It’s time once again for the annual end-of-year musings we call Shadows and Reflections. Today Dexter Petley looks back over the past 12 months.
Brexit. An Allegory.
January, 2021. Jean-Pierre stood in the mud beside a wooden shed. Unshaven, yellow eyed, rust coloured snot running down his stubble. He looked worse than ever, his bulk grotesquely bloated by a padded anorak and ski-trousers. He stank to high heaven, another pinch of snuff before we shook hands grimly. This was grim business; my landlord was at vigil before a wood-fired copper still. Electric blue eau-de-vie plinked drip by drip, like a slow leaking tap into a filthy, plastic feed-bucket.
Vieille Maisons was a dead-end hamlet where the road turned to drover’s track, dropping through forest between eight ruined houses, three inhabitants living in the constant shadow of hills. Fiddling with the still was Monsieur Quoi, shoving in the chunks of wood, shaking his head at everything. Born beside the dung heap, his front door opened on to his cow shed. Bachelors all, they lived with dogs and animal skins. Quoi had a sister who drove an hour from town each weekend with a bowl of stew and a clean tea towel. Jean-Pierre had Lydie, his daughter, standing with her back against the wall, sweet thirty-one, riding boots welded to her legs. Never without her leather crop, she slept under a horse coat and could pick up a yard log in one hand. Half beauty, half beast, her face was hewed of summer sun and winter rain. Jean-Pierre’s face was made elsewhere, some former rat-race where the rats had beaten him to it. But for Lydie, the place would have gone to pieces round his ears.
What do you want?
My caravan burned down last night.
He was leaning on a carved alpine stick, its whipped leather thong twisted round his wrist, a brass hunting horn on red braided rope hanging from his neck.
You don’t seem surprised, Jean-Pierre.
No. What do you expect? You nearly burnt my barn down.
I’m busy with this. Go away.
He turned back to the still. One more unbearable blue drop as fingers rippled round his stick.
You think it was me?
Your stove wouldn’t light. You poured calvados on the wood then threw in a match. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It was like a recorded message in a stream of rage. It didn’t suit him, and he didn’t seem to notice. We usually got on well together, as one misfit to another, always on for a drink and a natter, Jean-Pierre the casual landlord who only charged a pittance for a gentleman’s handshake. Keep the well-pump primed and working, cut the grass, stop trees from falling on the barn and all will be sweet. The well pump broke down regularly. Deal with it, he’d shout. Lydie turned up with some mastic. Any problem whatsoever, you call for Lydie with the mastic.
I looked to Lydie now. She smiled and shrugged. There was no mastic left.
What’s going on?
It wasn’t us. The Mayor told Dad you were drunk.
Him and his adjoint. He said we’ll be fined. If you don’t leave, honestly. The field is non-habitable.
So you burnt my caravan down?
No, no, we didn’t. I’m sorry. Is your cat alright?
A dog with a red rag round its neck appeared from behind the shed and snuffed along the rat holes. Jean-Pierre was still furious.
Gitane! Viens ici!
A hunting dog, half griffon, it pranced up at Jean-Pierre. He wasn’t quick enough to move aside. Gammy leg from an accident felling trees, he still cut and sold his firewood. Lydie had to be there, Lydie had to start the chainsaw, shift the logs, load the trailer while Jean-Pierre wadded snuff up nostrils like a pair of duelling pistols.
What do I do now?
Because I live there!
What’s the problem? The law says I can’t kick you off till the end of March. Go sort it out.
He was smiling at my predicament, breaking into unnatural laughter. The dog still pranced around. Jean-Pierre snatched hold of its neck rag. A frisk and twist and it was free again, three steps backwards on its hind legs, then a spiralling, clumsy leap. Before anyone could move, he’d landed in the bucket. Both went over. Blue green booze, filling Jean-Pierre’s moonboot prints in the mud. Twenty-four hours they’d had the alambic fired up. Twenty-four hours they’d stood and watched it, one drip at a time. My involuntary laugh was only that. Jean-Pierre turned on me and raised his stick.
You. You’re a dreamer. Putain de merde. Yes. Dreamer! Soixante-huitard! Sixty-eighter! Get out. Don’t ever come here again.
A misty evening at the end of September. Tonton Jacques was at the campsite again. It had become a regular gathering, Jojo, Lionel and Tonton. They sat drinking under the corrugated roof of the washroom now the nights were drawing in. I came outside for water and they saw me, raising their cups.
Bring your cowboy mug.
It was fist thumping again, the same old bitterness spilling into the same old questions on the back of it: What are the English doing here? Why do they have to come?
You tell us one bastard thing they do for the good.
Four English pubs nearby? A Scottish brewery, an English brewery, English newspaper, mobile chip shop? What about the paperback library, video shop, yoga farm, akido farm, a business directory of ex-pat builders on the black, Anglican vicar, Welsh potter, Land Rover restorer, stables, bike tours, curry importers, English hanging baskets and a cricket league? No, the French kept clear of it all. I put red booze in the mug and shook my head. What a shambles. Here was Jojo in his blue overalls and work-boots. Lionel in a lorry driver’s sweater, zipped neck, ball cap and hunting trousers. Tonton Jacques in cap and cancer cast-offs. Lionel with his wire wool moustache and instant temper pounded the table to make the flies jump. Jojo knocked his wine over in self-parody and Tonton Jacques grinned around the one tooth left clinging to his upper gum by a last root. These were my homeless companions, the Pieds Nickelés on a camp site where no one ever camped.
It’s fair to admit, Tonton said. They helped us in 1944, really.
Fat lot of good that did you. I’m talking about now. Why do you lot come here?
Yeah, they’re even building a tunnel to Calais, Jojo said. Next year they’ll all come in, hordes and hordes of bloody English pouring through a tunnel like sewage.
Lionel was on his feet and seized me by the lapels. The open bottle toppled over. Jojo snatched it by the neck as wine glugged out.
What about your mate? he shouted. That English farmer. A bourgeois in dirty clothes. You tell me why he lives like a tramp when he doesn’t have to.
Yeah, he’s right, Jojo said. He’s one of them tramps with millions under the mattress.
I only had myself to blame. On judgement day, you save your own skin and point out your friend. Would I save Piers from the mob? If ever they came, I would. Piers was only a Georgian at heart. The factory made Camembert from his milk. His “forever England” was a Dubonnet advert fading on a roadside house. A Citroen DS with a mother of pearl hooter, a corner of a champs d’honneur that Jojo should have had. Every commune in France had a Piers, an Englishman with his clutter, his rotting cars scattered round a muddy yard, an aged mother living in a faded pile back in Granchester. His old dogs are buried in their shallow graves, his wife has gone off because there are no shops, or the nearest cinema is in French. He drank because there was nothing else. He became ill because the houses are made of bloody mud. At least he was living in the past he’d never had. The truth was that simple – better the past you never had. The expatriate always was a time traveller. A present where old widows totter round their hovels in a pair of wooden clogs. Where Jojo feeds his chickens like in an old painting. Where the cow woman in a house-coat rocks on a Breton hip. Where the village idiot slobbers a yard of dribble and bellows in the middle of a pot-holed lane at passing tractors. Even Piers longed to smash windows on a moony night and run behind the cows with his brothers. He wasn’t there for the chic or the wine cellars; he shopped in Asda on long weekends in Blighty, bought Welsh chicken pies off some bloke from Wrexham who drove a van round Normandy once a week. Eating out was a 65-franc menu with half a dozen builders. Friday was music night, a booze up down the Rugby Tavern, four live pensioners jamming for Essex by the dart board. They all came to France to be poor, to drive their cars into the ground, to wear out their clothes in peace. They came to be themselves, in a world of their own creation, half obscured in reality, half dreamt up by Maupassant and The British Council, 1943. They think it’s all over…It is now.