Slices by IJ Fenn

Sometimes I see life as a confection of moments. Virginia Woolf said that life is not a series of gig-lamps spaced evenly along a road. Or something like that. Well, we don’t have gig-lamps anymore, as far as I know, so we have to find a new metaphor. Hence a confection of moments.

From time to time, the metaphors I like to use involve culinary imagery because I like food. In particular, I like cake. In fact, earlier this week I baked a blueberry cheesecake and I ate half a carrot cake and I ate some banana muffins. As you can imagine, I’m getting fat and unhealthy. This story, however, has nothing to do with me being fat, nothing to do with baked blueberry cheesecake, nothing to do with carrot cake and nothing to do with banana muffins. Most especially, this story has nothing to do with this week.

This story takes place several long times ago. Each long time ago is like a slice of a layered cake that I contributed to the baking of. That’s the cake of my life. I hope the slices taste good.

First slice: the encounter

The doorway gaped, toothless, like the silently screaming mouth of hell.

We descended three steps from the gravel driveway and then another three steps on the other side of the toothless doorway, from the ancient sunlight outside to the ancient sudden dungeon inside. Condemned prisoners on their way to execution would have trod as reluctantly, the image of the axe at the front of their minds.

We waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. The darkness blanketed our ability to speak.

– Messieurs dames. Bonjour

The shadows spoke a woman’s voice. My ability to see returned like the clearing of black snow from the windscreen of a car at night. We were in a cellar. The packed earth floor felt cold and damp, the air smelled cold and damp and vinegary. Behind us the ancient sun’s playful exuberance failed to penetrate beyond the steps; it laughed at the darkness but was afraid to come in.

Two years earlier, I’d run away from a burdened London life. I ran away to a house in a part of France that was filled with sunshine, a house that was a thin slice of a four-story monastery built by Benedictine monks late in the seventeenth century. Which was about the same time that people in Scandinavia were being wiped out by famine and people in Portugal were being wiped out by the Inquisition. My slice of the four-storey monastery was one of twelve that made up a Benedictine monasterycake made from basalt and sandstone, with roman tile icing on top.

The sunshine that filled that part of France was even older than the house. The sunshine was ancient because it came from light years away, and that was even further in the past than the seventeenth century. The walls of the house were a metre-and-a-half thick and they held the sunshine like it was something to be protected. The sunshine in the walls was life itself. The walls were also home to scorpions. But scorpions don’t appear in this story. This is a story about a pig.

Because of the exotic location of my Benedictine cakehouse in the south-of-France ancient-sun sunshine, a steady flow of visitors came by like the flow of life through time. Some stayed for a week or two, others dropped in for just one night en route to somewhere more exotic than the village of my monastery cakehouse. Somewhere exotic like Barcelona or Nissan-lez-Enserune. They would call me and say, Hey, we’re in the area next Tuesday,or What are you up to on Wednesday. I’d moved to the house in the south of France to not be up to anything other than to enjoy the sunshine and to live in a monastery cakehouse built by Benedictine monks in the seventeenth century. And to be somewhere other than burdensome London. So, I never had any objection to houseguests. Some of the visitors came back several times. Some of them several times each year. Those who came back several times each year were those who’d decided against Barcelona or Nissan-lez-Enserune. They came specifically to see me in my Benedictine monastery cakehouse.

Three of my frequent visitor-friends had just stepped out of the ancient laughing sunshine and into cellar hell with me.

The woman in the cellar defended her territory from behind a chest-high oak bar crenellated by a row of empty wine glasses. There were maybe a dozen wine glasses in the crenellation and they shone even in the darkness of the cellar. Next to the glasses a ceramic bowl held a mound of freshly shelled walnuts. The walnuts were there for visiting wine-tasters to cleanse their palates in-between tasting different types of wines. Picpoul and Mourvedre and Syrah. The shelled walnuts looked like ancient, dried scrotums brought to the south of France from Portugal by the Inquisition and I wondered how clean my palate needed to be for me to decide which wine I was going to buy. When I looked at the scrotum-walnuts I thought I could make wine decisions with an unclean palate.

The woman took a bottle from the fridge behind the bar. She poured happy measures into four glasses. As she lifted the bottle from the last glass, a figure materialised from the shadows behind her and the figure spoke into her ear. The words were lost in the darkness and they were lost in the damp and they were lost in the quick Frenchness of the language, but the woman nodded and turned to us again.

– Un moment, s’il-vous plait

And she was gone. We reached for the freshly poured crenellations on the bar as she dematerialised back through the shadows behind her, and I moved a little to one side to see that the shadows were an open doorway leading into a vast warehouse and production room with twenty-foot-high steel vats and pipes and gauges lining the walls.

– Maybe a problem in the winery

– Looks like it

As the woman disappeared through the shadow, the noise of someone else coming down the cellar steps from the laughing sunshine outside made us all turn around. But the someone else wasn’t a someone at all. The someone else was a pig. And not just any pig, it was the biggest pig I’ve ever seen, as big as a clergyman’s promise of salvation, but real. Two hundred kilos of pink grunting. Two hundred kilos of cacophonous pulmonary snuffling. It came through the doorway like an eclipse looking for a sun to block. As the woman exited through one doorway, so the pig entered through another like in an English drawing-room farce. We stood in held-breath silence as though we were waiting for the vicar to arrive.

– I’ll get the woman

– No, I’ll go

– I’ll come with you

I’d already gone. When I came back with the woman, the pig had taken up all the available space. Its snout hoovered the damp earth floor in the way an industrial cleaner vacuums industrial premises. My friends stood pressed against the wall pretending to be inedible portraits of themselves. The woman was unfazed. Maybe she had pigs storming the winery ramparts every day.

– Georges! Allez! Sors d’ici! Shoo

She waved her hands at the pig and the pig raised its tiny eyes to look at her. She moved as if trying to scoop up two hundred kilos of porcine resistance. For a moment, there was a stand-off. The pig looked at the woman with a sneer on its jowly face and the woman looked at the pig with a scowl on her womanly face. The pig gave in. It turned around and lumbered up the steps and out into the laughing sunshine.

The pig, she said, was Georges. He came into the cellar for the dropped walnuts. He belonged to the children but was uncontrollable and did what he wanted. He was an exasperation, she said.

We bought a dozen bottles of wine and drove back to my seventeenth century Benedictine monastery cakehouse, and we talked about Georges the pig while we made dinner and drank some of the wine. It isn’t every day that you meet a two-hundred kilo pig in the wine cellar of a domaine in the south of France. The wine reminded us of Georges and I was glad we were having salad for dinner.

Second slice: filling.

Time moved on. The ancient sun swung the earth in three hundred and some circles and the burden of London slipped further back into what was becoming my own extended history, and my friends came back to stay. The same friends who had been with me at our encounter with Georges the pig.

Third slice: endgame.

Jane and Mick and Tina arrived together in that order. It was the same order they arrived anywhere. Tina drove from Brighton on the English south coast in her Mercedes that looked like a luxury liner cruising across the oceans of English countryside and the waves of the English Channel and the vagues deferlantes of La Manche and the French route nationals,with Jane in the front passenger seat and Mick in the luxurious expanse of the back seat. Tina was in control. Jane was second-in-command. Behind them, Mick was already a part of their past, trying to catch up. Tina and Jane and Mick. But when they climbed out of the Mercedes liner, they were always Jane and Mick and Tina, as if a mutiny had taken place just before they docked in the square at the front of the town hall. and a new order had been established. That order was: Jane and Mick and Tina.

I don’t remember the details of the visit, but I can guess them. All visits followed a fairly regular format with each set of visitors. Everybody knew the script, and everybody knew their part.

We probably walked to the river that coiled around the village like a sluggish eel, or we probably drove to the beach and lay on the sand like human driftwood washed up on the shore of the twentieth century. And we probably shopped for delicacies like mussels and goats’ cheese and pintades in the markets.

– I think we’ve got enough cheese

– Which domaine shall we go to

Wine was always a consideration.

We went back to Bessan where we’d met Georges the previous year, which had now been consigned to our separate histories. Tina drove along the back road towards Beziers. It looked like the mutiny had been quelled with Tina driving and Jane in the front seat again and Mick in the back. The order was confused by my presence, though, as I shared Mick’s lower order space while issuing directions to Tina. I was second-in-command in reality, but I was sitting in the wrong seat.

– Take the next left …

– Follow that track …

And so on.

Tina parked the Mercedes under a cedar tree at the end of an avenue of plane trees that looked like they’d been there since the time of Henri IV. Which was a hundred years before the Benedictine monks started to build the monastery that would become my Benedictine monastery cakehouse slice. The trees were tall and thick-trunked and leprous with discoloured patches on their bark, but their leaves made a canopy of shade above the driveway, and that was what they were there for.

We climbed out of the airconditioned Mercedes into the plane-tree-canopy-shaded heat of the day and headed for the screaming mouth cellar doorway in a new, new order: me-and-Mick, Jane-and-Tina. Another mutiny.

The darkness of the cellar was the same darkness as the previous year. It had been waiting for us to return. The cold, damp, vinegary air tasted the same and the cold, damp, packed-earth floor welcomed us with a clammy embrace that made me feel as though I was being drawn in to an inevitable and inescapable sedation starting at the soles of my feet. It was a Lethe cellar.

– Messieurs dames. Bonjour

The same voice from the shadows. The same crenellated chest-high oak bar. The same materialising woman. A fresh mound of Inquisition-gathered scrotums. We had stepped back into our own history. This version of hell was going to repeat the last twelve months. Over and over.

I felt I had to break the cycle or we’d be bound to the cycle forever.

– Bonjour madame. Nous avons retourne

She looked at us from a mask that was neither tragedy nor comedy. She obviously had no idea who we were.

I tried again.

– Et Georges. Comment est-il

The mask cracked a hairline fracture across its brow.

– Georges …

– Le cochon

The cracked mask cracked a little more, rifts of memory creating tiny fissures of enlightenment across the forehead.

– Ah, Georges! Il est dans le congelateur. Cotelettes. Saucisses. Bacon. C’est la vie

Life. A shrug and Georges was chops and sausages in the freezer. Georges was not sentiment. Georges was sliced bacon.

We bought a dozen bottles of Syrah and we left the cellar in a cortege of grief. We’d bought some exceptionally good wine, but we’d lost a friend.

We drank some of the wine that night while we discussed Georges’ fate and debated the notion that the French had great passion but little love. Overall though, I think we decided that the quality of the Syrah outweighed all other considerations.

About The Author

IJ Fenn has been writing fiction, poetry and non-fiction since the twentieth century, mainly in the form of letters to the bank (fiction), letters of apology to the bank (non-fiction) and letters to publishers (poetry).

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