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Abroad

A Village Prepares
Callum Ruddock

Long read

I have always described Castelnau-Barbarens as being like an island. The village on the hill, whose winding throughways, seasonally covered by trees, rise high up off the landscape, protruding from the fields like a steep mountain from the sea. It commands respect from the terrain in a way that only a child appreciates; when small eyes face the trunk of a large camphor, neck craned upward in awe. There isn’t a straight line in the village, shackled to the hillside, each lane seems to defy sense with some of oldest houses having begun to lean into the street.

Atop the hill is a church. Beside it, resting on a border wall is a toposcope set in marble; its worn inscription draws attention to varying local scenes, all of which are oblivious to the weight of the sun. There, outside the one shop, in front of the one school, on some run-down farm, people’s lives play out in a perpetual state of rural monotony, offering lessons in slowness and how best to spend one’s life.
    You could reason that Castelnau, the stony outcrop, a mere black dot on any map of the Gers, delicately sandwiched between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central, might be some jerkwater wash-up. An old town, with old buildings, old people and an old regimen. Yet on one of its rich unruffled days, no amount of distance will get between you, Le Monde, and breakfast, no reclusion will slow the fibre optic internet, and there is no greater rush experienced than that of buying one’s morning bread in Castelnau. 

Because, in the town whose name is now foreign even to its inhabitants; behind the shutters of bastide homes; each a different shape and shade of that same stone, one finds a concerned French smile and warm welcome. As attentive locals swarm the baker’s idling Peugeot, gaze politely over shoulders, hesitate between fresh, hot baguette, and flaky oil croissants, for which the region is famed. Bide your time and strike with a definite, ‘Excusez-moi!
    Once the sortie ends, climb the hill again. Take to the tilt with your bread in hand and admire the view. In the winter months, if you do not look too hard, strain your eyes, and make out the buildings, you might mistake the place for England. The fields share the same curves as home. The same sharp dulcet tones. The same promise of springtime resurrection. And then, in the shadow of a cliff, you might find my grandmother’s courtyard; where white pebbles carpet the ground, a few beans grow out from wooden boxes and a grove of stout olive trees stand, rooted, waiting for me to tend to their bitter harvest come autumn.

This is not England, as the arrival of summer reveals to me. A landscape transformed, sufficiently dry that any plum exposed to the warmth shrivels and cracks no sooner than it falls from mother tree. An ignition of browns, greys, and greens, with dead fruit under foot and a vast sky that welcomes the coming solstice, high up, under an old lamppost. The te du Rondeau de Castelnau-Barbarens will soon begin. Nothing like the melancholic country fairs of Britain’s village greens, a provincial beacon sworn to the cause of the Gascogne and quite aware of its own peculiarity.
    People are rushing up and down Castelnau’s steps. They skirt the village’s petanque patch, behind a towering bush, over the trickling river Arrats, and past the plant pots that mark the corner of each street. No one seems to take the route, not that there is one, on their way to the grand staircase that kneels before the Church.


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Swarms of strange looking indigenous wasps play havoc with lunch. I watch as they pick up pebbles from the drive and use them to block their larvae’s burrows. I do much the same by placing whole boiled potatoes into my mouth. To chew requires intent; interested only in managing the thick southern heat, nourishment and conversation inevitably lead to fatigue. I have been in Castelnau for just over a week, here with family to burn off some of my seriousness. This village has invariably fixed me, letting my mind out to pasture. So, I jog when I can; drink as if it were a vocation. I wear Birkenstocks because I think I’m contemporary. I don’t get invested in anything with much meaning. I fight with my mum about my amibitions, with my father about politics. I cook badly. I eat too much and cry too little. I am happy.

Calm now, with my head pressed onto an exterior wall, I watch my sister apply rainwater, stored in large tanks beneath the house, to a browning garden that wants so desperately to succumb to the warmth. Dryness brings order, with it everything crisps. I can feel it on my face and on my arms, spreading along my limbs, it informs a conscious effort to settle for half an hour’s slump, my eyes blurring and then quickly closing shut.
    As the sky’s pitch dulls and lunch settles within me, the brass doorbell hanging on the veranda beyond begins to swing. The post, a Gallic looking woman sporting sunglasses that idle beneath her bell-bottomed hair. She is an old hand, the climate having weathered her more than most, the postal service look completed with a sheen of cheap sun cream and a sweaty hairband. As familiar as Castelnau’s empty church on Sunday and the metre of our neighbour’s morning cough, her arrival is heralded with little fanfare. Following the muffled murmurs of friendly conversation coming through the summer kitchen, I nod, breaking into agreement, grimace and offer a groggy hello as she extends a bulky arm from out her yellow van, placing letters wrapped in elastic onto our ashen postbox.

No mail for me. I have no serious fans yet; not even the postie, who daren’t come any closer out of fear or something else. A few years back the house was hit by lightning with such force that it knocked the sockets from the walls and exploded a prized electronic piano with a puff. From then on, she has refused to come anywhere near us, and though I can’t be sure the two are linked she has always seemed liked the superstitious type.

I am wound up, here to idle. May was awash with change, the end of an old relationship, new work, bigger problems. June on the other hand might end without me having fallen into something momentous, which I feel is entirely deserved. I can hear people gathering and the rasp of a dog off its lead, so decide I should take a walk, heading up towards the barks and the groans, the sound coming from somewhere between far and near, up the hill, as everything in the village.

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Castelnau feels decidedly inland, fed by two roads, one at the tip (En Caillau) and one at the base (Le Basté), both of which point west towards Auch or otherwise navigate east via Gimont towards Toulouse. Policed only occasionally, I have fond memories of my cousin’s old MG; driving past Castelnau’s extremities, the island meeting its proverbial sea, its waves the borderless field of corn, sunflower, and wheat; swept by the very same wind that now buffets my groggy cheeks.  

Where the top road meets the clock tower and the church lies just beyond, a group of men are unloading a pallet truck laden with pieces of puzzle shaped sprung wooden dance floor. The village’s steeple is not attached to its church, it is a single separate spire with a sharp lightening rod at its summit. Taut. Rigid. Upright. Guarding a small square. Marking the point from which everything else is downhill.

The men shout across the noise of a diesel generator, adding to its fumes those of their cigarettes. The most impressive looking is the foreman who in a dramatic act swirls his hand about, choosing to barely inhale so as to project great twirls of smoke all over-smoking for show, which impresses me more than it should. With a quick inward flick, he rotates his cigarette towards the ground, clearing its burn of the ash that blocks his satisfaction. He splutters, spit squirts past my arms and onto my sandals.
    This should bother me, but it does not. Catching his breath he shouts, “un peu à gauche”, his crew seeming to know just how far, before swiftly loading himself onto his flatbed and disappearing into the countryside.

The stage having been carefully assembled, gives way to a group of teachers who take it in turns to arrange some sixty jumpy schoolchildren into lines longways. The elders, try as they might to help the young’uns, rely on the teachers to do much of the captaining. The sound of little feet on the wooden floor spawnss cries of sheer joy, stomping and giggling, singing Gascogne songs as they go. Immersed in their own petite Rondeau, it does not matter that they will miss the main event, a bigger show yet to come–the Fête itself welcoming 3000 to dance.

Old mothers usher their granddaughters into the shade of poplar trees. These are the children of farmers and union men and women; friends of the Socialist party’s agricultural wing to whom words like culture, texture, richness, and legacy best describe an ideology rich in the land and steeped in local sentiment. Where bio means environmentalism and small holdings equal the way things ought to be, their France is not mine.
    Take the plants that grow here, cacti and lavender, found in most village gardens; lauded and tended to, they adore poor soils above all else. The worse the better, in stark contradiction to the much-touted fertility of the region. I do not claim to be an agriculturalist but even I can see the comedy in these tiny farms built on barren sods. Not that it matters. People want tradition not monopoly and they’re entitled to that. They’re not extraordinary but do contribute to a set of extraordinary features in Castelnau.

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Resting underneath the emban on Chemin Midi de Fosses, two old men are sat shoulder to shoulder performing folk songs on a pair of worn melodeons. This asks of them but a little delicate force, their boxes breathing, letting off mildly unattractive sounds. For a while I stand and listen. The two men seem happy, their toes tapping, mouths flapping, undeterred by the threat of a crowd.
            “We do this every year. Come play and not much else.”

When a crowd does eventually come it is not for a tuneful air but to appeal for quiet. Led by a man with a barrel of a chest, the mob begins to sing. His name is Victor. A man who carries the look of eternal anxiety, as if he might sing the wrong words and the glares given in answer might ruin him. I take a little risk and join, conscious that I truthfully do not know the words and he does not know if I am meant to accompany him. Across the thick air, onto my lips, I trace each vowel sound with a growing focus. Every song seems to be a hymn. Every clap is misplaced. I practice saying the word “croix” out loud, I may need it later.

A woman introduces herself. I have seen her around – the committee agenda setting type. Looking at me especially keenly through her small circular glasses, she plants two kisses onto my cheeks, and asks, “Have you come to do anything important, or simply gaze?” I burrow my brow and release a wafer of wit, “Bah non madame, mainly to nose about in everybody’s business”.

If she were a flavour, she’d be tar soap; that or gone-off melon. Her liquor like personality likely to offend the fragile. A sandpaper like woman who was once nearly ambitious; I heard she used to write for legacy magazines like the Paris Review. An exaggeration of life if I ever heard it, though it wouldn’t surprise me. Down here in the Sud people find the overtly agreeable perturbed, concerned because one doesn’t trust one’s own judgement. To dislike is to express individuality; I might well learn to be less nice.

She takes out a plain recycled paper notepad and begins to write in pencil. A swirling scratch emerges, the sound calming me, as if I can hear her thoughts emerging from the paper. Wasted in the city, though never at home in the country, Castelnau is her best work, her depiction carrying warm tone and heart and depth. Maybe writing something important about the doom and gloom of me. Her tenth book, first edition (without revision)–annoying young men with questions, or notes from a district court judge. This unnamed woman reflects the town. She acts important and so is, deciding on the colours of new doors and the scope of events, the Rondeau included. Part of keeping the quartier together. I trust her, too rude to be deceitful, agreeing to take her dog with me, promising to escort it home. Like an emaciated rat it follows me down yet more stairs towards more fanfare.

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The latest noise comes from a man who is thumping two hammers, out of time mind you, against a metal beam. It is an odd form of music whose thwomps ask of the backing of two violins. He concentrates hard on his task, to the point that his awkwardness becomes part of the experience.
    By the D40 road, I kick some stones and notice the smooth roads. When it rains the pristine tarmac turns from a baked grey to a pitch black. This wasn’t always the case. The Castelnau of my childhood was, if anything, a little scruffy. When the Tour de France came to town the mayor became a one-man lobbying brigade. With the Tour commission in tow, I imagine him having said,
            “Maybe the route could come down this street? And how about this one? We should definitely repave this road that no one uses. It’s a matter of civic duty. It needs to happen; this isn’t up for debate.”

I meet Cleon next, a large man, wanting for hygiene, whom our family has known since childhood. He too struggles with Castelnau’s Avant Garde music scene, larger than life, derived from honest instinct; born of hard work and a small pool of friends. A good cook too like a packhorse who makes quince jelly and a decent fruit loaf. Pan du Fruit or something like that. He tells me he is making a film about “the gays”. I turn to him and say nothing.
            “It’s a film for film people. Your gardner’s gardner would like it.”
I point out the new tarmac on the road.
I notice I am lingering.

Into the village’s only bar, which is calm in the French style, kept by three unfamiliar farmers, its regulars. I order a beer and some peanuts served with a view of the lower village. With opening hours like “chef didn’t feel like it” and “Mondays, if we haven’t run out of beer”, it is rougher than it need be. Spirals of fly tape sprout from the ceiling like stalactites coated in flies and a few especially confident moths. An old man sits down next to me, takes my beer to hold down his newspaper, waits a few seconds and lets off a small huff that is just slightly more well-mannered than a sigh. The barman decides the dog should have some fizzy water.
            “It deserves a treat, right?”
            The dog does not like fizzy water.

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The day is gathering momentum now. Outside, sunrays are falling on terracotta roofs. The men take off towards the Foyer Rural, a stuffy, mouldy village hall with little to say about itself. By means of a story about his ex-wife’s new-husband’s racing bike, the older of the three keeps me updated about plans to refurbish; applying to the ever-generous pocket of Macron’s treasury; protection from Paris in the form of a rough rural community centre. It will be “something modern, if a little brash,” he assures me, and with a kind confidence shakes my hand and heads off to eat.

When I bring up the building on Google maps, I find a review left by a local. ‘Merci aux élus de nous avoir laissépasser une nuit en car.’ - Thank you elected officials for letting us spend a night in the bus. Which makes me laugh and think of other rural occupations, the voiture sans permis, toy like cars that anyone aged 14 or over can take out on the road with as little as four hours' experience, sometimes not even that. Petrol powered gee wizzs’ with a beret; let rip on Castelnau’s roads and the carpark of this civic assembly, come weekly Wednesday.

Under the benevolent gaze of the Pyrenees chain, Castelnau soon rises before me, its wide embrace seeming without end. A fence for the Iberian and France’s southern spine, I trace its outline on the horizon as if I were running my fingers along its stony vertebrae. I’m purely killing time. Being with these men is like a bored New Year’s Eve. The out-of-town sort, hours from someplace familiar, stuck with people you don’t know and whom you’ve exchanged all the nice things you ought to say. Your friend, your lover, your familiar has vanished and so you’re stuck, fiddling with things in the kitchen, and drinking beers for no good reason - you are killing for time.

When I step on a fig, my toes curling, I seriously consider eating it. A sign that I too should have dinner, preparations for which are well under way. Collapsible white tables joined by tablecloth form a long row tucked behind the mayor’s office. Gleaming tins of tomatoes stacked up high, sticky artefacts that deserve a run around by a curious finger, have been decanted with some enthusiasm earlier this morning. A queue is already forming. Men wait with trays in hand. Some blueberries are exchanged and popped into mouths, faces wincing from time to time, too bitter. I bump into our coughing neighbour who tells me with some force,
            “You know I’ve never really liked England, too much agreement”.
            “Oh yes, I agree”, says her husband, sympathising.

Someone somewhere drops something ceramic as dinner comes together. The first volunteer ‘disherupper’ stands lazily, clasping a sausage between two wooden spoons. Why anyone would dole out food this way is beyond me, not least a woman who I’d just seen dip her fingers into her friend’s drink. Placing the charred fleshy tube onto my tray, she smirks and asks where I am from.
            “Over the hill.”

Shuffling along next up is gaszpacho, stuffed vegetables, cheese, pâté de campagne and peaches. I note the absence of bread, but all goes down easily, which means feeling full, accompanied by some nerves about dancing and seeing people I don’t want to.
The dog eats some sausage.
I eat some too.

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Out of a film, upwards and across the square, perched on black railings, oblivious to the impact she always had on me, the girl with the pollen in her hair. I am struck by her eyes, her collarbones and her pastel dress which does not hang from her frame, but floats from it.

Her profile is a tableau that lifts her from her background, akin to having glimpsed the rarest tiger camouflaged in thick mangrove. I know her name of course. Born in Annecy to Swiss parents. A caffeinated child, her childhood was spirited and turbulent. Being part of it had always made me feel a little plain. She always seemed to chafe under her parent’s reign, tough where mine were not; something she later told me that she envied.

A thousand summers were spent at Lac de la Gimone, dutifully looked after by her godmother Collette, who watched over our sunburn. By our teenage years what had begun as a friendship became a seasonal crush, but circumstances kept us apart. Boyfriends came in and out of focus; I maintained a hopeful distance hanging around underneath the proverbial mistletoe, waiting for a glimmer of something. She has always populated the ‘What if?’ of my mind. The part that shows itself in adolescent lust and loneliness, pining for something not yet realised.

We reconnected in our twenties, made amends, and got back to the business of being friends, but it has since been two years. Two that have gone by in a flash.
She does not run over to me arms wide, rather waits for me to approach with my parents so she can pay her respects.
            “If you think I winked at you, I did”, in that fashionable accent she has.
            “You always knew how to play me.” My eyes shifting up to meet hers.

We chat as if the years apart were a mere inconvenience. She smokes one and the next. I like that she still laughs at my jokes, relying on humour, trading my way on intrigue alone. The dog spots its owner and home. It leaves me without remorse and without hesitation. Four sips till zero hour, then time to dance. Cigarette hanging.

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The more cautious parts of town begin to lose sight of the sun, those of us at the top are blessed a little longer. Amongst an earthy mixture of pinks, greys, reds, and blues, clouds of preposterous vibrancy, built by layers of fluffed texture so vivid, God would be proud and beneath them, the village, and the square, now full, brimming in anticipation. Fat parents and thin children. Odd shorts, scruffy hair, French bellies sticking out under tops; I worry the mere mention of fashion might offend the village.

I can feel the inevitability of the day drawing into focus. I want her to be part of it. With optimism my destiny is governed by an unseen hand that sends it approval, not with the burning of a bush, but with a gust of warm breeze. Turning her face touched by the wind away from me, she exposes the soft blonde bur above her lipstick red lips. I find her how she is and am overwhelmed.

Paper lamps are lit, people make noise and begin to move about - this is the Rondeau part of the Rondeau after all. The dancing absorbs us as soon as we arrive. Reaching for her hand and copying her into the nearest chain, she is taken from me by familiar faces, only to quickly return confused but contented. I am handed a minuscule glass of red liquid, possibly the smallest glass of wine I have ever seen. Icky and sweet I set it aside opting for more conventional indulgences. With drinks we become woozy. With dancing we become heady. Her tipsy wiggling somehow refined into an unsurmountable elegance.

Having given me this much, she exposes my achy, crumpled, cowering want for company. Looking across her bare shoulders, made only clearer by the shrinking distance between us, I can almost see an ending to the day where she might like me. Here I go, headfirst into the flirt, rushing something typical that I immediately regret.
            “I have missed this, and you, and Castelnau. I have missed titting about. I have missed it all”.

I am shushed and laughed at, all her teeth showing at once. Very quietly and slowly at first, she guides my head to rest beside hers, rosy cheek to olive cheek. I wrap my arms gently around her waist, swaying softly as we dance.

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The party continues well into the night, the throng carried beyond the island by the air. I choose to escape for a breath, sinking into the crevasse of a nearby dry wall’s most intimate corner, my eyes squiffy, catching sight of a salamander gasping for moisture. Placing my hot cheeks onto the cool stone, I am contented for a singular moment as it recoils, likely thinking to itself how it did not remember inviting me. She finds me there, that tiny glass of wine still in my hand, and kisses me, as if we had rehearsed it.

My heart is aflutter.

The kiss becomes full. I push my face into hers as if in doing so I might imprint fresh desire. Becoming fuller, it is instinctive and meant - and then isn’t. When our teeth clang together, I am reminded of my clumsiness. I have unearthed a lacy lust that unravels me, now so self-aware that I want to rub myself out and be replaced with her dream of me. 

There are splayed hands in my hair. My chest tightens just a little. Her touch is careful. Leading me by the hand, we stumble towards the church where she pushes me into an arch, raising a hairless leg, gravity for a moment seeming to loosen. We kiss over and over until I feel we can kiss no more than to have sex, but we won’t, and I fall flat on my back, gravity taking over.

In this act I play the role of romancer, of taboo, of pent-up desire, and of too many strings attached. Things are moving quickly. Part of me expects this of myself, to be young and infatuated; to be young and to let those we want ‘get away’. In fact, this is already happening, I know what it is I am now experiencing. In her confidence I detect a deep feeling, given away by sweaty palms and sticky lips. I cautiously mime a moment in my mind where we are in love, aware that not all kisses mean it.

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Lying beneath the church, Castelnau’s bedstead, she tells me about her grandmother who died at a shuffle-board competition in Reno. A death that ended 20 years of upset marriage. She asks if I want to get married. Am I in love for the long run? We are veering towards the question in its purest form, what are you, like, looking for? I ask myself this, hoping to be truthful, but not wanting to be played, conceal to myself my own feelings. Then poof. It goes platonic. No more touching. Just friends again. Lying there chatting; I find closure in her silence.

I feel extremely ordinary, the gut-wrenching realism of the morning after is something I dread more knowing that she does not. Perhaps though, this feeling is part and parcel of the myth about her I am yet to construct. A kiss to build a dream on. Whilst I mull and stew, I text friends and tell them of my night. To those I love, this will be treason. They are jealous.

I compare her to other women in my life, thinking of the lessons they have taught me. One French friend had described the guillotine as a moral device. “Much cleaner killing.” She applied this same philosophy to love. Quick and sharp is better than long and slow.
Out of the night that covers me, I draw a throbbing tiredness. More than anywhere else, this feels like France, where the mood sweeps across the hilltop, changing like the turns of the evening. We part, walking as I can up the garden path to bed, over the decking, leaving the double doors open to dive on top of the duvet, curl up in a ball, and watch the horizon for the sunrise, just in case it chooses not to show up. Through an opening in the hedgerow, I catch another Gascogne breeze.



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