The trees cast dappled shadows in long streaks, striping the ground and breaking up the sunshine, a stark contrast to the clear, pale blue sky. A hint of damp lent a chill freshness to the early morning air, which promised to disappear with the heat of the day. Milo pushed the hammock and watched it swing sluggishly back and forth. Devoid of life. Left abandoned as if grieving its own emptiness. How would he survive the entire summer, alone, waiting, like the hammock?
No one else was awake; he was by himself. The only sounds were those imbued by nature. The tap, tap, tap, of a woodpecker resounded from somewhere inside the forest, but he couldn't see it, hidden as it was by the dense shade. The deeper you went, the more sombre it became. He tried not to think about it, not to dwell on the darkness, but when he was alone like this, it troubled him. It was almost inevitable that his thoughts would drift there.
Turning at the sound of his mother's voice, “I’m coming, maman!” He reluctantly moved a step towards the rear veranda of the old stone house.
“You should wear a jumper outside,” she smiled.
His mother, as usual cheerful, was putting the bread and freshly brewed coffee on the rough wooden table. Like the house itself, that old table must have reigned centre stage in the kitchen for centuries. There should be a certain reassurance given by those things, places, and objects, that have stood the test of time. But the old house had always scared Milo. As a child, his imagination had warned him of hidden monsters lurking in abandoned corners or watching from the shadows of the forest.
“Your uncle will be here today,” his mother announced as she placed the blue and white ceramic butter dish next to the loaf of bread.
Sitting at the table, he recalled his cousins pushing him into the attic and shutting him inside, in the cobwebby gloom. They'd made fun of him when he cried, calling him a sissy and crybaby. They had always bossed him around. His uncle, like his father, was kind but distant. The two men spent their time in each other’s company, joining the family for meals and an occasional outing. But even on those rare occasions Milo usually found himself surrounded by women, his mother, her sister, and his cousins.
Left to his own devices, he would dream of imagined worlds where brave knights rode stallions and defeated fiery dragons, cut down ugly monsters and set the world to rights. However, his cousins would drag him reluctantly into their fantasies. Dress him up as a baby, or give him the role of a servant. In their more risqué adventures, he would be the patient. His eldest cousin was the doctor, the younger, the nurse.
“Eat something, it’s a long time ‘til lunch,” his mother said, having already laid out jam, cheese, and ham.
She looked at him. Moved closer and brushed the hair back from his forehead. “I think you need a haircut. You can’t stay all summer looking like a street urchin.”
A street urchin, he pondered the words. It was like a description straight from a novel by Dickens. His mother always had an inexhaustible vocabulary when it came to these sorts of expressions. It was easy to imagine they had been handed down from one generation to the next, like family heirlooms.
“Tomorrow!” She exclaimed somewhat excitedly as if suddenly struck by a revelation. “Your father is going into town. I’ll telephone and make an appointment.”
It was settled. No point arguing. In any case, he had nothing else to do, and he could escape his cousins. He finished buttering the slice of bread and reached over for the jam. His mother left the room, satisfied everything was in order.
The town wasn’t really a town at all, just a village. It had a tiny weekly market, post office, general store, and baker. This set it apart from many other French villages where the last shop had long since disappeared. Those were ghost villages where all that remained were a few elderly people and a majority of holiday homes which only saw anybody during the summer.
There were a rather large number of hairdressers for a village, as if the French as a race were preoccupied with their coiffure, which undoubtedly was true. His mother would visit the hairdresser regularly, a fact that made it all the more surprising he was being sent alone. Invariably she would accompany him, forcing him to sit and wait for hours, enduring the unwelcome attention of Maurice. It was bad enough sitting in the barber’s chair having the middle-aged hairdresser’s hands roaming all over his head. When accompanying his mother, he also succumbed to the piercing eyes scrutinising his body, which made Milo feel as if he were being appraised. No doubt, he was. Although Maurice was a harmless, but incorrigible old folle. His mannerisms and affected speech left no doubt that he was as gay as Gay Paris, from where he originated. The only question in Milo's mind was, how he ended up in a tiny village in the South of France married to Madame Fournier? That would remain a mystery forever, because he was neither willing to engage Maurice in conversation, nor to raise the topic with his mother.
There were boys his age in the village, but he never felt the need to seek out their friendship. He was content with his own company and happy to spend the day in a comfortable spot reading. He could get lost in a good book, in another reality, in someone else's life. He'd had to walk the old bicycle he'd borrowed from the shed the three kilometers back home from the village one time when it had got a puncture. He hadn't even tried fixing it.
Other people’s problems seemed more easily solved than his own. Their lives much simpler, their difficulties minor. How long could he remain a bystander watching life pass him by? Hiding from everyone. Though he didn't like to admit it, he suspected not for much longer. He was growing up; things were expected in the natural course of life. Natural. What did that even mean? Was he unnatural? No way was he the same as Monsieur Fournier.
The shade had all but disappeared, replaced by sunlight which covered most of the gardens around the house. The hammock was protected by overhanging branches, offering a cool respite from the rapidly rising temperature. Milo slowly heaved himself into place, careful to maintain a balance. Propping a cushion behind his head, he picked up the book and flicked it open.
“A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street. The accident had happened in getting it out of a cart; the cask had tumbled out with a run, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut shell.”
Milo was lost in the world of eighteenth-century France and the machinations of a convoluted plot. Only reluctantly did he put the book down when disturbed by the noise announcing the arrival of a car. No doubt his uncle, aunt, and cousins. Slipping out of the hammock, he found his flip-flops, picked up the book, and made his way back to the house.
“Milo!” His aunt pulled him into a hug as Corinth and Amelie stood watching.
Uncle Morris was embracing his father and shaking hands. Everyone making the usual small talk.
“My, how grown up you look!” His mother kissed Corinth, then Amelie, the younger of the two.
Then it was Milo’s turn, he quickly kissed each girl and stood back watching the scene. They migrated towards the house, leaving their luggage in the car. Milo’s mother invited everyone to sit down at the old kitchen table. It had been moved outside onto the veranda, where it would stay all summer.
“You got a girlfriend?” Amelie asked Milo, grinning at her older sister.
That’s it. They’ve started. Milo was determined not to acquiesce to the girls’ games. “No, I don’t,” he replied curtly.
Amelie frowned. Corinth clucked her tongue. They both turned in unison to find a place at the table that suited them. For the rest of the lunch, Milo ignored them, content to let everybody else talk. Which mainly meant his mother, aunt, and cousins at one end of the table and his father and uncle at the other. He did listen when there was anything to listen to other than gossip. He replied politely when addressed, but otherwise was quiet.
That afternoon Milo was left alone. His cousins were occupied with unpacking, amongst other things. His parents were probably catching up on events with the family. He was back in the hammock, lost in his other world.
“Tellson’s Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty.” Milo smiled to himself, relaxing in the warmth of the afternoon sun, certain he would not be disturbed until later. “... the partners in the House were proud of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness. They were even boastful of its eminence in those particulars, and were fired by an express conviction that, if it were less objectionable, it would be less respectable.”
Milo wondered if his mother thought the same about their family house. Did she like this place because of its ugliness? Was she proud of its incommodiousness? He rather thought not. She simply accepted it as it was, as it always had been. It was in fact not at all ugly, but attractive in a sort of tatty chic kind of fashion. Objectionable? That word stuck in his mind. Was he respectable by way of being objectionable? Exactly like his cousins, but in an entirely different sense. He let the book drop to his side and drifted off with his thoughts into an afternoon siesta.
It was the violent rocking that brought him tumbling back into the world of the living. The face that greeted his opening eyes was that of Corinth. Alone, he observed as he regained consciousness and took in his surroundings.
“What are you reading?” She leant over him to pick up the book without waiting for a reply.
Her arm brushed across his thighs, which suddenly embarrassed him. He realised he was hard, which caused him to blush and attempt to sit up.
“Dickens,” he spluttered, trying to regain some sort of composure.
“I can see you are growing up,” she smirked with her own cleverness.
“A Tale of Two Cities,” he continued, ignoring her remark.
“I wonder what you get up to without a girlfriend.”
She examined the book in her hand as if it held some interest. Surprised and feeling exposed Milo practically fell out of the hammock and stumbled into his cousin, but managed to regain his balance.
“Sorry,” he attempted a smile.
Her hand reached down, and she rested her palm against his groin. “How big are you?”
He blushed again. Wasn’t it incest or something having sex with your cousin? Not that he wanted to do that, but she was definitely feeling him up.
“What do you mean?” He replied, rather meekly.
It was then he felt his cousin touch him through the thin material of his shorts. He breathed in, shocked, and yet excited at the same time.
“You remember when we played doctors and nurses?” Her hand was still holding him.
Milo could only nod.
Corinth smiled, “Perhaps I should examine you?”
“Eh! I don’t think so,” he pulled away, grabbed his book from her and pushed past, moving quickly back towards the house.
His mother, aunt, and Amelie were still at the table. Milo walked into the house, up the stairs, and into his bedroom. He wondered about what had just happened. That was more than doctors and nurses. What was his cousin up to? The large, almost empty bedroom gave back no answers. He lay down, staring up at the ceiling. A crack zigzagged from one corner, attempting to reach the centre ceiling rose. It failed, fading into nothing. The once white canopy was a discoloured tone of cream, although calling it cream did an injustice to that colour. It was flaking and patchy. In some way calling to the imagination like puffy clouds in a grey sky.
Milo sought refuge in his constant companion, picking up the book and continuing the story. “Over the prisoner's head, there was a mirror, to throw the light down upon him. Crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth’s together.” But he could not concentrate. Something niggled him. Gnawed, and chewed through his thoughts, leaving him tense and ill at ease.
Tomorrow is another day. One of those phrases his mother would quote to him; a meagre source of comfort. His cousins would still be here, and he would still be wrestling his emotional turmoil, playing hide and seek with life, dodging reality in the pages of literature.