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Friday, 27 February 2015

Friday 27th February: Voices from the Past

Benjamin's piano lessons are progressing well: I'm pleasantly surprised. I really wasn't keen on teaching a four year old, but he's learning very quickly. Last Sunday he managed to play the whole of London Bridge is Falling Down with only a few pauses. He was so pleased with himself that he ran off, reappearing moments later with Solange and Pieter who gave an enthusiastic applause after hearing the piece. His sister Madeleine, who was dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, also came in to watch. She stood on my armchair and insisted on singing to us in an attempt to drown out Ben's playing. Ben shouted at her, pulling faces and calling her ugly. Pieter carried her outside, but not before she managed to push Benjamin off the piano stool. They're lovely children but, I have to say, I do prefer peace and quiet.
On Wednesday Celine and I went into town to investigate the new second hand bookshop (Madame Dupont's old place). Celine is suffering from writer's block at the moment and her book hasn't been touched for a while. She's desperate to unearth some original information; especially about Merlin the Wizard, who supposedly lived in the Forest of Paimpont.
On the drive into town she told me she was thinking about her father a lot and felt guilty, wishing she'd done more to help him. She also regrets not seeing more of him in his last years. It's difficult to know what to say. I'm sure her father could tell she loved him, and that's all that matters in the end. I said I'm sure everyone has regrets when someone close to them dies.
We were lucky to find a parking place near the bookshop. Every available space in the window was piled high with books. Various sized volumes, precariously balanced, formed a tower as a central display. Celine remarked that, judging by the assorted covers, the owners appeared to have an over-riding interest in military history; particularly aircraft of World war Two. She was intrigued to know who they are.
As I pushed open the door, a familiar bell rang, the same as there had been there when Madame Dupont owned the shop. This, however, was the only similarity: the interior had been completely transformed. The large counter and till was repositioned to the right and the available space was taken up with a variety of bookcases of different sizes; some were new and stood at least six feet tall while others, of half that size, were falling apart. Hand written notes, identifying the subjects in French and English, were taped to each bookcase. Celine headed for the History of Brittany section while I looked over one of the largest bookcases crammed with English text books on the history of World War Two. I was studying an illustration of a Churchill Tank when I heard footsteps. A man, probably in his sixties, was approaching from a door at the back of the room. He had very short, dark hair and small round glasses and was wearing a turtleneck sweater over a pair of black trousers. It wasn't until he was within an inch or two of me that I realised he was a she. She introduced herself as Josephine and spoke in a strange accent, asking if there was anything we were particularly looking for? Celine came over and wanted to know where she was from. She told us Jefferson in Louisiana, although her mother was originally from Rennes. After retiring from the U.S Army, she'd decided to come and live in Brittany for a while. I asked about her interest in military history. Her father had been a fighter pilot in World War II and had served in the U.S Air Force for over twenty years. Her mother had died a year ago and she wanted to see where she'd grown up. She was staying in a small hotel in Carnac whilst looking for somewhere more permanent.
So far, she seemed reserved but when I asked if she had any music books her face lit up. She led me to three bookcases at the back of the shop and asked if I played an instrument. I told her about the band and my piano playing. When I mentioned teaching Benjamin she showed me a pile of children's piano books which she'd bought from a car boot sale a few weeks ago. I sorted through the piano books and found a few which would be perfect for Benjamin's lessons. Celine had found two histories of the Paimpont forest she wanted to buy. She asked Josephine how she was liking France. She said she missed her old home, especially her dog, Bertie, who she'd left with a neighbour. As soon as she finds somewhere more permanent she plans to send for him.
I noticed a ball of wool and knitting needles near the till and I wondered if she'd had any other customers. There was also a CD player on the counter and, from where I was standing, I could hear someone singing a cover of the Madeleine Peyroux song, Don't Wait Too Long. I asked who was singing. Josephine smiled, pointing to herself. I was amazed. She has such a perfect tone (reminiscent of Billie Holiday in the 1950s). She said she used to sing regularly in a jazz bar in New Orleans. I wondered what had made her leave. (Later, Celine said she sensed a sadness about her. They had been talking about the loss of her father and she wondered if this was the reason Josephine decided to move away). 
We paid for our books and I wrote down my number, telling her to get in touch. I'm sure she could sing at some of our gigs. Such a talented singer, but I can't see her making much of a success of the bookshop.

Back at my place Celine flicked through the piano books. Inside one she found three postcards; each written in a child's handwriting. The postcards were of familiar Parisian landmarks; the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. They were all dated from April 1975. Celine read them out, translating for me. They were from a boy called Laurent and addressed to his parents. He was obviously on a school trip. He wrote that Paris was amazing but he was missing home and didn't think much of the food. Laurent's name was also written on the inside cover of the piano books with an address; the same as on the postcards. Celine said the place was a village near Vannes; not too far from her. She took the postcards, saying she'd investigate and try to return them (Celine loves a mystery!) We discussed Josephine for a while, inventing various backgrounds for her. I made an omelette and salad before she left, but I think we both could have done with something warmer! It's still so cold here.
This morning I was running through some pieces for the band when Celine turned up. I could tell she was bursting to tell me something, so, just to tease her, I pretended not to notice. It wasn't long before she had to interrupt. She'd gone to the address on the postcards, a little bungalow on the edge of the village. The person who answered the door had only moved in two years ago and the previous owner was now in a residential home. She looked up the details in her address book and wrote down the address.
Celine had gone there early this morning and met Laurent's mother who was now in her mid eighties. She was thrilled to see the postcards. She read them through several times and told Celine she remembered Laurent going on this school trip as if it was only yesterday. He must have been about twelve at the time. She laughed as she recalled how the children were not allowed to take any sweets on the trip. She remembered sewing a secret pocket inside Laurent's coat and filled it with his favourites.
Celine asked what Laurent was doing now. His mother was silent for a while and gazed through the window looking out onto the gardens. Eventually, she spoke in a quiet voice, saying that he'd died when he was twenty two. There had been no warning. He'd been at home for the holidays, back from university and had gone to bed early, complaining of a headache. The next morning she found him, dead, in his bed. A post mortem was carried out, but no explanation was ever found. Celine didn't like to think of the old lady on her own, but she was told her other children visit regularly.
Celine didn't stay at my place too long. She had a meeting with a historian who's published several papers on the legends of Merlin. After she'd gone I kept thinking about the boy. Celine said his mother mentioned he'd done well on the piano, reaching an advanced level. And now I had his music books. I wonder how Benjamin will get on with them.

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