Madame Menez - The Story so Far

A Total Eclipse of the Sun

It was a hot August Friday, and it had been evening for about an hour that morning. The papers were full of explanations and helpful diagrams about the day’s total eclipse of the sun, and the shops had done good business in contraptions of card and smoky plastic to protect the eyes of those who wanted to admire the beautiful and rare phenomenon. Now it had passed, and the sun was out again.

Madame Menez, the fishmonger, in the driving seat of her delivery van, was drinking the coffee which she had poured from her flask, and reading the article about the eclipse in Ouest France. She studied the diagrams closely. She wondered briefly what Brittany would be like, centuries into the future, at the time of the next total eclipse of the sun in this part of the world. Then she finished her coffee, screwed the cup back on to the flask, and continued her round.

She knew exactly what old Madame Le Brize, in the next house, would order: a small fillet of hake. There had been no variation in Mme Le Brize’s modest but steady custom since Mme Menez had taken over the round fifteen years ago. Occasionally it had been necessary to raise the price of the fish by a few centimes. Mme Le Brize would mutter, but pay up. There was no other way she was going to get fresh fish on a Friday, living as far away from the town as she did, being the age she was, and not driving, of course. Almost none of the countrywomen of Mme Le Brize’s generation could drive. In her youth and her prime, she had ridden the ten kilometres to Plouzalver, the nearest town, on her bicycle, but those days were long gone.

Mme Menez stopped the van at the gate of Mme Le Brize’s isolated house and sounded the horn. It was unusual for the old woman not to be waiting for her. After a minute or so, she climbed down from the van, opened the gate, walked up the path and knocked on the door. Silence. She stepped back from the door and observed that the shutters at all the windows at the front of the house were closed. Strange. She walked round the side to see if Mme Le Brize were in her little vegetable garden at the back. No one. Mme Menez knocked on the back door, having noticed that the back windows were all shuttered too. No reply.

Perhaps Mme Le Brize had gone to stay with one of her sons for a few days. If that were the case, it was unlike her not to have mentioned her intention the previous week. She was not the sort of person to do anything on impulse. Her record in the buying of fish showed that.

Mme Menez continued her round. Other customers awaited her, some more inclined to support her business by buying a nice piece of sole, or some langoustines which took their fancy. She finished her round at about three o’clock. She was driving back to her shop in Plouzalver by the most direct route when she realised that she was worried about Mme Le Brize. Perhaps the old woman was dead. Perhaps she was so ill that she hadn’t been able to get out of bed that morning, which was why the shutters were still closed. She could be lying there in the dark. Mme Menez turned off the main road and cut back through the lanes to the house.

She knocked once more, hard, on the front door. As she waited, she asked herself what she would do if there were still no reply. Go to the police in Plouzalver? Find the telephone number of one of the sons? Yes, she would do that, she thought, but then she heard the drawing of a bolt. The sudden sound, after so long a silence, startled but relieved her. Two bolts were drawn and a key turned. The door opened a crack.


‘Are you all right, madame?’

‘Of course, but what are you doing out?’

‘It’s Friday. The fish.’

‘Can you still see?’

‘Of course I can see. How would I drive the van if I couldn’t see?’

‘I heard that anyone who went outside and opened their eyes today would go blind.’

‘Ah, the eclipse. No, it’s not as bad as that! You mustn’t look at the sun when it goes behind the moon, it’s true. Then you might go blind. But I didn’t look at the sky at all, and carried on as usual.’

‘Has anyone else been out today?’

‘Everyone! Some people looked at the eclipse through special glasses which protect their eyes.’

‘Idiots. I’m sure I heard it on the radio. Anyone who went out today and opened their eyes would go blind. There won’t be another day like it for centuries. They must have made a mistake.’

There was a pause, and Mme Le Brize opened the door wider, so Mme Menez could see her face. The old woman looked past Mme Menez, at the air, suspiciously. Then she said, ‘Have you sold my piece of hake?’

‘No. It’s in the van.’

‘I’ll get my purse.’

The Lovestruck Carpenter

Although Madame Menez, the fishmonger at Plouzalver, had her shop in the town, she lived in a cottage in the country, five kilometres to the north, just off the road to Bubry. She had friendly neighbours up and down the lane, including Monsieur and Madame Laroche. Albert Laroche, a retired builder, maintained her garden and did odd jobs around the house. Mme Menez paid him, of course, and supplied all his and Mme Laroche’s needs in the way of fish. M. Laroche was glad of the supplement to his pension, in cash and in kind. He and Mme Menez were on first-name terms; she called him Albert and he called her Sylvie. From both their points of view, this informality was a privilege which had been earned; it was not a step taken after five minutes’ casual acquaintance.
Mme Menez closed her shop at four o’clock on Saturday afternoons. Everyone who was going to buy fish for the weekend had done so by then. One Saturday at the beginning of May, she arrived home in her van at about five, as usual. Albert had just finished a gardening session, and was cleaning the lawn mower. After the usual greetings and words about the weather had been exchanged, he said, ‘I was going to paint the gate and fence next week. But some of the wood is rotten. You’ll need a carpenter. I couldn’t do the job properly myself.’

‘Well, I haven’t replaced any woodwork since I’ve been here. Who do you recommend?’

‘You can’t do better than Pierre Tanguy.’

Everyone in the district knew the dreadful thing that had happened to Pierre Tanguy five years previously. One morning his beloved wife, to whom he had been married for 26 years, had died abruptly of a heart attack. For a long time after the event, Pierre and their four children had been distraught with shock and loss. Even now, if someone were conversing with Pierre, and his wife’s name entered the conversation, his eyes would fill with tears and he would be unable to speak. Everyone agreed that Pierre was the best carpenter around: serious (the highest compliment that could be paid to any kind of worker) and reliable. If he said a job would take two days, or three weeks, it would take two days or three weeks. He didn’t fob you off with excuses, or disappear to another job in the middle of yours.

Pierre was a good man through and through, and it was terrible that he had suffered so.

Early the following Monday, Mme Menez telephoned M. Tanguy at his workshop. He came to her house that evening. After ten minutes’ inspection of her gate and fence, he showed her exactly what wood needed replacing, and what could be retained for a few years more. He said that if she wished him to do the work, he had time in the first week of June. He thought he would need three days. He gave her an estimate of the cost, while warning her that the exact price, which he would calculate when he was back in his workshop, might vary a little one way or the other. He didn’t want to mislead her, he said. Mme Menez willingly agreed to all his proposals, and said she knew that his final price would be fair. They parted amid expressions of mutual esteem. M. Tanguy was fully justifying Albert’s recommendation, as she had known he would.

Mme Menez’s shop was closed on Mondays. There was no fresh fish to sell, since the little boats which set forth from the ports of southern Brittany enjoyed two days of rest, on Saturdays and Sundays, as is only right. Therefore, the wholesale fish market at Lorient, the nearest to Plouzalver, was closed on Sundays and Mondays. One of the attractive features of the fishmonger’s trade, Mme Menez had always thought, was the full two-day break it offers. Bakers work six days a week; butchers six or five and a half. Mme Menez felt that she enjoyed generous leisure by comparison with that available to members of these callings. On the other hand, the five days that she did work were long, with a start from home at five o’clock in the morning in order to be at the fish market before six.

So she was at home on the first Monday of June, when M. Tanguy had promised to begin the job. He did not arrive. This was a disappointment and a surprise. She was sure that something quite unexpected must have occurred. When she returned from work on the Tuesday evening, it was clear that M. Tanguy had still not come. On the Wednesday, she telephoned his workshop. No reply. That evening, she telephoned his home, and spoke to his 18-year-old daughter, the youngest child and the only one now living with him. The daughter explained evasively that her father had been called away the previous weekend ‘for an urgent personal reason’. She apologised for the inconvenience caused. She wasn’t sure when her father would be back, but he would surely contact Mme Menez immediately then. She was very sorry.

Mme Menez was perplexed. Perhaps M. Tanguy was ill, but didn’t wish the fact to be known. A lot of men were like that. She telephoned Albert to tell him her news. He was as surprised as she had been. He said he would see what he could find out.

The following evening, Albert came round in person to tell Mme Menez what he had found out. He had his information from M. Tanguy’s elder daughter, whom he knew because she and his daughter had been friends at school. He had contrived to meet and speak to her in Plouzalver. She had been unwilling to say anything at first, but he had, in a friendly way of course, been insistent in his enquiry, explaining the reason for his interest.

M. Tanguy had gone away for a few days to the isle of Madeira.

To Albert and to Mme Menez, such an action, unremarkable in people of the young generation, who are always going on holiday on aeroplanes to remote destinations, seemed extraordinary in a country carpenter of a certain age, a tradesman whose life had been a model of moderation and regularity, interrupted only by one awful calamity. In the past, he had taken an annual holiday with his wife and family, it is true. They had always gone for the second fortnight of August to a seaside house in the Vendée belonging to her brother and sister-in-law. But for M. Tanguy to be flying (Albert was sure for the first time), at the beginning of June, when everyone else was still working and the schools were still open, to an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, could only mean one thing.

Albert was not sure how to express the difficult thought in his mind to his friend and part-time employer, a single woman twenty years younger than he, despite the fact that they were on first-name terms. After some hesitation, his voice dark with significance, he said, ‘One does not go alone to the isle of Madeira.’

He hoped this innuendo had not embarrassed Mme Menez. He gave her the little more detail that he had. M. Tanguy had met a woman who worked in the office of the timber yard by the Loire at Nantes where he went to order wood. It was a new job for her. She had started there at Easter. Something must have happened very quickly between them.

After Albert had left, Mme Menez smiled repeatedly to herself as she prepared supper. She smiled at the memory of Albert’s chosen form of words and his tone of voice in approaching the topic of the carpenter’s love affair. She smiled also, with a deeper pleasure, that a middle-aged widower of regular habits, keeping going through life despite his loss, should have met a woman who had so revived his ability to love, in such a short period of time, that he could neglect everything else — his commitments, his reputation — in order to take a holiday with her, far away in the sun.

The gate and the fence could wait.

An Offer One Cannot Refuse

Madame Menez’s fish shop in Plouzalver was on one side of the small town’s central square, across the street from the west doors of the church. On the other side of the square was one of Plouzalver’s many bars. Its proper name — I shall explain in a moment why I say ‘proper’ — was Le Moderne, a name which would have been appropriate once. The modernist lettering of the sign above the door, with the vertical strokes of the letters elongated and the horizontal strokes abbreviated, must indeed have struck the folk of Plouzalver as very symbols of a new world when a Monsieur Guillemot, having survived the First World War, inherited the place from an uncle in 1923 and, in his first act as proprietor, changed its name from La Diligence (The Stage Coach). M. Guillemot was married with three daughters, who had been born in 1910, 1912 and 1914. For 15 years M. and Mme Guillemot kept the bar, with the willing help of their children, and it did good business, particularly on a Monday, which was market day, when hundreds of people from villages and isolated farms up to forty kilometres away came in carts and charabancs to buy and sell and meet each other.

This happy period ended in 1938 when M. Guillemot died of tuberculosis at the age of 50. His wife and daughters were helpless with grief for some weeks. Then Mme Guillemot declared that she had no desire to continue owning the bar. She would return to her village, to live the rest of her days with her unmarried sister. She offered the ownership of the whole building — the bar itself, the rooms above, the yard at the back — lock, stock and barrel to her daughters. They had seen how to run the business. If they wished to make a go of it, there it was.

The sisters accepted the offer. None of them was yet married. They had experience of bar management, and of nothing else. They liked each other well enough to contemplate the prospect of working for many hours side by side.

So it was. The Second World War came, and the occupation. For four years the sisters had to accept the custom of German soldiers, which they did with unsmiling politeness and a care to give exact measures. After the war, there seemed no reason to change the bar in any way, even as its popularity began a long, slow period of decline, of which a major cause was the parallel decline of the Monday market. The widening ownership of cars and the opening of the first supermarkets began to challenge the supremacy of the weekly market as the place to do business locally. By the time the sisters were old, the market was reduced to two stalls selling women’s clothing and underclothing, where the emphasis was on the functional, not the fashionable.

But this is to rush ahead. For a few years after the war, the sisters all received offers of marriage, but always from men they considered nincompoops, or of whose motives with regard to the instant ownership of property they were suspicious. As freeholders, they had no rent to pay. Their expenditure on themselves was modest. There was a certain severity in their characters, however courteous they always were to their customers; and so their bar came to be regarded by actual and potential clients in the area as a place where you had to behave yourself. Young people went elsewhere. When the first pinball machines and jukeboxes appeared at rival establishments in the town, the sisters made a swift and unanimous decision not to have them. When espresso machines arrived, they agreed that there was nothing wrong with making coffee on a gas ring, as they had always done.

There was a wooden bench behind the counter, against the wall, and the sisters — one, two or, quite often, all three of them — sat on it when no customer needed attention, or indeed when the bar contained no customer at all. This habit gave rise to the collective nickname by which the sisters came to be known in Plouzalver and its locality: ‘les six fesses’ (‘the six buttocks’). Soon their bar assumed the same nickname. No one who was going to meet a friend there would say, ‘I’ll see you at Le Moderne.’ They would say, ‘I’ll see you at Les Six Fesses,’ or, more simply, ‘at Les Fesses.’ No one knew whether or not the sisters had ever overheard their nickname, and realised that it was being applied to them and their bar. As they grew older and more dignified, the incongruity of the nickname increased in the public mind. Everyone knew it. It was certain that the mayor knew it. The priest knew it.

These thoughts were in Mme Menez’s mind as she crossed the square one Thursday lunchtime in the spring of the year 2000. She had just closed her shop, and was taking some fish to the sisters for their midday meal. She had delivered fish to Les Fesses every day from Tuesday to Saturday for ten years now, since the eldest sister had turned 80. She had offered to do this, and the offer had been gratefully accepted. On Fridays, when she took the van out at about nine, leaving the shop for a few hours in the care of her cousin Odette, she delivered the sisters’ fish before she started the round. The women ate ling on Tuesdays and Thursdays, pollock on Wednesdays and Fridays, and skate for a treat on Saturdays, when they paid Mme Menez for the whole week.

Mme Menez entered the bar and let her eyes adjust to the dim light inside. The sisters had never been ones for excessive illumination. She crossed the room to the counter and saw the three of them on the bench, as ever, the eldest on the left as she looked at them, the youngest on the right. She laid the three fillets in their greaseproof paper on the counter.

‘Good day, ladies,’ she said. ‘How are we today?’

‘One mustn’t complain,’ said the eldest, getting to her feet.

There was an unaccustomed note in the reply which caused Mme Menez to look more carefully at the eldest sister, who then said, ‘Madame, do you have a few minutes to speak to us?’

‘Of course,’ said Mme Menez, realising that something major was about to be communicated to her.

There was no customer in the bar. The eldest sister signalled to Mme Menez to come behind the counter and sit down on the chair which, apart from the bench, was the only furniture there. Mme Menez sat, and the eldest sister resumed her seat. A stranger entering the bar at that moment for the first time and coming upon the scene might have thought that a council of elders were interrogating or at least interviewing an applicant for a job, or a supplicant for justice, or a witness to an event.

In fact, the sisters were making Mme Menez a startling offer.

‘Madame,’ said the eldest, ‘the three of us have been thinking. We are growing old. The bar makes little money. We live on our pensions. We no longer want the worry of the place. We want to give it up. We have no children, as you know, and no relatives that we care for. We should like to give our property to you.’

Mme Menez was astonished. ‘Why me?’ was all she could say at first.

‘You have been very kind to us for many years, bringing us fish every day. You are a local person. You have a serious business. It may be that you can think of something better to do in this place than we have done for many years. If you were to accept our offer, there is only one thing that we would ask.’

‘And what would that be?’ asked Mme Menez, her mind already racing.

‘We would wish to continue to have the right to occupy the upstairs rooms, without rent, for the rest of our days.’

‘Of course. That would be only proper.’ Mme Menez paused. Then she said, ‘Ladies, you have done me a great honour in making this unusual proposal. I am deeply gratified. May I have the rest of the day to think about it? I will give you my answer tomorrow morning.’

‘Of course,’ said the eldest sister. ‘You need time to reflect.’

As Mme Menez walked back across the square, entered her shop and prepared her lunch in the little kitchen at the back, one simple plan was forming in her head. She did not own her current place of business. She paid rent. Although she was on good terms with her landlord, who would be disappointed when she gave the required six months’ notice of her intention to leave, the prospect of moving the shop to larger premises, which she would own, was deeply attractive. Her landlord would understand her position. Across the square, her profit margins would increase immediately, even if she reduced her prices a little, to match the competition from the supermarket, which had just moved to much larger premises on the edge of town, and had opened a fresh fish counter. She had sent her cousin Odette up there, as a spy, to take note of the prices. She had even authorised her to buy some fish there, so they could make quality comparisons. Odette’s report had been worrying. The fish counter in the new, bigger supermarket had a respectable variety of produce, though nothing to compare with Mme Menez’s, of course. Prices for the most popular everyday fish were a few centimes per kilo lower than Mme Menez could manage. Odette had not been able to bring herself to buy anything; it had seemed disloyal. But the produce looked fresh. And people were buying. They obviously found it convenient to make all their purchases in one place. The supermarket also had a good meat counter and its own bakery.

How impressed people would be, thought Mme Menez, when they noticed that, having moved her shop, she was able to match or even undercut supermarket prices for fish. She would have to refurbish the new place first, of course. She would improve the lighting, so people could see what they were buying. The old counter would have to go. The fish display on the crushed ice would replace it. The fruit and vegetables which she also sold could occupy the other side of the room. There would be space for a little cheese counter. She could expand the range of white wines she sold to go with the fish; perhaps she would introduce one or two reds to go with the cheeses.

The following morning, which was a Friday, Mme Menez took the sisters their fish just before nine o’clock. The place was empty but for the women who had owned it for 62 years. Mme Menez announced that she would be honoured to accept the sisters’ offer, if it was still open. She explained her plan for transferring her shop to the place where their bar was. The sisters, through the eldest, their spokesperson, approved. Mme Menez was concerned that perhaps the sisters would not appreciate the smell of fish, which would, however clean her shop and fresh her produce, find its way upstairs to the ladies’ accommodation. The sisters were sure that there would be no problem on that account. Mme Menez warned of the sound that her van’s engine would make, arriving in the yard early in the morning, five days a week, to be followed by the noise that she would herself make as she carried the fish into the shop. There would be no problem there either, said the eldest sister, with the agreement of her siblings; they had always risen at six, and would continue to do so, health permitting.

So the deal was done, and sealed with Mme Menez’s four kisses on the cheeks of each of the sisters, two on each cheek, in the Breton way. The eldest sister said she would visit the notaire the following week. There would be a signing of papers in due course.

As she drove her van around the countryside that beautiful spring day. Mme Menez felt extraordinarily happy and lucky. She really wanted to tell someone her news, but knew she should wait until after the papers had been signed. Perhaps she might tell Odette, in the strictest confidence.

Then she began to think about a name for the new shop. The present one was simply called Poissonerie. Why not something bolder, more fun, more eye-catching? The Seven Seas? No, because people would immediately make a connection: formerly The Six Buttocks, now The Seven Seas. They would laugh. They might even think that she had chosen the name as a kind of in-joke. No. That would not be proper. She would have to think of something else.

The Underwear Thief

On the edge of Plouzalver, as in so many small towns in France, estates were growing. These were neat, tasteful if unimaginative little groups of houses, arranged in crescents and culs-de-sac, each house with its rectangle of garden front and back.

Madame Menez had discussed Plouzalver’s rapid recent growth several times with her gardener, Albert Laroche. Albert belonged to a generation of French men and women to whom self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables, or a position as near to that state of perfection as could reasonably be achieved, was a self-evident good. Albert’s own garden was two-thirds given over to vegetable production. Fruit trees abounded there. He approved of the fact that Mme Menez had a vegetable patch in her garden, which he tended, even though — as a fishmonger following the tradition of her profession in selling fruit and vegetables as well as fish — she bought produce from wholesalers for the shop and the van, and could easily have supplied her own needs without giving him the trouble of turning over the soil every March. Albert and Sylvie agreed that there was nothing like growing your own stuff.

To Albert, it was incomprehensible that the little gardens of the houses on the new estates had been made too small for vegetable cultivation, even on a token scale. But there: the young people moving into these houses went to the supermarket every Friday or Saturday, and bought everything they needed for the week to come, and went home and put it all into the fridge or the freezer. When they ate the food it didn’t taste of anything, and the only gardening they did was a light hour or two on a Sunday morning when they ran the electric mower over their tiny patches of turf.

At this point in Albert’s speech, which Mme Menez had heard more than once, she gently interrupted him to say that, while he was of course largely right, she had to admit that there were some good customers amongst the young mothers in the new houses on the estates. Not all of them bought everything from supermarkets. She was sure that some of them enjoyed not just the convenience of having fish, fruit and vegetables brought to their doors, but the human contact with someone whose name they knew, and who wasn’t in such a hurry that she couldn’t exchange a few friendly words with them while the purchases were being made. She had the impression, even, that some of these women were lonely. They had far more money than young women starting out in married life had had 50 years ago, when Brittany was poor. But their husbands left for work in the car at half past seven, and returned at half past six. The women might or might not have an easy-going relationship with their neighbours, who might or might not be at home in the daytime in any case. There they were, in their well equipped, centrally heated houses, with a baby or two to look after, and perhaps no other adult to talk to, face to face. And from a commercial point of view, Mme Menez had also to admit that she made more profit from sales to these young people, who could afford to splash out on more expensive fish — a good-sized sea bass or even, occasionally, a turbot — than from the loyal but centime-watching custom of older people.

A week after the three sisters’ wonderful and unexpected offer to Mme Menez, while the prospect of becoming a freeholder of business premises in the heart of Plouzalver was still a joyful thought to light up her mind every morning when she woke, and to remain a background pleasure in her mind throughout the day, she drove her van down the Impasse Gauguin, a cul-de-sac on a new estate where all the roads had been named after French painters. In most of the back gardens of the houses, on this breezy day in April, washing was hung on lines or whirligigs. Mme Menez hooted her horn, stopped the van halfway down the cul-de-sac, and switched off the engine. She expected to be here for a quarter of an hour. Within a few seconds, four women, all aged between 20 and 30, two of them with children, emerged from their houses, carrying shopping baskets. Mme Menez moved from the driver’s seat into the back of the van and pulled up the shutter which covered the counter and the produce while she was driving. The women appeared at the side of the van at about the same time. There was then a good two minutes of conversation about the weather, about children, about the last of the houses on the estate to be sold, who was moving in, where they came from, how they were related to people whom anyone in the group knew. Mme Menez had known one of the women, Martine, since she was a little girl. Martine had lived with her parents across the road from Mme Menez, and the parents were regular customers in the shop. Sometimes, by arrangement, Mme Menez dropped off fish at their house when she arrived home: a last bit of business for the day. She had been a guest at Martine’s wedding.

She was just about to draw the conversation round to business by saying something like ‘And how can I be of service to you ladies today?’, when Martine, after a glance at the others, said, ‘Something unexpected has happened.’

‘And what is that?’ asked Mme Menez.

‘We’ve been losing our underwear.’

‘All of you?’

‘All of us. We all hang our washing out in the garden. The usual mixture: sheets, pillowcases, men’s stuff, children’s stuff, our stuff. Sometimes our bras and knickers have disappeared. At first I thought I’d left mine in the washing machine, but I hadn’t. Then I thought it was only my stuff that was going, and I told Marie-Claire.’

Martine looked at Marie-Claire. Marie-Claire said, ‘I’d lost mine too. So we told Denise and Marie-Noëlle. They’d lost some, and so had some of the other girls in the street. We added them up. We think we’ve lost more than fifty bits and pieces between us.’

The young women nodded, then all giggled. Mme Menez wasn’t sure whether to assume an air of grave and sympathetic concern about the matter, which at the least involved theft and might also represent some danger to the women if the thief should become sexually obsessed with one or more of them; or to treat it lightly, even humorously, as they seemed to do. She said, ‘You should go to the police. They will investigate.’

Martine said: ‘We know who’s doing it.’

Mme Menez was astonished. ‘You do? Then you should definitely go to the police. He could be dangerous.’

‘We don’t think so,’ said Martine.

Mme Menez glanced up and down the deserted cul-de-sac, lowered her voice, and asked, ‘Who is it?’

‘He’s the boyfriend of the girl who lives at number 18. He’s an electrician. He’s a lot older than her, but he’s very nice. He’s been in to repair the timer on my cooker.’

‘And he put new spotlights in our kitchen,’ added Denise. ‘He did a good job. Paul and I were pleased. He was there in the daytime, when Paul was at work, and he was… fine. He didn’t say anything or do anything, you know, that he shouldn’t have.’

‘How do you know it’s him?’ asked Mme Menez.

‘He only comes out at night,’ replied Marie-Noëlle, and the four women began to giggle again. ‘We call him the werewolf. He only comes out at night, and only when there’s a full moon. It’s true!’

‘You mean you leave your washing out on the line overnight?’

‘Not any more. But we all did a few times, in the winter, when it wasn’t dry at the end of the day, and we were cooking, and then it was dark, and we thought, oh, leave it till tomorrow. That’s when stuff disappeared, and we told each other. Then one night, late, just before I went to bed, I opened the curtains in the bedroom to look at the moon, and there he was. There were a few bras and knickers on the line, and he was helping himself. It was as bright as day out there. I recognised him straight away.’

‘Did you shout at him?’

‘No. I don’t know why. I thought it was sad, and a bit funny. My husband was downstairs watching football. If I’d shouted he’d have come out and asked what was up, and then he might have chased the guy, and things might have got nasty.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘Well, madame,’ said Martine, ‘we were hoping you could advise us.’

‘I already have. Go to the police.’

‘We don’t want to do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘We feel sorry for the girl he lives with. They’ve got three children. He works hard. He’s serious. They don’t deserve this.’

Mme Menez was surprised and intrigued by the tolerant view the women were taking of the behaviour of one of their neighbours. He was undoubtedly a criminal; potentially a sexual criminal. They saw him as a man with virtues and a weakness, and a family. It would not have been her position; but she respected theirs. She said, ‘Ladies, I will think about the matter for a few days, and if I have anything helpful to suggest, I’ll tell you next week.’

The women thanked her, and turned to the purchasing of fish.

The following week, Mme Menez returned to Impasse Gauguin at about the same time of the morning. The four women appeared, as before; this time they were joined by two others. After the usual conversational preliminaries, Martine said, ‘They lost their stuff too.’

Mme Menez said, ‘Well, I have been thinking. If you’re still determined not to go to the police, I have a question for each of you. Can you sew?’

It was, the women said to each other after Mme Menez’s van had reversed out of Impasse Gauguin and driven off down Rue Bonnard, a further sacrifice to make, but perhaps it would work, and it would certainly shame him without hurting her. None of them was an expert seamstress, but this bit of stitching work would only take five minutes, and could be done in the daytime while their men were away, so they would never know.

About a fortnight later, there was a clear night around the time of the full moon. The man made his usual excuse; it was fine tonight, and he fancied a walk. He left the house. He walked down Impasse Gauguin, turned right into Rue Bonnard, walked along for 200 metres before turning right into Rue Cézanne, and walked along for another 100 metres before turning right into Impasse Braque. As he walked, he thought about himself. It was as if he and another he were walking along together. He knew which of the two was in charge of this walk; which was giving directions. He knew, whatever the partner of Christine and the father of Robert, Jacques and Émilie might wish, that this walk was going to end with undignified scrambles over fences, with furtive, bent-double runs across lawns, in search of scraps of clothing which, with beating heart, clammy palms and an erection pressing against his trousers, he would stuff into his coat pockets before urgently retracing his guilty steps, back, back, left, left and left again, until the house, until the shed at the bottom of the garden, the bottle of brandy, the one light, unzipping himself, rubbing himself with them, rubbing himself… And then the obsessively careful arrangements about disposal, in one dustbin or another, never the same, streets away, always in a plastic bag, tied up. At last the return to the house, slipping into bed beside Christine, yes he had enjoyed the walk, and sleep, and the next day, and the other he encouraging his children to eat their breakfast, how would they work well at school without it?

The last few nights he had been out, he’d found nothing. People round here were being careful now; perhaps they were telling each other; perhaps they suspected him. He might have to travel further. But no; here was the washing, and here, and here; and, amongst the washing, the little things he was looking for.

In the shed, he closed and locked the door. The light. The luxury of brandy with this. The zip. The air around his loins. His erection released. He took the first little thing from his coat pocket, and touched himself with it, pressed himself. He looked down, and saw something which was not a manufacturer’s label. In a moment he had read his name, and a message from one of his neighbours, known to him, containing a warning. It was the same with all the little things. His erection collapsed. Disposal arrangements still had to be made.

Mme Menez saw Martine and her neighbours each week, as usual, that spring and summer. Each week, she asked whether all the washing was intact. It was. Three or four months went by, three or four full moons, and nothing was lost. The women laughed a lot about it, and said that now they weren’t getting through undies as fast as they had been, they could afford to buy something a bit classier.

A Guardian of Morality

Every Friday Madame Menez visited a house at the end of a long straight country lane which stopped there. She performed a three-point turn before doing business with the married couple who came out to greet her. They were retired schoolteachers. Madame Moreau had been born in Plouzalver. Her husband was from the south of France, near Béziers. Most of their careers had been spent in schools in the Paris suburbs. Now they had settled (resettled, in her case) in a secluded house not far from where she had begun.

Because this visit was usually the last in her round, Mme Menez felt more relaxed about allowing conversations to flow without the need for a polite but firm, ‘Well, I must be getting on.’ One day the talk turned to an aspect of Plouzalver’s cultural past about which she and Mme Moreau shared memories. Given their ages, these were mainly indirect memories of practices described to them by people of a generation which had now passed away.

The women remembered being told how, in rural Brittany before the Second World War, groups of neighbours moved in agreed rotation from house to house, farm to farm, on winter nights, maintaining conviviality with stories, songs and up-to-date gossip while economising on fuel. Arrangements of that kind were possible in the towns as well, of course, but they were less common there, perhaps because towns could offer an alternative opportunity for people to gather: the weekly film.

Plouzalver, recalled Mme Moreau, who was nearly a decade older than Mme Menez, was too small to have a purpose-built cinema. But it had a salle des fêtes, which was used for a multitude of purposes, especially wedding parties after the ceremonies in the church and the mairie. It could seat about two hundred people in moderate comfort. From soon after the invention of talking pictures, a film was supplied to the town every week by Pathé or one of the other big distributors. It was shown in the salle des fêtes three times: on Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening. On Monday morning the great heavy reels were posted back to the distributor. Viewings were well attended, regardless of the content of the film. Charabancs, whose routes and timetables were co-ordinated with the timings of the screenings, brought people in from remote districts and took them back home a few hours later.

(Narrator’s parenthesis: a great Italian writer, describing the cultural changes overtaking his country in the early part of the twentieth century, noted that ‘the first experiments in the cinematograph were opening vast possibilities for the corruption of youth’. Throughout France too, those responsible for public morals, whether appointed or self-appointed, took their responsibility seriously. And in the small towns the guardian in question was the parish priest.)

Plouzalver’s parish priest, Mme Moreau continued, claimed the right to a solitary viewing of each film as soon as it arrived in the town. The projectionist, who was a communicating member of his congregation, of course obliged, and so — usually on a Saturday morning — the reverend gentleman took his seat in the salle des fêtes, equipped with a notebook and pencil. By the flickering light of the projector’s beam, he noted any scenes in the film which he judged unsuitable for public consumption later in the weekend (‘Trop hot,’ said Mme Moreau, using the English word with relish). After the viewing he gave instructions to the projectionist as to where he should fast-forward the reel until the danger had passed.

It’s hard to know why a certain moment, and not some other moment, signals a change in practices which until that moment have been accepted, however grudgingly. Before the war, and especially during the war, when an externally imposed form of puritanism or prudery rendered the priest’s watching brief largely redundant, the people of Plouzalver and the surrounding hamlets and villages tolerated the censorship imposed on them — paying customers as they were — with nothing more than a groan. Reels were often breaking down anyway, and having to be repaired for merely technical reasons. But something happened during the 1950s which meant that, slowly and subtly, a priest’s right to decide on what could or could not be shown to the public came to be challenged. Meanwhile, much to the regret of reverend gentlemen across France, films containing material requiring the projectionist’s fast-forward arrived more and more frequently from the distributor. No one film signalled the point when priests threw in the towel, but Mme Moreau hazarded the guess that And God Created Woman, in which Brigitte Bardot had sizzled in 1956, had as strong a claim as any to that honour.

Suffice it to say that, without the need for formal protest or popular defiance, at about this time Plouzalver’s parish priest quietly abandoned his Saturday morning séances, and confined himself thereafter to regretful passages in his sermons about the rise of libidinous secularism. And within a year or two, another change, unconnected with morality, brought about the speedy decline and death of the weekly visits to the salle des fêtes which had been such a feature of communal life for so long: television sets began to be purchased in increasing numbers. Even priests bought one when they could afford it. A few years later, Mme Moreau remembered, the priest in a neighbouring parish placed the following modest appeal in his parish magazine: ‘Père [Mme Moreau mentioned his name], finding himself in need of a television set in order to remain abreast of current events, would be grateful if any parishioner felt called to such an act of generosity, especially if the equipment were in colour.’

M. Moreau then broke in with his own story from the south. He had been brought up in a village, not a town, and funds in that village did not allow it to meet the whole cost of renting a film each week. So the mayors of that commune and of two adjacent communes came to an agreement. They decided, in advance, on the programme for the coming winter season. They shared the cost of the rentals in equal proportions. Each week one of the three communes had the privilege of the first screening of that week’s film. Because all the films came as several separate reels, it was possible, by advertising the timings of screenings in the second and third villages at two and four hours respectively after that in the first, for the inhabitants of all three villages and their outlying districts to enjoy that week’s offering. But this possibility only existed courtesy of a small team of motor cyclists, the first one of whom would transport the first reel, once it had been shown in the first village and removed from the projector, to the second village, where it would be rapidly rewound to its beginning in time for the start of the second showing. This courier would wait in the second village until the time came to perform the same service for the third. Meanwhile, his comrade was waiting in the first village for the end of the second reel. And so on. M. Moreau couldn’t exactly remember how many couriers were needed to complete this complex operation. He thought it might have depended on the length of the film. But he did remember the inevitable occasions when, a reel having broken in one place and needing to be repaired, the audience in the next place had finished watching a previous reel and were made to wait for the next instalment. There were always jeers and whistles then, he said, and sometimes people gave up and went to the café. But the arrangement was maintained more or less successfully until, once again, television spelt its doom.

Looking lovingly at his wife, M. Moreau said, ‘The one thing we didn’t have to worry about was the priest. He wouldn’t have dared. The mayors were all reds down there, and so were we. Brittany’s always been religious. You even call your fêtes pardons.’

Mme Moreau smiled. ‘Go to hell if you like, darling. I’ll stick to Pascal’s wager.’

Mme Menez couldn’t quite remember what was Pascal’s wager. At home that evening, she looked it up in the encyclopaedia that she had inherited from her parents. The great philosopher had thought it worth taking a bet that God exists, because if He doesn’t, our losses in terms of pleasures foregone are only slight, and if He does, our gains in terms of an eternal life in heaven are great. If we bet the other way, that God doesn’t exist, our gains in this life are transitory, however delightful, and our losses in terms of an eternal life in hell are unspeakable.

‘But then,’ thought Mme Menez as she lay down in bed, ‘you have to believe in hell for the bet on God’s existence to be worth making.’ With this thought in her mind, she fell quickly asleep, as befits a person who had been up since five o’clock that morning, and would be again the next day.

A Question of Inheritance

Two months had passed since the ladies at Les Six Fesses had made their extraordinary offer to Madame Menez, which the latter had gratefully accepted. The legal arrangements had been concluded at the office of the brothers Maîtres Grosset, the town’s notaires. That day, Mme Menez had privately told the landlord at her existing shop that she would be giving up the tenancy at the end of the year. The prospective change of ownership of the property (under its formal name — Le Moderne — of course) and the change of use of the commercial part of the premises were announced in a classified advertisement in Ouest France. Within a few hours, everyone in the town had heard and eagerly discussed the news. Customers coming into the shop congratulated Mme Menez on her well-deserved good fortune. Indeed, trade was for a few days notably brisker than usual — a further bonus — simply because people wished, under cover of offering their congratulations, to satisfy their curiosity by pumping Mme Menez for more details about the circumstances in which the offer had been made. Mme Menez answered these questions civilly but at no great length. The sisters had made this surprising and generous offer, which she had been honoured to accept. That was all. No, she had had no foreknowledge of their intentions. When it became clear to the enquirer that Mme Menez was not about to offer further information, there was nothing for it but to buy some fish and bid her good day.

As in any small town, there were people who took a less generous view of the event. For them, Mme Menez must have ingratiated herself with the three sisters over a period of time. It was not normale that a property should change hands in this way, outside the family. These people, of course, thought such thoughts and expressed them to others out of pure envy, or because they were just naturally unhappy and unpleasant characters, going through life in the belief that the fates had treated them badly, that they deserved better. If any report of the calumnies of these mauvaises langues came to Mme Menez, she ignored it.

Because the exchange of ownership had gone through so quickly and smoothly, Mme Menez found herself the proprietor of Le Moderne, with her three tenants still managing the little-frequented café, while her tenancy of the current fish shop still had several months to run. One lunchtime, having walked across the square and delivered the day’s fish to the sisters as usual, she raised with them the delicate question of the café’s final closure.

As ever, the eldest sister spoke for the three and, as ever, the three had already discussed the matter and decided what to do.

‘Madame,’ said the eldest, from her immemorial position at the left-hand end of the bench, and signalling to Mme Menez, as before, to sit down on the solitary chair behind the counter, ‘you know that les fêtes de Plouzalver at the end of August are the busiest time of year for us, and for all the cafés in town. We probably take more money during those four days than in the whole of the rest of the year. We have decided to close the café on the Monday night after the last day of this summer’s fêtes.’

‘That seems an eminently appropriate date on which to take your well-earned retirement, ladies,’ said Mme Menez. After a little pause, she continued, ‘Because of the great generosity you have shown me, I would be in a position to begin the conversion work here, and have it finished during the autumn, before the lease on my current shop expires. Would that be acceptable to you?’

‘Of course,’ came the reply. ‘The place is yours now. We have all the accommodation we need upstairs.’

So it was agreed. There was no need for Mme Menez to think about the carpenter she would invite to tender for the work: Pierre Tanguy.

It will be remembered that Pierre Tanguy — the most honourable, the most reliable, the most serious carpenter in the district — had previously and unexpectedly let Mme Menez down in the matter of the replacement of parts of the gate and fence at her home. An affair of the heart had been the cause of this unprecedented shortcoming. On his return from Madeira, M. Tanguy had immediately visited Mme Menez to offer his most profound apologies, and had invited her to dismiss him from the job if she chose to. She had said that she would hear of no such thing, and that she wished him and his new companion every happiness. (It would have been pointless, of course, to pretend that she, unlike everyone else in Plouzalver, had not known the reason for M. Tanguy’s uncharacteristic last-minute departure to the island. Indeed, Albert Laroche had gone so far as to tell her that he had heard from Pierre’s elder daughter that she and her sister had had an initially difficult conversation with their father — difficult only because it inevitably revived memories of their beloved mother — which nonetheless ended in tearful embraces, with the daughters telling him, perhaps a little saucily, that at least he hadn’t chosen a new woman who was younger than they.) The carpenter duly arrived the following week and replaced the rotten parts of the gate and the fence exactly as he had said he would. When his bill arrived, it showed a significant discount on the originally agreed price, à cause des délais imprévus. Honour was satisfied all round, and Albert painted the new wood.

So, on the Monday morning following Mme Menez’s agreement with the sisters about the closure of the café, she met with M. Tanguy at her new premises. She had been concerned that the plans she had in mind for the place, necessitating the removal of fixtures and fittings which had stood and served and been cared for since 1923, would cause pain to their former owners. When she arrived, a few minutes before the carpenter, she was — not for the first time — seized with admiration for the sisters’ tact and sense of proper proceeding.

The three, unusually, were standing in front of the counter, not sitting on the bench behind it. They were carrying shopping bags, and were obviously about to go out.

‘Madame,’ said the eldest, ‘there are a few purchases we need to make in the market: lighter clothes now that summer has come. We shall close the café for an hour. If anyone does knock on the door, perhaps you would tell them that we shall reopen as usual on our return.’

The sisters left, turning the sign hanging on the inside of the street door to Fermé for probably the first time on a Monday morning in the establishment’s history.

Pierre arrived. Speaking freely now, Mme Menez outlined her project. The existing counter would be replaced by the infrastructure for a long, sloping, stainless-steel display area, where the fish would rest on crushed ice. On the other side of the room, shelves and racks would hold fruit, vegetables and wine. A cabinet for cheese would be made. The room would have new double-glazed windows with hardwood frames. A new street door would be fitted, all of glass to let in the light. More storage facilities would be useful in the room behind the shop, whose back door into the yard where the van would be parked also needed replacing.

Pierre listened, nodded, wrote everything down. He drew pictures in his notebook and showed them to Mme Menez so he could be sure he understood what she had in mind. They discussed co-ordination of his work with that of other tradesmen. Pierre recommended an electrician who would dispel the gloom in which the room had languished for so many years. (Mme Menez was privately relieved that the man he suggested was not the person about whom the women in the Impasse Gauguin had confided in her.) Pierre mentioned the name of a carreleur with whom she could discuss floor coverings. She had already invited Albert to paint the walls and the new woodwork.

Plans, plans. It was with a tremendous sense of anticipation that Mme Menez said ‘Bon appétit’ to Pierre, who went off for his lunch promising to have the estimate ready in two or three days. She sat down on one of the customers’ chairs. All the furniture would have to be cleared out. It wasn’t fancy, but it was solid wood. It would be a terrible shame to take it to the déchetterie. Someone would want it, surely, and might even pay something for it. She would offer the money to the sisters, of course.

These thoughts were in her mind when there came a knock at the street door. No doubt it was that rarity, a customer. Or perhaps the sisters had returned already. She went to the door and opened it. A man stood there.

‘Madame Menez?’

‘Yes. The café is closed at the moment.’

‘I’m not in need of a drink. May I came in?’

Something in the stranger’s intent, in the steady, knowing manner of his address to her, told Mme Menez to stand her ground.

‘I would rather hear what business you have with me before I let you in.’

‘You will find me perfectly civil, I assure you. But I have to communicate to you some difficult news. I am employed by Maîtres Forestier, notaires at Quimper. The recent annonce in Ouest France about the change of ownership of these premises has been brought to our attention. We represent a M. Duval, who is… related to Mesdames Guillemot.’

‘If you wish to speak to the sisters, they will be here shortly. They are my tenants now. They have the usufruit of the property for the remainder of their lives. I am the owner here.’

‘Not exclusively, madame. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the sisters’ generous gift to you. And of course you have paid or will pay the appropriate tax on the transaction. Those are not my concerns, and it would be impertinent of me to question the probity of your motives or your actions. However, the purpose of the obligatory publication in a newspaper of information relating to the proposed change of proprietor and use of a commercial property is to allow those who may have an interest in the change to declare that interest.’

Mme Menez’s irritation at the lawyer’s pedantic way of speaking competed in her mind with a fear that he might, stealthily, be leading up to the statement of a fact.

‘To your point, monsieur,’ she said. ‘What have you to tell me? How exactly is your client related to Mmes Guillemot?’

‘He is the son of the youngest sister.’

There was a long silence. Mme Menez stared at the lawyer so hard that he dropped his eyes in embarrassment. Eventually he continued.

‘I will not condescend to you, madame. You are certainly aware of the rights of children in inheritance matters, which cannot be overridden by the writing of a will or by disposal of a property to a third party. I am assured that our client is the youngest Mme Guillemot’s only child. He is entitled to half of her estate on her demise. Had the sisters remained owners of the property until their deaths, and assuming, as I do, that they held equal shares in it before making it over to you as a gift, it follows that, depending on the order of departure of these ladies,’ — here the man paused for breath — ‘M. Duval would have been entitled to one sixth, or one quarter, or one half of its value. As things stand, his entitlement is to the lowest of these proportions. But he will have it.’

Mme Menez was both deeply shocked and perfectly calm.

‘These assertions, monsieur, come as a surprise to me, as you may imagine. I shall discuss them with Mmes Guillemot. It may be that there will be conversations between our notaire and your firm. In the meantime, I shall not detain you further. Thank you, and good day.’

She stepped back and closed the door on her visitor, who made no attempt to prolong the meeting, and departed. She was trembling. She sat down on the same chair she had occupied a few minutes previously, now in an entirely different state of mind. She was still inwardly distressed when the sisters returned.

‘It’s a beautiful day outside. Is the discussion with your carpenter concluded, madame?’

‘It is. But since then, something unexpected has occurred, which concerns all of us.’

‘Really? And what might that be?’

She told them. As she talked, she saw how the sisters glanced fiercely at each other several times, before fixing their eyes on the floor. After she had finished, she waited. At last the eldest spoke.

‘We don’t know what to say, madame.’ Turning to the youngest sister, she said, ‘Jocelyne, will you explain?’

Jocelyne began to speak, in a low, slow, hard voice.

‘It was just before the war. Les fêtes were always a time of joy in this town. There was a boy… He came into the café often. He seemed to like me. He was different from the others. They were all fools, bons-pour-rien, or fat ugly old men. On the last night of les fêtes, after the bicycle race, he appeared, and proposed a walk. Béatrice and Josette said they could manage in the café, despite the crowd. They had hopes for me, you see. If only they had said no.’ She stopped and sighed. ‘We walked up into the woods above the town. The night was warm, although August was nearly over. There are times, madame, impossible as it now seems to imagine, when the flesh is urgent… Six weeks later I knew for certain. I told the others. It was a matter of the deepest shame. I went to Quimper, to an acquaintance of the family who owned a quincaillerie, supposedly because they needed extra help in the shop for a period. My sisters gave out this news. The child was born the following spring. I was permitted to nurse him for only the briefest time, and then…’ — and here she stopped again, for longer — ‘…and then I gave him up. The nuns took him away. They told me he would be adopted by a good family. I remember how they emphasised that word: “good”. They told me I would never see him again; that the best thing for me was to return to my home and pray for forgiveness. I did return, of course, but…’ — and here her voice darkened, and she uttered the next words with anger — ‘…pray I did not.

The people at the quincaillerie were kind, and at my request they discovered the name of the couple who had adopted my son: Duval. I persuaded them to reveal the part of town where the Duvals lived. They begged me to leave the boy and his… his parents alone, which I did. A few times, but only a few, I travelled to Quimper and watched for them as they left the house. I stood a good distance away. They didn’t notice me. Once or twice, in later years, I waited across the road from the gate of his school until he came out at the end of the day. That was all. And now he will have his revenge.’

Mme Menez said gently, ‘If your son was indeed formally adopted by the Duvals, he would at that moment have lost his right to any inheritance from you, and gained an inheritance right from them. The lawyer must surely know that.’

The eldest sister said, ‘Perhaps there is something unusual in the case: some reason why the man wishes to reappear in our lives after all this time.’

Mme Menez said, ‘I will go and see him.’


A week later, Mme Menez sat in the waiting room of the offices of Maîtres Forestier in Quimper. She had come on the train. A neighbour who worked in Lorient had been kind enough to drop her at the station there that morning. While waiting on the platform she had wondered, not for the first time, whether she should buy a small car. The delivery van was too big and too slow for longer journeys like this. At the end of each previous reflection she had decided that the expense of owning two vehicles was not worth the occasional convenience that a private car would yield. Today, she was not so sure. Perhaps she would invest in a little Clio once she was settled in the new shop and had paid for the conversion work. And then she thought, ‘Stop dreaming about new cars! Perhaps I shall never have the shop after all. It was all a foolish fantasy.’ And she blushed with anger and embarrassment at the way people in Plouzalver would tittle-tattle about the affair.

The man who had brought to her the news of M. Duval’s existence — news which, it may be imagined, had caused all four women much emotional turmoil in the intervening week — entered the waiting room.

‘My client attends you in the small meeting room. He has requested that he and you speak alone. I shall be available to him should he require me.’

Mme Menez followed the man down the winding corridor which is characteristic of lawyers’ offices in old buildings in provincial towns. He opened a door and ushered her into a room. He said, ‘Madame Menez. Monsieur Duval.’ He left the room and closed the door.

M. Duval stood, crossed the room, shook Mme Menez’s hand, and invited her to sit opposite him at a small table. The two chairs and the table were the only furniture. The reader may already have calculated that M. Duval was a little over sixty. He looked his age. There was nothing striking or unusual in his appearance. He had put on a suit and tie of sober colours. His hair was grey and thinning. He wore spectacles. He was of medium height. All in all, he was the kind of man whom you pass in the street every day and don’t notice.

‘I am a regular reader of Ouest France, madame,’ he began. ‘Were I not so, we would not be sitting here.’

‘I assure you, monsieur,’ replied Mme Menez, ‘that I have no intention of depriving you of that which is legitimately yours.’

‘The word “legitimate” is the crux of the matter. I hope not to detain you here long, madame, but I must and I will explain to you why I have intervened in your life.’

‘I have all day,’ said Mme Menez, though quietly she hoped that M. Duval’s story might be told in a shorter time than that.

‘My parents, that is my adoptive parents, died many years ago. They were much older than my mother: that is, my natural mother. They told me as a child simply that they had chosen me, and that they were glad of their choice. They were good people. My childhood was uneventful and for the most part happy. Once or twice boys at school were unwise enough to refer to my unconventional ancestry. They paid for that indiscretion with a severe beating in the playground. I have never been especially physically strong or violent, but when angered I could more than hold my own. As a result, I was respected by the other boys, and mention of my origins ceased, at least in my hearing.

I was only moderately successful academically; there was no question of my pursuing studies to a higher level. But neither was I stupid. So after national service I entered the retail trade, working for M. Leclerc, who as you know is from Finistère like me, and who has so transformed the shopping habits of our nation.’

Mme Menez was well aware of the impact of Edouard Leclerc’s supermarkets and hypermarkets on the shopping habits of the French. As a small independent fishmonger, she had felt his competition keenly. But this was not the moment to enter into a discussion about shops of different sizes. She merely nodded. M. Duval continued.

‘My father died when I was 40. It was expected, of course, that as his adoptive son, indeed as his only child, I would gain the portion of his estate to which I was entitled under the law. I had been the subject of a plenary adoption, making me the Duvals’ child in every legal sense, and severing any legal connection with my natural mother. Or so I had been led to believe. Imagine my distress, and indeed that of Mme Duval — a distress added to the grief we both felt at the loss of a much loved father and husband — when no papers could be found confirming my legal existence as the adoptive child of those two people. Mme Duval was sure that papers assenting to plenary adoption had been signed. She was sure that they had been deposited in all the correct places. But exhaustive searches revealed nothing. The absence of the papers remains a mystery. I was — and am — an illegitimate person, in more than one sense. And no appeals to common sense and humanity have been able to persuade the authorities to, as it were, retrospectively legitimise me. Mme Duval died five years after her husband. This second loss changed nothing with regard to my status, and I was obliged to see other relatives consuming between them the modest value of my parents’ house and savings, once the state had had its share, of course.

In these circumstances, you can perhaps understand why, when I became aware of the arrangements for the transfer of ownership of a property in which my natural mother had an interest, I decided, having been deprived of my rights once, that I was not willing to stand aside and be deprived a second time.’

‘I can understand that very well,’ said Mme Menez. ‘But how did you know that Mme Guillemot is your mother?’

‘The answer is simple. 41 years ago, on the evening before I left Quimper to begin my national service, my parents told me that I was the child of a union between an unknown man and a young woman from Plouzalver. They told me that she, together with her two sisters, was the proprietor of a bar in that town; and that she, under the strict laws and customs of the time, was forbidden to see me or communicate with me. They were not censorious, but they made it clear that my love and duty were owed to them, and that it was best that I did not seek to establish contact with my… other mother. I did indeed love and respect my parents, and until quite recently I saw no need to disregard their advice.’

‘Until quite recently?’

‘Times change, and so do we. An act of shame in 1938 is perfectly normal behaviour now. Since my sixtieth birthday, I have felt more and more insistently a desire to see the woman who gave me life. I have been steeling myself to go to Plouzalver, to enter the café, and… to see what would happen then. As the new proprietor of the place, and with its imminent closure as a café, you have somewhat forced my hand, madame.’

Mme Menez looked at the man with compassion. She stood up and walked around the room, considering. Just as M. Duval was about to say something to break the silence, she said, ‘This question may seem irrelevant or impertinent to you. But may I ask: have you prospered at Leclerc?’

‘Modestly, yes. I am one of four deputy managers in the largest hypermarket here in Quimper. I specialise in fresh produce. I am well enough paid. I intend to retire next year.’

‘Let me make it clear that you shall have your share of your mother’s inheritance, in liquid money, if that is what you wish. I may have to borrow from the bank to achieve this, but I expect that, with my two freehold properties as security, the terms would be tolerable. However, I have an alternative proposition, which might interest you, given your long and obviously successful career in the food retail trade.’


That afternoon Mme Menez was driven back to Plouzalver. M. Duval, who had become François, was her driver. They had lunched rather well in a small restaurant a hundred metres up the hill from the cathedral, where François was known. Their conversation during the hour-long drive was initially animated, but faltered as they approached Plouzalver. On arriving, François parked in the square next to the church, opposite Le Moderne. They crossed the road and came to the old door of the café. Mme Menez turned to François and saw that he was shaking. She took his arm, pushed open the door and ushered her guest in before her. To her relief but not to her surprise, there were no customers. The three old women were on the bench, as ever, arranged by age from left to right, as ever.

Mme Menez said, ‘Ladies, I should like you to meet the new shareholder in my business. This is François Duval.’

Three pairs of eyes opened wide in astonishment. Then François Duval walked up to the counter and looked hard for a long moment at the Guillemot sisters. More by instinct than by any process of conscious recognition, his gaze finally settled on the woman on the right. He said, ‘Mother?’


Jocelyne Guillemot returned her son’s gaze. The room was silent; all five people remained motionless. Eventually Béatrice, the eldest sister, looked at Jocelyne and made a quick sideways movement of her head from left to right. This was half permission, half instruction. It meant, ‘Respond.’ Jocelyne rose from the bench and walked around the side of the counter. She came to François and looked up at him. As we have heard, he was only of medium height; but she was small. She extended her two hands and took his right hand between them. She said, ‘My son.’

François’ voice was unsteady and his eyes were wet. He said, ‘I have taken a minority stake in Madame Menez’s business. I… I have some knowledge of her profession. We thought that we could be of benefit to each other. But I shan’t be here all the time. I shall be a sort of sleeping partner who wakes up occasionally when he can be helpful.’ This attempt at humour finally undid him, and he wept openly, clutching his mother’s head to his chest. After a decent interval Béatrice and Josette went to him. He gently disconnected himself from Jocelyne, and embraced his aunts one after the other, with four kisses each.

Mme Menez, who of course was as moved by this scene as were the other participants, eventually trusted herself to say, ‘I shall leave the family together. You have a great deal to talk about. I’ll be here with the fish tomorrow as usual.’

Béatrice said, ‘Madame, we are for ever in your debt. This gift to Jocelyne, to all three of us, is wonderful.’

‘As was your gift to me, mesdames,’ said Mme Menez. ‘But your gift was made out of pure generosity. Mine came about by chance.’

‘Or through the wide circulation of Ouest France,’ said François, and everyone laughed.


Mme Menez and François had agreed over their lunch in Quimper that he would take a 20% stake in her business, in exchange for waiving his rights to the immediate inheritance of one sixth of the value of the freehold property containing Le Moderne. (Mme Menez had already agreed in earlier conversations with Maîtres Grosset that the café business had no ongoing value, so tiny was its turnover.) She had insisted on offering François a one-fifth rather than a one-sixth share; she felt that this gesture would show her good will towards him, and might in some small, inadequate way compensate him for the period of doubt and distress he had suffered between reading the notice in the newspaper and meeting her, a period which must, furthermore, have resurrected difficult memories about the complexities of his past.

Formality is the prime characteristic of traditional French manners and of French institutions, notably the law. Consequently it took two long meetings with Maître Luc Grosset for Mme Menez and M. Duval to put their business relationship on a legal footing. François had to sign various documents confirming that he had never been bankrupt, never been mentally ill and never been convicted of a crime, as Mme Menez had had to do previously. Maître Luc was the soul of professional discretion, but he would not have been human, as he filed the papers in the firm’s vault, not to have wondered how Mme Menez had come into contact with M. Duval. The Guillemot-Menez inheritance was one surprise after another. She had simply told him that she had met M. Duval at ‘a business event’ in Quimper, and had decided that his expertise in large-scale retailing would be of value to her in her efforts to maintain the profitability of her small enterprise in the face of competition from les grandes surfaces.

After the meetings with the lawyer, when she was alone, Mme Menez interrogated her conscience and decided that she had behaved perfectly honestly. ‘A business event’ was perhaps a slightly strained description of the meeting in the offices of Maîtres Forestier, but some business had after all been done there, and the occasion had certainly been an event. Suppose the full truth came out, perhaps during the course of gossip at some convention of Breton notaires? Or suppose that one of the Mmes Guillemot was unable to restrain herself from imparting to an acquaintance in Plouzalver the joyous news of the mother-and-son reunion, after which the information would be all over the town in half an hour? Mme Menez’s instinct was that the second of these suppositions was less likely than the first. But Jocelyne and François might be standing together in the street one day, he might call her mother, someone might overhear… No, she decided, however the news came out, if it did come out, nothing would invalidate the propriety of François’ participation in her business. Let them talk. Let them even think… she blushed. Let them even think that her and François’ relationship went beyond the merely commercial. Foolishness. He was at least fifteen years older than her, and he wasn’t her type. Very few men had been. She hadn’t asked him what his personal circumstances were. Such a question would have been excessively forward.


The summer passed. Traffic in Plouzalver became heavier, as it always does in July and August. There were more British and Dutch and German number plates. Le quinze août came and went. On the sixteenth of August the sisters placed a modest notice on the door of Le Moderne, underneath the Ouvert/Fermé sign which had been supplied by a representative of Dubonnet in 1946, saying that the establishment would, after 77 years of serving the people of Plouzalver and the surrounding region, close definitively after business on Monday 28 August (the last night of les fêtes de Plouzalver). Mmes Guillemot thanked their clients for their fidelity over the years.

As we have seen, the closure of Le Moderne had been known about for some time, but now that a date was announced — a date only twelve days distant from the posting of the notice — the imminence of the bar’s demise spurred local drinkers, most of whom hadn’t darkened its doors for years, to visit it one last time. Half a dozen of the confirmed alcoholics in the town, who would begin on red wine at ten o’clock in the morning, moving quietly from bar to bar in a fixed itinerary, but who had long ago been made unwelcome at Le Moderne, the sisters making clear their disapproval of such dependency, re-appeared ‘at the death’, as they said to each other but not in the sisters’ hearing, and were accepted for old time’s sake. One of these ne’er-do-wells remarked in a whisper to his friend, ‘Ah! Les fesses cessent,’ and thought himself very witty. Meanwhile, the proprietors were more than usually active. As Béatrice said, ‘I had to get to 90 to remember what work is.’

During the week before les fêtes de Plouzalver, the fair arrived to set up as usual. The parking places in the squares by the church and behind the mairie were taken over by gaudy roundabouts, shooting galleries offering prizes such as fake silver cups, bottles of cheap fizz and enormous teddy bears, and stalls ready to sell nougat and candy floss. Throughout the week, camping cars in their hundreds appeared from all over France, and took their places on the huge tarmacked areas around the start and finish point for the bicycle races. The circus (a separate concern from the fair) established itself in a field on the edge of the town. On the Friday afternoon a lorry hauling a trailer on which was a cage containing two somnolent lions made its slow way around the central streets and the more populous housing estates, its driver announcing through a loud speaker attached to the top of the cab ‘an extraordinary spectacle of savagery and glamour, for four nights only at vingt heures trente, on the playground of the Collège Marcel Pagnol, five minutes’ walk from the town centre, not to be missed’. Older Plouzalver residents went to the pharmacie to buy ear plugs to enable them to sleep, for they knew that very loud and totally un-French music would be played for those four nights until two or three in the morning. And on the Friday evening, the fun began.

Apart from the bicycle races, there is nothing unusual about les fêtes de Plouzalver. Similar celebrations take place in small towns throughout France. But the town’s residents, and in particular the members of the organising committee for les fêtes, were rightly proud that the Grand Prix de Plouzalver, traditionally held on the Monday as the climax to the long weekend, was the third most important bicycle race in the country, after the Tour de France and the Paris-Roubaix. It had taken place every year since 1931, apart from an interruption for the war. And the women’s race, introduced only in 1999 and held on the day before the men’s, was immediately popular on its debut. The bicycle race (now races) brought some 200,000 visitors to a town of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. This explains the brisk business that Plouzalver’s shops and cafés did every year near the end of August.


To say that Le Moderne was packed on its final night would be to exaggerate. But there was a continuous throughput of customers, with perhaps a dozen on the premises at any one time. Mme Menez part-drove, part-walked into town early in the evening to wish the sisters well on this locally historic and poignant occasion. When she arrived, she found that François had had the same idea. He had driven over from Quimper.

‘Did you manage to park?’ she asked as he brought her a muscat.

‘I was lucky. Someone was leaving and I took their bit of grass verge.’

‘Have you been coming often since… that day?’

In fact she knew the answer to the question, because the sisters had told her. Le Moderne’s weekly closing day was Sunday (except the Sunday of les fêtes). Mmes Guillemot attended mass at 10.30 and were home again before noon. This suited François well. Leclerc was closed on Sundays, as are all grandes surfaces in France, so he was free to come to lunch with his mother and aunts in the little dining room upstairs. The sisters’ regular Saturday fish order (skate) had recently been enhanced by requests for four small sole or a spider crab or mussels to have before the roast. The ladies were pushing the boat out.

After François had confirmed what Mme Menez already knew, she felt it appropriate at last to ask, ‘May I enquire whether you are married?’

‘I am not,’ he said. ‘That happiness has not come my way. And you?’

Mme Menez hadn’t quite been prepared to answer immediately the identical question to that she had put, although later she had to concede to herself that François’ response was perfectly reasonable. A little flustered, she merely said, ‘My situation is the same.’ Then, with the tiniest amount of extra force in her voice, ‘And I am quite content with it.’

François smiled and changed the subject. ‘Have you thought about a supplier of the new equipment for this room?’

Mme Menez had, of course. It turned out that the supplier she had in mind was the same as that which Leclerc used in their stores in Finistère and the Morbihan, which was not surprising. The design, provision and fitting of bespoke fish counters is a specialist business. François said he knew the boss of the supply firm personally, and was sure he could get an excellent deal from him. The two agreed that François would make the initial contact with the man, and arrange a site visit in a fortnight’s time. It would take a few days to clear out the furniture, equipment and unsold stock in the bar. Pierre would then come in to dismantle the counter and begin the agreed refurbishments.

They went to say goodbye to the sisters, who for once were standing, not sitting, behind the doomed counter. They embraced them and congratulated them on their lifetime’s work. Jocelyne said to François, ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t entertain you yesterday. It’s the only Sunday of the year when we open. Will you come to lunch next Sunday?’ François said he would, with pleasure, and they left. Outside the café, they shook hands and parted. They both had early starts in the morning: hers even earlier than his.

At 11.30 Béatrice went to the door of the café and changed the sign from Ouvert to Fermé. Before midnight the last of the drinkers departed, making their way either to the grounds of the chateau (before the Revolution owned by the local nobility, now municipal property) where a firework display would mark the official conclusion of the festivities, or to other bars which stayed open later. The sisters washed up the cups and glasses, turned the chairs upside down on the tables and swept the floor, as they had done on countless thousands of nights stretching back over decades during which the world had changed unrecognisably, and they hadn’t. They locked the street door, checked that the back door leading to the yard was already locked, turned the lights out, climbed the stairs and went to their rooms.

The following morning they rose, washed and breakfasted at the usual time.


The reader may be puzzled or dissatisfied at the way in which the extraordinary meeting which ended the previous story and began this one seems to have been incorporated so easily into the routine lives of those affected. After that extraordinary meeting, we descend abruptly to the banal: an unmarried son visits his mother and aunts for lunch on a Sunday. Surely a fuller, a more fulsome description of the reunion could have been offered. What joyful words must have been exchanged! What urgent requests must have been made for information about lives lived in the great gap of time since mother and son had been parted! What further tears shed in the telling! The reader may chide the writer for the lack of these particulars, or wonder whether his talent was in fact unequal to the task of providing them.

It is not for a writer to offer any protestation concerning his talent. That is other people’s business. But I will just say that events took place as I have described them, and offer only the following defence for my plain, some might say meagre, description of them.

A trait of character which unites all the actors in this story is that of restraint. Restraint is not the same thing as repression. Furthermore, Mmes Guillemot, Mme Menez, François Duval (and indeed Pierre Tanguy and Albert Laroche) are all people for whom the continuation of the regularities of life is a given, a kind of ground bass offering an essential structure to the music of existence. Mmes Guillemots’ obligation to serve refreshment courteously for four years to hated, uniformed invaders; Pierre’s bereavement and his subsequent love affair, half a century later; even the day, a few years before the happenings described here, when the Tour de France flashed through Plouzalver late one July morning, preceded by police cars and motor bikes with lights flashing and sirens wailing, causing the shops and bars and restaurants to empty of customers and proprietors for that brief moment of wonder, joy and pride; and now the coming together of two people forced apart in 1939 by the attitudes of another age: these rarest of descants over the music of existence were sooner or later (usually sooner) absorbed, incorporated into the ordinary, the quotidian. The Germans vanished and the Americans came, with their cigarettes and chewing gum and sweets for the children; then they vanished too. Habitual pre-war customers returned to their seats at Le Moderne. Pierre’s word, having been broken once only, resumed its utter reliability. The chef at Le Relais du Marquis, who watched the cyclists on the Tour passing like a flock of exotic migrating birds, then hurried back to his kitchen, anxious that the red wine sauce had perhaps overcooked. And François, who would not be ashamed to weep again should tears come to him, told the story of his life to his mother and his aunts in successive episodes each summer Sunday in the little dining room above the café. It is true that water stood in his and in Jocelyne’s eyes when she described her furtive visits to Quimper to catch a glimpse of him leaving his house and his school; then he stretched out his hand to her across the table. It is true that powerful feelings were aroused in both of them when, on his third or fourth visit, he asked her, ‘Who was my father?’

Jocelyne had been expecting to hear the question one day. It was nevertheless a shock when it was spoken; yet she was calm as she replied.

‘His name was Robert Calvez. He lived on a farm near Guilligomarc’h. He had four brothers and two sisters. He came into the bar more often than he needed to. He had blue eyes and curly hair and a nice smile. That night wasn’t the first time he had asked me out, but it was the first time I said yes.’

‘What happened to him?’

‘He had already performed his national service, but he was conscripted again, of course, and sent to the north. He was killed near Lille in the year after you were born, a few weeks before Paris fell. He is buried up there. No one apart from us’ — she looked at her sisters — ‘knew who your father was. Béatrice brought the newspaper to me.’

Mother and son now wept for the second time, properly and quietly, as the food grew cold on their plates. François said, ‘I shall visit him.’

The Drying of Onions

Madame Menez’s neighbour and gardener, Albert Laroche, managed the gardens of several people. These jobs kept him more or less fully employed, which is what he wanted. ‘Le travail c’est la santé,’ he would often say. Among his other clients was a certain Englishman, who with his wife owned a granite cottage in the commune next to Plouzalver. The property was secluded though not remote, and although the house was of modest size, the grounds were extensive — a hectare and a half of lawn, vegetable garden, orchard, meadow and woodland, sloping down to the Ruisseau du Saint Sauveur, a stream which flowed into the Scorff about two kilometres downstream of the Englishman’s land. Perhaps the most impressive feature of these grounds was the vegetable garden. It was the size of a small football pitch. The soil was fertile, well drained and easy to work, and — thanks to Albert’s labour and care — immensely productive.

The Englishman and his wife loved the place, but because they both had jobs in London they were only in residence for brief periods of the year: a week at Christmas, a week at Easter, three or four weeks in the summer. It was a holiday home. Maybe, when they retired, they said to each other, they would be there for longer.

We have already remarked on Albert’s firm belief that self-sufficiency in vegetables, or a position as near to that blessed state as can realistically be attained, is one of the essential characteristics of sane and healthy living. So it gave him great satisfaction that the Englishman was happy for him to grow whatever vegetables he liked on the Englishman’s plot, and to take home all the produce he wanted. Albert’s own vegetable garden was immaculate, of course, but small. In the Englishman’s potager, he could paint on a bigger canvas. He could spread his wings. And he did. Every year the plot brought forth almost industrial quantities of the stalwart regulars which flourish in the climate of southern Brittany: carrots, leeks, onions, shallots, green beans, yellow beans, beetroot, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, cabbages, cauliflowers, not to mention an enormous crop of potatoes.

The Englishman was a regular customer in Mme Menez’s shop during his short stays in Brittany. He came three times a week. One Thursday in early August of the year of the remarkable events recounted in the previous two stories, while buying two good-sized sole and half a kilo of langoustines, he remarked to Mme Menez that, unusually, he wouldn’t be in on the following Saturday. He had to take his wife to Lorient in the morning, to the hairdresser; and they had been invited to a wedding in the afternoon. Mme Menez, anxious to be obliging to such a good customer, offered to deliver whatever fish he wanted to his cottage on the Sunday morning. She would take it home on the Saturday afternoon and put it in the fridge there overnight. She was going, she said (and this was true) to visit her cousin Babette for lunch on the Sunday, and the Englishman’s house, she thought, was not too far out of her way. The Englishman accepted this kind offer, ordered a large sea bass and two dozen oysters for Saturday, and gave her precise directions to the house.

The rest of the week passed quickly. The weather was perfect on Saturday morning: it was hot, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and a light breeze took the edge off the heat. During the afternoon, the breeze dropped, and the air began to seem heavy. The sun beat down: un soleil de plomb. It wasn’t so pleasant in the shop. Mme Menez did everything she could to keep flies and wasps away from her merchandise, but it was difficult. In the new shop, she thought, she would have one of those retractable transparent covers over the fish display for days like this. She closed at four o’clock as usual, with some relief. She packed into polystyrene boxes unsold fish which would keep until the following Tuesday, when a maker and bottler of fish soup would buy them from her at a wholesale price, and stored them in the big fridge in the back room. She washed every working surface and the floor. She locked up front and back, and climbed into the van, taking with her the Englishman’s order as well as fish for M. and Mme Laroche, Babette and herself.

As she was driving home, clouds covered the sun and the air grew ever sultrier. There will be a storm, she thought. Sure enough, at about seven o’clock, while she was cooking her meal, with the sky outside now a solid mass of iron-grey cloud, there was the first flash of lightning, a loud clap of thunder, and the rain poured down. The storm, which lasted about two hours, was spectacular. The dry ground drank up great quantities of water. Later in the evening, as the light failed, the clouds passed away and the stars came out. Mme Menez walked into her garden and admired the beauty of the heavens. Then she went to bed and slept soundly, as a person should who has been up at five o’clock on the previous five mornings.

The next morning was as lovely as Saturday’s had been, in fact even lovelier, with the low humidity and freshness in the air after the storm. The sun shone brightly on the wet ground. Mme Menez was in the best of spirits as she drove through the lanes to lunch with her cousin, via a brief stop at the Englishman’s house. She found the place without difficulty, stopped and parked.

Arriving at the front gate, carrying the Englishman’s order in a plastic bag, a surprising sight met her eyes. Arrayed on the lawn were perhaps thirty wooden boxes — the slatted, low-sided kind in which fruit and vegetables of all kinds are transported. They were full of onions. And there, kneeling next to one of the boxes, with a cloth in his hand, was the Englishman. He seemed to be in the act of drying an onion. He was rubbing it vigorously.

Mme Menez employed the time-honoured method of diplomatically alerting a person to an unnoticed arrival: she coughed loudly. The Englishman in his kneeling position turned his head. He dropped the onion and the cloth abruptly, as if guiltily. He rose and walked across the lawn to meet his visitor.

This was a delicate moment. Mme Menez, shaking the Englishman’s hand, began by remarking on the glory of the morning. She gave him the fish and oysters, for which he thanked her. He said he’d go in and get the money to pay her. She said there was no need; next week would be fine. She thought of taking her leave immediately, but decided that not to remark on the vast harvest of onions laid out on the lawn might seem rude. Knowing that Albert cared for the Englishman’s garden as he did for hers, she said, ‘I see M. Laroche has been busy. What a magnificent crop!’

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but I’m afraid I’ve ruined it.’

‘Really? Surely not. How can that have happened?’

As if immensely relieved to have the opportunity to confess a sin, the Englishman told her.

‘I think I said that we were going to a wedding yesterday afternoon. When we came back from Lorient at lunchtime, Albert was just leaving. He’d been here all morning. He’d put these onions’ — the Englishman waved his hand disconsolately across the thousands of specimens — ‘out on the lawn to dry. He’s been doing that every fine day since he pulled them up; since before we arrived. He was very proud of them. He asked me to take them inside before we went to the wedding, just in case it rained. I forgot. When I came out of the house all dressed up and ready to go, I didn’t want to get my hands and clothes dirty, so I looked at the sky and decided to risk it. It was blazing hot and cloudless at two o’clock. But… you know what happened later.’

Mme Menez nodded sympathetically.

‘It was awful. We went to the wedding in Languidic, then there was the vin d’honneur in the primary school afterwards, then we drove in convoy for about half an hour to a restaurant near Josselin. You know how these meals are. One course follows another. There’s quite a lot of drink. People began to get up and sing. They asked me to sing. I gave them an English folksong. I could see that it was getting dark outside, and just as I finished the song there was thunder and lightning and the lights went out. They brought candles. All the women came up to kiss me — you know how it is when you’ve sung a song people like — and I was smiling and being kissed and thinking about the onions. I sat down feeling miserable, and wondering whether I should go back to save them. But it would have been an hour, there and back, and ten minutes to get them under cover, and people would have been asking where I was. It was too late anyway. When we got home at one o’clock this morning here they all were, sodden. Ruined.’

Mme Menez said, ‘I don’t suppose they’re ruined. Are you really,’ — she suppressed the desire to laugh — ‘are you really drying them with a cloth? Why don’t you let the sun do the work?’

The Englishman said, ‘Albert and his wife often come down on a Sunday afternoon to take a tour of the place, admire his efforts and have coffee with us. He’s going to be devastated when he sees this. The waste of all the work he’s put in since he planted them in March, because of my stupidity. I thought perhaps I could dry them before he comes. I asked my wife if I could borrow her hair dryer, but she wouldn’t let me. It’s no use anyway. They’re soaked to the middle.’

‘I shouldn’t think they are. Onions have a pretty thick skin.’

But there was nothing to be done to ease the Englishman’s remorse. Mme Menez left after a few more unavailing words of comfort, and drove on to have lunch with her cousin. She couldn’t help recounting the tale of the Englishman’s misfortune to Babette. Within a few days, many other people had enjoyed the story too. Naturally, Mme Menez was curious to know how the man who had planted, tended, weeded, watered, harvested, cleaned and dried the onions would have received the news of the calamity that had befallen them, so she made an excuse to drop in on Albert the following day. He was in his garden, thinning a row of lettuces.

After the usual preliminaries, she said, casually, ‘Did you have a good Sunday?’

‘Yes. We went to see the Englishman in the afternoon.’

‘All well there?’

‘Fine. Only he’d done something silly.’

And he told her. By the time he’d finished, they were both laughing immoderately. Albert said, ‘He owned up straight away. The thing that got me was the thought of him standing there in the dark, at one o’clock in the morning, in his Sunday best, staring at the catastrophe. I told him that the onions had been rained on a lot when they were in the ground, so it wouldn’t do them much damage to be rained on once now they were out of the ground. But I don’t think he’ll do that again.’

In the coming months, Mme Menez occasionally asked Albert about the state of his English onions. He was still eating them at Easter of the following year.

The Wrong Bathroom

Madame Menez’s regular Friday tours in the van took her to some secluded corners of rural Brittany. She would turn into lanes which led only to one house or farm, in the knowledge that someone there would be expecting her and would be glad of the opportunity to talk for a few minutes to a visitor from the outside world. Plouzalver hardly represents metropolitan sophistication, except by comparison with a settlement consisting of a house and some cowsheds a kilometre down a road which goes nowhere else.

With all the suffering and wickedness in the world, to which our only response, most often, is one of helpless sorrow, it is a relief to be reminded occasionally that there are areas of life where we can confidently say that humanity has made progress. One of these is our attitude to people in some way disabled in mind. We no longer call them idiots. We lock up fewer of them than we used to. We are slowly coming to understand that a mental limitation or disability, like its physical equivalent, is a matter for regret but not a source of shame; and once the regret has been acknowledged, it is much better to search out what the afflicted person can do, and to encourage her or him in that achievement, than gloomily to dwell on those things which he or she is incapable of achieving.

A couple with this admirable approach to misfortune lived in one of the remoter spots on Mme Menez’s round. Their daughter had been born some thirty years previously with mild brain damage. She had attended special schools, first locally, returning to the isolated farm every evening in a taxi paid for by the commune, and then, in her teenage years, at a school further away, where she boarded during the week, coming home at the weekends and for the school holidays. When her schooling was finished, she settled at home and helped on the farm. Juliette was loving, obliging and a good worker. She had perfectly comprehensible speech, though she spoke slowly and deliberately, with a harsh, nasal note in her voice.

A few farms away — several kilometres by road, much closer across the fields — lived a boy similarly disabled. His name was Arnaud. His and Juliette’s conditions were not exactly alike; that is no matter. The two had attended the same schools. Later they met occasionally by chance, in Plouzalver with their parents on shopping expeditions, or at one or other of the fêtes which attract hundreds of visitors to hamlets in the area on summer Sundays. These events always begin with mass in the local chapel at eleven, followed by drinks and a lunch served by volunteers in a great marquee, followed by entertainments — animations — in the afternoon. From time immemorial, they have been opportunities for meetings of all kinds, including those which will later lead to love and marriage.

Arnaud had a job in the small co-operative which sold seeds and agricultural equipment, and which bought, dried and resold farmers’ grain — wheat and barley in July and August, maize in October. He swept up, stacked shelves and ran errands. He was liked and trusted by his employer.

Insofar as anyone other than their parents thought about the matter, which was not much, this was how things stood with Juliette and Arnaud, and how they would remain. Yes, at some point in the future, when the parents were no longer alive, it might be beyond these two people to live independently, in which case a solution of some kind would present itself, no doubt.

No one expected to see Juliette and Arnaud holding hands in public, like a proper couple, which they began to do in their early thirties. They had been travelling the quiet pathways between their homes for some time. The idea that disabled people have romantic impulses and sexual urges just like the rest of us wasn’t easy for their friends and neighbours to accept, and harder still for the parents, who naturally feared that Juliette would become pregnant. But after a while, when nothing catastrophic had occurred, opinion began to change. Why shouldn’t the pair live like ‘normal’ people? We were at the beginning of the 21st century, not the 19th. Eventually, the same friends and neighbours who had been uneasy about the liaison came to look on it with amused approval. ‘Ils sont courageux, quoi. Bravo pour eux!

Mme Menez followed these developments with sympathetic interest. There was a Friday when Madame Le Fur, Juliette’s mother, told her with nervous pride that Juliette and Arnaud were to be married. The pair had most sensibly told their parents that they didn’t want children (‘It would be too much for us’) and they knew the simplest way to make sure that didn’t happen, because it had been explained and shown to them when they were teenagers at school. But they wanted to be married and to live in the same house.

The two sets of parents found the couple a little one-storey dwelling for rent (most of which would be paid for by the securité sociale), with bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. It had a small garden. It was not too far — two or three kilometres — from the homes where Juliette and Arnaud had spent most of their lives up to now. There was a shop selling food and other basic provisions ten minutes’ walk away.

Mme Menez attended the wedding one Saturday in the mairie in Plouzalver, while Odette looked after the shop. The deputy mayor performed the ceremony graciously enough, and there was applause and confetti outside. The little group walked across to the salle des fêtes for the vin d’honneur. Not being an intimate of the families, Mme Menez didn’t go on to the restaurant for the meal, but she heard from someone she met on the Sunday that everything had gone well, there was a disco after the meal of course, the couple had been escorted to their new home at a late hour, and had departed that day on their honeymoon by train, to La Baule.

La Baule is a seaside resort, once fashionable, still elegant but now somewhat faded, especially out of season. It had been easy for the families to find the couple a room in a boarding house for a week, a few streets back from the seafront, at modest cost. An en suite bathroom would have cost considerably more, and Juliette and Arnaud agreed that it was no great hardship to walk along the corridor to take a bath, as they had always done at home. There would be a washbasin in their bedroom.

The Friday after the wedding, Mme Menez drove up the lane to the Le Fur farm as usual. She wondered if M. and Mme Le Fur had had news of the honeymooning couple, perhaps a card or a telephone call. Naturally, she asked the question when Mme Le Fur came to the door.

She was shocked at the reply. Mme Le Fur was clearly distressed, and would say nothing more than that Juliette was already back home, upstairs in her old bedroom. She had broken a leg. It was in plaster.

Mme Menez knew that she must ask no further questions. The fish was delivered and paid for much more rapidly than usual, with hurried farewells. As she drove away, Mme Menez gave run to her worst thoughts. Surely there had not been some kind of violence between them? Could the reality of sexual contact have triggered resistance in Juliette which had caused Arnaud to lose control, to behave uncharacteristically, unforgivably? Was this a terrible, embarrassing end to a relationship which everyone had wished to see prosper, in spite of private doubts and fears? Mme Menez did so hope not. ‘It must have been an accident,’ she said to herself, aloud. ‘It must.’

It was. The truth took some time to come out, and it was never clear how much of it Juliette had revealed to her mother and how much Arnaud had revealed to his workmates. The latter source was the likelier. Mme Menez heard versions at different places during her Friday trips, and overheard whispered and amused gossip from people queueing in the shop.

The couple had taken their reserved room at La Baule. As expected, it was modestly comfortable, with a good double bed but no bathroom. There were two bathrooms down the corridor, which the residents shared. On their arrival, before going out to look for some dinner, Arnaud went to take a bath. A few minutes later, Juliette followed him in her dressing gown, thinking perhaps that they might share, for the first time, the exquisite pleasure of taking the bath together. She opened the bathroom door — it was unlocked, which was the fatal detail — and through the thick steam saw the figure of the naked man she took to be her husband leaning over the bath, testing the temperature of the water with his hand. She went quietly up to him, slipped her hand between his legs and bounced his testicles on her fingers, giggling naughtily. The man rapidly turned round, and was not her husband. The stranger’s expression of astonishment and indignation met hers of astonishment and shame, and she ran out of the bathroom, along the corridor and down the stairs, in the irrational belief that he was following her. While descending the stairs at too great a speed, she lost her footing, fell, and broke her leg. Her husband, who was in the bath in the bathroom next door to that where the awful encounter had occurred, had to get out in response to the boarding-house manager’s knock, to be told that his wife had suffered an accident. He quickly dried himself and dressed, by which time the ambulance had arrived to take her and him to the hospital. He slept alone in the boarding house for two or three nights while she remained in the hospital. When she was able to travel, they went straight from the hospital to the station, he having checked out of the boarding house first, to spare her the embarrassment of returning there, and made their sorrowful way back to their parents’ homes.

How can an occurrence so very sad also be so very funny? This was a question Mme Menez asked herself often, once she was in possession, more or less, of the full story. And another question: why should people who already bear more than their fair share of life’s burdens, people to whom life has not dealt many high cards, be so cruelly made to suffer further?

There are no answers to these questions, but there is a happy ending to the story. Juliette eventually emerged from her bedroom. Her father drove her to the hospital in Lorient for x-rays on two or three occasions, on the last of which the plaster was removed. Arnaud visited her in her parents’ home every day. After a few weeks, the couple told their parents that they wanted to move back into their house. They did so, the house having been thoroughly cleaned for them first, and there was a little house-warming party.

It was obvious to Mme Menez and to everyone else in the neighbourhood that Juliette and Arnaud were still in love, and that he didn’t seem to mind about her limp.

The Bachelor Farmer

At about the time of Arnaud’s and Juliette’s unfortunately brief honeymoon, Madame Menez was made aware of another person experiencing the harshness of life, but emerging from his worst trials through the unexpected arrival of romantic love and accompanying sexual pleasure.

There are three farms and a dozen houses in the hamlet of Saint Hubert. For many years and several generations, the family Caradec had owned one of the farms. Didier Caradec and his wife Jacqueline were now in their fifties. Theirs was a mixed farm, as most are in Brittany: some barley, wheat and especially maize, and about fifty dairy cows. For thirty years, since Didier’s father had died, the couple had risen from their beds at five in the morning, winter and summer, for the early milking, which finished at about eight o’clock. After breakfast their long working day followed, ending at seven or eight in the evening, after the late milking. It is true that there were sometimes slack periods in the middle of the day, and that, in recent years, the introduction of a system of remplacements meant that they were able to take a week’s holiday at some point in the autumn. But it was still relentlessly hard work, and Jacqueline began to have back problems, probably caused by the repeated action of leaning forward under the cows to attach and detach the milking machines and to apply disinfectant. None of the couple’s children, all now adults, had wished to inherit the farm; they were settled in other careers. Didier and Jacqueline decided to sell up, and to do something less all-consuming for the remainder of their working lives. So they put the farmhouse, the farm buildings and all the stock on the market (though they kept the ownership of their fields, which they would rent to any new occupant of the farmhouse), and after a couple of expressions of interest which came to nothing, a bachelor farmer from the Pas de Calais, in his late thirties, who said that he wanted to live in Brittany because, two or three generations previously, one side of his family had originated from there, bought the place and moved in. For reasons of discretion we shall call him Frédéric.

With the sale price in their hands, and with no debts and no mortgage, Didier and Jacqueline bought a handsome detached house on a nearly new estate on the edge of Plouzalver. Didier, who had witnessed the artificial insemination of thousands of cows over many years, took up that profession. He joined a large firm of inseminators, received a month’s training, was provided with a vehicle and all the necessary equipment, and spent his days travelling around the dairy farms of Brittany as the need arose. The job offered proper holidays and a regular salary. Jacqueline found a part-time job as a receptionist at Plouzalver’s new medical centre, and spent more time on her favourite hobby, which was landscape painting.

Mme Menez had followed these developments with interest. Jacqueline had bought fish from the shop occasionally during the week, and at Saint Hubert had been a faithful customer on the Friday round. Odette reported that she was now equally faithful at the shop on Fridays, while Mme Menez was out in the country.

Frédéric brought with him his elderly father, a widower. The two of them had managed together a smaller, leased farm in the Pas de Calais. Full of enthusiasm for his new venture, Frédéric bought an extra twenty cows, taking the size of his herd to seventy. He and his father worked frantically, every day, for fourteen and more hours a day, to establish themselves in their new property. And then things began to go wrong.

The price of milk tumbled. The general opinion was that the big dairy companies which bought the milk from the farmers were to blame; they were using their power to force on small producers terms of trade ever more advantageous to the buyer, disadvantageous to the seller. Beyond the big diary companies were the supermarkets, where savage price competition on essentials like milk and cheese in its turn maintained downward pressure on the wholesale prices which the dairy companies could negotiate with them. Bottled milk now cost less than bottled water. The trend had started during Didier’s and Jacqueline’s last years at the farm, and was one of their reasons for selling. Perhaps, in these circumstances, Frédéric’s decision to enlarge the herd had been unwise. Then, the spring and early summer of his first full year of ownership were wet and cold. The yields of his cereals, and of those of farmers throughout France, were as much as thirty per cent down on recent previous years. Nor was there any comfort from a rising price because of the smaller supply; both the USA and Russia enjoyed record production years, and the arrival of their grain on the international market kept the price per tonne at no better than average.

These are the ordinary trials and tribulations of agribusiness. Worse was to follow. One of the new cows, expensively bought and then inseminated, died in the field furthest from the farm in trying and failing to deliver a calf. Frédéric was beside himself with rage as he stood over the poor swollen beast, its vulva distended and its legs stuck gracelessly up in the air. He knew what the cow had cost him already; he knew what it would cost to have the animal removed and hygienically destroyed. He blamed himself. He should have paid more attention, brought the cow closer to the farm. But there was so much else to do.

Then, the worst of all. His father rose one morning at five, as usual, and said he didn’t feel well. Frédéric did the milking by himself. Returning to the house, he found his dear father unconscious in an armchair. Distraught, he telephoned for an ambulance, which took half an hour to arrive, making its way up from Lorient in the morning traffic and through the country lanes. His father died on the way to hospital. It had been a heart attack.

The other two farmers in the hamlet, plus Jacqueline, plus Didier when his other work permitted, rallied round and did the milking and other essential jobs for a couple of weeks while Frédéric grieved and made funeral arrangements. The funeral was held in the village in the Pas de Calais from which father and son had come, and the old man was buried there. Frédéric returned to Saint Hubert, to a place which had become a burden, alone. He took on a young assistant. She was reliable, and willing to learn, but it was another expense, the mortgage was remorseless, there was more money going out than coming in, and he wasn’t sure how long he could go on like this.

Soon after Frédéric and his father had arrived, Mme Menez had knocked on the door on a Friday to ask if they were interested in buying fish. The answer was yes, of course, but their custom was irregular. More often than not, they were nowhere to be seen when Mme Menez called, and were out of earshot of the van’s horn. So most of this news she had gathered from neighbours.

A few weeks after Frédéric’s return, and as if he had not suffered enough, he was afflicted with a medical condition which neighbours initially referred to euphemistically as ‘a man’s problem’, but which one better informed person knew to be a twisted testicle. There is nothing funny about this, however much it is natural to smile in casual discussions of the male genitals. Frédéric was in acute pain. He was in hospital for a few days, where a small operation resolved the problem. During this time, others once again helped with the milking. Back at the farm, he resumed work, initially moving more slowly and gingerly than usual.

The hospital had advised that a nurse should attend Frédéric for several weeks after the operation, to see that it had been fully successful and that normal functions in that area had been resumed. The closest available appropriately qualified nurse lived only three kilometres away. She was the obvious choice to make the weekly visits. But she was female. Had Frédéric any objections to being examined by a woman? After everything he had been through, Frédéric had no objections at all.

The ‘better informed person’, Mme Menez’s source for this rather detailed information, was the nurse’s sister, a regular Friday customer. As the weeks passed, Frédéric recovered. The district nurse’s camionnette, with medical equipment neatly stored in the back, was a familiar sight in the hamlets around Plouzalver. Amélie, in her early thirties and single, was a popular figure in the community, as a person who brings relief from pain and distress, or at least provides comfort and consolation, is entitled to be. She was prompt in her regular, half-hour-long visits to Frédéric. It was noticed that, even after the period of his recuperation had finished, the camionnette was often parked outside the farmhouse. She was showing friendship to a solitary man who had had a run of bad luck. Such was her character.

The reader will have guessed how this story ends. After six months or so, the camionnette was nearly always parked outside the farmhouse, rarely outside Amélie’s former dwelling. She had moved in with him. Everyone discreetly smiled and approved, for them both. Frédéric continued to struggle with the ups and downs of the farmer’s life, and to work almost all the time, but the assistant was growing in confidence, which helped, and there were evenings when he and Amélie were seen in the local pizzeria or crêperie, having dinner together and laughing. Mme Menez blushed a little, but allowed herself to smile openly, when one of the neighbouring farmers, buying sardines and red mullet for a family barbecue, offered her the optimistic view that the relationship was bound to prosper because, as he put it, ‘She had had the opportunity, as a professional, to inspect the equipment before making use of it as an amateur.’

The New Shop

The autumn of the year 2000 saw the transformation of Le Moderne from café to fish shop. Through September and October Pierre Tanguy and the other tradesmen stripped out the bar’s ancient furnishings, replaced the windows and the door, pulled up the old floor and put down a new one which was light in colour and easily washable, and installed three sets of spotlights in the ceiling, one of which of course would point down at the fish counter. By agreement with the sisters, the café chairs and tables went to the charity Emmaüs, and Pierre took away the wooden counter. It was of chestnut. Pierre said that despite its great age he could still use pieces of it on small jobs.

François came often, and took a close interest in the work. So far as Pierre and the other artisans were concerned, he was simply a friend of Madame Menez’s who had by mutual agreement taken a minority stake in the business. No further questions were asked. Pierre, whose love affair was thriving, in particular recognised that he had no locus from which to comment on, let alone criticise, a relationship which, for all he knew, might be affording Mme Menez a happiness she had never known. As we know, Pierre’s private speculations on this matter ran far ahead of the facts, but since he never gave voice to them, not even to Marie-Thérèse, the lady in the wholesale timber yard at Nantes who now spent every weekend with him, either at her house or his, the speculations remained private.

François and Mme Menez visited the supplier of fish counters whom François knew, equipped with the measurements of length, breadth, depth and angle of slope which she desired. As François had promised, the price his friend asked for the supply, delivery and installation of the counter was perfectly reasonable. The friend gave detailed instructions for the construction of the wooden base to which the counter would be fixed. Pierre followed these precisely. At the same time, he made the stand for the fruit, vegetables and wine, and the cabinet for the cheese. When the woodwork was complete but before the counter arrived, Albert redecorated the entire property: the shop, the storage room and other facilities at the back, the ladies’ accommodation upstairs and all the outside walls.

One day in early November, the counter was delivered and installed. Mme Menez was in a position, if she wished to, to move her business across the square to the new premises immediately, but she decided to wait. She was a person who liked order, and to remain in the old shop until her tenancy expired on the last day of the year was an ordered approach to the big change in her working life. She would then take a fortnight to organise the transfer of fridges and other movables, and re-open at Le Moderne in mid-January.

One small but most important decision remained to be taken: what would she — that is, she and François — call the new shop? It may be remembered that, at the end of a previous story, she had rejected her first thought, The Seven Seas, because it might remind people of a disrespectful previous name for the café which included the number six. François, she presumed, had never heard Le Moderne referred to as Les Six Fesses. Now that two of those buttocks belonged to François’ mother, Mme Menez felt that any new name bringing the former nickname to mind was even less appropriate.

She and François had several conversations about the matter during the autumn. Once François said, ‘It’s like being new parents trying to name a baby,’ a remark which caused them both to smile and feel slightly embarrassed.

Then the answer came. François invited Mme Menez to lunch with him on his birthday, which fell in early December, conveniently on a Monday, at a restaurant on the coast near Lorient. The day was grey and misty, and a line of three slim upright rocks in the bay was barely visible. Lorient fishermen were taught from boyhood the safe distance at which to sail around the rocks. They regarded them as a boundary marker between calmer inland water and the open sea. Their name was familiar to local people. On this day, visibility was so poor that the flashing light on top of the central rock showed clearly through the mist. François said, ‘You can hardly see Les Trois Soeurs.’ And then he said, ‘That’s it. That’s the name: Les Trois Soeurs.

How could Mme Menez disagree? It was a name whose ‘respectable’ double meaning everyone in Plouzalver would understand; it acknowledged the building’s history and Lorient’s fishing industry. But what about the buttocks problem, and the possibility of a far from respectable triple meaning? ‘Three sisters’ might be just as suggestive of six buttocks as ‘seven seas’ would have been; perhaps more so. Despite her inner concerns, Mme Menez couldn’t deny the beauty of François’ idea. And the ladies would be honoured. Les Trois Soeurs it would be, and those who wished to snigger could do so out of her hearing.

The end of the year approached, and with it increased sales of fish and platters of seafood, especially for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but also for parties and family meals throughout the festive season. Mme Menez’s two cousins, Odette and Babette, came to help with preparing the platters. Odette in particular was an expert in dealing with crabs, a long-winded, fiddly job which Mme Menez was glad to delegate. People were prepared to pay good prices for plateaux de fruits de mer where most of the hard work had been done for them. Having two reliable friends and competent workers in the back room of the shop was a comfort and a support to Mme Menez as she served in the front, greeting, smiling, listening, selecting, offering, weighing, filleting, gutting, scraping, meeting the often rather precise demands of her customers: ‘No, not that piece, the piece behind it; is there one a little bigger, a little smaller?’ Mme Menez worked fast and with great skill. She sharpened her cutting knife before each operation. Fillets had to be free of bones but retain all the flesh. Heavy scissors removed fins. The inedible parts of scallops must be discarded without damage to the creatures’ delicate white and coral-coloured flesh. For those who wanted their sole skinned, she took a dry tea towel and, having made a little incision by the animal’s head, ripped the slippery skin away in one decisive movement. In a small way, she told herself, she was a surgeon, and her operations were conducted before a friendly but critical and knowledgeable public.

Christmas came. Mme Menez spent Christmas Eve with Odette and her family, as usual. On Christmas Day she was alone, also as usual, and she didn’t mind. She went for a long walk by the quiet sea at Fort Bloqué, once again as usual. The tiny waves dropped with barely a murmur onto the beach. Oystercatchers ran in groups on the wet sand. Sometimes the incoming water covered their red feet. They and she had the place to themselves while the rest of France was at lunch.

She thought of the year which had almost passed. It had been the most unusual of her life. A large gift had dropped into her lap, bringing the prospect of prosperity beyond that which she had ever anticipated. She was a landlady with responsibility for three tenants in the last years of their lives. A man she had expected to be an antagonist had become the first new friend she had made in years. She had accidentally uncovered a profound secret and witnessed displays of intense emotion. She had an obligation not to let the secret go beyond those whom it most immediately affected, insofar as it was in her power to prevent that.

With all these changes, she knew that she remained the person she had always been: self-reliant and proud of it, and a little separate from others, even from those of whom she was most fond.

In the days between Christmas and New Year, Mme Menez received an invitation from the three sisters to spend the evening of New Year’s Eve, le réveillon de Saint Sylvestre, in their dining room above what was to be the new shop. They had also invited François. ‘We wish to make it clear, madame,’ said Béatrice, ‘that the evening will be at our expense. We shall of course be asking you to supply some of the provisions for the meal. But we shall insist on paying for them.’ Mme Menez accepted this proposal graciously. François telephoned her at home two days before the event. He said, ‘I was thinking that the first days of January would be a good time for me to visit my father’s grave. I have been doing some research. He is buried in the southern military cemetery in Lille.’ He paused, and then said, ‘Would you come with me? There would be plenty of time after we return for the move to the new shop.’

Mme Menez thought quickly. It was many years since she had accepted an invitation from a man to accompany him anywhere, and she had never travelled so far as Lille. The trip would mean staying in a hotel for at least one night, possibly two. She prevaricated. ‘I usually spend New Year’s Day with one of my cousins. Let me speak to her. I’ll call you back.’ It was an hour before she called back, and during that time she had not spoken to her cousin. But she had made a decision. She said, ‘I would be glad to come with you. And I was thinking… perhaps we could set out on New Year’s Day, after the evening with your mother and aunts. And to save you the double drive to Quimper after midnight and then back here in the morning, you could stay with me (chez moi) overnight. I have a small but comfortable guest bedroom.’

François seemed delighted by this suggestion. He said quickly, ‘I would be honoured to accept. Should I investigate a hotel in or near Lille? Perhaps for two nights? I wouldn’t wish to hurry the visit to the grave.’

‘Of course. And I leave the choice to you.’

‘Very good. I’ll find somewhere suitable, and book two rooms.’

Mme Menez wasn’t absolutely sure that François had needed to specify the number of rooms to be booked quite as firmly as he had, but she appreciated his clarity.

The last day of Mme Menez’s tenure of the old shop arrived. She was up at five, down at the Lorient fish market at six, back in the shop by seven thirty and ready to open at eight thirty, her counter piled high with a more than usually varied and copious display of creatures of the sea: sole, John Dory, turbot, brill, cod, hake, haddock, monkfish, eel, oysters in boxes or loose, mussels, crabs both spider and turtle, scallops, cockles, whelks, langoustines, lobsters, prawns. Odette and Babette were already busy in the back room.

Business was brisk. People came first and foremost because of the forthcoming feast, but also to say goodbye to their fishmonger in her familiar venue and to wish her well in her new venture. A notice on the door announced that, exceptionnellement, the shop would be open sans interruption that day. Mme Menez had always regarded the lunch hour, or hour and a half, as sacrosanct, but she had noticed that more and more shops, including some small concerns like hers, were abandoning that sensible and restorative convention, and although she had no intention of following their example on a regular basis, she had decided that today was sufficiently exceptionnel, for a number of reasons, to justify the breaking of a habit of a lifetime. She was going to close at four, as on a Saturday.

At that hour, as the last of the customers left and she locked the door, turned the Fermé sign outwards and, with Odette’s and Babette’s help, stocked the unsold fish in the fridge and thoroughly washed the premises, she reflected that this farewell was nothing like that of the sisters in the summer. They were saying goodbye for good. She was half their age, and was saying au revoir for a fortnight. In two days’ time, Odette would meet the fish soup man at the back door of the shop, give him the contents of the fridge, and return the keys to the landlord, who was relaxed about Mme Menez taking a little time to remove her equipment. The day after that, she would be back from Lille and then… onward! So she was light of heart as she kissed her cousins goodbye, wishing them ‘Bonne fin d’année’, and took the sisters’ special Saint Sylvestre orders across the square.

At home two hours later, after a bath, she looked critically into her wardrobe. She inspected it more closely and with greater dissatisfaction than she had done for many years. She had half a dozen dresses for evening wear, any of which would do, but none of which now gave her pleasure. They had all been bought in the Plouzalver ladies’ outfitter run by a woman who had been in her class at school thirty years ago. The range on offer there was of good quality, but perhaps limited in style and perhaps, as she now realised, dull. Why hadn’t she made the time in the last few weeks to go further afield and find something a bit more adventurous, more attractive? No, not attractive — she rejected the word — but more appropriate to the gaiety of the season. And why was she standing here in her dressing gown getting unnecessarily cross when all she had to do was to take her most recent purchase off the hanger and put it on? Which is what she did.

The same feeling overtook her as she sat at her dressing table and applied a little discreet make-up. There were bolder colours of lipstick, she knew. But unsubtle. And the short hairstyle she had stuck with for twenty years, so practical, so easy to wash, the hairstyle chosen by most ladies of her age in Plouzalver, now looked terribly obvious, unimaginative, un… attractive. That word again. But there was nothing to be done about it now. Make the best of it. Which is what she did.

The evening in the ladies’ dining room was a great success. She and François arrived within a few minutes of each other, at about eight o’clock. There was champagne, which Béatrice produced from the little fridge in the kitchen and asked François to open, which he did with pleasure. Béatrice proposed a toast: ‘To our new-found nephew and son.’ As each pair of glasses was clinked, the two people clinking acknowledged their relation to each other: ‘Chère tante.’ ‘Cher neveu.’ When François clinked glasses with his mother, they were both briefly, silently moved, and their eyes were wet. It was a relief for François to turn to Mme Menez and say, laughing, ‘Chère collègue.’ To which she replied, ‘Cher François.’ Thus encouraged, he took a second bite at the cherry, and returned, ‘Chère Sylvie.’ From then on, and before witnesses, they were on first-name terms.

After that there was foie gras, and coquilles Saint Jacques, and fillets of turbot, and rare roast beef with potatoes, and cheeses with a green salad, and a fruit salad, and coffee with chocolates. There were four wines, including the champagne, though the sisters drank very little. It was a happy occasion, and at midnight everyone stood up and kissed everyone else, saying, ‘Bonne année, et bonne santé surtout!’ It had been, as Mme Menez had reflected on Christmas Day, an extraordinary year for all of them.

At about one o’clock, François and Mme Menez took their leave. Jocelyne of course knew their destination of the following day. All she said to her son was, ‘I should like to see a photograph.’ François said, ‘You shall.’

At Mme Menez’s house, she showed François his room. He thanked her, and said he would be most comfortable. She asked whether he would like another coffee before bed, or perhaps a small brandy. He declined both, with more thanks. They agreed that they had an early start in the morning.

New Year’s Day was bright and cold. They were on the road not particularly early, despite their resolutions of the previous night, having risen at eight, which was rather late for both of them. Mme Menez had shown François the whole of her house and garden, which of course he had admired. It was an eight-hour drive to Lille, with a stop for lunch at a place which François said he knew (in fact he had researched it; he had never been there) just after Caen. It was only ten minutes off the autoroute, he said, and so much nicer than those service stations, particularly on a special day like New Year’s Day. Mme Menez agreed. She enjoyed the fact that François had put thought into the planning of the trip. This was an unusual pleasure for her.

The lunch went well enough, if — for the first time in their friendship — a little awkwardly. Somehow, the fact that they were two people going away together, going a great distance from their familiar places, made them seem stranger to each other than they had been when closer to home. The journey did indeed represent some kind of… not exactly commitment; but certainly both had a sense of adventure, of trying something new. They sat at a table in the corner of the restaurant, by the window, looking out over the car park and beyond to a field planted with winter wheat. As often when people are not completely as ease, the conversation dwelt on details in which neither speaker nor listener was quite as interested as he or she made to appear. Mme Menez didn’t need to list so exhaustively the quantities and kinds of fish she’d sold the previous day; François was perhaps a little pedantic in recounting the number of telephone calls he’d made to hotels near Lille before finding one which had adjoining rooms available at this busy season, at reasonable cost. Perhaps, they each thought inwardly, they had seemed to the other over-concerned with money? They were both relieved to be back in the car, with scenery racing by, and without such a pressing need to find things to say.

They arrived at the hotel, in a village south of Lille, two hours after dark, and were shown to their rooms. François asked whether Mme Menez could eat a light supper. He could, he ventured to say. She was about to say no thank you, that she would go to bed and read, when she changed her mind and agreed that a plate of onion soup, or something of the kind, would be nice. It would be a shame for him to eat alone. François laughed and was pleased. She had thought about his feelings.

The supper was much more relaxed than the lunch had been. Conversation came naturally, and they found a topic which lent itself to narrative: reminiscences of Christmases and New Years past. François recalled the excitement of staying up late on Christmas Eve in Quimper, of walking to Midnight Mass through the quiet streets under the stars, of admiring the crèche in the church as a little boy, and then the honour of being invited by the priest, when he was old enough, to participate in its construction every December. Sylvie (I shall call her Sylvie from now on) spoke of her parents for the first time to François and, she realised, for the first time for a long time to anyone. They had had a small farm about five kilometres north of Plouzalver, with poultry and a few cattle, and on Christmas morning it had seemed particularly pleasurable, somehow special, to be collecting the hens’ and ducks’ eggs early, as she always did. Why do routine tasks take on extra significance, stop being routine, on special days? Perhaps because on Christmas Day her mother gave her the choice of a duck’s or a hen’s egg — one that she had gathered — to eat with her breakfast, rather than, as usual, saving them for the Plouzalver market on the next Monday.

And then they talked more about their parents (in François’ case, his adoptive parents): what they were like, what they had done in their lives, when they had died. The onion soup, the apple tart, the coffee and a whole bottle of Beaujolais were long finished before the conversation flagged. François said that he knew where the cemetery was: a 15-minute drive. Should they meet for breakfast at about eight? Sylvie agreed. A quick turn round the village square before bed? Thank you, no, said Sylvie; it had been a long drive, and François must be tired himself. Yes, he said. Perhaps he was.

As they climbed the stairs to the first floor, both knew what was coming; a choice had to be made. There was no question, in either of their minds, of sharing a bed. That was not the choice. The choice was over the goodnight kiss. Four on the cheeks (traditional Breton style), two on the cheeks (Parisian style, but now more and more adopted throughout France, especially by the young, modern not as in Le Moderne, economical of time and gesture), or something else? When they came to the doors of their adjacent rooms, and faced each other, neither had consciously made the choice. But when they looked at each other, and a faint, nervous smile came to his mouth, and a faint, nervous flush came to her cheeks, there was only one choice to be made.

The Cemetery, and After

At breakfast the following morning, both knew that a new world had opened. Certainly, it was a world that could be closed again; all that had happened in the corridor outside their bedrooms the previous night was a full, romantic, willing kiss, before a hurried ‘Bonne nuit’ and departure to separate rooms. But to close the new world would require a deliberate act of withdrawal on one or both of their parts; and neither wanted that. Both wanted to inhabit the new world, but were uncertain quite how to do so, quite how to be in their new relation to each other.

So breakfast was quiet, and soon finished, and they went to the cemetery.

The southern military cemetery is in a suburb of Lille. A high stone wall surrounds it. Inside are several hundred graves, containing some of the dead of two world wars. The white gravestones are arranged in pairs of lines, back to back, set in a band of exposed earth where roses and other flowers are planted. Most are engraved with a cross beneath the inscription; a few with the Star of David.

There was no guide in the little office at the entrance that morning, so François and Sylvie steadily walked up and down the lawns between the lines, reading. It was half an hour before they found what they were looking for:

1ère division légère mécanique
Mort pour la France le 18.5.1940

Neither said anything. They stood together, and after a few minutes Sylvie put her arm through François’. The small gesture caused him to weep, silently, in a never-before-encountered conflict — or perhaps simply mixture — of feelings: partly shock at confronting the fact that the remains of the man responsible for his existence lay a couple of metres below them; partly gratitude that, in the most unlikely of circumstances, a woman whom he was coming to love had touched him at this rare, significant moment. People can be as close when facing in the same direction as when facing each other. So it was.

After many minutes, he turned to her, and said, ‘Thank you. Shall we go?’ She nodded. They were halfway towards the cemetery entrance when he said, ‘The photograph!’ They turned round and went back. François pulled the little camera from his bag and took a dozen photographs of the grave, and then a few general views of the cemetery. They left for the second time. At the entrance, Sylvie said, ‘I expect you’d like a coffee.’ ‘I would,’ he said. ‘Let’s go and find a place.’

They spent the rest of the day in the centre of Lille. They were both unused to big cities, though they had visited Paris and Nantes once or twice, and François had travelled more widely during his national service. After their coffee, they wandered at will around the city centre, admired the new international railway station, and were pleased to find the old part of the city, where they lunched. This time there was none of the hesitation of the previous day. Topics of conversation seemed to suggest themselves, helter-skelter, the one leading to the next by some chance connection before the first had been exhausted. They poured out stories. François described some of his national-service experiences: the time he had stood in line in an aeroplane, waiting to jump out somewhere over Dakar, terrified, praying that his parachute would open; the dangerous months in Algeria, two years after De Gaulle took over, before the ceasefire, when death was everywhere. Sylvie had been a little girl then. Her first awareness of the world outside the farm and the village, she recalled, came as she watched her parents listening to the radio, shaking their heads, and then tried to understand what they meant, talking quietly over supper about that war. Her father had been a communist; he knew where he stood on independence for Algeria. Her mother deferred to her father, but changed the subject when he became too political.

So they talked, and then walked some more. They visited a museum. On the way back to the car, they passed a clothes shop, and stopped. François said, ‘I should like to buy you something.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Sylvie, ‘there’s no need. You have been so kind already.’ But in they went, and she was persuaded to accept an expensive silk scarf, something far more luxurious, far less necessary, than she would ever have bought for herself. They left the shop laughing. ‘There was no need,’ she said. ‘Il ne fallait pas. But thank you.’ And they stopped in the street and kissed for a second time, in full view of passing shoppers, who of course paid them no heed.

The restaurant in their hotel was more like a private dining room: six tables only, of varying sizes. There was an open fireplace, with a wood fire burning, on which grills could be cooked for those who chose them. Those of us fortunate enough to have been in love in youth, and to have dined with our loved one in old-fashioned French dining rooms, taking pleasure in the ceremony of it, enjoying the choosing of dishes, the choosing of wines, the sharing of tastes of each other’s food, the smiling, formulaic good wishes of the waiter — ‘Bonne dégustation, bon appétit, bonne continuation’ — as he or she guides us through each stage of the experience, while holding in the back of our minds the expectation of other pleasures later in the evening, will take those happy memories to our graves. So it was for François and Sylvie, except, of course, that they were, to use the quaint old phrase, ‘no longer young’. Their pleasure was more intense, more grateful than that of the young, since the young tend to take such things as their right; at the same time it was more apprehensive, since adult bodies don’t remain completely lovely for long, and a possible coming together later in the evening — still only possible, as they each said inwardly — would require humour and tolerance as well as desire. Fortunately, there was by this time no doubt as to the presence of the last quality, on either side.

So they tasted, and ate, and drank, and continued, and had a dessert, and coffee, and François had a digestif (surely not for courage). They made their way up the stairs hand in hand this time, the informality of their touch a joyful denial of their years, and when they arrived at the same spot as the night before, Sylvie had no hesitation in saying to her friend, ‘Will you come in?’


An English novelist has remarked that it’s easy to be in love when on holiday. A French poet, in describing an old man’s failing sexual powers, has referred by contrast to young men’s ‘triumphant mornings’ (‘des matins triomphants’). The next morning, as François and Sylvie lay side by side in her bed (conveniently, all the rooms in the hotel had recently been equipped with double beds), they would have agreed with the novelist and disputed with the poet. Their lovemaking had indeed been easy. Neither was a virgin, but in both cases it had been many years since their last, brief, less than satisfactory sexual encounters. This time there had been wonderment and gratitude and, of course, simple pleasure, the more so since one of the benefits of being ‘no longer young’ is that we know not to rush at things. The success of the night was repeated, in even more leisurely style, in the morning, and François’ sense of triumph was nothing to do with conquest, everything to do with relief that, after years in which arousal had occurred only at long intervals, he had been effortlessly capable of it twice within a few hours.

The novelist’s remark carries an implicit but clear warning, to which François and Sylvie began to turn their attention as they drove back to Plouzalver. How soon would they tell the sisters that their relationship had gone beyond friendship and professional association? How would they arrange to see each other during their working weeks, at their weekends? Being the conventional people that they were, both privately thought about the possibility of announcing a formal engagement, before dismissing the idea as premature. Perhaps it was a symbol of their sense of impending normality that on this return journey they lunched unglamorously at a service station on the autoroute.

They arrived at Sylvie’s house in the twilight. She said, ‘Would you like to stay?’ He said, ‘I’d love to. You know I’d love to. But I have to be at work tomorrow morning early. Perhaps I’d better get back.’ Then he looked across at her in the car and saw her face and said, ‘I must be mad. Of course I’ll stay.’ He looked at her face again. It had changed. ‘Only…’ he added, ‘without meaning to presume, perhaps not in the guest room this time?’ She said, ‘We won’t be needing the guest room from now on.’ That exchange, at once humorous and charged with feeling, was proof positive that now, unambiguously, they were amoureux.

Opening Time

The days following Sylvie’s and François’ return to Plouzalver were busy. Fridges, storage boxes and other equipment were moved from the old shop to the new. François rented a van for the purpose during his first two-day break after resuming his work in Quimper. Pierre and Albert came to help with the lifting. Sylvie visited a sign-writer in Hennebont and commissioned him to paint the words ‘Les Trois Soeurs’ on the panel over the door of the shop. Before the artist’s arrival, Albert prepared the ground by stripping off the old paintwork. A twinge of sadness passed through him as he applied his blowtorch to the faded letters ‘Le Moderne’, which he had known all his life. Sylvie asked the sign-writer to use the same art deco style of lettering for the new name.

Les Trois Soeurs would open for business on the third Tuesday morning of January. Meanwhile, there were new delivery arrangements to be made with wholesalers. Fruit, vegetables and wine would continue to be supplied from the trusted sources Sylvie had always used, of course, although — as advised by François — she expanded the wine order, including a few reds to accompany cheese. Cheese was a departure, and after visiting various affineurs, again in consultation with François, she established a business relationship with Monsieur Martin, who had a shop in Lorient and who toured several markets in the area.

The reader may remember that in the course of François’ first meeting with Sylvie he had said that he intended to retire from his position at Leclerc the following year. Since the tumultuous changes in his personal life, he was looking forward more impatiently to that event, expected on the last day of June of this New Year. Now he was spending some nights alone in Quimper, rather more with Sylvie in Plouzalver, and burning a lot of petrol driving back and forth. No doubt, he said to himself, it was these extra journeys which made him feel more tired than usual.

One evening in the second week of January, Sylvie and François climbed the stairs above the new shop to take coffee with the sisters. François’s camera was pre-digital. The photographs he had taken in the cemetery had had to be developed and printed, and only after some difficulty had he found a little shop in Quimper which still offered this service.

The sisters were naturally keen to know how the trip had gone, and Sylvie and François described the journeys there and back, the comfort and cleanliness of the hotel, the details of all the meals they had eaten, their impressions of Lille, and — last of all — their visit to the cemetery. François took from his pocket an envelope containing the photographs, and laid them on the table facing the ladies. There was silence as, one by one, they picked them up and examined them closely, passing them round until all three had seen them all. Jocelyne took the longest time to examine the images of the simple, dignified memorial to the man with whom she had been united once only, one warm night in an August long ago, and who had lived for such a short time thereafter. She wept quietly, holding the photograph away from her in her right hand while she wiped her eyes with the handkerchief in her left, until François walked around the table and kissed her forehead.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Keep the photographs,’ he said. ‘I have duplicates. And…’ he looked meaningfully at Sylvie before returning his gaze to his mother and his aunts, ‘… we have something to tell you. We should like you to be the first to know that Sylvie and I have become… how shall I put this?... more than friends.’ And he took Sylvie’s hand, as if in proof of the fact.

The old ladies leapt to their feet in a simultaneous movement of sprightly joy that belied their years.

‘We wondered, we were so hoping, we didn’t like to say, to presume…’ the three of them cried, their voices overlapping as they moved to embrace François and Sylvie: intense, tender embraces, in which awkwardness, a lifetime’s training in formality and restraint, battled against and faltered in the face of the imperative of love.


On the third Tuesday of January, Sylvie rose at five, was at the Lorient fish market by six, had made her purchases there by seven-thirty and was stocking the counter on the crushed ice in her new shop soon after eight. At eight-thirty she opened the new front door of Les Trois Soeurs for business for the first time. Her first customer was Béatrice, the eldest of the sisters, who with characteristic propriety entered by the new front door, having descended the stairs from the apartment above and walked out into the street through the yard, even though there was a quicker route through the back of the shop which would not have required her to go outside.

‘Good morning, Sylvie,’ she said, smiling, and producing her purse from her shopping bag. ‘Since it is Tuesday, would you have three nice fillets of ling?’