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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?’