42. Playing House

Jeanne serves Robert and Jacques the soup she has made for dinner before handing the pot to Feuilly with a smile. "You know, we're lucky Gigi was invited to Yvette's house tonight. Enough to go around, now."

Feuilly raises dark eyes in that barely-readable look of his. Troubled possibly. Amused possibly. "One might say."

Jacques blinks at the man. Maman doesn't bring just anyone home, especially not many of his uncle's friends. This one is so quiet. "Didn't she?" The verbal arts seem to be limited to the older people in the family.

His mother chides him, "It's a figure of speech. Let him be." If everyone starts picking at Feuilly, he might not talk at all. She flashes the man in question a smile. "It's so nice to have adult company, now and then." This is reinforced by a gurgle from Robert.

Feuilly quirks a half-grin at the boy. "She did," he agrees, "so there we are." He glances back at Jeanne. "I can imagine."

Jacques sticks his tongue out at her when he doesn't think she is looking, and, fortunately for him, she doesn't see.

"Well." There seems to be nothing more to say. "Why don't we eat?"

"Lord, bless these gifts which we are about to receive from the bounty of Christ our Lord. Amen." It's Jacques's turn to say grace, and so he does, very quickly, leaving out all the fervency that makes it a prayer.

Feuilly echoes with all gravity, "Amen," though his eyes are twinkling.

Jeanne was about to take the boy for task for going too quickly, but he's already eating, so she just says, "Amen," and follows his example.

After a few spoonfuls successfully delivered to his mouth, Robert decides that he is done eating and sticks his hand in his soup bowl. His mother fails to notice this for a moment or two, then, "Robert Tirmont, stop that!"

Feuilly glances down abruptly. It is possible that he is stifling a chuckle.

Robert takes this unfortuitous moment to wave at his brother, who wails, "Maman, he's throwing food at me!"

Speaking almost through clenched teeth, Jeanne says, "I see that." She catches hold of Robert's wet hand, and takes away his soup. "Right. I'll feed you. Then you can't throw it at anyone." He looks upset at this prospect, but has no choice but to capitulate.

Feuilly suggests to Jacques, deadpan, "Duck."

Jacques gives Feuilly a curious look, then does so, even though his opponent has been disarmed.

"Oh, stop," Jeanne says tiredly as she feeds Robert. With a little sigh, she gives Feuilly half a smile. "I am sorry about this."

"Whatever for?" He retrieves the mislaid spoon. "Children are children."

Jacques objects, "I'm not a child, I'm a big boy."

Feuilly nods gravely. "I use the term loosely."

Jeanne shakes her head slightly. "Right, of course you are." She wipes Robert's face. "Some of us aren't all that grown up yet, even if we are big."

Jacques goes back to his soup. "And some of us are."

Feuilly very nearly grins. "Right," he says with useful ambiguity.

Jeanne finishes giving Robert his dinner and returns to her own.

After a mostly peaceful interval, Feuilly inquires diffidently, "You managing?"

Jeanne sets down her spoon and looks up at him. "Well enough."

Feuilly nods silently, and then adds in an offhand tone, "Friend of mine's wife says she's willing to watch kids, afternoons."

That brings a ray of hope to Jeanne's face. "Really? That'd be wonderful."

Jacques is not so pleased. "Does she have a big nasty dog that bites?"

Feuilly quirks a grin at her, then glances in mild surprise at Jacques. "Not likely. Just a boy your age and a couple of plants."

"Oh, good." Jacques looks relieved, then glances at his mother. "May I be excused?"

Jeanne nods distractedly. "What would she want in return?"

Feuilly lifts a hand in farewell, and shakes his head to Jeanne. "Nothing really. Maybe if you'd look after hers now and again, but Marie dotes on children. And she knows how rough it can be." 'It', read: life, or at least life with small offspring.

Jacques absents himself. His mother smiles at Feuilly, as relaxed as she has been in quite a while. "Oh, God, I'd appreciate it no end, and of course I'd watch hers."

The boyish three-second smile flashes. "I'll tell her, then."

"It's so kind of you." She's not used to kindness. It makes her drop her gaze and become a bit shy. "Really, how can I repay you?"

Feuilly holds up a hand. "'s nothing. 's fine." He looks slightly embarrassed.

"Well, you've had dinner," she points out. Incurring debts is against her nature; it's bad enough to do it when one can repay them, but in a hand-to mouth existence, it's suicide.

"So I have." He smiles a bit. "Kind of you to ask me."

"It's nothing," she says before realizing he said it just a moment before, then smiles. "Really. It's the least I can do."

Feuilly shakes his head, glancing away, but says nothing.

Jeanne gets up and bustles around the kitchen, cleaning up the remaining soup, and wiping Robert's face again.

Feuilly pushes back his chair to stand. "Help you?"

"It's all right." She's far too used to doing this by herself; heaven knows her husband was no help. "I've got it."

He pauses. "You sure?"

"Yes. It's almost done, anyway, except that the table needs to be wiped." She throws him the dishrag.

Feuilly catches it with a half-smile, and does that, quite efficiently.

Jeanne, after she has finished the other chores, reaches out to take the rag back. "Thank you."

"No trouble," he says simply, and hands it over. And hesitates, then.

Jeanne's routine is disturbed enough by his presence to set her on edge. Any further oddity brings a swift reaction. She looks at him quizzically. "What?"

Feuilly shakes his head, as though to clear it. "Nothing. Sorry." And then he flatly contradicts himself by adding, rather shyly, "I was just going to say, it's good of you to ask me here. I..." And he can think of nothing else to say, so he doesn't.

"It's all right." She smiles tentatively. "It really is good to have the company."

"That's what I was going to say." He smiles back, and it makes him look about sixteen in its awkward candor.

"Is it? That's good." She has to back away and take care of Robert. "And now, my boy, I think it's just about your bedtime."

The skittishness is immediately contagious; Feuilly glances down, and remarks, on cue, "I ought to be going, anyway." He steps away from the table. "Was good to talk to you."

Jeanne lifts up Robert and carries him over to the bed, then turns back to her visitor. "You, too. Have a good night."

"You, too." He pauses at the door to add, superfluously, "I'll talk to Marie, tell her to get in touch with you."


Feuilly dips his head politely. "Good night." Whereupon courtesy deserts him, and he ducks out without waiting for a reply.

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