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The Wrong Bathroom

Madame Menez’s regular Friday tours in the van took her to some secluded corners of rural Brittany. She would turn into lanes which led only to one house or farm, in the knowledge that someone there would be expecting her and would be glad of the opportunity to talk for a few minutes to a visitor from the outside world. Plouzalver hardly represents metropolitan sophistication, except by comparison with a settlement consisting of a house and some cowsheds a kilometre down a road which goes nowhere else.

With all the suffering and wickedness in the world, to which our only response, most often, is one of helpless sorrow, it is a relief to be reminded occasionally that there are areas of life where we can confidently say that humanity has made progress. One of these is our attitude to people in some way disabled in mind. We no longer call them idiots. We lock up fewer of them than we used to. We are slowly coming to understand that a mental limitation or disability, like its physical equivalent, is a matter for regret but not a source of shame; and once the regret has been acknowledged, it is much better to search out what the afflicted person can do, and to encourage her or him in that achievement, than gloomily to dwell on those things which he or she is incapable of achieving.

A couple with this admirable approach to misfortune lived in one of the remoter spots on Mme Menez’s round. Their daughter had been born some thirty years previously with mild brain damage. She had attended special schools, first locally, returning to the isolated farm every evening in a taxi paid for by the commune, and then, in her teenage years, at a school further away, where she boarded during the week, coming home at the weekends and for the school holidays. When her schooling was finished, she settled at home and helped on the farm. Juliette was loving, obliging and a good worker. She had perfectly comprehensible speech, though she spoke slowly and deliberately, with a harsh, nasal note in her voice.

A few farms away — several kilometres by road, much closer across the fields — lived a boy similarly disabled. His name was Arnaud. His and Juliette’s conditions were not exactly alike; that is no matter. The two had attended the same schools. Later they met occasionally by chance, in Plouzalver with their parents on shopping expeditions, or at one or other of the fêtes which attract hundreds of visitors to hamlets in the area on summer Sundays. These events always begin with mass in the local chapel at eleven, followed by drinks and a lunch served by volunteers in a great marquee, followed by entertainments — animations — in the afternoon. From time immemorial, they have been opportunities for meetings of all kinds, including those which will later lead to love and marriage.

Arnaud had a job in the small co-operative which sold seeds and agricultural equipment, and which bought, dried and resold farmers’ grain — wheat and barley in July and August, maize in October. He swept up, stacked shelves and ran errands. He was liked and trusted by his employer.

Insofar as anyone other than their parents thought about the matter, which was not much, this was how things stood with Juliette and Arnaud, and how they would remain. Yes, at some point in the future, when the parents were no longer alive, it might be beyond these two people to live independently, in which case a solution of some kind would present itself, no doubt.

No one expected to see Juliette and Arnaud holding hands in public, like a proper couple, which they began to do in their early thirties. They had been travelling the quiet pathways between their homes for some time. The idea that disabled people have romantic impulses and sexual urges just like the rest of us wasn’t easy for their friends and neighbours to accept, and harder still for the parents, who naturally feared that Juliette would become pregnant. But after a while, when nothing catastrophic had occurred, opinion began to change. Why shouldn’t the pair live like ‘normal’ people? We were at the beginning of the 21st century, not the 19th. Eventually, the same friends and neighbours who had been uneasy about the liaison came to look on it with amused approval. ‘Ils sont courageux, quoi. Bravo pour eux!

Mme Menez followed these developments with sympathetic interest. There was a Friday when Madame Le Fur, Juliette’s mother, told her with nervous pride that Juliette and Arnaud were to be married. The pair had most sensibly told their parents that they didn’t want children (‘It would be too much for us’) and they knew the simplest way to make sure that didn’t happen, because it had been explained and shown to them when they were teenagers at school. But they wanted to be married and to live in the same house.

The two sets of parents found the couple a little one-storey dwelling for rent (most of which would be paid for by the securité sociale), with bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. It had a small garden. It was not too far — two or three kilometres — from the homes where Juliette and Arnaud had spent most of their lives up to now. There was a shop selling food and other basic provisions ten minutes’ walk away.

Mme Menez attended the wedding one Saturday in the mairie in Plouzalver, while Odette looked after the shop. The deputy mayor performed the ceremony graciously enough, and there was applause and confetti outside. The little group walked across to the salle des fêtes for the vin d’honneur. Not being an intimate of the families, Mme Menez didn’t go on to the restaurant for the meal, but she heard from someone she met on the Sunday that everything had gone well, there was a disco after the meal of course, the couple had been escorted to their new home at a late hour, and had departed that day on their honeymoon by train, to La Baule.

La Baule is a seaside resort, once fashionable, still elegant but now somewhat faded, especially out of season. It had been easy for the families to find the couple a room in a boarding house for a week, a few streets back from the seafront, at modest cost. An en suite bathroom would have cost considerably more, and Juliette and Arnaud agreed that it was no great hardship to walk along the corridor to take a bath, as they had always done at home. There would be a washbasin in their bedroom.

The Friday after the wedding, Mme Menez drove up the lane to the Le Fur farm as usual. She wondered if M. and Mme Le Fur had had news of the honeymooning couple, perhaps a card or a telephone call. Naturally, she asked the question when Mme Le Fur came to the door.

She was shocked at the reply. Mme Le Fur was clearly distressed, and would say nothing more than that Juliette was already back home, upstairs in her old bedroom. She had broken a leg. It was in plaster.

Mme Menez knew that she must ask no further questions. The fish was delivered and paid for much more rapidly than usual, with hurried farewells. As she drove away, Mme Menez gave run to her worst thoughts. Surely there had not been some kind of violence between them? Could the reality of sexual contact have triggered resistance in Juliette which had caused Arnaud to lose control, to behave uncharacteristically, unforgivably? Was this a terrible, embarrassing end to a relationship which everyone had wished to see prosper, in spite of private doubts and fears? Mme Menez did so hope not. ‘It must have been an accident,’ she said to herself, aloud. ‘It must.’

It was. The truth took some time to come out, and it was never clear how much of it Juliette had revealed to her mother and how much Arnaud had revealed to his workmates. The latter source was the likelier. Mme Menez heard versions at different places during her Friday trips, and overheard whispered and amused gossip from people queueing in the shop.

The couple had taken their reserved room at La Baule. As expected, it was modestly comfortable, with a good double bed but no bathroom. There were two bathrooms down the corridor, which the residents shared. On their arrival, before going out to look for some dinner, Arnaud went to take a bath. A few minutes later, Juliette followed him in her dressing gown, thinking perhaps that they might share, for the first time, the exquisite pleasure of taking the bath together. She opened the bathroom door — it was unlocked, which was the fatal detail — and through the thick steam saw the figure of the naked man she took to be her husband leaning over the bath, testing the temperature of the water with his hand. She went quietly up to him, slipped her hand between his legs and bounced his testicles on her fingers, giggling naughtily. The man rapidly turned round, and was not her husband. The stranger’s expression of astonishment and indignation met hers of astonishment and shame, and she ran out of the bathroom, along the corridor and down the stairs, in the irrational belief that he was following her. While descending the stairs at too great a speed, she lost her footing, fell, and broke her leg. Her husband, who was in the bath in the bathroom next door to that where the awful encounter had occurred, had to get out in response to the boarding-house manager’s knock, to be told that his wife had suffered an accident. He quickly dried himself and dressed, by which time the ambulance had arrived to take her and him to the hospital. He slept alone in the boarding house for two or three nights while she remained in the hospital. When she was able to travel, they went straight from the hospital to the station, he having checked out of the boarding house first, to spare her the embarrassment of returning there, and made their sorrowful way back to their parents’ homes.

How can an occurrence so very sad also be so very funny? This was a question Mme Menez asked herself often, once she was in possession, more or less, of the full story. And another question: why should people who already bear more than their fair share of life’s burdens, people to whom life has not dealt many high cards, be so cruelly made to suffer further?

There are no answers to these questions, but there is a happy ending to the story. Juliette eventually emerged from her bedroom. Her father drove her to the hospital in Lorient for x-rays on two or three occasions, on the last of which the plaster was removed. Arnaud visited her in her parents’ home every day. After a few weeks, the couple told their parents that they wanted to move back into their house. They did so, the house having been thoroughly cleaned for them first, and there was a little house-warming party.

It was obvious to Mme Menez and to everyone else in the neighbourhood that Juliette and Arnaud were still in love, and that he didn’t seem to mind about her limp.