L’HOMME À TOUT FAIRE

In Uzès, near Nîmes, a friend had told us of a hotel which we might find ‘interesting’ on our way north. Arriving unannounced in the hills near Alès, when the sun was almost gone and and a fresh little wind was blowing, we found a courtyard where a man was engrossed with the entrails of a dismembered car. His hands, arms and much of his face were black with grease. A half-full bottle of red wine stood on a cylinder block.

Yes, he said; there was a room free, Indeed, it being late in the season, and the establishment not being in any of the guidebooks, every room was free. One with a bath?  Well, no; he was desolate; none of the rooms had a bath, but there was a shower.

We wanted dinner?  Very well: he would just clean himself up a little and start work in the kitchen.  We would leave the menu to him?  Very good! At about 8 p.m. then; but at our convenience.  A glass of wine meanwhile?  Certainly. See if there’s anything that takes your fancy in the stone rack at the foot of the stairs. We would find a corkscrew hanging on the nail. Room number 7 was on the first floor; the key was in the door.

It was a large room, furnished only with a huge armoire, a small table with a white, lace-trimmed cloth, two plain wooden chairs and a low-slung double bed, the linen of which was coarse but clean. The wall were whitewashed and undecorated, the stone floor bare save for heavy cotton runners beside the bed,. The wash basin had no soap, but towels hung over the backs of the chairs, coarse to the touch but smelling of fresh air and sun.

The sun went, and for a suggestion of warmth we lit the gas light served by a pipe from a cylinder in the adjacent shower room. There was a low, comforting roar when the shower itself was turned on. The wine was a vin de pays from the Ardèche. Sitting on a bolster shifted to the edge of the bed, with the light lowered as far as it would go, we drank it to the accompaniment of Act 3 from Tristan and Isolde, played on a Walkman with miniature loud speakers attached. By the time that Libestod, the final aria, was over it was just after 8 o’clock and we went downstairs.

Dinner was served in a cavernous room where the light from candles set in empty wine bottles created an illusion of intimacy at one end of a huge refectory table facing a log fire set in a hearth where a large ox might easily have been turned on a spit. Now, our motor mechanic who had become chef had become also the waiter, a white table cloth tied round his waist. Eagerly, we ate what he served and what he served —lapin en daube—was very good. “But I don’t really follow any recipe, you know. Just my own way. Just traditional”. The wine we drank was dark and red —“Nothing special. Just another little vin de pays”— which went wondrously well with the daube and the goat cheese.

To all these, and perhaps to the “petit digestif ” offered by our host, and to a wool-stuffed mattress of the kind that la France profonde used to excel in, and to a deep contentment, we attributed the sleep that embraced us until long after the cock had crowed and the sun on the slats of the wooden shutters was clamouring for entry. When we looked out, our host was busy in the courtyard below, just as we had found him the evening before.

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