THE HALLMARK of our village, so instantly recognisable so that you might expect to find the sign ™ beside every picture of it, is the medieval bell tower. It's a slender finger of masonry pointing skywards, perched on top of a rocky bluff which dominates a meander of the River Paresse. It's impressive now and must have been even more so when it formed part of Count Pons' 13th century château, a fortress controlling movement up and down the valley. But when time ran out for the Count and his castle began to fall into disrepair, hastened no doubt by villagers helping themselves to good dressed building stone, only the bell tower was left standing, a lone witness to past glories, next to the chapel it once served.
A narrow spiral stair leads up to the belfry, a place of magnificent views, immense beams, four massive bells, antiquated mechanisms, some fairly primitive electrical wiring and dust. I went up there once, in the unlikely company of some children from Ullapool, in the far north-west of Scotland, who'd come on exchange and who needed an interpreter while seeing the village sights. We arrived at about 10 to 4, and I was all of a fidget, having in mind Dorothy L. Sayers' thriller The Nine Tailors, in which a peal of bells cracks the eardrums and brings about the death of some unfortunate tied up in the belfry.
Not wishing to have the name Campbell as execrated in Wester Ross as it is in Macdonald country further south, I herded the Ullapudlians down the spiral stair as soon as the ancient mechanism began to whirr and click and wind itself up to strike four. Twice, because that's the local custom, I suppose to give you the hour if you missed it first time.
These kids were lucky. At least they heard the hours struck, which is more than the villagers have for a long time. Some time after their visit lightning struck the tower, dealing a mortal blow to the mechanism and preventing the bells from sounding their own death knell. Somebody patched things up and the bells staggered on for a few months, until another lightning strike finally silenced them.
Questions were asked in the municipal council. Was it worth replacing the mechanism, spending ratepayers' money on sounding the hours, an amenity that nobody needed? (The convenient answer was non: there was already a bell above the Mairie in the centre of the village which rang the hours. Not as far-reaching or as prestigious as the trademark bell tower had been, and a minute or two fast, by design: a healthy, you-heard-it-here-first, republican independence from the church had to be fostered.)
But there were other considerations. In the bell tower there were in fact two mechanisms, one to sound the hours on the hour or thereby, and the other to operate the church bells. After the ruin of the chapel attached to the château, a new church was built in the 17th century further down the hill, on the top edge of what was then the new village. No tower or spire or even a belfry was added: there was a perfectly good bell tower already, even if it meant that some poor wight had to pick his way up the rocks to the top of the hill before services and heave on the bell-ropes.
Thirty years or so ago this alpinist bell-ringer was replaced by a well-earthed electrical mechanism operated from inside the church. Through storm and tempest, thunder and particularly lightning the church bells continued to ring, calling the faithful to mass, tolling the knell (one stroke for each year of the departed's life) and sounding the Angelus (three strokes, pause, another three, pause, another three, pause, twelve quick strokes, don't ask me why) at 7am, noon and 7pm. But the passing hours were mute.
This wouldn't do, particularly in a country like France, where the separation of church and state is so marked as to be a matter of national pride. There's a stark division between the spiritual and the temporal, and there's nothing quite so temporal as time.
* * *VERY EARLY the other morning, just before Christmas, our cat Pinot came upstairs and, as often happens, made a nuisance of himself, jumping up on things, rushing and clawbing, until one of us gets up to let him out on to the roof. So I heaved myself out of bed and opened the window on to a clear frosty moonlit night, a moonscape of the village with the bell tower and the Pont du Diable, the Devil's Bridge - another trademark - floodlit against the indigo backcloth of the Espinouse mountains.
At that moment 5 o'clock rang from the bell tower. It didn't register at first. After about half a minute it came again, the customary repeat. The bells were back! Wonderful! A Christmas present to the village, a nod to the faithful, a bow to the secular, a compliment to both spiritual and temporal - and, of course, a basilisk grin to the cynical: will the repairs hold until the municipal elections in March?
* * *LAST MONTH I wrote somewhat vehemently about being excluded from the French national health service. In due course a Form E121 arrived, as requested, from the dear old International Pensions Service in Newcastle. This form states that in view of the contributions I made when I was working in the UK and in view of the pension they are now paying me, the French national health service can claim back any medical expense they may have on my account.
Armed with this precious form Josephine and I went to the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie, the national health service administration offices, in Béziers. A very polite Monsieur Vega-Ruiz received us. It's so much easier when it's one to one: he barely looked at my E121, stamped it, smiled, and said C'est bon, Monsieur. Pas de soucis. It's all right, Monsieur. There's nothing to worry about.
So that's all right, then. A big relief. Ring out the bells!