Madame Azaire had not fully engaged Stephen's eye. In return he avoided hers, as though waiting to be addressed, but within his peripheral view fell the sweep of her strawberry-chestnut hair, caught and held up off her face. She wore a white lace blouse with a dark red stone at the throat.
As they finished dinner there was a ring at the front door and they heard a hearty male voice in the hall.
Azaire smiled for the first time. "Good old Bérard. On the dot as usual!"
"Monsieur and Madame Bérard," said the maid as she opened the door.
"Good evening to you, Azaire. Madame, delighted." Bérard, a heavyset grey-haired man in his fifties, lowered his lips to Madame Azaire's hand. His wife, almost equally well built, though with thick hair wound up on top of her head, shook hands and kissed the children on the cheek.
"I am sorry, I didn't hear your name when René introduced us," said Bérard to Stephen.
While Stephen repeated it and spelled it out for him, the children were dismissed and the Bérards installed in their place.
Azaire seemed rejuvenated by their arrival. "Brandy for you, Bérard? And for you, Madame, a little tisane, I think? Isabelle, ring for coffee also, please. Now then-"
"Before you go any further," said Bérard, holding up his fleshy hand, "I have some bad news. The dyers have called for a strike to begin tomorrow. The syndicate chiefs met the employers' representatives at five this evening and that is their decision."
Azaire snorted. "I thought the meeting was tomorrow."
"It was brought forward to today. I don't like to bring you bad tidings, my dear René, but you would not have thanked me if you had learned it from your foreman tomorrow. At least I suppose it won't affect your factory immediately."
Bérard in fact appeared to have enjoyed delivering the news. His face expressed a quiet satisfaction at the importance it had conferred on him. Madame Bérard looked admiringly at her husband.
Azaire continued to curse the work force and to ask how they expected him to keep his factories going. Stephen and the women were reluctant to give an opinion and Bérard, having delivered the news, seemed to have no further contribution to make on the subject.
"So," he said, when Azaire had run on long enough, "a strike of dyers. There it is, there it is."
This conclusion was taken by all, including Azaire, as the termination of the subject.
"How did you travel?" said Bérard.
"By train," said Stephen, assuming he was being addressed. "It was a long journey."
"Aah, the trains," said Bérard. "What a system! We are a great junction here. Trains to Paris, to Lille, to Boulogne... Tell me, do you have trains in England?"
"Let me see... For about seventy years."
"But you have problems in England, I think."
"I'm not sure. I wasn't aware of any."
Bérard smiled happily as he drank his brandy. "So there it is. They have trains now in England."
The course of the conversation depended on Bérard; he took it as his burden to act as a conductor, to bring in the different voices, and then summarize what they had contributed.
"And in England you eat meat for breakfast every day," he said.
"I think most people do," said Stephen.
"Imagine, dear Madame Azaire, roast meat for breakfast every day!" Bérard invited his hostess to speak.
She declined, but murmured something about the need to open a window.
"Perhaps one day we shall do the same, eh René?"
"Oh, I doubt it, I doubt it," said Azaire. "Unless one day we have the London fog as well."
"Oh, and the rain." Bérard laughed. "It rains five days out of six in London, I believe." He looked toward Stephen again.
Excerpted from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Copyright © 1997 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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