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The Inheritors
Author: Hannelore Cayre

 

It was in the moonless countryside, pitch black, that I saw it for the first time, the green fluorescent rabbit, vivid green in its abandoned field, living its life, oblivious to its own peculiarity, in a burning halo, like when you close your eyes to somebody’s memory, a signal in the black night, a small dot.

Olivier Cadiot, Retour définitif et durable de l’être aimé

(Definitive and Lasting Return of the Loved One)

 

 

‘DO YOU THINK IT’S APPROPRIATE for a funeral, that outfit?’

‘Yeah, I do, why? It’s my nicest tracksuit . . . The velour one! And anyway, have you looked in the mirror? You’d think . . . But really, who gives a shit?’

She was right about that, Hildegarde, who gave a shit. It’s true, we both looked like two spaced-out losers, and anyway, we’d be getting weird looks from everybody no matter what we decided to wear.

There was Juliette, my daughter, in khaki greens. She was going through her camo stage. And Pistachio and Geranium, our two ugly mutts wearing neither leash nor collar but sporting bows around their necks. Hildegarde, wearing her black velour tracksuit in an attempt to be chichi, and her size 46 black Nikes which she must have quickly dusted over with a rag. And then there was me, with my new Japanese titanium orthoses, which meant I could manage without my crutches. They pretty much had me goose-stepping when I walked, but it was improving every day. It’s fair to say we stood out somewhat at the Trocadéro cemetery, where the de Rignys had their vault – smack-bang between the Dassault and Bouygues families.

A lot of people had come, seeing as I had made a statement by taking out the most expensive notice in Le Figaro to announce Tata’s death, but none of them had acknowledged us. Worse still, a gap had emerged, a sort of cordon sanitaire between the three of us and everyone else which meant they could avoid being contaminated by our presence.

Who were they? Friends from bridge? People who filled their days going from one society event to another? Geriatrics who’d come to celebrate one of their idols taking such a long time to die? No idea! Eight months we had looked after Aunt Yvonne and we’d never received a single visitor at her townhouse mansion apart from her lawyer and her bank manager. All of this aside, though, I’m sure we were the ones most affected by her passing. The fact is we had grown attached to the old woman, especially when towards the end she was going so loopy she used to sing us Colette Renard’s Evenings of a Demoiselle, inexplicably, all day long:

There’ll be some sucking of the sweet

 

 

Some stroking of the fish

 

 

There’ll be some starching of the shirt

 

 

And some nibbling on a treat

 

 

Which, at the age of ninety-eight, you’ll admit shows quite some panache.

Be that as it may, she had now been dead for four days and I had become rich. Unimaginably rich. And because the rich are always in a hurry, I had more important things to do than hang around a cemetery. Our plane was leaving in six hours for our new home in the tax haven that is the British Virgin Islands – and the following Monday, because Monday’s always a good day to start bringing about the end of the world, we would get to work.

Standing outside that vault, which the gravediggers no longer even bothered to seal given that the de Rignys were falling like flies (I’m not kidding, six in less than a year), I thought about our common forebear, Auguste. Whether his life story as I recount it in these pages reflects the life he truly lived, and whether his character was as I describe it is really neither here nor there.

Setting down those few months in the life of that appealing, yet slightly clueless young man is a way of rendering him flesh and blood, of giving him the immortality he deserves as a thank you for his gesture to my family. A way of extracting him from ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’, as Shakespeare would say. This way he’ll find himself in the company of some other faithful fellows who may not exist in real life, but rather appear in those nineteenth-century novels that fashioned my political thinking and made me who I am.

 

 

Saint-Germain-en-Laye

18 January 1870

Auguste had been sitting on the edge of his bed for more than an hour, eyes fixed on this costly novelty item available in the department stores, this thing called an alarm clock, which his aunt Clothilde had given him for his twentieth birthday.

Because we all know there will never be enough roosters in Paris to rouse you from your sleep, she had quipped in the note on the little card attached to the parcel.

It consisted of a clock which had been mounted inside a finely worked case portraying birds of paradise. Pondering the invention, the young man thought sadly how it would in many respects wreak havoc with the habits of all those night owls who, like him, struggled to rise in the morning. The thing was designed to set off a bell at a particular predetermined moment. In addition to the hands indicating hours and minutes, a special hand, which one would set the previous evening, marked the time to rise. Auguste had set that hand at the number seven, one hour prior to the time indicated on his summons to attend the draw.

This much-anticipated date had been haunting him since the month of October, when he had presented himself at the town hall for the census of the class of 1869, the year of his twentieth birthday. Trying not to dwell on the matter during the festive season, he had remained in a permanent state of inebriation until January, then had surprised himself by coming to see the draw as offering a conclusion to his agonising.

The countdown was finally over and today was the day!

This morning he would finally know if he drew a bad number, forcing him to abandon the Sorbonne – to give up his Parisian life, his pleasures, his indolent habits – for nine years of degrading military service, five of which would find him surrounded by brutish louts in damp barracks furnished with poor bedding.

The ring of that devilish invention made him jump, causing his innards to contract: those not appearing for roll call at eight o’clock sharp shall be the first to be given their marching orders were the words written at the foot of his call-up notice.

How he would have loved his mother and sister to accompany him to the draw. Unfortunately they had both been called as a matter of urgency to the bedside of an aunt who had taken ill. Nor was his father able to join him, confined to the house as he was with a poor back. That left his brother-in-law, Jules, a former officer turned businessman, and his brother, Ferdinand, an ambitious type who practised a cult-like devotion to money and whose favourite pastime was to back Auguste into a corner until he was ready to explode. Even if those two had offered to provide him with some comfort in the face of his ordeal, Auguste would have categorically refused.

The women of the family had not, however, abandoned him entirely, since they had arranged to have a mass said at Saint-Germain-de-Paris asking Providence to spare him the fate of military service. Obviously, Auguste did not believe in God: even less so since reading On the Origin of Species, a luminous beacon of a book that succeeded in scientifically refuting the grotesque notion of life as divine creation, but privately he told himself that neither could the prayers bought by his mother do him any harm.

He dressed hastily and made his way through the silent house, taking care not to wake anybody. Once over the threshold, he pulled his collar up to his ears, ready to launch himself into the inky darkness of that winter morning. But scarcely had he passed through the metal gate of his family home when his imagination bolted. He already pictured himself, fear in his belly, marching into battle, just as that ill-bred old soldier his parents insisted on inviting to dine at their table used to describe in words fit to terrify the ladies – a man by the name of Pélissier, a veteran of the dreadful siege of Sebastopol. In the halo of light cast by the gas street-lamps he could practically make out the twisted frozen corpses of horses half-eaten by soldiers.

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