Spy Hook
conversation she was having with her female colleague. She didn't hide her irritation. She spoke rapidly and with a strong Provencal accent that I couldn't follow.
    When finally I appealed to Gloria for help in translating this girl's rapid instructions about finding the vehicle, Gloria's jubilation knew no bounds. 'No compree!' she said and laughed and clapped her hands with joy.
    Despite Gloria's uncooperative attitude we found the car, a small white Renault hatchback that must have been sitting in the rental car pound for many winter days, for it did not start easily.
    But once away, and on to the Autoroute heading west, all was well. Gloria was laughing and I was finally persuaded that it had all been very amusing.
    It was only a few minutes along the Autoroute before the Antibes exit. On this occasion, determined not to provide more laughs for Gloria I had a handful of small change ready to pay the Autoroute charge. Now, with Gloria bent low over a map, we began to thread our way through the back roads towards Grasse.
    Once off the Autoroute you find another France. Here in this hilly backwater there is little sign of the ostentatious wealth that marks the coastline of the Riviera. Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs and Ferraris are here replaced by brightly painted little vans and antique Ladas that bump over the large pot-holes and splash through the ochre-coloured pools that are the legacy of steady winter rain. Here is a landscape where nothing is ever completed. Partially built houses – their innards skeletal grey blocks, fresh cement and ganglia of wiring – stand alongside half-demolished old farm buildings. Ladders, broken bidets and abandoned bath tubs mark the terraces of olive trees. Heaps of sand – eroded by the rain storms – are piled alongside bricks, sheets of galvanized metal and half-completed scaffolding. The fruit of urban squalor litters the fields where the most profitable cash crop is the maison secondaire.
    But 'Le Mas des Vignes Blanches' was not such a place. Here, on the south-facing brow of a hill, there was a Prussian interlude in the Gallic landscape. The house had once been a place from which some lucky landowner surveyed his vineyards. Now the hillsides were disfigured with a pox of development, an infection inevitably rendered more virulent by the thin crescent of Mediterranean which shone pale blue beyond the next hill.
    The house was surrounded with a box hedge but the white wooden gates were open, and I drove up the well-kept gravel path. The main building must have been well over a hundred years old. It wasn't the grim rectangular shape that northern landowners favoured. This was a house built for the Provencal climate, two stories with shuttered windows, vines climbing across the facade, some mature palm trees-fronds thrashing in the wind – and a gigantic cactus, pale green and still, like a huge prehensile sea creature waiting to attack.
    At the back of the house I could see a cobbled courtyard, swept and scrubbed to a cleanliness that is unusual hereabouts. From the coachhouse jutted the rear ends of a big Mercedes and a pale blue BMW. Behind that there was a large garden with neatly pruned fruit trees espaliered on the walls. I noticed the lawns in particular. In this part of the world – where fierce sunshine parches the land – a well-tended lawn is the sign of eccentric foreign tastes, of a passionate concern for gardens, or wealth.
    On the small secluded front terrace there was a selection of garden furniture: some fancy metal chairs arranged around a large glass-topped table and a couple of recliners. But despite the sunshine, it was not really a day for sitting outside. The wind was unrelenting, and here on the hill even the tall conifers whipped with each gust of it. Gloria turned up her collar as we stood waiting for someone to respond to the jangling bell.
    The woman who answered the door was about forty years old. She was attractive looking in that honest way that country

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