By Lucy Ribchester
There was a girl from Bethune in the Tavern called Lotte. Tatie B never used to pick her out for any of the men. We didn’t think it was fair. There we would be, lolling in corners, trying to keep ourselves out of the light, or in the recess where the fire was, next to the faulty pianola, while Lotte wandered through the hallway breezy as you liked. There is only so much cotton and lace you can hide behind. In the end Tatie B would spot one of us, and if she knew we had been hiding she would be all the crueller.
She had a way with her. She would spank a girl’s bottom in front of a soldier to give him carte blanche to do the same. She would sneer and call us her ‘idiot girls’ and ruffle our hair, like we were her children. She had no respect for the women who had children of their own. She treated them with scorn just like the rest of us, as if they hadn’t known what they were getting themselves in for when they stepped over the blackwood threshold of the Tavern. Girls who grow up within six blocks of the station know exactly what those lanterns mean.
But Lotte she left alone.
One night I was assigned a soldier from Paris. He was older and I teased him that he was not yet an officer and took sadistic pleasure in plucking the hair on his chest, the way Tatie B might have done with one of us, until he raised his hand and clutched my cheeks. It must have been a cold night because I remember a chilly metal scent on his beard, like he had been rubbing his face against a gun.
‘Why do the men not ask for Lotte? She is never made to work.’
At the mention of her name he swallowed and looked at me with his eyes half hooded, like he might be sick. Then he grew irate and tugged the sheets so hard I nearly toppled off the stretcher. He covered himself and said he would ask for his voucher back.
‘I only ask’, I said, taking his waist the way Maria had shown me calms a man down, ‘because it isn’t fair.’
He stood up with my hands in a grip, forcing me to let him go, and I saw him quickly, quietly make the sign of the cross at his throat. French men are Catholics so I have seen this before, but never in the upstairs rooms of Tatie B’s Tavern.
I was too ashamed to tell Tatie what had happened and braced myself for a slap or even worse, for her to find some soldier with a kink and offer me to him as punishment. But when I came downstairs, everything was as normal.
The pianola was playing quietly, missing out every strike of the dead middle C. Lucie and Maria were playing chess and drinking red wine from teacups. Tatie B was eating cheese and bread like a pig from a British army container. She made to take me onto her lap but I dodged. In the corner, Lotte darned a soldier’s grey socks.
The Frenchman it seemed, had been too ashamed to tell.
In the kitchen when Maria went to fetch beer, I asked her, ‘Is Lotte to be staying long?’ She looked at me with one of her thick brown brows up and I knew she was no wiser than I.
I suppose Lotte pulled her weight, of sorts. She did the stitching and the mending, and as the weeks went on she did more and more of the brewing and the cooking. Come November Tatie B put her in the back room, taking charge of the washing, which she said out loud to us was ‘so that girl can keep her idle fingers occupied’, but privately we all knew it was because the night before, one man had caught sight of her huddled up in her velveteen shawl by the fire as he was leaving, and his face had gone pale as cheese and he too had made the sign of the cross just like the French soldier.
Maria and Lucie and I came up with wild theories. We thought she might be Tatie B’s daughter. We thought maybe she was a witch or a man in disguise and she had soldier’s privates hiding under her velveteen shawl, and was trying to get out of being sent to the front. We would catch her eye while she dipped and pressed the sheets and launch into hysterical giggles. Her quiet dignity never seemed to shame us. She never wept. She rarely spoke. She ate only what food she was given, and she was happy to cook for us, and present us with meals of soup and cassoulet and when she could get her hands on saucisson she would chop it up and throw it in something to make the flavour go further.
I never made the same mistake of asking another man about her while he was upstairs with me. But just before Christmas, when the soldiers on leave came in their droves, clean scrubbed, for once not trench-smelling, some bearing gifts they had bought for us with their wages, when the room was full of them and everyone was laughing and pretending to make merry round the pianola, I swallowed back my hot wine and whispered in the soapy ear of a young sergeant, ‘Why do the men fear Lotte?’
He put his beer cup down on top of the pianola where it rattled in time to the tune and looked at me, and for a second I thought he too was going to make the sign of the cross. But instead a faint smile came over him, as if he found it slightly funny. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘she is cursed. No one will touch her. No one dares.’ And to illustrate his point he looked over to the other side of the room where Lotte was bearing cups of brandy. Everywhere she moved a path was cut for her. If she leant one way to deliver a glass, the men pulled in their shoulders and moved to the left or right of her. If she bent to pick up a cup, hands would flinch as if her skin could sear or disease them.
When Tatie B slapped Maria’s bottom and she went to take a lieutenant up the stairs, they passed by Lotte with her tray of brandy cups and the soldier brushed his sleeve against the neckline frill of her blouse and he whipped his arm back like he had been scalded with chemicals. I saw Maria’s face crease in a kind of panic, and she pulled him towards her, laughing in her luxurious way as if she could wash off his fear.
Lotte was sent back to the kitchen after that. Tatie B gave out hot wine for free and drank too much herself and began to tell a bitter story about ‘a woman,’ she blurted, climbing onto a piano stool, spitting as she talked, ‘burned on this spot, for being a witch, five hundred years ago.’
‘Tatie shut up.’ That was Lucie, and earned her a sharp look, the kind a dog gives before it bites. Those looks always hurt me, but Lucie never minded so much. The soldiers had quietened and some were sniggering.
‘She was tied to a ladder with a sack of flour round her neck and pushed into the fire.’ Tatie B looked like she might topple as she made the pushing motion. I stood back. Let her, I thought. Let her make the greatest idiot of herself, let her show her ugly colours.
‘They said she had bewitched a cow, she had run its udders dry. That she had put garlic in the udders of the cow so the milk spoiled.’ She swallowed her hot wine and when she struck up again, it sprayed from her lips. ‘They said she turned into a wolf at night, and she would chase those cattle and tear them down, and in the morning she was in her bed, though none could be sure because she had no husband to vouch for her.’
The soldiers exchanged glances. Some of them were grinning hard. I knew what those looks meant even if Tatie B was too stupid. She garnered no respect from them because she was old and stout and had the beginnings of a beard.
They said she killed three children and that she boiled them in a pot and ate them, even though the bodies of the children were found hanged from a tree. They said that was only the shells of them, the ghosts.’
The soldiers had stopped laughing now.
‘And when she wouldn’t confess, they pricked her for the devil’s mark, and when they couldn’t find it they made a prick upon her and said that was the devil’s mark. And not a single person spoke for that woman. Not a single person said what bastard superstition, that a woman could put garlic in a cow’s udders.’
Lucie was eyeing me now, and she made a move towards Tatie B. Tatie thrust out a hand to shoo her back, but in doing so fell forward off the piano stool and onto the knee of a sitting soldier. He smiled stiffly and uprighted her. Before she could make a fool of herself more we got up off our chairs and began to sing a Christmas song, and laughed so loud it drowned her protests, and at long last shut her up.
* * * * *
It wasn’t until after Christmas when the doctor was making his routine monthly check of all of us, so we didn’t pass pox onto the good soldiers (never mind we got it from them in the first place), that I asked him bluntly, while my feet were open on the stretcher-bed upstairs, if he knew what was wrong with Lotte. ‘I only ask’, I said coolly, ‘Because we share sheets, and I don’t want the rest of us to catch what she might have.’
The doctor pushed my knees together with his cold hands. ‘I assure you’, he said gravely, ‘You cannot catch what little Lotte has, unfortunate girl.’
‘Then why do the men shy away from her? Why doesn’t Tatie make her work like the rest of us?’
He sighed and put down his instruments and nudged my legs so I knew it was time to lower my nightie. The room had a draft and I pulled the sheets over me. ‘Her sweetheart was in the eleventh battalion. They’re stationed just outside Verdun.’
I nodded. I had heard the name.
‘They were set to be married on his next leave, but one night before a raid he put a gun in his mouth. The soldiers who cleaned the barracks after him refused to bury him with the men who died in the raid. They made a separate grave.’ The doctor shrugged. ‘They think she turned him mad. That’s the only explanation for why he wouldn’t fight. War makes men superstitious. What they fear most is losing their minds,’ he said, and replenished my pot of prophylactic salve and packed his things and left.
* * * * *
I stayed upstairs for as long as I could before Marie came knocking on the door. She touched my arm and frowned, and I could see the clouds of her face that she thought my shock was because the doctor had found something rotten in me. I left her none the wiser.
When I went downstairs, Tatie B was sitting by the fire, cutting some lace off a chemise Maria had been given for Christmas and stitching it onto the tops of stockings for all of us. Lotte sat opposite her, darning holes in a bedsheet. Neither of them spoke, but every so often Tatie B would chance a glance over at Lotte and I would watch her face, Tatie B’s. Lit by the fire, it would flash with a look so fierce, a look like a mother bear’s, and I knew then that despite her slaps and her jibes and her posturing, if we ever needed it, she’d give that look to each and every one of us as well.
Lucy Ribchester lives in Edinburgh. In 2013 she won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. Her first novel The Hourglass Factory was published in January 2015 in the UK and Australia by Simon & Schuster. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Short Story Award and also writes about dance and circus for a number of magazines and websites including Scotland’s The List.