In Antoine Laurain’s forthcoming novel Vintage 1954 (June 2019, Gallic Books), Hubert Larnaudie, patriarch of a Parisian apartment building, invites neighbours Julien, a barman at the famous Harry’s Bar, antique restorer Magalie and American Airbnb tenant Bob to share a bottle of 1954 Beaujolais he has unearthed in his cellar. The following morning they find themselves waking up to a very different Paris . . .
‘What I would like to see is General de Gaulle back in power!’ declared the man drinking a Picon-bière.
Julien thought this was a perfect example of why alcohol was bad for you. Curiously, no one else seemed to find the customer’s statement in any way peculiar. A workman in overalls enjoying his morning glass of white merely shrugged. Perhaps everyone felt sorry for the poor man.
Julien had dropped into this little cafe on his way to Harry’s Bar. He had spotted a vintage bus and decided to take it to work but it left just as he reached the bus stop. He had looked up at the electronic screen to find out when the next bus would be, but the screen had disappeared, along with the bus shelter. There was an old-fashioned lamp post instead. As it was unexpectedly sunny, Julien decided that a walk would be the best way to start his day.
‘Don’t you agree? Isn’t the leader of Free France the one we all need now?’ the first man went on, looking at Julien.
‘Uh, yes, yes . . .’ replied Julien.
‘Come on, Marcel, stop bothering the customers,’ said the owner, who must have weighed getting on for twenty stone.
Marcel shook his head, reaching for his packet of Gauloises and lighting up. They certainly were tolerant here, thought Julien. You heard of some cafes who still let their customers smoke after hours, but never during opening time. Julien considered making a comment, but was a bit wary of upsetting the owner, given his size. In any case, the owner didn’t seem bothered; he was busy dunking his croissant in his bowl of coffee. The smell of cigarette smoke was so unusual these days. At the other end of the bar, someone struck a match against the counter and lit their pipe. The waiter called for one large white and one small black coffee, and the owner put his croissant down to go and make them. There was a charming, antiquated feel to the cafe reinforced by the old advertising posters decorating the walls. One was for Dubonnet, ‘Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet’, one for Byrrh and another for Berger Blanc. The old man next to Julien, who had a long beard and rings on his fingers, was reading an antiques magazine. Julien could see black-and-white photos and descriptions of various items offered for sale or exchange by collectors.
‘How much do I owe you?’ Julien asked. The owner had gone back to eating his croissant and as he had his mouth full, he held up three fingers. Julien looked surprised: three euros in this little place? Vintage decor obviously came at a price, or else this was how the owner paid his fines for letting customers smoke. He wanted to remonstrate, but then his eye fell on the notice pinned above the shelf of liqueurs. Written in red ink that allowed no ambiguity, the notice read: ‘HERE what the proprietor says goes. The Management.’ Julien placed three euro pieces on the counter and started to walk out.
‘Not so fast! What am I supposed to do with this funny money?’ the owner called.
‘Your coins. I’m not a collector, you know.’
‘But I am,’ said the old man who had been standing next to Julien. He picked up a euro and took a magnifying glass from his pocket. ‘That’s strange, but it’s well made. It must come from a slot machine in Las Vegas. Have you been to Las Vegas?’
‘Yes, I have,’ mumbled Julien.
‘Your coffee for these chips, young man – deal?’ proposed the bearded man, scrutinising Julien. ‘Done!’ he cried, as Julien, whom the owner was looking at suspiciously, said nothing.
The antiques collector looked again at the coins. ‘It must be a large casino, Euro; the name is marked on the chips, and 2012 is the series number. I know people who’ll be interested in these.’
Outside, Julien marvelled at the bizarre cafe he had stumbled on, where you could smoke with impunity and people thought euros were slot-machine tokens. But he didn’t have time to pursue this line of thought because a cellar window like the one Monsieur Larnaudie was obsessed by caught his eye and he stopped. The shutters were open and several very large sacks of coal were standing in front of them. A man emerged, his face sweaty and covered in black dust.
‘What’s all the coal for?’
The man looked up at Julien. ‘What’s it for?’ He was out of breath. ‘For fun, sonny. I lug coal down into all the cellars in the street for fun! I’m having fun here, then afterwards I’ll go and have fun opposite, and then next door. And you, what do you do for fun?’
‘I’m a barman.’
‘Oh yeah? Well, scram and have fun in your bar, before I kick your arse.’ And the man disappeared back through the cellar opening.
‘What’s going on here?’ asked a passing policeman with a handlebar moustache.
‘What’s going on is that this little bugger is winding me up!’ shouted the man from inside the cellar.
The policeman looked angrily at Julien.
‘Making fun of a worker, you little anarchist?’
‘Not at all,’ stuttered Julien. ‘I’m not making fun of anyone.’
‘“Officer”, you’re supposed to address me as “Officer”,’ said the policeman, finger raised.
‘Officer,’ repeated Julien.
‘Asking what my coal was for?’ the other man said. ‘How insulting is that?’ And he grabbed a sack that must have weighed a ton.
‘You show him, by God!’ replied the policeman. ‘Come on now, young man, time to move on. I can’t have you making trouble on my patch.’
‘Officer! Officer!’ called a young woman, out of breath.
‘What’s wrong, Miss?’
‘A cyclist has fallen over on my street, and he can’t get up again.’
‘I’m right behind you,’ cried the policeman, setting off in the girl’s wake.
Julien watched them go, then reluctantly moved off himself. He was startled by a sharp cry, ‘Viiitrier!’ A glazier walked slowly along, panes of glass in a carrier on his back, and every few steps he gave the street cry of his trade: ‘Viiitrier!’
‘Vitrier!’ called a young woman from her balcony and the glazier looked up. ‘Second door on the left.’
The glazier threw his cigarette away and pushed open the door to the building. Julien looked at his watch. Time for him to make his way to Harry’s Bar so that he would be ready for service at midday.
This is an extract from Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain, published by Gallic in June 2019. Antoine is a special guest at The London Book Fair on Tuesday 12 March 2019.