There were no cars, no people, just me on my bike. Not surprising, though. I wasn't on a road. It was just a track, more or less – between hedges, past vineyards. The one I took home from school every day. But it wasn’t just the absence of cars and people I was noticing; I was actually wondering why I was there. I didn’t remember leaving school. Usually I chatted with colleagues for a while, hung around in the staff room, but today, or even recently, there’d been no transition from work to ... well, the rest of the day. Lessons, the usual English conversation classes, didn’t even feel like a memory because somehow they didn't seem to have actually happened.
The track wasn’t the same, either. The surface was as rough and clattery as ever, the same mixture of gravel and bits that were perfect for pétanque but not great for slim tyres, but it somehow wasn’t right, didn’t seem familiar. In fact, as I gradually realised, it wasn’t even going in the right direction. Usually, after just over a kilometre, I'd jump off and turn to wheel the bike left through the gate to the Presbytère we’d rented for the year’s exchange.
And the longer I rode on, the more convinced I was that I’d somehow made a wrong turn or just taken a totally unfamiliar road and had no idea where I was going. Which was all confirmed when, at the end of a long, steep, freewheeling descent, I arrived in a typical but unfamiliar market place with stalls selling vegetables, wine, bread, cheeses and the usual items of casual clothing.
I propped my bike behind one of the stalls and joined the crowds, basically to find out where I was. Strangely, even though I’d never seen the place in my life, I knew it was called ‘Digne’, but no-one spoke to me. I was pretty sure I was trying to ask them questions, but they all moved around me, ignoring me – not from rudeness, not even keeping their distance, but as if I weren’t actually there.
I went back for my bike; nothing. It had gone. It was the same stall. I hadn’t looked behind the wrong one. There was nothing there but the stall owner’s Deux Chevaux, so I just accepted that I no longer had a bike. I also had no wallet or money. This wasn’t a sudden realisation; it was just that my circumstances had changed, and my disorientation felt complete.
Then I noticed a big man with whitish-grey hair and moustache, wearing the traditional smock and pants of a paysan from that part of the Midi. He was watching me, with a big smile on his face. He pushed himself away from the wall against which he was leaning, beckoned to me and walked through the crowds towards a tiny sort of shack. Grateful that at least he seemed to acknowledge I was there, wherever ‘there’ was, I followed him, pushed through the door after him and was immediately engulfed in the crowd which filled the place. He shouted something incomprehensible in which I distinguished only the word ‘ensemble’, then he was gone.
I had no idea where because, cheek by jowl as we were in the stuffy interior, I suddenly felt a shaking and the unmistakable ‘thwock, thwock, thwock’ of rotor blades turning. I had no reference points, no way of getting home, or even knowing where ‘home’ was, no bike, no money. But suddenly it didn’t matter. No-one else in the interior seemed to be bothered by the noise. Jammed together, they laughed and chatted away, the air around them thick with garlic and gauloises.
And we were flying. So I stopped worrying. And the man with the white hair and moustache was somehow right beside me again, his smile still broad, and he said, ‘Tu vois, mon ami? The ‘me’ always comes back’.