We returned to the house early the next morning, on the way pleading special permission to pass through the police roadblocks. A strip of blackened hillside about one kilometre away showed the extent of the blaze before it was extinguished. The online local newspaper said that 500 firemen had tackled a blaze that had destroyed 400 hectares of forest — roughly speaking the two round Provençal hills between the house and the nearest village. It seemed a small result for so much smoke. And I wondered why the French state should have gone to so much trouble and expense to protect perhaps a dozen properties, including our breezeblock shack. (A French friend reassured me that in this green-minded age, the state is as anxious to protect forest as it is private property.) Because the fire began 3km from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s £19 million château, the casualty-free forest fire made it into the Daily Mail online news. The only property rendered uninhabitable by the fire, I heard, was a château hosting a wedding party, whose roof collapsed under the weight of lake water and retardant.
Catriona and I discovered that we were a bit shaken by the experience and embarrassed by our behaviour during it: I for falsely imagining that the fire would overtake and engulf us at the speed, say, of Usain Bolt finishing strongly in the 100 metres; Catriona for wishing to stay in the house anyway and martyr herself. We apologised to one another and suspected that we knew each other better now than we did 24 hours previously.
Thin vertical plumes like campfire smoke showed where the fire still burned on the charred hillside. These plumes increased in number and density, and in the afternoon the flames took hold and ran out of control again. Again helicopters and single files of yellow and red Canadairs flew over the house laden with lake water. I spent the afternoon in a recliner on the terrace watching the airshow through binoculars, this time safe in the knowledge that the breeze was fanning the fire away from where I was sitting and in the direction of the nearest village, which had been evacuated. By nightfall the fire was under control and these latest evacuees were allowed back into their properties. Throughout the night, the flashing lights and headlights from traffic jams of fire engines lit the unmade forest tracks that criss-cross the hillsides.
Next morning the sky was clear and blue and a lone observer helicopter circled above the black hills. I drove into town for a haircut and the police roadblocks were gone. ‘Quelle affaire!’ I said to the hairdresser. ‘Oh-la-la-la-la-la!’ she said, flipping her fingers as though the tips were burned.
In the evening I went to see a film at an outdoor cinema. I went with a Russian film-maker and her English nephew and his girlfriend. Before the film started, I knocked back three plastic glasses of the fairly rough rosé they were serving at the informal, volunteer-run cinema bar, and took another four to my seat. The film was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. My friends were amazed that I had neither seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show before nor knew the first thing about it. A burlesque theatre troupe mingled with the audience to lead the singing and dancing. Before the curtain rose, one of these, a heavily made-up man dressed in a basque, suspenders, stockings and top hat, came and sat next to me. Loudly enough for the nearest 50 people to hear, he said to me, archly, in French, ‘What is the film tonight? Do you know?’ I said, ‘It’s Zulu, my old son — isn’t it?’
The Rocky Horror Picture Show commenced. At the first song the burlesques got the audience up on its feet and orchestrated pelvic thrusting in time to the music. My drink went flying so I returned to the bar via the front of the stage with the entire audience thrusting its pelvis at me. I ordered seven plastic cups of the rough rosé, tossed two straight down my throat, gave the old chap serving one, and drank the other four in a slightly more measured fashion. Then I asked the chap for another six and returned with them to my seat. The audience was on its collective feet singing and dancing. One of the male burlesques had pulled a young woman out of her seat from the row in front and was simulating banging her from behind in time to the music. I started to dance, shouting encouragement at them. I continued to stay on my feet and bop long after the song had finished and the audience had sat down, until I got my feet mixed up, fell down, and decided I preferred lying down to standing up.