It was the bell at the workshop door-short, hollow like a galvanised mop-bucket dropped onto a tiled floor.
‘Huich the cattle in, Emmo’-
-her half-brother’s voice from the workshop dominated the sound of machinery.
‘Fetch them yourself, brute’ she yelled back,
‘and my name is Marie-Claire!’
Felix had a habit of insulting his clients, secure in the knowledge that they would not understand his deep Bearnaise accent, larded with words from the old language of the region. Their grandfather spoke this way, had run cattle: elegant Blonde d’Aquitaines herded in early summer to the high pastures of the Vallee d’Ossau where they roamed contentedly until temperatures plummeted in the back end, the calves were sold and the sucklers penned or pastured on the low ground of the valley floor.
To this day their cousin maintained the habit of hanging a bell around the neck of each animal, graded according to size from tinny trebles for the calves to the flat sonority of the lead cows. The uplands where they spent long sunwashed weeks of the summer holidays, were configured in her memory less by the honey smell of alpine flower and heather, or by the greens and blues of the hills banked towards the bare peaks of the Spanish border, than by the all-pervasive cacophany of the herd. Each animal, each bell added uniquely, by timbre and rhythm to the pervasive symphony that coursed over the hills like water, ceaseless and constantly changing until the involuntary orchestra lay down to sleep at night.
Their grandfather used to boast that he could tell each animal by sound alone: a skill that he delighted to display to the kids, stopping to close his eyes in the shade of overhanging hazels on the climb up the interminable zig-zags from the old pilgrim way.
‘That is Stephanie, feeding her little one’ -he would say;
and sure enough they would hear the agitated tinkling of the lighter bell, counterpointed by a flurry of bass notes as the larger animal bent her neck to lick the calf’s rear or neck. They had no way of knowing whether he had picked the right animal or was making it up, but either way their love and respect for the brown and bear-like man was assured.
Felix barged open the lightweight door of the office, making the glass rattle. Red faced and dusty, with rivulets of sweat making tracks from the grizzled bristles pocking his scalp like seeded thistles, he filled the partitioned space where she sought refuge in orderly administration
‘I don’t care if you’re Sainte-Marie come down from the heights of old Oloron, fetch the foutering door!’
The visitor as she peered at him intently through thick lenses that allowed her the world perspective of a drinker emptying a glass-bottomed tankard, was young (so far as she could tell), sandy haired and slim. She guessed at a pleasant, open face, but there was no doubt about the halitosis that registered as she took his outstretched hand.
‘Good morning mademoiselle’ – he was struggling with the language and failed to observe the shiver of pleasure she experienced at being greeted as a young woman.
‘I have come to see monsieur Labourdieux, about my work?’ He placed an upward inflection on the last word, uncertain as to how to continue the inquiry.
She dredged some learning from her time at the Lycee st Josephe –
‘You are English?’ she asked in that language.
‘Scottish, easy mistake..’
‘Ah, non- most incorrect- I am sorry.’
‘O de ..Nil’ he persisted, maintaining his death-or-glory assault on the fortified redoubts of spoken French.
She ushered him towards the workshop patting her unruly greying hair into place as she followed through the cluttered foyer that was supposed to demonstrate the skills and product range of ‘Menuiserie Labourdieux, Pere et Fils’ but had degenerated into an untidy depository for display equipment used at old trade shows and joinery fixtures rejected by clients as ill-fitting. As Felix greeted the newcomer with wolfish bonhomie, she trawled a finger through the dust coating an unwanted kitchen cabinet.
‘We can still sell them-
Felix would insist, all outraged indignance at the incompetence of clients and architects-
‘-sales betes who can’t tell a tape measure from a tapeworm hanging out their arse- French
She was long used to her brother’s habitual denigration of everything French, ie. non-local: politics of course, the growth of the professional classes, decline of traditional industries, percentage of pork in saucisson de canard: but, above all, taxes and the punitive local impots that must be paid on property, employment, equipment.
‘If I buy a machine, I pay twice’, he would growl,
‘Do they want to kill off all small business? And they talk about maintaining traditions, patrimoine,-
the only tradition they maintain has a string of noughts after it and a fat pension!’
In short, anything about the world that Felix found unsatisfactory apart from those areas reserved for Le Bon Dieu like the weather and cheese fermentation was the fault of the majority culture.
For all her disapproval of her brother’s intemperance, she had a mischievous respect for his
unyielding militancy His anger was a lifeforce like the winds funnelled along steep-sided valleys; his rages like the violent thunderstorms that hammered between limestone cliff-faces, sparking huge lightning sheets that threw the crests into briefly glimpsed dark relief like the arching spines of predators made uneasy by firelight
Sighing, she returned to her invoices. She liked to send these out a week before the month’s end so that late payers could be reminded before the end of the following month. Looking up at the pornographic image masquerading as a calendar, she checked the date, 18th September.
Why was this significant? Oh, yes – today was the day of the Independence referendum in Scotland.
She was not clearly aware of the divisions within the United Kingdom (though they seemed as disaffected about Europe most of the time as Felix was about France), but her favourite weekly, Photo-France magazine, had a cover dedicated to Queen Elizabeth with the confident statement -‘Last Queen of Scotland.’ She imagined that Felix’s client (one of the new breed of Britons cashing in on inflated property prices come to do the same for Aquitaine) had already voted, or was escaping politics for mountain walks and chilled drinks taken on warm evenings at pavement bistros.
The men’s voices rose as they approached the workshop door – she could tell Felix was being
affable, balancing his role between inspiring confidence as a tradesman and acting the yokel to ensure ongoing loyalty as a ‘colourful character’. His exploits would regale visiting foreigners (French included, of course) whose silvery laughter she imagined flying upwards into the rooftrees that he had constructed or repaired like bright coloured birds among slowgrown mountain hardwoods.
Felix poked his head round the door after the Scotsman had left:
‘Another apple ready to fall, my little cabbage- a fine English fruit. But, phooh, breath like the wind from granny’s midden..’
‘or the wind from granny in fact.’
He tousled her hair at the memory in a clumsy show of bullying affection.
She flared childishly, near to tears at the reminder of the love and awe she had always held for her older sibling and the slow degradation to manipulation on the one side and resentment on the other.
‘Don’t do that – you know I hate it – and please reserve your diminutives for that longsuffering wife of yours. Besides he’s Scottish, not English- as you would know if you took the trouble to distinguish one..one..fruit from another!’
‘Hooee ‘ ..he whistled – ‘you must fancy him, Emmo – and he wasn’t even wearing a skirt like a real Scotsman!’
Then- suddenly- sensing the butterfly wingbeats of politics in the close air of the cramped office:
‘Come to that- if he’s a Scotsman why isn’t he at home for the vote? Why come here swanning
around when any patriot would be at home? Imagine a referendum for Bearn! Would I be sitting on the patio of my Scottish Castle swilling whisky and eating porridge while the destiny of my people was decided?’
‘Of course not!’ he finished emphatically, glaring at the fullbreasted teenager on the wall as though she was ripe for political conversion.
Claire kept her head lowered over her paperwork until he had returned to the workshop, whistling cheerfully at the clarity of the world after a storm. She must show no weakness that he could exploit – or none apart from the obvious ones of her unmarried status and poor eyesight that gave rise to the odious nickname: M-O, Marie-Obscure for Marie-Claire. When she heard the spring door clack safely behind him, she wiped her cheeks with a crumpled delivery note, and sat looking fixedly ahead.
Mid- September- summer’s end- brought the tax demands that so exercised her brother. He,like all local tradesmen found ways to lighten these, but a superficial financial credibility needed maintained if fines or even prosecution were to be avoided.
She reflected on the prime oak stacked at the old barns with sticks between them for the wind to blow through.
‘Just can’t find seasoned timber these days’, Felix would tell clients like the Scotsman.
They would use green unseasoned oak – less stable, prone to cracking in hot weather (the popular time for full occupancy by wealthy ‘foreign’ houseparties) with a sound like a small grenade going off – but good timber nonetheless. The old cattle barns were roofed using the same, he reasoned, and they had stood long enough.
Meantime every order of timber charged to a customer had an additional twenty percent sent straight to the farm on arrival, where Nature conspired to increase the value as the stresses and weaknesses in the boards were drawn out over time.
‘God provides my pension’ Felix would say, while his buddies nudged each other and strangers
applauded his piety.
Marie-Claire assisted in the fraud knowing that it was necessary, had always been done, even
assisted their father to provide for the family as well as he had. She had no problem with this, even though, if ever the authorities penetrated the tightly angled road to the old dairy where the wood was piled, she would be in as much trouble as him; perhaps more as it was her signature on thepaperwork. For all that, she justified the stratagem as necessary, even rightly subversive of oppressive central control.
This year, however, Felix had confronted her with a new financial device.
In order to safeguard his illicit pension plan from unwelcome intervention, he raised additIonal cash to release the bank’s charge over the farm buildings that up til now had guarranteed the business debts. This additional money could not be justified by income from the joinery business, so fictional or unconnected revenue streams like the rent paid to her mother by lodgers, were employed to swell the flow of money to estuarine levels.
These apparent profits necessarily increased the tax liability of the business and ultimately that of the partners, including herself at 20%. Felix was happy enough to offset the increased tax against longterm gain, and besides he made sure that he drew enough from the business for the daily needs of his family, while a few cash jobs each year accounted for the holidays required by his wife.
Marie- Claire, however, on her fixed administrator’s salary, and with no partner’s dividend, found herself confronted with a tax-bill out of all proportion to any money that she had at her disposal to spend.
‘How does this happen?’ she complained to Felix, and then again to the family book-keeper.
‘I thought you could only be taxed on earnings- but I never saw this money.’
The accountant told her that in strictest terms of financial protocol she had indeed earned the money, but that he would look into it for her.
His subsequent silence was preferable to Felix’s rage:
‘Everyone has to pay taxes to the bastard French – do you think you are somehow special? This is the burden that we carry like a mule carries logs until our back gives out, our joints swell with arthritis and they shoot us to lie and stink at the side of the road.’
‘I am not a mule Felix, and neither are you, but I cannot pay this tax from my salary. I am sure that Papa did not intend this when he made me a partner.’
‘How dare you invoke Papa in this? He always kept the family together, did everything he could for us. He asked me to look after the business, and you as well with all your problems, Lord help us. I have always done this. Do you want to throw away everything our parents worked so hard for?’
– by now warming to the task-
‘Do you wish to spit in the faces of the family? Why not stand among the family graves and squat in the flower urns? Or better still, take a jackhammer to the cold tombstones of our ancestors in the floor of Sainte-Croix!’
She had stumbled off in distress, unable to withstand the emotional juggernaut that he conjured when confronted. Now, sitting still as the heat of the day swelled toward noon, the sense of injury returned locked together with her own uselessness like clammy honeymooners.
The multiple bells of church and clocktower began their midday celebrations trickling through the thick aggregate of glacial stone in the walls of the building that had fused the family concerns like a crucible for longer than her lifetime.
In the excess of her misery she found herself confusing the noontime bells with the sound of cattleherds of her childhood,
-and something surfaced too of the young Scot whom she had welcomed in,
who had smiled and complimented her unknowingly while his country’s future balanced on the scales.
She rose with the haziest of intentions; stumbling over the wastebin with a clatter that drew Felix from his bench.
‘Off out?! Where are the invoices? Don’t forget we need the money in – cash-flow is the
oxygen of commerce , that’s what the bank says!’
Her distress did not allow her the customary patience for his posturing, patronising her while she held his business affairs together.
‘I am going Felix’ she said as she pulled her mother’s old bicycle into the roadway, hitched up her trousers revealing surprisingly strong tanned calves, and started to pedal.
‘Where to?’ a trace of shrillness coloured his voice now, normally a chesty rasp, tobacco
‘But that’s not the way home!’
She drew slowly away from him, head down, navigating the dotted lines bordering the roadway.
‘I don’t know where I’m going Felix,’ she called over her shoulder as he stood watching her wobble towards the point where the white lines disappeared over a small rise, with only the sky visible beyond.
Then he heard her laugh and words came drifting back to him mingled with the sound of bells,
‘except to vote-
‘- I am voting Yes to Independence!’