A Song for Drowned Souls by Bernard Minier

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Who says being a teacher is an easy option? Not when it can kill you…

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from the editor's desk

"Despite the disparaging, by Francis Van Acker, the literature teacher in the story, of Hemmingway’s dictum to write about what you know, that is exactly what the author has done – and to such telling effect.

A story that brings past and present together in a potent mix of obsession, capricious love, and revenge set in SW France. A teacher, a politician, a violent rapist and an escaped killer are characters writ large, as are brutal acts of violence. Events that, in a long and turbulent week, test the mettle and personal ties of Commandant Martin Servaz.  

Great writing that points up the foibles of France, entwined with emotional ties and devious underhand diversions that together make compulsive reading."

Chapter 12

Van Acker

He stopped by the concrete cube and leaned against a tree as he took another cigarette from the pack. The voice reached him through the open windows. It hadn’t changed in the last fifteen years. As soon as you heard it you knew that you were dealing with someone who was smart, formidable and arrogant.
    ‘What I have here is nothing more than the excretions of a group of adolescents who are incapable of seeing beyond their tiny little emotional world. Priggish pedantry, sentimentalism, masturbation and acne. For God’s sake! You all think you’re so brilliant – wake up! There isn’t a single original idea in any of this.’
    Servaz clicked the lighter and lit a cigarette – the time it would take for Francis Van Acker’s declamatory prose to come to an end.
    ‘Next week we are going to study three books side by side: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest. Three novels published between 1857 and 1894, which established the form of the novel. Might there, miraculously, be one of you who has already read all three of them? Does that rare bird exist? No? Does anyone at least have an idea what those three books have in common?’
    Silence, then a girl’s voice said, ‘They’re all stories about adulterous women.’
    Servaz shuddered. Margot’s voice.
    ‘Exactly, Mademoiselle Servaz. Well, I see there is at least one person in this class whose reading is not limited to ‘Spider-Man’. Three stories about adulterous women, another common thing being that they were written by men. Three masterly ways to deal with the same subject. Three absolutely major works. Which goes to show that Hemingway’s sentence, according to which one must write what one knows, is hogwash. As are a good number of other sayings by dear old Ernest. Good. I know that some of you have plans for the weekend and that the school year is more or less over, but I want you to have read those three books before the end of next week. Don’t forget that your essays are due on Monday.’
    A scraping of chairs. Servaz hid round a corner of the building. He did not want to run into Margot now, he would go and see her later. He watched her walk away amongst the other students. He emerged from his hiding place just as Van Acker was coming down the steps, opening his umbrella.
    ‘Hello, Francis.’
    Van Acker was briefly startled. The umbrella pivoted.
    ‘Martin…I suppose I should have been expecting your visit, given what’s happened.’
    His blue eyes were still just as piercing. His nose was fleshy, his lips were thin but sensual and his beard was carefully groomed. Francis Van Acker was just as Servaz remembered him. He literally radiated charm. Only a few grey hairs were visible in his beard and in the lock of chestnut hair that swept over his brow.
    ‘What are we supposed to say to each other in this kind of situation?’ he asked ironically. ‘”It’s been ages”?’
    ‘Fugit irreparabile tempus,’ replied Servaz.
    Van Acker gave him a dazzling smile.
    ‘You always were best in Latin. You cannot imagine how that exasperated me.’
    ‘That’s your weakness, Francis. You always wanted to be first in everything.’
    Van Acker didn’t answer. But before long his provocative smile reappeared.
    ‘You’ve never come back to see us. Why not?’
    ‘You tell me.’
    Van Ackers gaze did not leave him. In spite of the moisture in the air, he was wearing the same kind of dark blue velvet jacket that Servaz had always seen him in. When they were students, it even became the subject of a joke: Francis Van Acker had a wardrobe full of identical blue jackets and white shirts.
    ‘Well, we both know, Edmond Dantès,’ said Van Acker.
    Servaz felt his throat go dry.
    ‘Like the Count of Morcerf, I stole your Mercedes. Only I didn’t marry her.’
    For a fraction of a second, Servaz felt a twist of anger in his gut, like an ember flaring. Then the ashes of years covered it over again.
    ‘I have heard that Claire died in the most awful way.’
    ‘What are people saying?’
    ‘You know Marsac, everyone knows everything in the end. The gendarmes turned out to be rather talkative. The grapevine did the rest. Tied up and drowned in her bath, that’s what people are saying. Is it true?’
    ‘No comment.’
    ‘Dear Lord! Yet she was a good sort. Brilliant. Independent. Stubborn. Passionate. Not everyone agreed with her teaching methods, but I thought they were rather, shall we say, interesting.’
    Servaz nodded. They were walking alongside the concrete cubes; the windows were dirty.
    ‘What an atrocious way to die. You’d have to be mad to kill someone that way.’
    ‘Or very angry,’ corrected Servaz.
    ‘Ira furer brevis est, “Anger is a brief madness”.’
    Now they were walking past the deserted tennis courts, where the nets were drooping like the ropes of a ring beneath the weight of an invisible boxer.
    ‘How is Margot doing?’ asked Servaz.
    Van Acker smiled.
    ‘The apple never falls far from the tree. Margot has true potential, she’s getting on quite well. But she will be even better when she understands that systematic anti-conformist behaviour is another form of conformity.’
    It was Servaz’s turn to smile.
    ‘So you’re in charge of the investigation,’ said Van Acker. ‘I could never understand why you joined the police.’ He raised his hands to forestall any objection. ‘I know it had something to do with your father’s death and, if you go back further, with what happened to your mother, but for Christ’s sake, you could have done something else. You could have been a writer, Martin. Not one of those hacks, but a real writer. You had the gift. Do you remember that text of Salinger’s we used to quote all the time, about writing and brotherhood?’
    ‘Seymour, an Introduction,’ answered Servaz, trying not to yield to emotion.
    He realised that although he had not read the book for years, every sentence was intact, branded in blazing letters upon his memory. In those days, it had been their secret formula, their mantra, their password.
    Van Acker stopped walking.
    ‘You were my big brother,’ he said suddenly, his voice surprisingly emotional, ‘you were my Seymour – and for me, in a way, that big brother committed suicide the day you joined the police force.’
    Servaz felt his anger return. Really? Then why did you take her from me? He would have liked to have asked. Of all the women you could have had and whom you did have, you had to go and take her…And why did you abandon her?

They had reached the edge of the pine woods, where the view, when he weather was fine, revealed a panorama for miles around, as far as the Pyrenees, forty kilometres away. But clouds and rain had cloaked the hills in wisps of mist. This was where they used to come twenty years earlier, Van Acker, Servaz himself and…Marianne – before Marianne became a barrier between them, before jealousy, anger and hatred tore them apart, and perhaps, who knows. Van Acker still came here, although Servaz doubted it would be in memory of the good old days.
    ‘Tell me about Claire.’
    ‘What do you want to know?’
    ‘Did you know her?’
    ‘Do you mean personally, or as a colleague?’
    ‘No. Not really. Marsac is a little university town. It’s like the court at Elsinore. Everyone knows everyone else, they all spy on each other, stab each other in the back, spread vile gossip… Everybody makes sure they have something to say about their neighbour, preferably something snide and juicy. All those academics have raised backstabbing and gossip to an art form. Claire and I used to run into each other at parties, we only made small talk.
    ‘Were there any rumours about her?’
    ‘Do you really believe that in the name of our erstwhile friendship I’m going to fill you in on all the gossip going around?’
    ‘Oh really, there was that much?’

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