Excerpt

“The Gift”

Jean-Philippe Blondel

December 18, 2017 
The following is Jean-Philippe Blondel’s story from the collection A Very French Christmas, which brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time. Jean-Philippe Blondel lives in in Troyes, France where he is an author and English teacher. His novel The 6:41 to Paris has been a bestseller in both France and Germany.

To be honest, I’ve always loathed Christmas.

Of course, it was a bit different when the children were little and ran around the house clapping their hands, but that didn’t last too long. They quickly realized that Father Christmas didn’t exist and that this was just an occasion to get or to try to get things they had been wanting for the past several months. The ideal moment for being angry or sullen because they didn’t receive exactly what they had “ordered.” There’s nothing like the verb “to order” to evoke the year-end holidays for me.

But I’m being unfair to them. It didn’t start with their birth, but well before. With my own childhood. My father, who was promoted within his company soon after my arrival on earth, had to move for his new position. My parents didn’t know anyone in the large provincial town where they were to establish themselves. My grandparents lived far away; they were old and in poor health. We didn’t have guests over on the night before Christmas, or New Year’s Eve. We’d hear the neighbors celebrating one floor below. And above us as well. And next door. We were surrounded by party hats and horns. We’d unwrap slices of cellophane-sealed salmon. We cut up the frozen lamb. We savored bûche de Noël bought at the supermarket. All in semi-religious silence, my brother, my mother, my father and me. One might have thought I’d find comfort in my older brother, but we were six years apart in age and he always wanted to escape from this hellish silence, which he finally managed to do very early, leaving me to endure as well I could the meals, the weekends, the holidays and the end of year celebrations.

Hélène, on the other hand, adored Christmas. She had the enthusiasm of   a little girl, spending hours debating the decoration of the tree (should it be blue and silver or red and gold this year?), baking cookies, buying Advent calendars, chocolates and spices for mulled wine.

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It’s because of her that our children love Christmas—there’s no doubt about that. After the divorce, of course, things got slightly complicated. The children, who were adults by then, bent themselves out of shape to not leave their father or mother alone for Christmas Eve or Day. Thibault, the eldest, usually arranged to be with my ex-wife the evening of the 24th and would come to spend the next day with me, while Isabelle and Pierre, the younger ones, did the opposite. Of course, when they each married and had their own children, that all became unmanageable and family gatherings got more haphazard—I certainly didn’t complain about it. Thibault, who for years had been a financial advisor, began to hate his job and suddenly threw it aside to realize his dream of opening a restaurant. But not just any restaurant: typically French cuisine, with locally grown products, all organic. Thibault wanted us to inaugurate his establishment all together the following Christmas—father, mother, offspring, uncles, aunts, cousins —the clan in all its splendor. Hélène’s heart attack on December 22nd changed all that. She was buried four days later. She was sixty-seven years old. By that time, we’d already been divorced for two decades. We hadn’t seen each other for several months. Following these events, it was decided at a family meeting from which I was evidently excluded that on each and every December 25th, the entire family would now have lunch at Thibault’s restaurant —La Tambouille—the name meant Chow—so that the living could celebrate, open their presents together and see joy spread over the faces of the youngest ones while also paying homage to the deceased mother. It’s now the twelfth Christmas since my ex-wife’s death. I’m seventy-nine years old. I’m still in decent shape. Even if my hearing is showing signs of fatigue, my vision is still excellent and I still regularly do fifteen minutes of exercise daily as well as one or two walks a day. Nevertheless, we know—the children, grandchildren and I—that I’m not immortal and that soon, on the 25th, they’ll also be honoring my memory.

Like every year for the past dozen, I’m waiting for them. They have to come pick up “Grandpa.” Pierre and Isabelle will probably be in charge because Thibault is busy in the kitchen with his staff. He decided a few years ago that the restaurant should open for lunch on the twenty-fifth. To be sure, we won’t be the only guests, thereby combining the beneficial (that’s to say the profitable) with the pleasurable (his idea of a family gathering is one where he makes only periodic appearances since he’s occupied in the kitchen). We thought the idea was doomed to fail (who after all was going to go out for lunch at a restaurant at noon on December 25th?) but it turned out to be extremely sound. The place is totally packed each year, with tables booked up sometimes six months in advance. Pierre and Isabelle, then, and without doubt one or two members of the third generation, those adorable kids who gradually transform themselves into brooding, unpleasant adolescents and then into impertinent and ironical adults. As always, “Grandpa” gets put in the passenger seat, known as the “death spot,” perhaps betraying a secret desire on their part, even if they all find me endearing, to see me gone and buried so they can divvy up their inheritance; it seems I’m much richer than I appear and that, thanks to well advised investments, I’ve managed to amass a small fortune. They’ve casually tried to ask me about this. I’ve said nothing to confirm or deny the rumor. They tell “Grandpa” how happy they are to see him in good form; they shower him with charming, bland smiles, telling him about the latest exploits of the youngest grandchildren and bringing him up to date on the brilliant careers of the eldest. They remind him of the names of the first great grandchildren. And then in the end, when there’s not much of a response beyond a grunt or a gurgle, they lean back in their seats saying that “Grandpa” isn’t so easygoing, he always had a difficult character and that doesn’t change with age, he could still be a bit more polite and show a little more gratitude toward this family that spends Christmas Day with him; he barely smiles, it’s true, which seems to prove that he doesn’t enjoy it and that we organize the whole hoopla for nothing, he’d rather stay at home near the radiator with a book; ah yes, books, for “Grandpa,” you’d think they were more important than human beings.

How can they possibly know such things? No member of this family reads novels, except for mass-market bestsellers, clichéd thrillers with contrived plots, idiotic romances or discounted pseudoeroticism. And so forth. They drag the books around with them during the summer, glancing at a few lines and then quickly going back to their preferred activities—catching up   on the latest gossip and convincing themselves that the life they’ve chosen is better than it is. Voilà. The absence of literature, among my children, is the most crushing failure of my existence. It’s not yours, Hélène, I know. You used to reproach my passion for reading. My dilettantism—you used to say there are so many other more interesting and certainly more useful things to do— fixing things around the house, rearranging the furniture, laundry, cooking. Don’t misunderstand me. I did my share of household chores, you can’t say otherwise, but it was never enough. And above all, you started to detest books. But that wasn’t the case at the beginning. We’d finished our respective studies, you always had a novel in your purse, even if you didn’t open it too often. I don’t know what happened to us, Hélène. Or rather, I do. The kids soaked up our energy and our sense of self. We devoted all our time to them. We were happy to let them devour us. But you see, it’s excruciating, isn’t it, while I’m waiting for them here on the sofa twelve years after your death and probably  for not too much longer, while I’m sighing at the idea of losing my first name and my personality to become “Grandpa,” because now even Pierre, Isabelle and Thibault call me “Grandpa” and no longer “Papa,” just as I began to call you “Maman” instead of using your first name; people ought to pay attention to those vocabulary shifts since they’re indicative of the real turn of events— while I’m waiting for them and close my eyes as I listen out for the honking of the horn announcing their arrival, I wonder if we were right.

Absolutely.

Because the wild part of me, that part that frightened and delighted you at the start of our relationship, the part that you swore to tame and that you managed to subdue until, realizing that a certain routine had become our existence, you began to be bored to death and to find our union so dull that you opted to file for divorce—that part of me that defined me as much as my other, more refined side, more consensual, the lover of books and fine liquors, the midlevel manager of a textile company, a pretty boy who was a bit too affable, that part,

I believe I’ve lost. And when you lose part of your identity, you already have one foot in the grave. Don’t worry, the other three will follow soon.

I still talk to you, you see, Hélène. Even though our divorce was finalized thirty-two years ago. Even though after you, there was Lydia, that shapely redhead who you became jealous of when we separated. And then Ludmilla. Olivia. Anne. Elisabeth. Five women in thirty-two years. Two women with whom, in contrast to you, I stayed on good terms. It has to be said that the stakes weren’t the same. We were adults, immune, parents, we knew life wasn’t a bed of roses. I meet them sometimes for lunch or dinner. We get along well.  I don’t have the slightest regret. In any case, in my emotional life, I have no regrets. And that includes you, for sure, Hélène. I’m happy to have shared all those years with you. Well, perhaps not those last five.

Sorry?

Who?

Ah, yes, okay. One.

I have one regret.

Only one. In seventy-nine years of life. I can’t complain. There. I hear the horn honking. It’s time for me to turn into “Grandpa,” Hélène. Leave me.

One p.m. Still two hours to go and then I can pretend I’m exhausted and they’ll take me home. I try to put on a good face. I smile when spoken to—it’s one of the rare things that connect me to youth—smiling. I’ve always taken care of my teeth and they’re still in astonishingly good condition for my age. Two implants, a bridge, the rest are original. Their color hasn’t been too spoiled by the cigarettes I smoked with punishing regularity for three decades until stopping abruptly at age fifty. That hasn’t prevented from me from dreaming of taking a puff once in a while—and even from imagining that I smell cigarette smoke in the midst of this group of non-smokers who make up my family and who speak about me in the third person. The stilted thanks, the fake cries of pleasure, the obligatory joy. I join in. I don’t want them to reproach me for spoiling their day. But when I open the packages, I nearly faint. A pair of socks, a bathrobe, a comb; items fit for the hospital or retirement home. Jonas, one of my less irritating grandsons, gave me a watch, a rather ugly metal watch, true, but still it was a present you might receive at any age. Evidently, no one managed to buy me a novel because, as Chantal, Thibault’s wife, declared, “You’re hard to buy for, Grandpa, you’ve read them all, and who knows what you’d like.” It wouldn’t have occurred to anybody to ask me ahead of time for a list, for example. An old guy has no desires, that’s well known. And plus to give me a novel, that would mean going into the center of town, walking into a bookshop—it doesn’t take much more than that. You could buy one at a superstore, but Grandpa doesn’t like novels from superstores, it seems. He’s difficult, Grandpa.

The restaurant is full. It’s been transformed for the occasion. Instead of twenty tables of four or six, there are five large tables—five families gathered to share a convivial moment. Three of them are regulars. They make an appearance here every December 25. The fourth, no. New people. They’re a bit less numerous than we are, but they’re still a good dozen. Two daughters, their husbands, the grandchildren, two or three in-laws, and then, presiding over the assembly, a woman with white hair. The grandfather must have given up the ghost. Men generally resist less well than their spouses. I’m observing her. Her slightly absent look. The smile floating on her lips. She’s bored as well. She feels a bit guilty since she should feel great, there with all her family—but she suppresses a yawn. She’d rather be elsewhere. She’s no longer used to long meals. She never liked them, by the way. I realize that I’m trying to invent a life for her. That’s the problem with literature. One narrates. One embroiders. One adds material.

It’s at this moment she turns her head slightly toward me and our eyes meet.

I hear a faint explosion far away. It’s like a summer storm in the middle of winter, or the start of fireworks whose noise is muffled by the distance. I can’t take myself away from her gaze. My memory has turned into a crazy machine, searching all my internal libraries for the relevant novel, and in this heap of cards and photographs that we store inside ourselves, the information that I need is right there. Because I know her.

I’m sure I know her.

But I don’t recognize her.

I realize that my breath is short and my heart is beating fast—I blush a bit and chuckle. I totally chuckle. At the other end of the room, she narrows her eyes and silently pronounces my name, Thomas; I nod, she too, more slowly. My body panics. I wonder if I’m not going to die there in the middle of a Christmas celebration, from a heart attack whose cause will remain unknown to them, just as they are unaware of my inner compartments, my trajectory,  my youth, my life before their mother and with their mother prior to their  births, those days of snow or heat waves when our bodies remained entwined and we couldn’t suppress our desire.

My hand on her shoulder.

My young hand on her naked shoulder.

My young hand that slowly unfastens the white bra to unveil this naked shoulder with three moles at the base of the shoulder blade.

Three moles. Hélène didn’t have any in that place. I close my eyes. I see a purple neon sign in the street, a bit farther away, with a cocktail glass and a straw in the shape of a parasol, the Relax Cocktail Lounge, the name comes back to me now. There was an evening get-together, organized by the company executives, “Come on, Thomas,” they said. “You’ll see. It’s really nice, the atmosphere is subdued and the hostesses are obliging.” Hearty laughter. I was embarrassed for her.

Alice.

There, that’s her name. Alice. Alice Leprince.

She was the only woman in management at Fabre & Sons, and evidently they didn’t think for an instant that their smutty undertone could offend her.    I think that actually she didn’t exist for them, she served solely as an example and a counterexample when one reproached them for their retrograde attitude toward women. “But that’s absurd!” thundered the director. “Look at Alice! She’s in charge of exports, isn’t that right, Alice?” Tight smiles. She didn’t stay long. She resigned. She left for the competitor. I never got any news. For a while, yes, I regretted it.

Because there was that moment, suspended. A parenthesis. I had of course promised my colleagues and my superiors that I’d join them at the Relax, but first I had to stretch a little bit, I had a bad back. I’d thought of using headaches as an excuse, but they would have laughed—migraines, that’s feminine, that’s what a woman resorts to when she doesn’t want to make love; migraines are degrading and ridiculous. The back, that’s good. It’s a perfect manly excuse. Lots of weight to carry around, lots of responsibilities and then typically male activity; cutting wood, assembling furniture, spending hours under the hood of a car, and suddenly you find yourself folded in half from lumbago. Yes, definitely, back pain, that’s just what was needed, especially since everyone knew I had a double herniated disc, I broadcast it everywhere when I came back from being seen at the doctor’s. Everybody sympathized. No one checked. I knew that a double herniated disc would be useful to me later. They left in a hubbub of insolence and dirty jokes. Alice Leprince came down a few minutes later. She recoiled slightly upon seeing me and then she put her hand over her mouth, to apologize for this fright that she shouldn’t have had.

“You didn’t go with them?”

“No, I … I told them a white lie: back pain.”

She raised an eyebrow. I didn’t understand what made me, all of a sudden, confess to her the truth that I hid from the others.

“White lie?”

“Yes, it’s made up. But I didn’t feel like…In the end, you know…hostesses, alcohol, raunchy stories…sorry…I don’t want you to think I’m better then them, I…”

“But you are.” “Sorry?”

“Better than them. You are. Undeniably.” “That’s not what they think.”

“They don’t think anything, Thomas. The only thing that interests them is their own careers. And money. Take me, for instance: they think I’m a dummy who needs to be ravished in order to let loose.”

I recall the heat on my face. I wasn’t as free as her. I wasn’t used to a woman talking like that. Hélène wasn’t so crude. Hélène adhered to the norm. “I think I’m going to take a walk in town. Along the river, apparently it’s beautiful.”

“It’s going to be dark soon.” “Exactly. Do you want to join me?”

Such boldness was new for me, an audacity that pushed me to invite a woman I barely knew to join me for an evening walk. I wasn’t the type of man capable of such things. I had a good life; I was a father and a loving husband absorbed in work, a creature of habit whose children made fun of him at times because his rituals were immutable, a prisoner for whom books were the sole diversion—a passion shared by no one around me. And suddenly, with Alice Leprince, I entered into one of those secret novels that frightened and attracted me at the same time. I rediscovered a part of adolescence as well, before my path had already been decided, before bumpy roads became smooth highways.

That’s how we ended up alongside the river, Alice Leprince and me. She very quickly confided her thoughts to me, by the way. Not just about other companies, but other cities, countries, horizons. She felt she couldn’t remain here for too long. She’d leave Fabre & Sons fairly soon. We talked for hours; there were times we said nothing. I hadn’t done that in years. It was as if all barriers had fallen away. In the middle of the night we returned separately to the hotel. She went first. I came back ten minutes later. We were afraid we’d run into our colleagues. We were wrong. They’d already come back. The evening at the Relax had turned out to be disappointing.

My hand on her shoulder.

My hand that slowly unfastens the white bra to unveil this naked shoulder with three moles at the base of the shoulder blade.

I was thirty-nine. She was thirty-three.

I remember all the details. They come to me sometimes at night. I drift from one dream to another and suddenly, she’s a fleeting apparition in a crowd, I run to find her, I cry out that I’m free now, have been free for a while, but she’s caught up in movement and disappears. I sigh. I’m used to it. I think I’ll chase after this chimera until I die.

After my divorce, I tried to find Alice Leprince, even if I imagined her throwing open shutters overlooking the Grand Canal or the temples of Kyoto, an indefatigable adventurer, a freelance journalist, a talent scout. In fact, around the year 2000, I even learned how to use a computer and the Internet for the sole purpose of locating her. But women, by marrying and taking their husband’s last name, can easily erase their earthly traces. I quickly understood that it was wasted effort. Then, there were other interests, other novels, other goals, some traveling, health concerns, family worries, five successive women with whom I shared daily life and age that advances and gnaws. I forgot Alice Leprince.

And then suddenly, she’s there—so different and yet unmistakable. Four decades later. One often believes that when you get older you won’t recognize those you knew when you were young, but that’s not true. It’s totally not true. Sure, the skin has withered, the smile is parched, there are wrinkles, but the face stays the same and the general allure doesn’t change that much in the end. Nor does desire. When she silently mouthed my first name, this name that no one had spoken at this table since I became Grandpa, a Grandpa like all the other Grandpas, a Grandpa without an identity, and when her lips formed “Thomas,” my throat became dry and my hands tingled. She froze for a few seconds, knitted her eyebrows, then furtively nodded her head toward the restaurant entrance. My heart didn’t stop pounding. I complied. The members of her family didn’t see anything. Mine either. A few seconds later, I saw her speak to the person sitting next to her—her daughter?—and move toward the restroom, shooting me a discrete, meaningful look. I coughed. I confided to Pierre, who was to my right, that I had a pressing need and I’d be back in a minute. He wanted to accompany me but I satisfied him with a “and what for?” that kept him from getting up. I sensed a twitching in my muscles and under my skin, as if suddenly I’d returned to life. No one paid attention to us. Grandma. Grandpa. We’re so insignificant in this world oriented toward youth. We found ourselves face-to-face in front of the restrooms. She smiled. I asked her at this point if I was ugly. She shook her head. She apologized. She explained that that’s the way it is, it’s so…

“Unexpected?”

“Unexpected, no. More like not something I thought would actually happen. I knew that your son had taken over the restaurant. I dragged my family here several times in the hope of finding you. I knew you were still alive.”

“You could have just come to my house.”

She shrugged her shoulders, told me that she’d done that a few times over the past few months, but had never dared to ring the bell, or call. She was afraid. Of everything. That I wouldn’t recognize her. That I would be blind, deaf, on a respirator. Or worse, a victim of Alzheimer’s.

“I remember you so well, Alice. You’re my only regret.”

Her hand stroked mine. The effect was immediate. I felt myself blush to the roots of my hair. She passed a hand through my hair. She suggested that we take a walk by the river.

“What river?”

“There’s one nearby, no? If not, we’ll go a little farther.” “It’s winter, Alice.”

“Do you lack imagination at this stage?” “I’ve always been that way.”

“I’m not sure of that. Will you join me?” “On foot?”

“Let’s not overdo it. In a few minutes, we’ll be frozen. How about you take your car?”

I sigh. I reply that I haven’t driven in ages. She smiles again—lighting up this sordid setting, the entryway to the restrooms in a restaurant called La Tambouille, deep in the French provinces, a day of mandatory libations. She transforms it into a rugged landscape overlooking the Mediterranean, a steep road in the Alps.

“Very well, we’ll take mine. I’ve always liked driving. Wait ten minutes, I’ll go get the keys.”

I cast a nervous glance at the family table. I’m not afraid that they’ll be upset their Christmas has been ruined. No. I fear that they’ll interfere. That they’ll deprive us of this last bit of freedom. I needn’t be so worried. They’re involved in heated conversations mixing politics, TV, social media and celebrities. They’re not paying attention to me.

I see Hélène say a few words to her daughter, smile, touch her arm, and surreptitiously grab her purse. And as she walks along the wall of the restaurant to rejoin me, I hear your voice, Hélène, and it overwhelms me.

I guessed it, you see.

I suspected you were behind all this.

It’s your gift, isn’t it? For my last Christmas? Thank you, Hélène.

A thousand times, thank you.

__________________________________

From A Very French Christmas. Used with permission of New Vessel Press. Copyright © 2017 by Jean-Philippe Blondel.




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