We don't get many visitors from across the water these days, winter, summer, autumn or spring. Perhaps custom has staled our finite variety. Perhaps the hellish heat of July and August has understandably put people off. Or maybe friends and family of our vintage are simply too busy fulfilling their new-found grandparental duties – something which we haven't (yet) experienced. So, it's just the two of us, as Bill Withers once sang. (Bill's dead now, but his music lives on. Still Bill, it strikes me.)
Maximus the mighty, or Max to his friends, is an Ardennais: a draft horse with an incredibly stocky body and thick legs given to pulling things like carriages. It's probably the breed they use in Perpignan for collecting household rubbish now that the town council has done away with their dustcarts in an effort to enhance their green credentials. He and his type no doubt resemble the horse that Harold Steptoe and his father kept in their yard for their rag-and-bone trade in Galton and Simpson's beloved sitcom. Hercules was his name.
Given the parlous state of the vegetation and Maximus' stoic solitude, we take him oddments from the fridge to supplement his diet. Carrots when they're in season and just recently the yellow variety of courgette. Or an occasional apple from one of our two undernourished trees, if I can find one that hasn't been hollowed out by insects or birds. He sees us coming and plods over wearily to say hello and find his reward. Both of us are still just a tad wary of horses – so much power in one mighty creature – but we know him so well now, we can get up close and personal without the slightest flinch. You can stroke his velvet-smooth, chestnut-coloured flanks and even nuzzle his huge head. The only irritation he ever seems to feel is with the flies that constantly bother him. Earlier in the summer, there were black clouds of the genus shite-hog, the type that invade your house and turn the kitchen into a germ zone. They seem to have flown off to die or propogate, and now it's another species, less numerous but given to stinging you, then coming back to sting you again.
When I contemplate his life and think about the suffering caused by heat, drought and flies, it prompts me to ask, What's it all about, Alfie? The three certainties of life on planet earth, according to T.S. Eliot anyway, are birth, copulation and death. I doubt whether Maximus remembers much about his birth and I'm not sure whether he knows much about his Ma and Pa. Perhaps it's the memories of the occasions when he's been lent or hired out to sire the next generation of Ardennais that get his giddy-goat, sex-wise. As for death, I'm almost certain that he won't be thinking about his mortality and what he's going to do with himself when he gets too old and weary to haul carriages and such like. He won't be worrying about how to make himself useful while he waits around for the curtain to fall. He won't be worrying about wars in Eastern Europe, rising inflation or the imminent collapse of the banking system.
In that respect, I suppose, he's quite a lucky big old horse. Nevertheless, his solitary existence does get you wondering whether there's any point to it all when push comes to shove. It's probably pointless even to try to figure out this conundrum at the core of life. Some people do extraordinary things as an ontological diversion, like the guy who was given the chance to take a penalty for his beloved Everton in a friendly match, as a reward for delivering essential supplies to the Ukraine in his own car. Others, like Keith Richards, whose mighty autobiography I was reading until recently, just immerse themselves in bouts of sheer hedonism. But most of us simply get on with the business of getting through life.
Of late, I've been focusing my thoughts on a strategy for staying sane and healthy in the extreme heat of a world warmed by roughly two centuries of the Industrial Revolution. As my Amerikanische Freund, Steve, pointed out at the weekend, temperatures in the 30s translate to the 90s in the old currency, while the late thirties and early forties – to which giddy heights the thermometer has risen frequently this summer – translate to a hundred plus. In Iraq they've been giving workers time off work because the temperature has nudged 50 degrees, for heaven's sake. When she was a little girl in Germany, the headmaster at Deborah's primary school used to announce 'Hitze frei!' (or heat break, I think) and they would all troop off home because the temperature in the classrooms was hitting maybe the mid twenties. That shows the progress we have made over the last five decades.
Anyway, after a month or more of practice, we've got it down to a fine routine. Up at six; open all doors and windows to cool the house; drop shutters and close doors at the back around nine, when the sun starts to radiate; close shutters and apertures around midday when the sun has moved to the front; work in the morning before the mezzanine becomes an inferno; hide in a darkened house for the entire afternoon before raising shutters and opening all apertures again around eight, when the sun's power has diminished. It's a peculiar thing, though, that our bedroom at the end of the house is the coolest place in the house for most of the day, but it becomes the warmest place at night. It doesn't stop me from enjoying a night's unconsciousness, a system re-boot, but it does alas disturb the Good Wife's sleep.
In the years to come, people might look back affectionately as a time when temperatures only reached 40 degrees. When we built our house, we projected that we might finish our days here. But we didn't factor in the heat. We've been discussing tactics like hanging lengths of sailcloth from the highest beams to provide an extra layer of protection from the sun. Anything, in fact, but air-conditioning, which is and will be contributing to further rises in temperature. Nevertheless, I see the writing on the front and rear wall. If there's any one thing that will prompt me, us, to plod off like Maximus for pastures new, it's the heat of things to come.