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CAST: Mireille. Pretty name. Middle aged, talkative, not without imagination. Favours split skirts, but unlikely to trouble MENSA assessors. Given to righteous indignation. Known as the One o'clock News.

Aristide. Sage and

CAST: Mireille. Pretty name. Middle aged, talkative, not without imagination. Favours split skirts, but unlikely to trouble MENSA assessors. Given to righteous indignation. Known as the One o'clock News.

Aristide. Sage and philosopher. Knows everything. Rich experience from varied career. Will start conversation "When I was a messenger at the Vatican . . ." or "When I was training the Venezuelan General Staff . . ." or "When I ran my pedicure salon . . ." Present enthusiasms: The Hundred Years' War, tango, laser surgery, geomorphology.

Albert. Retired osteopath and willing horse. Always busy with something in the village. Runs the amenity standards watchdog committee, just the man. Level-headed, sane, well-read.

Pascal. Retired hairdresser.

Jean. Retired vigneron.

Enric. Retired policeman

Pierre-Marie. Retired lorry driver.

Scene 1: The village pavement, outside the M. Rebizoulet's general stores, where there's a railing everyone can lean on. Aristide is giving an unsolicited lecture to Pascal, Jean, Enric and Pierre-Marie, a sort of Greek chorus, about the movements of the earth's tectonic plates. The African plate is moving north, trying to insert itself underneath the European plate. Like an elephant trying to get underneath the bedclothes, he says. The upheaval means the Mediterranean will eventually disappear. At this point Mireille, all ears, emerges from M. Rebizoulet's. The Greek chorus forsakes consideration of infinitesimally slow geomorphological movements, paced over millions of years, for the immediacy of a glimpse of fleshy white thigh.

Scene 2: The village museum, staffed by local volunteers. On duty: Albert and Mireille. Albert is labelling some local archaeological finds. To his surprise he hears Mireille telling some visitors that if they want to enjoy a day at the seaside they'd best hurry up, while there's still some seaside left. He thinks nothing of it, until a little later she lowers her voice to advise a passing acquaintance to sell her seaside apartment double quick - she has it on good authority that the Mediterranean is fast disappearing. Of course, if she'd rather have a view of camels and palm trees and oases instead of the deep blue sea, that's up to her, but let her not say she hasn't been warned. C'est dommage, it's a shame, is all the apartment-owning acquaintance can find to say.

Another group calls and Albert thinks it's time he took a hand, especially when it turns out that they own a boat presently moored in the marina at Lattes, just south of Montpellier. Eyes shining with prophetic zeal, Mireille warns them of the dire consequences of delay. Albert intervenes: Come off it, Mireille, where did you get this drivel from?

It's not drivel, it's true, Mireille says. Aristide told me, so there.

Albert sighs deeply and explains that the time-scale isn't one that you can measure by the clock on the Mairie. The Lattes boat-owners start to laugh. Mireille gets agitated. Tears aren't far off.

The boat-owners leave and the storm breaks. Mireille demands an apology from Albert for showing her up in front of others. As you and I know, demanding an apology from someone never delivers the goods. How will this be resolved?

Nobody mentions the Mediterranean in front of Mireille.


ABOUT THE same time as this storm in an inland sea my spade went missing. As assiduous readers of this column may know we're building a new house a little way up the lane, a half-way house between our present house and the maison de retraite, the old peoples' home up the hill.

I suppose in the general mellay of maçons (builders), plaquistes (people who erect interior walls), carreleurs (tile-layers), chapistes (people who pour concrete floors), menuisiers (joiners), chauffagistes (heating engineers) and terrassiers (digger drivers - let it never be said that this column doesn't give you the full flavour of a French building project) my spade got put in someone's truck by mistake.

By mistake? Certainly. No self-respecting French artisan would take it deliberately. British spades, with their D-handle and rectangular blade are held in contempt here. "Wretched trenching tool" was how one builder described it some years ago. "Straight from World War I. Ought to be in a museum."

French spades aren't exactly a miracle of evolution. They have a straight shaft about 1.50 metres long with a concave, heart-shaped and slightly pointed blade attached. They're all right for shovelling sand, but for serious digging you might as well use a tin plate for all the bite and grip they give you.

So I took advantage of a few days in Scotland to buy a brand new stainless steel spade. The garden centre manager made a neat parcel of it with bubble-wrap and sticky tape, but there was no concealing its shape and identity. Would airline check-in staff accept it? I turned up at Edinburgh airport with fingers crossed, but there was no problem about taking it into the hold.

If this one goes missing clearly the first place to look for it will be in the village museum - avoiding, of course, afternoons when Albert and Mireille are on duty together. The atmosphere would be too sulphurous.


A PERFECT mid-September day for a group outing to a hilltop chapel called St Michel des Treize Vents - St Michael of the Thirteen Winds - I suppose because the winds swirl about up there whenever it isn't a perfect mid-September day. The hills round here are usually steep sided and heavily wooded, but when you reach the top you find they flatten out, leaving valuable land for cultivation and grazing, before they drop down the other side. St Michel was a complete ruin until an association was formed to restore it. Through badgering local authorities over a period of almost 30 years enough money was put together to undertake restoration, finding maçons to repair the stonework, charpentiers to replace the roof timbers of whole rough-hewn chestnut trunks, carreleurs to re-tile the floor and all the other trades listed five paragraphs back.

It's now a beautiful chapel, standing in a clearing among the pinewoods, with a gîte for overnight stays and a communal kitchen and assembly room attached. Regular services aren't held here: there are no houses nearby and in any case the two local priests have 48 other places of worship to attend to between them. But it's a regular place of pilgrimage, and while we are up there several knots of pilgrims arrive, do whatever pilgims do when they arrive at the end of their journey, fill their water-bottles at the pump and depart.

In our party there are Albert and Mireille, and Aristide too. After an alfresco lunch not unlubricated by the Languedoc wine trade's finest all three are laughing and joking together. Now that's a wonderful job of restoration too.