Good bye to the Agapanthus
Before I realize it my week is over.
In what seems like the blink of an eye, my island story is told.
I make my bed one final time and close the door of the room with it’s window that looks across the bay of sleeping boats at low tide and its ghostly presence at night.
I never did get around to writing about my need to check each room, cupboard and wardrobe before I went to bed.
I am not usually scared of night time. I wild camp without a second thought and sleep in a small tent with no fear. Darkness never bothers me, I have often cycled home alone with just my bicycle lamp to show me the way.
Yet, though this house is in the middle of the village and there is no crime on the island, I felt uneasy each night I spent in it. My unease coming from something inside the house rather than outside.
Of all the rooms, the bedroom opposite the one I chose to use, caused me the most anxiety.
My instinct was to close its door but to keep my one open so that I could keep a watchful eye.
But what I would do if I woke in the morning to find it open or worse, woke in the night to see the door handle slowly turning, I had no idea.
Eventually of course I fell asleep each night and in the morning all was well.
And in the end, the only night I was ever disturbed was when leaving the window open, the zing of a mosquito in my ear made me shoot out of bed.
After a ridiculously lengthy chase I managed to squish the intruder between my shoe and the wall.
I plan to be up early but I sleep in.
When I finally walk up the hill to the boulangerie, all the pain au raisin are sold out.
Madame looks surprised to see me and I explain my absence yesterday. I tell her I am leaving this morning and thank her for her delicious patisseries over the last week.
She suggests a Breton Far. A solid custard type square studded with plums and when I nod, I see her slip a second one in.
‘Au revoir et bon voyage’.
I walk down the steep hill for the last time.
The lady who takes care of the house rings to tell me just to pull the door after me and leave the key in it.
She has had to go to the mainland unexpectedly and apologises for not being there to say goodbye. I am concerned about leaving the house with the key dangling in the door but she assures me that I needn’t worry.
I meet the postman coming in through the gate. He has the only other yellow bicycle on the island and it has a small engine on it, which I suppose when, day in day out delivering letters and parcels up those steep hills, he is well entitled to.
Outside the gate I wait patiently until the only herd of milking cows left on the island walk by and then sail down the hill to the catch ferry, stopping on the pier to look back one last time across the semi circle of sand.
Au revoir to the village with its steep hill. To my house with the blue shutters. To the stone cottages. To the white beaches and small lane ways.
Au revoir to the fields of fennel and cauliflowers and now faded Agapanthus.
‘Simple ou return?’ The ferry lad looks surprised (or maybe slightly relieved) when I sadly reply ‘Simple’
Again he doesn’t charge me for the yellow bicycle though it has caused him more trouble than I have.
The tide is still out so once again its an easy chore to wheel my bike off the ferry and up the sloping ramp of the walk way.
The importance of lunch time in France can not be overstated.
I learnt that the hard way when cycling from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean a few years ago.
Cycling until midday, my romantic notion of stopping and buying baguette, figs, goats cheese and a small bottle of Sancerre to picnic on in the shade of some dappled-Monet-like-canal-side-tree, was soon quashed.
Shops closed for lunch from 12 until two.
On the dot and without exception.
No amount of pleading by a mad Irish woman who didn’t have a watch or a good sense of time, and always managed to arrive just as the doors of such establishments were shutting, was going to make the owner take pity and let her in.
I went hungry for the first day or two until I began to realise the importance of these two hours.
Then one day, after again being turned away with a rumbling stomach, I spied a tiny fish restaurant on the banks of the Canal.
I was shown to a small table at the back in a dark corner.
The only other people at the restaurant, were a couple who were already eating at a prime canal side table.
Seated beneath an ancient weeping willow in the warmth of the October sun, they appeared dappled and happy and impressionist like.
Their wine glasses glinted in the light as they raised and lowered them between mouthfuls. Their contented sounding conversation drowned out only occasionally when a pretty pénichette would chug by, its wake causing the soporific ducks and swans to sway and untuck their heads momentarily in order to glare at the disturbance of their fish filled dreams.
Lucky them I thought (The couple not the birds)watching enviously from my table in the gloom.
Minutes later a group of ten arrived and immediately the couple were moved (mid mouthful) from their enviable table to a smaller one near mine and the waiters busied themselves joining the now empty table to another while the new arrivals stood patiently by.
With a flurry of white linen and the clattering of cutlery and glass, it was soon ready and the newcomers were seated.
Meanwhile the discommoded couple continued their food and wine and conversation at the lesser table.
I watched amazed
Not only did they NOT give the slightest inkling of objection at losing their scenic spot, nor any indication at the inconvenience of being interrupted mid bite, But they even smiled at the waiters as though understanding perfectly that it was not the loveliness or ambience of seating position that was important, but the priority of getting everyone fed for this imperative meal.
(Nor, I noted, was there any smugness on the part of the group who now sat installed at a wonderful table in the dappled shade.
Indeed they (the newcomers) didn’t seem in the slightest bit aware of their good fortune except to take it as though fully entitled to do so.
Nor did they show any appreciation for the loveliness of their surroundings. Instead, bending their heads low, they discussed what they would eat).
The second time I noticed the importance of lunchtime was when I took the train from Sete to Narbonne with my bicycle.
Unfortunately I chose a day when the train workers decided to stage an impromptu ‘manifestation’ (strike) .
The train stopped (and remained) at a small station and as I sat listening to the sound of rifles being shot into the air further down the tracks, the other passengers suddenly sprang from their seats and hurried down the platform to where a large crowd was gathering.
Curious as to what was happening, I followed, to see the striking station workers handing out cardboard boxes to everyone.
It was midday and yes, the world might be falling asunder, the trains not running etc, but the people had to eat lunch.
I joined the crowd and was duly handed a box.
Taking it back to my carriage I tucked into tuna pasta, a small plastic bottle of white wine,a fruit yogurt and an apple
Once I had finished and because ,though the sounds of of gunshots were fading, the train still showed no signs of moving, I removed my bicycle from its rack in the bike compartment and cycled away satisfied by my lovely lunch.
Lunch time is drawing near.
The restaurant opposite the old harbour is busy.
I manage to get a small table on the terrace with just two chairs at it.
knowing from my above mentioned experiences how precious restaurant tables are at this time of day, I am aware how lucky I am.
At the table beside mine, a group of five Irish men sit with glasses of beer in front of them.
I order a glass then watch as one of the men stands up, boules in hand and steps across the low stone wall separating the terrace from the pitch.
There is a Frenchman already there (I saw him arrive on a moped when I was putting my bicycle in the rack) practicing alone. The Irish man approaches him and without noticeably speaking the pair shake hands and a game of boules begins.
It all happens so smoothly, almost fluently.
It’s obviously not the first time the Irish man has played.
Not only does he appear to know the protocol of starting a game, but he does not let us down either.
By now the beer/wine/coffee drinkers are swiveling in their seats for a better view and the odd clapping of hands and murmurs of appreciation break out.
I settle contentedly back in my chair and watch the game too.
The restaurant is getting busier. (If that is possible) I order a plate of moules mariniere and a glass of white wine
Every table is filled and I nod as someone asks if they can take the empty seat opposite me.
Another chair appears. and another.
My table for one has now become a table for four.
Though now a bit squished, I have no objection.
I understand that we are not at the one table with the expectation of becoming friends or even making small chat but rather for the importance of ‘faire manger‘.
So after an initial ‘bon appetit’ we get down to the business in hand of enjoying our lunch!
The final hours.
The church of Sainte Barbe sits on top of a hill.
Built at the start of 17th century, it is a beautiful building, its tower reaching to the heavens.
The plaque explains that Sainte Barbe was the patron saint of sailors and that the occupants of the passing boats would salute the church in hopes for a safe voyage.
After my lunch at the busy restaurant I still have some time before I need to be at the ferry, so I sit in its shadow and pulling out my diary am busy writing the final sentences of my story when I become aware of the flow of male voices.
I can’t see the owners of this conversation as they are hidden from my view by the shrubbery, but judging from the undulation, the butting in, the interruptions, with sometimes two voices together escalating and much laughter they can only be that of friends.
As I turn around curiously to listen and try and catch what language they are speaking (Yes eavesdrop, if you will) I notice three bicycles complete with filled pannier’s leaning against a wall.
One of the bicycles is sporting an Irish flag.
The voices get louder and without a break in the conversation, three men of about my age appear around the corner.
‘Bonjour’ They greet me politely when they see me sitting there.
‘Bonjour’ I reply in my best accent intending to pretend I am french. But before I know it I’m admitting to my Irishness.
We start comparing notes.
They explain that its their first time cycling in France and only one of them (I’ll call him Tom) speaks the language and poorly at that.
They depend on his french (however poor) for asking directions when they get lost (which they seem to do frequently).
Now their story goes that Tom only knows the french word for ‘right’ (a droite) and can never remember the word for ‘left’ (a gauche) but at least he knows that one word. So when they are cycling along (Lost as per usual) and he is forced to stop and ask directions, if whoever he asks, indicates they should turn left and says ‘a gauche’, he jumps back on his bicycle, immediately forgetting the word for ‘left’ so shouts instead to the pair still cycling ahead ‘A non droite, A non droite’ (‘to the not right’) and they turn left.
Was it due to my almost non existing chance of conversation for the week on the island that makes me find their story hilarious?
Eventually after much chat we part ways arranging to continue our conversation later in the bar on the ferry but for now they off to buy wine to bring home to their wives and I am off to buy gifts for my grandchildren which I do before cycling down the hill to join the queue of cars waiting to board the ferry.