AT THE CAFE
It’s Saturday. In the Café des Arts, in the little market town of St Rémy des Cévennes, our rag-tag band of expats and ne’er-do-wells is beginning to assemble for the weekly gossip-fest. As always Jim and Alice are first, rushing to bag the big table by the window. Horst and Heidi arrive with Hanneke – they red and flustered after shouldering their way through the tightly-packed tourists, she, Hanneke, cool and elegant and slightly supercilious, as ever.
We bustle into our seats, disposing around and under our chairs our carrier bags of cherries and onions, our baskets fragrant with fromage de chevre and saucisson, our clandestine and rather greasy paper bags concealing the Vietnamese delicacies we are strictly forbidden to consume in the café.
Suddenly who should turn up but Louis, customary smirk clinging to the grimy stubble of his face. “’jour toulmonde,” he greets us. “Say, did you hear about the shooting?”
We look at him, boot-faced. Heidi turns pink, Hanneke studies her exquisitely manicured nails. Horst rattles his Midi Libre in a ‘don’t bother us with your nonsense’ kind of a way while Alice plays the deaf card and starts a lively conversation with Jeannette at the next table. There was a… shall we say a misunderstanding last year. We all thought someone was dead – Louis, as it happens. It turned out in the end that someone had shot at someone and Louis had seen it. Alice, of course, had claimed eye-witness kudos.
Louis stands enjoying our discomfiture, but just as he is about to launch the punchline of his little taquinerie, Jean-François comes along and ruins it all. “Salut tout le monde. Mmmmwah! mmmwah!” He greets the ladies with a kiss, the men with a hearty handshake. “Say,” he continues, “did you hear about the shooting?”
We can’t believe our ears. Jean-François, our trusted ally, putting the boot in? Is he in cahoots with Louis after all? Just as Jim is beginning to splutter, J-F goes on. “Yes, it’s true, there’s going to be a shooting, in this very café, next Thursday! They say George Clooney himself is coming, but I doubt it. It will probably be a stand-in.”
Realisation is beginning to dawn. A shooting? A film shooting? Exciting news indeed, or rather it would be, if we were not such worldly sophisticates.
But there’s more. “You could all be in it if you want,” J-F assures us. “I spoke to the location manager, he wants extras to be sitting in the café while the scene is being filmed.” We look at one another and solemnly shake our heads. No, we rarely if ever meet in St Rémy on a Thursday: Saturday is our day. Alice has promised to cook her famous poached salmon for Elise and Danny’s 25th anniversary party. Horst and Heidi are on standby to help Antoine with the vendange – his famous Merlot grapes are always picked early.
So, of course, on Thursday, the little café is largely empty. Only Jim can be seen, tucked into a corner table at the back of the room, engrossed in his day-old Guardian. Alice arrives by chance: she has had to come into St Rémy to book a chiropodist appointment. She greets her brother with surprise and agrees to stay for a quick verre de rouge. She is wearing a smart jacket – after all, one can’t go into the cabinet of a medical professional looking like a bag lady.
Unlike the others, I live in St Rémy itself, and Jean François is used to my dropping in to the café after a morning spent at the library. As Jim and Alice are already there, I feel it would be churlish not to join them. As I sit down, Hanneke emerges from the toilettes at the back of the café. Being Hanneke, she does not condescend to explain her presence in St Rémy on a Thursday. I notice she is wearing a new shade of nail polish.
One by one they all troop in, each looking slightly sheepish, each with a plausible excuse. It’s been raining, say Horst and Heidi, so Antoine won’t pick the grapes until the weekend. Jeannette’s son has come home unexpectedly and she needs to buy saucisse de Toulouse for the cassoulet she is making him – apparently her village butcher doesn’t stock it. All of us are looking remarkably spruce and well-kempt.
The only person missing is Louis. Is he embarrassed at having teased us so cruelly? Does he feel he doesn’t deserve to be in our number? No, wait: there in the distance we see him coming, unshaven, his blue dungarees stained with some nameless filth: clearly he hasn’t Made the Effort. And he isn’t alone. Lurching along in his wake are Jules et Jim, octogenarian farmers from Le Mas Germain. Their grimy berets squat toad-like on their greasy brows, redolent as usual, no doubt, of goat and manure.
And – wonder of wonders – here comes the camera, dollying backwards as the grunge brigade advance. They are coming to film! In the café! Spines and jackets are .straightened, hair discreetly patted.
Then Jean François comes over to us with a studiously downcast face. “I’m sorry, but you have to leave now. The producers need the café for their filming.” This is indeed a bombshell.
“But…” Horst splutters. “you told us…”
Jeannette cuts in: “You said we would be needed as extras for the scene.” Jean François’s apologetic moue is convincing – almost.
“They want real ‘characters’, peasants, men of the soil,” he explains.
“So why did you get us all in here, when we have better things to do?” This from Jim, who is beginning to go purple.
Jean François shrugs. It is a Gallic shrug. An elaborate shrug. A caricature of shrugs. “Well, you know,” he says, “business is always slow on a Thursday…”