A Four Course Lunch by Rozanne Charbonneau

In 1970s Paris, 18-year-old Mademoiselle Sophie is captivated by a recalcitrant American child in her care.

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Paris, April, 1972

"Mademoiselle Sophie, je dois pisser!" shouts the American girl in French slang. Her haircut looks like a boy's. Did her mother go mad with the gardening shears?

The other children in the dining hall howl with laughter. I have a choice. I can feign outrage at her use of the word "piss." Or I can ignore her antics and savour my crème caramel. I opt for the latter and dip my spoon into the flan. Chef Jacques, the cook at this private elementary school for foreigners, is a master. Since the beginning of the school year in September, my tongue has not encountered one air bubble in his unctuous crème. And his caramel? It tastes of honey and rum.

I glance at the clock on the wall. It reads twelve thirty.

"You may be excused, Lucy. But hurry up. We are leaving for the Bois de Boulogne in five minutes," I say.

Her face falls in disappointment. She wanted a row.

Each day she elbows her classmates out of the way to sit at my table. She always asks for two servings of the hors d'oeuvre, dissects the fish into flakes, refuses to eat the rind of the camembert, and wolfs down the dessert as if she were a gypsy beggar. The young boy from Ethiopia sits up straight and struggles with his fork. At home, he eats with his hands. The girl from Japan once brought chopsticks into the dining room. They failed to seize the chunks of her boeuf bourguignon. But Lucy is different. She fancies herself as a French mademoiselle. She plunges her baguette into the sauce of every stew I put before her. However, only a Yank would tear through their lettuce with a knife. In France, this is the ultimate faux pas. No matter how large the leaf, one must spear it with the tines of the instrument in the left hand.

Let me tell you about her stare. Her eyes take in every mole and pore on my skin. Her mother, Mrs Jones, is a fleshy woman who wears a coat made of extinct cats. She once introduced herself to me in rudimentary French and confessed, "My daughter sleeps halfway down the bed at night. She thinks that if her feet reach the bottom, she'll wake up as a beautiful teenager like you." I should be flattered. But last week I caught this eleven-year-old girl gazing at the hair in my armpit. As if she were ogling my sex.

I am eighteen years old and come from a small town on the coast of Normandy called Luc-Sur-Mer. My parents were thrilled when the Sorbonne offered me a place to study French Literature, but their pockets are not deep.

My chambre de bonne is situated on the fifth floor of a building in the Marais. I always sprint across the landing on the fourth. Several Algerian men live together in a room no larger than mine. They are street sweepers. I can tell by the brooms of twigs that they leave outside the door. If they pass me on the stairs, they offer to carry my burdens. I thank them and pretend I need the exercise. With none of their women in France, their eyes are too lonely. Too hungry. I share a bathroom on the landing with the young couple who lives across the hall. The woman is clean, but the man sometimes forgets to use the toilet brush. Thank God there is a shower for the three of us. Many of my fellow classmates need to bathe at the public pool. When I enter my room, the hotplate and sink stand to the left. The plastic wardrobe to the right. The wall with the window is slanted at forty-five degrees. Fortunately, my desk fits underneath. I do my best work here. My mind expands at the sight of the rooftops spreading out like a country all its own. At night, the coils of the electric heater burn a violent, orange hue. The heat travels one meter deep into the room. Don't get me wrong. I would never complain. This inexpensive dwelling and my job at the school help to make ends meet.

All I want is to arrive at noon, serve the children lunch, eat, take them to the park, and leave at 14:00 with as little drama as possible. I need my energy for more important things like boys and Baudelaire.

I walk behind the two lines of children in their navy-blue uniforms. They fall into single file when a pedestrian approaches. If the other boys and girls were a perfectly cut hedge in the garden of Versailles, Lucy is the weed that blows in the wind. She skips outside of the procession, stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes she regales us with an eerie rhyme in English, threatening to break her father's back.

Spring has come early. The trees flaunt their neon coats of green. Purple and yellow crocuses scatter over the earth. Each one seems to whisper, "Look at me." I sigh at the sight of the bushes. They have grown lush and unruly - the perfect shelter for the depraved.

The children scatter in every direction. I sit on a bench and open my copy of Anaïs Nin's Une espionne dans la maison de l'amour. I keep one eye on the text and the other on my wards. If they stray out of my sight, I blow the whistle that hangs around my neck. They are an obedient brood. One shrill note and they run back to me. Soon the page goes dark as familiar fingers cover my eyes.

"Gilles!" I say, grasping onto the wrists.

He leans down from behind and puts his cheek on mine. His stubble feels like linen on my skin.

"Surprise, surprise."

"If I knew you were coming, I would have brought you bread and cheese from the dining room."

He sits down next to me. "You're so maternal."

"But you're always starving. I didn't mean..."

He puts his hand on my thigh. "Relax. I like it."

Gilles is in my French literature class. We are presently studying the Symbolist poets. Many of the men can't wait to tackle Verlaine, but Gilles's thoughts on Baudelaire's poems in Les Fleurs du mal are original, almost intimidating. He grew up in Paris, and sometimes I feel like a rube in his presence. We have been spending time together for three weeks now, and soon he will want sex. I am falling in love with him, but I want the romance to last a little longer before the sap-ridden reality sets in.

My best friend's brother was five years older than I and out of my league. I fawned over him for as long as I can remember. When he came home to Luc-Sur-Mer from the military last summer, I followed him to the local bar where he was meeting his friends for a drink. We finally had sex in the front seat of his Peugeot 504. I had just turned eighteen. Fair game. His hands stank of burnt matches. The diesel must have leaked while he was filling up the tank. Maybe he tinkered with his car, but not with me. I pretended to enjoy myself anyway. At the time, I would have done anything to keep him.

He could barely look at me when I dropped by the family house to say goodbye to my friend.

His girlfriend offered me tea and a madeleine with a certain irony. "Paris will change you. By Christmas, you will feel like a stranger in this town."

Everyone treated her as if she were already part of the clan. I have never felt so foolish, so used.

Gilles grabs my book and raises his eyebrows.

"Oh là là."

Anaïs Nin is notorious for her erotica. She deserves better. "I think she is a great writer. Her descriptions of the emotions are so raw."

He bursts out laughing. "That's like me telling you I bought Oui for the articles."

His hand goes higher up my thigh. "Has she taught you anything new?"

I look out at the children. The boys shoot one another with imaginary guns. The girls stand near a cluster of trees, talking in loud voices and giggling. Lucy has picked up a stick. Everything seems to be under control. Gilles leads me behind a tree and begins to kiss my neck. His erection bears onto my pubis like a fist in a leather glove. I kiss him again. Why can't this moment last all day?

I finally pull away and smooth his dishevelled hair. It is black and curly, like the coat of a lamb. "Do I look alright?" I ask, touching my own.

"Like you just got out of bed."

I pull a rubber band out of my pocket. A ponytail should hide my sin.

We walk back to the bench. The boys are still nearby, but where are the girls? I blow my whistle and call their names into the emptiness. My chest tightens as I run towards the foliage. Where are they? Oh God, please let them be safe.

My legs cut through a patch of nettles. In the clearing, I find all the girls laughing at Lucy. With her stick she is beating a man who kneels on the ground. Her victim wears a houndstooth jacket - the perfect cloak of respectability. His body trembles, as if touched by the Holy Ghost. The eyes in his skull have rolled upwards in ecstasy. But Jesus would never approve of the oversized maggot sticking out of his zipper.

"Lucy!" I shout.

She thwacks him one last time. Her spell is now broken. The man zips up his fly, then hurries away from the clearing.

"Mais ça va pas, Mademoiselle?"

The other girls grow quiet.

"Why should we always move for these men? They bust up our games every day," says Lucy. "We're sick of it."

I pull the stick out of her hand and throw it on the ground. "You know these men can be dangerous."

"The woods are ours, too."

"These men are sick. Do you want to become sick like them?"

"Dangerous, sick... what's the difference? We hate men."

The girls grumble in agreement. "Yeah. We hate men."

"Stop this now. I have a mind to report you to Madame Castagné."

A shadow creeps over Lucy's face. She may think I'm the cat's meow, but she respects the Directrice of the school, Madame Castagné.

"Never show shock or disgust when a man in the park displays his wares," advised Madame Castagné during our first interview. I wanted the position as child minder at her school. "If you reveal any emotion, you have lost the game."

"I once saw a man urinate in the sea, but he didn't know I was there."

She leant over the desk and looked me in the eye. "You live in Paris now. Your sheltered life in the provinces is behind you."

Her tone was kind, with no trace of condescension. I admired her oat-coloured hair swept into a bun. It reminded me of the conch shell on my windowsill back home. How old was she? Perhaps fifty? Her name, Castagné, originated from the Gascogne in the southwest of France. But her accent was devoid of lilt or twang. She could have been born and bred in Neuilly. I had at least managed to erase the Norman greeting "boujou" from my speech. Would I ever speak like her one day? I truly hoped so.

"You will be confronted with perverts every day of the week. I will count on you to shield the children from these men with sangfroid. No child should become either traumatised or blasé at the sight of a phallus. If you strike the right balance, you will save them from many sessions on the analyst's couch in the years to come."

How would I walk this tightrope? I had no idea. "Yes, Madame, I understand."

She studied my letters of recommendation from families in Luc-Sur-Mer. They all confirmed that I was reliable and good with children. I was glad that no one had written "wonderful" with their brood. Exaggeration leads to unrealistic expectations. I only minded kids because it was easy pocket money. Dogs made my heart melt infinitely faster than infants. One day I hoped to find a husband who did not want to sow his seed. Why the reticence? My mother worked part-time as a secretary in the town hall. She wanted to greet my sister and me each day when we returned from school. She always served us a snack - maybe some fruit or a slice of homemade yogurt cake. At the table, she asked us about our day. "Did you raise your hand when you knew the answers? Were you kind to the children who feel they don't belong?" We never walked into an empty house, and I will always be grateful to her. But money was tight. My sister is only twenty and already married with her first child on the way. I am the first in my family to go to university. I want to have a career and be able to afford nice things. The patter of tiny feet could hold me back.

Madame Castagné fingered her pearls. "You will like some children more than others, but you must be fair to them all."

Professional distance sounded perfect to me. Plus, a four-course lunch would be included in the renumerations.

"I promise to be vigilant and impartial at all times, Madame."

I smiled, hoping to impress this woman. She had class and compassion, two qualities I wanted for myself.

The next day my little Gloria Steinem hangs her head over the dining table. The shadows under her eyes give her the air of a hospital patient. Did she toss and turn all night, worrying that I might report her to Madame Castagné? In the end, I was at fault for letting her run wild in the woods.

I place two scoops of céleri remoulade onto her plate. "You can put yesterday behind you, Lucy. Today is a new day."

In the park, Lucy drags her shoes through the dust on the side of the path. She ignores the children's calls to play. If she does not rest, she will fall asleep during her French class this afternoon. I close Une espionne dans la maison de l'amour and motion her to join me on the bench.

She sits down so close that her thigh touches my own. "Is that man who comes to see you here your boyfriend?"

Of course, she would notice him. I move my thigh away from hers. "Yes. But he won't be coming to the park anymore."

"Is he nice to you?"

What a strange question. "Of course he's nice to me. I wouldn't let him be my boyfriend if he were not."

She looks at me, sceptical. "Does he like your hair?"

I burst out laughing. Gilles tells me it falls like a curtain of yellow silk down my back. "He has never complained."

"I wish I had hair like yours. My father won't let me grow mine."

This explains her brutal haircut. I keep quiet, aware that she might repeat anything I say at home. So far, all the children are within close range. Good. However, Mr Maggot has set up camp in the dog roses. It seems Lucy's beating yesterday has increased his ardour. I stand up and circle around the children. What is the matter with him? Does he want me to notice that he is circumcised? I will not give him the satisfaction. Back at the bench, Lucy is reading my Anaïs Nin.

"What is cunni... cunnilingus?"

I snatch the book out of her hands. "Never mind."

A bumble bee flies close to her ear. I swat it away. Lucy watches it dive into a crocus and begin to suck. What does she know about sex? Perhaps very little, but the desire, I can tell, has started to stir.

I sit in the Café St Augustin with Gilles. Five o'clock. The place to ourselves. The workers will only stagger in after six. We order two cafés crèmes from the waiter. Our student coupons will cover the cost. Back at the altar to caffeine, he bangs the portafilter against the counter with two dull thuds. Metal locks, machine hammers, milk steams - all music to my ears. Gilles's knees hold mine in a vice as I take stock of the day.

"I didn't understand Jacot's lecture this afternoon. His thoughts on Les fleurs du mal are too obtuse."

"Just take notes," he says. "Don't try to understand him."

"He loves to pontificate from the podium. He gets off on one hundred and fifty students scribbling away."

"Take notes, re-read the poems for yourself, then tear his thoughts apart."

I burst out laughing. "Always the Bolshevik."

"And you need to be more bold," he says, opening my knees with his own. "A girl from Normandy has just as much to say as a Parisian."

The smart boys in my class back home were so competitive. I have never met anyone like Gilles before. So secure, so encouraging.

"Le dernier tango à Paris is playing at the cinema on Saturday. I could make you some pasta at my place afterwards."

I hesitate. Is this the film you go to see before making love for the first time? Sure, everyone is talking about the rape scene with the butter, but what bothers me most is Marlon Brando's age compared to Maria Schneider's. His detachment, his power...

"Can I think about it?"

"Allez, viens. C'est 'artistique'."

The sugar in the bottom of my cup sings on my tongue. Flecks of amber dance in his eyes.

"Very well, then. I look forward to it."

Diesel-drenched fingers be damned. It is time to claim your man.

I lie in my bed reciting the words of Anaïs Nin into the darkness. "Dressed in red and silver, she evoked the sounds and imagery of fire engines as they tore through the streets of New York. The first time he looked at her, he felt: everything will burn." My favourite passage. Carved into my envious little heart. If only my pen could ignite such heat on the page. I turn on the light and reach for my backpack. A few paragraphs should transport me out of myself, to the woman I wish I could be. But something is wrong. Une espionne dans la maison de l'amour is gone. And who is the thief? Lucy, the girl who wants to be me.

The next day, Lucy takes dainty bites of her coq au vin. She does not dare pick up the bones under my gaze. I pull her aside as the children file out of the dining room.

"I would like you to return my book, Lucy."

She looks towards the children racing into the courtyard. "What book?"

"If you just give it back, we can forget about the whole thing."

"It's time to go to the park."

"We all make mistakes. But we mustn't lie."

"I am not a liar."

"No one said you are a liar. You are a girl who made a mistake."

"I hate you. You pretend to be my friend, but you want me to feel bad."

"Nonsense. I want you to return my book so that you can feel good."

"What is this?" asks Madame Castagné from the doorway.

How long has she been there? She must never see me lose my nerve with a child.

"It's nothing. I've given Lucy the chance to return my book..."

Madame Castagné snaps her fingers. "Come on. We don't have all day."

Out in the corridor, she orders Lucy to open her locker. It lies on the top shelf.

Lucy shrugs and sticks out her chin. "I don't know how it got there."

For all her sighs and lovesick eyes, the little brat sees me as her servant. So be it.

A large manila envelope falls onto the floor. Lucy kneels to grab it, but Madame Castagné is swifter. She opens it and pulls out a manuscript. The title page reads, Under the Eaves of Paris, a novel by Frank Jones.

"Doesn't this belong to your father, Lucy?"

Crimson splotches break out over her face. "Please don't tell on me," she begs.

Madame Castagné nods for me to leave them alone. She puts her hand on Lucy's shoulder and ushers her into the main office.

From my bench I watch a group of elderly gentlemen play a round of boules. One click of the ball and I am back with my father in our garden. He taught me how to aim like a man. "Raise your wrist. The ball must sail high in the air. You want to crush your opponents on the way down." He loved it when my ball knocked his off the gravel and onto the grass. He loved it when I won. Why has Lucy taken her father's manuscript? And why is she so afraid of him? Fortunately, Madame Castagné is wise. She will know how to make things right between them.

The line outside the cinema snakes around the block. Most of the people are middle-aged. By their attire, I estimate that they come from both the Left and Right Banks. Bearded, pipe smoking "professors" rub shoulders with men clad in Lacoste shirts. Women with hennaed locks as wild as Medusa's check out the ash blonde queens à la Deneuve. We are all as depraved as the perverts in the park. We can't wait to see an old man drag a young woman through the mud.

"Le dernier tango à Paris is sold out!" announces the usher as he walks past.

I glance at Gilles, relieved. If we are going to make love for the first time tonight, we don't need to bring Marlon Brando along for the ride.

Gilles checks his watch. He suggests we catch The Poseidon Adventure nearby on the Champs-Elysées. The movie will begin in half an hour.

I burst out laughing. "But that's a Hollywood blockbuster."

"Come on! If we run into anyone we know, we'll tell them we're doing research on that strange specimen of humanity, the American."

I am glad that he enjoys popular movies. Pretending to be an intellectual all the time is exhausting.

The line for The Poseidon Adventure is never-ending. This time around it is a family affair. The cinema has over two hundred seats. If we are patient, we should be swallowed by its velvet darkness.

Gilles puts his hand on the small of my back. "A wave turns over a ship in the middle of the ocean. Twelve people decide to climb to safety. The concept is so simple, but brilliant. It taps into our basic drive..."

The man in front of us nudges his wife. He points his finger to the very top of the line. "Of course, the Americans here feel compelled to make a scene," he says.

It is Lucy. She is with her brothers. In the distance, I can see them squatting on the pavement. Their father, Mr Jones, towers above them. He raises his arms and yells, "On your marks, get set, go!"

The race is on. The two boys begin to waddle on their haunches along the entire line of cinemagoers. They look like ducks hurrying towards a mirage of water. Their mother, Mrs Jones, stands at the end of the block, waiting for her children to reach her. This is Saturday night on the Champs-Elysées. Childish cartwheels or even running would be out of place. But the duck walk? Has this family lost their minds? Lucy is clearly still sane. She jumps up off the ground and tries to slink away from her father. He grabs her by the arm and twists. She looks at the line of cinemagoers, but they pay no attention to her. They are too busy staring and pointing at her brothers. The boys must be too young to realize they are objects of ridicule. Lucy knows better. She tries to pull away from her father, but he takes hold of her shoulder and pushes her to the ground. She has no choice but to begin the walk of shame. What is the matter with this man? Can't he see that her skirt is crawling up around her hips? Is his will more important than his daughter's modesty? Her bottom, only covered by pink underpants, is now in full view of over one hundred Parisians. She keeps her head to the ground to block out the mob. I can't stand it. I run down the line and confront the father's partner in crime.

"Madame, you have got to stop this, now!"

She looks away from me. "I can't," she says. Her tone is conflicted.

For all the extinct cats on her back, I realize she has no authority at all. Some people in the line have begun to laugh. Others look annoyed, but not enough to intervene. I run to Lucy and pull her to her feet. Her face lights up in surprise, but then fades at the sound of her master's voice.

"Get your butt back on the ground!" her father yells.

I will not allow it. I smooth her skirt down over her legs. She will be safe with me in the line.

"What are you doing, Sophie? We shouldn't get involved," says Gilles when we slip in beside him.

Before I can argue, Mr Jones saunters over. "So, if it isn't Mademoiselle Sophie, the children's lunch girl." His command of French is too good. It gives him an edge.

I can smell gin on his breath. I have seen him out of the corner of my eye in the school's courtyard, but never up close. His eyes are beady and black. He is not a fat man, but his second chin falls to his collar bone. The flesh under his ears is as pink as roast beef.

"This is the Champs-Elysées, Monsieur."

He shrugs. "The children are cooped up in the apartment all weekend. If they don't exercise, they will be up all night. How and where I make them do it, is none of your business."

His words are reasonable, but I don't believe them. My father would never treat my sister and me like this. For sure, the alcohol has rid him of all inhibitions. He doesn't seem to care what people around him feel or think. But I sense his motives are more sinister. This man uses his children as marionettes to act out the Grand Guignol scenarios in his mind.

"Lucy is too old for your game. You must never embarrass a young girl in public."

He turns to his daughter, who lowers her eyes to the ground. "You made a mistake, honey child. You'll just have to get your exercise after the show."

Mrs Jones approaches and waves the tickets at her husband. "Let's go in now, Frank. The boys will want ice cream." She pretends that I do not exist as she grabs Lucy's hand.

Mr Jones extends a finger in the air. "You haven't heard the end of this, Mademoiselle Sophie."

The man is odious, but Mrs Jones is worse. She is weak, and oh so complicit. She should squat down on the pavement in her stockings and fur herself. When Lucy looks back over her shoulder, I wave. Mr Jones clocks our exchange. He grabs Lucy's ear and drags her towards the cinema entrance.

Gilles shakes his head. "This isn't going to end well. That man is drunk out of his mind, but he will have you fired Monday morning."

The idea of staring at a sinking ship on the screen with Gilles's hand up my thigh now seems absurd.

I plant a kiss on his cheek. "I'm really sorry, but it's best if I go home."

He follows as I head towards the Métro. "Hey! I'm only trying to protect you," he says, taking hold of my arm.

"And Lucy?"

He raises his hands in the air at a loss.

I take a step back and suggest we meet Tuesday. Gilles may end our story and I will regret it. No man wants to bed Joan of Arc.

The steps of the Métro are black with filth. Eight million shoes racing God knows where. Would anyone notice a lost girl in the city? Would anyone care?

It is Monday morning. I race through the school gates at eight thirty. I must warn Madame Castagné of my mistake with Mr and Mrs Jones. She will not be pleased. I have also created serious trouble for Lucy. I made her disobey her father. This man, I suspect, knows no forgiveness. Madame Castagné must never tell him that Lucy stole his manuscript. I can only hope that it is not too late.

Madame Castagné stands in the empty courtyard, smoking a cigarette. Her arched eyebrow signals that she is already informed.

"I am so sorry, Madame. If you let me explain..."

She drops her cigarette to the ground and crushes it with her pump. "They are already in my office. You are to remain silent unless I address you. Do you understand?"

I nod, depressed. How could I have let this woman down?

The smell of vanilla floats into the courtyard. Chef Jacques has already put his génoises in the oven for lunch. When cool, he will glaze the cakes with apricot jam. Their scent washes over me and I think of my mother at the door. "Welcome home, my darling girls. Put on your slippers and tell me of your adventures at school." I feel a bit better and follow Madame Castagné inside.

Mr Jones paces over the creaking floorboards of Madame Castagné's office. He aims for a dramatic effect.

"There is nothing the matter with a little healthy competition between siblings. Mademoiselle Sophie has no right to make Lucy think she is special. Just because our daughter is 'on the cusp of womanhood' doesn't mean she can disrespect me."

Today the man is sober. He peppers his French with contempt.

My boss sits at her desk, observing his performance. "I understand. You feel Mademoiselle Sophie has undermined your authority."

Mrs Jones sits in the corner with her eyes on the floor. It is clear she is embarrassed by her husband's tirade.

"Lucy is like a nail sticking out of a plank of wood," he continues. "She is arrogant, stubborn, and disobedient. She cannot be trusted. It is a constant battle to keep her down."

Madame Castagné's purses her lips in distaste. I am overcome with guilt. How many times have I judged Lucy for being unruly? I am no better than the tyrant in front of me.

Madame Castagné recomposes her expression. A professional mask is de rigueur. "You are right, Monsieur. Women of Mademoiselle Sophie's generation can get emotional and make mistakes."

He places his hands on her desk and looks downwards. "Then discipline her. My wife and I don't need a teenager making our war with Lucy any more difficult than it already is."

He turns and points his finger at me. "She thinks she knows us."

I squirm in my chair and hold my tongue. Madame Castagné could lose the tuitions of three children if I am not careful. She asks me to apologize. Ever so meek, I tell both of Lucy's parents that I am sorry.

Mr Jones accepts my apology and shakes my hand. "You should smile more."

I turn my lips upwards. Anything to appease him.

Mrs Jones's eyes meet mine. "Please don't judge me," they seem to say.

After the Americans have left the room, Madame Castagné leans back in her chair. "Mon dieu."

"I promise to mind my business from now on, Madame."

She waves her hand in the air, signalling that I should leave her in peace. "I am sure that you have learnt your lesson."

I can't help myself. "Does Mr Jones know that Lucy took his manuscript?"

Madame Castagné folds her hands on the desk. "What manuscript?" Her tone is challenging.

"But last Friday..."

"There is no manuscript."

I nod and leave her office, relieved. Even if Mr Jones is paying the tuition for three children, she knows enough to keep Lucy's secret.

Lucy sits next to me on the bench in the park. I do not mention what happened. School must feel safer than home. She pulls a lipstick out of her pocket and hands it to me. It is my favourite Mary Quant, the one I lost last fall. I put it in my backpack. No lectures today. She has made amends. Did her father order "her butt to the ground" after the The Poseidon Adventure? Most likely. Did he force the children to repeat this race if Lucy reached her mother first? Most likely. Anything to "keep her down." I don't understand his hostility towards his daughter. Is it because she is not a boy? I fear he wants to break her.

I open Une espionne dans la maison de l'amour to a page that is vivid but chaste.

"Can you read in French as well as you speak?"

Lucy brightens at the compliment. Her voice loses its childlike pitch, and she takes care with every word. Her finger moves in a straight line underneath the print. The nail is pale, like a scallop in the sand. Today the leaves on the trees glimmer like emeralds in the sun. In a few weeks they will dim to jade. Summer break is two months away, but the moment feels so fleeting.

Madame Castagné calls me into her office after I have delivered the children. She tells me that she needs my help tomorrow afternoon.

"Our French teacher has taken ill. I would take over the children's lesson myself, but I must monitor Lucy's examination."

"May I ask what kind of examination?"

Who is putting her to the test?

"Lucy must take the Common Entrance for Great Britain. Her mother wants to send her away to boarding school as soon as possible."

But why? I wonder. Mr Jones is the man who should be sent away.

The next day Lucy pushes her blanquette de veau around her plate. At least she dips her bread into the sauce. I give her two triangles of The Laughing Cow cheese. She must be strong for her exam. Madame Castagné enters the dining room and announces that I will be their French teacher for the afternoon. The children poke one another in the ribs and promise to be good. Lucy's hands twitch as Madame Castagné leads her away. How long has she known that she must leave this school? Her rage at the pervert in the park now makes sense. Why should we always move for these men? Did she take her father's manuscript for revenge? Was she planning to throw it in the rubbish bin outside the kitchen of Monsieur Jacques?

The children read from their books containing Les fables de La Fontaine. Today, they must answer questions about "Le corbeau et le renard." Exercises highlight the fox's wily ways, how he flatters the crow in the tree. Seduced, she caws and drops the cheese from her mouth. The fox gobbles it up. A great lesson about predators. They are everywhere. I walk to the back of the classroom. From the window, I can look across the courtyard and into the room on the ground floor. Blurred shapes move behind the glass. I can make out Lucy's shoulders, hunched over her desk. Her hand scribbles across a page. Madame Castagné pulls the paper away and gives her another. Who sends a child to another country so young? When my sister and I misbehaved, our mother would threaten to call the nuns in the convent on the outskirts of town. "Sister Marie Joseph will be happy to take you off my hands." We would laugh in her face. We knew she wasn't serious.

It is five o'clock. The children clatter down the stairs into the courtyard. I follow them and lean against the wall of the main entrance. I am tired but would like to ask Lucy how she is. Was the examination difficult? Does she feel confident that she answered the questions well? Parents open their arms to greet their offspring. They seem so joyous. I catch my breath. Mr Jones stands apart from the other adults in a wrinkled trench coat. A bib of grey covers his jaw and neck. His face lights up as his sons approach him. He ruffles their hair when they grab his waist. Lucy exits the building as if in a trance. I raise my hand to tap her shoulder, but then hide it behind my back. She walks at a snail's pace towards her father. He crosses his arms at the sight of her. He asks her nothing about her day.

Madame Castagné's office door is ajar. She is stuffing papers into a plastic pouch. I tiptoe into the room.

"The British insist I send the exam off by courier. Of course, they have no faith in our postal system."

"Madame, I have come to the conclusion that I must resign."

She looks at me in surprise. "Whatever for?"

I burst into tears. "I am a fraud. I have no business working with children."

She motions me to sit down on the other side of her desk. "Nonsense. Apart from your scrape with la famille Jones, you are doing a fine job here."

"In the beginning, I did not even like Lucy. And then I intervened and made her life worse."

She offers me a tissue, then walks over to the filing cabinet. "If you quit this sniffling, I might give you a raise."

I obey but am still determined to leave.

Madame Castagné opens a file and pulls out copies of the children's passports. She points her finger at the hazy pictures. "First of all, you will see that Lucy's real last name is Parker. Mr Jones is the stepfather."

My father won't let me grow my hair. Lucy has never used the word stepfather. This other man's existence must be a taboo.

She hands me a bank statement. "The tuition of the three children is paid by a trust fund in the name of Mrs Jones. Mr Jones is not gainfully employed in Paris."

I have never met a kept man before this week. All the men back home must work.

Madame Castagné looks around the room as if someone were listening. I am the only ears in sight. Satisfied, she walks to the door and locks it. She then pulls the manuscript out of her desk and places it in my hands. I stare at the first page. Under the Eaves of Paris, a novel by Frank Jones. So, he had the time and money to write a novel. Lucky man.

Madame Castagné lowers her voice to a whisper. "Look closer, Mademoiselle Sophie."

I flip through the pages. His hell soon becomes apparent. Chapter one is filled with his prose. The following nine chapters are different. He has typed out the Book of Genesis, over and over again.

"Oh no..."

Madame Castagné sighs and shakes her head. "Hemingway did a great disservice to the American male. His lean prose convinced an entire generation that they, too, could write."

I read the first lines of the manuscript. "The SS France left the port of New York at ten knots an hour. Around midnight the band played 'La Vie en Rose.' They were a tight band."

Is this good or bad? I hesitate to judge English literature.

"There must be dozens of men like Mr Jones in Paris. They think that if they live like Papa, the words will flow."

"But Lucy shouldn't have to pay for his unhappiness."

Madame Castagné clucks her tongue. "Lucy is the lucky one. Her mother is setting her free from the asylum. Pity the stepbrothers left behind."

I have never heard such a sad tale. When the rich have problems, they seek a geographical cure.

I hand the manuscript back to Madame Castagné. Her fingers grasp the sides as she taps the bottom on her desk. The pages are now aligned. "Lucy did well enough on her exam. The Cheltenham Ladies' College will accept her. Once she is safe across the channel, I will drop this masterpiece in the mailbox outside of Harry's Bar. When Mr Jones receives it, he will assume that he left it there after too many martinis."

Her plan is worthy of Detective Maigret.

Chef Jacques wheels his trolley into the dining room. He has created a bûche de Noël with hazelnut buttercream for Lucy's final dessert. It must be one meter long. A single candle stands tall amongst the ridges and swirls of his Christmas log. Lucy smiles and blows out the flame. Chef Jacques cuts his cake fast before the icing dissolves in the heat. He has outdone himself. He could have refused to bake such a confection at short notice, but Lucy is his favourite eater. The idea that she will soon face British food is more than he can bear. The children have decorated the dining hall with banners that wish her bonne chance. At Madame Castagné's command, they rise and sing farewell. Lucy's eyes travel over her friends. I can tell that any fights are now forgotten. Only the sweet times remain.

Lucy sits on a chair in an empty classroom. She holds two barrettes with rhinestone butterflies up to the light. They cost me a fortune at the parfumerie. I part her wisps of hair with my comb and sweep it to the side. The drugstore diamonds glitter above her ears.

"There. You look like a true gamine."

Lucy picks up my compact mirror and admires her reflection.

"My mother says I will be joining the élite."

It is clear she does not understand the term.

"I lived in a small town all my life. You, on the other hand, will become a citizen of the world."

She bites her lip and picks at the button on her cuff. "I wish I could stay here."

If only I could wipe away her fears. "Just think, Lucy. With your French and British education, you could become a diplomat."

She sits up straight, interested. "You mean like an ambassador?"

I nod my head. "Like an ambassadress. If you study hard, you might go to Africa and India."

I can already see these continents in her eyes.

"You will go far. You are the bravest, smartest girl I know."

But my heart whispers words I cannot say. Oh Lucy, if you were my daughter, I would never let you go.


  1. The characters, all of them, are 100% believable and engaging to me. I read this story slowly over a few cups of coffee. I savored it. Each scene was entrancing. The narrative voice was unique but very French. The scene in the headmisress’s office was dynamite. She was like a spy! Are there many perverts following schoolgirls in Paris?? No matter. The descriptions of the food were lovely. I loved this whole thing. The subplots weave effortlessly in and around one another. Five stars.

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 15, 2024 at 12:28 PM

      Hi June, thank you so much for reading and commenting on my story. I was in a bilingual school in Paris in the seventies. University Students took us to the Bois de Boulogne every day and watched us like hawks. Yes, we were confronted with perverts every day. Each time they whipped it out, we were forced to find a new place to play. Most tedious.

  2. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 15, 2024 at 12:30 PM

    Thank you, Charlie for the great picture! It depicts Mademoiselle Sophie perfectly.

  3. This is lovely, Rozanne. It's cinematic in detail, unhurried, and authentic!

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 16, 2024 at 8:43 AM

      Thank you, David, for reading and commenting on my story!

  4. Wonderfully written story; I remember that time, well, and had very little trouble understanding Sophie and her challenges she faces, even though I was never a lunch supervisor in a French school. Poor Lucy; her awful stepfather is believable; I've run across the type. My only criticism is that I wish there were not so many visual breaks, I find they distract from the immersive qualities of the story. But it is a small problem, overall.

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 16, 2024 at 8:46 AM

      HI Eolas, thank you for reading! I will read it again in a few weeks with fresh eyes and see if the breaks are intrusive. Feedback like this is always useful.

  5. This is such a rich well-textured tale. From the very first paragraph, I was immersed into Sophie’s world.

    The protagonist’s internal monologue builds terrific characterization, and memorable lines:
    “We have been spending time together for three weeks now, and soon he will want sex. I am falling in love with him, but I want the romance to last a little longer before the sap-ridden reality sets in.”
    “I am glad that he enjoys popular movies. Pretending to be an intellectual all the time is exhausting.”

    Also, the interplay between Sophie and Lucy is endearing. Pre-teen girls tend to worship the teen/twenty-something girls in their lives. And then - to my mind - Lucy was so “American” - brash, forceful, unabashed, contrasting with the ways in which Sophiew was so “French” - shy, demure, self-conscious, sophisticated (or at least pretending to be so).

    Thank you for this great story!

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 16, 2024 at 8:54 AM

      Hi Adam, thank you for reading! I was hoping you would give your psychological insight into their relationship. Yes, young girls worship teenagers and young women. Babysitters, teacher assistants... I suppose it is part of a child's development.

  6. As others have said this is a very rich, evocative, and wonderfully told story that brings the characters to life so well and depicts the time and place so adeptly by appealing to all the senses. In fact I think this is one of many strengths in your writing here, that sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound are all part of your descriptions and this gives the story such depth. I can see this as a novel actually.

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 16, 2024 at 9:57 AM

      Thank you, Paul! Other people have suggested that I write at least a follow up story about Lucy. I have put down some ideas... Best Roz

  7. What an interesting story! I wanted to go on reading!

    1. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 18, 2024 at 6:43 PM

      Thank you, Lindsay!

  8. The rich detail of the opening section hooked me quick and getting to know Sophie, Lucy, and this world totally drew me in the rest of the way. Madame Castagné was as engaging as the others, and, boy, that Mr. Jones, let's just say, an interesting fellow. Loved all the detail coloring this story, really enjoyed it!

  9. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 20, 2024 at 7:29 AM

    Thank you, Cliff! I am glad you enjoyed it.

  10. The ongoing adventures of Sophie was a delightful surprise as I read it tonight. Many issues were touched upon; for example, misogyny and cruelty and unremitting self involvement. Sophie once again made great strides in coming to grips with the vicissitudes of an era when women were very disposable, while at the same time quite essential beings. I love the ease and fluidity with which Rozanne brings Sophie to life by revealing her doubts, her fears and he innermost thoughts. Thanks once again, Rozanne, for some poignant, thoughtful and wonderful fiction.

  11. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 25, 2024 at 7:54 AM

    Hi Bill, thanks for reading and commenting on this story. Yes, Sophie is confronted with a very dysfuntional family. The parents, in order to cope with the failure, have picked Lucy as the scapegoat. Mr Jones's misogyny stems from a sense of threat in the changing world.