She nodded to me, and then to Édouard, as she lifted her skirts slightly from the wet pavement and walked away.
‘Don’t look at me like that in public,’ I scolded him, as we watched her go.
‘I like it,’ he said, lighting a cigarette and looking ridiculously pleased with himself. ‘You go such an endearing colour.’
Édouard saw a man he wanted to speak to over in the tabac, so I let him go, walked into the Bar Tripoli and stood at the counter for a few minutes, watching Monsieur Dinan at his usual spot in the corner. I asked for a glass of water, and drank it, exchanging a few words with the barman. Then I walked over and greeted Monsieur Dinan, removing my hat.
It took him a few seconds to register who I was. I suspected it was only my hair that gave me away. ‘Ah. Mademoiselle. And how are you? It’s a chill evening, is it not? Is Édouard well?’
‘He is perfectly fine, Monsieur, thank you. But I wonder if I might have two minutes to discuss a private matter.’
He glanced around the table. The woman to his right gave him a hard look. The man opposite was too busy talking to his companion to notice. ‘I do not believe I have any private matters to discuss with you Mademoiselle.’ He looked at his female companion as he spoke.
‘As you wish, Monsieur. Then we shall discuss it here. It is a simple matter of payment for a painting. Édouard sold you a particularly fine work in oil pastels – The Market at Grenouille – for which you promised him …’ I checked my paper ‘… five francs? He would be much obliged if you could settle the sum now.’
The convivial expression disappeared. ‘You are his debt collector?’
‘I believe that description is a little strong, Monsieur. I am merely tidying Édouard’s finances. And this particular bill is, I believe, some seven months old now.’
‘I am not going to discuss financial matters in front of my friends.’ He turned away from me in high dudgeon.
But I had half expected this. ‘Then I’m afraid, Monsieur, that I will be forced to stand here until you are ready to discuss it.’
All pairs of eyes around the little table had now landed on me, but I did not so much as colour. It was hard to embarrass me. I had grown up in a bar in St Peronne; I had helped my father throw out drunks from the age of twelve, had cleaned the gentlemen’s WC, had heard talk so bawdy it would have made a street girl blush. Monsieur Dinan’s theatrical disapproval held no terrors for me.
‘Well, you will be there all evening, then. For I do not have such a sum on me.’
‘Forgive me, Monsieur, but I was standing at the bar for some time before I came over. And I could not help but notice that your wallet was most generously stocked.’
At this his male companion began to laugh. ‘I think she has the measure of you, Dinan.’
This seemed only to enrage him.
‘Who are you? Who are you to embarrass me so? This is not Édouard’s doing. He understands the nature of a gentleman’s friendship. He would not come here so gauchely, demanding money and embarrassing a man in front of his friends.’ He squinted at me. ‘Hah! I remember now … You are the shop girl. Édouard’s little shop girl from La Femme Marché. How could you possibly understand the ways of Édouard’s circle? You are …’ he sneered ‘… provincial.’
He had known that would hurt. I felt the colour rising slowly from my chest. ‘I am indeed, Monsieur, if it is now a provincial concern to eat. And even a shop girl can see when Édouard’s friends have taken advantage of his generous nature.’
‘I’ve told him I will pay him.’
‘Seven months ago. You told him you would pay him seven months ago.’
‘Why should I answer to you? Since when did you become Édouard’s chienne méchante?’ He actually spat the words at me.
Briefly, I froze. And then I heard Édouard’s voice, behind me, reverberating from somewhere deep within his chest. ‘What did you call my wife?’
I turned. I had never seen my husband’s expression so dark. ‘Are you deaf as well as charmless now, Dinan?’
‘You married her? That sour-faced shop girl?’
Édouard’s fist shot out so fast that I barely saw it. It came from somewhere behind my right ear and caught Dinan so hard on the chin that he actually lifted a little into the air as he flew backwards. He crashed down in a pile of chairs, the table overturning as his legs swung over his head. His female companions shrieked as the wine bottle broke, spraying Medoc over their clothes.
The bar fell quiet, the fiddler stopping mid-note. The air felt electrified. Dinan blinked, struggling to right himself.
‘Apologize to my wife. She is worth a dozen of you.’ Édouard’s voice was a growl.
Dinan spat something, possibly a tooth. He lifted his chin, a thin scarlet trickle bisecting it, and muttered, so quietly that I thought only I could have heard him: ‘Putain.’
With a roar, Édouard went for him. Dinan’s friend launched himself on Édouard, throwing punches at his shoulders, his head, his broad back. They bounced off my husband as if they were gnats. I could just make out Édouard’s voice: ‘How dare you insult my wife?’
‘Fréjus, you blackguard!’ I turned to see Michel Le Duc landing a punch on someone else.
‘Arrêtez, Messieurs! Arrêtez vous!’
The bar erupted. Édouard pushed himself upright. He shook Dinan’s friend from his shoulders, as if he were shrugging off a coat, and swung a chair behind him. I felt, as much as heard, the wood crack on the man’s back. Bottles skimmed the air over our heads. Women shrieked, men swore, customers scrambled for the doors, while street boys ran in through them to join the mêlée. In the chaos, I saw my moment. I stooped, and pulled the groaning Dinan’s wallet from his jacket. I took a five-franc note from it and tucked a piece of handwritten paper in its place.
‘I have written you a receipt,’ I shouted at him, my mouth close to his ear. ‘You may need it if you ever choose to sell Édouard’s painting. Although, frankly, you would be a fool to do so.’ And then I straightened. ‘Édouard!’ I called, looking around for him. ‘Édouard!’ I was unsure whether he had heard me above the commotion.
I ducked to avoid a bottle and made my way through the scrum towards him. The street girls were laughing and catcalling in a corner. The patron was shouting and wringing his hands, the fight spilling out onto the street now, tables crashing. There was not a man in there who wasn’t throwing punches – indeed, they had all embraced the prospect of pitched battle with such relish that I wondered if it was a fight at all.