Chapter 1: We Do Not Forget Our Own
Monsieur Faubergé le Directeur de l’Opéra de Paris wrinkled his nose in distaste as he entered the hospital. The stench of bile and salts caused him to bring a perfumed handkerchief to his nose as he strode past the reception desk.
“Monsieur, can I help-“
“Monsieur Faubergé for Odette de l’Opéra. Don’t bother, I know the way.”
Leaving the nurse to scramble for her visitor log, he pushed through the set of double doors behind her and mounted a flight of stairs. Past reception, up the stairs, turn right, and third door on the left, had been Thierry’s instructions.
The rooms on the second level were smaller, designed for private occupancy. No common dormitory for a prima, no matter other financial concerns. Disasters didn’t come cheap.
He found the third door on the left, and knocked.
Her room was a welcome relief from the chemically saturated hallway. An open window sent a soft breeze to ruffle a large bouquet of purple lavender overflowing from a vase gracing the bedside table.
Odette was sitting up in bed, a book in hand. One arm was in a sling, but that didn’t stop her using that hand to slip a ribbon into her place in the book before setting it aside.
“Bonjour, Odette. I received word you wished to see me.”
“Thank you for coming, Monsieur Faubergé. I know you must be quite busy with the reconstruction.”
“More than the theatre was damaged in the flames. We do not forget our own. How is your recovery progressing?”
“The doctors are pleased with my progress. They say I can be discharged any day now, provided I continue my exercises on my own.”
“I am glad to hear it. May I ask where you will go, what you will do, after you are discharged? Besides your exercises, of course.”
“That is what I wished to discuss with you.”
She paused, but he merely regarded her expectantly.
“We do not forget our own,” she echoed. “I’ll never dance again, but I would very much like to remain at the Opéra. Is there a chance that it would be possible for some other place to be found for me there?”
“What kind of place do you envision, for a dancer who can no longer dance?”
“I am no longer a dancer, I have accepted this. I must begin a new chapter, and for that I need work, any work, and the Opéra is all I know.”
“We do not forget our own,” he agreed. “I can find work for you at the Opéra, but you won’t like it.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Not with the dancers, not with the orchestra. Not with patrons. Nothing in view of the guests.”
“I’ll take it.”
“It doesn’t pay well. You’ll need a second job on top of it to make ends meet, maybe a third.”
“I’ll take it.”
“I still haven’t told you what it is.”
“What is it?”
“Caretaker’s assistant. Cleaning, maintenance, odd jobs with Don Carlo.”
“Don Carlo has assistants?”
“Never for very long. The longest I remember lasted a month.”
“I’ll take it.”
“You have heard that Rochelle has taken over as prima?”
“If I hear that you’re distracting or disrupting the balance of the corps, this arrangement must end.”
He sighed and leaned back.
“You know that people will talk about you.”
“If you return to the Opéra, people will know you as the dancer who was injured in a fire on stage, who now sweeps and polishes and empties waste bins. The queen of the corps turned skivvy of the Dogbreath Don.”
“People call him that?”
“One did. He didn’t last. What I’m saying is that if you left the Opéra, you could start fresh. Invent whatever history you want. Or return to your family. How long has it been since you left them to come train? Ten years? Fifteen?”
“The Opéra is my family. I wish to take the Caretaker’s Assistant position. When can I start?”
Monsieur Faubergé sighs and stands, gathering his things. She rises with him, clumsily extracting her stiff leg from the blankets and clinging to the bedrail for balance. He can see she’s determined, but how is she going to handle all the stairs and ladders of the Opera House? Nevertheless, it’s too late to retract the offer now.
“Report to Don Carlo’s office at six tomorrow morning.”
Chapter 2: She Should Have Known
The first day
Odette arrived at the front steps of the Opera House at a quarter to six. A thick fog hovered over the streets, making the cobblestones slick in the early morning darkness. She passed through the row of dim streetlights standing sentinel, clutching her shawl tightly around her shoulders against the chill, and slowly climbed the broad steps.
At the top, she found the doors locked, all six of them.
“I should have known that,” she thought to herself, before turning back.
She should have known the front doors would be locked at this hour, but she didn’t know which doors would not be. At the bottom of the stairs, she looked left, then right, then shrugged and started making her way around the left side of the building.
Don Carlo scowled as he rolled his cigarettes for the day. Already he had heard the bells chime a quarter past six and still the prima had not appeared. If she wasn’t here by the time he finished rolling, he would simply tell Faubergé it hadn’t worked out. Not that he expected it to, even if she did show. It was a ridiculous arrangement. Still, he’d been curious.
She knocked at half past six.
“Dammit,” he swore as he finished tucking the last cigarette into its box.
“Don Carlo?” she called through the door.
“Yes, yes, come in.”
She was smaller than he’d remembered. One arm was bound against her chest and she limped heavily as she stepped into his office. She definitely wouldn’t last the morning.
“Fat lot of good that does.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“Damn right it won’t. You’re a one armed gimp. You’ll quit before lunch.”
“Respectfully, Monsieur, I won’t. My arm is nearly healed. I can do this job.”
“Sod your respect. You don’t know what this job is.”
“You clean. You fix things.”
Don Carlo narrowed his eyes.
“You will clean. I will fix things. If you see something that needs fixing, do not attempt it yourself; report it to me. Do you understand?”
He stood, and squeezed his considerable girth out from behind the desk. Odette took a step back to create more space in the cramped office. Don Carlo stepped around her and unlocked a cabinet on the wall behind her. Inside hung several rows of heavy brass keys. He selected two.
“This one opens the supply closets. This one opens the auditorium. This evening’s performance begins at seven. The auditorium needs to be ready by four. Stage, wings, main hall, balconies, boxes. I will check on your progress at noon. When you quit, return the keys to me before you leave.”
The auditorium was silent and still as a tomb when Odette stepped onto the stage, shawl and sling exchanged for a broom and dustpan. The first few rays of dawn drifted down from the skylights several stories above, flakes of dust dancing in the soft beams, so Odette didn’t bother turning on the gas and lighting the seashell shades bordering the stage’s edge.
For a moment, she paused, watching the dust, remembering the last time she’d been on stage, the heat, the roaring, the panic. The vivid memory felt surreal in the morning stillness.
“What’s past is past,” she told herself. “This is a new chapter.”
Ignoring the stiffness in her newly unslung arm, she bent her head and began to sweep.
Four o’clock found Odette slumped in the last seat of the last box. Her feet felt swollen, her twisted leg ached, her arm was numb and her fingers were sore and reeked of the lemon oil in Don Carlos’ favored cleaner. She’d been accustomed to pushing her body to its limits as a ballerina, but dancing had always brought her joy as well. Now she felt only a deep emptiness beneath her exhaustion.
“That’s your stomach talking,” she reminded herself, remembering that she hadn’t eaten yet today. She’d left the hospital before breakfast was served, and hadn’t wanted to stop working after Don Carlo scolded her for being behind at noon.
“You need to eat,” she thought. “And find a place to stay tonight, and find a second job.” She groaned and closed her eyes.
“Odette,” said a voice behind her.
Her eyes flew open and she scrambled to her feet clumsily, leaning on the chair for support.
“Have you finished?”
“Excellent. Don Carlo owes me twenty francs.”
“Don’t look at me like that, surely you can understand his reservations. But I know you when your mind is made up. Is your mind made up?” he asked. “Will you continue down this road, now that you’ve had a taste?”
He sighed, and his brow furrowed. Odette met his gaze steadily until her stomach growled and a blush rose on her cheeks.
“Very well. Have you found accommodations?”
“I will turn a blind eye if you stay here at the Opéra until you find a more permanent solution. Not in the corps dormitory, somewhere discreet. You look in no shape to go wandering the city tonight.”
“Thank you, Monsieur.”
Odette had in fact already formed half a plan to disappear into the Opéra attics for the night; Monsieur Faubergé’s blessing put her mind at ease.
“While you’re still figuring things out, you may also partake in the corps dinner, if you wish, bearing in mind what we discussed.” Not to cause problems.
“Thank you Monsieur, that’s very generous.” A part of Odette’s mind feared facing her former colleagues, and a part resented accepting charity, but a bigger part knew the corps dinner would be her quickest, cheapest, most filling meal.
“We do not forget our own,” he said with a sad smile, before turning to take his leave.
Odette stared after him for a minute before gathering her cleaning supplies and following. Corps dinner was served early on performance nights; they’d already be starting. Odette had a long slow descent from the upper boxes to figure out how to explain her reappearance at the Opéra.
Chapter 3: Sod It All
A dinner conversation
The kitchens and mess hall were in the basement two levels beneath the stage. Talk and laughter accompanied by the clang of cutlery drifted out into the corridor as Odette descended the last half flight of stairs, leaning heavily on the thin iron banister. The intoxicating smell of beef stew drew her towards her goal, motivating sore muscles and her impossibly stiff leg.
But despite her hunger, when she reached the door to the mess, she stopped on the threshold.
Inside, her former colleagues, friends, and rivals ate and chatted with all the pre-performance excitement she remembered palpable in the air. For a moment, it was as if the fire never happened, as if her body was once again whole, as if she too was happily preparing for a night on stage. For a moment, she felt the sense of oneness, of belonging to the corps, her family.
Then, even as she stood paused on the threshold, first one, then two and three and more noticed her in the doorway. Neighbors were nudged, heads turned, and very quickly the room fell silent, all eyes on her.
The moment stretched, and Odette knew she should do something, say something, anything, but her mind had gone blank and her feet felt nailed to the floor. She scanned the tables, looking for him, because he’s always bailed her out before, but she found herself unable to focus on any face for too long, afraid of what she’d see.
And then, out of the silence, something slammed into her from behind, her bad leg gave out, and the cold flagstones met her face.
The room gasped.
“I’m sorry!” came the squeaky apology from somewhere above. A coryphée, late for dinner.
“I’m sorry!” the girl said again. “I didn’t… I wasn’t…”
Odette groaned, trying to gauge her chances of making it back to her feet.
“Stupid kid. Watch where you’re going!”
She pushed her torso off the ground and tried to squirm her legs around so she could sit.
When Odette raised her head to glare at her assailant, she saw that there were two of them, each awkwardly trying to hide behind the other.
“You’d better be,” says Odette. “This isn’t a bloody playground.”
“Brielle, Lysette, go get your food.”
A tall blonde ballerina came to their rescue. The coryphées scampered away.
“Bonjour Odette. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Bonjour Rochelle.” Odette finally got her legs turned around, but damned if she was going to let herself fall again in front of her replacement. Instead, she leaned back against the doorframe and addressed Rochelle’s knees.
“I thought there was something familiar about the new cleaner in the balconies today. But I couldn’t be sure, the view from the stage is so poor, do you remember?”
I remember how badly you wanted to become a prima, thought Odette. I remember watching you sneak out of the dormitories at night, sometimes with your toe shoes to practice, more often with your rosewater to meet Thierry. And I remember how excited you were when you first came to the Opéra – I was only a year older, and we laughed at how puppy-like all the new quadrilles were, even though we’d been the same.
Suddenly the familiarity disgusted Odette. I know everything about you, and everyone else here. We are one corps, one body, one family; this is all any of us know.
Except for me, thought Odette. She grimaced at the self-pity welling up and forced herself back to Rochelle.
“How is the view from the balcony?”
Better than the view from this floor.
“Sometimes it feels like miles. From the stage, I mean…”
Miles and years and worlds apart, thought Odette, yet crossed in such a short time.
“I know there is a performance tonight,” Odette said instead. “Please don’t let me keep you from your dinner.” And please let this conversation end so I can get mine.
“It’s Swan Lake,” said Rochelle, as if Odette hadn’t seen and heard the rehearsals all throughout the afternoon. “I will, of course, understand if you don’t tell us to ‘break a leg.’”
She laughed at her own joke and Odette grimaced.
“I’m sure it will be magnificent.”
Rochelle returned to her table without offering to help Odette to her feet.
By then conversation had picked up again, and most of the corps was at least trying to ignore the former prima still sitting on the floor. Sod the stares, thought Odette suddenly in Don Carlo’s voice. Sod the stares, and the stairs, and Rochelle, and the stupid coryphées, and the hospital, and the fire… Sod it all.
It took several tries, but Odette rose to her feet on her own.
Chapter 4: A Room of One's Own
The days began to fall into a pattern. Odette woke in her nest of abandoned blankets and old costumes, fixed her hair in the window glass, then slowly made her way down, down, down to the kitchen. The cooks were just rising themselves, but yesterday’s bread was left in the box. She took two pieces - one she ate on her way to Don Carlos’ office, and one she pocketed for later. After receiving her tasks for the day, she’s left alone to carry them out.
As much as she can, she avoids socializing. She’d learned to wait until after the corps dinner to claim her own, and she ate at the cooks’ table in the kitchen. As long as she stayed out of their way, they didn’t seem to mind. Once or twice she caught the scullery girl staring at her as she ate, but a quick frown was all it took to discourage her attentions.
Odette knew she would eventually need to find her own lodgings, and she intended to, but so far she’d been too exhausted at the end of a day’s work to venture out into Paris. Tomorrow, she told herself, day after day.
After several weeks passed, Faubergé sought her out as she mopped the entrance hall.
“Oui, Monsieur?” Her face was blank as he strode over her morning’s work.
“I wanted to inquire into your efforts to find lodgings. Have you had any success?”
“Non, Monsieur, not yet.”
“You cannot stay here indefinitely. You remember that it was only meant to be temporary?”
“Oui, Monsieur, I have not forgotten.”
“See that you don’t. It would not do-“
One of the main doors opened. A tall woman with a severe face entered, wrapped in a lush fur coat. Behind her came two men, one short and the other fat. Both were dressed for business. Odette recognized the fat one as the Opéra board president.
“Excuse me,” muttered Monsieur Faubergé to Odette before hurrying over to the trio.
“Monsieur le President!” he exclaimed, shaking the fat man’s hand in both of his own. “And you must be Monsieur et Madame le Haut!” He made a small bow. “It is an honor to welcome you to our Opéra.”
Odette didn’t miss the fawning and politicking, the smiling and simpering. She resumed her mopping, but jumped in surprise when she was again interrupted.
“Odette!” called Monsieur Faubergé. He held Madame le Haut’s coat in one arm and beckoned to Odette with the other. Stiffly, she moved to join them. Monsieur Faubergé stepped away from the trio long enough to thrust the coat at her and whisper, “Take care of this,” before rejoining the conversation.
Odette was still trying to maneuver the coat away from her dripping mop when Madame le Haut’s eyes widened, then narrowed.
“Odette?” she asked. “Odette from Coppélia?” She looked to the president for confirmation.
“Oui, Madame, the same.”
Odette watched Madame le Haut examine her twisted leg.
“My wife greatly admired your Swanhilda,” says Monsieur le Haut into the silence.
“Thank you, Monsieur,” said Odette.
“And now?” asked Madame le Haut, frowning at the mop.
“Now I have a new role,” she said, tightening her grip on the mop. “Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Monsieur Faubergé, for which I am most grateful.”
“Of course,” said Monsieur le Haut kindly.
“Of course,” repeated Monsieur le President. “We are a family here at the Opéra, we look after our own. Now, Madame et Monsieur, if you will be so good as to accompany us to my office-“ He gestured up the Grand Staircase.
Madame le Haut paused before following the men. She regarded Odette with something between pity and disdain, and Odette braced herself for something cruel, but all the tall woman said was “Don’t get it wet”, with a sniff towards the coat, and then she was gone.
Odette hung the coat in the cloakroom before returning to her mopping.
Later that morning, she was on her way to throw out the dirty mop water when Faubergé found her again.
“Odette! The le Hauts are leaving, fetch Madame’s coat for her.”
She left the bucket and crossed the foyer to the cloakroom. Faubergé followed her inside, and grabbed her arm once they are out of sight.
“I have solved your problem,” he said.
“What problem would that be?”
“The one we discussed this morning.” He was too pleased with himself to notice her cattiness. “I have secured accommodations for you.”
“The le Hauts have just moved into a townhouse on Rue des Mathurins. They are, as of this morning, esteemed patrons of the our Opéra house, and they will allow you lodgings free of charge in exchange for intermittent housework. They understand of course that your primary duties are to the Opéra, and I am assured that their demands on your time will in no way interfere with your current work.”
He paused expectantly. Odette scrambled for a response.
“You’re farming me out?”
“Of course not, you’re keeping your position here.”
“I don’t know anything about those people.”
“Don’t be ungrateful. I believe Monsieur le Haut is in the restaurant business, and Madame le Haut appreciates the arts, our ballet in particular. But it doesn’t matter what they do. You’re not going to find closer accommodations, not at their price.”
She knew he was right. All the pieces fit, there’s no reasonable objection to be made.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Just all right?”
“Thank you,” she conceded, surrendering her stolen liberties as prima to her reality as cleaner. “For going to the trouble on my behalf. Forgive me, it’s just sudden.”
He waved a hand carelessly.
“You are forgiven, and you are welcome. Now, let’s return. They’ll be wondering what labyrinthine depths we disguise as our cloakroom.”
When they emerged, Odette noticed Madame le Haut watching them every step of the way. She turned when Odette approached and Odette helped her into the coat one arm at a time. After checking the contents of the pockets, she turned back to Odette.
“They tell me you finish here at five. Come then and we’ll see you sorted.”
“Oui Madame. And thank you.”
Later, when Odette finally emptied her mop bucket into the alley, she had to resist the urge to try to scrub away the feeling of Madame le Haut’s lingering gaze.
Chapter 5: A Letter
Short, but a necessary bridge.
Many thanks to ellymango for the motivation to push on! Reviews make for faster updates :)
At five o’clock Odette returned the day’s keys to Don Carlo and made what she hoped to be her last nightly climb to the attic. She could make the trip without stopping to rest now, a point of pride in her recovery.
“Not so long ago you would have flitted up and down these stairs half a dozen times before lunch,” nagged a voice in the back of her head. As always, she pushed it away.
At the top, the last door in the hall stood ajar. Odette frowned. Surely she’d closed it that morning - she always did. Taking care to silence her footsteps, she crept towards the wedge of late afternoon sun spilling into the hall.
From within, she heard soft scuffling, and saw a figure hunched over the ancient steamer trunk she’d been using as a table.
“Can I help you?” she said loudly, swinging the door open wide. The figure jumped, either at Odette’s voice or the screech of unoiled hinges. Its head thudded against the low sloped ceiling.
“Odette,” it said, turning.
“Rochelle,” greeted Odette, surprised and suddenly apprehensive. “Can I help you?” she repeated.
“You’ve had a letter,” said Rochelle, holding out a thin envelope.
“You deliver mail now?” asked Odette with a raised eyebrow. “It seems I’m not the only one in the midst of a career change.”
“It was addressed to the dormitory, delivered with the rest of our mail. They told me you could be found up here; I thought I’d ensure it get to you safely.”
“How thoughtful.” Odette took the envelope, and her heart skipped a beat when she saw the sender’s name. Then she noticed the broken seal, inexpertly resealed with a differently textured wax.
“You opened it?” she asked.
“Not me. One of the coryphées. You know how they are. They saw it was from Louis, and, well, it’s no secret half of them write him love notes. You can’t blame them.”
Just watch me.
“You’ve read it?” Odette couldn’t stop herself asking, despite not wanting to know the answer.
“No.” Deliberate, careful, even.
Odette waited out the silence that followed, trying to make out Rochelle’s backlit face.
“He’s a genius, you know. A virtuoso. I know, we tell ourselves we all are – or were – at this level, but he understands it on a whole separate level. He had no trouble securing a place in Moscow.”
“Moscow? Louis is in Moscow?”
“With the Bolshoi, didn’t you know? He left barely a week after the fire. Where did you think he was, taking a holiday?” She snorted. “He was a wreck after the fire, couldn’t walk across the stage without shaking like an arthritic ostrich on a high wire tightrope. His words, not mine. I hope the Moscow winter will chill his nerves back to normal. It’d be a shame for all that talent to go to waste.” Her face contorted for an instant. “Well. I don’t suppose I have to tell you that.”
Odette barely caught the dig. So that was what had happened to Louis. She’d looked for him ever since her return to the Opera without working up the courage to ask someone outright.
“Thank you,” murmured Odette. That was that mystery solved then. She ran her fingers along the edge of the envelope absentmindedly.
“Oh, before I forget,” said Rochelle, stepping around the attic clutter to leave, “One of the coryphées threw up in the back stairwell. We told Don Carlo, and when he found out I was coming to see you, he said to tell you to take care of it.”
“I can’t, I need to go meet-“
“Don’t shoot the messenger. Your problems are yours. À plus tard.” She was out the door before Odette could respond.
Odette kicked the doorframe, accidentally crumpled the letter in her hand, and then took a deep breath.
“She’ll understand,” she told herself, smoothing out the letter. “She agreed that the Opéra comes first.”
She turned and limped back the way she had come, the letter securely tucked inside an inside pocket for later.