© Celia Micklefield
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Gardiane de Taureau
a short story from the novel TROBAIRITZ
Madame Catherine Joubert whistled through her seventy-six year old teeth.
‘Mon Dieu, Dorothy. Who is that man?’ She put her hand to her chest. ‘He gives me palpitations. Pass me the Ricard, please. I need some fortification.’
‘He’s called Hugh Jackman. Very big down under.’
‘Yes, my dear. I can imagine. Play that bit again.’
Dorothy Hilliard thumbed the remote switch and the two women re-evaluated the actor’s bare-chested scene from the film ‘Australia’.
‘That’s what I call a man,’ Catherine Joubert crooned.
‘I know what you mean,’ her fifty-four year old neighbour agreed. ‘He’s a young woman’s dream.’
‘Pooh, look at you. You’re still a baby. Why do you talk like that? You are slim and attractive. It’s too soon for you to be old. Well, this old woman still dreams, Dorothy. Don’t you? Where’s that Ricard?’
Dorothy’s villa was built on the plot of land Catherine Joubert had sold off in order to pay for her roof repairs. Since Dorothy’s move to France the women had shared many secrets. In French or in English and sometimes in a mixture, they had found friendship.
Dorothy laughed and poured the drinks. She put out a side table and they settled back in her darkened living room to watch the rest of the film. Outside the villa, the afternoon sun baked the avenue and houses. All doors and shutters were pulled in fast against the penetrating heat. Air-conditioning units hummed in competition with thousands of cigales, buzzing from every tree. In the village centre, shops closed until four-thirty. Dusty roads rested; empty streets languished with nothing to do.
But by the river, groups of children had gathered to watch the arrival of the bulls, the theme for the whole of the weekend. On this Friday in late July the village of Montalhan sans Vents began the Feria, its celebrations of former links with Catalonia. Corralled in the shade, the bulls snorted, foraged for fresh greens and ignored the chattering children. Older boys, the young-bloods of the village, strutted the perimeter fence. As proud as matadors they paced back and forth. They held their chins high and adopted an arrogant tilt to their heads. With hands on hips they weighed their adversaries through narrowed eyes. The bulls raised their heads, blinked and continued their lazy grazing.
‘Australia’ played on unseen, unheard. Behind the closed shutters of Villa Rosa, Catherine Joubert and Dorothy Hilliard slept through the remainder of the film and the rest of the afternoon.
Outside the Café de France, the evening revellers began to gather. Long trestle tables, arranged across the Place de Paume blocked the passage of traffic. At one end of the square, enormous barbecue grills balanced across fires of grubbed-up vines. Kilometres of Toulouse sausage and spicier Merguez sizzled over hot embers. On the pavement, giant paella skillets gurgled and spat their salty aroma of saffron rice and chicken, langoustines and mussels.
The gardiens made their entrance. Their boots crunched through the gravelly dust; their leather chaps creaked. They pulled the brims of their drover hats down low over their eyes and hitched their belts. They stood like heroes with their drinks outside the bar and let the crowd admire them. Little boys hustled for autographs. Little girls sighed. Bigger girls sighed more. Mothers and grandmothers smiled and remembered.
Catherine Joubert and Dorothy came in time for supper. They sat with the others at a table in the middle of the square and joined in with the festival merriment. On the makeshift staging, live music throbbed from the band, a local group. The butcher played drums and the grocer strummed guitar. One of the village Municipal Police, who doubled as school trip coach driver, sang with a whisky voice.
Inside the Café de France one of the gardiens stood alone with his drink. His exit from the bar coincided with a momentary hold-up in the paella queue which bulged sideways onto the steps. He was forced to remain in the doorway, on the top step, and in full view of Dorothy who happened to look up. She gasped.
‘What?’ Catherine asked. ‘What is it? You look like you have seen a ghost.’
Dorothy put her hand over her mouth.
‘What?’ Catherine repeated. ‘Dorothy!’
‘It’s nothing,’ Dorothy said.
Catherine caught the swift movement of her neighbour’s eyes in the direction of the bar.
Catherine Joubert saw what Dorothy had seen. Every woman’s dream stood on the top step of the Café de France. A red neckerchief tied at his throat accentuated the girth of the neck inside his white shirt. Curly, jet black hair crept over his collar and fell onto his forehead. With his drover’s hat in his hand, he pressed his broad shoulders backwards into the doorframe to allow others to pass. He smiled and inclined his head politely when he noticed Catherine looking at him.
‘Mon Dieu,’ she said. ‘I thought men like that appeared only in films.’
She cackled and slapped her knees. ‘It’s too much stimulation for an old girl like me, Dorothy. I shall need a digestif.’
The barricades were already in place as Dorothy and Catherine walked home. Along each side of Avenue de la Paix strong steel barriers caged the pavements. Notices warned residents to remove their cars before midday on Saturday. Once the bull-run began, the road would be inaccessible.
‘I’m looking forward to tomorrow,’ Dorothy said as they reached Catherine’s gates. ‘They don’t harm the bulls, do they?’
‘Pooh,’ Catherine said. ‘You are so English. But, no. It’s not like the bull-fight. These are not the same bulls. They are bred to be fast, but the boys must be quicker. We will have the best view from your terrace, Dorothy. Looking over the street. I’ll bring the Ricard this time. Goodnight. Sleep well. We have a lot of beef to admire tomorrow.’
She went indoors, cackling to herself.
Saturday morning was given over to the children of the village. Parents watched on as their little ones tried their hands at the Capea. The gardiens stood by to guide and protect and pose for photographs with their young charges. The children came away smiling and proud, clutching their certificates of bravery.
But everything must stop for lunch. The little bulls were led away back to the corral by the river. Tables once more came out into the square for the second celebratory meal of the weekend.
At six-thirty, the avenue was packed with people jostling for the best positions by the barriers. On the second floor of houses lining the road, families squeezed onto balconies. Teenagers climbed onto the bus stop roof. Other children sat swinging their legs from their prime spots along the school wall.
Two women in a Renault Clio approached the avenue from the side road next to Dorothy’s villa. The driver got out and pushed her way through the throng of spectators. She tried to pull the barriers to one side but they were fastened. She called to her friend and together they unhitched a section of the barricade. With a hurried apology to the crowds, they drove through the gap they had created and disappeared uphill to take a back road out of the village. Some boys quickly pushed the railings back into place.
Dorothy had her camera ready. The band paraded first. Dancing girls, full skirts twirling, skipped along the route to the rhythm of the squeaky trumpets, wind instruments and bass drum. At the bottom of the avenue, the men with the bull truck waited. As the musicians passed and the music faded, the competitors squeezed through the railing bars and stood in the middle of the road.
The rear of the truck opened. A cheer went up. The gardiens, now mounted on their Camargue horses flanked the open transporter. The first of the bulls appeared. He clattered down the ramp into the road and eyed the crowd. The first contestant ran at him to try him out. Dorothy leaned over the terrace wall for a better view.
‘What is he doing?’ she asked.
‘He wants to see which way the bull likes to turn,’ Catherine said. ‘Watch closely, Dorothy.’
The boy stamped his feet at the bull and waved his arms, but the bull showed no interest. Another boy joined in and the bull turned his head to look. The head went down and the bull charged, stopping just short of the railings where the boys squeezed back through to safety.
Another group of boys came at him from his other flank and with a swift sweep of his horns, the bull twisted his body and prepared his run. The first of the boys flashed past the bull’s head and dropped a garter over one of the horns. First honours won, the other boys must now compete to retrieve the circlet. A noisy group of young men mustered the charge; the gardiens heeled their mounts and the bull-run began.
Dorothy clicked furiously as the mêlée approached. A tumultuous mingling of human and animal raced past her garden fence: the bull, black and shining with a red frill on one of his horns; the white horses, manes flying, hooves clattering; the gardiens, riding upright, handsome, proud; the boys of the village, whooping in their cut-off pants and trainers; a riot of colour and movement and noise. The clamour followed the route as it wheeled off around the village streets and circled back into the avenue.
‘So, what do you think?’ Catherine said.
Dorothy put her camera down on the terrace table.
‘It’s fantastic. It’s so . .’
‘Did you see him?’
‘You know who I mean, Dorothy. Monsieur Beautiful from last night.’
‘Yes, I saw him. He’s a very handsome man.’
Dorothy went into the house. Catherine called after her.
‘What are you doing? Come back. You’ll miss the next run.’
Dorothy emerged with a tray of snacks.
‘I’ve just been checking dinner,’ she said. ‘How many more runs are there?’
‘It depends. But we will be finished by ten. People have to eat.’
The second run thundered by with the same flash of colour and sound. The gardiens surrounded the bull and galloped him around the course. They kept in tight, in front and at his sides, the horses’ white flanks rubbing against each other, the ones closest to the bull, pinning him in a moving, living cage.
On the third run, the bull looked for his escape. Before the gardiens could control him, he ran at the barricades next to Dorothy’s terrace. Spectators scattered. The insecure barrier, unhitched by the women in the car, gave way and the bull smashed through. He crashed through Dorothy’s fence, leapt across her path and skidded on the tiles. With a hoof caught inside one of Dorothy’s flower urns, he stumbled and landed in a twisted heap of muscle and bone with a terrible crunching sound. Dorothy screamed. She stood, anchored, staring at the crumpled beast.
‘Move away!’ Catherine shouted to her. ‘Move back, Dorothy.’
‘He’s hurt! He’s hurt. Oh, look at his legs,’ she said.
In his terror, the bull thrashed his head and released an agonised bellow.
‘Go inside, Dorothy,’ Catherine told her. ‘He’s finished.’
The gardiens dismounted and rapidly assessed the damage. Monsieur Beautiful went among the crowd asking questions. He disappeared with one of the men who lived nearby.
‘What will they do?’ Dorothy asked.
‘He will have to be put down. Look, his front legs are twisted and broken.’
The bull continued his deep screaming.
Henri-Claude Noilly, the mayor arrived. Dressed in his cycling shorts, he had been running with the boys and had seen everything.
‘Mesdames,’ he said. ‘I think you should both go inside now.’ He pulled out his mobile phone from his money belt and made a call, shouting over the sickening noise.
The handsome gardien returned with the villager who carried his hunting rifle.
‘Oh, no!’ Dorothy said.
Catherine took her arm.
‘Come inside, now, my dear,’ she said. ‘You don’t want to see this.’
But many of the villagers did want to see. Parents stood with their children and watched as the marksman took aim. A loud report rang out and the stricken bull shuddered. A second crack from the rifle shattered the stillness.
A JCB from the building development appeared and the driver greeted the mayor. The crowd cheered as the carcass was scooped into the bucket. The dead beast was trundled down the avenue, held aloft, its huge, lifeless head lolling over the side of the bucket, twisted legs like broken spokes. Boys fought against each other to grab the red garter. Volunteers from the Fire Brigade made secure the barricade. The band re-formed and played fiesta music. When the macabre parade had passed, another bull clattered from the truck to begin the next round. The excited crowd cheered louder.
Monsieur le Maire, Henri- Claude, sat with Dorothy in her living room.
‘We will make good your fencing, Madame,’ he told her. ‘And I apologize for your distress.’
He took the offered aperitif.
‘I must return to the activities,’ he said. ‘You understand, I hope?’
Catherine Joubert thanked him for his concern and saw him to the door.
Dorothy got up from her seat and turned on her friend.
‘What is the matter with you people?’ she said.
‘How can you just carry on as if nothing has happened? It’s disgusting.’
‘Sit down, Dorothy,’ Catherine said. ‘Calm yourself.’
‘It’s not normal, Catherine. It’s not right to stand with your children and watch that . . slaughter. And then cheer! Laugh and cheer. I don’t understand.’
Catherine handed her a drink.
‘It’s normal for here,’ she said. ‘Children here are raised to understand. They know that meat doesn’t come from the supermarchés. They hunt with their fathers. Rabbits, partridge in the vines, wild boars in the hills. Right now that bull is on his way to the butcher.’
‘Bien sûre. Why not? It is where he would go anyway when his days at the games were over.’
A knock at the door interrupted them. Dorothy asked Catherine to take it while she went to wash her face. When she returned from the bathroom, Monsieur Beautiful, the handsome drover was waiting to speak to her. Now that he was closer, Dorothy could see the strands of silver in the jet black curls, the high cheekbones in his nut-brown face and the sharpness of expression in his eyes. He stood with one shoulder higher than the other as if he was still riding, steering bulls. He shifted his weight a little and held out his hat in greeting.
‘Madame,’ he said. ‘My name is Alexei. I am proprietor of the manade and I have come to make my apology. There is damage to your garden.’
‘The mayor has already dealt with that, thank you.’
‘Yes. My boys will repair the fence before we leave on Monday.’
‘But I can see that many plants are broken, Madame. For that, I am truly sorry.’
Catherine went to the French window, open to the terrace.
‘Ha!’ she said. ‘It is the belle-de- nuit, Dorothy. They are trampled. All ruined.’
‘Ce n’est pas grave,’ Dorothy said to Alexei. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘I cannot replace the plants, Madame. But I have a suggestion.’
Dorothy picked at her dinner.
‘I should have said no,’ she said. ‘I should not have agreed.’
‘What harm can it do?’ Catherine said, polishing her plate with a chunk of banette. ‘In any case, there was no choice. You must accept the apology. To refuse would be an insult.’
‘He could have bought a few plants instead. That would make more sense to me.’
‘Ah, but this way will be better. It is fitting.’
‘I liked the belle- de- nuit flowers. They had meaning for me. For us. Remember how it was the flowers that brought us together. Without them we might never have known we shared the same kind of secret.’
Catherine stroked the back of Dorothy’s hand.
‘Those days are gone, Dorothy. We are long past our former professions of the night. The village knows what I did before I came here. But your past is our secret. Alexei could not know the significance to us of those plants and their name.’
‘Oh, well,’ Dorothy sighed. ‘I suppose they’ll come back. Re-seed themselves. Or I could always plant some more.’
Catherine put down her glass and leaned back in her seat.
‘Maybe not,’ she said. ‘It is a sign.’
More gardiens games followed on the Sunday. ‘Toro Piscine’ involved small bulls, village teenagers and a bullring assembled in the large courtyard behind the Town Hall. In the middle of the ring, a circle of bales of straw supported a tarpaulin filled with water. Boys and girls dodged the bull as they ran around the circular arena, by clambering onto the railings or jumping into the water.
In the evening more bull-runs raced around the village streets. After that, the gardiens gave rides on the famous white horses of the Camargue to the pre-schoolers and groups of admiring girls. The Feria drew to its close with another barbecued feast and a professional orchestra under the plane trees of Place Mairie. A designated dance floor, positioned beneath the apparatus of the ‘Soirée Mousse’ ensured that the participants would be thoroughly submerged in pumping, foaming suds.
At Villa Rosa, Dorothy had seated her visitors. Around the table, Catherine Joubert, Henri-Claude, the butcher and his wife and Alexei du Boullet shared a large casserole of gardiane de taureau served with Camargue rice as was the custom.
‘So, you like it?’ Alexei asked Dorothy.
‘I do,’ she said.
‘It has been cooking all day. Very slowly, you understand. With many herbs and spices. I will give you the recipe, Madame,’ the butcher’s wife offered.
‘Thank you,’ Dorothy said. ‘And it must always be with this kind of rice?’
Catherine raised her head. ‘And you, Alexei,’ she said. ‘You must tell us about yourself. We are eating your bull and we know nothing of you.’
‘There is not so much to tell,’ he said. ‘I raise bulls. We have sport with them in the summer. I have a good life.’
‘And you love your horses,’ she added.
‘Ah, yes. My horses. It’s true. I enjoy the sport with the bulls, but I love my horses. It is a special thing between a man and his horse.’
Catherine continued: ‘And your wife? She loves this life, also?’
The others stiffened.
‘Don’t be so surprised,’ Catherine went on. ‘I am an old woman. I have earned the right to ask impertinent questions.’
‘To which wife do you refer?’
Catherine clapped her hands.
‘Ha, you see! I knew there was history behind those grey eyes of yours. How many?’
Alexei laughed again.
‘At the last count, three. Yes. Three ex-wives and five children. And before you are forced into the position of having to ask another impertinent question, Madame, I am forty-eight.’
He glanced at Dorothy who immediately looked away.
Henri-Claude excused himself after the cheese. He had to change into some old clothes before joining his parishioners under the foam. The butcher and his wife left shortly afterwards. Alexei lingered. Catherine scrutinised the development and waited.
‘Would you like a digestif, Catherine, before you go?’ Dorothy asked.
‘Thank you, my dear. I’ll come to the kitchen with you.’
Catherine closed the kitchen door behind them.
‘Dorothy, my friend,’ she said. You must be careful now.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I know what I see.’
‘What do you see? What are you talking about?’
‘He will hurt you.’
‘Oh, for goodness sake, Catherine. You are being very silly.’
‘I’m being practical, Dorothy. Don’t think that I cannot see what is happening.’
Dorothy folded her arms.
‘And what do you think is happening?’ she said.
‘You are falling in love, Dorothy. I see it in your eyes. I see it in the way you stand. I hear it in your voice.’
‘I’ve never been in love. I don’t plan on starting now, Catherine.’
‘That is why he is dangerous. Take care, my friend.’
Dorothy found her bottle of Armagnac and Catherine followed her back into the living room.
‘Brandy, Alexei?’ Dorothy said. She took out the glasses from the sideboard. She tried not to look too closely into his eyes as she handed him his measure. Catherine finished hers quickly.
Dorothy walked Catherine to her door. The velvet night hung heavy with warm perfume. Distant laughter carried from the ‘Soirée Mousse’ where villagers threw themselves into the foam. Dorothy breathed in deeply.
‘Well, I’m still learning about this place, Catherine,’ she said. ‘After what happened yesterday, who would have thought . . .?’
‘I knew it was a sign, Dorothy. When those flowers were destroyed, I knew what it meant. Please, be careful,’ Catherine said.
‘Catherine, I’m fifty-four years old.’
‘And you have the look on your face of a teenager. You say yourself, you have no knowledge of love.’
‘Yes. It’s ironic, isn’t it?’
‘You will take him to your bed and you will discover what your former life could never show you.’
‘Now, I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Catherine.’
‘Fate was kind when she made us neighbours. There are things only we can understand. Only we can talk of. You were very practised in the arts of sex. The ways of pleasuring a man. As was I. It was our job. Love did not come into it. There was no place in our lives for love. But when you discover how it feels when the two are combined, you will never be the same again.’
‘He will leave. As he must. He will go back to his life as if you never existed. And so I fear for you. Because I’m sure that even though you know all this to be true, you will still take him to your bed and you will love him.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. You are so dramatic. So French.’
‘For the rest of your life you will wonder what might have been.’
‘I know,’ she said.
‘Then I hope you are strong enough, Dorothy.’
Alexei was waiting as Dorothy came back into her kitchen. He held out his hands to her and she took them.
‘I’m six years older than you,’ she said.
‘Is that a problem?’
She looked at his smiling face; saw the crinkles around his eyes. An overpowering need obliterated all of Catherine’s sensible words.
This was no time for caution. This was the Feria, designed for danger and bravery. The season created for music, games and fun; for eating and drinking your fill. She understood and felt the same longing for colour and passion; the need to celebrate life and living. She wanted to be submerged in it. Consumed by the thrill of it. He pulled her close to him and she felt the barriers of her years fall away.