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Authors: Elizabeth Ellis

Living with Strangers

LIVING WITH STRANGERS

Elizabeth Ellis

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Ellis

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study,

or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents

Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in

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Then later he was further off

And later still an absence

Like a place she took her heart to ache in.

*

Gareth Owen ‘Siesta’

PROLOGUE
England 1963

It is six o’clock in the morning. Papa comes into my room in the half light and stands, his head bowed, the odd lopsided shoulders leaning, before the lightening window.

‘He’s gone,’ he says.

I sit up in bed, still sleepy, not hearing.

‘Josef’s gone.’

Now I hear. A cold rush comes with the creeping grey light at the window: the cold fact, most feared of fears. ‘Where? Where has he gone?’ My tongue, too large, sticks to my teeth.

Papa turns, his gentle face made stern with grief. ‘Away. To Canada.’

I whisper now. ‘Is he coming back?’

But Papa waves his hands confusedly, in vague concentric circles, his eyes full. Blowing his nose he leaves the room and closes the door behind him.

I am lying now, lying and listening – to the sounds of the house, of the morning breaking. Sparrows scratch and scrape beneath the eaves, the cistern fills in the airing cupboard, water bangs in the pipes. In the room next door, Sophie sings softly, waiting for my knock on the wall. Below, Adam’s floorboards creak as he moves in the old bedstead. And Paul? It is too early for Paul.

I am lying and listening. Nothing has changed. Maybe the others don’t know. Maybe Papa has told only me. But then, that is as it should be.

One
France 1978

When the letters came, I was totally unprepared. So unprepared that having unwrapped the innocent looking bundle, I dropped it onto the kitchen table where it spread out, an opening wound, across the checked oilcloth. Wafer thin scraps of airmail paper, colourful stamps in old money. My own handwriting peered up at me from the torn, faded envelopes; familiar, forgotten loops and spikes that tracked my growing years. Years of writing and as many years trying to forget. These were my letters, all the letters I had sent to Josef and now, for some reason, they had come back.

I sat down and rested my hands on the surface of the table. They were not behaving like my hands. They would not be still. I sat there a long time, exhausted, though it was early morning. There was an unfamiliar silence in the room, no drips or creaks. No sound came from the ancient fridge normally so loud and labouring that I half wondered whether it had broken and where on earth I would find the money to replace it.

I touched the letters tentatively, pushing them further apart. There was another piece of paper, a single folded sheet. Curious, I picked it up, fearful I put it down – caught between hope and dread. None of this was good, none of this I wanted to deal with. Not now.

I heard Chloé stir. Stuffing the paper into my pocket I went in to see to her. We shared a bedroom at the front of the house overlooking the street. Old wooden shutters kept the room dark, but I could see her standing in the cot flexing her knees excitedly as I came in. My hands still shook as I picked her up and dressed her hurriedly, fumbling with the small poppers so that she started to complain, sensing urgency.

Downstairs in the bar, Marie-Claude was turning chairs, a large mop and bucket nearby. She looked up and smiled when we came in, her face softening as always at the sight of Chloé. Then she looked again. ‘Madeleine, is something wrong?’

I put Chloé down on the floor. ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure. It’s something to do with home.’

‘Your parents?’

‘No, not my parents.’

‘Then…?’

‘It’s complicated.’

Marie-Claude touched my arm. ‘I will never ask,’ she said, ‘but if you ever need to tell me…’

I realised how little Marie-Claude knew of me. She knew I had come here looking for a job when Chloé was an irrefutable bump, yet she had never sought to discover the anomaly of her existence. Nor had she shown any curiosity about my other life before I came here and why on earth I should choose this lonely, incongruous place, absent from any tourist map, surrounded by forest. Chloé had not been the main reason; I had simply needed a place to live, to lay my head, a gîte in the true sense of the word.

Antoine, her husband, had been doubtful at first. ‘Anglaise?’ he’d mumbled through his cigarette, a Gallic caricature, casting a furtive eye at my stomach.

I nodded.

‘You know this kind of work?’

I nodded again. There had been other bars I had stood behind, many tables cleared, many floors wiped.

He continued to look, breathing heavily and squinting through the smoke. ‘Two weeks, then. We’ll see how it goes.’

That had been two years ago. Now he smiled at times, just slightly, reassured perhaps that my presence in his business and his home had lost him no custom, it may even have gained him some out of curiosity.

Marie-Claude squeezed water from the mop and leant it carefully against the bucket. I stood near the open doorway where the sun fell in stripes across the flagstones. I watched Chloé on the threshold, rocking heel to toe, pointing at the life outside: chickens, the old cat, a redcurrant edging into flower. A still, expectant day that brought the spring so much sooner than in England. A normal day. I touched my pocket; normality had shifted.

Marie-Claude knelt down in front of Chloé. ‘Has she had breakfast?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Then go and fetch some eggs.’

In the hen house, a clutter of birds fussed noisily round our feet. I pulled the old basket down from its hook and we began rooting in corners, peering under the straw. Several hens were broody and could not be persuaded to move. As I bent down, the paper crackled in my pocket.

Chloé wandered back into the bar and took Marie-Claude by the hand. ‘
Viens,
’ she said, ‘Come,’ then led her away into the kitchen, knowing food to be imminent.

I followed them and left the eggs on the table. ‘Are you ok for a while? There’s something I want to do.’

‘Take your time. We’ll be here.’

*

Outside in the yard again, I sat down on the bench and took out the piece of paper. It was creased from my pocket and I smoothed it out over my knee. There were a few lines on one side in small, untidy writing I didn’t recognise. I read it, then read it again, staring at the page, trying to hold it still. There was no address, just a date.

16
th
January 1978.

Dear Madeleine

I recently found these letters among Josef’s things and felt they should be returned to you. I was not sure where to send them as you may well have moved after so long, but your mother kindly gave me your address.

Josef and I have shared a home for five years. Last month he left me and I don’t, as yet, know where he has gone. I am in the process of trying to find out what has happened.

He talked of you often. Perhaps one day we shall meet.

Yours,

Alex

Flies hovered in clumps and swam before my eyes. Somewhere a pheasant screamed. Fifteen years. I’d had no word from Josef in fifteen years. No word from him, hardly a word about him. And now this. All those long years of nothing, of not knowing. I put the note away in my pocket and went back to find Chloé.

Sooner or later I would need to say something to Marie-Claude, I owed her that much. And I needed to confront the pile of letters lying on my kitchen table, this sudden recall to a place I had tried, with meticulous care, to leave far behind.

Inside, the first customers were already propped up at the bar. With Chloé’s help, Marie-Claude was attempting to mop the floor. I sat down at one of the small round tables.

‘Do you have a cigarette?’ I asked.

Marie-Claude left Chloé with the mop and went over to the bar. She found a packet of Gauloises and came back, handing one to me and lighting one for herself. I hadn’t smoked for two years, since before Chloé’s advent, but the lingering smells here – coffee, spilt wine, Balkan tobacco, always dragged at my resolve. Marie-Claude sat down opposite, rolling the tip of her cigarette round in the ashtray.

I took a deep breath. ‘You’ve been very good to me, to us both.’

Marie-Claude looked up, alarmed. ‘You’re not thinking of leaving are you?’

‘I don’t think so, no. But I’ve had a letter. It’s about my brother.’

Marie-Claude drew on her cigarette, waiting.

‘I lost him, a long time ago when I was thirteen. He went away and now…’

‘He’s come back?’

‘Not exactly. I wrote to him, when he first left. Many times, for years. He never wrote back – not once, in all that time. It didn’t matter somehow, I just needed to write. After a while I stopped expecting anything and then one day I just stopped altogether. Stopped writing and got on with my life. Only by then it was all such a mess.’

‘So why did he leave?’

‘I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve never been told. Not the truth anyway. There were rumours, at the time, but nothing was explained to me. And then it all got complicated.’

Marie-Claude put out her cigarette and went to retrieve Chloé, who was disappearing through the doorway with the mop. ‘And now?’ she said, ‘What will you do?’

What indeed. I had made a good life here, with some sense of purpose. My job in the bar, the little two-roomed flat perched noisily upstairs, Chloé of course and these people who had taken me in and kept me afloat in the long sleepless weeks after she was born. The forest too, initially so sinister, had become my scenery of choice, another player in this piece I had constructed.

‘I’m not sure,’ I said, finishing my cigarette.

Marie-Claude sat down again and pulled Chloé onto her knee. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘if you need me, you know where I am.’

I stood up and hugged her briefly, touched as always by her kindness.

Later in the flat, I settled Chloé for a sleep and went back to
the kitchen. The letters still lay where I had dropped them. I circled the table warily, avoiding them, clearing the lunch, making a drink.

Why now? Why had this come back now? Had I imagined the past would never resurface – that it was all dealt with and laid to rest? It still followed me – had found a way in, even here. I swept all the letters onto the floor and kicked a chair, so that downstairs in the bar, they must have wondered what I was doing. Chloé stirred and called out. I went in and stroked her dark head until she slept again, turning onto her stomach with her bottom in the air.

In the kitchen the letters now lay scattered on the floor, random groups like stepping stones across the quarry tiles. Then another kitchen picked at the corner of my thoughts, the big breakfast kitchen at home, covered in red jelly after a party when my parents had left a dozen children unsupervised at tea time.

I could have gathered up the letters and hidden them all away in the cupboard, in the large not-to-be-opened box that had grown so accommodatingly over the past fifteen years. But I didn’t hide them, I sat down heavily on the floor and, leaning against the cooker, picked up an envelope and felt inside for my past.

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