Low life

The mysterious ways of the French

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

These new tablets that will save or at least prolong my life have unpredictable side effects which only now, a month after starting to take them, are making themselves felt. Breasts, round and wobbling that I can cup in my palms and jiggle up and down; breasts, moreover, with painfully sensitive nipples. Fatigue: it is almost impossible to be both immobile and awake. By early evening, trapped upright in a chair drawn up to a crowded restaurant table, I’m longing for sleep or even death. And wind, which is perhaps the least expected and most disastrous side effect. Quelling the Boxer Rebellion is the only thing keeping me awake. In restaurants, the old colonial political expedient of permitting moderate voices while savagely suppressing strident ones is effective sometimes as a safety valve, I’m finding.

To reach the rocky path leading up to our cave house in the cliff, one passes through a cavernous and ancient quartier which at night is lit by widely spaced street lanterns. At midnight and alone, and reaching a point in the street where the enveloping darkness was almost total, I allowed to escape what I’d hoped was a modest, inarticulate objection to colonial rule, which spoke, however, with the exquisite articulacy and force of a Frantz Fanon or a Ngugi wa Thiong’o. From somewhere in the blackness above came an unsurprised but indignant woman’s voice. ‘Charmant!’ it said.

August here in this clos of the south of France is a sociable month. The second homes are fully reoccupied, the permanent expat residents host continuous house parties, the village restaurants and bars are going full blast. (Conspicuous among the vacationing nationalities of all classes — and totally unlike anyone else — are public school-educated Englishmen in pink trousers and Crew polo shirts with the collar turned up. Quite often in the restaurants you hear them before you see them: large, middle-aged, confident, frightfully decent, money no object and piling into the wine as though they’ve died and gone to heaven.)

My nine-year-old grandson Oscar was down for the second half of August and we three — me, Oscar and Catriona — have dined out in local restaurants most nights. And while no elsewhere underwrites Catriona’s new French existence, and Devon country boy Oscar has taken to dining out on packed French restaurant terraces and to France in general as comfortably as the pink-trousered English, I’m still not reconciled to any of it after nearly five years. Everything in this country is as strange to me as when I first came here.

How is it that people can sit so closely packed together eating and talking and not be overwhelmed by the hundreds of visual signals and impressions being given and received by and from 150 other diners each and every second? That woman who comes and sits at the adjacent table and the arm of her chair knocks mine and she responds to my shy greeting with so reluctant a reply it’s a snub? And that man who shimmies down into the chair opposite her — husband, lover, acquaintance — who seems fascinated, fixated by something about my appearance but who looks away when I meet his eye. Has he a rare natural facility for pinpointing the sources of noxious gases? And that woman right over there, one, two, three animated tables away. Why is she, too, looking at me so intently? Is it because she thinks I’m looking at her? If it’s her look of lust she’s got another thing coming. And yet there’s simple, open-hearted Oscar playing a game on his iPad as intently as he does at home and Catriona alight with pleasure laughing with astonishing naturalness at something witty I didn’t quite catch because I’m also going a bit deaf these days.

Tits, fatigue and wind are a small price to pay for the privilege of remaining on board, some might argue. Still small, they might say testily, when I add to my complaints the constant dull throb of a plastic stent draining my left kidney and getting up twice in the night to half-empty my bladder, and a libido dead in the water.

And if I were my best self always, no doubt I would tend to agree. With my best self you could lop off all four of my limbs and hit me over the head with a restaurant chair and I’d still see the funny side. But it’s hard to remain jolly or even optimistic when you crave sleep so much that all you want to do is sneak upstairs, shut the door, close the shutters, crawl into bed and drop off. And if you add to these present minor physical discomforts and restaurant neuroses thoughts of England, home and my poor mother dying amid this strange secular recrudescence of a Protestant Reformation, the ground under my feet feels like the shifting sands of the erg.

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