The hen party was seated at an outside restaurant table under the plane trees when I arrived. They sat with straight backs conversing normally, looked cool and lovely, and everything appeared seemly. Yet it was now ten o’clock on their first night on tour. They seemed unusually glad to see their chauffeur; apart from this, there was nothing to suggest that they were even slightly drunk. Appearances might have been deceptive, however, for they were all of them privately and expensively educated young women.
I was bidden to be seated and offered a glass of wine, which I accepted. I sat and sipped and listened to their chatter. That something or somebody was ‘cute’ or ‘insane’ appeared to be the highest possible accolade. Men and maleness were beyond a joke. We were not only irrelevant, we were on the way out. Another staple topic was menstruation. Here I was able to contribute the interesting snippet of information that French slang for beginning a period, roughly translated, is, ‘the redcoats are disembarking’ — ‘redcoats’ being British regiments, I explained, rather than Butlins entertainers.
When the wine pitchers ran dry, they called for the bill and I was invited to join them on a tour of inspection of the village in the warm night air. A dazzling full moon was lodged like a football in the upper branches of a plane tree. After 20 minutes of climbing up and down ancient stone staircases and peering into pitch-black alleyways, they said they were all absolutely gagging for another drink. Miraculously for past ten o’clock, one of the three village bars was still open and I was again invited to join them at another outside table, under other plane trees, to drink Desperados, a tequila-flavoured triumph of marketing drunk straight from a long, phallic-shaped bottle. The first taste is pretty vile but it grows on one surprisingly quickly and I remarked on it.
Then one of them produced a pack of playing cards and we tried to play a game called Scabby Queen — in spite of its offensively sexist name, let it be understood. But the elementary rules were too complicated for most of them, and drew complaints, so instead of that we played a cheating game called Bullshit, which is so elementary a young chimpanzee could play it. To make myself useful, I shuffled and dealt. My maladroit shuffling of the pack drew admiring comments. I suffered great persecution during play and was consistently the main loser.
Then the lovely Glenda — educated, as far as I could make out, at several of Scotland’s most expensive and prestigious schools — suffered an attack of the hiccups. She hiccupped stagily, and each hiccup was accompanied by a brief spasm that incapacitated her in a most attractive way. Then she stood up, got her foot caught in a handbag strap and took a purler face down on to the pavement.
Seated at the next table were three semi-drunk, self-consciously hyper-masculine Frenchmen, who, if they have ever heard of the term ‘feminism,’ probably imagine it to be a male attribute. They were drinking what a long time ago we in Britain used to call Traffic Lights. One leapt gallantly to his feet and helped the stricken babe regain her seat by careful stages. Then he went to the bar and came back with ice cubes in a plastic bag which he tenderly applied to the bloody grazes on her lovely knees, while his mates tried to temper their lascivious expressions with concerned ones.
Why did she try to stand up, we asked. Glenda had tried to stand up, she explained, because she had wanted to go to the lav. On hearing this, the French guy picked her up and threw her over his shoulders, only to find himself beset by a shrill chorus of privately educated objections. Too undignified. So he obediently put her down, and another member of the hen party led her gently away by the hand in the direction of the toilet.
Meanwhile I asked the French guy what was in his drink and he handed it over. I stretched out an arm to accept it from him, overbalanced, and went sprawling on the cobbles too. The knowing hoots from the hen party at their chauffeur’s mishap were deluded and most unfair. Then Glenda was led back to her chair at the table, and we saw that she was now also bleeding heavily from her nose. The nosebleed had been spontaneous, said her assistant. The helpful Frenchman resumed his icy ministrations to her knees and dabbed the blood from her nose with a till receipt he’d found on the floor. Another round of Desperados, the second in five minutes, was arranged with the waiter, creating a small forest of glamorous yellow bottles on the table. The chauffeur was urged to please try and keep up.