The fourteenth. The day dawns grey with promise. You walk down to the village hall almost as soon as the fête has been declared open, and self-consciously explore the car boots of people who are unable to put you at your ease with a friendly joke at your expense or theirs – today, the linguistic barriers kill jokes stone dead. The objects are doubly alien, and your enthusiasm slack for curios dredged from Norman attics.
Celebratory days lose what meaning is left to them when abroad, and those particular to a foreign country make the visitor feel twice as detached. The invitation to dinner, issued by Madame Morieux as the family arrive at the fête en masse, surprises you because it is not a celebration you feel involved in, whereas she has imagined you would feel left out. Another invitation comes from Damian while he sets up the rifle range. This is to attend the annual dominoes competition at the bar, after dinner and fireworks. Doubly detached, you will have to get twice as drunk as anybody else to feel able to manage the clacking of double sixes.
As the field fills up, you try to pick out the gradations of class. There seem far fewer urban émigrés than in Suffolk villages; there aren’t many families who will have lived less than all their lives here or hereabouts. Only the upper echelons seem as distinct as do the ex-pickle merchant, the Ipswich and London commuters, or the aristocratic vegan octogenarian in your old village. That family of women – three generations of Cannes tans, dark or dyed bobs and non-provincial chic – must be the château-dwellers; you’d stake your tombola money on it. The clean-cut, four by two family with whom they are friendly are the people who live in and run the school house. None of these people see you at all, whereas the born and bred villagers eye you half-distrustful, half-sympathetic. Rest assured les bourgeois will not be playing dominoes tonight.
The spoilt-looking child of famille Château, a miniature replica of her mother, except for an added sourness which she may or may not learn to hide with age, archly leads a Shetland-sized pony around the neighbouring paddock. It has a light carriage attached to it, suitable only for the littlest limbs of the village, children small enough to be treated with peremptory indifference by the mini-aristocrat rather than outright disdain.
The stalls are much the same as countless English village fêtes. You bowl boules through numbered arches cut into a wooden frame; aim to win bank notes with three accurate darts; play an impossible game of hoopla; and buy raffle tickets. The goalkeeper from Damian’s football team is tested with penalties. You put a desultory five out of ten past him, but have more luck at Damian’s rifle range. Early in the afternoon you pick up an air rifle for the first time in years, load it with the familiar little squashed chess piece pellets, line up the v of the sight with the perpendicular notch on the stem, and fire as at the coke cans of old.
To your surprise your aim is true, and steady, and Damian, a gun fanatic, is impressed. You pepper the centre of the red and white competition targets, coming up with two clippings of the bull, a couple of nines and an eight. Pas mal, mon brave, pas mal.
Every now and again you return to the range to check on the progress of the competition: unbelievably you remain out in front and on course for a bottle of champagne. But late in the afternoon, a stocky young man with the inevitable moustache fires close to or better than you, and afterwards enters into an argument with Damian about his score. It seems to be about whether the edge of the innermost ring has been clipped or not, and Damian is wriggling like an eel with the truth of the net upon it. You are afraid he is wriggling for your sake, and wish your French were good enough to dissuade him from any fixing in your favour. But the stocky man gives up in disgust, and later, after the raffle draw, yours is the name announced falteringly over the PA, and yours is the champagne.
You can’t imagine what or how you will celebrate with it.