Bonjour, Monsieur Coco. Comment va-t-il? Quel age a-t-il? inquires a guest.
Tres bien — il a douze ans. Merci beaucoup! says madame, highly gratified by this interest in her beloved Coco.
He sleeps most of the day and his eyesight is not what it was. He is not the only one. Out on the front the winds sweep in from the sea, the yachts toss at anchor, and the rain comes in violent flurries, filling the steep gutters of the old town, faithfully rebuilt after the destruction of the Normandy landings and now a sugared tourist trap. You can spend only so much of the day eating galettes and crepes, drinking a coffee or reading a book, and out we dash, from time to time, to exercise in the rain.
Peering through the gloom, we deceive ourselves in the strangest way: at a distance figures seem familiar. Is that Jack McLean promenading with a cane and an elegant wolfhound, clutching an extravagant hat to his head and wrapping a cloak tightly round his shoulders? Could that be Jack Webster plodding along the waterline, hunched against the wind as if he were crossing a field in his beloved Aberdeenshire? And surely that is Allan Laing, glimpsed through a cafe window thoughtfully discussing an omelette fines herbes avec frites? The figures dissolve and form themselves again into strangers.
Why have we come here? There is more to do than in Saltcoats, certainly, and the place is picturesque. But the climate seems remarkably similar, and a wet and windy September makes one place look much like another.
There is no answer beyond ill-considered impulse. Brittany has for us not been the luckiest of holiday destinations. A few years ago we came by ferry to Normandy and, unable to find quarters in high season, had to drive overnight to the west coast of Brittany. It was an unpleasant journey but we consoled ourselves with anticipatory thoughts of our beach-side caravan, which the brochure assured us was in an idyllic spot beside the sea. We arrived to discover it was located beside a piggery of ripe and penetrating odour. To be fair, I once had a similar experience in Spain: the hotel afforded an excellent view of a major petro-chemical complex.
This time the hotel denies all knowledge of our reservation — I remembered enough of past experience not to pay in advance in case we didn’t like it — and we find lodgings in the only place in town that has rooms left. The reason instantly becomes clear: it is wedged picturesquely beside a paint factory and a car dealership, and very handy for the ring road it is too.
There are consolations, of course. In Brittany they have not yet begun shooting tourists and the visitor is treated with courteous warmth. We find a delightful family-run creperie, with really excellent cooking at keen prices. The rain stops long enough to allow a walk on the beaches and the heathery slopes beyond Dinard, where we watch the golfers hack round the course. Delicious hot chocolate and toasted brioche pass the sodden afternoon in a patisserie in old St Malo.
The hotel is comfortable enough, and our reception could not be nicer. The television channels include BBC and ITV. But we did not come here to watch the telly, and the hotel’s situation is hopeless for a holiday. It is a staging-post for ferry-travellers, no more. There is no bar. Can we book dinner? No, it’s the staff’s night off.
There is only one thing for it. All roads lead to the railway station. If your holiday is doomed to rain, then Paris is the place to spend it. Apart from anything else, it is one of the great cities, perhaps the greatest city, for the cinema, with attentive audiences who do not chew and cough their way through the seances.
And so we take our leave of Coco. He barely stirs but remains sunk in his dreams of old excitements. We head for the station and the stopping train to Rennes, where we will catch the TGV for Paris. We are a little early, and we kill some time in a cafe by the station. It is still raining and there is a strong smell of cat.
Brave tourists still promenade. Could that be old so-and-so pushing a pram? No, of course not. The train pulls out. Paris, here we come. St Malo and Brittany, farewell. We shall not return.