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Monday 29 October 2012

Titled classes' vade mecum

For various self-serving reasons I haven’t read a serious book for ages. Or does Eyeless in Gaza count? Might there be a case for re-editing the longer Huxley novels and transferring the lengthy essays that bulk out the chapters to the back of the book? I only arsked.

More typically I’ve infuriated myself by re-reading a couple of Wimseys: The Nine Tailors and Busman’s Honeymoon. I’m always reminded of a nurse who worked at the same hospital as VR and who had just discovered Lord Peter; couldn’t get enough him. Then she came across a para where Bunter (Lord Peter’s “man”) is required to shave his boss and that was the end of that.

Dorothy Sayers mines a very rich vein of snobbism which curdles my left-wing blood and yet fascinates me as a matter of public record. In Nine Tailors Wimsey crashes his car and is invited to stay the night with the local vicar; Bunter is shipped off to the kitchen with the housemaids. The same Bunter who saved Wimsey’s life during WWI.

Even more astonishing is the way country folk (Chimney sweeps, farm labourers, shopkeepers, sextons) all slip quite easily into addressing Wimsey as My Lord or referring to him as Lord Peter. Without tuition.

Perhaps the most unbearable passage occurs when Wimsey takes an ugly, downtrodden woman back to his flat (119A Piccadilly, in London’s West End), plays her Bach (perhaps Scarlatti) on the piano and says it would be better on a harpsichord. Exposes her to this heavenly environment, then drops her back into the plot.

So, why do I re-read Sayers? One reason is I’ve now caught up with all the quotations (in French) and the musical references that were beyond me in my youth. It takes a snob to recognise a snob.

Saturday 27 October 2012

No kitchen is ever too big

Style note. The woman previously known as Mrs BB, Mrs LdP and/or Mrs RR will now be referred to in this blog as VR.

Jury trial should precede the acquisition of any new kitchen appliance, eg, a Tesco blender (£15)

DO WE NEED IT? How come we’ve reached our seventies without having this thing before? Has our life-style changed? Surely not - we live like Auvergnat peasants.

Counsel for the Defence,VR I need it to homogenise certain home-made soups. Cleaning the Magimix food processor (otherwise the love of my life) for this simple task is too onerous. Of course our life style is evolving: 50% of what we now drink comes from Burgundy

WILL WE USE IT? Is it simple to use? To clean? Are the benefits blindingly obvious? Can it be made readily accessible ? (See also below)

CftD, VR. Usage – idiot proof. Cleaning - 10-second job. Benefits – leek and potato soup; I rest my case. Readily accessible – yes, readily.

WHERE WILL IT GO? Any new appliance must be paid for in that most precious of kitchen commodities – work surface. Stored in a cupboard? Forget it!

CftD, VR. Admirably small footprint. Will sit next to the £75 Krups coffee percolator.

Judge. Field trial to begin when?

Wednesday 24 October 2012

M wasn't James Bond's M

My first date seemed inconclusive but any faults lay entirely with me.

I was 19 which by 2012 standards made me middle-aged. Certainly M might have expected more social grace given my advanced age. She got none. I talked desperately, terrified of silence. M must have realised early on I had not come alone. My adolescence was more tangible than I was and was only discarded in my late twenties.

I indicated my new motorbike. She said “Hmm.” showing greater critical awareness than me since it was a lousy bike. We took the bus for a movie, Carrington VC (David Niven, Margaret Leighton), a legal drama. M watched uncomplainingly. Prevailing rules allowed me to put my arm along the back of her seat and she didn’t complain about that either.

 I walked her home. Within a hundred yards of her front door she allowed me to kiss her several times. I’m amazed I took this as my due. A couple of hours later it seemed remarkable. I’d been a wholehearted bore and didn’t deserve this concession. Two more dates followed, we parted amicably and I left for RAF national service.

Three years later I saw her distantly, in charge of a pram and talking to other women presumably about the pram’s contents. Many years later, without his realising it, I found myself talking to her husband. I didn’t let on, not that there was much to confess.

Until now, I’ve never given M her due. The first date barrier for young males gets exponentially higher each year after age 11. M was a pretty young woman, more composed than me, and she helped me over the barrier calmly. She never hinted she was bored or disappointed, never exacerbated my feverish adolescence. I wish her a tranquil old age.  

Monday 22 October 2012

The artisan calls twice

(Above) Uncharacteristically noble view of Pontchateau

Part two, concluded
(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.

“An Anglo!”


“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.”  

Sunday 21 October 2012

Let's try pansies instead

Mrs RR said, “We must get some wallflowers next week.”

And I sang,

Wallflowers, wallflowers growing up so high,
We are (pretty maidens?) and we are going to die.
Except for XXX XXX, she’s the youngest here,
Turn for shame, turn for shame,
Turn your face to wall again

Directly out of the vaults of memory but what made this different was the length of time since it was last referenced: almost seventy years. And I can be sure of that because of that second line. I was so young that almost any mention of death terrified me; in this case future death is admitted by the singers in the song. They appear prepared to consider their own deaths. For me at eight or nine death was an image: lying in an open grave, able to see anonymous crowds walking by, no one caring that I had died. No one caring.

There are some advantages to getting older.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Zach: Up front and articulate

I’ll post the second, concluding, half of Little Miss Monoglot on Monday. Nobody takes blogs seriously at weekends or, at least, not Tone Deaf.

So here’s something different: RR in church but not for a funeral. On Friday I drove grandson Zach to his school’s harvest festival. I did my bit, bellowing Come Ye Thankful People Come, sometimes as a bass, sometimes a tenor. Some words have ever-so-slightly pagan echoes:

Wheat and tares together sown
Unto joy or sorrow grown

followed by

Give his angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast

ending with

All be safely gathered in
Free from sorrow, free from sin
There for ever purified.

Zach (bottom of pointy line) acted as narrator during the inexplicable insertion into the proceedings of Little Red Hen. Asked why he got this job he said offhandedly, “Because I’m the best reader in the class.” Not boasting, simply stating a fact.

Back home he got chance to prove this. For homework he had to read aloud The Big Stink by Sheila Lavelle. I asked him what level this represented given several hardish words (bean casserole, gold medallist, traction engine) all gabbled away at high speed. It seems it is hors catégorie. Zach is six.

NOTE Following the appearance of the German short story Lucy suggested perhaps I “get” Germany more than I “get” France. It’s quite possible; I suspect I’m more detached about the former. Anyway Monoglot is about France and I’d welcome a confirmation of this from anyone who has read both. But don’t break a leg.

Friday 19 October 2012

Getting hold of an artisan

(Above) Under sail off Port-Navalo, Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany

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.

Thursday 18 October 2012

A world too wide

People who write a lot, end up writing about writing. They shouldn’t. They should simply serve up what they’ve done and wait, wincing in anticipation of the hammer-blows.

I truly enjoyed putting together the short story about Germany. In commenting Julia seemed to know more than I did when she said “Please write more in this series.” Well, a nod’s as good as wink to a blind horse and although I had no series in mind I needed no more encouragement. I decided to write another and I’ve just finished it.

But I need to explain. I have this secret love for Germany, a country I used to visit regularly but which I haven’t been to for over a decade. My love for France is more open, I blather about it. The second story is about France.

I’ve packed in a lot of stuff. About the French language (round which the story revolves), about French attitudes, the way the French do things, and about the way Brits and Frogs misunderstand each other. There’s a hero, a heroine and action. Some bits are genuinely original I think: one bit consists of a problem I deliberately set myself in order that I might solve it. Writers do things like that.

But there’s a problem. The German story, tightly constructed, almost a series of telegrams, ran to 2100 words – just about OK for a post. The French story is 5500 words, far, far too long for a blog post. Cut it? I’m not the final arbiter but it isn’t padded.

I had thought of posting the first 2000 words and ending with: Does anyone think this worth continuing? Seeing what happened. I must say my bowels loosen at the prospect. Hence this rather cowardly post.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Underground politics

A short story (With apologies for the half-naughty words)

Someone was banging on the door, but that didn’t matter. He could wait. Groaning she got down on to her knees and ran her fingers over the glittering pipes beneath the two washbasins. Not a drop, not a smear. Hah, not this time, Herr Schultheiss.

Getting up was harder and she’d been warned not to put her weight on the basins. Why? Because they’re ceramic, said Herr Shitbag, and they’ll crack. But here in the West things surely don’t break. However, Herr Shitbag came from Zwickau and still had the east mentality. Still wore cardboard shoes.

The man banging on the door had started shouting: “Three minutes past, three minutes past.” She rinsed her hands under the little shower thing: why not a real tap? Wiped fingers on the sides of her skirt. Slid the door bolt back, slowly. Control yourself, Blockhead.

And as Blockhead rushed in towards the urinal, fumbling with his zip, she sat down heavily on the tubular fold-up chair. Pulled it squeaking over the tiles to the matching table and pushed the saucer with its freight of half-euro coins a few centimetres nearer the handbasins. Time passed.

When Blockhead turned away from the white apparatus he was transformed. Coming in his dick had been on fire; now his face was pudgy and rested as if he’d found a bargain down the Reeperbahn. Would he choose the air blower or a paper towel? Each moment he seemed to get younger and youth preferred the blower, with all that roaring; like a Skoda she’d seen in Halle that had mounted the pavement, crushed a waste basket and lost its silencer. The driver drunk, the engine growling throatily as if in pain. Halle had been a shit place. She’d pushed trolleys of books round the library, unable to reach the top shelf, been threatened with an Ineffectual rating by a mimsy counter-worker whose dyed blonde hair looked like a plastic bag.

Zipped up, his hair combed, Blockhead fumbled change. No sign of silver, only brass. Look at their hands not their faces, Gerda had said. Look at their face and they tended to get embarrassed, tended to run off, leaving a few brown cents. This one had black dirt under his finger-nails and still fumbled. Lost his patience and let a small avalanche of twenty-cent pieces slide into the saucer. Well over a euro, she guessed. Not that she smiled.

Quarter of an hour elapsed with no custom. Intermittently water sighed in the unused stalls. Once, in a talkative mood, Herr Schultheiss had invited her to sneer at the automated flushing. “No need for all that clever stuff. Westers piss away their money,” he said, laughing at his choice of verb, unaware he’d used that joke three times before in her hearing. “No need for that in our day. Just a button with Push. The good citizen-comrade does his pissing then washes it away. The button reminds him we all work for the state. Timers! Who needs timers?”

Two students in jeans worn white at the knees came in, laughing, talking, even though their ears were wired into MP3 players. More laughter at the stalls as they looked over the divider and pointed to each other’s “smallness”. Brown coins only from this pair. As to the white knees she’d been told this wasn’t due to wear, it was intentional, part of the styling. Young Westers pretended to be poor while young Easters had been poor. A defective solidarity.

She was pleased they washed their hands since many didn’t. But became angry when one passed his hand too closely under the spray tap and shot foam over the display for after-shave and other toiletries.

“Sorry about that, mother,” he said in a Bavarian salutation. “Shall I wipe it off?”

There’d been no one to call her mother for several years. Her son Erich had been part of a bunch of louts  - half-strongs she called them in her dated slang – who fire-bombed a hostel for Turkish immigrants and had been lucky no one inside had been injured. Erich was doing five years in a maximum security jail near Augsburg and she had moved north, ending here in Hamburg.

Mother touched her, strangely. “I’ll clean it, little man. You’ll have no idea. No one buys any of this stuff you know. But the spotlights show up every mark.” The other student laid a five-euro note on the saucer but she was too irritated to show any real gratitude. Kids with money. It didn’t seem right.

“You OK, mother?” said the first student who’d done the squirting.

“You political?” she asked abruptly.

“Nah. Just rock-and-roll.”

“Good. Stay out of politics. Don’t get hurt.”

“We’ll do just that.”

They left, looking back at her uncertainly over their shoulders.

Her knees wobbled and she sat down heavily on the metal seat. Felt the fold of belly-fat press against her thighs, felt tears squeezing out between her eyelids. Looked around uncomprehendingly at her workplace with its tiles and glittering metal. Rust-free steel they called it. A pisser fit for a king. Or a Herr President. Imagined Walter Ulbricht standing at one of the stalls, hair brushed like folded wings at the side of his head, beard neatly trimmed. Unzipping but still dignified. Hadn’t thought of Ulbricht for years. Honecker had been weaker. He’d let them pull down the wall.

She dried her eyes. Remembered Erich down there in Augsburg. Defiant, the prison officer had told her. She’d come north to get away from the neighbours. That was what she told herself. But Erich had scared her. Her son. A political.

Men with rain-spattered shoulders came in and out, her only measure of the the weather outside. Leaving the place in the evening, especially in summer, was like being reborn. Doors on the two cabinets remained open, just so, unused this morning. But that was normal. They got their customers after lunch when men came in with newspapers. And stayed. You could hear the pages rustling, hear them sigh. Other sounds.

She’d almost dozed off when the door-closer squeaked pneumatically and a man came in as if he owned the place. Not yet forty, confident, three-piece suit which you didn’t see much these days. Most had gone two-piece, copying the Yanks. He’d been buying in the department store on the floor above and carried one of those shaped bags in thick shiny stuff. Something expensive, usually women’s knick-knacks, unless of course… She watched as he stood erect in front of the urinal, doing the business with style. None of that hundred-and-seventy-fiver rubbish, though you weren’t allowed to say that any longer. There was another word, not German. Didn’t sound right. She’d forgotten.

At the washbasin he slid back his jacket cuffs and she saw cuff-links, heavy and silver. Manly decorations. He cleaned his hands briskly as if he’d taken lessons. Blower or paper towel? He reached out and snapped a towel out of the dispenser. Again briskly. Not wasting time.

When he turned it was as if he saw her for the first time but he didn’t look away as the others did. His eyes narrowed; he was inspecting her. The way they used to. It made her quiver but she took comfort from his suit. None of them had ever worn clothes this expensive.

Now he stood in front of her table, one eyebrow raised. “Magdeburg?”


“Where? I’m just interested.”

What surprised her was the accent. Not a Wester. “Gommern,” she said.

He smiled, pleased at something. “My grannie lived in Schönebeck.”

Grannie! She’d had a grannie pronounced that way. “You, an Easter?”

He nodded.

“But you were so young. Then.”

He nodded again. “Just ten.”

“Obviously,” She gestured. “Times have been kind.”

“I’ve worked for it. But here, in the west. you can. You don’t have to march in step. And you?”

“It’s a job. In one year, a pension.”

He was silent and she felt herself shrivelling under his gaze. Almost gently he said, “And yet… and yet. This is not your paradise, is it?”

“Ach. I was there too long. I got used to the old ways, the bad ways. I did what I was told and they didn’t bother me. Here there is too much freedom. I can’t use freedom. It… worries me.” A fleeting memory. “The young ones have money.”

“But at least you are warm in winter?”

“Warm in winter. Ja. Tell me, sir. You are not… political?”

That amused him enormously. “No, not political. Just a lawyer.” He took out his wallet and detached a fifty-euro note. “In memory of - where was it? - Gommern. And my Schönebeck grannie.”

One of the cabinet users had left a paper and she read it during the quiet afternoon. The headlines mentioned arguments between Germany and Greece as if Germany ruled Greece. But this abbreviation, EU, meant nothing to her and she turned to the sports pages where another abbreviation caught her eye. At first she wasn’t interested. A women’s relay team had broken a “tainted” record that had stood since 1985. So what? What she did notice were the letters DDR cropping up in the text: DDR  - Deutsche Demokratische Republik – her homeland for fifty years. She read more closely but what impressed her weren’t the facts, rather the shoulder-shrugging tone. That race twenty-seven years ago had involved drugs but then the four women were from the DDR. What else did anyone expect? Meanwhile, the four American women who’d shaved the time by almost half a second were…

In 1985 she had been in her thirties. She could well have read a report of that record. Not because relay racing fascinated her but as confirmation of the DDR’s superiority in sport. Athletes were expected to win, she remembered, and from these wins citizens were encouraged to believe in other superiorities. That Walter Ulbricht, for instance, was a titan – capable of retaining his dignity standing at a urinal. Carefully she folded the paper and slipped it under discarded towels in the bin.
Fifteen minutes before she left that evening Herr Schultheiss did his usual tour of inspection. Checked the outflow pipes beneath the washbasins where once, a month ago, he’d found a small accumulation of grease and dust. “You understand, Frau Gruber. This plumbing is like a work of art. We must take care of it.”

But she’d heard Herr Shitbag on that, day in day out, and wasn’t listening. “Your shoes, Herr Schultheiss.”

That pleased him. “You noticed.”

“No longer the old style.”

“The time of the wall. There was looting. Just a little looting. No Stasi. No order. I stole three pairs.” He laughed. “A crime against the state. I threw away the last pair yesterday. These are fine shoes. Brogues I understand. They will last until I retire.”

“Handsome.” She’d stood up automatically as he’d entered; the habit was ingrained. “A small point, Herr Schultheiss. Does sport interest you?”

“But of course, Frau Gruber. I would die for HSV.”

“Besides football. When you lived in Zwickau.”

His geniality became thinner. It was typical he hadn’t said where he'd come by the shoes. “Of course. All sports. In those days there was money to be spent; our country had many successes.”

“In those days, Herr Schultheiss, we won everything. But were there any questions?”

The smile had become a rictus and she was glad she’d hidden the newspaper. “Questions?”

“Two customers were talking. A relay race won by the DDR. The record was wrong in some way. I didn’t hear any more.”

“You are not here to listen to customers, Frau Gruber.”

“You know I do not gossip, Herr Schultheiss. But they were close to my table.”

“Nevertheless… “

“It is of no real interest, Herr Schultheiss. I’m sure it was simply mean-spirited talk. Foreigners.”

As she waited for the tram she wondered whether Zwickau had had a large athletics stadium. Most towns of that size had. And whether national athletes had trained there. And whether anyone called Schultheiss had been on the permanent staff. It would be easy to track a name like that. Easier than Schmidt or Braun.

She was sorry that those victories – which she and her neighbours had cheered – had not been real victories. But never mind. Here was her tram, a source of light on this murky evening and plenty of empty seats. She felt warmed yet nevertheless alert. Time to remind herself of what she had learned: stay clear of politics.

Unless politics might - just might - touch on one’s boss. A boss who was a well-proven shithead.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The memory lingers on

Leftovers. I’m the Papal Nuncio of leftovers. Very much in favour. Unlike Edna, my late mother-in-law, who threw ‘em all away. But she’d had a hard life and, having married a chef, didn’t see the point, saw them as reminders of the hard life.

A week ago we had streaky pork slices, marinaded, then deep grilled along one edge. There were a few left. Mrs RR cut them into cubes, cubed and boiled a large potato along with a chopped onion, added a skinned tomato, wrapped the lot in a flap of short pastry and – through the Neff’s magic – turned it into a pasty. Pasty-ising adds subtle flavour to these simple ingredients. Mrs RR’s been doing it for decades. Time to recognise it as a family classic, I said.

A cylinder of brisket becomes a sort of calendar. Day one, eaten hot with vegetables, day two, the cylinder shrinks as we have cold slices with a baked potato, day three, sandwich filling to go with a mug of soup.

My invention. I microwave a small bowl of leftover meat-thick stew and ooze it over two slices of buttered toast. Eat with knife and fork.

Remainder of pork joint is cubed. Cubed potato, grated carrot, and chopped onion are boiled in same pan, mashed, mixed herbs added. Meat and veg combined, wavy design imposed on top with a fork. Into the Neff for shepherds pie.

None of this is haute cuisine. Merely eating what we ate earlier in a different form. But there’s a (possibly West Riding) frisson about not being wasteful.

When we have sausages (Herefordshire is sausage rich) Mrs RR puts one of hers to one side. They taste best eaten cold, she says. Often she shares the cold one with unworthy me. 

Monday 8 October 2012

Through the looking glass

This is a strange photograph for several reasons.

That suit has stitched-up side pockets and was bought cheaply at a gloomy mall shop in Merthyr Tydfil, a town at the centre of what was once the Welsh coal-mining industry, now laid waste. When I mentioned this to brother Nick he replied: Is that something you should be admitting?

It is my only suit and is worn about three times a year for formal events, usually funerals. It never fitted, yet you’d hardly know from this shot. The only reason may be I’m walking up a steepish rise and possibly the slack bits have tightened.

The shoes are twenty-five years old and in the last stages of decay. Yet I polished them and they look good when zoomed.

I can’t ever remember my hair looking like this. It appears to be styled but that wouldn’t be me. Tousled is my preference.

Strangest of all is the expression. Years ago I learned not to smile at the camera. Not through cussedness or a desire to depress spectators. Rather that my smiles always emerged as furtive, the sort you’d expect on the face of sex pervert failing to provide satisfactory answers to the police. This smile is so whole-hearted as to arouse suspicions, that I was on drugs, intent on covering up a pang of stomach-ache or that the photographer (my other brother, Sir Hugh) was offering proof that I’d misspelled embarrass in a bylined article.

The shirt is pretty good, however. Extremely expensive.

Blest Redeemer. 132,851 words. The most I’ve ever written in one stretch. Now on the road to redemption, about 17,000 words away. Redemption is rare in real life but novelists can do what they like. That’s why it’s fun.