14th of July
We were driving among farmsteads and the car was floating on the hills gloomily moistened with rain, resembling a ship on a rough sea. We were just passing a small-town church when Julia took hold of Robert’s arm.
“Let’s stop here, please,” she spoke for the first time in two days; her voice was somewhat frantic and pressing. “I feel that we should stop here.”
We left the car in a parking lot not far from the church. A light drizzle made the brickwork look dismal. There was a line of several other cars whose drivers wanted to park behind us. Jumping over puddles, we went past bakeries and cafés to finally reach the church’s front door.
Julia gave it a strong push and went inside. Mass was just being celebrated. We joined in, taking seats on one of the benches in the back.
The door was left open. We could hear the spatter of the rain, the hum of cars passing by, and the hubbub of human voices. Inside, silence prevailed, except an occasional cough, shuffling of feet or a scratch behind an ear. In front of me, there was a man with a raised chin who was hiding behind thick glasses. The seat next to him was occupied by an old lady who was solemnly moving beads of the rosary between her fingers despite the trembling of her hands. I looked around. It seemed as if the people who gathered in the church were all familiar to each other – even we somehow belonged to that group of friends although we had never before heard Mass in that particular church.
The bearded and modestly dressed priest entered the church along with a couple of altar boys. The band started playing from the corner – the flute, pipe organ, and singing of two choristers merged in the air and circulated around the church like the wind, filling each of us separately as if the source of that music was hidden deep in our souls. A woman was singing and the music was the fifth element she had just learned to control. Her voice was vibrant, sublime, ethereal; it made me feel like I was just taking part in something grand. That exceptional sound was a connection between all worlds.
The priest’s voice became entangled between the high columns, trying to escape into the heavenly sky through the recesses of the roof and then turning into light that penetrated the church through the stained-glass windows. The singing was powerful and, at the same time, subtle and clear, like a voice of an angel who just came down to earth. When somebody told me that those who sing say their prayers twice, I added to myself that those who sing out of tune say their prayers threefold. So I sang, at least I tried to sing in French, reading the words from the sheet I had received in the entrance. I prayed inaudibly that everything would come right, that Julia and Robert… that everything would be alright again.
A resonant and vibrant “Hallelujah” contained the entire power of life; it shook up the church, and I myself felt as if I was born again. Robert was nervously tapping his fingers on the bench. I glanced at Julia and it seemed to me that I noticed tears in her eyes.
The bearded priest sang the Gospel – I didn’t understand a single word of it but his singing struck a deep chord of my soul. A quarter or so later, I was surprised to see that almost everybody in the church put their hands in the air to say “Our Father”. I looked at my friends and saw them lifting their hands up as well so I followed in their footsteps. I could feel the chains that I had been tied up with being cast off; the barriers were removed and the artificial walls were being torn down, ceasing to restrict my freedom. In that very moment, something changed in me, I was unblocked. I wasn’t a prisoner of my own mind anymore since I became a free man.
After a while, a joyful bustle filled the church. Everyone left their seats to find a friend, a neighbor, a grandmother, or a sister in order to exchange the sign of peace. Most of the people didn’t content themselves with a handshake, preferring rather an affectionate kiss or a hug. The three of us looked at each other and, acting on the spur of the moment, we held each other in a tender embrace. That moment was long enough to let me realize that I was actually very happy despite all the obstacles and the ill-spirited fate that sometimes deprived me of hope.
“Bon dimanche,” said the priest and squeezed our hands, saying goodbye to his parishioners at the door. We send him smiles and wished him a good day.
The rain stopped and the sky cleared up. The air was warm and brisk. It turned out we found ourselves in a small town somewhere on the Côte d’Azur but we didn’t know its name. In the main square, there was a golden statue of liberty shining in the sun. Some people were sitting in cafés, listening to an accordionist who was standing by the fountain, and others were heading for a colorful market where vendors encouraged customers to buy their products so loudly that even we could hear them.
“It’s alright now,” said Julia and she gave us a smile as proof. “We can move on.”
Robert and I took another while to observe the everyday life of the town, women opening the blue window shutters, men rushing back home with warm baguettes under their arms, and the children chasing one another for the sheer fun of it. For a moment, my attention was riveted by a small dog that was trying to drink water from the fountain under the statue of liberty but its neck was too short to do so.
“I think I’d like to stay here,” I said. It was just a regular desire, similar to the dog’s thirst. I was being driven by an awkward and unclear hunch which made me say those words.
My friends looked at me in surprise.
“We don’t have anywhere to stay for the night,” Julia opposed but her voice didn’t sound like refusal.
Robert, on the other hand, didn’t air his opinion; he didn’t even contemplate whether it was a good idea or not. That’s what I had liked him for – he always did more than he said. He pushed us gently, coming down the stairs in front of the church.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Don’t just stand there, let’s go.”
We headed for the market where a large crowd was flowing between the stands. There were linen clothes, wine to be tasted, fruit and vegetables, traditional Provençal biscuits, cheese, sausages, and half-alive spiny lobsters displayed on ice shelves. There was also a man in a panama hat, who was humming one of Eric Clapton’s songs, and a group of dark-skinned amateur musicians, who were playing on the djembe drums, the maracas, and the ukulele. The vendors were shouting, crying their wares. We went past the family dressed in Hawaiian shirts that was preceded by a pair of collies, and then Robert came to a sudden halt in front of the woman who was frying calamari on a large frying pan.
“You must be crazy,” I said to him but he didn’t seem to notice me.
“Let’s give it a try,” he suggested. “I want to live a bit, you know.”
With a portion of fried calamari in a plastic container, we went to the boulodrome to observe the old men playing pétanque. Looking at their faces, we could see their minds being completely focused on throwing the boules with a properly adjusted force in a correct direction, having allowed for the lay of the land which sometimes gets deceptive. All that in order to get their boules as close as possible to the jack, that is le cochonnet. Some of the men knocked out the boules of their competitors, others moved patiently towards the cochonnet, throw after throw. The game appeared to be passive and boring but the gentlemen were quite excited about it. A man in a white hat, sitting in a wheelchair, kept animatedly commenting the game. Some players patted others on shoulders and an occasional cry of delight could be heard when someone’s boule stopped close to the cochonnet. After a while, the clank of boules died away and the old men were replaced by a group of young boys playing football.
The afternoon was fading away, and I became slightly concerned. Robert told us that, since the town was located at the seaside, we could go to the beach but I managed to ward his persuasive abilities off. We had to find a place to stay somewhere near the town of St Cyr sur Mer, as the place was called, according to one of the local residents we asked.
We bought ourselves some paella and headed for the parking lot. I was surprised to see the people smiling all the time, even while they were simply crossing the street. Drivers stopped their cars whenever we approached the crosswalk. I tried to justify the positive attitude of the residents of St Cyr sur Mer with the sunlight they could cherish in large amounts.
Robert turned the ignition key. The engine coughed and then started.
“So, what do we do?” asked Julia in a voice that contained a tone of uncertainty.
Robert also gave me a look of helplessness.
“We’ll drive around and maybe we’ll find a place to put up a tent,” I said, starting to pray in my thoughts that the day would end in a positive atmosphere and that nobody would declare their desire to get back home.
For a couple of exceptionally long hours, we traversed the area, driving along the narrow roads in the hills that lead us through the green fields of grapevine between La Ciotat, Bandol, and La Beausset. On the way, we found a couple of places that could serve the purpose of putting up a tent but each time one of us raised an objection, claiming we would definitely find a better spot. It was getting late when we returned to the hills of St Cyr, which offered an incredible vista of the sea and the pointy rocks in La Ciotat biting into the sky’s blue like a row of teeth. While we were admiring the view, wanting to treasure it in our memory, a young man tapped on the car’s window. He looked just like Alain Delon and must have just returned from a walk in the forest.
“Salut! Vous venez de Pologne?” we nodded in response to the last word he said. “Ah, c’est bon, j’ai beaucoup des amis en Pologne. Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez? La place pour dormir?”
“Oui,” answered Julia.
“Aller, suivez moi!” he smiled and ran to an old, dilapidated Citroen that was parked nearby. He started the engine and looked out the window, waving his hand to make sure we followed him.
“Let’s go,” Robert said and put his foot on the accelerator. I noticed his hands sweating a bit on the steering wheel.
Alain Delon was leading us along the narrow roads winding in the hills. There was hardly enough space for two cars to pass by. Moreover, he was driving so fast and with such confidence that we were afraid we could lose sight of him. We drove past pine woods, houses with adorable shutters, olive trees, rows of tall cypress trees, and vineyards. At one moment, we actually lost our guide but then we heard him calling us. His voice seemed to come from behind us so Robert turned around and drove back. A bumpy road took us to a large estate and as soon as our eyes escaped from the dazzling orange light of the sunset, we realized it was a vineyard.
Robert stopped the car under an old olive tree, sighed with relief, and said:
“Here we are.”
We followed Alain Delon to the stone house with the walls covered in climbing grapevine. The distinct fragrance of melons and the flowers in the garden was spreading in the air. Our guide knocked on the door made of thick solid wood. We heard someone coming on the other side, and a moment later the door was opened by a rather chunky man with a grey beard and watchful eyes, which he immediately fixed at our faces. Once he told him a few words, Alain Delon said goodbye and ran back to his car. The host invited us into the house.
The scent of wine pervaded the entire house. We sat down to table; the man opened a bottle, took out four wineglasses, and joined us. He poured wine into the glasses – it was thick and it had a deep red color.
“Sante,” said the host, clinking his glass with us. “It’s for a good night’s sleep.”
He started to tell us about the vineyard, explaining how to take care of grapes and asserting that he picked only the best, the sweetest and the ripest ones for the production of wine. He told us about working in the vineyard and slipped in a few words about the history of the place. He described the process of production and fermentation as well as the period of four years that red wine spends aging in wooden casks. Then, he moved on to the description of its taste, delineating every detail in poetic and flowery words that not even Bacchus himself would feel ashamed of. He opened a cupboard and took out a couple of bottles of various vintages, organizing a small tasting. Finally, he introduced himself as if his name was least important; we already tasted two types of red and rosé wine.
“Baptiste,” he said, giving our hands a squeeze. We introduced ourselves. “So, you’d like to stay here, eh?” We nodded. He thought for a while and then continued. “You see, I’m looking for some workers.” I could feel my blood gaining velocity in my veins. Up to that point, there was a question mark over our trip, and money was one of the reasons for it. “You could stay here and work. What do you think?”
“Nous serions tres hereux,” Julia answered in French, smiling from ear to ear. I thought I could hear our hearts beating louder than usual.
The owner of the vineyard smiled as well, and his watchful blue eyes warmed up. He stood up, making me certain that he wanted to say goodnight to us.
“We have a tent…” I began but he interrupted me with a wave of his hand.
“Come with me,” he said.
We came outside and followed the path surrounded by flowers, which took us to a house with a single lantern hanging on a nearby tree. Baptiste asked us inside and showed us around, telling us that nobody had lived in the house for a long time and that we could make ourselves at home. Finally, he asked us whether we’d like to have a day off in order to recharge our batteries but we told him that we would be happy to start in the morning. Baptiste smiled once again, and his eyes flashed in the darkness while he was crossing the threshold.
“A bientot,” he said and returned to his house.
We couldn’t believe what just happened. For a while, we looked at each other in silence and when the picture didn’t disappear, melting away like a beautiful dream, we burst into a loud joyful laughter, which spread across the vineyard and shot into the starry night sky like sparks from the fire. Uncertainty and tension finally left us alone and vanished into thin air. Lucky devils, we were. Robert switched on the radio and the speakers started to deliver the sounds of “C’est une belle historie”. Singing along with Michel Fugain, we started to bring our baggage from the car. Despite the late hour, there was still light in our windows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an accidental passer-by arrived at the conclusion that some lunatics must have moved in to the vineyard.
When Julia and Robert eventually jumped into their beds, I got up and went to the door.
“Charles, where are you going? Have you heard siren voices?” asked Robert in a fatigued voice. He was already half-asleep.
“Sort of. I’m taking a walk” I answered.
I came out into the vineyard. The chilly air was very pleasant. I pricked up both my ears and my nose and strained my eyes, absorbing everything new that reached my senses like a sponge absorbs water. There was an immaculately white horse standing erect with pride behind a wall of olive trees, and the rows of grapevine gave the impression of having been blended together with the landscape since the dawn of time. The podgy moon poured its milky light over the stone house with the walls covered in green leaves. I shifted my eyes from an enormous tree growing out of the deep night to the lit windows of houses sitting at the shore near the port of La Madrague. I suddenly realized it was the 14th of July when I saw the never-ending bursts of colorful fireworks shooting up into the sky, flaring up for a short moment, and then falling down like golden raindrops. I could hear music coming from the port where people were having fun. I kept walking. I went past an abandoned, rusted-through car and followed the path leading to the silence of Baptiste’s house. A dog barked, and I turned around, having concluded it was a sign that I should go back.
Julia and Robert were already asleep when I went to bed. However, I didn’t close my eyes straightaway but lay for a while, gazing at the ceiling. I was thinking about the things I had left behind; pictures from the past appeared in my head and glittered like fireworks. I thought that there were, naturally, some things I missed and that we could never be certain of the future but, all in all, I didn’t regret anything and I knew that I was happy, being rocked to sleep by the singing of cicadas. Everything was just fine.
To be continued
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