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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
and Jura French for cheese factory.