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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“Are you him?” asked the blonde.

“Yes,” said my wife. “What a pity. We’re just going out.” Blondes are probably used to reactions like that from wives. She left.

“That might have been a fan,” I said to my wife.

“She can go and be a fan somewhere else,” she said. “And you can take that smirk off your face.”

During July and August we became used to finding unfamiliar faces at the front door. Most of them were apologetic and well-mannered, just wanting their books signed, grateful for a glass of wine and a few minutes sitting in the courtyard out of the heat of the sun. They all seemed to be fascinated by the stone table we had finally managed to install with such difficulty.

“So
this
is The Table,” they’d say, walking around it and running their fingers over the surface as if it was one of Henry Moore’s best efforts. It was a very curious sensation to have ourselves, our dogs (who loved it), and our house inspected with such interest. And, I suppose inevitably, there were times when it wasn’t curious but irritating, when a visit felt more like an invasion.

Unseen by us one afternoon when the temperature was over 100 degrees, the husband, the wife, and the wife’s friend, noses and knees sunburned to a matching angry red, had parked at the end of the drive and walked up to the house. The dogs were asleep and hadn’t heard them. When I went indoors to get a beer, I found them in the sitting room, chatting to each other as they examined the books and the furniture. I was startled. They weren’t.

“Ah, there you are,” said the husband. “We read the bits in the Sunday
Times
, so we decided to pop in.”

That was it. No excuses, no hint of awkwardness, no thought that I might not be thrilled to see them. They didn’t even have a copy of the book. Waiting for the paperback to come out, they said. Hardcover books are so expensive these days. They oozed an unfortunate mixture of familiarity and condescension.

It is not often that I take against people on sight, but I took against them. I asked them to leave.

The husband’s red wattles turned even redder, and he puffed up like an aggrieved turkey who had just been told the bad news about Christmas.

“But we’ve driven all the way over from Saint-Remy.” I asked him to drive all the way back, and they left in a cloud of muttering. That’s
one
book we won’t be buying, only wanted to
look
, anyone would think it was Buckingham Palace.

I watched them march down the drive to their Volvo, shoulders rigid with indignation, and thought about getting a Rottweiler.

After that, the sight of a car slowing down and stopping on the road in front of the house was the signal for what came to be known as a crawler alert. “Make yourself decent,” my wife would say, “I think they’re coming up the drive. No—they’ve stopped at the mailbox.” And later on, when I went down to collect the post, there was a copy of the book in a plastic bag, to be signed and left under a stone on top of the well. The next day it was gone; taken, I hoped, by the considerate people who had delivered it without wanting to disturb us.

By the end of summer, we were not the only ones to have received some attention from the public. Our neighbour Faustin had been asked to autograph a book, which had puzzled him since, as he said, he was not an
écrivang
. When I told him that people had been reading about him in England, he took off his cap and smoothed his hair and said
Ah bon?
twice, sounding rather pleased.

Maurice the chef had also done his share of signing, and said he’d never had so many English customers in his restaurant. Some of them had been surprised to find that he actually existed; they thought I’d made him up. Others had arrived with copies of the book and had ordered, down to the final glass of
marc
, a meal that they had read about.

And then there was the celebrity plumber, Monsieur Menicucci, who drops in from time to time between his
oeuvres
to share with us his thoughts on politics, wild mushrooms, climatic irregularities, the prospects for the French rugby team, the genius of Mozart, and any exciting developments in the world of sanitary fittings. I gave him a copy of the book and
showed him passages in which he had starred, and told him that some of our visitors had expressed a desire to meet him.

He adjusted his woollen bonnet and straightened the collar of his old check shirt.
“C’est vrai?”

Yes, I said, absolutely true. His name had even appeared in the Sunday
Times
. Perhaps I should organize a signing session for him.

“Ah, Monsieur Peter, vous rigolez.”
But I could see that he was not displeased at the idea, and he went off holding his book as carefully as if he were carrying a fragile and expensive bidet.

The voice on the other end of the phone could have come all the way from Sydney, cheerful and twangy.

“G’day. Wally Storer here, from the English Bookshop in Cannes. Plenty of Brits down here, and your book’s going nicely. How about coming along to sign a few copies one day during the Film Festival?”

I have always had doubts about the literary appetite of people in the film business. An old friend who works in Hollywood confessed that he had read one book in six years, and he was considered a borderline intellectual. If you mention Rimbaud in Bel Air it is assumed that you’re talking about Sylvester Stallone. I didn’t hold out much hope for writer’s cramp and mammoth sales. Even so, I thought it would be fun. Maybe I’d see a star, or a topless sensation on the Croisette, or—the rarest sight in town—a smiling waiter on the Carlton Hotel terrace. I said I’d be happy to come.

It was hot and sunny, bad weather for bookshops, as I joined the traffic crawling into town. Bright new signs on the lampposts announced that Cannes was twinned with Beverly
Hills, and I could imagine the mayors finding endless excuses to exchange visits in the cause of municipal friendship and the shared interest of taking free holidays.

Outside the Palais des Festivals, what seemed to be the entire Cannes police force, equipped with revolvers, walkie-talkies, and sunglasses, was busy creating a series of traffic jams and making sure Clint Eastwood didn’t get kidnapped. With the skill that comes from many years of practice, they directed cars into snarling knots and then whistled at them furiously, sending the drivers off to the next snarling knot with irritated jerks of the head. It took me 10 minutes to cover 50 yards. When I finally reached the vast underground car park, I saw that an earlier victim of the chaos had scrawled on the wall: “Cannes is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to spend the day here.”

I went to a café on the Croisette to have breakfast and look for stars. Everyone else was doing the same thing. Never have so many unknowns inspected each other so carefully. All the girls were wearing pouts and trying to look bored. All the men carried listings of the films to be shown that day and made important notes in the margins. One or two cordless phones were placed with casual prominence next to the croissants, and everyone displayed plastic delegates’ badges and the obligatory Festival bag, with
Le Film Français/Cannes 90
printed on it. There was no mention of
Le Film Américain
or
Le Film Anglais
, but I suppose that’s one of the advantages of being the host on these occasions; you get to choose the bags.

The Croisette was planted with a forest of posters carrying the names of actors, directors, producers, and, for all I knew, hairdressers. They were positioned directly opposite the big hotels, presumably so that the hero of each poster could see
his name every morning from his bedroom window before having the traditional Cannes breakfast of ham and ego. A feeling of hustle was in the air, of big deals and big bucks, and the groups of hustlers walking along the Croisette were oblivious to the old beggar sitting on the pavement outside the Hotel Majestic with a lonely 20-centime piece in his upturned, tattered hat.

Fortified by my dose of glamour, I left the moguls to it and went down the narrow Rue Bivouac-Napoleon to the English Bookshop, preparing for the odd experience of sitting in a shop window hoping for someone—anyone—to ask me to sign a book. I’d done one or two signings before. They were unnerving occasions when I had been stared at from a safe distance by people who were unwilling to venture within talking range. Perhaps they thought I’d bite. Little did they know the relief authors feel when a brave spirit approaches the table. After a few minutes of sitting on your own, you’re ready to clutch at any straw and sign anything from books and photographs to old copies of
Nice-Matin
and checks.

Fortunately, Wally Storer and his wife had anticipated author’s funk and had stocked the shop with friends and customers. What inducements they had used to drag them off the beach I didn’t know, but I was grateful to be kept busy, and I even started to wish I’d brought Monsieur Menicucci along. He could have answered much better than I why French drains behave and smell the way they do, which I found to be a topic of common curiosity among English expatriates. Isn’t it strange, they said, that the French are so good at sophisticated technology like high-speed trains and electronic telephone systems and the Concorde, and yet revert to the 18th century in their bathrooms. Only the other day, an elderly lady informed me, she had flushed her toilet and
the remains of a mixed salad had surfaced in the bowl. Really, it was
too bad
. That sort of thing would never happen in Cheltenham.

The signing came to an end, and we went round the corner to a bar. Americans and English outnumbered the natives, but natives in Cannes are few and far between. Even many of the police, I was told, are imported from Corsica.

They were still patrolling the Croisette when I left, toying with the traffic and eyeing the girls who sauntered by in varying stages of undress. The old beggar hadn’t moved from his pitch in front of the Majestic, and his 20-centime piece was as lonely as ever. I dropped some coins in his hat and he told me, in English, to have a nice day. I wondered if he was practicing for Beverly Hills.

Boy

My wife first saw him on the road into Ménerbes. He was walking along beside a man whose neat, clean clothes contrasted sharply with his own disreputable appearance, a filthy rug hung over a framework of bones. And yet, despite the matted coat and burr-encrusted head, it was obvious that this dog was one of a breed peculiar to France, a species of rough-haired pointer known officially as the Griffon Korthals. Beneath that shabby exterior lurked a
chien de race
.

One of our dogs was a Korthals, but they are not often seen in Provence, and so my wife stopped the car to talk to a fellow owner. What a coincidence it was, she said, that she had one of the same unusual breed.

The man looked down at the dog, who had paused to take a dust bath, and stepped backwards to distance himself from the tangle of legs and ears that was squirming in the ditch.

“Madame,”
he said, “he accompanies me, but he is not my dog. We met on the road. I don’t know who he belongs to.”

When my wife returned from the village and told me about
the dog, I should have seen trouble coming. Dogs are to her what mink coats are to other women; she would like a house full of them. We already had two, and I thought that was quite enough. She agreed, although without conviction, and during the next few days I noticed that she kept looking hopefully down to the road to see if the apparition was still in the neighborhood.

It would probably have ended there if a friend hadn’t called from the village to tell us that a dog just like one of ours was spending every day outside the
épicerie
, drawn by the scent of hams and homemade
pâtés
. Each night he disappeared. Nobody in the village knew his owner. Perhaps he was lost.

My wife had a
crise de chien
. She had found out that lost or abandoned dogs are kept by the
Société Protectrice des Animaux
(the French ASPCA) for less than a week. If unclaimed, they are put down. How could we let this happen to any dog, let alone a nobly born creature of undoubted pedigree?

I telephoned the SPA and drew a blank. My wife began to spend several hours a day in the village on the pretext of buying a loaf of bread, but the dog had vanished. When I said that he had obviously gone back home, my wife looked at me as though I had suggested roasting a baby for dinner. I telephoned the SPA again.

Two weeks passed without sight of the dog. My wife moped, and the man at the SPA became bored with our daily calls. And then our contact at the
épicerie
came up with some hard news: the dog was living in the forest outside the house of one of her customers, who was giving him scraps and letting him sleep on the terrace.

I have rarely seen a woman move so quickly. Within half an hour my wife was coming back up the drive with a smile visible from fifty yards away. Next to her in the car I could
see the enormous shaggy head of her passenger. She got out of the car, still beaming.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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