Mairie des Lilas

   11

Paris is all apartments, really. Very nice apartments, in some cases – positively luxurious, if you live in the wealthier arondissements, the 16th, say, or the 8th. And there are some lovely places in the Latin Quarter or the Marais, or the up near the Canal Saint Martin in the 10th. Even the apartments out at the far edge of the 12th and the 20th are  comfortable and reasonably convenient, if you don’t mind an ugly exterior, and the 19th has some wonderful parks. But Madame LeBrun had insisted on a garden, and that meant going outside the Boulevard Péripherique and into the little towns that are almost, but not quite, part of Paris.

And it was not so bad. The number 11 Métro line runs all the way from Châtelet to Les Lilas, which meant that all Monsieur LeBrun had to do each morning was walk the few blocks to the station, change at République, then take the train to Opéra and his job making shoes in an atelier at the west end of the 2nd. In the evening, he would retrace his steps, returning in the long summer evenings to a dinner of bread and cheese and ratatouille on the terrace overlooking Madame’s garden. Or, on cold winter evenings, he would climb the stairs out of the Métro, emerging into the bright glow of the art deco lamps to walk home, guided by their light, to a house smelling of cassoulet or some other comforting stew, cooked slowly in the oven all day while Madame was at her secretarial job at the Mairie.

There had been no children. These things happen sometimes. But every summer, the LeBruns would spend two weeks in the country with Monsieur’s sister and her children in Brittany; every winter, they would visit Madame’s brothers and their families near Marseilles; and in between, there were neighbours’ children, and friends’ children, and godchildren to love and to play with and to bake for. Madame quite liked baking. And Monsieur had his choir, and Madame her book club, and on the weekends they would go on little outings to nearby parks or châteaux or museums. Their life was pleasant and well-ordered, and they were content.

Monsieur LeBrun is retired now, of course.  He was getting on in years, and his fingers were becoming too stiff and frail to sew and shape the leather for boots and shoes. Madame cut her hours several years previously, though she still volunteers at the library three mornings a week. And so their routine has changed. Dinners are earlier now, since nobody has to get home from work to cook them, and Monsieur takes his turn at cooking occasionally. And after dinner, arm in arm, the LeBruns lock the doors behind them and go for a nice long walk. Doctors’ orders, that post-prandial stroll, though the prescription is one they both enjoy. (Madame was diagnosed with diabetes a year or two ago, though really, she feels entirely healthy, and Monsieur has just a touch of hypertension. But a walk after dinner is good for both conditions.)

Five kilometres precisely, they walk, evening after evening, arm in arm. At first, they would walk around Les Lilas, visiting every street and alley in their little town with curious delight, but after a month or so, this grew tedious, and so the LeBruns began to venture further afield. On some nights, they might take the Métro into Paris, and walk there, seeing each arondissement at ground level; on others, they would catch a bus to one of the other communes, and walk there instead.  Over cobblestones or gravel paths, on concrete or grass, their feet shod in Monsieur’s excellent handmade shoes, the LeBruns have walked through every street in Paris, though there are some they come back to, time and time again. The Coulée Verte, for example, that long park that takes them from the Bois de Vincennes all the way to Bastille. Or the walk through Tuilleries to the Champs Élysées and L’Étoile. Or any of the walks that follow the banks of the Seine.  Or anywhere that bears watching.

In the end, though it does not matter so much where they go. The important thing is that Madame’s pedometer clicks over to 10,000 steps before they turn to go back home.  And that they see what needs to be seen.

***

“I do like that garden.” Madame LeBrun nodded at the house across the street. “I wonder how they get their lilacs to bloom so late?”

Monsieur LeBrun hid a smile. Madame had always grown excellent vegetables and berries, but she struggled with flowers.

“Perhaps you should ask them,” he suggested. “You could write them a little note, saying how much their garden impressed you, and asking if you might meet them sometime. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

Madame LeBrun shook her head. “I wouldn’t want to impose.” She smiled with pleasure, breathing in the scented air. “It’s a good garden, though. And those lilacs really are lovely. You can smell them all the way across the street.”

They walked a little further in silence, until they reached the end of the street.

“Right, or left?” Monsier LeBrun asked.

Madame checked her pedometer. “Left, I think. We need to go a bit further before we can turn back.”

They crossed the road, carefully, turning the corner. Monsieur LeBrun frowned. “Did you hear that?”

Madame cocked her head. A faint cry sounded again in the distance. “It might be a cat,” she suggested.

Monsieur frowned. “It might be,” he conceded.

Madame turned, taking her husband with her. “But perhaps we had better turn right after all.”

They walked towards the noise, hurrying their steps.

“It’s either a baby, or a Siamese,” opined Madame. “They do sound very similar. Don’t run, dear, the doctor said you mustn’t.”

Monsieur slowed his steps a little, but they were both a little puffed by the time they reached the top of the hill.

Madame stopped short, putting a hand over her mouth in horror. “The state of that garden! It’s a disgrace! Someone should complain.”

Monsieur shook his head, in equal disgust. “And they clearly haven’t baptised that baby. How utterly irresponsible! I mean, a fairy infestation can happen to anyone, but you’d think they’d have enough sense to protect their own child.”

Madame sighed. “It’s these millennials. No respect for their neighbours, and absolutely no clue about tradition. And really, my dear, while it’s true that fairy infestations can occur in the best of gardens – why, there was that one in the Tuilleries a few months ago, you must remember! – a mess like that is positively inviting them.”

They both eyed the garden, grimly. It was one thing, Madame thought, to accidentally kill every flower you grew because you just did not have the green thumbs for them, but entirely another to let the grass get that tall. And surely a responsible adult ought to know better than to let fairy toadstools grow in their front garden, where any child might stumble into the ring?

The baby, at least, seemed happy enough, its shrieks clearly ones of delight, not distress. It was bouncing up and down happily in the middle of the fairy ring, and reaching out its hands to try to grab at the fairies, who danced just out of reach.

“They don’t seem to be trying to do anything to him,” murmured Madame LeBrun.

“He’s too small, I imagine,” Monsieur murmured back. “They’ll want to wait until he has a bit more meat on him. They don’t catch a lot of children these days – they won’t harvest this one until they can have a proper feast.”

“I suppose.” Madame made a face. “So you think he’s safe enough for the moment?”

“I think so. They know he isn’t going to run away – he can’t walk yet, and anyway, he’s small enough to think they are toys. And they don’t want people to figure out that they exist and start looking for them. They’ll wait until he’s old enough to have just wandered away on his own, I imagine. Ah – and that would be his keeper.”

Madame breathed a sigh of relief as a girl of sixteen or so came around the corner of the house, and scooped up the baby from the fairy circle. The girl did not appear to see the fairies, but she glared at the LeBruns suspiciously. “Can I help you?”

“I wonder if I might speak to your parents?” Madame LeBrun asked politely.

The girl rolled her eyes. “My parents, or his? If you want his, they’re out. If you want mine – you can just bugger off. I only let him out of my sight for a minute, so I could go wash my hands. He’s fine.”

What lovely manners the girl had. Madame LeBrun frowned, and her husband laid a hand on her arm.

“Of course he’s fine, and I’m sure you take very good care of him,” he said, conciliatingly. “We were just a bit worried, seeing him sitting there among all those toadstools. Children do love putting things in their mouth at that age, you know, and those red and white toadstools are poisonous. Perhaps you should pull them up.”

The girl rolled her eyes again. “I’m a babysitter, not a gardener, thanks. Besides, if I pull them up, I’ll have to wash my hands again, and if you think I’m letting Jules out of my sight with you two perverts hanging around you have another think coming.”

And she hoisted the baby higher on her hip, and carried him into the house, slamming the door behind her. They heard a wail from the baby as the door shut.

“He wants to keep playing with the fairies,” said Monsieur LeBrun, softly.

Madame nodded. “Certainly he does. And he must not be allowed to. But I think the young girl will keep him out of the garden for the rest of this evening, at least.”

“Indeed.” Monsieur LeBrun sighed. “Away from us ‘perverts’. What a delightful child. Should I go into the garden and pull up the toadstools, do you think?”

“That would be trespassing. The babysitter would probably call the police, and I wouldn’t blame her.”

“I suppose. Still, I don’t like to leave a fairy ring just sitting there.”

Madame patted his hand. “I know, dear. But think of it this way. Even if you pulled the fairy ring up, and did not get arrested for trespassing while doing so, another one would just spring up overnight. I mean, look at that garden – it’s a fairy infestation waiting to happen. Overgrown grass, briony, bluebells, foxglove… there’s even a rowan tree by the gate. Frankly, they shouldn’t have the child in the garden even without the fairies – far too many poisonous berries and plants. We need to address the problem at its roots.  Remove the whole habitat, if possible.”

Monsieur LeBrun sighed again. “Very well. Do you want to write the letter this time, or will I?”

Madame LeBrun took his arm, and turned him back in the direction they had come. “Oh, I think it’s my turn. There are still a few people in Parcs et Jardins who remember me, and we want this dealt as soon as possible. A complaint from a former council worker about the state of the garden and the overgrown grass should do the trick. Unsightly – degrading property values – that sort of thing. Come to think of it, that rowan is overhanging the neighbour’s yard, and the footpath.  It must be an absolute mess in autumn… Yes, I think the Conseil Municipal will have a few things to say about that.”

“That child does worry me,” Monsieur LeBrun said, consideringly.  “They just aren’t safe unbaptised in a place like this.”

Madame LeBrun nodded a little sadly.  “I know, dear.  But there really isn’t much we can do about that.  People must be free to make their own choices about religion.  At least that babysitter is unlikely to let him into the front garden alone again.  Our busybodying has done that much good, at least.”

They walked down the hill in silence. “The greengrocer told me last week that his son was setting up a gardening business,” said Monsieur LeBrun, after a while. “Lawns, and tidying hedges, and that sort of thing. Perhaps I should suggest that he leaves a card.”

Madame nodded. “A good idea. And we shall come by in a week or two, and see how things look. Now, I think we should walk a little further along here – I need another eight hundred steps before we can turn back.”

***

Melissa, the council worker in charge of Parcs et Jardins, received the letter from the mail clerk with a sigh.

Merde. Not Madame LeBrun again.”

The mail clerk smirked. “What’s this – the fifth letter this year? What does she want this time?”

Melissa scanned the letter. “Apparently, there is a house in the Rue du Centre that is a disgrace to the beautiful township of Les Lilas. The garden is an eyesore. The grass has not been mowed. There are toadstools growing out the front – why does she think I care about toadstools? – Oh, lovely, and there is an overhanging tree shedding leaves into the street, which apparently will create a slipping hazard in wet weather. And their berries are poisonous – does she think the citizens of Les Lilas wander about grazing from trees? – And all of this, apparently, is going to drive down property values for the whole commune. Lord save me from council workers who will not retire and mind their own business.”

The mail clerk laughed outright. “Was she like this when she worked here?”

“Oh yes. But she’s infinitely worse now. Too much time on her hands, I’d say. We need to give her some more shifts at the library. And as for that husband of hers…”

The mail clerk blinked. “Has he written too?”

Melissa snorted. “Only to the local newspaper, complaining about low baptismal rates in the region. Because we had a revolution and de-Christianised the country so that more children would be baptised, evidently.” She sighed. “I suppose I should send someone out to check on that garden and see if it really is as bad as Madame LeBrun thinks. Otherwise she’ll be in my office this time next week, just checking that I got her letter, and it will take me an hour to be rid of her.”

***

It was a lovely evening for a walk, and so Madame LeBrun directed their path back to the Rue du Centre.

There were no toadstools in the fairy garden, and the grass was neatly trimmed. The rowan tree was gone, and a fair-haired woman was working out the front, the baby in a sling on her back while she weeded around the bluebells.

She looked up as the LeBruns came by, and Madame LeBrun smiled at her. “I love your bluebells,” she said. “I can never get them to grow in my garden.”

The woman sat back on her heels. “Really? They grow like weeds for me. I can give you some bulbs if you like.”

Madame shook her head. “You are very kind, but no. I’ve given up on flowers. The garden fairies just don’t favour me.”

There was a hiss from the tree in the next garden, but she did not turn.

The other woman laughed. “Garden fairies? I only wish I had some. My husband is away on duty, and I can barely keep this place going. Do you know, I had the nastiest letter from the Conseil Municipal last week, threatening me with terrible things if I failed to tidy the garden and chop down a tree that offended some local busybody? Some people have far too much time on their hands.”

The local busybody smiled. “With a baby and no husband at home, that’s not something you would suffer from, I imagine! Though I wouldn’t wish for fairies, in your shoes. Troublesome creatures, or so I’ve heard.  He’s a beautiful boy, though.”

“She. And thank you. Though the slightest change to her routine, and you wouldn’t be saying so. She can be quite a terror if she is crossed.”

Madame laughed. “I can well imagine. Still, my dear – and I certainly don’t want to be one of your busybodies but I really must say this – if you have an infant around, you might want to get rid of those foxgloves. They are poisonous, you know, and I hate to think of your daughter eating one by accident.”

The younger woman, who had greeted the first half of this sentence with a resigned look, gasped a little, bringing her hand to her mouth. “Goodness! Are you certain?”

“Quite. They contain – ah, let me see, is it digitalin? Digitalis? Whichever it is, they make heart medicine from it, but if one takes too much the heart simply stops.”

The young woman drew a deep breath. “My goodness. I had no idea. We rent, you know, and the flowers were here when we arrived, and I thought they looked rather lovely with the bluebells, so I didn’t think to check what they were. But now… well. Thank you – I’ll certainly be getting rid of them.”

Madame smiled benignly. “You’re very welcome. Well, M. LeBrun and I must get on our way – this is our constitutional, you know, and we mustn’t interrupt it for long. But it was lovely to meet you, Madame…?”

“Fermier. And you too.”

Madame inclined her head. “Good evening, then. And good luck with everything!”

And they kept walking.

“I think that went quite well,” said Madame to Monsieur as they reached the end of the street.

“Indeed. Though I can see how her garden got so out of hand, poor thing. Imagine, managing an infant on your own, with a garden like that.”

Madame nodded, then frowned. There was a high-pitched hum coming from the tree just around the corner. “Surely it is too late in the year for cicadas?”

Monsieur raised his brows. “I would have thought so.”

They turned the corner, then stopped, as one.

The birch tree two houses down was tall and slender, yet somehow majestic. Its bark was shimmering white and its leaves a vibrant green that had not yet begun to turn to gold.

It was heavy with fairies, humming angrily as they stared at the LeBruns.

The LeBruns stared back.

“That’s certainly a healthy tree,” Monsieur LeBrun commented.

“True. No rot. It won’t be falling down in any storms, I don’t think.”

“I suppose its roots might be getting into the pipes.”

Madame shook her head. “It might, but we can’t tell from here, and we can’t really dig it up to check.” She looked up again, then smiled. “Well. I never thought I’d be glad of an overhead power line, but…”

Monsieur followed her gaze and laughed. “Oh dear. Yes, indeed. We certainly can’t have a tree growing into a power line. Imagine if there were a storm!”

“Or any sort of surge in the system.  Terribly dangerous, don’t you think?” Madame stared up at the tree, with its uncanny fruit. “Well, my dear. I think you should be the one to write the letter this time. Twice in one fortnight is a bit much even for me.”

Monsieur LeBrun smiled. “It will be my pleasure.”

And tucking his wife’s arm more firmly in his, he turned them towards home.

station

Stations, Wicked Fairies and Letters to the Council

Mairie de Lilas is the very last station on Line 11, which runs from Châtelet station in the centre of Paris all the way east, past the Boulevard Péripherique, to the commune of Les Lilas.  Les Lilas is essentially a town that was swallowed up as Paris expanded in the 19th century.  It is technically a banlieue or suburb of Paris, though I hesitate to use this word, as it has a lot of stigma attached to it – it has come to be associated by outer suburbs of Paris with high levels of unemployment, many new immigrants and a variety of social problems, which doesn’t really apply here (in fact, Les Lilas is apparently the home of the Montenegran Royal Family in exile, so that’s a tick for immigrants, but not so much for the rest.).  The Métro station was opened in 1937, and is famous – apparently inaccurately – for being the inspiration for a song by Serge Gainsbourg about a ticket inspector.

Mairie means town hall, or perhaps more accurately, the seat of the Mayor and the Conseil Municipale – the Municipal Council.  Councils in France are, much as they are here, responsible for the daily life of a town or suburb – maintaining the roads, making sure the lights work, ensuring that nobody is building things they shouldn’t, and keeping the parks and gardens tidy.

There is not a lot of romance to be found in town halls.  But, as I know to my chagrin, people certainly do get very worked up about local government matters.  I’m pretty sure this is universal.  The sort of problems that the LeBruns get worked up about are… maybe less universal.  I wouldn’t want to say for sure.  Either way, I liked the idea of a retired couple who harness the power of bureaucracy to fight the supernatural. And it seemed like a nice way to acknowledge the municipal councils of Paris and the world generally, and the important work they do in keeping us all safe from overgrown gardens.

After all, as Voltaire said, il faut cultiver son jardin.

(Yes, I’ve been working up to that this whole time.  I wanted to make it my title, but I figure the only people who will find it funny are people who studied way too much French literature at school.  And these are probably the same people who will care enough to read to the end of these afterwords.  Aren’t you glad you did?)

This story also comes a little from my memories of my Italian grandparents, who would go for a walk after dinner every day, though not, I think, quite such a long one as this.  The shoe manufacturer for whom Monsieur LeBrun works has the same surname as my grandparents.  I will leave connoisseurs of (extremely posh!) French shoes to figure out which shoemakers these might be.

Incidentally, I would not, in the general course of things, dare to insult the Fair Folk with a story like this one, but I regret to say that there are French traditional tales of fairies trapping unbaptised babies in fairy rings and eating them.  So one can only assume that this is local custom…

One final note – most of Paris does not have overhead power lines, but there are a few around, and some of them are in Les Lilas.  I’m not sure where in Les Lilas, but there are definitely photos of them, so we’ll just assume that they are somewhere near the fairy garden.

The pictures I have used are all details from an illustration by Arthur Rackham.  I have been unable to find the original of this illustration; I believe it to be in the public domain, however if it is not, I will gladly remove it from this post.

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