We are returned from the small paradise that is the Quercy region of France redder than we left. It was 40 degrees when we landed in Toulouse and our hirecar was hotter than the top righthand oven of an aga. Nobody was much interested in showing us how the airconditioning worked, and my husband I and are both hopeless at that kind of thing, so we and the poor children sweated our way to our little house 100 km to the north. On day 6, my husband said ‘the weather has turned’ but it hadn’t. I’d just brushed some button or other with my bag and, bingo, the airconditioning had roared into action and we were freezing. And we froze from then on because we didn’t dare touch any buttons after that in case the aircon vanished altogether. Temperature-wise, it was a holiday of fluctuations.
And fluctuating tempers occasionally, particularly the day I was only saved from turning up a dual carriageway in the face of the oncoming traffic by my husband saying ‘you’re surely not going to …’ Like any self-respecting wife, I snapped back ‘of course not’ but I was, and had nightmares about it for days after, even though France is so empty you could dance a complete eightsome reel on most major roads and only a cow and perhaps two elderly ladies would see you. Driving abroad is fine, but I do wish they would not insist on driving on the wrong side of the road.
In the end, we didn’t care about the road as we sat on our terrace, above the stables where beasts had once been kept, and perhaps not so long ago either, with the only noise the gentle dropping of green figs on pink tiles and the crickets, who scratched so loudly I wondered if it was an enormous scratch for help. Maybe the heat had got to them. Maybe they knew something about the airconditioning.
I think only three things had ever really happened in our town of Castelnau Montratier: Simon de Montfort had roared through during the Albigensian crusade (early 1200s), there had been a bit of scrimmaging during the 100 years war (ended 1453) and 9 cars were burn out in a garage (when we were there). Otherwise, life was unchanged in its essentials. The white stone houses still glittered in the sun, the vines grew, the grain ripened, the hills rolled, the orchards groaned with fruit. From the side of the road we bought peaches so juicy that they were only really fit to eat in the bath, the only place our nanny, who used to throw the cat out of the window and finally went mad, would allow us to eat oranges when we were small.
We visited the cathedral at Albi, so stupendously ugly on the outside, as it bellows from its hilltop THOU WILT BE CATHOLIC and so intoxicating on the inside, painted from top to toe with visions of heaven and hell. I wandered round the cloisters at Moissac, marvelling at the Romanesque capitals and absolutely furious with those beastly revolutionary soldiers who took such bovine pleasure in scratching out the carved faces of the prophets, angels and saints. Destroying art – real art, not the self-indulgent nonsense that passes for art these days: great white canvasses with one red dot hung in a great white room; videos on a loop; egg boxes tastefully arranged; unmade beds – is not a sign of virility, but weakness.
Now we are back, and sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth going away, there seems to be so much catching up to do. But of course it is worth it, and most of the mail mountain is junk which can be thrown, most satisfactorily, straight into the bin. I have a million new ideas for my new books. I fancy taking up the piano again. Holidays do that.
And it is nice not to have to think about airconditioning in the car. Glasgow may surprise in many ways, but that chilly wind is always just round the corner. I’m deep into the first of my new books now, and am back to France, further south than Toulouse, in October, to really get a taste of precisely where they are set, Castelnau Montratier being a little too far north. My sister Alice, who is coming with me as driver and interpreter – my French is as wonky as my driving – will accompany me up into the foothills of the Pyrenees. Perhaps we will even go into Spain. Quite likely, I think, given that when she and I are together, we seldom draw breath. We’ll find ourselves in Barcelona before we’ve finished even the domestic gossip.
Onwards and upwards,