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The years before Brexit were a time of magical innocence.
—Overheard in a French bar, March 2019
Jesus winked at him.
Big Malcolm checked to see if anyone was watching. Two small boys were chasing pigeons round the square like cowboys at a rodeo. A group of four old men were playing boules beneath the shade trees by the church. Big Malcolm had another butcher’s at the Son of God.
Who winked again.
Big Malcolm sauntered round the statue. Twice. He tapped its ribcage. Hollow. Bronze. He checked its head. No strings or wires. He didn’t touch its eyes. In case they moved. Or felt like lychees.
Malcolm lived in St.-Genès-sur-Tarn.
His wife had been the one who’d pestered him to move.
“Fresh start,” she’d said. Ten years ago.
He’d checked the price of properties. He’d found their terrace house in Bethnal Green was worth a bloody great big farmhouse near the River Tarn.
“I want to be respectable,” she’d said.
The place they’d bought had needed plumbing and rewiring. Two ceramic footprints in the floor and single light bulbs hanging from the ceilings might have satisfied the French, but even Malcolm’s taste was more refined than that. He’d done the work himself.
Electric wires and plumbing fixtures weren’t too complicated, once you got the hang of them. But winking statues?
Malcolm stepped back slowly. Jesus didn’t move a muscle. He was standing on one leg, his arms spread out like he was balancing. Forever set to pirouette, karate-kick a Pharisee, or mime a parable. And smiling. Like he knew a joke or two. This Jesus wasn’t dead and drooping like the Jesus on the war memorial.
Big Malcolm told himself he’d been a right old Charlie. What had looked like winking must have been the sunlight playing tricks. He climbed into his SUV and drove out to the farmhouse.
He’d forgotten Marge was having friends for tea. Best china, all the crusts cut off the bread, and sandwiches the size of postage stamps. A brood of expat English women, sipping tea and gossiping on chintz, pretending to be ladies. Marge was happy playing middle-class abroad. She’d lost her Cockney accent, bless her.
Malcolm didn’t bother them. He greeted Artemis, their boxer bitch, who traipsed along behind him to the smaller sitting room in back. He switched the telly on. He kept the sound down. Well, you can with snooker, can’t you? All the way from Sheffield by satellite and dish subscription. Artemis collapsed across the rug in front of Malcolm, fell asleep, and farted.
Two weeks later Jesus winked at him again. It wasn’t sunlight playing silly buggers this time. Thunderclouds were blanketing the sky. No play of light, no shadows.
Malcolm sputtered, “What the…?”
Jesus didn’t answer.
Pigeons strutted undisturbed across the cobbles. Lightweight metal tables stood beneath the stone and timber arches. Checkered plastic tablecloths flapped unattended.
Jesus winked again. The other eye this time. Then nothing. Cocky little beggar, wasn’t he?
The clouds burst. Malcolm ran for shelter in the bar. Drip-drying in a window seat, he kept an eye on Jesus getting drenched. He wondered what he’d do if Jesus whipped out an umbrella.
Malcolm never had been one for church. He didn’t hold with all the folderol. The Church of England had a bloke out here who held a service every other week in one old Catholic building or another. Malcolm went along from time to time to please the missus, but it didn’t light his touch paper.
He ordered a pastis. He tried to ask Bertrand, the owner of the bar, how old the statue was, but Malcolm’s French and Bertrand’s English weren’t quite up to it.
Christophe, another customer, who spoke both languages, interpreted. “Our friend, he wants to know how long our Jésus has been hopping on one foot.”
Bertrand said, “Une vingtaine.”
Christophe said, “Twenty years, perhaps.”
“Who made it?”
“Je n’sais pas.”
“He doesn’t know.”
“I got that.”
“Ça il a compris.”
“So, are there any stories told about it?”
“Superstitions. Legends. I don’t know.”
“Y’at-il des histoires racontées sur notre Jésus?”
“He says there are no stories.”
“But you can talk to Madeleine.”
“Mais, oui. She fills the ordinances at the pharmacie.”
“Oui, the papers that the doctors write. Our Madeleine turns doctor papers into pills.”
“That’s the word you say in English?”
“So why should I ask Madeleine about the statue?”
“Ah, when she was young, our Madeleine, she fall in love with Jésus.”
“With the statue?”
“Yes, the hopping one.”
Bertand broke in. “La grue.”
They sounded like a pair of French detectives played by Peter Sellers.
Bertrand balanced on one leg. He didn’t half look silly.
Christophe rescued them. “A grue. It is a kind of bird.”
“Oh! Like a heron?”
“Non, is bigger.”
“Oui, that’s right. Crrreng. He thinks our Jésus stands there like a crrreng.”
The scattered audience of customers applauded. Bertrand bowed, triumphant.
Malcolm said, “What happened?”
“People like our little theater.”
“No. I mean with Madeleine.”
“Yes.” Malcom waited.
Christophe shrugged. “What happen? What you think? This Jésus, he is made of bronze. He cannot satisfy her. So she finds another husband, no?”
Big Malcolm said, “I see.” He didn’t.
Marge was on the phone when Malcolm reached the farmhouse, chatting with a childhood friend in London. “Geneviève she’s called. Can you imagine? I’ve a cleaning lady by the name of Geneviève.”
Festooning spittle, Artemis fussed over Malcolm, body twisting in contortions of delight, but Marge just waved, her fingers glued together like the queen’s, and kept on talking. Malcolm thought, I can’t remember when we last made love. Not really.
Malcolm visited the pharmacist’s one afternoon. He thought of buying Marge some perfume, but he didn’t know what kind she used these days. Instead he bought himself a pair of sunglasses. He didn’t need them, but it gave him an excuse to talk to Madeleine.
He said, “Nice statue, that, across the square.”
“You think so?” Madeleine spoke English.
“Well, it’s not as gruesome as most other Jesuses.” That bloody crane word cropping up again!
“You’re right. It has some joie de vivre, n’est-ce-pas?”
“Christophe said how you liked it.”
“Ah, Christophe. He likes to tell tall stories.”
“So, it isn’t true?”
“Of course not. Do I look like I’m a nun?”
She didn’t. Quite the opposite.
She said, “I didn’t fall in love with Jésus.”
She smiled. “Non. Jésus helped me when I fall in love with Luc.”
“Right. I knew that.”
“Jésus knew what kind of husband I would like.”
Big Malcolm paid her for the sunglasses. She handed him his change. She smiled a second time. Big Malcolm longed for Marge to smile at him like that. She used to – something like that, anyway – when they were younger.
Malcolm said, “You know, I think I’ll buy my wife some perfume.”
“Good. A woman always likes a gift.”
“What flavor would you recommend?” He could have kicked himself. It’s not a bloody lollipop, you Charlie! Flavor. Honestly!
“What fragrance does your wife enjoy?”
He didn’t know. “She’s fond of flowers, I suppose.”
“An English rose?”
“Oh, yes, she’s fond of roses. I remember that. She often said she’d like a rose garden. We never had one, though. Too busy.”
Madeleine picked up a sample, sprayed some perfume on her wrist, and offered damp and scented skin to Malcolm. “Try it.”
Malcolm sniffed. “It’s very nice,” he said.
“I think your wife will like it, too.”
“I’ll take it then.”
The bottle came inside a fancy box, which Madeleine wrapped up in yellow paper and a bright red ribbon. Malcolm paid. Her smile alone was worth the price.
She said, “I hope your wife will show you how she likes your gift.” And, then, she winked at him.
Big Malcolm thought about that wink the whole way home. He reckoned Madeleine was prettier than Jesus.
Marge was out. Big Malcolm put the perfume on the kitchen table near the salt and pepper. He and Artemis watched horse racing from Aintree on the telly.
Marge arrived about the time the big race of the day was getting underway. He heard her car pull up outside. Some minutes afterwards, to his surprise, she came into the sitting room. She usually didn’t bother saying hello. Today she interrupted when the leading horse was only five jumps from the finish. Winks and Roses, the outsider he’d put money on was galloping along in second place, not even looking puffed. At 66–1, it stood to make a thousand quid for him! He hushed his wife, his eyes glued to the telly, so she stalked off in a huff. His horse fell, leading, at the last. It wasn’t till the bloody race was over that he understood what Marge had wanted. She’d been trying to thank him for the perfume.
Jesus kept on winking at him. Malcolm didn’t mention it to Marge. She might think he was cracking up.
He risked a chat with Père Arnaud instead. The village priest shared lunch most days with other old-age pensioners at Bertrand’s bar and restaurant. Bertrand served the old folk soup, a main course, and a glass of wine for half the price that anybody else paid. Père Arnaud wore mufti.
Malcolm saw him leaving one bright afternoon, well-fed and not the least bit wobbly. Malcolm greeted him: “Bonjour.” He might be Cockney, but he knew a few French words.
“Bonjour,” the priest said.
Malcolm took him by the arm and led him over to the statue. Pointing, he said, “Jesus?”
“Oui, c’est Jésus.” Père Arnaud spoke French and Latin, but no English.
Malcolm tried to form a sentence with the little French he knew. “Il fait comme ça,” he said. He does like this. He winked to illustrate.
The priest looked puzzled.
Malcolm winked again. “Jésus,” he said – the proper French pronunciation, too. He pointed at the life-size bronze. “Il fait…” He pointed at his own right eye and winked. “Jésus…” He winked again.
“Cligner, c’est…” Père Arnaud winked.
“Oh, yes, right, winked.” Big Malcolm winked himself to show he understood.
The priest winked twice.
It wasn’t long before they looked like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in a mirror, driven mad by Peter Sellers.
Père Arnaud recovered his composure. “Non, Jésus ne cligne pas.”
No, Jesus doesn’t wink. Well, maybe not when you’re here, mate, but he’s been winking up a storm at me these last few weeks.
The priest shrugged. Malcolm shrugged. The priest shook Malcolm’s hand, then walked away, his shoulders jiggling like a jelly. He was trying not to laugh too hard.
Big Malcolm turned to Jesus. “What?”
But Jesus didn’t say a word. He winked. Too bloody late, you numpty.
Marge got up to greet her husband when he walked inside the farmhouse. “Would you like a cup of tea, love?”
This was a surprise. He said, “Yes, please.”
She even served it in a mug and let him drink it at the kitchen table. It was solid oak and scarred with years of use. They’d bought it with the house. It wasn’t fit for hoity-toity company, but Malcolm liked it better than the prissy stuff that filled the front room. You could put your elbows on this table. You could spill things on it. Marge had poured her own tea in a smaller mug. She set an open packet of digestive biscuits on the tabletop.
“What’s this about, then?” Malcolm said.
“I wondered if you’d like to talk instead of watching telly.”
“Yes, you know, have a conversation.”
“Well, anything.” She looked at him. “I’m trying, Malc. Don’t make me work so hard.”
Her eyes had crows’ feet underneath the makeup, but the pupils even now were blue as little butterflies. He muttered, “Sorry, love. I’ll try.”
She said, “So what have you been up to?”
His guard was down. He said, “I had a chat with Père Arnaud.”
“You know that bronze of Jesus in the square?”
“The one who’s got his leg up in the air?”
“Yes, that one.”
“What about it?”
“No,” he said, “you’ll think me daft.”
“Don’t laugh now, but I had this silly notion it was winking at me.”
“Yes, like this.” He showed her.
Marge winked back at him.
Before their mugs of tea were empty, they were winking at each other like a set of Christmas lights. They hadn’t laughed so much in ages.
Jesus only winked at him once more.
On Friday afternoon, Big Malcolm saw a boy of twelve or maybe younger sitting on the old stone bench that faced the statue. He was clutching football boots and staring hard at Jesus. Cooling off beneath the bench, a small brown dog was lying with its head between its paws. Big Malcolm sat beside the boy.
He waited. Neither one said anything. The boy’s eyes never moved from Jesus. Malcolm stretched. Small clouds passed overhead like floating sunshades. Fifteen minutes passed, but Malcolm wasn’t in a rush.
Then Jesus winked.
The boy’s face broke into a grin. He clapped his hands, just once. Excitement, not applause.
Big Malcolm turned to him. “You saw that?”
Malcolm tried again in French. “Vous avez vu çela?”
The boy said, “Quoi?”
Big Malcolm winked. “Jésus. Il” – he remembered – “cligne.”
The boy regarded him with wild astonishment. “You saw him wink?”
Thank God! The boy speaks English. Malcolm answered, “Yes. I thought you did, as well.”
The boy said, “You play football?”
“No. I used to, but I’m too old now.”
“I thought, perhaps, that’s why you see him wink.”
“What’s football got to do with winking?”
“Every Friday afternoon I sit. I wait. If Jésus wink at me, I know I score a goal tomorrow in the football match.”
“Right. That makes sense.”
The boy got up to leave. The dog crawled out from underneath the bench. Its owner said, “We have to go now.”
“Right. Good luck tomorrow,” Malcolm said.
“I don’t need luck. I only need to try my best. It never fail. He wink, I score.”
A thought crossed Malcolm’s mind. Was that what Jesus meant?
He drove into the nearest town, some six or seven miles away. He bought the biggest bunch of roses he could find.
He phoned Marge on his mobile. “Are you home, love?”
“Is anybody else there?”
“No. I’m writing to my mum.”
“I’m nearly home. I’ve got a small surprise for you.”
“A nice one?”
“Well, I hope so.”
Artemis was there to meet him in the drive, her rear end squirming with excitement. She escorted him inside.
His wife was sitting in the smaller sitting room, a pad of writing paper on her lap. She saw the flowers. Her eyes grew big. “What’s this, then?”
“For you.” He gave them to her.
“All for me?”
“So they ought to be, the price I paid.” She saw he had a shopping bag as well. He reached inside. He pulled a box out, wrapped in cellophane. “Ta-ra!” he said. “And chocolates, too! They’re Swiss.”
“Oh, Malcolm. I’ll get fat.”
“You’ll still be beautiful in my eyes.” Malcolm set the chocolates on a coffee table.
Marge said, “What’s come over you?”
Big Malcolm plunged his hand inside the bag again. He muttered, like it was a bit of magic, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” From the bag, he pulled – no, not a rabbit, but a bottle of champagne.
By that time, Marge was well and truly flabbergasted. “Why?” she said.
“Because we’re married.”
“Well, I know that.”
“Twenty-seven years, three months, and sixteen days. I worked it out. Still married after all that time.”
She stared at him.
“Another thing.” He fell to one knee on the rug, which smelled of Artemis. He said, “I love you.”
“Of course. Who else?”
“I thought you loved the dog.”
“Well, she’s all right, but you’re the one I really love.”
She hadn’t heard that word in months. Or maybe years. She swallowed, took a breath, and said, “I love, you, too.”
They took the bottle of champagne upstairs.
The earth might not have moved, but it was good enough for Malcolm. Marge said she enjoyed it, too.