Instead of a complete short story I’ve posted the opening of TROBAIRITZ – THE STORYTELLER.
(Paragraph spacing always looks different on a website post)
They call me Trobairitz. It’s an honour. It started as a tease but the joke grew into something else and now when they see me,
‘Here comes Trobairitz,’ they say. ‘What have you got for us tonight?’
We flash each other on the Autoroutes and when the other drivers see my customised cab they send me an exaggerated wave. Sometimes they gesture a sexual invitation. Sometimes I give them the finger in reply.
At the Routiers where we park for the night I make some effort with my appearance. They expect it now. It’s part of the performance. They want to see me as a woman, not as one of the lads. You’d think they would object to my presence: a female in a man’s world and at first they did. But I started telling them a story and they listened. I became Trobairitz.
I was on the A9 one October night just outside of Béziers with a load from Spain. I’d filled up at La Jonquera. Diesel was cheaper over the border as was just about everything else, including tobacco and the price of girls who solicit the lines of trucks in fuel queues.
While I was waiting my turn for the diesel pump a thin, black-haired, dark-eyed woman came up beside my cab. Her skirt revealed knees too old for that length and as she drew nearer I could see her face: haggard, lined, old enough to be the other girls’ mother. She called out to me, first in Spanish then in French.
‘You got time? You got money? What you like?’
I climbed down from the cab and pulled off my cap. Her body language left me in no doubt what she thought of me. She turned on her heels and made for a different line of trucks, swearing all the way. I know how to say shit in so many languages now you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got the full complement of European expletives. I don’t make a point of swearing regularly but you’ve got to admit there are times when nothing else will do.
‘Hey!’ I shouted after her. ‘I’m just doing my job. Same as you.’
But I was taking up the space of a prospective hot dinner. She’d wasted her time and lost her place in the other line. If she’d hung around I would have given her the price of a meal and saved her the trouble of earning it. Besides, there were things I would have liked to ask her.
I drove the short stretch from the border, cutting through the Pyrenees, following the coast around Argeles, thinking hard. Where do old whores go? When they quit, where do they go? What do they do? Does anybody know?
I pulled in at the Routiers near Béziers in time for dinner and made my night checks on the truck. I grabbed my things and used the showers. Put on a clean pair of jeans and went into the restaurant. The place looked full. Buzzing conversations and clattering cutlery. It’s a popular stopover for both North – South routes and East -West, but that night was my first time there.
I scanned the room: the regular set up. Serve yourself buffet bar; specials written up on a chalkboard. Wipe-clean tablecloths and bud vases with real sprigs of greenery on the tables. Fresh and clean. Lighting too bright. No greasy overalls allowed. I made my selection and spotted an empty table near the side entrance.
Three drivers were talking about La Jonquera. When I took my tray and sat down near to them they stopped.
‘Don’t mind me, fellas,’ I said. ‘Maybe if there’d been a cute hunk at the filling station, I’d have been tempted myself.’ One invited me to join them. He was the oldest of the group, tidy, stocky, grey short hair and old-fashioned polite. Told me his name was Raymond. He briefly introduced the other two. They didn’t look too pleased but he ignored them and started asking me the usual questions. Why would a woman be interested in long-distance haulage? What did I do before? Where did I come from?
I don’t answer that kind of question. I refuse to give personal details. They never ask outright about my age but I know they wonder. Why do they need to know I’m forty-two? I wear size 12 U.S. 14 UK. That translates to something like a 44 in European sizing but I don’t buy much here. Take one look at the petite average woman in this part of France and you can see why I get most of my stuff online. My hair is naturally curly, still dark brown. I wear it loose or stuffed under a baker-boy cap when I’m driving. I like Dire Straits and Rachmaninov. I speak French, English, Spanish and Italian. I play guitar and I’m teaching myself mandolin. I’m a passable Mezzo. I read everything and I’m blessed with a good memory. But I don’t tell truckers any of this. It’s nobody’s business but mine.
All I said in response to Raymond’s questions was ‘I like driving.’
Raymond got up to fill his water glass at the cooler. At the same time another driver came in from the parking bays to join the group. He looked freshly showered and he smelled of the garrigue heath, green and herby. His damp hair curled around his ears. Maybe a few years younger than me, his skin had a healthy outdoors glow. He filled his T-shirt very nicely. He greeted everybody except me and I know the reason for that. Drivers assume that any female present is somebody’s bit on the side, along for the ride. They wait to be introduced. He hurried through the handshakes and seemed anxious to tell them something.
‘Just parked next to a new Volvo FH16,’ he said, searching the other drivers’ faces for a reaction, ignoring me. ‘Classy, black livery. Somebody gone over to Trans-Angelus? Anybody we know? Who got lucky?’
‘That’ll be me,’ I said, keeping my eyes on my plate of faux filet.
You could taste the testosterone around the table. Without looking up I knew that hackles were raised, muscles clenched, jaws stiffened.
‘French trucks not good enough for you?’ the newcomer taunted.
Very slowly I put down my knife and fork and leaned back in my seat. Then I lifted my head to look him square in the eyes. Deep dark brown ones, I noted. I smiled.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Nice to meet you too.’ Kept the smile beaming bright, eyes and teeth like a chorus line showgirl.
He didn’t know where to go after that so he gave a little grunt and pulled up his chair. Raymond came back with his fresh glass of water. He greeted the fourth man.
‘Jimi, my friend,’ he said. ‘I thought we might see you tonight. Family okay? How’s the Renault?’
I couldn’t let that go, couldn’t miss out on this perfectly timed gift.
‘Renault Trucks,’ I said quietly, scratching the back of my neck and screwing up my eyes as if I’d only just remembered. ‘Bought out by Volvo in 2001.’
One of the others sniggered. I’d made my point. I don’t like to come across as a clever bitch but Jimi had asked for it.
But I like men. I really do. Wasn’t it Dorothy Parker who said there’s nothing quite so much fun as a man? And I’ve had my share of fun. I’m no angel. I just never saw the attraction of getting into that permanent couple thing.
Raymond, Jimi and the others were talking about past times, stopovers where they’d met before. I got up and helped myself to dessert from the buffet. When I came back to the table they were into discussing the Volvo FH16. I let them get on with it. Didn’t offer any information. Didn’t tell them about the 750hp, the benefits of a 16.1 litre engine or the extras in the Globetrotter cab.
Instead, I offered to buy drinks. I knew I needed to make some gesture; bragging about my I-pod interface, Bluetooth support or the 400w amplifier audio system and DVD player wasn’t going to endear me to them any further. They accepted my offer. I went to the bar and ordered a carafe of local red wine for two of us, and three beers for the others.
‘This won’t upset the alcolock, will it?’ Raymond joked, referring to the breath test starter control and the others laughed with him.
They continued talking routes and deliveries, other Routiers stopovers with good facilities, ones to avoid. I felt Jimi staring at me.
‘You don’t say much, do you?’ he said.
‘Only when I’ve got something to say. I’m a good listener though. Somebody has to be.’
He thought about that for a moment.
‘So, if you do so much listening, I bet you’ve some stories to tell.’
‘That’s right. I have.’
‘Go on, then.’
I tried to read his face to see if he was goading me again. I glanced at the others. They were all waiting for me to entertain them. I guessed they expected more haulage histories.
‘I have a story for you,’ I said, visualising the women at the filling station in La Jonquera and remembering what I’d been thinking on the way into France. ‘This is a story about women.’
One of the drivers grimaced.
‘And it’s a story about a village and the people who live there.’
Raymond waved an arm to stop Jimi interrupting.
‘But above all, it is a story about courage,’ I said, switching to formal French. ‘It is about the art of love and the power of jealousy, about tradition and its place in our world today. Did you hear about the trouble they had in Montalhan?’
‘Where?’ the same voice with the grimacing face.
‘Montalhan sans Vents. It’s just below the foothills of the Montagnes Noir.’
Raymond said, ‘You’ll have to excuse Laurent. He never had an education.’
‘No,’ one of the others said, ‘his father used to beat him round the head so he never had a brain worth educating.’ Laurent pulled a stupid face, a marginal improvement on the grimace.
‘It’s a small village,’ I said. ‘One of the old circulades. Built in the shape of a snail shell, you know? Where the houses spiral round the church on top of the hill? The surrounding foothills shelter it from the winds; that’s why they call it Montalhan sans Vents.’
Laurent shrugged and said, ‘There’s no place this side of Narbonne you can get away from the wind. Have you ever heard of this place, Raymond?’
Raymond stared him down.
I waited. We all took a drink. Shit, I thought, I’m making an idiot of myself.
‘Well, I’ve never heard of it,’ Laurent said again.
‘Of course you’ve never heard of it,’ Raymond said. ‘It’s fiction. You heard of that? Now shut up.’
I took another swig from my glass of wine. They were all watching me. Laurent was playing with that floppy lock of fair hair. The guy next to him was sitting in silence, perfectly still and upright in his seat. I couldn’t read his face. Raymond was wearing an encouraging smile. Jimi’s eyes were dark and intense.
I put down my glass and then leaned forward and stretched my arms across the table. One by one, I looked them in the eyes as if I were about to reveal a great secret.
‘Each morning, Madame Catherine Joubert steps out from behind her double gates into Avenue de la Paix. A right turn would take her up the hill, away from the village toward the cemetery and she often reflects that one day soon the black-draped stand bearing the book of condolences will be placed outside these very gates and the journey up that hill will be the last one her old bones will make. But not today. She turns left pulling a wheeled basket behind her. The air has cooled after an autumn storm; she wears a thick woollen skirt and scarf. Children are running with their backpacks to school. Catherine smiles at their morning faces and bright eyes but they’re in a hurry. They leap over puddles left by last night’s rain; they kick at leaves brought down from the plane trees by sudden, furious gusts. Children pay no attention to old ladies with wheeled baskets.
Catherine Joubert walks toward the Place de Paume at the village centre where tradespeople are sweeping and cleaning. The baker pulls out his shop front awning to check for damage. He opens his door wide to release the aroma of a fresh-baked batch of bread. The barkeeper is wiping down his chairs and tables outside. The grocer and his wife roll out metal shelves to fill with fruit and vegetables. The three men nod at each other and come together in the middle of the square to exchange the customary greeting. They sit outside the bar with coffee and pastis.
‘That was some storm last night,’ the grocer says. ‘It was as if the air got too thick to breathe.’
The baker says, ‘I knew it was coming. I could tell by the way the dough rose in the pans.’
The others laugh, not unkindly.
‘Here we go again,’ the barkeeper says, ‘our friend Hubert is going to magic up some weird tale he learned when he was a boy.’
‘It’s true,’ Hubert tells them. ‘It’s not a story. It happens sometimes. It’s like magic, but it happens.’
He recalls tales his grandfather passed to him, tricks of the trade, secrets of the artisan, how to read the dough.
A slim figure appears in his smart suit, with meticulously clipped hair and highly polished shoes. He strides from store to store greeting all the trades people whose establishments give out onto the square. A quick handshake here, a comforting arm there, he does his utmost to broadcast his message: your mayor cares about you. He wants you to see that he cares about you. He goes into the Tabac and speaks first to everybody in the queue. He nods and pats shoulders. His face is fixed with the smile of solace and the eyes of authority so that his parishioners will take note when he promises the proprietor that a street cleaning machine is on its way to clear away debris from the storm and remove the large puddle outside his door.
The mayor crosses to the hair salon and apologises for yesterday’s temporary loss of power. He flirts with the owner and her juniors. He compliments all her customers under their black towels and strips of metal foil and they are flattered by his deceptions. Such a handsome young mayor is our Monsieur Noilly, they must think.
Henri-Claude Noilly, twenty-eight years old and the third generation of Noilly mayors is the youngest of his clan ever to hold office. Since the untimely death of his father and guided by his grandfather, Henri-Claude takes upon himself the planning of the future of his community and any change to his village is a serious matter. Pride shines from his shoes and stiffens his gait as he marches around his village centre with his fashionable haircut held high above his determined chin and well-groomed face.
Hubert throws back his head and laughs.
‘I told you there was something in the air,’ he says. ‘That one should come into the square more often. He has enough hot air to make all my loaves rise!’
Catherine Joubert walks into the Place de Paume. She wears her hair in a folded pleat at the back of her head; one silver white tendril has escaped the holding pins and falls over her collar. She trails her wheeled basket behind her and has a strong stride in her stout shoes. She nods her head at the three tradesmen and they respond in kind. The mayor steps out from the hair salon into the Place where the men sit. Catherine immediately halts and puts one hand on her hip as she raises her head in Henri-Claude’s direction. A moment passes. She stands with her chin set, her feet firmly planted and her eyes fixed on Monsieur le Maire. Henri-Claude inclines his head, steps to the side and Catherine Joubert moves on.
‘Did you see that look on her face?’ the grocer says.
‘If looks could kill . . .’
Hubert shakes his head and says, ‘They have unfinished business, those two.’
They are young men these three: Hubert the baker, Gregory the bar keeper and Frédéric the grocer, but they have learned how to converse as elders. Sitting there outside the Café de France in their working aprons watching the beginning of the day, they talk like old men, respectable stalwarts of the community, family men with serious duties to perform, not least the safeguarding of the services they provide. For what is a village without its bakery, its bar, its épicerie? It is no more than a collection of houses without a life of its own, without a heart, without spirit.’
I had slipped into story telling as if I’d never stopped. I was the odd kid at school again. The chunky girl, the outsider, making up romances to fit in with the group. Kids who stand out as different have to find a way in. Some turn into jokers or earn their place by being good at sports. I invented stories peopled with film stars, singers. I entertained my class group at break times. We’d sit in the shade of a plane tree in the school yard and I’d weave the threads of my imagination. Film star and heart throb stories for the girls. For the boys there’d be haulage stories based on real events I’d heard from my uncle.
I picked up my glass again and took another drink. Silence around the table.
Shit, I thought. Maybe I should just leave.
‘You sound like a different person,’ Raymond said, laughing. ‘Where do you get all those voices from?’
‘People I meet.’
‘It would be pleasing to live in a place like that,’ he said. ‘In a small village. Away from city life. I can see myself joining the morning coffee and pastis ritual.’ He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. His eyes were smiling as if he were imagining the scene. ‘Nothing to do but watch the beginning of the day.’
Jimi stood up and offered to buy more drinks.
‘Our new friend has to be careful,’ Raymond told him. ‘Or her truck won’t start.’
‘Coffee will be fine, thank you,’ I said.
‘So, this old girl and the young mayor,’ Laurent said, the grimace gone now and with curiosity lighting his eyes. ‘Unfinished business sounds like trouble to me.’
His friend flicked at him.
‘That’s what she said. Haven’t you been listening?’
‘I just want to get it straight, that’s all. Hey, Didier, it’s a long time since I listened to a story.’ Laurent flicked back at the driver sitting beside him. They reminded me of the boys in that school yard all those years ago.
‘Don’t let me keep you, guys,’ I said. ‘I mean, if there’s other things you have to do.’
‘Nah. There’s nothing worth watching on the box,’ Laurent said. ‘And I’m not tired enough yet to sleep. You might as well carry on.’ He leaned back and rested his chin on his fist.
Jimi came back with coffee for me and more wine and beers for the others. He set them down on the table. I could feel his eyes on me but he didn’t say a word.
Raymond said, ‘So, go on then.’
Imagine you can see Catherine Joubert as she walks slowly back up the hill with bread from Hubert and cheese from Frédéric, the grocer in her basket. She doesn’t look at the cemetery ahead of her where the long dead are housed in lavish mausoleums under ornamented roofs, row upon row like troops prepared for battle. She looks at her watch: an expensive timepiece, a gift from long ago. Her eyes are deep and full of understanding. In such eyes as hers there is more than reflections of the past. Dimmed by time ghost pictures flit on the edge of her consciousness, always there yet not quite. She closes her mind to them but she has yet much knowledge to impart: a tale of love beyond most human understanding.
She steps through the gates of Demeure des Cèdres, the grandest house in Montalhan. The Demeure is near large as a palace though faded in its grandeur. Paintwork peels from louvered shutters. Tiles have shifted along the roof ridge and around the eyebrow windows. The garden to the front is well tended with flowering shrubs and blossom-covered trellises but at the side stands an overgrown orchard, thick with brambles, choked by suckers.
Inside there are many rooms. A sweeping staircase at the front climbs from a wide entrance hall tiled with chequered marble under an elegant crystal chandelier. There was a time when its pendants burned with bright candles reflecting in the looking glass. Its glamour now is dulled by dust, yellowed by the years.
If we could fly unseen, like spirits through the rooms, we might hear faint music, laughter in every corner. Motes of dust dance with us as we pass. They twirl a sad pirouette in the air then slowly fall. The music drops like petals from a faded bloom. Phantom laughter loses its breath. Perfume clinging to the drapes sours like wine left open to the air and sheds the last of its life into the flaking varnish of the window frame. Here in the pale present are the echoes of her colourful past, the shadows of the story yet to unfold.
Up the staircase now to the chambers, chilled and empty. Hard, cold floors and mattresses stripped bare and comfortless. Shades fly with us, whispering, calling. One voice is stronger than the others.
‘Catherine,’ it says. ‘My darling Catherine. You know I wish it were different.’ But his words are a meaningless echo. They crumble to dry ashes. Downstairs there are raised voices.
The woman has a visitor. He stands stiffly with his arms behind his back. A slim man with a precise haircut and his back too rigid.
‘I know why you are here,’ she says.
‘Madame Joubert,’ wheedling, condescending. ‘I beg you to reconsider.’
‘No’, she tells him. ‘I have decided.’
‘You are making a terrible mistake, Madame Joubert. As mayor of this community, I must tell you that it would be a crime to inflict such damage to this house.’
‘As mayor of this village I have the right, as well you know, to block your plans. I can refuse to give permission.’
‘As mayor of this village, Monsieur,’ she says, imitating his stance and staring him down, ‘you must always keep an eye to the future. When the new villa is built, there will be more taxe d’habitation for you to collect. A new family in the village to help support our tradesmen. What would future voters think, Monsieur le Maire, to learn that you had refused permission on so small a matter when you are intent on bringing in that filthy décharge to pollute our air and poison our children? I will tell you. They will think that you had personal reasons and they will want to know what those reasons were.’
The mayor shifts a little. He wipes his top lip.
‘The incinerator will bring in much needed revenue, Madame. All the villages will pay us for its use. They are very keen for it to go ahead.’
‘Of course they are! They will send us all their refuse so that we will have the dirt and the smell and the rats. Quality of life is not always about money, Monsieur Noilly. And I expect the proposed site will be well away from your own Domaine. I don’t think you can afford to make yourself so unpopular, do you?’
He coughs and ignores her question.
‘But this new villa will be overlooked,’ he says. ‘It will not fit in. It will spoil the appearance of the Demeure. Such a grand house, Madame. Such a grand house as this should be kept untouched, pristine.’
‘Henri-Claude,’ quietly she uses his name. ‘Sit, and I will tell you something.’
Monsieur le Maire wipes his forehead and grudgingly lowers himself into an armchair in Madame’s parlour.
‘You know, of course,’ she begins, ‘that I have lived here for many years. My own work in Paris earned me this property. I am old now, but I am not stupid. I know you have your eyes set on the house. I know the rules. When I am gone you will be given first refusal. I have no family to intervene. There are no children nor grandchildren to inherit.’
The mayor squirms and makes as if to speak but Madame Joubert glowers at him and he holds his tongue.
‘So you wish to have the house and grounds untouched. You talk to me with words like pristine. Go and speak with your grandfather, young man, and then come back and talk to me of untouched, pristine. You are aware, are you not, of my former relationship with your grandfather?’
Henri-Claude stands abruptly and turns away from her. He will not look at her. She speaks to his back.
‘Will he help me fix this roof? Will you help me pay for it to be mended? Where is the money to come from Henri-Claude? I will tell you. It will come from the sale of the plot of land and when the time comes that you are offered first refusal on the Demeure, you will have a house to consider instead of a ruin.’
He squares his shoulders and raises his chin at the mention of his grandfather. But Catherine sees the pride drip from his eyes. It dissolves in the heat of his anger. She senses the fear that conceived his sudden fury. He leaves then and she pours herself a drink. A lock of hair falls across her face and she brushes it away with an impatient flick of her wrist.
‘He is a fool,’ she says to the room. ‘And so is his grandfather.’
She sits and leans back in an armchair. A pin falls from her hair and then another as she relaxes her head against the upholstery. Roughly, she drags out the rest of the hairpins fastening and holding up the folded pleat of hair. Tearing at it, tossing her head from side to side, she pulls them all out and throws them across the room where they slide into a myriad places, lying like stricken insects against the tiles. She shouts at them; tells them they can stay where they are forever. Then she laughs, gets up and pours another drink.
Her silver hair hangs in snaking waves to her shoulders. Defiance glistens in her eyes, lines the set of her mouth. We can see her as she was in her heyday, when music played in the salon, when guests laughed in the corners, whispering secrets to one another.
Glasses chink with iced drinks. Happy voices tease and play. Exotic perfume mixes with the rich smell of tobacco as bodies sway to the music. She wears sheer black stockings with her high-heeled shoes and satin cocktail dresses in those days when her hair flamed and her eyes flashed. Many men had wanted her. Only the one with eyes as dark as ebony had won her heart.
She stares at the discarded hairpins on the floor.
‘Stupid woman,’ she says. ‘You know it hurts to bend.’
I stopped and looked at my watch. Laurent was the first one to speak.
‘Is that it?’ he said. He looked disappointed. ‘But it’s not finished.’ He rapped on the table with the end of his fingers. ‘I liked the bit about flying through the rooms like spirits. And what’s been going on with the grandfather and the old girl, eh?’
Raymond said, ‘So you have been listening.’
End of Chapter Two and end of sample.
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