A Robin Hooppell Publication First published 2011 ISBN-13 978-0-9548563-4-2 Printed and bound in UK All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, recorded, stored in a retrieval system, by any form or by any means, electronically, analogue or digitally, without the prior permission of the publishers. Set in Gill Sans Light 12pt This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be re-sold, lent, hired out or circulated without the prior consent of the publishers in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Contents 7 17 25 Want 29 39 57 65 93 107 115 125 137 149 165
A Bit of Background Inside the Publishing World The Author’s Perspective - What Writer’s Really
Map of Publishing Process
The Authors’ Perspective - Writers’ Circles Book Publishing - A Brief History Desktop Publishing, (DTP), What made it possible Wind of Change Culture Shock Oligopoly in the market place The King Is Dead, Long Live the King Publishers’ Perspective Revenue Streams So! What’cha Gonna Do ‘bout It? A Little Education
WriteFrance for writers who love France
a Robin Hooppell Publication
Tripes à la mode de Caen. by **** ***** Normandyis is ... apple orchards and neat rows of vegetables, green fields with black and white cows. It’s also the architectural elegance of L’Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, founded by William the Conqueror, where Benedictine monks lived and worked from about 1060 CE until the Revolution. Sidoine Benoît, a 16th century monk at L’Abbaye aux Hommes, combined all these choice Norman morsels in one pot when he created the original recipe for the celebrated regional dish, Tripes à la mode de Caen. The Benedictines’ motto was “Deo Optimo Maximo”, or D.O.M., (“to God who’s the best and the greatest”). They inscribed this motto on many of their buildings and tombs. They were perfectionists and strove to show the greatness of God in everything. In 966 CE for example, they
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moved into a primitive chapel built on the Mont St. Michel, which they subsequently expanded into today’s World Heritage site. They also experimented with some medicinal herbs and concocted a liqueur that’s tickled more palates than most. Even today, the Benedictine Liqueur bottle carries the inscription D.O.M. So when Sidoine Benoît was preparing tripe as usual in the monastic kitchen of L’Abbaye aux Hommes, he instinctively questioned whether the dish reflected the glory of God. He was probably using a recipe that hadn’t changed since the days when William the Conqueror pronounced it his favourite dish, but Sidoine Benoît decided there was scope for improvement. The tripe needed an extra bit of zing, and what could be better for the purpose than Normandy’s own cider and calvados? The rest, as they say, is history. Meanwhile, in England, nobody pondered very deeply whether their tripe recipe reflected the glory of God. All country people accept that when you slaughter an animal, you eat , every edible part of it. They stewed their tripe in milk, added sliced onions and thickened the cooking liquid with flour. Tripe and onions. The result often suffered from a scorched milk flavour with the tripe not unlike
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stringy squares of flannel swimming in an onioninfested liquid. But, “Praise be to God that we do not starve.” Sidoine Benoît started preparing his Tripes à la mode de Caen two days before it was to be served. The tripe had to be washed and rinsed several times before being cooked in salted water and rinsed again. He left it to soak overnight in water with a bit of vinegar added. The following day he rinsed it again and cut it into roughly 2-inch squares. Then he gathered together the remaining ingredients, a cow’s foot split lengthwise, some suet, carrots, onions, leeks, celery, a bouquet garni, a clove of garlic, salt and pepper, and of course, a bottle of cider and the calvados. Using a special earthenware casserole, probably made in the monks’ own pottery workshop, called a tripière, he arranged the finely sliced vegetables in the bottom of the tripière. He put the cow’s foot and the tripe on top of that, sprinkled on the seasoning, added enough cider to cover, plus a glass of calvados, and finished with a layer of suet. He mixed flour and water to a thick paste and spread this along the edges of the casserole and the lid to seal the dish hermetically. Then he went to even-
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song. His mind was too full of his culinary creation to concentrate piously on the religious devotion. As the monks started singing he heard the distinctive voices of Brothers Carrot, Onion, Leek and Celery. The strident tenor voices of Brothers Cider and Calvados at first overpowered the rest, but Brother Sidoine, the Chef (at least in the kitchen, if not here in chapel) soon orchestrated the choir with such mastery that the many voices melded together into a subtle, harmonious whole. The trills of Brother Bouquet Garni seeped gently through the song, and Brother Tripe’s solid bass softened and yielded to the delicate melody of the combined choir. The result was a song of praise that truly glorified the name of God. After evensong Sidoine Benoît took his tripière to the baking house behind the monastery. He found Brother Jerome busily taking out the batch of loaves he’d baked. There was plenty of bread for the monks and even more to be distributed amongst the locals. The baking oven was in a little house of its own. The oven was a flat vault with a height of 60cms at its apex and a diameter of 1,5 metres. It was covered with a metre-thick dome made of ado-
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be. Brother Jerome had burnt seven faggots of kindling in it the previous evening. Then he’d added enough logs to heat the oven to the required temperature for baking the bread, which the monks on kitchen duty had prepared and brought to the baking house. The smell as Brother Sidoine approached was mouth-watering. Once the loaves were on the baking-house table, Brother Jerome pushed the tripière into the oven, then he replaced the wooden oven door and sealed it with wet mud. The temperature would gradually drop, but in fifteen hours’ time, when the monks sat down for lunch, the dish of tripe would still be at a slow sizzle. Brother Sidoine imagined how the glory of God’s gifts would be revealed to the community of monks when he cut round the flour paste seal, removed the lid and released the steaming fragrance of his Tripes à la mode de Caen into the refectory atmosphere. The monks loved it, and the recipe found its way into the heart of Normandy. It was venerated and surrounded with ceremony. Guilds sprang up to safeguard its authenticity. Professional championships are still held annually, organised by the fraternity known as “La Tripière d’Or”. The chefs who
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compete know they can’t cut any corners. Every ingredient is meticulously selected, and the tripe, of course, is top quality and includes a balanced selection of rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum: the four chambers of a cow’s stomach. Tripes à la mode de Caen is indeed a potted version of the best of Normandy.
Source of Life by Kerry Chiron Stepping down from the train she glanced up at the station clock, ten past eleven. The train was on time, but she wasnâ€™t. Of course, if she had taken the earlier train she could have been half an hour early, but no, ten minutes late was perfect, just perfect. She straightened the skirt of her tweed suit with the flat of her hand and smoothed the top of her blonde hair as she walked towards the exit. It was the brisk walk of a young woman with a purpose who didnâ€™t seem to notice that the eyes of virtually every man in the station were upon her. The unseasonably bright April sun forced her to shade her eyes as she stepped out of the station and into the paved streets of Lille. It had been cool, even a little cold, when she left home but now her woollen suit, past its best but still wearable, seemed a poor choice. Her full mouth pulled into the funny little moue that had stayed with her from childhood, what would she find to wear in the months ahead?
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Crossing the street to reach her destination she took in the sea of grey-green uniforms that filled the tables of the pavement cafés facing the Gare Lille Flandres. Here and there a splash of spring colour caught her eye, the red lips of a pretty companion, the red of a carefully placed armband. She cut through the tables where white aproned waiters scurried to serve late morning coffees and early lunchtime aperitifs. She created the same ripple of interest that she had ignited in the station, a tall, slim, blonde, at one meter seventy five she drew the eye. Walking into the Hotel foyer was like stepping into a cave, she blinked, adjusting her eyes to the sombre interior, then made directly for the stairs straight ahead. ‘Madame?’ She wheeled to the left, a little startled, to face the disembodied voice. She saw to her complete dismay that it belonged to ‘the boy’. That was how she thought of him, although she supposed that he was at least her age. The reception was usually manned by a discrete man of indeterminate age who never betrayed what he might be thinking, but occasionally the boy was present, grinning that inane grin that seemed as permanent as the acne that
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speckled his face. Today the ever present rictus was wider than ever; he was leaning with his elbows on the desk and in his raised right hand was a key. ‘Madame you’ll need this I think,’ He used the French ‘tu’ not ‘vous’, a term reserved for contemporaries or worse inferiors, causing her cheeks to flush involuntarily. His eyes danced with devilment as he dangled the key between thumb and forefinger like a child enjoying a playground prank. She regained her composure, which had temporarily escaped her, strode towards the desk and closed her hand on the key. The boy, however, held on tight pulling her hand towards him he whispered,‘or is it mademoiselle?’ The flush that had coloured her cheeks deepened to a brick red and she was glad the light was poor, but she knew the boy didn’t need a spotlight to feel her discomfort. ‘To you it’s ‘Madame’ and it always will be.’ The soldier’s voice wasn’t raised but it didn’t need to be, the German accent carried with it all the authority that the owner wished to convey. The boy dropped the key as though it had suddenly become white hot to the touch, the resulting clatter
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filling what would be a lengthy silence. The soldier was standing in the entrance almost blacking out the brilliant light bathing the terrace beyond. He stepped into view, an SS Waffen recruitment poster brought to life. His white blond hair was just visible below his high peaked hat, that sat at an angle designed not to hide his startling blue eyes. Those unblinking eyes now rested on the boy, who held his gaze for no more than a few hypnotized seconds. The boy shrank visibly his downcast eyes blinked rapidly sending a tear spilling down his shirt, where it landed on a previously unnoticeable stain that deepened instantly. The girl, for really she was no more than that, picked up the key and walked towards the stairs where she hesitated, inclining her head towards the soldier who continued to stare at the cringing boy. ‘Albrecht?’ she said softly. The soldier replied keeping the boy in his line of vision, ‘I’m coming,’ then to the boy, ‘this isn’t finished.’ He turned joining the girl at the foot of the stairs his arm sliding around her waist in a familiar gesture as they mounted the stairs. The boy hazarded a glance in their direction; did she expect to
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see just a little gratitude in it? If so, she was disappointed, the look was a mixture of animal fear and something that approached disgust, her face flushed for the second time that morning. ‘You’re late,’ she murmured as they climbed the stairs, Albrecht was never late, he adhered to all the stereotypes of his race. ‘I had to see my Oberfuhrer, I have something to tell you,’ he had a half smile on his lips, the altercation with the boy apparently forgotten. They had hardly breached the door when Albrecht folded her in his arms kissing her with a violence of force she had become used to. She wished just once he would kiss her tenderly. ‘Abrecht,’ she intoned trying to get his attention, which was somewhat taken by the considerable effort of undoing the tiny pearl buttons of her blouse. She pulled herself free and flopped down on to the bed, her clothing now in disarray and hot, angry tears threatening to become apparent at any moment. ‘What is it? The boy?’ he asked taking off his tunic and placing it neatly on the back of the single chair that served as furniture in the sparsely decorated room.
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‘I’ll deal with him later,’ he said, sliding alongside her his mouth on her neck in an almost painful series of kisses. She lay still, the irritating tears spilling over her cheeks and into the cup of her ears. He felt the warm moisture on her cheeks and stopped abruptly, he propped himself up on one elbow, ‘I said I’ll deal with him, today if you want.’ She sighed and wiped away the tears, she knew her make up would be ruined, damn that boy. She took her time replying, the war had taught her that, think quickly, but don’t act in haste. ‘No, don’t do anything Albrecht he’s just a boy.’ ‘We executed a seventeen year old last week for plotting to derail a train, there are no boys in war. Anyway, I think he is at least your age.’ He took out a packet of French cigarettes, ‘Gitanes’, and extracted a cigarette. ‘No Ekstein’s?’ she asked, surprised. ‘No train,’ he replied with a darkening of his brow. ‘There are no boys in war,’ he repeated flicking back the top of his cigarette lighter embellished
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with the death’s head insignia, ‘totenkopf ’ he had told her, laughing at her pronunciation and lighting a cigarette. She studied him silently, in profile he was even more beautiful, if it were possible. He reminded her of an American film star, but she thought the soldier was probably better looking; she supposed she should be flattered. ‘What are you thinking my little Marie?’ he asked, still concentrating on his Gitane and apparently finding it lacking. ‘I wonder if you are like this with your wife,’ she said. ‘Like what?’ he replied, surprised but not angry. ‘Passionate,’ she said, but it wasn’t the word she was thinking of. The war had taught her that too, think one thing, say another. He laughed, it wasn’t a sound alien to him, he laughed often and loudly; but it wasn’t a sound filled with joy either. His joyless laugh was the AckAck of a machine gun, it always took her by surprise. ‘Yes, I’m passionate,’ he said to his Gitane. She wondered if he too said one thing and
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thought another. She had successfully steered the conversation away from the boy and thought it was probably a good moment to tell him. ‘Albrecht I think you should know, I’m pregnant,’ she said calmly. He started slightly and dropped the Gitane into his lap, jumping to his feet he brushed the burning embers off his freshly starched shirt. ‘Damned French cigarettes!’ he exclaimed, his blue eyes on her now. Albrecht was not in the habit of being surprised, but he was, and pleasantly so. They had only been enjoying these afternoon rendez-vous for two months, more or less, with nothing more than passing a pleasant moment in mind, he hadn’t expected this to happen. Then again, he told himself, am I not the perfect example of German manhood? Hadn’t his Oberfuhrer only said so this week? If he was being honest with himself (and this was not something Albrecht was in the habit of doing) hadn’t he had his moments of self-doubt? He and Eva had been married for three years now and nothing had happened, every month she moped around the house red eyed and reproachful. Well now we know whose fault it is he thought triumphantly. How glad he was that he had already
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‘A fine example of Aryan womanhood,’ he had said. Of course Albrecht had explained that Maria wasn’t of French origin; even the first time he had seen Marie Adamski he had known that she wasn’t of French bastard stock. ‘Are you sure?’ He asked smiling. ‘Positive, nothing last month or this, and I’ve seen a doctor,’ this last piece of information was a lie, which she delivered levelly. ‘It will be a boy with eyes as blue as his father’s!’ he barked, his evident delight animating him, revealing an Albrecht Marie had never suspected existed. ‘And if it’s a girl?’ she countered, smiling in spite of herself . ‘It will be a boy!’ he cried, but his enthusiasm was suddenly tempered with the realization that he hadn’t told her his news. His news which in light of the present circumstances might not be well received. The smile slipped from his lips. ‘Marie, you remember I told you I’d asked for a transfer recently? Well it’s come through, I’m to go to the second waffen SS Panzer division Das Reich, with a promotion, Obershutze,’ he smiled momentarily forgetting Marie’s crushing disap-
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pointment that would surely follow, he was recalling the Schnapps he had drunk with his Oberfuhrer, the backslapping, the envious glances in the SS recruitment office. He needn’t have worried, Marie’s face was bathed in serenity. This was truly the woman of the future that the Fuhrer himself had spoken of, resilient and brave who would produce children for the Germany of tomorrow. Eva could learn a thing or two from his little Polish fraulein. ‘That’s wonderful Albrecht, really,’ she kissed his cheek. ‘ I won’t be staying here in Lille, my work is finished in the recruitment office, I won’t be able to.’ ‘I know,’ she interrupted him, (something she had never done before) ‘I have plans, you may need to speak to your Oberfuhrer, I want to go to Chantilly,’ she said. It took a moment for him to make the connection. ‘Westwald?’ he replied, unable to keep the note of surprise out of his voice. ‘Yes, this baby must have a good start in life.’ How he had underestimated this young woman! How the fatherland needed women like her!
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Westwald was the nursery that Himmler himself had recently inaugurated one of a series begun in Germany and the first in France, where the fruit of such liaisons as theirs would provide crack troops for the future Germany. He hoped the relief he was feeling wasn’t apparent in his voice. ‘You’re right, and when I have leave I’ll come to see you and the baby,’ it wasn’t much he knew, but at that moment he was sincere. He reached for her stomach rubbing the flat of his hand over the surface where he detected no sign of his growing progeny. As an only son serving in the SS, he no longer had to dread the letter calling him back from active service to ‘do his duty’ and ensure that his (racially pure) blood line continued. His friend Erwin had received such a letter and was now back in Bonn rutting with his very plain wife; she had been his very plain girlfriend, but she had held out for a ring. Not for him such a fate, destiny had smiled on him yet again! His military career could now begin in earnest. ‘’Do you know where you are going?’ she asked. ‘I can’t say,’ he replied honestly.
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‘Russia?’ she asked, giving in to her curiosity. ‘No, but don’t ask I can’t say any more.’ There was a pause in which he continued to caress her stomach as she lay passively watching him. ‘Have you thought of a name?’ he asked. ‘No,’ she replied (honesty seemed to be catching) ‘I like Lambert, it’s on the list.’ ‘The list?’ ‘Of names recommended by the party,’ of course, she couldn’t know such things, he reminded himself, but she’s learning fast. The list lay tucked away in a drawer in the little house in Berlin that he shared with Eva in another lifetime, the list had been ever present for a year or two until Eva had consigned it to the drawer. He made a silent promise to be a part of his child’s life, even if there couldn’t be the traditional family structure. They were building a new world, a new order, the rules change. He spared a thought for his mother, dead for at least five years, or was it six? How strange that she should pop into his head at this moment. What would she make of this situ-
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ation? Of one thing he was certain: your life never resembles that of your parents, and this child would surely have a singular life. They made arrangements to meet the following Thursday at the recruitment office in the centre of Lille, where Marie would meet Oberfuhrer Shultz for the second time to discuss her move to Westwald. Leaving the hotel she noticed that the reception was unmanned, a drunken German officer propped up by a heavily made up French woman was demanding service loudly, to no avail. To her amazement Albrecht had shown himself capable of tenderness, he seemed to look at her for the first time and their tryst ended celibate. Marie had not however been surprised when Albrecht reminded her that there would be questions, questions about the purity of her racial origins. She laughed and assured him that there were at least three priests in her family who could vouch for her â€˜purityâ€™. These were her thoughts as the train pulled into the station at Ascq, the town where she lived with her parents. As she approached her home she noticed that the shop was unusually busy, at least four customers were waiting. Lise was alone serving and there
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was no sign of her parents. Her chest constricted with fear as she hurried to the side entrance. The pain in her chest began to subside as she picked up the unmistakeable sound of her parents arguing in their native language. In the shop when serving Madame Ducros her weekly order of langue de boeuf, they were as French as freshly baked croissants. When stressed her parents were as Polish as Zurek the soup that her beloved Babcia used to make. Marie hadn’t spoken polish since her Babcia died (her grandmother had never learned French) but Marie still understood the language that her parents fell into in moments of love and hate. They didn’t hear her approaching the doorway of the kitchen, the room furthest away from the shop at the front of the building. Her mother was wringing her hands in her apron, a characteristic gesture that Marie was familiar with. Her father was trying to place his hands on her mother’s shoulders to hold her still, as if he might be able to reason with her if he could just contain her. The scene had clearly been playing for some time. ‘Josef don’t you see you are putting us all in danger, the risk you are taking is not just for you! Think of Lise and Marie even if you don’t think of
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me!’ her mother cried twisting her shoulders out of his grasp. ‘What will happen to us if someone denounces us? I’ll tell you, we will be packed off on a train to God knows where and.’ She started slightly at the sight of Marie in the doorway. ‘Marie, I didn’t see you there,’ her mother said (switching to French). Marie was relieved that the argument was the same one that had rumbled on since late last year when her father had proved himself to be the hero she had always known he was. ‘Marie,’ said her father kissing her on both cheeks in greeting even though they had breakfasted together. She notice how white his hair had become and how deep the lines on his forehead appeared,. Surely he had looked the same this morning, or were her senses simply becoming heightened by the hormones coursing through her body? ‘Papa,’ she replied. The tenderness in Marie’s voice had not escaped her mother’s attention, and she flapped her hand dismissively. ‘Oh Papa, Papa!’ cried her mother, with more than a hint of sarcasm, the apron wringing was tak-
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ing on hysterical proportions now. ‘Your dear Papa isn’t thinking of you when he shares our rations, and when he buys meat on the black market to feed our little tribe of Israelites in the garden! Can’t you see she isn’t eating, your own daughter isn’t eating! She eats like a bird! What did the Zimmerman’s ever do for you?’ Her mother looked deranged now, her hair, which was always so perfectly tied into the bun that she wore at the nape of her neck, had come loose at the sides; making her look like poor Madame Desailly, who had lost her mind when her son died, and had been taken away to the asylum near Lille. Her father approached the big wooden table that dominated the room. He placed his hands on the table and sighed, a weary sigh that frightened Marie. ‘It’s true Zyta the Zimmerman’s have never done very much for us; we were neighbours nothing more. We didn’t go to the same place of worship; my father knew Romek’s father in the old country; I don’t even think they were regular customers..... and that’s it...... That’s the sum total of our connection with the Zimmerman’s, but that’s exactly why we can do this. If we had been close people might
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suspect, but we were nothing to them, no-one in this town could imagine that they are living in my stockroom at the end of my garden.’ He spoke slowly as if explaining to a child and his head remained bowed as if it had become unbearably heavy. ‘You tell me ‘how’ but not ‘why’!’ Zyta cried, the apron straining with her exertions. ‘Because we are the Zimmerman’s and the Zimmerman’s are us,’ he replied calmly looking at her as though she had indeed lost her mind. Zyta pulled the long suffering apron up to her eyes and buried her face in it, her sobs were just audible as Josef pulled her to him and rocked her gently to and fro whispering something in Polish that Marie couldn’t quite hear. She turned to leave and saw Lise watching silently from the corridor. ‘Who’s in the shop?’ She asked. ‘No-one,’ Lise replied without meeting her sister’s eyes. This had been going on for some weeks now. Marie wondered what she knew, if anything, in any case it would be out soon. It would hurt but she would deal with that later, and later everyone would understand. After all they were living in ex-
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ceptional times. ‘You’d better go back, they’re fine,’ Marie said. Lise obeyed sulkily, Marie reminded herself that her sister was only fifteen and felt instantly envious, if only she were fifteen again, if only! She had lived a lifetime in the last three years; would she live to see the next three? Would anyone? Later that night Marie listened attentively to the house she knew so well, she could hear a faint buzz that she recognised as snoring from her parent’s room. She knew it was her father, her mother complained constantly about his snoring. She had heard Lise drop the book she was reading about an hour ago when she fell asleep, since then she had lain waiting, learning patience, counting the seconds. She stole out of her bedroom barefoot, and padded silently downstairs through the kitchen, lit only by the blue white light of an almost full moon. She knew the back door would be unlocked, it always was, and she had oiled the hinges only last week. The cold night air almost took her breath away as she slipped down the steps that took her
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into the garden; shivering, she loped swiftly across the grass. The stockroom was another obstacle; the sliding door was huge, rusty and noisy. She pushed the door aside just enough for her to pass, wincing at the inevitable grinding of metal on metal. She paused and listened but there was nothing, no-one stirred. The stockroom smelt as it always did; an odd mixture of dried ham, cheese, flour and dusty old cartons. It was comforting, the smell was ‘home’. She peered into the shadows trying to make out a form. ‘Romek?’ she barely whispered. ‘Ro,’ she didn’t even get to the second syllable as a hand slid over her mouth. It was him, she knew his smell, she knew his touch. ‘You’ll wake the dead!’ he hissed in her ear. She turned to face him her arms sliding around his neck, only to feel him remove them gently. He took her hand and led her to some boxes where he sat her down. ‘How did it go?’ He asked. It was dark, but she could just make out his features, he looked thinner and older than his thirty five years, but he was still her Romek. Romek,with
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his sad brown eyes and his long fingered hands. He played the piano like a concert pianist but these fingers hadn’t touched ivory for some time now. One day, after all this, they would move to Paris and Romek would no longer work as a tailor. He would play the piano in a fine Hotel, perhaps the Ritz; they wouldn’t be rich but they would be so happy. She would do anything to ensure their future happiness, hadn’t she already proved that? ‘Fine,’ she replied feeling the blood surging in her temples making her strain to hear his voice ‘So, he will look after you? Has he made the arrangements?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Yes, sort of...’ how to explain that since she had known of Albrecht’s plans to transfer to armed combat there had been a few changes? ‘What do you mean ‘sort of ’?’ ‘Albrecht is leaving Lille, I can’t count on him now so...’ Romek emitted a low involuntary sound like an animal in pain, then began speaking rapidly. ‘Before he goes perhaps he can sort the...the little problem out....or maybe there is time... you’re not showing yet... maybe you could meet someone else... not too late...’ his words tumbled out, his
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stream of consciousness becoming difficult for her to follow. ‘It’s going to be all right, don’t worry, but I’m... I’m going away for a while,’ she said softly. ‘What do you mean?’ He sounded emotional, distraught even. This was normal, she reasoned, but then there was something else she couldn’t quite fathom. The dark had never stopped her picking up on his feelings before. All those nights when he had waited for her for hours! Imploring her to stay even when it was almost first light, there was no mistaking his feelings then. The tenderness and the passion that carried her through all the deception was somehow missing tonight. He’s worried, she reassured herself, and when he hears the good news. ‘I’m going to Chantilly,’ she told him. ‘What’s in Chantilly?’ he asked confused, this was not what they planned. ‘It’s called Westwald and I’m going to have our baby there.’ She could feel the tears pricking her eyes; their baby would be born after all! She had already guessed that the hapless Albrecht would want her to have the child; what he had told her of his friend
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Erwin had confirmed this. Romek was mistaken, there was no point asking Albrecht to pay for a back street abortion, all German babies must be born. She congratulated herself on her astuteness, this way their child would live, and after the war.... ‘A Lebensborn?’ he asked interrupting her vision of the future, his tone was flat and defeated. ‘ A what?’ ‘ Lebensborn, literally ‘Source of life’ my brother in Germany wrote to me about them before the letters stopped coming. You are going to have this child in a Nazi breeding programme,’ his voice had a hard, almost vicious edge to it that Marie had never heard before. ‘Have you thought about what’s going to happen if your baby looks a little like Papa? What if it doesn’t have your fine Ayran attributes? What then Marie? And your parents, how will you explain this to them? ‘ He was shaking her now, holding her by her upper arms; his fingers were biting into her flesh; she thought he was crying. ‘You stupid little fool Marie! ‘ Now she was sure he was crying, he released her and held his face in his hands and tried to stifle
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the sound. ‘Romek you don’t mean that...’, her voice was no more than a whisper. ‘Yes I do! Yes I do! What do you want from me Marie?’ he hissed. A slither of light emanated from the back of the stockroom, accompanied by the noise of the door partly obscured by boxes being pushed open. Marie held her breath, but Romek began sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, all attempts at stealth seemingly abandoned. A woman came out of the shadows and stood with a lantern held high, her long dark hair was braided and fell over one shoulder. It was Sara, Romek’s wife. She too looked thinner than the last time Marie had seen her. ‘Romek, you are going to wake the children, be quiet.’ she didn’t say this unkindly, she spoke to him as to a child. Obediently Romek stood up still sniffling, wiping his face on his sleeves. He stood before his wife, his shoulders sloping. He reminded Marie of their dog Bershke after he had eaten the pigeons Papa was saving for Christmas. ‘Sara, I tried to make her see reason, believe me...’ he whined, then almost inaudibly he whispered, ‘we are undone.’
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‘Marie, this is going to be a trying time for all of us,’ Marie rapidly re-ran their conversation in her head. What had they said? What had Sara heard? There was a silence, then Sara spoke again, ‘I think your decision to go to Westwald is very… brave,’ she spoke slowly, deliberately, her speech the verbal equivalent of walking through a minefield, ‘...but you know, Marie, your parents must not know the truth, they must believe that the child is Albrecht’s.’ Marie’s eyes widened, her stomach tightened, she knows his name! She knows everything! ‘We depend on you, Romek, the children... myself,’ this last word was barely articulated. Sara’s brown eyes held Marie’s; the eyes of a woman trapped; a woman betrayed. The eyes of a mother who wanted her children to live. Marie nodded mutely, she was beginning to understand. She tried to stand but someone had moved the floor, she tried again and stood upright this time. Sara crossed the floor and put her arms around Marie, she held her tightly like a woman holding on to a lifebelt.
The Source of Life
‘The baby will be blonde and blue eyed, Romek is wrong! And everything will work out, you will see. Your parents are fine people Marie, God will bless them and you for helping us, and it is God’s will that you do this.’’ Marie could hear the determination in her voice as well as the fear, and she understood for the first time that she and Sara were not so different after all.
The Sunday Minimalist The ruminations and perspective of a naive French publisher living in London 1 st Edition Bonjour folks, and a very pleasant Sunday morning to you all. When I was a garcon you were awakened by church bells for mass. Now you know it is Sunday because you cannot find a place in the car park at Sainsbury’s or B&Q. What is it with you English that you ‘ave businesses with names like BHS, DFS, TSB, B&Q, P&O, M&S and C&A? It is like MFI or M15, a complete mystery. Secret codes to not tell you the name of the shop you are going into. Pourquoi? Let me introduce myself. I am Mike, oui, vraiment, Michel, from Bordeaux, or to be more exact, a small village not far from there. I ‘ave the advantage of having extensive knowledge of England and France, and therefore I can write objectively about both. Oui, non! Also as I am a writer and publisher and I know a little about literature. Of course, French literature is the best in the
world, most extensive and the most profound and bestowed with a fine eloquence and finesse that would be unusual in English literature. Mais oui, excusez-moi, I forgot, your English literature has been influencd more by the Irish like George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Colm Tobin, James Joyce, John B Keane, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, WB Yeats and a few more. Anyway, welcome to the 1st edition of The Sunday Minimalist and if any of you feel the necessity to respond to any points made in here, that’s good, let’s ‘ave ‘em, good bad or indifferent. If any are worth posting, I’ll stick them on here, if they are particularly defamatory I might have to find somewhere else to stick them. As we know the book world is in trouble, in fact to be even more precise, the world is in trouble. It’s a strange contradiction that at a time when the world is awash with money, we talk in millions, billions, trillions, zillions and godzillions, and yet everybody seems to be merdent dans leur culottes in case they go skint. And yet, in a tiny speck of a place like Britain, book shops close down at the rate of three a
week. It could be worse, you could own a pub, they go down at forty a week. Your ‘igh streets now seem to only have charity shops and ex-Job Centres. The streets of England used to be paved with gold, but now it’s just dried vomit from last night’s tikka masala dotted with blobs of rubbery chewing gum. You see again, that is where us French are smart, we don’t eat tikka masala. Anyway, one day in a chic London street whilst I was contemplating how to detach my plates of meat, (that’s rhyming slang, you know), from the concrete, I was suddenly and boldly enlightened by a friendly Algerian who put me right on the matter and he did not even ask me to borrow any money or offer me his sister. “Merde!” he said, “Regardez! Merde, merde at plus des merde! L’Anglais a monopolisé le marché global de connerie.” He then took the precaution of checking his own shoes. I had to agree a little as in Bordeaux we ‘ave drivers on pooperscoopers, you know, the mopeds with hairdryer engines and a beeg ‘oover for sucking it all up. We French are so civilised, you understand. “You’re okay! There’s nothing on them,” I
informed this Algerian, Makhalouf. He claimed he was a pied noire, but I know he wasn’t. I think he was pretending because he said he was a distant cousin of Yves St Laurent. Mais oui, you don’t get pieds noires in England. Any how, he looked at me as if I was mad. I looked back as if I wasn’t. Then ‘e says ‘e is the nephew of Camus, so I asked him to clarify this. Was he referring to Albert or the brandy? Anyway, being smarter than ‘im, I refused to call him a liar, it would not be right to say such a thing of an Algerian just because his idea of the truth is more abstract than mine, and anyway, it would just give ‘im the opportunity to call me a raciste. Mois, un Francais, un raciste! Huh! Encroyable! Pah! Quelle ridicule! I noticed he was looking at his shoes. I could see they were expensive, Church Shoes, I believe. “I am just counting them to make sure I still ‘ave them,” he said, “you cannot be so sure around ‘ere. I have ‘eard that some of these thieves around ‘ere, tea leafs, I think you say, are so skilled in their arts that they can even steal the milk from your tea. Eef it was an Olympic sport, they could win the gold for theft, and then some
bloody bugger would steal the cup.” I smiled at him. “I think perhaps you exaggerate just a little there, maybe just a teensy weensy little bit.” “Non, mon ami,” he huffs, “jamais. I have learned the English craft of... ‘ow they say, understatement.” I looked at the Algerian in disbelief. “How can you say that, your lot are the world champions,” I laughed and rocked and rolled splitting my sides. “Wot you laughing at?” he said, unable to hide his annoyance. “I am Kabyle. I am proud to be Kabyle. I am edumacated at Cammbridge. I teach creative writing, you know. I know all about Shakespeare.” “Shakespeare!” I hear myself say with incredulity. “Yes!” he sneers, “Shakespeare. Walid Shakespeare. He was Algerian, you know.” “Shakespeare! Algerian! Are we talking about the same Shakespeare here?” “There was only one Shakespeare. Walid! The Eenglish steal his ideas and his name. ‘ow
many other Shakespeares you see in the phone book then?” He grinned, pleased with himself, unaware that he resembled a camel with a mouth like a set of piano keys. He walked off in his newly acquired Church Shoes muttering under his breath, “Nique ta mere!” “I heard that,” I shouted at him, “don’t forget, you have to pass this way again.” So, what has all this to do with books then? Well, nothing. I just thought I’d say hello and mention this at the same time as introducing myself. Per’aps next week I will talk about the books. See younext week per’aps, if I am still living in this Engerland as you footie types call it.
Paul Gaugin a monologue by Christine Genevese inspired by “Noa Noa”, by Paul Gauguin. “Paul Gauguin”, by Daniël Wildenstein and Raymond Cogniat. Do you think they still talk about us in Arles, Vincent? Us, the two mad painters? We had some wild nights then, didn’t we? But that time has gone. My health is poor. Every day my body finds some new and painful way of signalling that it can no longer keep all systems functioning. My eyesight gave me months of intense anxiety. But I can still see, and I am alive, so I shan’t bother you with my physical failings. My hut is comfortable and I never miss my evening ritual of watching the sun setting. It drops down quite fast towards the horizon, its
size increases and its colour deepens until it buries itself in the Pacific Ocean in an explosion of orange and crimson. But with the infinite sky above me and the endless sea before me, the loneliness can sometimes be oppressive, and my mind fills up with thoughts and ideas that sometimes spill over in strange ways. I need someone to talk to, and you, Vincent, would be my first choice. The protestant pastor called in the other day, and I confess I made him prolong his polite duty call by many hours, because Iâ€™d had no one to speak to for a long time. Yes, you may raise your eyebrows, Vincent, but he turned out to be an excellent listener. Now I want you here. I have so much to say, and I shall say it to you, because you and I speak the same language. Words are useless. A white bird clutching a lizard. Letâ€™s leave words to those who need them to express their ideas. I want to paint. I have no canvas left, so Iâ€™ll use the white walls of my hut. Night after night when my fever attacks have made me delirious, they have re-
flected the nightmarish fantasies of my flickering mind. I’ll paint your face here so that you can be with me. I’ve painted it so many times that I’m familiar with every detail of it. It’s a sad face, full of impending tragedy. The face of a martyr. Our talks in Arles were raw and fumbling. Stabbing clumsily at the truth we ended up hurting each other. That’s why I must talk to you now, Vincent, because here, at last, I’ve liberated my art from the restraints of our decadent western civilisation and I can show you paintings that are pure and exhilarating. That was impossible in Arles, where so many destructive influences attacked us like a flock of carrion crows. They got you in the end, didn’t they, Vincent? The crows in your last painting made me want to cry. Words can never have that power. Yet there’s one sentence, from a true word artist, which sticks in my mind. He summed up the European problem in these few words: “I hate Christ and crowns of thorns.” He knew what he was talking about. Why glorify suffering, Vincent?
Suffering is ugly; it’s demeaning for those who go through it and an unworthy subject for an artist to indulge in. But you did, Vincent. And therefore, black, stiff and cruel, I fit this crown of thorns round your brow. I can feel the pain myself as my brush, quite mercilessly, continues its work. It suits your face. Your sad eyes and the deep lines carved by your tormented soul make this a fitting addition to your portrait. At least it is more dignified than the vulgar towel, which you yourself both wore and painted round the picture of your agony. Remember my two paintings of Christ crucified? One yellow, one green. Quite lifeless, like cardboard cut-outs, thin, flat and ineffectual. Covered only by a loincloth, and if you took that away, you’d find nothing. He wore no halo, no crown of thorns. You did more to merit the crown of thorns than he ever did. Did we not agree that God was dead? Didn’t my paintings show that quite clearly? Life was what mattered, and we would live it to the full and make it beautiful through art. Death, the
ultimate and most beautiful mystery of them all, the dark passage with no definite shape, would be a place of wish fulfilment, beauty and serenity. Out here youâ€™d understand. Drenched in golden sunshine life flows, liquid and leisurely, like a warm, pulsating river, through beast and man and spirit. It is a universal life that will never be extinguished. It has no beginning and no end. It was a long and troubled struggle for me before I reached this understanding, and it was even more difficult for me to learn to express it in my paintings. But my latest works have come very close to achieving it. The flow is there. I believe that the thoughts which guided my work are mysteriously linked with a thousand other thoughts, some my own, some those of others. But for many years the horror of death, retribution and hellfire terrified me and prevented me from seeing the full beauty of the life flow. My fear of death made dark shades of nagging doubt creep into my paintings. You went there of your own free will. I admire you for it. You tried to take with you all the misery of this world, but in fact you took
nothing but your own. You did it badly, though. Taking two days to die after you shot yourself throws doubts on the deed. But who am I to criticise you? You succeeded and already death has worked wonders for you. It has stripped you of the qualities I used to dislike so that now I remember you as the only soul-mate I ever had, the only genius capable of the true artistic understanding which we so passionately and yet so imperfectly struggled to find in Arles. Like you I once thought Iâ€™d finished with life. I had made my final statement as an artist with a large canvas showing life from birth to death: beautiful, mysterious and sensual. I now know there were unresolved problems in it, elements of fear and misgivings, which I had yet to come to terms with. But it seemed final at the time, and apart from that I had finished with mankind, and my body was racked with disease. I chose a remote spot where the mountains, the sea and the sky seemed to meet. Slender lines of frail, tropical trees broke the sky into sections and made the sunlight seem even bright-
er for having to weave its way through the trees. I swallowed a large dose of arsenic and waited for death. But death rejected me and spewed me back into life, where I could do nothing but mimic his action and vomit up what seemed like my entire insides. After a long night of terrible agony I crept back to carry on with life, humbled and scorned even by death. Since then I’ve had little contact with those who used to call themselves my friends. I don’t miss any of that now. Their petty rivalries, their jealousies and coteries served only to stunt their art, and prevented each one of them from developing their own individual style. You and I, Vincent, were individualists. We believed in painting from our hearts. And yet we differed fundamentally on how to achieve our common aim, and, for that matter, on almost everything else besides – certainly towards the end of our time in Arles, when we’d virtually torn each other apart. The climate out here is far more fertile for the artistic mind. I know my work has gone from strength to strength since I left the oppressive
atmosphere of France. Gradually I’ve stripped my soul of all the many layers of thick, sticky European prejudices that weighed me down. I’ve built up an understanding that could, if he desired it, become that of my neighbour. I’m now producing work of a spiritual and pictorial clarity that my fellow painters back home have not yet dreamt of. While we were together in Arles I thought my most important task was to turn you away from your dedication to dark, human misery, and to persuade you instead to fill your palette with the happier shades of chrome yellow and azure. Was I not right to ask you to abandon the gloomy pictures of poverty and suffering? Was I not right to insist that we should fill our work, our thoughts and our lives with pleasure? I like to flatter myself that I convinced you that the brighter, clearer shades suit your talents. But I admit complete failure in trying to get you to eliminate the sense of brooding tragedy from your work and indeed from your life. We were young and strong. Our bodies were not weak and ineffectual. There were plen-
ty of women around and we took our fair share of carnal pleasure. However, Arles was not the ideal location, neither for perfecting our masterpieces, nor for practising the fine art of debauchery. A leaden sky hung low over its mean little houses. Farmers and tradesmen with heavy faces and dull eyes toiled from dawn to dusk for profit. For their eveningâ€™s entertainment they barely had the energy to raise a glass of absinthe or crude wine to their lips, or to aim a stale leer at the expectantly giggling bar girls. Of course they viewed the two of us with undisguised contemptâ€Ś or was it envy? They never saw us do a stroke of honest work, we slept till noon, painted till nightfall and drank and whored till the early hours of the morning. We lived our lives to the full, did everything to excess and nothing tamely. And yet I accuse you, Vincent, and here is my accusation: That even in our wildest moments of sensual pleasure, you failed to enjoy it. You never could let go of your missionary zeal, despite our endless conversations during which
we agreed that the god who condoned suffering was dead, and our duty was to enjoy life. There was no need to feel sorry for the girls who offered themselves to us, or guilty about depraving them. Nothing we did changed their lives. But you wanted your martyrdom. So you must wear your painfully earned crown of thorns. And now, to complete your picture, I add an extra weight on top of your crown of thorns, pushing it down further. This thick black line supports the troubles you so stubbornly insisted on taking upon yourself. These black figures walking along the line, their backs bent under the weight of their daily burdens, are the coalminers, wearing themselves out too soon under harsh living conditions. Did they listen when you preached to them about the brotherhood of mankind and the blessings of the life to come? No. They turned away from you. They didnâ€™t understand you, and you suffered for them. See, Iâ€™m adding drops of blood that trickle down your cheeks. You deserve them.
Here, moving in the opposite direction away from the coalminers, these figures are the bourgeoisie. They are the ones we depend upon… fools that we are. Their refined and educated taste, their understanding of excellence in art will give us our livelihood and the recognition we need. Poor Vincent! You tried to persuade them to buy the best and despise inferior, vulgar rubbish. And you lost your job as an art dealer. They wouldn’t listen either. Their weight is pushing your crown down even further. Your blood runs red and thickly. Dancing and laughing at the apex of the black line is a figure much larger than the others. She is your whore, Vincent. Drink-sodden and used up, covered in vermin and made pregnant by some casual client, she was the one you chose as your life’s companion. To love and to cherish, to honour and obey… Where is the glory, Vincent, in allowing the whole world to trample all over you, to crush you and destroy you? You only escaped briefly while we painted together in Arles. Those were the golden moments, the rest is sadness.
The black, cruel birds of your last painting were already hovering over you with their message of despair, “Nevermore.” Yes, I failed in my efforts to persuade you to seek out the pleasurable side of life. It isn’t an easy thing for me to admit failure, but I have no option. You stubbornly insisted on looking back over your shoulder to find misery. Had I not been a stronger and more forceful character than you, my fate would undoubtedly have been like yours. I, too, promised all sorts of things “till death us do part”, and in theory I’m still married to her. This is what she looked like when I last saw her. Angular, pale and serious. With stiff frills at the neck and at the wrists. Her hair carefully parted in the middle and firmly tied back. Her ample skirts cover everything, and yet, she’s got lovely legs, you know. When I first met her she was warm and lively and spirited. She loved listening to my wild ideas, her big, expressive eyes drinking in every one of my words. Now she’s greedy and vindictive. She deprives me of my children and hoards
my paintings. She shouldn’t have had the children so quickly. Each one of them, like a pelican chick, drained a bit more of her heart blood, sapped a bit more of her strength. She never complained, never asked me to ease up, and so I didn’t, even though I knew she no longer wanted me the way she used to. I was happy enough in those early days. But it was a dormant happiness like that of a hedgehog cocooned under his thick crown of thorns that he, alone of all creatures, fails to notice. These solid, ponderous buildings are banks and stockbrokers’ offices. Grave and pompous men with important matters like rates of exchange and interest on their minds sit behind the walls and shift money around in the hope that their profits will be larger than the next man’s. I was one of them, too easily drawn into their contemptible life style. At least you, Vincent, will understand that such an existence was doomed to fail and that it was only a matter of time before my ar-
tistic spirit burst out of this narrow prison and forced me to go wherever it might lead me. I had to free myself from the bonds of marriage and the mundane demands of the woman who was my wife and the mother of our five children. I am an artist. Nothing else matters to me. She is a mother. Her children must eat. Her priorities became incompatible with mine. She returned to Copenhagen with the children, and from there she wrote and begged me to come and join her, claiming that with her familyâ€™s support I might find a new opening. My career was at a low point. I could barely support myself, let alone a wife and family. I gave in to her entreaties and went to Copenhagen, where I had some hopes of making an impact. But there was little appreciation of serious art there, and no one showed much interest in setting up an exhibition of my work. Mette turned to her family for help. At her invitation they all arrived at our house one day. I watched from my dressing room window as they turned up, some on foot, some in carriages.
The men looked solemn, and moved with military precision. They raised their top hats in greeting as other members of the family converged on our little house. They carried silvertipped canes and were meticulously dressed with gloves, watch chains and spats. Before entering our house they composed their facial expressions into the appropriate folds of pity for â€œpoor little Metteâ€? who had made such an unfortunate marriage. I looked at my starched and ironed collar and cuffs which Mette had laid out for me on the bed. Noose and manacles. No, I had nothing to say to that gang of bigots and did not want to know what they intended for me. I paced up and down in my room for a while. Then I went downstairs in my bare and unadorned shirtsleeves, crossed the crowded drawing room without a look or a greeting, headed for the bookcase and selected a slim volume of poetry by Poe, master of the macabre, and armed with this, I made my exit. That incident marked the end of my marriage. I returned to France soon after.
Why do people deliberately choose the difficult route through life? You probably know the answer, Vincent, but you never told me. Virtue, good and evil are nothing but words until one knows how to apply them. We discussed this in Arles, and I still believe in the mysterious nature of painting. I am only talking about truly great paintings, of course, but any painting worthy of that description possesses that quality: It becomes part of eternity. Whatever statement a truly great painting makes, becomes an eternal truth. That was why I had to stop you painting those scenes of human misery and degradation. You may have had some distorted idea about persuading mankind to return to the path of virtue by showing them the suffering caused by their evil ways. You poor, deluded missionary! On the contrary, the real crime was committed by you. You made these agonising scenes into eternal truths by painting them so powerfully. You will be responsible, if such misery is to be part of the human fate forever. You deserve your crown of thorns.
Our painting days in Arles were tense and magnetic. We praised, criticised and argued about everything. We exhausted each other emotionally, because our comments, however tentative, were charged with a tremendous power of understanding. Our ideas met in that room, they mixed, blended and embraced like lovers, and I believe that the union produced a hybrid of great strength and beauty. We created it there, and for a brief moment it hovered between us, our creation, waiting for us to realise its presence. We glimpsed it, but too rarefied for us to retain, it slipped out of reach. Spiritually we were like lovers, temperamentally we were enemies. Arles was no place for ideals, its mean atmosphere made our bruised vanities fester, till at last things came to a head. By the way, there was no need for you to write me those letters after Iâ€™d left, trying to explain. How can one explain madness? It was in our natures. Arles was too claustrophobic and we were two giants with titanic ideas, painting pictures that touched on the very essence of being. Arles could not contain us, and the inevitable happened.
We burst out of its narrow confines. I know you wanted to kill me. Our deepest and most passionate sensitivities had been wound to the ultimate pitch. But I couldn’t let you do it. Murder is even more ugly than your other vice of indulging in suffering and guilt. So I ran away. I admit it. Yet another admission of failure, and I hate to fail. We should have been successful together, Vincent. It would have been possible here. You will not believe me, will you? You’re thinking that my attempted suicide proves that I was driven to the utmost limits of despair. Some ideal paradise that must be, you’ll argue, to have that effect on me. I’m no good with words. But let me make this clear. The fault lies not with the place, but with me. It was my depraved spirit, steeped in the millennia of corrupt European civilisation that failed to live at peace with the free-flowing universal life force that absorbs all creatures into the eternal web of past, present and future. Let me tell you more. I’d been in Tahiti for two years and felt twenty years younger. I’d
become more of a barbarian, yet more schooled too. I had learnt many lessons in the science of life and in the art of being happy. My mind was so fertile, so full of an orphic art that softens the wild beast and moves in harmonious cadence the shapeless creatures of the sea. I’d achieved all this by gradually liberating myself from our old and senile culture, which has been pared down to a skeletal fossil with no warmth and no vigour. At that point I made the irrational decision to return to France. Obviously my conversion had been incomplete, and France tempted me back like an old mistress whose charms one hasn’t quite forgotten. And I felt certain that I had achieved something in my art, which my contemporaries were clumsily trying to express in theirs. I wanted once more to get involved, and yes, even to lead. There were two women in my life during that period. I’ll paint them for you here on my wall. Tehura first. My Tahitian wife. This is her on the day she was given to me. She was about fifteen years old, beautiful and golden, with a woman’s body and the unselfconscious grace of a child.
Look how proudly she carries her head above her strong, straight body. There is both the promise and the anticipation of exquisite pleasure in every one of her gestures. Her gaze is frank, her eyes full of trust. She is untamed and natural. The womenâ€™s talk has prepared her for marriage, but her own instincts are even stronger. She knows all there is to know about the shades and nuances of love, and her perfect womanhood demands reverence. Imagine my feelings as I faced this innocent and lovely creature, how I trembled with fear of displeasing her. Here I was, an old man in civilised vices, in the lost illusions of our culture that would, I knew, condemn me for taking this girl. But I donâ€™t wish to dwell on the blinkered chauvinism o these people who deserve and get nothing but my contempt. Let me return to Tehura. She had come initially for a trial period of eight days. At the end of that she was to return to her family, where the women would question her closely. If there was the slightest doubt
about her happiness, she would be free to remain with her family and the marriage would be annulled. She was away for two days, and throughout that endlessly long time I was tormented with fears and misgivings. Surely she would have understood how unworthy I was? She had not appeared unhappy, but rather proud, aloof, and yet yielding. Too ominously I felt the stark shadow of the black raven above me, and I dared not question it, fearing its inevitable refrain, “Nevermore.” But she came back. More beautiful than ever, self-possessed and full of love. With her by my side I became fully integrated in the life of the village. I took part in their rituals and attended their meetings. I painted pictures that emanated from my newly found understanding of the soul of pleasure that flows through all creation. And then I decided to return to France. Don’t say anything, Vincent. There were reasons, but they were unimportant. I’ll paint a portrait of Annah the Javanese, who was my mistress for nearly the whole of my two-year stay
in France. I’ll paint her as I’ve done before, sitting in a chair in my Montparnasse studio. She, too, is proud of her body. But there’s a calculating look in her eyes, and her pose is a carefully arranged one. She has learnt to entice and seduce. Of course she’s no more Javanese than you or I. She was born and bred in the Parisian gutter, where she learnt all the tricks of the scum of our civilisation. But she was eager to please, and for a while she amused me and served as a fit ornament for my studio. Are you beginning to understand, Vincent? Have I said enough? No. Painful as my confession is, I must continue. So, France had lured me away from my idyllic paradise. And no sooner had I arrived, than I found myself seduced by its very decadence. Perhaps it didn’t seem like that at the time, but once there, I could only communicate in their language. My thoughts became distorted and perverted. My mulatto whore with her pet monkey was an ugly caricature of my idea of free and open enjoyment of love. My own unconventional dress and contemptuous dismissal of bourgeois morals made me appear more like a buffoon than an innovator. I invited some of the open-minded artists in Paris to my apartment to
exchange views and argue and talk. Some came, but in their wake followed a crowd of pretentious, ignorant fools, flaunting a Bohemian fashionableness. My art was admired by hypocrites and sycophants, but no one genuinely understood its true importance. Annah of course abandoned me at the first sight of a slump in my fortunes. I came back here rather sooner than Iâ€™d intended, disillusioned with France and cured of my infatuation for her. My physical health, however, was poor and has troubled me ever since. I returned to find that even Tahiti was no longer the same. Greedy colonial officials serving no cause but their own self-interest did their utmost to make the natives dance to their tune. They were aided and abetted by uncomprehending missionaries who relentlessly worked to destroy the wonderful life worship of the natives and bade them instead atone for their sins. Yes indeed, theyâ€™d have given each one of them a crown of thorns to wear. Tehura, of course, had married again. But she came and spent a night with me for old timesâ€™ sake. Nothing sordid can ever happen to her. Her natural innocence makes her invulnerable.
Does my suicide attempt make more sense to you now, Vincent? Are you beginning to understand why I could no longer hope to make any fruitful progress; that the road ahead seemed to plunge into some terrifying and unavoidable abyss? When my attempt failed, I understood that I still had something in me waiting to be given shape. I needed to paint, and I needed the best possible environment. Hiva Oa is a tiny island in the Marquesas. If you check on a globe, you won’t find another place in the entire world as far removed from what is generally known as ‘civilisation’. Here I’ve found once more the purity of life that so attracted me when I first discovered the Oceanic world. Here I can reflect in peace upon the wonderful stories about the creation of all things that Tehura used to tell me while I was painting. Lying or sitting on the floor of our hut, she recounted the myths and legends about the “tupapan” or spirits that link the present with the past and the future. They are in touch with our ancestors and will accompany us into the world after death. They uphold tradition and guard sacred places, and because some tupapan are easily angered, they inspire us
with respect for their powers, which are the mysterious powers of eternity. Iâ€™m beginning to understand the workings of this perpetually moving pattern. Itâ€™s never static, always fluid, possessing a steady and serene life rhythm. My paintings are reaching out towards this truth. My greatest pleasure is to discover that I have revealed some part of it in my art. Perhaps I do paint what I want to see rather than what my objective eye observes. But it is the privilege, indeed the duty of artists to interpret their vision. You, Vincent, interpreted with the eye and the soul of a missionary, yes, even a martyr. I need freedom. I have to be liberated from both time and place to interpret what I see.
Passing Water by CJ Watertower Passing water: a basic guide for the camper travelling through France. To sit or not to sit? Whether it is better to stick to British and risk catching some ghastly and potentially embarrassing disease, or to go French and crouch thus risking almost certain back strain. Every year hundreds of thousands of camping enthusiasts cross the water and journey through La Belle France ever enchanted by the wonderful scenery and forever reminded of the inability of the French to equip their guests with adequate and hygienic watering holes. Driving five hundred miles is no problem; it is when the call of nature comes that problems begin. Camping successfully spans the social classes, but whether you drive a Volvo and ‘need a loo’ or an old Ford Sierra and ‘want the toilet’ you have equally little chance of finding one before ‘needs and wants’ turn to ‘must and quick’! When granddad wants the ‘little boy’s room’ to ‘spend a penny’ he might as well whistle in the wind…in fact he will probably have to! As we
journey well into the 21st Century the tourist in France is still most inclined to follow Shakespeare’s advice and ‘glance upon a hedge’. Of course the shuttle has now given campers an alternative to the ferry. After years of perfecting the balance required to accurately aim when on a rolling ferry we can now opt for the relative safe bet of The Shuttle toilet. Safe that is if you remember that the convenient convenience in each compartment closely resembles an understairs cupboard with a height limit more appropriate for a playgroup. Once on the open road our intrepid travellers have the choice between ‘N’ roads and Autoroutes. ‘N’ road travellers will, when push comes to shove, resort to glancing upon the hedge, or verge or field. Unfortunately such lay bys attract desperate motorists like flies to the very evidence that thousands of trekkers have boldly been there before. Hedges do provide vanity screens for the more particular English whilst, in stark contrast, the average Frenchman at most turns his back to the traffic. Perhaps the most comical scene is provided by the modest, yet urgent, English lady who uses
the open car door as a screen leaving, with luck, only ankles visible to on coming traffic. Petrol stations are a frequent target for British families. Often limited to a single cubicle, the average family troops in one after the other while being watched by the bemused petrol attendant indignant at the lack of a paying customer amongst them. As a deterrent some petrol stations have resorted to locking their conveniences so as to force the most desperate to ask for ‘la cle’: such lengths for such a mundane event! At larger services during peak times it is not uncommon for the ladies to have to queue through the gents. Such a happening no doubt causes suppressed amusement amongst the ladies as they wait, eyes diverted, while their husbands and sons face the urinals and attempt to put mind over matter. Once back safely in the car all conclude that it was lucky that grandma wasn’t with us! Those that favour the autoroutes fare little better. True they journey quicker and thus reduce the number of stops, but whoever decreed that ‘P’ should indicate ‘a welcome break’ clearly didn’t persuade the French to equip theirs properly. True
enough the modern ‘Aire de’ generally boasts a central edifice with a roof large enough to cover the average home, yet within it Dr Who has acted in reverse and one is left wondering how much can house so little! Generally two cubicles per gender with all ideas of modern plumbing rejected in favour of ‘Le hole in the ground’. For those new to such continental ways a word of advice: after use open the door and prepare to exit smartly upon pulling the chain, unless you actually wish to have your new holiday sandals soaked! You might be lucky enough to be able to rinse your hands in a trickle (or even uncontrollable rush) of cold water, but hot water hasn’t yet reached such outposts. Finally our weary travellers reach their destination: a 4 star campsite boasting all modern facilities. Experienced campers can always tell a good site by an early inspection of the shower block or, as French translations are fond of calling them, ‘the ablutions’. Two weeks of living in harmony with nature and in close proximity to hundreds of fellow campers: a small town all sharing the same bathroom! Early morning sessions prove to be the most basic. There is something reassuringly human
about the habits of ones fellow man. Anyone who has spent time on a camp site will understand the importance attached to toilet paper. You must realise that any visit requires forethought and planning because you may be camped 250m away. Some sites provide paper in the cubicles but â€˜sods lawâ€™ says that it has run out when you get there and just when you need it most! At my favourite site they provide a giant roll outside the cubicles, which then necessitates a judgement to be made as to how much you will need. Most Brits put safety first and reel off enough for a small family after a meal of mussels! At first this may be done rather coyly, but once fully relaxed on holiday this can be done as bold as brass in full gaze of those queuing for the showers. Of course for some, personal hygiene and comfort requires that they always take their own paper when nature calls. Small children are wonderfully unabashed and march triumphantly through the site waving their allotted ration of paper, while the sight of a bikini clad cyclist with loo roll on handle bar is not uncommon. Aristocrats amongst campers is the caravaner. Self sufficient
in their glory, the caravan family (not real campers at all!) can avoid all contact with the shower block but, without permanent plumbing, their effluence has to go somewhere, sometime. The answer, of course, is that they merely store it until such a time as the tank or barrel is full, then someone must take it to be emptied. The sight of grown men en route to the block carrying, pushing or rolling their containers is enough to persuade me of the merits of the common block, even if I hit the morning rush hour! In France there are so many different ways of providing for manâ€™s most basic requirement, most are poor, some are comic; but then perhaps it was never meant to be taken very seriously.
The Sunday Minimalist by Michel 2nd edition Bonjour punters, ‘ello to all my friends, mes amis, mes copains, mes copines aussi, yes, to my mates out there and the mugs, You see, my knowledge of English is like the universe, always expanding, becoming greater, more colourful and yet at the same time, local, well, that is to say, the bit that I live in. Anyway, it is Sunday again, with the calling of the church oops, sorry, supermarket, which one will I go to this week? It’s a bit like church, you go where you get the best offers. You take the family, meet your friends. Ah, English life. It is not so different from us French after all. We have the oyster sellers with their little stalls, a rotisserie with the chickens going round, rows a tasty little quails waiting to get washed down with a nice St Emillion. At the same time, you English ‘ave your mobile , ‘ow you say, greasy spoon, your ‘amburger van and your polystyrene tea cups with your Wagon Wheels and Bovril. Yum, yum! I ‘ave ‘eard, although I do not know it for my-
self, but there is a place called, I think, Scotland, where it is so cold and miserable that to make life bearable they actually deep fry everything. Well, that is, everything except food. Deep fried Mars Bars, Bounties, Ice Cream, Quell imagination!!! Who could ‘ave thought of that? That takes a special kind of insight into the culinary delights of the human mind. In France, we call it lunacy. But excuse me mes punters, I promised this week to talk about books. It is true, I did say that, so that I will do, right now, this minute. Soon it will be time for the London Book Fair and the stampede of all ze global book people to trample over each other in a scrum to get the most successful books of next year. That is of course presupposing that next year they will still be in business. It will be so much fun standing back like a fly on the wall with my dried up sandwich and little bottle of water. You can still buy these together for less than five pounds sterling. Ah! See the pretty girls with their stern faces, little lips with red lipstick, puckered like the have just sucked a lemon, waiting to represent their companies. As they do this, the men practice their ‘andshakes and their “oh so pleasantly surprised to see you” smiles. Watch them in action
while they do the business. It is heart rending, oops again, my English is confusing sometimes, it is heart warming to watch them sell their new cookery books, vying viciously for the next celebrity words that will mesmerise the proles, sorry, public.They will be trying to curry favour, excuse the pun, as they try to sign the next Indian pundit for the Booker Prize in the distance. Per’aps even a Chinese writer. With one of each and a reasonable budget for promotion, you can produce the books locally, and cheaply, reduce transportation costs and kill two markets with two one blow. Now, if you could find a hybrid, a beautiful sexy girl who can write who is half Chinee and half Indian who lives in America or Canada, you can go the ‘ole ‘og, as you like to say. Wow! Think of it, sultry exotic girl, covers two generic groups that take up two thirds of the world’s population in a stroke and lives in an English speaking country. Yes! Yes! Yes! But what if she cannot write? Or worse! What if she cannot cook? Quel catastrophe! No supermarket can sponsor ‘er. She cannot get the television advertising with the sexy smile to sell the sexy book of the sexy food that is in the sexy supermarket where she arrives in the big butch macho sexy truck that delivers the food and cooks it in the
supermarket car park to show you ‘ow easy it all is. My God! She is useless! If she cannot write that is easy, get a ghost writer. But whoever ‘eard of a ghost cook? Ah! It is no use, this bloody cookery book business. It is too ‘ard. I will never make it. Per’aps I just stick to literature. It is more straightforward. Get a book and just add words. The London Book Fair, what a place! So many of the “old boys” ‘aving their reunions. It is good to see, and amazing also too, that after so many years at school together and now doing the business together, they are still friends. That is longer than most marriages these days. Now to my ‘obby ‘orse. Books! I ‘ave just found out that the whinging Scottish peoples are complaining about the world’s favourite book store, Amazon. Now Amazon believe they just want to ‘elp their customers get the best, (cheapest) price and so they will not let the un’appy booksellers sell their stuff outside of Amazon at a cheaper price, not even on their own little silly web sites. So, they say in effect, remove yourself from Amazon, take up thy books and walk. So what ‘appens next? The canny Scots get uppity and take Amazon to the Office of Fair Trading feeling that
they are being bullied by Amazon. Now, I ask you, is it reasonable to believe that a massive company like Amazon would bully a small bookseller? E-Books, everybody wants to sell e-books and cut out all le crap of the publishing world, the cliques, the cronies, the old boys who only sell to other old boys and cronies, like they are living in 1770 with their big wigs and big dinners playing at being big boys. Pah! They make me sick! But with the e-books, who needs them? Let them drink claret! We will sell our e-books on new platforms, on fresh ether in the cyber world, unpolluted by old ways and young fogies. I see only this week that Penguin in Ireland ‘ave announced that in 2009 they sold one ‘undred e-books. In 2010, they ‘ave already sold more than a 1,000 and expect to sell more. Wow! This is the future. Now ‘ow many e-books will they sell at the London Book Fair, I ask you? We shall see. Now I ‘ave to go, my croissant is getting cold and my salad is warming up with my beer. Ah! The English way of life, luverley!!!!
The Dress In the Window by ***************
The temperature registered 31 degrees on the dashboard of her Toyota; the right hand drive still drew glances from the locals, but their plan to sell it after the first six months in France seemed to be suffering from a permanent hiatus. Marcia wondered if this mutual reluctance to rid themselves of the last link to their English lives was really the manifestation of their unvoiced doubts about their new life in France. This morning, like every morning, the traffic lights were slow; like life here thought Marcia philosophically. Life in France was beginning to cure her natural impatience. She was no longer distressed by the long queues in the bank where every customer seemed to be a blood relative who exchanged kisses (four in this region) with the bank teller, and then chatted for at least fifteen minutes before getting down to business. It was here at the traffic lights that Marcia had her best view of the dress. The driver of the first
car at the lights could not miss it. Today it was bathed in an early morning autumn light that gave it a yellow cast.The dress was a wedding dress displayed on a tailorâ€™s dummy which was placed dead centre in the first floor bedroom window that faced the street. Marcia could date the dress easily; it was ivory (not yellow) with a fitted bodice that boasted a panel of burgundy floral material. It was on the fussy side for Marcia; tiny silk flowers (also in burgundy) adorned the waist, and it had a full skirt; a style that firmly placed this dress and itâ€™s day of glory sometime in the nineties or perhaps the early noughties. Marcia often tried to visualise its possible owner; she imagined it belonged to a local girl who had planned and organised her wedding for at least twelve months. The wedding would have been an occasion for pomp and ceremony; this girl would have lived the one great Saturday of her life in a never ending procession of Mondays. The dress wasnâ€™t static, it was sometimes turned a full 180 degrees, no doubt for cleaning Marcia reasoned, and on these occasions Marcia had been able to observe that the flowers were bigger on the bustle. Suddenly Marcia heard an impatient honk from behind which made her start slightly; lowering
her eyes to the level of the lights she saw that they had changed. She glanced in her mirror where she saw a florid faced man in his fifties lifting his hands from the wheel in a typical Gallic gesture of impatience. She smiled at the contradiction, the French, with their lengthy conversations in the bank, their long lunches, and interminable Sundays without an open shop in sight, were not the same race behind the wheel of a car. Marcia’s morning passed quickly. She had two lessons; the first with a group of functionaries from the regional tourist board who threw themselves into a lively debate on the pros and cons of low cost travel. The other lesson was with a wine grower who wanted to sell his wine to an English distributor and was very keen on honing his negotiating skills. It hadn’t been difficult to find a job; the first letter she sent was to a language school in Saumur, and to her surprise they wrote back immediately offering her a post as a vacataire. The post turned out to be not quite as exciting as it sounded; when there was work she worked when there wasn’t she didn’t. Permanent contracts, she discovered, were almost none existent in this fly-by-night
world of English teaching. In the short period since they arrived Marcia had seen at least a dozen colleagues come and go. The ex teachers, desperate to live in the land of their long summer camping sprees, who became disillusioned by the poor unpredictable salaries and their inability to do anything else. Teachers, she noted, usually went back to Blighty within six months (their personal staff room mugs safely wrapped in bubble wrap). The permanent wanderers, who flit from country to country leaving little or no impression behind. Finally the eccentrics who seek refuge from the mockery of their compatriots, and find it in a foreign language that masks their social ineptitude. Whilst Marcia kept to what she knew, Steve, whose idea it had been to come to the region, had discarded the chalk from his pockets permanently; becoming what Marcia had always considered him to be: an artist. It was the circuit of summer competitions in the region â€˜Les artistes dans les ruesâ€™ that had brought the couple here just two summers ago. Steve and Marcia had loaded up their car with their camping equipment and Steveâ€™s easel and brushes. They moved from village to village; their itinerary dictated by the competitions.The same faces cropped up again
and again, mainly French, but also a smattering of English, Belgian and even one or two Dutch.Two or three competitions into the season and Steve was already making faltering conversation in his schoolboy French with the other artists. Steve came a respectable third in only his second competition, and by the end of the circuit he had two firsts, one second and one third prize to his credit. Furthermore, he was on first name terms with the core of the artists; a group of ten who regularly scooped the top prizes. Few of the group were professional artists; two were teachers and one was a train driver, but the seeds of Steveâ€™s dream to become a full time artist were sown during that holiday. The subject was first broached over a bottle of celebratory wine after his first outright win, and a plan was taking shape before they boarded the ferry at Calais. They were going to give up their teaching jobs and move to France; in particular to Montreuil Bellay, the little town where Steve had won his first competition. As Steve pointed out to Marcia (a little insensitively she thought, but she put it down to the wine) they didnâ€™t have any children so why not? What was holding them back? Marcia wanted Steve to be happy; no doubt due to her lingering suspicion
that she might be responsible for at least some of his unhappiness; besides, self sacrifice was in her DNA. And so it was that they had sold their solid semi detached house that they had renovated and decorated; leaving behind the state of the art kitchen, the airy, bright south facing bedroom and the back bedroom, (that had only ever served as a box room but for which Marcia had long held hopes). Twelve months later the house and the furniture were sold and Steve and Marcia packed what they could not bear to part with into their car and off they went; the parting comments of the two groups of friends, neighbours and relatives (for essentially there were two groups: for and against) still hanging in the air. Marcia drew up to the tiny shop with accommodation above that they were renting from Mr Joly. Mr Joly was a retired bank manager and also the exMaire of the town; a person of note, a â€˜notableâ€™. He carried himself as such; his impossibly huge stomach thrust before him like a trophy; his greying, carefully trimmed moustache sat above a mouth that always appeared to be amused about something. Steve said it was no doubt the size of the rent which had exceeded their estimations considerably. She noticed that Steve had replaced the perfectly executed watercolour of
the riverbank that had dominated the window display with an oil painting that she considered heavy and old fashioned; a still life in the Flemish style. Her chin dipped involuntarily in a little grimace of disapproval as she pushed open the door of the shop. The bell that announced the arrival of any potential customer brought Steve scurrying from the back room which served as his workshop. His face registered his disappointment when he saw Marcia; she marvelled, not for the first time, at how transparent he could be. “Hey it’s me,’ she said aware that as she said it the words were redundant. “Hi,” he replied the note of despondency all too evident in his voice. He wiped his paint stained hands on his old shirt which had once been his best teaching shirt, but which he now wore when painting; Marcia thought that this ritual defacement was no doubt Freudian in origin. “I see you’ve changed the painting in the window,” she said taking off her coat. “Yeah I thought it might bring some custom in.” “hmm,” she picked at a loose thread on her coat. “What? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s...” She searched carefully for her words. “It’s not your usual style,” she replied truthfully scanning his face for any signs of slight. “No, but I think it’s the style that the locals like, and now that the tourists are thin on the ground that’s who I need to appeal to.” He spoke slowly, deliberately and with thinly veiled irritation. Marcia blinked twice taking in the man who she believed she could pre-empt in any situation, and for a moment she was lost for words. He turned and went back into the workshop. Unsure of herself, Marcia hesitated then decided to follow him. The workshop was flooded with light, aided by an ancient glass roof which was in a poor state of repair and leaked in at least five different places. Marcia noted that the light picked up newly formed lines between Steve’s brows and the lines that ran from the corners of his eyes when he squinted; he was squinting now peering at some detail on his latest canvas. Marcia wondered if she too had aged in the short period since they arrived. She glanced at the huge mirror which dominated one wall of the room (it had been a dance studio previously) and saw the same, slim dark haired forty year old woman who looked closer to thirty, but whose looks were otherwise unremarkable.
Her youthful looks were little comfort to her; Marcia knew her biology; forty year old ovaries were forty year old ovaries. “Have you seen the wedding dress in the bedroom window at the lights?” she asked, anxious to break the silence. “Yes...and?” he didn’t look up from his canvas, but she noticed that his tone had softened, the hard edge was missing now. Steve never stayed angry for long, at least that hadn’t changed. “Don’t you find it intriguing?” “Not really, she likes looking at her wedding dress that’s all.” “I didn’t, I gave mine to Oxfam, what do you mean ‘she’?” “Well you know whose it is don’t you?” “No whose?” “The pretty woman who works in the bar with her husband, that’s their house.” “How do you know?” “Marcia, don’t you ever notice anything?” Steve’s mildly admonishing teacher’s tone was resurrected with ease. “I often see them going in and out.” Marcia did indeed know the couple; a little younger than them and distinctly more glamorous
than the majority of their neighbours. “Isabelle, you mean?” “How do you know that?” it was Steve’s turn to be surprised. “I listen,” she smiled; a smile that he returned; his bad humour evaporating. Isabelle was perhaps of Arab origin they had decided (based on their shaky grasp of French history) whilst her husband Etienne was a stereotypical Frenchman, slim, good looking with a decidedly large nose which suited his lean, tanned face. Marcia and Steve were fairly regular visitors to their bar, ‘Les petits tonneaux’ as they no longer possessed a television and it was one of only two bars in the Town; the other bar being a shrine to Formica frequented by ancient Frenchmen, some sporting berets with Gauloises clamped permanently between their lips. ‘Les petits tonneaux’ was a typical tourist bar, narrow, dark and dusty with (as the name suggested) small wooden barrels used as tables. The tables spilled out onto the pavement where locals and tourists alike savoured the local wines beneath the spires of the picture perfect fifteenth century castle typical of those that pepper the Loire valley. Whilst Steve and Marcia still marvelled at the postcard chateau their fellow
villagois never even favoured it with a second glance. “Shall we go for a drink tonight?” Asked Steve. “Should we?” replied Marcia somewhat doubtfully, making a quick mental calculation of the number of hours work she had planned for this month. “Yeah let’s go mad!” said Steve, his smiling face appearing from behind the easel. That night they sat near the bar taking in their surroundings trying to follow conversations. Marcia’s French had improved dramatically since their arrival, due in no small part to her job where she was obliged to speak to the secretaries in French. She also spoke to the neighbours and shopkeepers, but had not managed to make that special connection which could be termed a friendship. Steve, however, still struggled; his solitary occupation hindering his progress despite his sporadic contact with other artists. The owner of the dress was working alone when they arrived despite a rather full bar. Marcia watched with renewed interest as Isabelle weaved between tables serving and chatting with the ease of a woman who had done this all of her life. Isabelle was a tiny woman with a Barbie doll figure, she wore no make up and her black tightly curled hair was bound
in a brightly coloured scarf that suited her working conditions; just the odd curl escaped hinting at the possibility of another Isabelle just waiting to unbind her hair. Near the back of the bar was a pool table dominated by a group of local youths from early evening to closing time, which appeared to be whenever Isabelle and Etienne had had enough of their customers. Tonight was no different, Isabelle moved deftly between the players picking up empty glasses. The young men were not indifferent to her presence and ribald comments filled the air causing Isabelle to pause only momentarily in her task to riposte with a remark that Marcia didnâ€™t understand but which left the young men falling about with hilarity. One young man in particular led the banter fighting for Isabelleâ€™s attention. He was no more than twenty, slim hipped and equally slim chested; only his hair set him apart from the crowd, it was dirty blonde and cut in the surfer style which gave him the appearance of a tourist; the local boys favoured cuts that involved intricate shaved patterns or a close cut with a faintly ridiculous fringe like Tin Tin. Isabelle scattered her favours seemingly without preference as the verbal exchange continued with several of the young men at a speed
too rapid for Marcia to follow. Marcia hadn’t noticed Etienne’s arrival but Steve had, he touched her foot lightly under the table with his, simultaneously shifting his eyes to the left where Marcia saw Etienne polishing glasses behind the bar; keenly observing his wife. The young men resumed their game of Pool amidst some murmured exchanges and suppressed laughter as Isabelle made her way to the bar; her arms laden with glasses. Depositing the glasses on the bar she joined her husband behind it; her hands rested on his hips as she squeezed past him in the narrow space. Etienne’s face betrayed nothing of his feelings, but Marcia noticed that his eyes never left Isabelle as she poured herself a glass of something green diluted in water. Isabelle didn’t seem aware of her husband’s rapt attention as she surveyed the bar her eyes coming to rest on Marcia and smiling in a way that Marcia could only describe as complicit. “Rather him than me,” said Steve. “Sorry?” replied Marcia still contemplating the significance of the smile. “I said, rather him than me.” “What do you mean?” “She’s quite a handful.” “And what does that mean?” frowned Marcia
hardly recognising (for the second time that day) her husband of fifteen years.This was the man whose best friend at teacher training college, a fiery red head called Danni, had slept with half the students in the halls of residence (not to mention two lecturers) and who Steve defended to the hilt. He had almost come to blows with one of his less politically correct friends who referred to her as a slapper; he and Danni were close; too close for Marcia. Danni had made her feel very inadequate at the time, as Marcia had brought little by way of experience to their relationship. For the first six months she was convinced that Steve would tire of her. It was a feeling that had, in her opinion, lingered far too long. Steve didn’t have the opportunity to reply as their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Isabelle, noisily drawing up a stool to their barrel table. “Hello my name is Isabelle,” she announced with an accent that could cut cheese if not glass. “Hello, I’m Marcia and this is Steve,” said Marcia. “Hello,” she repeated giving Steve no more than a cursory glance, her brown eyes were on Marcia.
“You are English teacher, no?” “Yes I am,” laughed Marcia. “I want that you give me English lessons, I have many English people in the bar and it’s for that I want to learn.” “You can contact my company..;” Marcia began but she was quickly interrupted by Isabelle. “No, I want..au noir,” Isabelle rubbed her forefingers together in the universal gesture for cash and Marcia understood ‘au noir’. “She wants me to teach her on the side,” she explained to Steve. Steve lifted his eyebrows and shrugged slightly to indicate his indifference. “Twenty euros each hour,” interjected Isabelle. As Marcia was currently being paid fifteen euros per hour before tax, so the offer was generous. Steve’s foot tapped hers for the second time that evening; his indifference apparently forgotten. “OK, why not? When do you want to begin?” “Monday!” beamed Isabelle revealing two rows of perfectly even, whiter than white teeth. “Here?” asked Marcia. “No, you come to my house, you know where I live?” despite the structure Marcia understood that
this was a question. “Yes, the house with the dress in the window,” Marcia wasn’t sure why she had blurted out this piece of irrelevant information, other than it was in her head; Isabelle was for her ‘the owner of the dress’ and the association made it was difficult to unmake it. Marcia blushed furiously; it was as if the subject was taboo and yet she wasn’t sure why. Isabelle laughed a throaty easy laugh as though they were girlfriends sharing a secret. “Yes, you know my house!” Isabelle went on to explain that the bar was closed on Mondays and she preferred the afternoon as she and Etienne tended to sleep late on Monday. By chance Marcia had nothing in her timetable for Monday afternoon, so they arranged to meet after the weekend. Marcia saw the arrangement with Isabelle as much more than a financial one; it was perhaps the opportunity to forge a friendship, or even, as she allowed her imagination to conjure, a circle of friends. She approached the double fronted house, that Isabelle and Etienne lived in, in a buoyant mood her eyes flitting automatically to the dress in the window where it faced the street regally like some headless Tudor queen. Isabelle was at the door before she had
time to lift the sizeable door knocker. “Enter please,” smiled Isabelle. Outside the bar she wore the same clothes; jeans that flattered her boyish hips and a T shirt that had seen better days. The transformation was in her hair, the curls were no longer bound but framed her face forming a halo of tight glossy curls that bounced as she moved. “I love your hair,” said Marcia. Isabelle looked vacant until Marcia leaned over and touched her hair. “Ah! ‘air,” replied Isabelle with her trademark throaty laugh that could only be attributed to twenty cigarettes a day. Marcia was ushered from a cluttered, unwelcoming hall, which appeared to be decorated with some form of flock wallpaper, into the kitchen which was vast, equally cluttered, and seemed to serve as living room, dining room and kitchen. From what Marcia had seen of the interiors of local houses (usually in the estate agent’s window) this was typical; she had rarely seen a three piece suite. French homes, Marcia had decided, reflected French life and their obsession with food as houses sometimes boasted two or three dining tables of various sizes scattered around the house or garden. A huge black range dominated the
room. In one corner a mishmash of rickety kitchen units lined the walls, no doubt added to by each successive tenant; for that was what Isabelle and Etienne undoubtedly were: tenants. The house had a distinctly temporary feel about it, rather like Marciaâ€™s and Steveâ€™s; something that had irked Marcia since their arrival. At heart she supposed she was fundamentally British; she needed her twenty five year mortgage to feel at home. Marcia, irrationally, and for the most trivial of reasons, suddenly felt a surge of affinity with this woman who was equally rootless. The room was big enough to accommodate a massive pine table surrounded by numerous mismatched chairs. On the walls, entirely out of place in this rented house where decoration was minimal, were a series of modern canvases in warm colours, well executed in oils. In front of the fireplace, which appeared to be in working order, were two easy chairs which Marcia could date to the early seventies. Both chairs were chocolate brown and orange striped and judging by the sagging seats they were long past their life expectancy; on one of the chairs sat a huge tabby cat. Isabelle shooed the cat none too gently and motioned to Marcia to sit. Isabelle removed a large pile of magazines from the sagging seat of the other chair and pushed them
underneath; domesticity didn’t seem to be her strong point. “Today I need to establish your level so the lesson will begin with conversation, I’m going to...” “I want the conversation,” interrupted Isabelle, “I don’t want lessons on paper as in school,” Isabelle wrinkled her nose as if bringing to mind something unpleasant. “OK,” Isabelle slid a packet of cigarettes from her jeans; the action confirming the casual nature of their ‘lesson’. She held the open pack out to Marcia who refused with a shake of her head. “I know, it’s very bad,” said Isabelle lighting up with evident pleasure. Marcia made a mental note to teach her ‘do you mind if I smoke?.’ “Where are you from Isabelle?” asked Marcia. “Paris, my father was a militaire he meet my mother in Madagascar.” “Met,” corrected Marcia, but Isabelle appeared not to hear. “He always say me, I pick your mother from a tree!” Isabelle smiled fondly at this, no doubt, oft repeated anecdote. Marcia’s smile was temporarily frozen as she reflected, not for the first time, on the
cultural differences between the French and the English particularly on the subject of race. It brought to mind her mother who had repeatedly referred to her black friend Sally as that nice coloured girl. A black person being politically incorrect was outside Marcia’s experience. “And Etienne?” she enquired diverting the subject. “We met in Paris,” she smiled her complicit smile as she demonstrated her ability learn quickly. “But Etienne come from here, we come back because his father is malade” she looked at Marcia searchingly for the translation. “Sick,” she obliged. “Now we work in the bar of the father of Etienne.” “Are you married?” asked Marcia keen to know if the dress was really Isabelle’s. “ Yes, English people like.....married,” she observed, “Etienne and me we are together since eight years, he wants that we marry, so we marry.” She inhaled deeply from her cigarette. “And you....did you want to?” asked Marcia aware as she said it that she was prying. “I want also,” she replied her expression lost
in a haze of exhaled cigarette smoke. “You keep your wedding dress on display, is that because you like to look at it? “Display?” “Exposition.” “After the mariage I have no place for the dress in Paris, when I return here the sister of Etienne display the dress, so......” she shrugged her shoulders, the classic Gallic shrug, and returned her attention to her cigarette. Marcia laughed inwardly at her naïve, romantic presumptions that were clearly unsuited to this hard nosed Parisienne. The lesson passed quickly with Isabelle lapsing into French occasionally as they slipped into girls talk. Marcia, mindful of her fee, kept bringing her back to English. They had just finished when Etienne came into the room, his eyes bulged with evidence of a deep sleep, his uncombed hair adding to his general dishevelment. Isabelle introduced Marcia in the formal manner of the French and she was favoured with the traditional four kisses of the region. Etienne smiled and didn’t seem unfriendly, but he had little to say even when Isabelle told Marcia, “ He speak very well English.” Marcia noted
with interest that while he prepared his rather late petit déjeuner his eyes rarely left Isabelle. Maybe it’s Etienne who likes the dress on display she mused. The weeks past and Isabelle continued with her lessons, improving slowly in her impatience to speak as fast as a native and her general disdain of grammar. Etienne remained silent and distant ruling out any possibility of a cosy foursome, but Marcia was happy with her first inroad into French society. She had made contact and now there was a person in the village who hailed her as a friend, stopped her in the street, exchanged kisses; it was a start. The dress continued to intrigue Marcia, if Isabelle was so indifferent why was it so carefully placed in the window either facing the traffic or with its back turned? Isabelle’s complete lack of domesticity seemed at odds with the almost prissy arrangement of the dress. Marcia found herself looking forward to Monday afternoons. The lessons had quickly degenerated into girl talk, but Isabelle didn’t seem to mind. Marcia felt guilty taking money for something she found so enjoyable; she likened it to accepting a payment from Sam her best friend in her other
life after their Saturday morning coffee and chat in Starbucks, but Isabelle insisted. Their Monday afternoon meetings were fun and Marcia had unearthed some entertaining facts about the hard nosed Parisienne. Marcia knew, for example, that Isabelle liked whisky, preferably malt; she poured scorn on her female compatriots who favoured sweet low alcohol aperitifs (and never more than one). Marcia knew that Isabelle had hated school and had had a variety of colourful jobs including taking the entrance tickets in a travelling circus; she had been madly in love with the acrobat she explained. Isabelle hinted at a veritable battery of former lovers all of them inadequate in some way, but Etienneâ€™s name was never evoked. Marcia presumed that she only bad mouthed the ex lovers. Isabelle had been (or possibly was) a wild child by English standards and something perhaps not so flattering by French. If Marcia was looking out to her new community thanks to Isabelle, Steve was increasingly insular. The locals were not, as he had predicted, queuing up to buy his Flemish oils and they hadnâ€™t cracked for his latest foray into some rather eyecatching pop art. Marcia was now the breadwin-
ner, which didnâ€™t bother Marcia, but seemed to irritate Steve despite his flat denial. He painted till long after she went to bed, sliding silently alongside her at some late hour. He no longer slid his cold hands underneath her fleecy pyjamas cupping her breasts making her squeal with shock and undisguised delight. She missed the smell of paint and thinner that clung to her hair after their lovemaking. She missed Steve. She was lost in her thoughts and had almost walked past Isabelleâ€™s house when she stopped abruptly, her head tilted back to take in the dress. Today the big roses were on display, the dress was turned a full 180 degrees; she imagined Isabelle walking down the aisle, her glossy curls bouncing, leaving the church. Suddenly a fleshed out Isabelle was in the window turning the dress to face the road, she saw Marcia and started slightly, then smiled her strangely complicit smile. Marcia lifted a hand and returned the smile unsure of what she might be complicit in. Her attention was broken by the opening of the front door and the ponderous appearance of Mr Joly, who was preoccupied with an undisciplined shirt tail that had decamped from his straining waistband. It was probably the first time that Marcia had seen Mr Joly devoid of his faintly amused expression, today he had
the look of a learner driver facing a tight parking space in Paris. Still struggling with his attire and completely avoiding eye contact (no mean feat at less than two feet distance) Mr Joly bustled past Marcia almost knocking her off balance in his haste. The mystery of the dress in the window was no longer a mystery. The next two hours proved to be a testing time for Marcia. Isabelle greeted her with the usual four kisses meeting her eyes without blushing. By tacit understanding no mention was made of Mr Joly, and Isabelle had no difficulty plunging into their Monday afternoon girl talk. Marcia, however, struggled to behave naturally as images of Mr Joly, ungainly, naked , old and very amused lying with the lissome Isabelle, rose unbidden to mind. Etienne, it transpired, was visiting his father in hospital; Isabelle delivered this last with a distinctly defiant exhalation of her Gauloise, which provoked and required no response from Marcia. Marcia was keen to tell Steve about this intriguing turn of events, but stepping into the shop she suddenly felt unwilling to share her thoughts, and she wasnâ€™t sure why. The shop was, as usual,
depressingly empty. She walked through to the workshop where Steve was cleaning some brushes. “Hi,” she said. Her exchanges with Steve seemed brief these days and she wasn’t even sure that he would answer. “Hey,” came the automatic response but he didn’t look up from his brushes. “I’ve just finished my lesson with Isabelle,” she said offering him a lifebelt into a conversation. This merely elicited a fleeting glance in her direction where she observed a slight lifting of his brow in polite acknowledgement. The lifebelt floundered in icy water but Marcia made another attempt. “What are you working on?” “Some new stuff,” he replied dismissively. Marcia crossed the room and stood behind him facing his canvas. The painting, which was bold and abstract and as yet unfinished , was a riot of red and orange. Marcia’s heart felt stone-like in her chest as she weighed up yet another of Steve’s experimental canvases; she wanted to tell him that he was more and more like the Chinese artists she had seen on television who churn out identical Van Goghs for the European market. She wanted to tell him to be himself, and to go back to the exquisite watercolours he
used to produce. The painting was strangely familiar but then, she reasoned, so is Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’. She opened her mouth to deliver some pat compliment when Steve interrupted her. “I sold a painting today,” he said flatly. “No way!” cried Marcia immediately checking herself for sounding so incredulous, but it was too late judging by Steve’s expression. “Don’t wet your pants, I did a deal with the Landlord, he’s taking the still life that was in the window for two months rent.” Steve returned to his brushes cleaning them with renewed vigour. “Mr Joly?” she enquired more than a little surprised. “Unless our landlord has changed.” Marcia, now subdued, stared at the canvas, one part of her brain was still trying to place it whilst in another part of her grey matter she made some glaringly obvious connections concerning Mr Joly and his tenants. “Well that’s good,” she finally managed, “are you going to put this in the window?” “I don’t even know if I’m going to sell it,” he replied.
“Do you think he does this often with his tenants?” she asked. “Mr Joly? I doubt he has many artist tenants.” “I mean, do you think he accepts unorthodox payments?” Her eyes remained trained on the canvas, it suddenly felt important that she remember where she had seen the style before. “What are you talking about Marcia?” Steve asked looking at her quizzically. “Nothing,” she replied turning her level gaze towards her husband of fifteen years; she had indeed placed the painting; it was the sister to the series that hung on Isabelle’s wall. What’s more she had a good idea why he might not be selling it. Marcia went through the motions at work; she was on automatic pilot; lessons came and went. The week seemed to fly at the speed of light bringing her round to Monday and Isabelle’s lesson all too soon. In her head she rehearsed conversations that began, these paintings are very striking, or even more absurdly, so, what do you think of Mr Joly?. She knew that she would say nothing of the sort, she would correct Isabelle’s conjugations for the millionth time and smile and smile like the idiot she surely was. Marcia legs were heavier than her wicker basket that she liked
to haul with her to the market on Saturdays, yet they were dragging her to Isabelle’s house against every instinct she had. The subject of the painting had been impossible to broach with Steve; she just couldn’t or wouldn’t find the words. She had always imagined that they could talk about anything, but that was in the other life before France. Steve had seemed happier this week; the workshop was filled with music after he found an ancient transistor radio under the kitchen sink. Marcia’s eyes had actually misted over when he took up the chorus of Robert Palmer’s ‘addicted to love’ a little off key and with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Approaching Isabelle’s house Marcia’s eyes flitted automatically to the window where, to her complete surprise, the dress had been turned just ninety degrees; making her do a double take like in some Tom and Jerry cartoon. The details on the short sleeves (also adorned with silk roses) were visible now and she could imagine the silhouette in profile that Isabelle would have presented to the congregation on the day of her wedding. Marcia could see that the tight bodice would have flattered Isabelle’s boyish figure pulling her in at the waist and pushing her small breasts up. What a pretty picture she must have
presented when making her vows to Etienne thought Marcia; suspecting that the new position the dress had taken up had more to do with breaking them. She had come to a complete halt and was staring at the dress; where had Steve said he was going this morning? to buy paints, or was it canvases? She felt the blood flooding her cheeks and pounding in her temples as it had during her teenage years when she found herself in a confrontation. She moved slowly in an almost dream-like state and placed her hand on the huge door knocker that dominated Isabelle’s arched front door; it lay there for a long moment. Her reverie was broken by the unmistakeable sound of a Mobilette revving up. It was a sound that had shortened Marcia’s nights with regular monotony as the local youths scooted around the town; apparently they took something off the bikes to create the horrendous screech. The Mobilette was being manoeuvred down the narrow alleyway that ran down the side of Isabelle’s house. It emerged to Marcia’s right; a gleaming chrome plated machine with flashes of red on the body. The driver stopped to put on his helmet before taking to the road, a helmet that didn’t quite cover the dirty blonde curls that distinguished him from the other youths of the town. Marcia didn’t even merit a
glance as he sped off towards the town centre. Marcia relinquished her hold on the door knocker and resisted the temptation to look at the dress in the bedroom window; this scene had already been played once and she saw no need to reheat it. She pulled her jacket around her middle, which seemed smaller than of late, and headed for her rented house. Because that was exactly what it was, a rented house, and it would never be home she decided. The last home she’d had had been sold, but it wasn’t about the bricks and mortar, and that was something she had known for a while. Even the question of the painting seemed somehow irrelevant now but the sense of closure was nonetheless pervasive; she was going ‘home’ wherever that may be and she wasn’t sure if she was travelling solo. Turning the corner she stopped abruptly. The shop was about one hundred and fifty metres away, and even at this distance she couldn’t miss the painting that took centre stage in the window, nor could she miss the sign declaring it for sale. She was amazed to see that the finished canvas bore little resemblance to the series in Isabelle’s house, making Marcia question her reasoning if not her sanity. Using the heel of her hand to blot the tears that were now clouding her
vision Marcia headed for the shop at an ever quickening pace; in a matter of seconds she had broken into a run. Marcia had never been an athlete, and hadn’t done any sport in years, but she ran like a young girl relishing the rhythmic pumping of her heart and the cold air assaulting her lungs. Marcia burst into the shop setting the bell jangling with alarming force startling a couple in their fifties who were admiring a watercolour. Steve emerged from the workshop to see Marcia framed in the doorway; she was bent from the waist with her hands on her knees and she was breathing heavily. Lifting her head and straightening up she took a second to regain her composure. Still panting she announced, “I’m home.”
The Sunday Minimalist by Michel of the London frog 3rd Edition I-Pad v eye pad Bonjour mes punters, I am so ‘appy zis week. You see, and I am so sure that you all know that the wonderful I-Pad ‘as just come out... not like a gay, you understand, I mean, is available... in ze shops. you silly. Everybody is talking ‘bout it... so, I am not going to talk about it... ‘owever, I will just says zis. It is so wonderful. I want one. I want one now... As many of you will know, it is my anniversaire soon, yes my something or other birthday. I cannot remember exactly the number, but it is a pretty big one I ‘ave you know. So, my address is on the web site so you can send me my I-Pad for my birsday, or maybe some accessories for it. The last time I ‘ad an eye pad it was when I was in ‘ospital. Zis girl she say to me, “Would you like a poke?” I thought, zis is good, why not? Then all of a sudden zis stupide girl, at least, I think it was a girl, but sometimes zese days one cannot exactly be
sure, I mean sure enough to swear under oath, no, I was not that sure, but I think it was a girl... anyway, it had big bouncy ‘air, tits and a smile like the sun coming out. Next thing my eyes are watering as through a blurred ‘aze I see her fingers retreating and then coming back to give me another poke. It was the only poke I was getting that night. So, you must understand I want an I-Pad not an eye pad. I am preparing for ze annual stampede in Earl’s Court for the London Book Fair. It is amazing, soon I won’t have to go there as there will be no books left in the world. If they haven’t been burnt they’ll have been turned into downloads. I remember once going into a record store called HMV, (‘is Masters Voice), and guess what? They were selling disques on vinyl. Lovely warm vinyl.You know, ze stuff that the adventurous sexual types make their night time leatherette clothes from. Ah! I just realised, silly me, that is why they stopped making ze records. After that they ‘ad cheap and nasty little funny cassettes, then CD’s. In a moment of moist eyed nostalgia, I returned this week and I could not find any records, they were selling Artic Monkey t-shirts and books and stuff.
Ah! Nostalgia is not what it used to be. So I went across the road to Waterstones for a cup of Costa Coffee and a croissant. Lovely jubbly, as you roast beef would say. Merde! Let me think! But why you say that? It is stupide. Lovely jubbly!!! What does that mean? I ask ze people and no one knows. It is not in the dictionnaire. I know ‘ow to find out. At the London Book Fair I will find a big company like the Random ‘ouse or somesing and just walk up and smile and say, “Lovely jubbly,” and see their reaction. Someone will give me the answer. This year, I am going to see if Amazon is there. I do not remember seeing them there before, I wonder why? Per’aps it is my bad mammary, sorry, memoire, no, I got it, memory. It is amazing if Amazon is not there. Just last week I bumped into the stupide Makalouf, you know, that bloody bugger Berber Algerian, ‘e is stupide! ‘e say to me that Amazon was an Irish company. Quel ridicule! ‘e say it was started by zis geyser, Jeff Bejeezus. I said no, it was Jeff Bezos, but ‘e wouldn’t ‘ave it. So I got annoyed. Next zis same stupide mec try to tell me that Barak Obama is Irish. I told ‘im he is stupide, that Obama is American. Then ‘e tells me there is
no proof that ‘e is American and that ‘s real name is Barry O’Bama. Just recently ‘e told me, as you well know, that Shakespeare was Algerian and ‘is real name was Walid Shakespeare, now zis. What next? Johnny ‘alliday I suppose is Belgian? Charles Aznavour will be Armenian or something stupide. Madame Curie was Polish! Huh! Next ‘e will say Marie Antoinette was not French. Hah! Zey are all just jealous because France is so fantastic, so beautiful and ze people so brilliant. Never mind, in five years time I will be visiting the London Apple Download Fair. Oh God, if you are up there, if you are listening, send me an I-Pad, I am only a poor ‘onest, modest Frenchman doomed to this living purgatory called London. Oh God, if I ‘ave got it all wrong and there is an ‘ell, please not make it one with lots rain, I can’t stand it any more.
Les Bars des Dunes by ****** fone would brave the weather on a day like this. He didn’t feel the full force of the wind until he left the village and drove north on the exposed, narrow, coastal road. Some of the gusts had a nasty bit of clout to them and he gripped the steering wheel hard. The rain sheeted in from the sea, blurring the road. There was an orange alert out and people had been told to stay in. They’d shown pictures on the news of hailstones the size of pigeons’ eggs only 20 kms away, damaging conservatories, cars and livestock. It hadn’t been too bad down his way, but he knew what was brewing. His beach front bar would take a battering this night. Gérard had a profound respect for the elements. He knew what his chances were against the raw, unleashed powers of the equinox, the full moon and these sudden weather changes. He nearly missed the turn-off to the left be-
cause of battling to keep the car steady. The short side road led straight to the sea, and to his bar, Le Bar des Dunes. There were two houses opposite, belonging to Parisians who sometimes came to stay in the summer. Gérard had bought the bar for a song in 1969, long before the local authorities got themselves tied up in knots with their rules and regulations. His grandmother had died the previous year and his parents let him have her house in Genêts. He needed it, having just got married, and with a baby on the way. Tonight, on the last day of March, there’d be one of the highest spring tides ever. Gérard would be in his bar, ready to serve a heart-warming drink for his clients. He usually opened around 10 am and stayed until 2 pm, or until the last client left. Then he’d go home and relax for a couple of hours, and he’d return for the next stint around 5 pm. Why shouldn’t he stick to his routine today? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d opened the bar and seen nobody. Well, he had his reasons. Because deep down, he knew.
He parked the car in the usual place. He had a job hanging on to the door to get out, but he managed to close it without the gale wrenching it off. The bar was waiting for him, perched on the bluff overhanging the dunes. A sudden gust of wind nearly threw him off balance and he leaned forward into the wind. It was 5.30 pm when he let himself in. A bit on the late side, he thought, frowning. He was about to open the shutters when he heard a heavy, dull thud through the roar of the storm. He couldn’t judge how far away it had been, but he knew another chunk of grassy ledge had given way and fallen down on the sand below. When he was a boy there’d been a comfortable coastal path along the fields with a 2-3 metre drop down to the sandy beach. During the 2001 storm it had suffered severely. Huge sections of the dunes had collapsed – including his bar’s panoramic terrace overlooking the sea and the Mont St. Michel. The garage and an ancient pine tree belonging to the house opposite had also gone. He’d claimed on his insurance. They’d paid out a laughable sum and re-evaluated his property. He’d
get very little now, if the elements carried it away. He didn’t own the land it stood on. Coastal land belonged to the government. Nowadays no one would be allowed to set up a business where he was. He chuckled at the thought of the mad woman who’d come in the summer before last and asked if he’d be willing to sell her the bar. She’d made him a reasonable offer, but of course he’d refused. For one thing Le Bar des Dunes represented everything he’d achieved in life. Secondly it was his life, and if he sold it he’d probably end up going there every day for his pastis… with nothing to do except drink it. Thirdly the countdown to the end had already started. Selling the bar would be dishonest even if he put the cards on the table. Finally, he wanted to be there when it happened. The woman had kept coming back. It took a while before she’d take no for an answer. But she liked her pastis, rather than the sweet stuff most women preferred. Gérard opened the shutters and turned the lights on. Electricity still working. Good. There
were a couple of murky daylight hours left. The tide would be right in an hour after sunset. If only the wind would drop. He busied himself wiping the counter and the tables. The décor was roughly as he and his wife had done it in the beginning – while baby Thomas slept in his wicker basket. His wife’s unnecessary death ten years ago still hurt. Thomas had answered the call of the sea. He was with a fishing fleet in Brittany. The bar was a simple wooden shack. A proper beach bar. It was sturdy enough and had withstood worse storms. Although he didn’t like the ferocious gusts that swept in from the bay, making the walls creak and groan. The real worry, however, was the gradual erosion of the dunes underneath the bar. It stood on a solid base of concrete, but what was the use of that if the dunes caved in? The bar wouldn’t float in thin air. Unless it was made of the stuff that dreams are made of. There was a rush and a clatter. The wind had torn off a front shutter which was bouncing away up the road. As he watched it tumbling along,
there was a heaving sigh from one of the pine trees. It seemed to reach towards the sky before tilting and lying down across the road. GĂŠrard was relieved when it missed his car, but there was now only one way to get home. Heâ€™d have to walk the 5 kms through the storm. Or stay. He poured himself a pastis and watched the liquid turn yellow and cloudy as he swirled it round the ice cubes. He went out on the bluff to watch the sunset. He had to sit down on the sand leaning against the wooden fence to avoid being blown down the road. The rain had eased, but purple-black clouds, lit up orange as the sun sank, were scuttling across the sky. The tide was rushing in across the seabed. As fast as a galloping horse, they said. The massive wall of water was heaved into the bay by the gravity of the sun and the moon. There was a strong possibility that crashing waves would reach the dunes. He crawled back into the haven of his bar to refill his glass. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a voice shouting out over the howl-
ing storm. “Salut, Gérard. I knew you’d be here.” If it wasn’t that woman! “What on earth are you doing here?” he asked, forgetting polite formalities. “How did you get through? There’s a tree down.” “I know. I parked the other side and climbed over. Can I have one of those?” she said pointing to his pastis. He poured her one. “I think I know why you’re here,” she said, looking out through the window with the missing shutter. “I even brought you a bunch of daffodils, but I left it in the car. There was no way I could carry it safely through the storm and all the obstacles.” She sat down and for a brief moment the bar assumed an air of normality. “Do you know my name?” she asked simply. Gérard just stared. “Cécile,” she said in reply to his silence. “I came here one summer about twenty years ago with my family. It was a magnificent summer. We went cockle-picking, played beach ball, walked the dunes, lay in the sun, and came here for our drinks and ice creams. We ate the sandwiches your wife pre-
pared, and your son was helping out when the bar got busy. There was a constant buzz of carefree holiday-makers enjoying themselves. I always knew I’d come back one day, and a couple of years ago I did.”
Her words merely scratched at the surface of Gérard’s store of memories. Had he noticed Cécile and her family all those years ago? He didn’t think so. They’d always worked hard in the summer, but holidays use their own charm to take the sting out of the grind. Suddenly the bar was plunged in darkness. Gérard scrambled round the counter to get his torch. Power cuts did happen and the torch was adequate to keep going till the power came back. That would be days rather than hours this time, he thought. There was a tarpaulin on the shelf as well and he tucked it under his arm. Then he asked Cécile to take the pastis and the glasses, because it was time to go out and watch the tide. They settled down on the bluff, protecting
themselves as best they could with the tarpaulin. Like a couple of damn tourists, Gérard thought. After forty years of running Le Bar des Dunes, Gérard had lost count of the number of tides he’d watched rolling majestically into the bay. It was always spectacular, especially around the equinox, when there was a full moon and the tides reached their highest level with a vertical difference of 14 metres between high and low tide. Tourists arrived with their cameras, and even the locals turned up to witness the power and the glory. He clinked glasses with Cécile and they took a sip of pastis. He felt strangely comforted by the proximity of the woman. He had no idea why she wanted to share this with him, but her interest seemed genuine, and somehow he appreciated it. He switched off the torch. They scanned the horizon. The silhouette of the Mont St. Michel was outlined against the sunset afterglow. Then they saw the advancing mass of water. Black and solid with shiny swirls and topped by a shimmering ridge of foam, the sea was re-conquering its territory after a twelve-hour absence. Gérard knew better than to attribute emotions to natural phe-
nomena. The earth did not turn on its axis out of spite or for fun. Nor did the sea sweep in with a raging fury intent on annihilating its rival, the land. But rage and lash it did. They sat in silence, pulling the tarpaulin round their shoulders. The howling of the wind was punctuated by the booming of the sea, making conversation impossible. When the spray from the waves reached them they retired up the road and settled on the grassy verge that offered a semblance of shelter. They could no longer see what havoc the sea was wreaking on the shore, but the ferociousness of the storm remained unabated. Gérard saw in his mind’s eye how the battering waves struck at the dunes again and again. When it happened, they stood up and hugged. The bar shook violently, then it leaned at a crooked angle to the left and forward. It held this position for a few brave moments before toppling into the watery abyss below. Cécile’s car was undamaged and the only
fallen tree that blocked the road on the way back to Genêts was small enough for them to shift it. Gérard’s house seemed oddly peaceful. There was still a roar from outside, but they were distanced from it now. Cécile had given him the daffodils in the car, and Gérard had brought the bottle of pastis back. When he’d put the daffodils in a vase and poured out drinks he asked, “Why?” “A dream,” she said. She hesitated before continuing. “Or a myth. Something with a beginning and an end to make sense of the chaos. “You know how they say that life can be cruel. That’s just nonsense. Life is a succession of random events. You shouldn’t take it personally. But I did at the time, and I needed an escape route.
“When a friend of mine offered me the use of her holiday cottage here in Genêts – the same friend we’d stayed with twenty years ago – I accepted. I revisited your bar and started fantasising about owning it. “Its charm is the way it’s precariously
perched on the edge of the precipice. The bar at the end – or at the beginning – of the world. It’s either bravely facing… or totally indifferent to whatever Nature, or God, or Fate might throw at it. I wanted to follow it through to a natural conclusion, a dignified end. That’s why I had to come tonight.” Gérard scratched his chin. “You’re some dreamer,” he said, half admiringly. “I’ll tell you a secret, but only if you promise to keep it to yourself.” Gérard looked at her quizzically. Cécile nodded. “If you hadn’t come tonight, I might have been sitting inside the bar when it collapsed into the sea.” He looked defiantly at her. “I might even have been washed up somewhere along the coast in a hell of a mess. Who knows?” “Huh,” sniffed Cécile. “You interrupted me before I got round to telling you how my fantasy ended. But you’ve already given too much away, so I won’t bother.” Gérard picked up the bottle of pastis, the last relic from his bar. The evening was not turning out anything like what he’d imagined. The all-powerful elements had played their part. They’d dealt
the expected blow. The final blow. Yet somehow it lacked that dimension of finality. “This isn’t right,” he said. “You’ve interfered. You got in the way, Cécile. I knew what to expect. I even wanted it to happen. The logical outcome. The perfect end.” “The end?” Cécile said, studying the swirling eddies of her pastis. “What ever makes you want this evening to be the end?”
Sunday Minimalist Michel Le Grenouille francais 4th edition Saturdays and the English way of life.
Salut, punters et mes amis, Normally, I talk about ze Sundays, but today. I want to talk about ze Saturdays. At first, being French, I want to say somesing poetic, but for some reason, I cannot think of anything. Where is the great poet French Eric Cantona when you need ‘im? Ah! Only ‘e could describe the mentality of a seagull like that. Anyway, I would just like to say somesing I ‘ave observed. I ‘ave been living in zis country for some time now and I notice a strange thing about it. Last week on Saturday when I am shopping I see a shop that says “Bookmaker”. “Oh! Good! I love books,” I think, and decide to go in and see ‘ow it
is done. When I get inside ze shop I am shocked. There are no books. It is like the other shop I told you about, the record shop with no CD’s. So, I sit down, I ‘ave a cup of coffee and watch the telly. “Funny shop, zis”, I tell myself. On the telly, there are I see, these ‘orses running round in a race. Everybody is excited and going loopy. “What is zis?” I ask the manager. ‘e looks at me as if I am mad. “It’s The Grand National,” ‘e says with pride, “an English institution.” “Ah oui!” I respond, but really I am thinking, an institution, that is where ‘e looks like ‘e should be. “So, if they are so grand, why are ze ‘orses all falling over? They are not very good, they are amateurs, not like our French ‘orses who stay on their feet.” ‘e looks at me avec meprise, ah, contempt, and ‘e say in that cockney manner, “Shuuuut uuuup!” So I laugh at ‘im. “Why you speak with so many Vowowowowowels?” Suddenly, I feel my bum bouncing on the pavement. Maybe ‘is ‘orse is one of
the ones that fall over and zat is why ‘e is so un’appy. I see through the door that everyone go mad and shout for the winner, Don’t Push It and ‘is jockey Tony McCoy. I see un’appy faces tear up their tickets. I push the door open and as I pull my ticket from my pocket, not a ticket I buyed in the bookmaker shop, but in the pub last night. A sweepstake, I think you call it. I got mixed up because when I buy it, I thought he said beefsteak, but no, now my sweepstake fill me with joy. “Don’t Push It! Don’t Push It! Vainquer! Vainquer!” I shout, I am so ‘appy. The manager again look at me with the meprise. “Oo you calling a wanker?” he says, “don’t you push it!” I feel ‘is fat sausage fingers lift me by my jacket and my bum hits the pavement again... ‘ow would I know that in France le vainqueur being the winner is the opposite in English... okay, ze spelling is different but ze sound is the same. The Saturday before was better, though very boring, at least I am not ‘armed. It was The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Why? What is ze point of this stupid race, I wonder. Two long rowing boats with giant students in a row, like they are modelling
for Easter Island and being shouted at by a midget at the back. Why should they listen to ‘im, ‘e is not even pulling his little weight. Quel tradition! On Saturday, I sometimes go to see my good French team, Arsenal, though I ‘ave noticed from time to time they let in quels etrangers like the Great Dane, Bentnar and the Spaniards Fabregas and Almunia. Monsieur Wenger, what are you doing? We are supposed to be showing them ‘ow to play the beautiful game, the French way. Silly me, I forgot, most of the players in France are from Africa, North Africa and South America. Ah! Now I get it, zat is why the French players come ‘ere. It is the new colony and only a couple of hours by train from Paris. Not an Icelandic cloud in the sky to worry about, no clouds in Le Tunnel. So, on Saturday I meet mes copains at le pub in ‘ighbury, ‘ave a Pastis and a baguette and off to le match. Just like ‘ome. Last week on the way to le match I bump into the stupid one, no not the arrogant Portuguese one, the other one, that bloody Berber bugger, Makhalouf. He say ‘e go to le foot and I ask ‘im if ‘e support Totten-ham. “e look at me with the disgust. “Full-ham,” he say indignantly, “I support Full-
ham.” “Why not Totten-ham?” I ask. “Now I know you stupid,” ‘e reply, “ow can I go to Totten-ham when I am a Muslim, Totten-ham is Jewish club.” “I didn’t know that,” I say, feeling a bit naïve about such a thing. “Clubs don’t ‘ave religion, football is the religion.” “Ah! You stupid,” says Makhalouf, “you know nothing, you just ignorant French peasant.” I get annoyed, “So why Full-ham then, smartass?” I say that so ‘e realise I can talk American English too. “You stupid... Full-ham is good Muslim club, it is Al-Fayed’s club.” I wave a dismissive hand. “It is a waste of time talking to you,” I say as I walk away. You are a wanker.” I am now so proud that I have learned a new English word in the vulgar.
Makhalouf smiles proudly to himself, â€œnow I know he stupid, he says that I am the vainquer.â€?
THE CRACKED POT by ******************** Driving through the market square in Falaise I heard an echoing cry. It sounded lonely, like me; like me, in pain. I had no problem parking – a car pulled out of a space next to a café just at the right moment. Standing with the car door open in my hand I easily picked out the sound from the melee but couldn’t localise it. The sound was of a wounded animal, a large dog left abandoned perhaps. I looked expectantly into the face of a young mother with a buggy but she walked passed without a nod in my direction. I tried to enlist the aid of an older woman but she moved to avoid my questioning eyes. I saw I was to get no help here. I shouldn’t have expected help from the notoriously callous Normans. I didn’t have any lessons to learn there – not after the way Marc had treated me for so long. I walked a few meters away from the square expecting to find the pained animal with every step – it sounded very close.
However, I saw nothing but as the pitiful sound wasn’t diminishing I kept on. It seemed more like a child crying now and I suddenly felt panicky – why wasn’t anybody else showing concern? At a junction I turned right by some flashing road signs simply because it was the easiest way to turn. In the side street several antique dealers were mixed in amongst a café a coiffeur and a pharmacy. Now the sound altered again – becoming very like the cry of despair of an older woman, perhaps lamenting a deep loss, except… no, it lacked the softening edge of experience, this was the raw cry of a being not yet used to cruelty. My life has taught me that deepest cuts are suffered almost in silence, slowly and invisibly cracking the skull, betrayed only by lifeless eyes. Like a pig with its throat cut, or a battered wife. Then my eyes lit upon it. There in the smallest of the antique shops, really more of a junk shop, next to a greedy looking youth leaning on the counter was the source of the cries and a Berger de Beauce lying on the floor and next to the dog an antique bowl in a dozen pieces lay abandoned. The crying stopped as I entered. Strangely the dog seemed to be half asleep. I looked at the object as though it were an apparition, not quite belonging to this world. Late Victo-
rian perhaps; much crazed heavy white china bowl with a green and gold surround and quite big, about two spread hand’s width in diameter I guessed from the biggest piece. Decorated ornately with a still life of the sea; shells twisted, curled, pointed, shiny – one clearly an ammonite, with fronds of green and reddish brown seaweed. Were they fossils? The dog stirred and the youth looked at me. I felt close to tears but at least the pathetic sound had stopped. I knew I had to have the bowl. The youth was unwilling to let me have it at first, keen that I should leave with something more expensive, but reluctantly he swept up the pieces along with dust, found an old cardboard box and dumped them in. I feared the crying would recommence and winced, but it didn’t. He couldn’t conceal his thoughts either, if thought is the word – I was clearly menopausal and probably demented. That didn’t stop him ogling my bust though. Why are the French, so self - congratulatory on their supposed diplomacy, so incapable of hiding their thoughts? With Marc for example, I could pre-empt any move he might make – intellectually. Being an American in France, even a poorly educated one like me, is like being clairvoyant. On the national level their next step is usually what we did 30 years ago. French
people don’t get fat, don’t buy fast food? Just wait, just wait. Individually they seem child-like in their predictability. Except surprisingly he didn’t try to make me pay for it. Anyway that was not the important thing – that was to get back to the car and back home with the bowl to - to, well, give it a new home. Hadn’t it cried out to me for help? The box on the passenger seat purred like a cat. I drove out of the town and took the least used road as always, the one that went passed the isolated entrance to our farmhouse near Versainville, precisely at a lieu dit ‘ L’Arene’. When I was first bought to the house, in circumstances that the telling of would too much delay this tale, there had been visitors, now long gone, curious to see ‘The American’. The rumours of my provenance were unflattering but largely true. These early visitors had told me the one interesting I was to hear for a long time and on this point I can sound quite educated. There was dispute over the meaning of the place name. One group said that the origin lay in the sandy soil, ‘arena’ being Latin for sand. Voila. Others said it was due to the large, bowl-shaped
depression like a cauldron but not very deep, that the farmhouse sat in the middle of suggesting it was the scene of gladiatorial contests in Roman times. Whatever the truth about that, I can tell you truthfully life on this farm not been a circus. I drew up away from the house itself near the pig pen as I always do â€“ knowing Marc would not have fed our pair of Normandy severins. After promising to come back with some swill I walked with uncommon purpose to the front door and the box followed. Inside there was Marc exactly as I knew he would be, exactly as my mother had predicted all those years ago back in Nebraska based on nothing more than a knowledge of men â€“ there he was, comatose layers of fat next to several empty bottles and a pile of cigarette ash inside a McDonaldâ€™s carton. You know there are more McDonalds per head of population in France than there are in Nebraska? No matter how hard I worked to keep the place clean, he in his French way would spread filth around. I even caught him pissing on my cheese plant once. I sat on the end of the sofa as far away from him as I could, squeezed up against the arm nearest the fire place. At first the box sat in front of the fire but eventually realising that here was only the appearance of a home, leapt up into my lap and purred sweet nothings into my ear. We had found
each other. Look I ‘m not gone completely. Don’t you have a special object in your life? It could be a fine painting in your living room, an old Grandfather clock worth thousands or a photograph of your first boyfriend, worth nothing but half hidden from your husband inside a book you know he will never read? Well I didn’t have anything except my pigs. No art, no heirlooms no husband to speak of, nothing except this bowl. Art therapy, physiotherapy, I don’t know but I repaired it, it was surprisingly easy. I hadn’t done anything for myself in years and this was the start. Once you do start something real for yourself it grows and grows. Marc was too drunk or too not there to notice. Perhaps he just didn’t care but in any event I was left more in peace the more I looked out for myself. I had a great stroke of luck too. In another shop was a covered jug - obviously the companion of my bowl. No crying this time, I simply bought it learning that it was an object of interest but little value being mass produced. Over the course of a few months I built up a small collection of china wear and came to know a fair bit about it. I made a group of women friends too, older women mostly but it broke my long isolation. Inside the jug I collected things, small things that reminded
me of my childhood. A ribbon, a two glass marbles looking like eyes, a piece of sticky red paper, a small plastic soldier and a corn dolly I made specially. These things seemed to touch me deeper even than the heart. These reached into the womb calling up a power literally as old as life itself. I started to imagine futures for myself without Marc. I wrote them down in the hope of making them more real and then burnt all but two favourites with candles I got from the eglise… ... Marc stirred, stared at me from almost closed eyelids, pointed to a three quarters empty bottle and started to say something but vomited instead. The word sounded something like ‘Putain’. He stumbled to his knees and then shakily onto his feet. I don’t know if he intended to go out to the courtyard or if he imagined he was off to see Natasha. I doubt if he knew what was happening. The box opened and the longest, sharpest shard flew into my hand and together we followed the drunk outside. ‘Putian’, again and then ‘Putain’ again as he staggered towards the pig sty. That was his last word, ‘Putain’ as he saw the glint relight in my eye as I leant over him and sawed through his throat.’ No more putains’ I
thought as the blood gushed into the trough. ‘ More where that came from’, the pigs seemed to say eyeing the rolls of flab suddenly transformed into a valuable commodity. Well, if I now had another mess to tidy up at least I knew it would be the last. The pigs played their part admirably. I decided there and then that they would become pets. After about six weeks people began to ask where he was. First the social security sent a letter saying he wasn’t entitled to any more benefit as he hadn’t signed on. I thought they might have asked why he hadn’t turned up at the ANPE but the letter simply said he wasn’t entitled. Typically French – paperwork is everything. You know something else too? The police aren’t nearly as good as finding evidence of bodies as you would think from watching television. I had always assumed they would find some of the larger bones out in the fields. The fact is that he’d told just about everybody from his old mother to the ‘La Belle Natasha’ at the ‘hotel’ that he was going to leave me so it was no surprise that he was no longer to be seen.
Because of this they didn’t start questioning me until after the winter. I remember all the details of the day the local agent de police turned up. He was a good-looking man, slightly younger than me. It was a wonderful spring day, late morning. I was sitting outside under the lime tree. On the table in front of me was the murder weapon, but you wouldn’t know it. The policeman looked at the bowl – it was a bit out of place in a French farmyard. It was made in Germany my research had shown. I’d taken considerable care with its reconstruction. 12 pieces became one again. Repairing it was like putting my own self back together, our destinies were linked. I had found that there was a tiny bit missing, a jig - saw like piece of the rim of the bowl. But then 13 could have been unlucky some say – and I needed luck now. The sharp edge that had chosen itself to cut through Marc’s throat – a razor clam shell – was safely back half hidden by sand and seaweed. They had to investigate the detective said apologetically. They wanted to know why I hadn’t reported my husband missing. I just said that I hadn’t missed him and smiled. The policeman was quite good at dissimulating. If, that I was mad, as Marc’s family
insisted, was evident to him he didn’t show it, he smiled back. During the winter the bowl and my head had been linked. We were channelling each other. You might almost say one and the same. You might say repairing it had been therapy for me. Or it could have been the sweet knowledge that Marc was gone for good. Or I might still be mad. I really don’t care. The bowl was still crazed the lines where I had repaired it were still evident, to the finger touch if not to the eye. But it was a bowl again, minus the gap in the rim. Repaired, it had stopped crying out. If they had dug or bought in dogs they might have found Marc’s skull or something. They still could if they look. You know I don’t think they will. A farmer leaving an embittered wife, a farmer hanging himself in the barn, a farmer drinking himself to death; these things have been going on in here on this wet land since before it was called France, even before it was called Normandy, old powers inhabit lands longer than men. Anyway you don’t investigate every time the swallows leave in the autumn any more than you do a missing drunk of a farmer on benefits. I know that, the police know that. They don’t investigate battered wives either, so it’s all fair you might say.
And besides, the Agent de Police is now mine. Call it sixth sense, but he is very clean, doesn’t visit ‘La Belle Natasha’ and is very careful not to break anything which would produce a sharp edge. Maybe he knows, maybe he doesn’t but there is something about the farm and about me that he finds, shall we say, exciting. After all, he is French and there are better ways of spending your life than worrying about the dead. Much better, life always comes first. I have placed the bowl next to our bed. At the moment there are two blood-red hyacinths blowing in it, blowing kisses. I am sure, almost, that I’m fully recovered – we are all very happy here and my pets seem to like my new man. Really, this how life should be, lived with a sharp edge to it. That was Version One and it remains my favourite. The reality was more simple. I woke up early one day in May to find Marc hanging by his neck from a derrick used to lift hay to the loft in earlier times. A derrick is a pulley system in case you can’t place the word, and God’s Truth, it is named after a hangman in London who developed it. All in all, an appropriate end to a simple tale of a badly married woman and a simple man with only enough initiative to
hang himself. If he did of course. That was version two. That was the version reported in the local paper. The local gossips got nearer the truth perhaps and, well, letâ€™s just say that the old ways hang around here. So do stupid husbands.
The Sunday Minimalist by Michel le grenouille 5th edition A Weekly Look At Life through the eyes of Michel, a Frenchman living in London and sometimes, Makhalouf, his Algerian acquaintance. -----------------------------London Book Fair via Addis Abiba ‘allo, y’all... I’m just thinking of my ‘olidays, or as my great American contingent out there call it, vacation. I thought now is good time for an ‘oliday with this volcano and everything as it seem you get an extra two weeks free and the adventure of ‘ow you get back. You can ‘ave free safari expedition from Souff Africa via Addis Abiba, that is in Ethiopa, which is in Africa, (for my American contingent) then on to Rome, (which is in Italy) then a train or a bus for ze next ‘undred miles and see lots of Italy, the Alps and France. If that is not good enough, you can stay where you are in the new British colony of Malaga Airport, (which is in Spain). I ‘ear some people got
from Morocco, (that’s in North Africa), to England in only four days. ‘owever, for some peoples, it is tragic, the airlines are not giving them food or beds or anything. It is crazy in Malaga, crazy in Bangkok, crazy in the Standstead and Gatwick. The Brits ‘ave taken over the airport, the British navy turned up in Spain to rescue some soldiers ‘ho got all the way from Afghanistan and then stuck in Europe. They are sending the landing crafts to Dunquerque to collect the British tourists. I tell you, mes amis, mes copians et aussi dans cette epoch of the political correctness, mes copines, zis world is, ‘ow you say, nuts. It is crazy. It is crazy in every corner of ze world. Zese brits are crazy. Last century ze crazy Brits were sending people with the kilts out all over the world and now they are doing the same thing in reverse, but without the kilts... Why don’t they make up their minds? Anyway, why should I care? I am going on my ‘oliday and somewhere exciting. Someone tell me, don’t fly to America and spend a day trying to get through customs, it is quicker to go to Mexico and get a Mexican guide to sneak you over ze border.
They know ‘ow, they know all ze tricks. Maybe I try it, anyway, it should be okay, and if I get caught, Guantanamo is closed, maybe they send me to Florida. Maybe I end up in reality show like Banged Up Abroad or America’s Toughest Prisons. They think only they ‘ave tough prisons? What they think we ‘ave in France, we ‘ave prisons with none of the foie gras and the lovely Chateau d’Yquem? Huh! Puh! it’s enough to make you spit. I see that Makhalouf l’autre jour, l’idiot. I tell ‘im about my ‘oliday and ‘e laugh. I ask ‘im where ‘e is going and ‘e say, Algeria. Now I laugh. Algeria!!! Quelle vacance!!!! But then I ‘ear that you feel most alive when you are closest to death. Even zese crazy Brits don’t go there. When I say zis, ‘e get annoyed and ‘e call me a grosse-tete. Then I get annoyed and I say ‘e is a grande casse-tete, then ‘e say ‘ow you like a tete-a-tete with my knuckles. Stupid man. Anyway, I will send ‘im a card from Mexico when I get there. By then, my eye will be better. This week I was going to talk about The London Book Fair, everybody was talking about The London Book Fair. Mais alors! Then I remember and I say to myself, what London Book Fair? All I get is e-mails telling me zat people cannot get a flight. No
one can get to England except asylum seekers and les immigrants illegales. Quel monde! Mon dieu!!! It is all too much, I am going on ‘oliday. The telephone rings and rings and rings and then after an eternity is answered by someone in a call centre in India. I get really annoyed. I cannot understand ‘is accent, bloody foreigners, they are everywhere, even in India. Maybe I just go to Blackpool, I ‘ear it ‘as a tower just like Paris, and trams, and the sea, ‘ow continental. See y’all when I return.
A Change of Scene By AnneDurrant The twin-prop aircraft landed at Bergerac Airport in the early afternoon. Tom collected his rucksack, which contained his one-man tent, a sleeping bag and a few essentials from the conveyor belt inside the tin building marked ‘Arrivals’ and took a taxi to the nearest campsite out of the town. The following morning, at nine o’clock when Tom had left the camp site, the sun was already hot on his back. He had taken a steep path which led up through the hillside village, past the church at the top and across a narrow plateau where a few sheep grazed. Onwards up through a pine forest to where limestone cliffs dominated the skyline. Skirting the base of the cliffs, the path which by now had become a stony track, led steeply down and he could see for miles across a valley filled with huge sunflowers, the weight of their dark seeds pulling them down and making them appear sad. The wheat and barley had already been harvested and he could see tractors, like small toys, driving back and forth in the fields below. He paused to enjoy the view and,
when he reached into his backpack for his bottle of water, he looked at his watch and realised that he had been walking for over two hours. He decided to continue on for another half-hour, find some shade and stop for a leisurely lunch of bread, cheese and a glass of wine. He walked on in the increasing heat of the noon sun. The rucksack was beginning to feel heavy and uncomfortable which was a good enough reason for a rest. He left the narrow stony path and headed for the welcoming shade of a group of lime trees, just a few metres to his right. He shrugged the straps of his pack from his shoulders and stretched his arms before sitting down on the dusty earth and taking off his walking boots and socks. Feeling the cool air between his toes was a relief and as he contemplated his surroundings he wondered, not for the first time, why on earth he was doing this. He was no hiker. He was what people called â€˜a yuppieâ€™, a young city whiz kid for goodness sake! It was all because Janice had come back to the office looking bronzed and fit, absolutely full of France - how wonderful it all was; how friendly and hospitable the people she had met; superb scenery; plenty of open spaces; the food, the wine! However she failed to mention sore shoulders and chafed skin, hot sweaty feet and the odd mosquito or two! How-
ever, he had to admit, what he had seen since he arrived in France it had certainly lived up to expectations. He also realised how the hours spent at the gym, during lunch hours away from his desk and an hour or so every evening after work, had paid off. He also realised how fit anyone had to be who walked long distances. His work mates had laughed when he told them what he planned to do for his annual holiday, saying he’d give up after the first day, book into a nice hotel and laze by a pool. They were wrong. This was his second day and he was loving it! He opened his pack and spread a red spotted cloth (a gift from Janice) on the ground beside him: A freshly baked baguette, a bottle of the local vin rouge, some tasty but smelly cheese wrapped in muslin, and a large ‘Golden Delicious’ apple made up his mid-day meal. As he leaned back against the cool bark of the tree, he thought that Janice was right - everyone who led hectic lives such as they did, should occasionally get right away and this was an ideal place to put your life back on course. He lay on his side, propped up on one elbow. As he ate, his thoughts wandered back to his last day in the office before his holiday when he had spent the whole day on the telephone to clients of the firm. Now, there wasn’t a telephone
for miles! Wonderful! What else could a man want? It certainly beat his usual hurried lunch of an open ham-on-wholemeal sandwich – usually eaten at his desk after dashing back from the gym - and a cup of watery coffee from the machine. As he lay in the shade, slowly enjoying his lunch, he surveyed the distant hills and the row upon row of grape vines stretching away across the valley. When he had finished he brushed the crumbs from his lap, pushed the cork into the neck of the wine bottle and lay back on the cool earth. He lay with eyes closed, thinking about nothing in particular. Suddenly, he was rudely awakened from his reverie by a small weight on his chest and a very wet tongue licking his face. He let out a yell and sat up abruptly, causing the small puppy to roll onto the ground and yap loudly. ‘You little beast! Where did you come from? And you can drop my sock if you don’t mind!’ As he leaned sideways to make a grab for his sock, a pretty young woman appeared on the track and immediately dashed forward to catch the dog. Tom jumped quickly to his feet and tried not to wince when he put his bare foot on a sharp stone and struggled to retain his balance. ‘Gaston! Come back! Pardon M’sieur. I am truly
sorry to have disturbed you. My dog ran out of the farm gate and refused to come back when I called him.’ ‘Please, do not apologise - no harm done. What did you call him?’ ‘Gaston - he is just three months old and has not yet learned the meaning of the word ‘No’, I’m afraid.’ She lifted the wriggling brown puppy into her arms and, smiling, said: ‘You are English, yes? And you are not used to walking in the hills.’ He smiled. ‘How can you tell?’ ‘Quite easily, M’sieur. I can tell you are English because your accent is terrible; I can tell you are not used to walking because you are wearing brand new boots and you do not wear a hat to keep off the sun. If you intend to spend your holiday walking you must buy a hat. They cost only a few francs. The market comes to town tomorrow and, if you wish, I will meet you there and show you the best stall from which to buy your hat. Will you be staying in the town tonight?’ ‘Er, yes I will for sure! I believe there is a campsite just outside the town.’ ‘Yes. It is called Camping Près de la Rivière – down beside the river – naturally! You can see the Church from here – go past and then you will see a sign pointing the way to the camp.’
‘Thank you. I’ll wander down later this afternoon.’ ‘Until tomorrow then? Nine o’clock outside the Cafe du Marché in the village square, in front of the Church. Au’voir M’sieur.’ ‘That is very kind of you. Au revoir Madame – sorry - Mademoiselle. Au revoir Gaston!’ As the young woman stepped back on to the path, Tom heard her softly scolding the dog. She half turned and gave a small wave of her hand before walking away down the track. Tom waved back as he thought: ‘What am I doing - I’ve never worn a hat in my entire life but any excuse is good enough if it means I’ll meet that gorgeous young woman again!’ As he settled down once again beneath the tree and closed his eyes his plans to continue walking for a few more hours were immediately forgotten. § It had been ten years before that the chance meeting with Celeste had happened but it seemed to Tom like it was only yesterday! He stood at the door of the farmhouse watching their young children, Pascal and Valerie helping their Grandfather Jean-Pierre to fill sacks with clean, dried walnuts ready to take to the market where the trucks and vans would be waiting to weigh and load the many sacks brought in by the villagers. Jean-Pierre always kept some of the walnuts and extracted the oil to be used in the
kitchen, using his big press in the barn. The vindange had taken place in September and the plump grapes sent to be turned into delicious Bergerac wine. The sun flower seeds had been harvested and the farmers had been busy collecting the maize. It wouldn’t be long before the ducks and geese were rounded up and taken to the same market. His mother-inlaw would spend some time making foie gras for the family and neighbours. Celeste had met him at the Cafe du Marché that late summer morning as she had promised; he had bought a straw hat with a wide brim, selected by Celeste and from that moment, his whole life had changed. The late autumn sun was low in the sky and although he didn’t really need it, Tom took the battered straw hat from the hook beside the door and smiled as he thought: ‘London is light years from here, I wonder if Janice is still pounding on the keyboard of her computer every day, dashing on and off trains, meeting deadlines and eating open ham-on-wholemeal sandwiches? I can’t remember if I ever wrote to her to thank her for her good advice!’
The Falaise Gap by Robin Hooppell The fewer the syllables the better. Fuhrer is more powerful than Deputy Fuhrer which in turn is more powerful than Uberstormfuhrer. The responsibility diminishes at each further qualification of the noun. One day in 1944, and probably for one day only, Uberstormfuhrer Rhinegold Fritzle, tank commander, posed standing exactly where I am sitting. That is precisely in the centre of what is now, but not for much longer, my lawn. With the sun in his young face the shadows about him show the time of day â€“ early afternoon. Rhinegold, good looking in much the same way I was at his age, was staring west towards the sound of the big guns destroying Caen. A day or two later, maybe a week at most, he would have seen a line of tanks breast the hill less than a mile away, and thousands of Canadian and Polish infantrymen intent on cutting a path through him and the village of Versainville to Berlin, and Warsaw beyond. The few hours warning he had would not have helped steady his mind. This now pleasant
backwater, what the Americans call â€˜The Sticksâ€™ was turned into a quagmire of blood and mud and retribution - the stage of one of many Days of Judgement. I know these things because of the work of the Versainville local historian who produced the booklet I have in my hands. I know that the dowager owner of the Chateau was sent to Ravensbruck and never came back. I know where Rhinegold placed tanks behind hedges and at crossroads. I know that half his men were killed before he withdrew hurriedly, under orders, to get a few kilometres east whilst there was still a retreat to beat, to turn and fire again. I know enough to really feel I was there. He had committed a lot of his force in the area known as Lâ€™Arene, that is in a bowl-shaped depression with this farmhouse at its centre. I imagine actions like his were repeated all over the countryside around the Normandy town of Falaise as the Americans from the south completed the vice-like move on the market town creating a pocket, a noose with a small gap to the east still in German hands. I hope he made it back to his wife and family if he had such but the book is silent on this point. The worthy historian had tried but no record of the fate of the man who briefly held the village could be found.
‘Wife’ has only one syllable and I have been given my marching orders. This is my last day at the farmhouse which has been home for five years. It doesn’t seem to have changed much since Rhinegold’s day in the sun except the ‘basse cour’ has been turned into a garden, well established and showing no sign of strife martial or marital. So close, those words. To a dyslexic or a man in a hurry they could be mistaken for each other. I sigh to myself. The leaving of things does not get easier with age. Susan has left me alone for two weeks to gather my belongings for the retreat. I have done very little, but I have the whole of today, the night and a few hours in the morning to load what I want into the Landrover, leaving her an old Clio. It seems odd to go through years together to divorce nearing 70 years of age. Being seven and being 70 have a lot in common, mirror images of each other; each year left to me represents the same proportion of my life expectancy as life ‘vecu’ by the child. We have the same perspective on the passing of time, that it is laden with significance. Even little events seem important and small reversals a disaster. I have spilt a good Margaux over my trouser leg making me reflect stupidly, if only for an instant, that I have been shot. Too much imagination can be a problem in life especially if your train-
ing is in accountancy. I was born more or less on the day that my friend, my companion in arms, Rhinegold made his short defence of Versainville, or was it Berlin, a race, an idea or just a gang of thugs he fought for? Whatever it was he was part of an operation to cover the retreat of another unit. Whether he lived or died was certainly not a factor in the calculations of battle. What did Rhinegold have with him? A photograph of his wife, almost certainly. One of his mother, definitely. What do men carry in battle? It occurs to me that I have really no idea. The pistol in the photograph, of course, to shoot a deserter or more probably to shoot himself. Men fear some things more than they fear death. Well, his tank my Landrover, what to put in. What to carry with you into the next life? My friend could not have expected to live more than one day, two at the most. The weight of the forces punching through him, designed to knock out whole armies and cities beyond, would have regarded his unit in the same way that a bear raiding a hive regards a single bee. My guess is that he took with him something very prosaic â€“ a few eggs, bread and letâ€™s say cheese and sausage that his men would have requisitioned that same day. I would like him to have a bottle at least of Calvados. A man fac-
ing a very uncertain future needs his wits more than anything he can actually pick up but if all else fails a shot of the hard stuff can be something on your side, something in life’s plus column. My wits where are you? I charge you with desertion in the face of the enemy. The sentence of the Court Martial is death! This is not how I imagined the end. How do I know this is the end? Well I’ll tell you – the end comes when there is no road ahead of you and you can’t stay where you are. Life or death is only that at the final count, either you run out of time before you run out of road or the other way round. There is no other scenario, there being no turning back on a moment already decided. Susan called. I picked up the phone knowing it was her. Nobody loves you when you are down and out – remember? A last minute reprieve was out of the question, we’d been through it all for hours, days, weeks but all it amounted to was she would rather live alone, that I was now nothing to her new incarnation, after the shame I had inflicted on her and the family. Forced to say, on the spot without time to reflect, if you love your wife or not what
would you say inwardly to yourself as you lied to the world? Somehow I don’t see that as really important, the question rather is elsewhere – what gives your life significance? Now if the answer is nothing much then you should be allowed to pass the last years distracting yourself from that fact. Wine on the lawn, a little local history combined with a walk, a trip somewhere and a postcard. I mean really what do they expect, wives? Valentino? And to be brutal here, what exactly can they offer in return? I assured Susan there would be food left for her in the house. She hung up.
I stood and walked into the house, my home for one last day and one last night. The condemned man ate well. Bavette with haricots vert followed by camebert du lait cru, tout fait sans blanc , and enough wine to allow Rhinegold a moment’s hope . I mentally toured the house starting with our, now her, bedroom. I knew she had bought an entire set of new clothes which had nothing of my life in them. The old ones - not cheap - given to a charity shop in Falaise collecting for Resto des Coeur, I believe. The guest rooms, one of them now mine, were full of junk and things in boxes from her mother’s house. There was
a small collection of whisky containers. One shaped like a haggis left abandoned on the windowsill of the smallest bedroom. I got up and marched up the stairs passing some damn fine paintings – my taste not hers - palmed the haggis with its smirking little face, pulled the cork with angry teeth and began sipping the rather poor contents. I had several bottles of better whisky in the living room. I was drinking the contents of the haggis because it belonged to her. I began to feel more in control again. A few minutes later I was downstairs with only a suitcase half full of clothes and a very out of date photograph of the children I had salvaged from the wreck. When you are leaving under battle conditions you don’t need much. When your wife kicks you out because you have made her too ashamed to look at your face or wear the clothes you paid for there are a lot of the little reminders of your life that you suddenly don’t want. Besides, my crime was fraud. Long - term, big time Fraud. Fraud with a capital F. The court case will not be for some months but prison is almost as inevitable for me as Rhinegold’s death had been. The fraud is significant in this manner; half of the money I have ever had was got dishonestly from embezzlement. Half. That means that nothing
here can I really say is mine. Half of everything was stolen; half the house, half the past and nearly all of my future, and certainly my wife. Hell I properly own only one of the shoes I am wearing and just maybe only one testicle, like Himmler. When it comes down to it a stolen life is no life at all, you are simply never really yourself. I think that I have always been aware of this but being publically exposed brings it home. Home. That which I haven’t got anymore. My wife gone with my half children. This is remorse – I am not all bad you see. Was Rhinegold. I mean was he all bad or indeed bad at all. Uberstormfuhrers follow orders. His mind was as wet clay lying in the ground as Fascism stormed Europe, was shaped by propaganda and fired in the heat of war. My crime, however, was my own. In my company I was the Boss – one syllable. I can blame nobody and am forced by this book of local history in my pocket to avow that I am a more guilty man than Herr Fritzle. I am not placing my body and life between war criminals and justice but the follow on from my self-willed fraud includes at least one suicide, and counting. Well, to Hell with all of them, see you there in the fire rings with Rhinegold and his bosses, you too you weak men who were frightened to confront my
crimes until the company collapsed. See you in Hell too, you whose crimes were smaller than mine. You social security fraudsters, you who evaded tax and you also who simply burgled. No the account must be made up. If you steal money regularly from benefits, is that less of a crime than holding up a shop? Is that any less than taking part of a life? Stealing as much as I have is a Great Train Robbery broken up into little, daily slices of human misery. Let each man do his own accounting, I just wish I’d made my books up when the price to pay was less. Whisky is a good friend in the short run and the short run is all I’ve got left. Tonight the bottle will be my companion. Tomorrow I’ll head out of here with a free conscience you’ll see. Breakfast on the lawn where Rhinegold stood hours before he had to fight and then run – under orders! What did he tell himself as the guns pounded the ground around him?’ I’ll be home for Christmas’? For my part, I’ll head east slowly, I tell myself, and make the apartement in Versailles by mid- afternoon. Perhaps with Rhinegold in mind – I make no accusations – I have loaded into my tank the oil paintings from the house. Really all I care about now. Art is a consolation to the wicked as it is to the righteous. In fact it is one of the few pleasures
left to the uncovered villain. Whisky is another as I said. So the answer to the question of what a man with little time left carries with him answers itself. Clothes for decency or camouflage, a picture of his loved ones and that which has meaning when all is gone. In other words, what he should not have been distracted from before. Whisky bought me to my senses overnight. Listen all you who scorn, make up your own accounts. Yes I’ve cheated, cheated many out of their life savings you might say, even worse, cheated them out of their life chances . Undoubtedly my soul is more weighed with sin than most, but – at least I made a good show of it. Gallows talk you might say. I tried to cheat life yes but I won for nine of the ten rounds. Can you say the same? Last night I envied Rhinegold the simplicity of his lot. To fight under orders, as much a slave as any more commonly called so. That is a kind of sweet innocence. Last night I twisted and turned in bed as if wrestling with an enemy within. I won that battle. The man stepping into his Landrover is on a freedom run. Listen and learn. I have money, that’s half of it. The other half is the big secret but here it is anyway. Your simple little half - lives of 70 years are worth nothing! Most of you are barely aware of life. Where are your works
of art? Where is your wonder, your fainting at the beauty of life, your struggle, you who sit and watch television? Those who waste life are the most guilty of all! The road ahead is as clear as my mind as I pass over the bridge as Rhinegold must have done. I wonder if there were ravens circling overhead for him or just black clouds of smoking shells? I imagine myself the more knowing of the men who escaped easterly down this road. A man, then two more emerged from a farm gate, raised something as if to throw it at me but then blew their own heads off. One hurled an accusation at me ‘Fraud’ before he died. Suddenly there were more, men and women all struggling with weapons, all shouting ‘Fraud’. Each and every one of them died like insects against the grill of the Landrover. I could only laugh at their futile efforts to exact revenge and easily made it into Falaise itself. Pulling up outside the cafe in the main square I cared even less than a Frenchman whether I blocked the way, got out and walked to the kerb. Now the attacks were getting personal - in the charity shop was a mannequin dressed in my wife’s clothes! For an instant I had believed it was indeed her. She was
placed next to a man dressed as a circus strongman. I didn’t need that explained to me! I got back in the Landrover without the ‘one for the road’ that I intended and decided get out of town fast and head for the moral high ground near Brettville. I feel the incoming fire of moral indignation exploding about me but none of these are specifically targeting me, too general they explode harmlessly as I put distance between us. Then came the RPGs. These were launched from bunkers by the Knights of Jerusalem and screamed the Ten Commandments into the air like Chinese firecrackers before falling dead to the tarmac. Don’t they know you can’t attack a man with any hope of success if you fight behind a barricade? Battle is personal, man to man, eyeball to eyeball. That is why I had always won. Nobody was prepared to stand their ground and fight to the death. I don’t blame Hitler as much as the cowards who would not stand and fight. I could now see the hills above Brettville, they were occupied - the British had out flanked me. At the same moment I saw their guns belch smoke the Jerusalem mob managed to get a grenade in through my back window and it rested on the floor, unexploded. My luck was holding.
The British fired their big guns and one gave me a momentary pause, a moment’s hesitation. An enormous dark burst in front of the Landrover put me in a spin as the smoke formed itself into a gigantic oak tree. I just had time to glimpse a fearful Angel raise the silver sword that servers the damned from the saved, the selfish from those that sought the benefit of all. As the sword cut through the air over my head the Angel screamed, ‘The basic choice is self or community - this was the fractal choice that the Creator used to make you human’. Of course the Angel made me understand without words, but slowly, completely stated, that the pattern of love of others equal to love of self, repeated in the way that a fractal landscape can be built up by repetition of a single relational fact, is what had made men from chimpanzees. I had my defence ready with only a hairs breath of time remaining and swerved to the right and immediately found myself beyond the battle, back in the quiet fields of ‘The Sticks’ as if nothing had happened. I stopped the Landrover and walked about in the sun for a few moments before remembering the bottle of Calvados, the bread and cheese I had been given. I sat and feasted.
I knew I would win the instant I heard the Angel use the words ‘Fractal choice’- one simple element which repeated forms the Universe- because I knew he was wrong. I come from an earlier age, one of Heros; were the basic choice that made us human not animal was even deeper than community. God loves Creation, He loves people who create. In a few syllables - He helps those who help themselves!! Calvados had never tasted better and in the glow of victory I finished it all to replenish the blood. My mind caught up with the moment and I recalled the grenade lying on the floor of the Landrover, I went and picked it up and studied it. There were words inscribed on its dark metal surface – it hadn’t been meant to explode. I picked out the words, ‘The 11th Commandment. ‘Thou shalt not cheat yourself of life’. I felt a mortal cold sweep over me. The Jerusalemites had fired the fatal shot after all and the rest had just been a diversion! I hadn’t noticed at first but the sky was darkening. At first a fog rolled up from the river and then true darkness. I decided to return to the Landrover but it simply wasn’t there. I stumbled down a slope in a silent darkness and reached the water’s edge and sat.
Presently the sound of oars broke the silence and I called out a greeting. Sieg Hiel, Uberstormfuhrer, Sieg Hiel, came the mocking reply. A pathetic looking ageless grey man emerged from the dark mist and then with no syllables at all beckoned me into his boat. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++ I will finish this tale. I waited 70 years for this man. He cheated me last time and escaped. This time I threw him into the Styx, from where no reincarnation is possible. By the way, if you are reading this coda of mine – well, welcome to the Underworld. Don’t say you weren’t warned! Rhinegold in the Underworld. (Falaise Gap ii)
Le Minimalist du Dimanche par Le Grenouille, Michel de Souf London 6th edition Take one Indian writer, mix with one Berber and a French publisher Salut tous mes punters, Allo again. I know last week I say after the fiasco of The London Book Fair, I am going on my ‘oliday, but somehow the plan did not, ‘ow you say, go to plan. What an ‘oliday that wasn’t!!! After all ze fuss, I go nowhere. On my way to the tube station, some big rough geezer wif an ‘ead full of skin come up and ask me the time. When I look at my watch ‘e say, “Hey!!! That looks like a nice watch... I’ll ‘ave some o’ that.” Before I get a chance to laugh at ‘im, ‘e grabs my arm and twists it up my back. Next ‘is ‘and is inside my shirt. I ‘ave no shame in telling you, I got worried. I ‘ave no experience of such things. Then ‘is ‘ands are inside my pockets and ‘e ‘as got my money. I wriggle
a little and kick ‘im ‘ard, but sadly, I injure my foot and fall down holding my ankle, ‘e roars, laughing like a bull, although to be honest, I ‘ave never seen a bull laughing, it is just a turn of phrase. So, ‘e was laughing, and roaring like a bull as ‘e ran up the road clutching my wallet. Ah! Puh! I didn’t want to go to Blackpool anyway. Next morning, I ambled along to a little café not far from ‘ome, as the say in these parts, “Down the Elephant”. That is because it is in Souf London, now, if it was in Norf London it would be a different proposition as you would be “Up The Elephant”, not so attractive, I think. So I sat at a small table on the pavement and within two minutes the bloody Makhalouf bugger shows up, you know, the Berber geezer from Algeria, ‘e must’ve smelled the coffee or something. “What you doing here?” he asks. I think.
My sardonic smile riles him a little. Good,
“Wot you fink ah’m doin’?,” I say breaking into my best cockney accent, “ah’m cuttln’ the bleedin’ grass.”
“Very funny,” ‘e says, “no need for sarcasm. “ Then ‘e leans forward into my face, “How about I cut your bleeding throat?” poste.
“’ow about I cut your balls off?” is my ri-
“Then I will stuff then down your bleeding throat,” ‘e says, “and you’ll choke and die.” At this point the garcon is arriving. The Makhalouf bugger grabs a seat and sits down pretending to be normal. “Two coffees and croissants,” he orders. A few minutes later a middle aged Indian chap with multiple layers of baby fat bulging through his tracksuit arrives and sits at the next table plopping ‘is Nike cap on the next seat. ‘e looks pleased with ‘imself with his chubby face and hair like an oil slick. ‘e signals towards the waiter, “Mochaccino,” ‘e says, with no please or thank you, “and a piece of the New York cheesecakes,” ‘e demands in a thick ac-
cent like ‘e works for an Indian call centre in North London pretending to be in India. ‘e looks at his big fake Rolex on his fat dumpy wrist, “make it quick, I’m late for work already.” Then ‘e sit back playing with ‘is bling, ‘is big stupid gong on ‘is ‘airy chest. The Makhalouf bugger look round at him. “Hey,” he shouts, “What’ya doin’ here, buddy?” The little fat Buddah in the confused clothing, who live in London in Elephant & Castle, but dress in the style of the black New Yorker shout back at ‘im switching ‘is accent. “Hey! Buddy, buddy... great ta see ya man, you come all the way down here to buy me my breakfasts?” The two of ‘em leap up and give each other high fives then go through the business of knuckles to knuckles, slaps, bumps and other silly things that show they are in the same groove, or put another way, that they are both equally stupid. “Join us,” say the Makhalouf, “we got coffee going, meet wotisname here, yeah, what is your name… you know, we argue all this time and I don’t
even know your name, I just think of you as Froggie... anyway, I am Makhalouf, but everybody call me Macca, just like Paul McCartney.” The Buddah laughs. “I am Michel, I am from France,” I inform them. “What ‘is your name?” “Lew, I’m Lew… everybody round here know Lew.” I look at ‘im, I am now more confused. ‘e dress like a noir, be’ave like a noir, talks weird English with a strange accent and the dodgy grammaire and is called Lew. That is not Indian. “Lew!” I ‘ear myself say. “Is that an ‘indu version of Luigi?” “No! No! I am not a Hindu, I am a cattolic… it is short for Llewellen. Not all the Indians are Hindu, you know, some, like me are cattolics, some are muslim, like him and we even have our own Jews.” “So, this is what a Welsh catholic Indian who thinks ‘e is Negro looks like?” I say to ‘im.
“No, not at all, what you are looking at is the public personas… yes, my friend, this is for the public consumptions.” Smugly, ‘e sits back, or should I say, rolls back in the chair. I think to myself, what a hideous thought, consuming ‘im, the big lump of lard. “And what is it exactly that the public is consuming,” I ask ‘im. “Well! Right now, nothing, but soon… they will be fighting each other for the copies of it.” The Makhalouf slurps ‘is coffee down quickly and wanting to look like the Big Time Charlie he waves to the waiter for three more coffees. This is sad, for this mean that I ‘ave to listen to them for even longer. “Hey!” says Macca, as ‘e turn to me. I can feel a con coming on. “You and him have something in common… this is your big chance. You work in books, you are a publisher, are you not?” I am just leeeettle sceptical now. “Uhu! And wot is zis beeg chance from you, the big cheese, le grand fromage?”
They look at each other then they look at me. I look at them and then I look at my watch. “I ‘ave to go.” “No, wait!” says Macca, you are going to miss the chance of a lifetime. You gotta get him to your lawyer before Random House or Harper Collins or The Readers Digest signs him up first.” “Wot are you saying, sign him up for wot?” “So! You don’t know who he is… the well known Lew, the writer with the biggest blog on the block? He is a great Indian writer, man, like Salman Rushdie.” “I do not thinks so,” I inform him, “Salman Rushdie is famous, I don’t know this guy in the tracksuit, ‘e looks like ‘e as just escaped from an ‘ealth farm.” “Tell him about your book, Lew,” says Macca, “go on tell him, you’ll win a Booker Prize at least… I bet if you had tits you’d win The Orange Prize too.” “Wot you talkin’ about,” I remind ‘im, “‘e
‘as got tits,” Zis Indian look at me with the meprise, you know, the contempt look as if I am merde. “When did you ever see a Frenchman win The Booker Prizes then? It is always the Indians and Chinese who get such things… if Vinod Shakespeare was alive today, he would win all the prizes, he was the great Indian writer, you know, but the bloody English pirated all his lovely story. Even the Mel Gibsons, stole bloody Braveheart, that was Vinod Wallahs.” “Nah! Nah Nah! It was Walid Shakespeare, even the frog here knows that, I told him couple of weeks ago. Walid Shakespeare, he was a Muslim. You think everybody is Indian. You even claimed Elvis was Indian.” “Why not?” says the wobbly one, “If it is true... Well, he was half Indian. I think his name was originally Elvis Pradesh, but Presley sounded more western.” “He was not that kind of Indian, he was half American Indian,” says Macca. “And his photocopy, Cliff the Richards… I remember him when he was Indian and called Har-
ry Webb, then he wanted knighthood and became English and used Michael Jackson soap.” I ignore this stupidity. “So wot’s this book then,” I ask ‘im. “Oh! That! Yes, well it is not quite finished yet. I am dewellopping the plots. It is so complicated, just like Harry Potters. You know, JK Rowlings was so poor she wrote her story in the Starbucks or some places because she could not pay the heating bill… So, I come here, just like her, except she was in Edinburgh near the castle and I am in the cosmopolitan Elephants & Castles.” “Elephant & Castle,” I remind ‘im, “one elephant, one castle.” “That what I say, Elephants and Castles.” “You’re crazy, almost as bad as ‘im,” I tell ‘im, pointing my croissant in the general direction of the other lunatic. “If you don’t sign me, the Random Houses will or the Atlantics Book Company, I hear they like Indians. We have long Indian tradition of writing,
look at George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, he made exceedingly good books. So, my book will not be doing the rotting in the sludge pile.” “You mean, slush pile,” I tell ‘im. “I know what I am talking about…. We have big market, future market.” “Listen,” I say to ‘im, “there is an Indian market across there, just two streets up, the one where Charlie Chaplin was born. East Street Market, you might sell a few there.” “Ah! You won’t be laughing this time next year when I have the Booker Prizes, and my book is made into Bollywood movie... the films of my books will be in all languages with ubdubs and out on wideo.” ‘im.
“What! Ubdubs! Wot is zis ubdubs,” I ask
Macca is laughing at ‘is friend, “Hah! I forgot to tell you, he is dyslexic and sometimes you have to crack the code. He’s talking about subtitles and overdubs for foreign movies.”
“I’ll have my own chain of samosa shops, Lew’s Samosas, with franchises across the world, not this cardboard croissant thing.” “Don’t you mean Lose Samosas?” I say to ‘im. “I’ll have sponsors from chapatti makers and cash & carries… you’ll see. I’ll have my own perfumes in all the shops.” His flab is wobbling and out of control as he gesticulates. “Good! It might make your samosas smell better, in the meantime, I’m off, see you another time.”
The Culture President’s Tale by Norman Longworth Hello – my name is Jeanne and I’m the President of the local cultural and heritage committee. Red-headed, shapely, fun-loving, likes good books, travel and other things in the comfort of one’s own home - looking for male of similar….. oops – sorry that’s a slip of the memory and definitely not why I was asked to write this chapter. Still, if you’re reading this and..... Let’s restart. Now I remember, Culture et Patrimoine, that’s what they asked me to do. Well, even in this part of what Brits seem to think is Paradise, as in the real world, traditions have tended to fall by the wayside, overwhelmed by modern mores and television soaps. Young people no longer learn to speak their native Catalan, and have picked up the glottlestops of modern French. Farmers don’t use horses, they drive tractors, usually at a horse’s pace though, along mediaeval sized country lanes
where overtaking is only for those with a suicidal tendency (of whom there are more than a few in this region). They install helices, large, noisy whirling blades that disturb the air to preserve the budding fruit during late frosts. At least it’s better than the old tradition of lighting pots filled with used engine oil that left a massive pall of black, acrid odoriferous cloud over the valley, and propelled a few more respiratory patients into the local hospital, and sometimes the morgue. Now they use their atomiseurs to pollute the same fruit trees liberally with powerful toxic materials and desherbants several times a month. If you people only knew what you are really buying for your kilo of peaches! But that’s by the by. Ancient custom is making a strong comeback, and that’s mainly because of my intellectual talents. I have even formed a new committee and called it ‘Eus Culture et Patrimoine’ to show off and re-animate the culture of the region. It is very popular with those who consider themselves to be a cut above the rest and that covers some of the Brits and most of the French, but don’t tell them I said so. Two Brits, one Dutchwoman and several grave and committed fellow-French villagers are part of it, largely by dint of the fact that they happened to be around when the association was formed. In
this respect, the French do not differ much from the English way of doing things - if you’re present at the first meeting you’re on the committee. We have even given the Brits positions of responsibility. For example, Jim, a former bank manager, a sad and deluded man who says he supports Chelsea at Soccer, Kent at Cricket and England at Rugby Union - whatever that means - is making his beancounting skills available to it. He is its tresorier and his friend Eddie, for his sins, is the secretaire adjoint, which means that he does the writing when the real secretary isn’t there. Luckily for him, the committee and the French language, this has not yet happened and we have so far been spared the written version of pigeon-speak that passes for French among the British Community. Every month, the committee attacks with gusto the twin businesses of providing intellectual stimulation against all odds in our little corner of the Conflent and force-feeding the villagers with their history. Par exemple, we hold a poetry competition, in which today’s budding Baudelaires cut their metrical teeth in both French and Catalan. Then the local lyrical wordsmiths deliver earnest lectures on the delights of iambic pentameter and avant- garde verse to a
surprisingly large audience, many of whom don’t know an iamb from a dactyl, or even from a mountain goat. There I go again, dissing my flock of cultural wannabes. I can’t help it sometimes. It must be because of my intellectual superiority. I’ll try not to do it again. Despite that, as a result of our activities, Eus has become the liveliest and most cultured village in the whole of the Conflent; a very haven for sculptors, scribblers and artists, especially those who paint incomprehensible squiggles on the canvas and call it contemporary art. Oops again! Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to say that, but then I personally am not a painter, except for the household doors and walls. Anyway as I was saying, to proclaim our superiority to the world, we organise - I use the verb loosely, organisation is not a word in the lexicon of most Catalans - a ‘Croise d’Arts’. Sounds important? It surely is for those of us devoted to educating the masses in matters of culture! What it means is portes ouvertes throughout the village for anyone who sculpts, paints, finger draws, throws pots, makes jewellery or farts in colour. This is when we discover what a hothouse of artistic endeavour lies within the village boundaries - an indicator of its true soul. Every inhabitant who has ever contemplated painting, even
if only the kitchen door, seems to find something to exhibit (sometimes it is the kitchen door), and those who, like me, are aesthetically challenged in the visual arts, allow others to use their houses to hang paintings, display newly thrown crockery, demonstrate arcane arc-welding techniques, show bright and shining new artefacts and decorate windows with prettily coloured glass objects. People flock from miles around to gaup, admire, marvel, stupefact and, rarely, to put their hands in their pockets and buy. The wife of Eus is one of the many who display their paintings at the Croisée d’arts and this year, I think I heard her mumbling under her breath about the stinginess of the visitors. Nevertheless it’s certainly popular. Last year the narrow road up to the top of the village was two deep in cars and the cavalcade of visiting vehicles extended for miles beyond. It took 3 days to get the people trapped at the top out. That’s what we intellectuals call a truth lapse of course, but it serves to make a point. The Croisee d’Arts is the time too when we realise what a dangerous place the village can be. Take Albert for example. He lives in its very centre, and specialises in welding large pieces of metal into weird and mysterious shapes according to his whim of the moment. His atelier resembles something like a cross
between a scrap metal yard and a factory. When he is at work, blue, red and green sparks fly psychedelically and randomly in all directions, while in his yard outside lies enough oxy-acetylene to blow the village into the stratosphere. It is fortunate that sangfroid is a French word since his neighbours seem to have a superabundance of the stuff. Or perhaps thatâ€™s why they go to pray in the church twice as often than the others. Arc-welding is after all his metier and that is what counts. There are other worthy activities. One of them takes the view that real history is in the hearts and minds of the older people, who are represented in the village in copious numbers. And so we have a drive to transfer their memories and experiences onto audiotape with an intention of compiling an epic of Eusâ€™s living history. We thought that this could be a great learning experience for the kids, and manufactured a plan to have hordes of school-children knocking on ancient doors, enthusiastically waving their tape-recorders at bemused third, fourth and fifth-agers. Alas it was not to be. The French school system and the fact that there are only 3 children in the village of an age to interview defeated that grande idĂŠe. However, each Tuesday afternoon in the Maison du Temps Libre, the village wrinklies are to be seen eyeing the
high tech of a tape recorder with undisguised suspicion, as if it were one of Satan’s anvils, and speaking hesitantly to Madame la Presidente (that’s me) herself. After a few minutes sus out that I am not from the tax office or the social security, and nor am I the guardian of the Styx come to take them across, they break into unstoppable reminiscing, providing the raw data for volumes of fascinating village history, and perhaps the a 30 episode series, a sort of Eastenders. I saw that programme once when I was England and not even the Eus villagers could be as sad or dysfunctional as that bunch of squabbling losers. Sorry, I just couldn’t help showing how I am so much more knowledgeable of high culture than you clueless peasants who live in the real world. I’ll try to curb it in future. But it’s difficult! One of my many personae in the activities of culture et patrimoine is to act as its musical soul. Every year I organise a visiting ensemble, - a choir, a band, a gaggle of singers - to perform in the church or the village hall, feeding from the international festival at Latour de France (see page xx) whose director I know. I enlist the other Britanniques in the process. It is a labour of considerable love, not least in the generation and distribution of publicity materials to make sure that people turn up. We have had some
marvellously magical musical evenings. Last year saw the visit of a young brass band from a village called Astley, not 7 miles from the town where Eddie, the immigrant, was born in Lancashire. Now I know that the wife of Eus has mentioned this band but I can’t help telling it like it was, because I’m the intellectual and she’s only, well, the wife of Eus, and Eddie as it happens. The kids were anything from 6 to 16 and led by an ebullient and highly gifted young bandleader called Helen. At this point I should mention that the Eus village hall is not exactly a shed in an adjoining muddy field as tends to be the case in many British villages. It is in fact a superbly designed Pyrennean-Scandinavian structure situated at the summit of the village overlooking the whole of the Conflent valley. It confronts the Canigou with some defiance, confidently matching nature’s beauty with human inventiveness. It was on this very terrace that I and my cultural conspirators placed the 50 or so members of the band, while inside sat the 200 plus punters in the audience who had paid the entrance fee of zilch to get in. (Our marketing strategy leaves nothing to chance. But ‘entrée gratuite’ doesn’t say how much it costs to leave!). So against the backdrop of the twinkling lights of Prades in the middle distance and the
imposing outline of the mountain opposite, these youngsters proceeded to give us the most exquisite demonstration of brass band music ever heard in the Conflent. They played their hearts out, inspired by the setting, the enthusiasm of the audience and the balminess of the evening. The concert was an entrancing, marvellous, mystical experience, reserved only for those who had the great good fortune to be there. They played Gershwin and Goldoni, Bart and Bach, Crosby and Corelli. Their last rendition of New York, New York had half the audience dancing at the back of the hall and the other half in full Sinatran voice. Before leaving, the audience contributed almost £300 to the cause of new instruments for the band. Now, that’s what ‘entrée gratuite’ means in this part of the world. More prosaically, after the show the famous britannique ladies cooked a mountain of beefburgers on an open fire, ladled tons of onions, heaved gallons of tomato ketchup onto them and handed them out to the performers. These were washed down with dioxin-free Coke and followed by some of the most luscious peaches these children had ever seen. The French helpers amongst us looked on in amazement - that children who could produce such divine music could also consume such disgusting food will always
remain one of the many Anglo-Saxon mysteries for them. As a result of this magical evening, the Wigan Town pennant still hangs proudly in the Eus village hall. I doubt that any of our villagers will ever get to that paradise of South East Lancashire to reciprocate the visit, but we luxuriate in the knowledge that, somewhere in Wigan, probably in a recess of the grandly named Astley Miners Welfare hut, there lurks a poster of the village perch of Eus, and fifty memories of an evening that will linger long in the mind.
I have one other claim to musical fame; that I have actually shaken the hand of the great Jacques Loussier, whose trio became, along with the Modern Jazz Quartet, to be regarded as the best in this genre We mourned with the rest of his admirers when he escaped this world into a Tibetan monastery in the late 1970s, and rejoiced when he emerged at the end of 1980s apparently none the worse for the experience. Imagine my surprise and delight when they consented to play Bach at a Boris Vian Foundation concert in our village hall - for 5 euros. This was a cultural occasion not to be missed.
And so it turned out. Loussier, hands now caressing, now dancing mercurially over, the keyboard, teased delicate inspiration from the empty air, Charbonnier on the double bass plucked melodies and rhythms that Bach had never thought of and Arpino brought forth a stupendous variety of sounds from anything which had the temerity to stand in the way of his whirling drumsticks. Now thatâ€™s what I call intellectual-speak! Creative isnâ€™t it? My cousin, a musical philistine of the first order, joined me at the concert. He went on sufferance and because his wife nagged him to go, and had to take their 11 year youngster rather than leave him alone in a strange home. They both expected to be bored silly, but their expectations were not to be realised. Instead my cousin ended up standing on his seat after each number, shouting and cheering louder than the rest of audience put together - and they were by no means silent. The life ambition of the 11 year old is now to be the next Jacques Loussier. The night was genial, the stars were in their heaven, as William Wordsworth might have said, bliss it was in that moment to be alive. You can see that, as a supe-
rior intellectual, I read British poetry as well. Tradition, Tradition! Let my intellectual genius tell you about the APLEC, fratalan word, meaning a sort of giant open-air encounter group in which villagers from four Communes take to the hills to fraternise and pray together in a romantic spot. Organising this is another of my humble responsibilities. Each Monday of Pentecost the Eus villagers make a pilgrimage to the other half of the commune. If this sounds bizarre, there is a perfectly rational explanation. The full name of the commune over which I preside is Eus et Comes, although in terms of population the latter tends to have fallen behind - it boasts a population of precisely 2 sheep farmers. This is partly because most of the buildings in Comes have neither complete walls nor roofs. It is in other words in a state of some dilapidation and fully justifies its Catalan name of Coma, since it spends most of the year sleeping. It is also several kilometres up the mountain from Eus, hence the pilgrimage. At about 9 am the hardy souls of our village congregate near the Mairie at the top of the village. This being France, with the obligations of individual welcomes to perform, my brave band of brothers and
sisters, commences the tortuous climb up the winding gravel road at about 9.45. At 10 it stops, already breathless, the average age of the village being well over 60, to admire the view over Prades from the bench 300 yards into the walk and to bavarder a little more. Ten minutes later, audaciously pursuing their next objective, they arrive at the entrance to a dilapidated vineyard, the owner having thrown off this mortal coil some 10 years ago and his abundant heirs not having a clue what they should do with it. Here they rest again. This stop-go cycle, which mirrors the economic fortunes of the region and also their interest in things cultural, continues for the next 2 hours, until the mission is accomplished and the pilgrims, now members of a crocodile extending some 800 metres along the track, each make their own triumphant entry into the stony wreckage of Comes. Meanwhile the fainter hearts, pleading the necessity to act as pack mules, have left the same starting point by car and arrived by a circuitous route with everyoneâ€™s special bag and the necessary accoutrements and ammunition for a barbecue and grill, including of course tables, chairs, cushions and games. With the arrival of everyone except the very slowest there is a collective sigh of triumphant satisfaction
and a long lingering look out over the stupendous view across the crystal clear valley to a still whitetopped Canigou framed majestically against an azure cloudless sky. But first, since this is a cultural occasion, I arrange for the hordes to explore the ruined village of Comes and to reflect, as amateur Gibbons (the man, not the monkey, though the level of knowledge is closer to the latter), on its decline and fall. As long ago as the 18th century it was a thriving community. Some 300 resolute individuals inhabited the now lifeless cottage shells and eked out a poverty-stricken living tending vines, herding cows and sheep and growing the sort of crops which could resist the extremes of a climate at 4000 feet and grow roots in 2 inches of soil to provide a minimum of 800 calories a day. The inhabitants are chronicled meticulously in the parish records of Eus. Itâ€™s clear to me, as one of the more intelligent types, that they seem to have been extremely hopeful people. Wonderful Christian names abound in the records. Bonaventure, for example. I can imagine that someone born with such a title could be nothing other than a swashbuckling peasant-soldier of fortune, slashing the vines and slapping the cows in gay hedonistic abandon. The
reality of course is that the number of buckles to be swashed in a place like Comes was strictly limited. But perhaps he was able to share his devil-may-care philosophy with another of the villagers, Elysee. A name like that, reminiscent of the sybarytic self-indulgence of those fields which gave their name to a boulevard far away in my nationâ€™s capital, should signify perpetual pleasure and sensual delight. The prosaic truth is that there was precious little to smile about in olden-times Comes. Children, some of them contemporaries of my father, walked four kilometres down the mountain to go to school come rain, hail or shine, and wended their weary way elegaically homewards (note the intellectual reference to another British poet) every evening. Life was tough, a constant battle against summer wind and winter cold and perpetual drought. It was the last of these three which finally saw the end of the village. Seven successive years of secheresse in the 1920â€™s finally saw the last of these hardy people retreat down the mountain to the fleshpots of Eus and Prades, and their families are now dotted around the lower valley. In past centuries even this would not have been an option open to them, and the lonely cemetery bears silent witness to hundreds of souls taken before their time.
But at least they had their religion and this was a great part of their culture. The Church is the only building now still standing with a roof. Its Romanesque shape and its dry-stone walls betray its date of construction around the 10th century and, for me, there is a sad beauty in the simplicity of its lines. Inside, it is equally sparse and bare, though not severe, since traces of deep blues and rich reds dating back many hundreds of years can be seen on its crumbling plaster walls. Some of this sparseness is due to the devastation caused by passing bounty-hunters, who have stolen just about everything that could be moved, including the altar and some of the ornate grave stones in the cemetery. The altar rail though is still in place, standing guard over the raised stone platform of the chancel where once stood a succession of country priests preparing communion at the altar table. It must have been a place of great faith and great solace in times past. In the present I can only say that its appearance displays not just the sad remembrance of times past and people forgotten, but also the sickness of our age. Like many local customs, the APLEC has its roots in religion. The people of the four communes like nothing better than an open air mass. The valley so
high one can feel half way to Heaven already. At 11.30 a large group gathers round a make-shift altar table, a statue of the Virgin Mary is hoisted aloft and the two duty priests start the catechism. The air seems to become still; the bees seem to stop buzzing, the birds apparently stop singing, the crickets stop playing cricket while the sounds of worship fill the countryside. The best singers from the villages sing, the priests chant, the congregation responds, and the Brits look on in wonder. The view across the valley is stupendous. God is in his perfect heaven and nothing can possibly go wrong with the world in this perfect place. That is until the next item on the APLEC calendar takes place, for which I claim no responsibility, since my part as cultural czarina in the proceedings, is now complete. But Iâ€™ll describe them anyway in my own intellectual, and therefore unreadable, style. Back on the field below the village the festivities, and the pork chops and sausages, are in full flame. Small islands of people sit around the tables surrounded by refrigerated boxes and crates of wine, tucking into the hors dâ€™oeuvres they have plundered from a central table. It comprises a potato salad, laced with beans, mushrooms, peppers and olives with what seems like a green mountain of lettuce
leaves. As I might have foreseen, only one group is table-less, preferring to slum it with the ants, beetles and other creatures of the field. This of course is the British contingent, courageous to the end, chins thrust forward defiantly and upper lips starch-rigid. They have eschewed the little niceties and comforts of our French barbecue life such as tables and chairs in favour of the obligatory British-blanket-on-theground and bums in God-knows-what on the grass. At least they have the ironmongery and crockery even if it takes a superhuman effort to twist the body into shapes it was never designed to adopt in order to access the nourishment. But tant pis for them. But such idyllic dreams do not last. There are always those, especially from among the barbarians of more northerly climes, who simply cannot relax even for ten minutes, and who just happen to have found a frisbee in the bottom of their picnic hamper. That a plastic saucer-shaped object should provide the focus for so much fevered activity and hysterical laughter in the lower field might seem to be unbelievable, but the wine has done its work well and spirits are high. As the sleepers awake, they too join in, until the Spirit of the Canigou, looking timelessly across the valley for signs of intelligent life, would survey an assemblage of the worldâ€™s greatest and most cer-
ebral of species cavorting noisily in happy circles under the windworn walls of the ruined village. And it would, from that moment, know that flying saucers are writ large into the ancestral spirit of mankind. Later, he (for Canigou is assuredly male, and macho with it) would see, and ponder in wondering incredulity, the spectacle of these same resourceful and logical beings producing spherical iron projectiles to organise – again one uses the word loosely - that most French of pastimes, a concours of boules. The process of assigning the planet’s most rational brains into two equally competent teams is a simple one. Each participant throws one boule towards a small bright object in the middle distance and, this task having been accomplished, those furthest away from it play against those nearest to it. If the Canigou were aware of a more equitable way of doing this, he wasn’t saying. Then would follow the familiar petanqual cries of ‘tirez’ and ‘pointez’ and ‘C’est pas vrai and Catastrophe!’ Anglo-gallic hands would be anglo-gallically wrung and exasperated glances cast to the unsympathetic skies, expletives of triumph and expletives better deleted would be directed across the valley to the imaginary thousands in the stands fashioned from the vast bowl of the mountains. The standard-bearers of two of humankind’s great cul-
tures pass resolutely and anxiously from one end to other and back again until the game is ended and the winners acclaimed. Thus fulfilled, and having victoriously filled the empty chasm of the day, at 5 pm the blissful and exhausted throng wends its way down the mountainside, and relate heroic tales of a supremely successful event to those they left behind. I, of course, as always, modestly refrain from accepting the praise for yet another cultural triumph. There is always another one for intellectual types like me to organise next week, next month, next year. Meanwhile if youâ€™re looking for a good time with special equipment and â€Ś oops there I go again! Sorry.
7th edition A British election, a Japanese tourist and my Glaswegian wife Salut mes copains etc. “What a week!” I ‘ear you say, and no wonder, with the stupid election and everyzing. What a bore! What is this choice you silly Eenglish ‘ave. The big Scottish lump chiselled out of granite, wotsisname, Gordon the Brown, ‘oo look like Desperate Dan in a pinstripe suit. ‘e should be eating cow pie or something with the brown sauce, you know the one, the brown sauce that the Eenglish peasants, I think they call zem, Cockneys, though I never understand zis term, pour all over their chips and mushy peas. Perhaps in ze ‘ouses of Parliament zey add a little to their claret to give it a little zest. Also too, you ‘ave another chap with the Jocky name Davide Cameron, ‘e seem too nice and zat is not good in politics and zen the other thing, Nick the Clegg. I thought a cleg was a big orangey coloured ‘orse fly that bite you something terrible. Maybe ‘e do the same. For me, I prefer Johnny Clegg, at least
‘e can sing. Just l’autre jour, I was standing watching the Big Ben, the clock that was the model for the sauce bottle, when an excited Japonois tourist ask me to take ‘is picture. I ask ‘im as I am curious, “Do you ‘ave elections in Japan?” ‘is titchy little wife giggle like a silly schoolgirl wiv ‘er ‘and to ‘er mouth. ‘is face go red as he elbows ‘er and grins, ‘is teeth dangling like broken piano keys. I am puzzled, so I ask again, “Do you ‘ave elections in Japan?” She giggles again and turns away embarrassed and I ‘ear ‘er say into the back of ‘er ‘and, “Yes! Evelly mawning!” Stupid woman! I ‘and ‘er back ‘er camera and get a free copy of the Evening Standard from the old geezer on the corner. “Ello, guv,” ‘e say, acknowledging my superiority, “Wot about this election?” I ask ‘im. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, son… it is like the never-end-
ing story. Nuffink’s gonna change, the same old film with a different soundtrack... If you fink voting would change anyfink, do ya fink they’d let ya do it?” “Quelle question?” It was zen I remember somezing, I think it was the Denis Healey ‘oo say that government was too important to leave up to politicians. What did ‘e mean? “Never mind, son,” say the newsvendor, “just fink of all that lovely lolly when all those memoirs get writ now they’re all ‘eading down the toilet.” I look at zis old geezer, “Fanks, mate,” I say in ‘is language, “that’s a good tip. Per’aps I should contact a few and see ‘oo is the most marketable.” It show you, if you want to know what really happen in life, ask a simple man like ‘im, or the janitor, they always know everyfing. Maybe ‘e is right, what will be different a week from now, same pain, different boot on the back of your neck. I think of all the memoirs, “Ow To Clean A Moat,” by wotsisiname. You could ave the TV tie-in and show a celebrity swimming in the moat with a big
net cleaning it up. Or even, The Moat Race where you get two university teams to row against each other round the moat. Then there is “The Price Is Right Parliament Special and ‘ow a TV can be £8,000”. Nah! I am sick of politics. It is all too stupid and it is boring me to death. It is worse than being forced to watch back to back Omnibus episodes of Eastenders or Question Time. French television is bad, but zis. Phew! France! La Belle France! ‘ow I miss her. The sound of the moped with the ‘airdryer engines, the pooperscoopers in centre ville, the whiff of Galoise and strong café. I miss the cut and thrust, the quick riposte of rapier wit at the end of a sharp tongue, like my mother used to say to my un’appy, exhausted daddy as she turned and walked away, “Parle au ma fesse.” At zis time when I am a boy, I laugh at ‘is discomfort, but now when my Scottish wife ‘oo is learning Francaise very well say zis to me, for some reason, it does not seem so funny. I do not know if it is ‘er funny Glasgow accent with the French words or just ‘er menacing expression on big face, like when she ask, would you like a cup of tea? When I say, “Yes.”
Her eyes suddenly get narrow and come together and her voice, like someone gargling with the broken razor blades come back with, “Get it yerself.” It remind me very much of my father and ‘istory repeating itself. Quelle monde! ‘ow zis ‘appen? Me, a quiet well mannered boy, educated at the Sorbonne, ‘ow I end up wiv zis scary woman from Govan? Govan!!! Quelle place!!! Zey are a special breed there, I can tell you. ‘ow can a tiny place like zat ‘ave so many aggressive people born there. You ‘ave that Alex Ferguson, even now the queen call ‘im Sir Alex, then you ‘ave Kenny Dalgliesh. I ‘ave seen the short world cup film, or maybe it is an advert, of ‘im not letting the old fogies of Eenglish football watch the telly. You ‘ave zat other one ‘oose family come from there, that Tony Blair crowd and Gordon the Brown come from there too, and Gorbals Mick ze Speaker of the ‘ouse of Commons,. ‘e never come from the Gorbals, ‘e come from Govan… And Billy Connolly, ‘e go to the same school there as Alex ‘arvey with ‘is Sensational Alex ‘arvey Band. And some’ow, my wife, she come from there, from the Wine Alley, and I can tell you it is not the finest Bordeaux, it is not a cru classe, no, she come from the same Wine Alley as Rab C. Nesbitt.
One morning I wake up on my birthday with big ‘eadache, or as they say in cockneyland, bollockache. I am overwhelmed with common sense when she ask me what I would like for my birthday. I think she ‘int at sex, you know, ‘ow you say, nookey. I suddenly see the opportunity so I say to her, “Darlink, ‘ow about a divorce.” Next thing I see this deep fried ‘aggis flying towards me and whistle past my ‘ead and splatter all over the wall. Now it look pebble dashed on the inside. ‘er accent get even stronger when she is angry but I am not sure of the phonetics but it sound like one big long word, kind of like, “Youkinfuckoffyastupitlookingbigbastart.” I am not sure if that is ‘ow you spell it. Then she remind me that as she is a catholic I cannot ‘ave a divorce. I then think of a great ploy to turn her off, I tell ‘er I am gay. “In that case,” she say, “Ah’ll juist cut yer fuckin’ balls off because ye won’t be needin’ them.” I went a bit quiet, and then pale. I could feel I was going to faint but thought it would be unwise as I did not know what I would be like when I come
round. We sat there in silence, staring at each other for half an ‘our. Suddenly she stands up and says, “Wid ye like a wee cup then?” I cough with foreboding and summon my best Scottish accent to please ‘er, “Aye! Okay then. Hey, dae ye fancy goin’t tae the pictures tonight?” 1