Let me tell you about the whole affair. I remember it well: it was the early summer of thirty-nine, when Tunis started to become intolerable in the heat and all the best types would travel back to la Métropole for the season. I came home from school, just as I was beginning to feel the painful prangs of the transition away from childhood. The house was without life, which perturbed me as Mother usually told me if she were to be out. I walked through into the kitchen. There, on the table was a terse note, written in a rushed, cursive style:
Gone to d’Honderville—is terribly sick. Will telephone later. Love, Mama.
There had been talk of his illness of course, but it was a shock. He had been a little off-colour when I’d seen him last, a month before.
‘d’Honderville wasn’t feeling well today, did you notice? He hardly touched his cake and it is so wasteful to not eat,’ Mother had said disapprovingly as we left his house, although d’Honderville (we never used his first name—Gustave I think it was—it never seemed quite right somehow) had been his usual erudite, jocular self. ‘He was really very pale and not at all as he should be. He denied anything the matter at first, of course, but I forced him to admit he’d been to see Doctor Joffre and had some tests done. I do hope it is nothing serious.’
I must confess, I scarcely paid it much thought. d’Honderville was too rich to fall ill, and truly, he was still young, only a few flecks of snow in his hair.
But yes, he died.
The funeral took place on a blinding white day, the Sun bleaching the natural colours from everything, rendering objects a sterile grey. It was hard to look levelly without your eyes aching; it was crushingly warm in the stiff black suits, the heat lying on all sides like a steam press, opening up the pores in your skin.
I looked up at a steep, rounded hill outside Tunis, its surface scarred by ugly, cutting shrubbery that grew up amongst the dishevelled rows of stone tablets. The graves had, over time, multiplied like a virus across the bald dome, markers stretching back to eighteen eighty-one. This was whitey’s graveyard.
A rather unremarkable brick church lay at the bottom of the hill, its high bell-tower ringing out the start of the service, surrounded by dazzling black automobiles, reflecting the brittle light, the Arab drivers standing around wafting their caps, smoking cheap cigarettes.
Inside the church, we prayed for the colonial souls on the hill, men and women lost to the sensuous depravities of the Orient, far from pious home. The wealthiest of course were not buried here: they had their bodies returned to France—I don’t know why d’Honderville hadn’t made provision for this, but then he always liked North Africa a little too much. At least, that’s what Father used to say. He wasn’t at the funeral, away working in Paris with the company, so Mother was his representative, veiled in widower’s black.
Sat in the middle of a pew, it was like a brick kiln, packed with overstuffed figures. Mother and I were towards the rear, flanked at either end by unfamiliar mourners. It was hard to concentrate on the long, formulaic service, the priest muffled by the mass of bodies. Only the rousing utterance of Amen and the hymns brought any vigour from the congregation—all the rest was impenetrable humming and whining, so many spokes in a machine.
The eulogies for d’Honderville were reverential, respectful, devoid of meaning. His business sense was praised repetitively, but it all seemed to miss the lively sparkle in his eyes and the wet of his lips after a glass of Madeira wine, his obsession with Balzac. We were remembering him as though he had lived his life as a cadaver.
Looking surreptitiously around, I caught a glimpse of Monsieur Calleia. I was surprised; Father had said there was a personal animus between Monsieur Calleia and d’Honderville, over some financial affair. He looked grave and august, his face lined with the sharp creases of a franc note, eyes looking straight ahead, even during moments of prayer. Even in church, I could tell his mind was calculating distant equations, costing and equalising a variety of fabulous stratagems.
The dreary cleric continued his dreary ritual and my eyes were heavy with tiredness. It seemed impossible to concentrate on the service. d’Honderville’s passing had unleashed a number of unhelpful and unwelcome emotions, which had been by now successfully suppressed and stored away in my internal warehouse, locked up and ignored. At any rate, the service hardly seemed to be about him, but rather an elaborate ceremony of solemnity which could be for prince or pauper.
As the service neared its end, the walls echoing with the sound of a hundred voices, singing out of tone and key, I felt a certain emotion for the first time, a quivering sensation which I couldn’t exactly place, but seemed appropriate for the occasion.
The hymn ended and there was a sudden, rather disrespectful burst of subdued chatter as we all turned to leave and make our way up the hill to the burial itself. As I moved I glanced up at Mother and was taken aback at how morose she looked, her expression set as a frigid mortuary mask. I had never seen her look this way before: it was as if, were her emotions to slip, she would crumble in the light.
The slap of heat as we left the church returned me to my surroundings. We began our ascent to the graveyard, keeping a measured distance behind the coffin-bearers, carrying their ornate load, made with the finest wood and polished brass. The fiendish sun kept distracting me from trying to recognise the troop of mourners, my discomfort acute. I concluded it was too hot to be sad.
Mother had disappeared into the black mass behind me as I, in a somewhat fitter state, outpaced the rest of the morass. Only Monsieur Calleia was as close to the advanced guard of the coffin, his faced hidden from me but his determined stride revealing a stamina befitting a younger man.
It was difficult to focus on him in the noonday light and I bowed my head to look at the graver-markers which lined our route, recording their occupants’ essential particulars, government records engraved on stone. At the base of some lay a few thin, wilted sheaves of flowers, half-buried in sand.
The burial procession finally halted and we gathered around in a large semi-circle about the graveside, the hole freshly dug, the coffin besides it. The priest stood next to a small gaggle of respectful workers in soiled overalls, their cloth caps doffed. I mumbled the prayers along with everyone else, the priest’s voice crackling like a badly-tuned wireless. There was a flurry of people crossing themselves and I followed suit, the final act on our part before the workmen lifted the coffin up and lowered it into the ground with a ‘clunk’ of terrible finality, a small storm of dust rising from upwards, and it was all over save for another chorus of Amen and a few select figures following the priest in casting a handful of dirt into the black pit. A body had been consigned to natural decay, while the memory of its life started its long, terminal fade.
We started to tread slowly back, everyone making their own path to their automobiles. I glanced up from the ground and unexpectedly made eye contact with Monsieur Calleia. Embarrassed, I gingerly shook hands with him, his grip firm.
‘Bonjour Monsieur,’ he said, ‘you’ve grown since we last met.’ It was one of those tiresome platitudes adults always seem to say when they don’t know how to speak to children.
He continued wistfully, ‘I’m glad to see you here. So few of the younger generation have respect for their elders anymore. I had a great admiration for Monsieur d’Honderville.’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ I replied vaguely, not knowing whether he expected me to believe him or not.
‘Your mother seems quite affected by his sudden passing,’ Monsieur Calleia said as we continued walking once more. ‘I daresay being so close to him meant she knew him better than many of us. I hear she was hardly from his side this past year. Yes, yes,’ he mused, ‘a great shock to her, as it was to all of us. How is your father by the way?’
‘Oh, much the same as before I should imagine. He has been working in the company’s head office in Paris for the past year or so. He only comes back to Tunis during his holidays,’ I said, knowing perfectly well he knew this already. He fixed me in his stare with his watery grey eyes with a curious look, half-way between pity and disbelief.
Then he shook his head and said offhandedly, ‘Perhaps your mother could show a little more decorum in her grief... Anyhow, I must be getting on. Give my regards to your parents.’
He went off at a steady pace, leaving me to ruminate. It seemed as though he had been trying to intimate or hint at some great fact which he had expected me to know but which I did not possess. Monsieur Calleia’s behaviour, normally so formal and proper, had been decidedly odd.
Mother was waiting for me next to the church and silently we walked over to our car, the driver opening the doors for us. As we pulled out the cemetery, I remarked to Mother that I had had the most peculiar conversation with Monsieur Calleia. She unclenched her jaw and took my hand in hers.
‘Oh, and what did he have to say?’
‘He wanted to pass on his commiserations. It wasn’t that precisely, but rather his whole manner seemed strange, as though he was trying to tell me something but couldn’t or wouldn’t.’
Mother seemed to blush. It may have just been the sun. I don’t suppose I shall ever know. She didn’t say much for the rest of the journey back into Tunis. I tried to catch a glance of her face, to read what she was thinking, but she was turned to the window, in a kind of trance.
I often think of that day now. All of those people are dead, gone to join d’Honderville on the hill. Father bought it when the Boche invaded and some of the rest died before the English and Americans got to Tunis. Mother passed before independence.
Yet I remember the funeral so well, like a dream you can always recall, while memories of other times have grown faint. It was only later, after the war, that I understood what Mother had done. At the time, the burial was like a De Chirico picture, where nothing quite fitted together. When I learned of Mother’s sin, I felt—I’m not sure how to say it, but it seemed as though her love for me had been counterfeit as well. I never kissed her again. Isn’t that a terrible thing, to decide one day, to never kiss one’s mother again? I used to hate d’Honderville, for ruining her, but now I am filled with a great, aching sadness, at failing to understand the turmoil of their lives which must have been hidden from me.
I lay flowers on their graves now and wonder and remember how a tale of death became a love story, after all.