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Authors: Belinda Alexandra

Wild Lavender

BOOK: Wild Lavender
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Wild Lavender
Belinda Alexandra

For my beautiful mother, Deanna

You were my greatest supporter and truest friend


imone, the lavender is waiting for you!’

Honk! Honk!

‘Simone! Simone!’

I don’t know which woke me first: the horn on Bernard’s new car or my father calling me from the kitchen. I lifted my head from the pillow and frowned. The room was full of the smell of scorched cotton. The morning sun streaming through the open shutters was white with heat.

‘Simone, the lavender is waiting for you!’

There was mirth in my father’s voice. It sounded like there was mirth in Bernard’s car horn too. Sitting up, I saw the maroon touring car through the window, its top down, rolling along the road past the pine trees. Bernard was beaming at the wheel. The spokes on the tyres matched the brilliant white of his suit and panama hat. I wondered if Bernard chose his outfits to coordinate with his automobiles. The previous year, when British cars had been fashionable to drive, he had arrived in a black suit and bowler hat. He brought the car to a stop in the yard near the wisteria and looked over his shoulder. Further down the road a wagon trundled along. The driver was a swarthy-faced man and the passengers on board were as dark as aubergines.

I rolled out of bed and scurried around the room searching for my work dress. None of my clothes were hanging in the armoire; they were scattered under the bed or overflowing from the drawers of my dresser. I brushed my hair and tried to remember where I had left my dress.

‘Simone!’ my father called out again. ‘It would be nice to see you while it is still 1922.’

‘Coming, Papa!’

‘Oh! Did I disturb our Sleeping Beauty?’

I smiled. In my mind’s eye he was sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee in one hand and a piece of sausage perched on the end of a fork in the other. His walking cane was propped against his leg and his good eye was staring patiently at the landing for a sign of life.

I spotted my dress hanging on the back of the door and remembered that I had put it there the night before. I slipped it on over my arms and managed to fasten it without catching my long hair in the hooks.

Bernard’s car horn blasted again. I thought it strange that no one had invited him inside and looked out the window to see what was going on. But it wasn’t Bernard blowing the horn; it was a boy standing on the running board. His eyes were as round as plums. A woman with her hair tied under a scarf pulled him off and scolded him. But her displeasure was only for show. The boy smiled and his mother covered his forehead with kisses. The three male passengers unloaded trunks and sacks from the wagon. I watched the tallest one take down a guitar, cradling the neck and body as gently as a mother holds a child.

Uncle Gerome, his work hat pulled over his grey hair, spoke to the driver. From the way Uncle Gerome’s moustache turned down at the corners, I knew they were talking about money. He pointed towards the forest and the driver shrugged. The gesticulating went on for some minutes before the driver nodded. Uncle Gerome reached into his pocket and produced a pouch, counting each coin he placed in the other man’s palm. Satisfied, the driver shook hands with Uncle Gerome and waved farewell to the others before climbing back on the wagon and setting out on his way. Uncle Gerome plucked a notebook from his pocket and a pencil from behind his ear and scribbled the amount he had paid in his record book—the same book that kept account of the debts my father had to repay.

I kissed the crucifix near the door and rushed out. I was halfway down the hall before I remembered my good luck charm. I ran back to my room, picked up the sachet of lavender from the dresser and secreted it in my pocket.

My father was exactly where I’d expected, coffee and sausage in hand. Bernard sat next to him, nursing a glass of wine. Bernard had fought with my father in the trenches during the war. They were two men who would never have met if it had not been for those circumstances, and who had become the most loyal of friends. My father welcomed Bernard into our family, because he knew his friend had been rejected by his own. Bernard’s blond hair seemed even paler than it had the last time I saw him. He sniffed the wine before drinking it, as he smelled everything in life before trying it. The first time Bernard came to visit, I found him standing in the yard and testing the air with his nose like a dog. ‘Tell me, Simone, down that hill and near those juniper trees, is there a stream?’ He was right, only you couldn’t see the juniper trees from where we were standing and the stream was no more than a trickle.

My mother and Aunt Yvette darted about the kitchen, cleaning up the remains of breakfast: sausage, goat’s cheese, boiled eggs and bread soaked in oil. Aunt Yvette felt in her apron pocket for her glasses and slipped them on so she could see if there was anything worth saving among the clutter on the table.

‘What about me?’ I cried, grabbing some bread off a plate before my mother snatched it away. She smiled at me. Her black hair was pinned in a roll on top of her head. My father called her his
because of her colouring, which I had inherited. My mother’s skin was lighter than the complexions of the workers outside but dark compared to the Fleuriers, who, apart from me, had always been fair-haired and blue-eyed. Aunt Yvette’s white eyebrows and pigmentless skin put her at the other extreme of colouring; she was salt and my mother was pepper.

My father held out his arms and feigned a hurt expression. ‘Ah, thinking about food before the men in
your life,’ he said. I kissed him on each cheek and then again on the scar where his left eye had been. Then I leaned over and kissed Bernard too.

‘Careful of Bernard’s suit,’ Aunt Yvette warned.

‘Nothing to be careful about,’ answered Bernard. He turned to me and said, ‘You’ve grown even taller, Simone! How old are you now?’

‘I turn fourteen next month.’ I sat down next to my father and flicked my hair over my shoulders. My mother and aunt exchanged a smile. My father pushed his plate over to me.

‘I took two portions this morning,’ he said. ‘One for myself and one for you.’

I kissed him again.

There was a bowl of dried rosemary on the table and I sprinkled some on the bread. ‘Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?’

Aunt Yvette ran her fingers over my shoulders. ‘We thought sleep might be more important to you.’ Her wrist smelt of roses and I knew she had tried some of the perfume that Bernard always brought with him from Grasse. Aunt Yvette and Bernard were the civilising influences in our lives; although Uncle Gerome was the richest farmer in our region, we wouldn’t have known what a
or a
was without them.

My mother poured a glass of wine for my father and refilled Bernard’s half-full one. On her way back to the cupboard she cast a glance at my espadrilles. ‘Bernard is right,’ she said to me. ‘You are growing so fast! When the shoe pedlar comes by next month we must get you proper boots. You’ll lose your toes if you continue to wear those.’

We shared a smile. I didn’t have my mother’s gift for reading people’s thoughts, but when I looked at her face—calm, reserved, proud—I always sensed her love for me, her only child.

‘By next year she will have more pairs of shoes than she knows what to do with,’ declared my father. He and Bernard clinked glasses.

Uncle Gerome caught my father’s words as he came through the door. ‘Not if we don’t get to work on the lavender now,’ he said.

‘Ah, yes,’ said Bernard, standing. ‘I’d better be off. I have to visit two more farms before the morning is over.’

‘Shall I take the gypsies some food?’ I asked. ‘They might be hungry after the journey.’

My father ruffled my hair, even though I had just brushed it. ‘They’re not gypsies, Simone. They’re Spanish. And, unlike you, they’re early risers. They’ve eaten already.’

I turned to my mother who nodded. I slipped a piece of bread into my pocket anyway. She had told me that the gypsies did that for good luck.

Outside, the workers waited with their sickles and rakes. Aunt Yvette tied on her bonnet, pulled down her sleeves and slipped on her gloves against the sun. Chocolat, her cocker spaniel, picked his way through the grass, followed by my tabby, Olly, only his ginger ears and tail visible above the tall stalks.

‘Come here, boys!’ I called.

The two balls of fur scampered towards me. Olly rubbed himself against my legs. I had rescued him from a bird snare when he was a kitten. Uncle Gerome said I could keep him if he caught mice and we didn’t feed him. But my parents, my aunt and myself, we all fed him, slipping cheese and meat under the table whenever he brushed past our feet. As a consequence, Olly was as big as a melon and not much good for catching mice.

‘I’ll be back tomorrow for the distilling, Pierre,’ Bernard said to my father. He kissed my mother, aunt and me. ‘All the best for the harvest,’ he said, stepping into his car. He gave a farewell wave to my uncle although Uncle Gerome had little time for our lavender-broker. No sooner had Bernard and his car disappeared beyond the almond trees than Uncle Gerome began an imitation of Bernard’s mincing walk. Everyone ignored him. It was Bernard who had run through the gunfire and mud to the military
hospital with my father on his back. A shell had exploded in their trench, killing their commanding officer and everyone else within ten metres. And now, without Bernard’s devotion to my father, and no thanks to Uncle Gerome, our side of the family would be without a sou.

We crossed the narrow stream. The lavender fields were oceans of purple before us. The plant never looked more arresting nor smelt sweeter than when it was about to be harvested. The summer heat brought out the rich essence and the colour was at its deepest, having changed from the mauve spikes of spring into sprays of violet florets. I was sad knowing that in a few days the fields would be reduced to clumps of butchered shrubs.

My father leaned on his walking stick and assigned each of the workers a section while Uncle Gerome brought the cart and mule down to the field. The workers took a truss each from my father, knotting it at the corners and turning it into a belt bag in which they could gather the cut stalks.

The boy went to sit under a tree. I picked up Olly and called over Chocolat. ‘Would you like to pat them?’ I asked him, placing Olly by his side.

He reached out and stroked their heads. Chocolat licked the boy’s fingers and Olly put his chin on his lap. The boy giggled and smiled at me. I pointed to my chest and said, ‘Simone’, but he either didn’t understand what I was saying or was too shy to tell me his name. I looked at his large eyes and decided to call him Goya, because I thought he seemed sensitive, like an artist.

I sat down next to him and we watched the workers spread out in the fields. I didn’t know how to speak Spanish to ask Goya the workers’ real names, so I made some up for them from the few Spanish names I knew. The lanky Spaniard I called Rafael. He was the youngest and had a strong chin, straight eyebrows and good teeth. He was handsome and strutted about as if he knew all about lavender cutting, but every so often he would turn to look at Rosa—the name I had given to the woman—to see what she was doing. The stocky man I called Fernandez.
He could have been Uncle Gerome’s twin. Both men lunged at the shrubs the way a bull charges a matador. The other Spaniard was the father of Goya, a gentle giant who followed his own path and approached the harvest without fuss. He was the one who had so lovingly held the guitar. I called him José.

Aunt Yvette stepped back through the lavender and towards us. ‘We’d better get started on the food,’ she said.

I stood up and brushed the grass off my dress. ‘Do you think he would like to come?’ I asked, pointing to Goya. Chocolat was nestled against the boy’s shoulder and Olly was asleep in his lap. Goya stared at the wisps of platinum hair sticking out from under my aunt’s hat. I was so used to her appearance that I forgot people were surprised the first time they saw an albino.

‘He thinks you’re a fairy,’ I told her.

Aunt Yvette smiled at Goya and patted his head. ‘He looks happy where he is, and I think it pleases his mother to be able to see him.’

In the evening, we ate dinner in the yard that separated our two farmhouses, and stayed there after darkness fell. The air was thick with the essence of lavender. I swallowed and tasted it at the back of my throat.

My mother was stitching one of my father’s shirts, her handiwork illuminated by a hurricane lamp. For some reason known only to herself, she always made repairs to clothes with red thread, as if the snags and tears were wounds in the fabric. My mother’s hands were laced with cuts, but harvesters never bothered about minor wounds. The essential oil was a natural disinfectant and cuts healed within days.

Aunt Yvette read
Les Misérables
with me. The village school had closed two years earlier, when the railway was extended and many people moved to the towns, and without her interest in my education I might have ended up
as illiterate as the rest of my family. Uncle Gerome could read ledger books and fertiliser instructions but my mother couldn’t read at all, although her knowledge of herbs and plants was as extensive as a pharmacist’s. Only my father could read the newspaper. It was because of what he’d read in it in 1914 that he went to fight in the Great War.

‘The revellers continued to sing their songs,’ I read out loud, ‘and the child, under the table, also sang hers—’

’ scoffed Uncle Gerome, picking at his teeth with a knife blade. ‘All right for some to read useless books, especially when they don’t break their backs in a field all day.’

My mother’s hands stopped moving and our eyes met. The muscles in her neck tensed. My aunt and I leaned closer to her, picking up the end of the cloth and pretending to study it. Although none of us could confront Uncle Gerome, we always came to each other’s aid when one of us was mocked. Aunt Yvette couldn’t work in the fields because of her skin condition. An hour in the southern sun and she would have had third-degree burns. She was from the town of Sault, and the superstition surrounding albinos was the only reason I could see why a bright, attractive woman would have been married off to Uncle Gerome. He was shrewd enough to know that what she didn’t contribute as a farm worker she more than made up for as a cook and a housekeeper, but I had never heard him acknowledge her merits. As for me, I was simply unsuited to harvesting. They called me ‘the flamingo’ because my skinny legs were twice as long as my body, and even my father, with his one eye and lame leg, could clear a field faster than I could.

BOOK: Wild Lavender
7.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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