The fishmongers wife had died, and he was looking glum. He could be found walking into town, or at the local betting shop with his face looking drawn out and sad. He'd lost weight, and looked pale and almost ill, compared to the jovial and almost flirty man that made it a pleasure to do business with, and who would throw in a free lemon, with a wink and a smile, on the days that fish was on the menu and you stopped by to choose a fresh fish of one sort or another for dinner.
The fish shop had closed for business, and was up for sale. Because, as sometimes happens in families, that the wife's aunt and uncle didn't get on so well with the fishmonger, there was nobody else available to run the fishshop, once she had died and the older couple were disinclined to come in to work.
The wife and her old aunt had done most of the real heavy-duty work in the shop. They were the ones who prepared the cooked platters and take-out meals, and most likely also the ones to do the cleanup, afterwards, too. French women are generally the ones in charge of cleaning and things such as childcare, shopping, and the likes, and it didn't seem as if it were any different in this family. In fact, it seemed to be even more the case, as I never saw the fishmonger do anything but wield his big fishknife and raise his eyebrows at the women clientele. Even the cash register was manned by the aunt's husband.
The family were 'Pieds Noires', decendants of French Colonnial immigrants who had gone to Algeria, only to have left in a hurry after the war, and come back to the motherland to finish out their lives in reasonable, non-sectarian calm. It does seem, however, that many of these returnees had come back with attitudes towards women that must've been adopted from their previous hosts, along with the pride that is often par for the course for any member of a ruling elite.
The fishmonger, who was called Jean Bernard, worked in the customer part of the shop, smiling and talking to the people who came in to buy fresh fish, and cleaning out the innards for those buyers who showed the slightest signs of squeemishness, slicing and filleting the orders, weighing and bagging. He would even doublebag, so that the smell of the fish wouldn't get transferred to anthing else that you might have picked up at the marketplace that day. He was a talkative and friendly sort of person, always ready with a recipe for the whole turbot you were considering buying, or a helpful 'astuce' with preparations. It seemed such a shame to find him a completely different person after his wife died, of an aneurism, in her early fifties.
There were children, but they had grown and flown the coop. One had gone to London, where it seemed she was gone to stay for good, only returning once or twice a year with her English boyfriend and his family, the all-but-the-details in-laws. Jean Bernard was very proud of his daughter, but it must've been hard for him to know that she'd gone away so far and wouldn't ever be back to stay, especially after his wife died, when he seemed to be so isolated.
The son was a gendarme in Paris. 'Gendarmes' translates to 'armed men', and are military police, used also as the local police in the small towns of France. I imagine that this system serves a useful purpose in being able to better control the populance, with a national pool of officers rather than local people, who may or may not be easier to bribe and corrupt...but that's just how I see it. I never met Jean Bernard's son, but heard about how he'd sent his father a gendarme keychain to use for the keys of the car, and how it had saved his father on numerous occasions from being given any sort of traffic violation ticket...just present it when stopped by the friendly officer, and then go on your merry way. So I might be wrong about the 'corrupt'.
It's habitual to say 'Bonjour' to people that you pass in the street in villages and small towns. And to stop and shake the hands of people you know, and if the people you pass are more than merely aquaintances, to do the double-kiss-on-the cheeks thing. Down here, in the SW of France, it's customary to do a double kiss...go further north and you get three kisses, even further and four kisses, one cheek at a time; back and forth and back and forth. My thinking is that you'd need more kisses the further north you go and the colder, it gets. In the bigger towns and the cities, there are no bonjours for anyone you don't know, although you will get one from a shopkeeper, as well as an 'Au Revoir', when you leave.
Jean Bernard and I had gone from the handshake to the double kiss, as the days and weeks after his wife's death went by, and we happened passed each other in town. We'd stop and chat, and he'd ask me how the garden and the kids were and I'd ask him how he was and what he was doing to keep himself busy and not brood too much. I suggested to him that he ought to plant a garden, the trials of doing so were always outweighed by the good results, plus cut flowers and salads and vegetables were useful things to have around, especially as he was single and perhaps not always inclined to shop or to cook well for just himself. He told me that he'd think about it.
He said the same thing, every time I saw him. But so did I. And, as he wasn't looking any more happy, I kept saying it. He said that he didn't want to bother digging and weeding and watering. And I said I had the solution for that.
Time passed, and the winter came, with its grey and its cold. I passed Jean Bernard on the street and suggested waiting for spring for his garden, and said that if he was stuck, I'd come and help him out with ideas, come the end of worst of the cold, when I could begin to show him how to prepare the soil without too much work on his part.
I am a fan of the little-known-in-France method of 'gardening by mulch' that had been pioneered by Ruth Stout, back in the seventies. French people often find this method to be strange, and tell me that the French want to see the dirt (and the weeds) between their plants. They also often say that Americans have too many ideas in their heads, which may or may not be true, depending on how you look at it, but the gardening method is one that works, and one I was sure would work for a depressed Jean Bernard.
As for what the French think of my various methods; I am sure, had I lived here a few hundred years ago, that I would've been burned at the stake as a witch or tossed into the river at Sauveterre, as used to be done with suspect witches, and then said a belated 'sorry' to when I drowned or burned when I didn't. There are negatives and positives to both old and new ideas, although for the most part, the isolated country people of deep France don't much like the newer ideas, especially when suggested by a foreigner.
Spring was just around the corner when I again ran into Jean Bernard in town, and we decided that I was to come over and visit his garden, finally. He gave me directions on how to get to the house, and on the day, I went over with my Ruth Stout Handbook, a garden catalogue, a mesh bag of seed potatoes, and a few packets of seeds in hand. I was feeling fine, for although I no longer had a garden, being as we had had to move back into the center of town, I was able to help someone else have one, as well as be a part of their getting back into the swing of things with their life. I felt that I was doing my little bit for the community and the society of the town, as I hummed a cheery little tune to myself on what looked like a fine end-of-winter day with bright, warm sunshine and the beginnings of buds on trees.
I arrived, was invited in, and offered a cup of coffee. We chatted as we drank the coffee, and Jean Bernard told me about how his life was as a young man in Algeria, and how difficut it was for him to have had to come back to France, where his parents had been born but he had never visited, after the war. He spoke of the difficulty of being on anti-depressants and the long days and even longer nights since his wife had died. I got the impression of a man that had no idea of how to cook or clean or keep house for himself, and also of one that had never had the time to make good friends and now was suffering from the lack of them.
The fishshop had been closed because he wouldn't have been able to run it without the help of his wife and her family, and he didn't want to have all the social charges and fees that went with the hire of outside help, as well as the fact that training outside help was not something he was prepared to be doing at his age and temperment. Jean Bernard wasn't yet at the retirement age, and all the money that might have been available to live on had been put into the shop, which was for sale but hadn't had a nibble from a buyer as yet.
And, mostly because of his old Colonnial style of pride, Jean Bernard did not want to go and find another job, which at his age might've meant one of working in the nearby pig slaughterhouse or picking kiwis or working with the almost unemployable men for the Town Hall jobs of roadclearing and tree trimming. So he spent most of his days at home, watching the television in his pyjamas, or, when he did venture out, to walk down to the local betting shop bar and joining in the wagers on the horseracing in the hopes of not only company to talk to but perhaps a small win to cover the cost of the coffee or the beer consumed there. There was a car available to him in his garage, but I suspect that the gas and the insurance were difficult to find the money to pay for, so he walked, and it was probably better for him to get out and get some excercise and clear the cobwebs from the brain, anyway.
After the coffee, I got a tour of the house, which, for the French, is highly unusual. It's possible to have longterm friends in France and have never been invited for a tour of the house, even if you are and have been a regular visitor to the house for years. You might know where the toilet is located, and the kitchen or the dining room, but never have visited the more private rooms in the house. This is such a difference to life in the US, where first-tme visitors are not only invited, but expect to take a look through all he rooms and closets and insides of cupboards, as well as being told the price or the value of both the house and the furnishings within.
Jean Bernard showed me his bedroom, and then he showed me his wife's bedroom. I remarked how sad but poignant it was that he felt he could no longer sleep in the bedroom that he had shared for so many years with his wife, now that she had died. He didn't say anything. The whole tour felt rather unusual, and I wasn't sure of what role I was supposed to be playing, but shrugged the feeling off, thinking it to be only the results of Jean Bernard's mourning and depression.
We went back into the kitchen, me jabbering on about Ruth Stout while I picked up the coffeecups from the table and went to put them into the sink, in preparation for explaining all about how a garden could be easy, simple, and enjoyable. I put the cups and saucers into the sink with the dishes that were already piled up in there, and found myself grabbed and turned around, pressed aginst the sink, and given a deep, very nice, very sensual kiss, and then felt one of Jean Bernard's arms around me, holding me extremely close, with his fingers in my hair, while the other hand busied itself between my legs.
Well! I must admit that the first thought in my head was that this man probably knew perfectly well how to do the thing that he seemed intent on doing, and that he probably knew very well how to do it perfectly. This could certainly be easy, simple, and enjoyable, possibly even more so than gardening. I caught myself just as I felt my body responding to him, and neatly slid out of his grip and managed to sit us both down with the big oaken kitchen table between us. Besides the obvious, I had to know just what was going on.
Whew! With I'm sure what was a flushed face, the rest of the flushed me being, thankfully, hidden beneath winter sweaters, I asked him what he was playing at, since I thought that I had come to cheer up someone with a spot of gardening, and that I had not come to plant his carrot and than the sowing of his seed was not the deal. I used exactly that language, as corny as it sounds, in order to create some kind of break in the atmosphere and try to laugh off the incident. Boy, sometimes I am SO dumb.
It turns out that gardening was the furthest thing from Jean Bernard's mind. In fact, he had never thought that gardening had ever really crossed my mind, either. It turns out that the man had spent the past twenty years seducing every woman that crossed his path, and thought that I was simply going to be another one to add to his conquests. He had the good graces to look slightly sheepish, when I convinced him that I was there because I felt sorry for a sad old man who had lost his wife and looked so glum, and had thought to kindly help him feel better,but not in the way he'd had in mind.
This time it was me that served us each a cup of coffee, and we spent the next hour or so talking about his life and the fact that he'd been almost on the point of a divorce, right before his wife had died. And that it had all been his fault, as she had been fed up with the endless parade of recently-seduced women coming into the fishshop in order to make another rendevous for more of the same from her husband. He did say that, each time after a discretion, he'd felt remorse and regret within twenty minutes or so, but could simply not stop his urges to continue, especially as his wife had never been the same after the children had been born, when it seemed that she wasn't as available sexually as she had been before their births, when lovemaking on the floor in front of the chimney had been the norm, rather than the exception.
It wasn't that he was sad to have lost his wife, although her dying so young was a shame, it was that he was sad to have lost his busines and his name in the community as a shopowner...along with the opportunity to meet, flirt with, and seduce the female clientele. He missed his wife and was depressed bacause of the loss of status and income, as the plans for the divorce had been to keep working together at the fishshop, but live their separate lives in private. Now he was well and truely stuck, as the house where he had been living during hs entire twenty years in France, the house that the divorcing couple planned to stay and both live in, albeit separately, was not his, but belonged in name to the old aunt and uncle of his wife that refused to come and work for him in the fishshop, after the death of their niece, his wife.
If it hadn't have been so sad, it might have been funny. I could see the poetic justice in Jean Bernard's predicament, but I could also see that he really did have absolutely no clue as to which direction to head in. And to top it off, he had chosen some very strong medication as a form of anti-depressants.
I again suggested gardening, which provoked a rueful laugh. But I meant it, and meant well, and so Jean Bernard took it in the spirit in which it was offered, and we came to the conclusion, as I prepared to go home, that he would think about considering gardening, and I would think of him as a friend. We shook hands and I collected my seeds, potatoes, my Ruth Stout book, and wished him well on the road to happier times.
As I stood up to take my leave, I once again felt myself being taken into his arms, with the offer still standing of something more than gardening. More than likely, I recall thinking at the time, an offer having something to do with the floor in front of the fireplace. I have to be honest and say that I seriously considered taking Jean Bernard up on what I was sure to be a very good offer...he had a way with the style and mode of caresse that held such delicious promise...and to this day, I think that, should I ever be really and truely in need...
I still run into Jean Bernard in town, every now and then. He seems happier, his face isn't the drawn and sad one of years ago. I sometimes pass him by the betting shop, where he's often laughing and talking animatedly with his friends. He looks as if he's doing okay, now. We stop and do the double-kiss thing, and now, there's slightly more to it, and his hand will linger on my shoulder or on my hip, or he'll tell me off for gaining weight. And then...his eyes are the key, they look for response, they follow me. What can I say? It's nice to feel alive.