Palm Trees in the Pyrenees
His death occurred quickly and almost silently. It took only seconds of tumbling and clawing at air before the inevitable thud as he hit the ground. He landed in the space in front of the bedroom window of the basement apartment. As no one was home at the time and as the flat was actually below ground level, he may have gone unnoticed but for the insistent yapping of the scrawny, aged poodle belonging to the equally scrawny and aged Madame Laurent.
Indeed, everything in the town continued as normal for a few moments. The husbands who’d been sent to collect the baguettes for breakfast had stopped, as usual, at the bar to enjoy a customary glass of pastis and a chat with the patron and other customers. Women gathered in the little square beside the river, where the daily produce market took place, to haggle for fruit, vegetables and honey before moving the queue to the boucherie to choose the meat for their evening meals.
Yes, that day began like any other. It was a cold, crisp, February morning and the sky was a bright, clear blue just as it had been every morning since the start of the year. The yellow Mimosa shone out luminously in the morning sunshine from the dark green of the Pyrenees.
Gradually, word filtered out of the boucherie and down the line of waiting women that the first spring lamb of the season had made its way onto the butcher’s counter, and everyone wanted some. Conversation switched from whether Madame Portes actually grew the Brussels sprouts she sold on her stall or simply bought them at the supermarket in Perpignan then resold them at a higher price, to speculating whether or not there would be sufficient lamb to go round. A notable panic rippled down the queue at the very thought of there not being enough as none of the women wanted to disappoint her family. That would be unacceptable in this small Pyrenean spa town, as in this small town, like many others in the region, a woman’s place as housewife and mother was esteemed and revered. Even though many held jobs outside the home, their responsibility to their family was paramount.
Yes, everyone followed their usual routine until the siren blared out – twice. The siren was a wartime relic that had never been decommissioned even though the war had ended over half a century before. It was retained as a means of summoning the pompiers, who were not only the local firemen but also paramedics. One blast of the siren was used when there was a minor road accident or if someone took unwell at the spa but two blasts was for something extremely serious.
The last time there were two blasts was when a very drunken Jean-Claude accidentally shot Monsieur Reynard while mistaking him for a boar. Fortunately Monsieur Reynard recovered, but he still had a piece of shot lodged in his head which caused his eye to squint when he was tired. This served as a constant reminder to Jean-Claude of what he’d done as he had to see Monsieur Reynard every day in the cherry orchard where they both worked.
On hearing two blasts of the siren, everyone stopped in their tracks and everything seemed to stand still. A hush fell over the town as people strained to listen for the shrill sounds of the approaching emergency vehicles. Some craned their necks skyward hoping to see the police helicopter arrive from Perpignan and, whilst all were shocked that something serious had occurred, they were also thrilled by the prospect of exciting, breaking news. Gradually, the chattering restarted. Shopping was forgotten and the market abandoned. The boucherie was left unattended as its patron followed the crowd of women making their way to the main street. In the bar, the glasses of pastis were hastily swallowed instead of being leisurely sipped as everyone rushed to see what had happened.
As well as police and pompiers, a large and rather confused group of onlookers arrived outside an apartment building owned by an English couple called Carter. They arrived on foot and on bicycles. They brought ageing relatives, pre-school children, prams and shopping. Some even brought their dogs. Everyone peered and stared and chatted to each other. It was like a party without the balloons or streamers.
There was a buzz of nervous excitement as the police from the neighbouring larger town began to cordon off the area around the apartment block with tape. Monsieur Brune was told in no uncertain terms to restrain his dog, as it kept running over to where the body lay and was contaminating the area in more ways than one.
A slim woman wearing a crumpled linen dress was sitting on a chair in the paved garden of the apartment block, just inside the police line. Her elbows rested on her knees and she held her head in her hands. Her limp, brown hair hung over her face. Every so often she lifted her chin, opened her eyes and took in great, gasping breaths of air as if she was in danger of suffocating. Her whole body shook. Madame Carter, Belinda, hadn’t actually fainted but she was close to it. Her skin was clammy and her pallor grey. Her eyes threatened at any moment to roll back in their sockets and blot out the horror of what she’d just seen.
She was being supported by her husband, David, who was visibly shocked. His tall frame sagged as if his thin legs could no longer support his weight and he kept swiping away tears from his face with the backs of his hands. He looked dazed and, from time to time, he covered his mouth with his hand as if trying to hold in his emotions but he was completely overcome.
The noise from the crowd became louder and more excitable and words like “accident,” “suicide” and even “murder” abounded. Claudette, the owner of the bar that stood across the street from the incident, supplied the chair on which Belinda now sat. She realized that she was in a very privileged position, being inside the police line, so Claudette stayed close to the chair and Belinda. She patted the back of Belinda’s hand distractedly, while endeavouring to overhear tasty morsels of conversation to pass on to her rapt audience. The day was turning into a circus and everyone wanted to be part of the show.
Finally, a specialist team arrived. There were detectives, uniformed officers, secretaries, people who dealt with forensics and even a dog handler. The tiny police office was not big enough to hold them all so they commandeered a room at the Mairie, which is our town hall.
It took the detectives three days to take statements and talk to the people who were present in the building when the man, named Steven Gold, fell. Three days of eating in local restaurants and drinking in the bars much to the delight of the proprietors. I presumed these privileged few had expense accounts, a facility we local police did not enjoy. I assumed that my hard earned taxes paid for these expense accounts yet none of my so called colleagues asked me to join them.
They were constantly being accosted by members of the public and pumped for information. Indeed everyone in the town wanted to be their friend and be a party to a secret they could pass on to someone else. There was a buzz of excitement about the place that I hadn’t experienced for a very long time. People who hadn’t attended church for years suddenly wanted to speak to the priest. The doctor who’d attended the corpse had a full appointment book. And everyone wanted to buy me a drink so they could ask me questions. I thought it would never end. But it did. As quickly as it had started, everybody packed up, and then they were gone.
You must be wondering who is telling you this. Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Danielle and I am a cop, or flic as I am called here in France. I hope you will be patient with me as English is not my first language.
I am attending the funeral of Steven Gold, the unfortunate man who fell from the apartment block owned by the Carters. He was a local businessman, and before he settled here in France, it is rumoured he’d been struck off as a solicitor in England. Most of the townspeople are here as all are curious. We don’t get incidents like this happening very often, or indeed ever before, so it has caused a great deal of excitement and speculation. The gathering can be divided into the handful of people who liked the man, those who disliked or even hated him, rather more of them, in fact too many to count, and of course the usual group of religious or lonely people who attend every funeral.
Actually, most of the people attending disliked the man so much they’re being guarded with their conversations lest someone thinks their negativity or ill feelings towards him may in some way have contributed to his death.
I was the first person on the scene that day as I was about to ticket an illegally parked car which was blocking an entrance outside the Carter’s apartment block. People are always upset when they receive a parking ticket. They argue that they’ve only been gone for a minute or two or that their business was so urgent the law should bend for them. They are always unreasonable and usually blame me personally for their mistake.
On that day, I was at first more surprised than shocked when I saw him lying there. He had landed in an almost perfect foetal position and he fitted exactly into the small space outside the basement, bedroom window. His head was resting on a flowerpot and he looked comfortable. If it were not for the blood, one would have assumed he’d simply lain down when drunk and fallen asleep.
I had to call out to Madame Laurent and ask her to stand back and not come any closer as she was edging forward to see what had happened. Her yapping dog was making me nervous and I had enough to contend with without her having hysterics or a heart attack. One corpse was quite enough.
With jelly legs and shaking hands I went through the ritual of checking for a pulse, being careful not to touch anything except his wrist. I would have felt his neck where the pulse is easier to detect but I didn’t want to get his blood on my hands. My heart was thumping and my fingers were sweating so much that I couldn’t feel a thing, but it didn’t matter, I knew he was dead. It would have been obvious to anyone.
His head was split almost in two and there was a lake of rapidly congealing blood under him. I was simply going through the motions as I’d been trained to do. I knew I’d be expected to write a report and, being a cop who dealt mostly with traffic offences or the occasional drunk, and being the only officer actually stationed in town, I didn’t know what else to do as I’d had little experience of death. I hoped and prayed someone with more authority would arrive soon as a crowd was gathering and I was scared of losing control of the situation.
The funeral service is relatively short and conducted both in French and English for the benefit of Steven’s family and acquaintances from England. He’d been recently married for the second time and, in fact, some of the congregation had attended his wedding in this same small church only eight months before.
There is much unkind speculation that his Hungarian widow will miss him less than one might have expected because she now has his substantial fortune to keep her company and she no longer needs his permission to spend it. In this small town, people like to gossip and their words are rarely kind. Many people think that the young Hungarian man by the widow’s side isn’t really her cousin but actually her lover.
The gathering, as is the custom, has now moved to the town hall where food and wine have been laid on for the mourners. Few are mourning but all are partaking of the food and wine. As I look around me I see that dotted amongst the crowd are all the people who were present at the apartment block when Steven met his untimely death. All of them are foreigners, not one Frenchman amongst them. There are the Carters, of course, Belinda and David, and beside them stand their tenants Kurt and Rosa. Near the door is Byron who was a business associate of the deceased—he is accompanied by his son-in-law Mark—and just entering the hall is an English couple that I‘ve seen once or twice in town but to whom I have yet to be formally introduced.