Jay read the letter again. He touched the words on the page, written in black ink in that careful, shapeless hand. He even lifted the paper to his face to see if anything of him remained – a whiff of smoke, maybe, or the faint scent of ripe blackberries. But there was nothing. If there had been magic, it was elsewhere. Then he looked in the package. Everything was there. The contents of the seed chest, hundreds of tiny envelopes and twists of newspaper, dried bulbs, grains, corms, seed fluff no more substantial than a puff of dead dust – every one marked and numbered. Everything alight with the scent of those other places. Tuberosa rubra maritima, tuberosa diabolica, tuberosa panax odarata, thousands of potatoes, squash, peppers, carrots, over three hundred species of onion alone – Joe’s entire collection. And, of course, the Specials. Tuberosa rosifea in all its glory, the true jackapple, the rediscovered original.
He looked at them for a long time. Later he would look at them all, placing each packet in the correct drawer of the old spice chest. Later there would be time for sorting, for labelling and numbering and cataloguing, until at last every one was in place again. But first there was one more thing he had to do. Someone to see. And something to find. Something in the cellar.
THERE WAS ONLY ONE POSSIBLE CHOICE. HE WIPED OFF THE familiar dust from the glass with a cloth, hoping time had not soured the contents. A bottle for a special occasion, he thought, the last of his own Specials – 1962, that good year; the first, he hoped, of many good years. He wrapped the bottle in tissue paper and put it in his jacket pocket. A peace offering.
She was sitting in the kitchen, shelling peas, when he arrived. She was wearing a white shirt over her jeans, and the sunlight was red on her autumn hair. Outside he could hear Rosa calling to Clopette.
‘I brought you this,’ he told her. ‘I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. I thought maybe you and I could drink it together.’
She stared at him for a long time, her face unreadable. Her eyes were cool, verdigris, appraising. Finally she took the outstretched bottle and looked at the label.
‘Fleurie 1962,’ she said, and smiled. ‘My favourite.’
THIS IS WHERE MY STORY ENDS. HERE, IN THE KITCHEN OF THE little farmhouse in Lansquenet. Here he pours me, releasing the scents of summers forgotten and places long past. He drinks to Joe and Pog Hill Lane; the toast is both a salute and a goodbye. Say what you will, there’s nothing to beat the flavour of good grape. Blackcurrant aftertaste or not, I have my own magic, uncorked at last after thirty-seven years of waiting. I hope they appreciate that, both of them, mouths locked together and hands clasped. Now it is for them to do the talking. My part is at an end. I would like to think that theirs ends as happily. But that knowledge is beyond me now. I am subject to a different kind of chemistry. Evaporating blithely into the bright air, my own mystery approaches, and I see no phantoms, predict no futures, even the blissful present barely glimpsed – through a glass, darkly.
From the Lansquenet-gratuit:
Mireille Annabelle Faizande, suddenly after a short illness. Leaves a nephew, Pierre-Emile, daughter-in-law, Marise, and granddaughter, Rosa.
To Mme. Marise d’Api, four hectares of cultivated and noncultivated agricultural land between Rue des Marauds, Boulevard St-Espoir and the Tannes, including a farmhouse and outbuildings, from Pierre-Emile Foudouin, Rue Genevièvre, Toulouse.
From the Courrier d’Agen:
A local landowner has become the first known person since the seventeenth century to produce the tuberosa rosifea potato. This ancient species, thought to have been brought out of South America in 1643, is a large, sweet-scented pink tuber which thrives in our marshy, lime-rich soil. M. Jay Mackintosh, a former writer who emigrated from England eighteen months ago, plans to cultivate these and other rare species of vegetable on his farm in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.
‘I intend to reintroduce many of these old varieties for general consumption,’ he told our reporter recently. ‘It’s only through luck that some of these species have not been lost for ever.’ When questioned on the origins of these precious seeds, M. Mackintosh remains evasive. ‘I’m just a collector,’ he explains modestly. ‘I have collected a large number of different seeds on my travels around the world.’
But, you may ask, what is so important about a few old seeds? Does it really matter what kind of potato we use for our pommes frites?
‘Oh yes,’ he says firmly. ‘It does matter. Too many thousands of plant and animal species have already been lost for ever to modern farming methods and guidelines from Brussels. It’s very important to keep the traditional varieties going. Plants have all kinds of properties which even now are not fully understood. Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time scientists will be able to save lives using one of these rediscovered species.’
M. Mackintosh’s unconventional methods have already spread beyond his own small farm. Local farmers have recently joined him in setting aside part of their land to the production of these old varieties. M. André Narcisse, M. Philippe Briançon and Mme. Marise d’Api have also decided to test the new seeds. And with tuberosa rosifea retailing at a hundred francs or more a kilo, the future looks rosy once again for the farmers of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. As for M. Mackintosh, 36, of Château Cox, Lansquenet, overnight success has left him surprisingly modest. When asked to what he attributes this spectacular success he replies, ‘Just luck.’ He gives our reporter his mischievous smile. ‘And, of course, a little magic’
Joanne Harris is the author of three previous novels, Sleep, Pale Sister, The Evil Seed and Chocolat. Chocolat was shortlisted for the 1999 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and is also published by Doubleday Canada. Joanne Harris lives in Barnsley, Yorkshire, with her husband and small daughter.