As I said, it hasn’t changed much. A few lights, some machines, more people, but still the same Mauvaise R'eputation, the same people with different hairstyles, the same faces. Going in there today you might almost imagine yourself back there, with the old sots and the young men with their girls in tow and the smell of beer and perfume and cigarettes over everything.
I went there myself, you know, when the Snack-Wagon came, Paul and I hiding-just as Cassis, Reine and I hid the night of the dance-in the garage. Of course, there were cars in it then. It was cold too, and raining. The elders and the blackberry tangle have gone, and now there’s only tarmac and a new wall behind which lovers go, or drunks when they want to piss. We were looking out for Dessanges then, our Luc with his sharp handsome face, but waiting there in the dark with the new neon sign going blink-blink against the wet tarmac, I might have been nine again, and Tomas in the back room with a girl on each arm… Funny tricks time plays on you. There was a double row of motorbikes in the garage, gleaming wetly.
It was eleven o’clock. I felt suddenly stupid, leaning against the new concrete wall like a silly girl spying on the adults, the world’s oldest nine-year-old with Paul next to me and his old dog in tow on its inevitable leash of twine. Stupid and beaten, two old people watching a bar from the dark. For what? A burst of music from the jukebox, nothing I could identify. Even the instruments are alien nowadays, electronic things with no need for mouths or fingers to play them. A girl’s laugh, high and unpleasant. For a moment the door fanned open and we saw him clearly, a girl on each arm. He was wearing a leather jacket that might have cost two thousand francs or more in a Paris shop. The girls were silky and red-mouthed and very young in their thin-strapped dresses. I felt a sudden cold despair.
“Look at us.” I realized that my hair was wet, my fingers stiff as sticks. “James Bond and Mata Hari. Let’s go home.”
Paul looked at me in that reflective way he always has. Anyone else might not have seen the intelligence in his eyes, but I did. Silently he took my hand between his. His hands felt comfortingly warm, and I could feel the rows of calluses on his palms.
“Don’t give up,” he said.
I shrugged. “We’re doing no good here,” I said. “Just making fools of ourselves. Face it, Paul, we’re never going to get the better of Dessanges, so we might as well get that into our thick stubborn heads right now. I mean-”
“No, you don’t.” His voice was slow and almost amused. “You never give up, Framboise. You never did.”
Patience. His patience, kind and stubborn enough to wait out a lifetime.
“That was then,” I told him without meeting his eyes.
“You haven’t changed so much, Framboise.”
Maybe that’s true. There’s something in me still, something hard and not necessarily good. I still feel it occasionally, a hard cold something like a stone inside a clenched fist. I always had it, even in the old days, something mean and dogged and just clever enough to hang on for as long as it took to win… As if Old Mother had somehow got inside me that day and, going for the heart, had instead been swallowed by that inner mouth of mine. A fossil fish inside a fist of stone-I saw a picture of one once in one of Ricot’s dinosaur books-eating itself in its stubborn spite.
“Perhaps I ought to change,” I said softly. “Perhaps I should.”
I think that for a while I really meant it too. I was tired, you understand. Tired beyond anything. Two months on and we’d tried, God knows, we’d tried everything. We watched Luc. We reasoned with him. We built elaborate fantasies-a bomb under his trailer, a hit man from Paris, a shot from a sniper’s rifle at the Lookout Post. Oh, yes, I could have killed him. My anger exhausted me, but my fear kept me awake throughout the night, so that my days were broken glass and my head ached all the time. It was more than simply the fear of exposure; after all, I was Mirabelle Dartigen’s daughter. I had her spirit. I cared about the restaurant, but even if the Dessanges put me out of business, even if no one in Les Laveuses spoke to me ever again, I knew I could fight it out. No, my true fear-kept secret from Paul, barely acknowledged even to myself-was something far darker and more complex. It lurked in the depths of my mind like Old Mother in her slimy bed, and I prayed no lure would ever tempt it out.
I received two letters; one from Yannick and one addressed to me in Laure’s writing. I read the first with growing unease. In it Yannick was plaintive and cajoling: he had been going through a bad time. Laure didn’t understand him, he said; she constantly used his financial dependency as a weapon against him. They had been trying for a child for three years without success; she blamed him for that too. She had mentioned divorce.
According to Yannick, the loan of my mother’s album would change all that. What Laure needed was something to occupy her mind, a new project. Her career needed a boost. Yannick knew I could not be so heartless as to refuse…
I burnt the second letter unopened. Perhaps it was the memory of Noisette’s flat, factual notes from Canada, but I found my nephew’s confidences pitiful and embarrassing. I did not want to know any more. Undaunted, Paul and I prepared for a final siege.
This was to be our last hope. I’m not sure what we expected-it was only sheer obstinacy that kept us going. Perhaps I still needed to win, just as I had that last summer at Les Laveuses. Perhaps it was my mother’s harsh, unreasonable spirit in me, refusing to be beaten. Give up now, I told myself, and her sacrifice would have been for nothing. I fought for both of us, and thought that even my mother might have been proud.
I had never imagined that Paul would prove such an invaluable support. Watching the caf'e had been his idea, just as it was he who discovered the Dessanges phone number on the back of the Snack-Wagon. I had come to rely heavily on Paul in those months, and to trust his judgment. We often sat guard together, a blanket tucked over our feet as the nights drew colder, a pot of coffee and a couple of glasses of Cointreau between us. In small ways, he made himself indispensable. He peeled vegetables for the evening’s cooking. He brought in firewood and gutted fish. Even though visitors to Cr^epe Framboise were rare-I stopped opening altogether midweek, and even on the weekend the presence of the Snack-Wagon discouraged all but the most determined customers-he would keep watch in the restaurant, wash dishes, mop floors. And nearly always in silence, the comfortable silence of long intimacy, the simple silence of friendship.
“Don’t change,” he said at last.
I’d turned to go, but he kept my hand in his and I couldn’t pull away. I could see raindrops gleaming on his beret and against his mustache. Behind us, I could hear music from the caf'e.
“I think I might have got something,” said Paul.
“What?” My voice was rough with weariness. All I wanted to do was to lie down and sleep. “For God’s sake, what now?”
“It might be nothing.” Careful now, with a slowness that made me want to scream in frustration. “Wait here. Just want to…you know…check something.”
“What, here?” I almost shrieked. “Paul, you just wait a-”
But he was already gone, moving with a poacher’s speed and silence toward the taproom door. Another second, and he was gone.
“Paul!” I said furiously. “Paul! Don’t think I’m going to wait out here for you! Damn you, Paul!”
But I did. As the rain soaked into the collar of my good autumn coat, creeping slowly into my hair and dribbling cold fingerlings between my breasts, I had plenty of time to realize that no, I hadn’t really changed all that much, after all.