hot chocolate, with a measure of brandy
Christophe Pichon was still there. The blurry glow emanating from the gas lights in the dairy across La Place de la Republique made him look so handsome. Amelie sighed; she was in love.
The October afternoon had turned into a chilly evening; by 6.30 it was almost dark. Christophe shuffled in his badly fitting boots. His left foot hurt. He had broken it in 1906 when he had tried to ride the greengrocer’s horse as a dare and it had never properly healed. On this cold afternoon he had been outside the dairy for almost an hour. Mr Lemonier had told him to wait there; he had a job for him. Christophe had no idea what sort of job. Work from Lemonier usually involved long hours and little pay, but he needed any work that was going.
Amelie wriggled in her chair, willing her wasted legs to move. Soon Odille would come to put her to bed. Oh the indignities of it all. She closed her eyes and imagined Christophe carrying her downstairs and out into the world. He would take her to Lourdes, she just knew he would. When she was cured and able to walk he would marry her as soon as she was sixteen. They would always be happy together and never ignore each other as her parents did.
Across the street Mr and Mme Fischer were arguing. They usually had a row after the second or third absinthe, but today they had at least four before the tension began to build. Raymond Fischer had come to the town as a young man, running away from something, or someone, in his native Alsace. He still spoke with a curious accent that made the locals laugh. Behind his back they called him choucroute, they never called him that to his face. He still had a temper although the years and alcohol had slowed him down.
In the room above the milliners shop, Amelie picked up her sewing. But it was too dark to see properly, the parrot’s wing would have to wait until the morning.
In the shop below Mme Gaudin was undecided. Should she go for an ostrich feather? She liked ostrich, but she had seen in an illustrated paper that in Paris the ladies preferred peacock feathers this year. Her indecision was taking time, and Mr and Mme Lemonier were impatient to close the shop, they had other things to do. But Mme Gaudin was a good customer, so there was nothing they could do except agree, suggest, agree and suggest.
Outside the tabac, relations between the Fischers were deteriorating in response to the quantity of alcohol they had consumed. Marie-Pierre had married Raymond soon after he appeared in the town. The red-haired son who arrived less than two months later could not possibly have been his, but to his credit Raymond treated the boy as his own. The epidemic of polio that claimed Clovis, and many of the town’s children, broke his heart. Marie-Pierre’s heart broke too, but she hid the pain in hard work and increasing amounts of absinthe.
Most evenings Amelie watched the altercations between the Fischers with a combination of horror and amusement, but tonight she paid them little attention. Her eyes were fixed on the dairy until it was too dark for her to see the angelic profile of her beloved. She vaguely wondered where Odille had got to, she wasn’t usually late. Below she heard her mother saying ‘Au revoir’ and ‘Merci beaucoup’ to Mme Gaudin. Then the sound of Mama coming up the stairs. She saw Papa cross the street and hurry to the dairy. To her amazement he was soon in conversation with the adored Christophe.
Her concentration on the unusual sight of her father talking to the man she intended to marry was broken by shouting from the tabac. Marie-Pierre Fischer picked up a chair and smacked it across the head of the inebriated Raymond. Blood and invectives flowed across the square.
Mama came into the room. ‘Odille won’t be coming any more. I’ll have to care for you myself until we can find someone else.’ Amelie’s heart sank. Her mother was never gentle. ‘What’s the matter with Odille’ she ventured. Mama sniffed ‘No better than she ought to be.’ She busied herself with her daughter’s nightwear, muttering ‘catin’ and ‘prostituée.’ Amelie was none the wiser but didn’t want to upset her mother even more by asking questions.
As the autumn dusk turned rapidly to dark, a few more gas lights were lit. Amelie stayed glued to the window until the last possible moment. It was just as well that she could not hear the conversation between her father and the object of her devotion.
Meanwhile outside the tabac, Amelie noticed the Fischers preparing to make their way home. Raymond could hardly walk; the arms of his wife, strengthened by a lifetime of hard work, held him just about upright. The proprietor was telling them, as he told them almost every day, that they weren’t to come back, that their custom was not worth the fuss and that they would have to pay for the chair. In truth the chair was fine. Raymond’s head less so.
Illuminated by the feeble light coming from the dairy, the conversation between the milliner and Christophe was reaching a crucial stage. Amelie’s father wanted a dogsbody, or as he put it a bon à tout faire. He wanted someone on call all day and every day, ready to do everything from looking after the Lemonier’s smallholding to keeping the shop’s primitive drainage system working, as well as collecting and delivering orders.
‘So, Pichon, will you take the job or not?’ From her room above the shop Amelie saw the young man step back and shake his head. She wished that she could hear what was being said.
‘For all that work it doesn’t pay enough. And I need day off at least once a month.’ Christophe knew he was beaten but thought he’d give it a try.
An exasperated Lemonier shrugged his shoulders. ‘For what I am asking you to do it’s more than enough. And don’t come to me asking for days off. If you don’t want it I’ll soon get someone else’. He paused, waiting to play his trump card. ‘You’ll have to marry her you know. If you don’t take this job you’ll all end up on the street.’
Christophe shrugged, there was nothing else to say and his foot hurt badly. ‘All right, all right. I’ll start tomorrow.’
At 7.25 Amelie was in bed with a cup of hot chocolate placed carefully on the table beside her bed. Her mother had clearly resented the wiping, the washing, the holding, the lifting and the dressing. But Amelie closed her eyes and dreamed of the future, WALKING down the aisle with the man of her dreams. Christophe went off to find Odille and tell her that he had a job; the wedding could go ahead next week.
In her room above her parents’ shop, Amelie drifted off to sleep. She wondered why her cup of evening chocolate always tasted so much better than the insipid drink she had in the morning, one day she’d pluck up the courage to ask her mother. But for now she slept, dreaming of the day she would become Madame Pichon.
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