VÉRONIQUE LAVIE

 I wanna gonna go home again, and sometimes it’s more than a wanna, it’s a wanna wanna. I can feel the pull of it, in spite of all. I dream in French, I think. When I wake up it’s when I feel the wanna wanna the most, when I’m all bleary eyed and yawny mouthed and drifty back to sleep wanna, as if the desire is only properly freed when I’m unconscious and not having to think of anything else, I donna haveta pretend any more. I think I dream in French, because I speak out loud in the night sometimes, and sometimes I wake Hank, and Hank tells me in the morning, and says he couldna understand me, so I think, that has to be French.

 I dream in French, but when the phone rang and woke me, and I picked up the receiver, and the words on the other end were French, and the accent was French, and the shape and the colour and the feely feel of what I heard, that was all French too, for a moment I could barely work out what was being said at all, and I burned with shame, although it wasn’t as if Papa could see me. Hank was still sleeping beside me, and Papa was speaking fast, and he never spoke fast, and I told him to wait a moment, I’d take the call in the other room. I got out of  bed and my head was reeling a little and I felt sick, and I donna know why he had called, but I could guess, and I just hoped it wasn’t someone I cared about. I picked up the phone in the hall, still speaking quietly so I wouldna wake Hank or the kids, and Papa started from the beginning, the same words, and I knew then this was a rehearsed speech, this was summing he didn’t wanna say but haveta. I interrupted him and asked how he was, and how Maman was, and he paused, and said in that quiet unrushed tone I was used to, as if everything was a matter of great and calm contemplation, that they were both well. He asked how I was, and how Hank was, and how were the enfants, and I said we were all well too. He said that was good. And then he paused, and I could hear him take a deep breath, and he was starting his speech again, from the beginning for a third time, and I wished I hadna bothered with any pleasantries in the first place.

 The conversation was awkward but not unkind, and I remembered with a stabbing guilt that actually I did love my father, it was just easy to forget sometimes. He seemed happy to be talking to me again too, we both agreed it had been far too long, but neither of us bothered to work out exactly how long, that woulda been rude. And Papa was always nice to me, I donna think he ever blamed me, and looking back I think he’d probably done his best to hide his disappointment – and the last time we’d spoken there had been harsh words, certainly, but they’d mainly been harsh words from me, and I should never have attacked Maman like that, of course he would take her side, he may not wanna but he was gonna, he had no choice. Ma French still seemed a little rusty and I was embarrassed that I couldna find the right phrase for ‘open casket’, and I thought that maybe that was because I was still sleepy, or had spent the last years surrounded by étrangers, or maybe the crackle on the line put me off, there was never good reception on the phone in the hall, that’s why we preferred the bedroom.

 This was urgent, and I hadta gonna wake Hank, even though it was Saturday and he liked to sleep in and liked us to have a cuddly. I explained to him I’d haveta get on a flight back to France that day, the funeral was tomorrow. He asked who was dead, and I said it was Madame LaVie, and he asked who that was, and I said she’d worked in some shop or other, and he asked if I’d known her well, and I said I hadna, and he asked why I wanna go then – and he still donna understand, maybe he never had. And we donna wanna argue, but a part of me wanna did. And he asked if he hadta gonna too, and I hadn’t the heart to tell him that Papa had expressly suggested Hank wouldna be welcome, and I said I donna think his being there was necessary, and Hank did his best to look proper regretful but it mollified him somewhat. I said I might take the children, and he said I couldna take Daizy-Jo – she was only seventeen months, and she’d had a cold, he wasn’t gonna let her get sick travelling across Europe: I could take Pierre if I really wanna to. It might be an education for him. I spoke to Pierre but he wasn’t having any of it; he stamped his foot; he said that he’d miss some baseball final, and all the boys at school would hate him, and I was stupid to think he’d wanna go to some dumb funeral in the home country anyway. And I coulda made him, but Jesus, I donna wanna take Pierre anyway, six years old but acting like sixteen, and hating me so bad sometimes, and forming alliances against me with his dad. So I said he could do as he liked. And I went to the airport by maself. “Bring us back a croissant,” said Hank, and the kids laughed.

 It felt odd to be in France again; frightening too; when we crossed into French airspace I felt ma stomach become a clenchy thing, I can’t be sure it happened the exact moment we flew into France but I bet it was. And all the signs at the airport said, “Welcome to Paris City! We wanna wanna wanna you have fun!”, and all those wannas sounded insincere, and I thought, yeah, fat chance of that. Papa was at the arrival gates waiting for me. He even carried a sign saying ‘Lisabelle’, which is the name he always used for me, and the sign was just in case he couldna remember what I looked like, or maybe he feared I wouldna remember him; Maman wasn’t there, and that was good, but I was expecting that. We hugged, and we were all right. We were good. He drove me the three hour journey to our town, and we talked a bit, and we talked in French, and I’d been afraid of that, afraid I’d gone rusty, forgotten the words, forgotten the accent – but French just flowed out of me, so pure and easy, and I felt sort of comfy comfy and Gallic. He asked me only once why I hadn’t brought Pierre or Daizy-Jo, though he called only Pierre by name, he called Daizy-Jo ‘la petite’, and I told him I never promized I could bring them, and he said Maman would be disappointed, and I said I couldna help that. He reminded me he and Maman had never met Daizy-Jo, and I said nuffing to that, and we drove for a bit, and he changed the subject, and the French flowed so comfy comfy, we were all right.

 I went a bit dozy, I shut ma eyes against France. But Papa woke me as we neared the town, and I wished he hadn’t, and it was strange to drive past the places I had grown up with, the school, the church, shops. When I had left, all the road signs had been in French; the French was still there, but now it was written beneath, and it was in smaller writing. But except for that the town all looked much the same, it looked neat and clean as memory itself, and I caught maself thinking, you coulda live here, girl, you coulda settle down and be happy. And there was the house, at the end of the lane, ma house – and I thought it’d look smaller than ma childhood imaginings, but no, it was just as big, and twice as forbidding. Papa parked outside. “She’s inside, it’ll be all right,” he said, and smiled gently, and it was the only time ever he donna speak French to me, and I wondered whether he was trying to make me feel safe, or whether for him too this whole dying language thing was just an act. I went indoors. Maman was in the kitchen – and she, she at least, she was smaller, and I realized she no couldna hurt me, I coulda punch her if I haveta, I coulda squeeze her up tiny and tight in ma fist. She was doing summing with dough; baking it, I dunno. And I moved to hug her, but she waved me away, told me she was covered with flour – as if ma visit had been unexpected, I’d gonna dropped in unawares like, as if she hadna summoned me there in the first place. “Pas d’enfants?” she asked, and I began to say I was sorry – non, she waved me away again, as if it were nuffing, as if she wouldna speak of it no more. “Quel dommage,” she said, “eh, bien,” and then summing about how it would be nice to see her granddaughter at some point before her funeral. And she turned back to the dough, then, and I was dismissed, so I wandered into the sitting room, ma sitting room, from ma childhood, and it was clean, spotless, there were no kids racing around this house marking the walls and scuffing the carpets, and I thought of ma kids, and I’d only seen them that morning, but now they seemed part of another life so very far away. The house all looked just the same as I remembered it, was that deliberate? And Papa had gone, I dunno where, he’d gone into hiding, so I was left on ma own for half an hour, awkwardly pacing a room that had been mine but was now not mine, sitting on the very edge of our old sofa, feeling so bored and a little scared and sick.

 There was a knock at the door then, all gently gentle like so I thought it was the wind, but then it knocked again, and I waited to see if someone was gonna answer it but no one wanna, so I did. And on the doorstep was a man, and he was a bit fat, and a bit sad. I asked him in French what he wanna, and he looked embarrassed, and said he’d been invited for dinner, so I let him in. I asked him if he was part of the funeral too, it all seemed like such a lot of bother, and he told me it was his mother we were gonna bury, and I felt bad and said sorry and he said it donna matter. I donna remember the man from my childhood, I donna know Madame LaVie had had a son, and he said his name were Jacques, and he shook ma hand all formal like. And then Maman came out, all smiley smiles, and she’d got changed out of her floury dress into summing flowery, and I hadna seen her smile so wide and I hadna seen her look so dressy. Papa appeared too, as if by magic, and there was dinner on the table, and wine was poured, and cheese was cut, and candles were lit. We ate dinner and I was glad Jacques was there, it meant me and Maman donna need to talk much. Maman asked about the children, of course. She asked whether Pierre remembered her, and I dunno, I never been and asked him. She asked whether I’d taught him French – and I said, of course, I spoke only French to both Pierre and to Daizy-Jo – and that was a lie, I couldna speak nuffing but French, there weren’t enough French words left, the scientists kept on inventing new things and French couldna catch up. And Pierre hated French – he hadna spoken French since he was four – he told me it was stupid – told me I was stupid – no wanna call me ‘maman’ like I ask him no matter how much I beg. “Lisette est mariee a un étranger, un Americain,” Maman explained to Jacques, and she raized an eyebrow, and Jacques smiled at me sympathetically, and I liked him a bit less for that, actually. I said that Hank wasn’t an American, he was a Czech, and we all lived in Prague, remember? – and Maman said, “Quelle est la différence?”, Americanese was Americanese, she coulda understood why I’d sleep with an American, but marry one? And Jacques looked embarrassed again, and I realized Jacques’ default position was embarrassment. Papa cleared his throat, and raized a glass in toast to Jacques’ dead mother, and that cheered the mood somewhat.

 Before I’d finished my dessert of crepe suzette Maman and Papa both lit up cigarettes. Papa informed us cheerily he’d been looking forward to his cigarette, he could only smoke after meals now he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. I wanted a cigarette too, but not there, not with them; besides, at home I only ever went outside in the garden to smoke, Hank would insist on it, and the children, I donna think they ever knew I did smoke – and I’d nearly given up too, but with Maman and Papa, and now Jacques as well, all puffing away, and so much childhood around me, I wanna go back to my childhood things, I wanna a ciggy cig. So I got up and went outside, and Maman sneered and said it wasn’t the French way, the French smoked at the table, it was polite. Jacques said he’d follow me out for company and that was very gracious of him. I stood out in the street and looked at ma town in the twilight, and I’d been wrong, the town was small and it was dirty. Jacques gave me a light, and I hadta cup ma hands around his to stop the flame from blowing out. “Merci,” I said, and he nodded. He broke into Americanese then. Said he donna know French well, he’d left town when he was only a child. Donna know his mother well either, come to that. And he’d looked sad all evening and now he looked even sadder like, and I wanna hug him and comfort him – just nice, not wanna wanna. “But now mother is dead, and I inherit the house, and I’m gonna live here again, and I’m gonna learn French, proper like, like a proper Frenchie.” He said that maybe I could help teach him, and I said I donna think I was very good at French, and besides, I wasn’t staying. He said that maybe we coulda be friends, and I said, I’m not staying. I thought we’d both speak in ordinary Americanese for a while, that might have been a relief, but we donna much, and what we said we said in French somehow – and we looked out at the night – and we looked out at the town – and he lit a fresh cigarette for himself when he was finished so he coulda stay with me, and when I finished mine he dropped his on to the ground half-done and crushed it out with his shoe.

 We went back indoors and Maman had already cleared the table. She said it was gonna be a big day tomorrow and that the party should end now, and Jacques thanked her for dinner very much, he beaucouped like a pro, and Maman gave one of those big smiley smiles again. He wished me good night, and shook my hand. “Pas si formelle,” said Maman, “nous tous sont amis, maintenant!” And Jacques blushed, took my hand again, and kissed it. He was fat, as I say, and awkward, but his lips were soft against me and I had a tingly.

 I went to find my bedroom and it was right where I’d left it, all those years ago.

 The next time I saw Jacques was in the funeral cortege. As the bereaved son he was walking far ahead of me, he was right beside the coffin itself, but he looked behind once or twice and saw me and waved and smiled. He was all dressed in pitchy black, and it suited him neatly, it was rather slimming. I was dressed in pitchy too, everyone was pitchy, and we all looked so serious, and it seemed like the whole town had come to walk Madame LaVie to her grave – but there was a buzz to the air, an excitement, and I think a lot of that was to do with me, I saw the people look at me, and giggle to themselves, and say stuff like, “Que fait-elle ici?” and “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” and “C’est honteux!” We filed into the church solemn like, and took our places in the pews. The priest in white stared us all down beadily. We sang a hymn, we sang ‘Prends en Ton Main la Mienne’, and then we prayed a bit, we did our amens, and then we sang again, ‘Vers Toi, Divin Pere’, and I tried to imagine Madame LaVie climbing closer towards God but I couldn’t remember what she looked like, and I thought maybe she looked like Jacques, so now in my head there was this dead woman with a face like a fat man kissing me.

 And the priest spoke. He said that Véronique LaVie was dead, but that we mustna grieve, she’d lived a full Christian life, and had run her sweet shop with full Christian vigour. We mustna grieve the woman, we must grieve instead what her death represented. Because with Véronique LaVie dead, it meant that there were only seventy-eight people left in the world who were fluent speakers of French. And that if he knew Véronique LaVie at all, and he did, she’d been a good solid decent Christian woman, her Christianity and the quality of her bonbons were never in doubt, then he knew she would be eager to subordinate any mourning for herself in favour of a mourning for her fine ancient language – the language of Racine and Balzac, of Flaubert and Sasha Distel, the language Véronique LaVie herself had clung on to all her life in defiance of pressures elsewhere to conform, because ours was now an endangered language, a dying language – the rest of France had given in, and only our little town had French as their first tongue – and a dying culture too, within a generation all would be lost to the Americanese that had taken over Europe, even here, even here in this town of ours, did not the townsfolk remember how the battle to keep our road signposts pure had been lost? Even here, and it was the fault of the children; the children were faithless; the children were leaving the town of their ancestors and marrying étrangers from outside, they were polluting the sanctity of the French blood with their Americanese husbands and the mongrel offspring they would produce (and at this there was some muttering like, and a woman next to me nudged me hard in ma ribs, and another behind called me traitor) – French itself would soon be extinct, like Latin, like Aramaic, like Portuguese – and the priest said he donna wanna be part of a world without French in it, such a soulless world, and that Véronique LaVie was lucky, lucky now to be dead, lucky to die before she saw the death throes of the language she had so cherished each day she sold her liquorice allsorts and hung signs for lemon sherbets in her shop window; we mustna grieve for Véronique LaVie, we must envy her! Shame on us, he said. Shame on us all, for letting this happen. Shame on us for not taking a stand and driving out the corruption when we had the chance, for letting ‘le sandwich’ and ‘le week-end’ and ‘le chewing-gum’ creep their way into our vocabularies, we had done this to ourselves, we were ‘les fuck-ups’. – He suggested then that we pray, and so we did, and Jacques said a few words in halting French about how he’d loved his mother, and we buried her.

 And we were shown the gravestone, and there was much oohing and aahing, and I wanna gonna oohy aahy too, I wanna play along, be nice; but I couldna, it stuck in my throat. Because it said she was ‘née’ in one year and ‘mort’ in another, it said she was ‘survécu par son fils affectueux’, and that she was ‘béni par Dieu’, that she was now resting ‘dans la paix éternelle’, and the words looked so silly and alien, and all I could think was, it’s a dead language, it’s dead, and soon no one will be able to understand what is written here, and the inscriptions will mean nothing, and poor Véronique will die twice, and there won’t be the words left to care, and we’ll all go spitty spit on her grave and break down her tomb for rubble.

 And there was a wake at Jacques’ house, and he’d done his best, he’d cleaned the place spicky span, and everyone had brought food and wine to toast his dead mother and send her on to Heaven. And I felt so sorry for him, surrounded by these old witches, and his trying to speak French to them all, and getting his tenses all muddly and his conjugations wrong – and he’d smile across the room to me once in a while, a brave smile, a lookie how well I’m coping smile. If I went outside for a cigarette I hoped he’d wanna follow, and maybe he did, but he was too busy. I lit up, I paced about, I phoned Hank. “How’s the funeral?” Hank asked, “They feed you lots of croissant?” I told Hank I loved him. I told Hank I was pleased he’d taken me from France and to somewhere bigger, somewhere we could call The World. “I love you too,” he said. “You gonna wanna come home fast fast soon?” I asked him whether he ever thought of himself as a Czech. I mean, his parents were Czech, and had names like Vaclav and Agáta; he was born in the Czech Republic, but he donna know the Czech language, he couldna speak it, he was called Hank and liked watching baseball with his son. Donna he ever feel guilty? Donna he ever feel he’d betrayed them? His family, his ancestors? He went silent on me. I lit another cigarette, and I’d been trying to keep ma puffs away from the speaker on the cell phone so he wouldna hear, but now I donna care. “You’re smoking again,” he said. “You always smoke when you get all French.” And I told him to go fuck himself.

 Back indoors the wake had a special visitor. Grandmaman had come to pay her respects. We’d always called her Grandmaman, even when I was a child, though she had no family of her own, I think they were all long dead – and she’d always been so old, she must now be in her nineties or a hundred or summing. She’d been too weak to attend the funeral, but she wanna hadta be at the wake. She had never learned Americanese, not a single word of it, they said; they said she was the only pure French speaker left alive. She hobbled her way to the front of the room, and everyone stood aside respectful like, and she beamed at us all, and she beamed in particular at Jacques. She cleared her throat, as if to make a pronouncement. “O`u est mon bébi?” she asked. “Je voudrais mon bébi. Je voudrais mon bébi bleu. Etes-vous mon petit, eh non, eh non?” And she opened her mouth wide, and cackled, and stuffed an entire crepe inside it. And then took hold of Jacques, the crepe still hanging out, and kissed him hard on the lips.

 Grandmaman didn’t stay long, and her departure was the signal for the other townsfolk to leave. Maman and Papa left too, but I asked Jacques whether he would like ma help in clearing up, and he seemed grateful for the company, so I stayed, just him and me, all alone. We washed the crockery and the cutlery, and binned all the cakes that had been brought, and poured away all the homemade wines. I donna know what to talk about, “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and it wasn’t really for the loss, I was just sorry. “Merci,” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said, “Merci,” he once more replied, and we coulda gone on for ages, bridging the two languages like that, but then he kissed me, and I kissed him back good and proper like, and it felt right, and it felt French, all comfy comfy the way it is meant to be. He took me to bed, and he got undressed, and I saw how his funeral pitchy had held his belly in tight, now released the folds of fat rolled out every which way. “Stay here with me,” he said. “Stay here and teach me French, and be ma friend, and stay with me here forever.” And I told him I liked him very much, and I did sometimes feel the wanna gonna come home again, but it was just a dream, and I was married. He told me he’d been married once, that was no object. I said I donna think ma mother would be too happy to have me back. “Oh, she’d be very happy!” he said. “In fact, this was her idea. Stay with me, and we can have a child, a pure French child, we can save them all.”

 I left him then, and went back to my parents’ house. Maman was there in the kitchen, though it was late, and I think she hadta been waiting for me, she donna seem surprized to see me, and she started right in like she knew whose bed I’d come from. “You don’t even haveta stay,” she said, and the Americanese she spoke sounded odd and contemptuous, as if the mouth itself resented being forced into such ugly shapes. “You gonna make baby now. You gonna go then to your American, but you gonna come back here nine months later for the birth. You gonna leave it here with us, we wanna make it ours, the whole town, it gonna be our child, not yours.” I asked how I would explain the pregnancy to Hank, and she shrugged, as if that were a supreme irrelevance, and I realized it rather was.

 I went back to Jacques. He was so sure of himself. He hadna even left the bed. “I wanna you so bad,” he said, and I told him I wanna him too. But he donna say he wanna wanna me, and I appreciated that little honesty. We had sex then, it wasn’t the Saturday morning cuddly I had with Hank, and Jacques said we haveta get baby, we just haveta, and I kinda admired his conscientious desire to keep French culture alive and the way he fought off his own post-coital lethargy for the common good. We had sex four times that night, taking a longer pause each time for Jacques to get his breath back, and I couldna help but think each effort he made was less fertile than the last, and more desperate too, oh but he really wanna give pregnancy the best chance he could. He told me he wouldna get his inheritance otherwise – and all the town had pitched money in, they wanted their Frenchie baby to be one right wealthy little bastard. And afterwards we lay in bed and smoked, and he showed me photographs of the wife he had been persuaded to divorce, and their mongrel children he had left behind. And he cried.

 In the morning Papa drove me to Paris City airport. This time he donna wanna say a word.

 On the flight I felt at my belly, and wondered whether there was a little Frenchman growing inside. And I fetched my car from the airport, and I drove all the way home. I parked on the road, a little from my house, a little from where Hank or Pierre or little Daizy-Jo could see me if they just looked outta the window, but they didn’t wanna look outta the window for me. And I fingered at my belly again, I prodded at it hard, and I was excited the way I hadna felt with making those Americanese children. And I wanna wanna gonna go home, sometimes I feel the pull of it so bad in spite of all. But I couldna work out which home I mean.

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