3am. What they call the wee sma' hours in Inverness and les petites heures here in the south of France. It's been one of those nights. The cats, Pinot and Merlot, won't settle. It's not just their nature, it's not that they're always on the wrong
3am. What they call the wee sma' hours in Inverness and les petites heures here in the south of France. It's been one of those nights. The cats, Pinot and Merlot, won't settle. It's not just their nature, it's not that they're always on the wrong side of every door, like the Rum Tum Tugger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It's not full moon either, but something's disturbing them. If they're in, they want to go out. As soon as they're out, they yowl to come back in, feigning near-starvation. When they're in, they disdain their délice au canard and start to play, clawing at carpets and leaping about on the furniture. Finally, about 2am, when Merlot has jumped on the architect's delicate scale model of the house we're planning to build and has put a paw through the garage roof we take a firm hand and put them both out and close the window. Too bad. They can like it or lump it.
It had been a late night to start with. Josephine and I had been 40 miles away, myself re-awakening a musical activity dormant since I came to live in France 11 years ago: playing timpani, those big orchestral kettledrums which look like giant copper cauldrons and boom, bump and roll like thunder. A summer orchestra, the Sinfonietta de Bardou, had asked me to play in a couple of concerts with them, a flattering invitation evoking happy memories of bashing out (erm . . . that's to say sensitively underscoring the rhythm) the Hallelujah Chorus in Inverness in the wee sma' 70s and 80s. But first catch your timpani . . .
After a marathon phone-round I ran a pair to ground belonging to the Republican Wind Band – L'Harmonie Républicaine if you want it authentically in French – based in Coursan, a village near Narbonne, where the amiable Monsieur Jalabert, vigneron and clarinettist, took time off from tending his ripening grapes to help load the drums into a borrowed pick-up ('bakkie' if you're reading this in South Africa, and I hope you are, or 'ute' if you're sensitively underscoring the rhythm of an Australian winter with a ray of Midi sun).
Anyway, concert over in a packed and damp church – it had rained torrentially earlier in the evening - in Clermont l'Hérault, the last wild notes of Beethoven's 4th losing themselves high in the medieval vaulting, drums re-loaded with muttered comments from Josephine wondering why I hadn't learned the flute, wouldn't need a chain gang and a 3-ton truck every time, might as well heave coals, etc., etc, we got in at about 1am. The rain had stopped, a delectable rain-rinsed freshness released a myriad sweet summer night-scents, the bedroom window stayed deliciously open.
This is where we came in, of course: light out, stars a-twinkle, owl-hoot, roll over (Beethoven?), nose-dive, belly-flop into deep and blessed sleep. For a few seconds, until the cats start to play up. And no sooner had the cats been summarily dealt with than Bellamy the golden retriever took a paw.
Bellamy is pretty ancient now. In human terms, according to a table on the back of the vet's door in St Rémy, she's 138. That's some age. She spends her days sleeping, mostly, and just toddling about from outpost to outpost of her ever-diminishing territory. She's stone deaf, too.
Yet at 3am there was a heaving and a puffing like a hippopotamus breaking the surface: Bellamy was frantic to go out. Ça urge, as she would have said in French if she'd ever lifted a paw to learn any. That urges. So downstairs she went with a nimble urgency given to few 138-year-olds, out into the star-twinkled night, round the back of the house at a geriatric gallop and there, at the foot of the steps that lead to the strawberry bed, started to bark as furiously as possible for one whose pension book can't have too many pages left.
Round about 3.30 we got her back in again, unrepentant. Thoroughly awake, I made a peevish cup of tea, after which we might have dropped off for a bit. At any rate the next disturbance was the angelus ringing from the village bell-tower shortly after 7.
Giving the whole night's rest up as a bad job, I went up to commune with my strawberries, always a source of comfort in troubled times. Come the three corners of the world against us, things can't be that bad if there's a picking of strawberries. The earth between the rows – I don't straw them, it just encourages slugs – was black, freshly turned, as though by a blunt hoe; some of the plants were slightly dishevelled, here and there a shallow hole showed where a slender trotter had sunk into the ground.
Wild boar. That was it. Wild boar, sangliers, always at their most numerous at this time of year, had got into the strawberry bed. That was what had disturbed the animals, though clearly age hasn't withered stone-deaf Bellamy's sense of smell, even from behind closed doors.
And the strawberries? Untouched. Clearly they don't appeal to wild boar, though missing a good night's sleep seems a heavy price to pay for this uninteresting piece of information.
I CAN hardly sit to tap this out on the keyboard. Too painful. My gluteus maximus is severely inflamed, a discomfort reminiscent of a caning at school, and I'm afraid no amount of strawberries will put it right.
It's my own fault, I suppose. The railway line that used to run along the valley of the river Paresse was shut down and the rails taken up decades ago, but the old track has been cleared and turned into a cycle and bridle path. You can hire bicycles in the village: a family visit, and the challenge was on, even for one so advanced in age (though not yet 138) that he can remember canings at school, to cycle to St Rémy and back.
When I returned the bicycles, bow-legged, I mentioned the gluteal havoc caused by two or three hours in the saddle. Monsieur Molière raised an eyebrow: why, these saddles were the very latest, they were new this season, they were what the Tour de France cyclists swore by. Swore at, I would have thought: I suspect the incidence of early impotence among French cyclists is painfully high.