In the warm kitchen of a remote farmhouse on the flat lands of northern France, the telephone rings. An old man stirs in the chair next to the blackened range he grew up tending. His daughter in law, herself now in late middle age, wipes the flour from her fingers, on to her apron. As she crosses the kitchen to where the telephone hangs on the wall, she tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear, leaving a streak of white across her cheek.
Too soon for anyone to hear, she says ‘Hello’, as she lifts the receiver. The coiled cable is tangled and she sighs and tuts as she tries to loosen it. ‘Hello, bonjour’, she says again, now ready to talk.
‘Marie-Pierre?’, says a woman’s voice.
‘Oui, this is Marie-Pierre’.
‘Bonjour Valerie, Ca va?
‘Yes, yes I’m fine, are you OK?’ Marie-Pierre sensed concern in Valerie’s voice.
‘Yes, I’m fine, why?’
‘Its just that’, Valerie took a deep breath and began, ‘whilst I was driving along the main road this morning, I saw someone crossing the fields towards your place, and you know, what with the rain, and the fields only being ploughed last week, and what with all the horror stories you hear on the news, I mean why would anyone cross the fields? They are so muddy, and that mud sticks like nothing else. My Grand Mama said as many soldiers died in the mud as were shot. So I saw this person crossing the fields and, and….well my mind it just went in to over drive, with all sorts of possibilities, you know?’
Marie-Pierre waits for Valerie’s frantic energy to pass through her.
‘Oh Valerie’, she says, laughing slightly. ‘You have nothing to worry about. A stranger did call at the house this morning. It was a young man, well a child really.’
‘What did he want?’ Valerie, ever impatient cuts in.
‘He was hungry’. Marie-Pierre laughs a little louder now. ‘It was ever so funny’.
Marie Pierre’s laughter is infectious and Valerie’s voice smiles down the phone line. ‘Funny how?’ she asks.
Marie-Pierre begins her story. ‘We were having a usual day. Father was in his chair dreaming and I was folding the linen I had brought in from the line. I managed to get it in just before the rain, but it still felt a little damp so I was hanging it on the rack over the range. Just as I was pulling the rack up there was a knock at the front door. It took me quite by surprise. I don’t ever remember anyone coming to the front door in all my years of living here. I stopped for a minute to consider it, and there is another knock, harder this time. So hard it wakes Father from his sleep, and he sits up in his chair. A little afraid I think. We look at each other while there is a third knock.
I go to the window, but can not see anyone, and anyway the rain is so hard, you saw how it came down, I can barely see beyond the glass. In front of the door is a big pile of boxes, goodness knows what it is, it’s been there so long, so I call out, ‘Go round the back. Use the other door’. But, they ignore me and knock again. By now I am becoming agitated and father shouts, ‘open the door, open the door’, ‘OK, OK’, I say, ‘It’s not that easy, look’, and I begin to push the boxes away from the door. There is another knock. Why they don’t just go round the back, I do not know. ‘Wait a minute, yes, yes’, I say, ‘I’m coming, for goodness sake, just wait a moment’. Eventually I managed to pull the door open. Father and I could barely believe our eyes. It was ever so funny, we are still laughing now, all these hours later. I’m dying for Lionel to get home so I can tell him’.
Valerie joined in with Marie-Pierre’s laughter. ‘What was it?’ she asked, ‘What was so funny?’
Marie-Pierre gave a musical sigh to end her laughter and shook her head. The old man smiled in his sleep.
‘So, after much huffing and puffing. Straining and pulling, I manage to pull open the door. Outside the rain is pouring off the roof by the bucket load. (It must be flowing over the top of the gutter). And there standing before me is the sorriest sight I have ever seen. A boy, maybe sixteen, seventeen, skinny and pale, his long hair stuck to his face. Dressed only in trousers and a t-shirt. Thick in mud up to his knees. Oh, goodness me, it was funny.’ Marie-Pierre laughed again.
‘That must have been who I saw. The person walking across the fields’, interrupted Valerie again. ‘What is so funny?’
Marie-Pierre continues. ‘Father and I are stunned to silence. I look at father, he looks at me, I look at the boy. The boy looks past me to the room and father in his chair. This is when it gets funny, the boy holds out his hand with a one franc piece in it and he says ‘I very woman, do you have the bread for me?’ Father and I look at each other and we both roar with laughter. ‘Pardon?’ I say. He repeats, ‘I very woman, have you the bread for me?’ Again we laugh and laugh. Day after day we live in this house, never seeing another living soul, then, when finally someone comes along…well goodness me, we’ve not laughed like that for years. Again the boy says, ‘I very woman. Do you have you the bread for me?’ The rain is still pouring down, he looks like a drowned puppy. Father and I look at each other, I lift my hands and shrug. Not knowing how to respond. ‘I think he is English’, says Father. ‘And not women but hungry. I think he wants to buy some bread’. ‘He wants to be in the bakery then, not here’ I say, ‘everything but our bread for the day is frozen’. ‘Tell him that’, says Father, laughing. So I turn to the boy, and trying not to laugh I say. ‘I have only frozen bread’, to which the boy pleads, ‘S’il vous plait. I very woman.’ I can’t help but laugh. ‘It doesn’t matter how much a woman you are’, I say ‘the only bread I have is frozen’, which has Father is in fits of giggles. ‘For goodness sake’, he says, ‘just get the boy a baguette from the freezer’, I can’t take any more. So, I shut the door and with both Father and I laughing and repeating the boys words, I go off to the back room and take a baguette. from the freezer.When I return and open the front door again the boy has walked away, he must have thought I had told him to go or something. Anyway I call through the rain and he comes back. I hold the baguette. and wait for him to give me the franc. As soon as he gives it to me and I give him the bread, I shut the door. I didn’t want to see his face when he realised the bread was frozen, and anyway I was getting wet. I ask you Valerie, what sort of a fool is out in the middle of nowhere without a coat in the pouring rain, with no food and not even being able to speak the language? Honestly, what an idiot. He was so funny. We are still laughing now, aren’t we Father?’
Marie-Pierre turns to face the old man in the chair, who sure enough, is chuckling away with his eyes still closed.
Marie-Pierre hears the latch on the back door being lifted. ‘Valerie, I must go. Lionel is home. Au revoir, au revoir’. Without waiting for the reply she hangs up the phone, and anticipating the fun she is about to have with her husband, straightens her apron, and fixes her hair.
Lionel comes in to the room, dressed in his railway uniform, tosses his hat on to the table and sits down. Without greeting him, Marie-Pierre places a half full bottle of red wine and two glass on to the table in front of him. Rubbing his hand across his balding head he says to the room, ‘I saw the saddest thing today’, he shakes his head and pours himself a glass of wine. ‘It is un revolutionary, I tell you, to see such a thing in modern France’.
Marie-Pierre crosses the room with a glass of pastis in her hand and passes it to the old man, who takes it without opening his eyes. Lionel, lifts his glass to the air, makes a silent toast and takes a sip of wine before placing his glass, carefully, back on the table. ‘A young lad, in his prime of life. Drenched to the skin, mud up to his knees, sat, shivering on my train. Peeling flakes of bread from a frozen baguette. When I asked him for his ticket he just shrugged like he didn’t understand, I didn’t have the heart to throw him off, so I bought him a ticket myself.
‘Ha’. Says Marie-Pierre, ‘That’s him. The same boy. He came here, that was our baguette’.
‘Pardon?’ asks Lionel, reaching over to his wife’s face, smiling slightly, as he wipes the flour from her cheek.
‘He must have left here and walked to the station’, says Marie-Pierre, warmed by her husband’s affection and pouring herself a glass of wine. ‘Honestly, it was so funny’.
Lionel sat and watched as Marie-Pierre acts out the story for him. Crossing the room, opening the front door, imitating the sorry excuse for a boy she and Father had encountered that day. Doing the best she can to copy his voice and language. After his second glass, Lionel forgets his pity for the boy, appreciates the comedy of the scene, and is laughing along. Just as he would at every family gathering for years to come as Marie-Pierre tells the tale of the ‘very woman who wanted the bread’.