The Restless Miller

Moulin de la Camandoule001

It was August 1989.  Debbie and I had just flown 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 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 the mind 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 named Tim 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 Tim’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 unknown 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 made out a large figure looming over the end of the bed, breathing slowly and heavily.  There was a strong smell of wine.  He seemed to be waiting before taking some sort of action.  I told myself it was an illusion, and stared at the figure, expecting it to dissolve under rational inspection.  Instead the outline seemed 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 next to 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 the name of the room change at all?”

“You noticed that?  Yes, when we bought the place it was called Le Meunier Agité – the restless miller.  We didn’t think that was a very relaxing name for a bedroom, so we changed it.”

“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.”

The Fisherman’s Girl

Seahouses cottage

The Isle of Mull is a long way from London, so Jennifer suggested we could break our journey home in the north east of England, a neglected but beautiful corner.  There is the dramatic coastal scenery, spectacular castles at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, and you can take the one and only Billy Shiel’s boat trips out to see the puffins and other bird life on the Farne Islands.  There are also beautiful beaches, although you might not wish to linger too long in the water.  If the kids are happy, they say, the grown-ups have a chance.

So we had booked a holiday cottage in Seahouses, a couple of streets back from the sea, and now we made a detour to pick up the key from the owner. Mrs McCready was a kindly but rather worried looking lady in her sixties, and I sensed her quietly observing our daughters as she handed over the keys.  At last we approached the cottage through tiny streets never intended for SUVs.  We squeezed the car into its space, and Rebecca and Charlotte leapt out to explore while I fumbled with the keys.  Once inside, Jennifer made the tea, put the welcome pack cookies on a plate and started working out a shopping list, while I brought the luggage in and the girls tore screaming up and down the narrow stone stairs.  It had been two fisherman’s cottages, converted into a holiday let as far as the architecture would allow.  Some of the rooms were cramped, but it was a charming place.

The weather was kind to us – not exactly warm, but mostly dry with plenty of sun.  Towards the end of the week Rebecca’s school friend Constance came to join us for a couple of days, and we picked her up at Newcastle station – after we had taken a wrong turn and spent some stressful minutes stuck in a bus lane.  Then we drove to a section of Hadrian’s Wall, and had a rather chilly picnic.

It was an agreeable week of castle visits, clifftop walks, cricket on the beach, fish and chips…and the girls spent many happy hours pottering on the wide, rocky foreshore at low tide.

On Friday – our last whole day of holiday – when we had just sat down for breakfast, we heard a commotion from the seagulls outside.  We left the table for a while to watch them swooping, diving and squawking, and agreed that something must have agitated them.  When we sat at the table again, Charlotte was staring at her cereal bowl looking confused.

“What…I…?”

“What is it darling?”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any milk on my Shreddies.”  She continued to stare at the bowl, and raised a hand to pull at her curly blonde hair.  There goes Cartoon Charlotte, I thought, always having her little dramas and adventures.

“Don’t be silly darling, how else did it get there?”

She said nothing and looked at the milk bottle.  Then gave a little shrug of acceptance, but seemed subdued while she ate her cereal.

 

Saturday morning arrived, and we squeezed five people and suitcases full of unused clothes into the car.  There were no parking places near Mrs McCready’s flat, so I left Jennifer at the wheel while I went in to drop off the keys.

“Was everything all right for you?” There was something anxious in her tone.

“Yes thanks, it’s a lovely little cottage.  I should mention, though, we broke a wine glass.”  I proffered a five pound note.

Mrs McCready waved it away.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, they’re only cheap ones.  But, tell me, did anything unusual happen while you were staying there?”

“Unusual?  I don’t think so, no.”

“Oh good.  It’s just that…there have been a few incidents over the years.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a story about a girl who lived there in the 1820s. Quite a sad story.”

“Really?”  I tried to sound interested, but couldn’t stop myself glancing back at the door.  We had a long journey ahead, and Jennifer would be getting impatient.  But the lady wanted to tell her story.

“She lived in the lower cottage, which she had inherited. She got herself pregnant by a young lad who went out in the fishing boats.  Her parents were dead, and there was no-one else who would help her.”

“But the young fisherman stood by her, and promised to marry her.  But three days before the wedding was due, his boat was lost in a storm.”

Mrs McCready paused and looked out to sea, as if expecting the boat to return.

“The girl managed to have her baby.  But she had no help, and the boy’s family would have nothing to do with her.  It was winter, she was nearly starving, and she couldn’t feed her baby properly.  The poor scrap didn’t last a week.  The girl was found washed up on the beach, with the baby wrapped inside her coat.”   She stopped and seemed to be waiting for a reaction.

“Oh dear, that’s dreadful!  Did you say there have been…incidents?”

“More stories and rumours, really.  But there’s a kind of tradition that she still visits her cottage sometimes.”

“No!  She doesn’t sound like the chain-rattling type.”

“Not at all.  The story goes that once every few years she comes into her old kitchen, and makes sure the children have enough milk to drink.  The poor sweet girl.”

 

“What took you so long?” said Jennifer as I got back into the car.  She looked over at me before starting the ignition.  “Are you all right?  You look a little pale.”

“It’s nothing.  She just wanted a chat.  Let’s go home.”