I had never seriously considered writing short fiction until local author Andrew Stevenson invited Jenny and I to join his writing group for a residential weekend. When we met for the first time we really liked the other members of the group and enjoyed the writing exercises. But it was not until months later I wrote my first short story for twenty years.
Two other members of the group have a house in Olonzac, in the Languedoc. They invited us for a writing weekend there and Lesley had the excellent idea of suggesting we went to the local market and see if anything grabbed our attention. It did. A cheese seller was handing out morsels of cheese for tasting... and that was the genesis of my short story, Le Fromager. With Andrew's gentle encouragement, I submitted it to Stroud Short Stories where John Holland selected it to open the public performance. I had caught the short fiction bug.
Read Le Fromager here...
Every Tuesday at 7.35am precisely in the small market town of Olonzac, M Bernard Dupont the fromager set up his stall watched by the ever hungry eyes of his dog Charles. Where most of the other stall holders were concerned about the day's likely financial outcome, M Bernard completed the meticulous setting out of his cheeses - large roundels at the back, carefully cut portions at the front - with only one thought in mind. That thought was tied to a particular moment, usually around 10.27, when Marion Deschamps would walk around the corner of Rue Lazarre and pass his stall. As she drew level he would offer her a sliver of his finest cheese, a sliver that she would take with a smile and a nod of her head and a "Merci Bernard" and as if on cue, Charles would get up from the cushion that was his day bed under the stall and follow her until she disappeared into the Marche des Herbes, whereupon he would turn around and rejoin his master. There was no doubt, agreed the other stallholders, that Charles the dog loved Marion just as much as Bernard the fromager did. But of course they said nothing.
The pining Bernard was not a figure of fun in Olonzac although he might easily have become one. Because he was respected both as a man and a fromager his plight was silently acknowledged and even shared by the more sensitive stallholders, those who sold herbs and organic vegetables for instance or the woman who made sea green pottery that few people ever bought. Two summers previously the itinerant crystal seller had even gifted him her most potent harbinger of love. It was disguised as a parting gift because nobody ever alluded directly to M Bernard's disappointment. It was just quietly noted that the yearning in the eyes of Charles the dog was echoed and amplified in the eyes of his master.
Bernard took great pride in the range of cheeses that he offered and it was a matter of his deep professional pride to offer at least one new one a month. This had been a challenge at one time but the growth in artisanale cheese makers had made it easier in recent years. It was a taster of these cheeses that he offered weekly to Marion Deschamps, an offer she always accepted. But acute observers could not help but notice that despite her cheery greeting and her acceptance, she never bought any of the cheeses on offer.
The sad truth was that Marion Deschamps was out of reach. Had the other stallholders been more caustic they would have said too that she was out of his class, despite their similar backgrounds. For Marion had money and sophistication; the latter she was born with but her wealth was entirely a result of her marriage to Antoine Lefleur, the most successful vigneron in Olonzac. The wedding had taken place twelve years previously when Marion was twenty three. It was a big affair. Antoine's caves were not of chateau proportions but the thirty hectares of vines and the comfortable bourgeois Maison de Village were an undeniable attraction for Marion's parents. As for Marion, it was enough that Antoine was handsome and charmant. She was in love. It was, the town agreed, a perfect match. And as the years passed it seemed that their early optimism was well founded. M and Mme Deschamps were the social heart of the town with their Friday night tastings and soirees.
And then Antoine had died. Suddenly. The circumstances and causes of his death were never publically revealed. And Marion Deschamps was heartbroken. For many months in that bleak year she did not go near the market. These were Bernard's darkest days, his only consolation that they suffered alongside each other. And it was in these days that he had taken to allowing himself a small glass of red wine at around 10.27, a wine made from the grapes of the late Antoine Lefleur’s vines.
It was very many months after the death of her husband before widow Deschamps appeared in the market again. She was changed and the changes were lined in her face. But for Bernard nothing had altered, except the hope that she might notice him now that she had no husband; in time perhaps, if he was very patient...
Bernard had limited knowledge of the human heart but he knew his cheeses. His professional expertise was stretched as he sought out the rarest artisanale cheeses and he sliced the slivers for Marion with all the care and skill of a Japanesechef dissecting choice tuna. And almost unnoticed by Bernard himself, his cheeses changed. They got softer, stronger and more unctuous. Compte gave way to Camembert, Cantalet to Crottin and oozing bries filled the spaces left by the hard mountain cheeses that had been his speciality. And every week he would offer Marion a sliver of his favourite and every week she would take it with a smile and a nod of her head and a "Merci M Bernard" and just occasionally a "delicieux", and every week Charles the dog would get up from his day bed and follow her wistfully until she disappeared into the Marche des Herbes before returning to his master.
It was the Saint Marcellin that changed everything, a cheese so young and tender that it is packed in terracotta pots or it will seep uncontrollably. For some days Bernard could think of no way in which he could offer such a cheese to Marion until he remembered the six boxed silver teaspoons that had lain virtually unopened in the third drawer down of the dresser that had been his mother's pride and joy. They were as he remembered them, wrapped in thin tissue paper, silver, valued and unused. Now he had it. He would dig the spoon into the most delicious part of the small round cheese and offer it to her. The threat of such intimacy made his hands shake in anticipation.
Tuesday arrived. M Bernard was in his usual position at 7.35 am, his stall a masterpiece of whites and creams blending harmoniously with the yellows and oranges of the rinds and contrasting with the deep blue veins of the cheeses from Roquefort and the Auvergne. His blue apron was spotless and his hair was neatly combed to disguise the slight receding at the temples that had taken place during Marion’s months of absence. For a man of not quite forty his jacket and tie were slightly conservative. No jeans and trainers like the other stallholders for M Bernard. But if this, along with his upright bearing, gave him a slightly old-fashioned air it was also one that increased his standing with the townspeople. “M Bernard,” they had been heard to say, “such a dignified man. Quite the gentleman.”
By ten o'clock that Tuesday morning, such was his excitement that he could barely bring himself to chat with his regular customers, dismissing them almost curtly as he waited for Marion to walk around the corner of Rue Lazarre. The silver spoon was polished to brightness and lay ready beside the Saint Marcellin he deemed to be in perfect condition.
She was slightly late. It was 10.36 when Marion approached his stall.
"Madame, un moment s'il vous plait."
M Bernard dipped the spoon into the beautifully balanced Saint Marcellin and offered it to her. She refused it with a raised hand.
"Desole, M Bernard... mais je n'aime pas le fromage."
Bernard was stunned. "Vous n'aimez pas le fromage? Mais chaque semaine..., toutes les semaines..."
The words died in his dried up mouth.
Marion was smiling. "Moi, je n'aime pas le fromage Monsieur, mais M Charles, il l'adore."
She moved away, followed by Charles who was unaware both that convention and his master's heart had just been broken.
But at the corner of the Marche des Herbes, Marion turned and walked back towards the stall.
"Et vous, M Bernard, vous aimez le vin?" She smiled, her glance catching the bottle of red wine that was set down discretely at the back of his stall.
"Vendredi soir, sept heures moins le quart, chez moi," she said, “and bring some of your fine cheeses for the other guests, please. I am sure I can leave the selection to you?” But before he could answer she had already turned away towards the Marche des Herbes and Charles had got up from his cushion and followed her for the second time that day, his eyes shiny with hope.