Part 9 is here
Part 8 is here
Part 10: St Guthlac Sur Mer
Ronnie and Lucy both felt awkward, later, sitting in Hazel’s kitchen drinking yet another cup of coffee; so much intensity before lunchtime, while everybody else was only slowly getting themselves in gear. Hazel asked if they had any plans, and Ronnie shrugged, feeling an adolescent embarrassment. Didier walked in; Hazel’s husband looked slightly hungover and looked at everyone under hooded eyes.
“Actually,” said Lucy, “I was going to ask Ronnie to take me for a drive. I’ve never been to this region, but I really should have done before now….”
Didier snorted into the coffee he’d just poured. “You are going to do some work? But you are on holiday?!” Ronnie mentally added, “Zut alors!” because that’s exactly what it sounded like Didier was about to say.
“Well, not working, really,” said Lucy. “Just interested. It happens that I’m interested in the very thing I do for a living. I know I’m lucky. What do you say, Ronnie? Fancy a drive?” She gave him an intense look. Ronnie got the message.
“You bet,” was all he said.
Ronnie went back to their cottage to pick up his car keys and Lucy’s digital SLR while Lucy stayed behind talking with Hazel and Didier. On his way back in, Jane Hinchcliffe met Ronnie at the door.
"Hey. We haven't had much of a chance to talk."
"No, I know. It's been..."
"Well, doesn't matter. But I was just going down to the pool. Do you want to come down? We could catch up."
"Actually, I was about to go for a drive with Lucy."
"Oh. You've been spending a lot of time with her."
"Well, I guess. Happens we’re sharing a cottage – but we were too drunk to talk much last night."
"Something I should know about...?"
"No, not really. It's..."
"Never mind then. Catch you later."
After she'd gone Ronnie stood in the doorway and thought about it. It was true, he’d barely interacted with anybody since arriving. There was a chance his behaviour would seem supercilious, arrogant, to the others. Which some might interpret as a continuation of the way he'd behaved towards them at school. It wasn't that he didn't want to spend time with Jane, or Sally, or even Dave. Any of the others. But it was already understood that Ronnie was going to look after Lucy. Be her taxi, her sounding board, whatever she wanted. And if she wanted nothing, that was fine, then he'd be free. But if she needed someone to drive her around, Ronnie would be the one to do it.
Guilt, obviously, he realised. And manifesting itself in a strange way. No matter what, he was going to do whatever she wanted to do, she came first. It's like we're married, he thought. Not just married, but newly married. And, his heart pounding in his chest, Ronnie realised he was fine with that.
Lucy came up behind him. "Ready?"
"Who said that?"
"I just did."
"No, it was in a book I think."
"So what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about how much time we're spending together and what the others are going to be thinking."
"I know. It's a bit of a scandal already I think, judging from what Hazel was saying. Do you mind? I mean, I never intended to monopolise you.” Lucy smiled, added, “I mean, I want to monopolise you, but never intended to want to…”
"As long as you don't mind, there's nothing I'd rather be doing,” said Ronnie, truthfully.
"Well, that's okay then, isn't it? Let’s get out of here."
Frowning slightly at her eagerness to escape their old friend’s hospitality, Ronnie caught up with her.
She took his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Can I drive?"
"In your dreams."
It was already warm, with the sun only halfway up in the sky, and everywhere was bathed in brilliant light. The sky was a uniform azure blue. The roads seemed smooth and quiet. For a while they didn't talk, and then they did. They found a side road off the main holiday routes which wound through several villages. They were all beautiful. After a while they started ranking them in terms of dream home desirability, deciding quickly that even the most minor flaw would disqualify it. For example, one place had just one flower under the "Villages Fleuris" ranking, which was pathetic, unless you're a hay fever sufferer. Another had an ugly grain store; another, the wrong kind of supermarket: Ed, rather than SuperU. Lucy had borrowed a map from Sally. It started out as an aimless drive, but after a while she caught her breath and started issuing instructions.
"Where are we going?" asked Ronnie.
"I've got to see this." She was pointing to a spot on the map.
"What is it?"
"It’s a village called St Guthlac sur Mer."
"Well, there must be hundreds of places like it, but, it's clear from the map it's about 10 kilometres inland. I bet it used to be right on the old coastline before they reclaimed all this land from the sea."
"Right up your alley, in other words."
When they were two kilometres from the village and knew where they were heading, Lucy folded the map and leaned back in her seat with a sigh of contentment.
"So. Weird or what?" she asked. "The last time we saw these people they were all children."
Ronnie agreed. "But I'd have punched your lights out if you'd called me a child back then."
"It's hard to think back what everyone was like. Some people think you can see the adult in the child, but it's not always so easy. You haven't changed much, and Dave - for example - is recognisably an older and sadder version of himself. Douglas seems like a really cool and contented guy, though, but what was he like then?"
"He always seemed nervy and spotty to me."
"Exactly. Whereas Dave worked at being the coolest guy in the school and has turned into a..."
"Mid-life crisis in progress."
"Don't forget bald."
"I feel for him a bit in that respect. I know it must have hurt when he realised it was happening. I was expecting something like that myself." Ronnie silently blessed the genes of his mother’s father, whoever he had been.
They rounded a curve in the road and passed the sign welcoming them to St Guthlac sur Mer, and then another one directing them to the Vieux Port. There wasn't a whole lot of village visible from the main through road, which split in two, becoming part of a one-way system around the outskirts, leading traffic away towards the coast. Ronnie drove slowly, looking for a turn into the main part of the village. On the hillside to their left, there were some new houses going up, but that had been the case in almost every village they’d driven through. They were in the classic Vendéen style: two low side wings with a mini tower in the middle. The roof tiles were red, the shutters blue, the walls, where painted, were white.
Ronnie saw a faded blue P for parking and turned right, following a narrow lane until he saw the small but empty car park. They stepped out of the air conditioned car into the ineffable hanging heat. The tarmac sizzled and the air shimmered. The cooling fan in the Audi’s engine kicked in automatically and somewhere in the village a church bell rang. It was half past noon on the village church clock and the place seemed deserted. With a tissue from his pocket, Ronnie picked at one of many dead insects on the windscreen of the car.
"Do you think we'll need our coats?" Lucy said.
They walked towards the sound of the bell. Lucy reached for Ronnie’s hand again, and Ronnie tried not to notice when she took it. She asked him his opinion of Didier.
“Strange, isn’t it,” said Ronnie, “How after all this time someone can seem so different from the rest of us. We all have in common that we grew up around the same area and went to the same school. At the very least we all have recogniseably the same accent.”
“Yes, he sticks out like a sore thumb,” she said. "And not just because he'd French."
“I thought it was strange the way he pounced on you over this visit, like you were treating it as a business trip.”
“And here’s my question. How did he know I was about to mix business with pleasure? I never said anything. I never finished my sentence.”
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the fact that he pounced on this, knowing it was to do with my job, I never told him that– today or yesterday. Also I think he lied about something else."
They'd stopped in front of the church. The sign into the village had said it was 12th century, and even the little Ronnie knew about architecture was enough to confirm this. A rough arch framed the door, which was of old oak and open halfway. The whitewashed walls were supported by flying buttresses all around and the clock tower seemed to lean outwards. Ronnie’s eyes struggled with the contrast between bright sunshine and the dark interior, but it didn't look as if there was anyone inside.
"Shall we?" Lucy asked.
Without waiting for an answer, she walked into the cool church and Ronnie followed, asking, "What did he lie about?"
"Something really odd. He said he didn't know the name of any villages that had once been on the coast. I asked him when you went back to get your keys. But I saw his car when we came out. I assume it was his: an old Peugeot with a french number plate. He had a commemorative sticker in his rear window. Saint Guthlac Sur Mer, Fête des Marais 2000. Something like that anyway. I mean, the name only rang a bell when I saw it on the map, but it all adds up."
"Perhaps he forgot."
"Perhaps, but it seems an odd thing to forget when someone’s just asked you about it."
"But why would you lie about something like that?"
"I've no idea. But I thought I should say."
She stopped in front of the altar, looked up at one of the dusty-looking stained glass windows. There was nobody else in the church, and Ronnie waited as his eyes became accustomed and he could make out more detail.
"So," Lucy said, with a full stop. "Why is a no-longer fishing port in the Vendée named after an eighth century English saint?"
“St Guthlac is very familiar to me. He was a hermit of the Lincolnshire fens; renowned for being a friend to all the animals – except the crows.”
“The crows? How do you know all this?” Ronnie’s confusion was compounded by the heat.
“It’s a thing I know because Guthlac has a connection with land reclamation and coastal erosion. And he was also adept at persuading rats to vacate premises.”
“Like the Pied Piper…”
“Of Hamelyn,” she finished.
"Perhaps it's not the same Guthlac?"
"No it is. See, that window, that scene portrays Guthlac driving vermin away with his staff. And that one shows a crow or raven eating one of his eyes."
Ronnie sat down on an old wooden pew.
Lucy was on her hands and knees looking at a brass inlay in the floor.
"Are you about to start rubbing?" he asked.
"I'm trying to read the inscription. It's been rubbed so many times it's gone faint."
Ronnie said, "I'm feeling a bit faint myself." Lucy looked up, concerned. "Joking," he said.
She hauled herself to her feet. "Anyway, it's all in Latin, and it's been a long time."
"Take a photo," suggested Ronnie. She looked as if she was about to kiss him.
"Genius," she said.
"I am intrigued by what you said about... whatsisname," mused Ronnie as Lucy set up her camera.
"Hmmm. I can't work out why he'd lie about something so... easily found out. How did the conversation go?"
"Almost as soon as you left the room to get the keys. I was about to make a move and he sort of stopped me. Cornered me a bit, actually.”
"Invading your personal space."
"Like that. And a bit smelly. And he asked if I had planned anything else for today, so I said nothing, apart from going for a drive with you. And he wanted to know if we were going to the beach, and I said, no, actually, I'm really interested in finding a museum or something with information about the land reclamation, you know, what we were talking about, all the monks and the Dutch engineers draining the marshlands and reclaiming land. So like that, and he kept asking questions, all interested, but also kind of aggressive, if you know what he mean."
"Aggressive in what way?"
Lucy paused to flash off a couple of shots and review them on the LCD screen.
"Well, okay, so this is a little bit like a busman's holiday, and he was asking – again – what did I want to go doing something work-related for, why wasn't I going to sit by the pool and relax. It was all a bit... you know. A drive out and a trip to a museum or something with a professional interest, doesn't seem too excessive to me."
"Anyway...?" prompted Ronnie.
"Yeah, so I said, is there anywhere round here with a museum? Don't know, he said. I asked, obviously there are places that used to be, you know, on the coast, but now they're inland, and did he know the name of anywhere like that? Don't know. Is there anywhere near here, I said, where the name would seem to indicate it used to be right next to the sea? Like this, St Guthlac Sur Mer. And he said, don't know. And that was it, when I finally got away I thought, well, I don't like him very much, even if he is letting me stay in one of his cottages for free. And then as we walked out and got in the car, there I saw it, the sticker in his windscreen."
"So I know, genuinely, you can put something in your car window and completely forget all about it and all that. But this was different, this was, 'I don't know,' to every single question. And really abrupt. Okay, you might forget the name of the place, you might forget you once put a sticker in your car window, but you don't forget the fact of the place. The place exists, and you know about it."
She sat next to him on the pew, almost as heavily as he had, and sighed. “You think I’m imagining it?”
"Of course you are,” said Ronnie. “No, I believe you, I really do. I just wanted to hear the details. Sorry, I never doubted you in the slightest. There are ways he might not know about it, so it would be easy for him if you confronted him to plead innocence. But Sally was saying last night that he's local, he's lived here all his life, and given he was behaving in an odd way in general, I agree with you, he was lying, but I can’t imagine a reason why."
"It’s just the most bizarre thing to lie about. All because he didn’t like the idea of me going for a drive with you? Or doing something work-related. Or what?"
The sound of a baby crying outside broke the silence, and suddenly they were no longer alone. "Come on," Ronnie said. "Let's find a café, and you can tell me all about this Guthlac character."
The village had just the one café, connected to a hotel. There was a small garden terrace with a fountain. There was a view down the street to the church, or you could face the other way onto the covered market place. Ronnie and Lucy had wandered through the market place – which had a sign saying it was 13th century, and another saying, “Défense de Uriner” – to get to the café.
They’d just about stopped laughing about it when the café crèmes arrived. Lucy broke a sugar lump in half and stirred it in, looking back down the street to the church.
"I get the impression," began Ronnie.
"Your mind seems to be working overtime. This village has a mystery to it, which I'd love to know."
"I was trying to think of a way to explain it. Saint Guthlac is important in all of this. He's not a major saint you know, and I'm not Catholic, not practising anyway, so it's not like I’m an expert on saints. But I do know about him, because of his connection with the Lincolnshire fens."
"Go on," said Ronnie, sipping his coffee.
"Before he was a saint, he was a hermit. You know there used to be a kind of a career progression, where you'd start off by being a regular monk for several years, then you'd become a hermit for a while, and then you were made a saint. So you just make a decision to be extra holy, and go for it."
“Holier than thou.”
“Exactly. Holier than everybody.”
When Guthlac decided to be a hermit, she explained, he went off into the fenland. The significance of this was that the fens were considered beneath human notice. The land had no utility, so it was judged worthless, in much the same way as parts of the American plains are called Badlands. Bad, as in, too poor to sustain a crop or livestock. The fens weren't valued for their beauty, either. “This was in the 9th century, before the Romantic era and all the stuff about beautiful landscapes, or those theories of the sublime. We’ve only learned to look at rugged countryside and call it beautiful relatively recently.
“So Guthlac, in a way, was like Stig of the dump. He's living in the natural equivalent of a landfill site, or a toilet. But by becoming a holy man, a hermit, then a saint, he suddenly makes the place important.”
"Important how?" Ronnie asked.
"It's like one of those blue plaques on a building. So-and-so lived here, and now you can't pull this building down or change its façade. Because he lived on the fens, he brought them to people's notice. So the fens became valued. It's like being saved, you know, for born-again Christians. There's a judgement passed on the fens; they now have a value, and they're now worth saving. So if not for Guthlac -- or someone like him -- nobody would have thought, a couple of centuries later, that the land was worth reclaiming."
"So that's when the Dutch engineers show up with their pumping machines and drain the swamps, and turn what was worthless land into farm land."
The penny dropped for Ronnie, and he thought for a moment. “So that was the fenland,” he said. “What about the coast? You said he was connected to the coast as well?”
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s not quite the same thing, but in a similar vein. There’s a place on the fens called Crowland that is all connected to him. Round there was where they drained the marshes and turned it into valuable farmland. But on the coast, also, there’s a little village called Fishtoft or something. And that place had some kind of infestation. So again, Guthlac got rid of the infestation, or the thing that was making the place a bit of a dump, and turned it into a nice place again. So he’s connected to the whole idea of reclaiming things that are either beneath notice in the first place, or have become a bit run down.”
"So you were asking, why is a village in France named after this saint-of-the-fens..."
"There's a connection, because this land was reclaimed too. Or you could say it was saved or redeemed. And I’m wondering if there isn't also a supernatural element."
"What do you mean?"
"Like somebody thought there was some magic in Guthlac's name."
"Or his bones."
"Exactly. Or not his bones. His staff, maybe.”