After two nights at Le Grau-du-Roi (the King’s Pond) and a night spent within the medieval walls of Aigues-Mortes (Stagnant Waters) we drove north-west to our Remainer friend’s castle perched on the bank of the river Lot.
Then duty called her and Catriona returned to Provence and I stayed on for a week to try to recoup a modicum of strength with a daily invalid regime of gentle breaststroke in a swimming pool sheltered by old walls and toddling unsteadily about in the sunny gardens, sometimes putting out my arms for balance like a tightrope walker. Any time I felt like it, I could then mount the 17th-century stone staircase to my town hall-sized bedroom and lie down and fall instantly asleep.
‘Stay as long as you like!’ said our Remainer friend. ‘It’s a pleasure having you here!’ For he is a jolly good fellow and doesn’t hold my inarticulate statements in favour of Brexit against me. Perhaps, as a fair-minded chap, he recognises that both sides of the argument are based ultimately on magical thinking of one sort or another.
‘Try a spot of fishing!’ he suggested one morning at breakfast. ‘Please!’ ‘Is it good fishing here?’ I said. ‘No idea, I’m afraid,’ he said.
He led me into a dim and dusty 13th-century chapel or something where someone had left behind some 12th-century rods and tackle. So I picked out a rod and brushed off the cobwebs and typed in ‘River Lot’ and ‘fishing’ and came up with a YouTube video of a northern British man standing on the riverbank almost weeping with emotion because it has been his dream for more than 30 years to cast a line into the Lot. My Remainer friend was not surprised when I told him about the river’s exalted reputation among British anglers. The dulcet countryside hereabouts teems and flourishes. But as it was a year to the day since he had moved in, he thought it would be especially marvellous if the anniversary could be crowned with someone landing a fish from beneath the warm ancient walls.
Already that morning the anniversary had been marked by the unblocking of an ancient pipe, whose entrance he had discovered some 100 yards off, and a jet of water, to his surprise and joy, was now flowing into his dry and empty moat. When the flow was seen to be constant, he jumped into his car and headed for the nearest shopping centre to buy two lucky goldfish with which to stock it.
Meanwhile, a slight fool could be seen at the water’s edge attempting to attract the attention of one of the monsters of the deep that could occasionally be seen rising to the surface to take a mayfly. One did so not six feet from where I was standing, showing a plump, golden, curving, disconcertingly huge back. I dangled my luminous plastic maggot over the still turbulent spot, hoping that nobody was watching, and terrified that something as big as that might be foolish enough to make a snatch at it and get accidentally caught on the hook. What then? Who would be catching whom? I needn’t have worried. If I had fallen face down in the water and died and lain decomposing for a month, I doubt that even then I would have attracted much interest from the legendary carp of the river Lot.
‘Any luck?’ said my jovial host on his return, having already stocked the moat. ‘Back to the drawing board, I’m afraid,’ I said. ‘In which case might I suggest a gin and tonic and a cigarette?’ he said. (After noon he was wont to employ this cheering phrase in relation to any small success or failure.) So we sat on a bench on his lawn overlooking the river with a gin and a fag each. About once every five minutes a fish would rise to the surface and perform a violently acrobatic reverse-ferret. ‘There goes one!’ we’d say. I don’t think he’d thought about what might be swimming about in the river very much before. The YouTube chap would have been astonished.
After our gin he climbed back on his mini-tractor and, accompanied by one of the cats, I went for a short walk as far as the moat. In it was a foot of water already, and two excited frogs, agile as spiders, loud as donkeys, were scaling the interior wall. I sat on the wall and the cat jumped up on to my lap. I was wearing shorts and sandals. I looked down at my wasted calves and visible shinbones and further down at my blackened toenails and regarded it all with fresh incredulity. And even here, beside the river Lot in the merry month of May, I envied the frogs and the cat and the screaming, swooping swallows and even the two surprised goldfish the fullness of their unheeding lives.