L’Incendie

France is a cold, proud place. In winter, the snow is brittle and grimy, white like bone. The people seem equally cold-blooded. They walk through biting gales of wind with pink lips, blue veins and hearts full of contempt.

In Christmas 2010, I travelled by train to the Savoie, where I stayed with the Bel family in Chambéry. François, the little boy, had straight hair that stuck out behind his ears when he grinned. He loved National Geographic photography, and we would pore over magazines together. His fingers paused over the gloriously naked African boys and tribesmen, with a look that lingered just a second too long to be completely innocent. The mother, Veronique was a woman of few words and fewer facial expressions. She disliked all cooking, except for pot-au-feu soup. Jean-Paul was a kind and gentle father, often left in the wake of one of Veronique’s rages to patch up things in the family. But Charlotte was precocious and elegant. She, like every other self-respecting French girl, proudly refused second servings even at the Christmas meal, to her mother’s quiet approval. As an Australian, far from home and perpetually thawing out, my appetite was not just insatiable but a blatant insult to the dainty, birdlike manners of my European counterparts.

The father Jean-Paul, whose nose turned red whenever it was about to snow, bought bread fresh from the boulangerie every day. François hauled smoked ham from the cellar for luncheon. The trees, fruitless and bare, stood as stark, black, inky stains against a grey sky. The Bels seemed to me the final bastions of French culture. My stay was less a “cultural exchange” and more an opportunity for the Bels to showcase their pedigree. My room – a terse, Spartan attic – had only a bed, a boiler and a desk piled with tomes of French literature. Rousseau, Hugo, Voltaire, Sartre, Foucault. (The copy of “L’Histoire de Sexualité” well-thumbed, perhaps by François.) I never quite summoned the strength to open them. François had slid a few more readable comics under my pillow; Tintin, Asterix and the like. Veronique and her family spoke with the slow, lilting accent of a people who were not used to making themselves understood to outsiders. There were no gaps or silences in their conversation, only long, gurgling, grinding words of hesitation – “ben” (pronounced “baaah”, like a sheep), and “euh” (pronounced “err” as in human, where forgiving is divine). Charlotte had little time for me. She was all angles: clavicles and shoulder blades. Porcelain skin framed with the same severe hair as her mother. She belonged to the adult world, though she was a year younger than me.

I went to France a quiet school child with a good grasp of the subjunctive. I returned a young woman. I brought back a voice scratched by cigarette smoke, a trembling stomach that attested to an excess of foie gras, and the sophisticated – or so I thought – penchant for greeting all friends with a kiss on each cheek. And a fear of tall buildings.

It was a Tuesday. Even though it was near noon, the streetlights were still on; amber beacons studding the great cold nothing. Students huddled in groups in the park. Girls’ high heels sunk into the snow. Stolid boys flicked the caps of their engraved lighters back and forth.

There was a bang.

We started, turned to the lotissement to the north of the park. A government housing project, ten or so stories high, it was home to the small immigrant Muslim community that ran the falafel restaurants and cloues – pawn shops – of the town’s seedy back streets. They were the objects of much censure from the Jesuit Catholic community. They had only one small mosque, which doubled as a school of Islam. Every few weeks or so, there would be some obscenity scrawled on the walls. A swastika, “sieg heil” or “Rentrez, Hadji!”. Go home, Muslim scum. I often imagined the wife of the Imam, with quiet, dark eyes and a red burqa, perhaps with a small, curly-haired child at her hip. She would shiver as she scrubbed the slurs from her place of worship. Soap and paint dripping from the wall to the snow, spoiling the perfect white.

The building was burning. We stood in silence. The flames licking from the top storey were hypnotic. We saw our breath before us. The blood in our ears drowned out the sirens.

A figure appeared on the balcony of the top floor. We couldn’t tell whether it was man or woman. They tried to clamber over the side of the building and reach the storey below to escape the inferno. Hands covered mouths. Eyes widened. They slipped.

I didn’t think that it could take someone so long to fall.

The figure landed on the snow below, with arms and legs were splayed at impossible angles –the tangled branches of a pitch-black tree with vermillion fruit. The apartment building’s uppermost storey was black, gutted and smouldering, like the end of an immense cigarette clutched between two knuckle-grey hills.

Charlotte fainted.

That night, Chambéry was on the French news for the first time since the footballer Olivier Giroud made the Grenoble team in 2005. There was footage of the capped and veiled men and women of the Algerian quarter of Chambéry holding a vigil outside the apartment block. Jean-Paul put Charlotte to bed. In the background, blood stained the snow the colour of rust. Veronique pursed her lips. They look after their own, she said. There was not a single white face amongst the mourners. That night, every time I closed my eyes, I saw the man – for now we knew it was a forty-year-old grocer by the name of Josephe al-Mahmoud – falling. In the small hours of the morning, I went downstairs from my stark room. I was sick of seeing the contorted body of Jesus staring at me from the opposite wall. I sat in the kitchen, curled against the bar heater. Jean-Paul followed me in. He was on call that night. He fixed me a cup of tea, with far too much milk and no sugar. The French are not used to tea. We listened to the radio, a repeat of the 1983 semi-final game between Les Olympiques Lyonnaise – François’ team – and Paris Saint-Germain F.C. We ate bread torn straight from the loaf, smeared with butter.

I haven’t spoken with the Bel family for years. No doubt Jean-Paul and Veronique’s marriage is still under strain. I suppose Charlotte attending the university in Lyons, studying medicine like her father. And I should imagine that François would have come out to his parents by now. Since I found my feet back in Australia, then-President Sarkozy had passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa in public places. I’m sure Veronique would have approved.

But I will remember the French for their hot-blooded obstinacy, their Catholic hospitality to strangers – and their bread.

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