I am thrashing my way up the hill as fast as I can go. My legs protest, muscles ache and my lungs are heaving in the thin Pyrenean air but I summon all my will power and force myself onwards and upwards. I could be taking this little track up to the col slowly. I could be enjoying the ascent, taking in the stunning views, letting the sunshine warm my skin, pausing to smell the alpine flowers watching the birdlife and taking it easy. But I’m not; instead I’m locked in a life and death struggle.
Why? It is pride that is driving me up the hill at break neck speed. You see something intolerable has happened. I have been overtaken. That, in itself, is not unusual, I’m in my fifties now and get passed a lot on the hills. Years ago I was lean and fit and few would have the temerity to be quicker on the mountains than me, but now, in my more mature years, young skinny hill walkers often leave me gasping in the dust as they head for the summit. I smile, as I watch them go and think to myself how times have changed as a warm glow of nostalgia washes over me. So being overtaken is not the problem, the trouble is that the faster pedestrian is a little, fat Frenchman and my pride will not allow me to be second best to this ambling relic.
How he has passed me is a mystery because I, in fact, passed him several hundred feet below. He is in his sixties, immaculately dressed in a white beret with neatly pressed shorts displaying his tanned legs which sit beneath a not inconsiderable paunch. He was walking gently, resting here and there on spindly thin cane, not a drop of perspiration was permitted to trouble his elegant brow. I, all boots, ridiculous mountain trousers, and clattering walking poles, had easily out-paced him. Yet, inexplicably, there he was a few hundred feet above me, moving with that relaxed rhythm of one who has spent his life in the mountains. I could only think that, with his local knowledge, he had known an easier route, although I couldn’t imagine how.
After about 20 minutes of lung bursting effort I crested the ridge a several minutes ahead of him. Pride restored I decided to sit down and have lunch before pressing on to the summit, actually the decision was made for me as my legs were incapable of moving for quite some time. My rival passed me as I chewed on a tomato. “Bon jour,” he smiled, and strolled over the col and headed, not for the summit, but off down to the next village. No doubt he was going to enjoy a light lunch and a couple of glasses of red wine with his old friend Pierre. Afterwards, they would smoke Gauloise and joke about the English. He, of course, had not a bead of sweat on his brow, whilst I, in stark contrast, had rivulets of water running down my back.
I was relaxing, congratulating myself on having restored British dignity, when I noticed something. There, far below me on the path, a figure was moving. As I watched I became more and more incredulous as I began to discern that the person below was a short fat Frenchman wearing a white beret and walking with a little cane. At that distance he and his countryman may as well have been clones. It was then the penny dropped, it was he that I had passed earlier in the day and not the man that I had pursued with such gusto up the mountainside.
Later, in the cool of the evening, my sore feet throbbing, I entered the little village shop looking for a bottle of wine to enjoy. I was examining and unlabelled plastic bottle of red liquid when the elderly lady behind the counter fixed me with piercing dark eyes. “Is wine!” she exclaimed, from behind a prune like thing she used as a face, with such vehemence that I thought it best not to argue and purchased the bottle on the spot. On consuming the contents of the bottle later I cannot dispute that it was wine, although I think it was the sort of wine that the French use for un-blocking drains. I realised then that all wine, although it may look similar, is not the same, just as it is, with little fat Frenchmen. As I gulped down that evil brew, with the sun sinking below the hills, I had had plenty of time to reflect that, whilst all Frenchmen vary, all fools swelled with pride are probably pretty similar.