Boarding School Blues: Ch. 57
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 57: We can work it out
During the days leading up to the weekend, Blanche was confined to the infirmary. The slightest noise prompted her to pretend sleep. She didn’t feel like talking or praying out loud with Sister Marie-Ange. And she had had enough of the mealtime frappes which had graduated from vanilla to chocolate.
“Maman was right. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Never thought I’d get sick of ice cream. I’ll have to tell her.”
Inevitably, hunger pains return. So, when the tummy started growling, grabbing the steel soda fountain cup was tempting. With time, she had learned to minimize the drooling by inserting the straw into the corner of her mouth. The cold sips felt good.
The front teeth wiggled at the slightest slip of the tongue. Brushing, even gently, had the same effect as having a knuckle sandwich. She dropped that step of the daily hygiene routine and wondered if the tooth fairy’s job profile included catering to adults. Would she find a couple of quarters under the pillow in the morning if her teeth fell out?
She didn’t bother to take a peek in the tiny bathroom mirror. A cold face cloth had reduced the swelling and she guessed her zombie look had toned down.
Her friends had thirty-minute visiting privileges for academic briefing purposes. Titi came with English, French, biology and social studies notes while Andy provided math material. No time for Latin, catechism, civics and home economics, let alone art, music and sewing. Furthermore, a demonstration of Sister Roger’s latest calisthenics was inappropriate given the circumstances.
“Ya know PF” Andy bragged, “all those math classes I spent doodling and daydreaming? What a waste. Now I’m really gettin’ into takin’ notes. I figured out how artistic geometry was and how it inspired a ton of artists. Made ‘em go wild foolin’ around with shapes and angles and everything. I’ll never ask for your notes again and you can have mine any time. Probably better than yours anyway. Here, take a look. Very cool right angles huh?”
Titi interrupted the math exposé. “Andy, can’t you see PF doesn’t give a hoot about your notes? Math ain’t no way to feel better. If she starts thinkin’ ‘bout catchin’ up on classes, she’ll worry ‘bout the stupid honor roll and get a migraine. Better to tell her what’s goin’ on outside class.”
“Like what?” Andy asked. “All we do around here is go to class, have a little recreation, eat lousy food and go to bed. What’s there to tell anyway?”
“Well” Titi responded. “How ‘bout the fact that the caf trays disappeared after PF’s accident? No more tobogganing and no more snowball fights, Novice Marieanne said. From now on, only snowmen allowed. Just like for little kids.
Oh yeah, and Sister Gerald made up a story about you. Said you got a really bad headache after knockin’ your head on a snow bank. Then she explained how migraines make you feel like pukin’ and faintin’ and that’s why you’re in the infirmary. What a stupid thing to say cuz everybody knows what really happened. Then she told Andy and me we wouldn’t be able to visit you if we talked about how you smashed your face and almost knocked your teeth out. I guess she doesn’t want anyone to make waves. And finally she said you had to go home this weekend to help your father get well faster.”
Titi commented ”I thought fibbin’ was forbidden, some kinda sin or somethin’. So what in the world is Gerald doing, huh? Maybe she thinks white lies don’t count? Anyway, she’s pretty nervous right now and so is the headmistress. I heard ‘em ask the nurse when your face would be less puffy. They’re worried about what your mother’ll say when she picks you up.”
Titi carried on her briefing with gusto. “Oh yeah, I gotta tell you the latest on Madeleine. Remember she told us about Gary, her forever love, and she showed us her tattoo in the shape of a heart? Well, she got a letter from her Mom today and, come to find out, Gary’s family moved to Florida last week. Poor Maddie flipped out big time. Now she wants to quit school and go down there. Can you imagine?”
“A lot of people spend winter in Florida, snow birds they call ‘em” interjected Andy. “What’s the big deal? They’ll come back. And if they don’t, she’ll find another forever love. How come she didn’t tell me about it? I’m Madeleine’s friend too ain’t I?”
“You have absolutely no feelings Andy” Titi snapped. “Sometimes I wonder what’s tickin’ inside you, a heart or an egg timer. I guess Gary’s father landed a really good job and they had to move down there fast. So, the entire family is gonzo. Very tough on poor Mad. Please don’t mention anything cuz I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. She asked me to help her plan an escape and I’m tryin’ to figure somethin’ out. PF, you haven’t said a word. Are you OK? You’re lookin’ better, I think. Don’t worry ‘bout classes. You’re not missin’ much.”
The news bulletin had anaesthesized Blanche. Feeling her friends’ affection was like soaking in a warm bubble bath.
“Hurts to talk” were the only words she finally uttered. Sign language took over to add “love you guys; thanks for the news; yeah I’m OK.”
Sister Marie-Ange slipped into the room to announce that visiting time had ended. “Merci for cheering up your friend. She is coming along nicely, as you can see. Prayer to le Bon Dieu, frappes and your visits are the best medicine. Now run along. Be sure to bring your class notes again tomorrow. Thanks to you, Blanche will not lag behind academically. C’est très bien, les filles.”
The next couple of days passed identically with a gastronomical upgrade to chocolate chip frappes. She didn’t complain about the chips irritating her sore gums and sticking to her tacky, unbrushed teeth. Sister Marie-Ange was so very pleased to offer a new flavor that Blanche didn’t want to crush the enthusiasm over “our soda fountain selection of ice cream.”
Saturday dawned. Traces of Blanche’s injury had subsided. The swelling and scrapes had almost disappeared. The lips remained slightly puffy giving her a pouting, young Brigitte Bardot look. She tried to spruce herself up by wearing a blouse the color of pale green butter mints and her sage plaid kilt, no longer snug from long-ago Noël goodie excesses. Who ever said ice cream frappes did a job on the waistline anyway?
She was enthused by the thought of going home, sleeping in her own bed and wearing her favorite flannel PJ’s rather than a bulky nightgown that always rode up to the waist in the middle of the night. Her growing joy was tainted by concern over upsetting her parents with an account of the week’s events. Keeping them to herself was the best option, she decided. No way did she want to jeopardize her father’s recovery. Her teeth would heal, hopefully. In the meantime, partaking in family meals would be a challenge.
“If Maman asks me what I wanna eat I’ll say pâté chinois cuz the corn and hamburg can slide down with the mashed potatoes. Or else, I’ll just tell her I’m in the mood for soup.” Blanche was orchestrating her every move while waiting for her mother to pick her up.
Sister Gerald had warned she could not welcome anyone at the door that morning. “Please tell dear Madame Rejean I have urgent tasks and ask her to forgive me for not greeting her. Do not neglect to close the front door carefully when you leave. We do not want the winter air to enter into the premises. Our headmistress abhors drafts. They always cause colds, she says. Enjoy your stay with your family ma fille. This weekend is exceptional and, need I repeat it, our priority is student well-being. There will be no need for you to…”
The ear-piercing ring of the doorbell interrupted Sister Gerald’s instructions. “It’s your mother. I must immediately tend to my affairs. Au revoir.” In the blink of an eye, she vanished.
Blanche opened the front door to her mother’s flashing smile. She was wearing a coat made from fabric given to her husband by an unusual patient, an engineer from the Picardie region of France who had come to Lowell to network with textile industry managers interested in including fake fur to their range of production.
As soon as le monsieur de France settled in a Pawtucketville house overlooking the Merrimack, he felt completely at home. He never missed an opportunity to express his delight, especially with the many Franco-Americans he met. His convivial behavior shattered the stereotype of the Parisian French snob. And every time he spoke French, he made it a point to explain how Canada’s Québec and Acadian provinces offered the authentic language, that unadulterated tongue brought across the Atlantic in the 1600’s by Samuel de Champlain and his fellow explorers. When a French-speaking local downplayed his own linguistic performance, le monsieur de France systematically responded “mais mon ami, c’est vous qui parlez le vrai français, celui du Roi François Ier! C’est moi, ou plutôt, c’est moé qui ai tout à apprendre de vous.” (1)
Rather than mock the French-Canadian accent, he lauded it by pointing out how, unlike “le français parisien”, it was not blemished by the excessive use of anglicisms. Why say “bon week-end”, “le parking” and “stop” when“bonne fin de semaine”, “stationnement” and “arrêt” are so “charmant, n’est-ce pas?”
It didn’t take long for Monsieur Alain Jugand to become one of the guys,“le bon vieux Al, un gars ben comme chez nous”. (2)
Sharing ideas and establishing links was good for business and, before anyone could say “oh la la”, new partners planned their vision for the future of the local textile mills. And since Alain Jugand was a very generous individual, he did not skimp on distributing samples of his “révolutionnaire” fabrics. Hence, Docteur Rejean received enough plush yards for the best dressmaker in town to whip up a very “à la mode” (3) coat with its matching pillbox hat.
When Blanche saw her mother’s face, half-hidden by the turned-up collar, and her regal head crowned with the stylish pillbox, Papa’s words about her Hollywood-worthy looks came to mind.
Maman’s gaze glossed over her daughter as she crossed the threshold.
“Ma Blanche is replacing Sister Gerald at the door today? I remembered how she and Sister Théophile appreciated Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House fruit slices so I brought them a box. A little merci for granting you this weekend home. It will do Papa so much good. He’s recovering nicely and has returned to his office a couple of times. His hospital colleagues make sure he doesn’t overdo. Nurse Coucy, Cécile’s mother, keeps a close eye on him. He’ll resume his duties next month but the cardiologist warns that sixteen-hour shifts are a thing of the past. He will have to pace himself if he is to pursue his profession. Where are my favorite religieuses? (4) I was looking forward to thanking them for their prayers for your father.”
“Busy. Important duties. Can’t come.” mumbled Blanche in her first attempt at conversation since the accident. Enunciating “they asked me to transmit their warm greetings. They’re very busy right now fulfilling urgent duties and they hope you will excuse their absence” would have wobbled the front teeth way too much. After managing to utter five words, she attempted to smile with her mouth closed.
Maman, apparently oblivious to Blanche’s uneasiness, quipped “bon, ça va, allons-y alors”. (5)
The ride home was quick. Maybe it was because Maman didn’t stop talking about the little nothings that make up daily life. Blanche felt dopey. The nurse had probably added Tylenol elixir to the breakfast frappe, this time made with orange sherbet which stung the inside of her mouth. She only picked up bits and pieces of Maman’s family overview.
“Antoine…doing well in school…especially science…less of a chatter box…flat feet…orthopaedic soles… doesn’t like them… Byron…Papa’s guardian angel… always ready to help… Marguerite growing fast… found your Barbie doll…pierced a hole in the chest…said Barbie had a heart attack just like Papa…neighbour’s German Shepherd…nice with kids… bit the mailman… had to get rid of him…the dog not the mailman.”
Maman continued to witter on. Blanche was grateful she didn’t inquire about school.
“On est arrivé” (6) announced Maman as she pulled into the driveway.
Blanche was relieved that no one had rushed outside to greet her, a moment to pull herself together and don a business-as-usual mask.
The pitter-patter of steps down the stairs echoed in the front hall. A second later Antoine, Byron and Maggie appeared and whoopeed in unison. “Hip hip hurrah! Hip hip, hurrah! Hip hip hurrah! Bienvenue à Blanche la bonne élève!” (7)
Blanche turned to stone and a large drop trickled down her cheek but she quickly pulled her shoulders back, displayed her tight-lipped smile and blurted “hi you guys”.
Maggie, a notorious nitpicker, immediately commented “whatsamatta Blanche? Ya look funny. Aren’t you glad to see us?”
Without waiting, she threw herself into her sister’s arms shouting “je t’aime.”
“Je t’aime aussi” echoed Byron.
Antoine, less attentive to details but always ready to have the last word, concluded “Blanche is tired, that’s all. Boarding school ain’t the greatest. Besides, betcha she didn’t even have a snow day this week like we did. Did you guys have school while we built an igloo?”
Papa joined the gang and Blanche noticed that his gait was smoother, he was standing taller and his face was no longer drawn. However, the instant his emerald eyes set on her, they clouded. He instructed his younger children “les enfants, go help Maman in the kitchen. We’ll join you in a moment.”
He turned to his eldest and gently asked “comment ça va ma fille, dis-moi” (8).
His obvious concern shattered Blanche’s stoicism. In half sentences, she recounted the cafeteria tray tobogganing incident, her sojourn in the infirmary and the frappe diet. She didn’t berate the ban on telephone calls home because it hurt too much to talk. She didn’t mention Sister Marie-Ange’s dentures either.
Papa took a quick look inside her mouth. “I’m taking you to my friend Dr. Wissing this afternoon. I’ll tell your mother I’m running an errand and I want you to accompany me so we can have some father-daughter time. She will not persuade me to change my mind. Since my own health incident, she has not once contradicted me. That’s the plan. Now try to eat a little something for lunch. Maman made egg custard for dessert. It will slide down easily. And I think soup is on the menu too so you’re all set. Wipe your eyes. I know what stuff you’re made of ma fille. You can do this. We won’t involve your mother right now, OK?”
Lunch went as smoothly as Papa had anticipated and so did the afternoon.
Blanche was surprisingly serene when she entered into the dentist’s office. Dr. Wissing was a small, scrawny man with a strip of wiry black hair wrapped around his watermelon-shaped head. Everything about him appeared shriveled except for his smooth white hands and long manicured fingers. Blanche wondered if he was a pianist. Escorted to the patient’s chair, she tried to breathe in the tranquility of the empty office while her father briefed his friend. Then, elfish Dr. Wissing flashed a smile and, with a viola-pitched voice, addressed his new patient. “Let’s see what we have here my dear. Don’t worry. This will not hurt.”
As Blanche was preparing to return to boarding school after the whirlwind weekend, she became aware of her parents’ heated exchange. It was the first time she heard her father speak sternly to his wife. And it was the first time his wife seemed at a loss for words. As the voices fluctuated in volume, she grabbed snippets of the exchange.
“Not normal…not acceptable…say something…or else…into my own hands…demand…weekends home…Estelle.”
Papa sounded like he meant business. Calling his wife “Estelle” rather than “Chérie” (9) or “Maman” was rare. Blanche grasped the extent of his displeasure while his spouse uttered monosyllables. “Oui, c’est vrai, pas bon, je vais le faire, promis.” (10)
Blanche didn’t know exactly what the promise was all about but the goodbye hug from her father had that “see-you later-alligator” lightness announcing better times ahead.
On the ride back to SFA, Maman urged Blanche to fiddle around with the radio rather than to tune into her own favorite station, WCRB, 102.5. (11)
While the pale blue Plymouth approached the front entrance, Blanche didn’t think of the tobogganing accident scene.
The radio was playing:
You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright
Think of what I’m saying
We can work it out and get it straight or say good night
We can work it out.
We can work it out
Life is very short and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting my friend
- But my friend, you are the one who speaks the real French, that of King Francis Ist. I am the one who has everything to learn from you.
- Good old Al, a guy like one of us here at home.
- In style, stylish.
- Good, it’s OK, let’s go then.
- We’ve arrived.
- Welcome to Blanche the good student.
- How are you my girl, tell me.
- Yes, it’s true, not good, I’m going to do it, promise.
- Now 99.5.
- “We can work it out”, The Beatles single released on January 22, 1966.
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection
Read Chapter 22: The Inner Sanctum
Read Chapter 23: Going Home
Read Chapter 24: Merci Mon Oncle
Read Chapter 25: The Food Fairy
Read Chapter 26: Bon appetit!
Read Chapter 27: Friends
Read Chapter 28: A Grocery Stop
Read Chapter 29: Tempus Fugit
Read Chapter 30: The Chapel
Read Chapter 31: A Nice Kind of Weird
Read Chapter 32: Mnemonic Device
Read Chapter 33: Cuisses de grenouille
Read Chapter 34: Run along now
Read Chapter 35: Consequences of playing hooky
Read Chapter 36: Good Vibes
Read Chapter 37: Never too many, never too much
Read chapter 38: Dust Bunnies
Read Chapter 39: I’m into something good
Read Chapter 40: Wistful and Admiring
Read Chapter 41: “Anywhere Out of the World”
Read Chapter 42: “If you really want to hear about it”
Read Chapter 43: “Why don’t they go and create something”
Read Chapter 44: Squiggles, snowmen and angels
Read Chapter 45: A Measure of Mirth
Read Chapter 46: Advienne que pourra
Read Chapter 47: Smile upon our joys
Read Chapter 48: “Venez, venez, venez!”
Read Chapter 49: “C’est si bon”
Read Chapter 50: Naughty or nice
Read Chapter 51: We all fall down
Read Chapter 52: The Eve of Destruction
Read Chapter 54: Airlock
Read Chapter 55: Here Lies . . .
Read Ch. 56: An elixir and a frappe