To Take a Quiet Breath
Fearne Hill © 2021
All Rights Reserved
The man from the ministry was not at all what I expected. Although I knew him to be in his midthirties, his pale skin was unlined, and he had the gaucheness of a younger man. He had also dressed that morning without the benefit of a mirror. The brown tweed jacket, with a red fleck, while old and comfortably worn, neither complemented the blue flowery shirt nor the dark grey chinos.
Notwithstanding, the whole package worked.
He was oddly out of breath, too, full pink lips slightly parted as if he’d climbed a flight of stairs, even though the visitors’ room was located on the ground floor. After unwrapping a multicoloured striped scarf from around his neck, he perched his slender frame on the edge of the uncomfortable orange plastic chair across from mine, then leaned forwards and breathily introduced himself.
“Monsieur, so good of you to agree to meet me. I’m Marcel Giresse.”
I couldn’t recall the last time anyone had called me monsieur—prisoners weren’t afforded that luxury. As we shook hands across the table, his hand smaller than mine, soft and cool, his blue eyes studied me owlishly from behind wire-framed spectacles. In spite of myself, and not entirely sure why, I was mildly intrigued by him. Possibly, it was his slightly flustered air or the way he curled the edge of the scarf around his fingers. Or perhaps because his pale face with its delicate features, framed by haphazardly cut glossy black hair, was extremely pretty. Even so, I had no intention of making this easy for him. I acknowledged his polite greeting with a curt nod.
“Guillaume Guilbaud, how do you do. I’ve been incarcerated for fourteen years, eight months, and three days. Before answering any of your questions, I have some of my own. Why has the Ministry of Justice sent its director of finance to visit me?”
My tone pitched somewhere between accusatory and defiant. I wasn’t the most intimidating inmate in here—far from it—but outsiders were generally wary, and my criminal record spoke for itself. Yet this guy only fidgeted some more on the unforgiving plastic seat and surprised me with a delighted, genuine smile.
“Oh, we’re starting with the easy questions!”
In a conspiratorial fashion, he leaned even closer. “It’s a rather odd one this. Let me explain. I spend an awful amount of time with my niece, Clara, who is eight, by the way, and super bright. She quite rightly pointed out to me recently, ‘Uncle Marcel, how can you possibly allocate the budget appropriately if you’ve never actually met any of the prisoners? After all, they will know more than anyone where the money is needed the most.’”
He relayed this in a high-pitched, little-girl voice, which threw me slightly. Thankfully, he quickly returned to his own deeper, refined tones.
“And do you know, Monsieur? It occurred to me she was absolutely correct. But, let’s keep that little bit of truthfulness between us, yes? It can’t get out that I make national policy decisions based on the insight of my eight-year-old niece.”
Hitching his glasses up his nose, he continued, “Mind you, perhaps I should consult her more often as, let’s be frank, she’s come up with a more sensible proposal than I’ve heard at any of the dreary board meetings I’ve had to attend. Don’t you agree?”
Whoa, who the hell was this guy? I’d been anticipating a nervous pen-pusher in a dull suit, clutching a clipboard, not some anti-establishment beatnik with startlingly clear blue-grey eyes. And he was still talking.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise right now for the sheer arrogance of all my predecessors in assuming they can make decisions about you, without you! And you have my assurance that I have instructed my juniors to pay visits to other long-term inmates over the coming months, at a variety of penitentiaries around the country, so that I’ll have a range of views prior to making my recommendations. Not only your personal insight, though I sense that yours will be as valuable as anyone’s.”
Was that the end of the spiel? Could I get a word in edgeways? Seemingly not.
He paused, only very briefly, in order to hitch his glasses up his nose again with the knuckle of his left hand.
“So, on seeking the prison governor’s recommendation regarding whom to visit, he suggested you immediately because a) you hardly have visitors, b) you have been stuck here a dreadfully long time, and c) because—ah…his words, not mine, so forgive the rather indelicate use of language—because you…are…ah, ‘one of the few fucking blokes in here who can hold a decent conversation, and that includes the staff too’.”
The profanity sounded so wrong coming out of his pretty mouth, and he winced as he said it. After he’d listed each point, reeling them off on his fingers, he then added apologetically, “But I have to say, the prison officer who showed me in seemed awfully pleasant and quite capable of chatting, albeit on a superficial level.”
His speech came to an end, and he sat back, seemingly exhausted.
Somewhere in between leaving his plush Paris office and travelling down to the island, he must have lost the memo on political evasiveness. I hadn’t needed to look up to see which officer had shown him in and was observing us with interest from the doorway—Antoine always had an eye for pretty men, despite being married with two children. Something I knew as well as anyone. Slightly off my stride, I had a further question for him.
“Your surname is Giresse. Are you related to Alain Giresse?”
He wouldn’t have been expecting that curve ball, but still, he displayed neither surprise nor wariness. I must have lost my touch; I could strike the fear of God into some of the newer inmates with only a firm stare.
“Now, Guillaume. Ah…may I call you Guillaume? You must call me Marcel. Monsieur Giresse has me imagining the ghost of my dead father looming over my shoulder.”
I found myself nodding in acquiescence, slightly bewildered.
“This is more interesting. Alain Giresse. Hmm. My aforementioned father has an extensive family tree, plotted back to circa 1800, which I can draw for you if you would like me to, at least, branching out to the first cousin of each generation. Any further, and I confess I would have to consult the copy in my desk drawer. But I’m afraid, unless I’m mistaken, which would be unusual to say the least because my memory rarely fails me, your friend Alain and I are not closely linked. So, no, I conclude that this particular Giresse and I are not related.”
“He’s not my friend,” I pointed out. “He’s a famous footballer, three times French player of the year in the 1980s, and an attacking midfielder for Marseilles. I asked because your surname isn’t that common, that’s all.”
Having planned my surly opening gambit, my even surlier follow-up responses, and several sarcastic put-downs smattered in between, I was rapidly losing control of the conversation. He regarded me apologetically.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry for my ignorance; I don’t know anything about football. Never even watched a match from start to finish, I don’t think. But I’m happy to give it a try if you think it will assist me in understanding you better.”
A further adjustment of the glasses up his nose, accompanied by a hamster-like twitch and another guileless smile. Determined to regain the upper hand, I tried a different tack.
“I’m wary of visitors, Marcel Giresse, so I’ve done my homework on you. Thirty-six years old and born near Versailles, you are the youngest person since 1945 to hold such a senior position in the French civil service. Your wealthy parents, now deceased, educated you at Eton in England, where you excelled, thus ensuring you were trilingual from an early age as your mother was of German descent. You then completed a degree at the Sorbonne in what can only be described as rather tricky sums, gaining the highest score ever recorded in the final paper before winning a scholarship to study economics—some even trickier sums I imagine—at Harvard, where you also won the academic prize before BNP and Amundi headhunted you. You declined both offers, taking up a position with Intrexis in London instead.
“After five years—during which time you were credited with increasing the value of Intrexis’s worth by 200 per cent when they floated on the London Stock Exchange, securing yourself a small fortune in the process—you turned your back on the financial markets and took up a position within the civil service, where you steadily climbed to your current lofty heights. Not surprisingly, on your present trajectory, you are tipped to be Head of the Civil Service before you reach forty. You have never married and have no children. Your academic citations are lengthy and frequently quoted by others. Congratulations, Marcel Giresse, on being dealt such an exceedingly good hand in life.”
If he was at all shocked by my background checks on him, and my withering put-down at the end, he hid it well.
“Oh, I love these sorts of games, Guillaume! My turn!”
Wriggling in his seat as if settling in, accompanied by another push of the glasses, he continued.
“You, Monsieur, are Guillaume Guilbaud, aged thirty-eight. You were born and brought up in L’Estaque district of Marseilles by your mother, Claire, who is half-Moroccan. Your Tunisian father left home when you were three, and I believe you haven’t had any contact with him since. Your older cousin, Bruno, took you to the local football club from an early age, where you quickly excelled, eventually leaving school at sixteen to play for second division Nîmes Olympique. You had trials for Olympique de Marseilles, which, I have learned, is a prominent first division club. On the cusp of signing a three-year contract, you returned home from training one day to find your mother’s boyfriend allegedly raping your youngest sister, who was only fourteen. The following day, you killed him with a blow to the head and subsequent strangulation. There were witnesses to your attack; the rape was difficult to prove as your sister has learning difficulties, and you were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for first-degree murder.”
He smiled at me gently. “Did I leave out anything important?”
This stranger, with his soft breathy voice and delicate features, was unlike anyone I had ever encountered. In three simple sentences, he had summarised the single, most defining event of my life. Without a trace of accusation, pity, hatred, or even fear at being in the presence of a cold-blooded killer. He could have been recounting my professional career highlights, as I had done to him.
Returning his smile with a faint one of my own, my voice broke slightly as I answered his question.
“No, Monsieur Giresse. I think you have…succinctly covered everything.”
“Then I am so terribly, terribly sorry that, in contrast to me, you have been dealt such an exceedingly bad hand in life, Guillaume. While it is too late for you, as your sentence is nearly at an end, I hope very much to do everything within my power to improve the lot of many others who have been dealt such a bad hand. That when they have served their time and paid their dues, the French state does all it can to ensure they re-enter the world equipped to forge competent, law-abiding lives.”
If it were only that simple.
“Why have you come all this way to ask me my views on failings in the French penitentiary system? Could you not have picked someone in a prison closer to home?”
He laughed easily. “Any closer to home and you would be living on my front doorstep!”
My confusion no doubt showed on my face. I had been informed that morning that a very senior figure from the Ministry of Justice was coming from Paris to talk to me. Why the point of where he lived was bothering me more than the fact that he was here at all was as strange as the whole situation. As if reading my mind, he explained further.
“My home is here on the island, about a ten-minute walk from the prison, though I have to commute up to Paris fairly frequently. Those infernally dull board meetings I mentioned.”
He smiled at my raised eyebrows. “It is unusual, I know, but I am given…ah…a degree of leeway, probably on account of my uncanny ability to perform those really tricky sums you alluded to better than anyone else. And also because of my, ah…uncanny disability.”
I found myself smiling back, even if I couldn’t for the life of me fathom what his disability could be, and I was damned if I was going to ask. He’d walked into the room unaided, and his ears and eyes appeared to be in excellent working order, especially his eyes, which were a hypnotically brilliant blue-grey behind the thin glass lenses. And his brain was obviously tip-top too.
“So what do you want to know?” I asked coolly.