by Jean-Michel Fortier
La Mèche, 2014
We meet once a week in the big parish hall, below the church, the parish hall where the walls ooze with sin and the ceiling is low, as if squashed by some greater thing—and of course, greatness is what religion is all about. We meet there the day after the Lord’s day. It makes for a big Sunday meeting in the church, all clean and white, cold and vast and heavenly, then another little Monday session in the basement, dark, seedy, hot as hell. Amongst ourselves, we often mutter under our breath how we’d rather mass be held in the parish hall, too, because, surely you’ve noticed, we sleep better in the warm.
But it isn’t the priest who leads the Monday meeting; he sits on a metal chair like the rest of us. On Mondays, nobody is more important than their neighbour, and we’re all convinced that’s just as well ’cause what with the baker who likes to think he’s the mayor, and the mayor who often plays God, and then the priest with his contacts and all, it’d all make for one heck of a headache.
Most of the time, nobody speaks for a good fifteen minutes or so; we rub the back of our necks, we look down at the ground then up at the ceiling for good measure. It’s usually a woman who pipes up first to complain about something or other, like last week, when Angéline Leblanc spoke out against those noisy children of Lise Campeau’s, the hairdresser who’s forever letting her kids make an unholy racket in the street until all hours, then lets them out again in the morning before the cock starts crowing over at Farmer Donat’s.
“All I’m worried about is the little ones’ health. Madame Campeau, you can’t be having your babies sleep just three or four hours a night, it’s not good for them.”
When the plaintiff is a woman of virtue like Angéline Leblanc, it’s an easy wrap and the show of hands speaks for itself: we ask Madame Campeau to keep her children in check, and basta. The and basta is to give things a bit of an Italian twist, at the request of Giorgio Cantarini, a war widower ever since his wife was boiled to death doing the laundry while he was making it back from the front alive, and that was another decision we passed with a show of hands, to always end on an and basta. There’s something final and slightly exotic about it, we like to think; everyone except Cantarini, that is, since that’s the language he always speaks, and in fact it took ages for us to understand what he meant with his and basta because he didn’t even bother asking us in our own language. Now we’ve taught him some of the basics, and he can get by in society.
After the first complaint, often made by a straight-laced, pious lady, the ice is broken and we can all speak freely. Sometimes a man will get up and slip in an announcement, large or small, like last month when Albert Meunier let us in on his plan.
“I’m going to marry Blanche Bienvenu.”
The party in question was absent at the time, since she had yet to blow out eighteen candles on her birthday cake, and that’s how old you need to be if you want to come to the Monday meeting; not because we talk about adult concerns there, just because otherwise Madame Campeau would drag her children along, and there’s no room for them to play and run around in the little room, so that’s that. That was another decision we made together, setting the age limit, although of course we didn’t say it was to spare us from having the little Campeaus under our feet, that would have irritated their mother no end, and the Monday meeting is not for irritating folks; Sunday mass does a good enough job of that.
Next, after the announcements, come the serious topics. Very often, it’s Michon the baker who steps up first, since it’s one thing to say that at the Monday meeting we’re all on an equal footing, but the baker is still the baker, and he gabbers on and always thinks more, never less. So he picks a topic just like that, somewhat at random: stray dogs… the price of flour… Ruth…
Case in point: this week, he’s going on about Ruth. This is something of a recurring theme for him, you might say, likely because Michon the baker lives in the last house on Saint-Ambroise Street, and the forest is right after that, and the forest is where Ruth spends most of her time. We could almost say she lives there, but nobody really knows whether she “lives” anywhere; all we know is she’s older than us and she speaks a funny language. Sometimes she cries out at night in that barbarian dialect of hers, and it’s as if the entire forest were stirring and crying for help, and we understand, since Ruth is quite the piece of work, just ask Michon the baker.
“Ruth’s stealing loaves from me, I could swear it.”
We all stifle an exclamation, because accusing somebody of theft at the Monday meeting has virtually never been done before, except for the time when Mayor Merteuil claimed little Armelle Moche was pinching pens from his office, and finally, upon investigation, we realized that the pens were in fact falling into the heating grate below his desk and melting there, and that was also why the village hall had stunk of dried ink for some time, but in any event, Mayor Merteuil was relieved of his duties since accusing somebody without proof is not really the done thing, well, it can happen, but not if you’re holding office like that. So we sent Merteuil packing, and he went on to commit suicide shortly thereafter, who knows if the two events were connected, and we elected Armelle’s father, Roger Moche, who is still our mayor to this very day. No doubt part of it was to compensate him for the wrong done to his child, because deep down nobody likes having a Moche for a mayor, but at least he doesn’t go around pointing the finger left, right, and centre, and his little girl is happy now—except when she tells anyone who’ll listen that she won’t live a day past fourteen, God knows who put an idea like that in her head, although come to think of it, we do wonder if it might be Ruth, speaking of whom, Michon is still going on about his stolen bread.
“I get my loaves ready every evening before I go to bed, around nine o’clock. That way, come morning I can sleep a little later since all that’s left to do is bake them before I open at eight o’clock.”
That’s the baker down to a tee, we think, always snoozing or daydreaming about bed or a woman in a bed, with his great paunch full of dough; we often tell ourselves he must eat more bread than he sells, and apparently at night he belches out his yeast for hours on end, it’s his neighbour the florist who swears she heard him one evening in July, but for now Michon continues.
“For two weeks now, I’ve let the dough breathe a little on my windowsill in the evening, between eight thirty and eight forty-five. I reckon the night-time air in May can’t do it any harm. Bread, you know, you have to let it air when you can. But I noticed, yesterday and last Friday, too, that I was missing a couple after I aired them out. You see, I always put a dozen by the window, and yesterday there were only ten when I came back to fetch them.”
We find his story plausible, we do wonder whether he counted his loaves properly before setting them out, but we quickly rule out any error on his part: the baker is a man of numbers, and if he says he prepared twelve balls of dough, he didn’t prepare ten; there’s no doubt about that, he knows how to count. All the same, to err is human, and we’re not really sure if we should bring this up, but in any case Michon is off again.
“That’s not the last of it. Yesterday, when I came back to get my loaves, someone had left two little clay bowls full of wild strawberries in place of the two that were missing.”
Now we utter a little gasp of surprise, just like that in unison, because we all know full well there’s only one person around here who makes little bowls like that to cart her wild strawberries around in, and this person, she’s the only one who doesn’t have any plastic containers for picking, not because we’ve never offered to get her some, but because she prefers to live that way, like a native as we say, like a savage, in any case the person we’re talking about, you’ll have guessed, is Ruth of course, whom Michon is more and more clearly accusing of stealing his loaves, and perhaps he’s not wrong.
“You see, it’s as if she was paying me for the loaves with the wild strawberries. But the problem is, and it’s you I’m talking to now, Father, Mr. Mayor, that a loaf of bread is worth a lot more than a handful of strawberries that I can pick any time I happen to set foot outside my bakery. It’s not like it’s a fair exchange.”
We all look to Mayor Moche, since between him and the priest, he’s the more likely to rule on financial matters; obviously it might be up to a judge to decide, but there is no judge in the village, and even if we had one, who knows whether he would come to the Monday meetings? We let ourselves assume that judges only went out for professional reasons, that they called their mothers once a year on All Saints’ Day, and that was all, so Mayor Moche can very well decide whether Ruth is guilty or not even if she’s not here to defend herself; she must be in the forest hatching some plan or other if she isn’t burglarizing someone in the village, which reminds us to keep a close eye on our belongings from now on; a thief among us, we’d never have believed it, and now the mayor looks like he’s about to say something.
“M-m-my friends, Michon the b-b-baker, I-I think accusations without proof are n-n-no friends of ours. Just remember the case of the pens with m-m-my daughter Armelle.”
We’ve forgotten to mention that Mayor Moche has a terrible stutter, another strike against him to go with his less-than-flattering name, in any case who would have thought that a Moche who stutters would one day be mayor, his mother must be so proud, but let’s hear what else he’s found to say.
“And so, a-a-and so, I think it’s p-p-preferable we stick to the facts. B-baker Michon, I will open a l-little inquiry into this l-loaf stealing. Starting tomorrow.”
Mayor Moche is no iron fist, you’ll have gathered; Mayor Merteuil, on the other hand, knew how to handle things, though unfortunately he would blame children for pilfering, and that’s a nasty flaw for a politician, oh look, now Father Caron is getting up, that’s not like him, often he just sits there in the corner scratching his nose.
“My children, let us all go home. There is no point in us slandering any further. Let’s see how things look in the morning.”
It seems they want to cut the meeting short. We look at the priest, who’s sweating more than usual, perhaps he’s having digestion trouble this evening, or perhaps it’s his nerves, we daren’t ask him; a holy man’s stomach upsets are probably tied to the heavens, but at least the meeting didn’t drag on and on and we can go home to watch over our things, that’s right, we’re going to keep our eyes open from now on.