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The New Shop

The autumn of the year 2000 saw the transformation of Le Moderne from café to fish shop. Through September and October Pierre Tanguy and the other tradesmen stripped out the bar’s ancient furnishings, replaced the windows and the door, pulled up the old floor and put down a new one which was light in colour and easily washable, and installed three sets of spotlights in the ceiling, one of which of course would point down at the fish counter. By agreement with the sisters, the café chairs and tables went to the charity Emmaüs, and Pierre took away the wooden counter. It was of chestnut. Pierre said that despite its great age he could still use pieces of it on small jobs.

François came often, and took a close interest in the work. So far as Pierre and the other artisans were concerned, he was simply a friend of Madame Menez’s who had by mutual agreement taken a minority stake in the business. No further questions were asked. Pierre, whose love affair was thriving, in particular recognised that he had no locus from which to comment on, let alone criticise, a relationship which, for all he knew, might be affording Mme Menez a happiness she had never known. As we know, Pierre’s private speculations on this matter ran far ahead of the facts, but since he never gave voice to them, not even to Marie-Thérèse, the lady in the wholesale timber yard at Nantes who now spent every weekend with him, either at her house or his, the speculations remained private.

François and Mme Menez visited the supplier of fish counters whom François knew, equipped with the measurements of length, breadth, depth and angle of slope which she desired. As François had promised, the price his friend asked for the supply, delivery and installation of the counter was perfectly reasonable. The friend gave detailed instructions for the construction of the wooden base to which the counter would be fixed. Pierre followed these precisely. At the same time, he made the stand for the fruit, vegetables and wine, and the cabinet for the cheese. When the woodwork was complete but before the counter arrived, Albert redecorated the entire property: the shop, the storage room and other facilities at the back, the ladies’ accommodation upstairs and all the outside walls.

One day in early November, the counter was delivered and installed. Mme Menez was in a position, if she wished to, to move her business across the square to the new premises immediately, but she decided to wait. She was a person who liked order, and to remain in the old shop until her tenancy expired on the last day of the year was an ordered approach to the big change in her working life. She would then take a fortnight to organise the transfer of fridges and other movables, and re-open at Le Moderne in mid-January.

One small but most important decision remained to be taken: what would she — that is, she and François — call the new shop? It may be remembered that, at the end of a previous story, she had rejected her first thought, The Seven Seas, because it might remind people of a disrespectful previous name for the café which included the number six. François, she presumed, had never heard Le Moderne referred to as Les Six Fesses. Now that two of those buttocks belonged to François’ mother, Mme Menez felt that any new name bringing the former nickname to mind was even less appropriate.

She and François had several conversations about the matter during the autumn. Once François said, ‘It’s like being new parents trying to name a baby,’ a remark which caused them both to smile and feel slightly embarrassed.

Then the answer came. François invited Mme Menez to lunch with him on his birthday, which fell in early December, conveniently on a Monday, at a restaurant on the coast near Lorient. The day was grey and misty, and a line of three slim upright rocks in the bay was barely visible. Lorient fishermen were taught from boyhood the safe distance at which to sail around the rocks. They regarded them as a boundary marker between calmer inland water and the open sea. Their name was familiar to local people. On this day, visibility was so poor that the flashing light on top of the central rock showed clearly through the mist. François said, ‘You can hardly see Les Trois Soeurs.’ And then he said, ‘That’s it. That’s the name: Les Trois Soeurs.

How could Mme Menez disagree? It was a name whose ‘respectable’ double meaning everyone in Plouzalver would understand; it acknowledged the building’s history and Lorient’s fishing industry. But what about the buttocks problem, and the possibility of a far from respectable triple meaning? ‘Three sisters’ might be just as suggestive of six buttocks as ‘seven seas’ would have been; perhaps more so. Despite her inner concerns, Mme Menez couldn’t deny the beauty of François’ idea. And the ladies would be honoured. Les Trois Soeurs it would be, and those who wished to snigger could do so out of her hearing.

The end of the year approached, and with it increased sales of fish and platters of seafood, especially for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but also for parties and family meals throughout the festive season. Mme Menez’s two cousins, Odette and Babette, came to help with preparing the platters. Odette in particular was an expert in dealing with crabs, a long-winded, fiddly job which Mme Menez was glad to delegate. People were prepared to pay good prices for plateaux de fruits de mer where most of the hard work had been done for them. Having two reliable friends and competent workers in the back room of the shop was a comfort and a support to Mme Menez as she served in the front, greeting, smiling, listening, selecting, offering, weighing, filleting, gutting, scraping, meeting the often rather precise demands of her customers: ‘No, not that piece, the piece behind it; is there one a little bigger, a little smaller?’ Mme Menez worked fast and with great skill. She sharpened her cutting knife before each operation. Fillets had to be free of bones but retain all the flesh. Heavy scissors removed fins. The inedible parts of scallops must be discarded without damage to the creatures’ delicate white and coral-coloured flesh. For those who wanted their sole skinned, she took a dry tea towel and, having made a little incision by the animal’s head, ripped the slippery skin away in one decisive movement. In a small way, she told herself, she was a surgeon, and her operations were conducted before a friendly but critical and knowledgeable public.

Christmas came. Mme Menez spent Christmas Eve with Odette and her family, as usual. On Christmas Day she was alone, also as usual, and she didn’t mind. She went for a long walk by the quiet sea at Fort Bloqué, once again as usual. The tiny waves dropped with barely a murmur onto the beach. Oystercatchers ran in groups on the wet sand. Sometimes the incoming water covered their red feet. They and she had the place to themselves while the rest of France was at lunch.

She thought of the year which had almost passed. It had been the most unusual of her life. A large gift had dropped into her lap, bringing the prospect of prosperity beyond that which she had ever anticipated. She was a landlady with responsibility for three tenants in the last years of their lives. A man she had expected to be an antagonist had become the first new friend she had made in years. She had accidentally uncovered a profound secret and witnessed displays of intense emotion. She had an obligation not to let the secret go beyond those whom it most immediately affected, insofar as it was in her power to prevent that.

With all these changes, she knew that she remained the person she had always been: self-reliant and proud of it, and a little separate from others, even from those of whom she was most fond.

In the days between Christmas and New Year, Mme Menez received an invitation from the three sisters to spend the evening of New Year’s Eve, le réveillon de Saint Sylvestre, in their dining room above what was to be the new shop. They had also invited François. ‘We wish to make it clear, madame,’ said Béatrice, ‘that the evening will be at our expense. We shall of course be asking you to supply some of the provisions for the meal. But we shall insist on paying for them.’ Mme Menez accepted this proposal graciously. François telephoned her at home two days before the event. He said, ‘I was thinking that the first days of January would be a good time for me to visit my father’s grave. I have been doing some research. He is buried in the southern military cemetery in Lille.’ He paused, and then said, ‘Would you come with me? There would be plenty of time after we return for the move to the new shop.’

Mme Menez thought quickly. It was many years since she had accepted an invitation from a man to accompany him anywhere, and she had never travelled so far as Lille. The trip would mean staying in a hotel for at least one night, possibly two. She prevaricated. ‘I usually spend New Year’s Day with one of my cousins. Let me speak to her. I’ll call you back.’ It was an hour before she called back, and during that time she had not spoken to her cousin. But she had made a decision. She said, ‘I would be glad to come with you. And I was thinking… perhaps we could set out on New Year’s Day, after the evening with your mother and aunts. And to save you the double drive to Quimper after midnight and then back here in the morning, you could stay with me (chez moi) overnight. I have a small but comfortable guest bedroom.’

François seemed delighted by this suggestion. He said quickly, ‘I would be honoured to accept. Should I investigate a hotel in or near Lille? Perhaps for two nights? I wouldn’t wish to hurry the visit to the grave.’

‘Of course. And I leave the choice to you.’

‘Very good. I’ll find somewhere suitable, and book two rooms.’

Mme Menez wasn’t absolutely sure that François had needed to specify the number of rooms to be booked quite as firmly as he had, but she appreciated his clarity.

The last day of Mme Menez’s tenure of the old shop arrived. She was up at five, down at the Lorient fish market at six, back in the shop by seven thirty and ready to open at eight thirty, her counter piled high with a more than usually varied and copious display of creatures of the sea: sole, John Dory, turbot, brill, cod, hake, haddock, monkfish, eel, oysters in boxes or loose, mussels, crabs both spider and turtle, scallops, cockles, whelks, langoustines, lobsters, prawns. Odette and Babette were already busy in the back room.

Business was brisk. People came first and foremost because of the forthcoming feast, but also to say goodbye to their fishmonger in her familiar venue and to wish her well in her new venture. A notice on the door announced that, exceptionnellement, the shop would be open sans interruption that day. Mme Menez had always regarded the lunch hour, or hour and a half, as sacrosanct, but she had noticed that more and more shops, including some small concerns like hers, were abandoning that sensible and restorative convention, and although she had no intention of following their example on a regular basis, she had decided that today was sufficiently exceptionnel, for a number of reasons, to justify the breaking of a habit of a lifetime. She was going to close at four, as on a Saturday.

At that hour, as the last of the customers left and she locked the door, turned the Fermé sign outwards and, with Odette’s and Babette’s help, stocked the unsold fish in the fridge and thoroughly washed the premises, she reflected that this farewell was nothing like that of the sisters in the summer. They were saying goodbye for good. She was half their age, and was saying au revoir for a fortnight. In two days’ time, Odette would meet the fish soup man at the back door of the shop, give him the contents of the fridge, and return the keys to the landlord, who was relaxed about Mme Menez taking a little time to remove her equipment. The day after that, she would be back from Lille and then… onward! So she was light of heart as she kissed her cousins goodbye, wishing them ‘Bonne fin d’année’, and took the sisters’ special Saint Sylvestre orders across the square.

At home two hours later, after a bath, she looked critically into her wardrobe. She inspected it more closely and with greater dissatisfaction than she had done for many years. She had half a dozen dresses for evening wear, any of which would do, but none of which now gave her pleasure. They had all been bought in the Plouzalver ladies’ outfitter run by a woman who had been in her class at school thirty years ago. The range on offer there was of good quality, but perhaps limited in style and perhaps, as she now realised, dull. Why hadn’t she made the time in the last few weeks to go further afield and find something a bit more adventurous, more attractive? No, not attractive — she rejected the word — but more appropriate to the gaiety of the season. And why was she standing here in her dressing gown getting unnecessarily cross when all she had to do was to take her most recent purchase off the hanger and put it on? Which is what she did.

The same feeling overtook her as she sat at her dressing table and applied a little discreet make-up. There were bolder colours of lipstick, she knew. But unsubtle. And the short hairstyle she had stuck with for twenty years, so practical, so easy to wash, the hairstyle chosen by most ladies of her age in Plouzalver, now looked terribly obvious, unimaginative, un… attractive. That word again. But there was nothing to be done about it now. Make the best of it. Which is what she did.

The evening in the ladies’ dining room was a great success. She and François arrived within a few minutes of each other, at about eight o’clock. There was champagne, which Béatrice produced from the little fridge in the kitchen and asked François to open, which he did with pleasure. Béatrice proposed a toast: ‘To our new-found nephew and son.’ As each pair of glasses was clinked, the two people clinking acknowledged their relation to each other: ‘Chère tante.’ ‘Cher neveu.’ When François clinked glasses with his mother, they were both briefly, silently moved, and their eyes were wet. It was a relief for François to turn to Mme Menez and say, laughing, ‘Chère collègue.’ To which she replied, ‘Cher François.’ Thus encouraged, he took a second bite at the cherry, and returned, ‘Chère Sylvie.’ From then on, and before witnesses, they were on first-name terms.

After that there was foie gras, and coquilles Saint Jacques, and fillets of turbot, and rare roast beef with potatoes, and cheeses with a green salad, and a fruit salad, and coffee with chocolates. There were four wines, including the champagne, though the sisters drank very little. It was a happy occasion, and at midnight everyone stood up and kissed everyone else, saying, ‘Bonne année, et bonne santé surtout!’ It had been, as Mme Menez had reflected on Christmas Day, an extraordinary year for all of them.

At about one o’clock, François and Mme Menez took their leave. Jocelyne of course knew their destination of the following day. All she said to her son was, ‘I should like to see a photograph.’ François said, ‘You shall.’

At Mme Menez’s house, she showed François his room. He thanked her, and said he would be most comfortable. She asked whether he would like another coffee before bed, or perhaps a small brandy. He declined both, with more thanks. They agreed that they had an early start in the morning.

New Year’s Day was bright and cold. They were on the road not particularly early, despite their resolutions of the previous night, having risen at eight, which was rather late for both of them. Mme Menez had shown François the whole of her house and garden, which of course he had admired. It was an eight-hour drive to Lille, with a stop for lunch at a place which François said he knew (in fact he had researched it; he had never been there) just after Caen. It was only ten minutes off the autoroute, he said, and so much nicer than those service stations, particularly on a special day like New Year’s Day. Mme Menez agreed. She enjoyed the fact that François had put thought into the planning of the trip. This was an unusual pleasure for her.

The lunch went well enough, if — for the first time in their friendship — a little awkwardly. Somehow, the fact that they were two people going away together, going a great distance from their familiar places, made them seem stranger to each other than they had been when closer to home. The journey did indeed represent some kind of… not exactly commitment; but certainly both had a sense of adventure, of trying something new. They sat at a table in the corner of the restaurant, by the window, looking out over the car park and beyond to a field planted with winter wheat. As often when people are not completely as ease, the conversation dwelt on details in which neither speaker nor listener was quite as interested as he or she made to appear. Mme Menez didn’t need to list so exhaustively the quantities and kinds of fish she’d sold the previous day; François was perhaps a little pedantic in recounting the number of telephone calls he’d made to hotels near Lille before finding one which had adjoining rooms available at this busy season, at reasonable cost. Perhaps, they each thought inwardly, they had seemed to the other over-concerned with money? They were both relieved to be back in the car, with scenery racing by, and without such a pressing need to find things to say.

They arrived at the hotel, in a village south of Lille, two hours after dark, and were shown to their rooms. François asked whether Mme Menez could eat a light supper. He could, he ventured to say. She was about to say no thank you, that she would go to bed and read, when she changed her mind and agreed that a plate of onion soup, or something of the kind, would be nice. It would be a shame for him to eat alone. François laughed and was pleased. She had thought about his feelings.

The supper was much more relaxed than the lunch had been. Conversation came naturally, and they found a topic which lent itself to narrative: reminiscences of Christmases and New Years past. François recalled the excitement of staying up late on Christmas Eve in Quimper, of walking to Midnight Mass through the quiet streets under the stars, of admiring the crèche in the church as a little boy, and then the honour of being invited by the priest, when he was old enough, to participate in its construction every December. Sylvie (I shall call her Sylvie from now on) spoke of her parents for the first time to François and, she realised, for the first time for a long time to anyone. They had had a small farm about five kilometres north of Plouzalver, with poultry and a few cattle, and on Christmas morning it had seemed particularly pleasurable, somehow special, to be collecting the hens’ and ducks’ eggs early, as she always did. Why do routine tasks take on extra significance, stop being routine, on special days? Perhaps because on Christmas Day her mother gave her the choice of a duck’s or a hen’s egg — one that she had gathered — to eat with her breakfast, rather than, as usual, saving them for the Plouzalver market on the next Monday.

And then they talked more about their parents (in François’ case, his adoptive parents): what they were like, what they had done in their lives, when they had died. The onion soup, the apple tart, the coffee and a whole bottle of Beaujolais were long finished before the conversation flagged. François said that he knew where the cemetery was: a 15-minute drive. Should they meet for breakfast at about eight? Sylvie agreed. A quick turn round the village square before bed? Thank you, no, said Sylvie; it had been a long drive, and François must be tired himself. Yes, he said. Perhaps he was.

As they climbed the stairs to the first floor, both knew what was coming; a choice had to be made. There was no question, in either of their minds, of sharing a bed. That was not the choice. The choice was over the goodnight kiss. Four on the cheeks (traditional Breton style), two on the cheeks (Parisian style, but now more and more adopted throughout France, especially by the young, modern not as in Le Moderne, economical of time and gesture), or something else? When they came to the doors of their adjacent rooms, and faced each other, neither had consciously made the choice. But when they looked at each other, and a faint, nervous smile came to his mouth, and a faint, nervous flush came to her cheeks, there was only one choice to be made.