Weekend Walk After Sunset, Deep In The Country
People's Daily Paris
What the hell are you doing at a crossroads deep in the countryside, almost sunset in winter ? How did you get there ? You escaped Paris and suddenly you’re walking everywhere. You have to — no car. What self-respecting city type has one ? You walk the crease at the side of the road, surprised how often pull people over even if you never put your thumb out. You’re in la France Profonde, strange territory, anti-Paris. (You’ve already walked by one of those famous little picket signs, ‘Now Leaving France.’ Entering where ?)
Only out for a short stroll you tell yourself, but you’re dressed warmly. It’s only going to get colder. You said, ‘Won’t be gone long,’ to the other member of the party, grabbing your phone just in case. (Your phone which has no coverage out here in the sticks but you never go anywhere without it. Just in case.) The days are short, sun down at something like 5:22 in the afternoon, and there you are, heading into the unknown when it catches you unprepared. You spin around, just to check your options.
Go home, you tell yourself. Either that or climb the hill to Chalus, the old fortress town. If you want. What does want mean now, out here in the cold ? Intriguing name, steady incline leading to a little cluster of houses – why not ? You hug the edge of the road, cars flying by in the soft, velvety darkness.
You made an unspoken compact, completely at variance with your parting words : ‘Out walking til I drop.’ Ha ha ! You threw that down like a challenge and had no idea if you really meant it or not. Who said it precisely ? Your other self ? Is there another self inside the one that does the talking ? Are you malicious or merely contradictory or both ? Do you need to make excuses for the way the night grabs hold ? The phone isn’t picking up signals so there’s no one to share this stream of consciousness with anyway. Turns out to be a long slog up the hill.
You pass through the gates of town after hugging the routes at the edge of the fields, peering down from Chalus at the quiet, sleepy world. To be precise, you pitched off the well-paved, narrow two-lane and headed straight into muddy fields, walking in the tractor rut, telling yourself it was the faster. Ha ha ! again. You’ll believe anything you tell yourself, you laugh as boots sink into the muck. A pleasurable feeling despite the initial shock : just how far were you going into the earth ? Ooze up to your ankles. What next, you ask, leaning against the railing at the entrance to town.
A few lights on but nobody’s about. Crazy, you tell yourself. Only six in the evening. Of course there are no cafés in Chalus, no boulangerie. Incomprehensible, as far as you’re concerned. How do people get on ? The houses are clustered around the old fortress, the little hameau’s raison d’être. You peer up at the shadowy towers in the darkness as you squeeze in between the opening in the fence, proceeding to walk around like you own the place. Stupendous view from the top of the wall overlooking the valley. A scary creature dances in the sky, a winter spirit with the moon on fire in his head.
No guards around, not a sound. Your back slides down the wall, feet straight out in front, brogans caked with mud from the climb. You had to take the short cut that ran through the fields, passing the stunted trees writhing in the moonlight. Couldn’t stay on the main road that lead straight into town, not you. No signals on your phone so here you are incognito and unknown in a faraway hamlet.
Expecting a little drama now, aren’t you ? No alarms ring, no detection system. Isn’t there a guard, or, even better, the tortured spirit of the aristocratic duchess imprisoned centuries ago in this rural chateau, her ghost wailing when no one is around ? The one who poisoned her victims, you seem to remember hearing. Or a guard with weird proclivities, who rapes and tortures his victims before he eats them. (Feeding the bones to his dogs, who polish them off. The scattering of dry leaves is the sound of their jaws gnashing.) Nothing, just piercing silence. You’re fully and completely awake. Isn’t that what you came here for ?
Now we’re getting somewhere. Nothing happens. A lone vehicle purrs up the road, turns, finds its way through the narrow streets; you listen as the cars doors slam and a key slips in to the lock on the front door. Perfect silence. You can hear everything. Tree branches groaning in the wind sound like little bells. Who could endure nights like this, night after night, all winter long ? You were about to check the time on your useless phone but force yourself to go without knowing what minute it is, something you did in the city even when it didn’t matter anyway. You grab a stick to pry the mud out of the soles of your boots. I wonder if I’ll ever walk into a town on the main road, just the straight, open, easy way, you ask yourself. And then you cross your legs, settle in for the night. You want to test yourself, to see how long you can stay awake.
A few hours later — you’re guessing — it’s just too damn cold to sit still any longer so you stand up and after a short tour of the town you start back down the hill the way you came, taking the road down the hill in the pitch darkness. The church tower, a familiar sight out your window, isn’t so far away across the river plain.
You pass the megalithic houses on the route into town, where they leave their wash out to dry even in the wintertime. Maybe they forgot and won’t be back until spring ! Not a light on anywhere. Must be late. Now you remember that the mayor told you there was an old Spanish novelist living in one of these houses. Religious writer, the mayor said. Intriguing phrase ! Too late to see if the man is up now.
Now something funny happens. There are open fields on one side of the road on your way into town, and passing the stream where the horses pasture during the day, your phone lights up and starts beeping like mad. You’ve got a connection. You press the barbed wire between the points and head across the field. More beeping. Are the horses about ? Should you send a message now ? How late is it ? Your lover is worried. You reply, ‘Out late. Wonderfully still,’ as if the entire globe had come to a stop. Does no one go on walkabouts anymore ? Must we always be accounted for ? Silence from the other end, which sounds like bruised feelings to you, standing in the middle of a rough field. Is she going to come out with it and accuse you of abandoning her to the middle of the night in the strange, silent, empty, mysterious countryside ? Quite reasonable if she did. The horses are kicking the walls of their shed. They can tell you by your scent.
And now that your feet are killing you and you’ve pretty much kept the bargain, and even though you run into more weird creatures at the base of the church tower —
— where a light comes on just as someone climbs the tower to ring the bells, you throw yourself down on a bench in the little plaza and say, Done, fini, pas mal, first night in the country and nod off in the middle of your last cigarette. Daylight is everywhere when you come to, the even, filtered light of a stage set. You shake yourself off and head to the crossroads near the train station, saying outloud, I wonder if Grand Jas is open this time of year ? You rub your stomach in anticipation. I could eat an omelette with twenty-seven eggs, fit for a king, you say, your face pressing against the glass.
Updated version 21 Janvier and 16 Juillet 22. There’s always seems to be more to say about everything. All photos here, good, bad and in between, credit/copyright James Graham. High-res copies can be had for a reasonable offer.
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