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So the next day we bought a flue hatch from a hardware shop in Aurignac and attacked the chimneybreast in our bedroom.

Once started upon a course of action you either give up or see it through to the end. We were not in a giving-up frame of mind. It was us or the fire.

We made a guess as to where we thought the brush might have lodged, drew a square on the wallpaper and then attacked. After all, it would be handy to have access to the flue without having to climb onto the roof.

After an inch of soft plaster we found the brick flue. A few minutes later we were shining a torch into the blackness. Up and down we shone the light, where was it?


A foot or so below the hatch. I reached in and pulled it out. Success.

It had lodged where the square brick flue of the bedroom met the smaller angled metal flue from the lounge. I couldn't see any other obstruction and both flues looked clean - at least, as clean as any chimney can. Whatever was wrong with the fire, it wasn't the chimney.

Which meant it had to be something else.

Which meant another close look at the fire.

Which meant another five minutes kneeling in front of the insert with my head stuck inside the firebox waiting for inspiration to strike.

Could I take it apart? Could I combine the six smaller flues into one larger one? And why was the air being directed up through the ash-layer? For that to work, the ash would have to be less fine.

Like coal.

Was the fire designed to burn coal?

And so began our search for coal. Which, amazingly, does not exist in South-West France.

"Charbon? Pourquoi?" we would be asked by incredulous shopkeepers. Apparently we were living in a log burning region. Wood was cheap and plentiful. Why would anyone want coal?

Further enquiry elicited the response that perhaps someone near Cazeres might stock it. Cazeres being mentioned in the kind of hushed tones that implied it was just the kind of place where anomalous acts such as the burning of coal might still be practised.

A trip to Cazeres was met with further incredulity. "Charbon? Pourquoi?"

It was in danger of becoming a catch-phrase.

After turning down charcoal - I think he thought we were planning a barbecue - we returned home, fuelless.

I still do not know what is wrong with our French.

We'd spend hours in preparation. Working out what we were going to say, looking up the words in the dictionary, cobbling the sentences together. Trying to make sure they elucidated simple responses like oui or non. And when that was impossible we made a list of all the likely replies and made rough translations.

It was like writing a scene from a play. We had the whole conversation written down and scripted. And then brimming with confidence we'd pick up the phone or march into the office, out would come our first question and everyone would start ad libbing.

Even our simple questions that couldn't possibly merit an answer other than yes or no somehow managed to breach a dam full of unexpected sentences.

It was as though we were standing over them with a gong trying to catch them out - yes and no suddenly disappeared from their vocabulary. In the end we had to show them the script and point to what they were supposed to say.

"Do you sell coal?"

"Charbon? Pourquoi?"

"No, not 'charbon, pourqoi?' The only possible answer is yes or no. Look, I've written it down.


"Yes I have. It's here."


"I know - Pourquoi?" And by that time I couldn't think of a good reason for burning coal either.

I think the French are just naturally inquisitive. They want to know the full context of your enquiry before telling you that you can't have it. Then they come up with a long list of what you really need and baffle you even more.

Time to call in the experts.