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The Judas Tree: Excerpt



My sister died on a steep stretch of road on the edge of the Cévennes. She was twenty-eight years old. What she was doing on that isolated road between St Jean du Gard and Mialet we never discovered.   She had borrowed my car at ten o’clock on a clear summer morning, ostensibly to run an errand in Avignon. When she failed to appear for lunch, we started to wonder where she was, but by the time the gendarmes appeared in the middle of the afternoon, we had scarcely begun to worry. Anne had always been unpredictable. Her car had gone off the road at high speed and plunged into the ravine. It had careened down the slope, overturned, and finally come to a halt at the bottom of the gully. Anne had not been wearing her seatbelt. She had died instantly of a blow to the head. She had also sustained a broken neck and several other injuries.

At the time of the accident, there were no other cars in the vicinity, and no pedestrians.   Two cyclists who had been standing on the Pont des Abarines at the bottom of the valley, admiring the view, heard the roar of the car engine hurtling round the bend, followed by a series of thuds and crashes and the noise of rending undergrowth. What they did not hear was the screech of brakes, and there were no signs of brake marks on the road. When my sister realized she had lost control of the car, she had been too scared to react. She had been literally paralyzed with fright. By the time the cyclists toiled up the road on their bikes, the woods were quiet again and the hum of insects had resumed. All they could see from the road was a wide trail of broken ferns and uprooted trees, and a thin wisp of smoke rising from the bottom of the ravine.

Preparing the funeral was a nightmare. My mother was hysterical, and I had never seen my father so shaken. Olivier and I had to do everything. He dealt with the funeral arrangements, and I dealt with the family. Since he was a psychiatrist, it would probably have been better the other way around, but we didn’t have the choice.   I was the one who had met Matthias, and I was the one who spoke German. It was me who had to call him in Leipzig to tell him what had happened. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. For several minutes, neither of us could speak.

“The funeral,” I managed in the end. “We thought next Tuesday. Will that give you time?”

“I won’t come to the funeral,” he said.

“You won’t come?”

“I can’t, I… Sophie, I…”

“All right. All right. I understand.”

“Forgive me, I …. We were supposed to go to Uzès together. All that way without her, knowing she…   I just…. ”

“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you.”

“You must come when you can. When you feel like it. Later. When ….”

“Yes, I will.”

I made no attempt to try and change his mind. It seemed like a reasonable decision. He was in shock. His aunt was ill. He had never travelled to the West before. If the truth be told, I was relieved. We had enough to do without coping with him too.

I expected him to appear a few months later, when the rawness of the emotion had worn off. But he didn’t come. I wrote several times, inviting him to stay with us, but there was never any answer. We heard nothing from him, except for a printed card to say his aunt had died. After a while, I stopped writing. I began to accept that he would never come.

But in the spring of 1993, he finally called.

When the phone rang, I was in the studio. The weather was warm, and the window was wide open. It had rained earlier in the day, and the scent of thyme came sharp into my nostrils.

“Sophie?” a voice said hesitantly. “Hier ist Matthias.”

“Matthias?” I said incredulously.

“Yes, I… I did not know…. I did not want…”

I let him stutter. I had been annoyed by his failure to answer my letters, and saddened too. My eyes met those of the Ambassador across the room. He stared out of the canvas, watching me, waiting to see what I was going to do.

After a moment, Matthias pulled himself together, switched into French, asked how I was, and apologized for his failure to keep in touch. I waited for him to explain why he hadn’t answered my letters. Instead, he inquired, in his formal German way, if it would be possible for him to travel to Uzès and pay us a visit.

“Now?” I said.

“Next week.”

My first impulse was to tell him he couldn’t come.   Not any more. Now now. I would have welcomed the chance to see him and talk to him three years ago, but I no longer wanted to do so. Now he belonged to the past.   It had taken me a long time to put Anne’s death behind me. I did not want to have to deal with this husband of hers, appearing years after the event, opening old wounds, asking unanswerable questions.

But of course I said none of this. The Ambassador gazed at me with his mute ironic smile. With a mixture of foreboding and annoyance, I heard myself inquiring after train times and arranging to pick him up the following Tuesday. Yes, Avignon, the TGV from Paris, and we all looked forward to seeing him.

When I hung up, I remained quite still, with my hand on the receiver, looking out of the window. The hill behind the house was bright with flowers. Matthias was coming. After all this time, he had decided to come to France.

So what had happened to change his mind?

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