FICTION (August 2018)
Squash Blossom Girl
by Sally Spedding
Saturday October 28 2017 6pm.
Thank you so much for my new jumper that you knitted for me. Blue for a boy. That’s very clever of you. Mireille said she’d collected it from the postman and taken the wrapping home with her. She also said there’d been no note, but perhaps you were tired. I’m wearing the jumper now, and will think of you every time I put it on. You mustn’t worry about my chest any more. It is so much better, and when Papa’s back from Paris, he’s taking me fishing on the Lac des Cygnes. You must remember it? The picnic we had there in June? All of us, before…
Twelve year-old Philippe Orneille suddenly stopped writing. The black cloud that covered his mind whenever he thought of Sylvie, his darling little sister, had crept up on him again, taking over, while outside his bedroom window, a sunset had suddenly turned the whole sky red and orange as if on fire. In the distance beyond what had once been his late grandfather’s estate, a string of racehorses slowed from their gallop. Sweat rising from their coats.
He laid down his special pen – weighted a little, but not too much – by Tintin’s head at the top end, closed his pad and drew the curtains tight together because when the blackness came, he didn’t want it to go.
“Philippe? Are you there?”
“Your little friends are waiting. Their feed’s all ready.”
Mireille, the young housekeeper, from downstairs.
He checked the watch Papa had bought him just after the accident last June. It had a round, blue face that matched his jumper, giving not only the time but the date and temperature. Eighteen degrees.
Mireille was right. The eight beautiful Marans Cuckoo hens – all named after dead relatives – would indeed be waiting by their special fox-proof gate, scratching around, sending up impatient puffs of dust as they did so. Thérèse for his late aunt, always the first, then Celeste, a beloved grandmother, and Pauline who’d so lovingly looked after her…
Philippe folded the letter and slid it inside the front cover of his school text book – a slightly battered copy of Gallileo Gallilei due to be handed back on Monday. That is, if he felt like going in. Last week he’d been bullied by his once-best friend, who’d tried stealing his watch, so no wonder he wasn’t up for more of the same.
Having closed his bedroom door, he stepped out on to the wide, balustraded landing where the full-on sunset powered through its single, arched window turning every wall and the array of Orneille family portraits a bright orange. In fact, so bright and intense was it, that he almost missed the top step on the stairs.
“Philippe?” called Mireille again.
She stared at him. “Are you OK?”
The dark-haired girl thrust the brown plastic bowl into his hands, filled as it was every day, with dry scraps from the kitchen. Cold pasta, stale baguette slices torn into pieces, wrecked cheese biscuits and odd bits of hard cake. She was in a hurry, he could tell. Eyeliner and lipstick already in place for her usual Saturday night on the town. But this time there was something almost furtive about the way she slipped away leaving a trail of her ‘Poison’ perfume behind her.
Of course. Papa had ordered her to stay in because he’d be back late from visiting his favourite auction house on the Champs Elysées who were holding a sale of rare American Indian masks. He’d hoped to buy one to start a collection. So what was he, Philippe, to do? Mireille was nineteen and he seven years younger. A world apart, and she’d laugh in his face if he begged her to stay. She’d call him a ‘Mummy’s Boy,’ like most of his class at school, even though Maman was almost sixty kilometers away.
His black cloud had lifted. He saw the pale brown hens all lit up in the sunset’s eerie glow. Their eager, yellow eyes fixed on his every move. Still and silent until his hand was on the latch of their fox-proof gate. There was something wrong with that huge, dying sun. When he squeezed his eyes shut, he felt as hot as if he were standing on Venus, and it wasn’t only because of Maman’s jumper, a size too small and the wool too thick. He pulled his arms free of its clinging sleeves and tore the wretched thing over his head, gasping for air as he did so. Just like last summer, when he’d gone underwater in the Lac des Cygnes and had felt close to death.
“Shut the fuck up!” he yelled to the hens, standing on his feet, making a din. “Fucking wait! Or else.”
He then saw Mireille, thankfully out of earshot, teetering on the highest of high heels as if towards her little car. A white Peugeot 106 with a Euro Disney sticker on the back. Since Papa had said that particular attraction was for ‘Philistines,’ she’d defiantly promised to take him there, but never had. And, once he’d finally inherited everything, would be buying a Maserati. A car God must have created,
“There’s quiche in the frigo, and don’t eat too many haricots blancs!” she shouted, meaning those that came in tins, in tomato sauce. His favourite.
Philippe waved after her, but she was too busy tapping at her mobile phone to respond or to see how a vest had replaced his jumper, while his hair stood up on end as if he’d seen a ghost. He looked around for the hen called Sylvie, after his drowned sister. The prettiest, smallest of the group who regularly laid the brownest eggs of all. Since the day she’d arrived from a neighbouring farm, she’d always hung back at feeding time, usually hiding in the coop. Which was why he saved some of the feed until last; specially for her.
Odd, he thought. Normally the coop door was held open by a hook attached to a ring set in a stout post. But this was leaning half out of the earth, while that hook still connected to that ring, lay on the ground. He set down the bowl, not caring about the in-fighting this triggered. He was too busy trying to pull open the door to reach her.
Not a sound, until frustration made him tug harder, suddenly revealing the darkness inside.
He then had to close his mouth. Cover his nose against the smell. And what came next was worse than his little sister sinking below the reeds. Her blonde curls floating upwards amongst the pretty bubbles. Worse than Maman a few weeks later being taken from that horrible Paris court in handcuffs. And him not seeing her since.
7p.m. The mad sun had finally sunk behind the dead-leaved oaks at the edge of the gloomy Forêt Nationale, leaving his bare skin as cold as that of his dead sister who’d been found below that grassy bank where a lifebelt should have been. Would it have saved her?
‘Oui,’ the Examining Magistrate had said emphatically at the end of last June. “And whoever removed it from its pole, should have this beloved child’s death on their conscience.’
It took Philippe longer than expected to create this latest Sylvie’s small grave behind the coop, and once he’d covered over the poor, savaged thing, realised his fingers were clotted with a mix of dirt and blood. He sprung up to clean off the mess in the water bowl before wiping them and his tearful eyes on his jumper. Next, he placed the scruffy label he’d found inside Sylvie’s beak into his jeans’ pocket.
He shivered. Looked around yet again to work out who or what could possibly have climbed so carefully over the netted fence topped by barbed wire into the run, without leaving so much as a dent or a footprint? Or come through the gate in full view of the kitchen window. And above all, why?
Aliens? Non. Unlike his classmates, he wasn’t into computer games. But angels definitely existed. And demons…
Despite the remaining hens pick-picking at the last of the scraps, a sudden loneliness engulfed him. Forgetting to pick up the brown bowl, he ran to the gate and slammed it shut behind him. He had to get rid of that stink still clinging to his fingers. To be back in his bedroom to tell Maman what had happened. But just then, came the creeping grind of wheels on gravel, then the black and chrome front of an expensive new Lexus moving closer, before stopping in its usual rutted spot. He sniffed diesel. Saw his father’s almost bald head like a motionless shadow behind the windscreen. But why, given the dusk, had there been no headlights? Why arrive in darkness almost like a thief? In a car he could hardly afford…
Philippe told himself he must pretend that everything was normal. Papa had a short fuse these days, and since that terrible picnic, seemed unable to deal with anything not routine. What had happened to poor Sylvie in the coop must be his secret because Papa never counted the hens or fed them. Or collected their eggs. But Mireille would have to know how Sylvie’s innards had been left hanging out, and her pretty head placed on top of her body. Her beak open in terror. Her frightened eyes fixed on Heaven.
More than ever, Philippe wished the young housekeeper was around. That Maman was at that very moment breaking her room’s window bars to reach him.
Papa was taking too long, he thought, shivering again. He was probably listening to some kind of music on the car radio. Bach being his ‘consolation’, he’d said after the lake business. “The closest thing to God.”
But to Philippe, nothing was more dreary than what he’d heard eeking from his forbidden study. Day after day, from after breakfast to dinner time.
Finally, the driver’s door opened and, without so much as a glance his way, Charles Orneille in his long, black coat, still wearing sunglasses, went round to the boot and opened it. From inside its cavernous space, he pulled out a bulging carrier bag. Dark green, slightly shiny. Nothing like what supermarkets dispensed, and complete with the words Ets. Fournier. Antiquities in fancy gold writing.
From the moment he saw it, Philippe sensed everything had changed. From the grim expression on Papa’s face as he strode towards the back door to the house – once a Maison de Mȃitre built from flat, grey stones that became almost black in the rain – to the sky now a cold purple.
“Mireille will be dismissed,” he said, bumping past Philippe on the stairs, causing something hard inside his bag to jab his right leg. “And you need to wash and change. You reek like a navvy.”
He was behaving like a stranger, and to think that Mireille with her little car, her nice face and colourful clothes wouldn’t ever be here again. And yet what about all her stuff? She’d have to come back for it, surely?
La Bastide fell silent as that purple evening became night. No music came from Papa’s study, just a thin line of light like a yellow wire beneath its door.
Philippe wasn’t hungry at all. Not after what he’d just seen at the coop. But he was scared. He’d dutifully changed into a clean pair of jeans and although there were dried blood smears on Mama’s jumper, he kept it on. That was important, especially while finishing his letter to her. He’d badly wanted to describe how Sylvie the shy hen had been attacked, but that would have taken too long and worst of all, upset her. He licked down the envelope’s flap. Besides, he had things still to do.
There were fifteen euros in his pocket, from selling Mireille’s cigarettes in school. Taken one at a time so she wouldn’t notice. What else could he have done with no-one giving him any pocket money? One day, he’d pay her back, but first, his trainers. He couldn’t go anywhere with them in that state.
Having cleaned out the scullery plughole, adding a squirt of bleach, he tiptoed into the hall and picked up the telephone. He hid the number, before dialling Mireille’s mobile.
“What are you doing?” His father suddenly called out from the landing overhead.
Philippe glanced up to see something truly strange dangling from his hand. A hollowed face made from dark-coloured wood, painted brown and cream in parts. Its square, black eyes almost meeting in the middle, fixedly stared at him, while from either side of its head, jutted two strange, paler lumps.
The start of his collection…
“I said, son, what are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Yet Philippe could hear Mireille’s puzzled voice answering the phone. “Meet me in the playground,” he whispered to her. “Please…’
His father was coming down the stairs. Grim. Anxious. With every step, that horrible thing secured by two twisted cords, butted against his right leg.
“You’re lying, Philippe,” he said.
“I’m not. You’re the liar.”
Those same weird eyes seemed to follow him as he ran outside towards La Bastide’s open double gates topped by vicious-looking spikes. Too pre-occupied to notice that Mireille’s empty car was still there, and once on the road to St. Just, he took the familiar track eventually leading to his school. Still running, he was aware of the bordering trees’ sagging branches scraping the top of his head, like the dangly bits of that mask. which was nothing like the ones he’d seen in history books and in the Louvre’s basement gallery. Then the thought occurred to him. Were those two maggot-shaped parcels on either side of its head actually ears? Capable of listening to every move he made? Eavesdropping on his secrets? Perhaps he’d never know…
And thinking of secrets, he realised his letter to Maman could be found and get him into trouble. Why? Because it was really Papa who’d pushed little Sylvie into the Lac des Cygnes and then shouted to his wife to stay back as she’d never learnt to swim. Maman, who’d later taken the blame, admitting she’d suffered from what her doctor had said was ‘puerperal depression’ ever since Sylvie was born.
He liked the sound of that word and wondered if it also applied to boys.
However, Philippe felt chilled in the sunless evening air. Frightened too, expecting Papa’s silently purring Lexus to pounce at any minute. Thankfully, the playground’s rear gate was never locked because hardly anyone used it, but he’d often go for a spin on its roundabout before returning to La Bastide. The brief dizziness afterwards helped shift the taunts and cruelties of his school’s so-called ‘cour de récréation’ – a bare, shadeless square of concrete. Nowhere for a victim to hide…
But where was Mireille? And her car? Hadn’t she heard him properly on the phone? Or maybe thought he’d meant the bigger park the other side of town?
A motorbike sped by, then a truck and a car towing a caravan. All normal enough, but not the slowly probing headlights behind him as he ran over this smaller park’s gravelly entrance and ducked behind the see-saw, suddenly wanting to pee.
“Papa’s coming. Can’t you see the lights? And he’s bought this really scary mask with black, staring eyes… ”
She turned round.
“I think he’s backing off.”
Not for long…
“Sylvie’s dead,” he said.
“I know, Philippe. You’ve already told me all about her. Why your Maman’s in…”
“I mean our hen,” he said, butting in. “She’s been disembowelled and cut up and that’s not all. I’m frightened.” He felt warm pee trickle down inside his jeans, and pressed his legs together in shame. He was twelve, for God’s sake, not three…
“Quick!” cried Mireille, grabbing his hand and together they ran into the darkness away from the last street lamp by the road. She in her high heels, wobbling, sometimes overbalancing against him, until she removed them. He in his embarrassingly damp jeans.
“Where’s your car?” he asked again. “You never said.”
“Don’t be dumb.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m too pissed. I couldn’t steer a bloody wheelbarrow. I’d get done. Girard’s just round the corner. Let’s go.”
“Where to?” said her gelled, crop-haired boyfriend after the briefest introductions.
“Grainville-sur-Oise,” Philippe replied, glad he’d not noticed his jeans; also taking care that the cleaned little knife in his jeans pocket didn’t give him an unwanted jab. “The St. Thérèse Hospital. I have to see Maman, Do you need directions?”
The boyfriend shook his head. “Easy as pie. No problem.”
So they both climbed into the sticky, aftershave warmth of his silver VW.
They were followed all the way through St.Just and along the dual carriageway heading south-east over countryside with fewer trees and even fewer houses. Philippe wished Girard in his black leathers and gloves to match with holes punched-in, would go a bit faster. Lose their pursuer, whatever it took. The hunter whose blinding headlights filled their rear-view mirror. But he was only doing what Mireille had said about not breaking the speed limit. How much it could cost him…
“What’s your problem, tosser?” Girard shouted at his rear-view mirror. “Give us a break, hein!”
“It’s Monsieur Orneille again.” She turned round to stare at Philippe. “But why?”
And as if he’d heard, or perhaps realised he was pushing things too far, the driver pulled his Lexus back. Disappeared from view.
Philippe should have felt relief but didn’t. Instead, he told them both everything, including, for the boyfriend’s benefit, about the poor hen. How Maman, already in his eyes, unfairly punished, had then learnt of her husband being found in bed with the Mayor of St.Just’s lawyer wife. The result? Two ruined careers .
“But for her to have deliberately drowned your little sister? Her own daughter?” Mireille stayed facing the front. “I still don’t get it.”
“It was the right verdict. Only a seriously mad mother would drown her own child,” added Girard speeding up again. “Remember the Grégory Villemin case all those years ago? I was only ten years old, and it’s still unsolved. You’ve just said, Philippe, how your father made a big show of diving under the water several times and came up empty-handed. How it took two weeks to find Sylvie’s body. And that lifebelt.”
Silence hung over the three of them, before Mireille spoke, again, this time not turning round. “And you were doing what?”
Philippe started. That weird mask still boring into his mind.
“Remember all the media coverage?” Girard continued before Philippe could answer. “Le Figaro, Le Canard Enchainé taking a swipe at upper crusters. Le Nouveau Detective, you name it, then your Papa defended himself at the trial and boy did he make everyone shiver. I mean, the way he spoke; so sure of himself that his own wife wasn’t fit to be a mother. That for the sake of young Philippe here, she should be put away.”
“So, knowing what you know,” added Mireille, finally turning to Philippe, “you should be careful. And perhaps that’s why someone’s got at one of your hens in such a horrible way. You could be next.”
Philippe let out a little cry, and Girard told her off. “She’s had a bit to drink,” he explained. “Take no notice.” But that was impossible, and as they reached the big sign for Grainville-sur-Oise, Philippe let the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, caress the cool, sharp blade in his pocket. Feel the little label he’d placed in Sylvie’s gasping beak.
“If you need a bed, you can come in with us, can’t he, Girard?” Mireille added as if to compensate. “There’s always the box room…”
Her boyfriend nodded before navigating an enormous roundabout bordered by a temptingly lit-up McDonald’s and a reclining neon Monsieur Meuble, complete with a rose in his mouth. But it wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic nod.
“Thanks,” said Philippe, too scared to be hungry. “But what about the other hens? I can’t leave them. Not now.”
“I think your life’s rather more important than theirs,” Girard eyed him in his mirror, while passing through yet another set of traffic lights. “That might sound harsh, but…”
“Describe that weird mask you were telling me about,” said Mireille out of the blue. “It creeped me out.”
He did, even adding about the cream-coloured spots over each malevolent eye.
“Am guessing it could have belonged to the Hopi Indians of West Virginia,” said Girard. “Each mask carries a dead soul. All need feeding. Some seek a mate.”
“I’m impressed,” smiled Mireille. “And what about those funny things on either side of its head?”
“Her head,” Giraud smiled back at her. “And some of that same tribe flew to Paris to stop today’s sale, but no luck, otherwise museums all over the world could be emptied. I heard it on the news earlier.”
“I see.” Mireille suddenly sounded different in a way Philippe couldn’t describe.
Her boyfriend then turned right, into a wide avenue lit by elegant sodium lights. On either side stood rows of imposing buildings – hotels and the like, and after one with a big canopy bulging from its upper windows, came the sign HÔPITAL SAINT THÉRÈSE.
Girard checked all his three mirrors.
“Oh no,” he muttered, but Philippe could have told him that the Lexus was back on track, getting closer. He gripped his arm rest. Prayed to Jésu who didn’t always listen, that they’d reach Maman in time. His beautiful, lavender-scented Maman who’d been so cruelly shut away.
The psychiatric hospital stood in a large parking area surrounded by almost-bare trees. No parking spaces. Not one, so Girard blocked the only entrance with his car and told Mireille and Philippe to run for it.
“No,” she snapped. “I’m staying with you, given that there’s a maniac behind us. “Anyway, Philippe’s quite old enough to go in on his own.”
“That’s why he’s just sacked you.”
She and her boyfriend exchanged a puzzled glance.
“Because you’ve never really looked after me.”
The air turned to ice.
“That’s a downright lie, you devious little shit. And as for stealing my cigarettes… ”
Her harsh words lingered as he ran between the other vehicles, through piles of drifted leaves towards the dimly-lit flight of shallow, stone steps leading to the front door. Most of the big, oblong windows on the front façade, were either in darkness or had curtains closed, however, the nearest one to the door was lit up, but set too high to peer inside.
He wondered where his mother was, then – still smarting – Philippe glanced round to see the VW had gone. No Lexus either, but just then, nothing mattered except getting himself inside the hospital.
“Oui?” a female voice crackled forth from a nearby intercom. Papa even had one outside his study door, so Philippe knew the ropes. He gave his name and reason for his visit. “Wait a moment,” before several invisible bolts were drawn back and finally, a key grated in the lock. That was when a piece of that starless night sky seemed to invade his mind, smother everything except the faintest, haunting glow of Maman’s face.
“Stay here with Georges and I’ll bring her down to identify you,” said the middle-aged woman in a grubby, white coat with Dr. A. Melun on her badge. A large bunch of keys filled her ringless left hand, and a bright red disc hung from her fat neck. “We can never be too careful.”
At least she’d not noticed the drying stain on his jeans.
“I can’t wait to see Maman!” Philippe called after her as she left, then spotted an older man who’d appeared as if from nowhere. Mixed race, bad skin and a strange smell that grew stronger as he approached. The label on his navy-blue uniform said G. Souef. Gardien. He too held a bunch of keys, longer, older looking than hers. Was one of them for Maman’s room, maybe?
“There’s trouble outside in the car park,” Philippe lied, aware of his very own personal dark sky deepening to black. “Looks bad. Someone could get hurt.”
The man hesitated before moving to the window nearest the front door.
He took his chance, ran to the stairs, and reached the first landing before that familiar white coat and stout, pale legs ending in brogues blocked his way.
“I want Maman!” he cried, trying to shove her bulk to one side. “How would you feel after four fucking months? Please!”
“Don’t you dare swear at me, young man! Go and sit down over there.” She pointed to a group of chairs in the corner of the hallway, then again pressed her red disc.
“No. I won’t. What if she was your Maman? Besides I want to show her this jumper she made me.”
For a moment, she stared at it with her mean little eyes.
“She doesn’t knit.”
“And she doesn’t want to see you. In fact, when I asked, she had to be steadied. She never wants to see you. Now, do as you’re told or else… ”
“You old bitch.”
Although fifty times bigger than the dainty, feathery Sylvie, he could still make a start, and was about to give his knife another airing when he heard the clink of metal, smelt that same bad smell which was definitely toilets.
He was grabbed from behind and a cold handcuff clicked over each of his wrists. His precious weapon lifted from his pocket before he was forced off the stairs and into a large, lit room where the one called Georges swiftly tied him down in a substantial desk chair while the white cow picked up the phone to dial 17.
Outside, with blue spinning lights illuminating the hospital’s car park, Philippe’s own piece of the night had cleared, leaving him dizzy but determined.
“I said, why won’t she see me?”
The enemy put down the telephone. He’d overheard several key words including ‘Charles Orneille,’ ‘Le Lac des Cygnes’ then ‘Sylvie’, and knew what was coming next.
“Because, Philippe, according to your father, you’d drowned your little sister. You, the jealous, older brother. Before the picnic, you deliberately stole and got rid of the only lifebelt by that lake, then went off to play hide and seek with her, or so you said. And yes, although your father tried to pin the crime on your mother for his own selfish reasons, she’d agreed to being sent here rather than you.”
“Rather than me?”
“Her exact words.”
“So I’m mad, too?”
Silence, in which Philippe’s stomach rumbled too loudly. He had to escape. But how?
“That man’s lying to save his own skin, the bastard,” he snarled, eyeing up the limited possibilities.
“We’ve recently been told he received some important information when arriving home earlier this evening. He tried to stop you getting here to silence your mother forever. And who knows, he might have been next. Incidentally,” she jabbed a nail-bitten forefinger in his chest, “… it was Mireille, his housekeeper, who knitted that jumper, feeling sorry for you, she said.”
He stared at this so-called doctor’s fleshy face. Her too-small mouth, while giant Georges tightened his handcuffs till they hurt, and his many enemies spun round and round in his brain.
“What important information?” Philippe demanded. “This is beyond crazy and I want a lawyer. I’m nearly thirteen.”
The fat cow wasn’t even listening.
“Apparently, an old mask he bought today in Paris. Her name’s Shuma, apparently. An unmarried Hopi Indian Squash Blossom Girl. Although such a strange claim will have to be investigated.”
This total rubbish almost distracted him from his father, bursting into the room. A distinct bruise on his chin. Hatred in his eyes as he held that vile mask aloft.
“Look at her who speaks the truth!” he cried out.
Philippe saw again those cream-coloured spots over each eye which this time, didn’t seem quite so malevolent.
But it was too late for this young conquest to turn away from her gaze. His skin everywhere had begun to tighten, thickening with every second. His limbs to rapidly stiffen, as if also made of wood. His blood to cool then freeze, and during the short, agonising transformation, that same Hopi mask’s mouth, once a short, scratched line, had widened into a full, eager smile.