The little house still stood in the lane, and in the hot August sunshine the roof almost glistened with heat in the places where the moss had not yet got a hold. The gate in the overgrown, unkempt hedge, hung heavy with chain and a large rusty padlock; the path beyond to a door that had lost most of its paint was barely visible for the tufts of shaggy grass and clusters of pink valerian that sprung out of its cobbled cracks. The afternoon silence shimmered with heat and all that could be heard was a soft buzz of insects and the rattle of scurrying lizards in the grass.
Faintly, in some unknown quarter, there came the sound of two young girls giggling, a soft note on the landscape that was slowly lost in the growl of an engine as a small white car moved slowly down the lane. A face peered through the window towards the house, and a sad smile grew on it. The person inside the small rental vehicle might have seemed familiar to others who lived along the lane, save for the changes wrought by the passing of time, much of it spent outdoors in a hot tropical climate.
Audrey stopped the little car with a bump on the curb by the gate. Turning off the engine, she looked up at her little house and breathed in a huge gulp of hot French summer air, revelling in a host of different scents that brought back so many memories. She climbed out lithely, still straight-backed and square-shouldered at the age of 52, and stretched the hour’s drive from Bordeaux out of her long tanned legs. Scrabbling in a canvas bag on the back seat, she found a large set of keys with an old champagne cork attached to them, and wrestled one into the padlock. When it stuck, she found a rock under the hedge and gave the lock a sharp thump before trying again, and this time it opened, almost regretfully, as if to apologise for the state of the building it had guarded for exactly thirty long years.
She paused on the path, and looked up at the pale blue shutters, and saw that they hung straight enough, even if they were a little blistered by weather. Audrey’s eyes were still clear and blue and her hair was still long and sun-bleached. She had changed so little that those who knew her wondered what her secret was, considering she spent her life amongst her beloved banana trees.
The key to the front-door fitted as sweetly as it had the day she and David had locked it, and she stepped through into the gloom, dust swirling in the sudden breeze as it ghosted in with her. Standing there in the doorway, eyes adjusting to the dark, she gradually began to pick out the shape of the furniture, covered with greying dust-sheets. She turned to her left and then reached around to the window, opening it quickly and flinging back the shutters with a squeak. With stunning suddenness light flooded the room, picking out the counter and old stone sink at the back, and as she stood there, drinking it all in, it became too much, and tears welled in her eyes; suddenly she felt dizzy with grief and sadness and she sat back on her heels closer to the floor and wept openly and noisily for the first time since David had died four weeks previously, suddenly collapsing at the wheel of his beloved 165 Massey Ferguson at the bottom end of the banana plantation, high above the Queensland coastline. Her grief poured out in huge wracking sobs and her heart blistered deep inside with the pain of it all, the injustice and the thought of what lay ahead. She rocked back on her heels, her eyes opaque with tears and wondered with a huge sniff whether she was doing the right thing.
It was then, as her eyes adjusted further to the gloom, that a strange thing happened. In the sudden silence there came a sound from above, a tap on the old floorboards and a whispered moment of noise; and even as Audrey stood up in puzzlement, she realized she could see that there, in the dust of many years that covered the floor, there were small footprints: hundreds of them, running circles around the furniture, criss-crossing the room, and overlaying previous tracks. She then noted with a start that the dust sheets on the furniture were disturbed too, and an empty Coke bottle lolled on the kitchen counter-top. There was another sound from above, and whirling round, her hand reached out for the stick she knew would be in the umbrella-stand by the front door.
Slowly she climbed the small wooden staircase, her feet settling quietly on each tread, her pulse hammering with adrenaline. Reaching the little landing, she faced the three doors and waited. The sound, when it came one long drawn breath later, was from her and David’s old room. She saw the door was just ajar, and trembling, she stepped forward and gently pushed it fully open. She saw immediately that the shutters were open an inch on their hinges, held like that by the old-fashioned hooks that she and David had so carefully installed. In the shadows she saw the dust-sheet on the bed also bore evidence of life and the small footprints had been here, too. She waited, her heart pounding, and a long minute later a small head slowly poked up above the far side of the bed. It saw Audrey standing there, and shot back out of sight, ducking down with a muted wail of terror.
Audrey blew out her cheeks with relief, and smiled to herself lopsidedly. She rounded the bed gently and there, crouching down in fear, were a pair of dark-haired heads. She stopped and quietly said in French, “Little ones, don’t worry, I promise not to hurt you,” and the two faces looked up at her with some relief. She realized instantly that they were alike, a pair of twins, and as they shakily came to their knees she saw they were children of maybe ten or eleven years old. Each girl wore a pair of cut-off jeans as shorts, and each sported a simple t-shirt; their feet were thrust into old battered flip-flops and their dark shoulder-length hair was scraped back into ponytails. As one, they both burst into a torrent of French, babbling apologies, perhaps fearing terrible retribution for their sins.
Audrey stopped the noise by putting out her hands, and as the hubbub slowed and ceased, she stretched them out towards the children and smiled. They looked at her in bewilderment, until her hands finally reached theirs, and they knew then from the soft touch of her fingers that this woman before them was not truly annoyed. Their little faces brightened and opened into hesitant grins, and they walked out into the open.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Audrey with a reciprocal grin, “tell me your names.”
They sat downstairs, the girls on the old threadbare sofa with their legs drawn up under them, and Audrey in the chair, a picnic of sorts littering the rough-planked coffee table that David had made by hand. There were the remains of a baguette, a peeled orange, some saucisson and half a little Camembert, all purchases that Audrey had made in Bordeaux after hiring the car. The girls had contributed some figs from a tree they knew somewhere beyond the kitchen window, which ultimately turned out to be the entrance they had been using for months, turning the little shuttered-up house into their special playground. Remarkably, they had done no damage, and not made much more impact upon the house’s contents other than to rumple sheets and make those little dusty footsteps. They had obviously been well brought up, Audrey thought, and she was grateful for both that and that she had a chance to hear a little about the village.
Audrey learnt that the girls were actually 12 years old, and that they lived half a mile away; their parents were the proud owners of one of the new little houses with a bright red-tiled roof in the field behind the old garage. The twins were called Josephine and Jacqueline, as honest a pair of girls names that Audrey could have hoped for. She’d rolled the names around her tongue, she had remained relatively fluent over the years: there had been a French society evening twice a month in Noosa, the small town in Queensland that had been home for the whole of her Australian life, and that had been sufficient to keep her tongue nimble enough that coming back to France had not been the total shock she had feared. She carefully avoided the girls’ questions, preferring to set the pace of this new developing relationship with her own.
She knew that René was dead, some six years before, and it seemed after looking around that that had been the last time any work had been done on the house. When she set off to inspect everything, the girls accompanied her around it hand in hand, as anxious to include her as they were to continue the implied impression that it was they who had looked after the little building. The bath had a great rust stain in it from a dripping tap, and Audrey knew the mains stop-cock in the street was either faulty or leaking. The tiny yard behind the house was a jungle of grasses, holly-hocks grew to dizzy heights and there was a buddleia that had soared upwards to immense proportions. In the summer sun its deep purple towers of flowers were awash with fluttering butterflies and humming-bird hawkmoths. Beyond, the fields ran down to the stream as they had always done, nothing had really changed although in one place the boundary wall had crumbled under a small fallen tree.
Audrey stood there, drinking in the view, adding the comfort she got from it to the glue she was slowly concocting to bind together the broken strands of her life. The girls’ chatter was another component that was easing the pain, and she became aware that they were looking up at her inquiringly.
“Sorry?” she muttered, aware that they had asked a question.
It was Josephine who repeated the question. Her little mouth opened, “Jacquie and I were wondering, Madame Audrée, why were you crying?”
“Oh,” Audrey muttered, and she looked at the view again, her eyes misting helplessly. “I am here because my husband died a month ago,” and she paused, a huge lump in her throat; the two girls gave a gasp of horror and then did what only children can do – they threw their arms around her and hugged her tight. Audrey looked tearfully down at the two little heads and pondered the absurdities of life and how easy it was to evolve from burglar to best friend in the space of forty minutes.
They went back inside and then out to the car, to bring in Audrey’s small suitcase. Under the stairs in a toolbox, she found a wrench and worked at the stopcock by the gate, and after a while water ran clean out of the kitchen tap. She would camp here for a couple of days and as she busied herself finding candles, the girls curled up on the sofa again, and Audrey then told them everything – the story of the house, about the adventures she’d had with David, of how they’d lived there happily until the day the telegram came to call him home for his father’s funeral in the winter of 1971. Of how they’d simply locked the house and left a key with René, explaining they’d be gone a while, naively unaware that life on the inherited farm would occupy so much time and so much of their lives, and little knowing that the house would remain empty of laughter for so long. They’d always meant to come back, but the money they saved for the trip was used instead for a cause far more worthy, even if it was unsuccessful.
They’d gone to look for Mary.
The story of Mary and Stephane was one of sorrow and mystery, and as Audrey recounted to the girls how her best friend had simply disappeared off the face of the earth, her heart bled a little more. Mary had lived with them for the best part of a year in the little house after the wedding in Guernsey, occupying the smaller of the bedrooms upstairs. It should never have worked of course; she should have been a gooseberry to a newly-married couple but it wasn’t like that. They all adored each other so much, and Mary made sure that she gave them space, so that the house bubbled along with three varieties of love every day. Stephane was living with his parents, and being an old fashioned Catholic family they wanted no part of anything outside of marriage. Instead Mary went up every weekend to the Médoc and stayed there for a night, sometimes at a friend’s or – as Stephane’s lifelong dream neared completion – aboard the concrete hull of an ocean-going yacht he was building behind a chai at a friend’s vineyard. The boat was launched in the autumn of 1971, just before Audrey and David left for Australia, and it set off from Arcachon just as the autumn gales started to turn the Atlantic into a winter maelstrom, and as they headed westwards past the great dunes a cluster of friends in small boats followed behind, waving and calling goodbye as the seas soaked them in the great outpouring of tidal water.
It took Mary and Stephane a year to reach Noosa, where the couple were married in a great sprawling Australian wedding which every farmer and family member along the valley above the sea had attended. It had been a week-long affair, studded with horse-racing along the beach, impromptu surfing contests down in the little bay, the roasting of several large animals, and a cane toad hunt which had taken place under the severe handicap of a cask of Bundaberg rum. It had been a week of pure magic, a blaze of summer that encapsulated everything good about youth and its heady rush into adulthood, and the patriarchs and seniors of each family grinned into their sundowners every evening and wished that they could have gone back in time as well. That week created a special memory for David and Audrey for during it they found out they were to be parents, their daughter was born the following year, they naturally named her Mary, to remember all the love that had come and gone.
After the wedding, Mary and Stephane had sailed off into the Pacific, to meander their way through a drawerful of charts, and lose a dozen anchors on deserted reefs. Mary kept in contact as best as she could, and when they reached Tahiti, they stopped there for several months to see if they could find work. Stephane found a teaching job in a school and Mary became something of a photographer, taking a new hobby to a height where she started to earn a living from it. Life was good, but then the postcards and the letters grew infrequent, shorter and abrupt. Telephone calls went unanswered and in 1984 Audrey and David took their holidays savings in hand and went to find out what had happened; it had been three years since they had heard from Mary.
A week on the islands did nothing for their souls. Stephane no longer worked at the school and the staff there had no idea where he had gone, or even if Mary was still with him. At the address that they had last lived at, the landlord repeated the same tale. The boat, the beautiful white ketch that they had simply christened Médoc, and which had been painstakingly outfitted and rigged for the rigours of transoceanic life, was nowhere to be seen. At each port they asked, no one could tell them anything different. There was no sign of the couple, no hint of where they were or had gone, and as they packed to go home on their last day Audrey had sobbed uncharacteristically in the hotel room, her heart heavy with dread. Since then, for seventeen long years, there had been no sign of Mary, not a word. Sightings of her, and of Médoc, kept their hopes alive but all efforts to follow up such clues had ultimately proved useless. There were enough rumours and glimpses, perhaps, to suggest that both people were still alive, but her disappearance hung over the valley and the close-knit community like a boulder above a slope, a question of darkness that none dared touch lest it fall and curse all of them. It hurt Mary’s father most, a lovely giant of a man who had guided David and Audrey through each season on the farm, aiding, advising and watching over them as best he could.
By this stage in the telling of Audrey’s story the two girls had finally worked their way onto Audrey’s chair, a fact she found remarkably comforting for some reason. She felt a kinship with the twins, she had no idea why as they barely knew each other. But when she had finished her story Jaqueline asked the question that Audrey knew had been coming.
“So are you coming back to live, Madame Audrée?”
Jacquie asked the question in excitement, hoping this was going to be the beginning of a long friendship, a woman who the two of them could visit every day and play in their favourite house.
Audrey’s mouth went dry with dread, she knew she was going to break the girls’ hearts.
“Mes cheries, non,”and she paused, as if to lessen the blow, “I’m afraid I am here to sell my little house. My farm…” and she shuddered at the statement of intent those words brought, “…is in too much debt, and my little house is going to help it live a little longer.”
She was so shocked at the enormity of what she said, at the trauma that this was going to cause, and the length of time she might have to wait for a sale, that she barely noticed the twins exchanging glances, and their conspiratorial glee.
“Mais, Audrée,” and the diminution of the name went unnoticed, “but if you want to sell your house, we need to tell you something,” and the twins giggled excitedly and held hands. “If you are truly selling this beautiful house, you must tell our parents – for they have wanted to buy it for a very long time.” Jacqueline stopped at this point, aware she had made a very adult statement, and she was suddenly unsure if what she had said still had merit.
Audrey sat quite still, struggling to comprehend the turn of events, and her head span with the permutations of it all, thoughts sizzled like coals. “Are you sure?”, and she babbled the question out in a rush…
“Mais oui! Our father has even been in here, Audrée,” and the girls had the decency to look ashamed at the fact they had brought their father through the small kitchen window. They watched Audrey carefully as they talked, disbelieving a little that she disbelieved, a series of thought processes that got increasingly confused as the moments went by and Audrey did nothing but sit, mouth agape in astonishment, furiously thinking about the possibilities of a private sale, a quick sale, money that could be put to good use.
As she struggled with her thoughts, the twins mutually decided they had seen enough, and jumping off the chair, they dragged Audrey to her feet. ” Let’s go, and you can meet our parents, Audrée – then you will believe!” and so they shut the shutters, and marched Audrey out to her little car, their three sets of footsteps drumming a little tattoo of courage that carried them all forward for the next few days.
Ten days later, Audrey caught the train from Bordeaux to Paris, a signed contract of sale in her pocket, a copy of a power of attorney, and a piece of paper with exchanged addresses and phone numbers in her bag. She had a photo of herself and the twins with their arms around each other to put on her mantelpiece, an open invitation to stay in ‘her’ house whenever she came back, and a promise from their parents that she would have first option if they were to ever sell the house again, something that seemed unlikely. They were a couple in their early forties and fit as fiddles. The space in her canvas bag where the keys had once lain echoed with memories, and the champagne cork which she couldn’t give up rolled around as though lost without its lifelong friends. Audrey had wept again at the gate as she had locked it for the second time in her life, and her shoulders had sagged without the support of Mary and David, even though if she closed her eyes she could feel their shadows close by. She’d driven down the little lane in the hire car determined not to look back, but as she turned the corner a gust of wind had caught a loose blue shutter and it had flapped softly in the breeze, a soft blue goodbye in her mirror that had made her wince with regret and drive blurry-eyed for several minutes.
I hope you have enjoyed my little story as much as I have enjoyed writing it – The Concluding and Final part, Part IV, will be next week