We didn’t leave the hotel until after 9 a.m. as it was only then getting light and we wanted to meander down to our friends’ house to see the countryside and find a village restaurant for lunch on the way. I persuaded Tony to take the D-roads rather than try to zoom down the motorway, which was what he usually liked to do, so I felt responsible for what happened later.
As the sky lightened, the sun began to shine, Tony relaxed and agreed that we had made the right choice. We enjoyed the views, winding our way through picturesque villages and generally feeling relaxed. We stopped for lunch just after Limoges in a restaurant that was in full festive garb, ready for the big celebration that traditionally takes place on Christmas Eve in France. We didn’t rush our meal as we had been making good time and had told our hosts, old student friends of ours now living in SW France, that we expected to arrive around 7.00 p.m.
We set off again at 2.30 p.m. but after we had been on the road for about fifteen minutes, a mist began to form. Before long the mist had become a pretty dense fog, so our progress was much slower. Still, while we were on the main road, we were in no danger of losing our way and anyway, we had the satnav, a road map and the detailed instructions Sophie had sent us.
After driving for a couple of hours, Tony was growing visibly more irritable so I suggested we switch driver for a while to give him a break. By 6.00 p.m. we saw that we were close to the point at which we needed to turn off the main road to make our way across country on what, Sophie had warned us, were narrow lanes. I pulled into a lay-by so that we could check our route and Tony insisted on taking the wheel again, as the next leg of the journey would be quite challenging.
We found the turn-off without much difficulty but by now the driving had become almost scary: visibility was practically nil and the roads were indeed very narrow. In theory we weren’t far from our destination but it had become difficult to read the road signs and it was soon clear that we had missed a turning and were, to be frank, lost. The satnav seemed to be stuck in ‘route recalculation’ mode and, although I was trying to use the road map with a torch, I couldn’t be sure where we were.
We crawled past a village sign that I thought began with a G but it seemed to be no more than a hamlet. However, by the roadside I could just make out a sign reading ‘Café’ and I suggested we should stop to see if anyone there could help us with directions.
As we walked past the sign in eerie silence, we saw just a glimmer of light seeping out through some shutters. We made our way towards it and were relieved to find the that the door opened easily as we pushed it. The scene inside made us gasp, however. It was like something out of a 1940s movie. The room was sparsely furnished, with no more than four tables and a bar in the corner. On the walls were old-fashioned posters advertising cigarettes and various drinks. The light came from oil lamps on the tables and on the bar. I assumed there had been a power cut. At the table nearest the door sat a man in the ubiquitous blue overalls worn by farmers and workmen. He was poring over a newspaper that I noticed had no photos on the page he had open.
At the furthest table sat a man in a double-breasted suit, his hair slicked down. His companion was a Joan Crawford look-alike in a high-collared, brown dress wearing bright red lipstick. Between then on the table was a bottle of red wine and two half filled glasses. They looked up as we entered and, for a second, the woman’s expression was one of pure terror, but she looked down quickly and lifted her glass to her lips. At the bar stood an elderly man wearing a cap. He was in shirtsleeves and baggy corduroy trousers and was smoking what could only have been a disque bleu, as it exuded the familiar whiff of Gauloises cigarettes that I had not encountered for many years. The no-smoking laws, it seemed, were not taken too seriously in deep, rural France.
We sat at the vacant table near the bar and Tony went to explain our predicament to the bartender. I noticed that nobody had said bonsoir and that seemed strange and faintly sinister. Tony came back to our table and shortly an old woman with leathery tanned skin, dressed in black, with a grubby apron and wearing carpet slippers, her grey hair tied up into a severe bun, plonked two foul smelling coffees in front of us. We drank the liquid quickly and Tony, leaving five euros in coins on the table, ushered me out as if in haste.
‘What did you make of that place?’ Tony asked. I shrugged my shoulders, I thought the café and those in it seemed weird, as if from another era and the coffee was nothing like any other I had ever tasted. The good news was that Tony had been given very clear directions and half an hour later, without further incident, we arrived in the village Sophie and Martin now called home.
The next day promised a fine sunny morning, so we went off with our hosts and their two teenage kids to the colourful market in Sarlat. Martin bought the mandatory oysters for our evening meal and Tony and I bought champagne and wine as our contribution. The kids insisted on Sophie’s buying a very rich looking bûche de Noel and we set off back to the house, pleased with our morning.
That afternoon, Sophie explained, the family would be busy preparing the Christmas Eve supper to which some French neighbours had also been invited, so Tony and I set off to walk around the village and stroll along a riverside path to get out of their way and explore a little.
“We must ask them about that strange café tonight; I’m sure the French neighbours at least will know it.”
“Yes”, said Tony. “To be honest, I found it creepy and it was if we were intruders rather than customers.”
That evening we dined sumptuously: cocktails followed by oysters, then roast goose, a lime sorbet, cheese followed by a choice of good old Christmas pudding or bûche de Noel, or in Tony’s case, both. All, of course, washed down with quantities of wine. We then retired, or nearly collapsed into the sofa and chairs around the living room fire.
Maurice, one of the French neighbours enquired about our journey. “Well,” said Tony, “It was fine in the morning but it got really difficult once the fog had come down. In fact, we got rather lost I’m afraid.” Maurice and his wife Hélène expressed their sympathy.
“But,” Tony continued, “About fifteen kilometres or so from here we found an old-fashioned café and asked for directions. It was a strange place, as if nothing had changed since the 1940s.”
Maurice asked us to show him on the map where we thought it was. We traced our route back and found what we thought was the name of the village, which was on the road to Gramat. He visibly paled. “That can’t be right,” he said.
“I’m sure that’s the only place it could be,” Tony said.
“No, you see, there’s nothing there now; that village was completely destroyed by the Germans in 1944. It was burnt to the ground, even the sheep and cattle perished. So, you see….” He tailed off.
Tony and I exchanged a worried look and I said as lightly as I could, “Well, then it must have been somewhere else. It was so foggy and dark we could easily be mistaken.”
The next day we really felt we needed to have some fresh air after the previous night’s indulgence. We took the car to see if we could retrace our route to find that strange café. We came to a crossroads and I thought I recognised the village sign I had seen. There was, however, no building of any kind, just a solid-looking memorial to those killed by a German regiment on its retreat to the north in 1944.
We walked around the monument, reading the names of those who had died and musing on the senseless brutality of it all. As I looked down the list, I noticed something glinting in the sun on the ground. I bent down. At the foot of the monument were two two-euro coins and a one euro piece.