It was only a petite semaine, Tuesday till Sunday, but it feels like I've been away for an eternity. Unbeknownst to me, it even snowed here while I was gone. There wasn't much evidence of it on the road home from Brive, but our track was still a picturesque matt white, being always the last place to thaw.
I seem to have been on the road or rail for a pocket eternity. My wife implored me to find some quicker and more comfortable form of transport, something more in keeping with my time of life, but there were no flights to Southampton in January and I was too late for sensibly-priced Eurostar tickets. Besides, I was intrigued to try out Megabus.com. What kind of business model can be based on tickets so cheap? £18 from Brive all the way to London, every day of the week. Are they mad?
Not according to the driver. They pay him a good wage – 50% more than he got as a driver of tour buses – and they're expanding. They already go to France, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and this spring there's a new route planned to Milan via Lyon and Turin. My coach had come up from Barcelona and the driver told me that, if you book early enough, there are a few seats to be had at a £1 each. He told me of a student who had travelled from Aberdeen to London for a quid and then on to Barcelona for another one.
It does, however, take a long, long time. I boarded my coach just after two o'clock and arrived in London at about six the next morning. There's an inconvenient three-hour break in Paris, along with another two hours on the ferry, but still... My wife, I think, is worried that putting myself through such an ordeal goes with the hair-shirt handed down from my mother.
Well, yes and no. I was genuinely curious and it's true that such a bargain deal pleases me about as much as snapping up a Blue Note CD for a euro in among the dross at Cash Converters. I also wanted to try out the service for our daughter, who might one day be glad of it if she realises her ambition of studying her metier in Scotland. Besides, it really wasn't that much of an ordeal. The coaches are state-of-the-art, warm and comfortable with a plug for your phone and/or laptop and LED reading lights for short-sighted citizens like me who want to lose themselves in a good book.
Soon after midday the following day, I was chatting with my father in the comfort of his new flat in Romsey, Hants. My sisters and I had dinner with him in a pub that evening and, after almost three weeks in cold storage, we buried our mother the following morning. It was bitterly cold but very beautiful and, as funerals go, a fine occasion.
My mother would have whole-heartedly approved. The little parish church of North Baddesley is right on the edge of the Southampton overspill, looking out across open, rolling countryside. The ceremony was concise and dignified. My eulogy made people laugh and I concluded it by reading a beautiful poem my mother once wrote about John Clare, the 19th century romantic poet. She recognised in him a kindred spirit: unable to cope with modern life, he would end his days as a madman in a form of psychiatric hospital.
Afterwards, we filed out and followed her willow coffin past the oldest tombstones to a plot they had prepared for her at the edge of the graveyard. No one mercifully tried to fling themselves into the open grave. We said our goodbyes and left messages among the tasteful arrangement of wild flowers. Far enough away from the traffic's wall of sound, it was like a scene from some updated Thomas Hardy novel.
We then headed off for soup, sandwiches and coffee cake in a little room above the tea shop in St. John's House, a charming historical building tucked away behind the centre of Romsey. We had a soundtrack of the CD my father and I had compiled the previous afternoon. Along with the Chopin and Glenn Miller, it included my mother's incongruous favourite: Les McCann's 'Compared to What', a version of which Roberta Flack included on her first album.
By noon the following day, I was off again. Bound for Liverpool and a reunion of the class of '73. This time by rail, changing at the most awful station in the world: Birmingham New Street. True to form, there was chaos on the underground platform. The power lines from Euston were down, so I had to make my way to Liverpool uncertainly via Lichfield and Crewe.
It wasn't a fit night out for man nor beast, as I made my way down from my labyrinthine hotel in Mountpleasant to Albert Dock via the centre of town. I couldn't find our meeting place at the Premier Inn and wandered about in the dark; wet, windswept and bemused. But it was there, after all, right beside the Beatles Museum. And there in the bar was a group of old school associates, already well into the business of celebrating reunification after 42 years.
And my oh my, it's weird. Paul, my old classmate and the only other 'boy' to turn up, confessed that he'd been 'terrified'. Probably a bit of Belfast bluster, but I knew what he meant. I'd certainly felt an element of trepidation and it was awkward to be put on the spot and asked whom of the assembled group you remembered. It was only later, after we'd shifted our reunion to one of those big noisy restaurants that resemble seated nightclubs, that I started to remember voices and adapt youthful profiles to their aging permutations.
I went to a big school. There were three or four hundred of us in the 6th form alone, so of course you didn't – couldn't – know everyone. We all had our own cliques and the majority of those back together again seemed to have a scientific bent. It was noticeable that neither my best friend, Winston, nor I featured in any of the group photographs of dimly recognised individuals we tried to name. We had probably mitched off to drink or smoke and listen to the new Frank Zappa and do generally arty things with our more literary pals.
But it didn't really matter a jot. Those of us who'd come together have all gone our separate ways. Helen B., whom I'd known as Helen W., has lived in Germany for 30 years; Rosie has a house in France; Alanna has lived in Australia and renovated houses in Wiltshire; Paul is now a man from the motor trade, who lives in Dunblane, Scotland. Yet we all have our old school in common. We all remember the same teachers and we all share similar acquaintances.
We all, too, grew up with the Fab Four. So, next morning, we met up to dredge up still more memories at the Beatles Museum. I was even able to claim my first ever senior citizen discount. This, too, was pretty weird, as I've been immersed in the Mop Tops' life stories during the past fortnight. The museum is full of artefacts and mementos and reproductions that might have been as naff as their Madame Tussaud wax models. But they weren't. The mock Cavern was particularly poignant. I found myself standing at the stage staring at the three guitars and the empty drum kit, listening to the endless loop of 'Twist And Shout', almost paralysed by nostalgia.
When we said our farewells, we vowed to do something similar at some time in the future. And we meant it, because it was lovely. The sands of time are pouring rapidly through the glass neck now, so we can't afford to wait another 42 years. With power restored to the overhead cables, I finished Shout! on the train back to London, resolved to go back, Jack, and do it again.
So I'm home again in a land that somehow still feels less familiar than Northern Ireland does. Despite my daughter's imprecations, I hitched into the centre of Brive from the Commercial Centre where the chatty coach driver deposited me. A young lad in a beaten up car full of empty beer bottles, with his four-year old daughter strapped into a car seat in the back, stopped to pick me up after only a couple of minutes of wondering whether I was tempting kidnap and/or murder. He was only heading for a petrol station, but he took me out of his way and dropped me off at the Rex cinema.
I found my car, still parked where I'd left it. I'd quite forgotten to lock it. I guess that's the impact of all those passing years on your grey matter.