PHOTOS of VENICE and FRANCE

ALL  TEXTS

 

 

AROUND  ME  THE  BIRDS  WERE  SINGING.


Around me the birds were singing. Reclining in the comfort of my cherry-wood armchair, I was writing on the first page of a brand-new exercise book with a bright red cover, munching from time to time on the succulent cherries that hung in twos or threes within easy picking distance. My cat, after jumping with supple grace from the roof of the veranda into the cherry tree, had been drawn by his legendary curiosity to see whatever I could be writing. "Let's see," he must have been thinking, "you haven't got any homework to do because today is the first day of the holidays, so what on earth are you doing?"

- Well, I have replied, I've just started my diary.

- Your diary?

- That's right. In literature lessons I spend all my time talking about writers' lives, but now that I can write whatever I want I have decided to talk about my own life.

- Is it all that interesting, then?

- How should I know? If anyone reads my diary one day, they can be the judge of that.

- Are you going to tell your whole life story?

- No; just whatever comes to me without my going looking.

My cat, clearly convinced by my speech, took himself off to the next branch for a snooze.

Right! I have already written the first sentence. Let's read it back: "This morning I stuffed myself on raspberries and at lunch time I wasn't hungry." Thrilling stuff. But no matter, I'm only writing for myself. Perhaps I'll read it again one day... or someone else may. What do I know? It will not be of any great interest to learn that I stuffed myself on raspberries today and that at lunch I wasn't hungry. Actually, that's not quite true. It will be apparent that I like raspberries, that I have a cast-iron stomach, that my parents are not strict because they didn't say anything - otherwise I would have said so, of course -, that there are lots of raspberry canes in my garden, that I have a marked tendency to do as I please - as long as there are no serious consequences, of course -, and that I am imaginative enough to turn cherry trees into armchairs. All that was contained in the single sentence I wrote? Seems most unlikely, doesn't it? And yet that's what we're asked to do in our essays at school. "Comment on the following sentence by the writer...". Conclusion: I'm a writer too now!

- Can you give us some?

Twin girls and a little chum of theirs have just entered the garden. It wasn't hard, since the garden gate is always open and the local children often come over, to play with the cat, to snaffle cherries when there are any, or just to sit on the lawn amid the flower beds that my mother tends with such care.

I chuck them a few cherries and now they have run off again.

- Coming with me?

That's the girl from the house opposite, just across the road. She's a bit older than the little ones, who are running after the cat. About four years younger than me. She often has errands to run for her mother; and as she gets bored on her own, she comes to get me to go with her. She's very nice, I like her. She doesn't have a lot to say, she's a bit sad sometimes, but she means well.

I jump down from my tree and off we go, leaving the little ones who, having now got their hands on the cat, are patiently telling him... what would I know?

The little town - more a village, really - is not very big - Oops! what would my literature teacher say to that? -; it takes about half an hour to get from one end to the other. We walk along a walkway - Oops again! I am not - yet - a great writer. It is no ordinary walkway; it cuts the village in two, running stubbornly straight ahead, looking neither right nor left - "That's the way it is, like it or leave it!" It's an aqueduct that goes a long, long way; it was already there more than fifty years ago. It's underground, runs near my house, and the walkway lies over it.

- I've got some sewing to do.

My young neighbour knows that I like to watch her sew, and I sometimes even help her a little.

We have met two or three friends on the way. We have chatted. I know lots of boys and girls in the village. I like them. I think they like me too.

And that's enough for today.

It's Sunday, market day, when everyone is out and about. It's a lovely day, this second of July. The second of July nineteen fifty, since this is a diary. You have to write out the numbers in full, that's what my English teacher said. It's not so easy to read but it's more elegant, or more stylish, or something. There are exceptions, of course, there always are - and in that case what is the point of having rules? - as long as it isn't the pupil who makes them, in which case the exception becomes a mistake and a bad mark. I have never known who made the exceptions. And why shouldn't we write letters as numbers? It would be even less easy to read, but it could be more fun. The alert would be given: "42!" What? The beak's coming! Eh? Yes, that's right. Do the sum: two plus five plus one plus eleven plus 23 equals 42. QED. "Clear as mud, my lad! Put that down for me nice and clear on a fresh sheet of lined foolscap!" Beaky would say. Yes, sir!

In the meantime, if I want my diary to be properly kept, I should also state that we go back to school on Monday the second of October.

Hm, I seem to have wandered off the subject. I was talking about the Sunday market. Keeping a diary isn't as easy as you might think. Actually, I think "you" must mean me. Let's try again.

The stallholders are happy to sell. The shoppers look sceptically at the stallholders, who smilingly hold out their produce and announce the price. And yet the stallholders have told the shoppers that both produce and price are the best. Oh well, those are the rules of the game - with exceptions, of course. Everyone looks out for themselves and that's all there is to it. I hope that doesn't apply to school. Especially as we, the pupils, are buying a pig in a poke.

Fellows well met. Great to be on holiday. Plans for the future, the very near future. What are we doing tomorrow or the day after? Everyone is hoping the holidays will be fun. Boredom is still some way off. Will it loom, as in previous years?

The shopping is done. I go back home with my mother. Not much fruit, even fewer vegetables. Our garden makes up the shortfall. It is divided into two by a path. On one side, the lawn and the flower beds; on the other, a vegetable garden planted by my mother, in which all the best offerings of nature are to be found - to my mind, at least. Where else could I bite into the fragrant, juicy carrots that I pluck myself and merely have to brush off carefully with my hand so as not to lose any of their taste? Or the peas, which I choose of a size that suits me and suck with delight from their moist pods? Or the lettuce or the leeks, the celery, the chicory, the tomatoes, the green beans? To say nothing of the garlic, the onions or the shallots that burn the mouth and that I like so much. And the fruit, ah, the fruit... An apple tree with sharp, crisp apples, a little pear tree whose pears, it must be said, take some finding, my armchair, I mean my cherry tree, the strawberries and the rhubarb that is so delicious when stewed. And a great big cherry tree, a second cherry tree. When I say cherry tree, I ought really to say a battlefield. What do you mean? You fight the cherries? Let me explain, so as to be clear, as Mr. Literature Teacher recommends.

The battle is fought at night, not with the cherries but with the birds. The cherries are what is at stake. So what happens? One night a spell is cast, turning the cherries right at the top of the tree into a precious elixir. The birds, less foresighted than I, sleep; and I, more cunning than they, watch. And as soon as I smell the marvellous fragrance of the miraculous fruit, I pick them all. You should see the reaction of the birds when they wake up, shortly before dawn. Gotcha! Once I forgot to watch; and the next morning it was the birds' turn to see my reaction to the stones hanging on the end of the stems.

Lunch.

My parents talk about this and that. I talk about this and that. The market just now, the friends we're expecting just now, the weather just now. The market was good, my parent's friends will come for tea, it's fine, you only have to look up - we're having lunch outside - to see that the sky is blue. Yes, sir, my essay is very good, it's not my fault if "just now" can relate to the past or the present. And with all due respect to Mr. Teacher, it would of course be otiose to add: "Gotcha!"

Do we talk about school or the holidays, inevitable subjects with my friends' parents? No, we don't. Nobody pays any particular attention to the holidays; they're there, that's all. School? My parents hardly ever mention it. I get good marks and that is enough for them. Sometimes they ask me if everything is all right or if I need any help. I reply that everything is all right and that I don't need any help; and that is an end of it. I have always been surprised to find that that is not the way with my friends. But I have never said anything about it to them in case they might find it disagreeable.

In the afternoon I sorted out my school things.

This morning I have come, as I often do, to get milk from the farm. The farm is actually in the village, but when I go there time doesn't come with me. I am far, far back in the past, on the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood after lazing between a great wall of hewn stone and the farm I am going to. Behind the wall, a castle, which the farm belongs to. No, centuries have passed since then and the farm no longer belongs to the castle, which is deserted most of the time and goes shopping at the market and in the local shops.

However that may be, I love going there, the farmer is really nice and he likes me, or at least I think he does.

Turning into the farmyard...

Could I have suddenly been spirited back to the bygone days I was just talking about? A peasant girl, perhaps a year younger than me, wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, is coming towards me.

- Good morrow, sire! she says in a lilting voice, giving me a welcoming smile.

Slightly surprised, I answer with an uncertain "Good morrow, milady!"

- Come here and I'll pour you your milk.

She adds, still smiling:

- Shall I fill it right up to the top?

I answer with an "If you please, milady!" that is just as uncertain as my "Good morrow, milady!"

The jug is full. I give her a coin. Milady looks at it:

- Gold, sire? Here is your change!

Milady hands me some silver.

- Thank you, milady.

She gives me a bright smile:

- Milking is at six tomorrow morning; I'll be there!

And she walks briskly off.

I set off with my jug of milk. My coin may have been yellow but it wasn't made of gold at all, any more than hers were made of silver.

Back home all that remains for me to do is to drink the milk, bought for gold.

- Didn't you get the bread?

My mother's surprised question takes me away from my milk:

- I'll go and get it now!

Without further ado, I hop onto my bike.

- Had you forgotten? remarks my mother perceptively when I get back.

I admit it. No further questions. After all, it's not unusual to forget something. All that remains for me to do is to drink the milk, bought for gold.

During the morning, a schoolmate and his girlfriend come to see me. My mate lives in the house behind the little wall that runs along the raspberry bed, his girlfriend four streets further over.

They talk about this and that. I talk about this and that. About school or holidays, inevitable subjects with my schoolmates? Yes, we talk about them. We do not pay any particular attention to school; it is no longer there, we got good marks and that is enough for us. Holidays? We talk about them often. To say that we are looking forward to them. Only now they are here.

- Are you listening?

No, I had apparently not been listening. I try to redeem myself. Not very successfully, because the subject of conversation has changed. We are now talking about the global economy. Well, when I say we I ought really to say they, because I...

The Economist, still addressing me, says:

- How do you expect to live if you don't know how much wheat you're going to get in during the year?

- First you need to know if wheat actually grows where you live, points out his girlfriend, who is keen on geology.

- If it isn't very much, that's why it's all the more important to know how much!

The Economist adds, with a dismissive wave:

- And if there isn't any wheat, there must be something else.

The Geologist wrinkles her brow doubtfully:

- If wheat doesn't grow in a place, you're happy enough just to note the fact; I'd say, go and live somewhere else.

I'm used to their arguments and quite happy to put in my tuppence worth:

- And if you can't find somewhere else there's no point looking; and if there's nowhere else there's no point economising!

- What do you mean, economising?

Our epic joust breaks up in laughter.

Lunch in the garden. My parents are in a good mood. I'm in a good mood. The table is laden with tasty vegetables from the garden. The conversation is easy, with no particular theme, going from one subject to another. It is restful after the days spent at school where your attention is never allowed to wander. Or rather, "supposed". A slight breeze tempers the heat. It is past noon; the birds sing peacefully. The cherry tree waits to offer us dessert. The quiet chink of cutlery and crockery protects us.

After lunch I continue to sort out my school things. After tea, I sort out my bike. All that takes time, as much time as I want it to. I have nothing special to do. I'm on holiday. Ah! The twins and their little chum have come back. Was my cat waiting for them? For there he is too.

Dinner. I go to bed early. I have nothing special to do. I'm on holiday.

Four o'clock. Four o'clock? Yes, four in the morning. The sun has just come up. Much good may it do it! Is it the sun that woke me? Unlikely; it never does. I went to bed early; maybe that's it. In any case, it doesn't matter, I can go back to sleep. I have tried; it didn't work. Half past four. I'm still not asleep. So what? I have nothing special to do. I'm on holiday. Five o'clock. I jump out of bed. After all, I'm not going to spend the whole day in bed, am I? I have nothing to do. Well, actually, there is something; I could go and get the milk; that will please my parents. It's five o'clock. What did she say? "Milking is at six tomorrow morning; I'll be there!" Well, it's still too early. Ah, but there's the bread! The bread I forgot yesterday morning, I don't know why. Well then, I can go and get the bread; I'll go for the milk afterwards, it'll be near enough six o'clock.

Ten past five. I have hopped on to my bike and pedalled off at full speed under the astonished gaze of my cat and my mother, who gets up early to tend her flowers and her vegetable garden.

"A four-pounder!" booms the baker in his loud voice, holding out as usual a fine four-pound loaf.

I am satisfied with less. "A two-pounder!" fits the bill. And I tear off again.

- Haven't you fetched the milk?

My mother's surprised question takes me slightly unawares. I answer swiftly:

- I didn't want to have too much to carry!

My mother gives me a quizzical look. Without waiting a moment longer I hop back onto my bike.

- I'll go now!

And I tear off again, under the astonished gaze of my cat, without taking the time to answer my mother's "Did you forget?" I think her eyes have followed me.

Five thirty-five. It takes two minutes to get to the farm. So it's still too early. So I'll wait. But... why shouldn't I wait at the farm itself? Or perhaps I could just see if the milking has already... She said six... What's all this shilly-shallying? I'll go, and that's an end of it!

I take the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood after lazing between a great wall of hewn stone and the farm I am going to. The peasant girl, wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, is coming towards me along the path.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, giving me a delicate smile.

- Good morrow, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

- Come! Daisy has given her milk; she's always the first.

The milk poured and paid for - in gold, of course! - I give her a bright smile:

- Milking is at six tomorrow morning; I'll be there!

- See you tomorrow!

And Milady walks briskly off.

I set off again with my jug of milk. Back home all that remains for me to do is to drink the milk, bought for gold.

The milk drunk and breakfast finished, I climb into my cherry tree to write my diary. My cat, stretched out on a large branch within easy reach, is more and more intrigued.

- I'm continuing my diary, I have replied.

- Have you found anything interesting to put in it?

- I don't know yet...

- Why don't you wait before writing, then?

- I don't know; I want to see it written down.

My cat shakes his head:

- People are odd; when I see milk, I don't spend my time writing about it.

And, demonstrating his disapproval, he goes to sleep on the branch.

After lunch, not finding anything particular to do, I tell myself that a good walk will distract me. But where to? I stay where I am, hesitating.

- Coming with me?

My young neighbour has an errand to run for her mother. Perfect, it'll give my walk a purpose.

On the way, my young neighbour shakes her curls:

- She's funny, the farmer's niece.

I turn to her, slightly surprised:

- Which farmer?

Curly laughs:

- The one you went to yesterday!

I am silent for a moment. News travels fast! Curly goes on:

- She's got a lovely dress!

She looks pensive:

- She found it in the attic, in an old trunk.

We walk on in silence; Curly is doubtless dreaming about the lovely dress. It's true, it is a lovely dress.

- She's the farmer's niece?

Curly laughs:

- You didn't know?

I shake my head with indifference.

- She's come to stay with her uncle for the holidays.

I ask, a little hastily:

- The whole holidays?

Curly laughs again:

- Yes; you'll have your milk...

- Oh, I often go...

- Yes, but now you'll be able to go every day... since you're on holiday!

Back home, I cast around again for something to do. The piano. I haven't touched it for at least four days. That's how it is - there's never time for anything when you're on holiday. I am at the piano; the music fills the time...

Five o'clock. A more reasonable time to wake up. If the sun wants to rise an hour earlier, let it. I'm in no hurry. The two-pounder, the milk... I have until six o'clock; why ever should I hurry?

Ten to six; I take the narrow, winding path. Milady, wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, is coming towards me along the path.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, accompanied by her delicate smile.

- Good morrow, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I ask:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

We go. I ask:

- How does your uncle?

- Well, sir, and I thank you for asking.

Pouring me the milk, Milady asks:

- How does your fair neighbour?

- Well, milady, and I thank you for asking.

Our eyes meet for a second and we burst out laughing.

- Hurry on home and feed your parents. I help on the farm in the morning but I have more time in the afternoon.

- See you!

And I walk briskly off.

The brisk walk is more of a brisk ride. I enter my garden.

- Ah, you haven't forgotten the bread this time.

As my mother has made no mention of my possibly forgetting the milk, it may be concluded that Curly has been round.

The morning is spent reading and running errands for my mother. I have to feed my parents; what would become of them without me?

The twins, their little chum and two other small boys, much more boisterous than the girls, have invaded the lawn. The cat has resisted for a good while, like me, but we have both ended up seeking refuge in the cherry tree.

I am writing my diary. My cat follows the pen attentively as it moves back and forth.

- You're writing slowly today.

- That's very observant of you. I hadn't noticed.

- You keep on looking up and staring at goodness knows what instead of writing.

- I'm thinking before putting anything down, like my literature teacher said.

- And did he also teach you to think about something other than what you're writing?

As I was slow to reply, my cat went off to have a snooze on a nearby branch.

- Morning, young man!

The farmer, whom I have known for ever, is about his business in the middle of the farmyard. I wish him good morning and we exchange a few banalities.

- My niece has come for the holidays; I'm very glad, it's been five years since she was last here.

He adds, nodding:

- I hope she won't get bored.

He pauses for a moment:

- You saw her yesterday...

He thinks for a moment:

- I don't suppose you remember her.

- I was young and didn't come round very often then.

- I dare say you'll find some friends for her.

- Definitely.

He nods again:

- I'm very fond of her.

- Good morrow, sire! cries Milady brightly; she has just come into the farmyard.

- Ah, smiles her uncle, she likes playing at olden days.

I smile back:

- I like it too.

And I call a bright:

- Good morrow, milady!

- Ah, you too! You're going to get along just fine, the pair of you, exclaims her uncle, just as brightly.

- Have you been learning the piano for long?

Her uncle had gone back to his business and Milady and I had taken the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood.

This time I am surprised by the question: Curly again.

- Four years.

- Who are your favourite composers?

- Schumann, Mozart...

- You like Schumann?

- Yes.

- So do I!

She goes on enthusiastically:

- I sing Schumann songs with a friend; that's what bothered me most about coming here.

I laugh:

- Singing?

- No, silly! Not...

- ...being able to sing here!

She has looked at me without saying anything. It was a question. I answer:

- I would love to accompany you. But I have never...

She gives me a radiant smile:

- That doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all! Oh, I'm so happy!

- I'm not very good...

- I'm sure I'm even worse!

We laugh... Milady settles the matter:

- If it doesn't work out, you can sing and I'll play!

- I'm not very good at singing...

- And I'm even worse on the piano!

We laugh.

We have walked for a good while along the narrow, winding path that gets lost in the nearby wood. I have talked about life here in the village, about my friends, about Curly, of course - she gave us a good laugh. Milady has talked about her town, her life there, her friends, the friend she sings with...

- Can you give us some cherries?

I chuck over a few, which are immediately jumped on by the little twins, who have come this morning to play with my cat.

- Stop moving!

A moment later...

- Stop moving!

What's going on? Well, after grabbing the cherries, the little twins have grabbed the cat and are adorning him with jewellery. Jewellery? That's right. Earrings, to be more precise. Earrings? That's right. What do you mean, earrings? The cherries, of course! The cherries? That's right. What do you mean, the cherries? Well, cherries come in twos or threes and the stalks just fit over an ear. Oh, I see... And what does the cat say? Nothing. Oh? Is he happy? Definitely. As soon as the little twins let him go, he gives a vigorous shake of his head and the cherries - on their stems - go flying off in all directions. It is even said - though is one to believe it? - that they came and stuck themselves back on to the cherry tree! Humph! We'll never know if it's true or not because I had to cast a spell on them.

Talking of which - although it has nothing whatsoever to do with what has just been said - I forgot to ask Milady if she had the music for the Schumann songs. She didn't say anything either, but perhaps she didn't want to seem to be imposing. I'll ask her tomorrow; today, she's busy with her uncle and aunt.

After lunch I go up to my room. Quarter of an hour later my mother knocks on my door:

- The Master is asked whether he is not too busy and whether he can receive visitors.

I goggle:

- Who...?

But my mother has already left, an amused smile on her lips. I go down.

- Is the Master at home?

Oh!... It is the Economist and the Geologist, who have assumed the unassuming and respectful air of people who know they are bothering a Very Important Person.

I protest:

- Knock it off, you two!

Doffing the cap he does not even have, the Economist answers gravely:

- It's just that the Master has been very taken up by his business over the last three days and we are not sure whether this is an appropriate time to seek an audience.

I give him a good shove and we all burst out laughing.

- Shall we go for a walk in the woods? suggests the Geologist.

My road, although a much more ordinary one than Milady's, also leads to the wood where the narrow and winding path gets lost. So I can go to hers through the wood instead of crossing the village.

- We haven't been to the sandpit yet this year, remarks the Economist. I enjoy the races we have there.

I agree with him:

- Yes, so do I; it's a good job we've got our wood; we can't race anywhere else.

- Oh, nobody else thinks of it!

- It's not very practical without sand, comments the Geologist.

- It's not that hard to find sand, protests the Economist.

- Yes, especially where it's sandy!

- Watch out guys, cries the Economist, here comes a geology lesson!

I warn:

- Listen to what Teacher has to say. Otherwise we'll get bogged down in the sand!

- As my gifted and intelligent pupils have managed to see that the sand has run through the hourglass, I think the lesson is over, declares the Geologist.

- Break time! exclaims the Economist.

I go a step further:

- School's out for the day!

- You mean school's out for the summer!

But the Geologist does not give up:

- Detention! As you can therefore see...

- ... Teacher is depriving us of our well-earned holidays!

I back him up:

- We protest!

- Silence! orders Teacher, otherwise you'll be coming back tomorrow for the same lesson; as you can therefore see, how people live depends on the land on which they live.

Chastened by the threat hanging over us - worse than the move, as they say in chess - we have listened with the greatest attention.

- You, Economist, where are sandpits to be found?

- In geology lessons, Miss!

Teacher is relentless. She turns to me:

- I have seen that you pay attention in your geology lessons.

Looking for an answer, I manage to come up with one:

- I can't help it. The soil where my cherry tree grows is so good!

- You say truer than you think. If your cherry tree is so good, it's because it grows in upper Bartonian, also called Lutetian, or in other words supragypsum marls, and more specifically whitish marl with Helix calcareous concretions.

- That's enough to spoil anybody's appetite! I'll just stick to my strawberries, the soil on the other side of the garden where my strawberries grow is even better.

- You say truer than you think. If your strawberries are so good, it's because they grow on lower Bartonian, also called Marinesian, or in other words on limestone, and more specifically quartz-rich green clay on a fossiliferous base.

- I think I'll just make do with a meringue for dessert!

- You say truer than you think. If your meringues are so good, it's because they're made with egg-whites from our local red hens, or in other words the best layers in the world.

- Twenty minutes! exclaims the Economist.

We look at him questioningly. He goes on easily:

- At a good pace!

He pauses to enjoy his effect to the full:

- Will take us to the baker who makes the best meringues in the world!

Off we go.

Half past five. En route for the two-pounder and the milk. Quarter to six, I take the narrow, winding path that gets lost in the nearby wood. The peasant girl, wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, is coming towards me along the path.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, giving me a delicate smile.

- Good morrow, Milady! Much pleasure would it procure me to hear you sing.

- Perhaps you would be good enough to accompany my air.

- My keys are ever at your service; I will attend you anon.

We laugh.

- This afternoon, if you like; I'll bring the music I've got with me.

Permission requested of Milady's uncle and aunt. Permission granted.

- She'll be very happy; I think she's very fond of music, confirms her uncle self-evidently.

- We've never had a piano here, says her aunt, slightly embarrassed.

I try to put her at ease:

- Oh, my piano's nothing special!

I immediately add:

- It's very old.

I am careful not to say that I find old pianos much better than new ones, but I have understood from Milady's quick glance in my direction that she shares my opinion on the subject.

The morning is spent reading, running errands for my mother and trying not to trip over the cat, the twin girls and their little chum, who have taken over the lawn.

Lunch with my parents. I tell them that Milady will be coming over. They seem very pleased. "We'll have a proper recital", my mother has said. My father, who loves music as long as it doesn't make any noise, nods silently. Then he gets up to go about his business.

Two o'clock. I go to pick up Milady, to show her the way.

She laughs:

- Oh, I know the way very well! Right into the high street, then right again, then sixth on the left at the water tower and it's the eighth house on the left, opposite Curly's!

I laugh:

- Who gave you the directions!

We both laugh.

- A Boisselot!

I look at her, surprised:

- You've heard of them?

- Yes, from my singing teacher; Liszt used to play them.

- That's right; though perhaps not this one.

- Who knows?

- No, no, this one is more recent.

Milady presses a key:

- It's the first time I've heard one; what a lovely sound!

She plays a few notes, over the whole range of the keyboard.

- It's lovely everywhere; that's unusual.

Another two or three notes:

- It's odd that you should have one; I don't suppose there are many left now.

- It's a long story...

She has stopped playing and is looking at me expectantly. I go on:

- Four years ago I spent almost a year abroad with my parents. They got to know an internationally famous pianist and teacher, Anatol von Roessel. One day, I picked out a few notes at random on his piano. He came over, listened and then said to my parents: "Ah, his touch is so... I would like to give him lessons." That's how he became my first piano teacher; he taught me everything. I used to love going to his house for my lessons. We got on like a house on fire. Later, I found that Liszt was his godfather and had taught him.

- And he had a Boisselot!

- Yes, just like Liszt. And not without good cause. Liszt got to know the Boisselot family when he was fifteen years old and he always preferred to play their pianos. He was godfather to one of the Boisselot children and had a financial interest in the company.

- That's amazing! You are the pupil of one of Liszt's pupils and you play on Liszt's piano!

- That's as far as it goes, I'm afraid; I can't play like Anatol von Roessel, or Franz Liszt for that matter!

- I think you have made the most of the lessons you were given and that you like your piano, and I also think that you play, not like them, but like you.

She has sat down at the piano and is singing softly, wordlessly, accompanying herself. A sad song. She has broken off.

- Your song weeps... Keep going!

- I would rather you played for me.

She remains seated, her eyes running over the keys.

- Have you been singing long?

- Five years.

She gets up:

- Play for me!

I play a short and simple Schumann piece, a spring song, opus 68, no. 13, one of the first pieces Anton von Roessel had given me.

- You bring the May flowers into bloom when you play!

I blush. She has seen:

- It's not to compliment you; that's what I felt.... Play some more!

- Sing!

Without hesitation, she sings the tune I have just played.

- Have you played it?

- No, I heard you; I've never played the piano...

- But just now...

- Oh! I can play a bit to accompany myself; it helps you to follow the pianist afterwards...

I raise my eyebrows:

- You have to follow the pianist?

- Well, usually it's the pianist who follows me, but then it's as though I can't hear him.

- Does he play too soft?

- No, but he plays, that's all!

I give a wry smile:

- Tell me you are both in the same place at the same time, at least!

- I sometimes wonder!

She studies me for a long moment:

- Now I'm sure we'll be together when you play and I sing.

At breakfast, my parents talk about our musical efforts. They had not had an opportunity to do so yesterday; I had gone back to the farm then dropped in on the Economist, who is coming over with the Geologist this afternoon.

- She's got a lovely voice, says my mother approvingly.

- Did she sing? I didn't hear her! says my father with surprise.

- She came after lunch; you weren't there.

- Oh yes, that's right. Does she sing well?

- She didn't really sing; just a bit, to get used to the piano, I suppose.

- I must hear her; will she be coming back?

And my father adds:

- Are you happy to be able to make music with a singer?

That remark was of course addressed to me; and my father, reassured - she will be coming back - gets up to go about his business.

My cat and I have business with the cherry tree. I write. He watches the pen as it runs back and forth:

- Why does she miaow so sadly?

- Schumann wrote the song, not her.

- Schumann? Don't know him.

- That's because you haven't seen the music.

- I can't read, I can only hear; and it was her choice to miaow that song.

He stares at a cherry; it's his way of thinking:

- She's so bright when she's with you...

I haven't replied and he has gone off to have a snooze on a nearby branch.

- Hey, put that down!

What's going on? Absorbed by my conversation with the cat, I had forgotten that I was in the garden, the lawn of which has disappeared under the horde of invaders. There are not only the twin girls and their little chum but at least four or five other children. Four or five, I don't know which; they run too fast for me to count. Why are there so many people in my garden? The lawn is the biggest in the street, that's why!

But who has shouted so loud? It's Curly! And why? Because she's the oldest, she's in charge. She had come to ask me if I wanted to go with her on an errand for her mother, but what she saw when she came into the garden...

The twins' little chum is in the process of swallowing a worm, a great big red earthworm! Curly has raced over to the little child and is extracting the worm from her mouth. The girl is trying fiercely to defend herself but Curly is stronger. The little girl sobs, the other children laugh and shout. Curly roundly upbraids the worm-eater, who protests vehemently through her sobs:

- My hen eats them every day! It spends ages scratching the ground to find them! It's really happy when it finds one. They look good! Why is my hen allowed to and I'm not?

The worm-eater suddenly stops crying and says firmly:

- I want to too!

The worm having taken advantage of the commotion to dig itself deep into the earth, that's where the matter rests and I go off with Curly on the errand.

- Is she going to come and sing every day?

I don't really know what to say:

- I don't know... she helps a lot on the farm...

- She sings well.

I am surprised:

- Could you hear her from your house?

- I was in the garden; I had something to ask your mother.

I am not taken in:

- You can come over whenever you like.

- Oh, I wouldn't want to disturb you. I'd rather stay outside; you can hear very well.

Of that I have no doubt.

- It's not the same as what you play on your own.

- No, of course not, it's for two...

- Haven't you ever played with someone else?

- No, never.

I correct myself:

- Except with my teacher.

And on that note she starts to tell me about the worm.

Afternoon.

- Nice and ripe, your raspberries, says the Economist, his mouth full.

As usual, he has just hopped over the wall at the bottom of the garden that runs along the raspberry bed and separates my house from his. I do the same when I go to his house. It's easier than going round on the road. The Geologist is with him; she too is chewing away avidly.

- Shall we go for a walk in the woods? suggests the Geologist.

She likes walking in the woods. As do the Economist and I. So we often go for walks in the woods.

- The singer came over yesterday but we didn't hear her, the Economist seems to regret.

- I'm sure Curly heard her, smiles the Geologist.

I wave my hand:

- Nothing escapes her!

- Yes, but she's very nice really.

The Economist entirely agrees with her, as do I.

We continue our walk, ambling along and talking about nothing in particular, admiring the deep, shiny green of the great leaves of the chestnut trees that fill the wood.

- My strawberries have come on well this year, the Geologist congratulates herself.

- I haven't tried them yet, says the Economist; they can't have been out very long.

- Not as good as they are now, no.

I suggest trying them on the way back. We amble a bit longer. The strawberries are welcome.

Sunday. Market day. Fellows well met. Tales of the past week's adventures. Tales of the next week's adventures. The latter are much more exciting than the former. We'll do this, we'll do that. Apparently they did neither this nor that during the previous week. And will next week live up to its promise? Nothing is less certain, if past experience is anything to go by.

The this and the that concern only the friends I have just mentioned. The Economist and the Geologist are generally together and always have things to do. As for me and for the previous week, refer to my diary. And I don't suppose the coming week will be any less busy.

I had gone early to get the milk. Milady wasn't wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress but a simple light shift. "I'm going off with my parents for the day to see relatives", she had explained.

My parents have friends over for lunch. What shall I write in my diary? It's very odd, but I have the impression I could write the same thing as yesterday, about my walk in the woods, during which we talked about nothing in particular. Here, at table, it's as though it were the same, nothing particular either. But in that case how come I don't feel the same way at all? Of course, yesterday's conversation concerned me, whereas this one not at all. But I feel that's not the real reason. What is it, then?

After lunch, I went up to get my dessert from the cherry tree. My cat didn't wait to come and join me. He had eaten well and a little snooze... Before going to sleep on the next branch, he had the time to say to me, in a long, smooth yawn...

- You talked so as to be together...

And he went to sleep.

Milady had left some music with me the day before yesterday. I spend the afternoon sight-reading it. Schumann, mostly. I put the others to one side for the time being. That doesn't look too difficult. I take one of the pieces. Opus 48, no. 10.

Oh... Not too difficult, perhaps, but the harmonies! More modulations than there are notes! To start with, the piano, on its own, unexceptional; a light and inviting G minor. The voice. G minor, nothing has changed, all's well. Ah, a ninth, an A, that leads off into the distance, promising marvellous things! A jolting descent in minor thirds; it could have been merely pretty, slightly bland, as is so often the case with those unfortunate intervals, which sing but say nothing and, before losing themselves in an E flat which you wonder what it's doing there, take wing on an F sharp, a dream-filled seventh... Provided, however, that the singer is prepared to let it live. So the E flat: disappointment? Schumann smiles, discreetly. The E flat was a trick. After it, G B flat; we are familiar with them, they were there at the beginning. But the E flat has miraculously changed everything. We are in the major now, let's be strong!

Let us speak no more about another descent in minor thirds, the return to G minor, inverted this time, as if to take its ease before the voice, the enchantment of another seventh...

I will weary you no more with my harmonic analysis. Between you and me, I'm not sure that I am capable of it. But don't say anything to my cat, or he could... Too late! He was only half-asleep and confided sympathetically to me:

- What do you expect, you're only a human; we don't need any harmonic analysis, we just miaow what we feel and that's good enough for us!

Quarter to six. The peasant girl, wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, is coming towards me along the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood.

- Good day, sire! she says with her lilting voice, giving me a delicate smile.

- Good day, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

- Would it be the milk you come to seek, sire?

I assent:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

And with a laugh we go off to get the milk.

- Are you busy with your parents today?

- No, not with my parents, she replies in a tone of voice that heralds an important announcement.

- Have you got things to do?

- Yes, I have to accompany a singer who was practising Schumann's opus 48, no. 10 yesterday afternoon.

- Oh yes! You mean the soprano? I know her, she lives just round the corner; she's called Curly, I believe.

- I didn't ask her name; but there's just one problem: I haven't got a piano.

- No matter. Come to my house, I've got a Boisselot.

- An excellent piano indeed. But I have another problem; I can't play the piano.

- No matter. I'll play instead of you.

- How very kind of you. In that case I shall let you accompany Curly.

I sigh:

- Now it's my turn to have a problem. Curly's got a sore throat and can't sing today.

- No matter. I'll sing instead of her.

- How very kind of you! Will you come this afternoon?

- Willingly, sire!

- See you later, milady!

Some errands to run for my mother in the morning. It's easier by bike than on foot and my mother doesn't like to cycle, or so she says. And as only my father drives the car, it's my bike that wins out.

A fellow well met, one of those from the market yesterday. A repeat, almost word for word, of what he said at the market. I heard nothing and agreed to everything. He went away happy.

I meet another friend, going in the opposite direction. He is on his bike. We wave to each other.

My mother has made a cake for our musical afternoon. She told me she was going to this morning, before I went off. And I forgot the yeast when I went to get the two-pounder. So I go back to the baker's. I rarely go there during the day. Entering, I hear the baker's loud voice:

- Forgot the yeast, did you?

He gives me some. He knows how much I need.

- Haven't you finished your errands?

That's Curly.

- No, I've still got to pick up the scissors I gave the knife-grinder to sharpen last week.

- Last week? Didn't he do them straight away?

- I was in a hurry; and then I forgot about them.

- I've finished my stuff; I'll come with you.

We set off. The knife-grinder is on the other side of the village. To get there we take the aqueduct.

- She's coming to sing after lunch!

It's not a question so I don't answer.

- She told me so this morning.

- You mean you asked her!

- It was so as to know whether I could come into the garden...

I laugh:

- You know you can come whenever you want.

I do not add that she spends most of her time in my garden. And she isn't the only one, as my cat well knows.

Curly continues with her report:

- She lives in a town in the middle of a river, in a street that goes into a timepiece.

- A timepiece?

- That's what she said; I didn't dare tell her it was a mistake.

- You were right; but how can her street go into a timepiece? Are you sure you heard right?

- I think it's a bridge that's over the street.

Odd...

- You can ask her yourself; I didn't really understand.

She adds straight way:

- You will tell me, won't you?

I promise.

- You know, she goes on, the town isn't really in the middle of a river...

What a surprise.

- ...but it does run through the town.

I do not tell her that it is not the only river to run through a town, and that she knows of one not very far from where we are.

Having picked up the scissors from the knife-grinder, we go back home. One last stop just near my house in a little grocer's shop, which is also a café. The worm-eater comes out of the shop just as we arrive, the grocer's wife calling out her usual friendly "Bye bye, hen!" But the worm-eater turns angrily and says:

- I'm not a hen any more, Curly's told me not to eat worms!

B B B, A A... Watch out... Yes, she listened for my F sharp... And I missed the E flat that follows.

She has kept going and sung her G. She has stopped and is laughing:

- Were you afraid of your seventh?

I laugh too, to cover my embarrassment. She waves at the music on the piano before me:

- Come on then, let's take it again from the top!

I am still not very sure of the last few bars, having only practised yesterday. She prefers to go over the same passage several times, to get it better together with me. Which means that for today we go no further than bar twelve, where the harmonic complications begin again; C minor, diminished seventh - ah, how gentle it is! - minor thirds. But I have promised not to weary you any longer with my harmonic analysis.

We have worked hard this afternoon, Milady and I. Enough.

The sound of clapping floats up from the garden. We look out of the window. We had an audience.

First, the children who are running after the cat. Their only concern, I grant you, is to catch it, and the cat's only concern is not to be caught. Although it is somewhat less than honest there, since it could just climb into the cherry tree if it really wanted to. So the applause didn't come from that source.

Where did it come from then? Where? From the lawn, turned into a concert hall! And who is there? Well, Curly, of course, my mother - my father is about his business - plus the Economist and the Geologist, who have slipped over the garden wall. We bow, as is customary.

After the pleasures of art, the pleasures of the table. My mother has made a big cake and there is plenty for everyone.

Yesterday, before leaving, the Economist and the Geologist suggested a walk along the aqueduct.

- The aqueduct? said Milady with surprise.

I explained.

Lunch over, we meet up at the farm. I play the guide:

- Let's take a right here!

- Onto the high street? Milady asks; I thought we were going to walk along the aqueduct.

- Patience! The aqueduct runs by the market; that's where we'll pick it up.

- Oh, I see. In that case I know it; it's that very straight path...

- That's the one. And the high street is a very old road; it was there even before the village.

We cross the village.

- In places it looks as though the aqueduct has almost cut the houses in two, remarks Milady.

- You're not far wrong there, the Economist tells her; they took bits of houses away when they built it, and even demolished some altogether.

- That's not very nice for the people who lived in them.

And Milady points towards the exit from the village:

- At least in the fields the houses had nothing to fear.

She goes on:

- It really is a very practical sort of path, this aqueduct.

- And as it runs right through the middle of the fields we won't have to take the road, adds the Geologist.

- I think it'll be a lovely walk, I love the fields; but when I go with my parents into the countryside outside my town, it's mostly pasture I see.

I joke:

- And your cows have a timepiece to tell them when it's milking time.

Milady laughs:

- As Curly would say!

Caught out! I join in her laughter.

- Curly says a timepiece? asks the Economist, he and the Geologist equally surprised.

Assuming an innocent air, I answer:

- Curly? No, that's Milady. That's what they say where she comes from.

The two of them, together:

- Milady?

She smiles at me:

- Indeed, sire!

They have both cottoned on now. The Geologist enquires:

- Why the old-time names?

Milady tells the story.

- We've never seen you wearing clothes like that! comments the Economist.

- Have you seen the little house? she exclaims in lieu of an answer.

I immediately reply:

- They're called regards.

- Regards?

The Geologist explains:

- The little houses are actually used to inspect the aqueduct.

Milady nods:

- Oh, I see. I don't suppose anyone could live in them; they're too small.

- And it would take a lot of people; there's one every five hundred paces, confirms the Economist.

We have been walking a good while along the aqueduct, from one regard to the next.

Milady has stopped and embraces the fields with a sweeping gesture:

- Poems often talk about golden wheat; it's the first time I've ever seen it.

She doesn't move:

- Gold is more than a colour; here...

She breaks off for a moment:

- The wheat really is golden, but it's a pale gold, almost white... but gold still.

She has walked up to the wheat and half-closed her hand around an ear:

- It makes you want to touch it, take it, eat it...

The wheatfields stretch to the horizon and the outlines of the first houses of the next village, along the margin of the wooded hillside where the narrow, winding path that runs by the farm gets lost.

Milady has still not moved:

- It's like the cloth on a vast table set for a marvellous feast, decorated with coloured embroidery; the flaming red of the poppies, the soft blue of the cornflowers, hemmed with the ivory of the cow parsley.

She has started walking again, slowly. A long moment of silence. It is still only two o'clock and the July sun is burning the wheat just waiting to be harvested.

- Here!

I have handed Milady some grains of wheat. She had watched me curiously as I nipped the ear and rolled it quickly between my palms, letting the chaff blow away to leave only the grain.

- My, that's good! she has exclaimed, her mouth full.

The Economist too has taken an ear of wheat:

- You said just now that outside your town you mostly saw only pasture...

- Of course, in the Cretaceous...

The Economist throws himself on the Geologist:

- No, no and thrice no! No geology lessons: this is July, not October!

We all laugh. The Geologist has taken an ear of wheat. Milady, having plainly learnt how to do it, hands me the grain.

- Here!

The Economist comes back to the question he wanted to ask Milady:

- Do you prefer meadows to fields?

- I don't know; I don't often leave town, I have a lot to do there...

She breaks off to ponder:

- Pastureland is full of a life you can see; and if the meadows don't have any cows in them, they wait.

She pauses:

- Life in arable land is more secret; it doesn't give, you have to take.

Schumann this afternoon. And this morning I practice what Milady and I sang the day before yesterday. That is to say, what she sang, because I only played. Playing when she sings is easy, she never sings with her mind elsewhere. Yes, I know, it's odd to say that, two musicians playing the same piece together cannot be elsewhere, each in their own world. And yet...

So I practice. And I too have learnt the melody for the purpose. It is highly likely that all pianists do the same. And so I sing while accompanying myself. It's easier than accompanying a singer other than yourself. But I am on my own.

So what would be the point of writing a separate score for each performer if only one person performs the piece? If a real artist were to read that, I suppose he'd laugh at what he would regard as merely the confused stumblings of a beginner.

But when you listen to a real artist, can you also be a beginner? Perhaps; no doubt, because I have already - and very often - heard it said that you have to learn to listen, learn to appreciate music. It's not something Anatol von Roessel ever told me.

A quiet late morning. The garden is silent; the children are playing somewhere else today. My cat is snoozing peacefully in the cherry tree. In his case, it tends to be when the sun is asleep that he is out and about on his long walks.

An errand to run for my mother. I take my bike. A chum near the shop I'm going to. We chat. He's in no hurry, I'm in no hurry. Neither of us has anything to do before lunch. Chatting passes the time. Of course it's time wasted, since we are only talking for talking's sake. It doesn't bother me in the least, I'm waiting for the afternoon. Is he waiting too? For someone or something? I don't know, we don't talk about it. Why not? Probably because we each have our own things to do. He's a good mate. We don't have the same occupations.

Lunch. My parents are, of course, closer to me than my chum. I have more occupations in common with them than with him. I talk to them more often than to him. And yet do I really talk to them about myself? Perhaps... but where is my life?

Lunch over. I take my bike again. It's not to run another errand for my mother. No. In any case, errands are mostly run in the morning. Well, not always, actually.

- Is that all you have to say? You reckon that's worth putting in a diary? asks my cat, from the adjacent branch, as they say in maths, on which he is lying and from which is watching me.

- And well might you add big words to give substance to your tale! Come on, out with it! Why did you take your bike again?

- All right, all right; I went to pick up Milady for our music practice.

- Music practice! Oh, that's a good one! And why do you go to pick her up? Are you afraid she'll get lost? She's already been here before, hasn't she?

- Go to sleep!

My cat shakes his head:

- I'm going, I'm going...

And I went too. I mean, I went to Milady's, not to sleep!

She sings, I play. We start over, again and again. I know it well now. Or at least the twelve bars we have already worked on.

We don't talk very much while we are practising and yet I get the impression that we say a great deal. A slightly different intonation on a note, a slightly extended rest, barely perceptible, a repeated sequence, slightly different each time... Is it because we don't know how? That's not the way I feel it at all. No, there are several lives in the music and we live them one after the other.

A break. My mother has made us a snack, which we eat hungrily.

Milady has remained pensive for a moment:

- Doing music at home, in my town, I am asked to sing, to sing well. Or rather, I am expected to sing, to sing well...

After a while:

- With you, it's like talking with you, without paying too much attention to... spelling mistakes.

I smile:

- Yes, the spelling mistakes you can make when you read a text, not when you say it.

- That's right, and when we talk, the composer can hear us...

- ... whereas he can't if we just read.

A long silence. Milady goes on:

- Do you think he'll answer, if we talk to him?

- If we talk to him and not to the composer, I think he'll answer.

I eat a quick lunch. I'm taking the twelve fifty-three to spend the afternoon with a school friend who lives on the other side of the town where we go to school. It's not very far; about three-quarters of an hour by train, with the change. I'll be back at seven ten, in time for dinner.

The train has soon left the quiet countryside where I live. No more fields, no more wheat - I wouldn't have minded having some for dessert, sitting in my carriage. Quarter of an hour later, I am in the town where we go to school. A little bit further and I reach the station where my friend is waiting for me.

- All well in the country? he says.

Need I add that he doesn't like the countryside? In fact, I think the only place he likes is the one where he lives. When he talks about the capital it's even worse? The capital? Yes, because he lives in a suburb of the capital in question. Which repays him in full with its utter contempt for its suburbs.

We go up to his house, not even a ten-minute walk. His house is on a hill, fairly high up. It's not just any old hill. Or rather, it is - an old hill, that is to say. To say nothing of those who live on it, who have been there for thousands of years. I mean who were there thousands of years ago. So why did I say "have been"? Distraction? No, that's not it. What, then? Because they're still there, that's what, and you can see them. I'm joking? No, not in the least. You only have to see the streets, their streets; not those that have been made since then, in more recent times. Their streets are paths, like in my village, which follow nature, which offer the quickest way up a steep slope - people were strong in those days - instead of winding back and forth until you no longer know where you are and have to look at a map - put there for the purpose, in fact. The hill still belongs to those people, but if you don't look closely you don't see anything - yes, I know, that's obvious; but go ahead and try, you won't find it as obvious as all that!

So here we are in the winding streets. Right, left, for what reason? Yes, I know, I've already said that. An assortment of little houses, each one far from the other even though their walls touch. A bend. We're no longer in the same place. It must have been built at another time, fifty years later. Or earlier, who knows?

As for shops, there aren't any here. Shops are in a place for shops. In shopping streets. There and nowhere else. Life tidies them away in their rightful place. Other places, other things. You go home after work, you leave home to go to work. Wheat does not grow in the street.

Suddenly, there it is, that dead straight street, the one that helps you to get up a steep slope as quickly as possible. The houses pile up around the street, they are like those a moment ago, they are no longer recognisable. The dead straight street ignores them, it just goes up. A big house, a very big house, very long, six floors. It's my friend's house. His house! What other word am I supposed to use? When I speak of where I live, between the cherries and the raspberries, I also say house. What else am I supposed to say? His house is on the first floor, between the neighbour on the right's house, the neighbour on the left's house, the neighbour above's house and the neighbour below's house. Oops, I forgot - but I think I did so on purpose. The word house should be replaced by the word apartment, which means place apart. As for how anyone can be apart when they live on top of one another like that...

So here I am at my friend's apartment. His two younger sisters are all over me, asking me lots of questions about what I'm doing during the holidays, telling me everything they have been doing during the first few days of the holidays - However have they managed to do so much? - and finally run off to play outside with their friends.

Outside means the large garden in front of the house. Lots of children play there. It must be rather pleasant to meet up there with friends, or even just neighbours. The garden is very large, there's plenty of room. I can hear the children's joyful shouts through the open window. In my garden, between the cherries and the raspberries, there are half-a-dozen children, my friends, my cat... and now Milady. From that point of view there's not much between the two gardens; the difference in numbers is not very important. And yet I feel a difference. Let's put it this way: my cat wouldn't feel at home.

While watching the noise from the garden - I beg your pardon, Mr. Teacher, but that is what I am doing! - I answer my friend's mother's questions as best I can. She has welcomed me with a warm smile, she likes me. She is attentive and rather shy. She greatly admires her son, who is one of the best in the class. And her son is modest, always cheerful, never impatient. Everybody likes him.

Here I am in Cheerful's room. You can see a long way from his window, a very long way. Further than from mine, of course, because I'm not on top of a hill. But when I'm here the view always makes me think of the view I can see from the top of the sandpit that's at the top of the wood, just by Milady's farm, almost at the end of the narrow and winding path. Only one rise to climb, but it ain't half a steep one!

Let us return to our two views. From the top of the sandpit, it's easy: there's nothing to see. The wheatfields where I was out walking the day before yesterday, and otherwise not much, to be honest. Cheerful came over one day, looked around and continued - without impatience, naturally - to talk as he plunged back into the wood.

And here, from his window? The capital! The whole of the capital! From the top of the sandpit there was nothing but wheatfields. Here, there are houses. Houses, houses and more houses; big ones, little ones, long ones, wide ones, high ones... Yes, Mr. Teacher, I know, lists should not be too long, so I'll stop there; I could go on, no problem with that... Oh, what the devil! I'll add the monuments all the same; so many monuments. And of course people live in houses, don't they? Whereas in wheatfields, apart from those eating the odd ear of wheat...

- Holidays over already? asks my cat with surprise.

This morning, lying in my cherry-tree armchair, I'm reading a history book:

- It's not for school, it's for me.

- Don't they teach you enough at school?

- No, it's not that; but school can't teach me everything there is in the world.

- You want to know more about things?

- I want to understand why those things exist.

- And when you do, what then?

- I don't know.

- You're doing something without knowing what you're going to do with it?

- When you wake up, do you know what you're going to do with it?

My cat has wanted to start an answer but has stopped.

- You daren't say "I'll have something to eat then go for a walk and that's it".

- You're right; sometimes I get the feeling there might be something else but then it goes away and I go to sleep.

I have gone back to my history book and he has stayed where he is, not moving, eyes wide open.

My mother asks me if I can run some errands for her. Yes, of course I can. I clamber down from my cherry tree. My cat has turned to look at me. I give him a little wave.

I have taken my bike and ride out, as usual, through the garden gate, which is always open.

- Where are you going? calls Curly from her window.

- Running errands.

- I've got some to run too. Can I come with you?

- Sure.

Off we go. We take the aqueduct. As it cuts through the village, it is almost always the shortest route. One shop, another, chums, chatter.

- Are you going to go to the sandpit? asks Curly on the way back.

That's a coincidence. I had been thinking about it just yesterday at Cheerful's.

- Oh, definitely!

- Shall we go this afternoon?

- Why not?

- Shall we pick up the Economist and the Geologist?

- Let's go!

I do not add anything else. She says nothing. I say nothing. She says:

- We could stop by Milady's and ask her if she wants to come with us too.

- If you want.

She laughs:

- You like her!

- I like her.

- I like her too; she's really nice.

And she sets off.

Milady is helping to make lunch.

- Are you coming with us to the sandpit? asks Curly almost as soon as she gets there.

- The sandpit?

- Yes, we go racing there!

- Racing in a sandpit? That must be fun...

Milady adds, nodding:

- It can't be easy, running in the sand!

- Oh no, not at all! answers Curly with a knowing look.

She goes on likewise:

- You have to throw yourself off the top and run down, then run up the other side as fast as you can, then come back and grab the roots that stick out to pull yourself up to the top again.

Milady appears to have understood:

- When are we going?

- After lunch.

- All right. Is it far?

- At the end of the path.

- Ah! I saw that there's a sort of big hill. Is that it?

- Yes, that's it.

- I wanted to go there...

Milady looks at me, laughing:

- ...but I haven't had time!

We all laugh.

The Geologist has said she'd love to. It's only half-true; she likes us being all together, but as for throwing herself off the top...

The Economist has accepted enthusiastically; he's very good at this particular race.

Lunch.

- No piano today? asks my father, who never listens to what I play.

- We're going to the sandpit today.

- Ah! and...

He goes to take a piece of bread from the breadbasket on the table. When it is done, he goes on:

- And...

A pause. He thinks:

- Yesterday... Oh yes, you were at... what's his name again?...

- Cheerful.

- Oh yes, Cheerful. A good lad, is Cheerful.

That's what my father says every time we talk about Cheerful. My mother does not take part in the analysis, but I know she is fond of my friend.

Lunch over, my father goes about his business. My mother talks to me about this and that and hopes that I will enjoy myself.

- Enjoy yourself!

Just as I am leaving, she asks:

- Are you going with your friends from next door?

She doesn't usually ask me that kind of question. I answer, a little absent-mindedly:

- Yes, and with Curly.

My mother seems to be waiting. So I add:

- And Milady.

My mother repeats:

- Enjoy yourself!

And goes off to the kitchen. I go off to get Curly. She has seen me leaving and is already waiting for me.

We go to pick up the Economist and the Geologist and the five of us move on to Milady's.

We talk about this and that with her uncle and aunt and, having climbed the steep rise, we reach the sandpit.

Milady has approached the edge, said nothing, jumped, then climbed easily back up, helping herself with the tangled roots that stick out from the side of the sandpit.

- Well, you're not scared, are you? exclaims the Geologist admiringly.

- Oh, there's nothing to be scared of, it's only sand!

- Right, let's start! cuts in the Economist.

- Me first! cries Curly.

No sooner said than done: as soon as the Economist gives the signal, off she jumps.

It's not easy. Curly, having fallen on the sand, is sliding down a more-than-steep slope. As it flattens out she starts to run as fast as she can and jumps, in the air this time, against the opposite side, which you have to climb on all fours while sliding sideways. Back again, in leaps and bounds, then up again, on all fours, the roots, a last jump and home!

- That's your best time ever! the Economist congratulates her, looking at his watch.

I nod approvingly.

Curly is as modestly triumphant as she can be.

- Gosh, you were really good! smiles Milady.

Curly glows with pleasure.

A moment later she has pushed me to the starting line and shouts:

- Your turn!

I go. Not too bad. Then it's the Geologist's turn. Softly, softly. The jump at the start is in two movements. The run is more like a walk. And as for the clamber back... Well, for once she didn't do too badly. We applaud. The Economist has looked at his watch but said nothing.

Milady. Only a girl, with a girl's strength, but how supple she is! We applaud her too, though not for the same reasons. Her time was only just slower than mine.

The Economist. As a rule, sometimes it's him, sometimes it's me. Today it's me. But only by a whisker.

Twenty to six; I set out on the narrow, winding path. Milady, wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, is coming towards me.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, accompanied by her delicate smile.

- Good morrow, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I enquire:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

We go off. I ask her:

- Will you tune your voice to that of my Boisselot, after this noon, Milady?

- If it is your fingers that make it sing I shall be there, sire.

- I take my leave, milady.

- And so you may, sire.

Having got the two-pounder, had breakfast and finished the errands, I climb back into my cherry tree to read and write. My cat isn't with me, he's too busy playing with the children, telling them all the while that he doesn't want to.

It's very hot today and I have put on a hat to protect me from the sun. But not just any hat. It's not the kind of hat you would ever find at a hatter's. Or anywhere else for that matter: no shop will ever sell you a hat like this one. There is only one place where you can find them. You'll never guess where. My garden. What? You mean hats grow in your garden? Absolutely! Near the path down the middle, immediately on the left when you come in, next to the other cherry tree, the big one. My hat is broad-brimmed but well ventilated. And cool when you put it on. Well, I can see that nobody's got it. So I'll give you a clue, and if you don't find it, there's no hope for you. My hat is green, a lovely bright green. Still not got it? And yet it's good enough to eat, my hat. That's what I said: good enough to eat. Now you know everything.

- Can't you just tell them it's a rhubarb leaf instead of going on like that? Do you really think it's of any interest?

That's my cat, who has crept noiselessly onto the next branch.

Oh, all right then! My hat is a rhubarb leaf.

My Boisselot mingles its voice with Milady's. We are singing the end of opus 48 no. 10 that I practised yesterday evening.

I had promised not to bore you any more with my harmonic analysis. But something unexpected has happened. Schumann has smiled on us, Milady and me. We both saw him. And knew why he was smiling. We had just sung the demi-semi-quavers in bar seventeen. We sang them just as Schumann wrote them, without turning them into minims with a pause over each one! So I feel obliged to analyse. But I will be brief, I assure you.

Three ninths - all right, here they are disguised as seconds, but what difference does that make? Let's start again. Three seconds, the last one shorter, like a man running up for a jump who, after lengthening his last stride, takes off on the last note. And what are the demi-semi-quavers doing in all that? They are the man's swift flight. The flight rises to a C, a plaintive sub-dominant, and then, via a tender seventh, falls with growing resignation on to the aching G minor tonic.

Can you imagine that swift flight in minims with a pause over each one, in slow motion? More like a belly-flop, I'd say.

Yet how many times have I heard singers turn these demi-semi-quavers into a pedestal for their own glory? How many times have I seen Schumann shake his head in distress at the futility of talking to people for whom drawing attention to themselves is so much more important than getting a composer's meaning across.

It's Sunday, market day, when everyone is out and about. It's a lovely day. The first fortnight of July ended yesterday, it's the sixteenth today. I have come with my mother to help her carry the shopping. Curly isn't far off, rummaging through the stalls. The Economist and the Geologist are chatting with chums. Milady is with me; she hasn't been to the market yet and is comparing it curiously with the market in her town.

- Mine is much bigger, of course, but it's mostly the things for sale that aren't the same.

I express surprise:

- I suppose your market has fruit and vegetable stalls too...

- Yes, we do have the same stalls, but...

She hesitates:

- I was too quick to say they were the same...

She ponders:

- In my market, the stallholders come from somewhere else, while here...

I laugh:

- I don't think vegetables grow in towns and cities!

She goes on soberly:

- Nor do the stallholders.

- You mean you don't know them?

- Yes. They're unknown people who pass by selling unknown produce.

I smile:

- A leek is a leek is a leek.

- Yes, but it doesn't come from the neighbour's garden, if the banter on the stalls is anything to go by.

- Not everything comes from the market-gardens round about.

- I don't know where the rest comes from, but it can't come from very far; everyone on the market seems to know everyone else.

She falls silent for a moment:

- At home I buy eggs at the dairy; here...

She laughs:

- ...I pluck them from under the hen!

I laugh too:

- You have to be quick, 'cos if you let them grow...

- ... they turn into chicks!

And we laugh fit to bust...

- Buttons!... Buttons!...

Buttons?... Is she back? Oh yes, there she is. It was Curly calling her. I tell Milady:

- It's Buttons.

- Who's Buttons?

- Our accordionist!

- Oh, I love the accordion! Where is he?

I correct her:

- She. Our accordionist is a she.

- A she? That's unusual, a lady accordionist!

- She's not a lady, she's one of Curly's chums; about a year older than she is, I think.

- Is she good?

- Very good; she often plays for our dances.

Milady smiles happily:

- Oh, I love dancing! Do you?

I hesitate:

- Well, you know...

My tone of voice has given me away. She laughs:

- Yes, I get it; you don't like it at all!

She adds evenly:

- I don't dance very often, you know.

I am not taken in:

- Good milady, will you do me the honour of allowing me to set you down on my card for the next dance?

- Upon my word, good sire, I will. Let us ask Buttons to play us a waltz forthwith.

- With pleasure. The waltz is what she plays best.

Milady gives a satisfied nod:

- I am very glad.

A moment later she asks me:

- Why does Curly call her Buttons? It's a funny name.

I ponder:

- Even when she was little she wanted to play the accordion. She had heard it one day at some friends of her parents and when they came back she kept saying "I want to press the buttons!"

Milady smiles:

- Oh, how lovely! And that's why they call her Buttons.

- Absolutely!

- Doesn't she live here?

- Yes, she does, but she'd gone off to some relations for a couple of weeks; she lives on the high road, almost opposite the track that comes from your place.

- The house that's up on a perch?

- Yes, the little hill alongside the high road; and the house is on the hill.

- It looks as though it's sitting on a wall.

- And behind the wall is the cellar.

Curly and Buttons have come up to us.

- Good morning, Buttons! says Milady.

- Good morning, Milady! says Buttons.

Curly has not been wasting her time.

I enquire:

- When did you get back?

- Last night.

- Will you play for us, then? says Milady with a smile; I love dancing!

Buttons smiles back:

- With pleasure!

And she adds:

- And will you sing? You sing very well, I hear.

- Curly exaggerates; I don't sing as well as all that.

Buttons gives a merry laugh and, pointing at me, says:

- And I don't play as well as he told you I do!

The four of us all laugh.

- They're difficult, the things you sing, goes on Buttons.

Milady protests:

- I think I would find it quite as difficult to play the things you play.

Buttons has become thoughtful:

- Yes, but you sing proper music...

- I sing like I speak; I don't believe in big words, but in feelings.

- People don't always speak when they sing.

- When you speak, depending on what you have to say, you lower your voice or raise it, speed up or slow down; that's what I do when I sing, and it's certainly what you do when you play.

Buttons remains thoughtful for a moment longer. Then, brightly, says:

- I look forward to hearing you sing!

She takes my arm:

- I'm sure he plays well with you!

She adds, with a big smile:

- He's very good!

Turning to Milady I mutter:

- Oh yes, I'm very good. I tried to play her accordion one day; all that came out was the strangled mooing of a cow in distress.

- I see you're good at expressing feelings too, laughs Buttons gaily.

Quarter past five; I set out on the narrow, winding path. Milady, wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, is coming towards me.

- It is warm, milady.

- It is indeed, sire.

- Our friends suggest that we might like to bathe.

- There could be no better idea.

Milady adds:

- I've been up for an hour already, since sunrise; everyone's up early this morning, from what I can see.

- Yes, I wasn't really properly awake, but Curly and Buttons came to pull me out of bed; "Lazybones", yelled Curly, "We're going swimming in the lake in the middle of the wood", said Buttons in a tone of voice that brooked no prevarication.

- I have no intention of prevaricating, replied Milady with composure.

- And nor did I prevaricate either!

I add:

- The Economist and the Geologist are coming along too, we asked them.

- When are we going?

- After breakfast; we'll meet up at your place.

- Will we stay there long?

- All day.

- With a picnic? asks Milady.

- With a picnic.

- There'll be six of us, I'll do us two chickens; they'll be ready in an hour.

- Splendid!

Off we go, our bikes loaded down with food.

We take the road this time, through the wheatfields we crossed last Tuesday when we took the aqueduct. A big farm, on the left, backing onto the wood with the sandpit where we went racing on Friday. A tiny little village. A long, long, hill. At the top, what is now barely a village but which used to be a castle that dominated the surrounding plain. A long stretch downhill that we will have to climb on the way back. Let us remember...

- I thought you were on your own; where are the others? asks my cat.

- That's how proper writers write...

- That's all we need!

As he says nothing more after this remark, of very little interest in any case, I continue... we continue our tale.

- Go on, go on...

We shall ignore the new remark from our cat.

Where was I? Oh, yes. The downhill run. But the climb back up was what I really wanted to talk about. There are two roads. One, with a slight slope, runs round the village; the other, very steep, runs through the village. I always take the latter, because I'm a good climber.

- That's nothing to boast about, since you are many.

I have already said that we shall ignore that kind of remark from our cat.

- We have!

What's he on about now? Oh yes, he's right; we, not I.

- Not before time!

And doubtless exhausted by this final remark, he has gone off to have a snooze on the next branch.

Right; meanwhile, we are riding - all six of us, not just me on my own - along the road that leads gently - there are no more hills - to our lake in the middle of the wood.

Here it is, nestling in a hollow, surrounded by tall trees that bend affectionately over it. It's not very big, our little lake, much smaller than another lake nearby which the real swimmers prefer. But we just paddle and splash around and our little lake is so much more private, hidden by the leaves.

We have stopped at the top of the slope that leads down to the lake. The Geologist explains:

- The streams have scoured the sediment from the plateau first, then the Upper Stampian millstone clay...

- How can it be? exclaims the Economist, is if suddenly dumbstruck by the revelation of an unprecedented discovery.

The Geologist continues imperturbably:

- ... following which the streams formed this lake in colluvial and millstone clay deposits overlaid on a Middle Stampian sandy substrate.

- Well, that's a relief then! says the Economist, still trembling with fright.

Turning to us, he goes on:

- We can go ahead, chaps, it's only sand.

We laugh merrily and the Geologist joins in too, not being the kind to take offence.

Milady scans the gently shimmering water:

- It's as though the lake has come from a distant land and is resting in this hollow after a long journey.

So we paddle and splash around. It is possible to swim a bit, though you soon scrape your feet on the bottom. But no matter!

The sun has soon dried us off after our swim and now we're having our picnic. The chickens are cooked to perfection and as everyone has brought something, we are short of nothing. And it is good, I can tell you.

This morning I have to give back a book to a schoolmate. He lives in a village about twenty minutes away by bike. Twenty minutes is a long time. So I decide to take the bus; it's much quicker and much more comfortable, it's much less tiring and, above all, it's much more fun. Surprising? Not at all; let me explain.

The bus passes about once an hour, so you mustn't miss it. So I am there at the stop a good five minutes before it's due; the times aren't very precise, sometimes it has to wait for passengers who arrive late, hurrying and waving at the driver. The driver knows them and waits. "Get a move on!" he pretends to grumble; a bit late, however, because they've already got on. The bus doesn't go very far, only as far as the town where I go to school, a good half-hour's bike ride from home. About thirty passengers when all the seats are taken. It's not a very big bus and there is hardly any room for luggage. But everything has been thought of. A panel can be let down at the back of the bus, making a platform on which the luggage can be stowed. I think I have never seen any luggage, or hardly ever... No-one here goes very far, otherwise they take the train.

The bus has left. I am sitting comfortably on my seat and don't have much to do except pedal. Pedal? What do you mean, pedal? Of course, since I am cycling behind the bus.

- What on earth are you going on about? You've just said you were sitting comfortably on your seat, miaows my cat.

- That's right. On the seat of my bike.

- You're pulling my leg.

- Not in the least; I am behind the bus, on the saddle of my bike, which is my seat.

- If you're riding your bike you don't need the bus.

- Therein lies your error.

- You're using fancy words to try and get out of it.

- Not in the least. Remember I mentioned a platform at the back of the bus...

- You're sitting on the platform.

- Not a bit of it. I am behind it.

- Got it; you're holding on to the platform.

- Not in the slightest.

- All right, I give in.

- The platform creates a slipstream which pulls me along.

- Brilliant!

- You can miaow that again.

My cat ponders:

- Doesn't the bus go too fast?

- It does.

- So you're no better off!

- What about the stops?

My cat has understood everything now.

- If you get left behind, you catch up while people are getting on and off; easy as pie!

Isn't it just?

About two o'clock. Milady has come over to sing. The garden is swarming, you can't even hear yourself talk, let alone sing. So how is it that all Milady and I could hear was Schumann? Does he speak louder than the others? Yes, that must be it, even though he speaks with the sad voice of the song that we repeat over and over.

A break. The noise has suddenly returned.

- It's the first time I've ever sung the same piece for so long, so many times.

Milady adds pensively:

- It's only two pages, but for me it has no end...

- I have never played with someone else until now, but when I play on my own...

I hesitate a moment:

- I don't know many pieces... perhaps that's why I very often play the same thing.

Milady gives me a smile:

- Perhaps it's because you very often play the same thing that you don't know many pieces.

- Perhaps... My friends tell me that it's boring to play the same thing all the time; one of them said one day, when I played Schumann's opus 82 no. 7 several times and he was there, "I'm looking forward to hearing what comes next"; whereas I never got tired of hearing the bird sing in the forest.

- Wasn't the bird just music to him?

Milady goes on after a moment:

- Beautiful music?

- And wasn't the forest just a walk to him?

I go on after a moment:

- A lovely walk?

We say nothing for a long while. My fingers run softly over the piano. Milady touches my arm:

- Play me the bird.

I played, again and again; she did not tire of it.

Today, Milady is busy with her uncle and aunt. I spend the morning writing and reading. As I have already told my cat, what I'm reading is not for school but for myself. I mean the book I am reading, a textbook - physics - and not light reading, which would be the equivalent of going for a walk or chatting with chums about things of little importance.

So I am reading my physics textbook for myself. In order to understand, I told my cat. And without knowing what I will do with what I have understood. That is, if I manage to understand, which is not a foregone conclusion.

Do you really have to understand? Can you live without ever understanding anything?

- Are you asleep?

- No, he's not asleep, otherwise he would've dropped his book.

That's the Geologist, who has just given the Economist a reasonable answer. As always, they have hopped over the garden wall.

I smile:

- I was philosophising.

- As a 60 or a mere 74?

Hm! Don't know those. I do a quick count. Teacher. Pupil. I answer in the level tone of voice of someone who has no reason at all to be surprised:

- Neither Teacher nor Pupil, but as a 50.

My friends start scratching their heads.

I add:

- A not-so-dumb 50.

Scratch, scratch...

- Dumb, dumber, dumbest! says the Economist crossly, stumped for an answer.

- Dumb... dumb... animal! cries the Geologist in a blinding flash of intuition.

- Well, you certainly sweep the field - whatever the type of soil! laughs the Economist.

I approve their answer.

- You should have said, as yourself! the Economist teases me.

We laugh.

- And what were you philosophising about? asks the Geologist more seriously.

- What is the use of understanding the reasons why things exist if you are an animal?

- Why an animal; why not us? the Economist asks me.

- Animals seem to know how they have to live; what good would it do them to understand the reasons for their life?

I go on, after a while:

- If we too knew how to live, we probably wouldn't try to philosophise; or at least some of us wouldn't.

After another while:

- And if we find out how to live, what will we do, except live?

Continuing the conversation from the top of the cherry tree is not very practical. Should I also admit that there was starting to be a shortage of cherries? I climb down. The children, on the lawn, are playing at schoolmistress.

The Economist waves in their direction:

- Is it their instinct as the men and women they will become that makes them play that particular game?

- Could well be, nods the Geologist; look how serious they are; that's no game.

The children did indeed look serious.

- It's amazing, goes on the Economist, they aren't making any noise, they aren't chattering, they're not dying to get away; that's not how they behave at school, according to what the mistresses say.

He smiles:

- And the masters too!

- We don't chatter either when a lesson's interesting, points out the Geologist.

- An interesting lesson is one in which the pupils learn something that interests them.

I express surprise:

- So what are they learning here? To learn, there has to be someone who knows things that they don't.

- And here, the children play both pupil and mistress in turn, one day one, the next day the other, observes the Economist.

- So they can't learn anything.

- Learning isn't enough to understand, puts in the Geologist.

- So you mean they'd be trying to understand things they don't learn? says the Economist sarcastically.

- Learning how to do something means you can then do it.

- You were talking about what's the point of understanding, not of learning, the Geologist remarks to me.

- To do what you do well, supposes the Economist.

I insist:

- And when you've done something well, what are the reasons why it is considered to have been done well?

- And that brings us back to the first question you asked, says the Geologist.

- Why talk about all that stuff when we can't see where it's leading? asks the Economist.

- Why do the children play at schoolmistress when they aren't learning anything? asks the Geologist.

Twenty to six; I set out on the narrow, winding path. Milady, wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, is coming towards me.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, accompanied by her delicate smile.

- Good morrow, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I enquire:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

We go off. I ask her:

- Would you like for the two of us to go for a long walk in the woods, as far as the solitary little lake which slumbers amidst a clump of trees, on the other side of the mysterious road of which we know neither whence it comes nor whither it goes, milady?

- I shall be delighted, sire!

- After luncheon, milady?

- After luncheon, sire!

The morning is spent with my cat, reading and writing in the cherry tree. Yes, he reads what I write. He can't have found anything very interesting today, because I haven't heard any comments. Perhaps he's just not very interested in philosophy. And yet I had talked about animals. Did he feel concerned? Maybe not; he's a cat, after all, and not just some animal.

My mother is busy in the vegetable garden. I climb down from my cherry tree to give her a hand. What needs doing? The leeks to be planted out - important, that; who could ever imagine soup without leeks? The winter lettuce to be planted out - important, that; who could ever imagine a meal without lettuce? The last green beans to be sown. Autumn turnips and spinach to be sown. So much to do! And as a reward for all my hard work, I stuff myself on peas and suck their juicy pods. And a strawberry or two to finish, why not?

Errands to run before lunch. Curly has seen me on my way out and calls out to me from her window:

- Are you going to the shops?

- Yes; do you want to come with me?

- Coming!

Curly, as sometimes happens, is a little down in the mouth.

- You're not very cheerful today.

She gives me a wan smile:

- Buttons has gone off for two days.

She goes on, with a little sniff:

- I really like her. We have fun together.

She goes on, a moment later:

- Are we going to have a dance soon?

- You should ask Buttons...

- We've already talked about it; she's ready when everyone else is.

- Well, tell them about it!

I refrain from adding: "As usual!"

On our way we pass by the corner shop. The grocer's wife has remembered the little worm-eater:

- Has my little hen stopped eating worms, then? she asks, giving Curly a smile.

- Oh, she sulked for a few days but then forgot about it; children soon forget.

As usual, we take the aqueduct. Two or three shops. The errands are done.

Hardly have I passed the garden gate... a lovely, familiar aroma...

- You've been making strawberry jam!

- I've only just started, my mother calms me; you won't be eating it yet awhile!

- I'm not moving from here until it's ready.

- So I'll let Milady know that you won't be going out walking with her this afternoon, then.

- Oh, no need; I'd forgotten that strawberry jam is always better the day after it's made.

I made up for it after lunch by eating raspberries - the raspberry jam is already made, I have tasted it, it's not bad at all.

Two o'clock. We have all the time in the world for our walk; the sun goes down at seven forty-seven. August is drawing near - only another twelve days; it's the twentieth today - and the sun will go down earlier and earlier. "What an idea! We're always told we have to go to bed at the same time!" protests Milady. We are leaving the farm together on the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the wood, just where we're headed. Actually, I know the wood like the back of my hand and Milady has not failed to recognise the rise we climbed last Friday.

The dark green of the broad chestnut leaves hide us from the sun, which is starting, little by little, to go down.

- You're never really aware of it and evening always comes as a surprise, says Milady softly.

- And you notice that you've forgotten to look at the day.

I add:

- Is that what you mean?

- Yes.

She goes on pensively:

- It reminds me of a Latin phrase.

- Carpe diem?

- Yes.

She says nothing for a while, then, dreamily:

- Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Oda.

Another silence, then slowly, as if recounting a memory:

- Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

- Yes; and everyone has their own translation of it, but I've never found a good one.

- I found this one: "Seize the day, trust as little as possible in the future."

I ponder this for a long while.

- Can you say it again for me?

She does so. I go on:

- I like it a lot; just one question, though: should we refuse the future?

- I don't think so; but I think the future is ours to make, not to endure.

We walk without haste through the forest, along barely visible paths, following animal tracks, through thickets, bushes and brambles that you have to push away carefully so as not to get scratched. In any case the wood is open, it lets us through.

The mysterious road, of which we know neither whence it comes nor whither it goes, lies ahead of us. Milady has stopped and is looking at it.

- It isn't from here...

A long silence. She goes on:

- You said we didn't know whence it comes or whither it goes; I even think I don't actually know where it is.

I say nothing. She goes on:

- As soon as I step onto it, it will no longer be there; there will be another road instead, another road of which you can tell me whence it comes and whither it goes.

- I've only rarely come across that other road; when I'm out walking in the woods and I reach here, I look at it and go back into the woods.

We stand looking at the road. Milady asks:

- I haven't seen any cars; doesn't anybody ever come this way?

- I've never seen anyone; but then, I've never stayed very long to look.

- And when...

- ...I took... the other road? I may have seen the odd car...

I add with a smile:

- But not many people come by this way; the main road is elsewhere, a bit further on.

- And yet even without thinking about mysteries, you get the impression it's an important road.

- It was, a very long time ago.

- Then that's the road we can see; the past leaves its mark.

She pauses for a moment:

- You need to like looking in order to see it.

Here we are at the solitary little lake which slumbers amidst a clump of trees. The wind has dropped. The little lake is dreaming. Everything is at peace. We are sitting next to each other on the old bench...

Morning, Milady, the milk, the two-pounder, breakfast, the children playing at schoolmistress on the lawn, the cherry tree, reading, writing, the cat...

- What about the cat? What's he done?

- I am writing about the morning's events, as well you know.

- You call that events?

- They make up my life.

My cat ponders at length:

- That's true, it is the diary of your life.

My cat ponders again:

- Are you afraid of forgetting what your life has been?

- It's not that; if someone reads my diary one day, they'll see that a life like mine, and like that of those around me, once existed.

- And if they find that there's nothing to see in your life?

- When Cheerful looks at the wheat from on top of the sandpit, he doesn't even bother to say that there's nothing to see; yes, it's true, but it's that wheat that feeds him.

My cat said nothing for a long while. Then he miaowed softly to me:

- I wouldn't come to sit beside you in the cherry tree if I thought there was nothing to see in your life; but I'm only a cat and I don't know how to write, it's not my fault.

I stroked him. He went off to lie on a nearby branch and stayed there a long time, looking in front of him, not sleeping.

- Tomorrow!... Are you on?

Tomorrow?... I wonder why Curly has flung that tomorrow at me. Seeing my evident surprise, she starts to laugh.

- The dance! Had you forgotten?

Oh yes, that's right...

- No, no, I hadn't forgotten.

- I've asked the Economist and the Geologist and Milady and they're all on.

She adds:

- And I've put up the poster as usual; we'll be dancing all night.

I joke:

- And have you asked Buttons?

She starts for a moment, then quickly catches herself:

- Yes, and she told me you would be playing!

- Me? the piano, perhaps...

- No, the accordion!

- The accordion?

- Yes, she told me she had heard you once and it was...

She didn't have time to finish, protecting herself from the cherry I had thrown at her. And she runs away, laughing.

One of my father's colleagues and his wife have come for lunch. Afterwards, my father will stay and work with his colleague for a few hours. They have a report to talk about, I think, or to write. Out of the question for the children to come and play on the lawn. Out of the question for me to play the piano, and even less so with Milady. Fancy that: two is even worse than one! Only the cat would have been allowed to stay, but he far prefers to go elsewhere and play with the children in another garden, for example. In any case, if he stayed, I think it would be only on the express condition of sleeping. And even then it would be because my father's colleague knows, like everybody else, that cats do not dream aloud. Because otherwise... My mother and the colleague's wife will be out in the garden; that way, my father's colleague will not be able to hear them. And in a while, when the heat is stifling, my father's colleague will say to him in a vexed tone of voice: "Could you close the window, please, it's impossible to concentrate with all this noise!" All this noise being the birds singing in the garden.

Apart from that, lunch goes well. My father and his colleague do not say a word and concern themselves only with what is on their plate. My mother listens to the colleague's wife, who talks.

The colleague and his wife live in the capital. They live together. They live together and are married. To each other. I provide this information because there is nothing at all in their behaviour that might cause anyone to even suspect such a thing. I also know that there is no bad blood between them. How could there be? They don't seem to have blood of any kind, bad or otherwise. They make me think of suburban houses. "An assortment of little houses, each one far from the other even though their walls touch."

The colleague's wife talks about the capital. Or at least about what she does in the capital. Shopping, shows, museums. It's not uninteresting. A capital is more than a village, it's true. There is more to do there. I did this, I did that, she says. She also saw this and saw that. She does not bother with commentary, just gives a list. And yet she describes a film she saw yesterday. It happened a long way away, on the other side of some ocean, on an island. The scenery was unforgettable, she said. There were palm trees, magnificent palm trees, everywhere, a dream! she went on.

A palm tree is a plant, like wheat, but much bigger. Is that why there's nothing to see from the top of our sandpit?

Lunch is over. My father and his colleague have shut themselves up - that is the right word - in order to work. My mother and the colleague's wife have gone out into the garden. The colleague's wife has declared: "You have a lovely garden!", then conscientiously repeated to my mother everything she had already said at lunch.

And as Milady is busy with her uncle and aunt, I have slipped over the wall to see if the Economist and the Geologist are there. Not in the wall, of course, Mr. Teacher!

Morning, nothing to say. Lunch, nothing to say. Afternoon, nothing to say. So let's say nothing.

- And they had to be plural just to say that! my cat has said scornfully before going off to play with the children.

He was wrong to do so. Otherwise he would have found out that there was a great deal to say about the evening. Yes, tonight is the dance. My village, plastered with Curly's posters, is going to have a night of fun!

After dinner I go and fetch Milady. She's ready. Not that she had much to do in order to get ready, having merely put on a very simple but very pretty dress. She had asked me what she ought to wear.

- Oh, anything! I had answered.

- Anything? she had said with surprise.

- Yes, here people do as they please when there's a dance. Some wear short, some wear long.

- At home, everyone wears long.

- You live in a city, whereas here...

- What do you suggest?

I had smiled:

- Whatever you like; whatever you wear, you will be the most beautiful person there, milady!

She had smiled:

- And you will be the most handsome, sire!

- You know, I had added, here, everyone comes to the dance, from babes in arms to ancients; and it's mostly the younger girls who dress up in long ball-gowns, with flowers in their hair.

So there is Milady, in a very simple but very pretty dress.

The dance hall is not far from the farm.

- That's not surprising, it used to belong to the castle, long ago.

- Yes, I know, nods Milady, my uncle told me about it; the farm used to belong to the castle too, but a long time ago.

- Yes, and the dance hall was also used for other things; plays, for example.

I go on, pretending to preen:

- And I have even...

- ...written, directed and acted in a play! cuts in Milady, smiling.

- That's Curly exaggerating again!

Milady laughs gaily:

- And yet she's usually pretty well informed.

- Well-informed, perhaps, but there, she's exaggerating!

- That much?

- I wrote a few lines... but I wasn't the only one, we did it together, me and some chums...

- Yes, that's right, you only wrote the dialogues.

- But not the stage directions.

- Which you ignored in your production!

- Oh, that was improvisation!

- Naturally!

- Ah, Curly...

- Come on, she's really nice!

- Yes, that's true, and everyone really likes her.

The dance hall is already full. Full of children. They come earlier than the older ones because they will go off to bed before them. The real grown-ups, the men and women, will not stay much later, they will all be gone by about midnight, or two at the very latest. Whereas the young people like us - well, many of us will still be there at sunrise. Dancing perhaps, though not the majority, chatting mostly, having a last drink, wine or lemonade according to age.

The evening advances, the hall continues to fill up.

- What do you mean, continues to fill up? protests my cat, you have just said the hall was already full!

- It's a rhetorical device.

- You always get out of it by using words nobody can understand!

- A figure of speech, if you prefer.

- Not in the least.

- So what would you say, then?

- I would simply have started by saying that the dance hall was almost full, or half-full; that way, it would have become possible for it to continue filling up.

That shuts me up for a moment:

- I can't say you're wrong, exactly...

- Quite right too!

- But what I wanted to get across to the reader is that the dance hall was really very, very full.

- So just say that it is very, very full!

I ponder:

- Saying that a dance hall is really very, very full is just a piece of information...

- What else do you want to say?

- I want to arouse feelings; you can't say everything with words.

- So what use are words to you humans if you can't make them say what you want?

And as I couldn't find an answer to this, my cat went off to meditate on a nearby branch.

A tune can be heard through the hubbub of loud conversations, the children's shrieks of joy, laughter full of merriment; a lively, get-up-and-dance kind of tune, though nostalgic if you listen closely, immediately covered by applause, which in turn covers a warm ovation. Buttons has just emerged onto the stage. Her accordion has propelled the dancers into a waltz which seems never to want to stop. The waltz turns around and around, twirling the indefatigable dancers.

Until now, I had seen dancing as a sequence of rather disordered movements that I had endeavoured to accomplish as best I could in order to please my partner of the moment, who might be Curly or Buttons or the Geologist or a neighbour or a schoolfriend's sister... That night, with my arm around Milady's waist, it did not seem to me as though I was dancing...

A clock, the one in the nearby steeple, told the hours of darkness...

Sunday. Market day. Or at least I suppose so because, like so many others, I have not left the dance hall before dawn. The last dancers have gone home to bed and will not get up until the market is over. Why go, then?

I have not gone home to bed. Nor has Milady.

- Half past four; Daisy starts her day in an hour and a half, all we have to do is wait.

- Let's go for a walk along the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood, Milady answers me with a smile.

We climb the steep rise that leads to the sandpit. A path to the left runs through the entire length of the wood. I point to it:

- We can walk here without having to worry about which way to go; it's always straight on.

We walk, hand in hand. Milady looks all around her:

- I love this wood; there aren't any like this one at home.

- What's it like, at home?

She does not answer straight away; then, turning towards me, says:

- Do you want me to show you?

I am hardly surprised:

- I can come?

- I mentioned it to my parents; they asked my uncle, who said very nice things about you.

- Oh, that's good of him!

- It's not his way to say things he doesn't think.

I am silent for a moment:

- I'll mention it to my parents.

And add vehemently:

- I wish I were already there now!

We have walked. Daisy has kindly offered me her milk. I have gone to get the two-pounder. I have had breakfast with my parents. My father has asked me if I enjoyed the dance. Or told me, actually, rather than asked. My mother has asked me if I was tired, not having slept. Or told me, actually, rather than asked. My father has gone about his business. My mother has insisted I should go to bed. I have gone to write in my cherry tree.

- You wrote "I'll mention it to my parents"... Why didn't you say anything to them at breakfast? enquires my cat, intrigued.

- They didn't have time; my father had to go...

- Your mother was there.

- It'll be easier to talk to them when they're both there.

- Wouldn't it rather be you who wasn't there?

I don't answer.

- Were you in the woods again?

I give my cat a smile:

- How did you guess?

My cat twitched his whiskers and went off for a nap on a nearby branch.

- You didn't spend your night dancing, though, did you? I said sarcastically.

But he was already asleep.

Afternoon at the Economist's. The Geologist is there when Milady and I arrive at about three o' clock. The Economist's mother has made a large chocolate cake in honour of last night's dance.

- Aren't you tired? she enquires anxiously.

Yes, Mr. Teacher, 'enquires' and 'anxiously' are similar sounds in succession, producing a fine alliteration that gives the expression more force. Another rhetorical device. And you aren't going to do what my cat does, Mr. Teacher, and criticise me for it, because it was you who taught me it.

The Economist has answered his mother in a mournful voice:

- I'm exhausted. I need to get my strength up. I'm not sure the cake will be enough, even if I eat all of it.

No need for her mother to answer, since the Geologist has got there first, saying in a voice that brooks no contradiction:

- Chocolate is absolutely out of the question in cases of acute asthenia.

I add my penn'orth:

- Don't worry, the three of us will sacrifice ourselves and eat the cake in order to safeguard your precious health!

The Economist's voice has suddenly brightened:

- I feel much better now!

And the four of us gobbled up the cake, washing it down with cold drinks.

The afternoon was spent quietly. However not tired we may be, we have no desire to go for a long walk, for example, or to race each other at the sandpit. I do believe that even our geologist has no desire to give us a geology lesson.

- Having a rest, are we? Tired, are we?

A boy from the other end of the street has passed by and is poking fun at us. He's not entirely wrong, to be honest. You just have to picture us, lazing on the Economist's lawn. And my cat, who has come to keep us company, is hardly likely to enliven the somnolent scene, stretched out along his whole length. - Absolutely, Mr. Teacher, I'm on holiday and I'll write as I please!

- You'll end up making him cross, your Teacher; and besides, I'm not stretched out along my whole length; I have much more elegant poses in my repertoire, my cat has reprimanded me before stalking ostentatiously out of my prose.

In the meantime, the Economist has said nonchalantly to the boy from the other end of the street:

- We didn't go sleepy-byes at the tinies' bed time like you!

The boy, who in any case didn't leave the dance hall until half an hour or so before us, gives us a good-natured wave and goes off, leaving us with this piece of advice:

- School starts on the second of October; don't forget to wake up!

A cousin of mine had asked me, a few days ago, after getting back from seeing relations, to go and visit him in the little town where he lives, a good half-hour away by train. I had decided to go and see him today. I mentioned it to Milady yesterday, asking her if she would like to come with me. As her uncle and aunt could see no reason why not, Milady and I are on the train which left at seven thirty-six this morning. We will return on the train that gets in at seven eighteen, in time for dinner.

After ten minutes or so, we come to a large hill on the left, which the train goes round.

- Isn't that the hill you climbed straight up on the way back from the little lake in the middle of the woods where we went last Monday? Milady asks me.

- Yes, it is; how did you know?

- When we were coming back, the railway line went off towards the left of the hill; and as the hill is now on our left...

- You certainly keep your eyes open!

She hasn't said anything. I saw her look down for a moment.

- That's the way we came! she goes on.

Having rounded the hill, we were near the junction of two roads. One, heading off to the left, went to the lake, the other followed the railway line...

- That road there leads straight to the Little 'Un's.

Almost surprised for a second, she asks:

- Little 'Un - is that their name?

I laugh:

- And to the Big 'Un's too!

Almost immediately:

- Ah! That must be... a brother or sister? Bigger than him?

- No, she's smaller.

Milady ponders:

- If the big 'un is smaller than the little 'un, she must be bigger than him.

As I do not answer right away - and with good reason - she goes on:

- It's perfectly simple!

Right, it's time to get a grip; she's cottoned on, and now so have I:

- Four years older.

- He's your age?

- Yes.

- So five years older than me.

- Curly?

- Curly.

Well, well! I smile:

- She didn't tell me your age.

It is Milady's turn to smile:

- You see; contrary to what everyone says about her, she doesn't tell everything.

I conclude jokingly:

- I'll watch out in future.

And we both have a good laugh.

Meanwhile the train chugs on, paying no attention to our verbal joustings. And a quarter of an hour later, after stopping for a moment at a village station and crossing a stream...

- The aqueduct! exclaims Milady.

Yes, it is indeed one of the little houses that dot the aqueduct at regular intervals. I explain:

- It goes towards the town where the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un live; we'll see it again from our bikes.

The aqueduct follows us - or we follow it; it's as you like, Mr. Teacher - for about three minutes, just long enough to catch sight of four of the little houses that Milady is now familiar with. Then the railway line takes a left turn towards the little town that gradually draws near, while the aqueduct leaves us to head off into the distance, through the vast wheatfields in the midst of which a leafy lime tree dreams beside a farm track.

Eight thirteen. The Little 'Un and the Big 'Un are waiting for us on the platform. The Little 'Un, exuberant as usual, asks Milady a million questions:

- How old are you? Do you like living in a city? What form are you in? Do you like going for walks? Do you like...

- Perhaps we could get off the platform first? suggests the Big 'Un calmly, judicious as usual.

- Come on then, the Little 'Un concedes, laughing; she never lets you say anything, does the Big 'Un!

Which doesn't stop him from turning to address Milady again:

- You can tell us all that another time!

Quarter of an hour later we're at their parents', my uncle and aunt. Milady is made welcome, kindly and with a hint of curiosity. We stay awhile, talking about this and that. Nothing specific to write in my diary.

The Little 'Un has borrowed some bikes for us from his mates. The picnic is already in the saddlebags. We are ready to go. The parents wish us on our way.

We leave the little town. A wide, straight road leads to our picnic spot. Of course, we don't take it. The one we do take is more fanciful, a bit more winding - not really a lot more, it just seems like it - and runs through sleepy villages whose only visitors are other nearby villages, unsullied by scurrying passers-by... Ah, what elegant alliteration, Mr. Teacher!

- I hope you don't forget what you really want to say for the mere pleasure of a rhetorical device, as you call it, my cat warns me.

- Since you take the trouble to read my prose so closely, let me know if I ever allow myself to be tempted by such a facility.

- You may rely on me!

- Thank you very much. By the way, you're not asleep.

- Why should I be?

- You sleep all day, whereas I...

- I hunt at night!

- All right, all right; but I almost find it hard to believe you.

- Come with me then, instead of spending the whole night asleep!

- All right, all right. Can I carry on with my tale?

- Go ahead, then. I'm off to bed!

And he goes off to have a snooze on a nearby branch.

So I carry on with my tale.

We've been on the road for ten minutes when...

- The aqueduct! exclaims Milady.

- You know it? says the Little 'Un, surprised.

- As you well know, there's one in his village, his sister points out calmly.

- True enough, Big 'Un; but had it occurred to you that she might not have seen it?

- Not in the least, Little 'Un! As you well know, the aqueduct runs through the village.

The Little 'Un laughs:

- Fair enough, Big 'Un! For once you're right.

- Especially as...

- ...Milady saw it from the train on the way here! cuts in the Little 'Un.

Milady and I enjoy listening to their banter. Milady joins in:

- But had it occurred to you that I might not have seen it because I was looking out of the other window?

So do I:

- Which aqueduct do you mean? This one here is underground; you can't see it!

Having joked and laughed our fill, we continue our bike ride.

Quarter of an hour later, after a run downhill, we enter a village.

- Oh, how odd! Milady has exclaimed, stopping in front of the wall of a large house, or rather a farmhouse.

What had so surprised Milady had not escaped the Little 'Un:

- The houses round here weren't built yesterday; it was in prehistoric times...

- And even well before that, his sister seems to correct him, in a natural tone of voice.

- And even well before that, her brother seems to agree, in natural tone of voice.

And he adds, very earnestly:

- The Big 'Un should know, she was there.

- It's such a long way back for the Little 'Un, explains the Big 'Un; he was born so recently!

The Little 'Un replies evenly, with what obviously seems to him like an obvious obviousness:

- Yes, but what lightning-fast growth of the brain!

Once the laughter has died down, Milady returns to the wall:

- How lovely they are, the soft-toned flowers planted in the...

- Flowers! cries the Little 'Un; they're stones...

- ...flinty earth, finishes up Milady, unmoved.

The Little 'Un gives in graciously:

- Yes, cob and flint; do you have walls like that too where you live?

- No, but I've got tyres.

We all laugh. The Little 'Un pulls a face, doubtless remembering some puncture or other:

- Well, that's a field of flowers I wouldn't much like to ride through!

We all agree with him. He adds:

- Especially as it's me that has to mend the Big 'Un's tyres.

Which reminded me how often I had had to mend Curly's tyres when she came back from the shops pushing her bike.

A large village, nestling in a hollow amid tall trees. A long downhill stretch and we reach an island formed by two arms of a pretty river which runs through the village we are going to.

Above the river, the long windows of a long house watch the fish making little roundels on the surface of the water.

- It's a restaurant, the Little 'Un explains to Milady; I come here from time to time with my parents...

He smiles:

- It costs me much less than if I were to come without them!

He goes on:

- It's nice to be on the water as though you were on a boat... and the food's good, too!

He turns to his sister:

- I hope what you have made us is just as good, eh, Big 'Un?

- Since it matters so much to you, you could have come and helped me; that way you would've known, says the Big 'Un caustically.

- No need. I know you're the best cook in the world.

Having spurned the restaurant - shame! - a little road leads us, a few paces further, to a little bridge which deposits us onto a pathway running alongside a stream, on the banks of which we lay out our picnic.

What marvels the Big 'Un has prepared for us! Eggs in aspic, chicken drumsticks and wings, the best there can be because the region is famous for its chickens. Tomatoes, cucumber. And to finish, cottage cheese with cream and redcurrant jelly. Better than any restaurant, even the one on the island!

Five thirty. Milking time. Five thirty-two, I take the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood. The peasant girl - but... isn't that Milady? Yes indeed, it is she - wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, coming towards me along the path.

- Good morrow, sire! she says with her lilting voice, accompanied by her delicate smile.

- Good day, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I enquire:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

We go. I ask her:

- Would it please you to mingle your voice with that of my Boisselot this afternoon, milady?

- If it is your fingers that make it sing I shall be there, sire.

- I shall see you betimes, then, milady!

- I shall see you betimes, then, sire!

Having fetched the milk, bought the bread and had breakfast, all I have left to do is run my mother's errands. I get my bike and, as usual, ride out through the garden gate, which is always open.

- Where are you off to? Curly calls out to me from her window.

- To the shops!

- I have to go too! Can I come with you?

- Of course!

Off we go. As always, we pass by the aqueduct.

From shop to shop, the errands are punctuated by brief conversations between shopkeeper and customer. "You went to the doctor? What did he say?" - "How's the little one?" - "I saw you missed the bus yesterday; did things work out all right?" - "How much? That's really too dear!" - "You can find them at X's, and don't forget to say I sent you!" Sometimes you have to wait a while until the conversation is over, but nobody seems bothered. Not Curly or I, in all events; we too have things to talk about while we wait. Sometimes, when we're deep in discussion, it's even the shopkeeper who has to chivvy us: "Come on, young 'uns, it's your turn!"

Here, in our village, it's not like in the suburbs; the walls may often be far from one another, but all the houses are close.

The errands are run. I give my mother a hand in the garden, taking advantage of the peas and their succulent pods. A few strawberries to finish. They are the last ones. No matter, there are still the raspberries, which will be there throughout August. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind a raspberry tart... no, a strawberry tart, the raspberries can wait for another day, they'll still be there, whereas the strawberries... My mother promises me the strawberry tart for tea-time, when Milady will be there.

- Do you really think that's worth writing down? asks my cat, hesitating a little.

- It's my life; even if I never re-read it, it will be there.

- What good will it do?

- If someone wants to know about me one day, they'll be able to.

I was expecting a question. My cat didn't ask it; he just watched my pen running over the paper.

At lunch I recounted the previous day's trip. I had forgotten to do so that evening and my parents were talking about something else.

- We'll have to go back to that restaurant one of these days, my father commented.

I almost manifested enthusiastic approval. I know the restaurant well, I've been there too, with my parents, for the same reason as the Little 'Un's - it's true that the food is very good - and the first idea that crossed my mind was to suggest inviting Milady.

- So why didn't you? asks my cat.

I hesitate, not answering.

- There is a reason, isn't there? he insists.

- Because with my parents we wouldn't have gone by bike.

- That's nonsense, what you just said!

- Yes, it is nonsense.

My cat has stayed near me, not moving. I have stroked him. He has purred.

After lunch I go to fetch Milady. I go on foot.

- Would you care to walk through the depths of the forest, milady?

- Willingly; with you to protect me I fear no danger, sire!

We climb the hill. Milady points to the right:

- I know this terrible place; a bottomless pit...

I laugh:

- And yet you managed to get out of it!

She laughs too:

- Not without difficulty!

We continue to walk unhurriedly through the depths of the forest. A path bears off to the left.

- That's the way to your house, Milady tells me.

- Ah, I see that you will be able to guide me through the depths of the forest.

She shakes her head:

- I think it's that way, but I couldn't tell you when you have to turn left again.

- You're not doing badly, you know.

I assume the air of a hero bearing off his beloved:

- Follow me; the depths of the forest hold no secrets for me!

A few minutes later, a straight road runs off to the left. I do not take it.

- That's the one I would have taken, remarks Milady.

- It's one option; it holds no dangers, being full of people out walking and children playing ball games, shut into special enclosures.

She laughs:

- I think those places have other names!

- Barbarous ones which are beneath us.

I reassume the air of a hero bearing off his beloved:

- We shall take another road; it is infested with black-hearted brigands and there I shall be able to prove to you the full extent of my valour, milady!

She has taken my arm, pressing up against me:

- I shall follow where you lead, sire!

Schumann, opus 48 no. 12. My fingers make my Boisselot sing, or at least they do as best they can. Milady's singing comes not from an instrument but from herself. The voice and the string go towards each other. They listen to each other, search each other out, talk to each other, accompany each other. The voice holds its breath if the string has not yet been made to vibrate, and the string holds its vibration if the voice's breath has not yet caressed it.

This afternoon, we are going for a walk in a park. A park? So there is a park in the middle of the wheatfields? No, of course not; parks are in cities, not in the country. And the capital is not in the countryside, it is in an urban area. And so it has a park.

- What's a park? asks my cat, seeming particularly intrigued.

- A park is a place where there are plants, with paths between them.

- Plants?

- Yes, plants.

- Paths?

- Yes, paths.

My cat has contemplated my pen for a long while, as though he could no longer recognise it:

- So what's the difference between a park and the country?

And, hesitating, as though he were afraid of saying something uncommonly stupid:

- There are plants and paths in the country too.

I gave him a reassuring smile:

- You're a cat, you see plants the way they are...

- How else can you see them?

- Humans adorn plants with words...

- Words?

- Yes; "lovely"...

- You mean good to eat?

- Not at all!

- Why not? Aren't humans ever hungry?

I am somewhat troubled:

- Yes, there are humans who are hungry.

- In that case "lovely" is no use to them, since you tell me it's not good to eat?

- Not to them it isn't.

- So they don't like the plants they adorn with "lovely"?

- Probably.

- So "lovely" is for those who aren't hungry?

I don't say anything for a while. My cat goes on:

- I understand; the country is for those who are hungry, the parks for those who aren't.

That wasn't what I wanted to talk to him about but it's too late, he's gone off for a snooze on a nearby branch.

So as I was saying, this afternoon we are going for a walk in a park. And why? Because it's fine. You don't understand? Let me explain.

Cheerful sometimes likes to go for a walk in a big park not far from where he lives, with a friend who lives in the capital. They have decided to go there this afternoon and have asked me to join them. As Milady is busy, I meet up with the others at about two o'clock on the great terrace of the park, from which you can see the whole capital.

So we go off for a walk along the paths - excuse me, the avenues; that's what they're called here. The avenues are lovely, meaning that they are wide, straight, well laid-out, with a surface that conceals the earth. And yet the earth can be seen nevertheless. In special places, like the enclosures where those playing ball games in the depths of our forest were shut in. "It's really lovely here, it's like being in the country!" say the capital-dwellers, who don't like going into the country because "the paths are made of dirt".

And the plants? They are lovely too, cropped and shaped so that there is nothing to suggest "nature, red in tooth and claw". Oh no! Here, everything is well-ordered, no tree in the avenue we are walking along would ever dare to exceed another, whether in height or girth or even age. And if they tried, the master of this place would never allow it. He has the wherewithal to punish transgressors; he has been given tools for the purpose.

That's all very well, but in a place where "it's like being in the country"? Surely it must be like where we live: you're free! Oh no you're not, not at all in fact! A branch that has dared to stick out of the thicket? Quick, the secateurs! A weed - it's actually artemisia, but here it's a weed, as the capital-dwellers call it - in the middle of the path? Quick, pull it out! By the roots, if you please, otherwise it'll grow back! Naïve capital-dwellers who think they can stop plants - sorry, I mean weeds - from growing back. And what is a weed, anyway? Where we live, they're what stop food from growing. Here they're what the capital-dwellers find unbecoming.

The park in which we are walking is lovely, it is well-kept, you will not find any disorder there. Or wheat, which would be considered a weed.

What can I say? The walk was pleasant. After all, a plant is a plant.

The train home has just left the station, ten minutes from my village, after which the countryside returns. The sun has been gone for quarter of an hour and the summer light is settling down. From the window, in the fields I can see the bales of straw from which the grain has departed. I am at home.

There are festivities in my garden this afternoon. The twin girls and their little chum are jumping all over the lawn in a highly personal and completely disorderly dance. They are not the only ones. Other children too, who are not to be outdone. And the older ones? They are there too. Curly, of course, and the Economist and the Geologist. What a lot of people! My cat has prudently retired to the cherry tree and is watching the goings-on with prudent interest. What goings-on? Dancing, talking... Cold drinks, because the late July weather is still very warm. Thursday the twenty-seventh, in fact. We've been on holiday for a month now. Milady is beside me and we are talking about I know not what, now with one, now with another. Twenty-five days have gone by since I first set eyes on the peasant girl wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago.

- Come and dance?

That's Curly.

Deep in a conversation about I know not what, I hesitate for a moment.

- Go on! Milady urges me.

I go off to shake a leg.

The waltz has stopped. Who could this be coming towards us? Have you guessed? I have been keeping the best till last: it is of course Buttons, who has so successfully had us all up and dancing.

- You're not playing any more?

- Play some more!

Each of the twin girls has protested in her own way.

- I'll play again later, Buttons assures them.

The assurance goes unnoticed.

- No, now!

- We can't dance if you can't play!

- I can't play...

Buttons is not allowed to finish.

- Why not?

- Why not?

- I need a rest.

- You never get tired of playing!

- You played all night, last Saturday!

- You know nothing about that.

- Yes, we do!

- Yes, we do!

- How do you know?

Silence. The little twins look at each other, taken aback. Then they pout.

- We were sent off to bed!

- We didn't want to go to bed!

In unison:

- Not at all!

They have turned to their little chum.

- Only hens go to bed early!

- We're not hens!

Their little chum draws herself up quickly:

- I'm not a hen, I don't eat worms any more!

Everyone has started to laugh. The twins and their little chum have gone off to sulk... Oh no, they haven't! Now they're running after my cat, who has made the unfortunate move of coming down from the cherry tree. Is it to console them? He has been caught, that's for sure...

As no-one is dancing any more, we all sit down on the lawn. Curly and Buttons have brought some more cold drinks from the kitchen.

- I could murder a cake! exclaims Curly.

- Me too! And I could murder a plate of cream puffs! Buttons adds with conviction.

- Oh, Curly!... cries Milady, only half-laughing.

Everyone is surprised at Milady's outburst.

My mother has come to the window and, addressing the two gluttons, says:

- Now you've given the game away, you can come and serve!

Serve? The two gluttons in question have shot into the kitchen and returned triumphantly bearing four large plates laden with cream puffs.

That's right. From her window, our usual source of information had noticed Milady arriving with great stealth while I was out running errands for my mother, and of course had innocently gone to take a closer look at what might be contained in the large parcel that Milady had taken the trouble to bring, by car, with her uncle. Do I really need to say what was in the parcel? Or who had made what was in the parcel? However that may be, and without further ado, the cream puffs, made by Milady the way they make them where she comes from, were soon gobbled up.

And so we talked and danced until dinner, which nobody was hungry for. Buttons, to the delight of the twin girls, their little chum and the rest of us, had taken up her accordion again and one waltz followed another. My cat had prudently retired to the cherry tree again.

A usual morning. Nothing special to report. The two-pounder, the milk - I lingered awhile - breakfast, errands for my mother - with Curly and Buttons today - the cherry tree, my diary - my cat had no comment to make - and lunch. Nothing special to report in the lunchtime conversation either.

After lunch, the four of us - the Economist, the Geologist, Milady and I - go off for a walk in the wood. We pass by the sandpit, race, then wander along this path or that, not heading for anywhere in particular. The wood is quite large, there's plenty of space for walking without ever having to retrace your steps.

- Is that a sandpit over there?

Milady has pointed to the second sandpit in the wood.

- Yes, the Economist answers; you can see two of them in the wood.

- See two of them? Do you mean there are others you can't see?

- I have never seen any others.

- You're right to answer so carefully... starts the Geologist.

- Watch out, a geology lesson on the way! breaks in the Economist with a grin.

The Geologist is used to it and goes on unperturbed:

- There are a thousand sandpits, or else only one.

The Economist firmly refutes this theory:

- If there are a thousand, it is unlikely we would never have seen them; and there can't be just one, since we know of at least two.

And he concludes haughtily:

- The geology teacher seems not to be very sure of her subject; a change is called for.

I pretend to agree with him:

- Absolutely. And since you have just apprised us of the extent of your knowledge, we choose you to be our new one.

- Motion carried! exclaims the Geologist promptly.

But the newly elect says:

- Oh, there's the bell! We'll have to continue our study of the question in the next lesson.

The lesson, or rather its end, is greeted with applause and laughter.

- I seem to remember, says Milady, that the Geologist said that sandpits tended to be found in sandy soil.

- No, really? exclaims the Economist sarcastically.

The Geologist remains unperturbed:

- This sandpit is situated in Stampian sand and sandstone, at the boundary, as you can easily see for yourselves, of the same Stampian corbule clay and oyster marl.

- Easily see for yourselves? protests the Economist incredulously.

- Of course; as you can see, the sandpit marks the end of the knoll on which the wood stands, before it subsides into the fertile plain.

- I know what it feels like! he declares, discomfited.

I enquire solicitously:

- Fertility?

- No, subsidence!

We laugh.

The Geologist takes up her lesson again:

- And as the knoll on which the wood stands is entirely sandy, it is a self-contained sandpit.

- You said a thousand, objects the Economist.

- Every hole you dig will become a sandpit.

She has not finished the lesson:

- And the sandpit where we run our races is situated in Stampian sand and sandstone, at the boundary of upper Stampian or Chattian millstone.

- Cats again!

Turning to me, the Economist adds:

- You never told me the sandpit started with your cat!

- I didn't know myself until the Geologist told us!

- And how did you know? the Economist ask the Geologist perfidiously.

The Geologist looks at him ingenuously:

- The cat told me, of course; who else could it have been?

I pretend to be cross:

- He could have told me!

We laugh again.

When the laughter has subsided, Milady asks:

- Have you never run races in this sandpit here?

I answer:

- No, never; you'll see why when we get closer.

The Economist snorts:

- It's like a hollow tooth!

Three in the morning. The muffled panting of the steam engine wakes me. I like that little wake-up call. I listen for a few minutes to the goods train which, like a ghost I can only hear, softly fills the calm of the mysterious night. Then I go back to sleep in peace, as though I had heard: "Sleep on, good people, it's three o'clock and all's well."

Half past four. Another wake-up call. It's not another train, there's only one a night. It's a storm. It was hot and sultry yesterday, so the storm comes as no surprise. I quickly get up to go out in the rain. How good they feel, those heavy drops that fall from the great thunderclouds I can just make out in the pale light of a day barely born. I have taken my bike and ridden towards the farm. I was well aware that it was still much too early.

- Good morrow, sire!

Milady was there in front of me, drenched by the storm.

Two in the afternoon. The storm has gone. I am at the Boisselot; Milady is singing. Schumann, opus 48 no. 12. We had read it through last Tuesday. Today, we are running through it bit by bit.

- There are three separate melodies, begins Milady.

- Have you already sung it?

- No, just looked at it.

- You didn't like it? And yet it's you who...

- You saw that it was part of a cycle.

- Yes, but we don't have to...

She smiles:

- Yes, we do, that's just it; well, I don't mean you and me...

- You mean where you live?

- "You have to finish what you start", I was told in no uncertain terms when I only wanted to sing some of them.

- One day I started a book that my teacher had suggested...

Milady laughs:

- And you didn't finish it because you didn't like it...

- ...and the teacher said...

- ..."You have to finish what you start"!

We both laugh.

I go on:

- You can accompany yourself on the piano; that's what you did last time.

- Yes, but it isn't easy to be always the only one to want what nobody else wants.

We say nothing for a while. I slowly play a major chord:

- Our music will be for us.

Another silence. Milady has started very softly to sing the beginning of the second melody. She holds back her voice, barely audible, before the fifth note. I am not facing the keyboard. Just as she sings the note, I gently touch my F sharp. She has left the note without extinguishing it, and I have not released my F sharp, heavy, gripping. She has smiled:

- That's the one.

I have held my note until it dies away.

- Dare one say that a single note makes a whole melody live?

- To live, you have to be born; I think it's that note that makes the melody live, Milady answers.

She goes on after a pause:

- When you give me the F sharp, my voice, which was waiting for it, hoping for it, can open my heart, as soon as your E releases it.

- That's what I feel when you sing your C flat.

I add, after a moment's hesitation:

- I had seen it in the score... They were only words, just words; but they had sung for me as though it was already you.

I break off:

- F sharp major, diminished seventh, E - sub-dominant - C flat... Words...

A moment of silence. Milady goes on:

- The whole of the second melody, it's as though we were enclosed, more and more enclosed by each short phrase; the chords rise and rise, fourth by fourth, until they reach B flat, the key of the whole piece, and there is nowhere else to go.

She smiles:

- Just words; and yet, you're right, they sing, if you know how to read them.

- The notes are simple too; but aren't those of Mozart's Lacrymosa just as simple?

- Yes; yes, they are.

After a while:

- If there's nothing to say, what else is there to do than complicate things in order to hide the emptiness?

We said nothing for a long while. And then I played a few notes, and then she sang a phrase, another phrase, and then we spent a long time on one bar, another bar, towards the end, in the middle, elsewhere, without trying to... to anything, so as to listen to each other, so as to be together with Schumann.

Sunday. Market day, when everyone is out and about. There's quite a hubbub today, at least among those who like the "big birds that Man has built in order to cavort above the earth", as one of our more poetically inclined schoolmates described them one day. "It's not to cavort, it's to improve international relations!" protested the Economist, to a thoroughly sceptical audience.

Curly has just arrived with Buttons and dashes over to Milady and me:

- Coming with us? We're going to see the twin-prop! she invites us, all excited.

I am surprised:

- But there aren't any twin-props on the aerodrome.

- Skyward's friend finished assembling it yesterday evening.

- Skyward! He must be a pilot, I suppose? You have an aerodrome? asks Milady interestedly.

- Yes; but it's not very big, answers the Economist.

- Oh, but we have much more than just one airship! protests Curly vehemently.

- We have five airships, including a biplane and a twin-prop, and ten gliders! confirms Buttons, giving importance to each aircraft.

Milady indicates that she understands the value of the information. Then, turning to Curly:

- You say airship?

- Well, you say timepiece! Curly answers with a smile.

- Why do you say timepiece? asks Buttons.

- That's what people used to call them.

- Well, from now on we'll talk the way people used to, declares Curly solemnly.

- The next time I take an airship, I'll take a timepiece with me, says Curly seriously.

The two girls, facing each other, have joined hands and starting dancing round.

- Brrrrrrrrm, brrrrrrrrrm!...

- Tick, tock, tick, tock!...

They stop, exhausted, or rather pretending to be.

- Well, are you coming with us or not? urges Curly.

- Let's go, says Milady gaily, I can't wait to see the airship!

She turns to me with a questioning look. I fret:

- I hope you'll bring a timepiece so that we aren't late.

- This afternoon! says Buttons.

I have taken Milady back to the farm. On the way she has told me about her aerodrome:

- It's not the same thing at all; and anyway, it's called an airport.

- Yes, like in the capital.

- Absolutely. Well, a bit smaller, but for travellers all the same; I think it's much nicer here.

- It's in the middle of the cornfields.

She smiles:

- That can't be easy for taking off.

- Oh, we use sheep for that.

- Sheep?

- Sheep.

Milady tries to see where the joke is. But just as I am about to explain, she says calmly:

- And the sheep scythe the corn.

I laugh:

- Almost; they crop the grass that grows...

- ...and the field is always in good condition.

- And the sheep are well fed.

- And then we can eat the sheep.

An idea comes to me:

- Let's go and get some lamb chops!

- Well, now! she says, somewhat surprised.

- The Little 'Un loves planes; we could tell him to come.

- Good idea, that'll be fun; do you think the Big 'Un...

- Oh yes, she'll definitely come to.

I go back to my idea:

- Let's go and get some lamb chops!

Milady laughs:

- Well, now! You do look hungry!

- No, not really...

- Do you want to invite the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un to lunch?

- Absolutely! What about you?

She smiles:

- I'm very partial to lamb chops.

- There you are then!

She asks:

- Will they have time to get here?

- There's a train at twelve sixteen that'll get them here for one.

- We must tell them quickly, then!

- We can call them from the farm; there's still time.

- Do you think the Geologist and the Economist will come too?

- Oh, definitely. I haven't seen them, but everyone was talking about it at the market.

Cheerful! He loves planes too. I mention it to Milady. We'll call him too, though he won't get here until just after two. After lunch we'll go and pick him up from the station, it's on the way.

The Little 'Un and the Big 'Un have just got off the train and Milady and I have just come onto the platform.

- I had a good grip on the propeller to start our aeroplane, laments the Little 'Un, but I must have swung it too hard; it came off and flew away all on its own!

He spreads his arms in a gesture of helplessness:

- So we had to take the train!

Milady sympathises:

- The propeller got here an hour ago; we thought you'd be on it, but we couldn't see you anywhere.

- Oh, I would've been, if only the Big 'Un weren't so slow...

- I don't think he would've been, actually; I had to hold his hand just to get him onto the train, rectifies the Big 'Un placidly.

The customary joshing between our two friends takes us to my house and up to lunchtime. My parents are delighted to have some company, especially my mother; my father looks at his timepiece, he must soon be about his business. Sorry, Mr. Teacher, I couldn't help it; it must be all that joshing!

Now here's Cheerful emerging from a cloud of steam and smoke.

- You could've brought a fan! jokes the Little 'Un.

- Tickle me to make me laugh, responds Cheerful.

Noticing Milady, he goes on, having only just emerged from his cloud:

- Are you the one who sings with him?

And, without waiting for a reply:

- I've tried giving him piano lessons but you must have found out for yourself that it's a disaster of historic proportions!

And on that note, and several more like it, we make our merry way to the aerodrome.

The big bird is there, beak proudly raised, ready to take to the skies. The two great engines that emerge with authority from the broad wings herald the plane's power, while the propellers already seem to want to plunge into the air and take possession of it.

- This aircraft can take several passengers, comments the Economist, which reduces the cost per passenger.

- I don't want to fly in it! Curly tells us.

- Nor I! adds Buttons firmly.

- Yes, but you don't like flying, full stop.

- I feel fine on the ground.

- You can go further in a plane, explains the Economist.

That much is obvious and Buttons doesn't know what to say.

- It must be nice, being up in the air, way up there! says the Little 'Un dreamily.

- As long as you don't come down the short way! observes Cheerful.

- You say that every time.

- You always say it must be nice, but you never do it!

The Little 'Un ponders for a moment:

- You're right; but what's to be done? There are so many things I'd like to do...

The Geologist seems to share his opinion:

- How many times have I looked at things I like in the shops...

The Big 'Un nods vigorously:

- Oh yes, me too!

- And I'm too little; I don't think Mummy would like it... and it's very expensive, sighs Curly.

- Is that why you don't want to go up in the twin-prop? Cheerful asks her.

- Oh, it's mostly because it looks too much like the school bus!

- Oh, I feel much more at ease on the school bus; at least it's not going to fly away! says Buttons.

We all laugh.

- Otherwise, would you have gone up in the twin-prop? the Economist asks Curly; I thought I'd already heard you talk about going up...

- Yes, but in a glider!

- Not in the biplane?

- Maybe... it's better than the twin-prop, at least you're outside.

A tall fellow has come over to our group:

- Hello there, aviators!

- Hello, Skywards. We've come to see the twin-prop! Can we go inside? Curly asks him straight away.

Skywards hesitates.

- But you told me...

- OK, OK, go on then, but be quick about it while there aren't too many people around, otherwise they'll all want to do the same.

He adds, though Curly and Buttons are already inside:

- Be careful! My mate won't be very happy if...

He breaks off, noticing Milady:

- A new recruit?

We all climb into the twin-prop. I introduce Milady.

- Oh, I landed in your town once, about five or six years ago.

- With the twin-prop?

- No, no, cuts in Curly; Skywards only flies gliders!

- In a glider! says Milady with surprise; but it's a long way...

- Oh, I've been much further than that. But I usually go in another direction, where there are hills.

- And ascending currents, adds Curly knowledgeably.

Skywards congratulates her:

- You'll soon know more about this business than I do!

She blushes with pleasure and adds diffidently:

- And under the little white clouds too, where you go from one to the other.

Which earns her a round of applause.

The Economist turns to Curly:

- You said you didn't want to fly in the twin-prop; why did you want to go inside it, then?

She thinks for a moment, then says with a vague shrug:

- Yes, people have already told me I shouldn't be so curious...

She goes on after a moment:

- ...if there's no reason...

A shake of the head, which seems full of sadness:

- I don't know...

Silence falls. Skywards starts talking about ascending currents again. He has turned to Milady:

- Is this the first time you've been around gliders?

He goes on with a smile:

- Let me explain. Whenever I get too low, I look for a current that will take me up again; that's what lets me go long distances, even though I don't have an engine.

He adds, in a resolute tone of voice:

- It's amazing, flying with nothing but air to hold you up. You climb higher and higher, it's as though you were climbing, flying... all on your own, with your own wings. The earth looks so small. You feel free, free to go wherever you want, with nothing to stop you. To go far, far away... You ought to try it!

- And when you get to where you're going, what do you do there?

Milady's question went unanswered.

Monday. July takes its leave from us today. The sun dawdles in the morning and is in more of a hurry to depart in the evening. And yet, although it may shine less brightly, it has bequeathed the heat with which it has filled the air since the flourish of spring. The leaves on the trees seem to be resting after a long race. The birds sing the peace of a slumbering summer. The briars are coming into flower, a promise of the blackberries that from mid-August we love to go picking in the woods, near the sandpit, along the skirts of field or forest, beside paths, around clearings...

My mother is watering the vegetable garden before the sun climbs too high. The garden needs it. The heavy clouds full of refreshing rain have left for far-away places since the storm the night before last. The sky has stretched its blue to the horizon and not the slightest scrap of cloud has come by to snooze the hours away. Skywards will get bored if he stays here, without being able to go where the wind takes him. No matter, at least that way he won't have the bother of getting back.

I help my mother in the garden. I enjoy watering my tomatoes, my peas, my strawberries, and all the rest. It's as though I were talking to them: "You're really dry, aren't you? I'll give you a good slosh!" And they answer me: "Hey, watch out! Cut the flow a bit, or you'll ruin my leaves!" The conversation is over and now the little drops of water sparkle joyfully on the leaves, stems and fruit. The leaves have perked up and, under the faint breeze that gently stirs them, seem to be thanking me for having revived them.

I have put away the hosepipe, hanging the nozzle on the tap near the apple tree. I can't have turned the tap off completely, as a few drops are still dripping from the hosepipe, one by one. My cat, who had been watching me from the cherry tree while I was doing the watering, has come up and, with quick paw, bats the drops as they fall from the hosepipe.

I watch the game for a moment, then say:

- Having fun?

My cat bats away another drop or two before replying:

- People play ball games.

Afternoon. The sky is immobile. It's hot. Milady is pedalling slowly alongside me.

- I'd love to have a paddle in a cool stream, she said to me when I went to see her after lunch.

- No problem, I replied; let's go!

- There aren't many rivers around here.

- Ah, it's not as if we were on the river that flows from the capital to your town before disappearing into the sea.

She laughs:

- It's a bit deep for paddling!

- I know just the place; let's go!

So here we are, cycling along the aqueduct.

- Can you paddle in the aqueduct? I've never seen it on the surface, says Milady with surprise.

- Where we're going, it crosses the river on a bridge.

- And that's where we're going?

- No, no; we're going to the river that runs under the bridge!

- Not too deep?

- The bigger fish have to walk on water.

- Are there any big fish?

- No.

- Oh, I see! They walk along the path that runs above the aqueduct to get to my river.

I couldn't find anything to say to that, so we both laughed.

- We're coming to the sunken village.

- What do you mean, sunken? asks Milady, no longer showing any surprise.

- Yes, don't you remember, at the sandpit...?

- Of course, that's the village where the Economist lives.

I almost lost the thread:

- That's right; otherwise how else would he know what that sinking feeling is like?

We manage to keep a straight face.

The aqueduct continues. So do we. We cross a road.

- That's the road that goes to the lake in the middle of the forest where we went swimming two weeks ago, Milady has said.

And, after a moment's thought, has concluded:

- It's not the stream that runs into the lake we're going to; it's too small to be a river, even a small one, and it doesn't run fast enough to be cool.

I pay tribute to her perspicacity:

- Since I am discovered, I suggest we continue along the aqueduct.

After a moment we come to a hamlet. I point out a little wood on the hill on the right:

- On the other side of the wood, at the top end, there's a little airfield, much smaller than ours; just a few gliders and a tow-truck.

We have slowed down. I go on:

- The gliders here don't climb as high as ours, which are taken up by the twin-prop; but as you can see, they're on the crest of the hill and can take advantage of the updraft straight away.

I add:

- We'll see them in a little while, we'll be right alongside.

I add with a mysterious smile:

- You'll see...

Milady, apparently not having fathomed the mystery, has said nothing.

The aqueduct continues. So do we. We pass under a railway line.

- That's the line that goes to the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un's! exclaims Milady; I recognise the hill on the left.

She looks again:

- And the track's just taken a bend to the left.

I say admiringly:

- When I get lost, I'll get you to show me the way.

She has slowed for a moment, saying nothing. Then, brightly:

- Is it still far, your river?

I joke:

- Tired?

- No, not at all.

We pedal for a while in silence.

- There it is, cries Milady; your bridge that the aqueduct runs over!

She adds, laughing:

- And I don't think I'd be far wrong to say that you can sometimes find a river under a bridge.

- Right and wrong.

- Right bridge, wrong river.

- Let's go and see!

After crossing a main road, we can see that there is indeed a river under the bridge, but as that's not where we're headed, we get back onto the main road.

A village, a river, a bridge.

- This time that's it, your river, she says to me with a smile.

- This time that's it, my river. But this isn't where we're going.

- It isn't? Then why do you say it's the right river?

- Because it is the right river.

- Right; that means we're going to the same river, but...

- ...in a different spot.

Milady nods:

- I'd rather go somewhere else; here, with all these roads, and so near the village...

She checks herself:

- It's the bridge you wanted to show me!

We get off our bikes to go onto the bank to see the bridge. Milady has taken in the whole bridge with her gaze:

- It's very old; people haven't made humpbacked bridges for ages.

- I don't know the exact date, but it's at least seven centuries old.

- What lovely arches, so wide and solid, with their heavy stones.

After gazing at the bridge a while longer she goes on dreamily:

- It makes you want to sit there and talk, look, do nothing...

She grabs my arm:

- Come on!

And here we are, sitting on the parapet, saying nothing...

She jumps down:

- Let's go to the river!

Just as we are leaving, she sees a glider coming towards us:

- But... it's landing! On the other airfield you told me about earlier?

- My word! You never told me you'd been flying since birth!

- It wasn't hard. You showed me the airfield on the right, we turned right, then the river bends right from the bridge; so the airfield is in front of us on the hill, because it's above the updrafts that come from the valley where we were.

I am rather surprised nonetheless:

- All you have to do now is say where exactly we're going.

- That's not hard either. The river is below the hill, in the little wood; it's a quiet and pleasant spot, so that must be where we're going.

I say nothing for a moment:

- When we went under the railway line, I told you that...

- ...when you were lost, you'd get me to show you the way.

I nod. She goes on:

- I don't know if I'll always be able to, but I'll always do whatever I can.

I have taken her hand and squeezed it:

- And I too will always do whatever I can, you can be sure of it.

She has given me a smile:

- I am sure of it!

A moment of silence. She points towards the hill and, laughing brightly:

- This is an easy way!

I laugh just as brightly:

- I never doubted it!

- When you showed me the airfield, I saw a path going uphill...

- ...and as I don't think I'd be far wrong to say that a path that goes up also goes down...

- ...it will take us to the river!

And we leave the humpbacked bridge where we had sat and done nothing, where we talked, where we looked.

The road takes us quickly to the airfield. I say quickly because Milady has not lingered on the long climb up the hill where, as she had so rightly said - hadn't she? - the airfield and the updrafts are to be found. Well, I haven't accelerated too much, but even so... To be sure, there are two hills on the way to the lake in the middle of the wood where we went swimming two weeks ago, but on the way there all six of us were riding slowly, paying more attention to our chatter than to the hill, and on the way back I was the only one to take the short but very steep rise, the others taking the road that runs round the hill which the train already runs round, as we saw earlier - again, thanks to Milady, of course.

We stop for a while to watch the gliders taking off and landing. There are not as many as at our airfield, it's true, but it's fun to watch the little planes, launched not very high by the truck which tows them with a cable, follow precisely the crest of the hill, very near the little wood, and then soar up into the sky.

And now all we have to do is take the path, the one spied out by Milady, of course, which cuts the river we are going to.

- There are two railways lines down there? says Milady with surprise.

- Yes; the line that comes from my town divides, as you can see, on our left...

- The one that's furthest away goes to the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un.

- You're a walking topographic map!

- Not a bit of it, 'cos I've no idea where the other line goes.

I laugh:

- Well, you jolly well ought to! It goes...

- ...to my town.

- I give in!

She laughs too:

- I really said it as a guess, because it's more or less the direction of the sea.

I say nothing more and, walking our bikes, we follow the stream to the middle of the little wood, from whence, through a sprinkling of poplar trees, we can make out the airfield landing strip.

The eleven twenty-three takes Milady and me to the town where my school is, and a king's palace. A school friend, very good-natured, with no rough edges, never departing from a seamless placidity, who has been living in the town for as long as it's been there, a good three centuries, has invited us round for the afternoon. We have given ourselves plenty of time to wander around the town and the palace grounds.

After coming out of the station we take a road that leads to the palace. Here it is.

- It's big, was Milady's first reaction.

I nodded:

- It's big.

- I've already seen pictures of it, she has continued.

- I visited it once, I have informed her.

- Right, well, now that we both know...

- ...we can continue on our way.

- Let's go!

We go. Turning our backs to the palace, a broad avenue.

- Oh, it's beautiful! exclaims Milady; you don't realise how wide it is, the four rows of magnificent plane trees make it feel so intimate.

We are in front of my school. Milady has gazed long:

- That's your school...

- That's my school.

A street dotted with shops. The market.

- Oh, what a pretty square! It's like a village with its houses all around and the villagers doing their shopping.

I am surprised:

- Houses?

She smiles:

- Of course, they're not houses, they're stalls...

She pauses:

- You can hardly see them, there are so many people, it makes them look like houses.

Nearby, a townhouse, old, not very wide but quite high.

I point it out to Milady:

- That's where Placid lives; we'll come back to it after our walk in the park.

Right at the end of the road, a great gate. The park. An avenue. Cows in a meadow on one side, sheep in a meadow on the other.

- When you hear people talking about the palace, you don't think of it as being in the country, comments Milady.

At the end of the avenue, a farm, a pond. Milady has stopped.

- What a lovely farm! It's warm, it makes you want to snuggle up to it.

We draw nearer. She goes on:

- The walls are like those in the countryside around my town.

She has turned to me:

- It reminds me of the cob and flint walls we saw with the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un.

- True, though without the flint.

- Yes, without the flint; where I live, the clay is daubed between timbers.

- Oh, that must be very pretty!

- You'll see when we go there.

- When do you think...?

- Oh, very soon, I expect. My parents are away for a while; I'm waiting for them to get back.

She ponders for a moment:

- Do you think we can get there by the railway line we saw yesterday?

- Definitely.

- I would like it better if we could go together, rather than by car.

- By car?

- Yes, my parents brought me here and my uncle has offered to take us back.

- I'd rather go by train too; it'll be our journey!

She gives me a smile. I go on:

- On weekdays the train leaves at eight oh four in the evening. It reaches the sunken village at eight oh nine. We have seven minutes to admire said village...

Milady laughs:

- The train stops on purpose just for that?

- Absolutely. And then it goes off, leaving us on the platform.

- And another train takes us along the track that runs by the airfield.

- And it stops for good at eight fifty-nine.

- Leaving us completely abandoned.

- Not at all...

I was going to continue but she cuts in:

- You said on weekdays...

- Yes, because on Sundays and bank holidays we leave at eight twelve and arrive at nine nineteen.

- Still via the airfield, I hope.

- Oh yes indeed. But you won't see it.

- Of course not, the sun will have long set.

I pull a face:

- Know-it-all!

She pulls a smaller face:

- Not that much! I don't even know what town we've got to.

- A town on the river that runs between the capital and your town.

- But it's not my town.

- How do you know?

- You said "between".

Quite right. I go on:

- But another train arrives, which comes from the capital.

- And goes to my town.

- Absolutely! And we arrive at ten fifty-one...

- ...pm, having travelled at night.

I propose the daytime trains:

- We can leave in the morning; but then you have to go via the capital, either changing trains in the same station or going from one station to the other.

- Oh, no!

- You don't like...

- I went once, but I could never work out where I was.

I smile:

- Don't worry, you're not the only one; Cheerful lives a stone's throw away and he says the same thing.

She nods appreciatively:

- It would be good to travel at night; it'll be more mysterious...

- Have you already taken a night train before?

- No, never.

She gives me a smile:

- It'll be the first time.

A moment later she asks me:

- What about you?

- It'll be the first time for me too.

I pretend to gravely recite an incantation:

- Come forth, o magic mysteries, we await you!

Milady laughs:

- We're not yet in the train and it's bright daylight!

- Better sooner than later, otherwise the mysteries might miss our train!

We both laugh.

- I see you looked up the train times on Sunday nine days ago, notes Milady.

- After you invited me to stay with you.

As we have been walking while talking, we find ourselves amid tall trees, thickets, wide lanes covered in high grass, paths that do not seem to go anywhere...

- Have we left the park? says Milady with surprise.

- Yes and no; we're outside the boundaries of the farm, but the wood is still part of the park.

- How do you know...?

- There's a big wall all around.

We walk a while longer...

- Is that a lake down there?

I was about to answer but she has caught herself:

- Oh yes, I know! It's the great fountain...

- It is.

She has looked at the fountain:

- It's like a fish-pond without the fish.

- Delighted to make your acquaintance, says Placid, giving Milady a smile.

We enter the large and beautifully-appointed drawing room.

- Would you rather we went into the garden? The weather's so lovely...

As we follow him, he asks:

- May I offer you some refreshments?

We do not decline and he rings a bell to have them served.

Here we are, installed in comfortable armchairs in the vast garden.

- From out in the street you'd never think there could be such a garden where you can only see houses, observes Milady.

Placid hesitates a moment:

- Yes, it is rather pleasant.

Milady looks around her:

- You've got lovely flowers in your garden.

He smiles:

- Thank you; Mother is very fond of flowers.

The refreshments are served. Placid has got up with a word of apology, has disappeared for a moment, has gone over to a flower bed, has carefully cut a begonia blossom with a little pair of secateurs and then, coming back towards us, turns to me and says:

- May I?

I nod. He presents the flower to Milady:

- It would please me if you were to accept this flower as a token of friendship.

Milady has concealed her surprise and has thanked him with a smile:

- It pleases me as much not to have to think that I might have been intruding.

I am somewhat surprised too, and rather happy; Placid is a reserved sort of chap with good taste. Our schoolmates hold him in high esteem and set great store by his opinions. It pleases me to think that Milady will doubtless be accepted by my schoolmates, who will not try to isolate her, as so often happens in this place when a person is not to its inhabitants' liking.

- You sing Schumann? Placid has gone on, addressing Milady.

- Yes, I love his songs; more than his piano music, I think.

He ponders for a moment:

- Did you sing before you knew Schumann?

- Why, yes, answers Milady, a little surprised by the question; why do you ask?

- You can make music because you have come across a composer who has revealed it to you, or you can make music simply because you like music.

- You can like music and discover a composer you prefer to all the others, replies Milady.

It is hot and sultry this morning.

- Boil your milk quickly, sire, or else...

- ...it will turn, milady.

- You are well instructed, sire.

- It is your lessons that I learn, milady.

The milk jug is full. I proffer a coin. Milady looks at it:

- Gold, sire? Here is your change!

Milady hands me silver.

- Thank you, milady!

She gives me a bright smile:

- Curly and Buttons have already been by; they've told me it's going to rain this evening.

- Whatever would we do without them?

- They also went to tell the Geologist and the Economist.

- At this time in the morning? He must've been happy!

- Oh, indeed! They had to really shake him to wake him up.

I ask, with a broad grin:

- Did he manage to actually say anything?

- He didn't, but his mother had a good laugh; she told the girls they ought to come more often, that way he'd spend less time lazing about in bed!

We laugh. I comment, with a hint of irony:

- The Geologist would doubtless have been up already.

- Oh yes! She had a good laugh too and said more or less the same thing as the Economist's mother.

And that gives us a good laugh.

- Leaving that aside, goes on Milady, Curly and Buttons have suggested we go for a walk this afternoon, not too far, in case it rains sooner than they expect.

- Why not?

- Why not indeed?

Back at home, milk and two-pounder in the saddle bag, I risk a glance over the wall that separates my garden from the Economist's. He has seen me:

- Did they wake you up too? he grumbles.

- No, not at all; in fact it was I who woke Curly up so that she would drag you out of bed, otherwise you'd still be there and there'd be no walk.

- Traitor! he cries.

But I had already disappeared back behind the wall.

An ordinary morning. A bit of weeding. The little twins and their chum have invaded the garden and are playing with the cat. The vegetable garden is of little interest to them, they have their own. The cherry tree. I read and write. My cat is plainly too busy with the children to come and see what I have been writing.

Lunch. For once, my father seems not to be in a hurry. It's a good time to talk about my visit to Milady's.

- Very big for a river port; substantial tonnage! declares my father.

He adds, nodding his head to give weight to his advice:

- Make sure you visit it. Your friend's parents will know how to get there.

Fortunately the Economist is not with us, otherwise lunch would have turned into a conference on economics. A two-man conference? Oh yes, they are quite capable of holding a two-man conference on such an important matter. Which doesn't stop my father from adding some more information, also of an economic nature.

After he has gone about his business, my mother wants to make sure that I won't be a nuisance to Milady's parents. I receive much advice on how to behave when I am there. Good advice, too, though I could have listened to it more carefully. But, as my cat would say, my mind must have been elsewhere. My mother has finished up by telling me that she is happy to see that I am happy.

Two o'clock. Curly and Buttons have just arrived for the walk and we set off, with the Economist and the Geologist in tow, to pick up Milady from the farm. On the way, the Economist utters grave threats in the direction of Curly and Buttons:

- One day I'll come and drag you out of bed in the middle of the night!

Mocking laughter from the two comrades-in-arms.

- Why not come one night and drag us out of bed in the middle of the day! cries Buttons.

- You'll see what time it is when you're on the floor!

- Then we'll get up quickly and you'll come for a walk with us! retorts Curly.

- And fear not; we'll be there to keep you safe from the wolf! adds Buttons.

The Economist did not have time to answer back; we had already reached Milady's farm. And in any case, I don't think he quite knew what to say.

Now we have set off on our walk. The steep rise, the sandpit...

- Shall we have a race? asks Curly; Buttons wasn't there the last time we came, three weeks ago.

- Oh yes! says Buttons enthusiastically.

Grabbing the Economist by the arm, she goes on:

- I'll be quicker than you!

- Yes, as long as I carry you and set you down at the top, he laughs.

The race has begun. Everyone goes at it with gusto. Buttons has set off and comes back to leap onto the top of the sandpit. Wow! She's never been quicker! Watch out, Economist! Now he's off. Of course, he goes much quicker than she does. He's a boy, and three years older. But look, one of the roots that sticks out of the side of the sandpit and that we hang on to - the one he has chosen - has broken! The Economist has slid on the sand. The hands of the stopwatch turn.

- I win! cries Buttons, laughing and jumping for joy.

We all applaud. The Economist, magnanimous in defeat, joins in. Buttons, magnanimous in victory, gives him a hug.

- I know you're better than me really...

And, clapping her hands and laughing out loud, cries:

- I won! I won!

We all join in her merriment.

We have walked on. Through the chestnut trees that line the heights of the wood, we can see the wheat-sheaves gathered into little stacks that the harvest has left behind, dotting the fields.

We amble along, chatting... Suddenly, a strong gust of wind and, a moment later, a rumble of thunder. It doesn't really come as a surprise. The sky had already lost its splendour a while ago and we were waiting for what had just happened.

I shout:

- Wettest wins!

And we all run as quickly as we can down the steep slope that passes through the chestnut trees and leads to a big farm. A big farm which is actually the biggest farm in the wheatfields between my town and the sunken village.

Poor village! Though it is not at all sunken, but, as everyone knows, we being on the knoll of Stampian sand and sandstone, at the boundary, as we can easily see for ourselves - or at least that's what the Geologist claimed - of the something clay - at the time of writing, comfortably ensconced in my cherry tree, the Geologist is not there to tell me - and Stampian oysters - actually it must be oyster something or other, see commentary supra - the village in question that we can see is situated in the subsidence into the fertile plain that the Geologist showed us.

- Have you re-read what you've just written? asks my cat wonderingly.

- No, I didn't manage to.

- And you hope that someone...?

- Absolutely! You only have to take a look at the books they give me to read at school.

- Is that the way people write?

- Not all of them; only the greatest.

- Oh, all right, I get it, I'm only a cat and I'm not fit to read the greats; but how do people manage, I mean those who are not so great...

- They are helped.

- Wouldn't it be easier for the greats to write more simply?

- No; those who write simply don't get read, or else they're read quickly, and are no better understood for all that.

- Why do people read them, then?

- It's like playing ball games, to pass the time.

My cat ponders:

- I see; so what help is there for those who want to read the greats that people can't manage to read?

My cat has twitched his whiskers:

- I meant "re-read", but you would have taken yourself for a great!

- Thank you!

- Don't mention it!

Having twitched his whiskers again he goes on:

- So what help is there for them, then?

- The books contain explanations.

- That takes up space; but I suppose they're short enough.

- I have seen books where the explanations were four times as long as the text.

My cat ponders:

- Are the explanations written simply, at least?

- Not always.

Bemused, my cat has found nothing to miaow. I... help him:

- In that case, someone writes another book to explain the explanations.

My cat perks up:

- Written simply?

- Not always.

My cat twitches his whiskers:

- So there's no end to it?

- None.

- So when do you finally get to understand?

- I haven't studied enough to be able to answer that.

- And when you have done, will you explain it to me?

- I don't know; all I've seen so far is completely different explanations of the same things.

My cat has said nothing more. Me neither. He is now snoozing on a nearby branch and I am wondering how I will ever be able to pick up the thread of my story. And in any case, does my story deserve to be continued?

Well, as I will never know, let us continue, just in case...

We are running, then. Why was that? Oh yes, a storm was brewing.

Right, so we are running, then. This time not just for fun but so as not to get soaked. Not that it matters very much, getting soaked; the rain is warm when the summer is hot. And it is...

The first drops of rain lash our faces. Faster, faster! And we hurl ourselves into the vast barn, which already contains many bales of hay from the harvest of the nearby wheatfields. For the rest, they'll have to wait a few days until everything's dried out. The sheep, the ones who work on the airfield, have remained in the fields. They will get wet, but they won't have to change clothes.

- I won this time! says Curly, half sulky, half laughing.

- You would do, wouldn't you; you're the youngest! points out the Economist.

- Don't worry, you're not too wet, the Geologist consoles her.

- Well, that shows you must have run fast all the same, comments Milady.

- That's true enough, nods Buttons; that's why the rain didn't have time to soak you.

Curly is delighted:

- I can run faster than the rain!

She turns to the Economist:

- You're pretty wet, you are!

Although there is nothing to justify her remark - the Economist is dry as a bone - we all laugh merrily.

The storm looks like being of short duration, for the rain has redoubled in force and the gusts of wind are threatening to drench us.

- Up! orders Buttons.

And, obeying her own order, she runs over to where the hay bales are piled highest, nearly to the roof of the barn. We all follow her.

This morning my mother, making lunch, asks me to go and get some cucumbers. Where are cucumbers to be found? My mother doesn't grow them. So must I go and buy some? No need. Would you have wished me to plant some? I don't mind, but will be they ready in time for lunch? No, you say? I would say you are not entirely wrong there. So? So a neighbour grows them. Fortunately my cat has been taken prisoner by the children who are playing on the lawn, otherwise he would have been capable of advising me to be more concise. But where would the pleasure in writing lie then?

Here I am at the neighbour's. It's still relatively early and yet he greets me with a pipe between his teeth.

I would much like to ask him for some cucumbers, just to see, but he is completely drunk. Absolutely blotto. Lying on the ground, drawing with difficulty on his pipe, which looks as though it might go out any minute, he would certainly not give me an answer. And yet... I was wrong! He has just noticed me and has slowly turned his head towards me and, though weakly, has gone "Woof!" Absolutely blotto, as I told you.

- Get along with you! commands a man who has just come into the garden, and takes the pipe out of the dog's mouth.

The man - it is he who grows cucumbers - is as much our neighbour as his dog, since they live together. Our neighbour, then, is fond of his dog, which is why he allows him his pipe and his brandy. O happy dog. O happy man.

After lunch Milady came round to sing, as she does fairly often. No harmonic analysis these last few days. We have laid it aside for the time being so as to properly practice what we have already learnt. We're not preparing for a recital and have no reason to hurry.

The fine, hot weather has returned after yesterday's brief storm.

- Would it please you for the two of us to go for a long walk in the woods, as far as the solitary little lake which slumbers amidst a clump of trees, on the other side of the mysterious road of which we know neither whence it comes nor whither it goes, where we went two weeks ago, milady?

- I shall be delighted, sire!

The thick chestnut trees with their opulent leaves cover us with their shade, pierced here and there by fine rays of light. We walk without haste, hand in hand, talking in low voices so as not to disturb the silence accompanied only by soft birdsong.

The little lake. The breeze is resting. The lake dreams. Everything is at peace. We are sitting next to each other on the old bench...

The seven thirty-six takes Milady and me to the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un's for an afternoon bike ride. This time we will head off in the opposite direction from the previous time, ten days or so ago. No island where we're going - the river that runs there is much too small -, no village, whether large or small, and no restaurant. And what would we need a restaurant for anyway, since we have brought a substantial picnic with us in our saddlebags? We are familiar with the little river, having crossed it the previous time on the way to the island with the restaurant, on the way out of the large village that nestles in a hollow amid tall trees.

The Big 'Un and the Little 'Un are waiting for us on the platform. We go to their house, a five-minute walk. Oh, I had forgotten - the little river we cross is the same as the one we will be going to. Some small talk with the parents.

The bikes are ready. Off we go! We pass in front of the big, thick, square, high keep. Hardly have we left the little town than we come to a steep hill, down one side, up the other. A bit further, another steep hill, down one side, up the other.

- Is there no end? complains the Big 'Un, who is only moderately keen on hard exercise.

Here we are at the summit. As we are not in any hurry - we will not be leaving until around half-past six - we have taken a good twenty minutes to get there.

I exclaim:

- Twenty minutes for a hill that's only just over one in two hundred!

- If only, sighs the Big 'Un.

- I also got the impression that your topography is not particularly precise, nods Milady.

The Little 'Un says mockingly:

- Keep your spirits up, Big 'Un, it's like that all the way.

I add:

- I think we'll have to take it in turns to push the Big 'Un up the hills!

- If only! sighs the Big 'Un again.

Another hill; short, but about one in thirteen. We laugh, but don't push. And fear not, despite her protestations, the Big 'Un has done very well.

- You could at least give her a pat on the back, you mockers! cries Milady.

But the mockers have gone on ahead and haven't heard.

A bit further, a little bridge; a few seconds later, another little bridge.

- Is that where we're going? asks Milady, who has slowed down slightly.

- ...Why, yes, stammers the Little 'Un, very surprised

He has almost stopped and asks Milady:

- Did he tell you where we were going?

He is me, of course. Not guilty. And Milady and I protest in chorus:

- Not at all!

The Big 'Un is surprised too. She turns to Milady:

- How did you know?

- This capricious little river... and those trees that grow all the way alongside it... they're so odd...

So that's what it was!

- Have you seen the soil? exclaims Milady suddenly. It's all purple!

Apparently all three of us are surprised. And yet we know it well, this purple soil. I've never seen soil that colour anywhere else. But just like my two friends, I'm so used to it that I no longer even notice that it's purple.

- Yes, it is purple... says the Big 'Un, clearly not knowing what to say.

- It's always been purple, says the Little 'Un, clearly not knowing what to say.

I say, off-handedly professorial yet modest:

- Ypresian plastic and smectic clays, sometimes called Sparnacian variegated clays with intense wine colours made up of kaolinites associated with montmorillonites - or not.

The Little 'Un and the Big 'Un have turned towards me.

Milady says:

- I didn't know you were a geologist too.

I answer with simplicity:

- Last spring, when the five of us came here, with the Economist and the Geologist...

- That's right! remembers the Big 'Un; the Geologist gave us a whole lesson.

- And you can still remember? says the Little 'Un, amazed; I can't remember anything now and certainly won't remember anything more tomorrow!

- I think I could say the same thing, nods the Big 'Un.

I chuckle:

- No, no, don't imagine for a moment that my memory is that flawless.

I go on after a moment:

- I asked the Geologist yesterday and learnt it all off by heart. I was certain you wouldn't have remembered anything.

The Little 'Un says off-handedly:

- In fact, you just wanted to show off in front of Milady.

Milady laughs:

- All right, you get a good mark. But it can't have been easy all the same!

Hemmed in on all sides, I mutter, half-laughing:

- All I wanted was to have a bit of fun...

The Little 'Un assumes a serious air:

- But we are having fun, we are...

And here we are. We have arrived.

Midday is starting to make itself felt. Is it the sun, giving us more and more light? Yes, of course, but it is above all the contents of our saddlebags, making themselves more and more felt on our appetites. We picnic beside the capricious little river. A simple meal, but do you really want a gastronomic feast when you're beside a capricious little river? I don't think so, given the manifest pleasure that all the picnickers take in savouring the simple and customary cucumbers, tomatoes and chicken.

Our simple and delicious picnic done, we go for a stroll, having left our bikes at the big farm nearby, as we usually do. We spend a moment chatting with the farmer, a very nice man who knows us well, though the conversation is somewhat less than gripping, since the farmer's interests have nothing in common with ours. And yet we listen without impatience, attentively, and I think he does the same. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because, in whatever way, we are talking about people's lives.

Our stroll is a real stroll. We have no goal and are in no hurry to get there. But do you really want to go and see a monument, in a beautiful spot, tolerably well-known, a large, thick, square, high keep, when you have all the time in the world for a simple stroll beside a capricious little river? I don't think so, given the manifest pleasure that all the strollers take in going nowhere particular in no hurry.

I often hear my parents' friends or my friends' parents' friends talking about some marvellous meal, some famous restaurant. They have forgotten neither the meal, nor the restaurant, nor the keep. Was there anything else to remember? I don't know, they have never said.

What about me? Have I already forgotten the cucumbers, tomatoes and chicken of our picnic? Will I likewise forget the nowhere particular where our stroll is taking us? Probably; certainly. But I will not forget that I was here, with my two friends, with Milady.

We leave the big farm, making our way along its wall. The wall is even bigger than the farm. That's not possible? No, it's not. And yet it is bigger.

A gate, an elegant wrought-iron gate, all red with rust. It stands there, solid though perforated. It defends the way into a vast garden.

"I defend nothing", it sighs. "Come on, look, I have half-opened to invite you in; yes, I know, my garden... all that's left are a few stray shrubs, nobody wants to come and see them... Go on, you can come in!"

We enter, carefully, the gate is so old. No-one dares tell it that the garden is open on all sides and has been for years, so that it serves no purpose.

We leave the garden by the other side, without making any noise, so that the gate does not notice that our visit has been brief. A wood. But is it really a wood? Small, stunted trees with black, twisted branches, powerless to reach for the sky. What are they doing there, hanging onto each other like that?

On the other side of the capricious little river, in a meadow of short grass, a pond. Not a very large pond, quite round. The meadow-grass has come to bathe there in places. A solitary horse with dark coat is taking a long drink from the water which shivers in the breeze.

Now we are strolling on the banks of the capricious little river. The trees, so odd, which line it on both sides along the whole of its length, which Milady had noticed and which had enabled her to guess where we were going, seem to talk to each other over the stream, in low voices, so that nobody disturbs them. Like the garden, like the wood, are they still really there? A trunk, a few limp branches in guise of a canopy. Do they wonder anxiously among themselves how long men will still allow them to stay beside the capricious little river that has watered them affectionately, for centuries perhaps?

We have drawn near to one of them, which grows by a ford. It has looked at us with wide, round eyes - the trace of cut branches, no doubt - as if asking us for help. We have looked at each other, the tree and us, without saying a word. What is there to say?

Six a.m. I have not got up very early and ride quickly so as not to miss Daisy's milking. After picking up the two-pounder I take the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood. I race up the path and come to a sharp stop, brakes squealing, at the entrance to the farm. In front of me, right in the middle of the path, a twin-prop takes off with a terrible clatter. It must have something wrong with its engines because it has trouble taking to the air even though, judging by the high-pitched squawk, it is doing everything it can. The stays seem to have come loose and are dangerously whipping its wings. Unless it is the other way round; it is hard to tell, everything seems so disorderly.

I hear Milady's merry laugh behind me:

- Well now, there's a panic-stricken piece of poultry for you, sire!

The panic-stricken piece of poultry in question does not stay airborne for long and plunges back to earth in a flutter of feathers barely ten paces away, tottering on its visibly wonky undercarriage.

I answer with a grin:

- Your piece of poultry would be better in a pot than doing aerobatics, milady.

- Not at all, sire, it's a layer!

- Well, I reckon after a landing like that it's omelettes she'll be laying, milady!

We laugh, while the poor hen crossly clucks its way back to the farm - on foot.

The milk poured and paid for - in gold, of course - we agree to spend the afternoon in music.

And music is what I got in the morning too. Curly and Buttons, accordion slung, were going to a birthday party at some friend's house. They should never have stopped by to say hello; the twins and their little chum have grabbed Buttons and now everybody is dancing, the three little girls, Curly, my cat and me. Don't get me wrong; it is not I who am dancing with my cat but the twins' little chum, while the twins dance with each other. As for me, Curly dragged me by the feet until I was at the foot of the cherry tree in which I had been reading. I would gladly have suggested to Buttons that she should not tire herself out before going to the party but I knew there was no point; Buttons is tireless.

Schumann, opus 48 no. 12. Milady sings; my Boisselot sings with her.

Third melody. It is in two parts. Milady has fallen silent on the tonic, B flat, the key of the song. I stay on the chord. And then, suddenly, delicately, in the left hand, A flat, the diminished seventh. I let the note live. And then... F sharp. F sharp? Curious... What would you call it? The diminished surdominant of B flat major? I've never heard the term. Never mind, let's not call it anything. But why is it so tender? Gently, so gently, comes a G in the Boisselot's lovely, ample bass. And can the G also be called the surdominant of B flat major? Probably not. But it is that G, even before it sounds, that has made the F sharp, the seventh of G major, so tender. G major? Yes indeed. Modulation. We are in G major, Milady and I; that G major, so banal, so very banal, which always plunges me into the deepest apathy. Then why is it so gentle now? I don't know. Ask Schumann. Milady has leant on the third, now she's up there on the dominant, and comes back down just as gently, without any fuss, on a consoling ninth.

It's Sunday, market day when everyone is out and about. Not quite as many people as usual, many of our friends have gone away for a few days to their families, cousins, grandparents. We chat about this and that, nothing in particular; it's the holidays.

An indolent afternoon. The Economist and the Geologist have come to laze away some time in my garden. It's hot, which does not encourage energetic distractions. Even the twins and their little chum, usually so turbulent, are lying on the grass and shrieking only now and then. As for my cat... don't get up your hopes of waking him, there's no point even trying.

- If Curly and Buttons come to suggest going to some sandpit or other, you can tell them officially that I'm not here, declares the Economist officially.

I go further:

- If Curly and Buttons come to suggest going to some sandpit or other, we'll tell them they've come to the wrong house.

- I think it may be rather difficult to convince them when the twins and the worm-eater start jumping all over them and asking for a waltz, observes the Geologist.

Milady turns to me:

- Just play them a waltz on your Boisselot; it won't take them long to realise that they've come to the wrong house.

The organisation of the network to defend our clear intention not to do anything having been completed, we continue to do nothing. It is not unpleasant.

- I won't ask you if that deserves to be written down, since you have already told me it was your life... begins my cat.

- If you mean you have nothing to say to me...

- Don't be so impatient.

- All right, I'm listening.

- Thank you.

- Go ahead then.

- I was just about to.

- Go on

- Right; if I was writing my diary...

- You want to write a diary?

- You know perfectly well I can only miaow.

- Excuse me! I'm listening.

- I wouldn't talk about the times when I am asleep; it would send the reader to sleep.

- What would you write?

- I would talk about going hunting, in the dead of night, when I'm on the alert.

- It's your life; you would be right to tell such tales.

- I would leave the reader with bated breath, making them hope for the mouse I was on the lookout for, hope sometimes disappointed, sometimes half fulfilled...

- Never entirely?

My cat twitches his whiskers:

- You're always so impatient!

- Sorry! Go on.

- That's what I wanted to talk about.

- That?

- Yes; the mouse I would be chasing; I told you that I would leave the reader with bated breath.

My cat licks his whiskers:

- I would say how I go about it, I would talk about my successes and my failures, I would give details, how I jumped, how I ran, how I suddenly stopped; I would invent everything I didn't actually do...

- Would you also talk about what you would be thinking?

- That wouldn't take long; I would be thinking about catching the mouse.

- It's a bit short.

- Yes, but the action would be long; it would be varied...

- If your action boils down to catching a mouse...

- Yes, but what matters is how you go about it.

- And would you end up catching it, your mouse?

- Of course; that's what the reader expects.

- Fair enough, but when you had caught your mouse, you wouldn't share it with the reader; he would get nothing; you would be the only one to benefit.

- What the reader wants to know is what happened and how, that's all.

- But for the reader, the mouse wouldn't even have existed!

- I have already heard people relate in great detail how they played a ball game; and yet they didn't eat the ball.

This morning, when I went to get the milk, Milady was all excited:

- My parents got back last night; they're going to call today to tell me when you can come to stay!

I spend a febrile morning. Curly, who has come to run errands with me, hasn't been able to keep up; it's true that I made a quick start.

- Wait for me! she cries from afar.

I have braked:

- Oh, I hadn't realised!...

- Are you in such a great hurry?

- No, not at all, I have nothing to do.

She laughs:

- Not so; you have errands to run.

- Errands?

She laughs even more:

- Yes, I forgot to tell you, we've got errands to run, for your mother and me.

I mutter:

- I know perfectly well...

- It doesn't look like it!

- All right, all right; I was thinking of my trip...

- You're going to Milady's?

She adds, before I have had time to answer:

- When are you leaving?

- I don't know yet; I'll find out today.

- Are you going for long?

I joke:

- For ever!

Curly gives a small smile:

- That's impossible!

- What do you mean, it's impo...

- A wife's place is with her husband.

I nearly fell off my bike! Curly breaks out in a peal of laughter:

- It's a good job I'm here to tell you what everyone's saying!

Before I have had time to take in what she has just said, she adds with a big grin:

- You ought to tell her the news!

And she heads off into the nearest shop.

- You seem surprised, my cat miaowed; I told you so.

The errands run, I cycle over to Milady's.

- How did you guess...?

- That your parents had just called?

She smiles brightly:

- We can go whenever we want!

- Tomorrow?

- Tomorrow!

We go to tell her uncle and aunt, who are in the yard.

- So you'll be going by train, then? asks the aunt.

- Yes, it's more fun! answers Milady.

I nod:

- And quicker too!

- Well, I don't know about that, says the uncle.

I have the details to hand:

- Two hours and forty-seven minutes.

- I can see you've already calculated everything, comments the uncle with an appreciative nod.

- Will you be taking the evening train? asks the aunt.

- Yes, it's the only one I could find.

- But there's the morning train... starts the uncle.

- It takes longer; three hours five minutes, eighteen minutes more.

- You're a real walking timetable! smiles the aunt.

- And you have to go via the capital, says the niece; I went there once, that's quite enough!

The uncle and aunt both laugh.

- I must say that me too, the less I go there the better I feel!

- Do you want me to drop you off at the station? offers the uncle.

- Have you got a big suitcase? Milady asks me.

- Oh, no.

- Me neither; it's not far, we can walk, it'll be more fun.

- Well, in that case, enjoy your walk! concludes the uncle.

- And when we get there, it's even less far from the station, Milady tells me.

- I think your parents will come and pick you up, says the aunt.

- No doubt, nods her niece, they'll think we must be exhausted by the journey.

I add, adopting a serious tone of voice:

- Oh yes, especially with two changes!

- Get along with you! concludes the uncle again with a smile.

At lunch, I talk to my parents about leaving the next day.

- Will you be gone long? my father asks.

What if I were to say "For ever!", like I did to Curly? No, no; let's be serious. So here is the serious answer:

- I don't know.

My father has looked up:

- You don't know?

He looks so stunned I found it hard not to laugh. Which explains the second serious answer:

- A few days, I suppose.

- Ah, a few days...

And as my father has not asked any more questions, I have deduced that he was satisfied with my answer. After a moment my mother says:

- You don't know when you'll be back?

She clearly did not expect an answer, because she has immediately added:

- You mustn't outstay your welcome, you know.

The rest of the conversation got lost in generalities.

Nothing in particular to say about the afternoon. As Milady is busy with her aunt, I spend my time reading, writing, shelling peas - and sucking their succulent pods, of course.

- Are you coming to help us?

That's Curly and Buttons, who are doing some sewing and asking me for help. I am not convinced they really need it; I think that, having seen I was on my own, they took advantage of the fact to ask me to keep them company... and talk about my trip. A moment later my cat arrived, jumping through the window.

- I was getting bored, he miaowed, and you are leaving tomorrow.

Tuesday. Eight oh four in the evening. The sun has not been there for more than half an hour. It is getting darker and darker. Our train has just left.

- We're off... says Milady softly.

I repeat, like an echo:

- We're off...

We have said nothing until the sunken village. Change. The two-coacher sets off. The last scraps of daylight barely illuminate the little wood that hides the airfield.

- It's here!

Milady has pointed to the little wood, guessing its dark mass. The two-coacher has passed the little wood. Milady seems to be searching for something in the sky, which a faint light still paints on the side where the sun has gone down. I explain:

- Gliders can't fly at night, there is no updraft.

- Of course. Hot air rises and the sun is no longer warming the earth.

- Did Skywards tell you that?

- No; I sometimes go to school, you know.

The two-coacher trundles on its way. The traces of light have disappeared, especially as hills rise up to hide the sunset horizon.

We reach the line that comes from the capital. The two tracks merge.

- You have studied the whole route, observes Milady.

- I looked at the Geologist's maps; there's no shortage of them with her; it's very useful.

- She knows an awful lot; does she want to be a geologist?

- Yes, she wants to teach it.

Milady ponders:

- She must know what the places she goes to are like before she gets there; how extraordinary!

- That's true; we should have asked her what the soil is like where you live.

- Yes; we'll ask her when we get back.

Meanwhile the two-coacher has slowed and here we are in the town on the river that passes between the capital and Milady's home town.

I joke:

- Now here we are, completely abandoned!

She pretends to take no notice of my joke:

- And how long is it before the train comes from the capital to go to where I live?

I laugh:

- Your memory's too good!

She laughs too:

- Yes!

Suddenly she seems lost in thought. She has turned to me:

- I haven't forgotten what we said on the humpbacked bridge.

I have taken her hand:

- I haven't forgotten either.

We must have stayed there without moving for a good while, because then:

- This train stops here! Connection in five minutes!

The man in the railway company cap who was walking up the platform has moved away after warning us.

We jump up and hurry over to the right platform.

- No need to tell me what time it leaves, laughs Milady.

A panting locomotive. A cloud of smoke. A screech of brakes. A snort. The train asks us to get on. We do so.

Is it the train driver's first time too? You might think so, from the way he drives his train. A four-stage start. Stage one. An extended hesitation; the train pretends to move forward. Stage two. The wheels of the locomotive, suddenly left to their own devices, spin round at great speed, the train remaining absolutely motionless. The Little 'Un's propeller is nothing beside these frantic wheels and the boiler on full steam ahead! Stage three. Violent shudderings that threaten to shake the carriages to pieces. Stage four. The train leaves. At last! Not forgetting the rails, worn down by the splenetically spinning wheels.

Only four more stops, with no changes, and we will be there. The night is very dark, the moon has forgotten to come out, and yet, by the glittering light of the countless stars, we can make out the shimmering that shows us the river which will be our companion all the way to Milady's home.

The train has come to a halt several times, each carriage amicably bumping into the one in front. One last jolt. The carriages have hesitated, wondering what they were supposed to do. Should they go back? No, apparently not. Let's stay where we are, then.

On the platform, slightly to one side, I can see a woman waving in our direction. The spitting image, albeit female, of our farmer, Milady's uncle. At her side, very upright, stands a serious-looking man; I get the impression not much is likely to bring a smile to his face. It's certainly not from him that Milady gets her talent for merry jokes, though, on closer inspection, her jokes were rarely short of a thought which - how shall I put it? - had a certain point.

A warm welcome from the mother; affable, though reserved, from the father. The mother hopes I am the one her daughter must have described to her; the father is waiting to find out who I am for himself.

Breakfast. Very good. With butter. There was something else as well as butter, but it wasn't very easy to find. Milady's father is in a hurry to go to a meeting and does not say much. "We'll see each other at lunch", he says. Milady's mother does not ask me any questions. Well, not too many, just ordinary questions about ordinary things, what I like doing, school, of course... Actually, I would say that she doesn't really know what to ask me, and perhaps doesn't particularly want to.

Breakfast over, Milady and I go out for a walk around the town. The street her house is on really does pass under a clock. It is very strange. If you look at the clock, you get the impression that you're not in a street but in the courtyard of a large house; especially as the cathedral blocks the view at the other end.

- It's true, that's what we all feel; we're at home here, and when we leave the street with our clock, we say we're going into town.

Milady has spoken passionately. I cannot help myself remarking:

- And yet there are lots of shops; do all the people who go into them live in your street?

- We have neighbours, they come when they like.

The street has wide pavements and is rather narrow.

- Very few cars come down here; the wider avenues are elsewhere, Milady explains to me.

I mention the fine, large stones with which the street is paved.

- The street is very old, the paving stones too, she tells me.

Where does that lovely smell of coffee come from?

- Can't you see it, there, in front of you?

- Oh yes! It's a roasting shop?

- Yes, it opened when I was four years old and since then we have always got our coffee there; I don't drink coffee, I don't like it very much, but everyone here finds it very, very good.

- I don't much like coffee either, but that shop right next to your house...!

She laughs:

- Yes, I'm like you; the chocolate shop! It's...

She breaks off and says brightly:

- Come on!

Chocolates everywhere! And how good they look! I taste one of each. Well, not all of them, more's the pity.

- Aren't they good? she says, her mouth full.

We leave the shop.

- Let's go and get some pastries for lunch!

I nod enthusiastically:

- Are they as good as the chocolates?

- You'll see!

What I saw was quite enough to convince me. Right by the clock, an elegant pastry and tea shop. And cream... cream everywhere - on the cakes, of course, I mean.

- You're fond of cream round here!

She laughs:

- And butter!

- Yes, I'd noticed.

- That's how it is. Nobody here has ever known how to eat anything without butter.

I joke:

- They eat butter with everything?

She answers without missing a beat :

- Absolutely everything!

We head towards the cathedral. The street is full of housewives doing their shopping. Children who have come out with their mothers and would be bored in the shops sit on the steps near the threshold, waiting patiently.

Behind the cathedral - probably very pretty -, little winding streets, old half-timbered and corbelled houses. A little bit further on, a church, a very tall church.

- The abbey church, Milady tells me.

Doubtless. But it is not the name I am marvelling at. It's the soaring stonework, reaching into the sky. We go in. It is not pillars that are holding the church up but a stand, like a stand of trees, only it's a stand of stone. Does it touch the sky?

On the way back we have passed a girl carrying the loaf of bread she has just bought. Next to her, what I suppose must be her little brother is walking unsteadily on the flags. He has nothing to fear, his big sister is holding him firmly by the hand, attentive to each of his steps.

Lunch. A delicious dish, rich and succulent, a regional speciality: cod with cream and little shrimp swimming in a cider sauce.

- I prefer the abbey church too, nods Milady's father, having listened without interrupting to the tale of my walk.

He adds, after a few moments:

- It doesn't get lost in its own fancy...

The suspension points hardly do justice to the length of the thick silence that followed. A silence during which I could clearly hear: "... unlike so many others..." with another set of suspension points. Other churches, do you suppose? Suppose away... with more suspension points.

During the afternoon, Milady and I walk about the town. Passing under the clock, we reach a broad street. Milady points to a large square, about three hundred paces away:

- That's the marketplace; there used to be a church there, but it was destroyed just over a hundred and fifty years ago.

She adds with a mysterious look:

- That's where we're having dinner tonight.

I try and guess. She smiles:

- Don't bother; you might guess a bit of it, but not all.

- All right, all right; but as you didn't say anything about going to see people, it must be a restaurant.

- Easy, so far.

- Hardly, otherwise what merit would I have?

We laugh. I go on:

- Right, well, as we like picnics as much as restaurants...

- Or even more...

- I therefore deduce that there must be something special about this restaurant.

- Yes, very special.

- A special dish?

- Yes, but that's not it.

I ponder, at length:

- You've shown me lots of old things here; it's in an old house.

- Yes, but that's not enough.

- The restaurant is old too.

She hesitates:

- Yes...

- But it's still not enough.

- Nearly, but not quite.

I ponder again:

- All right, I give in!

She laughs:

- We'll see...

- We'll see?

- We'll see if you really have given in.

I say with a mysterious look:

- We will indeed...

We look at each other with our mysterious looks.

Our stroll continues. We are walking along the river.

- Do you see that hill in front of you?

- Yes.

- That's where we're going.

- You must have a good view of the river from up there.

- Yes, the river, the town and the port.

- The port? Oh yes, my father told me about it; it's a very important port.

- It used to be the biggest port in the whole country, and even now it's still the fourth largest, Milady tells me.

- You certainly know your stuff...

- My father has his office in the port.

- What sort of goods...?

- Fruit and vegetables... It used to be coke and oil...

- Do you think I ought to visit it? My father said I should, but...

Milady purses her lips:

- I've already been, of course; it was boring.

She goes on, pointing to the hill:

- We'll see it much better from up there!

- I don't doubt you for a moment!

We laugh... and set off again.

An hour later, we are at the top of the hill. The sun, in front of us and slightly to our left, reflects brightly on the river that heads off into the distance, towards the sea.

- Gosh, you can see a long way from here!

- About thirty-five miles, Milady answers.

- And the sea?

- About twice as far.

- A pity, otherwise we could have seen it.

- If it weren't for the hills all along the river, we could see the tops of the cliffs.

- A pity...

I dream for a moment:

- Do they go fast, ships?

- About ten knots.

- That's eleven and a half miles an hour.

Milady looks at me. I affect a detached air:

- I sometimes go to school, you know.

I add, in the same tone of voice:

- So it takes five and a half hours.

She laughs:

- As the crow flies?

That stumps me. I put my brain on full steam ahead:

- Oh well, if you really want to follow all the wiggles...

- Not a bad try. It takes almost twice as long...

She breaks off:

- Would you like to see the sea?

I express surprise:

- Since it's too far...

- You just have to tell it to come here.

The jest is fair; I take it up. Turning towards the sea, I open my arms wide and intone:

           O sea so vast and far away
           Leave you now your distant shore
           And on this most auspicious day
           Come share with us your precious lore!


Milady immediately passes on the sea's answer:

           I cannot, but I will see you here
           At oh eight thirty-three, no fear!


I assume the self-confident air of one who knows:

- That's when the tide is up, of course.

Milady looks at me pityingly:

- Afraid not; that's when the train gets in, of course.

She's got me there, I must say.

- The sea takes the train?

- No, we take the train.

I ponder. Illumination! I make it seem as though I had understood all along:

- I would rather take a boat.

- You'll never make it; the tide's coming in.

I moan:

- I'll never get to see the sea!

Milady consoles me:

- Oh yes you will, I'll make sure of that.

I spy a glimmer of hope:

- How so?

- I have an aunt who lives by the sea...

- Heavens be praised! I will get to see...

- But I'll have to talk to my parents and my aunt about it first.

Piteously:

- And do you think...?

- We'll see.

I look out over the port:

- It's huge, your port!

- Especially for a river port.

- Look at all the cranes! It's like a forest. How many are there, do you suppose?

- Oh, there must be at least a hundred.

- They're like great big trees!

- A hundred feet high.

The port is full of boats, big ships, at least fifty of them. I ask:

- Are there always so many?

- Yes; sometimes not quite so many.

- They're very big.

- Between three hundred and eight hundred feet long.

- As big as that?

- They're ocean-going ships.

We sit there looking for a good while.

- Look, there's one going out!

- It's taking advantage of the tide, Milady says.

- But we're not on the sea!

- No, but the tide comes up this far; it was six foot seven at noon today.

- And you know all that stuff?

Milady smiles:

- We have the tide tables at home; my father always needs them and I sometimes look too.

We stay a while longer, then:

- It's time to be getting back; my parents are expecting us for dinner.

- In the mysterious restaurant?

- In the mysterious restaurant.

We set off.

Milady's father has just come in, from the port, I imagine.

- Are we ready? he asks.

We are, and so we leave for dinner at the mysterious restaurant.

On the left-hand side of the square, an old half-timbered house. You go straight into the restaurant, which is inside the house. What do you mean? I can hear you say, all restaurants are inside a house. Or do you just mean that it is not outside? True, it isn't outside. But that's not what I meant. Usually, a house is meant for living in and a restaurant for eating in. And what I mean is that this particular restaurant feels like being in a house.

Why? I couldn't even really say why. The welcome? Not especially. There's nothing unusual about how we are welcomed. The decor? It is elegant and tasteful, all wood panels and fine china. The house itself? Not only is it old, I discover that the restaurant is the oldest in the whole country. But no. Look around as I may, I see nothing to give me the impression of being in a place where people live. Have I got it wrong, then? Milady seems to be following my gaze and my thoughts. I get the feeling she is waiting. What for? I get the feeling I have not been looking in the right place.

Suddenly I can hear... I don't... It's as though we - Milady and I - were in front of a piece by Schumann. Suddenly, Schumann begins to speak. He says he didn't write thinking that people would be able to find. And from what he often tells us, people understand only what they want to. I have already mentioned the demi-semi-quavers in opus 48, no. 10. Here, in the restaurant, what can I hear? A mute voice, coming from I know not where, from the room, from nowhere, but here. "They all come to eat in the oldest restaurant in the country; you two, you are looking to live, everywhere!" Milady has just given me a smile. She knows now that I have heard.

The duck that has been the restaurant's speciality for generations was excellent, although I did not care for it. Milady talked about our trip to the seaside; her parents had nothing against it.

This morning, Milady tells me her aunt has said yes and I call my parents to tell them about my trip to the seaside. My mother urged me to be particularly careful if I went swimming - the details of what she told me are too long to relate, especially for the good reason that I did not listen to them. My father asked if I had visited the port. I told him what I had seen from the hillside. He seemed very satisfied.

Today, Milady and I are going for a long bike-ride along the river, heading towards the sea. Tomorrow, the sea itself. I don't need to look up the train times, Milady knows them already. It's not her first trip to the seaside.

- Have you made a picnic?

- There is no need, says Milady.

I am concerned:

- Then we will have to go hungry.

- Oh not at all; John Dory will be our victuals today.

I am concerned:

- Will we needs must fish?

- Needs must nothing; John Dory awaits us in the kitchens.

I am concerned:

- Then cold will be the dish.

Milady laughs:

- The cook in my aunt's restaurant will make it once we're at table.

I am no longer concerned:

- And I love John Dory!

- I know, you said so.

- Did I tell you that?

- No, not you; I was talking about John Dory while Curly was there and she told me right away that you loved it.

- Did she indeed? She's not just a pretty face, our Curly!

And off we go.

We cycle along the river, which flows majestically on our left as we leave the town. Hardly is it behind us than we reach the port and its vast forest of cranes. I could see from the top of the hill that they were not immobile, but from close up... I have slowed down in order to see them better:

- Such hustle and bustle!

- It's like that all day long, Milady tells me; you have to load and unload the boats quickly; time is money.

- The cranes, they're all right up against each other; don't they ever collide?

- Yes, that does happen, I'm afraid; it's a very tricky business; only good operators manage not to collide and they're not easy to come by.

- That's awful; do things get damaged?

- Not very often; they're usually just bumps and scrapes of no importance, but it wastes time.

I add, smiling:

- And time is money.

She nods, but without returning my smile:

- Sometimes it's my father who bears the cost.

I look down:

- That was stupid...

She gives me a great big smile:

- I often say stupid things too; it's hard to realise if you don't know.

- I should have...

- No, I should have told you...

I smile:

- I often say stupid things too...

We laugh happily.

And off we go again.

We leave the town on the main road - and up a long hill. We have to pedal hard. Three quarters of an hour later, we leave the main road to take a more pleasant route, on a small road - downhill! - which runs through meadows where spindly, brown-spotted cows graze. They are really not beautiful...

- They may not be beautiful, but it is they who give the milk, butter and cream my baker uses to make such delicious cakes, Milady corrects me with a smile.

Now we are cycling along the river. I remark:

- There aren't many bridges round here.

- None at all, even; otherwise what would the ships do?

- What about crossing to the other side?

She points to a small boat moored on the opposite bank:

- There's a crossing every half an hour.

- Yes, that's practical... But isn't there a single bridge between here and the sea?

- No, not one.

- That's much less practical!

We cycle on unhurriedly.

- It's funny, those little eddies that are following us - overtaking us, even.

- That's the tide coming in, Milady explains.

- It goes quickly; quicker than the current.

- Fifteen knots versus five.

I purse my lips appreciatively. She goes on:

- High tide is at about half past twelve, when we'll be at my aunt's.

- With a tasty John Dory in front of us!

She laughs:

- Greedy guts!

We cycle on unhurriedly. In the distance, at the foot of a hill, on the other side of the river, a village.

- That's my aunt's village, Milady tells me.

- I suppose a little boat will be there to take us across.

- Yes, but it's a bit bigger than the one you've just seen, which is only for foot passengers; you can even get a cow onto this one.

- A cow? Cows take boats?

Milady answers me very simply:

- Only very rarely; usually they swim, with the farmer on their back.

I am up to the challenge:

- That's not very practical; depending on whether the tide's coming in or going out, they'd arrive in a different field.

But Milady is not so easily disarmed:

- On the contrary, it's very practical, because that's how the farmer changes his cows from one field to another when the grass gets too short.

I pretend to have understood her perfectly:

- So the farmer looks up the tide tables at six a.m. every morning after milking.

I nod admiringly:

- You really are pretty well organised around here!

Milady replies, just as simply:

- Aren't we just?

And we cycle on unhurriedly.

Meanwhile, the John Dory village has come closer. I point to a boat moored near a sign saying "ferry".

- That's it?

- That's it.

The ferryman gives Milady a cheerful wave.

- Good day to you, young lady! A crossing for lunch at auntie's?

- Good day to you, ferryman! she answers gaily.

She introduces me to the ferryman and he wishes us both a pleasant stay.

Three passengers have got on with us; everyone knows everyone round here. Ten minutes or so later one of the passengers, having carefully looked up the river on one side then down on the other, has tapped the shoulder of the ferryman, deep in lively conversation:

- It's time! Are you going to get this wherry under way or what? There's nothing coming!

I ask Milady in a low voice:

- What does he mean, nothing coming?

But the ferryman has a sharp ear:

- It takes a big ship half a mile to stop; it's better to be careful!

The ferry is some distance from the bank. I look at the place where it is supposed to arrive on the other bank. It's not at all where the ferry is headed. The loquacious ferryman does not seem to be the least bit concerned.

I whisper to Milady:

- But aren't we going to...?

The ferryman definitely has a very sharp ear:

- Of course we are! What do you think the cable's for?

I don't understand. Milady is just about to explain, but the ferryman gets there first:

- The current takes us but the cable brings us back!

I still don't understand. He points towards the right-hand side of the boat:

- Look on the starboard hull!

Milady whispers:

- On the right!

I look over. A thick braided steel cable is sliding inside a support.

- The line is attached to both banks, the ferryman tells me.

I have understood. I try to redeem myself a little:

- Yes, of course; and it's the line that brings the ferry back.

The ferryman has glanced at me, smiled slightly and said:

- That's right, you know your stuff.

Now here we are, safe and sound on the other bank.

Milady's aunt welcomes us kindly. The few questions she asks me show that she already knows all about me. And not through Curly this time!

We spend a while talking about this and that, about me, about Milady, life in the village, the restaurant...

Milady's uncle has torn himself away from his kitchen - it is he who directs operations - to come and join in the conversation.

- I hear you're something of a gourmet, he says.

- And a great lover of John Dory, adds the aunt.

- I've told my cook I'll take care of it myself, declares the uncle.

I don't really know what to say and proffer some words of thanks, which I fear must sound rather flat. But the aunt has cut in:

- Lunch time!

- To the kitchen! the uncle has added merrily.

A large, airy room on the first floor. One whole wall is a plate-glass window. The aunt has given us the best table, near the window. The restaurant is almost at the water's edge and the river stretches away far into the distance on either side, the village being within the loop of a meander.

- Oh, a big ship!

- You'll see a lot of them, comments Milady.

- That's true, given the number of ships in port back there.

The ships come and go. I remark:

- They're bigger than the house!

- You saw them, yesterday.

- Yes, but on the water they seem bigger...

- On the water... Oh, I see, you mean when they're...

- Yes; from a distance they look all small, and then you get the impression they grow so as the better to surprise you. "We are big ships, make no mistake, and we carry precious cargo!" they seem to say as they get closer.

- You're right; in the port they are emptied and become... smaller.

The ships come and go. They are not new. The sea has weathered them. On one of those heading out to sea, a sailor is leaning on the rail; he stares emptily at the river bank going by. How many times must he have come this way? Are the oceans we dream about any different for him than the road that takes me to school each day?

But here is the John Dory, proudly presented by the uncle!

- I've made it in the traditional way we do them round here.

The mere sight of the fish has already won me over. Milady, who had been watching me, smiles, reassured.

The uncle gives his recipe:

- You place the fillets on a bed of herbs and crushed garlic and drizzle them with a little rosé wine and lemon juice; then a bit of fish stock and you pop them in the oven for ten minutes. To make the sauce, you sweat some chopped onions, wet them with lemon juice, add some stock and reduce on a low heat. To finish, you add an egg yolk beaten up in cream, pour the sauce over the fish fillets and serve piping hot!

And the uncle bows with a great big smile on his face.

The John Dory was even better than I had expected.

We set off back in the afternoon. A good hour on quiet roads that thread through meadows and run alongside the river where the water flows quickly towards the sea. The tide is out at half-past seven.

Here's another ferry.

- Is that the one?

Milady laughs at my surprise:

- It has to be big; it takes cars and lorries.

Here we are on the boat, or ship. Well, it's not quite as big as a real ship, but still...

Having been spared storms, we land without difficulty. The cars and lorries leave the ferry. First a lorry, then all the cars, then the other lorries. I express surprise:

- Why is the first one off a lorry?

- It's because cars are faster and the lorries would hold them up on the narrow road, Milady tells me; so the cars all get off before the lorries.

- Yes, but what about the first lorry?

- The front of the ferry is narrow, the lorry there has to get out of the way.

- But in that case it holds up the cars!

- Yes, of course.

- So in that case there's no point letting the cars off before the other lorries, since one is enough...

She breaks in calmly:

- Absolutely no point at all, the road is narrow and windy for a long way and the cars can't overtake the first lorry.

- Couldn't it be asked to wait, once it's off the ferry, until the cars have gone past?

- It could, of course.

I say nothing for a while:

- I don't think there's anything left to say, is there?

- No, I don't think so.

She shrugs in an ironic gesture of powerlessness.

We have to get home now. There's still a fair way to go...

- Long but not hard, says Milady, seeking to reassure me.

- Yes, I know, it's downhill towards the end; but we have to pedal a bit first.

- No, no need.

I can sense a trap:

- We're going back on a lorry.

- Not at all.

Illumination:

- On a boat!

She laughs:

- That's right! Well guessed, though rather heavy going!

I laugh too:

- A big ship!

- They couldn't land here.

- So?

- One of my father's boats from the port.

- Wonderful! And truly restful.

It takes a couple of hours, during which I can admire the steep cliffs that line the river.

- That's funny, they're all on the outside of the bends.

- The water runs into the bends... starts Milady

I remember just in time that I have sometimes been to school:

- ... and it pushes back the earth which ends up by forming hills, leaving beaches on the inside of the bends.

- Congratulations. You'll get a good mark for that.

We arrive at the port in thoroughly good humour.

Six in the morning. Our train is leaving for the sea which invited us the day before yesterday. That's right! The sea had indeed said that it would welcome us "at eight thirty-three", as Milady had told me. And that is indeed the time at which the train we are on arrives at the seaside.

- Absolutely not, Milady contradicts me; this train arrives at eight thirty-six, and even then it's still more than ten miles from the sea.

I ponder:

- If this train arrives at eight thirty-six, there are several possibilities.

- Go on. There's plenty of time and it will spice up the journey.

- Very glad to be the spice!

- I'm listening.

- Right then. You got the time wrong.

- How could you ever think such a thing? she cries in horror.

- Please accept my apologies.

- Apologies accepted; go on.

I go on:

- Right then. On the platform of the station we have just left, a notice-board to which I failed to pay appropriate attention announced that the train, exceptionally and today only, was going to be three minutes later than the time officially announced in the train timetable.

- Nope. I asked the station-master and he assured me that no delays were expected.

- When did you ask? Perhaps your information was out of date?

She shakes her head:

- I don't think so; it was last year on the morning of the same day.

- So the information could not be more reliable.

- So that's two possibilities dismissed. Go on.

- Right then. We got on the wrong train.

She says, so that there can be no shadow of doubt:

- As we were getting on, the driver told me that we were on the right train.

- How did he know?

- He saw from inside his cabin the tickets I had stuck into my suitcase.

- Irrefutable!

- Glad you think so. Go on.

- Right then. There's a change.

She looks dumb-founded:

- How do you know?

- How do you think I know?

- That there's a change?

- No, that I know?

She nods:

- You're right! From which we may conclude with certainty and no risk of error that there is indeed a nine-minute change at seven fifty-four.

- We can therefore be happy to have found out that there was indeed a change.

She goes on:

- Especially because if we had not found out before reaching the station where the change takes place, we would have missed it.

- The station?

- No, the change.

We heave a sigh of relief.

And yet, although the train has been rolling along completely unconcerned by our idiocies, there is still a good hour and a half of the journey left. Milady tells me about the town we are going to.

- My aunt's house is in a street that overlooks the town.

She breaks off:

- Actually, there are two towns which make a single one, but that's exactly what you must never say; the place where my aunt lives is an old fishing village; the place where nobody lives, and where there are lots more people, used to be a marsh.

- Your aunt's town got bigger?

- Not at all. But one fine day, about a century and a half ago, someone decided that sea bathing was the thing to do.

- People didn't use to swim in the sea before then?

- No, and those who live in my aunt's town still don't, or hardly ever.

- And yet it's nice to go swimming; do you remember the lake in the middle of the woods...?

Milady smiles:

- I remember it very well...

- Didn't you like it?

- Oh yes, a lot; and I really like to go swimming.

- So it's the sea you don't like? I wouldn't know, it's the first time I've been to the seaside.

- No, I do go swimming in the sea sometimes; I like it.

I don't understand. She goes on:

- You'll understand when we get to the beach.

She pauses:

- Anyway, more and more people started coming; they didn't really go swimming, they just stayed for a while on the beach and then went back.

- Did they live there?

- No, not all the time; just a few days from time to time.

- Were there inns? You told me it was a marsh.

- They built houses, fine houses.

- For just a few days?

- For just a few days.

I say nothing. She goes on:

- As these people didn't go to the beach very much

- ...even though that's what they had come for...

Milady gives me a knowing smile then goes on:

- ...they built places for their amusement.

- If they were bored, why did they come here?

- For their amusement, of course.

- Of course. How silly of me. Go on.

Milady goes on:

- Anyway, these people were rich and few in number; fourteen years ago, poorer people who worked all year round were allowed to do as they pleased - within their means, of course.

- That made for more people.

- Yes; they came from all over and the beach was crowded.

- For a few days?

- No, the whole time.

I am surprised:

- I don't think I understand; you can't stay on a beach the whole time.

- You'll understand when we get there.

- All right, all right, I'll be patient; but you told me one shouldn't say that the two towns were one.

- One of them seeks amusement, the other works.

Apart from that, the journey carries on with nothing more to report. Meadows and cows, cows and meadows... Hills and rivers. And twelve stops. The train doesn't miss out a single station on the way. What exemplary conduct!

We change trains. Six stops. And the new train doesn't miss out a single one either. I think we must have arrived now, because I can hear piercing cries of greeting. Small children, I think. We are expected. But... that's strange... we haven't pulled into the station yet. Milady laughs, pointing to the sky.

- Look! Seagulls!

Seagulls? Yes indeed, seagulls. I know what seagulls are, I sometimes see them over the fields where I live. I know they come from the sea. And sometimes, when the wind is right, I can even smell the sea. But they don't scream like that where I come from. And the smell of the sea where I come from only very faintly resembles the strong, penetrating smell of this place.

The train has stopped. This time we have indeed reached our destination, because I can see people waving to us. It's Milady's aunt, uncle and cousin who have come to meet us.

Hugs for Milady. Her aunt bids me welcome with a look which doesn't know where to settle. Her uncle bids me welcome with a smile which stays perfectly in place and doesn't budge. Her cousin - he is six years older than me, Milady told me when we were on the train - shakes my hand vigorously. "How are you?" he asks; and, without waiting for an answer: "Good to see you!"

The aunt gets back to more important things:

- Breakfast was a long time ago and the journey must have been tiring.

And, without waiting for an answer:

- Let's go. There's a jug of milk and some bread and butter waiting.

We go. I like milk, I like butter. I'm quite happy to drink milk with chocolate for breakfast. But I must confess that here... It goes beyond me, if I may say so. Anyway, I had to take what I was given, though I didn't ask for seconds. But Milady... I'll have a bit more of that butter, and I love that cream... When I marry her, I'll buy a cow!

We stay chatting with the parents for a while. Her cousin has disappeared. As the talk is about the usual things, I will not write it down. The conversation has lapsed. Her cousin has come back.

- Do you want to come and see our sights? he asks us abruptly.

As Milady is already familiar with the sights, the question is addressed to me. I thank him:

- It will be a pleasure for us - your cousin and me.

He looks at me with a glint of curiosity:

- You're a smart one, aren't you?

He adds with a hint of irony:

- Well, let's go and show my cousin the sights!

From the window of the sitting room I can see the beach and the sea. In the middle of the beach, a swimming pool:

- Is the sea so shallow?

Her cousin makes an effort to follow. I go on:

- That they had to build a swimming pool for people to swim in?

He laughs:

- You're a smart one, aren't you?

Then he adds:

- It's for the children; some parents are worried that the sea might be dangerous, and the children like the pool, they can dive and there are games...

He pauses a moment:

- And the water in the pool is seawater; you could almost think you were in the sea.

I mutter some commonplace remark. Milady has given me a quick glance. I had time to see that she had suppressed a giggle. She certainly had time to see that I had done the same.

The pool full of seawater wasn't the only thing here you couldn't see elsewhere. There was a tennis court too...

- A walk on the rocks to discover the beauties of the landscape? suggests her cousin.

We thread through the narrow streets of the town where the aunt lives. Quiet houses which look as though they might be welcoming provided you live here. When we came out of the station, which was in the other town, I had had a different impression, as though the town were empty. But I had said to myself that the reason was the great, bleak square, which seemed to be attached to the station and gave you the impression that you couldn't get to anywhere from it. And yet streets, wide streets, led away from the station square, streets which it was apparently not forbidden to take. The streets were wide, and although one of them looked just like any other street, the other very plainly led into the town centre, a centre that I could clearly discern. But here, in these little streets where the windows were decorated with lace curtains, plain cotton curtains in fact, I understood why you couldn't say that the two towns were one. The aunt's town worked, Milady had said; the other, where the station was, sought amusement. Doubtless, but where was the amusement? The wide street I have just mentioned, leading from the station square to the town centre, was just as bleak as the station square. I think I would even add to what Milady had said that the town I was in was awake and the other was asleep.

In the meantime, if you walk, even while thinking, you end up reaching somewhere. I say that because the thoughts meant I was probably somewhat distracted. Fortunately, as her cousin made conversation and Milady replied in my stead, everything went off well enough. And having recollected myself, I discourse on the beauties of the landscape. Her cousin is very happy. That being said, I like the landscape in question very much. Is it because I have never seen the sea before, except in pictures? Is that the only reason? I don't think so. It is very difficult for me to describe what I feel. I almost regret that my cat isn't there to help me. Is it so stupid to say such a thing? Perhaps. All I can say is that my cat does not express himself with words and it is words I lack.

Let me try all the same. What can I see? Water, of course, dotted with the foam made by the not very big waves. The sky, blue, the same as I would be able to see in my home town. The seagulls which circle, each one for itself, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, doubtless looking for food. Far off, behind the sea, I can see something which does not resemble a ship but nevertheless little by little becomes one, emerging from the depths of the sea. Yes, I know, the earth is round and so... There's no point in going on, and in any case my cat wouldn't understand. And by the way, it's a good job I'm not in my cherry tree, otherwise... Right, well, the earth is round but I can't see it. I can see a ship emerging from the sea. Right, well, the sea is made of water but I can't see it. And over there, on the horizon, I can't tell where the sea stops and the sky starts or where the ship is. I don't think I have quite managed to describe what I feel. Maybe my cat will understand. I hope so...

- You see the town over there? her cousin asks me.

- Over there on the right, in the haze?

- Yes; that's the port; it's where the river that goes through my cousin's town comes out.

I look, without quite knowing what to look at. Her cousin goes on:

- Is this the first time you've seen the sea?

- Yes.

- Do you like it?

I hesitate. He laughs:

- Don't worry! I don't notice it, maybe because I'm so used to it.

He pauses:

- I think the sea is only real for sailors, those who do something on it, like shipping or fishing; especially fishing, it's always possible you may never come back.

He adds with a frown:

- I don't think the fishermen find what puts their life in danger beautiful; it's the beach people who talk of beauty.

Milady points towards the sea:

- The fisherman doesn't live with the fish, all he does is take them; for him the sea is only water, frightening water, lacking any life he could live with.

She breaks off for a second:

- The farmer lives with his cows, which he takes care of, and with his crops, for which he prepares the soil.

I confess:

- I didn't dare to admit that the sea didn't quite seem to be the thing which inspires dreams in those who have never seen it.

- It is good to see close up the things that make you dream when you are a long way off, says Milady slowly.

The sun, which looks at the earth without emotion, is now high.

- D'you like mussels? her cousin asks me.

Mussels?

- I don't know, I've never had any.

- D'you want to try them?

- Gladly!

- Well, it's lunchtime; let's go!

We thread our way back through the little streets where the windows are decorated with lace curtains. Nobody disturbs the quietness of the place. People are certainly having lunch behind the cotton curtains. I try to spy the aunt's house.

- We're having lunch at the Fisherman's, says Milady, catching my glance.

I misunderstand:

- With the fishermen?

- No, at the Fisherman's, declares her cousin solemnly.

I understand. The Fisherman in question is an important one.

- No, smiles Milady, it's a bar, which the beach people call a good restaurant; well, we think it's good too, but I don't know if I'd call it a restaurant...

- You'll see, nods her cousin.

Here we are. It's not very big, not something you'd look at twice. Three men in simple clothes are standing at the bar, drinking wine. Fishermen, no doubt, from what I can hear of their talk, though it's less about the sea than about prices. One of the stalls on the riverside opposite didn't pay much for the fish they had caught that night. I hear one of the fishermen say "At least he takes the whole catch!", though it doesn't seem to improve his mood.

- They came here last night, the bar's open all the time, her cousin tells me.

Here we are sitting at the table, a tiny little table where there's just room for two, one opposite the other. On one side, the bench; on the other side, a chair. Paper mats. The bar is long, with only just enough room to pass between the counter and the dozen or so tables. It is half empty.

- Just as well the beach people don't come here often, remarks her cousin, otherwise there'd be no room for us.

The owner seems to know Milady and her cousin well, because having shouted a greeting from the bar where he is serving a fisherman he says nothing more. And a few moments later, without anyone seeming to have placed an order, the mussels appear on our table.

- Well, what do you think? her cousin asks me, a glass of cider in his hand.

Of course, I can't compare these mussels with others, or know whether or not they represent perfection, since I have never had any before, but with my mouth full I express my appreciation as follows:

- Mmmm... they're really... mmmm... goooood.

Milady and her cousin are delighted.

- They've just been caught, she informs me.

- And the cider comes from a nearby orchard.

And of course there is the way they've been cooked. "You won't find mussels like this anywhere else", they both tell me.

And yet the recipe, which, unlike in so many other places, is not secret, is very simple. As you can see for yourself.

MUSSELS IN WHITE WINE

Finely chop onions, shallots, garlic, parsley, thyme and bay leaf.

Wash and scrape the mussels.

Melt some butter and add the chopped ingredients, without frying, then the mussels.

Add white wine.

Start stirring the mussels when steam starts to rise and keep stirring until all the shells are open.

Serve hot.

What pleasure to extract the flesh, using another shell as a pincer, and to dredge up the succulent liquid, using another shell as a spoon!

Now we're off for a brisk walk and a quick tour of the other town, the one where the beach people live. After crossing the road, here is the river again. I stop, surprised:

- The boats... They're lying on the sand...

- It'll soon be low tide... her cousin starts to say.

- It goes out quickly; the boats were still afloat when we got to the Fisherman's.

- It's not the tide that goes out quickly, it's the mussels that go down slowly, laughs her cousin.

I riposte:

- Slowly, perhaps, but surely!

- I'm glad you liked them. As for the tide, it's just after two and it will be at its lowest point at three oh nine, with a height of nine foot two.

I have lost my capacity for surprise:

- You're a real tide expert! Right, then, as you both seem to have learnt the tide tables off by heart, tell me what time...

- High tide? breaks in the Tide Expert; the next high tide is at eight oh five this evening, with a height of twenty-three foot eleven, the previous one was at seven fifty-eight this morning, with a height of twenty-three foot six.

He adds with a laugh:

- And I'm sure my cousin didn't know that!

- No, replies his cousin calmly; and doubtless you can tell me the times of the tides in my town.

The Tide Expert lifts up his arms heavenward, turns to me and laughs:

- You can never have the last word with her; you'll see!

We cross the river. It's a different world.

- We have changed weather, the Tide Expert confides to me.

- Weather? Why, isn't the tide the same here?

Milady smiles:

- You're not that far off the truth!

- Imagine, continues the Tide Expert, that the beach people will sometimes tell their friends that if it rains on my side, it's still fine on theirs!

I am surprised:

- How can that be?

- Oh, it's easy enough! You call one of the beach people and say you're sorry the weather is so poor; he'll bridle and tell you that the weather is marvellous!

He has another trick up his sleeve:

- You tell him you're from the other side of the bridge and it's not marvellous at all; oh, now you've put your foot in it! "Yes, over there!" he will say with scorn; "but here the weather is simply marvellous!"

I am dumbfounded. Milady confirms the story:

- I was there last year when it happened; I heard it myself.

She adds with a smile:

- Oh, how we laughed!

- Didn't we just! exclaims her cousin.

I find the bleak station square again, the bleak wide street leading to the town centre. And the town centre, which from afar had failed to inspire me with great enthusiasm? Well, let's go and see for ourselves.

Shops and more shops, the same as in other towns but not with the same prices, anything but, in fact. And it is not the quality that is at issue, since it is quite often very good. I overhear some of the things buyers are saying. I get the impression that if the buyers are buying it is not so much because they have chosen to buy this item or that, but because they will be buying it here, in the beach people's town. So that they can tell their friends about it? I think so. But I think it is most of all for themselves. They have been here, unlike those who live on the other side of the bridge where the weather is poor.

- Four o'clock, the tide is coming in, we can enter harbour! declares the Tide Expert, as though he were the captain of some great ship.

And, before I have had a chance to express my surprise, he continues, pointing to a jet of water gushing from a fountain in the middle of the square:

- There is the harbour!

- And the boats are in the fountain?

- What do you mean? Look, there on the other side of the square, that's where it is, the harbour!

I look:

- Oh yes, a particularly welcoming harbour; let's dock there!

The docking manoeuvre has been successful. All we have to do now is choose the cakes - cream cakes of course!

We talk about this and that for a good while, about how we spend our time, school, what we have done during the holidays...

- There aren't many people about; I suppose everyone's at the beach.

- Yes, says the Tide Expert; there's not much to do here, and the beach people don't know one another.

- You mean they don't make friends?

- During the holidays? It can happen, but not often.

- And there's nothing else apart from the beach?

The Tide Expert frowns:

- You've seen the shops; there are restaurants.

- Not like the Fisherman's.

- Oh, no! he cries; in the restaurants I'm talking about, people come to eat.

He corrects himself:

- No, actually, eating is the last thing they do!

I laugh:

- That must be funny, to see them all sitting at empty tables; maybe it's so they can have better conversations!

The Tide Expert frowns again:

- Yes, if only they had anything to say.

- And yet you can hear them talking; just now, passing by...

- Yes, you can hear them talking...

As he seems to have lost the thread of what he was going to say, I go on:

- You were saying that eating was the last thing they do...

He thinks for a moment:

- Oh, yes! That's right. They don't come to eat, they come to have a good, no, actually, an excellent meal in a famous restaurant in the no less famous town.

Milady nods and, pointing out one of the restaurants in the bleak, wide street to her cousin, says:

- I remember, last year, your parents brought us here...

- Yes, of course! Those people they had to entertain...

- Yes.

She turns to me:

- For them, it was just the way my cousin described it.

She goes on after a moment:

- When we went to the restaurant in my town...

I think I can carry on her thought:

- ...the oldest one in the region, we certainly ate well, but what I felt most of all was that we were all together, made welcome by hosts who took pleasure in doing so.

Milady gives me a smile. And the Tide Expert:

- It gives me pleasure to hear you say that.

We continue to chat away about this and that. The conversation is pleasant... I ask again about the amusement, which is not much in evidence.

- Well, if you had been older I would have taken you to the casino, says the Tide Expert.

- The casino? Have you already been?

- A couple of times, with a chum.

- Did you gamble?

- Oh, no! I saw him lose enough... well, actually, yes, I did gamble once - and lost, of course!

- Why of course? Is it impossible to win?

- No, it is possible, but it's so unusual...

He breaks off for a moment:

- Everyone here has foolproof methods for winning; the only trouble is, the methods are scientific, or I should say mathematical.

I protest in the name of mathematics:

- But mathematics is the most precise of sciences!

He laughs:

- That's just it! That's why that particular type of science doesn't work!

Right, there must be a flaw in the reasoning somewhere. I listen. He goes on, very brightly:

- The maths is beyond suspicion; but one may suspect the naivety of the casino mathematicians.

He corrects himself:

- I mean those who come to gamble - the beach people, of course - and not the people from the casino itself.

He goes on in a heavily ironic tone of voice:

- The casino mathematicians have calculated what is necessary, mathematically, for the set of gamblers to lose. And, like the set of gamblers, they are themselves the gamblers...

He laughs:

- I advise you not to gamble!

I am quite convinced of that, not least because I am not yet old enough, but:

- There must be some who win, though.

- Yes, and that's what makes the others losers, or nearly all of them.

He takes his time:

- When you see someone win, you say to yourself there's no reason why I shouldn't win too.

I've got it:

- And as the set of gamblers loses...

- ...I don't have to repeat my words of advice!

He adds:

- Especially if the winner wins big; I once saw a vastly rich gambler win a real fortune on a single turn of the wheel.

He pauses:

- He was with friends who were just as rich as he was; neither he nor any of his friends took the slightest notice of the win.

He nods:

- Any more than they took the slightest notice of one of the following bets, which resulted in a loss even bigger than the win.

I can imagine the scene. A question comes to me:

- Those who lose all the time...

I don't know how to phrase my question. The Tide Expert comes to my aid:

- And who realise they'll never win? Of course, there are some who are slaves to their passion and can't resist; but despite all the things you hear, there are very few of them; it's just that they stand out, especially if they're well-known.

He pauses a while:

- The others, the vast majority? They go to the casino the same way they go to the restaurant or the beach or anywhere else, as long as someone has told them to do it.

In the morning, Milady and I set off on a long bike ride in the surrounding countryside. We will come back along the coast road.

- It's all green... she tells me.

I joke:

- All green! That's unusual in the countryside!

She smiles:

- I came this way last year in the car with my aunt and my cousin; I didn't think the road would be so green either.

- Is there a lot of grass, then?

- Yes, but it's not just that...

She adds, with a vague little hand movement:

- You'll tell me what you think.

- Yes; I look forward to seeing it.

Leaving the town where the beach people live, a hill, a steep hill.

- There are quite a lot of hills round here, but this is the only one so steep.

I nearly answered "Shame!", but said nothing. Milady is a good walker, a good rider, but she has trouble with the really steep bits. I...

- You're sorry there aren't more of them!

I laugh:

- How did you know?

- I saw you climb the hill that runs alongside the train.

- Oh, yes! I like that one...

- You seem to be the only one.

We reach the top of the hill.

- You're not even out of breath; and you were really climbing...

She breaks in, showing me the descent that has come quite quickly after the climb:

- Look!

Yes, it's true; in front of me, down below, everything is green. I slow down to get a better view:

- You were right...

- Even the people who live round here are surprised; it rains a lot on this side, but that doesn't explain everything.

An idea comes to me:

- The Geologist...

- The Geologist?

She ponders for a moment:

- You think it depends...

- ...on the soil; yes, maybe.

- Do you think she knows the soil around here?

- No, I don't think so, not really, but maybe she could find out.

- Oh, I'm sure she would, nods Milady; she seems so keen on geology.

She adds:

- And she wants to teach it too.

- Well, we'll ask her when we get back!

After a moment's silence I go on:

- Do you know what made me think about geology?

- No...?

She exclaims, almost at the same time:

- Yes!

- The purple earth?

- Yes! When we were with the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un.

- That's right; it's funny, all these colours.

- It's beautiful... she concludes dreamily.

Now here we are on a pleasant road that takes its time winding between hills and vales. There is green everywhere. I could almost say we are swimming in green, a deep, dense, luminous green, we are drowning in green...

- And are you thinking of teaching poetry? teases Milady, smiling.

I laugh:

- Oh, no! But, you know, I have to show my ability to appreciate...

I hunt for the right words. She suggests, as though she had found the very words that corresponded to what I was thinking:

- Pancakes and cider?

- Pancakes and cider! There's no better way of embarking on in-depth research into...

- ...local specialities!

We laugh.

The road continues to wind prettily through woods and meadows dotted with cows.

- Haven't you noticed how cool it is here?

- Oh, yes, replies Milady; perhaps because it's damper.

- Greener, damper; all we need is the Geologist to give us a real lesson.

- Into the classroom, then!

I pull a face:

- Not yet, not just yet...

A few moments later, a tiny little road bears off to the left.

- If I remember rightly, it's that way.

She stops at the crossroad:

- I'm not really sure...

- Let's try it anyway; we'll see!

I add, after a while:

- It doesn't matter if we're wrong; it's such a lovely road...

- Let's go, then!

Set back a little from the road stands a house. A house like no house I have ever seen before.

- I haven't seen many others like it elsewhere, says Milady; my aunt told me the roof was covered with rushes.

- So there must be ponds.

- Yes, I seem to remember there's one a bit further on; but I think if it's so cool and damp...

A roof thatched with rushes. A steeply sloping roof, steeper than I have seen anywhere else.

- That's so the rainwater slides off the rushes, explains Milady.

- And as the rushes overhang, the water falls...

- ...on the heads of passers-by, she laughs.

- What about the irises on the top of the roof?

- They're very pretty; I think they're there for a purpose, but I've forgotten what my aunt told me.

What a lovely cottage! The walls are half-timbered, like those of the houses in the little streets of Milady's town. But the most remarkable comment, the one most worthy of interest, has been made by Milady:

- Pancakes and cider!

- Here?

- Here!

- Let's go!

- Do you really mean to cycle right into the cottage?

It's true, we are already in front of the house. I find a brilliant answer:

- There's still at least another two wheel-lengths; I can't wait!

Milady says, in a detached tone of voice:

- Pancakes are made with milk.

- Yes, I know. So what?

- It's midday. Milking time isn't until six.

I assume a cunning look:

- Well, in that case I'll just have to go and milk your cow now!

She laughs:

- That's good news! Well, go ahead, then, and come back soon!

I make great milking gestures and say confidently:

- There!

- That was quick!

- I just drew as much as we need!

- You knew how many pancakes?

- A thousand!

- So few?

- Oh, excuse me, I should have been more precise! A thousand each.

- That's better!

Having been held up by our banter, we finally go inside. We are greeted as though we were coming home and seated at a table.

- How do you like your pancakes?

I answer, as though I had been saying it all my life:

- With milk, butter and cream.

I believe Milady has hardly noticed that I was only joking.

The proprietress has come over, given us a warm smile and is asking us what we would like.

- Have you got any apples? asks Milady.

- You've come at just the right time; it's the new crop.

- Do you like apples?

- Yes, very much.

- What would you say to hot apple pancakes?

I cut her off and turn to the proprietress:

- With plenty of cream!

- Of course, she replies, as though she found such an instruction perfectly self-evident.

The proprietress having bustled away, Milady says:

- At last, you're starting to eat properly.

All right, all right; I hope just one cow will be enough...

Two pancakes, cider... a feast! And when it comes down to it, cream isn't as bad as all that.

We are on our way again.

- Look! cries Milady suddenly.

A pond. With rushes.

- Is that where they come from?

- I don't know, but why not?

She adds thoughtfully:

- They look nicer there than on the roof.

A moment:

- But they're useful, on the roof.

Her tone of voice seemed strange.

- Why do you say that?

- I was thinking about flowers.

Flowers...?

- You were thinking about flowers, in a living room?

She nods sadly:

- Yes.

The road widens. We cross another wide road. A small town which I have not yet seen. The sea, with its beach.

We come closer. Milady points out the people on the beach. They don't look like those the Tide Expert told me about during yesterday's walk.

- Here, she tells me, they come as a family, with all their children, little children, toddlers even, which you don't often see where we were yesterday. The parents don't always go swimming. Lots of them don't even put on swimming costumes. Mum knits, gossiping with another mum who knits; Dad reads his newspaper or talks with friends. Grandma and Grandpa are often there too. People know each other.

She stays watching for a moment:

- You'll see when we're with the beach people.

Right; so these are not they. To be honest, I'm not surprised. As far as they're concerned, the beach seems to be just a pleasant place to relax, to meet other people, to let their children play in peace. I know I am going to need to store up patience for tomorrow. But I am definitely curious.

In the meantime, we leave the children to their play and quit the beach and the town to take the road back. A good climb, fairly long, meadows... I complain:

- It's got monotonous...

- You're right, agrees Milady; but if I can just find the right way...

- It's better?

- You can see a long way...

- Like from your cousin's place?

- Oh, no! It's much higher up than that!

- But it's flat here; I can't see any more hills.

- So we must be at the top already!

- That tiny little hill we've just come up?

I correct myself immediately:

- Oh! Sorry!

She laughs:

- Don't worry! I had the wind behind me!

She breaks off:

- Here it is!

- The path?

- Yes.

Turning left, we take a path which tangles its way through bushes and between trees. A few moments later, the trees and bushes tumble down a steep slope, revealing sea as far as the sky.

- No-one will believe what you have just said, and yet it's true, remarks Milady pensively.

I am pensive too:

- So what point is there in saying what's true?

She says nothing for a long while:

- Perhaps one only does it for oneself.

Breakfast. We tell the Tide Expert and his parents about yesterday's bike ride.

- Oh, good; you remembered our trip last year! says the aunt, pleased.

Whereupon she tells us in detail what we should see - and, what's more, not only what we did see but also what we have just told her we saw. The aunt's tale over, the uncle expresses whole-hearted approval:

- It's a very very good thing that you know all that stuff, he assures me.

Now then, Mr. Teacher, would you agree with me if I were to tell you that, my uncle having said one thing and the opposite in the same sentence, he was therefore absolutely right to have done so? To have said what, anyway? That's another story. Milady's discreet little smile clearly showed me that she thoroughly agreed with me.

Now here we are, the three of us, heading off for the beach people's town. And that - the beach, I mean - is precisely where we will go after lunch. In the meantime, we stroll around the approaches to said beach.

- Kites!

The suddenness of my exclamation has surprised Milady and her cousin.

- Haven't you ever seen any before? she asks me.

I hesitate a little:

- Yes, yes... I have seen some before... but...

I point to the sky, filled with aerial toys:

- I've never seen so many!

- I've never seen so many either, says Milady loyally.

She turns to her cousin:

- There weren't any last year?

- There wasn't a breath of wind while you were here, and the year before you came in the spring.

I enquire:

- Is it like this every summer?

- Yes, the Tide Expert answers; I often flew kites when I was younger.

He goes on:

- It's great fun, and not as easy as it looks!

He adds, addressing both of us:

- Do you want to give it a go?

We allow ourselves to be tempted.

- Let's go and fetch them; I've still got them somewhere!

We complete the round trip at a rapid clip. Now here we are, the two of us, in possession of two kites. The Tide Expert instructs us. The principle is hardly complicated. All you have to do is make sure that the... glider, in fact, is positioned to take the wind, and Bob's your uncle.

We get started.

Milady gets it right first time and her kite lifts off towards the little white clouds which loiter about in the sky. In fact, it has lifted off so well that it believes it has escaped human willpower for good and, taking flight, has torn away from the hand which had been holding it. All we have to do now, the three of us, is to run towards the place where the kite has decided to land. Only it doesn't seem to have any clear idea. Or maybe it's just teasing us. No sooner do we close up on it than it flies off again over our heads - and our hands! But our patience, and in the end the Tide Expert's agility, finally get the better of it. And here is the capricious kite, back in our instructor's hands.

My turn! Well, that didn't take long. A sudden lift, an impetuous dive, a crash.

- Try again! Milady and her cousin urge me.

Again? Oh, no! Once is enough.

The morning advances. It will soon be lunch time. Not far from the beach where we will be going after lunch there are little shops selling everything you need for the seaside. Light dresses, glasses so as not to see the sun you've come to see, pretty handbags to put the sunglasses in, towels so that you don't stay wet with seawater because that's unpleasant, balls for the children who aren't there, sandals to walk on the sand on which you walk barefoot, scarves to protect your head from the sun, bonnets to protect your hair from the sea water...

- Windmills! cries Milady.

She has grabbed a wooden stick, to the end of which is fixed a sort of little propeller with four broad blades, all in shiny colours. She has blown on it and the whole thing has started to turn, glinting as it does so.

- I know someone who's going to be happy! she adds.

I agree happily:

- Curly and Buttons!

- And the twins and their little chum!

I laugh:

- Oh! and you can add the Economist and the Geologist... and me too!

She laughs as well:

- Not to mention the Little 'Un who lost his propeller!

- And his sister, otherwise she'll be jealous!

- And Cheerful, because he likes aeroplanes!

The Tide Expert has listened to all this patiently, eyes switching from one to the other:

- Do you run a holiday camp for kids or something?

We explain. He purses his lips, nodding:

- And can you tell the little children from the big?

- It's easy, Milady answers innocently, you get them to blow and you see how fast the windmill turns.

I reckon my cat will be most interested in the glinting, whirling colours. Great fun in prospect!

Noon.

- Let's go and have lunch, suggests the Tide Expert, and he heads for a sort of esplanade between the kites and the beach.

- This is where the beach people meet up; as we'll see the beach later, we'll have lunch here.

He turns to me:

- That way, you'll be edified!

The public is very elegant. Here we are, settled in wide and comfortable wooden armchairs, some sort of tropical wood no doubt, like the wood of the table, a white which dazzles the sun. The Tide Expert waves once, then again, and again. An off-handed waiter finally arrives and asks us off-handedly if there is something we want. At least, I suppose that is what he asks, because he has merely said a "Yes...?" which could just about pass muster as a question. And as people at the nearby tables are eating or drinking or not doing anything, I wonder whether he thinks that we have come for lunch. No matter; the Tide Expert has ordered, though without any great precision.

- Whatever I ask for, he'll bring us things that taste more or less the same, he tells me with a sarcastic smile.

Slightly surprised, I ask:

- Do they only serve one dish here, then?

He keeps smiling:

- No, that's just it; the things they serve have different names.

I understood when, after a while, I was able to see and taste the things that had arrived on their plates. Bad, you might suppose? I really couldn't say.

The beach. It is long. Does it ever stop? Off to the left, an hour's bike ride away, where the children were playing, where Grandma and Grandpa also came, there was already a beach, which seemed to go on even further. How far? For ever? What would happen if the beaches were infinite and if all mankind was on them? What would they do?

Well, let's see what they do do. The few children I can see playing do what their age requires them to do. They are doing something. I feel myself to be somewhere between a child and a grown-up. I still like to play and I'm not ashamed of it. But I can also feel that something is beginning to be expected of me. What? It's not yet very specific. But I certainly expect something of grown-ups. When I was little, it was food. Who could I have asked for that on the beach? The beach people aren't there. They're too busy doing nothing.

"You'll see when we're with the beach people", Milady had said to me the day before yesterday. "You'll understand when we go to the beach", she had said to me yesterday. I have seen. I have understood.

Four o'clock. The sun has come to mirror itself in the sea. The tide is going out. In a few hours, the sea will gradually cover the beach again. And it will all start again. For ever and ever, amen. And when will the beach people get up?

Breakfast.

- What would you say to crusted fillet of sole with cream and mushroom? asks the Tide Expert merrily.

Before Milady and I have time to answer, his father has looked up:

- A win at the races?

- Absolutely!

- Your friend's horse?

- Oh, no! laughs the Tide Expert; his didn't even get out of the starting gate!

The father laughs, shaking his head:

- He's not likely to get any others, then...

The mother says nothing; the races do not seem to be among her concerns. In contrast, she never forgets the butter and cream. "Much more important", she must think.

- As you've just heard, explains the Tide Expert, I have a friend who races; I mean, who races horses.

- Horses? cuts in his father; he's only got one!

- Excuse me! One and a leg!

I exclaim:

- A leg?

- Yes, he says with a grin; that means there are four of them to one horse.

- Four can't race....

Fortunately the penny drops, saving me from ridicule:

- ...but they can buy; that makes four shares.

I add, with an innocent air:

- Just as long as it's not a donkey...

Silence. Then Milady:

- ...and no-one's talked its hind leg off...

Silence. Then the Tide Expert:

- You're a smart one, aren't you!

His father smiles merrily. His mother smiles kindly.

So here we are now, off for a small seaside town, a fishing port, about an hour's bike-ride away.

- Let's go by car, it's less tiring, says the Tide Expert.

- Have you got a car?

- Sure, he tells me with authority.

Then he adds with a smile:

- When my father is willing to lend me his!

It is of course much quicker by car. And there is not much to regret in going fast, since there's no countryside to speak of, just a dreary succession of villages which owe their livelihood to the beach people. The sea is still the sea. It has come towards us, covering the beach. The port, where the river that flows through Milady's home town meets the sea, is coming nearer.

A large house. An imitation of the hot-apple-and-cream-pancakes-with-cider house. The imitation is certainly more beautiful than the half-timbered cottage with its roof of rushes and iris. It is large, it is long, it is spacious. Beautiful flower beds. "Tame flowers", Milady has called them. We are welcomed worthily. We have come to theirs, we have not returned to ours. Worthy waiters fuss around us, attentive to our wants. If we were to ask them if they had apples, would they reply: "You've come at just the right time?" I am by no means certain. And would I say to them: "With plenty of cream"? I am by no means certain of that either. Lovely surroundings. No-one to say nay. We are not in a house, we are in a restaurant. A famous one. The sole fillets: yes, they were good. Very good, actually. It could not be otherwise here. The Tide Expert, who knows about these things, has greedily recited the recipe to us:

- Today, crusted fillet of sole with cream and mushroom for everyone! The recipe is simple but... it does have its secrets. First, you flash-fry your large sole fillets and place them on a piece of puff pastry with some mushrooms. But not just any mushrooms! Oh no! Only whole girolles will do! - cooked with shallots and a little cream. Then you close the puff pastry around the fillets and place in a hot oven for quarter of an hour. The sauce is served on the side: more girolles, fried and flambéed, cream, of course, and a small amount of veal stock to give colour and flavour. Tasty, wouldn't you say?

- Yes; and as there wouldn't be enough cream inside the crust, of course you add some on the side... I said slyly.

And the fishing port?

- You said the restaurant was in a fishing port.

- Oh, it's not far. A couple of minutes in the car, answers the Tide Expert.

He continues

- We are going there; but it'll take us an hour.

- Why, do we have to push the car?

- When you've seen the hill we're going to climb, I don't think you'll be quite so keen on pushing the car!

- I didn't imagine for a moment that I would be doing the pushing.

The Tide Expert laughs:

- You're a smart one, aren't you?

- It's a very pretty road which runs over the hill you can see in front of you and ends in the port, Milady tells me; we went there last year with my aunt.

After going back the way we came for a few minutes, we turn left and climb the hill. It is true that pushing the car would have been... But fortunately there's nothing wrong with it. We reach the top. Contrary to what I had supposed, you can't see the sea. We are in a garden. A garden full of trees which seem to have settled there as neighbours for a friendly chat. Why that odd impression? They form a little group, around a clearing. They're not too close to each other, nor too far apart. Just the right distance for holding a conversation and for listening. A little further on, another group, similar to the first. And then some more. Is it a forest, then? Or at the very least a wood? No. A large clearing with a scattering of trees? Not that either.

A large room, in which you are sometimes in the middle, sometimes at an edge, sometimes tucked away in a corner.

A steep downhill. Very steep!

- Wouldn't you like to ride up it? murmurs Milady.

The Tide Expert nearly lets go of the steering wheel:

- You'd climb this?

I hardly dare answer.

- I've already seen him ride up an even steeper hill, and it was cobbled to boot!

The Tide Expert ponders his cousin's words for a good while:

- We'll have him run with the horses!

I have not been able to prevent myself from replying:

- Oh, I couldn't do that, it's on the flat!

Which gives the two cousins a good laugh.

At the bottom of the hill we enter the small town. Quiet old houses which seem not to have anything to say to me. And yet I know that they have talked to many people. To painters in particular. The Tide Expert said so on the way here. So why do I hear nothing? The houses are lovely in the same way that the crusted fillet of sole with cream and mushrooms was lovely. In the lovely restaurant, there was sole; what is there in the lovely houses? I don't know, the lovely houses do not seem disposed to invite me in. I have listened but heard nothing. I have seen them, that is all. Perhaps it is enough for painters to paint what they see, either because, like me, they find there is nothing to hear, or because they seek to paint only what they see.

This morning, the three of us are going to the station. Are we already going to be taking the train? No, we don't leave until tomorrow. For the time being, we're just going to look up the train times.

- There's a good train that goes via the capital... starts the Tide Expert.

We chorus:

- No, no, not via the capital!

- Really? Why not?

- Well, there are two reasons. The first is that your cousin doesn't want to.

- Yes, that doesn't surprise me.

- The second is that I don't want to.

The Tide Expert laughs:

- And the third reason is that neither of you want to!

We chorus:

- No, we don't want to!

- So let's have a look at the alternatives.

Still in chorus:

- Yes, let's have a look!

It is easier said than done.

- Rather hard, actually, admits Milady.

Against one of the station walls, large revolving signboards. On each side of each signboard, train times. We look for the name of my little town.

- There's no train to your place from here, observes the Tide Expert.

- No, of course not; we had to change twice just to get to mine, answers his cousin.

I say:

- Let's look for the station we changed at.

- But we were going to mine, not here; it may not be the same station.

- Don't you remember, I looked up the train times before leaving and there were trains from that station to both yours and here.

We look for the station. We find the station.

- You've got nearly three hours to wait, the Tide Expert points out.

- Oh no!

- Oh no!

What can we do? We turn the signboards again and again. Nothing shows up.

- What if you looked at a plan of the network instead of just turning the signboards?

- A plan? Where? asks Milady.

- Here!

And he shows us the first page of the first signboard: there is the plan, large as life.

After a long moment of confusion I cry:

- What about that line? It connects directly with the line that goes to our place.

- 342! cries Milady.

The Tide Expert calmly turns the signboards until he gets to number 342:

- It won't be easy; we'll have to check all the connections.

We check them. Not without difficulty; one train leaves before the other arrives, one doesn't stop at the station where the connection is to be made...

I point to the timetable:

- That's the right one!

- Yes, but it's not enough, the other line still doesn't go to our place, protests Milady.

- No, but you can catch your train at the station after, the Tide Expert shows us.

Our quest is over. Victory! But four connections all the same.

- And it's just as well you're leaving on a Wednesday because some of the trains only run on weekdays, points out the Tide Expert.

All we have to do now is get the tickets.

- What are you doing here? Are you off somewhere?

A tall and energetic young man has vigorously thumped the Tide Expert's shoulder. The Tide Expert turns to me with a smile:

- This is the chap with the leg!

- What do you mean? I've got two perfectly good ones!

And he adds, addressing me:

- And a horse!

He turns to Milady:

- You already know that.

The Tide Expert introduces me.

- Have you ever been to the races? One Leg asks me.

- No, never.

- I have to go and see my horse before the race; would you like to come with me?

Milady and I look at each other. I answer:

- Why not?

- And you're coming with us too, aren't you? finishes up One Leg, giving the Tide Expert's shoulder another thump.

We take the beach people's bleak, wide street. We walk past the harbour, er, I mean the tea shop. I would happily have docked in for a while but we have too much to do, judging by the pace at which we are walking.

- The horses are right by the racecourse, One Leg tells me.

It is doubtless important information, but as I don't know where the racecourse is...

Now we are walking past the tables of a white which dazzles the sun and on which you don't know whether what you eat is good or bad. There is less temptation to make a docking manoeuvre. A bit further on, I can see a large building. I enquire:

- What is it?

One Leg has glanced over quickly:

- It's the swimming pool.

- There's a swimming pool? In there?

My question seems to surprise him:

- Yes; why, haven't you ever seen an indoor swimming pool?

- Yes, but I thought at the seaside...

- It's for winter too; it's heated.

He adds:

- It's seawater.

- Like the one on the other beach. I hope you don't put so much seawater in your swimming pools that there's none left in the sea.

One Leg has clearly not got the joke, which I admit was not terribly funny but which I still think called for an appropriate response. I'm sure that Milady... And indeed, I can see she's trying hard not to giggle.

The Tide Expert to One Leg:

- Oh, he's a smart one!

One Leg still looks uncomprehending…

- Let's go and see my horse. He's running this afternoon!

The Tide Expert, under his breath:

- If he gets out of the starting gate...

One Leg explodes:

- It's that bloody hoop! I must have told him twenty times...

More colourful comments follow, highly unflattering to the contents of the hoop's head - I've no idea what a hoop might be - but more than complimentary about the hoop's unfortunate victim.

I ask:

- What's a hoop?

- The chap who rides the horse, One Leg tells me, slightly surprised.

- That's what they call them here, whispers Milady, aware of my ignorance of the word, used only in certain racing circles.

Here we are. A long row of stalls, each containing a horse. Some of them have looked out as we go by. A few men busy with a few horses. We stop at one. One Leg starts a conversation with the horse, short but serious, I would say, in a friendly way. It's his, it would seem. The horse looks at us all.

- Look how happy he is to see me! declares One Leg with enormous satisfaction.

There follows a long paean of praise to the modest quadruped, who has already withdrawn his head inside the stall, no doubt so as not to be embarrassed by his master's compliments.

- Here, have an apple, they're the new season's, I got them specially for you!

And the master, issuing a stream of advice, holds out the apple to his charge.

- Right! Now let's go and get ready for the race! exclaims One Leg.

- We're the ones who are going to be running on the racecourse, Milady says to me with a laugh.

- What do we get if we win? I ask portentously.

- Stiff, answers One Leg portentously.

Nice one. He's beginning to get my humour.

A few hundred paces and we are at the race course.

It's big, it's wide, it's vast, it's empty. The track the horses run on... well, I'm not going to repeat what I've just said, am I? What would Teacher say? Let me just say that the turf on the track is much, much, much better than the turf in my garden. Repetition? Yes. And does no-one ever repeat anything to me? So the right to repeat oneself differs with age, then? I could get things wrong in every possible subject, I would still get, repeatedly, the same bad mark. Especially as here, I get the impression that this type of question is not to be raised in connection with this marvellous turf which has no purpose. "Excuse me, but here it does actually have some purpose, sometimes", One Leg has pointed out to me with some irritation. I have not wanted to increase his irritation by repeating - again - what Milady has told me: that there are tracks on famous racecourses which are used only twice a year. "And their turf is even finer than this", she has told me. No need to add that she gave me this information when no-one else could hear.

We're off, on the turf. In a trot? At a gallop? Oh, no! Pacing slowly, eyes skinned, stopping at each slight irregularity on the ground. A divot here that I hadn't managed to see, a bump there, equally invisible to my eyes. And still grumbling, ahead of time, about the "bloody hoop" who never understands what he's told, however obvious it might seem. It is a lengthy stroll, peppered with learned comment which shows how much better One Leg's horse is than all the others and highlights the bad luck which afflicts the poor animal. Because otherwise... But it is not only bad luck, it is also all the devilish plots cooked up by rival owners who, for some unknown reason, will keep on trying to get their own horse to win. Dishonestly, I suppose? "No, that's not it at all", One Leg has said. All right, then. What is it, then? It's bad luck, which afflicts One Leg only. All that is rather confused, but what can I do about it? I'm just the recorder.

The stroll comes to an end. One Leg says "No-one else does what I do!" He adds, just to make sure that his point has been fully understood: "that bloody hoop!" For example: "I'm the only who does this." So why doesn't he win more often? Of course, the way he tells it, the other owners have more horses; their chances are better. No, no, no! His horse didn't ought to have lost. "That bloody hoop!"...

Noon.

- Let's have some lunch! says One Leg.

Where do we go? Oh no! The tables of a white which dazzles the sun, on which you don't know whether what you eat is good or bad.

- Do you want to try the best speciality of the whole region? One Leg asks me. What can I say?

- Love to! I answer brightly.

- My pleasure! he replies. Well, he's right there. He goes on:

- Have you already had tripe?

I am very familiar with tripe. And like it. I answer cautiously:

- Yes...

- This place has the best tripe in the whole region!

I have been careful not to look at Milady and the Tide Expert who, it seems to me, have done the same.

And so, without repeating myself, we ate tripe.

- Now let's go and see my horse win! exclaims One Leg after the meal.

Milady and I exchange an inquiring look. Well, after all, as we're already there... And it will give me another slant on the place.

We reach the racecourse at about three o'clock, for the start of the third. The third race, of course. One Leg's horse is running in the fifth, at about four o'clock.

- You told me you'd put him down for the fourth, comments the Tide Expert.

- I noticed that it was a seller.

- A seller?

- It's a race where the owner auctions his horse if it wins, the Tide Expert tells me; and as he wants to hang on to his steed...

- You may mock now, but we'll see who has the last laugh!

- Well, I hope it's you, retorts the Tide Expert, because you've told me to back it!

- An hour from now, we'll be rich!

A sceptical pursing of the lips...

In the meantime, the third has just finished. I have heard it from the silence that has fallen on the racecourse. Suddenly a stentorian voice rings out:

"Payyyyinoutpayinoutpayinout!"

I turn round, surprised. A big, ruddy-faced man wearing a crumpled sort of overall made of rough old canvas of an ill-defined but dark colour, with a large leather satchel slung across his chest, shouts tirelessly. Another man nods and hails him:

- Payinout!

The shouter goes up to him; the other man holds out a handful of tickets and the shouter gives him some banknotes.

The Tide Expert, who has followed the scene and my gaze, explains:

- The shouter buys winning tickets from punters who don't want to waste their time going to collect their winnings.

- Oh, I see! He's paying out!

I laugh:

- I hadn't even understood what he was saying!

The Tide Expert laughs too:

- Yes, well, if you aren't used to it...

He goes on:

- And he takes two per cent commission.

- Good business!

- Not half!

He adds:

- Everyone at the racecourse knows him, they call him "Payinout".

The fourth is imminent. One Leg has gone to give his final instructions to "that bloody hoop".

- What does he call him when he wins?

- He doesn't win often enough for me to have found out! answers the Tide Expert with a grin.

- That's a bit rich! says Milady; didn't you tell me you'd already had plenty of winners thanks to his advice?

- Yes, but only when he tells me to back another horse than the one he's riding!

Meanwhile, all around us, everyone has their heads in a specialist newspaper.

- The paper tells them what to bet on, the Tide Expert tells me.

- Is there only one?

- No, says Milady, there are several and they all contradict each other.

- Don't the punters have their own opinions?

- Well, some of them do, says the Tide Expert; those who really know their stuff, who spend all day studying the form books.

- All day?...

My naivety makes him smile:

- It's their job!

- Their job is to know whether one horse runs faster than another?

Milady is much less astonished than I am:

- Aren't there people whose job is to know who kicks a ball best?

Meanwhile, all around us the punters are chattering.

- See that? They've got five down to win in the fourth!

- My taxi driver swore blind it would be the ace!

- Look, they tag the ace here too, but point out that he lost last week.

- So put on an each-way bet.

- At those odds?

- Yes, but at least it's safer.

- The trainer seemed to be in a good mood just now.

- You see him?

- No, but that's what I heard.

- Who from?

- I don't know, there was a whole bunch of them.

- But he said on the radio that...

I gave up listening. I even gave up the idea of asking the meaning of the words I didn't fully understand. What was the point?

The fourth is under way. I can see the horses all bunched together. Then some of them get ahead of the others. The horses aren't the only ones running. The spectators are running with them. Not with their legs though: they run, jump and gallop with their voices:

- Come on, two!

- Go round him!

- Faster! Faster!

- Look out! He'll have you on the inside!

- He's really going now!

- That's it! That's it!

- Oh, no!

- Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

- By a head!...

The Tide Expert points out a roofed grandstand.

- That's for the owners. The one you can see there is one of the richest, he owns dozens of racehorses, some of them very famous.

Right at the top stands a man, quite young, handsome and elegant, wearing morning dress and a grey top hat, a pair of large binoculars in a leather case slung over his shoulder, watching motionless as the horses come to the finishing line. At the last moment he has taken out his binoculars in a casual but sure movement, watched the exact time they pass the winning post, put his binoculars away in the same way and, without a word, without showing the slightest emotion, left the grandstand.

Wednesday. Six forty-six a.m. The train is taking Milady and I to our little town.

- It's the sixteenth of August, the holidays are half-over, Milady says softly.

- Yes...

I ponder for a moment:

- Are you thinking about the start of term?

- And you?

I nod slowly:

- I have thought about it too.

I ponder for a moment:

- Your uncle...

She cuts in:

- ...told me there's a very good girls' school in the same town as your school.

- I know it well; I've got schoolfriends with sisters or cousins who go there.

I continue:

- It really is a very good school; you'll do very well there.

- You can tell that to my father.

- To your father?

- To my father.

- He won't want to?

Milady says nothing for a long time, which I do not interrupt.

- We have to change here!

She adds quickly:

- We'll talk in the other train; there's no more time now.

The train pulls into the town where we had already made a change on the outward journey, coming from Milady's town.

- I hope we'll have a steam train, like when we went to my town, she frets.

She frowns:

- There's bound to be an empty compartment; that way we can talk undisturbed.

Eighteen minutes to wait.

- When I come here in the car with my parents...

She breaks off:

- Of course! The railway line runs not far from the village where my mother's parents live; the countryside around the village is very nice.

She smiles:

- That's funny, it was the compartment that made me think of it...

- Because it's quiet?

- Yes, quiet... calm.

- Shall we go there? I'd really like that.

I add straight away:

- I'd really like to get to know your family better!

She nods:

- Yes, yes...

A slight pause:

- That'll be good.

Another pause:

- There's a station...

- We can look up the times when we get back!

- Yes, yes!

A cloud of smoke announces our train...

Both together:

- A steam train!

Quick, quick, an empty compartment. We pull the curtains on the corridor side. Fifty-three minutes of peace and quiet.

We travel in silence for a while, watching the stream that runs alongside us amid the lush meadows where the cows graze.

- I have no idea what my father will say, carries on Milady after a while; he's always taken up with his business at the port.

- I know how it is; my father's never there when I want to talk about something to do with me.

- We seem to have the same father.

- Only, it's yours that everything depends on.

She says nothing for a while:

- When he's not at the port, he does what my mother says; out of distraction, because he's thinking about something else - at the port of course.

- In that case we do indeed have the same father; I would say that mine does what my mother says without even being aware of it.

We are silent.

- So...

My sentence tails off. She picks it up:

- ...we might as well do whatever we can.

I ponder:

- Maybe we should have gone back to yours.

Milady shakes her head:

- No; my father would say we have plenty of time to think about it.

- But wouldn't it be too late then?

- If he had to take a decision quickly, he'd be happy not to have to think about it any more.

- But what about registering?

- If you're moving, you can register whenever.

- Yes, I know.

She glances at me:

- You found out too.

I nod. She smiles:

- So everything will be fine, then!

I hug her:

- Everything will be fine!

We travel in silence, watching the stream that runs alongside us amid the lush meadows where the cows graze.

- Oh! I think this is where we change!

A big town. Yes, it's here, as we saw on the timetable.

Thirteen minutes; we have plenty of time - especially to catch a two-coacher. And then only another twenty minutes before the next change. We don't even bother to sit down and stay standing near the door, not looking out through the window at the meadows fringed with wooded hills. Another eight minutes in which to hop from one two-coacher into another, and in thirty-six minutes we'll be on the line that goes to our village, where we will get in at eleven twenty-three, having passed through the little town where the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un live.

And yet the train we're on doesn't run through just any old place. Five minutes after leaving...

- Look!

Milady looks:

- The river?

- Yes.

- Why do you want me to look at it? I mean, it's pretty, but...

- It's here, a bit further on, where we had the picnic with the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un.

- Yes, I remember, I really liked the river.

She adds, with a smile:

- You knew we'd be coming this way!

- I saw the name of the station on the timetable; it was to be a surprise.

The train stops.

- Why don't we get off and have a picnic? exclaims Milady, springing up and grabbing her suitcase.

- It's a thirty-mile walk.

She sits back down with a laugh:

- You knew there weren't any more trains!

- You too.

Both together:

- It was to be a surprise!

And we laugh, both together.

The train leaves. Another five minutes.

- That's the same river coming towards us, Milady tells me.

I feign surprise:

- Are you sure?

- No, not at all. And you?

- How on earth am I supposed to see a river? I've got the sun in my eyes!

She rescues me:

- I'll tell you what there is to see.

She waves in the direction of the river:

- Can you see my hand?

- I can just about make it out.

- The river's that way. Can you see it?

- No.

- It doesn't matter, I'm here; listen!

She explains:

- The river lazily wends its way through the meadow; shafts of sunlight strike sparkling reflections off its surface...

Smiling, I murmur:

- You don't need to pass any exams in poetry; you are poetry itself!

The train has pulled into the station of our village, just in time for lunch. I accompany Milady back to her place. We are welcomed with open arms. A flood of questions about our trip. A flood of different answers. After nearly an hour, the aunt stems the flow. "Otherwise we'll never get our lunch!" she declares. I go back home.

How did he know? I'm not making this up, really I'm not. It's not as though I'm writing a novel in which you can put whatever you like because that's what suits you and, above all, because you hope it will please the reader. I'm keeping a diary. So how did he know? How did who know what? What? That I was coming. Who? Who do you think? I'm sure you've guessed. No? Not yet? You're doing it on purpose to make me come out with it. All right, all right: my cat! Yes! There he was, sitting at the garden gate watching me come up the road!

Lunch is ready. And what's for lunch? Guess. "You told me it was so horrible", my mother has said with a smile. Now you've guessed, haven't you? No? Not yet? You're doing it on purpose to make me come out with it. All right, all right: tripe!

Lunch is a merry meal. My mother is all smiles, my father seems to be absolutely delighted. He tells me that travel broadens the mind, finding out things you didn't know before. Like the port.

- Very big for a river port; a lot of tonnage! he declares.

He adds, nodding his head to give weight to his remarks:

- Did you think to visit it? Your friend's parents must know where it is.

He had said the same thing before I left, but unfortunately in the future, not the past. Why unfortunately? Because otherwise I would simply have copied what I had already written, which I have just re-read.

On that subject, I almost say something sarcastic when my father says that finding out things you didn't know before broadens the mind. But I think about it while he explains the port to me. Is it so sure that there is nothing to find out in what we know already? So I hold my tongue.

As my father is manifestly waiting to know whether I visited the port or not, I give him my report.

- In the port there are many ships three hundred feet long with a cargo capacity of three to four thousand tons and a hull of only a few hundred tons. There are also bigger ships with a maximum length of eight hundred feet with a cargo capacity of a hundred thousand tons and a hull of fifteen thousand tons. Loading and unloading are constant, performed by a hundred or so cranes, each a hundred feet high. The cargoes are mostly oil, citrus fruit and vegetables.

I have learnt my lesson well, as you can see.

My father didn't say anything, but his face shone as I described the port. My mother didn't move, fork in hand.

The garden is full after lunch. Everyone is there. The Economist and the Geologist, who have climbed over the wall, Curly and Buttons, who have come in from the street, the twins and their little chum who have come from... I really couldn't say where.

I will no longer bother asking questions. Obviously my cat has told them all that I've just got back. I am being feted.

And here comes Milady on her bike, windmills turning frenetically, whistling and sparkling. The garden has come to a standstill, open-mouthed. Well, actually, the open mouths are those of the twins and their little chum. Curly and Buttons clap. The Economist and the Geologist laugh.

- There's no shortage of propellers now, exclaims the Economist.

- Now the Little 'Un will be able to come by plane instead of by train, adds the Geologist.

My cat, having shot out of the cherry tree, is now at Milady's feet, ready to spring on the windmills. Milady hands them round.

A merry afternoon. Milady and I do not forget to mention the green valley to the Geologist who, greatly intrigued, promises to find out more.

Today, Milady is busy with her uncle and aunt.

The milk fetched, the two-pounder bought, breakfast taken, all I have left to do is run my mother's errands. I get my bike and ride out as usual through the garden gate, which is always open.

- Where are you going? calls Curly from her window.

- Running errands!

- We've got some too, Buttons and me! Can we come with you?

- Of course!

- We're coming!

We're on our way. As always, we take the path along the aqueduct.

- Was the sea good? Buttons asks me.

To tell the truth, I am slightly taken aback. I had never thought you could say whether the sea was good or not. In fact, I don't suppose I had ever thought you could say anything at all about it. As my thoughts delay my answer, Buttons goes on:

- Didn't you like it?

I open my arms wide, taking my hands off the handlebars:

- There's a lot of water.

Curly and Buttons have slowed down, rather surprised. I go on, hesitating a little:

- I'd already seen pictures of the sea...

- Me too, says Curly.

A moment later:

- Is it all blue?

- Like the sky? adds Buttons.

I take one hand off the handlebars:

- Yes, it's blue...

A moment:

- It's very big... You can see a long way...

- I doesn't look very big on the pictures, remarks Curly.

- Well, it's not like a lake, of course, but it does come to an end, nods Buttons.

I have taken a hand off the handlebars again:

- When you look into the distance, you can't tell what's sea and what's sky.

- The sky comes down into the sea? exclaims Buttons.

- No, no; but everything's blue, when you look into the distance.

- How do the boats manage? frets Curly.

We have stopped to go into a shop. On the doorstep, I answer:

- When the boats are out there, they can see even farther.

Before entering the shop Buttons says:

- You won't go there any more?

Curly:

- You'll stay here!

The afternoon finds me back in my cherry tree. I think I spend more time dreaming than writing. What about? I don't know really. Our trip, Milady's friends and family, the races, the good meals - I don't mean the table of a white which dazzles the sun. But I was there with Milady, so everything was good.

About her father most of all. "We might as well do whatever we can", she had said.

And then the green valley, whatever its geology - but don't tell the Geologist! - and the hot apple pancakes - "With plenty of cream!" - and cider.

- You could have brought some back for me, miaows my cat.

Ten to six, this morning; I take the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood. Milady, wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, has come towards me:

- Good day, sire! she says with her lilting voice, giving me a welcoming smile.

- Good day, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I enquire:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

She adds, still smiling:

- Shall I fill the jug?

I nod. We set off. The jug is full. I proffer a coin. Milady looks at it:

- Gold, sire? Here is your change!

Milady hands me silver.

- Thank you, milady!

She gives me a bright smile. I ask her:

- Will you tune your voice to that of my Boisselot, after this noon, Milady?

- If it is your fingers that make it sing I shall be there, sire.

- I take my leave, milady.

- You may do so, sire.

Three o'clock. Schumann, opus 48 no. 12. My Boisselot sings tenderly, Milady responds sweetly. The trip has not made us forget what we had studied before leaving. We repeat the song, never tiring of it, and each time there is a note, an inflection, a rest, a tie, a note that needs to sound in a chord, that we hadn't noticed before. Each time we begin again, I feel as though I am penetrating deeper and deeper into a dream, a dream in which I find Schumann and Milady. I can feel it in the note Milady has picked out of Schumann's dreams and which she brings to me with her voice still full of them.

The song has ended. Now I have to bring us back to earth, Milady and me, without the slightest bump. My Boisselot is there, and when I talk to it, it answers me.

Now we are in the garden, Milady and I. A nice cool drink would not go amiss. And my mother has made us cream puffs. She gives Milady a smile:

- I can't be having you without cream.

Milady has tried a cream puff and smiles back:

- They're as good as at home!

My mother goes happily back to the kitchen.

The cream puffs, however good, have not made us forget Schumann.

- After the inverted tonic chord over the dominant, when you play the last bar, slightly faster than the one before, it's as though you have come to wake me; your hand takes mine when you play the last notes - B flat, F, D - resolution.

She pauses:

- You arrive softly beside me, in that soothing, descending phrase just before, which comes from a held breath...

She pauses again:

- The fifth... B flat, F... tonic, dominant... An almost mute breath that you hear with the soul...

She sings very softly:

- ...F, E, C, A, F...

Just a thread of sound:

- ...B flat.

Then spoken, still very softly:

- And your hand...

This morning, when I get to Milady's, I am greeted by... Curly and Buttons!

- She's on. You too?

They have both spoken at the same time and I haven't really understood.

- Yes, are you on? they repeat, still together.

I laugh:

- Yes, yes, of course! But I don't know what...

- We're going to go swimming in the little lake in the middle of the woods, cuts in Curly.

- It's better than in the sea, Buttons assures me.

- Are you sure? I ask.

- You said so yourself! answers Curly in her stead.

Buttons nods her head vigorously:

- That's right, you said so yourself!

I didn't know that, but I would beware of contradicting them.

- Right then, we'll go and tell the Economist and the Geologist, says Curly, considering my consent to be final.

And they run off to carry the good news, though not before calling back to Milady:

- Don't forget the chickens!

And I heard Buttons, just as the two friends were heading off:

- I hope they're awake!

I turn to Milady:

- If I understand aright, all you have to do now is cook the chickens.

- They're already on.

I go and get the two-pounder. Breakfast. A couple of errands for my mother, with Curly and Buttons already nipping at my heels:

- Get a move on!

I get a move on. We pick up the Economist and the Geologist and here we are, the six of us, at Milady's.

- Oh, you're taking the plane! she exclaims, smiling at Curly and Buttons; we'll have trouble keeping up with you.

Taking the plane? I look. There are the windmills, fixed in all their glory to the two girls' handlebars. Now I see why they had insisted on riding ahead of us; they didn't want us to see the windmills until we were all together. Their ploy has worked. The Economist and the Geologist, who hadn't seen them either, make admiring noises. The two aviators strike a theatrical pose.

- Time for take-off! they cry as one.

- You're going to be hungry up there, cautions Milady; perhaps you ought to take the chickens.

The aviators are not in the least disconcerted.

- We'll catch some ducks, says Curly.

- And cook them in the heat of the sun, adds Buttons.

But for all their optimism, they still hurry off into the kitchen.

It makes us all smile. No-one has the heart to point out that the aviators' saddlebags were already overflowing with provisions.

We're on our way. The aqueduct, running through wheatfields harvested long ago. The sunken village. The long, long hill, at the top of which stands the old castle. The downhill stretch and the steep rise with the large, rounded cobbles I so much like to climb.

Now we are in the woods where our little lake nestles. We follow the path which takes all its time to get there, twisting to the right, then to the left... It's not hot, the path, and in no hurry to get to the cool water. Ah, there it is at last, the little lake, surrounded by trees like a jewel in its casket. The stream which feeds it has discovered the sky above its course and a slight breeze has joined the party. It caresses the lake, which shivers with pleasure.

Into the water! We swim and dive and race - which is no easy matter, the lake is so small. You've hardly set off than you've reached the other side. So why race, then? Who said anything about racing? We're just having fun. And we can race just as well on the grass - which we do, in the same way as in the lake. And how is that?

- How on earth should we know? we protest, all six of us, in perfect harmony.

Having finished the not-race, it's time for the picnic. The chicken are cooked to a T and, as everyone has brought something - as we had already seen with Curly and Buttons - we lack nothing.

- I found out, the Geologist tells us.

- About what? asks Curly, ever curious.

I tell her about the green valley.

- It's better than the sea, she concludes.

- In that case it's not worth going to see the sea, adds Buttons.

- Here's what I found, goes on the Geologist.

- Watch out, children, cries the Economist, geology lesson ahead!

- Oh, but I love it! exclaims Buttons.

She goes on, sounding very convinced:

- I don't understand a thing, but I love to hear the words.

- Me too! chips in Curly.

- Watch out though, the Economist warns them; there'll be a quiz.

A moment of doubt among the two aviators. But, after exchanging a grimace, they chorus:

- We weren't there for the last lesson!

Laughter, interrupted by the Geologist:

- Silence in class, otherwise I'll send the chatterboxes to the corner in the middle of the lake!

- Oh, yes, please do, please do, cry the aviators, clapping their hands.

More laughter, but the Geologist, imperturbable, has already begun her lesson:

- Secondary epoch, upper Jurassic, Malm, Oxfordian, Villers clay.

She ends with a flourish:

- Very damp soil particularly conducive to the growth of dense vegetation.

- A pity the text books don't say that it's beautiful and that you feel good there, adds Milady pensively.

I didn't take the steep cobbled rise on the way back. The road that runs around is quite steep too and I helped the aviators, pushing them from time to time, one after the other.

Sunday. Market day, when everyone is out and about. My mother has come to do some shopping. My bags are ready to carry everything back home. Milady has come to meet me and we stroll among the market stalls, waiting for my mother to finish. Friends come over to chat with us. They have mostly come to see Milady. Curly has been unusually discreet and said friends are consumed with curiosity. It is superficial, and easy to satisfy.

Milady is staying on the farm this afternoon and I'm taking the twelve fifty-three to go and see Cheerful.

As always, his two little sisters greet me joyously. And today they have a great piece of news to tell me. They have found a kitten, apparently lost. They have asked all the neighbours, but no-one had lost a kitten. Where does it come from, then? A mystery... So they have adopted it until someone turns up to claim it.

- But we have put up a poster in the bakery at the bottom of the hill, the older sister tells me.

- I hope no-one will come to claim it, says the younger sister.

- Perhaps another little girl somewhere is sad at having lost her kitten, I point out to them.

They exchange a worried look.

- If she takes it back, then we'll be sad, pouts the older sister.

- Maybe it ran away because it was unhappy, suggests the younger.

- There's no reason why we should have to be sad! insists the older. - There's no reason why she should have to be sad either, says Cheerful.

The sisters exchange an even more worried look.

- Does someone always have to be sad, then? asks the older.

- All we can do is make sure the kitten isn't sad, says the younger forcefully.

And she calls the kitten. Silence. No answer, no kitten. She calls again. We all call. In vain: no kitten.

- Has it run away? says the younger sister, stricken.

- No, no, it's just hiding somewhere; it never comes when you call, her sister reassures her.

She adds brightly:

- I know how to get him to come!

And she goes unhurriedly into the kitchen. A noise of crockery. The kitten has shot out from under the sideboard heading in the direction of the kitchen. The only trouble is, there's a corner to turn. And the wooden floor is highly polished and very smooth. The kitten, having skidded towards the outside of the turn, tries to get back on course by accelerating. The result has made us all laugh. The sisters couldn't stop. The kitten's back legs were scrabbling madly, as though beating cream into chantilly, but as they continued to slide off the floor, the kitten stayed where it was, for all its efforts. At last it managed to make its way into the kitchen and to its saucer, piqued to find it empty. Taking pity on it, the sisters hurried over to give it some milk, which the kitten lapped up eagerly.

- How did you know how to get it to come out? Cheerful asked his cunning sister.

- Oh, I saw that it would come whenever Mummy moved its saucer!

An ordinary morning. A less ordinary lunch. Milady calls me from the farm while we're still in the middle of our meal:

- I'm coming over as soon as you've finished!

- You can come now!

I finish quickly, apologising to my parents. My father hasn't really taken any notice:

- Where are you off to? he asks me distractedly.

- Milady's coming over right now; I think she's got something important...

- Here's your pudding, my mother cuts in.

Here's Milady. She apologises to my parents. My mother offers her some pudding.

- It's nothing serious, says Milady.

Quickly finishing our pudding, we leave the table.

- Let's go to the little lake on the other side of the wood, says Milady.

On the way she tells me the news:

- My father has to go away for a few months.

- When?

- He doesn't know yet. Next month, or in October.

I hesitate:

- Is he going... on his own?

She smiles:

- Don't worry, I'm not going!

I give a little sigh of relief:

- Thank heavens!

- I wouldn't have gone anyway.

- What do you mean?

- There are boarding schools.

- That's true.

We say nothing for a while, walking at a good pace, as though we are in a hurry, perhaps in a hurry to get to our destination, where we will be quiet.

And here we are at the solitary little lake which slumbers amidst a clump of trees on the other side of the mysterious road of which we know neither whence it comes nor whither it goes. The wind is at rest. The little lake dreams. Everything is peaceful. We are sitting next to each other on the old bench.

- My father has to organise transport arrangements with the port, Milady goes on; he thinks it'll take about four to six months, but he's not really sure.

- What about your mother?

- That's what I've come to talk to you about; if I stay at home, she'll stay...

I break in:

- But if you board, she'll go!

Milady smiles:

- And if I...

I break in again:

- There are places you can board in the town where I go to school, but maybe you could...

- ...stay at my uncle's?

I laugh merrily:

- That's just what I was going to say!

- In that case, all I have to do is talk it over with my parents.

I ask:

- Is it far?

- The other side of the ocean.

- I'm sure your mother would like to see a new country...

- I certainly hope so!

- When do you expect to talk to them?

- This evening; but I may have to go...

- I'll come with you, unless you think...

- I'll tell you this evening.

- And you'll have to take all your things... and your Bechstein. I like your piano, it has a soft sound and it sings.

- I've always preferred it to other pianos; but our Boisselot...

- We'll have two different pianos; we'll see if you sing in the same way.

We stay sitting there, beside each other, on the old bench, hand in hand...

Back at home, I tell my parents the news.

- She lives in a city; she'll never get used to life in the country, my father remarks.

- I like her; I'm glad she's coming... She's really nice, my mother remarks.

During the evening, Milady tells me that her mother will give her answer next week.

A quiet morning. The usual occupations. I have written a lot - I had got a bit behind, there was so much to say about yesterday's news.

- Yes, but you don't say that much; you spend all your time dreaming! miaows my cat.

- I'm trying to find out what my life will be like; my thoughts come disorderly...

- People's lives are unhappy, they want their life to depend on themselves.

- Why do you say unhappy? It's a great happiness to build your life yourself.

- For me, happiness is having what I need without having to go looking for it.

- You have to go hunting.

- I would have had to if you hadn't been there to feed me when I'm hungry.

I say nothing for a moment:

- For me, happiness is also Milady; if I hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have caught my eye when I saw her the first time.

- I came to wait for you when you got back from your long trip, last Wednesday; that's all I can do.

And he stayed beside me for a long time, watching me write.

After lunch I went to Milady's. We came back to my house through the woods to do some music. On the way she told me that her uncle and aunt were very happy for her to come and stay with them... "for the next year", they added with a little smile.

During the morning, while I was reading quietly in my cherry tree, Curly and Buttons came to tell me the news! They have hardly erupted into the garden when...

- There are hazelnuts! Curly has said.

- And they're good, too! Buttons has added.

- Did you bring me any?

They look at each other, laughing.

- No, answers Curly, otherwise you wouldn't have come!

- What do you mean? I didn't!

- True, says Buttons, laughing, but now you have, since you like them!

What does the grammarian think of their reasoning? I find it rather convincing. I enquire of the two aviators:

- You have of course discussed it...

- Of course, they answer in chorus.

- And...

- Of course!

- All right; after lunch?

- And we'll go to the sandpit! decrees Curly.

- And this time I'll win! cries Buttons gaily.

So once lunch is over the six of us set off... by air, since our two young aviators have been careful not to forget their propellers, which they brandish on high before them.

Here we are at the sandpit. The race is hard. This time the Economist wins. Buttons puts on a castdown look:

- Make the best of it while I'm still little. When I'm big...

- You'll be too old; I'll have to carry you, jokes the Economist.

But the verbal sparring tails off with Curly's warning:

- Quick, let's go and look for hazelnuts, otherwise the squirrels will eat them all.

The threat - if that is what it is - settles the matter. And now here we are, searching here and there in places we've already known about for a long while - we're not that young, you know, no matter what Buttons might say.

There aren't many hazelnuts yet; these are the first. You have to seek them out, but how tender and juicy they are!

However, our searching is not looked on favourably by everyone. And I don't say "looked on" by accident. For an eye, carefully hidden behind a tree trunk, half-way up, is watching us. Perhaps it is afraid that we will eat everything and leave it with nothing. So who does this eye belong to? Hard to say, because if we try to creep round the tree to see, it does the same in the opposite direction. And how can you tell who a single eye belongs to? Well, I know, because I've already seen him, having concealed myself first. It's a squirrel! Didn't you know that squirrels like hazelnuts? Don't worry, little squirrel, we'll leave some for you.

This morning, having finished the errands for my mother, I return to Milady's. We go for a walk in the woods.

- My father worries that you may not be able to get used to life in the countryside.

- You saw the town where I live when we were coming back from the restaurant that evening; my street is the busiest in town but there was nobody around.

She nods her head:

- Your town's quite big... I mean the one where our schools are.

Our schools... I say:

- It's just as empty in the evening.

- You're half an hour from the capital; it takes me between an hour and a quarter and two hours to get there but you can go whenever you feel like it.

- There aren't that many trains.

- You can always take the bus, there's one every hour, and more often than that sometimes.

I point out:

- It only goes as far as the town...

- ... where our schools are; and that has three stations with trains every other minute!

I laugh:

- I didn't know there were so few!

She smiles:

- Because you've never taken the train to the capital from where I live; there are no more trains than from where you live, and even then, they don't go every day.

- Like where I live.

- Like where you live; but we don't have a bus, or trains that leave every second.

- I thought it was only every other second.

- They've improved the service since I last mentioned it, hoping that I would stay.

- You've learnt the timetable off by heart?

She sketches a smile:

- Only the bit that matters to us.

She keeps the same smile:

- My father warned me too.

She nods again:

- I've got a lot of work to do at school; you too, I suppose.

I nod. She goes on:

- We'll make music together, you and I; it won't leave us much time to spend walking about in the capital in the evening.

She finishes up:

- Do you often go?

- Hardly ever.

Afternoon. I spend it practising. There is so much to do. Tomorrow, we're going to look at Schumann's op. 48, no. 1.

After lunch I go over to pick up Milady. We come back through the woods.

Schumann, op. 48 no. 1. Just as well I practised yesterday. The song couldn't be simpler. But there isn't a single note that doesn't have its own life, that doesn't tell a story. That G, the diminished seventh of the tonic, which the voice allows to live and which is like a jewel-case opening to release the phrase which ends the tale. And that last B, the ninth of the tonic, which starts out hiding under the diminished seventh of C sharp major!

- You need to stay perfectly still, listening to each note, says Milady approvingly during a break.

- Maybe that's what Schumann did when he was composing.

- Mozart said that he tried to find notes which loved each other; once he had found them, I don't suppose that it was enough for him just to say that he had done so, without even listening to them, or that he then hurried on to find more, or to do something else, any old thing.

A slow morning. Slow? Yes, not really wanting to do anything. Idleness? No. Just not wanting to do anything that involves motion. Being here and elsewhere, without having to go. Not even go here, where I am already anyway. It's not very clear. Perhaps it's time that can't be where it is.

Is the future calling me? I don't think so. The future will come of its own accord. And when it's there, it will be like today. I am already living in my future, as it occurs each day, when I reach my present. Milady will be there, then I will say that she is there, since she was there. Which moment is the real one? The present comes from the past and goes towards the future. Does it really have an existence, since no-one can stop it, no-one can say "Stay here, don't move"?

Is that why I don't want to do anything that involves motion?

- I've been wanting to do that for ages, my cat has confided in me, but then I get hungry.

Sunday. Market day, when everyone is out and about. Conversations are lively today, a mixture of sad and happy. The sad bit is that in a month's time… well, just over a month.

- School doesn't start until…

- What do you mean, 'doesn't start until', one of the boys cuts in, offended.

Let's put that right:

- School... starts on Monday the second of October.

- And you can just stand there and say that? says another boy.

- The end of the holidays! announces a third in sepulchral tones.

- We won't be able to do what we want any more, concludes the fourth.

Yes, numbers for the boys, as for the less important characters in a play.

I mentioned the happy bit, the happy bit of the conversation, I mean. As usual, it is always the same - yes, yes, I know, Mr. Teacher, that's a pleonasm - by which I mean that they all recount in turn what they have done so far. What could be more natural? you may say. Yes, no doubt. So let's listen in.

- I did this, says Boy 1.

- I did that, says Boy 2.

- I did it here, says Boy 3.

- I did it there, says Boy 4.

I've run out of numbers. I stop counting.

- The weather was good.

- The weather was bad.

- It was hot.

- It was cold.

To cut a long story short, you can add, as you will, sunshine, rain, a small ball, a larger ball, a good film and, of course, a bad film. Enough. But I could go on much longer in the same vein, I can assure you. Lunch, dinner, flat tyre, girl - pretty, of course.

So they've done this and that, all these boys, but what was their life made of at those times?

The girls haven't talked much to me. Though it's not as though the boys have left them much opportunity to.

A bit further off, some girls are talking amongst themselves. Giggles, which they pretend to stifle, faces pulled - "Oh, get a load of her!"

This morning, the seven thirty-six is taking Milady and me to the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un's. We are thoroughly familiar with the way now. I am talking on Milady's behalf, of course, because I have known the way for ages. Here is the sunken village, there is the little wood below the airfield, here is the hill where I demonstrate my climbing prowess, there is the road which leads to the little lake in the middle of the forest. And what's that? The aqueduct which keeps on following us until it finally abandons us, just as the brakes squeal before the train pulls into the station where the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un are waiting for us.

The bikes are waiting for us at their house. We chat for a while with my uncle and aunt. The usual questions - no-one ever tires of them - about holidays, school and so on.

We leave.

- What's that? exclaims the Little 'Un.

- We thought you'd find it easier to keep up with us in a plane, says the Big 'Un, who has been let into the secret, a little smile on her lips.

The Little 'Un turns gratefully to Milady:

- Ah, you've returned my propeller; thank you so much, I was afraid I would no longer be able to go back to school in October.

Milady smiles pleasantly:

- I would have told your parents to send you to boarding school; that way, you wouldn't have needed to move.

- Very kind of you, I'm sure, but you needn't have bothered; I would have found it the next time I went to my cousin's.

- No, you wouldn't, because it didn't stop; it carried on right as far as the seaside, which is where I found it.

- Had it been waiting for you?

- The gulls, who know me well, took care of it for me.

- Please give them my thanks!

With his finger, he turns the windmill that I had surreptitiously placed in the middle of his handlebars.

- Engine on, fifteen hundred revs, gear engaged, oil pressure OK, flaps down, fuel line clear, brakes off, tyres OK for take-off and landing, pilot on board, contact!

And, after blowing on the windmill to keep it turning, he imitates the roar of the engine and takes off. All we have to do is follow him, as far as we can at low altitude!

Less than five minutes after leaving the little town we come to the aqueduct.

- My propeller has many uses; I can uncouple it from the engine of my plane and fix it to the back of my submarine.

I tease him:

- Stay with us; we won't be able to see you any more in the aqueduct.

He feigns surprise:

- Didn't you know? Mine is a special model; unlike other submarines, it can sail on the surface of aqueducts.

The windmill once more attached - at least that is what I suppose - we follow him, being careful not to sink in the aqueduct.

Look, there's the train again. Not that there is an actual train, it's the railway line I meant. As there's no train in sight, there's no point in hanging around.

The submarine turns back into an aeroplane - all you have to do is take off the windmill and put it back on - we take wing again, or he does, since the rest of us remain at low altitude.

A little village at the top of a steep hill. Large houses, leaning tightly against each other. On the other side, an equally steep hill down and we...

- Hazelnuts at one o'clock, one mile! cries our pilot.

Yes, there, at the bottom, slightly to the right, a track, lined for miles with lovely hazel trees. All we have to do is come gently in to land.

- Well, we won't need to worry about lunch, says the Big 'Un after we have laid the Hazel Road to waste.

We take off again. From one track to another we thread our way through the fields, where a few bales of straw can still be seen from time to time, dozing in the sun while waiting for the farmer, who seems to be in no hurry.

Our passing is observed from the side of a peaceful track. One is big and round, solidly planted on its big foot; the other, alongside, is elegant and dashing. Its companion has leaned towards it and is telling it a long, long story. And there, half asleep, another one is watching us, though not very closely. And there, a little further to the right, two other friends are chatting away. How lovely their leaves look, just starting to turn as August comes to an end.

It will soon be lunchtime and we are not far from our restaurant, The Pear Tree. We enter via an avenue that has been carefully decorated by an artist with refined tastes. All along the avenue he has placed clusters of little bushes in which slender branches mingle with long, soft-leaved stems. Its edges dotted here and there with clumps of cow parsley, the avenue leads us to a vast swathe of thick wild grass. In the middle of the vast swathe of thick grass, as inviting a table on which to eat a meal as you could wish, a great pear tree provides us with the ceiling of our restaurant. All that's left now is for us to choose our menu from among the innumerable dishes offered by the charming head waitress for our delectation. Fresh tomatoes and salt, rabbit with rosemary, peas and carrots cooked in the juice and, to finish with, greengages. What about the pears from the pear tree, then? Alas, they are not yet ripe.

The Little 'Un loves salt, great handfuls of it. He asks for more. The charming head waitress hands him the little twist of paper which serves as a salt pot.

- Thank you, Big 'Un!

Around eleven o'clock this morning, while I am reading comfortably in my cherry-tree, which unfortunately lacks only cherries in order to merit its title, my cat safely near me on the next branch, since the twins and their little chum are carrying on like nobody's business in the garden, Milady hails me:

- We're leaving this evening!

I clamber hastily down from the cherry-tree. My cat has raised a disapproving eye; he must think there's no need to make such a fuss over so little.

- Where to?

- Mine.

- Yours?

- Yes, my mother's just called...

- You have to go home?

- No, I have to come here.

- You... What...?

I make a sweeping gesture with my arms:

- Your parents agree?

- Absolutely!

- So we can...

- ... take care of the move; they're coming tomorrow.

- Tomorrow?

- My father's sorted everything out. The head of the firm is a friend.

She carries on after a moment:

- My parents are leaving in ten days or so.

Over the moon, as you can well imagine, we tell my mother the news.

- I'm happy you're coming here, she says to Milady with a smile.

The afternoon is spent reading and writing and then, Milady having come back at about four, at the Economist's, chatting with him and the Geologist over a nice cake my mother has made for our tea.

That evening, Milady and I leave on the eight oh four.

The last connection. A thirty-six minute wait. The cloud of smoke which heralds the arrival of the express which leaves at nine thirty-five to take us to our destination is welcome. Yes, because rain has been threatening for a while. A squeal of brakes, the usual hiccup of that type of locomotive, we jump into the carriage and the windows of our compartment get the shower instead of us. No complaints.

- Have you already told your friends?

She cuts in:

- I've only got one friend and that's you.

She smiles:

- I've got some classmates who I get on well with, and other people I sing with in music lessons.

- Isn't it awkward not to...

- Not really. That's how it is; I'd rather be with you.

She pauses.

- They're not all there during the holidays; we'll go and see them once school's started.

- What about your singing lessons?

- You have piano lessons; I reckon that in the town where our schools are...

She breaks off:

- We'll have to think about signing up, too.

The morning is all hustle and bustle. The movers are coming this afternoon and everything has to be made ready. Text books, exercise books, music, some records, the record-player, clothes, all the things you accumulate in your life and are sometimes surprised to find there.

- Where on earth did that doll come from? I've never had one like it... Someone must have given it to me when I was little.

- Don't you like dolls?

- I did have a rag doll which I made myself.

She points at the doll:

- But I don't like this sort; I don't like artificial things which only say what they've been told to.

She laughs:

- No need to take this!

Lunch is… I don't really know what to say. A little bit jolly, a little bit sad, her father talking about what she must and must not do at the new school. He has done his research: "it's a very good school", he has said. Her mother hasn't said much, other than that everything would be fine, her brother would keep an eye on Milady... and sat there, looking at her daughter, a sweet smile on her lips. And I have been complimented on having a good head on my shoulders...

An exhausting afternoon, making sure that nothing had been forgotten, that everything was packed properly. I couldn't do much to help, of course, though it seemed as though I was always busy with I've no idea what, there was so much to do.

Dinner. A repeat of lunch.

The six fifty-seven express is panting softly as it waits for us. A few loud blasts on the whistle. "All aboard!" shouts the platform attendant, passing up the train slamming shut all the doors still open.

- I wonder if your mother wouldn't rather have come to live with you at her brother's house.

Milady smiles:

- A wife's place is with her husband.

I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before:

- Yes: Curly!

And we laugh, then hold hands.

Nine nineteen. We are back in our little town.

The day is spent at Milady's. The lorry arrives late morning and we have to get everything ready first. First means first and foremost - I know, Mr. Teacher - the place where we will put the Bechstein.

- In your room?

- No, that wouldn't be practical.

Milady goes on, after pondering for a moment:

- I think the best place would still be in the main room; I've already talked to my uncle and aunt about it and they think so too.

- Let's go and have a look, then.

Here we are. I point to the back wall.

- Along that wall?

- Too close to the fireplace.

- Here?

- The outside wall is cold in winter.

- How about like in my house, near the corner?

She looks around the room:

- Yes, that's just the place!

And adds immediately:

- Give me a hand to move this chest!

The space has been made; all we have to do now is wait.

Wait? Well, not quite: as we certainly won't have time for lunch, we go to the kitchen to make ourselves a snack.

The noise of a lorry: here they are!

Mouths still full of food, we go out to greet them. Everything is there. By which I mean the Bechstein is there, because that is all I have eyes for. I think the Bechstein is the first thing Milady looked for too.

Here it is, in place. The main room looks different now. It has been filled with new life.

- We'll have to get it tuned in about a month's time, says Milady; once it's settled.

- There's more humidity here than in town; I always tune mine in late October or early November.

- We'll get them both tuned at the same time.

She plays a few notes:

- It's already shifted.

She gives a little frown:

- We'll stick with yours for the time being.

And adds after a moment:

- You've got a good tuner.

Friday the first of September. The usual occupations, which I talk about or not depending on how I feel; errands for my mother, reading, writing, playing the piano, sometimes on my own, sometimes with Milady if she comes by. She has come by today, we have rehearsed for a while, then she has left, reminding me that we ought to go and sign up this afternoon.

Yes, Milady may have left but she has come back almost immediately, dragged in by Curly and Buttons.

- They wouldn't let me go, she exclaims, laughing; it seems it's very important!

The two girls, in chorus:

- Yes, yes!

Whatever it is seems so important that my cat, having nimbly left the cherry-tree, has come to find out.

What is going on?

- I play at parties, so you should play and sing too! Buttons tells me peremptorily.

I show surprise:

- There's going to be a party?

- Milady's coming to live here!

- I didn't tell her, I haven't had time yet, Milady tells me.

- Well, it certainly wasn't me!

And I add, turning to Curly:

- How did you find out this time?

Curly and Buttons exchange looks, laughing fit to burst, but give no answer.

- It could only be my uncle or my aunt, postulates Milady.

The two girls, in chorus:

- No, no!

My turn to postulate:

- You overheard us talking about it?

Laughing, they exchange looks again.

- That's a very fine piano you have!

As Buttons was addressing Milady, all doubt has been dispelled.

- All right, and you want...

- We want you to give us all a concert, orders Buttons.

- To celebrate your arrival, confirms Curly.

- We'll get everything ready, says Buttons.

- Get everything ready? asks Milady.

- Yes, we'll do the decorations at your house, explains Curly.

And with that the two aviators zoom off.

Meanwhile the clock has ticked on and we barely have enough time to eat before catching the twelve fifty-three. So after calling her aunt to let her know, Milady stays for lunch at my house.

Here we are in the town where we will now both be going to school. As the office doesn't open for another hour or so, we stroll around the streets at random.

- It's really nice to walk around here...

Milady breaks off for a moment:

- It's beautiful, all these wide avenues, there's all the space in the world to stroll in; there's much less in my town...

She pauses:

- Doubtless because my town is smaller...

I smile:

Your town is much bigger than this one, and your port, as you know, is extremely important.

- That may be why...

She ponders:

- But I don't know this town well enough yet to say anything about it...

- What do you mean?

- The impression of not seeing the kind of life I can see in my town... even when there's no-one in the streets in the evening.

- Oh, here, you know...

She shakes her head:

- It's not that... here, when I walk around feeling so at ease, it's because the life here doesn't bother me; if you weren't with me, I'd be alone.

She remains silent for a moment:

- In my town, there are people behind all the walls...

She smiles:

- Here too, of course. But they're at home, not in a house on a street.

It's time to go to the office, which must have been open for nearly half an hour now.

We find ourselves in front of a rather shabby old door.

- It isn't really very inviting, is it? remarks Milady.

She has stopped and is contemplating the door:

- If you have a good reason for doing so, come in, but only if you're allowed to.

We go in. Are we allowed to? I hope so...

- Good afternoon, says Milady with a smile.

- What is it?

- It's for a registration, ma'am.

- Registrations have finished.

- I...

- We don't take registrations in September; you should have come before the holidays.

- I've come from somewhere else...

Milady stops. The secretary has got up and turned away. She is rummaging in papers. We wait. The secretary has turned back to Milady:

- You can't change schools in the middle of the year; you have to go back to the school you were at last year.

- I...

But the secretary has already left the office. We wait. The secretary comes back:

- I thought I told you...

- I've come from another town.

The secretary frowns.

- You've moved?

- Yes.

Milady has not added "ma'am", as she usually does.

- You should have said so!

Milady does not answer.

The secretary stares at Milady without saying anything. There is silence for a moment.

- Have you got your file?

Milady hands her the file without answering. The secretary looks up at Milady, peering over her spectacles. She doesn't wear spectacles. She leafs through the file.

- You'll get a letter with an appointment.

Milady has turned on her heels and left the office without another word. I have followed her.

This afternoon, Schumann, opus 135, no. 1.

I had started a harmonic analysis a few days earlier. I have prudently waited for Milady before continuing.

- I had started an analysis a few days ago but...

I cut in:

... you prudently waited for me before continuing.

She laughs:

- You tried too, then.

I give a helpless shrug.

- And yet it looked easy...

- And yet it looked easy...

- It keeps on modulating, as it always does with him, but you go along with it...

- Oh yes, until you realise you haven't understood a thing!

Milady frowns.

- It's always the same, but it changes all the time... explain that if you can!

She ponders for a while:

- Misfortune can take other shapes, but it's still misfortune.

- Do you mean Mary Stuart?

She nods slowly.

Sitting at my Boisselot, I pick out the first intangible notes of the introduction, then suddenly, on my E - we are in E minor - Milady's voice on a dissonant ninth. Straight away, on a single note, tragedy. We have both felt it and stopped.

- How could you expect that, on such a calm A minor?

- We should have guessed; A was the subdominant.

- And my E is two notes at once, and not just any notes...

- As you say, not just any notes: the dominant of A and the tonic of the whole piece.

- And your F sharp on top of all that.

She looks down for a long time, with a long, long frown:

- It sends shivers down your spine. When I come in, I can feel that everything which comes afterwards is already there, in that ninth; if I don't get it right, everything will come tumbling down, there'll be no point carrying on.

- Yes, there are notes like that, like the D minor at the beginning of Don Giovanni...

- Absolutely, the D which feeds the flames that will finally devour the Don!

We have started the song again. Mary Stuart is doleful. She is far from the country of her childhood. She weeps...

It has started with a long diminished seventh. Then the voice descends. Quickly. And now it is the sad subdominant, A, the lost country of her childhood.

I have broken off suddenly, on the A. Milady stops too:

- She was alone; you are here.

Sunday. Market day, when everyone is out and about. My mother has come to buy some things. My saddlebags are ready to carry them all back home. Milady has come to join me and we stroll about the stalls, waiting for my mother to finish her shopping.

When that's done, we accelerate the pace. We quickly take everything back home, leaving my mother to make her own way back. Then we hurry to the station. Are we going to meet someone? No, we're off, with our bikes in the guard's van. Where to? To the banks of the river which runs to Milady's house. Then we'll go for a walk in the quiet countryside before getting the train back to another station, in time for a rather late dinner.

Ten twenty-one; we're on our way.

- At last we'll get to see the road that goes to my town! cries Milady; it's the first time we'll be taking it in the daytime.

We pass familiar places; the sunken village, the little wood by the airfield...

- My river! exclaims Milady.

A change. We get to our destination at about half past eleven. I give the signal for the start of our excursion:

- And now, let's go and pick jam, up there at the top of the hill!

- I see you know all the best sights in the area, smiles Milady.

- Oh, it's just a tree.

- How do you know about it?

- As I told you, I came here with the Little 'Un; it was he who found the plum tree.

- Plums?

- Greengages.

- Oh, I love greengages!

We cross the river.

- It's a real island... begins Milady.

- That's where we'll have our picnic later.

- With greengages?

- With greengages.

I add with a smile:

- But alas without cream.

She looks at me open-eyed:

- Why without cream?

- Because I forgot to bring any.

- Oh, it doesn't matter.

- Ah? You mean you don't mind eating greengages without cream?

- Why ever should I eat greengages without cream?

I have understood:

- Because in the train I ate all the cream you put in your saddlebag.

- The saddlebag was in the guard's van.

- I went to get it from the guard's van.

- Only steam trains have guard's vans and we were on a two-coacher.

- That's true, but I only noticed after I had finished the cream.

- Don't worry, I'm sure we'll find a cow in the plum tree.

I am reassured:

- In that case, let's go and find the tree quickly before the cow eats all the greengages!

Here we are under the plum tree. No cow in sight. Milady takes the jar of cream out of her saddlebag:

- I've just made the cream and we don't need the cow any more, so I told her to go.

Our saddlebags bursting with greengages, we set off back for our picnic.

- It's like the sea... as though we were on the crest of a great wave.

Milady looks out into the distance. Into the distance, for there is nothing to hold the gaze down below, beyond the fields on the hillside. As far as the eye can seen, with a lace border of misty hills.

We head back down towards the island.

- Look on this side! The river has become a stream which stops in the middle of the countryside.

I look at the narrow arm which defines one side of the island:

- You're not wrong; you can see more trees than river.

- With places where you can stay and dream a while...

A little further on, the other arm appears.

- The river is wider here; but the big trees on either side remind me of a peaceful lake more than a great river full of vitality.

She gazes around the 'lake':

- It's not like at home.

She pauses for a moment:

- It's a working river, at home...

A linden tree.

- More like three trees in one; I've never seen such a big one!

In the middle of the island, a meadow; in the middle of the meadow, the linden tree. Under the linden tree, far, far away from the edge of the shade, in the obscurity, us.

- We won't even be able to see what we're eating, says Milady with a smile.

We have eaten. I don't really know what. As always under a tree, especially if it's big enough, a gentle breeze caressed us. I gazed on Milady. She gazed on me. She didn't seem to notice what she was eating either.

We cycle through the fields which follow one after another ad infinitum. The countryside dozes.

- It's the first time I've seen so many fields, says Milady; at home there's nothing but meadows. It's not the same life.

She pauses:

- In our meadows, life goes on with the people; all the time.

Another pause:

- Fields have their own life; people come and visit them from time to time and take what suits them.

We cycle through the fields which follow one after another ad infinitum. The countryside dozes.

A farm.

- It's bigger than the fields themselves, remarks Milady with a grin.

- You mentioned the sea just now; I came here last year, in early July, with the Little 'Un.

I make an expansive gesture:

- It wasn't the sea, it was an ocean of wheat!

Our path takes us for a moment through a thick wood.

- Look!

I follow her pointing finger. Amid the thick shadow, in a fine ray of sunlight, gleams a fern...

A hillside crowned with tall trees which have been living here for a long time. A few hay bales, biding their time... And more leafy trees, attending us.

We cycle through the fields which follow one after another ad infinitum. The countryside dozes. - Look!

I follow her pointing finger. A little family is watching us. Daddy and Mummy round a little child playing in the grass. All three offer their leaves to the sun. I look at Milady; our eyes meet...

The twelve fifty-three takes me to the bookshop near my school where I am due to meet up with Cheerful. There is a book we have to get for the year about to start. Milady is with her aunt, and in any case still does not know which books she will need.

Having bought the book, we take one of those trains "that leave every second", as Milady said. Be that as it may, having just missed the train - it left just as we reached the platform -, we still had to wait...

- Quarter of an hour to wait!

- Nine hundred seconds, said Cheerful, to whom I had told the story.

Fourth stop. We get off. We have to call on a class mate who isn't there. So why do we have to call on him? Because he is off I don't know where during the holidays and we have promised to bring him the book in question. As you can see, we do the rounds and still have another delivery to make, for the same reasons.

The house we're going to first is up there in the mountains. But we aren't… No, that's right, we're just outside the capital, there aren't any mountains here. So why mention them? I don't know, I don't know why the idea came to me one day; a day, I think, when there were too many houses around me. I said so to Cheerful who, very surprised, said that I lived in a small town where there were houses and that I had never said anything like that before. And I thought nothing more of it. But today it came back to me. Why? Perhaps because of the linden tree yesterday. Wanting to think about... there, somewhere, anywhere, but without houses as the only horizon.

As for this house, it is quite simply on the hill, near the park where humans adorn plants with words. And as there are no other houses to be seen, only trees...

Having left the book with our friend's parents, we head on down...

- Let's go this way down into the valley, then...

- What valley? breaks in Cheerful, looking more astonished than ever.

- If you go down then go up again...

- Yes, but it's not the first time you've been here; so there are hills!

- Before anyone built houses...

- Neither you nor I was here!

He adds, with an air of incomprehension:

- Nobody bothers with that kind of stuff nowadays!

- So you have to spend your life only looking at what you can see...

He gives a merry laugh:

- Is that holiday homework you're doing there?

He smiles:

- Come on, we've still got a few more days of freedom left!

The freedom not to think? But I don't say anything. I don't want to spoil his holidays...

After a few more words on the subject we go down... then go up again. That's how it should be said. Albeit without the ellipsis...

A wide avenue lined with fine, tall, well-trimmed trees. On each side, a fine, wide, well-cut strip of grass. Not much of the past to be seen there.

What is that little house doing there, all ancient, lost among the fine, large houses on the fine, wide avenue? That's where our friend lives. Has been doing for centuries. The little house, all ancient, seems to look into the distance. Is it looking at the valley?

This morning, when I come to fetch the milk, Milady tells me that we're going to go swimming in the little lake in the middle of the forest.

- That's Curly and Buttons, that is!

- Absolutely, nods Milady; they came round a moment ago to tell me that it's still very warm for September, it's not going to last and so we've got to go.

She smiles:

- Of course, they ran off straight away so that I wouldn't have time to say no!

So that afternoon there we are, the six of us - because the Economist and the Geologist had also been summoned - on the road to the little lake, with the two pilots in front, their windmills - sorry, I mean their propellers - going full tilt.

The tight little ripples with which a slight breeze ruffles the surface of the water on which float the first leaves abandoned by the trees that surround the little lake seem to smile at our arrival; visits are few and far between and ours is welcome.

We swim. The weather may be fine for September but July is but a memory and we are soon wrapped up in our thick towels.

- Gosh, you're such namby-pambies! says Curly mockingly.

The namby-pambies protest.

- Take your towel off, then! mutters the Economist.

I propose a solution:

- A race around the lake: that's just the thing to warm us up!

The proposal is instantly adopted. Buttons has already started.

- That's cheating! cries the Economist, dashing after her.

Running round the lake isn't that easy and sometimes we find ourselves in the water, having to avoid the snares of sapling bushes, branches that hang down to the ground, treacherous and hardly visible roots... And once again it was our two pilots who got there before everyone else, with Buttons in the lead.

This afternoon, Schumann, opus 74 no. 4. This one is not like the others. But every piece is different from another, isn't it? Yes, but this one is for two voices. There are plenty of two-part piano pieces, but this one is for two voices, Milady's and mine. So it means I have to sing as well as play. I've never done that before.

- I love the melody, Milady tells me, but I've never managed to sing it well; I've even tried to play the piano part, but there was always something not right.

- The piano part isn't that easy, as I've seen; and then with the two voices…

- That's exactly it; you need two voices.

- You mean it's difficult to get both of them right?

She smiles pensively:

- There are three voices...

- The piano?

- Yes.

- It covers one of the voices? Or even...

- All the voices cover each other.

I point to a bar:

- The two voices are together here, but this one's more important at that point.

She nods:

- Yes; but the other is the boy's...

She hesitates. I think that's where the problem lies:

- And if you ask the boy to let you go first…

She laughs merrily:

- I'm sure we'll get it right!

In the meantime, it's anything but easy. Let the other voice go first, sure; but how?

- If I suddenly turn the volume down...

She smiles:

- And if I say: "Please, come in; the door's open!"

The idea makes us smile.

- Let's take this phrase!

I look at it:

- I'll start to get quieter here; let's give it a try!

We have tried. And again. No, it wasn't easy. But Milady's smile has reassured me. We will get there.

- We haven't done much work on the Schubert or the Mozart yet, says Milady after we have stopped, a bit tired.

Schumann doesn't leave much room for resting.

She goes on after a pause:

- We've worked on a lot of songs.

- Five Schumann, Schubert and Mozart; seven in all.

- So we have enough to give a concert!

I am surprised:

- What concert?

- Don't you remember, last Friday, Curly told us we ought to give a concert to celebrate my arrival?

- Yes, I remember.

- So all we have to do is get ready for it!

I hesitate:

- I'm not sure my playing will be good enough...

- That's not what they'll be listening to.

- And when do you think...?

- When the Bechstein's been tuned, for example; and we can give the concert at mine.

- Let's do it right at the end of the holidays.

- Saturday evening.

- Saturday evening.

I add, slightly worried:

- All we have to do now is practice.

- All we have to do now is practice.

It's raining this morning. Long, patient rain. Curly, Buttons and I have come back from the shops soaked to the skin. As she often does in the morning - yes, I know, I don't always say so, but hey, it's only a diary, you can't write everything, especially things that happen all the time - Milady has come for a couple of hours to work on our songs. No cherry tree today. My cat is sleeping without remorse on an armchair in the sitting room.

- Why should I have remorse? It is impossible for me to be untrue to my nature.

- It was a joke!

- That's how I took it.

- So why do you say...?

- I was thinking about what you wrote about the "beach people", and wondering if they were capable of being any different.

A pleasant lunch with my parents. My father is in a good mood, which means business is going well and he doesn't have to bother his brain with thoughts about "beach people". My mother is happy to know that I am happy that Milady has come here. I think she likes her. That matters, though I don't exactly know why. Well, actually, I do, it avoids family strife, as they say… but there must be another reason. A sort of beach, perhaps, where all is well.

This afternoon it is raining. An occupation like any other. The drops fall in the garden. They glisten, it's pretty.

Milady and I are at the Economist's. The Geologist is also there, of course. We talk, about nothing in particular. And are not we too on a beach, today, during the holidays? We'll get up when school starts again. At least I hope so.

- You asleep?

I look up. It's the Economist, who is plainly awaiting an answer to a question he has asked me. I do not answer:

- I was thinking...

- That is the question; can we?

I try to catch the thread of the conversation:

- If we do not think like everyone else...

He laughs:

- You really were asleep, weren't you? We weren't talking about the usual break-time stuff…

A flash of inspiration saves me:

- Ah, that's it! Do we have time to think?

- That's it! He's awake! laughs the Economist.

Milady looks at me with a slight air of concern. I smile at her:

- One doesn't think, on the beach.

She smiles back:

- That's not where we are.

It is the Economist now who has lost the thread:

- Were you talking about the lake?

- There is no beach at the lake, cuts in the Geologist; I suppose it's at the seaside.

The Economist falls on his feet:

- That's just what I was saying; you need to have time to think!

- Perhaps it's because they have time to think that they don't; they think they have plenty of time for it, suggests the Geologist.

Milady nods:

- On the beach, you forget to live; so why bother to think?

- Yes, says the Economist, and at school is it our life we lead or the school's?

- And what life do we lead wherever we are? asks the Geologist.

- It's ours wherever we are, even on the beach, Milady replies.

She pauses:

- You have to be careful not to lose it.

The seven thirty-six carries Milady and me off to the village where her mother's parents live. It's the village we passed not far from in the train on the way back from the beach people's town, three weeks ago. Milady has asked her grandparents if they wouldn't mind… "We'll be delighted to see you!" They also added: "Your friend is a very nice, serious boy; we'll be happy to meet him!"

- I'm starting to get to know your family.

- Of course; it's essential, Milady tells me.

She goes on after a little pause:

- Otherwise we could never have spent so much time together.

- You mean travelling about?

- Yes; I'm a girl.

She smiles:

- My family like you.

A pause:

- My uncle and aunt have known you for ever...

A pause:

- And they told me they like you.

A pause:

- Right at the beginning.

She corrects the imprecision:

- As soon as they noticed you were coming back to see me.

I smile:

- I often come to get the milk.

She looks at me with a teasing little smile:

- Apparently you like milk much more than you used to.

I protest with a laugh:

- But I don't take more than I used to!

- Yes, but my uncle told me you must be afraid Daisy's short of milk and that's why you come to make sure for yourself!

We laugh. I exclaim:

- Thank you Daisy! If it weren't for you…

I suddenly change my tone of voice:

- Quick, quick, we have to get off!

Two flashes of lightning have streaked out of the two-coacher and pelted on the other side of the platform into the train which was already starting to move off through the thick cloud of smoke which had alerted me while I was still singing Daisy's praises.

- Good job I remembered the connection!

Milady nods vigorously:

- I remembered too, just when you told me to get off!

We have been under way for a few minutes. She points out a station which we speed through without stopping:

- Do you remember that?

No, I can't see...

- No, I'm afraid not.

- That's where we caught the train last Sunday.

- I remembered too, just when you told me!

A city. A shrieking of brakes. A great jolt. We cry out almost as one:

- All change!

Ten minutes later we leave for our destination.

- Thirty-five minutes to go fifteen and a half miles!

- An average commercial speed of twenty-seven miles an hour, says Milady with an air of detachment.

That's made my jaw drop. She has seen, of course, since she must have expected… She smiles:

- I hear it all the time at home, when my father talks about shipping goods by rail.

- Shipping and rail if you must, but...

- The average commercial speed is the speed including stops.

- I understand that, but...

- It's not only boys who know how to do sums.

- All right, Miss Maths, I give in!

We laugh.

Lots of waving on the station platform. We have arrived.

A lively, cheery grandfather pumps my hand:

- Hello, hello! Have a good trip?

I assure him that we did indeed and say nice things to him.

A simple and modest grandmother gives me an easy smile:

- My grand-daughter is very happy… and you are just as she described you.

- And I am very fond of your grand-daughter.

My words have taken me by surprise. I don't usually go in for that sort of thing.

- Let's go! says Grandpa energetically, taking hold of his grand-daughter's suitcase.

In barely ten minutes we reach the grandparents' house.

House? It's not a palace, it is indeed a house. Or rather, two houses. A large one, with a roof of lovely, warm-coloured little flat tiles, very high and steep; and a smaller one on the left, projecting, which seems much bigger than the other one. Impossible? Yes, it's true, that's impossible. So why? It's the window, the window with its wooden balcony, in heavy timber; the arched window, deep and wide, which eats up the small house and erases the large one. Two houses and a window fit for a palace. We gaze at it, Milady and I. In a ray of sunlight, Milady is on the balcony, smiling at me. She is wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago.

Lunch.

- Your grandfather and I were remembering how much you used to like veal stew when you were little. We thought you'd enjoy a lovely creamy veal stew with a nice little mushroom sauce, and that way your friend can see what it's like too.

What it's like, indeed, and like what it is. I'd had veal stew before, of course, and my mother's is not bad. But this one, with the cream and all, is not the same thing at all.

- Did you like it? inquires Grandma, slightly anxiously awaiting my verdict.

I sing a long hymn of praise to her veal stew, and of course, to the cream.

- Well then, as your friend likes it so much, you'll have to learn how to make it! says Grandma to her grand-daughter with a smile.

- I suppose it mustn't be terribly easy, frets the grand-daughter.

- Not at all, it's really not hard at all.

- Don't you believe it, says Grandpa to Milady with a wink. Your mother's never learned!

Grandma protests:

- Go on! You'll see how easy it is; listen, this is how you do it.

First, I advise you to buy veal skirt, it's the best bit, and soak it in cold water for half an hour. Then you cut your veal into pieces and cover them with cold water. To give flavour you add some white wine, sliced carrots, chopped onions, a bouquet garni and salt and pepper, of course. Skim it when it comes to the boil, then let it simmer for a good hour and a half. In the meantime, you gently cook the chopped mushrooms with some little onions in white butter. You make a roux with butter and flour, like I taught you last year, do you remember, and let it cook very gently for a few minutes. Just before serving, you mix the mushrooms and onions with the roux and add an egg yolk and the cream. You see, it's nothing special.

- Isn't that what I said? Child's play! laughs Grandpa.

Then, turning to Grandma:

- And what about your white butter? That must be even easier!

Grandma seems surprised:

- Of course! Listen.

Fry three finely chopped shallots very gently in a frying pan. Add a soup spoon of water and two of vinegar, or Muscadet if you prefer, salt and pepper. Reduce by two-thirds on a low heat. Then add two good spoonfuls of cream and reduce again. Then divide half a pound of butter into small pieces, which you add one by one without ever allowing to boil. Then beat the mixture well, without stopping. The butter will stay creamy and foamy and definitely white, whence its name.

Grandpa, Milady and I exchange looks, trying not to giggle.

I smile at Grandma:

- I think veal stew is nicer and easier to eat than to make.

Grandma has paused for a moment:

- A wife who loves her husband enjoys making food he will like.

After lunch, Grandpa takes us out into the garden.

- That's my bike and Grandma's, he tells us. I've done them up for, so you can take them whenever you want to go off.

I thank him:

- Oh, thank you, that's so kind!

- We love going for bike rides, says Milady.

- There are some lovely spots you haven't been to yet, and I'll give you a good map so that you can find them.

He adds:

- In the meantime, show your friend round the village. We're rather proud of the market-place and the church.

- Let's go, says Milady gaily; we'll walk, the village isn't very big.

As we go out of the garden, Milady says:

- Let's start with the station.

- The station?

- Yes, to see if line 342...

- Do you think we can avoid a three-hour wait when we change trains on the way back?

- You never know.

At the station.

- Good, it's the same train as the one we caught on the way back from the beach people's town.

I smile:

- And what's more, we'll get back in time to eat the creamy veal and mushroom stew you'll have made us for lunch.

- And when would I make it?

- On the train, of course!

She seems to think about it:

- I'll see if it's possible.

She turns the timetable boards:

- Impossible!

- Why?

- We only have two-coachers; no steam engine.

I seem to think:

- Well, that's a shame! But if we take the line with three hours to wait when we change trains, you can make the stew in the station buffet.

- Impossible!

- Why?

- Two hours forty-five minutes to make, only two hours forty-three minutes for the connection.

- Shame...

- Shame...

We leave the station.

- We'll have to bike back, Milady tells me.

- That'll be hard, seeing as we're on foot.

- It's far too far on foot.

- It only took us ten minutes to get here.

She nods:

- Yes, but it'll take a good twenty hours to get home, even at a good pace.

- Home? Oh, you mean home!

- I mean home.

- If the rails are too rusty, we can put the two-coacher on the road.

I add, the better to show how easy it would be to do:

- All we'd need is a horse to pull it.

- It can't move from here.

- If the horse isn't strong enough, we could put it on a truck.

- All the same, it can't move from here.

Things are getting complicated. Let's see:

- Can't two-coachers move, then?

- No.

- Why not?

- Look!

In the station forecourt, she shows me a lovely stretch of track, in excellent working order, which ends… with a buffer.

I approve Milady's proposal:

- We'll go by bike; it'll only take us five hours, if we keep up a good speed.

Having made our arrangements, Milady takes me on a tour of the village. It's not very big, though bigger than mine all the same, but much prettier. A large square where you feel free to come and go, making you want to be alive. Grandpa is right to be proud of his church, both vigorous and welcoming. And well protected too - you only have to lift your head to see that. Fantastical great birds keep watch, perched right up at the top on the side of the church, wings ready to unfurl and bear down on any approaching desecrator.

- Yes, the gargoyles are indeed impressive, Milady has said; I remember, when I was little, they used to frighten me a little.

But as we do not look like desecrators, the fantastical great birds have let us pass unmolested.

- Let's stroll around for about, suggests Milady.

- Sure.

- There's nothing in particular to see, but it's pleasant enough.

She smiles:

- It's here on this square that there is something in particular to see.

- Yes, the church...

- Of course; but something else as well.

I look round the square but nothing catches my eye.

- There!

I look where she is pointing...

- Let's go!

And in no time at all here we are choosing cakes.

- Oh, whipped cream tarts!

I assume an innocent look:

- Well, well! So you like cream, do you?

And add, before she has had time to answer:

- I'll certainly have one; what will you have?

She hesitates, frowning, for a long moment:

- Oh, I think I'll have the same as you, so you don't feel left out.

- Oh, please don't trouble yourself. Why don't you take a macaroon instead, they look really good!

She nods:

- Yes, you're right; I'll take your advice.

Turning to the assistant she says:

- Two macaroons, please...

She leaves her words in suspense, just long enough for me to start shaking my head:

- And two whipped cream tarts!

The assistant must have heard our little discussion because she hesitates for a moment:

- ...Yes.

Before going on brightly:

- ...With lovely, fluffy fresh cream!

Milady and I stifle a giggle.

We stroll around the village. It's pleasant. The sunlight is bright. We walk along a slightly uneven track; the earth is dry. A cart comes towards us, drawn by a horse. It's not a racehorse; at least it's useful. The farmer wishes us good day as they pass. The track is narrow; we step aside to let the cart go by.

- The grass here is all wet!

Milady smiles. Before she has had time to answer I exclaim:

- Goodness me, I think a water main must have burst!

This time Milady laughs out loud:

- As you're already wet, go into the field to dry out.

I go into the field. It's even wetter. I take several great strides to take me away from the place. It's still just as wet. And Milady can't stop laughing:

- It's always like that here; the grass is tall and thick, you see, and it keeps the dew.

- In the afternoon? With this sun?

- All the time; it's like that everywhere round here.

- That's a good question for the Geologist.

- Yes, you're right; we'll ask her.

On our way back we pass by the cemetery. I had supposed that was what it was from the long wall which stretched out into the distance. No higher than a man is tall, it protects without separating, rough and stony. Large, crudely cut flints are packed together and gleam softly amid the moss like warm-coloured shards.

The railway line cuts the main road at the entrance to the village. As we cross it, I glance along the track leaving the village:

- Look at the rails disappearing into the woods; you'd think they're getting lost after the bend.

Hardly had I said this than a two-coacher emerged from the woods.

- We can put our bikes away, remarks Milady calmly, the trains are working again.

The morning is spent with the grandparents. Milady helps her grandmother with the housework. Some shopping to do. Life is the same everywhere.

Lunch. Grandpa makes conversation. The questions are expected, but put naturally. About my life, my future… Grandpa seems satisfied with my answers. Grandma has not said much but listened attentively. She also seemed satisfied.

During the afternoon we go off on one of the bike rides suggested by Grandpa. The map he has given us is clear and precise, so we shouldn't have any trouble finding where we are.

- I've already been for bike rides with my grandparents in the countryside around the village, Milady tells me.

We cycle. Grandpa has done us proud, the bikes are in perfect condition - and I speak as one who knows, since I take care of my bike myself, as well as those of Curly and Buttons. And now Milady's too, of course.

The sky is grey but it is still warm, even though it's already the ninth of September. The road leads from one village to another through fields where brown- or black-spotted cows graze, following us with their eyes.

A bumpy dirt track. A field in which your gaze gets lost. Standing all alone - is it meditating there, far from everything? - an elm.

We take one track after another.

- Good job we've got your grandfather's map!

- Yes; I can pretty much remember the place but we came straight here on the road, in the car.

She adds:

- It's much better on farm tracks.

I agree:

- Here, you get the impression of not being anywhere, of having everything to yourself.

From one dirt track to another, we reach a wall… made of dirt. A mud wall. Thatch. I point it out to Milady.

- Have you seen the thatch on top of the wall?

- Yes, like...

- ...the hot apple and cream pancakes!

She laughs:

- You'll soon like cream as much as I do.

I shake my head energetically:

- No, that's absolutely impossible!

Above the thatch, a tree flames gently in the sad ray of sunshine which with great difficulty pierces the grey clouds.

- What's that?

I have almost stopped, pointing:

- What's that? It looks like a great big beetle!

- Where can you see a beetle?

- There, over there, on the horizon, it looks as though it's about to fly off.

Milady has stopped and is scanning the horizon:

- Oh, yes, I remember, I've already seen it; it's a barn.

- A barn?

- Yes, it's rather odd, it's as though it's been built on piles.

- Did there use to be marshes here?

- I don't know; perhaps...

We approach the beetle. It is indeed a barn. On piles. But no sign of any marsh. Wooden steps lead up to the place where they store the straw… or the hay, I don't know which. In fact, the whole barn is made of wood. Except for the roof, which is covered in mossy slates.

- Straw, I should think, says Milady; look, there's some on the ground.

We continue our ride, peacefully, on farm tracks, with only cows for company.

- They haven't got very good eyesight, your cows here!

The surprise effect has flopped. Milady is not slow on the uptake. She gives me a teasing smile:

- The grass is very high round here; it's difficult to distinguish it without sunglasses.

We ride slowly on, not in any hurry at all.

- You can see a long way here, on every side; there's nothing to stop the gaze, nothing to obtrude.

Milady nods:

- That's true, it's flat here; meadows, hummocky meadows; a few trees, a pond, cows.

- The air is so warm, nature so abundant; it makes you feel all torpid.

A village, or hamlets, I don't know. Everything is scattered and yet you can see - from what? - that the people here live together. A farm. A door. Nothing unusual about that. The door is not at ground level, it is higher up. It's not the first time I've seen one like that, or Milady either. There is a door like it at her uncle's farm. It's where the straw or hay is stored. One man goes up on a ladder, the other throws forkfuls up into the loft. So why mention it? Because you haven't seen it! In the middle of an ember-red rammed earth wall, a black door, black and mysterious, hiding secrets. What a load of nonsense for a mere hayloft door! It takes so many bales of hay or straw; what more is there to say?

The sky has darkened, gradually, then suddenly. The big leafy trees seem no more than thick clumps of grass limned against the milky white of a sky lowering with the threatening black of a cloud swollen with the promise of a storm.

- We'll find shelter somewhere…

- And even if we don't… says Milady.

- That's true; I remember when I was at your place…

- ... and we drowned, both of us.

- It was in late July...

- ...Saturday the twenty-ninth; we were doing number 12

- ...from opus 48.

We pass by a meadow pricked with apple trees. I exclaim:

- Have you got any cream?

Milady smile:

- Of course; will you make the batter?

- Aye, aye cap'n! In the meantime, let's bake the apples.

- Where?

- In the sun.

Milady lifts her arms above her head:

- I've put them above the clouds, I think there should be some sun up there somewhere.

- Yum yum!

- Yum yum!

A village. A house. With a lean-to of which only the frame remains. I point it out to Milady:

- There's a perfect shelter if the storm breaks.

- That's a good idea; we can see the raindrops coming through the missing roof and take evasive action.

Perfect. Having got that straight, we continue our bike ride.

Hidden behind the trees, a little pond has dug its hole. It has doubtless devoted itself to the cows grazing in the neighbouring meadow.

We ride along a hedge. Behind the hedge, a great conversation is taking place. One tree listens critically while another tries to explain, gesticulating. A third, clearly uninterested in the why and wherefore, has suddenly leant over towards the explainer and is bawling: "I'm right! Stop arguing!"

Not wishing to be indiscreet, we steal away.

A blinding flash. The thunder follows a few seconds later.

- That little barn over there; shall we?

- Yes, let's, says Milady, we'll be fine there.

A few pushes on the pedals and we're there. The rain can fall now. "Thank you", says the rain, and does so.

The barn may be small but it is solid. Two large doorposts spanned by two large beams, all in solid oak, hold up the roof. The barns at Milady's are solid, too; but they are very big. Whereas this one is really little. Still, the rain won't melt it. A ladder is lying against the wall, a ladder as unusual as the barn. You could push a cow up it and it wouldn't break! In the middle of the barn, a large wooden wheel with an iron rim. There is definitely nothing ordinary in this barn. I won't say I've never seen a wheel like it, but I haven't often. It's the spokes that are not ordinary. Thick at the mortices, where the danger of breaking is greatest, fine along the length, where the work runs straight - that's what is not ordinary. And what refinement, what elegance, rare elegance. You can run your hand over the wood without fear; it's perfectly smooth, you're not going to get a splinter from these spokes! All very well, but what is that single wheel doing there? Nay, a cart is attached to it. A robust cart, like everything else here. Pieces of rope hang from its shafts, waiting for the farmer to braid them.

We settle in, Milady and I, on the soft straw that lines the back of the barn, far from the rain.

We say nothing for a long while, watching the great drops fall, sometimes making an incursion into the barn, though without insisting, staying not far from the doorway.

- Autumn and its cold rains will soon be here, says Milady in a low voice.

- Are you thinking about school?

- Yes and no; school will keep us apart but we will be living near to each other…

She leaves a silence which seems to prolong her words. She adds softly:

- In the same village...

I feel like asking her: "Won't you miss your town?" But I don't. We have already spoken of it. She goes on.

- We'll go to school together, do our homework, I won't have time to miss my town.

She gives me a long smile:

- I'll sing, you'll play.

The rain beats on the roof. We stayed a long time like that, one against the other.

Night has fallen, the rain has stopped, a new shower threatens. We ride back, splashing through puddles.

Sunday. Not a market day here. And even if it was, we wouldn't know anyone.

This morning Milady's grandparents are going to visit family graves in a cemetery ten minutes' drive away. We go with them.

A cemetery like no other I have ever seen before. This one does not have the usual tidy rows of tombs, it is a field dotted with large white stones of different shapes. Nothing at all like tombs or a cemetery. We walk through the high, soft grass to which flowers impart specks of colour. What about the tombs? Are they tombs, these stumps of pure white stone among the grass which seem to grow out of the earth? These slabs, sliding or sinking, giving way before the languid progress of the soft grass? The grandparents have headed towards one of the large stones, on which a large iron cross has been planted. Yes indeed, it is a tomb. Like all the other large stones scattered around the cemetery that looks like field.

In the afternoon we go off on another bike ride, taking the bikes that Grandpa has made such a good job of preparing for us.

A couple of minutes after leaving the house we reach the crossroads where the two-coachers erupt. Milady stops. I am concerned:

- Have you got a puncture?

I glance down at her tyres. They look all right.

- No, no, she assures me.

She goes on straight away:

- Grandpa showed me a road on the map.

She unfolds the map and shows me a route drawn in red crayon:

- It's the road that goes straight to...

She finishes my sentence with a smile:

- ...the town where I used to live.

I look:

- But we can't take it!

- Yes we can, on foot.

- On foot? Is it that close, your town?

- Oh, not very far; ten hours if we keep up a good pace.

- Ten hours! Yes, it's very near; two hours by bike.

I look at the map again:

- Yes, but the road stops sometimes.

Milady says in a more serious tone of voice:

- Yes, but afterwards, you see, it becomes a good road.

She adds:

- My grandfather told me it's a very old road and it got abandoned here and there.

- And I suppose, since you're telling me about it, that we're going to take it.

- Absolutely not.

- Ah! I knew we wouldn't be able to follow it.

- Yes, we can. It's even very good.

I seek... Milady smiles:

- We're on it.

And she shows me a small but very good road which starts from the crossroads we are standing at. I ask:

- Does it stay like that for long?

- Ten minutes on a bike; after that, it's a long dirt track that will take us where we're going.

We set off. It's grey but mild, with no threat of rain. Now we're on the track. I am surprised:

- It's funny, even if it's a dirt track it's just as good as the road we've just left.

- My grandfather told me that the old roads were particularly well built and that people were often surprised.

We ride along without haste. The countryside is peaceful. Even though nothing is really similar, I feel a single country, a single world. The country is the one I can see, the world is the one I feel. From time to time, when we stop to look at an apple tree or a fold in the landscape, cows that have been observing us from afar come up to us, five or six at a time, and stand there, seeming to wonder why we are here. Is it to milk them? No, certainly not, milking time is still a long way off. Why, then? Just to be near us? I have the fleeting impression that could well be the real reason.

- Cows like it when people are there, to break their animal solitude, Milady whispers, very softly so as not to scare the cows.

Not all the cows are as amenable to our company. But perhaps it is the time when they graze the long wet grass - I know all about that! - before lying down in the field to ruminate. Cows do not all ruminate at the same time, I have no idea why. Perhaps because some stick closer to each other in the herd, while others, of a more solitary temperament, keep their distance one from another.

- Look, they're racing each other! exclaims Milady.

- I can't see any of them running.

- No, not the cows!

- What then?

She points to two windswept trees which are pursuing another, more serene.

- No, they're running together, Milady corrects me; it's just that the first is the quickest.

- How do you know?

- And you?

In chorus:

- It's obvious!

Houses here and there, alone amid the fields, serenely await the farmer's return, his day's work done. They are beautiful, and make you want to stay there. Half-timbering and stone, both together, the stone walls near the mud walls to protect the house from the damp.

A tree watching over two cows in the middle of the silence.

We enter a village. A lovely half-timbered house. Two doors, one above the other. The one above must be for straw or hay, but what about the lower one?

- Do they make wine around here?

- Wine? says Milady, surprised.

- Look!

The dressed stones of the lower door match the shape of a barrel.

After a moment, Milady says:

- Why don't we ask?

We knock on the door of the house. A woman opens. We explain our question.

- My husband can tell you better than I can, he's the mayor.

Congratulating ourselves on having made the right choice, we thank the woman. The mayor, a man who looks as though he might be made of the land we have just crossed, tells us in a serious tone of voice with no trace of curiosity:

- The village was much bigger a century or so ago; two hundred inhabitants or so.

He pauses, then goes on in a level voice:

- He must have been a wine merchant.

- Are there vines in the region? asks Milady.

- No; he must have been a wine merchant.

We leave the village.

- Do you really think he was a wine merchant?

- Not at all. I've never heard anyone talk about wine round here, Milady answers.

- Cider, then?

- That seems much more likely.

A bit further on, a rather low house, unremarkable. Alongside the house, two sheep.

- That must be a sheepfold, observes Milady; we saw some sheep just now.

- Yes, there were some...

I pretend to take time to think:

- They're on holiday.

Milady pretends to take time to think:

- They have worked hard all year at the airfield.

I nod solemnly.

A bit further on, at the entrance to another village, we are joined by a dirt track.

- There it is again, the path that goes to the town where I used to live, says Milady.

I look along the track.

- And here it's become the main street.

I add, after a moment:

- So to go back, all we have to do is follow it to your grandparents' house.

Near the edge of the village, a house, or rather a barn.

- It looks as though it's been decorated, says Milady.

- I agree: rammed earth, a deep ochre, studded with little shards of flint…

- ...laid on the large flints in which the barn can put its trust…

- ...capped with these flat little brown tiles...

- ...on which a deep green field of moss is growing...

- ...and which form the sloping roof...

Milady looks for something else to add. I admit:

- I can't think of anything else.

- We could say something about the trees in the background.

- Yes, but what?

- Yes, but what?

So we pedal off again.

Now we are riding alongside a field lined with apple trees. A cow, alone in a corner of the field, stands stock still and follows us for a long while with sad eyes.

On the horizon, between two clumps of trees, can be seen the long wall of a cemetery. Two pale little white houses rise up against the white sky, silent tombs amid the stone crosses.

The track we are riding on crosses a vast orchard. Apples, apples, everywhere…

- Let's pick some!

- They're cider apples, not eating apples, says Milady regretfully.

- I can't see any bottles on the branches.

- No, but I can see an apple pie.

I am not taken in:

- Oh, you mean the one that grew on the apple tree your grandmother planted in your saddle-bag!

- How did you know?

- I'm hungry; it gives you X-ray eyes!

These profound reflections decide us to sit down on a tree-trunk lying near an apple tree. Milady unwraps the pie - there was indeed one - and hands me a slice. I look at the pie, then at Milady, then at the pie, then at Milady again… She laughs:

- In the other saddle-bag!

I dive into the other saddle-bag and pull out a pot of cream.

- Do you want to see a nucleus? Milady's grandfather asks us this morning.

- A nucleus?

We have both asked the question at the same time.

Grandpa has smiled:

- It's a piece of flint...

- I know what flint is, Grandpa; you find them in the walls of houses.

- Yes, but not like this one.

I ask:

- Is it prettier?

- That depends on you.

- What do you mean, on me?

- On you...

He turns to his grand-daughter:

- ...or you.

Both together:

- You have to shape it!

Grandpa smiles:

- You guessed!

- Why do you call it a nucleus? Isn't that the Latin for kernel or core?

- You certainly know your stuff; it's very big.

That's it, now I remember! It's sometimes useful to listen in class:

- People in the Stone Age...

- ...used to make their flints from...

- ...a nucleus!

- You certainly seem to have learned your lessons, the pair of you! says Grandma, who has heard the discussion.

And Grandpa shows us the map, where he has marked with a cross the place where the nucleus is to be found.

We set off in the early afternoon. The weather is fine. The sun is shining. However, clouds on the horizon send a warning message. Yes, summer is coming to an end; let's take advantage of the mild weather while it lasts.

The nucleus is not nearby and we set out on the main road, riding quickly, especially as I don't know what more I can say about the countryside.

After three-quarters of an hour, a pleasant side road takes us, after a crossroads, to a wall of tall trees full of leaves. Yes, I know, Mr. Teacher, but that's what I saw; and as that's what I am writing down… My cat joined in, one day when I was leafing through my diary.

- Did you need to go all that way just to see trees full of leaves? he has miaowed softly.

Buried in the wall of tall trees full of leaves, covered by shadow, a stone Christ on a thick stone cross inclines his head to one side. Do people still see it?

Milady and I have stopped and are looking at him…

Not much further, on the vast square which stretches in front of a church bigger than the village, in front of whose door people have stopped to admire a fine statue, a fair is taking place. Swings, wooden horses, a lottery with teddy bears and soft toys… That's for the children. For the men, a fight is taking place, with no quarter given. On a platform, two wrestlers try to annihilate each other. The children shout for joy around the attractions. The men shout with pleasure around the platform.

Off we go to see the nucleus. From which tools can be shaped, or weapons…

We cross the railway line.

- Let's put our bikes in the guard's van and get on!

Milady shakes her head:

- There aren't any more trains on this line.

- There may be no more trains, but there are still guard's vans; look at that one!

I point to the waggon in question, patiently waiting for us in a siding.

Here we are in front of it. "She's right, I've been here for ages and no-one comes to take me on the long trips I used to like so much…" it tells us in a sad voice. The tracks are overrun with brambles, the station platform is deserted. The station master's door stands open, doubtless hoping that he will be back…

A bridge. And therefore a river.

- We had a picnic near this river, in late July, Milady informs me; I saw it on Grandpa's map.

- Late July… Wasn't it about then that the Island Restaurant took to the water?

- That's right.

- It's wider here.

- It soon joins the bigger river near the town where I used to live.

We have got off our bikes on the bridge. Milady stretches out her hand towards the river:

- I hope it'll get there.

- Why?

- It looks as though it might get lost in the woods.

Here we are at the place Grandpa has indicated.

- Can you see it?

I look:

- No.

We duck under the foliage of the trees which line the road.

- There it is!

I look:

- Where?

- There, in the dip!

There it is indeed, underneath the transparent leaves of a chestnut tree turned golden by the approach of autumn, half buried, under the leaves tired of living.

- It really is very big!

Milady passes her hand over the nucleus:

- Have you seen these facets?

- They're smooth.

- I though you made shards by hitting it with other flints.

- Yes, a lot must already have been made.

She passes her hand over the stone again:

- Here, he made an arrowhead.

- And there a scraper, I've seen pictures; look...

- ...the hollow, here, yes.

We stay there for a good while, looking, touching…

- I'm going to come back with a flint and make an axe for sharpening your pencils!

Milady gives me a big smile:

- Oh, yes please, my pen-knife's getting blunt.

She adds with a little frown:

- I believe it's not very easy...

- I'll practice during history lessons!

We laugh, and set off again.

The clouds which had been sending us a warning message on the horizon are now above us. It is grey again, but still quite mild.

As we have taken the same way back, we pass by the fair again. Except that there is no fair. The swings swing no longer, the little wooden horses turn no longer, the teddy bears are asleep.

In a corner of the square, the two wrestlers and the referee are sitting on folding chairs at a small wooden table. They are sharing a frugal meal, morosely, heads bent over their plates. They are talking in low voices, but I heard a few words as I went by. The take was not good.

A morning with the grandparents. A very pleasant morning, because they are really very friendly, especially with me. The usual errands, some good local meat, excellent apples, of course; not forgetting the cow's gifts of milk, butter - and cream. Eggs, which we are told were laid just at the time we asked for them. Vegetables? Not as good as those from my mother's vegetable garden. A visit to the bakery, which is also the pastry-shop. Grandma has asked for bread, and two voices can be heard, almost at the same time, blending into one:

- And four whipped-cream tarts, please!

- What a pair! smiles Grandma.

- Pudding's on me! declares Milady.

- I'm the man, that's my job!

- We're the hosts!

- I'm the guest!

We race side by side to the till.

- The lady has already paid, the woman at the till tells us with a little smile.

We start to protest, but Grandma says:

- Don't argue with Grandma!

She adds, with a teasing little smile:

- You're not quick enough off the mark!

Before going back we have slipped away on some vague pretext and gone and bought flowers for Grandma.

After lunch - the pudding wasn't bad! - we go off on our bikes. We have no particular destination, we just ride around. Grandpa has mentioned a barn, but is that really a destination?

We take the track that leads to the town where Milady used to live. Although we have already been on it before, we do not feel bored.

- Looking at the countryside, you think that people here don't do very much; but to make it the way it is, they must have worked a great deal, says Milady.

- So it's other people's work that allows us to be lazy.

- Laziness is fine as long as it doesn't harm anyone; I hope what we do will one day let others be lazy in a good way.

On the right-hand side of the track we see again a large building to which we had not paid any attention until now.

- I think that's it.

Milady, getting off her bike, shows me the map:

- Look, it's where Grandpa has put the cross.

Three minutes and we're there. I exclaim:

- It's bigger than a castle!

- That's an exaggeration.

- Yes, but look at the roof there, it's like a mountainside.

- What a lot of tiles! They look so little…

She smiles:

- That's some big little roof!

We go inside.

- It's not a castle, it's a cathedral!

- This time, I don't think I can say that's an exaggeration, observes Milady.

- Look at all those beams. How big they are...

I smile:

- That's some big bigger roof!

- Grandpa told me this barn has been here for seven hundred years.

- The barns are as solid as the dirt tracks round here.

In the semi-darkness, we contemplate the forest of beams.

- Look, it is a cathedral; the beams join up at the top like arches.

- Grandpa told me something about it; he said it was very difficult to do.

- The farmer must have been especially rich to have a barn like this!

- It's not just any old barn, Milady explains, it's a tithe barn; it's where they stored a tenth of the harvest that all the farmers and peasants had to give to one of the abbeys in the town where I used to live.

Leaving the barn, a long house with a sloping, tiled roof and protruding dormer windows.

- Oh, look!

She points to a large door giving into the house. I exclaim:

- It's for cider!

- That makes two; wine is more and more unlikely.

- Well let's ask again!

We have asked. It was indeed cider. "Wine!" snorted the cider-maker.

We set off again.

- It's strange, though, isn't it, that they didn't make the door wider so that they could get the barrel in.

- There must be a reason.

- Have you any idea?

- Well, if the barrel is on a cart, you slide it in the round of the door, the barrel is supported by the sill, and on the other side you can receive it on something rather than having to set it down and then pick it up again to store it.

- You could set up as a cider-maker!

- Why not? That way we could have cider every day; not to mention the fact that it goes very well with cream!

We laugh.

We come to a little cemetery alongside a meadow. In a corner, against a flint and mud wall, a stone cross erected on a tomb looks out over the wall at the cows grazing nearby.

Another dirt track.

- Does this one too go to the town...?

- I've no idea, admits Milady, I've only been here once or twice with my grandparents.

After a good half-an-hour the track comes to a village.

- Oh, look, over there, she cries, those magnificent beech trees! I remember them.

Over there is a few turns of the pedals. Along the road, opposite us, the sun glitters and burns through the foliage of the beech trees.

- You're right, it's magnificent.

She glances at the sight:

- Yes, it is beautiful.

Then she goes on:

- But those aren't the beech trees I meant; they're on the other side of the road.

We enter a path roofed by beech trees. No sun opposite us here. Nothing magnificent…

Milady has stopped suddenly, a look of disappointment on her face:

- It was late afternoon, in mid-autumn, the trunks of the beech trees were black and it was red, all red…

We advance slowly down the path, in the middle of the wood, in the peace and warm silence of the late summer day, breathing the damp smell of the undergrowth. On the right-hand side, a pond dozes amid the thickets. A fine pond, rather large, if the truth be told, its edges nibbled by watergrass - tufts rolled up like hedgehogs -, covered here and there with a light green veil of duckweed. The sun filters through the leaves of the trees, which part to let it through, and patches of darker and lighter colour play on the surface. We sit down silently.

This morning, we are riding through fog you could cut…

- ...with your flint axe! laughs Milady.

Grandma needs wool. She had bought some with a friend, from the same batch - I put a comma after friend, Mr. Teacher.

- And all your readers have to do is work it out for themselves, miaows my cat, shaking his head in a disapproving way.

- You can talk! You can't even read!

- Well, it's not with that kind of writing that I'm going to learn.

- Go to sleep!

- I'm not sleepy.

That was the end of the matter, and my cat continued to watch my pen running over the paper.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, the wool!

So Grandma needs some wool from her friend - the Teacher, not being there, hasn't noticed anything and my cat has merely shaken his head again, though with a miaow - and this morning she asked Milady and me if we would mind…

- We'll go right away, her granddaughter assured her.

The village where the friend lives isn't very far, barely an hour there and back. We ride fast along our little track. The meadows around us are hardly visible and the trees loom then vanish like ghosts. There are three of them, all dishevelled. One, slightly apart, is bathed in fog. The other two have mingled their foliage, forming a protective roof. Under the roof, a cow gradually emerges from the fog and advances slowly towards us. Milady has given her a little wave as we pass by:

- Sorry, but we're in a hurry today, Grandma's waiting for us!

After lunch we go off again, without any real idea where. Grandpa has shown as a few things on the map, but nothing special. Grey cloud has replaced the fog. It's a bit cooler than the last few days.

We start once more with our little dirt track. We know it well now, it's home territory. The map sends us off to the right, towards a village by a narrow road which has a surprise in store for us. The land… the land all around… A strange sight was awaiting us in the countryside.

On the right, a bare field is furrowed with deep channels, as though torrents had ravaged the soil. The thin grass has held on, though flattened by the force of the water. We advance into the field, intrigued. Close up, it's like looking at branches of rivers that have come to swell a main watercourse, all swollen, which has feverishly sought its way here and there. The pebbles that still litter the bed have made the stream seethe. The torrents have overflowed and covered the tussocks.

The storm is not growling today, the sun has dried the earth and the shrunken soil has cracked up. But all those things are inscribed in the barren landscape, in the fine, loose soil of this part of the world. Until the new crop grows and wipes away what had no name.

We enter the village. Houses such as we have now become accustomed to seeing. Here is a mud wall topped by thatch. And on that other wall…

- It's decided to live in a house, that one, remarks Milady.

She points to a plant whose stems and supple leaves, long and slender, have grown directly against the rammed earth, rising to then fall gracefully. There is a tall, half-timbered house.

- How steep the roof is, says Milady.

- That must be why the cob has slid.

We leave the village. The main road to cross. A squat, thick-headed cow stares at us.

I ask it politely:

- Are you wearing dark glasses all the better to see us with, Madam?

A quiet low. We take it to mean yes.

We carry on. A few moments later we turned round; the cow had not moved. Further away, the village was starting to fade into the mist.

- Look! Apple trees on the march!

I look:

- Yes! They're going on a journey!

As though they were on a road, thirty or so apple trees are marching in single file. Under their foliage, their trunks look like legs swinging along, left, right, left, right…

- That's not protecting much!

Milady has pointed to a piece of wall lost in the middle of the fields.

- It must be an old enclosure...

- It's kept its watchman...

- The bush?

- Yes; it's grown on the remains of the wall…

- As if to say: "I'm watching!"

A village. The old wall of an old house. The ivy which clings to it will never leave.

- Have you seen the tower?

- It's as though it had a thousand windows! Milady answers.

- Secret windows, with rammed earth panes.

- We can't see them, but I'm sure those who live there can see us.

I discover a real window, right at the top:

- Look! One of them has given the game away; I can see its beak!

- It's huge; there must be as many pigeons in the dovecote as windows.

On the way back, a scrap of blue sky has reappeared.

A long village.

- It must be an old road that people have built houses along, Milady supposes.

We turn onto a path which rises slightly. Behind the apple trees…

- Can you see what it is?

- Not very well, admits Milady.

- Let's go and see, then.

Behind the apple trees, in the middle of the meadow, stands a cemetery. We go in. Quiet tombs. Leaning against one of the little walls, a large, gloomy cast-iron cross bears in its centre a sad, cast-iron Virgin. Behind the little wall cows graze without lifting their heads.

We set off again. A little further on, a wide pond dreams in the middle of the fields. A few clouds are reflected in the blue water. Blades of watergrass have poked their head out of the pond to breathe in what is left of the summer.

Thursday the fourteenth of September. It's market day here, held around the church during the morning. It's not the same as in my little town. Here there are hens.

- Don't you ever have hens at your market? Milady asks me.

- Yes, we do, but here you don't eat them, or at least not all of them.

She smiles:

- That makes for happy hens!

She goes on:

- I didn't know you were that familiar with the market here.

- No, I'm not, not at all, but I do know the one in the town where the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un live, it's a very big one, it's been in existence for nearly a thousand years.

- I know it too! That's where my uncle buys his hens.

- I know!

- You do?

- Yes, and this year it's on the last three days of September, I say triumphantly.

- Oh! well, let's go then!

- Right; let's go right now!

- Yes, let's; the time it'll take us to get there…

- Get a move on, then! We've only another fortnight!

In the meantime, so as not to arrive too late, we amble among the hens.

- Here, says Milady, the hens are like the sheep at the airfield, they work.

- Mowing the grass?

- No, they prefer worms.

- Like the twins' little chum, then.

- Yes, it gives them strength to work.

What kind of work could hens do? I pretend to rack my brains.

- Hens lay eggs, Milady tells me in her teacher's voice.

- And thank heavens for that! I much prefer eggs to worms.

There are lots of other things at the market, even cows. But they don't lay eggs, that much I know.

Lunch with the grandparents. It's the last day, we're leaving tomorrow morning. Grandpa and Grandma are a little sad but don't show it. It is a jolly meal.

After lunch is over we stay a while, chatting.

- Go for a bike ride, it's your last day, Grandpa suggests.

- We've already been all over, his granddaughter answers with a big smile.

As he insists, she adds:

- We'll go for a quick bike ride a bit later, before sunset.

Grandpa adds:

- Don't leave it too late; don't forget, your train is at seven thirty-four tomorrow; Grandma and I generally go to bed before you, but I think this time you'll have to do the same.

Grandma has got up:

- We've got you a little present for your concert; I'll go and get it.

She comes back with a large velvet box and a small leather case. She goes up to Milady:

- Open it, my dear; I would like you to wear this souvenir of my wedding with Grandpa.

Milady takes the case and opens it gently:

- Oh! what a lovely necklace! It's like something from the Middle Ages, with precious stones!

Grandpa has handed me the large velvet box and says with a catch in his voice:

- This is for our dear young sire because he is kind and serious… and to go with the necklace from the Middle Ages!

I have opened the large velvet box and found a wonderful embroidered cambric shirt with puffed sleeves and a lace ruffle at the neck.

- I… thank you very much, I have murmured.

We go off on our last bike ride at about four o'clock, just a short one, going nowhere in particular. In any case the sun goes down soon, just after six.

We have taken our favourite track. The meadows and villages are all familiar now. We ride past the barn with the forest of beams.

A bit further on, beside another track which seems just as old, two horses have halted their conversation to bid us good speed. We have thanked them, of course.

Near a wall where irregularly shaped flints are embedded in warm-coloured rammed earth, an ageing apple tree lifts the few twisted branches left to him skywards.

Leaning against the wall of a half-timbered barn, a ladder awaits the farmer who will take the straw or hay up through the wide-open door.

Which is the bigger, the great bales of straw packed against each other or the nearby farm? We have ridden past before I have been able to decide.

A large farmyard. A manure heap. Hens, geese… and ducks paddling in the pond, of course.

The sun has lost its light. We head back. A large, nostalgic pond. Does it know we are leaving? The pond is not deep, the watergrass that grows in it does not have far to go to break the surface. The tufts float like little boats that have dropped anchor there.

Behind us, the village gradually disappears into the falling darkness. A row of tall trees against a dark sky bid us farewell.

Over there, hardly visible in the bend, the two-coacher has emerged from the wood.

- The sun has apparently been up for more than an hour and a half… begins Milady.

- I'll ask the cows for dark glasses so it doesn't dazzle me.

- At least it's not raining!

I finish off:

- Not yet!

- It's a good job we haven't had such dazzling sunshine during our stay.

- We'd have had to feel our way everywhere.

- And turn on our bike lights!

We laugh; heavy rain has started to fall.

We leave behind us the meadows where...

Change of train.

- That's the train that goes to the capital.

- Let it! chunters Milady; in twenty minutes we'll be off it.

And six minutes after leaving it…

- The floating restaurant! cries Milady.

- Nine oh nine, that's…

- ...too early for lunch!

- I'll tell the driver to wait.

- Good idea.

- Are you hungry?

- No; and you?

- No.

- Just as well; the train's already left.

A moment of silence. She goes on:

- It's left… we were all right there…

Here we are back in our little town. I have accompanied Milady back home. I turn into my road.

- Get a move on, lunch is ready! miaows my cat, sitting in front of the garden gate.

A family lunch. I tell them about my trip. Everyone is happy. My father cannot find any questions about tonnage to ask me. When the meal was over, as I was getting up to leave the table, I saw my mother give me a long look.

The afternoon was short. Curly and Buttons came to welcome me back... and quiz me.

The Geologist easily resolved the matter of the dew which had soaked me. "Where you were, it's windblown silt on flint clay", she told us. "Obviously", the Economist said with a mocking grin. But she finished her explanation, telling us about soil which is impermeable and therefore retains humidity. "Obviously", she added, smiling pleasantly at her friend.

Milady received the letter with the appointment promised by the helpful secretary we had gone to see on the first of September. The appointment was to tell her which class she will be in. She called the helpful secretary. Who gave her the number, then checked herself. "The letter told you to come here!" Milady answered: "Just as well I didn't, I would have been wasting my time!" Getting no answer from the helpful secretary, Milady hung up.

A little later in the afternoon, we paid a visit to Schumann. We have to work. The concert is on Saturday the thirtieth of September.

- Are you coming to the shops?

That's Curly and Buttons, of course. My mother hasn't wanted to bother me on my first day back and has already done the shopping. My explanations are only good for another…

- Are you coming to the shops?

So I go off to do the shopping I don't have to do.

Nothing has changed in my little town - our little town now. Why should anything have changed anyway? And yet that is what I feel. I mean, that something has changed. Yes, I know, it's all a bit vague, Mr. Teacher, sir, but…

- Where are you off to then?

If Curly is asking me where I am off to, it means that the two aviators have stopped in front of a shop and I… I don't want to seem as though I'm not paying attention to them, so I explain:

- It's my brakes...

- ...which got loose all on their own while you were away, yeah, right, says Buttons.

We continue to move from one shop to another. And don't suppose for a moment that my two pilots are wasting any time. Oh, no! I am bombarded with questions.

- What did you do while you were there? asks Curly.

- We went out and about.

- By bike? asks Buttons.

- By bike.

Curly:

- Did you go far?

I hesitate; to tell the truth, I don't really know. I don't have time to finish my thoughts.

Buttons:

- Did you go swimming?

- No.

Curly:

- Wasn't there a lake like where we go?

- No.

Buttons:

- Did you have good weather?

- Sometimes good, sometimes not so good.

Curly:

- Did you get home late?

- Before the evening meal.

Buttons:

- Did they like you, her grandparents?

They have intelligence, as always.

- I think so.

Curly:

- She can't live at home any more, her parents have gone…

Buttons:

- ...a long way away.

Very good intelligence

Curly:

- You won't be going?

- No.

Buttons:

- She's really nice. Do you like her?

- Yes.

Curly:

- Will you tell her to stay here?

- She said that she would.

Buttons:

- With you?

- With me.

Curly:

- Did she tell you that while you were there?

- She'd already told me before.

The shopping is done. Now you know how our two aviators always manage to know what's going on down below.

At lunch, my parents asked me a few questions about my trip. Not as many by a long way as the two aviators. And much easier to answer.

During the afternoon Milady has come over to sing. Mozart, K. 519. A concordant song, gentle and sad, without the rawness of Schumann. But is Mozart's song really sad? "In the repeat, at bar 44, she questions her pain", I have said. "And in bar 84 it is soothed", Milady has said.

It's Sunday, market day, when everyone is out and about. Milady is no longer a curiosity. Before, it was about knowing what was going to happen; now, as far as schoolmates are concerned, it is all done. How? No matter.

Anyway, today there is a much more important subject of conversation: school. It starts in fifteen days' time. So it's all everyone can talk about.

- I'm glad to be going back, I'm bored here! says one.

- I've had fun; it's at school that I get bored, contradicts another vigorously.

Here they all are, divided into two camps. Nobody actually talks about school though, the only question being where one has the most fun.

- What, you mean you have fun in class? queries my cat; but you said…

- No, not in class, at school.

- What…?

- I'll tell you; for them, school is not here but somewhere else…

- Is that all you have to tell me? Much more like that and I'll go off to sleep!

- No, stay for a moment, I'll be more clear.

- You could have started out that way! With your… what do you say? rhetorical devices…

- It wasn't a rhetorical device, it was a stylistic one.

- Same difference!

- Now then, where was I?

My cat stretched:

- You see, you're getting all tangled up in yourself! You were saying that school is not here but somewhere else.

- Absolutely! At least, that's what they say.

- And so?

- So they see other schoolmates...

- Who are better than...?

- That's not the point; they're just not the same, that's all.

My cat pondered for a long time:

- I like being here, with you.

Then he miaowed softly:

- You like being with her...

And he climbed onto the next branch but did not go to sleep.

This morning, arriving at Milady's to get the milk, I find her in deep conversation with Curly and Buttons.

- She's agreed! Curly tells me happily.

- You're going to go swimming? Isn't it a bit cold…?

- No, silly, laughs Buttons, we're going to pick jam!

- It's sunny this morning; they won't be wet, puts in Curly.

And the two aviators, having filled up with milk, fly away at full throttle.

- I suppose they'll be on their way to your neighbour and his friend, says Milady.

- No doubt about it; let's prepare to get scratched!

- We'll have to have a quick lunch; the dew will have lifted after midday.

- It's just as well we're not at your grandparents'; you could never pick jam there.

- Oh, the lids are on tight in the brambles there!

And there we all are at around one o'clock, in front of the thick clumps of bramble bushes whose bendy stems reach for the sky then fall back in sprays. The blackberries abound, a deep blue-black colour, fat and swollen with juice which we already suppose to be delicious.

The first phase of blackberry picking, and far from the least important, is the fattening up. We are the geese. The blackberries disappear faster than I can write. Once fattened, the geese start squawking.

- You played well yesterday! Buttons congratulates us as a musician who knows what she's talking about.

- We have no time to waste, the concert's on the thirtieth, says Milady.

- Oh, you're not far from being ready, says the Economist.

- That's something I've never managed, says Buttons wistfully.

- That's not true, you always play well! protests the Geologist.

- Absolutely! joins in Curly.

Enough squawking! I warn the flock:

- Get picking! Time's getting on!

And there we are, getting to grips with the brambles, and not a jam jar in sight.

- It's a shame they don't grow on cherry trees, complains the Economist, who doesn't really enjoy this kind of work.

- It's a good job they don't, otherwise my cat would have had them all!

- Cats don't eat blackberries, points out the Geologist; that's dogs.

I dare not tell her that my cat…

We each have our own method for picking. The Economist stays as far away from the bushes as he can, plucking the occasional blackberry at arm's length, with his fingertips. But at least, I've never seen him get a scratch. The Geologist is very organised; she looks for the hollows in the brambles and brings back a good handful each time without too much damage. Milady has brought a stick to keep the brambles at bay.

- That's how we did it where I used to live, she has explained.

- Did you often go blackberrying? Curly has asked.

- Once, I think, Milady has answered.

We all laughed.

The other three of us, Curly, Buttons and I, plunge without hesitating into the heart of the brambles. There is one slight difference. Curly and Buttons are well protected and emerge without a scratch, or hardly, which is not at all the case with me.

But the jam will be good.

A usual morning. The mornings haven't changed here. Why would they?

My mother makes the jam, with the Economist's mother and the Geologist's. But Curly and Buttons don't want anyone else to help them; they make their own jam. As for Milady, it is bound to be her aunt who does it.

Who cares? Excuse me, but my cat has already confirmed that this is the diary of my life.

Some errands for my mother, some piano practice. A question for Milady about the song we're going to work on after lunch. I think of phoning her, but it would be better to look at it together with the music. I bike over to hers.

She's in the kitchen, in a plain apron.

- It's nowhere near ready yet! she says brightly.

- Are you making jam?

- You said you liked it, so I'd better learn how to make it.

She smiles:

- My aunt has been very helpful; and I'm not on my own, you know, Curly told me that she and Buttons were making jam together.

- Oh, they always have done, it passes the time.

- I think it must be because they enjoy it, because it's not much of a pastime!

- I'll give you a hand.

- Oh, no. I have to learn how to do it on my own; cooking isn't for men.

Embarrassed, I use the song to change the subject.

- I've got a moment, let's take a look.

- It won't take long.

- As for the rest, there's no hurry; we'll see about it when I come over after lunch.

She adds with a smile:

- In the meantime, work on the bits where you're on your own; you're right, it's not so easy to get everything together so that there aren't any breaks.

All I had to do was go away and practice.

Afternoon. Schubert, D. 957, no. 4. Easy, simple, but very pretty, languorous despite an eddy of volition that then swirls away. Everything was seamless. Just as well, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to give in to the song's sweet somnolence.

The seven thirty-six takes us to the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un for a walk in the surrounding countryside. The weather is gloomy and big black clouds pass overhead from time to time, though without releasing the rain that they carefully keep for themselves. To avoid the main road, we leave the town by a side road which crosses the aqueduct. How convenient it is, our aqueduct. Whether in my little town or here, it's always the best way to start a walk. So here we are, walking along it, following it to another side road - nothing but side roads today - which takes us to a little village. I exclaim:

- It's a real fortress, this village!

- It's hardly more than a hamlet, says the Little 'Un with surprise.

- What about those walls on either side of the road?

- What walls?

- You're used to them, says Milady loyally; look at the wall on the left, all made of flint.

The Little 'Un slows down:

- You're right! This is where the last prehistoric inhabitants of the region live!

I laugh:

- They're pretty highly developed, then, your prehistoric people!

He gives me a suspicious look. I go on:

- You're on a bike after all!

Titters. The Little 'Un accelerates.

A farm at the entrance to the village. A big, long house. In the middle of the farmyard, a heap of manure bigger than the house itself. Well, almost.

We leave the village, or hamlet, as you please. A duckpond, very dark. It must be said that the big black clouds are reflected in it.

- Look out! A prehistoric monster! cries the Little 'Un.

I turn in the direction he is pointing:

- That little birdy, you mean?

- The Little 'Un loses his marbles every time he sees it, the Big 'Un explains; and yet he was happy enough to eat the last one I caught!

The Little 'Un accelerates.

And the prehistoric monster? Well, one could be mistaken, it is true. An old tree stump beside the pond looks rather like a bird of prey.

- It must have been good! Will you give me the recipe? asks Milady innocently.

- I don't know it, it's the Big 'Un who made it.

Fascinating stuff. But hey, school is drawing near...

The bird of prey having spared us - or we having spared the bird of prey, as you will -, we set off again on a track which is hard to distinguish from the grass that has invaded it. Another village. The sky is getting darker and darker.

- We're really going to get it, says the Little 'Un forebodingly.

Two large and leafy trees on either side of the track seem to merge with the black clouds, so dark is their foliage.

A large farm stands at the entrance to the village. A small window looks out over the track. Milady has stopped.

- Is this where you roasted the prehistoric monster? she asks the Big 'Un.

The Big 'Un smiles:

- The fireplace?

- Yes.

I come to the window. Inside, a large room, its walls made of large, irregularly shaped stones. And the fireplace! It's like something from an old castle. The bird would easily fit into the hearth. I turn to the Big 'Un.

- Don't forget to ask us, next time!

- And guess who'll have to help her catch it, grumbles the Little 'Un.

- Oh, it's not that hard. All you have to do is put salt on its tail, says Milady serenely.

- I don't think we've got more than a barrel left, says the Little 'Un regretfully; it'll never be enough.

- Never mind, we'll just have to make do with its eggs, sighs Milady.

The repartee having run out, we set off again.

- Is it yew or box? asks Milady, pointing to a big round tree.

- Box, says the Big 'Un.

I too had seen that it was box, but the mistake was there to be made because some yew trees will take the shape of a large ball.

The box tree in question is growing in a small triangular cemetery stuck between two roads. We go round it in order to admire the tree from the other side. On our way back we see two tall white pillars which look as though they are guarding the place.

We set off again. Ahead of us, fields that stretch out to the horizon. It is ploughing time. A tractor crawls towards a large tree. The Little 'Un turns to the Big 'Un, pointing to a little hill:

- Do you remember the ice?

- Yes, it was...

The Big 'Un explains:

- Last winter, when it was so cold, we came this way…

I break in:

- I remember, it was freezing; that was brave of you…

- Oh, it wasn't that cold, says the Little 'Un.

He leaves just enough time for me to show surprise, then adds offhandedly:

- In the car.

- Well, goes on the Big 'Un, we were going past the castle; the trees were covered in ice.

- You mean they were all frozen? asks Milady.

- No, no, it was like a sheath; thick, at least an inch thick, it looked like a stage set, but translucid.

- It must have been hard on the trees!

- You could hear the branches constantly cracking and breaking under the weight of the ice.

- What is beautiful is not always good, says Milady pensively.

We continue on our way. Fields, woods… A curious little grove of trees against a background of sky.

- They look as though they're dancing a jig, says Milady.

We reach the hill we had seen earlier. A castle stands on the top. You can't go in just like that. A thick - very thick - wall made of hundreds and hundreds of stones, a real wall this time. The wall is pierced by a doorway. The drawbridge must be up, because I can't see it. Where are the guards? No matter. The high wall is impenetrable. To the left of the doorway it must be at least ten paces long; and to the right only five paces, it is true. But even if you go through the door, you still have to confront the proud and impregnable keep; there is still a pile of stones.

As the invisible guard has allowed us to leave the castle, we take a track which leads to the river. There is an abundance of choice to cross it; a bridge, a ford. We take the ford in order to look at the bridge. A small stone bridge, mossy and very old, almost a humpback, with solid arches firmly rooted in a clear stream, it has been fulfilling its purpose for over seven hundred years. You can still walk or cycle over it.

The track is lined with field and meadows. A tarred wooden stake is listening to four hogweed plants. "Don't all talk at once, ladies! How am I supposed to understand what you're on about?" it says.

A village? Yes, a village, but all you can see is linden trees. An avenue leading to a manor house. Two beautiful rows of leafy linden trees. Leaves, leaves, leaves, as far as the eye can see. And so tall! Your gaze gets lost in their crowns…

A large stone cross bears a Christ. I can already hear it: "It's wonderful, it's so old!"

The big black clouds seem to be making up their mind. The rain is coming. In the distance, a large fortified farm.

- How nice to know we have friends everywhere!

What could we add to Milady's remark? Nothing, so we didn't.

A long, stoutly buttressed building ending in a curious house set at an angle in the middle of the fields…

- An old watch tower? suggests the Big 'Un.

The big black clouds have made up their mind. The heavy rain suddenly arrives to soak us. But we are not quite so wet behind the ears, having already found refuge in the barn full of dry straw.

The rain makes us hungry, and it is nearly lunchtime anyway. The Big 'Un unloads the baskets. Hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise with olives, the region's famous pullets - one each - with a succulent medley of spring vegetables in vinaigrette - carrots, celery, potatoes, turnips, gherkins - and a chocolate cake!

The Little 'Un looks at the rain outside:

- You're wasting your time. You're not getting any!

He adds, his mouth full of hard-boiled egg:

- We're all dry and you're soaked! That'll teach you!

We chat as we enjoy our excellent repast.

- Only ten days… sighs the Little 'Un.

- All good things come to an end, says the Big 'Un consolingly.

The Little 'Un bristles:

- You can talk! You've got another month before you go back to university.

The pullet soothes the Little 'Un's hurt.

- Have you signed up? the Big 'Un asks Milady.

- Yes, it's done.

- You didn't have any trouble? Is the secretary still as surly as ever?

Milady relates the interview.

- You were quite right to put her in her place; she's there to help you, which gets forgotten all too often, says the Big 'Un.

Milady smiles:

- It's all right as far as the secretary's concerned; for the teachers, it's another matter.

Milady and I have already talked about these things. The Little 'Un and the Big 'Un look at her with curiosity. After a short silence, Milady goes on:

- They owe me their knowledge, I owe them my gratitude; but it's not for them to order me about or for me to obey them.

After a short silence, the Little 'Un says:

- But teachers can order you to do some things, I don't know, like not talking in class.

- Of course; but in that case all they are doing is passing on the school rules, which I accepted when I signed up, which I didn't have to do.

She lets a moment go by:

- And they didn't have to become teachers; it is because they wanted to that they owe me their knowledge and I owe them my gratitude.

She lets another moment go by:

- But it's not for them to interfere in my life.

We go back through the countryside, the big houses and the little tracks.

Morning, milk, two-pounder, errands with Curly and Buttons, writing - no time to read - working on our songs with Milady - the concert is in nine days' time and nine days is not long. Afternoon, the sandpit; our two aviators buzz the others enough to convince them to come.

We run down, we run up, we tumble in the sand - no matter, we never hurt ourselves - racing fiercely. Who wins is not the most important thing.

Afterwards we spend time in the woods. The two aviators, being the youngest, run along the paths while we older ones, stuffier and common-sensical, walk slowly along, exchanging words of wisdom.

- Do you know when the next holidays are? the Economist asks me.

We spend the morning on our songs. It's not too bad but there's still work to be done.

The weather is changeable; fine yesterday, pouring with rain today. It is cooler too, cold almost, an uninvited transition. My cat has given up the cherry tree. Me too. No more sunny walks…

We spend the afternoon with the Economist and the Geologist. A large log flames in the hearth. Milady came in the car with her uncle and has brought a hot apple pie - and cream, of course.

- In one week's time... says the Economist.

- Do you really not like school? Milady asks her.

- It's not that; I do like school but...

He hesitates:

- It's the answers I have to give when the teachers ask me questions.

- Do the teachers force you? inquires Milady.

- Oh no, not at all!

He is silent for a moment:

- I tried once to say what I thought; it was two years ago…

- Oh yes, the famous time when...

I am not the only one to have remembered. The Geologist too:

- It sorted itself out...

- No, it was forgotten; people don't like to use their memory for things which don't touch them themselves.

He adds with a little scowl:

- That would be too much effort!

He turns to Milady:

- This is what happened: I had written several essays saying that things were not what the teacher said, or even what the textbooks said.

He pauses:

- I had ideas of my own, not only other people's.

Milady is listening attentively, not say anything. He goes on:

- Each time the teacher gave me very good marks and encouraging comments: good ideas, personality, precise analysis…

He sighs:

- So it was all going swimmingly and I was very happy with the situation; it's really nice to be esteemed by grown-ups when you're barely more than a child yourself, and especially by a teacher who knows what he's talking about.

He breaks of for a moment. Milady is still listening attentively, not say anything. He goes on:

- One day, I said that I should never believe what my teachers told me, that I should only believe myself. It wasn't even an original idea, I think I had picked it up in a book somewhere, or something like it, and I really liked it.

He gives a little smile:

- I was told that I was saying things that went against what is right and that therefore I should believe…

Silence falls. Milady continues:

- If I understand correctly, in order to do the right thing you have to say the opposite of what you think; in other words you have to lie, which is supposed to be wrong.

- That's exactly it, says the Geologist; you have to do wrong in order to do right.

This morning, I run into Curly and Buttons at the farm.

- It's lovely weather! Buttons tells us.

- You're coming to get chestnuts? asks Curly.

When I say 'asks'... And that's why it's lovely weather.

- Oh, yes! Milady has agreed straight away; I love chestnuts!

She turns to me:

- Do you like chestnuts?

- I love chestnuts!

Our two aviators exchange a look, laughing:

- We love chestnuts!

So after lunch we'll go and gather chestnuts.

We spend the morning working on our songs. The Economist and the Geologist have come round, or perhaps I should say over, to congratulate us on our progress.

Now here we are in the woods. Curly and Buttons must have come to have a look before saying anything to us, because as many chestnuts have fallen as drops of rain yesterday.

Gathering chestnuts is easier work than picking blackberries, because the spines don't prick much and the shells are already half-open.

Pleasant weather. A pleasant walk. Pleasant chat. And the chestnuts promise to be tasty!

- Do you eat them with cream too?

- Of course! says Milady, slightly surprised.

- With cream? exclaim Curly and Buttons in chorus, even more surprised.

They exchange a look:

- Wow! That must be good!

Sunday. Market day, when everyone is out and about. It's cold and grey. Autumn has been here for a few days now. Summer is a distant memory. School begins again in a week's time. Conversations are slow and dull. Those who had said they were happy to be going back to school are no happier now than the others.

A great get-together at Cheerful's this afternoon. The twelve fifty-three arrives with the Little 'Un and the Big' Un on board. Here we are. The two little sisters are all over us, as usual, though they are not particularly bright today; it has started to rain again so they can't go out to play.

We take up our quarters in the sitting room.

- It's going to be a good year, Cheerful tells us brightly; no end-of-school exams again!

He turns to Milady and says pleasantly:

- And your end-of-school exams are even further off!

- Not at all, she answers ingenuously; I took them three months ago.

He feigns admiration:

- Congratulations! So you'll soon be a teacher, then?

She keeps her ingenuous tone of voice:

- Yes, but I can't decide what subject to teach.

- You could teach holidays, suggests the Little 'Un; I'd sign up for lessons right away!

- I wouldn't, says the Economist; I don't want anyone telling me how to do nothing.

I turn to Milady:

- And anyway you'd be a very bad teacher; you're always working!

The Geologist changes the subject and asks Milady:

- The concert's coming up soon; are you ready?

- I've done as much as I can.

- What about you? the Big 'Un asks me.

- I hope I've done as much as I can too.

The last week of the holidays.

Milady and I take the seven fourteen to the town where our schools are in order to buy some supplies. We arrive just as the bookshop opens.

It's already quite busy. Pupils, of course. Some do not seem very awake yet, rubbing their eyes and looking apparently uncomprehendingly at the books piled up on the shelves. And yet it's not that early, and people round here usually get up early during the holidays. So why are they so sleepy today?

- They're the ones who would rather not wake up till next holidays, Milady whispers.

I smile:

- And that's what I would have been like too, if you hadn't come to stay here.

She gives me a smile:

- Lazybones!

Then she adds softly:

- And I would have been a lazybones too!

Having finished our shopping, and as the train back doesn't leave until twelve fifty-one, we take the bus, which runs more often.

We still have two hours till lunch to work on our songs and immediately take advantage of the time.

During lunch, my parents talk to me about school. "It's very soon, you know", my father tells me.

Some more music after lunch. At about four o'clock, the Economist looks in at the window:

- Are you coming? The Geologist is going to tell us all about the different layers - of a cake - a cream cake - that she's made for us.

It has started to rain so we hop quickly over the garden wall. A large log is flaming in the hearth.

The geology teacher gets full marks for her course on cake layers.

- Cakes often have names, says the Economist; I suggest we call this one a 'Stratospheric'!

Milady and I approved heartily and the name went down in history.

After matters of the stomach, matters of the mind...

- I was thinking about all those who have done something important for the world… starts Milady.

- Well, they get their reward, or at least they should do, like I was by your kind congratulations, says the Geologist steadily.

- Congratulations are nice but do not leave anything more than a feeling of well-being.

I agree:

- We honour them, then forget them.

- Their names are remembered somewhere, points out the Economist.

- Like in a textbook, for example.

The Geologist agrees with me.

- And pupils say: "Ah, another name to learn".

The Economist goes on:

- And even: "And then we have to know what they've done!"

Milady nods:

- And once they've been pinned to the pages of a book, are they still human?

She adds pensively:

- And if they are no longer human, what more can we owe them than admiration?

Eight thirteen. Milady and I arrive on the station platform where the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un are waiting for us. The weather is dull and mizzly. No bikes today, but a comfortable car instead. Going for a ride? Not a bit of it! What then? Ah, you always need everything explaining. Read what comes next, then you'll see.

A side road which crosses the aqueduct of course - it gets everywhere! - takes us to a stream which runs through - no, not meadows this time! - a factory. My uncle, who was driving, stops in the factory yard. Workers greet us discreetly. We enter a large room where we can see a man standing at a table, turning a large wheel and watching a roller going from one end of the table to the other. There is a sheet of paper on the roller. Another man on the other side of the table then takes the sheet of paper off the roller. The sheet of paper contains the printed pages of a book. We are in the print works where my uncle works.

My uncle had long promised to take us to see it, but I think we must have been too young to take an interest; but now we are old enough. There are many printing tables in the large room and the workers are constantly busy; one looks after the paper, the other the wheel. If you stand watching a table long enough, the monotonous back-and-forth induces torpor. Is that how the workers feel, torporous for days on end?

My uncle has taken two sheets of paper and shown them to us, holding them up in front of a window:

- What can you see?

- What is there to see? it hasn't been printed yet, says the Little 'Un scornfully.

And adds:

- I'll go and get one that's been printed.

My uncle stops him with a gesture:

- No! if it's been printed you won't see anything.

We apprentices hesitate for a moment; is it a joke? No. My uncle insists:

- Do the two sheets of paper look alike?

- No, not at all, answers the Little 'Un.

He points to one of the sheets:

- That one's the question.

And, pointing to the other:

- And that one's the answer.

Well, it's obvious that's a joke. The Big 'Un, Milady and I start to laugh.

My uncle points to one of the sheets:

- I know what's on this sheet, it's easy to read; but I have trouble seeing the answer on the other one.

That's taken us all by surprise, especially the Little 'Un.

My uncle smiles at his son:

- The answer must be the last essay you handed in.

Almost before he's finished, the son chips in:

- And the other sheet is the question you weren't able to ask clearly.

We all laugh, my uncle included.

The Little 'Un goes on:

- It's not that at all! It's the correspondence between two spies writing in invisible ink!

- So what are they saying to each other? asks my uncle.

My cousin looks worried:

- The answer is obscure...

My uncle says triumphantly:

- Of course, even though the question was clear!

Now we have got it. One of the papers is more uniform than the other.

- The paper with the little dark patches is called cloudy, my uncle tells us; it's of less high quality.

We move on to another room. Workers bending over large sheets of paper are drawing lines.

- It looks like what we have just seen being printed, remarks Milady, but without the words.

- That's the imposition, my uncle explains.

He goes on:

- You have to fit as many pages as possible onto the sheet so as not to waste paper; in order to do so, we measure the width and length of the pages and the sheet.

My uncle pauses for a moment:

- The paper is made to metric measurements but the fonts, and hence the pages, still use old measurements. So we measure the width of the sheet in metres and the length in old units.

The Big 'Un shows surprise:

- That must make it easy to calculate the surface area.

- Couldn't be easier! We convert the old units into metres, then calculate the surface area in metres, then convert back into old units.

I point out:

- But then you have to round out twice, which must generate errors.

- I'm afraid so, answers my uncle, given that the paper is in metres and the pages in old units…

- So why don't you measure the paper in old units? Then you wouldn't get any errors.

- That's right, says the Little 'Un; even if the paper is in metres, I suppose you don't use a whole sheet so you can use whatever unit of measurement you like.

- If it's always been done like that, there must be a reason, says his father.

He suddenly exclaims:

- Oh, look, it's lunch time!

He adds:

- I have to take some proofs over to a colleague who has twisted his ankle and he has invited us all to lunch. Let's go!

We get into the car. My uncle says:

- This afternoon I'll show you how the typesetters make up the pages with lead type. You can have a go yourselves if you like.

- Is it hard? asks Milady.

- Yes and no, answers my uncle; yes if things go well, no if things go wrong.

I ask:

- What happens when things go wrong?

- Oh, that's easy, we chuck everything in the river and start again.

The apprentices:

- In the river?

- It takes hours to put the type back in the letter cases. It's quicker to chuck it in the river. But hush, not a word, everyone knows.

We reach the village where the proofreader lives. My uncle parks the car and we cross a pretty grassed square lined with a large turreted house and a long wall behind which leafy, shady trees flourish. Opposite, a gentle church made of small bricks and worked stone. In front of the church, between two linden trees which embellish the doorway, stands a small stone bench on which is seated…

- Hello! cries my uncle.

- Ah, you've brought the future typesetters with you, replies the proofreader.

- Correct me if I'm wrong but… have you forgotten your stick?

- Correct my foot! Here it is!

Limping, we set off for his house. Well, he limps and we follow.

Lunch is a lively meal.

- Have you already re-read the text? the proofreader asks my uncle.

- Yes, four of us have already done so; you're the last.

- You need five proofreaders to re-read a text? says Milady with surprise.

- Not only do you need five, the proofreader tells her, but if any of them finds a mistake we all have to start all over again.

The apprentices exchange looks...

I turn to Milady:

- That's why the Little 'Un makes so few spelling mistakes in his homework…

- If there are any at all, it's because I haven't read it over five times, says his father.

Back at the printworks, we visit the composition shop. Without looking up, the typesetters pick little sticks of lead showing the face of the character - or letter, more simply - out of the type cases and put them together with other faces to make words. To read the words, you still have to be able to read upside down. But don't worry, they come out right way up on the paper!

One of the typesetters has finished composing his page. Taking a piece of string, he winds it round the lead block.

- You have to pull it tight, my uncle explains, otherwise it's a real mess.

- And if you pull it too tight, it all scatters, and that makes a real mess too, comments the typesetter.

My uncle adds under his breath:

- And that's when you go to the river…

The typographer has suppressed a smile.

We spend the rest of the afternoon making little messes.

This morning the sun has returned and the weather is mild. Curly and Buttons have taken advantage of the fact, early on, to suggest an outing to the little lake in the middle of the woods. The Economist, apparently, protested energetically. "Going swimming in this weather? No fear!", he cried, according to Curly. But he has nevertheless grumblingly agreed to come along. "Oh, it's because we told him the Geologist would be coming!" Buttons has said. As the sun goes down just before six, we will get back early enough for Milady and I still to have time to practice.

Here we are on the road. We cycle quickly, pulled along by our two aviators' propellers, because the late September sun does not rise very high and hardly gives any heat; and although the weather is mild, it is only moderately so.

We go for a dip when we reach the lake. The we does not include the Economist who, having dipped his hand in the water and quickly withdrawn it, has gone to sit on the large and thick blanket - large enough for all of us - which he has brought with him.

Our dip did not last long and we are soon rubbing ourselves vigorously with our towels before quickly getting dressed again. Not all of us, though; our two aviators, having metamorphosed into motor boats - a propeller is a propeller, after all - are still out there in the middle of the lake, calling us chicken. Which of course brought the answer "If we're chicken, you must be ducks!". Which they in turn answered in unison: "Oh no we're not, we're swans, we are!" An answer too perfect not to have been scripted during their high-altitude flight to the lake.

This morning the piano tuner has come to tune the Bechstein. Milady and I have stopped to listen to the rising and descending notes, the strings that seek each other out until they become as one for each note. A painstaking business, for there are many notes. But my piano tuner, whom I have known forever, likes sounds which sing, whether made by birds or a fine piano. He has often told me so. And he seeks patiently, coming back to a string which he finds fretful, stopping to listen closely to a note that has not yet settled, bringing Milady's Bechstein to life as he will shortly my Boisselot.

After lunch I go back to Milady's. We will hear the Bechstein sing with us the Schumann song in which we both sing together, opus 74, no. 4. Our understanding is immediate.

We spend the whole afternoon going over everything we will be performing at the concert. Are we ready? We have exchanged a look and a frown. Then Milady has given me a sweet smile:

- I like it better when we're together.

I have smiled back and nodded.

Music all morning. The concert is tomorrow.

At about two o'clock we set off on a bike ride towards the airfield. The weather is even milder, the sun has not left us since yesterday. Milady is now familiar with the places we pass by. The gliders come and go. We take farm tracks, sometimes walking our bikes so as not to go too quickly. Fields already harrowed, copses that we skirt. Sometimes we go our way in silence, so low is our conversation.

On the way back we go through the little wood near the airfield. Milady has brought some apples. We will eat them in our little wood…

The morning is spent getting the concert hall ready. Curly and Buttons are in charge.

They have brought everything that experienced interior decorators might need. Hammers, nails, drawing pins, safety pins, needles and thread, glue, string, ribbons, scissors, crepe paper, candles, wire, cork, tiles.

Curly is stretched across the dining-room table, surrounded by rolls of crepe paper and armed with scissors, and has stout-heartedly begun to make superb paper flowers. Buttons has started to hang multi-coloured garlands of glittering tinsel. The decorators' activity has brought colour to their faces. The candles are for the last minute, though some have already been set on the window ledges.

It is evening. The candles throw glittering reflections of the garlands, lighting up the room. The audience is too big to count; the hall is full.

The guests are of distinction. All have come dressed up. Milady's grandparents, her uncle and aunt, my parents, my uncle and aunt with their children - the Little 'Un and the Big 'Un, of course -, the Economist and the Geologist, Cheerful and, needless to say, Curly and Buttons. And - I almost forgot - Daisy, though she, attracted by all the goings-on, merely looks in at the window.

Curly, resplendent in her maid-of-honour dress, passes along the rows and gracefully hands out programmes to the guests.

In the first half, the four Schumann settings for solo voice. In the second half, Schubert, Mozart and, to conclude, the Schumann duet.

The audience settles. It is time for Milady and me to go on.

Milady enters. She is wearing her long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, and the magnificent mediaeval necklace decorated with precious stones that her grandmother gave her. She is warmly applauded.

I follow her. I am wearing the wonderful embroidered cambric shirt with puffed sleeves and a lace ruffle at the neck that Milady's grandfather gave me. I am also applauded.

I sit at the piano, Milady stands in front of the audience. Buttons, with little roses in her hair, is ready to turn my pages, like the good musician she is. Silence falls.

Sunday the first of October. School starts tomorrow.

Five to six in the morning; I take the narrow, winding path that loses its way in the nearby wood. Milady, wearing a long, wide blue cloth dress, the sort people used to make a long, long time ago, has come towards me:

- Good day, sire! she says with her lilting voice, giving me a welcoming smile.

- Good day, milady! I reply, with a courteous smile.

I enquire:

- Has Daisy already given her milk?

- So she has; you can come and get it.

She adds, still smiling:

- Shall I fill the jug?

I nod. We set off. The jug is full. I proffer a coin. Milady looks at it:

- Gold, sire? Here is your change!

Milady hands me silver.

- Thank you, milady!

She gives me a bright smile. I ask her:

- Will you tune your voice to that of my Boisselot, after this noon, Milady?

- If it is your fingers that make it sing I shall be there, sire.

- I take my leave, milady.

- You may do so, sire!

The music has stayed with us all afternoon. Night has fallen. We have gone for a walk in the woods a little later. The sky is cloudless. The moon has come up and lights our way.

Here we are at the solitary little lake which slumbers amidst a clump of trees, on the other side of the mysterious road of which we know neither whence it comes nor whither it goes. The wind rests. The lake dreams. Everything is at peace. We are sitting beside each other, on the old bench...

 

T H E    E N D

 

 

 






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