Chapter Twelve

On Sundays, if we are not eating chez Bertrand or they with us, we like to go some ten kilometres away to the village of Lacapelle Biron. On the borders of Lot-et-Garonne, it was created almost by accident by a long forgotten Marquis of the nearby château of Biron. Suffering from both asthma and gout, this unfortunate nobleman could not bear the noisy market which was held each Monday beneath his walls. ‘Send them somewhere else,’ he wheezed and so, taking their name with them, the traders of Biron moved down the hill and across the fields to the ancient hamlet of Lacapelle. The two names joined together, the village flourished and Monday is still market day.

It is essential to book at the Restaurant Palissy which is named after Bernard Palissy, renaissance potter, scientist and philosopher. Born of humble parents in the next village of St Avit, he spent years researching his glazes, becoming so impoverished that he was reduced to burning his furniture and floorboards to fire his kiln. For Catherine de Medici he built a grotto in her Tuileries Gardens, decorating it with enamelled lizards, toads and serpents. He travelled widely and wrote on a wide range of subjects but always begged his students not to listen to those scientists who sat all day propounding theories. Always a craftsman he wrote ‘with all the theory in the world you can make nothing, not even a shoe. Practice must engender theory.’ He became a Huguenot and eventually Royal patronage could protect him no longer. He was imprisoned in the Bastille where, at the age of eighty-one, he died. There is a statue of him in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a gentle, scholarly figure holding one of his famous dishes, a tiny creature curled up inside.

Outside the restaurant which bears his name the tables are always crowded with customers taking their aperitifs. ‘We have laid a hundred and seventy places today,’ announces M. Allo, the head waiter, as he greets us. Teeth flashing, M. Allo plays his role as though Feydeau himself had written it, glorying in every detail. Perhaps it is because he is really the local postman and only has two performances at the weekend. Otherwise he must tear across the countryside in his yellow van. Today all that is forgotten. Resplendent in a dazzling white, starched jacket, head to one side, he whirls and weaves between the tables at ever increasing speed. ‘J’arrive. J’arrive!’ he calls, sweat already trickling down his florid face. He loves every moment.

The menu hardly ever varies but I suspect there would be an outcry if it did. This is what we come for, the jambon du pays, the écrevisses, the ris de veau. Restaurant Palissy is respected by local families and it is they who eat there in the winter when the tourists are far away. The dining room fills quickly. Many of the customers know each other and there is a lot of kissing. Most of the families are of three generations, all stylishly dressed, even though most of them will be at work in the fields tomorrow. Trays of melons, already on the table, perfume the room which reverberates with serious debate as menus are studied. The most expensive with seven courses will not cost more than twelve pounds and you can eat extremely well for seven. There is a choice for each course but no pressure to decide. Lunch will go on until four o’clock. Friends wave as the last stragglers take their places in the crowded room. Bon appetit!

Our soup is a tasty consommé in which float tiny beads of sago called, more poetically in France, perles du Japon. After the soup we sample the house wine, a vin ordinaire in name only, for the local Cahors is good. The melons are perfect; grown locally, they can be harvested at precisely the right moment. One of our party, not liking seafood, has chosen a cheaper menu. Her thin slices of home-cured ham hang over the edge of the plate. ‘Don’t worry,’ we urge, ‘you have plenty of time.’ And we begin to demolish our mountain of langoustines, mussels, clams, winkles, prawns, shrimps and cockles in their shells.

M. Allo speeds past, balancing three trays piled with debris. He works twice as fast as the waitresses, all half his age, apart from his wife who is short, plump and calm, and smilingly approves his performance from across the room. ‘Eh voilà!’ he beams and with a flourish presents the écrevisses, bright coral red, succulent and gleaming, sprinkled with chopped garlic and parsley and flambéed in Armagnac.

The first time we tasted écrevisses was chez Bertrand. Early one morning Grandpa had taken Mike and Matthew to his secret spot on a nearby stream. They had baited a line of square muslin nets with his special bait, chunks of pork fat dipped in Pernod. When the nets were slowly raised after a short wait the black shiny écrevisses were clinging to the underside, trying to reach the bait. ‘When I was a boy,’ grumbled the old man, ‘there were scores in this stream. Nowadays…’ he shrugged, throwing his hands in the air.

In the event they caught a mere half dozen and the following day at Sunday lunch, after the first three courses, Claudette solemnly presented them in the centre of a large plate. ‘How are we going to divide them?’ she asked. ‘I suppose those who caught them should have first choice.’ She put one onto each plate and then went back into the kitchen laughing, appearing again with a heaped bowl of écrevisses which she had generously bought at market.

Now, as then, we are surrounded by sounds of sucking and crunching and sighs of pleasure. Bread is dipped in the sauce and fingers finally licked before being almost reluctantly wiped on the scented tissues provided.

One of us had the ris-de-veau. ‘How were they?’ we enquire. ‘Wonderful,’ she sighs, ‘have a taste.’ The sweetbreads are in a delicate sauce with olives and tiny mushrooms and they melt in the mouth. At every other table sampling of each other’s dishes is going on. This is what Le Palissy is all about. Greasy-chinned faces beam at each other and M. Allo beams at everyone.

With our rôti de veau and confit de poulet we drink an older wine but still a Cahors. More sampling follows. We decide that the chicken has been preserved in goose fat, delicious! M. Allo brings a fresh green salad and then the cheese board which is small but interesting, a bleu des Causses from the stony hillside to the east, a fresh goat cheese and a Pyrenée.

Dessert is a choice of ice creams, chocolate, sorbet of lemon or blackcurrant, vacherin – vanilla with slices of prune inside, or a slice of tourtière. As he finally brings our coffee M. Allo is anxious to know if we have enjoyed our meal. We assure him it was wonderful. He beams. We have a favour to ask. May we take his photograph? His jaw drops. He stares at us blankly then rushes from the room. Have we offended him? He returns at a run frantically combing his hair, and poses. His great shoulders heave as he tries to suppress a sudden fit of giggles. In an effort to be serious he clasps his hands tightly. Click, it is done. He rushes off again to return moments later with a baked Alaska. It is a special treat for someone’s birthday and with a flourish he lights the sparklers stuck in the top. As we leave Le Palissy customers still left are singing Happy Birthday, M. Allo as loudly as all the others.

Outside the heat bounces off the pale stone houses. We narrow our eyes and search for sunglasses. We cross the square and pause as each well-fed customer will on emerging into the sunlight to face the unique monument in the centre. It gained for its sculptor, Buisseret, the Grand Prix de Rome in 1947. One cannot fail to be moved by the simplicity and eloquence of the line of arms which rises so starkly from the earth. The hands hold a massive stone slab which bears the names of those who never returned to their beloved Sud-Ouest.

The old people need no monument to remind them of that other Sunday morning. A Sunday morning in May 1944 when, just after dawn, a battalion of the SS Das Reich under General Lamerdine, infamous for ordering the total destruction of Oradour sur Glane, encircled the village. The Resistance were active in the surrounding wooded hills and as a reprisal all the men of Lacapelle Biron were rounded up and taken to a derelict paper mill further up the valley. As the day wore on, other men arriving to visit relatives were also seized. A father hearing that his son was held went to protest. The Germans took him too. By the evening the hostages numbered forty-seven. They were transported to Auschwitz where more than half of them died. The monument marks the spot from which the trucks left.

The crickets are singing as we walk slowly to our car parked under a tree. Is it perhaps the knowledge that life can never be taken for granted that makes these sturdy people enjoy their work and their leisure with such intensity?

The sun grew fiercer each day. By the end of the following week une canicule, a heatwave, was officially announced. Under our north-facing porch, which had funnelled the bitter wind at Easter, it was still 92 degrees long after the sun had disappeared, flaring the horizon with streaks of fire. Adam and Cas were due to leave the following day and we had been invited to spend their last evening with friends some twenty miles away. Later, on leaving for home at about eleven, a few spots of rain began to fall and thinking of our parched garden, we were glad. However, within a few miles our windscreen wipers were unable to cope with torrential rain and we were forced to stop. We drank coffee at a bar and waited for the rain to ease. The tree-lined roads were winding and difficult to negotiate. When we were able to start again it was with relief that we eventually neared home and familiar territory but it was never to be quite the same again.

Since the great storm in London in October 1987 what happened that night in our little part of France becomes perhaps insignificant, but at that time I had never experienced anything like it. Adam, having already got out of the car two or three times to move fallen branches climbed out yet again as our headlights picked out another obstacle. A whole tree blocked the road. We turned to try to get home from another direction, splashed along the muddy, debris-strewn lane and eventually, with relief, climbed our own winding track up to the house.

‘Never mind,’ I shouted as I raced to get under the porch and unlock the door, ‘we’ll soon be warm and dry.’ I reached for the light switch. Nothing. I did not need a light to tell me something was wrong. I could hear the water dripping inside the house. Once inside a torch revealed a dark hole in the ceiling, and we splashed across the floor to our bedroom to see our saturated bed standing in several inches of dirty water.

Mercifully, Adam and Cas’s bedroom was dry and the bed in Matthew’s room had only one damp corner. It was pitch dark and still raining and nothing could be done. I knew that I would need all my energy the following day and so, after covering our bed with plastic sheets, just in case, we tried to sleep.

The following morning as I opened my eyes to already strong sunlight I wondered briefly what I was doing in the other bedroom. We soon discovered what had happened. The top half of our chimney had been blown off and had crashed through the roof. There were broken tiles everywhere. We dragged all our sodden furniture out into the blessed sun and mopped the floors, pushing the water out of the house on each side. It was exhausting and, I found, curiously depressing, as though one had been singled out for punishment by the gods, a totally irrational but very powerful feeling.

All morning we worked. Sooty water had streaked the wall soaking clothes, books and foodstuff. Suddenly we realised that we had seen nothing of Raymond or Claudette. They invariably appeared to share with us anything unusual. While Mike drove down to the farm I went into the garden and saw that several of the great branches on the west side of the ash tree had been torn off. I then realised that they were lying scattered some hundred yards away up the field toward the wood. Coming round to the south-facing garden I saw the shredded leaves on my sumach trees, even the Virginia creeper was full of holes.

Mike returned to describe the devastation on the farm. He had found Claudette weeping in the courtyard, Raymond trying to comfort her and, twelve hours after the storm, there was still a high drift of hailstones against the wall of the farmhouse. The tornado had cut a swathe across the land as it advanced from the south.

‘The noise!’ Claudette shuddered. ‘It only lasted a few minutes but I’ll never forget the noise.’ We surveyed the damage and then I understood why they had always talked about hail, la grêle, with such fear. In the largest plum orchard where hardly one tree was undamaged, branches and fruit littered the ground. Any fruit still on the trees was cut to pieces and the maize in the next field shredded. The tall, forty-year-old pine trees, planted to protect the orchard, had been twisted out and hurled down. Roof tiles were everywhere, barns blown down and fences blown completely away. Our hole in the roof seemed trivial by comparison.

For days afterwards all one could hear were sounds of hammers and saws. Adam and Mike mended our roof, replacing all the broken tiles. The chimney had to wait until the winter as M. René was working every daylight hour. Although this was our first such experience, sudden local hailstorms are not unknown in the region. Grandpa told us that when he was a boy the church bells would be rung and farmers living on high ground would try to fire rockets into the storm clouds to prevent them spiralling upwards and then, as they cooled, falling as hail. More recently, they had experimented with hiring light aircraft to attempt to disperse the clouds but, as this was expensive and not particularly successful they finally gave up the struggle to control the elements and settled for insurance. ‘But they only pay me for one harvest,’ said Raymond. ‘It’s taken me fifteen years to get that orchard so beautiful. Now look at it. No amount of money can compensate for that.’

‘I’m sorry to have to bid you farewell without the light in my eyes,’ he said to Adam the following day, as he and Cas left for England. The violence of the storm had sorely tested his normal stoicism and had stunned us all.

Whenever the weather kept us indoors we got out the hat box. As we gradually sorted out those letters which were in one piece a cast of characters assembled to intrigue us, Alphonse and Delphine, Henri Mauriac, Fernand, Clothilde, who were they all? Matthew was interested in a small, faded photograph of a soldier in a red velvet frame, the number 20 clearly visible on his collar. He stands proudly, his epauletted shoulders squared, a cigarette deliberately poised between thumb and forefinger. He thought this might be Justin and was proved right when, at the bottom of the box, we found a certificate of good conduct from the 20th Infantry Regiment which, the date of birth being November 26, 1866, had clearly belonged to Justin, although it seemed that he had been christened Jean. Here was his description; 1.67 metres tall with brown hair and eyes, an oval face, a long nose and a pointed chin.

We found a touching letter from a child to her Grandfather, presumably old Sieur Pierre Costes, written in 1911 and signed Esther. ‘Of course she’s Esther Blanc now,’ said Grandma casually.

‘She’s still alive?’ This was unexpected good luck.

‘Very much so. She’s eighty-three now but she partners Grandpa at whist every other Thursday. You should talk to her. I’ll arrange it.’ A few days later Grandma and I were eating sponge cakes and drinking sweet white wine with Esther Blanc in her little house in the next village where she has lived since she was born. Her mind was sharp but like many old people, she leaped from the past to the present and back again without warning and she spoke so fast that I found her difficult to follow.

She did confirm that the photograph was Justin. ‘There were three brothers,’ she said. ‘My father, Célestin, was the youngest. They were all born at Bel-Air and their mother died in childbirth, it would have been a girl.’ She looked with affection at the picture of Anaïs and her son, which I had brought with me. ‘Ah what a good woman she was,’ she said. ‘I remember her much better than my Uncle Justin of course, she was vaillante.’ She explained that she had been far too burdened with looking after her own aged parents and those of her husband to care for her Aunt and cousin when they grew old. Then I realised that this, of course, was la nièce of whom Raymond had spoken when he had told me about the life annuity agreement with which he had acquired Bel-Air.

This summer Mme Esther came up to visit our house which she had not seen since Anaïs’s funeral in 1963. As she stepped through the door she smiled delightedly round her. ‘Ah, vous avez gardé le buffet de ma Tante et sa table,’ she murmured, rubbing her frail hand across the surface, given an extra polish for the occasion. ‘This house was always spotless,’ she said firmly. ‘Ma tante was most particular.’ She looked approvingly at the photograph now hung on the wall. I offered her white wine or tea with lemon. Surprisingly she accepted the tea and ate a rock-cake with obvious pleasure. She found it good and as she ate she remembered a story her father had told her about himself and his two brothers being woken in the night at Bel-Air by the glow of a huge fire, a barn burning not too far away. Terrified, they called their father but he was not at home. It was then that they discovered from their nearest neighbours their father’s habit of waiting until his boys were asleep before setting off across the fields to visit his mistress at a distant farm. Mme Esther chuckled. ‘That was the night they got found out.’

She sat reminiscing for over an hour while I cursed my inadequate French and wished she would speak more slowly. She did try but after the first sentence she would forget and the words would tumble out at ever increasing speed. I had found a letter in its black-edged envelope which she had written to Anaïs in 1919, the year of Justin’s death. Je n’ose vous dire ces mots qui sembleraient cruellement ironiques et vides de sens: Bonne année, she had written. Mme Esther re-read her own words after so many years and wiped her eyes. ‘Ah madame,’ she said, ‘there are many sadnesses in life, are there not? I too lost my husband with cancer and also my daughter. My son too has been ill but, thank God, he is getting better,’ she smiled.

A car turned into our drive and a child’s footsteps ran up to the porch. It was Mme Esther’s daughter-in-law and grand child come to fetch her. The old lady hauled herself stiffly out of the chair to embrace the small brown-limbed girl who stood gazing round the room sucking her finger. In her striped T-shirt and luminous trainers she blew away the shadows of the past and jolted us back to the present. ‘This is my Natalie,’ said her grandmother proudly. ‘I have four grandchildren, they keep me young.’ Together we walked to the car and before leaving she turned to look at Bel-Air. ‘Ma tante Anaïs, she loved this house,’ she said firmly, anxiously almost. ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve always known.’

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