It didn’t take long for sleeplessness to take its toll on me. I began to lose concentration during the daytime. I forgot recipes. I couldn’t remember whether I’d already salted the omelette, and salted it twice or not at all. I cut myself seriously as I was chopping onions, only realizing I’d been asleep on my feet when I awoke with a handful of blood and one of my fingers gaping. I was abrupt with my remaining customers, and even though the loud music and the motorcycles seemed to have quieted down a little, word must have got around, because the regulars I had lost didn’t come back. Oh, I wasn’t entirely alone. I did have a few friends who took my part, but the deep reserve-the constant feeling of suspicion-that had made Mirabelle Dartigen such a stranger in the village must be in my blood too. I refused to be pitied. My anger alienated my friends and frightened my customers away. I existed on rage and adrenaline alone.
Oddly enough, it was Paul who finally put a stop to it. Some weekday lunchtimes he was my only customer, and he was regular as the church clock, staying for exactly an hour, his dog lying obediently under the chair, watching the road in silence as he ate. He might have been deaf, for all the notice he took of the Snack-Wagon, and he rarely said anything to me except hello and good-bye.
One day he came in but didn’t sit down at his usual table, and I knew something was wrong. It was a week after the fox in the henhouse, and I was dog-tired. My left hand was bound up in thick bandage after I’d cut myself, and I’d had to ask Lise to prepare the vegetables for the soup. I still insisted on making the pastry myself-imagine having to make pastry with a plastic bag mittened over one hand-and it was hard work. Standing half asleep on my feet at the kitchen door, I barely returned Paul’s greeting. He looked at me sideways, taking off his beret and stubbing out his small black cigarette on the doorstep.
“Bonjour, Madame Simon.”
I nodded and tried to smile. The fatigue was like a sparkling gray blanket over everything. His words were a yawning of vowels in a tunnel. His dog went to lie under their table at the window, but Paul stayed standing, his beret in one hand.
“You don’t look well,” he observed in his slow way.
“I’m all right,” I said shortly. “I didn’t sleep too well last night, that’s all.”
“Or any night this month, I’d say,” said Paul. “What is it, insomnia?”
I gave him a sharpish look. “Your dinner’s on the table,” I said. “Chicken fricass'ee and peas. I won’t be heating it up for you if it gets cold.”
He gave a sleepy smile. “You’re beginning to sound like a wife, Madame Simon. People will talk.”
I decided that this was one of his jokes and ignored it.
“Perhaps I can help,” insisted Paul. “It isn’t right for them to treat you this way. Somebody ought to do something about it.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself, monsieur.” After so many broken nights I could feel tears coming closer to the surface by the day, and even this simple, kind talk brought a stinging to my eyes. I made my voice dry and sarcastic to compensate, and looked pointedly in the opposite direction. “I can deal with it perfectly well by myself.”
Paul remained unquelled. “You can trust me, you know,” he said quietly. “You should know that by now. All this time…” I looked at him then, and suddenly I knew.
“It’s all right. I haven’t told anyone, have I?”
Silence. The truth stretched between us like a string of chewing gum.
I shook my head. “No. You haven’t.”
“Well, then.” He took a step toward me. “You never would take help when you needed it, not even in the old days.” Pause. “You haven’t changed that much, Framboise.”
Funny. I thought I had. “When did you guess?” I asked at last.
He shrugged. “Didn’t take long,” he said laconically. “Probably the first time I tasted that kouign amann of your mother’s. Or maybe it was the pike. Never could forget a good recipe, could I?” And he smiled again beneath his drooping mustache, an expression that was both sweet and kind and unutterably sad at the same time.
“It must have been hard,” he commented.
The stinging at my eyes was almost unbearable now. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
He nodded. “I’m not a talker,” he said simply.
He sat down then to eat his fricass'ee, stopping occasionally to look at me and smile, and after a while I sat down next to him-after all, we were alone in the place-and poured myself a glass of Gros-Plant. We sat in silence for a time. After a few minutes I laid my head down on the tabletop and wept quietly. The only sounds were my weeping and those of Paul’s cutlery as he ate reflectively, not looking at me, not reacting. But I knew his silence was kind.
When I had finished I wiped my face carefully on my apron. “I think I’d like to talk now,” I said.