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Authors: Antoine Laurain

The President's Hat

BOOK: The President's Hat
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Praise for
The President's Hat:

‘Like Cinderella's glass slipper or Aladdin's lamp, the hat is a talisman that makes its wearers' dreams come true.'
RTL

‘An inspired and delicious fable'
Version Femina

‘Effortlessly combines a skilfully woven story and the emblems of the eighties'
L'Express

‘Clever, revealing, funny and caustic, this novel charmingly paints a cast of characters and brings the eighties vividly back to life.'
Télé Loisirs

‘We're in safe hands with Antoine Laurain, the man behind this sweet, lively, nostalgic tale.'
Livres Hebdo

‘Subtle, inventive, and often funny'
L'Avenir

W
INNER OF THE
P
RIX
L
ANDERNEAU
D
ÉCOUVERTES
2012
W
INNER OF THE
P
RIX
R
ELAY DES
V
OYAGEURS 2012

The President's Hat

Antoine Laurain

Translated from the French by Gallic Books

Wearing a hat confers undeniable authority over those without one.

Tristan Bernard

 

Daniel Mercier went up the stairs at Gare Saint-Lazare as the crowd surged down. Men and women hurried distractedly past him, most clutching briefcases but some with suitcases. In the crush, they could easily have knocked into him but they didn't. On the contrary, it seemed as though they parted to let him through. At the top of the steps, he crossed the main concourse and headed for the platforms. Here too it was crowded, with an uninterrupted tide of humanity pouring from the trains. Daniel forced his way through to the arrivals board. The train would be arriving at platform 23. He retraced his steps and stood next to the ticket-punching machines.

At 9.45 p.m. train 78654 ground into the station and released its passengers. Daniel craned his neck, looking for his wife and son. He saw Véronique first. She waved, then described a circle above her head, finishing her gesture with an astonished look. Jérôme meanwhile made a
beeline
for his father, flinging himself at his legs and almost
tripping him up. When Véronique reached them, slightly out of breath, she stared at her husband.

‘What on earth is that hat?'

‘It's Mitterrand's hat.'

‘I can see it's Mitterrand's hat.'

‘No,' Daniel corrected her. ‘I mean this really is Mitterrand's hat.'

 

When he'd told her at the station that it really was Mitterrand's hat, Véronique had stared at him again, her head on one side, with that little frown she always wore when she was trying to work out if he was having her on or not. The same frown as when Daniel had asked her to marry him, or when he'd first asked her out on a date to an exhibition at the Beaubourg. In other words, the frown that was the reason, amongst others, that he had fallen in love with her.

‘What do you mean?' she had asked incredulously.

‘Have you got Mitterrand's hat, Papa?'

‘Yes I have,' Daniel had replied, grabbing their bags.

‘So you're the president?'

‘Yep, that's me. President of the Republic,' Daniel had answered, delighted by his son's suggestion.

Daniel had refused to divulge anything further as they drove back.

‘I'll tell you all about it when we get home.'

Véronique had pressed him, but he stood firm. When they got up to their sixteenth-floor apartment in the fifteenth
arrondissement
, Daniel announced that he'd made
supper. Cold meat, chicken, tomato and basil salad, and cheese. Véronique was impressed – her husband rarely made dinner. First they had an aperitif.

‘Take a seat,' said Daniel, who had still not taken off his hat.

Véronique sat. And Jérôme snuggled up beside her.

‘To us,' said Daniel, solemnly clinking glasses with his wife.

Jérôme copied them with his Orangina.

Daniel removed his hat and held it out to Véronique. She took it carefully, running her finger over the felt. Jérôme immediately did the same.

‘Are your hands clean?' his mother asked anxiously.

Then she turned the hat upside down, and her eye fell on the band of leather running round the inside. The two gold letters stood out clearly: F.M. Véronique looked up at her husband.

 

The evening before, Daniel had stopped his Golf at the junction. He'd turned off the radio, cutting off Caroline Loeb as she droned on about liking cotton wool. The hit song with its slow, insistent refrain was now stuck in his head. He had massaged his aching shoulder, trying unsuccessfully to get the crick out of his neck. He hadn't heard from his wife and son, who were in Normandy with his parents-in-law for the holidays. Perhaps there would be a message on the answering machine when he got home. The tape was starting to wear out and hadn't been rewinding properly for the last few days. He really should buy a new machine. How did people manage before answering machines? wondered Daniel. The telephone rang and rang, no one answered it, and then they rang back later, that's how.

 

The idea of shopping on his own then making supper for himself in the silent flat was unbearable. He had started
fantasising about going to a restaurant – a really good brasserie, perhaps – at about four o'clock that afternoon as he was checking the last of the expenses slips submitted by the SOGETEC auditors. He hadn't been to a really good brasserie for at least a year. The last time had been with Véronique and Jérôme. His son, only six at the time, had been very well-behaved. They had ordered the seafood platter royale, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé, and a hamburger with mashed potato for Jérôme, who had declared, to his father's great disappointment, that he didn't want to try the oysters.

‘Not even one?'

‘No,' said Jérôme, shaking his head.

Véronique had defended her son. ‘He's got plenty of time.'

It was true. Jérôme had plenty of time.

It was eight o'clock now, and the early-winter cold was already gripping the city, muffling its sounds and the noise of the passing traffic. He had driven past this particular brasserie several times before. Now as he drove tentatively from the boulevard to the next street, he finally spotted it. That was definitely the one, with its big red awning, oyster bar outside, and waiters in spotless white aprons.

A meal all on his own, with no wife and no child, awaited him inside. The sort of meal he used to enjoy occasionally before he was married. Back then his salary hadn't stretched to anywhere as smart as this. But even in the modest establishments he'd frequented, he had always eaten well and never felt the need of company as
he savoured
andouillette
, a decent cut of beef, or a dish of whelks. The fading light held the promise of a bachelor evening. What a pleasing phrase.

‘A bachelor evening,' he repeated, slamming the door of the Golf.

Daniel was experiencing the need ‘to find himself,' as one of the guests had said on a recent programme on Antenne 2. The guest was a psychotherapist who'd written a book about stress at work and was on the programme to promote it. Daniel found the concept appealing. This gourmet interlude would allow him to get back in touch with his true self, to throw off the stress of the day, and to forget about accounts and figures and the recent tensions caused by the reorganisation of the finance department.

Jean Maltard had taken over as director, and Daniel, who was deputy director, couldn't see anything good about the appointment. Nothing good at all, not for the department as a whole, nor for him personally. Crossing the boulevard, he was determined to put his worries right out of his mind. As soon as I open the brasserie door, he told himself, there will be no more Jean Maltard, no more SOGETEC, no more expenses slips, no more VAT. Just me and a seafood platter royale.

 

The white-aproned waiter had walked ahead of him down the line of tables where couples, families and tourists sat chatting, smiling or nodding their heads, their mouths full. Along the way, he spotted seafood platters, entrecôte steaks with
pommes vapeur, faux-filets
with Béarnaise sauce.

When he had first entered, the head waiter, a rotund man with a slender moustache, had enquired whether he had booked. For a moment, Daniel thought his evening was over.

‘I didn't have time,' he answered tonelessly.

The head waiter had raised an eyebrow and peered closely at the evening's list of reservations.

A young blonde woman came over. ‘Twelve called to cancel half an hour ago,' she said, pointing to a name on the list.

‘And no one thought to tell me?' The head waiter was visibly annoyed.

‘I thought Françoise had told you,' the girl said offhandedly, wandering off.

The maître d' had closed his eyes for a moment, his pained expression suggesting the full extent of the
self-control
required not to explode with fury at the waitress's blunder.

‘Allow us to show you to your table, Monsieur,' he said to Daniel, nodding to a waiter, who immediately hurried over.

 

All brasseries have brilliant white tablecloths that hurt the eyes, like snow on the ski slopes. The glasses and the silverware really do sparkle. For Daniel, the characteristic glitter of tableware in the best brasseries was the embodiment of luxury. The waiter returned with the menu and the wine list. Daniel opened the red leatherette folder and began to read. The prices were much higher than he had imagined, but he decided not to worry about that. The
plateau royal de fruits de mer
was framed in the middle of the page, in elegant calligraphy:
fines de claire creuses et plates de Bretagne,
half a crab, three different kinds of clam, prawns, langoustines, whelks, shrimps, cockles and winkles.

Daniel took the wine list and looked for a Pouilly-Fuissé or -Fumé. This, too, was more expensive than he had anticipated. Daniel ordered his platter, adding a
half-bottle
of Pouilly-Fuissé.

‘I'm afraid we only have bottles,' said the waiter.

Daniel didn't want to appear miserly. ‘A bottle will be fine,' he said, closing the wine list.

 

Couples, on the whole. Tables of men in ties and grey suits like his own, except that theirs were clearly the best designer labels. They might even have been made to measure. The four fifty-somethings seated a little further down must be celebrating the end of a tough day and the signature of a decent contract. The quartet sipped at glasses of no doubt excellent wine. They each wore the calm, confident smile of a man who has succeeded in life. At another table beneath the large mirrors, an elegant brunette in a red dress was listening to a grey-haired man who Daniel could see only from the back. She was half listening, in fact; from time to time her gaze wandered around the room, before returning to the speaker opposite her. She looked bored.

The wine waiter brought a silver ice bucket on a stand, the bottle of Pouilly bobbing amongst the ice cubes. The waiter took hold of the corkscrew and performed the ritual opening, passing the cork under his nose. Daniel tasted the wine, which seemed good to him. He was not one of those wine buffs who can distinguish every last nuance of flavour in a fine cru and discourse on it at length, in sophisticated terms. The wine waiter, in
time-honoured
fashion, awaited his customer's opinion with an air of vague condescension. Daniel gave an approving nod designed to indicate great erudition on the subject of white Burgundy. The wine waiter gave a small smile, filled his glass and departed.

A few moments later, a waiter placed a round stand in the middle of the table, a sign that the seafood platter
was about to arrive. Next came a basket of pumpernickel bread, a ramekin of shallot vinegar, and the butter dish. Daniel buttered a piece of bread and dipped it discreetly in the mixture – a ritual he performed every time he ate a seafood platter in a restaurant. The taste of the vinegar was chased away by a mouthful of chilled wine. He gave a satisfied sigh. Yes, he had found himself.

 

The platter arrived, the seafood arranged by species on a bed of crushed ice. Daniel took an oyster, held a quarter of lemon immediately above it, and squeezed gently. A drop of lemon juice fell onto the delicate membrane, which squirmed immediately. Absorbed by the oyster's iridescent gleam, he nevertheless noticed the next-door table being moved to one side. Looking up, he saw the moustachioed head waiter smiling at a new customer. A man who removed his red scarf, then his coat and hat and slipped onto the banquette beside Daniel.

‘May I hang those up for you?' asked the maître d' immediately.

‘No, no. I'll just leave them here on the banquette. If they're not bothering you, Monsieur?'

‘No,' said Daniel in a barely audible voice. ‘Not at all,' he added in a whisper.

François Mitterrand had just sat down next to him.

BOOK: The President's Hat
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