The Hotel des V. in Br. was cheap. But you wouldn’t call it cheerful. The Patron wants his guests – there are about five of us – to appreciate that he is greatly overworked, and that anything would be too much trouble.
I eschewed the grim looking breakfast, and had a pie and pastry from the boulangerie instead. I admired the statue of Napoleon, whom the town claims its own. And I surveyed the lovely, and modestly coloured, windows in the church.
Then I set off South, into the rapidly warming sun. Later it would be a balmy 33 degrees, but early in the morning it’s just a blue of beckoning promise.
These D roads are often wide and empty, usually straight, and nearly always smooth. They are a pleasure to ride. Hay bailing is in full stride, and the smell of a field being bailed is intoxicating.
The warm sun brings out all the smells of the French countryside – mostly lovely, and occasionally disgusting. Have you noticed that at the right stage of decomposition a pile of manure has the same sweet pungency as the rind of the best soft French cheese? Yes, truly.
Towards the end of the morning I find myself suddenly in the small town of Essoyes, by a bridge that seems familiar. This is where Renoir lived and loved and painted, and it’s magical.
Is the light different here, or are we just seeing it through the eyes of the great painter? Everything is alive and shimmering with Impressionistic intensity. I’ve always loved Renoir. I just have to play my cello in sight of that famous bridge.
Then across the river, and up into the bright and empty woods of the national park. Miles and miles of little but trees, with some welcome shade on a couple of long climbs. Black bread from this morning’s boulangerie, and some cheese, sitting on the grass. And maybe I closed my eyes for a moment or two.
Now it’s really hot, and I’m not pedalling fast, but it isn’t so far to Chaumont. Somehow the place isn’t as big as I was expecting. It’s a small village, so I ask a local for the address I’ve got for tonight’s concert.
Non, Monsieur, there is no Rue de Temple in Chaumont.
I’m in the wrong Chaumont.
This is Chaumont-le-Bois, and I should be in Chaumont without the Bois. Hopefully it’s just down the road. But it isn’t. Ever-helpful Google Maps says it’s forty miles away, but that I could get there in a little over three hours, if I really tried.
Not in 33 degrees, I couldn’t. And the concert is scheduled to start in three hours exactly.
Berating myself for such unbelievable stupidity, I knock on a couple of doors looking for cold water while I work out what to do.
It’s quickly clear that the concert has to be cancelled. They won’t think well of Kennethwilsoncello, but what can I do?
While Clement is giving me repeated and very loud instructions on how to reach the right Chaumont, and I am trying to make calls to limit the damage, an implausible solution is offered.
Elie will come and collect me in his van. The show must go on. Wait by the church, and I’ll come for you in an hour.
I knew he couldn’t possibly get here in a hour, but at least we will have tried.
Clement gives me an ice-cream, in exchange for a surprisingly calm rendering of The Swan, to the accompaniment of the neighbour’s jack hammer. He shows me the hairs on his arm standing on end as a result, and then leaves me in peace.
How could I be so stupid?
Elie arrives in a little over an hour and a half, and dismantles the innards of his van in order to get the bike inside. We’ll only be half an hour or so late for the performance, and he drives like a traditional Frenchman trying to make up the time.
They’re all waiting in the sunshine. The local press wants a mock-up of me arriving by bike (to save my embarrassment, I suppose), and I go straight on to perform, unwashed, and in my cycling clothes. The pain and weakness in my bowing arm is much worse than yesterday, and I can scarcely hold the bow. Could it be any worse?
The concert is in the Evangelical Church, and most of the audience are members. One of them knew all three of the French pieces I played (the other two were Faure, and Debussy’s Syrinx). Afterwards they set up a table on the grass, and half of them stayed for the most restorative dinner of my life. It would have been perfect if I weren’t still unwashed and in my cycling clothes.
The Evangelicals of Chaumont (NOT le Bois) are wonderful, wonderful people. Merci a tous.