Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Apprentice


In the far south of France, nestles Carcassonne, a magical fortified town who's existence can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire. In 100BC, a garrison encampment was formed on high ground overlooking a natural fording point on the river. This land has been constantly occupied ever since. Despite current appearances, this occupancy has been anything but peaceful.

Morning light floods the cobbled streets painting ancient buildings in hues of rust and gold. The place has a feeling that only comes with age. You cant help but know that these walls, these streets, have witnessed deeds of bravery and savagery in equal amounts. The very stones are steeped in human emotion, perhaps that's why this town has a magical feeling.

Uneven streets twist narrowly among buildings. Everything is quiet only flocks of finches break the silence of the early morning. It is hard to imagine that  blood once flowed on these streets, bodies dismembered and lives lost in needless combat. All paths through this historic town lead to a central concourse. The square is a wonderful work of engineering that no modern man would ever dream of undertaking. The cobbles cover a full acre, undulating gently. One end is flanked by a fast moving stream, emptying eventually into the main river. The square is speckled with mature trees and hemmed in on all sides by majestic buildings. The cathedral spire rises high above the town, the morning sun making the golden cross at its tip twinkle. The only sign of life in the whole town, comes from two little shops standing side by side in this fairy-tale setting.

When you're a baker, life starts early and Monsieur Arnaud Gras rose so earl,y it was still the night before, when he arrived to light his ovens. As the smell of freshly baked bread fills the square, a stooped figure emerges from the gloom. A walking stick tapped across the cobbles to the café next to the boulangerie. M. Benoit Delarge was well into his eighties, sleep did not come easy to him. Even though no customers would rise for hours yet, he set out cast iron seating in the square. As the sun rose, M. Gras joined him from the bakery and the two old men sat enjoying a café au lait with fresh pan au chocolate still hot from the oven.

Another resident of Carcassonne famous for particular habits was Mademoiselle Annabell Rossier. Mlle. Rossier is a spinster who lives in the largest house on the square. She is renowned for her bad temper and sour demeanour. Dressed nearly entirely in black, she snarled at every man, woman and child that crossed her path.  Mlle. Rossier was despised by every shop owner in town. She was particularly nasty to people forced to serve her in shops and restaurants. The only place she was ever greeted with a smile and a warm welcome, was at the Café of M. Delarge. No one could figure out why he was always so cheerful towards the inhospitable crone.

Today, the young man that M. Delarge employed suffered a terrible barrage of insults from Mlle. Rossier, when he accidentally spilled her coffee. Young Luic came storming into the shop, slamming the cup and saucer into the dishwasher.

"She is such a battle axe, why do you put up with her?" he demanded of M. Delarge.

The old man chuckled,"She is not all bad you know, she has a wonderful side.."

"There is nothing but hate in that woman," fumed Luic.

"I think you're wrong Luic, you have to look past the front and see the woman beneath," said the old man wisely.

"I think you have been seeing things," huffed Luic, filling a fresh coffee for Mlle. Rossier.

"I tell you what, come open the shop with me in the morning, and you can see for yourself," said M. Delarge. After some persuading, Luic agreed to rise at 4am to help the old man open up.

***
Luic accompanied the shuffling old man along the cobbled streets into the still dark square. As delicious steam billowed from the bakery, they unlocked the café, turned on the lights and started the coffee machine. Luic placed the metal tables and chairs outside the shop while M. Delarge prepared the first coffees of the day. Half an hour later, M. Gras appeared with a basket of fresh pastries. 
"Good morning Benoit, I see we've company this morning," said M. Gras, sitting at the table. The old café owner laid out three large coffees for the gathered men. M. Gras took a tape player from under his arm, which he put on the table, but didn't turn it on. As the sun rose, the old men chatted about mutual friends, and Luic sipped his coffee, watching the finches flutter from tree to tree. As the sun began to chase shadows into the deepest corners of the square, the door to Mlle. Rossier's house opened. She glided down the stone steps, dressed in a gossamer nightgown. The two old men smiled at each other, and winked at Luic. M. Gras turned on the tape player, delicate notes drifted into the air. Mademoiselle Rossier was clearly sleep-walking, but she had the most beatific smile on her face. As the music reached her ears, she began to twirl and dance. For a full ten minutes, she performed a joyful ballet around the square. To Luic, Mlle. Rossier was so different, she was beautiful and happy. When the music finished, Mlle. Rossier faced the three men, giving them a deep curtsy. Monsieur Gras and Delarge stood, bowing back to the sleeping woman.  Mademoiselle Rossier disappeared back into her house, closing the door on two smiling old men, and one shocked younger one. M. Delarge turned to Luic, "Now, you see there are many sides to people."

"Perhaps you're right," said Luic

"This is our little secret, not even Mademoiselle Rossier knows about our morning dance lessons," said Monsieur Gras, taking his tape recorder back to the bakery. Monsieur Delarge smiled as he gathered up the cups, "You were a bit unlucky, actually," he said.

"Why's that?" asked Luic.

"Most of the time she wears nothing to bed, it must have been chilly last night," laughed the old man, shuffling away on his stick.
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