Friday, September 20, 2013

Monsieur Mizette and the Unexpected Guest: a short story

Something a bit different: a previously unpublished short story of mine set in the south-west of France, around a lonely old goose farmer who finds an unexpected friend. Enjoy!

© Sophie Masson
Monsieur Mizette lived all alone on a little farm outside a southern French village called Lézac. His wife had died when she was young, leaving him to look after their only son Martin. But Martin had long since grown up and left the village to work in the city.
Monsieur Mizette's family had always lived on the farm and it made him sad that after him, perhaps no-one would. The Mizette farm was small, but very beautiful, with its tiny green fields, divided by stone walls, its large glassy pond, and its old farmhouse with walls covered in roses in the summer. Monsieur Mizette loved it there. He hardly ever left it, except to go to Lézac to do a bit of shopping. Once a year, in November, he went to the goose fair at the nearby market town of Saint-Romain, but he'd only once been to the big city where his son lived. He didn't like cities, with their noise and bustle. Not at all!
It was well-known that Monsieur Mizette raised the finest geese in the whole district. Every year, he would raise a new batch--fluffy little yellow things which would soon turn into plump, dignified creatures that Monsieur Mizette loved. Nothing was too good for his geese---the finest pasture, the most comfortable beds of straw, light, airy sheds, warm nesting-places, a gleaming pond. In the spring and summer, the geese would waddle around the farm, happily grazing, or swimming on the pond. In the autumn, the ones Monsieur Mizette had selected for sale would be driven into a special shed, with its own yard, and were pampered. Monsieur Mizette bought cobs of golden maize for them, and would spend hours mixing up the geese's maize porridge--a soft, golden mush, flavoured with olive oil. Monsieur Mizette would look at his greedy geese, throwing themselves on the porridge, with a tender tear in his eye."Ah, my pretty ones," he would say."Enjoy it while you can!" For though Monsieur Mizette loved his geese, he also depended on them for his living, and the day would come when he had to pack the fattest into crates, and take them squawking along to the goose fair to be sold.
When Monsieur Mizette was not working, in the evenings, he liked to listen to records. He had an enormous collection of old records, and an enormous old record-player to match.His son, Martin, had tried to buy him a more up-to-date machine, a beautiful combined CD and DVD player. He urged his father to get rid of his old records. But his father had shaken his head. "What would an old fool, like me want with that modern thing?" he said, his jaw set stubbornly. Martin tried to argue with him, but soon gave up.
What Monsieur Mizette loved best of all was jazz. He had hundreds of jazz records--from the most obscure to the most famous, from all corners of the world, but especially from New Orleans. His idea of heaven would have been to hear the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, in person. Ah, the angels themselves would dance at the sound of Louis' golden trumpet!
But the record always stopped, and Monsieur Mizette would open his eyes with a jerk. He was not in heaven, or in New Orleans in the 1920's (which he sometimes thought must be the same thing).He was on his farm, alone, the geese needed feeding in the morning, and in two weeks' time they would have to be prepared for the goose fair. Monsieur Mizette sighed.Much as he enjoyed the goose fair, he often wished he had someone to share it with. He thought of his dear wife Eulalie, dead so long ago, and went and fetched her photograph. He sat there looking at it, at the strong, smiling face staring out at him, the bright black eyes, so like Martin. Ah well Eulalie, he said to the photo, At my age, I should be getting used to it, shouldn't I? Eulalie smiled back at him, her face always young, always cheeky. She never got old..
The day of the goose fair came. Monsieur Remi Mizette dressed himself very carefully, and put on his best beret.He looked at himself in the mirror, once, and was about to go out to the shed to pack the geese into their crates, when the telephone rang.
"Papa," said Martin's voice at the other end of the line."Papa, I wonder if I can ask you.."
"What?" said Monsieur Mizette, cautiously and rather loudly. He didn't like the telephone much. He liked to be able to see people's thoughts in their eyes.
"You see, Papa, I have met a wonderful woman, Rosemarie, and we will get married soon."
"Oh?" said Monsieur Mizette, amazed but still cautious.Martin, even as a child, always liked to spring things on you at the last minute.
"Well, we..that is, I have to go to Paris for a few days, and I would like Rosemarie to come with me."
"Fancy--Paris!" said Monsieur Mizette, who had never had the slightest desire to go to that far-away place.
"Yes, wonderful," said Martin impatiently, "but the thing is.." He coughed."Rosemarie has a child. A little girl. And we can't really take her. We were wondering if.."
Monsieur Mizette said nothing for a while. He thought of the years he had raised Martin alone. How long ago that seemed! He grasped the telephone receiver hard.
"Yes, yes," he said softly, while Martin was still talking, excusing himself, explaining."Yes, yes."
Martin stopped talking. There was a short silence. Then, "Papa?" he said, rather uncertainly.
"Yes, I'll look after the child," said Monsieur Mizette, sighing."Though what a city child will think of my farm.."
"She'll love it," said Martin firmly."Animals and all that." Monsieur Mizette smiled to himself. Martin was still the same. Always too preoccupied by his books and his own affairs to really open his eyes to what was around him.
"We're sending her on the train, then," Martin said."Tomorrow."
Monsieur Mizette drove a bit quicker than usual, that day. The familiar road to Saint-Romain flew past him as he went,thinking hard about the child. Martin hadn't even told him her name! What would he do with her? She'd be bored in two minutes, a city child in the middle of the country.

When he got to the goose fair, which was held in the huge Saint Romain market hall, he set up his stand absent-mindedly. His neighbours on other stands, who sold live geese or ducks in crates, like him, or who displayed the beautiful waxy carcases of their ready-to-roast birds, asked him what was the matter. When he told them, they shook their heads and smiled."Children these days, they need a lot of entertaining," said one."Films, videos, new musical instruments, the best, most fashionable gear, computers," said another."Without those things, a modern child can't function," said yet another. Monsieur Mizette's mind was in a whirl .He had none of those things.And nor was he going to get them.
When he got home, he again took down the photo of his wife."Ah, Eulalie," he said, shaking his head at her smile, "what are we to do?"
He put on his favourite Louis Armstrong song to make him feel better."Everybody loves my baby," he sang in his cracked voice and bad American accent, along with the trumpeter, "But my baby don't love nobody but me!" Unaccountably, tears started in his eyes, as he thought of holding Eulalie in his arms while he sang. She'd laugh, tap him on the cheek. Ah--it was all so long ago, he told himself. So long ago--and now he was dreading the arrival of a child he didn't even know. Then he had a sudden thought. When he'd had to raise Martin, he'd played it by ear, most of the time. There were no rules, really. And that comforted him.

The next day, he was at the railway station in Saint Romain, in plenty of time for the train. It had felt strange, to come into town again, straight after the fair. Saint Romain was very quiet, as if the fair had exhausted the town, and only three people got off the train at the station. A tall thin man; a round blond lady; and a small thin child in jeans and short hair. Monsieur Mizette decided that must be the one, though you could hardly tell if it was boy or girl, with those clothes and that hair. His heart sank. A city child, through and through, you could tell. Then his eyes met the child's.
Both had a shock. In her thin face, the child's eyes were bright and black, a little wary, true, but also curious, and lively."My God, Eulalie," thought Monsieur Mizette, she's got your eyes!"
But the child saw a tall old man, with a great mop of white hair under his black beret, with eyes that she thought were unlike any adult's she'd met--green, dreamy, rather uncertain. She marched up to him.
"How are you," she said."You must be Monsieur Mizette.I am Mélodie Marchand."
"Mélodie," said Monsieur Mizette.
"Yes, it is a silly name, is it not? My mother is a musician," sighed Mélodie, arching her brows.
"Ah, a musician, of course!" said Monsieur Mizette."Well, well.." He rubbed his hands, and looked even more uncertain.
"I am sorry to bother you," Mélodie said suddenly."You see, Martin--I mean, your son, Monsieur Mizette, and Maman, they need time .." She was trying to sound adult and composed, but her voice was a little shaky, and Monsieur Mizette's heart was touched. He looked at Mélodie again and made up his mind."Come on, then, Mademoiselle Marchand," he said."Your carriage awaits you!"

Mélodie chatted all through the drive, about her life in the city, and her friends, and her school, and how she would have to wear a dress at her mother's wedding. But Monsieur Mizette saw how her eyes flickered constantly outside the window, at the road going past her, and he could see that she felt nervous, maybe even afraid. All at once he felt angry with Martin, and the girl's unknown mother, and even with himself. We expect children to always cope, he thought. We think they won't worry, won't understand. He said, interrupting Mélodie, "Do you like animals, Mélodie?"
Mélodie looked at him."Sometimes," she said.
"I have geese," he said.
"Oh,' said Mélodie, uncertainly. 'I—I don't think I know much about geese.'
They said nothing more till they got to the farm. When they arrived, Mélodie got out of the car and stood looking around her.
"Well, I know it's probably not what you're used to," said monsieur Mizette."There's not much to entertain a child here, and.."
But Mélodie wasn't listening to him. She was staring at a group of geese that had come waddling regally up from the bottom field, as if they were visiting royalty greeting the populace.
"They're so funny!" she said at last. She pranced up and down like the geese."They look just like they're important people, coming to town!" She put a hand on a hip."Oh well, madame Goose, oh yes, you see, it was all too too mortifying! There was mademoiselle Goose, and she had the same feathers as I! Oh, too much, my dear, too much!" She grinned at monsieur Mizette."Does that sound like the geese?"
A slow smile spread over Monsieur Mizette's face."You could be right, at that, you could be right!" he said. He made a sudden lunge at the geese, which, abandoning their dignity, scattered pell-mell towards the field again.
Mélodie laughed and laughed."Oh, oh," she said, "Imagine what they'll say to one another, down by the pond!"
"Yes, imagine," said monsieur Mizette, a little guiltily. He didn't quite know what had come over him, chasing his own geese like a ..child. He said, "Mélodie, you know what? It's time for goûter, for afternoon tea! What do you have, generally, at home?"
Mélodie made a face."Maman likes health food," she said."But oh--what I'd really like is bread and chocolate! Can I have four pieces of Poulain chocolate? Do you have Poulain? I love the little horse on the squares. I collect the wrappers."
"Don't tell my son," said Monsieur Mizette, "But my favourite snack of all is Poulain chocolate! Martin tells me it's bad for my teeth! As if I care, at my age!" He smiled broadly, showing his big strong square teeth.

That night, Monsieur Mizette was in the living room, while Mélodie was having a bath. He could hear her, in the bathroom, splashing, and singing, too, and he was listening with half an ear, looking at the photo of Eulalie. "You know what, Eulalie," he said."She's a lovely child, that one. Don't let anyone tell you about modern children up where you are, Eulalie. I reckon there are children--and children, no matter where and when.." Photo-Eulalie looked at him with her bright dark eyes, and he stroked her cheek."What a pity, what a shame, what a sorrow you never saw our Martin growing, Eulalie!" He was silent for a long while, so that he clearly heard Mélodie's cracked little voice singing, in a very much better accent than his own, "Everybody loves my baby, But my baby don't love nobody but me.."
A few minutes later, there she was at the door, in her pyjamas. "I've come to say goodnight, Pappy," she said. Then she put a hand over her mouth."Oh, sorry, that's what I call Maman's father, and.."
"Pappy will do fine," said monsieur Mizette, his voice shaking a little."Pappy will do just fine."
Mélodie smiled, and moved towards him."Oh, Pappy, who's that lady?"
Monsieur Mizette handed the photo of Eulalie to her."This lady was my wife, Martin's mother," he said."She died a long time ago."
Mélodie looked seriously at the picture."She looks alive," she said at last."And nice. Like she always saw the best in people."
"Oh yes," said monsieur Mizette."Oh yes." He hesitated. 'I heard you singing that Louis Armstrong song,' he said.
'Yes. I know it by heart. Of course.' But now the little girl's attention had turned to the bookshelf. Her eyes lit up. "Oh, Pappy, you've got Tintins!"
"They were Martin's," said monsieur Mizette absently."Why, 'of course', Mélodie?"
Mélodie, already engrossed in the first page of The Castafiore Emerald, looked up in surprise."Well, Maman is a jazz trumpeter, after all," she said.
Monsieur Mizette was surprised to hear himself say, quite casually, "Oh, is she? I didn't know that," while, inside his head and his heart, the emptiness slowly began to fill with something altogether unexpected.

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