A frigid gust of wind whipped Francie’s hair across her face when she stepped out of her car carelessly parked a few meters away from the castle. The Rottweilers went down barking, greeting her by stroking her legs and drooling on her new dark red coat. ‘Well, that’s what we call a discrete entrance, am I right, Coco?’
Coco, her eight years old little sister was still seated at the backseat, her feet crossed at the ankles, ladylike. Francie grasped a wooden stick near a tree and threw it away to get rid of the dogs before opening the rear door of the car. ‘Why don’t you come out?’
Coco pouted and shook her golden curls. ‘I don’t want to see them. I don’t care it’s Christmas. I wanted us to stay with dad in Italy.’
‘They’re boring. And rich. So they complain all the time. I’m sure auntie Anita already had a fight with Mana!’
Francie smiled and gave her a hand. ‘It’ll be over soon.’
‘Will Blue be here?’
‘Yes. And Cherry, and Louis. And Decaf.’
‘Decaf is a stoner.’
‘Where have you learned this word?’
‘Auntie Anita said it last time.’
‘Well, auntie Anita isn’t a reference.’
‘I heard mum saying that she’s a drunk.’
Francie sighed and took off Coco’s seatbelt. ‘Come on, now. We’re here to do something important, remember?’
As they were coming closer to the castle’s door, the wintery smells of the firs closing up the whole place from the rest of the world filled up Francie with a strange feeling: when one comes back to a place they were used to visit as a child, they usually feel awkwardly too big, like if they couldn’t fit anymore or had grown blind to its magic. Yet, even now, after ten years, Francie felt choked by her smallness. This castle that had belonged to their family for three generations was somehow the embodiment of a silent entity that wouldn’t ever let them grow too big for anything, but instead playfully preserving their pitiful character, little animated puppets twiddling around in the large corridors and the ballroom with no aim.
Francie hadn’t even come back last Spring, when their Grandfather, Gabin Durand, had passed away. Yet her uneasiness immediately flew away when Coco eagerly started to ring at the door: an impatient gesture that reminded her of why they were here.
When the door opened and the Rottweilers pushed Coco to the side to rush inside the hall, Francie discovered a young man in a navy blue polo, five years older than her, holding at the open door like if he needed it to stay steady. ‘Look at you, cousin. You’re dripping. Hello, hello, Coco. You’re definitely the prettiest of the family. Well, after me.’
Francie cut him off with a wry smile. ‘Merry Christmas, Decaf.’
‘You guys are right on time for dessert.’
‘Who’s that?’ shouted a female voice – aunt Anita – from the back.
‘Is it Francie and Coco?’ added a male voice – uncle Marc.
Coco stared at the park behind her as if she was already thinking of planning an escape.
‘Are you as drunk as they are?’ grinned Francie, staring into Decaf’s tired blue eyes.
He opened the door wider and they came inside. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘I’d like to think I’m more humble than that.’ Ravishing smells of food immediately came to Francie, floating in the warm air of the corridor, all marble and glass and Tunisian carpets. ‘Hm, hm,’ murmured Francie. ‘Marc’s rum isn’t the reason why you always arrive at the same time as him at each family dinner.’
‘Of course not!’ he retorted, closing the door behind them, before whispering to Francie’s ear: ‘Thought you were on me there for a second, little cousin… Coco, darling, can I take off your coat?’
After a luscious dessert baked by two chiefs generously paid my Mana, who was seating at the edge of the long glass table, her perfectly combed hair matching the white satin tablecloth, everyone was a bit too loud, too drunk, and shamelessly starting to evoke the heritage question. What had Gabin Durand, the fortunate man, and Mana’s former husband, left for them?
Anita, a well-dressed golden snake with too-high cheekbones, kept questioning her mother who was replying to her: ‘The notary arrives tomorrow before lunch, right? Right?’ by: ‘Isn’t that wine delicious? Louis chose it himself. My grandson has taste.’
Francie was aware that Mana was not sufficiently unhinged to be believable in her character and the scene appeared to her as a tragically ridiculous theatre piece.
As for Marc, he opted once more for the part of the arbitrator, because he found pleasant to give himself the part of the best of them all, while Francie and Coco’s mum preferred to scorn at them with disdainful half-smiles and well-chosen words to prove her so-called emotional maturity. Their shabby dignity wasn’t funny anymore to Francie. She left the table with a polite word and went looking for Cherry and Louis who had left for a smoke about twenty minutes ago.
As she was entering the kitchen, she heard the sound of a wheelchair in the corridor. ‘Oh, Blue, sorry, I haven’t wait for you.’ Blue smiled at her, or at least what was left of her smile, as her jaw was half-covered with a bandage, contrasting her mixed-race skin. Francie had guessed the metallic leg under Blue’s trousers but couldn’t allow herself to look at it. She hadn’t seen her cousin for years, and although she had heard about her bones disease, seeing it was much more violent than she would have pictured it in her imagination. Blue was still utterly charming, still joyful, still the most genuine and loving person of the family. Yet in a few years from now, there wouldn’t be anything left of her. ‘You, hm, you’ve seen Cherry and Louis?’ enjoined Francie.
‘How to miss them?’ grinned Blue with a chin movement towards the large windows uncurbed with gold. And here they were, Cherry and Louis, the two twins of the family, Parisians to the core, long coats sculpting their slender silhouettes, their skin as tanned as Blue’s. Their walk, sophisticated and perfectly paced, like two felines governing the park simply by covering its lands with a sidelong glance.
‘Why do I feel uninvited to the party?’ uttered a voice at the bar.
Decaf made his fingers run on the wine glass hanging above the surface, echoing at each of his move a crystalline tone that strangely sounded like a threat or a complaint. ‘You are,’ said Francie. ‘Actually, I was waiting for you all.’
‘Shady, little cousin. You’re not here for the fun of it, right? I know you hate this place.’
This place in which the greens of the garden, the pale blue sky and the silvery reflections on the pound seeped into one’s heart and turned irreparably it black. There was a decadent, sweet flavoured richness to it – one that was Francie’s without being hers but seemed, in the cold winter days, with the splashes of light that were beaming on the wine glasses hanging above the marble surface of the kitchen cleaned with lemon and vinegar, to be another world in itself, a bubble one, in which she had a sit saved at the table.
‘Francie, honey, why didn’t you come for a cigarette with us?’ asked Cherry, entering the room with her characteristic chemical musk.
‘I’m not a smoker anymore,’ replied her cousin.
‘Oh,’ mouthed Cherry, gently stroking her cousin’s hair. ‘Congratulations, I guess.’
‘How old are you, now?’ asked Louis. ‘Last time we saw you, you were like… Eighteen?’
Francie couldn’t tell if he was aware of his handsomeness or completely indifferent to it. Although he and his sister seemed now somehow… Polished. They had created this elegant and smart look of them, each of their move performed in a perfect swift motion.
‘I’m twenty now,’ replied Francie. ‘Just like Blue.’
Cherry mindlessly nodded and threw her new fur coat on a chair while Decaf was begging Louis to go back outside with him for a smoke. ‘Actually,’ intervened Francie, ‘Would you guys fancy a walk in the castle? I need to tell you something, but it might be easier if I’m in… movement.’
She laughed, guessing Coco’s presence, lurked behind one of the sofas. ‘Come out, Coco. After all, you’re the captain of this weird mission.’
What was even stranger for Francie than this feeling of smallness was the impression to have never been truly gone. Not even from the princess-like room with her name on the door and a large four-poster bed strangely standing in the centre. Cherry was rumbling about some guy she had met in her art school and Louis and Blue were arguing on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Decaf was holding Coco’s hand and Francie kept on leading the way. She could still picture her and Blue as kids running in the corridors, shaking the castle to its foundations, dancing in the ballroom on their own, training at archery in the park and taking Anita’s car tires as a target before climbing in the trees to hide, quickly followed by Cherry and Louis. Decaf never let himself be impressed by his mother’s questioning and kept affirming that he hadn’t seen a soul coming by in the park. ‘Guys,’ said Francie now that they were in front of Gabin Durand’s former room. ‘You remember the games we used to play as kids?’
‘Surely do,’ said Louis. ‘Good old times.’
The little girl took a few steps forward and, shyly, took out a thin golden chain from her sweatshirt, a key hanging out from it. ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ blurted out Decaf. ‘The fuck? You stole the key from Mana?’
‘Uh, what the hell is that key anyway?’ said Cherry.
‘The one that opens the safe that keeps Grandpa’s papers, testimony and shit, supposed to be examined by the notary tomorrow.’ They all started to talk on top of each other and Coco stopped them, kicking the floor and shouting: ‘Listen!’ Surprised by her strength like one would be from a kitten, they went quiet as she continued: ‘We have to burn it.’
‘To… What?’ exclaimed Decaf.
‘Francie, explain yourself,’ sighed Blue.
‘Hm, well, I’m afraid we won’t be rich anymore.’
The only thing Gabin Durand had left for his family was a couple of heavy debts. His illegal business had never truly been a secret, but by judging the family’s wealthiness, they all expected to be blessed by a new heritage. Although the one coming was more like a curse, and Gabin Durand had left a key to Coco and a letter to Francie, one in which he explained that he despised all of his ungrateful kids, except his grand-children to who he owned truth and protection. He didn’t want this financial burden for them, so they had to destroy the evidence before the notary’s arrival. Leaving the memory of a man who would have wasted all of his gains and selfishly left nothing.
As Decaf was watching the corridors, Blue and Louis lit the ballroom’s fireplace, an unshaped and furious golden stain provoking the stillness of the walls. Coco closed back the safe and burned the key as Francie and Cherry were throwing all the letters and evidence to the flames. This last one was silently crying, repeating that they were not rich anymore and that she would have to take a loan, like the poor. Blue, her eyes-browns frowned as she was watching the paper burning, asked: ‘Why Coco? I mean, why did Grandpa give the key to a kid?’
‘Because he knew I don’t care about the heritage,’ calmly replied the golden-haired child who suddenly appeared older to them. ‘And the adults would have guessed you were hiding something.’
Decaf laughed, walking towards them, apparently tired of being backstage to the show. ‘I also think that the whole thing is nothing but a pretty good joke. Grandpa loved games, remember? He always did. This one is just his last.’
No more than a couple of minutes later, auntie Anita and uncle Octave – whose presence Francie had forgotten -, rolled up to the ballroom like angry little dogs. ‘Can we know what the hell you’re all up to?’ asked uncle Octave. Blue whispered to Coco that he had a tomato sauce stain on his white shirt, which made the little girl giggle. ‘Who told you to lit up the fireplace?’ enjoined Anita. ‘We got bloody heaters, now!’
‘Nah, mum, we like an old-fashioned way,’ said Decaf.
On the 26th, Francie was strolling across the grass, barely disturbing the gardens’ quietness, when she heard a car coming by. The grey BMW elegantly parked fifty meters away from her. A tall dark man came out, walking towards the young girl with a confidence that seemed strong and soft at the same time, attractive for sure but mostly inspiring. He stared into her large bright eyes and asked if she was one of the Durand children. ‘I am,’ replied Francie. ‘And you must be the notary.’
‘Pleasure to meet you, young lady…’
‘Francie. Where can I find your parents?’
‘Just ring at the door, someone will open to you.’ She watched him walk towards the castle. The Rottweilers barked but didn’t make a move towards him. Crossing his way, Cherry, Louis, Decaf, Blue and Coco exchanged a glance silently before reaching Francie. They stood there, quiet. Hands in her coat’s pockets, Francie stared at the castle for a moment, knowing it would probably be the last. It seemed to gave her a heartfelt goodbye too. Now the six of them were surrendering to the majesty of this place, bigger, bigger than them, bigger than burned letters and wasted car’s tires, nothing but omniscient, watchful as the dawn.