It rained all day long last Friday in Provence, and it rained all night, and on Saturday morning it was still raining. The rain fell out of a lowering, field-grey blanket of a sky. After breakfast and a wash, we assembled in the living room wondering what to do with ourselves on a day such as this. There were four of us: a couple en route for England who arrived in a Land Rover packed to the roof with possessions; our hostess; and me.
The ugly breeze-block house with a large tiled terrace was perched on the side of a hill. Fountains sprayed in unlikely directions from leaking joints in the rain gutters. The rain came down faster than the drains could take it away from the terrace, flooding it. The unmade road below the house was a torrent. Lightning brightened the living room, flickering continuously, as in a horror film.
We lit the fire and sat quietly and cosily around it absorbed in our phones and iPads like a lot of teenagers. A raindrop fell from a damp patch on the living-room ceiling and splashed on to my thigh. A report came in from the kitchen of a large puddle with no discernible source spreading across the floor. Another was creeping across the floor in the hall. A crack of thunder directly overhead rattled the glass in the windows and made us look up from our devices.
Around noon the deluge eased a little. The bouncing curtain of water became merely heavy rain. You could see between the raindrops. We took a vote and decided to venture out for a drive and perhaps a glass of pastis in a village bar somewhere.
What makes Provence attractive is the quality and clarity of the sunlight. Take that away and the place is as dreary as anywhere else in the rain. The endless rows of vines, recently roughed up by mechanical grape harvesters, drooped miserably. Pan-tiled old stone villas, fabulous in sunshine, now appeared unkempt and dilapidated. Stony debris washed down from unmade side roads created hazards on the sealed roads. The rain-blackened countryside was as deserted as it might have been in times of war or plague. Villages known for their rustic charm were oppressively dreary.
In one of these we saw a light on in a bar and parked. Before going in, we made a pretence of being cultured as well as pissheads by venturing inside a nearby church, whose door was ajar, for a quick look around. Inside, I put a euro in a slot in the wall and, possessed with nearly an identical spirit to the one in which I sometimes buy a lottery ticket, lit a candle. Seeing this, the other chap in our party, Charlie, put a euro in the slot, took a candle, and put it in his pocket, saying that he couldn’t obtain such good-quality candles as that for 75 pence in England. So I prayed my one-euro prayer for Charlie’s one-euro soul.
The tiny bar was full of rained-off, shouting boar-hunters. We ordered a glass of pastis each and tried to hear ourselves speak above the noise. A woman in black leather trousers, her face streaked with mascara, came in out of the rain and went around laboriously planting a noisy kiss on every cheek in the bar. Then she gravely imparted a short message to the barman and took her affectionate and meticulous leave with a second round of embraces and kisses. Then the boar-hunters knocked back their drinks and everyone in the bar was planting kisses on everyone else as well as shouting. Then they were gone, and their absence strangely depressed us, and we sat and stared out of the window and watched the stair rods bouncing off the village square and war memorial. Then we drank up and drove back to the house for a bowl of home-made spinach soup by the fire.
In the afternoon, Charlie, who gets restless indoors, said he had a chainsaw in the back of the Land Rover, and sod it, why didn’t he and I go outside and chop up that fallen pine tree he’d spotted on the hillside. He had recently bought the chainsaw online, brand-new, for a bargain £99, and he was so pleased with it, he said, he was recommending it to all his friends. So out we went into the rain and the lightning and spent the afternoon on the muddy hillside, soaked to the skin, slicing up the trunk of this pine tree, and splitting the rings with his maul, also new, and at only £40 another online bargain. And I have to say that chainsawing and swinging that maul in the rain and the mud, far from being a soggy trial, turned out to be the happiest afternoon I’d spent for a long time.
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