In memory of my great – grandmother, Marie Andre Sorin (1892 – 1968)
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped to make this book possible: to my family for support, childminding and somewhat baffled encouragement; to Kevin for handling all the tedious paperwork; to Anouchka for the loan of Pantoufle. Thanks also to my indomitable agent Serafina Clarke and editor Francesca Liversidge, to Jennifer Luithlen and Lora Fountain, plus everyone at Doubleday who helped to make me so welcome. Finally, special thanks to fellow author Christopher Fowler for turning on the lights.
February 11 Shrove Tuesday
WE CAME ON THE WIND OF THE CARNIVAL. A WARM WIND for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like
an idiot antidote to winter. There is a febrile excitement in the crowds which line the narrow main street, necks craning to catch sight of the crepe-covered char with its trailing ribbons and paper rosettes. Anouk watches, eyes wide, a yellow balloon in one hand and a toy trumpet in the other, from between a shopping-basket and a sad brown dog. We have seen carnivals before, she and I; a procession of, two hundred and fifty of the decorated chars in Paris last Mardi Gras, a hundred and eighty in New York, two dozen marching bands in Vienna, clowns on stilts, the Grosses Tetes with their lolling papier-m? ch? heads, drum majorettes with batons spinning and sparkling. But at six the world retains a special lustre. A wooden cart, hastily decorated with gilt and crepe and scenes from fairy tales. A dragon’s head on a shield, Rapunzel in a woollen wig, a mermaid with a Cellophane tail, a gingerbread house all icing and gilded cardboard, a witch in the doorway, waggling extravagant green fingernails at a group of silent children… At six it is possible to perceive subtleties which a year later are already out of reach. Behind the papier-m? ch?, the icing, the plastic, she can still see the real witch, the real magic. She looks up at me, her eyes, which are the blue-green of the Earth seen from a great height, shining.
`Are we staying? Are we staying here?’
I have to remind her to speak French.
`But are we? Are we?’ She clings to my sleeve. Her hair is a candyfloss tangle in the wind.
I consider. It’s as good a place as any. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, two hundred souls at most, no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Blink once and it’s gone. One main street, a double row of dun coloured half-timbered houses leaning secretively together, a few laterals running parallel like the tines of a bent fork. A church, aggressively whitewashed, in a square of little shops. Farms scattered across the watchful land. Orchards, vineyards, strips of earth enclosed and regimented according to the strict apartheid of – country farming: here apples, there kiwis, melons, endives beneath their black plastic shells, vines looking blighted and dead in the thin February sun but awaiting triumphant resurrection by March… Behind that, the Tannes, small tributary of the Garonne, fingers its way across the marshy pasture.
And the people? They look much like all others we have known; a little pale perhaps in the unaccustomed sunlight, a little drab. Headscarves and berets are the colour of the hair beneath, brown, black or grey.