Severine is 40 today – there is bunting behind the counter, and balloons and ribbons stir gently under the awning. She’s working, as usual, behind the counter of the patisserie, but it’s taking her twice as long to serve her customers today; they all want to wish her a happy birthday. The old men shout jokes to her husband in the bakery, nudging each other, and bursting into short, raucous laughs. It’s already hot this morning, and she wipes her forearm over her brow; it must be warm so near the ovens.
I’m at a corner table in Cafe Aure, watching her moving between customers in the bakery and the cafe. I moved to this small commune two years ago, and I come here a few times a week, because, well, frankly, they have the best pastries in town. I don’t know Severine well, but she is good with my faltering French, my mixed up tenses and verb endings. Now and again she giggles at my mistakes, then puts her hand to her mouth, looks up under her eyebrows and apologises so charmingly that it’s not possible to bear her any malice. I think she must be clever; I see her working on the accounts often, when the shop is empty, and it’s always Severine, not Patrick who looks on as the children sit at the end of the counter, swinging their legs on high stools as they do their homework in the afternoon.
She doesn’t look happy today. The tendons in her neck are raised, and when she thinks no one can see, she opened her mouth wide and waggled her jaw from side to side, as if she is trying to shake out some tension.
She leans forward into the display cabinet and has to stretch to pick up the empty pastry tray. She’s small, smaller than I am, maybe only five feet tall, and the tendons on her arms ridge up with effort. As she drops the tray on the counter, she lets out a puff of air which makes her shaggy fringe flip up and flop back.
I can catch odd phrases from here. Yes, Flori is coming from Bordeaux for the party tonight. Yes, he is doing well at University. And yes, Romain and Lucie will be there; there is no school tomorrow. Naturally, Romi is at the lycée now; Lucie will follow him in two years.
I found an article on line about Severine a few days ago. She is a councillor in the town, and has just been announced as a Socialist candidate for the European Elections next year. This is something I didn’t know, and something we have in common; in another life, I used to be a councillor too. I can read some articles, learn some new vocabulary and maybe talk to her about this next week. It’s good to have something to talk about, or our conversations stumble into silence, and I’m embarrassed by my poor language skills.
Patrick has prepared a special cake for her birthday. It is on the counter, on display; after all, he is a patissier, and one must always remember to show one’s skills! It is a magnificent tower of golden choux balls, glossy with caramel and usually for weddings, but what an advertisement! There are other cakes in the glass fridge – I can see a bavarois, and a charlotte from here, and my mouth waters a little.
I wait for a break in the queue, and go to buy bread and pay for my coffee. Ça va? she asks, raising her eyebrows and giving me a brief smile. I reply that I am well, and how is she? Her right hand, flattened, wobbles side to side and her mouth stretches, turns down a little. Comme ci, comme ça, I suppose.
“Trop chaud”, she says, finally, as if she had discarded the thought of saying something else.
As I take my change, I wish her bon anniversaire, and tell her that I hope she enjoys her party tonight. She looks at me for a long moment, then beckons me closer with her uplifted chin. She taps at her belly.
“Enceinte,” she says. “Pregnant”. And she smiles at me, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.