Thursday, 9 August 2007

A Village Story

A Village Story
By Susan Vermeulen

They were like birds, twittering around, voices were strangely high-pitched, piercing. One might take-off, fly away or something. But they were human and harmless, not to be taken too seriously; once you became accustomed to them it was fine and he was close to that point now.

Jake scratched his head and his lips, at least, were smiling. He took off his glasses, greeting one group of passers-by while bidding farewell to another in very fluent French. Such an operation had previously proved difficult but it was now accomplished with masterful ease. He was surprised, he hadn’t deemed himself capable of such a feat but then languages are there, they don’t go away, they need some practice and that is not something which can be taught, it takes time and these people helped, they were always talking to you, at you, round you.

For five, no six months he’d existed in this French village, that was a long time. He did miss things and folk from home, they could not be replaced, copied, brought closer in any way. A phone, even a mobile one, a fax, an e-mail, a letter, what do they actually do? They tell you facts and feelings, recall events with laughter or rage or neither which simply push you, shove you, hurl you yet further away and that’s not nice. Jake saw that he was constantly loosing his balance. He’d never known how much he actually felt for certain things or people, now they were far away a piece of him was missing and he wanted, he needed to get it back. Now these village people wouldn’t let him go – so, not wanting any fuss, he gave up and didn’t try to leave so they were, in fact, to blame for their own downfall. Unknowingly they kept this strangely powerful and potentially dangerous man among them.

The people still managed to amaze him. Their frantic words tripped over each other, they did apologize but this was lost in a cacophony of sound as another subject bounded forward and they never actually seemed to need an exact reply. At every instance hands, arms, shoulders even insisted on joining in. Jake was at first puzzled and only gradually understood the power of his comprehension: he was making them disappear!

“Bonjour Jake, ça va?”
“Oui, ça va.” He was fine. He nodded, raised his glass and continued, “alors Pierre – tu vas travailler aujourd’hui?” Jake’s question hit the other in the face – it tilted his head awkwardly to one side and left an enormous, empty, very quiet space which had to be filled by something.

“I don’t know yet if I’ll work. Maybe God will be kind today and give the sick and elderly a few more days – if that is kindness.”

The village undertaker was a charming, charismatic man. He was sorry about the job he did – apologizing to all and sundry for being needed – but he couldn’t go away, like Jake the village had entranced him, leaving would not be easy but then that was never meant to be the case. The bond between these two men was a strong one, they knew already of its significance.

They sat and drank and watched, observing the village dwellers. This occupation was a painful one. As days rushed into each other the people, from head to toe, were getting visibly fainter. They did still pass by, and stop, and talk, and be but they were almost, very nearly transparent! This is a gigantic word which tells you everything, it makes things distinctly obvious, tangible, apparent, or does it?

Pierre and Jake sat on, enjoying the wine; it was young, a Beaujolais, it was indeed French and made them strong enough.
“Et toi – tu travailles aujourd’hui?” Pierre’s question was urgent.

“Don’t worry, mon ami,” said Jake in soothing tones “I must work today, it won’t be long now.” He knew what his task was and that he was capable of completing it.


“I’ll do that again – it’s odd, all wrong.” Jake bent and lifted up the canvas. It hurt his eyes, made him feel physically sick, weak too. Sighing and swearing softly he now picked up another one, it was heavy, it was suddenly gigantic. He was sweating as he eyed the “ordinary” house again, a confusing mass of rooms, of recollections, emotions.

He endeavoured in vain to paint. He had great difficulty now in assuming the role of artist which, over the months he had managed to do very well. His work was now very basic; it made him cry in disappointment or for some sort of reason. But then you can’t always ascertain why tears appear, trickle down, leave you weary. Men do weep too, less frequently, less freely but it happens, it has to. They will never match the female’s tears, those can appear with no change to the facial expression, they trickle down, leaving cheeks wet and saying everything – leaving nothing to the imagination, telling tales.

Jake’s flat was swimming with paintings, representations of everything – insides, exteriors, people, (nearly everyone), animals, insects. Feeling their aliveness he was relieved, it made up for the wasted morning, his fruitless endeavour to capture that house – her home. Looking at the art works round his flat he could hear cars rattling through narrow streets. The school, over by the sofa, looked empty but his ears heard the children, they were learning, living and laughing too. There at the window of an upstairs classroom he saw one boy, the youngster was grinning, he looked comforted. Gently Jake stroked and fingered his creations, the paintings settled down, relaxed, colours changed slightly becoming more life like or should that be like life? An expression of acceptance, of resignation crossed Jake’s face, got stuck and stayed.

There was a shark tap on the long window. The blinds were down, who could that be? When he saw he was afraid but he couldn’t help it and let the snake come in. It curled around his ankles – physically allowing its thanks to be felt. It was not a venomous creature – so he would let it stay. On arriving in the village he had been petrified by the proximity of these reptiles but as days passed he had managed to strike up an allegiance with them, only himself and the snakes were aware of this – he told no one. He might need them later on. Then man and creature jumped at a bang on the door. Jake answered it to find Pierre standing there, trembling. His taut lips parted but no sound accompanied the movement. He had very thin lips.

“We must be strong together,” breathed Jake, clutching the other firmly by the shoulders and kissing sagging, pathetic cheeks. He poured a couple of glasses of Bordeaux and placed one in Pierre’s anxious grip. It, the wine that is, was smooth, it was rich, made to sip, to savour and it seemed to understand the men’s dilemma and to sympathize. Glasses called out for more and were filled.

“We will go out again.” Pierre’s voice was a determined one and his dark eyes were not afraid as his wiry, excited body twitched and would not be calmed. He often appeared agitated but usually settled down when he was with Jake who took on the leading role.

Quietly, slowly they ventured forth. The snake, which Pierre had not noticed, was left as sole occupant of the flat, it was going to ruminate, to meditate, plot, plan.

“Stop, listen,” snapped Jake. The crying became very loud. A woman appeared carrying a baby’s rattle which she waved around hysterically. The sound echoed, reverberated. Pierre spoke to her but she wouldn’t even look at him, insanity had arrived with the departure of her child.

“Annie,” she moaned, “ma chérie, tu es parties! »

Jake put an arm around her frantic shoulders but she shook it off. Her short hair managed to be tangled. Quite suddenly her “petite” body became barely visible. Just as quickly her weeping ceased. Mother and child would soon be reunited – she knew this and was glad.

Pierre saw her vanish. He had to look angrily at Jake. “This is your fault, you know, you are to blame. Why do you make my people vanish? Who gave you the right, the power?” Jake looked uncomfortable. This was a question he’d endeavoured to answer himself but remained mystified, it was happening, he didn’t like it but could do nothing to prevent it. “I hope you’ve painted enough to make everything alright,” Pierre continued.

“I believe I have,” reassured Jake, “it’s only Louise’s house that keeps running away – like its owner did.” Saying this he set off for the spot again; he got there quickly for virtually everything was gone. Louise stood at the window this time, her expression was that peculiar one he’d seen before and couldn’t comprehend. He stopped and stared but when he tried to move he couldn’t. Louise looked out of the open window, she waved and called.

“Salut Jake, tu viens m’embrasser, me toucher, m’exciter? «

Jake stood silent although his mouth fell open and he would have loved to respond to her invitation. Louise came outside, she edged closer and with each step she aged, grew ugly, enormous, livid. She stood in front of him and spat. She aimed well and cackled at his soaking bottom lip. Then she turned and hobbled back into her house. As she entered windows were sealed over; the house stood there and it was dead.

Jake moved again. He wiped a hand across his lower lip. And he felt relieved as he made his way forward, through the changing village. He did indeed sympathize with his surroundings but, being invested with the power to transport it safely somewhere, anywhere else he relished the responsibility. He was doing his best, no one could reproach him in any way, shake an accusing finger, crinkle up a confused forehead even or utter a reproachful comment of any kind. He would not be taking Louise or her house with him and felt glad about that. She had been there those past few months but that was all he could say. His last encounter with her had been memorable, not particularly enjoyable, disgusting actually. He didn’t understand or want to understand her behaviour and felt strangely comforted that he wouldn’t be unwrapping her or her house again and didn’t have to explain it to any one.

It was vital, he ascertained, to run a random check on what he had, to this moment, accomplished. He stopped at the locked-up bank, an irrelevant detail for only doors and windows and powder-thin walls remained. The interiors were very “bank clerkless”, almost quiet; only a faint jingle, no it was a jangle of coins was distinguishable. Jake had to grin in a rather childish fashion, he shook his head and remembered.

Arriving in the village this had been his first port of call and, without wanting to he’d put his mark upon the place, he was part of it. If this very special building were to vanish he’d go with it but that would not happen; his “bank painting” occupied an obvious, an enormous space upon the wall. The clerk he’d spoken to was very young, shy too. He had seen him frequently but the young man remained as reticent. Jake wanted to tap him on the shoulder, offer him a cigarette, say or do something outrageous, daring or at the very least unusual. But to want to do and actually do are separated by parched desserts, uncrossable ones. And did he actually want it to be any other way? There had been one occasion when he’d spied a tiny grin and almost heard an irrelevant remark but the quiet voice was overpowered by the rumble of a passing lorry: the bank clerk was never brave enough to try again.

Jake had to hurry away for he could feel regret and that threatened to spoil everything! He discovered a seat in the only café still functioning and ordered breakfast. It was to these precise co-ordinates that he had often gone with Louise, where the two had first made contact, physical as well as verbal for he’d touched he hand, yes, and wiped away a tear, comforting her like a brother then a lover as he kissed damp, pouting lips and whispered gentle words with double meanings for her ears only. She had responded, sat up straighter and closer too, put on a different expression. Jake had felt important – at that time he had room inside him for that kind of responsibility, it made him feel good and very nearly French. That was indeed strange for his body screamed out foreignness – from the colour of his hair and eyes to his tremendous, somehow awkward-sized feet which were constantly apologizing.

Louise had been an exemplary teacher. Unknowingly she’d been the one to make him see what he was capable of, she’d been the instigator of the process and shown him what to paint, how to rescue this little village. They’d often gone to this café at dusk. He’d spied the place before but it hadn’t seemed a drinking or a talking place until he’d taken her in. She’d let him show her how to build a world up round her, to relax there. Louise had responded favourably, she’d been very creative with her world but there was one problem, Jake was not let in. He tried to get in but all the entrances were locked. Then she would go away – never tell him where, for how long, why.


Day dreaming, painting fantastic, almost real images before his eyes Jake went home again. Pierre was standing at the open door.

The two men set to work. They carefully and very lovingly parcelled up canvas after canvas, loading them all into the van outside. Skilfully they wedged bottles into secretive crevices to make them happy later: the snake supervised – that was vital. They then drove away from nothing for now, except for one lifeless house, there wasn’t anything left. They didn’t have to know where they were going it was somewhere. They would set up life again, unwrap the paintings carefully, it wasn’t going to be a straight forward undertaking but they were two exceptional, creative and determined men and they would be successful.

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