Skip to main content

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.