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Sport 12: Autumn 1994

Victoria Feltham — In the park at Avignon

page 139

Victoria Feltham

In the park at Avignon

The French way of enclosing even the smallest public park with a wrought-iron railing fence tickled us. We had to play along with this voluntary caging whenever we could.

In scorching Avignon we found a tiny oval fenced park with stone-flagged paths, diminutive crowded formal flower beds and a fairy tale gate, opening at each end. We chose our park bench halfway along the perimeter and sat down gratefully to drink our citron pressé and eat the packet of biscuits which Nick, homesick for New Zealand sin food and bored with our all-fruit lunches, had insisted we buy at the supermarché.

Our position, equidistant from the gates, begged for a procession, a display, a set piece of some kind, and to our surprise (and the utter ignore of the people occupying the other seven benches) that’s what turned up. A handsome, swarthy, shaggy-haired woman in tight black denims and an oversized black jersey stepped ceremoniously through the gate on our right, her gaze fixed straight ahead, her arms extended in the same fierce horizontal, her hands cupped together as receptacle to an orb which proved to be a pineapple. Pacing through the centre of the park in long strides, with pointed toes, she was attended by two handmaidens, a little younger than she was. She was dressed severely but they had tiptoed out of Primavera, wearing Flora’s flower wreath in their long wavy fair hair, her pointed chin and pale eyes, and the gauzy muslin dresses of the Three Graces. In the wake of their leader, the Pineapple bearer, they pranced, and gestured and scattered imaginary flowers. Perhaps they were sisters. Like their leader they paid no heed to the people in the park.

‘Moderately butch,’ Nick smiled as they swept through the left gate and vanished behind the shrubs beyond the fence.

‘Her servants were classic “femmes” too,’ I said, straining for one last sight, but they’d disappeared.

Then they were coming back, the boss striding incisively through the gate although her formality had gone. The pineapple swung in her hand like an enlarged softball. She was still in front. Her short shaggy hair bounced in time with her walk. Her attendants were scampering behind. And she was watching me, she was coming for me. She had black eyes under heavy brows page 140 and they were absurdly compelling.

Nick might as well have not been there as she slammed to a halt in front of me.

‘Avez un ananas,’ she said, holding out the pineapple.

‘Je … je … n’ai pas un canif,’ I told her, patting the empty pocket of my dress, wishing I had the courage to use the colloquial French ‘j’ai pas’. Could she tell I wasn’t French? Was that why I’d been singled out?

She shrugged. Her face was expressionless but not blank.

‘Ça ne fait rien,’ she said, drawing a large lethal knife out of an ostensibly non-existent pocket. And deftly she skimmed the pineapple, just below the surface, in a spiral from top to bottom. One of the Graces took the peel; the other presented her with a tissue. Then their leader laid the fruit on her tissued hand and slashed it once, then again.

‘Voici,’ she said, and handed the quarters to me on their flimsy napkin.

‘Merci bien,’ I said, ‘Merci très beaucoup.’ And I smiled up at her stern face. She more or less saluted me. And clicked her heels. Her faint smile in return suggested that I’d passed some sort of test. (Would a local have said No, piss off! Non, allez-vous en!) Then she beckoned the others and they swept out of the park, leaving me and Nick feeling as though we’d found ourselves in the middle of some magical song. In a town of fire eaters, fallen bridges and schismatic popes why would one expect less?