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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.