Reminiscence of Childhood

When I was seven and we had just moved into the house my grandfather had left us, I immediately sensed that the post-Napoleonic edifice looming across from our new home hid strange secrets. It was one of those old, grand houses — a little derelict but habitable enough, with grey net curtains obscuring every window. I soon discovered that the house had somewhat of a reputation with the local children who roamed the streets between the last school bell and suppertime.

It was a safe neighbourhood with little threat or menace that could endanger the carefully constructed community that had become the epitome of Parisian bourgeoisie. So we children took matters in our own hands, creating a pseudo-world of rogue streets and villainous back alleys, menacing buildings and fabricated tales, which we attached to any neighbour we believed deserved our wrath and indignation.

And so the old house across the street took centre stage in our fantasies. 33 Rue de la Faisanderie was inhabited by a Monsieur and Madame de Robillard. The story went that Monsieur had been married once before and his wife and daughter had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My father, who knew the rumours well, having grown up with similar fantasies as I now entertained, assured me that his first family had emigrated to Canada and were safe and sound. Yet we children were loath to accept such a harmless explanation when the alternative was so deliciously despicable.

 

I recall being about nine when I joined the Puma Detective Club. I think it was named for those trendy sneakers that we all used to wear back then. Its raison d’être was simple: we would be the neighbourhood watch, solving any crime large or small perpetrated on our streets. The problem was that there weren’t many crimes to solve, so we soon turned our attention to the mysterious Monsieur de Robillard. We knew that he had remarried since the departure of his last family, but this was also all we knew as no one had ever seen Madame de Robillard. I once again turned to my father for information. He told me Madame de Robillard had a neurological disease (or ‘a brain disease’, as he explained it back then), which meant that she could no longer walk, and was confined to the prison of a wheelchair. But I believed (as did my friends from the Puma Detective Club) that the wheelchair wasn’t her only confinement.

My parents agreed over one of our many gregarious dinners that it indeed was a little strange, but some people have strange habits — and as long as they didn’t break the law, they were none of our business. The final message was to leave them in peace. This message was, needless to say, entirely ignored.

Pierre, Gregory, Celine and I set out to uncover the truth behind the decaying façade of 33 Rue de la Faisanderie. Our first step was to set up surveillance of the house. It was summer, and our holiday gave us both glorious weather and the time to stake out the house from early morning until evening, when Paul, Pierre’s older brother, would take the graveyard shift running until a late 10 PM. In the end his efforts would prove of little value apart from one observation, which we shall come to later.

Weeks went by and our only discovery was that Monsieur de Robillard went out once a week, for exactly one hour, during which time he conducted his grocery shopping, played the lotto, and bought seven cigars by the brand Ashton. This was confirmed by the cigar-shop owner, who became very curious about our inquiry. We swore him to secrecy after buying a gold-plated zippo lighter under the pretence that it was a birthday present for an uncle. It cost us all an arm and a leg, but in return the cigar seller continued to answer our questions as he made an elaborate wrapping with a plastic flower adorning the top. It looked rather cheap, but the cigar-shop owner seemed mighty proud of his work, positioning it on the counter with a smile that hinted at achievement. This didn’t stop our questions, though, as we hurled them at our unwitting victim:

How long had De Robillard been a customer?

Did he buy anything else?

Had his wife ever accompanied him?

Had he ever come in the company of anyone else?

Did he ever talk about anything?

The answer to all of these questions, with one exception (De Robillard had been a customer for seven years, during which time he never changed his brand of cigar), was ‘No’. We left with the impression that De Robillard was at least prone to being a meticulous and fastidious man. This also meant he was an opponent to be reckoned with.

Despite our last assumption, we snooped around without much discretion. Gregory discovered a cracked basement window that, with a bit of luck, could be opened from the inside. So it was decided that Celine, who was the smallest of us all, would slip into the house whilst De Robillard went for his Tuesday walk. But when it came time, Celine objected wildly. The one next in line was I, but I would need to lose at least three kilos to accomplish the feat. This postponed the whole operation for exactly a month, during which my mother couldn’t understand why her nine year old suddenly wouldn’t eat rice puddings and crème caramel.

In the meantime there were a few significant sightings. As we spied on the house from my attic room, we caught the occasional movement behind the sheer net curtains. And on one occasion it was lifted from underneath, as if by a child or a dwarf…or possibly someone bound to a wheelchair. We were intrigued rather than assured by this development, as the story took on immense proportions in the minds of us children.

Then, through an event that later repeated several times, we seemed to establish some sort of communication with whoever was on the other side. In the evening a lamp would go on and off three times, to which we responded in the exact same fashion. We weren’t very well versed in Morse code, but generally took it as a cry for help.

Although I was still carving away muscle and fat from my already bony frame in order to break into the house, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer with our mission that by now had acquired the code name ‘Blue Light’.

Paul, the older brother of Pierre, was chosen to ring the bell while De Robillard was out. The rest of us (with the exception of Pierre, who was shadowing the suspect) stood behind a big black van that was parked across the street. Paul rang and knocked several times, even reverting to the improvised Morse code we were by now sufficient in, but there was no reply. He listened intently through the letterbox, but could only hear a whooshing sound coming from the stale air. All he could see was old furniture, gothic by the look of it, and an old armour that stood in a corner. For a moment he thought he heard someone’s faint whisper, but it could have just as easily been the wind. After a good fifteen minutes, we gave up and withdrew to my attic room. The windows across the street stood silent, any movement lost to the distance between us.

From then on, there would be no Morse code communication. All the curtains were still and, two days later, I woke up to find all the shutters had been closed and the cellar window boarded up. In our eyes, this meant that the fate of the woman trapped inside, and consequently that of Operation Blue Light, had been sealed.

We never saw De Robillard again, and eventually the Puma Detective Club fizzled out. There was little crime to monitor and, as we entered into the long-awaited phase of adolescence, our priorities underwent a significant shift.

It wasn’t until the long-abandoned house was put up for sale years later that there would be an epilogue to the story. The new owner, a wealthy property developer, had entirely different taste than that of his predecessor and decided to gut the house for a complete refurbishment. I am not sure of the complete ins and outs, as it all transpired during a family vacation to the Caribbean, but supposedly the body of ‘Madame de Robillard’ was found doubled up in a large suitcase, which had been hidden underneath some floorboards in the cellar. The details that subsequently emerged were sketchy at best, but it seemed Monsieur de Robillard had been married once, and still was at his timely death at seventy-eight at his new coastal residence close to Antibes in southern France. His wife and daughter were said to have left to Canada and postcards from them were found, which after further investigation appeared to have been sent by a nephew of De Robillard. No traces were found of his first wife and child, and they were eventually declared dead.

So was ‘Madame de Robillard’, who was in fact a Sophie du Motier, a distant descendant of the enigmatic and equally emblematic Marquis de Lafayette. A woman of means but poor health, she had seemingly been duped by De Robillard, who had funded his retirement on the French Rivera from her substantial wealth.

Both gratified and horrified to find that we’d been right all along those years ago, I suppose this revelation was the entry point to my dark interest in the criminal mind. I devoured literature about Jack the Ripper and his American contemporaries such as Dr Thomas Neill Cream, Dr H.H. Holmes and the Bloody Bender Family. I kept this interest to myself, though, hiding the books under my bed for fear of alarming my family over my often morbid and seemingly twisted curiosity.

So when, in 1996, the Paris Reaper made his entrée into Paris history, leaving a bloody trail in his wake, I was not only well versed in amateur criminology but had an appetite for the case’s every detail. Innocent as my curiosity was then, the murders and their aftermath later came to play a significant role in my life. But even back then the case had twisted the perceptions of my vulnerable sixteen-year-old mind.

As headless corpses were piling up in Paris, in such great quantity as had not been seen since the French Revolution, suspicion and rumours were rife. The police made a half-hearted attempt to keep the situation under control, but to the public everyone was a suspect. Or at least everyone who was white, male and able-bodied. My father fit this description to a T. And worse, he was a doctor who, as they always say in these cases, had “intimate knowledge of the human anatomy”. As the Terror continued (it was so called after the Terror instilled by Danton and Robespierre during the Revolution years), my father’s behaviour became more and more erratic. I would find him in his study in the middle of the night, scrutinising articles about the crimes and making hasty notes in his diary. Although I only witnessed this in 1998, the last year before the murders stopped, it made such a great impression that I started to wonder of his own possible involvement. As we would brush past each other in the corridors, an inexplicable dread would come over me. I would take to locking the bathroom door whilst brushing my teeth in case someone would sneak up from behind. During that period I also stopped showering with a shower curtain, allowing instead the water to flood the bathroom tiles. These paranoid suspicions still taint the memories of my father, as the association to Psycho’s Norman Bates continues to hold a firm grip on my sanity…