We were in England last year, so we had the perfect excuse. Besides, the event was cancelled at the last minute due to a local tragedy: the death of a communard's teenage son, hit by an overtaking car as he turned right on his moped onto the main road. No one would have been in the mood for a communal jamboree.
It's one of those events that fills you with ambivalence. I was kind-of looking forward to it, but not sure why. Maybe it's my insular, solitary life and the periodic need for society. Maybe I envisaged some kind of Impressionist scene of people pick-nicking among wild flowers in the grass as the sun set over the horizon. Anyway, having found semi-legitimate excuses over the last three years for not meeting my fellows from the upper echelons of the borough, I felt compelled finally to accept the invitation. Politically, it seemed correct.
The upper echelons. It feels like Sugar Hill here sometimes. From our lofty position, we can look down on the lower part of the commune, just as the more well-heeled negroes (as they were known in polite circles at the time of the fascinating Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s) could lord it over the brethren of lower Harlem. That was Harlem BG then – before gentrification. More an accident of purchase than an accident of birth in our case. Seduced by a view, we never even considered the disadvantages of being down in the valley: thick mist till midday sometimes, restricted sunshine and the possibility of flooding.
The lower part of the commune is circumscribed by steep outcrops of limestone rock and built around a railway station that once was quite an important railway junction – with one branch line heading for Aurillac and all points east, and the other heading south towards Rodez, which might – rather fancifully – be termed a gateway to the Midi. Both are now under threat of closure, a fate that befell a third branch line that carried trains to the main Paris-Toulouse line across a mighty 19th century red-brick viaduct on the outskirts of Souillac. Now abandoned to its fate, it's still floodlit at night.
Our local station is quaint and quintessentially French, but the surrounding houses are a random mix of old and new and the sum is no better than its parts. The man down the road in the grandiose wooden house, who climbed the social ladder last year from down below to the rarefied air up here, tells me that a model of the station as it used to be is on display every Wednesday in a room somewhere at la gare. As a once-and-former owner of a train set, I'd like to go and see it, but the road to hell – as we all know – is paved with good intentions.
The premise of my impressionistic picnic on the grass was a low body-count. An exclusive few of us made even fewer by the lack of a spouse, who sensibly cried off after a heavy day at the coal face, massaging sweaty bodies and listening to people's woes. So when I turned up with my neighbour, whose partner was too ill to attend, it was a shock to see all the parked cars. A multitude was busy assembling in a big metal hangar, where Jean-Louis normally stores his light airplane – and, I discovered, an old Renault 4, an old motorbike and one of those rural equivalents of a beach-buggy. Back in the '60s, it might have been full of young Frenchmen in stripy shirts given to singing in harmony jaunty songs about agricultural pursuits. Let's go turfing now, everybody's turfing now...
Jean-Louis and his wife Martine are sufficiently community-spirited to host this annual gathering each year. They're a nice couple; backbones of local society. We hired Jean-Louis to dig our foundations and install our septic tank, and Martine, in her capacity of a peripatetic nurse, administered to my stricken wife when she broke her shoulder one ill-fated Christmas. Their son was elected to the communal council, which he served (briefly) as an IT specialist. Their daughter has probably just had a child, as she's of the appropriate child-bearing age. I also met and chatted to their charming donkey, Nesquick, who keeps down the grass on which I had imagined we would have spread our blankets and shared our hampers.
At least we got there before everyone else arrived, which made the task of kissing or hand-shaking or of not knowing which form of greeting was appropriate a little easier. Late-comers had many more to go round, which is a lot of names to remember. However, I got the impression that most people there knew everyone else, whereas I gave up early on trying to distinguish my Jean-Claudes from my Jean-Lucs. The two main clans in these parts have probably sired a significant slice of those present and I didn't do my credibility any good when I addressed the mayor by the name of the other clan. No wonder he ignored me.
What gets into me in such situations? I've addressed him by his correct clan-name on countless occasions. I think it's some kind of short-circuit between right and left brain due to the demands of a foreign language. There are times when I can conduct myself reasonably efficiently even on the telephone, and times – especially when my confidence dips – when I'm given to imbecility. The next day, for example, I asked the woman from whom I buy our vegetables whether Gérard, the stocky man who actually dug our foundations in Jean-Louis' JCB, was her son-in-law. No, husband! I meant husband! It was effectively like telling a middle-aged woman that she looked 65. What must they think of me? There I was, doing my utmost to reflect a favourable light on the expat community, and I probably came over as a moron. It's a lot easier sometimes to converse with donkeys.
Certainly, my little problem was exacerbated by hunger. The French in such social circumstances must think that they're Spaniards. They stand around drinking aperitifs and nibbling nibbles until dusk has fallen. Then and only then do they settle down to the bouffe. Having so little to contribute to the customary conversations only intensifies my hunger. I kept looking longingly at the three long refectory-style tables set up in the hangar, hoping to spot an equally ravenous soul bold enough to sit down and start noshing. Finally, the respected couple who used to work as cabin crew for Air France seized the initiative. Where one sheep leads, the others quickly follow.
I shared my tuck with my Dutch neighbours down the road. This wasn't entirely selfless. I knew their kids wouldn't eat much of the fancy pasta salad I'd made, which meant more for us grown-ups. And I happen to know that Madame is a superb baker of cakes and other desserts. She'd made a plaited apple and currant tart for the occasion. It looked like something you might find in a boutique bakery in Vienna. It was even better than that and I had two helpings to prove that the earnest representative of the expat community was nothing less than a greedy sod.
My Dutch friends and I chatted with Jean-Louis and Martine from the table behind us. It was nice. Martine placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder at one point, which suggested that I wasn't such an imbecile after all. When a young couple arrived to show off their newborn baby, I took it as my cue to leave. I'd brought my temporary partner with me on the understanding that I didn't want to stay any later than 11pm. That would suit her fine, she'd assured me. But when push comes to shove, leaving such a do is never the easiest thing. It's a fine line between prudence and rudeness.
I bade the other guests a collective rather than individual au revoir, then stood hovering on the threshold like the Lemon-drop Kid, waiting for my neighbour to extricate herself from the web of social niceties. Come on, come on. I bid a fond farewell to Nesquick and slipped him a heel of baguette that I'd smuggled out to curry favour. It strengthened my resolve to adopt a donkey or two as soon as we can work out the practicalities of building a shelter.
Making conversation at the market the next day, I learnt that my vegetable merchant had nattered on till well after midnight. Yes it was a very nice affair and a shame that I'd had to leave early because I was so tired. Soon after such sycophancy, I made my monumental faux pas about the over-age son-in-law and exited stage right, pursued by a toxic cloud of embarrassment.
Now, when I sit on the back balcony drinking my morning coffee and/or surveying the landscape, I imagine Jean-Louis in the cockpit of every passing light aircraft, looking down on me looking down on the tiny people below and the miniature tractors baling hay. He will have seen the new building site up above the nearby hamlet. For a week or more, I've heard the sound of a digger cutting laboriously into the bedrock. It looks like they'll be building a mansion up there. I've walked up that way in the past. The view is even better and you can see for miles and miles. From up there, our own house looks quite small and insignificant.