THERE WAS time enough for an apéritif outside before the first distant thumps and rumbles of thunder came too close for comfort. Easy-peasy, relax, stay cool, as Sir Francis Drake might have said, eyeing up the lie of his bowls as he glance
THERE WAS time enough for an apéritif outside before the first distant thumps and rumbles of thunder came too close for comfort. Easy-peasy, relax, stay cool, as Sir Francis Drake might have said, eyeing up the lie of his bowls as he glanced south-west from Plymouth Hoe for the first distant glimpse of Armada sails: time enough to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too.
But the storm was on its way: no evening sun, no swallows wheeling in the upper air, no crickets chirruping into the indigo night, no metallic thwack of boule on boule, none of the hallmarks of serene late summer in the Midi. In the village square windows opened in succession, hands reached out to close the shutters firmly, hurried pinafored figures bobbed out to take the washing in, village cats disappeared to find shelter, cars parked with an urgency to get home, batten down the hatches and ride the tempest storm out.
But not us. I don't know what particular strain of Brit-ness came out, what determination to eat and drink outside, what folk-memory of rain-lashed barbecues with guests huddling in the garage overcame us, but we stayed outside on the deck sipping kir.
(You don't know kir? How wonderful to arrive at your age and still have this pleasure in front of you! Pour a little blackcurrant liqueur – no, Ribena won't do – into the bottom of your glass and top up with white wine. Or raspberry, or blackberry, or strawberry. In a chestnut-producing area like ours, some flavour their kir with marron. You can celebrate a really special occasion with kir royale, champagne lightly flavoured pink. Mmm, délicieux.)
For their greater comfort and maybe to stake their claim to a tiny bit of the square outside their house, or at least to discourage parking right outside their front door, Sarah and John have constructed a cunning deck about 2 metres square, crumb-friendly wooden slats hinged, bracketed and braced so that it can be folded up and stacked away at the summer's end. Here we sat in stoic state defying the elements, a pale Union Jack echo of dressing for dinner in some tropical colonial outpost a century ago, downing kirs and chatting as the rolling barrage of thunder approached.
Eventually of course we had to move indoors, although the warmth of the day persisted and we sat to table by open French windows. Just as Sarah brought forth a lordly dish of moules marinières, bought fresh that morning from the Mediterranean, the storm broke.
There's something enormously satisfying about getting outside a plateful of mussels steamed in their own juice (with some white wine, chopped onion, garlic and a knoblet of butter added) while not a metre away the elements battle, the sky is slashed with angry bolts of lightning, the house shivers with the thunderous reverberations and the rain pours with a hissing intensity that would have made Noah raise an eyebrow and wonder if it wasn't time to be thinking about casting off.
LATE SUMMER storms in the Midi are quite something. The storm we rode out, mussel-bound, was impressive enough: even so, it was right on the edge of the catastrophic cyclone that caused such loss of life and devastation further east, where the south-flowing rivers of the Cevennes, swollen with torrential rain, broke their banks as they neared the flatlands of the Camargue.
They're still clearing up as I write this, and putting things back to rights will take years rather than months. A catastrophic storm and the resultant flooding seems to be becoming an annual event, explicable in meteorological terms as due to a seasonal imbalance between land and sea temperatures, but older people can't remember anything like the succession of storms of the last ten years.
There's always a search for a scapegoat. A former octogenarian neighbour, Thérèse, used to blame a government that had created the Office National des Forêts out of the old department of Eaux et Forêts, eaux in this case signifying a responsibility for watercourses that has lapsed ever since. Why weren't we warned earlier? demand villagers in the path of the floodwaters. Indeed, one news report featured an apprehensive village priest who took himself through the storm to his church, even as we were enjoying Sarah's mussels, and heaved on his bell-rope to sound the tocsin.
But seethingly unpopular are the insurance companies and the length of time it takes to have damage at this level assessed by what the French call an expert, when immediate help and support is needed. Our village mairie, like thousands of others throughout France, has become a collecting point for bedding, clothing, basic household goods and and cleaning materials to serve until the insurance companies cough up.
OUR CHOIR will do its bit. We always try to. This time last year it was for those on the receiving end of an extraordinary explosion in Toulouse, then last winter we sang for flood victims in the Somme. We'll put on a concert. If it makes a few hundred euros it'll mean life's just a little bit easier for someone. Worth singing for. We'd better steer clear of any negro spirituals about Noah, floods, arks, or even insurance companies, though.
SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!
You should be safe enough from floods up here, although the risk of lightning strike must be quite high. As you puff your way up the path from the car-park, you wonder how on earth the mediaeval builders got all this dressed masonry up here. Some of it has crumbled away, but the remains are pretty (and vertiginously) impressive. Not far away, on a neighbouring crag, is the 'twin' castle of Peyrepertuse, joint guardian of the route to Spain. Southwards, far beyond the river Maury down there in the valley, the Pyrenees stretch out like dragon's teeth; eastward the Mediterranean sparkles, north and west lies the Waste Land of the Corbières. A sect exterminated by the grandfather of the man destined to found the first English parliament in 1265 once occupied this and similar castles.
Where are you, and what was the name of the sect? First correct e-mail answer wins some sage from our very own Midi herb garden. How can you resist?