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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.