I first arrived in Gijón on an ALSA coach. That was many years ago. I’d never heard of Gijón or Asturias before the previous week.
My first impression was not favourable. It was a Saturday afternoon and I wandered around, rucksack on my back, wondering how the heck I’d ended up in a completely deserted city – it was 3pm and in those days Spanish people took siestas seriously.
My intention was to stay for a while, get a job as a teacher and earn some money. I would then head to Granada and get down to some serious writing, preferably while sitting on a sunny patio overlooking the Alhambra.
But life got in the way, as it so often does, and I just stayed on. I am now the part owner of a language school and happily settled here. My wife and I have one son who lives in Madrid, like many of his generation of Asturianos.
I play a bit of music, am bad at tennis and enjoy gardening and hiking in the mountains. More importantly, I don’t have to teach much nowadays and so finally have time to get on with my writing.
What must it be like to be in a coma? What light – if any – penetrates the finely veined skin of your eyelids? Do any fleeting thoughts scurry through the narrow tunnels and recesses of your brain? Or is your inert body just lying there, suspended in a black nothingness – a pointless drain on the health service?
In the baker’s, in the Café des Sports or at the check-out in the Leclerc supermarket, there has been talk of little else since the accident. By the way we go on you’d think we’d all suddenly become experts on neurology and ethics.
“Poor girl!” we conclude, as though we knew her intimately. Well, it is a small town, so in a way I suppose you could say she’s “one of us”.
The town? Yes, of course…but then, you won’t have heard of it. Ponsac-les-Auberts. Population 1,500. On a tributary of the Charente River. Surrounded by a lightly undulating landscape of sunflowers and vineyards. The place is actually quite unremarkable. We get a few stray tourists who come to see the Romanesque church of Saint Hubert. They’re usually disappointed, though. So many bits have been added on over the years – it’s a bit of a hotchpotch really.
Now, the Chateau D’Aubert is a different matter. That is a fine building, but it’s still the family home and so it’s never been open to the public. And you certainly wouldn’t want to be troubling them now, in the circumstances…
“Come on, Mummy! Let’s go!” Stéphanie said.
They still hadn’t managed to find the shoes for the wedding. A discreet magnolia with a slight heel. It shouldn’t have been too difficult, although an article in the June issue of “Your Perfect Day” had seemed to corroborate it:
“FOOTWEAR FOR THE BRIDE – OH, WHAT A HEADACHE!”
So far, Stéphanie and her mother, Blanche, had done the rounds of the shoe shops in Bordeaux several times, but to no avail. But, then, they agreed, there were worse ways to spend a day.
“Ask your brother for the car keys!”
The car belonged to both the D’Aubert children, but Stéphanie’s brother Edmond monopolised it, despite being the younger of the two. Blanche herself had a little run-around but she preferred her daughter to drive when they went into the city.
“Today’s the day, Mummy!” said Stephanie. She had to shout, as the car windows were down, despite the air-conditioning being on full blast. One of her mother’s foibles. “Can you imagine Grace Kelly driving around in sunny weather with the car windows up?” she would say. Both Blanche and her daughter had more than a touch of Grace Kelly about them. Blanche had a few more wrinkles than the actress at the same age, and her blonde hair needed the occasional top-up, but the fact was that mother and daughter made a striking pair. As for the men of the family -“well, that Prince Rainier wouldn’t have stood a chance if Grace Kelly had met Bertrand!” – Blanche liked to tell everyone. Bertrand D’Aubert was tall, square jawed and classically handsome. Edmond was a younger version of his father and set all the girls’ hearts fluttering on his rare visits to Ponsac.
“Sorry, darling?” Blanche – as usual – was miles away. Stephanie put it down to her mother’s fantasising about the doings of France’s rich and famous. Such an obsession with Paris Match and France Dimanche wasn’t good for anybody.
In fact, Blanche was concentrating hard on the road ahead. Her daughter always drove a little too fast along the country lanes before reaching the autoroute.
“I said today’s the day. We’re going to find the shoes, you’ll see! Seventh time lucky!”
“Oh! Is that six trips to Bordeaux already? …My goodness!” said Blanche, as the car swerved to avoid a pothole outside the fertiliser factory… “When will they get around to repairing this road!?”
Vincent Paillier had spent the morning working on his wall. The stone came from contacts he’d made over the years. Having spent forty years as a plumber, he knew everyone in the building trade. In exchange for a few glasses of Ricard at the Café des Sports or a couple of 10€ notes, he could pick up anything he needed.
The wall was a job he’d been promising Hélène to do for years. Now he was retired, he could set his mind to it.
The house itself was the couple’s pride and joy. Everyone they knew agreed it was a real “bijou” of a cottage, painted in a pale ochre with pastel blue shutters. It had a restored well in the courtyard and a raised terrace for outdoor dining. Part of the garden was given over to a neatly planted orchard and there was a small pool for the grandchildren when they visited.
For Vincent the wall was a kind of statement. If the house and garden were his and Hélène’s little universe, then the wall was the perimeter that defined it.
And when the sun was out like today, Vincent felt he was as much a lord of his dominions as the Marquis D’Aubert himself might be, over there on the other side of the village with all his acres of vineyards.
Some people in the village spoke ill of the D’Auberts but Vincent had always put this down to jealousy himself. The few times he’d met them they’d been perfectly pleasant, and, by all accounts, they were fair paymasters.
“Where are you going?” said Hélène. It was 2pm. Lunch – a bowl of Hélène’s best cassoulet with green salad – had been followed by coffee and a soporific hour of watching the Tour de France. It was a silly question, really. Here he was standing at the door with his shotgun over his shoulder – where did she think he was going? But then, even after four decades of marriage they still liked to ask each other the obvious questions; maybe if they didn’t – they joked to their friends – they would never need to talk to each other at all!
“It’s a lovely afternoon…rabbits today,” Vincent replied.
The Pailliers had recently inherited a two-acre field a little way outside the town. It was flanked on one side by a copse of poplar trees and on the other by the D293B, a little used local road. The field had been let go for years and the poor-quality grass turned to scrub in the summer. At the far end was a colony of rabbits. Left to their own devices for years, they had turned what had been a hillock into a vast warren. It was pockmarked with hundreds of holes and looked as though it was about to crumble into dust at any minute.
From afar the warren resembled a bustling city, its inhabitants darting tirelessly in and out of their homes. But as soon as Vincent approached, it miraculously became as deserted as Ponsac on a Sunday morning. Not a rabbit in sight.
Vincent sized up the situation and took cover behind a thorn bush some fifty yards short of the warren. He knew that patience was more valuable to a hunter than even the best rifle. After a minute or two a tiny kit rabbit scrabbled out of a dusty hole into the open. An appetising morsel for any buzzard circling overhead, but pretty useless for one of Hélène’s stews. Vincent didn’t move – he knew the kit’s mother would soon follow…
“Do me a favour, darling!”
“Could we just go a little more slowly on the way home? You always drive as though we were going to miss a train!”
Blanche looked round at the bags on the back seat and smiled. Yes, there they were. Four pairs of shoes! The trip had been a real success. The euphoria of finding the perfect wedding shoes had led to three more pairs – and all in the same shop! Silver sandals for the honeymoon, a pair of slip-ons for the airport and – as a complete indulgence! – some gold “D’Orsays” for Blanche herself.
“OK, mummy!” Stephanie said cheerfully, followed by a growled “Whatever!” This was one of her favourite catch words. It was usually said in the tone of a moody teenager, which irritated Blanche no end. But today they both just giggled happily.
“Yes, mummy, whatever you say!!” she repeated as she lifted her foot from the accelerator. Blanche glanced at the speedometer – 50kph. She gave a satisfied sigh and checked her hair in the passenger mirror.
When the prey appears, the hunter must be decisive. A second too late and it’s gone…
After a scuffling movement of dusty soil, the mother rabbit finally appeared. Vincent pulled the trigger. The animal stopped in its tracks, leaned over as if in slow-motion and then lay still on its side.
The second rabbit hardly gave him time to load. Quick! Secure the bullet. Lift the barrel. Oh, no! Damn! It’s moving away. To the left. No time to hesitate! Now!
The cartridge was a Tunet calibre .12. Flat brass head with green plastic casing. Bought as one of a case of 24 on Vincent’s last visit to Saintes. It had spent the last six months on the second shelf of the metal cabinet in the garage. The cabinet had a double padlock – the regional regulations were very strict on this. The cartridge had first seen daylight that afternoon when it had been extracted from the box and pushed into Vincent’s cartridge belt. Now it was tugged out of the belt between Vincent’s sweat-dampened thumb and forefinger, and then briefly returned to darkness by being pressed into the firing chamber. On release of the breech bolt, it left the muzzle and travelled at 2,400kph through the warm July air for 0.35 seconds, passing through the open window of the Renault Megane, penetrating Stephanie D’Aubert’s neck and lower temporal lobe before coming to rest on the inside of the passenger door…
Vincent was in custody for three days. He was assigned a lawyer by the authorities from the outset – he had never needed one before. But he was back at home the following Monday. Bernard D’Aubert had known the regional prosecutor since their days together at university.
“Just leave it, man, for goodness’ sake!” he’d said over the phone. “The old guy was out hunting rabbits. There’s nothing to be done.”
After the accident Blanche refused to go home. She sat hour after hour by her daughter’s hospital bed. When exhaustion overtook her, she just slumped on the floor. Nobody could persuade her to lie on a couch or an armchair. Within two weeks the roots of her hair had turned completely white. Between her tears she muttered to herself constantly: “Go faster darling! …50 no!”…
Stéphanie’s breathing remained stable. Bathed and fed three times a day, she was given regular massages to maintain muscle tone.
On her second Friday in hospital the neurology team met to discuss the case. By now the prognosis was clear – a text book example of PVS (Persistent Vegetative State).
Vincent spent the rest of that summer in front of the TV with the sound turned down. Now he would never get around to finishing the stone wall….
Since the accident the townsfolk have taken to using the D293B more frequently. Morbid curiosity you might say – but isn’t that just human nature? And when we drive past Vincent’s field, we all cast a sideways glance. With a bit of a shiver we wonder what would happen if we saw a dark figure there, shotgun at the ready…
…The following Autumn saw heavy rain in the Charente region and the rabbits’ precarious warren, set into the hillock in the corner of the field, finally collapsed.
This month (March 2021) I am introducing an opportunity for members to showcase their writing by publishing longer stories than the monthly challenges permit or, poetry that falls outside of the brief. Also, you might have ideas for social commentary or journalistic articles that you want to showcase, all material will be considered including pieces written in your native language.
The showcase aims to provide a window into the writing of the author and encourage feedback in the form of constructive comments. It is difficult in any forum to have your hard work and ideas examined by strangers but we can only grow and develop our storytelling skills if we are open to critique and dialogue.
I invite either, already published or written works as well as new pieces or ideas that you might want feedback on. Ideally, the length should not exceed 3000 words but there is a possibility to serialise longer works if appropriate. With this in mind please drop me a message or comment below if you would like to be included.