Oh yeah? What colour is it then?
See? No one's heard of it. She made it up, to get us out of the apartment. She does that sometimes because she gets all cooped up. Mothers need air and space and freedom. They're like birds, if you keep them in a cage they go mad. It isn't just dads that need to fly. Plus they've been arguing on the phone.
-- All your fault!
-- My fault? Did you say my fault?
And she's trying to make everything all right again. That's what women do. They do Emotional Work. If they don't do Emotional Work he might stay away for ever and drink beer and cognac in bars and plot how to destroy our family with his evil mother called Lucille, who sent me a birthday card with fifty euros in it and a photo of her and Papa when he was a boy with their dog called Youqui who got run over by a tractor. His legs were paralysed so they had to do Mercy Killing. That's a bit like Right of Disposal but the rules are less fun.
-- Now let's see, goes Maman. - I've packed the suitcase. We're spending Saturday night in a hotel near Vichy, then we'll drive back to Lyon on Sunday night. Papa's got the whole weekend off, so we're having a bit of a treat. Now, picnic hamper, thermos. . .
* * *
The picnic things all look brand new, maybe it's part of Emotional Work. I've never seen this stuff before, plastic plates and cups and knives and forks, because we've never gone on a picnic before. I've been on picnics, but not with them. With school. On school trips. If you drop litter you have to go back and pick it up. The teachers get you to sing stupid songs and on the way back, someone pukes in the coach. I see what's in the hamper when she puts it in the car boot. I lift the lid of the freezer-box and there's the food, all wrapped in cling film that's dangerous for children because if you stretch it over your face you look cool like a mega-violent criminal but then you suffocate and die. There's pâté and saucisson sec secretly called donkey dick, and Camembert and grapes and a birthday cake from Pâtisserie Charles. Papa comes and looks too. - You've really gone to town, Natalie, he says. And that's what I think too but I don't say anything.
-- You're only forty once, says Maman. Donkey dick, says Papa secretly to me, but not aloud, just moving his mouth.
-- Can I bring Mohammed? I go. -No, cheri, says Maman. -Sorry. Out of the question.
But Papa says, Why not, just as long as he stays in Alcatraz, so Mohammed goes in the car too, in the boot with the food even though it's OK to leave him for as long as ten days because he's a low-maintenance pet. And hey, just look at us, we're being a family again, with a mum and a dad and a hamster. And Maman slams the door of the boot and we get in the Volkswagen Passat that has a six-stack CD player and a sunroof and Papa puts on his sunglasses that make him look cool like a gangster, and clicks his seatbelt and starts the car, zzhhmm, and turns and smiles at us, and says 'let's hit the road', like nothing's wrong, like they might love each other again, like there isn't going to be a man in bandages who hasn't got a face, and like nothing terrible's going to happen.
* * *
Fine weather and death should never go together. But on the day of Louis' final accident, they did: it happened on a lovely afternoon in early April in the mountains of the Auvergne. Cool but with a bright sun. It's wild, extravagantly rugged country, much favoured by speleologists, who come to explore and chart the underground cave systems made by earthquakes and volcanic disturbances millennia ago; deep rifts and fissures that stretch for miles, puckering the earth's crust like scar tissue. The picnic site, near the town of Ponteyrol, was a sheltered spot on a mountainside, scented with wild thyme. I suspect that even the gendarmes, busy with photographs and maps, couldn't help noticing how seductive their surroundings were. The roar of the ravine far below is soothing rather than menacing. You could be lulled to sleep by the rush of those waters. Some of gendarmes may even have thought of returning here with their families, one summer Sunday in the future though they would not have mentioned how they came to know the place, or spoken of the catastrophe that occurred there.
Excerpted from The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen. © Liz Jensen, 2003. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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