Caen station fills with tourists, all jostling for seats on the train to Pontorson. The July morning is warm, promising another long, cloudless summer day in Normandy. A young man climbs the steps, pressing through the crowded aisle of beleaguered passengers forcing too large bags into too small overhead shelves. He settles into a seat next to the window. An old woman sits opposite. She perches a large basket on her knee. The smell of fresh, warm bread takes him back to his childhood.
‘Where are you travelling too?’ she asks in broken English peppered with the distinct Breton accent of the region he has become accustomed to.
‘Mont St Michel,’ he replies.
She crosses herself. Her hands are brown and careworn. ‘The Mont can be a dangerous place.’
He laughs and says, ‘I’m going for a holiday. I don’t think there’s too much to worry about.’
‘Are you doing the day trip?’ She glances at the backpack.
‘No, I intend to stay out on the island. My grandfather was here for the D-Day landings. He had a great love for the Mont. I have come to see it for myself.’
She nods to herself and murmurs ‘Too many good men have been lost to the death grip of war.’
‘Pardon?’ Lachie says, unsure if she has spoken to him.
‘Do you have somewhere to stay?’ she says. ‘It can be busy out there at this time of the year. The people celebrate the defeat of the English during the Fétes des Remparts.’
‘I’m hoping to get something when I arrive. Sounds like I’m going at the right time.’
The old woman smiles. She rummages in her basket and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper.
‘A pen?’ she asks. ‘Your name?’
‘Lachie,’ he replies, curious as to why she asked.
Lachie hands over the pen he keeps in his shirt pocket. She scribbles some words onto the paper. He notices the simple gold band on her left hand, her only adornment, as she hands him back the pen and paper. Lachie reads the note. It is in French. He sees Auberge Saint-Pierre and his name scribbled beneath.
‘Here,’ she says, ‘take this, my cousin will provide accommodation. Ask for Jacques. He will know my writing. Do not stay out after dark.’
As she finishes speaking, the train pulls into Pontorson.
‘Thank you,’ Lachies ponders her strange warning as he his head and laughs. The old woman’s strange ways remind him of his grandmother. Lachie stands, heaves his backpack up onto his shoulder, steps down onto the platform at Pontorson, and makes his way to the bus stop.
The bus sways and the driver grips the wheel while navigating the narrow, rutted road. Fields of golden colza bend against the rising wind. A grey spire ascends into the blue sky like a sharp lance piercing the heavens. From a distance, the ancient of abbey of Mont St Michele appears to cling precariously to the rocky outcrop of granite. Bright afternoon sun shines on the Mont and it becomes a beacon of comfort to the weary travellers. The hum of foreign languages transforms into to hushed whispers at the sight of the medieval fortifications circling the base of the abbey.
The driver pulls up at the wooden postern gates and Lachie steps down onto rough cobblestones. Bleached, tangled strands of dread-locked hair fall down over his tanned face. The tattered blue jeans and faded Guns n’ Roses t-shirt separate him from his fellow travellers —loud, middle-aged Americans, Japanese tourists with clicking cameras— all eager to start the two-hour tour.
Lachie strides along the narrow street, searching for the hôtel on the note. The clamour of day-trippers dies away as he steps across through the entrance of the Auberge Saint-Pierre, and into the faded grandeur of the hotel lobby.
The scrap of torn paper feels warm in his hand.
A tall middle-aged man, with thinning hair and pale complexion, stands at the reception desk.
‘Can I help you,’ he asks in fluent English.
Lachie places the note on the desk and says, ‘I’m looking for Jacques.’
The man gives Lachie as strange as he looks up from the note. ‘This is my Aunt Matilde’s writing. She tells me you are a friend.’ He sounds cautious.
‘I met her on the train. She didn’t tell me her name, just that you might be able to find me a room for a couple of nights. She is a kind woman.’
The man smiles. ‘You are in luck Monsieur Lachie; we have just had a cancellation.’
As Lachie fills out the form Jacques looks at his signature.
‘Scalles? It is an interesting name. Where are you from?’
‘Australia,’ Lachie replies. ‘My grandmother came from Normandy. My grandfather was English. They met during the war. Family legend says an ancestor was a prisoner on Mont St Michel.’
Jacques raises his eyebrow in question, but says no more as Lachie follows him up the narrow staircase.
‘This looks like a very old building,’ Lachie says.
‘Yes, it was built in the 14th century. It has not always been a hôtel but the home of the island commander, Bertrand Champollion, in the days of the war against the English. We still celebrate the great victory over the English. You have come just in time for the festival.’
‘Your aunt told me about the festival. I’m looking forward seeing it.’
Jacques ushers him into the small room and draws back the curtains. Lachie hauls the heavy backpack onto the luggage rack.
‘The tide turns at nine. Please feel free to join your fellow guests for dinner. I promise you a sight you will never forget.’ Jacques says.
‘Is it alright to wander around the village and abbey after the day tourists have left?’ Lachie asks.
‘Of course, but be careful. This can be a strange and dangerous place after the gates are closed.’
‘That’s what your aunt told me. What do you mean? Are the streets poorly lit?’
‘Just be careful. I shall see you at dinner,’ Jacques says as he leaves the room.
Lachie opens the small window and looks up at the sky. Eerie pinks streaks of light illuminate the early evening sky beyond the towering abbey. Dark clouds gather out over the channel. Below, in the confines of the narrow street, the tourists jostle each other in their rush for last minute purchases. The gates close soon. The bus will cross back over the causeway returning the day-trippers to hotels in nearby towns.
As the gates close, Lachie sets out to explore the narrow, meandering hidden lanes of the Mont. Steep paths run haphazardly between buildings, leading away from the main street, itself little more than a cobbled laneway. Time disappears as Lachie, lost in his thoughts, wanders through the village. The abbey spire looms overhead as he climbs the steep stone steps leading into the cloisters. From here, he steps from the darkness and out on to the stone rampart. Seabirds take flight, heading to their nests in the high cliffs across the channel.
Lachie looks at his watch. The tide will turn shortly. There will be time for more exploring tomorrow. He begins his descent and comes to a small square. It is silent. Small stone houses, with shuttered windows, skirt the edge of the square. He wonders how he could have missed this square on the way up.
The dimming light casts shadows over the ancient buildings. The stench of rotting food replaces the smell of the fresh sea air. A crowd, dressed in medieval costume, approaches him. A voice booms out from the crowd. Lachie struggles to understand, grateful that he still understands some of the childhood French lessons given by his grandmother. He is surprised at the anger in the voice of the Frenchman.
‘Who is this stranger? Have we an English spy in our midst? Arrest him!’
The crowd parts and a dark-haired man steps forward. A thick woollen cloak falls around his shoulders. Lachie sees a sheathed sword, hidden in the folds of the cloak. It hangs from a leather belt. The man wears soft leather boots, laced to his knees. Lachie looks at the man as he unsheathes the sword and presses the tip to his chest.
‘Hang on,’ Lachie yells in English, ‘Who are you? I’m just exploring the island. I’m not part of the festival, just a lost tourist looking for directions.
‘Be silent! Prepare to defend yourself!’ The stranger roars in broken English. ‘This is French territory; you have no rights on this island.’
‘Who the hell are you? If this is a joke, then I’m not laughing!’ Lachie steps back from the sword.
‘I am Bertrand Champollion, Captain of Mont St Michel and you have no cause to be here! Guards, take this enemy of France to the dungeons. Scour the streets, if one enemy has infiltrated the rock, there must be more.’
The man is tall and muscular. He is in no mood for further conversation. A group of men, dressed as soldiers, approach. They draw their swords. Lachie turns and bolts down the nearest lane. Something is wrong. He feels as if he has stepped back through time. Fleeing through the narrow streets, he passes an open door. A soft voice, a woman, beckons to him.
’Hurry, quickly. Safety waits.’
Without thinking, Lachie steps inside. As his eyes adjust to the light, he notices charts, filled with strange inscriptions and images, spread over a long wooden bench.
‘Where am I, what’s happening’ he demanded.
‘You are on the Island of Mont St Michel.’
Thick auburn hair curls around a porcelain face and falls onto her shoulders. She wears a long, old-fashioned brown dress.
‘I know that, but what’s going on?’ Lachie says. ‘Who are those people, why is everyone dressed up?’
His words trail off as pitched screams filter through the open window. The woman reaches for the shutters and latches them.
‘Where has the English man gone? We must find the spy!’ the crowd bay for blood as they rush past the cottage.
Lachie peers through the shutter slats. The mob charge past. They carry all manner of weapons – swords, sticks, knives.
The woman whispers as she pulls Lachie away from the window. ‘Follow me. I will lead you to safety.’
‘But who are you? What’s going on?’ Lachie says, impatient for answers
The woman looks at the parchments, and then turning to her visitor, she sighs.
‘I am Tiphaine Ragenal. You have arrived during the siege. How did you get here? No one has been able to break through our defences in over three months. The English king has troops surrounding us and his fighting ships line the sea below the cliffs. Who are you? Where have you come from?’ She looks him up and down.
‘My name is Lachie Scalles.’
He sees shock in her eyes as she steps back and crosses herself.
Cautious, and startled by her reaction, Lachie asks ‘What year is this?’
‘We are in the year of our lord, 1424,’ she replies, her eyes fixed firmly on his face.
A chill tremor courses through his body.
‘That’s not possible.’ His voice trembles. ‘This is 2008, or at least it was when I got out of bed this morning’
Tiphaine stares at him. They hear raised voices and heavy footsteps outside. She raises her fingers to her lips.
‘Follow me,’ she murmurs.
‘Where are we going? What’s going on?’ Lachie demands.
‘I will lead back to where you came from. We must be careful. The mob may return. Stay silent.’
She leads him down a pathway and through the square. They arrive at the end of a narrow lane. Lachie hears howling, it draws closer.
‘Quick,’ Tiphaine says. ’They are returning.’
Grabbing his hand, she pulls him into a yet another narrow alley.
‘Go this way, hurry. Follow the path to the stairs. Go down the stairs.’
Lachie turns to speak but she is gone, as if she has never been. Confused and disorientated he climbs down into the shadows of the steep stone stairs, passing through the old cemetery. He stops to get his breath, leaning against a crumbling gravestone. Carved into the granite were the words, Thomas La Scales, beloved husband of Tiphaine, died 1424. He stars at the inscription, La Scales, a French translation of his family name. A chill creeps up his spine and he shivers as he turns away for a brief instant. When he looks back, the cemetery has disappeared. A small patch of grass takes its place. Lachie shivers; he can hear the footsteps and screams of the mob. He runs down a lane. The cobbled main street is lit up at the bottom of the steps.
Lachie breathes in and the cold air slams deep into his lungs. He is back in the heart of the tourist district. He stares up into the shadows at the top of the stairs. The night is silent. Across from him is the entry to his hotel. As he walks through the door, Jacques greets him.
‘Did you enjoy your walk? You were not gone for long. Dinner is about to be served. I have saved a place for you on the rampart. You will have a good view of the tide.’
Lachie thinks back to the words of Tiphaine. The image of her making the sign of the cross causes him to shudder as he remembers her warning. He shakes his head in bewilderment at the images of the mob, and the Captain. His only answer is to think that the festival performers thought it fun to put on an extra show for a disorientated traveller. As he steps out on the ramparts, a cool breeze crosses his path. For a moment, he hears the sound of swords clashing. He relaxes. It is just the actors packing up he tells himself.
‘Hurry,’ calls Jacques. ‘You do not want to miss the tide, to see how the Mont was able to hold back the English invaders.’
Jacques leads him to a table where an auburn-haired woman sits. Her skin is the colour of pale porcelain.
‘I hope you do not mind,’ Jacques says. ‘Mademoiselle Raguenel is also travelling alone. Perhaps you would care to share the view.’ The woman smiles at Lachie. He stares at her. His feels his heart pounding.
‘I’m sure we will have much to talk about,’ she replies.
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.