Stupid woman! Stupid fucking woman!
Madeleine sits in the waiting area of the emergency department of the Pitié-Salpętričre Hospital. It is three o’clock in
the morning. She is exhausted. The nursing staff move like weary automata under the callous fluorescent lighting. The
usual quota of drunks and smack heads shout and vomit and demand to be looked after. A man with an ice pack on his
ankle sits with his foot up on the chair opposite hers. He looks grey and defeated and as though he would rather be
anywhere else but here.
But what is she waiting for? Madeleine doesn’t know. What she had been waiting for has happened. Finally and
inevitably. So she’s done it. She's finally fucking done it. That crazy fucking cow, my so-called mother, has finally
fucking killed herself. Hoo-fucking-ray!
At first glance, Madeleine looks like most other young teenagers from the 10 arrondissement of Paris. Her black hair is
cut into a severe bob. She wears big, heavy-soled boots on the ends of her long, black-stockinged legs. She thinks
they make her look tough. In fact, they only serve to emphasize the spareness and fragility of her adolescent body.
Her black-rimmed eyes look immense and hungry against her pale skin. However, looking more closely, you can see that
she couldn’t be like most other young teenagers. Behind her pale hazel eyes (“freaky, fuckin’ eyes!” as her latest
squeeze had so gallantly told her) you can see that she has lived more in her few years than most experience in a
long, suburban lifetime. The dark hollows under her eyes tell more than the long night spent waiting for her mother to
die. The thin, white scars on the insides of her forearms tell another chapter of her story. There is something about
Madeleine. Something that it is hard to put your finger on, but something that sets her apart. And now she has to deal
with the death of her mother. Not something any fifteen year old should have to bear.
And the way that she went. Christ on a fucking bike! What an anticlimax at the end of her short, haphazard and
desperate life. If Madeleine had been asked how her mother would die, she would have confidently predicted something
dramatic and overblown; a drug overdose; jumping under the harsh wheels of a Metro train; something theatrical and
inconsiderate, like the grand deaths of those tragic heroines she liked to hear warbling on in those fucking operas.
Cause a stir. Show how much of a victim you are; helpless and oppressed. Put people to as much inconvenience as
possible. Make ‘em pay, the fuckers! “If you are going to do it, do it in style, darling!” she could hear her mother
saying. Instead, Anais had died of smoke inhalation. She had fallen asleep, drunk and stoned, clutching her one last
joint before bedtime and she had burned the whole fucking house down. The landlord wasn’t that hot on health and
safety issues and neither were the residents of 31 Rue d'Hauteville. They had more pressing matters to think about
than the distant possibility of fires. So, there were no smoke alarms, no fire extinguishers and the windows leading
onto the fire exits had long since been painted shut. It was a miracle the mad woman hadn’t dragged everyone else
with her to Hell.
The first Madeleine knew of the fire was waking up with a full bladder. She didn’t notice the burning smell at first. She
guessed that it had been there for a while, stealthily building until it could quietly smother her, fill her soft, pink lungs
with filthy black poison. But, as she opened her bedroom door, she let in a deluge of stinking, black smoke, making her
eyes water and forcing out a reflexive, choking cough. She gasped, taking in more acrid smoke. She put her hand over
her mouth, the other hand out in front of her in the dark, pushing her way through the thick air towards her mother’s
bedroom. Fumbling for the handle, she opened her mother’s door and was met with second wave of smoke, swarming
out to engulf her, force itself into her eyes, her mouth and her lungs. Her body was screaming to get the fuck out of
there. Danger! Danger! But Madeleine had a responsibility. She needed to look after her mother.
Madeleine’s eyes were open, she knew because of the stinging and the tears that flooded down her cheeks. However,
she could see nothing except for an eerie square of greenish grey that must be her mother’s bedroom window. She
swam her way through the smoke towards her mother’s bed and then stopped. Thinking back, Madeleine found it
difficult to remember the details of what happened next. She remembered feeling along the bed, hunting over the
duvet with her hands, groping to find something solid and warm: her mother. She remembered finding a leg and pulling
on it. No response. She doesn’t remember how she got her mother out of that room. She doesn’t remember who called
the ambulance or the fire brigade. She doesn’t remember her trip to the hospital. It is all a confusion of heat, smoke
and desperate voices.
Madeleine’s first, clear memory is of waiting outside a cubicle in the emergency department, listening to the urgent
voices of the doctors and nurses trying to drag her mother back from the place that pulled her like a black hole. And
she remembers the high squeal of the defibrillator as they tried over and over to kick that tired, broken old heart back
to life. She could have told them then that it would be no use. She could have told them that her mother had spent
her life skating along the margins of existence, flirting so closely with death that it was a wonder she had lasted this
long. And now this was how she was going to die. The doctors couldn’t save her. The nurses couldn’t save her.
Madeleine couldn’t save her. Stupid fucking woman!
And so Madeleine sat under the light of the waiting area, bright as day in the middle of the night. She hadn’t cried. She
had always been a feral child, half-wild and left to take care of herself. She now faced the biggest challenge to her
survival so far and she was sure as fuck that she wasn’t going to break down and screw it up. She had to keep her
wits about her. She has no clear plan, but she knew that she wasn’t going into care and be trapped in some human
warehouse, officially ownerless and unwanted. So, when the hard-faced charge nurse had asked her who was her next
of kin, she had told her about her father who lived in Amiens and who she would go straight to. She even pretended to
call him and tell him the bad news. “Yes, Papa! She is gone. Yes, Papa! I will meet you at Aunt Celestine’s. Yes, Papa!
I will go straight there”. The nurse was too burdened with work and fatigue to question any of this. It sounded
plausible and it saved her the trouble of calling social services and filling out all that paperwork. She took down the
aunt’s address, called Madeleine a taxi and went off to deal with the next tragedy.
Left to herself, Madeleine sent a text message to her Aunt Celestine. It was not to ask her if she could come over.
Celestine was a purse-lipped old harridan who made no secret of her disapproval of Madeleine’s mother and her
insistence on rejecting her comfortable, middle-class heritage to embark on a life of wilful self-destruction. She felt no
more benign towards Madeleine; an unnatural and defiant child whose father was heaven knows where and who would
turn into heaven knows what. No, Madeleine had no desire to entangle the threads of their wildly disparate lives, even
on an occasion such as this. The text simply said ”Mama is dead. The body is at Pitié-Salpętričre. I have gone to live
with my Papa”. But where would she go? Apart from Aunt Celestine, Madeleine had no other relatives she knew of. She
didn’t think she could turn to her school friends at a time like this. Although they all swore and smoked Gitanes in the
alleyway next to her apartment block, they were still nice, middle-class kids who would try to persuade her to throw
herself at the mercy of the social services. Embrace the Reasonable Thing To Do. However, Madeleine had seldom had
much time for the Reasonable Thing To Do and she had even less time for it now in this moment of crisis when her
naked will to survive out-screamed the whining voice of convention and compliance. So, what was she to do? Where
could she go? She needed a plan.
Madeleine had evoked her mysterious father as a way by which to get herself out of this scrape. She had no idea who
he was, let alone where he might live. However, the seed of an idea had been sown and Madeleine decided that she
needed to find him. This wasn’t a new thought. In fact, she had been having this thought more frequently and more
pressingly over the last year or so. She had long since abandoned any hope of getting a straight answer from her
mother on the subject of her paternity. Whenever the subject had been broached, Anais would look nervous and
secretive, glancing anxiously at doors and windows as though she expected to find an eavesdropper hiding there. And
Madeleine could only get a few cryptic clues that left her as unenlightened as before.
However, Madeleine wondered if she now had enough fragments to patch together the map that would lead her to her
father. Probably not. She gently touched the silver locket that hung around her neck. Her mother had given it to her
when she had started to ask questions. It contained a photograph of a man whose pale skin and glossy black hair
mirrored her own. It was a small, blurry photograph, like one taken with a cheap phone camera in low light, and it was
difficult to make out the face exactly. The man had high cheekbones and a long, narrow nose. His eyes were pale and
tawny, just like her own, and his lips were full. The camera had caught him just at the point of turning round, trapped
by the flash in the moment of discovering the photographer. The expression was one of mixed surprise and irritation.
Madeleine had looked at the piercing eyes and petulant mouth many times and imagined that you probably wouldn’t
want to get on the wrong side of this man. He looked as though he could throw one hell of a hissy fit. This, allegedly,
was her father. And this was pretty much all she had on him. That, and the fact that his name was Demian (was he
German?), he worked for a circus (for chrissake!) and there was something “special” about him. Madeleine had never
got to the bottom of what this peculiarity was. However, she got the impression that it was something to make a
person glance anxiously at doors and windows whenever someone was stupid enough to ask questions about it. It was
clearly something that needed to be kept secret, on pain of…what? She didn’t know. But it was sufficiently undesirable
to make her mother very, very nervous.
Madeleine had spent some time dwelling on this over the years. She had spun wild, romantic stories that her Papa must
be some cosseted aristocrat from far, far away, whose clandestine relationship with her mother had breached all rules
of noble protocol. The relationship, and its accidental produce, namely her, had therefore to be kept deadly secret for
fear that this commoner’s child might present an unwelcome threat to the family. In her more desperate moments, of
which she had rather more than is fair for a child of her age, she would imagine that her father would come back to
claim her and would transport her and her mother away to his bright, bejeweled palace. There they would live a life of
unjustifiable luxury, far away from the cockroaches, crises and endless stream of “uncles” that had made up her
everyday existence so far. Whilst Madeleine loved this story and liked to indulge in it wherever she could, soaking
luxuriantly in its warmth and sweet fragrance, she knew it was crap. She knew that the most likely explanation was
that her father was some kind of well-connected thug who wanted to keep his messy little affairs out of sight. She and
her mother were likely to be nothing more than an inconvenience, a dirty little secret that had to be kept quiet.
Unwanted. Ha! The story of my fucking life, thought Madeleine as she absent-mindedly ran her index finger over the
thin, white scars on her forearm.
So, why did she think she should go and find him now? Madeleine thoughtfully laid out the case. For the last couple of
years, Madeleine had sometimes felt strange. She had moments when she experienced the most intense craving for
something that she could not identify. This craving took over her body and her mind, driving her crazy and turning her
into the archetypal moody teen. The onset of these feelings had coincided with the arrival of her first period. As
Madeleine had gazed in dismay at the rusty red patch in her knickers, she had first felt that pull, that longing that she
was to become so familiar with. As her body continued its metamorphosis, slowly changing her rangy, boyish shape into
something softer, rounder and more vulnerable, she had felt it more often. Her mother had smiled wryly. She clearly
believed that all this was Madeleine’s initiation into the weary ranks of womanhood.
Anais didn’t rate being a woman very highly. It was clearly a punishment for original sin that women should bleed,
suffer the pain of child birth and languish at the hands of men. Women were victims whose continued survival
depended on the alliances they could form with the dominant sex. The richer and more powerful the man, the better
the protection afforded. When that one went back to his wife, and he invariably did, the quest began again for a
protector. The sooner you get used to this idea, the sooner you could get on with the business of life, darling. This
was the desperate tale that Anais would tell her daughter. Madeleine had heard it so many times that she knew the
words off by heart. And watching her mother’s chaotic progress from one abusive relationship to the next, she had
good reason to believe it. All the same, Madeline was inclined to reject this account. Even in the face of such
compelling evidence as her mother’s life offered, she could not believe that this had be a woman’s destiny, to cling in
desperation to whatever man would have her, only to be rejected, rebuffed, help responsible for all the rot in the
relationship. No. If Madeleine’s life so far had given her precious little faith in women, it had given her even less faith in
men. She would not succumb to that destiny and had no desire to join the legions of defeated women.
However, her body appeared to be on an irresistible trajectory towards womanhood. Her breasts had long since started
to swell, although Madeline had refused to subjugate herself to the wearing of lingerie. She saw a bra as being yet
another sign of women’s bondage to men. Keep those breasts pert and plump. Dress them up in ribbons and lace, the
better to entice and ensnare. No. Madeleine would stick to her liberty bodice, thank you very much. But she could not
ignore these feelings of longing, of hunger that had been escalating over the last year. And she was not sure what
they meant. But Madeleine felt sure that these changes were something more than the awkward descent into puberty.
For example, she had noticed that she had been developing a mysterious effect on things electrical. Light bulbs would
blow as she walked past them. Watches would stop when she wore them, only to restart when she took them off. She
believed that she had also been responsible for the demise of two computers at school whose hard drives had become
mysteriously corrupted after she had used them. She had no idea how all this was happening, but she realized that
these events seemed to coincide with her period. She could now confidently predict that a nasty bout of PMS was
likely to result in expensive and inconvenient damage to home electronics.
The incidents had puzzled and disturbed her and, finding her mother less than understanding, she had kept it to
herself. However, for reasons that she could not define, she felt that her father might understand. She had never
trusted a man before in her life so why should she need this one? One that she had never met and who had clearly
abandoned Anais and herself. But there was something in that blurred photograph, something behind those pale eyes,
that spoke of experience beyond the mundane. This was someone who had visited life in its extremes. An extraordinary
person with an extraordinary existence and Madeleine felt that she needed to talk to him. So, when her taxi arrived,
instead of heading toward her aunt’s house, she told the driver to take her to the Gare du Nord. Madeleine was to
begin her quest.