Friday, March 28, 2008

Destination death

Last Tuesday afternoon, I dropped in at the cemetery of Pont-en-Royans to bid adieu to 46-year-old Muriel Magnat (wife of Jean, the brother of Gérard), who was one of the first neighbors I encountered here at Gamone, fifteen years ago. At one stage, I employed Muriel to clean up my house on a weekly basis, but she used to irritate me, whenever I made any specific request, by replying "Oui, chef", as if I were an army sergeant. So her role as my household employee didn't last for long. But we remained good friends... and I was saddened, over the last couple of years, to see Muriel slipping into a no-man's-land of social withdrawal, maybe exacerbated by alcohol.

The last time I ran into her, a couple of months ago, at the supermarket in Saint-Jean-en-Royans, Muriel looked like a very old woman. She invited me back to her place for a pastis. In the course of our conversation, we got around to envisaging the possibility that I might inherit their cat, because it appeared that her husband Jean hoped to replace this animal by a dog. Retrospectively, I believe that Muriel was in no position to offer the family cat to anybody at all, but she was the kind of woman whose friendly direct speech seemed to announce such possibilities as if they were certainties. That was part of Muriel's charm, you might say. Back at the time she worked for me, Muriel was immensely proud of their ancient house in the Rue du Merle, on the slopes of Pont-en-Royans. But drunken carelessness meant that a good part of the neighborhood disappeared in flames... and Muriel, the likely culprit, disappeared instantly, like the burnt buildings, from the daily village scene.

Muriel Faure was a descendant, through her mother, of the Bonnard family whose prestigious hotel, inaugurated in 1898 (still standing, but converted recently into private premises), used to be a touristic landmark at Pont-en-Royans. Once upon a time, the noble descendants of the ancient Bérenger-Sassenage families used to be lodged there... not to mention the king of Belgium along with countless New World visitors.

On the tombstone above the sepulcher where Muriel was buried, I was intrigued by an engraved name, with no date of death: Tintin Faure. Afterwards, I asked my neighbor Madeleine Repellin (an erudite aficionado—in modern terms, a database—of local births, deaths, marriages, divorces, funerals and sordid stories of all kinds) to tell me the relationship between this mysterious Tintin and the deceased woman who had entered his tombstone universe.

Madeleine: "Tintin—that's to say, the nickname for Augustin—is Muriel's father."

William: "Hang on, Madeleine. The other day, you introduced me to an old man, supposed to be Muriel's father, alongside his daughter's grave. Now you're telling me that it's his name that's inscribed on the tombstone above his daughter's grave."

Madeleine: "Right. Tintin has inscribed his name on his future tomb, without a date of death, but his daughter happened to die before him."

William: "I'm amazed. Is it normal for living people to have their names inscribed on tombstones?" I was suddenly reminded of ferry boats in Sydney Harbor that carry the names of still-living sporting heroes such as Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould.

I sensed that the subject was becoming serious, and that my questions were disturbing. My everyday neighbor Dédé RepellinDédé is the nickname for André—intervened in our discussion: "Yes, it's a common habit in this part of the Alps. Inscribing a name on a future tombstone provides us with a precise destination. While still living, we know where we're finally heading."

Talk about serious mountain guides!

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