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|The porcelain shepherdess
For three minutes Claudine listened to electronic fragments from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, occasionally interrupted by a rather pleasant voice telling her that her custom was important and that she was moving steadily up the queue. After another three minutes, a youngish sounding man, who introduced himself as Zak, asked how he could help.
Claudine explained that on the previous Monday she had booked a small advertisement for a room to let to be placed in the student supplement of Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace. Unfortunately the advertisement appeared in a section of the newspaper devoted to executive homes.
My spare room has no central heating, Claudine explained, and the lodger would have to share the bathroom with me. She did not think a professional gentleman, she much preferred male lodgers, would be interested in moving into her terraced house, which overlooked the Paris to Strasbourg railway line. Zak understood and promised to re-run the advertisement the following week.
Unlike her neighbour, who still uses a dial telephone, Claudine did not object to having to choose from five different options and then being given four more choices when phoning her bank, the electricity company or the newspaper offices. She even quite enjoyed the musical loops from popular pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi. She knew, after patiently waiting, she would be rewarded with talking to someone.
Since her husband’s death, some five years ago, Claudine had been renting out a small room on the first floor of her house, mostly to students from the nearby engineering college. Her last lodger, a strikingly handsome student from Senegal, moved out three weeks earlier, promising to keep in touch. Claudine became fond of him after he once called her his rosy mum. A photograph showing the student’s family in front of his house in Dakar explained his description. His mother too had grown large over the years.
After her phone call to the newspaper, Claudine settled back in front of the TV set, switching from one cooking programme to another. The doorbell rang just as the TV chef recommended short cake as a base for plum tarts. Claudine opened the door to a slight man, perhaps sixty years old, wearing an ill-fitting corduroy suit.
Madame, I come in response to your advertisement. I am sorry, the newspaper made a mistake. You have no room to let? I have a room, but it is not suitable for a professional gentleman. Do I look like a lawyer or dentist?
Claudine agreed, he did not, a remark, she immediately apologised for. No need, Madame. May I come in? He introduced himself as François Debré. Claudine offered coffee. Thank you, black with a little sugar, please.
Scrutinising her visitor from the kitchen, Claudine concluded he was not a man who would be able to pay two months’ rent in advance. Thus, the plate of biscuits went back into the cupboard. She would indulge herself later, when on her own.
The coffee was drunk in silence, without Claudine offering to show the room. Madame, I should go. François stood up. You probably have already found a suitable lodger. I thank you for the coffee. Claudine nodded, aware that it was her turn to say a few meaningless words, but none came. Instead she moved towards the door. Madame, before I leave, I am intrigued. The small porcelain figurine in the glass cabinet, how did you come by it?
It is lovely, isn’t it? Yes Madame, it is very pretty. It is probably also valuable. May I look at it closer? Claudine took the porcelain figurine of a young shepherdess out of the glass cabinet and handed it to him.
Meissen? François asked. Claudine did not understand. It was a wedding present from my late husband. He brought it back from Germany. Yes, definitely Meissen, François emphasised. See, the two crossed swords, they were introduced in 1722 as a trademark to protect Meissen porcelain from imitators.
Meissen was the first porcelain produced outside China. When invented in Saxony in the early 18th century, it was called the white gold. François continued to detail the history of porcelain making in Germany and Europe. Claudine listened with interest but without much comprehension. Monsieur, you mentioned, the shepherdess figurine might be valuable? It could be, depending on its age.
Monsieur, perhaps you would like another cup of coffee, perhaps also a biscuit. Claudine had become attentive. From the kitchen she again scrutinised her visitor, this time not noticing his worn suit and washed out Lacoste shirt but being aware of his thick grey hair, cut short, his blue eyes and the absence of a wedding ring.
Monsieur, perhaps you would like to see the room now, the coffee will be ready shortly. Yes, the room, of course, I would love to see it. François followed Claudine to the first floor. The room was small but facing south with a small balcony, looking out onto the railway line. The trains will keep you awake the first two nights, then you will become used to them. François turned, I like trains, in Europe I never fly. The room’s furniture consisted of a single bed, a one-door wardrobe, a table and an oil stove. The stove is very efficient in the winter, Claudine explained. I am sure it is, he agreed.
The bathroom is across the corridor, I sleep downstairs. The room would suite me, how much is the rent? Four hundred euro a month including breakfast, the oil for the stove is extra. You would want a deposit? Yes, two months rent in advance. I shall pay cash if that suits you.
They agreed he would move in the following day. He arrived late morning with two suitcases. Claudine waited at the front door. I have put fresh sheets on your bed. The blue towels in the bathroom are yours. Thank you, Madame. Please call me Claudine. With pleasure, I am François. Both smiled.
I have made a little lunch. Will you join me? I have set the table in the back yard. François poured the wine, Claudine served salad and omelette. They talked cautiously, their conservation interrupted regularly by passing trains. Her husband had died suddenly. No, no children and what about you? I have been without family for a number of years. You are not from Strasbourg? No, from Dijon. You work? I translate legal texts for the European Parliament, French, English, German. They pay well? I get by.
They still talked at four o’clock, over coffee. I looked up your Meissen shepherdess. It is a rare figurine, probably dating from 1770 and by the French sculptor Acier. So it is valuable? Yes. But considerably more if it came with the shepherd. The shepherd? Acier’s designs usually consisted of pairs of young people. Young shepherds and shepherdesses, young men and women picking grapes. Your husband did not mention a male figurine? No, I do not think he knew its value. She resembled me, he said. I was pretty when I married him.
Later the sky clouded over. Claudine and François moved back into the house. Would you like to watch the evening news? I must finish some work first. Maybe we can watch the film at ten? It was an historic Spanish film with sub-titles, Christians fighting Muslims. Just like today, François opened another bottle of wine. I don’t understand politics, Claudine made herself comfortable on the sofa.
The Christians were winning. François sensed Claudine’s desire. She was aware of his masculinity. He touched her hand. Claudine leant back. The credits went up at midnight. He had kissed her earlier, she had stroked his face. Will you sleep with me?
They went to bed in darkness. Both were reluctant to show their bodies. Her softness felt good, his weight made her gasp. The mechanics of sex were awkward. Orgasm brought back memories. Afterwards they held each other as only two lonely people can.
François and Claudine had become lovers in September. He bought a hamper for late-summer picnics on the banks of the River Rhine, she booked ten dance lessons. They rode through the hills of the Voges on a hired Harley Davidson and got drunk on new wine in October. Their lovemaking caused neighbours to complain, which only excited them more. In November, he asked her to marry him and she set a date for December.
You will need a new suit for the wedding. What’s wrong with the old one? Where will we spend our honeymoon? Let’s stay at home. Claudine was determined to get married in style. It will be my last wedding, she said. François reminded her of the cost. Why spend thousands for two weeks on Barbados when for less we could buy a little car. But Claudine was too ecstatic to listen.
You did what? François asked. I sold the shepherdess and booked a three-week Christmas cruise in the Caribbean. And there is still enough money left to buy a second-hand Peugeot. You were right, the figurine was very valuable. The cruise is my wedding present for you, dearest lover.
François went upstairs to the room he had never slept in. In a wooden box, lined with velvet, was his wedding present for Claudine. François slowly unwrapped the porcelain shepherd.
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