It was August 1989. Debbie and I had just travelled from Venice to the Côte d’Azur after the first week of our honeymoon. We had flown in a small Air Littoral plane, looked after by an extremely efficient and immaculately turned out stewardess who appeared entirely competent to pilot the plane should the need arise.
We picked up our hire car at Nice airport and drove in the afternoon sun to the Moulin de la Camandoule near Fayence. We had stayed there before and loved it: a lovely old olive oil mill converted into a small hotel. It was owned and run by an Englishman called Wolf Rilla and his elegant wife Shirley. We later learned that Wolf had been a film director and writer, best known for directing John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Village of the Damned. He made a slightly irascible host, but this seemed somehow in keeping with the mellow, slightly scruffy charm of the building.
We had fond memories of our previous trip to this place: one evening in particular lingered in our minds when the diners on the terrace were unsettled to see and hear a thunderstorm steadily approaching. Wolf stalked around fretfully while Shirley quickly and quietly helped the customers move indoors, working her way down from the most anxious. It was clear who kept the place ticking over.
This time we were met by a youth who appeared hungover. I explained in my halting French that we had booked a room there for the week, and he stared back in a panic. I muttered something to Debbie about the luggage in the car, and the lad’s face lit up.
“Thank God, you’re English!”
After unpacking, we cooled off in the pool, and strolled around reminding ourselves why we loved the place. The beautiful stone, the old aqueduct. Heavy black iron tools of uncertain purpose still displayed in alcoves. Nothing had changed. Dinner didn’t disappoint either: an unfussy, delicious table d’hôte menu. And perhaps a little too much wine. It had been a long day, so we retired to our room for the night, and were soon asleep.
For a while. Then I woke up sweating in the warm night air.
I heard slow and heavy breathing, and made out a large figure looming over the end of the bed. There was a strong smell of wine. He seemed to be pausing before taking some sort of action. I told myself this was an illusion, and stared at the figure, expecting it to dissolve under rational inspection. Instead the outline grew clearer, and the breathing more laboured, as if he had just run up the steps.
I stared in disbelief and fear for some time, before I finally switched on my bedside light. There was nothing there, and my wife of ten days was sleeping beside me.
In the morning I told her what I had seen. As I described it, I realised it was only the sound of her steady sleeping breath that I had heard: yet the same sound coming from someone awake would have sounded heavy, threatening even. Half waking, I must have built the menacing image from the sound.
Relieved to find a rational explanation, I put my experience down to wine and rich food. So we spent the week exploring the area, reading by the pool and cooling off. Just being together.
On the morning of our departure, we were going for breakfast when Debbie looked back at our door and noticed traces of faded lettering after our room name, Le Meunier.
Shirley came to the table with our coffee.
“Have you enjoyed your stay?”
“It’s been lovely, thanks.” She set the coffee down.
“You’ve been lucky with the weather.”
“Really? I thought it was always like this here.”
“Oh…it comes and goes.”
“Tell me…Le Meunier…the miller, isn’t it?
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Did you change the name of the room?”
“You noticed that? Yes, when we bought the place it was called Le Meunier Énervé – the restless miller. We didn’t think that was a very relaxing name for a bedroom.”
“I can see why. Do you know how it got that name?”
“Well…” She lowered her voice confidentially. “I don’t normally like to tell our guests…it wouldn’t help them sleep…”
“Do go on, we’re leaving today anyway.” She smiled and pulled up a chair from the next table.
“According to the story, it happened about 1860. The oil from this mill was said to be the best in the whole area. The miller was a large man called M. Tardieu, and one day he took his oil to market. He’d only been at his stall an hour when the chef of a wealthy local landowner paid him a good price for his entire stock. He bought a bottle of wine to celebrate, and drank it on the way home.”
“He got home about lunchtime, tired, hot and drunk, and went straight to his bedroom to sleep it off. There he found his wife in bed with the apprentice. He fell on the boy and started strangling the life out of him. His wife ran out and found a heavy milling tool and hit her husband on the head. He died instantly.”
“The story went that he still visits his bedroom sometimes. Although I don’t know that anyone’s ever seen him. Just a silly story, I think.”
Debbie and I looked at each other.
“Yes. Just a silly story.”