Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 20 September 2018

Low life | 20 September 2018
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Moving day. The contents of a hillside shack to be moved four miles to a cave house perched high on a cliff above the village. The cave house’s only access from the road below is a steep, narrow and stony footpath. Three removal men for the job: me plus two French day-labourers.

The elder of the Frenchmen, Philippe, was 67. I called him Philippe Phillop because that’s what he wore. He is a patriotic Parisian and his character, I would say, is the Parisian equivalent of a chirpy cockney. The same ready wit, the same cynicism born of urban poverty. He did not, however, find my nickname for him as amusing as I did, not even after a laborious explanation.

The first time I met Philippe, in a bar, he told me his life story. As a young man he had driven a van around Paris at night delivering early editions to newspaper vendors. When he’d finished, he would go to an early-morning café frequented by off-duty whores who made a great fuss of him. An off-duty French prostitute is a surprisingly different thing from an on-duty one, he told me, nostalgically. And for Philippe, that youthful association with off-duty whores in that early-morning café was one of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, a sacred memory recurring throughout life which renovates, nourishes and repairs the mind with poetry. To this day Philippe knows precisely how to brighten up a Frenchwoman’s day with a bit of sauce. It’s a kind of magic. He would argue, however, that it is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating. On moving day his sparrow’s legs were revealed to the world below baggy cargo shorts and his humorously petulant roué’s face was resigned to eight hours of necessary evil.

Simone, his co-worker, was Philippe’s opposite. Simone is a brown-skinned 55-year-old rural southerner. His working man’s vest looked so natural on him that he might have been born wearing it. Simone is gentle, silent, patient and exceptionally calm. The heavy double mattress, for example. Getting it up the narrow, cacti-lined cliff defile looked nigh-on impossible. Our three-cornered debate about method was curtailed when Simone simply picked the thing up, hoisted it above his head and trudged off with it. Catriona confided that Simone’s lover had recently left him and that Simone was devastated. So perhaps his calmness was a minor form of despair. I don’t know. Simone’s more usual occupation is gardener.

The mid-September day was as brutally hot as a day in August, said Philippe, repeatedly. After a couple of hours of sweaty lifting and humping, he finally denounced our labour as a bordel. The closest English equivalent to the word bordel, I think, is ‘whorehouse’. If something is inimical or unpleasant in France, it can be characterised by this noun. I took up the word with delight. Everything from a chainsaw to an embroidered cushion was now a bordel. Philippe laughed at me as one laughs at a child using a bad word innocently.

Stopping for lunch was a tremendous relief. The previous owner of the cave house had left behind a solid dining table too heavy to move an inch and six throne-like dining chairs. We gathered around this table to eat like ragged revolutionaries. The lunch  plus wine, provided by Catriona, was a lavish and ruminative feast. During the first course, we were joined by an Englishwoman bearing flowers who spoke French fluently. As the French speakers now outnumbered the English, we spoke French. The Frenchmen passed the dishes with courtliness and ate ravenously. The conversational tone was festive. Even Simone spoke twice, once to say he had been born in Lyon, and once, when the conversation had turned, against our better judgment, to politics and inevitably become heated, he said that he didn’t know much about anything but was happy to listen to other people’s opinions.

The conversation had become heated after the Englishwoman had on the flimsiest pretext blamed Brexit for something and had shot me an accusing look. And I had countered by wondering if she’d heard about the Chinese communist party-style sleight of hand by which Martin ‘Rasputin’ Selmayr had been appointed by Jean-Claude Juncker to the post of secretary general of the European Bordel. And this in turn provoked a rising ten-minute anti-EU tirade in Parisian French from Philippe, which made me realise that if English culture has been fractured by a disassociation of sensibility, the fracture in French culture caused by a possible Frexit would probably be violent. And with that comforting thought, I drained my glass and went back down the cliff where I found a lovely big heavy sofa that was the next item to be carried up the footpath on my back.