‘Alas, David can’t be here this afternoon,’ I told the French teacher as she let me into her light and spacious home. ‘He has an appointment to see a specialist about his ears.’ I tried to say this in French. Conversational exchanges that take place between her front door and the lesson table are usually conducted under a flag of truce and she restricted her expressions of gaping horror to a minimum. ‘His ears?’ she said. ‘Poor David! What is wrong with his ears?’ ‘I think he was blown up by a shell,’ I said. ‘And his eardrums were damaged in the explosion.’
Our French teacher lives a quiet and blameless country life of artistic and intellectual endeavours and gardening. But she understands well enough that like everywhere else French society is in transition and one should be prepared for anything. ‘And so where did this take place, this explosion?’ she said. ‘I think in Chechnya,’ I said. Her expression changed from harrowed to relieved to businesslike, because now we had reached the table and the truce was over.
‘C’est Tchétchénie,’ she said, patiently, as to a child, and wrote the word in green on her whiteboard. Underneath that she wrote the French word for eardrum. And underneath that she reconstructed my earlier detonation of nonsense into the calm and simple French sentence ‘Il a été explosé par un obus.’
The object of this week’s lesson was to learn how to conjugate the present tense of those tricky bastards, verbs ending in -ir. Without the jovial, spruce and gallant presence of the foreign correspondent to shelter me, there was nowhere to hide. And today, instead of alternating as we normally do, I had to conjugate all 22 verbs on the printed handout on my own. Number 13 was the verb mentir — to lie. It required me to conjugate and supply the missing verb in the following sentence: ‘Trump et ses amis blank tout le temps.’ My refusal to parrot this calumny surprised and amused her. But she granted my conscientious objection and we moved on to conjugate the verb in the politically innocuous sentence: ‘My dog is frightened of thunder.’
For the second half of the hour the teacher added an unexpected innovation to the lesson — a board game with a progression of squares and a dice. On each square was the title of a disquisition, to be made in French, such as ‘on childhood’, or ‘my first car’. You threw the dice, moved your counter, and spoke on the given subject. Two faults of grammar or syntax, however, and you had to go back two squares.
I threw first, a five, and landed on ‘my virtues’. Which is a tricky enough subject at the best of times, in my native tongue, let alone in French when moribund in spirit.
My true self-image is that of ‘le plus grand con du monde’, but I ruled out telling her this on the grounds of decency. Instead I blandly described myself as a sociable recluse. But for individual virtues, I was stumped. Finally, I said that I always gave generously on Poppy Day and had to move back two squares for a wrong tense and the wrong gender of that lovely French word ‘coquelicot’.
The teacher blew on her fist and threw a three, landing on ‘my favourite book’. She did a sort of intellectual’s equivalent of spitting on her palms and looked meditatively out into the garden. Then she said in French: ‘Right then. Have you ever heard of Baptiste Morizot?’ Never, I said. He writes about ecology, she said, and he writes against our arrogant ‘Neolithic metaphysics’. The return of the wolf, for example, she said, is a philosophical as well as an ecological problem. Ultimately, she said, Baptiste Morizot would like us humans to abdicate our lordship, and I totally agree with him.
Conscious of now being invited to engage in a philosophical discussion, I ducked it. I wasn’t feeling up to one of those, not in any language. So instead I tried to say in French that only last week a wolf had killed all four of a neighbour’s beloved pet sheep by ripping their throats out. My French was poor. If it had been my turn, I would have had to go back about 14 squares and take off all my clothes.
Then it was me again. I rolled a four and landed on ‘my bedroom’. This one was easier. I painted for her a mental picture of a space carved into the living rock and hung about with smoke-blackened chains tethered by an iron spike. Instead of the more thematically appropriate flaming torches, I was about to say, the bedroom is illuminated by a pair of poncy little bedside lamps bought from Ikea. But before I could elaborate on the lighting system I was penalised for multiple faults in grammar, gender, tense, syntax and vocabulary and had to retreat two squares.