A SHORT FICTIONAL STORY TODAY – find yourself a cosy corner, indoors or outdoors, a cup of tea or coffee, an ice cold drink or a glass of wine and enjoy and I hope you have a lovely Sunday x
John and I took a break for lunch in Hauteville and continued on our way home in the early afternoon, stopping for a brief look at the brocante on the way out of town – an emporium that we had often remarked on, but never had the time to visit. It occupied what had obviously been once an old barn by the side of the road, complete with a yard full of rusty gates, milk churns and old tools from an era long gone. Pride of place in this junkyard went to a pair of garden seats in a glorious purple colour, the result of an adventure between an old enamel bath and a cutting torch, fuelled perhaps by a combination of innate French artistry and a bottle of misbegotten Cognac one frenzied summer’s afternoon.
We parked the small truck in the yard and dismounted cautiously, aware that there was much to be cautious of amongst the metal pieces that surrounded us. It had rained that morning so we tiptoed across the puddles and into the barn, an ethereal place of gaunt shadows and fleeting light that came through sun-crazed transparent panels high in a corrugated asbestos roof, a space where tables and counters were piled high with several lifetimes of memories that stretched back into the distance, an arrangement overseen by a bevy of sparrows who chirped and called as they sped freely around tall walls.
The old man sitting inside the door at a worn table exchanged a cursory nod with us and went back to a game of poker on an old iPad, an incongruous jolt of modern life that sat strangely at ease with the row of old charcoal portraits on the wall above. I was hunting for white íronware, and John as always went off to look for antique war souvenirs. As I eased down the groaning tables, I became aware of a constant drip of water, and came across a family of buckets placed strategically under the main beams, where the morning’s downpour was steadily dripping down from the roof. It appeared that this was a matter of some normality, for the tables and counters were arranged so nothing was wet, and after 20 minutes of looking I came empty-handed to the back of the barn to find John standing by a huge armoire, his fingers caressing the joints and ancient worn wood like an old friend.
He heard me coming and turned to me with a smile, beckoning me closer.
“What do you think?” he asked, jutting his chin at the huge piece of furniture.
“Are you mad?” I hissed in a stage whisper, “It’s enormous! It’ll never fit, surely?” and both of us imagined the bare wall in the hallway in our home, a space which we had been looking to fill for some time with a period piece of original French oak.
I reached forward to touch the wood too, and was equally smitten, and we both sighed and went to find the old man.
“Oh, that’s been here since my father had the barn, maybe since before I was born.” he said, poignantly, and he opened the doors to show several shelves piled high with magazines from decades gone by.
“I tell you what, if you take it now, you can have it for €30 – that’s what the junk yard offered me for it last week and I’d not be unhappy to see it out of here, it takes up so much space.”
And so it was that 20 minutes later we left Hauteville with our small truck fully laden down with the addition of an armoire, and we set off for home, both of us imagining the new life that lay in store for our new purchase, unaware of how the gods were softly smiling high above us.
It took us over three hours to get back to the village, and by the time we arrived it was late-afternoon and the sun had reappeared somewhere along the way. We pulled into the drive and leapt out the van, eager to be home again after two days on the road. Besides the armoire, we had another €2000 euros worth of assets from an antique fair in Limoges, and after quickly checking everything was still in one piece we closed the doors and went inside to make a much anticipated cup of tea. George came to meet us, the four dogs trailing him, and we hugged our 17 year-old son and thanked him for keeping the castle gates from imagined invaders.
It was too late to unload the truck anyway, and we had to be next door at the neighbours for supper within an hour, a fact that John took to mean he could forgo the tea and move straight to a bottle of cold beer. After a quick wash and a change into clean clothes more suitable for candlelight and wine, we shut our door behind the three of us and went through the gates and down the pavement to the house next door, little realising that the ancient plane trees in the avenue were nodding sympathetically at the truck and its contents, and that the rooks high in the elms across the road behind the big maison de maître were watching fate unfold in a dusty dance of tears and memories. As we stepped in through the sidegate to Caroline’s door, a big black BMW car came racing down the short drive of the maison de maître opposite and pulled out into the road at speed without stopping, the handiwork of an arrogant man with no regard for life and its little moments of pleasure. I’m certain John and I both scowled at the same time, and when we turned, Caroline was there with a resigned face, watching her family’s arch-enemy race down through the village in a trail of summer dust.
There were twelve of us for supper, a collection of friends who had been here many times before. As we ate, Caroline’s 80 year-old mother nodded the evening away at the end of the table. Her name was Odette and her ancient eyes were rheumy with memories and sadness. Caroline sat, as always, next to her, feeding Odette choice titbits as each course appeared. George and Janine, Caroline’s teenage daughter, giggled at the other end of the table, and in between sat the rest of us, rearranging plates and glasses as we always did almost every Friday night, an evening when everyone brought a dish, where we all shared our wines, and where meals typically ended well after midnight.
It was during the cheese interlude, when ripe smells and glugs of contented Bordeaux were in high demand, that I noticed that Caroline’s huge downstairs space seemed emptier than normal. Looking around, I saw that some more furniture was gone, and at that realisation I turned to see Caroline watching my glance across the interior of the house. She looked at me steadily, and I raised my eyebrows silently in question, a gesture she simply nodded at in reply, with an undiscernible gallic shrug of the shoulders. I suddenly felt very sad, all too aware that life in her household was one that lurched from one unhappy low to another. She was struggling, I knew that, and I understood and wondered how long it could continue. Widowed now for nearly five years, with an aging mother to look after and a hungry talented daughter to raise, life for Caroline’s meagre salary as a kindergarten teacher was all too difficult. Through the street windows I could see the gay lights of the maison de maître across the street, mocking Caroline’s existence, reminding her each night of what once might have been – for the house across the road truthfully belonged to Caroline and her family, a change of existence brought about by a German occupation during a war of attrition, and a false ownership begotten by an unscrupulous man who had sided with the Vichy government. It was a sad tale, one rarely explained, and a blemish on a village that had failed to help its wartime survivors.
As coffee loomed, I suddenly had an idea, little knowing that an invisible trail of cosmic dust was blurring my thoughts, and that fate’s finger was prodding my chest, a tinge of pain I attributed to too much cheese. I attracted John’s attention, and nodded in the direction of the end of the room, where once a large sideboard had stood in a space now occupied by a selection of overflowing boxes filled with papers and books. John looked back at me, puzzled, and I grabbed some empty plates and stood up to go to the kitchen, a movement he understood immediately.
He joined me by the sink a moment later with two more plates. “What?” he asked, quite simply.
“Caroline’s been selling her furniture again, darling,” and my eyes swept past him to the far side of the room, a direction his also followed and he understood instantly. “As it’s her birthday next week, why don’t we give her a present now?” and my totally understanding husband nodded in agreement, realising instantly what I was implying.
“Sure, why not,” he shrugged, “we’ll find another, there’s enough of them out there, and to be frank,” he added emphatically, “we’re not yet that attached to it. It is rather beautiful and I know she’ll like it.”
I did too, and a minute later I told Caroline her birthday present was to be given to her that very evening as we had to make use of the small group of men to help move it.
Confused, Caroline watched wordlessly as five minutes later we brought the old armoire to her door on the long dolly John had first built for our business years before. We gently eased the huge piece through the gate, and then with some strops the men managed to bring it down the steps into the Caroline’s hall and through into the salon. There was enough ceiling-room to slide it upright, and with some ceremony and a little cheer it was backed up to the wall and pushed into place. It stood there, the wood glowing softly in the candlelight from the table, and Carolyn promptly burst into tears as I hugged her in an embrace of understood sympathy and love. We’d been friends for ten years and we had seen it all, or so we thought. I knew that everything that had come out of the sideboard would go back into the armoire without a problem, and we all sat down back at the table to enjoy the view. It was, I had to admit, a stunning addition to the room and the unpainted old stone walls. John and I would simply have to find another. I wondered what its true worth was and then fate decided tell us all.
In the hubbub of self-congratulatory cheer, amid the clinking of glasses raised in an impromptu toast, there came a scraping of a chair, and everyone turned to the head of the table to see Odette struggling to get to her feet. Caroline put out her hand to help, but the old lady pushed it aside in a surprising show of strength. Once up and on her feet, Odette quietly stepped across the tiled floor towards the armoire, as all of us watched in some surprise. She stopped in front of the huge wooden door, and leaning forward, touched it softly, just as John and I had done that morning, and a thrill of electric excitement surged down my neck as I sensed an unseen undercurrent at work. Caroline came to her feet and crossed quickly towards her mother as if drawn by some unseen magnetic force; I followed her and behind me the rest of the table followed, all of us drawing towards a moment of destiny.
“Maman?” said Caroline softly, “Que-ce que c’est?” and as she reached forward to touch her mother’s shoulder Odette turned to face us all, and we saw huge tears falling slowly down a joyful face.
The old woman’s normally tremulous voice stopped us all with her next words, as she uttered a sentence of such extraordinary strength and clarity that I thought I had misheard at first.
“Caroline, ma cherie,” she started, “I have not seen this piece of furniture for 76 years,” and she stumbled for a moment with the enormity of what she had said. “My father made this cupboard in 1941, as the Germans came south through our beautiful country…..” and her voice trailed away a little at the memory of it all. All of us stood or sat in disbelief, rooted where we were, not daring to breathe for fear we would break the spell slowly growing around us in the room.
“My grandfather made this?” asked Caroline in awe, and she too reached out to touch the wood as well, and someone behind me gasped with the joy of the moment. I was bright red with the shock of it all, and I could see John grasping George by the shoulders as if to steady himself.
In the silence that followed, Odette suddenly turned and pointed unwaveringly to the corner cupboard. “Caroline, bring me the sewing box, quickly! I wonder if……” and her voice trailed away as her daughter came back to her with the sandal-wood box, opening the lid as she did so.
Peering forward I saw a collection of items inside, a brooch, a silver cigarette case, a miniature portrait of a man in uniform on a horse, papers and photos, and then Odette’s probing fingers came out of the velvet depths with a small black key. I watched utterly entranced as Odette turned back to the armoire and bent down to the right hand side of it. This was a woman rejuvenated by something we were not privy too, this was the Odette I once knew, now fresh and vital. She looked up and saw John, and said, “John, viens ici. See the band of wood at the bottom of the frame? Knock that piece on the side upwards,” and I watched as my husband knelt and tapped on the frame. Nothing moved, and Odette looked across at Caroline.
“We’ll need a small hammer, my darling, quickly,” and her daughter rushed out the room, as incredulous at the turn of events as we were. Voices had time to raise and exchange words before Caroline came back in with a small ball-pin hammer. John took it from her and went to work on the piece of border again, tapping succesively with more power until with a clunk the side panel flew up and into his left hand.
“Stay down, John,” said Odette, “Can you see a keyhole in the wood behind?” and looking forward in the surge of people, I knew we all could the small shadow where the keyhole was.
“Put the key in and try to turn it, John, it may be stiff; here, take it,” and she handed him the little key. With gentle ease it slid into the keyhole and a second later there was a distinct metallic click as John’s persistent fingers turned the lock for the first time in seven decades.
“It’s a drawer, cherie, slide it out and pass what’s inside up here,” and amazingly the whole bottom of the armoire slid slowly into view as a drawer of great cunning, built by a man with a sudden mission years before. In the length of the drawer was a long thin metal case, and my mind briefly recognised it as a something that might be seen in a garage, perhaps to contain tools.
John lifted it up and Odette gestured towards the table, and Caroline and the rest of us hurried to make a space. The tin was grey, tinged with rust and wear, but intact, and John laid it gently down amongst the half empty wine-glasses. Odette sat down before it and her two old hands reached out trembling to open it. As she did so, she spoke.
“When the Germans were coming, my father built this piece of furniture as a safe repository, hoping its sheer plainness would see it safely through the war. We had to leave, you see, and my father was worried that anything important would be stolen.”
She stopped at this point and looked at Caroline with intensity. “There is nothing of monetary value in here, cherie, we took all that with us to pay for food and travel as we headed south to my uncle in Provence.”
She paused again, and then looked at us all.
“My father wanted to join the resistance, but that never happened as some of you know. He was killed outside Lyon in an air-strike, maybe even by the RAF,” and she looked up at John and I, a shrug of her shoulders acknowledging just another accident of war. Saddened, I leant forward and put my hand on her shoulder and she briefly reached up and touched it in return.
“When we came back in 1946, our house across the road was empty of our possessions, and we found those terrible people,” and she nodded through the windows in a gesture of hate, “living there instead, with a bill of sale from the Germans who had occupied it. We were never successfully able to alter that state of affairs, much to my mother’s dismay,” and she seemed to slump a little in her seat, and as she did so I struggled to imagine what it must have been like to have gone through such a turbulent part of history.
“But,” and her voice grew stronger again, “there are other things in here that might be of interest, I seem to recall” and she slowly opened the tin. All of us craned forward to watch, and we saw a selection of papers and envelopes, a slew of birth and marriage certificates, and a small pile of photographs, faded in black and white.
Odette carried on talking as she gently sieved through the contents of the tin, “My mother knew what was in this tin, and she told me everything when I was old enough to understand, of course, and if my memory serves me right,” and her fingers brushed aside the photos and went straight to a long brown envelope at the bottom of the case, “we have here something that may change our lives,” and with that she sat up straight with great determination and pride, and a blush of excitement on her cheeks. I was astounded at the transformation in the old woman; it was as if she was drawing strength from all that she touched.
It was Caroline who spoke next. “I don’t understand, maman, if we do not have any money or anything of value in the tin, what is going to change our lives?” and she stammered in her misunderstanding. I looked across at John to see him grinning, for he had guessed at something I had not, he knew what might be about to happen.
Odette paused for a second, and gently put the envelope in Caroline’s hands. “Cherie, you will understand when you open the envelope. It is time for us, finally……. to go home.” and the room went so quiet that one really could have heard a pin drop.
“Go home?” Caroline’s voice quavered, not fully understanding but hoping.
“Oui, cherie, go home.” and she looked at her daughter with fresh life in her old eyes. “You may not be aware, but you are holding something more important than money – you are holding the deeds to our house across the road,” and she beamed with happiness at the realisation of what she had just said.
Before Caroline could even open her mouth, Odette added, “We can finally prove our house is actually ours,” in a tone of such simplicity that all of us gasped, and to punctuate the finality of the evening, Caroline sat down with a thump and burst into glorious, triumphant tears.