© B. Scott
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"So tell us Cass,why did you marry him?"
Her sister and brothers were gathered at midnight around the big pine table that had been covered in bottles since they got back from the cemetery. A strange wounding question, at such a time. Catherine’s lips were trembling and she was shivering with cold in the overheated kitchen. She had been shivering on and off since the phone rang in the middle of the night, just over a week ago.
"Och now we're not denying Matthieu was a decent man.” Tony began.
“Ah no no,” Gerry said, “I'd say Matthieu was a fellow lived according to his own principles. Only he wasn't like the rest of us Cass,now was he? Not much of the old banter about him. Wine at mealtimes and that was it. Head always stuck in some book or another. Mammy said you didn't even have a telly in the house all the time the kids were growing up, well I know he was foreign but.”
Helen was saying nothing and that, at least, pleased Catherine. Her sister had worked hard all day to keep the peace, moving with dignity between the rooms, offering coffee and little plates of quiche to the black-clad French in-laws who huddled around Catherine and her daughter in the sitting-room, smiling and speaking with quiet restraint, registering their apartness from the noisy Irish crowd in the kitchen. The door between the two rooms was open but it might as well have been barricaded with barbed wire.
"So tell us Cassie,why did you marry him above all men? How did you even come to meet a fellow like that? I mean one minute we were all expecting you to tie the knot with Doctor Flanagan's son. Say what you like, but when you came right down to it Patrick was one of ourselves. And then."
"Yeh that's right. We were all waiting for you to show up at home with the sparkler on your finger. Then the next we hear Flanagan's off the menu entirely ---“
“ No explanation to anyone and then we hear you're away living in Amsterdam,God alone knows what you were doing there, better not ask eh? So we get this big long silence with just the one postcard and then suddenly Mammy and Daddy's ringing us all up in a panic d’you remember,Gerry?”
“Yeh, going ballistic they were over that wee hole-and-corner wedding in Paris. Well I know it's a whole generation ago and God knows they lived through worse things before they were done Lord have mercy on them, but to tell you the truth I for one am dying of curiosity. So go on Cassie!" Gerry laughing, the big goodnatured brother, on his sister’s side in spite of everything. "Ah go on now, why don't you tell all and put us out of our misery?"
Tony put a large solid hand over hers:
"Poor mammy used to be that sorry for you! She never knew what sort of a kip she'd turn up and find you living in. A few sticks of furniture, a lot of old books, not as much as a telly for the poor kids to watch.... But it's over now Cass. You can come on back home to Ireland now, what's to stop you?"
Catherine laughed. Who but her family would ever think of that lovely Paris wedding as a hole-and-corner affair? I'll just be detached, she thought, I'll just laugh it off and tomorrow they'll be gone and I can start living my life again the way I used to. Nothing much has changed.
And then she couldn’t stop laughing. Everything had changed. She could never again live her life the way she used to because Matthieu would not be there to live it with her. What sort of life would it be without him? Would she even know how to live, without him? But she couldn’t stop laughing. It seemed hilarious the way her brothers were expecting her to trot obediently back to Ireland to be their gawky wee sister again. A widow of sixty! She laughed and laughed, it was so comical.
"Just come on into the living-room and lie on the sofa and relax for a bit."
That was Helen, leading her from the table when she started shouting at them, ordering them out of the house, cursing them for ignorant peasants, crying helplessly. She let her sister lead her away and settle her down warmly among rugs and cushions.
"That pair, they've had a few too many. Sure pay no heed to them Cass. Derek and me, we both thought Matthieu was a grand man so we did."
Helen closed the door and went back to them, and their lowered voices went on and on from the next room. They're not important, she thought, they have no power over me. Afraid all the same that they might have, now that everything else was destroyed….
After a while her anger went and she lay there calmly, her sorrow all tangled up in memories of another time. A lovely dead time, a magic landscape of ochre-walled farms and ripe trees of sun-coloured fruit. That late summer in the south of France when she first met Matthieu and her life changed for good.
The voices went on for hours next door, her sister and brothers finishing up the wine and the funeral food, but Catherine was hardly aware of them. She was back in the Midi, that summer in the Seventies where it all began. Alone again, younger than she’d felt for years, freer than she’d ever been. It's an hour before he exists, she thought, that one last heedless hour before Matthieu came to life for me. Mid-September already but it was one of the hottest days she’d ever known. Lazily dreaming along that high stony headland above the vines, crushing wild thyme with her sandals, making small waves of perfume rise around her. Not a cloud in the endless sky, not a sound only her whispering feet crushing sandy pebbles and cushions of wiry stalks. Complete contentment. Nobody in the world knew exactly where she was at that moment. For once, her parents had no means of reaching out a hand and drawing her back.
There were no clues to lead them to her. There in the sunny dust of the Midi she was finally herself, a small sweating person in cut-off jeans and bikini top, content in the newness of what she was living, strolling above hot dry vineyards as casually as in childhood she walked on rainsoaked headlands alongside fields of oats and potatoes. Her home was a sleeping-bag on the banks of the Ardêche, every single thing she owned was in her backpack, her address was the Poste Restante at St Paulet.
In a few days now she’d have a job --- the grapes were ripening down there on their vines. Until then she could afford to buy a baguette every day, sardines, a slice of paté. She ate bunches of the ripening grapes, green apples, long fat tomatoes from the fields beside the river. All summer she helped herself to peaches and apricots. Nobody noticed or cared.
She lay in the sun for hours every day. She didn’t read, she didn’t even think much, just lay there stretched out in the warmth. She had never been thinner or browner. Her hair was longer than it had ever been and when she caught sight of herself in street mirrors she could see it was streaked strange wild-animal colours from the sun. She washed it, and herself, every day in the Ardêche. I'm nothing at all compared to the girls in the village, she thought, I'm no competition to them, they think I'm a gipsy but I know I look great. By the standards of before I know I look great. If she turned up at the office in Holborn looking like this she'd be a sensation. If she arrived at the house in Queen’s Park and knocked on Flanagan's door .....
There would be a letter from Flanagan in the Post Office. She hadn't been in to check for over a week. All her friends would have written. And so would he, her ex-lover, the guy she thought she'd marry and live happy ever after with. The bastard must be feeling guilty, that’s what had him going round worming her address out of people, that’s why he kept writing these long letters full of London gossip. Maybe he even wanted her back?
Why would she ever want to go back? She thought of him and of her friends like ghosts. They had no relevance to her there in the South of France. They were behind her and she had no clear idea yet about what was in front. In November she’d be joining the Amsterdam crowd in Kibbutz Hatzerim but that wouldn’t last beyond next Spring. Afterwards, who knew? She was young and she was free, she’d never been so free in her entire life. Her parents didn't even know what country she was in at that moment, she could be in China for all they knew. That excited her and scared her at the same time. Imagine, she could be murdered and dumped someplace and they'd probably never even hear about it. Never know where to start looking.
In the Bureau de Poste she waited, invisible, behind a tall man jabbering away in French with the postmistress and a few locals in boiler-suits. His voice had a better shape than theirs, his hair was a lot longer. He held himself straighter, there was a sense of importance about him. You could see he really loved himself, this Frog. The boiler-suits were loving him too. Laughing all warm and happy at some witticism Catherine couldn’t understand. Any other guy joking in a foreign language, she'd think he was making some crack about her. This man, no. He hadn't even noticed her, he was body and soul into what he was saying and the others were listening to him completely, nothing else existed. One of the local notables, doctor or solicitor, couldn't the arrogant snob see there was a queue forming? A queue of one.
She scraped her sandal on the stone floor, gave a tiny cough. He noticed her at last, mes excuses mademoiselle, and moved aside. She waited for her letters. They took a sidelong glance at each other, two strangers in a village that didn't get much in the way of tourists. She could see now he was not a local notable. He was wearing black velvet trousers, flared, and a soft gold-coloured shirt. French notables wore suits, even in summer in the Midi. He had a great tan but looked in his late thirties, no forty at least, with that lived-in face Frenchmen get when they're older. She decided he wasn’t her type. Way too ancient for a start.
The last guy she slept with was Ben, hitching down from Holland together. He claimed to be a poet, but she never actually saw anything he wrote. He said his work would be wasted on her. A half-educated chick off an Irish farm could not possibly grasp his unique vision of the existential tragedy of the human race. Well that was roughly how the frigger put it. She thought he was probably right but it hurt all the same. Ben was planning to hitch on down to Marseilles and take a ferry across the Mediterranean to some North African place that he said was full of all these brilliant French philosophers. Never even asked her to go with him, the sod. The story of her life.
She went over to the bench beneath the big acacia tree on the square to read her letters.
Harriet had finally sent the fiver she owed her. And Flanagan had sent a tenner he didn’t owe her, with a long concerned letter saying he couldn’t bear to think of her having to exist on bread and peaches. Big fucking deal. She thought of the two hundred pounds in tens and twenties she’d carried in her bag to St John’s Wood to pay Dr Barrantes. The same bag that was slung over her shoulder now, Greek key tapestry.
Flanagan did her a favour, the rat, if he but knew it. Because if he hadn’t talked her into doing that and then walked out on her with some hardfaced Swedish au pair she wouldn’t be sitting now on a bench in a lovely hot sunny square in the South of France. Feeling great because she could buy real food. Treat herself to some French cuisine at last. The local bistrot had a set menu at fourteen francs but she didn't much fancy eating there. She’d go to Pont, to a proper restaurant with tablecloths. Just this once. Play at being a posh young lady of means for a change.
She thought of the sunny empty headland where she felt so free, an hour away in the past. She thought how that exact spot would never again exist in her life nor would this bench, this acacia tree, once the vendanges were over and she’d left St Paulet. She knew there would be plenty of other vineyards, other villages, other countries even, where she would be be just as free to wander in and camp for a while. And just as free to leave them behind her. She felt a second's mad longing, as she sometimes did, for a place that would be solid and welcoming and full of rest. A place she wouldn't ever want to leave. Then she got up off the bench and started walking towards Pont St Esprit.
A kilometre outside the village this battered old Citroen DS slowed down and stopped alongside her. She looked at the driver and hesitated. She didn’t really want a lift, she wanted to walk. She never got tired of walking this road, high and dusty above the countryside, with the horizon away in the neverending distance and the Ardêche gorges smoky blue shapes over her shoulder. Was she really in the mood for phrase-book chat with some old Frenchman all ponced up in velvet flares? He'd be sure to try it on, didn't they all, and did she honestly want to be bothered?
"Well do you want a lift or don't you?" he asked in English.
He sounded impatient as if he didn't really care, didn't mind doing her a favour but just mainly wanted to get on to wherever he was going. She pictured his foot on the accelerator, ready to go zooming out of her life without a backward thought if she was eejit enough to refuse. It was impossible to refuse, unthinkable to go slogging boringly on through the dust to Pont, letting that gorgeous cliché of a French car just vanish over the horizon forever.
"OK. I'm going into town, going into Pont. You can drop me in front of a bank. I’ve got fifteen quid to get changed and I'm ravenous!"
She was barely installed in the passenger seat when he turned and looked at her with a sort of incredulous anger.
"Have you heard the news? Those bastards! Have you heard? They've organized a dirty coup in Chile. They've killed the President. They've murdered Allende, do you realize? Les salopards!"
As a chat-up line she’d heard no better. From the look of her he was assuming she’d know, assuming she’d care. About Chile, about injustice, about the CIA. From that opening sentence she sensed that her parents were far behind her and so was Flanagan and his discreet suburban family, and so were the cardiganed crones she might have turned into eventually if she’d gone sensibly back to the office in Holborn after he dumped her. And so was that halfwit Ben who thought she was too thick to be seen with on some beach full of trendy French phoneys.
A grown-up in a stylish old car was being all passionate about a military coup in a country she’d hardly heard of, and he was assuming she was just as grown up and just as informed and that she naturally knew it was OK to care more about stuff like that than about having a good job and getting married and buying a house and watching the soaps on telly.
Lying awake a whole lifetime later her face was wet from crying but she was smiling as she recalled that month he stayed on his parents' farm helping his old dad with the grapes, meeting her in the evenings down by the Ardêche. When he went back to Paris she went with him, skimming up that lovely shiny autoroute at dawn with huge blue signs promising towns that were like legends. Vaison-la-Romaine, Montelimar, Lyons. While she kept opening bottles of Kronenbourg and lighting Gitanes and he sang all the way to Paris to keep himself awake, Brassens and Brel and mocking mournful imitations of Leonard Cohen. Like a bird on a wire, like a bird on a wire I have tried in my way to be free...
Lying there desolate on the sofa she knew that not one single element of that story was suitable for the ears of her family in the next room. And that she was not ever going to see Matthieu again. It was ended forever, all that. Matthieu was dead. He would never again come driving down some road she was travelling and stop his car beside her, and rescue her. She wondered how she was going to live the rest of her life among people who knew nothing whatever about her.