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2002 01 Gold in the River Mérantaise

By Marc Rugani

 

Gold in the River Mérantaise
 
It’s Sunday.
Nice Spring day: some blue in the sky, the air is soft; the sun is hardly up – it’s just 7 o’clock – but already warming the world, mainly the hearts of people, who sorely need it after so much rain. I can hear the birds in the trees. The season of love is almost upon us.
 
I had woken and risen early; then went straight down to the butcher’s at the newly opened Abbey Commercial Centre; they’re nice there, the meat’s good, the prices reasonable. So I’ve become a regular. There’s nobody out, just a passing dog, two cats watching each other. Everybody’s having a lie-in, catching up on sleep or cuddling under the duvet. A bit later, towards 10, the streets will start filling up.
 
I’m the only customer at the Butcher’s. After the greetings and standard platitudes about the lovely weather – “About time too! I thought Spring would never start! Talk about global warming! We could do with a bit of that!” – I order a fillet of beef: roasted in a hot oven for about twenty minutes so it’s nice and bloody at the centre, with a clove of garlic, onions and potatoes, I just love that! While he’s serving me, I see two people running and disappearing down the steps into the underpass that leads to the RER train station and to the park. I have the impression they’re holding something in their hands, but it was just a glimpse and I wasn’t really paying attention. People running to catch a train, well it’s hardly unusual round here.
 
I turn back to the butcher to see how he’s doing with my beef, when suddenly a man sticks his head round the door, all out of breath, and blurts out: “Marcel, there’s gold, there’s gold”. He’s so excited he can hardly get the words out. “They’ve found gold in the Mérantaise. Come and see, quick!” And then he bolts across the street without a glance left or right and disappearing down into the underpass like the other two. This time I saw: he was holding a shovel and something that looked like a frying pan.
“Gold in the Mérantaise?” Both the butcher and I repeat the words like a Greek chorus. The Mérantaise is one of the two little rivers that merge and flow through our little town of Gif. The butcher goes on. “That’s a good one! That Roger, he’s not all there sometimes. He was at the bottle last night I wouldn’t wonder. Been smoking reefers, I expect, great big ones.”
 
I was of the same opinion. That Roger. Nevertheless, the words had stirred me. And then there were those two others, a bit earlier, running. I pay quickly, tell the butcher I’ll perhaps have a little look-see, and with my beef under my arm, set off towards the park. Despite myself my pace quickens, but I am in the grip of a sudden impatience. I cross the little bridge that spans the Yvette, the other river, and then follow the river-bank past the open-air tennis courts. There are no players at this time of the morning; they’ll be out in an hour or so, prancing around after the ball. I’m just passing court number 7 when some skinny beanpole comes rushing past me, and nearly knocks me clean into the river with a shovel which he is waving about. The great shambling oaf. What’s the big hurry? Suddenly, my blood is up, I am trembling, and I break into a trot, and then a run. Gold in the Mérantaise? It can’t be true, they would have known ages ago. It’s completely stupid. And yet I’m no longer so sure.
 
I’ve arrived. There’s an amazing commotion by the side of the little river: Amazing, because normally there are one or two people strolling along the bank, a dog fetching a ball in the water, the odd blackbird footling in the bushes, and that’s it. The river, at this spot is particularly peaceful, but this day, at 8 o’clock in the morning – the clock of the church of St Rémi was sounding the hour at that very moment – before my astonished eyes, at least 30 or 40 people, were busying themselves along the banks and in the shallows. They were all men, apart from just one woman as far as I could see, late middle-aged types, one old grey-beard, Sunday morning early-risers I should think. There was no chat or exchange between them, they worked in utter silence; in fact they made so little noise that it was spooky. I could guess, feel by instinct the atavistic passion that drove them: they were seeking gold!
They were searching with the various tools they had found back home, in the cellar or attic: old pots and pans, garden spades, plastic beach shovels, here and there a rake, a few buckets. I could see them scooping a bit of the river mud into their pan – silt, gravel and sand mixed with rotting vegetation – swishing it around, as they had seen it done on the telly or in the cinema, and then poking through the resultant mess with their finger.
                       
The tension is almost palpable, and I can feel it taking me over; gold-fever is taking hold of my body, through the soles of my feet and the roots of my hair. I can see some people cutting across the rugby field towards the river; suddenly, there’s no more thinking, I whirl around and set off headlong for home like some sort of crazy man, clutching my piece of beef. Never have I run so fast, never has the path been so long, never the door-latch so cumbersome. I fling the door open, rip open the kitchen cupboard, scattering pots and pans to get the one I want, my great cast-iron frying pan, a bit heavy perhaps, the handle over-long for what I have in mind, but to hell with it: it is with this I shall winkle out the nuggets of the Mérantaise.
 
Leaping four steps at a time I burst into the cellar to get my little garden spade. Too fast and and I almost break my neck, tripping over the piles of clutter, which only the other day I was saying I had to clear up and berating myself for never getting round to it.
 
Back up the steps like a mountain goat, I don’t bother to lock the door, and there I am bounding back towards the park, frying pan and spade in hand. As I go I realise I have nothing to put the gold into, no gold bag. Damnit, damnit! Never mind. I’ll stuff it into my pockets, if I find any. I realise I must cut a strange figure. If anyone I knew could see me now, running like this, they would find it very unlike me, very strange, they would be scratching their head in puzzlement and saying, “Marc, old lad, you’re not yourself today. Don’t you think you should perhaps see a doctor?”
 
The streets are now waking up, and I’m not the only one running; the news has spread like wildfire. “There’s gold in the Mérantaise!”; at least three people in front of me, half a dozen behind. And there are sure to be others out of sight on their way.
 
On the banks of the Mérantaise, by the tennis courts, there is now a mob, packed so tight together that there’s hardly any more room. It’s much the same in the water. Some hardy souls are trying their luck where the Mérantaise joins the Yvette by the bridge, where it gets deep and the bottom is soft silt, sucking you down: they’re drinking their fill, ha ha, cheers, lads and good luck to you!
 
I stride along a fifty metre stretch: all the way along and beyond it’s the same thing. Suddenly I’m filled with an unreasoning, violent sort of rage. I have a right to look for gold too, I want a space and by god I’ll have one, just try and stop me! With a brisk run-up, I launch myself over the heads of the first row and land in their midst, engulfing all around in the splash. There are howls of protest, but I don’t give a damn! I come up yelling “This is my place and no-one else’s!” I heft my spade and prepare to smite any presumptuous interloper or pretender who would take it from me.
 
But no-one moves; everybody can see from my glaring eyes and from my voice that I mean business. They’re not exactly frightened of me, they just recognise in me the same thing that is consuming them: gold fever. And so, without any fuss, they let me carve out my space just as they did theirs. Just a few growls, then everybody gets back to work, show’s over, they don’t give me a second glance. I’ve dug my hole, staked my claim, got my concession, as the old prospectors of California would have said; in fact, several others follow my example and plunge in like me, up to their knees. The Mérantaise is not broad and nobody has much elbow room.
 
At this moment, my book-learning and film lore starts to come back to me: 1848, the great gold rush, immigrants in their thousands from the world over, invading California, the gold-digger camps, the saloon-bar fights, the whisky, the gun-shots, the placers …
 
The water is a bit chilly – no more than 15° Centigrade – but I hardly notice, I am on fire, body and soul. Although it’s actually quite deep where I am – the river is swollen with the Spring rains – so much so that my chin brushes the surface each time I plunge my spade in. That’s not good, all it needs is one small slip, one clumsy movement and bingo! half my face is under water. Already my baggy sweater is trailing in the water and soaking it up like a sponge. And then there’s the current, which is so strong that I need several goes to get a proper spadeful of mud. And in my other hand my frying pan, which weighs a ton and has a malevolent mind of its own, I swear. A gold-digger’s lot is not, it would seem, an happy one. Not a bed of roses. After a lot of fruitless effort, I manage finally to get a panful of mud and then swirl it around like my neighbours, to separate the bits out. The light ones go to the edge while the heavy ones, such as any gold nuggets that might happen to be there, gravitate towards the centre of the pan.
 
Oh, what emotion when for the first time – the very first time of my life – I examine the bottom of my pan for gold! I look so hard it hurts my eyes. There are things shining there, but they’re mica or something, not gold. I look again, and then some more, but there’s still nothing there. Bitter, bitter disappointment. Never mind, start again.
No-one speaks, I don’t either. Everyone is focused on his job and his dream. There are some women and children amongst us now, and even a few oldies. Out of the corner of my eye I can see them coming from every direction. I am myself hemmed in on every side, I barely have a couple of square metres for myself. From behind, I am occasionally jostled and shoved in the back, in front of me my vision is blocked by a monumental pair of buttocks. These are my horizon.
 
My pan is very heavy: it’s good for cooking up omelettes or steaks, but when it comes to gold-panning, I could do better.
 
So now I’ve been scrabbling fruitlessly in the muck for twenty minutes. I have explored every centimetre of my two square metres, and I can’t go on much longer. My neighbours haven’t come up with anything either, I would have heard.
I am losing heart, when suddenly, in the bottom of the pan I spy with aching, disbelieving eyes a little bright something, very small, it’s true, but shining, shining brighter than the other shining things … This isn’t mica, over the last twenty minutes I have become the world expert on mica. My heart, with a burst of adrenaline coursing through it, is beating boom, boom, boom, like a military base drum. My emotion cannot be described. Delicately, with the tip of a trembling finger, I separate my miniscule shining star from the mud and the gravel: half a millimetre by half a millimetre, hardly a grain of sand. I peer close, straightening my glasses to see more clearly – by a stroke of fortune I had thought to bring them along to choose my beef – no, definitely not mica, could it be … could it be … could it be GOLD? Could this be a tiny little nugget of gold? Mérantaise gold? 2002 gold? Oh please god make it true…
 
Yes, it is. It can only be gold ! It IS gold ! My heart is beating like the jungle telegraph under the effect of an inexpressible emotion and joy. I have found gold! I have found gold! The tension is too much to bear: I let out a piercing, liberating cry, like a footballer who has just scored the winning goal. A second cry bursts forth and then a third: I get a grip on myself, but the joy remains hard and gem-like, radiating outward, filling me with bliss.
All around people are staring, coming up to see. So I proudly show off my treasure, but watchful lest I drop it or someone should try to snatch it. My palm is barely open, almost a closed fist and my other hand, holding the tools, is nonetheless ready. I can see pleased not envious smiles, people are happy that I have found something, and they return quickly to their work with fresh hope and determination.
 
I wrap my treasure in a tissue that I luckily had in my pocket. I fold and refold the paper over my precious grain of gold, and slip the package with the utmost care into my pocket, fearful that I might drop it, or the paper tear or open up. How on earth would I ever find it again! It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I pick my way delicately out of the river, through the serried ranks.
I am brimful with joy, my cup runneth over. I have no need to search any more: my little grain is enough. Besides, what are the chances of finding anything else? I am surrounded on every side and every scrap of sand, every smallest pebble, every lump of mud, has been sifted, strained and scrutinised a thousand times already. Strictly no point.
I pick my way delicately through the throng out of the river and up onto the bank; I had hardly left my spot when a man with mad, glittering eyes leapt to occupy it, whirling in a savage frenzy, like mine own a little earlier; we are brothers.
I am drenched and dripping. O mother, if you could see your son at this moment! His shoes filled with water so that he squelches with each step, his jeans soaked through and covered in mud, his slightly crazed air, clutching the little spade and the big frying pan. Yes, mother, you would fear for your son!
 
I bequeath my improvised tools of the trade to a random neighbour. They are now just weighing me down and by giving them away I make someone happy.
 
On the bank, people are still running. All along the Yvette, across the rugby and football pitches and on the other side by the tennis courts, they come. There is madness in the mild Spring air. I keep out of their way. You cross these people at your peril.
                       
Everywhere in the park it’s the same story: a general rush to the river. I follow the Mérantaise upstream and still it’s the same. By the gym, a group of about fifty has broken through the fence into someone’s riverside property. Now they’re pulling down the quayside walls in their search for gold. Private property is no longer sacred. Luckily the owner is absent. He would be having a fit if he could see these savages smashing up his garden.
 
            Rue Amodru and Avenue Général Leclerc are completely blocked with a tail-back of traffic that probably stretches as far as Courcelles, perhaps to St Rémy, or further still.  The noise of car-horns is deafening. The 306 must be the same, not to mention the roads to Bures and to Belleville. It’s a grim scene. Gif has become a town under siege, cut off, surrounded, closed.
 
I continue along to the old medieval washing fountain. No respite there either, but I didn’t expect any; two men are hammering away resonantly. I thought I could see the glint of a steel blade. Further off I hear the raised voices of women quarrelling. Everything is at breaking-point, the underlying violence is breaking through sporadically. I am now convinced that disaster has overtaken the town.
           
            I’m just about to walk back up along the Mérantaise up to Belle Image when I spot the town mayor walking with his staff and the commander of the town gendarmerie. He looks pale and anxious. For good reason. What has taken place here this morning is worse than anything we’ve known before: floods, travellers, car-burning, all the problems of the past months are nothing compared with today’s events. Today is a tornado, a tidal wave, an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale, all rolled into one.
 
In my head I can see the illustrations of the barbarian hordes I had once read in a child’s history: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns with Attila himself, streaming across the plains, putting everything in their path to the sword and the torch.
 
Fortunately we haven’t yet got to that point. The savage hordes of our little valley are armed with nothing worse than spades and pans. But even so, this is a catastrophe: traffic frozen for kilometres around, brawls and street-fights, thieving and rapine, shop-windows smashed and emptied by hooligans come from all over to join the fun – sports fields trampled, cars parked anywhere and anyhow. There will be a price to pay.
The mayor has called the departmental prefect to ask for reinforcements, but the roads are impassable so how are they going to get here? And how many men would it take to stop the rising tide of gold-fever?
All morning I have had the impression of living through extraordinary times and I have been feverish with excitement. But now it’s beginning to fade and the sight of people out of their minds and the damage they are doing now leaves me sad and a little angry. I feel an imperious need for a return to order. Everything must now stop and go back to the way it was before. The party is over. Especially as there is no more gold in the Mérantaise. Gif is not California and the few grams of gold that had washed down following a landslide at Fonds Fanettes and Bois des Roches, as I had since learnt, would have long been found by now.
                       
I am hardly presentable, but I don’t hesitate. I walk straight up to the mayor and offer him my services. On this extraordinary day, he must need all the help he can get. He thanks me without appearing to notice my clothes and asks me to report to the crisis management centre that he has set up at the town hall.
Rue Amodru is still blocked with traffic. Most of the vehicles have been abandoned, their occupants gone like everyone else in search of gold, or perhaps to stretch their legs and see what’s happening.
 
As I approach the town hall, CRS riot police come running towards me. Dozens and dozens of them, helmeted, dressed in black, shield in hand, just like my Visigoths; each one with a truncheon at his belt, ready for use. The sight of these robot men rushing wordlessly past me, the rhythmic tramp of their boots, these symbols of violence and mayhem, makes a profound impression on me. I recoil with fear.
 
How had they got here? By the footpaths from Moulon? I can’t see any other way, given the state of the roads. Or perhaps they were lifted in by helicopter? Much quicker and safer. In fact, now I think of it, I thought I heard one earlier, coming in from the West. How I would love to see that, these big birds coming thunderously out of the sky and disgorging all those black-clad, helmeted robot men, bent double under the whirling blades. That would be a sight!
 
I wonder how the mayor managed to have them sent so fast. What arguments was he able to find to persuade the Prefect of the need for such a large force? Public order? Public safety? Public property? Public something or other, that was for sure. Whatever it was, the Prefect had understood the urgency and seriousness of the situation. If the little town of Gif was in danger today, then so were the surrounding villages and towns. And what about tomorrow? And the day after? If this whole business isn’t to get out of hand and spread like a bushfire, then it must be ring-fenced and extinguished immediately. The necessary steps must be taken. And it seems they have.
 
 
The CRS riot police are there, thank god. For the first time in my life I experience a glow of friendly warmth towards them. Seeing them ready for action, I guess they won’t be waiting in the town hall and – forgive me Monsieur le maire – I follow them. A few small groups head towards St Rémi and rue Vatonne, others along rue Amodru towards the Avenue Général Leclerc. I imagine that others are already in place on rue Dautry and at Courcelles. I stick with the bulk of the squad that are heading at a smart trot towards the park and the Mérantaise; there’s a whole lot of them already there, probably arrived from Coupières or the station. At a glance I would say about 300 of them. Some officers have got megaphones and are telling people to keep away from the river. The CRS troopers are doing their best, trying to head people off and herd them back the other way. But it isn’t easy, the spaces are too open, there aren’t enough troopers, the prospectors slip like eels through their fingers or, having been caught, just wait for their captors’ backs to be turned to continue their mad rush down to the water’s edge. One trooper for one crazed prospector. Something’s wrong with the strategy!
 
So, very quickly, following orders of their officers, they adopt a new one. Standing hand in hand, strung out along the river, they form a black-uniformed human wall, which proves to be effective: no passaran! Nobody dares attempt to pass, people are cowed by the black and steel robot men. And while they might appear now to be as well-behaved and courteous as well brought up children, all holding hands, you sense that at any moment these policemen, with their helmets and shields and truncheons may suddenly transform into something else.
            On the side of the tennis courts, this security cordon is helped by the high chain-link fences, so only a few men are necessary.
            Down by the Mérantaise river itself, 30 or so riot policemen leapt into the water as I had done earlier, helmet visors down, truncheon in hand and ready to use, not a pretty sight. Half of them went upstream, the other half downstream, and slowly but surely, brooking no opposition, they set about clearing the river of prospectors, forcing them one by one onto the bank, where they were pushed even further back. Any protesters who didn’t comply immediately or who raised their spade a fraction too high instantly got a quick taste of the truncheon; the CRS men are good at this, and know how to make it hurt. Any show of resistance quickly was fizzling out in the waters of the Mérantaise! Most of the crowd submitted meekly, but a few were outraged at police brutality – they weren’t harming anyone, just minding their own business in the river – and then suddenly furious at being deprived of their rights, of the dreams, of their hopes, inspired, too, perhaps by old grudges! Suddenly the shovels and pans became clubs and maces, to strike back at the police. “Police scum!” “Pigs!”  “Take that you bastards.” These were the pleasantries being exchanged. Kitchen utensils started to whistle through the air towards the helmeted heads. A few struck home.
 
The CRS men don’t seem so cocky now; they know they are outnumbered by a hostile crowd. The Yvette river is just nearby and it wouldn’t take much for the whole lot of them to be dumped on their heads in the water to keep the ducks company. However, with tenacity, they manage to clear the river and to chivvy everyone outside the police line.
 
While that is going on, the officers are haranguing the crowd over their megaphones: “There isn’t any more gold left in the river, there’s no gold left, show’s over, time to go home”, “There’s nothing to see, go home now”. But they could repeat this as much as they want, nobody believes them and nobody budges. And why would anyone believe them? It wasn’t yet time to abandon the dream of gold.
 
The mayor hove into view and started peddling the same message: “I am the mayor, I tell you there is no gold left in the river, it’s over, go back to your homes.” With no more success than the police, he repeats it over and over again. “Believe me, I am your mayor, I would not lie to you.”
No-one believes him. “Well, I couldn’t give a toss what the mayor says”. “He doesn’t fool me”. “They want to keep the gold for themselves!” The mood remains tense. Just a few metres away from the shield wall of the CRS police, the crowd is ominously still, coiled to strike and win back the river, despite the truncheons.
The sight of this face-to-face confrontation between two masses of men, one in brilliant black and steel uniforms, the other dressed in odd articles of wet clothing, all plastered in mud, clutching in their hands an absurd medley of kitchen and garden-ware, seemed quite surreal to me: a surreal film was unfolding before my eyes, with no cameras, no screen-play, no director, nothing. Now I wish I had brought my camera, but how could I have known? How could I have foreseen this day of madness, the gold in the Mérantaise, the CRS riot police, this Homeric conflict on the lawns of the park? My crystal ball said nothing about it this morning. If only I could take a few photos! And then sell them to the newspapers, to Paris Match magazine! I could make a fortune! And then be able to afford a luxury cruise in the Caribbean!
The stand-off seemed to go on forever, punctuated by an occasional eruption, when a few hot-heads would try to break through. Never with any success, for the police held the line and drove back the intruders with their truncheons. The CRS are a highly-trained bunch and they’d seen worse than this: mototov cocktails, iron bars, crossbow bolts … the prospectors of the Mérantaise are teddy bears compared to some.
                       
During this time the mayor and CRS officers hadn’t stopped shouting their message: “There’s no more gold, go home!”
Little by little, a sea-change was taking place; the tension was slackening, a mood of abandonment and retreat was gaining ground, encouraged by the cold, by growing fatigue. Some of them hadn’t eaten at all that day, their minds having been taken up with dreams of gold.
 
The tirelessly repeated message was now beginning to penetrate; it was true that only a few had found gold, and even for those lucky few it was hardly anything, barely enough to pay the petrol. “There is no gold left in the river. Go back to your homes!”
There was no gold left. It was time to go home.
I watched the first ones pealing away, glum faces, heads hung low, shoulders hunched. An intense fatigue and vast disappointment was replacing the excited enthusiasm of the morning. Farewell, sweet dreams!
And then it was all over. Everyone was streaming away, heading for home, pouring out of the park like the crowd at the end of the match, but more slowly, without the usual gaiety and excitement; without anger, as well. Our prospectors are like the walking wounded after a battle. Their beautiful dreams have been carried away on the currents of the Mérantaise.
 
            Camped in front of the river, the CRS don’t move, despite the general withdrawal. They breathe more easily, their muscles relax and they even exchange a few jokes. But it’s not over for them. Soon a whole detachment will be sent to clear the roads and sort out the traffic.
 
            I can see the mayor close by. He, too, seems to be feeling better, going by the expression on his face. He even cracks a smile, but he must already be adding up the costs in his head. This is going to cost his local government a lot of money. Tonight he will either sleep like a log, or have the most terrible nightmares.
            The riverbanks, the park and no doubt anywhere in the little town where the crowds have passed are strewn with litter, paper bags, bottles and rubbish of all sorts, including broken pans and spades. There are broken branches, saplings which have been uprooted, smashed fences and hedges, the football and rugby pitches are criss-crossed with wheel-marks, cars were driven through the park, churning up the grass, regardless of traffic signs or obstacles. It isn’t a pretty sight.
 
            The park is almost empty now. Everyone has gone back to their car or returned on foot. Back home, to an easy uneventful life, this was the main thing now. Many, however, have a long way to go. The roads are all blocked, and it will be hours before they finally walk through their door. For the unlucky ones, there is a sleepless night ahead. The gold prospectors of the Mérantaise will remember this day!
 
Me, too, I decide to go home.
 
I trudge off slowly, as I am completely knackered. It isn’t every day that I go prospecting for gold. I’ll come back later to give a hand, as I promised, to the crisis team at the town hall. Right now I need to catch my breath and put my feet up.
 
And then of course, I have to put my treasure in a safe place. Not for a moment did I forget it during the momentous events of the day, with a hand constantly guarding it in my pocket.
 
            I can’t get my mind off this treasure, it’s as if it is really burning a hole in my pocket. So I quicken my step, I’m suddenly in a hurry. Towards the end I am almost running. I try to open the door with my key, forgetting that I had left it off the latch, and once in, I lay my little package on the kitchen table and gently unwrap it.
 
And there it is, aglitter, my little grain of gold. How beautiful it is! It is truly magnificent! My treasure trove, my Mérantaise gold, found by myself. I have struck gold!
 
I can’t tear my eyes away from it.
 
I study it from every angle, I inspect, assay, probe, savour, I am utterly in love with it. I go to fetch my magnifying glass to examine it closer up. It’s so petite, my little nugget, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise. It’s monetary value is of no interest to me. What matters is that I have found gold, and it’s the same thing as if I had climbed Everest or found some priceless treasure. My gold nugget fills me with wonder and warms me like a sun.
 
Now I know how I shall always be able to appreciate and enjoy it. It needs a setting, that’s what it needs. The little nugget right in the centre, like a star, or at the summit of a little pyramid, something like that, I’ll work it out with the jeweller. And then there will be an engraving on the base: “Gold from the Mérantaise, 27th April, 2002”. And never mind the cost, my gold is worth it.
 
And then I’ll put it in my living room, somewhere prominent. And each time I see my little nugget shining in its case I will relive the joy and recall the events of this wild day.