‘In my little village, I am the grand fromage, the nay-sayer, la patronne. Charroux, mon village, has always been the prettiest town in Provence, not that it can be seen for the people nowadays. We’re over-run with tourists and pilgrims, comme beaucoup de souris, from Mardi Gras right through to Noël. You came last November? I’m surprised you didn’t hear the story then, there are so many people dying to tell it. I suppose the current frenzy is preferable to the time when Guillaume, the ruffian with the earring who runs what I consider to be a very lacklustre boucherie, would go on about how profit was dwindling and how difficult it was running a business. I was never entirely sure of the reasons for this – there’s little difference between his customers and mine, talking purely in terms of numbers, and I’ve kept going just fine without lunch every day and by living in three rooms and a balcony above the shop. Not accustomed to sacrifice, you see; one generation makes all the difference. No stomach for the odd precarious month or economic worry. Business can’t be booming all the time, you understand, and we can hardly claim exclusivity whilst selling ripe cheese and cured meat in France. Where’s my handkerchief? Please excuse me for thinking of the boom years, prior to now, brought to mind my dear husband, God rest his soul.
Anyway, the reason you all asked me to sit down was to tell you about the ‘saint’ in our midst, non? It is quite the tale. I know it’s only just reached these parts so I’ll presume you know nothing of it and leave none of the nonsense out. All I will require is coffee. Garçon! Ah yes, begging your pardon, there is a good chance that you might believe in all that nonsense. Yes, it is a little premature of me to presume. Well now. The story centres on a spindly old farmer who lived in the hills above Charroux, known by the name of Jean-Pierre. Corn, eggs, livestock. Yes, that’s about the measure of it. Well, the fuss all started around Easter, about a year and a half ago, just after his dreadful daughter had her bastard child. Bastard? Excuse my provincial tongue – in my day we called it as we saw it. Oh yes, the beginning.
Jean-Pierre was walking through the village square one Sunday near Easter, pretending to everyone that his daughter’s indiscretion wasn’t troubling him in the slightest. I know he was a man of the earth and all, but he was also proud with an old family and a regular seat in church. Anyway, I came out of my shop to place a bowl of water down for Vincent’s dog just at the exact moment that Jean-Pierre’s knees crumbled and his head hit the stone. From that distance, I believe anyone would think he was dead, dribbling as he was, his face distorted by the odd pull of his muscles. He wasn’t dead, it turned out – it was just a stroke. You know, I wept a little that day in sadness that my husband, God rest him, couldn’t have also escaped with such a manageable fate. Ah, mon café, merci.
After that, he disappeared entirely. We only knew that he was still alive in his farmhouse because Clémence (sorry? Oh, the dreadful daughter) filled her bicycle basket with supplies and rode it up to him every day. Well, that’s what we presumed she was doing, yes, and we all of course gave her things from our shops to take up to him. It displeased me greatly to see my best mid-range cheeses in her grubby little hands, her little monstrosity bouncing on her back as if nothing was wrong, but what can you do? He’ll find out, of course, when he’s older. That’ll be a sad day for them both.
Anyway, yes, I gave her my cheeses to take up to him, and from what I heard at the time, Vincent, the Boulanger, gave her the pastries that hadn’t sold that day, and Guillaume gave her copious amounts of the same sausage that his own elderly father apparently enjoys (no wonder he has money problems). This went on for about a year, Clémence gave us the odd franc for our wares, as if that were all she could spare, and as if her warm coins weren’t a greater insult than keeping her father on the hill and refusing to tell his closest friends if he were alive or dead. We all grew a little suspicious when no notes of thanks came (Jean-Pierre was always a scrupulous, honourable man), but we continued to send him supplies in good faith. It wouldn’t surprise me if half of it never got there, consumed at the roadside with a baby on her back, but suspicion is perhaps the penalty one pays for acting in a good Christian manner.
More? I should think so, I’m only getting started. Merci.
So, this continued for a year, almost to the day, after Jean-Pierre’s stroke and subsequent seclusion. You can just imagine the rumours that had time to circulate amongst the chattier members of the community. Well, there was the unpopular but persistent rumour that she’d killed him and was living the good life in his house with my cheese. The recurring presence of his eggs at market didn’t do much to encourage that one. Chickens will continue to lay, I suppose, although I’d be surprised if Clémence were one to get her hands dirty, except just that once. Novelty doubled the price of the eggs. Some said they’d heard that he couldn’t walk, shuffle or defecate, and so kept to himself for all our sakes’. A small minority thought that maybe he could no longer manage the walk down to the village, the stroke having hurried him into old age.
At any rate, this went on for close to a year, and speculating on what had happened to him became quite the village pastime. The interim harvest hadn’t been the best and idle workers make for rampant gossip, as I’m sure you also find in these parts. I saw them there, at the side of the road, nothing a good war wouldn’t fix. Anyway, Easter Sunday soon came around this year, and I remember thinking, as I sat on my balcony admiring my potted plants and dabbing my eyes (the two Easters my husband and I had spent together were the best of his life, I’m sure of it), that it was a beautiful day with that particular je ne sais quoi that you only get during springtime religious holiday. It was rather wonderful; the wafts of roasting lamb that drifted by as I sat there were quite delectable. Screaming children are less to my taste, but I’ve accepted over the years that you can’t have the one without the other. I was never troubled in the family way – the only thing I’ve ever had to worry about is my fromagarie! Oh yes, I suppose that is worth a smile.
So, yes… plus de café? How about we stop dallying and you bring me an assiette campagnarde or some of your best saucisses? Goodness, as if I wasn’t spending a good portion of my time telling you a story that gives me no pleasure! That’s better, although I’m sure your young feet might go faster than that. Now, back to business. Am I right to suppose that you’re still keen to hear about the supposed ‘miracle’ of Charroux?
When I got into church that morning, Easter Sunday if you recall, there was quite a commotion and a large gathering of people around one of the back pews. Once I’d got someone to explain the happenings to my eager ears, I took my place amongst the elbowing hoard to look upon Jean-Pierre and see how he’d changed. He was much the same, to my confusion, and had apparently left the house that morning quite on a whim. He was always a reliable, respectable man but I couldn’t help wondering whether he had in mind some pun on the resurrection. That, of course, I could never condone. Clémence sat beside her father quite protectively and answered all of our questions, which foolishly I thought nothing of at the time. It was really quite bewildering, but did add a certain interest to what is normally the most ‘popular’ of the year’s services, much to our Lord’s shame.
The real truth about Jean-Pierre and his disappearance became apparent to a few, first of all, who told their neighbours, who told their neighbours; we weren’t halfway through the welcome before the congregation was alive with whispering voices and meaningful looks. When the truth came to me, by way of eavesdropping on the people behind, I only closed my eyes and prayed for Jean-Pierre’s deliverance from that unfortunate state. What unfortunate state, you ask? Jean-Pierre had been left a total mute; yes, completely wordless. Apparently, once he’d recovered from the stroke, he’d kept himself away from us, up in that farmhouse, out of embarrassment and shame. I know this idea might be un peu controversé, but don’t you think it is rather telling that a man who won’t condemn his daughter’s abominable behaviour, goes on to lose the ability to convey any verbal judgement at all? Ah, I see you don’t regard that such a coincidence as I do. You’ll learn, my dear. They all do.
Anyway, the truth about Jean-Pierre was round the church like wildfire before we reached our first hymn. Padre Cadet seemed somewhat put out by the lack of attention paid to his sermon so I think we arrived at that first hymn rather ahead of time. The music began and a swell of lusty voices rang out, with a quiet spot in the congregation to the back left, as one might expect. The first verse happened without event.
Suddenly, the pews in front of Clémence and Jean-Pierre turned, then the rows in front of them, and after that the whole church stopped singing to listen to, admittedly, the finest baritone that Charroux has ever had the delight to hear. It was as if Jean-Pierre had stored up all his vocal energy in one silent year, and then had released it all upon us in one fell swoop. To be honest, I was quite startled. No, well, yes, of course that was the miracle: Jean-Pierre, the known mute of five minutes, although, in actual fact, a year, had re-found his singing voice in church on Easter Sunday, in praise of our Lord. My goodness, yes, of course we reacted – there was hugging and kissing and celebrations of the most vociferous kind. It was all quite Mediterranean for a time. Only I, mindful of proper behaviour in church, shed a few discrete tears over the fact that my dear late husband hadn’t been blessed in such a way. There are no miracles to be had once you’re actually dead, except those few notable exceptions. So yes, from that point on we were all quite hysterical, swept along by a miracle of the singing mute in our midst. Padre Cadet was of course beside himself, and spent the next few days kneeling at the altar in thanks. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he sees the occurrence of a miracle in his parish, nay, his church, as a sign of forgiveness for his scandalous leniency and liking for the Communion wine. I have my sources on the parish committee, you see. I know what goes on.
From that point on, everything changed. The last six months have been a blur for all of us who were unfortunate enough to have been there at the scene. Oh yes, my apologies! But it was like everyone went mad. Vincent – yes, I mentioned him before – Vincent who gave Clémence all the pastries – Vincent was the one who actually stood up in that church and pronounced it a ‘miracle’, with all the conviction of a wasted layabout with one spare idea. Well, he then took it upon himself to start travelling to turnpikes and markets in other areas, spreading the word as he called it, displaying the type of young, muscular Christianity that I’ve always found quite unappealing. It came out in the fullness of time that he’d always had religious ambitions but a certain ‘indiscretion’ (I know, give me time!) prevented him from entering the priesthood. He’s even got a Virgin Mary tattoo (yes, I am deliberately lowering my voice) on his you-know-what. I beg your pardon? No, his backside, if I must say it! Goodness, I’ve a right mind to leave, had I known – cognac? Well, I’m sure I couldn’t; well, I hate to leave the story unfinished. Thank you, I accept your apology. Not wishing to dwell on this particularly distasteful topic, but yes, Vincent has grown to quite some regard as the contemporary of saints, a preacher who knows. Who’s seen, apparently. Sugar this time. Also, the artiste Emmanuel DuPont; no, you won’t have heard of him – skinny, beret, walking cliché – abandoned his landscapes soon after the incident and defected to painting portraits, one portrait in fact, and is now on his way to Paris to laud it up as the artisan of saints, or some such nonsense.
And Jean-Pierre? Well, Jean-Pierre himself was back in our lives in a big way from that day, and from that point until last Tuesday, he never left it.
Padre Cadet, in all his grateful ecstasy, proclaimed the old man ‘an oracle of God’ and ‘a conduit to the holy’ and asked him to sing at every service. Nope, not a word. It was quite bizarre to pair the singing voice of a holy baritone to the speaking ability of a toddler. So, this constant church attendance was acceptable in its way, I suppose, and everyone, including myself, benefited from the pilgrims that appeared one morning and have continued to come and go until this day. But it was the advice that really took the biscuit. The good Padre decided, in his infinite wisdom, that our holy father must be speaking directly through Jean-Pierre, to make the miracle intelligible to all. And so, ‘holy guidance in the manner of song’ became the fashion in the wider area of Charroux. No, of course not – if you listened closely, it was just the kind of benign advice one would expect from an elderly farmer, just with a melody and a religious exclamation at the end. You may look shocked, but I’ve heard him whistle Frère Jacques on several occasions and sing unholy nursery rhymes with his bastard grandson. Perhaps I should have revealed my particular source of cynicism before now. And, you know what the worst part is? He winks at me! Yes, Jean-Pierre; when we pass in the street, I often with my pitiable handkerchief in hand, like he knows my suspicions and doesn’t even care! I’ve considered having it out with Clémence (a sung argument with the man himself would have been the most distasteful bit of theatre) but I’ve had it told to me that she’s just pleased that her father has an occupation and a purpose in his old age, which I suppose is a noble sentiment. A difficult one to argue with, in any case. Ah yes, I see what you might mean by that, but is it still a good thing if all this hope and optimism is founded on an elderly man with an unusual condition stringing everyone along? Well, I imagine Jean-Pierre is discussing that very thing with God at this very instant, and the verdict is not for us to know.
Yes, didn’t I say? Last Tuesday, in his bed, as peacefully as if he’d had nothing for which to repent. The whole parish was out of course, a black procession of the gullible in my eyes, but what can you do? People will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the sense of my sentiments. It’s been heard on the grapevine that a young couple a little way out on a farmstead saw his vision in a bowl of coffee the morning of his death. I’m sure I needn’t express my opinions on that.
So, what am I doing so far from Charroux, you ask? That’s rather an impertinent question, you know, but I suppose I might deign to answer: I’ve left the emotional reservoir that is my town for a few days to visit my dear husband’s grave. His people were from here, and even in death he was eager to return. His name was Béringer; do you remember him? Well, it has been forty years, I suppose. Forgive my handkerchief. No-one loved him comme moi.
Lyndsay Wheble is a writer and researcher on the UK’s South Coast. She has work upcoming in Side B Magazine in the US and writes and reviews books. She is currently editing her first novel, and has it on good authority that she is the only person who ever goes into her local café and orders marshmallow tea.