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When we lived in La Rochelle, my governess tried to make me say ‘Bonjour,’ to people we met in the street. It was polite she said, I would never be a gentleman if I did not learn to be polite. But I was shy, and after our morning walk she would scold me, and shake me impatiently. Papa was away at the war and Maman was – distant. I knew she loved me, but she said I reminded her of Papa and it was too difficult. So I continued trying to please Eva, usually failing. On one of our outings we saw Loïc approaching. He was tall and handsome. Eva blushed whenever they met. I decided that this time I would make Eva proud. When he was close, I stepped forward and said, ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Durand.’ As I spoke his foot struck a cobble and he lurched clumsily. His mouth opened wide, but a second later his eyes settled on me and I saw something else: an intense dislike. He spoke curtly to Eva and hurried on his way. She in turn was rough with me, accusing me of mocking the poor man.
Papa did not return from the war and Eva said that the Germans had reached Paris, so Maman put me on a boat to London and I stayed with her sister, Agnes, my aunt. Unfortunately, children were being evacuated and in short order I found myself on a farm in Cornwall.
Back then, I had no idea that I was destined to live in this desolate area for sixty years. It suited me. Maman died. I inherited and then sold the family business, became a reclusive Englishman who never had to say ‘Bonjour,’ to strangers. And I came to see that, perhaps, it wasn’t desolate after all. There was a bustling town nearby: a community where people worked, loved, lived. There was one person in particular: Mary, a widow. She seemed the sort of person who might tolerate me. Of course, I could never speak to her.
One day while walking along the coast, I emerged from a leafy tunnel where bushes grew around the path and the view held me captive. For the first time ever I realised I was at home. I also realised that somebody was nearby and smiling as I gazed out to sea.
‘Good Morning, Mr. Mercier.’
Without thinking I replied, ‘Bonjour, Mary.’
400 words excluding title