When I reached the top of the hill, I switched off the engine, got out of the car stood in the cool breeze seeing again the green tapestry of the valley. It was exactly as I had remembered it; the house of honey-coloured stone on the opposite ridge, the blood-red roof, the square tower, the tidy lines of clipped vines rippling in olive-green, corduroy waves down to the emerald glitter of the river looping through the lime-green poplars.
Nothing stirred in the hot shimmer; no sound but the constant churring of the crickets. August was the month when nothing seemed to happen. Yet, under the relentless sun, the grapes were swelling with sunshine and sugar with a magical powdering of noble rot.
My hands lingered on the nearest vine. Shaded by the papery leaves, each bunch of grapes was cool and heavy in my hand. I remembered Patrice leading me along the rows of regimented vines in the evening shade, proudly stroking the grey dust which made sure his family’s wine would make the finest vintage. How I’d been dazzled by the red ball of the setting sun, hypnotized by his stream of French I could barely follow and how I’d suddenly felt his sweet lips on my cheek and then my lips and then before we sank down into secrecy...
I shook the memory away, slipped back into the hot car, fired the engine and began to ease it down into the valley and up the other side towards Les Hautes Vignes.
Just before I reached the crossroads a lean tabby darted across the road, a small lizard dangling from its mouth and disappeared into a field of maize. Was it Lapin, the matriarch, on her way to feed her latest litter. Had nothing changed? Would Patrice be waiting for my as he said he would when I’d caught the train back to Paris for the journey home to England, university and what had turned into a less-than glittering life?
I turned under the stone arch and parked in the empty yard where once it had been busy. Now, scarlet geraniums wilted in their pots. Weeds pushed between the gravel. A tractor lay on its side in a clump of nettles, its tyres long gone, its paint corroded, like a carcass picked clean by vultures.
I announced my presence in rusty French.
A figure emerged from the barn where I once helped press wine with my feet. Even in the sixties it was more an act of nostalgia than a necessity. The real main grape-pressing took place in a Dutch barn further down the lane. A scowling young man, his face and clothing creased by sleep. He rubbed his eyes and brushed his dark hair from his eyes with the palm of his hand, a gesture I thought I had forgotten but now hit my with the force of a truck.
My final day at Les Hautes Vignes sped by: stuffing cheap summer clothes into hold-all and carrier bags full of treasures: various Livres de Poche I never read that ended up with a charity shop, a peacock feather and six cheap coffee cups I thought were chic. I was panicking over train timetables but then, as now, SNCF trains were fast and efficient and fortunately the Channel was as flat as a pond. This was followed by hellos then goodbyes to my mum and dad then the mad panic of freshers week, making friends, learning how to drink pints and roll reefers. Lingering traces of France, the tang of the Gitanes I smoked and the flavour of France in the garlic I insisted on putting in every meal I cooked and bitter coffee I insisted on brewing until my love for Patrice faded when he never wrote and I forgot his address anyway …
‘Why do you smoke those French cigarettes? They’re pretentious and you stink, ’ said Nick.
That was the last time I smoked a cigarette and the first time I fell into a bed that wasn’t mine after a bottle of Californian wine. He was a friend of a friend of my best friend, was fair-haired but tanned easily, was had an engaging Liverpudlian sense of humour I couldn't resist, was an avid Everton fan. Our marriage was good but very English, the match on Saturday, roast beef on Sundays, holidays in Florida or Marbella, two beautiful boys who both flew the nest some years before Nick keeled over from a heart condition no-one knew he had. I cried and thought my life had ended.
One bleak and rainy August day when I was clearing out cupboards for useful stuff to give to a charity shop; I can’t remember which one, I came across that old blue and white enamel coffee-set I called shabby chic at which Nick had laughed and called tatty-cheap, when I remembered Patrice and set off south...
How stupid of me. I could feel shame congealing in my veins when the insolent young Frenchman confronted my audacity and flicked a cigarette butt which landed at my feet. I winced. How the hell did I think I would find Patrice and make love beneath the poplars?
Even so, I stepped over it with typically English disdain into the awkward space between us and, remembering the formality of the French, I stretched out my hand and said, ‘Good morning, young man. I am delighted to meet you. I am Mrs O’Brien. I stayed here many years ago and am touring the region, I wondered...’ My words trickled away like spilled wine. How could I ever explain?
I don’t think he was even listening. He nodded curtly but didn’t take my hand. Times had changed indeed.
‘Do you live here?’
He gave a Gallic shrug. So like Patrice but without his easy charm. As if only just registering my very first words, he said. ‘Why did you say Patrice?’
‘Patrice. Patrice Gaston. This was his house. I mean it was his parents’ house and he was going to inherit it when he—'
The boy’s eyes burned cold. ‘My Grandfather lies in the village cemetery. My father sold this place years ago. He works in the city—in Bergerac. A rich Anglais syndicate owns the vines now. They pay me grape-pips to keep an eye on things. No one lives here—except cats, rats, lizards and scorpions. He spits into the geraniums.
I should have guessed, should have known but I was still shocked. If I had expected him to show some curiosity as to my identity, I was disappointed. Without another word he picked up his vélo and swung onto the saddle and drove out of the yard and down the hill, the angry wasp drone of his machine diminishing rapidly.
Nostalgia is dangerous and heart-breaking. Time marched on. I should never have left. I shivered and drove all night back to Caen.