11th August 1999
No-one saw him arrive. Gathered in little clumps on the cuspated ground of the ploughed French field, they were all too intent on watching the sky. They had turned up at intervals throughout the morning, bumping across rutted, stony ground in their protesting vehicles, until they found the perfect spot. The cars, slung across sodden furrows, dotted the landscape like great bulls; each guarding its own kin; each ensuring that the invisible line between territories remained inviolate.
The watchers, united by a shared experience, reflected the fragile, new, European camaraderie. Several French families, distinguishable by the uniform frames of their smart, blue safety specs, gazed dreamily at the residual crescent of the vanquished midday sun. Nearby the snazzy, streamlined eye-protection of a group of German thirty-somethings cried out Vorsprung durch Technik. There were even five enterprising, blue-haired British matrons in frocks. Festooned in gaudy goggles of various hues, they had temporarily abandoned their Europhobia in search of a surer sun than Cornwall had to offer. A bewildered French dachshund that clearly had no intention of looking at the sun in any case, wondered why it had been decked out in blue blinkers. Two venerable English grey-beards earnestly surveyed the surface of their red Saab through holes in a cheese-grater, as if they possessed some kind of sacred divining-rod.
It was the Germans who noticed him first. They had paused in their deliberation of the firmament to pass around the coffee-jug and sample the Schokoladenkuchen from the enormous and well-stocked picnic hamper in the back of their Passat, in order to fortify themselves for subsequent pleasures. They watched him hesitantly approach the Brits with an uncertain smile twitching on the coconut husk of his face. He was gaunt, of indeterminate age but nearer the end than the start of life; opaque eyes sunk low into his skull; hair sparsely planted but long and raggy like neglected lettuce seedlings; clothes worn through and heavy with the black grease of unwashed weeks; back bent almost double. It seemed as if only the gnarled branch that he used to steady his walk stopped him from snapping in two.
“I say,” boomed one of the matrons, stepping hastily out of range of the man?s malodorous bow wave, distaste plainly registering on her wrinkling nose. "What do you want?" What the man wanted was obvious, since he held out his grime-encrusted hand, palm upward, and with the other, pointed into the open chasm of his mouth.
"What? Sorry. No food here." She hastily banged the door of her People Carrier closed with her ample posterior, in an attempt to hide the Carrefour carrier , fat with protruding baguettes. "Try those people over there. They're eating." Wordlessly the man turned and hobbled across the furrows to where the matron had dismissively gestured.
The Germans contemplated their unwelcome visitor with equal disgust. He spoke to them. "J'ai faim, monsieur," He waved a shaky finger at the hamper. One of the Germans appointed himself as spokesman, while the rest feigned blindness and continued to munch. The spokesman shrugged. "Verstehe nicht." He pointed at the blue specs brigade. "Da drüben - Franzozen.- français."
The vagrant, casting a final, contemptuous eye over the Germans' half eaten cake, turned painfully and headed off towards the French delegation. He stumbled on a clod of earth and fell against a small Renault van, jolting open its back door and revealing three bottles of Champagne and a huge, round, uncut Reblochon cheese. He staggered on until he reached the group, half a dozen adults, some children and the dachshund. Oblivious of their new companion, they stared upwards, mesmerised. Assessing the situation, the man approached a young girl and tugged her sleeve. Her shriek, as she wheeled round and tore the viewer from her face, had the effect of closing ranks. Before he could utter a word, he was regaled by a couple of anxious fathers with a string of expletives, all of which, broadly speaking, meant "get lost".
Defeated, the vagrant turned away and started slowly back across the field. The watchers returned to their vigil. Like a group of extras on the set of an X-Files movie, they stood in awe, watching, through silver-coated eyes, as the final moment approached.
The air grew cool, and the sky took on the uncanny iridescence of a winter's day before snow. The French, well prepared, donned anoraks. The others shivered in chilled anticipation, as the temperature crept downwards. The dachshund howled briefly, then silence fell. Even the birds ceased their chatter. The wind dropped. The distant trees were still. And then darkness. Viewers were torn from faces. A universal intake of breath, as the black moon, like a giant space-craft, edged into position. But there was no docking clunk, just a momentary void, and then the sun's corona burst forth like frayed, white silk. For more than two minutes they danced together, the moon in black velvet and the sun in her silken garment, now touched with a scattering of golden pearls. Beneath them Venus, the bright star of evening, was roused from midday slumber, a tiny teardrop to mourn the false night. Shades of summer twilight flooded the horizon. Then the sun broke loose with such ferocity that it seemed as if all her light were pouring forth through a single pinprick.
Now for the first time the watchers acknowledged each other. With satisfied smiles, as if they themselves had engineered the whole event, they nodded to one another across their territorial boundaries. A Frenchman called out "Please to join us for un verre de Champagne."
"Wait please!" called back the German spokesman. "We are bringing Katoffelsalat."
An English matron boomed forth. "And we have some French sticks."
"French steaks?" The German looked puzzled. "Ach so. French is OK. No English beef please."
"French sticks. Baguettes!" The matron muttered "imbecile!" under her breath. Then she addressed the German in slow, deliberate French as if talking to an aunt whose hearing had declined with age. "Et le SAU-MON FU-MÉ."
Simultaneously all dived into vehicles to bring forth their contribution to the entente cordiale. Simultaneously all cried out in horror as they beheld the empty spaces so recently occupied by festive fare.
Under the distant trees, a grimy little man surveyed the remains of the picnic spread out on the grass before him. He patted his bloated belly. All in all a pleasing spread, though he had been annoyed at first that the Germans had eaten most of their cake. However, he forgave them, as the resulting space gave him more room to accommodate the rest of his cache in the hamper. Besides, he had found some cold ham and potato salad in the bottom, which made an acceptable plat principal. Smoked salmon, Scottish not French, but les anglaises didn't know any better, had provided his entrée, liberally stacked on chunks of baguette and fresh Devon butter. Comme dessert he devoured what was left of the Schokoladenkuchen and finished with a large wedge of ripe Reblochon. One bottle of Champagne just saw him through to the end. After a decent interval he revived himself with a cup of steaming coffee. Then he yawned, stretched and stood up. Straight. He carefully packed the remainder of his spoils into the hamper. He could live like a lord for another three days, he reckoned. Hoisting the hamper up onto his shoulder he launched into a grave rendition of the Marseillaise.
"Allons enfants de la Patrie," he sang as he marched away, "le jour de gloire est arrivé."
Ah, yes. It was most definitely a glorious day.
Award Winner 21st Annual Writers Conference 2001
Copyright © Irene Black 2001