The cafe-bar, in a prime spot in Lavit's mayoral square, was never very inviting even in the days when the owner still tried.
With plastic covered banquettes and fag-scarred Formica tables clustered around the large TV screen, its huge space had the forlorn air of neglect and the faint smell of lost hope.
JP, the chain-smoking, wiry, bored man who owned it, had a similar air of dereliction. Elbows on the bar, forever watching rugby on the too-loud TV, he'd peel himself reluctantly away to answer the call of a customer.
Not that latterly there were many of those. The few glimpsed, usually sitting on the tall stools around the bar, were men (and the odd woman) like himself. Disaffected strays. Bitter and angry, like JP, so I'm told, at the breakdown of marriages or relationships; reluctant to draw the line and move on – condemned instead to be the self-pitying victims drawn to others of their kind.
Even as hundreds of thousands of euros were poured into Lavit's centre, creating a hand-blocked, honey-stoned heart amid lavish floral displays, the cafe turned in on itself, its entrance somehow gloomier than before.
JP, in a last throw of the dice, opened up the attached restaurant, hiring a chef who had also come to the area filled with great plans and ambition. But he hired him too late. By then he was another soul tormented by a turbulent marriage, mired in drink, with no heart left to create joy either in himself or the new venture. It didn't last long and once again that side of the business was shuttered up.
For a while a few younger, edgier, brasher-looking characters took to lounging at the tables and chairs outside. They sprawled, legs akimbo, and stared unflinchingly at those who skirted them to cross the road to the tabac. Rightly or wrongly, they were linked to the even younger youths who appeared at odd hours, allegedly peddling cannabis under the newly painted struts of the market halle.
Then too their vans and cars disappeared and the tables outside were given back to the odd thirsty tourist or the little band of people with learning disabilities who came for their weekly treat of cola or Orangina from the home at the end of the village. To them, JP was always unfailingly polite and solicitous, patiently waiting, even smiling, as they proudly and independently counted out the centimes from their purses.
I last saw him heaving in the tables and chairs, cigarette firmly in mouth in defiance of the indoor ban as he marched back and forth. It was a ban he never acknowledged anyway.
Perhaps it was the last time he did it, for two days later the bar was shut and JP gone. They just shrug in the tabac when I ask where to. I knew the place had been for sale for four years at least, but the one thing I'm told is that nobody is interested.
I heard yesterday that he is asking around £290,000 for the building. It has at least seven letting bedrooms and several bathrooms as well as the pub and the restaurant. People seem to think it is an excessive sum. Perhaps it is.
When I first came here, waiting for the final signing for Las Molieres and wondering what the hell I'd done, I'd often sit with Portia lying at my feet outside the bar in the summer sun, nursing a glass or two to pass the endless time.
Or I'd cross to the halle and have lunch or dinner at the little bistro opposite, sharing the massive, cheap portions with the blonde while wondering, "What the hell -?"
At night, fairy lights lit up the pergola above my head and I'd listen to the conversations at the other tables. I'd hear laughter coming from JP's place, and reluctantly pay and meander back to the dismal rented apartment and finally fall asleep still wondering, "What the hell -?"
The bistro shut two years ago and became a pizza takeaway; then it closed again and now it's a pizza takeaway once more. Half of it has just opened as the third boulangerie in the village. How much bread and cakes do the French need?
And the new, almost pretty heart of Lavit is soulless now. In the tabac again, there is another shrug. "It's the way it is," says my friendly supplier, whose name I still don't know. "The young have mobiles to keep in touch. They meet friends in houses and drink together there. It's cheaper. Times are hard. The rest of us don't drink and drive these days and if we do, we go somewhere else. Somewhere special."
Unspoken is the fact the old men who came to the bar early morning for strong coffee, Armagnac and cigarettes are dead or dying. The young have fled or have their plans to do so. The police are blockading the roads and it is now law to have breathalyser tests in cars. The old days are gone, or rapidly going.
Life is changing in La France Profonde. The locals accept the changes; welcome most of them. But we didn't come here for that. Did we? n
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