Lieu dit Balleres
Heat pulsed off the granite mountain and the shadeless track carved into it. I turned off the track, heading down the steep, ill-made concrete path leading to my friend Yvonne’s topsy-turvy rental house.
Once past the stone bulk of the house the roar of white water drowned out the racketing hum of cicadas. I took the heavy iron key from its hiding place, sending fluffy-legged Silkie chickens scattering squawking in protest. Jean-Jean the white cockerel, imperious and toddler-tall, crowed from the doorway of the henhouse, cobbled together from scavenged pallets and planks tacked onto the wooden frame of a swing, with heavy rocks, hand-hefted from the river, protecting the wire enclosure from burrowing foxes and wild boar.
From the pot plant-filled terrace, with its rotten wooden railings and motley collection of tables and chairs, I climbed the steps to the porch, the river winking up at me from between grey boulders and emerald-leaved chestnut trees.
The heavy wooden front door opened straight onto a narrow living space, its outsized copper fireplace hood, inset terracotta water urn and pink marble sink hinting at some previous incarnation: a bakery, perhaps. Yvonne’s leather sofa, tub chair and heavy, glass-topped table appeared too big, too slick in the ramshackle room.
The winter before had been my friend’s first in the house, and with the Tramontane screaming down the chimney and snowmelt puddling the floor, the open fire had barely cut through the chill.
Yvonne’s French boyfriend Daniel was in the final stages of lung cancer that summer, so most afternoons I walked down to feed her cats and chickens, giving her time to visit him at the hospice between her shift work as a dental assistant and looking after her children; Betty, 15, and Arno, 12.
Reaching up to an iPod dock squeezed on a narrow shelf alongside a bottle of Mount Gay rum and a tin box of rolling papers, tobacco and weed, I pressed play. ‘Blister in the Sun’ by The Violent Femmes blasted out at full volume: I turned it down and looked around.
Yvonne had been making cushion covers for me, and her old Elna sewing machine was sitting on the purple plastic-covered tabletop alongside a tower of colourful, neatly pressed squares of fabric and a box of assorted used zips, buttons and other fasteners.
Two big paintings dominated the room: one, a portrait of her favourite, long-dead dog (‘No regrets’ scrawled across it like an artist’s signature), and the other a vivid purple and orange hibiscus flower. There was also a board of photos, taken over the past eighteen months, mainly featuring Yvonne and Daniel, on their own, with Betty and Arno and with me and my boyfriend.
A studio portrait of her daughter Betty and her sister Elise and family, wearing clogs and traditional Dutch costume, hung above the door to Yvonne’s bedroom. (A coffin-shaped hole in the corner of her bedroom housed the precipitous stairs down to the bathroom and a large, white tiled space, which Yvonne had roughly divided with shelving and a curtain to make bedrooms for Betty and Arno.)
The kitchen lay to the right of Yvonne’s bedroom door, separated from the living space by a half-wall, covered that afternoon with produce from her garden and the market: cucumbers and courgettes, oranges piled high in a vast milky-green bowl, gnarly yellow and orange carrots, long black radishes. A re-purposed glass cabinet glowed with the fruits of her labour: jars of bright orange marmalades, rich fruit cordials, pickled purple figs, apricot and plum compotes, and jams in every flavour.
I checked the linen bag for dry bread ends, and took these and the bucket of food scraps down to the chickens, taking pleasure in their homely clucking while scattering the food and searching for eggs. There were four warm and three cold eggs, including a chocolate-brown one, big as a child’s fist, and a pointy green one scarcely bigger than a quail’s egg. Back in the kitchen, as instructed, I pencilled the date on the eggs before arranging them in a little wire-mesh cupboard, having first consigned older ones to the bottom shelf.
Knowing that Yvonne wouldn’t be back till late, I checked the fridge. Seeing the gargantuan silver tuna head donated by the fishmonger at that morning’s market in Céret, and knowing there’d be Nam Pla, chilli sauce, lime leaves, ginger, dried galangal and coconut milk in the crowded store cupboard, I decided to make a Thai fish soup. Since Yvonne, like many Dutch people, has a sweet tooth, the cupboard also accommodated homemade chestnut purees, tooth-achingly sweet marrons glacés and nostalgia-inducing Dutch specialities such as Speculaas biscuits, Hagelslag chocolate sprinkles and Dutch Lady condensed milk.
I filled a tall stainless steel pan with water, and put it on to boil, then took strong white onions, lemongrass and concertina’ed tomatoes out to the tiny upstairs terrace, whose flat-topped walls were crowded with unusual cacti, collected and propagated by Yvonne. As I prepared the vegetables, I smiled at a carrot homunculus, complete with arms, legs and wispy penis, which someone had leant up against a cactus with a fake-seeming green and purple tartan pattern.
Back in the kitchen I added the chopped ingredients to the pan then slipped the tuna head in alongside them. As it bobbed up and down, all gold-rimmed black eye and downturned mouth, Yvonne’s white Persian cats appeared from nowhere, mewling and twisting around my legs.
I fed them, thinking about her favourite kitten whose dusty, twisted body she’d discovered a few weeks before beside the green wheelie bins at the switchback of the road down to Reynes. We’d buried it together, digging the hole deep and backfilling it with rocks as she wailed like a six-year old, wiping stringy snot and tears away with the muddy back of her hand.
Tears not just for the kitten, I felt, but for Daniel, and the life they’d never live together.