Standing in the shade of a lime tree on a hot dusty afternoon, the boy waited for the bell to toll. He heard the bailiff cough and shuffle his papers through the open window across the market square.
Saint Étienne’s rang, sending out waves like the ripples from a dead-weight dropped in the middle of the quarry lake. After the sixth chime, Victor gave a small nod and then kicked a pebble into the gutter. It rattled through the grille and toppled down the drain, and he would surely have heard it clatter when it hit the bottom – it hadn’t rained for weeks – but it was eclipsed by another sound – one that reminded him of a stray dog kicked by a horse. And when he saw Serge strut around the corner with a strange whistle in his mouth, Victor knew that the men from the Conservatoire had arrived.
He sighed. He would have to go home to his father with the change from his errands and watch him slowly count out the coins. His father would shake his head again to say that there was no money for an instrument or lessons. Then he would pour himself a brandy and expect Victor to make a start on their supper, before heading out to play cards at La Caravelle.
Victor waited for Serge to duck into his father’s pharmacy, then stepped out of the shade. Above him, a pigeon nesting in Lucille’s window-box ruffled her feathers.
He turned right out of the square and began to climb the thick stone steps. The alley smelled of meat. He held his breath as he walked, his soles grinding a fine layer of sediment, making small slapping sounds. He looked down and saw that the stones were wet. Juliette was standing outside her father’s boucherie with a mop and a bucket of greasy water. As he passed, she stuck her tongue out at him. Just before the corner, he looked back. She winked. Then she slowly licked the top of the mop handle, her tongue a slice of pink ham.
Victor darted around the corner and sheltered in a doorway, sweat pricking under his arms and between his legs.
It wasn’t only the girls; the boys whispered too. Their voices were deep and grainy, and they boasted about where they had touched girls and how. His legs were still as smooth as eggs, each of his wrists as thin as his father’s pipe. A musician’s wrists, his sister had said, holding them up. Light as a maple key on the wind. Perfect for the violin.
Emmeline was a broad, white-fleshed girl whose deep-set eyes were dark like their mother’s. She had sung at Aux Folies at night to keep him in school. Her belly was already swelling beneath her dress by the time she had left last winter.
On the corner of Rue Bovary, the landlord was replenishing the men’s glasses with pastis. ‘Boy!’ one of them said as he passed. ‘Message for your father. Tell him we’re starting early.’
Victor raised his shoulders slightly and tilted his head, then turned down Rue du Bât-d’Argent. The street was still bright and lit up with the sun. A radio was playing through an open window. He stopped to listen. Behind the familiar Une Jeune Pucelle, he heard the crack and fizz of static. A baby wailed and somebody came to the window, closed the shutters and bolted them from the inside. Victor moved on, his school satchel flapping against his leg. Soon he would have no need for the bag or the books. His father said that once classes were over this summer, he’d have to pay his own way. ‘Blame your sister,’ he said.
His father repeated in a tired, flat voice that a scholarship at the Conservatoire was a foolish dream; he would have to learn a proper trade. For boys his age, that meant the quarry.
They lived half way up Rue Sainte-Anne, but instead of pushing open the door and making a start on the pot-au-feu, Victor paused and looked at the vase on the sill of the kitchen window. He’d glued it together but the cracks still showed, and there was a chip missing from the lip. It was an ugly piece, with an uneven glaze and five pale blue bats circling a peach tree. It was her lucky jar, Emmeline had insisted. The five bats promised a long life, wealth, health, virtue and a good death – whatever that might be.