A Memory from a Secret France

It wasn’t until the bus had creaked away that the drab little square was revealed to the visitor. His eye was led to the ridiculous columns of the town hall, and to the church, looking as if tacked onto its squat tower as an afterthought. Unwilling to be caught between them, he crossed the square, and pushed open the door into the little hotel’s brasserie. He made his way to the counter, a twinge in his leg, and perhaps it was this, and the thought of the cold outside, that prompted him into the cognac he ordered.

A group of old men were arguing about prices; all experts, it was immediately apparent, patriarchs, farmers. They dismissed one another’s opinions in stormy good humour, and it wasn’t long before the stranger was drawn into the company and asked to give his layman’s opinion. Had he been to the agricultural show, they asked, and he allowed the possibility with a sweep of the head. A tourist, then? They took refuge in the joke, and he smiled too at the absurdity.

“We don’t get too many of them around here,” one of them said.

“I’m not surprised,” he offered that. A second of silence seemed loud to his ears, but they filled it with laughter and blinked their eyes at him as they called for an empty glass, filled it from their bottle, passed it to him.

“You laugh,” one of them said, “but we’ve been on the map.” He mirrored the others with the features of all old men, but even so their guest was beginning to pick out individual characteristics. “We burned the first British sheep here,” the man declared, and at the cue they were like toddlers taken by the joy of mischief.

“Shameful,” another said, but he too made the laughter of a child.

“You were the first town in the region to be liberated from the Nazis,” the visitor remembered for them, and at that they went quiet.

One of them said, “True enough.” He made a rifle with his hands, held it up and sighted it, said, “Goodnight, Vienna,” got them laughing again. He wasn’t smiling, though, as he turned to the visitor and held up a warning finger, saying, “We liberated ourselves, sir.”

“I know you did,” the stranger said quietly. “I was here.”

They would have sworn that he had learnt his French in Paris, in which was spoken a pale version of the noble tongue they used. German? They went quiet, looked at him keenly.

The visitor saw the thought strike their faces, reassured them unhurriedly that he had been with the Brits when they rolled through to blow the Germans out of their holes. The first creature to be liberated, he offered as a provenance, was a big brown cow the Germans were keeping in the town hall to keep up their supply of milk.

They crowded in on him then, made smiles that failed to hide other memories of the time. From behind one of those smiles, the rifleman said, “This is all our little town’s famous for, is it? I tell you, gentlemen, these things are best forgotten.”

“True,” they said in a ragged chorus, but there was something in the silence that followed that dwelt on the tensions in memories, dug out suspicions that had faded into generations.

“We had a stage of the Tour here once,” the rifleman reminded them.

“Oh, well, yes,” a few of them said.

There is a common belief that the entire country turns out to see the Tour de France, but this isn’t true. Some regard it only as an interruption in the day’s proper business. There were groans.

“Well, of course,” one man, in the tone of an enthusiast, agreed. Others finished for him, “But that was before the war.”

“The year Jacques Lapébie won,” another recalled. “A Frenchman,” he added quickly. “Of course.”

“Who won the stage here?”

It was an unavoidable question, put by the man whose tub-thumping about the economic ins and outs of agriculture had first drawn the visitor’s ear. It was a question that anticipated a don’t-know answer.

“Well?” they were quick to push back at him, “Who was it?”

“I’ll tell you.” He raised a finger, but almost at once looked puzzled at his own assertion. “No.” He let the knowing look fade from his face. “I won’t tell you. I can’t remember. Wasn’t Lapébie, though. He didn’t win a stage till the mountains.”

“Rained like it hadn’t rained since Noah,” one of them called from the back of the group. “I remember that.”

“I was scared,” the winner had confided to old Montmin, the team trainer, a veteran of every Tour from the inaugural extravaganza to the Great War.

Montmin had looked at him, said, “Well? You still did it. I like a chap not afraid of a bit of rain.”

He had wanted to laugh then, to say, if I didn’t train in the rain I’d never get any training done. He had been bothered by other things that day, the second stage of the Tour, by the thought of three long weeks in the peloton. He remembered crashes, his own and others’, the friction against the ground, tangles of legs and spokes, the rashes, the liniment, the sleeping tortuously on one side, bloodied limbs that ached for years afterwards and recalled the incidents long after the details had been forgotten. The visitor rose above the company for a second, saw his shadow on the ground, the bike with oval wheels, his head elongated; saw himself in the chill of the Alps and the heat of the Languedoc, pushing himself along the roads of a France nobody else knew.

“Lapébie.” One of the company shook his head. “A character, eh?”

But they didn’t know what kind of men did the Tour. The visitor abstracted himself in the insular indulgence of the performer. Thought we were just men on bikes, but we were more than that; they didn’t know us, as they stood at the roadsides and demanded the impossible of us, then were surprised, and then blasé, when we came up with it.

“But who was it,” they were wondering, “came in for the stage?”

Their guest remembered the clank of a cowbell in one of the pastel fields on the way in to town, remembered a kid on a horse pacing him for half a kilometre, then the first of the crowds, drawn irresistibly to the roadside from the chores that claimed them. He remembered being aware once more of the rain, only then being alarmed at the sight of the slippery cobbles. He was perhaps six hundred metres from the finish, and had looked back expecting the pack upon him, or at least a terrifying group of sprinters, their eyes packed with ice, but nothing, nobody. Looked back, unable to believe it. He had passed along that road lined by houses that belonged now to ghosts, the end, for that day at least, of a secret France known only to men like him. He had gathered in the hidden energy from the air around him, had left some of his own out there for those who came after.

“A lone rider.” One of the men did a trick of the memory that made a big picture without details. “In a minute before the big sprint for second. Not a Frenchman, though.”

“Indeed,” another said. “I mean, what do we have these days, with Americans winning the Tour?” He puffed cheeks out in a gesture of outrage. “Spaniards. Irishmen, even.”

The visitor barely heard, saw the clamour at the end of the stage. People came to pat his back, to yell in his ear, bang the breath back into him, all in aid of letting him know they had been there, watching. That was important, he knew then, knew that without spectators there could be no spectacle. The lookers-on were tumescent with the effort he had made, as flushed in the face as he was, as breathless. They couldn’t feel his torments, though, nor get at them with their comfort. At the time he had looked through them, nodding, but mystified, remembering that now he was meant to make a further effort, climb the three little steps on dead legs and raise his dead arms to hold up the winner’s bouquet, smile a dead smile for that stage winner’s photo that was always the same.

He had met up with one of the podium girls that evening, in that same drab stone barn of a hotel that enclosed him now; he had sensed things in her eyes that he was too young to know, things in the touch of her fingers. He laughed to himself at the foolishness of the old, looked down at his liver-spotted hands, saw his young hand on her arm, her young hand on his. He wondered who and where she was, and what had happened to her.

He was caught by a sudden urge for revelation, said, “But who won the stage?”

“An unknown.” The speaker seemed to enjoy being able to say that, as if winning the stage in their town and not being French was to dice with the devil himself. The word suggested oblivion, etched as it was into so many gravestones in the military cemeteries that hemmed the town in. “Unknown,” others echoed, with the arrogance of the knowing. One of them made a gesture that consigned the winner to that same oblivion.

He could have been a doctor, they had told him at school, but he raced bikes instead. He knew his anatomy anyway, knew his blood vessels and nerves, knew, when he had his big crash a year after that tour on the slopes of some unforgiving mountain on the way to Briançon, that his femur had broken, knew what had happened to all its intricate mechanisms. He knew as he lay there, gravel in his hair and wounds, that he would never race bikes again; he hadn’t regretted any of it as he gave in to it all and cried.

He had raced through France only a few years later, though, in an armoured car, had seen the Germans sprinting home.

“I can tell you’re a fan of the cycling, sir,” it occurred to one of the company. He put on a face to mask the intrusion of the question that followed. “Not a Frenchman, though?”

“I’m Belgian.” He was proud of the words. “Flemish,” he thought he had better add.

The company was around him again then, their antique eyes upon him, mouths attempting neutral expressions. “A fine nation,” one of them had the grace to say, although his voice suggested a tentative but.

“Two fine nations in one,” somebody corrected.

“He liberated us,” a cackling voice related from the back, “single-handedly.”

The visitor turned challenging eyes towards the sarcasm for seconds, then made a smile, called for a bottle of whatever they were on, was dubbed a gentleman of some forgotten school, and when the drinks were in hands he was toasted briefly.

“We don’t know, then, I take it,” they were all reminded by the enthusiast, “who won the stage here?”

The visitor saw himself in that stage winner’s picture, grainy in a newspaper cutting gone yellow. An unknown, he thought he heard himself say. He could barely remember the boy who had taken his place so long before on that podium ringed by faces unaware of all that lay ahead of them; that young rider had all the substance of the winner’s bouquet, desiccated, disappeared back into nature.

“To the unknown!” Glasses were held up, and the words were rendered with the solemn enthusiasm of old men who would only much later say to one another, “That Belgian fellow who came in today: what did he say his name was?”

“Unknown,” they would begin to joke, struck into a minute of mesmer as memories were swept across the fading finishing lines in their grey heads, led by a lithe young man, his arm raised in the most exuberant and boyish of gestures.

Nick Sweeney’s stories have appeared in Ambit, Eunoia Review, In-flight Literary Magazine, and other magazines. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, vodka, and getting the train for the hell of it, was published by Unthank Books in 2011. Much of his work reflects his obsession with anywhere east of Berlin. He is a freelance writer, and guitarist with Clash covers band Clashback. His story ‘Traffic’ was runner-up in the 2015 V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize competition. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found on his website The Last Thing the Author Said.

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