Jacko

Sometimes I can hear the bird late at night.

At least I think I can. Out here, I don’t sleep as well I used to. There’s something about the warm nights, the silence. It’s odd but, back home, there was always a hum of life, day and night – traffic on the main road, I suppose. I found it comforting.

When I first thought I was hearing birdsong, I woke Guy.

– Can you hear it?

– Hm, what?

– The bird. In the café.

My husband is a heavy sleeper. Even when he was involved in one of his cases, he would be out, a stunned walrus in the bed beside me, within moments of the light being switched off. I prodded him now, quite hard.

– Jacko. From the café. I think he’s calling out to us.

What Guy said then is not worth recording. He has a crude way with words, which I have always found surprising in someone who was a barrister. Out here, because nobody understands what he’s saying, his language is as bad as Gordon Ramsey’s. I wonder if they still have Gordon Ramsey back home..

The bird sings on, so loud it must keep le patron and madame awake. Serves them right.

Soon a cockerel is calling across the valley. Its cry echoes around the mountains. Another one replies. There are human voices from the direction of the marché. The first grey of dawn glows between the wooden shutters.

The day begins.

*

It has become something of a Brit hang-out, Saint Sulpice Les Deux Eglises. Although it’s nice to be among one’s own, some of our pals are not what one would call ‘kindred spirits’. Gary, the pig-tailed former rock star, with Justine, his inappropriately young French girlfriend. Frank and Kathy, who claim to be property developers and who love to talk about money. Colin, a racist who wears tartan trousers. There are more, quite a lot more. We meet regularly at one of our lovely houses, and talk about the pleasures of living in France, or exchange horror stories (queues, riots, weather, immigrants) from the English papers.

All the same, we like to get away from the usual crowd now and then. It was the reason why we began to avoid the brasserie in the main town square. It had become rather too touristique for our taste.

We found a bar which serves food on the edge of town, a scruffy little place with a small terrasse, a limited menu and a clientele of locals. It does a mean steak frites, Guy says.

At first it didn’t bother me, the bird in the cage hanging from a shady tree on the terrasse. It was rather amusing to hear it chirruping away over the murmur of conversation, the clink of glasses. It sounded happy. Guy only noticed it when I pointed it out.

– Some sort of finch, he said. Calling for a mate.

He cut into his steak.

– Oh.

That rather spoiled it for me.

– They love keeping birds in cages, the French. Of course, lark’s tongues are a great delicacy in some parts.

The little café was never quite the same after that. The bird seemed to sing more loudly when we were there, as if it knew that we were English and had higher standards of animal welfare than the continentals.

One day I asked Guy if he would talked to le patron Tommy about it. We called him Tommy because he bore a passing resemblance to the late comedian, Tommy Cooper.

– No no no no no. I’ve told you about interfering. Golden rule.

– Don’t be so wet, Guy. At least we could get it a mate. We could give it as a cadeau to Tommy and Madame.

Guy doesn’t like to be thought wet. He was something of a bruiser when he was at the bar, and was rather proud of this reputation. He caught Tommy’s eye while we were having coffee, and the patron wandered over to our table.

– Monsieur Smeet, he said in that half-mocking way that the French like to adopt when addressing foreigners. We had given up some time ago trying to explain that the name was Whittingham-Smith. He seemed amused by the idea that, if you were English, you were called ‘Smith’ – or rather ‘Smeet’.

Guy nodded in the direction of the cage.

– L’oiseau. Ca va avec lui?

The patron glanced towards the bird without particular interest.

– Mais oui, bien sûr. Il s’appelle Jacko.

Guy turned to me.

– Monsieur says he’s called Jacko.

It is one of Guy’s small vanities that he likes to pretend that he speaks better French than me.

– Peut-ȇtre, said Guy, il aimerait une petite amie.

Tommy looked balefully at Guy for a moment, then began wiping the table with his cloth in a brisk, c’est-tout? sort of way, before wandering off, muttering something neither of us could catch.

Guy shrugged.

– I asked Tommy if the bird would like a little friend.

– I know what you asked him, I said.

*

From then on, when we had lunch, Tommy would make remarks about Jacko – how well he was looking, how he was singing a lot these days, how generally ‘formidable’ he was.

When I expressed mild irritation at this daily niggle, Guy muttered something about the French sense of humour.

– Funny sense of humour, I said. Mocking your customers, Back home, we’d call it bloody rude.

– Boff.’ A downward turn of the mouth. C’est la vie.

– No, not boff, Guy. And why should it be la vie?

Guy sipped at his wine in the contemplative, pursed-lip way he had adopted since being out here.

– Parce que –

He dropped his voice as le patron approached. This is how he behaves in St Sulpice. He may look bigger and healthier and more tanned but something has slipped away, leaving him ever so slightly hollowed out. It is as if he needed the greyness and frustrations of life in the UK to be himself.

– Anyway, I said after Tommy had left us, I don’t get the joke. The Smeets, Earl Grey tea, The Radio Times. Sausages. Why are these perfectly ordinary things suddenly so hilarious?

Guy had reached for the paper.

– Can’t think what you’re talking about, he said.

*

– Of course you can do something.

Julian, our eldest son, came to stay with his wife Helena, and their two boys, James and Matthew. Life is never dull when Julian is around, and this year was no exception.

– One can always do something, said Julian.

We were at the little café and, perhaps unwisely, I had mentioned the Jacko problem. We all stared at the cage in the corner for a moment. Jacko was in somewhat subdued form that day.

– For God’s sake don’t get involved, said Guy.

– It’s cruel, said Mattie who is nine.

– It’s their culture.

Guy had adopted his end-of-story tone of voice, but the family were having none of it.

– I’ll buy it off him. Julian sat back in his chair, like a man who has solved yet another problem. Money talks. Especially with the French.

– Not acceptable, said Guy. We are where we are.

– Oh God, he’s moving into barrister mode.

I’ve thought these words many times before but now, rather to my surprise, I spoke them out loud. I ploughed on.

– Any moment now, you’ll be saying, I want to be quite clear on this. Or, With the greatest possible respect. Or, Now let us reflect on that for a moment.

Guy looked at me coldly, then turned to the boys.

– Your grandmother hasn’t been sleeping well recently, he said.

– I’m going to free it, said James, changing the subject. The cage isn’t even locked.

– Non-starter, said Guy. Don’t even think about it.

The idea of a Jacko jail-break lingered, though. That afternoon, while Guy was asleep, a plot was hatched by the two boys. Naturally they told their grandmother and, although I put on a little pantomime of disapproval, I couldn’t help but be rather pleased. The younger generation were going to show Tommy that the English have a culture, too. It involves being kind to animals.

That night, after we had all gone to bed, I heard whispers in the hall, the latch on the front door being lifted. Operation Jacko was under way.

I waited, rather wishing now that I had remained ignorant of the whole thing. It made me a co-conspirator. Le patron would have no doubt that the Smeets were behind the crime. Guy would be furious.

I looked at him as he slept, open-mouthed. Perhaps, once the deed was done, he would understand. He might even be secretly proud of his grandsons. And so what if we had take our déjeuner somewhere else?

They were back, about half an hour later. The front door creaked, there was a giggle a ‘Sshh!’

I got out of bed, and slipped on my dressing-gown. I leant over the banisters.

– What happened?

– The bird has flown, said James. Or at least it will have soon.

– Yess! went Mattie.

– We opened the cage door. As soon as it’s light, Jacko will be able to fly free.

– Free as a bird, said Mattie.

*

The Whittingham-Smiths have never been very good at keeping secrets. On the veranda at breakfast, it all came out.

James, occasionally interrupted by Mattie, told the story.

– Oh, bloody hell, boys, Guy said several times.

– Well I think it’s jolly well done, I said.

– What d’you mean “Well done”? Guy snapped. It’s a little holiday adventure for them but they’re going home tomorrow. We’re the ones who will have to live with the consequences.

There was something very like fear in his voice. The conversation continued, but I watched my husband, as if seeing him with new eyes. Was that why he came here? To avoid a life with consequences. Was this how the rest of my days would be – being polite to rude Frenchmen for fear of more consequences?

– Let’s go to the little café today, I said brightly.

*

And what was the first thing we heard as we turned into the narrow street leading to the café later that morning? Birdsong.

– I don’t believe it, said James.

Le patron was serving a couple on the terrasse. As we hovered on the pavement waiting to be seated, he walked back to the bar, rather pointedly, I thought.

The boys were staring at the cage. There was no doubt that the bird, which was singing away as usual, looked and sounded remarkably like Jacko.

– He must have just stayed in the cage, Mattie murmured.

– What do you expect? said Julian. It’s French. Liberté? They’re all talk.

Le patron approached. Normally he would show us to a table. Today he stood before us, hands on hips.

– M’sieur dames.

– Déjeuner, monsieur? said Guy. Comme d’habitude?

Tommy looked around the terrasse, deserted except for the couple he had been speaking to. Then, shrugging, he put two tables together and noisily pulled over some chairs, their metal legs scraping on the stone.

We sat down nervously. As he wiped the table, he muttered, to himself or to us.

– Il chante bien, l’oiseau, hein? Fort. Ah oui. Il est en pleine forme.

When we didn’t reply, he looked at Mattie and, for the first time in our presence, spoke English.

– Ze bird. ‘e ees ’appy. He gave an oddly sarcastic thumbs up. ’e ees OK.

– Bien, said Guy. Très bien.

Le patron strutted away, muttering imprecations to himself. ‘Bordel’, we heard. And ‘pute’.

– Maybe I’m wrong about this, said Julian, but I’m thinking that maybe he has an inkling about what went on last night.

– No way am I having soup, said James.

We all looked at him. Glancing in the direction of the bar, he imitated someone spitting deliberately on to a plate.

– Urgh, said Mattie. Is that what they do?

– No, they don’t, Guy snapped. We’re guests in this country. It’s about time we behaved as such.

It was a tense, somewhat hurried lunch. Le patron was surly. Julian’s attempts at humour made us all edgier than ever. No one ordered the soup.

When we paid, I noticed that Guy left a larger tip than usual. It was the last time we took lunch at our little café.

*

The family left the next day, and life resumed its gentle daily routine. Frank and Kathy are building a new swimming-pool on the other side of their house. Gary’s petite amie is rumoured to be pregnant. At a barbecue over at Colin’s, I made the mistake of mentioning the Jacko debacle. Guy was quite grumpy about it over breakfast the next morning. He said that the escapade made us look ridiculously English.

– But we are ridiculously English, I said. And I don’t mind. I like being ridiculously English.

Guy gave his version of a Gallic shrug.

– Chacun à son gout, he said.

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