A dog barked and the spell was broken.
We climbed the stairs to the front door. Out of her rucksack Di pulled a bronze sign that she’d had made up in London and stuck it squarely and surely on the door. The house was claimed, ‘Chez Diane’. She then took out a set of keys attached to a blue metal key ring fashioned in the shape of the island, a closed hand with its thumb up. She slid her key into her door and pushed. Thick voiced and shiny eyed she whispered, “This is the start of something. Welcome to Chez Diane” and made a game and ungainly attempt to carry me over the threshold. Inside there was darkness and the smell of damp. I reached for the light switch. Nothing.
“Both the electricity and water are turned on from the downstairs shower room below”, said Di squinting at notes that Don and Marie had left us. As I made my way back down to the street level Titin was tapping his way up the path towards his house next door. He smiled and greeted me with a heavy accent and a firm handshake, his salty French was peppered with Corsican phrases and I struggled to understand anything but his benevolence. Behind him was a diminutive lady laden with brown paper bags; Titin introduced her to me as Lucie, his wife. She peered up at me through thick glasses and quacked like a duck before proceeding to her front door.
I put a shiny new key into the shower room door, turned it and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. I tried again. Titin put down his walking stick and gently pushed me aside. He crouched and yanked, to no avail. A scratch of his head, a slight change of angle, an indecipherable curse, was he pushing or pulling? Eventually he sat defeated on the step and looked around for inspiration. ‘Robert’ he shouted up at an open window. A face appeared covered in shaving foam. Seconds later a shirtless Robert was wiping the foam from his chin and shaking my hand.
“I live opposite with Valarie my wife and our son Vincent Antoine.” As we spoke an overweight black Labrador came trundling up the pathway smiling; it seemed as if her tail was wagging her, so happy was she to see us. She licked our fingers in turn before rolling on her back to reveal a soft pink under belly.
“This is Diane”, said Robert “she loves to be stroked. Diane is the guard dog of Marie Lucie, Valerie’s mother, who lives next door to us. As you can see she is ferocious.” A young woman emerged from his house holding a child in her arms, around her feet a yapping Yorkshire terrier seemed hell-bent on destruction. My sandaled ankles were exposed. I didn’t mean it as a kick, it just came across that way. Eyebrows were raised and I apologized. I wasn’t creating a very good first impression.
‘Wendy, tais tois!” shouted Valarie, glowering at me as she dragged the furious mutt back into her house.
“What’s all the noise?” barked a voice from behind. I turned to see a handsome middle-aged woman approaching.
“Ah, Marie Lucie” said Robert, “meet our new English neighbour. We are trying to open the door that I varnished two weeks ago.” Robert explained that he had recently modernized the shower room for Don and Marie. “I think I made a mistake” he continued to heave at the door, “It was perfect in the summer when Don and I fitted it. Perhaps since then, with the rain, maybe it has swollen.”
By now quite a crowd had gathered and soon everyone had chanced a tug at the unbudging door.
“It’s a bit like King Arthur and the sword in the stone isn’t it?” I chuckled. Robert looked at me quizzically. There was a quacking behind me; Lucie approached. She sternly eyeballed us all before quizzing Titin noisily.
“They are both quite deaf” whispered Marie Lucie “it sounds like they are fighting but, no, theirs is a love story.”
Again I was brushed aside as Lucie hitched up her heavy skirt, crouching low, like a weightlifter. One sharp tug, one quiet ‘quack’ and the door gave, to loud applause.
“Voila” said Lucie smiling bashfully.
“Excalibur” I said pointing to the door.
‘Quoi?” said our new neighbours in unison.
“Arthur” I pointed at Lucie.
“Quoi?” quacked Lucie.
A babbling explanation of English folklore and history was wasted on a bemused audience who, I’m sure, thought this prattling Englishman a prat.
Titin sighed and looked at his shoes.
At that moment Di appeared at the top of our stairs.
“Ah, and this is my Di, another Diane, but not a dog, as you can see”, I gibbered pitifully to Robert who was petting Di’s namesake “although, she too likes her tummy tickled…”
There was work to be done on the house. I am my father’s son and don’t have a practical bone in my body. Luckily we know a man who does. Gregg Etches is one of our oldest friends. If I were ever stuck in a plane without a pilot or instruction manual, I would radio Gregg to get me down safely. He’s not a pilot, he’s just that kind of a bloke, and actually, he’s terrified of flying. We invited he and his girlfriend Suzie to visit that Christmas. Together we stripped crusty wallpaper and painted rusty radiators. Fuelled by Pastis and pasta, we worked the day and feasted long into the night, gradually, imperceptibly; ‘Chez Diane’ became us.
On Christmas Eve we ate a ragout of sanglier, wild boar gifted to us by Alain the owner of Bar de Golfe, who we’d invited up to the house, with Patricia, his Irish wife and their three bemused children. Wearing party crowns and red plastic noses, we crowded around our tiny dinner table and peered at each other through the dim candlelight. Maurice was there too, and was dipping his bread into the last remaining juices of the stew, a compliment indeed. Without cue or introduction Gregg stood and danced with a chair, solemnly spinning it while we watched in delighted silence. Later we joined the villagers of Montemaggiore in the square where the wood fire would be burning deep into the New Year. There we ate chestnut polenta and ‘figatelle’, a regional blood sausage, which we washed down with rough local wine, a delicious red, served to us in plastic cups. We sat around the fire in a drunken daze, getting smoked like kippers, exhausted and elated, our new life full of possibility. Someone offered up a guitar with five strings and asked me to sing some of my songs. Reluctantly I cleared my throat and a respectful hush descended. As I started into my song Robert took out his lighter and held it in the air and one by one the folk of the village followed suit. I felt like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I finished my mournful song with appropriately knitted eyebrows and a dramatic flourish. Silence, polite applause and then, over on the dark side of the fire, someone coughed and asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?”
The smell of that fire is still with me.
I cannot remember being happier.