15 minute read

WELL DONE! The Bread Grabbers by Jonathan Pett

The Bread Grabbers by Jonathan Pett

It's the smell of old coffee and stale wine, behind the curtain, that divides his homelife from his shop life. His life from theirs–from the bread grabbers.

As he takes the first drag of the day–that first drag that fills his whole body, that shoots down his arms, dizzying and steadying him all at once–Martin leans on the bar and contemplates last night, the debris scattered along the pine bar. Dirty glasses, spilt beer and champagne, old smoke and peanuts. Why does he do it? It's a veritable public service he’s offering here. Every birthday, every special occasion, all the local people with nowhere else to go and no-one else to see, all make their way over to Martin's. Where else is there to go in the middle of nowhere?

Last night, it was the turn of the only English guy in the village, Jack, celebrating the second scan of his baby who, he drunkenly told Martin, he’s decided to call MJ. What does that even stand for?

Martin takes the offending little crunch of tobacco out of his mouth and spits into the ashtray. Steps from the café into the shop.

This is Désirée's area. Not his. There's something about that counter, that old cash box, the meat slicer, that whole service area, that turns his stomach first thing in the morning. This is where his wife becomes a shopkeeper and he, if you listen to village gossip, a lazy, miserable bastard who lets his wife do all the work whilst he serves drinks to his mates in the back.

Well, to be a shopkeeper was not his life's ambition. Running round for a stream of miserable country people. Anyone with a wallet can look his wife in the eye–she's just a shop assistant–and complain about their bread, get his wife running around the shop, for this and that, moaning about them, daring to close for lunch. Or even worse, thinking that they have any right to take a holiday. They’re the bread and water of this village. They have a duty to serve. They're more important than the village doctor. And much less expensive.

This is the part of his life in Castera that he hates the most. The part that puts him and his beloved Désirée down, puts them at the locals’ service. Désirée bending and bowing and running around for them all. She says she doesn't care. And maybe she says that for him, because she knows she has no choice, because she knows that he won't do it to himself. He'll get in all the deliveries. He'll stack the shelves, and make coffee for anyone who asks him nicely, but he won't serve. Anyone.

The church bells start their ringing, bullying away their lives, a constant reminder of their indispensability, as he opens up the old shop door. Dead on eight o'clock. Not bad for a thirty-five year old, who went to bed at 4:30 in the morning, after consuming a rare mix of drinks including armagnac, whiskey, wine and beer–all sloshed down with some foie gras and The Clash.

He looks out, sees the mist lining up on the horizon, and starts to like this Castera again, starts to remember why they answered that ad, looking for a couple of suckers, to run a village shop in the middle of nowhere and why he’s still here instead of driving delivery vans in the Marseille suburbs. This cool of the morning Castera, not yet spoiled by customers, the bread grabbers. This is a good moment for him, the moment before the day begins. Before the day of bread and money and talk.

He goes outside, leans on his car and lights up his roll. He looks up at Jack's closed shutters. Jack doesn't have to get up at this time, he doesn't have to get his hands dirty with coins and see his wife run around on someone's whim.

And, as Martin crushes his first cigarette of the day into the ground, he turns and sees the Irish woman, Patsy, with the dogs and the nice legs, who was, apparently, a day time chat show host back in Ireland, coming down the road and it's starting, the day is starting, no avoiding it.

… and there's smelling, sixty-year old bachelor boy, Roger, who’s never owned a TV set or a fridge coming in from the left and it's

...… inevitable, inescapable. How many greetings will he have to go through in a day? He wants to go running when he sees those first two customers of the day, boring down on him, bread in their eyes, baguettes, baguettes, baguettes. Bread swimming around in their eyes.

Would it kill them not to have something to dunk in their bowls of coffee? They probably think he and Désirée should open earlier. They must literally hear him unlock the doors, those greedy bread grabbers. He’s sick of the sight of bread. He could do without ever dipping another piece of bread.

"Desiree!" he shouts up, as he reluctantly steps into the shop after them. Walks in past Roger, who is already standing there, smelling, at the counter. Waiting for his bread. He doesn't dare ask him.

And as Désirée pounds down the stairs, Martin steps into his territory–the café at the back–and starts to prepare some coffee for the imminent arrival of his regulars.

As Martin pours himself his first espresso of the day and watches Désirée. After showing Roger out of the door, she stands, arched in the doorway, covering the light of the door with her form, those long, long legs from Marseille, towering over his life. He still can't help eyeing them–it's sort of obscene, to eye up your wife after twenty-odd years, it would feel more sane and respectable to be eyeing up passing women–but he still eyes up his wife and he'll be eyeing up those long legs till the day he dies. That amazing body from Marseille that has taken over his life.

He knew, as soon as he set eyes on that fifteen-year old girl with that Marseille darkness and those legs, that he would never want another woman's body. How could anyone compare with those legs… in those white shoes? And short skirt… first thing in the morning? Give the locals something to think about, as they dunk their bread in their coffee.

Her voice booms out at Christian, the village gardener, as he pulls up in his van. Jesus, that's a voice that could break stone, cut his heart in two if he never heard it again, if it was taken away from his life… and in steps his mate Christian, kissing his wife, as Martin already starts to pour out an espresso for him.

This skinny Christian, with amazing strength for someone so slender, is all fresh air and thin muscles and goodness. He likes this man and his presence in his bar and can't help wondering why this easy man, with innocence in his soul, is wasting his life away with a tight, puny eyed fifty-five year old wife who makes him work his life away. Christian starts his day with a paper round at 5:30 in the morning before coming to work here from nine to six and spends his evenings and weekends working on building a house for his wife's parents or daughter or whichever of her voracious family needs to abuse Christian’s kindness next.

And following him in, there's intellectual communist, skirt chasing postman, Didier, with amazingly little moral strength for a communist. Didier, with his wispy, balding, blond hair and smooth communist eyes, always dashes in, with a newspaper under his arm–always some capitalist crime to discuss. If you come back home unexpected and see Didier's yellow post van parked in your backyard, you know your wife's been tempted by some of the Didier treatment.

Every morning, like clockwork, 8:30 am, these two friends both find their way into his bar and spend the next thirty minutes of their lives taking the piss out of each other.

These bantering bastards are followed in by the mothers who come in at 9:15 am, after dropping off their kids at the local village school. The plumber's wife, the farmer's wife, and the computer programmer's wife. Now, that’s when it becomes interesting being a café barman, that's when he becomes discrete, hovering sensitively, like a real barman, a real garçon, eavesdropping on those bits of insight into their men's lives. All that honesty and gentle bitchiness and talk of medical stuff.

And then, dotted through the rest of the morning, there's the lonely loners who need some contact, some laughter, some time, some of Martin’s coffee and sympathy. The widows, the divorced, the out of work. This is the time of day when he feels the most exposed, out in the open. Heavy weight of the morning. When all the righteous, good people are out at work. “What's he doing here? Letting his wife Désirée do all the work, he doesn't even bother serving any customers, just sits chatting away in the bar with his mates. He's got three kids and all he does is play computer games and have coffee with his mates.”

This is the time of day when he contemplates leaving this village, stuck out in the middle of nowhere interesting. This is the time when he longs to see the blue sea around Marseille where they used to live or, anywhere but this imposing quiet and calm and heavy judgement. This is the time when he resents seeing his dignified wife bending and scraping around for a few euros.

He takes another cigarette outside, leaning on his car, looking up at Jack tapping away at his PC and sees their next door neighbour Pierre, out on the terrace, looking lost without his Odette, who is lying, ill with cancer, in the room leading onto the terrace–Pierre relaying to her the gossip of the day.

It has to be said there's love and devotion in that old couple. The Birdman Pierre and Odette gossip their lives away, in heaven, from their perch together. They share the same interests-people. How many couples can say that? Discussing people all day long and into the night, on that observation post.

He knows exactly what all the villagers think of him, what they bitch about behind his back, that he should be more of a man and go out to prove that he can work long hours. But why should he go off to work, leaving his wife at home when all he wants to do is be with her, share his life with her? He’s done that going out to work, having separate lives and slowly growing apart when he was on the road. He doesn't need to prove his human worth by killing himself working for ten euros an hour, pounding the roads and wondering who the fuck his wife and kids are.

And this is the only thing that makes it worthwhile for him, staying in this godforsaken country hole–the fact that he can laugh and talk his days away with his wife and get to see his children grow. This shop in the middle of nowhere interesting has at least given them that.

And maybe it's worth the price. Of the judgement and scorn of the bread grabbers.

His morning finishes with the midday bread flood. You can see the elbowing look of anger in their eyes. As they run in from work dead on twelve. Don't ever run out of bread or we will burn your house down and shove your children down the well. Don't you ever think of closing down. Or taking a holiday. We need our bread...bread, bread, bread. Bread for morning, bread for midday, bread for dinner. Fucking bread!

He has to keep telling himself, to stop himself from decking one of them, that they're close to 12:30. His favourite moment of the day. Shut up shop. The sound of that door closing. Slide the bolt across. Get out that new white wine chilled in the fridge. Primeur. Good, fresh words. First of the season. Tastes like spring. Watch the news. See if Le Pen's taken over and Jack’s packing his bags.

In the afternoon, as Désirée manhandles stacks of milk and bottles of water, in between hoarse laughter and chatting with the customers and passers-by, he slopes off down to the allotment for a couple of hours. Oh don't worry, guilt and shame follow him down there. He feels bad, to let his wife take the burden but he can't, he just can't, he needs his time away from those bread grabbers.

He’s covered here. Away from deliveries, gossip, criticism, money, service and that endless supply of bread. That counter, those coins changing hands.

He sits and contemplates, in his plastic garden chair, a little smell of smoke from his roll up filling the air. Herbs in the breeze. It's sweet, this sun. This air. This gentle life. He knows it. He knows that it's better than anything they had, back in the Marseille inner city. He knows that everything has a price. This peace and beauty and tranquillity has a price. A little bit of his and his wife's dignity.

But this is undoubtedly a good place to be. For his eleven-year old son to play out in the street until late and not having to worry about him getting into drugs, fights and gangs, like he did. That was another reason why they had to leave the Marseille suburbs. He left his reputation there and his son would have had to continue on the legacy. Here he has a fresh chance. Small schools, fresh air, no crime or violence. Sometimes he even forgets to lock the car at night. How long would it take back in Marseille to have regretted that mistake?

Jack sometimes joins him in the garden. They sit and they contemplate. Cranberries, dope. Having children. As Jack goes on at him in his incomprehensible French and sometimes he has to pretend to understand him, when he doesn’t know what the hell's he's on about. But it doesn't matter what he's trying to say to him. It's being here, it's savouring the time, breathing in the smells of those herbs that's important.

In the evening, as he thunders The Clash and Désirée gets up to dance, so light, so cool–still his Marseille girl–and the whiskey sets in, that trance like, beautiful half land of warm whiskey, as The Clash pound the floor, pound the village on a Monday evening, cut through that gentle quiet, as Joe Strummer's fuck fucking voice cuts through that South of France air and that bottle smashing, face punching beat grinds out, he looks at Désirée, light foot dancing, fresh as a fifteen-year old. They’ve been through friends and children and soul plunges and marathon piss-ups and they’ll be whiskey drinking and dancing on their own graves.

But this is how he always wanted it to be. They're a couple of old teenagers who never want to grow up. He wants to smash his way through life, drinking and playing music and watching his pretty Marseille wife dance. He wants the world to be good, to be kind and forgiving in his alcohol induced oblivion, on evenings like this, in his hot breathed paradise, with Joe Strummer steaming it in the background, it is.

By 3 am, the children are finally asleep, draped over the sofa. Clara at one end, Felix draped over little Manon at the other. After running themselves around the village, waiting for their parents to drop, they finally gave in. But not their father. There he is, in the 3 am calm, drinking with his English friend with whiskey kindness in his eyes.

They've got red wine in their hearts, him and Jack. What a couple of sad old piss-ups they'd both be without giant Désirée or Jack’s bad tempered wife, Bella. Sipping their lives away in red hell. Waiting for that blur, that delusion, that misty wine time, when they cross over to the other side, the sad, lifeless side. Of the excluded, the fuck ups, the weak, the soft hearts, rebels of this fucking shit world who can't bring themselves to buy all that shit about three piece suites and family cars.

If they hadn't both fallen into that sweet trap of love. Fifteen years old. What sort of age is that? Stomachless, cocky, geezing around on his bike, never realising anyone like Désirée could want to spend her life with him. He did his dead life. He did his lorry driving into the night, into his life. He did his work over love, children, life. He did his work for no return, his embittered, loveless, passionless killing toil. And now he’s living for love.

When Bella finally manages to persuade Jack to get on his way, he suddenly remembers what's waiting downstairs. He suddenly remembers the bread grabbers. And as he watches Jack and Bella stagger down the road into their little house, he feels as sober as he’s ever been in his life. A coldness shoots down his body. He takes a last roll-up, as Désirée nudges the children awake and manoeuvres them to bed. And he wonders whether he wants to get up tomorrow. He wonders what would happen if they just didn't open the shop. If they just closed the shutters on Castera and all those bread grabbers for good.

“Hurry up Martin. Got to get up at 5am to go and get the bread!”

“Yeah, yeah. Fucking bread.”

Jonathan's work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and literary journals, both in print and online. He has also written for theatre (Royal National Theatre studio, London Fringe, Edinburgh Festival....), TV (BBC, World Productions, Carnival Films...) and Film (Scala Productions, Met Films...). One of his films is currently in pre-production.

Jonathan's work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and literary journals, both in print and online. He has also written for theatre (Royal National Theatre studio, London Fringe, Edinburgh Festival....), TV (BBC, World Productions, Carnival Films...) and Film (Scala Productions, Met Films...). One of his films is currently in pre-production.