Murphy Williams travels to France to attend the 100th birthday party of her great-grandfather, a World War One survivor and true Gallic curmudgeon
‘So Murphy, are you married yet?’
I’m in France for the 100th birthday party of my great-grandfather, Armand Dupuis, who has asked the usual question.
‘If you come and spend three months with me in Paris,’ he suggests, ‘I’ll soon manage to find you a husband.’
‘Thank you Grandpère. I’d appreciate that.’
Armand Dupuis, legionnaire d’honneur, curmudgeon, survivor of World War One and mayor of his little village 60 miles from Paris, has outlived all his friends, most of his memories and every conceivable virus. Physically, he’s in superb shape, having built up 100 years of immunity to the world and its politenesses. In his rudimentary bathroom, three hot-water bottle plugs, a prehistoric toothbrush, a comb, some vitamins and a rope hanging in the porcelain bath are the sole accessories to his determined self-maintenance.
The graceful inter-connecting rooms of the house, where we are drinking his health, are a creaking relic of the 1890s in which he grew up. Not a trace of modernity is allowed to disturb the ordered routine of his twilight. Every day without fail he rises at eight, empties the contents of his chamberpot down the wilting ivy outside his window, puts on a three-piece suit for breakfast and reads Le Figaro for an hour without glasses. At 8pm sharp, he firmly closes the shutters on broad daylight and expects everyone else to do the same. When his wife, Hermine, née Denaufbourg, died eight years ago, the local residents decided to name a street after her. A ceremony was held for its inauguration. The street-sign was unveiled and Rue Madame Armand Dupuis revealed to the unbelieving villagers.
We have moved to the garden. Petits fours and Scotch are brought and we ‘children’ are reminded every four minutes to circulate the titbits. My suggestion of ‘un peu de musique, to liven up the proceedings is rightly scoffed at by an aunt. ‘Ne sois pas ridicule, Murphy.’ When a newly married cousin arrives with his heavily pregnant wife on crutches, my great-grandfather rises to the occasion magnificently.
‘You can’t come to lunch, I’m afraid. We weren’t expecting you. You’ll have to go the bistro in the village and I’ll reimburse you later.’
‘That’ll be the day,’ mutters my cousin. Bottles of champagne are summoned one by one until it is time to eat. Armand totters blatantly to an outhouse and returns with stains down his new suit. He asks for my mother to sit next to him.
‘No, no, I’ve already done the place à table, ’ insists a busy aunt. ‘Also he’s drunk a bit and doesn’t know what’s going on.’ Armand goes along with this idea until he is asked what was the high point of his century. Was it by any chance the day he met his wife?
‘It was the day I came back safe and sound from the Great War and found my horse, Palmyre, still alive.’
And who would he like to drink to on his 100th birthday?
‘My electors, who have given me the most pleasure in my life.’
His eyes are alight now. He has scented battle and is happy. A dead pacifist brother whose offspring are present in the room is declared to be un vieux con. Another who died in his mistress’s arms is un salaud. ‘Mais non, mais non’ echoes round the table, but Armand’s economy- model deaf-aid screeches defiant feedback.
‘During the war,’ he continues, now on a roll of vitriol, ‘I asked my commanding officer for 24 hours’ leave to attend my mother’s funeral. I was given eight days in prison just for asking. Twenty-five years later I was a Deputé [MP]. I went to the Ministère de la Guerre where the officer worked, slapped his face [une paire de claques] and left without a word. There was nothing he could do.’
Everyone in the room is silenced by this vision of a younger man springing up before us, fists flying, a man, I remember, who lost his job as Président de la Commission de Douanes during the Occupation for refusing to vote Pétain.
Now that venom and violence have been welcomed back to the party we are more relaxed. Armand’s younger sister, a true-blue stripling of 97, gives vent to her bile for Mitterrand’s tax reforms, saying it was better under the Germans. ‘At least they let us hold on to our money.’
When the birthday cake is wheeled in by one of Armand’s faithful attendants, he chooses this moment to grumble about the cost of staff and the state of his property’s paintwork. It occurs to me that the cake may well be full of arsenic and horse meat. ‘Come on, blow them out,’ says everyone, clapping and taking snaps, but he remains expressionless, refusing to move. The candles begin to melt on to the icing and time slows down as everyone wonders how far respect should go before they give the old boy a helpful snuff. Eventually, a smile of secret triumph spreads over my great-grandfather’s face as he declares, ‘Ah, but my birthday is tomorrow’.