"The diving into the fountain usually takes place at around nine o'clock, after the cyclists have had a chance of some rest. And even late-comers, they can come at twelve and find the party in full swing. And the diving never stops. De plus, as of late, many sponsors install inflatable pools all around the place.".
"I suppose there's ample lighting, right?" Hector asked. "I mean, I have to shoot adequate footage…"
"Not to worry, Monsieur McCloud, the night becomes day. And then there's the fireworks. En verité, during these three days Perpignan is 'hotter' even than Saint Tropez".
"You mean, we'll get to see topless girls in the street?"
Pierre Dalbiez guffawed and patted Hector's back. "A straight-shooter, I see. Yes, you will. It'll probably last only a few minutes, though. The Gendarmerie is sure to arrive with linen-sheets" he finished laughing.
"All sorted, then. Well, in the meantime I think I'll take some rest. If you'd only remind me which way we came from my hotel?"
"Certainly" Pierre answered. "But, won't we have lunch first? You're my guest. Monsieur le Maire told me you're to be given all attention and assistance, since you're including Perpignan in your guide… the renowned 'Hector McCloud's Holiday-Slash-Party Guide'… It's the… how-many-eth edition?"
"The fifth, so far" replied Hector modestly.
"The fifth" mused Pierre "and a world best-seller from day-one, n'est-ce pas?... I admire you! You will autograph my copy, non?"
"Of course, Pierre, I will. And, please, don't make big eyes. It may be a best-seller, I'm happy it is, because that's how I earn my living nowadays, but it's more of a labour of love. I've been devoting my time to it since… since day one of my adult life".
"I see… So, you used to have another job, you mean?"
Hector's face showed the tiniest bit of annoyance. But he smiled it away. Pierre wasn't prying, he was just being friendly. And an lovable chap, at that.
"I did. It paid well, but I'd rather not remember about it. It cost me… a lot."
Pierre was all graces. "By all means, I was just curious. At least could you answer another question I've always had: what's the exact meaning of 'Holiday-Slash-Party'? This 'Slash' thing confuses me. It's not about duels, right? And it's not, par hasard, about… girls involved in sexual antics… or is it?"
Hector laughed heartily with Pierre's approach of the matter. Pierre joined in, too.
"Ha-ha, a good one… Well, it's a private joke. Whenever I was talking about my plans, I was always referring to my long-into-making guide as 'Holiday-Slash-Party', with 'slash' meaning the punctuation mark. When I was asked by my publisher about the title, I though I'd carry the joke further… That was good… 'girls involved in sexual antics'… ha-ha".
But Hector did discern, as he was finishing his sentence, that Pierre's smile took on a wry quality, as if even his own intepretation of the joke was too much for him.
And the next second he remembered that joking about slash, even if it belonged to literature, was like turning the knife inside a wound. At least, would be some years back. The last he'd heard of Rachel and Luce, they were happy together, married three years now. They'd also applied for adopting a child. All sorted, then.
"All sorted, then. I'm glad and honoured to be your guest. And since I know next to nothing about cooking, or else I'd be writing a Michelin-guide or something of the like, I leave to you the choice of the restaurant" Hector said.
Pierre, as if overjoyed, grabbed Hector's arm and leaned in his ear in mock mystification. "Take it from a Frenchman, 'Ector: the best places to eat are not inside the 'Guide Michelin'". He straightened up, laughed with himself and patted Hector's back again. "There are places I hide even from my friends. 'The less people know about it, the better'".
"Aha, French wisdom?".
"No, 'Pierre's Eating-Slash-Drinking Tips'" said he, winking his eye.
They both laughed again. Once again they patted each other's backs. The transition from 'Mr. McCloud' to ''Ector' was quite natural. Pierre took the lead and motioned for Heck to follow.
Hector had already visited most Mediterranean countries. Hugs, bear-hugs, kisses, multiple kisses, pats on the back, were a daily matter, a matter of course. And spirits. It seemed he couldn't be introduced to anyone without being invited to a drink, from ouzo and sambuca to raki and pastis. Little shots, that's true, but much too often in the day…
And now, today, on the 10 of July, he found himself a denizen-for-a-day-or-two in Perpignan to bear witness to the arrival of the Tour de France bicyclists. The Pyrénées-étape, after some 200 kilometres of buttocks-trying cycling through mountainous regions, would festively, in the finest French and Catalan tradition, finish here. Pierre Dalbiez, a local journalist and columnist, would be his cicerone. And he turned out to be the right guy: well-versed in matters of the day and age but not stuffy and, most important, humorous and joyful in a contagious way. The french word is 'gai' thought Hector.
'Come off it, McCloud' he debated with himself mentally 'it's all buried in the past, I thought we'd agreed on that!'
'We have, we certainly have… but that final… slash…' was the last segment of his train of thought. Pierre was pointing at a certain house, saying they'd arrived.
The establishment was a tavern, easily distinguishable from a restaurant or a bistrot. It was slightly elevated in reference to the street proper and a luxuriant garden around it provided landscape, shade and coolness.
They sat out, in the shade, with only a partial view to the street. People, locals and tourists, easy to tell them apart, were parading and enjoying the summer high-noon all-pervading bliss, crossing the bridges over La Têt, stopping before shop-windows, drinking from a fountain spout. Hector was taking it all in, making mental notes, thinking it'd be a fine place to spend more days than he could now afford. Perhaps next year. In the distance, to the southeast, he thought he could discern the Mediterranean's inviting glitter.
Pierre was a fabulous maitre d'. Hector was smiling as he was watching and enjoying the gusto with which his host ordered mixed dishes, discussed wines and aperitifs and minutely describing the types of salads they'd like to have, all of it enhanced with zestful gestures. Finally the garçon took off. Hector wasn't sure he could cope with the amount of food ordered. Pierre, on the other hand, looked absolutely content.
They were talking about this and that, when the waiter brought the first instalment. Two Pernod long-drinks with decoration were highlighting the composition. Various morsels of food were filling a series of little plates. They were all quickly and skillfully deposited on the table by the waiter, who afterwards departed, as in a hurry to be back before they were all consumed. Sure enough, Pierre invited Hector to start and set into eating his fill. His gusto acquired now a more lay character. And every now and then he'd invite Hector to a glass-clinking. "À la tienne" he'd say and meaning it, every time of it, Hector was sure. They kept on talking about this and that.
"Anyway, Pierre, how about you? Married?" asked Hector at some point. Made the slightest pause, didn't want to pry, wanted to cover all probabilities. "Ever been married, ever gonna be married?". He paused again, mentally this time. Have I lived this before? 'Déjà–vu' is French, right?
Pierre didn't answer immediately. He took a sip of his Pernod. He parted his lips, made a face as if either the Pernod was suddenly too bitter or the recollection even bitterer. He took another sip. Another draw.
"I… was once married, but… I left her… She left me… It's over… Who would care?" said Pierre, letting a very shallow sob intonate his uttering.
'Déjà–vu' is also good English, thought Hector. He suddenly wanted to let a sob out, too. Instead, he took his glass and clinked it against Pierre's, who turned and faced Hector.
"I'd care, Pierre. I've been through this too" he said simply.
Pierre made an interrogative face, mustered a smile, raised his glass and clinked it in his turn on Hector's. "Well, it's a story you could insert in a book you might write, 'Ector, c'est vrai. Well, I'll order another tidbit dish and a round of Pernods… or would you like some wine…"
"Isn't it too early and too hot for wine?" countered Hector.
"Non, mon ami, it's never too late or too early for wine or love-making" he said seriously, looking around for the waiter. Found him and signalled him. Turned again to Hector. "Really, I don't mind telling my story. As I said, it's over now. It might also serve as a reminder. 'A story with a moral', they say, n'est-ce pas? But… I'll tell it later. In fact, I have to be more than a bit drunk… or you can't stand seeing drunk people?".
A man after my heart, thought Hector. "No, absolutely not, I'll gladly get drunk with you and then I'll sing you some country songs… or you can't stand country music?"
"Since you asked, I don't like country music, pas du tout! On the other hand, if it'll make you happy, you can sing whatever you want. D'ailleurs, I haven't told you yet, but my all time favourite singer is British. It's Dusty Springfield. And my favourite song is 'The Look Of Love'".
"You're joking me! I love this song, too. I had ordered it played as many times as possible at my wedding reception. I…"
He paused. The spirit had set his tongue free, but along came memories. And feelings. 'Buried in the past' his other self would insist.
"You… what was it you wanted to say?" asked Pierre courteously, although a bit taken aback.
Hector looked at him steadily. He composed himself. He smiled.
"Nothing. Just a happy coincidence, is all. Right, order the wine and I'm all ears for your story" he said at length.
The waiter came, took the order and went, in his supple way. He was back before they had the chance to speak, carrying a bottle of Languedoc rosé and another rich tidbit dish. Pierre took the initiative and poured for both of then liberally. They clinked glasses again. They drank.
"I think it all started with… country music!" Pierre began, making a funny face. "No, I'm joking, I meant with my wife's singing lessons. She'd always played acoustic guitar very well, could accompany any song she'd want. Now, she wanted to train her voice further. She searched through the papers and found a vocal coach, whose fee was reasonable and lived only four blocks away. More wine?"
"Yes, thank you" said Hector. He smiled. "Let me guess: your wife was seduced". He said it unbitterly, but sympathizingly. He knew by now Pierre wasn't the type to take offence. It was for both of them water under the bridge.
Pierre smiled, but shook his head. "Non! My wife was the seducer! At least that's what I'd learnt afterwards. I should have guessed" he said tapping at his temple with his forefinger "the first three lessons took place at our home and then under various pretexts they continued at the teacher's. To make a long story short, after a while, me in the meantime having… what's the word… aha… twigged, yes, having twigged nothing, my wife announced that she loved someone more than me. Alors, it didn't make sense to argue…"
Hector had never been belligerent, but thought he'd cater to Pierre's Mediterranean temperament, if only as a gesture of friendship, but not altogether superficially. "Why, you should have intimidated him. If he was the unwilling part, a fighting word or two might have made him turn astern and her come running back to you".
Pierre was munching on a meatball. He gulped it down with some wine while he was looking inquiringly at Heck. "Intimidate him? Who do you mean?"
"Why, the singing teacher".
"The teacher was a woman, 'Ector. My wife must have discovered her Sapphic self"
Heck's mouth must have remained agape for the best part of a minute. In the meantime, Pierre swallowed two more meatballs, murmuring between chomps under his breath something unintelligible in French. Or was it Catalan? Or Occitan?
"You mean…" Hector at length managed to articulate .
"That's exactly how it happened, 'Ector" Pierre blurted, his cheeks flushed. "You can call me conservative, but losing my wife to a better man, whatever that may mean, I'd understand. Now, this lesbian connection, this… 'slash' thing… ha-ha, you see? My former question had a double meaning, you can see it now, 'Ector, can't you? What does 'slash' mean, ha-ha… and why should it happen to me?". At this the tears flowed. He lowered his head.
They both did. They drank in silence for a while, the silence mercifully unbroken by the walking by of the few mid-afternoon strollers.
"Your turn, mon ami". He gestured with his arm, including the tavern, the garden, the table with the food and the spirits. "This is our confessional. If you have something that burdens your heart, well, out with it now, here!". His eyes were smiling again.
Hector emptied his glass in one draw, more of a shot, to Pierre's unveiled surprise, manifested by the widening of his eyes. Hector felt the quasi-sweet wine travel at the speed of light through his veins and nerves and poking into intoxicated wakefulness all of his members and edges of his body. Pierre was right, this was the confessional and this fine wine nothing less than the Communion.
"Me and my Rachel, we were… so good together. We were friends, Pierre, more than a couple or a married couple. We were so close. Our marriage would be more of an official announcement of our happiness, our friendship – I'll have to repeat this – than a social convention". Here Heck drank some more and looked the other in the eye. Yes, he now knew, he was re-telling Pierre's story as well. It was obvious from the way his fingers almost caressed the glass-stem, from the appraising twisting of his lips, the telltale moisture at Pierre's eyes.
And on he went and on the afternoon wore. But by now the wine's dulcour had dissolved all traces of bitterness and the two friends kept on talking and sharing.
"And I kept the best for last: this slash thing… are you ready for this… that's what happened to me too… my wife fell in love with another woman…"
Barely had Hector finished his sentence and Pierre broke into serious laughter. And, it seemed, that was the catalyst. Unburdened and untethered they laughed the last of the past bitter memories away. More wine was poured, more piquant dishes ordered. Their tongues were given free rein. They talked on for hours.
"So you see, my wife now has a… wife. Or should it be… a mistress… a 'maitresse', right?" Heck said.
"Une 'maitresse'? You don't mean 'a teacher', too, do you?" asked Pierre slyly.
"No" Hector was fully enjoying his inebriation "I mean a lover".
Pierre raised his eyebrows. "A lover? An 'amateur', then?"
"Not an amateur, she was a professional florist. I'm sure she had some kind of certification or another."
Pierre threw himself into a new bout of laughter. Even the waiter who was getting morsels of the intoxicated conversation joined in the general mirth.
"And what about us, the faithful types. Where do we stand?" asked Pierre in a wine-infused mock-philosophical manner.
"Ah, now, Pierre, it seems we are… perverts!" exclaimed Heck.
"Well, since you've brought it up, admit it, mon vieux, we French consider you British perverts and that's exactly your opinion of us too, n'est-ce pas?" said Pierre.
"Well, there may be those who say so, but that's why Ι started out to travel the world, to deliberately change my point of view".
"Well said" acknowledged Pierre.
"To more travels, then… and to more perversion!" Heck raised his once-again full glass.
"Here, here, let's drink to that" said Pierre.
"No, let's get drunk to that" replied Hector.
They went on. The day waned on. At some point Pierre half-heartedly, it seemed, called the waiter for the bill, but he wholeheartedly paid and tipped him. The two friends rised and tested their capacity to walk, laughing all the time.
"Now, would you mind too much if we missed the cyclists, 'Eck?" asked Pierre, taking hold of Hector by the shoulder. "I'll provide you with photos and videos from last year. No-one will know… what am I saying, we're both so drunk, we wouldn't know! But there's an excellent all-night club I'd like to take you to. And you'll get to meet the bicyclists there, they customarily drop by. And other people… of both sexes! Well, what do you say?" he finished his invitation, intonating it with another pat on the back.
Hector returned Pierre's gesture with a powerful pat of his own, more of a bash, Mediterranean style, friendly and sympathizing.
"No problem, Pierre. Missing the cyclists is nothing compared to finding a friend. Which direction is that bar, again?"
From far away a mounting cheer announced the arrival of the first of the cyclists. The cheering wouldn't stop till all of the stragglers would enter the city. The passers-by cocked their ears and smiled. The evening was warm and fragrant.
Hector's heart was in his place again. The slash he'd gotten years ago was sure to heal completely. With new friends and new places. With new starts.