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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“On se promène?”

No, I said. Today I had come to ask his advice. He grunted again and kicked his dogs into silence. We stood on either side of the rusty chain that separated his property from the forest path, close enough for me to catch his gamey smell of garlic and black tobacco. I told him about the two coins, and he unstuck the cigarette from his lower lip, inspecting the damp stub while his dogs padded back and forth on their chains, growling under their breath.

He found a home for his cigarette under one end of his stained moustache, and leaned toward me.

“Who have you told about this?” He looked over my shoulder, as if making sure that we were alone.

“My wife. And Faustin. That’s all.”

“Tell nobody else,” he said, tapping the side of his nose with a grimy finger. “It is possible that there are more coins. This must be kept
entre nous

We walked back along the path so that Massot could see where the two coins had been found, and he gave me his explanation of the national passion for gold. Politicians, he said, were the cause of it, starting with the Revolution. After that, there were emperors, wars, countless presidents—most of them cretins, he said, and spat for emphasis—and devaluations that could turn a hundred francs into a hundred centimes overnight. No wonder the simple peasant didn’t trust scraps of paper printed by those
in Paris. But gold—Massot held his hands in front of him and wriggled
his fingers in an imaginary pile of
—gold was always good, and in times of trouble it was even better. And the best gold of all was dead man’s gold, because dead men don’t argue. How fortunate we are, you and I, said Massot, to come across such an uncomplicated opportunity. It seemed that I had a partner.

We stood in the trench, Massot tugging on his moustache while he looked around him. The ground was flat, some of it planted with lavender, some covered in grass. There was no obvious spot for a hiding place, which Massot took to be an encouraging sign; an obvious place would have been discovered fifty years ago, and “our” gold removed. He climbed out of the trench, and paced off the distance to the well, then perched on the stone wall.

“It could be anywhere here,” he said, and waved his arm over 50 square yards of ground. “
, that is too much for you to dig.” Our partnership clearly didn’t extend to a sharing of physical labor. “What we need is a
for detecting metal.” He turned his arm into a metal detector and passed it in sweeps over the grass, making clicking sounds. “
Beh oui
. That will find it.”

“Alors, qu’est-ce qu’on fait?”
Massot made the universal money gesture, rubbing his fingers and thumb together. It was time for a business meeting.

We agreed that I would finish digging the trench, and that Massot would take care of the high technology by renting a metal detector. All that remained to be decided was the financial participation of the partners. I suggested that 10 percent would be a reasonable price to pay for some undemanding work with a metal detector; Massot, however, said he would be more comfortable with 50 percent. There was the drive into Cavaillon to pick up the metal detector, the
digging involved when we struck gold, and, most important, the confidence I could feel in having a completely trustworthy partner who would not broadcast the details of our new wealth throughout the neighborhood. Everything, said Massot, must be kept behind the teeth.

I looked at him as he smiled and nodded, and thought that it would be difficult to imagine a more untrustworthy old rogue this side of the bars of Marseille prison. Twenty percent, I said. He winced, sighed, accused me of being a
, and settled for 25 percent. We shook hands on it, and he spat in the trench for luck as he left.

That was the last I saw of him for several days. I finished the trench, laced it with manure, and ordered the roses. The man who delivered them told me that I’d dug far too deep, and asked me why, but I kept the reason behind my teeth.

There is a widespread aversion in Provence to anything that resembles social planning. The Provençal prefers to drop in and surprise you rather than call first to make sure you’re free. When he arrives, he expects you to have time for the pleasantries of a drink and a roundabout conversation before getting down to the purpose of the visit, and if you tell him you have to go out he is puzzled. Why rush? Half an hour is nothing. You’ll only be late, and that’s normal.

It was almost twilight, the time of day
entre chien et loup
, when we heard a van rattle to a stop outside the house. We were going over to see some friends for dinner in Goult, and so I went out to head off the visitor before he reached the bar and became impossible to dislodge.

The van had its back doors wide open, and was rocking from side to side. There was a thud as something hit the
floor, followed by a curse.
It was my business partner, wrestling with a pickax that was stuck in the metal grill of the dog guard behind the driver’s seat. With a final convulsion the pickax, was wrenched free and Massot emerged backwards, slightly faster than he’d intended.

He was wearing camouflage trousers, a dun sweater, and a jungle-green army surplus hat, all well past their youth. He looked like a badly paid mercenary as he unloaded his equipment and laid it on the ground—the pickax, a long-handled mason’s shovel, and an object wrapped in old sacking. Glancing round to see if anyone was watching, he removed the sacking and held up the metal detector.

This is
haut de gamme
, top of the range. It is efficacious to a depth of three meters.”

He switched it on, and waved it over his tools. Sure enough, it detected a shovel and a pickax, chattering away like a set of agitated false teeth. Massot was delighted. “
Vous voyez?
When he finds metal, he talks. Better than digging, eh?”

I said that it was very impressive, and that I’d keep it safely locked up in the house until tomorrow.

“Tomorrow?” said Massot. “But we must start now.”

I said it would be dark in half an hour, and Massot nodded patiently, as though I had finally grasped a very complex theory.

“Exactly!” He put down the metal detector and took hold of my arm. “We don’t want the world watching us, do we? This kind of work is best done at night. It is more
discret. Allez!
You bring the tools.”

There is another difficulty, I said. My wife and I are going out.

Massot stopped dead and stared at me, his eyebrows drawing themselves up to their full height in astonishment.

“Out? Tonight? Now?”

My wife called from the house. We were already late. Massot shrugged at the curious hours we kept, but insisted that tonight was the night. He would have to do it all, he said plaintively, himself. Could I lend him a flashlight? I showed him how to switch on the spotlight behind the well, which he adjusted so that it lit the area by the rose bed, muttering in irritation at being left
tout seul

We stopped halfway down the drive and looked back at Massot’s elongated shadow moving through the trees, which were bathed in the glow of the spotlight. The ticking of the metal detector carried clearly in the evening air, and I had misgivings about the secrecy of the enterprise. We might as well have put up a sign at the end of the drive saying

We told our friends over dinner about the treasure hunt that was going on more or less under the cover of darkness. The husband, who had been born and raised in the Lubéron, was not optimistic. He told us that when metal detectors had first become available they were more popular with the peasants than hunting dogs. It was true that some gold had been found. But now, he said, the area had been combed so thoroughly that Massot would be lucky to find an old horseshoe.

Even so, he couldn’t deny the existence of our two
. There they were, on the table in front of him. He picked them up and chinked them in his hand. Who knows? Maybe we’d be lucky. Or maybe Massot would be lucky and we’d never hear about it. Was he someone who could be trusted? My wife and I looked at each other and decided it was time to go.

It was just after midnight when we got home, and Massot’s van had gone. The spotlight had been switched off, but there was enough of a moon for us to see large mounds of earth scattered haphazardly across what we were trying to turn into a lawn. We decided to face the full extent of the damage in the morning.

It was as if a giant mole, maddened by claustrophobia, had been coming up for air and spitting out mouthfuls of metal. There were nails, fragments of a cartwheel rim, an ancient screwdriver, half a sickle, a dungeon-sized key, a brass rifle shell, bolts, bottle tops, the crumbling remains of a hoe, knife blades, the bottom of a sieve, birds’ nests of baling wire, unidentifiable blobs of pure rust. But no gold.

Most of the newly planted rosebushes had survived, and the lavender bed was intact. Massot must have run out of enthusiasm.

I left him to sleep until the afternoon before going over to hear his account of the night’s work. Long before I reached his house, I could hear the metal detector, and I had to shout twice to get him to look up from the bramble-covered hillock that he was sweeping. He bared his dreadful teeth in welcome. I was surprised to see him so cheerful. Maybe he had found something after all.

He shouldered the metal detector like a gun and waded toward me through the undergrowth, still smiling. I said he looked like a man who had been lucky.

Not yet, he said. He had been obliged to stop the previous night because my neighbors had shouted at him, complaining about the noise. I didn’t understand. Their house is 250 yards away from where he had been working. What had he been doing to keep them awake?

“Pas moi”
he said.
and he tapped the metal detector. “Wherever I went, he found something—
tak tak tak tak tak

But no gold, I said.

Massot leaned so close that for one awful moment I thought he was going to kiss me. His nose twitched, and his voice dropped to a wheezing whisper. “I know where it is.” He drew back and took a deep breath. “
Beh oui
. I know where it is.”

Although we were standing in the forest, with the nearest human being at least a kilometer away, Massot’s fear of being overheard was contagious, and I found myself whispering too.

“Where is it?”

“At the end of the

“Under the roses?”

“Under the

“Under the

Oui. C’est certaing
. On my grandmother’s head.”

This was not the straightforward good news that Massot obviously thought it was. The
around the pool was made up of flagstones nearly three inches thick. They had been laid on a bed of reinforced concrete, as deep as the flagstones were thick. It would be a demolition job just to get down to the earth. Massot sensed what I was thinking, and put the metal detector down so that he could talk with both hands.

“In Cavaillon,” he said, “you can rent a
. It will go through anything.

He was quite right. A miniature jackhammer would go through the flagstones, the reinforced concrete, the pipes feeding the pool, and the electric cables leading from the filtration pump in no time at all.
And maybe even
And when the dust had settled, we might very easily find nothing more than another sickle blade to add to our collection. I said no. With infinite regret, but no.

Massot took the decision well, and was pleased with the bottle of
I gave him for his trouble. But I see him from time to time standing on the path at the back of the house, looking down at the swimming pool, sucking thoughtfully at his moustache. God knows what he might do one drunken night if someone ever gave him a
for Christmas.

As Advertised

Perhaps because he still has memories of his earlier life as a homeless, hungry stray, Boy takes every opportunity to make himself as agreeable as possible around the house. He brings gifts—a fallen bird’s nest, a vine root, a half-masticated espadrille that he has been saving, a mouthful of undergrowth from the forest—and deposits them under the dining table with a messy generosity that he obviously feels will endear him to us. He contributes to the housework by leaving trails of leaves and dusty paw prints on the floor. He assists in the kitchen, acting as a mobile receptacle for any scraps that may fall from above. He is never more than a few feet away, desperately, noisily, clumsily anxious to please.

His efforts to charm are not confined exclusively to us, and he has his own unorthodox but well-meaning style of greeting visitors to the house. Dropping the tennis ball that he normally keeps tucked in one side of his enormous mouth, he buries his equally enormous head in the groin of anyone who comes through the door. It’s his version of a manly handshake, and our friends have come to expect it. They carry on talking,
and Boy, his social duties done, retires to collapse on the nearest pair of feet.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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