In anticipation

June. Flaming June. Not. Warm – yes. End of. I sit in my little hobbit house, garden doors open, looking out at the relentless rain. Cardigan on, cardigan off. Who else except the English so frequently adhere to the comforts of a cardigan? I think of the other place where I will be in on Saturday. That place of which I often use Jonathan Meades’ statement – ‘every Englishman has two countries – his own, and France’. More recently, and prosaically, Meades has updated this: ‘if I’d been in England, I’d be dead’… in this monotony of electoral opportunities, a timely reference to health systems.

I know what he means. I once became dangerously unwell in that other country. I passed an unexpected eight days in the Henri Dauffaut Hospital in Avignon, saddled down with numerous drips, a ‘nil by mouth’ regime, and easy access to the French Open from a room that I shared with an ancient being who farted for France. Difficult to think of anywhere that would be more reassuring.

Flat out, waiting for an ultra-sound scan, the kindly French folk played a quiet game of Cluedo: ‘this is Madame Green’ and, in reference to a moaning body on another stretcher, ‘this is Madame White. We’re just waiting for Colonel Mustard’. How we roared.

I’m to travel with a companion from the colonies. Ameriky. He’s in for a shock of the most pleasant kind once we’ve bumped onto the runway in an ancient prop plane and overcome the rental car fiasco. ‘Someone will meet and greet you from the security area’, says the man on the phone. ‘Have you ever been to Avignon airport?’ I respond. There are two rooms: arrive and leave.

It must be one of life’s greatest pleasures to arrive in Provence for the first time. They say that one’s first visit to Paris is an unmatchable experience. Paris is not Provence. It’s not even France. Provence is an indescribable challenge to the senses. There are no accepted terms of reference – suspend everything you live by, especially time, and all will be well. Immersion is essential.

Never fear that the place has been spoiled by the travelling classes. The folk of the South remain in a provençal bubble in which we come and go for a couple of weeks. Ignore the boutiques of St Remy. Read your Daudet and Mistral and look beneath to discover that the quotidian is as it was. Rien ne change ici. Which is why I keep going back.

And it’s why this piece has no beginning, middle or discernible end. Just popping the cardigan back on. Oh England – my England.

All over or just beginning?

It seems so long since I first sat on a leafy terrace looking over the fence at an impressive number of small spotted ponies in an old pear orchard. The orchard was along a dusty lane that wanders away from the road that runs between Noves and Cabannes in a little known area of Provence. The beautiful ponies were sheltering quietly from the oppressive heat of the August sun. In the cool of the evening, when the cicadas began to wind down their incessant whirring, the ponies would be moved to a field on the other side of the lane to run and play like naughty children.

Every now and then, a small semi-naked man would drive past on his tractor waving politely at me and I would wave back. Once, he came to the jasmine covered gate with a gift of oddly shaped courgettes and peppers. My hostess introduced me to Monsieur Martin, her neighbour who lived with his wife and son at the bottom of the lane. Later, she told me a tale about this family and I was lost forever.

 

 Sat on that distant terrace, I wrote a short story about Monsieur Martin and the small spotted ponies. Over the aperitif, I read it aloud to my friends and it made them laugh so I wrote another. And after that, I couldn’t stop. Back in grey old England, constructing an alternative life for Monsieur Martin made me think constantly about the South and Chez Martin was born and completed. It was such a pleasurable pastime and I suspect the story is not that far from the truth. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know we weren’t laughing at Monsieur Martin, but with him.

 In truth, I wrote that book for myself but it’s given pleasure to lots of folk who have never been near Provence. That they were able to read Chez Martin was due entirely to Tim Pepin, a colleague from work. Tim constantly nagged me to tidy up my manuscript and get it published; and when I seemed incapable of the latter, he took it away and published it himself. It was an act of such graciousness from one writer to another. He was horrified when I tried to wave money around. As a compromise, he said he would take payment in chocolate oranges.

Book sales were good but I was still surprised at the number of people who kept asking for more news of Monsieur Martin. It wasn’t a great hardship to begin again and my terrace-owning friend updated me with little snippets of news. But life gets in the way and there always seemed to be other things to do. Last summer, Tim was once again nagging me to finish, saying he would help me again. By this time, however, he was dreadfully sick and sadly we lost him before the new book was completed.

He’s the last person who would want any unhappiness today now that The Road that Runs has finally been published. Here’s a picture of ‘Phyllida’ with the small spotted ponies taken last year when we visited their owner chez Martin. It’s a timely ending as without her sharing her tale over that long-ago aperitif, Monsieur Martin would never have graced the pages of these two volumes.

The Road that Runs  by Madame Verte is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-that-Runs-Madame-Verte/dp/1545252920/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492688893&sr=1-3&keywords=madame+verte

 

A very French day

2016_1127tarasconmm0011On a gloriously sunny November morning, with the bluest of skies that have been cleaned by recent storms, we arrive at Tarascon. So far, it’s been a good start to the day: we have heating, water – hot and cold, electricity, fuses in the upright position and hens donating prolific numbers of eggs.

2016_1127tarasconmm0016I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no matter how much the rest of the world deem Tarascon to be a non-starter, I inevitably find it an interesting place full of surprises. Where else do you find a weather vane depicting a monster? What other town has open access to the relics of St Martha? And, where else, at a point in the year where there are no tourists, can you take your expresso on a tiny terrace listening to a Provencal folk troupe and watch Arlesienne ladies dancing a Farandole?

2016_1127tarasconmm0021We are minded to visit the Christmas crèche. In fact, for the duration of our ten day sojourn, this is the only thing that I’ve been adamant about seeing. Naturally, we can’t find it. There are plenty of signs but, as a long-time ex-pat resident said only the other day, the French don’t do directions. We wander along the back streets, find this choir by accident and ask every other person including two police officers. They all know the creche is in the aptly named Chapel of Perseverance but no-one is quite sure how the chapel might be located.

A Provencal Christmas crèche is unlike any other: the nativity is a minor inclusion; the point and purpose is that all of the other santons depicting Provencal life will be present because, of course, Jesus was born in Provence. If you think his visitors comprised only shepherds and kings, think on. 2016_1127tarasconmm0025 2016_1127tarasconmm0034 2016_1127tarasconmm0029 2016_1127tarasconmm00332016_1127tarasconmm00352016_1127tarasconmm0032 2016_1127tarasconmm0030

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wow Tarascon! Thank-you but we must dash as we’re due down the notorious road that runs between Noves and Cabannes. Only those that have read THE book will understand the significance of this. Phyllida and the partner who cannot be named are hosting lunch. After, we sit in the sunniest of gardens and I bemoan the fact that the small spotted ponies are nowhere to be seen. Phyllida suggests we visit Monsieur Martin. Oh yes please! And Monsieur Martin, who doesn’t know he is a literary character, is delighted to have so many visitors on this delicious Provencal Sunday in November.

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I’m a writer – get me out of here!

2016_1122nov20160001The two chicken-sitters were safely ensconced in their upstairs abode, at the end of a dark French lane in the middle of nowhere. The owners had left for another country and the writers were in sole charge of the estate, five chickens and a cat called Poodle: an almost-free holiday. You know what they say about no such thing as a free lunch …

It began well enough. We’d journeyed into St Remy, wandered the market and, sans coats, taken the aperitif in glorious sunshine on the terrace of the infamous Bar-Tabac des Alpilles. Our dear American writer friend turned up and we three, having met again, cackled our way through a delicious pork fillet drenched in a creamy sauce and accompanied by luscious potatoes Dauphinoise. A dousing of Rosé from the close-at-hand Ventoux served to lubricate the warning signs in Bev’s throat. All was well with the world.

Later, following a much-needed siesta chez nous, we awoke to discover the skies had become more than a whiter shade of pale: downright bloody grey-turning-black actually. What’s the end of that line about meeting again? Oh yes, ‘in thunder, lightning, or in rain’. The writers, armed with a tempting slice of dry bread, persuaded the chickens back into their coop for the night. Bev had several conversations with herself about foxes. To make her feel better, I recounted a funny story about sitting pool-side last summer when a ropey looking vixen turned up for a drink. Bev didn’t laugh so I let her watch a Strictly Come Dancing programme as a treat. She seemed to be sniffing a lot.

I noticed that all the outside lights, including that lovely big one on the Plane tree, had shut themselves off; we couldn’t see a thing but we could hear the wild wind shaking up the cypresses and generally wending its destructive way through Provence. No matter: we’d boarded up the shutters and moved on to Master Chef, delighting in hapless cooks being humiliated by nasty Greg.

Bev thought a cup of tea might make her feel better. It probably would’ve done but there didn’t seem to be any water coming out of the tap. Any of them. Bev said she was going to bed. Downright flaky I say. Personally, I don’t think she drinks enough wine.

The storm was fearful: no point counting the gaps between the thunder and lightning – there weren’t any. All the long night, the rain fell fiercely and fearlessly and the storm rattled one’s very bones. No point getting up until it passed because there was no electricity, so no lights. Just us in our respective rooms with the darkness punctuated only by frequent flashes.

We rose, bleary-eyed, at une bonne heure to try and attempt repairs. In Bev’s boudoir, I entered a large orange box above the malfunctioning toilet and tripped a switch. Hurrah! Electricity. With the aid of our trusty torch, I made my way through the wet gloom of early, silent-birded morning to the even more silent boiler room on another part of the estate where I succeeded in repairs to the water pump. Back in our joint, I took a welcome shower only to have the water dry up before I could even get the conditioner on. Trying to make the best of a very bad hair day, I noticed Bev, still sniffing, had spent valuable time and electricity on making toast on which she’d spread, in my non-judgemental opinion, an excessive amount of Reine Claude confiture. ‘Why can’t you function without breakfast’, I demanded? ‘Why can’t you function without washing your bloody hair’, she retorted? Good point.

We went our separate ways: she to tend chickens, me back to the water pump. Onwards to trip more switches throughout the estate, feed the cat called Poodle, write a diplomatic email to the owners, take a phone call from Portugal, discuss the plan for the day, return to bed for more sleep and, finally, run away to Arles.