Pig’s trotters. Lamb’s feet stuffed with their brains. Flayed wild rabbits, all sinew, muscle and eyeballs. Nude chickens with flopping heads, gaping beaks and scaly feet. A pig’s head with curling eyelashes lowered demurely. A tray of minced horse flesh. Our favourite shop window. The French, eh? Would we like the head on or off, asked the butcher when we went in and asked him for one of his chickens. I consulted briefly with Oscar. We thought off. On would have been thrilling, but we wanted to see a French butcher cut a chicken’s head off. He positioned the chicken’s neck on his block and severed it with a nonchalant chop. Then he lobbed the head in a lazy parabola into his off-cuts bin.
Next stop, the knife, gun and hunter’s accoutrements shop. A tinkling bell announced our entry into a church atmosphere. The elderly man behind the heavy mahogany counter greeted us with priestly courtesy, his vestment a green apron. He and a rustic-looking individual were studying the finer points of a hunting rifle, which lay on the counter between them. The rustic seemed to be torn between his desire to buy the gun and his ability to pay for it. The proprietor’s chief concern was not to hurry him over one of the most delicate decisions of his life and to offer only professional advice that was strictly impartial. ‘OK if we look around?’ I said. ‘Please,’ said the proprietor.
In awed silence Oscar and I browsed the cased ranks of elegant flick-knives and stilettos. The price tags, unfortunately, put them well out of our range. Further along were the more business-like saw-toothed hunting daggers, also out of reach. But we wanted a knife badly we realised. One we could throw. As a contribution, Oscar searched his pocket and proffered a tightly folded €10 note. I looked in my wallet, matched it, added ten more and went to the counter. The proprietor excused himself from his and his customer’s whispered deliberations. ‘Do you have a throwing knife for about €30?’ I said. He pulled open a drawer, rummaged around in it, and produced a dagger made in Sweden. It came with a plastic sheath and belt clip. I handed over the notes and we went out of his shop armed.
We took our dagger with us to lunch with our neighbours (Baillie and Christopher Tolkien, the latter aged 93, son of JRR) and afterwards Oscar and I went outside into the garden, faced each other and played splits. For the uninitiated, splits is a knife-throwing game in which you throw the knife into the ground and your opponent has to widen his stance to meet it until he falls over. The knife was indeed a good one to throw, whether by the handle or by the blade. To teach Oscar how to throw it, I started by describing the arm and wrist technique. Too complicated. Then I said, ‘It’s just a feeling.’ Then he got it.
In the afternoon we took the dog to the vet. She has a dicky heart and her ears were re-infested with mites. We sat in the waiting room, the only customers. An elderly couple came in. The man was cradling a little dog in his arms and the woman was weeping and wailing. The dog was wrapped in a blanket but we could see the top of its head and its ears. It was a white dog. ‘C’est fini!’ wailed the woman. Oscar was very interested to see a Frenchwoman crying disconsolately over a dog. ‘You’d better go in first,’ we said.
Five minutes later the couple came out of the surgery minus the dog. The man was grimly silent, the woman distraught. ‘C’est fini! C’est fini!’ she wailed. ‘It is finished,’ I translated, in case Oscar hadn’t understood. After the couple had left, the vet’s assistant came out cradling the dog’s corpse in her arms and supporting its head as if it were a baby.
After that we walked in the countryside for three hours, as far as a nunnery and back. The nunnery chapel was built 350 years ago next to a holy spring. The story goes that a shepherd boy was thirsty and prayed that he might find a spring. St Joseph appeared and told him to look behind a certain rock. We were glad that he had because we were parched by the time we got there. There was no sign of the nuns; they were probably asleep. The spring was enclosed and modernised with a self-closing steel tap. ‘It’s a different world, isn’t it, France?’ I said, as we crouched beside it and drank the cold water.