SHORT STORY

Manard and la Kiwi
by Lynda Finn

     "That’s a beautiful painting," said the young Australian, indicating the framed picture over the bar, "a typical romantic Parisian garden but with a new twist!  It’s an old couple on the bench, holding hands."

     "Oui," said Gaston, sipping his coffee, "that’s Monsieur and Madame Manard, they were famous, in their own small way."

     "Famous?  How?  Were they film stars or something?"

     Gaston roared with laughter.  "Film stars?  Ah, you kids, that’s how you measure fame, by the movies.  Non, my friend, in Paris it is completely different."  His voice quieted as he turned to gaze at the painting, "No, they were not stars… only to each other."

     Brad Harding, like so many of his generation, was eager and impatient for new experiences.  He had come to Paris "to learn about the French" as if in a few months, and in one city, he could achieve what most fail to do in a lifetime.

     Each day he was out on the boulevards with his camera and tape recorder; by night inhabiting the cafes and clubs, soaking up the authentic atmosphere of the City of Light.  He counted it a day lost if he did not tread new ground, or ask even more piercing questions in his pursuit of knowledge.  He was like a man on a treadmill, constantly moving but with only the illusion that he was going somewhere. 

     "Tell me the story," he said.

     Gaston searched him closely, his bright blue eyes and blond hair, his skin with its slight tan from the summer spent walking the streets of the city.  Could he really trust this boy with the story, their love story?  He was on the point of refusal when a thought occurred to him, maybe the legend could be used to teach something.  "Do you have your cassette recorder handy?" he asked.

     Brad reached down to his bag and produced the machine.  "It has a new tape and everything," he said, eyes alight with anticipation.  "Fire away," and he put the recorder on the table between them, pressing the button to start.

     Yes, thought Gaston, Madame and Monsieur will teach you something, something about patience perhaps. 

     "You must promise one thing," he said, pouring more coffee into both their cups.  "Make no comment as I speak, just listen, can you do that?"

     As if already under the vow, the young man nodded.  Gaston took a long draught, wiped his moustache and with another brief glance at the picture, began his tale.

     "It is almost thirty years ago that I first met M. Manard.  He was a frequent visitor to this café.  My father was alive in those days but I had no interest in the place, I was too busy with other, more exciting pursuits."  He gave a small smile and his eyebrows lifted slightly.  "Occasionally I helped behind the bar, with the food and deliveries but I was not involved, not concerned you understand.  It was my father’s business and although I knew it would come to me one day, I couldn’t be bothered with it.  I was too young for responsibility.

     "But then, it was autumn I remember and the leaves were thick on the ground, the old man had a heart attack and although he subsequently recovered well, was back in the café within a month in fact, it made me realise that I needed to take some work off his shoulders. 

     "M. Manard used to come in, not every day, but twice or three times a week.  He would order a coffee, or sometimes wine, and sit outside, watching everyone.  He had a great interest in people had M. Manard and yet he himself was very reserved, not shy exactly but he needed a good reason to open up, it did not come naturally, whereas Madame, well, she was quite a different proposition…!"

     Gaston reached for his coffee and took a sip, smacking his lips with pleasure, giving this, in its turn, his attention.

     "When I first knew him, he had not met Madame Manard, they came to each other late in life, though he was not old, indeed no older than I am now." 

     He saw the smile playing on the face of the listener and realised that to this boy, a man of fifty must indeed seem ancient. 

     "There seemed to be an air of melancholy about him always, as if some great sadness weighed upon him.  He was not a miserable person, ah no, far from it, I often saw him laughing and joking with the other customers--but when he was alone….well, then he seemed very alone, if you know what I mean." 

     He paused, looking into the middle distance, as if he could see the shade of Manard wandering down the boulevard.

     The tape recorder revolved slowly, chronicling the silence.  Presently Gaston seemed to shake himself out of his reverie.

     "One day he came into the café and it was as if he were a different man.  It’s hard to explain because he did not do or say anything out of the ordinary.  He took his wine to the table, the one he always used by the camellia shrub and he sat there, also as usual, watching the world go by – but there was a sort of controlled electricity in him, as if he was waiting for something tremendous to happen.  Then next day he appeared again and the light in his eyes told me that whatever had changed him, a woman was involved." 

     Brad Harding sat back in his chair, an expression of sly amusement dawning on his face but whatever thoughts had been about to flower, they withered at Gaston’s glare.

     "But then my father came out of hospital and began to spend a little time here in the café, things became more hectic and the phenomenon of M. Manard went completely out of my head.  I know he continued to come in, in fact he made a point of being here on the days when my father was behind the bar but I was too busy to take much notice.

     "He and my father were of an age, with certain memories and opinions in common, they got on well and it was always to him, rather than me that Monsieur spoke.

     "Manard was an architect, had worked on many of the buildings in Paris and my father had plans to buy the place next door and use M. Manard’s professional expertise, so they were co-conspirators--I left them to it."

     Three men settled themselves at one of the tables outside and Gaston, knowing his son was occupied in the kitchen, got to his feet and meandered out to take their order.  It took a while to serve them and relay their needs to the chef and when he returned, it was with two glasses and a bottle of wine. 

     "Try this," he said, placing a glass before the younger man and splashing into it an ebullient fall of dark crimson liquid, "you won’t know why you like it,  but like it you will." 

     After he had passed the glass once or twice beneath his nose, Gaston took a mouthful of the wine and held it, eyes closed, for a moment or two before swallowing appreciatively.  Brad picked up his own glass,  sniffed tentatively, then took a sip.  It was indeed a very good wine.  He took a hearty swig, half emptying the glass and Gaston laughed again, as if the visible proof of his prescience delighted him. 

     "M. Manard used to order this wine, in the evenings when sometimes he would come for dinner.  And then, when he brought her here, it was the first wine he ordered for her too.   I remember being amazed to see him with a woman, he had always seemed so solitary but then later, it was as if it had never been any other way, just as though they had been together for a lifetime.

     "He introduced her to my father.  She was a tourist and spoke no French, so at first I thought she was English.  But later he told me she was from New Zealand.  That’s why M. Manard used to call her, La Kiwi.

     "They’d met by chance, a year before, here in Paris, and been writing to one another every since--and now she’d come back, all that way, right around the world,  just to visit him.  Even my father didn’t know the whole story but Madame Manard--though of course she wasn’t called that then--once told him, ‘He found me. I was lost and he found me.'

     Picking up the glass between thumb and finger, Gaston gazed into it contemplatively.  "It seemed to me as if it were he who was the lost one, he who had always been waiting, hoping for something which, before her arrival, he had almost decided he would never achieve." 

     He took a drink and patted his lips with a napkin.  "She stayed for over a month and I suppose they played at being tourists together, photographing the Tour Eiffel, the Arc, walking in the gardens but when they did come here, usually for dinner, they would sit outside at his table.

     "Whatever was going on in the street, they hardly noticed it, so wrapped up were they in one another.  She would reach for his hand, he would look into her face and I swear, if a brass band and circus had marched down the street, they would not have been aware of it.

     "I had never seen him happier.  He was like a man who has been given the secret of life.  His eyes shone and he walked as if brimming with beautiful,  private music.  I mentioned it to my father; how much happier M. Manard seemed, how he appeared to glow from the inside with a new strength.

     "My father said, ‘He’s going to need every ounce of that when she goes.’

     "It was August and we had not seen M. Manard for over a month.  I hadn’t thought about him much, we have many regular customers and they come and go.

     "Then one morning he came in, ordered a coffee and sat outside.  He watched people, though I don’t think he saw them.  He drank his coffee but I doubt he tasted it.  He seemed to be in another world.  Every now and then he would look across the table, as if she were sitting opposite and put out his hand, just as though she held it.

     "My father had a hospital appointment that day otherwise I’m sure he would have gone over and started a conversation.  I couldn’t do that, M. Manard and I did not have that sort of relationship.

     "Eventually he finished his drink and wandered away and we did not see him again for many weeks.  I don’t think he’d decided to patronise another café, I think he’d just lost heart to do anything without her."

     It was evening now and the café was becoming busier.  Gaston had to make frequent trips to serve customers.  Brad remained where he was, patiently waiting for the story to continue.  He poured himself another glass of wine, this time tasting carefully as it ran over his tongue.  There were many flavours, like threads plaited together, each of them necessary for the full quality, the soul of the wine, to be recognised.  He turned the cassette over and sat back in his chair. Presently Gaston returned.

     "Where were we?  Ah oui.  When M. Manard did eventually come back he looked a little brighter but one had the impression, as he sat out there, that though he was alone, he was in some undefined way, en tant que deux.  As one sees a table without a chair, or a carafe without the glass, the object by itself is acceptable but one is aware that to function, it needs the other.

     "He came and went all through the winter, wrapped up against the winds and rain.  The table by the door was his choice and he would angle his chair to look out, as if at any moment she might come round the corner.

     "My father would talk with him and occasionally I would see animation in M. Manard’s gestures and joy on his face and I’d know he was speaking about her.  One day around Christmastime, I asked my father if the liaison was over, if La Kiwi was gone for good but he just shrugged and would tell me nothing.  I don’t know whether he was simply keeping confidence with his friend, or whether he didn’t know, but the result was the same. 

     "In February we had weather which strips you to the bone, no one was about and there was hardly a day when it was possible to walk upright--until the last week and then the world seemed to lift up its face and smile.  The sun warmed the pavement, the wind dropped, the birds began to sing and M. Manard came striding down the boulevard again to the sound of his inner music.

     "I have to tell you that when I saw him, a lump came to my throat.  He looked as he had when she was with him, alive and with purpose.  I was happy for him but of course I had no idea then what had effected this change.  I soon discovered.  La Kiwi was coming back to Paris, this time not as a tourist but to be with him, permanently.

     "She arrived at the end of March and he brought her here for dinner as he had before.  After taking their order, my father left them alone and it was just as well.  M. Manard wanted no other company but her, she wanted no one except him.

     "I watched him explaining about the wine, showing her how to distinguish the different variations in aroma and taste and I remembered my father saying  M. Manard was an enthusiastic cook, so of course he would also know about wine.

     "La Kiwi took it all in, he was her mentor and teacher and her eyes were soft and respectful as she listened.

     "At the end of the meal, my father took them a bottle of champagne from the cellar, a cordon rouge to toast their health and she said it was the first champagne she had ever tasted, so he gave them another bottle to take away.  He too was happy for M. Manard and that was his way of saying so.

     "They were regulars here but they were also known in many other places around Paris.  She loved the gardens, natural I suppose coming from New Zealand with it’s greenery, but he was definitely drawn to the café society, a Parisian through and through.

     "They compromised; he took her to the gardens, she accompanied him to the bistros but they both loved the Seine and would spend hours strolling along the banks or exploring the little alleyways and streets around old Paris.

     "They became famous for always being together, always hand in hand, or arm in arm.  You would never see one without the other.  She smiled a lot and I suspect if her French had been better, she may have talked more too!

     "There was a gaiety about her which encircled him and when she looked at M. Manard you could tell she saw the most important person in the world.  He was, quite simply, the man she’d been born for.  She took care of him, he took care of her, it was a balance parfait."

     The young Australian stretched, gazing once more towards the painting, illuminated now in the dusk by a small light.  Gaston followed his glance.

     "He painted that.  He was an artist and a photographer.  The garden is one of those in the quartier, the one near Boucicaut Hospital I think.  They used to go there often with their lunch.  A baguette, a bottle of wine, some goat’s cheese or sausage. She liked to feed the birds.

     "She had a quickness about her too, a certain impatience, as if wanting to squeeze everything into each moment without waiting for the next.  Of course, it could have been nervousness, she was quite nervous at first.

     "He was slower, more deliberate, he liked to savour each experience.  I often heard him say to her, ‘Take your time darling,’ and as they got older, she did slow down a little; became more confident.  She learned, I suppose, that there was no reason to rush,  now that he had found her.  From then on, time must slow down, in case by hurrying, she missed one moment of him.  

     "Only once did I speak with her alone.  My father was taken ill again and Monsieur and Madame Manard came to the hospital.  My father had long referred to her as ‘Madame Manard’ but in my mind she was always  La Kiwi.

     "We all knew the old man was terminally ill and only one visitor at a time was allowed at the bedside, so whilst M. Manard went in to see my father, I waited outside with her.  She cried a little, taking out her handkerchief, wiping her eyes and I knew it was from genuine sorrow for my father--but yet there was something more.

     "Almost as if I could hear her thoughts, I became aware that she was trying to push away the knowledge that the two men were the same age and what had afflicted one could easily strike the other.  Her hand trembled and I knew it was from fear.

     "Suddenly but very quietly she said to me, 'I waited so long for him you know Gaston, a whole lifetime.  But by the grace of God he found me.  Perhaps we will be given another lifetime but we cannot be sure.  We began with a miracle and each day is yet another extraordinarily beautiful gift to us.'

     "Then she turned to me and put her hand on my arm, 'Be aware of every moment.  Hold it and look at it.  Never allow time to snatch it from you until you have tasted, like the wine, every delicate nuance of it’s flavour.  Take your time.  We do not know how many moments we will be given.’

     "But in fact, they were together a long time.  Their grey hairs turned to white, but still they could be seen, strolling in the gardens, arm in arm.  She always carried a small bag of bread for her birds."

     It was dark outside now and the café, brightly lit with lamps and fairy lights, had become crowded with chattering, laughing customers.  They watched the people walking past as avidly as those people observed them.  It was a show, an entertainment, they were young, the same age as the man who now reached for the tape recorder and returned it to his bag.

     Gaston got to his feet with a grimace and eased his shoulders, "I should see how that boy of mine is doing in the kitchen.  Finish the wine before you go."

     Brad took his time, pondering the story of the Manards and their strange little romance.  How on earth had a Parisian architect found a woman from New Zealand and by what alchemy had two people, so right for each other, but yet so far away, been brought together?

     A group in the corner laughed loudly and Brad longed to be part of the joyful company.  He had made few friends in Paris, too busy dashing around, getting his recordings, capturing the new sights and sounds on film, learning about the French.  He felt very much alone in that crowded place and for a second, had an insight into what it must have been like for M. Manard before La Kiwi arrived in his life.

     Picking up his bag, he left some money beneath the empty bottle, a generous tip in appreciation of the Patron’s charming little story.  This had given him a slice of genuine Parisian life, a café owner who told stories about his customers, a real character--and he’d gotten it all on tape!

     As he left the café it suddenly occurred to him that the tale might not even be true.  Had that old rogue Gaston made the whole thing up as a way of passing a boring evening?  He guessed he’d never know but it was part of the whole experience and he loved new experiences.

     On his way to the Metro, Brad had to step off the kerb many times to let the promenade of people go by.  Talking and laughing, they were on their way to the theatre or going home after a pleasant meal and the air was full of a special magic, everyone enjoying the soft Parisian night. 

     Fascinated, he stopped to get out his camera and thus did not see the old couple who walked past him, arm in arm, smiling at each other.  

 END

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