Caning At The Café Du Concorde by Michaela Francis

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EXTRACT FOR
Caning At The Café Du Concorde 
(Michaela Francis)


The Caning At The Cafe Du Concorde

The Caning at the Café du Concorde

 

On the face of it, to any casual or uninformed observer, the Café du Concorde may have appeared an unlikely location to act as a setting for the public disgrace and punishment of Yvette Marie-Louise Renard. The café in its snug location on the eponymous main square of the idyllic little village of Pont du Rochelles showed nothing at first glance to suggest that it was anything else other than the sort of pleasant and friendly little rural establishment whose twin could be found in any village in France. The drivers whose navigational facilities had so seriously let them down as to find themselves, by chance, happening upon this rustic backwater of the Provence would have noted the charming little whitewashed building on the corner of the Place du Concorde with its flower boxes on its upstairs windows and the vine interwoven trellis that served as awnings over the front door and large window front which, in daylight at least, concealed the interior of the cafe behind an obfuscating barrier of the kind of smoky brown glass which seems characteristic of the fenestration of rural French cafes, stained brown by generations of customers who considered it their birthright to fill the cafe with clouds of foul smelling tobacco fumes as the price of their patronage.

The visitor on a hot day might well have been tempted to linger awhile in the shade of the umbrellas covering the handful of little iron round tables on the flagstones in front of the café and perhaps enjoyed a carafe of chilled Rose wine, made from the grape variety Mourvedre, for which the region was renowned, whilst taking in the peaceful scenery of the little square with its stone fountain, wooden benches and fig trees and observing the unhurried, bucolic life of the local community as they went about their daily business. There was nothing in that halcyon image to suggest that this was anything other than the sort of place where nothing very much ever happened at all. But appearances can be deceptive.

Had our theoretical observer been possessed of keen perception he might have noticed a few factors that didn’t quite match this sleepy rural image. Had he been warm blooded and possessed an eye for a shapely turn of leg or bewitching smile he would have needed little of his perceptive abilities to remark upon the young waitress who delivered his carafe to his table. The four young ladies who served in that capacity at the Café du Concorde were all personable and attractive. That in itself was not unusual. Pretty girls were as common as the bees among the honeysuckle in the tiny gardens of the village in France; as ubiquitous as the little Wall Lizards on the dry stone walls around the vineyards and, if the young ladies at the Cafe du Concorde were apt to be flirtatious with any customer obviously possessed of XY chromosomes and not yet entirely geriatric, then they were French after all and only doing that which came naturally to them.

What might have raised our observer’s eyebrows was the uniform that all four girls affected and which was presumably the obligatory costume to be worn whilst on duty. They all wore the traditional black French maids’ dresses trimmed with white and matched with white pinafores that the tourist to France inevitably fantasises about encountering but, much to his chagrin, rarely does. The skirts were ridiculously short and there was the frill of lacy petticoat peeping beyond the hem. If one of the young ladies obligingly bent over to wipe and clear a table our observer might well have been treated to a sublime vision of endless, becoming thigh, clad in dark stockings held in place by silly flirtatious garters, and perhaps even a glimpse of lacy white knickers clinging to an admirably shaped derriere. Were he able to regard the vision dispassionately he might well have concluded that, whoever the proprietor of this café was, then they were a person of acute business sense and well aware that the fine vintages of Chateau de l’Escarelle were not the only lure to draw custom within the walls of their establishment.

If our hypothetical observer might now have perchance to wipe his brow and tear his eyes away from the delightful young serving girls and cast his eye over the other occupants of the café and square he might have observed some other anomalies. It is certainly true that sitting at the tables in front of the café were the obligatory contingent of grizzled veterans and elderly farmers nursing glasses of watered down Pernod. But that was not the whole story. There was a slightly Bohemian feel to the village of Pont du Rochelles; a feeling in large part that could be attributed to the small but colourful community of struggling artists who were more or less permanent residents in the building on the far side of the square which gloried under the name of Hotel du Ville; a somewhat grandiose title which betrayed the building’s aspirations above its station as a rather dilapidated rural guest house. This bright and generally young sector of the community could normally be found scouring the surrounding countryside by day with brush and canvas and, by evening, forming small excited groups around the tables in the Cafe du Concorde, squandering their dwindling funds and despairing to their colleagues of ever being quite able to capture the luminosity of the Provence sunshine among the olive groves.

Standing out in even more startling contrast than this fringe community of artists was another group it was possible to see around the village on occasion. This was a group liable to excite scandalised whispers among gossiping women, knowing winks between their men folk and the occasional wolf whistle from young farm lads. These were the young, rather exotic ladies whose numbers varied from time to time who worked at the Cabaret Chat Noir a little way outside of the village. These young ladies called themselves “dancers” or, even more pretentiously, “artistes” as if the doubtless considerable skills involved in shedding their clothing on a stage in front of an exclusive clientele of leering males could be described as an art form. It was quite rare to see these eye catching young ladies abroad in broad daylight. They were creatures of the night who worked long hours at the cabaret. When not divesting themselves of their clothing on stage they would be employed in divesting gullible men of their disposable income by luring them into sharing bottles of cheap champagne at astronomically inflated prices as the price of their company or perhaps even tempting them into greater intimacy in one of the alcoves of the cabaret, partitioned from the rest by heavy curtains, known as the separee. The Chat Noir “girls”, as they were rather euphemistically called locally, tended to keep themselves to themselves and slept most of the hours of daylight in any case. Seeing them about the village in the daytime hours was as incongruous as sighting a night moth under the daylight sun only much more colourful. When they did appear in the village most men avoided their eye in fear of eliciting any recognition from them. There were few married men in the village who wanted their patronage of the Cabaret Chat Noir to become common knowledge.

There was also an older somewhat more well to do segment of the local populace. In spite of its admittedly agrarian nature the region around Pont du Rochelles was a prosperous one or at least it boasted a sizeable group of wealthy patriarchs and matriarchs who held the real economic clout and political influence around the village. This upper echelon of local society owned most of the village along with a large proportion of the local business. These were the people of influence and importance in the village; the people who kept the wheels of local commerce turning; the people who were the shakers and movers; the people whose wealth and connections gave them a disproportionate voice in the running of local affairs; the very people, in fact, who it was politic to stay firmly on the right side of. To be numbered among this class, albeit in a roundabout fashion and slightly scandalous manner, was the formidable matriarch and proprietress of the Café du Concorde.

Madame Courvelle had been a great beauty in her youth and was still, at age fifty, a strikingly handsome lady. She had married well to a gentleman of considerable wealth and, upon her early widowhood, had inherited her late husband’s fortune. The Café du Concorde was but one of her business interests albeit a favourite one. She owned a considerable amount of property including a small mansion on the outskirts of the village, several vineyards and, in addition to her ownership of the Cafe du Concorde, she was also the proprietress of the Cabaret Chat Noir. This fact alone was enough to ensure Madame Courvelle a highly influential position since it meant that she was party to many a secret that influential men of the village were desirous of avoiding becoming part of the public domain. She was not a woman to cross lightly! Generally though she was discreet and, if there was a whiff of scandal to her business dealings, then she was rich enough to dismiss them as the idle gossip of envy. She was a busy lady and, although she would spend much of her nights at the helm in the cabaret, especially on the weekends, the centre of her little empire was the Café Du Concorde where she could most often be found holding court. The café was the hub of social life within the village and, standing firmly at the epicentre of this, was Madame Courvelle herself. She ruled over her empire with grace and charm but also with a rod of iron. She was the very last person in Pont du Rochelles that Yvette Marie-Louise Renard would have wished to fall on the wrong side of.

If the Café du Concorde might have struck the casual observer as an unlikely setting for a severe and humiliating punishment then they would have been even more surprised to learn that the central figure on the receiving end of this misfortune was Yvette Renard.

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