Marian's mother had a place in the south of France, a pension as is the term. She'd been a secretary at the British Embassy in Paris - or something of that sort - and had a long standing connection to the country. She had bought a house in the village of Théza, situated in the Eastern Pyrenees, formerly part of Spain. Once she would live there half the year, but by the time Marian and I were a thing she was old and disinclined to have adventures. The pension was still tended by Elke, her friend from the village, and would be offered as a potential holiday destination to friends and relatives, should anyone be passing that way.
The father of my first girlfriend had been some sort of big knob in the Conservative party, but otherwise I tended to form my sexual liaisons with those from a similar socio-economic background, at least until I met Marian who was related to all sorts of historically famous scientists, bankers, millionaires, poets and the like. They lived in mansions in Richmond, except for Marian who lived in Dulwich in a house which her mother had bought for her with small change found down the back of the sofa. Having been raised in a home in which the toilet paper was an original Gutenberg Bible hung upon a nail in the crapper, Marian never quite grasped that having been given a house demarcated her as socio-economically distinct from the rest of us. In fact she seemed to regard it as what you or I might consider a shitty break, what with inheritance tax and everything.
So of course Mum had a place in the south of France. It wasn't a big deal. If anything it was another massive pain-in-the-arse, an inheritance which Marian would one day have to sort out all on her own, as usual.
It was 2007, and we were heading to the pension for a holiday, Marian and myself. Actually getting aboard the plane in the first place had been an adventure in itself, an adventure in which we missed the scheduled flight because Marian had needed to engage in some litter-related task so important that she wouldn't actually tell me why she was doing it at the precise interval of our already being late. I wouldn't have understood. I was too stupid. We tried again the next day, paid extra, and were soon flying across the English channel heading for Perpignan.
At this point I was more or less the only person I knew who had never been to France. I'd been to Mexico five times, but not once to France, working with a habitually limited budget and never having had any really good reason to go there. It certainly wasn't that I had anything against France, but the lure of free accommodation was a significant inducement; although ultimately it wasn't exactly free.
Alighting from the plane, we piled Marian's many, many suitcases and my single backpack into a taxi and made for the village of Théza, a distance of six or seven miles. Marian had assured me that her French would be sufficient to get us by, which was a relief because mine was rotten, having lain more or less fallow for the two decades since secondary school; not that it had ever been great. As I marvelled at the unfamiliar landscape, she began chatting to our driver. I listened, astonished.
'He's speaking Spanish,' I suggested.
'Don't be stupid,' Marian instructed me with a long-suffering look before resuming her discourse with fluttering hands, wide expressive eyes, and an exclamation of oh la la every three or four sentences. I didn't know much about the French as a people, but I had a hunch that oh la la was no more a common exclamation than bowler-hatted English gentlemen describing anything as either spiffing, topping, or jolly dee. She sounded like a character from 'Allo 'Allo!, but there probably wasn't much point to my mentioning it.
After a few minutes I realised that our driver was indeed speaking French but with a strong Spanish accent. This was confusing to me being as my Spanish was fairly decent, so it felt like I should have understood what was being said better than I did. Of course, I realised, the Eastern Pyrenees had once been part of Spain, and we were only ten miles or so from the border.
We arrived in Théza at about four in the afternoon. It was warm but overcast. The village seemed small and deserted and reminded me a lot of the smaller villages I'd passed through in Mexico, the dust and the adobe buildings, the cacti and the scrubby plants adapted to dry conditions. The pension, was a two-story corner house overlooking a square. The windows were covered with either mesh or wooden shutters. The door was protected within a porch of rusting iron bars which Marian unlocked with a huge set of mediaeval looking keys. The place seemed old, and I had a feeling that no-one had been inside for some time. Marian also had this feeling and articulated it with short, venomous sentences confirming that everything was indeed just as shit as she had known it was going to be, and that someone would pay. That was probably going to be me, given that this was how it usually worked, although I was still unsure of just what I'd done wrong this time.
We inspected the interior of our pension in the south of France. We were ankle deep in cobwebs, dust, and dead leaves which had blown in beneath the door of the upper floor balcony. There was no electricity, but we found the junction box and switched it on, and were then able to determine that there were no functioning electric light bulbs in the house. On the positive side, the gas was connected, so we would be able to cook. I went outside for a smoke, and realised that against all odds, I was enjoying myself. I'd already decided that I liked France, and the village seemed to present a thousand exciting possibilities for discovery and unfamiliar experiences.
Back inside, Marian had begun sweeping leaves from the upper floor, down the stairs into the main room, and then out onto the street. I took up a broom and joined in. After an hour or so, the place looked okay to me, but Marian continued, narrating her efforts with ambiguous threats.
'It seems all right now,' I suggested. It was hardly the Ritz, but we had cleared most of the crap and rubbish. I had stayed in worse places.
Marian's response indicated that it was far from all right, and that someone or other was going to suffer for this indignity. I listened and gradually pieced together that the house was supposed to have been cleaned prior to our arrival.
'She's done this on purpose,' Marian said, referring to her own ageing mother. 'I told her we were coming two weeks ago. She's done this on purpose so that we have to do all the cleaning.'
'Would she really do that?'
'Yes, Lawrence. She would.'
I had met Marian's mother and seriously doubted it. Given the woman's advanced years I suspected either that she had forgotten, or had been unable to decode any specific requests from her daughter's hysterical jumble of passive-aggressive demands and edicts.
'Well, we're here now and that's the main thing.'
I went out to find a shop, somewhere I could buy food as Marian continued to clean. I'd recognised the gleam of mania in her eyes. It wasn't so much that she had an actual formal cleaning obsession, but you could be forgiven for thinking that she had, and she would clean and clean and clean until the subject of her efforts shone and she was satisfied that the extent of her own suffering had reached sufficient levels to tip some poorly defined cosmic balance in her favour.
I found a small shop on the next block along, a family run business by the look of it. Their selection seemed erratic and eccentric once you were past the basic vegetables, but it wasn't like there was anywhere else to which I could take my custom. I bought potatoes, onions, garlic, bacon, eggs, fruit juice, bottled water, tomato puree and a loaf of bread. I attempted to pay in Spanish, having apparently forgotten that I was in France, prompting extended miming and chuckles.
Yes, I was indeed English, and no, my understanding of the French language could not be relied upon. More startling to me was that the couple who owned and ran the shop knew Marian's mother from the times she had lived in that house on the corner. They were pleased that she had once again returned to the fold of the community, albeit by proxy. I got the impression that they liked Marian's mother, which made perfect sense because so did I, and so did everyone else who wasn't Marian. Realising I was English, the couple began to talk about their love of rugby football. Whenever they visited England, they went to watch the rugby, and it was at this point that the conversation became too confusing for me to follow.
I returned and made an omelette with all that I had bought but for the fruit juice, water, and bread. It tasted great, as food often does when prepared under siege conditions. Marian took a break from her cleaning to eat and to reiterate that her mother would ordinarily have made a phone call to a person named Elke, the friend who lived elsewhere in the village, and Elke would have arranged for the house to be cleaned in advance of the arrival of guests. This had not been done, Marian suggested, because her ageing mother liked to make her only daughter suffer, and to let her down, just as the woman had been letting her down her entire life. There was that time when Mum had taken some fancy man into the pub to get drunk on booze, abandoning young Marian, leaving her in the car with just a bottle of pop and some crisps; and there was that time when...
I myself still favoured the maybe she just fucking forgot hypothesis, but that was one argument I wasn't going to have. Instead I took the view that the house had required cleaning when we arrived, and that we had now cleaned it to a reasonable standard and might therefore reasonably commence our holiday, and that this was all the information we needed. Curses directed towards an elderly, absent-minded, and almost certainly innocent woman presently located nearly a thousand miles north of the village were therefore a waste of fucking time; but I said nothing, and we carried on with the cleaning, now at the stage of actively seeking out that which might benefit from a wipe rather than the simple damage control of before.
That night we slept exhausted in separate beds, an arrangement on which Marian insisted for some spurious reason with which I couldn't be bothered to argue because I was beyond caring. I snored, or I moved around, or I did something else to prevent her sleeping. She always had trouble sleeping. I attributed this to her rising no earlier than noon each day, usually going to bed at about three in the morning, and rarely ever doing anything which could reasonably be termed exercise; but then I wasn't actually a medical professional.
Next morning I made us toast and another omelette, and discovered the balcony of the upper floor looking out across the square. It could only be accessed by means of a sturdy plank placed across the stairwell from the upstairs landing, about four feet by five with a deck chair and a host of cacti in their pots. I cleaned out all the dead leaves and decided that this would be my sanctuary for the duration. I could smoke out here, and Marian was disinclined to cross the plank, so I was safe. My hands and legs were itching from the thousand tiny cactus spines which had become embedded as I'd been cleaning, but it was worth it. I sat back, took in a sun much brighter and warmer than its English equivalent, rolled myself a fag and looked forward to whatever France had in store for me.
Whatever France had in store for me was going to have to wait, because Marian had another three days of cleaning in store for me. I tried to coax her towards something logical along the lines of how we didn't actually need to see our faces in any fittings besides the bathroom mirror, but she wasn't having it. She had to work this one through, and so we went at it for another two miserable days until I'd had enough and pointed out that I hadn't come all of this way, and paid to come all of this way to clean her mother's pension to a higher standard than I demanded of my own accommodation.
Saturday came and Marian decided that we deserved a day off, this being something unrelated to my suggestion. She declared this as though it was a treat, a reward for our work despite most of mine having been noted as typically substandard and executed with a characteristic lack of enthusiasm. On Wednesday evening we had taken a break from cleaning and gone for a walk out along the Route de Corneilla, a narrow tree-lined avenue running out into the vineyards south of the village. We had picked rosemary which grew wild and in great abundance and used it to season our omelette. Now we caught a bus and followed the same road to the historic town of Elne, the original capital of the region before Perpignan. We spent the morning wandering around the mediaeval part of the town, and the undeniably spectacular cathedral which had been consecrated in 1069, and then we went for lunch.
The café was a hole in an ancient wall with seating and tables arranged on the other side of a peculiarly desolate square. I watched as a fat white grub, slick with olive oil, looped its way out of my salad towards the edge of the plate.
Marian thumbed through her French-English dictionary to find the word for caterpillar. 'Chenille,' she announced.
We laughed for a minute, and then ate in silence.
The food was not great, and ordinarily Marian would have told me to go and complain on her behalf because I was a man and they would take notice of me. Now, having freshly established that I was in all senses useless due to my poor grasp of the French language, she was unable to give me such an order without contradicting herself. Her acknowledging my present state of uselessness demanded that I had existed in a prior state of non-uselessness, that I had once been useful, contrary to her stated views which might therefore be exposed as fallible.
By this point the silence was killing me. Marian had barely uttered a word as we dutifully plodded around the town and its cathedral. She could not be induced to conversation.
'I've had about enough of this,' I heard myself say, eventually.
'What?' She appeared genuinely surprised.
'This is too miserable for me. I want to start having fun.'
'We've been having fun.'
'We've been cleaning your mother's pension all week. This is the first time we've emerged out into the sunlight and I may as well have been wheeling a statue around on a handcart. You've hardly said a word. Am I really that boring?'
'Haven't we been having fun?' She really did seem puzzled. 'What about the chenille?'
We paid up and wandered some more, mainly markets and shops selling rugs, blankets, and the sort of thing which appeals to tourists. The conversation remained conspicuously absent but for the basics of directions.
'Is it this side do you think, or the other?'
I looked at the map, and then at the two bus stops of which only one would take us back to our village. 'I think it's that one.'
'Are you sure?'
'I have no idea. You've been here before. I haven't. I don't even know why you're asking me.'
'Well, if you're sure.'
We waited an hour, and then watched as a bus listing Théza amongst the destinations written on a piece of card behind the windshield picked up passengers from the other side of the road, whizzing away before we could react.
'You said it was this side!' Now she sounded furious.
We crossed the road to wait at the other stop, standing apart. She sat in the shade at the stop. I stood about twenty feet away in the sun. I didn't want to be anywhere near her. Another hour passed and we caught the next bus. We boarded and came together on adjacent seats, but it felt fraught, like some teacher was forcing me to take the seat next to the school bully on a long coach trip because it was that or nothing.
'Are we going to talk again at some point?'
'I'm talking now, Lawrence.'
I fumbled through a series of vague accusations rendered impotent, defused of the specific object which would unleash the full force of her psychosis. The question was why do you have to be such a cunt all of the fucking time? but it was difficult to express in the anaemic language of the self-help workshop, the only language to which she would deign to respond under such circumstances.
There may have been further cleaning, but the rest of our time in the south of France is something of a blur, vague impressions occurring in no particular order. We went for walks, and we drank in a local bar. At one point I bought sausages from a local butcher, and we talked about our respective countries, and I realised I already liked him more than my girlfriend and travelling companion.
Eventually we met up with Elke, the friend of Marian's mother who had apparently not been informed of our arrival and had thus failed to have the pension cleaned in advance. Elke was German, married to a Spanish man, and a lovely woman. She recalled Marian visiting many years earlier as a child. She served us food and wine, and then drove us to Collioure for a day out. Collioure is an astonishingly beautiful coastal town, very old, with a labyrinth of tall, thin streets scaling the steep hills looking out over the Mediterranean. It was the first time I had actually set eyes upon the Mediterranean sea. It was vivid and distinctive, and I couldn't imagine mistaking it for any other large body of water. I felt I had a sudden and new insight into the paintings of all those artists drawn to this part of the world around the turn of the previous century. Marian was able to shop for the sort of things hand-crafted from twigs which had been targeted at tourists such as herself, and I was able to have an intelligent conversation with Elke, so at last we were all happy.
Another day was spent failing to travel to some other nearby town - possibly Perpignan itself - once we realised that Théza was directly served by a single bus which went through daily rather than hourly. We had a relatively wonderful evening out in Collioure with Elke and some other friend of hers. Then on the last day she took us to the beach at Saint-Cyprien, which was developed, and very windy, and suggestive of David Niven sipping Martinis whilst adjusting his cravat; but it was a new place, and that in itself was interesting. As Elke picked us up, she apologised - quite unnecessarily - for having failed to realise that we lacked any means of getting about. Had she known, or had one of us mentioned it, she would have happily driven us around and shown us the sights for most of the two weeks, but the two weeks had come to an end and it was over.
Marian had mellowed following the initial episode of mania, and the setting had been of a beauty sufficient to ensure that I enjoyed at least the latter part of the trip. I'd had very little direct experience of the French only two weeks before, and I found that I liked them very much, and that I liked what I had seen of France.
During one of those evenings when we hadn't really been engaged in anything, somewhere between eating and settling down for the evening with a book - there being neither television nor radio in the pension - I had noticed villagers playing pétanque, the local variation on bowling, in the square outside. I suggested we might go out and join in, or at least watch. Marian said she would rather not as she knew a few of them. This was news to me. She explained that she had lost her virginity to one of them many years before, and it had occurred right here under this roof. She had been about fifteen, and he was eighteen, and he'd locked the door. This was why she had been wary of coming here, which was also news to me. She had hoped that enough time had passed, but apparently it hadn't.
'You were raped? Is that what you're telling me now?'
Apparently it wasn't, or she couldn't bring herself to accept that it had been such, and as with many of the events which had destroyed Marian's life, whilst there was clearly some deeply unpleasant aspect, it was difficult to identify the precise detail of the trauma. My guess is that she was either talked into something she didn't want to do, or willingly did something for which she later felt considerable shame. I have friends who have endured unambiguously horrific sexual assaults in their lives, the kind of attacks involving knives and screaming for help, and mostly they have found ways to rise above the horror and to get on with their lives because it's either that or let it destroy you completely. Either Marian had endured something which had destroyed her, or this had been another wrong of lesser consequence worn as a hair suit by someone who had in all other respects enjoyed a life of unusual privilege. Going on previous form, I had a strong hunch it was the latter, but then I wouldn't presume to understand the intimate psychological landscape of another person, and certainly not Marian.
Maybe this was the answer to my unvoiced question why do you have to be such a cunt all of the fucking time?
I don't suppose I will ever know; but I think back to that holiday now, and all I can recall with any feeling is France and the wonderful Mediterranean landscape; which seems about right.