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U3A Writing: Le Radiateur

Derek McQueen tells a watery tale about the bathroom radiator which features in paintings by the great artist Pierre Bonard.

Derek, who is an artist and photographer, has a number of engaging stories in Open Writing. Type his name in the search box on this page. See also some of his photographs in the Open Writing gallery. To visit the gallery click on any picture.

The noise of hammering and the intermittent clanging of metal echoed around the small, floor tiled house in Le Cannet. It was ‘August hot’ in Provence. Thirty-eight degrees, with seemingly no air. Tempers were beginning to fray.

Marthe was preparing the table for lunch and the red tablecloth glowed with bright orange stripes as the sun split open the Venetian blinds. She busied herself with plates and dishes and covered the green mixed salad with a damp cloth to keep it cool. The lardons and soft poached eggs would be added at the last minute. It was Marthe’s speciality and Bonnard’s favourite.

“Zut Alor!. Just listen to the din”, he said, half to himself, eyes raised to, the heavens. “They’re only replacing the putain bathroom radiator.”

Bonnard paced up and down the tiny dining room, arms waving abstractedly in his agitation.

“Sacre bleu! This is the second day. They could be dismantling the Eiffel Tower.”

“It is a large one dear.” Marthe said.

“Georges says its rusted solid with the pipes. One of the first radiators to be installed in a house. He said it was going to be a difficult job, you knew that Pierre. Don’t upset yourself so. You won’t enjoy my Salad Compose, if you’re in this state. Shall we have wine today? Maybe a Montrachet or Chambertin? Both good years last year. Better than the twenty-six, I think”

Marthe’s efforts to calm the situation were having a limited effect, she could see that. The remorseless noise coupled with the heat was getting to her too, if the truth be known. She opened the side door a little to encourage any slight breeze and a warm lavender scent filled the room.

The sign on the scruffy Renault van parked outside read ‘Georges et Theo Fernand’, ‘Chauffage au bois, au gaz et l’electricite’ Rue Tournefour, CANNES. A variety of tools were piled by the front door, including a huge portable saw.
The heating company had just two employees, Georges, the eldest of the brothers, and Theo. This job they had decided required the energies and expertise of both. Rusting cast iron could be tricky and was prone to shatter on impact in inexperienced hands.

They were seriously short of money and the Renault was on its last wheels. Jobs were few in the summer months and this repair was a saviour; It was well known in Cannes that Bonnard was well off; His painted nudes of Marthe were attracting high prices now in Paris. Georges was determined to make the job last at least four days.

The clanging stopped.

“Merde! Bless the Lord in His wisdom for that.” Bonnard exploded. “They must have done it. Two hours and they’ll be gone. It’s still going to cost us fifty francs at twenty five a day.”

Marthe hurried to the kitchen for the lardons and eggs. Now was a good time to eat.

“Did you decide we should have wine Pierre? It’s cooling on the cellar step. It would be just right with the Compose.” She was still working on him and had decided on the Montrachet.

“Why not dearest one, I’ll go and bring it through”, Bonnard said. “Maybe you can pose for me later. You’re looking very enticing today.”

At last he was looking forward to Marthe’s lunch. The nightmare of ‘le radiateur’ was about to end. Fifty francs wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Courgettes cost almost a franc a kilo these days.

“The prices are unbelievable. I think the world’s gone mad.”

Bonnard muttered as he placed a poached egg on the top of a generous portion of dressed salad and superbly crisped ‘lardons de compagne’.

“Delicious Marthe, better than ever. Let me pour you a glass of wine. How fortunate we are my love.”

A piercing scream ended the short live calm followed by a bang that must have been heard in St Raphael. A torrent of filthy water emptied itself from the smashed radiator and was heading for the dining room;
Before Bonnard could put down his cut glass of golden grande cru, he was engulfed to the top of his expensive leather slippers.

The total contents of the heating system, including the boiler, would eventually reach the height of his knee socks. The Compose turned to ashes in his mouth as Theo Fernand entered the room, white faced, soaked to the skin and clutching a lump hammer.

He was about to explain to Bonnard that the choice of hammer was ill judged. That when the radiator shattered to a hundred fragments, it was almost free of its connecting pipe and the job almost done. Give or take two or three hours for the new pipe to be screwed they would be home and dry as it were.

He was about to say all this but he never did. A Lalique copy glass dish of Salade Compose hit him in the chest as he was about to speak. Lardons and dressed lettuce ran down his blue overalls as he fought to get his breath. The bottle of grande cru Montrachet that followed, was even more deadly and he fell face first in the former radiator contents. Only Marthes intervention prevented a potential drowning death as Bonnard searched frantically for further missiles.

In the weeks that followed, the Fernand’s battered Renault was still to be seen around Cannes. The sign now reading ‘Specialistes de Jardin’


Bonnard's painting, Le Radiateur, owned by Sheffield Art Galleries, depicts Marthe peeping round the bathroom door, apparently at the radiator. Le Radiateur was painted some years after the accident, which was said to have had a profound effect on Bonnard and his painting. However, he was eventually persuaded by Marthe, to resume painting her in the nude. Many of these colourful masterpieces are portraits of her in the bath at Le Bosquet the house they bought together in Le Cannet in 1926. Some even include the radiator.

Pierre Bonnard and Marthe lived at Le Bosquet in Le Cannet from 1926 until their respective deaths in 1942 and 1947. The paintings described exist as revered master works.

The ‘Georges’ and ‘Theo Fernand’ characters are pure fiction and the story of the radiator accident, if it was an accident of course, belongs in the author’s imagination only. Disappointing eh?


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