You Can’t Miss What You’ve Never Known by Elizabeth Ruth

Essay

Saint-Just-Luzac, 1991

On a cold November morning in a Gothic village in south-central France, an old man is seated at the helm of a long wooden table with both hands perched atop a black control box. He manipulates two small levers to power a series of antique toy trains. The trains interweave along three tracks, travelling the wide expanse of the table, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, winding in and around miniature evergreens and a reproduction train station. The crowd of museum visitors gasps and chatters excitedly. A local journalist snaps a photograph. A young boy squeals with glee. The trains snake over a bridge, and speed through tunnels, clickety-clack followed by the satisfying hiss of steam. “Welcome to Atlantrain,” says Mr. Flon, of his miniature boxcar empire. “The only place of its kind in the world.”

Andre Flon-de-Nere is a 71-year-old harmonica-playing atheist with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a slight paunch. He’s 6 feet tall, carries a tan leather case and dresses in modest blazer, shirt and tie. He wears grey walking shoes, blue tinted glasses, and the barely veiled superiority of a true eccentric. We’d met one month before, on a rare sunny afternoon in Paris, after I answered his advertisement in the newspaper. Now he’d travelled into the city from his village in the Charente Maritime region to interview me, and three other girls, and choose one of us for the job of bilingual hostess at the museum. Mine was to be the third and final meeting of the day. To my surprise, the interview consisted of a three-hour meal at a Chinese restaurant near Place D’Italie while he read my palm.

“You will live into your late nineties,” he said, examining the solid line that curved from the centre of my wrist to my pointer finger. “In good health.”

“Okay,” I said, shrugging. 

Flon removed his glasses, leaned in, to have a closer look. “You are sensitive and have a medium to good amount of  ‘chance.’”

“Not more? I asked, a little alarmed. I’d always seen myself as a lucky person, someone who could therefore take risks.

“You experience great periods of aloneness,” he said. “But that will fix in a few years.”

I felt a hot, red flush moving across my face. “I’m not looking for a relationship,” I said, politely but firmly. Who was this strange man?

“I see you are not greedy,” he continued. “That is important. “And you have the promise of an artist of some kind.” I felt my lungs rise and fall like wings. I can trust him, I thought, with some measure of relief. He saw me as I saw myself.

“I’m a writer,” I told him. It’s the first time I’ve dared to say it aloud, and the words rolled off my tongue like fool’s gold.

“Good,” said Flon. “If you are a non-smoker the job is yours.”

In the museum, he finishes demonstrating the trains on the big table in the middle of the room, and has me guide the crowd to the far end, near a large window, where they can best observe his solar powered engines. These are what he’s most proud of, he’s certain that alternative sources of energy represent the future and prides himself o being forward-thinking. As if he’s a magician about to pull rabbits from a hat, he sweeps his arm over the table dramatically. “Sun and steam and wind,” he announces to the crowd of onlookers. “Regard what they can do.”

I stand behind him, while he enthrals visitors, the dutiful daughter he’s never had and I’ve never been. My long hair falls to my mid-back in a tangle of dark curls. I’ve wrapped a narrow scarf twice around my neck and draped it over my shoulder trying to appear fashionable, French. A month earlier, I could’ve never imagined myself in such a place. Inspired by Flon’s larger-than-life personality and the tiny trains he loves, I know I’ve never been so close to the big and small of the world.

The journalist continues to snap black and white photographs. Within a week, his article will appear on the front page of the local paper, and the headline will read, “Saint-Just-Luzac: un musée a toute vapeur.” A museum where everything runs on steam.

§

The TGV was the fastest train in Europe. It could easily reach speeds of up to 515 km per hour. I boarded without a ticket at Gar-du-Nord and, as promised, Flon found me in the corridor once the train had left the station. We settled in for the ride with me taking a window seat. “We’re flying,” he said, and we were, literally hovering an inch above the track. The farther from Paris we moved the lighter I felt, my spirit lifting along with the oppressive grey rain of the city. Beyond the suburbs, with signs of industry behind us, the verdant fields outside our window passed in a blur and I thought of the tobacco fields of South-western Ontario where seven generations of my family is buried. I thought of my mother; how alike we were. We both abandoned our lives and told ourselves we were chasing freedom, a new beginning, a better dream, and maybe we were as we raced towards the future, but always we were after that which we could not name.

§

Antique toy trains are handmade of tin, painted in muted reds and dark greens, black. They are Rivarossi’s Marklin’s, Pullman’s, Le Ravide from Paris. They are boxcars, trolleys, cabooses. They are toys but not only for children, historical artifacts that account for the development of nations, their treatment of immigrants, and their respective economies. But a toy train, even one built to scale, remains a replica, a superficial albeit wonderful, representation of something else.

§

Flon pulled a road map from his leather carry case. “Paris is not France,” he said. “Now you will learn how the French really live.” I was happy to hear it and hoped that it was true. I’d erroneously equated the country with its famous capital, and worse, concocted my fantasy based on reading the bohemian lives of other writers, most of them long dead. Mavis Gallant was the single example I knew of a Canadian expat currently living and writing in Paris and I couldn’t understand what about the place made her feel so at home. The anonymity? The thin veneer of hostility towards foreigners that almost dared a writer to enact freedom of expression? The brie? As I sat beside Flon with the whirring of steel rails underfoot, I suddenly knew that Mavis hadn’t chosen Paris; it had chosen her, just as Flon’s village, Saint-Just-Luzac, and the adventure it promised, was now calling my name.

On the map Flon traced the route we were taking with his finger. “We will change trains here,” he said, tapping the paper. Poitiers was a major university city that sat on the Clain river in west-central France. Students came from all over the world. Like most of France, Poitiers was picturesque and rich with historical architecture.

I nodded and pressed my face to the window. I had no idea what awaited me in Flon’s village, or what my mother would do when she received the fax I’d sent. ‘“Gone to live with a man named Flon,”’ was all it said. ‘“Here’s his address.”’ I was not worried about disapproval or reproach – my mother embraced opportunity, especially when it took her by surprise or subverted expectation. She couldn’t help doing these things and would understand when I did them too. Nor was I feeling rebellious; indeed, dramatic exits and entrances had been a regular feature of my life. I looked across at Flon and wondered what he’d say if I told him that by the age of six I’d moved homes nine times, that between six and eight there’d been seven more moves, including to Detroit, Michigan and Bogotá, Colombia. By the age of nine I’d attended five schools – a pattern of shunting from one place to the next that would continue even after I left home, at fifteen. He might’ve pitied me, though I hoped not. I sensed otherwise. He was hiding his own story, I was certain; and shunting wasn’t so bad. Shunting had placed me right there, where I wanted to be, and the train was going to take me even farther. “Tell me about our Africa trip,” I said.

Flon’ peered at me overtop of his tinted glasses, and his pale blue eyes caught the sun streaming in through the window. Every second year he made a journey. He’d drive south through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Burkina Faso and into Ghana, where he had friends at the University. Or, he’d drive from Paris to Moscow. As well as acting as a bilingual tour guide in his antique toy train museum (and, I surmised, keeping him company) the job of hostess included the possibility of us driving through French West Africa with me photographing Flon as he taught poor people how to harness wind power – one of his many interests. “You will document the trip,” he said.

I’ll write about it, I thought. I could already feel the adventure building up around me.

At Poitiers, we changed trains to one with cabin seating. Two men and one woman were already occupying our car when we took our places. The men began an exchange with Flon, discussing national politics and the looming Gulf crisis. When he introduced me by name and nationality without explaining that he was my employer, the woman eyed me suspiciously, perhaps questioning my motivations. Was I after his money? (I didn’t know that he had any. In fact, our arrangement stipulated that I wouldn’t be paid a wage but neither would I be expected to pay room and board.) She then set her gaze upon Flon. Was he taking advantage of me? Was he a dirty old man?

I’d asked myself the same questions. A girl alone, especially a foreigner, is prey to hungry predators, and yet, despite my usual mistrust and hyper vigilance, I felt safe enough with Flon. There was a quality of honour about him that extended beyond the old world charm of a patriarch who fancied himself a gentleman. Being around him made me feel, paradoxically, that time had stopped and that any future was possible. Or, perhaps I simply wanted to trust him because of what he offered? Of course, now that we were travelling to an isolated destination, I reminded myself that I was wearing emergency money in my fanny pack. $50. It wasn’t much, but it was enough should I need to flee.

Finally, our stop. A seaside resort, Royan, sits in the South-western Charente-Maritime region of the country, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe. I knew from my guidebook that there were sandy beaches out there waiting for me and I looked forward to summertime when I would explore them. As the sun began to set, we descended the train to find Flon’s car parked beside the station, a little white Renault. He called it his “camping car” – the vehicle that would take us into Africa in the New Year. Camping car suggested a caravan with a kitchenette and bench seating. What I found instead was a stubby vintage cream-coloured two-seater with double back doors. It looked as if it may have been a former French army ambulance or perhaps a bread delivery truck. I opened the passenger side door and climbed in, squeezing my backpack on the floor between my knees. The smell of unwashed clothes and old cheese hit me. What would it be like living in this small, enclosed space when we travelled? Where would we sleep?

From the station we drove another hour north. Flon sped as if he were a fugitive being chased by police. He took curves aggressively, without braking to slow before them. He accelerated until the camping car shook and trembled with the effort, and only then did he stutter the brake pedal. I was terrified we were going to overturn. I kept one hand on the dash to steady myself and thought of my grandfather back home, his health stable since his kidney transplant the year before. A notoriously aggressive driver himself, my grandfather had taught me how to navigate the road when I was sixteen. Be offensive, he’d advised. Be fearless. It’s the hesitant, timid driver, he said, who caused accidents. But the highways and country roads Flon was speeding along were completely unlit, and as night fell, I couldn’t see five feet in front of the vehicle. Queasy, I rolled down my window a few inches and gulped fresh air. “Is there a speed limit here?” I asked.

Flon laughed and bounced over the first of two rickety old bridges. “You are too fearful,” he said. “You must learn to trust.”

When we finally pulled into the village of Saint-Just-Luzac and he slammed to a stop behind his house, I was breathless and nauseous and every muscle in my body was tense.

§

The house was an immense two-story gothic grey stone slab with a slanted roof. On one side sat the village church – also Gothic in architecture – and on the other side, the attached museum. Today, Saint-Just-Luzac is sold to tourists as a retirement destination or a place for young people to stay within a short driving distance to many of the region’s most popular sights, such as Brouage and Larochelle. In the late fall of 1991 when I arrived, tourists were scarce, the European Union was not yet in place, and Saint-Just was still a sleepy village with no more than a few hundred inhabitants, most of them elderly. If there were hotels, I did not know of them. If there were other foreigners I never saw any. Flon, though, with his nose for sniffing out the future, was convinced his museum was ideally located and ready to capitalize on the soon-to-arrive tourist boom.

The chilled evening air smelled faintly of salt marsh and wildflowers – Ruine de Rome, Goldenrod. We entered through the back door into the large kitchen and I dropped my backpack on the red tile floor. Flon checked the thermostat on the wall close to the fireplace. “Four degrees Celsius,” he said. “We’ll light a fire.” Though I didn’t yet know it, the kitchen was the warmest spot in the house, and the temperature would never rise above eleven degrees. In the mornings, there would be frost in my upstairs room.

Flon pulled kindling and scraps of newspaper from a metal bucket and lit a twist of paper with a long wooden matchstick. He had me carry logs into the house from the half cord of wood stacked outside. As the flame began to grow, he pointed to the lone chair in front of the hearth. “I work there,” he said. “You will work at the table.” My eyes landed on the manual typewriter.

Until then, the only man I’d shared a home with was my grandfather, and it felt strange now to be alone with Flon in his house. My fingers and toes and the tip of my nose were numb as I followed him for a tour. The kitchen stove was half electric, half gas, he explained. There was a small sink and half fridge, which he would have me clean before we ate, because it was mouldy. There was a bathroom on the main floor with a toilet, a makeshift shower and some sort of homemade bucket and tube contraption for washing clothes. There were two cats, one pregnant. “I will drown the kittens when they come,” Flon told me.

“You should have them fixed,” I said, offended.

He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “They should be free to live by their instincts.” All at once, I was aware of silence surrounding us. No red breasted flycatchers singing their famed songs, no geese honking, nor the comforting sound of a neighbour’s heels on the cobblestone outside. Only deep silence, profound and unnerving. I pulled my thin black coat around my tightly. Did Flon also live by his instincts? If so, what were they, exactly?

We ascended the creaky wooden staircase to the second floor. His bedroom was a huge mess of newspapers and toy train parts. Scrap metal and books were strewn across the floor. Empty mugs and water glasses perched on his dresser and bedside table. “You can watch TV in here,” he said. “It is the only television in the house.” I noticed there was no chair for guests, only his bed.

“I don’t like television,” I said.

He studied my face, perhaps thinking to try a little harder to persuade me, but did not. “It is your choice,” he said, and we both understood that I was the arbiter of what would or would not transpire between us.

My room was smaller, with only a twin bed and dresser, and it had been cleaned. Later I would learn Rene, the unmarried neighbour, had come with a bucket and rag. Wooden shutters closed out the night. Flon stood in the doorway, did not enter. We’re going to get along just fine, I thought.

§

In Paris I’d quickly run out of steam. I’d spent two months hanging out at the American church with other North Americans and two weeks searching for places to sleep. I’d been sexually harassed on the metro, in movie theatres, in the Jardin du Luxembourg where I’d tried to write. Finally I’d rented a one-bedroom apartment in Place D’Italie with a fellow Canadian named Gail. She was sheltered and naïve and there to teach English to businessmen. The flat was too expensive so we’d sublet the living room to Anton and Christo, Bulgarian refugees working as short order cooks. Then, there had been the fruitless weeks of job searching until I’d talked my way into a part-time job in the stationary and calendar department of Brentano’s bookstore. But I’d lasted only nine days, until the manager, a stern Mme Boudaille, realized I was inept at making change in my own currency, let alone conducting proper international exchanges.

After the firing, I’d told no one, including my roommates, and while they were at work, had lain in bed reading Milan Kundera novels, and developing a nascent writing practice. I’d stolen pens from cafes and fed myself on cold steak frites the guys brought home from the restaurant where they worked. My money had run out, though none of that mattered now; I was employed, and on what might turn out to be the greatest adventure of my life.

§

After a dinner of Edem and crusty bread, Flon projected a slide show onto the kitchen wall. He showed me a regional oyster ‘farm” and photos of the last girl, Sandy, another Canadian who’d worked for him. “Canadians are polite and honest,” he said.

“I can think of few rude ones.”

“Compared with Americans,” he corrected.

I learned that he had three grown children who would spend Christmas with their mother. He hadn’t seen her since their divorce in 1955. He described his ex-wife as mechant, nasty. Whatever had happened between them, I saw sadness behind his eyes. “Pay attention,” he said. “One day you’re going to want to remember this.”

“I thought the French rarely divorced,” I said.

 He pulled a wooden toothpick from his breast pocket and began to dig food out of his teeth. “The legacy of the Catholic Church. But then most people everywhere are sheep. I hope you are not religious.”

I’d been a cynic and an atheist since I was eleven years old, when I realized no one was up there, listening. But Flon’s presumption was couched in judgement and expectation. This made me want to defy him, but I did not. “Not religious,” I said truthfully. “Maybe spiritual.”

He told me that when his wife had left him she’d abandoned the kids as well. They were two, four and six years old at the time. The youngest, a daughter, went to his mother-in-law. He kept the eldest son. The middle child was told he was dead and sent to the priest. With his job, Flon explained, he had no way of supporting them. He showed no signs of guilt or remorse. “It’s strange,” he said, of his children. “Their mother deserted them and yet they choose to spend holidays with her.”

I thought of Christmas coming the following month, and how my mother and I had never spent a single holiday apart. I also wondered what Flon’s wife’s version of events might sounds like, what had caused her to defy convention and desert her family. “Why did she leave?” I asked.

“Greed,” he said, a little too quickly, an explanation less humiliating than admitting she didn’t love him. “My children are like her in that way,” he added. “All snobs. They rarely come. They don’t like my house.” Surrounded by filth and unable to get warm, I guessed a couple of reasons. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t tried to get himself a better job in the years after his marriage fell apart, or why he hadn’t searched out the youngest son, nor did I tell him I’d never met my father.

A train of thought is a kind of path. A path of reasoning. What is the meaning of family? Of home? Would I ever write a book? Would Flon and I get to Africa? After he went to bed that first night, I sat alone in his kitchen, in front of the black manual typewriter and stared at the silver keys, shivering. Later, upstairs, I stared at the mirror in my bedroom, looking into my own eyes as a stranger might.

§

When people say they were raised by a single mother they usually mean something entirely different than I do. My ‘father’ probably doesn’t know I exist. There is no father’s name on my birth certificate, no photo in my drawer of some man dead or long-gone, no child support payments or custody battles, no negative story line of rejection for me to hang my hat on. You cannot miss what you’ve never known, my mother would say, melodic and sure, sounding like a train running along a track. You cannot miss what you’ve never known.

Then one day at recess in grade three, a classmate I barely knew sidled up beside me. “My dad’s a lawyer,” she said, trying to be friendly. “What does your dad do?” She might as well have asked what I’d eaten for breakfast or what my usual bedtime was. The question held no particular power over me and seemed irrelevant.

“I don’t have a father,” I said casually.

The girl contorted her features as though trying to squeeze out understanding. “You have to,” she said, sounding the voice of authority.

“Well I don’t,” I said, beginning to feel annoyed. I folded my arms across my chest. In my life, the social role of father and the biological fact of paternity were separate concepts. My biological father was, in some respects, like the anonymous sperm donors of today.

“You must have a father!” she hollered. “Everyone does.”

I watched the girl skip up the steps and into the school, secure in her belief that I was wrong, that my family was wrong. My cheeks burned with rage. I hated being disbelieved and this was the first time I had had to defend my family, thought from what I was not sure. That night I asked my mother to explain.

“In a way, your friend is right,” she said. “You need sperm as well as eggs to make a baby.” She was standing in our tiny kitchen on Yonge street, in the apartment overtop of a dry cleaner. The odour of steam and industrial cleaning chemicals wafted up through the floor and mixed with the weiners and beans she was warming on the stove. “But sperm does not make a father. That’s just biology.”

I nodded, relieved. This information was not new to me. A father was someone who parented a child, was there at bedtimes and holidays, someone like a mother. I had the genetic contirubtion, not the day-to-day relationship.

My mother pulled two plates from the cupbard. “Every family is different,” she added.

To hear her speak of it, difference was a neutral state and paternity a near random insignificance, like chosing between blue and red socks to wear to school in the mornings. My conception, though a life changer for us both, was certainly a random, inexplicable event that defied logic – every conception is – and to my mother my biological father was only one incidental part of that. Getting pregnant was not a choice she’d made, and it therefore appropriately took a backdrop to her more significant and profound choices: to keep and raise me. But remembering the force of my classmate’s anger, I knew it couldn’t be that simple.

“So, who was he?”

“A man I went out with a couple of times.” 

“Oh.”

Strange as it may sound, I’d never before associated the biology of reproduction with actual people, someone my mother would’ve known. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Unfortuantely, her perspective on us wasn’t the only one I’d been exposed to, so I reached for the most accessible response. “Poor Beth,” I said, mimicking my relatives’ intonation, repeating the pity some of them felt about my situation and had conveyed to me.

My mother was on her knees now, facing me, eye-to-eye. “What did you say?”

I repeated myself, though this time tentatively, in the interrogrative. “Poor Beth?”

Her hands tightened around my scrawny arms as though to imprint a message. She intended to make sure I heard what she was about to say and also her matter-of-fact delivery. “Some children are raised by two parents,” she said. “Some, like you, have one. Others have grandparents or are adopted. Some children have no family at all or worse, they have parents who don’t love them.” She had raised her voice and was speaking not only to me but to an extended family and a society that had already interrogated and condemned her many times. “You are lucky,” she said, tightening her grip. “And I don’t ever want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself again!”

Again, I nodded. The force of her delivery was persuasive and convincing, and it was clear that wishing for things that could not be changed was not going to be indulged. It was also a relief to have the conversation made so black and white. Mercifully, she’d clearcut any sense of illegitimacy or inferiority before I’d internalized it.

“Good,” she said loosening her grip. She looked relieved when she straightened; as though having successfully navigated a conversation she’d long been dreading. “If you want to know more,” she said, steadying me with her steely green eyes. “Ask me again when you’re twelve.”

I did the math. I would be twelve in three more years.

§

Exactly twelve years after that conversation, I crawled under a musty goose down duvet in my small room in Saint-Just-Luzac with the wind howling through the shutters. I was fully clothed – including two pair of socks, a wool hat and mitts - extra layers that armoured me against more than the temperature. I thought myself worldly and self-possessed and I would soon discover who Mr. Flon was and who I was. But that first night all I knew was that we were unwritten characters, waiting for our dramas and stories to be told.

Ruth’s Bio