UNPUBLISHED: The final C’est La Folie column
I did ask my paymasters at the Daily Telegraph if I might write a final column; a sign-off piece to mark the end of 9 years during which I had written for them non-stop about life at La Folie. I felt this would be only fair to our readers. I thought we should let them know that the thing had finally come to an end. I thought everyone deserved a sense of closure, including me. Sadly, the request was denied: better to allow the thing just to fade away, I suppose, than give anyone an inkling that the old fellow has even stopped.
Well, better late than never, here it is. Not one of my best, perhaps, but it mattered to me, and I’m glad finally to be able to publish it here.
MY LITTLE life is hardly the stuff of Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, from time to time I do manage to do something so magnificently stupid, so bletheringly gormless, that I experience a deep, personal sense of Aristotelian catharsis; that purging of the emotions of fear and pity that comes of watching one like ourselves go flying on the great banana-skin of life. Even when that someone is me.
I know I have a bit of a weakness for the heroic gesture. Even so, I have no idea why I volunteered to take Alice’s place at tonight’s after-school meeting about nits. It’s not just that Amélie’s classroom is heated in the French manner, evocative of the engine-room of the Titanic. Nor is it that her dominatrix – I mean schoolteacher – forces me and the other parents to crouch for an hour on miniature benches designed for 3-year-old French bottoms, as opposed to 46-year-old Anglo-Saxon ones. No, it’s also the fact that Maîtresse Cécile has a great deal to say about les poux, and the more she says, the more my scalp begins to itch. It sounds as if the whole school is infested. “Mentioning no names,” she declares, fixing me with her tungsten gaze. I stare longingly at the door.
“And now,” she says, “we will end this meeting in the same way that I end all my classes.”
“Are we going to sing a song?” I ask.
Maîtresse Cécile narrows her eyes. From her pocket, she pulls a pink musical box, places it on her knee, and begins to wind the handle. Embarrassed, we all smile at the floor, straining to hear the music tinkling out of it. I think it may be Act 2 of Die Wälkure.
Afterwards, stiff-legged as a gavvied goose, I stagger back to where I parked Alice’s car.
But the car isn’t there any more. I could swear I parked the Renault Scenic just opposite the post office. As it happens, there are two other Renault Scenics nearby, and one of them is the right colour. But no matter how hard I try to persuade myself otherwise, blurring my focus and peering at them with my head on one side, neither of them is mine. So I saunter round the corner to the other place I sometimes park, trying very hard not to look like a man who has forgotten where he left his car.
I’m not parked here, either. So I walk back to the post office. I examine the empty space where I could swear I left the Scenic, trying very hard not to look like a man whose car has just been nicked.
But the fact is that nobody steals cars in Jolibois, and the police don’t tow them away, either. Befuddled, I walk down the hill to check the one last place where I just might have left the car. Even though I know that I haven’t.
Sure enough, the spaces opposite the Mairie are all empty, too. I fumble in my pocket for my phone. I must call the dreaded gendarmes. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a flash of silver-grey, glinting from down a side alley. I recognise a Renault Scenic, just like ours. No. Yes. No. Blimey, that really is our car. The joyriders must have dumped it here.
Venturing closer, I can see that the back windscreen has been smashed out. Yet Alice’s tennis racquet is still on the front seat. Strange, that the thieves didn’t bother to walk off with that. I have a quick hunt around to see what else is missing. Suddenly, I glimpse my shadow projected on the wall behind me and a second shadow, of a hooded, motionless figure, alongside. Spooked, I hold my breath. A young man climbs quickly into a car nearby. I take a blurred picture on my phone as he drives away.
Now, heart thumping, I examine the Scenic more closely. One side of the back end is completely mashed up: the joy-riders have done a thorough job on it. But as I consider the evidence, my skin begins to prickle. For what kind of car thief breaks into a car via the rear windscreen? And what joy-rider crashes a car in reverse?
High above me, a pair of shutters groans open, allowing a shaft of light into the dark alley.
“Bonsoir, Madame,” I announce, in case madame thinks I am attempting to steal my own car. The shutters slam shut.
Feeling faintly sick, I walk out of the alley and into the street, gazing at the space where I parked, perpendicular to the traffic, perhaps 30 yards up the hill to my right. In Aristotelian tragedy, this is what is called the Anagnorisis. Just supposing, for argument’s sake, that I were sufficiently dorkish to have forgotten to apply the handbrake when I dashed into the meeting, and just supposing that Alice’s car made a graceful 180-degree turn as it accelerated in reverse down the hill, then isn’t this concrete wall exactly where it would have ended up, converting kinetic energy into the shattered glass and twisted metal of a nice big juicy crash?
I stroke my chin. Nice one, Wrighty. At first, I just feel relieved. Despite my stupidity, no children or grannies have been mown down; no other cars have been mangled; no fountains have been trashed. It’s a Monday night in Jolibois, so the place is deserted. You can almost smell the tumbleweed. How blessed I am. I have escaped the worst of the cataclysm that could have been unleashed by my stupidity. And then I take a closer look at the back end of the Scenic. It looks a bit like an exploded cauliflower. Two of the doors are too bent to open, to say nothing of the earthquaked boot. With my crash in absentia, I’m pretty sure I have written off Alice’s car, which cost us €6500 a few years ago and is only insured 3rd party (my idea).
I climb into the car. Even at 5mph, it makes a sound like a T-Rex scraping its claws down a blackboard. I phone Alice; ask her to come and pick me up. She is less chatty than usual on the journey home.
Next morning, the kindly garage man shakes his head. “If you can get it there,” he says, “the breaker’s yard might give you a little something for the tyres.” So that’s that, then. Here endeth one very expensive lesson.
Here endeth, too, C’est La Folie. For now the tree-lined path of my life leads elsewhere. I have spent the past year ghost-writing the memoir of an English boy who grew up in the French Resistance, and there are other books queuing up in my mind to be written, or at least to force me into doing the washing-up. Yet I shall still contribute to the Telegraph, and I am not leaving this ramshackle old place (La Folie, I mean, not the Weekend section). No, be assured that I shall still be here, chasing my sheep across this barren hillside; still striving to teach the French how to lose at tennis with aplomb.
Taking the plunge to come and live in rural France has transformed my life, and writing about it has been the most satisfying work I have ever done. Thank you to the thousands of loyal readers who have written to me over the years, either cheering me on or castigating me for my folly. Despite the occasional sounds of rending metal and shattering glass, it has truly been the ride of my life. May your own adventures be glorious. May you never have nits. And may you always remember to apply the handbrake when you park.