It’s a curious thing but if asked where my roots are I would have to say Quimperlé in south western Brittany. This is the town where my mother was born and lived until her late teens. It is a town I have only been to a handful of times, mainly during my childhood.
Despite having a French mother and having been named Pierre not a word of French was spoken in our house when growing up. My mother came to the UK as a young woman, as an au pair first in Glasgow and then swinging Soho in the late fifties. She made a decision early on to integrate and after marrying my father decided to forget she was French and become as English as she could. This principally because, as newly weds, their economic circumstance compelled them to live with my father’s parents – a very English family whose distrust of foreigners, particularly the French, did not exempt my mother. Indeed she became the focal point of their hatred. And so I became Peter and, during my childhood, ignored my French background, save for a few trips to Quimperlé on holidays.
However the few times I did visit the town I was always taken by my grandpere, Jean Mortain. Despite never having had a conversation or any meaningful exchanges I always felt close to him. Perhaps it had something to do with the way he looked, he was a striking character, he looked a bit like an elf, with very large ears and small in stature. Ever since my twenties, after he died, I imagined him going about his day in his house and around the town. I cannot say why, but I have thought about him most, if not every day. My mother and I visited the town back in 2010 but only for a day, we were staying with relatives up the coast and, despite desperately wanting to we couldn’t break free. Over the years I tried to convince my mum to go but she has not been keen. She tells me she never likes going back to places she has lived, and iion to this the town is not the same place for her. Save for a few exceptions she knows nobody still living there and what was once a bustling market town is now economically depressed with empty shops and out of town supermarkets. I can understand but this stoped me from going back, for many years I felt I would be betraying her in some strange way.
But one day I decided I was going – for two weeks. I couldn’t put it off any longer. Mt granpere, Jean Mortain was calling and I had to go.
Upon arrival the first thing I did was to go and visit the old family home. The house grandpere bought, the home of which he was so proud. He came from humble stock, was born next door, his bedroom window looking out onto the slaughterhouse with all the sounds of distressed animals and stench of blood and guts. The detritus was all swept into the river which flowed at the bottom of his garden. This, he used to say, was why the trout and salmon were so bigand juicy.
Jean Mortain’s work took him all across town and the sorrounding region. He was a couvrer, a roofer, as was his father. But Jean was clever, he became the town’s premier couvreur, he had a killer advantage. He was the only roofer in the town who could read architect’s drawings. As a young man he put himself through night school and this sacrifice paid off. It ensured he would always have a steady flow of the best paying work.
He never became rich, apparently he treated his workers too well to allow him to become wealthy. But, by the standards of the town, his family were comfortable living in the house in Rue Terre de Vannes. He lived there all his life save the years when he was a prisoner of war in Austria. He escaped one time and came back home, but was soon discovered and was captured as he fled across the rooftops, despite his advantage on this terrain he was trapped and sent back to a more high secutiy prison. He never talked about the war, he had seen all of his friends from the town killed, unsurprisingly he became shorter of temper and suffered from stomach complaints.
Despite this on his return after the war he became involved in the life of the town. He refereed footbal and rugby matches and it was not uncommon for him to return post match with a black eye after having been chased by the losing side through the streets.
My memories of him are fleeting. I remember him driving us to the seaside 10 kilometres from Quimperlé, myself and my younger brother rattling around in the back of his van, bottles of wine, intended for his workers at lunchtime, clinking and rolling across the floor. I remember him buying us caramel lollipops from the small cafe across the street and unhooking a wriggling eel we had caught at the bottom of the garden, laughing and patting my brother on the back. I remember watching him, unobserved, hawk a great gob of spittle into his flower bed and feeling ashamed of him, not realising at my age it was due to a condition he had developed in the prisoner of war camps. I remember chickens waiting to be dispatched to the table squawking in his wonderful, damp earth smelling garage and spider crabs scuttling across the kitchen floor as the water roiled in the pan in which they were soon to crawl their last.
As I walked and walked across the town, I looked up at the rooftops of the older buildings, at the slates and wondered if they were ones he had laid down. I still think of him, high up, looking out across the town he loved, spying his friends entering the cafe and clambering down to join them.
On my last day I climbed up a steep alley, breathlessly reaching the top with beautiful views of the town, and spied a small chapel around which a graveyard. I recognised it and five minutes later stood in front of Jean Mortain’s grave. I had no flowers, it was late afternoon and so I gathered wild flowers and put them in my bottle of water.