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The Strangers by B. Scott

© B. Scott

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"Jeanne, my dear lady! Exciting news for you today!"

The young pup on my doorstep was being as familiar as if we'd grown up herding the cows together.

"Mademoiselle Jarret, if you please!"

He smirked a little, the imbecile.

"Well, Mademoiselle Jarret, I have a client who's set his heart on purchasing that delightful old house of yours. Exciting news, as I said!"

"My house, Maitre Renault? But I am not thinking of leaving my house. Not for many years, please God."

"No no no! I don't mean this bungalow." How dismissively he spoke, as if my pretty house was nothing to him! "I'm talking about that charming little cottage beyond the orchard."

I wondered if the notary was having a joke when he mentioned the amount of euros his client had offered for the old heap of stones. But men of law do not normally joke. I said I would think about it.

My cousin Pierre dropped by on his tractor after lunch as he often does. The Moreaus are very distant cousins but it is comforting for me to claim Pierre as family. He might indeed have been my son had things not turned into such a terrible catastrophe with his father. I think about that every day of my life.

When I told him about the notary's client he said:

"Oh yes, that jumped-up little Parisian has been to see me as well. Seems another customer of his wants to buy our old pigsties. To live in! Hundreds of foreigners scouring the countryside, buying up our old stones, ça ressemble à quoi? They're crazy!"

"And ... ?"

"I had to accept the offer, Jeanne. We need the money. Farming doesn't pay nowadays and the kids are costing me a packet. You?"
"I will probably accept too. It's not the money. My little pension is adequate. But you know Pierre, I was thinking it would be good to see the old place lived in again. It gets lonely up this lane at times ...."

"Take yourself out more Jeanne, I keep telling you! Come visit us of an evening. Join the scrabble club. Buy yourself a telly, bon dieu, or a computer. You're educated, it's unnatural the way you live, like a peasant of long ago..."

When Pierre left, I wandered down the orchard to the old house. It still looked a ruin to me. One long room built of rough granite, a small useless window, an open draughty staircase leading to the grain loft. I'd been happy there as an only child but I still recalled the dark evenings with only a paraffin-lamp. I could feel again the chilblains, see the icicles growing from the edges of our blankets on winter mornings. I'd walked down the lane every morning to that grim old school across the road, before I went to the city to train as a teacher. When I returned, I taught there for eight years, until I was forced to leave. I loved Henri Moreau, lost him, and never again went anywhere.

I was twenty-eight when my parents built our new bungalow. Everyone was getting grants and cheap loans in those prosperous years of the nineteen-sixties. The damp farmhouses were abandoned. Happily I moved into the bright pavillon with my parents and waited to get married. Henri and I were saving too, so we could have a new house in the village when we were married. Our children would grow up with electric light and a bathroom.

I felt sick at heart looking at the old house and at the gable wall where my father built on the new dairy when I was a child. I'd tried to put it out of my mind for over forty years, the hastily-built little dairy and the shameful discovery that was made there by Henri and his father in front of all our neighbours. I wanted nothing more to do with the place. Let these strangers buy it, let them live in it. I went back to my bright warm house and rang the notary.

Many months later my neighbours arrived. Picking strawberries in my orchard, I heard laughter from the old house. I hurried inside, dressed myself in my new pleated skirt from La Redoute and my navy blazer, with an elegant little scarf at my neck. I put some strawberries in a basket and strolled happily down among my fruit trees to welcome them to their new home. Where my father's haystacks had once stood, there was a floor of planks with a table and sunshade. A very thin young girl was carrying a tray of glasses from the house, wearing just a few coloured strings and triangles that barely hid the unmentionable. Shameless young hussy, I thought.

When she put down her tray and looked at me I realized she was as old as myself. True, her waist and hips were like an adolescent's, her blonde hair was long and shining, there wasn't a wrinkle to be seen. But it was as if youth had congealed on her face and body while inside she continued growing old and dry without noticing. I stared.

She looked me up and down with a sort of frozen amusement, a question in her face. I tried to smile and held out the basket of strawberries. For the life of me I couldn't say a word. She took the basket, reached for a large yellow handbag on the floor and silently handed me a few coins, still with that mask of amused enquiry. Two euros fifty --- the price of a punnet of strawberries in the shops. I tried to explain but she was impatiently waving me away. Bewildered and almost in tears, I was turning to go back up the orchard when I heard an angry voice shouting something that sounded like 'Oy!' A nearly-naked old man, very thin and muscular, with a metal stud in his navel, had come out of the house and was pointing me towards the lane. Like a fool I obeyed and humbly took the long dusty way home, clutching my three shameful coins.

I was crouched in my armchair hours later when Pierre arrived. I wanted to rush to him and confess I'd been taken for a pedlar, hoping he would joke my humiliation away. He didn't even notice I'd been crying, or that I was huddled in an armchair clutching my rosary instead of jumping up to greet him as I always did. He was too full of his own good fortune to notice anything about me.

"Oh Jeanne, François Renault has given me a contract to supply milk and cheese and vegetables every week to all his new clients. A miracle, no? He took me out to lunch Chez Cresson, and we made the deal there. The newcomers, must be fifty couples at least, have agreed to buy from no-one else. And there’s the other villages as well. Money, Jeanne, money!" I noticed he had no more talk of 'that little jumped-up Parisian.' It was François this and François that.

"And did you meet any of your future clients?" I asked, "Were they at the lunch? Did they have any clothes on? And did they treat you like a yokel?"

"Well you're being a sour old thing today, Jeanne! Hey, maybe I could fix it up with François so you could give them lessons in French."
"I wouldn't want to teach them anything, Pierre. I've seen quite enough of them already."

He still hadn't asked me what was wrong.

"It is true they are unlike us in many ways, Jeanne, but why be so prejudiced? I suspect, my old friend, that you've become a bit too set in your ways, living on this remote lane of yours."

That, for a cheek! The word 'collaborator' slid into my stupid head and I shivered. It had nothing to do with Pierre, that ugly word that belonged to a time before he was born.

I had more to worry me next day. Maître Renault arrived while I was having breakfast and showed me some papers with my signature. It appeared the orchard belonged with the old house, not the new. Like a fool I'd sold my apple trees, my cherries, my wild roses and my strawberries!

Two days later, a truck arrived from the Garden centre. Workmen erected a tall mesh fence just behind my house and then planted a double row of those ugly conifers that grow at the speed of lightening. Now I could no longer even see my fruit trees and my flowers. I was a prisoner in my house and my little front yard. If I wanted to go out I had to go down the lane that led on one side to the main road where I hadn't walked for years, on the other towards the strangers' house where I never wanted to go again..

As the summer went on I saw less of Pierre, but the postman brought me news of the strangers. They'd taken over the village café, driving in at lunchtime to drink all day at the bar, in a manner unknown to us. Just drinking and drinking without any conversation, he said, then erupting noisily into the marketplace at midnight, vomiting into the gutters. When the baker came with my bread of a morning he could talk about nothing else. He claimed we were being invaded again. "This lot's worse than the Germans long ago. They'll destroy our way of life, you mark my words, Jeanne!"

I had to disagree with that because I recalled the German occupants very well. True, their manners were more correct than my neighbours', but.... Standing by my gate in the hot summer sun I shivered at the memory of those cruel years.

When Pierre finally called, he told me that he, for one, was delighted with the strangers. He had money in his pocket for the first time in years and was even planning a family holiday. The ugly old-fashioned word slithered into my mind again, and again I chased it away. People do what they can, to make a living.

I was lonely in my house throughout the summer without my orchard to tend to. I thought of my peaches ripening and being picked by those preserved old hands. I cried bitterly sitting by my window with only a few pots of geraniums to look out at. The long sunny evenings were endless. I sat in my armchair and the clock ticked and the birds sang invisibly in the orchard behind me, while the sky slowly turned red away over behind Morel's farm. It was the time of evening when I used to sit outside and Pierre and his family would drop in to visit me. It was rare that anyone came to see me now. My cousin and his wife were too busy, supplying the strangers' needs and socializing with the notary.

With nothing else to do, I began to brood constantly on the disaster of my youth. All my life I had tried not to hate my father for his terrible sin, because mother always told me Papa was only trying to do his best for his wife and child in strange, difficult times. Those summer evenings I was twisted up with bitterness, though I realized how pointless it was hating a man who had been dead for nearly fifty years ....

Mercifully, the sun always ended by setting and it became late enough to say my Rosary and go to bed.

When autumn came, I could no longer endure the silence of my house. I'd hoped that having neighbours at the end of the orchard, strangers who knew nothing about the past, would dispel the loneliness of my remote lane. But these neighbours had increased my solitude, shutting me off from everything that gave me enjoyment, leaving only bitter old memories to obsess me. The baker talked about the Occupation, but even then our house had not been so isolated. The Germans often patrolled the lane, stopping off at times in our yard. On those occasions, Papa shut my mother and myself in the house for safety while they all murmured together outside. ….
One evening, unable to stand the lonely silence, I grabbed my coat off its hook and set out for the Moreau’s farm. I needed to get out of my prison of a house. That doesn't mean I wasn't scared, or that my heart wasn't palpitating by the time I reached the end of the long lane. My palms were sweating when I took my first step on the road that led past my old school.

Last time I walked there, passers-by called ugly things to me. In class, the older pupils interrupted with shouts of 'Collaborators! Band of Murderers!' I closed my books and left the school, walking frozen-faced between two lines of jeering neighbours and up our lane to the new bungalow, where I collapsed in a heap. I never again set foot in the school or on that road. Later, I was given my little disability pension and there was no more need to leave my house and orchard.

This time, nobody shouted at me as I walked along because, to my surprise, I was the only person on foot. The whole world seemed to be racing by in cars, not even noticing me. The school, amazingly, was painted pink and had a Bed and Breakfast sign on the front.
Moreau’s old pigsty was now a pretty cottage with window-boxes. A whitehaired woman in a tee shirt and blue jeans smiled and called: ‘Salut Madame!’ in a strong foreign accent. I had never seen her before and found her greeting to be overly familiar. She was eccentrically clad too, for someone of her age, but at least she was clad, unlike my neighbours! I hesitated, wondering what the correct response might be, then smiled back and continued on my way to Pierre's house.

"Jeanne! You of all people! Come in, my friend, come in."

The family surrounded me and bore me off to the living-room. I warily accepted a cup of milky tea from Pierre's wife. It is not a beverage we usually drink in this country, but I decided to say nothing. I was thirsty after my walk.

Pierre's house was strange to me. I looked around the living-room for the big framed photo of Henri's father wearing the medal he was given by General de Gaulle at the Liberation. It used to hang on one side of the fireplace in the old farmhouse. On the other side had hung a matching photo, of the father's dead brother Lucien, betrayed by an informer, ambushed and murdered in those dark old days. Neither photo was to be seen. Just pictures of the children at different ages, and even a photo of me, years ago, with Pierre and Anny in my orchard, holding their small daughter on my knee.

It was after Henri's sudden death that Pierre came back from the city with his wife and baby, to take over the farm. On the evening of the funeral, I was grieving alone in my house for the man I might have married when a car drew up outside. It was Henri's son and little grandchild, come to comfort and befriend me. I have never known how much Pierre was told of that old story and I have always preferred not to ask. Friendship I can accept, not pity.

I sat in the pleasant room and sipped tea, and thought how this was something I could have been doing from time to time over the years. They'd invited me often enough.

"You know, Jeanne, if it hadn't been for the strangers I don't believe you'd ever have found your way here. You're a stubborn old thing all the same!"

That's true, I thought. If those savages hadn't stolen my orchard I would never have seen the house Henri's parents had been building that tragic summer. The place to which Henri, not long afterwards, brought a wife who was not me.

I wondered for a moment if I was actually sitting among the stones of my parents' old outhouses, then decided it was most unlikely. The Moreaus would have hauled stones from elsewhere, after the catastrophe.

"That dairy was never meant to be demolished," my mother told me, years after it happened. "Your father told the Moreaus they could knock down the old stables and take the stones away for building. They misunderstood and he wasn't there that morning to stop them because he had to go into the village. By the time he got back, it was all over. Old Moreau was standing there in the middle of a big heap of stones, holding the metal box stuffed with Deutschmarks your poor father built into the dairy wall for safekeeping twenty-five years before, at a time when most people around here still believed Hitler was going to win in the end. "

That summer Saturday is alive in every detail. My father getting out of the van, seeing the demolished dairy and stopping in his tracks. Henri's father calling:

"Here he is. Here's the traitor sold our Lucien!" I can still hear Papa stammering weakly: "But.... but I wouldn't have.... A cow or a pig maybe I sold them like many another one, but not ...."

I can see the neighbour men shoulder to shoulder advancing. I couldn't ever forget that. Their silence. Their cold faces. My father jumping back in the van, turning and screeching blindly out of the yard and down the lane to the road. He was dead when they found him, half-way across a field, the van crushed against a tree.

And there I was, decades later, sitting in the bungalow the Moreaus continued building in spite of everything. Henri had married and got on with his life. Our country recovered from its betrayal. Only I let myself be stunted by it all. And for what?

There wasn't a trace in Pierre's house, not one photo on show, of those old heroes. The people who shouted insults at me were dead, or had long forgotten. Pierre's children were growing up in another Europe, with its own problems and its own betrayals.
As for the latest invaders - what did I know, after all, how could I judge? I was only a bewildered old woman whose life had been stolen from her, and who had survived.

I smiled at my cousins and held out my cup for some more of the unfamiliar, and slightly bitter, foreign beverage.

“Perhaps in time, Pierre,” I said, “In time, with God’s help, I may become accustomed even to this.”

The End

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