All adults have, in their memory, the places which defined their childhood. They just have to shut their eyes to visualize them and the feelings associated with these places come flooding back. When I plunge nostalgically into the memories of my childhood, the entire space is taken up by one imposing place: my father’s castle.
My father began his adventure as a castle owner shortly after my sixth birthday. One evening in the beginning of autumn, he suddenly left our apartment with a heavy black suitcase in his hand. He was misty-eyed when he kissed us for the last time – my brother, my sister and myself – before crossing the threshold to leave our family’s apartment in a plain gray building with a view of Paris in the distance. He must have been in too much of a hurry to explain the reasons for this sudden departure. So my mother did it for him: Dad was thinking of buying a magnificent castle some twenty miles from where we lived. In a trembling voice, she then explained to us that we could not go and stay with him. Then she went all mysterious and murmured to us that, just like in the stories she used to read to us at night, my father had agreed to undergo a test to allow him to become the owner of that place: he had to live there alone for three months. Although the test was very hard for the whole family to endure, it did have one element that made us smile again, albeit timidly. On two Sundays a month, we were able to go and visit the castle owner.
Even now, I see our Sunday excursions through the eyes and words of a child. While other people were hurrying to the local church to worship, we would set off by car in the late morning, excited to visit our father. I was very impressed by Dad’s castle because it was situated in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields as far as the eye could see. A very straight road, edged by giant poplar trees that Mom said were as “inflexible as the law,” led us to the outskirts of that prestigious building. With my face pressed up against the side window of the car, I caught sight of the two dungeons set at either end of the façade between the trees. Dad’s castle was not very pretty, I said to myself, the high walls were an ugly gray and there were no flowers to brighten up the driveway to the imposing building. When we rang the doorbell at the vast entrance, it was not Dad who came to the door. The castle owner had several butlers available for his use, all dressed like policemen. Before they took us to see Dad, they would check Mom’s basket which contained pancakes, chocolate, cigarettes, and everything she thought Dad would like. Then they would take us to the living room where the lord of the manor would receive us for two hours. It was cold in that room but there was warmth in our hearts, I used to think. Endless games of Monopoly enlivened these moments of rekindled bonds. I remember Dad always used to get irritated when he landed on the “Jail” space. He was always smiling, yet I realized early on that he was not happy in that place. Castle life was obviously failing to live up to his expectations. Dad was sorry he couldn’t take us to his bedroom. That must be part of the test, I concluded. We would leave him, sadly, in the middle of the afternoon. As Mom’s car drove away from the castle, I would turn around one last time to take a mental photograph of the place and preserve the memory of it until our next visit. Under the ramparts, right in the middle, was a sign bearing the inscription in black letters: Fleury-Mérogis. A strange name for a castle with no flowers.
In the end, my father got tired of life as a castle owner. He complained about the cold, the dirt and the solitude. So exactly three months after his hasty departure, he came back to us on Christmas Eve and happiness returned again to our modest home. He didn’t miss the ramparts and dungeons. He didn’t talk much about his stay in the fortress but just made do with saying to us one day, his head unusually bowed, “it was a mistake, and anybody can make a mistake.” With that, he tossed that digression in his life and ours onto the scrap heap of family history. Yet thirty years later, I still sometimes close my eyes and catch a glimpse of that strange castle that turned my father, just for one autumn, into the hero of a contemporary fairytale. I remember, too, the black suitcase, the smell of the pancakes and the bursts of laughter on Sundays. Then my eyes fill with melancholic tears and the castle finally disappears in a thick mist.
Note: Fleury-Mérogis is a prison near Paris.
Translated by Wendy Cross