Every year Vernon celebrates the gathering in and pressing of his olive harvest by inviting friends to a ceremony at his house. This year there were seven of us. He poured about a third of a pint of the freshly pressed, very green oil on to a central white china plate. We each took a small piece of toast, rubbed it with a garlic clove and soaked it in the oil. Then we removed it from the oil and rubbed it against the pulp of a quartered tomato. Apparently it’s a Provençal peasant tradition. The new green oil catches the back of the throat and isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But it’s a vivid taste of nature.
There was no shortage of wines opened and unopened on the table and we drank deeply as we rubbed and dipped and dabbed, and those who smoked smoked, and we soon forgot any ceremonial obligation to solemnity.
The proportion of French to English native speakers was four to three and conversation switched inconsequentially between the two. ‘Ah that smell of garlic reminds me of my first kiss,’ said Serge, in English.
Raised in Cannes, Serge taught French to Somerset schoolchildren for 40 years and he is articulate in either language. He tells a good story does Serge, but hides his light under a bushel. On the rare occasions when he takes the stage, his theme is most often his lifelong appreciation and enjoyment of women, which seems to have been aided and abetted by a tremendous and unfailing sex drive. His frankness about sex makes English listeners goggle and wonder is it because he is French. He is a big, kindly man notable for heavy rings and bangles, embroidered cowboy shirts and sometimes a poncho.
‘Oh yes?’ we said, the cognoscenti among us immediately alerted and genuinely anxious to know how it all began.
‘Yes, I was 14,’ he said, looking meditatively into his wine glass. ‘Her name was Claudine and she was a neighbour and we were in the same class at school. One day she said to me: ‘Have you ever kissed a girl, Serge?’ And I said, ‘No, Claudine, I haven’t.’
And for the next 20 minutes Serge inhabited his stuttering, bashful schoolboy self like a method actor. Coming from Cannes, he had seen any amount of kissing on the silver screen, but had never thought it would be something that would greatly interest him in real life. Nevertheless he agreed to her proposal to meet under a particular fig tree after supper when she would show him what a kiss felt like.
In those days Serge wasn’t allowed out after supper. He therefore lied to his parents, telling them he was going to a male friend’s house to fathom out together an arcane section of their maths homework. Horribly guilty about lying to his parents and bemused by his assignment, he waited under the fig tree until the agreed time of eight o’ clock. By five past she hadn’t appeared. Assuming that she had been pulling his leg, he was about to return home when she arrived, panting and apologising for being late. Also for having just eaten aïoli, a Provençal sauce made with olive oil and garlic. ‘Did he mind the smell of garlic?’ she asked anxiously. Nobody had asked him that before either. Stranger and stranger. Serge stammered that no, he didn’t mind the smell of garlic. Without further ado, she got him in a wrestling hold and introduced him to what in Britain we used to call a French kiss.
Serge demonstrated with his big, kindly, adult face how his teenage one had altered from surprise to perplexity then a light coming on in his brain that has burned brightly from that day to this. Finally, he took a piece of toast, rubbed it with a piece of garlic, soaked it in the oil and placed it in his mouth. ‘Garlic,’ he said, closing his eyes. ‘It brings to mind my first kiss always.’
‘Right,’ said the stirred ladies. ‘First kiss. Who’s going to go next?’ I volunteered that I had my first kiss, my first cigarette and lost my virginity all in the same afternoon. But they didn’t want to hear about that. They wanted to hear only about first kisses, which are more romantic and life changing, they claimed, than the rest. Michael, who went to a public school in the 1950s, wanted to know whether the brief was to describe his first kiss with a boy or with a girl. He further proposed as a confessional topic: ‘My first gang bang.’ That was also shouted down with contemptuous hand flapping.
Outside the sky darkened and the temperature plummeted to below zero. While inside we tasted distilled summer and toasted our youthful first kisses with bottle after bottle. Until quite suddenly our garrulous euphoria gave way to melancholic introspection and in one or two cases a stillness and a silence.