Although it might seem harsh, people see their friends as either ‘close’ or ‘very close’. Until recently I could count seven who were ‘very close’, then earlier this year the number fell by one – on 5th March my Brittany friend Bernard died. For several years he had suffered from a series of life-threatening illnesses and before returning home from France each October, we would say our goodbyes knowing that the worst was a distinct possibility. Five months ago he had a stroke from which he did not recover.
As soon as we returned to Brittany this summer we visited Martine, Bernard’s widow, to share our sadness and to commiserate. While voicing our thoughts was painful enough, being there without him was horrible.
For years Bernard and I would go to a restaurant to chin wag over our weekly lunch, but as he grew iller we would, instead, chat over a cup of coffee that he would brew himself. Walking and balancing had become difficult and each time he negotiated the few steps to the verandah table and placed the cafetière on its trivet, he would sit down on his chair with a smile.
Now, in the sun on the verandah with no Bernard was painful. Suddenly, during the conversation and without a moment’s forethought, I asked Martine whether there might be a trinket of Bernard’s that I might have as a keepsake. I politely declined her offers of discs (he had a vast collection) or books (likewise) and she left the table to return with his briefcase (see illustration).
She told me that it was the ‘cartable’ he used throughout his forty-year long career as a teacher – French language and literature at secondary school – and how, after his retirement he kept it to store documents. It was, she said, very precious to him. I accepted it with great pleasure, purposefully holding it by the handle when she passed it over. For years, Bernard’s hand would have been there, so for a magical moment we were in touch!
Bernard and I met fourteen years ago. During my summer stays in France I felt the need to continue the French lessons I had each week in London and Bernard was tracked down after negotiations involving the friend of a friend’s daughter. Bernard offered to help on one condition – he would only teach for six weeks, he had other things to do.
It was soon obvious that he was very special. With his enquiring and precise mind and without making judgements or reprimands he listened, encouraged and, very effectively, taught. And there was more. The lessons were held in his living room on a small table with a central lace runner and, as I recall, a bowl of fruit. I was made to feel relaxed and at home. Unlike many French houses in those days, his was cosy, comfy and inviting.
In addition to his general demeanour, I soon realised that we were also at one on umpteen social issues. He was a left-wing atheist who understood and abhorred racism, sexism and homophobia, and who had no time for the excesses of nationalism. Added to these he loved words and humour.
At our first meeting he asked what I wanted to learn and I plumped for ‘pronunciation’. The next week he handed me a page on which was a seven-verse poem. If we worked hard we should be able to finish the tract by the end of our time together. His plan was wonderfully mischievous. The poem – ‘Putain de toi’ – was a risqué song by Georges Brassens full of innuendo and allusion, and sung in an accent that was hardly Paris French. Amusingly, it ended with a line telling of a young woman who, for one escalope threw herself into the butcher’s bed! Bernard’s gamble was a success; I worked hard, improved my pronunciation greatly and, en passant, became a devotee of Brassens.
And as a jokester he had the last say. At the end of my six weeks I read the piece out loud as best I could, and when I asked him how well I had done and how long it would take for me to speak French like a Frenchman, he said with the widest of grins « 65 years, possibly ». Touché.
For the next 14 years, our summer friendship that was hatched when I was his student grew wonderfully. We enjoyed being together, sharing ideas about everything and anything. We also joked – after all: “It is the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have this nonsense respected.” (Charles Lamb, 1775 – 1834)
Back to the word ‘cartable’. Rather than using ´serviette’ or ‘sacoche’, cartable was how Bernard had always described the bag. For him it was the precise name for a bag carried by a schoolteacher. If it was good enough for Bernard, it is good enough for me! He was a very close friend I miss him terribly.
The illustration shows a photo of the black leather ‘cartable’ with its understated latch that Bernard used for forty years when he was a teacher and which, after he retired, became his ‘filing cabinet’.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Martine, Rohan and Vivien