*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*
In the South of France there are a lot of hills. To make the land constructible and farmable, these hills are stepped, and the soil and vegetation is kept in place by walls of dry white stones. So if you imagine an enormous step, the top is grass, the side is white stone. That’s what the South of France looks like, or at least that’s what it was like near my grandparents’ place.
Of course my cousin and I climbed the walls, and the taller the better. One of the best and tallest walls was at the edge of the garden, next to my grandparents’ neighbours who were called Dalmasso — Mr et Mme Dalmasso. To this day I don’t know their first names.
They had a little house, vegetables in hothouses, rabbits in hutches and chickens scratching about.
Sometimes Mme Dalmasso would call us over and give us a few things to bring back to our grandparents (green beans, tomatoes, onions – although I mainly remember green beans). My grandparents’ garden was surrounded by a a meter tall fence, but it was at the edge of a step so that beneath the fence was a stone wall. To take the vegetables we had to lean as far as we could over the fence, and Mme Dalmasso would reach up and give us the green beans wrapped in newspaper.
Mme Dalmasso was, I’m sure, perfectly nice. But she was an older woman that we didn’t know (our grandparents did though), and she had long grey hair and a white and red gingham apron, so we were a bit weary of her. We said our please and thank yous, and took what she gave us and scampered away, waiting until she was out of sight to return to our climbing wall.
One year there was a fire. I didn’t know a thing about it until we arrived the following summer, my cousin and I running to the tallest wall, only to find that beyond the fence, instead of the tidy little house, stood a charred ruin. The hutches were open and empty, the glass of the hothouses was smashed, the chickens had disappeared. Of Mr et Mme Dalmasso there was no sign (I later found out as an adult that they had moved elsewhere after the fire. They had escaped unscathed.)
We were both a bit shocked at first, but after a while, when it became clear that the house and garden were empty and no adults were around, we grew a bit bolder and hatched a plan to go explore the ruined house. The plan wasn’t much of a plan: we decided to climb over the fence, down the dry stone wall, to the Dalmasso house. And so we did.
I remember the thrill as we climbed the fence. Back then nothing was more exciting than exploring somewhere new, and a charred ruin of a house was very worthy of exploration. The roof had completely caved, only a few tiles remaining in places. Blackened beams stuck out towards the sky. The floor was littered with bricks and tiles and rubble, but beneath all that were untold treasures: here and there bits of smashed plates, a scorched scrap of cushion, a few pages of a book. It never occurred to us that these were the remnants of two people’s lives. We never gave thought to the fact that the Dalmassos had no doubt lost everything in a puff of black smoke, like a bad magic trick.
We rooted around in the ruin, delighted, calling each other to come look at whatever we had found. We squatted and lifted bits of charred furniture to find a discarded fork, pointing in awe at the remains of a drawer. We peered into the broken hothouses and poked about the rabbit hutches. They still smelt of straw and of rabbit. We stuck our heads into each one, making funny noises and giggling.
We didn’t take anything, we didn’t break anything. We looked, we explored. The exploration was a joy in and of itself, and what a joy it was.
When we were done, we climbed back up to my grandparents’ garden, and that was that.
All told, we were really pleased with our afternoon and with ourselves for being so adventurous. If someone had honestly asked us at the time, I think we would have said that yes, we were very glad the house had burned down because it was very interesting now. Mme Dalmasso and her grey hair and her gingham apron was all but forgotten — a year is such a long time at that young age, and the thrill of exploration can do funny things to a child’s memory.
Now that I’m fully grown, I feel a little guilty about how heartless we were back then…