In the castle
by Julie Primon
She snuck out of the back door without telling anyone. The evening was wet and glistening. Although the clouds hung low, the rain had stopped. She walked quickly, hands shoved into her pockets, and turned into the passageway that her uncle had shown her. It looked like it would lead to a private garden, but instead it kept going: past trees then low stonewalls on either side as she left the village behind.
The forest, benign in daylight, turned into something different at night. The trees seemed taller, closer together, clustered into menacing shapes. The birch became a bear, the oak a robber. Clémence tripped over roots twice, ending up on her hands and knees. Her phone, which she used as a flashlight, landed further ahead, its white beam throwing a triangle of the path into sharp relief. A leaf, a broken branch: they seemed alien under the harsh light.
Breathing in and out, she felt the shudder of tears. She wasn’t sure what had led to this; her mother had raised her to be quiet, good, and take up as little room as possible. Children are seen, not heard. Her mother didn’t seem aware that at fourteen, Clémence was no longer a child. One long exhale, and she pushed herself to her feet, grabbing her phone. The path was encased in darkness. Her knee throbbed as she moved forward, flicking her phone left and right. A breeze rustled the leaves, and her mother’s voice came from the darkness. You’ll need a plaster for that knee. Oh, you’ve got dust all over you. Go home and have a shower, dear. What do you think you are doing? This old castle is not worth another look.
But it was, Clémence thought, her cheeks hot under this imaginary fire. How dare her mother tell her what to do, when she had shipped her off to her aunt and uncle’s house in Brittany and gone with Clémence’s father on their own private trip for their wedding anniversary? They were probably busy snorkelling or shopping for souvenirs or walking along a Caribbean beach. The rain had started again, and Clémence pulled her hood up. Before her, the path split up. Left or right? She looked at her options in the faint light of her phone, eyes narrowed, trying to remember which way her uncle had gone. Left, she thought. You don’t even know where you’re going? her mother taunted. Really, darling, you should turn around. Or are you trying to get lost in this forest and catch your death in the rain? All because... what, exactly? You’re having a bad day?
Clémence walked faster. She was not having a bad day. From the moment she had arrived in Brittany, her aunt and uncle had welcomed her, asking her what she liked to eat, making sure she was comfortable. Her cousin Oriane – who wasn’t really her cousin, but the daughter of Mariam, her uncle’s new wife – had left Clémence her bed, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She never once complained about it. And her cousin Paul... Well, Paul wasn’t the talking type and she only really saw him at breakfast, but today he had watched a film with her and Oriane, the three of them sitting in companionable silence. This holiday she hadn’t wanted was turning out to be the freest she had been in a long time. It was too much, too good to last.
Suddenly she stopped: she was at the edge of the clearing. Her mother could shut up. Clémence had found her way. Turning off her phone, she let her eyes get used to the starlight. The castle was a pale shape in the darkness, edges blurred. Joy filled her up, inflating her like a helium balloon. Her eyes ran across the façade, the darker spots shaping into rectangular windows. Then she noticed a light flickering inside, on the second floor. She moved closer. There was sound, or rather, a stream of sounds: music. Clémence shook her head against the caress of fear on her neck. Was she imagining this? The rain had slowed again, and she was sweaty from the walk. She took off her hoodie, tied it round her waist, and looked for a way into the castle.
There was a broken window at the back, on the ground floor, with a ledge wide enough to climb on. Clémence pulled herself up, placed one knee on the ledge, then her left foot. It was awkward: she banged her head on the top of the window as she tried to shift position. From here, the music was barely audible. She slipped a leg inside, avoiding the jagged glass edges, and found the windowsill with her foot. It was a question of going slowly, handling each limb in turn; she was nearly there –
Her right arm caught the edge of the glass on the way in, its slice cool on her skin. She winced as she jumped off the windowsill, feeling, after a second, the pulse of blood.
‘Shit.’ She curled her fingers around her forearm: blood flowed from the wound, thick and tepid. She folded carefully down onto her knees, in case she passed out; breathing in and out slowly, she reached for her hoodie. Her left hand shook as she wrapped the top around her injured forearm. It needed to be tight. She caught the sleeve between her teeth, yanked. The pain flared brightly.
Well, that was silly, wasn’t it? You’ll need a doctor to look at that, Clémence.
She didn’t want to think about it. When the thud of blood had dulled, she stood up. If she held her arm to her chest, the ache was contained. Trailing her left hand across the wall, Clémence ventured out of the room – a back kitchen, looking at the old sinks. She paused at the top of the next flight of stairs, light-headed. The window on the landing looked out onto the surrounding woods. In the distance the village’s church tower glowed, backlit against the night. How strange to think that her aunt and uncle must still be serving customers at the inn, the evening rush slowing perhaps, laughter ringing, elongated by the drink. Clémence felt like she had entered a different world.
The music was close now. She could recognise a guitar, a drum; the singer’s voice was confident. She recognised words learned in English class over the years – together, I can’t wait, surrender. Pushing herself off the wall, she neared the door under which light spilled out. Her breathing quickened. A moment of hesitation, her fingers on the round brass handle. She pushed the door open.
The glow came from dozens of fairy lights lining the walls, flames dancing and casting soft shadows. Four boys were arranged in a half-circle, one playing drums, one the violin, and the other two guitar. She realised with a shock that the one in the middle – the one who was singing so convincingly – was her cousin Paul. His eyes were closed. The violin player saw her first and stopped. The other two followed; Paul was the last to notice, his voice trailing off amid lingering sound.
‘Clémence? What are you doing here?’
She blushed under their collective attention. If only she could have been a little mouse and listened to their playing in secret.
‘I was walking… I heard the music,’ she stammered.
Paul’s gaze fell on the hoodie awkwardly wrapped around her arm, ‘Did you hurt yourself?’
He slid the guitar strap off his neck, leaned the instrument against the wall. The other players shifted, exchanging glances.
‘I don’t want to bother you,’ Clémence said, but already Paul was undoing her hoodie. He gave a low whistle; she kept her eyes firmly on the band members.
‘You did a good job. Let’s take five, guys. Victor, give me the first aid box, will you?’
The violinist put down his instrument. He was a slender boy with an impressive mass of dark hair.
‘This is my cousin Clémence, by the way,’ Paul said. ‘Clem, these are the guys: Victor, Thomas, and Benjamin.”
Thomas, the other guitarist, gave her a little wave. Benjamin, the tallest and heaviest, sitting at the drums, just grunted. Victor dropped the first aid box at Paul’s feet and wandered out of the room, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.
‘You guys sound awesome,’ Clémence said timidly. ‘I thought you had a CD playing, or the radio or something.’
Thomas seemed pleased, but Paul laughed. ‘We’re not quite at radio level yet.’
Clémence watched Benjamin go to the window, leaning out and breathing in the night air. Thomas was trying out some chords. The sound filled the room, the notes expanding beyond the walls.
‘This is going to hurt,’ Paul said. And then her arm was on fire, flames licking along her skin. The shock made her suck in a breath. At least she hadn’t screamed, she thought afterwards, as Paul fixed the gauze with tape.
‘We’ve all cut ourselves on that window at some point,’ Paul said, rolling up the leftover gauze and placing it in the first aid box. ‘That’s why I got this stuff from the pharmacy. This is a cool place to rehearse, but it has its downsides.’
‘Luckily we’ve got Daddy Paul looking after us,’ Thomas chimed in.
Paul rolled his eyes, smiling.
‘Is there not an easier way in?’ Clémence asked.
He shrugged. ‘Maybe. But it wouldn’t be as fun, would it? Things are better when you have to work for them. And this way we’re guaranteed no one will come in here. Apart from Parisian fourteen-year-olds, apparently.’
Clémence chuckled. Paul held up her bloodied sweater, ‘It’s going to be fun explaining this to Mariam.’
The thought of what might happen after – after the castle, after this moment – made her feel sheepish. Her boldness was gone. She had broken into the castle. She was lucky to have found Paul and the band, but what if that hadn’t happened? What if she had passed out or been arrested?
‘I should let you guys rehearse,’ she said, hoping he couldn’t see how close she was to crying.
‘Well, you can stay if you like. Might be interesting to hear your opinion. Besides, I’d rather you waited for me and we went back together. Don’t want my dad asking how I could let my little cousin get lost in the woods.’
She didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended, ‘I found my way here,’ she said. ‘I could find my way back.’
He looked at her and smiled; she thought she might be blushing. No one at home really looked at her like that, seeing her – who she was, here, now, rather than some old projection. ‘I’m sure you could. But I’d spend the rest of the rehearsal wondering if you were safe. So... humour me and stay?’
She nodded. Couldn’t say no when he put it like that.
‘Is this… Is this what you want to do after high school?’ she asked, gesturing toward the instruments. Her uncle had said something about Paul’s irregular attendance, his lack of engagement with school. Now it made sense.
‘You’re not going to tell my dad, are you?’
Clémence shook her head, but she thought that if Renaud could see his son like this – taking responsibility for his band, bringing a first aid kit to rehearsals – he would be proud.
‘Dad wants me to go on and be – I don’t know, a notary, a shopkeeper, some regular job that would have me set for life. And I know this isn’t very realistic, that you have to get lucky…’ He sighed. ‘I’ve just got to try. I can’t live for him, you know? I’ve got to try and do my own thing. Even if it fails.’
Benjamin pounded a light rhythm on the drum. Paul glanced over his shoulder. ‘I’ll go get Victor. Sit down wherever. ’Fraid we don’t have any cushions or anything.’
The Lunging Tigers played their best songs for her, from punchy tunes to soft ballads, and as she listened Paul’s words echoed inside her. I can’t live for him. I’ve got to do my own thing. Did Clémence have a thing? She thought of her mother’s face, the stern furrow of her brow as she told her daughter how to tidy her bedroom, how to do her homework, how to be good and please everyone. It felt as though something was separating inside her, as though two walls that had been joined were becoming unstuck, making way for something else. She had thought, for so long, that she could never be the right thing.
The band was playing a slower song, its melody complex and poignant. She drank the chorus in, listening intently, and the second time around she sang it with them, pitching her voice higher than Paul’s, watching his face as he noticed, a smile stretching his lips. She had never sung in front of anyone. It was thrilling and terrifying, and she was so caught up in it – her whole being absorbed in the music – that for a moment she could no longer hear her mother’s voice.
Julie Primon is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing. Her thesis, Like a River Towards the Sea: Writing the Unfamiliar, includes a historical novel set in 1940’s Italy, loosely based on her grandmother’s own story. Julie is a French native who writes prose and poetry – her poem ‘Wings’ was recently published in Visual Verse and her flash fiction 'The Pool' was shortlisted in the University of Winchester Writers' Festival.