Tanya Farrelly is the author of three books: a short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House), which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and named winner of the Kate O’ Brien Award 2017, and two psychological thrillers: The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close (Harper Collins), both Amazon bestsellers. She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin. She is the founder and director of Staccato Literary Salon and Bray Literary Festival. Her second short story collection is forthcoming from Arlen House in 2020.
Théâtre de Lumière
‘Clothilde! Have you lost your tongue?’
Albert paused, fingers loosening on the handle of the barrel organ, as he placed his other hand on his hip. He eyed his daughter who, instead of singing, was staring transfixed at the canvas of a nearby artist – a man whose whiskers were almost as white as his own.
‘Baah,’ her father said. ‘Go on. Take a break if you must but come back in twenty minutes.’
Clothilde smiled at her papa. He was a soft man who knew that his daughter would not accompany him much longer. It had not escaped him that she was growing, filling out in all the places a young woman should – and every year she resembled more and more her mother, Odette. It pained him still to even say her name – his raven-haired beauty.
Clothilde took off through the square walking slowly, she dawdled behind a young man who sat with a pallet on his knee. The pallet was full of bright colours, but all that appeared on his canvas were different shades of blue. She peered over his shoulder at the odd shapes materialising, and wondered what the young man was trying to reproduce. Whatever it was, she couldn’t see it, and she wondered if maybe he’d be better off becoming her father’s apprentice and giving her his place in the square. The idea of trading places with this stranger for a day made her smile, and she was surprised when he addressed her without even turning his head.
‘You should sit for me,’ he said. He continued staring at the canvas, his brush creating ever-more blue lines.
‘Or you for me,’ Clothilde replied.
She had spotted the looking glass gripped to the side of the young man’s easel. When she shifted even slightly her face became disfigured, lengthening and then widening by turn, so that her face and her whole form distorted as it had in the house of mirrors she’d like so much at the fair.
She’d caught the young man’s surprised look in the glass. His eyes widened, and when he moved they widened still more, but he ignored her quip and kept painting, and with a little skip, she moved on.
Clothilde had been singing with her father since she was a child. At first he had discouraged it, bringing her along simply because he had no other option. But then he’d noticed how much extra money they made when the little girl sang. As soon as she opened her mouth, rich men’s francs found their way into his hat, which he lay out on the pavement before them, more like a symbol than a begging bowl.
Albert was not an educated man – but he was a talented one. He’d been a revered musician in the theatre until that incident with Odette. He remembered the first night he’d seen her on stage – wearing that red dress that had turned all men’s heads – golden hair curled in at the ends and lips red like a siren. He’d made her laugh, something she’d said the actors couldn’t do. But who’d get involved with an actor, she’d said, someone whose wish was to be somebody else. She’d laughed when she’d said it and tugged off her golden wig to reveal her raven’s hair beneath, and Albert had thought her even more beautiful.
But it hadn’t been an actor that had turned his beauty’s head. It had been none other than the theatre director himself – Monsieur Dupont. Someone who Odette had mocked and imitated and complained about because of his insistence on pushing her too far. But Dupont had made Odette and it seemed they both knew it when Albert walked in upon them one evening in the dressing room.
After his dismissal from the theatre, Albert, despite his brilliance, could not get another job in the city.
Clothilde was just a toddler when her mother left – raven-haired and tottering round in her mother’s heels, she was Odette in miniature, and Albert hoped that his daughter would never take to the stage.
As Clothilde circled the square, she stooped occasionally to retrieve a piece of charcoal that one of the artists had dropped, but instead of handing it back to them, she put it in the pocket of her dress. The insides of her pockets were black from this venture, but it meant all she needed to secure was paper and she could sit at the wooden table after dinner each night and sketch. Clothilde made use of all kinds of paper; she had drawn on the backs of circus posters that had fallen down in the street. She’d taken flyers from those passing them round in the streets. She didn’t care what they said, all she needed was a blank space.
Clothilde drew many pictures from memory. She’d sketched her father at the barrel organ, and the artists at work in the cobbled streets of Montmarte. She’d sat on the step at the butte and she’d drawn children with ice-creams, dancers on their way to the Place de Clichy, and old men with their dogs. She had tried to draw her mother, but strong as her memories of her were – she could summon her voice, and her scent – her face refused to come into focus.
The next day as Clothilde sang in the square with her father, she spotted again the young man painting his strange blue pictures. ‘Sit for me,’ he said, eyeing her in the glass. ‘Is that how I’ll look?’ she said, staring at the odd shapes on the canvas. He shrugged and handed her a piece of paper on which he’d scrawled his address in charcoal, letters smudging under her touch.
The following afternoon Clothilde walked to the Rue Saint Laurent; a laneway of narrow houses piled on top of one another. She searched until she found a blue door adorned with the number six. She raised the brass knocker and let it fall against the wood twice. It was Sunday and she didn’t have to sing. Inside, Clothilde heard a shuffling, and the door opened, but the man who stood there was not the man from the square. ‘I’m looking for Hugo,’ Clothilde said, and the man stood back and admitted her. ‘Top floor,’ he said, and pointed towards the stairs.
The house was old and as Clothilde climbed the steep steps, the boards creaked beneath her weight. The stairway was unlit, and as she climbed it became darker, forcing her to feel her way until she’d reached the landing and stood before what could only be the artist’s door. Clothilde put her ear to the wood, but heard nothing. When the door swung open of a sudden, she almost landed on the floor. The young man smiled. ‘That’ll teach you to spy at keyholes,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t…’ ‘Sit,’ he said indicating to a rocky wooden chair.
Clothilde looked round the room, which was lit by two skylights. It was bright enough, but to see out to the streets below, you had to stand on the edge of a narrow bed tucked into one corner. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a chest of drawers, and on top of it was a chaos of canvases, papers, and tubes of paint. Clothilde turned back to the Hugo who was observing her.
‘It’s not much, is it?’ he said. ‘But it’s my uncle’s house so I can stay here for free.’
Clothilde thought of the man downstairs, wondered if there was a resident on each floor. ‘Does he own the building?’ she asked.
‘The young man nodded. ‘He’s rich, owns the Théâtre de Lumière,’ he said.
Clothilde looked up, startled. Her mother had been a performer at the Théâtre de Lumière. It was where she’d met her father. He’d been a proper musician then, not a side-street busker. Since she was a little girl, she’d longed to see the inside of the theatre. Only a month before, she’d stood outside it, loitering until a doorman had whooshed her away. She was too young to see the show and even if she wasn’t, she didn’t have the price of a ticket. She’d snuck round to the stage door then, pulled on the handle, but found it locked. She heard the peel of a woman’s laughter inside and imagined it was her mother.
‘Are you allowed in the theatre?’ Clothilde asked. And immediately felt stupid when the young man smiled. Of course he was. He must have been eighteen at least – older than her by far.
‘Sometimes I go into the dressing rooms,’ he told her. ‘To draw their portraits. If the ladies like it, I get paid.’
Clothilde imagined the splendour of those dressing rooms. In her mind’s eye, she saw her mother perched before a mirror carefully painting her lips the colour of the theatre’s plush carpet, the colour of the drapes that she imagined hid the stage. ‘Could you take me there?’ she asked. The young man looked doubtful. ‘How old are you?’ he asked, and Clothilde blushed. ‘I’ll be fourteen in December.’ ‘December? Why, that’s almost nine months away!’ ‘I only want to see inside,’ she told him – I don’t even have to see the show.’
On Tuesday evenings, Albert played with a band in a bistro. He hated to leave his daughter alone, but he trusted that Clothilde was sensible and he instructed her, not twice but trice before he left the house, to bolt the door and stay put for the evening. He would return home to find her drawings scattered on the kitchen table, and his daughter asleep in bed. She was a good girl, happy to stay home at her pursuits, and it eased his mind that, despite appearances, she seemed not to share her mother’s itchy feet.
Two nights later, after her father had said his goodbyes, Clothilde sat at the table and drew distractedly. She waited ten minutes, long enough for her father to have walked out of sight and then she covered her head with a scarf, unbolted the door and made her way down the laneway to the butte of Montmartre where she was to meet Hugo Gilbert.
Clothilde followed Hugo round to the stage door and waited, breathless, for him to press the handle, to see if the door would give, but rather than try it, he rapped his knuckles on the wood. A moment later, the door opened and a girl, her small face rather pixie-like peered out at them – her smile died when she saw Clothilde. ‘Who’s this?’ she said. ‘A cousin, I’m sorry I had to bring her. She’ll be no trouble, just wants to see the inside of the theatre.’ The girl looked at Clothilde, doubtful, but Hugo smiled and the pixie-face softened. ‘As long as they don’t know it was me who let you in.’ Clothilde saw the artist’s hand caress the girl’s waist as they passed.
The corridors of the theatre were full of pictures. Clothilde examined each face as she passed, feeling Hugo’s eyes upon her. ‘Are you looking for something particular?’ he asked. ‘My mother. She performed here when I was a little girl.’ Hugo Gilbert looked at her closely. ‘What was her name?’ he asked. ‘Odette Chevalier.’ She heard the artist’s intake of breath before he put his hand under her elbow and hurried her down the corridor.
There was a wall of pictures: the raven-haired Odette in a myriad of costumes and poses, her lips turned up at the corners even when she didn’t smile. As Clothilde stared at the images before her, everything amplified, it was like a gauze had lifted from her eyes and ears, and her mother’s voice, which she thought she’d known so well, became more lilting, it’s musicality perhaps the thing that had attracted the talented Albert. She remembered the grace with which she moved, how she’d a dimple in her left cheek when she smiled.
She was remembering these things when she felt the presence of another being, and expecting to find Hugo returned, she turned to see a man’s enormous bulk filling the darkened corridor. ‘Odette?’ She was surprised that such a giant could whisper. ‘No.’ The man had closed the space between them with a few strides… ‘Who are you?’ he said, taking Clothilde’s chin gently between his thumb and forefinger. Clothilde stared back at him. She knew who he was, she’d heard rumours about Monsieur Dupont, the giant that her mother was said to have run away with. Disengaging her chin and drawing herself up to her full height, she stared into his black eyes and told him that she was Clothilde Chevalier and she had come to find her mother.
Dupont led her down the corridor and ushered her into his office. In the corner was a settee with some blankets thrown haphazardly across the leather, the place was in such disarray that she wondered if he lived there. But what was he doing here? This man had run away with her mother more than a decade before. He wasn’t supposed to be at the theatre.
‘Who brought you here?’ Dupont asked. His voice was brusk and in the dim light of the lamp on his desk, it was impossible to see his expression. Clothilde wondered if she should be afraid. She didn’t feel afraid despite the thumping in her chest, what she felt more than anything was anger. This was the man who’d stolen her mother away, who’d broken her father’s heart and left them close to destitute. All the same she knew that she ought to tread carefully, it was best if he knew that she wasn’t alone. ‘My friend,’ she said. ‘His uncle owns this theatre.’ Dupont ran a huge palm across his face and caressed his black beard. ‘Hugo…’ he said, and it became clear to Odette that Dupont was no longer the director, but the mysterious buyer who’d recently taken over the Théâtre de Lumière.
‘Where is she? What have you done with my mother?’ she said, a tremor in her voice, no matter how she tried to keep it steady. Black Beard didn’t answer. ‘Is she here?’ He shook his big head, sat heavily into the chair at his desk, but Clothilde refused to sit. She stood, fists clenched, looking down at him. ‘You’ve got her face,’ he told her. He smiled briefly, and she saw that this man, now so heavy-jowled and brutish, had once been handsome. He jumped out of his seat, agile yet, and came round to where Clothilde stood. Alarmed, she took a step backwards. ‘When I saw you, I thought she’d returned,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’
‘Where is she?’ Clothilde asked, taking a step towards him again.
‘You’re young, younger than she was when she began. You could own that stage… the star of the Théâtre de Lumière… would you like that?’
‘Tell me where I can find my mother.’ The words, so loud they seemed to reverberate, drew him to the present and his face, illuminated briefly, fell dark again. ‘Odette died,’ he said, turning from her.
‘What? How?’ Clothilde moved in front of him, and as she did, saw his eyes stray to the photo on his desk.
‘Tuberculosis. She’s buried in a small cemetery outside Paris, ten years since…’
‘I wish I were child.’
That night Clothilde lay in her narrow bed and stared into the darkness. She heard her father come in about midnight, and she sat up and pushed back the covers, but in the end she didn’t go to him. What would it do to him to hear that the woman he’d adored was dead? That she lay in a grave in a place where no one knew her – the queen of the Théâtre de Lumière.
Clothilde lay down again and pulled the blankets to her chin. She’d heard the stories – people talked about the musician who’d pulled a dagger on the director of the Théâtre de Lumière but had failed to strike the blade into his heart. They’d left that night, Odette Chevalier and her lover, leaving Albert to return to Clothilde. And neither of them had been heard of again.
Clothilde listened in darkness to the sounds of her father getting ready for bed, thoughts of the director swarming in her head. If it hadn’t been for that man, her mother would be here. She’d not have gone away and died. Her father would not have to roll his barrel organ through the streets of Paris, a pauper barely able to keep a roof over their heads.
She waited, heard the bed springs creak, and shortly afterwards the sound of her father’s snores. Silently, she slipped from beneath the covers and pulled on her clothes. She went to her father’s room and pulled open the bottom drawer of the chest and in darkness she rummaged until her hand lit on cold steel. Silently, she withdrew the bolt, stole from the house and hurried down the streets of Montmarte.
The Théâtre de Lumière was in darkness. Clothilde crept round the back to where Hugo Gilbert had brought her earlier that day. She pressed the handle, but the door was locked. She crept along the wall of the building. All the windows were closed tight, except one. It was locked, but the wooden frame was rotted so that there was a gap between the frame and the opening sash. Clothilde took the dagger, slipped it into the gap, and within minutes she’d managed to lift the handle.
The room she landed in was full of oddly-shaped objects, which, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she realised were props. Clothilde felt her way through them, nothing but the moonlight shining through the small window to guide her. Once in the corridor she felt her way along, with no lamps it was impossible to know where she was going. She had taken a box of matches from the fireplace, but she was afraid to strike one for fear that the director was somewhere nearby.
As her eyes adjusted, Clothilde realised that she was near the dressing rooms where Hugo had left her that day. The door where the pixie-faced girl had let them in was straight ahead, and so she turned and retraced her steps until she reached the place where the director had come upon her not so many hours before. She felt her mother’s eyes in the dark and tried to ignore the wall full of pictures.
She stopped to listen. From the director’s office came the unmistakable sound of snoring. Clothilde followed the sound – hesitated but for a moment before easing the handle down and stepping into Black Beard’s lair. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Clothilde crept closer, the cold steel of the dagger gripped in one hand. She leaned forward so that her face was looming above his, so close that his stale breath caused her almost to recoil. Without warning she struck the match so that the director had only a moment to realise his fate. “This is for my father,” she said, plunging the dagger deep in the director’s heart.