I have a friend here in this French village to which we moved just over a week ago. He is a veteran foreign correspondent, still working but also spending time tending his beloved garden, olive grove and small vineyard, from which he bottles and labels about 450 bottles of red each year. He is a proud journalist of the old school, which is to say that he is sober and serious when in pursuit of his story, and neither when not. With his fund of unprintable stories, his undiminished zest for current affairs, and his 450 bottles cooling under the stone stairs of his 18th-century house, he is the best possible company. Knowing that this man lives only a five-minute stroll away, along a cobbled path winding between the ruins of medieval and troglodyte houses, which, amazingly, is partially lit after dark by old-fashioned street lanterns, gives me great pleasure.
But since moving in, I have had wheelbarrowing work to do, moving logs and books up the path from the road to the house, and in a late summer heatwave. For the best part of a week, I was on the end of a wheelbarrow during daylight hours and after dusk collapsed in a chair on the high house terrace too tired to unlace my boots. The only respite came the afternoon I retired from the field with a touch of heatstroke, and the following day when, still not quite right in the head, I sat down to write a book review.
The cave house sits far above a jumble of pan-tiled roofs nestling in a horseshoe of limestone hills. Within this natural amphitheatre, everyday sounds travel incredible distances. And because sound travels upwards, the illusion of noise coming from somewhere close at hand, when in fact it is coming from a mile or two away, has a hallucinatory quality that can be unnerving, especially when one is slightly off one’s head with heatstroke. One evening, somewhere in the village below, there was a party, for example. Too tired to move, I sat on the terrace and listened to it. The individual guests’ voices reached my ears with such clarity and purity I might have been listening to a play on Radio Four through high-fidelity headphones. The dialogue was all in French, of course, and I could clearly identify six different personalities. The lead voices were a deep-voiced man with deadpan wit, and a woman with an infectious laugh who was up for anything. I sat and listened as the soirée developed from a somewhat formal occasion into a very lively affair at which everyone was shouting and the bass-voiced wit reduced the woman who was up for anything to shrieking, crying laughter and two glasses were broken. Through naval binoculars, I identified the house in which the party was taking place. It was in a village quartier about a mile away.
Twice so far I have been woken in the night by acrimonious domestic disputes, in one of which I was certain that someone was about to be murdered, or had in fact been murdered because the screaming came from witnesses. Add to that a sonorous old bronze church bell and a clamorous, higher-pitched monastery bell and a tinnier state bell simultaneously measuring out the hours, and the clear voices of far-flung dogs, and the sporting cries rising up from the boulodrome or the new artificial football pitch, and the resident flock of jackdaws having a collective attack of hysterics, and the noisiest motorbike in the village, audible still though five miles away in the neighbouring village. Once, straining against the weight of the logs in the barrow, I passed restrained wind, moving an unseen dog in a yard 50 yards away to give a puzzled, interrogatory woof. And when I was painting a wall, some investigative ants turned up and the rapid pittering of their feet on the cardboard sheet I was standing on was audible.
The effect of the heatstroke wore off in 24 hours, then there were three more days on the barrow and I was done. I sent an email to the foreign correspondent. ‘Where are you?’ I said. ‘I’m here,’ he answered. ‘In the garden with a cool box of lager.’ I put a shirt on and set off along the cobbled path. Going somewhere without a wheelbarrow felt like freedom. I found the foreign correspondent sitting at a round ironwork table under a parasol in his olive-tree meadow, the shaded cool box at his feet. He hadn’t shaved, his shirt was open and he looked very happy. As I hove into view, he reached down into his cold-box, extracted a tin of Kronenbourg 1664 and placed it ready on the table. ‘You know what? These aren’t bad,’ he said.