What a Velo-Solex could do for your love life

Michael Bywater
Saturday 04 October 1997 23:02

The grandmother finally died, aged 96. The French don't say "my grandmother". It's "the grandmother". Much more distinguished, as in "the Sword of Damocles"; as in "the Boss".

She knew she was going, and collected the family to say goodbye, down in the big old house in Pornichet, overlooking the sea, where they used to go every summer, not far from the statue of M Hulot, looking out over the sands, frozen for ever on his Holiday.

The grandmother died in her bed, in the arms of her daughters. Just slipped away, and no unspoken tight-lippery about the will, either. French law is clear about wills: the spoils are divided fairly, and once you're dead, you relinquish the reins and people remember you for your life, not your testamentary dispositions.

It's a miracle French literature survived. Look at the role that disputed, lost or unfair wills have played in driving British fiction and drama, the hand of the dead still chiding the living. They didn't have that, the French, but somehow they struggled through. Perhaps they had a writers' convention: "Plot Structure And The Code Napoleon: What The Hell Do We Do Now?"

The answer was, as it so often is in France, sex. Sex works just as well as inheritance for moving the plot along. I think the writers came up with it first, and the people just sort of followed along. French people have complex sex lives in the same way that Americans eat tofu: because they read about it somewhere, and thought it sounded like a good idea. Picture Jean-Baptiste sitting in his shirt-sleeves, at ease in the salon with a volume of Maupassant open on his blameless bourgeois knee. "I say," he murmurs to himself. "Now this is a good one, where this chap has a mistress who works in a shop, and every afternoon ... "

And next thing you know, off he goes, hotfoot to the nearest milliner's. "Good afternoon, Sir. May I help you?" "But yes. I was inquiring of myself, would you by chance have anything in a size 10, preferably blonde and of a disposition very amiable and sympathetic?" "Evidently one can help Sir. And would Sir wish to take the young lady with him now?" "But no! First one must rent the apartment and provision oneself with a poodle (cut of the lion), a pair of mules of marabou, and items both of silk and of lace. One will return at the hour of closure."

You can see how it caught on, and a more agreeable national habit than calorie-counting or affronted indignation. There's even a scent named for it: Guerlain's L'heure bleue, the blue hour of twilight when the sky and the earth are at the same level of luminosity, when well-to-do gentlemen throw open the shutters of their mistresses' rooms and stretch and yawn and think about returning home. (A Frenchman gave me rather a good tip about mistresses. "An ill-mannered fool," he said, "returns to his wife smelling of his mistress's scent. A sensible man returns to his wife smelling of his own cologne. But a true gentleman returns to his wife smelling of his wife's scent. Next time you buy her a bottle ... buy two.")

The grandfather learnt these lessons well. Each day, at two o'clock, he would brush and pomade his hair, scent his handkerchief with Roger et Gallet lavender eau de toilette, straighten his tie, and manicure his nails. He spent a great deal of time ... arranging himself. He owned the biggest manicure case in the world, which opened into two halves like a book, filled with dozen upon dozen of delicate arcane silver and steel instruments with ivory handles. No need to work; the family was well-to- do; rich vineyards in the background and a successful fabric business kept the money rolling pleasantly in.

So, manicured, shaved, brushed, scented, arranged, the grandfather would announce that he was popping out, kiss the grandmother, climb aboard his Velo-Solex bicycle (the one with the little motor slung over the handlebars) and putter off to his other life, returning promptly at five.

And in the summer, when the family decamped to Pornichet, the mistress would take a house there, too, because these arrangements were essential to the smooth running of everyday life. The house which the mistress would take was up by the railway station, so it made sense for the grandfather to have a Velo-Solex in Pornichet, too; the manicure-set, cologne and pomade could be packed in his suitcase for the train journey.

Everyone was waiting to see whether the mistress would turn up at the grandmother's funeral. She was in a strong position, it being generally agreed that while to show her face would argue a proper degree of respect and sensibility, to stay away would also argue a proper degree of respect and sensibility.

With a little goodwill, these things can be arranged with unspoken courtesy on both sides. There was only one tiny crack in the smooth surface of civility, when, once, the grandmother asked one of her daughters whether it was she who had put flowers - paquerettes or muguets de bois, certainly nothing vulgar - on the grandfather's grave. "No," said the daughter, instantly realising she should have said "yes". But the grandmother and the mistress never bumped into each other at the grandfather's graveside.

The mistress did not come to the funeral. Everyone agreed that this argued a proper degree of respect and sensibility. The only sadness was that the grandmother was placed beside the grandfather in the family tomb. So now, when the mistress wishes to visit her old lover, she must do so in the presence of his wife. But death never did know about the social niceties.

I have never met any of these people. They are not my family. But I am surprised to find that I admire the civility, the belief that if you get the surface right and the outward form, the rest becomes much easier. I have lavender cologne; I have violet shaving cream and a bicycle. Sir Clive Sinclair is now selling little electric motors which turn your bicycle into a sort of silent Velo-Solex. I think I shall buy one tomorrow, and bolt it on. If I get an early start, I should have it working in plenty of time for l'heure bleue.

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