The Cemetery, and After

At breakfast the following morning, both knew that a new world had opened. Certainly, it was a world that could be closed again; all that had happened in the corridor outside their bedrooms the previous night was a full, romantic, willing kiss, before a hurried ‘Bonne nuit’ and departure to separate rooms. But to close the new world would require a deliberate act of withdrawal on one or both of their parts; and neither wanted that. Both wanted to inhabit the new world, but were uncertain quite how to do so, quite how to be in their new relation to each other.

So breakfast was quiet, and soon finished, and they went to the cemetery.

The southern military cemetery is in a suburb of Lille. A high stone wall surrounds it. Inside are several hundred graves, containing some of the dead of two world wars. The white gravestones are arranged in pairs of lines, back to back, set in a band of exposed earth where roses and other flowers grow. Most are engraved with a cross beneath the inscription; a few with the Star of David.

There was no guide in the little office at the entrance that morning, so François and Sylvie steadily walked up and down the lawns between the lines, reading. It was half an hour before they found what they were looking for:

HENRIOT Robert
1ère division légère mécanique
Mort pour la France le 18.5.1940

Neither said anything. They stood together, and after a few minutes Sylvie put her arm through François’. The small gesture caused him to weep, silently, in a never-before-encountered conflict — or perhaps simply mixture — of feelings: partly shock at confronting the fact that the remains of the man responsible for his existence lay a couple of metres below them; partly gratitude that, in the most unlikely of circumstances, a woman whom he was coming to love had touched him at this rare, significant moment. People can be as close when facing in the same direction as when facing each other. So it was.

After many minutes, he turned to her, and said, ‘Thank you. Shall we go?’ She nodded. They were halfway towards the cemetery entrance when he said, ‘The photograph!’ They turned round and went back. François pulled the little camera from his bag and took a dozen photographs of the grave, and then a few general views of the cemetery. They left for the second time. At the entrance, Sylvie said, ‘I expect you’d like a coffee.’ ‘I would,’ he said. ‘Let’s go and find a place.’

They spent the rest of the day in the centre of Lille. They were both unused to big cities, though they had visited Paris and Nantes once or twice, and François had travelled more widely during his national service. After their coffee, they wandered at will around the city centre, admired the new international railway station, and were pleased to find the old part of the city, where they lunched. This time there was none of the hesitation of the previous day. Topics of conversation seemed to suggest themselves, helter-skelter, the one leading to the next by some chance connection before the first had been exhausted. They poured out stories. François described some of his national-service experiences: the time he had stood in line in an aeroplane, waiting to jump out somewhere over Dakar, terrified, praying that his parachute would open; the dangerous months in Algeria, two years after De Gaulle took over, before the ceasefire, when death was everywhere. Sylvie had been a little girl then. Her first awareness of the world outside the farm and the village, she recalled, came as she watched her parents listening to the radio, shaking their heads, and then tried to understand what they meant, talking quietly over supper about that war. Her father had been a communist; he knew where he stood on independence for Algeria. Her mother deferred to her father, but changed the subject when he became too political.

So they talked, and then walked some more. They visited a museum. On the way back to the car, they passed a clothes shop, and stopped. François said, ‘I should like to buy you something.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Sylvie, ‘there’s no need. You have been so kind already.’ But in they went, and she was persuaded to accept an expensive silk scarf, something far more luxurious, far less necessary, than she would ever have bought for herself. They left the shop laughing. ‘There was no need,’ she said. ‘Il ne fallait pas. But thank you.’ And they stopped in the street and kissed for a second time, in full view of passing shoppers, who of course paid them no heed.

The restaurant in their hotel was more like a private dining room: six tables only, of varying sizes. There was an open fireplace, with a wood fire burning, on which grills could be cooked for those who chose them. Those of us fortunate enough to have been in love in youth, and to have dined with our loved one in old-fashioned French dining rooms, taking pleasure in the ceremony of it, enjoying the choosing of dishes, the choosing of wines, the sharing of tastes of each other’s food, the smiling, formulaic good wishes of the waiter — ‘Bonne dégustation, bon appétit, bonne continuation’ — as he or she guides us through each stage of the experience, while holding in the back of our minds the expectation of other pleasures later in the evening, will take those happy memories to our graves. So it was for François and Sylvie, except, of course, that they were, to use the quaint old phrase, ‘no longer young’. Their pleasure was more intense, more grateful than that of the young, since the young tend to take such things as their right; at the same time it was more apprehensive, since adult bodies don’t remain completely lovely for long, and a possible coming together later in the evening — still only possible, as they each said inwardly — would require humour and tolerance as well as desire. Fortunately, there was by this time no doubt as to the presence of the last quality, on either side.

So they tasted, and ate, and drank, and continued, and had a dessert, and coffee, and François had a digestif (surely not for courage). They made their way up the stairs hand in hand this time, the informality of their touch a joyful denial of their years, and when they arrived at the same spot as the night before, Sylvie had no hesitation in saying to her friend, ‘Will you come in?’

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An English novelist has remarked that it’s easy to be in love when on holiday. A French poet, in describing an old man’s failing sexual powers, has referred by contrast to young men’s ‘triumphant mornings’ (‘des matins triomphants’). The next morning, as François and Sylvie lay side by side in her bed (conveniently, all the rooms in the hotel had recently been equipped with double beds), they would have agreed with the novelist and disputed with the poet. Their lovemaking had indeed been easy. Neither was a virgin, but in both cases it had been many years since their last, brief, less than satisfactory sexual encounters. This time there had been wonderment and gratitude and, of course, simple pleasure, the more so since one of the benefits of being ‘no longer young’ is that we know not to rush at things. The success of the night was repeated, in even more leisurely a style, in the morning, and François’ sense of triumph was nothing to do with conquest, everything to do with relief that, after years in which arousal had occurred only at long intervals, he had been effortlessly capable of it twice within a few hours.

The novelist’s remark carries an implicit but clear warning, to which François and Sylvie began to turn their attention as they drove back to Plouay. How soon would they tell the sisters that their relationship had gone beyond friendship and professional association? How would they arrange to see each other during their working weeks, at their weekends? Being the conventional people that they were, both privately thought about the possibility of announcing a formal engagement, before dismissing the idea as premature. Perhaps it was a symbol of their sense of impending normality that on this return journey they lunched unglamorously at a service station on the autoroute.

They arrived at Sylvie’s house in the twilight. She said, ‘Would you like to stay?’ He said, ‘I’d love to. You know I’d love to. But I have to be at work tomorrow morning early. Perhaps I’d better get back.’ Then he looked across at her in the car and saw her face and said, ‘I must be mad. Of course I’ll stay.’ He looked at her face again. It had changed. ‘Only…’ he added, ‘without meaning to presume, perhaps not in the guest room this time?’ She said, ‘We won’t be needing the guest room from now on.’ That exchange, at once humorous and charged with feeling, was proof positive that now, unambiguously, they were amoureux.