It was cold, again. It was always cold. The rich people, they walked up and down and up and down the streets, without even shivering. But there I was, sitting on the pavement with my arms wrapped around me, trying to hold in some of the warmth. And it was freezing. They didn't once look in my direction, though my thin voice was often raised, asking for food.
"Madame, je voudrais ..." They ignored me. "Monsieur, est-ce que ..." But again, I was ignored, just another of the many children on the streets as I tried to live through the winter that was ready to kill.
And then a man, smartly dressed with white silk gloves and a coat in the style of a general, stopped to talk to me. "Girl, what is your name?" he said. I didn't think he was talking to me, but when I looked up my eyes were shining. He was looking at me, he was talking to me.
"Clara," I said gently. "My grandfather named me; he was German." I wondered why I was telling him this.
"Clara. Are you hungry?" I nodded eagerly. Was I ever. I hadn't eaten for two, three days now. The people were stingy with their money and I could not get a job, because there were so many uneducated urchins like me that were filling the manual labour places.
"Yes, monsieur. Very hungry."
"Come with me," he said, and took my hand. "I will take you to a place where there is food. You can do a job for us, and we will look after you. Does that sound fair?"
I had been brought up by my mother who told me never to trust strangers, especially those that were rich and seemed to take pity on the poor. She told me all kinds of stories about their misdeeds. But Mama had died almost three years ago, and Papa had followed not long afterwards, so it was up to me now. I knew they would want me to eat.
I hesitated for only a minute, then got up with the aid of the man's hand. "Yes, I will come with you," I said. "I hope it is not far."
"It's not far at all," he replied.
He was telling the truth. We arrived a few moments later and after the man had knocked a complicated pattern on the door -- a secret knock! just like Mama's stories -- we were let in. Another man stared suspiciously at me.
"She's young," my benefactor admitted. "But she's small and she's thin, and what's more she's ready to do anything for a bit of food. Aren't you, Clara?"
"Yes," I replied. "Well, not anything. But most things." I thought of the women I had seen on the streets in the poorer districts and knew I would never sink that low, not if I could help it. "But I'm not that young. I'm fifteen."
The man whistled. Obviously, I looked younger than I was. "Very well, Clara, you're in. Here, come and eat."
The food looked delicious and I was ravenous, but there was something I needed to ask first. "Who are you? What is this place?"
"We are the Blanche," they replied.