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18 Saturday, March 1 - Joanne Harris Chocolat chocolat

18


Saturday, March 1


ROUX'S BOAT IS ONE OF THE NEAREST TO THE SHORE, moored some distance from the rest, opposite Armande's house. Tonight paper lanterns were strung across its bows like glowing fruit, and, as we made our way into Les Marauds, we caught the sharp scent of grilling food from the river bank. Armande's windows had been flung open to overlook the river, and the light from the house made irregular patterns on the water. I was struck by the absence of litter, the care with which every scrap of waste had been placed in the steel drums for burning. From one of the boats further downriver came the sound of a guitar playing. Roux was sitting on the little jetty, looking into the water. A small group of people had already joined him, and I recognized Zezette, another girl called Blanche and the North African, Mahmed. Beside them something was cooking on a portable brazier filled with coals.
Anouk ran to the fire at once. I heard Zezette warn her in a soft voice, `Careful, sweetheart, it's hot.’
Blanche held out a mug containing warm spiced wine and I took it with a smile. `See what you think of this.’
The drink was sweet and sharp with lemon and nutmeg, the spirit so strong that it caught at the throat. For the first time in weeks the night was clear, and our breath made pale dragons in the still air. A thin mist hung over the river, lit here and there by the lights from the boats.
‘Pantoufle wants some too,' said Anouk, pointing at the pan of spiced wine.
Roux grinned. ‘Pantoufle?’
‘Anouk's rabbit,’ I told him quickly. ‘Her – imaginary friend.’
‘I'm not sure Pantoufle would like this very much,' he told her. `Perhaps he'd like a little apple juice instead?’
`I'll ask him,' said Anouk.
Roux seemed different here, more relaxed, outlined in fire as he supervised his cooking. I remember river crayfish, split and grilled over the embers, sardines, early sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, caramelized apples rolled in sugar and flash fried in butter, thick pancakes, honey. We ate with our fingers from tin plates and drank cider and more of the spiced wine. A few children joined Anouk in a game by the river bank. Armande came down to join us too, holding out her hands to warm them by the brazier.
`If only I were younger,' she sighed. `I wouldn't mind this every night.’She took a hot potato from its nest of coals and juggled it deftly to cool it. `This is the life I used to dream about as a child. A houseboat, lots of friends, parties every night…’ She gave Roux a malicious look. `I think I'll run away with you,' she declared. `I always had a soft spot for a redheaded man. I may be old, but I bet I could still teach you a thing or two.’
Roux grinned. There was no trace of self consciousness in him tonight. He was good humoured, filling and refilling the mugs with wine and cider, touchingly pleased to be the host. He flirted with Armande, paying her extravagant compliments, making her caw with laughter. He taught Anouk how to skim flat stones across the water. Finally he showed us his boat, carefully maintained and clean, the tiny kitchen, the storage hold with its water tank and food stores, the sleeping area with its plexiglass roof.
‘It was nothing but a wreck when I bought it,’ he told us. ‘I fixed it up so that now it's as good as any house on land.’ His smile was a little rueful, like that of a man confessing to a childish pastime. ‘All that work, just so I can lie on my bed at night and listen to the water and watch the stars.’
Anouk was exuberant in her approval. `I like it,' she declared. `I like it a lot! And it isn't a mid – mid – whatever Jeannot's mother says it is.’
‘A midden,' suggested Roux gently. I looked at him quickly, but he was laughing. `No, we're not as bad as some people think we are.’
`We don't think you're bad at all!' Anouk was indignant.
Roux shrugged.
Later there was music, a flute and a fiddle and some drums improvised from cans and dustbins. Anouk joined in with her toy trumpet, and the children danced so wildly and so close to the river bank that they had to be sent away to a safe distance. It was well past eleven when we finally left, Anouk drooping with fatigue but protesting fiercely.
‘It's OK,' Roux told her. `You can come back any time you like.’
I thanked him as I picked up Anouk in my arms.
`You're welcome.’ For a second his smile faltered as he looked beyond me to the top of the hill. A faint crease appeared between his eyes.
`What's wrong?’
`I'm not sure. Probably nothing.’
There are few streetlights in Les Marauds. The only illumination comes from a single yellow lantern outside the Cafe de la Republique, shining greasily on the narrow causeway. Beyond that is the Avenue des Francs Bourgeois, broadening to a well lit avenue of trees. He watched for a moment longer, eyes narrowed.
`I just thought I saw someone coming down the hill, that's all. Must have been a trick of the light. There's no one there now.’
I carried Anouk up the hill. Behind us, soft calliope music from the floating carnival. On the jetty Zezette was dancing, outlined against the dying fire, her frenzied shadow leaping below her. As we passed the Cafe de la Republique I saw that the door was ajar, though all the lights were out. From inside the building I heard a door close softly, as if someone had been watching, but that might have been the wind.
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