Pardout broke another chunk of loaf with his fingers. The bread and bottle of wine were the only form of substance on the table. After all that was going on in Spain and the rumblings of war in Europe, well...things were becoming harder. His elbow which housed his shirt cuff was placed languidly on the table. He raised a weary hand to his brow as it started again.
“Ha ha ha...oh ha, ha, ha.”
“Sacre bleu,” he muttered to no one. What was she laughing at now? He had given up looking at his wife when was like this, had given up looking at her by default. If he had raised his tired eyes which drooped in his long unshaven face, he would have seen a portly, rose-cheeked woman. Trestles of fair hair, an embarrassment to her gaining years.
She was standing over a tub. Linens soaked in water were being swished back and forth, around and back again. She used a large baton that came as high as her huge bosoms. He, himself had shaped it for the task. She earned their keep, cleaning linens for anyone who needed it. The priest, Pere Ricard, or the house-keeper at the Judges house or anyone who could afford for that matter to pay for the privilege.
“Oh ha, ha, ha....”
What in Christ’s name was she laughing at now? To herself!
Years of listening to it had made him conclude she was mad, fit for the asylum. He had fantasised about it, how he would derive pleasure, seeing her fat head peering through the bars at the back door of the truck, as he waved her farewell.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked breaking his daydream. “It is all so silly really, but if they......”
He lost interest. Whatever tale she was telling him was frivolous tripe. Some banter of the townsfolk that went through one ear and exited the other. The words like people walking lost, through an empty corridor only to find a door that was the exit at the other side.
The words didn’t stick, but the laughing...
“Oh ha, ha, ha, Oh ha, ha, ha!”
How could she be so jolly in these times? When people were starving? Fighting with each other for scraps. Queuing at bread markets for weevil filled loaves?
He ran his hand over the shining dome of his crown, looking at nothing in particular but unable to flush out the laughter.
It was everywhere.
When somebody came to the house, an infrequent occurrence, as they lived away from the village, it started within seconds.
“Ooh ha, ha, oh Marie-Claire, oh ha, ha ha....”
Or when he cycled to the village in search of work, he would hear it as he entered the town from the valley. She would have left for the village early in the morning, before him, delivering linens that had been drying by the embers of the previous night’s fire. The tight street of rue de Belafore, forcing echoes as the houses goaded each other in their leaning.
“Oh ha, ha, ha....” It taunted him. “Imagine,” he thought. No need to even look. He knew where his wife was without even looking. Without even being in the same street!
Why was she so happy? Or was she?
She had begun to age, forties, her womb a desert. He pictured her gravestone.
She was fat. Christ knows how. For all he had to eat. Even the cat, Relo, had been hiding, aware of the lack of meat to be had. Canine intelligence sensing he could be next.
For when she wasn’t laughing, she had a scowl, what some would call a pout. A down turning, engraved like a stone by masons, employed by depression.
She had little else going for her. He began to feel sorry for her. He quickly let this pass, rapidly returning to his emotions of scorn and disdain.
Today he was meeting Martine, Le Boulanger. Pardout had heard he was looking for someone to help in the bakery, delivering and collecting. It would mean starting work at three in the morning and the hours would be long. But it was work! It was a chance! A new beginning.
They met in the shop; there were no customers this morning. A lot of the townsfolk attracted to a big market in a neighbouring town. It was Sunday. As they spoke there was an interruption. From outside in the distance, but getting louder, came the growing sound of laughter.
Martine’s train of thought was disrupted and he glanced out through the chequered windows to see his interviewee’s wife walking along the road with Pere Ricard.
“Oh ha, ha, ha, oh ha, ha, ha!”
Pardout fumbled with his cap, laughing out a snort of embarrassment at the baker.
As she passed the shop, his wife noticed him in the window. It was too late, his tightened upper lip and shaking of the head could not deter her from entering.
“Mon Cherie! Oh ha, ha, ha,.....are you buying me a cake? Monsieur Martine...is my adorable husband secretly being romantic? Oh ha, ha, ha!!
Martine politely smiled and acknowledged the priest. Despite the interruption, respect had to be kept, even at the most inopportune of times. The priest however, had the finishing lines of his sermon to prepare and excused himself from the triumvirate.
“Well...Madame...” Marine started, hoping she would take his polite smile as a gesture for her departure. It was with another curt nod from her husband, that she finally realised what was going on.
“Oh mes amies! I am so sorry! You are discussing business...soon we will all be in the business of eating fine cakes and breads! Oh ha, ha, ha!”
She was the only one smiling.
She left. Her laughter carrying on up rue de Belafore and silencing in the distance.
He arrived home late that evening. He was drunk. Martine’s enthusiasm had left with Pardout’s wife. The job was not now and option.
She was at the sink, scrubbing furiously. Without turning around, she asked when was he starting work with the baker. She took his silence as confirmation that he had been unsuccessful.
“Not to worry,” she said. “We would have become too big with such delights tempting us. And now you will have all day to spend here with me! Oh ha, ha, ha, oh ha, ha, ha!”
It was resting against the frame of the pantry door. The baton for her washing. In one fleeting surge, he raced for it, picked it up and launched it at the back of her head.
The “swush” of air, the forerunner to the unmerciful pummel as the baton crashed against her skull.
The laughter stopped.
He looked down to her crumpled body and stood there with the baton still in his hand. His legs were spread. He felt a brushing against the inside of his trouser leg. Relo had come back in and started to lap up the blood that was pooled before him.