The Mill House

Can a place hold an imprint of past events? Is it possible for a house to hold, in its stone and mortar the memories of tragedies unfolded there? Here’s a story for you; it’s a long and sad one, so you have been warned.

In a village near where I live stands an old mill house and the ruins of its mill. The house is decaying. Blank windows curtained with thick ivy look out over the maize fields. In parts the roof has yielded to the elements and inside, garlands of cobwebs hang from every corner, swaying in the slightest draught to release a powdery cloud of ancient flour dust.

It was not always so.

More than a century ago the mill ground the flour for the village and the river that rushed past offered here and there a quiet pool where women could do their laundry and gossip about those things that are left unsaid when men are around.

Now the miller and his wife had a daughter; she was about eight or nine; pretty, with long brown hair and dark eyes that more often than not sparkled with mischief. Let’s call her Rosie.

One particular washing day, whilst her mother and some village women scrubbed and rubbed their smalls, Rosie wandered off upstream, bored with all the chatter. Some time later one of the women called out:
“Hey, who’s lost their bloomers?” and pointed to a white bundle floating gently towards them. Amidst the laughter Rosie’s mother looked around, a stab of fear in her heart.
“Rosie? Where’s Rosie?” she cried.
As the bundle drifted into the washing pool a slight current caught it up, rolling it over.
The mother’s anguished scream pierced the air as she looked at the bundle for floating face upward, bright eyes forever closed, was little Rosie.

And the villagers said “what a tragedy”.

Afterwards, the miller’s wife unable to support life at the mill moved away to a nearby town. The miller however stayed on, grimly working. Over the next ten years he became slovenly and careless in his work; the village folk took their corn elsewhere and he spent his days sitting in the mill with a skin of wine for company. One day, on a whim, he decided to set the grindstones to work again. The rusting machinery groaned into action and the massive round stones began to turn when there was a loud crack and one of the stones split into three. The miller stumbled to his feet as one of the pieces crashed down onto the floor. As it fell a floorboard sprang up on its end, hitting the miller a tremendous blow on his forehead. He lay insensible for two days before one his neighbours found him. He drifted in and out of consciousness for a further week until with his last breaths, he cursed the day he ever came to the mill.

And the villagers said “what a tragedy for the family.”

That however, is not the end of the tale. For more than twenty years the house stood empty despite the miller’s heir, a distant cousin, offering it for let. True, two of three families came to live there but stayed only a short while. Then, a friend of the cousin moved in – a middle-aged lady who had fallen on hard times. She arrived, despite her penury, well-dressed and as plump as a Christmas goose. However, as the months passed by, the fat fell away and her clothes hung shapelessly. She grew thinner and thinner; hollow-cheeked and with dark purple shadows beneath the eyes. Eventually, one wild night, she let go of her life.

The doctors said “cancer” but the villagers whispered “it’s a cursed place”.

The years rolled forward and the mill house was again left to itself and the cousin who owned it despaired of ever selling it or putting it to good use. The roof of the mill fell in and the walls quickly followed. The house itself began to crumble as the voracious beetles set to their work. Yet, in spite of its condition a new tenant did come forward and the cousin hastily made some repairs.

The newcomer, a widow with one son, came from the north, full of common-sense and practicality. No doubt she heard the village whispers – “a cursed house –holds nothing but misfortune for all who live there – it’s an evil place” but her northern nous dismissed all that. It seemed as though all went well for a couple of years. Then the widow’s son arrived home from his work in the local textile mill and announced:
“Ma mère, I’ve joined the Legion.”
His mother stared blankly for a moment before screeching:
“You’ve done what?”
“I’ve joined the Foreign Legion.”

Well she screamed and drummed her heels but the lad was adamant. Some days later he left to attend his medical examination which included vaccinations necessary for Legionnaires serving overseas. When he returned that evening he complained of feeling unwell and took himself off to his bed. In the morning, hearing no sound of activity from her son’s room, the widow bundled out of bed to wake him. She opened his bedroom door and gasped. There he lay, paralysed, unable to move a limb or to speak. Only his eyes moved and these, wide with fear, fixed on his mother. The widow called an ambulance and for weeks the lad remained in hospital as the doctors puzzled over him. The widow’s son never made it into the Legion.

After his death the doctors said it was a rare and violent reaction to the vaccinations.
And the villagers whispered “there’s something bad about that house; it’s cursed.”

Now the house moved into the ownership of yet another scion of that almost forgotten miller’s family. This heir was a townsman with no interest in a place in the country. He removed temptation from the village kids by boarding up the windows and padlocking the doors before leaving the place to its own devices. More years slipped by and the townsman, nearing retirement, decided to pep up his pension pot by letting out the house to the tourists who were beginning to travel to the region. After a lick and spittle clean-up he was fortunate to secure a long-term tenant willing to pay what seemed like an extraordinarily silly amount of rent.

“I want peace and quiet” the tenant drawled (he was an American) “and I’m willing to pay for it but don’t you be bugging me for more.”

Quickly pocketing the proffered cash the townsman took himself off. The American lived quietly and was scarcely seen, heard or known of, in the village. This new generation of villagers paid no heed to the old wives tales and whispers, yet now and again a few of the old folk, gossiping in the late afternoon sun would ask “is he still there do you know?” and whisper “there’s something evil about that place.”

It came as no surprise to them to learn that a year or so after his arrival, the American was found dead in a ditch in front of the mill house with the back of his head stove in. The murder is logged today as “unsolved” and the house is abandoned.

Was this just a concatenation of tragic events?
Or can a house resonate with the horror and tragedy of the past to shape the lives and deaths of those who occupy it?

Author’s denial
None of these events actually happened – well not all of them;
Mill House doesn’t exist – well not really.
This is merely a piece of whimsy on my part whilst playing around with an idea for another short story.

Or is it?

Harvest Festivals

Autumn is in the air down here at Ste Colombe, signalled by chilly early mornings and plumes of wood-smoke drifting upwards into a blue sky as my neighbours fire up their stoves. Yet before long, the sun is up, breaching the shadows in the courtyard of my house and the über-snails retreat to the coolness of crevices in the stone walls whilst the lizards come out to play hide and seek between the gnarly wisteria branches.

Although the summer frolics of festivities and fêtes are over and the grape harvest is underway it is now time to pay homage to humble fruit and vegetables and so we have celebrations of the virtues of onions, garlic, apples, sweet chestnuts and even the lowly spud. At these fêtes you can wonder at the sheer variety, sample the goodies and buy, buy, buy ‘til your purse drains dry.

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Yesterday was the fête de chataigne (the sweet chestnut fair) together with a vide-grenier (car boot sale),fairground stalls and the obligatory oomph-pa band. The vide-grenier was a large one and clearly sellers had enthusiastically ransacked every cupboard, cellar, attic and barn . Clothes, toys, books and CDs, old tools, kitchenware, granny’s favourite coffee set, painstakingly embroidered bed-linen – if you could name it, you would find it. So it was that an old wooden vinegar barrel, two sets of wall lights, a pressed glass lampshade and a ceramic cafetière found themselves in the back of big bro’s van and on their way to Petite Rue.

Later in the day, in sweltering heat, the sweet chestnuts were roasting and a tray-full of artisan bread baked over an open fire filling the air with a mouth-watering savoury aroma. However it was the sweet stall that attracted my attention. Goodies of all shapes and sizes, in the most garish array of colours and oozing with sugar – were they as wild in taste as they were in appearance? Was it enough to tempt this gal to abandon her quest to discover her lost waistline? Did she fall by the wayside and give in? Well that’d be telling.

The Lady of the Lake

Here’s a salutary tale for those so smitten by their lady-loves that they commit very silly acts!

In the village of Puivert, a few kilometres from where I live, is a castle perched high on the mountainside overlooking a small man-made lake. IMG_3504

But in times past there was a huge lake confined by stone barrages. However, a certain Aragonaise princess, let’s call her Dame Blanche because she had a thing about always wearing white, visited the castle, fell in love with the surroundings and above all with the lake that stretched out below the castle towers. So enamoured of the place did she become, that she prolonged her visit until she became a permanent resident in the castle. This was much to the liking of the seigneur of the castle, one Jean de Bruyère, who had taken a fancy to Dame Blanche; whether his missus was entirely thrilled was another matter. So, Dame Blanche mooched around the lake every day, communing with nature, talking to the birds and generally not doing very much at all.

As happens to all of us age began to creep up on her and she had increasing difficulty in getting around the lake to do her communing thing. However, she found a rock, strangely enough shaped just like an armchair where she could perch her derrière and while away the hours in contemplation of the lapping waters, the tranquillity and the way the sunsets seemed to set the lake afire, surrounded of course by her entourage always ready to fetch and carry.

Then, one day a rainstorm swelled the lake waters and the wind whipped the ripples into waves which spilled over the banks, submerging the Dame’s stone seat. This catastrophe filled the lady with sadness; she slipped into a green and yellow melancholy and withdrew within the castle walls. However, one of her pages, no doubt a bit lacking in nous, suggested to her that if a hole was made in the lake’s retaining wall the water level would fall and she would be able to recover her seat which, as an added bonus would always be dry.

The Dame put this idea to the besotted master of the castle who could not naysay her and he promptly set his minions to work on creating a hole. Unfortunately, no-one gave any thought to the effects of the pressure of water behind the wall escaping through this small breach. The inevitable happened and the whole wall collapsed unleashing a torrent of water down the valley, flooding the village of Mirepoix some 30 kilometres away causing loss of life and untold damage.

Mirepoix Market Place
It is said that the lady herself was carried away by the flood water and today, she haunts the castle. When it rains in Puivert she may be seen staring out of a window in one of the towers, no doubt contemplating the damage she caused.
And the moral of the tale…well you decide.

(Photos courtesy of June Berridge Photography)

If music be the food of love…

…then I’m in the right place in the right country because it was here in the Languedoc that European literature is said to have been born. Right on my doorstep is Puivert Chateau, whose Lords were some of strongest supporters of the Troubadors, those poet/musicians of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Puivert Chateau

Puivert Chateau


These men and women, mostly well-educated and often of high status, created their sophisticated and often raunchy poetry, written in Occitan (the language of Languedoc) and set to music. They held to high ideals and a philosophy of equality based on virtues rather than family connections or wealth.

Throughout the countryside they were welcomed at the Chateaux of their patrons whilst becoming an an anathema to the Catholic church. This hatred arose probably from two issues. Firstly many of their patrons followed or supported the Cathar sect – a bunch of heretics in the eyes of the Church. Secondly, their work lauded both romantic and sexual love – women were an ennobling force as opposed to the Church’s view that women and sex were sinful.

The songs of the Troubadors embraced a number of themes including love, eroticism, war, nature and political satire. But it is the Amour Courtois (courtly love) that blended both erotic desire and spiritual aspirations for which they are most remembered. Courtly love was seen to have six attributes:
– Literary – made popular first in song and verse and then carried out in real life.
– Aristocratic – practised by Lords and Ladies in palaces and chateaux.
– Secret – no-one else must know about it and so it included secret meetings, hidden codes of conduct, gestures and tokens.
– Ritual – included the exchange of gifts and tokens. The woman was the dominant partner and received songs, poems, flowers and favours from her besotted Knight. He would try to make himself worthy of her through deeds of derring-do. She was only required to give a nod of approval for unrequited love was part of the game.
– Adulterous – eventually it included extra-marital rumpy-pumpy as a way of escaping from the marriages of convenience, made for economic or political reasons. Troubadors were cavalier about the concept of marriage seeing it as a ploy of the Church. Their ideal was a relationship based simply on a meeting of minds, bodies and souls.

They accompanied their poetry and songs with a range of musical instruments notably the lute, the cornemuse (a bit like a bagpipe), rebec, tambourine, cithern and psaltery.

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Inevitably as the Church escalated its war against the Cathars the culture of the Troubadors declined leaving other poets such as Chaucer, Dante and Malory to carry forward their work.

A Tale of Two Cats

They appear silently, stealthily in the garden; all colours, thin yet agile. They bask in the sun on the wall tops and stare arrogantly at me before swarming away. They are the feral cats. Once they were fed by the previous owner of the house but I have hardened my heart and refuse to let any old itinerant moggy use the place as a convenient pit-stop.

Earlier this week, a bit bleary eyed I took my first cuppa of the day out to the garden. Whilst I mused on the delights in store for me I became aware of a tabby cat, lying flat out in the loggia. A peremptory “shoo” didn’t move it and since I was wearing flipflops I thought a toe-poke out of the question. I picked up the broom and gently prodded it. Not a whisker twitched…well it wouldn’t, it was stone dead; popped its clogs; gone to pussy paradise. It had ceased to be. This was a very a dead cat.

Unwilling to let the heat of the day do its worst I decided to bury it in the orchard. So there I was at six in the morning, armed with a small spade digging a hole in ground that obstinately refused to be dug. Every so often during this labour I looked furtively around to see if anyone was watching and mistook my intent. Eventually the deed was done and the only evidence was a large hump in the grass.

This charming domestic event reminded me of a half-written story that I abandoned and I thought that even though I couldn’t revive the cat perhaps I could do something for the story which, by happenchance involved a rather smart and mysterious feline. So I spent the day wielding pen instead of paintbrush.

The following night – actually it was three in the morning – I woke up suddenly. I could hear a clicking sound, sort of tchk, tchk tchk in my bedroom. At first I thought I’d been dreaming but then this dreadful pong at my bedhead assaulted my senses. Then, more tchk, tchk. I lay still running through in my head all the possibilities. Billy goat? Nah, too big. Squirrel? Not smelly enough. Snake? We had seen a big one on a walk a few days earlier. Had it followed us home? Do they make tchk tchk noises? Bats with bad indigestion? I could bear it no longer. Gingerly I reached out to switch on the bedside light and my hand brushed something soft and scrunchy. I squeaked, grobbled for the light switch only to find myself grasping my wheatie-bag which I’d used to soothe my aching back.

The lamp filled the room with sinister shadows and I peered around. Was that really a heap of washing in one corner or was something crouching waiting to pounce? Eventually, I gathered what little courage I possess (and it ain’t much) and slowly, fearfully, slid out of bed. It was then I noticed that the door was open several inches and I always have it shut. I didn’t feel able to confront this evil in the buff (yes dear reader I’ve abandoned the pj’s)so pulled on a dressing gown, found my stoutest shoes and made a dash for the door and the main light switch. In the full light I could see no trace of the intruder but, boy, could I smell him. I tiptoed out to the landing, down the creaky stairs and down to my kitchen on the ground floor; nothing… other than this choking pong that Old Nick himself would be proud of.

Finally I decided that I had vanquished whatever it was and after a thorough search of the kitchen…just to be sure…I made myself a consolatory cuppa, opened the back door and sat on the bench just outside. Deciding that a quick ciggie would calm ragged nerves I lit up whereupon this huge ginger cat shot out of the house, swarmed up the courtyard wall where it paused, gave me a withering look and disappeared into the night, leaving only eau de tomcat as a lasting reminder. The cuppa went one way, the ciggie another and I flopped into a gibbering wreck.

This morning I’ve rather a lot of washing to do…oh and some floor scrubbing too.

A Bit of a Stew

I hate to say it, let alone write it but there’s a hint of a twinge of autumn in the air here in the Languedoc. Days are warm and sunny but there’s a bit of a chill in the evenings now. Summer plants are starting to give up the ghost, many of the second-homers have packed and gone and Vincent, the local log man is busy trundling up and down the street with a lorry full of logs. My turn came this morning when 4 cubic metres of beech logs were tipped in the orchard ready for barrowing up the path to the log store. An hour or so later, bowed of back and cronky of knee I sat drinking a reviving something-or-other and started thinking about filling the freezer for the winter to come. From there it was a hop and a skip to thinking about cassoulet – that iconic dish about which there is much controversy. Mind you that’s not saying much; as someone once said, put four Frenchmen together and they’ll have no difficulty in holding six different opinions.

Cassoulet, if you haven’t been introduced, is a thick, heavy stew comprising haricot beans (about which variety there is also much dispute), duck confit, garlic sausage and pork. That is if you are an aficionado of the Castelnaudary cassoulet (the birth place of cassoulet if its citizens are to be believed). On the other hand, should you vote for the Toulouse cassoulet you would have the eponymous sausage, mutton and goose whereas in Carcassonne there would be the addition of partridge, especially in the hunting season. So you pays your money and takes your pick.

Castelnaudary’s claim derives from the story of how during the misnamed Hundred Years war, (1337-1453) the Brits, led by the Black Prince, besieged the town. Its good men and, more likely, women gathered together all the remaining bits of food and decided to make a huge hearty stew for the soldiers defending the town. So hearty and fortifying was it that it promptly resuscitated the soldiers’ derring-do and they gave the old heave-ho to the Brits and saved the city from British occupation – shades of Monty Python.

Another more prosaic view is that it is a melange of culinary cultures including Arab and Catalan.

Equally under dispute is the pot or cassole in which this chef d’oeuvre is cooked. It is agreed that it must be earthenware, made from the local red clay and glazed outside but not in. Originally the pot was a cauldron placed on an open fire of gorse wood collected from the Montaigne Noir (these are some local mountains). I know, I know, but these details are important if you wish to join the cassoulet club. Later things changed and oo la la, the shape – the shape it is everything. It is the shape about which cassoulet connoisseurs disagree. Some advocate the conical pot, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top. This is said to expose the beans to the heat of the oven. Others pooh-pooh this concept and go for a wide round one so that the beans don’t dry out. What is necessary is that the skin that forms as the dish is cooking must be broken and then stirred in again seven times.

the cassoulet pot

I’ll leave the last words to chef Montagné who, in 1928, perhaps in an attempt to pour oil on troubled cassoulets, described the dish as his gastronomic holy trinity:
“Cassoulet is the God of Occitan (Languedoc) cuisine; a God in three persons. God the Father is that of Castelnaudary; God the son of Carcassonne and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse”
I look forward to tasting all three at the forthcoming Fête du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary at the end of the month. Lots of music; lots of guzzling; Yummy.

An Accident, A Disaster and a Duff Plum Tart

It’s Thursday morning, around 9.00am and there is a suspiciously large amount of activity in Petite Rue. Shutters are flung wide, pots and pans rattle and a delicious muddle of savoury and sweet scents fills the street drawing in the village cats. They menace any injudiciously open window, yowling, eyes a-glitter tails stiff and upright to warn off any competition. By 10.30 the village shop has had a run on eggs, milk and flour and when I trundle there on a quest for ground almonds all I can find is a small packet of salted whole ones for snacks.

It is of course the day of the “voisinade”, our street party. We all pay 5 euros for the meat, wine and bread and then each household brings either an entrée or a dessert and we have a good old knees-up.

A quick trip to my neighbour Sandra furnishes the ground almonds and the fun begins. I’ve opted to use up the plethora of plums from the garden transforming them into a tart. The plums are to be doused in calvados and set into an almond base. So far so good. Down in my bat cave (aka my kitchen) I start to cut open the plums and in one after another, a disgusting mass of midget maggots writhes in greeting. It takes several kilos of plums just to find some fit to eat.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the apartment kitchen, Barbara, my brother’s significantly better half, is far more daring than I. She has opted to make a pavlova – a meringue circle filled with cream and fresh fruit from the market. Alas, these French eggs haven’t heard of E.L.James. Their whites resolutely refuse to be whipped into soft peaks as per the recipe and after a brief consultation we hie to ever-helpful Sandra, to borrow an electric whisk. Finally, Barbara calls time on the whipping, takes a swig of something that looks like alcohol and bundles the whole lot into the oven. After an hour and some anxious peeks, the obstreperous mix gives a sad sigh and collapses over the tray into something akin to a pancake.

Nothing daunted meringue mark II is born but…oops some of that pesky egg yolk smuggles itself into the mix. A quick trip to the shop and nursing yet another clutch of eggs, the indomitable Barbara starts again. By this time lunch is well past and nothing solid has touched our lips. Mark II is encased in the oven and Mark I removed in disgrace to my kitchen where we stuff it in a cooling oven. By this time the plum tart is done, a bit saggy in the middle, but hey, who am I to talk. It looks good and I allow myself a brief frisson of satisfaction or is it smugness?

Meanwhile up in the apartment kitchen Barbara keeps an anxious vigil on Mark II which shows every sign of following in the footsteps of its predecessor.

Some hours later, Mark I meringue (the pancake meringue) is released from its oven and whilst trying to slip it onto a plate, The Accident happens and it slides off on its own little journey to collapse into sugary morsels which we throw artistically on a plate, slather with squirty cream and stir in slices of juicy peaches. Eton Mess has nothing on this.

Time is pressing so we decide Mark II has had enough of our attention and gingerly Barbara removes her day’s opus from the oven. Only, instead of the perky fluffed up crown we expect, we have something resembling a well-trodden sombrero. The Disaster! When faced with disaster reach for the G&T and make a few dozen biscuits instead.

The street party is a hoot and we get to meet neighbours and move from the formal “vous” to the more friendly “tu” mode of addressing them.The babel of conversation rises in proportion to the quantity of wine flowing and the Disco plays on until 2.00am. Everyone has a great time and agrees sagely that “this is how village life should be”.

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The irony of this tale is that every morsel of meringues Mark I and II was scoffed. Not a scrap remained and Barbara recovered the empty plates in triumph. The biscuits were yummy too. As for my plum tart… well, anyone want half a duff plum tart?