The most visible local landmark is a solitary two-headed Jurassic mountain called Le Bessillon, six miles long and 800 metres tall at the highest peak. These are unimpressive vital statistics for a mountain perhaps, but the Bessillon exerts a tremendous, almost uncanny presence on us all. The foreign correspondent and his wife have bought an 800-tree olive farm on a nearby hillside. From their outside dining table this great primeval slab and its forested sides can be seen in profile, like a finely drawn illustration in a Victorian encyclopedia. Between the dining table and the mountain is nothing but oak forest and pylons, and beyond it more oak forest until a distant village on a plateau. (The elegance of French electricity pylons and barbed wire makes me laugh.)
For our deconfinement dinner party, in order to conform to the still relevant social distancing rules, the place settings were almost as widely spaced as the local geography. We were seven, with the mountain and its immense presence at the head of the table. As well as the foreign correspondent and his wife, there was the cosmologist and his wife and ten-year-old son and Catriona and myself. We were shaded from the late afternoon sun by a gigantic walnut tree.
When the frontiers closed two months ago, the cosmologist and his family were among the last across. Until this evening their only contact with the outside world had been the tip of the cosmologist’s little finger, with which he pressed a village doorbell, upon which a shopkeeper would turn out and place the cosmologist’s weekly groceries in the boot of his car, then close the tailgate. Then the cosmologist would drive back to his house in the woods, disinfect the tip of his little finger, and put gloves on to bring the groceries indoors. Apart from delivery drivers, the foreign correspondent and his wife had seen just one other person — the gardener.
I didn’t dare publicly estimate how many other people’s aerosol particulate Catriona and I have inhaled over the past eight weeks. The cheerful baker’s; the intellectual tobacconist’s; the conscientious bank manager’s; the terrifying woman in the post office’s and the one in the delicatessen who has lately mellowed; the saintly beautician’s; the emaciated garage mechanic’s. As well as these, Catriona has visited every big supermarket within a 20-mile radius plus the hardware superstore and the pharmacy almost daily. In fact, if there’s been a shop open in Provence during the lockdown that she hasn’t visited I’d like to know about it in order to personally apologise to them. And I dare say that if French epidemiologists had studied her movements over the past two months, they would have concluded that the coronavirus was harder to catch than was previously thought, and the science would have been advanced.
So I hurriedly changed the subject to botched sex, as I call it. Before the confinement I had grown weary of listening to other people at dinner tables describing the plots of the box sets they’d watched as though they were real life. During lockdown, however, I belatedly watched two series of The Crown, enjoyed every minute, and found a new personal hero and role model in royal equerry Tommy Lascelles, cheering every time he hoved lugubriously into view.
But happily we were too hilariously pleased to see one another for box sets to make the agenda. Instead the cosmologist produced bottle after bottle of champagne and talked about black holes. I asked the cosmologist’s ten-year-old son if he’d ever killed anything, and he hadn’t killed a single living thing in his life, not even a fly. Then he invited me to a party. I asked him for a sample of the guest list. It was just two people: me and him. We were to play this war game he’d invented.
But I badly wanted to talk to the foreign correspondent about world affairs. He’s been in more wars than I’ve had hot dinners, knows everything, has met everyone. Presently I am a lost sheep. The foreign correspondent is my shepherd. I moved my chair closer to his and broached the subject. But two months spent living out of doors on his new olive farm beside the magic mountain had changed him. Shaggy-haired, his noble face burnt by the sun, he had retreated from the world of men and affairs and found peace as a disciple of the great god Pan. You could see it. You had only to observe the dried mud under his broken fingernails, the stubble, the black cuts, and his beatified expression against the mountain to realise the futility of asking this half-man, half-olive tree what he thought the Chinese Communist party might do next. His one thought on the subject was to ask for my empty beaker and then to tip wine negligently into it until it overflowed. I was so glad for him.
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