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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.