travail d’un seul homme
Nowadays of course, the fuckers’d deny him planning permission…
Off the train and onto the coach, down into France, down: in one service-station I flip through a map of Lyons & environs and can’t find any mention of Hauterives. Am I wasting my time here? Back on the coach I try to cobble together a Plan B. Maybe I can I don’t know. I have a really bad cold: my head is throbbing, thoughts blurry and indistinct. Coughing sniffing spitting, my right leg aches from where I managed to pull a muscle this morning.
Lyons: the woman behind the counter at least knows where Hauterives is, that’s something. She sells me a return-ticket to St. Vallier: get the train there, she reckons, then I can get a bus right where I wanna go.
Soon enough I’ll be back in this train-station, sleep-deprived and hurting all over; où est Amélie Poulain? The station closes between midnight and 5am so I’ll wander around outside, lie down for a bit on a bench, half-asleep half-paranoid watching tramps and dogs and rats and police scuttle by. Some kids try to set fire to one of those tramps; then they look my way, I look back, they leave me to my sweet dreams. Eventually I’ll be on a coach again and the coach will break down on the motorway and eventually I’ll get to the Eurotunnel and Customs won’t believe a word of mine, they’ll go through my stuff and find just two tin whistles, a notepad, a camera, plus the single stone I will have stolen, and I’ll smile an inscrutable smile and they’ll have to give it all back and I’ll get home and Arkady will tell me that my granddad died last night. For now though: I get to St. Vallier, find the Tourist Information. “Er je voudrais visiter à… the Palais Idéal?”
She checks the timetables. No buses, not today nor tomorrow. “I can walk?”
I figured it’d be near but it’s not, it’s 20 miles away. Fuck, I’ll walk: after twenty minutes I realise I’m going the wrong way, double back, idiot, okay: stick out my thumb and the third car along slows down, stops, takes me to the next town. After that I walk for a couple of hours, all the dogs barking. My right leg is killing me. Play up my limp as vehicles pass but no-one wants to stop. A couple of hours. Starts to rain. A car stops. Grinning psychopath speeds me the rest of the way, now and then he interrupts his ranting to glimpse at the road ahead. He drops me in front of my destination. Merci, au revoir.
Miserable women charge me five euros to get into Ferdinand “Le Facteur” Cheval’s Palais. A hundred years ago they laughed at him and swapped spiteful rumours over glasses of lemon barley. “What’s he building out there?”
In 1869 the postman dreamt of a palace. It must have been quite the dream because he was unable to get that palace out of his head. In 1879 the postman tripped on a strangely shaped stone. This moment triggered something deep within his soul and right then he decided he would build the palace that had occupied his thoughts for the last decade, he would build it here in our three dimensions. Every day, while out on his round (32 kilometres all over la Drôme), he collected whatever interesting rocks and pebbles he could find: in his mind he would fit them into place, into his palace, and after work he’d do it again, this time for real. When he started his project, Ferdinand Cheval knew nothing whatsoever about architecture.
France went to war, the postmen complained about their wages. France went to war again, the postmen continued to complain, their wives eagerly awaited the invention of television. And all the while, Cheval built his palace, and he didn’t stop, not until 1912: when the structure in front of him looked the same, exactly the same, as the one in his head.
He then spent a couple of years grinning at the trees, resting: but he couldn’t rest, not yet. If the Palace was about Life then the old ex-postman now turned his mind to Death. His next and final project took him about eight years: he finished in 1922, between the Wars. He then spent a couple of years grinning at the sky and that was it, that was all: game over for the old ex-postman.
After seeing the Palace I follow a sign to the cemetery. Down a dirt track. I can see the iron fence, see the uniform rows of timid grey graves. Past some trees, suddenly I see in the corner a writhing serpentine mess, a huge and defiant Medusa entranced absorbed petrified forever by her own improbable beauty. “The Tomb of Silence and Endless Peace.” Hello Ferdinand. I know you.