A foxy tale…

About ten days ago, I was sitting at my computer after lunch, writing, when I happened to glance out of the window which looks out over our front yard–and to my astonishment, saw a long, low, and instantly recognisable shape pass rapidly right in front of the pawlonia tree, right in front of my eyes. The fox was utterly oblivious to my presence behind the glass, utterly intent on one of our hens that was calmly scratching away near the front gate. It was only the flash of an instant that I was transfixed by the sight; and then I cried out ‘Fox!’  to David and rushed outside, yelling my head off. As I barrelled out of the door, the fox hardly deviated in his path, heading straight for the hen that still didn’t move, though the others were flapping around in panic, in my mind crying ‘Oh help! Oh fire! Oh fox!’  (a quote brilliantly expressing chooky panic which I’ve never forgotten, from Patricia Wrightson’s wonderful short novel, A Little Fear.) Then the fox suddenly seemed to clock me and my shouting and yelling, turned smartly, and ran out through the garden gate, splendid tail high, abandoning the chook hunt, and disappearing in a flicker of a moment in the long grass across the road.

All the chooks were safe, if a little nervous, except for the bird that the fox had zeroed on, which hardly even appeared to notice that she had escaped certain death. But if she had no apparent idea what had happened, I found the images from it kept popping into my head. Living in the country as we do, over the years I’d seen more than a few sad aftermaths of fox attacks, including on our own poultry; but I had never seen an attack in progress before. Indeed, I think it is a rare sight, though sometimes foxes are surprised in the middle of a killing spree. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Of course I’d not had any time at all to snap an actual photo of him (I say ‘him’ because the fox’s size clearly indicated it was a male), and never even thought of picking up my phone before I rushed out 🙂 . But my mind’s camera was clear and bright and vivid. And it clicked through snapshot after snapshot of those instants: it was simply extraordinary, to see that intentness, power and speed, expressed in one superbly built, supremely healthy and confident red body, ears pricked, tail streaming, sharp eyes fixed on that tempting plump prey. And it was also simply surprising–and reassuring, in a funny sort of way!– to know that my reaction, after that very first flash of stunned astonishment at the bold presence of the fox, was to rush out, without hesitation, to confront him and stop him in his tracks. I might be impressed by the sleek, deadly beauty of the fox, but I was certainly not going to let him get his teeth into our hapless, helpless cluckers.

But the fox thriller wasn’t yet finished; its star was not going to let us have the final word, with the thwarted predator sent packing once and for all. We kept the chooks locked up for several days, thinking that the fox would get tired of waiting and would move on to greener pastures. But the chooks weren’t happy, though their pen is large; they’re used to roaming around the block, eating grass and worms, pecking and scratching and dirt-bathing. Besides, what’s the good of having free-range birds if you keep them locked up like prisoners, even if it’s for their own good? So after a week, David let them out, just for a few hours a day, in the little orchard which is fenced and close to the house, and which he can keep an eye on when he’s working outside. All seemed well for a couple of days, and then one day we both had to go out on separate errands, and didn’t think of locking in the chooks. David got back before me–but the fox had got there before him, climbed the fence into the orchard–and well, one chook wasn’t so lucky as that first one. A young rooster lay dead and half-gnawed (ironically one we’d been raising for our own eventual chicken dinner!); but the carnage wasn’t as great as it might have been, because all the other chooks were unharmed, so the fox must have been spooked by something and taken off before he could add to his predator’s tally. And, oddly, the surviving chooks seemed hardly perturbed, no sign of any post-traumatic reaction, despite the fact they must all have been present when the fox killed their brother. Our own reaction of course was quite different to that first episode when the fox had been successfully routed; shame at forgetting to lock in the chooks added to shame at misreading the capacity both for patience and cunning of our vulpine adversary.

So of course now the chooks were locked up, and they’re still locked up. But the foxy tale hasn’t quite ended; because yesterday afternoon, working at my computer again, I happened to look up–and there he was again, a bit further away than the first time, creeping through the long grass near the pine tree, heading for the chook pen, bold as brass again, clearly still intent on checking out opportunities. The chooks were in no danger, the pen is utterly impregnable, as it is enclosed by netting wire not only on all four sides but on top as well: the only way he could conceivably get in is by digging underneath, a risky and time-consuming process that normally only a desperately hungry animal would take on, and this particular one, with his sleek body and shining fur, looks neither hungry nor desperate, but rather carries the air and the M.O of a boldly opportunist gourmet 🙂 But the sight of him still persisting in his campaign, despite the odds, was a signal to us that this isn’t over, not by a long shot, and that this outwitting–outfoxing!–tale was certainly not complete. And somehow, this episode seemed at last to really rattle the chooks, who last night at a time when they should have been cosily in bed on their perches, were pacing about anxiously outside in the pen, making the disturbed clucks that let you know something’s wrong. We went out to check of course, several times; there was no obvious sign of the fox, this time, but somehow there was a sense of his presence, hidden, watchful–waiting.

So my foxy tale ends there, for the moment, maybe waiting, like the fox, for the final twist. And it made me aware of course of our own conflicted reactions to what happened, and to the fox itself. It’s not exactly uncommon, those mixed feelings. People have always had an ambiguous relationship to foxes: seen both as bloodthirsty adversaries, like wolves, but, unlike wolves, traditionally also admired for their patient guile and effrontery. Fiction and poetry are full of that ambiguous image of the fox, from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, where the fox is clearly the hero, to the disturbing English folktale, Mr Fox, a version of Bluebeard, where the main character is basically a serial killer. But it is perhaps in medieval French literature that we see the most compelling and extraordinary picture, in the shape of the anonymous episodic novel Le Roman de Renart. This represents its fox anti-hero, Renart as the very epitome of the clever, unscrupulous, risk-taking outlaw who preys on the stupidity and herd mentality of the geese and chicken mainstream, but also outwits, through a combination of hypocritical flattery and daring moves, the much more powerful and dangerous, but much less smart, wolf and bear lords. So hugely popular and influential was this novel–which is still both remarkably entertaining and highly disturbing in equal measure–that it changed the very name of the animal itself in French. In Old French, the word for fox was ‘goupil’, but after Le Roman de Renart, that name changed to the given name of its  main character. And so ‘goupil’ became ‘renard’, which is still what it is today.

A few years ago I wrote a retelling of the classic Russian folktale, The Rooster with the Golden Crest, where the tables are turned on the crafty fox by the nice but stupid rooster’s resourceful friends, the cat and the thrush, which was published in my picture book with David Allan, Two Trickster Tales from Russia; and it’s certainly more than possible that one day some fiction of mine will come out of these recent personal foxy encounters experiences; but right now I’d like to finish with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, after hearing a fox’s screaming call late one night whilst at my father’s place in France. The poem was published later in The School Magazine. In this poem, it’s a vixen, not a dog fox, that’s prowling…

 

Honoured to be featured as first story on striking new podcast series

I am honoured to have an interview with me featured as the very first episode of the brand-new Catastrophic podcast series, a project inspired by the recent–and current!–catastrophic bushfires in Australia and the challenges for the future. Created by the fabulous Kel Butler, the hard-hitting series focusses on a different person’s story in each episode. In my case, it was really the first time I have spoken in such a complete way about our recent stressful experiences in our region of not only constant fire threat over several months but really bad drought over more than a year–the recounting of it all drawn out by Kel’s great interviewing skills. And now that the wonderful rains in our region have brought about a relaxing of the extreme anxiety, I found I was able to reflect on it more…

You can find the complete episode with my interview here (10 minutes long).

I hope listeners find it interesting–and do listen out for other episodes of the series!

The Catastrophic podcast series website is here, (you can subscribe to the series there) and the Facebook page is here: Like it to keep up with news of new episodes and other updates.

Childhood markets: two memories

Today I’m doing something different: republishing a couple of short pieces I wrote some years ago about markets I attended with my family in childhood and adolescence.

St Jean Pied de Port, Pays Basque

We dodge a flock of sheep being driven up the steep cobbled street to the stock-selling part of the

On way to St Jean Pied de Port markets, Pays Basque, in adolescence

ancient markets. Up and down the street are stalls of all kinds, and farmers in the large flat berets characteristic of the Basque country and blue overalls. Many of them are speaking the ancient tongue of the region to each other and the stall-holders while a steady stream of incoming tourists like ourselves rubs shoulders with the locals. I’m a teenager on holidays in the Basque country with my paternal grandmother Mamizou and her two daughters, my aunts Betty and Genevieve, and we’ve driven up into the mountains to the famous markets at Saint Jean Pied de Port, deep in the ancient province of Navarra, on the French Basque side of the Pyrenees. St Jean Pied de Port is a gorgeous medieval town, built of local pink and grey rock, set beside the rushing Nive River, and it has a feeling of ancient fastness which percolates into your veins.

On the way up, we’ve seen some amazing sights: rows of beautiful old houses, a team of men in white shirts and trousers and red belts playing pelote, the Basque handball, against village walls built specially for the purpose; and best of all, a pair of patient oxen harnessed to a haycart. Betty takes a photo of me near—but not too near!–them, and I have for ever the exciting proof that a sight right out of the history books was still alive in the late 70’s in the Basque country. I’m delighted; the past and especially the distant past is my obsession. I’m proud of my maternal Basque heritage but I love all romantic ancient tongue-twisting languages—Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, as well as Basque—and I read old sagas and myths and Arthurian romance and to my relatives’ somewhat pained dismay often dress like something out of the Middle Ages or rather a fantasy-reader’s impression of that period, haunting old-clothes markets and junk shops for turn of the century lace camisoles, long satin nighties worn as dresses and gypsy-style coloured skirts and velvet jackets.
Today though I’ve dressed in black and though my grandmother and aunts aren’t keen on that either, because all-black outfits should in their view be reserved for mourning or else for old peasant women—they haven’t said anything, just in case I might take it into my head to wear something really outrageous. But as we trudge up the cobbles to the market, I’m suddenly aware how out of place we look—my elegant grandmother and aunts in their city clothes and patent leather shoes, and me in my toned-down ‘bohemian’ style. We’re so very obviously tourists, and for a while that’s all I can see. But nobody else seems to notice. The locals couldn’t care less if you’re there or not; this is their own gathering, held since time immemorial, and tourists are the least of their concerns. There are one or two stalls catering specially for tourists, with little Basque flags and knickknacks; but to the locals, they might as well not exist. So soon I forget all about my self-conscious preening and just enjoy taking it all in, the sights, the sounds, the smells..

These markets are famous because they are the focus of the region. Hundreds of farmers come from a wide radius to buy and sell stock and poultry and a bewildering range of farm produce, from eggs and honey and sausage and cheeses to vegetables and fruit and preserves. As well there are any number of stallholders selling things bought by locals as much as tourists, such as pottery or the famous stripy Basque linen which makes such striking tablecloths and aprons. We wander up and down, buying bits and pieces but mostly looking, and I remember another time I was here, several years before, with my father and some of my siblings. That time, Dad had bought a vast wheel of cheese cheap from an old Basque lady with deceptively candid blue eyes. Despite Maman’s sardonic comments–her part-Basque heritage not predisposing her to romanticism about the culture–Dad was excited, thinking he’d not only got something truly authentic, but something that was truly a bargain. (When we got it home the next day to our house, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, near Toulouse he cut it open and discovered it was full of worms. Everyone yelled in horror, except for Dad, who gamely asserted that cheese was only improved when it was worm-riddled; everyone except him refused to touch it. Oddly enough not long after he’d defiantly tasted it, the cheese mysteriously disappeared—and he wouldn’t answer Maman’s sarcastic question as to where his ‘bargain’ had gone!)

Today though there’s no wormy cheese to be seen, or if there is, we don’t buy it, though we stock up on sausage and eggs and honey and fresh herbs and more, with my aunt Betty, the (very fine) cook of the family, examining each purchase as carefully as a local, earning the respect of the stallholders who soon discover that elegant city clothes don’t mean she doesn’t know what she’s looking at!
And then comes my favourite part of all: after an hour or two jaunting through the market we repair to a charming little cafe near the river and eat a wonderful meal of chicken a la Basquaise and salad, followed by a big slice of a delicious, fragrantly fresh Gateau Basque, the whole washed down with light local wine and a small nip of Izarra, a herby local liqueur, afterwards. When my grandmother compliments him on a fine meal, the proprietor tells us all the fresh ingredients came out of this very market. ‘There’s no better in the whole of the country,’ he tells us with superb local assurance, and nobody is disposed to argue with him, not with the sun shining on the Nive, and our bellies cheerfully, happily full.

Flemington Markets, Sydney

Flemington markets, eight o’clock one childhood morning. We’ve had a long and enervating drive through slow Saturday traffic from our sedate northern suburb to the ‘wild west’, and now we’re in this vast corrugated iron shed, with people shouting, gimlet-eyed bargain hunters running you over with heavily laden trolleys, vegetables squashing underfoot, kids getting lost in the melee…

Maman and Dad both love this place. For Maman, who can ‘take or leave’ markets when she’s in Europe, this is a place that makes her feel she is at home, here in this country that will never be home to her. For Dad, though, the love is there because it’s a market, because it’s filled with people, with sights, sounds, smells, life to plunge into with gusto, where the colourful noisy swell of multicultural Australia washes over you in a great human wave. For me as a prickly teenager mortified by looking ‘different’ and by the teasing refusal of our parents to talk English to us in public, it’s somewhere that’s both relaxing–because here no-one cares a bit if you ‘speak foreign’ or not but also a bit confronting– for the same reason. This is a very different Australia to the surfie paradise I imagine my school friends inhabit, and I’m soon overtaken by its vivid atmosphere, forgetting I’m supposed to be trying to be cool in the urge to observe and catalogue and file away things in my head for writing in my notebook later.

There are Italian fruit sellers, Greek olive oil merchants, Turkish sweet-sellers, Anglo vegetable sellers, Arabic souvenir sellers, South American churros vendors, Chinese and Vietnamese greengrocers, Eastern European pickle and smallgoods sellers. There’s chickens and ducks and eggs, mounds of fruit and vegetables, carpets and cheap trousers, kebabs and Turkish delight, dried figs and toffee apples. A tiny, very old Chinese woman stops at a stall, prods a vegetable, clucks in annoyance and contempt, while the seller, an enormous brawny fellow with a strong Australian accent calls out indignantly, “Hey, lady! Them’s for selling!” Maman and Dad walk rapidly down each aisle, like people possessed, hunting down bargains, while we children drag along in their wake, anxious lest we lose them in the swirling crowds, liking it in some strange, unarticulate way and yet embarassed, too, for here you have to shout and argue and comment and even make loud jokes. There’s no mask of reserve, no distance. And so we go along, occasionally clutching at a fallen orange, asking ourselves whether our parents will buy us a toffee apple this time, or whether we’ll get an almond biscuit and a sweet black shot of coffee at the Italian cafe, just down the alleyway.

A beautiful and astonishing example of serendipity

Sometimes, life can hand you a beautiful example of serendipity, a gift of simple grace and joy, which makes you feel connections across time and place that are just spine-tingling…Such a thing happened to me just recently, something which connected my childhood scribbling self with my present scribbling self, in the most unexpected of ways. It’s a whole story in itself, so in order to do it justice, I have to start with some context, with some scene-setting, before I move to what happened in the present day…

So, in an entry in my diary, written as a 12 year old (a diary I still have), there’s a mention of a book I was writing, titled The Twins’ Highlands Holiday. Everything in the entry except for that title is written in French (as indeed it is in the rest of the diary); but the English title clearly showed that I had ambitions for a fiction readership beyond my immediate family 🙂  And it also showed clearly the influence of one of my favourite writers at the time, Enid Blyton. I especially loved her mysteries series, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, but also her story anthologies which could be consumed in bite size pieces(though being a voracious reader, I never stopped at one bite!) My parents rarely bought new English-language books for us(that was reserved for French-language titles, like Tintin, Asterix, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne etc); So most of those books I borrowed from the library or occasionally we might find some in second-hand shops, like the legendary White Elephant in Chatswood which my mother took us to during the holidays(we lived in Sydney’s North Shore area) and where we children might be allowed to select books to take home(she also loved rummaging amongst the shop’s astonishing mass of books, records, old china, curios, records, vintage clothes etc).

I had come across the entry in that old diary earlier this year, in preparation for an essay I was writing; and I thought then, I wish I still had that story! But it had vanished long ago, and all that remained was the title, a title straight out of Blyton, though maybe not the Highlands part, for that very English writer. As a twelve year old I had never been to the Highlands, though I loved stories set there(I’d also read and loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, a very different kettle of fish to Blyton, of course!) So I’d combined twins and holiday–very Blyton–with a whiff of adventure in the heather, a la Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t recall anything about the story or what happened in it..but seeing it mentioned there in the diary(mentioned in more than one entry actually, as I diligently reported progress on writing it) made me remember the sheer excitement of writing as a child, copying my favourite authors but doing it all in my own way.  And I thought, I know the Highlands bit came from Stevenson, but I wonder which Blyton it was which inspired the rest?  Oh well, probably a mix of several, I thought.

The Twins’ Holiday Holiday went into the essay. And that was it. Except it wasn’t. The astonishment, the serendipity, was still to come. A few weeks ago, I received a direct Facebook message from a fellow author, Pat Simmons. I hadn’t met Pat in person, but I did know her work: and had recently bought her latest lovely picture book, Ziggy’s Zoo(illustrated by Vicky Pratt) for some dear little people in my life. Anyway, Pat had messaged me about something she’d found, quite by chance. A book. An Enid Blyton anthology, called ‘The Holiday Book’, with a name, address, telephone number and date carefully written on the flyleaf, obviously by the proud owner. And here I’ll pass the story over to Pat herself, to explain:

My local ‘op shop’ sits close to the bus stop in Thirroul. A bus stop I frequently use when travelling home to Scarborough. As the buses almost always run late, I often have time to browse the ‘op shop’ and seek out treasures.

A few weeks ago, I spied a book of Enid Blyton short stories, sitting all by itself on a high shelf. Inside the book I read a name and address. Definitely not a local address and, seemingly, written some years ago. The name was ‘Sophie Masson.’

Could it be THE Sophie Masson I wondered? I took a photo of the inscription and messaged it to Sophie. She confirmed that the book had indeed belonged to her some years ago.

It was great to return the book to its original owner and to ponder on the book’s journey.

I could hardly believe it as I looked at the photos Pat had sent. It was definitely my handwriting as a 12 year old (just the same as in the diary!) and it carefully noted my name, address, phone number(which I still remembered by heart as we’d had it drummed into us by our parents, in case we ever got lost!) as well as the place and date we’d bought it–the W.E., Chatswood, the White Elephant of course, and in May, only a few days after my twelfth birthday. So it was already second-hand when we bought it, but I had clearly loved it and put my mark on it.

I was so excited! And even more so when Pat very kindly sent the book to me, and opening it, I was suddenly plunged back into the world of my childhood, not only because of the stories, the pictures, and my owner’s inscription–I was sure now that this was the book that had inspired the Blytonesque part of that story I’d written as a twelve year old–but also  because of something else written on the page facing the flyleaf. ‘Taken out By’ it read in my writing: and underneath a stamp somewhat shakily reading L M. I knew at once who LM was of course; my younger brother, Louis. And he, along with my other siblings, had been one of the visitors at the ‘library’ I ran with attempted firmness at home, acting the part of the librarian, complete with stamp (I just loved those stamps!). Very likely that my cheeky rebel of a brother broke every library rule I attempted to impose, but he had clearly meekly submitted to being stamped into Enid Blyton’s Holiday Book (I showed it to him next time I saw him of course, much to his amazed amusement!)

What a journey indeed that book must have gone on over the decades since I had first held it in my hands and officiously stamped it! It had not followed me from childhood into adolescence; my mother must have got rid of it, along with other books we had outgrown, when we left home, or when she and my father left Australia to go back to France. She would have given it to another secondhand shop, no doubt, but in northern Sydney somewhere–but how it had ended up on the South Coast, in Pat’s neighbourhood op shop in Thirroul, a little battered but still in remarkably good shape, considering, is a mystery. I presume other children along the way, maybe several other children, had enjoyed and loved it, or it would not have stayed intact. As to me, I had forgotten it, until that moment when I read Pat’s message. Yet I had written my name and contact in it so carefully, obviously fearing that I might lose it, and trying to ensure that it would find its way back to me.

Which of course, eventually, it did….

And I’m still feeling that rush of pure, simple pleasure about the lovely serendipity of it all.

 

The Bluebell Club: a memoir-story

Today I’m republishing a story based on memories of a literary episode in primary school.

The Bluebell Club

by Sophie Masson

Towards the end of my Enid Blyton phase, in late primary school, I founded a wrhiting club, which I called the Bluebell Club, and managed to inveigle some of my friends into it. My younger sister Camille also hung around it sometimes. The name of the club came straight out of Enid Blyton, of course. And I was the President, also of course!

We would sit, we the Bluebell Club, under the trees at the end of the playground, ignoring the bands of boys who sometimes marched past us, arms linked, chanting, ‘We hate girls! We hate girls!’ We knew they were just craving attention, and were jealous of us as we sat there, telling each other calmly the stories we had made up, which was the ritual of the Club. Each member had to bring a story to the week’s meeting; we read them, admired them, and then it was my job to say which was best, and which would be entered in the exercise book that served as the Club’s record.

I loved the Club. It was the perfect venue for recounting the adventures of my favourite creation, Princess Alicia of the rippling blond hair, the wise mind, clever tongue and magic finger. Alicia featured in dozens of adventures I wrote, each profusely illustrated with curly pictures. The Club members listened to the Alicia stories with respect, but then seemed to want to tell their own and to vote for others, not just Alicia. Secretely, I thought that Alicia should win every week, but not even being President could save me from the fate of knowing what would happen, then.

All the other girls, except for my younger sister Camille of course, were real Aussies—they had vegemite, not salami, sandwiches at lunchtime and glamorous parties for their birthdays, with fairy bread and pink cakes and balloons. I never had a party. I wanted one, so badly–and yet I feared that Maman would probably not know the right ‘form’-she’d make a pâté, and real lemonade with lemons, and her cake would be iced just with melted chocolate, not with ‘proper’ icing. I was not yet at the teenage shamed stage–yet I knew, somehow that those things I loved within the four walls of my home would be misunderstood outside them. The Bluebell Club was my way of integrating, of showing that I knew about what I imagined marked out the ‘mainstream’, knowing, despite the lack of a TV in our house, and the fact Maman never bought processed food, about TV programmes and frozen chips. In my stories Alicia always watched Bewitched and Dr Who, and loved frozen chips and green GI cordial.

I talked to Maman about the Bluebell Club, and was amazed when she suggested that we run a proper competition. She would donate a prize for it, she said. My joy at this unexpected offer was tinged with suspicion–would she know what was the right thing to do? I kept dropping hints, saying, well I think a good prize would be a book, hoping that she wouldn’t get it into her head to bake a cake which would look home-made, with dense, delicious yellow flesh and pockmarked brown skin.

She did buy a book–done up in blue tissue, it sat in my bag, innocent and weighty. She hadn’t told me what it was–couldn’t remember, she said, mischievously. But a book was safe. Sure. I took it to school in anticipation, having last week announced the competition. I’d written a story, Alicia’s latest adventure, in which, sheathed in gold brocade and silk hair nets, our heroic princess went to do battle with an alien. I’d had trouble drawing the alien–it looked rather like Maman’s vacuum cleaner. But the story was good drama. I’d rehearsed it to myself, last night in bed.

One of the other girls’ mother had kindly baked a cake for us, as celebration, and we ate it as a preliminary. There it sat, neat as a house on its plate, its walls straight and pale, its roof prettily frosted with white icing, dusted with multi-coloured sprinkles. It looked like a proper shop cake, and I was awed by its beauty. ‘Mum always buys the good packet mixes,’ the girl said, and I gasped with longing. I’d seen those packets in the supermarket—they had names like Snow Vanilla; Royal Chocolate; Pink Marble. Cakes for a Princess Alicia, to eat off golden plates.

When the cake was cut, it proved to have white flesh inside. It must have been a Snow Vanilla. I couldn’t get my eyes off that snowy colour; it was like no cake we ever had, at home. There was none of the sweet denseness of the French butter cake known as quatre-quarts which Maman made a lot; instead, you closed your mouth on an airy lightness, as soft as cloud. Privately, I was a little disappointed; it was like barbe à papa (fairy floss or cotton candy) that looked so magically wonderful but disintegrated into a trickle of pink on your tongue. But I was loudest in praise, for you couldn’t admit that pretty words could hide nothing at all. It was the image that was important, the feeling of riches, of magic, of leisure. No hard mixing and stirring and separating here, no messy egg shells, still with yolk adhering, or showers of flour on the floor. Just a packet, a picture, a pretty name, and hey presto–instant cake! It was like a miracle, I thought. And you can’t question miracles.

When the last crumb of Snow Vanilla had gone, I held up a hand for attention. ’And now for the judging of the competition,’ I announced rather pompously. ’I have here a magnificent prize, for the lucky winner.’ The others watched me a little strangely, I thought. Didn’t they want to know the winner? ‘Let’s read all our stories, and then we’ll see.’
I read the latest adventure of Alicia first, my voice rising and falling. I added an episode ad lib, when the Princess feasted on Snow Vanilla. The others listened, then read their stories. Very ordinary, they seemed to me.

‘Now, we’ll decide the winner,’ I began, but then another girl, the cake girl no doubt, stopped me. ’I’ve told my mum about all this,’ she said, ‘And she said it’s not fair, that you get to be the judge. I bet you’d choose your own story!’

‘I’m tired of Princess Alicia, anyway,’ said another girl. ’Why do you always write about her? She’s boring!’

The meeting broke up in disarray. In my bag, still in its blue tissue, was the prize book. I’d had no chance to bring it out, to display it, no chance to choose the winner, no chance to hand the book over, in its secretive blue. I tried to call them back, but the words wouldn’t come. They were off, chattering, their minds on elastics and skipping. They’d had enough of the Club, too. Possibly enough of me. My earnestness frightened them off. Now I was frightened. I’d thought I’d done so well, queening it over them, but now I realised they’d humoured me, for a while, because there was nothing else to do. Camille stayed for a minute, then said, ‘Don’t worry, I like Alicia. You can read it to me, if you like.’
But I didn’t want to read them to my sister. I could do that any day, at home. I wanted to sit under the trees, with the Bluebell Club, being their President, their admired, imitated President. I wanted to fill the exercise book with our work, with our efficient meetings. It felt like real life, quiet, efficient real life, not the chaotic un-Australianness of our home. But I’d just been voted out of office. Permanently. I knew it. And suddenly, Alicia’s curly hair, her huge eyes, filled me with anger. I tore the story across and put it in the bin.

The book stayed in its blue tissue all day. At home, I opened it at last. ‘The members of the Bluebell Club,’ I told Maman, ‘voted my story the best in the competition!’ I could even believe it, as I opened the collection of illustrated poems Maman had bought (it was a lovely book). Yes, I could even hear their clapping as one by one, the members of the Bluebell Club agreed that Princess Alicia and the Aliens was the best story they had ever heard, and deserving of the first prize. I looked across at Camille. But she said nothing. Her mouth was full of cake. Quatre-quarts, not Vanilla Snow.

Kangaroos: a memoir piece

 

Childhood, Australia. Left to right: younger sister Camille, brother Louis-Xavier, little sister Gabrielle, and myself holding baby brother Bertrand! Older sisters Dominique and Beatrice were in France.

And to follow up on the previous memoir piece I republished earlier this week, here’s another. Titled Kangaroos, it’s about the experience of being a schoolchild suspended between two school cultures, in Australia and France.

Kangaroos

In Sydney, school plodded on, seemingly never-ending. Every day, walking down the hissing shore of the Pacific Highway, we followed the same path, exclaimed over the same landmarks. Down the highway, plod, plod, till you came to our street, then down its eerily quiet and shady length to our house. On the way was a house, covered with creepers and with a magical garden full of beautiful old-fashioned flowers, presided over by two old sisters in cardigans, twinkling spectacles and blue-rinsed hair, whom I thought looked just like the good fairies in my favourite Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. And there was a creepy bit past which you had to run, before the mythologised figure of evil that might be lurking in it, caught you.

There was the block of flats, next door, filled with rich old people who mostly tried hard to ignore us noisy woggy interlopers in their hushed retirement. (Once, amusingly,  Dad got an anonymous letter, which had been shoved through our letterbox, and which asked ”the Frenchman with the loud voice” to ”kindly desist” from shouting too early in the morning at the kids! He didn’t obey…) There was one notable exception, though, a lively old lady whose late husband had once been an important diplomat. She owned a huge, ancient Rolls Royce that she once took us out in for a ‘spin’–actually a sedate procession– down the street, magnificent as a ship, with her tiny figure behind the wheel. She liked us so we were also invited back to her flat to exclaim over all the quaint souvenirs she’d collected in her long life, over all the continents. I remember particularly a flotilla of beautiful little ivory elephants of different sizes. She’d give us a piece of cake and say to Maman, “Well, you people really have been places, too, haven’t you?” And I’d think, well, but just to Empeaux, really, and Biarritz, and Toulouse–places mostly familiar, a little mysterious, sometimes. But mostly familiar. Not like her, with her exotic list of postings!

Whenever it came time for us to go away on our French holidays, other kids at school would be envious. “It’s not fair!” they’d chorus. It was one of the few times that I was pleased to be different, to have a chaotic, unusual family scattered every which way.”You lucky things!” the kids would moan. “Missing out on school!”

And I’d say, “Yes, but we have to go to school there,” but nobody really believed that. France was a mythical country. There could be no real school there, with teachers and chalk and homework. My friends merely indulged my repeated assurances that indeed there was a school in the village, and that we had to go there, at least some of the time.

But school there was, set just across the road from the driveway at the back of our house. The school consisted of a rendered brick building of two storeys, the first storey being the schoolroom, the top storey being the teacher’s house. There was a courtyard, fenced in with wire and cement, and discreetly to one side, a couple of ghastly, smelly squat toilets. In the schoolroom, there were rows of desks, pegs to hang up your coats and hats, maps, and a large blackboard.

At the beginning of our time there, each desk came equipped with ink bottles. As a small child, you first had to write on slates, with chalk, then progress to the ink. You had to write with pens dipped in the ink. We never used slates in Australia, or ink pens–those had gone out before our time–just pencils and later biros, and I struggled, especially when it came to the ink pens, for my writing wasn’t of the tidiest–eager, yes, but not tidy. In France, you had pieces of pink or blue blotter to work with, as you formed the unfamiliar curly letters in the exercise books whose pages reminded me of check aprons. Even the exercise books were different, with their thick glossy covers and their checked-apron pages. And if you smudged, oh heck! Madame Lafforgue would be behind you, sharp words at the ready, maybe if you were persistently hopeless, a clip around the ear, too.

One of the things that made our friends in Australia suspicious about the existence of the Empeaux school was the fact that no-one wore uniforms. Instead, you had to wear a nylon overall over your ordinary clothes. How I hated those things, which seemed to me the height of dagginess, worse even than school uniforms!

To the other children in the school at Empeaux, we were known as ‘les kangorous’. Barely believable, rather comic figures who suddenly bounced into sight, and just as inexplicably, bounced away again.

In Australia, I was sometimes singled out for cringe-making praise by the teachers(‘See, English is not even her native language, and yet see how well she speaks and writes it!’)In France, Madame Lafforgue often singled us out for special mention, too, so that in both places, we had the sense of being there, and yet not quite there. We could not be the same as the others, here or there. To the children of Empeaux, the very notion of school in Australia was as ridiculous as French school had been to our Australian friends. Those who knew where Australia was–and there were very few of them–imagined something that we couldn’t even begin to picture in our minds, let alone recognise.

The school was full of farmers’ children–Gisele, with her bright red cheeks, her voice which was an uncanny younger imitation of the way the older people spoke, as if they had a mouthful of the rich cake called fougasse in their mouths; Raymond and Alain, two strapping boys who marked time in the last grades of primary school–no way did they want to have to go to the town high school; Veronique, who was really friendly until the day I discovered she was copying all my work. I’d stared at her, rather embarassed, but Madame Lafforgue had noticed. Her withering tongue made poor Veronique cry, so that I felt cold with reflected humiliation, myself. I tried to show her that I didn’t care if she had copied my work, but she wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, after that.

And then there were the others. Children as foreign as we were, and yet less. Their parents had come to the village, attracted by the work in the ceramics factory. There were two Portuguese families–Antonio and his two brothers; and Maria and Manuel. And then there were the Algerian boy, Mohammed, and his little sister, Aisha. Antonio and his brothers were as rough as the crewcut hair on their heads, dressed in tattered blue clothes, voices grating and harsh.

Maman, whose father was from Portugal, smiled and said they were from the ‘fin fond du Portugal”, the depths of Portugal, the harsh, distant, backward countryside. They lived in a dilapidated old barn on the outskirts of the village, without electricity or running water. Some of the villagers turned up their noses at them, even though it was barely 20 years since they’d got these self-same conveniences.

But it was no good feeling sorry for Antonio or his brothers. They would hit out wildly in all directions, and were much feared. Antonio protected his little brothers through thick and thin, and his attitude to us was of aggression mixed with fear. Just when he’d sorted out the French, thought he understood, along we came, of the place yet not of it, smelling of privilege and a life he could not even imagine.

So I came home one day with a tooth smashed in by Antonio, violence I hadn’t courted or understood. He’d been in the playground and had brought out his snack, a vanilla pod carefully wrapped in brown paper. I’d said, “What’s that?” And then he’d hit me. I didn’t understand, and the shock and pain of it was almost as frightening as the blood running down my chin.

Papa had waited for Antonio, the next day, after school. “Come here, boy,” he’d called out, in Portuguese, and after one horrified glance at him, Antonio fled. It wasn’t just the threat of retribution that had frightened him, though; he gave the impression of someone well-used to kicks and blows. It was the fact that my father, that stranger, the senior kangaroo, spoke Portuguese! Antonio never bothered me again.

The other Portuguese children, Maria and Manuel, lived in the village, in Monsieur Martin’s old house, when the latter died. They were from Northern Portugal, Maria never tired of explaining to us, waving a deprecating hand towards Antonio and his brothers from the ‘fin fond’. In her descriptions of her life there, their old home was a marvel, a place of marble floors and stone courtyards and fountains. “We were so rich!” she’d sigh, stroking our dolls’ hair. Because she and her brother were quiet and well-behaved, they were allowed to come to our place to play, and Maria would tell us stories of the wonderful places they used to live in. I half-believed her, but wondered why she and her family had come to live in Empeaux. One day, though, she was in full flow, telling us these stories, glancing around her as she spoke, so that her Portuguese palaces took on the atmosphere of our house. Then Maman came in, and said something to her, in Portuguese. Maria flushed scarlet, and stammered something.

I thought then that Maman had made a tart comment; but no, it had merely been to ask her what time their mother was expecting them. Like Antonio, she hadn’t expected my parents to speak Portuguese, and this sudden discovery withered her tall tale-telling. I was sorry; I’d liked her stories, and even though I hadn’t really believed in them, I missed the perfumed gardens and the almonds always in blossom, and the marvellous kinds of sweetmeats done up in silver or gold foil, that she’d told us about…

The Algerian children clung to each other, stepping carefully in the minefield of village society. They were the first of a new wave of settlers, and even the Portuguese children knew, in the instinctive, cruelly defensive way that all children soon learn, that they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Most of the children ignored them, but one or two, like Antonio, were actively vicious.

Mohammed was small and thin, his sister with a great shock of black hair, frightened eyes, and a nose that seemed to be always running. Of course, the children seized on this as a visible sign of difference, a reason as to why it was alright to persecute them, with Antonio as the ringleader. They were careful, of course, not to do it within earshot of Madame Lafforgue, who couldn’t abide bullying, but in the playground away from her eagle eye, it was a different matter.

You couldn’t help seeing it, hearing it, and I wished often that I  could be brave enough to stop it. And then, one day, quite suddenly, it did. I still don’t know what happened, but one morning, there were Mohammed and Antonio in the playground, throwing a ball at each other. At recess, they joined up again, and Mohammed’s little sister followed them. I said to Gisele, “I wonder how they managed to patch it up,” and Gisele, incuriously following my glance, shrugged her shoulders. She never wondered about other people. She couldn’t understand why anyone might do so.

For whom the bell tolls–a memoir piece

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.

Back then: La Nouvelle Terrebonne from the back, with the castle and church seen in background

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…

 

the Empeaux church today

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?”