(Above) Uncharacteristically noble view of
Part two, concluded
(Part one: Getting hold of the artisan)
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,
shaking her head.
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
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,”
“Verre,” he said, got up, and touched the
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
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“I think it is merde
,” she said, equally mildly.
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.
,” 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.
asked brightly as she followed.
He wasn’t going
to be ambiguous a second time. “Bien sur.
.” 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.”
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,
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.
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
. 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.
foolishly and opened the tin. Both looked down at the contents: gay, trivial,
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.
Prepared as he
was, she surprised him. Her use of avais
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
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.
again. “You see, that’s one of the things I like. You’re pragmatic. I get tired
of panache very quickly.”
“A country turnip,
“You know you’re
far better than that. Or, at least, I know that.”
“You had me
“Not quite. I
needed a menuisier
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.”
“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
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?
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.”
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
“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.
“And I am not
“Well it makes a change from courting you with rabbit stew.”
Was he going to
mention Madeleine? Grégoire hoped not.
“Can I meet her some time? Explain I’m not as stupid as she probably thinks I
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.”