It was the one item we were told never to touch. It stood there in its place of honour, an arched recess in the wall of the kitchen where we would sit and eat our breakfast during that long, hot summer. A brown, dirty-looking earthenware jar with a broken handle and glue marks showing around the mouth.
“Hurry up slowcoach,” Miles would say as Millie sat there, fidgeting, waiting for me to finish dipping my bread in the luxurious coffee and hot milk that Aunt Aggie provided for breakfast. We had already been out to the Boulangerie to buy the bread.
“Deux pain sil vous plait,” we would say. It was the first French we had learnt, the day after our arrival. Nobody in the village spoke English, as we soon learnt, but it was not long before our halting attempts to blurt out a few French words, combined with suitable gestures, did the trick.
“Come on Marcus, before it gets too hot out.”
We were off to the beach for a swim. We went there every morning before the sun rose too high. Then, before we had developed any kind of a Mediterranean tan, our pallid complexions would soon be burnt to a bright red, as we learnt to our painful cost.
“I’m going,” said Miles with a huff. With one last look at the jar, I scampered out after him, Millie in tow. As the middle child, Marcus in the middle, it was my job to supervise our younger sister. We were always glad to leave the house and our aunt Agatha, mad aunt Aggie, behind, and I dare say she was pleased to be shot of us too. That way she could spend her day mumbling to herself, chatting to her invisible friends and pacing about the villa in her dusty clothes and unkempt hair.
Aunt Aggie had run away from her home in Surrey and left her parents, our grandparents, when she was a teenager. Ran off with a French film star, or so she claimed. It wasn’t the first time he had run off with a young girl, and wasn’t the last time either, or so it seemed. Having been abandoned by the said film star, our aunt decided to remain where her beau had left her in this torrid coastal town in Provence. She soon found other friends. Aggie was always talking about this Claude, or that Antoine, or how Pierre had swept her off her feet. She would wave her arms about like some demented am-dram actress as she spoke of nights spent in the bars and bistros of the Champs-Élysées, wherever that was. Looking back on it, I don’t think she was ever in Paris, so it was probably just one more of her mad tales. We couldn’t care less what she said, we were happy to scamper along to the sea, barefoot and ready to immerse ourselves in the warm waters of the Med at the beach we later learnt had the exotic name of L’épuisette Plage.
When we weren’t out swimming in the sea or combing the sands and rocks for shellfish and flotsam, we spent our days catching lizards in the woods nearby or running around the village making mischief or finding French children to run around with. At first, they would laugh at us for not understanding them, but we managed to make ourselves understood and, over the years, we became fluent in the language of this part of southern France.
Back at the villa, we would speak to each other in English, occasionally adding a spattering of any new French words and phrases we had learnt that day from our playmates. Aunt Aggie switched between French and English with an easy grace, selecting from one or the other, depending on her mood. When she was in a day-to-day, time-for-a-bath or time-for-bed, or don’t-you-ever-touch-that-jar type of mood, she spoke English to us, with a headmistressey type of accent and emphasis. It seemed she only spoke French when she was in a dreamy, dancey, mad mood. We didn’t take much notice of what she said but, if it was late at night, we tried to keep her talking as long as possible, so that she didn’t notice the time. Sometimes she would fall asleep on the divan, carafe of the pungent local wine by her side, and we would slink off out into the starlit night for some nocturnal adventure or other.
Some days we didn’t go out at all. On those rare days that were hit by the fearsome thunder and torrential rains that sometimes visited those parts of France we were ordered to stay in. We would have gone out, regardless, but Aunt Aggie would not have it.
“You will catch your death,” she would say before repeating the warning in some unintelligible French, waving her arms about in the mad way she did. “Non pas mes petits, you must stay inside.” Even when she spoke English, she would pronounce it with a French accent so that we had to half-guess the meaning. We knew that the “stay inside” fake French accent or not, meant that there was no room for manoeuvre. It was in all truth no hardship. We had spent the past few weeks running around the villages, woods, fields and beaches so it would do us no harm at all to stay inside for a day. At least in theory.
In practice we were, of course, soon bored, having got so used to our outdoor adventures, and there was little inside our auntie’s Spartan villa to occupy the minds of three mischievous children. It didn’t take long before the focus of our attention fell on the jar in the wall. Aggie had gone to her room, the one bedroom in the villa, for her afternoon nap. She was already snorting away like a prize pig in a puddle.
“I wonder if there is anything in it,” said Millie, unusually vocal. Miles and I looked at each other, an expression of alarm on his face as he immediately noticed the spread of a wicked grin across mine.
“Oh, no, Marcus, No!” it didn’t stop the spread of the grin and as I got up he leapt on me, repeating the order to desist. I was having none of it but, squirm as I might, I was unable to wriggle out from under him. Then Millie joined in and we all rolled around on the tiles in a tangled heap until, breathless, we separated and sat up, looking at each other. At least the other two were looking at each other. I, for my part, was staring intently at the jar.
“I wonder.” Despite the noise of the rumpus, we could still hear the stentorian snores and snorts from the other room. She would never know.
This time, when I got up and stepped over to the wall, neither sibling tried to stop me. They just watched as I stretched up and, with something of reverence, lifted the jar, just an inch above the shelf it stood on. Immediately I felt a shock pulse through me. Something like an electric shock and yet not. More of a shudder and a warm tingle, that I felt radiating from the jar through my arms and throughout my body. Frightened, I immediately put the jar back down, a little too hard, as it shuddered, and I thought it was going to topple off the shelf and onto the floor.
My pulse was racing as I panted, trying to catch the breath that had been stolen from me. I still felt a bit tingly in the arms. Looking over my shoulder, I could see the other two staring at me, both with mouths agape. In Millie’s case, showing one or two gaps that had yet to be filled by growing canines. I turned back to the jar and there it still stood, almost challenging me. I was not sure what had just happened, but I was not going to let it put me off. Gingerly at first, I touched the sides of the jar with my fingertips, checking it was not hot or that mad aunt Aggie had not somehow wired it up to provide a deterrent electric shock. Gripping one of the rounded handles, and what was left of the other, as tight as I could, I could feel nothing. Then, lifting it again, I felt the tingling, more powerful this time. Not painful, but I could feel it coursing through my body as if my blood had all turned to magic dust, like the kind of fizzing, tingling feel you have in your mouth when you suck on a sherbet fountain or some other fizzy acid sweet. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but it did not feel normal at all.
Not only that, as I tried to lift the jar away from its arched shelf it started to feel heavy, really, really heavy. So much so that I was not sure I could hold it, but I was not going to give up either. Turning to face my brother and sister I held it up, straining against the growing weight that seemed to pull my arms to the floor. It was then that it happened. Standing there facing them, holding the jar, arms outstretched, I felt the weight suddenly take the jar out of my fingers and, for an instant, watched it drop towards the floor. Feeling the dizziness of fear, I tried to snatch it back up again but it was gone in an instant. No sound of a fall, no smashing, no splintering, shattering clash of pottery against floor tile, nothing. There was no sound at all. The jar was gone. Not just from my hands, it was gone from the room. As I watched, helpless as it fell to the floor it seemed to dissolve, not into the tiny fragments of ceramic to be expected of such an accident, but nothing. The jar, in front of my eyes, dissolved into nothing. It literally melted into thin air as I watched, dazed and confused and feeling dizzier and dizzier. I could hear an enormous rushing of wind, like a full-blown hurricane, like the ‘twister’ in Wizard of Oz, and I thought of that swirling whirlwind as I was carried down, deep into its vortex and yet, not lifted into the clouds like Dorothy’s house, but plunged into the dark earth beneath me.
As I recovered my senses, I was still standing in the villa but somehow it had changed. Neither Miles nor Millie were anywhere to be seen and the room was transformed. Gone was the furniture, the drapes and the fripperies that characterised my aunt’s house. In their place were two low divans and an even lower table like a kind of coffee table, made from bamboo or woven reeds of some kind. The divans were neither beds nor chairs but kind of in-between. The little table was bare but draped across each of the divans was a man and a woman, dark haired and youthful, each wearing a kind of dress or toga. I could tell that the clothing was expensive as the material was of the purest white and the edges were adorned with a golden material that looked like lace. To say I was astonished would be the understatement of the century. But I can’t think how better to describe my utter bewilderment at the sight. Neither of the two heavenly creatures lying there paid any attention to me, they just seemed to be chatting to each other. Not in French and not in English either.
Just as I was about to blurt out something intelligent like “who are you?” or “what are you doing here,” I felt an enormous blow to my left ear, which knocked me almost off my feat.” As I looked up, I saw a fierce looking man dressed in what looked like a simple cloth dressing gown, tied at the middle, ruddy arms bare, staring at me in admonition. The burning pain that was now spreading over half my face confirmed that he must have been telling me off. Then, as if further confirmation were needed, he started to shout at me.
“Inrabit Culina! Culina, Nothus,” or something like that. I had no idea what he was saying but as he pointed one hand and raised the other to strike again, I had no doubt what he meant and quickly scurried towards my aunt’s bedroom, fearful of the hammer blow that was bound to follow had I not. As I walked through the now doorless arch to the room, I was hardly surprised to note the absence of bedroom furniture, given the many other surprises that had already assailed me. I was almost interested to note, however, the remarkable layout of what was obviously a kitchen, though lacking any appliance I could recognise.
The room was filled with the most glorious and varied smells I had ever come across. From behind a wooden door in the recess in the wall where my aunt once kept her cosmetics, was a smell of fresh bread baking, the fire beneath confirming the function of the recess. I could smell the fire, the bread, a strange waft of fish, some half-rancid dairy smell, something that must have been meat beyond its best, overlayed by a thousand spices and herbs to delight the most avid gourmet. I did not have time to identify all these heady perfumes, however, as the gruff man followed me in, shouting something else and pointing to a tray that seemed to be waiting for me on a stone ledge. Fearing another blow, I picked up the tray and, guessing it to be meal for Mr and Mrs Adonis in the other room, I scuttled out with it.
It was a tray covered with little pottery dishes, each containing a food of some kind or another, some covered with a lavish drizzle of oil, some a sticky, shiny glaze that might have been honey. There were dishes of mottled black olives and coarse grey swirling snails in their shells. There were many kinds of fruits I did not recognise and what looked like tiny chicken legs. The gruff man did not follow me but stayed in the kitchen and I could tell by the sudden blast of heat as I left the room that he had opened the oven. I could hear the crackling of bread crust as it met the cooler air outside after the intense heat of the oven.
Laying the tray down on the little table, which is where I guessed it was supposed to be, I stepped back and looked up, wondering what to do next. Neither of the two reclining there paid me any attention. They just reached forward, delicately picking with their fingers at the foods in front of them, making no attempt to sit up, still speaking their unintelligible words. I just stood there, not knowing what to do next. Should I bow and leave, should I stay and wait for further orders, or expect more blows from the ogre in the kitchen? As if in answer, the man picked up a little goblet and held it up to me without a word.
A sudden panic, as I wondered where the wine or water or whatever he wanted to drink could be. Looking over my shoulder, I saw it, there in the recess, in exactly the same place it had been in my aunt’s house, or this house as it was, or will be or whenever or wherever it could have been. It certainly seemed an age since I had dropped the thing from my hand.
Knowing the consequence of hesitation, I didn’t stop to think but strode over to the shelf and grabbed the jar, this time heavy from being filled with what I assumed was water. As I lifted the jar off the shelf, this time with both handles intact, and turned back to the table, I was suddenly gripped by an almighty terror. The jar was as heavy as it had been when I had dropped it before and, as I gripped the handles at the side of the vessel, tighter and tighter, so again it slipped from my grasp. This time, I was not saved by any miraculous dissolution, but was hit by a mighty crashing and splintering and gushing, as the container split asunder on contact with the floor, its contents spreading and splashing all over. Now, the two diners did notice me, looking up with their mouths wide open and about to speak when I heard the most fearful of exclamation and incomprehensible expostulation from the kitchen.
In no doubt as to my fate, I sunk to my knees, feeling the fragments of ceramic pierce my flesh, clutching my arms about my ears, awaiting the blow.
The roaring from the kitchen swirled all around me and dissolved into a murky mire of sound as I clutched my head, eyes gripped tight shut, and wished myself back in Kansas, as I remember thinking my home was at the time.
As the swirling clouds of mist began to clear I could see Aunt Aggie crouching over me and could taste the sharp tang of a metal teaspoon being shoved between my teeth. Thankfully, she removed it as I gasped for breath, not knowing if I was in Kansas, The French Riviera, or home in Surrey.
Recovering quickly, I clearly looked more than a little dazed as I jumped up with a start, looking over at the recess in the wall where the jar had stood before I broke it. Yet there it was. Standing in its proud place, looking a lot less worse-for-wear than I felt.
Glancing back at Aunt Aggie I saw, for once, the intense comprehending expression of someone who could take in the whole story in a single glance.
She knew where I had been.
* * * * *
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