(Above) Under sail off Port-Navalo, Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany
LITTLE MISS MONOGLOT
Part one (The faintest encouragement will ensure Part two is posted)
HOW shabby the station looked. Worn floors, thick doors with pulled hinges, rules and regulations roasted by the sun. Grégoire couldn’t remember the last time he’d been here. Mitterand and Chirac had boasted about the TGVs and no doubt Philippe had got from Paris to Nantes in style. But the last forty kilometres, reaching Pontchateau, would be another matter entirely.
No point in staying in the booking hall, it was too depressing. But the platform wasn’t much better. Poorly poured concrete, scrappy window frames. Nineteen fifties botch work, when the war was still remembered and there wasn’t much cash around. Grégoire felt ashamed his son was coming back to this. Not desolate but charmless.
Ten minutes to go. He looked around at the others who were waiting. These days, since Madeleine had died, he took a keener interest in people, families in particular. It was all too late, of course, but he asked himself how families worked. Those on the up platform stood apart from each other, except for a father and his six-year-old son. Anglos, surely. What adult Frenchman would wear shapeless beige trousers? Certainly no one who’d done military service in Algeria. And the lad’s shorts would fit a kid two years older. Flounced out in silhouette they looked like a skirt. Were father and son part of a working family? Both appeared to be ignoring each other but then Anglos were famous for that.
Not that he and Philippe were exactly close.
The local train clattered in and Philippe was last off. Grégoire was shocked. The last time had been Madeleine’s funeral, now Philippe looked years older. Stooped, fair combed-back hair showing a pink scalp, wearied. Grégoire’s throat contracted as he hurried forward. His son. They embraced and he held Philippe’s thin body against his. Stay healthy, son. I’ve had enough of illness.
“Steady, Dad,” said Philippe, laughing.
“I always forget. You remind me of your mother.” It was a lie, made up there and then. But he couldn’t tell Philippe the truth, that he looked diminished. It was the divorce, of course. That bitch!
They walked out into the car park. Philippe laughed again. “Still the Peugeot.”
“I know, I’m hopeless. Old-fashioned. Tell me why I should change and I’ll change.”
Philippe straightened his stoop, looked up the town’s main street, saw the white goods shop on the right. On the left the strange little café with astroturf in front, enough for one table and two chairs. He said, “One doesn’t come back to Pontchateau looking for novelties.”
“Does the town bore you?” asked Grégoire.
“Not at all. But Paris does.”
“Let’s go home. A late lunch.”
Grégoire drove out of Pontchateau down the broad straight road that always seemed to lead somewhere more important than Médreac. As usual he speeded and his tyres scattered gravel when he turned in to the space between his house and the workshop. The journey had only taken three or four minutes yet Philippe got out stiffly. The poor thing, thought Grégoire, but he was pleased when his son paused and looked slowly left and right, perhaps re-living parts of his childhood.
Inside he offered Philippe port as an aperitif. “Sorry, Dad. I never got the hang of port. Do you have something stronger? I promise I’m not going to get smashed.”
He handed over a tumbler and the bottle. “Teachers,” said Philippe. “A bit better than the usual stuff from the supermarket.”
“So I’m told. Shall I turn on TF1? There is some sport.”
“No thanks. Just the Scotch and some peace.”
Half an hour later Grégoire had the meal on the table. Philippe stood up, astonished. “That was quick. Good grief, this is all cooked. What is it?”
“A couple of sea perch, floured and done in butter, kohl-rabi, duchesse potatoes done this morning. The wine’s Savennière, so it’s local.”
“But this is marvellous. I had no idea…”
Grégoire laughed. “Thanks to your mother.”
“Perhaps we should say grace, then.”
“By all means.”
“Except I can’t recall the words.”
“I expect she would forgive us.” Grégoire poured the wine. “You know I’ve never been a Catholic – good or bad – but if anyone could have converted me it would have been her. Not reading from the breviary but by example. Particularly at the end.”
“She knew, didn’t she?”
“For a year. Father Rodriguez came a lot. But she said part of her remained non-religious – Is the word secular? - and that part needed occupation. She decided to teach me cooking. So I would live healthily and wouldn’t interest Médreac’s spinsters and widows. “Their only talent is in the kitchen,” your mother said. “I don’t want you won over with casseroles and slices of flan.”
“Good for Mum.”
“I’ve became a good cook. Would you agree?”
“Indeed! I’m not sure I’ve had sea perch before.”
“And,” said Grégoire, “the news has spread. I am not harassed. Now, tell me about the divorce.”
Philippe described being betrayed, being humiliated and – most recently – being robbed.
“Do you need… ?”
Philippe shook his head. “That’s the easiest part. The hardest is being torn in two. But then I don’t have to explain; you saw it straight away, at the station. Just now I’m a wreck. But this meal is helping. And sleeping in my old bed may help too.”
They drank the rest of the white wine sitting in front of the dead television, talking about Madeleine. Afterwards Grégoire awarded them both a thimbleful of Marc de Bourgogne. As dusk approached Philippe reached towards the standard lamp but paused, hearing the sound of tyres outside. “Who the Hell’s this? On a Saturday!”
Grégoire drew back the curtain. “It’s that Anglo woman. She bought one of those tiny houses in the bourg, close to the church. Probably doesn’t speak a word of French. I’ve seen her a couple of times in the Huit à Huit. Smiles a lot. I just won’t answer the door.”
But the door bell rang with authority and in any case the Peugeot was proof he was at home. Grégoire grumbled, “Let’s both go. You can tell her to bugger off for me.”
The woman seemed horrified when Philippe’s face appeared. “Ah, oh God. Mister Fabron, you have a guest.”
Philippe replied in English, “Not exactly a guest. I am M. Fabron’s son.”
“Still a guest. I’ll come back some other time. It’s just so difficult. Mister Fabron’s out during the day. I don’t like to come in the evening. Using my mobile terrifies me.”
Philippe smiled. “Foreigners always have this problem. When do the French talk business?”
“You understand.” The woman smiled back. “But we’re being rude to your father, talking English. Explain to him. I’ll come back. Could he give me a time?”
Grégoire hadn’t followed any of this but guessed what was being said. More than that he noticed Philippe’s relaxed way with this woman. Philippe had said the meal had helped, that the old bed might too. Perhaps being translator would cheer him up. He said to Philippe, “Ask madame indoors. This won’t take long and I’ll be grateful for the service. Better now than having to be back home on time on Monday.”
This brought a flurry of protestations from her and some smiling reassurances from Philippe. Yes, thought Grégoire, she would keep him alert. They all went into the salon where the empty wine bottle and glasses on the low table posed an immediate obligation. “Say I fear the Savennière is exhausted,” said Grégoire. “But if madame’s prepared to make do with Muscadet…”
Philippe looked surprised. Opening another bottle meant at least an hour’s conversation. And when he relayed the invitation the woman also seemed disturbed although it wasn’t obvious why. Eventually they all agreed on coffee and Grégoire was able to waste a good deal of time in the kitchen as he listened to spasmodic English in the salon.
The exchanges appeared to be dying away as he entered with the tray and there was a further odd moment when the woman begged for extra hot water to mix her own café allongé. This wasn’t a procedure Grégoire had noticed too often and it didn’t fit the woman’s inability to speak French. She must have noticed his slight pause because she launched into an explanation about having problems with coffee all over France and finally seizing hold of this phrase as a solution. When she refused milk and sipped her coffee black this too spoke more of an habitué than an innocent although Grégoire had to admit he hadn’t made a close study of Anglo coffee-drinking habits. But hadn’t the woman referred to travelling “all over France”. If so, how on earth had she…?
Presently, the woman was providing a summary of her needs, Philippe was taking notes and Grégoire was able to take stock of her. If anyone had asked he’d have put her down as German. Her hair was blonde but only just. Springy, largish curls let in light and cast shadows, diluting the basic colour into a pale brassiness. He’d ordered some alu more or less that colour just recently. Although her complexion was fair she had a squarish face and looked assertive. Wrinkles at her eye corners suggested she was close to fifty. Her breasts, he noted, had substantial support.
Philippe was ready to discuss his notes. “Madame’s name is Babs Fitchet.”
“I believe it is short for Barbara.”
“And this surname.” Grégoire looked at the piece of paper. “Fitchay. A nightmare for francophones.”
“No, Dad. You are frenchifying. Fitch – it.”
“Even more difficult.”
“Your barrel of eels, not mine,” said Philippe, deliberately using argot. “It seems she needs a sliding door for her second bedroom. A hinged door takes up too much space. She has given me some dimensions but I told her you would need to…”
“That was correct. But I’ve been thinking. Jean-Claude at Guenrouet has some English; he takes his caravan to England, le Region des Lacs. There will be problems with this work. The door must be patterned glass for privacy; that means deciding the aesthetic. I can’t do that. Impossible. Recommend Jean-Claude.”
As Philippe did so Grégoire noticed Mme Fitchay’s – Fitch-it’s! – eyes kept switching from son to father.
“It seems she prefers you because you are nearer. Remember, she says using a mobile in France terrifies her. Apparently there will be other work too.”
“I’m not sure I want this barrel of eels. How can I disabuse myself?” Argot and uncommon words seemed desirable. Even though she claimed not to know French he worried about the odd significant word getting through. In any case, he felt uneasy having to reveal business tactics with this Anglo sitting only a metre away in Madeleine’s favoured chair.
“How would you pull the plug on a native?” said Philippe who seemed to share his need for verbal obscurity.
“I wouldn’t. I live here. I have a reputation.”
“In that case, accept. Gracefully.”
Grégoire sighed, then realised sighs weren’t linguistically protected. “Tell Mme Fitch-it I could see her at one o’clock on Monday.”
Mme Fitchet’s response came laughingly and caused Philippe to laugh as well. He said, “She knows France. Knows your lunchtime is sacred. Please come after lunch.”
“When one cooks for oneself one can adjust the clock,” Grégoire said, smiling.
Although it was still comparatively early when Babs Fitchet left Philippe decided to go to bed. “I haven’t been sleeping well but tonight I think I will. It’s been some months since I spoke English and I found it quite exhausting. Good luck with your new customer. She is odd, that one. Deserves Inspector Maigret.”
Philippe had reserved a seat on an early afternoon TGV but there was enough time the next morning to drive out to Port-Navalo at the narrow mouth of the Gulf of Morbihan and watch the savage currents force the incoming yachts to labour with their engines. It had been a frequent trip when Philippe was young and Grégoire imagined it was tradition his son was looking for.
“I never asked you about work,” Grégoire said. Mainly because Philippe was an accountant with a Luxembourg property developer, based in Paris, and even the simplest details usually turned out to be baffling.
Philippe smiled grimly. “It was never fulfilling work. And the divorce made it seem more venial. I have considered resigning, coming back to Médreac and signing on with Menuisier Fabron. But not for long. Given I could never cut timber straight even with the big bench saw.”
“Big stupid Gilles can do that,” Grégoire said. “You would keep the books, visit the houses, do the estimates. Poor pay but cheap accommodation. You’d be welcome.” But was he telling the truth? Wouldn’t the sadness of seeing Philippe defeated, back in his home village, get to both of them?
“I thought a lot about you and Mum. Comparing both of you with Jo and me. I asked if death was worse than divorce. Mum’s death was terrible, because she was young, only fifty-two. But when she passed on there was affection between the two of you. When Jo and I came apart there was only rancour, hatred.”
At Ponchateau station he hugged Philippe even harder, wanting to transfer the strength of his stocky body to that of his son.
Back in his empty home he sat on a kitchen chair and reflected on how Philippe saw his parents’ marriage. Affection? By which, he assumed, Philippe meant love. Love, certainly, but for God not for him – her pagan husband. All that Christ talk at the funeral. There were people there – women, of course, - who knew her better than he did. He’d mourned of course but for the passing of her beauty. Even if it had been mainly inaccessible.
Grégoire Fabron stirred on the chair and felt the need to do something physical. Sawing the new delivery of timber into joists would have satisfied him but it was Sunday and the saw’s scream belonged to the working week.