Michel is one of those Frenchmen one encounters now and again whose shining saintliness is beyond rational understanding. This great bear of a man, with heavy silver rings on his fingers and thumbs, is always cheerful, always kind, always puts others before himself. Whenever he speaks with me, it is always under the pathetic delusion that he might learn something from me that he did not already know. The only thing that makes him in any way contemptuous is my pointing out his goodness to him.
Michel was a teacher. For many years, he taught English at a private school in Somerset. Now retired to his native Provence, he has grown corpulent — or ‘bloody fat’, as he puts it. To lose weight, he has decided to get on his bicycle again and I’ve agreed to be his regular cycling partner. ‘The point of our cycling together is enjoyment,’ he emphasised. ‘If we don’t enjoy it, we will stop doing it.’
For our first outing we met with our bikes at an intermediate point beside some rubbish bins. His pride-and-joy Peugeot racing bike was 30 years old, he told me proudly. His only concessions to cycling culture dress-wise were a cycling helmet and a pair of chic, pink-tinted wraparound sunglasses. Our first outing would be a 30-kilometre run, he said. I hadn’t thrown a leg over a crossbar for ten years and 30 kilometres sounded rather a lot. His legs, which I’d not seen before, were stout, capable legs. I looked down at my own skinny, etiolated, vestigial ones and was glad I had tucked a rolled-up 20-euro note in my sock in case I needed to buy a drink in a bar while waiting to be rescued.
‘Allons-y,’ said Michel and we pushed off on the long road to cycling fitness.
It was a Sunday morning and the cloudless blue warned of another blistering day. The first five kilometres were all downhill, with the sun warming my back and my shadow preceding me. The shadow outline of my nut was strangely unfamiliar after a severe haircut the previous afternoon to make me more aerodynamic. The ribbon of tarmac threading through the vineyards and olive groves was flawlessly smooth, and I had completely forgotten the exhilaration of whizzing along on two thin wheels at speeds rather greater than one feels entirely comfortable with.
Michel swung out a paw signalling a left turn up a hill and suddenly freewheeling pleasure was substituted for sweating toil. After 20 yards he got in a muddle with his derailleur and dismounted awkwardly, lamenting, ‘I’m too fat!’ I strained past him and pressed on until my lungs gave out and I stopped also, on the pretext of robbing the corpse of a jay lying in the road of his iridescent blue epaulettes. My grandfather once kept a jay in a cage and taught it to say, ‘Don’t be so damn silly,’ and since then I’ve had a soft spot for Garrulus glandarius — was how I explained myself to Michel.
After a grinding effort we made it to the crest, where we rested. When we had stopped panting, Michel, ever the teacher, gave me a French lesson, in which we named the parts of a bicycle and their genders, then he tested me on them. The handlebars and tyres are masculine; the saddle and wheels feminine. There is no rhyme or reason to the assignation of gender to things, he said.
Then he kindly asked me about myself. How was my novel going, for example, and what was it about? I said it was a sexual fantasy about a cell of disparate English patriots who set about the systematic murder of those British politicians responsible for mass immigration and multiculturalism in the 2010s. ‘And what happens?’ he said. ‘At the moment, unfortunately, the cell has been infiltrated and compromised by Baroness Scotland, who is posing as a royalist but who is in fact working for the new moderate Muslim government.’
‘Allons-y,’ said Michel, remounting his vintage Peugeot.
Then it was all downhill again, thank goodness, sharply downhill, with snaking hairpin bends. Michel fearlessly pounded the pedals in his fastest gear and was soon lost to sight around a bend, reappearing as a dot moving across the landscape with the velocity of a drone-missile strike. I followed him down at a hair-raising speed, but, coward that I am, I kept my fingers on the brake levers and gave them a squeeze now and again.
Surprisingly, 30 kilometres on a bicycle isn’t far at all. We were back before lunch. ‘And tell me honestly, did you enjoy it?’ said Michel as we parted, his kindly face searching mine for signs of insincerity. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I did.’ And all things considered, I think I was telling him the truth.