“…in the present deficiency of historical
records, we have traced up the subject that point where geological monuments alone are capable of leading us on to the discovery of ulterior truths.”
Principles of Geology 1813
YORKSHIRE, SPRING 2000
Martha kept a steadying hand on the old man’s arm as they walked the short distance on slippery flagstones from the car to the door of her house. He was quite remarkable for his age she had observed again, as the conversation had ebbed and flowed on the journey from the care home. She tried to visit him twice a week and about once a month she brought him to her house and invited family or friends to lunch. Today was therefore a familiar procedure but there was greater anticipation than usual on the old man’s part. It had been a long time since he had seen the twins, and Lewis come to that, and he wondered what news they all had. It was so good of Martha to come and visit him. For the last few years she had taken responsibility for his welfare as the twins were three hours drive away and they travelled less and less as they got older.
“Careful Jean – Claude, it’s quite treacherous by the porch” warned Martha as he took a tight grip on the top of his stick.
“Here we are then” she said brightly and slightly louder than her normal voice, as she fumbled for her keys in her pocket. The wooden door had a stained glass panel in it with a setting sun motif. Through the frosted glass, Jean Claude could see the familiar shelf with plates and ornaments. Martha went in first and then helped him up the step. She hung his coat on the pegs behind the door in the hallway and then guided him past the stairs and right into the living room.
“When are the others coming?” he asked, the French accent still discernible, though the voice was a tremulous vestige of its former strength. Martha answered as she helped him down into the soft brown sofa.
“Well Marianne called earlier and said they would be here at about twelve, that’s in about half an hour. I’ll make us a coffee.”
“Thank you, that would be very nice.” Martha was thinking about the ‘phone call from the twins as she got the drinks ready. Marianne had been her normal terse self, making Martha feel uncomfortable as usual. There was always an atmosphere when the twins came, which no amount of goodwill, coffee and light conversation could dispel. It was better now than in the years following Pierre’s disappearance when there had been no communication at all. Martha had tried to initiate some sort of reconciliation at a Christmas get together but the aunts stated in no uncertain terms that they were going to have nothing to do with it “especially if that man is there”. Martha told her husband Tony about their reaction, they had both mentally shrugged and got on with entertaining their friends. As she started to take more interest in Jean – Claude’s welfare, the twins had softened a bit in their attitude towards her and had eventually agreed to come to her house. Now, five years later, on Jean – Claude’s birthday, they were making one of their infrequent visits. Martha knew that, although it would be hard work, Tony being away for a couple of days would make it a bit easier. On the mantelpiece in front of Jean – Claude were several framed photographs. Martha with Pierre on their wedding day. Lewis, with gown and long hair at his graduation and Jo as a baby. There was also a picture of a large group of friends standing in some trees. Jean – Claude could not see the pictures clearly at that distance but he knew that Tony was there as well as some others. To the right of the fireplace was an alcove with a bookshelf which held some of Tony’s books. He liked Tony, especially enjoying the conversations he had with him about foreign travel. Then his mind went back to the recurring thoughts he had about the strange time looking for his son. Trying to sort out what had happened and meeting blank looks and unhelpful people. Martha had been distraught and he remembered meeting her and Tony in the hotel. She had obviously been crying and looked pale and thin. Her normally slim figure had wasted away and the skin on her face appeared almost translucent. She had collapsed against him, sobbing and he had cried as well. Cried for the boy he had brought up alone in a strange country and then shown the world. He had wept for desperate uncertainty, the hollow pain of loss and the unbearable weight of being unable to support his own morale let alone that of others. It had been a really hard month. Reports had come in from outlying villages – local people reported seeing a gringo that might have been Pierre. Martha and Tony had rushed around trying to investigate stories which all turned out to be false leads. He had stared at the featureless wall of vegetation outside the hotel window and willed the rainforest to give up his son. After a month, the police chief in Puerto Diaz had officially closed the case and made it clear that as far as he was concerned, there was no more to be done. “Bandidos senor” was his final unhelpful verdict – delivered with a shrug from a large swivelling chair to the three of them in a hot whitewashed office with noisy air conditioning. Lewis was crying and being held tight against his mother as they stood in front of the huge desk. Jean – Claude had been overcome with rage and shouted obscenities, leaning on the desk with one hand and using the other to alternately thump the dark varnished oak and stab a finger towards the police chief. Senor Cantilla, sitting back comfortably, had swung his seat back and forth slowly, looked bored and after about a minute, without responding at all to the irate Europeans, shouted for some large uniformed men to escort them from the building. Two weeks later, in an Anglican churchyard, close to the British Embassy in Lima, they had listened to an army chaplain recite from the Book of Common Prayer as they committed an empty urn into a niche in a wall. There had been a form of closure but it was unsatisfying. There was the background drone of traffic from the city street, a few forlorn figures feeling hot and overdressed in jackets and trousers and the pull on Jean – Claude’s hand of Lewis who had stood silently throughout. As they left the walled church yard and filed into Lima’s dusty and potholed streets, Lewis had looked up at his grandfather and with a eight year old’s simplicity said “I wish Daddy was here.”
Martha had returned to the living room with the coffee and put it down on a small table. She saw Jean – Claude rub his watering eyes and put his glasses back on then remembered about his present.
“There you go, your coffee’s on the table. I’ve got something for you” She reached around behind the back of the sofa and lifted out a small parcel.
“Happy Birthday Jean – Claude”
“Oh. Thank you very much.” He opened it with his swollen and red fingers pulling awkwardly at the paper. It was a CD.
“I know you liked the last one, so I got another in the same series” said Martha, watching as he turned it over in his hands.
“Thank you, it looks very good – what does that say there?” He asked, pointing at the writing on the front.
“It says World Music Jean – Claude, it’s mainly African. It’s to play on your headphones.” He turned the slim box over in his hands and made appreciative noises. He didn’t really want another thing that was hard to listen to. He preferred soothing background baroque in his headphones as he sat in front of the enormous windows that looked out towards the hills.
“Lovely, thank you very much.”
Jo was reading in the back seat whilst Lewis drove them to his mother’s house. He hadn’t seen his grandfather for almost a year, and the last time he had been with Ruth. It was important that he showed how well he was coping. At the start, just after the break-up, it felt like surviving but now he was getting closer to a calmer normality. Jo was wearing a new pair of jeans and a top that she had chosen a few weeks before and Lewis had decided that he should wear a jacket and tie. He never wore one at work and the last time had been in court. Those terrible court hearings. Arguing, shouting in frustration and then having to comfort Jo afterwards. How could you explain all that was going on to an eight year old? He blocked out of his mind the thought that he might not see her at the end of each day. As they went down the sandstone steps in between the fluted columns of the court buildings, he had held her hand tightly. Those few steps of release into the outside world got more special every day as the arguments ebbed and flowed and his resolve was strained. Despite his best efforts, the rest of the family had been drawn into the proceedings and most had been vocally supportive of him. It still hung in the air in conversations with his aunts, who skirted round the subject tactlessly and whose unspoken thoughts were most likely to be
“Well … he brought it on himself, acting like that.” His aunts, the twins Marianne and Edith, had been born just up the road in a red brick hospital on the outskirts of Leeds. It was a difficult time; their mother already had two year old Pierre and had only come to live in England a few years before. To the gentle and shy woman who had lived with her husband Jean – Claude on a small French farm, the noise and bustle of the northern city was alien and even the language, originally her mother tongue, sounded strange to her. She had suddenly exchanged the slow rhythms of the Breton countryside, its unchanging calendar of pardons and fete, for the harsher realities and deprivations of an industrial city in the nineteen thirties. As he drove along the main road into town, Lewis checked Jo in the mirror and wondered what had become of the paper mill that he could remember from visiting his mother a few years before. Jean – Claude Renouf had been very pragmatic from the start – they could not stay in France with the baby whilst Germany was becoming dangerous again – he could just remember the first war. Lewis could see this practicality in his grandfather even now, in his eighties. It was a quality that he admired. No nonsense practicality. His grandfather was a kindly man but, like Lewis, he always thought literally rather than laterally. Jean – Claude had decided that he had outgrown the countryside around his home town and the land they had was not productive. Annie, his quiet English wife, had said a few times that she missed her family in Yorkshire and so the time came for them to sell the chickens, the goats and the house and come over to England where Annie’s brother had got Jean – Claude a job in a warehouse. Lewis had often wondered what it must have been like growing up at that time. His grandparents and the baby had initially moved in with Annie’s brother but then after a few months they were able to pay the initial deposit and rental on a small terraced house. There was talk of war in Europe again and it was not really a good time to be an immigrant. Jean – Claude had told Lewis before about the bigotry and bias he had endured at work. So this then was the world that his father had come into. Baby Pierre had been toasted with rough local red wine at his baptism after being splashed by the bucolic Bishop of Guerande with holy water from the medieval font. He had been carried around the fields for one harvest and then rocked to sleep by the rise and fall of waves in the Channel. He had sat on his mother’s knee on the train whilst his father had struggled to make himself understood to the ticket collector and Annie’s patient explanation had sorted it all out. He fed from her breast as they powered through the flat English farmland of the midlands, his father staring at the cattle and the regulated, partitioned patchwork countryside. They had walked slowly out of the station into noise, trams, cars, rain and smoke. His first breath in the town sucked in damp air and made him give a cry loud enough to make his startled mother wrap her coat around him tighter. The twins were born the next year. Annie had agreed with Jean – Claude before about the French name for their first child and they reached an agreement over the twins but Jean – Claude could not compromise over the pronunciation. Even now, when they were in their sixties and Edie had called herself that for many years, her father still addressed her as Edith, pronouncing it so it rhymed with ‘neat’.
“You know”, he’d say in his partly self – mocking way, “Comme Piaf, you know? And she can sing just as well, can’t you ma chere?” Edie would always smile at this and say, in an exaggerated Yorkshire dialect
“Oh, get away with you father, you daft bugger” The twins, as well as their brother Pierre, had lost much of the French that they had learnt from their father as children, although they found in later life that it would come back to them at odd times. Annie had encouraged the children to speak both English and French at home and Lewis had thought this rather strange when he was younger. He was not good at languages at school and he found the ability of his aunts to switch effortlessly between French and English rather irritating. He had pieced together the family history form stories told over lunches and holidays but his interest was always firmly focused on his father; that small baby that had grown up in the north of England and then travelled the world. He had even once visited the old farmhouse in Brittany where his father had been born. He had gone with Ruth and they had stood in front of the dilapidated building. He had tried to imagine the baby mewling in the tiny upstairs bedroom and the animals below in the yard but instead could only see once again the strong broad back of his father as a man. There were only a few very tattered old photographs of Annie that his grandfather kept in a cigar box. She had never known her own son Pierre beyond the age of three. Marianne and Edith would never remember their mother. In nineteen forty - two, as Europe was shaken by war, Jean – Claude stood still by a grave on a patch of wet green Yorkshire grass holding the hand of his small son. Hazy sunshine filtered through grey clouds as he looked up at the wheeling Jackdaws and wondered why he had come this far, to this country, for this awful moment. Pierre stood swinging his leg, looking unknowingly at the grave. He felt his father’s hand shake and kicked a clod of black earth onto the coffin. The twins (“…them Frenchies..”) were tucked up in a drawer at Annie’s brother’s. Jean - Claude came back to their house, still very upset and thanked everyone profusely for their kindness. The slightly baffled residents of Albert Avenue had shuffled nervously and made him tea. Pierre sat on a tall chair, swinging his legs in his shorts. He looked at all the sad uneasy faces and started the long journey that was to be the rest of his life. They had almost finished the coffees when the doorbell rang and Martha went to meet Lewis and Jo with much hugging and kissing in the confined space of the hall. They came through to the living room and Jo curled up on the sofa and cuddled into her great grandfather. Lewis stood in front of the empty fireplace.
“So, eighty six then” he said a little awkwardly, and Jo gave Jean – Claude a present and a big kiss. Jean – Claude laughed quietly, squeezing her arm and then opened the wrapping paper to reveal a picture that Jo had made at school. It was a collage made from scraps of material and paint. He looked at it and turned it slowly through one hundred and eighty degrees.
“I made it at school Grandpa, it’s a jungle”
“Oh yes, so it is. That’s excellent.” He indicated a patch of red material – “What’s this then?”
“That’s a Toucan.”
“Oh yes, of course” They looked at the picture for a few moments whilst Lewis wondered if he should say anything about it. Jo piped up
“Grandpa, you’ve been to the jungle – did you see a Toucan?” He looked thoughtful for a moment and then answered
“I don’t think so. I did see lots of different birds though.” “Like Parrots?” He chuckled.
“Yes, parrots and Macaws and all sorts.” Jo took the picture back from him and said
“I want to see what a jungle is really like” Jean – Claude looked across at Lewis who was smiling
“Well, I and your grandfather and grandmother and father all said the same thing. Perhaps you will. It seems to be what the family Renouf do.” “But you can’t remember the jungle can you Dad?” Lewis still smiling shook his head. There were lots of things he could remember, most of which did not make sense as separate memories. There was a lot of fear and anxiety and something which he did not understand - a feeling of guilt. Jean – Claude was looking out of the window and that sense of unspoken trauma had returned. As usual, whenever Jo started talking about jungles or Lewis’ father or similar, he would try, usually clumsily, to change the subject.
“How are you then Grandpa?”
“Oh, very well thank you – how is the work at the museum? Still looking at all those old fossils?”
“Yes.” And then before he could stop himself he said
“I came across some more of Dad’s specimens the other day” He looked quickly across at his grandfather to check his reaction but to his relief, he was smiling. Lewis continued.
“I thought it was more bones from Africa but there were some from 1972 as well.” Jean –Claude was now looking at his shoes and asked very softly, without much interest - “Were they from small mammals?”
“I’m not sure yet, I expect so. They were all well labelled so I can catalogue them easily. Dad must have given so many specimens to that museum that they could name a gallery after him.” Even while he was speaking, Lewis was aware that he should shut up. Every time he spoke it was either too flippant or harking back to that dark time. There was still so much unspoken about those months. His grandfather had started to look withdrawn and lifted his head to gaze towards the window again. Lewis struggled to lift the mood.
“Tell Grandpa about the work you are doing at school at the moment Jo – about the Romans.” Jo turned to face the old man and started to tell him about Legions, Hadrian’s Wall and underfloor heating. Lewis watched with pride and relief as Jo talked and his grandfather smiled and nodded. He sat down in an armchair and tried to relax. The doorbell rang and Lewis shouted
“I’ll get it!” to his mother in the kitchen and went to open the door. Marianne and Edith stood there side by side, dressed in contrasting colours of coat but both wearing a brooch on their shoulder.
“Hello there! How are you?” Lewis kissed them each on the cheek as they came into the hallway and then stood to one side slightly awkwardly waiting to take their coats.
“You look very well Lewis” said Edith, “so much healthier than last time we saw you.”
“Thank you” said Lewis “I’ve been running a bit recently so I’ve lost some weight.” As usual with his aunts he felt himself role – playing. It seemed sometimes as if they had not been able to adjust to him maturing beyond his teenage years. His break – up with Ruth had been further evidence for them that he wasn’t able to really act in a mature and sensible way. His aunts were austere and self contained – still very similar to look at, they wore glasses of different styles. Jo still sometimes called Marianne “Auntie round - glasses” to differentiate them. They had their father’s pale blue eyes, thin lips and aquiline profile, which gave them an air of condescension and aloofness. They spoke to each other in a form of shorthand, born out of their closeness and many years of living together and so rather disconcertingly, they would often just use single words or phrases when talking to each other. As they took their coats off in the hall and started to move towards the sounds of the kitchen Edith said in response to Lewis standing there
“Coat, thanks” and then Marianne’s questioning raised eyebrows and nod towards the kitchen elicited a
“Martha? OK” Lewis, smiling to himself, hung up the coats as Marianne asked him about Jo and work. He wondered what their monosyllabic conversations must be like at home. In the living room Marianne greeted her father and Jo, commenting on how tall she was and what nice clothes she had on. As Edith and Martha joined them, Jean – Claude beamed and almost visibly swelled with pride as the whole of his immediate family were gathered together. Four generations in one room and, for a change, Lewis felt like the young person of the group. As the twins continued their description of a recent trip to Prague on a budget airline, Lewis went to help his mother in the kitchen. She was almost ready to put the finishing touches to the lunch. Lewis had been thinking about some of the specimens that he’d seen at work that week and had to talk about them.
“I’ve been thinking about a Dad a lot recently” His mother gave him a quick soft smile and carried on getting out the plates.
“Yes, I always think about him at this time of year. We got married in the spring – it would have been our ruby wedding two weeks ago.” Lewis continued
“I’ve been cataloguing some more of his specimens – there are some great early ape bones from Africa that came to us from the Sedgewick museum in Cambridge” . His mother said nothing so he blundered on
“Did he give everything he ever found to museums?” Martha sighed and said with patience born of many years of such conversations with Lewis
“As far as I know, everything up to 1972 and then of course I had all those boxes to sort out when they came back from Peru.”
“It must have been very difficult after the terrible time out there.” Lewis could only dimly remember his mother staring distraught at cardboard boxes brought in by delivery men that contained all of his father’s possessions from South America. As a small boy, he had watched her silently, with dull numbness, remove each piece of clothing one by one from the first box as she knelt beside it making an untidy pile on the carpet. Then she had reached in a brought out a battered felt hat. With her eyes shut, fighting to remain composed, she had slowly lifted it to her face and breathed in. A quiet cry and then she had slumped forward in despair. All the clothes had been burnt.
“I don’t really want to think about it Lewis, especially not today on Grandpa’s birthday.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.” Lewis looked out of the kitchen window at the distant hills, his eyes drawn to the contours of the ridges that he had run so many times before.
“I thought we might go for a walk after dinner” said Martha, “do you think Jo would like that?”
“I’m sure she would. Can I help you with anything?”
“No – we’re just about ready – can you take those plates through please?” Lewis carried the warm plates through to the table and then went back to the living room to tell them that the meal was ready. The twins were looking at the photographs on the mantelpiece. Having been reminded of his parents wedding anniversary, he wondered if they were looking at their brother Pierre and his young American bride in the photo. They commented on all the pictures to each other as they went from one to the other and then said nothing about the one on the end of Tony and his friends with the background of trees.