DERNIER MOT - April Fool
"Can't I stay home next Tuesday?" whined the youngest JM.
"What's wrong?" I asked. "Eat your chop. Are you ill?"
"I will be by Tuesday... very ill. Probly dead."
"It's le poisson d'avril," said the oldest JM knowingly. "April Fool's Day. The collégiens get all het up about it, but it's only paper fish."
"No spaghetti trees?" said the SP.
"They just do fish in France, Dad. It's because Charles IX changed the start of the New Year from 1st April to 1st January."
"With a nice bit of cod?"
"Your attempts at humour, Dad... "
"I'm a well-known wit," said the SP imperturbably. "Pass the carrots and calm those adolescent hormones."
Personally I agree. There's no justification for a day off school. Not for a wimpy little paper fish. I mean, if the most humiliation a JM ever suffers is walking round school with a paper fish on his back...
"You don't understand!" said the Little One with agony in his eyes. "I got done on Mardi Gras! And if I get a fish as well, I'll just die!"
True enough, the JMs did come home in a worse mess than usual on February 5th. I seem to remember satchels belching clouds of flour, and shaving foam and raw eggs dripping all over the kitchen floor.
"It's not a real tradition," said Marie-France, when I bumped into her two days later outside the church. "We didn't have food fights when I was young. It only started about 20 years ago."
"Until the late twentieth century," remarked Alphonse-the-Maire overhearing our conversation, "people respected the labour required to grow enough food to keep the population from starving."
That's as maybe. But recent or not, the school gates tradition of throwing food around on Mardi Gras seems well-entrenched here in the Cévennes. Worst of all, it isn't only food. The local Netto gets raided for anything messy and cheap - and the minute they are out of the school gates and therefore out of the jurisdiction of their teachers, all Hell breaks loose.
Whilst the youngest children make good their escape by the staff gate, the rest come in for flying gloop from all directions. Mostly it's good tempered, the kids knowing who to target and who to leave well alone. But just occasionally some poor innocent gets a shampoo sarnie in the kisser and as a result isn't allowed on the school bus.
I don't blame the drivers. I'm sure I wouldn't like a Mardi Gras victim in my minibus either. And in many ways, they are probably the best people to keep some sort of order over the licensed riot. I certainly wouldn't like to try it myself.
"I've been looking this up," said the SP, "and it seems that the French don't traditionally eat pancakes on the eve of Lent. They eat them on February 2nd, the Fête de la Chandeleur. Ritual purification of the Virgin Mary and blessing of the year's candles. You have to chuck the first pancake on top of the wardrobe and leave it there all year to attract rats..."
"All right, to have an abundant harvest..."
"Is this a Poisson d'avril?"
"Absolutely not. Apparently you can also bring yourself luck by tossing the pancakes whilst holding a coin in your left hand..."
"It is a poisson, isn't it?"
"No! I'm just explaining why French kids don't cook their pancakes, preferring instead to hurl the raw ingredients at each other."
All well and good. But that still doesn't explain why the prospect of having a paper fish stuck to his back has reduced a JM to tears.
Or is he playing April Fool?
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