Image via WikipediaIn the long ago days when French supermarket car parks numbered as many tractors as cars, I had friends with a holiday house in the next commune.
It was an eighteenth century house lying back from the road in a small hamlet and it had been completely renovated, so that instead of using their holidays to get close up and personal with plumbing, they could actually relax.
Instead of looking for Monsieur Cromagnon the never-ready builder and haunting the DIY shop, my friends could go out for the day, explore the troglodyte villages, buy wine and generally do what they had bought the house in order to do...enjoy themselves.
The hamlet was a friendly place...this was before the great wave of British permanent immigrants arrived with the comcomitant backlash...and after a while they had acquired quite a circle of friends, both French and British.
Being rural France, the friendship was usually expressed in invitations to drinks, to dinner or to Sunday lunch.
Just like all the books about 'living the dream'.
Shortly after they had arrived one summer, Jane telephoned and invited me to lunch. The weather looked to stay fine, so she and Alex planned to eat outside as that way they could invite more people than their house could otherwise hold.
Their neighbours were coming, as were a number of British and everyone more or less knew each other, so it would be a relaxed affair...not so much high heels and champagne but espadrilles and wine from the local guys.
Most people would turn up with some bottles and either a starter or a pud, to ease the load, so all it needed was to co ordinate who was bringing what.
Articles I have read on what to expect if asked out in France give the impression that this sort of thing would be regarded as really bizarre...you can bring flowers or chocolates but not proper food and drink.
This might apply in the champagne and high heels sector, but it doesn't down in the sticks.
The brioche vendeen from Didier's friend was eagerly awaited in every household to which Dider had entree - a considerable number - as was Rolande's fish terrine, just to give the first two examples which come to mind, while no self respecting local would dream of appearing at a friend's house without a few bottles wrapped in newspaper to be placed in the cool until required.
Still, invitation happily accepted and starter determined upon, I got on with the rest of my week.
I was in the supermarket, morosely regarding the quality and price of the cauliflowers, when a bright voice exclaimed
'How lovely to see you! We haven't caught up in ages!'
It was the Incubus!
It was a good job I wasn't at the takeaway counter or I might have fallen face down into the champignons a la greque and the saumon a l'oseille.
Rather than 'catch up' with the Incubus I would have eaten andouillette...well, nearly.
Mark you, from the way in which she would usually disappear like the Cheshire Cat in a grin-free zone when encountering me in the ordinary run of things, the feeling appeared to be common to us both.
So why the change of heart?
Having just been inspecting the cauliflowers, the milk of human kindness was at a low ebb in my veins...just how French supermarkets think that by pulling off the yellower leaves they can con the customer into thinking that last week's delivery are sparkling fresh and worth last week's price is beyond me.
Well, no it isn't.
The modern French housewife will buy anything. Especially when shopping at 11.45 for lunch at 12.30.
So, in this frame of mind, instead of being all Fotherington-Thomas about it and prancing with delight at the opportunity to repair a relationship, singing
'Hello clouds! Hello sky!',
I was rather more inclined to the Molesworth view of things......if she was bothering to speak to me she must want something.
'As any fule kno.'
What this 'fule' didn't 'kno' was what it was she was likely to want.
I did my own garden, thus no need of husband's gardening services.
I was not buying a house, so no need of their joint property finding and negociation services linked to occupation of their gite.
I had some French, so no need for her translation services.
Ditto, so no need for her 'hand holding' services with French beaurocracy.
It could only be information.
Whatever could I be supposed to know that she wanted to find out about?
After a monologue about the lovely weather, and how nice it was to see old friends now the holiday crowd were coming over, she threw the right hook.
'I expect we'll see each other at Jane and Alex's 'do' on Sunday.'
Oh, my ears and whiskers! That was it!
I'd suspected she hadn't been invited, but she'd clearly got wind of it and was now putting me on the spot.
This is one of the number of reasons why I cordially disliked her. Manipulative.
Whatever I said would only confirm that there was a'do'......and that meant that there was a fair chance that she and husband would turn up. Invited or not.
What I felt like saying was
'Not if I see you first.' But the process of civilisation has been too thorough.
To my fury, I was reduced to smiling - in a sort of lips curled back over teeth fashion - and moving off...
I am so useless in these situations. In English. All sorts of bright remarks occur to me once it is too late and
I wonder if it is that using English involves all the codes of behaviour imbibed over the years which inhibit the initial response of'
'Take firmly by the neck and squeeze'...
I can do it in French much more easily...probably because in absorbing the language I haven't absorbed all the cultural bumph that comes with it, being a late starter as it were.
Come round to my house to try to reclaim a present from the previous owner of your house - yes, this has happened - on the grounds that her daughter said that you could have it, and just see where that gets you in French. Blown backwards bow legged, that's where.
Should I ring Jane?
She rang me. Someone less inhibited had called her with the news that the Incubus had trapped them at the bakery - that'll teach them to buy croissants, I thought - and they had succumbed to interrogation.
I confessed to my sorry display, but Jane wasn't too worried.
Her first reaction had been to hold the party in the back garden...but even then the parked cars would give the game away...so she thought she would just have to put up with it.
The only hope was that there would be something more prestigious going on to act as a counter attraction.
It was a very pleasant afternoon in the shade of the walnut trees...good food, good wine, good company...and the Incubus and husband duly arrived together with their latchlifters...a househunting couple who were staying in their gite.
Such a good opportunity for Dale and Alan to meet 'the locals'....
Such a good opportunity for the Incubus and husband to wolf down enough to feed a regiment, collar the most expensive of the bottles put out in the kitchen for people to help themselves, and, at the end, to ask for a doggy bag - to avoid wasting all that good food.
Such a good opportunity for drumming up custom for their various services.
Jane had been talking to her neighbours and then came over to me.
'I think there's a problem but my French isn't good enough to understand. I think they want more forks, to pick things from their plates...but that doesn't seem right.'
I hoisted myself up, put my shoes back on and wandered over.
Everyone had an elegant sufficiency of cutlery, so I said that Jane hadn't understood what they were asking her.
'Oh...we wanted to know who the pique-assiettes were, that's all.'
I told them and returned to Jane.
'They're fine for forks and plates....they were asking about the Incubus....the scrounger.....the pique-assiette.'