Some of this is true…
My cycle into Val-de-Vesle is through a rolling, manicured countryside, ploughed, plucked, harvested; not quite the Champagne region yet, just north of it. The skies and the landscape are wide and spacious – anything might happen here, but it will happen at such a distance from any other thing that the two things may never intersect, and surely never influence each other. The road is straight, endless, tiring. At last, I get into my campsite, put up my tent and freshen up, then head into the town for some food to replenish my depleted self.
The commune is made up of three ‘quarters’ – Thuisy, Courmelois and Wez – but there was once a fourth – a fourth that joined them, that drew these three together. There is little memory of that fourth quarter, because it disappeared almost 100 years ago.
I walk the length, the breadth and the depth of this ¾ town, and not only are there no shops, none of them are open. I range past the boulangerie repeatedly, and on my 3rd pass, a diminutive old man whom I’d seen watching me earlier can resist no longer, and approaches.
‘Bonjour, monsieur. Anglais, Deutsches, Nederland?’
‘Anglais. Nouvelle Zealande.’
‘Aaahh, Nouvelle Zealande! All Blacks! You are a long way from home, sir.’
I laugh, tell him I live in the UK. His English is very good.
He is compact, tanned with white hair, moustache and goatee beard. In his day he’d have been muscular and strong, but the years have had their impact. I think he must be in his late 70’s. His name is Monsieur Boutet, and he tells me to follow him. We walk to a little park and sit on a bench, whereupon from his bag he pulls out a flask of coffee, pours me a cup and hands me a pastry. I give him prolific thanks, and he tells me that even if the Boulangerie had been open, chances are that I would have been unable to buy a pastry. Madame Fortin who runs it, works only to order. She is something of a tyrant he says, and makes only a small number of items beyond those that have been ordered by regular customers. If one doesn’t pick up one’s order, Madame Fortin will, after she has closed her shop, take the order and deliver it to the customers door. She will only do this once – if a person misses picking up their order twice, she will blacklist them. She has been known to blacklist people for up to 6 months, and as she runs the only boulangerie in a radius of about 5 miles, the townsfolk are generally very careful not to get on her wrong side. She has also discovered – twice –a regular customer has missed their order because they’ve expired, and she has discovered them as she made her delivery. Even the tyrannical Madame Fortin is forgiving of la mort as an excuse for not picking up one’s parisienne.
We sit for a little longer, hot and withering. Monsieur tells me a little about himself. He tells me his wife died 18 months ago, and the look in his eyes when he says it would break hearts. He was a lawyer in Reims, but his early mentor was the sole avocat here in Val-de-Vesle, who had him working as an office boy prior to his legal studies.
M. Boutet sighs, he must go, he almost launches himself off the park bench. If I have time, I must visit him he says, pointing to his house just across the park. I watch him as he ambles toward it.
I walk back to my campsite, along the road that runs between two fields, one side freshly ploughed, the other lush and green with its crop. In a front garden, there is an over-sized artists palette with flowers for the paints and garden tools for the brushes. This same garden has an old school desk sitting in it, where they perch a doll the size of a child, with a baseball cap on if the day is fine.
There is always a tractor somewhere in this town, waiting.
I see M. Boutet again a couple of days later. I have managed to purloin a couple of pastries from the boulangerie, and I knock at his door one morning. He looks surprised to see me, leads me through a dark hallway out into a bright, sunny but unkempt garden. As we sit with coffee and the pastry that I bought him he tells me the story of the three-quarter town, which is also the story of his mentor.
It starts in the first world war, when the front line was close enough in this area that the inhabitants occasionally found themselves bombarded. On July 16th, 1918, much of the hamlet of Coupetz was destroyed as the artillery units of both sides – in what came to be known as the Second Battle of the Marne – struggled to find the correct range. Coupetz was a very small settlement of some 25 inhabitants and with only a dozen or so buildings within it, most of which were destroyed that day. So damaged was the little settlement that it’s residents decided that they would not return after the war, as they had already resettled themselves in other parts of the district. In a couple of cases these refugees had married into the families they had taken refuge with. Coupetz was no more, gone, obliterated. Almost forgotten…
Boutet takes me to where Coupetz used to be. A woman passes us with a cat on a leash. The area is now mostly open field, strong delineations between crops and turned earth. There is a large, industrial sized glasshouse and factory to the north, close to the old ‘border’ between Coupetz and Courmelois. There was once strange talk of some kind of vivisection happening in this little industrial patch, but no one ever saw any animals coming in or out. A sculptor’s outdoor studio sits further down the bisecting road, a dozen or so large sentinels stand, black-stained. History is a palimpsest. People used to exist here, lives used to take place. But now tractors plough, and sculptors extract figures from the wood they have been locked within. And life passes through and passes by without pause. Coupetz is Val de Vesle’s missing quarter, ploughed under the earth.
Boutet tells me about his mentor the lawyer, Soulier, and how his story and that of Coupetz intersect, as we walk the road that seems the only physical link between the extant quarters.
Soulier was never a brilliant lawyer, but he had the gift of an unadulterated confidence in his own abilities. Being the legal authority for the area meant that there was no other to challenge Soulier’s apparent – and unquestioned by the rural layman – brilliance. His opinions become law in the town, independent of actual French law. He was both judge and jury within a 10-mile radius, a responsibility that belied his dissolute personal life. No one – including Boutet – was aware of where Soulier lived, whether he had a home. No one knew where he slept, nor indeed the provenance of his law degree. He would often be found walking the streets in the middle of the night, his suit unkempt and asunder, in varying degrees of inebriation. He was said to have some connection to Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles that no one was sure off nor convinced by. By night a drunken louche, by day Soulier would be found behind his desk immaculately turned out, no worse for wear. Where the transition between these two states occurred, nobody knew; there were no witnesses to this crossover of Soulier.
In the early 1960’s, the regional authorities began to push for the amalgamation of the four hamlet’s – Thuisy, Courmelois and Wez, and the only vaguely remembered Coupetz – into a new commune called Val-de-Vesle. It would make things a little more efficient, they said; it would just make things better.
But rather than succumbing to this demand for full incorporation, Soulier made Coupetz disappear again. A whole town – granted a small town, but an actual town. Before anyone recognised it, Coupetz was gone once more, all reference to it expunged from the records by this dubious jurist. At the same time, he enshrined into the local regulations that no buildings should ever be allowed to be built or developed in the space between Courmelois and Thuisy, the place where Coupetz used to exist. Any prospective developer was hobbled by both the fact that Soulier would always quash any attempt at building on the site, given that he was always called in as the legal authority; and by the fact that they could ever quite define or demarcate the land that they were proposing to develop – after all, it did not actually exist.
Boutet believes that Soulier may have been trying to preserve the patch of land and prevent its development by the commune, perhaps because he saw it as a kind of sanctified location. Perhaps Soulier had some familial tie to it, perhaps the town of Coupetz wasn’t entirely deserted the day it disappeared in 1918. Perhaps Soulier himself was there when the range-finding bombardment occurred, or someone he loved spent their last moments in the settlement that day.
Boutet also has another theory, perhaps not entirely unrelated to the first. This idea – given weight by what happened later – was that there was something buried in the earth in Coupetz that Soulier had knowledge of. For decades after World War One, farmers continued to dig up unspent ordnance. Most of the time, the shells hadn’t exploded because they were duds; other times they were so finely primed that a mere change in the pressure of the earth above them could induce an explosion. If lucky, a farmer might lose some ploughing equipment; at worst, the commune might lose a farmer. Anyone digging in the earth ran the risk of that earth exploding in their face.
On the night of July 16th, 1978 – exactly 60 years after that misguided bombardment from the Second Battle of the Marne – an explosion once more shook the ground around the commune of Val-de-Vesle. While the town collectively jumped at the noise, it was not so unusual that it induced any great deal of panic in the area. The fire brigade responded to reports that a small fire had gained hold in the forest around the forgotten settlement of Coupetz, and little more was thought about the event that evening. However, the cool morning light of the following day revealed a few more puzzling details. Along with an obvious crater where the explosion seemed to have occurred, an equally large hole had been dug by hand, measuring about 5 feet in depth. Also, at the site of the fire – about 100 feet away and equidistant from the two holes – many charred papers were in evidence. Most puzzling of all, M. Soulier didn’t turn up for work that day, nor any subsequent day.
Boutet pauses and runs his hand through his hair. ‘He seemed to have gone forever, but I believe I heard from him once more,’ he says. I lean forward, encouraging him to carry on. ‘It was 3 years later. If he was still alive, he would have been in his mid-70s perhaps. The phone in my office rang, and I picked it up and I heard static and clicks as the phone seemed to connect. A lot of background traffic noise, and what may have been a plane. A voice came down the phone and asked – in English – ‘You have worked it out yet?’ The phone cut off. That was July 16th, 1981.’
Boutet leans back in his chair. He breathes deeply and looks at me. ‘I have not worked it out yet. No, I have not.’