Шоколад / Chocolat

Джоанн Харрис, 1999

Сонное спокойствие маленького французского городка нарушено приездом молодой женщины Вианн и ее дочери. Они появились вместе с шумным и ярким карнавальным шествием, а когда карнавал закончился, его светлая радость осталась в глазах Вианн, открывшей здесь свой шоколадный магазин. Каким-то чудесным образом она узнает о сокровенных желаниях жителей городка и предлагает каждому именно такое шоколадное лакомство, которое заставляет его вновь почувствовать вкус к жизни. «Шоколад» – это история о доброте и терпимости, о противостоянии невинных соблазнов и закоснелой праведности. Одноименный голливудский фильм режиссера Лассе Халлстрёма (с Жюльетт Бинош, Джонни Деппом и Джуди Денч в главных ролях) был номинирован на «Оскар» в пяти категориях и на «Золотой глобус» – в четырех. В формате PDF A4 сохранен издательский макет книги.

Оглавление

  • Joanne Harris. Chocolat
Из серии: Билингва Bestseller

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Приведённый ознакомительный фрагмент книги Шоколад / Chocolat предоставлен нашим книжным партнёром — компанией ЛитРес.

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Joanne Harris

Chocolat

© Новоселецкая И., перевод на русский язык, 2021

© Издание на русском языке, оформление. ООО «Издательство «Эксмо», 2021

Copyright © 1999 Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris

Chocolat

In memory of my great — grandmother,

Marie Andre Sorin (1892–1968)

1

February 11, Shrove Tuesday

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter. There is a febrile excitement in the crowds which line the narrow main street, necks craning to catch sight of the crepe-covered char with its trailing ribbons and paper rosettes. Anouk watches, eyes wide, a yellow balloon in one hand and a toy trumpet in the other, from between a shopping-basket and a sad brown dog.

We have seen carnivals before, she and I; a procession of two hundred and fifty of the decorated chars in Paris last Mardi Gras, a hundred and eighty in New York, two dozen marching bands in Vienna, clowns on stilts, the Grosses Tetes with their lolling papier-mache heads, drum majorettes with batons spinning and sparkling. But at six the world retains a special lustre. A wooden cart, hastily decorated with gilt and crepe and scenes from fairy tales. A dragon’s head on a shield, Rapunzel in a woollen wig, a mermaid with a Cellophane tail, a gingerbread house all icing and gilded cardboard, a witch in the doorway, waggling extravagant green fingernails at a group of silent children… At six it is possible to perceive subtleties which a year later are already out of reach. Behind the papier-mache, the icing, the plastic, she can still see the real witch, the real magic. She looks up at me, her eyes, which are the blue-green of the Earth seen from a great height, shining.

“Are we staying? Are we staying here?”

I have to remind her to speak French.

“But are we? Are we?”

She clings to my sleeve. Her hair is a candyfloss tangle in the wind.

I consider. It’s as good a place as any. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, two hundred souls at most, no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Blink once and it’s gone. One main street, a double row of dun coloured half-timbered houses leaning secretively together, a few laterals running parallel like the tines of a bent fork. A church, aggressively whitewashed, in a square of little shops. Farms scattered across the watchful land. Orchards, vineyards, strips of earth enclosed and regimented according to the strict apartheid of country farming: here apples, there kiwis, melons, endives beneath their black plastic shells, vines looking blighted and dead in the thin February sun but awaiting triumphant resurrection by March… Behind that, the Tannes, small tributary of the Garonne, fingers its way across the marshy pasture. And the people? They look much like all others we have known; a little pale perhaps in the unaccustomed sunlight, a little drab. Headscarves and berets are the colour of the hair beneath, brown, black or grey. Faces are lined like last summer’s apples, eyes pushed into wrinkled flesh like marbles into old dough. A few children, flying colours of red and lime-green and yellow, seem like a different race.

As the char advances ponderously along the street behind the old tractor which pulls it, a large woman with a square, unhappy face clutches a tartan coat about her shoulders and shouts something in the half-comprehensible local dialect; on the wagon a squat Santa Claus, out-of-season amongst the fairies and sirens and goblins, hurls sweets at the crowd with barely restrained aggression. An elderly small-featured man, wearing a felt hat rather than the round beret more common to the region, picks up the sad brown dog from between my legs with a look of polite apology. I see his thin graceful fingers moving in the dog’s fur; the dog whines; the master’s expression becomes complex with love, concern, guilt. No-one looks at us. We might as well be invisible; our clothing marks us as strangers, transients. They are polite, so polite; no-one stares at us. The woman, her long hair tucked into the collar of her orange coat, a long silk scarf fluttering at her throat; the child in yellow wellingtons and sky-blue mac. Their colouring marks them. Their clothes are exotic, their faces — are they too pale or too dark? — their hair marks them other, foreign, indefinably strange. The people of Lansquenet have learned the art of observation without eye contact. I feel their gaze like a breath on the nape of my neck, strangely without hostility but cold nevertheless. We are a curiosity to them, a part of the carnival, a whiff of the outlands. I feel their eyes upon us as I turn to buy a galette from the vendor. The paper is hot and greasy, the dark wheat pancake crispy at the edges but thick and good in the centre. I break off a piece and give it to Anouk, wiping melted butter from her chin. The vendor is a plump, balding man with thick glasses, his face slick with the steam from the hot plate. He winks at her. With the other eye he takes in every detail, knowing there will be questions later.

“On holiday, Madame?”

Village etiquette allows him to ask; behind his tradesman’s indifference I see a real hunger. Knowledge is currency here; with Agen and Montauban so close, tourists are a rarity.

“For a while.”

“From Paris, then?”

It must be our clothes. In this garish land the people are drab. Colour is a luxury; it wears badly. The bright blossoms of the roadside are weeds, invasive, useless.

“No, no, not Paris.”

The char is almost at the end of the street. A small band — two fifes, two trumpets, a trombone and a side drum — follows it, playing a thin unidentifiable march. A dozen children scamper in its wake, picking up the unclaimed sweets. Some are in costume; I see Little Red Riding Hood and a shaggy person who might be the wolf squabbling companionably over possession of a handful of streamers.

A black figure brings up the rear. At first I take him for a part of the parade — the Plague Doctor, maybe — but as he approaches I recognize the old-fashioned soutane of the country priest. He is in his thirties, though from a distance his rigid stance makes him seem older. He turns towards me, and I see that he too is a stranger, with the high cheekbones and pale eyes of the North and long pianist’s fingers resting on the silver cross which hangs from his neck. Perhaps this is what gives him the right to stare at me, this alienness; but I see no welcome in his cold, light eyes. Only the measuring, feline look of one who is uncertain of his territory. I smile at him; he looks away, startled, beckons the two children towards him. A gesture indicates the litter which now lines the road; reluctantly the pair begin to clear it, scooping up spent streamers and sweet-wrappers in their arms and into a nearby bin. I catch the priest staring at me again as I turn away, a look which in another man might have been of appraisal.

There is no police station at Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, therefore no crime. I try to be like Anouk, to see beneath the disguise to the truth, but for now everything is blurred.

“Are we staying? Are we, Maman?” She tugs at my arm, insistently. “I like it, I like it here. Are we staying?”

I catch her up into my arms and kiss the top of her head. She smells of smoke and frying pancakes and warm bedclothes on a winter’s morning.

Why not? It’s as good a place as any.

“Yes, of course,” I tell her, my mouth in her hair. “Of course we are.”

Not quite a lie. This time it may even be true.

The carnival is gone. Once a year the village flares into transient brightness but even now the warmth has faded, the crowd dispersed. The vendors pack up their hotplates and awnings, the children discard their costumes and party favours. A slight air of embarrassment prevails, of abashment at this excess of noise and colour. Like rain in midsummer it evaporates, runs into the cracked earth and through the parched stones, leaving barely a trace. Two hours later Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is invisible once more, like an enchanted village which appears only once every year. But for the carnival we should have missed it altogether.

We have gas but as yet no electricity. On our first night I made pancakes for Anouk by candlelight and we ate them.by the fireside, using an old magazine for plates, as none of our things can be delivered until tomorrow. The shop was originally a bakery and still carries the baker’s wheatsheaf carved above the narrow doorway, but the floor is thick with a floury dust, and we picked our way across a drift of junk mail as we came in. The lease seems ridiculously cheap, accustomed as we are to city prices; even so I caught the sharp glance of suspicion from the woman at the agency as I counted out the banknotes. On the lease document I am Vianne Rocher, the signature a hieroglyph which might mean anything.

By the light of the candle we explored our new territory; the old ovens still surprisingly good beneath the grease and soot, the pine-panelled walls, the blackened earthen tiles. Anouk found the old awning folded away in a back-room and we dragged it out; spiders scattered from under the faded canvas. Our living area is above the shop; a bedsit and washroom, ridiculously tiny balcony, terracotta planter with dead geraniums… Anouk made a face when she saw it.

“It’s so dark, Maman.” She sounded awed, uncertain in the face of so much dereliction. “And it smells so sad.”

She is right. The smell is like daylight trapped for years until it has gone sour and rancid, of mouse-droppings and the ghosts of things unremembered and unmourned. It echoes like a cave, the small heat of our presence only serving to accentuate every shadow. Paint and sunlight and soapy water will rid us of the grime, but the sadness is another matter, the forlorn resonance of a house where no-one has laughed for years. Anouk’s face looked pale and large-eyed in the candlelight, her hand tightening in mine.

“Do we have to sleep here?” she asked. “Pantoufle doesn’t like it. He’s afraid.”

I smiled and kissed her solemn golden cheek.

“Pantoufle is going to help us.”

We lit a candle for every room, gold and red and white and orange. I prefer to make my own incense, but in a crisis the bought sticks are good enough for our purposes, lavender and cedar and lemongrass. We each held a candle, Anouk blowing her toy trumpet and I rattling a metal spoon in an old saucepan, and for ten minutes we stamped around every room, shouting and singing at the top of our voices — Out! Out! Out! until the walls shook and the outraged ghosts fled, leaving in their wake a faint scent of scorching and a good deal of fallen plaster. Look behind the cracked and blackened paintwork, behind the sadness of things abandoned, and begin to see faint outlines, like the after-image of a sparkler held in the hand — here a wall adazzle with golden paint, there an armchair, a little shabby, but coloured a triumphant orange, the old awning suddenly glowing as half-hidden colours slide out from beneath the layers of grime. Out! Out! Out! Anouk and Pantoufle stamped and sang and the faint images seemed to grow brighter — a red stool beside the vinyl counter, a string of bells against the front door. Of course, I know it’s only a game. Clamours to comfort a frightened child. There’ll have to be work done, hard work, before any of this becomes real. And yet for the moment it is enough to know that the house welcomes us, as we welcome it. Rock salt and bread by the doorstep to placate any resident gods. Sandalwood on our pillow, to sweeten our dreams.

Later Anouk told me Pantoufle wasn’t frightened any more, so that was all right. We slept together in our clothes on the floury mattress in the bedroom with all the candles burning, and when we awoke it was morning.

2

February 12, Ash Wednesday

Actually the bells woke us. I hadn’t realized quite how close we were to the church until I heard them, a single low resonant drone falling into a bright carillon dommm fla-di-dadi dommmm — on the downbeat. I looked at my watch. It was six o’clock. Grey-gold light filtered through the broken shutters onto the bed.

I stood up and looked out onto the square, wet cobbles shining. The square white church tower stood out sharply in the morning sunlight, rising from a hollow of dark shopfronts; a bakery, a florist, a shop selling graveyard paraphernalia; plaques, stone angels, enamelled everlasting roses… Above their discreetly shuttered facades the white tower is a beacon, the roman numerals of the clock gleaming redly at six-twenty to baffle the devil, the Virgin in her dizzy eyrie watching the square with a faintly sickened expression. At the tip of the short spire a weathervane turns — west to west-northwest — a robed man with a scythe. From the balcony with the dead geranium I could see the first arrivals to Mass. I recognized the woman in the tartan coat from the carnival; I waved to her, but she hurried on without an answering gesture, pulling her coat protectively around her. Behind her the felt-hatted man with his sad brown dog in tow gave me a hesitant smile. I called down brightly to him, but seemingly village etiquette did not allow for such informalities, for he did not respond, hurrying in his turn into the church, taking his dog with him.

After that no-one even looked up at my window, though I counted over sixty heads — scarves, berets, hats drawn down against an invisible wind — but I felt their studied, curious indifference. They had matters of importance to consider, said their hunched shoulders and lowered heads. Their feet dragged sullenly at the cobbles like the feet of children going to school. This one has given up smoking today, I knew; that one his weekly visit to the cafe, another will forgo her favourite foods. It’s none of my business, of course. But I felt at that moment that if ever a place were in need of a little magic… Old habits never die. And when you’ve once — been in. the business of granting wishes the impulse never quite leaves you. And besides, the wind, the carnival wind was still blowing, bringing with it the dim scent of grease and candyfloss and gunpowder, the hot sharp scents of the changing seasons, making the palms itch and the heart beat faster. For a time, then, we stay. For a time. Till the wind changes.

We bought the paint in the general store, and with it brushes, rollers, soap and buckets. We began upstairs and worked downwards, stripping curtains and throwing broken fittings onto the growing pile in the tiny back garden, soaping floors arid making tidal waves down the narrow sooty stairway so that both of us were soaked several times through. Anouk’s scrubbing-brush became a submarine, and mine a tanker which sent noisy soap torpedoes scudding down the stairs and into the hall. In the middle of this I heard the doorbell jangle and looked up, soap in one hand, brush in the other, at the tall figure of the priest.

I’d wondered how long it would take him to arrive.

He considered us for a time, smiling. A guarded smile, proprietary, benevolent; the lord of the manor welcomes inopportune guests. I could feel him very conscious of my wet and dirty overalls, my hair caught up in a red scarf, my bare feet in their dripping sandals.

“Good morning.” There was a rivulet of scummy water heading for his highly polished black shoe. I saw his eyes flick towards it and back towards me. “Francis Reynaud,” he said, discreetly sidestepping. “Cure of the parish.”

I laughed at that; I couldn’t help it.

“Oh, that’s it,” I said maliciously. “I thought you were with the carnival.”

Polite laughter; heh, heh, heh.

I held out a yellow plastic glove.

“Vianne Rocker. And the bombardier back there is my daughter Anouk.”

Sounds of soap explosions, and of Anouk fighting Pantoufle on the stairs. I could hear the priest waiting for details of Monsieur Rocker. So much easier to have everything on a piece of paper, everything official, avoid this uncomfortable, messy conversation.

“I suppose you are very busy this morning.”

I suddenly felt sorry for him, trying so hard, straining to make contact. Again the forced smile.

“Yes, we really need to get this place in order as soon as possible. It’s going to take time! But we wouldn’t have been at church this morning anyway, Monsieur le Curé. We don’t attend, you know.”

It was kindly meant, to show him where we stood, to reassure him; but he looked startled, almost insulted.

“I see.”

It was too direct. He would have liked us to dance a little, to circle each other like wary cats.

“But it’s very kind, of you to welcome us,” I continued brightly. “You might even be able to help us make a few friends here.”

He is a little like a cat himself, I notice; cold, light eyes which never hold the gaze, a restless watchfulness, studied, aloof.

“I’ll do anything I can.” He is indifferent now he knows we are not to be members of his flock. And yet his conscience pushes him to offer more than he is willing to give. “Have you anything in mind?”

“Well, we could do with some help here,” I suggested. “Not you, of course” — quickly, as he began to reply. “But perhaps you know someone who could do with the extra money? A plasterer, someone who might be able to help with the decorating?”

This was surely safe territory.

“I can’t think of anyone.” He is guarded, more so than anyone I have ever met. “But I’ll ask around.”

Perhaps he will. He knows his duty to the new arrival. But I know he will not find anyone. His is not, a nature which grants favours graciously. His eyes flicked warily to the pile of bread and salt by the door.

“For luck.” I smiled, but his face was stony. He skirted the little offering as if it offended him.

“Maman?” Anouk’s head appeared in the doorway, hair standing out in crazy spikes. “Pantoufle wants to play outside. Can we?”

I nodded.

“Stay in the garden.” I wiped a smudge of dirt from the bridge of her nose. “You look a complete urchin.” I saw her glance at the priest and caught her comical look just in time. “This is Monsieur Reynaud, Anouk. Why don’t you say hello?”

“Hello!” shouted Anouk on the way to the door. “Goodbye!”

A blur of yellow jumper and red overalls and she was gone, her feet skidding manically on the greasy tiles. Not for the first time, I was almost sure I saw Pantoufle disappearing in her wake, a darker smudge against the dark lintel.

“She’s only six,” I said by way of explanation.

Reynaud gave a tight, sour smile, as if his first glimpse of my daughter confirmed every one of his suspicions about me.

3

Thursday, February 13

Thank God that’s over. Visits tire me to the bone. I don’t mean you, of course, mon pere; my weekly visit to you is a luxury, you might almost say my only one. I hope you like the flowers. They don’t look much, but they smell wonderful. I’ll put them here, beside your chair, where you can see them. It’s a good view from here across the fields, with the Tannes in the middle distance and the Garonne gleaming in the far. You might almost imagine we were alone. Oh, I’m not complaining. Not really. But you must know how heavy it is for one man to carry. Their petty concerns, their dissatisfactions, their foolishness, their thousand trivial problems…

On Tuesday it was the carnival. Anyone might have taken them for savages, dancing and screaming. Louis Perrin’s youngest, Claude, fired a water-pistol at me, and what would his father say but that he was a youngster and needed to play a little? All I want is to guide them, mon pere, to free them from their sin. But they fight me at every turn, like children refusing wholesome fare in order to continue eating what sickens them.

I know you understand. For fifty years you held all this on your shoulders in patience and strength. You earned their love. Have times changed so much? Here I am feared, respected… but loved, no. Their faces are sullen, resentful. Yesterday they left the service with ash on their foreheads and a look of guilty relief. Left to their secret indulgences, their solitary vices. Don’t they understand? The Lord sees everything. Isee everything. Paul-Marie Muscat beats his wife. He pays ten Avesweekly in the confessional and leaves to begin again in exactly the same way. His wife steals. Last week she went to the market and stole trumpery jewellery from a vendor’s stall. Guillaume Duplessis wants to know if animals have souls, and weeps when I tell him they don’t. Charlotte Edouard thinks her husband has a mistress — I know he has three, but the confessional keeps me silent.

What children they are! Their demands leave me bloodied and reeling. But I cannot afford to show weakness. Sheep are not the docile, pleasant creatures of the pastoral idyll. Any countryman will tell you that. They are sly, occasionally vicious, pathologically stupid. The lenient shepherd may find his flock unruly, defiant. I cannot afford to be lenient. That is why, once a week, I allow myself this one indulgence. Your mouth is as closely sealed, mon pere, as that of the confessional. Your ears are always open, your heart always kind. For an hour I can lay aside the burden. I can be fallible.

We have a new parishioner. A Vianne Rocher, a widow, I take it, with a young child. Do you remember old Blaireau’s bakery? Four years since he died, and the place has been going to ruin ever since. Well, she has taken the lease on it, and hopes to reopen by the end of the week. I don’t expect it to last. We already have Poitou’s bakery across the square, and, besides, she’ll never fit in. A pleasant enough woman, but she has nothing in common with us. Give her two months, and she’ll be back to the city where she belongs. Funny, I never did find out where she was from. Paris, I expect, or maybe even across the border. Her accent is pure, almost too pure for a Frenchwoman, with the clipped vowels of the North, though her eyes suggest Italian or Portuguese descent, and her skin…

But I didn’t really see her. She worked in the bakery all yesterday and today. There is a sheet of orange plastic over the window, and occasionally she or her little wild daughter appears to tip a bucket of dirty water into the gutter, or to talk animatedly with some workman or other. She has an odd facility for acquiring helpers. Though I offered to assist her, I doubted whether she would find many of our villagers willing. And yet I saw Clairmont early this morning, carrying a load of wood, then Pourceau with his ladders. Poitou sent some furniture; I saw him carrying an armchair across the square with the furtive look of a man who does not wish to be seen. Even that ill-tempered backbiter Narcisse, who flatly refused to dig over the churchyard last November, went over there with his tools to tidy up her garden.

This morning at about eight-forty a delivery van arrived in front of the shop. Duplessis, who was walking his dog at the usual time, was just passing at that moment, and she called him over to help her unload. I could see he was startled by the request — for a second I was almost certain he would refuse — one hand halfway to his hat. She said something then — I didn’t hear what it was — and I heard her laughter ringing across the cobbles. She laughs a great deal, and makes many extravagant, comical gestures with her arms. Again a city trait, I suppose. We are accustomed to a greater reserve in the people around us, but I expect she means well: A violet scarf was knotted gypsy-fashion around her head, but most of her hair had escaped from beneath it and was streaked with white paint. She didn’t seem to mind. Duplessis could not recall later what she had said to him, but said in his diffident way that the delivery was nothing, only a few boxes, small but quite heavy, and some open crates containing kitchen utensils. He did not ask what was in the boxes, though he doubts such a small supply of anything would go very far in a bakery.

Do not imagine, mon pere, that I spent my day watching the bakery. It is simply that it stands almost immediately opposite my own house — the one which was yours, mon pere, before all this. Throughout the last day and a half there has been nothing but hammering and painting and whitewashing and scrubbing until in spite of myself I cannot help but be curious to see the result. I am not alone in this; I overheard Madame Clairmont gossiping self-importantly to a group of friends outside Poitou’s of her husband’s work; there was talk of red shutters before they noticed me and subsided into sly muttering. As if I cared. The new arrival has certainly provided food for gossip, if nothing else. I find the orange-covered window catches the eye at the strangest times. It looks like a huge bonbon waiting to be unwrapped, like a remaining slice of the carnival. There is something unsettling about its brightness and the way the plastic folds catch the sun; I will be happy when the work is finished and the place is a bakery once more.

The nurse is trying to catch my eye. She thinks I tire you. How can you bear them, with their loud voices and nursery manner? Time for our rest, now, I think. Her archness is jarring, unbearable. And yet she means kindly, your eyes tell me. Forgive them, they know not what they do. I am not kind. I come here for my own relief, not yours. And yet I like to believe my visits give you pleasure, keeping you in touch with the hard edges of a world gone soft and featureless. Television an hour a night, turning five times a day, food through a tube. To be talked over as if you were an object — Can he hear us? Do you think he understands? — your opinions unsought, discarded… To be closed from everything, and yet to feel, to think. This is the truth of hell, stripped of its gaudy mediaevalisms. This loss of contact. And yet I look to you to teach me communication. Teach me hope.

4

Friday, February 14, St Valentine

The dog-man’s name is guillaume. He helped me with the delivery yesterday and he was my first customer this morning. He had his dog, Charly, with him, and he greeted me with a shy politeness which was almost courtly.

“It looks wonderful,” he said, looking around. “You must have been up all night doing this.”

I laughed.

“It’s quite a transformation,” said Guillaume. “You know, I’m not sure why, but I’d just assumed it was going to be another bakery.”

“What, and ruin poor Monsieur Poitou’s trade? I’m sure he’d thank me for that, with his lumbago playing up the way it is, and his poor wife an invalid and sleeping so badly.”

Guillaume bent to straighten Charly’s collar, but I saw his eyes twinkle.

“I see you’ve met,” he said.

“Yes. I gave him my recipe for bedtime tisane.”

“If it works, he’ll be a friend for life.”

“It works,” I assured him. Then, reaching under the counter I pulled out a small pink box with a silver valentine bow on it. “Here. For you. My first customer.”

Guillaume looked little startled.

“Really, Madame, I-”

“Call me Vianne. And I insist.” I pushed the box into his hands. “You’ll like them. They’re your favourite kind.”

He smiled at that. “How do you know?” he enquired, tucking the box carefully into his coat pocket.

“Oh, I can just tell,” I told him mischievously. “I know everyone’s favourite. Trust me, this is yours.”

The sign wasn’t finished until about noon. Georges Clairmont came to hang it himself then, profusely apologetic at his lateness. The scarlet shutters look beautiful against the new whitewash and Narcisse, grumbling halfheartedly about the late frosts, brought some new geraniums from his nursery to put in my planters. I sent them both away with valentine boxes and similar expressions of bemused pleasure. After that, barring a few schoolchildren, I had few visitors. It is always the case when a new shop opens in such a small village; there is a strict code of behaviour governing such situations and people are reserved, pretending indifference though inwardly they burn with curiosity. An old lady ventured in, wearing the traditional black dress of the country widow. A man with dark, florid features bought three identical boxes without asking what was inside. Then for hours, no-one came. It was what I expected; people need time to adapt to change, and though I caught several sharp glances at my display window, no-one seemed inclined to go in. Behind the studied unconcern however, I sensed a kind of seething, a whispering of speculation, a twitching of curtains, gathering of resolve. When at last they came, it was together; seven or eight women, Caroline Clairmont, wife of the signmaker, amongst them. A ninth, arriving somewhat behind the group, remained outside, her face almost touching the window, and I recognized the woman in the tartan coat.

The ladies eyed everything, giggling like schoolgirls, hesitant, delighting in their collective naughtiness.

“And do you make them all yourself?” asked Cecile, who owns the pharmacy on the main street.

“I should be giving it up for Lent,” commented Caroline, a plump blonde with a fur collar.

“I won’t tell a soul,” I promised. Then, observing the woman in the tartan coat still gazing into the window, “Won’t your friend join us?”

“Oh, she isn’t with us,” replied Joline Drou, a sharp featured woman who works at the local school. She glanced briefly at the square-faced woman at the window. “That’s Josephine Muscat.” There was a kind of pitying contempt in her voice as she pronounced the name. “I doubt she’ll come in.”

As if she had heard, I saw Josephine redden slightly, lowering her head against the breast of her coat. One hand was drawn up against her stomach in an odd, protective gesture. I could see her mouth, perpetually downturned, moving slightly, in the rhythms of prayer or cursing.

I served the ladies — a white box, gold ribbon, two paper cornets, a rose, a pink valentine bow — amidst exclamations and laughter. Outside Josephine Muscat muttered and rocked and dug her large ungainly fists into her stomach. Then, just as I was serving the last customer she raised her head in a kind of defiance and walked in. This last order was a large and rather complicated one. Madame wanted just such a selection, in a round box, with ribbons and flowers and golden hearts and a calling card left blank — at this the ladies turned up their eyes in roguish ecstasy, hihihihil — so that I almost missed the moment. The large hands are surprisingly nimble, rough quick hands reddened with housework. One stays lodged in the pit of the stomach, the other flutters briefly at her side like a gunslinger’s swift draw, and the little silver packet with the rose — marked ten francs — has gone from the shelf and into the pocket of her coat.

Nice work. I pretended not to notice until the ladies had left the shop with their parcels. Josephine, left alone in front of the counter, pretended to examine the display, turned over a couple of boxes with nervous, careful fingers. I closed my eyes. The thoughts she sent me were complex, troubling. A rapid series of images flickered through my mind: smoke, a handful of gleaming trinkets, a bloodied knuckle. Behind it all a jittering undercurrent of worry.

“Madame Muscat, may I help you?” My voice was soft and pleasant. “Or would you just like to look around?”

She muttered something inaudible, turned as if to leave.

“I think I may have something you’ll like.”

I reached under the counter and brought out a silver packet similar to the one I had seen her take, though this one was larger. A white ribbon secured the package, sewn with tiny yellow flowers. She looked at me, her wide unhappy mouth drooping with a kind of panic. I pushed the packet across the counter towards her.

“On the house, Josephine,” I told her gently. “It’s all right. They’re your favourites.”

Josephine Muscat turned and fled.

5

Saturday, February 15

I know this isn’t my usual day, mon pere but I needed to talk. The bakery opened yesterday. But it isn’t a bakery. When I awoke yesterday morning at six the wrapping was off, the awning and the shutters were in place and the blind was raised in the display window. What was an ordinary, rather drab old house like all the others around it has become a red-and-gold confection on a dazzling white ground. Red geraniums in the window boxes. Crepe-paper garlands twisted around the railings. And above the door a hand-lettered sign in black on oak:

LA CELESTE PRALINE CHOCOLATERIE ARTISANALE.

Of course it’s ridiculous. Such a shop might well be popular in Marseille or Bordeaux — even in Agen where the tourist trade grows every year. But in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes? And at the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial? It seems perverse, perhaps deliberately so.

I looked into the display window this morning. On a white marble shelf are aligned innumerable boxes, packages, cornets of silver and gold paper, rosettes, bells, flowers, hearts and long curls of multicoloured ribbon. In glass bells and dishes lie the chocolates, the pralines, Venus’s nipples, truffles, mendiants, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, chocolate seashells, candied rose-petals, sugared violets… Protected from the sun by the half-blind which shields them, they gleam darkly, like sunken treasure, Aladdin’s cave of sweet cliches. And in the middle she has built a magnificent centrepiece. A gingerbread house, walls of chocolate-coated pain d’epices with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees… And the witch herself, dark chocolate from the top of her pointed hat to the hem of her long cloak, half astride a broomstick which is in reality a giant guimauve, the long twisted marshmallows that dangle from the stalls of sweet-vendors on carnival days.

From my own window I can see hers, like an eye closing in a sly, conspiratorial wink. Caroline Clairmont broke her Lenten vow because of that shop and what it sells. She told me in the confessional yesterday, in that breathless girlish tone which goes so ill with her promises of repentance.

“Oh, mon pere, I feel so dreadful about it! But what could I do when that charming woman was so sweet? I mean, I never even thought about it until it was too late, though if there’s anyone who should give up chocolates… I mean, the way my hips have absolutely ballooned in the last year or two, it makes me want to die-”

“Two Aves.”

God, that woman. Through the grille I can feel her hungry, adoring eyes.

She feigns chagrin at my abruptness. “Of course, mon pere.”

“And remember why we fast for Lent. Not for vanity. Not to impress our friends. Not so that we can fit into next summer’s expensive fashions.”

I am deliberately brutal. It is what she wants.

“Yes, I am vain, aren’t I?” A tiny sob, a tear, blotted delicately with the corner of a lawn handkerchief. “Just a vain, foolish woman.”

“Remember Our Lord. His sacrifice. His humility.”

I can smell her perfume, something flowery, too strong in this enclosed darkness. I wonder whether this is temptation. If so, I am stone.

“Four Aves.”

It is a kind of despair. It frets at the soul, reduces it piece by piece, as a cathedral may be levelled over the years by the erosion of flying dust and fragments of sand. I can feel it chipping away at my resolve, my joy, my faith. I should like to lead them through tribulation, through wilderness. Instead, this. This languid procession of liars, cheats, gluttons and pathetic self-deceivers. The battle of good and evil reduced to a fat woman standing in front of a chocolate shop, saying, “Will I? Won’t I?” in pitiful indecision. The devil is a coward; he will not show his face. He is without substance, breaking into a million pieces which worm their evil ways into the blood, into the soul. You and I were born too late, mon pere. The harsh, clean world of the Old Testament calls to me. We knew then where we stood. Satan walked amongst us in flesh. We made difficult decisions; we sacrificed our children in the Lord’s name. We loved God, but we feared Him more.

Don’t think I blame Vianne Rocher. Indeed I hardly think of her at all. She is only one of the influences against which I must fight every day. But the thought of that shop with its carnival awning, a wink against denial, against faith… Turning from the doorway to receive the congregation I catch a movement from within. Try me. Test me. Taste me. In a lull between the verses of a hymn I hear the delivery-van’s horn as it pulls up in front. During the sermon — the very sermon, mon pere! — I stop mid phrase, certain I hear the rustle of sweet-papers.

I preached with greater severity than usual this morning, though the congregation was small. Tomorrow I’ll make them pay. Tomorrow, Sunday, when the shops are closed.

6

Saturday, February 15

School finished early today. By twelve the street was rampant with cowboys and Indians in bright anoraks and denim jeans, dragging their schoolbags — the older ones dragging on illicit cigarettes, with turned-up collars and half a nonchalant eye to the display window as they pass. I noticed one boy walking alone, very correct in grey overcoat and beret, his school cartable perfectly squared to his small shoulders. For a long moment he stared in at the window of La Celeste Praline, but the light was shining on the glass in such a way that I did not catch his expression. Then a group of four children of Anouk’s age stopped outside, and he moved on. Two noses snubbed briefly against the window, then the children retreated into a cluster as the four emptied pockets and pooled resources. A moment of hesitation as they decided who to send in. I pretended to be occupied with something behind the counter.

“Madame?”

A small, smudgy face peered suspiciously up at me. I recognized the wolf from the Mardi Gras parade.

“Now, I have you down as a peanut brittle man.” I kept my face serious, for this purchase of sweets is serious business. “It’s good value, easy to share, doesn’t melt in your pockets and you can get” — I indicated with hands held apart — “oh, this much at least for five francs. Am I right?”

No answering smile, but a nod, as of one businessman to another. The coin was warm and a little sticky. He took the packet with care.

“I like the little gingerbread house,” he said gravely. “In the window.”

In the doorway the three others nodded shyly, pressing together as if to give themselves courage.

“It’s cool.”

The American word was uttered with a kind of defiance, like smoke from a secret cigarette. I smiled.

“Very cool,” I agreed. “If you like, you and your friends can come over and help me eat it where I take it down.”

Eyes widened.

“Cool!”

“Hypercool”

“When?”

I shrugged.

“I’ll tell Anouk to remind you,” I told them. “That’s my little girl.”

“We know. We saw her. She doesn’t go to school.”

This last was uttered with some envy…

“She will on Monday. It’s a pity she doesn’t have any friends yet, because I told her she could ask them over. You know, to help me with the displays.”

Feet shuffled, sticky hands held out, shoving and pushing to be first in line.

“We can”

“I can-”

“I’m Jeannot ”

“Claudine-”

“Lucie.”

I sent them out with a sugar mouse each and watched them fan across the square like dandelion seeds in the wind. A slice of sunlight glanced off their backs one after the other as they ran — red-orange-green-blue — then they were gone. From the shaded arch of St Jeromes I saw the priest, Francis Reynaud, watching them with a look of curiosity and, I thought, disapproval. I felt a moment’s surprise. Why should he disapprove? Since his duty visit on our first day he has not called again, though I have heard of him often from other people. Guillaume speaks of him with respect, Narcisse with temper, Caroline with that archness which I sense she adopts when speaking of any man under fifty. There is little warmth in their speech. He is not a local, I understand. A Paris seminarian, all his learning from books he does not know the land, its needs, its demands. This from Narcisse, who has had a running feud with the priest ever since he refused to attend Mass during the harvesting season. A man who does not suffer fools, says Guillaume, with that small gleam of humour from behind his round spectacles, that is to say so many of us, with our foolish little habits and our unbreakable routines. He pats Charly’s head affectionately as he says it, and the dog gives his single, solemn bark.

“He thinks it’s ridiculous to be so devoted to a dog,” said Guillaume ruefully. “He’s far too polite to say so, but he thinks it’s inappropriate. A man of my age…”

Before his retirement Guillaume was a master at the local school. There are only two teachers there now to deal with the falling numbers, though many of the older people still refer to Guillaume as le maitre d’ecole. I watch as he scratches Charly gently behind the ears, and I am sure I sense the sadness I saw in him at the carnival; a furtive look which is almost guilt.

“A man of any age can choose his friends where he likes,” I interrupted with some heat. “Perhaps monsieur le cure could learn a few things from Charly himself.”

Again that sweet, sad almost-smile.

“Monsieur le cure tries his best,” he told me gently. “We should not expect more.”

I did not answer. In my profession it is a truth quickly learned that the process of giving is without limits. Guillaume left La Praline with a small bag of florentines in his pocket; before he had turned the comer of Avenue des Francs Bourgeois I saw him stoop to offer one to the dog. A pat, a bark, a wagging of the short stubby tail. As I said, some people never have to think about giving.

The village is less strange to me now. Its inhabitants too. I am beginning to know faces, names; the first secret skeins of histories twisting together to form the umbilical which will eventually bind us. It is a more complex place than its geography at first suggests, the Rue Principale forking off into a hand-shaped branch of laterals — Rue des Poetes, Avenue des Francs Bourgeois, Ruelle des Freres de la Revolution — someone amongst the town planners had a fierce republican streak: My own square, Place Saint-Jerome, is the culmination of these reaching fingers, the church standing white and proud in an oblong of linden trees, the square of red shingle where the old men play petanque on fine evenings: Behind it, the hill falls away sharply towards that region of narrow streets collectively called Les Marauds.

This is Lansquenet’s tiny slum, close half-timbered houses staggering down the uneven cobbles towards the Tannes. Even there it is some distance before the houses give way to marshland; some are built on the river itself on platforms of rotting wood, dozens flank the stone embankment, long fingers of damp reaching towards their small high windows from the sluggish water. In a town like Agen, Les Marauds would attract tourists for its quaintness and rustic decay. But here there are no tourists. The people of Les Marauds are scavengers, living from what they can reclaim from the river. Many of their houses are derelict; elder trees grow from the sagging walls.

I closed La Praline for two hours at lunch and Anouk and I went walking down towards the river. A couple of skinny children dabbled in the green mud by the waterside; even in February there was a mellow stink of sewage and rot. It was cold but sunny, and Anouk was wearing her red woollen coat and hat, racing along the stones and shouting to Pantoufle scampering in her wake. I have become so accustomed to Pantouffe — and to the rest of the strange menagerie which she trails in her bright wake — that at such times I can almost see him clearly; Pantoufle with his grey-whiskered face and wise eyes, the world suddenly brightening as if by a strange transference I have become Anouk, seeing with her eyes, following where she travels. At such times I feel I could die for love of her, my little stranger; my heart swelling dangerously so that the only release is to run too, my red coat flapping around my shoulders like wings, my hair a comet’s tail in the patchy blue sky.

A black cat crossed my path and I stopped to dance around it widdershins and to sing the rhyme:

Ou va-t-i, mistigri?

Passe sans faire de mal ici.

Anouk joined in and the cat purred, rolling over into the dust to be stroked. I bent down and saw a tiny old woman watching me curiously from the angle of a house. Black skirt, black coat, grey hair coiled and plaited into a neat, complex bun. Her eyes were sharp and black as a bird’s. I nodded to her.

“You’re from the chocolaterie,” she said.

Despite her age which I took to be eighty, maybe more — her voice was brisk and strongly accented with the rough lilt of the Midi.

“Yes, I am.”

I gave my name.

“Armande Voizin,” she said. “That’s my house over there.” She nodded towards one of the river-houses, this one in better repair than the rest, freshly whitewashed and with scarlet geraniums in the window boxes. Then, with a smile which worked her apple-doll face into a million wrinkles, she said, “I’ve seen your shop. Pretty enough, I’ll grant you that, but no good to folks like us. Much too fancy.” There was no disapproval in her voice as she spoke, but a half laughing fatalism. “I hear our m’sieur le cure already has it in for you,” she added maliciously. “I suppose he thinks a chocolate shop is inappropriate in his square.” She gave me another of those quizzical, mocking glances. “Does he know you’re a witch?” she asked.

Witch, witch. It’s the wrong word, but I knew what she meant.

“What makes you think that?”

“Oh, it’s obvious. Takes one to know one, I expect,” and she laughed, a sound like violins gone wild. “M’sieur le Cure doesn’t believe in magic,” she said. “Tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be so sure he even believes in God.” There was indulgent contempt in her voice. “He has a lot to learn, that man, even if he has got a degree in theology. And my silly daughter too. You don’t get degrees in life, do you?”

I agreed that you didn’t, and enquired whether I knew her daughter.

“I expect so. Caro Clairmont. The most empty-headed piece of foolishness in all of Lansquenet. Talk, talk, talk, and not a particle of sense.”

She saw my smile and nodded cheerily.

“Don’t worry, dear, at my age nothing much ends me any more. And she takes after her father, you know. That’s a great consolation.” She looked at me quizzically. “You don’t get much entertainment around here,” she observed. “Especially if you’re old.” She paused and peered at me again. “But with you I think maybe we’re in for a ‘ little amusement.”

Her hand brushed mine like a cool breath. I tried to catch her thoughts, to see if she was making fun of me, but ail I felt was humour and kindness.

“It’s only a chocolate shop,” I said with a smile.

Armande Voizin chuckled.

“You really must think I was born yesterday,” she observed.

“Really, Madame Voizin-”

“Call me Armande.” The black eyes snapped with amusement. “It makes me feel young.”

“All right. But I really don’t see why-”

“I know what wind you blew in on,” said Armande keenly. “I felt it. Mardi Gras, carnival day. Les Marauds was full of carnival people; gypsies, Spaniards, tinkers, pieds-noirs and undesirables. I knew you at once, you and your little girl what are you calling yourselves this time?”

“Vianne Rocher.” I smiled. “And this is Anouk.”

“Anouk,” repeated Armande softly. “And the little grey friend — my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be — what is it? A cat? A squirrel?”

Anouk shook her curly head. “He’s a rabbit,” she said with cheery scorn. “Called Pantoufle.”

“Oh, a rabbit. Of course.” Armande gave me a sly wink. “You see, I know what wind you blew in on. I’ve felt it myself once or twice. I may be old, but no-one can pull the wool over my eyes. No-one at all.”

I nodded.

“Maybe that’s true,” I said. “Come over to La Praline one day; I know everyone’s favourite. I’ll treat you to a big box of yours.”

Armande laughed.

“Oh, I’m not allowed chocolate. Caro and that idiot doctor won’t allow it. Or anything else I might enjoy,” she added wryly. “First smoking, then alcohol, now this… God knows, if I gave up breathing perhaps I might live for ever.” She gave a snort of laughter, but it had a tired sound, and I saw her raise a hand to her chest in a clutching gesture eerily reminiscent of Josephine Muscat. “I’m not blaming them, exactly,” she said. “It’s just their way. Protection — from everything. From life. From death.” She gave a grin which was suddenly very gamine in spite of the wrinkles. “I might call in to see you anyway,” she said. “If only to annoy the cure.”

I pondered her last remark for some time after she disappeared behind the angle of the whitewashed house. Some distance away Anouk was throwing stones onto the mud flats at the riverbank.

The cure. It seemed his name was never far from the lip’s. For a moment I considered Francis Reynaud.

In a place like Lansquenet it sometimes happens that one person — schoolteacher, cafe proprietor, or priest forms the lynchpin of the community. That this single individual is the essential core of the machinery which turns lives, like the central pin of a clock mechanism, sending wheels to turn wheels, hammers to strike, needles to point the hour. If the pin slips or is damaged, the clock stops. Lansquenet is like that clock, needles perpetually frozen at a minute to midnight, wheels and cogs turning uselessly behind the bland blank face. Set a church clock wrong to fool the devil, my mother always told me. But in this case I suspect the devil is not fooled.

Not for a minute.

7

Sunday, February 16

My mother was a witch. at least, that’s what she called herself, falling so many times into the game of believing herself that at the end there was no telling fake from fact. Armande Voizin reminds me of her in some ways; the bright, wicked eyes, the long hair which must have been glossy black in her youth, the — blend of wistfulness and cynicism. From her I learned what shaped me. The art of turning bad luck into good. The forking of the fingers to divert the path of malchance. The sewing of a sachet, brewing of a draught, the conviction that a spider brings good luck before midnight and bad luck after. Most of all she gave me her love of new places, the gypsy wanderlust which took us all over Europe and further; a year in Budapest, another in Prague, six months in Rome, four in Athens, then across the Alps to Monaco, along the coast, Cannes, Marseille, Barcelona… By my eighteenth year I had lost count of the cities in which we had lived, the languages we had spoken. Jobs were as varied; waitressing, interpreting, car repair. Sometimes we escaped from the windows of cheap overnight hotels without paying the bill. We rode trains without tickets, forged work permits, crossed borders illicitly. We were deported countless times. Twice my mother was arrested, but released without charge. Our names changed as we moved, drifting from one regional variant to another; Yanne, Jeanne, Johanne, Giovanna, Anne, Anouchka. Like thieves we were perpetually on the run, converting the unwieldy ballast of life into francs, pounds, kroner, dollars, as we fled where the wind took us.

Don’t think I suffered; life was a fine adventure for those years. We had each other, my mother and I. I never felt the need for a father. My friends were countless. And yet it must have preyed upon her sometimes, the lack of permanence, the need always to contrive. Still we raced faster as the years wore on, staying a month, two at the most, then moving on like fugitives racing the sunset. It took me some years to understand that it was death we fled.

She was forty. It was cancer. She’d known for some time, she told me, but recently… No, there was to be no hospital. No hospital, did I understand? There were months, years left in her and she wanted to see America: New York, the Florida Everglades. We were moving almost every day now, Mother reading the cards at night when she thought I was asleep. We boarded a cruiser from Lisbon, both of us working in the kitchens. Finishing at two or three every morning, we rose at dawn. Every night the cards, slippery to the touch with age and respectful handling, were laid out on the bunk beside her. She whispered their names to herself, sinking deeper every day into the mazy confusion which would eventually claim her altogether.

Ten of Swords, death. Three of Swords, death. Two of Swords, death. The Chariot. Death.

The Chariot turned out to be a New York cab one summer evening as we shopped for groceries in the busy Chinatown streets. It was better than cancer, in any case.

When my daughter was born nine months later I called her after both of us. It seemed appropriate. Her father never knew her — nor am I sure which one he was in the wilting daisy-chain of my brief encounters. It doesn’t matter. I could have peeled an apple at midnight and thrown the rind over my shoulder to know his initial, but I never cared enough to do it. Too much ballast slows us down.

And yet… Since I left New York, haven’t the winds blown less hard, less often? Hasn’t there been a kind of wrench every time we leave a place, a kind of regret? I think there has. Twenty-five years, and at last the spring has begun to grow tired, just as my mother grew tired in the final years. I find myself looking at the sun and wondering what it would be like to see it rise above the same horizon for five — maybe ten, maybe twenty — years: The thought fills me with a strange dizziness, a feeling of fear and longing. And Anouk, my little stranger? I see the brave adventure we lived for so long in a different light now that I am the mother. I see myself as I was, the brown girl with the long uncombed hair, wearing cast-off charity-shop clothing, learning maths the hard way, geography the hard way. How much bread for two francs? How far will a fifty-mark rail ticket take us? — and I do not want it for her. Perhaps this is why we have stayed in France for the last five years. For the first time in my life, I have a bank account. I have a trade.

My mother would have despised all this. And yet perhaps she would have envied me too. Forget yourself if you can, she would have told me. Forget who you are. For as long as you am bear it. But one day, my girl, one day it will catch you. I know.

I opened as usual today. For the morning only — I’11 allow myself a half-day with Anouk this afternoon — but it’s Mass this morning and there will be people in the square. February has reasserted its drab self and now it is raining; a freezing, gritty rain which slicks the paving and colours the sky the shade of old pewter. Anouk reads a book of nursery rhymes behind the counter and keeps an eye on the door for me as I prepare a batch of mendiants in the kitchen. These are my own favourites — thus named because they were sold by beggars and gypsies years ago biscuit-sized discs of dark, milk or white chocolate upon which have been scattered lemon-rind, almonds and plump Malaga raisins. Anouk likes the white ones, though I prefer the dark, made with the finest 70 per cent couverture… Bitter-smooth on the tongue with the taste of the secret tropics. My mother would have despised this, too. And yet this is also a kind of magic.

Since Friday I have fitted a set of bar stools next to the counter of La Praline. Now it looks a little like the diners we used to visit in New York, red — leather seats and chrome stems, cheerily kitsch. The walls are a bright daffodil colour. Poitou’s old orange armchair lolls cheerily in one corner. A menu stands to the left, hand-lettered and coloured by Anouk in shades of orange and red:

chocolat chaud 5f

chocolat cake 10f

I baked a cake last night, and the hot chocolate is standing in a pot on the hob, awaiting my first customer. I make sure that a similar menu is visible from the window and I wait.

Mass comes and goes. I watch the passers-by, morose beneath the freezing drizzle. My door, slightly open, emits a hot scent of baking and sweetness. I catch a number of longing glances at the source of this, but a flick of the eye backwards, a shrugging of the shoulders, a twist of the mouth which may be resolve or simply temper, and they are gone, leaning into the wind with rounded, miserable shoulders, as if an angel with a flaming sword were standing at the door to bar their entry.

Time, I tell myself. This kind of thing takes time.

But all the same, a kind of impatience, almost anger, penetrates me. What is wrong with these people? Why do they not come? Ten o’clock sounds, then eleven. I can see people going into the bakery opposite and coming out again with loaves tucked under their arms. The rain stops, though the sky remains grim. Eleven-thirty. The few people who still linger in the square turn homewards to prepare the Sunday meal. A boy with a dog skirts the corner of the church, carefully avoiding the dripping guttering. He walks past with barely a glance.

Damn them. Just when I thought I was beginning to get through. Why do they not come? Can they not see, not smell? What else do I have to do?

Anouk, always sensitive to my moods, comes to hug me.

“Maman, don’t cry.”

I am not crying. I never cry. Her hair tickles my face, and I feel suddenly dizzy with the fear that one day I might lose her.

“It isn’t your fault. We tried. We did everything right.”

True enough. Even to the red ribbons around the door, the sachets of cedar and lavender to repel bad influences. I kiss her head. There is moisture on my face. Something, perhaps the bittersweet aroma of the chocolate vapour, stings my eyes.

“It’s all right, Cherie. What they do shouldn’t affect us. We can at least have a drink to cheer ourselves up.”

We perch on our stools like New York barflies, a cup of chocolate each. Anouk has hers with creme Chantillyand chocolate curls; I drink mine hot and black, stronger than espresso. We close our eyes in the fragrant steam and see them coming — two; three, a dozen at a time, their faces lighting up, sitting beside us, their hard, indifferent faces melting into expressions of welcome and delight. I open my eyes quickly and Anouk is standing by the door. For a second I can see Pantoufle perched on her shoulder, whiskers twitching. The light behind her seems warmer somehow; altered. Alluring.

I jump to my feet.

“Please. Don’t do that.”

She gives me one of her darkling glances.

“I was only trying to help…”

“Please.”

For a second she faces me out, her face set stubbornly. Glamours swim between us like golden smoke. It would be so easy, she tells me with her eyes, so easy, like invisible fingers stroking, inaudible voices coaxing the people in…

“We can’t. We shouldn’t.” I try to explain to her.

It sets us apart. It makes us different. If we are to stay we must be as like them as possible. Pantoufle looks up at me in appeal, a whiskery blur against the golden shadows. Deliberately I close my eyes against him, and when I open them again, he is gone.

“It’s all right,” I tell Anouk firmly. “We’ll be all right. We can wait.”

And finally, at twelve-thirty, someone comes.

Anouk saw him first —

“Maman!” but I was on my feet at once. It was Reynaud, one hand shielding his face from the dripping canvas of the awning, the other hesitating at the door handle. His pale face was serene, but there was something in his eyes… a furtive satisfaction. I somehow understood he was not a customer. The bell tangled as he entered, but he did not walk up to the counter. Instead he remained in the doorway, the wind blowing the folds of his soutane into the shop like the wings of a black bird.

“Monsieur.” I saw him eye the red ribbons with mistrust. “Can I help you? I’m sure I know your favourites.”

I lapsed into my sales banter automatically, but it is untrue. I have no idea of this man’s tastes. He is a complete blank to me, a man-shaped darkness cut into the air. I feel no point of contact with him, and my smile broke on him like a wave on a rock. Reynaud gave me a narrow look of contempt.

“I doubt that.”

His voice was low and pleasant, but I sensed dislike behind the professional tones. I recalled Armande Voizin’s words — I hear our M’sieur le Cure already has it in for you. Why? An instinctive mistrust of unbelievers? Or can there be more? Beneath the counter I forked my fingers at him in secret.

“I wasn’t expecting you to be open today.”

He is more sure of himself now he thinks he knows us. His small, tight smile is like an oyster, milky-white at the edges and sharp as a razor.

“On a Sunday, you mean?”

I was at my most innocent.

“I thought I might catch the rush at the end of Mass:”

The tiny gibe failed to sting him.

“On the first Sunday of Lent?”

He sounded amused, but beneath the amusement, there was disdain. “I shouldn’t think so. Lansquenet folk are simple folk, Madame Rocher,” he told me. “Devout folk.” He stressed the word gently, politely.

“It’s Mademoiselle Rocher.”

Small victory, but enough to break his stride. His eyes flicked towards Anouk who was still sitting at the counter with the tall chocolate-glass in one hand. Her mouth was smeared with frothy chocolate, and I felt it again like the sudden sting of a concealed nettle — the panic, the irrational terror of losing her. But to whom? I shook the thought with growing anger. To him? Let him try.

“Of course,” he replied smoothly. “Mademoiselle Rocher. I do apologize.”

I smiled sweetly at his disapproval. Something in me continued to court it, perversely; my voice, a shade too loud, took on a ring of vulgar self-confidence to hide my fear.

“It’s so nice to meet someone in these rural parts who understands.”

I flashed him my hardest, brightest smile.

“I mean, in the city, where we used to live, no-one gave us a thought. But here…”

I managed to look contrite and unrepentant at the same time.

“I mean, it’s absolutely lovely here, and the people have been so helpful… so quaint… But it isn’t Paris, is it?”

Reynaud agreed — with the tiniest of sneers — that it wasn’t.

“It’s quite true what they say about village communities,” I went on. “Everyone wants to know your business! I expect it comes of having so little entertainment,” I explained kindly. “Three shops and a church. I mean-” I broke off with a giggle. “But of course you know all that.”

Reynaud nodded gravely.

“Perhaps you could explain to me, Mademoiselle…”

“Oh, do call me Vianne,” I interrupted.

“… why you decided to move to Lansquenet?” His tone was silken with dislike, his thin mouth more like a closed oyster than ever. “As you say, it’s a little different to Paris: His eyes made it clear that it was a difference entirely in Lansquenet’s favour. ‘A boutique like this’ — an elegant hand indicated the shop and its contents with languid indifference — “surely such a specialist shop would be more successful — more appropriate — in a city? I’m sure that in Toulouse or even Agen…”

I knew now why no customers had dared to come this morning. That word — appropriate held all the glacial condemnation of a prophet’s curse.

I forked at him again, savagely, under the counter. Reynaud slapped at the back of his neck, as if an insect had stung him there.

“I don’t think the cities have the franchise on enjoyment,” I snapped. “Everyone needs a little luxury, a little self indulgence from time to time.”

Reynaud did not reply. I suppose he disagreed. I said as much.

“I expect you preached exactly the opposite doctrine in your sermon this morning?” I ventured boldly. Then, as he still did not answer, “Still, I’m sure there’s room enough in this town for both of us. Free enterprise, isn’t that right?”

Looking at his expression I could see he understood the challenge. For a moment I held his gaze, making myself brazen, hateful. Reynaud flinched back from my smile as if I had spat in his face.

Softly,

“Of course.”

Oh, I know his type. We saw them enough, Mother and I, on our chase around Europe. The same polite smiles, the disdain, the indifference. A small coin dropped from the plump hand of a woman outside Rheims’ crowded cathedral; admonishing looks from a group of nuns as a young Vianne leaps to grab it, bare knees scuffing the dusty floor. A black-frocked man in angry, earnest conversation with my mother; she running white-faced from the shadow of the church; squeezing my hand until it hurt… Later I learned she had tried to confess to him. What prompted her to do it? Loneliness, perhaps; the need to talk, to confide in someone who was not a lover. Someone with an understanding face. But didn’t she see? His face, now not so understanding, contorted in angry frustration. It was sin, mortal sin… She should leave the child in the care of good people. If she loved little — what was her name? Anne? If she loved her she must — must make this sacrifice. He knew a convent where she could be cared for. He took her hand, crushing her fingers. Didn’t she love her child? Didn’t she want to be saved? Didn’t she? Didn’t she?

That night my mother wept, rocking me to and fro in her arms. We left Rheims in the morning, more like thieves than ever, she carrying me close like stolen treasure, her eyes hot and furtive.

I understood he had almost convinced her to leave me behind. After that she often asked me if I was happy with her, whether I missed having friends, a home… But however often I told her yes, no, no, however often I kissed her and said I regretted nothing, nothing, a little of the poison remained. For years we ran from the priest, the Black Man, and when his face returned time and again in the cards it would be time to run once more, time to hide from the darkness he had opened in her heart.

And here he is again, just as I thought we had found our place at last, Anouk and I. Standing at the door like the angel at the gate.

Well, this time, I swear I will not run. Whatever he does. However he turns the people of this place against me. His face is as smooth and certain as the turn of an evil card. And he has declared himself my enemy — and I his as clearly as if we had both spoken aloud.

“I’m so glad we understand each other.” My voice is bright and cold.

“And I.”

Something in his eyes, some light where there was none before, alerts me. Amazingly, he is enjoying this, this closing of two enemies for battle; nowhere in his armoured certainty is there room for the thought that he might not win.

He turns to go, very correct, with just the right inclination of the head. Just so. Polite contempt. The barbed and poisonous weapon of the righteous.

“M’sieur le Cure!” For a second he turns back, and I press a small beribboned packet into his hands. “For you. On the house.”

My smile brooks no refusal, and he takes the packet with bemused embarrassment.

“My pleasure.”

He frowns slightly, as if the thought of my pleasure pains him.

“But I don’t really like — ”

“Nonsense.” The tone is brisk, unaswerable. “I’m sure you’ll like these. They just remind me so much of you.”

Behind his calm exterior I think he looks startled. Then he is gone, the little packet white in his hand, into the grey rain. I notice that he does not run for shelter but walks with the same measured tread, not indifferent but with the look of one who relishes even that small discomfort.

I like to think he will eat the chocolates. More probably he will give them away, but I like to think he will at least open them and look… Surely he can spare one glance for the sake of curiosity.

They remind me so much of you.

A dozen of my best huitres de Saint-Malo, those small flat pralines shaped to look like tightly closed oysters.

8

Tuesday, February 18

Fifteen customers yesterday. today, thirty-four. Guillaume was among them; he bought a cornet of florentines and a cup of chocolate. Charly was with him, curling obediently beneath a stool while, from time to time, Guillaume dropped a piece of brown sugar into his expectant, insatiable jaws.

It takes time, Guillaume tells me, for a newcomer to be accepted in Lansquenet. Last Sunday, he says, Cure Reynaud preached such a virulent sermon on the topic of abstinence that the opening of La Celeste Praline that very morning had seemed a direct affront against the Church. Caroline Clairmont — who is beginning another of her diets was especially cutting, saying loudly to her friends in the congregation that it was “Quite shocking, just like stories of Roman decadence, my dears, and if that woman thinks she can just shimmy into town like the Queen of Sheba disgusting the way she flaunts that illegitimate child of hers as if — oh, the chocolates? Nothing special, my dears, and far too pricey.” The general conclusion amongst the ladies was that ‘it’ — whatever it was — wouldn’t last. I would be out of town within a fortnight. And yet, the number of my customers has doubled since yesterday, amongst them a number of Madame Clairmont’s cronies, bright-eyed if a little shameful, telling each other it was curiosity, that was all, that all they wanted was to see for themselves.

I know all their favourites. It’s a knack, a professional secret like a fortune-teller reading palms: My mother would have laughed at this waste of my skills, but I have no desire to probe further into their lives than this. I do not want their secrets or their innermost thoughts. Nor do I want their fears or gratitude. A tame alchemist, she would have called me with kindly contempt, working domestic magic when I could have wielded marvels. But I like these people. I like their small and introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily: this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendiants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils. For Guillaume, the florentines, eaten neatly over a saucer in his tidy bachelor’s house. Narcisse’s appetite for double-chocolate truffles reveals the gentle heart beneath the gruff exterior. Caroline Clairmont will dream of cinder toffee tonight and wake hungry and irritable. And the children… Chocolate curls, white buttons with coloured vermicelli, pains d’epices with gilded edging, marzipan fruits in their nests of ruffled paper, peanut brittle, clusters, cracknels, assorted misshapes in half-kilo boxes… I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing amongst the hazels and nougatines.

Is that so bad? Cure Reynaud thinks so, apparently.

“Here, Charly. Here boy.”

Guillaume’s voice is warm when he speaks to his dog, but always a little sad. He bought the animal when his father died, he tells me. That was eighteen years ago. But a dog’s life is shorter than a man’s, and they grew old together.

“It’s here.” He brings my attention to a growth under Charly’s chin. It is about the size of a hen’s egg, gnarled like an elm burr. “It’s growing.” A pause during which the dog stretches luxuriously, one leg pedalling as, his master scratches his belly. “The vet says there’s nothing to be done.”

I begin to understand the look of guilt and love I see in Guillaume’s eyes.

“You wouldn’t put an old man to sleep,” he tells me earnestly. “Not if he still had” — he struggles for words “some quality of life. Charly doesn’t suffer. Not really.”

I nod, aware he is trying to convince himself.

“The drugs keep it under control.”

For the moment. The words ring out unspoken.

“When the time comes, I’ll know.” His eyes are soft and horrified. “I’ll know what to do. I won’t be afraid.”

I top up his chocolate-glass without a word and sprinkle the froth with cocoa powder, but Guillaume is too busy with his dog to see. Charly rolls onto his back, head lolling.

“M’sieur le Cure says animals don’t have souls,” says Guillaume softly. “He says I should put Charly out of his misery.”

“Everything has a soul,” I answer. “That’s what my mother used to tell me. Everything.”

He nods, alone in his circle of fear and guilt.

“What would I do without him?” he asks, face still turned towards the dog, and I understand he has forgotten my presence. “What would I do without you?”

Behind the counter I clench my fist in silent rage. I know that look — fear, guilt, covetousness — I know it well. It is the look on my mother’s face the night of the Black Man. His words — What would I do without you? — are the words she whispered to me all through that miserable night. As I glance into my mirror last thing in the evening, as I awake with the growing fear — knowledge, certainty — that my own daughter is slipping away from me, that I am losing her, that I will lose her if I do not find The Place… it is the look on my own.

I put my arms around Guillaume. For a second he tenses, unused to female contact. Then he relaxes. I can feel the strength of his distress coming from him in waves.

“Vianne,” he says softly. “Vianne.”

“It’s all right to feel this way,” I tell him firmly. “It’s allowed.”

Beneath us, Charly barks his indignation.

We made close to three hundred francs today. For the first time, enough to break even. I told Anouk when she came home from school, but she looked distracted, her bright face unusually still. Her eyes were heavy, dark as the cloudline of an oncoming storm.

I asked her what was wrong.

“It’s Jeannot.” Her voice was toneless. “His mother says he can’t play with me any more.”

I remembered Jeannot as Wolf Suit in the Mardi Gras carnival, a lanky seven-year-old with shaggy hair and a suspicious expression. He and Anouk played together in the square last night, running and shouting arcane war cries, until the light failed. His mother is Joline Drou, one of the two primary teachers, a crony of Caroline Clairmont.

“Oh?” Neutrally. “What does she say?”

“She says I’m a bad influence.” She flicked a dark glance at me. “Because we don’t go to church. Because you opened on Sunday.”

You opened on Sunday.

I looked at her. I wanted to take her in my arms, but her rigid, hostile stance alarmed me. I made my voice very calm.

“And what does Jeannot think?” I asked gently.

“He can’t do anything. She’s always there. Watching.” Anouk’s voice rose shrilly and I guessed she was close to tears. “Why does this always have to happen?” she demanded. “Why don’t I ever-”

She broke off with an effort, her thin chest hitching.

“You have other friends.”

It was true; there had been four or five of them last night, the square ringing with their catcalls and laughter.

“Jeannot’s friends.”

I saw what she meant. Louis Clairmont. Lise Poitou. Hisfriends. Without Jeannot the group would soon disperse. I felt a sudden pang for my daughter, surrounding herself with invisible friends to people the spaces around her. Selfish, to imagine that a mother could fill that space completely. Selfish and blind.

“We could go to church, if that’s what you want.” My voice was gentle. “But you know it wouldn’t change anything.”

Accusingly, “Why not? They don’t believe. They don’t care about God. They just go.”

I smiled then, not without some bitterness. Six years old, and she still manages to surprise me with the depth of her occasional perception.

“That may be true,” I said. “But do you want to be like that?”

A shrug, cynical and indifferent. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, as if in fear of a lecture. I searched for the words to explain. But all I could think of was the image of my mother’s stricken face as she rocked me and murmured, almost fiercely, What would I do without you? What would I do?

Oh, I taught her all of this long ago; the hypocrisy of the Church, the witch-hunts, the persecution of travellers and people of other faiths. She understands. But the knowledge does not transpose well to everyday life, to the reality of loneliness, to the loss of a friend.

“It’s not fair.”

Her voice was still rebellious, the hostility subdued but not entirely.

Neither was the sack of the Holy Land, nor the burning of Joan of Arc, nor the Spanish Inquisition. But I knew better than to say so. Her features were pinched; intense; any sign of weakness and she would have turned on me.

“You’ll find other friends.”

A weak and comfortless answer. Anouk looked at me with disdain.

“But I wanted this one.”

Her tone was strangely adult, strangely weary as she turned away. Tears swelled her eyelids, but she made no move to come to me for comfort. With a sudden overwhelming clarity I saw her then, the child, the adolescent, the adult, the stranger she would one day become, and I almost cried out in loss and terror, as if our positions had somehow been reversed, she the adult, I the child.

Please! What would I do without you?

But I let her go without a word, aching to hold her but too aware of the wall of privacy slamming down between us. Children are born wild, I know. The best I can hope for is a little tenderness, a seeming docility. Beneath the surface the wildness remains, stark, savage and alien.

She remained virtually silent for the rest of the evening. When I put her to bed she refused her story but stayed awake for hours after I had put out my own light. I heard her from the darkness of my room, walking to and fro, occasionally talking to herself — or to Pantoufle — in fierce staccato bursts too low for me to hear. Much later, when I was sure she was asleep, I crept into her room to switch off the light and found her, curled at the end of her bed, one arm flung wide, head turned at an awkward but absurdly touching angle that tore at my heart. In one hand she clutched a small Plasticine figure. I removed it as I straightened the bedclothes, meaning to return it to Anouk’s toybox. It was still warm from her hand, releasing an unmistakable scent of primary school, of secrets whispered, of poster paint and newsprint and half-forgotten friends.

Six inches long, a stick figure painstakingly rendered, eyes and mouth scratched on with a pin, red thread wound about the waist and something — twigs or dried grass — stuck into the scalp to suggest shaggy brown hair.

There was a letter scratched into the Plasticine-boy’s body, just above the heart; a neat capital J. Beneath it and just close enough to overlap, a letter A.

I replaced the figure softly on the pillow beside her head and left, putting out the light. Some time before dawn she crept into bed with me as she often had when she was a child, and through soft layers of sleep I heard her whisper,

“It’s all right, Maman. I’ll never leave you.” She smelt of salt and baby soap, her hug fierce and warm in the enclosing dark. I rocked her, rocked myself, in sweetness, hugged us both in relief so intense that it was almost pain. “I love you, Maman. I’ll always love you for ever. Don’t cry.”

I wasn’t crying. I never cry.

I slept poorly inside a kaleidoscope of dreams; awoke at dawn with Anouk’s arm across my face and a dreadful, panicky urge to run, to take Anouk and keep on running. How can we live here, how could we have been foolish enough to think he wouldn’t find us even here? The Black Man has many faces, all of them unforgiving, hard and strangely envious. Run, Vianne. Run, Anouk. Forget your small sweet dream and run.

But not this time. We have run too far already, Anouk and I, Mother and I, too far from ourselves.

This is one dream I mean to cling to.

9

Wednesday, February 19

This is our rest day. school is closed and, while Anouk plays by Les Marauds, I will receive deliveries and work on this week’s batch of items.

This is an art I can enjoy. There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking: in the choosing of ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing and flavouring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils — the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to a more homely purpose, her spices and aromatics, giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience of it that delights me; so much loving preparation, so much art and experience put into a pleasure which can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever fully appreciate.

My mother always viewed my interest with indulgent contempt. To her, food was no pleasure but a tiresome necessity to be worried over, a tax on the price of our freedom. I stole menus from restaurants and looked longingly into patisserie windows. I must have been ten years old — maybe older — before I first tasted real chocolate. But still the fascination endured. I carried recipes in my head like maps. All kinds of recipes; torn from abandoned magazines in busy railway stations, wheedled from people on the road, strange marriages of my own confection. Mother with her cards, her divinations directed our mad course across Europe. Cookery cards anchored us, placed landmarks on the bleak borders. Paris smells of baking bread and croissants; Marseille of bouillabaisse and grilled garlic. Berlin was Eisbrei with Sauerkraut and Kartoffelsalat, Rome was the ice-cream I ate without paying in a tiny restaurant beside the river.

Mother had no time for landmarks: All her maps were inside, all places the same. Even then we were different. Oh, she taught me what she could. How to see to the core of things, of people, to see their thoughts, their longings. The driver who stopped to give us a lift, who drove ten kilometres out of his way to take us to Lyon, the grocers who refused payment, the policemen who turned a blind eye. Not every time, of course. Sometimes it failed for no reason we could understand. Some people are unreadable, unreachable. Francis Reynaud is one of these. And even when it did not, the casual intrusion disturbed me. It was all too easy. Now making chocolate is a different matter. Oh, some skill is required. A certain lightness of touch, speed, a patience my mother would never have had. But the formula remains the same every time. It is safe. Harmless. And I do not have to look into their hearts and take what I need; these are wishes which can be granted simply, for the asking.

Guy, my confectioner, has known me for a long time. We worked together after Anouk was born and he helped me to start my first business, a tiny pattisserie-chocolaterie in the outskirts of Nice. Now he is based in Marseille, importing the raw chocolate liquor direct from South America and converting it to chocolate of various grades in his factory.

I only use the best. The blocks of couverture are slightly larger than house bricks, one box of each per delivery, and I use all three types: the dark, the milk and the white. It has to be tempered to bring it to its crystalline state, ensuring a hard, brittle surface and a good shine. Some confectioners buy their supplies already tempered, but I like to do it myself. There is an endless fascination in handling the raw dullish blocks of couverture, in grating them by hand — I never use electrical mixers — into the large ceramic pans, then melting, stirring, testing each painstaking step with the sugar thermometer until just the right amount of heat has been applied to make the change.

There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s gold; a layman’s magic which even my mother might have relished. As I work I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows are open, and the through draught would be cold if it were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans, the rising vapour from the melting couverture. The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rainforest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals. Mexico, Venezuela, — Colombia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The food of the gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.

Perhaps this is what Reynaud senses in my little shop; a throwback to times when the world was a wider, wilder place. Before Christ — before Adonis was born in Bethlehem or Osiris sacrificed at Easter — the cocoa bean was revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples; its ecstasies were fierce and terrible. Is this what he fears? Corruption by pleasure, the subtle transubstantiation of the flesh into a vessel for debauch? Not for him the orgies of the Aztec priesthood. And yet, in the vapours of the melting chocolate something begins to coalesce — a vision, my mother would have said — a smoky finger of perception which points… points…

There. For a second I almost had it. Across the glossy surface a vaporous ripple forms. Then another, filmy and pale, half-hiding, half-revealing. For a moment I almost saw the answer, the secret which he hides — even from himself — with such fearful calculation, the key which will set all of us into motion.

Scrying with chocolate is a difficult business. The visions are unclear, troubled by rising perfumes which cloud the mind. And I am not my mother, who retained until the day of her death a power of augury so great that the two of us ran before it in wild and growing disarray. But before the vision dissipates I am sure I see something a room, a bed, an old man lying on the bed, his eyes raw holes in his white face… And fire. Fire.

Is this what I was meant to see?

Is this the Black Man’s secret?

I need to know his secret if we are to stay, here. And I do need to stay. Whatever it takes.

10

Wednesday, February 19

A week, Mon pere. That’s all it’s been. One week. But it seems longer. Why she should disturb me so is beyond me; it’s clear what she is. I went to see her the other day, to reason with her about her Sunday morning opening time. The place is transformed; the air perfumed with bewildering scents of ginger and spices. I tried not to look at the shelves of sweets: boxes, ribbons, bows in pastel colours, sugared almonds in gold-silver drifts, sugared violets and chocolate rose leaves. There is more than a suspicion of the boudoir about the place, an intimate look, a scent of rose and vanilla. My mother’s room had just such a look; all crepe and gauze and cut-glass twinkling in the muted light, the ranks of bottles and jars on her dressing-table an army of genies awaiting release. There is something unwholesome about such a concentration of sweetness. A promise, half-fulfilled, of the forbidden. I try not to look, not to smell.

She greeted me politely enough. I saw her more clearly now; long black hair twisted back into a knot, eyes so dark they seem pupilless. Her eyebrows are perfectly straight, giving her a stern look belied by the comic twist to her mouth. Hands square and functional; nails clipped short. She wears no make-up, and yet there is something slightly indecent about that face. Perhaps it is the directness of her look, the way her eyes linger appraisingly, that permanent crease of irony about the mouth. And she is tall, too tall for a woman, my own height. She stares at me eye to eye, with thrown-back shoulders and defiant chin. She wears a long, flared, flame-coloured skirt and a tight black sweater. This colouring looks dangerous, like a snake or a stinging insect, a warning to enemies.

And she is my enemy. I feel it immediately. I sense her hostility and suspicion though her voice remains low pitched and pleasant throughout. I feel she has lured me here to taunt me, that she knows some secret that even I — But this is nonsense. What can she know? What can she do? It is merely my sense of order which is offended, as a conscientious gardener might take offence at a patch of seeding dandelions. The seed of discord is everywhere, mon pere. And it spreads. It spreads.

I know. I am losing my perspective. But we must be vigilant all the same, you and I. Remember Les Marauds, and the gypsies we ousted from the banks of the Tannes. Remember how long it took, how many fruitless months of complaints and letter-writing until we took the matter into our own hands. Remember the sermons I preached! Door after door was closed against them. Some shopkeepers co-operated at once. They remembered the gypsies from the last time, and the sickness, the thieving and the whoring. They were on our side. I recall we had to pressure Narcisse, who, typically, would have offered them summer employment in his fields. But at last, we uprooted them all: the sullen men and their bold-eyed slatterns, their foul-mouthed barefooted children, their scrawny dogs. They left, and volunteers cleaned up the filth they left behind them. A single dandelions seed, mon pere, would be enough to bring them back. You know that as well as I. And if she is that seed…

I spoke to Joline Drou yesterday. Anouk Rocher has joined the primary school. A pert child, black hair like her mother’s and a bright, insolent smile. Apparently Joline found her son Jean, among others, playing some kind of game with the child in the schoolyard. A corrupting influence, I gather, divination or some such nonsense, bones and beads in a bag scattered in the dirt. I told you I knew their kind. Joline has forbidden Jean to play with her again, but the lad has a stubborn streak in him and turned sullen. At that age nothing answers but the strictest discipline. I offered to give the boy a talking-to myself, but the mother won’t agree.

That’s what they’re like, mon pere… Weak. Weak. I wonder how many of them have already broken their Lenten vows. I wonder how many ever intended to keep them. For myself, I feel that fasting cleanses me. The sight of the butcher’s window appals; scents are heightened to a point of intensity that makes my head reel. Suddenly the morning odour of baking from Poitou’s is more than I can bear; the smell of hot fat from the rotisserie in the Place des Beaux-Arts a shaft from hell. I myself have touched neither meat nor fish nor eggs for over a week, subsisting on bread, soups, salads and a single glass of wine on Sunday, and I am cleansed, pere, cleansed. I only wish I could do more. This is not suffering. This is not penance. I sometimes feel that if I could only show them the right example, if it could be me on that cross bleeding, suffering…

That witch Voizin mocks me as she goes by with her basket of groceries. Alone in that family of good churchgoers she scorns the Church, grinning at me as she hobbles past, her straw hat tied around her head with a red scarf and her stick rapping the flags at her feet. I bear with her only because of her age, mon pere, and the pleas of her family. Stubbornly denying treatment, denying comfort; she thinks she’ll live for ever. But she’ll break one day. They always do. And I’ll give her absolution in all humility; I’ll grieve in spite of her many aberrations, her pride and her defiance. I’ll have her in the end, mon pere. In the end, won’t I have them all?

11

Thursday, February 20

I was waiting for her. Tartan coat, hair scraped back in an unflattering style, hands deft and nervous as a gunslinger’s. Josephine Muscat, the lady from the carnival. She waited until my regulars — Guillaume, Georges and Narcisse — had left before she came in, hands thrust deeply into her pockets.

“Hot chocolate, please.” She sat down uncomfortably at the counter, speaking down into the empty glasses I had not yet had time to clear.

“Of course.”

I did not ask her how she liked her drink but brought it to her with chocolate curls and Chantilly, decorated with two coffee creams at the side. For a moment she looked at the glass with narrowed eyes, then touched it tentatively.

“The other day,” she said, with forced casualness. “I forgot to pay for something.” She has long fingers, oddly delicate in spite of the calluses on the fingertips. In repose her face seems to lose some of its dismayed expression, becoming almost attractive. Her hair is a soft brown, her eyes golden. “I’m sorry.”

She threw the ten-franc piece onto the counter with a kind of defiance.

“That’s OK.” I made my voice casual, disinterested. “It happens all the time.”

Josephine looked at me for a second, suspiciously, then sensing no malice, relaxed a little.

“This is good.” Sipping the chocolate. “Really good.”

“I make it myself,” I explained. “From the chocolate liquor before the fat is added to make it solidify. This is exactly how the Aztecs drank chocolate, centuries ago.”

She shot me another quick, suspicious glance.

“Thank you for the present,” she said at last. “Chocolate almonds. My favourite.” Then, quickly, the words rushing out of her in desperate, ungainly haste, “I never took it on purpose. They’ll have spoken about me, I know. But I don’t steal. It’s them” — contemptuous now, her mouth turned down in rage and self-hatred — “the Clairmont bitch and her cronies. Liars.” She looked at me again, almost defiantly. “I heard you don’t go to church.”

Her voice was brittle, too loud for the small room and the two of us.

I smiled.

“That’s right. I don’t.”

“You won’t last long here if you don’t,” said Josephine in the same high, glassy voice. “They’ll have you out of here the way they do everyone they don’t approve of. You’ll see. All this” — a vague, jerking gesture at the shelves, the boxes, the display window with its pieces montees — “none of this will help you. I’ve heard them talking. I’ve heard the things they say.”

“So have I.” I poured myself a cup of chocolate from the silver pot. Small and black, like espresso, with a chocolate spoon to stir it. My voice was gentle. “But I don’t have to listen.” A pause while I sipped. “And neither do you.”

Josephine laughed.

The silence revolved between us. Five seconds. Ten.

“They say you’re a witch.” That word again. She lifted her head defiantly. “Are you?”

I shrugged, drank.

“Who says?”

“Joline Drou. Caroline Clairmont. Cure Reynaud’s bible groupies. I heard them talking outside St Jerome ‘s. Your daughter was telling the other children. Something about spirits.” There was curiosity in her voice and an underlying, reluctant hostility I did not understand. “Spirits!” she hooted.

I traced the dim outline of a spiral against the yellow mouth of my cup.

“I thought you didn’t care what those people had to say.”

“I’m curious:” That defiance again, like a fear of being liked. “And you were talking to Armande the other day. No-one talks to Armande. Except me.”

Armande Voizin. The old lady from Les Marauds.

“I like her,” I said simply. “Why shouldn’t I talk to her?”

Josephine clenched her fists against the counter. She seemed agitated, her voice cracking like frostbitten glass.

“Because she’s mad, that’s why!” She waved her fingers at her temple in a vague indicative gesture. “Mad, mad, mad.” She lowered her voice for a moment. “I’ll tell you something,” she said. “There’s a line across Lansquenet” — demonstrating on the counter with a callused finger — “and if you cross it, if you don’t go to confession, if you don’t respect your husband, if you don’t cook three meals a day and sit by the fire thinking decent thoughts and waiting for him to come home, if you don’t have children — and you don’t bring flowers to your friends’ funerals or vacuum the parlour or — dig — the — flowerbeds!” She was red-faced with the effort of speaking. Her rage was intense, enormous. “Then you’re crazy!” she spat. “You’re crazy, you’re abnormal and people — talk — about — you behind your back and — and — and-”

She broke off, the agonized expression slipping from her face. I could see her looking beyond me through i1e window, but the reflection against the glass was enough to obscure what she might be seeing. It was as if a shutter had descended over her features; blank and sly and hopeless.

“Sorry. I got a bit carried away for a moment.” She swallowed a last mouthful of chocolate. “I shouldn’t talk to you. You shouldn’t talk to me. It’s going to be bad enough already.”

“Is that what Armande says?” I asked gently.

“I have to go.” Her clenched fists dug into her breastbone again in the recriminatory gesture which seemed so characteristic of her. “I have to go.”

The look of dismay was back on her face, her mouth turning downwards in a panicked rictus so that she looked almost dull witted. And yet the angry, tormented woman who had spoken to me a moment ago was far from that. What whom — had she seen to make her react in that way? As she left La Praline, head pushed down into an imaginary blizzard, I moved to the window to watch her. No-one approached her. No-one seemed to be looking, in her direction. It was then that I noticed Reynaud standing by the arch of the church door. Reynaud and a balding man I did not recognize. Both were staring fixedly at the window of La Praline.

Reynaud? Could he be the source of her fear? I felt a prick of annoyance at the thought that he might be the one who had warned Josephine against me. And yet she had seemed scornful, not afraid, when she mentioned him earlier. The second man was short but powerful; checked shirt rolled up over shiny red forearms, small intellectual’s glasses oddly at variance with the thick, fleshy features. A look of unfocused hostility hung about him, and at last I realized I had seen him before. In a white beard and red robe, flinging sweets into the crowd. At the carnival. Santa Claus, throwing bonbons to the crowd as if he hoped he might take out someone’s eye. At that moment a group of children came up to the window and I was unable to see more, but I thought I knew now why Josephine had fled in such haste.

“Lucie, do you see that man in the square? The one in the red shirt? Who is he?”

The child pulls a face. White chocolate mice are her special weakness; five for ten francs. I slip a couple of extra ones into the paper cornet.

“You know him, don’t you?”

She nods.

“Monsieur Muscat. From the cafe.”

I know it; a drab little place down at the end of the Avenue des Francs Bourgeois. Half-a-dozen metal tables on the pavement, a faded Orangina parasol. An ancient sign identifies it; Cafe de la Republique. Clutching her cornet of sweets the small girl turns to go, reconsiders, turns again.

“You won’t ever guess his favourite,” she says. “He hasn’t got one.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” I smile. “Everyone has a favourite. Even Monsieur Muscat.”

Lucie considers this for a moment.

“Maybe his favourite is the one he takes from someone else,” she tells me limpidly. Then she is gone, with a little wave through the display window. “Tell Anouk we’re off to Les Marauds after school!”

“I will.”

Les Marauds. I wonder what they find there to amuse them. The river with its brown, stinking banks. The narrow streets drifted with litter. An oasis for children. Dens, flat stones flick-flacking across the stagnant water. Secrets whispered, stick swords and shields made of rhubarb leaves. Warfare amongst the blackberry tangle, tunnels, explorers, stray dogs, rumours, purloined treasures… Anouk came from school yesterday with a new jauntiness in her step and a picture she had drawn to show me.

“That’s me.” A figure in red overalls topped with a scribble of black hair. “Pantoufle.” The rabbit is sitting on her shoulder like a parrot, ears cocked. “And Jeannot.”

A boy figure in green, one hand outstretched. Both children are smiling. It seems mothers — even schoolteacher mothers — are not allowed in Les Marauds. The Plasticine figure still sits beside Anouk’s bed, and she has stuck the picture to the wall above it.

“Pantoufle told me what to do.”

She scoops him up in a casual embrace. In this light I can see him quite clearly, like a whiskered child. I sometimes tell myself I should discourage this pretence of hers, but cannot bear to inflict such loneliness upon her. Maybe, if we can stay here, Pantoufle can give way to more substantial playmates.

“I’m glad you managed to stay friends,” I told her, kissing the top of her curly head. “Ask Jeannot if he wants to come here some day soon, to help takedown the display. You can bring your other friends too.”

“The gingerbread house?” Her eyes were sunlight-on-water. “Oh yes!” Skipping across the room with sudden exuberance, almost knocking over a stool, skirting an imaginary obstacle with a giant leap, then up the stairs three at a time — “Race you, Pantoufle!”

A thump as she slammed, the door against the wall — bam-bam! A sudden stabbing sweetness of love for her, taking me off guard as it always does. My little stranger. Never still, never silent.

I poured myself another cup of chocolate, turning as I heard the door-chimes jangle. For a second I saw his face unguarded, the appraising look, chin thrust out, shoulders squared, the veins popping out on the bare shiny forearms. Then he smiled, a thin smile without warmth.

“Monsieur Muscat, isn’t it?”

I wondered what he wanted. He looked out of place, glancing, head lowered, at the displays… His gaze fell short of my face, flicking casually to my breasts; once, twice.

“What did she want?” His voice was soft but heavily accented. He shook his head once, as if in disbelief. “What the hell did she want in a place like this?” He indicated a tray of sugared almonds at fifty francs a packet. “This sort of thing, he?” He appealed to me, hands spread. “Weddings and christenings. What’s she want with wedding and christening stuff?” He smiled again. Wheedling now, trying for charm and failing. “What did she buy?”

“I take it you mean Josephine.”

“My wife.” He gave the words an odd intonation, a kind of flat finality. “That’s women for you. Work yourself senseless to earn money to live on and what do they do, hi? Waste it all on-” Another gesture at the ranks of chocolate gems, marzipan fruit garlands, silver paper, silk flowers. “What was it, a present?” There was suspicion in his voice. “Who’s she buying presents for? Herself?”

He gave a short laugh, as if the thought was ludicrous.

I didn’t see what business it was of his. But there was a kind of aggression in his manner, a nervousness around the eyes and the gesticulating hands, that made me careful. Not for myself — I learned enough ways to take care of myself in the long years with Mother — but for her. Before I could prevent it an image leaped out from him towards me; a bloodied knuckle etched in smoke. I closed my fists under the counter. There was nothing in this man I wanted to see.

“I think you may have misunderstood,” I told him. “I asked Josephine in for a cup of chocolate. As a friend.”

“Oh.” He seemed taken aback for a moment. Then he gave that barking laugh again. It was almost genuine now, real amusement touched with contempt. “You want to be friends with Josephine?”

Again the look of appraisal. I felt him comparing us, his hot eyes flicking to my breasts over the counter. When he spoke again it was with a caress in the voice, a crooning note of what he imagined to be seduction.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Perhaps we could get together some time. You know. Get to know each other.”

“Perhaps.” I was at my most casual. “Maybe you could ask your wife to come too,” I added smoothly.

A beat of time. He looked at me again, this time a measuring glance of sly suspicion.

“She’s not been saying anything, has she?”

Blankly: “What kind of thing?”

A quick shake of the head.

“Nothing. Nothing. She talks, that’s all. She’s all talk. Doesn’t do anything but, he? Day in, day out.” Again, the short, mirthless laugh. “You’ll find that out soon enough,” he added with sour satisfaction.

I murmured something non-committal. Then, on impulse, I brought out a small packet of chocolate almonds from beneath the counter and handed them to him.

“Perhaps you could give these to Josephine for me,” I said lightly. “I was going to give them to her, but I forgot.”

He looked at me, but did not move.

“Give them to her?” he repeated.

“Free. On the house.” I gave my most winning smile. “A present.”

His smile broadened. He took the chocolates in their pretty silver sachet.

“I’ll see she gets them,” he said, cramming the packet into his jeans’ pocket.

“They’re her favourites,” I told him.

“You won’t go far in this job if you keep giving out freebies,” he said, indulgently. “You’ll be out of business in a month.”

Again the hard, greedy look, as if I too were a chocolate he couldn’t wait to unwrap.

“We’ll see,” I said blandly, and watched him leave the shop and begin the road home, shoulders slouched in a thickset James Dean swagger. He didn’t even wait to be out of sight before I saw him take out Josephine’s chocolates and open the packet. Perhaps he guessed I might be watching. One, two, three, his hand went to his mouth with lazy regularity, and before he had crossed the square the silver wrapping was already balled in a square fist, the chocolates gone. I imagined him cramming them in like a greedy dog who wants to finish his own food before robbing another’s plate. Passing the baker’s he popped the silver ball at the bin outside but missed, bouncing it off the rim and onto the stones. Then he continued on his way past the church and down the Avenue des francs Bourgeois without looking back, his engineer boots kicking sparks from the smooth cobbles underfoot.

12

Friday, February 21

The weather turned cold again last night. St Jerome’s weathervane turned and swung in anxious indecision all night, scraping shrilly against its rusted moorings as if to warn against intruders. The morning began in fog so dense that even the church tower, twenty paces.from the shopfront, seemed remote and spectral; the bell for Mass tolling thickly through wadded candyfloss as the few comers approached, collars turned against the fog, to collect absolution.

When she had finished her morning milk, I wrapped Anouk into her red coat and, in spite of her protests, pushed a fluffy cap onto her head.

“Don’t you want any breakfast?”

She shook her head emphatically, grabbed an apple from a dish by the counter.

“What about my kiss?”

This has become a morning ritual.

Wrapping sly arms around my neck, she licks my face wetly, jumps away giggling, blows a kiss from the doorway, runs out into the square. I mime appalled horror, wiping my face. She laughs delightedly, pokes out a small sharp tongue in my direction, bugles, “I love you!” and is off like a scarlet streamer into the fog, her satchel dragging behind her. I know that in thirty seconds the fluffy hat will be relegated to the inside of the satchel, along with books, papers and other unwanted reminders of the adult world. For a second I see Pantoufle again, jumping in her wake, and banish the unwanted image in haste. A sudden loneliness of loss — how can I face an entire day without her? — and, with difficulty, I suppress an urge to call her back.

Six customers this morning. One is Guillaume, on his way back from the butcher’s with a piece of boudin wrapped in paper.

“Charly likes boudin,” he tells me earnestly. “He hasn’t been eating very well recently, but I’m sure he’ll love this.”

“Don’t forget you have to eat too,” I remind him gently.

“Of course.” He gives his sweet, apologetic smile. “I eat like a horse. Really I do.” He gives me a sudden, stricken look. “Of course, it’s Lent,” he says. “You don’t think animals should observe the Lenten fast, do you?”

I shake my head at his dismayed expression: His face is small, delicately featured. He is the kind of man who breaks biscuits in two and saves the other half for later.

“I think you should both look after yourselves better.”

Guillaume scratches Charly’s ear. The dog seems listless, barely interested in the contents of the butcher’s package in the basket beside him.

“We manage.” His smile comes as automatically as the lie: “Really we do.” He finishes his cup of chocolat espresso. “That was excellent,” he says as he always does. “My compliments, Madame Rocher.”

I have long since stopped asking him to call me Vianne. His sense of propriety forbids it. He leaves the money on the counter, tips his old felt hat and opens the door. Charly scrambles to his feet and follows, lurching slightly to one side. Almost as soon as the door closes behind them, I see Guillaume stoop to pick him up and carry him.

At lunchtime I had another visitor. I recognized her at once in spite of the shapeless man’s overcoat she affects; the clever winter-apple face beneath the black straw — hat, the long black skirts over heavy workboots.

“Madame Voizin! You said you’d drop in, didn’t you? Let me get you a drink.”

Bright eyes flicked appreciatively from one side of the shop to another I sensed her taking everything in. Her gaze came to rest on Anouk’s menu:

chocolat chaud 10f

chocolat espresso 15f

chococcino 12f

mocha 12f

She nodded approvingly.

“It’s been years since I had anything like this,” she said. “I’d almost forgotten this sort of place existed.” There is an energy in her voice, a forcefulness to her movements, which belies her age. Her mouth has a humorous twist which reminds me of my mother. “I used to love chocolate,” she declared.

As I poured her, a tall glass of mocha and added a splash of kahlua to the froth she surveyed the bar stools with some suspicion.

“You don’t expect me to climb all the way up there, do you?”

I laughed.

“If I’d known you were coming I would have brought a ladder. Wait a moment.” Stepping into the kitchen I brought out Poitou’s old orange chair. “Try this.”

Armande plumped into the chair and took her glass in both hands. She looked eager as a child, her eyes shining, her expression rapt.

“Mmmm.” It was more than appreciation. It was almost reverence. “Mmmmmm.”

She had closed her eyes as she tasted the drink. Her pleasure was almost frightening.

“This is the real thing, isn’t it?” She paused for a moment, bright eyes speculatively half-closed. “There’s cream and — cinnamon, I think — and what else? Tia Maria?”

“Close enough,” I said.

“What’s forbidden always tastes better anyway,” declared Armande, wiping froth from her mouth in satisfaction. “But this” — she sipped again, greedily — “is better than anything I remember, even from childhood. I bet there are ten thousand calories in here. More.”

“Why should it be forbidden?” I was curious.

Small and round as a partridge, she seems as unlike her figure conscious daughter as can be.

“Oh, doctors.” Armande was dismissive. “You know what they’re like. They’ll say anything.” She paused to drink again through her straw. “Oh, this is good. Good. Caro’s been trying to make me go into some kind of a home for years. Doesn’t like the idea of me living next door. Doesn’t like to be reminded where she comes from.” She gave a rich chuckle. “Says I’m sick. Can’t look after myself. Sends that miserable doctor of hers to tell me what I can eat and what I can’t. Anyone would think they wanted me to live for ever.”

I smiled.

“I’m sure Caroline cares very much about you,” I said.

Armande shot me a look of derision.

“Oh, you are?” She gave a vulgar cackle of laughter. “Don’t give me that, girl. You know perfectly well that my daughter doesn’t care for anyone but herself. I’m not a fool.” A pause as she narrowed her bright, challenging gaze at me. “It’s the boy I feel for,” she said.

“Boy?”

“Luc, his name is. My grandson. He’ll be fourteen in April. You may have seen him in the square.”

I remembered him vaguely; a colourless boy, too correct in his pressed flannel trousers and tweed jacket, cool green-grey eyes beneath a lank fringe. I nodded.

“I’ve made him the beneficiary of my will,” Armande told me. “Half a million francs. In trust until his eighteenth birthday.” She shrugged. “I never see him,” she added shortly. “Caro won’t allow it.”

I’ve seen them together. I remember now; the boy supporting his mother’s arm as they passed on their way to church. Alone of all Lansquenet’s children, he has never bought chocolates from La Praline, though I think I may have seen him looking in at the window once or twice.

“The last time he came to see me was when he was ten.” Armande’s voice was unusually flat. “A hundred years ago, as far as he’s concerned.” She finished her chocolate and put the glass back onto the counter with a sharp final sound. “It was his birthday, as I recall. I gave him a book of Rimbaud’s poetry. He was very — polite.” There was bitterness in her tone. “Of course ‘I’ve seen him in the street a few times since,” she said. “I can’t complain.”

“Why don’t you call?” I asked curiously. “Take him out, talk, get to know him?”

Armande shook her head.

“We fell out, Caro and I…” Her voice was suddenly querulous. The illusion of youth had left with her smile, and she looked suddenly, shockingly old. “She’s ashamed of me. God knows what she’s been telling the boy.” She shook her head. “No. It’s too late. I can tell by the look on his face — that polite look — the polite meaningless little messages in his Christmas cards. Such a well-mannered boy.” Her laughter was bitter.

“Such a polite, well-mannered boy.” She turned to me and gave me a bright, brave smile. “If I could know what he was doing,” she said. “Know what he reads, what teams he supports, who his friends are, how well he does at school. If I could know that-”

“If?”

“I could pretend to myself-”

For a second I saw her close to tears. Then a pause, an effort, a gathering of the will.

“Do you know, I think I might manage another of those chocolate specials of yours. How about another?” It was bravado, but I admired it more than I could say. That she can still play the rebel through her misery, the suspicion of a swagger in her movements as she props her elbows on the bar, slurping. “ Sodom and Gomorrah through a straw. Mmmm. I think I just died and went to heaven. Close as I’m going to get, anyway.”

“I could get news of Luc, if you wanted. I could pass it on to you:”

Armande considered this in silence. Beneath the lowered eyelids I could feel her watching me. Assessing.

At last she spoke. “All boys like sweets, don’t they?” Her voice was casual. I agreed that most boys did. “And his friends come here too, I suppose?”

I told her I wasn’t sure who his friends were, but that most of the children came and went regularly.

“I might come here again,” decided Armande. “I like your chocolate, even if your chairs are terrible. I might even become a regular customer.”

“You’d be welcome,” I said.

Another pause. I understood that Armande Voizin does things in her own way, in her own time, refusing to be hurried or advised. I let her think it through.

“Here. Take this.”

The decision was made. Briskly she slapped a hundred-franc note down on the counter.

“But-”

“If you see him, buy him a box of whatever he likes. Don’t tell him they’re from me.”

I took the note.

“And don’t let his mother get to you. She’s at it already, more than likely, spreading her gossip and her condescension. My only child, and she had to turn into one of Reynaud’s Salvation Sisters.” Her eyes narrowed mischievously, working webby dimples into her round cheeks. “There are rumours already about you,” she said. “You know the kind. Getting involved with me will only make things worse…”

I laughed.

“I think I can manage.”

“I think you can.” She looked at me, suddenly intent, the teasing note gone from her voice. “There’s something about you,” she said in a soft voice. “Something familiar. I don’t suppose we’ve met before that time in Les Marauds, have we?”

Lisbon, Paris, Florence, Rome. So many people. So many lives intersected, fleetingly criss-crossed, brushed by the mad weft-warp of our itinerary. But I didn’t think so.

“And there’s a smell. Something like burning, the smell of a summer lightning-strike ten seconds after. A scent of midsummer storms and cornfields in the rain.” Her face was rapt, her eyes searching out mine. “It’s true, isn’t it? What I said? What you are?”

That word again.

She laughed delightedly and took my hand. Her skin was cool; foliage, not flesh. She turned my hand over to see the palm.

“I knew it!” Her finger traced lifeline, heartline. “I knew it the minute I saw you!” To herself, head bent, voice so low it was no more than a breath against my hand, “I knew it. I knew it. But I never thought to see you here; in this town.” A sharp, suspicious glance upwards. “Does Reynaud know?”

“I’m not sure.”

It was true; I had no idea what she was talking about. But I could smell it too; the scent of the changing winds, that air of revelation. A distant scent of fire and ozone. A squeal of gears left long unused, the infernal machine of synchronicity. Or maybe Josephine was right and Armande was crazy. After all, she could see Pantoufle.

“Don’t let Reynaud know,” she told me, her mad, earnest eyes gleaming. “You know who he is, don’t you?”

I stared at her. I must have imagined what she said then. Or maybe our dreams touched briefly once, on one of our nights on the run.

“He’s the Black Man. “

Reynaud. Like a bad card. Again and again. Laughter in the wings.

Long after I had put Anouk to bed I read my mother’s cards for the first time since her death. I keep them in a sandalwood box and they are mellow, perfumed with memories of her. For a moment I almost put them away unread, bewildered by the flood of associations that scent brings with it. New York, hotdog stands billowing steam. The Cafe de la Paix, with its immaculate waiters. A nun eating an ice-cream outside Notre-Dame cathedral. Onenight hotel rooms, surly doormen, suspicious gendarmes, curious tourists. And over it all the shadow of It, the nameless implacable thing we fled:

I am not my mother. I am not a fugitive. And yet the need to see, to know; is so great that I find myself taking them from their box and spreading them, much as she did, by the side of the bed. A glance backwards to ensure Anouk is still, asleep. I do not want her to sense my unease. Then I shuffle, cut, shuffle, cut until I have four cards.

Ten of Swords, death. Three of Swords, death. Two of Swords, death. The Chariot. Death.

The Hermit. The Tower. The Chariot. Death.

The cards are my mother’s. This has nothing to do with me, I tell myself, though the Hermit is easy enough to identify. But the Tower? The Chariot? Death?

The Death card, says my mother’s voice within me, may not always portend the physical death of the self but the death of a way of life. A change. A turning of the winds. Could this be what it means?

I don’t believe in divination. Not in the way she did, as a way of mapping out the random patterns of our trajectory. Not as an excuse for inaction, a crutch when things turn from bad to worse, a rationalization of the chaos within. I hear her voice now and it sounds the same to me as it did on the ship, her strength transformed to sheer stubbornness, her humour into a fey despair.

What about Disneyland? What do you think? The Florida Keys? The Everglades? There’s so much to see in the New World, so much we haven’t even begun to dream about. Is that it, do you think? Is that what the cards are saying?

By then Death was on every card, Death and the Black Man, who had begun to mean the same thing. We fled him, and he followed, packed in sandalwood.

As an antidote I read Jung and Herman Hesse, and learned about the collective unconscious. Divination is a means of telling ourselves what we already know. What we fear. There are no demons but a collection of archetypes every civilization has in common. The fear of loss — Death. The fear of displacement — the Tower. The fear of transience — the Chariot.

And yet Mother died.

I put the cards away tenderly into their scented box. Goodbye, Mother. This is where our journey stops. This is where we stay to face whatever the wind brings us. I shall not read the cards again.

13

Sunday, February 23

Bless me, father, for i have sinned. I know you can hear me, mon pere, and there is no-one else to whom I would care to confess. Certainly not the bishop, secure in his distant diocese of Bordeaux. And the church seems so empty. I feel foolish at the foot of the altar, looking up at Our Lord in his gilt and agony — the gilding has tarnished with the smoke from the candles and the dark staining gives Him a sly and secretive look — and prayer, which came as such a blessing, such a source of joy in the early days, is a burden, a cry on the side of a bleak mountain which might at any time unleash the avalanche upon me.

Is this doubt, mon pere? This silence within myself, this inability to pray, to be cleansed, humbled… is it my fault? I look about the church which is my life and I try to feel love for it. Love, as you loved, for the statues — St Jerome with the chipped nose, the smiling Virgin, Jeanne D’Arc with her banner, St Francis with his painted pigeons. I myself dislike birds. I feel this may be a sin against my namesake but I cannot help it. Their squawking, their filth — even at the doors of the church, the whitewashed walls streaked with the greenish daub of their leavings — their noise during sermons. I poison the rats which infest the sacristy and gnaw at the vestments there. Should I not also poison the pigeons which disrupt my service? I have tried, mon pere, but to no avail. Perhaps St Francis protects them.

If only I could be more worthy. My unworthiness dismays me, my intelligence — which is far in excess of that of my flock — serving only to heighten the weakness, the cheapness of the vessel God has chosen to serve. Is this my destiny? I dreamed of greater things, of sacrifices, of martyrdoms. Instead I fritter away time in anxieties which are unworthy of me, unworthy of you.

My sin is that of pettiness, mon pere. For this reason God is silent in His house. I know it, but I do not know how to cure the ill. I have increased the austerity of my Lenten fast, choosing to continue even on the days when a relaxation is permitted. Today, for instance, I poured my Sunday libation onto the hydrangeas and felt a definite lifting of the spirit. For now water and coffee will be the only accompaniment to my meals, the coffee to be taken black and sugarless to enhance the bitter taste. Today I had a carrot salad with olives — roots and berries in the wilderness. True, I feel a little light-headed now, but the sensation is not unpleasant. I feel a prick of guilt at the thought that even my deprivation gives me pleasure, and I resolve to place myself in the path of temptation. I shall stand for five minutes at the window of the r6tisserie, watching the chickens on the spit. If Arnauld taunts me, so much the better. In any case, he should be closed for Lent.

As for Vianne Rocher… I have hardly thought of her these past few days. I walk past her shop with my face averted. She has prospered in spite of the season and the disapproval of the right-thinking elements of Lansquenet, but this I attribute to the novelty of such a shop. That will wear off. Our parishioners have little enough money already for their everyday needs without subsidizing a place more suited to the big cities.

La Celeste Praline. Even the name is a calculated insult. I shall take the bus to Agen, to the housing rental agency, and complain. She should never have been allowed to take the lease in the first place. The central location of the shop ensures a kind of prosperity, encourages temptation. The bishop should be informed. Perhaps he may be able to exercise the influence I do not possess. I shall write to him today.

I see her sometimes in the street. She wears a yellow raincoat with green daisies, a child’s garment but for its length, slightly indecent on a grown woman. Her hair remains uncovered even in the rain, gleaming sleekly as a seal’s pelt. She wrings it out like a long rope as she reaches the awning. There are often people waiting under that awning, sheltering from the interminable rain and watching the window display. She has installed an electric fire now, close enough to the counter to provide comfort though not close enough to damage her wares, and with the stools, the glass cloches filled with cakes and pies, the silver jugs of chocolate on the hob, the place looks more like a cafe than a shop. I often see ten or more people in there on some days; some standing, some leaning against the padded counter and talking. On Sunday and Wednesday afternoons the smell of baking fills the damp air and she leans in the doorway, floury to the elbows, throwing out pert remarks at the passers-by.

I am amazed at how many people she now knows by name — it was six months before I knew all of my flock — and she always seems ready with a question or a comment about their lives, their problems. Poitou’s arthritis. Lambert’s soldier son. Narcisse and his prize orchids. She even knows the name of Duplessis’s dog. Oh, she is wily. Impossible to fail to notice her. One must respond or seem churlish. Even I — even I must smile and nod though inside i am seething. Her daughter follows her lead, running wild in Les Marauds with a gang of older girls and boys. Eight or nine years old, most of them, and they treat her with affection, like a little sister, like a mascot. They are always together, running, shouting, making their arms into bomber planes and shooting each other, chanting, catcalling. Jean Drou is among them, in spite of his mother’s concern. Once or twice she has tried to forbid him, but he grows more rebellious every day, climbing out of his bedroom window when she shuts him in.

But I have more serious concerns, mon pere, than the misbehaviour of a few unruly brats. Passing by Les Marauds before Mass today I saw, moored at the side of the Tannes, a houseboat of the type you and I both know well. A wretched thing, green-painted but peeling miserably, a tin chimney spouting black and noxious fumes, a corrugated roof, like the roofs of the cardboard shacks in Marseille’s bidonvilles. You and I know what this means. What it will bring about. The first of spring’s dandelions poking their heads from out of the sodden turf of the roadside. Every year they try it, coming upriver from the cities and the shanty-towns or worse, further afield from Algeria and Morocco. Looking for work. Looking for a place to settle, to breed… I preached a sermon against them this morning, but I know that in spite of this some of my parishioners — Narcisse amongst them — will make them welcome in defiance of me.

They are vagrants. They have no respect and no values. They are the river-gypsies, spreaders of disease, thieves, liars, murderers when they can get away with it. Let them stay and they will spoil everything we have worked for, pere. All our education. Their children will run with ours until everything we have done for them is ruined. They will steal our children’s minds away. Teach them hatred and disrespect for the Church. Teach them laziness and avoidance of responsibility. Teach them crime and the pleasures of drugs. Have they already forgotten what happened that summer? Are they fool enough to believe the same thing will not happen again?

I went to the houseboat this afternoon. Two more had already joined it, one red and one black. The rain had stopped and there was a line of washing strung between the two new arrivals, upon which children’s clothes hung limply. On the deck of the black boat a man sat with his back to me, fishing.

Long red hair tied with scrap of cloth, bare arms tattooed to the shoulder in henna. I stood watching the boats, marvelling at their wretchedness, their defiant poverty. What good are these people doing themselves? We are a prosperous country. A European power. There should be jobs for these people, useful jobs, good housing. Why do they then choose to live like this, in idleness and misery? Are they so lazy? The red haired man on the deck of the black boat forked a protective sign at me and returned to his fishing.

“You can’t stay here,” I called across the water. “This is private property. You must move on.”

Laughter and jeering from the boats. I felt an angry throbbing at my temples, but remained calm.

“You can talk to me,” I called again. “I am a priest. We can perhaps find a solution.”

Several faces had appeared at the windows and doorways of the three boats. I saw four children, a young woman with a baby and three or four older people, swathed in the grey no-colour which characterizes these people, their faces sharp and suspicious. I saw that they turned to Red Hair for their cue. I addressed him.

“Hey, you!”

His posture was all attentiveness and ironic deference.

“Why don’t you come over here and talk? I can explain better if I’m not shouting at you across half the river,” I told him.

“Explain away,” he said.

He spoke with such a thick Marseille accent I could hardly make out his words. “I can hear you fine.” His people on the other boats nudged each other and sniggered. I waited patiently for silence.

“This is private property,” I repeated. “You can’t stay here, I’m afraid. There are people living along here.”

I indicated the riverside houses along the Avenue des Marais. True, many of these are now deserted, having fallen into disrepair from damp and neglect, but some are still inhabited.

Red Hair gave me a scornful look.

“There are also people living here,” he said, indicating the boats.

“I understand that, but nevertheless-”

He cut me short. “Don’t worry. We’re not staying long.” His tone was final. “We need to make repairs, collect supplies. We can’t do that in the middle of the countryside. We’ll be two weeks, maybe three. Think you can live with that, he?”

“Perhaps a bigger village…” I felt myself bristling at his insolent air, but remained calm. “A town like Agen, maybe-”

Shortly: “That’s no good. We came from there.”

I’m sure he did. They take a hard line with vagrants in Agen. If only we had our own police in Lansquenet.

“I’ve got a problem with my engine. I’ve been trailing oil for miles downriver. I’ve got to fix it before I can move on.”

I squared my shoulders.

“I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for here,” I said.

“Well, everyone has an opinion.” He sounded dismissive, almost amused. One of the old women cackled. “Even a priest is entitled to that.”

More laughter. I kept my dignity. These people are not worth my anger. I turned to leave.

“Well, well, it’s M’sieur le Cure.” The voice came from just behind me, and in spite of myself I recoiled. Armande Voizin gave a small crow of laughter. “Nervous, he?” she said maliciously. “You should be. You’re out of your territory here, aren’t you? What’s the mission this time? Converting the pagans?”

“Madame.” In spite of her insolence I gave her a polite nod. “I trust you are in good health.”

“Oh do you?” Her black eyes fizzed with laughter. “I was under the impression that you couldn’t wait to give me the last rites.”

“Not at all, Madame.” I was coldly dignified.

“Good. Because this old lamb’s never going back into the fold,” she declared. “Too tough for you, anyway. I remember your mother saying-”

I bit her off more sharply than I intended. “I’m afraid I have no time for chit-chat today, Madame. These people” — a gesture in the direction of the river-gypsies — “these people must be dealt with before the situation gets out of hand. I have the interests of my flock to protect.”

“What a windbag you are nowadays,” remarked Armande lazily. “The interests of your flock. I remember when you were just a little boy, playing Indians in Les Marauds. What did they teach you in the city, apart from pompousness and self-importance?”

I glared at her. Alone in all Lansquenet, she delights in reminding me of things best forgotten. It occurs to me that when she dies, that memory will die with her, and I am almost glad of it.

“You may relish the thought of vagrants taking over Les Marauds,” I told her sharply. “But other people. — your daughter among them — understand that if you allow them to get a foot in the door-”

Armande gave a snort of laughter.

“She even talks like you,” she said. “Strings of pulpit cliches and nationalist platitudes. Seems to me these people are doing no harm. Why make a crusade of expelling them when they’ll be leaving soon anyway?”

I shrugged.

“Clearly you don’t want to understand the issue,” I said shortly.

“Well, I already told Roux over there” — a sly wave to the man on the black houseboat — “I told him he and his friends would be welcome for as long as it takes to fix his engine and stock up on food.” She gave me a sly, triumphant look. “So you can’t say they’re trespassing. They’re here, in front of my house, with my blessing.” She gave the last word special emphasis, as if to taunt me. “As are their friends, when they arrive.” She shot me another of her insolent glances. “All their friends.”

Well, I should have expected it. She would have done it only to spite me. She enjoys the notoriety it affords her, knowing that as the village’s oldest resident a certain license is allowed her. There is no point in arguing with her, mon pere. We know that already. She would enjoy the argument as much as she relishes contact with these people, their stories, their lives. Not surprising that she has already learned their names. I will not allow her the satisfaction of seeing me plead. No, I must go about the business in other ways.

I have learned one thing from Armande, at least. There will be others. How many, we must wait and see. But it is as I feared. Three of them today. Tomorrow, how many more?

I called on Clairmont on the way here. He will spread the word. I expect some resistance — Armande still has friends — Narcisse may need some persuasion. But on the whole I expect co-operation. I am still someone in this village. My good opinion counts for something. I saw Muscat too. He sees most people in his cafe. Head of the Residents’ Committee. A right-thinking man in spite of his faults, a good churchgoer. And if a strong hand were needed — of course we all deplore violence, but with these people we cannot rule out the possibility — well, I am certain that Muscat would oblige.

Armande called it a crusade. She meant it as an insult, I know, but even so… I feel a surge of excitement at the thought of this conflict. Could this be the task for which God has chosen me?

This is why I came to Lansquenet, mon pere. To fight for my people. To save them from temptation. And when Vianne Rocher sees the power of the Church — my influence over every single soul in the community — then she will know she has lost. Whatever her hopes, her ambitions. She will understand that she cannot stay. Cannot fight and hope to win.

I will stand triumphant.

14

Monday, February 24

Caroline Clairmont called just after mass. Her son was with her satchel slung across his shoulders, a tall boy with a pale, impassive face. She was carrying a bundle of yellow hand-lettered cards.

I smiled at them both. The shop was almost empty — I expect the first of my regulars at about nine, and it was eight-thirty. Only Anouk was sitting at the counter, a half-finished bowl of milk and a pain au chocolat in front of her. She shot a bright glance at the boy, waved the pastry in a vague gesture of greeting, and returned to her breakfast.

“Can I help you?”

Caroline looked around her with an expression of envy and disapproval. The boy stared straight in front of him, but I saw his eyes wanting to slide towards Anouk. He looked polite and sullen, his eyes bright and unreadable beneath an overlong fringe.

“Yes.” Her voice is light and falsely cheery, her smile as sharp and sweet as icing, setting the teeth on edge. “I’m distributing these” — she held up the stack of cards “and I wonder if you’d mind displaying one in your window.” She held it out. “Everyone else is putting them up,” she added, as if that might sway my decision.

I took the card. Black on yellow, in neat, bold capitals:

NO HAWKERS, VAGRANTS OR PEDLARS.
THE MANAGEMENT RETAINS THE RIGHT TO REFUSE TO SERVE AT ANY GIVEN TIME

“Why do I need this?” I frowned, puzzled. “Why should I want to refuse to serve anyone?”

Caroline sent me a look of pity and contempt.

“Of course, you are new here,” she said with a sugared smile. “But we have had problems in the past. It’s just a precaution, anyway. I very much doubt you’ll get — a visit from Those People: But you may as well be safe as sorry, don’t you think?”

I still didn’t understand. “Sorry about what?”

“Well, the gypsies. The river people.” There was a note of impatience in her voice. “They’re back, and they’ll be wanting to” — she made a small, elegant moue of disgust “do whatever it is they do.”

“And?” I prompted gently.

“Well, we’ll have to show them we won’t stand for it!” Caroline was becoming flustered. “We’re going to have an agreement not to serve these people. Make them go back to wherever it is they came from.”

“Oh.” I considered what she was saying. “Can we refuse to serve them?” I enquired curiously. “If they have the money to spend, can we refuse?”

Impatiently: “Of course we can. Who’s to stop us?”

I thought for a moment, then handed back the yellow card. Caroline stared at me.

“You’re not going to do it?” Her voice rose half an octave, losing much of its well-bred intonation in the process.

I shrugged.

“It seems to me that if someone wants to spend their money here, it isn’t up to me to stop them,” I told her.

“But the community…” insisted Caroline. “Surely you don’t want people of that type — itinerants, thieves, Arabs for heaven’s sake”

Flutter-click snapshot of memory, scowling New York doormen, Paris ladies, Sacre-Coeur tourists, camera in hand, face averted to avoid seeing the beggar-girl with her too-short dress and too-long legs… Caroline Clairmont, for all her rural upbringing, knows the value of finding the right modiste. The discreet scarf she wears at her throat bears an Herms label, and her perfume is Coco de Chanel. My reply was sharper than I intended.

“It strikes me that the community should mind its own business,” I said tartly. “It isn’t up to me — or anybody — to decide how these people should live their lives.”

Caroline gave me a venomous look.

“Oh, well, if that’s how you feel” — turning superciliously towards the door — “then I won’t keep you from your business.” A slight emphasis upon the last word, a disdainful glance at the empty seats. “I just hope you don’t regret your decision, that’s all.”

“Why should I?”

She shrugged petulantly.

“Well, if there’s trouble, or anything.” From her tone I gathered the conversation was at an end. “These people can cause all kinds of trouble, you know. Drugs, violence…”

The sourness of her smile suggested that if there were any such trouble she would be pleased to see me the victim of it. The boy stared at me without comprehension. I smiled back.

“I saw your grandmother the other day,” I told him. “She told me a lot about you.”

The boy flushed and mumbled something unintelligible.

Caroline stiffened.

“I’d heard she was here,” she said. She forced a smile. “You really shouldn’t encourage my mother,” she added with counterfeit archness. “She’s quite bad enough already.”

“Oh, I found her most entertaining company,” I replied without taking my eyes off the boy. “Quite, refreshing. And very sharp.”

“For her age,” said Caroline.

“For any age,” I said.

“Well, I’m sure she seems so to a stranger,” said Caroline tightly. “But to her family…” She flashed me another of her cold smiles. “You have to understand that my mother is very old,” she explained. “Her mind isn’t what it used to be. Her grasp of reality-” She broke off with a nervous gesture. “I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you,” she said.

“No, you don’t,” I answered pleasantly. “It’s none of my business, after all.”

I saw her eyes narrow as she registered the barb. She may be bigoted, but she isn’t stupid.

“I mean…”

she floundered for a few moments. For a second I thought I saw a glint of humour in the boy’s eyes, though that might have been my imagination.

“I mean my mother doesn’t always know what’s best for her.” She was back in control again, her smile as lacquered as her hair. “This shop, for instance.”

I nodded encouragement.

“My mother is diabetic,” explained Caroline. “The doctor has warned her repeatedly to avoid sugar in her diet. She refuses to listen. She won’t accept treatment.” She glanced at her son with a kind of triumph. “Tell me, Madame Rocher, is that normal? Is that a normal way to behave?”

Her voice was rising again, becoming shrill and petulant. Her son looked vaguely embarrassed and glanced at his watch.

“Maman, I’ll be l-late.” His voice was neutral and polite. To me: “Excuse me, Madame, I have to get to s-school.”

“Here, have one of my special pralines. On the house:”

I held it out to him in a twist of Cellophane.

“My son doesn’t eat chocolate.” Caroline’s voice was sharp. “He’s hyperactive. Sickly. He knows it’s bad for him.”

I looked at the boy. He looked neither sickly nor hyperactive, merely bored and a little self-conscious.

“She thinks a great deal about you,” I told him. “Your grandmother. Maybe you could drop in and say hello one of these days. She’s one of my regulars.”

The bright eyes flickered for a moment from beneath the lank brown hair.

“Maybe.” The voice was unenthusiastic.

“My son doesn’t have time to hang about in sweetshops,” said Caroline loftily. “My son’s a gifted boy. He knows what he owes his parents.”

There was a kind of threat in what she said, a smug note of certainty. She turned to walk past Luc, who was already in the doorway, his satchel swinging.

“Luc.” My voice was low, persuasive. He turned again with some reluctance. I was reaching for him before I knew it, seeing past the polite blank face and seeing — seeing… “Did you like Rimbaud?” I spoke without thinking, my head reeling with images.

For a moment the boy looked guilty.

“What?”

“Rimbaud. She gave you a book of his poems for your birthday, didn’t she?”

“Y-yes.” The reply was almost inaudible. His eyes — they are a bright green-grey — lifted towards mine. I saw him give a tiny shake of his head, as if in warning. “I d-didn’t read them, though,” he said in a louder voice. “I’m not a f-fan of p-poetry.”

A dog-eared book, carefully hidden at the bottom of a clothes chest. A boy murmuring the lovely words to himself with a peculiar fierceness. Please come, I whispered silently. Please, for Armande’s sake.

Something in his eyes flickered.

“I have to go now.”

Caroline was waiting impatiently at the door.

“Please. Take these.”

I handed him the tiny packet of pralines. The boy has secret. I could feel them itching to escape. Deftly, keeping out of his mother’s line of vision he took the packet, smiled. I might almost have imagined the words he mouthed as he went.

“Tell her I’ll be there,” he whispered, “when Maman goes to the h-hairdresser’s.”

Then he was gone.

I told Armande about their visit when she came later today. She shook her head and rocked with laughter when I recounted my conversation with Caroline.

“He, he, he!” Ensconced in her sagging armchair, a cup of mocha in her delicate claw, she looked more like an apple-doll than ever. “My poor Caro. Doesn’t like to be reminded, does she?” She sipped the drink gleefully. Where does she get off, he?” she demanded with some testiness. “Telling you what I can and can’t have. Diabetic, am I? That’s what her doctor would like us all to think.” She grunted. “Well, I’m still alive, aren’t I? I’m careful. But that isn’t enough for them, no. They have to have control.” She shook her head. “That, poor boy. He stutters, did you notice that?”

I nodded.

“That’s his mother’s doing.” Armande was scornful. “If she’d left him alone — but no. Always correcting him. Always carrying on. Making him worse. Making out there’s something wrong with him all the time:” She made a sound of derision. “There’s nothing wrong with him that a good dose of living wouldn’t cure,” she declared stoutly. “Let him run awhile without worrying what would happen if he fell over. Let him loose. Let him breathe.”

I said that it was normal for a mother to be protective of her children.

Armande gave me one of her satirical glances.

“Is that what you call it?” she said. “The same way the mistletoe is protective of the apple tree?” She gave a cackle. “I used to have apple trees in my garden,” she told me. “Mistletoe got them all, one by one. Nasty little plant, doesn’t look like much, pretty berries, no strength of its own, but lord! Invasive!” She sipped again at her drink. “And poison to everything it touches.” She nodded to me knowingly. “That’s my Caro,” she said. “That’s her.”

I saw Guillaume again after lunch. He didn’t stop except to say hello, saying he was on his way to the newsagent for his papers. Guillaume is addicted to film magazines, although he never goes to the cinema, and every week he receives an entire parcel of them; Video and Cine-Club, Telerama and Film Express. His is the only satellite dish in the village, and in his sparse little house there is a widescreen television and a Toshiba video recorder wall-mounted above an entire bookcase of video cassettes. I noticed that he was carrying Charly again, the dog looking dull-eyed and listless on his master’s arm. Every few moments Guillaume stroked the dog’s head with the familiar gesture of tenderness and finality.

“How is he?” I asked at last.

“Oh, he has his good days,” said Guillaume. “There’s plenty of life in him yet.”

And they went on their way, the small dapper man clutching his sad brown dog as if his life depended upon it.

Josephine Muscat went by but did not stop. I was a little disappointed that she did not come in, for I’d been hoping to talk to her again, but she simply shot me a wild-eyed look as she passed; hands jammed deeply into her pockets. I noticed her face looked puffy, the eyes slitted closed, though it might have been against the gritty rain, the mouth zipped shut. A thick no-colour scarf bound her head like a bandage. I called to her, but she did not answer, quickening her step as if at some impending danger.

I shrugged and let her go. These things take time. Sometimes for ever.

Still, later, when Anouk was playing in Les Marauds and I had closed shop for the day, I found myself strolling down the Avenue des Francs Bourgeois in the direction of the Cafe de la Republique. It is a small, dingy place, soaped windows with an unchanging specialite du jour scrawled across, and a scruffy awning which reduces the available light still further. Inside, a couple of silent slot machines flank the round tables at which the few customers sit, moodily discussing matters of no importance over interminable demis and cafes-creme. There is the bland oily smell of microwaved food, and a pall of greasy cigarette smoke hangs over the room, even though no-one seems to be smoking. I noticed one of Caroline Clairmont’s hand-lettered yellow cards in a prominent position by the open door. A black crucifix hangs above it.

I looked in, hesitated, and entered. Muscat was at the bar. He eyed me as I walked in, his mouth stretching. Almost imperceptibly I saw his eyes flick to my legs, my breasts — whap-whap, lighting up like the dials on a slot-machine. He laid a hand on the pump, flexing one heavy forearm.

“What can I give you?”

“Cafe-cognac, please.”

The coffee came in a small brown cup with two wrapped sugar lumps. I took it to a table by the window. A couple of old men — one with the Legion d’honneur clipped to one frayed lapel — eyed me with suspicion.

“D’you want some company?” smirked Muscat from behind the bar. “It’s just that you look a little — lonely, sitting there on your own.”

“No, thank you,” I told him politely. “In fact, I thought I might see Josephine today. Is she here?”

Muscat looked at me sourly, his good humour gone. “Oh yes, your bosom friend.”

His voice was dry. “Well, you missed her. She just went upstairs to lie down. One of her sick headaches.” He began to polish a glass with peculiar ferocity. “Spends all afternoon shopping, then has to lie down in the bloody evening while I do the work.”

“Is she all right?”

He looked at me.

“Course she is.” His voice was sharp. “Why shouldn’t she be? If Her Bloody Ladyship could just get up off her fat arse once in a while we might even be able to keep this business afloat.” He dug his dishcloth-wrapped fist into the glass, grunting with the effort. “I mean.” He made an expressive gesture, “I mean, just look at this place.” He glanced at me as if about to say something else, then his gaze slid past me to the door. “He!” I gathered he was addressing someone just out of my field of vision. “Don’t you people listen? I’m closed!”

I heard a man’s voice say something indistinct in reply. Muscat gave his wide, cheerless grin.

“Can’t you idiots read?” Behind the bar he indicated the yellow twin of the card I had seen at the door. “Get lost, go on!”

I stood up to see what was happening. There were five people standing uncertainly at the cafe entrance, two men and three women. All five were strangers to me, unremarkable but for their air of indefinable otherness; the patched trousers, the workboots, the faded T-shirts which proclaimed them outsiders. I should know that look. I had it once. The man who had spoken had red hair and a green bandanna to keep it out of his face. His eyes were cautious, his tone carefully neutral.

“We’re not selling anything,” he explained. “We just want to get a couple of beers and some coffee. We’re not going to be any trouble.”

Muscat looked at him in contempt.

“I said, we’re closed.”

One of the women, a drab, thin girl with a pierced eyebrow, tugged at the redhead’s sleeve.

“It’s no good, Roux. We better — ”

“Wait a minute.” Roux shook her off impatiently. “I don’t understand. The lady who was here a moment ago your wife she was going to-”

“Screw my wife!” exclaimed Muscat shrilly. “My wife couldn’t find her arse with both hands and a pocket torch! It’s my name above the door, and I — say — we’re — closed!”

He had taken three steps from behind the bar, and now he stood barring the doorway, hands on hips, like an overweight gunslinger in a spaghetti western. I could see the yellowy gleam of his knuckles at his belt, hear the whistle of his breath. His face was congested with rage.

“Right.” Roux’s face was expressionless. He flicked a hostile, deliberate glance at the few customers scattered about the room. “Closed.”

Another glance around the room. For a moment our eyes met.

“Closed to us,” he said quietly.

“Not as stupid as you look, are you?” said Muscat with sour glee. “We had enough of your lot last time. This time, we’re not standing for it!”

“OK.”

Roux turned to go. Muscat saw him off, strutting stiff-legged, like a dog scenting a fight. I walked past him without a word, leaving my coffee half-finished on the table. I hope he wasn’t expecting a tip.

I caught up with the river-gypsies halfway down the Avenue des Francs Bourgeois: It had begun to drizzle again, and the five of them looked drab and sullen. I could see their boats now, down in Les Marauds, a dozen of them — two dozen — a flotilla of green-yellow-blue-white-red, some flying flags of damp washing, others painted with Arabian nights and magic carpets and unicorn variations reflected in the dull green water.

“I’m sorry that happened,” I told them. “They’re not an especially welcoming lot in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.”

Roux gave me a flat, measuring look.

“My name is Vianne,” I told him. “I have the chocolaterie just opposite the church. La Celeste Praline.”

He watched me, waiting. I recognized myself in his carefully expressionless face. I wanted to tell him — to tell all of them — that I knew their rage and humiliation, that I’d known it too, that they weren’t alone. But I also knew their pride, the useless defiance which remains after everything else has been scoured away. The last thing they wanted, I knew, was sympathy.

“Why don’t you drop in tomorrow?” I asked lightly. “I don’t do beer, but I think you might enjoy my coffee.”

He looked at me sharply, as if he suspected me of mocking him. —

“Please come,” I insisted. “Have coffee and a slice of cake on the house. All of you.”

The thin girl looked at her friends and shrugged. Roux returned the gesture.

“Maybe.” The voice was non-committal.

“We got a busy schedule,” chirped the girl pertly.

I smiled. “Find a window,” I suggested.

Again that measuring, suspicious look.

“Maybe.”

I watched them go down into Les Marauds as Anouk came running up the hill towards me, the tails of her red raincoat flapping like the wings of an exotic bird.

“Maman, Maman! Look, the boats!”

We admired them for a while, the flat barges, the tall houseboats with the corrugated roofs, the stovepipe chimneys, the frescoes, the multicoloured flags, slogans, painted devices to ward against accident and shipwreck, the small barques, fishing lines, pots for crayfish hoisted up against.the tidemark for the night, tattered umbrellas sheltering decks, the beginnings of campfires in steel drums on the riverside. There was a smell of burning wood and petrol and frying fish, a distant sound of music from across the water as a saxophone began its eerily human melodious wail. Halfway across the Tannes I could just make out the figure of a redheaded man standing alone on the deck of a plain black houseboat. As I watched he lifted his arm. I waved back.

It was almost dark when we made our way home. Back in Les Marauds a drummer had joined the saxophone, and the sounds of his drumming slapped flatly off the water. I passed the Cafe de la Republique without looking in.

I had barely reached the top of the hill when I felt a presence at my elbow. I turned and saw Josephine Muscat, coatless now but with a scarf around her head and half covering her face. In the semi-darkness she looked pallid, nocturnal.

“Run home, Anouk. Wait for me there.”

Anouk gave me a curious glance, then turned and ran off obediently up the hill, her coat-tails flapping wildly.

“I heard what you did.” Josephine’s voice was hoarse and soft. “You walked out because of that business with the river people.”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“Paul-Marie was furious.” The stern note in her voice was almost admiration. “You should have heard the things he was saying.”

I laughed.

“Fortunately I don’t have to listen to anything Paul-Marie has to say,” I told her blandly.

“Now I’m not supposed to talk to you any more,” she went on. “He thinks you’re a bad influence.” A pause, as she looked at me with nervous curiosity. “He doesn’t want me to have friends,” she added.

“Seems to me I’m hearing rather too much about what Paul-Marie wants,” I said mildly. “I’m not really all that interested in him. Now you-” I touched her arm fleetingly. “I find you quite interesting.”

She flushed and looked away, as if expecting to find someone standing at her shoulder.

“You don’t understand,” she muttered.

“I think I do.” With my fingertips I touched the scarf which hid her face. “Why do you wear this?” I asked abruptly. “Do you want to tell me?”

She looked at me in hope and panic. Shook her head. I pulled gently at the scarf.

“You’re pretty,” I said as it came loose. “You could be beautiful.”

There was a fresh bruise just beneath her lower lip, bluish in the failing light. She opened her mouth for the automatic lie. I interrupted her.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“How can you know that?” Her voice was sharp. “I hadn’t even said?”

“You didn’t have to.”

Silence. Across the water a flute scattered bright notes among the drumbeats. When she spoke at last her voice was thick with self-loathing. “It’s stupid, isn’t it?” Her eyes were tiny crescents. “I never blame him. Not really. Sometimes I even forget what really happened.” She took a deep breath, like a diver going under. “Walking into doors. Falling downstairs. St-stepping on rakes.” She sounded close to laughter. I could hear hysteria bubbling beneath the surface of her words. “Accident-prone, that’s what he says I am. Accident-prone.”

“Why was it this time?” I asked gently. “Was it because of the river people?”

She nodded.

“They didn’t mean any harm. I was going to serve them.” Her voice rose shrilly for a second. “I don’t see why I should have to do what that bitch Clairmont wants all the time! Oh we must stand together,” she mimicked savagely. “For the sake of the community. For our children, Madame Muscat” — breaking back into her own voice with a stricken intake of breath — “when in normal circumstances she wouldn’t say hello to me in the street — wouldn’t give me steam off her shit!” She took another deep breath, controlling the outburst with an effort. “It’s always Caro this, Caro that. I’ve seen the way he looks at her in church. Why can’t you be like Caro Clairmont?” Now she was her husband, his voice thick with beery rage. She even managed his mannerisms, the thrust-out chin, the strutting, aggressive posture. “She makes you look like a clumsy sow. She’s got style. Class. She’s got a fine son doing well at school. And what have you got, he?”

“Josephine.”

She turned towards me with a stricken expression.

“I’m sorry. For a moment I almost forgot where?”

“I know.”

I could feel rage pricking at my thumbs.

“You must think I’m stupid to have stayed with him all these years.”

Her voice was dull, her eyes dark and resentful.

“No, I don’t.”

She ignored my reply. “Well I am,” she declared. “Stupid and weak. I don’t love him — can’t remember a time when I ever loved him — but when I think of actually leaving him-” She broke off in confusion. “Actually leaving him,” she repeated in a low, wondering voice. “No. It’s no use.” She looked up at me again and her face was closed, final. “That’s why I can’t talk to you again,” she told me in calm desperation. “I couldn’t leave you guessing — you deserve better than that. But this is how it has to be.”

“No,” I told her. “It doesn’t.”

“But it does.” She defends herself bitterly, desperately, against the possibility of comfort. “Can’t you see? I’m no good. I steal. I lied to you before. I steal things. I do it all the time!”

Gently: “Yes. I know.” The clear realization turns quietly between us like a Christmas bauble. “Things can be better,” I told her at last. “Paul-Marie doesn’t rule the world.”

“He might as well,” retorted Josephine mulishly.

I smiled. If that stubbornness of hers could be turned out instead of in, what could she not achieve? I could do it, too. I could feel her thoughts, so close, welcoming me in. It would be so easy to take control… I turned the thought aside impatiently. I had no right to force her to any decision.

“Before, you had no-one to go to,” I said. “Now you do.”

“Do I?”

In her mouth, it was almost an admission of defeat.

I did not reply. Let her answer that for herself.

She looked at me in silence for a while. Her eyes were full of river lights from Les Marauds. Again it struck me, with what small a twist she might become beautiful.

“Goodnight, Josephine.”

I did not turn to look at her, but I know she watched me as I made my way up the hill, and I know she stood watching long after I had rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

15

Tuesday, February 25

Still more of this interminable rain. It falls like A piece of the sky upended to pour misery onto the aquarium life below. The children, bright plastic ducks in their waterproofs and boots, squawk and waddle across the square, their cries ricocheting off the low clouds. I work in the kitchen with half an eye to the children in the street. This morning I unmade the window display, the witch, the gingerbread house and all the chocolate animals sitting around watching with glossy expectant faces, and Anouk and her friends shared the pieces between excursions into the rainy backwaters of Les Marauds. Jeannot Drou watched me in the kitchen, a piece of gilded pain d’epices in each hand, eyes shining. Anouk stood behind him, the others behind her, a wall of eyes and whisperings.

“What next?” He has the voice of an older boy, an air of casual bravado and a smear of chocolate across the chin. “What are you doing next? For the display?”

I shrugged. “Secret,” I said, stirring creme de cacao into an enamel basin of melted couverture.

“No, really.” He insists. “You ought to make something for Easter. You know. Eggs and stuff: Chocolate hens, rabbits, things like that. Like the shops in Agen.”

I remember them from my childhood; the Paris chocolateries with their baskets of foil-wrapped eggs, shelves of rabbits and hens, bells, marzipan fruits and marrons glaces, amourettes and filigree nests filled with petits fours and caramels and a thousand and one epiphanies of spun-sugar magic-carpet rides more suited to an Arabian harem than the solemnities of the Passion.

“I remember my mother telling me about the Easter chocolates.”

There was never enough money to buy those exquisite things, but I always had my own cornet surprise, a paper cone containing my Easter gifts, coins, paper flowers, hard-boiled eggs painted in bright enamel colours, a box of coloured papier-mache — painted with chickens, bunnies, smiling children amongst the buttercups, the same every year and stored carefully for the next time encasing a tiny packet of chocolate raisins wrapped in Cellophane, each one to be savoured, long and lingeringly, in the lost hours of those strange nights between cities, with the neon glow of hotel signs blink-blinking between the shutters and my mother’s breathing, slow and somehow eternal, in the umbrous silence.

“She used to say that on the eve of Good Friday the bells leave their steeples and church towers in the secret of the night and fly with magical wings to Rome.”

He nods, with that look of half-believing cynicism peculiar to the growing young.

“They line up in front of the Pope in his gold and white, his mitre and his gilded staff, big bells and tiny bells, clochettes and heavy bourdons, carillons and chimes and do-si-do-mi-sols, all waiting patiently to be blessed.”

She was filled with this solemn children’s lore, my mother, eyes lighting up with delight at the absurdity. All stories delighted her — Jesus and Eostre and Ali Baba working the homespun of folklore into the bright fabric of belief again and again. Crystal healing and astral travel, abductions by aliens and spontaneous combustions, my mother believed them all, or pretended to believe.

“And the Pope blesses them, every one, far into the night, the thousands of France’s steeples waiting empty for their return, silent until Easter morning.”

And I her daughter, listening wide-eyed to her charming apocrypha, with tales of Mithras and Baldur the Beautiful and Osiris and Quetzalcoatl all interwoven with stories of flying chocolates and flying carpets and the Triple Goddess and Aladdin’s crystal cave of wonders and the cave from which Jesus rose after three days, amen, abracadabra, amen.

“And the blessings turn into chocolates of all shapes and kinds, and the bells turn upside-down to carry them home. All through the night they fly, and when they reach their towers and steeples on Easter Sunday they turn over and begin swinging to peal out their joy.”

Bells of Paris, Rome, Cologne, Prague. Morning bells, mourning bells, ringing the changes across the years of our exile. Easter bells so loud in memory that it hurts to hear them.

“And the chocolates fly out across the fields and towns. They fall through the air as the bells sound. Some of them hit the ground and shatter. But the children make nests and place them high in the trees to catch the falling eggs and pralines and chocolate hens and rabbits and guimauves and almonds…”

Jeannot turns to me with vivid face and broadening grin.

“Cool!”

“And that’s the story of why you get chocolates at Easter.”

His voice is awed, sharp with sudden certainty. “Do it! Please, do it!”

I turn deftly to roll a truffle in cocoa powder. “Do what?”

“Do that! The Easter story. It’d be so cool — with the bells and the Pope and everything — and you could have a chocolate festival — a whole week — and we could have nests — and Easter-egg hunts — and — ” He breaks off excitedly, tugging at my sleeve imperiously. “Madame Rocher, please.”

Behind him Anouk watches me closely. A dozen smudgy faces in the background mouth shy entreaties.

“A Grand Festival du Chocolat.”

I consider the thought. In a month’s time the lilacs will be out. I always make a nest for Anouk, with an egg and her name on it in silver icing. It could be our own carnival, a celebration of our acceptance in this place. The idea is not new to me, but to hear it from this child is almost to touch its reality.

“We’d need some posters.” I pretend hesitation.

“We’ll make those!” Anouk is the first to suggest it, her face vivid with excitement.

“And flags — bunting — ”

“Streamers-”

“And a chocolate Jesus on the cross with — ”

“The Pope in white chocolate — ”

“Chocolate lambs — ”

“Egg-rolling competitions, treasure hunts — ”

“We’ll invite everyone, it’ll be — ”

“Cool!”

“So cool — ”

I waved my arms at them for silence, laughing. An arabesque of acrid chocolate powder followed my gesture.

“You make the posters,” I told them. “Leave the rest to me.”

Anouk leaped at me, arms out flung. She smells of salt and rainwater, a cuprous scent of soil and waterlogged vegetation. Her tangled hair is barbed with droplets.

“Come up to my room!” she shrieked in my ear. “They can, can’t they, Maman, say they can! We can start right now, I’ve got paper, crayons — ”

“They can,” I said.

An hour later the display window was embellished by a large poster — Anouk’s design executed by Jeannot. The text, in large shaky green letters, read:

GRAND FESTIVAL DU CHOCOLAT
AT LA CELESTE PRALINE BEGINS EASTER SUNDAY EVERYONE WELCOME!!! BUY NOW WHILE STOCKS LAST!!!

Around the text capered various creatures of fanciful design. A figure in a robe and a tall crown I took to be the Pope. Cutout shapes of bells had been pasted thickly at his feet. All the bells were smiling.

I spent most of the afternoon tempering the new batch of couverture and working on the window display. A thick covering of green tissue-paper for the grass. Paper flowers — daffodils and daisies, Anouk’s contribution — pinned to the window-frame. Green-covered tins which once contained cocoa, powder, stacked up against each other to make a craggy mountainside. Crinkly Cellophane paper wraps it like a covering of ice. Running past and winding into the valley, a river of blue silk ribbon, upon which a cluster of houseboats sit quiet and unreflecting. And below-a procession of chocolate figures, cats, dogs, rabbits, some with raisin eyes, pink marzipan ears, tails made of licorice whips with sugar flowers between their teeth… And mice. On every available surface, mice. Running up the sides of the hill, nestling in corners, even on the riverboats. Pink and white sugar coconut mice, chocolate mice of all colours, variegated mice marbled through with truffle and maraschino cream, delicately tinted mice, sugar-dappled frosted mice. And standing above them, the Pied Piper resplendent in his red and yellow, a barleysugar flute in one hand, his hat in the other. I have hundreds of moulds in my kitchen, thin plastic ones for the eggs and the figures, ceramic ones for the cameos and liqueur chocolates. With them I can recreate any facial expression and superimpose it upon a hollow shell, adding hair and detail with a narrow-gauge pipe, building up torso and limbs in separate pieces and fixing them in place with wires and melted chocolate. A little camouflage — a red cloak, rolled from marzipan. A tunic, a hat of the same material, a long feather brushing the ground at his booted feet. My Pied Piper looks a little like Roux with his red hair and motley garb.

I cannot help myself; the window is inviting enough, but I cannot resist the temptation to gild it a little, closing my eyes, to light the whole with a golden glow of welcome. An imaginary sign which flashes like a beacon COME TO ME. I want to give, to make people happy; surely that can do no harm. I realize that this welcome may be in response to Caroline’s hostility to the travellers, but in the joy of the moment I can see no harm in that. I want them to come. Since we last spoke I have glimpsed them occasionally, but they seem suspicious and furtive, like urban foxes, ready to scavenge but not to be approached. Mostly I see Roux, their ambassador — carrying boxes or plastic bags of groceries — sometimes Zezette, the thin girl with the pierced eyebrow. Last night two children tried to sell lavender outside the church, but Reynaud moved them on. I tried to call them back, but they were too wary, watching me with slant-eyed hostility before pelting off down the hill into Les Marauds.

I was so absorbed in my plans and the layout of my window that I lost track of the time. Anouk made her friends sandwiches in the kitchen, then they disappeared again in the direction of the river. I put on the radio and sang to myself as I worked, carefully placing the chocolates into pyramids. The magic mountain opens to reveal a bewildering, half-glimpsed, array of riches: multicoloured piles of sugar crystals, glace fruits and sweets which glitter like gems. Behind this, and shielded from the light by the concealed shelving, lie the saleable wares. I will have to begin work on the Easter goods almost straight away, anticipating extra custom. It is a good thing there is storage space in the cool basement of the house. I must order gift boxes, ribbons, Cellophane paper and trimmings.

I was so absorbed that I barely heard Armande as she came in through the half-open door.

“Well, hello,” she said in her brusque manner. “I came for another one of your chocolate specials, but I can see you’re busy.”

I manoeuvred carefully out of the window.

“No, of course not,” I told her. “I was expecting you. Besides, I’ve nearly finished, and my back is killing me.”

“Well, if it’s no trouble…”

Her manner was different today. There was a kind of crispness in her voice, a studied casualness which masked a high level of tension. She was wearing a black straw hat trimmed with ribbon and a coat — also black — which looked new.

“You’re very chic today,” I observed.

She gave a sharp crack of laughter.

“No-one’s said that to me for a while, I’ll tell you,” she said, poking a finger at one of the stools. “Could I climb up there without breaking a leg, d’you think?”

“I’ll get you a chair from the kitchen,” I suggested, but the old lady stopped me with an imperious gesture.

“Rubbish!” She eyed the stool. “I used to be quite a climber in my youth.” She drew up her long skirts, revealing stout boots and lumpy grey stockings. “Trees, mostly. I used to climb up them and throw twigs onto the heads of passersby. Hah!”

A grunt of satisfaction as she swung herself onto the stool, grabbing hold of the counter-top for support. I caught a sudden, alarming swirl of scarlet from under her black skirt.

Armande perched on the stool, looking absurdly pleased with herself. Carefully she smoothed her skirts back over the shimmer of scarlet petticoat.

“Red silk undies,” she grinned, seeing my look. “You probably think I’m an old fool but I like them. I’ve been in mourning for so many years — seems every time I can decently wear colours someone else drops dead — that I’ve pretty much given up wearing anything but black.” She gave me a look fizzing with laughter. “But underwear — now that’s a different thing.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Mail order from Paris,” she said. “Costs me a fortune.” She rocked with silent laughter on her perch. “Now, how about that chocolate?”

I made it strong and black, and, with her diabetic condition in mind, added as little sugar as I dared. Armande saw my hesitancy and stabbed an accusing finger at her cup.

“No rationing!” she ordered. “Give me the works. Chocolate chips, one of those sugar stirrer things, everything. Don’t you start getting like the others, treating me as if I didn’t have the wit to look after myself. Do I look senile to you?”

I admitted she didn’t.

“Well, then.” She sipped the strong, sweetened mixture with visible satisfaction. “Good. Hmm. Very good. Supposed to give you energy, isn’t it? It’s a, what do you call it, a stimulant?”

I nodded.

“An aphrodisiac too, so I heard,” added Armande roguishly, peeping at me from above the rim of her cup. “Those old men down at the cafe had better watch out. You’re never too old to have a good time!”

She cawed laughter. She sounded shrill and keyed-up, her crabbed hands unsteady. Several times she put her hand to the brim of her hat, as if to adjust it.

I looked at my watch under cover of the counter, but she saw my movement.

“Don’t expect he’ll turn up,” she said shortly. “That grandson of mine. I’m not expecting him, anyway.”

Her every gesture belied her words. The tendons in her throat stood out like an ancient dancer’s.

We talked for a while of trifling matters: the children’s idea of the chocolate festival — Armande squawking with laughter when I told her about Jesus and the white chocolate Pope — and the river-gypsies. It seems that Armande has ordered their food supplies herself, in her name, much to Reynaud’s indignation. Roux offered to pay her in cash, but she prefers to have him fix her leaky roof instead. This will infuriate Georges Clairmont, she revealed with an impish grin.

“He’d like to think he’s the only one who can help me out,” she said with satisfaction. “Bad as each other, both of them, clucking about subsidence and damp. They want me out of that house, there’s the truth of it. Out of my nice house and into some lousy old folks’ home where you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom!” She was indignant, her black eyes snapping. “Well, I’ll show them,” she declared. “Roux used to be a builder, before he went on the river. He and his friends will make a good enough job of it. And I’d rather pay them to do the work honestly than to have that imbecile do it for free.”

She adjusted the brim of her hat with unsteady hands.

“I’m not expecting him, you know.”

I knew it was not the same person to whom she referred. I looked at my watch. Four-twenty. Night was already falling. And yet I’d been so sure… That was what came of interfering, I told myself savagely. So easy to inflict pain on others, on myself.

“I never imagined he would come,” continued Armande in that crisp, determined voice. “She’s seen to that all right. Taught him well, she has.” She began to struggle off her perch. “I’ve been taking up too much of your time already,” she said shortly. “I must be — ”

“M-memee.”

She twists around so abruptly that I am sure she must fall. The boy is standing quietly by the door. He is wearing jeans and a navy sweatshirt. He has a wet baseball cap on his head. In his hand he carries a small, scuffed hardback book. His voice is soft and self-conscious.

“I had to w-wait until my m-mother went out. She’s at the h-hairdresser’s. She won’t be back till s-six.”

Armande looks at him. They do not touch, but I feel something pass between them like a jolt of electricity. Too complex for me to analyse, but there is warmth and anger, embarrassment, guilt — and behind it all a promise of softness.

“You look soaked. I’ll make you a drink,”

I suggest, going into the kitchen. As I leave the room I hear the boy’s voice again, low and hesitant.

“Thanks for the b-book,” he says. “I’ve got it here with me.”

He holds it out like a white flag. It is no longer new; but worn like a book which has been read and reread, lovingly and often. Armande registers this, and the fixed look disappears from her face.

“Read me your favourite poem,” she says.

From the kitchen, as I pour chocolate into two tall glasses, as I stir in cream and kahlua, as I make enough noise with pots and bottles to give the illusion of privacy, I hear his voice raised, stilted at first, then gaining rhythm and confidence. I cannot make out the words, but from a distance it sounds like prayer or invective. I notice that when he reads, the boy does not stutter.

I set the two glasses carefully onto the counter. As I entered the boy stopped speaking mid-sentence and eyed me with polite suspicion, his hair falling into his eyes like the mane of a shy pony. He thanked me with scrupulous courtesy, sipped his drink with more mistrust than pleasure.

“I’m not s-supposed to have this,” he said doubtfully. “My mother s-says ch-chocolate makes me c-come out in z-zits.”

“And it could make me drop dead on the spot,” said Armande smartly.

She laughed at his expression.

“Come on, boy, don’t you ever doubt what your mother says? Or has she brainwashed what little sense you might have inherited from me right out of you?”

Luc looked nonplussed.

“I-it’s just what sh-she s-says,” he repeated, lamely.

Armande shook her head.

“Well, if I want to hear what Caro says I can make an appointment,” she said. “What have you got to say? You’re a smart lad, or used to be. What do you think?”

Luc sipped again.

“I think she might have been exaggerating,” he said with a tiny smile. “You look p-pretty good to me.”

“No zits, either,” said Armande.

He was surprised into laughter. I liked him better this way, his eyes flaring a brighter green, his impish smile oddly like his grandmother’s. He remained guarded, but behind his deep reserve I began to glimpse a ready intelligence and sharp sense of humour.

He finished his chocolate but refused a slice of cake, though Armande took two. For the next half-hour they talked while I pretended to go about my business. Once or twice I caught him looking at me with a wary curiosity, the flickering contact between us broken as soon as it was made. I left them to it.

It was half-past five when they both said goodbye. There was no talk of another meeting, but the casual fashion with which they parted suggested that both had the same thought in mind. It surprised me a little to see them so alike, circling each other with the caution of friends reunited after long years of separation. They both have the same mannerisms, the same direct way of looking, the slanting cheekbones, sharp chin. When his features are in repose this similarity is partially obscured, but animation makes him more like her, erasing from them that look of bland politeness which she deplores. Armande’s eyes are shining beneath the brim of her hat. Luc seems almost relaxed, his stutter receding to a slight hesitancy, barely noticeable. I see him pause at the door, wondering perhaps whether he should kiss her. On this occasion his adolescent’s dislike of contact is still too strong. He lifts a hand in a shy gesture of farewell, then is gone.

Armande turns towards me, flushed with triumph. For a second her face is naked in its love, hope, pride. Then the reserve which she shares with her grandson returns, a look of enforced casualness, a gruff note in her voice as she says,

“I enjoyed that, Vianne. Perhaps I’ll come again.” Then she gives me one of her direct looks, reaching out a hand to touch my arm. “You’re the one who brought him here,” she said. “I wouldn’t have known how to do it myself.”

I shrugged.

“It would have happened at some time or another,” I said. “Luc isn’t a child any more. He has to learn to do things his own way.”

Armande shook her head. “No, it’s you,” she told me stubbornly. She was close enough for me to smell her lily-of-the-valley perfume. “The wind’s changed since you’ve been here. I can still feel it. Everyone feels it. Everything’s on the move. Whee!”

She gave a little crow of amusement.

“But I’m not doing anything,” I protested, half-laughing with her. “I’m just minding my own business. Running my shop. Being me.”

In spite of my own laughter I felt uneasy.

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Armande. “It’s still you that’s doing it. Look at all the changes; me, Luc, Caro, the folks out on the river” — she jerked her head sharply in the direction, of Les Marauds — “even him in his ivory tower across the square. All of us changing. Speeding up. Like an old clock being wound up after years of telling the same time.”

It was too close to my own thoughts of the week before. I shook my head emphatically.

“That isn’t me,” I protested. “It’s him. Reynaud. Not me.”

A sudden image at the back of my mind, like the turn of a card. The Black Man in his clock tower, turning the machinery faster and faster, ringing the changes, ringing the alarum, ringing us out of town… And with that unsettling image came one of an old man on a bed, tubes in his nose and arms, and the Black Man standing over him in grief or triumph, while at his back, fire burned.

“Is it his father?” I said the first words which came into my head. “I mean — the old man he visits. In the hospital. Who is it?”

Armande gave me a sharp look of surprise.

“How do you know about that?”

“Sometimes I have — feelings — about people.”

For some reason I was reluctant to admit to scrying with the chocolate, reluctant to use the terminology with which my mother had made me so familiar.

“Feelings.”

Armande looked curious, but did not question me further.

“So there is an old man, then?” I could not shake off the thought that I had stumbled upon something important. Some weapon, perhaps, in my secret struggle against Reynaud. “Who is he?” I insisted.

Armande gave a shrug.

“Another priest,” she said, with dismissive contempt, and would say no more.

16

Wednesday, February 26

When i opened this morning roux was waiting at the door. He was wearing denim overalls, and his hair was tied back with string. He looked to have been waiting for some time, because his hair and shoulders were furred with droplets from the morning mist. He gave me something that was not quite a smile, then looked behind me into the shop where Anouk was playing.

“Hello, little stranger,” he said to her. This time the smile was real enough, lighting his wary face briefly.

“Do come in.” I beckoned him inside. “You should have knocked. I didn’t see you out there.”

Roux muttered something in his thick Marseille accent and crossed the threshold rather self-consciously. He moves with an odd combination of grace and clumsiness, as if he feels uncomfortable indoors.

I poured him a tall glass of black chocolate laced with kahlua.

“You should have brought your friends,” I told him lightly.

He gave a shrug in reply. I could see him looking around, taking in his surroundings with keen, if suspicious, interest.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

I asked, pointing to the stools at the counter. Roux shook his head.

“Thanks.” He took a mouthful of the chocolate. “Actually, I wondered if you’d be able to help me. Us.” He sounded embarrassed and angry at the same time. “It isn’t money,” he added quickly, as if to prevent me from speaking. “We’d pay for it all right: It’s just the — organization — we’re having difficulty with.” He shot me a look of unfocused resentment. “Armande — Madame Voizin — said you’d help,” he said.

He explained the situation as I listened quietly, nodding encouragement on occasion. I began to understand that what I had taken for inarticulacy was simply a deep dislike of having to ask for help. Through the thick accent Roux spoke like an intelligent man. He had promised Armande that he would repair her roof, he explained. It was a relatively easy job which would take only a couple of days. Unfortunately the only local supplier of wood, paint and the other materials needed to complete the task was Georges Clairmont, who flatly refused to supply them to either Armande or Roux. If Mother wanted repairs to her roof, he told her reasonably, then she should ask him, not a bunch of swindling vagrants. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been asking — begging — her to let him do the work free of charge for years. Let the gypsies into her house and God only knew what might happen. Valuables looted, money stolen… It wasn’t unknown for an old woman to be beaten or killed for the sake of her few poor possessions. No. It was an absurd scheme, and in all conscience he couldn’t?

“Sanctimonious bastard,” said Roux viciously. “Knows nothing about us — nothing! The way he talks, we’re all thieves and murderers. I’ve always paid my way. I’ve never begged from anyone, I’ve always worked?”

“Have some more chocolate,” I suggested mildly, pouring another glassful. “Not everybody thinks like Georges and Caroline Clairmont.”

“I know that.”

His posture was defensive, arms crossed over his body.

“I’ve used Clairmont to do repairs for me before,” I continued. “I’ll tell him I want to do some more work on the house. If you give me a list of what you need, I’ll get it.”

“I’ll pay for it all,” said Roux again, as if this issue of payment were something he could not stress enough. “The money really isn’t a problem.”

“Of course.”

He relaxed a little and drank more chocolate. For the first time he seemed to register how good it was, and gave me a smile of sudden and peculiar sweetness.

“She’s been good to us, Armande,” he said. “She’s been ordering food supplies for us, and medicine for Zezette’s baby. She stood up for us when that poker-faced priest of yours turned up again.”

“He’s no priest of mine,” I interrupted quickly. “In his mind, I’m as much of an interloper in Lansquenet as you are.”

Roux looked at me in surprise.

“No, really,” I told him. “I think he sees me as a corrupting influence. Chocolate orgies every night. Fleshly excesses when decent people should be in bed, alone.”

His eyes are the hazy no-colour of a city skyline in the rain. When he laughs they gleam with malice. Anouk, who had been sitting in uncharacteristic silence while he spoke, responded to it and laughed too.

“Don’t you want any breakfast?” piped Anouk. “We’ve got pain au chocolat. We’ve got croissants too, but the pain au chocolat is better.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Thanks.”

I put one of the pastries on a plate and set it beside him.

“On the house,” I told him. “Try one, I make them myself.”

Somehow it was the wrong thing to say. I saw his face close again, the flicker of humour replaced by the now familiar look of careful blankness.

“I can pay,” he said with a kind of defiance. “I’ve got money.”

He struggled to pull out a handful of coins from his overall pocket. Coins rolled across the counter.

“Put that away,” I told him.

“I told you, I can pay.” Stubborn now, igniting into rage. “I don’t need — ”

I put my hand on his. I felt resistance for a moment, then his eyes met mine.

“Nobody needs to do anything,” I said gently. I realized I had hurt his pride with my show of friendship. “I invited you.” The look of hostility remained unchanged. “I did the same with everyone else,” I persisted. “Caro Clairmont. Guillaume Duplessis. Even Paul-Marie Muscat, the man who ran you out of the cafe.” A second’s pause for him to register that. “What makes you so special, that you can refuse when none of them did?”

He looked ashamed then, mumbling something under his breath in his thick dialect. Then his eyes met mine again and he smiled.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t understand.” He paused awkwardly for a few moments before picking up the pastry. “But next time you’re the ones invited to my place,” he said firmly. “And I shall be most offended if you refuse.”

He was all right after that, losing much of his constraint. We talked of neutral topics for a while, but soon progressed to other things. I learned that Roux had been on the river for six years, alone at first then travelling with a group of companions. He had been a builder once, and still earned money doing repair jobs and harvesting crops in summer and autumn. I gathered that there had been problems which forced him into the itinerant life, but knew better than to press for details.

He left immediately as soon as the first of my regulars arrived. Guillaume greeted him politely and Narcisse gave his brief nod of welcome, but I could not persuade Roux to stay to talk with them. Instead he crammed what remained of his pain au chocolat into his mouth and walked out of the shop with that look of insolence and aloofness he feels he has to affect with strangers.

As he reached the door he turned abruptly.

“Don’t forget your invitation,” he told me, as if on an afterthought. “Saturday night, seven o’clock. Bring the little stranger.”

Then he was gone, before I could thank him.

Guillaume lingered longer than usual over his chocolate. Narcisse gave his place to Georges, then Arnauld came over to buy three champagne truffles — always the same, three champagne truffles and a look of guilty anticipation — and Guillaume was still sitting in his usual place, a troubled look on his small-featured face. Several times I tried to draw him out, but he responded in polite monosyllables, his thoughts elsewhere. Beneath his seat Charly was limp and immobile.

“I spoke to Cure Reynaud yesterday,” he said at last, so abruptly that I gave a start. “I asked him what I ought to do about Charly.”

I looked at him enquiringly.

“It’s hard to explain to him,” continued Guillaume in his soft, precise voice. “He thinks I’m being stubborn, refusing to hear what the vet has to say. Worse still, he thinks I’m being foolish. It isn’t as if Charly were a person, after all.”

A pause during which I could hear the effort he was making to retain his control.

“Is it really that bad?”

I already knew the answer. Guillaume looked at me with sad eyes.

“I think so.”

“I see.”

Automatically he stooped to scratch Charly’s ear. The dog’s tail thumped in a perfunctory way, and he whined softly.

“There’s a good dog.” Guillaume gave me his small, bewildered smile. “Cure Reynaud isn’t a bad man. He doesn’t mean to sound cruel. But to say that — in such way — ”

“What did he say?”

Guillaume shrugged.

“He told me I’d been making a fool of myself over that dog for years now. That it was all the same to him what I did, but that it was ridiculous to coddle the animal as if it were a human being, or to waste my money on useless treatments for it.”

I felt a prick of anger.

“That was a spiteful thing to say.”

Guillaume shook his head.

“He doesn’t understand,” he said again. “He doesn’t really care for animals. But Charly and I have been together for so long — ” Tears stood in his eyes and he moved his head sharply to hide them.“I’m on my way to the vet’s now, just as soon as I’ve finished my drink.” His glass had been standing empty on the counter for over twenty minutes. “It might not be today, might it?” There was a note almost of desperation in his voice. “He’s still cheerful. He’s been eating better recently, I know he has. No-one can make me do it.” Now he sounded like a fractious child. “I’ll know when the time really comes. I’ll know.”

There was nothing I could say that would make him feel better. I tried, though. I bent to stroke Charly, feeling the closeness of bone to skin beneath my moving fingers. Some things can be healed. I made my fingers warm, probing gently, trying to see. The burr already seemed larger. I knew it was hopeless.

“He’s your dog, Guillaume,” I said. “You know best.”

“That’s right.” He seemed to brighten for a moment. “His medicine keeps the pain away. He doesn’t whine any more in the night.”

I thought of my mother in those last months. Her pallor, the way the flesh melted from her, revealing a delicate beauty of stripped bone, bleached skin. Her bright and feverish eyes — Florida sweetheart, New York, Chicago, the Grand Canyon, so much to see! — and her furtive cries in the night. “After a while you just have to stop,” I said. “It’s pointless. Hiding behind justifications, setting short-term goals to see out the week. After a while it’s the lack of dignity that hurts more than anything else. You need to rest.”

Cremated in New York; ashes scattered across the harbour. Funny, how you always imagine dying in bed, surrounded by your loved ones. Instead, too often, the brief bewildering encounter, the sudden realization, the slow motion panic ride with the sun coming up behind you like a swinging pendulum however much you try to outrun it…

“If I had a choice I’d take this one. The painless needle. The friendly hand. Better that than alone in the night, or under the wheels of a cab in a street where no-one stops to look twice.” I realized that without meaning to, I had spoken aloud. “I’m sorry, Guillaume,” I said, seeing his stricken look. “I was thinking about something else.”

“That’s all right,” he said quietly, putting the coins down onto the counter in front of him. “I was just going anyway.”

And picking up his hat with one hand and Charly with the other, he went out, stooping a little more than usual, a small drab figure carrying what might have been a sack of groceries or an old raincoat or something else altogether.

17

Saturday, March 1

I have been watching her shop. I realize that I have done so since her arrival, its comings and goings, its furtive gatherings. I watch it much as I used to watch wasps nests in my youth, with loathing and fascination. They began slyly at first, calling in the secret hours of dusk and early morning. They took the guise of genuine clients. A cup of coffee here, a packet of chocolate raisins for their children. But now they have abandoned the pretence. The gypsies call openly now, casting defiant looks at my shuttered window; the redhead with the insolent eyes, the skinny girl and the bleached-haired girl and the shaven headed Arab. She calls them by name; Roux and Zezette and Blanche and Ahmed. Yesterday at ten Clairmont’s van came by with a load of building supplies; wood and paint and roofing pitch. The lad who was driving it set the goods down on her doorstep without a word. She wrote him a cheque. Then I had to watch while her grinning friends lifted the boxes and joists and cartons onto their shoulders and bore them down, laughing, into Les Marauds. A ruse, that was all. A lying ruse. For some reason she wants to abet them. Of course it is to spite me that she acts in this way. I can do nothing but maintain a dignified silence and pray for her downfall. But she makes my task so much harder! Already I have to deal with Armande Voizin, who puts their food on her own shopping bill. I have already dealt with this, but too late. The river-gypsies have enough supplies now to last them a fortnight. They bring their daily supplies — bread, milk from Agen upriver. The thought that they might stay any longer fills me with bile. But what can be done, whilst such people befriend them? You would know what to do, pere, if only you could tell me. And I know you would not flinch from your duty, however unpleasant.

If only you could tell me what to do. The slightest pressure of the fingers would be enough. A flicker of an eyelash. Anything. Anything to show that I am forgiven. No? You do not move. Only the ponderous noise — hissh-thump! of the machine as it breathes for you, sending the air through your atrophied lungs. I know that one day soon you will awake, healed and purified, and that mine will be the first name you speak. You see, I do believe in miracles. I, who have passed through fire. I do believe.

I decided to talk to her today. Rationally, without recrimination, as father to daughter. Surely she would understand. We began on the wrong footing, she and I. Perhaps we could-begin again. You see, pere, I was ready to be generous. Ready to understand. But as I approached the shop I saw through the window that the man Roux was in there with her, his hard, light eyes fixed on me with that mocking look of disdain which all his kind affects. There was a drink of some sort in his hand. He looked dangerous, violent in his filthy overalls and long, loose, hair, and for a second I felt a thin stab of anxiety for the woman. Doesn’t she realize what dangers she is courting, just by being with these people? Does she not care for herself, for her child? I was about to turn away when a poster in the shop window caught my eye. I pretended to study it for a minute whilst secretly watching her watching them — from outside. She was wearing a dress of some rich wine-coloured material, and her hair was loose. From inside the shop I heard her laughter.

My eyes skimmed over the poster again. The writing was childish, unformed.

GRAND FESTIVAL CHOCOLAT
AT LA CELESTE PRALINE BEGINS EASTER SUNDAY EVERYONE WELCOME

I read it again, slow indignation dawning. Inside the shop I could still hear the sound of her voice above the clinking of glasses. Too absorbed in her conversation, she had still not noticed me, but stood with her back to the door, one foot turned out like a dancer. She wore flat pumps with little bows on them, and no stockings.

BEGINS EASTER SUNDAY

I see it all now. Her malice, her damnable malice. She must have planned this from the start, this chocolate festival, planned it to coincide with the most holy of the Church’s ceremonies. From her arrival on carnival day she must have had this in mind, to undermine my authority, to make a mockery of my teachings. She and her friends from the river.

Too angry now to withdraw, as I should have, I pushed the door and went into the shop. A brightly mocking carillon heralded my entrance, and she turned to look at me, smiling. If I had not that moment received irrefutable proof of her vindictiveness, I could have sworn that smile was genuine.

“Monsieur Reynaud.”

The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the light powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee-stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisu, a smoky, burnt flavour which enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapour rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning.

“Mademoiselle.” I wish my voice were more commanding. Rage has tightened my throat and instead of the righteous bellow which I intended I release nothing but a croak of indignation, like a polite frog. “Mademoiselle Rocher.” She looks at me enquiringly. “I have seen your poster!”

“Thank you,” she says. “Would you join us in a drink?”

“No!”

Coaxingly: “My chococcino is wonderful if you have a delicate throat.”

“I do not have a delicate throat!”

“Don’t you?” Her voice is falsely solicitous. “I thought you sounded rather hoarse. A grand creme, then? Or a mocha?”

With an effort I regained my composure.

“I won’t trouble you, thank you.”

At her side the red haired man gives a low laugh and says something in his gutter patois. I notice his hands are streaked with paint, a pale tint which fills the creases in his palms and his knuckles. Has he been working? I ask myself uneasily. And if so, for whom? If this were Marseille the police would arrest him for working illegally. A search of his boat might reveal enough evidence — drugs, stolen property, pornography, weapons to put him away for good. But this is Lansquenet. Nothing short of serious violence would bring the police here.

“I saw your poster.” I begin again, with all the dignity I can muster.

She watches me with that look of polite concern, her eyes dancing.

“I have to say” — at this point I clear my throat, which has filled again with bile — “I have to say that I find your timing — the timing of your — event deplorable.”

“My timing?” She looks innocent. “You mean the Easter festival?” She gives a small, mischievous smile. “I rather thought your people were responsible for that. You ought to take it up with the Pope.”

I fix her with a cold stare.,

“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Again, that look of polite enquiry.

“Chocolate festival. All welcome.” My anger is rising like boiling milk, uncontrollable. For the instant I feel empowered, energized by its heat. I stab an accusing finger at her. “Don’t think I haven’t guessed what this is all about.”

“Let me guess.” Her voice is mild, interested. “It’s a personal attack on you. A deliberate attempt to undermine the foundations of the Catholic Church.” She gives a laugh which betrays itself in sudden shrillness. “God forbid that a chocolate shop should sell Easter eggs at Easter.”

Her voice is unsteady, almost afraid, though of what I am unsure. The redhaired man glares at me. With an effort she recovers, and the glimpse of fear I thought I saw in her is swallowed by her composure.

“I’m sure there’s room here for both of us,” she says evenly. “Are you sure you don’t want a drink of chocolate? I could explain what I — ”

I shake my head furiously, like a dog tormented by wasps. Her very calm infuriates me, and I can hear a kind of buzzing in my head, an unsteadiness which sends the room spinning about me. The creamy smell of chocolate is maddening. For a moment my senses are unnaturally enhanced; I can smell her perfume, a caress of lavender, the warm spicy scent of her skin. Beyond her, a whiff of the marshes, a musky tang of engine-oil and sweat and paint from her redhaired friend.

“I — no — I…” Nightmarishly, I have forgotten what I intended to say. Something about respect, I think, about the community. About pulling together in the same direction, about righteousness, decency, about morality. Instead I gulp air, my head swimming. “I–I…”

I cannot shake the thought that she is doing this, pulling the threads of my senses apart, reaching into my mind.

She leans forward, pretending solicitude, and her scent assails me once more.

“Are you all right?” I hear her voice from a great distance. “Monsieur Reynaud, are you all right?”

I push her away with trembling hands.

“Nothing.” At last I manage to speak. “An — indisposition. Nothing. I’ll bid you good — ”

Blindly I stumble towards the door. A red sachet suspended from the door-jamb brushes my face more of her superstition — and I cannot shake off the absurd impression that the ridiculous thing is responsible for my malaise; herbs and bones sewn together and hung there to trouble my mind. I stagger out into the street, gasping for breath.

My head clears as soon as the rain touches it, but I keep walking. Walking.

I did not stop until I reached you, mon pere. My heart was pounding, my face running with sweat, but at last I feel purged of her presence. Was this what you felt, mon pere, that day in the old chancery? Did temptation wear this face?

The dandelions are spreading, their bitter leaves pushing up the black earth, their white roots forking deep, biting hard. Soon they will be in bloom. I will walk home via the river, pare, to observe the small floating city which even now grows, spreads across the swollen Tannes. More boats have arrived since last we spoke so that the river is paved with them. A man might walk across.

EVERYONE WELCOME

Is this what she intends? A gathering of these people, a celebration of excess? How we fought to eradicate those remaining pagan traditions, pere, how we preached and cajoled. The egg, the hare, still-living symbols of the tenacious root of paganism, exposed for what they are. For a time we were pure. But with her the purge must begin anew. This is a stronger strain, defying us once again. And my flock, my stupid, trustful flock, turning to her, listening to her… Armande Voizin. Julien Narcisse. Guillaume Duplessis. Josephine Muscat. Georges Clairmont. They will hear their names spoken in tomorrow’s sermon along with all those who have listened to her. The chocolate festival is only a part of the sickening whole, I will tell them. The befriending of the river-gypsies. Her deliberate defiance of our customs and observances. The influence she brings to bear on our children. All signs, I will tell them, all signs of the insidious effect of her presence here.

This festival of hers will fail. Ridiculous to imagine that with such strength of opposition it could succeed. I will preach against it every Sunday. I will read out the names of her collaborators and pray for their deliverance. Already the gypsies have brought unrest. Muscat complains that their presence deters his customers. The noise from their camp, the music, the fires, have made Les Marauds into a floating shanty town, the river gleaming with spilled oil, drifts of litter sailing downstream. And his wife would have welcomed them, so I heard. Fortunately Muscat is not intimidated by these people. Clairmont tells me he ousted them easily last week when they dared to set foot in his cafe. You see, pere, in spite of their bravado they are cowards. Muscat has blocked off the path from Les Marauds to discourage them from passing. The possibility of violence should appal me, pere, but in a way I would welcome it. It might give me the excuse I need to call the police from Agen. I should talk to Muscat again. He would know what to do.

18

Saturday, March 1

Roux’s boat is one of the nearest to the shore, moored some distance from the rest, opposite Armande’s house. Tonight paper lanterns were strung across its bows like glowing fruit, and, as we made our way into Les Marauds, we caught the sharp scent of grilling food from the river bank. Armande’s windows had been flung open to overlook the river, and the light from the house made irregular patterns on the water. I was struck by the absence of litter, the care with which every scrap of waste had been placed in the steel drums for burning. From one of the boats further downriver came the sound of a guitar playing. Roux was sitting on the little jetty, looking into the water. A small group of people had already joined him, and I recognized Zezette, another girl called Blanche and the North African, Mahmed. Beside them something was cooking on a portable brazier filled with coals.

Anouk ran to the fire at once. I heard Zezette warn her in a soft voice,

“Careful, sweetheart, it’s hot.”

Blanche held out a mug containing warm spiced wine and I took it with a smile.

“See what you think of this.”

The drink was sweet and sharp with lemon and nutmeg, the spirit so strong that it caught at the throat.

For the first time in weeks the night was clear, and our breath made pale dragons in the still air. A thin mist hung over the river, lit here and there by the lights from the boats.

“Pantoufle wants some too,” said Anouk, pointing at the pan of spiced wine.

Roux grinned. “Pantoufle?”

“Anouk’s rabbit,” I told him quickly. “Her — imaginary friend.”

“I’m not sure Pantoufle would like this very much,” he told her. “Perhaps he’d like a little apple juice instead?”

“I’ll ask him,” said Anouk.

Roux seemed different here, more relaxed, outlined in fire as he supervised his cooking. I remember river crayfish, split and grilled over the embers, sardines, early sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, caramelized apples rolled in sugar and flash-fried in butter, thick pancakes, honey. We ate with our fingers from tin plates and drank cider and more of the spiced wine. A few children joined Anouk in a game by the river bank. Armande came down to join us too, holding out her hands to warm them by the brazier.

“If only I were younger,” she sighed. “I wouldn’t mind this every night.”She took a hot potato from its nest of coals and juggled it deftly to cool it. “This is the life I used to dream about as a child. A houseboat, lots of friends, parties every night…” She gave Roux a malicious look. “I think I’ll run away with you,” she declared. “I always had a soft spot for a redheaded man. I may be old, but I bet I could still teach you a thing or two.”

Roux grinned. There was no trace of self-consciousness in him tonight. He was good-humoured, filling and refilling the mugs with wine and cider, touchingly pleased to be the host. He flirted with Armande, paying her extravagant compliments, making her caw with laughter. He taught Anouk how to skim flat stones across the water. Finally he showed us his boat, carefully maintained and clean, the tiny kitchen, the storage hold with its water tank and food stores, the sleeping area with its plexiglass roof.

“It was nothing but a wreck when I bought it,” he told us. “I fixed it up so that now it’s as good as any house on land.” His smile was a little rueful, like that of a man confessing to a childish pastime. “All that work, just so I can lie on my bed at night and listen to the water and watch the stars.”

Anouk was exuberant in her approval.

“I like it,” she declared. “I like it a lot! And it isn’t a mid — mid — whatever Jeannot’s mother says it is.”

“A midden,” suggested Roux gently.

I looked at him quickly, but he was laughing.

“No, we’re not as bad as some people think we are.”

“We don’t think you’re bad at all!” Anouk was indignant.

Roux shrugged.

Later there was music, a flute and a fiddle and some drums improvised from cans and dustbins. Anouk joined in with her toy trumpet, and the children danced so wildly and so close to the river bank that they had to be sent away to a safe distance. It was well past eleven when we finally left, Anouk drooping with fatigue but protesting fiercely.

“It’s OK,” Roux told her. “You can come back any time you like.”

I thanked him as I picked up Anouk in my arms.

“You’re welcome.”

For a second his smile faltered as he looked beyond me to the top of the hill. A faint crease appeared between his eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure. Probably nothing.”

There are few streetlights in Les Marauds. The only illumination comes from a single yellow lantern outside the Cafe de la Republique, shining greasily on the narrow causeway. Beyond that is the Avenue des Francs Bourgeois, broadening to a well-lit avenue of trees. He watched for a moment longer, eyes narrowed.

“I just thought I saw someone coming down the hill, that’s all. Must have been a trick of the light. There’s no one there now.”

I carried Anouk up the hill. Behind us, soft calliope music from the floating carnival. On the jetty Zezette was dancing, outlined against the dying fire, her frenzied shadow leaping below her. As we passed the Cafe de la Republique I saw that the door was ajar, though all the lights were out. From inside the building I heard a door close softly, as if someone had been watching, but that might have been the wind.

19

Sunday, March 2

March has brought an end to the rain. The sky is raw now, a screeching blue between fast-moving clouds, and a sharpening wind has risen during the night, gusting in corners, rattling windows. The church bells ring wildly as if they too have caught a little of this sudden change. The weathervane turn-turns against the wheeling sky, its rusty voice rising shrilly. Anouk sings a wind-song to herself as she plays in her room:

V’la l’bon vent, V’la l’joli vent

V’la l’bon vent, ma vie m’appelle

V’la l’bon vent, V’la l’joli vent

V’la l’bon vent, ma mie m’attend.

March wind’s an ill wind, my mother used to say. But in spite of that it feels good, smelling of sap and ozone and the salt of the distant sea. A good month, March, with February blowing out of the back door and spring waiting at the front. A good month for change…

For five minutes I stand alone in the square with my arms held out, feeling the wind in my hair. I have forgotten to bring a coat and my red skirt billows out around me. I am a kite, feeling the wind, rising in an instant above the church tower, rising above myself. For a moment I am disorientated, seeing the scarlet figure below in the square, at once here and there — falling back into myself, breathless, I see Reynaud’s face staring out from a high window, his eyes dark with resentment. He looks pale, the bright sunlight barely grazing his skin with colour. His hands are clenched on the sill before him and his knuckles are the bleached whiteness of his face.

The wind has gone to my head. I send him a cheery wave as I turn to go back into the shop. He will see this as defiance, I know, but this morning I do not care. The wind has blown my fears away. I wave to the Black Man in his tower, and the wind plucks gleefully at my skirts. I feel delirious, expectant.

Some of this new courage seems to have infused the people of Lansquenet. I watch them as they walk to church, the children running into the wind with arms spread like kites, the dogs barking wildly at nothing, even the adults bright-faced, eyes streaming from the cold. Caroline Clairmont in a new spring coat and hat, her son holding her by the arm. For a moment Luc glances at me, gives me a smile hidden by his hand. Josephine and Paul Marie Muscat, arms entwined like lovers, though her face is twisted and defiant beneath her brown beret. Her husband glares at me through the glass and quickens his step, his mouth working. I see Guillaume, without Charly today, though he still carries the bright plastic lead dangling from one wrist, a forlorn figure oddly bereft without his dog. Arnauld looks my way and nods. Narcisse stops to inspect a tub of geraniums by the door, rubs a leaf between his thick fingers, sniffs the green sap. He is sweet-toothed in spite of his gruffness, and I know he will be in later for his mocha and chocolate truffles.

The bell slows to an insistent drone — domm! domm! — as the people make their way through the open doors. I catch another glimpse of Reynaud — white-cassocked now, hands folded, solicitous — as he welcomes them in. I think he looks at me again, a brief flicker of the eyes across the square, a subtle stiffening of the spine beneath the robe — but I cannot be sure.

I settle at the counter, a cup of chocolate in my hand, to await the end of Mass.

The service was longer than usual. I suppose that as Easter approaches Reynaud’s demands will become greater. It was over ninety minutes before the first people emerged furtively, heads bowed, the wind tugging impudently at headscarves and Sunday jackets, ballooning under skirts in sudden salaciousness, hurrying the flock across the square. Arnauld gave me a sheepish smile as he passed; no champagne truffles this morning. Narcisse came in as usual, but was even less communicative, pulling a paper out of his tweed coat and reading it in silence as he drank. Fifteen minutes later half the members of the congregation were still inside, and I guessed they must be awaiting confession. I poured more chocolate and drank. Sunday is a slow day. Better to be patient.

Suddenly I saw a familiar figure in a tartan coat slip through the half-open church door. Josephine glanced across the square, and, seeing it empty, ran across towards the shop. She noticed Narcisse and hesitated for a moment before deciding to come in. Her fists were clenched protectively in the pit of her stomach.

“I can’t stay,” she said at once. “Paul’s in confession. I’ve got two minutes.” Her voice was sharp and urgent, the hurried words falling over themselves like dominoes in a line. “You have to stay away from those people,” she blurted. “The travellers. You have to tell them to move on. Warn them.”

Her face worked with the effort of speaking. Her hands opened and closed.

I looked at her.

“Please, Josephine. Sit down. Have a drink.”

“I can’t!” She shook her head emphatically. Her wind, tangled hair blurred wildly around her face. “I told you I don’t have time. Just do as I say. Please.” She sounded strained and exhausted, looking towards the church door as if afraid of being seen with me. “He’s been preaching against them,” she told me in a fast, low tone. “And against you. Talking about you. Saying things.”

I shrugged indifferently.

“So? What do I care?”

Josephine put her fists to her temples in a gesture of frustration.

“You have to warn them,” she repeated. “Tell them to go. Warn Armande too. Tell her he read her name out this morning. And yours. He’ll read mine out as well if he sees me here, and Paul?”

“I don’t understand, Josephine. What can he do? And why should I care, anyway?”

“Just tell them, all right?” Her eyes flicked warily to the church again, from which a few people were drifting. “I can’t stay,” she said. “I have to go.”

She turned towards the door.

“Wait, Josephine?”

Her face as she turned back was a blur of misery. I could see that she was close to tears.

“This always happens,” she said in a harsh, unhappy voice. “Whenever I find a friend he manages to ruin it for me. It’ll happen the way it always does. You’ll be well out of it by then, but me?”

I took a step forward, meaning to steady her. Josephine pulled back with a clumsy gesture of warding.

“No! I can’t! I know you mean well, but I just — can’t!” She recovered with an effort. “You have to understand. I live here. I have to live here. You’re free, you can go where you like, you?”

“So can you,” I replied gently.

She looked at me then, touching my shoulder very briefly with the tips of her fingers.

“You don’t understand,” she said without resentment. “You’re different. For a while I thought maybe I could learn to be different too.” She turned, her agitation leaving her, to be replaced by a look of distant, almost sweet, abstraction. She dug her hands into her pockets once more. “I’m sorry, Vianne,” she said. “I really tried. I know it isn’t your fault.” For a moment I saw a brief return of animation to her features. “Tell the river people,” she urged. “Tell them they have to go. It isn’t their fault either — I just don’t want anyone to be hurt,” finished Josephine softly. “All right?”

I shrugged. “No-one is going to be hurt,” I told her.

“Good.” She gave a smile painful in its transparency. “And don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I really am.” Again that stretched, painful smile. As she edged past me through the door I caught a glimpse of something shiny in her hand, and saw that her coat pockets were stuffed with costume jewellery. Lipsticks, compacts, necklaces and rings spilled from between her fingers. “Here. This is for you,” she said brightly, pushing a handful of looted treasure at me. “It’s OK. I’ve got lots more.”

Then with a smile of dazzling sweetness she was off, leaving me with chains and earrings and pieces of bright plastic set in gilt weeping from my fingers onto the floor.

Later in the afternoon I took Anouk for a walk into Les Marauds. The travellers’ camp looked cheery in the new sunlight, with washing flapping on lines drawn between the boats, and all the glass and paint gleaming. Armande was sitting in a rocking-chair in her sheltered front garden, watching the river. Roux and Mahmed were perched on the roof’s steep incline, resetting the loose slates. I noticed that the rotten facia and the gable-ends had been replaced and repainted a bright yellow. I waved at the two men and sat on the garden wall next to Armande while Anouk raced off to the river bank to find her friends of last night.

The old lady looked tired and puffy-faced beneath the brim of a wide straw hat. The piece of tapestry in her lap looked listless, untouched. She nodded to me briefly, but did not speak. Her chair rocked almost imperceptibly, tick-tick-tick-tick, on the path. Her cat slept curled beneath it.

“Caro came over this morning,” she said at last. “I suppose I should feel honoured.” A movement of irritation. Rocking: tick-tick-tick-tick. “Who does she think she is?” snapped Armande abruptly. “Marie Bloody Antoinette?” She brooded fiercely for a moment, her rocking gaining momentum. “Trying to tell me what I can and can’t do. Bringing her doctor — ” She broke off to fix me with her piercing, birdlike gaze. “Interfering little busybody. She always was, you know. Always telling tales to her father.” She gave a short bark of laughter. “She doesn’t get these airs from me, in any case. Not on your life. I never needed any doctor — or any priest — to tell me what to think.”

Armande pushed out her chin defiantly and rocked even harder.

“Was Luc there?” I asked.

“No.” She shook her head. “Gone to Agen for a chess tournament.” Her fixed expression softened. “She doesn’t know he came over the other day,” she declared with satisfaction. “And she won’t get to know, either.” She smiled. “He’s a good lad, my grandson. Knows how to hold his tongue.”

“I hear we were both mentioned in church this morning,” I told her. “Consorting with undesirables, so I’m told.”

Armande snorted.

“What I do in my own house is my own business,” she said shortly. “I’ve told Reynaud, and I told Pere Antoine before him. They never learn, though. Always peddling the same old rubbish. Community spirit. Traditional values. Always the same tired old morality play.”

“So it’s happened before?” I was curious.

“Oh yes.” She nodded emphatically. “Years ago. Reynaud must have been Luc’s age in those days. Course, we’ve had travellers since then, but they never stayed. Not till now.” She glanced upwards at her half-painted house. “It’s going to look good, isn’t it?” she said with satisfaction. “Roux says he’ll have it finished by tonight.” She gave a sudden frown. “I can have him work for me all I choose.” she declared irritably. “He’s an honest man and a good worker. Georges has no right to tell me otherwise. No right at all.”

She picked up her unfinished tapestry, but put it down again without setting a stitch.

“I can’t concentrate,” she said crossly. “It’s bad enough being woken up by those bells at the crack of dawn without having to look at Caro’s simpering face first thing in the morning. “We pray for you every day, Mother,”’ she mimicked. “’We want you to understand why we worry so much about you.” Worry about their own standing with the neighbours, more like. It’s just too embarrassing to have a mother like me, reminding you all the time of how you began.” She gave a small, hard smile of satisfaction. “While I’m alive they know there’s someone who remembers everything,” she declared. “The trouble she got into with that boy. Who paid for that, eh? And him — Reynaud, Mr Whiter-than-White.” Her eyes were bright and malicious. “I bet I’m the only one still alive who remembers that old business. Not many knew in any case. Could have been the biggest scandal in the county if I’d not known how to hold my tongue.” She shot me a look of pure mischief. “And don’t go looking at me like that, girl. I can still keep a secret. Why d’you think he leaves me alone? Plenty of things he could do, if he put his mind to it. Caro knows. She tried already.”

Armande chuckled gleefully — heh-heh-heh.

“I’d rather understood Reynaud wasn’t a local,” I said curiously.

Armande shook her head.

“Not many people remember,” she said. “Left Lansquenet when he was a boy. Easier for everyone that way.” For a moment she paused, reminiscing. “But he’d better not try anything this time. Not against Roux or any of his friends.” The humour had gone from her face and she sounded older, querulous, ill. “I like them being here. They make me feel young.”

The small crabby hands plucked meaninglessly at the tapestry in her lap. The cat, sensing the movement, uncurled from beneath the rocking-chair and jumped onto her knees, purring. Armande scratched its head and it buzzed and butted at her chin with small playful gestures.

“Lariflete,” said Armande. After a moment I realized that was the cat’s name. “I’ve had her nineteen years. That makes her nearly my age, in cat time.” She made a small clucking sound at the cat, which purred louder. “I’m supposed to be allergic,” said Armande. “Asthma or something. I told them that I’d rather choke than get rid of my cats. Though there are some humans I could give up without a second thought.”

Lariflete whisker-twitched lazily. I looked across at the water and saw Anouk playing under the jetty with two black-haired river children. From what I could hear Anouk, the youngest of the three, seemed to be directing operations.

“Stay and have some coffee,” suggested Armande. “I was going to make some when you came along, anyway. I’ve got some lemonade for Anouk, too.”

I made the coffee myself in Armande’s curious, small kitchen with its cast-iron range and low ceiling. Everything is clean there, but the one tiny window looks onto the river, giving the light a greenish underwater look. Hanging from the dark unpainted beams are bunches of dry herbs in their muslin sachets. On the whitewashed walls copper pans hang from hooks. The door — like all the doors in the house — has a hole cut into the base to allow free passage to her cats. Another cat watched me curiously from a high ledge as I made the coffee in an enamelled tin pot. The lemonade, I noticed, was sugar-free, and the sweetener in the basin was some kind of sugar substitute. In spite of her bravado, it seems as if she does take some precautions after all.

“Foul stuff,” she commented without rancour, sipping the drink from one of her hand-painted cups. “They say you can’t taste the difference. But you can.” She made a wry face… “Caro brings it when she comes. Goes through my cupboards. I suppose she means well. Can’t help being a ninny.”

I told her she ought to take more care. Armande snorted.

“When you get to my age,” she told me, “things start to break down. If it isn’t one thing, then it’s another. It’s a fact of life.” She took another sip of the bitter coffee. “When he was sixteen Rimbaud said he wanted to experience as much as possible with the greatest possible intensity. Well, I’m going on eighty now, and I’m beginning to think he was right.”

She grinned, and I was again struck by the youthfulness of her face, a quality that has less to do with colouring or bone structure than with a kind of inner brightness and anticipation, the look of someone who has hardly begun to discover what life has to offer.

“I think you’re probably too old to join the Foreign Legion,” I told her with a smile. “And didn’t Rimbaud’s experiences run rather to excess at times?”

Armande shot me an impish look.

“That’s right,” she replied. “I could do with a bit more excess. From now on I’m going to be immoderate — and volatile — I shall enjoy loud music and lurid poetry. I shall be rampant,” she declared with satisfaction.

I laughed.

“You are quite absurd,” I said with mock severity. “No wonder your family despairs of you.”

But even though she laughed with me, rocking with merriment in her chair, what I recall now is not her laughter but what I glimpsed behind the laughter; that look of giddy abandon, desperate glee.

And it was only later, late into the night when I awoke sweating from some dark half-forgotten nightmare, that I remembered where I had seen that look before.

How about Florida, sweetheart? The Everglades? The Keys? How about Disneyland, cherie, or New York, Chicago, the Grand Canyon, Chinatown, New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains?

But with Armande there was none of my mother’s fear, none of her delicate parrying and wrangling with death, none of her mad hit-and-run flights of fantasy into the unknown. With Armande there was only the hunger, the desire, the terrible awareness of time.

I wonder what the doctor said to her this morning, and how much she really understands. I lay awake for a long time wondering, and when I finally slept, I dreamed of myself and Armande walking through Disneyland with Reynaud and Caro hand-in-hand as the Red Queen and the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with big, white, cartoon gloves on their hands. Caro had a red crown on her giant head, and Armande had a stick of candyfloss in each fist.

Somewhere in the distance I could hear the sounds of New York traffic, the blaring of horns getting closer.

“Oh my, oh don’t eat that, it’s poison,” squeaked Reynaud shrilly, but Armande went on gobbling candyfloss with both hands, her face glossy and self-possessed. I tried to warn her about the cab, but she looked at me and said in my mother’s voice, “Life’s a carnival, cherie, more people die every year crossing the road, it’s a statistical fact,” and went on eating in that terrible voracious way, and Reynaud turned towards me and squeaked, in a voice made all the more menacing for its lack of resonance, “This is all your fault, you and your chocolate festival, everything was all right until you came along and now everyone’s dying DYING DYING DYING?”

I held my hands out protectively. “It isn’t me,” I whispered. “It’s you, it’s supposed to be you, you’re the Black Man, you’re — ” Then I was falling backwards through the looking glass with cards spraying out in all directions around me, nine of Swords, DEATH. Three of Swords, DEATH. The Tower, DEATH. The Chariot, DEATH.

I awoke screaming, with Anouk standing above me, her dark face blurry with sleep and anxiety.

“Maman, what is it?”

Her arms are warm around my neck. She smells of chocolate and vanilla and peaceful untroubled sleep.

“Nothing. A dream. Nothing.”

She croons to me in her small soft voice, and I have an unnerving impression of the world reversed, of myself melting into her like a nautilus into its spiral, round-around-around, of her hand cool on my forehead, her mouth against my hair.

“Out-out-out,” she murmurs automatically. “Evil spirits, get thee hence. It’s OK now, Maman. All gone.”

I don’t know where she picks these things up from. My mother used to say that, but I don’t remember ever teaching Anouk. And yet she uses it like an old familiar formula. I cling to her for a moment, paralysed by love.

“It’s going to be OK, isn’t it, Anouk?”

“Of course.” Her voice is clear and adult and self-assured. “Of course it is.” She puts her head on my shoulder and curls sleepily into the circle of my arms. “I love you too, Maman.”

Outside the dawn is a moonshimmer away on the greying horizon. I hold my daughter tightly as she drifts back again into sleep, her curls tickling my face. Is this what my mother feared? I wonder as I listen to the birds — a single craw craw at first then a full congregation of them — was this what she fled? Not her own death, but the thousands of tiny intersections of her life with others, the broken connections, the links in spite of themselves, the responsibilities? Did we spend all those years running from our loves, our friendships, the casual words uttered in passing that can alter the course of a lifetime?

I try to recall my dream, the face of Reynaud — his lost expression of dismay, I’m late, I’m late — he, too, running from or into some unimaginable fate of which I am an unwitting part. But the dream has fragmented, its pieces scattered like cards in a high wind. Difficult to remember whether the Black Man pursues or is pursued. Difficult now to be sure whether he is the Black Man. Instead the face of the White Rabbit returns, like that of a frightened child on a carnival-wheel, desperate to get off.

“Who rings the changes?”

In my confusion I take the voice for someone else’s; a second later I understand I have spoken aloud. But as I sink back towards sleep I am almost sure I hear another voice reply, a voice which sounds something like Armande’s, something like my mother’s.

You do, Vianne, it tells me softly. You do.

20

Tuesday, March 4

The first green of the spring corn gives the land a mellower look than you and I are used to. At a distance it seems lush — a few early drones stitch the air above its swaying, giving the fields a somnolent appearance. But we know that in two months’ time all this will be burnt to stubble by the sun, the earth bared and cracked to a red glaze through which even the thistles are reluctant to grow. A hot wind scours what is left of the country, bringing with it drought, and in its wake, a stinking stillness which breeds disease. I remember the summer of ‘75, mon pere, the dead heat and the hot white sky. We had plague after plague that summer. First the river gypsies, crawling up what was left of the river in their filthy floating hovels, staying stranded in Les Marauds on the baking mudflats. Then the sickness which struck first their animals and then our own; a kind of madness, a rolling of the eyes, feeble jerking of the legs, bloating of the body though the animals refused to take water, then sweating, shivering and death amongst a heaving of purple-black flies; oh God, the air was ripe with them, ripe and sweet like the juice of a foul fruit. Do you remember? So hot that the desperate wild animals came off the dried marais to the water. Foxes, polecats, weasels, dogs. Many of them rabid, flushed from their habitat by hunger and the drought. We would shoot them as they stumbled onto the river banks, shoot them or kill them with stones. The children stoned the gypsies too, but they were as trapped and desperate as their animals and they kept coming back. The air was blue with flies and the stench of their burning as they tried to halt the disease. Horses succumbed first, then cows, oxen, goats, dogs. We kept them at bay, refusing to sell goods or water, refusing medicine. Stranded on the flats of the dwindling Tannes, they drank bottled beer and river water. I remember watching them from Les Marauds, the silent slouching figures over their campfires at night, hearing the sobbing of someone — a woman or a child, I think — across the dark water.

Some people, weaklings — Narcisse amongst them — began to talk about charity. About pity. But you stayed strong. You knew what to do.

At Mass you read out the names of those who refused to co-operate. Muscat — old Muscat, Paul’s father — barred them from the cafe until they saw reason. Fights broke out at night between the gypsies and the villagers. The church was desecrated. But you stood fast.

One day we saw them trying to hoist their boats across the flats to the open river. The mud was still soft and they slid thigh-deep in places, scrabbling for purchase against the slimy stones. Some pulled, harnessed to their barques by ropes, others pushed from behind. Seeing us watching, some cursed us in their harsh, hoarse voices. But it was another two weeks before they left at last, leaving their wrecked boats behind them. A fire, you said, mon pere, a fire left untended by the drunkard and his slattern who owned that boat, the flames spreading in the dry electric air until the river was dancing with it. An accident.

Some people talked; some always do. Said you had encouraged it with your sermons; nodded wisely at old Muscat and his young son, so nicely placed to see and hear, but who, on that night, had seen and heard nothing. Mostly, though, there was relief. And when the winter rain came and the Tannes swelled once more, even the hulks were covered over.

I went round there again this morning, Pere. The place haunts me. Barely different to the way it was twenty years ago, there is a sly stillness to the place, an air of anticipation. Curtains twitch at grimy windows as I walk by. I seem to hear a low, continuous laughter coming at me across the quiet spaces. Will I be strong enough, pere? In spite of all my good intentions, will I fail?

Three weeks. Already I have spent three weeks in the wilderness. I should be purged of uncertainties and weaknesses. But the fear remains. I dreamed of her last night. Oh, not a voluptuous dream, but one of incomprehensible menace. It is the sense of disorder which she brings, pere, which so unnerves me. That wildness.

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  • Joanne Harris. Chocolat
Из серии: Билингва Bestseller

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