Sympa and c’est normal are your least favourite Gallic linguistic reflexes, the equivalent of nice, except they seem to sound worse against the beauty of French. But you are in no position to argue with the short cuts of a language which is still as unfamiliar as it is familiar to you. Often you compare equivalent words in the two languages, and see which conveys more by its sound and associations. Fireworks and feu d’artifice is a close run thing. The English has a sense of dynamism – the right feel for the twist of magic that properly begins each winter at home – plus that additional indoor echo of argumentative relationships. Feu seems only weakly to convey ‘fiery’, but artifice is just right: vanishing incandescence. November wins, you decide. And these summer night feu d’artifice will be as out of place as you are.
You’ve been invited to dinner, not at the château but with your nearest neighbours, the Morieux. They refuse to accept the bottle you won, saying you should keep it for a rainy day, which is rather to misunderstand the point of champagne. While everyone drinks an apéritif, you try to explain about Guy Fawkes and remembering the 5th of November. They know nothing of it, so you keep back the old joke about Guy’s uniqueness in the annals of parliamentary honesty. And, since they are Catholics, that in certain towns in Sussex, an effigy of the Pope is annually and blithely burnt.
There are thirteen sitting round the table, plus yourself. Perhaps that’s why you were invited – to avoid a Last Supper quota and so keep away ill luck. At one point, just after the glasses have first been filled, every member of the family speaks at once, in chaotic unison. You’re eating later than you’re used to, and what with that, the tumult, and the frequent emptiness of your glass, your head is bound to spin, and spin it does, as much with the fatigue of trying to focus on one conversation at a time as with the wine. When you arrived, the Morieux’s eldest son, a butcher, welcomed you by waving his recently cleaved but fortunately bandaged finger in your face. Gap-toothed and wearing a gaudy polo shirt, he is obviously the family clown. On aime rigoler, he adds unnecessarily, after each messy joke. His wife (you couldn’t fail to notice) welcomed you with her eyes, which made you watchful of her, in more ways than one. At table, she sets them on a safe diagonal the butcher cannot see, the latter being sat two places to the left of you, although other family members notice the tendency of her gaze. There is no denying she is looking at you as if appraising a cut of meat her husband has brought home. And yet, in the swirl of shouted talk and demonstrative wine, you see her, under the family’s nose, lying pale against the brown of you on the cold and dirty tiles of your cell. Or again, a flash of eyes across the fence as she drops off her facially androgynous twins with their grandparents, signalling that she will pick you up at the usual meeting place beyond the avenues – The butcher is asking you something, hauling you out of your drift through the illusory and the imaginary. You delay for time to think with a je n’ai pas compris, and again he asks you, what is your trade – butcher, baker, or candlestick maker? You make something up, that you worked on the trains as a guard but your position had been phased out. You don’t want to talk about photography today (about being a clueless dreamer looking for clues in people’s faces, butcher’s wives included) – they’ll only want you to take their picture.
With the mayhem and her eyes and the calvados, you stagger up the garden path taking blessed relief in the air. The villagers have congregated once again by the village hall to see the firework-bright greens and magentas, and the whites and oranges like speeding and stationary metal sparking together. The butcher’s wife hovers by you, waiting for her moment or a sign, but it does not come.
When the last of the incandescence has vanished, you decide the night is over. This drunk, you’re barely coherent in your own language, let alone French. The dominoes competition will climax without you, and next door, the revolution will continue in a blaze of light and laughter.
In the dark of your barely furnished cottage, you pop the corks on two kinds of solitary celebration, unable to do anything but drink your unfairly gained champagne, and seek the only other available form of release.