Three weeks ago Catriona was going to the village shop when a building site security fence fell on her. Wire spikes ranged along the top gouged three chunks out of her right forearm, two of which were too capacious to sew up. She was taken to hospital by the village firemen in their fastest van, siren wailing, lights flashing. The fence had toppled over once before that day, but the mayor, with whom the legal responsibility ultimately lay (the building site was a public work) put the blame on Catriona for walking too close to the fence, or perhaps existing.
Within this small Provençal village society the incident and the already unpopular mayor’s hot denial of responsibility became a cause célèbre. I can only assume this is why the patron at the permanently packed local restaurant reserved us a table for three at such short notice for Sunday lunch. The best table, too; situated in an unfrequented corner well away from the long shouty party tables and backing on to a side street with a cooling breeze.
Our favourite restaurant is also the locals’ choice. It’s a family-run affair with a menu of unpretentious country fare unchanged for 20 years. My grandson was down for his annual ten days and we’d come straight from the pool with damp hair and silly shorts and the deaf old mongrel bitch. The waiter ceased his trousers-on-fire acrobatics and darted over elaborately to greet us in turn with double kisses. In these kisses there was more than politeness — there was definite solicitude. Catriona showed him her bright pink scarring. The waiter’s glance was polite rather than prurient. I loyally repeated to him an apt phrase I had fortuitously found in a dictionary of French slang: ‘le maire me fait chier’, which means, apparently, ‘the mayor really pisses me off’.
The village was en fête with a funfair and live rock bands, but now tiredly so towards the end of the usual enervating, frantic August. At 6 a.m. we’d heard a ragged, drunken ‘Marseillaise’ emanating from one of the village bars. Judging by the sagging posture of the man opening the shooting gallery ten yards away, his voice was lifted patriotically among them.
Drinks arrived immediately. Oscar’s Coke came in the classic old-fashioned bottle beaded with droplets. Mine was a tall, narrow pastis glass, green to halfway, and a heavy bottomed glass pitcher of iced water; Catriona’s her usual jug of ice-cold pale pink house rosé. While we sipped and took in the lively crowd around us, le patron came sideways through it to present his ruthlessly shaved cheeks for another round of double kisses. Unused to being kissed by unknown old men in restaurants, Oscar shrank from his. ‘Ah,’ said le patron gallantly. ‘He kisses only young girls. I understand this.’
Unsurprisingly the food took an age to arrive, but we were in no hurry because there was plenty to look at and comment on and Catriona is connected to the village gossip grapevine. That young woman over there, she said, pointing with her eyes, was until recently engaged to someone considered by the village to be most unsuitable. ‘Was it broken off?’ I wondered. Then a piercing shrill made Oscar stop his ears and the same fire brigade van that had taken Catriona to hospital passed by, siren going, lights flashing. The young driver’s face was heroically stern, as if he and his crew were on a rendezvous with death at some disputed barricade.
Next to us, at the second best table, sat a calm elderly couple. He was a man of uncompromising reserve; his wife atoned for this by darting friendly eyes at Oscar. A small boy, a grandchild perhaps, appeared and flung himself headlong into her lap. The old woman bent and lovingly kissed the back of his head. Catriona leant across and asked the boy in French how old he was. His head buried still in the old woman’s lap, the boy stretched out all five fingers. The old man maintained his silent dignity. They say that we forfeit three quarters of ourselves to be like other people. Not the French.
Enfin the grub arrived — steak, chips and ratatouille for me and Oscar, scallops and cod for Catriona — accompanied by a roving squadron of intelligent house flies. The old mongrel bitch came to life and set about killing them but they were too many and she gave up and allowed them to settle on her nose and even use it as an assembly point.
After our swim then nosh we sat on at our quiet table with a peace that passeth all understanding. The waiter came and took our empty plates. Dessert? Coffee? Just the bill, please, we said. Catriona had flogged a landscape the day before so insisted on paying. Then the three of us walked hand in hand up the festive street.