- Come on, we're going to miss the train!
Without wasting time on an answer, quick as a squirrel, she was already way ahead of me.
The train arrived at the same time as we did.
- It must have slowed down so that we wouldn't miss it! I remarked.
- Maybe, but I reckon mostly it slowed down because we were running! retorted Squirrel brightly.
Our friends are already waiting.
- Ah! The twins! Alarm clock didn't go off? cried our neighbour, the miller's son, a lad whose hair wasn't the only dishevelled thing about him.
Our jokes were drowned out by the noise of the little train as it pulled into the station, itself not much bigger than the train.
The twins, that's us, Squirrel and me. That's what our friends call us, although Squirrel is a year younger than me. She was born on 21 March 1946 and I on 7 April 1945. We live next to each other, in two houses by the river, and we have never been apart since we were born - at least that's what I've always heard tell, though it seems a rather bold assertion, my memories of the time being somewhat vague.
Seven thirty-three; the train sets off. We arrive in twenty-five minutes; quarter of an hour to get to school, and as much again to chatter with our chums come early from town. I guess the train must go to school too because it seems a bit tired by evening: leaving at five nineteen, it takes four minutes more on the return, even though it doesn't stop at one of the three stations it goes through.
Sleepy chatter. The countryside goes by without our noticing. Do you notice the familiar? Barely out of our little town we pass by a village which crossly turns it back: the train has dared to ignore it. Hills and woods; meadows and lovely brown or black piebald cows on spindly legs that give such good milk. A stream that runs alongside us before meeting up with a chum that was waiting for it to go to school - I mean to the town where our school is. The landscape has slowed down, big houses have come to meet us. The train has pulled into the station.
The last day before the end-of-year exams that will take place tomorrow and the day after. The orals will be on Wednesday, the twenty-fourth of June.
English today. To be a writer, you have to know how to write. I keep a diary; does that make me a writer? Probably not, because I don't always get good marks for grammar. "An event in the past is written in the past", the teacher tells me. I often write it in the present. My memories don't belong to the past; they are there, present in my mind.
The first day of exams. Maths, English. I have no problems with equations. Although we are not next to each other during the exam, I see that Squirrel has already finished her equations before time is up. I'm not far behind her.
Lunch time. The reactions are optimistic and give us courage for the afternoon, I don't know why: English and Maths don't have much in common.
The author we have to discuss has always bored me to tears. I know Squirrel feels the same way. And yet we are supposed to highlight the supposedly great qualities of this prodigiously boring writer. The ordeal over, Squirrel blurts out "I think I got him bang to rights!", adding with a smile: "Too bad about the grade: we'll catch it up on something else!" - without even asking if I had done the same. She knows I did.
Second day of exams. I have to speak a language that is not mine. I didn't know it before I learnt it. I know that the language I speak every day, that of my mother, that of those around me, was equally unknown before I learnt it; but I learnt my mother tongue without knowing I was doing so, without having had to learn it, I might almost say. Of course you have to learn a new language, like so many other people; but what will it be for me?
I don't need to know the word "water" to know what it is; I knew the liquid before I ever knew the word. I think I even knew the sensation of the water I drank before realising that it was a liquid, and that the form of the sensation came only afterwards.
So what comes to my mind when I see water, or when someone says the word "water" in my hearing? In my language, the link is made without any intermediary. "Water" isn't a word as far as I'm concerned, or even a thing; it is a sensation. The word that means "water" in the language learnt via thought provokes not a sensation but a search. The water itself comes only later.
The sensation of water... The word "water" in the language of a country where it rains... or in the language of a country where you're constantly thirsty, for lack of rain and rivers...
But water is only water.
What about feelings? What about laughter, or tears?
Lunch time. We have all become foreign! Not to each other, fortunately; but we speak nothing but the language of this morning's exam. Not always very well, it must be said; we start a sentence one way and finish it another. But what matters is not that we understand each other - I don't think we have anything particular to say - but that we have fun.
Afternoon. Physics. Questions about force, about mass. Do we have muscles? Yes; it's not really what we're being asked, but it amounts to the same thing. The only force I know is my own. And as for mass... The Earth is stronger than me. Just as well, otherwise it would be the Earth that fell on me! And frankly I'd rather not...
Thursday the eleventh of June. Traditionally, show day. Since early this morning the showground has been full of children's shouts and laughter, rides, men who don't shout and cows that don't laugh. The men are here to sell them.
Seven thirty-three; the train has left the station.
And so it goes every schoolday. And so it goes every day for my mother and father. And so it goes every day for... What's so surprising about that? So it goes every day for the Sun.
But does the Sun learn something new every day, like I do at school?
I sit not far from the teacher's desk. I learn my lessons, have no trouble reciting them. The teachers like me. When I think, they are far away, they can't hear.
Squirrel sits near me. She too learns her lessons, but asks questions when she recites them. I can't say the teachers don't like her, but I have noticed that they call on her less often than on me. Perhaps even less often than the others in the class.
This morning, Geography. I travel, further than with the train. But I don't know anyone when I get to where I'm going. I am taught what happens in places I will never go to. So why am I told about this place rather than another? But I've got it wrong; on purpose, I must admit. I am told about everything, I mean about the whole world. I would never have thought the whole world could be so small, since it fits into a single book.
Sunday. With my parents, I go to my uncle's for lunch - my father's brother. He has come to fetch us in his van. First we go through the village that turns its back on the train. To tell the truth, it turns its back just as much on the road. Good luck! A little bit further on, the station that the train misses out on the way back from school. A dirt track on the right. Hidden in the trees, surrounded by brown piebald cows, a large farm. We have reached my uncle's.
My uncle is a cattle farmer; he raises cows. That's a funny thing: children are raised and so are cows. Cows are livestock; does that make children livestock too? Children are trained - that's what teachers do - and so are tomatoes. Does that make children tomatoes? But then teachers are trained too, at teacher training college, and presumably trained teachers can also train tomatoes... If I share my thoughts with Squirrel, will she go to our teacher/trainer and ask questions? I hesitate, because our teacher/trainer may get cross - you never know! - and then it would be Squirrel on the receiving end. Anyway, I know why people raise cows: for their milk. So why do people raise people?
The train is buzzing.
- How did it get there?
- Whose is it?
- It never pays attention to anything!
- It could have been serious!
- Not half! People were injured!
- The train was in a sorry state afterwards!
- Have they mended it?
- It's not this one?
- No, it wouldn't be in service!
- That's a piece of luck!
- I hope...
- We'll be late!
- No we won't, it's not this one!
- No school, no train!
- I hope...
Ah, that's the same girl as a moment ago.
- Look out! There's a bull!
And that's Dishevelled.
We ended up by getting the story, Squirrel and I. A bull had decided it was time the train stopped sowing trouble in the meadows that were his preserve. So he had quite simply charged the train, to get his point across. Some slight bruising for two or three passengers. It had happened yesterday, there were no schoolchildren in the train.
Tuesday. A discussion in the train this evening. One Greek army had beaten another Greek army at some time in the dim and distant past. That's what we have just been told in History. A lively debate ensues. The subject could not be more interesting and leaves no-one cold. Except the kids in classes below ours, who couldn't care less about our discussion. It's not in their curriculum. But twenty-nine minutes for such an enterprise is presumptuous indeed, I might even say absurd, or rather barking mad. We would never do such a thing in class: in class, we would spend fifty-five minutes on the subject - almost twice as long!
- In any case, it was a great battle! exclaims a boy whose father owns the big field on the other side of the river. We shout "Oy! Field!" to attract his attention when he's with his cows.
- What do you know about it, Field; you weren't there! sneers Dishevelled.
- It's in the textbook, points out Dishevelled's sister.
- That's all very well, Miss Miller, but what good does it do us? says a boy who is always fretting that he might be wasting energy on stuff he reckons isn't necessary.
- Learning about the past tells us how our ancestors used to live, answers a girl who lives in a farm in a hamlet not far from the station.
Fretful does not give in:
- Whichever army won the battle doesn't change the way the Ancient Greeks used to live.
- Not for us, no; but it did for them, retorts Miss Farmer.
- You mean the winners and the losers? asks Smiley, a girl who's always happy and smiling.
- Yes, a loser may have more to lose in one country than in another.
- Like us at school when we haven't learnt our lesson! jokes Squirrel.
Lunchtime. The last lesson is over. Everyone is hungry. We would all be hungry even if the last lesson wasn't over.
- Leave off the logic or it'll cut our appetite! says Dishevelled mockingly.
- Chicken and mushroom pie for lunch, Miss Miller has already told us. She always knows what's going on in the kitchens.
Lunch consists not only of chicken, or any other food to nourish our bodies. It also consists of an almost exotic attraction; we are far from the countryside we know so well, from our familiar homes, from our school and its lessons, from our whole daily round. We are in a world that belongs to us alone, that is there only for us. Even the best hostelry could not give us that illusion. Time goes by far from us.
No school today. One more Thursday and then on Saturday, after school, the holidays!
A shapeless day. Go for a walk? The weather hasn't been up to much for the last couple of days. And there are always lessons to be learnt... I go to Squirrel's. From the window, we can see Field with his cows on the other side of the river. He is with Miss Miller. They have seen us too, because they're waving. We have waved back and stay there, looking out of the window... nothing particular.
A few drops of rain have refreshed our faces. Time goes gently by, saying nothing. And what do we talk about? I don't know, about things we have in common, silent things that have nothing to do with anything particular. The pleasure of telling ourselves we are together. Time goes gently by, listening to us.
Does the little train fly above the clouds? No, that's us, Squirrel and I, who fly up there, amusing ourselves by going from one cloud to another, sitting on one of them to look at the fields and meadows that the little train runs through, way down there below us.
A studious afternoon. Not that the other afternoons are not, or the mornings for that matter. But this is mathematics! And that is not to everyone's taste. It is not, for example, at all to the taste of Miss Miller, or Miss Farmer, not to mention Fretful. Whence this evening's twenty-nine minute discussion on the little train.
- To make furniture, like your Dad in his workshop, you need a good eye, not some equation with no connection to reality, says Fretful to me, setting the ball rolling.
- A good eye is an equation, says Squirrel firmly.
- An equation is just figures on paper, argues Miss Miller.
- You can sit on a chair; figures on paper aren't a thing, says Miss Farmer in support.
- A good eye is just a movement of the eyes, replies Squirrel.
- Your movement guides the hand that makes the chair, retorts Fretful.
- My equation tells you that two chairs are worth more than one, Squirrel answers back.
Today, Sunday, a craftsman from my parents' furniture shop and his wife, who works in Squirrel's parents' sewing shop, have come for lunch. They are a bit younger than my parents and do not have any children.
My father and his craftsman talk about the furniture shop; the craftsman's wife talks to my mother about sewing. Why don't they talk about other things, like we schoolchildren do?
- Like us on the way home in the train? says Squirrel to me that afternoon when I tell her about the lunch.
True. But I still find a point to make:
- True. But we often talk about other things too. They don't.
She says nothing for a moment:
- Do you think we might have two lives?
I stay silent for a moment:
- Why should they have only one?
She says nothing for a long time:
- Do we lose a life when we grow up?
The last week of school. But not just any old week: on Wednesday we have the end-of-year orals.
- So all I have to do is answer a single question for everyone to know that I know everything there is to be known!
That declaration by Field, curious to say the least, has started off this evening's discussion.
- What question? asks Fretful quickly, in a voice not far off from being worried.
Which sparks off laughter - perhaps just ever so slightly tinged with worry? - among our little band.
- Why? Haven't you learnt it? Dishevelled asks him, in a serious tone of voice that he intends to sound worried.
Fretful seems unsure of himself for a moment, but goes on calmly:
- We'll see who has the last laugh!
- Stop being so silly! breaks in Miss Farmer.
And she asks Field curiously:
- Tell us what you meant - that is, if you did actually mean anything.
Not one to back down, Field says:
- If someone asks me to show that I can climb a tree, it doesn't prove that I can swim.
It's the oral tomorrow. But to take part, you have to have passed the written exam. And that's what we're going to find out this morning when the results are posted up on the school noticeboard.
In our little gang, the one that has the after-school discussions on the train, it's no big deal; we reasonably believe we have done what it takes not to get a nasty surprise.
- Are you absolutely sure it's the answer you got? Fretful suddenly asks me, fretfully.
Surprised, I ask:
- What are you talking about?
- You know...
No, that's just the point, I don't.
- ... in the written exam...
The light dawns. In the written exam. Two weeks ago. The equation. Seeing that he really is worried, I reassure him. It is indeed the answer I got.
- It was two weeks ago; are you sure you haven't forgotten?
I reassure him. I have not forgotten.
- Because I wouldn't want to have worked for nothing...
He stands there for a good while, slowly shaking his head. He's probably doing the problem again. I prefer not to ask him; he's capable of going over the whole thing again out loud.
We are standing in front of the school noticeboard. Calm, perhaps, but anxious all the same.
Of course, we are not the only ones. Others arrive, some in groups, some on their own. It doesn't matter, there's no class this morning. Or in the days to come for that matter. Apart from the orals, there's already a whiff of holiday in the air.
There are those who have passed and those who haven't. Some give a quick smile, which soon fades as they think about tomorrow's oral; others look down.
In big cities where no-one knows anyone else, where you work where you can, for a company where it isn't you who is wanted, were it isn't you who is taken on, but your qualification, failing an exam is a serious matter; I have often heard it said. In our little town and in the countryside around, there is no fear of being rejected like that if you fail an exam. Why, when for some passing was never on the cards, do people look down? Humans are dangerous when you are weaker than they are.
Everyone in our little gang has passed.
It's the oral today. The exam that decides everything. If we pass, we'll go to high school in the city.
The teacher has just asked me the question. I have to talk about the countryside, the countryside I live in every day, talk about the trees, the fields, the flowers.
- Tell me what you know about reproduction in entophytes.
Tomorrow, the final results. The day is spent waiting for the next. We while away the time talking about this and that, especially that. It stops us from thinking. Everyone says it all went well for them. Everyone adds "but you never know". What about Fretful? Miracles will never cease: he seems fretless!
The final results are posted up today, Friday, on the school noticeboard.
Five forty-eight. The train has brought us home.
- The sun doesn't go down for another couple of hours. What about going down to the stream? proposes Field on the way back.
His proposal is joyfully accepted. We have earned a bit of relaxation after all the day's hard work.
There we all are, all our little discussion group from the train home, sitting in the grass by the stream that leads to Miss Farmer's hamlet, not far from the station. The fine weather has returned, having been gone for a few days. It was probably off taking exams too.
- It must have passed, then, 'cos it's lovely now! jokes Dishevelled.
Fretful gives a broad grin; like all of us, he too has passed.
The last day, not of lessons because there aren't any today, but of school. A day of farewells, in fact. Of farewells or "see you"s. There are those we will see next year, teachers or pupils, those we like and who are still there. There are those we will never see again, even if we don't realise it now; our little gang will change school, and the next school is in another town.
Sunday. The start of the holidays. At lunch, my parents congratulate me. They had already done so on Friday evening and, I think, yesterday as well, but they seem so pleased to have something to congratulate me about. My parents are fond of me, otherwise I might have wondered whether they were congratulating me or my certificate.
Otherwise, it's a half-and-half day, half happy, half sad. Happy, that's not difficult to explain; sad, thinking of our schoolmates who didn't pass. And to give them a bit of courage we go and see them, to say a comforting word. Which is sometimes a bit tricky, when the schoolmate takes our visit as a mark of condescension or even scorn. But as we are well aware which are likely to take it that way, we get off pretty lightly.
- There! The branch, there, behind the elm!
The branch? Oh! Squirrel has found a great one! I try and pull it but it won't come.
- Hang on, it's stuck! I'll free the other end!
She rummages about for a moment. The branch comes free and I pick it up.
- It's the flooding that did it.
She's right. The river was particularly high this spring; the whole island was under water.
- Hold it upright!
I hold it upright.
- Keep it straight, otherwise the roof'll fall in!
- That'd be all we need!
And I hold it firmly against the ground.
A bit more effort and the roof is on. We contemplate our handiwork.
- How many huts have we made already? asks Squirrel.
- The first was when we were little; hang on... it was the year of the heatwave.
- Oh yes, when there wasn't any flooding.
- The branches were dry...
- They used to break!
- It didn't last long, that hut.
- I hope this one will.
- It was seven years ago.
- So this will be the seventh hut!
She arranges a little branch that is part of the wall of the hut, a hut hidden away under a great weeping willow and surrounded by thick bushes.
- Can you hear the blackbird? It's calmed down.
- Yes. It's time for lunch, your mother will already be waiting for us.
At her's today, at mine another day; we often lunch at each other's houses.
Not far from the hut is a ford. The ford allows us to pass easily, with water barely up to our ankles, to where Field's cows are. Five hundred cowsteps from there, at the bottom of a rather steep slope, another ford, just as convenient, lands us in the field alongside our houses. To get home, all we have to do is climb up the field - though it is a lot less steep than the one before - beside the stream that runs alongside Squirrel's house.
Lunch. Squirrel's mother has made us a lovely pie with cherries from the orchard to celebrate our success. Squirrel's father predicts a brilliant future for us.
We go back to the island, the island where Dishevelled's and Miss Miller's mill stands.
- We already have a visitor!
Squirrel has shown me a little green frog hopping about in the middle of our hut. The pond isn't very far away and we are used to receiving friendly visits from our neighbours.
This morning I am in my parents' furniture workshop. As always when I'm on holiday, I help out with this and that - planning pieces, for example. I like working wood, and even in term-time I sometimes give my father and his men a hand. I can't be too bad at it, because I often get compliments, though maybe sometimes as a kindness. Sometimes I help my mother with the book-keeping. It's less fun but as I'm good at maths I have no trouble doing the accounts; my mother is always happy because I think I'm better at it than she is.
I'm not the only one to help out during the holidays. Squirrel is often at her parents' sewing workshop; she likes sewing and is very careful. Her mother is always very pleased with her work.
The others in our little gang also have much to keep them busy during the summer. There's always so much to do on a farm, say Miss Farmer, Smiley and Field; cows are very demanding creatures... As for Fretful, his worries seem to evaporate when he's helping his father to put in a tap or mend a pipe. And Dishevelled? The machinery of the mill has no secrets for him, while his sister helps her mother with the housework.
The first day of July, and fine weather to go with it. No wind, not a cloud in the sky. It's been very hot since yesterday.
- How nice to be in the cool!
No, Squirrel isn't joking; the cool has come to spend the afternoon with us, in our hut.
- It's a good one this year! she smiles; the branches are interwoven just right, especially the smaller ones, and the heat can't get in.
- Not to mention the willow; the sun can't get through either!
Sitting on a thick bed of leaves, we idle away the time, which passes without reminding us of homework to do or lessons to learn.
- We can talk to the flowers without needing long words, smiles Squirrel again.
She too had to talk about entophytes.
- It's been a while since lunch; do you think we can go swimming?
I put my head out of the hut to look at the sun:
- Oh yes, the sun has already come quite a way!
We quickly strip off and dive into the river. Not just anywhere, though; there aren't many places where the water is deep but we know them. We've been coming here long enough... The spot has another advantage; at this time of day, the big hedge that runs alongside the river on Field's side throws a welcome shadow and we can swim at our ease, shaded from the sun. And the water is cool, cold even; the spring is not far away. We swim and splash around for a while, then go back to dry off in the sun behind our bushes before seeking the shelter of our hut again.
Some clouds have appeared this morning. The heat has become more bearable and Squirrel and I go over to spend that afternoon at Smiley's.
The way to her house via the station is the shortest but we know it all too well. It's a bit further over the fields but much more pleasant.
We start off by the stream that runs alongside Squirrel's house, which is beginning to dry up. Two rather steep hills surround us. A copse, a hamlet, a bit of shady path and we're in the fields.
The meadows are verdant green; the sun has not yet burnt them, as it is clearly getting ready to do over the next two or three weeks. We cross the gently rising meadows, following the hedgerows; then a downward slope brings us to our river, the one that runs by our island. But we couldn't go swimming here, it's right by the spring. The river isn't the only old acquaintance along the way; there is also the little train. We climb up onto the bridge and... on board!... no, no, on foot! onto the track. There's no risk of an unpleasant surprise, there aren't many trains, only six a day, and not at this time. A twenty-minute trip - our feet are not fast - and we get off the little train - I mean the track. A stream, with a bridge, a long climb and we reach Smiley's village.
When we get to her house, she's not there. Her mother greets us kindly:
- She's with her father in the field, over there behind the wood, she tells us.
She talks to us about our exams, the holidays, next year.
Smiley is delighted to see us. Her father greets us simply. Although a week has already gone by since the exam results he seems not to have stopped thinking about them, and it seems as though the relief shown on his face has been there ever since then too. And I feel as though I can hear him continuing a conversation with... who could know, apart from him? "You're good pupils... I'm pleased for my daughter... I was afraid that... It's good to have a qualification... I haven't got any... I'm really pleased for my daughter..." He has fallen silent and is looking at the pitchfork he is holding, and with which he was tossing the hay when we arrived.
You can see a long way from where we have sat down with Smiley in another field where cows have replaced the hay. You can see our little town, just about make out the path that brought us here.
- If I'd had a telescope I could have tracked you, smiles Smiley.
- It wouldn't have been hard, we shine as bright as stars!
- Tracking the stars can't be as easy as you say; they go by so fast!
Squirrel shakes her head:
- I doubt we were shooting stars at the speed we were going!
The conversation abandons the stars, which go back to their unknown worlds.
- Unknown? protests Smiley, They're in my geogra...
I break in:
Her smiling eyes crinkle:
- Yes, Mr. Teacher, sir!
- But that doesn't mean I know where the stars are.
- They're in our eyes, says Squirrel dreamily.
- Oh, what a lovely thing to say! exclaims Smiley.
Squirrel says with a curiously flat voice:
- It says so in my physics text book...
General astonishment. Squirrel is looking down and says nothing. We wait. Slowly, she lifts her head.
- We can see because light enters our eyes.
- But the light comes from the stars, points out Smiley.
- Where are they really, the stars? No-one's ever been there, where my physics book says.
Where are they?...
- Wherever they are, as soon as it's daylight you can't see them, remarks Smiley rightly.
The conversation abandons the stars once more...
It is ten to six. Away down below we can see the little train, which has just left our little town.
- We're coming home from school! smiles Smiley.
Lunch is over. To horse!... on our bikes! We're meeting someone.
- There's really no reason to rush, says Squirrel soothingly, he's been gone for ages.
- Maybe, but he hasn't finished his work.
- At least we'll see how far he got.
- I don't think I'd be able to do the work in his place.
- That's 'cos you're lazy!
But Squirrel was only teasing.
- D'you think someone might?...
- And what for anyway? she answers thoughtfully.
A moment later, she goes on quickly:
- And yet when we get there it seems like he's still at work.
We aren't the only ones to be going. All our little gang wants to see the one we will not see, the one we never see, what's more, however many times we go there.
- And what if he was further on with his work, this time?
I did not dare reply to this troubling supposition.
Here come our friends. Dishevelled and Miss Miller, then Field. We set off to pick up Smiley, who is waiting for us with Miss Farmer. Only Fretful is missing. His father, called out at the last minute for an urgent repair and not having enough time to get in touch with his mate, has asked his son to go with him. We're all very sorry about it but what can we do? It doesn't take long to get there. Remember, it's the one we take every day to catch the train that takes us to school. So you see... We leave our bikes at Smiley's and head off to our meeting place on foot.
A quiet path. A wood that is just as quiet. As we leave the wood, the countryside opens up before us. Here is the hamlet where Fretful lives, his house just there, overlooking the valleys that hem it in. Now we have to cross the railway line. Let's go!
- Careful, it's time! Smiley has cried.
Time? It's one twenty-four. That's right, she knows the times well enough, what with living just a stone's throw, or should I say a wheel's turn, from the railway line. Of course, we know the times too, but she was right to warn us all the same. The big wood on our left that we are heading for stretches as far as the point where the railway line crosses our path. At that very moment, a long blast on the whistle and the train emerges from the wood like an apparition.
- It's in quite a hurry to get to school! jokes Dishevelled.
Three minutes later, when we have just crossed the track, there it is coming back the other way!
- It's not what you'd call studious! observes Dishevelled judiciously.
He knows very well, so there's no need to tell him, that the two trains cross in our little town; they can't do otherwise, since it's only a single track.
A few more steps and we enter the big wood, a deep wood, the preserve of the birds whose singing conversations we can hear. It's a pleasant walk; the ground is soft, the shade thick. Quarter of an hour goes by. Far off, amid the tall oaks, a large, grey, mossy stone appears, a very large stone with smooth sides and a top like a table with carefully rounded edges. Everything exudes an air of calm. There is no-one to be seen. We are at the meeting place.
- He's not there any more... says Miss Miller.
- He's been long gone, adds Miss Farmer.
- He'll never come back again, continues Smiley, sounding regretful.
- What would we do if he did? asks Squirrel softly.
After a silence during which we stand looking at the table, I suggest:
- Why don't we go and see the other?
We head off for the other table, about four hundred paces away, even deeper into the big wood.
- Look! Field has suddenly exclaimed, stopping short.
We have all stopped. About a hundred paces away a shape - is it really human? - stands, bent over, and its arms make a back-and-forth movement on the table. Its head is covered with a sort of hood made of little branches covered with oak leaves. Its body is wrapped in some coarse material that looks like a bag. It does not move from the table, tirelessly continuing its movement.
- It's him! exclaims Miss Miller in a low voice.
- It can't be... says Field in a voice that he tries to make sound convincing.
Then, as nobody says anything, he repeats:
- It can't be... in a voice that would deny, destroy the obvious.
- Well, let's go. We'll see soon enough! declares Squirrel calmly.
As we get closer to the... man, we can see what he's doing. On the stone table there are two long grooves, an inch deep, which shear off from each other towards the edge. In these grooves the man is rolling two stones, one in each hand, back and forth, as we saw him doing just now.
I know what it is. A long time ago, long before history took over schools, that is how stones were polished, and what I can see before me is a polishing stone. So would our little joke be about to become reality? Would he really have come back to finish off a job begun thousands of years ago?
A low voice comes from under the hood, rough and impatient:
- You've taken your time. I've been waiting for you for ten thousand years!
The polisher has slowly turned towards us, slowly lifted his hood.
Miss Farmer is expecting us this afternoon. Squirrel has been to lunch. We leave by the ford that leads to Field's cows. He isn't there. His farm, which we can see in the sun on the way up from the river, is on the track that runs alongside the meadow. We continue along the track. After crossing the road we skirt our little town and, as it is one twenty-five, the train chugs by to tell us that everything went well at school during the morning. The train having passed, we have three minutes to cross the track - more than we need! - because then it goes back to school in the other direction. "It didn't have much time for lunch; it would have done to better to stay at the canteen!" Dishevelled would certainly have exclaimed. Another twenty minutes along a dirt track that winds between cornfields and cows and we arrive at Miss Farmer's.
As the harvest will soon begin, her parents have plenty of work to do; her father is checking the reaper with which he will soon be harvesting and her mother is making space in the granary and tidying the barn.
The exams are of course the subject of conversation. Congratulations, wishes for the future... How lovely to see their joyful faces!
Right by the farm, a stream runs gently down towards the river that flows around our island. The two watercourses meet near the station. That's where we went last Friday after getting our exam results.
- We were at the confluence, after we got our results...
- With a vocabulary like that, I'm not surprised you get good marks in geography, Miss Farmer teases me.
I assume a conceited air:
- That's how it is: my memory's too good!
- School leaves its trace... comments Squirrel, sounding amused.
Then she goes on in a more serious tone of voice:
- Are we always capable of realising it?
Miss Farmer is the first to answer, after a moment of silence:
- Life on the farm leaves its trace too.
- A good horse knows the traces that lead to the harvest field.
Chatting away, we wander along beside the stream. We come to a shady spot that is one of our favourite places.
- Shall we sit under the alder tree?
- Good idea! exclaims Miss Farmer.
As Squirrel is also of the same opinion, we settle down under the spreading alder.
- We've been on holiday for a week now...
Miss Farmer's remark does not seem to warrant closer inspection; we all know that we're on holiday.
Even though she hadn't heard what I had been thinking, she goes on:
- Oh, I mean, we all know that we're on holiday...
- So I get the impression that it's after the holidays.
I think I get her drift:
- You mean there's more work for you on the farm than at school?
Having heard my remark this time, she answers, with a slight hesitation:
- No, it's not that... well, sort of... I don't know.
- You mean it's not the same sort of work?
My remark does not warrant closer inspection either; we all know that farm work isn't the same as school work!
Silence falls. Not an awkward silence; we're not at school, after all, where you have to answer. No teacher has asked us a question. Sitting in the soft grass, we are at peace. The stream runs gently past; the alder silently grows. Would they understand our desire to understand?
The silence is over. Pensively, Squirrel suggests to Miss Farmer:
- You mean school expects nothing from you?
Miss Farmer has stopped her gaze where it lay:
- That's it... Yes, that's just it.
She remains in suspense for a moment:
- When I do what has to be done, I get a good mark.
She remains in suspense for another moment:
- I know that the mark isn't just a mark. It's important for me. It will be useful for me. It shows me that I know what I need to know.
She catches her breath:
- But I don't know what to do with it. I don't know who to give it to.
She gives a brief laugh:
- I can't give it back to the teacher!
She has stopped. Her head has fallen, as though she were tired. After a silence that we have not broken, she goes on in a low but strong voice:
- I'm needed here.
The stream runs gently past; the alder silently grows.
Fretful's mother's sister - though we don't call him Fretful any more but the Polisher - lives in a house overlooking the fairground. She is about ten years older than her sister. Her husband is no more, her two sons have moved to the city. She lives on her own. Among those who work in our little town, some are short of time to spend all day looking after their children who are too young to go to school yet. So they entrust them for part of the day to a trustworthy person. The Polisher's aunt is one of those people. She is fond of children and is happy to fill her solitude in that way.
For the school year that will begin on Friday, the eighteenth of September 1959 - already! - the Polisher's aunt has agreed to look after six little children during the summer. During the year that has just finished, on Saturday the twenty-seventh of June - a fine date, already so far off - she only looked after two. The children loved her, the parents were delighted; their friends and neighbours found out and four more future schoolchildren demanded with all the customary insistence of their age to join our little town's most select club. And their demands were met.
The Polisher's aunt is both happy and slightly concerned; will she be up to the task she has taken on? Six children! And little ones at that. It's not just a matter of looking after them, you have to keep them busy. How will she manage? What does she need? Toys, of course; but what else?
The Polisher has told us all that this morning, after going to visit his aunt, and this Sunday afternoon all our little gang is going to go round to her house, to see what we can do to help.
- Perhaps we should talk things over between us before going to your aunt's, suggests Squirrel.
- Why ever would you want...? says the nephew, surprised.
- To find out first what we can do.
- You're right, says Smiley; we shouldn't make her a promise we can't keep.
We think Squirrel's suggestion is very wise.
- Let's go to my place, says Field. That way I can spend some time with my cows.
So here we are sitting on the grass in the middle of a little orchard full of plums. Not ripe yet, unfortunately, there's another month to go. Which is a matter of no interest whatsoever to Field's cows, which are grazing around and about us, completely unconcerned about plums, ripe or otherwise. In front of us, down the hill, our river.
- So, what can we do? starts Dishevelled after we have settled ourselves in.
- Are they girls or boys? asks his sister.
- I think there are four girls and two or three boys, answers the Polisher uncertainly.
- Six equals seven! interjects Field in a strict examiner's voice. I'll give you three!
- Three and seven makes ten, three and seven makes ten, so that gives me a pass! claims the Polisher against all the rules of arithmetic.
- It's not with that kind of logic that you're going to help your aunt! says Miss Farmer, taking him to task.
- We could make rag dolls, suggests Squirrel more seriously.
- That's a good idea! We can make them at yours, you've got the material, what with all the offcuts, claps Smiley.
- We can even make dresses, adds the Polisher.
- I think their mothers know how to dress them, observes Miss Miller.
He seems put out for a moment, but soon picks up again:
- That's ten thousand years their dresses have been waiting for them!
Now it's our turn to be, if not put out, then at least surprised. He means to go on, taking advantage of our surprise, but I have already lifted my arms and exclaim, before he can get a word in edgeways:
- Of course! Costumes for dressing up!
A moment, and then everyone has got it. Smiley claps:
- That's a good idea! The station master, the maths teacher... Oh! The baker!
She ponders for a moment:
- The one that makes good pastries, of course!
- Not the Polisher in all events, says Field sarcastically. All the kids would run away!
- If you're lucky! No, more likely they'd howl and people would hear them all over town! said Dishevelled, laying it on thick.
- We'll never be able to make so many clothes, remarks Miss Farmer, who seems not to have heard the boys' jokes.
- A peaked cap's enough for the station master, suggests Miss Miller.
- And a great big moustache for the maths teacher, smiles Smiley.
- And a feather's enough for the Indian from our geography book, chips in Squirrel.
- And where are you going to get that from? asks Field, amused.
- Oh, she'll catch an old eagle from the depths of time! announces the Polisher solemnly.
And we all laugh.
And as it happens, the ideas we all threw into the hat turn out to have been not so bad. And once we've made a baker's cap...
- I think the children would rather have the cakes! says Miss Farmer.
- Maybe, but cloth cakes aren't very tasty! points out Smiley.
- We could make sweets, suggest Squirrel.
- Oh yes, barely sugar. I know how to make it! applauds Miss Miller.
She turns to her brother, laughing:
- But you're not to eat them all!
Her brother protests but we know him of old. His sister is right to be wary!
- Has your aunt got any toys? asks Miss Farmer suddenly.
- Toys? I've no idea. I didn't ask...
- I think I saw some... but I don't think there were very many.
- Do you think we can make some wooden toys in your father's workshop? asks Field.
- Of course! I reply. There's no reason...
- Yes, I know that, he breaks in. What I meant was...
- Would we be capable...
- You know how to work wood... breaks in Dishevelled, turning towards me.
- Yes, I do; and you know I like to help out...
- There we are then; you will be our master!
- I'm not very learned...
- Well, tell us what we could do, says the Polisher.
- Well, what about if we made some little houses?
- A remarkable idea, Master! exclaims Dishevelled with an appearance of conviction. We could build a village...
- Oh yes! exclaims Miss Farmer; with chickens and ducks...
- Oh yes! cries Smiley, all excited; a farm, with cows!
- I've never done animals before...
- Oh, it's just like plasticine! declares Miss Miller.
- Not at all! contradicts Field.
- So let's make them of plasticine, then! suggests the Polisher.
- Or of clay, and then we could bake them! comes another suggestion, this one from Dishevelled.
- Yes, and then we can paint them! finishes off Squirrel.
So many ideas! Will we really get to the end of them all? Well, we'll see!
- So now we can go to your aunt's, concludes Smiley.
Squirrel is more hesitant:
- Perhaps we should sleep on it. Let's go tomorrow, shall we?
A conference, like in the train! A decision is taken: we will go tomorrow afternoon.
The Polisher's aunt is bustling about. She has to start getting ready for the children who will soon be coming to invade the house. I know what little 'uns are like, we have them at school; when they come into the yard at break-time it's like a tidal wave, ready to break on - or just to break, actually - the first cliff that comes along, like a teacher, for example, who just happened to be looking the wrong way! That's little 'uns for you.
- Oh, how nice to see you all! Come in, sit down... Tell me what you're up to; I'll put my feet up for a moment! I had people round yesterday, I didn't have a moment to myself!
I note in passing that we were right not to have come yesterday.
We start by talking about this and that. I don't know why we beat about the bush like that. Are we afraid she won't like our ideas? Or is it just that we don't know where to begin? In the meantime, the aunt talks about herself and about the children she's expecting. There'll be more of them than usual, she says, and how ever will I cope? and I need more toys...
We take our chance. The rag dolls, the wooden or clay toys, everything we talked about yesterday. She shows no surprise at our proposals. Everything suits her fine, especially the fact that we had thought of her. Yes, that is what she said, but her look said so much more...
A hot day. A hot breeze that comes from the sun. And the sun is high in the sky, very high; it hasn't had time yet to go down after the longest day, just - already? - a fortnight ago.
We take refuge after lunch, Squirrel and I, on our island, in the cool of our hut, waiting for a reasonable length of time to go by before we can dive into the river.
We talk about the visit to the Polisher's aunt, the toys...
- We're not little 'uns...
Squirrel has said the words pensively. She says nothing more.
- We're not really grown-ups either...
She seems to think about what I have said:
- We don't play...
- What do you mean? We do play sometimes.
She shakes her head slowly:
- Yes; but not like little 'uns.
- Of course not; we'd get bored.
I am slightly taken aback by her question. Why? I don't know what to say. She goes on:
- What else do we need?
She pauses for a moment:
- If we get bored, it means we need something else.
- Of course; we think about more things than little 'uns do.
- Or else we want more things.
- Isn't it the same thing? If we think, it's because we want to.
Some time goes before she answers:
- Or because we have to.
- Wanting to is having to.
We fall silent for a moment. She goes on:
- If you don't have to, can you want to?
- That might depend on what you have to.
- Maybe wanting as well; we don't have the same wants as little 'uns.
- I want a barley sugar!
She remains pensive:
- Barley sugar lasts for a lifetime; barley sugar or anything else like it.
A moment goes by:
- Are there toys that don't last a lifetime?
- A doll...?
She cuts me off sharply:
- A doll isn't a toy!
I understand instinctively. I look down:
- I'm sorry.
She gives me a great big, calm, gentle smile, takes me by the shoulder and gives me a kiss on the cheek, pressing her lips strongly:
- Don't fret... I know.
She goes on, nodding her head:
- What toys do we tire of?
- Little 'uns soon get tired of the toys they are given.
- Yes; and of the games too, I think.
She seems rather surprised:
- The games?... What distinction do you make between games and toys?
- I don't really know... Well, I think I do; a game is something you have to do, but you can do what you want with a toy.
- So a game is a want?
- Yes, and the more you grow up, the more you want to play!
- That's a bind, she observes; the more you grow up, the more you have to do, and if what you want to do most is to play...
The reasonable time must have gone by because Squirrel jumps to her feet:
- Come on, let's go swimming!
We are in the wood. No, not in a wood. In the wood that has to be worked in order to make toys. All the craftsmen in my parents' workshop are taken with the idea. It spoke to them and created a distraction in their work. They shower us with advice. It's pleasant to feel supported like that. And yet I feel slightly embarrassed. I know that Squirrel has felt the same, I saw her bite her lips at the same time - almost the same time - as she was thanking a craftsman for a piece of advice. The other members of our little gang seem less bothered. But is that really so? Squirrel and have known my parents, the craftsmen, the workshop since forever; our feelings are freer to show themselves than those of our friends, we have come only rarely to the workshop. Nonetheless, Squirrel and I are incapable of being unpleasant to the craftsmen we like so much and who do everything they can to help us. So why do we feel that slight embarrassment, at least Squirrel and I? It's not very obvious to me; and for the time being I can't talk about it with her. Two contradictory feelings float about in my mind; it is good to receive so much advice, but I jib at the obligation, even if it is only due to keeping on good terms with the craftsmen, of having to follow their advice with no input from myself. And if I know that Squirrel feels the same way, it's because we have already talked about that sort of thing before, after a lesson, for example. Only she's more patient than I am - up to a point, I have to add.
Anyway, all that does not stop the advice from being good, if I am honest, and the work progresses. What can be more extraordinary than to see the hoped-for little house, the object of so much effort, emerge almost imperceptibly from some discarded piece of wood that no-one knew what do with? And one has made a wheelbarrow - better not put too much in it! - and another something which, with a bit of good will, resembles a cow. Oh, it was not easy!...
Today, it's the turn of Squirrel's parents' workshop.
Material, material everywhere; of all sorts, of all colours. It's not the first time I've been into the workshop, but each time I feel as though I've never seen the material before.
My parents' workers are men, here they are women. And it's not the same at all. Of course, just like the men, they are very attentive to us, and of course they too give us advice, but not at all in the same way. There are those who want to do everything in our place, hardly have they said that since we have understood what to do we can start the work ourselves; and mostly there are those who, having patiently explained everything, say nothing more and leave us to get on with our business, without even supervising us - or at least not appearing to. A godsend!
The work itself is the girls' domain. We boys try, but with little success. We can but admire the little pigs, ogres and witches stuffed with straw that emerge from their hands. Without forgetting the little smocks to clothe them all - except the little pigs, of course!
- No, not that one, it's the wrong one, Dishevelled has cried.
- Don't worry, I have no intention of going to school during the holidays! the Polisher has reassured him.
That's right, we're at the station, where our trains cross. One goes to school, the other to a little town where one of Field's cousin's lives. We're going to spend the afternoon with her.
- One twenty-six, it's on time, says Field.
- Quarter of an hour and we'll be there, announces Miss Farmer.
- It would have taken us at least an hour and a half by bike!
- And with hills to climb into the bargain, adds Miss Miller.
I tease them gently:
- A bit out of practice, are we?
She teases me back:
- Like with the material!
Why, I wonder, should it be the girls who laughed?
The little train is not bothered with such matters. It has begun by running alongside our river, doubtless for the cool, then followed the track we had taken a week ago to get to Smiley's. I have kept an eye out: we weren't on the track so there was no risk of being run over. Oh, did I say that we are in the train? The long journey continues. We are running through a deep valley, surrounded by high mountains - at least a hundred feet high! - then a long, long descent into a big village where we have to stop, ten minutes after leaving.
- The brakes don't work! It'll never be able to stop! cries Dishevelled suddenly.
I know my friend well, so I say in a frightened voice:
- Oh, it's picking up speed!
- We'll have to jump! adds the Polisher, who knows his Dishevelled as well as I do.
Everyone in our little gang is in on it.
- Open the window! begs Smiley.
- I can't! says Squirrel desperately.
- Why not? squeaks Miss Farmer.
Squirrel adopts a tragic mode:
- Because it's already open!
We all burst out laughing. The other passengers breathe sighs of relief and give us reproachful looks, smiling the while. Our little sketch was well played out!
Twenty minutes across town from the station to the cousin's house. A warm welcome from her parents. Congratulations on our exams...
- Here, take these! says the father, handing us a large piece of cheese and a big loaf. You'll be hungry by the time you get to the spring.
What he did not say, but we know, is that the bread is home-made and that the cheese comes from the milk of his cows.
Supplied with our provisions, we head off for the spring. The spring is the source of a river, of course, but not just any river. Where does this one go, then? It goes to school, to our school!
- All you have to do is take a boat and you'll get there! says the cousin with a laugh.
- Good idea! replies Dishevelled. Let's go. You coming?
- I don't go to baby school, she mocks.
I mock her back:
- Of course not, now that you're so old!
- Oh, only a year older than you, she reminds me.
- We'll be going to your big school in the city next year! interjects Miss Farmer, pretending to be cross.
It all ends in laughter.
So off we go to find the river, the river that starts out as a little stream, which capriciously gives its water to the spring. Odd, isn't it? Our little gang knows the river well. Just by our school it makes quite a big island where we go running during gym class or play football at lunchtime.
The road is just an ordinary road to begin with. Then we climb up towards a hamlet from which a landscape is revealed in which streams and rivers murmur to the gently swelling hills that surround them.
- Is it much further to the village, sighs Miss Miller.
- Which one? asks Smiley curiously.
- The one where we catch the train.
- Ha! are you afraid of hiking among the steep mountains and raging torrents? says the Polisher, feigning surprise.
- Why ever would she be afraid? says Field; she knows your strong arm will hold her up amid the sheer rocks and that your courage will save her from every danger!
- That makes me feel better, declares Miss Miller, reassured; it's a pity it's so far.
- I've got some good news for you, says her brother brightly; they're going to build a line that will take the train to the spring!
- And then it'll be so nice to sit there, what with all the peace and quiet!
In the meantime the line is a long way off; we can sometimes see the rails glinting in the sunlight, between two hills.
Our walk along the Alpine ridges is over. The landscapes behind us are just a distant memory. Bye bye, little train! You have left on your long line that runs from one infinity to another! The steep mountain and its sheer rocks, which had seemed just a joke, are now there before us. We have to descend, more of a drop than a descent, through a thick wood slowly formed by the centuries. At the bottom, in the mysterious depths to which our destiny is taking us, the raging torrent awaits us, against whose menacing current we will have to fight courageously in order to reach - at least we hope so - the cool spring, the goal of all our efforts, where we will at last be able to rest in peace.
The adventure begins. We are in the little wood that leads to the stream. The ground is soft and pliable under our feet. We climb down the slope for about fifty paces, a slope perhaps half as steep as the stairs of an ordinary house. Another twenty paces over thick grass and we come to the stream, where a trickle of water flows among the pebbles. No need to cross it and wet the soles of our sandals, a path runs alongside our side of the stream. We amble along it, between meadows where the cows are too busy grazing even to look up as we go past. Four or five minutes later and the path stops. Two hundred paces through the grass by the side of the stream and we are sitting in the shade of the alder trees around the spring.
- I'm hungry!
Dishevelled's imperious announcement makes his cousin smile:
- I see you appreciate the beauty of the landscape!
Dishevelled, usually insensitive to that kind of teasing, which he gets from us often enough, seems rather put out. He tries to make it up:
- The beauty of the landscape must have driven every other thought from my head!
The incoherence of his remark makes everyone laugh. His cousin, still smiling, unwraps the cheese. When the laughter has abated, she reassures him:
- Yes, it's not the first time you've been here and you know...
He interrupts her:
- You're right, of course; old habits die hard!
He gives a laugh and says:
- Come on, give me some cheese!
We cut up the cheese and bread and eat hungrily, it being nearly tea-time and all of us being in the same lamentable state as Dishevelled.
Good cheese and good bread soon drive away bad thoughts.
- Next year you'll be at the same school as me, says the cousin pensively.
I am slightly surprised:
- Why are you telling us that?
- You'll be coming to the city...
The Polisher is just as surprised as I:
- We know that!
- Yes, but what you may not know is that life there isn't the same.
- You're joking! retorts Dishevelled.
She smiles on:
- Far from it; I know you've already been...
Her cousin breaks in impatiently:
- So we know what it's like, your city!
- You may know what it's like, but you've never lived there.
A short silence.
- You mean you know the city better than we do? asks Miss Farmer hesitantly.
The cousin's smile is tinged with regret:
- There are no fields.
Nobody says anything. We all seem lost in our thoughts.
Miss Miller breaks the silence:
- But it's not as though we're going to be there all day, are we!
- It gets dark at four o' clock in winter, points out Smiley.
- But it's not as though we're chickens, is it? There's lots we can do in the evening!
- Can you start a day that's ended?
No-one has an answer to Squirrel's question.
The conversation moves on to other things, subjects that come up without asking and leave on tiptoe.
One of us says the word "school".
- Is it hard, living in the city? asks Smiley with a hint of anxiety.
The question has nothing to do with what we are talking about, though I don't know what that is. But the cousin answers without missing a beat.
- No, on the contrary, it's very easy...
- Then why...? breaks in Miss Miller.
- I should have said, they find it very easy.
- Oh yes, the people who live there, adds the Polisher.
- We've all heard them, the people who live there; but when you talk about a farm... says Dishevelled.
- You can talk to them about the butcher's sausages but not about the pig... begins Miss Farmer.
- They smell bad! goes on Field.
I finish off:
- They're not nice!
However sarcastic we may be, it doesn't stop us from laughing.
The Polisher goes back to the city:
- You said they live easy in the city; that ought to be good for us, didn't it?
- If you live like them it is.
The cousin has accompanied her remark with a gesture that clearly shows she does not share that opinion.
- If we don't want to live like them, we can get back to living once we're home! declares Smiley firmly.
- Yes, if you can manage to forget the ways of those who live in cities.
The cousin has accompanied her remark with a gesture that clearly shows she finds that hard to believe.
- We have our own ways here; there's no reason for us to change them, says Dishevelled crossly.
His sister calms things down:
- But we can't live in the city with the ways we have here.
- Why not? interjects the Polisher.
- It's not easy for people to understand each other when they speak two different languages, answers the cousin.
- So what if they come to us? protests Dishevelled.
Miss Farmer gives a little smile:
- But they don't.
The silence is broken by Field:
- You sometimes see them...
- They're just out for a walk! interrupts Smiley.
- When we're in the train, we can't talk to those who are in the fields, remarks Squirrel.
I tease her:
- Unless a bull comes along to stop the train!
Dishevelled returns to his idea:
- In any case we can live here and keep to our own ways!
The cousin returns to hers:
- A way like that is something you do every day.
- You don't say! jokes her cousin.
- Oh, but I do indeed!
We all laugh except for Squirrel, who hasn't even smiled. She nods slowly:
- Are you afraid we'll catch the city ways?
The broad river is resting. Along its banks, the tall trees that press against each other bend to caress it with their green-leaved branches. Some ducks have congregated under the foliage to confide secrets to each other. In the middle of the broad river, our boat floats without troubling the water that surrounds it. We aren't going anywhere.
- I've got a bite! cries Squirrel's cousin.
And, pulling gently but firmly on the line, he quickly grasps the landing net - the pike that comes wriggling out of the water is not particularly small.
- It's at least a two-footer! declares the cousin; and if I didn't use the net it would break the line: it must weigh at least three pounds!
Squirrel and I have come to spend a few days with her aunt who lives in a pleasant, quite large but rather sleepy village on the banks of a fairly wide river whose peaceful flow hardly disturbs its beauty sleep.
The river that swirls round our little island - and sometimes over it, and our hut, too! - is more lively but quite a lot narrower. And that is probably why the roach we and our friends sometimes catch fall well short of the impressive size of the pike that has just come from the fairly wide river I find myself on. So while we wait patiently in the cousin's flat-bottomed wooden boat, I cannot stop my imagination from carrying me down the wide river that my geography text book has brought back from some distant land.
The cousin has baited the hook again and cast the line. Sitting quietly on one of the thwarts, he watches the float, almost motionless, a float whose bright red contrasts with the dark green of the water.
It's hot. How long is it since the wind last came this way? The ducks are still there, under the still green leaves.
Other fish, more waiting; has the sun itself stopped?
Over there, down by the little river, I can hear the laughs and shouts of our little gang greeting a minnow caught or lost, I can see the race to find a better spot, soon abandoned for another...
The sun has set off again. The afternoon will begin. Lunch is waiting for us at Squirrel's aunt's house.
A few strokes of the oar - well, half an hour all the same - and, having moored the boat not far from the cousin's house, we're ready to tuck in!
- What sort of time do you call this?
It's not that Squirrel's aunt is cross but, as we had all asked her, she was waiting for the fish to make lunch and it's already one o' clock! So of course she's fretting: the children are hungry!
- We're not really hungry yet!
This unanimous declaration has not made much impression on Squirrel's aunt; our faces give it the lie!
- The fish doesn't take long, it'll be ready in half an hour, says the aunt, who likes things to be just so.
The pike is on the table. Tradition is welcome, because it has meant that despite our age we have been given some of the delicious white wine that comes from the slopes above the neighbouring river. A real river, that one! We taste the cool wine - the cousin too, and what's more, he's allowed to have more than us. How unfair! But then, he is an old man; at least a year older than me!
As for the fish, here is the recipe: it deserves a mention!
PIKE IN WHITE BUTTER SAUCE.
Chop the shallots and soften them in butter. Add some white wine and reduce by three-quarters.
Add sour cream and reduce by half. Add fresh butter cut into small pieces, whisking vigorously over a low flame.
Do not allow the sauce to boil.
Fry the pike fillets in a little butter, starting with the skin side down.
Season, turn and finish cooking.
The skin should be crisp and the flesh not overcooked.
Add some chopped tomato and chives to the sauce, together with some cockles and mussels, the juice from which you will have used to make the sauce.
And don't forget a bottle of good white wine!
How could one not enjoy such a feast?
- Where are you off to today? Squirrel's uncle asks us this morning.
- I offered to take them fishing under the bridge, says his son distractedly.
- And you didn't dare to say no? the uncle asks us pityingly.
- Oh, we spent a lovely morning yesterday! exclaims Squirrel to reassure him.
I add, for the same reason:
- I love the river; it's peaceful...
- Oh, it's peaceful enough all right; you can easily fall asleep! he exclaims back.
I have forgotten to say that he was born in a city...
- I didn't want to deprive you of an opportunity to say so, says the cousin sarcastically.
He goes on, smiling:
- No, I'm not taking them fishing, but I had offered to take them on a bike ride, starting out by following the river as far as the bridge; people fish under it!
Following the river: it's easy enough to say, but the river meanders and so does our way, not always in step. It's a pleasant ride; the river we are following has not lost its previous day's tranquillity, when we were out fishing on it. A tranquillity that follows us on our way, that envelops us.
A good hour has gone by without taking any notice of us; we are nearing a little town. A big bridge. It's a railway bridge. A train, different from the one that goes to our school, used to pass there many years ago. So once on the bridge, no fear of being run over.
We have stopped in the middle of the bridge. It is high. The fishermen are small, seen from above. They are in the middle of the river, boots up to their necks - well, something that does the same job as boots and comes up to their chest. They stand and wait for the fish, which have other things to do than wait for them. We have stayed for a good hour, watching, and I haven't seen anyone catch a single fish. Are they hiding in the grasses that seem to have drowned in the river, breaking the surface of the water like a long head of hair affectionately combed by the lazy current?
We return by roads that stretch away through the countryside, crossing a few villages that may be surprised to see anyone on them.
A hamlet. The way in is by a busy main road; hens, geese and ducks, all strolling about at their ease on the wide, grassy track.
A farm. The gates are wide open. Why would anyone close them? Everyone knows everyone else round here and who would ever want to come from afar to a place where working the soil and tending cattle are the only distractions on offer? No farmer, no farmer's wife, doubtless busy elsewhere. Is there anyone else? Yes indeed! On the doorstep, near a long ladder that leans solidly against the great grey wall, a local resident elegantly clad in a golden cape watches us with all the benevolence due to familiar visitors. Plump and bright-eyed, the hen hails us in its own language.
Quiet breakfast this morning. "How was it yesterday?" the uncle has asked. "Where did you go?" the aunt has asked. "Aren't you going fishing this morning?" the uncle has said, surprised. "There's more to life than just fishing!" the aunt has pointed out. ""We're going to go on a long bike ride this afternoon", the cousin has announced. "Where are you going to go?" the aunt has asked. "It's very pleasant round here", the uncle has commented.
So this afternoon we have left on a long bike ride.
Like yesterday, we start by following the river, but this time in the other direction, the one that leads towards the neighbouring river - lined with slopes full of good white wine! - the one that leads towards the sea, the one that leads towards the sun where it leaves us when day is done. A small town, though quite a lot bigger than the one where Squirrel and I live. A short road, a long track, a hamlet. I am tempted to say that the hamlet is just a single farm, because the rest of the houses... But I would be wrong, because the five or six nearby the farm are odd, to say the least; small houses made of the region's big stones, a single room in which you can make out a big fireplace, a door of course, but a door which is also the only window. How do people live here? We leave the hamlet, passing between the farm, its wall half-covered by a pile of bales of straw, and a large pile of neatly stacked wood, ready to heat the kitchen for the whole of winter.
We ride along in the peace of the countryside. The roads wend their way unhurriedly from one village to the next, the side roads from one hamlet to another, the tracks from one farm to another. Here is one. The farmer must have harrowed his fields yesterday or the day before, because a harrow is standing there near the barn, still covered in earth, waiting to be cleaned.
A last village, ending our ride. A street, a real street, though not very wide, snakes between the houses. At the end of it, a farm, a very large farm, standing solidly on a slope that goes down to the river. And not far from the farm, in this country where the hills barely manage to raise their heads above the valleys, a mountain. A mountain? Absolutely. But don't worry, it's just a mountain of straw. A haystack! I just wanted to say that it was very high, that's all. The hay has to be brought in. There is an old ladder that knows what has to be done and shows the way into the huge hayloft. To work! And I see the farmer coming out of the barn and going down the few steps surrounded by grasses of all sorts. Why doesn't he pull it out, all that grass that would bother a city-dweller? Because he likes the land, I think.
We are going back to our little town this evening, Squirrel and I. This morning we have gone fishing with Squirrel's cousin. Squirrel's cousin likes fishing. There is nothing special about the place where we are fishing. A big pond, without any surprises, surrounded by puny trees that attempt to form a wood. Nothing much has happened during our stay and the cousin isn't very talkative, and yet it has been pleasant. Everywhere we have been we have had a feeling of well-being and serenity and we have felt pleasure at being with the cousin. So what should one think of acts, of words, of the beauty of the places one finds oneself in? "It was very nice there!" say my parents' friends, coming back from a walk; if I ask them - and I have done on occasion - they only mention things, and they are the same things that you can find here or elsewhere. The sky is the same everywhere. "I had the sun in my eyes on my way home yesterday, it was very unpleasant!" says one. "I stayed to admire the sunset!" says the same one after a walk. Life seems possible only with acts and words; why do they not suffice?
Behind the train station, between the tracks that run to school and the river that runs to our island, half-hidden by the high grass that grows as it will where nature has planted it, lies an old goods wagon. It has been here for ages, never budging. And sometimes Squirrel and I will seek it out to go on marvellous journeys.
The wagon has just left. No need for rails. Or roads. Or wings to fly. The journey must have been a very long one, though it didn't take even the blink of an eye, because when we look through the door of our marvellous wagon, nothing of what we have left behind is in view. Before us we can see a station, the one we are familiar with, but there are no tracks entering it or leaving it. There are no passengers on the platform, and yet the station does not look at all abandoned, far from it in fact. From what I can see, it has just been repainted. On the other side of the wagon, the river has stopped; the water flows gently when you look at it, but it isn't going anywhere. Where are we, Squirrel and I?
Thursday. The children that the Polisher's aunt is to look after from mid-July arrived at her house on Monday, the thirteenth, as expected. Six did not equal seven, as Field had claimed ten days or so ago, when the Polisher, counting the little flock that his aunt was to tend, had mentioned three or four girls and two or three boys. No, six were happy to equal six, three girls and three boys, for whom we have made cows and wheelbarrows, and sewn jackets for the little pigs - no, no; not for the pigs, it was for the ogres and witches - exclusive designs by our little gang! Not forgetting the costumes for dressing-up: the station-master, the baker, etcetera.
- I hope your aunt will like them, worries Miss Farmer.
The Polisher reassures her:
- My aunt has already told me how happy she was with what you have all done!
- And you too, points out Miss Miller kindly.
- Yes, of course, he blushes.
- You're the cow, after all... says Smiley, intending it as a compliment.
We all laugh at the back-handed nature of said compliment!
- No, no, what I meant to say is...
- Moo!... goes Dishevelled at the Polisher, his voice shaking with laughter.
The merriment gradually subsides.
- What we have done has to please the children too, remarks Squirrel thoughtfully.
Surprised, I say:
- But it's for them that we...
- It was her aunt we were thinking of first of all, she cuts in.
- What difference does that make? protests Field.
- We didn't ask the children what they would like.
A short silence falls, broken by Dishevelled:
- Do they even know what they want?
- Perhaps they're too young, adds his sister.
- That's what we hear every day, that we're too young, grumbles the Polisher.
- I don't feel too young at all! exclaims Smiley.
- Nor me, says Miss Farmer, when it's a question of work to be done on the farm!
"Nor me!" "Me neither!" we all chorus.
- All that doesn't tell us whether small children know what they want, remarks Dishevelled.
- If they don't, what can we do to make them happy?
Another silence answers Squirrel's question.
- Well, let's just ask them what they want! goes on Field.
And adds immediately, as Dishevelled starts shaking his head:
- We'll see what they say!
- If they don't know, what's their answer worth? frets Miss Farmer.
- If we don't ask them, objects Smiley, we'll never know one way or the other.
- To sum up, as we say at school, if we don't ask them anything, we won't know anything... starts the Polisher.
I finish off:
- And if we do, we won't know more than if we didn't!
- We may not know more, Field corrects me.
- So we're better off asking them, remarks Miss Miller.
- And what if they find out later that they wanted something else entirely? says Squirrel.
Dishevelled shakes his head:
- Our school doesn't go through all that business when it makes choices for us!
- It's not the same thing, advances Miss Farmer tentatively
- No, of course not, it's only our lives that are at stake, answers Squirrel tartly.
What shall we do today?
- What shall we do today? says the Polisher.
- What a question! We'll go to your aunt's, of course! replies Dishevelled.
- Yes, she's already had the children since last Monday, Miss Farmer reminds us.
- Let's go round this afternoon, suggests Smiley.
- That way we can ask them what they want, adds Miss Miller.
- Surprise test this afternoon, cries Field.
A tremor runs through our little gang.
- Not for us! Not for us! the cry goes up.
- For dolls only! he adds in a magisterial tone of voice.
- That's not us! That's not us! the cry goes up.
- So what do we do with our toys?
- It's to take them to the children that we're going round, replies the Polisher.
- Yes, but do we give them to the children first or do we ask them first what they want?
- If we give them the toys first, they'll be influenced, Squirrel answers me.
We get to the Polisher's aunt's at about three o' clock. The children have just finished their after-lunch nap, the aunt tells us.
- Oh, the nap! whispers Squirrel in my ear. Can you remember how boring it used to be?
- Oh, yes! There was nothing worse! Having to stay lying down when you're not tired at all!
- And not being able to do anything for all that time!
Both together, whispering:
- Oh, how boring it used to be!
Whispering or not, the aunt has heard:
- It's good for you! I have a nap too!
Her nephew assumes a serious air:
- Where can we go to lie down? We haven't had time for our nap yet!
But his aunt knows him well and is not taken in for a moment:
- I've made up the beds in your cousins' room, you can go four to a bed.
And she adds:
- I'm sorry, it'll be a bit of a squeeze!
The Polisher proclaims loudly:
- Right, to bed everyone!
A little voice can be heard:
- Oh no, I've just had my nap!
Laughter. Squirrel has gone over to the little girl and gives her a kiss.
- Don't worry, we were just playing!
The little girl gives her a smile, apparently reassured; though just before she leaves to join the other children, she turns and says:
- I don't want to play at having a nap...
Squirrel reassures her again; and the little girl goes off to tell the story of her misadventure to her doll, who listens with great attention.
The children are all very busy in the big dining room. Some are sitting on the floor; could they already be tired, at their age? Oh no, I don't really think so, you only have to see them moving about in all directions! Off to the right, no, to the left, I don't know, it's all too quick! Ah, there's a future artist, at his easel - the dining-room table - drawing a... well, a tree, in all events.
- I want to make a cat, with plasticine!
- I haven't got any more pictures to colour in!
- I've lost the spoon from the doll's tea-set!
- There's a snail missing!
- A red ball! I don't like the blue one!
We exchange a look...
- They do know what they want! whispers Squirrel.
The aunt didn't hear anything this time; what with the noise the children were making, she couldn't have!
What about our toys? We show them to the children. What will they say?
They fell upon them, delighted! The aunt was smiling...
- I'll go and get the milk!
Six o'clock. The milking at Field's is coming to an end. Squirrel and I cross over to his farm by the ford with Dishevelled and his sister to get the milk for breakfast.
- I'm watching the cows this afternoon; you coming? he asks us.
- Yes; we're expecting Smiley, Miss Farmer and the Polisher at about half past one, Squirrel replies.
- See you later then!
Squirrel and I spend the morning in my parents' workshop, trying to make a wood copy of the snail lost by one of the children.
- It doesn't look very much like one...
- Oh, a lick of paint and it'll do fine, Squirrel reassures me.
It's nearly two o'clock. We reach Field's. But where is he? Just running after a cow that has the excellent habit of wandering off without warning, ambling steadily down the stream!
Here we are now, all eight of us, sitting on the grass in the middle of the little orchard full of plums. Not yet ripe, unfortunately; we'll have to wait another couple of weeks for that.
- What are the children still short of? asks Squirrel.
- Crayons, I announce
- Plasticine, announces Smiley in her turn.
- I'm sure I can find a spoon for the doll's tea-set, says Squirrel.
- I think I had a red ball once, Dishevelled tries to remember; if not, they're not hard to find.
- Do you know where you can find colouring books? frets the Polisher.
- Near the market place, Miss Miller tells him.
- What kind of pictures do they have? I never used to do them.
- Animals, trees, flowers...
- It's to teach kids how to draw, adds Miss Farmer.
She corrects herself:
- Well, not really how to draw, just to get them used to it.
- And to teach them how to use colours, adds Field.
- Maybe they'll grow up to be artists one day, who knows? says Dishevelled.
- Thank you, worthy masters, for teaching me so well, and for opening my eyes so wide, pronounces the Polisher solemnly.
He waits for a moment, then goes on mock-modestly:
- I thought all you had to do was to look around you.
- People have the good fortune of being able to share what they see; cows don't paint, remarks Squirrel softly.
Sunday. Eight in the morning. The train has just left.
- I like taking it in this direction! smiles Squirrel happily.
I smile back:
- I'd rather take it in this direction than the other!
A moment goes by. We look at each other.
A moment goes by. Squirrel has sighed:
- I hope we won't regret the other direction...
- I hope not...
The train runs in silence; is it sad to think it won't be seeing us morning and evening any more?
- Yes, I know, trains don't think...
- Are you sure? she pretends to protest; at any rate, ours always waits for us when we're late and have to run to catch it!
Eight sixteen. The little town where Field's cousin lives. I remark:
- She's been there for a year, she's used to it!
- She's very nice; I'm sure she'll help us all to get used to it too.
Eight thirty-three. Nine minutes for the change. It's not our little train now. We settle in.
- Well, this is a train that doesn't think! declares Squirrel energetically.
A passenger, newspaper in hand, has turned round.
We're moving. Squirrel shows me the track that describes a great curve ahead of us:
- It keeps on curving around; you'd think it was telling us not to go there, to the city where our next school is!
The passenger, newspaper in hand, has turned round.
The city. Thirty-four minutes before the next train. We go out of the station to stretch our legs. Oh, we know the city, Squirrel and I; and yet...
- Today, it's not like the other times.
I quite agree with her:
- And there is the school!
Yes, there, just outside the station, is the school that Field's cousin goes to.
- Good job I'm not going there, mutters Squirrel.
- Good job indeed! I don't think they'd have taken me in a girls' school.
- You could've dressed up!
We both laugh. The city seems less grey.
We're off again. What we can see through the window does not make us want to go for walks, like we do around our little town. Eleven twenty. A little town. My uncle and cousin are waiting for us on the platform. And if they are waiting for us, it is simply because we have come to spend three days with them! And we're off to the village where they live.
It isn't far and we get there just before noon. My aunt welcomes us with open arms.
Lunch is a lively affair. Everyone talks about everything, questions cross in mid-air; "Did you see...?" "And did you see...?" But everyone knows what the answers are; that's what getting on with each other means.
- Now what's for pudding? asks my aunt innocently as the meal draws to an end.
We had noticed, Squirrel and I, that my cousin had been doing something mysterious with a packet all carefully wrapped up, and we were well aware that it concealed our pudding, but what was it to be? We are all agog!
All agog and not disappointed, for the pudding that has just arrived on the table is one we know well. Here it is:
Cut the pears into pieces and mix with sugar.
Make a caramel custard: mix eggs with sugar, then pour hot caramelised milk over them; then pour the mixture into ramekins.
Add the pears and cook in a water bath for about twenty minutes. Test with a knife; when the mixture no longer sticks, the custard is ready.
How can one resist?
What I have not yet said is that my uncle and aunt have a bakery in which they also make pastries. And my cousin, who is about two years older than I am and has never been to high school, works with them. She likes it a lot and intends to take over from them one day; which we know, Squirrel and I, will make them very happy.
And the mysterious packet so carefully wrapped up that my cousin had brought to the station was the pear custard which she had made herself this morning.
Lunch comes to an end.
- Let's spend the afternoon down by the stream, suggests my cousin.
- The one at the bottom of the gorge? asks Squirrel.
- Yes, that one, where...
I know the spot:
- The one where the two streams come together?
- Oh yes, it's lovely there! exclaims Squirrel, who knows the place too.
We set off. It's not very far, half an hour at most. Steep at the end, but the path winds down in hairpins, making it easy. But as it's not our style to take the easy way out we go straight down, albeit seeking help from time to time from some charitable tree-trunk, solidly planted.
Here we are now, down at the bottom.
- Poor old path, condoles my cousin, all sad 'cos we neglected you!
She spreads her arms wide towards it and declares...
No, she doesn't, because Squirrel gets in there first:
- No, we haven't scorned you!
And turning to my cousin goes on:
- You say that every time; it'll get wise to you in the end!
Oh, the path deserves all the attention it gets: it's been there for ages and ages!
- And doubtless even longer than that, comments my cousin again.
- O venerable path, you did not wait for men to trace you; thousands of years before, animals were already taking you to drink at the ford then go off to seek their fortune!
- My cousin never said anything about fortune; that's pure you, that is.
She does not deny it:
- And that's another addition to the golden treasury of human thought!
Laughing we reach the stream. Or the two streams, I should say. It has been very hot today. We are cool, near the water that flows unhurriedly by, in the shade of the hill and its leafy trees that shield us from the sun.
The old path crosses the two streams by two fords; it is easier than crossing by a single ford after the confluence, where there is more water: the animals had thought of that.
We settle down on the grass between the two streams, not far from the point where they meet.
- You'll be going to high school this year...
It does not seem to be a question. My cousin goes on without a pause:
- My parents asked me if I wanted to go to high school but I would rather stay at the bakery. They said that was all right, that the most important thing was to do what you are capable of as well as possible, as long it was something useful.
The two streams flow unhurriedly by. No-one has come this way for a long time. Are the old path and the two fords waiting for the animals that crossed here thousands of years ago? "Did you trace us for nothing?" they seem to say. The two streams flow unhurriedly by.
- There's something I miss, when I'm... my cousin has started saying.
- You're bound to laugh at me!
She doesn't give us time to answer:
- Bread when I'm at school, and school when the bread is baked!
- Is it complicated?
She doesn't give us time to answer:
- I go to the library.
She corrects herself:
- Two libraries.
- Yes, there aren't any here.
- I'm boring you...
Almost at the same time, Squirrel has asked her:
- Where are they?
My cousin smiles brightly:
- On either side!
She has accompanied her answer with an amused little smile:
- The train or the bus goes to two towns, each about twenty miles away, one to the right and one to the left.
- Is that where you found them? asks Squirrel again.
She remains lost in her thoughts, without saying anything. I ask her in turn:
- Do you find good books there?
- No, that's not what I meant... I mean, yes, of course, I find good books there...
She has broken off for a moment, then goes on quickly:
- I find high school there!
And, without transition, in a calm, I might even say happy voice, she adds:
- I go once a week, sometimes to one, sometimes to the other; on Thursdays, when they're open all day.
Her eyes shine:
- It's amazing, all the things you can find there!
She has fallen silent, as if she were dreaming. I say:
- It's as if you were going...
She breaks in:
- To school? Oh, no!
- I can choose... They're really nice... she even bought a book for me... well, for the library, but it was me who told her about it...
- Do you think school teaches us stuff that doesn't matter? asks Squirrel.
- No, not at all; it can't do otherwise, you can't have one class per pupil.
She purses her lips:
- And even if you could, would there be many pupils who know what they want to learn?
Squirrel and I exchange a look; do we know what we want to learn?
- Perhaps it's because they don't know that they go to school.
My answer has taken my cousin by surprise:
- Do you think they go because they don't know what else to do?
- Oh, they're not short of ideas, they always want to play!
- Yes, it's true; so is it because their parents make them?
- Maybe that too; but I think it's mostly to find out what interests them.
And I quickly add:
- I mean those who want to go there in the first place!
- That's probably why you go to the library, remarks Squirrel.
My cousin says nothing for a moment:
- At the library, I find out things for myself instead of learning what school has found out for me.
- You also learn what the library has found out.
- I can't learn anything that other people haven't already found out...
She hesitates for a moment:
- ...or that I find out for myself.
- But as I said a moment ago, here I can choose for myself.
We fall silent for a while.
- What do you like to choose? asks Squirrel.
- Things that are close to my life.
- One day, goes on my cousin, I was talking to the librarian about something a writer had said, something that I liked very much; I got the name of the author wrong.
She nods her head:
- She didn't get cross with me, didn't tell me I was a bad reader, didn't ban me from the library.
I try to protest:
- If you'd said the same thing to a teacher...
- What if it was an examiner?
Monday. It's the one day in the week when the bakery is closed.
Jokingly, I say:
- So you're on holiday like us, cousin?
- That's right, cousin, she answers distractedly.
And immediately adds, as though saying something perfectly ordinary:
- What time does your school open tomorrow morning?
I have no answer to that, of course. Squirrel fakes a groan:
- Oh no, not tomorrow!
My cousin smiles.
- Well then, since we're all on holiday, let's go for a walk! she suggests brightly.
And off we go.
A track. All around, the fields are full of straw. Straw is what is left when the wheat has been harvested. It is waiting in the sun to dry out completely so that it can be gathered up. A farmer is turning it in one of the fields; nothing must be hidden from the sun's hot rays.
There are two trees on the edge of another field. They are not sleeping in the sun; so what are they doing? One of them is wearing a hat in the shape of a large dome that makes it look like a mushroom; it has pushed its hat back on its head and has an admiring air. What can it be admiring like that? Opposite, its companion is dancing. Yes, dancing. A wide-brimmed hat on its head, its long, slim body inclined backwards, it is sketching a gracious step. Who could not admire it?
The track has started to slope slowly downhill. Another stream to cross. But there, six paths meet, including a major road. At least it should be a major road, since it goes from my cousin's village to her bakery. So... So for all the people who want to go from one side of the stream to the other, and who lack the talent of the animals of days gone by, a bridge has had to be built. It's not very big, but it means you don't have to wet your feet - or, more importantly, your wheels.
The track has climbed back up the hill. As it doesn't go very fast, the grass has had time to grow in the middle; and either side of the grass, the earth, kept bare by the cartwheels, makes a sort of railway track. But I don't think our little train would be very happy on it.
A wood runs alongside the track, which has cleverly taken the side on which the sun rises so as not to stay wet with dew after night has flown. A fence round a field, made of twisted old wooden staves, none of which has wished to resemble any of its neighbours. Far ahead of us, other fields, other woods...
The track is gradually swallowed up by hedgerows; it may not be as cool as by yesterday's two streams, but the sun is more peaceful, filtering through oak leaves. The high embankments that line the track pour the long thick grass that covers them down onto it. Around us the birds call to each other from the trees, lazily, as is customary in the middle of the afternoon.
Leaving the hedgerows, the track visits fields that keep each other company the whole length of a big wood. The gate to one of them is wide open; a gate leaning nonchalantly against a tightly packed hedge, made of old twisted wooden staves, none of which has wanted to resemble any of its neighbours. At the far end of the field, the farmer is with his cows; no need for him to close the gate, his cows are fond of him and wouldn't think of leaving him.
My cousin knows the farmer and we go over to say hello.
The city where our future school is. An hour and forty minutes to wait. We'll be back in our little town in time for dinner.
- What shall we do?
- It's tea time, says Squirrel; at least it'll give us something nice to do!
Good idea! But where should we go? I laugh:
- I don't suppose you want to stand here staring at the forbidding walls of Field's cousin's school!
- No, not at all! The one we'll be going to isn't exactly welcoming, but this one...!
We stand there on the station forecourt, staring at the forbidding walls of Field's cousin's school.
- Come on, let's go, we'll see! decides Squirrel in the end.
A broad avenue leads from the station through the city and its smug houses. Not exactly welcoming either.
- It's just playing at being a city! mutters Squirrel.
She goes on mockingly:
- It takes less time to go from one end to the other than for us to go from home to the station!
- There are more houses...
- None of them is worth our hut!
I smile, a smile that stays:
We wander about. Perhaps the city didn't deserve so much scorn.
- You're right, I exaggerate, admits Squirrel graciously.
She adds with a sigh:
- It's probably because of high school...
She breaks off:
- It's too big... Our little train won't dare come near...
We pass a church. Squirrel has stopped:
- Our school has a reputation; like Field's cousin's.
She looks down slightly:
- That sort of school gives orders.
She points to the old wooden door of a bell-tower, square and straight; a door that seems to have been open for centuries:
- It's ordinary; it opened to invite us in.
We wander about.
- Did you see the field?
I saw the field:
- Behind the bridge?
- Let's go.
- Definitely! It'll be the perfect place for our snack.
Having crossed the bridge, we sit down in the meadow, by the river, quite a big river, which has managed not to make any further headway into the city.
- The river daren't go in any more than our train, points out Squirrel with a hint of sarcasm.
She gestures towards the bridge, a very old bridge:
- The bridge and the river are old friends; they're much better off together.
On the side opposite us, a very old castle stands guard.
At Miss Farmer's, it is not the fields that are full of straw, like at my cousin's where we had spent yesterday, Squirrel and I; it is the meadows that are full of hay. Hay is grass, lots of different sorts of grass. Ask the cows: they know, since that is what they eat in the cowshed all winter.
And all that hay, now thoroughly dried out by a still burning sun even though July will come to an end in a week or so, has to be gathered up.
Our little band has come to help. They didn't really need us at Miss Farmer's, but we love being all together out in the hay-scented air.
It is early afternoon. The dew has evaporated. The hay is dry and light. We move forward together in a line. The men are in front, gathering the hay on stout pitchforks. They are strong. With a movement of the shoulder, they toss the great forkfuls of hay onto the cart; the cart fills up, the pile of hay gets higher and higher. Meanwhile, up on top, a man gathers the hay with his fork, spreads it, packs it, spreads it, packs it. The women follow, gathering up what remains. They scratch energetically with wooden rakes; nothing must be lost, all the hay must be gathered in. At last the cart is ready to leave for the barn. Two horses draw the cart, which lumbers heavily off. Will it tip over? No, it stays steady on its two wheels. And our little gang has not jibbed at the work to be done. It had split into two, of course; boys and girls, needless to say.
- No school today! exclaims Squirrel.
I show a moment's hesitation. She laughs:
- Were you afraid we might have missed the train?
I assume a look of... well, I don't really know:
- Given that it is the twenty-third of July, from which we may conclude without fear of correction that we are on holiday, given that the train left at seven thirty-three this morning and that it is already four o'clock in the afternoon, your proposition can lead only to an impossibility!
She looks at me with feigned stupefaction:
- You've been out in the sun too long. You shouldn't have stayed so long in the river.
I assume an offended air:
- How can you say such a thing? I have to be on hand in case you start drowning!
- Yes, that's right, near the ford where we go swimming the depth must be at least...
I interrupt gravely:
- What about the water holes?...
- Oh, don't worry about the water holes; I always keep an eye on you!...
And so on and so forth...
Yes, it's very hot this afternoon; but Squirrel and I are in the lovely cool shade of our hut, well hidden under a great weeping willow and surrounded by thick bushes.
Friday. Harvest time at Smiley's today. The gentle, engaging colour of the ripe wheat attracts the gaze and leaves it without the strength to escape.
As for Miss Farmer the day before yesterday, our little gang has come along to help. Again, we are no more needed at Smiley's than at Miss Farmer's but - I really want to say it again - we love being all together out in the wheat-scented air that already smells of good bread.
We get there at about seven in the morning; the sun has already been up for nearly four hours and milking is over.
Here we are in the field; the cutting starts. Smiley's field is much bigger than Miss Farmer's hay meadow and if it had to be harvested with a scythe, as was the case not so very long ago, it would take a long time indeed. But machines have recently appeared which do the work faster than men; and, thanks to them, the men are less tired.
The machine has begun to cut. The long stems that carry the great ears swollen with grains of wheat fall to the ground; there is no scythe in a man's hand to hold them up.
The machine has passed. The field, so superb just a moment ago, is now a scene of desolation; the ears of wheat no longer stand proud but lie, apparently lifeless, on the ground. And yet... and yet they are alive, they are still alive; they are sufficiently alive to offer their life to the men who have wounded them
- After all our hard work yesterday and on Wednesday we have earned a rest, declares the Polisher unequivocally when the eight of us meet up in the early afternoon among Field's cows.
- But how are we going to rest? asks Field.
- I'm very happy here on the grass, says Miss Miller lazily.
- On the grass? We're not going to stay on the grass doing nothing all day! fulminates Dishevelled.
- It's not too bad here, observes Miss Farmer just as lazily.
- Oh! how nice to see you in such perfect agreement with each other, says Smiley.
- Well, suggest something then, mutters Field.
- All right then, since you seem tired of staying on the grass doing nothing, I suggest we go for a long walk!
- Yes, let's! exclaims Dishevelled, jumping to his feet.
- Far? asks Miss Miller prudently.
I answer in a natural-sounding tone of voice:
- Oh, we'll be back before midnight!
To which she responds, in the same natural-sounding tone of voice:
- Well then, we can go less far and still be back before midnight!
- Why don't we head for the mill? It's not very far and we like walking along the river, puts in Squirrel, without paying attention to our valorous battle of wits.
- Oh yes! cries Miss Miller, jumping up.
She sits down straight away and points to Dishevelled's mill:
- Right, we're there now!
We cannot help laughing.
Miss Miller stands up again:
- Right then, let's go! she concludes, still laughing.
The whole group has got up; now we are on our way.
The mill to which we are heading is of course not Dishevelled's; it is about an hour's walk, following our river. Field's cows, bored with ruminating, follow us with their eyes as far as the little wood on the edge of their field. Fifty paces through the wood, twenty down to the river. Without putting the case too strongly, the slope is really quite steep, much steeper than the one that led to the stream from the spring, when we were at Field's cousin's a fortnight ago. So we clamber down as usual, holding on to this tree or that.
- A river is a watercourse... begins the Polisher, in the geography teacher's voice.
The cry goes up:
- Oh no!...
The teacher resumes:
- To bring to your attention, distracted pupils, that a watercourse without water is not a river.
The Polisher is not entirely wrong and we all start to laugh. Oh yes, it is summer time and it has been hot this July...
- You're only saying that because you weren't able to catch a single fish the other day, joshes Field.
- Naturally; they all fled as soon as they saw you coming, answers the Polisher, assuming an offended tone of voice.
- I protest! You're the savage from long-forgotten times!
Field adds with emphatic sarcasm:
- And not a very clever one at that; with that standard of fishing you'd soon starve to death!
The Polisher responds with a superbly condescending smile and we continue on our way.
All around us there are hills, and woods that have stopped halfway down their sides, doubtless the better to contemplate the river, which has started to laze over the infinitesimal incline ahead of it. It hesitates; "Shall I go right or shall I go left?". Any more and it would go back whence it came, since no-one seems interested in seeing it any further on. "Ah, I spy some downhill; I'll go for it!" And so it heads off again, very gently, until the next meander. Why ever should it hurry? And we do the same, wandering alongside the meanders when it would be so easy to cut across the grass - thirty paces at most.
- Why do we like walking here so much?
Squirrel's question has taken us all by surprise.
- What a question! Because we like it here, says Dishevelled.
- What an answer! protests his sister; and why do we like it here?
Ah! Silence falls. Miss Farmer:
- I've never really wondered why...
She tails off. Miss Miller:
- Why do we like tea?
I have found an answer:
- Because we get it every day for breakfast!
- What if you got nutshells? smiles Smiley.
I have to confess that the question leaves me tongue-tied.
- It may be an exaggeration but she's not wrong, remarks Field.
- If there is a choice, there can be wrong and right, approves the Polisher, all scholarly.
- Which river did you fish that from? laughs Field.
- The eternal river of wisdom of course! retorts the Polisher grandiloquently.
- But we still haven't found the answer to Squirrel's question, Smiley reminds us.
Silence falls, broken by Dishevelled:
- If no-one has an answer, perhaps it's because there isn't one.
- That would be terrible! says Miss Miller sadly.
She has stopped. We say nothing. We have gone past the mill we had been heading for. A mill that does not make flour, like Dishevelled's, but that fulls cloth to make it firmer and faster. At this point, the river runs right by the edge of a hill that begins with a steep slope, from the top of which you can see up the valley almost as far as our little town. It is a place where we often stop.
- Shall we go on up? suggests Squirrel after a moment's silence.
We climb, as always with the help of the trees. "It was nice down there", comments Miss Miller, clinging to a large branch. And there she is now, quite content to be sitting down on the grass.
- At least in that case the answer to Squirrel's question is easy; you would rather be there than climb up here because it's less tiring! echoes Field.
- And no doubt it is because you find it less tiring that you would rather contemplate the valley than...?
- ...the blackboard at school? Oh yes indeed! he replies, laughing.
- On which moreover you have to answer the geography teacher's questions about valleys and rivers! adds the Polisher.
- That's just what I said! teases Dishevelled; if you couldn't give an answer it would certainly be because there wasn't one!
- Yes, I'd love to hear you say that to the geography teacher! exclaims Miss Farmer.
- Right then, I will; next year...
- Next year doesn't count, you won't have the same teacher!
There was going to be laughter, but...
- The fact remains that we still haven't found an answer to Squirrel's question, Smiley has repeated.
One twenty-seven. The little train has just left for school.
- Well, it can go there all by itself; I won't be on it! declares Dishevelled in a tone of voice which indicates there will be no going back on his decision.
Needless to say, our little gang has all concurred noisily.
So what are we doing in the little train, then? It's very simple; we are going to see friends from our old school who live in the town itself.
The journey passes as usual. And yet everything seems different when I look out of the window. The meadows and the cows in them, the hedges that surround them, the stream, the woods, the villages and the paths that lead to them, everything is near but at the same time moving away from me. This life and mine are parting ways. I have felt Squirrel's hand squeeze mine.
Our friends are waiting for us on the large island formed by the river which rises, as I have already said, at Field's cousin's spring. It is the island on which the school has its playing field. It is Sunday today and, in the lovely hot weather, the island, open to everyone during the summer, is full of children, young people and people who have not been young for quite some time. But they take no less pleasure than the others from what the island has to offer; ensconced on their benches, they rest and chat, in a calm utterly untroubled by all the children's running and shouting.
Our friends ply us with questions; and we do likewise. Our friends tell us what they have been doing; and we do likewise. The conversation is lively, pleasant. The jokes and witticisms fly. No time to get bored...
They were all in my class. We would share what we knew, we would play during the lunch break, we would hunch over our exercise books during the lessons which all lasted one hour and which were more or less long depending on the subject matter or the teacher who was teaching it to us. It is quite possible that I may see one or other of them again but they will no longer be the school friends with whom I shared the events that surrounded my life. Were they still really there, they who will not be so tomorrow?
Through their faces it is our school that I see. The classroom, and the bench with the slightly splintered corner on my side - I had shoved Squirrel over to the other side -, the blackboard that Field had mentioned yesterday, "on which moreover you have to answer the geography teacher's questions about valleys and rivers!" as the Polisher had said, the yard in which I was kept somewhat apart from Squirrel by friends, hers and mine alike - "Hey, twins, are you coming to play?" -, waiting a little impatiently to get back into the classroom where we sat next to each other, the classroom that I will always see, like today, even though it is no longer there.
- Croak! Croak!
- Hello, how are you? answers Squirrel.
- Croak! Croak!
- So are we. A bit hot, don't you think?
Our neighbour the little green frog, who often drops in on us in our hut, has stopped hopping and is giving Squirrel's question due consideration.
- Croak! Croak!
And, having graciously expressed the opinion asked of him, hops away, having first inclined his head in guise of farewell, to get back to his business. Watch out, flies!
As for us, we will not be getting back to our business until Friday the eighteenth of September, the first day back at our new high school.
- From now on, the school we used to go to will be just a building for us.
- Just a building, yes; and if we go back there one day it will have nothing to say to us, and nor will we have anything to say to it.
She is silent for a moment:
- And if we do talk to it, what will we be talking to?
It is my turn to fall silent:
- You mean school will no longer be school?
- The word "School" will still be written over the gate, and it will still be school...
- School, or a school; for us it will be just a building, for others it will be their school.
- And those others who go to the school?
- They won't be able to talk to us about what we learn in high school.
- And will we be able to talk to them about what we learnt in the school we don't go to any more?
My question is followed by a short silence. Squirrel sighs:
- We will still be able to talk to them about it, but we will be big 'uns.
- Big 'uns?
- We won't be in the same playground as them.
- What we say...
- ... will be just a building to them.
Her answer is followed by a long silence. It is my turn to sigh:
- So everyone who leaves or who we leave becomes just a building...
The sun has hidden itself behind the hills and the light is browning at the edges.
- It must be half past seven; we're late for dinner! frets Squirrel.
- Are you hungry!
- No, it's too hot.
- Let's run home to tell them...
She jumps up:
- Let's go!
Our parents insisted that we take at least... We return to our hut with a basket full of bread, cheese, juicy ripe peaches and a pitcher full of water.
Hungry or not, we make short work of our dinner, especially the succulent, refreshing peaches. It's still very hot and we eat sitting on the river bank, our feet in the water. The water is dark, reflecting only the stars, since the sun went down as we were running home. And since the sun has gone down we no longer need to protect ourselves from it. And since we no longer need to protect ourselves from the sun, we stay there on the river bank, our feet in the water. Feet that nevertheless end up on the river bank too, since the water was becoming a bit too wet.
Time eases by, hidden by the night. The river keeps on telling us new tales. The breeze has got lost in the leaves of the trees. From time to time we can hear our little green frog exchanging secrets with its friends. "Croak! - Croak! Croak! - Croak!" Then everything falls silent until the next round of chatter.
It's still very hot. We are on the grass, near the river...
- What would it say to the school?
Our little green frog? I answer pensively:
- It would say what it says to us when it comes to see us.
- Who would understand what it was saying?
- The other little green frogs in its class.
- Oh yes, that would be great!
She stops and looks down:
- What if there aren't any other little green frogs in its class?
- Little and green, maybe not, but there will definitely be frogs.
- Would they understand?
I shake my head doubtfully:
- Maybe, but I don't think so.
Silence. She goes on:
- Are there many little green frogs in schools?
I give a brief chuckle:
- No more than anywhere else.
Silence. She declares resolutely:
- There'll be us!
I squeezed her hand...
We stayed there, saying nothing, for a long, long time...
A bird has just sung its song. I can see the palest of lights in the depths of the sky. Squirrel is asleep beside me.
Tuesday. Our little gang - reduced to five - is going to spend the day at the Polisher's, or somewhere, anywhere.
We reach the bridge the train crosses, under which flows the river that goes towards our hut. From there, a hill will take us to the Polisher's. How many times must he have taken it on school days, coming back from the station in our little town? "When I was little and dallied on the way back from school my father would come to meet me; he wasn't easy in his mind until he saw me on the road from the bridge", he told us one day. Climbing the hill, I can see two tiny little girls in the distance, like in children's picture books; it's Smiley and Miss Farmer. But as I said, they are a long way off, it would take a good ten minutes to get there, going at a good pace. Now they are crossing the track; they can do so without fear, it's half past one and the two trains that cross in our little town have just gone by. It comes as no surprise to see our two friends; they're meeting up with us at the Polisher's.
Who is twisting an unfortunate piece of lead pipe which can surely have done him no wrong. And his father - the Polisher's, of course - is subjecting the hapless pipe to a fierce jet of flame, doubtless to finish the poor thing off. Oh, by the way, did I tell you the Polisher's father is a plumber?
He tells us about what he does, that his son's a good worker - I think he's talking about plumbing, not school - and informs us, like each time we come over, that he wants his son to succeed him: "It's a good job. It's very satisfying to see a woman happy because at last she can turn her tap on without breaking her wrist!"
We head off, somewhere, anywhere
- We could go to the spring, proposes Miss Miller nevertheless.
- We could follow the stream, adds Smiley.
- Oh, that's much too far! cries Dishevelled, eyes wide in feigned horror.
His sister turns to the Polisher's father:
- Can your son come with us? Our miller here will be very happy to stand in for him!
Without missing a beat the father says:
- Here, take that saw there and cut the pipe!
Everyone laughs - but Dishevelled has grabbed both the saw and the pipe:
- Where do I cut it?
- Cut it up into slices and we can have it for tea! laughs Field.
The father has quickly taken the saw back:
- You'll have to come and learn how to use it first.
He adds, half-laughing:
- You can come every day if you like!
- I'd love to, but I'm afraid my mill just can't do without me! replies the miller jokingly.
We leave at last. And we know where we're going. We're going to follow the stream.
A track leads downhill. Five minutes if you run. We reach the spring, a spring that isn't any more a spring than the one at Field's cousin's. What sort of a spring is it, after all, that takes its water from a capricious streamlet that we are generous indeed to call a stream?
- This time we're going to be swimming in stones! says the Polisher.
- At least that way we won't get wet, remarks Miss Farmer judiciously.
- You should've brought your chickens with you; for once they could have gone swimming without any fear of getting drowned, joshes Dishevelled.
- You mean you know more about chickens than what you find on your plate? smiles Smiley.
And yet we continue to walk along the stream, taking care not to slip on the big, ochre-hued stones that line its bed.
The stream climbs slowly up between the hills. We enter a thick wood.
- We'd better watch out, says Field in a low voice.
- Why? What's up? asks Miss Miller, surprised and slightly anxious.
- Not so loud, he might hear you!
Now we are all surprised and - why not? - slightly anxious too.
- Have you seen a wild boar? asks Dishevelled.
- Boars aren't dangerous if you don't bother them, Miss Farmer reassures him.
- That depends on what they regard as being bothered, then, he objects.
- There aren't any boars, we'd hear them if there were, says Smiley.
- So what's it all about, then? demands the Polisher impatiently.
Field says teasingly:
- We're not very far from the place where the wild men live!
He waits a second:
- Wild men from long-forgotten days gone by!
We have all cried out at once.
- Very funny! concludes Miss Farmer.
And we all do what we can not to burst out laughing.
- Well, since we're already here, why don't we go and pay a visit to our polisher's friends? suggests Smiley.
Off we go. A little hill to climb and we can see the polishing stone.
- It's funny all the same, this... workshop that's been here for thousands of years, remarks the Polisher thoughtfully.
- It's just a shame it's so lifeless, adds Miss Farmer.
- I really thought it had come back to life again when our Polisher... starts Smiley.
She doesn't finish.
We approach the polishing stone.
- Nobody there...
What was in Miss Miller's voice when she said that: relief, regret? I don't know.
- Tell me a story!
A little girl, round-faced, quiet and pleasant, has caught Squirrel's skirt and is tugging it gently.
We are at the Polisher's aunt's. She is kind, though rather strict. The six children are there. When we arrived, after their nap, they were playing, some quietly, some a bit more noisily. And it was not the girls who were playing more quietly than the boys, far from it in fact.
- Tell me a story!
It had to be straight away. The little girl is still tugging at Squirrel's skirt.
- Now be good and wait a moment, scolds the aunt.
The little girl says nothing and looks down, without leaving hold of Squirrel's skirt.
- What sort of story do you want me to tell you? asks Squirrel with a smile.
The little girl's eyes wander this way and that, as though she were looking for something.
- A story with...
She does not know how to go on.
- Do you want me to tell you a story about a little cat?
In answer the little girl claps her hands and gives a big smile. Would that have been a "Yes..."?
The other children have stopped playing and are listening.
Sitting on the floor, Squirrel begins.
- Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a little cat. The little cat loved the little girl and the little girl loved the little cat. The little cat was very curious and went wherever it wanted on the farm. One day it climbed into a haycart which was going off to a farmer who lived quite a long way away.
The little cat fell asleep and woke up at the farmer's, a long way from home. It did not know how to get back and felt very sad, because it wanted to be near its mistress.
The farmer's children saw that the little cat was lost, and as they were all very kind they took care of it, giving it a bowl of milk every day. The little cat had everything it wanted, but it was still sad.
One day the cart came back, bringing some more hay. The little cat recognised the cart straight away and climbed into it to hide. Back home again, it saw that the little girl was sad too, so it jumped straight down into her arms. And they lived happily ever after.
Seven fifty-eight a.m. Two minutes to get down from the train and go to school!
- Those were the days, when we were young... says Squirrel in a quavering voice, like old people who only have a past to look forward to.
I nod slowly and heavily:
- That's right, grandma. What's gone is gone...
And we sit there, nodding...
The little train has just left the town where our school was. Squirrel gives me a smile covered with a veil of regret:
- We were wrong to make fun; one life does not replace another.
No, we weren't going to school. We are going to an aunt of mine who lives in a village beside a wide river. The village is dull and insipid; nobody would know of it if it weren't for the bridge over the river. A bridge? But there are bridges all over the place! Even if it's a very nice bridge... Yes, but you don't find many bridges like this one. In any case, I don't know of any. And I have been about a bit - in books, at any rate; they would have told me.
- And it is a very unusual bridge, Squirrel points out; nobody can go over it!
I assume an air of self-importance:
- That's not so; my uncle can!
She assumes an air of self-importance:
- And so can we!
So what is this all about? It's simple...
- It's simple, repeats Squirrel; the bridge is an old mill.
- Absolutely! A mill that spans the river.
- Just like Dishevelled's mill!
- Just like Dishevelled's mill!
- People can be impressed by so little...
- It's enough for them to come from all over the world to see the bridge!
The little train crosses over a river. The river comes back, then goes away again. Where to?
- Under the mill, says Squirrel.
- Such a big river?
- Yes, for such a big mill.
Yes, we too are familiar with the mill; it's not just the whole world that knows about it.
We have to get off our little train and take a bigger one, which goes to a city. The passengers are not the same. They are less fanciful. A good half-hour and we arrive in the village with the bridge.
- Good morning, twins!
It's my cousin, happy to see us and waiting for us on the platform. He is open and straightforward. He gives Squirrel a hug, pats me on the back. The house is three quarters of an hour's walk. There is a much more convenient station, only five minutes from the house, but there is one slight drawback: the train doesn't stop there.
My aunt welcomes us warmly:
- How nice to see you again!
She adds, with a tinge of regret:
- What a shame my sister couldn't come as well!
- Mum said that she would have loved to come but that she had a lot of work in the workshop.
We talk about this and that. My aunt is busy making apricot jam. We will take a few jars back with us when we go.
- What are you going to do this afternoon? asks my uncle.
- We'll go for a walk on the tops, answers my cousin.
- Make sure to be back by seven at the latest; that'll give us a good hour to fish our supper!
- But don't worry too much, smiles my aunt; I've got something else in case you come back empty-handed!
- What do you mean, empty-handed, with experienced fishermen like us four? replies my uncle with fake bluster.
And so we leave for the tops. It's not far, a good hour's walk. But uphill all the way...
This is goat country; they are agile, they like the uplands; and they're all over the place, and their cheese is delicious, it's the cheese I had at lunchtime.
It's not always easy to see far; there are even more woods than goats. But how lovely it is when you manage to slip between the trees! There's nothing to scratch you, the whole landscape that opens up before us is gentle and peaceful. The river is smooth, so smooth, with not a ripple to trouble our easy gaze. In the middle of the river sleeps the old mill.
Sleep on, old mill, sleep and wake not. That way you won't have to see what the vanity of man has made of you. You can no longer give bread, the bread that used to feed men, you are nothing but a lifeless stage-set, and have been for many a long year.
Sleep on, old mill, sleep and wake not. What good would it do you to see the riches accumulated by men to glorify a pointless splendour? What good would it do you to see the great walls pierced with high windows that bring daylight into a long corridor that serves only as a blind walkway?
Sleep on, old mill, sleep and wake not. It is no longer wheat that is piled up around you but rich and futile objects to which only the pride of men assigns value.
Sleep on, old mill, sleep and wake not.
This morning we are going with my cousin to spend the days at his cousin's. She lives in a pleasant town, on the line of our own little train. We will leave again this afternoon at about half past four and my cousin will return home at seven.
The cousin has come to pick us up at the station. We visit her parents. The usual talk: exams, the future... It is coming up to lunchtime and the cousin takes us for a picnic in the park, in the shade of thick trees that make a real miniature forest within the park.
- This year you'll be going to high school in the city, like my cousin, says the cousin in a calm voice.
I point out:
- His city is much bigger than the one we'll be going to; it has five or six times more people living in it.
- Yes, she says in the same calm voice, but your school won't be in the place where you live.
- It's not very far, remarks Squirrel.
- What my cousin means, puts in my cousin, is that you'll be in a city where your parents don't live.
- We'll be back home in the evening...
The cousin interrupts Squirrel, still in the same calm voice:
- Your parents won't be there during the daytime.
Silence falls for a moment. The cousin goes on in her calm voice:
- My father doesn't like us to live without him.
She pushes back the long hair, as calm as her voice, that hides her face:
- It's tiring, wanting to be alone.
- My cousin has lots of friends... puts in my cousin again.
- They don't make me live the same way as they do, she interrupts without losing her calm voice.
- And... your father does...? begins Squirrel, a bit embarrassed.
- As if anyone could! cuts in my cousin, pulling a face.
It's not the first time we have seen her, Squirrel and I, but - it's something we have already talked about - each time we have the curious impression of discovering, as if for the first time, that, whatever one might think listening to her, nothing affects her.
Saturday. We have had a good swim and now we're in the sun, near our hut.
- It's the first of August today, announces Squirrel pensively.
I am somewhat surprised by the revelation:
- Yes, I know; what's so special about that?
She is still pensive:
- One month already...
- The holidays? There's still...
- A month and a half.
- Right enough; it's the eighteenth, I think.
- Well, that still leaves us time!
She doesn't answer. I insist:
- Why are you going on about that? About school...
- It isn't about school...
I am somewhat surprised again. Apparently I am not the only one, since a little voice can be heard, right beside us.
- Croak! the little voice has said.
Squirrel has smiled at the sound:
- Don't worry; school won't stop us from coming to see you!
Our neighbour the little green frog, which often comes to visit us in our hut, has hopped off merrily, happy with Squirrel's reassuring answer.
I have taken Squirrel's hand:
- We'll be together at school, just as we've always been!
She has squeezed my hand, gently, without saying anything.
Sunday. A pleasant lunch with my parents.
- We don't see much of you in the workshop these days! my father reproaches me, laughing.
- Fortunately he has more attractive things to do, my mother defends me, smiling.
I protest a little:
- I love woodwork; and I also love seeing furniture made that people will be able to use.
I go on, without really knowing why:
- At least then you know it has a purpose.
My mother seems somewhat surprised. I might almost say, as much as I am. My father just seems very satisfied with what I have said:
- Well, well! When can we call the business "Father & Son"?
I correct him, smiling:
- "Father, Mother & Son"!
Lunch continues in high good humour.
Four o'clock. We are with Field's cows, sitting on the grass in the middle of a little orchard full of plums. But it is August now and this time the plums are not only on the tree; there are also two lovely pies that Field's mother has made for our little gang.
- I've got a bit of problem with my chemistry... begins Miss Farmer.
- Oh no, not school stuff! cries Dishevelled straight away.
- What is it? breaks in Smiley; the one...
- Yes, the one I told you about...
- I don't get it either.
- Are we allowed to know what you're on about? Miss Miller tries to find out.
The two neighbours - their farms are quarter of an hour apart, at an easy walking pace along the tracks that pass between the fields - tell us. Like all of us, in the mornings they sometimes look back over their last year's schoolwork. Oh, it's not really a passion, but it's not disagreeable, when you feel like it, to glean some little fact that had stirred your curiosity. And chemistry always has something to do with the earth, more or less directly.
In no time at all we're all caught up. Everyone wants to see, to comment, to give advice, to protest. Have we achieved a result? I really couldn't say. But everyone is happy. And I'm sure we have learnt something.
The little girl has rushed over to Squirrel as soon as she saw her come in.
- Yes, yes... smiles Squirrel.
But she can't go any further because the other children have all started to talk at once in a babble in which it is impossible to make anything out. And the Polisher's aunt, who has just opened the door to us, thanks our little gang for having come to see her, saying words we cannot hear.
The little girl has rushed over to Squirrel as soon as she saw her come in.
- Yes, yes... smiles Squirrel.
But she can't go any further because the other children have all started to talk at once in a babble in which it is impossible to make anything out. And the Polisher's aunt, who has just opened the door to us, thanks our little gang for having come to see her, saying words we cannot hear.
The little girl tugs insistently on Squirrel's skirt and shows her a ball of wool of indefinable shape:
- It's the little cat!
And goes on, in a tone of voice that announces an important piece of news:
- It didn't go away!
And she confirms, to make sure the news has been fully understood:
- It's still here!
On closer inspection, there is no reason why the ball of wool should not resemble a little cat, especially, I believe, the little cat in the story Squirrel had told the little girl last Wednesday. One end of the wool, tied up with a ribbon, has made a bulge that could well be the little cat's head. A bit hanging out of the other end is the tail. And the four twigs stuck into the ball of wool must be the cute little thing's paws.
Squirrel has stroked the little cat and the little girl has gone to sit in a corner, pleased as punch, and is talking to her cat in a low voice...
The other children are not to be outdone. This one has drawn it, that one has modelled it in plasticine... the little cat is everywhere!
This afternoon our little gang has gone fishing. Of course, it is not as though our modest river would offer us a two-foot pike weighing three pounds, thrashing around at the end of the line or in the landing net. In fact, we don't even have a landing net. We have come to find ourselves a comfortable spot among the many meanders where we had been ten days or so ago. The fish, seeing that the river takes its time, are doing likewise. Bad mistake! We too have all the time in the world to catch them: roach, gudgeon and minnow.
The catch has been good, very good even; and we decide - the preparations had been made long ago, that is to say yesterday - to enjoy them on the spot.
- We need to get wood for the fire.
- We might need matches too... mentions Dishevelled.
- Didn't you bring them? asks Miss Farmer with a tinge of anxiety.
He looks a bit shamefaced:
- I forgot...
Reproaches all round:
- You said...
- It doesn't matter, I'll go and get some from the mill; it won't take a minute if I take the ford. I'll be back in a tick!
I tease him:
- What do you need matches for? Don't you know how to strike a flint?
- Course I do...
- That's that then! cries Miss Miller.
- ...but it takes a long time.
- Oh, our polisher should be able to help you there, he's had thousands of years' practice, exclaims Field.
- Ah, but they're not the same flints, you see, explains the man with thousands of years' practice with a knowing air.
- Some let their tongues run away with them, others their legs! smiles Smiley.
And she points at Squirrel, who is tearing back from the mill, a box of matches in her hand.
Dishevelled puts on his shamefaced look again and everybody laughs.
- Now we can go and get wood for the fire, he says, perking up.
There are always plenty of little branches under the trees and the twigs to start the fire are easily found.
- Here are four logs that will do nicely to grill our fish!
The Polisher shows us some rather large branches that he has brought from a little way further off.
- They'll give us embers that will keep long enough to make sure our fish are properly cooked, he adds with a smile.
To make embers you have to light a fire. Without setting the whole countryside alight, of course.
- The grass is very dry at the moment; we must be careful, warns Miss Farmer.
- There's no danger it we stay close to our rock, Field reassures her.
We are at the foot of the hill which begins with a steep slope from the top of which you can see up the valley nearly as far as our little town; it's a place we often come to. At the bottom of the slope there are some rocks which, like the trees, help us to climb the hill. It's in a hollow in one of the rocks that we generally make our fire.
The embers are glowing; the fish are cooking with a little sizzle that whets the appetite and it's not long before we're eating them. Miss Farmer has brought potatoes that we have left in their skins; coated in rock salt, I can see them wrinkling and darkening in the embers. The earthy savour of the potatoes mingles divinely with the exquisite taste of the fish. What could make a better meal?
- Don't tell me that it's uphill!
- Don't tell me later that it's downhill!
Dishevelled is teasing his sister, who is riding rather slowly up the slight but long slope - a good four miles.
Miss Miller is teasing her brother, who soon will be riding very fast down the slight but long slope - a good four miles.
This afternoon, we are riding - on our bikes, of course - to a nearby farmer; a good eight miles, then. Barely an hour on the main road that goes past Smiley's village. That is to say for us, the boys, because the girls, though they have other talents, take a little longer. But mostly we wanted to go on a good bike ride, so on the way back we'll be taking the small roads that wind through the hills.
A narrow, tree-lined approach and we reach the farm. It is much bigger than the two neighbours' or Field's. The vast fields and meadows all around are the farmer's property.
Here we are in the great farmyard - everything is big here. A duck pond, with ducks splashing around. A couple of hens scratching for worms. A noisy procession. What a din! Eighteen grey and white geese waddle past, screeching, under the orders of a little girl of about ten holding a light and supple switch.
What a hustle and bustle in the grass-covered farmyard! An old man in faded trousers with a hat on his head is unhurriedly leading four white oxen - just try and hurry an ox! - which are drawing a hay cart whose two wheels are higher than the beasts and the old man; they are about to enter the huge barn through a high, vaulted doorway. Near the barn, a black horse harnessed to a small, empty cart seems to be asleep. In front of him, a little girl is dragging a big-bellied, iron-hooped water-barrel mounted on wheels. Men and women cross the farmyard; a man has climbed up to the hayloft on a ladder.
It's not the first time I've been in a farmyard, or even that particular one, so why that impression today of incessant movement, of incessant life? The holidays, perhaps? The holidays, during which my own life moves on at a slower pace? But it's not the first time I've been on holiday either. I have grown up; is it real life coming closer to me, perhaps, even as the holidays recede from it? I don't know. The old goods wagon, half-hidden by the long grass of our little station, never moves; it is in that old wagon that Squirrel and I go on fabulous journeys.
The farmer we were going to - who we have come to, in fact - is standing before us. Dark suit, white shirt. The Polisher tells him he has come to change the joint in the tap. The farmer listens without a word, goes with him into the kitchen, watches attentively as he does the job, thanks him politely, remembers himself to the Polisher's father and leaves. So do we.
After lunch we go to meet up with Field, who is keeping his cows.
- They're very quiet; I don't think they need you! observes Dishevelled.
- The grass is good today; they're too busy grazing, explains Field.
- There's been fresh growth, what with the rain over the last few nights, confirms Miss Farmer.
- As long as it only rains at night we can keep on going out in the daytime, says the Polisher judiciously.
- It's been very hot this summer; the weather has to break sometimes, says Smiley.
- Especially now that all your wheat is in, notes Miss Miller.
- I see you're just waiting for your grain, jokes Squirrel.
- I'd rather wait for the pie!
- Well, come and fetch it with me, says Field, jumping up.
- Don't eat it all on the way back; we're fond of pie too, you know, smiles Smiley.
Two minutes there, a minute and a half back - it's downhill - and here we are again, slightly breathless but bearing Field's mother's two plum pies with us.
- It's not your cows that could come up with pies like that!
Dishevelled's analysis is accurate enough.
- I don't suppose your millstones could either.
Field's analysis is equally accurate.
- I'd say it would be more interesting to know which of you two would be able to make pies like that, smiles Smiley.
- Oh, it wouldn't be my brother at any rate; he doesn't even know where the kitchen is, Miss Miller informs us.
- Without me there wouldn't even be a pie, since I made the flour, replies the brother disdainfully.
In good faith we have to admit that we cannot disagree with this assertion; and, convinced, our little gang is prompt to express its gratitude:
- Thank you indeed, Master Miller!
The plum pie is only a memory. The Polisher has taken up Dishevelled's remark again:
- All the same, it's people and not cows that make pies.
- All the same, it's cows and not people that make milk, replies Miss Farmer.
That has made us laugh, though without slowing the joust. It's Field's turn to cross swords with the Polisher:
- If you go head to head with my cows, they'll say: "No milk, no plum pie"!
The argument is irrefutable. Everyone ponders.
Our neighbour the little green frog, who often drops in on us in our hut, informs us of its satisfaction; it has rained heavily during the night and the ground is still damp. Which is good news for the frog but a bit less so for us, because it's not so easy to dry off after swimming. No matter, the sun is hot. And in the end we go into our hut; the roof has been well-made, it's quite dry inside.
- We'll have to make another one next year.
Next year...? Oh, yes!
- A hut?
- Yes; the flood.
I propose a grandiose solution:
- We could build a big dam...
- And why not a big umbrella as well?
I keep up the game:
- That would be much harder to make.
She replies, deadpan:
- Whereas a dam...
- Too bad; we'll just have to make another hut!
We fall silent for a long moment. I look for other, less grandiose solutions.
- Do you remember those houses on stilts? There were pictures of them in our geography book, Squirrel asks me suddenly.
It does ring a bell:
- They're houses built over the water, I think.
- Yes, on piles.
It seems like a good idea:
- Ahah, I think you may have come up with something there! Do you think we should build a hut on stilts?
- No, a house; it's something that's been in my mind for a long time.
Seven thirty-three. The little train has left. The station for our old school is behind us. A change. Over an hour to wait. The little town? It might as well not be there. Squirrel and I walk through the orchards surrounded by woods, following the track of the little train. That's where my cousin's cousin - the one we were with last week - is due to come from. Then, after picking up my cousin on the way, the four of us will go to the city where my cousin goes to school. We will spend the day there, then go back to my cousin's for the night, his cousin continuing back to her house. Squirrel and I will go home tomorrow. It's good to know all the details of what you have to do, when it's straightforward.
The journey is spent in quiet and pleasant chat. With my cousin's cousin, it could hardly be otherwise. My cousin likes her and says - even in front of her - that it's restful, being with her. Does his cousin like that, does she dislike it? No-one has ever been able to find out, or even to guess.
The city. Its big station. Its very big station. They mustn't have known where to put it, so without so much as a by-your-leave it has barged right into the city centre, encumbering a quiet little square with its heavy canopy.
My cousin stops by his school on some errand or other. Who cares? I have no curiosity about such things and don't ask him. He is kind enough not to say anything about it either.
- It's big, the city, remarks the cousin's cousin in the middle of a little pause, even though we were talking about something else.
- That's what you say every time, remarks the cousin.
- You just don't know where to put yourself... everything looks the same.
- That's what I meant; and big or not, we've soon seen it all.
He adds, with a slightly mocking smile:
- Surprises are rare...
- In any case, you only come here for school.
- Hm! You've never said that to me before.
She doesn't seem to have heard:
- In my town I know where to put myself; but there's only one place.
She adds, with a slightly mocking smile:
- It's not very big, my town.
I am surprised:
- Don't you ever go out into the country?
- It's a long way...
Her answer was immediate, but her usual calm voice was just as calm as usual.
After a moment's silence, my cousin suggests a walk:
- Let's go down to the river.
His cousin has inclined her head, probably in approval.
The river is a real one, not like the one where we caught the pike with Squirrel's cousin, a month ago.
- It'll never reach the sea, this river, jokes my cousin after we have been walking for a few minutes, it's too slow.
His cousin has slowed her steps and is watching the river. Then she carries on, without saying anything. The walk continues in silence. I declare, in order to say something:
- Oh, it has no reason to hurry!
Squirrel remarks in a reassuring voice, the sort you put on when a disaster is looming:
- It has to obey my geography book, which says that rivers flow into the sea.
My cousin has giggled, his cousin has said nothing.
Ten past ten. Squirrel and I left my cousin's three-quarters of an hour ago. Change. Two hours and twenty minutes to wait before the little train comes to take us home. Wait? Oh no, not us! We're off, on foot, along the track!
- Not the ten fifteen in any case, grumbles Squirrel; it would be quite capable of dropping us off in the schoolyard!
- Wait until it's left, then we won't have to worry, there are no more trains on the line.
In any case it wouldn't have done us any good to take the train, it wasn't going any further.
So where are we going then? To the next station, that's all. And why? Because the track runs alongside a pleasant river that stretches its way through the meadows. And what else? We have brought the makings of a fine meal with us: tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, peaches, biscuits... What about catching the train? We will have more than enough time in hand; it's only an hour's walk and we have much longer than that.
- I'll have an egg first, says Squirrel, to whom I was offering a tomato.
- And I'll have a tomato!
And we laugh, for no reason, sitting in the grass beside the river.
Monday. Our little gang has met up by the stream that goes from the station to Miss Farmer's.
- There we are! I really like it here!
Dishevelled's proclamation has made us all smile.
- Here or there? Smiley has said with a smile.
Dishevelled does not bat an eyelid.
- Everywhere! he has answered solemnly.
- Oh! that puts a new light on the question Squirrel brought up a few days ago; it means you like being where you don't like being! points out Field quickly.
- Absolutely! If that's what I like!
Dishevelled's riposte makes us smile again.
Our smiles vanish at Squirrel's curt question.
- Why...? stammers the Polisher.
- Squirrel asked why we liked to walk down by the mill, Miss Farmer reminds us.
- Yes, that's just what I remember too, confirms Miss Miller.
- Because the fish were good! exclaims the Polisher.
- Allow me to point out that on the day Squirrel asked the question we hadn't caught anything at all.
He sighs regretfully:
- That's true...
Then perks up:
- It's Squirrel's fault; she didn't give enough thought to her question.
We wait for an explanation. After leaving us dangling for a moment, he goes, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world:
- She should have waited for a day when we went fishing!...
- You may not be entirely wrong, intervenes Smiley; here, near the stream where we're sitting...
She does not know how to go on. Miss Farmer comes to her assistance:
- I like it here near the stream...
- You're at home here, breaks in Dishevelled.
- In our town, I know people who don't like it here.
We sit silently for a minute.
- I'll catch a fish, announces the Polisher, trying to sound convincing; that way, we'll have a good reason to like it here.
- You can find fish everywhere, and catch as many as you like, declares Miss Miller; we were happy enough to eat them together the other day, we liked that.
- And why are we happy here? observes Field; we see each other often enough elsewhere.
- Do you remember the day when we got our exam results? asks Squirrel.
- Why do you say that? says Dishevelled, surprised.
- I remember! exclaims Miss Farmer; we were here, under the tree...
- ...and we had all passed our exams, goes on the Polisher.
- Happy memories... finishes Smiley.
This afternoon, while our group was lazing about beside the river, near the mill where cloth is fulled to make it firmer and faster, and more importantly where we grill the fish we have caught, an idea has come to us. Why not put on a puppet show for the children that the Polisher's aunt looks after?
- First we have to choose the characters, declares the Polisher.
- I believe there is always a goody and a baddy, says Dishevelled.
Everyone seems to be of the same opinion. Animated discussion over the choice of a goody and a baddy, suddenly interrupted by Squirrel:
- What if we did a puppet show without a baddy?
- No-one will understand... starts Field.
- That's right, because usually... goes on Miss Miller.
- Little children don't know what usual is, breaks in Squirrel, unless they're told.
- She's right, nods Smiley; usual is what we're taught.
- So does that mean you learn better when you don't have a usual? asks Miss Farmer.
- You can write better on a blank piece of paper than on one already full of words.
- Right enough! Dishevelled supports me enthusiastically; on your piece of paper, no-one will be able to read either what was there before or what came after!
Everyone seems to agree. Animated discussion over the choice of a goody and a goody. The Polisher frets:
- It's not going to be easy; if both of them are goodies, what will they do?
The question remains unanswered for a while. In the end Smiley speaks up:
- Goodies are the ones who are good, obedient, who don't bother the others; if you don't need them, you don't even notice them.
She pauses for a moment:
- And they won't be noticed either if we turn them into characters.
No-one says anything. She adds, hesitantly:
She searches for words:
- I think...
- I think what you mean is: "You notice them if you love them".
Smiley gives Squirrel a great big smile:
- Yes, that's exactly what I mean!
Our little gang is smiling. Dishevelled sums up our contentment:
- Our characters will be like us; and only those who want to will watch!
Good humour has been restored. The Polisher says mockingly:
- Nice work, Dishevelled! He's discovered that those who don't want to won't watch!
Field tempers Dishevelled's declaration slightly:
- As for supposing that we are good and obedient...
Miss Farmer nods:
- Let's just hope we don't bother the others without meaning to.
A silence follows, broken by the Polisher's emphatic exclamation:
- Right then, what about these characters, eh?
The little gang puts on its thinking cap.
- We need a story too, Smiley tells us.
The little gang puts on its thinking cap.
- One child wants to take back a toy that another child has taken from it, suggests Dishevelled.
- No, there isn't to be a baddy! scolds his sister.
He assumes a slightly downcast air:
- If they just play together there can't be a story; nothing will happen.
- They play together, that's what happens, Miss Farmer corrects him.
- That's not a story; it doesn't go anywhere, argues Field.
- Why does a story have to go somewhere?
- So that there's a sense of expectation, answers the Polisher.
- When you listen to music, do you look forward to the end?
- Yes, he retorts with a laugh, if I don't like the music!
We all chuckle.
- When it's break time, you look forward to going back into school, says Dishevelled sarcastically
We all chuckle a bit more. Squirrel goes on:
- We were saying yesterday that we liked being beside the stream because that's where we talked about passing our exams.
She pauses for a moment:
- Nothing happened that day, and yet we tell each other the memory of it.
- Something did happen: our exams, replies Field.
- No, I mean the moment when we had already had our results; and it's that moment we were remembering yesterday.
The little gang puts on its thinking cap.
- Yes, but that was our business! observes Dishevelled.
- And if it's other people's business and not just ours, does that mean that we too shouldn't notice them? retorts Smiley.
- And you can add, goes on Miss Farmer with heat, that we should never talk about people but only about things!
- What do you mean? inquires Miss Miller, somewhat surprised.
- If you don't talk about feelings, all you can talk about is things, replies the Polisher.
- Can't you talk about the things people do? insists Miss Miller.
- You can, but that would be to reduce people simply to their functions, points out Smiley.
- And a function is only ever a thing, adds the Polisher.
- And yet it's true that when we speak of a butcher or a doctor, we have no idea what sort of person they are, or what their feelings are.
The little gang puts on its thinking cap.
I try to summarise the situation:
- Right, so we prefer to talk about people and their feelings even if they don't do anything.
- Absolutely; provided, of course, that we can find people who are interested in people, says Dishevelled in a rather sceptical tone of voice.
A silence, hardly any less sceptical.
- Our puppet show is for little children, Miss Farmer reminds us.
We wait for her to go on.
- So?... says Field impatiently.
Miss Farmer hesitates:
- If what we do is too complicated...
- Well, why not give what our puppets do a goal? says Field.
- We've still got to find one, points out Smiley.
- And without a baddy, Miss Miller reminds us.
- One child tries to stop another child from doing something naughty, suggests Dishevelled.
- One child tries to do better than the others, suggests the Polisher almost at the same time.
The two ideas seem to satisfy the little gang. And yet...
- So a goal can only be achieved by fighting... remarks Squirrel thoughtfully.
- How can you achieve a goal without fighting? Field asks her.
She remains thoughtful for a moment:
- What a shame to have to fight someone else in order to achieve a goal...
We all remain thoughtful. Squirrel's eyes suddenly light up:
- You can achieve a goal without having to fight anyone!
She goes on excitedly, without giving us time to react:
- Mummy swallow tells daddy swallow that she's soon going to lay eggs. Quickly, daddy and mummy swallow build a nest; they have to be quick otherwise the eggs will break. Almost as soon as the nest is finished, mummy swallow lays her eggs!
The story has won over our little gang.
- We can use rags to make the swallows, suggests Miss Farmer.
- They have to fly! exclaims Smiley.
- Make them beat their wings! teases Dishevelled.
- Oh yes! cries his sister, as though she had found the idea to be a good one.
But she goes on pertly:
- And you'll make the mechanism, of course!
Her brother searches for an answer but finds none. The Polisher steps in:
- It's dead easy; I'll provide what you need.
Stifling a smile, he continues in a serious tone of voice:
- You take a stick and you fix a movable hook to it. Then you take some fine thread, fine enough not to be seen, and under the wings you fix...
- It won't work! cuts in Dishevelled, who has been listening like a star pupil in class.
- What do you mean? says the Polisher with surprise, not seeing the trap.
- The wings move.
- So you stop them!
- You can't!
- What do you mean? You just haven't understood...
- I may not have done but the swallow has, and flew off a long time ago!
We all laugh. Except the Polisher. But even he joins in in the end.
Field has grasped the idea:
- Without all these interesting complications, we can still attach the swallows to the end of a straight stick.
And we all know how to make the nest; and there's no shortage of twigs. I offer to take care of the eggs:
- We'll make the eggs out of wood!
Tomorrow, we'll go and tell all that to the Polisher's aunt.
- Tell me the story about the little cat!
The little girl, round-faced, quiet and pleasant, has caught Squirrel's skirt and is tugging it gently.
I am surprised; Squirrel already told the story about the little cat two weeks ago. Has the little girl forgotten it, or does she want another story about another little cat? No, she is insistent, it is indeed that story that she wants from Squirrel, who seems not the least bit surprised. Without waiting any longer, she begins:
- Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a little cat. The little cat loved the little girl and the little girl loved the little cat...
The little girl listens attentively, as if it were the first time she was hearing the story. Anxiety, joy, all the emotions are there. The other children have come over and are listening in the same way. The story ends. Squirrel turns to me and says in a low voice:
- Children love to be told stories they already know.
So that's what it was! I smile:
- For children, it's called repeating something; at school, it's called studying a work in depth!
- That's right, she says, smiling likewise.
We are on the fairground, in front of the Polisher's aunt's house. The children have gone off to play. They are not the only ones here. Other children, of all ages, the tots with their mothers, who are knitting and chatting with each other, sitting quietly on the wooden benches in the shade of the horse chestnut trees that are starting to turn brown, enjoying the coolness of the water that gushes from an old-fashioned swing pump. The children's cries and games fill the fairground with life and movement. Some are taking part in a magnificent bicycle race, others are tossing marbles in quest of a fabulous victory, this one is taking a swing up to dizzy heights, that one is playing keepy-uppy with a red football, another one is running until he is completely out of breath...
We have told the Polisher's aunt about our idea for a puppet show and she was delighted.
This morning, Squirrel and I are going to see a cousin of mine who lives in a town not very far away, but which the trains only go to when they feel like it. That may be a slight exaggeration, but the fact is that for a lunch and an afternoon together, my aunt will have to take us to the town where our new school is so that we can catch the train. True, it's not far, only twenty minutes by car, but all the same...
I am perhaps a little harsh, because an excellent train - well, three trains actually, including our own little train - leaves us without mishap on the platform of the station where my cousin is waiting for us.
At this point in my text I went to see Squirrel.
- Leaves or leave? I asked her.
- I don't know. Why don't you just put "On arrival, we get down from the train"?
And as I was trying to protest, she added:
- Put it in the plural, since there are two of us!
And as I was again trying to protest, she added:
- The train can't leave us, in the singular or the plural...
- It's a rhetorical device, I broke in.
Our English teacher had explained the term to us, though I must confess that neither Squirrel nor I had been able to make head or tail of his explanation. But my, isn't it stylish!
- However that may be, continues Squirrel imperturbably, the train simply can't do what you say it does.
She clearly expects me to ask why.
- Because the train, as we defined it yesterday, is a thing and therefore cannot have feel...
She did not manage to finish her sentence, because we were both already spluttering with laughter.
So there we are, on the platform of the station where my cousin is waiting for us.
She is pleased to see us. She gives us a hug and we leave. I know she is pleased to see us, but if I didn't know I could almost doubt the fact, she is so calm, showing nothing more than a quiet, I might even say unchanging, smile.
So we leave. Having arrived at quarter past eleven, we have plenty of time before lunch because my cousin's house is only a twenty-minute stroll from the station. We leave the house and enter a pretty little square. Oh! I meant to say we left the station. But it's hard not to think of a house when you see the fine arches holding up what I presume to be the station master's apartments, which certainly look comfortable enough. And the station, since I must call it that, has such calm proportions, as calm, I might say, as my cousin's smile.
Another rhetorical device? The whole town resembles my cousin's calm smile. Ahead of us, a wide, airy street. Yes, airy is the right word, because you can feel the air. Light-coloured houses, not very big, homes for people to feel happy in. Yes, I know, happiness isn't only something shut up in a house, but a home is not a thing of indifference. Here is another house, which watches us go by with, I would say, benevolence. This time the house is large, very large. Yes, it is a mansion. In which I feel it is good to live. A belfry that goes with it. A tower, white, impassive. A road that runs along a river with grassy banks, as though the town had offered itself a short holiday. A large hospice, ready to welcome anyone in need of comfort. The calm has not left the town. It is as though it were turning its back on the upsets that modern times so often bring in their wake.
Over the river, a broad and light street that splits into two, like an old-fashioned fork. In the angle formed by the two roads, a house. A house whose walls join almost at the point where the two streets fork. I almost said the two roads, such is the way they disappear into the distance. Is the house there to wish those leaving on a journey good speed? And, like each time we come here, as soon as Squirrel and I go in we feel that the smile of welcome bestowed on us by my aunt and uncle is also part of the house.
We take the street to the left, after the house. It is not very wide; it climbs easily up the hill, without haste, straight on. It is one of the oldest streets in the town. The people have been living in it for a long time. The past is still alive.
There is a little shop in the street, not very far away. The window is framed in old wood. Long tubes of glass on the wall behind the door dance when you enter, a cheerful tune that no pen has composed.
Inside the shop a young girl is serving a customer and an older woman is assiduously advising another customer who is trying to decide between the two ribbons in her hand.
There are ribbons everywhere in the shop, and balls of wool too. And needles, in their little black packets, and pins in their little red cardboard boxes, and knitting needles in unreal, almost translucent colours. Buttons. An invasion of buttons! Square, round, triangular - really? - concave, convex, flat, of no shape; made of wood, of copper, of anything and everything. Cloth buttons and mere forms. The forms are there for you to cover yourself, as you please. And so many other things... Gold and silver thread, for example.
The shop? It's a haberdashery. The older woman is my aunt. We embrace. It's time to close. We go down to the house.
- Have you been busy in the workshop this summer? asks my uncle.
- There were orders for September.
- Work for you then?
- Yes, I like woodwork.
He smiles with satisfaction:
- It's good, a business that stays in the family.
We eat in silence. My aunt is assiduous. The traditional pork pie is as good as always.
- Have you been busy in the workshop this summer? my uncle asks Squirrel.
- Yes, we had orders for September too.
He nods, several times:
- It's good, your both being busy.
We eat in silence. My aunt is assiduous. The traditional almond cake is as good as always.
My uncle turns to Squirrel:
- You're a hard worker, it's good.
Lunch over, my cousin takes Squirrel and me for a walk. We have to leave again at around five, so we have about four hours ahead of us.
A calm stroll in the calm streets. I know that a stroll is calm by definition, but in this case I couldn't help adding that it was so. Calm is an institution here. And a pleasant one, indeed. For a while. I believe our English teacher would call a calm stroll a pleonasm. I hope I'm not wrong. I'll ask Squirrel later. If I remember.
- Look! cries Squirrel, breaking the calm.
My cousin ought to have jumped, but it's not in her habits.
What's happening? While crying out, Squirrel has pointed to a shop window. It is indeed a curious spectacle. What can I see in the window? A little girl. Nothing unusual about that. Although I can't make out whether it's a real little girl, like those that play in playgrounds, or a dummy showing off a blouse or a skirt. How come I can't...? Something incredible is happening, before my very eyes, which can't believe what they're seeing! There's a bus behind the glass, inside the shop. Yes, that's right, a bus. It's going to run over the little girl - or the dummy - I don't know which! And while that's going on two boys are running... through the bus. And to cap it all - I don't know what I'm saying any more - a large house is looming up in the window! So what?...
- It's funny, the reflection, Squirrel cries again, it's as though the bus was in the window!
Yes, I too had seen that it was only a reflection. My cousin has smiled calmly.
Our walk ends along the banks of the pretty river that runs through the town and its orchards. We chat, sitting in the shade of a tree. My cousin tells us about her everyday life, her next school; she asks us to tell her about our everyday life, our next school... A restful conversation, with no sharp edges. A pleasant conversation, yes, really pleasant. My cousin is nice, yes, really nice.
- There you are at last!
- A joint on a tap was holding out on me.
- Did you get the better of it?
- It won't be coming back again!
The Polisher has just arrived, pedalling hard. He is a bit late and I was quick to let him know it. It's entirely useless, of course, but it does liven up the proceedings.
Smiley and Miss Farmer, who had arrived a little earlier, have already propped their bikes up against Squirrel's house and, our little gang now complete, we can leave.
Off we go to the mill where cloth is fulled to make it firmer and faster. We follow the river - on foot of course.
The catch was good; the fire took without giving us any trouble, the fish were well grilled, the potatoes well cooked and we ate it all burning hot.
- Now, time for a nap!
Dishevelled's unexpected proposal makes us laugh.
- You can sleep if you want, we're going up the hill!
And we climb, as always with the help of the trees.
However, the Polisher's counter-proposal has not amused Miss Miller, who comments, as usual, hanging on to a big branch:
- We were nice and comfy, down there...
Here we are at the top of the hill, from which you can see up the valley almost as far as our little town and where we often come to sit on the grass and chat.
- I'm not hungry any more, says Dishevelled evenly.
- Fascinating, says Field evenly.
- More so than you might think. It explains why I like being here.
- My cousin would have told you, not for the first time, that you appreciate the beauty of the landscape.
- You can't eat a beautiful landscape, and you can't live without eating; so I like being where I eat.
Field, like the rest of us, doesn't know what to say to that so we sit in silence, appreciating the beauty of the landscape.
- Three weeks ago, I think, Squirrel asked us why we like to come here, says Smiley after a while.
- Yes, adds Miss Farmer, and we talked about it again last Monday.
- Perhaps the answer lies in being hungry, suggests Squirrel.
Smiley goes on:
- You may not be able to eat a beautiful landscape, but you can eat what is in the landscape.
- You mean that if we find a field of wheat beautiful it's because wheat is something we eat? observes Miss Miller.
- And very good it is too! adds Miss Farmer.
- Just like fish! says Dishevelled with a grin.
- So Squirrel's right, it's hunger that... starts Smiley.
- Food isn't the only thing... interrupts Field.
- Squirrel was thinking of everything that gives us life.
After a moment's thought...
- Does the blue of the sky give us life? asks the Polisher.
Everyone searches for an answer. He adds, as though it were a commonplace:
- Of course, the blue of the sky is how we see air, as we learnt in Physics.
He goes on:
- And as we need to breathe, we like blue...
- ...the blue of my bicycle, for example!
We say nothing.
- Of course, one might suppose...
Miss Miller has not finished her sentence.
- ...that the blue of the Polisher's bicycle... continues Dishevelled.
He does not finish either.
- What excellent reasoning, says Miss Farmer sarcastically.
- ...makes us think of the blue of the sky, finishes up Field.
- Not a bit of it; it's the Polisher's bicycle that has fed us, by bringing the potatoes, smiles Smiley.
Today, our little group of friends are all going about their own business. Smiley and Miss Farmer are needed on the farm, the cows are calling Field, the mill wheel has decided not to turn until Dishevelled has looked after it, Miss Miller's mother has asked her daughter to help in the house, while the taps will keep on leaking unless the Polisher is there to talk sense into them. Squirrel and I have also spent the morning helping our respective fathers and mothers in their workshops. Lunch was a family affair, and two hours later Squirrel and I were racing fish. Now here we are in the sun near our hut.
- We still have another three years of school to go.
Squirrel has said the words in a pensive tone of voice.
- Why do you say that?
She does not answer immediately. I ask:
- Are you thinking about afterwards?
- So are you.
Yes, it's true that we have sometimes talked about...
- You'll go and work with your father...
She breaks off:
- You remember: "Father, Mother & Son"?
- I remember; it was the first of August.
She says nothing. After a moment I go on:
- Are you thinking about the sewing workshop?
- Yes; it could make covers for your armchairs.
- My father has them made...
She cuts in:
- I know what your father does...
I cut in:
- Do you want your workshop to make them?
She has hardly let me finish:
- Our workshop!
Our workshop... I have understood:
- Our workshop - you and me?
- We could make covers for all our furniture!
- Yes, for those that have covers.
- Of course!
- We could come up with new ideas, patterns of our own...
- And offer them to customers.
She has stopped on her 'yes', as though waiting...
Sunday. Our workshops, Squirrel's and mine, are of course closed. Oh no they're not! They're up and running... They're even running enthusiastically, and with staff of incomparable quality!
- Oh, I'm not so sure about that! tempers Squirrel.
- Hush! It's to buck up...
- Why? Are you bucked down? Dishevelled interrupts me with a smile.
- Get back to your wing instead of talking nonsense; it doesn't hold fast, Miss Farmer teases him.
She holds out a swallow, not yet really capable of flying properly.
A swallow? It is of course the puppet we're making for the show we're going to put on for the children the Polisher's aunt looks after. And a magnificent swallow it is too! Dark blue satin material, stuffed with cotton... How elegant!... It would fly swiftly, if only the seam on its right wing had not been sewn too loosely. Who was responsible for that? Shhh...
There: one swallow, ready to fly away! Next, please...
- Make sure you sew the seams properly!
That is the one who had sewn them too loosely, now giving advice to the one about to sew the next set. We laugh. This one is the daddy swallow; he needs to fly properly otherwise there won't be enough twigs to make the nest. Of course, mummy swallow will do what she can, but it's always better when there are two.
- That's right, Squirrel has whispered.
The swallows will have no problem seeing where they are going; each one has two pretty little black beads for eyes.
The work is done, at least in Squirrel's workshop. Now it's time for mine, for the things made of wood.
Of wood? That's the eggs. And it's not easy! How do swallows manage to make them so well?
- They lay hard eggs, your swallows! laughs Dishevelled.
- Take some! You won't have to cook them! jokes the Polisher
This afternoon, we're going round to the Polisher's and then for a walk in the woods, where the leaves are already beginning to turn.
- It'll be autumn in a month's time, says Miss Farmer with a tinge of nostalgia.
I correct her, without any great enthusiasm:
- A little more than a month.
But even that extension is not enough to bring joy to the assembled company.
- You mean it's the holidays that come to an end in a month's time, points out Miss Miller.
Dishevelled adds, as thought to ward off the evil:
- Day for day!
Five of us have met up at Field's and we have decided to follow the river to the little bridge near Smiley's, where she will join us, with the Polisher. On the way we will have picked up Smiley, where the river meets the stream along which she will have come. And from there, our little gang being complete, we will head over towards the polishing stone, where we like to sit and talk.
We're off! Squirrel and I have crossed at the ford and now we are at Field's, where Dishevelled and his sister are already waiting for us. A little further on, we go down towards the river which, after passing under the railway bridge, trickles its way - is there even a slope at that point? - towards Miss Farmer's stream. The six of us set off. A mill. Now the river is running alongside the railway track. And a good thing too, because for about four hundred paces it isn't easy to follow the river on account of the water that spreads out all around, invading the meadows. And since the track is nearby... we take the train, which passed about quarter of an hour ago. Back to the river. And here is the little bridge near Smiley's. And here is Smiley herself. And the Polisher too, whose village is not much further off. The river has turned into a stream, which we follow as far as the wood. And here at last is the polishing stone.
Settled comfortably on the grass, we talk about this and that. It is restful for the mind when thoughts take wing before speech is complete. But suddenly the Polisher asks a question. Is that a thing to do when you're chatting idly near a sleeping polishing stone? To tell the truth, I have no idea, nor do I really care to find out. And yet it is precisely about the polishing stone that the Polisher wants to talk.
- Why keep on coming here, since he will never come back?
Polisher's question comes at a time when no-one is really there. Slowly we drift back.
- It's 'why do we like' again... starts Miss Miller, a bit dopily.
- Not at all! You just don't listen, do you? he says sharply.
The Polisher is wide awake, no doubt about that.
- Well, don't beat about the bush, tell us what you mean, demands Miss Farmer.
- You're the one who should know, since you are he, declares Field.
- And it's a great pleasure for us to come and see you, affirms Dishevelled.
- Boys, boys! All that, just because you can't answer the question, concludes Smiley.
- What do you mean, boys, boys! I didn't say anything!
- Ah, if no-one ever says anything...
- Why keep on reading old books, since they'll never come back again? asks Squirrel calmly.
Dishevelled has hardly opened his mouth before she replies:
- No, the authors.
Our little gang, wide awake now, is plunged in thought.
- It was really nice, not doing anything... says Miss Miller with a tinge of regret.
Her thought joins the others in their plunge.
- We read books in order to learn things, offers Miss Farmer.
- We can learn them just as well in more recent books, argues Field.
- In recent books, like books of our time, we could get the impression that they're talking about us, suggests Smiley.
- Do you think books talk only about you? Dishevelled teases her.
- I said us! she protests.
- Ah, so they talk about me too! Now everyone knows who I am! he laughs.
- And there you have it! exclaims the Polisher, in the voice of a researcher who has just made a discovery of equally universal interest. That's why we like old books: because they don't talk about you!
- I could point out, answers Dishevelled with dignity, that old books don't talk about you either.
- What do you mean? explodes the Polisher; the whole of world literature has been singing my praises for over ten thousand years!
Our little gang - including Dishevelled, please note! - is bound to accept the truth of his argument.
- Was that fun, you two? asks Miss Farmer, impassively.
- Yes, for us! answers Dishevelled, impassively.
We can't help laughing.
- What were we talking about? inquires Miss Miller innocently.
- Why do we take an interest in the past? announces Squirrel coldly.
A rustle of uncertainty runs through the group.
- That is, assuming we still are interested in it, she adds in a neutral tone of voice.
A rustle of uncertainty runs through the group.
- Break's over; back to work, the teacher's calling us, warns Field, assuming an obedient air.
Some laugh, some protest. I go on, trying to be as serious as possible:
- Smiley suggested that the books of our time talk about us.
I turn towards her:
- What about old books?
She takes her time:
- Perhaps because they don't talk about us.
She goes on:
- I know, it's a bit silly to say that; what I meant is that they talk about other people than us.
- The books of our time also talk about other people than us, points out Miss Farmer.
- Yes, acknowledges Smiley, but we know we'll never see them again.
- But it can't be enough that someone will never come back again to want to know them, argues Miss Miller.
- The people of the past have spoken; perhaps that's what we would like to know, declares the Polisher.
- Know their lives, adds Field.
- Know another life than the one we already know, adds Smiley.
- Are the trees like those who will never come back again? asks Squirrel after a while.
- The trees? says Dishevelled with surprise.
He is not the only one to show surprise. She goes on:
- The trees have never spoken, and yet they have taught us the existence of another life.
- So it's people who have never spoken that we would like to know, conjectures Miss Farmer.
- Well, we do know one! exclaims Dishevelled, only half in joke.
Everyone laughs; it's more restful to laugh than to wear yourself out thinking.
- Tell us about your past life, o ancient Polisher, Field summons him ceremoniously.
The Polisher answers gravely:
- I polished, and polished, and polished...
Dishevelled raises his arms heavenward:
- Is it really for that that we want to know someone from the past?
He goes on:
- And it's true, what our Polisher told us; we've all read it in our books!
We say nothing for a long while.
- It's his life, not ours, observes Squirrel at last.
The Polisher assumes an offended air:
- That's how it is: now I'm rejected!
She hastens to reassure him, showing him - as we all do - the greatest marks of friendship.
He gives us a broad smile:
- In that case I'll stay with you and not go back to polishing stones in days long gone by!
We show him all the gratitude his courageous decision deserves.
When calm has been restored, Squirrel goes on pensively:
- Perhaps we would like to live a life in another time; a time that is no more, a time of which people have never spoken.
And she adds softly:
Seven thirty-three a.m. The little train has left.
- I almost feel sad, says Squirrel slowly.
- That it's not going to school?
- Yes; we won't have to get off...
The train has gathered speed - though not much, it's true.
- Oh, there's your uncle!
Squirrel has seen my uncle, whose farm is not far from the track; his cows make blobs of white around him.
A small town. The station is right by the road that goes over the track. Who is that running fit to bust? It's one of our classmates from school! He jumps into the train just as it's setting off again.
- Going to school?
He hadn't seen us and, surprised by my question, he turns round.
- Ah, it's you, the twins!
And, without even pausing to draw breath:
- To school? Oh, no!
He does not ask us what we are doing there but launches out into a detailed explanation of how to make a pork pie. His father is a butcher and he is not going back to school but will stay and work with his father.
Eight o'clock. We reached the town where we used to go to school a couple of minutes ago. The train leaves, our classmate stays. Jumping out, he called back:
- Come and see me sometime, and try some of my pork pie!
Perhaps I should say where we are going.
First of all, we're going to pick up my cousin who lives near the bridge that people come from all over the world to see; he will already be waiting for us on the platform. And the train, after a long journey and even a change in the city where we were with my cousin ten days or so ago, will take us to another, equally big city. Where we will spend the afternoon. My cousin has an errand to run, then we'll go for a walk. On the way back, we'll stay the night at his house - there are no trains back to ours at that time - and return home the following morning.
Towers, towers everywhere. Huge great towers. And between them, walls. And apart from that, nothing. No-one lives there, they just come to goggle. From all over the world.
The cousin's errand does not take long. We walk along the banks of the river that runs alongside the towers. A river as wide as the towers are big. And yet the river is not a major river, even if tries to look like one. It flows into the major river a little further on, the one that runs through the other city, which must be consolation of a sort. We walk.
Ten ten a.m. The same change as on Sunday, ten days or so ago. And, as on that occasion, in order not to kick our heels waiting at the station for two long hours, plus an extra twenty-two minutes, we walk along the track to the following station on the line taken by the little train that will bring us back home. On the way, we will find ourselves a spot in the grass beside the pleasant river and have a good picnic. The track is free, the ten fifteen only runs on Sundays and it's Wednesday today.
So here we are, sitting in the grass beside the pleasant, lazy river; as lazy as we are this morning.
Our picnic? Not to be scorned. For the journey, my aunt has given us bread and cheese from a nearby farm, a nice juicy cucumber and a couple of pears, fresh from the orchard.
- People who live in cities always go for walks beside rivers or in parks, says Squirrel, sounding surprised.
- Why are you so surprised?
- Why live in a city if you go for walks in the countryside?
Now it's my turn to be surprised:
- People don't just go walking in cities!
She shakes her head:
- Nor do we, we don't always go for walks in our little town.
She adds, without giving me time to answer:
- Smiley, Miss Farmer and the Polisher don't even live in a town.
- Never mind a city!
We say nothing for a while. Does the river prefer to run through town or country?
- Country! asserts Squirrel imperiously.
- Are you sure?
- How do you know?
- It can flood in the country.
- Our hut is in the country in our little town.
- And we have to rebuild it every year.
- It's tiresome.
She goes on:
- But we like our hut.
We have finished the bread, cheese and cucumber; time for the pears.
- We get lots of things from the city.
- The city gets lots of things from the country, replies Squirrel.
- Our next school is in a city.
- Not everyone goes to it, she remarks.
- We prefer the country, but we will go to school in the city.
- In the polisher's day there weren't any cities, goes on Squirrel.
- And yet people didn't live alone.
- They polished...
- Were they alone when they were polishing?
- More alone than in a city.
A long silence.
- Do you think you can't be alone in a city? she asks.
- A little green frog is never alone when it's with another little green frog.
Thursday. Chemistry. What do you mean, Chemistry? We're on holiday, aren't we? "Corn and cows care not for holidays", was Smiley's answer to Dishevelled when he expressed surprise - jokingly, as is his wont - at the idea of a lesson, which we are attending studiously, sitting in a ring under the tree by the stream near Miss Farmer's.
The summer has been hot and for some time now the leaves on the trees on the hills have gradually been losing their softness. The corn has given way to slowly drying earth. The meadows, those - the majority - that have come to dwell around the water of the streams and rivers, have kept a shade of green, albeit a little pale sometimes, that can still entice the cows to some agreeable grazing. And our alder tree, its thirst quenched by the stream, has preserved, unlike the trees on the hills, that hospitable aspect which so often invites us to come and take advantage of its welcoming shade.
The chemistry lesson isn't really a chemistry lesson, but rather a stroll through anything that has to do with the earth. And protests can be heard within our little gang. Smiley is cross:
- It's all very scientific to speak in chemical formulae and have us believe that what's chemical isn't natural.
- As if the earth belonged to the scientists, approves Miss Farmer.
- Even the lead in our Polisher's pipes comes from the earth, adds Field.
- It's just a shame pipes don't come out of the earth fully formed, jokes the piping specialist.
Our little gang is still up in arms.
- I'm not going to learn any more formulae! decides Dishevelled.
- Thank heavens for that; that way I won't have to help you learn them any more, his sister congratulates him.
The moderate rapture with which her brother greets this prospect makes us all smile. We sit there for a while, watching the stream flow by.
- The earth has its life...
Squirrel has left her sentence in suspense. She goes on pensively:
- People stop it from living the way it wants to.
Nobody knows what to say. Except Dishevelled.
- And do we allow it to live the way we want it to?
- The stream doesn't go where it wants to, it goes where the slope tells it to.
Field holds a similar opinion:
- And the grass tells my cows to graze it.
- But people haven't let the grass grow the way it wants to, points out Miss Miller.
- Nor have people let your cows grow the way they want to, adds the Polisher.
- Cows don't grow like grass... starts Miss Farmer.
- It's your fault, I don't know what I'm saying!
Smiley takes up the game:
- Just sow them around your polishing stone and see how they grow then!
- You'd be surprised to see how they did; but they wouldn't grow like the ones on your farm!
- The most important thing is that they give good milk, jokes Dishevelled.
- That's the question; which milk would you prefer? Field asks him.
- No hesitation; yours, as long as your mother makes us custard with it!
- How many gallons of milk a day do you give? asks the Polisher earnestly.
- I keep a bit for the custard; otherwise, I give my customers everything my cows provide, answers Field with aplomb.
Squirrel does not seem to have been listening to this witty conversation:
- There isn't only one sort of grass in a meadow; the cows can choose.
- What are we allowed to choose?
Unsurprisingly, nobody seems to find this an easy question.
- Of course we can make a plan, like they tell us at school... offers Smiley.
I break in:
- I never know how to do them!
I have seen Squirrel give me a knowing glance.
- Yes, a table!... goes on Miss Miller.
- With what we are allowed to do on the right... continues Miss Farmer.
- And we'll never have enough space on the left! concludes Dishevelled.
A short pause.
- And what if it was true? says the Polisher with a slight hesitation.
Another short pause.
- How do we know what we are allowed to do? asks Field.
- And above all what we're not allowed to do! insists Dishevelled.
- When we're not allowed to do something somebody tells us, replies Miss Miller.
- Who? asks the Polisher.
- I don't know... our parents, teachers...
- And how do they know what we are allowed to do or not to do?
A silence follows my question.
- According to what we're told, it's experience... supposes Miss Farmer.
- And if no-one tells us, how can we know what we're allowed to do or not to do? asks Squirrel.
- I reckon that if I sow my corn where it's too wet, the earth will tell me, says Smiley calmly.
This morning we are going to see a former school friend who lives on a farm deep in the country. She used to take the train to school like us, but she got on half-way there, her father driving her to the station. Ten minutes' drive, a quarter of an hour in the train. She was very good at school; she had passed all her exams and the teachers had encouraged her to continue her education. Her parents let her choose. She had preferred to stay on the farm. "I know where I live here", she had said. "I know how to live here." She had bought books, not really text books, but books for studying all the same. She would read while watching the cows. One day Squirrel and I, having come to say hello and wanting to give her a surprise, crept up on her; she was reading, sitting not far from one of her cows, which was grazing conscientiously. Just as we were about to reach her, we heard her addressing her cow in a friendly voice: "Let me tell you what I've learnt today." The cow lifted its head, saw us and mooed; our friend turned, saw us and blushed. "People don't always listen to those who want them to hear", said Squirrel to her with a gentle smile. I looked at our friend; her face had lit up.
Our friend's farm lies between our little town and a smaller place where there is an upholstery workshop that produces the covers for the furniture my parents make. Sometimes, when my father comes to see the upholsterer, Squirrel and I take advantage of the trip to go and see our friend, who we like a lot.
This morning, then, we set off. We'll go and see our friend after lunch; she is always busy with her cows in the morning. And for lunch, as we are passing by the mill that fulls cloth to make it firmer and faster, we will do as is our wont; those who can will catch fish - if not, some other brave fellow will do it for them! - and then embers, baked potatoes and grilled fish. Who could ask for anything more?
After putting out the fire - "The grass is dry today; we must be careful!", Miss Farmer had of course warned us - we leave.
A brook has come to join us, us and the river, and together we wend our way in the shade of the elms, elders and poplars that line the cool current. We are walking through the narrow valley between the slopes of the hillsides, steep on the right hand, a bit less so on the left, passing between the cows that are grazing the still-green grass - there is no shortage of water here. Another mill, a hamlet whose sleep we leave undisturbed. The river too has decided to take a rest - everything on its way is flat, or almost. It wanders this way and that. "And why should I always go in the same direction? I think I'll go back the way I came. No, I already know that bit. But then again, why not? Still and all, let's go on!"
We at any rate know where we're going; see you later, river!
Now we are climbing the steep slope, holding on to the trees, as usual. Miss Miller has made no comment - the end is in sight. A few more paces and we can see our friend's farm.
Miss Reader has seen us and is running to meet us:
- Ah, I see you've come along the river. You're right, it's much nicer than the road.
We tell her about our fishing.
- You ought to come with us... Smiley invites her.
A chorus of approval.
- Yes, I know, and I've already said I would... but there's so much to do.
- But as you never have anything for afters when you go fishing, I've made you a pie.
Dishevelled opens wide two greedy eyes. She laughs:
- Two large pies!
Dishevelled is visibly in quest of further information. She laughs again:
- Lemon meringue... with plenty of cream!
Dishevelled's face lights up, and it's not the only one.
Miss Reader's father is out in the fields; her mother is talking about her daughter:
- It's maybe a shame she didn't carry on...
She shakes her head:
- She likes being here... She likes the farmwork... I'm happy she's stayed with us... Her father's glad too.
She looks at us all, one after the other:
- Do you think she's done the right thing?
Her daughter interrupts spiritedly:
- I'm very happy too!
And, without leaving any time:
- We're off to the orchard; I can see they can't wait for my pie!
Her mother shakes her head:
- My daughter's a very good cook.
We install ourselves under a great pear tree - you'd need to go up at least fifteen rungs of the ladder to get to the pears at the top.
Before us, standing out against the azure sky, the hills chisel the horizon. Between the hills, the glint of the sun draws our eyes to the river slowly taking its leave. A farm, beside a bridge. And in the distance we can just make out the village where the upholsterer lives.
- Here, it's for you.
Squirrel has taken out a book and is holding it out for Miss Reader. Surprised - that was the idea - she looks at the cover and gives a broad smile:
- I've been wanting it for ages! The biology teacher recommended it, but he said it wasn't easy to find.
She gazes lovingly at the book, opens it, turns two or three pages:
- I've been looking for it since the start of the holidays but haven't been able to find it anywhere, not even in the city.
She turns a few more pages:
- Thank you!
- We were all looking for it for you.
The journey goes quickly when you drive. Three minutes - without hurrying - to cover the road which took our little gang three quarters of an hour - without hurrying either, it must be said - to walk back from Miss Reader's yesterday. There is her farm, on our left; gone a moment later. The upholsterer's village, another three minutes further. And now a relatively wide road which follows the capricious course of a river, climbing now and again up the nearby hills, and will take us to the city about an hour away.
Who do I mean by "us"? And why are we going to the city? "Us" are my parents, Squirrel and I and we are going to the fabric wholesaler's. The city is the one through which a real river runs, the one Squirrel and I went to a fortnight ago with my cousin of the bridge no-one can cross and his cousin. And arriving by road, we have the immense pleasure of avoiding the very big station which they mustn't have known where to put and which without so much as a by-your-leave has barged right into the city centre, encumbering a quiet little square with its heavy canopy.
- Oh, hello, come in, come in!
We accept the wholesaler's smiling and cordial... no, no, friendly... no... oh, I don't know! ...the wholesaler's smiling invitation.
We shake hands.
- Good journey? asks the wholesaler in the same tone of voice.
My father reassures him, if that were necessary, and gives a few quick details - "Not too busy, you know..." - my mother stands a little to one side and we, the kids, are... well, we're there, aren't we?
- You've come to see the samples? asks the wholesaler... Ah, I've found the word I'm looking for! ...politely.
As far as I can remember, the appointment had been made in order to see the samples. Squirrel has not looked up since we arrived.
My parents look through the samples. There are a lot. Some are singled out; they must be the ones that please the customers more than the others.
- Doubtless... says Squirrel, in a more than dubious tone of voice.
- Do you think...
- I don't know; but they aren't the ones I like best.
I point to my parents, who are making their choice:
- I reckon my parents are like you...
- Your mother especially; your father is more credulous.
I am surprised:
- We've already been here; you didn't...
- I've grown up!
- Grown up?
- Yes, grown up.
I look at her. Yes, she has grown up. I too have grown up; definitely...
- We've both grown up...
She interrupts me:
And she goes on, almost immediately:
- Last Saturday, we talked...
I remember very well:
- ... about our workshop...
- ... for covering the furniture.
She goes on:
- So why don't we look...
- ... at the samples!
There are a lot of samples. Yet now there are a lot less. And Squirrel finds the same thing:
- There's no point...
- ... choosing among those we don't like.
I look at Squirrel, she looks at me, and we burst out laughing.
The fabric wholesaler is a serious wholesaler who takes his business seriously. I have seen that he has found our laughter inappropriate for such a serious place. But my parents are customers. He gives us a slightly forced smile:
- I see you're enjoying yourselves. I was afraid you might be bored.
He was afraid? Really? We had... politely... stopped laughing, Squirrel and I, but it was almost enough to set us off again. We had to make sure not to catch each other's eye...
And here we are rummaging through the samples. Of course, it's not for now...
- You have to prepare for the future, whispers Squirrel.
- The young people must be hungry!
We accept the wholesaler's smiling and cordial... no, no, friendly... no... oh, I don't know! ...the wholesaler's smiling invitation
- Parents always like it when other people take an interest in their children, as well he knows! whispers Squirrel, smiling politely at the fabric wholesaler the while.
The wholesaler has invited his customers - I mean my parents - to lunch. He has suggested that afterwards Squirrel and I should go and visit the castle while he talks about serious matters with my parents.
The wholesaler lives in a small town half an hour's drive away. Squirrel and I have never been there. The small town has a big castle.
The road is quick and, as the wholesaler lives on one edge of the town, we can just see a few bits and pieces of the castle we are to visit. Yes, it does indeed look big. But after all, we too have a big castle in the town where we used to go to school.
We behave ourselves during lunch, Squirrel and I, listening - well, that's not actually true - politely and answering just as politely the questions the wholesaler asks us from time to time - always the same questions, about school...
The wholesaler's wife does not say much, serves us when we are short of something and smiles at us with a sweet, timid smile. "How on earth did she end up there?" Squirrel will ask me a little later.
After lunch, then, we leave the wholesaler to talk about serious matters with my parents.
We walk through the town. Houses, each to its own, streets that have no particular inclination to go anywhere, and that's it. What else can I say?
- Nothing, recommends Squirrel, who is reading over my shoulder.
I take up my story again.
A long avenue between high trees. I can sense the castle's presence from the fulfilled look on the faces of the visitors leaving it. Suddenly, a clearing. Luminous. A big pond, punctuated here and there by clumps of soft green reeds that seem happy to be together in the still water that gleams in the sunlight.
I lift my eyes. Ahead of me, a house. A house that is waiting for you to come and take your rest there. Its thick walls will protect you from the cold when the weather is bad and will keep the warmth of the spacious fireplace that I can imagine in the hall I can see through the high windows that decorate the wall between the corner towers. Perhaps the towers are a bit too heavily imposing...
The guide, waiting for his visitors, has heard my remark to Squirrel. An affable fellow, he has come up to us:
- The tower you can see there ahead of you is only a regrettable afterthought. Originally it was much more slender and left the castle to its own devices.
The spacious fireplace was indeed there, big enough to roast a stag in.
Sunday. The fairground is full of people, even though it is not the day of the cattle market. And there are neither cows to be seen nor farmers come to buy and sell them. Why so many people, then? Because a special event is about to take place on the fairground. What special event could that be? There is nothing in the diary of customary events to give a clue. So what is it, then? Well, it is an event much too special to be content with a mere mention in a mere diary! So what is it, then? It is the one and only performance of the famous puppet show Mummy Swallow is Expecting by the no less famous Little Train Gang!
Having written the chapter, I haven't been able to resist showing it to Squirrel. She has smiled:
- It's barely a fortnight since we made up the play...
- That you made it up!
- Really? Perhaps...
She has gone on immediately:
- We have never performed it.
She has broken off for a moment:
- In fact, we have never performed anything.
And she has added, in a voice full of penetrating insight:
- How do you know that our show and our company are famous?
I have answered with assurance, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world:
- Everyone on the train has known our company for ages, and as for our show...
I had started well, but did not know how to go on. Squirrel has finished for me, pensively:
- Anyone could see it, if only they would look; it's on everywhere, every spring.
I take up my story.
Mummy Swallow is Expecting.
(On the Fairground. Parents and Children.)
- I'm going to be laying eggs very soon!
- That's wonderful!
- We haven't made a nest yet!
The little girl, the one from the story about the little cat, interrupting the performers - Squirrel and me:
- We have to make a nest, quickly!
- Yes, yes!
- I'll do it!
The little girl:
- We need twigs to make the nest!
- I'll fly off and get some twigs!
- I'll come with you, we have to hurry!
A little girl in the audience:
- Here, I've got a twig!
Daddy Swallow and Mummy Swallow flutter over.
- That's just what we need!
The children scatter, some of them around the fairground, others into the Polisher's aunt's house. And now here they come, running at full tilt. Our two swallows have all they need: twigs gathered from under the trees, bits of wool taken from inside the house, feathers lost by the hens that often come to scavenge for worms on the fairground, dead leaves to make the nest warm and cosy...
- That's wonderful! We have all we need!
- I'm soon going to lay my eggs!
The audience cries to Daddy Swallow:
- Hurry up!
The little girl:
- They're tired! They're hungry!
And she puts a little piece of elastic from the Polisher's aunt's house into the beak of each swallow. They couldn't look more like worms if they tried!
Daddy Swallow, snatching the worm:
- Oh, that's good! I was very hungry!
Mummy Swallow, snatching the worm:
- Oh, that's good! I was very hungry!
More cries from the audience:
- Quickly! Hurry!
Daddy Swallow and Mummy Swallow do the best they can.
A little boy in the audience, who knows what he's talking about:
- The edge of the nest, it's too low! The eggs'll fall out! You've got to make the edge higher!
And it was done.
And people spoke for many a long day afterwards, in our little town and on the neighbouring farms, of the unforgettable, one and only performance of the famous puppet show Mummy Swallow is Expecting by the no less famous Little Train Gang!
There's only one more week to go before the end of August. The weather is still hot and sunny. Yet some evenings you can start to feel days coming on that will hold out less than in the heart of summer the promise of more days when it is so good to sit and talk in the shade of some great tree that gives protection from the burning sun. The shadows have been gradually lengthening over the last few weeks, without us noticing from one day to the next. To tell the truth, should we not confess that perhaps we haven't really been trying to notice? Today, the shadows are there and are crossing our island as the sun declines from its zenith.
As the reasonable time after lunch has passed, we dive into the river to race the fish.
- The fish will always be quicker than us, answers Squirrel, head out of the water.
I respond with a laugh:
- You reckon? I'll show them, just you see!
As though I had said nothing, she goes on:
- They've got things to do...
- Things to do?
She swims a long stroke:
- We're just playing around.
We... I lift my head out of the water:
- Yes, we aren't as quick when we're playing around; but couldn't we...?
- They're looking for food.
I don't answer immediately:
- You mean we have no reason to be quick?
She swims a long stroke, head under water. Once she has emerged:
- Time doesn't count on holiday the way it does at school.
- Of course, there's no homework.
She says nothing for a moment:
- And yet, for our show...
- It was something we decided to do ourselves.
- Fish are quick when they're looking for food...
- ...and once they've eaten they hardly move.
I stand up in the water:
- Once we've eaten school, we aren't particularly quick, during the holidays.
She stands up in the water:
- Our swallows were quick.
We paddle in the water for a while without saying anything. I remark:
- They did have something to do; they were trying to amuse the children.
- And Miss Reader reads without it being homework.
- We read too, and we don't have to either.
Squirrel has hit the water hard with her arms and her head and shoulders rise out of the water:
- We're quick even when we're on holiday!
I do the same; I'm stronger and I rise out of the water even further than she does:
- Not all the time! Not all the time!
She laughs, I laugh...
A long sequence of long strokes - and we're off again...
- ...to race the fish! says Squirrel, still laughing.
Fish are nothing if not cautious and they have soon given wide berth to these intruders who are churning up their water.
- That was a good swim.
- Shall we go in? asks Squirrel.
- That's a good idea; I was about to suggest it myself.
As we are not fish, we cannot just stop where we are. But as we have swum up the river and down in order to stay in the shade of the high hedge that borders our river, we are not very far from our hut. Now here we are, drying off in the sun which, at whatever time it is, four o'clock probably, warms us up without lingering too long on the leaves of our willow.
- At school, we're quick; on holiday...
I pick up Squirrel's sentence:
- ...we're not quick...
- ...or else we are if we want to be.
- We'll have finished school in three years; no more homework then.
Squirrel almost interrupts me:
- Customers don't like waiting!
- Customers? Oh, yes! The customers of our workshop!
- If we offer our models too late, we won't sell them.
- And if the furniture they choose isn't covered in time, they'll be cross...
- ...and won't come back again!
I assume a tragic air:
- And our workshop...
She assumes a tragic air:
- ...will have to close!
Usually that type of conversation would make us laugh. But not this time. Curiously, not only do we not laugh, but I think I can say that this time our tragic air is for real.
After a long silence...
- So we'll have to be quick! declares Squirrel seriously, for real.
She has raised herself up on her two arms:
- We're dry now.
And after standing up she goes into the hut to get dressed. I follow.
- We will always have to be quick then...?
She has left a question mark at the end. I answer, also seriously, for real:
- I think so.
It's raining. It has rained all night. The air is cooler. We have just passed Miss Reader's farm. We have just passed the small town where the upholsterer has his workshop. We are going to see the man who buys clothes for a department store in a city, clothes for women, the dresses and other things that Squirrel's parents make in their workshop. Which parents are going to have lunch with the said buyer and have taken Squirrel and I along with them. It should be poined out that it was we who asked them to take us with them. They were slightly surprised but agreed willingly enough. "You'll get bored, you know; we're going to be talking business!" Squirrel's father said. "You can go for a walk, it's very pretty round there", Squirrel's mother said. "We're in business now too; we need to be well-informed", we said to each other without a word, just with a knowing smile.
The journey is either long or not long, depending on how you feel during it. City people find it... "Oh, it's charming!" We just find it boring. About two hours to get to the outskirts of the city, which is just as boring. "You never know where you are!" exclaims Squirrel. "Oh yes you do, unfortunately! You know you're there!" I answered her one day. It made us laugh a little; a slight reward.
So here we are on the outskirts of the city; there is still a hill between us and it. From the top of the hill, we discover the vast cathedral that looms over the city and its surroundings. Squirrel points to it... encouragingly:
- Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater; it is pretty imposing, the cathedral.
- Yes, it is imposing...
Squirrel smiles at me:
- The river will bring us consolation!
I smile back:
- Yes, that's true; I think it may even be the only thing I remember about the place.
We walk along the river. The rain has stopped in places. The sun, which is trying to come out, sprinkles clear patches on the river, though they are not very light. The sky is made up of great wads of dark grey with ragged blue tears through which the sun peeps from time to time. The river wanders quietly between unkempt grass, making the dreary city slightly less unappealing.
- That's not saying much! Squirrel has commented.
- What are you talking about? Squirrel's father - or mother, I don't remember which - has asked.
- The river is very pretty, we have answered almost in unison.
We have stifled a giggle.
- Yes, it is, very pretty indeed, Squirrel's father - or mother, I don't remember which - has nodded.
But joking aside, it's true, the river is very pretty, wandering quietly between unkempt grass, making the dreary city slightly less unappealing.
The man who buys women's clothes for a department store in the city is waiting for us in his warehouse. His wife has already left in the car to make lunch and we will bring the buyer back with us.
While he chats with Squirrel's parents - "At least the rain's stopped", "It was a good journey" - we go off and look at the goods that fill the warehouse. Great open boxes, great closed boxes. "Look! The secret models that won't be revealed until the last minute!" whispers Squirrel - a pile of dresses on hangers - Squirrel sniffs condescendingly: "Cheap and cheerful!" - and then soiled and rumpled clothes - "Unsold stock..." sighs Squirrel. I know why she sighs. It sometimes happens with the clothes her parents sell to department stores. What isn't sold is returned with no profit...
- Hey, twins, where are you?
Squirrel's mother is looking for us. The warehouse is huge. We come back. We leave.
The massive and imposing cathedral again. You can't see it very well, it is sideways on. As the warehouse is on top of a hill, we go down. It starts gently, then gets steeper. The river again, wandering quietly between unkempt grass, making the dreary city slightly less unappealing. You can see the river very well, it is full-length on. Back up the hill down which we had come on the way in and up which we therefore go on the way out. Three minutes' drive. Amid the soothing countryside, perched on a hill, the church of the village where we are going to have lunch.
- Look, it's Field!
Squirrel's whispered exclamation has made me jump. Field? I stare out. Where? A cart drawn by a sturdy horse and driven by a somnolent farm labourer is coming towards us on the lane we are taking. No Field. A field, on the right. In the field, a cow grazing hungrily. A few paces from the cow, a little girl who is guarding it, a long and flexible switch in her hand. I get it! I turn slowly towards Squirrel and exclaim in a whisper:
- No it isn't, it's his little sister!
Despite ourselves, we haven't been able to hold back our laughter. Squirrel's parents have turned round, slightly surprised, but haven't said anything. If the twins are enjoying themselves, so much the better.
Lunch. It's varied, it's good. It's obvious that the buyer's wife has taken trouble to make the meal. Nothing unusual about that. We make good things too, at our house, very good indeed! But here, you can't always see what the dish is at first. Could I say that the Art of the Table takes precedence over the meal itself? Perhaps, but I would no doubt be wrong, because whatever I may say, it is very good.
- Have you enjoyed your holidays? the buyer's wife asks Squirrel and me in a very friendly voice.
Squirrel starts to answer, but...
- We haven't been able to take any yet; there's been too much work, says the buyer.
A dialogue follows, or rather a series of interventions, between the buyer and his wife. She starts:
- Last year we had a problem with the car...
- It's not often you come across a mechanic as good as that...
- Do you remember where it was? I saw a dress...
- Talking about dresses, can you remind me about tomorrow's delivery?
- Of course! It's a lovely shop...
- I think the shopkeeper...
- Which one? The one who hurt his arm?
- Yes. They treated him really well at the hospital...
- There's a very good hospital at... Oh, I can't remember, it's the neighbour...
- Yes, I know the one you mean but I can't remember either...
And together they plunge into the abyss of memory in search of the very good hospital.
The buyer's wife suddenly turns to Squirrel's mother:
- Will you have some more?...
- Oh, no thank you, but it was very good!
- The butcher gave me the recipe...
- He hasn't half put up his prices!
That's the buyer. We're off again. The butcher's meat is better than... He gets his animals from... What a lovely place for a holiday.
The buyer's wife turns to Squirrel and me and asks in a very friendly voice:
- Have you enjoyed your holidays?
The sun has decided to make an effort and we decide to celebrate beside the river, near the mill that fulls cloth to make it firmer and faster.
- We must get Miss Reader to come! declares Dishevelled.
- Yes, that would be good, but she never wants to, regrets Field.
- Why don't we go and get her? suggests the Polisher.
- Good idea! approves Smiley.
- Good idea! approves Miss Farmer.
- Which way shall we go? asks Miss Miller.
I express surprise:
- By the river, as usual.
- Why don't we go by bike? That way we can all come back together along the river.
- And we wouldn't have so far to walk, teases her brother.
His sister makes as if to reply but Squirrel interrupts her with a big smile:
- It was a good idea to suggest a shorter way, your brother's looking a bit peaky today...
The brother has thrown up his arms and is about to protest, but Squirrel gives him no time:
- ...and doesn't want to let on!
The brother tries to protest again but our laughter drowns him out.
So here we are on our bikes. All things considered, Miss Miller's suggestion wasn't all that bad. Barely ten minutes' ride and we're at Miss Reader's farm.
She is really glad to see us:
- I've just finished the washing-up, and...
- ...and having nothing else to do, you're coming fishing with us, finishes Dishevelled brightly.
- Oh, nothing else to do... begins Miss Reader.
- It's true that there are always things to do on a farm, adds Miss Farmer.
- You'll make us feel ashamed! exclaims Smiley.
- Oh no! cries Miss Reader; you'll soon be going to school, I can carry on...
She doesn't finish:
- I mean, I'll be able to do what I want...
She shakes her head:
- I mean...
- Don't say anything! cuts in Squirrel; you're the one who's going to have most to do.
Miss Reader has blushed a little... Dishevelled exclaims energetically:
- Come along! We'll catch you some nice roach for afters!
She has smiled:
- I'd love that!
- Come on then! the Polisher has echoed.
And off we go. At least, once Miss Reader has told her mother she was coming with us. And her mother has come out to see us off:
- It'll be good for her, she doesn't often get the chance...
And she has given us a long smile...
We set off for the river.
- Aren't you going by bike? Dishevelled asks his sister innocently.
- I am indeed, but I thought you would at least take it down to the river for me!
Some titters - poor brother! - but Dishevelled has already grasped the bicycle and hoisted it up on to his shoulder.
- Don't worry; I'll hold onto you when we're down there so you don't fall into the river!
We all laugh at this amusing little family spat.
Now here we are at the bottom - without the bicycle. Just as well, in fact, because it wouldn't have been easy to ride through the long grass on the river bank - and the ground is pretty uneven, too.
The mill. Our specialist equipment in hand, we pursue the fish relentlessly. To be honest, our specialist equipment is not by any stretch of the imagination as specialised as that with which Squirrel's cousin caught the pike. Far from it, in fact. Our specialist equipment consists of long, slender but solid branches, graciously offered to us by a poplar tree; line strong enough to hold an unfortunate roach or gudgeon, found in Squirrel's workshop; and floats that we have cut for ourselves from bits of wood found in my parents' workshop, prettily painted by Squirrel. And all this specialist equipment is patiently waiting for us in the nearby thicket where we store it carefully when we have finished. But isn't the most important thing to catch fish? Which we do, and very nicely too, thank you.
The fire is crackling, the embers are glowing. Miss Reader is grilling her roach, the biggest, caught for her by Dishevelled. The potatoes are burning - "Quick, take them out!" Miss Reader has cried - and burning our fingers too!
And what do we have to end our feast? Nothing, as a rule; just our catch and our potatoes - or what's left of them. But today...
- I've brought some cheese...
Cries of joy! We know it well, Miss Reader's cheese, so good and so full of the taste of the milk from her cows.
- I've really enjoyed being with you...
Miss Reader has given a long sigh:
- I'll miss not being with you at school...
A short silence. Smiley gives her a smile:
- We'll come and see you often!
- I know; I look forward to it...
- Everyone will be busy with their own things...
Another, longer silence.
- I don't really understand; I am happy...
- Yes, very happy, to be staying on the farm...
- I'm just sorry I won't be going to school with you... that, more than school itself, I think...
She shakes her head slowly:
- I'm just not able to lead two lives.
She says nothing more. Field asks, as if in confirmation:
- Life at school and life on the farm?
She gives a pale smile:
We sit there for a long while, saying nothing. She goes on:
- In geography, we're told about other countries. I've always had trouble trying to imagine lives different from the one I'm familiar with.
She adds almost immediately:
- The one we're all familiar with.
- It must be in order to find out about those lives that people go off exploring.
- And the heroes in adventure stories often travel to far-off lands, says the Polisher to me approvingly.
- You know all about those lives, jokes Field; tell us about them.
The Polisher answers colourlessly:
- I was at my polishing stone, just like Miss Reader is at her farm; my travels were as short as hers.
- If you'd travelled, you would've discovered other polishing stones, jokes Dishevelled in turn.
- They would still be polishing stones, points out his sister; and he would still be polishing.
- At least it wouldn't be in the same place.
- I don't really look at where I am when I'm milking my cows, says Miss Farmer.
- You don't milk cows when you're travelling, retorts Dishevelled.
Smiley shakes her head:
- So you don't live while you're travelling?
I think we are all slightly surprised. Except Squirrel, apparently:
- You do, but only for yourself.
A moment's silence. The Polisher frets:
- So the way you see it, a hero who discovers unknown lands lives only for himself?
- It all depends what he does with his discoveries.
- You mean whether he keeps them to himself or not? asks Smiley.
- Yes, confirms Squirrel.
A moment's silence.
- It's interesting to discover unknown lands, remarks Dishevelled; you're seeing something you've never seen before.
Miss Reader smiles:
- I had never seen the blossom on my apple trees this spring before either.
- You had already seen it the year before!
- It wasn't the same blossom.
- But you must admit it was very similar.
Miss Reader has given a small sigh:
- You're right, that's true.
She hesitates a moment:
- Perhaps we hope that the unknown doesn't look like something we already know.
- It won't last; the sun'll be back tomorrow, Miss Farmer reassures us.
Our little gang has met up at my house.
- What shall we do? asks the ever-impatient Dishevelled.
We all scratch our heads.
- We could go for a walk in the rain, suggests Smiley.
- Why not? It'd be fun! agrees the Polisher.
- It's really raining very hard, says Miss Miller, without making too much of a point of it.
- Oh, we can all take big umbrellas, her brother teases her.
There is a ripple of laughter. Squirrel cuts it short:
- She's right, it really is raining very hard!
Squirrel loves the rain, even when it's very hard... So do I. But I back her up all the same:
- We'd get wet through!
It's not entirely clear whether I'm joking or not... Miss Miller gives in graciously.
- All right, all right, let's go!
- Why don't we go round to the Polisher's aunt's? suggests Squirrel.
- Oh yes! And we could take some cakes for the children's tea, says Miss Farmer enthusiastically.
- Good idea! exclaims Smiley; and it's already gone three.
- And what's more, it's Thursday, says Field calmly.
Thursday? We are all puzzled for a moment. But Smiley has an answer up her sleeve.
- Thursday? Oh, what a shame! We won't be able to go and see the children, then.
Now it's Field's turn to look puzzled.
- Why not? he protests; Thursday...
- ... is the day before Friday, says Smiley imperturbably.
A babble of voices:
- Of course!
- We know that!
- So what?
As if it were the most obvious thing in the world, she says:
- We have to do our homework for tomorrow!
She is of course immediately howled down.
The bakery isn't far and of course we choose the best cakes. The Polisher's aunt's isn't far either, but as it's still raining and of course we have no umbrellas, we arrive soaking wet.
- The eggs didn't fall out of the nest, did they?
The placid, round-faced girl has already caught hold of Squirrel's wet skirt and is gently tugging it.
- Did Daddy Swallow bring Mummy Swallow food?
And, as though fearing that the answer might be no, she goes on forcefully:
- Mummy Swallow has to stay in the nest; she's hungry!
Squirrel, who, like the rest of us, is still half-in and half-out of the house, reassures her:
- Daddy Swallow often brings Mummy Swallow food.
The little girl gives a satisfied smile, though without leaving hold of Squirrel's skirt:
- You will tell me when the little swallows come, won't you?
She takes on an absorbed look:
- It's soon, you know!
And brightens with a broad smile:
- There are three eggs!
The little girl has suddenly let go of Squirrel's skirt and run off as fast as her little legs can carry her. A few moments later she is running back to us just as fast, and handing a little piece of bread to Squirrel:
- You can give it to Mummy Swallow!
Eight o'clock a.m. The train has left for the city where we will be going to our next school. Will be, because it's not to school that Squirrel and I are going today. We merely have a connection with another train that will take us to the sawmill.
Why a sawmill? Because a sawmill sells wood, and wood is what my father buys to make his furniture. And my father, who needed a particular piece of wood, was going to send one of the craftsmen. "Why don't we offer to go instead? It would be fun", Squirrel had suggested. My father was delighted at the idea - there was plenty else for the craftsman to do. And that is why we are here on this train.
- It's faster than the trains we usually take, remarks Squirrel.
- Yes, as you saw from the timetable, it's an express.
- Yes, I saw...
She smiles brightly:
- An express! I don't even know what the word means!
- Nor do I.
- It means it goes fast!
- Quite right!
- How do you know?
- I don't!
We laugh merrily.
- We could tell Miss Reader that we've been on a long journey... goes on Squirrel.
- ... during which we discovered unknown lands...
- ... that we will not keep to ourselves, since we will give them to your father.
- The unknown lands?
- No, the piece...
We finish together:
- ... of wood!
- Not only does the train go fast, but it never stops either!
- Are you sure it'll stop where we're going? asks Squirrel, sounding anxious.
I put on my Conductor's voice:
- Now don't you worry yourself, young lady, this train's not going any further than what you are.
I pause while swelling with importance:
- And even if you forget to get off, a railway official whose job it is will come and tell you.
- Oh, thank you, Mr. Conductor sir, now I'm not worried at all, answers Squirrel, sounding grateful.
We laugh, but not too loud so as not to bother the other passengers in our compartment.
The express is now running between high hills covered with woods. The express is not a stopping train. It has come from a long way off. It has comfortable compartments.
Suddenly, it's dark. The compartment is lit with electric light. I say sleepily:
- Have I been asleep that long? The sun's already gone down. You should have woken me up!
- I've only just woken up too, answers Squirrel in a small voice.
A pause. I go on, in a much more wide-awake voice this time:
- Look! The train's going faster and faster. It's so that morning will come as soon as possible!
- Yes, you're right! Look, the sun's coming up!
The sunlight floods our compartment. We leave the tunnel.
Eleven twenty-four. The express has pulled into the station. The sawmill isn't very far away, an easy walk. I look for something to write about as we make our way through the town... The owner has very kindly asked us to lunch and we will arrive just after midday. After lunch we will go to the sawmill and leave just after four. We'll be back home around seven. A long journey indeed to tell Miss Reader about, as Squirrel had said!
The owner of the sawmill and his wife are both getting on and will soon be handing over to their son. They are both very kind and friendly. Lunch is plain but good and is spent pleasantly talking about the exams we have passed and our future, of course, but also what goes on in the town they love, which tells us more about it than we found out for ourselves as we walked through it. A distracted glance cannot see what the heart sees. What do people passing through think about our little town that we love so much, Squirrel and I?
The sawmill. Wood. Wood everywhere. Of course, what else would there be? Well, there is something. The wood talks. Does the wood tell stories, like the one about the little cat or about Daddy and Mummy Swallow? No, it doesn't talk about the world or the life of the world, even though it is the world in which the trees from which the wood came used to live before leaving it for ever in order to offer themselves up for men. And they say to those men: "What do you want? A fine three-piece suite for when your friends come to visit? Here is precious mahogany, calm and warm, in which they will feel as though they were in the richest of palaces. Do you want to invite them to share the family meal, informally? Here's a lovely beech-wood board from which you can cut the table at which you will sit with your family and your friends. A wardrobe, solid and true, that will age alongside you, unaffected by the passing years? Take this sheet of oak, you can trust it. And this walnut, for the little chest of drawers that will gladden your eyes? And this plank of cherry-wood? Anything you make out of it is bound to be beautiful!... Oh, I was forgetting; you don't know how to make what you want yourself? Bring the joiner to the mill; he's sure to find what he needs here!"
The owner of the sawmill has gone off to find the piece of wood we are to bring back to my father. His son has just arrived.
- Oh, yes, that's right, of course, you're the ones who were going to come, he says after a moment's hesitation.
I would even say incomprehension; but I may be wrong...
He has grabbed a plank and is taking it with quick steps a little bit further, asking the while:
- Did you have a good journey? Didn't get lost?
I am sure I heard Squirrel say "Oh, yes indeed..." under her breath.
- Your father told us exactly what he was after. No need...
He leans his plank up against the wall:
- ...to worry!
First, I don't see what there is to worry about, and second, it was to his father that my father explained exactly what he was after; we were both there, Squirrel and I, and heard the conversation.
- It's not as if it's going to break...
He has shrugged his shoulders and shaken his head in a mark of condescending disapproval.
Squirrel had moved the plank closer to the wall so as to be sure it would not fall, and it is that action which has earned her this remark. The son has even added another throwaway comment:
- It's not made of china, like your plates!
Neither Squirrel nor I said a word, of course.
The father comes back with the piece of wood, packed in thick cardboard, resting in his two hands; then he gently lays the package down on the bench.
I touch the package with my hand:
- It's linden. The edges are fragile; we'll take care.
He has smiled:
- I know I don't need to tell you.
Miss Farmer was right; the fine weather is back. Our bikes are flying down the ruler-straight road that leads to Miss Reader's farm. Our little gang has not let the bikes go on their own; we have come too...
- Very funny, says Squirrel sarcastically as I write; and don't bother to finish your sentence, it's really bad!
I take up my tale again.
We are going to Miss Reader's.
We arrive just as she is finishing the washing-up.
- Coming fishing? asks Field peremptorily.
- Go on! says her mother, coming in from the yard; she must have heard.
- I still have to...
- It can wait; and I'll start myself.
And her mother adds, with a movement of the head to underline her advice:
- Get along with you, it'll do you good!
Dishevelled assumes the strict tone of a strict teacher:
- You should always do as your mother says!
Miss Reader smiles calmly:
- I've got a day off, then!
After popping into the house - to get the cheese, I reckon - she runs off down the slope to the river. We follow, but she has a head start on us and shouts up from below:
- Hey, are you all asleep up there?
But before she has even finished, we are upon her.
- Oh, it's you. What are you doing here? asks the Polisher, feigning surprise.
- I was just going fishing. Do you want to come with me? The river's full of fish, believe me!
I assume a sorrowful air:
- What a shame, we don't have our rods with us.
She gives a confiding smile:
- That doesn't matter, I know where to find some.
- That's a stroke of luck. Otherwise we wouldn't have known what to do.
As usual, Miss Farmer upbraids us:
- Have you quite finished? Since we now have the rare good fortune to have rods, perhaps we could get a move on!
- Yes, Mummy! replies Dishevelled, hanging his head like a little boy caught red-handed.
His sister remarks with a grin!
- He's doing what he's told; I can hardly believe my eyes!
- Come on, Miss Farmer's right; let's go, concludes Smiley.
- And we'd better get a move on, because the fish aren't going to wait for us for ever, adds Field calmly.
- What time were we supposed to be meeting up? enquires the Polisher.
No-one seems to know. We set off.
- I hope we'll catch some nice roach at least; Dishevelled promised Miss Reader some, Squirrel reminds us in a calm voice.
The roach were there. And the nice roach for Miss Reader, and the gudgeon, and the minnows...
The fishing has started. Who will catch the first fish?
We will never know. Two roach and a gudgeon have jumped into the air at the same time, or almost. It's Miss Reader herself who has caught the gudgeon, with the rod Squirrel has lent her. Miss Reader doesn't often come fishing and can't remember where she has left hers.
The fire, the embers, the grill, the potatoes - and, as expected, the cheese.
As usual, we have climbed almost to the top of the hill from where you can see the valley and the far-off hills and are now sitting in the yellowing grass, relaxing after our copious repast.
- You've still got another nineteen days of holiday.
Miss Reader smiles at us and adds brightly:
- I'm going back to school tomorrow!
Surprised, I exclaim:
- What do you mean, back to school tomorrow?
We are all surprised.
- I thought you... starts Field.
- Did you change your mind? goes on Miss Miller.
Miss Reader shakes her head with a smile:
- No, no, I haven't changed my mind.
- I don't have to go far. My school's at home.
Our little gang is puzzled, but not Squirrel:
- Your books are your school?
Miss Reader nods. Now we understand.
- And if your books are not enough, we'll tell you what we learn at school, adds Miss Farmer.
"Absolutely!" "You bet!" and similar exclamations can be heard on every side.
Miss Reader seems to glow with happiness.
- But as for discovering unknown lands... remarks the Polisher.
- It's not as if we're likely to discover them at school, retorts Smiley.
- That's true, we find them in books, says Dishevelled supportively.
- Our Polisher can discover unknown lands at his polishing stone, jokes Field.
The Polisher snorts:
- If it's just to keep on polishing...
- And it's definitely not in the train carriage that we...
I didn't hear the rest of what he was saying, I was no longer there. I think - I know - that Squirrel had the same thought. We looked at each other. We were in the wonderful carriage...
- And as we have no curtain, we'll go and get one from the Upholsterer, Squirrel has commented when she has finished reading.
THE TWINS & CO, LTD.
The Chairman: Me.
The Chairwoman: Squirrel.
The Chairman's parents.
The Chairwoman's parents.
One and only performance on Sunday, 30 August 1959.
The Chairman's parent's dining room. The table as laid as if for a special lunch. The table is decorated with flowers and laid with fine china plates and gleaming crystal glasses. The Twins preside over the lunch.
The upholsterer retires in five years' time.
Squirrel and I leave school in three years' time.
If the upholsterer is willing, we'll go and work in his workshop.
When the upholsterer retires, we would like to take over the workshop ourselves.
The Chairwoman and The Chairman
O parents, what do you think of our plans?
(together) (They have carefully rehearsed their solemn declaration)
The parents, initially amused, have been listening
more and more attentively.
A long silence.
The Chairman's father
Have you spoken to the upholsterer about it?
No, not yet.
We were going to go and see him this afternoon.
The Chairwoman's mother
Have you told him?
Yes, he's expecting us.
A silence. The parents look at each other
with an appreciative smile.
The Chairwoman's father
Proper little businessmen!
The Chairman's mother
Now I've got two men in the house!
The second man is flattered
but can find nothing to say.
The Chairwoman's mother
Furniture fabric isn't the same as fabric for clothes.
(to her daughter)
If you don't mind... (turning to her father) or you either, we would set ourselves up in a corner of the workshop and sew our fabrics there.
(to her mother)
The Chairman's father
But the upholsterer...
(leaving the end of his sentence in suspense)
...has his fabric sewn by a seamstress in a nearby village.
(continuing the sentence)
The seamstress is no younger than the upholsterer; we know that she wants to retire soon as well.
The Chairwoman's father
I told you they were proper little businessmen!
The Chairwoman's mother
It's a good idea to do the sewing here, and it wouldn't be difficult to set up a corner of the workshop. (A silence) Have you thought about what you would need?
One of the sewing machines isn't always in use. We'd just have to buy some stronger needles. They don't cost much.
The Chairwoman's father
I told you they were proper little businessmen!
We can get the needles from the fabric wholesaler we went to a week ago.
The Chairwoman's mother
You've already been...?
Yes, with my father, last week.
We can get the supplies we need there.
The Chairman's father
You found all that out? I didn't even notice!
You were busy with the wholesaler.
And we were at the back of the warehouse.
The Chairman's mother
What did you see?
Lace and trimmings, silk fringes, coloured panels, cotton quilting and silk flowers.
The Chairman's mother
We will never have had such beautiful upholstery!
Especially as we intend to offer a bespoke service.
And some of the sewing can be done by hand: curtain loops, ruffles, cords, net curtains and bedspreads.
The Chairwoman's father
And you're going to tell all that to the upholsterer?
The Chairwoman's father
He'll fall off his chair!
(trying not to smile)
The Chairwoman's mother
I hope it'll be as well-stuffed as the ones the twins are going to make!
(a slight smile on her lips)
The Chairman and The Chairwoman
THE TWINS & CO LTD has just been born!
(happily, in chorus)
I take up my story again.
Half an hour later, we are leaning our bikes up against the wall of the Upholsterer's workshop. He was expecting us.
- Hello, twins; I'm always glad to see you, he greets us, smiling brightly.
Mrs Upholsterer has made us a lovely cake for our tea - it's not far off four.
A few remarks about the weather - "Not so bright today", Mrs Upholsterer has said. "It'll be brighter tomorrow", the Upholsterer has said. "How are your parents?", Mrs Upholsterer has asked.
- So you've come to talk business, then? the Upholsterer decides to ask, curious.
- I don't know what it's about, but it's just as well you've come today. During the week, my husband hasn't a moment to himself! observes Mrs Upholsterer.
- Well then, twins, we're all ears!
Squirrel makes a theatrical flourish:
- Excuse me: The Twins & Co Ltd, since two o'clock this Sunday afternoon!
The Upholsterer and Mrs Upholsterer exclaim as one:
- The twins and co limited?
- It's the name of the company we have just started.
- You've started a company? exclaims Mrs Upholsterer.
- Ah, so that's what the business was all about! exclaims the Upholsterer.
Mrs Upholsterer cuts the lovely cake she has made for us.
- What business have you started, then? enquires the Upholsterer, curious.
Squirrel smiles brightly:
The Upholsterer and Mrs Upholsterer clearly do not understand. I explain:
- I thought you told my parents that you were hoping to retire in...
The Upholsterer interrupts me with a smile:
- And you want to carry on our workshop?
We both nod energetically. Mrs Upholsterer serves us the lovely cake she has made for us.
- You'll have to learn how to... starts the Upholsterer thoughtfully.
- We'll have finished school in three years time, Squirrel breaks in; if you agree to our idea, we'll come and work with you to learn.
A silence. We haven't yet touched the cake. The Upholsterer nods his head for a long while:
- You've already thought of everything...
- You're very serious children, adds Mrs Upholsterer.
- They're not children any more, declares the Upholsterer; when you take responsibility for your own future, you are no longer a child.
A silence. Squirrel goes on, rather timidly:
- Do you think that...
- We have already thought, my wife and I, that it would be good to see our workshop continue to live without leaving the place where we have always been, and without leaving the friends we have always known.
He turns to his wife without saying anything.
She searches for words:
- I'll be happy that... Well, you've earned your cake; what are you waiting for?
Our little gang has met up at my house just after lunch.
- It's fine out; let's go off somewhere, suggests Smiley straight away.
- Walking? asks Miss Miller straight away.
- If it's far we can take our bikes, Miss Farmer reassures her straight away.
- Shall we go fishing? suggests Field.
- No, let's rather go fishing with Miss Reader, I think she likes it a lot, suggests Dishevelled in turn.
We are all of the same opinion.
- I know! exclaims the Polisher; let's go a long way away while staying nearby!
- That way Miss Miller can go by bike and we can follow on foot!
- That's the best idea I've heard all day! cries Miss Miller happily.
- If I'm alongside you, you'll have to pedal hard, assures her brother, flying in the face of all the evidence.
- I know what!
That's Squirrel; what does she know what?
- What do you know what?
That's all of us. Squirrel replies calmly:
- The polishing stone, since the Polisher has invited us so nicely.
- The polishing stone? says Field with surprise; it's nearby, I know, but how is it far away?
- It's ten thousand years away from here, says Smiley, who has caught on too.
Those who had not caught on:
- Ah ha!...
As all our little gang were agreed, even Miss Miller - "No, it's not very far", she admitted without protest - we set off for the polishing stone.
- Let's go up by the stream, suggests Smiley; I don't feel like going back the way I just came.
The same applies to Miss Farmer and the Polisher. So we take the stream which runs alongside Squirrel's house, and which spies the heavens hoping for the rain, still so rare, that will restore its reason for being. After passing between the two rather steep hills on either side of the stream, we skirt the little village from which we generally cross the fields to the Polisher's house. But as we have decided not to take that direction, we continue along the watercourse without water, which is consequently not a stream, as the Polisher would assert in peremptory fashion when he plays the geography teacher.
The stream, with or without water, is vexatious. We want to go left, but even if it we tell it so, it does as it will and bends off to the right. Nevertheless, our vehement protests finally persuade it to change course. About time too! But there is no reason to congratulate it; it is not in the least for our sake that it has veered off to the left. Not a bit of it. One day a large farm came to live in this spot and asked it to come and give water - when it ran full, of course. The farm's reasons were certainly more persuasive than ours! Here is another farm. It is fortunate indeed, for the stream that had so scorned us has willingly agreed to come right up to it. I say willingly because it has gone straight there. And if I too wanted to play the geography teacher, I would gladly say that that is why there were so many cows - as many as you like!
We quit the stream. Or rather, the stream quits us. Why? It didn't say. It has disappeared, that's all. Actually, this is where it comes from, not where it goes to. It is its source.
A dirt track, a short stretch of road hidden under the trees, a farm. And yet the stream isn't there. Oh, yes it is. Well, not quite. It's a streamlet that waters the surroundings of the farm and capriciously feeds... the source! Just like the streamlet near Field's cousin's house. Which source? The source of the river that runs near our hut and in which we swim, Squirrel and I; the same one that our little gang goes fishing in.
All we have to do now is to follow the streamlet to the wood that protects our polishing stone.
Now here we are in the slightly faded grass, among the dry leaves that the trees are beginning to shed.
- Where are we? asks, with a deeply thoughtful air, the Master of the Place, as Field had once called the Polisher.
Which Field asks him, with a deeply surprised air:
- How come you don't know, you who reign over this place?
- I reign over places that disappear when I touch them.
- Your polishing stone is still there.
- All that's left is the stone; the lovely pebbles that I polished and had left near the grooves have gone and I don't know where they are.
- What an imagination! marvels Miss Farmer.
- Why do you think we come here? remarks the Polisher; just to stare at this lifeless stone?
His question does not seem simple either to Miss Farmer or to any of us. So we stay there wordless for a long while. Finally Smiley turns to the Polisher:
- I seem to remember, about a fortnight ago, when we were here, you asking why we came here, since he would never come back.
- Yes, nodded Miss Miller. And Squirrel answered that perhaps we wanted to live a life in a time that is no more, about which nobody has ever spoken.
- Unfortunately, she also asked why!
Dishevelled's remark causes a silence even longer than the one before, which Squirrel's voice does not really break:
- What past are we made of? The past we know is like us, and the one we don't know... is our unknown past; perhaps that's what we come to look for in this polishing stone.
Tuesday. Tuesday the first of September. The month of autumn and of school. Seven thirty-three a.m. The little train has left. It will not let us get off in the town where the school we will never go to again is situated. It is taking us far away, to the city where Squirrel's uncle lives, whom we are going to visit. But when I say that the little train is taking us far away, it's both true and not true. It's taking us only as far as the connection forty-nine minutes away. We know the connection well and have already taken it, if only to go to see my cousin, the one who lives where the bridge no-one can cross is. And as we have I don't know how long to wait - two hours less twelve minutes precisely - we decide, as we have done in the past, to get off at the station before and walk the rest of the way. An hour's walk along the track - there are no trains running at that time - and we have nearly an hour to sit in the grass on the banks of the river that dances in pretty eddies for our delight.
The morning has moved on and we're starting to get a bit hungry. Not really hungry, but Field, who had been to his cousin's on Sunday, brought back a pork pie for each of us, and the only thing that can be said about them is that they are dying to be eaten. And that is why we're hungry.
- We're going to have such a good time today... says Squirrel, not without difficulty, through a mouth full of pork pie; we get there in time for lunch... my aunt's a good cook...
Another mouthful of pork pie:
- But there's better than that... in the street that goes downhill...
Oh yes, that's right! I say, also not without difficulty:
- The sweetshop... the sweets stuffed full...
- ...of hazelnut paste...
- ...sweet and sticky...
- ...rolled in icing sugar...
- ...and crunchy...
- ...made of paste beaten for a long time...
- ...until it's full of microscopic air bubbles...
- ...and those multicoloured sweets were invented...
- ...exactly eighty years ago...
Having exhausted all my knowledge of sweetmaking, I fall silent. Squirrel, plainly no better informed, has done the same, though not before remarking with appropriate astonishment:
- We know it off by heart!
Whereupon I reveal the root cause of that extraordinary science:
- It's hardly surprising; your cousin recites it to us every time we come to see your uncle!
And we meditated while finishing our pork pies.
Ten ten. We're off again on a long, thirty-minute journey. Long because it's boring; neither Squirrel nor I can find anything to attract us in the landscape. On the other hand, we are offered another connection. Oh joy! Fortunately it's only twenty-three minutes. We wait on the platform... Then twenty-one minutes of a last long journey. Long because it's boring; neither Squirrel nor I can find anything to attract us in the landscape.
The city. The station. Squirrel's cousin is waiting for us on the platform.
- Have a good trip? he asks us absently.
And, without waiting for an answer he clearly was not counting on, he adds:
- Glad you're here; that way we can get bored together.
- I'm so bored, that's all I ever talk about; I hope that now we're together, we won't get bored.
He goes on without even a pause:
- My father will talk to you about agriculture; but I suppose you'll be expecting that.
Again without even a pause:
- I admit that what he has to say is very interesting, but it doesn't interest me and there's nothing I can do about it!
- People here think there's something wrong with me; I don't sleep enough during the daytime.
- My mother's like me...
- She's not from these parts, as you know; she doesn't sleep either.
Ah! He has paused; but not long enough for us to get a word in edgeways:
- Please forgive me for going on like this, but it's been building up for months...
Still no time:
- Tomorrow we're going to see the head of the agricultural college where my father teaches; it's way out in the countryside.
A short pause for thought; not long enough for us to get a word in edgeways:
- He's got a daughter...
He gives a giggle:
- She's from these parts, all right.
- Did you have a good trip? Squirrel's uncle enquires of us earnestly.
- Yes, uncle! Squirrel answers.
Without giving me the time to answer, he turns to me:
- You're looking well!
And we go in to lunch.
Squirrel is right, her aunt is a good cook. I compliment her. She smiles at me:
- The people round here like their food... I didn't eat as well as this when I was a girl.
Squirrel's uncle is a good teacher of agronomy. He knows how to talk about the earth without hurting it. "The earth has its life", Squirrel had said when we were talking about chemistry and the earth at Miss Farmer's. She had gone on...
I quote from memory:
- Squirrel once asked whether people stop the earth from living the way it wants to.
- Yes, people don't want to starve to death.
The uncle has answered, as always, earnestly and with precision.
- When the earth did what it wanted, it made us.
Squirrel has replied, as always, calmly and with precision.
Her uncle ponders. Her aunt offers seconds, which Squirrel takes. Her uncle can't make up his mind whether to have seconds or not.
- We'll go for a walk in town after lunch, announces the cousin.
His mother gives him a slightly disapproving look:
- We haven't finished lunch yet.
The uncle seems not to have heard their exchange. Did he even hear the aunt offering seconds? He puts the unemployed fork in his hand gently down on his plate:
- You are absolutely right.
And he goes on, looking at his niece:
- It gives me pleasure to see that you take an interest in such matters.
He gives a little nod:
- I know you're good at school.
He has stuck his fork into a piece of meat:
- You are absolutely right; but we can never act on the past.
- All that so that we can eat your inventions! says the cousin in a rush.
- And always your little jokes, replies his father with a condescending smile.
- It isn't the people who eat who choose what you invent, retorts his son.
- Are you so unhappy with what you eat? protests the father.
- Why do you always say that traditional food is the best?
The father ponders. The mother comes to her son's aid:
- And you're always asking me to make it!
The father nods:
- If there is no longer enough traditional food for everyone, and if the earth starts living as it pleases again, it may bring forth other living creatures than us.
The son does not seem to see much wrong with this idea:
- And why not?
- Mankind could disappear, warns the father.
Not a happy prospect. A prolonged silence underlines said prospect.
- So if people stop the earth from living as it pleases, it's so as not to disappear themselves, sums up Squirrel.
- In that case, it's the earth they don't trust.
A walk around the town. Why do I often have that curious impression that there is less to see in a city than in our little town, and even in our countryside? Squirrel had said to me one day, when we were talking about it: "It's because we live here". Her cousin also lives here, it's his home. I have an urge to ask his opinion.
- I never go into the country.
The cousin adds, pointing at a park we are walking past:
- That's my countryside!
I look. It's pretty, neat and tidy, flowers everywhere - I don't suppose they got there on their own, though - and nice paths covered in little white pebbles. "It's airy", the cousin has remarked... The pretty park stretches out before us, clearly visible. "It's not as if we could build our hut here..." Squirrel has whispered to me.
- You live in the city, I pointed out to the cousin.
- There are not many places where I live; the rest is for the others.
He goes on, nodding towards the famous sweetshop:
- It's everyone's...
He goes on immediately:
- Your baker makes bread for you and for those he knows.
My cousin's pear custard comes to mind...
He gestures impotently:
- Maybe that's why I'm so bored here; nothing is mine.
We stop at the famous sweetshop. It must be said that the sweets are good. We buy some to munch on as we walk. We don't dare to tell him that if the famous sweetshop were not everyone's, and if we had not known anyone in this city where the rest is for the others, we would never have been able to enjoy the nice sweets.
We climb up towards the cathedral. The cousin shows us a great big black building:
- Whoever would want to live there?
The building is called a Palace. A very rich man used to live there.
Suddenly, without any transition:
- Your fields have cows to live in them!
We go into the cathedral. It is about four o'clock. The sun has taken possession of the stained-glass windows. Not all of them, of course. Those on the monumental facade. Those that play at hide-and-seek amid the forest of buttresses; if they escape from the sun they win their game and we lose ours, which is to catch them in the brilliant light. In the sober nave, a dark sky of stone reveals the luminous multi-coloured stars that are the heavy and thick stained-glass windows. And from another universe, mysterious characters come to recount their lives, their pleasures, their sufferings. Their mute words are not meant to be heard but to penetrate the mind. Unmoving in their resplendent colours, the characters wait patiently to have convinced. What will happen to the one who cedes to them?
As announced by the cousin yesterday, we are going to spend the day with the head of the agricultural college where his father teaches. It's way out in the country. And the head has a daughter. "She's from these parts, all right", he had said with a giggle.
The cousin's father and the head of the agricultural college have things to discuss. And we, the children, have to keep the head of the agricultural college's daughter company, while going for a walk in the very lovely countryside. That is how the cousin has represented his father's plan to us. "He thought you would like to see places you don't know", the cousin has explained. And for the lunch which was to take place near a very pretty river, a basket has been provided, containing all the necessary. "My father is a real stickler for detail!" the cousin has said, concluding: "The young lady is worth the visit; she ought to be elected this place's mascot!"
The cousin goes off to help his mother finish preparing the basket.
- Nothing is mine... says Squirrel softly.
Surprised, I look at her. She looks at me:
- What's ours is where the both of us are together, wherever it may be.
Squirrel's uncle has started the car and the four of us go off to see the head of the agricultural college... and his daughter. The aunt is not coming with us. "I really have no wish to get bored", she has said. The journey, about three-quarters of an hour, is monotonous; the impression is of always being in the same place. And yet we get there in the end. It is not an unpleasant place. The college is in the fields. Little green valleys. A pretty river that runs towards a village.
The head is a busy man, affable when he has time. The ritual questions about our studies, though somewhat more detailed than usual - what else would you expect from the head of a college? No questions about our future, though - apparently studying is sufficient unto itself.
The head's daughter has just come in. Let's take a look at her, since "The young lady is worth a visit; she ought to be elected this place's mascot!". Not particularly tall, not particularly slim, fair, a wave of carefully brushed hair, pale blue eyes, eyes that look lazily around, hoping not to disturb anything. She says hello in a weak voice, then looks at us for a long time without saying anything.
The head takes up the conversation again. What conversation? I don't really know. After a while the decision is taken - by whom? - to go off to the river for our picnic. We set off, leaving Squirrel's uncle and the head to their discussions.
We cross a large meadow. The cows cannot be bothered to come and see us, they're grazing. The river seems unmoving; and yet the leaves fallen from the trees float away, in no hurry at all, towards a still-distant sea.
The basket offers us lunch. Mascot serves us, with a sort of astonishment in her eyes. But I think it is the way her eyes stop that give that impression. On reflection, I would say rather that she is never astonished. Perhaps she would like to be.
Mascot has turned slowly towards me and does not take her eyes off me:
- What do you like?
I don't really know what to answer but say:
- I like walking in the countryside...
She has interrupted me without my realising it, her voice is so slow and weak:
- Yes... me too... I like to drown myself in nature... it's as if I was a part of it...
This is not exactly easy to understand. But she goes on:
- I'm not the same when I'm in nature; it's as though... There is me as I am seen and me if I am seen through nature.
This is not exactly easy to understand. But she goes on:
- Do you dream? When you dream, are you yourself or are you someone else?
Unsurprisingly, I don't know what to say. She goes on:
- I'm me when I dream; it's when I'm not dreaming that I'm not me.
Suddenly Mascot starts to talk about absolutely ordinary things, turning now to the cousin.
A cool morning. Grey sky. And the wind that has just got up is hardly likely to keep us warm. The summer is receding. We have gone for a quick walk to the park. Some of the cousin's friends are there, talking. Some boys, some girls. The girls are waiting. The boys won't come. The conversation is still unfinished. All conversations are still unfinished, you may say. True enough; though I would add: except in class. But in class a goal has been set, it's not the same. When you talk about something with your friends, it's not with the idea of exhausting the subject; you'd be the only ones in the world if you did. But the unfinished business here has nothing to do with the words that are spoken; it is the wish to get your thought across to the person you're talking to, who faints away while you're doing so. Everyone is alone.
A few drops of rain are swirling in the ever-colder wind. Having stopped off at the sweetshop to warm ourselves up - oh yes, sweets are very good for that! - we go back to the cousin's house to finish off the morning. We will leave at around two o'clock, after lunch, and the little train will get us home just before six. We meet one of his classmates on the way. The cousin hails him brightly. The other, without stopping, mutters "It's raining, I'm off!"
We stay in the sitting room and chat while waiting for lunch. Holidays, our next school...
- It's like I can really talk, with you... confides the cousin.
- And yet you have... starts Squirrel mildly.
- You've seen what they're like!
I try and protest:
- They're not unpleasant...
- Oh no, they're not unpleasant...
He waits a moment:
- But they're not pleasant either, at least not always; they're what in chemistry you'd call neutral bodies.
At lunch Squirrel's uncle talked to us about agronomy. It was interesting. Lots of information serving to understand the earth and its fruits. It was very interesting. All that was missing was the earth, the one we live on.
In the train on the way back we talked about all sorts of things, our next school, fishing for minnows, the polishing stone, our future workshop, the swallows, our hut, us...
The train went fast, everything around us was motionless. We talked about all sorts of things, any which way, our hut...
After passing by our respective homes to say we aren't hungry, we go to our place, our hut.
It's not far off seven o'clock; the daylight is not long gone. Night's shadows gradually cloak us. Where is the world? It's cold. We're warm.
It's raining, it's not. In all events, it's cold.
We have each chosen the right time - when it's not raining, of course - and, pushing the pedals, our little group has finally met up at Miss Reader's shortly after lunch. A wood fire is blazing in the great cast-iron kitchen range. It's good. It's also good to unconcernedly watch the great drops of rain tracing their tracks on the window panes, hesitating about which way to go - "down, stop, this way, that way". Miss Reader has brought us some of her good cheese and we chat, sitting comfortably on the benches and chairs of supple wood.
- I'm reading the botany book you gave me, says Miss Reader; it's wonderful, I'm learning loads.
She goes on, smiling:
- Thanks to you!
- It's mostly thanks to the biology teacher who recommended it to you, remarks Squirrel to put her at ease.
- It was still very difficult to find!
A thought has curiously come to me; Miss Reader has no need to dream or not to dream in order to be herself. But perhaps it's because she has not reached Mascot's heights, or plumbed her depths. It's nice to be with someone who is always herself and who does not faint away on the heights or in the depths when you want to talk with her.
Miss Reader has gone on:
- I'm sure I would have learnt lots of things at school, but I'm needed here; and if I don't get back until evening after school, I'll be no good for anything.
- Does school tire you out that much? says Miss Miller with surprise.
- No, it's not that; a day only lasts a day, it starts in the morning and ends in the evening.
Our little gang usually bursts out laughing at that sort of remark. Why did we not do so in this case? Have we felt that a ridiculous exterior concealed a worrying truth? However that may be, the fact is that nobody has laughed.
As though she hadn't realised anything, Miss Reader carries on in the same vein:
- In the morning, you're on top of the world; then you spend the day working, without sparing your strength, and come evening you're tired.
I feel Dishevelled about to make a sarcastic comment, but like the rest of us he says nothing. Miss Reader goes on:
- You have to get up your strength again for another day of hard work. It's no longer the time for doing anything, and if you try, you can't do it well.
She gives Miss Miller a smile:
- I didn't really answer your question, did I? Yes, school tires me out.
She has fallen silent. I think we were right not to laugh. Smiley speaks up:
- School's meant for thinking; when you say strength, do you mean strength of mind?
Miss Reader replies simply:
- Yes, I think so.
Saturday. The sun is back but it's not hot, you still need a jumper. The streets of our little town are busy this afternoon. People from nearby houses and villages have come to do their shopping. They go from one shop to another, farmers from opposite ends of the district meet up and take advantage of the opportunity to talk about everyday things. Children who have come from all around with their parents fill the square and the fairground; they run and play, discuss important matters that would inspire a condescending smile - "Oh, they're only little!" - in the grown-ups if they could hear them. Our little gang strolls around, chatting with friends and family we only see from time to time. There is no cathedral or palace to visit here. No lovely sweets either. But I am at home; our home, Squirrel's and mine. Our friends' home, our parents'. Our own little town; our own country. I know, the same thing is true of the city where Squirrel's uncle lives, of all the towns and cities in the world. "That is a truism", my English teacher will comment with a scowl. He will be right, but there are truisms that taste better than the sweetest sweets.
- Tell me the story of the little cat!
The little girl who the Polisher's aunt looks after during the week has just run over as fast as her little legs can carry her and is tugging on Squirrel's skirt.
Squirrel smiles at her:
- Do you want another story about a little cat?
The little girl shakes her head energetically:
- No, I want the same story!
- Have you forgotten it?
The little girl looks taken aback for a moment. Then, stoutly:
- I want to know if the little cat has got its mistress back...
- But you know that already; yes, it has.
The little girl has looked down and is thinking. After a moment, she looks up brightly:
- I want to be sure that the little cat has got its mistress back!
Squirrel has had to tell the story of the little cat that lost its mistress and then found her again. The little girl has listened attentively. Then she has smiled at Squirrel:
- I'm glad the little cat has got its mistress back.
Lunch is a leisurely affair. My parents had been very busy in the workshop all week. And as I hadn't been there much, I hadn't helped them much. Today, Sunday, they have more time and we talk expansively about whatever crosses our minds. Squirrel is with us. I relate our trip to her uncle's. My tale makes them laugh; they don't really like the city either, with its remarkable monuments and somewhat less remarkable inhabitants. We talk, of course, about our workshop - I mean "The Twins & Co Ltd." Our plan has got them interested and we are already going into practical aspects. "They're not children any more", the Upholsterer had said last Sunday, the day when our partnership was created. It's true, I no longer feel at all like a child now. And I haven't thought of Squirrel as a child for a long time. We have taken our future in hand, as the Upholsterer had seen for himself.
After the long lunch, Squirrel and I and all our little gang go over to Smiley's. It's not far by bike, quarter of an hour, so we don't get too wet in the rain which has treacherously chosen just the time when we were on the road to bestow its blessings upon us. As at Miss Reader's the day before yesterday, a wood fire is burning in the great cast-iron range in the vast kitchen and we are soon as warm as toast. Miss Farmer and the Polisher did not need drying out, having come a little earlier, before the rain.
- She's very brave... says Smiley thoughtfully.
As she does not go on, Dishevelled gets impatient:
- Who is?
- Miss Reader...
As she does not go on, the Polisher gets impatient:
- So what about Miss Reader?
- She's continuing to study...
As she does not go on, Field starts laughing:
- Is this some kind of game?
- Perhaps we don't realise what studying means...
As she does not go on, and as nobody has any more questions to ask, silence falls. But not for long.
- You study in order to learn things, says Miss Farmer.
- Life things, nods Miss Miller.
I add my brick to the pile:
- School teaches you how to think...
Fortunately I have time to catch myself before the others leap in:
- ...I mean, to know what others think.
Dishevelled leaps in all the same:
- I prefer your first idea. Just try thinking differently from what you're told!
He is duly leapt on by the rest of our little gang, who with one voice protest:
- Oh, come off it!...
He makes amends:
- All right, all right, it's just an image; but you must admit that our teachers like us...
He ends on a sarcastic note:
- ... to use those they call the right authors as a model!
We ponder. The argument seems to hold water. Squirrel asks:
- Do cows know what other cows are thinking?
- Yes, says Dishevelled quickly; "I'm grazing, do like me!"
We laugh. The Polisher does not find that his argument holds water:
- What you say is brilliant, but a cow doesn't need to be told to graze; it grazes of its own accord as soon as it's born.
Our three farmers burst out laughing.
- When my cow was little it got milk from its mother, it didn't eat grass! points out Miss Farmer.
Without paying attention to this interlude, Squirrel goes on:
- How would we live if we didn't know what others were thinking?
- Moo!... goes Dishevelled.
We don't even have time to laugh because Field has observed, all scholarly:
- You will get a good mark for that, young Dishevelled; as you have so rightly said in such precise and elegant language, if we did not know what others were thinking, all that would be left for us would be to enhance our understanding of your tongue - not an easy thing at all, given the infinite variety of its expression - in order that we may have the advantage of being able to converse with you.
- Moo!... goes young Dishevelled, clearly greatly honoured by the promised reward.
We laugh, of course. But Squirrel does not lose the thread of her ideas:
- So since we are not satisfied merely with the bovine thought so elegantly expressed by our distinguished fellow, it becomes natural to take the thoughts of others as a model.
- And why wouldn't we take our own thoughts as a model? protests the Polisher.
- Like cows do, then! Smiley pretends to joke.
- It is more practical all the same, observes Miss Miller, to learn how a mill works than to find out for yourself.
A short silence. Miss Farmer is disappointed:
- So can't you ever think for yourself?
- We can choose what suits us from what others think.
- They still won't be your own thoughts, retorts Dishevelled.
- It'll be my own choice.
- So that's all we can do; choose! says Field regretfully.
The Polisher seems highly satisfied:
- On reflection it's not such a bad thing to be content just to choose; at least I can choose not to polish!
He duly gets a quick laugh. Miss Farmer shakes her head slowly:
- And how am I supposed to explain to my cows that I want to choose?
- I reckon it's more the cows that do the choosing for me! adds Smiley.
- People started out by cutting stones, remarks Squirrel; then they went on to polishing them.
- Alas! grumbles the Polisher.
Squirrel does not let herself get side-tracked:
- People took others as models and changed how they did things; that's a new thought.
- But is it a good one? frets Field.
- It's harder to cut stones than to polish them, points out Dishevelled; it would give our Polisher much more trouble.
- Maybe, admits the Polisher; but on the other hand it would be much more varied, and more attractive, and that would be no bad thing!
I think he is not wrong:
- The biology teacher has already shown us cut stones; it's true that they were more attractive.
- Oh yes, some of them were beautiful! agrees Miss Miller.
- I reckon that if people started polishing stones, it's because there must be an advantage in polishing over cutting.
- It's a pity, regrets Smiley, that what has more advantages is also the least attractive.
- But still, why do we like...? comments Miss Miller.
- I've no idea why, but it's odd that we all think the same thing! blurts Dishevelled.
Unfortunately no-one can find anything to contradict him. He goes on:
- Squirrel said, about a fortnight ago I think, that the earth has its life...
- Yes, remembers Squirrel, and I even went on to say that people stop it from living the way it wants to.
- And I asked if people allowed us to live the way we want to.
- I suppose you mean that I will be forced to polish when I would rather cut? frets the Polisher.
After a long silence, Squirrel asks thoughtfully:
- What if no-one wants what I think?...
A radiant, unexpected sun hails my awakening. Through the window I can see Squirrel, already up, in the garden.
- Summer's back again! she calls, clapping her hands.
- Let's go swimming then!
The river has not had a visit from us for quite a few days.
- Come on! cries Squirrel.
- We'll freeze!
- So what?
So what indeed. I tumble downstairs; and we run as fast as we can to get as warm as we can. The sun may be radiant, but it's still cold at this time of the morning. What time would that be? Just after six, and the sun has been up for barely more than half an hour.
- It's freezing! cries Squirrel, flailing her arms and legs so as not to get cold.
The water is indeed icy, but it's fun taking the fish by surprise! I shout:
- The fish are very fresh today!
- Let's go fishing this afternoon! she shouts back.
- Good idea!
I don't know if the fish were really surprised, but we were really frozen. We quickly throw our clothes on but, still wet, pelt home to get into some dry ones.
Breakfast, which we have at my house, is welcome. The hot chocolate soon makes us forget the icy water of the river.
- Why don't we go and tell Miss Reader? suggests Squirrel.
She adds, laughing:
- It'll make it easier for her to get away from her cows!
- And spend the afternoon with us.
- I think it'll do her good; it's hard to study on your own.
- While looking after the farm.
Squirrel goes to get her bike and we set off. I have remembered yesterday's conversation:
- Smiley's right, Miss Reader really is brave; she doesn't even know if it'll do her any good...
- It already means she can give her cows lessons, instead of being alone with them.
- You mean the books are their guests?
- Yes, I reckon.
She goes on after a moment:
- You don't know everyone properly in a class.
Suddenly she slows down:
- Why don't we give her the book about animals?
- Good idea; let's go back and get it!
We turn round. I go on:
- So books aren't just for learning about the world or about people's thoughts.
- That's right; books accompany us in life.
We pick up the book and turn round again. It's not far, about quarter of an hour.
- Why don't we go through her schoolwork with her?
Her schoolwork? Oh yes! I approve:
- We could take turns.
Squirrel has slowed down again. I slow down too. She seems to be thinking, I would say, about an idea that has just come to her. I ask:
- What are you thinking about?
- You know, her schoolwork...
I think I have had the same idea as her:
- The exams?...
That was indeed it. She confirms:
- She'll take the exams at the same time as us!
- That's wonderful!
- Perhaps we'd better not say anything about it just yet...
- ...so as not to worry her.
- It's not for another three years.
- Well, that gives us plenty of time then!
- And of course it will also depend on her marks...
- ...which we will give her ourselves...
- ...and keep secret to begin with.
- If she keeps getting good marks for a while...
- ...we'll tell her.
- Otherwise it's better not to say anything...
- ...so that she doesn't get dispirited.
Talking clearly has the same effect as pedalling, for here we are already at the cowshed where Miss Reader is about her business.
- Coming fishing this afternoon?
- It's not long before school starts again and summer won't last for ever; you're on!
We give her the book about animals. She smooths the cover with her hand:
- Thank you.
She says nothing more and looks at the book for a long time without opening it:
- You'll turn me into a fount of knowledge...
- As we were coming up the road we saw you've already get some ripe apples, interjects Squirrel so as not to embarrass her.
She gives a radiant smile:
- There's nothing better than apples after fish!
- I'll catch you the biggest roach in the whole river!
- I should've brought my cousin's landing net, jokes Squirrel.
- Oh, it would be much too small, all it took was a three-pound pike!
We all laugh.
Leaving Miss Reader to her cows, we set off again.
- What if she were to go back to school?
It seems difficult to me:
- She said she didn't want to.
- But she wants to learn.
- We can help her, of course...
- Do you think it's too much...
- Yes; we're not teachers, after all.
- How can we get her to go back...?
- We can start by doing what we were talking about just now...
- ...and see what kind of marks we give her.
- And see if she really still wants to go on learning.
Our friends arrive at about two. Waiting for our ideas to take shape, we don't mention them, though we do talk about fishing. Our little gang rides off to Miss Reader's farm.
She is waiting for us. Her mother comes out to thank us for the book about animals which we had brought her daughter that morning:
- She really wants to study; she feels...
She tries to find the right words:
- You're her school, too.
She is still trying to find the right words:
- She's on her own, here...
She adds straight away :
- She doesn't feel on her own with you!
Miss Reader gives us a smile.
The apples divided between two baskets, the cheese - which she has not forgotten to take - in another, the potatoes - which we have brought with us - in two more baskets, our heavily loaded caravan sets out.
Dishevelled has charged off ahead and cries back to us:
- The camel blazes the trail!...
We follow the camel, which races down the hill to the river. Field arrives shortly after and sits down on the grass.
- Tired already? mocks the Polisher.
- Not at all; but we will have quite a wait ahead of us.
- What do you mean? asks Miss Miller.
Field answers with an air of resignation:
- The time it takes him to drink his ten gallons of water...
A slight hesitation. But the camel is a lively beast:
- I am a most unusual camel; I never drink until I'm sitting comfortably in front of a nice roach cooking over a wood fire!
We applaud. Field has to get to his feet again.
The heavily loaded caravan, in which the most unusual camel has taken a more normal place, slowly strikes a path made awkward to follow by the innumerable twists and turns of the river, not to mention the banks that disappear in the high grass.
Having crossed the vast and torrid desert, we arrive at last at the oasis, whose long-awaited cool...
- It's not yet four, we've plenty of time, remarks Miss Farmer judiciously; it won't start to get cool for a good hour yet.
The oasis, like the camel, is highly unusual. Long enough to disappear out of sight at either end; a slight current, not very strong, but enough to carry away the blades of grass that have decided to set out for the long haul, perhaps even across the oceans. And even more to the point, since that is what we have come for, the highly unusual oasis is swarming with fish, the sort we love, gudgeon, roach and minnow. Swarming is the word people use, though I can't see what bees have to do with fish; and I must say that fried bees would not be a dish to inspire my appetite.
- What are you thinking about? Squirrel asks me.
- Are they good?
- No, the fire isn't lit yet.
- Do you prefer them toasted?
- No, but we forgot the sauce.
The little gang has stopped in its tracks and is clearly trying to understand what is going on while not letting on that they don't. Squirrel doesn't understand either, of course, but she isn't going to let that stop her:
- I'll do you some on a skewer this evening.
- Make sure you marinate them properly.
We make as if nothing could be more natural.
- Let's go and get some wood for the fire, she says to me a moment later, hurrying away.
I follow. We stop once we're out of sight of our little gang and I explain.
- Sir, I award you top marks!
We return with the wood to the riverside. Squirrel looks over the water and says nonchalantly:
- Good fishing today, the river's swarming with fish.
And just as nonchalantly she starts to set the fire.
The little gang has cottoned on.
- Here, take this, you can skewer your bees on it!
And Dishevelled hands Squirrel a small stick he has just picked up.
Scene two: fishing.
The fishing was indeed good. I had presumptuously promised Miss Reader that I would catch her the biggest roach in the whole river, but Smiley got there first. In contrition, I have offered Miss Reader a scorching hot potato.
- A princess couldn't have asked for better service! she exclaims happily.
The apples, the first of the season, were delicious, perfectly ripe, juicy and crisp.
Now here we are on top of the hill, from which you can see up the valley almost as far as our little town and where we often come to sit on the grass and chat.
- Have you got your things for school? asks Miss Reader.
- Not yet, answers Smiley.
- Come with us! says Squirrel brightly.
- But what? You're going to need things too, since you've decided to carry on studying.
And Squirrel adds with a smile:
- We'd like it; we can all choose together.
The little gang, in chorus:
- Yes, yes, come with us!
As Miss Reader had predicted, the fine weather has not lasted. It's raining, it's cold. Our little gang has met up at Miss Farmer's; here too, a wood fire is blazing in the great cast-iron kitchen range.
- What can we do to help Miss Reader? starts Squirrel.
- We can explain what she doesn't understand, suggests the Polisher.
- Or at least as much as we ourselves understand, says Field drily.
I tell them the idea Squirrel and I had come up with the day before:
- We thought we could give her tests, like in class...
- That's a good idea, cries Dishevelled; and we could even give her marks.
I don't say that we had already thought of that.
- We mustn't be too harsh, recommends Miss Miller.
- On the contrary! protests Smiley; she mustn't get her hopes up.
- She doesn't intend to sit the exams, remarks Miss Farmer.
I step in:
- Squirrel thought that Miss Reader could go as far as the school leaving exams...
- That's a long way off! breaks in Field, surprised.
Silence falls for a moment.
- We'll never manage, frets Miss Miller.
- Which is why we thought, explains Squirrel, that the best thing would be to make her want to go back to school.
- And d'you reckon we'll be able to? frets Miss Farmer, this time.
- I reckon we have to give it a go, suggests Smiley.
- If she gets good marks, that might make her want to go back to school, observes Dishevelled.
- If she gets good marks, that might make her think she doesn't need to go to school any more, remarks the Polisher.
Silence falls for a moment.
- And if she gets bad marks, couldn't she think that there's no point in going to school, since she's not going to get anywhere anyway? insists Miss Miller.
Silence falls for a moment.
I make an analysis:
- Good marks make you want to go back to school; good marks make you not want to go back to school; bad marks make you not want to go back to school...
I have paused for a moment and Squirrel has continued, with a frown that hardly radiates optimism:
- There's only one more possibility, which no-one has said: bad marks make you want to go back to school.
- How do you mean? Since you're not capable of doing well, according to what Miss Miller just said, says Miss Farmer with surprise.
- She was just putting the question, corrects Smiley.
- If I am to understand the twins' brilliant reasoning, whatever we do, there is no way of telling whether it's the right thing.
- So just don't give her marks, proposes the Polisher.
- And never speak to her again, concludes Field.
Silence falls for a moment.
- We're all for going back to school, starts up Smiley again.
- That's not the same thing, protests Miss Farmer.
- We don't know either whether we are capable of doing well, points out Squirrel.
- Well, we hope to, at any rate, replies Miss Miller.
- So does Miss Reader, exclaims Dishevelled.
- And what's more, it's something she likes doing.
- That's true, nods the Polisher; no-one is forcing her to study.
- Why? Is someone forcing you, smiles Smiley.
- No, no, that's not what I meant. But we're at school, we are.
- Excuse me, but we were, just like her; school hasn't yet begun, either for her or for us, retorts Field.
- It's not the same thing all the same, repeats Miss Farmer; we had already decided to carry on.
- So has she; don't you remember, she told us that on the farm she could do as she liked, Smiley reminds us.
- So why bother her with stuff about going back to school? asks the Polisher.
- If she really wants to study, on her own or with us, she still won't be able to; there's too much she'll be missing.
- And we'll never know whether or not we ought to advise her to leave the life she has chosen, life on a farm.
Smiley lifts her shoulders in a powerless gesture:
- So what should we do?
Squirrel smiles, a smile that stretches out for a long moment:
- Be there.
It's not raining any more; it's a bit colder than yesterday. After lunch, wrapped up warm, we went to our hut. Don't feel like swimming today. Why? Just don't. Our little green frog has come hopping into the middle of our hut. The river's gentle lapping lulls us.
- What does it mean, doing well? asks Squirrel softly.
- You mean what we were saying yesterday about Miss Reader?
- Yes, of course, but I was thinking about us, too.
- Are you afraid we won't do well?
- Anything can happen, but I honestly don't think so.
Our little green frog has gone "Croak!" to ask our permission to withdraw; now it has left to go about its business. We wish it happy hunting.
- Why do we want to stay on at school? Squirrel goes on softly.
- We like learning...
- So does Miss Reader.
- We need to know more than she does.
She considers this:
- She won't need everything she's learning in her books.
I consider this:
- We won't need everything we're learning at school.
- So what we learn it school must be what we need...
She corrects herself:
- What those we work with need.
- In that case our life will depend on those we work with.
We look at each other for a long while.
- It's a good job Miss Reader's life depends only on her cows, since that's what she's chosen herself, says Squirrel.
- Our life will depend on The Twins & Co, Ltd.
We looked at each other for a long while...
One twenty-six. The train starts. Our little gang, plus Miss Reader, is off to the city where our next school is, as we had decided on Monday. And that's not all; Field's cousin is also coming with us. She will be starting at the high school for girls next week. So we're going to do our shopping together. The more the merrier! One forty-one. The train has stopped. All on board! The cousin has got on. Hugs, laughter, shouting. Twenty-six minutes to change trains, but not enough time to get bored. The train is on its way again. Two fifty-one. The station in the city. We have until five fifty-four to do our shopping. Then we'll be home again, Field's cousin at six forty-nine, us at seven oh four. What precision! Good preparation for our next school...
- If that's what high school is all about, let's get our books as quickly as we can and go and study them at Miss Reader's, with her cows, declares Squirrel in a tragic tone of voice as she reads over my shoulder.
- I hope that's not what it'll be like... I say, putting my pen down for a moment.
I take up my story again.
Leaving the station, Miss Farmer points to the forbidding frontage of Field's cousin's school. Alongside, a small chapel; all around, a big wall.
- That's your school? she asks the cousin.
- Yes, it's not the one you'll be going to.
- Oh? It's girls only! puts in Miss Miller.
Dishevelled says in a neutral tone of voice:
- That's why I preferred the other school; I mean, girls only, what a bore...
He has barely had time to finish before his cousin, nodding approvingly, says in an equally neutral tone of voice:
- You're right, it's never a pleasant feeling to be bottom of the class.
A few giggles can be heard. Field turns to Dishevelled:
- I should have warned you, she never misses a trick, as well I know!
We aren't the only ones to be out and about shopping for school. The streets are not empty and the shops are full. There are children as well as grown-ups. We are somewhere in between. "Farewell childhood, welcome adult life!", the Polisher has cried theatrically. The grown-ups have looked at him with commiseration, the children have smiled broadly, as though they were the audience.
It's amazing how many books there are in a bookshop. Yes, I know, it's a stupid thing to say. But if I say it, it's because...
Miss Reader has taken a book and is looking at it without opening it:
- I've already been here...
She lets a moment go by then goes on again, as if she were discovering something unexpected:
- I had never seen that there were books...
She corrects herself straight away:
- I mean yes, I had seen...
She lets another moment go by:
- They weren't books for me... I mean books for me to read myself, not what the teacher had said.
- That I can choose for myself.
She puts the book down, picks up another one, which she doesn't open either. She looks at it for a long while:
- They exist now... that's why I can see them.
Once we've finished our shopping, there's still a good hour to go before we have to catch the train.
I suggest going to spend the time in the meadow Squirrel and I had been to in July, on the way back from my cousin's, the one that makes the pear custard; we were in the meadow opposite the very old castle, near the very old bridge over the river that dare not go any further into the city than our little train.
- We'll never have enough time, says Field's cousin.
- And the grass is bound to be still wet, remarks Miss Miller anxiously.
- You know the city; where can we go? asks the Polisher.
- We usually meet up in a café near my school, on the station square.
- A café?... says Smiley with surprise.
Our little gang has stirred. Field's cousin smiles:
- We're not in the country here; we're in a city.
As the station isn't far, nor is the café in question. We go in. It's quite large in comparison with the cafés in our little town. Tables, chairs... of course. Is it really a place where people feel free to talk at their ease? Maybe nobody here has a house big enough to take all their school friends. It's not empty; some schoolchildren who seem very happy to be there. The chairs are not damp, as the grass in the meadow would have been. The meadow whose fresh air bears no relation to the tepid warmth of this place, this place which feels so cold.
- From what we've seen in the bookshop, we're going to have a lot of new stuff to learn, remarks Field.
- We've learnt new stuff every year, protests Miss Farmer.
- My cousin's not wrong; until now you've just been learning, now you're going to have to think.
- What do you mean, think? I hardly think that we haven't ever thought since we were born!
- Perhaps we've only thought about our own ideas, suggests Miss Reader.
- And yet haven't we already talked about knowing what other people think? points out Squirrel.
- Knowing isn't thinking, replies the cousin.
- You mean we'll be able to answer them back as well? teases Dishevelled.
- Thinking isn't arguing.
- Bad start! I've already been given a bad mark.
This sort of... exchange of views usually ends up in laughter. Usually...
- We came to the conclusion that we can't do without what other people think... starts Smiley.
I break in:
- And now we're worried about thinking, is that what you mean?
- Yes, yes... she answers without her customary smile.
A long silence, broken by Field's cousin:
- It's time to get the train!
The train is under way; we leave the city, whose houses gradually scatter into the countryside. Ten minutes further on, a stop; it has been for nothing, nobody has got off, nobody has got on. I look out of the window, on my left; the sun, adorned with all the reds in the world, tells me it is going to set in about half an hour. A change; we have to be quick, we only have two minutes. But we don't need to worry; no-one here has ever been left on the platform. The train will wait for us if necessary.
We set off again. The sun has just left us. We are no longer in the café opposite the great big station in the great big city where our next great big school is. We are in our little train. We are home.
My cousin of the bridge no-one can cross and his cousin have gone to one of the cousin's cousins for a few days. He is older than us, he goes to a college where the students learn how to captain ships and he lives in a city bathed by a lovely river. All five of us are familiar with the river; it is the one that goes on to water the very big station that encumbers a quiet little square with its heavy canopy. "Come and have lunch with us tomorrow!" they proposed yesterday evening. Tomorrow is today and we are off, Squirrel and I, on the seven thirty-three, the one we have taken to school for the last four years.
Seven fifty-eight. We do not get off. Farewell, school! Eight twenty. Squirrel shows me the river near which we sometimes go and sit on the grass when we have a long time to wait for our connection.
- Look! We'll tell the train to stop, just long enough to eat one of Field's cousin's pork pies!
She gives a wry smile and goes on:
- Except that we don't have a pork pie...
And as she has nothing to tell the train, it can continue to wend its leisurely way and bring us to another connection.
A big train; a train that is going far.
- We've never been that far, remarks Squirrel.
It's true that we are always round and about our little town. And yet...
- No, we haven't been very far; but we have been very, very far.
She is quick to catch on:
- The polishing stone?
- The polishing stone; where you wanted to know what past we were made of.
- Our unknown past...
I sit thoughtfully for a moment:
- Dreams go faster than life...
She sits thoughtfully for a moment:
- Perhaps it's dreams that show us unknown lands...
- The ones the Polisher talked about when we were fishing, a few days before the polishing stone?
- Yes; and Miss Reader told us that perhaps we hoped that the unknown didn't look like something we already know.
In the meantime the big train that goes far, having no reason to take any interest in our conversation, has already reached the station where we have to get off. Well, it's nearly the station; which is why nobody is waiting for us there. Because we still have to take a sort of shuttle with a couple of carriages that will take us in a couple of minutes to the real station. The station we're at is for long journeys. Long journeys... We have looked at each other, Squirrel and I; and I believe we have both thought of our marvellous wagon...
Ten thirty-five. The real station. Even before the train stops, the various cousins, male and female, are already waving happily to us.
- You've brought the sun with you! exclaims the girl cousin; we haven't had such fine weather for a while.
- And we thought lunch on a desert island would be nicer than lunch at home, my cousin announces.
On a desert island? It may not be as far as the polishing stone, but still...
- It'll have to be by steam, then, because a sailing boat wouldn't get us very far, there's no wind, remarks Squirrel calmly.
My cousin's cousin's cousin, the one who's a student, salutes:
- Aye, aye, Captain!
He adds, with all the deference du to the captain of the ship:
- The boiler was showing signs of weakness when it started up this morning, so I quickly put together a crew of experienced sailors to row us there.
He points to my cousin and his cousin:
- The crew is at your disposal, Captain!
My cousin and his cousin protest energetically, while stifling their laughter.
My cousin salutes:
- Can't! I've injured my wrist, Captain!
His cousin salutes:
- Can't! I've injured my ankle, Captain!
The Student raises his voice:
- So that's how it is, eh? Slacking, eh? Clap 'em in irons, both of them!
Turning to the Captain, he salutes:
- Don't worry, Captain; we'll get there, even if I have to row you on my own!
In order to have lunch on a desert island, you first have to get there; and to get there, you first have to get to the port where the boat is moored.
The road to the port is long and difficult. We set out on a path that soon leads us dangerously between high cliffs, doubtless inhabited by troglodytes, given the number of caves hollowed out in them. In the language of the people of this country, they are called arcade houses. After an interminable quarter of an hour we finally arrive at the lovely river, which we will follow for a long and arduous hour's walk and which will bring us to the ocean we will have to cross - if we are fortunate with our crossing - in order to reach our desert island. And how would it not be a desert island? Intrepid explorers of our ilk are rare.
Along the lovely river runs the broad earthen path we are going to take.
- That's where the boatmen used to haul the great sailing ships laden with goods when there was no wind or when the current was against them, the Student tells us.
He adds, seeing our surprise:
- This used to be a very important port a long time ago...
He corrects himself:
- Thousands of years ago, even.
- In that case the Polisher must know about it.
It is the Student's turn to be surprised:
- The Polisher?
I answer carelessly:
- Yes; he must have been in these parts about ten thousand years ago.
My cousin, who is in the know, laughs up his sleeve. His cousin expresses surprise too:
- Who are you talking about?
But the Student is a resourceful fellow and says negligently:
- Yes, the polished stone age.
Now they have both cottoned on. My cousin's cousin adds:
- Just after the chipped.
- And the pumice, adds my cousin in a very serious tone of voice.
But my cousin's cousin soon gathers her wits:
- No, that was just before the philosopher's.
- That's true; and it's what the Polisher told us too.
- Had a good trip? asks the Student with interest.
I protest with dignity:
- You're joking. How ever are we supposed to go back into the past?
- Oh yes, how silly of me; it's the past that came to you.
- Absolutely, says my cousin without batting an eyelid.
The Student and my cousin's cousin are somewhat taken aback.
- They're only teasing you, Squirrel reassures them.
And she explains the whole business.
The Student and the other cousin, with no hard feelings, express their interest in such...
- It's like a memory of time gone by, says the other cousin pensively.
- Poor Polisher, says the Student pityingly; I wouldn't like to be in his shoes.
And he adds with a laugh:
- That is, if he had any!
The long and arduous walk continues on the pleasant earthen path, soft underfoot. The houses become fewer and further between and tall trees come to join us on our stroll. To our left the lovely river flows unhurriedly by, embracing the lazily stretching sandbanks covered in bushes. The lovely river is wide, very wide even, and yet I feel it is as close to me as any of the rivers around our little town.
Now here we are at the important port where the Student's boat is moored, one of five, all ready to go deep-sea fishing. His must be at least four paces long. Two thwarts, and someone can sit on the prow. There are five of us so that's all right. We board.
- But your boat doesn't have a rudder, observes my cousin.
- We'll be running downstream, on the ebb, the Student answers; our speed in relation to the current will be nil, a rudder would be no use.
- In that case we'd better not lose the oars.
- Yes indeed, and that's why I've got a spare one.
And he goes on, showing us the three oars:
- The river is dangerous; you can drown in it.
- Just as well you know it then, says my cousin, pretending to reassure himself.
He goes on in a worried tone of voice:
- Will it be a long crossing? Have you thought about provisions?
The Student assumes a lofty air:
- I never board without biscuit! I've caught a pike...
I do not let him finish:
- Ah, so that's our lunch!
- Yes; I hope we won't have to eat it in the middle of the river, worries my cousin again.
- Will it be a long crossing?
The Student pretends to take out a compass:
- Full south, that's over there!
Then a telescope:
- The island is an eighth of a nautical mile; we will be sailing at two knots, so it'll take...
He breaks off, extracts an invisible slide rule from an invisible pocket in an equally invisible jacket:
- It was given to me by an old friend of mine, an engineer. Ivory and bamboo.
He goes through the necessary motions for his calculation:
- Three minutes forty-five seconds by the ship's clock.
- But won't the dangerous current take us far away from land? Squirrel also pretends to worry.
- Fear not, I'll hold the tiller fast!
- You haven't got one.
- I'll brave any storm!
- The wind has dropped.
General laughter starts to break out.
- We will sail much further than an eighth of a mile, says my cousin learnedly.
And he asks:
- How fast is the current?
- About two knots, answers the Student.
- In that case... my cousin starts to calculate.
But his cousin is quicker:
- Pi over four, square root of two, we'll sail about a sixth of a mile.
- Not bad, cousin! exclaim the two cousins together.
I calculate too; the speed of the boat, given the speed of the current. But Squirrel is quicker:
- The same square root of two; that makes three knots!
The Student gives a regulation salute:
- Permission to sail, Captain?
Permission granted. We leave the port. The Student pulls on the oars. As he had said, we run at two knots. The port is out of sight, we are in mid-ocean. Around us, only sea...
- If the island was already visible from the port through the telescope, you wouldn't be able to see only sea, since the island had already come closer, Squirrel points out, reading over my shoulder.
- Don't you remember that our boat had gone off course and that therefore...
- Of course I do, but I thought we had never come back and that therefore...
I take up my tale again.
The current is strong. A whole two knots! We keep an eye out for hazards.
The island has reappeared: "Land ahoy!..." cries the lookout from the crow's nest.
- You see, we did come back after all, I point out to Squirrel, who is reading over my shoulder.
- Of course we did, since my parents are expecting us for dinner.
I take up my tale again.
A shriek of terror is heard:
- Look! Over there, to starboard! Something white on the shore!
The Student grabs the telescope:
- A reef!
- We're going to be shipwrecked! cries the Student's cousin, who knows her cousin well.
- To the lifeboats! cries my cousin, looking panic-stricken.
I follow suit:
- The distress flares!...
- The lifeboats have gone adrift and the distress flares were in them, Squirrel tells in a perfectly calm voice.
Panic aboard. Everyone runs around the doomed vessel.
- Women and children first! cries the Student.
And he goes on proudly, standing upright, arms crossed, staring out to sea:
- I am responsible for the shipwreck! I shall be the last to leave the ship!
Little by little we approach the island. The terrible white reef becomes supremely threatening. We are struck dumb.
Suddenly Squirrel claps her hands together very loudly. The terrible and supremely threatening white reef takes to the air!
- Gulls like to stop and rest on desert islands after a long and tiring crossing, she declares calmly.
Now here we are in the inextricable forest of our desert island. There must be at least a dozen trees. Noon has just struck on the other side of the ocean. We settle down to lunch.
The broad river flows unhurriedly round our little island and its dozen trees. Downstream, towards the still-distant sea, many little islands have also stopped, some, covered in foliage, sleeping in the shade, others, their sand as yet unvisited by the first bushes, sleeping in the sun.
After all these exhausting emotions, and since we are all safe and sound, lunch comes as a welcome relief; the Student's cousin has already unwrapped the victuals.
We start with a vegetable salad, seasoned with the region's famous vinegar. I have also noticed that the first pears await us for afters. And now...
The gulls, flying up and down the river in search of their meal, would doubtless love to share our main course with us. Here it is:
First make the stuffing.
To do so, cook a pike...
- The pike! corrects Squirrel, reading over my shoulder.
- What do you mean, the pike?
- Precisely that; the pike caught by the Student that very morning!
I take up my recipe again.
Take the pike caught by the Student that very morning!
Cook it in a court-bouillon.
Pound the flesh and mix it into a thick white sauce.
Add two chopped hard-boiled eggs and some wild mushrooms.
Take a sheet of puff pastry and cut it into rounds with a glass.
Place some of the stuffing on each round, then place a second round on top and seal the edges with water.
Cook in a hot over for 35 minutes.
- No, serve cold!
- Yes, alas!
- All the same, you could mention that it was the Student's cousin who did the business with the pike.
- In that case, I will add that my cousin warmly encouraged his cousin by word and gesture.
I take up my tale again.
And my tale is that it is cold today, it's raining, it's Saturday the twelfth of September and school, high school, the school in the city, starts next Friday.
Truth be told, I like school, as does Squirrel, as do all our little gang, but a change of life is not easy. As Miss Reader had said so perceptively when we were talking about school and her farm, "I'm just not able to lead two lives." And one day, while we were still in school, I had spoken to Squirrel about my father and his craftsman who talked only about the workshop and the craftsman's wife who talked only about sewing with my mother. I had added that in our little gang we didn't talk only about school but also about other things. Squirrel had wondered: "Do you think we might have two lives?" And I had wondered: "Why should they have only one?" And Squirrel had asked: "Do we lose a life when we grow up?"
And all that is what our little gang is talking about this afternoon at Miss Farmer's.
- You said we lose a life when we grow up; which one? Field asks Squirrel.
- Maybe our own, she replies pensively.
- Why do you say that? frets Miss Miller.
- We will depend on those we work for.
- So all we have to do is choose them! says Dishevelled forthrightly.
- It's the leaking taps that come to see my Dad, not the taps that work, points out the Polisher quite rightly.
- Your Dad does something useful... begins Miss Farmer.
- So where's your leaking tap, then? jokes the Polisher.
- Oh, can you come by my place too? smiles Smiley.
The mood lifts slightly.
Field turns to the Polisher:
- Are you thinking of working with your Dad?
- I haven't really thought about it yet but I think I would like to. Why do you ask?
- Don't worry, my taps don't leak. But I was just thinking that we're all very happy to be able to stay together.
Dishevelled hesitates for a moment:
- Yes, I'll stay at the mill...
- But so will I! breaks in his sister.
Her brother hesitates again:
- Do you think your husband will be a good miller?
His sister looks down, waits for a moment:
- Oh yes, I do hope so!...
We say nothing for a while, then start to talk about this and that, nothing in particular. Miss Farmer brings in some apples and pears. A wood fire is blazing in the great cast-iron kitchen range. It's warm and cosy.
- In cities, goes on Field, munching on an apple, it often happens that people don't work in the same place...
- You mean you'd expect the entire city to work in the same place? exclaims Dishevelled.
- No, he means the father and mother! cuts in his sister.
- That can't be much fun, say the other three future wives, more or less at the same time.
The four future husbands are of the same mind, and show it.
- In that case it must be because they aren't all married, states the Polisher firmly.
We munch our apples and pears. The wood fire is blazing in the great cast-iron kitchen range. It is warm and cosy. We are together.
- If they aren't married, how do they live? asks Field, trying to understand.
- They live next to one another from time to time, answers Squirrel; each with their own life.
- But that's... They must talk to each other, at least in the evenings or on Sundays, says Miss Farmer in surprise.
- Squirrel's right, puts in the Polisher; I've seen people like that out on jobs with my Dad, they don't talk the same as each other.
- Each one speaks a particular language all day; they've learnt it, they know it, it's theirs, goes on Squirrel.
- So the language the other speaks is like a foreign language, adds Smiley.
- Neither one understands the other's, amplifies Miss Miller.
- I've seen people like that too, at one of my father's suppliers.
- One speaks, the other says nothing.
- You're kidding, protests Dishevelled; if people didn't understand each other...
- They translate, breaks in Miss Farmer; and not always very well!
- You just have to listen to the English teacher and the maths teacher, smiles Smiley.
- Thinking is also something you learn; we learn it at school, observes Squirrel.
- They each learn it separately, puts in Miss Miller.
- And if one of them learns a different kind of thinking from the other... goes on Miss Farmer.
Squirrel concludes pensively:
- Which house will the children live in?
Sunday. The last Sunday of the holidays. Another life is about to start. Do you really realise that another life is starting? Don't you only realise when it's been going on for a while already? And if you have chosen that other life yourself and find out that it doesn't suit you, isn't it too late to turn the clock back? We have chosen school, Miss Reader has chosen her farm, what will happen?
One of my parents' customers has a furniture shop in a little town beside the river in which there is a desert island lost in the middle of the ocean. Taking advantage of a quiet day, my parents have gone to spend the afternoon with their customer. "Coming with us, twins? You like going to see the castle", my mother asked us. We immediately agreed. There's nothing special about the castle, in fact it's a bit of a mish-mash, but as my mother said, the twins like to go and see it.
We leave. The road passes not far from where my cousin of the bridge no-one can cross lives - ten minutes' drive. Squirrel and I suggest picking him up. The cousin is in his boat, fishing. We go and get him while my mother talks with his sister. He accepts the invitation gladly.
- Charge! cries my cousin.
We're used to it, he does it every time. And every time he says:
- What a useless drawbridge!
And every time he adds:
- I can get in through the window in the tower.
It's true that the window in the tower is within easy reach.
Every time Squirrel exclaims:
- Look, the drawbridge is down!
And every time:
- Charge! cries my cousin.
And he walks briskly over the drawbridge.
There's nothing to see inside the castle, but there is something to experience. We are at the window of the vast dining room, bigger than the castle itself, in the middle of which reigns a massive oak table, covered in great mouldings, a table that is also bigger than the dining room.
We are at the window.
- Look, over there, on the horizon, ships from the sea heading towards the city where the Student lives! exclaims my cousin.
And turning to Squirrel, he asks with a regulation salute:
- Should we attack, Captain?
He takes a long look at the river through his telescope:
- The ships are all in fighting order! Look at their cannons!
Squirrel has kept her composure:
- You've got the wrong telescope, this one looks only three centuries back; they're not cannon, that's sugar cane that the ships are bringing back from the other side of the ocean.
My cousin has assumed a downcast air and carefully put away his telescope.
- Let's go for walk, he has said with dignity.
Monday. The wind, anything but solar, is blowing in gusts. Our little gang has attempted a bike ride - "Since we're still on holiday" Dishevelled has pointed out, a remark which has elicited an even more pointed remark from the Polisher: "Yes, another four days, that's all!"
The attempted bike ride has not lasted long. As we were passing not far from Smiley's farm, Miss Miller suggested, with some degree of insistence, that we should go and warm up there. The boys made a few jokes intended to show that they didn't know what cold was, but when Miss Miller, followed by Miss Farmer, made for the farm, followed by the mistress of the house "who couldn't but go with them", the boys followed quickly in their wake, without a murmur.
And now I don't think anyone has anything to say against the wood fire that is blazing in the great cast-iron range in Smiley's vast kitchen.
- I'll make some hot chocolate, announces Smiley.
Expressions of great contentment. Miss Farmer, playing the good neighbour, helps her. And the hot chocolate is soon steaming in our mugs.
- Why did our teachers want to become teachers?
Squirrel's unexpected question leaves the mugs motionless.
- If I say it's because they wanted to teach, you'll tell me it's a pleonasm, says the Polisher.
I assume a learned tone of voice:
- If it is a mere repetition, it is unnecessary; if it is to say that the teacher wishes to pass his knowledge on to his pupils, you were right to make the point.
- I must have missed that lesson; explain! says Dishevelled with a grin.
- I think what he means is that you can be a teacher without necessarily wanting to teach, says Smiley, coming to my rescue.
Charitably, no-one cites the example that immediately comes to our little gang's mind.
- Well, says Field, let's not name any names; let's do as our maths teacher has taught us and consider the general case.
- How can we do that? asks Dishevelled candidly, as we don't know any generals!
- Oh, knock it off! admonishes Miss Farmer, as usual.
- After the school leaving exams, are we allowed to teach in primary school? asks Miss Miller suddenly, whose thoughts seem to have been elsewhere.
- You want to be a primary school teacher? laughs her brother.
She looks thoughtful for a moment:
- I think children need more than just knowledge.
- Yes, Grandma! laughs her brother again.
She looks thoughtful for another moment
- I was thinking about what I wanted at school when I was little...
She adds quickly, before her brother has time to open his mouth:
- When I was very little!
- I think I was like you too, says Smiley brightly.
And all our little gang, Dishevelled included, discovers that their hopes were the same as Miss Miller's.
- Well then, that's two good reasons for becoming a teacher, sums up Field; teaching...
He breaks off:
- And I don't know what I would call the other reason we've just been talking about.
Nor does anyone else.
- Treating pupils as people, suggests Squirrel.
- That's what I think too, nods Smiley; and I think it's true for everyone.
Miss Farmer also nods:
- Yes, whoever we're with, not just children.
I go on:
- In high school.
- And not only at school, adds the Polisher.
- In that case everyone is a teacher, whether at school or elsewhere, goes on Dishevelled.
- Yes; and why choose school? insists Smiley.
- Daddy and Mummy swallow take care of their little swallows, says Squirrel softly.
Tuesday. The wind, anything but solar, is blowing in gusts. Our little gang has attempted a bike ride - "Since we're still on holiday" Dishevelled has pointed out, a remark which has elicited an even more pointed remark from the Polisher: "Yes, another three days, that's all!"
The attempted bike ride has not lasted long. As we were passing not far from Miss Farmer's farm, Miss Miller suggested, with some degree of insistence, that we should go and warm up there. The boys made a few jokes intended to show that they didn't know what cold was, but when Miss Miller, followed by Smiley, made for the farm, followed by the mistress of the house "who couldn't but go with them", the boys followed quickly in their wake, without a murmur.
And now I don't think anyone has anything to say against the wood fire that is blazing in the great cast-iron range in Miss Farmer's vast kitchen.
- I'll make some hot chocolate, announces Miss Farmer.
Expressions of great contentment. Smiley, playing the good neighbour, helps her. And the hot chocolate is soon steaming in our mugs.
- Why do we decide what we want to do later?
Squirrel's unexpected question leaves the mugs motionless.
After a long silence, the Polisher slowly shakes his head:
- Perhaps the teacher chose like I did...
We are somewhat surprised.
- And how was that? Tell us; go on, don't be shy! Field questions him insistently.
The Polisher doesn't say anything.
- Come on! Dishevelled encourages him.
The Polisher doesn't say anything.
I help him:
- The teacher's father was a teacher?
- I've no idea, but you were right to think so.
- It's true that it's what often happens, comments Miss Miller.
- That's right, goes on Miss Farmer; just see how it is with us!
- Let's count. I'm sure you're right, says Smiley.
- We've got three misses who have had their cows ever since they were born... starts Field.
- And you just bought yours at the cattle market on the eleventh of June! Dishevelled teases him.
- I had no idea you were such a keen observer!
- Hey, we're going to lose count at this rate, protests Miss Farmer.
- The twins each have a workshop, goes on Miss Miller.
- And without the Polisher our little town would be flooded by leaking taps, remarks Smiley.
- The millers have their mill, observes the leaking-tap man.
The Miller assumes a worried look:
- It's going to be hard to run the mill all on my own...
And he adds despairingly:
- Since my sister's going to be a primary school teacher!...
The sister frowns:
- There's never been a teacher in the family.
The brother wails:
- My sister has destroyed all our theories!
We try to laugh a little, but our hearts aren't in it.
- If we had been born somewhere else... begins the Polisher.
- Nice one! Field interrupts; if we had been born on the moon...
I break in:
- Without going that far, the conclusion to be feared is that our decisions are taken purely by chance.
- Farewell, sweet callings!... cries Dishevelled.
- Miss Reader was born on her farm too, as Field reminded us, remarks Squirrel.
Miss Farmer is surprised:
- Why do you say that? Since she too has chosen to stay on the farm.
- Yes, but without giving up her books, points out Smiley.
- That's true, joins in Miss Miller; and we even thought of persuading her to go back to school.
A moment of silence.
- Let's go and see her tomorrow; we can talk to her about it then.
Squirrel's proposal is approved unanimously.
- It's Tuesday today; school starts on Friday, says Field.
- Which means we've only got two days left, explains the Polisher.
- Revising your maths already? Dishevelled teases him.
Wednesday. School starts the day after tomorrow.
The sun is back, the wind has dropped; it's mild. This afternoon we are in Miss Reader's orchard.
On Friday, the river that runs in the valley before us will still be there; no school for the river. On Friday, the hills on the other side of the valley will still be there; no school for the hills. What about us?
Of course it won't be the first time we'll be going back to school. Why is it so different this time? After the three years ahead of us, it'll be time for life. No teachers, no exams, but people all around us. People all around us? Yes, of course. I don't why I wrote that. It's odd. Perhaps there's a reason that I'll find out later. When I'm grown up, as they say.
The river runs tirelessly, noiselessly. Yes, we're too far away to hear it. The hills are resting; do they talk to each other? I know, what I'm writing makes no sense, but I write what I feel. What can I do about it if that's what I feel?
- The day after tomorrow... Miss Reader has said pensively.
- Are you coming with us? asks the Polisher.
She looks up, slightly surprised:
- To school?...
- Or fishing?
- Yes, fishing! cries Dishevelled; fishing, the day after tomorrow!
We have all smiled too, but not laughed, as we generally do on that sort of occasion.
Smiley goes back to the idea of school:
- You can go, since you passed your exams, like the rest of us.
Miss Reader nods:
- Yes, I know; and I think I would really have been very happy...
- Come on then! cuts in Miss Farmer.
- Your parents have never been against the idea, adds Miss Miller.
Miss Reader says nothing for a while; then, with a sigh:
- I'm happy here...
And adds immediately:
- And of course I've got my books!
After a moment, Field asks her hesitantly:
- Do you think your books will be enough?...
She hesitates too:
- I hope so...
She breaks off:
- But I can't be certain...
I try to reassure her:
- We'll help you!
She gives me a big smile:
- Oh, I'm so pleased you want to help me!
She looks down:
- But you'll never have enough time...
Squirrel interrupts her forcefully:
- We sometimes work together; and I reckon that in high school, where things will surely be more difficult, it's bound to happen even more often; you can come and work with us!
All our little gang approves warmly.
We carry on chatting away happily, munching on apples from the orchard; the river runs noiselessly, the hills rest.
But Miss Reader has seemed a little distracted for the last couple of minutes.
- A penny for them, says Smiley.
- I was thinking about the bookshop we were in last Thursday.
She has fallen silent. Dishevelled is too curious not to ask:
- What about it?
The Polisher is too fond of a joke not to say:
- I'll tell you the secret, but don't tell anyone...
Miss Farmer has already admonished him before he has had time to finish:
- We know your secret! I think we'd rather find out Miss Reader's!
Miss Reader smiles:
- Oh, it's no secret! I was just thinking about everything that was in the books...
She goes on very quickly:
- Yes, yes, no, I mean that there was more in all those books than we were ever taught at school.
- Were taught; but we'll keep on being taught!
- What the school decides.
- That's true; you said last Thursday that you wanted to choose for yourself, recalls Miss Miller.
- There's more than just one school; you can choose your school too, remarks Smiley.
- You're right; but whatever the school, you have to learn what it teaches, answers Miss Reader.
- I suppose that if the Polisher wants to be able to repair taps properly, he needs to know all about them, observes Miss Farmer.
- Yes, but not about the geography of some far-off land.
- You were complaining that you learnt less at school than there is in books, now you're saying the opposite, argues Field.
Miss Reader ponders:
- There will always be a book to teach me what I'm not taught at school.
- You can always go to every school! jokes Dishevelled.
- There'll always be a book that's just been written.
I point out:
- You'll never be able to buy all the books in the world.
- And then, says Smiley, there's the teacher...
- You can't always understand things on your own without a teacher, nods Miss Miller.
Miss Reader shrugs powerlessly:
- That's what's hardest...
- We said we would help you, the Polisher reminds her.
- But we're not teachers all the same, says Miss Miller.
No-one says anything for a long while.
- What use is school, or books, for looking after my cows? asks Miss Reader.
- It's good to know things about the world! exclaims Field.
- Which one? The one I choose or the one I'm offered?
- You're offered books too, points out Smiley.
- I know; the world is too big...
A silence that lasts. Miss Reader goes on:
- I can go to the bookshop when I want; it doesn't stop me from living with my cows; with school... it's at school that I ought to live.
The orchard offers us its apples; the river runs noiselessly, the hills rest...
Thursday. The last day of the holidays.
The wind that had been gusting throughout the last few days has not blown down our hut. At most, a few branches have been stripped from the wall on the windward side. Leaves dotted with gold, more and more often abandoning the trees still thick with them, have come to rest on the island all around our hut. The great weeping willow that affectionately embraces our hut has kept its green foliage; like us during the summer, its roots have gone swimming in the river. It's mild. The earth is still slightly damp and we have brought some hay to make ourselves comfortable.
- Croak! Croak!
The little green frog hops into the middle of our hut.
- Have you come to say goodbye? Squirrel asks it softly.
- Yes, tomorrow we go back to school; we don't know ourselves what you have always known, what you need to know in order to live.
The little green frog has stopped hopping and is thinking.
- Your life tomorrow will be the same as your life today; can you tell us what our life will be tomorrow?
The little green frog has looked at Squirrel for a while, then said:
- Croak! Croak!
It has carried on looking at Squirrel for a while longer then left, with slow, slow hops.
- We're alone... Squirrel has murmured.
- Alone with life ahead of us, I have murmured too.
A silence. I go on:
- School was leading us; all we had to do was follow.
- Now, school seems to me like...
She smiles, almost brightly:
- ...a wholesaler of knowledge...
I smile, almost brightly:
- ...like the fabric wholesaler...
- ...who gives us the fabric...
- ...we need...
- ...to make the covers for the furniture...
- ...which we will make ourselves...
- ...and who is therefore only our supplier...
- ...like the school...
- ...which will supply us with knowledge...
- ...to make covers for our lives...
- ...which we will make for ourselves!
And we laughed for a long time, our laughter definitely bright.
T H E E N D