With Father gone, we grew to know Mother’s bad spells almost as well as he had. As they began she would speak with a certain vagueness, and she would suffer tension around the temples, which she would betray by impatient little pecking movements of the head. Sometimes she would reach for something-a spoon, a knife-and miss, slapping her hand repeatedly against the table or the sink top as if feeling for the object. Sometimes she would ask, “What’s the time?” even though the big round kitchen clock was just in front of her. And always at these times, the same sharp, suspicious question:
“Has any of you brought oranges into the house?”
We shook our heads silently. Oranges were scarce; we’d only tasted them occasionally. On the market in Angers we might see them sometimes: fat Spanish oranges with their thick dimpled rind; finer-grained blood oranges from the South, cut open to reveal their grazed purple flesh…Our mother always kept away from these stalls, as if the sight of them sickened her. Once, when a friendly woman at the market gave us an orange to share, our mother refused to let us into the house until we had washed, scrubbed under our nails and rubbed our hands with lemon balm and lavender, even then claimed she could smell the orange oil on us-left the windows open for two days until it finally vanished. Of course, the oranges of her bad spells were purely imaginary. The scent heralded her migraines, and within hours she was lying in darkness with a lavender-soaked handkerchief across her face and her pills to hand beside her. The pills, I later learned, were morphine.
She never explained. What information we gleaned was gathered from long observation. When she felt a migraine approaching she simply withdrew to her room without giving any reason, leaving us to our own devices. So it was that we viewed these spells of hers as a kind of holiday-lasting from a couple of hours to a whole day or even two-during which we ran wild. They were wonderful days for us, days that I wished would last forever, swimming in the Loire or catching crayfish in the shallows, exploring the woods, making ourselves sick with cherries or plums or green gooseberries, fighting, sniping at one another with potato rifles and decorating the Standing Stones with the spoils of our adventuring.
The Standing Stones were the remains of an old jetty, long since swept away by the currents. Five stone pillars, one shorter than the rest, protruding from the water. A metal staple stuck out from the side of each, bleeding tears of rust into the rotten stone, where boards had once been fixed. It was on these metal protrusions that we hung our trophies; barbaric garlands of fish heads and flowers, signs lettered in secret codes, magical stones, driftwood sculptures. The last pillar stood well into the deep water at a point where the current was especially strong, and it was here we hid our treasure chest. This was a tin box wrapped in oilcloth and weighted with a piece of chain. The chain was secured to a rope, which in its turn was tied to the pillar we all referred to as the Treasure Stone. To retrieve the treasure it was necessary first to swim to the last pillar-no mean feat-then, holding on to the pillar with one arm, to haul up the sunken chest, detach it and swim with it back to the shore. It was accepted that only Cassis could do this. The “treasure” consisted mainly of things no adult would recognize as being of value. The potato guns. Chewing gum, wrapped in greased paper to make it last. A stick of barley sugar. Three cigarettes. Some coins in a battered purse. Actresses’ photographs (these, like the cigarettes, belonged to Cassis). A few issues of an illustrated magazine specializing in lurid stories.
Sometimes Paul Hourias came with us on what Cassis called our “hunting trips,” though he was never fully initiated into our secrets. I liked Paul. His father, Jean-Marc, sold bait on the Angers road and his mother took in mending to make ends meet. He was an only child of parents old enough to be his grandparents, and much of his time was spent keeping out of their way. He lived as I longed to live; in summer he spent whole nights out in the woods without arousing any concern from his family. He knew where to find mushrooms on the forest floor and to make whistles out of willow twigs. His hands were deft and clever, but he was often awkward and slow in speech, and when adults were near he stuttered. Though he was close to Cassis’s age, he did not go to school, but helped instead on his uncle’s farm, milking the cows and bringing them to and from the pasture. He was patient with me too, more so than Cassis, never making fun of my ignorance or scorning me because I was small. Of course, he’s old now. But I sometimes think that of the four of us, he is the one who has aged the least.