‘Do you have cherries?’ asked Bridget.
‘Oui, Madame,’ said the woman serving, ‘but they are still very dear at this time of the year.’
‘Of course. How much?’
‘Come, Madame, let me show you,’ and she directed Bridget around a corner of the stall, which was piled high with gorgeous things like round courgettes, white asparagus, and purple artichokes.’
And there they were in a wonderful heap like treasure: deep, deep red, almost black, and irresistibly glossy. The price tag said: 29,50€ le kilo.
Bridget was shopping at Les Halles in Avignon on the first day of her annual holiday. This was one of the joys, buying fresh produce each day at the market and taking it back to the apartment and cooking it.
Today, she would have mussels and it was very satisfying to hear the fishmonger’s scoop rattling the shells as he measured them out for her. At a greengrocer’s stall she bought a frisée lettuce as big as her head; plump, sweet tomatoes ripened in Provençal sunshine; shallots; a head of pink garlic; a bouquet garni, ready-tied, and a fistful of parsley. She bought fresh cream and two bottles of Rhône white at the supermarket in the little square where her apartment was situated, and a crusty pain de campagne at the boulangerie below her window.
The square was a triangle really. At the apex was a four-sided marble pillar, about five feet high, with a flat capital, sitting in a hexagonal basin. In the seven years she had been coming here, Bridget had never seen the water spouts working, but the rust trails from the lions’ heads, one on each side, showed that they must have done once. Down the centre of the triangle were two little walnut trees, whose leaves were quivering in the spring breeze, though it was quite hot for April. At the base of the triangle was a cafe called El Cubanito, whose red awning declared:
Bar * Restaurante * Café * Cocktails * Tapas
It was also a kind of night club. It didn’t open till six, and served tapas-style meals until eleven, after which there was Latin-American music until the small hours. This could be quite noisy but Bridget had learned long ago to edit it out, and besides, it was a small price to pay for the convenience of a city centre apartment so picturesquely placed.
On her way home this bright April morning, she passed the beggar who sat opposite the dead fountain. He was always there. He had been there every year she had visited, every single day. He sat against the door of a bookshop which had been as defunct as the fountain for as long as she had been coming here. He sat with his legs straight out and a foot beyond his dirty trainers was a black beret, right in the middle of the pavement. It was a bit of a liberty really. It wasn’t easy to ignore him.
He touched her conscience. It was the ambiguity of it. If she gave him money, would it go straight on alcohol or drugs? If she didn’t, her Christian upbringing told her that she was no better than the Pharisee and the Levite, ‘who passed by on the other side’. Besides, there were so many of these vagrants. They were everywhere. In England, the callous Tories got the blame, but that did not explain why the situation was just as bad here in France where, until very recently, there had been a socialist government. It was a conundrum. Drugs must be at the bottom of it, not just politics.
She usually dropped some small change into the beret and he would turn his face up to thank her. It was a very beautiful face, she thought. He was bearded and unkempt. His hair was long and very black, so that his face seemed framed and rather leonine. His mouth was soft and sensuous but it was the eyes that held her. They were large and brown but she could read defeat in them.
That afternoon, wandering along the Rhône in the sunshine, she found herself wondering what had brought him to such a pass. He was – what? – in his early thirties. What had made him give up on life so young? He did not appear to be a victim of drink or drugs, but one could never tell. He did not appear to be disabled in any way. What cataclysm had so wrecked any sense of aspiration in him that he was able to undergo the degradation of half-sitting, half-lying here, day after day? Where did he go at night? Was he wholly alone in the world?
Of course, she was alone too, but it was quite a different matter. It was, to some degree, a matter of choice. Marriage and motherhood had passed her by and she would be fifty soon, but she had no regrets gnawing at her and threatening to throw her off-balance. That no-one had ever shmoozed her in the moonlight, or offered her roses or diamonds, was not a matter of the slightest concern to her. She knew that there was a bump in her nose and that her eyes were set too closely together, but she was reconciled to this.
An aunt who lived most of her life in Normandy had once described her as jolie-laide, an expression which translates as ‘pretty-ugly’, suggestive of someone who seems attractive though lacking in conventional good looks. It had been meant as consoling rather than patronising but had stung a tiny bit at the time. However, a legacy of six thousand pounds and a Victorian bracelet set with carnelians made it easy to forgive her.
Bridget taught French and some German at an independent girls’ school in Kent and was placidly content with her lot. She earned enough to live decently and to rent her apartment in Avignon each spring holiday. Easter had been late this year, bringing with it the boon of fine weather. She was already feeling refreshed.
She scrubbed the mussels in cold, running water, pulling off the beards and knocking off barnacles. She had to discard perhaps a fifth of them because they would not close when she rapped them with the heel of her knife, but that was all right: she would never have managed to eat the entire kilo. She chopped two shallots finely, together with a couple of cloves of garlic and some parsley so that everything was ready when she came to prepare her supper.
Now it was l’heure de l’apéritif, perhaps the favourite part of her day when she was in France. She poured herself a large glass of chilled white wine and stood at the open window. She liked to watch the people coming home from work, laughing girls arm in arm, boys with their roaring scooters and rattling skateboards. She was fascinated by the audacity with which the French parked their cars, somehow managing to squeeze into the tiniest space, nonchalantly knocking bumpers while manoeuvring. The patron of El Cubanisto was just opening up and setting out tables and chairs under the walnut trees and already there were a few customers sipping wine or pastis.
Her eye wandered to a ragged poster on the side of the cafe immediately under her window. The background was the same red as the cafe’s awning. It advertised a play at a nearby theatre which had taken place in 2009. It had been left there presumably because it tallied with the name of the cafe, for it featured the iconic image of Che Guevara which, she knew, had adorned the bedroom walls of many a student over several decades. There was the black beret with the single star and the youthful face, framed with unkempt black hair and those deep-set, burning eyes. She realised quite suddenly that he looked very like her beggar.
She was still thinking of him as the mussels steamed in the white wine. When they were all opened she poured in cream and finally the chopped parsley. Now, she cut herself a few chunks from the crusty loaf. The knife was good, not as good as her Sabatier knives at home, but good enough. The handle was a day-glow lime green. In fact, all the kitchen utensils were in luminous colours. The corkscrew was purple, the paring knife crimson, the potato peeler yellow, and the kitchen scissors a brilliant blue. Bridget found this rather stylish and somehow very French, although she also suspected she could find similar stuff in Ikea.
The mussels were colourful too with their purple-black shells, orange flesh, and the vivid green of the parsley. They were so sweet. And the garlicky wine and cream liquor, mopped up with this good bread, was just divine.
But she could not help thinking, guiltily, of the beggar. What would he be eating tonight? She had noticed that when the boulangerie closed each night at around seven, one of the shop assistants would bring out a bundle of unsold baguettes and put them in the bins at the side of the cafe. Within minutes, other vagrants would be rifling the bins, but she had never seen her beggar among them. Perhaps there was usually enough in his beret at the end of the day to buy something a little more nutritious?
She had put the cherries in a little grey bowl and ate a few now along with some St Nectaire cheese, her favourite. She must do something for him, she suddenly thought. Though she had no idea what.
The next morning, Bridget bought two veal escalopes, some fresh tarragon, some rather expensive ceps mushrooms and more cream. She had some vague idea that she would cook both escalopes and have one for supper and the other one cold the next day.
As she approached the fountain she began to feel terribly shy. He was there as ever, against the bookshop door, with his legs straight out and his head sunk on his chest. When she reached him she bent in a movement rather like a curtsey and placed a twenty euro note in the beret. He looked up in astonishment.
‘Madame, it is too much,’ he said.
‘No, it isn’t. It’s not too much at all,’ she said. ‘I pass you every day and throw you a few pitiful cents. I don’t even speak to you. I am ashamed. It’s not too much at all.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘You don’t need to say anything. I can afford it. And at least you’ll have something decent to eat tonight. Or perhaps you can get a bed in a hostel. Are there hostels?’
‘There are, Madame, but in spring and summer, when the weather is fine, most of us prefer to sleep outdoors.’
‘Where do you go?’
‘Under the road bridge over the river is good, or the railway station, although they keep waking you up and moving you on.’
She had seen this. The year before she had decided to take a day trip to Nîmes. In the waiting room a man cocooned in a blue sleeping bag was stretched out on one of the benches. An SNCF official had shaken him and told him that he could not sleep there and must move on. His shaved head had emerged first, hooded reptilian eyes blinking. Slowly, without argument, he packed up and shambled off to the exit, obviously stunned with drugs. He made her think of a chameleon or a komodo dragon.
‘Sometimes I sleep in the daytime and walk around all night,’ the beggar said. ‘But always, they move you on.’
‘What do you do about washing and, well, you know … ’
‘Oh, you learn to wait,’ he said wryly. ‘You have to. The lavatories at the station used to be 50 cents but now they are free. All the same, the concierge will drive you out if you are too long or if they are busy. Very early is best. There are also toilets in the Place de l’Horloge. You have to be there before the tourists come.’
There was a lengthy pause as if neither of them knew what to say next.
‘I live just there,’ she said, pointing at the battered door with its twelve letter boxes and twelve bell pushes. ‘Or at least, I’m renting it – just for the week.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘I’m not French, I’m English,’ she said, fairly sure she was making a fool of herself. ‘I’m Bridget.’
‘I am called Pascal. Your French is very good, Brigitte.’
And they shook hands. She resisted the temptation to look at whether his hands were clean or not. She liked the French pronunciation of her name; it sounded less spinsterish, she thought.
‘Look, Pascal. I don’t want you to think I am being patronising, but you could come up to my apartment this evening and have a shower. Or a bath. Or both.’
She knew she was blushing and stammering like a schoolgirl but she was also very excited.
He looked up at her.
‘That would please me,’ he said.
‘You can stay for dinner. There’s veal. There’s plenty for both of us. I have some cherries.’
‘You are very nice, Brigitte.’
She loved the soft timbre of his voice and thought again: he is a very beautiful man.
‘At six o’clock then. Just ring the bell marked Piquiot. He’s my landlord.’
That afternoon she bought a vast fluffy bath sheet, though her landlord provided plenty of clean towels. She thought it better to choose one with a pattern. She also popped into the boulangerie and bought two baguettes and a beautiful tarte aux poires.
Back at the apartment, she set about a little housework. With its minimalist decor, it was easy to keep the flat clean. She wiped down the white formica table which served for food preparation and for dining and she set the bowl of cherries in the middle. There were plenty left. She swabbed the wooden floor, which was stained a light grey. She hoovered the rugs. Finally she polished the bath till it shone.
As six o’clock approached she began to be afraid he would not come but, precisely on the hour, the bell rang and made her jump. She had never had a visitor at the apartment before and it was very loud. She went downstairs.
There he was, framed in the doorway, with the sunlight behind him. As she followed him up the stone steps to the apartment she could not help but notice the dreadful smell from his feet and asked him if he wouldn’t mind leaving his trainers outside the door. He took them off without a word. He wore no socks.
He was carrying with him an orange plastic laundry bag containing, she surmised, everything he owned. At the top was a blue sleeping bag. She took it from him gently and shut it in the cupboard where the cleaning things lived. He stood looking around him as if he had never been in a private room before.
‘Now look, Pascal, I want you to make yourself at home. I am going to go out for an hour so you will be completely undisturbed. When I come back we’ll eat and you can tell me about yourself.’
Pascal said again: ‘You are very nice, Brigitte.’
In the Place de l’Horloge, Bridget sipped a kir and nibbled at the pretzels the waiter had brought. She watched the children on the carousel outside the town hall with its hurdy-gurdy music. She watched the tourists having an early dinner at the al fresco restaurants in the square. She felt rather superior. The French generally ate later. Most of all, she enjoyed the soft light of Provence casting lengthening shadows across the paving. She lingered over a second kir and then made her way back, picking up a couple of bottles of wine and a big slab of Brie on the way.
When she opened the door to the apartment, she could hear water running into the bath. Good, he was having a long soak. There was no hurry.
She was disappointed to see that he had eaten all the cherries and left the stalks and stones on the white table top. Beneath each stone was a dark red stain. Then, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the utensils drawer was wide open. Closing it, she saw that the cook’s knife was missing and she was suddenly afraid.
Gingerly, she pushed open the bedroom door in case he were waiting in there with the knife. Nothing. He must still be in the bathroom. There was nowhere else.
‘Pascal!’ she said aloud. ‘What’s going on?’
Now she became aware that water was flooding from under the bathroom door across the grey floorboards. In a panic, she pushed the door open.
He was lying in the bath, his eyes closed, his head on his shoulder and one arm hung over the side of the bath. He had cut his wrist – not laterally, like in the films – he had opened the vein vertically. His hand was palm outward. His other arm was under the water.
The kitchen knife with the bright green handle lay on the floor and the bath was full of dark red blood.
© Ian Thomson 2018
From Cherries and other tales, available on Amazon