There are times in life when I feel extremely hard done by. I hate to coin the phrase ‘grumpy old man’ but just occasionally it is exactly how I feel, it’s good to have a darn good moan and get it off one’s chest. Yes I know, I am in fact canine rather than human, I have four legs instead of two and I am useless at modern technology. But I’m told my stories are quite funny and every now and then I like to hijack ‘her’ blog and vent my frustration. So my apologies in advance if I offend anyone, but this is me, Bentley, letting off a little steam.
I’ve plenty of things to chat about so this is really going to be rather like a letter this week. If I am honest, that is how I think of this blog all the time. It is an email with photos to a group of friends about life here in south western France. Because what I really enjoy is the fact that many of you have become friends, some in real life and many just virtual, but I feel as if we have developed a little community and that in itself is fabulous. Read more
Do you ever feel as if you are living life at an alarming pace, but that you are not taking the time to really enjoy it ? The other day I had one of those moments. The children wanted to go blackberry picking, as always I had a million things to do and my instant reply was I hadn’t got the time. But something stopped me in my tracks; “Why not ?” I thought. The school holidays are flying by, and my babies are now teenagers; I have to make the time, because one thing is for sure, time is not going to wait for me. “Let’s go” I said – everything else would simply have to wait. Read more
Throughout this summer, Normandy has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy which began on 6 June 1944. We happened to be in the Department at the end of July. Many of the main festivities were over but even just walking or driving anywhere near the landing beaches one could not help but stop and remember. Pausing and reflecting on so much history and so much destruction really brought home just how lucky we are and how grateful we should be to so many whose lives were lost or altered forever during those dreadful days 75 years ago. I cannot deny it was moving beyond belief just to be in this part of Normandy this Summer. Read more
And so we come to the last part of this story. I am sorry if it has been a little drawn out, circumstances have made it so. But I hope you’ve enjoyed it nonetheless. I did say I would try to get it out this Friday, and I’m happy I’ve managed to do so for some of you! If you missed Part I it is here, and Part II is here
THE KEY THAT TURNED BACK TIME
(a Cole family story)
02.00am, AUGUST 8TH, 1945
The rain swept in from the south-west, scudding through the treetops and sending roosting birds indignantly up into the night sky. On the hill nestled between the vines, a maelstrom swept the lake into turbid darkness, as though stirring up a spell of destiny. At the château, gravel pinged off windows as it scurried from the rooftop terrace and a small child turned restlessly in her small bed high on the third floor under a slated finger of roof that pointed to the angry heavens. There was a huge full moon which seemed to stretch a glow across the valley, and as it skated from cloud to cloud it provided just enough light for a small car below to crawl along the road by the river, over the bridge, and into the glistening cobble-stoned square. It came to a wheezing halt behind the bakery, and a small figure bent with burden walked carefully to the door of the joiner’s shop, where a small hand found the knocker and tapped it twice in rapid succession.
Michel Levant sat bolt upright in bed, scattering his blankets and he listened hard again. Five years of German occupation had taught those who listened well that advance warning was a good trait to develop. His wife turned beside him and opened her eyes. They were a young couple, living alone in the rooms above the joiner’s shop, and they knew there was no one else in the house.
“Michel,” she whispered, “What did you hear?” The young woman’s voice echoed with an accent, for her French was flavoured by the mountains of north Africa, and the pale brown colour of her skin was homage to an ancient Berber ancestor. Her name was Imane, and her dark curls of hair shook against the white pillow as she struggled to come awake properly.
Her husband put out his hand for silence, and stopped a finger to his lips. There was the drumming of wind against the panes of the window and then, faintly, there came again the sound of a double-knock, deep in the bowels of the house.
They looked at each other, eyes wide, and Michel said, “It cannot be the Boche, – they are not here. Perhaps it is someone from the village?” and Imane said nothing as he turned and put his feet on the floor. He walked softly to the door, and put on a dressing-gown and turned to her, his shoulders wide with the courage that had once born him thorough three years of military service in Algeria, a combat all but forgotten during the war that had followed. From there he had returned with a beautiful and exotic wife, a woman who had waited patiently for five long years for the village to come to terms with her, whose kind demeanour and gentle character had eventually won everyone over, a rare integration in those raw ungodly times.
“If you hear me shouting, hide in the roof space,” he warned her, “ But if not, then come down quietly and see who I am talking to before showing yourself, all right?” and he bravely opened the door.
His wife nodded, mainly to herself, and quietly slipped out of bed in bare feet, trusting her husband enough to do as he said. Five years of war had inured them to much, but this was a visit at an ungodly hour, and who knew what devils were out at work in such weather, under the eyes of the American military police. The war may have nearly ended, but people afoot at night were still a possible source of trouble. She crossed to the door and half closed it, listening intently to her husband as he went down the stairs, her ears as sharp as those of a desert mouse under the flightpath of an owl.
The door to the street sounded once more before Michel had had time to find a candle and light it, shielding it from the windows as he walked towards the door. He stood there and tapped back at the wood, hoping to find some sort of reaction before he slid the bolt. The floor was cold under his feet, despite the slippers, and the wind whistled somewhere about the door-frame.
There was a loud whisper from the other side; a woman was there, and he instantly knew from her accent she was French – this was no German ruse, and besides they had been gone now for 10 months. He quietly slid the bolt back and swung the door inwards away from the rain, and a small figure stood there in front of him, holding a basket, shielding it from the weather.
“Hello, Michel,” said a soft familiar feminine voice, and he relaxed, knowing this was someone he knew. At that moment the moon threw a finger of light down the street and the woman before him shrugged off her hood and stood there looking steadily at him. It was Francine de Brosse, her pale blue eyes regarding him with an assured gaze, her coat dripping rainwater onto the stone sill of the doorway.
“Where have you been, Countess?” Michel could not restrain himself, he was almost hissing with excitement, “You’ve been gone for nearly half a year – we’ve missed you terribly,” and he turned to welcome her into the house, aware of the vast gulf in social class between them, but comfortable in the knowledge that Francine was someone who cared not a jot for such a thing.
They left just the one candle alight in the downstairs room, next to the workshop. There was a small fire there that had been smouldering and it came to life with a kick and a piece of wood. Francine sat at the head of the small table sipping a tea as Michel sat opposite her, staring at the basket on the floor besides the Countess’ feet. Imane stood at the back of the room, wary of the enormity of the decision Francine had put to them.
“Where did you say you found him, Countess?” asked Michel hoarsely. He could not take his eyes off the baby in the basket, whose blue eyes were softly closing in sleep. It could barely keep awake.
Before Francine could reply, Imane asked another question, her face awry with concern and wonder.
“How old is he, Countess? What will we say?”
And that was the crux of the matter. What would the village say when a childless couple suddenly announced they had a three month-old baby? They looked to Francine, who had the answers she had carefully thought through for many days.
“I found him in a camp in a field outside Bordeaux,” she said. “I stopped for water and a couple came forward with him, saying they already had two other children and could not cope with a third. The two of you came to mind instantly,” and she smiled, a welcome change of mood that lit the whole room. She knew the couple before her well, for Michel had worked with her many times at the château when heavy lifting was needed, and Imane had often come to the kitchen when extra staff had arrived to help with parties and functions. Francine knew only too well that there was something wrong – that perhaps Imane could not conceive. With no family in the village to help, a lifetime of barrenness stretched out before them. A foster child seemed a perfectly suited arrangement for all concerned, and within a decade it would all be forgotten anyway.
“You can say you found him like I did,” she continued. “The roads are full of refugees, there are hundreds along the road between here and Bordeaux, of all nationalities – no one will think anything of you saying you are helping out with an orphan, for example.” And it was true, the village may have been French, but it had long held a reputation for hospitality and generosity. There were two other adopted children in the village already, victims of a war that had slowly moved past and headed north.
“But he has no papers,” Imane added as a thought.
Francine had an answer to that, too. “Talk to Le Joubet at the petrol station – he’ll set you up with some, he’s been doing it for a long time now. It’s a baby, no one will ask questions,” and she looked at the small child again, fast asleep on the floor. She was so weary, so tired, and she had so much to do still. But there remained one more thing to ask.
“Michel, and Imane, do you have a paper and pen – and perhaps an envelope?”
The young couple looked at each other in surprise, and then back at the Countess, realising she was watching them closely.
“Of course,” Imane said immediately, forestalling her husband’s reply, “of course – may I ask why?” and she stepped to the battered desk in the corner of the room, slid open a long drawer and searched for the necessary items.
Francine paused before replying, adding emphasis to her words, “I am going to write a note – it is to you both, and I ask you to swear on the life of this child to not open it until the day you attend my funeral. Will you promise me that?” and she looked steadily at them as Imane laid the envelope, paper and pen before her on the table.
The couple stood together, and they touched hands in affirmation, before replying.
“I promise,” said Michel, in a young man’s voice that ached with what was unfolding before him. Imane was more practical, and simply nodded, steadying herself with a hand on the table as Francine started to write.
“Of course, Countess,” she then said after a pause, her voice small but purposeful over the scratching of the pen. “Yes, of course,” and her words trailed away.
Francine finished writing, scanned what she had put on the paper, and folding it, slid it into the envelope before noting something on the front of it. She licked the tab and sealing the envelope, let it rest where it fell, a punctuation mark of finality to the affair. She stood up, mentally girding herself with courage at the thought of what she had to do next, her chest heavy with sadness and love.
“I have to go,” she said to Michel as he got up as well. “I have to go to the château and find something I left there. Will you look after the child for me?” and she looked at them carefully, gauging their reaction.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” asked Michel in a steady voice, knowing the answer already. Imane closed her eyes at the thought. It was she who spoke next.
“And Catherine? What will happen to her?” and in the silence that followed Francine blanched inside at the thought of her little girl, asleep on the hill.
“I can’t stay now, I have to go, and I will come back when I can,” Francine told them softly, “I cannot do what I have to do with her alongside me. I have the car for only so long, and the papers that let me use it are only valid another four days. Answer me, please, will you care for the baby?”
Michel and Imane looked at each other, and they nodded slowly in unison, unsure how they were going to manage, but sure enough in each other to know it would work.
“Yes, we will,” said Imane in a firm voice. “We’ll do it. Michel and I will love him very much,” and they watched as the Countess bent down to the basket and laid a kiss with her fingers on the baby’s cheek. Seconds later she was by the door, and gave them a little lopsided smile. Then her hand was on the bolt, and she was gone, stepping out into that raucous night as she went to her meeting with destiny, the visit having lasted barely thirty minutes. The moon showed Francine the way across to the car before it slunk back behind a cloud, darkening the village in a rush of shadow.
She turned once at the car door, and saw the small light silhouetting Michel and Imane in the doorway, as they held her child. She ducked down inside the vehicle, her face wet with tears, and with a heart bursting with the injustice of it all, stabbed at the starter button and puttered away across the square. The die was thrown, there was no turning back.
They closed the door, Michel and Imane Levant, and stood there looking at the baby in the basket held between them. Imane reached out for her husband’s arm, and said, “You know that is not the whole of the story, Michel, don’t you?” and she looked up at him as he turned to her, his eyes uneasy with a sudden sense of foreboding.
“What do you mean, my love?” he replied, a cold finger of truth prickling his spine. “What have you seen?”
His wife sighed, and gently moved her hand to the baby’s face, caressing it softly. Her eyes shone with a glint of clairvoyance, a gift from a bloodline which had roamed a dark continent since the beginning of times.
“This is not a refugee, Michel, this is Francine’s child. I knew the instant she asked us,” and she blinked back tears. “This poor child has been born of her love for someone else, and she has given that love to us, to hold and cherish for ever…” and her voice slowly fell silent. Her dark face stared down into the basket and it seemed the room held its breath, the wind ceasing its ferocity outside for thirty long seconds of stillness.
The two of them stood like that, Michel with his head spinning at the path ahead the night had brought, and Imane with her hand slowly lulling the baby back to sleep. Finally she broke the silence, and said,“But this is now our child, even if it is a de Brosse, and we cannot, ever, tell anyone; we must promise that for their sake and for ours,” and she touched the baby’s hair again with wonderment.
We were at the table in the library again the next day, sunshine pouring through the windows and the letters spread out in some order on the vast table. Catherine had carefully organised them into the sequence she thought they had been written in, and she had carefully placed coins on each corner of the letters to keep them flat and in place. It was obvious she had had a long and sleepless night, and she sat at the end, nursing a cup of coffee that never strayed far from the pot that Jeanette kept refilling. There were six of us, for although it was a Thursday, both Emma and Tim were back at the start of a long weekend and he had asked Vivienne to come too – I wondered perhaps if the two of them were becoming close. It was an incongruous thought for such an important morning.
Catherine made sure we were sitting comfortably, and told us what she had found out so far. Her voice trembled as she told us the story, both from the exhaustion of finding out so much of her mother’s past, and at the new-found knowledge that promised so much.
“It started after I lost my leg,” she said simply, immediately drawing us into the confusion of her story, as quickly as a bomb might fall, explode and then change and end lives.
“My mother writes to say ‘Thank you’ to the commander of the American base for their concern for me, and for their support.” She stopped and looked at us all, making sure we were following her closely. “And then, it appears the pilots used to come and visit me regularly. I became a sort of mascot. I would have thought that contact was by telephone in those days, but these letters would suggest otherwise. Perhaps we had no telephone, I can’t remember. But the letters also say the Americans brought gifts for us all, and one man, Flight Lieutenant Richard Peebles, came more often than most.” She paused then, and clenched a hand hard on the table, her arm trembling. None of us said a word, but waited patiently, our minds reeling from the denouement unfolding before us.
It was a long minute before she continued. “It appears that Mr Peebles came more and more often, and they eventually fell in love with each other, my mother and he. I can only imagine that my mother was in a state of receptiveness, that my father and his antics had finally left their marriage loveless. I remember my father as a tall, loud man, and can imagine how easy it would have been for my mother to reach out for help, support…..perhaps even love.” She leant forward over the table and rested her face in her hands, perhaps to ease away a tear. Emma reached out from where she was sitting and touched the Countess’ elbow in support, and the old woman touched Emma’s hand back in comfort as she added, “And the letters from my mother are not originals. They’re copies – she must have written them with a carbon sheet, so she could keep her outgoing messages for ever.”
I felt barren inside then, and closed my eyes to see the study not far away, where a small particular woman might have written carefully on a blotter board, sealing a letter and taking it perhaps to a busy town and its post office to avoid attention.
“It appears she fell pregnant that autumn, I am not sure when,” Catherine eventually continued. “She mentions it in a letter dated from November, but there is no date, I am afraid. I know that my mother left here in January of 1945, and although I thought I heard her in the house once more that spring, I know nothing more. The last letter is dated from Christmas Eve, I assume 1944.”
There was a pause then as we all counted furiously in our heads, and it was Vivienne who spoke first.
“She must have left when she though she could no longer hide the pregnancy, Catherine,” she ventured. “That would make sense, no? Do we know where she went to?”
There was a shake of head from the Countess, and she murmured, “No. I have no idea. I’m sorry, but your idea does make sense, Vivienne.”
And there we were. We now had an answer as to why Francine had left the château in January of 1945, but we had no leads as to where the child might have gone. A thought occurred to me, and I turned to Catherine.
“Catherine, this may be presumptuous of me, but how do you know you have a brother, and not a sister? Your mother must have written those letters before the baby was born, surely?”
And Catherine touched a later on the table in reply, her finger seeking the sentence before she read it.
“I feel is is a boy, Richard, my sweet love. We will have a boy to call our own, a child perhaps born in a dark time before the light comes back.”
I fought back an urge to cough, something was in my throat, heaven knew what. But then I had another thought an instant later, and asked, “Is there anything about this relationship in the journal, Catherine? Does she mention anything?”
Across from me the Countess shook her head, “No, nothing,” she replied. “I imagine she deliberately kept it out of the journal, but these letters explain why she hid it, I assume, when she left.” There was a pause and then she said in a very low voice, “I know it is only a half-brother, but I so would like to find him, help me, my cheries, please…” and her voice tailed off into a dull silence that rung in the room like a small tarnished bell.
It was Tim who spoke next, with an idea so brilliant I could have hugged him. “Catherine,” he said very steadily, “May I have your permission to try and find out who Richard Peebles was, and where he or his descendants may be now?”
There was a moment of puzzlement around the table before Tim continued, “I’m pretty good on the internet at doing research and finding stuff; I’m sure I can find something out about him,” and he looked steadily at Catherine as he said this.
I found myself nodding in agreement and the general movement about me seemed to indicate broad approval at the idea.
“Of course, Tim,” said Catherine, “that’s a wonderful idea, thank you.”, and Tim grinned and immediately the three young people huddled together and started to write a list of ideas of what to start searching for. I turned back to Catherine as Jeanette poured out yet more coffee, and the three of us looked at each other over the murmuring from the other end of the table.
“What else have you found out from the letters, Catherine?” asked Janette a moment later, and I saw the Countess harden a little before speaking.
“The last letter, written just before Christmas, indicates she was planning to go away in the New Year – to go somewhere safe and have the baby. She does in fact mention a month, March, for a birth. I forgot that. It makes sense, she could easily have hidden a pregnancy from my father for three months – I did not think they were seeing anything of each other.” She stopped, suddenly sad.
“Is there a letter back from him, after she wrote that last time?” I asked, wondering.
Catherine shook her head, “No, nothing, I don’t know why.”
I had a sudden premonition, and thoughtlessly wondered out loud, “Maybe Maximilian found the reply, and read it? Maybe that’s why he….” and I stopped as I realised how blunt I had been, and started to stammer out an apology which Catherine instantly stopped with a hand.
“Don’t worry Sophie, dear, I have thought the same, it’s nothing,” and even though she said it genuinely, I could not but help feel a prickle of unease that I had half described the way Catherine’s mother may have finally met her fate. I slunk into my seat ashamed, aware that the hall where Francine appeared to have faced her death was but a passageway away.
Jeanette then spoke, “You have told me the story of the night you thought you heard your mother here, Catherine, why do you think she was here?” and I knew the answer instantly.
“She came back for the journal”, I said. “I would imagine she wanted to leave Maximilian and start life afresh, perhaps with her new love, and she wanted an untainted past. If she had managed to leave with the journal then no one would ever have known anything…” and my voice trailed away as I realised I had come to the end of my thought process. I looked up to see Catherine watching me intently, nodding her head in agreement.
“I am with you, Sophie, on that thought,” she said, and we all then wondered what we would think of next. I was sure we were overlooking something simple, even though I could not imagine what it could be.
Ten minutes later we had drained the last of the coffee and were heading home, with Tim promising Catherine news when he had spent some time on the internet. I didn’t know what I could do next, and simply hugged Catherine tightly before saying we would come back a day or so later to see how things were. We drove down the driveway with Jeanette and Catherine in the mirror watching us as we descended the hill past the lake. It was fitting that none of us in the car could bring ourselves to look at that dark body of water. But then, as we passed the trees I could not help but notice that right where we had found the cauldron was a clutch of flowers and a wooden cross, like the memorials found all over the roadsides of France where someone has died in an accident. Someone had obviously thought enough of Francine to commemorate the place of her remain’s discovery.
Ten yards further down the track, out of sight of the château, I hauled the car to a stop, surprising everyone including myself with the sudden arrest of movement. Tim and Vivienne were in the back and they clutched each other in playfulness, and Emma turned to me a look of shock.
“Mum? What’s the matter?”
I checked the mirror again to check we were out of sight before I replied, “Emma, do me a favour. Climb the bank and go back ten yards to where we found the cauldron. There’s a bunch of flowers on the bank, I could just see it when we came past. See if there’s a florist’s card on it, would you?” and I half wondered whether I was creating a bad luck charm for my own back.
Emma stared at me, and then said, “Sure,” and flinging open the car door she was up the bank to the lake as fast as a vixen fox, her auburn hair glowing in the sunlight. Thirty seconds later, she was back.
“There is a card in the bouquet, Mum!” she said a trifle breathlessly, “It’s from the florist in Blancheron.” and I instantly knew where she meant. Blancheron was our local town, some twenty minutes to the west, and I wondered how I was going to find out more.
“The flowers were from someone called Levant, it was written on the card,” she added triumphantly, and instantly I realised that Carole from the bar must have bought the bouquet, or perhaps even Jeanette had done so. It seemed that little mystery was solved before it had even been started.
It took Tim a week to find Richard Peebles. My son came downstairs the following Friday just before supper and announced to all and sundry that our chase was over, perhaps forever. He’d spent a good deal of his free time in Bordeaux that week glued to a computer screen, and from the USA national military archives he had found out that Flight Lieutenant Richard Peebles had been killed on May 24th, 1945, when a transport C47 had crashed on take-off at Châteaudun Air Base, south-west of Paris. He had not even survived the war, and most likely, had never seen his child or Francine ever again.
I gasped out loud at Tim’s news and blundered into the kitchen, my eyes watering; it was a punctuation mark of such severity on the whole affair that when Emma came downstairs a moment later, she found me crying like a love-lorn teenager over the sink in the kitchen.
I explained what Tim had found out, and we hugged each other tightly before going back into the living room. Simon and Tim both looked at us, my husband with some sympathy. They knew I was upset, and I slumped into a chair.
I sniffed loudly, and wiped my eyes. “That’s it,” I said, “we’ll never find out any more. I can’t think of any way we will find Catherine’s half-brother – all the leads have come to a dead end.” and I sobbed again involuntarily into my hands as I stood by the window to the garden.
There was a hand on my shoulder an instant later, and Emma was there, her fingers touching softly.
“Mum, mum,” she whispered, “Don’t let it get to you, we’ll find out more,” and I shook my head slowly in disagreement.
“We won’t,” I whispered back, “Where do we look further?” And no one had an answer.
I was in the village the next morning, and I saw Jeanette’s car parked in the square as I came out of the pharmacie. I assumed she was in the bar seeing her mother, and realised it would be a good opportunity to pass on our findings, perhaps with a view to discussing how we would tell Catherine the bad news. I set off determinedly across the square, wondering whether the grey sky above would relieve me later of watering duties in the garden.
Within a minute I was at the counter in the bar, and Carole stepped out from the back room to see me there. She grinned instantly, and came out to give me one of her great Afro-Gallic hugs. When I surfaced she was holding my hands in hers, and then Jeanette appeared as well, her mouth working on something obviously both edible and on offer in the interior. I smiled at her, but then said to them both, “I have some news to give you about Catherine’s situation – and I’m afraid it’s not good. Shall we go in the back room?”
A minute later, and we were standing by the great window overlooking the river, sombrely discussing Tim’s findings. I said hesitantly, “How do we tell Catherine?”
Carole shrugged and replied, “She will have to take it as it comes, Sophie. It’s not good news but we cannot dress it in sugar. It must be told as it is,” and Jeanette nodded in agreement.
“It’s sad,” Jeanette added, “But at least she has found out what happened to her mother. I can’t imagine what she is going through, though – imagine having a brother somewhere who you will probably never find?” and we stood, lost in thought.
I broke into our rather dark reverie a moment later by saying simply that I though it was wonderful that one of them had had the heartfelt thought of putting flowers on the bank by the lake. However, their reaction was not what I expected – they stood there blankly, apparently completely unaware of what I had said.
“I saw the flowers there, too” said Jeanette, “and I wondered who they were from.” and she turned to her mother, who still looked blank.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Jeanette,” said Carole, and there was a moment of confusion as each regarded the other.
“It said on the card,” I blurted out, shamelessly aware that I might have done something wrong by stopping to look in the bouquet, “They were from a Levant,” and both Carole and Jeanette shook their heads in unified denial, their dark curls uncoiling and coiling in harmony.
I was thunderstruck. Who was there left to do that then, and Jeanette came to my rescue with a suggestion. “Perhaps it was grandad”, she said. “He knew Francine well,” and I stood slightly confused, reconciling this new idea with the memory of an old man in a wheelchair with tears streaming down his face at Francine’s funeral.
“Is your grandfather in a wheelchair,” I asked slowly. “Was he at the funeral?” and I saw instantly from their response that I was thinking of the same man.
Five minutes later I was on my way home, wondering out loud why I had a sudden urge to go and visit an old man in a wheelchair, nodding his life away in the old people’s home along the road to the east.
A quarter of an hour after that and I had hatched a plan with Simon; a phone-call to the Ombrerie just afterwards arranged a visit to a Mr Levant for the following Sunday afternoon. Venez-vous à 1600 heures, they had said, just in time for tea.
Mr Levant had a small room on a level from which he had a wonderful view of the valley and its river. The Ombrerie was a fully-staffed home, and his living quarters looked out on a garden that descended from a concrete terrace, with a sloping ramp and many railings in evidence. The nurses that took us to him had dressed him in an old blazer and they wheeled him outside into the summer afternoon, and then left us as we explained to Mr. Levant what we had come for. The sun shone away to the west and the landscape beneath us was still relatively green, despite the long dry summer. The river was its lifeline, a perpetual voice of movement through it all as it chattered its way westwards. It was a peacefulness that was shortly to be rudely interrupted, despite our best laid plans.
We’d left home with Tim still clattering away at his laptop, and on the short drive we’d rehearsed what we would say. Simon decided he was going to be a reporter doing a piece on local traditional crafts, researching a story on how times had changed so much since the war, and to go with that story I was to be the photographer, and so I sat there clutching Simon’s big Nikon to me in the manner I assumed a professional would use. It was a hastily arranged plan, and obviously not well thought through, for as we sat opposite the old man after introducing ourselves, he looked at us brightly for an instant and then said in a slightly tremulous voice, “This is not about me, is it?”, after which he sat back with such alacrity and authority that Simon and I both blinked in surprise, completely lost for words. I had no answer to the question, and it was such an opening salvo that it seemed a red hot wind was blowing against the back of my head, burning my ears.
The old man stared at me, eyes querying my intent like a wise crow, and his wrinkled face furrowed so deeply in thought I wondered if all was well. There was a twitch, and a mouth opened and said, “This is about the Countess, isn’t it? I know you, young lady, you were at the funeral. You’re English, aren’t you? Mrs Cole, perhaps?” and I wondered how he knew my name.
I felt Simon beside me in his plastic chair, uncomfortably wriggling like a fish on a hook. I was aflame with heat, subtly becoming aware that the bright-eyed centurion opposite me might suddenly have a part to play in unravelling the mystery we had been trying to solve now for nearly three weeks. I could barely imagine the enormity of time Mr Levant had lived in the village, and my mind rolled with images of warplanes, Swastikas and a body in a cauldron. My head spun with thoughts, and I wondered if I was going to faint.
The old man suddenly raised his hand to his jacket, and slowly took out a wallet from his inside pocket. I was amazed at his dexterity and co-ordination, and he demonstrated his capabilities as he opened the wallet and took out a small black and white photograph – a slight tremble of his fingers his only clue to his great age.
“I’ll tell you what I know in a moment,” he said, “but first, I want to show you a photograph – it’s from a long time ago, but it will show you how my wife and I once looked, eighty years past. She is long gone, I am afraid, but it might give you a clue to the answer you are seeking. I know that is why you are here.” There was a pause into which neither Simon nor I wanted to throw a word, so we waited, holding our breaths. When at last M. Levant’s mouth opened again, his next words were almost a carbon copy of a sentence I had heard recently in another place, and their message took my breath away.
”I have a secret my wife said I should never tell,” and he looked into my eyes as he leaned forward towards me with an outstretched hand holding the trembling photo.
I reached forward to take the photo and realised it was a copy, fresh from a machine, of a much older photo. As I drew it towards me. Simon leaned sideways to look too, and my phone chirped softly in my bag. The photo showed a young man in his prime, lovingly touching his wife, a small petite dark woman with a beautiful face. There was nothing about the scene that should have elicited any alarm, and I looked at it thoughtfully, wondering at lifetimes long passed. The phone chirped again, and I instinctively reached for it, only to see it was a message from Tim.
I briefly read the one short line of text, and felt my hair stand on end, and i quickly re-read it before I had even reached the last word. My heart pounded with excitement and at my sudden intake of breath Simon slid over to me and read the text over my shoulder. It seemed Francine’s mystery had leapt a huge step towards a solution. The unreality of everything jolted me below my ribs, and I suddenly forgot to breath.
“Oh my goodness,” I said in a small voice, “Oh my goodness gracious,” and Simon uttered a phrase of such masculine surprise that I knew I was not alone in a sudden sea of foaming disbelief. I re-read the message again, Tim had used block capitals for emphasis;
“I KNOW WHO FRANCINE’S CHILD WAS!!!!!!!!”
I looked up to see the old man watching us closely, an eyebrow raised in question. It took me just one second to make a decision and I leaned over and handed him the phone, pointing to Tim’s text. Surprised by the offer, there was a fumbling for a pair of old spectacles in a jacket pocket, and then Mr. Levant was squinting at the screen, the phone a mere six inches or so from his nose. I watched as the message was read, and the phone was slowly lowered to his lap, and then his eyes closed as if in prayer; for thirty long seconds Simon and I watched and waited and then the old man nodded to himself, a decision made, and a slight smile played around his mouth. He opened his eyes, and then looked back at me, and I saw a face that perhaps was at last free of a burden.
“I have an idea,” said M Levant. “Let’s ask if you can take me out for tea, and we’ll go and see the young Countess, shall we? I feel it is time I went against my wife’s wishes and told you all something that has been kept from her for too long.”
And so we went to talk to the nurses, and soon we were rattling back to the village with a wheelchair in the back of the car, a very old man dressed in a blazer in the front passenger seat and a cane by his side. The river ran alongside the car for the whole half mile it took to get to the village, as it always had done and would continue to do, probably for ever.
11.55pm, January 15th, 1944
They were wet through, the two of them. He dropped a hand to the grass verge and held the small boat steady as she stepped out, her boots sliding on the muddy bank. The rain poured unceasingly on them in the near complete darkness as they dragged the boat up the bank to the small boathouse.
“The rain will wash away the marks,” he gasped, pointing to the sullen sky and a faint hesitant moon. “By morning there will be nothing.”
She turned to him and nodded, exhausted after the four hours of hard labour. It would be difficult enough for one, but she was not her normal self, and the bulge under her sodden shirt ached beneath her very inadequate raincoat. He held out a hand for her to hold onto and they started back up the path to the horse and cart. She stumbled as they went, and once, as she leant into his young shoulder, she said in a whisper, “You cannot tell anyone, remember.” And they stopped for a brief second, looking at each other in the poor light. His young face glowed with adoration and fervour.
“I won’t,” he promised. “I won’t, I’ll wait till you tell me what to do.” and he meant it with all his heart, for the small woman with him was a person he admired and loved as much as any man could – even if it was a woman he would never marry.
“I will give you a gift,” she replied, “Soon. It will be a pact between us, you and I. Not a reward, but a meeting of lives.” and she reached out and touched him as a true friend would.
Together they reached the top of the rise, and heard the horse snort in alarm at their arrival, the bit clinking quietly in its covering. The night was at its deepest, but they knew time was of essence and the world would soon be awake once again.
Sat in the passenger seat, I phoned Tim as we reached the village, and told him to grab his little Peugeot and join us up at the château. I had no qualms about doing so, for Tim had all the information and I knew that Catherine would want to hear everything. I told him to bring Emma and to see if Vivienne wanted to come too. His earlier text had been simple, but without any further information my mind was racing at how the mystery was to be revealed.
As we went up the hill, past the lake and then turned into the gravelled drive, I saw Jeanette’s old car there too, and idly wondered if if we would drinking tea or champagne later. The old man had remained bright and lucid for the twenty minutes or so it had taken us to get there, and I had fast become aware that he was of that rare breed, an old person with many attributes still vital and alert, and the words we exchanged on that short trip made me mindful his brain was still razor sharp. He mad a small sound of exclamation when he saw Jeanette’s car and it was Jeanette herself who came to the door when I banged on it; she looked over my shoulder with some surprise as she saw Simon below me at the foot of the steps, helping her grandfather out of the car.
“Sophie,” she said, her eyes wide, “And grand-père, aussi! Why are you all here?” and her face was friendly enough but agog at the arrival of us all.
I answered in a voice still a little unsure of events, “Tim is coming, too. He says he has found out who Catherine’s half-brother is,” and Jeanette’s eyes almost fell out of her head. “Is she here?” I asked, cutting off any further queries.
She nodded, her familiar round earrings intent on a synchronised beat of emotion. “Oui, of course,“ she replied. “She gives Jean a lesson every Sunday afternoon,” and she turned to let us in, a movement interrupted by a word from her grandfather as he slowly came up the steps on his cane, Simon holding one arm in support. We waited as he reached the top and Jeanette stepped forward to hug him softly, with a huge kiss on each cheek. M Levant seemed to revel in the embrace and as his face glowed with emotion, he put out a hand to forestall any questions.
“Cherie,” he said in a steady tone, “Is your mother at home?”
“Oui, grand-père,” said Jeanette, nodding affirmation, “She is, why?”
“Have you your telephone with you?” the old man asked, “I need to talk to her,” and the two of them moved along the entrance a little to let Simon and I go on inside.
I hesitated, and Jeanette turned and said, “You go on, Sophie, you know where they are….I’ll bring grand-père along in a minute,” and she smiled and turned back to her father, her phone held against his ear.
Inside, the hall stretched out, the flagstones echoing to a faint rendition of something classical, a tinkle of chords that drifted down from the passageway to the left. Simon and I stepped quietly as we could across the huge space and turned down towards the Grand Salon. The room was lit by sunlight sweeping in through the west windows, and a single light above the Bösendorfer illuminated a tableau the room had seen a thousand times before – a small pupil perched on a piano stool, with the teacher standing to one side, offering encouragement and advice. Catherine was so steadfast in her lesson that she did not notice us standing there, and Jean was so serious in his repetition of instruction he did not either. He was playing a chord again and again, with great dexterity, and it was only when Simon gently coughed that the two by the piano became aware of our presence.
Catherine looked up and her expression instantly hardened, her eyes taut with query. She was wearing a long dress, simple in its elegance and almost identical to the one her mother was wearing in the portrait still on the wall from the internment a week before. I guessed that the Countess knew why we were there. Her hand stretched out to Jean’s shoulder and she said in a quiet voice, “Stop a moment, Jean. You can go to the kitchen and find your mother if you’d like a drink. We’ll carry on later,” and the boy slipped off the stool and stepped lithely to the small door in the far side of the room, shyly waving to us as he did so.
Catherine stood there facing us, her hands quietly by her side, and she simply said, “Welcome, Sophie, and Simon. You have some news for me, I think? I can tell you ….” and her voice trailed off in surprise as there was movement behind us, her eyes widening as she looked over my shoulder.
I half turned and realised that not only were Jeanette and her grandfather there, but so were the others, Tim with a conspiratorial smile, and Emma and Vivienne just behind him. They’d arrived and we’d not heard the car at all.
“Oh,” said Catherine in a small voice, and I turned back to her, “Oh, I see. This is obviously something serious,” and she stared hard at Mr Levant, her mouth working over a solution for his presence, She could find nothing to say and after ten long seconds, she simply said, “Welcome Monsieur Levant, it’s been a while since you were last in this room, I think?”. Her words were not unkind, but simply buying her time while she composed herself.
The old man stood straight, and nodded once, before saying, “Bonjour, Madame Countess” and he half bowed a little, a gesture of tradition that Catherine acknowledged with a small nod and a smile in return. She then turned and stepping forward, exchanged greetings with the rest of us, a little choreographed routine that we all self consciously knew was a delay in the proceedings.
When the murmurs had stopped, Catherine looked at us all, and suggested, “Shall we go through to the library? We will have a table and some chairs there for us all,” and with some sort of acquiescence we all trooped through sheepishly to the room where a week earlier we had found the journal. Catherine was first, and she snapped on some lights as she came through the doorway and led the way to the table, surrounded by the shelves we had all searched so thoroughly a week before. Jeannette and Simon settled the old man into a chair opposite Catherine at the other end of the table from where she was sitting, and the rest of us picked a chair each, scraping legs along the floor. When we had finished, Catherine looked at me, as though I was the emissary in charge of a group of traders. One single eyebrow hung in question, and I started.
“Catherine, we would have come here with bad news yesterday, but I had a thought that I should visit Mr Levant at his rest-home, as I had some questions to ask him about your mother….he had other ideas though, and says he has something to tell you. Perhaps he should start before Tim says something else – I do not know what though, he has not told us the whole story,” and at this Tim squirmed uncomfortably in his chair a little. All our eyes turned to Mr Levant though, and he looked at us brightly in turn before settling on Catherine.
“Madame Countess,” he started in a low voice we all strained to hear, “I have become aware that you believe you have a brother or sister in your life, and Mrs Cole,” and he stopped to direct a forthright glance at me, “came to see if I knew anything about the subject.” He looked about the table at this point and he would only have seen faces rapt with attention.
He continued at the same pace. “I have been sworn to secrecy all my life, especially by my dear wife, Imane, departed now for twenty one years, and until recently I have thought to do nothing but defer to those edicts.” He paused then, with his two old hands clasped in front of him on the table, his gaze lowered a little as he fought back the memories of a lifetime nearly finished.
“But I think the time has come for me to be frank with you, Countess,” and he looked at her directly, “For we recently interred your mother and her death has an additional meaning to me, as you will see. But most of all, I will now divulge that secret, for it is surely the right time to do so.” and he stopped for breath, perhaps unaccustomed to such statements of monumental importance.
He started with intent, “The first point I must tell you is that you did indeed have a half-brother, who alas has now gone, but his descendants still live in the village,” and looking up he glanced at Tim. There was a gasp from some about the table at the solid fact he had just presented, and I saw Catherine couch her face in her hands across the table from him, her shoulders shaking again with tears for the hundredth time that week. I could not but sympathise with her; the past three weeks and her health issues would have been enough for me pass the rest of my life in unhappiness, too. Grief was mounting on grief.
Mr Levant looked across at me, aware of the ripple of thought passing about the table, and he said, “Perhaps your son should explain, Mrs Cole. I think he deserves a little reward for his detective work – I know the whole story anyway,” and he stopped, suddenly aware that Catherine was crying. His tone changed a little, became softer and more familiar.
“Catherine,” he said, using her given name for the first time, “I knew your mother well, she would not have wanted you to cry now, she would have hoped you would smile, I think,” and he glanced around at us all. “The news is not all bad, there is good to come, trust me,” and I wondered what on earth he meant by that.
There was silence round the table, and we all watched Catherine take her face out of her hands, wipe her eyes, and sit straight; perhaps she was taking heed of the old man’s words, or perhaps she was making an attempt to refute the future and what was ordained to happen. What she said next seemed a statement of intent, a beginning to an end, perhaps.
“Tim, would you explain what you have found out for us, then?” she asked in a small voice. Her tone was bright but false, the pink highlights on her cheeks a clue to the turmoil she was surely suffering. I prayed that my son would not rush with the story, hoping beyond hope that Tim would dole out a measure of maturity in the telling of it, but I need not have worried. He had it all planned.
There was a scrape of his chair as he stood up, and he looked at us all in turn before settling his gaze and full attention on the Countess. He coughed once, and then said, “Catherine, I have spent a week researching the elusive Mr Peebles, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. He was a pilot officer who joined the war in 1943, and flew operational sorties out of Italy. He was a fighter pilot, and a decorated one at that.” There was an intake of breath about the table, and Catherine opened her eyes wide. I saw Simon double his attention to the story – he had always had a keen interest in WWII, with a shelf full of books and a wide assortment of DVD’s on the subject. He pursed his lips and steepled his hands together for his nose to lean on, a trait which I think he used solely for people who thought he might be frivolous when he actually wanted to be thought of as serious man.
“I joined a forum on Tuesday that is full of ex-airmen from the US Airforce,” Tim continued, “and I have talked to three people who knew of Richard Peebles, including one man who flew with him during that period. That man is now 93, but his daughter is his correspondent, and I have been talking with her a great deal.” Tim paused and looked at Mr Levant for a moment, and I knew he was imagining the great length of time that had passed since those days. Glancing round the table, I saw Simon was following the tale keenly, and Catherine had her eyes half closed as she listened.
“Mr Peebles was most likely on his way back to Italy from England when he was here. During a mission deep over Germany in March 1944, he was separated from his squadron, his plane badly damaged, and he crash-landed somewhere in northern France. It appears he was taken in by the Resistance and smuggled back to Britain, where arrangements were then made for him to make his way to Italy. I think he was at the temporary US airbase here near Blancheron waiting for onward transport which never came during that summer. I think the war passed him by a little, and he was probably making his way north to another airbase when he was killed on a transport aircraft in 1945 outside Paris.”
Tim stopped then, and let the information sink in amongst us. A moment later he added one more detail, a sentence which brought Simon half to his feet with an exclamation of amazement.
“Mr Peebles was part of the 100th Squadron, which was one of three making up the 332nd Fighter Group.” Tim paused as he saw his father recognise the fact. They stared at each other, and Simon looked down at the table, shaking his head as he integrated this information into the mystery, and as only a woman who loves a man dearly can recognise, I realised with abrupt clarity that Simon was now also party to the identity of Francine’s son. There was obviously something special enough about this squadron for Simon to have noted it at some point in the past. I arched my eyebrows at him when he glanced at me, and he simply shook his head at me in wonderment, leaving me no closer to knowledge than before. I would have shaken him by the shoulders, but he was too far away.
Everyone else was probably a little perplexed by the additional facts, but at this point Tim decided he had said enough and he sat down with a thump; inclining his head a little to the old man, he added, “I think perhaps it is only right that Mr Levant should finish the story….” and there was silence in the room again as we all looked at the old man, sitting proud in his chair. It seemed his composure might have been a little ruffled by Tim’s recounting of his discoveries, but then after a long silence, Mr Levant opened his mouth and Francine’s bequest to her children, so long hidden by tacit agreement and the grave, finally spilled out into the summer light.
Mr Levant looked directly at Catherine as he said the next few sentences, each one a phrase of such clarity and purpose that no one said a word between them.
“Francine came to us in the dead of night, Catherine, in August of 1945. She came with a basket, which she left with Imane and I. She said it was a temporary measure, but we were never sure. We both thought she would be back, for she spoke of you, too, and I do not think she knew what was going to happen here at the château that night; she simply said she had to fetch something from the château and had to do it alone.” His words hung like stalagmites from the library ceiling as we all dwelt on them, wondering which of them had the deepest meaning, but then his next sentence distilled three weeks of waiting into one intense moment of amazement.
“In the basket was your half-brother. He was about six month’s old.” The statement hung in the air, like the blade of a guillotine, dramatic and dangerously provocative.
There was a reaction about the table which created a tableau of faces and movement no one could have imagined. Catherine pushed her chair back, and stared at Mr Levant, two bright spots of emotion high on her cheekbones, and Jeanette looked around the table, bewildered. What had her grand-parents done with the baby? I could see the same question on Emma and Vivienne’s face, and behind them, on little Jean’s face too – he had padded back into the room with a glass of water and had probably been standing there all the time. And then I glanced sideways a Simon and Tim to see them looking at each other with a faint grin. The suspense was killing me, my heart was going like a marathon runner’s near the end of a long race.
The old man’s next words were the final answer to a long saga, a finale to a story that had spanned eight long decades, and in so doing had locked away a family secret that was a miracle in itself.
“Francine brought the baby to us for three reasons, Catherine. The first is an easy one to understand, for we were childless. Imane and I had tried to conceive a child for a long time, and in those days there was little one could do about it. We told few people outside of our families that we had adopted a child; times were tough, life was hard and communities were still close-knit enough that keeping that a little secret was not such an effort. As time went by so the memories of that year became a little foggier for everyone, and the baby became ours in all but blood.”
I looked to Catherine to see her still listening with intent – the colour on her cheeks had faded a little, but there was understanding in her eyes.
“The second reason,” continued M Levant, “Is also easy to understand – for a woman of Francine’s standing to have a lover, and then a child by him, would have created an uproar in her society. I do not know if she was going to stay here or not, but the millstone of a bastard child about her neck, whether conceived of true love or not, would have made her an outcast anywhere in France.” He looked at us all then, in turn, noting our reactions, and perhaps relieved that we understood what it must have been like back then, close enough to the war to remember the sound of bombs and the tread of boots across cobblestones.
“And then there is the third reason, Catherine, and I look upon our company today as hope that you will understand that third reason, for I think you are a rare breed. You and I have much in common, Catherine…..” and he stumbled for a long second before continuing, his voice even quieter, husky with the shards of memory from a summer long ago. We all strained to hear in the still room.
“The third reason is that Imane and I were an odd couple then, so long ago. I brought her back from the mountains of Algeria. We had fallen in love under the starlight of a new moon in a country far away. If we had had children, they would have been a mix of our love, and of two different cultures. They would have been a mix of black and white, mixed-race children – not such a problem now but a considerable social difficulty back then – except, perhaps in this village where no one really cared.”
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and saw Carole was standing in the doorway, a coat over one arm and a bag over one shoulder, starting intently at her father-in-law as he finished the tale. I had no idea where she had come from or how long she had been there, but her arrival proved to be a perfect moment of destiny.
“Which is the reason Francine also came to us. For your half-brother, Catherine, was a mix of white and black love. Your half-brother was Jean Levant, the child who I called my son and whom everyone thought was my own; and his father – Richard Peebles – was a black airman, a Tuskegee pilot, a member of the US Airforce’s first all-black squadrons.” and he stopped, perhaps as shocked by the truth coming out of his mouth as anyone else.
Like a piece of cliff falling from a great height into a calm lake, so the old man’s words and their meaning spread around the quiet room like of series of ripples; faces and hands moved, mouths opened and then there was much noise. In the middle of it all, three women stood up from their seats. There was Catherine, looking at Jeanette, and there was Jeanette looking back at Catherine, and then there was Emma. Emma was the keenest and her words pierced the hubbub, as she clearly said to the Countess;
“OH MY GOODNESS! Jeanette is your niece!!” She paused, and then without taking breath, added, “Or something like that, anyway,” and she squealed a little with excitement.
And then there was a moment of such poignancy it should have been recorded, distilled and spread to the heavens, for Catherine walked slowly around the table, and reaching out, grasped Jeanette to her as hard as she could, an embrace of such understanding, affection and love that the crystals of the chandelier shimmered with joy above the table, a warm glow matched only by the grin of a young boy standing against his grandmother, hands joined in gratitude by a change of events that owed much to a small, tarnished key. And then there were tears, and I looked across the table at Mr Levant, who noticed my glance, and turning to me, winked – in a very old fashioned conspiratorial way. At this my face burned with emotion, and my eyes prickled with tears too. It would have been most rude not to have cried as well, so I did.
It was an hour later, as we were still contemplating the enormous changes that life had brought to Catherine and Jeanette, and – by virtue of that relationship – young Jean, that Catherine brought us all back to earth. We were still in the library, where two empty champagne bottles from the château’s cellar stood on the table amongst a dozen glasses, when she urged us all to silence and thanked us all for the saddest and happiest weeks of her life. She stood apart, eyeing us all like a speaker at a wedding, and reminded us that despite the divided but reconciled lineage of the family, the château and herself still had some issues ahead. There was, first and foremost, her ill health and the time-limit that the doctors had placed on her life, and because of that, even though there was now an heir to the estate (at this last utterance, Catherine had stepped pointedly to Jeanette’s side and held her hand), there remained the one problem – the money that was needed to be raised for her own forthcoming death duties. As she finished, we stood in silence, chastened by the dull unavoidable facts that life and death always present.
I knew of no one who could have spoken of those facts with the courage that Catherine did that day. She remained as calm and content about her lot as ever, but with a hint of more than a smile as one problem had been resolved. “But,” she said, “I think the time has come for us to accept that the Bôsendorfer will have to go. I suggest we go through to the Grand Salon, and Jean and I will play something for you as a farewell, for tomorrow I will call and arrange the piano’s sale. It may be some time before we find a buyer, perhaps,” and her voice choked a little at the thought.
Mr Levant was still sitting at the table, his old frame tired but content, and he coughed once when Catherine had finished, and waited until we were all looking at him. He glanced at us all in turn, and my spine tingled with premonition. He turned to Carole, and said, “Did you find it?” and Carole started at the question before she remembered and replied.
“Yes, papa, I have it here – it was in the Bible as you said it would be,” and she reached into her bag and brought out a small and very old envelope. She put it gently on the table and slid it towards the old man. He picked it up, and showed it to us all before speaking. I could see it was faded and crinkled, and there appeared to be some writing on the front. My spine tingled a little more.
“The evening your mother left Jean with us, Catherine, she also left us this note, saying it was to be opened at or after her funeral.” M Levant started, staring at Catherine as he did so. “I imagine that she did not think that occasion was to be 83 years later. I would have brought it to a reading of her will. but there was no will, was there?” and he looked around the table. I knew the answer, for no will had been found.
Catherine had had to find a chair, and was sat in it, the two spots of colour on her cheeks returning. I wondered whether they were a symptom of whatever it was she was slowly dying of.
“For a week I have thought of this envelope since Francine’s interment, and today would seem to be as good an occasion as any to open it. I am not privy to the message inside, but I assume it is for Francine’s children. It says here on the front that either myself, Imane or one of our descendants are to open it, and the contents should be read to any such descendants of Francine who are alive.” He stopped at this stage and looked around at us all before continuing. “As I assume this is a matter related to the family, then the presence of Countess Catherine de Brosse, and Jeanette Levant, is very relevant.”
He paused then, as if for theatrical effect, and then he said, “I believe I may know what this note will tell,” and he smiled to himself at the great buzz of comment that rose from us all.
Without any ado, he slit open the envelope with a little finger, and produced a sheet of paper, also old and faded. Taking his glasses out of his blazer pocket, he steadied the letter in his hands, propped his elbows on the table to minimise any shaking, and started to read. Across eighty years of time, through decades of confinement in the cauldron, Francine’s voice was at last heard again through the mouth of someone who had once known her. It was a slightly surreal experience.
“To whoever is present for the reading of this letter, it should be noted that these are the words of Francine, Countess de Brosse. If you are present, you are listening to the voice of Michel Levant, or a descendant of his choosing. Whatever results from what is said, is my gift to you. Do not be sad, for I am with you; look up, and you shall see my smiling dust in the light above your heads. If I were there, I would love you very much, Francine.”
There was a stunned silence around the table, and we looked at each other in wonder. The old man at the end folded the note, took his glasses off and smiled to himself, nodding agreement with what he had just said. A person looking closely would have seen him blinking away tears, but I was too busy exchanging glances with everyone except Jeanette and Catherine, who were close enough to touch each other. Jeanette had still not fully come to terms with her changed circumstances, and was shrugging her shoulders at Catherine, unable to choose what to do. The Countess was watching her, still pondering on Michel’s words. I looked up to see Simon and Tim watching me, and I realised I was the Emissary again.
“Do you want us to leave, Catherine and Jeanette?” I asked, deferentially. Whatever Michel had to say was surely for their ears only. I noted Simon nod his approval across the table, while Tim pursed his lips a little in disappointment. Neither reaction would have changed the outcome though, for Catherine shook her head at my words.
“No – of course not,” she replied. “ I think you are part of the château family now, and Emma surely is already,” and she smiled at me. “Let’s hear what Michel has to say,” and she turned to him, and softly reached out to hold one of Jeanette’s hands, a move that made Jeanette look down in wonder, and then tightly clutch her relative’s hand in return.
The old man across the table put his hands on it, and coughed a little, just once. The light was fading outside and the last ray of sunshine reached in through the window and suddenly picked out his old face in a beam of softness; it seemed as though he was on a stage, and he met the occasion with the solemnity it deserved. We waited, all of us, Jean close to Carole, Emma and Vivienne, Tim and Simon, and the two women opposite me, now joint guardians of a gracious old building and its vine-rich lands. I almost held my breath in anticipation.
Michel coughed once again, but this time to clear his throat, not to create attention, and then he slowly, word by word, told us a story, looking directly at Catherine and Jeanette as he did so.
“Francine called me to the château a week into the New Year of 1945. The Count had gone away for two days, and she told me she had something to do, something of great importance, before he came back. She also told me she was leaving the very next day for a month or two, and I was to keep an eye on Catherine. I had no idea she was pregnant, I don’t think anyone did. We worked for half a night in the cold rain, and when we were finished, she swore me to secrecy. I was to tell no one ever, not even Imane, but I think I am right in saying this letter is designed to reveal what we did that night.”
And he stopped, looking hard at the table while we fidgeted, squirmed and wriggled in the waiting of it. Except for Catherine and Jeanette.
The silence grew out longer, and Mr Levant looked about the table, wondering if someone would realise what the secret was before he had to tell us. The pause drew out, until suddenly there was a movement and was a gasp from Emma, for she had suddenly remembered – for she already thought first of the answer, five weeks or so previously. She put her hand to her mouth, and looked with huge eyes at the old man. He looked back at her with amusement, and some level of admiration.
“You know, Emma Cole, do you not? What is the secret?” and he paused as he waited for an answer. There was a hush in the library and I felt the flutter of angels’ wings, up high amongst the shadows. The world seemed to tilt on its axis a little as I watched my daughter across the table.
Emma steeled herself, and then uttered, as clear as a bell, “I think you and Francine hid the château’s armour in the lake after all! It really is in there!”
Michel Levant grinned enormously, showing a fine set of brushed dentures, and said, “Correct, young lady, well done.” and we all looked huge-eyed at each other before breaking into spontaneous joy.
Amidst the huge round of noise and exclamation, the old man sat back with a smile, and at the first opportunity said, “If I remember rightly, there are 75 pieces of armour in there, down in the deeps opposite the boathouse. I wonder how much of it is still intact?”, and at that I thought of the tarnished key and how well the sediment of the lake had protected it; and then I smiled too.
I am sorry for the delay in publishing part II of this story. I went to Normandy for a week of tennis tournaments with Gigi (yes – she did win an Adult Woman’s Open) and I did not take my computer (silly me!); and then since I came back we have been run ragged with a whole host of things that have taken rather longer to sort out then they should have done. In addition, I have a confession to make – the conclusion is in part III, I am afraid; there were rather too many loose ends I had to tie up. BUT, that will definitely be out later this week, I promise.
I hope you enjoy part II (and if you did not read part I it is here).
THE KEY THAT TURNED BACK TIME (part II)
It was a warm but dismal afternoon when Francine was laid to rest in the family crypt on the hillside behind the château. There was an enormous crowd of people on the lawns below the house, waiting patiently for the family and close friends to reappear after the internment. Simon and I waited with them, knowing Emma was inside as a close friend.
Most of the people waiting there with us were over the age of 60, and at the back of the group were four people in wheelchairs; they were the oldest of all, and they too had come to pay their respects for a woman they had known so many years ago. I learnt later that the oldest them had been just 28 when Francine had disappeared, but now, at the age of 101, he sat under his blanket, tears streaming down his face as the faintest of drizzle fell from a damp sky. I quietly asked Simon if he knew who the old man was and he whispered back, “Monsieur Levant, I think he’s called. He used to be a joiner, many many years ago.” and I vaguely recognised the name.
An arrest warrant had been been issued for Maximilien de Brosse. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since June, 1945, and the police were not at all sure they ever would. If he was alive, Maximilien would be over 120 years old, an age difficult to reach in most circumstances, but perhaps impossible for a man who had been a fugitive since his disappearance. No one expected much from the hunt for him.
An hour later in the Great Salon, a slow carousel of people on the move was in evidence, as Catherine stood in one place and received the condolences and sympathy of the invited mourners. Bodies inched about, clutching glasses and small plates, and a hubbub of conversation circulated below the ceiling like a breeze born of angels’ wings. I found myself in the corner approaching an old man and Jeanette, her carefully cut grey and black dress a stark difference to the all-black attire of so many others. The two of them were deep in conversation, but they looked up as I bumped into them, and Jeanette instantly said, “Hello, Sophie, we were just talking about your children,” and as the old man glanced at me I recognised him as the gardener who had been there on the lake that day.
“Oh,” I replied, “have they done something wrong?” and I smiled a little lopsidedly, wondering if perhaps they really had.
There was an instant smile of reply from Jeanette, and even the old man must have understood my French for he too grinned. “No, no, nothing like that,” Jeanette said, “we were saying how nice they were, and how Emma has grown into a beautiful young woman, and how clever she was.”
I noticed the direction Jeanette was gazing, and turning saw Emma off to one side with Tim and Vivienne, the three of them in a conspiratorial huddle against a wall, and Emma’s auburn hair a splash of colour in a very monotone scene. Above them, specifically for the occasion, Catherine had hung an enormous portrait of her mother, splendidly dressed in a long black gown, as if she was about to play a piano in some grand concert. In the painting Francine’s neck was bare, with no sign of the chain and the key, but the Countess had told Emma how her mother would typically wear it as a piece of everyday jewellery; friends of Francine had told Catherine many times how as a child growing up she had always reached for the key when being held. I felt my eyes water a little at the thought of Francine’s small body growing cold and de-fleshed in the darkness of the lake – it was a vision that had kept repeating itself day after day, and I was only half-persuaded that Francine had already been dead when left alone on the mud under ten feet of water.
I started to talk to Jeanette and the old gardener in an effort to drive away my morbid thoughts, and Simon reappeared by my side with a glass of wine to ease the task. All conversation ceased though, when the gardener opened his mouth a minute later and said, perhaps in a bitter tone laced with a glass or two of wine, “My father always told me that my grand-father had a secret he said he could not tell,” and we all stopped, glasses raised to lips, eyes flickering wildly as we waited for more.
He continued, “But my father found out eventually and told me, too, but I never once imagined that it would involve the Countess’ mother.” and he looked at us in turn with rheumy eyes, tired with the past few days of discovery and grief.
“The story was about a summer night at the end of the war when the Count asked my grand-father to help deposit a kitchen pot in the lake at the château. He was told it contained valuables and papers, and its location should never be revealed to anyone.”
The old man stopped at this juncture, suddenly aware of how much he was revealing, but noncommittal to the consequences, as though the memory had been a splinter that needed to be worked out of an old wound. He seemed to retreat within himself and he took a huge sip of wine, nearly draining his glass in the process.
I stood there, rocking back on my heels, and wondered at it all. It made sense, and I saw Simon looking at me with a wry look, so I knew he was imagining how the tale had run as well. I wondered if there was any more to be told, but at that moment there was a clack of a gavel on a table, and we all turned to see Catherine in the centre of a growing circle of people.
There were words of thanks, mentions of people whom I did not know, and then a short but fulsome passage of thanks for the discoverers of the cauldron, and the police who had helped. Then there was a eulogy by a small white-haired man of great age, who spoke of a talent taken before its prime, and a devoted mother who had been torn from a child with only one leg. Finally there was a tearful toast to family and friends departed, after which the Countess was gone, easing through the small door in the corner of the salon, and we could all see she had done her best before the tears came again. Slowly the room emptied over the next half hour or so, and as Simon, Emma and Vivienne walked with us outside, we realised the rain had finally gone and the valley was aglow in the light of the late afternoon sun.
I slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning as images of a body crammed into a cauldron alternated with those of a key, spinning on a chain. I woke as dawn came through the window just after 5.00am and went for a long walk by the river, aware that the key was still turning in my consciousness. By the time I had made it back home, I was sure there was more to the whole affair than we knew, and I hoped quietly that some of Aunt Sylvie’s divination skills were lurking in my DNA to help us solve the mystery.
It was a week later on a Wednesday morning that I bumped into the Countess in the village. Coincidentally, I had stepped out of the boulangerie after a long conversation about the situation at the château with the baker’s wife, Nathalie, and as I stepped down to the cobbled square with two baguettes tucked under one arm, I saw Catherine sitting in her Volvo across the square, Jeanette beside her. I waited on the kerb, wondering whether they would need help, and watched as they got out from the vehicle and set off towards me. As they approached the kerb, Catherine looked over at me, and smiled in greeting, raising a hand. She looked in much better form, I decided, and hoped that she was coming to terms with the saga of her mother’s death and the appalling treachery of her father.
It was a typical early September day, and Catherine pointed a finger at the blue sky as she came close, and asked, “Slightly better weather, Sophie, heh?” and I nodded confirmation. It was indeed, glorious weather, fit for a festival of croquet or cricket, with a sky unruffled by a single cloud as far as the eye could see in each azure direction.
“Where are you off to, Cherie?” said the Countess, and I replied I was heading home for lunch. Simon had made a tarte au tomate, or so a text earlier had said, and the message had demanded some bread to go with it.
But I then pointed with my chin to the right across the square to the little bar on the corner, a tiny dark entrance to a room which became bigger as a trapezoidal space between two houses always does, and added, ”I have to go and buy some batteries first from the tabac, however”.
“We’re going there, too,” interjected Jeanette with a cheerful smile, “I have to say hello to my mother,” and holding out an arm for Catherine, she beckoned for me to slip in on the other side. Together we crossed between the parked cars in the square, dodged the water spouting from the fountain and gave a nod of thanks to the war memorial as it came into view, all this while I struggled to remember the mother’s name, which finally came to me as we crossed the road again. It was Carole Levant; I recalled it eventually, and twenty seconds later we were mounting the steps under the awning into the tabac, with the bar stretching away from it into the interior. There, sunlight flooded through four great casemented windows that looked out on the river as it headed westwards some 30 feet below. It was a magnificent setting, and I idly wondered how much it was worth as a property.
I was standing at the counter with Catherine and Jeanette, all of us looking at the view, when there was the sound of a fly-curtain rustling, and a girl stepped out from the room behind. She saw us instantly, and gave a cry of greeting, a call of familiarity at which Jeanette swung round and burst out loud, “Alice! Ça va?” and a huge grin of delight sprung onto the girl’s face.
She in turn whirled round and sang out to the fly-curtain, “Tante Amelie, Jeanette est venue” and there was a quick steady shuffle of feet and a dark-skinned woman with a thatch of African curls swung into view, dazzlingly arrayed in a robe of such blue colour I had to blink. Before I could do so though, Jeanette and her mother had come together in a great Afro-Gallic greeting, with a myriad of kisses dispensed to all four cheeks involved in the embrace.
Catherine hung back, smiling softly, and as Jeanette started to explain, “Maman, I’m so sorry I haven’t been before this week,” there was a snort of dismissal at the remark before the woman strode towards Catherine, at which point a second great embrace began. It became immediately apparent that the Countess and Jeanette’s mother were very old friends, and then I suddenly remembered that Carole had worked for Catherine too, as the previous housekeeper – such an obvious detail of dynasty that I couldn’t work out why I had never thought of the connection before.
My thoughts ran to several seconds, and when I recovered I realised the three women in front of me were watching with interest as I nodded my new found facts into place. I blushed, and said lamely, “Bonjour Carole,” and shook my head in embarrassment, with a tinkle of laughter from the mother my only response. We all looked at each other, and then Carole put her arm through Catherine’s and drew her behind the counter, murmuring soft apologies for her inability to attend Francine’s funeral the week or so before. The two of them disappeared behind the fly-curtain, and Jeanette motioned for me to go through too, as she brought up the rear.
It was immediately obvious that the room behind the bar was a kitchen, office, stockroom and snug, all rolled into one. It was the first time I had ever been in there, and I saw it was a long space, with a small fireplace along one wall, a sofa and a chair opposite, and a desk on the other wall. The sinks, gas-burner, oven and several kitchen-type units with a counter were almost within a spitting pan’s distance of the fly-curtain, while beyond the fire was a row of cupboards opposite a shelved section of wall that was laden with files, books, boxes and the other assorted trivia of a bar’s complicated life. Various licences and certificates in old frames adorned the walls, together with some family photos. The room had the air of a comfortable life, where nothing serious could not be solved, and where everyday matters were regarded as food for the soul; at the far end there was another of those large casemented windows, swung open to catch the summer breeze and allow a viewer to look down the long length of bottle-green river as it pottered gently past the steep hillsides to a distant sea. I decided very quickly it was a room filled with love – a love of life, work, rewards and friendship. I could feel the comfort of it quite physically, almost, and it was something I had rarely experienced before. It was a very old-fashioned room, out of place perhaps in a modern age but perhaps so very much more familiar to people from busy, large families.
Jeanette saw me glancing down the long space, and gently reached out to withdraw the baguettes from under my arm. She put them on a countertop, and as her mother and Catherine carried on their conversation, walking down the room towards the window, she asked me what I thought of this peaceful space, hidden off the square, overlooking the flow of water.
“It’s beautiful,” I replied, “It’s the last thing I would expect to find here. It’s so,” and I looked for the word, “Ordinary, yet so special. I feel a great peace here,” and I watched her face as I spoke.
She smiled instantly, happy at my reply, and nodded in empathy. “I grew up here,” she said, “Not when I was very young, but I spent a lot of time here, helping my parents, and learning an awful lot about people. They took over the bar here in 2000 when my mother left the château and passed me her housekeeper’s role,” and she looked fondly at the Countess as she said that, before continuing.
“My parents had always coveted this property, they’d always wanted to make it a special place for people,” and at that I remembered how once, when the Cole family had first moved to the village in 2006, we had eaten many times in the room next door – simple meals consisting of a “plât de jour” accompanied by a bottomless bread basket; typically a course of one large plate whose origins had been often betrayed by a sometimes unsubtle but delicious blend of seasoning or spice, redolent with flavours of Africa and the Caribbean. It had never been a traditional French dining experience, but much more a meeting place of food, hungry people and the soul of an African cook. I seemed to remember the chef had been Carol’s husband, a man called Jean who had died some years previously – after which the food part of the bar had come to an end. It had been a very unlikely but wonderful place to eat, deep in the heart of the French countryside.
I said, gently, “I remember your father, Jeanette – he was called Jean, wasn’t he? Didn’t he do the cooking here when you served food?” and Jeanette’s eyes gleamed with love and pride.
“Yes, he was a man, “ she said, in a very African way, and I smiled in turn. “Totally self-taught, everything from books and TV programs….mother could not continue the food without him, alas…” and her voice trailed away and in the silence that followed I could hear Carole and the Countess deep in conversation down by the big window.
There was pause then, until Jeanette looked at me very directly, and said, “You ate here, didn’t you? I remember all your children, so small, and now so big!” and she laughed out loud, her eyes white with mirth and her earrings slapping against her face. And I had no option but to join in, too. The magic of the room was working on us all.
Carole and Catherine came back to our end of the room then, and Carole asked if I wanted something to drink.
“I have to buy some AA batteries, Carole, if you still sell them?” and she smiled at me with a nod and went through the fly-curtain to the bar. I knew there was a section there where she sold sweets, cigarettes, lighters and lottery cards, and I’d bought batteries there before, too. In the passage of time that followed her departure, Jeanette crossed to the shelves as Catherine and I watched, and reaching up she took down a leather-bound volume, saying as she did so, “My mother found some old photos of you teaching Jean in her diary the other day, Catherine. She thought you might like to see them,” and the heavy tome banged down on the table with a thud of destiny.
As it did so, Carole came back through with a swish of the fly-curtain, and without even saying a word, reached into a drawer and picked out a small key which Jeanette took from her. I watched open-mouthed, and glancing at Catherine, saw she was absorbed too. There was a heavy band about the book, and a hasp which Jeanette inserted the key into, and with a turn of her fingers there was a click and the hasp sprung open slightly. Jeanette pushed the top part to one side and then opened the volume to a page where several photos had been laid. Carole helped her daughter take them out and they laid them on the table in a row. All of the photos were recent and in colour, and they showed Catherine and Jean at various times in several scenes from the château. There was one photo, a large print, that had Jean sitting in front of the Bösendorfer, elegantly dressed in a white shirt and a small bowtie, with his tiny hands poised above the keyboard. In the background were several people in similar smart clothing, as though going to a concert.
“Oh my,” said Catherine in a small voice as she sifted through the photos, ending finally with the one of Jean by the piano. “Oh, my,” she repeated it again, and picked carefully at one corner of her eyes with a long finger. The photo trembled in her hand like a leaf in a breeze. “This is when Jean had his first grading, four or five years ago, Carole.” she said eventually, turning to the dark faces which were watching her solemnly.
“Did I give them to you, Carole? I have no idea if i did or not,” Catherine asked and Carole grinned and shook her head.
“No – I took that one, I was there if you remember, Jeanette could not come. The rest Jeanette took without you knowing,”: and the two women giggled as Catherine raised her eyebrows in response and looked at the photographs again.
Something was bothering me, and I was trying to put my finger on it during the buzz of conversation. There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind, begging me to return to it, like a half-finished sandwich on a plate. I frowned, and concentrated harder, going through the past minute of events. And then suddenly the thought burst through into consciousness, like a firework on a dark night.
“The key! Catherine, the key!” I stammered, and the three women turned to me in surprise.
“That key, it’s the same sort as your’s…” and my voice died off as I saw Catherine realise what I was saying. She moved to the hasp and touched the key as she looked at Carole, who seemed bewildered by my outburst.
“May I have a look at this little key, Carole?” the Countess asked in a quiet voice and Carole nodded slowly, earrings jangling, as she came to terms with the request.
“Of course you can, Catherine,” she murmured. “Of course,” and the Countess’ slim fingers pulled the key out of the hasp into the light. I stepped to her side and we looked at it carefully. It was old, tarnished and polished smooth in places, a key so small it could have been worn as an earring. The surface of the bow and shaft was worn in places but it still obviously worked as well as it ever had. It was much larger than Catherine’s key, which I had last seen in the chai on the day it had come out from its resting place in the bottom of the cauldron, but it was very much of the same design.
Carole broke the silence, saying,”The book was my mother’s journal, Catherine. I have always kept it, obviously. She found it in a street market in Paris many years ago, perhaps even in Montmartre. I have kept things hidden in it for years – at least, until the day Jeanette found the key, “ and she turned to her daughter at this with a fake scowl of annoyance. Jeanette just grinned back at her and put her hand on her mother’s arm. It was she who replied.
“I remember you used to keep our bad school reports in there so papa wouldn’t find them,” she said with a huge grin, and there was another hoot of laughter between them.
I’d been looking at the key, and Catherine was watching my face when I turned to her and said, “Did your mother have a book like this, Catherine? Have you got one, or something like it?” and I watched as the Countess slowly shook her head, pursing her lips slightly as she did so.
“No,” she finally replied, “I do not recall ever seeing anything like that”, and my heart sank a little.
I turned to Jeanette and Carole, “Have either of you? In your time at the château?”
There followed a babble of conversation as we all talked at once, before Catherine ended it with a flat statement. “Perhaps there is something in the library – it has hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, maybe there is something there?” and we all wondered at that, since the library at the château was a large room, dominated by three walls of books and an antiquated ladder that ran on a rail around the shelves. The room was used often for gatherings and functions, and there was a section in it devoted to sheet music too. Catherine looked at Jeanette, and asked simply, “Shall we have look after lunch? Sophie, will you come too?” and we both nodded, agreeing as one.
“Can I bring Emma, she’s here for a week or so, Catherine?” I asked, and the countess replied instantly.
“Of course, Sophie, of course, she has the brightest of ideas that girl of yours,” and we little knew how brightly one of Emma’s ideas would glow later that afternoon, a glow that would ignite and at last warm the cold dark heart of a château where a housekeeper might need to light a fire each day, no matter what the season.
The day darkened with cloud suddenly that afternoon, in the library. Jeanette had been using a step-ladder, and Emma had spent two long hours halfway up the sliding affair that had already slid along two walls of books. Catherine and I had done the lower levels, where we could reach without problem, and the thin latex gloves Catherine had given each of us to use on the old books were dusty with a coating of particulate age. Jeanette had proceeded us all with the dusting attachment on her vacuum-cleaner that she said was all she had ever used – that and the old fashioned ostrich-feather duster on its long pole. Neither had worked sufficiently for there not to have been still some residue of dust.
Catherine had tapped her leg when we’d arrived and muttered some aristocratic oath at the sliding ladder, a remark under her breath that implied she’d never been to visit the highest shelves. The ceiling above us all was fifteen feet high, and the books on their shelves scaled the walls for twelve feet of that height at least. I doubted little had changed in the room for decades, perhaps even a century to two.
We stopped for goûter about 4.00 o’clock, and sat about the long table in the middle of the room, our gloves rolled off and looking at what we still had to search as the sky darkened further. The conversation was decidedly monosyllabic. There was one wall left, and it included the music section, low enough for Catherine and I to search through. I sipped the last few mouthfuls of the cup of tea that Jeannette had made for me, and we went back to work. There had not been much to say, we’d all thought the answer would be there under our noses, and if truth be known our hearts were no longer singing with adventure.
It did not take long. A full thirty minutes later and we were done with the books – none had a hasp or a leather clamp around it, and we all stood down from the search, looking at the shelving and its contents. Jeannette had turned the lights with the oncoming dusk, and the room glowed a little in warm light as it threw shadows in dark corners. There was a chandelier above the long table, and it threw its light out and upwards to the ceiling. I sat a little disconsolate in a chair, and Catherine stood to one side, pursing her lips and looking at the books as if to draw a clue out of them. Jeanette had disappeared to the kitchen with the tea tray and so she missed the moment when Emma, sitting opposite me, stiffened with excitement.
“Mum, “ she whispered at me, “Mum, look behind you,” and she quivered a little like a dog who spies a rabbit some distance off. Catherine missed our exchange, and I hissed back.
“What? What am I looking at?”
“The shadow of the top shelf on the wall, mum,” whispered Emma, “Look at it, what do you see?”
And I turned then, quite slowly, to look behind me, up at the shelf. I saw instantly what had attracted Emma’s attention. The shelf held a long line of matching volumes, numbered and in order, a situation that had probably not changed for a hundred years. The shadow from the chandelier laid a straight dark edge along the wall, except for a part where it grew taller, before ducking down again. I had seen the aberration, but did not understand it. I turned back to Emma, but the question must have showed on my face, for she spoke immediately.
“It means that some of those books are out of line, mum – they’re further forward than the others….” and her voice trailed off a little.
Catherine had noticed our sibilant whispers and was watching us, I realised. Her face was taut with tiredness again, and Emma beat me to the explanation.
“I think some of the books up there,” and she pointed to the relevant part of the shelving, “Are pushed out a little, Catherine. They’re not fully back against the wall. Can I climb up and have a look?”
And Catherine nodded instantly, too tight inside to say a word. Emma got up from the table and walked to the ladder before sliding it along the rail to a position underneath the broken shadow-line. In almost total silence, she put a foot on the rung and climbed slowly upwards as Catherine and I watched. There was a dimming of light as though the electricity had been disconnected for a second, and it seemed the room sighed. I was sure a curtain twitched by a window and faintly, a long way away, I could hear Jeanette down the corridor in the kitchen, clinking crockery.
Emma reached the top of the ladder and put a hand towards the books, and a paper on the table suddenly fell to the floor, it was as if the room was alive with energy, and I felt the small hairs on my neck rise with supernatural awe. Catherine stood by me, our shoulder touching, and I was unsure how she had got there. Even as I though that, I saw the Countess look at our closeness in surprise, and then our eyes met. Her’s were shining bright, as though a truth was close to hand.
“Oh,” came a surprised gasp from above, and I tuned to see Emma sliding a book away from the wall. “There’s something behind here, Catherine.” and she eased another book away from the wall, and then another, as Catherine and I stood there below, me with my mouth open, and Catherine with the look of a fervent believer. It was bizarre, as if she had been expecting a miracle to happen, and it was now on its way.
Emma eased another book out of the line, reached into the long sliver of darkness that stretched back to the wall, and there she stopped and turned back to look at us. Her voice quavered with excitement, “There’s a book in there, Catherine,” and she slowly pulled it out into the light. We could all see instantly that the volume had a leather band around it, closed with a hasp; it was almost the twin of the book Carole had down in the bar, though it was slimmer.
Catherine uttered one word, “Oh.” and waited for Emma to come down. As she climbed down the ladder, the door opened and Jeanette was there with a tray, balancing some glasses and a jug of water in one hand.
She stopped stock still as she saw what was happening, and then said, in a strange unworldly voice, “At last, you have found my secret.”
We all stopped and looked at her, and she in turn looked back at us, as though she had uttered something totally banal.
“What did you say?” I said into the silence. “What did you say, Jeanette?” and the quiet in the library grew wings and started to whirl about my ears, and Catherine swayed beside me.
“What did you say?” I repeated quite determinedly, and Jeanette stood there, tray in one hand, her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish as she struggled to come to terms with what she had actually said. I watched as she repeated it to herself, her eyes opening in wonder.
The leather volume lay in the middle of the table, the small key from the cauldron in its hasp, and Catherine sat there looking at it as we crowded round. We watched spellbound as she turned the key in the little lock and the hasp clicked open for the first time in nearly a century. The thick leather covers had protected the interior pages perfectly, and the first covering page took us all by surprise as we looked on. Catherine put a finger to the first bold line , and read aloud.
“Le Journal de Francine de Brosse”, and she pointed then without saying a word, to the date, August 25th, 1936.
“What happened in 1936, Catherine,” I asked, aware there was not a sound in the room.
“That was the year my mother married my father, Sophie,” replied Catherine in a voice raw with emotion. And she turned a page, to see her mother’s neat handwriting sloping across the paper in the style of a well-educated woman. There were pages of it, together with small sketches, doodles, lines of music, a recipe for steak tartare and a map to show the location of some stream on a hillside far away. As Catherine turned the pages, so time and the years passed; there was a photograph of Francine on a horse at the start of the war, and then towards the back of the volume, in amongst some lines of poetry and a pressed flower, was another photograph, of a small baby in a crib. A smiling mother held a hand downwards to a tiny person, a smile was on Francine’s face.
It took just two minutes to quickly flick though the journal to the last entry, which was dated Dec 28th, 1944; the rest of the journal was blank. Catherine sank back in her chair, “Is this all?” she asked in a small voice. “Is there no answer to what happened?” and we felt bereft of answers, The room was dark now, the light a glow above our heads, and even though Catherine had skimmed through the volume it did appear there was little else for us to call on as a solution to what happened. There was joy in the discovery of the journal that would be revisited, at a much slower pace and with more attention to the recounting of it, but we had all gathered there in the library to find an answer to a mystery, and none seemed to be forthcoming.
It was then, in the hush that followed Catherine’s outburst, that Emma reached out her hand to the journal that had been gently put down, and touched the leather hand-stitched covers. Her long fingers stroked the material as though seeking an answer, and I heard her sigh. I thought it was a sigh of regret, but as I turned to Emma, I realised it was a sigh of sadness, for bright Emma had seen more than most of us, and she was now touching the reality of the story and sensed the truth was but a moment away.
She turned to the Countess, whose eyes were vacant with distant thought and memory, and said, “Catherine, I think there is more here to be discovered,” and she lifted the journal to the old woman, and reaching out to her, Emma took Catherine’s fingers and pulled them towards the leather covers, pushing them into the leather, and I realised instantly that there was the cover was too thick, too full, and the stitching we could see was not the original. There was a hidden insert between the covers.
We waited until Jeanette came back into the quiet of the library two minutes later with a thin knife in her hands, and Catherine slowly and shakily picked out several stitches before cutting through the rest of them; there was sheet of cardboard as a stiffener inside the front leather cover, but it was folded in half, and as Catherine withdraw it, it fell open and a sheaf of papers fell onto the table. It was immediately obvious that they were letters, some in the handwriting of Francine, and some in a bolder, firmer hand, on different paper and laid out by a different pen.
We watched, entranced, as Catherine picked up the first and started to read, Emma with a hand on Catherine’s arm, and Jeanette behind holding the Countess’ shoulders. It took but a minute or so before Catherine started to shake, and tears, suddenly and unremittingly, started to pour down her face. This was not grief, but sadness, a knowing of truth that is on the brink of hurt, a telling of a tale from the grave to a small girl by a mother who had laid almost in plain sight for so long, eyes staring out into the dark.
I could not watch the sorrow of discovery, and closing my eyes, I put my hand on Catherine’s other arm. The room choked on the raw air, and then Catherine said in a slow, tremulous voice, “I have a brother, somewhere I have a brother. Oh lord, I am not alone…I have a brother,” and we all stopped still in shock and amazement, her sentence a slice of light through the veil of darkness in the room.
I opened my eyes to look at Catherine, and her face was contorted with the understanding that only final knowledge can give. In the hour of her deepest sorrow, her mother had given her a gift, and the conflict of emotions was too much. Her shoulders shook more, a long roll of grief, and Emma, sweet Emma, reached forward and hugged Catherine tight, as only the young can do.
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.