The rain is still pitter-patting around my silent house, large drops, after the enormous thunderstorm. We drove through it all the way from Birdhaven, it became hectic on Linksfield road where hail began. The hail, which had the little Mathilde and Apolline hysterical with joy as we approached the Airport, was growing bigger with each kilometer. You just don't get that kind of storm in lowlands of the Pas de Calais. The chatter from the back seat matched the cracking sound of the rather large stones hitting the windscreen and the car body.
I felt strangely alien in the swirling crowds of the departure desks, the coffee shops and the stringent controls, the girls were giggling through. They made it with their precarious passports and unabridged birth certificates and a little too much peri-peri sauce from Nando's in the hand luggage. They will have to make their own in St. Omer. Then they were gone, flying to the north.
The pillar of strength, Gaelle who was there through the weeks of the trauma of Aline's pain and death, drove back with me, in near silence punctuated by her knowledgeable navigation commands. Then Gaelle was gone and the house was bereft of chatting people and permanently active, bright little girls and very caring larger ones.
Just a little blue box on the window sill. It seems only a bit lighter than the live person I picked-up in my arms only ten days ago and carried to her bed.
I lit every possible light inside and outside of the house, tidied up a little but not too much, it's better to go slowly. Every candle is burning.
Now is the time to start again.
The beginning of the last lap. Without those familiar sounds and pictures of forty-five years.
Christopher Robin and I decided to go to town. We had to buy revolvers and Christopher Robin knew where to get them. Although the place was only a mile or so from where we lived, it was a long way to me, at the time. But I took it in my stride; we had to have the guns as there were Red Indians in the apple orchard. We turned left onto the main road.
At that time we lived in a strangely elongated property which sat discretely and comfortably in a downtown suburb of the capital, its entrance not far from the beach on Green Street. A high and roughly hewn pink granite wall ran most of the length of the farm. That’s what it was for my father: a farm, one he had always wanted. It was small for a farm so we called it a ‘market garden’. This title conferred a certain professionalism, neither with pretension, nor betraying the actual acreage of the place.
At the very north end was an enclave, formed by high reddish stone walls, smartly faced rocks, neatly arranged and perfectly pointed with cement. It was the apple orchard, and it seemed to me an odd place for the fearsome local Apache Warriors to install their camp.
I was a little more in awe of a most austere edifice, sitting in our fragranced garden, in the north-east corner. A powerfully constructed granite fortification of the Napoleonic era was originally a blockhouse, used as a munitions store for the town. The structure was built at the same time as the Town Fort which frowns down from its great height upon the inhabitants of St. Helier, Jersey Island. Then it became a more sociable peacetime utility, guarding the island’s stock of fire-works for an event long awaited by every child: Guy Fawkes – “Remember, remember, the fifth of November.” Although all the town children were sure the building contained guns and ammunition enough for an army behind the enormous steel door. “Heaven knows what would happen to us if the store exploded,” I remember my mother exclaiming. All I could think of was that it might then destroy the Red Indian Camp which was not far away.
Just before the 5th of November, the great bunker was visited by merchants, police and firemen checking stock and licenses and making sure that everything was safe and would only explode when required to do so.
Unable to procure arms from our own locked armoury, my brother and I were forced to outsource, and so we began our quest along that busy main road. Although cars passed by only every now and then, I could not cross alone as I was only five years old. There was no tunnel in those days, no two lane highway, no funny circles and flashing lights. When we arrived at the main junction, Christopher Robin indicated in his inimitable way, with the disdain of having to cart along such a ‘small person’: “We go left here, through the old quarry.” I followed of course, what else? He had all the contacts and they were vital to our cause.
We walked on into the terrifying gorge of dynamite-blasted black granite cliffs as the light faded and new shadows appeared at each rock crevice. Slowly and carefully, I followed my brother, confident in his size and worldliness. He knew the way and he was nearly nine. These imposing vertical walls of dark stone closed in steadily. We pushed on along the pavements. Occasionally great rushes of air blew at our tussles of hair and rustled in our shirts and shorts when great green and cream buses groaned past on their way to some place distant and foreign.
At last, rays of light and hope reached us as the far exit became visible, and we passed by the old locomotive turntable. This was the Bus Station and the old railway station for the Eastern Line. Light and movement and people returned to envelop us, but, like in any busy place, they ignored us. Snow Hill, which had never seen snow, now opened the gate to the burbling business centre of the town.
On I walked, well behind, but not losing sight of Christopher Robin. He did not want to be seen with me. There may have been friends of his that he wished to be able to greet, unencumbered. We wound through the bright streets of the town, heading always to that place where arms might be procured.
The Red Triangle sign was obvious at the far northern corner of the New Market, a granite-faced and wrought-iron building dominating the centre of town, and mainly there to supply the townsfolk with fresh produce. Its shape and colour ferried the idea of some exotic trade or traffic. Inside the store an old man sat quietly on a stool behind the counter, intensely contemplating his tool-kits and alarm clocks. For an instant he looked down over the counter. He saw us and looked away again. He was not going to be disturbed by customers. We browsed, tourist-like, then harpooned his attention by pretending to peruse the expensive plastic Airfix kits of the giant Lancaster Bomber in 500 parts with instant glue and cellulose paint included, and with full instruction sheet in the Queen’s English.
The storekeeper glided over. “Can I help you, young gentlemen?”
Our faces turned red, but Christopher Robin was first to find his breath. “We require two revolvers, Sir! We have money.” The dealer straightway led us to the back room, where he delivered wooden boxes from their moleskin dust covers; exotic markings of something like ‘US Cavalry’ were quickly hidden from our view. “We’ll not be concerned where they’re from as long as they work. And no rust please!” Christopher Robin knew his stuff; I enjoyed a moment of fraternal pride. The deal was done. We emerged from the back room, paid in cash and left the shop quickly and discretely, packages tucked into our shorts.
The return journey was longer. I had chosen a big blue Remington with a long barrel. My mistake was obvious immediately with the first steps I took along the street. Christopher Robin seemed to suffer less from this problem. He had chosen a small Colt with an easy action and he was bigger than me so the barrel did not reach so far from its place inside his belt. I was never able to carry my enormous revolver for more than a few minutes as my wrist was too weak. I cursed my big eyes and small hands and coveted Christopher Robin’s elegant choice of weapon. He could carry his and so he won all the battles! My brother seemed to have, in his earlier years, an innate perception of elegance, proportion and style. He was born 4 years before me and seemed to have taken my share of these qualities.
The disparity in our size and our difference in age and in choices became a permanent feature in the following days and years. Our battle to expel the Red Indians from the orchard continued for a while, but we soon grew weary of the conflict which faded away in the face of many other events. Birthday parties, visitors and finally school term removed us from the idyllic dream world of our smallholding. We probably made friends with every pretend enemy and thereby saved a considerable amount of pocket money on ammunition and sticking plasters. The lessons learnt stayed with me, but I probably ignored them − behaviour in keeping with the family môres. The guns have gone along with the fragrant flowers, and the apple trees probably died with the last Apache.