Hamberie was rural farm in Calvados, northern France. The farm was bounded on one side by a small river and what looked like a retired railway crossing on the other which, if followed just four miles east, would take you to the little town of Falaise, home of William the Conqueror’s Château. The rutted path that lead down to the farm was marked by a blanket of sycamore seeds and trodden cherries which forked its way to the foot of five gîtes: La Rose, Goulet, La Fournil the old bakery, Martin and La Demeure. Two were named after old residents; a farmer, Martin and Madame and Monsieur Goulet, its previous owners. The river side of the farm backed onto a field which had a dry, earthy look about it, half-flattened by summer floods. Overgrown bulrushes burst through small clearings made by coypu’s which scurried into hiding holes along the riverbank. Among the ticket, full-grown fledglings borne aloft left songs abandoned in sight and sound. Concealed amongst the khaki behind La Rose, you could just about make out a bench next to a mound of sugar beet left unvisited even by holiday makers. From this bench you could see everything. On the damp grass in the middle of the farm stood a walnut tree sheltering a pair of stone meerkats. With one embracing the other, they quietly brooded over the farm on top of an abandoned well.
Pete was at work painting La Fournil after it had faded dull from summer showers. He took care of the farm with a bustling efficiency which kept him busy during long daylight hours. There was something about the way he tended to odd jobs which gave an intense ardour about him, but nothing so much as to seem in a frenzy or hurry. Pete would paint a wall the exact same as everyone did: you set the container at arm’s reach, you dip the brush, you stroke the brush back and forth, up and down. Still, when Pete did it, he would do it intently with purpose. It was like everything he did had a function. No movement of his limbs was wasted. His gestures were plain with nothing exaggerated. It was almost graceful. Even so, if there was an elegance about him, it did not come without utility.
The sound of car engines made their way down the cherry-trodden path. The flesh of fructose stuck to the wheels like jam. Clearing the driveway would be another job Marianne would have to see to. Pete scurried down the ladder towards the cars. Marianne and her parents arrived first with Rosie, Brian and Blue trundling in the car behind them.
“Hello,” said Pete. “You have an alright trip then?”
“Yeah not too bad thanks, sea was a bit choppy,” said Marianne with a half-smile. Pete seemed to forget the formalities.
“It is at the moment with that storm blowing down from Norway.” Pete’s eyes darted wildly. “So, ugh, Fournil’s been done. I’ve just got to install some panels inside the resident gîte.”
“Oh, thanks. That’s fine, I’ll see to that,” said Marianne, taken back a little. “Pete, this is Elizabeth; John.” Marianne gestured pointedly. Her face warmed a little.
“How do you do?” said Pete, avoiding eye contact with the group while offering his hand to the dog. Blue didn’t take.
“Nice to finally meet you,” said Elizabeth. Brian and Rosie scanned Pete up and down. Pete shifted on the spot.
“The beds are all made up and the pool’s been cleaned for you,” said Pete.
“That’s… great. Thank you for doing all that,” Marianne paused as if waiting to be noticed for real.
“I’ll leave you lot to it then. Better keep that monster of a dog on a leash or he’ll shit all over the place,” said Pete and left. It was a poor attempt at humour.
“Well, what a charming man,” said Elizabeth. Marianne flushed.
“I don’t like him,” said Rosie.
“Did you hear that, John?” said Elizabeth. “The gîtes have only just been painted. Fancy coming here a week ago, I bet the pool was filled with mould.”
“Really, Mum?” said Marianne in a fluster of embarrassment. “You’re astounding, you know that?”
“You hear that, John? I’m seventy-eight and I still astound people.”
“Yes, my dear?” John a little slow on the uptake. Brian and Rosie headed into the gîte making remarks of the place. Blue nuzzled at foreign scents as he was tugged along. Elizabeth took John by the hand.
“You’ll have to give us our welcome tour Marianne.”
“Yeah, in a minute Mum. Jesus, we just got here.” Elizabeth and John wondered off up the hill leaving Marianne to idle in the background. She hauled the luggage inside.
The painting that Marianne had bought dominated the living room of the gîte they stayed in, Demeure, it was called. Demeure was by far the biggest and grandest of the five gîtes. It had large, spacious rooms which made whispers roll up the tall ceilings like an echo chamber. Incandescent candlelight from nooks in the wall penetrated far reaching corners and innocuous spaces. Everyone who stayed in this gîte felt like they were Napoleon. Demeure would become home to Elizabeth, John, Brian and Rosie, while Marianne gave up her room for Brian who kicked up a fuss about the bed he’d chosen. It was apparently impossible for him to sleep on because of his bad back.
“I’ve paid two-grand for this!” He bellowed without the slightest consideration of Marianne who would be outcast from the family holiday. Marianne slept in the Hovel, the one-bedroom side home for onsite residents that she usually stayed in on business trips. Sure enough, it was the only place with a stocked panty, heating and a full-length mirror on the farm.
Marianne and her family spent most of the afternoons lazily by the pool up by Fournil. In the evenings they mostly played card games in the garden back in Demeure, the likes of which being Gin Rummy, Pontoon, Whist and Bridge.
“You cheat!” Squawked Rosie.
“Excuse me?” Countered Brian with a forced mixture of confusion and irritation.
“You looked at my cards!”
“Let’s calm down now, shall we?” interjected Elizabeth.
Rosie kicked back the chair in protest.
“There’s no mistake, Brian’s a cheat and always has been, even since we were kids.” The tension was high. Haribo’s were at stake.
“Yeah, easy Rosie, calm down.” Brian stifled a smirk, his eyes gleaming at Rosie with a grin.
“You know exactly what you did,” said Rosie.
“Who’s turn is it now then?” John not realising he was two cards short.
“It doesn’t matter, as soon as Rosie plays her Ace of Hearts it’s game over,” said Brian.
“You know I don’t have an Ace of Hearts,” said Rosie.
Brian grinned like a beartrap and immediately snapped down the Queen and the King of Hearts, completing the set with the most points, winning the game. “I do now.”
“Shit, you bastard.”
“Thanks,” said Brian, hoarding in his gelatin winnings into his abdomen. Blue was at his feet scoffing the fallen sweets off the floor.
“Rosie, language,” said Elizabeth.
Rosie tossed her handful of cards away and stormed into the house just as Pete came through the back gate into the garden. Pete bent down to pick up the cards and while doing so he patted Blue.
“Hey there big boy.”
Blue whipped around with a snap and lunged at Pete. The crunch was ear curdling. Screams filled the garden as Rosie rushed Pete into the kitchen.
That evening Pete stayed in the Hovel with Marianne.
“God. This is horrific. You won’t be able to work for a while” said Marianne with the sound of trauma in her voice.
“I’ll manage,” said Pete.
“What will you do?” asked Marianne.
“I’ll have to move back to my mother’s up in Caen. I can’t afford rent if I can’t work.” Marianne held her head in her hands. She clutched her hair in her fists.
“I can lend you the money,” said Marianne.
“You don’t have to,” said Pete.
“No. Please, let me. This is my fault,” said Marianne holding back tears. “I couldn’t live with myself to see you forced out of your home.”
The rest of the week Marianne withdrew herself after Pete’s absence while her family quietly busied themselves in Demeure continuing their card games. After a couple of days even Rosie stopped checking on her. Marianne spent the last few days finishing the panel that Pete had started.
. . .
Inside the Hovel it was both smaller and larger than it looked. The panels which ran up the wall along the ceiling covered the irregular angle of its interior. Tied to the panels were bunches of lavender used to deter flies. In the corner of the room, the rafted ceiling uplifted revealing an unexpected space which had been filled with a writing desk. It was equipped with an oil lamp, a letter opener and a copy Living French by T.W. Knight next to an envelope addressed to Marianne. Marianne took the envelope and the letter opener and sought a quiet space on a bench behind La Rose to read its contents.
She sliced the envelope open. It was from Pete, left by his mother.
I can only apologise for how things have turned out on your family’s holiday.’
The note opened with a long apology and Pete’s resignation.
‘I’m moving to Caen. They have an assistant desk job there I can work part-time with until my hands heal. Give John my best. I hope things work out at home.
Marianne scanned the page with a brisk vacancy. There was no mention of his plans to repay her the money she gave him. Marianne slumped with the letter in her lap.
Now that Marianne sat on the other side of the farm, she could finally let the winds out of the burlap sack and cast them away in the gentleness carried by the breeze. It was a warm afternoon on the last day of August and the sun lit up the pallid grass of the country side. She sat out by the river behind La Rose on a bench which made a sweet creak from the aching wood under tension. Along the river sallows was the constant sound of sparrows calling dreamily. Half in love with the birds’ song, she considered for a short while in some melodious plot not going home with her family, but staying put on this little French farm, come what may. Playing with the idea, the thought rolled over in her mind like a dice as if there were a choice. Why shouldn’t she? After all, she’d been dutiful to her family despite the temptation, almost the compulsion not to. But no, she couldn’t stay, for she was pulled back, condemned like Atlas by the burden of responsibility and the chains of dependence of those who love her. And, for though she loved them in turn, what ever happened to love thy self? Just as the breeze came and fell, the thought washed over her in an instant as the melody of the sparrow drowned out the dissonant musings of her own idealism.
In that moment, Marianne decided that this is where she was to stay. Her worries lifted as she drew a steady, heaving breath and without so much as a sound, she punctured the letter opener in to herself. Dear God. It is just a small farm on a body of French soil, she thought. There are towns beyond the sugar beet fields, and coypu’s bustling by the river. After a while, the stinging stopped. She was intoxicated by weightlessness, carried off by Bacchus and his pards. Marianne coughed as cherries burst under her shifting feet mixing with red vintage in the infertile Earth. A crime against nature had been committed.
The rest of the family were in Demeure at the time bearing Marianne no mind. In the living room John stared dimly out of the window into the middle of the farm. On top of the abandoned well the stone meerkats kept their vigil, but John perceived with a shock, after a moment, that the meerkat being embraced was not of sound nature but appeared ill or deceased. John squinted for better focus. The other meerkat seemed in mourning. They had a stoic presence about them, and their eyes were gazing with a peculiar intensity in the direction of the river behind La Rose. Briefly lost in their trance, a deep chord struck within John which felt almost palpable. Maybe he could even sense its meaning was probably comparable to those statues and the commotion downstairs which was brought to everyone’s attention by Rosie, who had found a dead fledgling on the inside of the windowsill.
“I think it’s a sparrow,” said Rosie with an air of concern.
Elizabeth replied matter-of-factly.
“C’est la vie.”
Follow Thomas on Instagram at @TomJGorst. Click here to read Part One.