The R E S T I N G H O U S E
book 3 of THE LANGUEDOC TRILOGY
to be published in 2018
Chapter 1 (uncorrected)
There is the pain again. An hour ago it came, with the sun rising over Mount Septimanià when the vine leaves were still crisp from a cool night. They will soften in the September sun soon. Already the grapes feel warm to her touch, their thin skin stretched, like herself, ready to burst open. With each bunch she has to throw into the hard leather hod, strapped over her shoulders and fastened with a thick belt under her breasts that pushes down on her swollen belly, the pulling inside her gets sharper. Gaston is more than twenty paces ahead of her. Her husband can do the picking faster, no bulging mass to hinder his work. He cannot hear her whining; with each cramp it now grows to a moan.
It cannot happen here. I implore you, Sainted Virgin Mary, not today, not here in the steep and stony vineyard. Why am I praying to a virgin mother, Margaux asks herself, a woman who conceived Jesus without a man? Was the holy one also spared the agony of birth? At only sixteen it was the one thing Margaux had dreaded on her wedding night and ever since; it is a dread a man cannot feel as he is not the one whose body has to be torn apart to bring a new life into their meagre world.
Margaux moves to the next vine. This one carries little fruit, like most of them. Gaston’s vineyards, his part of the lands divided between nine brothers, are exhausted. They have not yielded enough profit to renew the vines, to wait out the time for young plants to carry better fruit. The war has done that. There are no men left in the family to do the heavy work, the pruning on the icy January mornings, the tying of the tendrils to the wire with frozen fingers. The war – it took three of her brothers, the other two, the brave Maquisards, shot by the vengeful, retreating German soldiers, draped over the vines like scarecrows before being shot. She had begged them come down from the mountains, to forget about the Resistance for a week and help on the land. It’s all over, the Germans are on the run, she had told them. They had believed her; it was all her fault.
She moves on. There is heat under her armpits, sweat pooling under her breasts. But the sudden hot rush between her legs is not sweat. She leans over as far as the load on her back allows. The earth between her feet is wet and dark.
But Gaston has moved on, over the brow of the stony vineyard; she cannot see or hear him. The pain. The Holy Virgin has not heard her prayer. Margaux stays bent over, the cramp in her belly holding her down.
‘Gaston, Gaston,’ she is panting now.
Gaston is not expecting a child to come today either. He has eyed her swollen form as he sits in the dark kitchen by the hearth, staring into the open fire. He grumbles about their misfortune, the unremitting harshness of their lives, asking why they have been condemned to this meager existence. He does not expect a child to emerge from Margaux’s womb, not a live one in any case. Three pregnancies in as many years, two premature boys, half formed, not fit for living, one girl, still born with the cord around her neck. This time his wife’s belly is twice the size as before and nine months and three weeks have gone by.
For months Margaux has felt the stirring inside, the kicking, incessant, day and night. One night she dreamt of a boxing match happening inside her womb. Surely, this child must live.
The sun is beating down on the back of her neck. Slipping down the shoulder straps and undoing the broad leather belt under her breasts she frees herself from her load. The hod is only half full. Perhaps she can fill it after all if she doesn’t have to carry it. The wet patch on the ground is not very large, perhaps not all her waters have broken. Gaston will retrace his steps if she doesn’t bring her pickings to the cart. She moves a few steps up on the stony slope, clipping off the fruit, back and forth to the hod. The pain pulls at her side, at her belly, her back, her everything. She has to lean on the edge of the hod, knees bent from the contraction. Now she has not strength to call for her husband, all she can do is breathe and groan as she squats lower.
Feet apart her body bursts open. Something slithers out. She gives in to the sudden relief, looks down. There it lies among the stones, a small glistening bundle, its mouth open, squawking. Her skirt is blood-drenched as she wipes the child. It is waving its arms about as if still swimming inside the womb. She rips the large leaves from the vines, makes a thick layer of them in the hod so as not to spoil her harvest. When she picks the wriggling bundle off the ground dust and pieces of soil cling to the wet body. It’s a boy and he’s alive and strong. She cleans him with more leaves and makes at blanket of them. Her secateurs gently sever the umbilical cord. She sucks its ends clean, makes a knot.
As she straightens up another bout of pain shoots through her, not as strong as the first. Something else is pushing out of her, stretching her, another small bundle falling. She catches it with her skirt to break its fall. Another child, much smaller than the first, thin and not squawking this time, but alive. Also a boy. She holds him by the feet, puts her finger into his slimy mouth, slaps his back – a cry; he is breathing. Again the secateurs cut the cord, separating herself from her child. She places him beside his bigger twin and stands gazing at them there, among the bright green of the leaves – two live children.
Footsteps crunch on the stones. ‘Margaux.’ Her husband’s voice is gruff. ‘Why are you dawdling?’
‘Gaston.’ She stands aside. She is too exhausted.
He swings the hod over his shoulder, makes to carry it away to empty it into the cart.
‘No … no,’ she cries with her last breath and clings to his arm, forcing him to put the load down again. She pushes the layer of vine leaves out of the way to show what the morning’s harvest has yielded.
After sunset, in the somber kitchen, Gaston is staring into the fire. Margaux is topping and tailing green beans into her apron. The two new-borns are squeezed into a narrow wooden cradle meant for a single child. Though they are not yet baptized their names have been chosen – Fernand for the first-born, Raymond for the little one.
‘We cannot feed two children, Margaux,’ Gaston speaks into the fire, ‘even though they are boys.’
Margaux looks at her babies. The little one, Raymond, may not live. He is thin, his suckling at her breast weaker than the first-born. Margaux knows that the stronger child will be suited to work the farm and the vineyards, tend the animals, drive the horse and cart. Gaston would never agree to keep the weak boy.
‘My mother’s second cousin Yvonne, she may want him,’ Margaux says in a whisper. ‘She was left childless when Germain, her husband, was killed in the war. She has been left a house in town and money. When her in-laws die she will have the bastide with the vineyards in Noirlac and the land behind Mount Septimanià.’
Gaston is silent. The protest she was hoping for does not come. As dawn breaks she takes the tiny boy and lays him into a wooden box, away from his stronger sibling.
Sainte Colombe 2015
The F O O L’S H O U S E a murder mystery published in 2015
First chapters (complete manuscript 43 chapters)
© A.N.Burchardt 2013
Let the doors be shut upon him,
that he may play the fool, but in’s own house,
P r o l o g u e
The chair stood at the bottom of the lake, wrapped in algae. A coat of arms crowning its high back had become blurred by green slime. It seemed more like a throne, vacated by some illustrious owner. The edge of the diver’s flipper scooped the soft sediment; sand swirled, exposing the chair’s legs. He was about to turn away when he saw what was weighing the chair down. Wound around its claw feet lay a heavy chain, keeping it upright in the shifting waters. Tiny creatures, light as snowflakes, darted in and out of the curls of its armrests. The police diver circled the chair. Hunting down old furniture, thrown into the lake long ago, had not been part of Inspector Serdan’s brief.
The Inspector had summoned the Englishman and his French wife to come to the lake, but the couple seemed unable or unwilling to divulge more than what was mentioned in the letter they had found. After a while the diver had discovered a body as described in the note. One man alone could not extricate it, so now they waited for reinforcements.
‘While you’re there,’ the Inspector had said, ‘have a nose around at the bottom of the lake. You never know….’
Using his knife, the diver gently scraped the top of the crest to remove a patch of algae. A sudden shaft of sunlight cut through the green water and hit the spot where he had been scraping – a flash of mellow gold and the light faded. He had a sudden impulse to glide his hand along the armrest, stroking it, as one might console a lonely child. His fingers hit a number of small ridges. Strands of loosened algae floated away. A thin chain had been wound tight around the armrest; a small lock that secured it was still in place. Something was trapped under the chain; a number of thin, parallel sticks, four in total, packed close together. They were white with a break in the middle. The last of the algae unfurled; there was a fifth one, shorter than the others. It was neatly tucked underneath. Bones; chained fast to the armrest the diver saw the slender bones of a hand.
Stand dumb and do not speak to him
Chateau de Noirlac – one month earlier, April 24th
The bleached barn doors stood wide open. Inside hay, stacked over the winter, released a sweet dusty scent as the sun began to warm the morning air. The wings of insects in random flight flickered in a cloud of gold against the blinding light.
Romain lay on his back, humming. He spread his arms wide and pressed his feet together. His head tilted to one side. ‘Little Jesus on the cross,’ he whispered. In another, distant life he had come up here with his brother and the farm boys to tumble in the straw. Chickens would venture into the barn to scratch for grains and the boys chased them until they fluttered to the top of the barn in terror, shrieking hysterically.
Today Romain waited. There was a delicate rustling. He froze. From a gap between two bales of hay a set of twitching whiskers appeared. Two black eyes, shiny as glass beads, assessed if it was safe to come out. A sand-coloured harvest mouse emerged, its long tail coiled around an overhanging stalk. Perfect little fingers nimbly worked themselves forward. Romain watched without blinking, his eyes still like a dead man’s stare. He listened. There was no noise of children’s play now. His brother Alain was gone. How easy it had been to clamber to the top of the bales today. A long, long time ago it had felt as though he was climbing a mountain, always the last to make it to the top. Now his father’s horses were no longer being led across the farm yard by the stable boys; the cows had gone; their stubborn legs no longer sent the milk buckets flying with a great clatter in the early evenings. He listened for the clucking of the chickens, for the triumphant crow of a cockerel. There was silence. Did his mother still stand by the window, arms crossed and frowning, looking down to the lake? Where was everyone? He slowly closed his eyes so as not to frighten the mouse. In the rafters above the wind whistled, soft as silk.
Earlier, when he had squeezed through the gap in the wall and passed by the greenhouse, it had all looked strange. Instead of tomatoes, melons and vegetables, there were just flowers, flowers everywhere. A fence, in a criss-cross weave of willow branches, surrounded a mass of waist-high, white flowers. The star-shaped heads were watching him, red eyes trembling on thin stalks. He kicked down the enclosure and began to tear the blooms from the sap-laden stems until their perfume had made him feel quite drunk. Soon his hands were full so he had laid them down in a circle in the barn entrance, went back to pick some more, and then some more, until he was all done and none were left standing.
There was a sudden crunch of foot steps on the path to the barn. Romain sat up.
‘No… no… oh, no,’ a woman’s voice cried.
He turned. ‘Maman?’ A woman stood in the open barn door. He didn’t remember his mother looking like this.
‘What have you done with my lilies?’ the woman gasped.
‘There, flowers,‘ Romain indicated the white blossoms lying in the dust, their heads drooping like dead swans, ‘for Maman.’
‘Who are you?’ the woman cried. ‘Get out, get out …!’
He tumbled down to the ground to crouch with one knee in the dust, moving sideways, edging towards the barn door. ‘Maman angry? Don’t go.’ Tears ran down his cheeks. ‘Romain good boy. Romain good boy.’ He buried his face in his dirty hands.
‘I’m not your mother.’ She grabbed his arm and shook him. ‘Who are you?‘ They stared, each expecting an explanation from the other.
‘Maman, stay. Romain good boy.’ Still on his knees he swung around, lurched forward and threw his arms around her legs.
‘I’m not your Maman. I’m Ophelia,’ she shouted. She freed herself from his embrace and pulled him up, suddenly horrified by the violence of her reaction. Now that he stood up he was taller than her. He was probably also stronger than she was. She grabbed hold of his shoulders and braced herself. ‘You are Vilmorin’s son, aren’t you?’
Romain gazed at her mouth which was moving very fast, but he didn’t hear. Yes, she looked like his mother, he was sure. She had left him; that’s why his father had sent him away. But now she had come back.
‘Get out,’ the woman shouted and now he heard her clearly. She let go of him abruptly and pointed to the bottom of the garden. ‘You … don’t… live… here… anymore.’
Still crying, Romain began to run, turning now and then to be sure she was still there. ‘I’ll come back, ‘ he called to her, ‘Maman …. don’t go,’ and disappeared in the undergrowth by the perimeter wall.
But when they ask what it means, say this
Carcassonne, South West France, same day, April 24th
Léa stepped into the shadows of the timber framed houses. Their jettied upper floors let no light onto the broad pavements. She tripped over something and nearly fell. At her feet something moved. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she saw an emaciated figure sitting against a pillar with a monkey on a chain. The dark-skinned man wore a red waistcoat with cheap gold braiding and pantaloons of turquoise satin. One of his feet was bandaged with a dirt-encrusted rag. His pillbox cap had slid to one side. He appeared to be dozing, unaware that the monkey was fixing him with an anxious stare. The animal turned and made a sudden movement towards Léa. It pulled on the short chain, jolting the man awake. He blinked up at Léa, lifted his upper lip as if to speak and she saw his tobacco-stained teeth, long like those of an old donkey. The man mumbled something to the monkey about it not being time yet. The animal gave Léa a furtive look, hopped onto the man’s chest and nestled down with a backward glance, slung his arms around his captor’s neck and both man and animal lay back as if sleeping. Léa shivered. Her bare ankles were turning to ice. The massive paving stones beneath her feet pumped out cold air. They had not seen the sun in centuries. She turned and quickly crossed the sunny square to catch up with Sam.
‘I’ve just seen the strangest thing,’ she said, ‘look.’ She turned to indicate the man in the shadows. The spot where she had seen him was empty, man and monkey had vanished.
Earlier that morning, they had set out at the foot of the rocky outcrop that dominated the lower town. Street cleaners, clearing gutters and hosing down the cobble stones over which thousands of feet had trodden the previous afternoon, swept past them, nodding a friendly greeting. Once across the bridge and through the archway of the gates, a myriad of hole-in-the-wall shops shouted out their wares – plastic helmets, swords, breast plates and crude imitations of provençal cloth in garish colours, which had nothing to do with the Roussillon traditions. In the boutiques artefacts, advertised as the creations of Occitan artists, only too clearly showed the signs of ‘made in China’. But seduced by guide book images of the castellated walls of the fortress high above the town, most visitors had no time for close inspection.
The tangle of narrow alleys snaked its way up and met at the medieval square of the basilica St. Nazaire. Timber framed buildings lined three sides of the square. The overhang of their upper floors, no longer level, rested heavily on roughly carved pillars the size of tree trunks. They cast their cavernous shade onto the medieval pavements beneath where cafés offered inviting tables and chairs. Traders, grateful for the cool spaces, sold fresh fruit, vegetables and goats’ cheese from their stalls all summer long. At this time of year the tourist buses from Toulouse did not arrive until the afternoons and few stallholders found it worthwhile to set out their produce before noon.
‘This is how it looked when people traveled by donkey,’ Sam said as he turned to take in the deserted square.
‘Mass tourism,’ Léa sighed. ‘People are like the pigeons in the cities, they swarm, scratching around on the same patch; they leave so much rubbish behind.’ She looked up at the grimacing gargoyles lurching into the void from the octagonal tower of the basilica. ‘God’s enforcers. I bet they did half the work for the Inquisition, to scare the people into submission.’
‘More like blackmail of the soul,’ said Sam,’ that’s why the Cathars broke away from the church.’
‘Look, there, a baby dinosaur. I’ve never seen that.’
‘I think it’s meant to be a dragon, just hatched.’ Sam had to shield his eyes against the glare. Out in the open square the sun already had real heat in it.
‘Wait. I’ll do a quick sketch of it.’ Léa fanned her face with her pocket book that she carried everywhere. She never took photographs; she drew from life, often scribbled notes indicating colour and light on the impatient sketches. Her pen captured details which passed unseen in a photograph. A series of bulging note books had become a record of the peripatetic life style of their earlier years.
‘Tea, Sam, somewhere, anywhere. I’m parched.’
Around the square she counted four cafés which were in the process of opening. The waiters were rattling the chains that held the chairs together overnight to save them being stolen. Somehow she didn’t feel like settling down in a place dressed up for the tourists. They had invaded this part of France in recent years and killed off most of what had been genuine.
Sam peered through the gate of a palatial hotel to their right. The ancient building seemed to have sunk its claws deep into the highest point of the rocky hill. Whoever had built here long ago wanted to rule, or they had felt very threatened. Now this fortress for the wealthy traveler simply turned its back to the onslaught of garish, overpriced souvenirs.
‘Look at that garden terrace,’ Sam said, ‘and the pool.’ His hands gripped the wrought iron railings with gilded fleur-de-lys spikes. Above gold letters read: Hôtel des Cîteaux.
‘Your big nose will get stuck between those bars.’
‘Leave my nose out of it.’ He turned around and leaned against the gate. His face was already tanned and his black hair was tousled by the gusts of wind driving up through the narrow alleys.
‘The only thing one can say with certainty’, Léa’s mother had commented after they had spent a weekend at her Paris apartment, ‘is that Sam is definitely not African or Chinese.’ Léa had never worked out whether this was a compliment or a criticism.
‘He’s from London, not from Mars.’ Léa had retaliated spikily. Anyway, what are Hungarians like you, Maman? A bit of Mongolian, Turkish, Romanian, Austrian? Not forgetting Napoleon doing his bit to improve the race. At least Sam is not a mongrel, like me.’
‘Don’t drag the honour of our family through the …cocoa,’ her mother snapped. ‘How did I deserve this,’ she wailed,’ you children, you understand nothing. How did France make you so … French? All you ever do is make fun of me. I should have stayed in Budapest. The Russians would have ….’
‘Please, not the Russians again, Maman, or I’ll get my violin. Arielle and I are French, we were born here. Papa was French. How can you expect us to be Hungarian?’
‘The English,’ her mother had huffed with a dismissive wave of the hand before she had met Sam, ‘they’re not quite …’
‘Not quite what?
‘Not completely…. European … floating there on that little island, always pretending they’re … special.’ To Léa’s mother the English had to be tall, pale and blond, preferably covered in freckles, wearing big khaki shorts that flapped around bony knees and legs so white they turned blue in cold weather. The fact that an Englishman could have black hair and get a deep tan in the summer was definitely suspect.
‘Your expectations,’ Léa shrugged,’ have nothing to do with the real world.’ Léa’s younger sister Arielle, with her dancing walk and a tendency to brush any unpleasantness under the carpet, was more in character with the rest of the family. Her mother had fussed and cajoled, hoping to mould her eldest daughter into a lady, like herself. At worst, if Léa was going to spend time in a kitchen at all, she should have been wearing one of those lace-edged, doily-sized aprons, as a sort of fashion accessory, with a huge bow at the back, as depicted in the adverts that graced her mother’s women’s magazines in the fifties. Instead, even at the age of three, Léa had taken a sensual pleasure in digging the ground with her fingers or rolling in the grass with her muddy dog. After their next visit, when Sam had sat engrossed in conversation with Léa’s mother, talking about the Cold War, she had a sudden change of heart about him.
‘Look at his hair,’ she had whispered, ‘not English at all. He must have some Latin blood.’
‘That’s alright then with you, is it?’ Léa knew of course that some justification had to be found for the turn-around, but that was fine. Admitting to mistakes had never been her mother’s strong point.
The Hôtel des Cîteaux stretched along the entire South side of the square. Most of its terrace could be glimpsed through the gates. It was a fairy tale setting, an island of beauty and class. Léa kissed the tip of Sam’s nose and leaned into him.
‘We deserve a day off, you deserve a day off. You’ve spent enough time in that dark chapel in the last few weeks,’ she said in a fake sulk, ‘and with that spooky box full of bones. Is there enough for an article?’
‘It’s sensational enough. I can’t write anything until we have the test results. We never expected all this.’
‘You’re a journalist. The unexpected is your stock and trade.’
‘I can’t call myself a journalist anymore. My stuff has got too obscure now. Abandoned abbeys are not very sexy if you want to shift copies. This might be different though. We’ll see.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I shouldn’t be here at all. I promised to drop in at the abbey today.’
Léa tugged at his elbow. ‘You have to make room for us sometimes. It’s what they call spending quality time with your wife.’
‘There isn’t even a word for wife in your language,’ Sam teased. ‘ma femme is what the French say. That just means my woman; it says nothing about marriage.’
‘Epouse means you’re married.’
‘Votre épouse, your spouse, that’s what the Mayor calls you,’ Sam mocked. ‘When a man says mon épouse it sounds …, I don’t know, as though he is grateful that the woman actually married him.’
‘And so he should be,’ Léa laughed, ‘and that includes you.’ She looked around the square. By the afternoon the place would be crawling with sightseers.
Pluck them asunder
Chateau de Noirlac, same day
Ophelia let her arms drop. They felt heavy and useless. De Vilmorin’s son had squeezed through the gap in the perimeter wall and vanished. At her feet her lilies lay wilting in the dust. Something dripped into the collar of her dress and she realised she was crying.
Everything was going wrong since that afternoon, everything was unravelling. Was this how it was going to be when you got older? Was there nothing to look forward but the past? The thought felt like a punch to the heart. Augusto, why had he done this, now? How could she not have sensed what was happening, right here in their house? She tried to remember why she had loved him. Was it because of who he was, or because of all the good she had seen in him? For some time now, although she could not say when it had started, Augusto had seemed distracted and she had put it down to his age.
On that afternoon, when she had come upon the unthinkable, she had run to the bathroom where she had broken into spasmodic, tearless sobs until her body was heaving and she vomited into the bath tub. Her knees gave way and hit the tiled floor, but she could not put a halt to the retching which produced only long lines of saliva after a while. When the convulsions ceased she lay face down on the cool floor to offer her cramped stomach some resistance. The sun was setting. After a time she had heard Augusto tapping on the door, calling her name. In the dark she had run some water into the bathtub to clear the vomit before opening the door. He was still there.
‘Come out,’ he had pleaded but she would not, fearing another bout of heaving. She sat down on the floor with her back against the wall. He had sat on the edge of the bath, talking softly, but to her his words sounded like a father’s admonishments to a child who had committed some irreparable deed. She could find no contrition in what he said and after a while she stopped listening. At some point he must have left, because she had woken up in daylight, with sore bones from sleeping on the hard floor.
What was she meant to do now? Wipe away the past, wipe away the future? But whose past and whose future – his or hers? Her watch said five o’clock. She opened the bathroom door a crack, in case Augusto had decided to bed down in front of it. There wasn’t a sound in the house. With knees stiff and aching she made her way downstairs, crossed the hall and went out by the small backdoor behind the stairs.
Without intending to she found herself taking the path under the mimosas to the lake. At this end it gently lunged out, lapping on flat deposits of mud and rough sand. Reeds had multiplied and grown in great clumps; the roots threatened to suffocate the birch and willow trees growing at the edge of the water. Their branches hung, brown and limp like lifeless hair. In olden days farmers would have made brooms from these flexible bundles. But what good were they now, Ophelia wondered. The gardener, who came only intermittently, would no doubt burn them. A few of the branches had fallen into the lake and lay in a heap by the water’s edge, swept there by the spring winds that raced over the lake. Ophelia reached down and picked up a stranded stone stuck in the sand and threw it into the water. Hypnotic rippling circles began to spread. Something in her prayed for them not to ebb away, but they soon did. She parted the reeds, searching for more stones but there were none; all she could see was her hand, moving to and fro, and her wedding ring, both looking as if they belonged to someone else. Her damp fingers began pulling at the ring, prising if off with difficulty. It lay in her palm for a moment, then she hurled it high and hard out over the water. It seemed to hover in the air; she saw it flicker and oscillate in the sunlight before it plunged into the dark lake. The circles began, they grew and grew and time stretched. It was the rippling circles she had needed to tell her that everything died, eventually.
That I will speak to thee
Hôtel des Cîteaux, same day
‘Come on. Let’s have tea in here.’ Léa took Sam by the arm and coaxed him into the hotel. They walked straight past the hotel clerk who greeted them like familiar guests and headed straight out onto the terrace garden. No matter how exclusive a hotel, just walk in fast and look confident, like you belong, that was their motto. They had never been challenged. In the dash through the grand lobby they had caught a glimpse of a few steps leading to a mezzanine with a library filled with bound volumes. The idea of rare books was always irresistible. In the last few years they had travelled less and had accumulated not so much furniture as books and more books.
They stepped out onto a meticulously manicured lawn. Clusters of crocus and hyacinths glowed like jewels in the crisp spring light. By the gravel path stood groups of white cast-iron tables and chairs, dainty as if made of starched lace. Just beyond the layered shrubs the light danced on the water of the swimming pool. They were alone on the semi-circular terrace. Sam pulled one of the tables close to the low rampart wall and they sat down. The waiter was already on his way, dressed in black trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. His long apron flapped in the breeze as he strode across the fresh grass. His jet black hair was plastered down and shiny, as if he had just stepped out of the bullring.
‘Would you also like the newspapers? We have all the international papers in our library,’ he announced proudly.
‘Any Times will be fine,’ said Sam, ‘Sunday Times, New York Times, thank you.’
They sipped their tea from gold rimmed porcelain cups. A steep bank, smothered in daffodils, fell away from the foot of the ramparts. The scent of warm soil rose up on the breeze. Two large crows with mean-looking beaks strutted towards them along the thick wall. Sam got up. He walked around to the edge of the terrace, trying to approach the them.
‘They’ll have your finger. They don’t mind what they eat,’ warned Léa, ‘as long as it’s flesh, alive or dead.’
Sam leaned over the edge to look into the moat below which had long been reclaimed by grass. ‘Charlemagne besieged this city. Did you know that? For three years, probably right here.’ He stretched to inspect the massive stonework of the fortifications which plunged down into the moat.
‘Don’t lean over so far, Sam. What if a stone is loose? I’m not climbing down to get you.’ But I would if I had to,’ she mumbled under her breath. And she was certain that he knew she would.
He turned and sat on the wall. ‘The crows must have queued up in their hundreds during the siege. Lots of dead bodies in the water,’ he smacked his lips, ‘delicately frazzled to a crisp in hot oil first.’
‘Don’t be so ghoulish,’ Léa grimaced and gathered up her things. Water and drowning were inseparable in her mind. She could swim well, as long as she knew she could touch bottom. Her fear of the deep was irrational. In an unknown depth something in her body began to panic. The pull of gravity seemed to increase in deep water and she knew that she would succumb to it. Recurring dreams of her younger sister drowning woke her in a sweat and she would lie in the dark, reliving the dream in which her hands groped blindly for her sister’s body which could not be seen in the muddied waters. She had spoken to no one about these dreams, but had become convinced that her sister would drown, one day. In a bid to rid herself of the thought, she had written the dream on a sheet of paper, sealed it in a tiny cardboard box and thrown it into the wild stream that toiled in the deep gorge surrounding their village. She had leaned over the stone bridge that linked Sainte Colombe with the road leading up onto the garrigue and the abbey beyond. She watched the box being tossed from one side to the other. It skated over boulders, pirouetted, was swallowed by whirlpools, spat out again and finally went under when it was sodden. She had stood on the bridge for a long while, trying to etch the idea into her brain that it was the dream that had drowned, that she had made this gesture as an offering to save her sister.
Sam felt the temperature of the pool water before deciding to take a look at the library. As they re-entered the hotel Léa removed her sunglasses. She stood for a moment, trying to accustom her eyes to the interior which lay in gothic darkness.
‘Anyway,’ said Sam. ‘It’s time for an aperitif.’
‘Who said I’d never make a Frenchman out of you?’ Léa took his hand as they climbed the steps from the lobby, pushed open the doors clad with polished brass-plates and cut-glass panels and found themselves in a baronial room with bookshelves reaching up to the ceiling. To their right a barman was polishing glasses behind a gleaming bar. Gilded coffee tables surrounded by red leather armchairs were grouped on a carpet ornamented with heraldic designs. Sam scanned the book spines. He was surprised to find that most volumes were written in the English language. They ordered Muscat and sat under the stained glass windows which filtered the light in translucent, jewel-like colours.
‘Why are all these books in English?’ asked Sam as the barman set down the glasses and poured their drinks.
‘A gift from a British Consul, a long time ago. But if you want to know more …,’ he nodded discreetly in the direction of someone who had entered behind them, ‘our manager, Monsieur Guérin, will be pleased to tell you all about it,’ he whispered,’ it’s his absolute favourite subject.’
A greying man in his fifties in an expensive suit with a crested tie and a silk Hermès handkerchief in his breast pocket stood by their table and gave a slight bow.
‘People don’t often ask about the books here,’ he said with a woeful smile and a confident, transatlantic accent, ‘they’re always so busy . . . touristing – if that is a word.’ He shrugged and made an elegant but dismissive gesture with his hand. Gold cufflinks flashed in the mellow light.
‘I’m Henri Guérin,’ he introduced himself and held out a hand in greeting.
Sam shook Guérin’s hand. ‘Sam. Sam Carter and my wife Léa.’
‘Enchanté. I’ll show you our books, if you like.’ He clasped his hands behind his back and led Sam and Léa along the shelves. He was visibly proud of his establishment in an old fashioned way and volunteered information in the smooth and diplomatic tone more suited to guiding Royals rather than two people who had just walked off the street. ‘And down there, on the bottom shelf, the tall ones, they are the hotel records for over a century.’
‘May I look?’ Léa reached down to pick up one of the over-sized registers.
‘Let me.’ He helped her lift it.
She laid it on the low table and began turning its brittle yellowed pages. Spidery handwriting with nib and ink of successive hotel clerks detailed arrivals of illustrious guests, alongside the simply fabulously wealthy of the day.
‘We’ve had some strange and wonderful guests over the years. There,’ Guérin turned to a page, ‘Charlie Chaplin and all these people,’ he ran his finger down the list, ‘even his chambermaid, they all travelled with him.’
Henri Guérin glanced at his heavy gold Rolex watch which had been concealed under the cuff of his jacket. ‘I am supposed to …’ he checked his watch again, ‘or rather I was supposed to have lunch with a former guest, an Argentinean professor, a scientist, retired now. He stayed here for many months with his English wife and two children.’ He paused. ‘In fact, the younger child, a daughter, was almost born in this hotel. His wife was so very, very … young,’ he added with a melancholy smile. From his tone Léa sensed that the young woman must have been sensationally beautiful or unusually young. Perhaps she had been both if he remembered her with such feeling.
‘Shortly after that the Professor bought the chateau of his dreams from a bankrupt aristocrat in Noirlac. But that was more than twenty years ago. I went on to work in hotels in Australia, the Bahamas and the States. Then I came back to manage this hotel and after all these years we bumped into each other on this very spot, quite recently. The books brought us together again.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I was expecting him, about an hour ago,’ he smiled, ‘if he comes, you can meet him. Time keeping has never been his forte.’ He glanced out of the window. ‘Oh. It looks like you’re in luck. I think he’s just arrived.’
Sit still my soul
Chateau de Noirlac, same day
Ophelia made her way back to the house. Something had left her, she wasn’t sure what. A sense of detachment flooded every part of her being. From one day to the next her life had become a grotesque dance. Would her foot land on solid ground or would it fall away each time she took a step? As a child, when her father had been posted to the British Embassy in Vienna, they had gone to the Prater, but all she could remember of it was the cakewalk; it was the feel of the ground tossing under her feet that now came back to her. Yes. I am a diplomat’s daughter, Ophelia reminded herself. She had grown up in half a dozen countries, learnt to deal with change, no matter how difficult. Augusto seemed to have forgotten it. She could tell no one about what had happened. Who would believe her? It seemed unreal, even to her. She looked down at herself, ran her hand through her hair to smooth it down. The fine dust from the barn itched between her fingers. Particles of hay clung to her dress and caught the light like tiny sequins. She straightened her back, took a deep breath and made her way back towards the house.
Zoffia was nowhere to be seen. Augusto would be leaving for Paris. She wasn’t going to tell him about the prowler or about what she planned to do, not now. He did not deserve it.
Then saw you not his face
Hôtel des Cîteaux, afternoon, same day
‘I hope you’ve not waited long.’
Behind them a voice boomed as the double doors of the library were flung open. They turned. A tall man strode across the lush carpet. Despite the spring sunshine he wore a flowing dark Loden cape, fastened at the neck with a monogrammed clasp. His arms emerged in a dramatic greeting, parting the cape like a curtain for the opening of a play. He made a bee-line for Sam and Léa. The old man seized Léa’s hand and enclosed it in both his own. She felt the cold of his bones. He did not shake her hand, but patted it and there was a caress in the gesture, as if to feel what she was made of. Strands of silver hair strayed from under a burgundy Fedora. His large eyes of a liquid turquoise contrasted with his skin, still olive despite the pallor brought on by age. He let go of Léa’s hand abruptly, as if his investigation of her no longer required it.
‘Are these your children?’ he teased the hotel manager.
‘Good Lord, no,’ said Henri Guérin, ‘they were admiring our library.’
‘So, you love books, eh?’
Sam nodded. It sounded like a rhetorical question.
‘Most commendable! Are you staying here?’
‘We’ve lived in Sainte Colombe for nearly fifteen years, not far from here,’ Léa said.
‘Ah, I know it, I know it,’ he nodded, ’Sainte Colombe, very old, very beautiful, but such a troubled history. I lived in this delightful establishment,’ the old man whispered as if in a confession booth as he leaned towards Léa. His eyes darted from her face to her red hair. He switched from perfect French to English.
‘Such a long time ago. There were only the books and myself in here. And silence. There is treasure in this library . . . almost as good as mine.’ His clipped English was almost perfect, the voice cultured, with a soft Spanish intonation on just the odd word here and there. ‘I’m sorry, this is . . ..’
‘Sam and Léa Carter. Professor Augusto Perez de Montsarrat.’ The name rolled off Guérin’s tongue, pearls dropping into a bowl of cream. ‘Sam and Léa are book fiends, like you.’
‘Splendid,’ the old man declared. ‘Then we must get together, no? When I get back from Paris….’ He turned to Guérin. ‘I shall be going soon, if not sooner. Yes,’ he said triumphantly, ‘I have some business with a Paris auctioneer. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even bring something back.’
‘Nothing heavy I hope, Augusto,’ Guérin smiled, ‘the airlines charge so much for excess baggage these days.’
The old man ripped off his Fedora and brandished it. ‘I thought I’d go by car, stop off at a few old haunts.’
‘But it’s such a long journey, my friend.’ Henri Guérin looked puzzled. ‘I hope you’ll let your wife do some of the driving.’
‘Ophelia?’ Augusto’s eyes shifted and his brows pulled together in a sulk. He shook his head. ‘She won’t,’ he said with a distracted air. He seemed to be talking about someone he’d met a long time ago, in a restaurant perhaps, or someone who had made little impression on him at a dinner party. He half turned away and faced the windows. The folds of his cape caught the rainbow hues of the light streaming through the stained glass. There was a sudden silence in the conversation. A fine clock chimed somewhere in the room. Someone say something, Léa prayed. Sam looked across to Guérin who raised an eyebrow. Augusto swung round and clapped his hands, turning to Sam. He bared his teeth; his mouth was smiling but his eyes were not.
‘Have you a telephone number?’ he asked. ‘I shall invite you to Noirlac, my chateau.’ There was a hint of a plea in Guérin’s eyes, a silent ‘indulge my old friend’. Sam obliged with his card.
Léa took a few steps back to draw herself out of the conversation. On Guérin’s sign the barman filled up their glasses. Léa picked hers up and moved towards the Gothic bay windows which curved out onto the high terrace with a panorama which seemed lifted from a painting by Poussin. To the left lay Mount Alaric, once the seat of the last Visigoth King. It rose sharp and black. Beyond it loomed the smoky blue shades of the Pyrenees with the first peaks of Spain. To the right the landscape fell away in the soft lines of endless vineyards, rolling down to the Mediterranean.
The old man’s icy touch lingered on Léa’s hand and she tucked it into the pocket of her jacket, as if to put it out of his reach. Behind her she could hear Augusto and Henri Guérin laugh at some joke, probably one of Sam’s. She scanned the land under the blue expanse. There was a barely visible movement in the sky high above where the air was so pure it vibrated in a violet hue. A pair of eagles, down from the high Pyrenees, were gliding in slow, overlapping circles. Their silhouettes with the wide, straight wings and the short tails were unmistakable. How they could spot prey from that height was a mystery to Léa. She had seen an eagle pick a rabbit in a perilous dive from the rocks of the gorge in their village. Gisèle, her old friend in Sainte Colombe, had seen eagles carry away a newborn boar.
‘Léa.’ Sam’s voice sounded far away. She glanced across to the three men, silhouetted against the library windows. What had the old man wanted from her when he had held onto her hand that way?
‘I think we’d better go,’ Sam called as he turned to Henri Guérin.
Léa made her way back. She would have to shake hands again with the old man. ‘Thank you. We’ll come again,’ she smiled at Guérin, as she quickly withdrew her hand from Augusto’s, ‘when we have more time.’
They crossed the flag-stoned lobby and returned to the square and the afternoon tourist throng.
‘Do you think he has a hunchback servant called Igor?’
Sam shook his head. ‘More of a touch of the Phantom of the Opera. Judging by the looks he gave you he’s more likely to have a nubile young virgin tucked away in the attic.’
‘God, we have a nasty imagination.’ They stepped out of the hotel and into the sunshine.
‘Maybe. Don’t look now. See the car on your left?’ Sam pretended to look in the opposite direction. Among the tourists following a guide manically waving her orange umbrella, Léa saw a black car parked by the hotel entrance. In the rear sat a woman in her thirties. A mass of flame-red hair framed a pale face. She was nibbling at her fingernails, waiting.
‘Oh, Sam. That’s probably his daughter.’
‘Wrong age; and why would she be sitting out here?’ He turned and began winding his way past the row of tourists pointing their cameras at the spires of St. Nazaire basilica.
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Chateau de Noirlac, night
That night Augusto’s dream was of a tumbling descent from a barren mountain strewn with furniture, objects he recognised, collected during his lifetime for reasons he could no longer fathom. He looked down and saw his silk slippers side-stepping a bulbous yellow frog that eyed him coldly. To his right his young son Pablo was skipping to and fro between piles of books, swaying as they grew higher and higher, so that the boy had to make ever increasing leaps. They reached the foot of the mountain and Augusto felt Ophelia’s hand in his. They were entering a huge barn which was filled with an overpowering, sickly odour. His eyes adjusted to the dark and he saw bundled lilies, their heads the size of sunflowers, lying on their sides, stacked deep where straw bales should have been. Ophelia led him to the wall of gaping white blooms and he saw that each star-shaped head oozed a large solitary drop of dark blood, like a deep wound.
And vanish from our sight
Chateau de Noirlac, next morning, April 25th
Ophelia made for the hall table. The coolness of the night lay trapped in the house. It seared her bare arms. Her soft espadrilles made no sound on the marble floor. There was so much to do. Augusto had underestimated her, but the thought gave her no satisfaction. He would be in Paris for the next few days, enough time to carry out her plan. She glanced at the long to-do list which she had kept in her pocket. Her silver-grey cat sidled up to her, his purr amplified in the morning quiet of the hall. He rubbed his silken flank against her leg. She picked up the telephone and dialled, listening for it to ring at the other end.
‘Si,’ a woman’s voice answered.
‘Ariana, dear child….yes, I’m fine, sort of. How are the children?…We have just had a prowler…in the barn… no, only the flowers….no, no, I’m fine, really. I chased him away… no, of course he wasn’t dangerous; it was just a boy… Your father? He’s going to Paris for a few days. Yes, Paris… no … on his own.’ At the other end of the line Ophelia heard children’s voices in the background. Her daughter shushed the children.
‘Maman, the twins are hoping around like excited fleas. We’re just off to the zoo and the car is waiting; you know what the traffic is like in Madrid at this time of the morning. I’ll call you back later.’
‘No… no … don’t do that. I’m going to be out and … about a lot … for a few days anyway. What? …When the cat’s away? Yes, I suppose you could say that. I’ll call you … as soon as I can. Yes, I promise. It might be a while, that’s all. Give my love to the kids.’ Ophelia hung up. Her only daughter; she could not burden her with what was happening here. She heard Zoffia in the kitchen. Now was not the time to come face to face with her. Her stomach could not take a crumb of breakfast. It felt hard; it pulled on her diaphragm. It’s the fear, she thought, the pure fear of what I’m about to do, but do it I will. She went to the chest of drawers that stood in the semi-darkness at the back of the hall, pulled out a telephone directory, sat down on the chair nearby and began her search.
The house was still. Augusto descended the stairs, softly, trying to dampen the click of heels on the marble steps. From the kitchen he heard the clutter of cups on saucers. Zoffia was preparing breakfast. He set down his travel case. The door stood ajar and he could see her move back and forth. She was wearing her white Indian dress with the flowers at the hem. Her bare feet sounded like small fish slapping on the stone floor and her unruly red hair, not yet brushed, cast a copper glow over her pale neck and shoulders.
Augusto stuck his head through the open door.
‘No time for breakfast,’ he smiled, ‘off to Paris. ‘Here,’ he held out a small piece of paper, ‘just in case.’
A smile flew across her lips as she took the note and tucked it into her sleeve. She opened her mouth, then closed it and the smile died as she glanced over his shoulder. Augusto turned, his eyes narrowed. Ophelia was standing in the hall, gazing at his travel cases. Augusto and Zoffia stared. Ophelia’s eyes seemed absent, unfocused, as if she was deciphering something in the far distance. She took one step towards them, then changed direction and began to climb the stairs. Against the light streaming in through the high window on the half landing her figure began to radiate and melt. The brightness swallowed her up as if she had never existed.
S I M P L E P O I S O N
Book 2 of THE LANGUEDOC TRILOGY
© Ata Burchardt 2016
published in 2016
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do
P r o l o g u e
The milky haze of dawn showed on the horizon. He looked back at the village. There it was, high up, the last house, his mother’s lair, brooding at the top of her terraced garden that cascaded down to the fortification wall high above the wild, dark waters. Was she sleeping? Probably not. A ribbon of white mist began to snake in the depth of the gorge.
There were no street lights on the path to Mount Septimanià. To his left a sunflower field, impenetrable as a forest, hugged the curve of the path. There was something human about their proportions as they stood to attention, round heads ready to face the first light, their arching leaves reaching out to each other, an army on parade. On a bank to his right, beyond a layer of shrubs, lay the convent’s cemetery. Here and there simple white crosses marking a grave reflected a little light. At the sharp bend of the path he glanced back to the cemetery gate. Next to it, in a narrow shrine, a candle flickered, illuminating a waxen face. A nun was kneeling, hands folded in prayer. She must have heard him; her head turned and he saw half a face bathed in candlelight, peering into the darkness in his direction.
After the bend the path steepened and the stones underfoot grew coarse; it was hard to see where his boot would land. He set down his bags and felt for his mobile. Its torch was enough to light his way up to the back of the Mount Septimanià chapel where he had left the car, hidden among the dense broom.
Ten years earlier
June. Victoire was back in Sainte Colombe for the summer. Early holiday breaks were the privilege of university professors. The heat had become fierce. From mid-morning until late afternoon people sheltered from the sun in the deepest shade of fig trees with a Grenadine or a citron pressé. The buzzing of insects interrupted conversations; hands waved, irritated, hoping to protect food from a host of flies which had multiplied in a few days. Villagers retreated for a siesta behind doors wide open, hung with curtains that wafted in a rare breath of air.
In the shadow of the church Marco made his way to the end of the winding street. To his left the school yard was deserted. Ahead lay the bridge leading to the convent. Minutes earlier a tidy line of primary school pupils had been ushered into the convent for their school lunch. Children who ate at home had drifted away. On the thick stone wall of the bridge a lizard sat basking in the heat, feet anchored in the cracks between the massive stones. Marco leaned over the edge of the wall. The hot stone burnt his palms. The raging spring waters of the gorge had shrunk to a meek stream in the last couple of weeks. Silver rivulets of water snaked their way around boulders, lying squat like lazy toads, glistening in the sun. One side of the bank was already scorched by the heat, on the other grasses and wild flowers had sprung up, now safe from the rushing river.
Marco heard a sound, twigs snapping underfoot. He leaned over further and saw a girl in a blue flowered dress, bending down, picking buttercups. She straightened up and raised her head, aware that someone was looking down on her. Marco recognized the pudding-basin haircut and the forget-me-not blue eyes.
‘Bonjour, Annette. What pretty flowers, who are they for?’
‘It’s Maman’s birthday.’
‘Are you giving her a nice present?’
The girl shook her head; her golden hair caught the light.
‘No. I don’t have any money. I’ll just give her the flowers.’
Marco felt in his pocket where a few coins had accumulated.
‘Would you like to buy her a special present?’
The girl nodded.
‘Perhaps I can help you?’ His fingers were pressing the coins in his pocket. ‘Wait, I’ll come down.’
He walked to the other end of the bridge to a small gap where he could climb down to the water’s edge. The descent was as steep as a playground slide. Sweet wrappers and paper had blown off the bridge and were trapped in the coarse grasses. Marco’s heart began to thump. He set foot onto the river bank. The light bounced off the wet boulders; it hurt his eyes.
‘I’ll help you pick lots more flowers, shall I? Your maman will have an enormous bunch for her birthday. Would you like that?’
The girl smiled and nodded. Annette was not a bright child. She was only nine but had already been held back in primary school twice since the age of five. The trusting child with the bright blue eyes was teased by the school boys, but she never retaliated. “There’s not a bad bone in that girl,” the old women in the village said.
‘Look,’ Marco indicated, ‘under the bridge. Those are much bigger.’
The girl skipped over some stones into the half-light under the stone arch. As she bent down her short dress rode up and Marco saw the white of her knickers. Deep inside of him something pulsed; something wild and urgent that had been kept cloistered in his room had escaped. No, he thought, but he was already following the girl and moved to stand behind her. He laid his arm around her. She turned abruptly and was staring at him with her blue eyes, confused. The sunlight reflecting off the water made them shine even brighter, here in the shadows. He cupped a hand under her tiny chin.
‘Your eyes are as blue as forget-me-not flowers,’ he whispered, ‘they deserve a bit of something extra, don’t you think? I’ll give you some money so you can buy a really nice present for your mother. Here,’ he held out the coins from his pocket.
A shy smile played on Annette’s face as she reached for them. Marco’s hand pulled back.
‘I had my birthday yesterday. I’m sixteen now, but I have no maman, no papa. I’m all alone.’ He squatted down so his face came level with hers. ‘But if I am nice to you, will you be nice to me?’ With that he pulled his hand further back, waving the coins.
‘What kind of nice?’
He noticed that she had a lisp.
‘A secret kind … so? Is that a deal then?’
Her eyes went to the hand holding the coins.
‘Yes,’ she nodded, ‘I promise.’
He stood up. His hand rested on her shoulder. How bony it felt, like a bird. He slipped the coins into his trouser pocket.
‘There is another place where I keep more money.’
The girl’s eyes fixed on his face, puzzled by what kind of favour he was asking of her. With a sudden move his hand gripped the back of her neck, with the other hand he unzipped his trousers, pulled her head close, closer, until she was breathing hard and began to struggle. But he held her fast now and the explosion he had longed for came at last. For a moment he relaxed his hold and the girl began squealing.
A woman’s voice came from above.
‘Who is there?’
‘It’s me … Annette,’ whimpered the girl. And Marco let her go.
He looked up. Victoire’s head appeared over the bridge wall. Her neck strained like the gargoyles’ on the church. He pulled back into the shadow of the bridge and pressed his back against the damp stone wall. He stuffed his shirt into his trousers.
The girl was trying to scramble up the river bank, slipping on the dry soil. She fell, rolled down again, her head hit hard on a boulder at the water’s edge.
Victoire came sliding down and rushed to kneel beside Annette.
Marco stood under the bridge, paralysed. The girl lay crumpled like a limp doll among the wet boulders. Victoire knelt by her side and cradled her head in the crook of her arm. She gestured to Marco with a blood-stained hand.
‘Go, for God’s sake, go. Don’t let her see you,’ she hissed as she tapped Annette’s cheek, softly calling her name.
Marco stepped past them and watched as Victoire splashed the girl’s face with water.
‘Annette, Annette, open your eyes. You fell, you’ve hurt your head.’
Annette tried to raise her head.
‘He came down, the flowers, he …’
‘You’ve hurt your head,’ Victoire continued. She gave Marco an angry stare.
‘He took me …,’ Annette’s limp hand indicated the bridge.
‘Now, now. There is no one here Annette, you’ve had a shock.’
Annette whimpered. ‘He did …’
‘Quiet now, Annette. You were picking flowers, you fell on a stone and hurt yourself, that’s all. There is nobody here.’
Victoire put her hand behind Annette’s back and again waved Marco away.
‘I‘ll take you to the doctor in a minute.’ She pressed the edge of her skirt to Annette’s bleeding gash. ‘It’s just a bit of blood.’
Marco waded upstream. At the bend of the river he turned to look back and watched, hidden by the trailing branches of a willow tree. The girl was sitting up and Victoire was talking to her, examining her head. After the next bend he struggled up from the gorge, grabbing the thorny bushes to the right and left of the steep overgrown track, finally heaving himself over Victoire’s garden wall. His arms were scratched bloody from the climb. He sank to the ground, exhausted. He stayed there, staring up into the sky, the gravel pricking his sweating skin through his thin shirt.
The church bells struck two. The children would be back in school, sitting down for afternoon lessons this very minute. He didn’t want to think about what had happened. What had driven him to seize Annette under the bridge? How could he explain this to Serge? His brother had always looked after him.
He was nine when meningitis had struck overnight and everything changed. The illness wiped part of his memory. The classroom became a place of terror for him. At the time Victoire’s father was the village school teacher, the strutting ogre at the front of the class. Frustrated in life, he had poured his wrath over two dozen children between the ages of five and eleven before they could escape his cruelty by going to a lycée or an agricultural college, depending on their academic abilities. The man governed by fear. He inflicted punishments on the pupils that no one could comprehend, yet no one dared to intervene, no one dared question the authority of the school teacher, the sole educator in the village. He was only one removed from the mayor and the notary, both of whom barely took second place to Monsieur le Curé, the nearest a man could get to God, or so he never ceased to remind his ever dwindling flock.
After his illness Serge had sat with Marco, night after night, reading, helping him to write numbers and the letters of the alphabet; reading, writing, additions, multiplications, everything had to be relearned and Marco made up lost ground and more. In the school yard Serge had protected him. When their father lost patience with his frail son, Serge had defended him fiercely, taking the beatings in his place. Never, never could he tell Serge about what happened under the bridge – the mere thought of it threatened to choke him. Victoire would sort it out. Educated people, they always knew what to do, what to say. Had she not told him to run for cover? At this moment he had no other wish than to lie there and watch the swallows and swifts criss-crossing high against the blinding midday light. His breathing was slowing. He closed his eyes.
Footsteps. A shadow fell over him.
‘Wake up. Marco. Get up,’ Victoire commanded.
He sat up. Leaning against the low wall that separated Victoire’s garden from a sheer drop into the gorge, he clenched his arms around his knees.
‘Listen to me.’ Victoire’s voice was a low hiss. ‘No one, no one must know about this or you’ll spend the rest of your life in jail. I’m not thinking of you. I’m doing this for your … family, for our village. And because you’re an orphan now, with no one to protect you.’
‘Thank you,’ Marco said meekly. Was she doing this for Serge, his good and clever older brother? Now that their father was dead it was a blessing that Serge was so much older than himself. His brother had had his sweet revenge when it came to Victoire’s father. Now, though he was not yet twenty eight years old, Serge was not only the village school master but also the school’s director. Patience and kindness, not terror and beatings, were the order of the day. Serge also sat on the village council, something that had been denied Victoire. Why would she be so keen to help? It didn’t make sense.
‘You listen to me – this is what happened. The girl had a fall,’ Victoire continued, ‘she bumped her head. You were not there.’ She stamped her foot. ‘Look at me.’
It was hard to meet her eyes.
‘Where were you? Marco? Answer me.’
‘I was not under the bridge.’
‘And what do you know about Annette?’
He had to think for a moment. What was it she wanted to hear?
‘I don’t know ….’
‘Precisely. You know nothing,’ Victoire interrupted, ‘you heard she had an accident, by the bridge. You heard it from me, I told you.’
He gave a faint nod.
‘Annette had an accident, by the bridge. You told me.’
‘And you were here, all day, working in my garden, do you hear?’ She made to walk away. ‘Just so you know, I took her to the doctor’s surgery. He says she is concussed. She didn’t say a word to him about you or what happened by the river. She didn’t see you walk away. Let’s hope she doesn’t remember.’
Marco’s head sank down.
‘Clément is taking the overnight train from Paris. He is bringing some important people. But you’ll have to make up time now with the garden jobs.’
On the few occasions Marco had met Victoire’s husband Clément he had felt his calming influence on her. Perhaps with his return everything would be forgotten by tomorrow.
Victoire went to sit on the low wall and heaved a sigh. ‘How could my grandmother let this garden become so wild? It’s going to take years to get it into shape.’ She indicated one of the raised beds to one side. ‘Over there, all that needs trimming, and clearing away. I want to be able to see those roses, every single plant, and don’t leave a single weed around them. That’ll explain the scratches on your arms. It might be a good idea to show Clément how much work you’ve done, don’t you think, just in case. However, you will have to go to confession.’
‘I can’t …I can’t tell the curé.’
‘You’ll have to or you’ll rot in hell.’ She set off towards the house. ‘I don’t care how you tell the priest, but you must confess your crime before God.’
‘Yes,’ Marco muttered. He picked up the garden tools. ‘Why are you doing this, covering up for me?’ he called after her.
She stopped, glanced over her shoulder.
‘Are you complaining? I have my reasons. Just watch that I don’t change my mind.’
Marco’s mind was racing. What was she planning for him? Whatever it was, in his heart he knew that from now on he would be her pawn, to do with as she pleased.
Through the lace curtain of her bedroom Victoire watched Marco struggle to dig out the wild plants that had invaded everything since her grandmother had died. The boy was timid and slight for his age but strong enough to work the garden. He would be easy to manage after today’s incident. He was sixteen but could pass for fourteen. There was no telling what he had done under the bridge; none of the girl’s clothing had been interfered with. Admittedly, she had not actually seen anything, but the look of child-like guilt on Marco’s face had spoken volumes about what he had done, or had intended to do. Perhaps today had been a blessing in disguise. Employing him as gardener would keep him off the village streets; he would work for little money doing the ground work while she and Clément were still teaching in Paris. With every year the wait to return to her village, to the house she had inherited, became more unbearable. Somehow, knowing that her father was just a village away, up there in the dark mountains, no longer troubled her as much as in earlier years. There was of course the constant anxiety of how to erase what he had done from the memories of the villagers. But with him confined in the asylum, banished forever, she would turn her grandmother’s house into a home filled with light, the overgrown garden into a small paradise, sitting atop the old fortifications with views to die for.
She had been to see her father, made her perfunctory early summer visit only to find herself sitting opposite him, being glared at in stony silence. She had uttered a few banalities; there was no way of reaching into his world of deep, brooding anger. She had sat patiently, counting the minutes, staying for a full hour to give the impression that she cared. Her mother had gone to live with her younger sister in a small fishing village near the Italian border and refused to visit her husband whose rages she had suffered for years. And yet, on the way home, Victoire had suddenly pulled into a lay-by and burst into uncontrollable, suffocating sobs. It took her half an hour to compose herself before she felt safe to drive home. After all these years of life in Paris, her father’s disapproval, however deranged now, still wounded her to the quick. Would the shame of what had brought him to the asylum ever die down?
She was weary of city life. Clément’s university colleagues, all eminent professors with their emancipated Parisian wives, were so demanding. Behind her back some whispered that “Victoire has no conversation”. Though a professor of Spanish herself, she had not reached the academic heights of Clément and his colleagues. She had never gone beyond teaching the freshers each year. Around the dinner table she couldn’t compete with the best brains of academia in their cerebral debates. She contrived to invite them to dine in the top floor, turn-of-the-century apartment that Clément rented, rather than accept their invitations, so she could busy herself with the food in her own kitchen during the endless evenings. After dinner Clément would open the four French windows from the dining room to the terrace she had planted with trailing geraniums, clematis and wisterias. While the guests marvelled at the view onto a leafy Parisian square below she could get away to clear up the kitchen with the help of her maid and prepare a tray with fine chocolates and tiny glasses of Calvados or Drambuie liqueur. Clément’s friends were fond of their digestif ritual.
From her window Victoire gazed across the overgrown garden. Marco was getting down to work. She would have him reconstruct some of the terraces, let them sweep all the way down to the medieval village fortification wall, build over the access to the old disused public path in order to extend her garden. Though forbidden by successive mayoral decrees, many villagers had done so and no one ever came to check. There was no way she would tolerate a right of way across her garden. Right at the bottom, on the lowest of the terraces, the ancient low wall would have to be repaired; some stones of the top edge were missing. She could already see herself, sitting on it, having captured the best views the village had to offer. Here was something which would stir up the envy of the Parisians. The sooner she could turn her grandmother’s house and garden into a beautiful home, the easier it would be to persuade Clément to give up Paris for a life in the sun. She had time on her side; it might be another ten years before they could bow out from their highly paid university professorships.
For an instant she almost felt pity for Marco, orphaned so young with only a brother and an ageing aunt nearby to protect him. “That boy wouldn’t hurt a fly,” everyone in the village said so. Only she knew they were wrong. After today he would do her bidding.
She went to stand in front of her armoire mirror, turning her head to the side to search her temples for greying hairs. It’s our Latin blood, she reflected, we blossom earlier than the Northerners, but we ripen earlier too, until we drop off the tree, bruised and wrinkled from life in the scorching light of the South. The sunburnt cleavage was the first to show a woman’s age. She unbuttoned her dress, ran her hand over her breast bone. On other women she had thought the creased skin not unlike the rear of an elephant; soon it would be happening to her. She cupped her hands under her breasts and lifted and pushed them together – there, that’s how her cleavage would look in a few years.
Though her midriff had spread a little, there was still a good waist. An expanding waistline was the price she was paying for entertaining their Paris friends and colleagues. No, she would not allow herself to go the way of other women of her age. In future the solution lay in portion control. She had to sip her wine more slowly, eat more slowly, while filling the glasses and plates of others. The trick was never to be seen with an empty plate or an empty glass. Clément and his friends would be arriving in the morning. She heard the front door. Sabette had finished her chores and was leaving. She had been polishing floors and ironing sheets all day.
Night fell. Bats were swooping around the church tower. Marco had carried on working until after nightfall. Now, avoiding the pools of orange haze cast by the street lamps, he tiptoed down to his house to brew himself a strong coffee. There was a hole in his stomach and it wasn’t hunger. He didn’t sleep.
The church clock struck seven. As every morning, Marco made his way to the boulangerie for his fresh ficelle. Across the monument square Marcel, the old grocer, was doing his yearly balancing act on an old ladder, repainting his sun-bleached sign. After a long summer and a short dry winter no more than the first four letters of the word EPICERIE were legible. One of these days Marcel would topple off the ladder, leaving the village with a shop simply called EPIC. Best not to wave to him, Marco thought. Keep still, unnoticed for a while.
At the baker’s Colette was wrapping two baguettes for old Antoine. ‘Imagine, she fell down all the way to the river, wanted to pick flowers. Victoire tells me she’s quite confused, what with the concussion and the shock. She’ll be off school until that nasty gash on her head heals.’
‘Just the sort of thing Annette would do,’ old Antoine remarked, ‘not the brightest little light in our village, is she?’
‘Ficelle, Marco?’ Colette reached for the bread sticks in the big basket standing upright under a rack filled with rolls. ‘I expect Victoire told you, about Annette?’
‘She did. Poor thing,’ Marco muttered. It would be the topic of the day. So Victoire had already put her version of the incident around the village. He should have felt relieved but somehow he didn’t. ‘I didn’t get off my knees in her garden yesterday. She wanted the roses absolutely perfect before Clément and his friends arrive this morning.’ Marco laid his coins on the glass counter. He lifted his arms, showed the bloody scratches. ‘This is what I got for my pains.’
The women in the queue tut-tutted.
‘You know what she’s like,’ Marco said with a sigh.
‘Mmm.’ Colette pressed her lips together and rolled her eyes. She could not be seen to complain openly about her customers.
‘I didn’t get a chance to hear the whole story,’ Marco added as he left the bakery.
‘Poor boy, only sixteen,’ Colette watched him go. ‘His mother dead when he was small, then his meningitis. Who would have thought his father would die so soon and leave the boy living alone in that big house. It’ll be years before we’ll see him married. It was his sixteenth birthday two days ago; Serge asked me to make a birthday cake for him with a football of all things on top of it. He’s really still a child. Victoire is working him much too hard.’
Marco crossed over the Place de l’Eglise. The early morning sun felt good on his face. He pushed the church portal. On the right, against the wall, just before the defunct baroque pulpit, the hollow confession cubicles, purple velvet curtains drawn back, waited to trap their prey. To set foot into these coffin-shaped spaces would be like leaping into a black void from which he would never return. He was relieved to know that Monsieur le Curé would not be waiting for sinners at this time of the morning. The village priest was probably still snoring in bed. Marco imagined the rotund figure on his back in washed-out underwear, his paunch pointing to the ceiling like a loaf of bread that had risen too quickly.
He wandered to the front of the church and faced the altar. It was quiet; the night had not yet left this vast space. Marco shivered at the thought that long ago, perhaps as far back as the Middle Ages, his ancestors had stood in the exact same spot, perhaps like himself now, having a sin on their conscience that they could not bring themselves to confess.
For the first four hundred years the building had been a wealthy monastery before being turned into a church. The richest village women were buried under the altar of the Virgin. In his great-grandfather’s youth around two thousand people had huddled close together, mostly in the squat, overcrowded artisan’s houses at the bottom of the village, many of which had become holiday homes for their descendants or simply been left to fall down. Monsieur Lagarde’s grand house by the upper bridge and similar ones which surrounded the church were for the masters and the mill owners. Old Ermine Perec’s house had been part of the old chateau, now long gone. Marco tried to imagine the stream of pious villagers, looking old before their time from hard labour, pouring through the portal for Sunday mass after a week of back-breaking work in the vineyards or in the mills powered by the gorge waters. With its high vaulted nave and the richly decorated columns, the church’s proportions were far too ostentatious for the five or six hundred remaining villagers of Sainte Colombe – most had given up on going to church altogether except for funerals. Sunday mass, now broadcast on television in the French language, was more colourful than the mass held by the village priest in his ash covered old suit and battered beret which he often forgot to remove. His mumbled sermon in Latin was followed by the usual reprimands of the villagers, as if they were ignorant children. Only those who offered gifts of food and other luxuries which he expected at Christmas, New Year and Easter could gain his approval.
Marco did not know what to do. His guilt weighed heavy on his shoulders, trapped his breath between his ribs.
‘Why did Maman die so young?’ Marco asked in a hushed voice, and now Papa. With Aunt Amaline’s help he had somehow got used to growing up without a mother, but his father’s death just six months ago had turned his life into a searing loneliness. He was alone in the house, alone with a silence more deafening than the gorge waters after a storm.
In the semi-darkness, on the left of the altar, stood the life-size statue of Saint Peter. Its face of fine marble, painted in delicate colours, was smooth as wax; the life-like eyes gazed intently at Marco. The red Caunes marble, with its fine veining, made the statue’s long, gold-edged robe flow almost like velvet. A lion, carved in white marble, leaned its flank against the saint’s leg. The beast had a savage grin; its teeth had been cut into sharp points, long claws protruded from the powerful paws. The saint’s left hand rested on the lion’s head as though it were a tame dog. Marco reached and stroked the hand. It moved. He stumbled backwards as if he’d touched a live wire. Was this a sign, and what of? He approached the statue again, tested the marble fingers. The hand shifted; it was loose. Someone must have broken it, slipped it back under the edge of the draped sleeve, hoping it would not be discovered. He looked around. He was alone. He gently eased the cold hand out. It sent a shiver through him. This is a holy object, he thought, as holy as the rest of the church. Long ago someone had sculpted a rough piece of stone into this exquisite shape with the most perfect fingers. The hand would have to be stuck back on, but who would do it? On a sudden impulse, he slipped it into the inside pocket of his work jacket. In churches people prayed to relics, fragments of bones, trapped in tiny glass coffins, said to belong to one saint or another, didn’t they? Saint Peter’s hand would be his very own relic; he would bring it back, some day.
He made for the church portal, holding the marble hand fast inside his pocket. As he reached the heavy door there was a faint whimper coming from beneath the defunct pulpit, now cordoned off. As he approached the dark corner he spotted a cardboard box bound with string. Something inside the box was moving. There was the noise again, no more than a small whine. Gently Marco knelt down and lifted the lid a fraction. From inside a pair of dark brown eyes looked out. Someone had abandoned a puppy. Sunday mass was four days away. There was no way the young animal could survive until then. Its brown fur looked unkempt but on seeing Marco a tiny tail began drumming in the small space.
Ten years later
‘Marco.’ Victoire’s voice coming from the house was sharp. Marco knew the tone.
‘I know, I know,’ Marco mumbled under his breath, ‘let me know who pays my wages.’ He had been forced to offer his services to others in secret. A few days earlier the rumour that he had been seen gardening for Monsieur Lagarde had infuriated Victoire. The largest village house by the upper bridge, with Louis XIV architectural ornaments and a splendid formal garden falling in terraces down into the gorge, was a thorn in her side. A gavatch she had called Lagarde, an outsider from the North.
‘Traitor, Marco, you are no better than a traitor,’ she had spat on her way down from the upper terrace to come to a stop on the level just above him.
‘These people, they come here and lord it over … you.’
Her point was not lost on Marco. They would never dare look down on her, but on him, a simple villager who had left school at fifteen and was now no more than a manual labourer in her eyes. The argument had left him drained.
‘Madame Victoire,’ he had tried to reason with her, ‘it’s impossible to live on the salary you pay me. I have to light and heat my house in winter seven days a week, just like you. I don’t get cheaper electricity because I only work four days a week, and I have to eat and keep my car running, somehow.’
‘Your father’s house is too big. You don’t need all those rooms,’ she had interrupted harshly. ‘Get a smaller house, you’re not married, not likely to be so now. No girl would want you for a husband if she found out what I know, don’t you think?’
She would never let him forget. How often had she taunted him, threatened to expose him over the years?
‘The house is all I’ve got in the world. It’s a beautiful building. I could never move. My father would turn in his grave if I were to sell it.’ In his mind’s eye he could still see the look in Victoire’s eyes at the word ‘sell’.
‘Have you ever thought,’ she suddenly said almost sweetly, ‘about how much easier life would be in one of those little terracotta bungalows up there on the hill outside the village, with all the comfort of central heating, no more carrying coal or chopping wood for the winter?’
Always on the hunt for houses for her friends, no change there, he realised. He had heard her telling them, “Just imagine, you’d sit on the terrace with a glass of wine.” That was the dream she was dangling in front of the Parisians. Of course his home would be a prize catch. The house looked out on the leafy church square; the high rooms, with their covings and opulent ceiling roses, were airy and filled with light all day. The entrance hall had a fine vaulted ceiling. From the wide terrace at the back of the house there was a breath-taking view over the garrigue and the Pyrenees beyond. It would be enough to seduce even the most unromantic of Victoire’s friends.
Marco’s great-grandfather had been mayor of the village when the water wheels of the mills in the gorge were still churning day and night. He had remodelled the family home, turned it from a plain village house into a maison bourgeoise, a building fit for a mayor. The date on the triangular pediment above the main door said 1902. The window and door surrounds, adorned with scrolls and corbels, were a testament to the family’s importance. Below and to the left of the rear terrace, Mediterranean oaks reached for the tossing waters below; they had been planted nearly two hundred years ago by his family. On the other side of the terrace a fig tree spread its broad leaves to give much needed shade during the summer months. When the figs hung heavy and soft, Marco carried trays of the purple fruit to Mélanie’s grocery shop for a little extra income. Autumn brought the mushrooms. Winters were not so kind; he had to search the communal forest near Marjac for wood he could dry out under the terrace and sell as kindling at the Christmas market. It was a hand-to-mouth existence but no amount of money would make him sell the house.
‘Well? Are you thinking about it? You’d get a good price for your house. If I sell it for you there won’t be any agency fees to pay.’ Victoire stood over him, arms crossed, expecting an answer. He gave none. With a dismissive shrug she returned to the upper terrace. She let herself fall into one of the garden loungers and lit one of her black Russian cigarettes. It occasionally dawned on her that the people of her native village were no easier to control than the Parisian intellectuals. Here she would have to find new ways to get what she wanted.
Marco glanced around the garden. All this had been ten years of his labour. The raised flower beds, the potager filled with herbs and vegetables, the paths laid with pale Provence stone, the steps that swept up in a graceful curve from one level to the next. What if he had been master of this house? Victoire had paid him a minimum rate on the pretext that villagers have to stick together, to render each other services for the sake of their century-old traditions and loyalties. So why then was she trying to bring the Parisians into the village?
‘You’ll see,’ Mélanie warned from behind her shop counter, ‘when our old village houses have all become second homes for her friends, they’ll choose Sainte Colombe as their primary residence to avoid paying the high Paris taxes. Then they’ll have the vote in our elections and Victoire won’t need any of us anymore.’ Mélanie had recently taken over her father’s ailing épicerie and had invested her savings to refit the shop. ‘And I for one will have no shop, because they’ll drive to the supermarkets.’ A hand gesture as if she was tossing something overboard said it all. ‘And then, ploof,’ she whispered, ‘no cheese, no wine, no fruit or anything else for the rest of the village.’ Mélanie indicated the square outside her shop where nearby residents parked their cars by the Monument to the Fallen. ‘I can see them now when they’re here for their holidays. They come back from the supermarkets in town, trying to hide their shopping from me.’
‘Marco. I haven’t got all day.’ Victoire stood in the open door leading to her dining room.
He reached the upper terrace.
‘You took your time.’
‘I’ve had to turn over the soil of the rose beds at the bottom. It’s heavy work for my back.’
‘Never mind your back.’ Victoire waved her hand as if he was a tiresome insect to be brushed away. ‘You have to cut a new path, along the left side of the terrace, all the way down, just wide enough to squeeze through. Someone, probably one of the gavatches, the new people, has made trouble at the mayor’s offices about not having access to the river in the gorge,’ she huffed, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that woman. She’ll probably come knocking, demanding access, just to make the point.’ She was referring to the English woman who had bought the defunct mill beyond the village gate.
‘Tressa you mean?’
Victoire had taken an instant dislike to the bucksome woman.
‘Why would she?’ Marco suppressed a grin, ‘she’s got her own garden. Her meadow is in the nicest part of the gorge.’
‘She meddles with everything, thinks she’s got a right to change the way we’ve always done things.’
‘Complaints about access to the path are nothing new,’ Marco said, ‘they’ll soon calm down when they see how the thorn bushes have invaded everything. When I go fishing down there I have to wade up-river from the old flour mill.’
‘Well, don’t tell anyone about that or else we’ll have them all crawling around spying on us. You know perfectly well that we’ve all built our gardens over the communal path along the gorge. Everyone knows it’s illegal.’
‘The path is still accessible under my terrace, Serge makes sure of that.’
‘Oh, your clever, clever brother. Perhaps I’ll come round to your house tomorrow to try it out. We’re all as guilty as each other, so no one can point the finger at anyone,’ Victoire retorted. ‘For the moment, cut it to a foot’s width, no more, trim the shrubs a bit at the back so they don’t poke anyone’s eyes out. If someone comes knocking they’re welcome to break their neck trying to get down to the water.’ She turned back into the house.
Marco nodded. Victoire didn’t want to be caught out. ‘I’ll do it this afternoon,’ he nodded. ‘Have you thought about putting a rail on the bottom wall?’ he called after her.
He returned to his work on the lowest level of the garden. It was the most beautiful of them all. It had been built right out to the medieval fortification perimeter. No more than a knee high wall now stood between the gravelled semi-circle of the last terrace and a sheer drop, straight down to the wild water strewn with jagged boulders. He had long argued with Victoire that the wall was too low, that he should install a safety rail.
‘I like sitting on that wall,’ she called, ‘no one has ever fallen into the gorge from here. My grandfather sat there, so did my father.’ A sudden memory shot into her mind. The day her father found out that he would be sent to the asylum he had climbed onto the low wall and strutted up and down on it, arms stretched wide and head thrown back, staring up into the sun, singing Ave Maria. The entire family had run screaming into the garden. Her grandmother had collapsed and was never the same again. The next morning men in white coats came and dragged him away and it felt as though the light had returned to the house.
‘Anyway,’ Victoire had insisted the last time Marco had reminded her, ‘now this is all mine. I won’t let you spoil the view. The best painter could not have imagined such a panorama. But people like you …what do you know about art?’
Marco held his tongue. Was this garden he had made for her not a work of art?
Victoire had wept when her father had died, up there, out of sight of the villagers, in that home in the mountains where they put those whose minds no longer grasped the consequences of their actions. The asylum had not alerted her that he was dying. Perhaps those taking care of him had judged that a family that rarely visited would feel relief when such a burdensome relative died. The morning after his death, when they had called, she drove up the winding roads alone to the remote village of Marjac. He had always hated the way the dark mountains folded themselves around the villages up there. He had grown up in the last house of Sainte Colombe, high above the gorge with the rolling vineyards to the East and the snow-capped Pyrenees to the South.
When she had arrived that day at the asylum the building smelled of old people and stale food. The blue speckled lino running along the corridor had recently been mopped; the disinfectant used was no match for the odour of urine which increased as she approached the room where they had laid out his body. The nurse made a move to enter with her. Victoire found herself unable to make a sound but signalled that she wanted to be alone.
Many had been frightened of her father, even before insanity struck its final blow. His moods could change from peaceable to raging in seconds for no apparent reason. When she was not yet in school he would bounce her on his knee and indulge her, but as she grew he began to inflict the raw, unpredictable punishments on her that he dished out to the other school children. A strawberry eaten between meals was a crime. More than once she had been made to sit at the dinner table with her hands tied behind her back for a whole day, forced to watch the family eating meals. Something deep inside her still churned at the thought of it.
By the time she was seven years old fear had made her wary. In the afternoons she would have to calculate when it was safe to cross his path. Before dinner was a bad time, unless he had been to the café for his apéritif. By the way he would slam the door on his return she could tell whether he’d had one of his frequent arguments with someone over a drink and she would contrive to enter the dining room at the very moment when the soup was ready to be served. After dinner, when he sank into a digestive stupor she was safe, unless he had picked a quarrel with his wife at table, scolding her for putting too much or too little salt into the dishes. Then came the incident that changed everything.
One morning her raging father had grabbed a boy by his jacket and dangled him out of the first floor window of the tall school house. For Victoire’s mother it was the final straw; she removed her daughter from the Sainte Colombe school. From then on Victoire endured her father’s vitriolic criticism for not coming first in all subjects in her new school. There was a constant implication that she would never attain the position of school teacher as he had. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she felt that whatever she did her father would never think her good enough. It was this that drove her on in her university years at which point he missed no opportunity to imply that the only reason she had been accepted was because of her physical attributes and that no doubt every course director and professor hoped to seduce her. In her father’s eyes she had not merited the place on the strength of her intelligence and hard work. She’d had good reason to hate her father, that difficult, violent man who had left her with an inexplicable anger whenever he was mentioned.
Aunt Amaline had heard Marco’s car puttering up the steep road by the village cemetery. Her house sat high on the hill, surrounded by a cluster of tall umbrella pines populated by her flock of peacocks. Her scarf fluttered in the breeze as she waved from the edge of the lawn. Marco waved back through the open car window. It was to his aunt that he came for warmth and love after his mother had died; there wasn’t a thing in the world that he could not tell his aunt, with the exception of the one event that had bound him to Victoire these last ten years.
Victoire’s richest friends would give their eye-teeth for Aunt Amaline’s house, Marco mused as he turned off the main road onto the stony lane leading to his aunt’s property, though whether a new owner would be able to shift her peacocks was another matter altogether. They were territorial birds, they chose their habitat and there wasn’t a finer place for them for miles; Amaline had inherited them with the house.
His car whirled up a cloud of dust as it came to a halt under the pines. Before he had time to open the door two peacocks flew down and jostled for space on the car bonnet. Their beady eyes and cold stare had frightened him when he was a boy. Whenever he had tried to shoo them out of his way their sharp peck on his bare legs would send him running. Giving way or retreating was not in their nature.
He got out of the car. There was a commotion in the trees above him and a male and a female landed at his feet. The male paraded back and forth as if to show off his hen.
‘Alors, César, got yourself a girlfriend, have you?’
Marco’s aunt crossed over from the house and embraced him. As she did so another half dozen birds rushed towards them.
‘They’ve been so excited in the last few days,’ Amaline said. ‘I don’t know what it is. The day before yesterday Titus chased a viper into the undergrowth and killed it. Then he ate it. César got into a terrible fight with him this morning.’ She indicated the strutting male. ‘He should know better, he’s nearly thirty years old. The two of them were leaping high into the air. I had to separate them with my garden rake. In the end Titus beat a retreat; he flew to the top of the pines and screamed his head off as though someone had stabbed him. I’m sure he could be heard in Spain,’ she chuckled. ‘There, and now he wants to make up with me.’ She gently stroked the shimmering plumage of the male. ‘People never think of peacocks as flying birds, but with a couple of wing beats they are up on the highest tree. Their wings are so strong they could knock you down if you got in their way.’
‘Perhaps it’s the weather or are they all in love?’
‘Look how he fusses over his girl, you’d think he was a soppy teenager,’ Amaline laughed. ‘For once I have lots of females to go round but if this carries on I’ll have to find a way of keeping the boys apart or sell one of them.’ She wagged her finger at the two warring males. ‘Just watch it. Come on, Marco, let’s have a glass of Muscat.’ Marco and his aunt sauntered over to the house, followed by a procession of the birds.
‘They’re after their treats. All they do is eat, eat and eat. If I don’t give them anything for an hour they all try and get onto my window sill and make such a racket I can’t get any peace. When the weather is so nice all my windows are open. I’ve got a job to stop them from jumping into the salon at the moment.’ Amaline’s salon looked out onto the pines. The tall window was wide open and as they entered the room they were greeted by half a dozen peacocks peering in from outside, eager to be fed. From a box by the window Amaline picked a handful of dried fruit and seeds.
‘No fighting, take your turn.’ She fed each one a morsel of fruit, starting with the largest male and finishing with the small females.
‘Hierarchy, that’s what they understand. That’s why I named the boys after Roman emperors.’ Amaline turned to Marco. ‘You’re very quiet. Is something the matter?’
At her words Marco suddenly burst into tears. He sank onto Amaline’s divan and buried his head in his hands. His aunt went to sit beside him and put her arm around his shoulders.
‘Tell me, I’m sure we can put it right.’
‘I can’t explain,’ Marco wept.
‘So? If you weren’t going to tell me why did you come?’
Marco gathered himself, wiped his face with his sleeve.
‘It’s Victoire.’ It would have felt so good to be able to tell his aunt why Victoire had such a hold on him. ‘The elections for mayor and the village council are still a whole year away and she’s already all worked up.’
‘Huh. Léon Pennac, the old dog. He may be getting on in years but he still has plenty of fire in his belly,’ Amaline chuckled, ‘and not only when he sits behind his polished mayor’s desk.’
‘I heard, I heard.’ Marco wiped his eyes. ‘His wife is the only one who doesn’t seem to know why he’s always popping up to Liliane’s house to check on council business, or so he says.’
‘I’m surprised Victoire hasn’t tried her charms on him.’
Marco shook his head. ‘I don’t think she could bring herself to seduce that man, he’s too old, but she intends to destroy him all the same. She’s definitely gearing up to undermine her rivals in good time.’
Warnings of dire consequences if Marco were to gossip about what went on in her house now rained down on him daily.
Amaline gave a deep sigh. ‘That woman. Since the day she was born her father fed her nothing but hatred and now she has a belly full of it.’
She leaned over to look into Marco’s eyes. ‘Look at me. Why do you still work for her? God knows her father was cruel enough to you when he was your school teacher and she doesn’t seem much better.’
Marco knew he could tell neither his brother Serge nor Aunt Amaline what he had done to Annette under the bridge that day. He stared at the floor. ‘She knows something about me, from long ago … I haven’t even told Serge. It could cost him his job.’
‘Everyone does something stupid or something they regret or are ashamed of, especially when they’re young, but that’s no reason to become someone’s slave.’
‘She won’t let go of me, accusing me all the time of gossiping about what goes on with her husband, why he’s constantly disappearing to Paris … and all the trouble with Didier. That boy is totally out of control. Because she wants to run for mayor again she’s frantic. It took me a long time to see her game. She digs around for people’s secrets just to get a hold over them. I heard her whispering with Clément about sending Didier away, somewhere, anywhere, but he won’t go. Her own son is blackmailing her with something, and she’s … blackmailing me.’
Amaline rose, went over to the window and gently stroked one of the little peahens. ‘God help us all if she ever gets to be mayor.’
‘How can you stop her?’ Marco sounded utterly defeated.
‘Don’t forget your my Euric was mayor, twice. There wasn’t a more honourable man than your uncle. We were the envy of the surrounding villages.’ She came back to perch beside him on the divan. ‘Don’t worry, there are ways and means, and I know what they are. Now, let’s have that Muscat and then I’ll cook us a nice lunch.’ Amaline went into the kitchen. ‘Could you bring in some wood?’ she called. ‘I’ll fire up the range and make us a soufflé and braised buttered leeks or would you prefer roasted vegetables and lamb?’
Marco jumped up from the divan. Just talking to someone had made him feel better. He ran over to the shed, loaded up the small wheelbarrow and started to push it towards Amaline’s side door. On the path a car came to a sharp halt, causing the birds to flutter into the lower branches of the pines. It was Victoire. She was wearing a florid, figure-hugging low-cut dress and a heavy necklace. She struggled out of her car and stood in her high heels for a few moments as if waiting for someone to hurl a coat to the ground to let her step onto it to preserve her shoes.
‘Victoire? Are you looking for me?’ Marco set down the wheelbarrow. She strode towards him. From her stance it was clear that she was on the war path. His heart pounded against his ribcage.
‘Marco! There you are! I’ve been searching the village for you. And what are you doing? Working for other people again.’
‘Victoire, this is my aunt. I just….’
‘You just, you’re always just … doing this or that when I want you.’
Amaline was coming towards them.
‘Victoire, leave my nephew alone. If he helps me that’s nothing to do with you. He’s here for lunch.’
‘Having logs for lunch, are you? Roast or stewed? Give me the recipe sometime.’
‘Calm down, Victoire, you’re as excited as my birds. What is the matter with everyone?’ Amaline shook her head. ‘What right do you have to ….’
Victoire’s face turned red. ‘It’s not for Marco to gallivant about the village. He’s my gardener and no one else’s. Besides, why don’t you ask him why that is?’
Marco flinched. Was she going to bring up the story about Annette now or was she just fishing to see if his aunt knew about it?
‘Honestly, Victoire, I was just taking some logs in so we can cook. If you need me I’ll be straight down after lunch.’
‘Excuses, nothing but excuses. Will you never learn?’ Her agitated tone had attracted a number of the peacocks; they surrounded her, fixing her with steely curiosity. The hens huddled together behind the males like dutiful wives seeing their men off to battle.
Victoire took a couple of steps back.
‘Call off your … vultures.’
‘They’ve not been known to eat people, yet.’ Amaline gently pushed the birds aside.
Victoire shifted on her high heels. ‘They always look so outraged, so suspicious.’
In your case, Amaline mused, they might have good reason. ‘Come inside. Let’s have a glass of Muscat. I don’t know what upsets you so. Are you angry with the mayor again?’
It wasn’t the first time that Amaline had witnessed Victoire’s frantic efforts to get elected. The aim today was to pacify her, to persuade her to leave Marco alone. Amaline took Victoire by the arm and guided her towards the house. She showed Victoire into the salon; the birds were jostling to peer into the room through the open window.
‘They’re always hungry. Here, Victoire, give them some pumpkin seeds, you’ll see, they won’t harm you, as long as you feed the big male there first. If he behaves they all follow his lead.’ She handed Victoire a few seeds from the box by the window. Victoire scattered them on the outside window sill and quickly withdrew to the centre of the room.
Marco poured the golden Muscat into three glasses and handed one to Victoire. Their eyes met. She’s still fuming, he realized, she’s just pretending to be polite. He went to sit in his uncle’s old leather armchair. Years had gone by since Uncle Euric’s death but the scent of his cigars still oozed from the armrests polished to a shine by his old bony hands.
‘Sit down, Victoire.’ Amaline indicated the divan.
Marco bit his lip. What on earth could they talk about? ‘On second thought, Aunt Amaline,’ he rose, ‘I think I won’t stay for lunch.’ He emptied his glass. ‘I promised to post a parcel for Serge as soon as the Post Office opens at two o’clock.’ He glanced at Victoire. ‘I’ll be at your house straight after that.’ He kissed his aunt, nodded at Victoire and left the house. He crossed to the pines and glanced over his shoulder. Through the open window he saw Victoire on the divan, sitting up so straight one would have thought she’d swallowed a broom. Without switching on the engine he let his car cruise down the lane; three peacocks swooped from the pines and escorted him to the main road.
Amaline settled in the armchair Marco had vacated. ‘Stop harassing my nephew. God knows he’s had enough misfortune in his life with his illness and his mother dying when he was so young.’
‘I expect some … loyalty from him.’
‘He is loyal, to you more than to anyone. The way you treat him I often wonder why.’
‘I also expect gratitude.’
Amaline was aghast. ‘For what? Just because you let him work for you for a pittance?’
‘Huh. Have you never asked yourself what he’s done to deserve that?’
‘And you,’ Amaline interrupted sharply, ‘what is it that you have done? You’re a bully. All I hear is that you’re digging around for the dirt on your rivals. For heaven’s sake, the elections aren’t until next year and you’re already bad-mouthing everyone.’ She picked up the newspaper from the coffee table and waved it at Victoire. ‘Your letters to L’Occitan about Léon Pennac and the village council are pathetic. I’d be the first to say he’s not the best mayor we’ve ever had, that was my Euric, but even so. A child can see through your shenanigans. You can fool a lot of people, but not me. In all the villages around here people are starting to call you a mad woman, some say you’re going the same way as your father.’
‘Your nephew …’
‘My nephew,’ Amaline interrupted. She rose, went over to the window and held out some seeds to a young peahen, ‘whatever small sins Marco may have committed, I’m sure they’re nothing compared to yours.’
‘Your nephew,’ Victoire hissed, ‘I caught him under the convent bridge, ten years ago, with little Annette.’
Amaline turned and fixed her gaze on Victoire. ‘And? Two children? Is that something worth gossiping about?’
‘He was … in the middle of … abusing her,’ Victoire took a deep breath, ‘or at least, going to,’ she added, triumphant.
‘Huh,’ Amaline exclaimed, ‘you would have put the Grand Inquisitor to shame.’
There was total silence; even the peacocks at the window seemed to have frozen.
‘Ten years ago Marco was barely sixteen, still a child, and an orphan. His father had just died. If you think,’ Amaline continued, ‘that you can enslave him for life because of something you didn’t even see with your own eyes you are mistaken. My Euric grew up with your father. I read my husband’s diaries. And before you think of it, no, you won’t find them in this house. My sons took them when they moved to Argentina to set up their vineyards, but I can have access to them anytime I want. Isn’t email wonderful these days?’
‘How dare you bring my father into this?’
‘Oh,’ Amaline smiled, ‘your father has everything to do with this. You obviously don’t know what he got up to with the little girls in the village, and the young boys. It didn’t seem to matter which to him. And it all started again after he was removed from his post as school teacher, the year before your mother had him locked up in the asylum. There would be plenty of people in this village to give evidence, in case….’ Amaline turned her back on Victoire and continued to feed the greedy birds. ‘The thought of you sitting in the same chair as my Euric and misusing the mayor’s office for your own purposes turns my stomach. Never, never ever, I will see to it, and if you do, it will be over my dead body.’
Victoire slowly rose from the divan and pulled herself up to her full height. Her eyes fell on the Muscat bottle on the coffee table. The peacocks’ heads shifted; they watched as she reached for it. Three silent steps on the Persian rug and she stood behind Amaline. The bottle swung down on the back of Amaline’s head. For a moment, the old lady swayed a little. Her head turned; eyes full of astonishment met Victoire’s, then her legs gave way and she slumped to the floor.
Victoire was surprised how calm she suddenly felt; a great obstacle had vanished in seconds. What now, she wondered. The peacocks were staring into the room, eyes fixed on their owner lying motionless on the floor.
There was not much blood. Victoire dragged the limp woman over to the divan and heaved her onto it. She turned Amaline’s head to face the backrest of the divan. The peacocks began to shriek their piercing cries into the room. The largest male leapt onto the window sill; his voluminous tail flicked back and forth; another bird followed. Slowly Victoire moved over to the feed box. Peacocks eat anything, she recalled, grains, snails, snakes.
‘You want some food?’ she said quietly and held out some rings of dried apple. The birds greedily snatched at them. She pulled her hand back. The large male hopped into the room, his tail sweeping the parquet floor and the rug behind him. Victoire picked up the feed box and held it out to the other birds. One by one, they jumped, first onto the window sill, then into the room. She laid a trail with the dried fruit and seeds towards the centre of the room. She could imagine the scene now, peacocks perching on the Louis XVI furniture, screaming to be fed. The thought almost made her smile. In front of the divan there was a silk rug; she scattered a handful of the feed onto it. A sprinkling of it fell onto Amaline’s back and the large male stretched to peck at the seeds nestling in the woman’s cardigan. Why not? Victoire emptied the box over Amaline’s body.
‘There you are,’ she whispered, ‘you’ll eat all that up in no time.’ She stepped over to the window, pushed the two panes together until there was only a small gap. She snagged one of the lace curtains over the handles to prevent the window opening more than a crack, certainly too narrow for even the slimmest of the birds to escape. She straightened the carpet and searched for bloodstains; there were none. She grabbed the bottle; it might have traces of blood and hair. Outside the house all was quiet. She pulled the front door shut behind her. Amaline would wake up in a room full of her darlings driven mad by hunger; that would teach her a lesson.
Victoire got into her car. Nearing the main road, she hurled the bottle into the deep overgrown ditch at the corner. I’m not even shaking, she realised. As she drove over the bridge the sun stung her eyes. A shadow passed overhead, then another and another, too swift for her to see what had cast them.
Best park the car near the house, she reminded herself. She turned into her narrow street. She inched the car into the shaded recess next to her house and got out. The church bell struck two o’clock; she had to hurry, Marco would be done at the Post Office any minute. She tried to tiptoe; no need to attract attention with the tack-tack of her high heels. Her front door lay in the deepest midday shade. As she approached it a number of dark shapes began jostling on the ground. A sudden shriek sounded into the midday silence, then another until the whole street was filled with a cacophony of mournful cries. Windows of neighbouring houses opened, faces appeared, eyes watched. Four peacocks rose and spread their vast tails, barring the entrance to her house.
(end of extract)