By Hilari Anderson
It’s one of those cafés a few frequent and the rest walk right past. I’m a frequenter who admits that Madame Marie is morose; her nephew, Serge the waiter, surly; the croissants stale - and the coffee, teeth-grindingly sludgy. For all that, I come here often - for lunch, enhanced by a carafe of ‘old farm red’. From 11.30am Serge kindly steers others away from my seat by the left window of this Café du Coin, conveniently close to my apartment. I keep well away from the alternative, Le Café Mondiale in the village square, where cyclists in lurid lycra suck up their energy drinks and cheer on swooping replays of Le Tour du France on the giant telly.
No, where I go, there is not even wi-fi – just some dog-eared local papers on the counter, such as Le Progrès and La Vie Nouvelle. By mute agreement, when there are no customers, Madame concentrates on the back page puzzles; Serge sweats over the Sudoku; and the Giant Quick Crossword is left for me. I speed through then stop the moment I get stuck. No patience, but I reckon this activity helps keep my brain active while my dog takes a nap under the table. If he’s lucky, Serge might even throw him a bone.
Serge seems fonder of animals than humans. He knows not to play the garçon role with me. He brings my lunch order but doesn’t take it. My nod to Madame’s raised eyebrow means ‘Usual, merci.’ Serge would never make it as a flash, sharp waiter in the big smoke – too humble and hesitant – he even looks like a question mark, hovering over a new customer, a little too intrusively. Madame keeps him on as a promise to her dead sister … “Look after my Serge for me, Marie – we know he’s not a talker but he has a kind heart.’ So Serge stays on, better at waiting than at waiting upon. What’s obvious is that he has no ambition to leave home, unlike Madame Marie’s only son.
The dog’s a fox-terrier, passed on from an old sailor who died of cancer a few years ago. My job on the road had made it impossible to care for any animal but now this critter and me are a double act - Fox and Wolf - roaming the local hills together. ‘Wolf’ started as my nickname at school. Can you believe my English mother named me Wilfred? Anyway, Wolf suits me, though I don’t ride with the pack – I ‘ve been a lone wolf, me…until Fox came along, a loyal companion in my daily routines. Mind you, he’s not keen on the café as he gets unnerved by the mean presence of Madame Gris, the resident feline, ensconced on a dead pot plant – top shelf – from where her baleful eye surveys the clientele. This raises the hackles of Fox but he endures such cattiness in anticipation of our after-lunch walk in the woods, armed with
sticks: mine for creaky knees and his for fetching.
In autumn, we even go hunting – for mushrooms. I bring a sack back for Le Café du Coin’s cuisine, though mushrooms and fish are two menu items I cannot stomach. However, I appreciate that Madame Marie is peasant enough to serve local fare, according to the season: typically, ‘frites’ and ‘salades’ all year; ‘soupe à l’oignon’ and ‘bouillabaise’ in winter; ‘asperges à l‘hollandaise’ and ‘pâté de campagne’ in spring; ‘ratatouille and ‘salade niçoise’ in summer; and in autumn, ‘quiche lorraine’ and ‘omelette aux champignons’.Should any tourists dare walk in and say Je ne parle pas français, Serge points to a child’s laminated drawings of each dish - with no verbal explanation. No wonder Le Café du Coin rates one star on tourism websites.
The drawings were done years ago by Madame’s son, Hugo, who later left home for a computer whizz job in the metropole. He used to be a whizz at ‘le baby foot’, consistently beating Serge in after-school games. The table with its now rusty blue and red soccer players has been shoved into an alcove – the ball long gone. Hugo rarely returns to the café but always exclaims that the dingy décor has not changed. This pleases his mother. The images he once stuck on the walls are still there, such as Zinedine Zidane as FIFA World Player of the Year in ’98, or a Paris-Match centrefold of Mont Saint-Michel, reflected in a mirror of water, foregrounded by an obedient flock of black-faced sheep. Positioned near Serge’s stool, Hugo placed a postcard of The Thinker by Auguste Rodin and behind my seat, a photo that relates to a story I had once told him. Although I don’t look at this image, its presence haunts me.
As a young man, my destination by frigate was 30 degrees south on DOM-TOM service to French Polynesia, the escargot-slow-way-to-go. I don’t like talking about it. Although my brain might be fried, I did get back – alive and relieved to get out of khaki shorts. Lady Luck next got me a trucking job for French Foodstuffs. The Company manage lorry-runs up to the UK twice a week, from a warehouse in the nearest town. There used to be a bigger demand for ‘continental’ products: truffles, mustards, olives, pâté, cheeses and the like, thanks to the gourmet pretensions of the English bourgeoisie and the 190,000 French living in the UK. But that’s a few years ago. Numbers have dropped now …no need to say why.
Anyway, I got sick of the truck-stop ambiance: glaring lights, greasy fast-food odour, plastic-wrapped flabby sandwiches, sticky tables, mealy-mouthed service and the long queues to get through border control. Mind you, I don’t mind driving – or my own company. In the early days I used to pick up hitchhikers – but the Germans would try to change the country radio station for their Krautrock cassettes; the Americans would complain about me
smoking, and the Kiwis would guilt-trip me about nuclear testing. Merde alors- give me a break. The cab is my domain: ‘roadie blues’ keep me chilled; I like the bitter bite of Gitanes – yeah I know, it’s a bad habit; as for France’s ‘force de frappe’, I’m not responsible for any nuclear deterrence policy… Je suis pas irradié, moi… (muttered under breath).
Recently, from 2015, the desperate, pleading eyes of the asylum seekers in the Calais ‘jungle’ began to jinx a lot of us drivers. No one felt safe at that border – especially the migrants. Then English Customs at Dover discovered in my truck a thin, young Somali stowaway – cold and dead. I have no idea how he had managed to get inside the container. I felt sick to the gut and chucked the job in - there and then. No more long-hauling. I even abandoned the truck and got the ferry and the train home. Haven’t driven since. The Company paid a large bonus to an ex-driver in London to complete the drop-offs.
So here I am – a lunch regular at Le Café du Coin. Just the other day I’m reading the local rag in my customary seat - when I notice yet another claim for compensation by the Nuclear Workers’ Association in French Polynesia - after three decades of testing at Moruroa – the ‘place of a great secret’ in an island of holes at the tip of an archipelago. Then in the same paper, I spy a death notice for an old mate, dead from leukemia. He did overseas military service with me. Both messages hit a nerve – close to the bone. Then ‘Gris! Gris! Gris!’ calls Serge and that fat cat dares to land down on my table. Smoky tail twitching with disdain, Gris stalks off to the kitchen for ‘pâté de poissons’. Now Wolf and Fox are both unnerved. I feel achy, breathless and … mortal. Fox senses my dis-ease, whimpers and nudges his nose into my knee.
My eyes are drawn again to that glossy photo. Its malignancy reminds me what my body and soul experienced. I see that mushroom-shaped cloud ballooning out – flashing from a column of fire and scarring my brain forever. From the frigate deck I had witnessed the first bomb ever detonated at Moruroa, code-named Aldebon. It sucked the water out of the lagoon and spewed fish and molluscs down on the snail-shaped atoll. I remember an officer the next day ordering me to supervise the Tahitian workers on a back-breaking, pick-up job. I handed out buckets and rubber gloves but we ran out of both in no time. Such a sickening, Herculean task. I mean, how can one get rid of so many poisoned creatures? Throw them back in the ocean? I can still see those thousands of rotting fish, swarming in the soupy lagoon. The stench stays with me – for life.
Hilari Anderson lives in inner-city Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She has worked as a drama teacher and theatre director for four decades.
She now has time to write, especially haiku, short stories and playscripts. Her poem “In Quarantine with KM” was published by Regulus Press in their Art of Death volume (Nov. 2021).
Hilari travelled extensively in her 20s and 30s. Based in a squatting community in London, she became the Minister of Cultural Affairs for “The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia” which declared itself independent from Britain in 1977.
In 1978 Hilari was the first cook of the Rainbow Warrior for seven campaigns and later a volunteer in the Paris Greenpeace office. In 1979 she hitched a ride to London with a French truck driver, reluctant to talk about his past. "Aftertaste" comes up with a backstory and a café where he is imagined as a regular.