(Above) Uncharacteristically noble view of Pontchateau
LITTLE MISS MONOGLOT
Part two, concluded
(Part one: Getting hold of the artisan)
(Part one: Getting hold of the artisan)
BABS Fitchet’s house was on the main road in the centre of Médreac, just off the Place de l’Eglise. The door was open and there was a meaty smell when he knocked. She called out something which he didn’t catch and he cautiously looked in to see her bending at the sink. She beckoned him and he stood in the centre of the only downstairs room holding his clipboard and his measuring tape. He knew the house well and others like it. Hoped for her sake she hadn’t paid too much because it was over a hundred years old, had been poorly built and would require constant maintenance until it eventually had to be pulled down.
As she walked towards him, drying her hands on a tea towel, he noisily exaggerated drawing in breath, laughed at what his nose was telling him, pointed to the stove, said, “Cote plat.” She laughed in response, guided him to the stove, opened the oven, and used a mitt to lift the top of an earthenware pot. The rich smell overpowered them both and he wanted to tell her he cooked that cut of meat regularly, that it was cheap and full of flavour.
She pointed into the pot and said Angleterre, simultaneously shaking her head.
Deliberately he turned his mouth down, shook his head in what he hoped was a sad way. “C’est dommage.”
She too agreed it was a pity you couldn’t get cote plat in England.
Upstairs on the tiny landing he drew a quick precise sketch of the two adjacent bedroom doorways and she clapped her hands at his neat skills. Rapidly he measured and re-measured the major dimensions then gestured her downstairs. Sitting at her table he drew a rectangle on the side of his sketch and linked it by a curving arrow to the left-hand doorway.
“The new door,” she said.
“Verre,” he said, got up, and touched the window.
“A glass door.”
On a new sheet of paper he drew three rectangles each with a different design: intersecting diagonals which created lozenges, an arrangement of fleurs de lys, hatched areas to suggest different surfaces. Pleased with these he unthinkingly took her wrist, extended her index finger and used it to point, one at a time, to each of the three designs. Then turned the finger so that it pointed back at her. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of finger and breast that suddenly emphasised they were holding hands, shocking him into letting go of her wrist, albeit not too abruptly. He needn’t have worried: her delight was unmistakable, as was her understanding. Now she took his wrist, related his finger to the patterns and pointed it at him.
To make completely sure he gestured at the patterns, raised his eyebrows, then touched his hand to his chest.
“Yes,” she said joyously. “You. You choose.”
Now he took his diary from his pocket, pointed to the present day, turned the page and pointed to the same day a week hence. On a piece of scrap paper, using his pencil, she wrote Monday, June 23. He nodded.
Exhilarated, he needed the release of his own language even it meant she couldn’t follow him: “Faire le devis, c’est amusant, hein?”
But she was more alert than he’d expected. “Amusing. That’s it. I enjoyed that.”
Briefly they stood smiling, embarrassed, like children introduced at a party. Then he gathered himself into a more adult stance, looked for his tape measure, picked up his clipboard.
She, however, looked about herself uncertainly, indicated the stove, said cote plat and, even more uncertainly, beckoned him. However he’d already decided he wasn’t equipped for lunch, the open door and the smell from the oven having prepared him. Inclining his head towards a destination beyond her front door he mouthed haricots and was gone.
But not beyond her influence. For one thing there was the memory of those full breasts beguilingly defined in a dark green polo-neck. For another the delicacy of the wrist he had held, fragile when compared to that square, extrovert face. More than either was her willingness to occupy space near him. To applaud.
Even so, he hadn’t enjoyed coming so close to lacking control. That wasn’t his nature. After ordering the glass door at a supplier in Redon he found himself furtively – there was no escaping the feeling – searching for an English primer at the bookshop in Pontchateau. After which he again found himself (Had he become a pawn?) needing a beer in the Bar des Sports opposite the Hotel de Ville. Several men he knew nodded as he tackled the big draft Leffe and he regretted not leaving the primer in the car. It was only partially concealed in a thin brown paper bag and he couldn’t think how he might explain it if asked.
A week later he parked the pick-up in Médreac’s Place de l’Eglise and walked round to Chez Fitchet to ensure he and the knee-bendingly heavy glass door would have a clear passage. Her front door was closed. After banging awhile he had to conclude the house was unoccupied. Grégoire Fabron wasn’t given to tantrums or fits of depression and he carefully ran over the events of a week ago to see whether he might have misled himself. The exhilaration was now just a memory and the only negative moment was when he turned down her invitation to lunch. He acknowledged her possible disappointment but couldn’t see how it might have grown into an unbearable wound.
The church clock confirmed he was now nine minutes past his agreed arrival time. Germans he knew were sticklers for punctuality and he had thought initially she looked like a German. Why, he couldn’t now remember. He wasn’t aware whether Anglos arrived early or late. Obviously he needed to wait, but for how long? If he was being punished would the penalty be finite or infinite?
In the pick-up’s glove compartment, locked for the first time ever, was the English primer. Throughout the week he’d tried to refresh what English he had learned over forty years ago at school. All he’d achieved was a remembrance of the difficulties. Words as impenetrable as if written in cyrillic. Why not a test to while away the time?
I have door. He had decided to ignore definite and indefinite articles because he hadn’t been able to figure out masculine and feminine. Door is glass. Both sentences seemed too short. Like Latin in the old prayer book. Aha. Latin didn’t have articles at all. Was that a clue? You are good. Good didn’t seem good enough. The primer wasn’t strong on compliments. Besides, even in French, it would be risky summarising her in a single word.
The clock chimed out the hour and he realised he’d been here thirty minutes. At what point would he be forced to decide he’d been made a fool of? Five more minutes. To like. To love. Those were dangerous words.
At the far side of the church, invisible to him, came the sound of a car driven hard, squealing tyres as that same car turned a right-angle at an improbable speed, more squealing through another corner, and there it was, the tortured tyres raising dust as they came to a stuttering halt at the side of the pick-up. Babs Fitchet tumbled through the door which was left to swing unheeded. She stood, hand on hips, rather magnificent, uttering the same word over and over as a crescendo: Shit. Sheet. SHEET!
“Shit?” he asked mildly.
“I think it is merde,” she said, equally mildly.
His mind scrambled through his treacherous new vocabulary. “You. Bad?”
“Cars,” she said. Held fingers in a V. “Two cars.” Clapped. “Crash. Accident.” Pointed to herself and shook her head. “Not me.”
She helped him manhandle the door upstairs, plugged the power extension into a socket at the side of her bed (He didn’t care to enter the room.), carried up the saw horse, and, since there was no space left on the landing, went reluctantly downstairs. Music floated up to him. Bach.
Each step of what he had to do formed a sequence and the sequence existed as a single image in his head. The rail, the runners, the stops, the mountings, finally the door itself. It was done in under an hour.
“Terminé,” he shouted down.
“So quick. What an angel,” she said to herself as she came up the stairs. The landing was terribly cramped and she was forced to stand directly in front of him, almost touching, as she played with the new door, sliding it from side to side. Running her fingers over the tulip design he’d chosen and smiling back at him, conspiratorially. This time it was he who had to go downstairs reluctantly.
“Coffee?” she asked brightly as she followed.
He wasn’t going to be ambiguous a second time. “Bien sur. Merci.” he said.
As she reached for the percolator her mobile, lying on the table, rang. Something like alarm passed over her face as she gathered it up and glanced at the screen. “Ami,” she said, then pointed to the front door. “I’ll take it outside.”
His hands were dirty with sealant and he went into the downstairs bathroom to wash them. The small frosted window was hinged part open and he could hear someone talking animatedly in the alley outside. Someone who was being very hard on the water company. “Once you changed from Compagnie Générale des Eaux to Vivendi you turned into a complete set of clowns. Your local man is available half an hour a day. Half an hour! And yes the fault is upstream from the stopcock.” There was more and Grégoire listened admiringly. He himself was timid with large organisations. Worse, he was often inarticulate. Unlike this expert French speaker: his customer, Babs Fitchet.
As he slowly cleaned his hands he looked at himself at the mirror. Was he someone who was eminently foolable? In his twenties he had started to lose his hair and on impulse had shaved away the rest. He had this theory that some men’s heads were shaped to accept total baldness, even profit from it. Earlier still, there had been a very skilled F1 driver who proved his point. So it had turned out for him, Grégoire Fabron. The slanted sides of his head like a high-pitched Normandy roof looked tough and determined. Younger than his years. Not a man to mess with except that his basic nature was calm and congenial. What he’d just heard seemed to contradict these theories.
As he returned into the living room she was spooning coffee into the filter paper. She looked up, smiled and nodded at a copy of Libération on the kitchen table. Bought specially for him unless she was pretending to be one of those oddities who could read but not speak French. He said Merci. Since she was still looking at him, he gestured at the paper and then, provocatively, at his left-hand. These devices and gestures were beginning to entertain them both and she nodded vigorously: “Socialist.”
The percolator had been loaded and she returned to the sink, peeling carrots and cutting them into discs. Another stew, obviously. He liked that. More Bach was playing, this time the cantata Wachet Auf. When the sopranos had the line she joined in briefly in a tuneful agreeable voice. Unable to resist he hummed the bass line a couple of times and she stopped to listen. The sense of union was intense, almost painful.
When she glanced at him again he simply said Bach, aware that the Anglos (and the Germans) pronounced it quite differently. She put her hands together as if in prayer and bowed her head. His hands holding Libération trembled slightly.
Re-entering the living room minutes ago he had felt triumphant. Her disguise had been stripped away and he could watch her, knowing he had the edge. Knowing he had charge of a devastating moment.
Which he no longer wanted to apply. The world had changed. These sometimes clumsy sometimes delicate hand movements, odd words and sounds, and flashes of expression had replaced dull old sentences. Anyone could speak but what were words? He preferred this more primitive dialogue.
The carrots were boiling in a pan and the percolator had created coffee. As if impatient, she crossed the room, entered the débarras and came out holding a tin of biscuits. Put it on the table in front of him and said: Anglais. The tin was sealed with shrink-wrap, new and therefore a sort of gift. As his strong capable fingers sought out the folded weak point she sat down opposite and watched him tear away the film.
“Bravo”, she said.
He smiled foolishly and opened the tin. Both looked down at the contents: gay, trivial, yet pregnant.
She said softly in careful idiomatic French: “You were in the bathroom when I was speaking to the water company. You must have heard me. Yet you’ve said nothing.”
“Hush,” he said. “Keep on pretending.”
“I’d like to but that’s over now. Sad but true.” He had foreseen that when they reached this point she wouldn’t be defeated. That she would continue to be the woman she was. As expected she grinned across the table and it struck him her squarish face was shaped more for grinning than smiling. “It’s been a hell of a strain,” she added. “You’ve no idea how excruciating it is to pretend not to handle a language you speak quite well.”
“Why bother?” he asked, determined not to be put out, whatever her response.
“I fancied you.”
Prepared as he was, she surprised him. Her use of avais envie de with its implications of wanting was faintly exotic under the circumstances. But of course she was foreign. And yet her French was excellent. A phrase carefully chosen.
He thought about this. From the start – in the Huit à Huit, on Médreac’s main street – she’d been simply an Anglo. A slightly dismissive term he often used without thinking, but which didn’t mean she was uninteresting. Anglos were, as she had just proved, exotic. Unfortunately in Loire Atlantique he had become used to another type of Anglo: owners of large houses, bossy, knowing more about France than he did - wine, the Common Agriculture Policy, voting percentages for the FN – and telling him so, crushingly, in painfully formal French. By feigning ignorance of French she had avoided those associations. But how could she have known?
Not grinning now, she noticed him ponder. “You put in some new joists in the débarras for the previous owners of this house. A married couple of solicitors, though I doubt you knew that. They treated you like shit. Do you remember?”
A pair of Anglos with perfected French. Peculiarly superior when talking about the law. “Yes, I do. But why don’t I remember you?”
“I couldn’t stand how they behaved. Mostly I stayed out of your way.”
“You didn’t buy this place just to say sorry on their behalf?”
This time she laughed aloud and it was a pleasure. “What a wonderfully chivalrous idea. No. They wanted to sell, I wanted to buy. You’ll be delighted to know I ground them down to almost nothing. When I moved in I have to confess, I’d forgotten you. Am I forgiven?”
“Tell me the rest of the story first,” he said.
She laughed again. “You see, that’s one of the things I like. You’re pragmatic. I get tired of panache very quickly.”
“A country turnip, then?”
“You know you’re far better than that. Or, at least, I know that.”
“You had me investigated?”
“Not quite. I needed a menuisier. Everyone recommended you. Someone pointed you out and I realised we’d met before. Here in this house. I seemed to run into you as one does in Médreac. Watched you work, saw you were conscientious although I already suspected that. Sometimes it only takes ten minutes to recognise a real professional. It took even less time to recognise something more important, more intimate about you and after that I searched you out. I confess.”
She smiled gently.” It sometimes happens between men and women, you know.” The way she worked the mock-innocence in that sentence was a delight.
She went on. “Perhaps it was that shining head, a bit like a clenched fist. I knew you were a widower and that your wife’s death was the village tragedy. I needed to get closer. I decided to play Little Miss Monoglot. There were some close calls at your house. Your son complicated things. It seemed as if you were matchmaking.”
“He’s had his own tragedies. I thought speaking English might cheer him up. But I wasn’t entitled to do that. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Hey, you’re a father. And it was my fault. I wasn’t what I seemed. Mind you, it was hard to sit still and listen as you tried to get Philippe to brush me off on to the man at Guenrouet.”
Now he was seeing things in reverse. Finding it awful. “You were quick on your feet,” he said.
“Which is more than I can say about that terrible invitation to lunch last week. But it’s hard to play stupid while your emotions are… engaged.”
“So you did all this…”
“Because I fancy you. But we come up against a barrier here, don’t we? I speak good French but French culture’s another thing. I don’t know what happens when a forty-nine-year-old English divorcée tells a lovely fifty-two-year-old French artisan that she fancies him. Who knows? You may be far more traditional than I judged. I’ve probably gone too far. I may have disqualified myself. Maybe there’s only one service I need from you. And that’s to sharpen the knife.”
He said, “You know that’s nonsense.”
“I know people here like you. That you’ve put up shelves for old ladies and not charged. That people wait for you to speak first at public meetings. I know that you make me feel… well, never mind. None of that may mean anything when you’re weighing up an Anglo. Me.”
“Think back. A week ago.”
Her lips parted. “It was wonderful, wasn’t it? For both of us. A sort of serious indirect flirting. But talking about glass doors, using none of the language of flirting.”
“And I took your wrist. Without thinking.”
“But you made me think. Oh Grégoire.”
She said it with a faint English accent. The first time he’d ever heard it pronounced that way. The first time he’d been glad it was his name. “May I call you something else? Not Babs.”
“Call me anything. Call me soft-in-the-head. But not all the time. Barbara will do.” She looked at him, yearning, as he would have liked to look at her. “Grégoire. Do you think you could fancy me?”
“It’s a cultural matter, Barbara. Perhaps we need to form a committee. A committee of two.”
PHILIPPE’s voice, over the phone, had lost some of the desperation that had been so disturbing. “I’ve thought again about coming back,” he said. “But not in retreat. I’ve tried to see it in business terms. It wouldn’t make sense if I couldn’t add to your revenues.”
At the time Grégoire had been dubious. Now there were no doubts. “That isn’t necessary. You’re my son and you’re unhappy. Come back and stay in bed all day if that’ll help.”
Philippe laughed. “Is that my real Dad speaking?”
“I mean it. Suppose you were ill. It would be the same.”
“But I’m not ill. And there’s a matter of professional pride. If I come back it would have to be because I can do something for you. Perhaps research a line of products, then sell them. Prepared timber. I don’t know. I’m still thinking.”
“If you do come back you may have to take over some parts of the business anyway. I may have other matters to consider.” He told Philippe about Barbara, “Do you approve?” Then changed his tone, simulated harshness. “No, forget that. I don’t care if you do or don’t. You may have to work on Sundays.” Then laughed to make sure Philippe got the point.
“Who deceived you.”
“And I am not easily deceived.”
Philippe said, “Well it makes a change from courting you with rabbit stew.”
Was he going to mention Madeleine? Grégoire hoped not.
Philippe said, “Can I meet her some time? Explain I’m not as stupid as she probably thinks I am.”
“Next Saturday. The two of us will welcome you at the station. Like old fogies.”
“Old fogies my arse. You know… that’ll be fun. Look, Dad, good luck. I really mean that.”
Grégoire found it hard to speak for a moment. “Good luck, Philippe.”