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Absolute, verbatim truth. Word for word.
A hand delivered invitation from the local Mairie’s office in our village isn’t actually an invitation at all. It’s a summons of sorts. Meaning, ‘You WILL attend!'. To refuse means facing banishment and damnation until at some time in the distant future and grovelling with head bowed you find an opportunity of redeeming yourself.’ All opportunities for redemption usually involve some form of public humiliation too. Such as Monsieur Le Maire suddenly grabbing the microphone at the Harvest Festival Fete and without previously warning you announcing over the Tannoy to three hundred and fifty of your Froggie amis et voisins that in five minutes time you will be awarding this year's prize for the largest marrow. Immediately following which you are going to deliver a speech on why the English so like living here. In French - naturally!
If you managed to follow all that then what I’m basically saying is this. If the Maire invites, then you say “Oui”. At least you do if you know what’s good for you.
Such it was that an invitation arrived for us to attend a Memorial Service for the late Caporal Lechat, who, in 1915 had been ‘shot at dawn’ for refusing to obey an order to take himself and his Fireteam ‘over the top’ into almost certain death at the hands of German machine gunners. At the end of The Great War his sister successfully campaigned to have him pardoned and thus in 1926 he was re-interned in the village of his birth. Subsequently gaining local cult status as a hero (though by that time it didn’t do him a lot of good!). A note worth mentioning here is that despite the French owning up to the murderous and barbaric behaviour of their W.W.1 generals, to date and much to their shame, the English haven’t managed to follow suit. The main reason being of course that some British MPs will undoubtedly be scared witless that hordes of long surviving widows, now all obviously over the age of 109, will cycle round to No 10 Downing Street with demands for War Widow’s Pensions. Anyway, I digress. Along with all my neighbours we were invited to a Memorial Service to be held upon the following Sunday.
Mon ami Raymond et moi studied the invite. Raymond announces, gleefully (except gleefully in French of course but I’m not going to bore you with that right now because there would be so many words they’d spill over into next week) “It says here that proceedings start down at the cemetery with a memorial unveiling followed by a Church service, finishing off with Champagne in the Salle de Fete at 12:30pm.”
“OK.” I respond. “We’ll just turn up for the bubbly then.” I should point out that I suffer from a serious allergy problem with Churches. I break out in a cold sweat and start shaking uncontrollably and dribbling. Muttering barely audible, hardly comprehensible yet continuously repeated utterings such as “Pssst, it’s almost closing time.” until I’m allowed to escape through a vestry side door.
“We can’t do that.” Said Raymond. Sensibly. “People might notice.” We could attend the outdoor Memorial Service at the cemetery though. Where we’ll be seen. Then slip away and skip the Church bit and turn up again later for the Shampoo.”
“Une bonne idée.” I replied. And so it came to pass.
The whole village turned up at the cemetery. The main road that bisects the village and connects the two adjacent fairly sizeable towns either side had been closed. A notice in French had been erected at each end of the village reading ‘Route Barre’ Which is effectively a French abbreviation for “We don’t give a toss. The road is shut and that’s all there is to it so go find another route and be quiet whilst doing so. S’il vous plait.”
As with all such signs these are customarily ignored by all self respecting Frenchmen and so on this special occasion the message was re-enforced a little. By two rather smart looking Gendarmes on horseback. With machine guns.
With most vehicular traffic now passing through the stubble fields on either side the safest place thus to stand was in the middle of the main D798 (look it up on Google Maps. I’ve given you enough clues!). There was a brass band, another couple of Gendarmes on horseback, all the village dignitaries and common folk plus all the village school children. The speeches started.
First of all our new and dynamic Monsieur Le Maire explained why everyone had been summoned (sorry - invited). He started by telling all those that hadn’t thought of it already that major wars, indeed any wars, were not a good thing and should be avoided at all costs. He then introduced some long lost relative of Caporal Lechat who repeated exactly the same thing. Except she embellished her story with a list of each of the poor unfortunate soldiers that had been similarly murdered by their own commanders. There were quite a lot of them.
Then it was Monsieur Le Maire’s turn again.
He’d found some more long distant relatives of the unfortunate Caporal Lechat and introduced each of them to the crowd.
Unfortunately none of the delegates had compared notes beforehand upon who was going to say what at this auspicious event. Thus everything each preceding speaker had delivered was repeated by the next. After a couple of hours and although this is a relatively short period of time for such occasions by French standards at least, I was beginning to wonder whether the Generals had had some alternative motive for murdering members of the Lechat family. Raymond kept looking at his watch and the Gendarme on the big horse next to him kept scowling at Raymond for doing so. Everyone was clearly getting agitated. An even better reason than the monotonous and repetitive speeches was soon to give all gathered even more cause for concern when around forty village school children started forming a regimented and orderly line. Each holding out in front of them what looked dangerously like Collection Boxes. My neighbours started shuffling nervously about. Old ladies were rummaging in their handbags and men started jingling coins in their pockets. At least that’s what I think they were doing but seeing as they were French one can never be quite sure.
I turned to Raymond to ask him whether he had any change on him. To avoid recrimination for whispering during the speeches I waited until the Gendarme on his horse had his attention momentarily diverted again. Yet one more time by the twenty eight year old blonde in the crowd. The one wearing the pretty little frock her mother had bought for her. As a present for her sixteenth Birthday!
“Non!” He said “Haven’t you?”
“Only a couple of hundred Euro notes.” I replied “And hero or not, he’s been dead a long time. He isn’t getting one of those.”
“Mais Oui. But of course not.” Exclaimed Raymond. “I’ll ask le Gendarme.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea Raymond?” I admonished. “He looks a bit cross to me and he’s got a gun. He’s probably a relative of Caporal Lechat too. Almost everyone else here appears to be.”
“Good point. I’ll offer them a cheque.”
“Could you add a bit in for me too then please?” I implored. "I'll pay you back later. In the Bar."
“Mais Oui. No problem.” Raymond responded.
Les enfants filed forward. To strains of something probably meant to be La Marsellaise from the brass band the children each opened their boxes. Much to everyone's relief out of each box flew a small white dove.
Except it didn’t. Fly that is. That was clearly the original plan and very poignant it would have been too had Monsieur Le Maire ordered them in good time from ‘Le Fournisseur de Doves for Special Occasions that are Poignant’. The soddin' things were barely hatched. Some hadn’t even got all their feathers yet. For a nation that designed and built the world’s first, and so far only, Mach 2 passenger jet one would have thought the aeronautical abilities of a naked dove would be better understood.
The French are noted for their prowess as lateral thinkers however. Hence we are able to marvel at such innovations as the Eiffel Tower’s preference for swaying in a strong breeze rather than breaking off halfway up under the pressure and crashing to the ground. Citroen cars too with suspension that has almost as much vertical travel as once did Josephine de Beauharnais's bed springs. I digress again. However the children were not about to be discouraged by the absence of an Air Worthiness Certificate for each of the dear little charges in their care and thus began hurling them into the air.
Some of the poor things managed a few frenzied flaps, bravely attempting to keep aloft but the first one to go up soon crash landed in Madame Gautier’s straw hat. It disappeared amongst her hat's paste imitation collection of summer fruit. Its siblings all seemed to lose morale as a result and similarly gave up the struggle to stay airborne. Things quickly went from bad to worse. Two doves dived kamikaze style into the hawthorn hedge alongside the cemetery and then one plunged down Raymond Pere’s French Horn. No amount of thumping the upturned instrument on a nearby gravestone would coax it out again. I surmised it must have gone right around the bend. A can opener would now be the only recourse to avoiding a nasty smell from within before the week was out.
Sadly a couple were crushed underfoot in the melee and that set off some of the children crying, which started some of their mothers crying too. My neighbour from the opposite side from Raymond is a passionate animal lover. It hadn’t dawned upon me up until that moment that her noble cause for animal protection might extend to our feathered friends as well. She stuffed half a dozen of the little things in my ample Duffel coat pockets and my instinctive comment of “Shall we have them roast or grilled?” didn’t improve my chances of getting a repeat of the grope we had together last Christmas under the mistletoe. Which set me off crying.
The dignified gathering had degenerated into a complete shambles. The Gendarme’s horse took fright and bolted, complete with terrified Gendarme. Eighteen inches of daylight between his backside and the horse's as he disappeared over the horizon in what I thought was a most undignified fashion for a man in uniform. Children screamed. Their mothers screaming even louder. Men trying to do the honourable thing and running round scooping up the blood, guts and feathers of the fallen lest the youngest children be traumatised for the rest of their lives. Any doves managing to get aloft even for a few seconds and looking down would have observed a scene looking for all the world like a battlefield. Ironic really under the circumstances. I thought.
I've finished sobbing now.
For the day anyway.