They have carried the picnic rucksack up from the car park, and set up the little table – no more than a tray on legs – on the grass. Alice likes to have plates and steel cutlery, although the wine glasses are plastic. They bought a bottle of red wine from the supermarket in the town below; a fresh baguette; butter and a selection of local cheeses.
She’s still drinking the wines and eating the unpasteurised cheeses, still taking the pill; he said he wasn’t ready to start a family. She cuts a wedge of cheese that’s like black-crusted Dairylea and squashes it over a hunk of buttered baguette.
‘Most artisanal,’ he comments drily. It’s the favourite marketing word this year, denoting any product not made under the auspices of a FTSE 100 company. To them it means ‘over-priced’. Whilst they have been navigating France with the Michelin atlas it has entered their vocabulary of code: ‘Toutes Directions?’ meaning ‘Which way?’; ‘About an hour away,’ meaning ‘I have no idea how far,’ while a ‘Tour of Uranus’ refers to a circuitous slip-road at an autoroute junction.
Wind rips across the high plateau: the view into the valley below is like being in a plane. A tall stone with a bush growing from the base affords some shelter. They shift everything to sit beside it on the grass, and huddle into their jackets.
‘It’s a menhir,’ she says. ‘Does that freak you out?’
‘Don’t know.’ he says. ‘I just don’t know enough about these things to be afraid. What should I be freaked by?’
‘Weren’t these used for human sacrifices, weird ceremonies and so forth?’ She pours out two glasses of burgundy.
He shrugs without replying.
‘Adrian. Why are you so obtuse sometimes?’
‘I’m not obtuse. My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
‘Nothing beside remains.’ She chimes in. ‘Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.’
They sit there chewing bread and cheese and thinking of all the great works of men that ultimately perish. The menhir has been poised for aeons at the edge of the limestone crest, looking across the valley of the three rivers, but who put it there and why? All meaning has been washed away by the rain, blown away by the wind, faded by the sun of countless centuries.
‘Don’t you think that,’ she ventures, ‘that poem, this stone, tell you something about work-life balance?’
He clears his throat. ‘Am I being obtuse?’
‘Imagine all the work that went into this project. Who knows where they sourced the stone? Sometimes menhirs were transported long distances. Imagine the effort that went into carting the stone here, digging it a foundation that met the industry standards of the day and was good enough to last for thousands of years. They’d all have been working overtime, neglecting their families, damaging their health.’
She nestles under his chin, sipping her wine.
‘The people who planted this standing stone are long gone and forgotten, but in the valley down there, their descendants still live. There are things more important than work, Adrian.’ Her ear is close to his throat, so that she hears him swallow.
Then he puts an arm around her, and rests his fingers on her hand so that she can’t lift her wine glass. ‘You’ll have to give this up for a while.’
He touches his lips to her hair.