I took a holiday from this blog during August. Post the near-completion of our French house project (see blog-post Oh Interfering Life!), I was exhausted. The time was perfect to bask in the sun. I then planned, after a short break, to continue searching for an agent before commencing work on another book – the second in my intended trilogy.
But when you spend time in country that is not your own, even the simplest interaction can contain the unexpected. My brain became full of impressions of France which begged to be recorded. Once I began writing them down, I found I couldn’t stop; other forces took over and stories leapt onto paper. France seemed truly able to surprise. Here I present: a simple story about wardrobes.
(Copyright: Selina Siak Chin Yoke).
These were no ordinary wardrobes, having been designed and made-to-measure by Jean-Paul, a Frenchman who has been supplying customised wardrobes for twenty five years. He visited my partner’s house not once but twice to take detailed measurements. Everything about Jean-Paul was elegant; even his moustache seemed to grey elegantly. ‘I want to be complètement sûr,’ Jean-Paul said while stroking the manicured tuft over his lips, ‘that I have the exact measurements.’ With such precision, my hopes were high for his wonder wardrobes.
Their components rumbled towards the house one Friday afternoon. The neighbours, already accustomed to trucks and vans and strange workers outside my partner’s house, peered out of their windows. What more could these foreigners be doing?
For an hour, the neighbours were entertained by the sight of Jean-Paul, slim and standing six-foot tall, side-by-side with a squat truck driver whose obligatory pot-belly must have got in the way. Little and Large battled with sixty pieces of doors and shelving. They panted and yelled and heaved until eventually, our not-inconsequential garage was three-quarters full.
‘But,’ I asked Jean-Paul, ‘will all the pieces stay there over the weekend?’
‘Mais oui,’ he replied, giving me a strange look.
‘Won’t you start putting up wardrobes today?’
‘Bah non!’ Jean-Paul exclaimed, steely blue eyes flashing. ‘The parts are heavy, vous voyez. Besides, there is a lot of work to do.’
Quite, I thought; why not start now? But no, Jean-Paul shook his head adamantly. His sole task that day, he insisted, was to receive the goods and make sure he had everything his fitters would need; assembly would wait till the next week.
The following Monday, Jean-Paul duly turned up with a man and a boy. The boy, who looked all of sixteen and was called Robert, turned out to be Jean-Paul’s son. Thankfully, the man was a seasoned worker; I could tell this from the lines on his face and the muscles etched into his arms. Jean-Paul introduced him as Georges. Georges, Jean-Paul announced, was un vrai artisan, the best in the business. Georges would put our wardrobes together, aided by the young Robert. ‘I give you my best worker,’ Jean-Paul crowed before leaving. ‘Georges loves cupboards!’
Georges did indeed love cupboards, as I discovered two days later. After an enormous amount of drilling and knocking from the principal bedroom, spiced by the odd shout of merde!, Georges finally invited me to view his handiwork. His normally serious face broke into a grin. ‘It was very hard,’ he said. ‘Your floors are not level. I had to make many adjustments. But we succeed!’
Georges slid the wardrobe doors open with a flourish. ‘Regardez! Rollers on both the top and bottom,’ he told me proudly. Georges pulled what he called the ‘beautiful’ drawers in and out. He pointed eagerly to the hanging spaces he had made, all the while caressing the smoothly lacquered doors like a man in love.
By lunchtime the following day, a more sombre mood had settled. Georges shuffled into the study to see me. ‘You have to come,’ he said, ushering me towards the guest room. ‘We have a serious problem.’
I followed Georges. Shelves were up in the guest room, wardrobe doors already in place. What on earth could the matter be? Georges slowly pulled one of the doors all the way to one side, so that the cupboard it fronted was ostensibly closed. ‘Look what happens now.’ Georges released his hand. We watched as the burnished white door slid – and continued sliding until the cupboard was half-open. ‘Your floors are too uneven,’ Georges muttered. ‘I managed a trick in the main bedroom, but here, non! The doors won’t stay shut. I’ve tried everything. Incroyable!’
‘But…how can this be?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Jean-Paul himself came twice to take measurements. And now we have cupboards…THAT CANNOT STAY CLOSED??’ I looked at Georges, who merely gave an almighty Gallic shrug of both shoulders. But I saw that his brown eyes were troubled.
I stared at the wonder doors. When I pushed one for myself, it felt as if we had doors on skates. I knew where the problem lay: the rollers Georges had installed were simply too good. ‘Georges, you must give us shittier rollers,’ I said, and his eyes nearly popped out from behind metallic glasses.
‘Non non Madame,’ he shouted, ‘I have a solution! Des amortisseurs!’
The decibel level in the room rose as Georges described the shock absorbers which could be fitted to the end of every door. Each would apparently have its own magnet, and it was obvious Georges could hardly wait. ‘You just give a gentle push,’ he explained, tenderly pushing a door shut to demonstrate, ‘et voilà! This solution is le top!’
Georges was so pre-occupied by the phenomenon of doors gliding on their own that he overlooked an even larger problem: four of the doors that had been delivered were of the wrong type. He didn’t spot the mistake, and neither did I. It took my partner’s fresh eyes to point out the error. ‘How are they going to stick the glass onto the fronts?’ she asked innocently.
I looked down at Jean-Paul’s plan, up at the glassless doors in front of us, and back down at my paper again. Yup, there was no doubt: we had the wrong bloody doors. So much for Jean-Paul’s process of stock-checking; shouldn’t he have picked that up?
There was nothing else to do but to call in yet another Frenchman: the door maker himself. France remains a country of artisans, which by and large is a good thing, so Jean-Paul knew Pierre – the man who had made our doors – personally. Pierre rolled up, coiffed and perfumed and dressed in hip black. He was a short man adorned with the paunch of the well-fed. In one hand he carried a note-pad. ‘Enchanté Madame,’ he said, offering me his free hand.
As Pierre toured the rooms, Georges and Robert tagged behind. An animated discussion ensued which sounded as if the men were coming to blows. It was like one of the many French radio talk-shows which seem to work on the principle that whoever shouts the loudest gets heard. Listening to them, you would have thought you were at l’Assemblée Nationale (the French parliament) during a contentious debate on a matter of national importance. I tiptoed carefully into the guest room, and entered just in time to see Georges pointing a triumphant finger, ‘There! Vous voyez! She won’t stay closed!’
Pierre frowned. You could almost see the numbers carved all over his smooth forehead. He was going to have to replace the wrong doors and give us the vaunted shock absorbers – le top, as Georges had described – for free. This project would be costly. But the door maker rose to the occasion.
‘Madame, I will make them for you as soon as possible, in any event before the holiday season.’ Pierre was referring to August, the month when France shuts down. It was then the third week of July. We were running out of time.
September 8, 2013 Our glass-fronted doors were finally delivered on August 30 and were stored in the garage. Georges was meant to fit them on September 2, but he was felled by a trapped nerve in his back. Meanwhile the correct doors lie on their sides in our garage, but the wrong doors remain where they were at the end of July and still don’t shut.
With so much real-life drama, how could I possibly write about anything else?
(NOTE: the above story is based on true facts but all names have been changed).