France. The château country inside it. The château itself inside the country, and Aim”e and us inside the château. Five non-students, in a non-school, run by a non-teacher with no qualifications at all, bar one, and that unmentionable. I haven’t been back there in my mind, not into the two inner chambers anyway, for more years than I care to remember.
There was a time when I could think of nowhere else, live nowhere else, no matter where my body happened to be living. But then, in self-protection I suppose, a curtain came down and all this time since I haven’t cared, or dared, to shift it. Now that I finally risk a peep behind the folds, however, the first and almost only thing I see is grey – a wash of grey. Or greys, to be more precise, for there are many of them.
There is the warm mouse-belly grey of the château walls for a start, shading into yellow where the lichen blooms, topped by the harsh slatey grey of the tiles on the roof, much darker, much colder, bluer, barely separable from the backdrop of pewter autumn sky. Then there’s the wishy-washy lavender colour of the many, many shutters, all silently crying out for a good coat of paint; and the window-boxes, ditto; and the cement basin of the empty goldfish pond, closer to brown in the sludgy part; and the near-black wrought-iron railings with the asphalt of the road behind. Along which the cars pass so close they all but whisk the courtesy title of “château” away with them, leaving just that of “house” or “road-house”. It’s hard to think of any upwardly mobile family building their dwelling on this spot unless they went in for highway robbery. The garden is grey too – a dusty platinum hay-grey, legacy of a long dry summer and a lazy gardener who has let things rip. And so is the cat: a dingy pearl. La vie en gris, Tante Aimée, la vie en gris.
Goodness, it was difficult to call her aunt. We all found it so, even our first French teacher, Marie-Louise, who was in fact her niece. (By marriage, of course, not by blood, certainly not.) “Madame” sufficed for the first day or two, while she still stood bedecked, maypole-like, with a few ragged streamers of authority, but they peeled off so fast – came away in our hands with so little tugging – that after the last one fell it seemed natural to pass straight on to “Aimée” and the second person singular. Oui, Madame, Non, Madame, ‘sais pas, Aimée, fiche-moi la paix.
And yet we didn’t use this intimate form of address. Why not? Simple. For the same reason we didn’t stray far from the château, or neglect our lessons, or invite men in without Aimée’s knowledge, or commit any other gross infraction of the rules: because her laxity terrified us. Far more than her severity would have done. We were in her hands entirely, five seventeen-year-olds in a foreign country, in a remote spot, in a partially derelict house with a wonky telephone and a whimsical power supply – it behoved us at least to pretend that her hands were strong and capable. Even when they were on the wheel of her perilous Peugeot and we in the passenger seats, being bowled along at breakneck speed to visit some other derelict château in some other equally godforsaken spot. Even when we were feverish and the hands were intent on immersing us willy-nilly into an ice-cold bath. (To make the body react, mes enfants. And jeepers, it did.) Even when it was night-time and Brassens was growling away on the gramophone, and the hands touching us weren’t hers at all but belonged to ”
How fast I do go. How fast it all passes in front of me now – a derailed roller coaster tearing by and plunging, plunging, plunging. Where was I? Ah, yes, with the greys, stay with the greys. Well, Aimée’s wispy unruly hair was grey too, in defiance of the henna mud-packs she applied to it constantly, so there’s another nuance to add to the rest (although strictly speaking the very same nuance is there already in the dusty opalescence of the cat’s fur). And the Peugeot was grey, battleship shade, and when she drove it she nearly always wore a baggy greeny-grey cardigan with the sleeves thrown round her neck to ward off her most hated enemies, the courants d”air.
My memory’s eye searches vainly for colour – perhaps it is frightened of finding it. But anyway, for the moment it finds none, so it can relax: it is the late fifties and it is Existentialist time in France, even for us bumpkin Brits. Christopher, our only male, wears drainpipe jeans and a long black fisherman’s jersey. Day in, day out. He’s practically an albino, so his hair, though bright, scarcely counts as colour. We four girls wear long black fisherman’s jerseys too, and black high-heeled shoes and stockings, with barely a hyphen of skirt in between. And as for make-up, if we can’t find sufficiently pallid lipstick and foundation in the local Prisunic we caulk ourselves over with acne-eraser instead. You look pale, mes petits lapins, Aimée wails at us at mealtimes and plies us for some reason with radishes – maybe economy, or maybe in the hope their skin tint will migrate to ours.
Radishes are red, yes, radishes are red. The dread colour seeping in at last. And so, at a very different place on the spectrum, is Matty’s hair. Mad Matty, batty Matty, our rich Colombian reject, tossed from school to school across the continents like a hot jet-set potato. And so is the Virginia creeper on the wall outside, and so are Marie-Louise’s cheeks: crimson red and lobster red, respectively. Stop here. Marie-Louise is highly religious, related in some way to a well-known Jesuit philosopher: she will have no truck with dangerous Left Bank effluvia. Deaf to our pleas for Sartre and Camus, at reading time she sticks stolidly to Claudel, P”guy and the odd chapter from Le Grand Meaulnes thrown in as a sop. Someone has told us this last is a must for all self-respecting rebels, but in Marie-Louise’s rendering we can’t think why.
How can she stomach the atmosphere, this upright young woman in our morally teetering midst? Cynical Christopher, me, Matty, the live-wire Serena and languid Tessa (whose names would have fitted so much better had they been switched) – the five of us presided over by Aimée, the most unstable element of all? Well, she can’t, she won’t, not for long. Even if the true name of the game eludes her, the Gitanes we all puff on round the clock will eventually choke her out.
Yes, because the inside of the château is grey too, I was forgetting that. Apart from the fact that the shutters are nearly always closed – Aimée typically shuns the glare – a fog of cigarette smoke obscures the furnishings in virtually every room, bathrooms included, constantly swirling and constantly replenished. We smoke like dogs in kennels scratch: from boredom, frustration and pent-up energy we no longer feel we have. I share a bedroom with Tessa and the first thing I see every morning is her beautifully manicured hand – she is fanatical about her hands, they are the only thing she’s really prepared to work on – reaching out from under the covers for her lighter and packet of weeds. Rasp, gasp, grunt; Don’t look so disapproving, Viola: gotta have a drag to get me started. And then in goes the hand again and up go the covers. So the bedlinen is pretty grey too – from ash and frequent washing.
That’s quite enough about colours for the time being, I reckon. What about sounds? Hmmm. Sounds are less problematic. We didn’t agree on sounds, as far as I remember, except for Brassens, and you can’t have Brassens on the turntable all day, no matter how Existentialist you are: he sears you, burns you out. So as regards sounds I have a medley of Strauss waltzes and Chopin polonaises and Dvoř”k and Presley and Fats Domino in my ears, with Brassens as a kind of ritornello theme, cropping up in between. Anything else there may have been – voices, birdsong, even the belling of the stags in the forest – is for the moment drowned out by the music, because that was the way it was: music, music, records, records, noise to cover silence.
What do we do all day? We don’t. We lounge, we smoke, we yawn, we smoke, we stuff ourselves with chocolate from the nearby chocolate factory and smoke again till our mouths fur. We flick through our copy books, drawing little pin-figures on the corners pf the pages, trying to portray them in wicked activities. Is this what our parents have sent us here for? If not, then for what? I managed to get out of my convent by making my father laugh: I told him over the telephone in a dramatic voice that life was passing me by. He has countered my move, sly chess-player that he is, by sending me here, where not only is life passing me by but it’s passing by unperceived – there is no trace of it here; you can’t even feel the air displaced by its passage. All is still. Through the smoke we stare listlessly at the things that surround us: dusty bookshelves, balding Aubusson carpet, battered Louis XVI chairs. It would surprise none of us, I think, if, sitting on one of them, we were to come across a figure in powdered wig and panniers. Caught in a time-warp like we ourselves are, passed by completely – by life, by death, by everything.
Prelude to the Dance
It strikes me now that this diet of lethargy Aimée fed us at the beginning may have been part of her strategy, although, with her vagueness and almost total subscription to laissez-faire in most areas, it is hard to think of her as having a strategy. More likely it was just the dictates of the social season: her – what shall I call them? Neighbours? Cronies? Clients? Accomplices? – all being away in Paris till the strains of the huntsman’s horn brought them back. Still. Following on the heels of boredom, fear may not only be welcomed, it may actually pass unrecognised for what it is. Something, after all, is happening at last; something breaks in on the scene and your dormant senses tingle at the prospect. What is it? No way of telling, but it’s alive and beckoning so let’s go with it.
There was only one foretaste of something spicier on our curriculum, or only one sufficiently strong for me to notice, and that was a curious evening, sometime in our second or maybe third week there, when Matty turned up with a pick-up, a young officer she and Christopher had met on the road to Tours. One of the bikes they had been riding had had a puncture, and this guy – I don’t remember his name, Aimée just called him dismissively le p”tit militaire – had stopped, either immediately taken with Matty or else halted by the traffic light of her hair, and had escorted them both back to the château in his car with their bikes roped to the roof.
He was a little swarthy spotty fellow but he snapped his heels together and kissed Aimée’s hand, proffering a surname with a ‘de” in it, and I think this was what earned him his entr”e and his invitation to dinner and the rest. Serena and I notched up a couple of pick-ups too, a little later on, on a shopping expedition: two wondrously beautiful employees of the chocolate factory who you’d think would have suited Aimée’s books far better, but, no, the moment she saw them she chased them away like a bulldog – English, not French – and then turned an isolated flare of rage on us. How dare we behave so brazenly? How dare we bring such people into her house? It was a question of caste, you see, and that was a lesson: one of the few canonical ones she ever imparted and one of the very few that stuck. It’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with.
But Matty’s militaire, no, he passed muster all right on the strength of a hand-kiss and a syllable. Smarmy little twerp. During dinner nothing particular happened, not that I remember, anyway. Did Aimée seat him to her privileged right? I think she did. I think she chatted mainly to him too, quite a lot, quite graciously; maybe it came as a relief to have someone to talk to, Marie-Louise being such a dead weight, and we being so impeded in our French. I seem to have a picture of her in my mind’s archive, smiling at her unlovely guest and grating nutmeg over his plate of Brussels sprouts. At last, someone who shared her tastes. Filling him up with wine, too, pampering him, making him feel at ease.
Did I catch her looking at Matty? No, I didn’t. No, she didn’t look at Matty, hardly at all. I looked at Matty. I know this for sure because I remember noticing how pleased with herself she looked – at having made this conquest, and having the conquest so unexpectedly approved. She was as sleek and wriggly as a retriever that’s brought back a pheasant. Or, let’s say, a stoat. And I remember how this fact amazed me and shamed me, because, I mean, Matty – OK, she was foreign and had failed her O levels and had to wax her arms, but there was something attractive about her all the same. The bell of red hair was stunning, for one, and her eyelashes were Disney-long, and, oh, various things, various things she had going for her. Not least her fortune. Whereas the militaire had nothing. Except acne, and a hideous uniform that made you itch just to look at it, and teeth coated in tartar (visible, I swear, from my place on the other side of the table), and that miserable rag of a prefix. And yet here was Matty wriggling, and here was Aimée smiling, and here was a bottle of wine going round instead of the usual carafe, and here were Marie-Louise’s cheeks turning to fuchsia, and Mme Goujon, who did the cooking, swanning in with an emergency pudding when ordinarily we never had puddings, except at weekends. It was embarrassing, it was uncomfortable, it was humiliating. It was downright wrong.
The stage direction of the latter half of the evening – if there was any on Aimée’s part, and you can bet there was – was finely done. Afterwards I tried to piece together how it was that the rest of us went to bed so early, leaving Matty and her prize alone together in the salon, but everyone was vague about their reasons, myself included. Was it connivance? Was it disgust? Or did Aimée somehow manage to make us feel it was the right thing for us to do – just to slope off and leave them to it? Somehow, none of us could say. Marie-Louise complained of a headache, that I do remember, and was the first to go. A real headache or a diplomatic headache? No telling. But the others? Which of us left last? And who second last? Or did we all go pretty well together? And where was Aimée and why didn’t she stop us? No one said goodnight to her – that came later. So? Where was she? And why were the shutters not shut, when the gardener latched them up every evening like a prison warder, punctually, at half past five, and they were never open that wide anyway? Why? Or had they been shut and had someone then opened them later?
It was Serena who called us, Tessa and myself; we were asleep already. And it was Christopher who had called Serena. But who called Christopher? No one, according to him: he just heard noises and went to investigate. First inside, and then, in a moment of great inspiration, out. But who made the noises? The snoggers themselves, or Aimée, or someone else, and if so, who?
It was quite an eyeful. With the three sets of French windows ablaze with light, and the sofa placed parallel to the bookcase at the back of the room, the scene was like the stage of a theatre at which we had a private box. A programme of Feydeau with a pinch of porn. We crept across the gravel in our pyjamas, already clutching our stomachs with giggles and excitement – there was no one else around then, I’m sure (unless you count the cat, Aimée’s familiar, which was sitting in front of the furthest window, licking its loathsome paws) – and settled ourselves in the shadows on either side of the first window, just outside the trapezoid of light. Serena had mimed the scene for us already, to put us in the party mood: You must see this, she implored as she dragged us protesting from our slumbers. You have to see it. Oh my God, oh my God, it’s so incredible, and she’s got her period too.
It wasn’t incredible, that wasn’t the right word at all, but it was riveting, mesmerising entertainment, impossible to forgo. On the sofa, on his back, lay the soldier, his itchy jacket discarded, his shirt rucked up to armhole level, his trousers down to knee, revealing a white cotton vest and underpants, separated in their turn by an interesting gap of pallid, slightly freckly flesh. We could only see a sectional side view of him because on top, closing him like a sandwich filling between her and the cushions, lay Matty.
I say, lay, but her position was more of a crouch. I had no idea at the time that real-life sex was so ungainly. That was part of the fascination, I think: the sheer absurdity, both of the act and the performers. It was what held us there, what permitted us to go on watching. Had the spectacle been pretty, we would have been ashamed because our prurience would have had no cover, but as it was we could go on gaping and giggling ad libitum. (And ad nauseam, because it caused a mixture of both.)
Matty’s bum was perched much higher than the rest of her body, taking on a kind of airborne, independent look. Stealing the show, as far as we were concerned. The militaire was working on it, blind, with his visible hand, trying to negotiate a whole interconnected web of obstacles which reformed and regrouped the moment he got past one of them. He would pull aside the knickers, for example, managing to lay bare a buttock, and as he did so the girdle surmounting the other buttock would snap back into place. So then he’d lock furiously with the girdle, while the knickers would recover their lost territory. And as if these weren’t fronts enough to cover, there was also Matty’s skirt to contend with, which kept on coming loose from its rolled-up position at her waist and slithering down over the field of operations like a safety curtain; plus the lining, which did much the same; plus a layer of petticoat, also proving troublesome, being silk; plus the sturdiest obstacle of all: the last-ditch bulwark of her sanitary pad wedged into the crack of her rump. Kapok in those days, and thick cotton net, and anchored firmly in place like a storm-mooring by hooks and loops and a tight elastic belt.
I stole a quick glance at Christopher, embarrassed more on my own account than Matty’s by this revelation. Men shouldn’t be let in on such things. If she wasn’t careful the bloodstained side might show any minute. The militaire didn’t matter so much because he couldn’t actually see the thing, only feel it, but Christopher could. I don’t know how Matty could have managed otherwise, given that Tampax was out for us Catholics, but I felt it was a gross betrayal of our sex to flaunt this intimate object in the air, uncaring, like a mandrill its blue stripes.
As if to prove me right, Christopher grimaced back at me and gave a delighted shudder. Aren’t they awful? he whispered. Isn’t it awful?
It was. And yet it wasn’t. We lingered. We looked and went on looking. I hadn’t even bothered to put on my dressing gown and the night air was making my teeth chatter, but I couldn’t afford to go and fetch it for fear of what I might miss.
There were heavings going on now. Matty’s face was red from the rubbings of the militaire’s stubble, and her backside was as high as a puppy’s when it invites another dog to play. The obstacles seemed to have been overcome, most of them, and it was her hand that was constituting the last. Her hand against the militaire’s hand, her strength against his. Fascinating.
Group sex, even if it’s only vicarious like this was, binds tighter than a lynching. I felt a great sense of closeness to my co-spies all of a sudden. I couldn’t communicate this to either Tessa or Serena by touch because of the window between us, but I laid my head on Christopher’s shoulder and he put half his jacket round me to warm me, and together we smiled fondly at the other two, who smiled just as fondly back. Moment of weird tenderness before the giggles took hold again.
It might have been then, I think, that I saw the other figure, standing by the far window where the cat had been, gazing into the room just as we were, feeding on the same spectacle. Or maybe it was a few minutes later, when an owl hooted in the forest, and we all jumped and looked around in fright. Anyway, I was the one who saw it first, and recognised it first, and the only one who realised what it was up to.
Because, at my horrified whisper of, Aimée! It’s Aimée, don’t you see? the other three lost their heads entirely. Instead of hearing a cautious call for their attention they took it as an outright warning. Or, worse, as a signal we’d been caught – in the act of watching the act. Christopher, with one of his gawky, crane-like movements, raised his arms in the air, causing the loose half of the jacket to flap free like a wing, and let out a kind of Indian war cry – Wooo, oooh, oooh! – before totally succumbing to laughter. Serena said, Fuck, under her breath but stood her ground, not laughing at all; Tessa fled, leaving a Cinderella slipper on the gravel; and I just blushed over my entire skin surface; I wasn’t quite sure why or for whom.
There were rapid cover-up movements inside the room at this point, but I didn’t follow them: I was too intent on watching Aimée – trying to read from her expression, as she drew closer, how long she’d been there and whether she was surprised to see us or had known about our presence all along. She too was in her night attire but had had the forethought to don a dressing gown. It was a shabby tartan wool dressing gown, mannish in cut, and underneath you could see the collar of a heavy flannel nightshirt. (Maybe these garments had belonged to her dead husband, maybe she wore them in remembrance?) Her hair, wispier than ever, had been unwound from the knot she usually wore it in by day, and dangled over her shoulder in a loose, thin plait, like a frayed bell-rope. She cut such a forlorn figure, walking towards us, flicking her fingers and smiling slightly – not scolding at all, just shooing us away – that instead of fearing her or despising her, I felt intensely sad on her account.
Allez! Allez dormir! she called out to us softly. We were her good little rabbits, she was not angry with us at all, only with the naughty Matilda and the soldier, and she would deal with them in a moment as they deserved. Matilda was her first South American charge: she would think twice before taking on another one. Hot blood, she added, more softly still, and the smile broadened and took on a mischievous twist at one corner, Hot blood. Little English bunnies were tout autre chose. Off with us now, little English bunnies, leave the culprits to her. Goodnight and sweet dreams.
I’m not sure about my compatriot bunnies – we discussed these matters less and less often the grubbier our collective conscience became – but for me, yes, the events of that evening rang in my ears like a prelude, and a puzzling, disquieting one at that. You know the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni? Those hellish opening bars that are swept away so soon you hardly remember hearing them, but which linger with you all the same, affecting all the other music, darkening the gay bits, weighing down the light? Well, that was more or less the effect that that night had on me: it tinged all the normal days that followed with a streak of the bizarre. My mind soon mislaid the cause – it had no knowledge, really, to fix it to: I doubt voyeur was in my lexicon yet, let alone voyeuse, let alone respectable middle-aged voyeuse responsible for my education – but the effect remained.
Boredom returned, innocence (of a rather studied kind) returned: we went back to our fatuous lessons, put on an Anouilh play, pruned Aimée’s fruit trees for her and lit a bonfire with the prunings, round which we danced like children, and then stood, with glowing cheeks, roasting chestnuts in the punctured lid of a biscuit tin, presenting an image of wholesomeness that we were the first to try to believe in.
On peut offrir un marron, Tante Aimée?
She smiled and stayed with us and guzzled a whole handful. She liked us in this girl-guide mode. That other evening might never have happened; Matty’s trespasses might never have been.
We went on visits to some celebrated châteaux, in a different league from ours. Most of them – and it was practically all we were told about them, certainly all we retained – beginning with a C. At another, a non-C, which had some link with Diane de Poitiers (famous frog tart, so Christopher dismissed her), we sat through a freezing Son et Lumi’re. We read, we smoked ourselves to haddock-point, we fiddled with translations set us by Marie-Louise, doing a bit each so as to spread the load. Tessa trimmed her cuticles tirelessly, Serena made herself a circular skirt under the supervision of Mme Goujon and flounced around in it like an osprey in a cage. Matty penned lovesick messages to the militaire in his barracks. Christopher jived alone. And all the while I could feel, as Aimée did behind the wheel of her car, this insidious courant d”air, blowing changes our way. Something was riding on it, something new, something different. Trick or treat, impossible to tell.
©2005 by A. P. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.