Michele Roberts reprieves her snails

Single women shouldn't drink or dance, but they can collect snails

After the glorious Fete de la Bastille we celebrated our own village fete with a communal dinner. My current passion for summer suppers involves young courgettes, sliced lengthways then cooked on a ridged grill. You turn them at right angles so that they receive pleasing, criss-cross black scars. Then you lay them flat in a dish, anoint them with olive oil and lemon, and scatter with torn mint. I've been eating the first haricots verts, with chopped tomatoes and garlic, the first spinach, served cold with olive oil and lemon and white haricot beans, and the first broad beans, scented with summer savory (much more delicately flavoured than the perennial version).

But none of my neighbours, need I say, would tolerate a vegetarian feast for our assemblee. We gathered to devour entrecotes de boeuf and chips, preceded by ham and salade russe, and followed by Camembert and apple tart. I committed a tremendous faux pas at this do. Having greeted all the neighbours I knew outside the salle communale, I spotted the bar that had been set up, and nipped over for a swift apero. Eight male neighbours stared at me. But this is a men's drink we're having. Our wives are over there. Eight ladies surveyed me from the far end of the table. The men began laughing. They insisted I kiss each of them four times, then handed me a kir, refusing my attempts to pay for it. Then they nodded me off towards the Women's Section.

I felt even more like a scarlet woman during the ball that followed, when not one of my neighbours asked me to waltz. Single women, divorced women, have to sit it out. I felt hurt and humiliated. So much for my smug sense of being integrated, of belonging. I grabbed a voisine and galloped away with her. Bosoms bumping, we had a lovely time, like all the old widows who similarly had seized one another in order to have a good twirl. Goodnight, you poor thing, said Yvette at 4am.

In the pouring wet mid-morning, Yvette summoned me: lovely weather for snails. The lane leading to my house functions as a favourite piazza for snails indulging in a morning passeggiata after rain. We poked among nettles, scabious, Queen Anne's Lace. We picked up a couple-dozen big bruisers. Yvette drove away, calling that she'd come by later to collect any more I'd found. Still smarting from the dancing snub, feeling sharply aware of the shadow side of Mayennais village culture (mariee ou pendue, as my grandfather used to say as he offered me the last drops in the wine bottle), I decided I was still in vegetarian mode. I picked up all the snails that I spotted strolling along the road and deposited them in the ditch. I exhorted them to make love, slowly and voluptuously as snails like to do, while they still had the chance.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Islam: the tide of change