My Dad’s best friend’s name is Gary, or Gaz. He once told me a story about a seagull that came down from the sky to steal an unsuspecting café customer’s sandwich, swiped it up off his plate it did, like the gull was a croupier mistaking the sandwich for chips. I say unsuspecting, but the unfortunate customer was sitting outside in plain view of the ‘blasted creatures with their wings and beaks’; I say unfortunate, but the petite café situated in the centre of Deal High Street was and still is named, yup, you guessed it: The Seagull.
Gaz tells the story better than I can with greater detail and sound effects, not revealing the name of the café until the very end. But I don’t want to discuss my once-upon-a-time fishing town on the South East coast. Today we’re 600 miles south. Far away from the sort of people who only say good morning before 10.00am. Far away from the sea. Far away from Gaz’s constant ka-ka-kaing.
Or so I thought.
For our honeymoon, Hannah and I drove to the outskirts of a medieval town called Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the South of France. It was a gamble – we didn’t know if our 10-year-old hatchback would make it. 12 hours it took us to get there and when we arrived I wanted to help our native hosts rewrite their directions. St Antonin is a tired soul at the foot of a driver’s road where there’s a race every Wednesday, and once a month it’s legal. The streets smell like the air inside the walls of Dover Castle (your own local castle will do). Of must and damp and of an invisible thickness your nose tries its best to disintegrate, but ends up leaving behind traces of the Maison de l’Amour, a 15th-century House of Love, bricks made from clay and straw, and the English losing to the French in the Hundred Years’ War.
Historic, yes. But away from the busy market discourse of ‘Do you speak English?’ I still felt sick, as though I’d fought and died there in a previous life, more World War II than 1337. Although, as I looked up at the hand-painted shutters and torchis façade, with many a war film on my mind and Jack Hawkins in my ear, I saw no bullet holes.
Back on the outskirts of St Antonin where our cabin in the woods always waited for us along a dirt track with no name in the middle of nowhere, I hoped this wasn’t a place for endings. I kept my thoughts to myself. A place like this couldn’t be dangerous. Not a place so full of life. As soon as we crossed the border from Northern to Southern France, butterflies started to land all over our bodies. When I sat patiently in the pinstriped hammock three sizes too big, strung up using ropes and chains tied to two tree trunks and one flesh-coloured cylindrical pole, a wren’s electronic, triangulating flypast turned me on. The 300-year-old stonewalls, adorned with unsunbleached moss and a generous helping of dewy cobwebs that fell in globules over black gaps in the stone, made me itch when I couldn’t see them, resting.
Raindrops on the webs compete with diamonds set in Hannah’s wedding ring.
The wren let slip its call just to let me know it was still there behind the trees.
‘Bonjour!’ Day 3 and our host, Vincent, a retired doctor from what little I could gather, approached the log cabin on time at 6.00pm. ‘Shhh!’ He came with his two dogs, Dina and Tico, to provide directions for a walk and a drive. ‘Silence!’ I’m not sure what breed his dogs were but something between a Labrador, Alsatian and a stray should set your imagination at ease. Dina was light brown and always chasing something so small I struggled to work out what it was. She had great fun playing with it as it hopped and flapped around on the ground. Tico was black and barked. Vincent walked passed his pile of large, spare terracotta roof tiles – bigger than ours at home – and the digger parked beside his garage about 10 metres to the right of his two-storey stone-built home, about 50 metres away from our cabin. It was the first time my eyes lingered on the idle machine next to Vincent in his clean T-shirt and shorts. He must have used it to help build his home.
We all sat at the orange plastic dining table outside the cabin with a map in front of us. Broken French and poor English scuttled back and forth across the table top. The digger waited patiently in the background.
Planning a route with ease is like telling a good story. And how I wished Gary was there to make it flow. Of course, I agreed to everything Vincent said and pointed at. We planned one route for walking and two points of interest to journey to in the car, plus a cave trip. By the time we finished our planning and I’d expressed my love for the wren – how it always hopped and flapped about the safety of the stone wall in the evenings, puffed out after a long day feeding its babies and all the dangers this entailed – it was 6.30pm and still 30 degrees. Hannah, wound up by the incessant buzzing that came from above, got up to go inside and stare at the black bits slashed across a Japanese-style picture of a rotting onion on the wall in the kitchenette. When I asked which route she wanted to take, to my surprise she picked the caves. ‘They’ll be cool,’ she said. ‘And away from these bloody insects.’
‘Be quick,’ said Vincent. ‘It rains tonight.’
‘Vuh-room,’ agreed the wren, knocking the leaves of a birch behind Vincent and me. As we all stood and said our goodbyes it started again. Not the wren’s vuh-rooming but the ceaseless din of an insect I couldn’t name. At first I thought cricket, then grasshopper, then cricket. While I had Vincent within earshot I asked him if he knew the name of this somewhat elusive live performer. ‘That sound,’ I said with a finger to my ear. ‘Grasshopper?’
He looked at me, puzzled.
I wondered whether it’d be best to get down and start hopping like Jiminy Cricket or try my best Freddie Flintoff impression but instead I put on my best smile and repeated myself, ‘What’s that s o u n d coming from the trees?’
‘Ah,’ said Vincent. ‘La cigales.’ I pulled my confused face again. ‘La cigale very beautiful.’ And with hand gestures to accompany his words Vincent explained how this type of grasshopper moves to the other side of a tree trunk when it senses danger.
‘See-gall?’ I said with a raised eyebrow.
‘Oui,’ said Vincent.
I tried to let the flies out of the car but allowed more in, much to Hannah’s disgust. We were half way down the dirt track with no name delving deeper into the middle of nowhere when I insisted we stop the car to take a picture, as evidence in case anything should’ve happened to us, and our SD card was found.
Before I tell you what we saw I’ll make it clear that we were in a strange and remote section of woodland in a foreign country. There had been some getting-used-to’s, such as how dark it got at night. Now, I’m a nature lover, but this was like sitting-on-the-edge-of-somebody’s-pupil-facing-inward type of pitch. Darkness and bumps in the night were just two of many natural forms of unsettling clichés we were experiencing. On a regular basis.
What I wanted to photograph was not. What I wanted to capture for all time came straight out of a horror movie. What I need to mention, reader, in case you’re thinking of venturing to St Antonin for a woodland escape, is the pristine white Ford Transit van with its side door left wide open to reveal a homemade wooden work table, strong enough to support1,000 pocket springswrapped in hypoallergenic fabric and then tufted and finished with a wool-filled soft topper. Or in short… A fucking mattress.
Hannah cursed. I said normal people buy acamper. We drove away as quick as we could over potholes following strong handwritten directions provided by our host toward three large local caves.
‘What could possibly go wrong?’
‘I didn’t see any stains though,’ said Hannah. ‘So silver linings.’
At that point every birdcall sounded like a chainsaw.
The path toward the ravine was dusty but our footsteps disturbed more butterflies than I’d ever seen before in the wild. Farther down the rocky path and I needed the camera to take pictures of Middle-earth. Many authors who write fantasy and horror go on about moss and lichen, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not sure what image I’m supposed to conjure in my mind when they do, but high up in the French countryside the difference between plant (moss) and fungus (lichen) was clear. As soon as the greenery began it didn’t stop, only paused when we entered the caves where an alternate kind of fluttery waited.
The smell of mud on a cave floor not long after a flood was similar to an English countryside covered with manure. The mud pats, sturdier than the slippery rock surface, didn’t cave in or begin to squelch under our weight, nor did they waver in our torchlight. Vincent said we must pass through the first cave to reach the second.
There were more shadows in the cave than I expected. Which one I predicted Vincent would jump out from with his surgeon’s scalpel I wasn’t sure. When I saw the steep slope alongside the cliff edge leading to a makeshift rope climb, I thought perhaps there was no need to bet on which particular group of shadows our host preferred, and from which black space he’d make his move. Instead, I thought all he’d have to do was scrape us up off the ground from wherever we landed on the side or at the foot of this limestone cliff.
And then I smiled.
About the contributor: Callum lives with his family in Deal, Kent where you’ll find him writing by the sea or in the haunted chair at his local Pub. Fixated by tales of the supernatural, Callum fell in love with the classic Victorian-Edwardian Ghost Stories of MR James, Edith Wharton and EF Benson from a young age. Find him on Twitter.