Now I was back with a different problem. I explained to him that we had been given a deadline to leave France or pay the import duty, that we were now wondering whether we could afford to do this, and if this would then enable us to go to the Mediterranean and charter off the French coast.
"Ah, that sunshine, those beautiful girls. You will enjoy yourselves." he looked expansive. "Well now, you remember me telling you about when I was Capitaine du Port in Réunion…"
"Monsieur, it's not as simple as that. We have very little money. We have to earn our living. We would like to do it in France. But of course we have to be in good standing with the French authorities....."
"Yes, indeed. Always a good thing to have everything in order. But, I feel sure, Capitaine Jones, that a gentleman like yourself would never dream of stooping to do anything except in good order."
He was being more than usually frustrating. I tried to go on.
"Of course, of course. But, you see I went to the Affaires Maritimes, and they could not tell me how to get myself in good standing since they have no jurisdiction over a British vessel. So, the Affaires Maritimes will not tell us if we can charter, until after I have imported the ship; so I might import the ship and find they refuse to let us charter."
"Who did you see?" asked the Commandant du Port.
"I don't know."
"You should have asked for Monsieur Bonpoint," he said. "I have learnt from my travels overseas that it is very important to know the top officials in each bureaucracy. So you have come here to the right person for advice."
"Do you think I should go back and find Monsieur Bonpoint?" I asked.
"Perhaps not quite yet. You have already asked an underling, and no one likes you to play leap frog without some good reason. Par contre, in the case of the Douanes, perhaps that would be all right. You have been to the Affaires Maritimes since seeing the Douanes. Now the question has become more complex, and it would be in order for you to proceed up the ladder of complexity back in the Douanes," his index finger traced the bureaucratic geography. "Now Monsieur Paitry. He is the chef Douanier. The very top. He and I were both pieds-noirs - from Algeria. He plays a very good game of chess. You should go and see him - de ma part, if you wish."
So, back to the Douanes. They were closed - I was too late. I would have to go next day. Early next morning I knocked on the door of Monsieur Paitry's office. The moment he called me in the telephone rang. Without glancing at me or motioning me to a seat, he continued with his leisurely conversation. He was as spare as the Commandant du Port was rotund. I didn't like to sit down because I had not been asked to do so, and I was there on a delicate matter in which the last thing was to give offence in any way. I was, however, having difficulty in repressing the growing feeling of irritation at the way I was being received. My ear strayed to their conversation. It sounded as though they were discussing last night's chess game. I assumed, therefore, that he was speaking to the Commandant du Port, but there was no hint, from this end of the conversation, that he had put in a good word for me.
My eyes strayed round the room, and then became fixed on a dingy looking poster behind Monsieur Paitry's chair. I began to read it in a desultory fashion, and then, all of a sudden, woke up to what it was actually saying. It was something like this:
That's really shoving it in your face, I thought.
The telephone conversation seemed to be nearing a close. Monsieur Paitry put the telephone down, and sat back in his chair gazing at me without a word.
I looked above his head, grinned, and said: "Isn't that a bit irreligious?"
How idiotic could I get? The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I wanted to grab them out of thin air and take them right back. Why risk this sort of thing in a touchy situation. I had to be out of my mind.
There was a long pause. He breathed in and tilted his head back so that I was looking up his nostrils. Then he moved his head forward, put both hands flat on the desk as though grasping its edge, thumbs down, and very slowly, got to his feet and faced me. There was another silence before he said:
"I WILL HAVE YOU KNOW
"THAT I FOLLOW IN THE FOOTSTEPS
"OF THE GREATEST CUSTOMS OFFICER OF THEM ALL. "
and then he slowly sat down.
"Your business?" he asked. The face was totally immobile, of that delicate leathery condition engendered by too much sun, no other colouring matter, no expression.
"I have come about the GRAY," I said. "The three-masted schooner...."
He cut me short. "I know of that wreck," he said.
I remained frozen, upright, stiffly polite.
"And what about the GRAY?" he asked
"There may be a possibility that it might be appropriate to import the ship," I said in somewhat more elaborate French than necessary, grasping at subjunctives.
"Into France? You think that France would wish to receive such a vessel?"
"Well, why not?"
"Calm yourself. Calm yourself."
"When you have returned to the calm that always prevails inside this office, we might discuss what value you might wish to put on..... that wreck.
He paused, drummed a finger so white and clean it was almost transparent.
He went on: "She is scarcely seaworthy, I understand. Is that not so?"
"You can go and see for yourself," I retorted sullenly.
"I think that will not be necessary," he rejoined. "I have a good friend, as you probably know, who is more intimately acquainted with the condition of this ship than I can possibly be. He is also an official of this port, so it would be perfectly appropriate for me to rely on his professional opinion, which, I must confess, is that only a sentimental Englishman would have conceived of the possibility of taking such a vessel into the open sea."
Tears of shock and rage started in my eyes.
"Monsieur le Commandant said that?" I asked.
"More or less," said Monsieur Paitry. "But, I feel sure you did not come here to listen to me relaying gossip from my friends. We should get down to business. Now, let us say that your ship is worth....." and he mentioned a sum which I had difficulty in translating into sterling. Perhaps he was talking in new francs.
There was silence while he selected a newly sharpened pencil, and an untouched pad of plain paper, and began to write in a neat spidery hand.
"I am just doing the calculations for the import duty," he said, and then, passing the pad across to me, he reversed it so that it was the right way up for me and underlined the lowest figure.
"You may sit down if you wish," he said. "You might find it easier to read the figures. I regret that my handwriting is somewhat small. Do you think you could afford that sum?" he asked. "You see, if you found that this was within your means, you would be able to stay in France, and deal with the Affaires Maritimes at your leisure without having to speak hypotheticals. We bureaucrats, particularly the real French ones, and I am happy to say I am not quite one of those, the Commandant and I were both born in Algeria de souche Française of wholly métropolitan French parents you must understand so I am what they call a pied-noir, and I find that we are more businesslike than the French who live in métropolitan France. We could even deal in a businesslike way with Générale de Gaulle, could we not? Anyway, I am straying. What is your decision on this point?" he asked.
I looked at him. The duty was but a trifle.
"You are more than kind," I said. "Yes, I think I can manage that, and, as you say, it will take the hypotheticals out of the case."
"Well, good day to you, monsieur. Please go with this piece of paper to Madame Pilar, ask her to check my calculations since it is not within my competence to make them myself - I merely approve what Madame Pilar does. By the time you get downstairs, I will have called her," he rose and stretched out his hand.
"Do you play chess?" he asked.
"Yes." I rose, too.
"Then we will meet again. Chess is good training for dealing with the French bureaucracy."