The days clattered down like rows of dominoes. Pepper's voice broke and so did his mother's heart, knowing'The Time' must be near. She bit her lip and prayed for her boy's end to come painlessly, without suffering. Aunt Mireille, though, was more practical. She rehearsed him in what to say when he reached Paradise: greetings and messages for him to deliver when he met up with the Blessed Dead. When he failed to learn them, she took to pushing slips of paper into his pockets, and up the cuffs of his nightshirt.'Now be sure to give this to Aunt Félice, won't you, child? And this to Père Michel.' There would be others, when he went up to bed, pinned to his bedhead with sewing needles or brooches:
'Kindly pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Your obedient servant, Mireille Lepont (Miss).'
Pepper himself took to climbing to the top of anything tall - hills, trees, roofs - to see if Death was riding towards him on a white horse, under a black banner, or preceded by a pillar of fire. He scanned the sky for angels sitting on the clouds fishing for souls with perch rods; for fiery chariots descending to kidnap him. Heights did not frighten him. After years of wondering how he would die - comparing the options, as it were - he had decided that Falling would be best: it would feel quite like flying on the way down, and the pain would be quickly over. Not that he would get to choose. Childhood was a gin trap from which he could never expect to escape. The world was something happening to other people - people with destinations other than a plot in the graveyard. So Pepper perched, like a migratory bird on a twig, waiting for winter.
But winter did not come.
His aunt treated him more and more coldly, like a guest who has outstayed his welcome. Even his father found him a sort of embarrassment -'What, you still here, boy?' - when he came home between voyages.
'I'm sorry, Papa.'
'Are you sure you didn't mis-hear, Mireille?' the captain snapped at his sister-in-law.'Mistake fourteen for forty? Easy mistake. Fourteen. Forty.'
Pepper was so taken with this idea that he leapt upright in his chair and knocked over a glass of water that swamped his aunt's bread plate.
No, Mireille assured them, poking her wetted bread disgustedly with a fork: Saint Constance had very good diction and formed all her words beautifully. She had definitely said Pepper would be dead by the time he was fourteen. 'In fact... ' said Mireille, remembering to mention it for the first time,'in fact, she has repeated it to me on several occasions. FOURTEEN.'
To escape their reproach, Pepper took himself off into the fields and shot inanimate objects with his father's pistol. He had no taste for shooting live things, like rats or pigeons: he felt too much in common with them, being short-lived and a bit of a nuisance himself. He would have liked to shoot all the wretched rooks that were plaguing the estate. Aunt Mireille promised that birds-of-ill-omen would'gather overhead when The Hour has come'. But he supposed it was unkind to shoot the rooks just because they wore funeral black.
'We thought a trip to church and then a walk as far as the river,' said Auntie, as Pepper sat down to his last breakfast.
'I went to confession yesterday,' he said.
'Can we go on our knees too often before the throne of God?' enquired Mireille in a whisper, as though she were already in church. Pepper was tempted to say that yes, he thought one probably could. His kneecaps had large ugly calluses on them from kneeling to pray. What maiden would ever look kindly upon such kneecaps? Aunt Mireille frequently told him to loathe his mortal flesh. But Pepper could only manage to loathe his knees. The rest of him he was secretly rather fond of. Like a beautiful watch, it might not go for long without stopping, but it was pretty even so.
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