At the age of sixty-three, Etienne Duval fell deeply in love for the first time. Liliane was thirty years younger — a fact that flattered him no end — widowed, childless, adrift on a sea of melancholy until they met.
Each evening, after closing his boucherie, he visited her at her tiny flat above Boulangerie-Patisserie Gregoire where she worked. He brought her pork cutlets, lamb shanks, or sweetbreads for her supper. She would ply him with tartellette au chocolat, pain aux raisins, croissant aux amandes, mille-feuilles – whatever hadn’t been sold by close of business – and watch him approvingly as he ate.
Afterwards, they would lie entwined on her single bed, until he was compelled to leave to return home.
“I promise you,” he said, “one day we shall live together under the same roof.”
“Make it soon,” she replied.
When asked for a divorce, Thérèse, his wife, refused outright.
“If you think after forty years of putting up with you I’m going to be left on my own in my dotage, you’ve got another think coming.” She was surprised by the request. She knew he had affairs, none of which lasted long, but this was the first time he’d gone so far as suggesting a divorce.
Etienne relayed the news to Liliane. She was distressed at the wife’s unwillingness to yield to the inexorable force of their love. Wasn’t it predestined that they would be man and wife, inseparable, two become one? Didn’t Thérèse realise the futility of persisting with her loveless marriage?
He continued to cajole and plead with his wife. She was implacable.
Thérèse could have confronted Liliane at the patisserie, but she didn’t want to draw attention to her husband’s folly. She hoped he would eventually come to his senses. Meanwhile, she bought her bread and pastries from another shop, though its products were inferior to Gregoire’s.
Weeks went by, and then Thérèse fell ill with severe abdominal pains. She thought at first that Etienne was trying to poison her, though she couldn’t imagine how; he hardly ever set foot in the kitchen. Her doctor was unable to put a name to the affliction. He prescribed a purgative and advised bed rest and a bland diet.
Etienne attended to her needs as best he could, leaving his assistant to manage the shop for part of each day, and limiting his visits to Liliane, which, though she understood his predicament, made her unhappy and frustrated. He couldn’t cook, so Thérèse was forced to subsist on canned soup and fresh fruit, supplemented by Gregoire’s bread and cakes that Liliane gave Etienne to take to her. She was immensely relieved when two weeks later her sickness receded. She wondered what her life might have been like had she been permanently incapacitated.
When she felt well enough to resume her normal duties, she told Etienne to bring Liliane to the house, as she wished to speak to both of them. At first, Etienne and Liliane were hopeful Thérèse had finally agreed to their request, before they realised she wouldn’t have needed Liliane there if that was the case.
They met in the rarely used parlour. The two lovebirds sat together on the sofa; Thérèse faced them from an armchair opposite. The room was cold and she was still a little pale and weak from her recent ordeal, but she sat up straight and her voice was strong and commanding. She addressed Liliane.
“I thought by now that you and my fool of a husband would have realised I meant what I said about not giving him a divorce. It seems I was wrong. All the time he looked after me while I was sick, he never missed a chance to tell me how much he loved you and how the two of you couldn’t bear to be apart. It was all very touching, his heartache obviously causing him more pain than anything I was going through. Is that really the kind of man you want to marry, Liliane? One who puts his own interests ahead of those of his lawful wife?”
Liliane looked down at her clasped hands and didn’t answer.
“I can see what he sees in you, my dear—” And she could, for Liliane had blonde curls, a sweet, innocent face, and a well-rounded figure, “—but for the life of me I don’t know what you see in him. He’s old and fat and rather too fond of his cognac.”
A flicker of anger crossed Liliane’s face. “He’s not fat, Madame Duval!”
Etienne, alarmed by this turn in the conversation, placed a restraining hand on Liliane’s arm.
“He is simply stout. He’s a good man and I love him.”
“So,” Thérèse continued, ignoring Liliane’s retort, “while I lay suffering in bed, an idea occurred to me, one, I believe, that could be advantageous to all parties.”
Until this moment Etienne had sat with his back pressed into the sofa, having convinced himself that Thérèse had called them together so she could humiliate him in front of Liliane. Now he leaned forward, eager to hear the offer.
“My proposal is this. You want to live together, and you can, in this house. But on one condition. Liliane, you must let everyone know that you have become my housekeeper, because I’m no longer as well as I used to be. You must not mention to anyone that you are in a relationship with Etienne. Same goes for you, Etienne.
“For my part, I will have someone to share household duties, and who can look after me if I should fall sick again. So, what have you to say?”
“I think,” he said, “you should leave us to talk this over.”
After half-an-hour, he called his wife back into the parlour.
“We have only one question. What are the sleeping arrangements?”
“I shall move out of the main bedroom and into the back room, which I hope is a decent enough distance from you.”
Liliane said, “And of course, Madame, I will contribute to the costs of running the household.”
“I’d assumed you would.”
A week later, Liliane moved in with the Duvals. The house was large, having five bedrooms. She was pleased the back bedroom was separated from the main by one other, thus affording her some peace of mind. Just as Thérèse had no desire to overhear their lovemaking, neither did Liliane wish to be overheard, for she was anything but a mute lover. Etienne found her passion a wonderful stimulant after years of neglect by his wife, who even in their marriage’s early days had been unenthusiastic about making love.
Liliane broke the news of her changed circumstances to Monsieur Gregoire and his wife. She explained that Madame Duval was an old friend and needed help with housework, and that she would receive free lodgings.
They were disappointed, as she was popular with customers. Would it be possible, they asked, for her to work mornings only, which was when they were at their busiest? She gave it some thought and agreed. After all, she wasn’t required to be a full-time housekeeper, and she would still receive an income, which would help to conserve her savings.
Etienne continued to work in his butcher’s shop, two doors away from the patisserie. He was pleased with the outcome. He valued his wife’s skills in the kitchen. It may have been years since she recognised her marital obligations, but she never failed to please his palette. He was a lucky man.
Now that Liliane no longer lived at the flat, he fell back on his old ways, stopping at the small Le Chat Noir bar for a cognac or two on his way home after closing up.
Liliane didn’t take kindly to his lateness.
“All day I look forward to you coming home. I thought you would be feeling that way too, but no, you would rather carouse with your drinking friends, while I must suffer the constant crowing of ‘See, I told you so’ from Thérèse.”
Etienne said he was sorry and for a day or two he came home early, but he found it hard to walk past Le Chat Noir without stopping. His friends would call out to him to join them, and inevitably he would relent. Liliane would again chastise him and the cycle continued.
At home, the two women managed to work together without overt hostility, primarily because Madame Duval, by virtue of age and position, had the final word on everything. Liliane was not a forceful person anyway, but at times she had to bite her tongue when the older woman insisted on her way of doing things.
Thérèse had a particular way of ironing shirts (the yoke first, then the sleeves); she washed her blouses and underwear by hand; she boiled potatoes in their skins; she refused to use insect sprays in the house. She made these pronouncements as though they were universally accepted, and scornfully dismissed Liliane’s ideas and practices.
Gradually, Thérèse’s attitude softened and she dropped her formal way of addressing Liliane. They began sharing gossip each picked up while shopping. When Liliane offered to go with Thérèse to buy clothes, she accepted.
One evening when Etienne called in at Le Chat Noir, Jacques the owner said, “Eh, Etienne, you sly old fox. I hear you have two wives now, eh?”
Etienne laughed, but didn’t correct him.
The word soon spread among the clientele, and on each visit he was ribbed about his virility, and pitied by some.
“I bet you are being nagged in stereo!” said one.
“A ménage à trois, Etienne?” asked another. “Do you have them both together or one in the morning and one at night?”
“Maybe,” his companion said, “he does the old one quickly to get her out of the way.”
There were more taunts and laughter. Etienne never said anything. He merely smiled and shook his head at their impudence.
Liliane heard the gossip first from one of Gregoire’s customers, whose husband worked in the bank across the road from the shop.
“Is it true what I hear about you and the Duvals, Liliane?”
“I don’t know what you’ve heard,” Liliane replied, feigning indifference. “I’m just their housekeeper.”
“Oh,” said the customer, “I heard it was more than that.”
“I have a room there as well, if that’s what you mean.”
“More than that even.”
Liliane was having difficulty maintaining her composure. What was this nosey woman trying to insinuate?
“You and Madame Duval and Etienne…”
A tremor of alarm ran down her spine. “What about me and Madame Duval and Etienne?”
“They say you and Madame Duval are sharing his favours.”
Liliane’s face reddened. “That’s ridiculous! Who told you that?”
The customer said, “Why, it’s common knowledge right around Montdelisle. My husband heard it at Le Chat Noir. Monsieur Duval was there boasting about his lovemaking prowess. Quite the stud, so he makes out.”
“Men! They all think they’re stallions. Don’t take any notice of them. Now, was there anything else today?”
When Liliane told Thérèse about the gossip, she was furious. “That imbecile husband of mine! I’ll kill him when I get hold of him.”
Liliane was also angry, seething in fact, but her greater concern was that Thérèse would turn her out onto the street.
If Thérèse had such thoughts, she didn’t utter them. Instead she simmered all day, waiting to pounce on Etienne when he returned. Liliane tried to keep out of her way, but that wasn’t possible without neglecting her housekeeping duties. Madame Duval ignored her anyway, until the moment before he was expected home.
“Liliane, please leave me alone with my husband until I come for you. Off you go now.”
A few minutes later, Etienne came in the front door.
He was in a good mood, greeting Thérèse with a cheery “Good evening, my dear!” The slap across his face that sent him reeling backwards soon dispelled his bonhomie. Thérèse was a large woman, larger even than her husband, and he stayed well back as he rubbed his cheek, eyes watering from the attack. Before he could ask for an explanation, she started on a tirade that lasted for a full five minutes, detailing every failing he had, and in particular his inability to keep his cock in his pants and his big mouth shut.
When he tried to butt in, she said, “Don’t you give any thought to my reputation? Or Liliane’s? Or your own, for that matter?”
A desperate Etienne said the rumours were false, that the owner of the bar had started them, and the regulars had embroidered them to make fun of him, but he had never given credence to what was said. He pleaded with her to continue their arrangement. It was to no avail.
The following evening found the two women sitting side by side on the living room sofa. Thérèse was showing Liliane how to crochet.
“Hold the hook in your right hand and make a slip knot on the hook. That’s it. Now—”
Liliane let the crocheting fall to her lap.
“I’m glad you’ve allowed me to stay here, but I think you should at least have your room back.”
“I’m quite happy in the back there. Besides, you might let him back one day, after he’s realised what a fool he’s been. If he turns over a new leaf…”
“Maybe, but at the moment I’m enjoying life without him.”
Etienne sat on a stool at the bar of Le Chat Noir nursing a cognac. The owner had served him without comment, but from time to time he glanced his way. The other customers looked to Jacques and then to Etienne meaningfully. Finally, Jacques said, “Hey, Etienne, why the long face tonight? Are the ladies wearing you out?”
Etienne shook his head without looking at Jacques, lifted the glass to his lips and drained it. He was about to leave when he remembered the empty shop and the makeshift cot awaiting him.
He settled again and slid the glass over. “Refill, please, Jacques.”