Low life

How to survive a French heatwave

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

Me in a black polo-neck jumper looking sour; Oscar wearing a floppy hat; her youngest daughter nude and stooping to dry her feet with a towel; a mountain profile at dusk; a labourer’s stone hut in a vineyard; a copy of Augustus John’s ‘Robin’.

Strangely inspired by John’s ‘Robin’, Catriona first picked up a paintbrush 18 months ago, and these pictures, collected and hung on the wall of the local bar, comprised her first public exhibition. They will hang there for the month of August and she held a vernissage to celebrate the occasion. About 50 people turned up from six o’clock onwards and mingled with about an equal number of the bar’s usual clientele. Food and drink was a tray of nibbles and a couple of wine boxes on a trestle table.

It had been a day of insupportable heat. I’d spent the afternoon in the bedroom with the shutters and windows closed, and the curtains drawn, lying naked on a towel on the bed under a wobbling ceiling fan unable to speak or think or move other than to totter to the bathroom every so often and stand under a tepid shower. At six o’clock the evening air inside the bar was stifling still, and after a cursory gander at the paintings the majority of the guests sensibly fled with their plastic glasses of boxed wine to the outside terrace where the air under the trees was noticeably cooler. The conversational din made by the 50 guests, as they congratulated each other and themselves on surviving the afternoon furnace by standing in the shallow end of their private swimming-pools, was tremendous.

Cold beer, not wine, was what I wanted. Abjuring the wine boxes, I stood at the bar counter among the working-class regulars, downing one after another. In 12th-century England, knife wounds were assessed for compensation depending on size of wound and whether or not it was covered by clothing. Beside me at the counter was a sweating young local with a scar worth a shilling or two running up his neck as far as his cheek. Beside him was his nut-brown mate, who leaned back on the bar and watched the world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day, let alone the amateur art world, had never mattered.

A large TV screen with the sound up loud was showing a Chinese martial-arts film whose petite female star was athletically knocking seven bells out of a dozen or so witless Chinese bar toughs. Witless because instead of coordinating their attacks, they were coming at her one at a time. Whenever I looked up at the screen they were still queuing, and she was still battering them, and in the sultry heat one couldn’t help but admire her energy. The lanky French barman with his grey hair in a ponytail, naively confusing this sudden and amazing influx of English ex-pat bourgeoisie with emigré royalty, served me with meticulous and excessive politeness, carefully washing my beer glass each time he served me.

From time to time a vernissage guest would wander in from the crowded terrace to supplement their initial purely conscientious survey of Catriona’s pictures (before noticing the wine box) with a second, more considered appraisal. Other second-lookers who knew a bit about art were perhaps still trying to decide whether they could say with any sincerity that Catriona’s pictures were ‘good’ or, failing that, that they liked them. A passionate capitalist and early supporter of her work paid one of the nudes the ultimate compliment of a sordidly commercial look before sidling over to ask me if I was at liberty to divulge how much.

They don’t go on for very long, these vernissages. After a couple of hours, their appetite for art and gossip sated and some of them thoroughly pissed, the guests began to peel off. Valedictories were, in a few cases, extended to me as the artist’s help-meet. ‘Such an inspiration and privilege to be present at the debut of very a great artist. You must be very proud,’ said Glenda, before gritting her teeth and heading off to a rendezvous with death at some disputed barricade. Saying something about ‘putting the meat in’, Sandra kissed both my cheeks, gave me a bright, consoling smile, then took her husband’s elbow and steered him away down the middle of the street. ‘Very nice to meet you. You are a fortunate man,’ offered a departing grandee, while obviously thinking that the uninteresting life of an indigent man such as myself, so entirely given to the actuality of bare existence, must surely have its mysterious side.

Finally, Catriona. ‘Thanks for coming and being so good,’ she said, her face serious with exhaustion. She placed her thin forearm in mine and we set off up the narrow cobbled street towards the floodlit cliff, near the summit of which is the cave we now call home.

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