Afterwards I felt I should have noticed the men who had lowered the coffin. I didn’t take any notice of them at all, yet they must have been there, done it. I couldn’t say if they were young or old, or something in between, yet they had come along and done their job and somebody somewhere had paid them for it. I should have noticed.
They stood around the grave, looking down at the frozen earth. Their breath made white puffs in the air and nobody stayed long. My black dress and coat were inadequate against the cold and, along with the crowd and all his clients, almost the whole little town, I retreated with the surge and within twelve hours I was home.
The centre of France is so cold in the winter. Bitterly cold. In the summer the heat gets trapped on to that central plateau, like a furnace of thick, stifling air, so that all effort is too much effort …….. but in the winter the wind whips up off the Atlantic on one side and off far away Siberia on the other …… and the frozen temperature is sandwiched there, almost tangible, till some trickle of sunlight filters through, and some bird shiveringly emits its tiny song …… and the cold fades out and recedes, like spilt ink blotted up on an old school desk.
Years ago now. God knows, it’s all years ago now.
When I was first there I used to say that there was a kind of Bronte beauty to that central plateau. I was lying. Even then, I lied. There is nothing beautiful about it. Black and icy, brown and ragged, the countryside unfolds like a dark old cloak, so sombre that the very loneliness is to die from.
Well, of course, the local people don’t say that. Pierre should have known better. You have to have been born there, and your fathers before you, to be local. Lord knows, you have to have died there.
I met him at a “brocante” one sunny spring Sunday in the village of Clion-sur-Indre. The main road from Chateauroux up to Tours, and thence to Paris, blasts through that little town and the big “brocante” sign invited people to stop and browse, as indeed it did me. In those days the French didn’t realize what a wealth of bric-a-brac and antiques their “brocantes” harboured, and it was ideal hunting ground for me. I had been in the business no more than three or four years at that time. I specialized in antique porcelain, but anything unusual interested me. At the end of each trip my aim was to have filled my van ready for the market in Portobello and the Lanes in Brighton. I did quite well out of it. I took no more than five days on each trip, doing my round from as far inland as Bourges, but no further east, west as far as Chateauroux, then back up the main road to Tours, Orleans, Paris and home. Periodically, and depending entirely on time and weather, I would travel north-east via Chatellerault to Poitiers, and this was also an excellent route, dotted with down-at-heel little “brocantes” of one sort or another, small flea markets and second hand shops. Limoges, La Rochelle, Saintes ……. I knew all those places before the tourists discovered them …..
He was standing at a stall, the sun shining on to the back of his head, his hands in his pockets, a woolen scarf flung casually around his neck, his jacket open. He bent forwards slightly as he examined the gun. He didn’t touch it. There was a small frown between his eyes and I realized he had no idea what he was looking at.
It was a beautiful old flintlock, circa 1630. The beech wood handle was inlaid with intricately carved ivory depicting a ship on one side and a floral design on the other. It was in excellent condition. It was very cheap, ridiculously cheap, exactly what I liked.
“Is it real?” I heard him ask.
“Mais oui!” exclaimed the owner, an elderly man with an unshaven jaw, and he then launched in to a long story about how his grandfather came to own it. Pierre listened politely.
I waited, holding my breath, for the right moment. My hand ready, I watched Pierre’s face and, the second his gaze moved off to another object (a ghastly orange vase – art deco has since become popular, but it wasn’t then) I lent forwards and picked up the gun. It was a beauty.
“Not only is it real,” continued the old man, “but there is gunpowder in it too!”
This made Pierre look round. He smiled at me. He inclined his head slightly. Aged in his early thirties, his face was handsome, clean-shaven, strong-boned. He had the poise and expression of an educated man. His hands, now out of his pockets, were fine and white, the hands of ……. I wondered ….. a doctor, a lawyer. No taller than I, Pierre oozed a sexuality that stuck me forcibly and it was the first – and the last – time I immediately felt a powerful sexual attraction to a man.
Later, after we had made love, in the sleepy fog of post-orgasm exhaustion, he told me that he had felt the same.
Pierre lived and worked in Loches. He was a notaire and, as was the way in those old backwater French towns, he had the social status of a god. I only twice ever went to the room that was his office, situated on the ground floor of a huge old stone pile of a building, once when I met him and once when I left him.
The property was what he called a “Maison de Maitre” – the master’s house. A huge entrance hall with a fleur-de-lys tiled floor, a few notice boards and several leather arm chairs were dotted about. This was his waiting room. Off one side was his secretary’s office and to the other his own, modern and bright. On the mantelpiece was a large photo of a house and another of a young woman with very short blond hair. He saw me looking.
“That is my home,” he said, pointing to the ivy-covered walls in the picture. It was magnificent. “And this was my girl-friend. She died in a car crash a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry …..”
“Not at all.” He put the photo in a drawer. “It is high time I moved on.”
From the hall a wide stone staircase led upstairs. We made our way slowly up, looking at the portraits that hung there, mostly very dusty.
“My forefathers,” said Pierre. “This house was built in 1680 and has always belonged to us. We have not lived in it since I was a boy – it is too big and requires too much maintenance.”
It was beautiful. A small mullioned window on the stair looked out onto an overgrown garden, and the landing boasted huge oak floorboards, now slightly musty for lack of care. There was very little in the way of furniture.
“So you use this building just for your office?”
“Yes. We maintain the roof and walls and perhaps one day we will restore it. But for now it is just my office.”
We made love amid the eiderdowns in a big old four-poster bed which had probably seen the births and deaths of Peirre’s grandfathers. I had never done such an impetuous thing before and I doubted Pierre, careful and organized, had either. There was no candlelit dinner, I didn’t even know his full name. Our love-making was total. We had been together for a thousand years. We were brand new to each other. We couldn’t get enough of our very passion, or of its very sating. I loved his body. Lean and firm, he lay back on the tousled bed in the darkening room and we listened to the sound of passing traffic in the street below, and watched our reflections in the grey mirror over the fireplace opposite.
I was soon to know that mirror off by heart. Every blemish, every fissure in the ornate frame, every black age spot, every angle of the marble fireplace. I was soon to know every crevice in that room, each piece of furniture. Even the dust was sacred, a witness to our love and our love-making. I loved him.
Thus it was that my trips to France became more frequent and the route took on a solid sameness that soon grew comfortable in its familiarity. Usually, however, I stayed in Tours where – Pierre explained – there were plenty of restaurants to go to and museums and galleries to enjoy. My hotel was on the park, overlooking children on swings in the background, and framed by magnificent trees that brooded quietly as summer came and then turned imperceptibly in to autumn, and then winter was back.
Pierre never stayed all night with me when i was in Tours. People were old-fashioned back then. He worked long hours. He took the French two-hour lunch breaks and we would sit up on that huge old bed above his office, like naughty school children, eating baguette and cheese and drinking red wine. Our sex was frantic, frenetic, as though we were trying to top-up before I went away again.
Pierre was totally against my moving permanently in to the area. After it was all over I could see why, of course. But at the time I was hurt. He kissed me. He said he wanted me to get to know France much better before I took such a big step. I had yet to meet his family. His family would expect us to marry. I shall buy you a big ring, he said, and kissed my ring finger. More importantly, not only his family but the whole little town would be aghast at their notaire marrying an English girl. We must take it very slowly, he said. Very slowly. Very carefully. It’s one of the reasons it’s best we meet in Tours, he said.
Odd that. My family were not perturbed about me marrying a Frenchman. Sure, they’d have preferred a nice local boy, but a French notaire was fine. I showed them photos of Pierre. My mother said he looked nice. I wanted to bring him to England to meet them. I had a photograph of myself professionally taken.
“Put it on your desk,” I told him.
“But of course!” he said. “Then I can see you every day!”
I loved his old-fashioned charm. He explained that he still lived with his parents somewhere on the other side of Loches. He often devoted Sundays to them, sometimes Saturdays too. During the winter he liked to go hunting with his father. I understood and respected that. I spent my time looking round premises in Tours – somewhere suitable for my antiques shop, I thought, with perhaps a large flat over it. For Pierre was right about that – Loches would stifle me, once we were married, and a flat over my shop would be excellent for me during the week. Perhaps I’d be able to persuade him to buy a house somewhere half way between Loches and Tours. That would be ideal. I dreamt on. I made plans. There are few things as wonderful as being in love with a man who is in love with you.
For his birthday I decided to give him the gun.
I drove down to Loches early afternoon even though we had arranged to meet there the next day. I love surprises. Nice ones. I picked up a cake en route. We’d eat it on that big old bed. We’d take off all our clothes and sit naked and eat the cake. I wished I had a thermos. I could have made tea. That would be so English, I thought. English tea and cake in the big old French bed. I smiled to myself. Even though he didn’t understand antiques, he’d be pleased with the gun. I parked. It was raining. I went up those three first steps and opened the huge heavy door. I listened. I could hear his secretary on the phone. I looked at my watch. I’d never met her. Usually I came later, when I knew she had gone off to lunch. I listened more. I listened at his door too. Silence. I knocked on the secretary’s door and went in. She sat at her desk.
“Where is Maitre Rullier?” I then asked the secretary. She was startled. Had not heard me come in. She was in her fifties. I was inordinately glad about this. Silly. She wore a cheap top with a hideous brooch. There was a smell of cigarettes.
“Monsieur will not be in till this evening after we have closed,” she told me primly. “Did you have an appointment ?”
“Yes,” I lied. “But I am early – he is not expecting to see me till this evening.”
“You will have a long wait, I’m afraid. He is very rarely out, but today is not only his birthday but it is also Madame’s birthday and their fifth wedding anniversary – all on the same day! They always spend the day together and go somewhere nice”.
“I’ll wait for a while ……” I went back in to the hall and sat down on the nearest chair.
I waited. I flicked through magazines. I combed my hair. I studied the wall opposite. I rubbed a bit of mud off a shoe. I could hear a clock ticking somewhere. I thought about what she’d just said, that secretary with the hideous blouse and the cigarettes. It took an eternity to sink in. These things do, you know. I rose slowly. I went in to his office.
On the mantlepiece was the photo of the blond girl with very short hair. I picked it up. I carried it in to the secretary.
“Is this Pierre’s wife?” I asked her.
“Why, yes – did you go in to his office ?! Madame, you must not! It is private!” She snatched the photo from me and scuttled over in to Pierre’s office. “Please do not go in there again, Madame,” she said sternly, closing the door behind her, “this is the waiting room here. You must wait here.”
So I did. That’s where I waited. At around five-thirty the woman left, flicking on the light as she did so. She said she had telephoned Monsieur who had confirmed that I could wait. I went up to the bedroom. I waited. I wrapped the gun in the eiderdown. And waited.
The wind whips in off the Atlantic, far away now. The graveyard must be frozen in winters like this. I only ever think of it in winter. Frost on the stone. No, there is no Bronte beauty to it. As I said, it was a lie.
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