With my signed and dated laissez-passer in my pocket, I trotted down to the village to see if I could buy anything to eat, drink or smoke. A sensation of being out and about in the world was also high on the agenda. Cycling and jogging earns you a fine, of which a quarter of a million have been doled out in a fortnight. But we are permitted to walk the dog for one kilometre, or 546 yards there and 546 yards back. We cheat a bit, Catriona and I, by taking the dog separately, meaning she gets two walks a day. She’s elderly and frail, the poor bewildered thing, and completely knackered. And if we tick the box on the laissez-passer we can also go out to the nearest grocery shop and tobacconist.
Nevertheless confinement is beginning to chafe a bit. And two days ago, just as the end was in sight, the finishing tape was moved to the middle of April. Yet reading between the lines, this two-faced virus is only warming up on the touchline prior to kick off and it looks as though we’re going to be cooped up like this until Michaelmas at least. This morning’s official figures for France were 19,000 in hospital, 4,632 in intensive care and 319 dead since yesterday, lifting the death toll to 2,606 since 1 March; a figure discounting, we’ve been surprised to learn, all those who’ve died in nursing and residential homes or chez soi.
The village square was shuttered and deserted save a couple of village cats but the boulangerie door was open and the lights were on so I went in to grab a loaf. The jolly woman who serves in there was jolly still behind her mask. But for all I knew the village population had been wiped out since I was last in a week ago. ‘Any local cases?’ I said, careful not to encroach beyond the line taped across the floor.
The eyes behind the mask became serious for a moment. ‘Well, I don’t believe a word of what anyone says in here,’ she said. ‘But there’s a farmer who sometimes comes in and people seem to think he’s a fairly truthful man. And he claims that one of his neighbours has it.’ I wondered whether total scepticism about everything said in her presence was a personal characteristic or a national trait. Not that I believed her either. It was far-fetched that only one local person so far might have copped it, and that only a rumour, and the individual concerned an unknown outlier. This conversation in the boulangerie had a distinctly Death in Venice flavour to it.
We had heard privately, I said, leaning confidentially over the tape, not caring whether she thought my testimony was as unreliable as everybody else’s who came into her shop, that a German man who lived on the outskirts of the village had been carted off to hospital. He was an ardent remainer, I added, perhaps superfluously. He was the first and only local coronavirus case that we had heard about and the news had spooked us, I said. Before him, the closest officially documented case, according to last week’s bulletin put out by the mayor’s office, lived in a village separated from ours by two large hills.
Above the line of the face mask her eyebrows narrowed sceptically — or pitifully. She offered no comment, either of sympathy or adjudication. I brought two croissants and a loaf of brown bread and walked down the deserted cobbles to see if the tabac further down the street was open. As I walked, I saw myself reflected in the darkened shop windows and wondered if I would be remembered in years hence by my son and grandsons mainly as the luckless individual who died a pauper in the south of France during the flu pandemic of 2020.
The tabac’s outside red light was flashing. The tall young guy running the place had no mask on, no tape on the floor and was his usual nonchalant, dissociated, pre-Covid-19 self. Unusually for a tobacconist who smokes he has no emotional investment in the business of smoking, no interest in tobacco products and is unfamiliar with his small stock. He does get mighty angry, though, about superfluous packaging. I thought I’d try him as well. ‘Any local cases?’ I said.
He interrupted his fruitless search for the most popular cigarette brand in France and her former colonies to stand erect, and like some saucy piece on a game show giving us the scores on the doors he lifted first one tantalising finger, then a second. ‘Here? In the village?’ I said, dismayed. His slow, decisive, not unpleased nod finished with his chin resting on his upper chest, as though he had fallen momentarily asleep.