I spent a few weeks in Quatre Fours about five years ago after my father died. I’d already had enough of the dusty converted farmhouse where he’d lived with his third wife for a decade. She was a generous maternal French woman who liked dogs. The dogs drove me mad with their sniffing and pawing so after a couple of days I made an excuse to move into a guesthouse.
Summer in Quatre Fours was unbearable at noon. The sun would bleach everything alike with its buttery light and the blazing oven of heat would force everyone into shuttered rooms to take a natural siesta.
The Wednesday of the funeral was mercifully cooler with a modicum of cloud and a westerly breeze. After the service at the crematorium chapel the celebrants decamped to a nearby Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t going to stay long. That side of the family made me irritable and nervous, and besides I had hired a car so I couldn’t drink as much as would be necessary to make the wake bearable.
After the main course I stepped outside onto the veranda to have a cigarette. A young man who seemed to be from the funeral party stepped over briskly to offer me a light.
“I’m terribly sorry about your father,” he offered, “I knew his writing very well. He had a devastating critical intelligence.”
I nodded, not quite knowing how to answer this. He shifted his hands uneasily in the pockets of his baggy suit.
“Luther Blissett,” he explained, “your father may have mentioned me. We had a correspondence going back twenty years,” he laughed, “back to when I was studying for my first degree at the Institute.”
“You really don’t look old enough,” I finished up my cigarette.
“Yes,” he admitted, “it’s strange watching your contemporaries become bald and grey. Fat too. I’m sure it’ll come to me sooner or later. Well, it was nice to finally meet you. Your father often spoke about you in his letters.”
I left after the dessert course. It was late afternoon. I felt unsettled from eating a big meal so early so I took the car out of the business park and onto the autostrada where the sun flattened everything into perspectiveless arcs and curves. I took the exit for Isigny, the nearest village to the guesthouse, easing my way through the gear changes. It was a country lane surrounded by orchards and irrigation ditches.
As if a switch had be flipped somewhere further back in the structure of things, everything suddenly died in the car. All the indicators went out and the motor died leaving me rolling along with the sound of the wheels on the road scudding around me. A sign came up on the right: Sun Dairy. I let the car roll into the turning for the dairy. Behind the row of cyprusses it opened out into a gravel path which abraded the car to a standstill.
The dairy itself was a three storey barn; old, dark and cool. I reached into my bag for my mobile phone. After digging around for a few minutes I remembered that I had left it on the bedside table at the guesthouse. I could almost see it there in the empty room waiting patiently. I locked up the car and crunched over the gravel towards the barn.
I walked all the way around it to the back end where it was open. Goats wandered around the yard, strange eyed and deferential. Inside a girl sat on a stool milking a goat.
“Hi, hello,” I said, “I’m sorry, my car has broken down, just outside.”
She nodded. I thought for a moment that maybe she didn’t understand English but from the expression in her eyes it was obvious that she did. She wore an old fashioned pale cotton dress. Long red hair and a face burned pleasantly leathery by the sun and air. She was sitting on a little stool with three fat little legs. It rocked as if about to topple as she milked the goat.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I forgot my mobile. Would it be possible to borrow your phone?” I asked, “please?”
She indicated a big black device on a desk at the end of the room. It was a heavy bakelite telephone, possibly from the beginning of the last century. It was cold in my hand and against my ear. I found the number of the guesthouse on the receipt in my bag. The dial purred back as I dialed each digit. I explained my situation and asked them to send a taxi to Sun Dairy as soon as possible.
“So sorry to disturb you. I should give you some money for the call.”
“No need,” she shook her head, “sit down and tell me where you are from.” She smiled as the sun peered through a dusty window obscuring her face with a spray of light motes. I could still see the goat and her legs on the milking stool, rocking the three stubby legs unsteadily.
“I’m up from the city. My father used to live here for many years. I was just coming back from his funeral.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. He was a…” I stopped, my head suddenly vacant, “It’s the strangest thing, you know I can’t remember what he looked like. Not a thing. Whether he was short or tall. Whether he was fat or thin. I think he was kind but he might have been cruel. I’m really not sure.”
“That’s not unusual,” she smiled, “it’s probably some sort of anxiety reaction.”
“I don’t feel anxious though.”
There was the sound of a car horn out at the front of the dairy. I thanked her and took my taxi back to the guesthouse. It was a shorter drive than I had imagined but the early evening had become very humid and listless. I hoped there might be thunder.
That night I didn’t sleep well. I slept fitfully in episodes of a half hour or fifteen minutes. In my dreams I would be running along the high street, across car parks, onto the gravel and into the darkness of the barn at Sun Dairy to witness the girl toppling off her stool. Every time I would be hurrying to get there, to see this event. She would fall off the little three legged stool. Sitting dazed on the floor with one of the fat little legs up her dress, between her legs.
It went on and on into the night reeling itself out again and again. Running across unknown backdrops towards this destination, this catastrophe. Her falling off the stool. The stubby leg of the stool pushing up into her dress. The dazed expression on her face. The strange eyed goats surrounding her, nibbling at her clothes.
The next day was hot again. The sun whiting out into midday, I found myself in a cool church just outside Quatre Fours. The dark interior flanked with blazing stained glass. My mobile vibrated in my pocket and I answered.
“Hello, sorry to disturb you, my name is Luther Blissett. We met at the wake, at the restaurant.”
“Yes, hello, yes, I remember. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I just spoke to your stepmother. She said you might have possession of a file of your father’s papers. I would be interested in looking at them with a view to publication. If that is alright by you.”
I remembered the file he was talking about. It was a battered old blue cardboard file in a supermarket carrier bag. I could see it sitting under the table in my kitchen at home, sitting there patiently waiting for me.
“I’m not sure if I have it,” I said, “I could have a look for it if you like?”
“Your stepmother seemed to think you’d have it.”
“I’m not sure. Look, I’m a little busy now. Can I call you back?”
I spent the rest of the afternoon idling around town cafes, sitting under the parasols drinking Ricard with icy water. The dream was still with me. The girl. The stool. The stubby leg. The goats. Maybe, I thought, I should go and see her. Maybe that would resolve it.
I picked at an expensive, over-rich dinner at a riverside cafe that evening. I was indulging myself. I deserved whatever I wanted. I was mourning after all. Although I still couldn’t remember what my father looked like, his voice, anything he’d said. All I could see was the carrier bag under my kitchen table at home, sitting there silently and patiently, bearing witness to my father’s intellectual legacy.
I looked at the call log on my mobile and found the young man’s number. I didn’t ring it. I drove back to the guesthouse and another night’s disturbed sleep.
That night I fell to sleep immediately. The dream was back but this time it was different. I was driving over the sun bleached autostrada. The car eating up the kilometres. The wheels humming on the road. Gliding into the turning for the country lane I was aware of myself dreaming, I saw myself gunning the engine towards myself asleep at the guesthouse. At the last minute I turned to car into the gravel drive of Sun Dairy.
In a jump cut I am striding towards the darkness of the barn, towards the girl on the stool milking the goat. The goats, strange eyed, part like a sea around me. The phone on the desk is ringing. The stool is unsteady under the girl but she maintains her balance. I bear down on her urgently pushing her off the stool. She falls to the ground startled, her legs apart. I take the stool by one of the stubby legs, pushing her skirt up over her belly.
A bark of thunder outside wakes me from the dream. I feel like I have been thrown off the edge of a cliff. The room at the guesthouse is dark and calm but for the ticking of the bedside clock. Rain starts to splash the windows in big ripe tears. More thunder but further out over the mountains receding. I get out of bed and open the window to air the room. Behind my eyes I can still see the girl lying fallen with her legs wide. I smoke a cigarette and go back to sleep.
I dream again but it is different this time. I am in a darkened church at midday. The windows are luminous with stained glass, the air is rank with incense. The doors open admitting a man and a flood of intolerant sunlight into the narthex. He paces up the aisle slowly towards me.
“Hello, my name is Luther Blissett, we met at the wake.”
“I can’t help you with my father’s manuscripts. They are,” I pause, “unavailable.”
“I see, I see. But you know she hasn’t fallen off the stool, don’t you?”
“Sorry, what are we talking about?”
“The girl at Sun Dairy has neither fallen off the stool neither is she sitting on the stool. She is like the cat in the box in the experiment: neither alive nor dead.”
“I still don’t understand.”
With the end of the week arriving I booked a train ticket out of Quatre Fours and went back to the city. People, meetings, agendas, care and disinterest descended back upon me like a comfortable old shawl. A week later the young man phoned again. I didn’t answer the phone. He left messages on most days which I deleted immediately.
A year later I came back to Quatre Fours for my stepmother’s funeral. She had followed her husband out of this world. I stayed at a different hotel this time but before I left town I drove down the country lane towards Sun Dairy. Turning into the gravel path I saw a delivery van parked outside the front of the barn. Noises were coming from the building: mechanical noises. I walked around to the back of the building. There were no goats milling in the yard and the doors were closed at the back. A man in white overalls came out of the barn.
“Excuse me. Is there a girl who works here? She has red hair.”
He shook his head.
Peering into the barn it was filled with processing machinery.
“Is this still Sun Dairy?”
He nodded, “yes, it is.”