It is a long time since I published a short story, but I thought now would be a good time to reintroduce you to the Cole Family. I hope you enjoy it, wherever you are and I hope it fits into your summer schedule – whether you’re by a pool or sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, I hope you have time to sit back and read it. Part 2 will follow at the end of the week. I hope you don’t find it too long….happy reading.
THE KEY THAT TURNED BACK TIME (a Cole family story)
The eyes stare sightlessly into the dark, as they have done for nearly eighty years; legs lie pressed against her chest, and her mouth is still open in the last gasp of death’s awful rictus. Life flows and ebbs around her, seasons come and pass. Watery sunlight plays amongst shadows, and leaves fall each autumn, unfelt by rusting bones. The clothes about her have long gone, swallowed by time, but around her neck the strand of gold filigree still hangs, though it is tarnished with age and acid. The little gold chain still holds the small key that will soon unravel lives as easily as a kiss melts the dourest of hearts. Eighty years the truth has lain in this chilled winter, distilled and confined in such a small place, but summer is coming at last.
There was a small gravelled space up high between the four turrets of the château. In the early evening sun it was a warm, welcoming place, and the Countess had taken to being there each evening as summer started to wane. A hand-made cement balustrade ran around the tiny terrace, and the old woman stood gazing down at her land, her veined hands gripping the rail, and her eyes moist in the slight breeze. Her tall figure, once crowned with a proud halo of ash-blonde hair, was still straight-backed, despite her frailty, and even though the brain was sharp, and the eyes bright with knowledge and kindness, she was dying. She knew for certain now, since the letter had arrived a week before, and the tremors in her arms and the twitch at the the corner of her mouth were clues to the assailant deep within her. She knew not how long it would be before death came for her, but she was not afraid – just uncertain. She had so much still to do, and every evening she renewed her vows to be prepared, and each day the last of the sun invigorated her just enough to carry her through the lonely night to the following dawn. Below her, the lawns stretched down to the lake, which was surrounded by beech and oak trees of ancient age. Alongside, the gravel driveway threaded through the view, down to the gates and then onto the lane that fell through the château’s vineyards towards the village below by the river.
As dusk fell, she turned and started the slow descent through the grand building, her footsteps echoing on wooden staircases which had not heard the cry of a baby or the reassuring masculine tones of a husband for seventy long years. The interior of the château echoed to the unrhythmic tread of the old woman’s good leg as it danced a slow half-beat on each step with her other, which was made of steel and plastic. Long practice made the descent easy, but the nub of her knee would start to ache long before her safe arrival at the end of the stairs.
The Countess had spent the day making her choices, and it was time now to put plans into motion. Her life was about to end and she had no heir, a thought too dreadful to contemplate. She was the last of a very thin family line, and efforts to find direct relatives had proved fruitless. Each day that passed without a solution was a waste, she understood that more than ever, and she went through to the kitchen where Jeanette typically left out a glass of white wine for her. Carefully clutching the long stem of her wineglass she then went down the passage to her study where Jeanette had also lit the small fire an hour earlier. The housekeeper had learnt a long time ago that old bones needed warmth in the chill that the château kept close to its heart, no matter what the season, and the Countess opened a drawer at the small Louis XIV bureau and took out some cards and a pen before sitting down carefully by the small glow of the fire’s embers. Carefully she took a sip of wine and then put her glass to one side. Picking up the pen and a card, she then started to write carefully in a very traditional and precise gallic font.
The fourth card she wrote was addressed to Emma Cole:
I would be most pleased if you could join me for an important glass of wine on Friday evening next week at 6.30 pm. There will be a dozen of us, outside on the terrace, and there will be some music, too. You are welcome to play a little something on the piano for me, if you want? I assume you have been practising at University? If you would also like to play some croquet, please bring some appropriate shoes.
With much love,
I called Emma at university one evening with the post to hand, and asked her if she wanted me to open the letter that had come for her. It was a routine I had become accustomed to, now that it was just Simon and I at home. Our three chicks had flown from our riverside nest, and as surely as Simon’s hair was slowly turning too grey in tufted patches, our children were growing up fast without us. Katie was half a world away in New Zealand with a backpack and a group of friends, and Tim was still doing a masters in journalism at Bordeaux. Emma was there with him as she ploughed through a degree in graphic design, the two of them sharing a small flat deep in the city, and though they were not so far away, it still seemed a distance too great to contemplate.
“Of course Mum, open it. I’m all ears,” Emma’s twenty-year-old tones reminded me of the present, and I muttered something and slit the small envelope open.
“Oh,” I said in a small voice as I scanned the neat sloped handwriting, “it’s from the Countess, Emma. She wants you to go for a drink next Friday evening,” and even as Emma answered an image floated into my head of a very young girl, hunched over the enormous piano in that great long room up in the château, the Countess standing by the stool, offering clear concise instruction in wonderfully accented English. Both Katie, and then Emma, had had piano lessons with Catherine for over ten years, collecting grades and other small rewards along the way. Emma in particular had been very proficient, playing with both technique and an ear inherited from Simon’s father – or so I suspected. I looked up into the sitting room from the kitchen where I was perched on a stool and saw the old upright Yamaha against the wall, little played now the girls were gone.
“Really? WOW!!!” Emma exclaimed before gabbling on for a minute about how it would be possible as she was thinking of coming home for the weekend anyway as all her friends were away in Poitiers, supporting the university for the first rugby match of the season. “Can you tell her I would love to be there? What else does she say?” she added, her voice glowing brightly in the darkness of a fading summer evening. I filled her in on the problem of croquet shoes and in return she promised to find a piano at university to practice on so Catherine would have her wish granted. Five minutes later, and I was done with both her and Tim. Slowly I put the phone down and turned to Simon, who was sitting across from me with a book. He was watching me closely, and he just grinned before I even opened my mouth.
“I know,” he said, “they seem so old now, right?”
I laughed softly – was I that predictable?
Croquet mallets lay silently on the terrace steps as the Countess looked steadily at her guests. The early evening sun was still warm, and fifteen young faces looked up from scattered chairs and cushions on the old stone slabss as they waited for Catherine to speak, facing them from the lawn. The guests’ ages ranged from twenty to thirty something, and almost everyone knew each other, for they had all learnt to play the piano at the château. As a result the early evening affair so far had been fun, with old friendships renewed and some new acquaintanceships made. But now they knew the crux of the matter was at hand, and they watched silently as Catherine looked around at each of them.
“I brought you all here today, for I wanted to ask you a question… and I want some help,” she started, her voice strong enough to carry her words to each of them. “But I also have some news I need to share; I’m afraid it is not very nice news, but it needs to be told, so we shall start with that so it is then over and done with.”
There was a nervous movement amongst the young people. Emma looked sideways at Vivienne, once a classmate at the village school many years before, and still one of her best friends – a girl she had grown up with almost all of her life. Emma thought she saw her friend softly shake her head as if to drive the bad news away and Emma sensed that Vivienne knew what Catherine was about to say; she had half an idea too.
Catherine took a breath for strength, and continued after a moment’s pause, “I am dying, my friends. I shall not be here for much longer.” There was a hushed intake of breath amongst the group. Someone involuntarily and audibly sobbed aloud, caught unawares. Emma shut her eyes tightly, fearing she would cry too, and she cupped her face in her hands. It was what she had expected, but still something she had never heard anyone say before. She felt a deep chill all of a sudden, and then she felt a hand grasping hers in a gesture of support. Opening her eyes, she saw it was Vivienne, her eyes taut with sadness and her dark hair a halo of sadness about her head.
Catherine continued, ”But I am not afraid, and I have lived a good, full life. Indeed, as some of you know, my life has always been borrowed.” She rapped her knuckles on her right leg, the knocking sound from the prosthetic reminding them all of what might have been. “We all know how lucky I was.”
They all did, for the story of how the Countess had lost her leg at the age of three was part of village legend – how a jettisoned bomb from a training flight over the château in 1944 had torn a hole in the garden wall, at a spot where a small child and her governess had been standing watching the airplanes ripping apart the blue sky above them. It had been a freak accident; one which had left distraught US airmen from a nearby airbase on one side, and the broken body of the governess and an amputee child on the other.
In the distilled silence that followed the Countess’ statement, came more words, “And now I have a question for you all – which is why I asked you here.”
There was a stillness about the group again, as everyone waited, struggling with their individual memories of Catherine and their piano lessons with her, a confusion of musical interludes mixing with a burgeoning grief for someone who had always been a part of their lives.
“I love you all dearly, you know that, and I have chosen each of you specifically to come and listen to me today. There were many I could have asked to help, but those of you here are very special to me and I hope my choices have been wise. I think of you more as my children than pupils, you probably know that,” and she smiled at her little joke before continuing. “but you are the children of ‘Today’, and I need your help more than that which others may give. You will understand more in a minute.”
She paused then, and turned to the the great house behind her before encompassing it all with a sweep of a frail arm. “Look at this, all of it,” she said, and she saw them all look at the great facade that swept up to a dark blue sky, unsure of what was coming next.
“I am dying, my sweet things,” she stated as she watched the group turn back to her, before adding, “and I have no one to leave this to. What am I to do with it all?
There was a stunned silence as the group of young people took in Catherine’s words, minds jostling with thought in the stillness that followed, heads turning from one to another, faces questioning and wondering.
“Will you help me with a decision?” Fifteen young adoring faces looked back at the Countess, slowing coming to terms with what she was asking; the group of young people seem to glow as they realised how gracefully Catherine was acknowledging their love for her. The woman was dying and she had come to them for the most unlikely of support.
“I am turning this château and its grounds into the foundations for a charity,” Catherine continued, “with the hope that the land may pay for the working of it, and the whole can continue as it has always done…I want to use the house as a place where children from throughout the region can come and learn to play piano. There may well be more than one piano, and some children may even live here with teachers.”
There was an audible hum of noise from the small crowd of people, and Emma and Vivienne turned to look at each other in wonder and delight at the Countess’ proposal.
Catherine paused as she looked at each person in turn, letting the idea sink in and the facts build into the start of recognition.
“And,” she exclaimed in a louder voice to break the band of murmuring thought, “I would very much like each and every one of you to be a trustee for the charity, all of you – to work together and help those who I want to use the building. You will not be alone, but you will be the young ones on the board.”
And there she stopped, aware of the enormity of what she had said, and what she had asked. Slowly she saw every single person in front of her burst into sudden smiles, amid a surge of comment and exclamation. Young heads nodded amongst rising bursts of words, and one young man started to clap quietly, with joy on his face. The applause grew gently in a ripple of appreciation and love.
It was going to work, she suddenly realised. There was a future after all…..and she felt the sting of a tear in the corner of each eye. Suddenly there were many questions, hanging in the early evening air, and she tried to start answering them all.
It was a good half hour before everyone had made sense of Catherine’s dream, and it was obvious that she had chosen well, for her band of young people were charged with energy and abuzz with conversation. Finally Catherine started to slowly hush everyone into silence, and then, through the veil of evening dark that was drawing about the château, ushered them inside to the Great Room, where the piano awaited. Everyone knew the way through the building to the music salon, and a tingle of excitement, tinged with sadness and unanswered thoughts, accompanied them all. It was a hum of noise that grew as they stepped into the room where the château’s prize jewel, the Bösendorfer, stood waiting for musicians as it had done for over one hundred years.
The Great Room was ablaze with light, and in addition to chairs in two rows for the incoming audience, there was also a table with a white tablecloth, laden with a tray of champagne flutes and several bottles of champagne. Amid the gasps and giggles, the Countess explained she felt it right that the future of the château should be toasted by the incoming ‘trustees’, and as they all gathered before the table, the small door in the far corner of the room opened and the housekeeper, Jeanette, came in to help serve the sparkling wine. There were squeals of greeting from almost everyone, and Jeanette stood there, blushing as best as her dark skin could show. She had served the Countess for nearly twenty years, and she was almost as well known to everyone as Catherine was, for over the years Jeanette had provided snacks, drinks, band-aids and the odd shoulder to cry on for almost all of the people before her. Forty years old, her North African heritage gave her an ethereal glow, her wide wise eyes giving evidence that she was as aware as anyone else of how important the evening was.
Catherine called for everyone to take a glass of champagne, and to take a seat. Emma and Vivienne found themselves side by side in the second row and looked at each other with a wondering grin before Catherine turned to them all and said, “I have another surprise for you, too.”
As everyone looked about excitedly, Catherine nodded at Jeanette who turned to the small door and went out, only to re-enter seconds later with a tall but thin child in tow, a boy of about ten years old, who was shyly holding her hand. His dark skin and tight curly hair gave an indication of where his loyalty lay, and as Jeanette stopped to whisper in his ear and say something that made him grin in a huge white-toothed flash of delight, Emma’s mind suddenly lit up at the revelation that this was Jeanette’s child, once small and keen to keep hidden, now an assured boy who floated across the floor in his sneakers as lithe as a panther. He crossed quickly to where the Countess stood by the Bösendorfer, and she smiled down at him as he looked up at her. The room quietened as Catherine spoke.
“Some of you may remember Jean,” she said, and the boy flashed an excited smile at the faces regarding him quite curiously. “Jean has been in this house alongside his mother almost since the day he was born. Some of you may have never even noticed him, but there are several of you here who know him better, from recent times. Jean is now ten years old, and he – and I – will hopefully now play you something you may not have heard before very often.” and with that she turned to the piano and gestured to Jean.
There was a sigh of expectation from the small crowd of former pupils, and as the boy settled onto the seat in front of the piano, Emma suddenly realised that this was not the normal piano stool, a seat she had often used; instead, this was a piano bench, designed for two pianists, and even as she and the others responded to that fact, Catherine seated herself on the left-hand side of the boy, and turned to look at him with a gaze of readiness. There was no sheet of music or a score, just the long rack of keys pulsing in the light, and Jean nodded once at the Countess with a truly adult look as his figure hunched over the keys. In that moment before the strings sang, Emma closed her eyes as a sudden flash of foresight told her something truly special was about to happen- and then the ripples of the first bars of music floated ethereally into her consciousness. There was suddenly a hand in hers again, and she turned to see Vivienne looking at her, mouthing the word “Debussy”. As the music swelled and grew, Emma suddenly recognised the piece as the Petite Suite, a work intentionally written for four hands, and she glanced back at the Bösendorfer to see two people so in tune and time with each other it was easy to forget that one was a boy of ten, and the other an old woman on the verge of death.
The four movements of the piece lasted just over thirteen minutes, and by the time the twenty fingers had finished their intricate ballet on the polished ivory keys, it was palpably obvious that Catherine had discovered a prodigious talent in the young boy by her side. As silence descended on the room, there was not a dry eye in the audience, and Vivienne and Emma realised they were still clutching each other’s hand, a state of affairs that lasted only until the applause started, a riot of appreciation from a small band of fellow piano-lovers who knew they had listened to something truly exceptional.
Two days later, Emma and Vivienne were back at the château on the Sunday afternoon for a rather more important meeting with Catherine. Almost everyone else was there, too, for most of the band of previous pupils lived within a half-hour drive of the house. There were also two lawyers from a local firm, and Emma idly wondered at the cost of arranging their appearance on a Sunday. The meeting went on for an hour or so as there were papers to be signed and at the end of it there was a file for each of the new trustees to take home and work on. Emma had decided that being a trustee was going to be a huge part of her life, and she was immensely looking forward to the challenge.
As the group dispersed, Catherine turned to Emma and Vivienne and quietly asked them to stay for a few minutes, motioning them back inside the hall from the terrace above the driveway. The flag-stoned room was two storeys high and echoed with 500 year old whispers and the rattle of scabbards and boots. There was a refectory table with a huge bowl of roses in the middle of it, and the two girls jettisoned their folders on its long polished surface as they waited for Catherine to come back in. There were countless paintings on the dark walls, interspersed with the odd stuffed head of a boar, and along one side a fireplace loomed like a toothless giant’s mouth, with two great swords hung above its mantelpiece.
There was the scuffle of a lifeless foot on the threshold, and the Countess came back inside. She approached the girls with a wry fatigued look and the two young women became instantly aware that the weekend had taken a huge toll on the countess. She sat them down on a huge old sofa opposite the fireplace and began to tell them what she had in mind.
It was simple, really. Vivienne still lived in the village, and Emma was close enough that she too was a villager but for a few hundred metres of road. It was enough that it suited Catherine’s plans, which she explained as she asked them both if they would like to take a ‘special’ interest in Jean.
“Almost like a guardian, but without the legal bits,” the Countess explained, and the two girls looked at each other and then nodded sombrely, aware of the responsibility they were being offered.
“I want someone to take a real interest in Jean when I am gone,” Catherine explained. “He is something special; I sense a huge talent within him, and with no father I think he needs more than just his mother in his musical life. I have no idea how the foundation is going to work out, and my lawyers can give me no guarantee of success, so I have decided that you two should be the chosen ones,” she said, and grinned at them conspiratorially. “We will sort out the details later, but I just wanted to know your reaction before we continued.”
The conversation ran on, and Catherine elicited promises from both girls that they would keep an eye on Jean. In return, Emma asked the question that almost everyone was curious about, a difficult query but perhaps justly asked; how long had Catherine left to live?
In the long silence that followed Emma’s query, the girls saw the Countess close her eyes and sit down opposite them, rocking back and forth.
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” Emma blurted out, “I did not mean to be so rude, I’m sorry…” and she trailed into quiet as Catherine opened her eyes and looked at her kindly.
“It’s fine,” she said, and reaching out she patted Emma’s hand. ”It’s not just a question of my time, which may be six months or more, it’s also a question of time for everything else too. Paperwork and lawyers rush for no one in France, as you know, Emma.” She looked gently at Vivienne as well to include her in the conversation and the dark-haired girl smiled back easily in return. Catherine continued, “I also have to find some cash, liquide as they call it here. I have many bills to pay and I have to sell something within six months to raise enough to cover the costs of me dying, or else we will be finished before we even start,” and Catherine smiled coldly at the thoughts floating in her head. At this point. Vivienne raised her hand to her mouth, but Emma was more practical, her forehead wrinkled in thought.
“What will you sell, Catherine?” she asked quietly. “Surely not the piano?”, and she quailed at the thought of the château without its prize asset.
Catherine nodded slowly. “If we do not find something else, then yes, the Bösendorfer will have to go. It is worth a huge amount of money, as I am sure you are aware. We can always replace it with another piano.”
Vivienne sat forward, and asked the other question, “What else is there to sell, Catherine? Are there no family heirlooms, no family jewels? Is there no land or anything of antiquity you can sell?” She waited like a small girl on the edge of her seat.
Catherine stood up, shaking her head sadly. “Almost everything else of truly monumental value has gone, mes cheries. My father sold some things during the war, I think, perhaps to the Germans, and since he left over the years I have often needed more money than the land has given me, especially in some seasons. If I had ever married, then all would have probably been well, but it is hard to keep a lifestyle on piano lessons and the amounts of wine we make here. Phylloxera, from which we had always been safe, took hold here in the 1960’s as I am sure you know, and since then we have always struggled with the grape harvest. I have let all the land I can, too, and still it is not enough. The taxes are insufferable, I shudder to think what will happen when I die, but then that is the aim of the foundation – to keep it all in the charity.”
And she paused, looking at the long wall opposite the fireplace, where some paintings hung in rather neglected circumstances. She pointed a finger at the stonework, and turning to the girls said, “Once, we had a huge collection of medieval armour, some of it very rare. My great great grand-father collected it all of his life, and it stood there before the war.” She gestured at the long length of exposed stonework, from one side of the room to the other. “I have no idea what happened to it, I was too young to really remember it even being there, though I do sort of remember something, but as I grew older I just knew it was no longer there.”
Emma and Vivienne listened, fascinated, and it was Vivienne who voiced the thoughts they both shared. “I know the story of your leg, Catherine, but what else happened here during the war, where do you think the armour went to?”
There was a lull in the conversation, and Catherine turned her head to one side as if thinking. She suddenly stood up, and said, “Come, come with me to the study and I’ll tell you a story, then you will see better,” and she strode off down the passageway to her study in that steady half-step of hers that catered for two different legs. The study was a room both girls knew well. Pushing open the door, the Countess turned on a light to illuminate the growing darkness, and then told the girls to sit in the chairs opposite the little desk, at which she arranged herself. There was a candle within reach on the windowsill, and Catherine lit it with a match; the smell of jasmine started to drift through the air. After a while she started to talk, of a time when the sky was shredded by angry contrails, and German boots had marched across the chateau’s courtyards.
It was a haunting tale, of a man unfit to fight a war on one side and a bright burning flame of a woman on the other, their lives intertwined during a time of global madness when battle raged across the whole of Europe and beyond. Catherine’s father was a tall man, plagued with a heart condition that meant he would never wear a uniform. Instead, he had sided with the Vichy government and, through his connections, came to know the invading army and its hierarchy intimately. A man of some fortune, in a château of some size, he had endured the war as a friend of the Germans, hosting lavish dinner-parties and allowing four of the château’s bedrooms to be quarters for German officers. Maximilien de Brosse was a fine host, ever helpful and eager to please.
His wife, Catherine’s mother, was a tiny fierce blonde woman from Lyon called Francine, and she was a hugely talented pianist of some national note. It was rumoured that she had married Maximilien more for the great piano that lay deep within the château’s heart than she had for romantic reasons. Indeed, Francine was the antithesis of Maximilien’s forced charity, and she spent most of the war raging against her husband’s modus operandi, his support for the Axis forces, and his liberal use of family funds to entertain all and sundry. She was ardently anti-nazi and as a result Maximilien rarely apologised for her voluntary absences from the dinner table. But by August 1944, the tables were turning and as the Allies spread north and east through France, matters became fraught in the château. The village was liberated in September, and by December of that year, Francine and Maximilien had not shared a sentence between themselves for six months, and the small blonde woman was nursing a three year-old with only one leg after that single moment of terror one autumn afternoon by the garden wall. Maximilien entertained Americans and British officers now, but rarely was there the same accord between host and guests, some of whom were asking too many questions.
There were bruises about Francine’s face that Christmas, and in January she simply disappeared. Maximilien explained to a small tearful Catherine that her mother had apparently gone away to stay with relatives, but all would be well with the new governess until she returned. It was the last time Catherine saw her mother, but one night four months later in May she woke to the noise of an argument deep on the ground floor of the chateau, and she slipped out of bed to see what was going on. As she crawled down the staircase from the third floor she was sure she could hear the voice of her mother, and she called out as best a four year-old could, excited despite the anger below her. Suddenly there was the sound of a door slamming in the hallway, and then thirty seconds later her father was running up the stairs to where the child knelt in her nightdress on the floor. He ran to her, swept her up, and took her upstairs to the governess’ room, where she was placed under strict instructions not to come down until morning. The following day he refused to acknowledge to Catherine that her mother had been there, saying that she had misheard a visitor, and that was the end of that. Catherine’s life changed for ever from that moment on.
As spring crawled into summer, rumours grew that Maximilien was in danger of both legal and illegal retribution for his friendship with the Vichy government and the German occupiers he had entertained so gleefully. In June he too fled, scurrying like a drowning rat from the château one dark night in a battered Mercedes he had won from a German officer in a game of cards. Gone like a thief in the night with two jerrycans of illegal petrol, and Catherine and her governess waited patiently for weeks for someone to return, existing on the charity of the American Airforce units stationed nearby, whose officers came to visit and had always treated Catherine like squadron family. No one ever said who had dropped the bomb that had killed her old governess and maimed her for life – at least, she never knew, but there was always chocolate, ice cream and treatment for her leg, and even, one bright summer morning, a new small prosthetic stump that eventually enabled her to limp around the château holding her beloved teddy bear. Unable to play as a normal child, and alone in a tainted palace high on a hill, Catherine thought her life would be forever grey and truly hopeless until the afternoon she discovered the talent that lay within her. During the last dismal hour of a rainstorm one October day, she climbed onto the piano stool in the Grand Salon, somehow lifted the lid to the Bösendorfer’s keyboard, and discovered the world of joy that lay within the instrument, starting a love affair that would last a whole lifetime.
When Catherine had finished talking, there was silence in the study for several minutes, as Emma and Vivienne came to terms with the history of the Countess’ life. There had been more of course during the years after the war; the odd promising love affair with men which never reached the conclusion that Catherine wanted, and the life of a château that had steadily taken its toll on an existence overseen by country lawyers, where income never fully covered all the outgoings. There were good times too, and along the years there had been a steady and loyal trickle of children who came to learn the piano. This state of affairs had been a provider of friendships and love that no one could have ever imagined, and it was the love for music and people who loved music that had enabled Catherine to live her life as best as she could.
But the Bösendorfer had not finished with the Countess. It changed her life again after a truly special moment four years previously, when the Countess had come home from a trip to Bordeaux on a winter’s evening to discover a faint tantalising trail of Beethoven filtering through the château. Standing in the hallway, dusting snow off her shoulders, she had been mesmerised. Slowly and silently she had followed the music to the Grand Salon, where, perched on the piano stool, she had discovered a six year-old Jean playing on her piano, his small hands crawling correctly from chord to chord, hesitant but true. She had stood there by the door, withdrawn from sight, as she listened to a perfect ear beat out a very recognisable Moonlight Sonata. She later understood he had learnt it by memory, simply from listening from behind the small door in the corner of the room as Catherine had taught it to a whole year of pupils. And so as Catherine had found the impact point of her life on that piano stool, so had Jean. The Bösendorfer was a magic box of tricks, designed to twine lives together, she decided. It was too terrifying to think it might have to be sold….
Which brought the three women back to earth and Emma voiced a thought which had lingered in her head for an hour or more. She came out with it, uncertain of the reaction she would get.
“I have to ask, Catherine,” and she paused for a second. “Do you think the armour was hidden for safety’s sake during the war? Would your father have done that?”
The candle flickered as Catherine sought an answer and she finally said, ”I am not sure. If it was hidden where would it be? We have no dungeons or hidden rooms in the chateau, Emma, not that I know of…” and her voice tailed off into silence as she looked at the two girls.
Emma had an answer ready, for the thought was now bright in her head. “This may sound strange, but on Sky TV, my mother watches a programme about a British army officer who helps people to renovate chateaux.” She looked at the Countess and saw a nod of encouragement, so she continued. “And there was one lady who was sure that the armour reputed to have belonged to the house had been hidden – but in her lake!!!”, and Emma stopped at that point, triumphant and excited.
“Oh my goodness,” Catherine replied, her hand to her mouth, and Vivienne bristled with intent at the theory, too. “Oh my,” she repeated, “how do we find out?”
“We’ll have to look for it,” and the words rushed out of Emma. “We could build a raft or something and go and look – the water’s quite clear, I think. I mean, why not, it really could be in there, could’t it?”
“There’s no need for a raft,” Catherine came back after a pause for thought, “we have a small wooden punt, you could use that, perhaps?” and both of the girls touched each other in acceptance.
“Of course,” they cried, almost in unison. “That would be perfect!”
It was time. They had come for her at last, and shadows danced about her as algae and dead leaves swirled around her tomb. Fine lines of sunlight flickered and floated through the trees and the metal cage groaned with the effort of ascent, shards of mud sliding away as she slowly escaped from the Stygian blackness beneath her.
It was two Saturdays after that meeting at the château when I watched Tim and Emma set off along the road from the house in his battered old Peugeot 205. Vivienne had walked up from the village and the three of them were kitted out to the teeth for the search for Catherine’s armour. Tim had his wetsuit and a snorkel, along with a small bottle of air called a ‘pony’ and an airbag to lift anything they found. He’d borrowed the bottle and bag from a diving friend in Bordeaux, and along with a couple of buoyancy aids from our boathouse and some ropes, chain and a shackle or two, they appeared in good stead for the day’s adventure.
It was 9.30am or so when they left for the lake up the hill, and I said I’d come along an hour or so later with some thermoses of hot chocolate and a box of sandwiches. I had some washing to do first and a spot of gardening before the hot August sun became too fierce, and it was the latter that caused me to arrive under the old tree-line by the lake an hour late, my trusty wicker-basket heavy on my arm. Out on the water, Emma was perched at one end of the château’s punt with an old oar, while Vivienne was leaning over the other end talking to Tim, who was treading water alongside the small boat. I stopped on the bank and called out, waving my arm, and the three of them looked up and within seconds were making their way towards me, Emma heaving with determination on the oar.
As they grounded the punt on the shallow bank I walked down towards them, noting that Tim was blue with cold and the two girls were animated with excitement. Unable to contain themselves they burst into a run and came close, words spilling out of their mouths in a torrent of English and French.
“We’ve found something, mum!” gibbered Emma as she slid to a halt in front of me.
“Oui oui, Sophie, nous avons trouvé quelque chose en métal, on en est sûr,” added Vivienne, her cheeks flushed with the thrill of the hunt.
“Stop, stop!” I said, smiling, “how do you know it’s metal?” I could see past the girls and realising that the water was slightly too murky for good viewing, thought the question was entirely reasonable. With a squelch of wet shoes, Tim joined us, shivering, and before they could answer I’d opened the basket to reveal the contents.
“Get yourself a towel, Tim, and dry off for a while,” I said and he stripped off his top and reached for a towel while I took out the first thermos and three plastic cups. Within a minute the three of them were sitting on the long grass, sipping hot chocolate and we started again. Tim idly opened a sandwich and was chewing hard when I repeated my question from earlier.
It was Emma who replied, instantly, “Because of the magnet, mum. We’ve been using a huge magnet as a lure, towing it about the bed of the lake for an hour or so, and right there”, and she pointed to a small object floating on the water, “it clunked onto something really solidly!” and three heads bobbed in approbation of the successful chase.
“Where’s the magnet?” I asked, keen to see what this was like.
“It’s still down there, mum,” chipped in Tim. “We couldn’t get it off with whatever it’s stuck to with the thin string we have it on, so we tied it off and were about to come ashore and get the bottle of air and the bag.”
The white object bobbed out there on the lake, some 50 metres or so away, and I wondered what it was. I must have screwed my eyes into a scowl because Vivienne instantly said, “It’s my sun-cream bottle, Sophie. It was the only thing we had that could float,” and she shrugged her shoulders in such a sorrowful gallic manner that all of us laughed.
It was Tim who broke the spell and he suddenly ran to the boat, saying in a loud voice, ”And look what we found earlier, mum!” The two girls stood together conspiratorially as he reached into the boat and pulled out an object that he brought slowly back up to me in one hand, and as he got closer I recognised the dull metallic object instantly. A chill run down my spine for a second at the sight of it, but then I relaxed, for after so long in the lake it was surely no longer dangerous.
“A pistol,” I exclaimed, and Tim handed it to me. It was extraordinarily heavy for a moment, and then I felt the chill of it on my fingers. It had dried out a little, and although eaten through in places and covered with the trails of tiny borrowing animals, the shape of it struck a chord of recognition. I handed it back to Tim, and said, “How old is it, do you think?”
He stood there, shoulders dappled in the sunlight under the trees and pensively looked at the weapon, thinking over an answer. A bead of water dropped off his nose and splashed onto the barrel, a slow motion slice of memory that I knew I would remember forever.
“I’m pretty sure this is a Luger, mum; that’s the pistol the Germans issued to officers, I think,” and his voice trailed off at the thought. “I wonder what it was doing in the lake though,” and he turned back to me. “I’ll have to hand it in to the police, unfortunately – I’m sure it still has a firing pin, which is technically illegal. I hope we don’t -“ and his sentence was cut short by the ‘barp’ of a car horn some distance away.
We all turned towards the sound to see the Countess’ old Volvo estate coming down the gravelled drive from the château; as it reached the slow bend of track by the end of the lake it then turned off to slide gently through the grass along the bank under the trees, coming to a halt a few feet from the wicker basket.
We moved towards the car and the driver’s door opened to reveal Jeanette, who smiled that brilliantly white smile at us and gestured towards the passenger door with the words, “Catherine will need a hand,” and we hastened to do her bidding.
Fifteen minutes later, the situation appraised, and with Catherine totally in charge and perched on a shooting-stick, Tim duck-dived out by the sun-lotion bottle and disappeared out of sight, the two girls precariously bobbing about in the punt above him. The water was not deep and he reappeared almost instantly with a grin wider than a barn door, and hanging on to the side of the punt with his mask pushed on top of his head, he yelled, ”It’s not a piece of armour, just a huge cooking pot with a lid!”
And so it was. It took longer than we thought it would, to put the chain through the handle on the lid of the pot, and then attach the airbag, and then to fill the bag with air. Initially we had no idea how to lift the pot as the handles on the side of it had looked too flimsy for Tim to attach anything to. But then he had dived again and noticed the lid was soldered to the pot in several places, and we decided to trust the joints enough and try to lift it by the handle of the lid, which was a noticeably sturdier proposition compared to the others.
So it was nearly an hour before the huge cauldron, black with rust and sediment from the lake-bed, bobbed just under the surface beneath the airbag a few yards out from the bank, with Tim in muddy attendance. From what I could see it was truly immense, surely big enough to cook a whole boar in. Catherine had used her mobile phone to call the gardener from the château and the old man had appeared with a small lorry equipped with a hoist to help lift le grand marmite up the bank. Tim gently attached the steel line from the hoist to the lid of the cauldron, and as the hoist slowly drew the pot through the shallows, Tim detached the airbag and its chain. The cauldron slid relatively easily in the mud and gloop until it reached a depth of a few inches of water, where the true weight of it began to be felt by the hoist and its little electric motor. And right at the point when I was starting to wonder whether the weight was going to upset the standing of the lorry on the bank there was a ‘clunk’ of disengagement from the huge iron vessel as the lid finally started to give way. Everything came to a sudden halt with a collective cry of “Arrêtez!!”. All movement ceased, and then Tim splashed through the shallows to the cauldron. Straining, he pushed it upright, aided by the soft mud, and we all looked at each other.
“It would help if we removed the lid and drained the water out, Catherine,” said Tim, deferentially. As we wondered, Tim continued, “the lid is starting to come away, and I think with a crow-bar I could break the other joints…” and he turned to look at us all, his expression totally neutral. It was a trick of character that I knew well, for Tim was well practiced in the art of disengaged debate.
“We’ll have an idea if there is anything in it then too, Catherine,” I murmured. “We’ll be better placed to think what to do next. I mean, if it’s empty, we could just roll it back into the lake and carry on looking for the armour?”
The Countess turned to look at me, her shrewd eyes narrowing as she thought. “We could do that, I agree, Sophie – the lifting of the lid – but that marmite is coming back with us. It is surely a grand thing and it must have come from the château anyway, no?
The old man went back up the hill for a crowbar in the Volvo so it was fifteen minutes before Tim, shoulders hunched up, started to break the soldered joints on the lid of the cooking pot, out where it stood in a couple of feet of well-muddied water. Emma and Vivienne had thrown caution to the winds and were there too, shoes and socks wet through as they held the cauldron steady and Tim groaned with effort. I thought from my vantage point that the girls also probably wanted to look into the pot to see its treasures before anyone else, and as Tim broke the joints, one by one, the atmosphere got palpably tight with excitement. The last joint would not break, but it bent slowly so Tim started to lift the lid by hand, steadily raising it upwards as water sloshed over the rim. I could see the water inside was also muddy, and Tim asked for a mug from the wicker basket to empty it before we went any further. It took three minutes of steady tipping out before he suddenly paused, the cup halfway inside the cauldron. The two girls craned forward to look and the Countess called out, “Tim, what is it, what do you see?”
Tim turned from the cauldron and said in a clear voice, “There is something white under the water, like a bowl – but I’m not sure it’s china,” and he turned hesitantly back to the huge pot. Emma and Vivienne were standing quietly, trying also to make out what was showing through the dark water, and suddenly I felt a chill run through me. It was as if a cloud had covered the sun, turning the scene before me into a monotone snapshot of a scene from MacBeth. The air seemed to stand still in cold, and looking sideways I saw Catherine widening her eyes in sudden thought. There was movement out by the cauldron and I turned to watch as Tim put his hand into the depths of the pot, grasp onto something, and slowly lift it out of its muddy resting place.
At this point in time, three things seemed to happen at once. There was a muffled exclamation of horror from Tim, a reactionary stagger of disgust backwards from the scene by Emma, and then Vivienne opened her mouth in terror and screamed with a noise like a dying rabbit in the jaws of a weasel. At the sound of her cry a scattering of rooks corkscrewed upwards instantly from the elms across the lake, exiting the tree-tops in a cacophony of sound, their black wings battering the still air as they climbed to escape the noise across the water. As her scream echoed and then slowly subsided into a slow sobbing, Tim turned to me with one hand holding a human skull, his mouth working feverishly but noiselessly in a white face, the movement a soundless counterpart to the subsiding scream from Vivienne. Above us the rooks swirled and clacked, creating a shroud of supernatural terror over the lake and the dreadful story that lay within the cauldron.
They had laid out a white plastic sheet on the floor of the chai, and over the course of the afternoon amongst the great barrels of the château’s maturing wine, the contents of the enormous cauldron had carefully been arranged on it in some form of order by the two men in light green suits, their latex-gloved hands dextrous amongst the myriad of items that lay in the sediment of the iron pot. There were floodlights and a man with a notebook, and a tall cadaverous man who I recognised as the local Chief of Police; he stood close to the Countess as befitted two elderly paragons of civil importance, and it seemed they were old friends, as occasionally they would stoop to each other’s ears and exchange words. Often the man’s hand would touch Catherine’s shoulder in support.
At the head of the sheet was the skull that Tim had discovered, and from it stretched the other bones of the discombobulated skeleton in some form of order, the two forensic officers so familiar with the intricate structure of a human body that they easily fitted each piece to the next, rinsing each one in sterile water as it appeared from the cauldron. The skeleton grew in incremental circumstances, and we all watched in silence, fascinated. Tim, Emma and Vivienne stood in a huddle, and Catherine rocked softly back and forth as I leant against a barrel on one side, happy to have put soft shoes on that morning as my feet ached from the cold floor.
I know that there are typically 206 bones in a human skeleton, and eventually it seemed they had all been found, for there was nothing left for the gloved fingers to grab hold of from the mud. But the gleaning was not yet finished. To recover the last of the body’s structure, one of the white-suited men produced a fine-meshed sieve from a bag and began to work through the mess that remained, rinsing it in the basin of sterile water as he went. There was a small triumphant remark within three minutes as two extra tiny bones were found, and then a minute later something else appeared in the sieve. There was a momentary pause from the man, and he looked at the Chief of Police with a queried eye-brow. I watched with interest as the senior man stepped quietly over the floorboards to the sieve, and peered inside. A glove was produced and fitted on his hand, and he reached into the sieve and drew out a long tarnished length of tiny chain, black with tannin. And on the chain, still in place after so many years, was a small key, also black with age. I was fascinated, and so it seemed was everyone else.
The chief officer was called Dorgère, and he rubbed a tiny bit of the key to ascertain its state. Gradually, as the tannin wore away, the shine of metal came through, and it became obvious that the chain and key had been buried in the sediment of the cauldron, a factor aiding their preservation. Dorgère turned with the chain to Catherine and laid it out in the palm of his hand, waiting for a response with an unspoken question and a raised eyebrow.
Catherine stood there, looking at the chain, and the key, and the room became incredibly quiet. I had a primeval jolt of consciousness, and felt there were spirits in the chai, gathering round the bones laid out neatly again as nature had intended. I noticed suddenly that the skeleton was small, perhaps that of a teenager, and at the same time there was a soft noise and I turned to Catherine to see a tear rolling down her long nose, her cheeks flushed with emotion. Before I could react, Emma had stepped forward and crossed quickly to her, and brought an arm around the Countess’ upper body in support, for it was Emma who was the first of the rest of us to realise who the skeleton belonged to. Catherine sobbed once, and Emma clutched her tighter, trying to stifle the soft tears.
The words spurted out of me as the revelation also became clear, for Emma had told me the whole story, and it was now falling into place, “Oh, my goodness,” I gushed, “It’s your mother!” and across the room Vivienne immediately burst into tears too. Catherine’s sobs grew as she looked upon Francine for the first time in seventy-four long years, and Emma buried her head into the Countess’ shoulder in mutual angst. Dorège stood there, nodding his head dolefully. Looking at him, I saw over his shoulder one of the forensic men turning the skull on the sheet, showing his partner the gaping hole in the back of it where a fatal shot had once been fired, perhaps with a sound that could have been mistaken for a door slamming.