Fuel to burn

As far as events in the Place de l’Horloge are concerned, Madame Gauguin is the one who knows all. Although busy about her daily chores, which require her to navigate at great speed the narrow and precipitous village lanes in her Renault Twingo, Madame Gauguin somehow knows who is coming and going, who is parking in the wrong place, and precisely when to address the strangers pausing irresolutely in their quest for the 12th century church further down the ancien chemin, which is also my street.

So, on the freezing fifth day of the new year, when Monsieur Dufours arrives in the middle of the Place de l’Horloge with a truck load of wood and climbs down from his cabin with mobile phone at the ready, Madame Gauguin is at his side.

Monsieur Dufours—a smiling young man with a mop of black hair and a laconic manner—is the one you ring for wood. In the first couple of weeks, my French, face to face, had been holding up pretty well, but I felt tentative about trying myself out on the phone. Putting increasing pressure on this tentativeness, however, was the daily depletion of the wood heap and the continued run of below zero temperatures. Working up to it over a day or two, I rang Monsieur Dufours and, with only a few amiable misunderstandings (no, I assured him, I wasn’t travelling from Australia especially to buy wood), he promised to arrive: Vendredi at eight-thirty, which is about when the first light struggles over the mountain. Bring some bois d’allumage—kindling—I added with last minute confidence.

On Friday I am up and ready, having a quick coffee in the pre-dawn darkness. Rue de l’église, my street, is cold and empty. Not a shutter twitches. And the Place de l’Horloge, the length of a cricket pitch away, is silent, its cobblestones gleaming with moisture. Further down the hill, a swathe of bright golden light spills with the aromas of fresh loaves from the narrow doorway of the boulangerie. All of which would have been romantic and appealing if I hadn’t been waiting anxiously for Monsieur Dufours—who is nowhere to be seen, not in the silences of 8.30 am, not at bustling 9.00 as the office staff of the Hotel de Ville across the square are arriving, and not at 9.30 when the builders renovating the Galerie d’Arts straggle in.

Directed to my very door by the indefatigable Madame Gauguin, Monsieur Dufours arrives at 10am sharp, looking and acting like a model of punctuality. Well, he is actually—Southern Mediterranean punctuality, a phenomenon I will experience again and again over ensuing weeks.

We shake hands and he walks the few metres back to the Place de l’Horloge to his truck, which he then reverses at great speed, a swashbuckling inch or so away from ancient walls on either side, until it’s alongside the steps down to my door. Then he flicks a cavalier lever and the entire mountain of wood, which I had assumed must be for me and perhaps three other customers, cascades onto the narrow laneway, overflows down the steps to the house and washes up against the front door like a lumpy tide.

Monsieur Dufours smiles a dazzler, guns his truck and departs.

The dust from this invasion is still swirling when, at the 12th century church end of the lane, a silver Mercedes appears and, in the other direction, from the square, in a thrilling photo finish, comes the woman who delivers the post in her little van and Madame Gauguin. None of them can get past.
The man in the Mercedes, impeccably suited, already ‘quinze minutes en retard’, but admirably philosophical, hops out and begins clearing the wood from the ancien chemin. Madame Gauguin and the postie join in. For my part, I attack it with the manic intensity of the one who’s to blame. French exclamations and pieces of wood fly everywhere. Soon the way is clear, the mail has got through, the Mercedes is on its way, and Madame Gauguin has gone home panting, pausing only to give directions to some random passerby.

All I have to do now is feed the wood, log by log, into the chute, next to the front door, that drops it into the underground cave. To do this, I need to unlock the hatchway covering the chute, a process requiring une petite clef, the whereabouts of which only Madame Gauguin knows.

Two hours later, all the wood is in the cellar, and I will have to go down and spend another couple of hours stacking it, but first I need kindling. Monsieur Dufours’ idea of kindling turns out to be teenage logs as thick as your arm not long severed from the parent bough and so green that the warmth of the fire might very well make them bud, not burn. So I nick into the old cemetery, where there is an abundance of dead wood, and fill a rucksack with twigs and other flammables. I am just mooching home through the village, the rucksack on my back sprouting spindly sticks and stray leaves, when I run into Madame ‘Franki’—American, elegant, slim as a stick of kindling.

 ‘Ah ha,’ she says, ‘a hunter gatherer among us.’

I smile. Like Monsieur Dufours. A dazzler.            

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University, presently living and working in France.



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