Perhaps I should feel grateful that he didn’t make me stand in fifth position. That would have been mortal agony. Or, like last time, he might have forced me to stand with my arms up in the attitude position. For one of her artist gentlemen, Antoinette had to stand in an arabesque, leaning forward, right leg stretched high behind her, trailing like some cruel tail. Half-killed her buttocks, she said.
So here I am, locked into fourth position, hands clasped behind me, head raised at a fearsomely uncomfortable angle. ‘Chin up!’ he barks from time to time. And me not even realising that I’d let it droop.
But I get so tired.
Last time he made me pose for four hours. How my muscles ached afterwards. But he paid me eight francs. I handed most of it to Maman. She says I can’t keep my earnings, I’m only fourteen, what’s mine is hers, and unless she’s out delivering clean laundry back to her customers, she’ll be there waiting at the bottom of Place Breda, right by the beer seller. To be fair, she never spends it on beer; always on us. That evening the four of us feasted on a ragout of horse flesh.
You could say, in a way it’s a good thing Papa died. His tailoring never brought in much money, and now that he’s gone there’s more food for the rest of us. And that brutish Belgian accent of his – such a giveaway, so embarrassing. At least Maman has made some effort to take on the flavour of a Parisian accent.
What I hated most about Papa dying was that we had to move – still the snivelling ninth arrondissement, but greyer and danker – Place Breda, seven storeys of hard-faced stone, with just one dark staircase leading up from the beer seller and the paint shop. Le Rat Mort right opposite our bedroom window. I’d watch the figures moving in the light behind the thin red curtain. Then, about a year ago, I went across and joined them. My sister Antoinette was working there already.
So up it goes. And immediately I notice how unnaturally stiff and straight my arms feel – as though, with my shoulders and hands they’ve formed an unbreachable padlock. I pull my shoulders back a little, release for an instant the clasped fingers and then settle them to rest gently on my bum once again. Monsieur Degas says the sculpture will be dressed in a real gauze tutu. And a silk bodice. But of course it’s not the clothes that interest him. ‘The movement - I wish to capture the movement,’ he murmurs as he paces round me, and there I am growing more rigid and numb by the minute. ‘Catching the fleeting essence before it dies – that is the purpose of my art.’ He talks like that, Monsieur Degas. I don’t understand half the stuff he mumbles, but I take it in, and turn the words around in my head. It’s something to think about while I’m standing here dying of aches and boredom.
Monsieur Degas tells me it’s very fortunate we live so close to his studio on the Rue Saint-Georges. Now that’s something I do understand. And it certainly is handy. Closer than any of my other artist gentlemen. Almost as close, you might say, as Le Rat Mort. I suppose that’s why he chose Antoinette and Charlotte as well – though he’s not such a regular client for them as he is for me.
He likes me best.
‘Just a little further to your left…’
Merde. That gave me a fright. I’d been watching (chin still up, but eyes lowered beneath drooping lids). I knew he was circling round me, in that unsettling way he has, like someone circling a butterfly with his net and waiting to capture it (‘capture the movement,’ he says – though you can catch a butterfly only when it’s still). But I hadn’t been expecting him to touch me. His cool fingers suddenly gripped my wrist as he levered my clasped hands across my bum. ‘There, that’s better.’ And he patted the gauze of my tutu – just lightly enough.
He’s creepy that way: the watching, the circling – and now the handling. So he makes me feel uncomfortable in more than just the physical sense. He’s always hanging about watching us at work in the rehearsal room. He’s one of our most regular clients when it comes to the performance. I specialise in playing slave parts. Last spring I was a peasant girl in La Fille Mal Gardée, dancing round the maypole with the rest of the chorus. And then, afterwards, Monsieur Degas slips backstage. He’s not the only one, naturally. Writers, artists, wealthy idlers – they all want to come to the secret places at the back when we’re changing into our clothes after the performance. The ‘Petits Rats’: that’s what they call us. The little rats of the Opéra – we need our rich protectors, so it’s just as well they seek us out.
I wonder what I’m going to look like when Monsieur Degas has finished this? It’s a pity, really, but I have this feeling he’s not going to make me look pretty. I’ve seen some of the pictures hanging in his studio. Mind you, it’s hardly surprising the girls don’t look their best – always stretching and straining for him. So, as I know he won’t make me beautiful, I’m going to look proud instead. The expression on my face is fixed, I hope, into something dignified.
Now he’s staring straight at my face, head poked forward like a pecking sparrow. Chin up – that’s the preference; eyes low. I’m clinging, tendons pressed to their limit, to what remains of my real self – whatever that might be. I started as a skeleton of paint-brushes, believe it or not. Now he’s modelling me in wax, building and smoothing my body over that skeleton, bringing me to life.
I am Marie. I am named for the sister who died at eighteen days old, the year before I was born.
Monday today. Always Maman’s busiest: everyone wants their clothes cleaned for the week ahead. Let’s hope Charlotte or Antoinette has found us some food: no chance of Maman doing that on a Monday. It would make me dizzy with anticipated satisfaction, to climb that dark staircase, inhale the smell of a decent meal cooking, and then find it was to be mine. I reckon I’m here this afternoon for another of those four-hour torture sessions. I’ll probably be too exhausted to go over to Le Rat Mort. But then it doesn’t matter, does it? I’ll be getting some good dosh after today’s work for Monsieur Degas.
Antoinette tells me that the gendarmes were round here last week. They had some questions to ask about all the young girls coming and going.
I expect he managed to win them over with his clever way of speaking. He certainly wins over the Crocodile. That’s what we call Monsieur Jean, because of his snapping jaws. Always clamping down on us Petits Rats, needless to say. If there’s one man in my life more demanding than Monsieur Degas (the Rat Mort lot? Oh no, they’re little white mice in comparison) – it’s Monsieur Jean the Crocodile. He has us at the barre doing our pliés for half an hour without a break until they’re perfect. So, while we’re grunting away and asking ourselves at what point our knees are going to collapse under us, he’s strutting about the rehearsal room admiring himself in the mirror. A straight, upright crocodile, a reptile in a gilet.
But even he will bend at the waist to greet Monsieur Degas. I think he’s a little afraid of this particular artist gentleman, who has a reputation for intolerance. So he says he’s happy to let him sit and sketch us. I don’t think Monsieur Degas has ever seen him when he’s roused to true fury. The crime that makes the crocodile face turn purple and his wrists shake with rage is to miss a dance class. He has a notebook – we call it his ‘petit livre noir’. In it he keeps his attendance register, ticking off names with mean little strokes. If he has to put a cross against your name, you’ll get the stare, hard, strong as that camphor scent in Monsieur’s studio, and the clamping jaw. Once you’ve missed a certain number of lessons, you’re out. That’s what happened to Thérèse Marin.
Just remembering it all makes the tips of my toes ache. My feet are flat on the ground now, thank the Lord. But when you’ve done a whole lesson on points for the crocodile in a gilet, you fear you’ll never walk again. You’ll be forever hobbling. That’s how I leave the rehearsal, often. Like old hag Binoche at the epicerie. Thinking about feet, and points, and pain – I’ll have to ask one of my protectors if he’ll give me the money for some new ballet slippers. My current pair is breaking into holes, and they look a bit grimy, too: it’s not as if I’ve got time or energy at the end of the day to give them a proper clean. Any day now the Crocodile is going to notice, and snap.
Madame Lebrun is old too. She’s the one whose piano banging is the cacophony against which we practise. At the end of every class we have to curtsey right down to the bottom of our weary knees and chorus, ‘Merci beaucoup, Madame Lebrun.’ At least in Monsieur Degas’ studio it’s quiet. Just his slapping of the wax, padding about on the floorboards (paint-splashed and splintery, these, nothing like the smooth sprung surface of the dance floor), the occasional grunt or murmur. ‘This is what I’m trying to do. Like so…’ I think he enjoys the peace between us two. Once, I think I even saw the quiver of a smile on his lips and in his eyes. It was a good smile – not the sort they hoop you with at Le Rat Mort. Right now he’s working on the back of my head. But he’s let me in on his secret plan: I’ll be wearing a wig – made, most probably, from horse hair. Maybe I should offer him one of my satin ribbons to tie round it. It can match the ribbon on the ballet shoes I’ll be wearing. A green one would be best.
I’m told they liked the final version as little as I did – the people who came to see me at the exhibition. It didn’t get shown until two years after I did that job for Monsieur Degas. I expect, as usual, he was fiddling around with it, fussing for perfection. Like me, the people thought the wax was creepy. They said I looked like a medical specimen in that glass case he shoved me into. They said I was ugly. Well, I agree. He made me look ugly – the bastard, like I knew he would. So it’s just as well he didn’t name me in the title: La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. Small, young and anonymous. I never actually saw it on show, of course. But I heard he was true to his promise – gauze tutu and silk bodice, ballet shoes and wig.
By that time things had started to go wrong. Antoinette went to prison for trying to steal 700 francs off one of her gentlemen. That should have warned me. But I was hungry. The jacket hung over the back of a chair while he slept. He’d been a particularly demanding customer – all that master/slave rubbish, all those disgusting positions. So I slipped my hand in, lightly enough. After my arrest, they wouldn’t let me back into Le Rat Mort. Antoinette says it’s lucky I wasn’t jailed like her, but I’m not so sure.
Then, yesterday, the crocodile jaws clamped down on me. I’d missed six dance lessons, Monsieur Jean said. And so he sacked me. One of the Petits Rats of the Opéra no longer.
I think today is Friday. Maman will be asking for money. I want to be able to eat the ragout I can smell on the air, drifting onto the street. The hard-faced stone building won’t let me in until I’ve found some dosh. I’ll try the Martyrs’ Tavern. That’s one place where they haven’t turned me away. But it’s further than Le Rat Mort, and I hardly have the strength to walk. My muscles ache; my knees feel weak; I’m hobbling like an old woman.
A few steps. Come on, girl. You are Marie, named for the baby sister who died. Just half a minute, then. Lean against this wall. Careful now: keep away from the grimy bits. The dizziness starts to fade. ‘Catching the fleeting essence before it dies.’ Whatever it is, that’s the part of you that Monsieur Degas waited for. He saw it; grasped it; moulded it in wax. It’s here now, in the shawled young woman still faint against the wall.
‘Thank you, my daughter.’ That’s what he said to me when I gave him the green satin ribbon. And he promised he would use it.
I open my eyes, and move on down the street.