“Miss Charlotte, close your eyes! You don’t wanna get no soap in them!” Mary’s voice was always bossy and kind, annoying yet caring.
Through the tangle of branches and creepers, I notice something in the distance. A heap of rubble. Behind it, part of a broken wall. From where I stand, it looks covered in grey wallpaper. But I recognize it.
I know that, up close, the bathroom wallpaper is white, with a fine, black drawing that repeats itself at regular intervals. When I was a child, the drawing fascinated me tremendously. It represents a group of children, some standing, some running, obviously playing a game. “What game can it be?” I used to wonder, sitting in the bathtub while Mary washed my hair. I tried to imagine their conversations, but I was stumped. The children on the wallpaper were in France, that almost mythical country I could not remember. “My name is Charlotte, I am from France,” I had learnt to say at parties. My mother had taught me that. My mother, who insisted lying was a sin. Sitting in the tub, I stared and stared at those children, thinking that they held the clue to a mystery I only vaguely sensed.
I start walking up the hill toward the ruin. The bathroom wall, the fixtures of the sink, the now rusty bathtub are so out of place in the jungle that they appear almost implausible. They look like an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, as if they were hanging there, suspended in time and place. It reminds me of a two-dimensional theatre set, flat and artificial.
Memories rush at me, but they seem unreal too, as if out of a movie. The afternoon tea parties under the palm trees in the gardens of the embassy. My hair neatly combed and tied with a pink bow to match the satin belt of my white dress. Year after year, birthdays and celebrations twirled. Santa Claus brought the gifts on an oxen-driven cart, his face puffed-up and sweaty under the blazing sun. We had a Christmas picnic of cold roast chicken, sweet potato fries and mango cake.
Then, there was the night my mother shook me awake:
“Get up, Charlotte, we have to go.”
“Away. To France.”
“But Maman, why?”
“To be safe. Come on, Charlotte, quickly now.”
Outside, my father was already sitting in the front seat next to the driver. The engine was running. Down the road, the driver honked the horn constantly. In the yellow tunnel of the headlights, I was amazed to see such crowds of people. The women carried children on their backs and bundles in their arms. The men urged on loaded donkeys. They walked with their backs turned, jumping out of the way for the car. From time to time, the muffled thunder of an explosion resonated. I craned my neck, hoping to see fireworks. But all I saw was an unusual reddish glow in the distance.
Out of town, the crowds thinned out, the ride got smoother, lulling. From the rolled down window, the night air was warm and smelled sweet like rotting fruit. As I settled myself comfortably in Maman’s hug, I vaguely wondered why she was shivering, why her heart pounded. Then I fell asleep.
Later, much later, there was Paris, the initial shock of its coldness, its greyness.
I chase away the memories. I step over the rubble. Bricks, tiles and pieces of walls are partly covered in moss, dark green like a velvet cloak. The bathtub is half filled with muddy water. Black bugs zigzag on the surface in jerks, crossing paths among the floating leaves. Underneath, only the tops of the four bathtub feet are visible, the rest buried in debris. Mary’s voice comes back to me again: “Miss Charlotte, what are you doing under there? That’s no place for a young lady to crawl!”
And suddenly, it is real again. I drop onto my knees, and with both hands, I move out the rubble, faster, faster, panting, sweating, breaking my nails. Dust rises and stings my eyes. Under the bathtub, the tiles are intact. I feel around for the loose one. I pull at it with difficulty. There is barely enough space to squeeze my arm in, and blood droplets start forming along the scratches. But it’s there, finally, it’s still there.
I stand up holding the metal pencil box, amazed. For a second, I fear… but no, it rattles when I shake it. I clutch it with both hands. Then, I turn around and walk away. I had told myself I wouldn’t cry. I wipe my eyes roughly with my sleeve. But I do not look back. No, I won’t look back at the ruin of my childhood house. I only look at what’s in my hands.
Like I used to, I will wait for the privacy of the night and the comfort of my pyjamas. Then, I will open my treasure box.
Even though Ariane Synovitz is a native French speaker, she enjoys writing fiction in English as a hobby. She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.