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Authors: Jean Teulé

Eat Him If You Like

BOOK: Eat Him If You Like
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Praise for
Eat Him if You Like

 

 ‘This gripping and gory short novel revisits one of French history’s stranger episodes… Jean Teulé’s novelisation offers no easy explanations for what happened, but the transformation from rural idyll to hell on earth is terrifyingly convincing.’
Financial Times

 

‘Teulé’s hard-hitting account is shattering. In holding up a mirror to the murderous capacity of ordinary people, he has produced an extraordinary novel.’
Paris Match

 

‘With his customary verve… Jean Teulé tells in terrifying detail the story of the poor boy’s calvary, as he passes from surprise to incomprehension, then terror, resignation and, finally, forgiveness.’
Madame Figaro
 

EAT HIM IF YOU LIKE

A NOVEL BY
JEAN TEULÉ

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY
EMILY PHILLIPS

‘What a beautiful day!’ declared the young man, pushing open his bedroom shutters. Muslin curtains fluttered on either side of the upstairs window of the
seventeenth-century
house. His gaze swept the countryside – a small corner of Limousin attached to Périgord as if by mistake. The parched landscape was dotted with oak trees. A clock struck one on the mantelpiece behind him.

‘What time do you call this? And you the new deputy mayor of Beaussac! When I was mayor, I got up much earlier!’ boomed a deep voice from under the ancient chestnut tree in the garden.

‘Father, I was putting the finishing touches to my project to divert the Nizonne.’

‘Amédée,’ said a woman’s voice from the shade of the tree, ‘stop badgering our son. At least he’s dressed. You look good in your summer suit, Alain,’ continued his mother, fanning herself. ‘Don’t forget your boater, it’s another scorcher today,’

Alain grabbed his straw hat from the rosewood table and went downstairs. The dark staircase smelt strongly
of wax polish and the tap of his soft leather boots on the stairs betrayed a slight limp. An old, worn tapestry hung in the entrance hall. Alain paused in front of a framed picture depicting the main square of a small, deserted market town.

‘You like that picture of Hautefaye, don’t you?’ exclaimed his mother, watching him through the open front door.

‘Yes, I do. Our neighbours are so friendly,’ replied Alain, leaving the house to join his parents who were sitting at the garden table about to have lunch. ‘I hope my drainage project will be approved and I hope they’ll all like it, as they did in Beaussac.’

‘You slept so late I thought you’d forgotten about the fair,’ muttered his father, his nose in the local paper.

‘Father, I’ve never missed the Hautefaye fair. All my friends will be there.’ Alain went over to embrace his mother, a dark-haired woman with blue eyes.

‘Oh, you’re such a wonderful boy, so helpful and uncomplicated. You were born to please, always smiling, always with an angelic look in your eyes,’ she gushed, stroking his cheek.

His father rolled his eyes, uncomfortable with this
excessive display of motherly love. Alain moved into the shade of the chestnut tree.

‘It’s so beautifully cool under here. Perfect on such a hot, muggy day. It’s as though it were put here for this very purpose.’

‘Well, stay under the tree then, instead of going to war,’ said his mother, anxious all of a sudden. ‘Dear Lord, you’ll be in Lorraine next week fighting in this wretched war against Prussia. Why must you go when the medical board has already exempted you for having a weak constitution? Do you want me to die of worry? You could easily have exchanged your unlucky conscription number at Pons when you were in Périgueux. It would only have cost us a thousand francs. Alain, are you listening to me?’

‘Magdeleine-Louise, he’s already told you hundreds of times!’ said his father in exasperation. ‘He doesn’t approve of a lottery to decide who goes to war. Especially because poor boys who draw a lucky ticket then sell it to wealthy boys who have an unlucky one.’

‘Mother, everybody knows and likes me here in Nontron, and I would be so ashamed if I came across the parents of the boy who’d gone to fight in my place … Anyway, my limp won’t be a problem, as I’ll be in the cavalry.’

Alain shouted over to the household servant, who was dozing under an arbour, ‘Pascal, would you saddle my horse, please?’

‘Aren’t you eating with us?’ asked his mother, surprised. ‘Look, we’ve got lentils with bacon and that soft cheese you like.’

‘No, I’ll have lunch at the fair, at Mousnier’s inn. I’m
meeting the Marthon notary there.’

‘Why?’ asked his father.

‘Before going to the front, I need to sort out some estate business. I promised to give our poor neighbour, old Bertille, a heifer to replace the cow that drowned in the Nizonne marshes. I also said I would help the farmer at Lac Noir re-roof his barn. It was hit by lightning in last week’s storm and I want to try and find a carpenter in Hautefaye who’ll be able to start working on it as soon as possible. I was thinking of Pierre Brut, that roofer from Fayemarteau. It’s urgent and I’ll have to make the necessary arrangements before I leave for Lorraine.’

Alain paused at the edge of the meadow to listen to the hornets buzzing and the cicadas chirring. A pretty little lark broke into song and then flew from its perch on a dry bush.

‘My head’s spinning,’ said his mother, who was feeling unwell. Already suffering from poor health, she was badly affected by her son’s enlistment.

‘It’s the heat, Mother.’

‘What does the paper say, my boy? Does it mention Prussia? Did we beat them at Reichshoffen and Forbach? I don’t have my glasses.’

Alain picked up the
Dordogne Echo,
which was lying beside his father’s plate. His father was looking at it but said nothing.

‘Is this really today’s paper?’ he asked. ‘Tuesday 16 August 1870. Ah yes, this is it.’

Shocked by the headlines, he decided only to read out a small column from the bottom of the front page:

‘The drought continues unabated and the situation is going from bad to worse. Larger towns are already rationing water and, in some areas, citizens are to receive no more than eight pints per person per day. In areas that have no large springs or streams, people are travelling long distances to the nearest river or are having to pay for water.’

‘It is rather hot,’ agreed his mother.

‘Why don’t you go and play the piano in the drawing room after lunch? You’ll feel cooler in there.’

Pascal brought over Alain’s fine chestnut horse and held out the reins to him. As Alain mounted, his mother advised him to return before nightfall.

‘Mother, I’m almost thirty! And Hautefaye is only two miles away. I’ll just go there, say hello to a few people and come straight back. See you later.’

Alain’s thoughts wandered as he travelled along, dreaming, carefree, and revelling happily in his surroundings. His horse’s mane rose and fell in gentle waves as they trotted along. Vine-covered slopes bordered the dusty, well-worn track, and the sun was striving to sweeten and swell the grapes. The oppressive heat had even silenced the cicadas. Alain’s eyelids drooped and he began to daydream.

He opened his eyes again and saw a stream of traders, labourers and artisans ahead of him on the dirt track. They resembled a flock of geese as they converged on the fair, some on foot, and others riding donkeys, or driving carts. Alain squeezed past on the right, overtaking two farmers from Mainzac.

‘Good day, Étienne Campot. How are you, Jean?’ he said, greeting them.

‘Good day to you, Monsieur de Monéys,’ said the Campot brothers, doffing their caps in their usual polite manner. Étienne must have been around the same age as Alain. Jean was about twenty, with a mane of unruly hair. The elder of the two was leading a large horse.

‘Whoa, Jupiter!’

‘Why are you bringing your fine dray horse to the fair, lads?’

‘We’re hoping to sell him to the army. They don’t have enough horses and the army suppliers sometimes come to fairs to buy mounts for the Lorraine front.’

‘So both of our horses will face the Prussians then, Étienne! I have offered to take my chestnut with me when I enlist, and afterwards I’ll leave him to the army.’

‘You’re going to war, Monsieur de Monéys? What about your gammy leg?’ asked Jean, surprised. ‘Weren’t you able to swap your unlucky number?’

‘The Besse boy offered to take my place, but I refused. In three days’ time I’ll be off to fight for my country.’

‘Where will you be stationed?’

‘I’m still awaiting my marching orders. Did you get lucky numbers?’

‘Yes, thankfully we both did,’ sighed the elder Campot brother gratefully. He was an intelligent, warm-hearted man with a moustache, a wide forehead and big eyes. His eyes filled with tears as he looked at Jupiter, who would soon be going to war. He clenched his fists and tried to think of something else.

Alain overtook a few small, exhausted donkeys laden with ripe-smelling melons, and a crowd of artisans from neighbouring parishes.

‘I like to dance like there’s no tomorrow!’ declared one of them, a stonemason who was talking about love, happiness and pleasure.

The plain was as dry as a bone. As Alain continued
continued on his way, he was surrounded by goodwill. Flowers of friendship blossomed in his path, and he was met by shouts of ‘Good day, Monsieur de Monéys’, ‘How are you, Alain? And is your mother well?’ François Mazière, a farmer from Plambaut, close to Hautefaye, was telling a man he had come to sell his two bullocks. From time to time, he chivvied them along in patois. ‘
Aqui bloundo! Aqui! Véqué
!’

Alain knew the man who was walking beside him as well. He was a jocular middle aged ragman. He and his small donkey that travelled everywhere with him would go to the farms in Nontron and collect all the tattered clothes and rags. Sometimes people gave them to him for free and sometimes he had to pay a small price. He would then bag them up and deliver them to the paper mills in Thiviers.

‘Piarrouty, you must pass by and collect our “scraps” as you call them. I’m sure we have some old rags we can give you. For free, of course,’ Alain added.

‘Thank you, Alain,’ replied the ragman, doffing his large hat. ‘I’ll call by next week. You live on the Bretanges estate in Beaussac, don’t you?’

‘Yes. When you come, tell my parents I sent you.’

Alain noticed that the ragman, usually so cheerful, had a melancholy air about him. It seemed as though the heavy weighing hook he carried on his back was dragging him down.

‘Is something bothering you, Piarrouty? Your son’s not with you today. He’s not ill, is he?’ asked Alain.

Piarrouty shook his head and put his hat back on. On the horizon, beyond the shrivelled yellow grass and juniper
bushes and well beyond the Nizonne marshes with their stagnant water that poisoned cattle and spread disease and epidemics, Alain noticed a small white trail of smoke from a steam train.

‘Périgueux is sending whole trainloads of oats to feed the horses in Lorraine,’ said Mazière, who was standing next to the rag collector.

Alain galloped along the curved path that led up the hill to Hautefaye and then pulled gently on the reins. His horse slowed down with a flick of his head. They came to a stop outside the school – an isolated building just beyond the main village. Alain jumped from the saddle, using a cork oak for support. He could tell it was a softwood tree from the feel of the bark.

‘Here, Thibassou, put my horse with the others. I’m entrusting him to you,’ he commanded, holding the reins out to a boy of fourteen and proffering a coin.

‘Thank you, Monsieur de Monéys,’ the boy said, delighted.

‘Alain!’ exclaimed a voluptuous woman who was sitting on a chair nearby, in the shade of a lime tree. She looked up briefly from her embroidery and met his gaze.

‘How are you, Madame Lachaud? Where’s your husband? Are you teaching even though it’s the fair today?’

The schoolmaster’s wife had soft round arms and wide hips, and the top buttons of her blouse were undone. She was in no hurry to do them up. On her left stood a young girl of twenty-three who was trying to recite the alphabet.

‘Are you no longer ironing clothes in Angoulême, Anna?’ asked Alain, surprised to see her in the village.

‘I decided to come back. Do you remember me, Monsieur de Monéys?’

‘Oh yes! I sent you a letter, but you never replied.’

‘That’s because I don’t know how to write.’

‘It must be two years and three months since I last saw you. You’re even prettier than you were before.’

She blushed – a wild, dark-haired beauty. Thibassou seemed to share Alain’s opinion and was undressing her with his eyes. Anna modestly lowered her gaze and started reciting her alphabet again:

‘A, B, C, er …’

‘Begin again, Mademoiselle Mondout,’ commanded Madame Lachaud, watching Alain all the while. ‘You’ll get there because you’re clever.’

The schoolmistress was kind and devoted, and possessed a fair amount of tact. They were interrupted by someone calling for Anna.

‘What are you doing at school, at your age, and especially when we’re so busy at the inn? Forget that and come and lend a hand. Later, you can take the goats to the mayor’s barn so the ladies will have something to drink.’

‘Yes, Uncle Élie.’

Anna Mondout left. Alain watched her go. Madame Lachaud sighed. Her breasts were covered in beads of sweat and she blew down her open blouse to keep herself cool.

‘Even though we live in such a prosperous area, people are still illiterate. Only half of the town councillors know how to write their own names. Only nine boys in the whole area are at school.’

‘What do you expect, Madame Lachaud? A child at school 
is one less pair of hands at home or in the fields. Surely you understand that.’

He left the teacher’s wife, who nodded in agreement and hitched up her skirt slightly.

‘They have their troubles and their tears deserve my sympathy,’ said Alain to himself. A pedlar by the roadside was taking the most marvellous trinkets out of his bags – gold rings, caricatures and magic mirrors for lovers. When someone breathed on the glass, the words ‘I love you’ would appear. The pedlar showed one to Alain, who exhaled and then stood back. On the glass, instead of his reflection, he could see a grey mist. When he looked closely, he could make out the letters of ‘I love you’.

He continued onwards, limping slightly as though he had a piece of grit in his boot. He took a small fob watch from his waistcoat. It was two o’clock. In the village, the
Saint-Roch
fair was in full swing. He had arrived safely.

BOOK: Eat Him If You Like
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