‘This is what I love about France!’ she said. I grunted in response. ‘C’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?’
‘I think I left it here 20 years ago’.
Looking up, I saw the kind of blue that you try to describe when someone asks you what the weather was like on your favourite holiday. Deep, almost unreal. Photoshopped. There were a couple of white clouds losing their battle for sky dominance with the sun. It was morning and the thermometer was already hitting 30.
‘Is there any way I can convince you to get a taxi?’ I asked.
We were in what was laughingly called a coach station in a functional hub town in the south of France. We’d walked over the bridge and up the hill on the way out of town, following the signs for gare routière. It was to be found, almost literally, behind a row of pointless looking shops, all white-washed and all closed. It was, after all, not even 10. No-one to ask when the bus was due.
It was exactly as my mind’s eye recalled from when I’d been here in 1992. Dusty, neglected and information-free.
‘Oh stop whining,’ she said, ‘this was your idea, after all.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘but I thought this time it would be, you know, less studenty. More comfortable.’ I pondered a moment. ‘Odd how this place hasn’t changed in 20 years.’
‘How come?’ She placed her case against a wall and sat down with her back resting on it. She kept her legs straight and placed her hands heavily on her skirt, preventing the light breeze from revealing her modesty. Not that anyone was around to see. Or help.
‘This place, how would describe it?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Pretend you’re the narrator in the story. Describe what you can see. Please?’
She shrugged her shoulders and placed her hands heavy on her lap. ‘It’s a bit dusty. Maybe neglected. It’s not dirty, as far as I can see. No bags of rubbish or anything. No information available. No real sign it’s a bus station.’
This was my fortieth birthday present. I’d always talked to her about when I came here as a student, but I’d never been back. Admittedly, my birthday was 4 months ago, but we’d decided, or rather she’d decided, we should go in July. Guarantee the weather.
I’d come here as a geology student on an extended field-trip. We’d stayed with a family who barely spoke English, and my French was, and still is, appalling. Good job my friend and fellow traveller was fluent. He did all the talking, I order the beer.
‘This is exactly how I remember it,’ I went on. ‘Nothing has changed. No worse or no better than when I was here with Steve.’
‘Rose tinted?’ she asked.
‘Maybe…’ I picked up a stone and hurled it at the wall.
I’d never been to France before I’d come here. I’d not been much of a traveller. Still not. The village we were heading to, however, had gotten under my skin. I had felt at home. Comfortable. No reason I could put a finger on. Everything was good: the weather, the food, my studies, the people I met and some I’d kept in touch with. Unfortunately, those I had wrote letters too and more recently, emailed, no longer lived in this part of France. David said he would try to visit on Saturday, but he couldn’t get much time off work.
So we were staying at the village’s gîte. Other than camping, it was the only place to stay within 10 miles. And there was no way I was camping, even if there was no rain the forecast. She had agreed. She’d stayed in various gîtes before we met, so she was quite excited. This one was all mod cons, which was what I’d hoped for. I wasn’t looking for classic rustic French farmhouse. I remembered well the cafe attached to the accommodation, as we’d eaten there every day for 6 weeks. A few tables outside in the shade and a few indoors too. Nothing fancy. Great food though.
It was lunchtime and after unpacking, we headed down to the patio for salad and wine. The owners were different, so didn’t know me. They spoke no English, but we managed to communicate well enough.
While waiting for the food, she asked me to tell her more about my time here.
‘I remember it was hot. One day, it was over 40 so I spent most of the time wandering between springs, trying to keep hydrated. I was very fit by the end of my time here. We – Steve and I – started early each day so we could get back before it got too hot. Seven-ish. We tended to be back here by 3 for a beer or two. We usually had an afternoon nap or played cards with David, Nicole and the other kids. After the first week, the village was overrun with them. Kids on summer holidays staying with Gran and Grandad.’ I paused to sip my wine. She looked at me attentively, enjoying being able to relax. I continued; ‘In the evenings, we ate, talked and drank wine. Played more cards. We planned our careers and how we’d come back every year. I was going to catch rocks flung from volcanoes and Steve wanted to build dams. Don’t ask me why.’
She cut in, ‘When did you see him last?’
‘Can’t remember. A year or two before we met. I hear from Dan he’s a deputy head these days.’
The owner appeared with lunch and our talk turned small.
We spent the next few days cycling around the hills and mountains surrounding the village. The owners of the gîte had bikes to hire. ‘I wish we’d hired a car!’ I’d said half way up mountain yesterday morning. It had been another day when the temperature had hit 30 before noon. I was showing her some of my favourite memories. ‘A car couldn’t get to where we’re going,’ she argued. ‘Or where we’ve been.’ She moaned at me for not being more of a sport and complained I was too used to sitting at a desk all day.
It was breakfast time. I was having an omelette, she was having cereal. The juice had been in fruit which had been on a tree just yesterday.
‘Any thoughts on today?’ I asked.
‘No. Your lead.’
‘Do you fancy a walk?’ I recalled there was a small abandoned chapel near a cave across a meadow and over a river. Bikes and cars were out of the question. ‘We could pack a picnic?’ She agreed that it sounded like a plan.
‘Are you ok?’ I asked. She was very quiet this morning. Maybe a walk wouldn’t be the best idea.
‘Of course, I was just thinking.’ A moment passed. ‘You set out to be a scientist?’
‘A volcanologist, yes. You know this.’
‘But you work in an office. Editing books.’
‘Yes. On science,’ I pointed out, attempting to sound enthusiastic, waving my folk in the air. This was nothing new to her.
‘Sure, and that’s a great career. Hard to get into. But consider this…’ I knew where this was going. My shoulders slumped. ‘We wouldn’t be here now, would we?’
‘We wouldn’t have met, you mean?’
‘Oh, so you’d be here with someone else?’ Clouds were gathering.
‘No. Not necessarily. You know what I mean!’ Feeling flustered, I considered her point. I pushed my plate away, omelette unfinished. I didn’t have an answer.
The bridge was over a dried river bed near the base of a small mountain, or was it a big hill? It was only a few metres long, but arched steeply. A car couldn’t cross without all its wheels leaving the ground simultaneously. It had a ruined gateway on the west side with weathered plaque in the centre. A very elaborate and elegant construction for the middle of nowhere. ‘I think this was built around 1200, if my memory serves’. I was trying to remember what I’d learned all those years ago. We were standing on the highest point on the bridge, staring at where the water ought to be. ‘I wonder when water last flowed under here.’ She still wasn’t in the mood for serious conversation, but I wasn’t giving in. The gravel pass continued over the bridge and headed south. The mountain/hill rose steeply in front of us. ‘The chapel is a couple of minutes climb, carved into the side of a cave.’
I’d told her about my first visit as we hiked across the meadow earlier. I hadn’t known this place existed. It hadn’t been marked on my map. I’d come across it when I was looking for a particular outcrop which had a marker fossil. I forget which one, probably an ammonite, and I forget why I was looking for it. It would have been important at the time. I’d crossed the bridge almost 20 years ago to the day and started climbing. I hadn’t even noticed the chapel as I had my eyes firmly on the scree, looking for my evidence. I’d brought Nicole back the next day so she could tell me all about it. Apparently, these chapels were once common in this part of France. They were used as shelters for shepherds when the storms came. A little place to pray for the thunder to pass and for God to protect the flock. Most had been lost to history or fallen foul to landslides and cave-ins. This one had a little altar and a small snow-white alabaster statue of the Virgin Mary. I remembered I touched the rock carving and I remember it felt frictionless, as if not carved from calcium, but from warm, wet ice.
I’d come back a third time not long before my trip ended. I’d not found my marker fossil the first time, and was determined I wouldn’t fail. It was pretty much my last task to complete, which meant that I could have a few days off before we headed home. I’d asked Steve if he wanted to come with me, as he’d not come across one of these chapels, and he’d finished his project, but he said no. I think he wanted to spend the day with Nicole. There was definitely a romance blossoming. I wasn’t able to recall how it ended. The rest of the walk had been mostly silent. I’d listened to the birds and smelled the flowers and clean Alpine air. I was hoping she’d speak to me, but other than the occasional request for the water bottle and an estimation of arrival time, the conversation had died.
There was movement ahead of us. I could see the entrance to the cave, and the darkness hiding the opening to the chapel. I thought I saw someone’s back disappear into that darkness. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a familiar rucksack. ‘Come on,’ I suggested, scrambling upwards. ‘Give me a second,’ she said. I looked back over my shoulder in time to watch her sit down in a heap. She had been bitten a few times during our journey across the meadow, and I got a brief whiff of whatever chemical product she’d applied to her legs. ‘I don’t think I want to go in,’ she complained, ‘I want to go back’.
‘I don’t know, I just want us to go.’
I closed my eyes and held my breath. Letting it out, I said, ‘Ok. 2 minutes. Let me poke my head in. See if my memory has done it justice. Please?’
‘Fine,’ she replied, digging in her pack for more anti-bug cream. Purple thunder clouds were assembling to the north. They rarely came this far south in the summer, but it had been known.
I scrambled the rest of the way as quickly as I could manage. I wondered who else was visiting. I wondered if it was a young student with their life ahead of them.
I reached the entrance, and looked over my shoulder. She was looking at me with pleading eyes. I think she was sad. I walked up to the entrance, bent down and looked inside. A figure was crouched at the altar, caressing the alabaster figure. The air seemed thick, as if you could actually see it. There was an odd smell. Similar to ozone. It was too cold, even for the inside of a cave.
I recognised the gait of the person in the darkness. I recognised the rucksack. I hadn’t used it for 20 years, when it carried my dreams. I stepped inside, knowing she wouldn’t be there anymore.