Southern dark, Published 2006 - 2008
Liz is working for the Refugees Tribunal of Sydney, in Australia. She has to issue –or not- political refugee status to immigrants in difficulty. She cannot stand her job anymore. The horrific stories she hears all day long have destroyed all her illusions. Moreover she is herself half French, born from a mother she has never known. So she decides to go to the south of France, where her mother has spent her childhood. But this does not please everybody. A man follows her. Soon, in the postcard village where Liz moves, a human’s body is found, and then another. Why? How could Liz know that she is following a long dangerous walk? A walk which began millennia ago on far southern lands, against both evolution and climate. How could she suspect that a 70 000 years old aboriginal past is coming back to her? A past which will make her understand how differences between people are relative, how yesterday may decide of tomorrow...
As for the previous days, it was raining. For a few weeks already, it was summer. But it was hard to see it. Here, as elsewhere, the water was higher. The river had expanded its bed. And the corpse had begun to move.
During a night already, it had rested on the boggy bank, under the branches of willows, only a few inches from the water. Around midnight, the lapping river had submerged the head, without respect for the black hairs which had been so shiny or for the skin, once caramel but now turning livid on features distorted by suffering. In the mountain, the gusts of rain joined the increasingly abundant torrents. At four o'clock in the morning, water had covered the chest. Small channels had seeped into the cavity open on the lower body, where the entrails had been. They had driven away the two rats which had been eating there. In the early morning, on the shortened shore, only the feet were emerging, ridiculous with their brand new basketball shoes under the shabby trousers.
Shortly before noon, the disemboweled man had been swept away by waves. He would normally have sunk to the bottom before to surface again, inflated as a horrible and pathetic balloon. But even disciplined by the technology of men, the river was powerful. In times of flood, its currents carried all the things coming within reach. And in the muddy water, although still under the grip of rigor mortis, the dead body had begun to roll in an extravagant dance.
It had not gone far away. After a few yards, it had been held by the branches of a tree which, diving into the river at each wrath of the skies, was always retaining some incongruous specimens. That day, it had been two plastic bags printed with the logo of a local supermarket, a caravan door and an eviscerated human being.
This one was now out of the water, face down on the folding door, and what remained of its interiors lying on it. That would not last for long. Of courses, the hips were trapped between the branches under the door. But they swung almost frantically, following the rhythmic pressure exerted by floods on the hanging legs.
Soon, the processing of fats would form a kind of wax around the submerged flesh. Flies would lay their eggs on all parts exposed to the air. Larvae would take hold. And the corpse would become a tremendous reservoir of food.
PART ONE: THE TRAVELERS
- 70 000 B.C. From Sunda to Sahul.
Their legs were long and strong on the earth, their stride was lith. Their straight and muscled bodies remained unwavering. They were determined. The road to the south would give them a better life, easier than the one of the elders who had survived the wrath of the mountain and the sky.
An eruption had devastated this part of Sunda. And it had been the end of the old days. The viscous magma had exploded outside of the crater with a bewildering strength. The stream of ash and gas had then fused miles away into the atmosphere before spreading into a gigantic cloud. It had caused a volcanic winter of six years, bringing down temperatures, eliminating almost any nearby living creature. The survivors had built a new clan. They had begun to walk. There, on the horizon, they might find others of their species. And escape famine.
Over the generations, the clan walked along the south-east shore of Sunda. The new cold made things easier because the forest was not an obstacle anymore. They went at their own pace, while maintaining a close relationship with their surroundings. Hunting, gathering, fishing. Braiding or sewing bags, refining the tools. Incinerating the dead, giving birth. Creating new body painting, telling stories of the ancestors, of their travels.
As the clan progressed, the shores covered with new trees. Until the roots became mangroves, diving into water and making progress very difficult. But soon they left the forest behind them, with its green and indented heights hiding the sky. Ahead of them, they saw the ocean, with its changing blue and suspicious depths. And on the water line, smoke appeared, as light as that of a wood fire.
So Yooloore threw spear and hatchet on the ground and screamed.
- There! There! Look!
His black body stiffened up on his legs. He points an index toward the sky. His face painted with white clay was radiant. On the distant waters, a flight of ibis was going back north. The young man turned to the others.
- These birds nest near fresh water only!
There was something behind the horizon. Yooloore walked nervously on the beach.
- We have to know what is over there! Take these logs! Help me!
Swiftly, they tied the pieces of wood together. They were not expert seafarers but they had already crossed small sea channels.
For one moment, Yooloore feared the unknown. But he realized that Namoora was looking at him and felt overwhelmed with pride. He stared at her in turn. The face of the girl was smaller, more harmonious than those of the old people, her chin was more prominent, her forehead higher, her head rounder. And these black eyes, enhanced by the clay covering the upper part of her face. And this dark skin, shivering under the bitter wind. And these tiny breasts pointing skyward.
The young man swallowed his saliva, turned back to the ocean, began to pull one of the rafts on the sea. His muscles became hard. Exhilaration came over him when the unstable boat floated near the shore. Standing in water, he turned toward the girl.
- Tomorrow, we will go. There...
He stretched out his arm toward the horizon which glowed softly under the sunset.
The night came. The people of the clan dug holes into the ground at the edge of the forest. Soon, they slept, holding tight in these improvised nests. But with dawn, the moon disappeared in the sky. Yooloore jumped onto his feet, strode toward the place where the women were sleeping. Paused for a while. Then he saw her, lied against her. Woken up by the warmth of the young man, Namoora was about to flee. But she felt the breath on her shoulder, the hand on her breast, the knee between her thighs. Then heat rose in her abdomen. And she bent against him.
A few hours later, the clan walked to the unknown.
It was not so easy. With carved branches, they paddle to sea, driven by their desire for a better future. The one they had seen in this distant place from where the gracious black and white birds had flight. But it was as if the ocean did not want them, as if the waves were conspiring against their might, against their will.
Suddenly an assegai shot through the frail shoulders of Muluuri. But the old man was so surprised by the impact that he felt no pain. And when it came, it was too late. A flood of blood and foam had mounted to his lips. Eyes wide open in a definitive amazement, he fell forward.
Men stopped paddling. Women screamed, huddled on children. Behind them, on the beach they had just left, small black creatures with strange narrow heads were pulling sharp skiffs. And in a few seconds, those were soaring on the waves, just behind the heavy and clumsy rafts.
Franticly, men seized their rudimentary paddles, plunged them at full speed into the sea. This was not time to sail toward the horizon anymore. They had to escape the fatal spikes of the small humanoids, to save their lives.
They managed to cross the waves’ barrier which hid the vast water and were swept away by a violent current. The shores of their former land disappeared before they had had time to realize they were abandoning their past. And the vigor of the salted flow carried them much faster and further than they had expected, above the depths of dark waters.
After a few hours of hazardous navigation, the ocean changed color. It had been black-blue. It became turquoise, then translucent: the bottom approached the surface. Suddenly, the travelers saw the first fin. But they pushed them away with the poles they used to avoid the reef on which the swell sometimes drove them.
Yooloore and his companions traced a path between the emerging corals. The currents led them to the land they had seen from far away, under misty mountains much greener and higher than all what they had known. They were eager to arrive.
At last, the tide pushes them toward what looked like an estuary, so huge it seemed to be an inland sea. A woman shouted joyfully.
- We have escaped the sharks!
She had barely finished her sentence that she saw the first heads, the enormous globular eyes. Jaws opened, as long as a man body. Teeth as big as a hand. Nothing had prepared the clan to face that. Estuarine crocodiles, monsters coming from an age that even the first ancestors did not know, that even the first legends did not tell about. Because if men of olden times had seen crocodiles in the rivers of the rugged northern lands, none of their stories ever mentioned such a terrible animal.
One of the jaws opened behind the raft on which Namoora sat. Instinctively, the men standing close to her stepped back. And violent oscillations precipitated the girl into the sea.
Without thinking, Yooloore threw himself behind her. After all, he only feared one thing: to be ridiculous. He was not. He had no time to be. His dive drew away the attention of the saurian. The shriek of terror became screams of agony when the huge jaw closed on the young man’s stomach and back. The flesh and bones were crushed with an almost imperceptible sound. It nevertheless reached Namoora’s ears. Even if, as she had just been hoisted onto the logs, she had no time to see the tinted bubble burst to the surface. The crocodile had dragged its victim somewhere at the bottom. To eat it quietly.
Teeth clenched, the girl followed the others to the shore. With them, she pulled the rafts on the black sand at the edge of the mangroves, sank in their shadow, soon fall asleep.
They did not know it. But they had reached Sahul.
August 2004. Death at the tribunal.
On the fifth floor of the elegant building, after a long narrow corridor, no sound leaked out of the interrogation room. It was designed for that. Of courses, the employees of the RTS, the Refugee Tribunal of Sydney, were instructed never to raise voice. But it was sometimes difficult to control the behavior of those who asked for help and protection. And on that day, somebody else did not give a damn about this precept.
- Gosh, Kate ... These are not murderers!
The scolding was not premeditated. Liz had entered the final phase of the “cooker-effect”. Accumulation of steam. Until the explosion. The young woman had remained silent for too long in front of all the tyrannies: her father’s, her employer’s, her lover’s.
She looked at her boss. Kathryn Tilburce was the most beautiful women. But at this moment, her lovely face became hard, her sharp chin rose. And her blue eyes shrank behind the fashionable glasses. One day, years ago, Liz had seen tears in these eyes. Then she had realized it was impossible. Soon she had understood she herself had to get tough, to let feelings at the door.
But without blinking, Kate turned to her. And Liz felt like a dunce having to face a teacher.
- I already told you not to call me like that, Liz. My name is Kathryn, with an “h” and a “y”. As for them...
With a manicured hand, the RTS executive director pointed out the family in front of her.
- They might not be murderers but...
On the other side of the desk, the green-eyed girl stared at them. Obviously frightened. She pulled up her seat near her father’s and mother’s.
The translator whispered.
- You cannot quarrel in front of these people!
He barely finished his sentence. Kate’s angel face looked at him. The pink mouth gave a slight joyless smile and, with an icy voice, pronounced.
- Do you know how many interviews with false refugees we have done since last weekend? Forty. We consider over five thousand cases per year. Since 89 and Tiananmen, they arrive from all directions. China, Afghanistan, Iraq... In that bunch, how many are truly persecuted? They simply want to change their lives. We are supposed to help them to move from the Middle Ages to running water and supermarkets... In addition, tonight, the bridge is blocked by the demonstration of these...
She stumbled over the word. Then spat it, as if it burned her pretty mouth.
- ... Negroes who want the government to apologize.
From under her long eyelashes, Kate considered the Bangladeshis. Carefully dressed, they had made evident efforts. But the panic spoiled everything. Impeccable in his cheap suit, the father was twisting an old hat between his gnarled fingers. The mother was tearing the bright golden border of her veil. And the girl was clenching her slender brown hands on her denim blue jeans.
Kate straightened up. The pale gray suit fitted closely her shapes. Her right foot, shod with a carefully waxed Pump, hit the ground.
- And we are fed the same tall story... always…
Hands on hips, she breathed deeply and came closer to the young Bangladeshi woman.
- Come on… tell us. You pretend you were raped by a battalion of soldiers. You’ll have to be more explicit… How many were they? How did it happen? If you want your status of political refugee, I'm afraid you won’t get out of it, especially since your father brought you here with a temporary visa only. And despite this, you haven’t been interned...
At this point, the translator raised his hand. Kate pivoted sharply.
The young man scraped his throat, whispered something in her ear. She coughed slightly. Her cheekbones turned an unexpected red.
- Ah. They have been... You could have said it earlier. Well, anyway, they do not understand a word of English.
The translator intervened again. Kate gave him a withering look.
- Ah. They do… Good. So you will have less work.
Suddenly thoughtful, she bit the inside of the cheeks. Two pretty dimples appeared around her mouth. And she began to pace up and down in front of the asylum seekers.
- So you've been in detention ... You have already taken advantage of our hospitality...
Liz recollected. The barbed wires around the refugees camps, the rudimentary barracks, the dull eyes of the children. She lowered her eyelids. She was tired of this questioning, of those who came from the other side of the world to find an illusory paradise, of Kathryn, of this infernal job. It was not new. But the more her resolution strengthened, the more difficult it was to stand all that without flinching, as she did for so long. However, she did not want to make a scandal. She was not able to. As if the passing years had created subjection to her oppressors, subjection which sometimes rose again in paradoxical oscillations between a dreamed emancipation and the reflex of eternal submission. She decided to set her mind on someone else. Bob? No, it would have been worse. But then, who? Or what? Liz began to inspect mentally the contents of her refrigerator. Hardly brilliant: shriveled grapes and two slices of ham moldering in their plastic film. She took a deep breath, decided to list what she wanted to buy. Fresh tagliatelle, sweet peppers, smoked salmon...
And she startled when Kate resumed her questioning.
- I need details. Your parents say the army molested them… and molested you. But as we can’t trust anybody these days, you'll be examined by a doctor… and even several. And believe me, I am fully empowered to obtain the evidence I need.
Frozen in a silent terror, the girl brought her blue veil to her face. Behind her, the father did probably not understand. But obviously guessing, he hesitated between anger and prudence.
As for Liz, despite her resolutions and contradictions, she did not feel able to bear that any longer.
- Kathryn... I think she has already said that they were three. And the policemen investigating this story of rape would have...
Kate did not even look at her.
- I don’t care, Liz. You know very well that there is no truth in it. And tell me... how many political refugee statuses were granted last month?
- Two. But quotas...
- I know. They fell. Thank God, the government gets reasonable. And coming back to these people... we’ll move the parents away. And the little slut will tell the truth. I also wonder if she and her mother didn’t make a stopover somewhere before arriving in Australia. Show me the record…
Kate seized the printed sheets of paper piled in front of Liz.
- That's right! They stayed two weeks in Jakarta! Political refugees or not, they are no longer eligible for a permanent Australian visa...
Kathryn turned to the mother. Her voice was dangerously soft.
- Why didn’t you apply for an Indonesian visa? Our laws have changed since September 2001. Now, you have no right to claim a permanent political refugee status from Australia if, by coming here, you stopped in a country that could have protect you... especially if you stayed more than seven days in this country. And that is your case.
The director of the RTS turned to the father again.
- Of course, we can examine your daughter… although it is likely that you’ll have to leave the country within twenty eight days after our decision-making. But if it can make you happy…
With a wry smile, she pulled the blue veil of the girl’s head. This one left her black hairs falling into a long curtain before her eyes. The translator was about to interpose. But the father had stood up and slapped Kate already, so suddenly that she fell back into the sofa supposed to accommodate refugees’ indispositions.
Liz rushed. Conditioned reflex.
- Kate! Are you okay?
A glass of water in hand, the translator followed her. While both of them were busy with their supervisor, they did not notice the young Bangladeshi woman rising from her seat. Before anyone could react, she ran out to the window which opened on to the street.
In watching her sitting here, fragile and sweet, nobody would have thought she would have enough energy to jump to the glass. Neither that she would be heavy enough to cross it and to crash five floors below. Like the delicate swallow which, for a moment, she resembled.
70 000 B.C. Hairy-Belly and other mega fauna.
The rising sun was glowing in the fog covering the forest. The people of the clan awoke. Men began to gather shellfish while the women fed the children.
Namoora had been one of the first to get up. Since the death of Yooloore, she slept poorly anyway. Examining the trees which emerged from the mist, she entered the tropical forest. It was very different from what she had known on Sunda. Here were extraordinarily bulky trees, abundance of conifers and of broad ferns, cycad palms, as well as unknown species with smelling leaves. Everything looked so ancient...
Had this place escaped the disaster? They would have to know numerous new plants, to hunt many strange animals. However, fresh water would not lack: many spring gushed out around their camp. They thus drank, washed. It was nice to get rid of the salt which had stuck to their skin for days, to untangle their hairs, to feel clean.
Gnawed by hunger, Namoora turned away. Behind her, kneeling, one of the men was rubbing a piece of dry wood in the small pit he had dig into a branch. The girl knew that, unless the twig or the foam wedged against the two pieces of wood was also very dry, it would take some time. She therefore decided to examine the plants, the fruits and the roots. Maybe she could find something which would not require cooking. These deep purple-black plums on this small tree? These ferns’ roots growing in the damp soil? Namoora put the tip of her tongue on one of the fruits, hesitated, bit slowly. The flesh was sour but not really unpleasant. However, the girl spat. Despite her empty stomach, she remained wary. She would let Beralaa look for some edible food.
Anyway, the old woman was already munching a root here, tasting a seed there. And she soon came back with some beautiful dark brown husks, began to grill them on the fire finally lit. Beralaa had barely removed them from the flames that the people of the clan broke them. The nuts inside were greasy and delicious.
They went then into the forest, men first, women and children behind. After a few hours of walking, the woods thickened and concealed the sky. Squeals of unknown animals pierced the heavy silence, startling the travelers. They crisped their hands on the spears or their arm on the babies.
The path which Namoora outlined mentally before her, only a few strides from her predecessor, suddenly began to climb along a slope. Underneath, a waterhole. At the top, the silhouette of a gray rocky ridge. The girl heard the trees rustle, lift her head. Up there, a huge hairy ball was emerging from the foliage. Namoora distinguished tufted ears, bright eyes and long glaring claws. A few meters away, another ball. Then a third, a fourth.
She had no time to worry because, suddenly, the tree trunk she was going to step over moved. She yelled. But Tjonambi, another son of Yooloore's mother, was beside her. He raised his spear, planted it in the huge body of a snake they had just woken up. It did not appear to have any effect on the animal, which coiled up around Tjonambi. The rib cage embraced within inflexible straps, the young man began to shake legs and arms spasmodically, his wide open mouth gasping for air. His companions assaulted the incredible creature. They had to stab the animal’s heart with seven spears before the awful body loosened its grip.
Namoora leaned on the hunter, took his head on her thighs, rubbed down his chest. He was smaller than Yooloore, less muscular. And his face was thinner, more regular. Behind them, the other members of the clan draw out the body of the giant snake. They lied against him. The distance between the head and the tail was equivalent to nine men.
That evening, just before installing a campfire, they saw a strange chubby animal. Almost as high as a standing woman, he seemed harmless and stupid, especially with the three odd prominences above the premolars teeth. Planted on its four legs, along a stream, it ate loads of reeds. The people of the clan named it Nin-boo: round and greedy. And soon, while telling the story of Tjonambi and the giant snake, they tasted its abundant meat.
During the night, Tjonambi crept near Namoora. Apart from a few bruises, he kept not track of his adventure. He laid his hands on the hips of the girl, pushed his pelvis against the top of her thighs and caressed her. She did not move. This meant she consented.
Almost nine months after her first night with Tjonambi, Namoora was much less lissome. Her big belly prevented her to bend as she wanted to pick up the ferns’ roots. And the last few nights, she no longer yearned for Tjonambi’s body. Also, when the first contractions seized her, she welcomed them with relief. She knew what would happen.
And indeed, the old women attended her. When the pain became too strong, they slipped a piece of bark between her teeth. When the time came, they helped her to crouch above the small hole they had dug into the earth and lined with palm leaves. And Namoora gave birth to her child. She wondered at him, crying on her belly. He looked like his two fathers and would have to choose between the spirit of the crocodile and the one of the giant snake. His name would be Wolamba.
Travelers had stopped in a forest on a low shelf, south of where they had accosted. They had learned to hunt autochthonal animals. One of them they named Bun-Yip, Hairy-Belly. Despite the velocity of its long legs, it became their main meat supplier. As high as a man and a half, as heavy as fifty people, Bun-Yip had small tusks it used to remove small trees, although often merely grazing leaves and herbs among its huge molars. In its short dense fur, was hidden a ventral pocket, shelter of a tiny larva which would then become a little Bun-Yip.
The clan soon realized that was the normal reproductive functioning of many of those creatures. Some of them were harmless. For example, with its short trunk, its rodents’ teeth and its sharp claws, Ka-nu-ko ate herbs only and built nests in the soil. Ko-la, the monstrous hair ball, nested in trees and fed almost exclusively on leaves. By contrast, the Yu-kai, dangerous marsupial wolf, competed with people of the clan when it came to hunting.
But in addition to all those, travelers had discovered strange jumping animals, appreciated as much for their meat and skins as for their bones and teeth. To pick the trees leaves, these extraordinarily muscular living beings dangled on two unique toes before to propel themselves forward with the tail. The largest, as high as two men, was a harmless leaves’ lover. The clan called it the Ka-ga-raii, Tall-Jumper. The smaller had a strong jaw it used for grinding plants. It became Mo-ga-raii, Small-Jumper. However, another species of the group proved more dangerous.
That day, Kurrin was gathering dead wood. She did not pay attention to the approaching Tall-Jumper. It had the look of a quiet Ka-ga-raii in search of leaves. But without warning, it griped the old woman with its powerful arms. Plunging its enormous teeth in her right biceps, it began to devour the arm. The suffering was tremendous and Kurrin yelled. But soon, the pool of blood expanded under the feet of the huge male and the victim’s cries became weaker. They stopped when the Woo-ra-wàn, Killing-Jumper, had finished eating the arm. Without releasing its grip, the animal stabbed its incisors in the frail neck of Kurrin.
At this point, the wind began to blow. It raised such swirls of dust that, in a few moments, the vital liquid disappeared from the ground, as if Sahul had swallowed it. And the Woo-ra-wan vanished in the angry blasts coming from the South of the world.
A few hours later, when the hunters finally ventured into the latest upheavals of the storm, they discovered what remained of Kurrin. Mummified in an earth as fine as sand. That night, the clan’s elders wondered. Had they been right in landing in this place? And when would this one become their?
August 2004. Traffic jam escapade
In Sydney, the end of August foreshadows sometimes the end of the austral winter, bringing unexpected hot and bright days. For those who work down-town, in the city center, and who leave then by Harbor Bridge and through Port Jackson, the sun goes down slowly, on the left. It illuminates the bay, beautiful water flower sprawling under a tangle of constructions and vegetation. Darling Harbor and its luxurious pier of glass and steel. The splendid shellfish of the opera, between Sydney Cove and Farm Cove. Milsons Point Luna Park and its big old-fashioned wheel. And boats everywhere, from shabby canoes to gigantic liners.
On leaving tribunal, Liz had joined the flow of daily migrants. This promise of an early spring was wonderful, especially after what had happened. She was sick of all that. She wanted one thing only: to go away.
But when climbing on Harbor Bridge, her Holden Gemini had been suddenly trapped in a traffic jam. And Liz was now letting her gaze wander. The gangrened iron of the rusted Toyota ahead of her. The reflection of her own car in the rear window of the other, opaque as dirty water. The sun was warming her left cheek. It would take at least one hour to cross the bridge, to go back to Balmain. One hour, Gosh...
She laid her forehead on the top of the steering wheel. And to think that she had been to the hairdresser during the mid-day break. It usually allowed her to become blond again. With make-up, she had then the feeling to be almost pretty. But today, the state of grace had not lasted. Because of her hand running anxiously through her hair, because of the Kathryn, because of this hellish afternoon. Because of a child crashing on the asphalt.
Liz closed her eyes. The purring of the engine relieved her, her and her guilt. Had she been able to sleep here, rather than go home, to her complexes, her stiffness, her sadness, her paradoxes. Complexes of a female who despairs of her “thirty-eight, unmarried, no kids” state. Stiffness of the untrusting girl, who has seen and heard too many horrors, to many lies. Sadness of the disillusioned woman, despaired of her past, of her present. Paradoxes of the prisoner who would like to escape from her gaol but does not know how.
Liz frowned. Ruminating would not help. She looked around her. On the bridge, traffic was still jammed up. Horns sounded. People climbed on cars’ hoods to see what was going on. But the driver ahead of the young woman did not seem curious. The doors of the Toyota were shut, the windows lift. Liz turned to a man who was going back to his vehicle.
- Excuse me. Have you seen what happened?
He had a tense smile.
- Yes… Reconciliation march. You know… the Aborigines. They are now off the bridge: I think we’ll soon move forward.
Liz gazed at the back of the Toyota again. Still no sign of life. What a stoicism. What an indifference.
Until she went to the university, she had not realized how multicultural Australia was. For her, between suburb and beaches, everyday life had been easy, dull and dreary. But now. She began to think about her friends and colleagues, about their countries of origin. Australia. Germany. England. China. India. Italy. Ireland... Not one Aborigine. But after all, they were so few. And the only person she heard talking about them was Bob. Bob. Friend. Mentor. Lover. Liar.
Ahead of her, the queue moved slowly forward, stopped again. Mechanically, Liz did the same. The image of Bob, naked before her, smiling wryly, remained. Suddenly, her handbag buzzed on the passenger’s seat. She jumped: it was him. Cursing her haste, she rummaged in the bric-à-brac, found her phone.
She felt her cheeks get red. It was the sharp voice of her father.
- You tried to reach me, honey? You got something to ask the old Jack?
He was not concealing the irony. Besides, why would he? He knew what her daughter thought of him.
Years ago, while Liz was still at university, Jack had reduced to pulp the nose of one of her few suitors. Mark Lee. A filthy Chinese, Liz, a disgusting filthy asshole. That day, Liz had fought back for the first time of her life. And she had told Jack what she thought of him, as a father, as a magistrate. Greedy sleazy mean guy with the face of an oiled dachshund. Bastard remarried a few weeks only after the death of his first wife.
And Liz had left. In the following years, relations between them had been rare and strained. Until she finally realized that her father was merely an ordinary man, an insignificant but attentive husband, a very ordinary but helpful neighbor, a mediocre but rigorous magistrate. This did not prevent the young woman to fantasize about her disappeared mother, about an extraordinary unknown father. And she remained very ill at ease with Jack, almost scared, as when she was a child, when he took pleasure to yell at her. Pushing her to be in an eternal submissiveness, in an eternal quest for love.
- Yes ... I ... I want to learn more about Mom.
- Good God, Liz! What do you want me to tell you?
Then, like a litany, he uttered.
- I’ve already told you a billion times that I don’t know much about your mother. Or rather about what she did or was before I met her. Because after...
He was now almost choking with laughter.
- … after that… Fucking shit! I have known her!
Liz bit her lips. In one minute, it would be over.
- But before… she just said she was born in France. Somewhere near the Capital city. You know ... Parissse. Toujours Parissse.
He still laughed.
- Yes, a French woman… and her mother, you should have seen her mother!
He was serious again.
- That said... French... I never had proofs! She and her mother arrived in Australia after the war. She had not the slightest accent but her mother had still some. Oh, not often ... only in certain circumstances.
Liz did not comment. She was thinking of the small sepia photograph that never left her wallet. She was dreaming of what she had not known: a mother who would have succumbed to her supplicant eyes, kissed her bounced cheeks, laughed at her tottering baby steps. A sweet and loving mother for whom she would have been the center of the universe.
The silence of the young woman seemed to discourage Jack.
- Well. She told me she and her mother had left Paris while the father was at the battle front or something like that. And they fled to a free zone.
With an uncertain voice, Liz asked.
- Did she ever tell you the name of a town or…
He hesitated. As if, for the first time, he was really trying to remember.
- No. But I remember how she described the village where she lived until the end of the war. “A beautiful castle on a hill, surrounded by old houses”… small streets and… a fountain, I think. And all around, “fields of sweet-smelling blue flowers”.
Liz swallowed her saliva. Why had she not asked before? That confirmed what she had found, after going through hundreds of records. She scrapped her throat.
- Thanks, Dad. Thank you very much.
This time, the word “Dad” had not been that hard to pronounce. The young woman threw her phone in her bag. She began to whistle. Ignorant of the dark eyes that weighed on her from the mirror of the Toyota.
The cars moved off. Beyond the bridge, the demonstrators had turned. As with reluctance, the Toyota followed. Liz let in the clutch again. The Holden sped off. But the young woman was lost in her thoughts. A castle on a rock, a village of the South of France. Old houses, medieval lanes, a wash-house, a fountain, the statue of a woman writing. And, all around, fields of lavender. As far as the eye could reach.