Another of my memoir pieces that I’m republishing: this one’s about the house and the village in south-west France where we lived through parts of my childhood.
For whom the bell tolls
My childhood and adolescence were spent bouncing between Australia and France as my expatriate French parents never emigrated formally to Australia. My father worked for a big French building firm in Australia, after having worked previously in Indonesia and Africa, and a part of his contract entitlements was a regular paid trip back to France for the whole family. So every two or three years, we’d up Sydney sticks to spend two or three months in our French home, in the tiny village of Empeaux, in the Haute-Garonne departement of south-west France, thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse.
My parents had bought our beautiful eighteenth-century house in Empeaux, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as a dilapidated shell in 1959 and proceeded to restore it to its former glory as the second finest house in the village(after the castle)through many years of huge builder’s bills.
The village was dominated by the castle, the church and, surprising in such a bucolic setting, the factory. Empeaux had been declining for many years when the new owner of the castle decided to open a ceramics factory. It was built at the far end of the village, right away from its main street, which was lined with thin, tall stone houses on one side, and on the other, our own large house, flanked by two much less imposing houses. Further down was the church with its pleasant, most unghostly little graveyard. Up on the hill at one end of the street, surrounded by a high fence and the barking of what we assumed were ferocious guard dogs, was the castle—not an ancient medieval fortress but a beautiful seventeenth-century building done up in the nineteenth century, all silvery-topped turrets and narrow windows.
The people who lived in the village’s main streets were old-time residents; the new ones who poured into the area, after the ceramics factory work, lived down the hill, away from the centre–Portuguese and North Africans, and young people from other villages.
On one side of our house lived the Vaccaronnes, peasant farmers; on the other, Remi Peres and his dog. Monsieur Vaccaronne had emigrated from Italy many, many years ago, so long ago that he often forgot he ever had. In fact, he was the epitome of the French peasant–canny, suspicious, pale blue eyes full of calculating hospitality, beret jammed tightly on his balding head. He and his wife had two grown up daughters who married quite late, and a great love of the variety singers in spangled suits who proliferated on French television screens. He would ask us into his kitchen, and, proferring a tiny finger of gnole, the fiery bootleg liquor that everyone made in defiance of the authorities, would point proudly at the television, where Claude Francois or Johnny Hallyday crooned or yelled. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he would say to my father.
Papa hated TV. We knew that. We didn’t have one at home, either in France or Australia. But he contented himself with an ambivalent murmur, while old Monsieur Vaccarone hummed along with the singer on television. Then he turned to us with a wicked smile. “I want to show you something. Come and see!”
In the clean whitewashed wall of his kitchen there was a door, set well into the wall. He opened it. We knew what was beyond it, we’d been there before. But still, each time was a shock, like a passing from one time into another. Here the walls had been left plain, the smells were not of daube or saucisse de Toulouse, as in the kitchen, but a rich full, deep smell, both repellent and warm, the smell of familiar animals.
In one corner were the stalls for the Vaccarones’ two cows, which were driven off to pasture every day by Rose Vaccarone, calling out shrilly to her dog, “Euh! Mizette! Euh! Euh!” We’d walked to the pasture once or twice, and found Rose sitting there with her cows, her feet snuggled into the warm flowery grass.
But the cows weren’t there, this time, and the hens were out, scratching in the main street near the pump, squawking indignantly at birds landing near them. But the pig was there, an enormous, huge, nightmarish sow with evil eyes and an obscenely displayed belly, as several tiny shapes bustled and squealed at her teats.
“Beautiful,” said Monsieur Vaccarone, in the same admiring tone that he’d used for the singers. “She’s a wonder, that one. Always has so many piglets!” He looked at them in silence for a while, while I wrinkled my nose, thinking that it smelt of bacon and sausages in here, a thought that made me feel horrid. There was something disgusting about smelling the food on the living animal.
Monsieur Vaccaronne cackled, unexpectedly. “She’s a bit of a witch, though. I have to watch her. She’s as likely to eat her piglets as not. I’ve come in here sometimes and. . ” But Camille and I didn’t wait to hear any more. We raced outside, into the sunshine near the pump. “Yuck!” Camille said, and made retching noises. “How revolting!”
I could hardly answer. The idea of the cannibal sow eating her babies disgusted and terrified me. It reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, a story I’d always hated. I would see the sow’s small eyes in my dreams, I thought…
Instructed by Maman, who wanted some peace, Papa often swept us along in his wake when he went to visit neighbours. To visit, for instance, the public telephone facility which was in Monsieur Martin’s house. Monsieur Martin lived over the street in one of those tall thin houses, and he was paid by the PTT to provide this service for the whole village. The PTT, like postal and telecommunications services the world over, had a probably undeserved reputation for casualness, a certain indolence and indifference to customers’ needs. Disgruntled customers maintained that its acronym stood for ‘Petits Travaux Tranquilles’ (Quiet Little Jobs’), maintaining that they’d once stood in a post office queue for ten minutes while staff discussed what they’d done on the weekend!
Be that as it may, Monsieur Martin was the representative of the PTT in Empeaux, and he took his job seriously. No PTT jokes in his presence!He was extremely well informed on the ins and outs of everyone’s business in the village, and when we got our own telephone, Papa missed the snippets of gossip at the Martin house. Monsieur Martin, to my eyes, looked just like the other old men in the village, with his big flat beret, and soft speech full of succulent patois words, but he, too, wasn’t the storybook peasant we’d seen in books. He’d been a Communist in his youth, and had stood as a candidate for the Party in local elections, and he wasn’t married to the woman we all knew as Madame Martin, but lived with her in sin! I was amazed that a white-haired woman with a wispy bun and the traditional black floral pinafore of the region could possibly be a source of scandal. Like our other neighbour, Remi Peres, Monsieur Martin had little time for priests. “Oh—those ones!” he would say. “Those ones–like vultures, they are, waiting for you to be dying, so they can pounce, with their nonsense talk of heaven and hell!” I would watch Papa covertly, then, sure he’d be shocked, horrified, for religion means a good deal to him, but he would merely smile, shrug his shoulders. Yet if we’d said that. . .
Neighbours like champion gossip Monsieur Penain, who appeared on the dot, outside his door, every time any vehicle was heard in the village. He always came out with two buckets, as if he’d been just about to go and draw water, or scrub his step. You could see him, his eyes busy with speculation, suspicion, imagination, every time. Especially if it was a vehicle drawing up outside our house! At the time, my two older sisters, Dominique and Beatrice, respectively seven and five years older than me, kept a flock of admirers around them, and every time they came to visit, pop! Out would come Monsieur Penain and his buckets, just like one of those weather houses where the little man comes out if it rains. In fact, we had one of those weather houses, at home, and guess what the little man was called?
And the middle-aged woman who lived down one end of the village, Madame Lascours—she was a witch, from a long line of witches. People went to her for the curing of warts, of small ills, for counsel in love affairs and a spot of fortune-telling..
It seemed strange to me, as an adolescent: the village with its mixture of anticlericalism and piety, its acceptance of television singers and supernatural powers. It wasn’t consistent, I thought. And without consistency, how could you map the world, find your way around it?
You could listen to the stories of old Remi Peres, for instance, whom Papa called Remi but whom we had to call Monsieur Peres. He lived right next to the church, in an ancient, incredibly filthy hovel which looked as if it had survived from the Middle Ages. He’d been married, but his wife had taken off decades ago, with their child, grown-up now but who never came to see him. Now he lived with an old, blind dog, whom he treated alternately with extravagant affection and heedless cruelty. He drove a battered old 2CV, and lived on an army pension. Every week, he would drive to the nearby village of Saint Thomas and drink away a good portion of his pension in the cafe. And talk! How he could talk! Papa would invite him into the house, and he would sit there, firmly grasping a glass of some fiery spirit and talk, in a mixture of sardonic humour and menace. “When the Revolution comes, my dear sir,” he would say, “Ah, when it comes, all this will be ours!”
Papa wouldn’t bristle, his nostrils would stay pink, not pinch with white rage. He would say, softly, looking him in the eyes, “Ah, but then, Remi, I will be ready for you!”
Honour satisfied, Remi would start in on one of his stories. Scandalous stories, all, which he’d recount with a sly twinkle. Maman hated those stories. She would call out to us, curtly, “Come on! I’ve got some work for you to do!” and later, when he’d gone, she’d say to Papa, “Honestly, Georges, I don’t know why you encourage him. He is not a nice man, not a nice man at all. . ”
Most of the time, I saw him as a harmless teller of amazing stories, but we all knew there was another side to him. We’d seen him kicking his dog, and that gleam in his eyes when he talked about the Revolution wasn’t all make-believe. There was a harsh judgment, there, the pitiless resentment of the peasant. Once or twice, too, there had been another thing in his eyes, something as he looked at us, the girls, something creepy. But despite all this, his stories were amazing, evoking a bygone world, a world of folktale where the rich and powerful got their come-uppance, and the poor, but clever tricked them, easily!
Like the stories about the inhabitants of the castle. Remi said that the castle brought ruin and bad luck to whoever lived there–a fitting fate, in his opinion, for anyone who’d have the money to live in a castle. Before the present owners, there’d been an aristocratic young man who’d lived there–a pedale, as Remi called him, using the colloquial word for homosexual. ‘That one, he thought his crap didn’t stink,’ said Remi, ‘he lorded it over everyone. But then, well, you see, ‘ went on the old gossip, with a sly wink, ‘one of his servants, his cook, in fact, was also a pedale and he was in love with his boss and very jealous when the young chatelain would invite his other friends for their..er frolics. So, you see, one day, fed-up of it as he was, he poisoned the young chatelain’s dish, and the young man died, and then it all came out, all of it. . Such a to-do there was! ‘ And Remi would laugh, and we sat there, fascinated yet repelled, not only by the story but that someone should actually find it funny! He had lots of stories about priests, too, and what he said was their hypocrisy and how he himself, Remi Peres, had caught one in flagrante delicto with his housekeeper. It was Papa’s turn to frown at us, then, and say, “Haven’t you lot got something you should be doing?”
Because there were no shops in the village, mobile shops came once a week. There was a baker, an ordinary butcher and a horse butcher, and a grocery van. The vans would draw into the main streets, horns sounding, and people would pour out. All of them–the Vaccarones and the Penains, the Lascours and the Peres, and the other people who lived further down in the village.
But not the inhabitants of the castle. Occasionally, you’d see the son tearing out in his new sports car, doing wheelies down the street, and disappearing in a cloud of dust, but he never stopped to speak to anyone. His father, who owned the ceramics factory, was also a doctor, and Remi’s story of the Castle Curse seemed to be vindicated when several things happened to the castle family. The son, coming home late at night from a party, knocked down and killed a child on a bike. He was arrested, sent to gaol, and his mother declined visibly. And then his father was arrested for fraud and sent to prison himself. .
But that was several years in the future. Now, the village stands around the mobile shops, gossiping, passing traditional compliments and insults with the shopkeeper. “Call that a sausage?”
“Well, madame, that is the best sausage in the region, that’s all!”
“Navel oranges. . hmm. . foreign, aren’t they?”
“Yes, of course, they’re from California! And look, madame, the best apples. Golden Delicious, no less!”
It seemed that everyone wanted the new, the strange, the foreign. I saw Remi Peres’ raised eyebrow when Maman said to the grocery man, “Golden Delicious? Horrible, floury things! Where are our good, traditional apples, the reinettes?”
She was several years too early, in her desire for the traditional, the old-fashioned, the crafted myriad varieties of apple as against the mass-produced EEC fluff. The others shook their heads.
“You have to move with the times, madame! These are modern times!” And Maman would give an angry, small laugh.
And then there was the glas, sounding out over the village. The glas, the ringing of the bells for the dead, the bells tolling, strange, portentous, somehow chilling. It rang several times when we were there, for the old, reaped by age, the young, felled by accident. Another grave in the cemetery, already filled with carefully-maintained graves and sepulchres. Everyone came to the burials, everyone, even those who hadn’t really known the dead, even those who despised priests and religion–for the burials were always attended by a priest–and for a long time I thought it was to show solidarity, the ancient togetherness of the peasant community. But then, one day, with the glas sounding, tolling, over the village, the procession wending its way down to the graveyard, we heard a conversation between two mourners. Remi Peres and Madame Lascours, or maybe it was someone else he was addressing.
“Who is it that the bell is tolling for?” she said. “Who has died?”
And he looked at her, the sly smile in his eyes. “I have no idea, madame, no idea! But if it is not for me, and it is not for you—why should we care, who it’s for?”