster’s Daughter – Carly Schabowski

The streets of Paris wound their way around Michel Bonnet as he walked to his small apartment in the 14th arrondissement. The evening sun was reluctant to descend, and the early summer heat clogged the air along with exhaust fumes, dust and garbage. The Seine was a deep green, and Michel stood on the bridge of Pont Neuf, watching it snake its way out of the city. Small boats sluggishly cut a path through the water, as if it had thickened to soup, and people ambled along embankments, unaware of their watcher from above. On one such embankment stood a husband and wife with their small daughter at their heels. Michel watched as the father picked up the child and held her high to see the river and beyond. Suddenly, the child waved, and Michel waved back until the family were out of sight. Michel leaned against the stone of the bridge, still warm from the day’s heat, feeling the chill of the river reaching him from the depths beneath, as dragonflies hummed and skipped over the heavy water, cooling themselves. The broad blue sky was streaked with thin clouds and held no promise of rain. Michel hitched his bag further up his shoulder and continued his journey home, every now and then wiping the sweat away from the back of his neck with his red handkerchief. The warm winds stirred up the dust on the pavements into mini tornadoes that raced towards his shoes, encasing them with a thin layer of city soot, reminding Michel of summers spent in the countryside as a child, when he would chase the dust as it danced down tracks edged with neatly ploughed soil and tall sunflowers. The winds stirred something in Michel too; a feeling akin to when his maman died, which had changed everything so deeply and quickly that Michel had still not realised the full force of it. Michel whispered to the wind to take his love to his mother, to say hello, and that he missed her. Yet the wind whipped by Michel, capturing only a few of his words, so that he was left wondering just what it was his maman would hear. The city should have been busier this time of year – when schoolchildren usually clogged the pavements with their chatter and glee to be free for the summer, and tourists sat politely at cafés sipping iced drinks – yet the city was as dead as if August had come early and its occupants had sought holidays away from the oppressive heat.

Michel noticed that the bars usually frequented by many a rich gentleman were empty, the lone bartender left to wipe away imaginary watermarks from the mahogany bar. Maître d’s stood with waiters, talking, and shaking their heads at the lack of wealthy customers, whilst the awnings of red, blue and yellow fluttered relentlessly in the breeze above them. The bombs that had fallen just four days earlier had sent a ripple of fear across the city and now shop windows were taped and boarded up, air raid shelters were being stocked with provisions, and all around there was quiet – too much quiet. Sandbags had arrived quickly to shore up doorways, and every now and then the hum of a military aircraft would drone overhead, causing those left in Paris to turn their faces to the sky to see if it was all really about to happen – would the City of Light really be taken from them? Michel stopped now and watched as another plane flew low through the skies. Behind him, two waiters ceased polishing already clean glasses. ‘I hear they crossed the River Meuse in only one day,’ one waiter said. ‘They have webbed feet; it’s no wonder they crossed that quickly,’ the other answered. ‘Webbed feet?’ ‘How can they be human and get here so quickly? Must be webbed feet.’ ‘You’re mad.’ ‘They say a school was hit, you know.

They killed schoolchildren.’ ‘They kill everyone. Children. Old people. Everyone. They don’t care.’ ‘There’s still smoke in the sky from those buildings – almost like it can’t escape Paris.’ ‘It can’t. We can’t either.’ Michel turned away from the expensive restaurants and towards home, where coffee shops were still busy as people huddled close to radios to listen to the latest news.

Soon he turned down a small cobbled lane where shops and small cafés sat cramped together in harmony; the flowers from one hanging basket escaping and joining the next, tables and chairs so cluttered that you were not sure which café you were sitting at, yet no one cared. Men sat and drank thick tumblers of beer, and women wore red lipstick and drank house wine, all of them talking about the bombs, about the time they had left. ‘If I’m going to go, I’m going with a beer in my hand and a full stomach,’ one man shouted to the people at the tables. A joyous cheer rose up. ‘Best get the drinks in then!’ another retorted. Michel noticed a few familiar faces but continued on, before stopping outside Arnoud’s boucherie, where the carcasses of cows and pigs hung from weighty hooks in a window that had been taped and secured, and where two stray dogs sat outside, waiting patiently for Arnoud to give them their daily scraps. Michel patted one of the dogs on the head, but the animal took no notice, his eyes transfixed on the meaty shell of a cow. ‘Ah, not long now,’ he told the dogs. ‘Almost closing. I’ll get mine first, then it will be your turn.

’ ‘Is that you, Michel?’ Arnoud’s roar sailed out to Michel from inside the shop. Michel walked inside and pulled his money from his breast pocket; a thin roll, barely a weight at all. ‘Ah, bonjour. Has it been a month already?’ Arnoud asked. ‘Not quite, but I got paid today.’ Michel handed over a few francs to cover the cost of some mutton and a couple of slices of ham. ‘Is that all you can afford? That gypsy does not pay you enough.’ ‘He is gone.’ ‘I’m not surprised. I told you he would leave.

Not one to stick around – you shouldn’t either.’ ‘You said the same thing last month.’ ‘And I’ll say it again. He treated you like an old blind woman; made you depend on him but left your purse almost empty. You have been taking care of those horses, training them, feeding them, and what does he pay you? A pittance, that’s all. And now look. He’s gone.’ Arnoud’s moustache twitched and he fell silent as the thick, shining blade sliced down into the ham, cutting it so thinly that Michel swore he could see through it. ‘And I’ll keep saying it until you come to your senses.’ Suddenly the back door flew open and Estelle, Arnoud’s teenage daughter, appeared, her perfect young skin flushed from racing downstairs.

‘Michel!’ she greeted him, barely hiding her breathlessness. Michel saw Arnoud turn to look at his daughter, shake his head, then move to wrap up the ham in paper. ‘Estelle. How are you?’ Michel asked. ‘I’m fine, thank you. You know, as fine as I can be. Every day I must come back here to help my father, but I am fine.’ ‘You torment me every day, when you are not at that art school,’ Arnoud said. ‘That one that costs me money, yet I see nothing in return.’ ‘Oh, Papa,’ Estelle kissed Arnoud on the cheek, ‘one day it will.

’ ‘She’s right, Arnoud. You just have to be patient,’ Michel said. ‘See! Michel understands. And, Michel, I am patient. As patient as…’ Estelle trailed off as she gazed out of the shop’s large window. ‘As patient as those stray dogs!’ She laughed. ‘I will wait just like them to get what I want.’ Michel took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the back of his neck again. ‘Estelle, go and do something useful. For a seventeen-year-old girl you are always under my feet, like a small child!’ Estelle ignored Arnoud.

‘Did you walk home again, Michel? Is that why you are so hot? I can get you water.’ ‘No, no, I’m fine.’ Michel tucked his handkerchief away. ‘It’s the weather, that’s all.’ ‘You know, you shouldn’t have to walk all that way. It’s not safe. What if a bomb had dropped right on top of you?’ ‘Estelle,’ Arnoud said wearily, ‘are you still here? I said, go and do something useful. Go and practise your art or help your mother prepare dinner – just, something.’ ‘Did you see the planes, Michel? I sit and watch them. We were given a letter today at school, telling us that the Germans are getting closer to Paris every day – not just planes, but actual German men, with guns and tanks.

Do you believe that, Michel? That they will come?’ ‘I didn’t – I thought we could hold them off. But I think now we have no hope.’ ‘Maman says they rape women. She says we should be thankful we are not Jewish.’ ‘Estelle! Enough! Go and help your mother. Tell her to stop filling your head with rubbish.’ ‘Yes, Papa.’ Estelle retreated, but just before she closed the door, Michel was sure she winked at him. ‘I’m sorry, Michel. A handful, as you can see.

’ ‘She’s just young,’ Michel said. ‘Yes. Young. Young and stupid. I worry for her.’ Arnoud looked deflated. ‘She’ll soon settle down.’ ‘What, like one of your horses, you mean?’ Arnoud laughed. ‘I doubt it. She’s wild, like you.

No good having two wild ones together. I need to find her a nice boring man, like a librarian!’ Michel laughed along with Arnoud, and the dogs, sensing something had changed, tried their luck and poked their noses into the shop. ‘Gah! Out! Not yet!’ Arnoud shouted at the dogs, who slowly backed away. He then began to take the scraps of meat, gristle and bones from the tray and gather them into two bowls. ‘They drive me crazy, these dogs, every day wanting food. They’re not even mine, and yet here I am feeding them when my customers are disappearing one by one.’ ‘The cafés and restaurants are certainly quieter.’ ‘People have come to their senses. Like you say, there is little hope – and you and I will be left here with the dogs and the scraps and my daughter who draws pictures.’ ‘It’s really going to happen, isn’t it?’ ‘It is certain.

’ ‘Will you leave?’ ‘What? Leave all this?’ Arnoud spread his arms wide. ‘My business is mine. I’d like to see them take it from me.’ He lowered his arms then stroked his moustache. ‘The way I see it, they still need food, no matter what. Those Boche love meat, sausages. Fat and lazy, the lot of them. All this about them being tall and strong – that’s just now. Wait till they get here. You’ll see, eating meat and drinking beer soon enough.

They’ll leave me be as long as I feed them.’ ‘And Estelle?’ ‘I’m packing her off to her grandparents. She doesn’t know it yet. Neither does the wife – she’s going too!’ He chuckled. ‘They are going this evening, down to the coast. They’ll be safe there. And I’ll be safe here.’ ‘I hope you are right.’ ‘But you, Michel – you should go. Trust me.

They’ll bomb and blitz the place first – show us who our new boss is. You don’t want to be caught up in that, especially with no job. Nothing keeping you here. If I were you, I’d go.’ Michel waited as Arnoud finished wrapping up his mutton and ham, and handed them over. ‘Merci, Arnoud. I will see you soon.’ ‘Ah, and maybe not, eh? Let’s see. If I do not see you again, enjoy the meat, and find yourself a wife? A nice quiet one, not like my Estelle!’ Michel chuckled and for the first time ever shook Arnoud’s hand. The man grasped Michel’s shoulder and held on for a moment.

‘Your mother would have been proud of you, Michel. Always an adventurer. Just like her.’ Michel nodded and left Arnoud, who having changed his mind, began filling the dogs’ bowls with some of his finest cuts of meat. Michel stopped again at the corner of Rue Crocé-Spinelli where Odette’s café sat, the laughter and the chink of glasses reaching out to him, enticing him to come inside for one beer, one chat, one laugh , until he inevitably stumbled upstairs to his apartment in the early morning, his meagre wage packet emptied by a friend he would never see again. This evening, the way the sun hit the peeling white paintwork of the apartment block, and how it ignored the rusting of the wrought-iron railings, extracting the crimson peonies and violet alliums of the early planted window boxes, made Michel feel as though he were returning home to much more than his sparse apartment. Michel saw his neighbour, Monsieur Bertrand, sitting on his balcony writing his daily notes into his diary, the space awash with colour from his planters, and a pair of finches chattering and singing in their cage next to him. Michel knew that later this evening he would be sitting across from his friend, enjoying a rich glass of red, perhaps some warm bread and cheese, and together they would dissect their days, discuss a book or two, and perhaps reminisce about Michel’s mother or Bertrand’s late wife. ‘Michel!’ a high-pitched voice rang out. Michel turned to see Odette herself, a curvaceous woman in a red wrap dress that made him think of a ripe apple.

Her grey hair was escaping from its messy bun as if making a break from its owner. ‘You stopped out front but did not say hello? What is this about? Is it because that young lady from the other night did not come back?’ ‘Madame Odette.’ Michel kissed both of her warm rouged cheeks, and caught the thick scent of flowery perfume combined with the potent glasses of wine she drank with her customers. ‘Come now Michel, come inside. There are far prettier girls than she. Why, there is a young lady at the bar right now, with long brown hair and a happy face. Surely you would like to meet her and buy her a glass of my finest cognac?’ Michel laughed. ‘Madame, you do keep a detailed calendar!’ ‘I do?’ Odette lit a cigarette. ‘You always remember when I get paid.’ ‘Oh! You have been paid?’ Odette patted a few stray hairs back into her bun.

‘Why, I had no idea! But now you have said so, come inside, see the lady.’ ‘I have a prior engagement,’ he said with an air of importance, then looked up to Bertrand’s balcony. Odette followed his gaze. ‘That old brute! Well, you tell him he owes me still for losing at cards, and he will not have his morning coffee tomorrow without payment.’ Michel smiled and watched as Odette huffily returned to the café, her large behind swaying importantly, yet he did notice that she threw one last glance at Bertrand before entering her lair. He turned the key in the main door and climbed the small flight of stairs to his apartment. Before he could open his own front door, Monsieur Bertrand appeared. ‘Michel! I have been waiting. Come. Come in!’ Bertrand opened the door wide.

‘I won’t be long; I will just put this food away, have a wash—’ Bertrand cut him off with a shake of his head. ‘No. No. This is important, come!’ Bertrand then disappeared into his own apartment.

.

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