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Pastels at Dawn by Celia Micklefield

© Celia Micklefield

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Pastels at Dawn
as told in the novel TROBAIRITZ

Young Maitre André addressed the Wednesday afternoon painting class with some trepidation.
‘Look closely into the shadows,’ he reminded them. ‘You will see colours there also.’
Indicating the interlocking pattern of stems and leaves of the still-life study he had carefully arranged on the central table, he willed them to see how the December light from the window cast long shades. He turned toward his own seat in hope.

The murmur began as was usual. It always started at the back of the room and worked its way gradually around the circle of work tables till it reached the most senior member of the group, Monsieur Joseph whose regular place was nearest the door to Maitre’s atelier, closest to the lavatories.

André braced himself.
Monsieur Joseph began with his little cough.
‘The shadows make an interesting design, Maitre. I allow.’
Fourteen heads nodded in agreement and the murmur grew louder. ‘The light filters through the large leaves of the dead sunflowers so that there are patches of light and shade on the stems and on the vase and even on the table.’
The fourteen heads nodded in unison. Monsieur Joseph leaned back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest. ‘But the shadows are grey, Maitre.’

André’s stomach sank. Fifteen pairs of eyes fixed on him; he could feel them boring through the back of his head. He forced a bright smile and spun to face them from his position by the window.
‘Who can remember what we have said in class about complementary colours?’ he asked.

Another murmur circled the room. Monsieur Joseph unfolded his arms and held them out, as if in supplication.
‘Young Maitre André,’ he beseeched. ‘We all remember what you have explained to us before. But we cannot see red in the shadows of green things, nor purple in the shadows of sunflowers. In any case, these sunflowers are dead. The shadows are grey and the flower heads also are grey. They will make a delightful pencil study.’

And Monsieur Joseph slowly and deliberately packed away his watercolours and brought out his graphite pencils.
André sighed.
‘As you wish, Joseph.’ He tried to catch the attention of some of the others but the fourteen heads went down as they rummaged in their own work boxes. André spoke over the top of their bent shoulders. ‘I hope some of you will choose to try painting.’
A female head popped up. Madame Jacqueline, the retired postmistress smiled warmly at André. He hurried to her side.
‘I will paint,’ she said. ‘For I find that I have not my pencils with me,’ and she cast her eyes towards Joseph who merely nodded and shrugged.

Monsieur Joseph Noilly, grandfather to the presiding Mayor, and former Mayor of Montalhan sans Vents before him, was a founding member of the Atelier des Arts. An abiding interest in creative activities and a fascination for the Bohemian in particular had attracted him, in his youth, toward people of that ilk. Yet the responsibilities of office had thrust upon him a sober life of committee meetings and reunions: waste management; inundation protection; road improvements; education. Now, there were no longer important business affairs to attend. He applied himself to the occasional requests for advice on civic decisions from his grandson, but those youthful longings still raged within him, and he feared them. In his private life, he kept a tight rein on himself in all matters, including the question of whether there were colours in shadows.

André sat at his place and regarded his class. He wondered why they still attended: they didn’t appear to want to learn or even try anything new and different. Madame Jacqueline raised her head again and beckoned him. Once more, he hurried to her side.
‘It is so difficult,’ she explained. ‘You have often told us to paint what we see. Yes? And if we can see only the grey . . ?’

The idea came to him instantly. As the pale sun sank lower in the sky and the Christmas lights came on in the Place de Paume below the studio, he began to formulate a plan.

He had the leaflets printed and ready to coincide with the annual Christmas spectacle: the dinner and cabaret in the Salles des Fetes. All the villagers turned out for that, not least because of the generous free bar donated by the local Vignobles and Domaines. It had been a very good year for the reds. The Syrah and the Merlot had won gold at the Nationals; the Cabernet Sauvignon a respectable silver.

He stood at the entrance to the Salles des Fetes and handed out his invitations as the guests arrived, shaking hands and smiling like a politician. He was disappointed afterwards to see so many of his bright leaflets left lying on the tables and wondered, as he helped clear away after the dinner, whether the whole thing would be a disaster.
A young woman approached him with one of his invitations in her hand.
‘Hello, you must be Maitre André. My name is Niamh.’

He saw her teeth first: big, bright white teeth. Then her eyes: blue, so blue. Long, colourful, flowing skirts and a bodice with something tight around the middle. A pendant at her throat and jangling bangles like a gypsy. Dainty hands with long fingers clutching his precious piece of paper. And then he saw her head, covered by twisted scarves, tied tightly in a knot at the side.

‘I would love to come to the Petit Déjeuner sur L’Herbe. As long as I can keep my clothes on!’ She laughed and something happened to his insides. ‘The invitation is open to all, isn’t it?’
‘Your French is perfect,’ he said. ‘Yes. Please come. I shall look forward to seeing you there.’
‘Thank you. I’d like to stay and chat with you longer but my aunt and uncle are ready to leave now. I’m staying with them for the holidays.’ She saw him trying not to stare at the scarves covering her head, and added: ‘I’ve been ill. Bonnes fêtes. See you in the new year.’

And then she was gone. He awoke at four in the morning and found himself thinking about her. Niamh: an Irish name. A peculiar smile twitched around his lips and he tried to imagine her in her Irish home with her Irish friends but he couldn’t do it because it was beyond his experience. Apart from the few retired English ladies in the village, he knew only French women. He’d heard that there were Irish families also who arrived on the budget airline into Carcassonne, but he’d never come across any of them. Now here was this Niamh: not pouting and sultry and mysterious, but open and honest and fresh. By four-fifteen, he knew that he was smitten.

He spent a quiet Christmas with his parents in Montpelier, kissed all the aunts and the cousins and slapped the backs of the uncles. They talked of new additions to the family and exchanged photographs. They put on their walking boots and trekked in the garigue, then came back to the house for canapés at six-thirty and dinner that went on until eleven. They saw in the New Year by the fountain in Place de la Comedie and watched the firework display over the city. Great plumes of Van Gogh vivid stars lit the night sky and he felt that unusual flickering smile playing at his mouth once more because it was almost time to see her again.

Montalhan sans Vents sits with its back to the Montagnes Noir and its face towards the south where the sun climbs out of the Mediterranean and sets behind the Midi Pyrenees. Sheltered by the mountains from the worst of the Tramontane winds, the winters are mild. Roses bloom through January, spring flowers appear in early February when the air is filled with the perfume of Mimosa trees. According to Meteo France, Maitre André’s breakfast party on the first Saturday of the new year promised clear blue skies and a very pleasant sixteen degrees.

The telephone calls began to come in. He was pleased that most of his Wednesday afternoon class wished to accept his invitation, as well as several newcomers who spoke of the possibility of joining one of his groups in future. On the morning of his great experiment he collected his order at the bakery and, half an hour before his guests were due to arrive at the appointed place, he set up and lit the fire in the old stone bread oven in the picnic area by the river.

It was still dark when the gathering assembled, as he had intended. They took their places on the benches and he handed out warm croissants and bread rolls filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon. There was strong coffee and pastis, and they giggled like schoolchildren on an outing, pulling their scarves around them and rubbing gloved hands. Niamh arrived, then disappeared into the shadows under the trees.

Gradually, the sky lightened. Pale peach fingers streaked across the sky and turned the undersides of the saucer-shaped clouds to shades of mauve. The party grew quieter so that they could all hear the river tumbling over the stones below their feet. The little river Thon, playful tributary to the mighty Hérault itself, tinkled like fairy flutes around them and they were mesmerised by the music of this marvellous dawn.
‘Look at the shadows,’ Maitre André encouraged. ‘Look at the shadows. See how they change as the sky lightens,’ and he ran amongst them handing out the support boards he had prepared and offering the box of pastels. Niamh came forward to help.
‘Take any three sticks of colour,’ he told them. ‘It doesn’t matter what. Just three different ones. Use them to sketch what you see.’

The sun broke the horizon beyond the trees: branches turned to gold; in the distance the mountains stood like gendarmes, shining and proud; the features on people’s faces began to glow. And none glowed more than Young Maitre André as he watched his students, Monsieur Joseph included, with chalk-stained fingers rubbing at their papers, engrossed in their task.
‘I’d like you to finish them at home,’ André said, ‘and bring them to the next class. We’ll pin them on the wall and have our own small exhibition.’

They thanked André and dispersed, pleased and chattering about the novel experience, swapping stories of the last time they had risen to greet the dawn. Niamh stayed back. He noticed how her eyes were sparkling.
‘You are a wonderful teacher,’ she said. ‘I hope that I can find such inspiring ways to motivate my own students.’
They spent the rest of the day together and the more he learned about her the more he wanted to know. He told her everything.
‘Why is Monsieur Joseph so stubborn?’ she asked. ‘And why do the others follow him without question?’
‘They follow him out of respect for his family. He was a well-loved mayor and did much for the community. Then he lost his only son, and more recently his wife. So, they respect his wishes. The old ways die hard.’

Classes began again. New work boxes and portfolios appeared on the tables. The three pecks on the cheek greeting ceremony lasted a good ten minutes before the class was ready to settle.
‘We welcome our new temporary member, Niamh,’ André told them. ‘She is a teacher of French in her home town in Ireland.’

The ensuing murmur had a pleasant ring to it and Monsieur Joseph was the first to greet her and welcome her formally. He made no attempt to hide his admiration of her exotic dress and flamboyant jewellery. He clucked and rolled his eyes, brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them extravagantly, gesturing to the group, the ceiling, the walls. In his imagination, it was but a short step out of this room above the Place de Paume and into the salons of his youth, in the days when he read Zola and wished for a Nana of his own. In Maitre André’s place, and at Maitre André’s age, he would have thrown himself at her feet. She kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for his compliments. He rolled his eyes again and put his hand over his heart.

They began to pin up the finished pastel paintings. Proudly, they removed them from their folders and handed them to André for positioning on the display wall. André’s jaw dropped when he stood back to admire them. Dark lines had been added on every picture: dark grey lines, outlining tree trunks and branches; smudged grey patches underneath the clouds; grey shadows everywhere. He could not disguise his disappointment.
‘Where did the dark lines come from?’ he asked, stupefied. ‘There were no grey pastels in the box I brought with me that morning. I made sure of it.’
Monsieur Joseph cocked his head and shrugged. ‘It is how we are used to working, Maitre. The paintings needed finishing. They needed the shadows.’

André slumped in his chair. Niamh turned from the group, walked to the central area of the room and climbed onto the still-life table, sitting cross-legged and arranging her skirt around her so that it draped over the edge.
‘If Maitre André will allow?’ she asked. ‘Please everybody come to your places.’
He looked up from his despair and couldn’t believe his eyes. She was unwrapping the scarves from her head.
‘I would like to pose for you,’ she said as she continued exposing her baldness. ‘As you will see, I have lost my hair. I would like to have it back. Please paint me with hair, everybody. I would like to see myself whole again.’

They couldn’t answer her. Shocked and silent, they stood in their embarrassment and stared.
‘Maitre André is a wonderful teacher,’ she went on. ‘You are so lucky to have him. Please, for him and for me, this time paint what you can’t see. Be brave. Use your imaginations.’

His admiration for her filled his soul. A lump at the back of his throat made swallowing difficult and he couldn’t speak. For the rest of the afternoon the class worked with determination. There was no murmuring, no dissent.

‘When I return,’ she told them, ‘I will look at your paintings. And if my hair has grown, you will see for yourselves if you guessed right about the colour. But I can promise you, there will be no grey. Even if the colour has to come out of a bottle, there will be no grey.’

The day after Niamh left France to return to her home and her work in Ireland, Monsieur Joseph Noilly, former mayor of Montalhan sans Vents, sought out Young Maitre André. The old man clasped the young teacher’s hand firmly and gripped his arm. He breathed in hard through his nostrils and raised his chin.
‘I have been an old fool,’ he admitted. ‘And you, Young Maitre André, you will be a worse fool if you do not follow her at the very first opportunity.’
André smiled and inclined his head.
‘And one more thing,’ Monsieur Joseph added. ‘I think it will be as red as the finest claret.’

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