AUGUST THE FIFTEENTH
He finally decided to put on the navy blue suit, the one with the thin white stripe. True it was a little worn around the collar, but it was more elegant or at least, less clerical. Nathalie, if she were there, would be less put off by it. Besides, the other one, the traditional dark grey, though not quite so threadbare, would be much too hot on a day like this. No tie either, just the white shirt open at the neck. Why not? After all it was the summer, and beneath his surplice it wouldn't show during Mass. If he was invited back to lunch like last year, it would look much better.
Not many people would turn up for Mass. Last year, for the "quinze aout", the Day of the Assumption, they had only been six. There could hardly be much of a change a year later. There had not been a death in the parish for four years now, not since Armand died - not that he had ever come to Mass - but there had been no births either. And no births spelt no baptisms. Except for little Nathalie of course, but she didn't really count. She wasn't from the village. That young Swiss couple were out having breakfast on their balcony as he passed. Late risers. Honeymooners perhaps. They smiled. He smiled. Geneva number plate. Protestants. They wouldn't be coming. He glanced at the aging "En vente" notice on the farmhouse next door. When had it been put on the market? Must be a good year and a half now since old Petitjean had had his stroke down at the sawmill and was taken into care. The children couldn't afford to keep up a rambling place like that, so far from anywhere. They were never going to come back from the town and live here.
He passed on, taking his time now up the steep slope. He noticed that even so on most mornings he was out of breath. And with this August heat, if he wasn't careful he would arrive at the gate covered in sweat. He slowed his pace even further. Well that was nice! Beside the "Honey Honig Miel" sign propped against the window, Michele Mangeot had hooked up the notice "en cas d'absence demander a cote". So she would be at church too. That might make six, if old Pascal was still able to walk that far.
As he crossed the road by the Cafe des Tilleuls he called out a "Bonjour!" to Emile sweeping the steps, and from inside came the clink of empty bottles, as Marcelle cleared away from the night before. Smells of fresh cow dung hung in the already sultry morning air. Before Armand died and Madeleine had sold off the fruitiere, the milk from his brother's farm had gone down to the valley below. Now, his nephews sent the milk to the yoghurt-processing plant fifty kilometres away and for much less per litre. They were finding it hard going to eek a living out of it. Would they give up too?
He went on up, keeping to the right-hand side of the lane, glad of the shade of the great limes. He stooped to open the little gate and walked into the churchyard. As he did so, he heard the familiar old white Peugeot swing off the main road and crunch to a halt under the trees.
He turned and waved to the smart lady at the wheel. She replied with a brisk nod of her yellow straw hat. Funny that even he should think of her as elderly now, but he supposed it was so. Those wrinkles as she smiled. Something a little frail about her. And yes, the grandchildren were there! Little Nathalie bobbing up and down in the back seat, Jean-Philippe in the front. How happy she must be to have them with her! How old would Jean-Philippe be by now, thirteen was it, or fourteen? Yes, she'd shown him his communion photos. And Anne-Marie was at least thirty-five. So that made her? He laughed to himself. Why did he ever bother with all these calculations?
He walked around to the right, following as usual the little path that circled the apse, until he came to the plain slab of polished black marble on the far side. It gleamed up at him in the sun. He stood before it and crossed himself with slow deliberate gestures. It was unlike any of the tombstones in the graveyard. He had had the names of his parents inscribed in bright gold letters, but on the side, out of sight. No headstone, no plastic flowers either, no fussy remembrance plaques. He had not wanted that, preferring just the simple heavy iron cross laid the length of it and under the weight of which he too would one day lie. He always liked to come here before saying Mass, to spend a few quiet moments with them.
It was his mother who had wanted so much that he go away to school. Father had been more hesitant. "Why send the boy off, when he is happy here in the village? And what about Madeleine?" he said, to which she would sigh impatiently and reply "Can't you see he's bright? What sort of a life is there here for him? Making cheese? Milking cows? Besides, he's not like his brothers. He's a bookworm."
So they sent him away, the autumn after his communion solonnelle. He was just thirteen. Madeleine had wept the day he went. They had not been apart since their first day at primary school. She had been bright too, and oh so much more meticulous than he had. Later, they had gone to catechism together, and on Thursday afternoons she would come round half an hour before, and lovingly complete his unfinished drawings of the saints, check his school books and correct his spelling mistakes. Between them, they were top of the class.
Whenever he came back home from boarding school, they met, but the simplicity of their friendship had been destroyed. They were awkward teenagers and had suddenly little to say to each other. Then Father Jerome had asked him, in his final year at school, if he didn't by any chance feel he had a vocation. His mother was delighted. Secretly, he knew that she had always hoped for that, one of her boys in the Church. Father, as usual, had been sceptical. "It's not a life, young man," he said. "Don't you go listening to your mother, now. A man is a man after all." But it was wartime and money for the studies he loved was hard to come by. He went to the seminary.
It was only on the day she announced to him she was marrying Armand that he knew he had made a mistake. He applied to do missionary work, spent seventeen years in Latin America, high up in the Andes among the Quechua Indians, but the altitude broke his health. They sent him back to France and when old Father Roussot died, he was given his home parish. He returned to his native Jura and to his family house, his father already dead, his aging mother grateful to have her son back for the last few years of her life.
The village had lost over half its population during his absence and the parish had been extended to include the valley church as well. So Madeleine came up to take communion on his very first Sunday, and, as he placed the wafer in her hands, instead of lowering her eyes as they all did, she looked straight at him, a look of silent welcome.
She never missed a Mass after that. Then one day she said, "Why don't you come down and see Armand and Anne-Marie at the fruitiere?"
And he did. When he went down to his other church in Chevry le Bas he would pop in and watch Madeleine and Armand at work making the massive Comte cheeses. They seemed to form a good partnership: she, always fresh and smiling at the counter, selling the cheeses and keeping the accounts; he doing all the work of pumping, swilling, weighing down the cheeses with those heavy iron clamps. Each to his task. He needed her only at those crucial moments when they would plunge their arms into the hot yellow liquid and draw up the heavy mass of dripping curds.
Armand was always polite to him in those days, offering his wrist to shake as workmen do, but it went no further than that. Neither of them had forgotten the old hatreds. Armand pushing Francois down in a corner of the playground and tickling him mercilessly, bending over him, laughing at him, while Francois begged him to stop. The dreaded breaktimes! And he clinging to Mademoiselle Cholet. But the bully always waited patiently for a moment to catch him unprotected.
It was four years now since he had set foot in the far corner of the churchyard. Not since he had buried him. And in spite of all his subsequent efforts at prayer, he could not suppress that feeling that Armand was watching him from over there, inside his double vault, taunting him still: "I may have gone before her, Francois, but she is only on loan. She is still mine. Remember that. Soon she will be here with me again."
He made his way back between the graves, returning the way he had come, keeping the solid bulk of the church between him and Armand, till he reached the western door. Inside the porch, he grasped the rope and tolled the bell. It rang out, dull yet persistent, over the tombs of his parents and of Armand in the sunlit graveyard, through the empty village of Chevry le Haut, down the valley to Chevry le Bas. It echoed through the abandoned farmhouses and rusting sawmills, past the Swiss couple still eating their late breakfast and the Cafe des Tilleuls where two young boys were now playing pinball, and Emile leant on his broom, watching out hopefully for the day's first tourists. But he knew it would bring no more faithful. The few who were coming were already seated, patiently waiting for him to finish paying his respects to the dead.
After Mass, he found the three of them standing in the porch. Little Nathalie reached up to give him a kiss and tugged at his wrinkled hand.
"You will be coming back to lunch with us, won't you?" said Madeleine. And as he got into the car beside her, she reached across, the broad edge of her lemony straw hat brushing softly against his face, and grasped his arm excitedly, "I've got such good news for you, Francois. I shall be bringing you' another grandchild to baptise in the spring. Anne-Marie is expecting again."
fruitiere- Swiss and Jura French for cheese factory.