Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Four

The weather grew hotter. Unable to do very much, and in any case told by everyone that the only cure for sciatica was rest, I unashamedly spent a great deal of that summer just lying around. I found the pain was considerably eased by gently swimming on my back. Our wealthy and generous friends the Thomases who lived about a mile away still kept open pool, complete with champagne. Hugh Fowles, an ex-colleague of Mike’s who had bought a nearby ruin and, with his incredible energy, had already restored it, had also made a full-sized pool for his family. It seemed crazy to even dream of a pool of my own, but I began to do so.

One afternoon, following yet another session with the voluptuous guérisseuse, the treatment on this occasion having been given to a deafening background of Tom and Jerry capering about on the large screen in the corner of her surgery, I thought a swim might be just as efficacious; certainly quieter. By five o’clock the heat was intense and easing myself into the water a real blessing.

Afterwards as we all sat chatting by the side of the pool, we turned idly to see Raymond coming up the lane on a tractor with one of the local boys riding at his side. He was carrying a large round bale of straw on the fork at the back. They were talking animatedly and had not noticed what we as they drew level could clearly see; the thin plume of smoke rising from the bale of straw.

We waved and shouted. Raymond beamed and waved back. We gesticulated. He laughed and shook his head. No, he didn’t have time for a swim. We yelled again and pointed at his load. Grinning he shouted something incomprehensible about the destination of the bale which was now really beginning to burn. Frantically we jumped up and down as Hugh raced down the steps to the road. At last Raymond, realising that all this arm waving was not simple bonhomie, leapt down from the tractor, gawped, threw his arms into the air, sprang back up and dropped the by now crackling bale into the road. It rolled over against the bank which immediately caught fire. The wind began to whip the flames across the edge of the nearest field. It was all hands to every available shovel until les pompiers arrived to put out Raymond’s burnt offering. ‘And I thought what a jolly time les Anglais were having,’ he said, laughing about it that evening.

A few days later, realising that the kilo of fresh peas we had just brought home from Villeneuve market might well be the last of the season, we made pigs of ourselves. In the middle of the night I began to regret it. I rolled about groaning while Mike made lemon tea and hot water bottles.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘That’s it. I’m going to order a telephone tomorrow.’

‘Why?’

‘You might have appendicitis!’

‘It’s just trop de petits pois I tell you!’

‘Well – it might be appendicitis next time!’

‘But what about the poles and the wires?’

We had been through this argument before. The best view from Bel-Air was to the south, down across what Raymond always called le grand champ, and the orchards. We could see for miles and miles and although there were, inevitably, in the far distance both telephone and electricity wires, there were none nearby to mar this special landscape.

‘But what about the view?’ I pleaded once more.

‘And what if one of us has a heart attack?’ asked Mike. There was no answer to that. I suddenly felt very vulnerable.

It was amazingly easy to get a telephone. We filled in the appropriate form and in a few days we were visited by the chief engineer. He measured the distance up the track.

‘What a wonderful view you have up here – c’est exceptionnel!’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I answered sadly. ‘That’s why we’ve not had a telephone before.’

He looked thoughtfully round and tapped his teeth with his pen.

‘Oui, ça serait vraiment dommage.’ He smiled suddenly. ‘I think we might be able to preserve your view for you,’ he said. ‘If we were to bring the poles up to here,’ he indicated the edge of the plum orchard, ‘we could use the existing electricity post and cut across here, high up.’

I couldn’t believe my luck.

‘Is that possible?’ I asked.

‘Tout est possible, chère Madame,’ he said, scribbling on a pad before whizzing away. The following week we received a letter to say that the telephone engineers would arrive in ten days’ time and the installation would cost about twenty pounds. What service!

As my faith in the guérisseuse was waning fast and Corinne’s parents had given me the name of a chiropractor in Agen, I decided that I would try him and christen my new telephone by making a rendezvous.

While we awaited the possibility of phoning friends, the village was getting ready for its annual fête to be held on the following Saturday night. The tickets were now on sale. Strictly speaking we are part of the adjoining commune but this is Raymond’s village and our nearest and we usually all go together to any special event. This year it was to be a mechoui, a custom originally imported into France from North Africa, where a whole lamb is barbecued. It has become very popular in France, but for our fête, the village had chosen to roast a pig.

‘Should we buy your tickets as well?’ I asked Claudette on my way down to the shop. She shook her head enigmatically. They were not going it seemed…

‘Mais pourquoi?’

‘Parce que,’ she shrugged. And that was all I could get out of her. Something was up.

We had had the odd conversation about a certain dissatisfaction with the very close re-election, a few months previously, of their new Mayor. We knew that there had always been friction between him and some of the local farmers. Everyone’s preoccupation with the wedding had clearly just postponed the problem and we now learned that not only was the village divided but that Raymond was the leader of the breakaway faction. What was it all about?

There was much shrugging and muttering but also a strong undercurrent of defiant excitement. Now we were told that plans were already afoot for an ‘alternative’ fête on the Sunday to which we were eagerly invited. As the last thing we wanted to do was to take sides it looked as though we had to go to both.

‘Yes, it might be better for you to go to the official one as well,’ agreed Claudette. ‘It’s not your quarrel, after all.’

The Mayor of our commune is a farmer and highly respected by everyone but in this adjoining commune Raymond’s new Mayor is neither, and here begins I suspect, most of the trouble.

He is certainly an interesting, youngish man. Thin and pale with a mop of straw-coloured hair he speaks and sings in Occitan. He plays the fiddle. He does the occasional broadcast on local radio. He is keen on local history. But he is not a farmer and he is, so it is said, too keen on politics. There are even rumours – probably quite unfounded – about his having been trained in Cuba!

Local government in small communes is not usually party political. In fact as I write there are more than sixty candidates for the coming election of the Mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, our nearest town of any size.

‘Anyone can stand if they think they can do the job. C’est la démocratie,’ said a friend of Raymond’s proudly. ‘Mais, c’est tellement chèr,’ he added less enthusiastically. ‘C’est la commune qui doit payer.’

But whatever skills the Mayor of Raymond’s village has, the one he sadly lacks is the ability to unite the community behind him.

Alors! two fêtes in one weekend. Were we up to it? ‘On verra,’ as they say round here.

On the Saturday evening we went down to the village just after eight o’clock. On the patch of ground next to the school, long tables and benches were ready and a dance-floor laid. As there was a threat of rain it was all crudely roofed over with plastic, but open at the sides. The air was sultry and filled with the smell of garlic and herbs and of the slowly roasting pork in the field behind, where children, racing about with wild shrieks, were chased away by the cooks. Music surged from loud speakers and we were greeted by everyone including the Mayor, who seemed very cheerful.

Intrigued to know just who was there, we were surprised to see that Raymond’s nearest neighbour, also a farmer, was sitting at the first table. But then we remembered that his wife was a councillor. The wife of another close neighbour was the Mayor’s secretary – we began to realise how complicated it was to have a feud in so small a village. We unpacked our plates and cutlery, which we had to bring, and stepped over the bench to sit down. M. René, the builder, and his wife shouted a greeting as they staggered in with a crate of individual cartons of rice salad with tuna, hard boiled eggs and tomatoes.

Ruth and Edward Thomas arrived with their grandson and a friend, both at school at Bryanston and both called Richard. The two blond, blue eyed young men had never been to such a gathering but were soon at ease, downing the unlimited sangria underneath the swaying, Heath Robinson strings of ordinary lightbulbs looped above the crowded tables. More and more people arrived and there was much kissing and squeezing closer together along the benches.

A great cheer went up as the meal started. To the usual ribaldry which seems to follow her around Mme Barrou, a local farmer’s wife never at a loss for words, pushed her way through the tightly packed crowd with trays of melon. Hunks of bread landed on the tables. René came round yet again with huge jugs of sangria.

‘You have to drink it all in one go,’ he shouted.

‘Et glou et glou et glou,’ yelled everyone else in agreement, as the two young Richards – already nicknamed Les Coeurs de Lion, – grew rosier by the minute. Fortunately there was plenty to eat. The delicious rice salad – ‘We’ve been making it all afternoon,’ beamed Mme René – was followed by melon and unlimited slices of pizza. Then the great moment arrived.

Two young men, their normally dark faces even darker with sweat and smoke, strode in, one behind the other. They lifted high the iron pole which skewered the glistening and aromatic roasted pig. They were followed by Joël, le boucher, who to riotous cheers brandished his great knife before ceremoniously leading off the pig to be cut up. His dark-eyed wife smiled sexily at him. I saw that she had had her long hair fashionably trimmed but was just as luscious as ever and there was a small dark replica on her lap.

Litres of local wine in plastic bottles were plonked onto the tables wherever there was a space as the portions of meat were served. There was a great choosing of favoured cuts, of slices less or more cooked, with or without fat, according to taste, before the bending to the serious task in hand. As it became quieter the music could now be heard and there were sighs of pleasure and much licking of fingers before a green salad finally appeared.

Large slabs of Cantal were passed down the table. I find it sad that this cheese which looks so like cheddar, tastes, to me at least, of nothing. I have to admit that when I want a strong hard cheese in France I turn to Holland and often buy du vieux Gouda in the market. It is difficult to cut but the taste is wonderful.

A rumble of thunder heralded one of those sudden downpours which are often part of the summer here. People rushed to cover the disco equipment while others fetched plastic fertiliser sacks with AGRILOT stamped on them and with the rain running off their brown faces pinned them up in a crazy, flapping row at the windward end. The rain didn’t last long and as most of the revellers were glad that their maize, plums, vines and gardens were getting a free arrosage it did nothing to dampen their spirits.

While some of the young men appeared to be still on their third or fourth helping of the pig we were served ice-cream, and coffee with eau-de-vie. As the rain finally stopped, the covers came off the speakers and turntable and the dancing began, a buxom young woman carried in a huge crate of greengages – just in case anyone was still hungry.

The pounding of many feet soon dried the steaming dance-floor. The Mayor made a short speech and asked us to greet the only part of the pig we had not cut up.

Joël, le boucher, brought in a brown, grinning pig’s head. He cradled it lovingly in his hands and as he passed between the tables people kissed its roasted snout. For me, as so often happens, the time warp rippled and the amplified beat of the music seemed to change to the squeak of more ancient instruments. The faces were the same, faces with strong features and expressions that would look out of place in a city. Round, dark, no Normans these, but people of the ‘Langue d’Oc’, people of the south who were so cruelly treated in the days when medieval France was still striving to become one kingdom.

We left them dancing and, as we lay in bed, listening for the odd mosquito, we heard the distant soft thud of revelry across our usually silent fields.

And of course the next day we had to do it all over again!

As it was Sunday, the opposition intended to make a whole day of it and we were invited for midday. As we arrived chez Raymond we saw about a dozen cars already parked. A large white refrigerated van was humming in the courtyard. Grandpa was leaning on his stick watching the unloading of yet another grand repas.

‘What’s going on?’ we asked him.

‘Don’t ask me! Moi, je ne sais rien,’ he shrugged. He turned away. ‘Je ne suis que la cinquième roue de la voiture. I’m only the spare wheel,’ he roared. And that was that. He clearly did not approve.

But everyone else seemed to be having a splendid time. They were the rebels, this was the first rebellion, and it was fun. Some of the people we knew, but others were strangers. We were introduced to farmers who lived on the other side of the commune, and to two former Mayors. Gradually we began to piece together the reasons for their anger.

Apparently the new Mayor’s unpopularity with certain farmers had reached such a degree that a group of new candidates had presented themselves, including two or three women, for the elections both for Mayor and for the local councillors which had taken place a few months previously. Long ago in the days when his father-in-law had been fit enough to share the work of the farm, Raymond had been Deputy Mayor and they had also persuaded him to stand with them for election.

‘I told them I am much too busy’ he said. ‘Mais, qu’est ce que vous voulez? You are the only one, they told me and so I let my name go forward.’

What on earth he would have done had he been elected I can’t imagine, but the problem was not that they had been defeated but, that when the present Mayor and council had put up their own list of candidates they had printed above their column of names the fatal words VOTEZ POUR DES GENS HONNÊTES.

‘Et alorsfigurez-vous,’ cried Raymond passionately.

‘What does that imply about us?’

As the splinter group and their followers cheered and applauded and thumped the tables we could see that this show would run and run.

The meal was almost a replica of the night before, melon, rice salad with fish but this time there was lamb not pork. We were amused to see the cheery face of Joël the butcher once again, who was, apart from ourselves, the only one to attend both functions. Of course he was the only butcher but he was also the son-in-law of a former Mayor. As I said, it was complicated. Much later we relaxed in the shade while they organised un grand concours de pétanque.

As soon as it began Grandpa came into his own. When les boules appear, rheumatism, age and creaking bones vanish as if by magic. He had been given, for some anniversaire or other, a smart new case in which to carry his own set of shiny, metal boules. Wearing his large straw hat, he hurried out. His back straightened and his chin at a determined angle, he took his place. He didn’t win but he got into the finals and many were the sparks that he drew from his daring drop shots. It was a very good day, but after a weekend of roast pig and lamb, salads and cheeses, sangria and unlimited wine, I doubt if we could have faced another fête the following day.

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