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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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Before trying to find the man in St. Pantaleon, I decided to get a second opinion. My neighbor Massot would know about toads. He knew, so he frequently told me, everything there was to know about nature, the weather, and any living
creature that walked or flew or crawled across Provence. He was a little shaky on politics and property prices, but there was nobody to touch him on wildlife.

I walked along the track at the edge of the forest to the clammy little hollow where Massot’s house was huddled into the side of a steep bank. His three dogs hurled themselves toward me until their chains jerked them up on their hind legs. I stayed out of range and whistled. There was the sound of something falling to the floor and a curse—
putain!
—and Massot appeared at the door with dripping orange-colored hands.

He came up the drive and kicked his dogs into silence, and gave me his elbow to shake. He had been decorating, he said, to make his property even more desirable when he resumed his efforts to sell it in the spring. Did I not think the orange was very gay?

After admiring his artistic judgment, I asked him what he could tell me about toads. He plucked at his moustache, turning half of it orange before remembering the paint on his fingers.

“Merde.”
He rubbed his moustache with a rag, spreading paint over his already garish complexion, which the wind and cheap wine had seasoned to the color of a new brick.

He looked pensive, and then shook his head.

“I have never eaten toads,” he said. “Frogs, yes. But toads, never. Doubtless there is an English recipe. No?”

I decided not to attempt describing the English delicacy called toad-in-the-hole. “I don’t want to eat them. I want to know if they can sing.”

Massot peered at me for a moment, trying to make up his mind whether I was serious. He bared his dreadful teeth. “Dogs can sing,” he said. “You just kick them in the
couilles
and then …” He lifted his head and howled. “Toads might sing. Who knows? It is all a question of training with animals. My uncle in Forcalquier had a goat that danced whenever it heard an accordion. It was very droll, that goat, although in my opinion not as graceful as a pig I once saw with some gypsies—now
there
was a dancer. Tres
délicat
, despite the size.”

I told Massot what I had overheard in the café. Did he, by any chance, know the man who trained toads?

“Non.
Il
n’est pas du coin
.” St. Pantaléon, although only a few kilometers away, was on the other side of the main N100 road and was therefore regarded as foreign territory.

Massot was starting to tell me an improbable story about a tame lizard when he remembered his painting, proferred his elbow once again, and went back to his orange walls. On the way home, I came to the conclusion that it was no use asking any of our other neighbors about events taking place so far away. I would have to go to St. Pantaléon and continue my research there.

St. Pantaléon is not large, even by village standards. There might be a hundred inhabitants, there is an
auberge
, and there is a tiny 12th-century church with a graveyard cut out of rock. The graves have been empty for years, but the shapes remain, some of them baby-sized. It was eerie and cold that day, with the
mistral
rattling the branches of trees, bare as bones.

An old woman was sweeping her doorstep with the wind at her back, helping the dust and empty Gauloise packets on their way to her neighbor’s doorstep. I asked her if she could direct me to the house of the gentleman with the singing toads. She rolled her eyes and disappeared into the house, slamming the door behind her. As I walked on, I could see
the curtain twitch at her window. At lunchtime, she would tell her husband about a mad foreigner roaming the streets.

Just before the bend in the road that leads to Monsieur Aude’s workshop—
the Ferronerie d’Art
—a man was crouched over his Mobylette, poking it with a screwdriver. I asked him.

“Beh oui,”
he said. “It is Monsieur Salques. They say he is an
amateur
of toads, but I have never met him. He lives outside the village.”

I followed his directions until I came to a small stone house set back from the road. The gravel on the drive looked as though it had been combed, the mailbox was freshly painted, and a business card, protected by Perspex, announced in copperplate script,
HONORÉ SALQUES
,
ÉTUDES DIVERSES
. That seemed to cover almost any field of study. I wondered what else he did in between supervising choir practice with his toads.

He opened the door as I was walking up the drive and watched me, his head thrust forward and his eyes bright behind gold-rimmed glasses. He radiated neatness, from his precisely parted black hair down to his noticeably clean small shoes. His trousers had sharp creases and he wore a tie. I could hear the sound of flute music coming from inside the house.

“At last,” he said. “The telephone has been
en panne
for three days. It is a disgrace.” He pecked his head toward me. “Where are your tools?”

I explained that I hadn’t come to repair his phone, but to learn about his interesting work with toads. He preened, smoothing his already smooth tie with a neat white hand.

“You’re English. I can tell. How pleasing to hear that news of my little celebration has reached England.”

I didn’t like to tell him that it had been the cause of
considerable disbelief as close as Lumières, and since he was now in a good humor I asked if I could perhaps visit the choir. He made little clucking noises and wagged a finger under my nose. “It is clear you know nothing about toads. They do not become active until spring. But if you wish, I will show you where they are. Wait there.”

He went into the house, and reappeared wearing a thick cardigan against the chill, carrying a flashlight and a large old key labeled, in copperplate script,
STUDIO
. I followed him through the garden until we came to a beehive-shaped building made from dry, flat stones—one of the
bories
that were typical of Vaucluse architecture a thousand years ago.

Salques opened the door and shone the flashlight into the
borie
. Against the walls were banks of sandy soil, sloping down to an inflatable plastic paddling pool in the middle. Hanging from the ceiling above the pool was a microphone, but there was no sign of any of the
artistes
.

“They are asleep in the sand,” said Salques, gesturing with his flashlight. “Here”—he shone the flashlight along the bank at the foot of the left wall—“I have the species
Bufo viridis
. The sound it makes resembles a canary.” He puckered up his mouth and trilled for me. “And over here”—the torch swept across to the opposite bank of soil—“the
Bufo calamita
. It has a vocal sac capable of enormous expansion, and the call is
très, très fort
.” He sunk his chin into his chest and croaked. “You see? There is a great contrast between the two sounds.”

Monsieur Salques then explained how he was going to produce music from what seemed to me to be unpromising material. In the spring, when a bufo’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of mating, the inhabitants of the sandy banks were
going to emerge and frolic in the paddling pool, singing their songs of love. For reasons of genetic modesty, this would only take place at night, but—
pas de problème
—every birdlike squeak and manly croak would be passed via a microphone to a tape recorder in Monsieur Salques’s study. From there, it would be edited, remixed, leveled, synthesized, and generally transformed through the magic of electronics until it became recognizable as the
“Marseillaise.”

And that was only the beginning. With 1992 soon to be upon us, Monsieur Salques was composing a completely original opus—a national anthem for the countries of the Common Market. Did I not find that an exciting concept?

Far from being excited, my reaction was deep disappointment. I had been hoping for live performances, massed bands of toads with their enormous vocal sacs swelling in unison, Salques conducting from his podium, the star contralto toad delivering a poignant solo, the audience hanging on to every squeak and gribbet. That would have been a musical experience to treasure.

But electronically processed croaking? It was eccentric, certainly, but it lacked the fine untrammeled lunacy of the living toad choir. As for a Common Market anthem, I had serious doubts. If the bureaucrats in Brussels could take years to reach agreement on simple matters like the color of a passport and the acceptable bacteria count in yogurt, what hope was there of consensus on a tune, let alone a tune sung by toads? What would Mrs. Thatcher say?

In fact, I knew what Mrs. Thatcher would say—“They must be
British
toads”—but I didn’t want to mingle politics with art, so I just asked the obvious question.

Why use toads?

Monsieur Salques looked at me as though I was being deliberately obtuse. “Because,” he said, “it has never been done.”

Of course.

During the months of spring and early summer, I often thought of going back to see how Monsieur Salques and his toads were getting on, but I decided to wait until July, when the
concerto Bufo
would have been recorded. With luck, I might also hear the anthem of the Common Market.

But when I arrived at the house, there was no Monsieur Salques. A woman with a face like a walnut opened the door, clutching the business end of a vacuum cleaner in her other hand.

Was Monsieur at home? The woman backed into the house and turned off the vacuum cleaner.

Now. He has departed for Paris. After a pause, she added: For the celebrations of the
Bicentenaire
.

Then he will have taken his music?

That I cannot say. I am the housekeeper.

I didn’t want to waste the trip entirely, so I asked if I could see the toads.

Non. They are tired. Monsieur Salques has said they must not be disturbed.

Thank you,
Madame
.

De rien. Monsieur
.

In the days leading up to July 14th, the papers were filled with news of the preparations in Paris—the floats, the fireworks, the visiting heads of state, Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe—but nowhere could I find any mention, even in the culture sections, of the singing toads. Bastille Day came and went without a single croak. I knew he should have done it live.

No Spitting in
   Châteauneuf-du-Pape

August in Provence is a time to lie low, to seek shade, to move slowly, and to limit your excursions to very short distances. Lizards know best, and I should have known better.

It was in the high eighties by 9:30, and when I got into the car I immediately felt like a piece of chicken about to be
sautéed
. I looked at the map to find roads that would keep me away from the tourist traffic and heat-maddened truck drivers, and a bead of sweat dropped from my nose to score a direct hit on my destination—Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the small town with the big wine.

Months before, in the winter, I had met a man called Michel at a dinner to celebrate the engagement of two friends of ours. The first bottles of wine came. Toasts were proposed. But I noticed that while the rest of us were merely drinking, Michel was conducting a personal, very intense ritual.

He stared into his glass before picking it up, then cupped it in the palm of his hand and swirled it gently three or four times. Raising the glass to eye level, he peered at the traces of wine that his swirling had caused to trickle down the inner
sides. His nose, with nostrils alert and flared, was presented to the wine and made a thorough investigation. Deep sniffing. One final swirl, and he took the first mouthful, but only on trial.

It obviously had to pass several tests before being allowed down the throat. Michel chewed it for a few reflective seconds. He pursed his lips and took a little air into his mouth and made discreet rinsing noises. Lifting his eyes to heaven, he flexed his cheeks in and out to encourage a free flow around tongue and molars and then, apparently satisfied with the wine’s ability to withstand an oral assault, he swallowed.

He noticed that I had been watching the performance, and grinned.
“Pas mal, pas mal.”
He took another, less elaborate swallow, and saluted the glass with raised eyebrows. “It was a good year, ’85.”

As I found out during dinner, Michel was a
négociant
, a professional wine drinker, a buyer of grapes and a seller of nectar. He specialized in the wines of the south, from Tavel
rosé
(the favorite wine, so he said, of Louis XIV) through the gold-tinged whites to the heavy, heady reds of Gigondas. But of all the wines in his extensive collection, his
merveille
, the one he would like to die drinking, was the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

He described it as though he were talking about a woman. His hands caressed the air. Delicate kisses dusted his fingertips, and there was much talk of body and bouquet and
puissance
. It was not unknown, he said, for a Châteauneuf to reach fifteen percent of alcoholic content. And these days, when Bordeaux seems to get thinner every year and the price of Burgundy is only possible for the Japanese, the wines of Châteauneuf are nothing less than bargains. I must come up to his
caves
and see for myself. He would arrange a
dégustation
.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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