Hairpin bends in a stony forest. Downhill. Steep, then steeper. Smooth frictionless tarmac. I’ve got the car barely under control. A narrow bridge over a ravine. Single-file only. A van hurtling uphill. A recessed drain— unavoidable. Bang, crash, wallop. The car continues but feels mortally wounded.
We limp to a passing place 50 yards further down the hill and I cut the engine. I get out and inspect the damage. A back tire is as flat as a flounder. It’s not my car. I open the trunk hoping to uncover the requisite tools and spare wheel. Jack, spare, warning triangle — present. Excellent. Lug wrench?
Unfortunately not. Bugger. Phone signal? One bar. From time to time. I call Michael, a neighbor. A French ring tone, then his voice. Thank the Lord. Could he possibly drive out here, bringing a lug wrench? Unfortunately Michael is stoned.
‘I’m stoned,’ he says. ‘I’ve got my feet up and I’m watching the Tour de France. This 21-year-old Slovenian guy has just come from absolutely nowhere and taken the lead. Astonishing.’ But could he possibly get in his car and bring a lug wrench? ‘Well, I need to have a cup of tea first and straighten myself out a bit. Where are you?’ I tell him I’m about a mile beyond the paddocks with the blindfolded horses. He knows them. Says he’ll be there in about half an hour.
The shady woods are quiet and cool. I can hear burbling partridges and a babbling brook. A car stops precipitously. A young man, short hair, and his girlfriend. Perhaps his sister. These are the very opposite of stoned. They jump out exuding capability, dynamic motion and an unwavering belief in the reality of appearances. ‘No nut wrench,’ I say sadly. ‘Small nuts,’ I add.
They take charge and industriously search the car in the likeliest, then the unlikeliest places, bobbing and crouching with purpose and energy; opening and shutting things with authority and knowledge. Trunk, glove box, side pockets. She inserts her head sideways under the front seat. They draw a blank and shake their heads at one another. I’m not so ungracious as to tell them I’ve already had my head under the seats. I shake my phone at them and say never mind, assistance is on its way, many thanks.
They go. About a minute later another car stops. A man with perhaps soot on his face shouts at me through the open passenger window in machine-gun French with the strongest Provençal accent I’ve ever heard. Presuming that basically he is asking me what the problem is, I tell him. He roars with laughter, slams his car into gear and accelerates up the hill.
I go and sit in the driver’s seat. The doors are open, the trunk raised. The sound of rushing water and ruminative partridges reasserts itself. Unaccountably I feel very happy. To while away the time, I examine the small items I’ve bought earlier that day from a tag sale near Toulon. The tag sale is held every week on a spit of reclaimed land between two salty lagoons and next to a fairground called Magic World. (In the lagoons there are wild flamingos.) Bric-à-brac, fruit’n’ veg, old furniture, old clothes in heaps, pickings off the local garbage dumps. The place is a Mecca for the poor, the marginal and the recently migrated. It’s the only place I know where you can still buy anything for 50 cents. If it isn’t too sanctimonious a statement, I find it refreshing, enlivening and good for the mental health to be part of a French Riviera crowd that is conspicuously poor rather than the opposite.
I take the items one by one from a plastic bag on the passenger seat. Oh yes. I’d bought a box of non-medical Chinese face masks for not much from an Arab woman standing beside a small mountain of them. And from another stall I’d bought a cut-throat razor, a box of old steel pen nibs, and a branded tin that had once contained 50 Abdulla Imperial Preference Virginia cigarettes.
The flat, curved tin is in wonderful condition for its age. (I guessed it was made in the 1920s or 1930s.) I prized open the lid to see if the inside was as clean as the outside. Not only was it clean, the silver foil was still intact and inside the foil lay two of the original cigarettes. They were short, ovoid and untipped.
If the worst came to the worst, I speculated, I could write my will, cut my wrists and smoke an Abdulla cigarette while I waited for the blood to run out. Accordingly, I lit the non-emergency Abdulla. (Eurgh.) And before I’d finished smoking it, I spotted Michael’s car approaching at about 15 miles per hour.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.