Lady K's blog

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays


Title: Chocolat

Author: Joanne Harris

Chapter 1

February 11, Shrove Tuesday

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying
pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with
the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter. There is
a febrile excitement in the crowds which line the narrow main street, necks craning to catch sight of the
crepe-covered char with its trailing ribbons and paper rosettes. Anouk watches, eyes wide, a yellow balloon
in one hand and a toy trumpet in the other, from between a shopping-basket and a sad brown dog. We have
seen carnivals before, she and I; a procession of two hundred and fifty of the decorated chars in Paris last
Mardi Gras, a hundred and eighty in New York, two dozen marching bands in Vienna, clowns on stilts, the
Grosses Tetes with their lolling papier-mache heads, drum majorettes with batons spinning and sparkling.
But at six the world retains a special lustre. A wooden cart, hastily decorated with gilt and crepe and scenes
from fairy tales. A dragon's head on a shield, Rapunzel in a woollen wig, a mermaid with a Cellophane tail, a
gingerbread house all icing and gilded cardboard, a witch in the doorway, waggling extravagant green fingernails at a group of silent children… At six it is possible to perceive subtleties which a year later arealready out of reach. Behind the papier-mache, the icing, the plastic, she can still see the real witch, the real magic. She looks up at me, her eyes, which are the blue-green of the Earth seen from a great height, shining.


‘Are we staying? Are we staying here?’ I have to remind her to speak French. `But are we? Are we?’ Sheclings to my sleeve.

Her hair is a candyfloss tangle in the wind.

I consider. It's as good a place as any. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, two hundred souls at most, no more thana blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Blink once and it's gone. One main street, a doublerow of dun coloured half-timbered houses leaning secretively together, a few laterals running parallel likethe tines of a bent fork. A church, aggressively whitewashed, in a square of little shops. Farms scatteredacross the watchful land. Orchards, vineyards, strips of earth enclosed and regimented according to the
strict apartheid of country farming: here apples, there kiwis, melons, endives beneath their black plastic
shells, vines looking blighted and dead in the thin February sun but awaiting triumphant resurrection by
March… Behind that, the Tannes, small tributary of the Garonne, fingers its way across the marshy pasture.
And the people? They look much like all others we have known; a little pale perhaps in the unaccustomed
sunlight, a little drab. Headscarves and berets are the colour of the hair beneath, brown, black or grey. Faces
are lined like last summer's apples, eyes pushed into wrinkled flesh like marbles into old dough. A few children,
flying colours of red and lime-green and yellow, seem like a different race. As the char advances ponderously
along the street behind the old tractor which pulls it, a large woman with a square, unhappy face
clutches a tartan coat about her shoulders and shouts something in the half-comprehensible local dialect; on
the wagon a squat Santa Claus, out-of-season amongst the fairies and sirens and goblins, hurls sweets at the
crowd with barely restrained aggression. An elderly small-featured man, wearing a felt hat rather than the
round beret more common to the region, picks up the sad brown dog from between my legs with a look of
polite apology. I see his thin graceful fingers moving in the dog's fur; the dog whines; the master's expression
becomes complex with love, concern, guilt. No-one looks at us. We might as well be invisible; our clothing
marks us as strangers, transients. They are polite, so polite; no-one stares at us. The woman, her long
hair tucked into the collar of her orange coat, a long silk scarf fluttering at her throat; the child in yellow
wellingtons and sky-blue mac. Their colouring marks them. Their clothes are exotic, their faces – are they
too pale or too dark? – their hair marks them other, foreign, indefinably strange. The people of Lansquenet
have learned the art of observation without eye contact. I feel their gaze like a breath on the nape of my
neck, strangely without hostility but cold nevertheless. We are a curiosity to them, a part of the carnival, a
whiff of the outlands. I feel their eyes upon us as I turn to buy a galette from the vendor. The paper is hot
and greasy, the dark wheat pancake crispy at the edges but thick and good in the centre. I break off a piece
and give it to Anouk, wiping melted butter from her chin. The vendor is a plump, balding man with thickglasses, his face slick with the steam from the hot plate. He winks at her. With the other eye he takes in every detail, knowing there will be questions later.


‘On holiday, Madame?’ Village etiquette allows him to ask; behind his tradesman's indifference I see a real
hunger. Knowledge is currency here; with Agen and Montauban so close, tourists are a rarity.
‘For a while.’
‘From Paris, then?’ It must be our clothes. In this garish land the people are drab. Colour is a luxury; it
wears badly. The bright blossoms of the roadside are weeds, invasive, useless.

`No, no, not Paris.’


The char is almost at the end of the street. A small band – two fifes, two trumpets, a trombone and a side
drum – follows it, playing a thin unidentifiable march. A dozen children scamper in its wake, picking up the
unclaimed sweets. Some are in costume; I see Little Red Riding Hood and a shaggy person who might be the
wolf squabbling companionably over possession of a handful of streamers.
A black figure brings up the rear. At first I take him for a part of the parade – the Plague Doctor, maybe –
but as he approaches I recognize the old-fashioned soutane of the country priest. He is in his thirties,
though from a distance his rigid stance makes him seem older. He turns towards me, and I see that he too is
a stranger, with the high cheekbones and pale eyes of the North and long pianist's fingers resting on the silver
cross which hangs from his neck. Perhaps this is what gives him the right to stare at me, this alienness;
but I see no welcome in his cold, light eyes. Only the measuring, feline look of one who is uncertain of his
territory. I smile at him; he looks away, startled, beckons the two children towards him. A gesture indicates
the litter which now lines the road; reluctantly the pair begin to clear it, scooping up spent streamers and
sweet-wrappers in their arms and into a nearby bin. I catch the priest staring at me again as I turn away, a
look which in another man might have been of appraisal.
There is no police station at Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, therefore no crime. I try to be like Anouk, to see beneath

the disguise to the truth, but for now everything is blurred.


‘Are we staying? Are we, Maman?’ She tugs at my arm, insistently. `I like it, I like it here. Are we staying?’
I catch her up into my arms and kiss the top of her head. She smells of smoke and frying pancakes and
warm bedclothes on a winter's morning. Why not? It's as good a place as any.

`Yes, of course,' I tell her, my mouth in her hair. `Of course we are.’ Not quite a lie. This time it may evenbe true.


The carnival is gone. Once a year the village flares into transient brightness but even now the warmth has
faded, the crowd dispersed. The vendors pack up their hotplates and awnings, the children discard their costumes
and party favours. A slight air of embarrassment prevails, of abashment at this excess of noise and
colour. Like rain in midsummer it evaporates, runs into the cracked earth and through the parched stones,
leaving barely a trace. Two hours later Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is invisible once more, like an enchanted
village which appears only once every year. But for the carnival we should have missed it altogether.
We have gas but as yet no electricity. On our first night I made pancakes for Anouk by candlelight and we
ate them.by the fireside, using an old magazine for plates, as none of our things can be delivered until
tomorrow. The shop was originally a bakery and still carries the baker's wheatsheaf carved above the narrow
doorway, but the floor is thick with a floury dust, and we picked our way across a drift of junk mail as we
came in. The lease seems ridiculously cheap, accustomed as we are to city prices; even so I caught the sharp
glance of suspicion from the woman at the agency as I counted out the banknotes. On the lease document I
am Vianne Rocher, the signature a hieroglyph which might mean anything. By the light of the candle we
explored our new territory; the old ovens still surprisingly good beneath the grease and soot, the pinepanelled
walls, the blackened earthen tiles. Anouk found the old awning folded away in a back-room and we
dragged it out; spiders scattered from under the faded canvas. Our living area is above the shop; a bedsit
and washroom, ridiculously tiny balcony, terracotta planter with dead geraniums… Anouk made a face when she saw it.


`It's so dark, Maman.’ She sounded awed, uncertain in the face of so much dereliction. `And it smells sosad.’


She is right. The smell is like daylight trapped for years until it has gone sour and rancid, of mousedroppings
and the ghosts of things unremembered and unmourned. It echoes like a cave, the small heat of
our presence only serving to accentuate every shadow. Paint and sunlight and soapy water will rid us of the
grime, but the sadness is another matter, the forlorn resonance of a house where no-one has laughed for years. Anouk's face looked pale and large-eyed in the candlelight, her hand tightening in mine.


`Do we have to sleep here?’ she asked. `Pantoufle doesn't like it. He's afraid.’

I smiled and kissed her solemn golden cheek. `Pantoufle is going to help us.’


We lit a candle for every room, gold and red and white and orange. I prefer to make my own incense, but
in a crisis the bought sticks are good enough for our purposes, lavender and cedar and lemongrass. We each
held a candle, Anouk blowing her toy trumpet and I rattling a metal spoon in an old saucepan, and for ten
minutes we stamped around every room, shouting and singing at the top of our voices – Out! Out! Out! until
the walls shook and the outraged ghosts fled, leaving in their wake a faint scent of scorching and a good deal
of fallen plaster. Look behind the cracked and blackened paintwork, behind the sadness of things
abandoned, and begin to see faint outlines, like the after-image of a sparkler held in the hand – here a wall
adazzle with golden paint, there an armchair, a little shabby, but coloured a triumphant orange, the old
awning suddenly glowing as half-hidden colours slide out from beneath the layers of grime. Out! Out! Out!
Anouk and Pantoufle stamped and sang and the faint images seemed to grow brighter – a red stool beside

the vinyl counter, a string of bells

against the front door. Of course, I know it's only a game. Clamours to

comfort a frightened child. There'll have to be work done, hard work, before any of this becomes real. And
yet for the moment it is enough to know that the house welcomes us, as we welcome it. Rock salt and bread
by the doorstep to placate any resident gods. Sandalwood on our pillow, to sweeten our dreams.
Later Anouk told me Pantoufle wasn't frightened any more, so that was all right. We slept together in our
clothes on the floury mattress in the bedroom with all the candles burning, and when we awoke it was

morning.


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2 Comments:

  • At February 11, 2009 at 5:29 AM , Blogger Kitty said...

    hi Keyla
    I'll have to come back when I have more time to read.

    I wonder how to solve this strange formatting thing with your text? there must be a way.

    I was reading a recent New Yorker magazine. If you can get it, try to. The writing is excellent. They had a long, long tribute to John Updike, whose books I've never read, and now hope to.

    Their online version is great, too. http://www.newyorker.com/

     
  • At February 11, 2009 at 8:57 AM , Blogger Chris said...

    Hi! I thought I'd answer you on your blog to make sure you see it.

    Weekly Geeks was created by a blogger named Dewey. She passed away in November and as a tribute to her a group of bloggers decided to keep it going. There is more information on the website: weeklygeeks.com

    Please join in anytime you'd like! Just put up your post and then use Mr Linky on weeklygeeks.com to link to it.

     

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