Fiction (April 2018)

Midnight Ride by Sally Spedding

Saturday, September 30th 2017 The Aude. France.

The Mas Roland’s vendage was complete. Its dusky, black Grenache grapes all gathered in, despite the encroachments of an unexpected number of wild boar who’d dug up most of the oldest vines’ roots, planted by their owner, Giraud Roland himself twenty years ago.

The multitude of empty Vittel plastic water bottles he’d personally placed near the dry, grey soil, hadn’t repelled them, but nevertheless the ageing viticulteur could rest content. His yield, thanks to the efforts of the good folk of St. Chamas, keen to add to their meagre earnings as fruit sellers or burger flippers in nearby Limoux, was a pleasant surprise.

But what puzzled twenty-eight year-old Irène Lougon, teacher at the local École Primaire, was why the Book of Condolence had been left outside José Sanchez’s modest, terraced house in the Rue des Prêtres for only one day. Bad weather couldn’t be blamed, for the whole of September had been blessed with cloudless skies. A sudden spurt in the ripening.

José had been one of the best, most reliable of workers. A dark-skinned, hard-muscled man driven to provide enough for his wife and two young children. Whatever it took. Because he was the sole earner in one of the most beautiful but impoverished corners of France. His old Ford truck had been re-sprayed green so many times, but at the end of each vendage, rust had always been the winner.

And now he was dead. A frightened boar had lunged at him from behind the last row of unpicked vines as he’d dragged his latest load towards the truck. His heart ruptured by one determined horn. His raging screams were followed by a shocked silence once the black, snorting beast had fled.

“Revenge,” his eight year-old son Enzo had mysteriously muttered to Irène on his first day back at school after the packed funeral in the large, old church. The service had been attended by those from surrounding villages in the Aude. Men, mostly, who’d played rugby with and against José Sanchez. Men who also made it their business to keep those destructive, four-legged scavengers at bay.

“You should be proud of your father,” she admitted in barely a whisper, after class when most of the other children had gone home. “He tried his best to save the vines for everyone’s benefit.”

Indeed, since the Millennium, José had shot more boars than anyone else, and an engraved brass plaque in his honour still hangs in the Mairie’s foyer. But not everyone celebrated this achievement. Irène knew several younger people who’d moved into the historic little village in recent years. Étrangers from Holland and Britain who felt that wild boar, like foxes and elephants, had as much right to life as humans. Particularly the sows with their cute-looking piglets.

“He deserved it, I’m afraid,” said Astrid de Vries, originally from Haarlem and mother to a sullen little girl who, despite everyone’s best efforts, struggled with her new language; different in too many ways from Dutch. “I believe in Karma,” the former secretary then opined. “What goes around, comes around. Like a fairground ride, I suppose.”

Others too, shared this sentiment, and even before the funeral there’d been a peaceful anti-boar hunt protest – but a protest nevertheless – in the village square dominated by its outsize, verdigris-bronze soldier. A rifle strapped to his back.

This bad feeling escalated, thanks to the less than impartial reporting of the event in L’’Express, while sales of the sweet, fruity, Mas Roland rosé began slipping. Not noticeably at first, but by Christmas when most people stocked up from the Domaine’s three outlets for the festivities, the figures dropped to an all-time low. Giraud Roland had then asked the schoolchildren to design an exciting new label, while a local printers agreed to waive their fee. Meanwhile, despite Irène’s best efforts at mediation, Enzo and his sister found themselves ignored by their friends. Their thin, young mother, Mariette, forced to drive further afield for shopping.

The perception that the Mas Roland hectares were stained with innocent blood, had gathered yet more strength. “Like the Somme,” one parent said, refusing to let his child even pick up a crayon or paintbrush to begin a design. “Barbaric,” said another, and by the first months of a cold New Year, José Sanchez had even become known as ‘Le Barbare.’ His grave stripped of a framed photograph of himself driving his truck laden not with the grape harvest, but their dead pilferers. Also gone from his slab were                 several resin sculptures of this same enemy. Talk was that he’d supplemented his income by supplying restaurants in Carcassonne and Castlenaudary with fresh boar meat for their patés, confits, casseroles and grills. Whispers too, he had secretly become rich, with plans to buy a new villa nearby.

*

Friday March 23rd 2018.

“We’re leaving,” announces young Enzo Sanchez to Irène just before the start of the week’s Easter holiday. He’s finishing his detailed plasticine model of a Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur, with only its teeth still to insert. He’d been inspired by her recent class trip to the Musée des Dinosaurs in Esperaza where he’d filled a small notebook with skilled drawings. “Maman’s unhappy,” he adds, “and Lise still isn’t better.”

Indeed, his nine year-old sister has recently been seen by fishermen near the River Aude, just sitting there as if in a trance. But Mariette hasn’t come to school to discuss the problem, and as for Irène, with a boisterous class of thirty children, there are never enough hours in the day to investigate…

She tells Enzo she’s sorry to hear all this and asks if perhaps she might call round to their house. He immediately stiffens and purses his lips. Sets down his modelling tool. Clearly uncomfortable at the prospect.

“Of course, I’d have to clear it with our Directrice first,” she perseveres, recalling how, during an Assembly in February, this formidable, middle-aged female had lost her temper, shouting how it was a pity Monsieur Sanchez hadn’t shot some of the school’s worst troublemakers as well.

This had gone unreported. She was after all, wife of the department’s Examining Magistrate. Well connected in all the right places and where vacant teaching posts were few and far between, her six staff not only kept their lips sealed, but ordered their charges to do the same.

“Non,” says Enzo finally and firmly. “Maman just wants to settle the rent and slip away.”

“May I ask where to?”

“No-one’s to know.”

“You can tell me.”

“I can’t.”

Enzo abandons his creation in favour of reading about Tautavel, some thirty kilometres away. Home to Europe’s first hominids. But his eyes soon lose their focus and he sits until sleep makes his head droop down and connect with his desk. His book to fall to the floor.

*

After school, having installed the dinosaur’s teeth to the best of her ability, and planning to hand the creature over to Enzo on her way home, Irène stops her aged 2CV at the end of the narrow Rue des Prêtres. Carefully carrying a shoe box containing the model, she walks into the stiff wind until number 9 comes into view at the top of a slope down towards the church.

She hears dogs barking from somewhere, then sounds of a different commotion borne towards her by what is now a restless Tramontane wind disturbing dust, old leaves and bird droppings gathered in doorways. Her grey dress feels too thin. The spring sun too strong in her eyes…

Merde…”

She steadies the box between her hands, aware of a new silver Peugeot parked close to the Sanchez’s house. Its roof rack bulked out with baggage not quite covered by bed sheets and tied with string. Irène breaks into a jog towards it and is just in time to see Mariette Sanchez dragging a loudly protesting Enzo outside and into the back of the car.

The slam of its door sounds like gunshot. Then Mariette spots her. A look of fear on her face. Her weight loss even more noticeable, with bones jutting from beneath her ribbed top and fashionably-torn jeans.

“Bonjour,” Irène greets her, immediately realising she’s made a mistake.

“Piss off. Call yourself a teacher? My Lise would be up and about like a normal kid if you’d kept your eyes open.”

For a moment, Irène sees madness in her eyes.

“Because of you, she… ”

“Madame Sanchez, I assure you, it wasn’t my fault, I was nowhere near her when that football apparently hit her head in the playground. Besides, I heard it hardly touched her, and the Board of Governors confirmed the same.”

“You were there on duty,” Mariette interrupts with a snarl. “And that’s good enough for me. Now she gets migraines. Nightmares…”

“Such as?”

Irène moves closer, step by step, to risk giving the other woman the hug she so clearly needs. To see Enzo one last time and hand over his finished dinosaur now a dead weight in her hands. She notices how the adjoining garage whose door lies open, is dark and empty where his father’s truck had once stood. Gone for scrap soon after he died, she’d heard.

“Tell her, Maman!” Enzo yells from the car. “Please. Because you won’t tell Doctor Varaigne!”

In that moment, Irène manages to reach his passenger side door and pass him the shoe box. She can smell the hatchback’s new leather. Her message on top of the box reads,   

Bonne chance, Enzo. Garde-toi bien. Irène.          

At this, the boy wipes a small, none-too clean hand across his moist, brown eyes. “Go on, Maman. It might help us all.” His tone then changes. “If you don’t, then I will.”

*

His mother turns away and slinks indoors; her long, greasy hair moulded it seems, to her skinny shoulders. Within seconds, she emerges with her daughter, frail as a fairy. Her lighter brown eyes huge. Wary. Tousled curls crudely cut, pinned back behind her ears.

“It’s Papa,” admits Enzo. “We all hear him, but especially, Lise.”

“What do you mean? He speaks to her?”

“I wish,” sighs Mariette, relenting; positioning the girl in the front passenger seat and strapping her in. Her tone no longer confrontational. “This is far worse. If you must know, it’s Hell.”

She slams the Peugeot’s door shut, ignoring the neighbours’ curious stares from further up the street as she describes the nightly, thundering din of wheels and the clattering of iron on iron drawing nearer then receding. Only to start up again…

Mariette faces Irène. Real suffering in those weary eyes. “No-one else seems to have heard it, and I’m frightened of us being labelled ‘weird’ or on drugs or worse.”

“So you recognise this noise?”

“Of course. It’s his old truck. And,” she adds, having taken a breath, “there’s also the strong smell of blood…”

“Blood?”

With trembling fingers Mariette checks her shoulder bag and locks both the front door and that of the garage. Pockets the keys as if she’ll soon be handing them over.

“Stinking, it is not human, either. I can tell. I trained as a nurse.”

Irène passes her a small card she’s had specially made for her new homeopathy business which she hopes might one day might lead to her giving up teaching. Around its border are cheerful images of health-giving plants and herbs.

“If ever you need to talk some more, just get in touch,” she says, and aware of Enzo staring up at her, is rewarded by the briefest glimmer of a smile.

“Thank you. I will.”

*

Filled with a growing unease, Irène returns home to her small apartment in the Impasse

Jean Moulin, but instead of focusing on marking the usual pile of tests that typify the end of each term or sorting out those few orders she’s been sent for anti-depression caplets, she turns on the TV to watch the re-run of a Wallender episode.

However, its bleak, snowy scenes, never mind the troubled, grizzled cop himself, only adds to her sombre mood. Nor is she hungry. Not with worrying how Mariette and her little family are getting on, wherever they’re going.

So, at eight o’clock she decides on an early night. Tomorrow will be hectic enough, what with an electrician coming in the morning to fix her bedroom lights. Also, her newly-single mother threatening to invade for lunch and to regale her with lurid details of her latest boyfriend.

*

Since a child, Irène has herself experienced powerful dreams that seem to last until morning, but this one is even more so. In it, she sees Enzo as clear as day, dressed in Les Bleus football strip. His heroes…

It’s summer, with the sun high in a perfect sky, and he’s standing in the middle of the Mas Roland’s full, green vineyards, furiously beckoning her as if he’s found something important. She’d once discovered a thin, nearly black Napoleonic coin; a crumpled love letter; a torn page from a book of Baudelaire’s poems, but this seems altogether different.

She’s forgotten to dress, and once outside amongst the vivid foliage, senses the bliss of a deep, golden warmth against her nakedness. The gentle brush of vine leaves and their bulbous grapes against her legs, her thighs, her sex, as she progresses as if magnetized, towards the boy and his eager smile…

“Irène?” he calls out, even more keenly. Not in the least embarrassed. “Hurry!”

“I’m coming…”

Faster, Irène! Irène… Irène…

And she tries, but not for long, because suddenly, everything has changed. That dream vanished, and that sunshine become a cold darkness. Instead of being in the blissful vineyards, she’s standing shivering in front of her apartment block, in its bleak, unlit street with the church bells striking midnight. A full moon lurks overhead, while a vicious, northerly wind lashes her bare body from head to toe. But before she can turn away to protect her modesty and locate the building’s main door, there comes a growling noise drawing closer and closer from behind her.

Hélas!

This is no dream…

She shuts her eyes against those blinding headlights and when she opens them, glimpses the same aggressive radiator and bull bar on that patched-up green truck she’s seen so many times before, accompanied by the vicious clanking and rattling of loose parts as it hurtles towards her. Too late she realises this apparently driverless monster isn’t out of control. She’s the target and it’s seeking her out…

‘You should be proud of your father… He tried his best to save the vines for everyone’s benefit.’

She’d said the wrong thing…

“Help! Help!” she screams as a colossal weight smashes her bones, her everything, then violently skews sideways with a loud screech before disappearing up the street..

*

Stench and delirium had shrouded those last terrible things she’d seen. The driver’s black, grinning snout. His two sharp horns. The cargo of pitiless, blank eyes on hers, pointed teeth glinting in the moonlight, while from somewhere close by, had come the distinct sound of a young boy’s victorious laughter.

*

LINDÉPENDANT

Thursday March 29th 2018.

  1.    CHAMAS FAMILY TRAGEDY.

Just two days after the unexplained and violent death of 28 year-old Irène Lougon – a well-respected local primary school teacher outside her apartment in St.Chamas – the bodies of widow Mariette Sanchez, 33, and her daughter Lise, 9, have been recovered from their car  in the Canal du Midi near the Port Lauragais Service Station, south of Toulouse. So far, there’s been no sighting of 8 year-old Enzo Sanchez, her brother, although a broken plasticine model of a dinosaur was found yesterday in a wood near Bram. Its discovery remains a mystery. Both children were pupils of Mlle. Lougon.

Chief forensic pathologist Dr. Olivier Bernard states that the new silver Peugeot 208 hatchback’s distinctive tyre tracks leading from the nearby road and over the bank directly next to the canal, prove the recently bereaved mother had deliberately driven into it. Also, both the deceased, still wearing seat belts and locked inside, had made no attempt to free themselves and would have perished soon after submersion. Inevitably, too, according to Dr. Bernard, the overloaded roof rack had caused the vehicle to immediately sink upon entry. Dr. Charles Varaigne, the family’s doctor, has so far declined to comment.

Police meanwhile, are urgently appealing for any witnesses. Also for news of 65 year-old Giraud Roland, long-time owner of the Mas Roland vineyard, who failed to return home on Sunday evening.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Spedding was born near Porthcawl, Wales. She trained in sculpture at Manchester and at St Martin’s, London. Her work was in demand, but her conviction grew that words could deliver more than narrative sculpture or painting. Her poetry and short stories have won awards and have been widely published. She is currently putting together her first poetry collection, Sacrifice, which will be published early next year. She is also busy writing her fourth book in her Delphine Rougier noir crime series. Strong familial connections with the Pyrenees, Germany and Holland have provided her with themes of loss and exclusion. She is married to the painter Jeffrey Spedding and they have a house in the Pyrenees where most of her work and  (she says) her dreaming is done.  

www.sallyspedding.com