Jeanine sits on her little armchair, watching the busy street outside. She reckons she looks like a perfectly respectable lady, sitting there like she has something profound to think about. Her dress is very nice—almost aristocratic, she figures. The material feels soft to the touch, but is scratchy against her skin. Yesterday when she went to take it off, she discovered a rash along her waist. Imagine that! Madame Blanc was in a right fit when she found out and immediately asked the cook for some oatmeal. Sweet Fleur was kind enough to apply it on her skin. The rash went down somewhat, but now, Jeanine thinks it's flaring up again.
It's that damnable dress!
Madame Blanc doesn't let her wear her old dresses. She had them thrown into the fire right after she saw them. Jeannine put up a fight at that, of course. They were perfectly good cotton skirts. Madame Blanc, however, adamantly put her foot down. She is scared of lice.
Lice? Jeanine doesn't see the harm in having a few crawling on her skin. In fact, who doesn't have lice?
She shifts petulantly in her dress, using all her self control not to scratch her skin until it runs with blood. Jeanine feels exhausted. Unhappy, too. She believes she's never been so unhappy in her entire life.
The other girls at the brothel are absolutely dreadful. Fleur gets along just fine with the lot of them, but they can't stand Jeanine. It doesn't bother Jeanine when they ignore her. In fact, she finds that she prefers it that way. However, just last night, they called her 'common' in front of the customers.
She gets angry just thinking about it now. She doesn't have any illusions about what she is. She knows she can't talk like the rest of the girls—no soft voice, no proper grammar, and most of the time, she thinks she's using her words all wrong. She lived all her life in the Rose and her mother was a prostitute who didn't even know how to lay in her deathbed without spreading her legs. Jeanine knows that she's common, just a whore who can't tell if she's reading upside down or right side up.
But the nerve of those girls! In the Rose, no one has pretty dresses to wear or running water in the bathroom. There are no bathrooms in the Rose. Everyone looks as if they belong to the grime on the street, but the prostitutes in the Rose know etiquette. Everyone's acquainted with the Golden Rule: never ruin someone's business.
Jeanine knows she would have many more customers if only the girls are not constantly throwing her snide insults in front of the men. Her hand is just itching to slap them one day.
An explosion sounds, rudely jolting her from her thoughts. She hears screaming from downstairs and hurriedly leaves her room to see. Across the hall, Fleur sleepily emerges from her chamber.
Leaning over the stairs and looking down, the problem becomes apparent. Water is slowly starting to spread across the floor. Renee's little boy is pattering across the wet floor, laughing like it's the best thing in the world.
"Pierre! For Heaven's sake, Pierre!" Madame Blanc calls urgently.
Pierre appears, already ankle deep in water. "Our water pipes seem all to be broken, madam," he reports, looking hassled.
Jeannine finds this almost as fun as Renee's son. She looks over to Fleur to see what she thinks of it.
To her surprise, Fleur looks horrified. Her face has turned pale and she watches nervously. "Will we be able to work tonight, with this water everywhere?"
"Oh shush, chérie, this is a disaster."
Fleur bites down on her lip and silences herself. Jeannine makes her way over to her friend, gently nudging her hips with her own.
"Something wrong with a day without work?" Jeannine asks.
"Oh, Jeanne," Fleur sighs, still gnawing on her bottom lip.
Jeannine always thinks of Fleur as a bit overdramatic. "What?"
"Today makes our stay here a week, doesn't it?" She turns her head and looks at Jeannine for confirmation.
"How would I know?" Jeannine laughs. "I never keep track o' the days. I can't touch it, so why try to keep it neat an' orderly?"
"Oh!" Madame Blanc sloshes over to her furniture. "Not the antiques! God damn!" She looks up. Her girls are all leaning over the banister on the second story. Quickly, they all make to return to their rooms. "Oh, no you don't," the madam laughs. Her mirth is short lived. Her face turns impassive as she snaps her fingers. "Everybody come down and help me move these things out of the water!"
Jeannine is the first to move down the stairs, willingly staining her dress with the dirty water. The other girls watch.
The Madame glances at Jeannine, then looks up at the rest of the girls, one eyebrow raised.
As always, Fleur thinks. She should have one eyebrow painted above the other and have it done with.
"Well?" the madam demands. Her eyebrow bodes danger.
A short, plum girl speaks up. "Can't Jeanne and Pierre do it? The rest of us aren't used to that sort of nasty work."
"That "nasty work", Chocolat?" Madame Blanc murmurs.
Fleur's gaze flickers quickly toward Chocolat (what a ridiculous name!). The small girl is stunned by the murderous glint in Madame Blanc's eyes. Chocolat twists the silky material of her peignoir. Fleur can almost see her mind straining to come up with an adequate response that would not incur the madam's wrath.
"The water's filthy," Chocolat offers tremulously. "We can't set foot in that."
Fleur wonders how the girl would fare in the Rose. Not well, is her guess. Her little room in the Rose had been flooded with things much worse than a bit of dirty water—cockroaches, for instance. Rat shit. Thousands of small, grain-like ticks.
"Pierre, get them down here at once," the madam orders.
Pierre wipes his hands on his pants (such nice hands for such an ugly creature) and begins to make his way up the stairs.
Fleur wrinkles her brow. "No need to have him come near us. I'm coming down." She daintily brushes her hair behind her ear, then picks her way down the stairs. Comfortably, she plunges her feet into the dirty water.
The others watch her. First, with trepidation, then with the feeling of inevitability, they follow suit.
Evening falls—the night is warm with the glow of stars.
Fleur makes her way down the avenue in the Rose. It's been a week—the sights are not unfamiliar. Indeed, they feel friendly—as if a past friend whom she goes to visit. The trash crunches between her feet. She chose to wear boots—suede, no less. A gift from her newest admirer. They fit around her ankles like a dream. Alrready, she feels a strange distance between herself and the ditizens of the Rose. She is no longer one of them. She is not necessarily better. She is simply…different.
Her building looms ahead, a crumbling affair with several bright windows. She tilts her head up, peering into the darkness. The second story—Monsieur Sketcher's floor—is entirely dark. She wonders whether or not he has already retired. Most likely, he had not. After all, hadn't he paid her already? The exchange of money is an unbreakable vow.
Nervously, Fleur mounts the steps. The stairway is dark. She runs the tips of her fingers against the rough wall, just to have a sense of direction. Otherwise, she would not be able to tell up from down, right from left, herself from the darkness which surrounds her.
She's dressed in her favorite gown—for no particular reason. As she changed out of her dirty, sewage water stained dress, she chose this own. It was a light blue—so light she felt as if she were floating. The color tasted of the excellent bonbons on seventh street. The silk wrinkled as she slowly climbed up the old wooden steps, worn smooth through the years.
Ahead, she sees the Artists's atelier. The simple, worn door no longer seems threatening to her. Instead, it holds promises behind its rectangular body. Is this called hope? She no longer remembers. All she feels as if her pores are alive, each hooked as if by a particularly strong winter wind. The chill sinks through her skin.
Raising a glove hand, she quietly knocks on the door. Something doesn't want to be disrupted. She does not know what.
Almost immediately, the door opens. The Arist glares at her from inside the gloom. His blue eyes seem to emit a soft light. Hostile.
"You're late," he tells her flatly, the opens the door, letting her in.
"Late?" Fleur asks indignantly. She speaks before she can stop herself. "You told me to come in a week. I believe it's a week today."
He scowls. His pale lips harden. "It's nighttime. The lighting is bad. You should know that."