We hit the town, so to speak, on Friday evening. It was our dear Dutch friend Eric’s 50th birthday and the multitudes assembled at Le Mortier clubbed together to buy him a ride in a hot-air balloon. It’s something of which he has long dreamed, apparently. Perhaps Alf, our aging hound, will run outside and bark at the self-same montgolfier as it floats across the horizon. Around the valley in 80 minutes – or so.
|Up, up and away|
It seemed like what it was: the first time in months that we have gone out together to attend one of the international parties that once eased us back into civilisation after the early years of self-imposed exile among the hill people. It seemed, too, like I have been incarcerated, stuck to the computer screen, for months on end while the spring and then the summer have slipped away almost unnoticed. So it was a kind of coming-out ball for both of us. We were separated within minutes of arriving at their organic smallholding with courgette quiche, a bottle of rosé and contribution for the montgolfier. Like meandering streams, we didn’t come back together for over an hour after our respective circuitous routes to the snack stall had taken us around various friends and acquaintances for a quick résumé of the past months.
People, it transpired, have taken up with new partners and sufficient things have been going on to make me feel glad to live in a kind of splendid isolation on one side of the valley while the other, it seems, has been busy turning itself into a kind of Place de Peyton.
Meanwhile, assorted children have grown up into barely recognisable adolescents (half child, half biscuit). Tilley the Kid, I explained to enquirers, was in England, getting her first taste of office life at my brother-in-law’s company. Sometimes you have to resort to a bit of nepotism in this life. It’s only for a few weeks. We are both hoping for a taste of romance, but that’s probably being fanciful. As a former office worker, I saw for myself how these things generally take time.
I was unable to explain this to Eric’s ageless mother, who collared me at one point. Since she speaks neither English nor French, we struggled to converse. Even with ‘O’ level German, Dutch sounds like Rowan Atkinson’s impression of a Nordic tongue. I smiled desperately and tried not to betray my terror of total incomprehension. In the end her husband came to the rescue and explained that they had heard from their son, the birthday boy, that our daughter had grown up into a fine young lady.
It hardly seems possible that a decade has passed since Eric’s 40th, when his mother looked younger than he did and The Daughter was just a little girl soon to resume her primary education in a new school in a new town. She would have played with her peers 10 years ago as other kids did on Friday night who were then but babes in arms. How come a decade seems like an eternity to a growing child, but a mere puff of wind to a decaying adult? Even Leonardo Da Vinci couldn’t answer that one.
The March of Time is turning into a quick step. The younger generation is revolting, ready to elbow us oldies off the sound system’s controls and take over the patch of grass outside Jan and Eric’s barn on which we attempted to dance once more.
Every day now, too, it seems that someone significant has passed on to the great Memory Bank in the sky. On Thursday night we watched a tribute to Mel Smith, who was just a couple of years older than I was when my future wife and I were watching Not The Nine O’Clock News on separate televisions. Then, with a heavy heart, I read of Karen Black’s demise – in her early seventies, of the inevitable cancer. I’m a sucker for squints and there was something so enchanting about her slightly boss-eyed looks. She plays a prime role in two films firmly lodged in my Top 20: Bob Raefelson’s Five Easy Pieces, in which she plays Jack Nicholson’s long-suffering and endlessly understanding girlfriend, Rayette; and Robert Altman’s Nashville, his brilliant satire of the country & western industry and American society at large. Big-haired Karen was perfect – and unerringly convincing – as Connie White, a Tammy Wynette type and rival of the fragile hypochondriac Barbara Jean, who keels over on stage and spends most of the film in a hospital bed under the solicitous eye of Barnett, her husband and manager. Maybe now that Karen’s checked in her mascara, a Freeview channel will show this hilarious film, which hasn’t seen the light of day for years.
So it goes. Karen Black did at least leave a lasting legacy, which is more than many. We mortals merely hasten once more to that ominous quinze août, which always has an awful air of finality about it. The holidaymakers pack up and go home, the evenings get fresher, morning dew reappears on what’s left of the grass and we find ourselves once more in a nocturnal no-man’s land, debating the respective merits of an extra blanket or a summer-weight duvet.
The only negative thing I remember about Eric’s 40th birthday, a decade ago, was that my own 50th followed not very long after. This means, of course, that his 50th portends my 60th: the dread day when it’s time to stop pretending and admit once and for all that you’re getting old.
A trip in a hot-air balloon sounds like a nice idea, but I’ve never been comfortable with heights. The thought of sitting in a basket powered by a gas bottle hundreds of feet above the ground smacks of suicide.