In the perfect summer days that follow, you cycle into town regularly, sometimes to sit at the tables outside the bar across from the town hall, but more often to swim and to shop. One day, your chain snaps on the way in. You walk the remaining distance, enjoying the stillness and the slow, surrounding heat as you push your bike along the narrow lanes and avenues, in contrast to the noisy, breezy warmth of riding them. The bright green façade of the cycle shop is one of the first to be encountered at the top of the long length of the high street. Monsieur Le Roux reconnects the chain and makes other adjustments for nothing – the knowledge that you and the enfeebled old bike will be around for another six months may well be payment enough – while Madame Le Roux chats with you, fussing over your sunburnt face, and indicating the casquettes for sale. You can’t quite see yourself wearing any of the headgear on display, but still not satisfied, she suggests that her daughter takes you to a couple of clothes shops down the street. Suspecting that any hat on offer in a small French town will be surplus to both your sartorial requirements and your financial capabilities, you are still quick not to refuse the little wrinkle your way that chance seems to be offering. Luck makes you sparkle, and a helpful smile plays on Melanie’s face as you fumble with your word order. Twice she stops to greet people, once with a handshake, once with a kiss; you find it hard to believe that you have so suddenly become a part of a street scene in France. Finding a polite comment to turn down the hats is tricky in French, but your face is easily translated.
Returning to the bike shop, Melanie tells you that she is an English student. Perhaps too quickly, you offer your services, in exchange for hers. After deliberating a while, she says to come this time next week, which you accept, despite it seeming impossibly far off, and without thinking that the distance signifies anything.
There are two differences the following week. One, a friend chaperones her, and two, you have had plenty of time in which to get very nervous. In the shop’s little office, you struggle with your easily fettered spirit and your French, but at the same time you realise how starved of conversation you have been and how much you have wanted simply to talk about anything at all. You show the two friends a few of the photographs from the small portfolio you’ve brought with you, hoping they’ll be worth a thousand stumbled-over words. But they prompt little more than polite responses; and your explanation as to why you have no camera with you in France confuses Melanie and her friend, and soon they lay the images aside, not recognising the patience of the framing in one, or the play of light in another.
As you down thimblefuls of coffee from the machine installed in the office to feed her father’s espresso habit, the two friends’ impenetrable conversation overtakes the French-English exchange. Helplessness and hopelessness steal over you, like too much strong coffee on an empty stomach. Melanie is no Anglophile, just a student with a functional interest in English. And today you are no actor, no entertainer. Not being able to perform, you are slow-witted, hesitant, a tortoise it is hard to pet. You seem to be able to show so little of yourself in French, other than unimportant fact and crude sentiment. There is no connection that can be made between your life and theirs. You have reached a point of punctuation; a full stop.
And they are new paragraphs and capital letters just starting out, on the furtherance of recently-initiated romantic adventures, on holidays long-planned and visualised. You haven’t even opposition in common. You are struggling with self, and they with nothing more than watchful parents.
You are fast becoming an ambassador for the national stereotype. Conspicuously they do not invite you to the club at the coast they say they go to on Friday nights. Another date, which in any case you are not sure you want to make, is again deferred seven days, and the cycle home has none of the connecting pleasure of the week before.
But there is no choice. A week later, even when you find that she is deliberately elsewhere, you hang around, chatting nervously with her mother. A quarter of an hour later she appears, this time with her cousin, and there is a perfunctory shaking of hands. Avoiding all eye contact with you, she indicates that you should follow them. In a bar down the street, a bunch of her friends have colonised three or four window corner tables. You find yourself with the only beer in evidence sat at a table with a girl and a boy who sidestep your inadequate stabs at conversation. Ignored by everyone, torn between pique and a wish not to appear rude, you are constantly on the point of leaving, but only do so when the two cousins abruptly rise.
There is sympathy in her cousin’s attitude towards you, as if she knows chance wrinkled badly for you, and you landed on the wrong person. She at least seems interested in and puzzled by you, encouraging with a smile the one last struggle you are making with your French. Had you been pitched her way, you wonder whether she would have become as swiftly discouraging as Melanie. But no, there’s kindness there too; she would have given you the time.
It seems strange to you that, even in their hurry before driving off again, they kiss you goodbye; by way of etiquette or apology – a opportunity spurned by one, missed by the other – you really couldn’t say.