Bitter Chocolate – Extract

On a hot, sultry afternoon in May when the breeze had stopped and the air was oppressively still, Améline, the reste-avec in the St Lazâre household, pushed open the door to the parlour, dragging her bucket and floor polishers behind her. It was three o’clock and the heat was still intense. Madame St Lazâre was taking her customary afternoon siesta and the house was silent. Nothing moved, not even the hands of the grandfather clock in the corner that had stopped when Madame’s husband, whom Améline had never seen, died. Or so Madame said. Five minutes past three on a Sunday afternoon. Améline wasn’t sure she believed her.

She closed the door behind her carefully. It was the only time she was allowed in the parlour. Cléones, the ancient maid and cook, could no longer bend down and the task of polishing the wooden floorboards had naturally fallen to Améline. She put down her bucket and picked up the dusters, working her way quickly across the surfaces of the dark, heavy furniture that Madame favoured and which showed up every speck of dust, ghostly white, like the talcum powder Améline occasionally sprinkled over her skin on Sundays when she and Cléones went to church. She lifted the brass candlesticks, long empty of candles, noticing that they too needed polishing and set them down carefully again, making a mental note to tackle them before Madame’s eagle eyes noticed and she earned herself a rebuke. She ran her cloth gently over the two porcelain figurines that Laure, Madame’s sixteen-year old granddaughter, had told her came from a shop in Paris, in France. First the painted heads, then the smooth, stiff folds of their skirts, and finally the bases. And that was when she saw it, lying face up, on the green cloth. A pale blue airmail letter. She stared at it, her eyes widening. She hesitated for a second, then picked it up, her heart beginning to beat faster. She looked around her then quickly slipped it into the front pocket of her apron. Madame wouldn’t come downstairs again until five o’clock, when the sun had finally gone down. Laure would be in her favourite position; three branches above the ground in the jacaranda tree outside her bedroom window; she had to get it to her. Fast. Before Madame came back downstairs.

She gave the cushions a quick beating, straightened the covers on the sofa and hurriedly swept the floor. She would wax and polish it later; right now there were more pressing issues to attend to. She quickly ran the duster along the top of the door and closed it, hurriedly stowing her bucket and mop in the cupboard next to the kitchen door. Then she bolted through the house before Cléones came through to inspect her work.

She darted through the back door and ran into the back garden, the letter creasing against her thighs as she ran. There would be hell to pay when Madame discovered the letter was gone but they’d cross that bridge later. She and Laure would have to make up some excuse as to how the letter had found its way into Laure’s hands – never mind that it was addressed to her. Laure St Lazâre. In Belle St Lazâre’s handwriting. Belle St Lazâre. Laure’s mother, who lived in Chicago. She ran towards the jacaranda tree, waving it in front of her. ‘Lulu! Lulu! Look! Look what I found!’

Améline’s whispered shout floated up through the leaves and brought Laure St Lazâre’s day-dream to an abrupt halt. She sighed. Such a pleasant dream, involving, as they usually did, her immediate departure from Haiti, suitcase in hand, walking across the tarmac to the enormous plane that would take her to Chicago and her mother and away from the stifling atmosphere of her grandmother’s house and the sticky afternoon heat that made her hair frizz and put a permanent shine on her nose. She peered down through the branches.

‘What is it?’ Améline was holding something up to her, waving it urgently. She looked more closely. It was a letter. Her heart started to beat faster. A letter? From Belle? She hardly dared look.

‘I found it,’ Améline whispered, thrusting the letter above her head. ‘Just now. When I was cleaning the parlour. Here, take it. Quick! Before Cléones sees it.’ She climbed nimbly on to the lowest branch and held it out. Laure reached down and grabbed it, her heart thudding. An airmail letter, of the pale blue sort that could only mean one thing. A letter from Belle. From Maman. She held it gingerly in her hands as though she couldn’t quite believe it.

She looked down again but Améline was already gone, her slight, wiry figure weaving through the garden until she disappeared from view. She looked at the letter again. Yes, it was her mother’s childish, looping scrawl; a Chicago postmark. She peered at the date. 3rd March, 1985. It had taken over a month to reach her. She stared at it again, then slid a trembling finger under the flap.

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