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Saturday 27 August 2005
“This wind must be the breaths of too many angry souls,” murmured thirty-year-old Sylvie Lefour before eyeing the rows of vines in her small vineyard that still needed pruning. She secured her long, black hair into a tight knot, nestling on the nape of her neck.
“So what does that make clouds?” Her six-year-old daughter Léonie squinted upwards.
“I suppose they’re what’s left of the departed. Les disparus.”
“You mean, their bodies?” Léonie persisted.
“If you like.”
That gave her child something to think about while the secateurs’ staccato snapping began their work.
“Is Papa up there?”
“I like to think so. But,” her mother shrugged, “who knows?”
However, often at night while Léonie slept, Sylvie would stand on their apartment’s tiny balcony and listen to the infinite silence, with just the merest shift of air as if telling her Marcel was close by.
“So if it rains, he’s crying,” added her daughter with finality.
“Papa doesn’t cry any more. He’s been at peace for too long.” Sylvie felt tears prick her own eyes, and the secateurs’ blade suddenly pierced her thumb. “There, see what you made me do! Why not go and join Denise? She might have some bons bons.”
She sucked her wound and watched her daughter run over the dry soil to where two women and three children were sitting outside their small, wooden cabane. She placed a hand on her swollen stomach. That kicking had started again, almost as if the baby within wanted to be with Léonie amongst the laden vines.
Sylvie sighed, pulling up her coat’s collar to protect her ears. The Pyrenean weather was changing. Although Mont Canigou’s snow-covered peak to the south seemed illumined as if by some miraculous power, there was ice in the wind coming from the north over the Corbières. Soon the woodburner would be on all day and, as usual, she’d have to ply Fernand Roux with more compliments for a few extra loads of his logs.
She saw her daughter playing cȃche-cȃche under the fig trees. Her little red leggings running back and forth. Then Nicole Roux, the woodcutter’s wife, lighting a cigarette and blowing its smoke her way, staring as if in a trance. It was bad enough how the camionette of Léonie’s devoted father, Marcel Lefour, had tipped over into the ravine outside the village last Christmas Eve, but worse how, as a bereft widow, she’d had to make ends meet, grateful for whatever people could donate.
Yet despite her having to move from a nice house to an apartment, and selling her beloved Citroën Xsara, the fat Nicole was jealous. Worse, desperately jealous. She could tell.
“Léonie!” Sylvie called her daughter. “Allons!”
There were potatoes and chicory to buy. Vegetables that had never thrived in their allotment. Also, an important letter to leave at the notaire’s office.
Only Nicole didn’t wave goodbye as mother and daughter joined hands to meet the road leading into St Maure-des-Roches.
“Did Denise give you a bon bon?” Sylvie asked Léonie.
“Yes, and I’ve still got it.” She stuck out her tongue. The shrunken
sweet glistened on it like a hailstone.
“And Nicole. Did she say anything?”
Her little girl fell silent, lips pursed together, and Sylvie knew the taunting had started again.
“You can tell Maman,” she urged.
“I don’t want to.”
Sylvie looked down at Léonie’s tousled head. Sometimes her daughter seemed too old for her years. Perhaps she had to be…
At the shop, Léonie choose cola bottle gums and four red Haribo snakes while Sylvie weighed six of the cheapest potatoes. Sometimes the shopkeeper let her have extra, and even threw in the odd tomato. But not today. He was away at a rugby match in Toulouse.
“Oui, merci.” But that young woman was Nicole Roux’s old school friend. Nothing was safe with any of them, and since Marcel’s death, Sylvie kept herself at a greater distance than ever. It wasn’t their business to know that a week before his fatal accident, he’d bought fifty hectares of land near Lagrange, with money she’d no idea he’d had. Nor was it anyone’s business that the new baby wasn’t his.
Probate on his purchase had finally been granted. There was no time to waste.
Having left her letter marked URGENT with the receptionist at the notaire’s, she and Léonie returned to their modest apartment across the road.
The following Tuesday, they again spent three hours in the vineyard. Rain had turned its soil dark grey and soft underfoot. Unlike the previous week, only Nicole sat inside the cabane with her half-empty packet of Gauloises.
Léonie had bought lollipops for Denise’s three children, but they were away, staying with their grandmother. The disappointed little girl clung to Sylvie’s coat as she worked.
“Now you really do look knocked up,” Nicole suddenly called out to Sylvie. “Not much longer, hein?”
Sylvie saw that sneering face in the gloom.
“Was it oak or fir my Fernand got in for you? One poke per ton, hein?”
A puzzled Léonie looked up at her mother, expecting a reaction.
“Everyone in St. Maure says it’s his.” Nicole added, crushing her dimp underfoot. “And everyone can’t be wrong.”
Sylvie was stung into action, snipping harder, faster along the last six rows to take her out of earshot, but the child inside her was turning somersaults, bringing pain under her ribs, and the breeze still carried Nicole’s taunting baby noises in her direction, followed by sour laughter.
Shut up, you venomous snake. You’ve picked the wrong one for your poison…
Immediately, huge drops of rain began to fall, quietly at first then thudding on the bare stones. Léonie whimpered as Sylvie glanced at the cabane. It was finally empty. Nicole had gone.
“Come on!” she urged. “Run.”
That same rain also hit their faces, making skullcaps of their hair, and once inside the hut’s rotting darkness, they heard it punish those old roof tiles and leave a deep, muddy pool around the door. Further inside stood four old garden chairs whose plastic had melted away in the summer’s heat, revealing rusty skeletons for arms and legs, while the table, covered with a worn, waxed cloth, was where lunch was taken and cards played during the vendage. Now rat droppings littered the earth floor, together with a few dismembered toys.
“You mustn’t listen to Nicole,” Sylvie advised her daughter. “She has a bad mind.” Then tapped her own forehead with a forefinger. “In fact, if anything, she’s to be pitied.”
Indeed, most local people knew that Nicole Roux was barren. Instead of a monthly bleed, the contents of her womb lodged in the most bizarre places. Her neck, her thighs, even her fingers so that she was usually absent from the main harvest when money was most needed. Such gossip was passed around amongst the other womenfolk and fermented in those minds with too little else to think of.
Once the downpour ended, mother and daughter stepped out into that dark afternoon. Léonie’s little fist nestled hot in Sylvie’s hand as she returned to the last of the vines and in the fading light, finished clipping.
Sylvie had suddenly remembered her appointment at the notaire’s. Her hair, her clothes were a damp mess, yet surely they’d understand, given what she’d been doing. The smart Philippe Pableau and handsome Maurice Dessange.
That notaire’s office basked in its usual smug quietude, but at least the receptionist let Léonie sit alongside her mother. However, it was crucial that she heard not one word of what her mother had to say.
Both men kissed Sylvie’s cheeks in turn. One aftershave on another. Hints of garlic and two good lunches. She apologised for her bedraggled appearance.
“My dear Madame Lefour, if you were hanging upside down in a dust storm, you’d still look wonderful.” The maire, Pableau, blushed a little and gestured to a chair by the desk. Dessange the notaire nodded agreement and sat alongside him. He produced a red file which he unlocked with a small key.
“This is not, how shall we say, an entirely conventional request, but in view of your –” he cleared his throat while ferreting around in the box – “circumstances, we aren’t unsympathetic.”
“Thank you, monsieur. As I explained in my letter, Léonie’s needs have priority. In the event of my death, those Legrange hectares must pass to her alone.”
“Naturally.” Pableau concurred, eyeing her breasts. “A mother’s duty no less.”
Dessange swivelled the piece of paper round so that it faced her, then he stamped the date.
“Voilà. Now before you sign in front of us, let us confirm your requirements.” As he read out her new Will, Sylvie’s heart seemed to slow and, as if to remind her of its presence, the unborn child pressed against her ribs.
“That is correct,” she said once he’d finished, then took the fountain pen he passed her.
“I must remind you, madame,” Dessange added while returning the signed document to the file and re-locking it. “It would be unwise to mention this to anyone else. In the event of either or both our deaths, may I reassure you this document will be judicially upheld by our colleagues in Perpignan.”
He stood up; his dark suit apparently crease-proof, his wedding ring far too large. Pableau, too, shook her hand, while Sylvie’s questioning gaze passed from one to the other.
“I know what you’re thinking, madame,” he added. “But rest assured. Confidentiality has always been our trademark.”
“Again, thank you.” And only then did she allow a smile to soften her face.
Unlike the Grenache vines of St Maure des Roches, whose tendrils were yet to sprout and spread, its inhabitants’ tongues were already busy, and each interpretation carried a fresh nuance, a personal slant, so that by the time Nicole Roux learnt of Sylvie Lefour’s new hectares, that number had doubled.
“One hundred, Fernand. Did you hear me?” she prodded her weary husband as he dozed in a chair by the TV next to their elderly Alsatian dog. “Do you realise what that means?”
His grunts grew louder until he woke himself up with a surprised snort, making the dog suddenly slink into the kitchen.
“And that’s apart from her own vines she pays me and Denise a pittance for trimming. No wonder Marcel’s brakes failed the way they did in the Gorges de St Maure…”
“What are you rabbiting on about now, woman?” His half-open eyes bloodshot.
“I mean all that land could be ours one day, without you lifting a finger.” She laid a flat hand on his crotch. “And all because of that. You putting it about…”
“The wind must have got to you, that’s all I can say. It’s reached your ears and turned your brain.”
“As sure as Mary’s the mother of Jesus, when I first sniffed what you’d been up to, I wanted to chop it off. So help me God, I really did….”
That purveyor of logs and occasionally wood for fencing covered the lower portion of his bleu de travail overalls with the latest Canal + programme guide and pretended to doze, letting her run out of steam as usual. But she’d given the matter her undivided attention since ten o’clock that morning and was firing on all cylinders.
Already a plan was hatched.
“You’d better be listening.” Nicole Roux spread the waxed cloth on their kitchen table and slapped down a salt and pepper cruet in the middle. “My guess is her second kid’s due soon, and then there’ll be one or two ‘accidents’. You know the sort of thing. Careless stuff that could happen to anybody. Like Marcel Lefour, for example.”
Her husband frowned.
“But his garage accepted full blame,” he countered. “They’d been short-staffed, and overlooked his worn brake cables…”
Her tone as hard as that cut-glass cruet, a wedding present from his aunt. Hard as sleet in a winter’s wind. He kept his eyes shut as she continued, but all the while noticing his pulse beat a little faster.
“Once the paternity tests have been done, and remember, Fernand, we are entitled because of the business. We’ve got rights too…”
“What business? It hardly pays me to take the bloody truck out.”
“I’m not listening. We’ll be sitting pretty.”
Pretty? Moses wept. The only pretty thing that’s likely to come near me ever again is Sylvie Lefour…
“So, what d’you say?” Nicole pressed on. “Have I made you happy?”
He grunted as she delivered a tureen of lentil soup and placed it in the middle of the table. Stuck her forefinger in and licked it.
“Yes, wife,” he lied, feeling suddenly ill. “Something smells good.”
On a cold, late February morning in 2006 at two a.m. Sylvie Lefour gave birth to a large boy whose hair, when cleared of blood and dried with a towel, was the exact replica of Fernand Roux’s. A red, foxy brown. His dark eyes, too; missing nothing.
He’d taken twelve hours to arrive and been so oddly presented in vitro that the surgeon in Perpignan had performed an emergency Caesarian section.
“Too much viticulture, madame,” he’d warned, handing him back to her. “Should you choose to increase your family further, I’d pay someone to do that work instead.”
Sylvie looked into the baby’s dark eyes and, for a moment, felt a numbing shame at what she’d done with Fernand Roux. Like Léonie, he was such a little innocent. Nothing was his fault, it was all hers, yet despite advice, she decided to give him a bottle rather than encourage the primitive closeness of breastfeeding. She also decided to call him Guy, as there was no one on either family’s side with that name.
Her mother in Limoges had suggested Georges, while Marcel’s mama bleating all the way from Charleville Méziers, had begged for her dead son’s name the moment she’d known Sylvie was pregnant. After all, hadn’t it been his stored sperm she’d used? The wonders of medical science?
In fact, Sylvie had thought, fending them both off from her hospital bed and refusing visitors had been far harder than lying. Until a week later when Nicole Roux spotted the pram outside the coiffeuse.
“Mon Dieu, he’s perfect!” she cooed, her cheeks too close to Guy’s face for Sylvie’s liking. “Good on you. Congratulations!”
Sylvie couldn’t believe her ears. She’d expected at least a poisoned arrow. A public put-down. But no. Little Guy had clasped the barren woman’s finger and was about to feed it into his mouth, when Leonie tried to push it away.
“Don’t do that!” she piped up. “He’ll get worms.”
Nicole’s eyes narrowed before she withdrew, giving the pram handle a sharp push as she went. Guy began to cry.
“That was thoughtless of you.” Sylvie tried not to sound too harsh.
“I’m sorry, Maman, but her hand really was dirty.”
On the way home through the market, they passed the Maire Pableau buying a potted plant, perhaps for his wife. His beige suit immaculate. Trouser creases sharply defined in the sun and, although clearly aware of Sylvie, he didn’t look round.
“That’s your friend,” announced her daughter loudly. “Why doesn’t he say bonjour to you?”
Sylvie pulled Léonie along and began to jog, even though her empty stomach was still sore.
“One day, child, your tongue will grow too big to fit your mouth. Let’s go.”
And so it was with two crying children, she encountered Fernand Roux emerging from his garage in his battered truck. The road was too busy for her to cross to avoid him. Besides, his spotlessly clean vehicle blocked her way. He too, looked different. He’d shaved, lost weight she could tell, and his hair had been professionally cut.
He climbed down from his seat, still a bear of a man with arms full of old scars and splinters. She’d seen them close up and now again as he stared into the pram. Tears blurring his eyes.
“Guy is his name. Pick him up if you like,” she said, and the moment those big hands cupped the child, that mewling stopped.
“See, he likes you,” Léonie smiled. “So why are you crying?”
Suddenly, Fernand seemed to lose his nerve. He thrust the baby at Sylvie and plunged back into his truck, leaving them speechless in a pall of diesel.
In the main bedroom of Number 3, Rue des Platanes, Nicole Roux once more made herself available to her newly spruced-up husband by lying on her side with her right leg slightly raised, the way the female doctor at the Clinic had suggested. But Fernand stayed resolutely on his back, watching how a slit of light from between the shutters altered as the wind outside gathered strength.
“Come on,” she urged him. “I’m exactly halfway through the month. Fourteen days today.”
“What do you mean, can’t? I’m your wife!”
Nicole turned towards him with such force that he feared the bed’s wooden slats underneath them would break. He felt her huge breasts and belly against his skin. How she’d let herself go, he thought. Unlike Sylvie. How after four years together he felt nothing but revulsion…
“Damn you! Damn you!” she yelled. “I might still be able to have a baby, just like her. How come hers pop out like bloody rats?”
Rats? That beautiful child? And Léonie too…
“Well, we all know, don’t we? And why you’ve been poncing yourself up lately. Even your truck.”
He listened as she left the bed and clomped downstairs, making their Alsatian dog bark its alarm. Giving Fernand the idea he needed. He swiftly crossed himself, and when his wife returned with a cup of hot chocolate for herself, he was there, ready and waiting.
While Madame Jeanne Lefour, her daughter-in-law Sylvie, and grandchildren were surveying that huge pasture at Lagrange, Fernand Roux had persuaded his wife to accompany him to the mairie with the lie that their ageing chien de chasse had gone missing. At first, Nicole had refused, but since his attentions towards her had increased, she’d complied.
The day was warm, and the short drive to that newly-painted building left them both perspiring. He took longer than usual to lock the truck. His movements slow, indecisive. She wondered if all those petits morts were leaving him weak, but then who was she to complain? There might even be a very important baby on the way.
“We can eat a croque-monsieur afterwards,” she took his hand. “You must keep up your strength.”
Fernand had written their Alsation’s details on the back of a recent photo. As it was an offence for an owner to allow their charge to roam and foul the streets, he was doing the right thing by reporting the loss. Unlike those Spanish thickos who let their mongrels foul everywhere.
“Our dog Jaime’s gone missing,” Fernand lied, handing over its photo to the maire. “Since 7 a.m. this morning.”
Pableau’s eyebrows raised.
“He must have run off,” added Fernand. “But I was too busy cleaning my truck to notice…”
The official placed the photo in a plastic wallet then looked directly at the
“Is that all?”
Fernand glanced at his wife then suddenly moved to the door and stood against it, arms outstretched.
“No, maȋtre. There’s something else. The real reason I’m here.”
Nicole Roux’s dough-like face fixed on one man then the other. Anticipation making her almost colourless eyes sparkle as her husband continued.
“I pay my taxes, I obey the law and I love my country.” He took a deep breath, and she waited eagerly for the rest. “I also love Sylvie Lefour who’s just given birth to my son. It’s for that reason I must protect them both, and not only in my new Will.”
“Monsieur, attendez si’l vous plaȋt…”
But too late. Nicole had clenched her fist and thrust it hard in Fernand’s groin.
“There! Go on, you traitor!” she snarled. “Tell him what you decided, not me.”
“She’s going to kill her and both children,” he gasped. “That’s what she was plotting last night. So we get the land and the vines…”
“You filthy liar!”
Then, as the Maire was frantically dialling for help, Fernand Roux passed out, wedging the door shut with his prone body.
Monday 24 December 2007
Another Christmas Eve, and this scruffily-dressed chômeur delivers a gift-wrapped soft toy for his young son and a bracelet for Léonie which he’s fashioned from pieces of sycamore bark. Then he leaves their luxuriously appointed villa in the Rue Verdun, knowing more than he should about that beautiful dark-haired widow.
With his Alsation dog run over and killed in September, he now lives alone in a small flat above the local pizzeria, prone to sudden black-outs and no longer able to serve the needs of those with wood-burners in St. Maure-des-Roches. Nicole, who gave birth to a premature, still-born daughter on All Souls’ Day, has moved north to Dinan to be near her sister. There is no contact between her and her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Léonie has finished her first term at the local école primaire, and still asks awkward questions about her hyperactive younger brother who normally spends half a week at a nearby nursery school. Their mother also notices, with equal concern, that she’s inherited her paternal grandmother’s sharp tongue, and has plans to become an actress.
Now a wealthy woman, Sylvie Lefour pays Monsieur Dessange’s cousins to cut the vines and harvest their grapes, while renting out that vast pasture to two farmers in return for a considerable monthly sum. As for Fernand Roux who’s invested in some smart new clothes, he’s become a regular visitor to her luxurious new home, and tonight in its well-appointed salon, amongst gossip and laughter, she pours him a glass of Moët et Chandon which she’d opened earlier and kept cool in the fridge.
“Bon santé,” she smiles, watching him take his first sip and the rest.
But ten minutes later, with that bottle empty, he lets out a moan and turns pale before sliding to the floor from his comfortable chair. He lies quite motionless. Eyes shut, mouth agape. His empty wine glass fallen alongside him.
“Fernand! Wake up!” Sylvie urges him, stroking his hair before checking his pulse which slows then finally and alarmingly stops.
Too late she begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which yields nothing, while her once eager lover’s normally expressive brown eyes have already scrolled up to the ceiling.
“Help me, Jésu,” she mutters, yet aware there’s time to not only rinse out and dispose of both that bottle and the glass, but to use a very useful inner door to access her adjoining garage.
There, having pushed Léonie’s much-loved bracelet down the equally convenient WC, she loads its creator into the boot of their brand new Isuzu Trooper, covering his cooling body. Locking him in. Waiting for early darkness to fall.
Then, with a noticeable spring in her step, Sylvie Lefour sets the alarm and walks towards that house belonging to one of her old school friends, where Léonie and Guy have been happily playing with her own two children.
chômeur – unemployed
You can read more about Sally Spedding and her books here.
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