Away from the cliff edge, the day is hot and dusty. Your back wheel has loose spokes and is irretrievably buckled. You spend half an hour by the road side wondering what to do. It wouldn’t be so far to walk. Better to go on than back. You have plenty of water, and the afternoon has that enforced dreamlike quality of the hottest days. Crickets chirrup, and an occasional lawn mower buzzes into action as you pass through a village. Time goes slowly, the sun barely seeming to move. It is still high but late in the afternoon when you come to the final curved descent into Etretat, down which you can’t resist freewheeling on what remains of the back wheel.
The woman in the syndicat d’initiative takes you for an American, perhaps because of the calibre or accent of your French, perhaps the striped green trimming of your whale blue jacket, which you have been wearing against the sun, the zip open for a cooling freewheel wind. Or is it that you are not yourself today? It amuses you, to be imagined American, when you are so very English, so very British. For a moment you think of passing yourself as a college dropout from Chicago, Illinois, who because he couldn’t make the grade has come to investigate the small, Old World. Perhaps she saw a film last night, and here you are, a warts’n’all version of the star or the support; or there might have been a man or boy the week or month before who also came cycling through, and by some association of hair, smile, accent or clothes, she assigns your nationality.
You might mistake her for a Scandinavian, since she is blonde and fair-skinned, with a big but well-proportioned bone structure. Were you not full of exhilaration from the day, from being home and dry, you might have been shy; but her kindness inspires your French. She says she lives in a block of flats with her grandmother, and the block has its own room for storing bikes. She suggests you leave yours there overnight, and see about getting it repaired in the morning. Once she has booked you a room in a nearby chambre d’hôte – the last room left in town on a busy August day – you walk with her to where she lives, effortlessly conversing as if the day itself had connected all the loose linguistic nerve ends, completing the circuit, like the mythical moment when you dream for the first time in the language you are learning. She tells you her name – Virginie – and asks yours. She works part-time in the tourist office, and would like soon to move au Havre and work in the much larger syndicat there. Simple changes and longings; for once, when you try to explain why you have come to France, it too sounds simple, and she seems to approve. At the immeuble, you meet a woman with stiff blonde-grey curls and a high-pitched voice, who turns out to be Virginie’s grandmother, on her way out shopping. You’ve been in Etretat barely half an hour and already you are on greeting terms with young and old.
Returning to pick up your bags from the syndicat, you ask her what she does in the evenings, not so much a suggestive question as one stemming from a desire to keep the conversation going. She replies that she likes to go to a bar called Le Viking, and she will probably be there tonight, if you’d care to meet her there for a drink. She offers no particular time, but – of course – you will find the bar and be there.