Oh Lordy, I hadn’t quite realised how far and wide these murmurs might venture – beyond the grave, even, or so it seemed. Returning from a stroll a couple of days ago, I discovered an airmail letter in my letterbox. The envelope blended rather with the icy blue stamp which depicted Marianne, Phrygian cap on head and an uncharacteristic wariness in her eyes. Jetlag, possibly. Or was it from hovering above Mathilde’s spiky copperplate all the way from the Alsace. Because the address had without doubt been written by Mathilde’s paw – Mathilde who had been dead these last twenty-three years.
I pootled back to my burrow, humming the Marseillaise to still the unease in my tummy. Mathilde alive had sent me aquiver, but I’d been able to rest in the knowledge that she was over ten thousand miles away. ‘Ils sont kilomètres’, I can hear her correcting. ’16 886 kilomètres, précisément’. Now miles and kilometres had become immaterial. Beyond the grave she was omniscient.
I don’t usually pour myself a whisky mid-afternoon, but these were peculiar circumstances. Fortified, I sliced the envelope open with a small dagger and pulled out the missive. It was typed. The words ‘Vélosolex’ and ‘le coquin Ratty’ leapt out at me. There were more references further on to Ratty being a swine and a thief and English, to boot. Mathilde was never mild in her accusations. And there was a demand to return the said Vélosolex ‘immédiatement’.
Alas, I don’t have the Uncle Ratty’s Vélosolex anymore. Would I return it if I did? I do still have the photograph, though. It is still in its frame although the brown paper backing is becoming brittle. It came into conversation during my apprenticeship year when I was living with Great Uncle Mole, and was bemoaning the cost of a train ticket back to the parental burrow in Switzerland. ‘We used our legs when we were your age’, Great Uncle Mole said, ‘And our bicycles’. ‘Or the Velosolex’, said Uncle Ratty with a dreamy look in his eyes as he went off to unhook the photograph from the wall. ‘Those days’, he said, and went on to talk about the Resistance, rather implying that he had been involved. I was at a skeptical age and when he showed me the fuzzy photograph of himself, or so he said, on a Vélosolex next to a pockmarked wall, I just thought, well one rat in a beret looks much like another. I expressed my doubts to Great Uncle Mole who often pooh-poohed his friend’s stories. ‘Of course it’s Ratty’, he said, ‘I took the bally thing myself’.
I felt ashamed at having doubted Uncle Ratty, especially as that very afternoon he took me to a lock-up not far from the river. His boat took up most of the space, but behind it was a strange shape under a dust-sheet. He flicked it off like a magician and revealed this wonderful contraption, a squat black bicycle with a motor that could be hooked to the handlebars, or engaged with the wheel. Not only was he showing it to me, he was giving it to me – his treasure – so that I could travel to Switzerland, a twenty-five hour trip if you disregard the Channel.
Over the next couple of days we planned out the route Calais, Arras, Charleville, Metz, Nancy Mulhouse, Basle, Berne. He drew it all out for me in indelible pencil and attached the sheets of paper to a board with a bulldog clip, and he found odd bits of wood and wire and even a torch and secured the lot onto the handlebars.
It was a long, slow journey but incredibly exciting. I could feel the kind of stirrings that I imagine attacked the ancient Mr Toad from time to time. I rode through sleet and hail and sun. I slept in fields by day and rode at night. I got lost in towns and found my way again. I grew up on that Vélosolex. And I repeated the adventure half a dozen times.
Did Ratty give it to me because it wasn’t his to keep? Or did he, I now wonder, have some thought of my returning it to Mathilde as he plotted my route through Alsace. Was it indeed Mathilde’s? I’ve never known Uncle Ratty to even pinch a sugar-lump. Honourable to a fault, however tall his stories sometimes were.
The letter was not from Mathilde. It was from her niece, Solange who although the spitting image of her aunt, was of this world. Like her aunt, she wasted nothing and this old envelope, already addressed by Mathilde, had no doubt been lying around for a score years or more, waiting for an occasion. And Solange had happened upon murmurs and the Vélosolex, and taken the opportunity to try and right regurgitated wrongs.
How can I possibly know what the circumstances were in those chaotic post-war years? And there is no-one left to ask. No Great Uncle Mole or Uncle Ratty or Tante Mole. Nor is there Mathilde, not even beyond the grave.