Reunion

Jocelyne Guillemot returned her son’s gaze. The room was silent; all five people remained motionless. Eventually Béatrice, the eldest sister, looked at Jocelyne and made a quick sideways movement of her head from left to right. This was half permission, half instruction. It meant, ‘Respond.’ Jocelyne rose from the bench and walked around the side of the counter. She came to François and looked up at him. As we have heard, he was only of medium height; but she was small. She extended her two hands and took his right hand between them. She said, ‘My son.’

François’ voice was unsteady and his eyes were wet. He said, ‘I have taken a minority stake in Mme Granic’s business. I… I have some knowledge of her profession. We thought that we could be of benefit to each other. But I shan’t be here all the time. I shall be a sort of sleeping partner who wakes up occasionally when he can be helpful.’ This attempt at humour finally undid him, and he wept openly, clutching his mother’s head to his chest. After a decent interval Béatrice and Josette went to him. He gently disconnected himself from Jocelyne, and embraced his aunts one after the other, with four kisses each.

Mme Granic, who of course was as moved by this scene as were the other participants, eventually trusted herself to say, ‘I shall leave the family together. You have a great deal to talk about. I’ll be here with the fish tomorrow as usual.’

Béatrice said, ‘Madame, we are for ever in your debt. This gift to Jocelyne, to all three of us, is wonderful.’
‘As was your gift to me, mesdames,’ said Mme Granic. ‘But your gift was made out of pure generosity. Mine came about by chance.’
‘Or through the wide circulation of Ouest France,’ said François, and everyone laughed.

**********

Mme Granic and François had agreed over their lunch in Quimper that he would take a 20% stake in her business, in exchange for waiving his rights to the immediate inheritance of one sixth of the value of the freehold property containing Le Moderne. (Mme Granic had already agreed in earlier conversations with Maîtres Grosset that the café business had no ongoing value, so tiny was its turnover.) She had insisted on offering François a one-fifth rather than a one-sixth share; she felt that this gesture would show her good will towards him, and might in some small, inadequate way compensate him for the period of doubt and distress he had suffered between reading the notice in the newspaper and meeting her, a period which must, furthermore, have resurrected difficult memories about the complexities of his past.

Formality is the prime characteristic of traditional French manners and of French institutions, notably the law. Consequently it took two long meetings with Maître Luc Grosset for Mme Granic and M. Duval to put their business relationship on a legal footing. François had to sign various documents confirming that he had never been bankrupt, never been mentally ill and never been convicted of a crime, as Mme Granic had had to do previously. Maître Luc was the soul of professional discretion, but he would not have been human, as he filed the papers in the firm’s vault, not to have wondered how Mme Granic had come into contact with M. Duval. The Guillemot-Granic inheritance was one surprise after another. She had simply told him that she had met M. Duval at ‘a business event’ in Quimper, and had decided that his expertise in large-scale retailing would be of value to her in her efforts to maintain the profitability of her small enterprise in the face of competition from les grandes surfaces.

After the meetings with the lawyer, when she was alone, Mme Granic interrogated her conscience and decided that she had behaved perfectly honestly. ‘A business event’ was perhaps a slightly strained description of the meeting in the offices of Maîtres Forestier, but some business had after all been done there, and the occasion had certainly been an event. Suppose the full truth came out, perhaps during the course of gossip at some convention of Breton notaires? Or suppose that one of the Mmes Guillemot was unable to restrain herself from imparting to an acquaintance in Plouay the joyous news of the mother-and-son reunion, after which the information would be all over the town in half an hour? Mme Granic’s instinct was that the second of these suppositions was less likely than the first. But Jocelyne and François might be standing together in the street one day, he might call her mother, someone might overhear… No, she decided, however the news came out, if it did come out, nothing would invalidate the propriety of François’ participation in her business. Let them talk. Let them even think… she blushed. Let them even think that her and François’ relationship went beyond the merely commercial. Foolishness. He was at least fifteen years older than her, and he wasn’t her type. Very few men had been. She hadn’t asked him what his personal circumstances were. Such a question would have been excessively forward.

**********

The summer passed. Traffic in Plouay became heavier, as it always does in July and August. There were more British and Dutch and German number plates. Le quinze août came and went. On the sixteenth of August the sisters placed a modest notice on the door of Le Moderne, underneath the Ouvert/Fermé sign which had been supplied by a representative of Dubonnet in 1946, saying that the establishment would, after 77 years of serving the people of Plouay and the surrounding region, close definitively after business on Monday 28 August (the last night of les fêtes de Plouay). Mmes Guillemot thanked their clients for their fidelity over the years.

As we have seen, the closure of Le Moderne had been known about for some time, but now that a date was announced — a date only twelve days distant from the posting of the notice — the imminence of the bar’s demise spurred local drinkers, most of whom hadn’t darkened its doors for years, to visit it one last time. Half a dozen of the confirmed alcoholics in the town, who would begin on red wine at ten o’clock in the morning, moving quietly from bar to bar in a fixed itinerary, but who had long ago been made unwelcome at Le Moderne, the sisters making clear their disapproval of such dependency, re-appeared ‘at the death’, as they said to each other but not in the sisters’ hearing, and were accepted for old time’s sake. One of these ne’er-do-wells remarked in a whisper to his friend, ‘Ah! Les fesses cessent,’ and thought himself very witty. Meanwhile, the proprietors were more than usually active. As Béatrice said, ‘I had to get to 90 to remember what work is.’

During the week before les fêtes de Plouay, the fair arrived to set up as usual. The parking places in the squares by the church and behind the mairie were taken over by gaudy roundabouts, shooting galleries offering prizes such as fake silver cups, bottles of cheap fizz and enormous teddy bears, and stalls ready to sell nougat and candy floss. Throughout the week, camping cars in their hundreds appeared from all over France, and took their places on the huge tarmacked areas around the start and finish point for the bicycle races. The circus (a separate concern from the fair) established itself in a field on the edge of the town. On the Friday afternoon a lorry hauling a trailer on which was a cage containing two somnolent lions made its slow way around the central streets and the more populous housing estates, its driver announcing through a loud speaker attached to the top of the cab ‘an extraordinary spectacle of savagery and glamour, for four nights only at vingt heures trente, on the Route de Kernascléden, five minutes’ walk from the town centre, not to be missed’. Older Plouay residents went to the pharmacie to buy ear plugs to enable them to sleep, for they knew that very loud and totally un-French music would be played for those four nights until two or three in the morning. And on the Friday evening, the fun began.

Apart from the bicycle races, there is nothing unusual about les fêtes de Plouay. Similar celebrations take place in small towns throughout France. But the town’s residents, and in particular the members of the organising committee for les fêtes, are rightly proud that the Grand Prix de Plouay, held on the Monday as the climax to the long weekend, is the third most important bicycle race in the country, after the Tour de France and the Paris-Roubaix. It has taken place every year since 1931, apart from an interruption for the war. And the women’s race, introduced only in 1999 and held on the day before the men’s, was immediately popular on its debut. The bicycle race (now races) brings some 200,000 visitors to a town of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. This explains the brisk business that Plouay’s commerces do every year near the end of August.

**********

To say that Le Moderne was packed on its final night would be to exaggerate. But there was a continuous throughput of customers, with perhaps a dozen on the premises at any one time. Mme Granic part-drove, part-walked into town early in the evening to wish the sisters well on this locally historic and poignant occasion. When she arrived, she found that François had had the same idea. He had driven over from Quimper.

‘Did you manage to park?’ she asked as he brought her a muscat.
‘I was lucky. Someone was leaving and I took their bit of grass verge.’
‘Have you been coming often since… that day?’
In fact she knew the answer to the question, because the sisters had told her. Le Moderne’s weekly closing day was Sunday (except the Sunday of les fêtes). Mmes Guillemot attended mass at 10.30 and were home again before noon. This suited François well. Leclerc was closed on Sundays, as are all grandes surfaces in France, so he was free to come to lunch with his mother and aunts in the little dining room upstairs. The sisters’ regular Saturday fish order (skate) had recently been enhanced by requests for four small sole or a spider crab or mussels to have before the roast. The ladies were pushing the boat out.
After François had confirmed what Mme Granic already knew, she felt it appropriate at last to ask, ‘May I enquire whether you are married?’
‘I am not,’ he said. ‘That happiness has not come my way. And you?’
Mme Granic hadn’t quite been prepared to answer immediately the identical question to that she had put, although later she had to concede to herself that François’ response was perfectly reasonable. A little flustered, she merely said, ‘My situation is the same.’ Then, with the tiniest amount of extra force in her voice, ‘And I am quite content with it.’
François smiled and changed the subject. ‘Have you thought about a supplier of the new equipment for this room?’
Mme Granic had, of course. It turned out that the supplier she had in mind was the same as that which Leclerc used in their stores in Finistère and the Morbihan, which was not surprising. The design, provision and fitting of bespoke fish counters is a specialist business. François said he knew the boss of the supply firm personally, and was sure he could get an excellent deal from him. The two agreed that François would make the initial contact with the man, and arrange a site visit in a fortnight’s time. It would take a few days to clear out the furniture, equipment and unsold stock in the bar. Pierre would then come in to dismantle the counter and begin the agreed refurbishments.

They went to say goodbye to the sisters, who for once were standing, not sitting, behind the doomed counter. They embraced them and congratulated them on their lifetime’s work. Jocelyne said to François, ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t entertain you yesterday. It’s the only Sunday of the year when we open. Will you come to lunch next Sunday?’ François said he would, with pleasure, and they left. Outside the café, they shook hands and parted. They both had early starts in the morning: hers even earlier than his.

At 11.30 Béatrice went to the door of the café and changed the sign from Ouvert to Fermé. Before midnight the last of the drinkers departed, making their way either to the school playing field where a firework display would mark the official conclusion of the festivities, or to other bars which stayed open later. The sisters washed up the cups and glasses, turned the chairs upside down on the tables and swept the floor, as they had done on countless thousands of nights stretching back over decades during which the world had changed unrecognisably, and they hadn’t. They locked the street door, checked that the back door leading to the yard was already locked, turned the lights out, climbed the stairs and went to their rooms.

The following morning they rose, washed and breakfasted at the usual time.

**********

The reader may be puzzled or dissatisfied at the way in which the extraordinary meeting which ended the previous story and began this one seems to have been incorporated so easily into the routine lives of those affected. After that extraordinary meeting, we descend abruptly to the banal: an unmarried son visits his mother and aunts for lunch on a Sunday. Surely a fuller, a more fulsome description of the reunion could have been offered. What joyful words must have been exchanged! What urgent requests must have been made for information about lives lived in the great gap of time since mother and son had been parted! What further tears shed in the telling! The reader may chide the writer for the lack of these particulars, or wonder whether his talent was in fact unequal to the task of providing them.

It is not for a writer to offer any protestation concerning his talent. That is other people’s business. But I will just say that events took place as I have described them, and offer only the following defence for my plain, some might say meagre, description of them.

A trait of character which unites all the actors in this story is that of restraint. Restraint is not the same thing as repression. Furthermore, Mmes Guillemot, Mme Granic, François Duval (and indeed Pierre Grandvalet and Albert Laroche) are all people for whom the continuation of the regularities of life is a given, a kind of ground bass offering an essential structure to the music of existence. Mmes Guillemots’ obligation to serve refreshment courteously for four years to hated, uniformed invaders; Pierre’s bereavement and his subsequent love affair, half a century later; even the day, a few years before the happenings described here, when the Tour de France flashed through Plouay late one July morning, preceded by police cars and motor bikes with lights flashing and sirens wailing, causing the shops and bars and restaurants to empty of customers and proprietors for that brief moment of wonder, joy and pride; and now the coming together of two people forced apart in 1939 by the attitudes of another age: these rarest of descants over the music of existence were sooner or later (usually sooner) absorbed, incorporated into the ordinary, the quotidian. The Germans vanished and the Americans came, with their cigarettes and chewing gum and sweets for the children; then they vanished too. Habitual pre-war customers returned to their seats at Le Moderne. Pierre’s word, having been broken once only, resumed its utter reliability. The chef at Le Relais du Marquis, who watched the cyclists on the Tour passing like a flock of exotic migrating birds, then hurried back to his kitchen, anxious that the red wine sauce had perhaps overcooked. And François, who would not be ashamed to weep again should tears come to him, told the story of his life to his mother and his aunts in successive episodes each summer Sunday in the little dining room above the café. It is true that water stood in his and in Jocelyne’s eyes when she described her furtive visits to Quimper to catch a glimpse of him leaving his house and his school; then he stretched out his hand to her across the table. It is true that powerful feelings were aroused in both of them when, on his third or fourth visit, he asked her, ‘Who was my father?’

Jocelyne had been expecting to hear the question one day. It was nevertheless a shock when it was spoken; yet she was calm as she replied.
‘His name was Robert Henriot. He lived on a farm near Guilligomarc’h. He had four brothers and two sisters. He came into the bar more often than he needed to. He had blue eyes and curly hair and a nice smile. That night wasn’t the first time he had asked me out, but it was the first time I said yes.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He had already performed his national service, but he was conscripted again, of course, and sent to the north. He was killed near Lille in the year after you were born, a few weeks before Paris fell. He is buried up there. No-one apart from us’ — she looked at her sisters — ‘knew who your father was. Béatrice brought the newspaper to me.’
Mother and son now wept for the second time, properly and quietly, as the food grew cold on their plates. François said, ‘I shall visit him.’