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Copyright © 2017 by Anna Adams
Published by Pronoun
Interior design by Pronoun
Copy editing by Maya Rock
Distribution by Pronoun
About the Author
About the Author
To my mother, Régine
I’m the author of the French Girl series:
A French Star in New York (The French Girl Series, #2)
A French Princess in Versailles (The French Girl Series, #3)
A French Diva in New York (The French Girl Series, #4)
A French Voice in New York (The French Girl Series, #5)
A French Song in New York (The French Girl Series, #6)- Coming soon!
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Readers from India who would like to meet me in NEW DELHI this autumn 2017 for a French Girl series event, please let me know here!
“Okay, I’m done. Now hurry!” the makeup artist cried out. “You’re up in two minutes. Don’t you dare mess up your makeup again!”
Maude ran out, keeping her hands away from her recently rouged cheeks, and Matt hurried behind her.
She stood right behind the curtain and listened to the host’s cheerful voice, announcing her.
“Now ladies and gentlemen, we have a new artist with us tonight. She’s spent her last six months in New York working on her first album. Her first single has been released and is a huge hit . . .”
“Maude,” Matt whispered, tugging her sleeve.
“Yes?” She looked back at him, smiling.
“I just wanted to tell you . . . to let you know that you can always count on me.”
“I know, Matt,” Maude smiled gratefully.
“Her voice will take your breath away, her music is amazing . . . ”
“No, I’m serious. Our friendship has had its ups and downs, but I don’t want it to be that way anymore.”
“I don’t care if you’re with Thomas Bradfield. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
Maude paused, puzzled. “What? Thomas Bradfield—”
“Give a round of applause for Maude Laurent!” the host cried.
“That’s your cue! Go!” Matt urged.
Maude reluctantly turned away from Matt and hurried on stage.
The blaring lights blinded her as she entered the stage and faced the cheering crowd. She had to restrain her impulse to shield her eyes and continued steadily towards the dark Steinway.
She had played on it earlier but then, she hadn’t felt nervous. Her hands hadn’t been trembling, and her voice hadn’t been shaky.
Maude sat on the piano stool and looked towards the crowd.
They were all there.
James and Victoria were holding hands and beaming like proud parents. Cynthia, dignified as always, was trying to keep Ben from falling off his seat while he was waving madly at Maude. Jazmine, hands clasped, was sending all the positive energy she could muster from her seat.
Maude turned to the piano and sang her first song. She had played it many times before but this time was different. She had grown. Maude wasn’t the same person she’d been six months ago, and her performance wasn’t that of a mere teenager—it was that of a young woman who had looked at life in the eye and refused to bend her spine.
She finished her first song and prepared herself for the second.
She had planned to sing ‘Sunrise’ from her debut album, but now she knew she couldn’t play that song, not after all she’d just been through. Maude dedicated her second song, John Legend’s ‘Coming Home,’ to her parents.
She took a deep breath and started singing:
A father waits upon a son
A mother prays for his return
I just called to see
If you still have a place for me
We know that life took us apart
But you’re still within my heart
I go to sleep and feel your spirit next to me.
As she played, she released the pain she had been holding back for years. Her parents were dead. They were gone forever, but she was still alive. Though her pain was severe, it also gave her strength. Strength to sing in a clear voice, strength to overcome her fears, strength to master her initially shaky fingers, and strength to let her notes reverberate through the audience.
It may be long to get me there
It feels like I’ve been everywhere
But someday I’ll be coming home
Round and round the world will spin
Oh, the circle never ends
So you know that I’ll be coming home.
Her voice rang out as clear as water from a fountain and wavered with deep emotion as the song washed away her doubt, drowned her insecurities, and melted her pain into a beautiful, calm river of hope.
Maude ended her song and carefully folded her hands on her knees.
“I did it,” she muttered softly to herself.
The crowd broke into thunderous applause. She could hear whistling and thumping. As she walked towards the host, she squinted her eyes to avoid the blaring lights and saw the crowd on its feet, cheering and calling her name.
She smiled and greeted the host, a tall man with a prominent nose and a large, kind smile.
“Wow, wow, wow,” he exclaimed. This host was known for his exuberance. But then, TV hosts are rarely known for being discreet. “That was incredible, Maude!”
Maude laughed, relieved to be breathing at a normal pace again.
“Just tell me, Maude,” he started in a conversational tone. “How does a sixteen-year-old teenager, raised in the north of France, end up spending six months in New York recording her debut album with the world’s hottest pop star?”
“That, my friend, is a very interesting question,” she answered, her dark brown eyes twinkling mischievously.
Maude Laurent, a tall, slender, sixteen-year-old girl with soft brown skin, was quickly walking in Carvin’s deserted streets in the rain. Her long eyelashes drooped to avoid the droplets from entering her wide brown eyes. Her dark natural hair, usually held back in a bun, had frizzled with the rain and rebellious locks of hair covered her forehead under her soaked hood. She could barely see where she was going, but walked steadily nonetheless, her step firm and graceful at the same time although she carried two heavy grocery bags. Her foster mother, Mrs. Ruchet, had sent her on an errand in the rain to the local grocery store on an evening when the town was desolate, not one inhabitant leaving their cozy chimney, not one car venturing out of its garage, not one stray cat rambling in the street.
But there she was, Maude thought angrily, her thin raincoat drenched, her old worn-out gaping boots deep in mud.
Ever since she could remember, Mrs. Ruchet had made her life a living hell. Maude woke up early each morning, cooked and cleaned for the family, took the eight-year-old twins to school, and went to school herself where she fought not to sleep through her classes. She would then pick up Jean and Jacques from school, try unsuccessfully to make them do their homework, prepare dinner under Mrs. Ruchet’s stern glare, bathe the boys, do the dishes, take care of meeting Mrs. Ruchet’s every demand, and then go to bed, wake up, and start all over again the next day. Maude was tired. Her only motivation in life, her reason for waking up every morning was the dream she secretly harbored.
She was determined to leave Carvin after high school and go to Paris to become a professional classical musician at the Conservatoire de Paris, the most prestigious classical music school in France. There, she’d do the two things she loved the most: sing and play the piano. Maude smiled thinking of the secret dream she had kept hidden all these years from her foster parents.
A few years ago, the town library had followed a recent trend and arranged a small music room. A piano had been purchased and old CDs and vinyl of famous opera performances were kept in that room. No one in Carvin had a passion for music, and the room remained abandoned. That is, until Maude stumbled across that very room one Saturday afternoon. That is when, at eleven years old, Maude began to teach herself to play the piano and trained her voice on the most famous opera arias. Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, she knew them all by heart. She would quietly sneak out of the Ruchets’ house, lock herself up in the library’s left wing where no one else ever went, train her voice and practice her scales. Once, when she was thirteen, while looking for an old pair of gloves for Mrs. Ruchet in the basement, she stumbled across old scores owned by Mr. Ruchet who, like every good, well-off French boy had learned to play the piano. Time had yellowed the pages, but they could still be used.
That is how Maude learned to play elaborate classical pieces such as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, and Chopin. Every Saturday, Maude grew more and more determined to leave the Ruchets’ household at eighteen and start her classical music career at the Conservatoire de Paris. She worked hard, and before going to sleep, she thought of and composed new melodies, variations of songs she knew or songs she herself created and brought to life the following Saturday afternoon in that small library room.
How she had been delighted, that same morning, when Ms. Clement, her French literature teacher had announced a day trip to Paris in November! Mrs. Ruchet never gave her permission to roam on her own in the town or to spend time with friends. Nevertheless, Maude was determined to be among the students, participating in that trip. It’s not even as if she had any friends to roam around town with, thought Maude wistfully, not wanting to admit to herself that she still longed for friendship. Deep down she felt it would be a nice change to have people to talk to apart from the Ruchet twins whom she had to look after and who considered her as nothing more than an annoying nanny. She had craved for friendship and a family for a long time. She had even foolishly thought kindness, docility, and serviceability would win Mrs. Ruchet over.
Maude laughed dryly at her own foolishness. She had now wholly given up on the idea of making any friends with her classmates, who continuously mocked her worn-out clothes. She had also abandoned the hope she had harbored to one day become close to Mrs. Ruchet, who never considered her as anything other than a housekeeper, a baby-sitter for her twins, and of course, her personal maid. After having understood that, Maude had become determined to follow her dreams and leave Carvin for good in two years. She would never have to obey Mrs. Ruchet’s orders again, Maude thought, happily picturing herself independent and free, roaming wide Parisian streets.
Mrs. Ruchet was a big, imposing woman with short, curly, blonde hair tangled wildly around her oval face. She spent most of her days sitting on her couch, her two huge legs propped on a dark green cushion in front of her, watching soap operas on television, all the while hating the actresses for being so thin. Her dark eyes accompanied her constant pout, which occasionally turned into a smirk when Maude didn’t plush her cushion like she was supposed to. Her foster mother had been especially difficult these last two days as she had started an umpteenth new diet. Maude couldn’t help but smile, remembering watching Mrs. Ruchet uncommonly munch on nothing but red vegetables and fruits for the last few days. She swallowed nothing but tomatoes, radishes, capsicum, strawberries, cherries, and was forced to drink tomato juice.
This proved to be quite difficult. Mrs. Ruchet, for many years now, had been addicted to one drink. Ever since she had stopped smoking ten years ago, she had transferred all her affections towards one light brown liquid she drank day in, day out, rain or shine.
Mrs. Ruchet was addicted to Lipton Peach Iced Tea.
There was an orange basin on the table next to her couch that Maude made sure was never empty. The orange basin was full of ice, waiting for Lipton Iced Tea and the big red straw to drink it. Nobody in Carvin understood where this infatuation came from, and they were all disgusted by it. But nobody ever said anything because she was the wife of one of the most influential men in the town. So people just watched as she drank gallons of iced tea that Maude poured her in the gigantic orange basin. She could spend days in a row lying on that sofa, gorging on ice tea, and jamming trays of assorted cold cuts in her mouth to accompany her beverage. Mrs. Ruchet never let her twins eat sweets but she, on the other hand, before the diet, could never get enough of Snickers and M&M’s, which she loudly crushed under her teeth while ordering Maude around.
On the present evening, she had sent Maude into the rain to go buy her bottles of ice tea and tomato juice. Needless to say, she was slowly slipping back into her former diet, and Maude was paying the price for it.
While continuing to move forward, Maude also slowed her pace as she got nearer to her destination, a house on 29, rue du Général de Gaulle. It was a medium-sized, red-bricked, two-storey house. The young girl now stood in front of the door, her eyes fixed on the number 29 as if it would answer her question, the decision she had to make to either stay on the doorsteps, shivering in her drenched, thin raincoat, or dare to enter the seemingly calm, cozy home. Her glance continued towards the window, over which the white linen curtains had been drawn. She could see them in the large living room near the fire. Big and small, the entire Ruchet family was sitting motionless near the fire. The mother, the father, and the two young sons. Then there was her. The intruder. She hadn’t entered yet. Maybe she could even stay there until she caught cold and absolutely had to go in.
At that moment, lightning struck, and the bellowing sound shook her to the core. She hurried inside 29, rue du Général de Gaulle.
“Finally you’re back,” yelled Mrs. Ruchet from the living room once she heard the front door slam. “What took you so long? I hope you brought everything I asked for! Or else you’re going back!”
Still in her wet coat, Maude dragged the two bags to the living room and presented the bottles of tomato juice. Mrs. Ruchet instantly noticed that there was no Lipton Iced Tea.
“Where are the Lipton bottles?” she asked in a menacing tone.
“There weren’t any left at the store,” replied Maude. Probably because Mrs. Ruchet had wiped the store out already, Maude thought sourly.
The two young boys were starting to get agitated, fully enjoying the scene unfolding before them.
“You’re a liar. You just hurried in order to come back home and escape the rain.”
Mrs. Ruchet was a coward. Although she repeatedly mistreated Maude, she was also afraid of her and could hardly stand what appeared to her as a silent, defiant, proud glare. She couldn’t understand how the girl she had crushed since she was able to walk and talk could continue to look at her with a tearless, defiant stare. If Maude had ever once cried in front of her, Mrs. Ruchet thought, she might have relented and acted kindly towards her. Maude had never cried or pleaded. Therefore, this girl was a rebellious and ungrateful orphan without a shred of respect for the family that had reluctantly taken her in from her youngest age.
And there she was again, staring at her.
Mrs. Ruchet emptied the bottle of tomato juice, drank greedily from the basin, and looked again at Maude.
“When will they refill their stock?” asked Mrs. Ruchet, still sipping her drink.
“Tomorrow,” answered Maude.
Mrs. Ruchet, smiled, her canine teeth seeped in tomato juice. Maude averted her eyes to hide her disgust. Mrs. Ruchet, not knowing her teeth were red, thought Maude was showing a sign of bashful obedience and felt satisfied.
“Go to your room, you’re ruining the carpet,” she ordered with a smirk.
Relieved, Maude left the room, the two boys’ laughter echoing in her ears. Maude headed towards the basement in which she had been living since her earliest memories.
Although there was no light in the basement, she had learned to find her way in what was her room, cluttered with useless things. Mrs. Ruchet never threw away a single object but stored everything in the basement along with Maude, the least important object of the household.
When Maude was six, she had shared her space with a broken television and a malfunctioning radio. Now, ten years later, several more broken televisions and radios had found their way to the basement along with bicycles, sky-high stacks of clothes and magazines, children’s costumes of Spiderman and Superman, toys, and other unidentified objects. In the left corner of the basement was the thin mattress on which she slept at night covered in a sheet that never kept her warm during the rough, cold wintery nights that only people in the north of France knew. Under her dust-filled pillow, she hid the flashlight she occasionally used, to scare the rats away when she could get a hold of a battery. However, dreary though the basement was, those four walls represented the only place in the house where Maude found a semblance of solace.
Maude looked out the only window of the basement towards the dark sky and stared dreamily at the stars. Though her parents had been dead for sixteen years, she knew they were somehow watching over her. She wanted to make them proud although the Ruchets had never even mentioned their names to her. The only information she’d received was an involuntary slip at a parent teacher conference in sixth grade. Her English teacher had expressed her concern to the Ruchets about their foster child’s poor grades in English. Mrs. Ruchet had snorted, “I guess she doesn’t take after her father who was perfectly fluent in English!”
She had abruptly been stopped by Mr. Ruchet’s warning glare. She had said too much. Maude, who had never heard Mrs. Ruchet talk about her parents before, treasured this information and dived wholeheartedly into the English language, its literature, its grammar, and history.
Usually, when she entered the basement, she was so tired from her day’s work, that she would fall directly asleep, not hearing the rats or the rain sliding through the only window.
This present evening, while the wind howled and rain poured down heavily, sleep eluded the troubled girl.
When Ms. Clement had announced the day trip to Paris, which was a tradition each year for the tenth graders, Maude’s desire to see the capital city had been irrevocably stirred, and she couldn’t rest until she thought of a way of breaking down the Ruchets’ resistance to the idea. The Ruchets, like many other inhabitants of Carvin, hated Paris and refused to ever go there. They thought Parisians were stuck-up and imagined they were the center of the universe. They always gave Mrs. Lavande and her husband as an example. The Parisian couple lived in one of the biggest houses of Carvin but never spoke to anyone—the main reason being they were deaf and mute, and no one in Carvin had ever made an effort to learn sign language.
That wasn’t an excuse, Mrs. Ruchet would say. They were arrogant, proud, and held their heads higher than anyone else in town, something she couldn’t fathom.
Maude didn’t know how she was ever going to get permission to go to Paris.
She just knew she had to do everything in her power to see the most beautiful city in the world, climb the Eiffel Tower, visit the Louvre Museum, and ramble across the Champs-Elysées.
Resolute as ever, Maude fell asleep smiling, not hearing the tiny, frantic squeaks of a rat caught in the trap next to her mattress.
THE MORNING AFTER THE STORM, the air was chilly, and the town of Carvin was filled with an unearthly atmosphere. The sun, on this new autumn day was gradually creeping through the shadows, renewing the world with its ancient light.
Maude woke up at seven, like every other Saturday, dressed and headed towards the center of the town, the Grand Place. In Carvin, the buildings were low, and a faded greyish color. The Grand Place, which, on the occasional bright day, could hold the entire population, had a few shops, a few cafés, a church, a former tribunal, a bus stop, a police station, a Chinese and an Italian restaurant ruthlessly competing against one another. Most importantly, it held the traditional bakery, in which children delighted in buying croissants, pains au chocolat and various forms of candy and of course, baguettes.
Each Saturday morning, Maude’s first errand was buying croissants for the Ruchet family. It wasn’t her least favorite task, as she enjoyed walking through the deserted town where the only other person up was Mrs. Bonnin, the baker.
The streets were damp, and droplets of rain fell from the lampposts into Maude’s hair as she joyfully glided through the leaves that had started their seasonal journey, changing shades and covering the town in a new, light brown, autumn mantle.
As Maude pushed the door to enter the bakery, delightful scents of croissants and bread greeted her nostrils, and she smiled as she heard the bell announce her arrival.
Mrs. Bonnin hurried to the counter to greet her customer. Mrs. Bonnin was a pretty, plump woman who always greeted her customers with a smile, even when she had no reason to smile. She was also the town gossip, as each small French town has, although she was one of the best. Indeed, the location of the boulangerie in the center of town was perfect for the mission she felt she had been called to accomplish. From behind her counter, at what she called her “observation post,” Mrs. Bonnin eyed every new couple lovingly holding hands and would unabashedly observe a week later the same couple having screaming matches on the terrace of Paul’s café. Mrs. Bonnin had once been the object of every wild story in the small town but had now grown to feel immensely bored with her life. She couldn’t stand the humdrum of her calm, uneventful existence, and longed for amusement. That is why she dedicated her time to learning about other people’s mishaps, and commenting on them to her friends. She never did it to hurt anyone, she just couldn’t help herself, and nobody in Carvin really blamed her for it, seeing as she had a lot more interesting news than the local newspaper. She knew everyone’s life and history in Carvin.
Everyone’s but that of Maude’s, which she had said she knew nothing about when the young girl had once found the courage to ask her. All she knew was that, one day, sixteen years ago, Mr. Ruchet had come home with a delightful, beautiful, smiling brown baby. Mr. Ruchet, who had refused to give any sort of information about this newborn, became the object of the wildest speculations. It had been the talk of the town for three whole months, dying down only after a fresh new, explosive scandal surfaced: the mayor’s embezzlement scandal.
Apart from Maude’s history, Mrs. Bonnin knew everything there was to know about Carvin, past and present, and shared her knowledge with every sympathetic ear she encountered. And Maude, who didn’t know how to refuse anything to the kind woman who always gave her a free, delicious croissant with a cup of hot chocolate “to warm up her tired soul” as Mrs. Bonnin colorfully put it, was the most sympathetic Carvin listener in the baker’s sight.
Mrs. Bonnin knew nothing about Maude’s miserable existence, though. The young girl never breathed a word about it, and Mrs. Bonnin never attributed her skinniness and the circles under her eyes to mistreatment. She always urged Maude to eat more, scolding her for “imitating those anorexic models, you youngsters look up to.” Maude would just laugh, and then sigh wistfully, almost wishing that self-deprivation had been the real cause for her weight and not the Ruchet family’s greed.
“You won’t believe what I heard!” Mrs. Bonnin started. “Your math teacher Mr. Martin asked your French literature teacher Ms. Clement out, and she answered no, of course! He was heartbroken.”
And like every Saturday morning at eight, Maude left the bakery after a full hour of gossip, feeling like the world was a crazy place and that women most definitely came from Venus and men from Mars.
However, Maude was more preoccupied about her field trip and how to obtain permission to go. She planned on asking Mrs. Ruchet right after breakfast.
When she walked in the living room that morning, Mrs. Ruchet, unwell, was lying on the sofa, moaning and groaning.
Maude hesitated, but a fleeting image of the Eiffel Tower crossed her mind and galvanized her courage. She took a few steps closer.
“Mrs. Ruchet,” she said firmly.
“What now?” groaned the invalid.
“I need to speak to you about something. I need your permission to—”
“Go ask Mr. Ruchet,” bellowed Mrs. Ruchet, angrily.
Maude was quite taken aback. Mrs. Ruchet never sent Maude towards her husband. In the girl’s mind, it had always been implied that Mrs. Ruchet was to be the only person to (reluctantly) deal with her. She hardly even knew Mr. Ruchet as he had spent a large part of her life ignoring her, as one ignores problems thinking they will magically disappear on their own. All she knew about him was that he never stood up for her against Mrs. Ruchet’s or her twins’ cruelty.
Mr. Ruchet was upstairs in his study when Maude knocked on the door.
“Come in,” he answered, raising his head.
Maude entered, closed the door behind her.
“Mrs. Ruchet redirected me to you. I have come to ask your permission to go on a field trip to Paris in November. It is an annual tradition that every French student has to go through, sort of like a rite of passage, discovering the big city to better appreciate the advantages of living in a small town.” Maude knew presenting the field trip in this light would please Mr. Ruchet. She took a deep breath and continued quickly. “I would very much like to go. And you should be certain that I will in no way use this trip as an excuse to shirk my household chores. Everything will be done before I leave for this one-day trip. I will be back before you know it, and life will continue as it always has.”
She waited for Mr. Ruchet to say something. He seemed hesitant to respond, scratching his balding head.
Mr. Ruchet prided himself in a certain false sense of fairness. He was a lawyer, a “man of the Law” as he called himself, always using italics in his sentences to underline his passion for principles. He had started out as a human rights lawyer but had abandoned this path years ago to live comfortably with a private law practice in Carvin. He truly believed that the Law was always fair and just and that what was established must remain so. That is why he had never interfered with Maude’s education. That was his wife’s job. And the laws of nature weren’t to be meddled with. As he looked at Maude, he thought he would be fair. Nothing was fairer than laying down a condition to his consent. The Law is always fair and objective, he thought.
“You will be allowed to go to Paris under one condition,” he said slowly.
Maude was already feeling relieved. She was willing to do anything to go on this trip.
“I want you to bring me a good grade on your next math test,” finished Mr. Ruchet.
Maude faltered. Maude, after a hard day’s work, barely had the strength to do her homework but managed to get excellent grades in English class and French literature. In math, let’s just say, there was so much one could learn late at night with just a flickering flashlight to make sense of pages of math formulas. With no one to help her, she was failing miserably in math, and she’d never succeeded in getting a grade over five points on her tests since middle school.
“You will be able to do that, won’t you?” asked Mr. Ruchet.
Maude swallowed and nodded in acquiescence before leaving the room.
Mr. Ruchet felt very proud at that moment. He knew Maude was a dunce in math; she would have to work hard to get his permission to go to this trip. She would either improve tremendously in math, which would be a good thing, or what was more likely, she would fail and his wife would be very pleased. He had found the perfect condition that was just and impartial.
All was right with the world.
Maude worked very hard for the next two weeks. She barely slept and her circles grew deeper under her eyes. She encouraged herself every Saturday by reading books about Paris, its museums, parks, and architecture.
When she arrived on Monday morning for her test, Maude felt quite confident although deprived of sleep and a bit jittery.
After her test, Maude was incredibly proud of herself. She was going to get a good grade. This was the first time in a long time that she had actually written more than her name on the paper. She would definitely get more than 5 out of 20.
Maude waited an entire week for her grade, wishing Mr. Martin would hurry to correct the stack of copies.
Mr. Martin hated teaching reckless teenagers who were more interested in texting than reading their textbooks. No student understood his profound love and devotion to math and, to him, Maude was a hopeless case. When he saw Maude’s name on the remaining test, he put a 5 out of 20 without even looking any further than her name.
In the basement that evening, Maude stared at her test, wishing with all her heart that she could make it disappear. Unfortunately there was no erasing the big, red 5 out of 20 her teacher had lazily scrawled on the paper. Maude paced in her tiny room thinking. Perhaps she could beg Mr. Ruchet to let her go on that field trip. Never, she thought firmly, he would be too pleased and would still refuse. She could run away perhaps? She had too little money and no family to go to.
Suddenly, she stopped, turned around, and looked back at the test, slowly smiling. She took her red pen and added a 1 in front of the 5, thus turning a 5 into an excellent 15.
Nothing was going to keep her from that trip.
Mr. Ruchet looked up as Maude entered his study. She advanced quickly looking a little uneasy, which Mr. Ruchet barely noticed as he was very busy making sure that the Law prevailed. She put her test in front of him.
He took the paper and looked at it long and hard. Looked back at her, saw that she was trying hard not to fidget and mistook it for a sign of excitement and anticipation. Not for the nervousness of a guilty conscience.
“I see you’ve received a good mark. Fifteen out of 20 isn’t too bad although I think you might’ve done better.”
He stared back at the test, looked up, and said, “Give me your permission slip, you have my consent. You may go to Paris.”
THE SUN SHONE BRIGHTLY, ITS rays bouncing off the majestic Eiffel Tower. The Iron Lady clad in iron and steel stood firmly on her four-legged pedestal, towering over the entire city of Paris, carefully keeping watch over its millions of worshippers, following the city’s incessant murmur, its fast-paced heartbeat. The Iron Goddess beamed proudly over the Seine River, which flowed to the rhythm of the city, transporting gaping tourists in bateaux-mouches, eager to see the capital’s monuments, its captivating historical and modern beauty. Maude’s class, before sailing on a gigantic bateau-mouche, had visited the Eiffel Tower and visited the Louvre Museum to her delight.
The teachers then announced three hours of free time before the departure at nine p.m. at Notre-Dame.
“Nine o’clock sharp,” reminded Ms. Clement as her students wandered off in groups.
Maude wandered off alone, but so incredibly happy, mesmerized by the beauty surrounding her. She was just happy walking around aimlessly in Paris. She visited the small shops in l’île Saint-Louis, although she had little money to spend, walked along the Seine looking at the elegant houseboats, and smiled at the artists painting portraits of tourists. After two hours rambling in the city, Maude, leaving Place Georges Pompidou and heading towards Notre-Dame, was thinking about how hungry she was. Being surrounded by a large variety of food only makes choosing harder, and Maude was having a pretty difficult time deciding whether she wanted to eat sweet crêpes full of strawberry or peach jam or French hot dogs in which the sausage is wrapped in a baguette or croque-monsieurs.
That’s when she heard it.
Coming from the café right in front of her, Le Cavalier Bleu, a musician surrounded by a crowd of entertained customers, was at the piano singing, full of enthusiasm, “Milord,” one of Edith Piaf’s most famous songs.
Maude, who knew this song, was instantly drawn to the place, its lively atmosphere, its crowd, and especially its music.
She entered the café and sat at a table by the bar. Without even knowing it, she was singing softly and playing the notes, which she knew by heart, on an imaginary piano.
At the table next to her was sitting a tall, black man drinking an espresso. He had a kind face though the several gray hairs that curled up against his temples indicated a certain maturity. The crease on his left cheek showed he was a man who smiled easily at life, and the absence of wrinkles on his forehead revealed him to be a man who never let a worry hassle him too long. His eyes gleamed with a gleeful twinkle as if always laughing at a private joke. He was wearing a dark business suit and sitting lazily in his chair. He’d had a long day. He’d come to Paris for business but had been quite disappointed with his meeting and felt a wave of fatigue and the bitter aftertaste of unfinished business. Besides, usually when he came to Paris, he was with his wife, Victoria. They always came to this café in which the music always lifted his spirits. Victoria would sometimes even play, to the delight of the owner who was a good friend of theirs. As he looked around the room, he saw Maude at the table next to his, singing softly and playing notes on an imaginary piano. She reminded him of his own daughter who was about her age.
When the owner, who was also waiting on tables that day, came to his table, his friend whispered something in his ear. The owner nodded, smiling.
Maude was completely oblivious of everyone around her and could only hear the music. So when it came to a stop, she came back to the real world with a start.
The owner, M. Beauregard went to the piano and told the pianist to get up.
“As you all know, this café is opened to any new musician who wants to give this piano a try. Now, I couldn’t help but notice a very talented young girl among us.” He paused looking at Maude who had been listening, her eyes wide with anticipation, wondering who would be next to claim the dark, grand instrument.
The waiter pointed to Maude.
“Young woman, would you care to take your rightful place?” he asked, a slow smile spreading across his face.
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly—” Maude started to protest.
“What’s your name, Miss?” he asked.
“Maude. My name is Maude Laurent,” she answered a little hesitantly.
“Well, everyone, I think that all Maude needs is a little encouragement, don’t you think?” he asked, turning towards the small crowd around the piano.
Without hesitating, the crowd chanted, “Maude, Maude, Maude!” softly at first, then louder and louder.
Maude had never played for an audience before. She had always been locked in a tiny room in the library, with the walls as sole witnesses. Besides, she had to head back towards the meeting place at Notre-Dame.
Could she actually do this? After the wonderful day she’d had, she was feeling like she could take on the world.
She was still in a midst of hesitation when the man sitting at the table next to her leaned over to her table.
“Go ahead, child,” he said reassuringly in English. “It’ll be okay.”
She looked at him, his big brown eyes dancing with amusement bored into her soul, and she felt something she hadn’t ever experienced before: trust. As if he knew her and everything would be okay. The crowd was still chanting her name. How could she resist?
“Go on,” he repeated.
Maude smiled at the stranger as she got up, almost knocking over the table. She walked to the dark upright Pleyel piano, her legs feeling a bit heavier with every step she took. She kneeled down at the bench, adjusting it to her height, and then took her rightful place. The crowd grew silent.
She placed her hands and pondered on what to play. An opera aria wouldn’t do in a Parisian café. No, a French classic would be better, she decided.
“The great musician we just heard started the evening with Edith Piaf, so I will follow in his footsteps. You will easily recognize this song and I hope you will enjoy it.”
Slowly she hummed while her left hands played do, mi, sol. Suddenly her voice rang out, loud and clear, as she began the first verse.
Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose
When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.
As her lips sang this song of love, her heart was singing an ode to Paris. She had spent the most wonderful day in this city, she had finally experienced “la vie en rose”. Her mind envisioned her enchanted discovery of the Louvre Museum, her walk in its wide colorful halls, her eyes turning in awe of every painting, tragic or romantic. As her fingers slid across the piano, the Mona Lisa beamed at her while she played.
I’m in a world apart
A world where roses bloom
Her happiness had been more than abundant as she had stood at the very top of the Eiffel Tower, a rush of life had fueled in her lungs as she contemplated the entire city, like a Queen on her coronation day taking in the width of her new kingdom.
Every bone in her body awoke to true happiness, which she had never felt in her short, battered life with the Ruchets.
Her voice trembled with emotion that only added breathtaking beauty to her performance. She ended her song, the song that now possessed her whole being, and slowly turned around. Not one word was spoken amongst the astounded audience, which had gradually grown as she had played. Then, suddenly, a great round of applause broke out. The owner had abandoned his tray and was clapping wholeheartedly.
Maude smiled, her heart pounding in her ears, as her eyes circled the cheering crowd and paused as she saw that the black man who had encouraged her was the only one silent.
Her smile abruptly faded, as her gaze fell on the clock right behind the stranger.
It was five minutes after nine.
She had to leave right away!
That was easier said than done. The crowd had gathered around her, and the owner was offering her free drinks.
“I’ve never had so many customers!” he exclaimed in amazement. “You have to stay longer. You can’t leave without getting a free drink. Don’t make me beg you to stay,” he urged as he saw her about to protest.
“No, really I must go,” Maude insisted, trying to make her way towards the exit. “You must understand, I am not from here. I must go now!”
People were gathering around her on all sides, congratulating her. With all her heart she wanted to stay, but the clock had struck nine, and she had to go back to her dreadful existence with the Ruchets. She smiled hastily to the customers, all the while firmly elbowing her way towards the exit. Finally managing to make it to the street and away from the crowd, Maude stopped. She had no idea where she was going.
Just as she was about to ask for directions she heard her name.
She turned and saw the tall man from Le Cavalier Bleu coming towards her.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” he asked in a hesitant French.
“I do speak English,” responded Maude. “I can’t talk though, I have to head towards Notre-Dame, and I have no idea where to go and—”
“Let me help you. I know where it is. Don’t worry, it isn’t far. And on the way, we can talk,” he interrupted.
“Okay,” Maude agreed, relieved to be headed in the right direction. “We have to hurry. I was supposed to be there at nine sharp, and now Ms. Clement won’t be happy, and she’ll probably tell Mrs. Ruchet and—” Maude paused, a shiver going down her spine when she thought of what Mrs. Ruchet might do to punish her.
“Who is Mrs. Ruchet?” asked her newfound companion.
The woman who makes my life miserable, thought Maude bitterly.
“My foster parent,” simply replied Maude.
The man looked at her and noticed her quickened breath and the gloomy veil that had fallen over her eyes and felt she was withholding something painful and didn’t want to pursue the subject.
“I hope Mrs. Ruchet realizes what a talented young lady she has living under her roof,” he replied.
Maude glanced at him curiously.
“Listen, Maude,” he continued, “you are very talented. Don’t let anyone, Mrs. Ruchet or anyone else, tell you otherwise. We are almost at Notre-Dame. Listen to me very carefully.”
He stopped walking and Maude stopped too, although her thoughts roamed towards the bus and the severe reprimand she was headed for.
“I’m a music producer from a big record label set in New York. I would like to sign you for a deal.”
He shuffled in the pocket of his dark suit and took two cards out giving her one with a pen.
“Write your name, address, telephone number on this one. And keep the other one with my name and number on it.”
Maude looked at him dubiously.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I don’t know you at all. You could be one of these murderers I hear about all the time on the eight o’clock news. I give you my address now, and in a week, a British tourist in a bateau-mouche will see my body floating in the Seine.”
The stranger couldn’t help but smile at her blunt honesty.
“Besides,” she continued, peeping behind his shoulder where she could see the bus, “I really