A French Twist
Marion, South Australia
In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.
~ Albert Camus
‘Monsieur, how much further?’ Tess puffed as she struggled up the steep, dirt road.
Jeannot raised two wobbly fingers on his free hand and wheezed, ‘Deux kilometers.’
‘Je me sens … very tired … très fatigue!’
The trip up the mountain was arduous. After flights from Adelaide to Toulouse via Paris, the taxi trip in the old Renault should have been a breeze, not a major breakdown within kilometers of her destination. Too impatient to wait for help, Tess began hiking the remainder accompanied by Jeannot, the jovial taxi driver now carrying her knapsack. Tess was struggling in high heels, and her iPad, reputedly ‘the world’s thinnest, lightest tablet’, seemed to be gaining weight by the minute. Early September in the Cabardes region was still experiencing summer temperatures, and Rue de la Place leading up from the village carried very little traffic, seemingly none on a Sunday.
After all, it is leading to a retreat, grumbled Tess under her breath. Why would a recluse be mad enough to travel halfway around the world to a retreat? To meet other recluses! Tess amused herself by parodying her paradoxical situation.
‘Look, there … le vieux château.’ Jeannot exclaimed in an effort to cheer up his disgruntled foreign passenger.
Finally la maison grande was just in sight, and what a magnificent site. Not exactly a castle, but old and elegant.
Tess’s anticipation about arriving was now partially eclipsed by physical effort, but doubts about her month long sojourn still clouded her mind. She had not ventured far for many years and was anxious to leave her beloved dog with a house sitter. The decision to stay at La Muse, a retreat for writers and artists in Southern France, had not been made lightly; and 2015 seemed the right time to experience something of the world beyond computer and television screens.
Tess realised she was becoming reclusive; her physical world was shrinking. She rarely ventured beyond her letterbox and lived an almost monastic existence as she valued peace and order above the unpredictability of social situations. Tess knew she needed to broaden her horizons before she was too old, and the mountain retreat reflected her current contemplative life on a craggy cliff overlooking the South Australian coast. She would have been a lighthouse keeper if the job still existed. Besides, if my muse won’t come to me, I’ll go to La Muse…
Absorbed in thought, Tess barely heard the birdsong or saw the afternoon light daubing the thick foliage with a multitude of green hues, or smelt the pine needles, or sensed the cooling breeze, or the hum of an approaching car––
‘Beau jour, bienvenue … welcome, Madamoiselle Tess. We are expecting you.’ Dion, a La Muse employé, was graciously opening the passenger doors of the silver Citreoin courtesy car.
‘Oh … yes … oui, oui, beau jour …’ Tess had only a smattering of French, and without the help of Babel Fish, the only other word that came to mind was inappropriately pétanque. Admittedly, she did feel bowled over by the charming young Dionysus.
Dion, with his two charges onboard, glided up the mountain. The ease of the ride was matched only by the smoothness of his English with a twist of French. ‘Ah, Madamoiselle, you will enjoy La Muse! ‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention …’ You have Shakespeare in Austria, Australie … oui?’
Dion’s dialogue was as delectable as chateaubriand followed by crème brûlée.
Tess could now clearly see the grand French residence ‘enjoying sublime views of its own intimate valley and river’, just like the website promised.
As they arrived in the terracotta courtyard, the late afternoon sun enhanced the worn stone and chestnut wood of the imposing building and Dion continued to charm and inform. ‘La Muse was a weaver’s house in the 12th century—regardez, you can see some of the original structure. Avec le temps it was expanded by a landowner and his family to include neighboring maisons et rues.’
The La Muse was already weaving its magic as it had done for many centuries, now enchanting Tess and dissolving her doubts.
Dion added, ‘And last century, the house functioned as a convent.’
Suits me, smiled Tess.
Francoise, the flamboyant propriétaire, with great flurry greeted Tess and led her through the garden gate and terrace doors, past the kitchen, dining area, library and up two flights of stairs to her room ‘Erato’; named after the muse of love poetry. All main rooms were named after the nine muses of Greek mythology.
But where are the other dozen or so residents? wondered Tess. Retreating?
Within minutes of taking in the Impressionist view from her window; the elegantly furnished room with its high ceilings, original marble windowsills and fireplaces, and the oh-so-soft bed, Tess was asleep. She dreamt of a giant cocoon being spun into silken thread and woven into a translucent golden robe by a cast of characters, resembling Jeanotte, Dion and Francoise. A young dark haired woman, draped in a similar white robe, welcomed Tess ‘to your ancestral home. I am your past, votre grand-mère; and La Muse is your present, a precious gift. Use it well, mon cher.’
Upon waking Tess wondered if she had really been visited by her long deceased French grandmother, or perhaps had read too many chocolate wrappers on the flight over.
After showering and dressing in a fresh white tshirt, white jeans and tying a golden ribbon in her long dark hair, Tess was more than ready for the evening meal.
Most of the residences gathered in the rustic kitchen. There were international writers, visual artists, a New York chef, a Finnish composer and two very animated Italian film directors; as well as Dion, Francoise and gentle Jeanotte, still waiting for a mechanic. All shared in preparing the meal of cassaulot with Toulouse sausages, freshly baked brioche, herb salad and local red wine. Tess’s cynicism was lessening as she enjoyed the laughter and passionate discussion of ideas. The eclectic group of people cobbled together were generous and gregarious, and the plentiful wine was making her head spin. Tess was unwinding for the first time in years and began humming, potpourri and repartee, oh so sweet to feel replete, this retreat is quite a treat …
A distinct and familiar ‘woof’ shocked Tess into opening her eyes. Gizmo, Tess’s dog, was bounding towards her with unrestrained glee, followed by her partner Dani carrying hot fish and chips from The Broadway kiosk.
‘Have you started your story yet … or still daydreaming in the sun?’
Tess was stretched out on a grassy knoll at The Esplanade, South Glenelg, her iPad at her side. She remembered she had been researching writers retreats, the subject of her next short story.
‘Oui! I mean … yes. Writer at work. Hey, how does France next year appeal? I’ve been googling retreats, and well, the present is a gift, after all.’
Bio: Judith Bruton photographs and paints poetic Australian seascapes, and has quirky stories/poems published in anthologies and online: narratorInternational Vol 2, 2015, narratorAustralia Vol 4, 2014, Vol 2, 3, 2013; Salt Breezes, Dangerously Poetic Press 2014, Alfiedog.com including Came as ‘I’, Left as ‘We’ 2013, Short and Twisted 2011, 2012, 2013; ABC Open 2013; Relay, Marion Writers Inc 2011; Avant New Writing 2009. Shortlisted for the Alan Marshall Short Story Award 2010.
Please visit: judithbruton.com