“You must be new here”, the gruff man told me.
I’d been sitting at the bar for the best of an hours, with no one to talk to, nothing to do next, and not really knowing how to start investigating. That first contact, bold as it was, relieved some of my boredom. Even sitting on a high stool, I could see the man was at least a head taller than me. All beard and wrinkles, salt and pepper hair over a leathered face, he was smiling, looking genuinely amused.
“As a matter of fact I am. I arrived here a couple of hours ago. A friend from England told me I’d like it here.” I answered in a broken French.
“Oh, you’re friend with the Brit aren’t you?” His smile grew wider.
“If you mean Adrian, then that’s a yes. Twenty years and counting”
Gruff turned around on his seat, facing the room “Hey, Pierre, Francis, guess what! The Brit has friends!”.
I couldn’t really distinguish who was Pierre or Francis between the bad yellow lighting and the cigarette smoke clouding-up the place, but it didn’t matter: the whole crowd, a full house, welcomed the news with a cascade of laughers. Some even applauded.
To tell you the truth, their reaction didn’t quite surprise me.
A couple of weeks ago, I’d received an email from Adrian:
Subject: One fucking scoop
Hi there old sausage.
How long has it been? A year?
Anyway. If you’re still working in the papers, and if you want some bare bizarre stuff to write about, try Saint Melies, France. They don’t have a hotel, so you’ll want to sleep in your car. Stay there a while and ask the locals about their bloody village. You’re already curious about it, I know you are. You’ll understand when you get there.
Me? I arrived this morning, and I’m on my way out. Place is full of cuckoos.
PS: You still speak French don’t you?
PPS: Tread carefully.
He didn’t appear to have made any friend…
Of course I was curious. Journalists tend to be. I didn’t care about the magazine’s theme of the month. I took a leave and jumped in a plane. A place that could give old Add the heebie-jeebies, I had to see it on my own. I needed some time off anyway. What the hell, right?
So there I was, jet lagged, at the end of an endless train ride and three hours lost in the mountains in my rental car, looking at my appealing stew and my appalling interlocutor, who was in the process of shaking my hand.
“I’m Raymond. My friends call me Raymond, but you can call me Sir”. Everyone let out another roaring laughter.
“Don’t worry”, he added, trying to look reassuring, “I’m a tease like that. Let me get you some wine.”
I didn’t refuse.
“So, what brings you here, mister friend of Adrian?”
“Taking some holidays…” Somehow I didn’t feel like telling them the truth. Somehow, I figured it wouldn’t have been well received. “I’m writing a book”, I finally blurted, “And I need some peace of mind to focus on the story. Quite a complex topic, really”.
His smile vanished. Everybody’s smile vanished.
I didn’t understand the reason behind the sudden gloom, but I’d apparently covered an uncomfortable truth with an equally uncomfortable lie.
“Oh. Another one uh” Raymond spit out, “The artsy type uh? Making air and selling air and never being useful for nothing but spreading lies uh?” All eyes were on me, expecting an explanation, mouth were pouting in disgust or smirking in expectancy of an apology. Not knowing what to answer, I let out a nervous chortle and blurted yet another lie “It’s a scientific paper, about high explosives. I’ve got all the data and I need to write them down. I can’t do that at home, not with my wife around”.
Would that one work? Or did they also have something against scientists? “Everybody likes blowing up stuff, right?” I added, in desperation, “A drop of the substance I’m working on in you beer, and the bang will launch a typewriter to the moon and back right into the writer’s butt at twice the speed of a rabit’s fuck”. That, worked. Gruff Raymond spit his brew back in his glass and slapped his knee, almost falling down. The others followed, and resumed their alcoholised chit-chat as soon as they caught their breath.
Where was I? What was this place and what were these people? Adrian was right, there was some fantastic material. If not for an article, at least for a story.
“Sorry for that… for a moment we thought…”
– “You thought I was an author, I get it”, I interrupted. “What I don’t get is, why is it a problem?”
Raymond’s face flushed, and for a moment he stood silent.
He broke his musing with a saddened tone. “Really, I apologize for all that. I guess I owe you some clarifications. But first let me ask you something: Have you ever heard of Saint Melies before?”
– “I can’t say I have”. I answered slowly, weighting my words.
– “You wouldn’t. Nobody knows us anymore. They knew our parents though… well, for a while at least. Look, I guess you haven’t seen the place yet, but how old do you think this town is?”
– “I don’t know much about French architecture, but I’d say a couple of hundred years at least?”
– “Sixty years.”
He gulped the rest of his pint and ordered another one, quaffing half of it without even removing the foam spilt in his beard.
“In the forties, this place was nothing. Nothing at all. Land. After the war though… In 1953, some lad looking for his lost dog went missing. Later, he was found shot right between the eyes, in a spot not a hundred meters from this pub. There was an investigation, and then the police found it. A hole in the ground, hidden by bushes, going on forever. Inside there, was a skinny, bereaved man in a German Infantry uniform, enough weapons to arm a battalion and, on the walls, paintings older than the first alphabet.” He paused again. This time, I felt, for effect. “Can you imagine?” he asked, lifting his arms to the ceiling, “A local man killed by a German soldier lost for four years in a cave full of ammo and prehistoric paintings?” He rolled his eyes. “That, went all over the news before the day ended. Nobody talked about anything but the Cave German for weeks. A couple of months later, a film crew came-in to shoot a documentary. Maybe it sounds quite normal, but there is something you have to know about the producer: the bastard had amassed a fortune during the war, presumably for transporting all sort of things to both Axis and Allies, including information and prisonners. He barged in with a massive retinue and literraly a ton of equipment. It started well, I heard. But the man wasn’t half as sane as he was demanding, and not half as demanding as he was demented. He wanted better film, better equipment, a better crew. He ended up buying the land to build his own permanent studio.”
Were was my laptop? Were was my pencil, my notebook? How comes nobody knew of this place already? Year 1953… That was it, I had to look for archives, I needed sources. I was starting to enjoy Rude Raymond’s company. After syphoning his third pint, he went on.
“That mad idiot finished his documentary -which was lost to the public for some reason, and started dreaming about films. First he built a warehouse for props and gears. Soon, houses, for the crew and actors. All ‘historically accurate’. It had to look old, believable, he used the place as a movie set… Imbecil.
Of course, you can’t keep that many people in one place without attracting business. Some outsiders came to settle. Before long the town had a butcher, a doctor, a market… Even a couple of farmers were called in to breed cattle and grow produce… All sponsored by the Producer. People married, kids were born. Ten years later, the town was christened “Saint Melies”.
– “That’s quite an unusual story but…”
– “But you’ve heard nothing yes, there’s more. Did you notice that I haven’t mentioned school, post office… or a town hall?
Think: You have a whole town full of actors and film crew, all working for the same person, shooting movies all day. All the buildings belong to that same person, as well as the land… it’s a compound, in the middle of nowhere, without identity, without legal status… what do you think happened when the Producer died?” I let myself think for a moment, trying to find a logical answer to his question. “I don’t get it”, I finally said, “The system should have collapsed, right? Without films to shoot, there would be no job for actors, they would just go home, along with the shopkeepers, the farmers and their kids, right?”
He moved his face forward until his nose could almost touch mine and whispered, in a low voice smelling of sour beer “Wrong”.
A fourth pint in hand, his voice thicker and deeper than a moment ago, he continued “The Producer’s movies were bombs. All of them. But the man had connections… the price of his silence over some delicate intelligence had kept on inflating his pockets. He had made enough money to support the whole village for a couple of decades. After his death, we found out he’d written a will: Salaries would keep on flowing in… as long as nobody left town. His ‘legacy had to be preserved’, the will said. One single soul left, and everybody was out of a job, lost in god-forsaken rural France. He’d been working his men like a tyrant for years, and all of a sudden they could get paid for doing nothing. Figuring out what happened isn’t hard: everybody stayed. They’d been cut off society for an eternity anyway, staying was safer, easier. So they stayed. All of them. They had it good. Us… not so much. Remember what I told you about not having a town hall? Look around you. None of us drunkard has a a social security number, or an ID card… not even a birth certificate.” He peeked inside his now empty glass. “We don’t exist.”
A whole village, full of walking, talking ghosts! A fucking scoop alright! By then, I wished I cold have kissed Adrian on the mouth. A couple of pictures the next day would complete the article, and I’d get myself a name as soon as it was up. Oh, alright, it would take some more fact checking, I had to dig deeper. If I managed to hide my jubilation, I might get some more details. My mouth was still agape when Raymond stood up.
“Now come outside, your food’s on my tab. I’ll show you why we don’t like artists in here.”
– “A-alright”. I didn’t fake my stutter -of excitement, as opposed to the consternation Raymond expected me to share.
When we came out, the sun was already setting, giving an eerie atmosphere to the transition between the smoky inside of the pub and the fresh air of the countryside. To my astonishment, after five pints (that I knew of), my self-appointed guide was steady on his feet, walking up the town’s main street at a resolute pace. The road’s asphalt was coarse, in some places giving way to wild grass, turning into gravel. By the short walkways’ side, houses made of uncut stones and mortar were sternly looking at us. Evening shadows dropping over heavy wooden doors and window shutters turned them into grotesque face, frowning below their mossy tiled roofs. A couple of antique cars were parked along the way, models I hadn’t seen anywhere but in old magazines. Ahead of us, a worn-out sign spelled “Boucherie” in decaying, old school typography. Raymond headed for the deli and kneeled before the front door, pointing at something on the ground, near the doorstep. A 10 Francs coin, a currency made obsolete by the newer Euro.
“This” he said while picking it up, “is why we hate writer, authors, directors…” He carefully replaced the coin back on the ground. “When the Producer died, this place was divided in two groups. The Crew people, the one with a salary, and the ones selling them things. The Crew people are all dead now, you see. So there is no salary anymore. The traders, they left when they went out of business. Oh, they’d taught some of us, so we still can sustain ourselves. But the town hall isn’t the only thing we’re lacking. We don’t have a bank, or a school, or a post office… things change slowly here. When the news came that our currency had changed, it was way too late to exchange it. We were already self sufficient, we became independent. Against our will. So here we are. Leaving coins for the least fortunate of us. The ones that clean up our trash, carry our waste. Funny people, them. They’re the youngest among us, but they don’t know anything, they don’t want to, either. They clean up. That’s all.
If they don’t find that coin in front of your door when they come to collect your garbage, they think you don’t want them anymore. They get offended, they go ‘on strike’, they start ‘begging’. They call it that. ‘Don’t make us beg’. What they mean is ‘Don’t let us break in your house and let you know how hungry we are, and upset’. Needless to say they can get really upset. When we’re out of coins we borrow. It’s not a big deal as long as you don’t forget. Usually you only get to forget once. When you do, eventually you’ll remind the whole community, from the top of your voice. The reminder never lasts long, but generally it’s loud enough to be remembered. We all abide. No choice. So our coins disappear along with our garbage, reappear when the beggars buy something, and it goes on and on. We can take care of any other problem but that one. No education, nothing to do, our youth is regressing.”
I felt a chill going down my spine. I’d expected to find something bizarre, I’d expected feeling disoriented. I hadn’t expected stepping into a locale lost in time, at the mercy of a group of extortionist scavengers. I found some solace knowing that the only working car around was the one I’d rented earlier. Staying a fortnight would be way more than enough.
Before I could finish my though, Raymond had produced a key and was unlocking the deli’s door.
“We’re almost there. I live upstairs, but what I want to show you is in the back” he pointed toward a metallic door at the far side of the shop. “See, since we’re literally trapped here, with not contact with the rest of the world but some lost tourist, there are things we can’t allow. For instance, if an outsider picks up a coin, thinking it’s fallen out of some pocket, we’re almost sure to see a friend beaten up. Or dead. Or worse. That’s why I’m explaining you all that, so you don’t make a dumb mistake.” He looked even taller than before in the half-darkness of the store, but still I had difficulty following his bulky figure, let alone see what was before the steel door he’d opened for me. I became aware of an acrid smell, the smell of meat.
He switched on the light.
“That’s what happens when the begging starts. That’s why we don’t like people who write air. They created this community with air, and left us with nothing but air. Air, and what’s in front of you”
In front of me was the body of a man. What was left of it. Drained of its blood, its translucent skin revealed the network of veins beneath. It dangled mid-air, suspended by a butcher’s hook poking though his right collarbone. Its legs were severed at the hip and its neck had been twisted so far I could only see the back of its head. I retched.
“This one… we never knew how he came in.” he continued, impassible. “One morning he was there, asking questions, looking for a house to buy. It lasted a couple of hours, then he picked up a coin… “
It rotated slowly when Raymond shoved it. I saw its face. Adrian had never left Saint Melies, someone had seen to it.
“Obviously, with our meager cattle and the little game we have, we seldom eat meat. So why waste this one? Did you enjoy your stew, earlier? It’s tastier near the spine, but I’ve always thought thighs were perfect for stew.”
Five pints of beer don’t make for a fast runner. A fast runner will make for a hell of a story. That is, if he can pick up his car keys, which are still in his coat, in the bar. And if he doesn’t, he’ll still make for a hell of a headline… I can almost read it already: “A Taste of Saint Melies”.
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