WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Stuart Campbell’s The Aeronaut’s Guide To Rapture
She had fed the beasts and persuaded the newborn calf to suckle from the bottle. She had to prise apart the animal’s lips and rub them gently with the teat before it understood. It had sucked and sucked until the bottle was empty. She had held the bottle higher so that it could drain the last drop. Without her noticing, it had grown dark in the barn.
Her father ruffled her hair, blew out the lamp and sent her to her bed. Her mother too had looked up and smiled before resuming her knitting. A good day. And many more to come, good days stretching to the outer edges of her childhood. Tomorrow she would meet up with Angélique and the pair of them would finish the house they were making in the hay.
It was hard work flattening the stalks that always sprung back into their original shape. Ursule spat out the husks. ‘Not on the carpet,’ said Angélique and the pair of them collapsed laughing until their sides ached. Dust stuck to their faces and smeared them like savages. Angélique had brought some hard-boiled eggs and bread. They sat and gossiped like their elders and talked about Pierre the boy on the neighbouring farm whom they both pretended to love. Meanwhile the dragonflies hovered around the edges of their conversation.
They both knew that Pierre preferred Ursule. He had, after all, snatched a kiss when they met accidently down by the river, but all good things were to be shared with one’s friends. All three would live together in a big house. There would of course be children though Ursule had not given any thought to how this might be achieved. There was always a solution for everything.
Gradually her father became more distant and smiled less often. Her mother no longer knitted clothes for them all but sewed and sewed until her fingers were red raw. Then Gérard would come and take away her work, leaving another mountain of cloth in front of the cold hearth.
Angélique disappeared from her life for reasons she never understood. Soon there were no more calves to be fed, and there was no more grain in the barn. The large door swung open and creaked and groaned throughout the long nights.
And then she was sold to Gérard.
She had never seen a man so tall. Behind his back the neighbours called him le Géant. He filled all of the space in the room. He and her father conferred, and then she was sent to pack. Her mother could not look at her and instead addressed her shoulder explaining that she was, after all, nearly sixteen and had to make her own way. Money was owed to le Géant who would look after Ursule and give her a trade. Of course she could visit her parents as often as she liked. She would find life and excitement in Paris. It was a grand city full of possibility.
At first le Géant had treated her well. He was, after all, her new tall uncle. They stayed in a small apartment in Place Royale with a view over the park. She would stare at the neat boys rolling hoops and the parade of large perambulators being pushed by upright women in black. She was never certain that the carriages actually held children, perhaps the servants were just practising for children as yet unborn.
One night she woke in her truckle bed screaming, trapped in a dream in which she pulled back the small lace curtains and saw that each pram held a dead faceless baby. Le Géant shouted to her to be quiet and go back to sleep.
The next night he suggested that she should join him in his bed so that he could comfort her if the nightmare returned. She had often crept into her parents’ bed and thought this would be a good arrangement. She felt safe for the first time in a long while when she nestled against his warm strong body.
She clung to the edge of the bed in the aftermath, sobbing and in great pain. Why had he done that to her? Why would her uncle want to cause her such hurt? Le Géant grew angry and said he would give her a reason to cry if she didn’t shut up. So, the pattern was established. She had no idea where he went during the day. She would keep the room tidy, take his clothes to the wash house where she was well treated by the older women. She would haggle for meat and vegetables in the market and cook them as best as she could. Her best was rarely good enough. ‘Why does this smell like a Prussian latrine? Was it your useless mother who taught you to cook pig shit?’
Once he took the meat from his plate in one fist and crammed it into her mouth until she was gagging. He then rubbed the plate and the remaining gravy into her face and hair.
‘Learn to cook, whore!’ He stormed out of the apartment and to Ursule’s relief was so drunk on his return that he fell where he stood in the doorway and slept until morning.
Sometimes an ill-smelling older man, Eugène, would return to the apartment with le Géant. She would be given a few sous and sent out to the grog shop on the corner. Eugène would put his forefinger and thumb to his mouth before counting out money into two unequal heaps on the table. Sometimes he would catch Ursule staring at the transaction and wink at her with an expression that frightened her. Once le Géant called her over and made her sit on Eugène’s lap like the child that she was. Eugène placed a hand under her skirt and she fled to the recess in the far wall. Le Géant laughed. ‘Later,’ he said. ‘Patience my friend. All good things can wait.’
Although Ursule conscientiously washed le Géant’s clothes, prepared his food to the best of her ability and swept the apartment, she continued to spend much of each day staring out of the window at the park and its visitors.
She had names for all of the regular strollers: Jacques, the old man who would pause and wave his stick at the sky for no apparent reason. Marthe and Maxime, two thin housemaids who would stroll arm in arm before sitting on their favourite bench. If it was occupied they would loiter, glancing repeatedly at the intruders until they moved away. Madame Piquenez would strut with self-importance as her four small dogs fussed and sniffed their way along the gravel paths.
As dusk fell the gas lamps were lit and the park clientele changed. While the nurses were tucking their charges into bed, single women and groups of men would pass through the gates. The glow from a score of cigars would enable Ursule to follow the men as they hunted for companions. She noticed too how laughter sounded louder in the dark. Turning away from the window she would listen anxiously for Gérard’s return.
Best of all were the nights when he didn’t return at all, leaving her to savour the sound of carriages passing in the darkness. Who were they carrying? Spies? Government officials with despatches from the front? Lovers returning from illicit encounters? Sometimes the horses sped over the cobbles with the fast rhythms of a polka, at other times they moved slowly in a tired waltz.
Le Géant returned mid-evening. This was very unusual. He stood on the threshold. ‘Get your coat, you need a drink.’
He strode ahead and she struggled to keep up. He waited impatiently for her at the door of le Refuge and then pushed her into the smell of men and smoke. Their arrival was met with loud cheering. Le Géant nodded his head in acknowledgement of the applause. A small part of Ursule was gratified to learn that Gérard was so well received by his friends. Perhaps she had misjudged him. Perhaps she should try harder to make him happy and meet his needs.
‘Behold the prize!’ proclaimed le Géant, indicating Ursule with a flourish. She felt embarrassed but not displeased to be referred to in this unexpected manner. Yes, she really must try harder. The room was dark and thick with smoke and she felt her eyes smarting. When they adjusted to the light she recognised Eugène. She nodded at him but he responded with a sneer. Another man with a large beard and small eyes banged his crutch on the stone floor expressing either frustration or approval, Ursule couldn’t tell. The landlord placed a tray of glasses on an upturned barrel and uncorked a brandy bottle.
Le Géant took to the floor. ‘Comrades,’ he said. ‘Times are hard, The Prussians are at the gate. We must look after each other. As our socialist friends tell us, we must share our goods. I am willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. This young woman here can be yours, for a price! Now who will offer me ten francs? A bargain, I assure you.’
Ursule smiled, assuming that le Géant was jesting at her expense. She could forgive him his miscalculation. It was good, after all, to see him in such good spirits. Several hands were raised.
‘Fifteen,’ said Eugène.
‘Twenty!’ shouted a youngish man whose face seemed to have been sown together with a scar.
‘Come on now, look at her young flesh!’ Le Géant lifted Ursule’s dress. The crowd whooped their approval. Ursule was confused.
She tried to rise from the table but le Géant pressed down firmly on her shoulder. ‘Sit there, slut,’ he muttered for her ears only. Again she tried to stand, again she was restrained.
‘Any advance on thirty? Come on, gentlemen, it’s your last chance.’
‘Thirty and my dog!’
‘Sold to the owner of the large stomach in the corner!’
Le Géant removed his hand from Ursule’s shoulder as he pointed out the winner of the auction. Instantly she rose and fled towards the door. Eugène extended his leg and tripped her but she maintained her momentum and tumbled into the street.
Running fast through the cold night calmed her sufficiently for her to consider returning home. After all there was more than a chance that he would return too drunk to make a fuss. She would, however, sleep fully clothed.
Gérard pulled back the covers and towered over her, his face grotesquely lit by the candle dripping wax into her hair.
‘It was a joke, who in their right mind would pay money for you anyway? Scraggy runt of a woman, of no use to man nor beast. You forget that I rescued you from your past. Without me your parents would have starved. And you with them. Look at you. Curled up like a baby with your thumb in your mouth. You make me sick! Thank God I know real women who would give their eye teeth to spend a night with me.’ With that he walked out of the apartment, slamming the door after him, rocking it in its frame. In her mind’s eye Ursule saw le Géant holding court, surrounded by women with faces like harlequins who nevertheless were gentle and welcoming to him in a way she could not manage.
She had seriously considered not returning after the incident at le Refuge, but where would she have gone? Perhaps in her naivety she had failed to understand le Géant’s robust humour. She knew little of the world. Perhaps she deserved to be sold. She had, after all, transgressed. She had betrayed him.
• Stuart Campbell is a native of Edinburgh now living in Glasgow. He has worked as an English teacher and advisor in the Lothians, and as a manager with Health in Mind, an Edinburgh-based mental health charity. Published by Sandstone, this is his second novel.