Christmas passes almost before anyone has noticed its arrival. However, it would be foolish of your narrator to allow this opportunity for consolidation to wend its merry way into history without comment. Let’s face it, Christmas is a time to relax and gently mull over the preceding year’s events before commencing anew. Pardon? Madame Martin feels there’s little opportunity to relax in her ever-shrinking, increasingly dilapidated kitchen: a kitchen constantly full of all and sundry bringing their emotional baggage à table to which we will return shortly.
At home, any home, one is often expected to pass the season of goodwill with those family members to whom the least amount of goodwill is voluntarily expended during other times of the year. It’s a bit different for the ex-pats in Provence who have made a new life in distant climes. For a start, they wouldn’t have moved to the South if they had any desire to be in regular contact with many of their biological relatives. They certainly wouldn’t have chosen to live along the road that runs between Noves and Cabannes if they wanted to be easily found. But, for most of them, there’s an ingrained debt to this cultural business of sharing seasonal bonhomie. It’s true that the partner who cannot be named has little interest in stories linked to stars and stables. Neither has he much of an appetite for the giving of expensive gifts, or cheap ones. The partner has been a little grumpy of late owing to the onset of a tediously dull pain in his lower back. Phyllida has taken him to Noves where Dr Giraud was unable to determine the reason; largely because wooden chaise longues were absent from any account of possible causal activities. He has advised a course of yoga. Phyllida is extremely happy with this prescription as the partner will now be able to accompany her to the centre culturel once a week. The partner is less than happy.
In the meantime, they have shared a festive dinner with Louise, Louise’s visiting (and possibly welcome) mother and Louise’s lawn-mowing husband. Myrtle and Richard Meades were also in attendance. The appearance of these extra guests was also a source of dismay to the partner who cannot be named as, in his opinion, far too much conversation was exhausted on the subject of cricket. Nonetheless, there may have been a geographical resolution of sorts. Louise’s husband has offered to mow a wicket in their parkland in order that the ex-pat team has a practice venue. Apart from the minor irritation of the sports interlude, which was easily managed with a few extra aperitifs, the celebrations were enjoyable.
Louise, as everyone agrees, is an excellent chef. She has managed to secure a large goose on the table whilst simultaneously producing a succulent nut roast for her vegetarian neighbours. To aid her culinary expertise, she has, of course, the advantage of owning the best available in the departments of kitchen equipment and utensils. The Norwegian Blues, meanwhile, have been left at home with platefuls of gourmet goodies fit for their delicate palates. Nanette, however, being the pampered lady of Mas Saint Antoine when guest dogs are absent, is resplendent in her self-contained exhibitionism. She lies on her back in front of the fire, legs stuck at various angles, displaying a rather distended tummy. She looks full of goose. Louise tries hard not to look at Nanette. Louise knows only too well that it’s not a goose which lurks inside her beloved lady dog. Like the spring flowers that currently lie dormant beneath the gardens of Provence, the thing that is not a goose waits to make an appearance. Unlike the golden crocuses, the not-a-goose-in-waiting has more to do with a wolf dog than floral adornments that might have been planted for the delight of early holiday makers.
Over at chez Martin, the celebrations have also been in full swing but were not undertaken with the advantages of an avante garde kitchen. The last thing that Madame Martin thinks about is the potential paternal responsibilities of Clovis. Of these, she has no idea as she batters her tiny route around the kitchen of despair. Was it so long ago, she wonders, that she accompanied Monsieur Villiers to see the santons in the crèche at Frigolet? How she would have loved to see the seasonal display in the town hall of Tarasçon. Poor Tarasçon: vilified throughout the year for its nerve to sit adjacent to smelly Beaucaire, suddenly redeems itself each Christmastide with the most extraordinary account of Provençal social history. The miniscule clay visitors wend their supplicating way up the stairs of the Hôtel de Ville, round the corner to the epicentre of the nativity and yet again celebrate the arrival of Jesus in Provence.
Madame Lapin has been celebrating the arrival of, amongst others, Jean-Pierre Lucard. In this, she has imbibed more than one aperitif as she considers that, had Daudet been alive and present chez elle this Christmastide, he almost certainly would have felt obliged to write a prominent paella purveyor into correspondence from his windmill. There are, of course, others: Christophe, Netty and her father who has travelled from the Camargue, Monsieur Martin, Sophie, Dr Giraud and the obligatory goose. Nut roasts, however, do not comprise an element of this gathering. Nut roasts comprise an unknown concept at the bottom of the lane that runs from the road between Noves and Cabannes.
Since the errant Jean-Pierre Lucard returned to the fold, Madame Lapin is a changed woman from the one who attended that distressing interview earlier in the month. Mascara, for example, now accentuates a pair of bright eyes rather than running in lava-like rivulets down red, puffy cheeks. Hair has been piled high with deliberately falling wisps shaping that not-really-enigmatic face. Of course, clothing has been chosen with care: the right parts of the body are emphasised and the not-so-good quarters are pleasantly disguised. And everything has been dressed with a variety of sparkling and seasonal adornments: earrings, necklaces and a bracelet that proudly sits below Madame Lapin’s sleeve, next to the place where she wears her heart.
Jean-Pierre Lucard is still wearing his summer ensemble. Come hell or high wind, both of which have made more than one appearance during the preceding autumn, the paella purveyor, immune to meteorological inconsistencies, can be depended upon in the department of sartorial. The pale pink shirt is currently replaced by one in a pleasant shade of grey. Naturally, in the winter warmth of the kitchen chez Martin, he’s been able to open a few buttons and his golden medallion shines like a gift from a passing king. Actually, in this part of the world, the kings don’t pass this way until epiphany at which point vast amounts of gateaux will be eaten; and numerous admissions to the Henri Duffaut hospital in Avignon will witness mass choking on miniature cartoon characters hidden in the depths of the epiphany cakes. In the meantime, Jean-Pierre Lucard also sports a glinting wrist. The person who once dared to call herself a feminist has given her lover an identity bracelet with her own name engraved upon.
Amongst other gifts, Madame Lapin has donated an enormous bunch of mistletoe which now hangs on a handy nail above the kitchen table. Each time someone stands up, they are knocked sideways by the foliage and berries fall like poisonous snowflakes into the food below. ‘Putain’, thinks Madame Martin although, secretly, she’s delighted to have her friend and business partner back on board. What’s really annoying her, however, is the continuous talk of cricket. How times change.Let’s be clear, this is Provence. People flock to Provence precisely because things don’t change. Generally. When was the last time someone suggested holding a cricket match in a bull-ring?
From the clear winter skies above chez Martin, the faintest of passing sleigh bells might be heard by anyone who is not busy celebrating. And in his secret grotto under the festive table Clovis lifts a quizzical ear and whines.