What had started as a light rain was becoming a pour. Drops hit Camille's cap harder and harder, drenching his shoulders in a freezing cascade. He would have welcomed this, the cleansing power of rain, that would hold off Paris's stench for a while. But not now, hurrying as he was in streets he didn't know too well.
His jacket was folded tight around his hand, trying to stop the blood flow. He gritted his teeth as his stick hit a wall and the end of it poked harshly under his sternum, effectively cutting off his breath.
Slow down. Think. Where are you?
Not too far from home, for all he could tell with the rain; he could hear the farrier he'd passed this morning, going to work.
And now I may be losing that job and MY BLOODY HAND if I don't hurry
He breathed deep, trying to contain his panic.
Someone - man or woman, he couldn't tell - walked into him, their umbrella poking his forehead, walking fast and without a word of excuse. She - woman - hailed an omnibus behind his back.
He knew where he was.
Okay, hurry, now.
Doctor Alphonse Allibert was wrapping his appointment with Mrs Julien - an old bat who came to his surgery almost every day for various imaginary ailments - when a big crash erupted from his waiting room. Jumping to his feet, with only a passing eye for his patient, now pressing both hands over her heart, he opened the door, ready for anything. Times were not making things easy and calm in these parts of the city.
He let down his hands he’d raised in fists, however, when he recognized the beanpole of a man that had fallen against a chair as he'd entered, losing his cap and stick. Lucky for him, the room had been empty.
"Dessaigne. Again ?"
"Again." One hand felt for the cap and immediately pushed the headgear low over his mousy hair and face when it found it. The other hand was hidden under a folded tight, crumpled worker jacket. The man's grey-blue shirt was stained with blood in various places. "This time, it's worse."
"We'll see about that." Allibert picked up the stick and helped the man stand up. He called. "Mrs Julien! We were finished, I think."
"My heart! This ruckus… You should take my -"
"You're fine, Mrs Julien. Remember the name of the colleague I gave you? Go see him if you need anything."
The old lady walked past them, mumbling under her breath.
"I think she said you'll hear more from her."
The suddenly laconic doctor gave a push to his patient, guiding him to his surgery.
Allibert pushed Camille to sit on a chair next to a table.
"Show me your hand."
Camille unfolded his jacket, wincing in pain when the pressure applied changed and blood flew again in his fingers. The doctor let out a sigh.
"This isn't a job for you."
Allibert cleaned the wound, sending shivers of pain and disgust along Camille's spine every time some water or a cloth was too harsh against the deep cut.
"It's all I can get, now that the school's closed,” he let out through his teeth, "I need the money."
"It's bleeding a lot, still.” Camille felt the doctor get close, inspecting the cut.
“But it doesn't look that bad. I need to sew it. Hold that hand up." The doctor laid the injured hand on a cloth, then got up, looking for something in various drawers he was opening and closing quite too strongly.
He kept talking.
"You're educated. You got skills. I'm sure there's places where they'd need an interpreter. Especially now ."
"I'm unemployed because of now. And you need to be able to read reports, too."
Allibert came back, and laid something that produced a metallic sound over the wooden table, then something that made a dull thud, like a thick glass or a bottle. He sighed.
"You won't be able to read anything anymore if you continue with this job, you know that."
Camille straightened. Alphonse may be his friend, but a doctor couldn’t know what he was going through. He himself couldn’t, just a couple of years prior.
"My priority is having a roof over my head and enough food to keep me going. Culture is going to have to wait.”
“You’re losing more than culture with your fingers, my friend.”
“I know.” Camille swallowed, all bravado gone. “I know…”
“Heh. It’s just a cut. A deep one, but you won’t lose this finger. Promise. Now drink some of this.” He produced that dull sound again, right in front of Camille.
He grabbed the small, square bottle, opening and sniffing it. He had a slight recoil.
“What is this?”
“Isn’t it a little too much?”
“I’m running low on many things. This is all I have left. It’s this, or some eau-de-vie , and I know that this at least contains some pain reliever.”
Camille shrugged, and took a big gulp from the bottle. It didn’t taste good. At all.
They stayed silent as the doctor did his job. While the laudanum didn’t have any effects at first, making the few first minutes extremely painful, Camille felt light and slightly off by the end, his hand no longer painful nor a worry.
“I’ll take you home.” The doctor wrapped Camille’s hand in a bandaged, carefully tightened. “I don’t have any patients left today.”
“Today? What with la Julien ? you said you wouldn’t hear from her anymore. It sounded definitive”
It had felt weird to Camille earlier, but now it didn’t really affect him. He was merely making conversation, the laudanum continuing effects detaching him from much of what this implied.
“Yes, well. Since we’re talking about it.” Alphonse got up, and glasses clinked. He came back to place yet another drink in Camille’s good hand - one that smelled a lot better.
“Cheers, my friend.” Alphonse clinked his glass against Camille’s, but his voice was extremely somber. “To my drafting.”
Camille stood motionless on his chair, his hand halfway to his mouth. His slow, drugged brain had suddenly emptied. He wasn’t as detached as he’d thought.
He stood up clumsily.
“No. No, you can’t.”
“You think I have the choice...”
“You’re… How will I manage without you? You’re my only friend, here. And you help. How…”
Camille kept shaking his head, enough to make himself dizzy. But he couldn’t help it.
“You’ll probably manage far better than I will. I’m sent to the front. In a field hospital, if I’m lucky, but you know what they say about it.”
“No. Please, don’t… I can’t do this alone.”
“You will. And believe me, thank God or luck or whatever to be spared this fucked up nonsense. There are things, you better be blind rather than be forced to see.”
Camille heard Alphonse gulp down his cognac in one go, and sniff. He didn’t want his friend to leave, he didn’t want his friend to be killed in this horrendous war, but this, this was too much.
“You’re not blind. You didn’t lose a finger working in an ammunition factory to pay your rent. Tell me how I live better.”
“If I lose only a finger I’d declare myself safe and sound and happy.”
Camille held his head high.
“You could lose your sight.”
“If I don’t go when they ask me, I would be a deserter, and be executed when they catch me. If I lose my sight, I’ll live and go home.”
“You don’t know how it is.”
“And you will never know how it is there. That makes us even in our ignorance.”
Camille lowered his head. There was no issue to this discussion.
Maybe it was the drug, or the alcohol, or maybe he was actually able to think. But what good would it do to antagonize his only friend just before he left? Even if he was being an arse.
They were both being unfair to each other. They were both bitter.
Camille walked towards his friend and found his arm, that he patted awkwardly.
“I don’t want to go, Camille. I don’t. I’m afraid.”
Her world was red, brown, and grey. Diane had forgotten any other colour could exist. You'd think she'd glimpse the blue of a uniform from time to time, if not the sky.
But the sky stayed grey and the uniforms were stained in mud and blood when they reached her. Everything in the tents was drenched in a dull beige light during the day, and the sooty yellow of the oil lamps during the night.
Last time she'd seen green, it was in the eyes of a dying, unnamed soldier.
Today, they were brown, like hers. Dying all the same.
They all die.
Diane jumped, her hand letting go of the one she had been holding in support. Said hand fell back, limp, on a chest that wasn't moving anymore.
The sounds of the field hospital reached her once again, chilling her to the bone. Wind rattling the tents. Moaning soldiers. Yells and running footsteps of the nurses. Distant artillery.
She bit her lips and arranged the hand as well as she could on the skinny chest, then took the time to close the brown eyes.
Her last name always sounded like an insult in the mouth of the other nurses. Too foreign. Too boche . She wondered if it was the same for her sisters, somewhere down the front line. There'd been no news since they had been separated a few months before.
She got up with a last look at the dead soldier and hurried towards the table she'd been called to, at the other side of the tent.
Running there, she couldn't help but look at the billowing fabric, mangled by the strong wind.
Wind wasn't good.
"Instead of taking care of the ones we can't save, will you hold this one down while the doctor does his job?" The nurse had lowered her voice, but it was close to still yelling, over the ruckus inside and outside the tent, and the inarticulate moans of the soldier she was barely containing.
Diane looked at the new nurse with terrified eyes. Nurse Lapointe had arrived less than a week ago. She must have heard of Diane, surely?
"You really want me… To…"
"To help me hold him down, yes! Hurry, I can't do it alone."
She joined the other nurse at the table, where the badly injured man was fighting, trying to get up, trying to flee. He wasn’t making any coherent sounds, though, apart from moans and grunts.
That's all he could do, with his jaw missing.
Barely shocked by a view she'd gotten used to, Diane grabbed one waving arm and pushed it against the table with all her strength. She muttered a few words to try and calm the man, but that was probably falling into a deaf ear. She did what she was told. But she couldn't help thinking it was a bad idea.
Doctor Durand, a short, nervous man, as covered in blood as they all were, entered the overcrowded tent and ran towards them.
His expression of determination changed to anger when he saw Diane.
"What is she doing here? Get her off my patient."
"I need arms. She's a nurse. She's got work to do."
"She's cursed . Away with you, girl," Durand pushed Diane forcibly away. "I'll take care of this one, and he isn't going to die."
Diane knew better than to contradict the man who was after all their superior. She let go of the already weakening soldier, only to turn around when a loud scream rose, immediately followed by others.
It was like home, where echos sent you back whatever you yelled at the mountains.
Except these echos sounded a lot more dangerous.
“GAS ! GAAAAS !”
The wind. The deadly wind.
Diane jumped, her heart suddenly racing, and ran towards the case where they stored the masks. They were sufficiently far away from the front line not to bother constantly about it. But it all depended on the wind.
She followed the instructions drilled into her head for two years now, and put her own mask first, then went around distributing, or setting masks on the soldiers that were unable to do so themselves. She discovered one other man dead in the process.
She stopped, then went on. Nothing to do for this one.
The panic had finally recessed. It has been short - the wind might be bringing them the gas, it could also swipe it away.
Diane felt the place on her cheek where the mask straps had left a dent. She was looking at the soldier on the table. They’d put a mask on him, but with no jaw to strap it to, it had been useless.
He was dead, too weak to even survive through this. But she doubted the gas was to blame.
Now they would have to brace for a new wave of casualties. Not immediately. But in the next twenty four hours, it was going to be hell. Gas was like that. It took time for it to do its work. She hoped she had not been too exposed, but she felt no burn nor itch anywhere.
She took it as good news.
Alphonse got out of the truck, his feet suddenly sinking in mud up to the ankle, and instantly freezing. He stroked his thin mustache, and looked at the dirty tents that were going to be his landscape for the time being, with a lead weight in his belly. Grey skies, brown mud, a few dead trees, and the big red crosses over the beige thick fabric of the tents.
He was too old for this.
At least it wasn’t the front line. He walked into the first tent.
A small nurse, black hair falling out of her head gear, walked up to him immediately, effectively keeping him half outside the tent, and from seeing what was inside.
“What do you need, sir? Are you injured?”
“No I’m -” Alphonse looked down into the big, black circled brown eyes. She wasn’t as young as he’d thought at first, but she was still younger than him. She had that haunted look everyone he’d passed since he’d arrived here had had. With an added spark of… he didn’t know. There was something of a small animal on the verge of fleeing in those eyes. But also some stubbornness. He made a gesture towards his spotless, brand new uniform. “I’m the new reinforcement. The new doctor.”
“Oh.” Again that look of scared small animal. And then it disappeared. She lowered her head. “Let me get Doc Durand for you.”
“Thank you, miss.” Alphonse tried a smile, that felt as inappropriate in here as if he’d arrived with a bouquet of roses. But to his surprise, she had the shadow of a reply on her lips before she turned away.
He entered and looked around when she left. It was a disaster. Men piled up against each other on the ground, moaning, stirring, because there was no room left on the few camp beds that aligned, set close next to each other, along each side of the tent. Blood was everywhere, but it wasn’t the worst.
The hands and necks of the crying men bore the signs he’d just been taught to recognize. Some of them had some cloth over their eyes, some didn’t but had severely swollen and red eyelids. Others got blisters all over their faces. All of these men looked and sounded like they were suffering intensely. A way too big number of them was producing gurgling sounds instead of breath.
Alphonse felt the instant urge to run away. But he stayed. Waiting.
A yell from a nearby tent rose, the voice of an angry man. Maybe slightly on edge.
“GET OUT! I DON’T WANT YOU IN HERE! YOU ARE BACK TO THE TRIAGE WHERE YOU BELONG, YOU WITCH!”
Alphonse couldn’t hear the answer to this.
He supposed the triage was here, judging by the untreated, or hastily patched up soldiers. And he supposed the witch was the nurse he had just met. It intrigued him. There wasn’t anything even remotely witchy about her. But he was a Parisian from birth, just like most of his recent family tree. He supposed the war brought together people who had more long lasting... superstitions.
The nurse came back, with an intense weariness visible on her face and moves.
“Durand is waiting for you. Walk through the tent here, and it’s the next one on the left.”
Alphonse thanked her, and walked between the rows of beds and men lying on the floor, trying not to look at them just yet. Just the number of them… When he reached the back of the tent, he could hear a toneless voice.
“I’m not a witch, you know. I’m just... cursed. I guess.”
He turned around, giving a lost look to the nurse, only crossing her eyes for a short moment before she turned away to tend to a patient. He left, unsure of what had just happened.
If the triage tent was misery, mud, wounds and death, the second tent was chaos. Nurses ran in all directions under the yells of a small man, hands deep in the belly of an unconscious - he hoped - soldier. The small yelling man’s apron was red, his hands were red, his face was red.
Alphonse couldn’t tell if it was blood or anger.
He did not see the nurse again for a while. Days turned into weeks in the monotonous succession of day, night, with the occasional artillery and gas attacks. The fear and novelty of the work there had quickly turned into a daze, of him barely being conscious of the time passing by.
He saw her again the day he was sent to triage, after yet another gas attack.
There was nothing much to do for gas victims but give them painkillers, tend the burns and wait. The tent was filled with moans and yells as usual, on top of the wheezing, coughing, and gurgling of the ones who had breathed the gas.
They were drowning, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Alphonse stopped near a restless soldier, sat on a bed he was sharing with another wounded man. The young soldier - he couldn’t be more than twenty - had a cloth over half his head, effectively covering his eyes. The rest of his body looked fine, as far as Alphonse could tell. The soldier was bouncing his legs, turning his head this way and that, letting out cries from time to time. The soldier sharing the bed with him was silent, safe for his wheezing breathing.
Alphonse leaned towards the restless soldier and risked a hand on his shoulder. The soldier jumped.
“Easy, son. I’m the doctor. Burns to the eyes?”
“I’m blind. God help me, I’m blind.”
“Let me look.” Alphonse kept his voice reassuring. “Most of the time, it’s temporary.” That was true. But to be sure, he needed to check, and the soldier kept pushing his hand away from his bandages.
“No. I’m blind. I can’t stay this way. I can’t. What is my life -”
“Let me see, alright? I can’t -”
But the soldier pushed him away, strongly enough so that Alphonse hit another one sitting on the next bed. That one helped him get back to his feet without a word, his thousand yards stare saying everything. Alphonse doubted he even noticed what he was doing.
The small nurse appeared next to the blinded soldier.
“Lucien. We know each other, right? You were here last week for your foot. How is it?”
“What does it matter? What does it matter?”
Alphonse turned to the nurse, over the soldiers wails.
“He won’t let me look.”
“Lucien, let the doctor look.”
“It won’t change anything, I’m blind now.”
“Lucien, remember the British guys. They all came back. The blindness was temporary. It’s the gas. It’ll come back.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“No one can be sure of anything. Lucien. Let the doctor look.”
“We’ll tell you if it’s temporary, but you need to calm down and let me have a look. I have many other people to see.”
The nurse took his hand.
The soldier stopped his constant moving, grasping the side of the camp bed. He nodded.
Alphonse took off the bandages carefully, slowly, while the nurse took on herself to take care of the other soldier sharing the bed, rolling up his sleeves and looking at severe burns on his arms. They both ignored the cries of pain of their patients.
Alphonse threw a few side glances at the nurse. He was still curious as to what made her a witch, or cursed. There was nothing out of the ordinary with this woman.
The eyes under the bandage were severely burnt, but upon further inspection, would probably heal totally. Alphonse had seen worse.
“Will I get my sight back?”
“Probably. I can’t tell you for sure, but it doesn’t look too bad.”
He tried to tend to the burns as much as he could with what he had, so it just meant water, for now, but it seemed to bring some relief to the soldier. He kept talking to him, to keep his mind occupied. But the soldier always came back to it. He was on a loop. Probably shell shocked on top of the rest. Alphonse had no idea how to deal with that. He tried to address the problem in another way.
“You know, I have a friend back home. He’s blind. You can survive that, you know.
“I don’t think I could. I can’t.”
“I’m not saying it’s easy. Far from it. Just that you find ways.”
“Doc, shut up. Shut up. I don’t want to lose my sight. If I do, I’ll -”
“Lucien, you’ll be okay.” The nurse had turned again towards him, placing a hand on his thigh.
The soldier she was taking care of was having even more trouble breathing, now. She stood up, and before she started leading him to the next tent, she turned back to Lucien and added.
“Doc here and the hospital later will cure you. And then you’ll be back with us. Alright?”
Alphonse sent a meaningful - or so he hoped - look at the nurse while she said that. He wasn’t too keen on telling lies - and as far as he knew, these could be. She shrugged in response and lead, or rather dragged, the suffocating soldier out of the tent.
Lucien calmed down and let him resume his care.
Better tell them what they needed to hear. He had to learn that. Maybe he was becoming desensitized.
Or rather, maybe he’d been in the first place.
Alphonse got back to work.
Alphonse is not a bad guy, he's even pretty nice, but he can be damn stupid, socially speaking. And he wants you to think his own way. I don't know him much yet but he will need to get some learning done. I don't know how yet. This is like a sidequest lol
Some worldbuilding and backstory here. Contrary to the original timeline, Camille can't really be feeding everyone to death, but I've found a way to replace this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Now that his friend but also regular doctor had been sent away to the front line, Camille tried to follow his advice, mostly because he didn't want to have to find another doctor.
He couldn’t change his job, but he managed to stay away from more injuries by switching posts regularly with another worker. He couldn’t avoid small cuts or the usual bump into misplaced things - keeping his stick in the factory was deemed more dangerous than not having one - but he had managed to keep his remaining fingers safe for the time being. He still spent half of his time sorting ammunition by size with his usual crew of women and other exempted guys, but the other half he’d traded with an elderly warehouse man with a lumbago. As long as he had to push things in a straight line from point A to point B, and that there wasn’t anything in the way, he was good. For now, it worked relatively well. They all just had to try and not get caught. Which wasn’t exactly the easy part for someone who couldn’t look around. But he tried to make do by keeping track of the foreman by the sound of his keys, and his colleagues would warn him. They were all in this together, after all.
The only thing was, he wasn’t nearly eating enough for this kind of heavy work. When he arrived home after his workdays, he was exhausted.
Camille collapsed on his small bed once more, expertly avoiding a low wood beam he knew well in the process. That beam knew him well too ; he wasn’t aware of it, but it still held some blood stains from the repeated times he’d bumped his head into it, when he first moved in. Now they were at peace, granted the beam didn’t move. Camille was certain it wasn’t planning to.
Lying on his bed was the safest thing he could do in there, anyway. First, his attic room was so low steeped he couldn’t stand upright anyway; second, it was so small, moving around would have him knock about the few things he kept in there, and he was too tired to have the will to pick them up.
He thought about his big, clear room at the institute. Well, not that big, and still an attic room, but definitely bigger than this one, and in which he could actually stand up. He even had a small desk where he could sit to read. And clear… While the ridiculously few light he could see was prone to give him headaches if too bright, he’d discovered, now, in this windowless - cheap and perfect for a blind guy, right? - room, that he had liked being awoken by it in the morning. His whole rhythm was askew, now.
Drowsy, his head against a flattened pillow that had seen better days, he grunted. Talk about irony, what he missed was light.
His belly growled. The food had not been half as bad either. That had been the good part of working for the Institute, especially as a former student : you kept eating there, living there, knew everyone and every place like the back of your hand, had a job you liked that had another meaning than ultimately killing people… the only annoying part had been the monks, but what can you do. You got used to them after a while, even if you came from such an anticlerical family as Camille’s.
Only the monks had the books.
And the books were Camille’s life.
He sat up, trying to clear his head from this useless reminiscing. His hand automatically got to the other, feeling the almost fully healed scar from the cut Allibert had stitched a few weeks earlier. Then his fingers explored the other ones ; his hands, once his working tools, fine and tuned, experts in finding bad prints, and experts in printing, were covered in countless small and not so small scars, and had become callous, the skin of his fingers thick, less sensitive. He was missing the tip of his left ring finger.
But he could still read.
“Goddammit,” he muttered under his breath, “I can still read and I’ll get my job back as soon as this insane war is over.”
Only his grumbling belly answered him. He had to find food soon.
He fished in his trousers pockets, finding some coins. Not that many. He studied them. There might be enough for a small meal in one of the shops down the street. That would have to do. But since vespers had not yet rang at the church by the corner, he figured he could wait a little, to avoid the streets being too crowded.
He left the bed, on his knees to avoid the low beam and ceiling, and inspected the contents of the only other piece of furniture in the room. A small, ill-fitted shelf, which held his sole other set of clothes - Sunday clothes , he’d call them, ironically - and three extremely thick, leather bound books. He picked one, retreated to the bed, sat, the book on his knees, and started to read it again.
He didn’t need any window nor light to.
Some quite long time later, a soft knock sounded at his door. Camille’s hands stilled on the page. The only person who would come to his door was his landlord, and he wasn’t really what he would call friendly to him.
He held his breath, waiting for the visitor to leave - at least he couldn’t be betrayed by light under his door.
But the knock rose again. And it wasn’t the knock of his landlord.
“...Yes?” He didn’t get up from his bed to open.
“Camille? Camille, it’s us.” Only one voice was talking, but it wasn’t the landlord. It was a woman, and he did know that voice. He just had to remember-
“Open ! We have something for you."
“Us? Us who?"
“Jeanne and Henriette? I thought the blind could tell who people where with -"
“Yes, yes, alright.” He carefully closed the book and put it aside, got up, crouching, and opened the door for the two women he worked with at the factory.
They stifled a chuckle.
“You’re too big for that door.”
“I’m too big for that room. I don’t even know if -”
Before he could even tell them that he wasn’t sure they would all fit in the room, small fat Henriette and long Jeanne had squeezed past him, stopped three steps later by the far wall.
“Oh, Camille. This is so small !” Jeanne squealed. “How do you even turn?”
“I don’t?" He joked, without much effect. "You can, uh, sit on the bed, if you want.”
“No.” Henriette gently tugged at his hand. “You sit. We are small, we can fit under this roof.”
He did as he was told, embarrassed that they would burst in his home this way. But if his nose was to be trusted, they had come for a certain reason.
They waited for him to sit and started talking at once.
“You’re way too thin -”
“You’re too skinny -”
“You need to -”
“I made this -”
Jeanne stopped talking first, sighing. Henriette took the lead. As always. Sitting here, feeling their two bodies looming over him - even if he was seated, they were barely as tall as he was - he felt as if on trial.
“You need food. You’re so skinny and pale and, frankly, my dear, sickly.” It wasn’t a mean tone, rather concerned. The rest of the monologue surprised him, though. “And when did you last get to the barber?”
“Uh. Last month?”
“You need to go. You’re such a handsome fellow, you need to get rid of that mangy beard. Besides, it’s soon going to be too long for the factory rules.”
“It’s not that long,” Camille said, his hand reaching his face, his fingers going through his beard. Maybe a couple of centimeters long, nothing like what was forbidden at the factory. He concluded the women were also exaggerating about the rest.
“Anyway. We made you this ,” Henriette layed a warm, heavy cloth on his knees. The smell had not lied. “Potato and bacon pie. Should hold until tomorrow.”
“But, I -”
“We decided to feed you for the time being. We know your pay isn’t good. Armel told us it’s less than ours. And you’re there taking the old bugger’s work, now. I saw you trip over the rails last time.”
Camille shook his head. “Girls, I’m -”
“You won’t stop doing this, we know. But you need strength, if you want to keep on. So let us help.”
Camille sighed. He was ferociously hungry - and everyone in the room could hear his stomach growl, thanks to the smell of the pie. But he also couldn’t accept something like this. He felt hurt in his pride… but, above all, I didn’t want them to get out of their way for him. A couple or more of years earlier, he’d lived far better than they did. And he didn’t even know they existed.
Jeanne spoke again in the short silence that followed. Her voice wavered. But you knew when Jeanne spoke, it was important.
“We used to cook for our sons. I like having you at the factory. You’re the same age as my Jules. It’s a bit like he’s back. A bit.”
Camille swallowed the replies he’d prepared. He put his hands on the sides of the pie - way more food than he’d had in the last three or four days. But he wasn’t really hungry anymore - at least, the conscious side of his brain was more on the verge of throwing up.
“Thank you.” He said, after clearing his throat.
Henriette had lost her husband and a son already, and her second was missing. When she wasn’t at the factory, she was running the streets, looking for the town criers that listed, one by one, more and more new names every day. Her daughter, who was barely fifteen, also worked at the factory. Jeanne only had one child, her husband long gone. Jules had died during the first autumn, back in 14.
If he had to let them feed him… well. Everyone would get something out of it. He would even let them ruffle his hair if it meant they would had a smile in their voice - and some pie for him. He liked them both. They were the sweetest people he’d met on this side of the city. Maybe, he could call them his friends.
"You'll use the money for the barber. Please?"
He was still at a loss for words when Jeanne herself changed the conversation.
“What is this? A book? You can read!?”
“Yeah. Braille book. Look.” He opened a page at random. Henriette let out a whistle.
“Where in hell did you get that. You can read that? How's it work?”
“I, uh. It was my job. Before.” Camille didn’t know what more to say, but he didn’t have time to.
“Now, look at what they do today. Even the blind can read, Jeannette, and we can't. We should be calling him Monsieur instead of giving him pies.”
“Camille is good. And pies are good, too.” He said, forcing his smile a little.
“Good boy. He got it.”
As they left, one of them - probably Henriette - pat him on the shoulder.
“We’ll leave you be. And as soon as you’re through this pie, tell us. We’ll bring you some more. We’re happy to.”
“Thank you. Both of you. Whatever I can do to give it back.”
“Well, eat this, and get that beard off. See you tomorrow.”
They left, and closed the door behind them, leaving him with a warm, just out of the oven pie on his knees, and a slightly sour taste in his mouth.
His belly let out yet another loud growl. He unfolded the cloth, took out his pocket knife, and got to eat, first without much appetite, then voraciously.
I've done some research, and the French National Institute for the Blind was administered by religious people way up until the 50s, even when the institute was a government thing and after the separation of church and state in 1905. The more you know. However Camille is deeply atheist and anticlerical like a part of his fellow French at this time, but he can't avoid going there if he wants an education (having lost his sight also earlier in this timeline than in the original one - roughly around 11 or 12 there)(I can't find other institutes but I lazy - there must be some). After he finished his regular studies, he was offered to stay at the school and help supervise the printing of Braille books, which would allow him to continue study (this I haven't been able to find much about so it's... just my imagination lol).
In the end, having had an education up until 11 and then after at the institute, he's actually more educated than most of the people he's working with. That hasn't changed from the original story and is actually going to help in a few : he's specialised in languages and can speak more than one...