The Alternative List
With the local elections coming up Jane and I decide to drive to the Sous-Préfecture in the regional town and ask for advice on voting. Our request is met by a blank look.
“What happens?” I ask.
“You go to the Mairie and you vote,” replies the young woman, rather sniffily.
“Will we need a voting card?”
“Where will we get that?”
“It’ll be posted to you of course.”
“And when we get to the Mairie to vote, what do we do?”
“But how do we vote?”
“No-one can tell you how to vote in France.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. What is the process of voting? Do we put a tick or a cross against the names of the people we are voting for?”
“So how do we vote for them?” I say, thinking this is where I started.
“You cross out the others.”
“How do you know what the candidates stand for? Do they represent parties?”
“No, they are grouped in lists, in alphabetical order.”
“Lists…? Who organises the lists?”
“The candidates do.”
“Can we vote for people on different lists?”
“So, have I got this straight? There will be one or more lists of candidates and I cross out the names of anyone I don’t want to vote for?”
“Yes. But if you want you can add names.”
“Anyone you want.”
“But what if they don’t want to be a councillor?”
“Then they’ll refuse.”
“OK… how many people can we vote for?”
“As many as you like.”
“So we can vote for as many people as we like?” I reaffirm.
“Yes, but if you vote for too many it won’t count.”
“How many is too many?”
“It depends on where you live.”
I tell her the name of our hamlet.
“Where’s that?” she asks.
“It’s where we live,” I reply, thinking I have just scored my first point.
“Which commune?” she asks, pulling a face. I tell her.
“How many people live in that commune?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t met them all yet,” I reply. (Second point to me.)
She looks up the commune in a directory.
“Twelve,” she says.
“What? Only twelve people live in our commune?”
“No. I don’t think that’s likely, do you?”
“So what’s twelve?” I ask (feeling I’ve been outplayed).
“You asked me how many is too many. It’s twelve,” she says, with a smirk.
(Game over. She’s won on points.)
“Well,” says Jane, as we leave the building, “now we know.”
“Know what?” I ask.
“Twelve is too many.”
A week later.
“Mmm… that smells good,” I say, as I come in through the front door.
“It shouldn’t do – it’s soup,” Jane replies.
I’m not sure if that was a playful reply or…
“Oh well… never mind… The green lizards are grumpy today,” I say, putting on a jumper. “They don’t like moving house.”
Jane looks puzzled but I’ve got her interest.
“They’ve taken to living in the teepees, which I’m now dismantling. I’ve tried to explain I’m building low-rise stick-stores which they can use instead, but they’re still sleepy and not impressed.”
A muffled noise outside catches my attention. Looking through the murky glass panel of the door I see grey silhouettes. I open the door – it’s a… delegation? I recognise Marie, Bernadette and Regis, who troop in past me.
“Come in,” I say, following them.
They sit at the kitchen table, huddled in thick coats and scarves. It’s like an oversized Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
“Sit down,” I add, wondering at what point I will be able to catch up with them.
“Would you like a drink?” asks Jane.
“Not for the moment, thanks,” says Bernadette. All eyes turn to me. “We’ve come to persuade you to put your name down for the Alternative Voting List.”
“Ah, yes … The Alternative list… they told me a bit about that at the Sous-Préfecture last week. But, as you know, my spoken French isn’t fluent. I can’t very well represent people if I sometimes misunderstand what they are saying, can I?”
Regis frowns, rubs the stubble on his chin and says, “That’s a fair point, but Adolphe has been mayor here for fourteen years. If he gets in this time his Reich will be going for another six years. What are things going to be like by then? Don’t forget you’ll be here too,” he adds, with something like menace in his voice.
“Yes, but..,” I stutter, “it’ll be another couple of years before I’ve got enough competence in this language and in the meantime…”
“That’s OK,” says Regis. “For the first couple of years you stay in the background.”
“Anyway,” Marie cuts in, “that’s not the point. No-one’s going to vote for you anyway – you’re a foreigner…”
The cat, it seems, is out of the bag. There is a moment of silence. Nobody moves. They are sitting at our kitchen table and don’t look as if they are about to go. My head is swimming slightly.
“Nice cup of tea?” suggests Jane brightly to everyone-and-no-one and busies herself with the kettle.
“Right,” I say, searching for coherence. “You want me to be on the alternative list, but you don’t think there’s a chance that anyone will vote for me?”
“That’s right,” says Marie. The other two nod their agreement.
“That’s why it doesn’t matter that your French isn’t too good,” adds Regis.
Bernadette takes the lead.
“We need numbers,” she explains. “We need to show that we can put up an opposition team against the mayor – that there is opposition to his mad ideas, that we in the village have a different vision of how this commune can be…”
Her eyes become misty and unfocused – she is seeing the Promised Land somewhere over my left shoulder.
Jane hands round the steaming mugs of tea.
“Milk, anyone?” Suddenly the mood is broken. Our ‘guests’ are looking into their mugs, frowning. They look puzzled.
“Um… what is it in this cup?” asks Marie, hesitantly.
“Tea,” says Jane.
“But there’s no tea-bag in it…”
“It’s English tea. I made it in a pot.” She lifts the pot up to shoulder height as evidence.
“English tea..? And you put milk in it… in tea?”
“That’s right,” says Jane. She walks over with the milk bottle, tops up my mug and stirs it. “There. English tea!”
“I’m not sure,” I say, returning to the subject of the election. “People round here may feel it’s a bit presumptuous of me as a newly-arrived foreigner to put myself up to represent them. It could sour relations with everyone.”
Something in their expression tells me that a second cat has jumped out of the bag.
“No… I’m sure people round here wouldn’t take it like that…” Regis’ reassurance sounds a little forced.
I finish my tea and stand up.
“I tell you what. Let me sleep on it and I’ll phone Marie in the morning with my decision.”
With a shared, resigned look they stand up and shuffle out.
“I’ll phone tomorrow,” I say, shutting the door behind them.
“So what are you going to do?” asks Jane.
“No idea,” I reply. “Come on, it’s warm outside. Let’s go to the plot for a picnic.”
Sitting together at the picnic table we sip our home-made soup and chew crusty fresh bread. The sun is warm through our clothes. Birds chirrup in the trees around us. The valley before us is aglow with light.
“One day, we’ll live here,” says Jane. “We’ll be sitting here and this will be our garden. And our house will be just over there.”
“Yes,” I say, “one day…”
An owl hoots. My eyes fill with tears; my body must have sensed something, but it will take more than a year before I recognise that owl’s hoot as an omen – a bad omen – that our dream will become a nightmare.
We spend the afternoon measuring the position of the trees for the scale plan of the garden we are working on and we upset another sleepy green lizard as we remove more slender tree trunks from a ‘teepee’. At teatime we visit Lily.
“I wouldn’t get involved in local politics if I were you,” she says, seriously.
When we get back there is a phone message from Maurice, inviting us to an aperitif.
“It could be he wants another favour,” says Jane. “I hope he doesn’t want me to look after Sylvie again. I don’t think I can bear babysitting a thirteen-year old throughout another night.”
An hour later we walk round to Maurice’s house, past the church and up the lane. First there are drinks and small talk. Then I tell Maurice about this morning’s delegation.
“I wouldn’t get involved in local politics if I were you,” he says, seriously.
“I told them I’d sleep on it,” I reply vaguely.
After he has poured us another drink he says, “In May I’m doing a conference in Rheims and during the 2nd week Isabelle will have to be in Paris… I don’t know who’s going to look after Sylvie. It’ll be all right during the day – she’ll be at school but we can’t leave her on her own overnight…”
Just after nine o’clock in the morning I phone Marie and say I will put my name on the Alternative Voting List.
“Why did you agree to do it? I didn’t think you were going to,” says Jane, “not after everyone warned you not to.”
“Well, that was part of it, I suppose. But mainly it was the thought of Adolphe being in power for another six years without my trying to do something to stop it – I don’t think I could have lived with myself.”
“You know there may be repercussions – he could become an active enemy – he’s got a lot of allies round here.”
“I know, but I didn’t come all this way from England just to be a yes-man. He’s got most of the village scared by his growls and threats and tantrums – there’s no point to being here if we are going to cave in as well.”
“Secretly I was hoping you’d say that,” says Jane, hugging me. “You’re my hero you are.”
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