Opening Time

The days following Sylvie’s and François’ return to Plouzalver were busy. Fridges, storage boxes and other equipment were moved from the old shop to the new. François rented a van for the purpose during his first two-day break after resuming his work in Quimper. Pierre and Albert came to help with the lifting. Sylvie visited a sign-writer in Hennebont and commissioned him to paint the words ‘Les Trois Soeurs’ on the panel over the door of the shop. Before the artist’s arrival, Albert prepared the ground by stripping off the old paintwork. A twinge of sadness passed through him as he applied his blowtorch to the faded letters ‘Le Moderne’, which he had known all his life. Sylvie asked the sign-writer to use the same art deco style of lettering for the new name.

Les Trois Soeurs would open for business on the third Tuesday morning of January. Meanwhile, there were new delivery arrangements to be made with wholesalers. Fruit, vegetables and wine would continue to be supplied from the trusted sources Sylvie had always used, of course, although — as advised by François — she expanded the wine order, including a few reds to accompany cheese. Cheese was a departure, and after visiting various affineurs, again in consultation with François, she established a business relationship with Monsieur Martin, who had a shop in Lorient and who toured several markets in the area.

The reader may remember that in the course of François’ first meeting with Sylvie he had said that he intended to retire from his position at Leclerc the following year. Since the tumultuous changes in his personal life, he was looking forward more impatiently to that event, expected on the last day of June of this New Year. Now he was spending some nights alone in Quimper, rather more with Sylvie in Plouzalver, and burning a lot of petrol driving back and forth. No doubt, he said to himself, it was these extra journeys which made him feel more tired than usual.

One evening in the second week of January, Sylvie and François climbed the stairs above the new shop to take coffee with the sisters. François’s camera was pre-digital. The photographs he had taken in the cemetery had had to be developed and printed, and only after some difficulty had he found a little shop in Quimper which still offered this service.

The sisters were naturally keen to know how the trip had gone, and Sylvie and François described the journeys there and back, the comfort and cleanliness of the hotel, the details of all the meals they had eaten, their impressions of Lille, and — last of all — their visit to the cemetery. François took from his pocket an envelope containing the photographs, and laid them on the table facing the ladies. There was silence as, one by one, they picked them up and examined them closely, passing them round until all three had seen them all. Jocelyne took the longest time to examine the images of the simple, dignified memorial to the man with whom she had been united once only, one warm night in an August long ago, and who had lived for such a short time thereafter. She wept quietly, holding the photograph away from her in her right hand while she wiped her eyes with the handkerchief in her left, until François walked around the table and kissed her forehead.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Keep the photographs,’ he said. ‘I have duplicates. And…’ he looked meaningfully at Sylvie before returning his gaze to his mother and his aunts, ‘… we have something to tell you. We should like you to be the first to know that Sylvie and I have become… how shall I put this?... more than friends.’ And he took Sylvie’s hand, as if in proof of the fact.

The old ladies leapt to their feet in a simultaneous movement of sprightly joy that belied their years.

‘We wondered, we were so hoping, we didn’t like to say, to presume…’ the three of them cried, their voices overlapping as they moved to embrace François and Sylvie: intense, tender embraces, in which awkwardness, a lifetime’s training in formality and restraint, battled against and faltered in the face of the imperative of love.

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On the third Tuesday of January, Sylvie rose at five, was at the Lorient fish market by six, had made her purchases there by seven-thirty and was stocking the counter on the crushed ice in her new shop soon after eight. At eight-thirty she opened the new front door of Les Trois Soeurs for business for the first time. Her first customer was Béatrice, the eldest of the sisters, who with characteristic propriety entered by the new front door, having descended the stairs from the apartment above and walked out into the street through the yard, even though there was a quicker route through the back of the shop which would not have required her to go outside.

‘Good morning, Sylvie,’ she said, smiling, and producing her purse from her shopping bag. ‘Since it is Tuesday, would you have three nice fillets of ling?’