Emily in the Attic
Emily clung desperately to the floor fearful that she would fall through the hole that she peered through. It could have been a chasm for all she knew, but it was merely a crack in the floor of the attic where she hid. Below her the halls of this Alsace chateau revealed to her the face of the man that she had feared for so long, but it did not match the man she now knew.
Steve certainly had his demons. He didn’t hide them particularly well. The night sweats and the nightmares that plagued him even in his waking hours attested to that. He roamed these ancient halls at night as if they were shrouded by the depths of a murky lake. How does a man conceal a recurring dream in which he drowns his wife and his young daughter? Especially when he is accused of their murder – a murder that drives him insane with grief and guilt.
Steve’s one remaining friend offers him the chance to get away from accusing eyes by becoming the caretaker and renovation overseer of a 120-year-old French chateau. The life here is spartan with only the occasional tradesmen to deal with and being far enough from the nearest Alsatian town of Marckolsheim his provisions are shipped in for him. Steve is left alone with his nightmares until a curiosity of French law, the requirement to open the doors of a listed property to all comers, leads Emily to his door. They are quite the opposites, yet they both find something about the other that draws them together and they are both drawn in by the chateau’s mysterious attic. They are unaware of its secrets and the fact that secluded there in the darkness is something that links the two of them across years of pain - although they have never actually met.
How do you dream?
She told me she doesn’t at all or not that she remembers, but her daughter was different. She often woke up with the most fantastic dreams at play still alive in her waking mind. Technicolour dreams with astounding clarity and details one often didn’t recall from a life actually lived and fritted by…
I dream the same way… with Technicolor fantasies that enrich my life as I attempt to fulfill each one – to experience all that I can, to be all that I am, and all that I can be. People often look at me sideways and wonder… I watch them pass by and ponder…
I’m too old for such dreams, supposedly, but is one ever too old to dream? I don’t think so, but tragically the euphoric dreams have ceased – and developed some weird metamorphosis where they are now ghoulish nightmares of realities I would rather not remember. Each one shocked back into existence through a swing door that opens up a ghastly room in my head full of nightmares… and so now I clean the lawn of imperfections, strand by hidden strand of imperfect blades designed to sting and slash minutely at their bare feet, but where’s the thanks? There’s only farce… got to keep the loonies off the grass…
* * *
This is Steve; he’s only a little bit disturbed, but then what is disturbed and what is normal? Normal is but the norm and what is the norm today may not be the norm tomorrow. It used to be the norm to rape and pillage, maim and plunder – it’s not so anymore, but it may be again one day and this might just help Steve… he likes to spell his name with a V instead of a PH. Apparently he had an uncle named Linzi who liked to spell his name with a Z instead of a SAY… they say it runs in the family, but only time will tell with these things sometimes and those who remember are often dead or awaiting an Andre Rieu concert… bloody loony if you ask me… keep him off the grass who knows what may come to pass…
* * *
Steve feels the breeze on his face, the cool and often bitter taste of the deepening autumn, but he relishes its liveliness as it encompasses his unremarkably clothed form. He is not tall, nor is he particularly short. He has no outstanding physical features such as Errol Flynn’s grin, Clark Gable’s knowing eyes or James Dean’s hair… he’s just ordinary and he never did get the pleasure of a good likeness from one of those many artistes below Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. That’s OK though, because he knows what he is and he makes his life less extraordinary by soaking in all that he sees and feels around him. He’s travelled widely, been to the Olympics, watched his team win a grand Final at the G, plotted an ultrasound of his own creation and sampled the foods and activities of a variety of countries. All that used to involve his Meg and his Emily, but they’re gone now and after 42 years he is alone… totally alone, but for all that is this maddening modern world that is all around him…
Today that includes the St Kilda park he roams purposelessly through; the two rows of ancient elms flank him grandly on either side, and an occasional dog greets him inquisitively with a sniff here and there below his knee. He flicks his hair back vaguely with a little help from the autumn breeze as he meanders along and he stretches his arms out from his sides with open hands to encapsulate the freedom he now feels… he has no one, he is not responsible for anything anymore… he is literally no one… as if he never was…
He is but a man; just another man among many engulfed by a city of four million; yet anonymity is not his friend as he wishes it to be. He is a man whose life could change in an instant with a mere sign from above or from somewhere beneath the emptiness within, but unfortunately he lost his religion long ago as he has lost so many things recently – another family trait… there are no antiques in his family. However, decisions have fallen his way of late and as such the breeze responds and delivers him a friend – a sign? Surely not. A coincidence? Probably, but as lifeless as he feels he is stunned by this equally lifeless friend, as into his open hand, floating lifelessly on the breeze and but one amongst many, a leaf – not yet skeletal and with a tinge of green amidst its rust - rests itself playfully flicking at his skin like the tongue of a playful puppy.
He could extinguish its failing life in an instant – it would typify his existence – or he could set it free to live its life as it chose amongst the thinning blades of grass, amidst its brothers piled neatly in the deep bluestone gutters or beneath the failing sun and the trunks of swaying lifeless looking trees…
Seemingly lifeless and lost amidst the blades, he knew that there was that odd chance this wasn’t coincidental and that there was more to this world for him to discover, so he decides to forge on… beyond the grass, beyond the imperfections, beyond what he can envisage for himself. Beyond his supposedly aging yet totally able form – perhaps this able body could inspire his lifeless mind, given an appropriate task, given the task to not give in despite there seeming to be nothing left…
He sets it free, and so he is seemingly free to wander aimlessly off the path and beyond onto the grass as the autumn rain begins to tumble down… got to keep the loonies on the path…
* * *
Standing in the rain the years wash by with each persistent drop. Pounding ones age another millimetre further into the mire beneath his feet as the spine compresses and the weight of the years hunches him over towards despair. The view through his lenses is blurred double as the tears well in his eyes. He is a lone figure beside a lake that disappears before him into the murky night – two muddy tyre tracks slowly filling up with rain – one on either side of him. Ahead the waves of the headlights shimmer eerily through the ripples beneath the lake.
“Must call for help… must dial…”
He punches in the numbers on his mobile phone… 0… 0… 0…
“What’s your emergency?”
“Car crash… they’re in the lake… I can’t see anyone… the car just drove in… over the edge… I couldn’t open the door…”
“Where are you, Sir?”
“The lake… in Reservoir… good place for a lake… Edwardes Lake… at the city end… the car came down Gilbert Road… There’s two in there, a woman and… and a girl… she’s so young… please hurry I’ll wait…”
Standing in the rain the years wash away with each persistent drop; washed into squirming nightmares that whirl dervishly between waking moments. Moments consumed by this moment as if there were no other and none to follow…
* * *
“Steve… the grass is good, Steve… time to go in.”
“No… it’s not right yet, I can still feel it beneath my feet. She can too, and her feet are so young, so soft.”
“Whose feet, Steve?”
“The girl, the little one there, dancing through the sprinkler on the lawn – can’t you see Emily play?”
“No, Steve. Water restrictions, mate – can’t use sprinklers like that anymore – they’ve bumped us up a stage… besides, she was in the car, Steve… beneath the water.”
“That’s right. Beneath the water. See how she loves the water…” and a tear rolled slowly from the corner of his eye across the twitch that hid itself poorly there. He didn’t notice it anymore, but he did notice the sprinkler as its water turned thick and black – its playful shimmer on Emily’s face ghosted grey in a deathly stare… a lone bubble slipping from her gaping mouth…
“What’s the PH level, Steve? Emily will no longer bloom, not like the algae in Edwardes Lake… there’s no PH of consequence here, Steve. Not for you – no PH… only v… v for victim…”
Who can say how long such visions hold on to you? Some say we hold on to them, reluctant to let go, happy with our grief – content in our guilt… others say it’s best to let go and be free… to live…
Have A Cigar
There are some images that are difficult to shake – images that float into your conscious mind at the most unexpected moments, between waking moments and dream time. Like a plane melting into a skyscraper, a Jezza circa 1970, or your baby’s first tentative steps to her overseas Godfather.
Some images just stick with you – like dog shit in the grooves of your favourite pair of shoes – and as Steve attempted to reconcile these he entered the once familiar atrium where he had wasted so many waking hours satisfying other people’s ambitions. Those seemingly loyal colleagues who so recently and so politically correctly abandoned him… Me is might – We is shite!!!
Nothing had changed here. It was still the same neo modern concrete construction he had been attending religiously for over fifteen years. Its soft lilac rendering protecting its hollow corporate shell, with its mock bronze cupid perched perilously above the pond that had been water restricted for years, neatly hedged with box and ushering all that aspired through its grand peaked glass atrium that no self serving air conditioning expert had been able to cool effectively in twenty years. Steve passed through the swoosh of the automatic glass doors with none of his former zeal, through the colonnade of encapsulated trees, passed the over-priced-ever-changing-hands café and into the heart of the building – the hall of the latent elevator… for never had there been a time when they had all operated simultaneously or a time when there was one actually awaiting his pleasure as he required it – too many sardines too few elevated cans… except now of course; the one time haste wasn’t a factor!
Steve travelled the sixteen floors with no company, no muzak and no diminishing aura that he was aware of. He alighted at one of the best views Melbourne could afford, not that he had ever really noticed it, and so he took a moment. West to south west was the view across the elm lined boulevard of St Kilda Road and beyond this the final fringe of the concrete jungle and then Albert Park Lake. He had jogged here every lunch time beneath the palms yet he had never noticed the close proximity of Port Phillip Bay and the distant You Yangs whose Giza-like peaks hung on the edge of the horizon somewhere beyond its distant edge. Thinking about the geography of it all as it panned out below him he realized that he was within walking distance of Fitzroy Street and the St Kilda foreshore with its great smirking fun park that sat silently mocking him now beside the Palais Theatre; that great art deco edifice, now a rock venue where he had watched awed at the Boomtown Rats when he was a teenager. He had missed so many bands since then and had he known or even been so less pre-occupied with the building where he now stood he was sure he wouldn’t have missed Sting while he stepped up to the mike, John Fogerty’s revival or perhaps even another Kiss comeback – let alone the many Chisel, Crawl or Crowdies concerts that had transpired there.
Steve sighed. He did a lot of that nowadays… was that the years or perhaps their mounting regrets? He wasn’t sure, so he turned and forced himself back through the great wooden doors of his former employer. What did he do here for all those years? That was an interesting question that a lot of people asked him. Project management was his usual answer! “What was that?” Most people asked. He found it difficult to answer satisfactorily then as he did now. He and his team had managed money, usually other people’s. He transferred it here and there in order to make more money. He did it well and his clients prospered, not that he had actually seen any of that money… money was a concept by which we measure our pain.3. Steve felt that now, although as always he never had any actual money in his own wallet, that genuine Italian leather device was filled with plastic! What a strange world we lived in, where a naturally slaughtered substance was filled with a man-made substance that spent another plastic substance that he now rarely touched – it was all so virtual… I’ll say it again!4.
Steve was greeted cordially by the next in a never ending line of replaceable receptionists who promptly invited him to a corner seat; plush and pale yellow with no back. He had never really contemplated how uncomfortable this was or how fortunate it was that most of his former business clientele dealt in internet transactions. While struggling with this he noticed how quickly the new receptionist was to pick up her headset once he was seated so as she could pass on the news of his arrival to her co-workers – and how little she tried to conceal this fact.
He wondered as he flicked through one of the provided magazines where all these receptionists go – what can one aspire to if one was a receptionist and why did they seem so unconcerned about having another job before they left the one they were in. He would rather suffer a bad job for a short time than have none at all, but then he didn’t have Mummy to crawl back to! The magazine bored him – more financial concepts! Yet, his team had provided it, and while he contemplated that he noticed that there was no clock in the reception area. He suddenly realized how clever that was… if one couldn’t tell the time, one couldn’t tell how much time they had wasted waiting, despite the fact that they had arrived here on time… as he had!
Eventually the moment arrived and Steve was paraded down between the partitions, between the whispers, between the accusing stares to his former employers’ office. There were some images one didn’t forget – and Steve wouldn’t forget this as he had never forgotten Mick’s very distinctive image…
Mick was a large man with a head that sat on his shoulders like a large squat gourd. He had no neck to speak of, but a large boisterous smile draped in a silver flecked full beard. He sat semi-reclined in his massively required leather chair with his hands together, perched perilously on his ample stomach – draped around as he was with the beautiful Albert Park view that Steve had so rarely noticed. Head down bum up was his motto and Mick loved this about Steve. Mick also loved his view, but he preferred 500cc to F1 and as such deliberately positioned his seat away from the much vaunted view that had cost him so much to acquire, not that money was an issue for him.
Mick was extremely likeable, but ever watchful. Playful, yet deadly serious. A man who had built himself up scratching and clawing the faces of those he stepped over. He was successful and extremely corporate, but he loved his former days and never shirked a chance to retell one of his adventures to an unsuspecting ear. Steve called them Mick’s Mad Moments – like the time in outback Central Australia, while setting up communications stations, his crew happened upon a town and being starved of opportunities they decided to partake in the most obvious that the locals provided. Now Mick was quite young and naïve at this stage of his life – and tequila was just another drink – or so he thought back then! Several tequilas later, with salt festering from the side of his mouth, he was totally pissed and promptly led with the rest of his crew around the back of the pub and upstairs to the local Madame. Mick thought this a great joke – imagine him up for a root and it wasn’t even his shout - all he wanted was a sandwich. The others were quite enjoying themselves horizontally until Mick staggered backwards through the upstairs door, over the balcony and onto the bonnet of the managers Ute. Mick was never a small man and he left a sizeable imprint of his face in that bonnet, which is not necessarily a desired piece of artwork – even in the outback. Needless to say, the rest of his crew missed out on their refreshments and Mick woke up in disgrace three days later. He was somewhere further out in the outback in the rear of the semi his crew used to travel in and he woke up wondering what had happened yesterday!
Mick wore such memories as a badge of honour on his ample chest – there was still more outback and scrap in him than most of his contemporaries realized, hence his constant ability to sideswipe a deal and usurp what wasn’t necessarily his.
“Conquest, divide and conquest some more – that’s how I got here, that’s how I stay here! Never give the bastards the slightest opportunity to get at you – and when you get a break throw it back in their faces as hard as you bloody well can. But that’s me, mate… you… well, it’s a perception thing, Steve. I’m glad you got off – we’re all glad… you should know that…”
It seemed that everybody was glad for Steve, but he didn’t know that… he knew better! Everything pointed to it being otherwise… even the window cleaners rig hung like a gallows from up here on the 16th floor! The vultures outside Mick’s door fidgeted restlessly in their work-spaces scratching for a chance to glance the noose being slung around Steve’s neck, but Mick flung an easier noose – one in which he could dispose of Steve without the rope burns and blood remaining on his hands. He could have put a silk cloth around Steve’s neck as they did for Saddam, but he wasn’t quite that concerned…
“So, Steve…” he continued, “How long’s it been, mate? Nearly twenty years? I always sort of thought you’d end up here in my chair… well, at least when I finished up.”
“But you’ve still got a few years in you, haven’t you Mick?”
“At least ten to fifteen… some’d say you get less for murder!”
Mick looked at Steve knowingly from under his bushy eyebrow as he leant over his desk. It was the first time he’d really looked at Steve since he had arrived for this painful garroting – Mick never really did have the guts despite his girth. He was all slick talk and slaps on the back, corporate football boxes, dinner and wine… it was no surprise his cheeks were constantly flushed with high blood pressure, despite his mirth and despite the fact that he secretly snacked on low GI lunches his wife prepared for his diabetes. He tapped thoughtfully on his large antique desk and made to slump back in his ample leather chair, but thought better of it. Instead, he got up slowly and stepped deliberately around to Steve’s side of the desk and perched himself on its edge…
“You know, Steve… we first met on the Continent…” Steve shot him a glance… “Alright, England – close enough. Tell you what… I’ve got a mate who could use someone like you… It’s not the same sort of responsibility – and nothing like the comfortable living you’re used to, but it’ll be a roof over your head…”
“I’ve got a roof, Mick!”
“Yeah, but this one’s in France – way out in the country… no Press, no angry fucking in-laws, no prying work colleagues – anonymity for a while.”
“Purgatory, you mean!”
“Well the Frogs there don’t speak too much English, but they do serve a good drop and I’m told the local cheese smells like shit but tastes like gold.”
Steve wondered what it was that gold tasted like for a moment, but then he figured if you had enough money to eat it; it would probably taste like anything you wanted it to.
“I dunno, Mick…”
“Come on, mate. You need to get away – I can’t help you here, you know that, but over there… a bit of manual labor. Organizing a project as you do so well – and a bit of digging into what’s left of the estate so we can make better use of it – for the parties involved. It’d be perfect for you!”
Mick reached over his desk and picked up a small wooden box. Opening it thoughtfully he handed it to Steve…
“You’re free now Steve, have a cigar… it’s not every day you beat a rap like that. It’s not every day you get offered the chance to hide yours… er, go to Alsace, and live in a broken down château. Of course you gotta fix it up while you sample its extensive wine cellar. How hard could it be? You like building things – I’ve seen your garage – who knows where you got the time! You built Em… you built a dolls house – it’s just the same, but on a slightly larger scale! I need a good man, Steve… I need a you!”
Steve envisaged a map of Europe. It was all so different from when he first took the pilgrimage there in his early twenties. Not so much an east-west thing as an EU thing these days. In his head he tracked the journeys he had made and they all emanated from London – it was all so facile. Buy a return trip ticket to London, find a job in an accountancy firm, save a lot and trip out to the furthest reaches of Europe accessible by train. Then come back and earn some more and repeat the dose. That’s how Mick’s firm found him and they were smart enough to hold on to him and invite him back each time he returned from an adventure. Adventures that became fewer as the months wore on until they were weekend jaunts to cottages in remote English villages. Eventually these too petered out into long nights of sponsored work that became a twenty year career joined together by celebratory pub visits and an eventual desk job in Melbourne behind a computer that flickered at his memory like the fluorescent lights above.
Those adventures seemed so far away, sleeping overnight under bus shelters in Baltic States that no longer existed, spending other nights on deck on cross Adriatic liners beneath a setting sun and reveling conga lines, and still more frightening nights in Spanish youth hostels whose showers resembled prisons where one slept tightly huddled to your valuables as you used them like a pillow. Communism wasn’t quite dead, Reagan was still threatening to push that big red button whilst believing he was off camera and Berlin was an obstacle beyond a wall and a fence. The capital of Germany was a little town that nobody now remembers, fare welled just like a dearest child leaving Tasmania for the mainland with a gentle shove – “That’s right Dear, off you go…”
“Thank-you, miss… sorry. Drifted a bit.”
“First time traveller then? Leaving loved ones behind?”
“No. I’ve no one, not any more, but I haven’t planned such a long trip before. No return.”
“Yes, it’s unusual not to have a return ticket – best you take your boarding pass or you won’t be going anywhere, Mr. Roberts.”
“Steve… it’s just Steve.”
“Yes, Mr. Roberts… boarding will be in an hour. Follow the corridor passed the shops and your gates on the left – have a pleasant flight.”
Learning To Fly
Steve walked on as instructed, but still tentatively. He wasn’t sure that his acceptance of Mick’s proposal was the wisest thing. He probably could have done with more independence, but then he really had no idea what he wanted to do or how he was going to do that. Mick had probably guessed this and as usual Steve was an easy pawn to sacrifice and distance suited Mick as much as it probably suited Steve. Besides, it was all a giveaway for Mick… Steve had to purchase his own ticket to Paris and he was yet to work out in his own mind how he was going to get to Alsace – it had been some time since he had braved the right hand side of the road and the left hand steering wheel of a car. All Mick had given him was a destination, a task and a promise of reimbursement from the owners of the establishment in vague increments sometime in the future… it didn’t seem like much, but it was more than he had at home.
On Steve walked, towards Singapore Airlines flight SQ228. Still in a dream… a hay fever haze, floating in a doldrums whilst fair winds sailed by just out of reach bearing strangers to far flung destinations via duty free perfumes and liquors, hi fi equipment, Ipods, and Game Boys. Each one of them chatting on mobile phones to loved ones left behind Customs’ imposing frosted glass doors, whilst leaving impatient children to duck and dive between the chocolates and the lollie bags – all duty free but none seemingly any cheaper than usual.
Outside the vast terminal windows tiny motorized aircraft pullers pulled their quarry as planes flew in and out of the runways interminably. Passengers filed in and out special needs and children first and hand luggage flitted through the extra scanners placed in the waiting lounges while Steve floated by to gate six and beyond to his economy class rear seat wedged in between a paranoid rabbi and a honeymoon couple.
Steve’s flight seemed just as hazy as Melbourne disappeared slowly beneath the windows and banked lazily out of sight amidst the clouds at a cruising speed of 912 km/h. He placed his headset on, reclined uncomfortably for the passenger behind and closed his eyes to the world he was leaving behind… “Our cruising altitude will be 32,900 feet and we should reach Singapore’s Changi Airport local time 21:00 hours.”
* * *
It was dark and the plane tossed Steve sideways onto the wife from the young married couple in the next seat. The groom was typically protective and wiping the tea off the brides arm with a fragile apology Steve jostled himself into the aisle and back towards the rear toilets. He wasn’t the only one unsteady on his feet, but he hadn’t developed the queasiness the other overflowing toilets seemed to be experiencing. His cold sweat came from deep within his own conscience, but he would have to hold onto that for a moment as well as his breath as he waited for and finally assumed a booth.
Alone in his toilet cell the seat belt lights flashed ominously and the vision that glared back at him through the mirror was equally as lop-sided. He fumbled with the tap until water splashed and swirled below him. He wondered if they had reached the equator yet and if the water was now swirling in the opposite direction as it filled the void before him and poured over the bonnet and onto the windscreen. The headlights shimmered eerily through the ripples beneath the murky waters and before him in the near distance things were decidedly blurred. His glasses were off, but through the water he could still make out a soft mauve arc of numbers from 0 to 220 in increments of 20. The plane jerked violently again and he could see his own eyes staring back at him in the rear vision mirror. Eyes that were focused and deliberate – angry… and he could hear a child screaming from behind him as the streetlights strobed above him and the image before him bent and shifted in a rainbow whilst she screamed at him from the passenger seat… and he hated her for that… and she would pay for her abuse… and he for his…
With a sudden desperate lurch he plunged his face beneath the icy cold waters again and they were gone, but this time he decided to stay with them…
“Are you all right in there, sir? It’s been a long time and the seat belt lights are on. This turbulence will only get worse before we arrive in Singapore. Please return to your seat.”
“Yes,” he gurgled through the taps water. “Yes, I’m sorry, not well, but I’ll be… out in a minute.”
Steve raised his head through the water to find himself back in the mirror, but there were no lights there to strobe or shimmer, just the incessant blinking of the seat belt warning light. His stubble was greyer at the chin than he remembered and the creases at the corners of his eyes more severe, but hey, forty was the new thirty and time had been mostly kind to his features until recently. He left the toilet and returned to his seat with the now familiar stares following him as he walked down the aisle. So much for anonymity! Perhaps not all of these people will be on the continuing flight out of Singapore to Paris – one could only hope.
Back in his seat the newly weds leaned in the opposite direction and the rabbi feigned a snore. That gave him time to reflect and gather himself while waving off the hostess who seemed genuinely concerned – at least if not for him then the other passengers that surrounded him. He pondered the face that had stared back at him through the mirror – he used to have such a perfect body… at least it seemed reasonably so. There were no extraneous hairs poking out at odd angles from earlobes and eyebrows and bare shoulders. There was no need to shave skin that hadn’t been shorn before – to wax areas only lovers’ hands felt, but no longer desired to feel anymore. There were no scars from jagged packing box staples or burns from steaming a Christmas pudding to a ninety-year-old family recipe… no surgeon’s gashes from key-hole explorations that galled you until you were doubled over with pain.
His body used to be like that new car you worked towards beyond your twenties… that luxury you once couldn’t justify that you now seemed indebted to… that phallic substitute in so many cases of a boyhood dream, so shiny and bright and green… until some bastard keyed the bonnet three years down the track… and it was still so pristine… And that’s the moment you cease to care; when it all gets too bloody much or becomes so banal and meaningless… so pointless in its preserve, so limited in its imperfections, so near to imminent wrinkles that age us irreversibly until one just doesn’t care anymore and floats out to sea…
Steve slapped himself across the face, ignoring the gasps of the couple next to him knowing that their honeymoon was in Singapore and that that wasn’t too far away. He had been locked away for long enough to know that these thoughts would get him nowhere and that what one is one has to live with unless one wants to take action… and he was doing that. It might amount to running away, but it did involve a project and what was he if not a project manager who surreptitiously liked to build – Mick knew him far too well.
If only he knew himself that well or trusted his own judgment!
Steve decided that for him there was to be only work and no play. No time to dream and remember and regret. No time for blame. In taking this approach his world suddenly seemed to catch up with everyone else. No longer did everyone seem to be travelling in fast motion compared to him, he was as they all were, hurrying to get somewhere or rushing to go nowhere in an obscene hurry.
On alighting in Paris he no longer felt inclined to dither. He hired a smallish car and braved the French traffic on the wrong side of the road. On reaching Laon for lunch, he found himself a fresh baguette and a spot on the lawn by the city walls without being inclined to measure the grass. Tired by mid-afternoon he napped by the side of a canal only to awake in the morning fresh enough to complete his journey to the north west corner of France in the valley beyond he Vosges Mountains where so many vines were grown and where much confusion reigned over the ownership of the land in a hereditary and historical sense!
He had no doubts – the mass of Alsace was definitely now on the French side, so as such it was France. No doubt there were German and Swiss influences in the buildings and the towns’ names, but a border was a border and one had to respect what one was confronted by as he had so many years ago when faced with the East German machine-gunned-manned fence.
Somewhere west of the Rhine there was a small village of no real consequence. It did have an historic nod to the Maginot Line, but the village was unremarkable compared to its neighbours who boasted fine mediaeval town walls, half timbered houses and ancient churches. Colmar even had an area that was called the Petite Venice of Alsace due to its fine canals and cobbled streets.
Steve’s destination was the village of Marckolsheim. It was not so remarkable and its most endearing feature was a modest century-old château just out of town passed the Maginot Line. This belonged to an Estate that wished it to be refurbished tastefully in view to create it as a bed and breakfast accommodation.
Steve knew within five minutes of arriving that this was going to be a tedious task. Beyond the tree line drive and its narrow gates a large lawn loomed before the chateau. In the middle was a neat rockery with flowers and a fountain that someone had taken some care about some time ago. On either side of the lawn there were tangles of ivy and forest and garden blended into one and that was the one task that was immediately obvious. He also found himself faced with four floors to renovate – the fourth so full of a history of junk that he could barely contemplate exploring it and yet he knew that was a part of the job – to salvage anything he could find and that included papers, furniture and bric-a-brac. He hadn’t even seen the back yard at this stage with its crumbling statues and ill-maintained fences… and then there was the pool!
Steve was greeted well however, the estate lawyer was very amenable and even spoke fluent English and that wasn’t guaranteed in these parts, although Steve was beginning to believe that the French lack of English and refusal to speak in English was an ancient myth. The more he attempted his lame French the more cordial the French seemed to be towards him in English. Of course he wasn’t actually English and this was probably a telling factor.
Steve was left on that first day with a well stocked pantry, a well stocked cellar (just as Mick had promised) and the promise that a weekly delivery would be provided for him at the Estates’ expense. The telephone numbers of the local builders, suppliers and tradesmen had been provided for him to haggle with and as such he found no immediate reason to leave the Estate. His seclusion was complete, his isolation guaranteed and his diary full by the end of the week with months of tasks to perform and oversee on this diamond in the rough – one crazy diamond reshaping another whilst reshaping himself… and summer passed by fine and barely noticed until the first chills of a northern autumn began to herald its onset…