We lit the first fire recently, in early October. It was a damp, miserable weekend, so there was every excuse, but that was it. Once lit, there's no turning back. Despite The Daughter's imprecations, we resist for as long as possible, because the first fire symbolically marks the end of summer.
A difficult one we had of it this year, what with the drought and the protracted heat wave, but once the serious heat had died down around mid August, we settled into a spell of the kind of customary weather we associate now with the tail-end of a French summer: long warm days bookended by a slight autumnal chill.
The Brother, as Flann O'Brien would have referred to him, went back to Belfast with our younger sister at the end of August for the first time in about 40 years. They certainly didn't go for the weather. When I spoke to him on Skype about it, he waxed lyrical and passionate about the old place. Yes, it had changed of course, and he barely recognised the back entry between our house and the parallel avenue where we used to play bin-ball and race our bikes in hazardous time-trials, but the people were still the friendliest people on earth. They had both tried – and failed – to find someone, anyone, who wasn't nice. Even the guy taking the tickets at the Titanic museum had been utterly delightful. He told me that he could easily imagine going back to live there again. Despite the weather.
Talking to him and hearing him enthuse about the kind of society we had taken for granted, forgetting all the bullets and bombs, made me come over all misty-eyed and nostalgic. It's not that we haven't encountered friendliness and friendship during 20 years in France, but it has often been hard work to get through to people. The sheer ingenuousness of Northern Irish folk is a rare commodity. It's as if everyone walks around with a sunny disposition and a Rory McIlroy bounce in their step.
I watched on telly a recording of Van Morrison's 70th birthday concert on a stage set up in the middle of Cyprus Avenue. The camera kept pulling back to pan over the immediate neighbourhood, a tree-lined part of Belfast on the east side of town, and then over the giant crane of Harland & Woolf's shipyard and beyond to the blue remembered hills that encompass the city. Everyone looked happy and even Van the Man, the old curmudgeon, was seen to smile. Once or twice.
We missed out on our customary dose of live music courtesy of the July festivals this year, but right at the tail-end of August, on two successive evenings, we caught two magical events that you would be much more likely to encounter in rural France than in urban Ulster. A small association dedicated to forging cultural links with Mali put on concerts of Malian music in two neighbouring village churches.
The first one, in the village of Lissac on the edge of the Lac de Causse not too far from the south side of Brive, featured a charming slender dusky-hued chanteuse from down Bamako way. She called herself Pam and her c.v. includes gigs as backing vocalist to the likes of Salif Keita. She promised us an evening of jazz, but apart from an affecting version of 'Cry Me a River', she revealed herself as a fine singer of anything but jazz. It didn't matter a jot. She enjoyed herself, the pick-up local band enjoyed themselves and the small but enthusiastic audience packed into the vaulted church had a collective ball.
Pam turned up at Estivals the next night in one of those extraordinary colourful headscarves worn in West African parts. She was invited on-stage to sing on a couple of numbers by the World Kora Trio, a biggish name on the world music circuit, who surely had no right to be appearing in a medieval church in the middle of almost nowhere (were it not for the nearby Brive Vallée de la Dordogne white-elephant airport). A Malian kora player, a French percussionist and an American cellist, who introduced each number in an accomplished French while the kora player re-tuned his exotic instrument.
The only wearisome note on such a memorable evening was the reappearance of a local choir. They were charming and very competent, but they ran through exactly the same repertoire of French, African and rock songs, including a version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which was actually much more tolerable than the pompous original.
At the end of the evening, everyone was invited for a bouffe laid on by the association on trestle tables set up outside the church. Only in France! I would love to have stayed on and chatted to the band, but it was late and the following morning the Good Wife and I were getting up early to drive down to Toulouse to catch a plane to Madge Orca.
I'd never been to the (in)famous Balearic isle before, but Debs' school friend from her early days in Germany now lives on the island. It's a mere hop over the Pyrenees from Toulouse. On the kind of clear day when airplanes appear from down below as silver javelins in the sky, we were able to see every crevice, every lake and every contour of the mountain range.
Katrin lives on the eastern side of the island, which necessitates a drive across the parched interior. There are mountains, not quite as impressive as those we had flown over, on the northern side of the island and we visited some picturesque creeks, but generally I was disappointed by what I found. It's an island generally loved by the Germans and our own tame German friends here had recommended it warmly, but I couldn't quite understand why.
We stayed in Katrin's hacienda-style house, typical of a simple indigenous architecture befitting a landscape divided by stone walls and dotted with olive and almond groves and those splendid cacti that bear less-than-splendid fruit. She has a well within her enclosed garden, which allows her to water copiously her impressive array of dwarf citrus trees, gnarled mature olive trees and a spreading carob under whose black hanging pods we sat at a big stone table to take most of our meals.
It also allows her to keep her grass unnaturally lush. It was strange thick knotted grass, like no grass I have ever felt with my hands or laid on with a book, like the artificial grass that I imagine they must use for dry ski slopes and other sporting pursuits. Katrin's brother, crippled by MS and confined to a wheelchair, lives nearby, right opposite Sir Harry Secombe's old holiday home overlooking the Mediterranean, and his lawn was even thicker, like a tightly woven carpet, and it all seemed as unreal as a set for Thunderbirds!
Since it hadn't rained on the island to any significant degree since Easter, the lush private lawns we saw on our walks with the ball-playing dog to the beach and back seemed worryingly wrong. In fact, apparently, the island is surprisingly damp. Certainly in winter, when Katrin annually has to fight off eruptions of mildew. The humid heat, though less than what we had known here during June and July, probably around the low 30s, was utterly enervating. At night we slept and sweated underneath a quietly whirring ceiling fan. It was all we could manage to spend most of our days sitting in the shade of the carob, reading our books. And what a luxury that continues to be. Instead of the customary ten minutes at the end of the day before the book crashes to the floor to remind you to turn off your bedside lamp, I was able to devour in a few sittings Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, his fascinating book about the development and spread of the English language.
Walking back early one afternoon from a creek where Katrin had taken us to go swimming (or, in my case, dipping my toes while the girls and Sacha the dog made for the horizon), the Good Wife of La Poujade Basse came over all unnecessary. She clung to my arm for support, overcome by the heat and the brilliance of the sun. And yet, the island's population is doubled, even trebled, for maybe half the year by legions of tourists who seem to want to peg out on plastic recliners in the concrete compounds of hotels which offer the kind of all-in deals that are ruining the local economy. They soak up the sun till they're red of face and bulging of midriff.
It was a fine, relaxing holiday, but I was glad to get back to Toulouse and pick up the car. On the way home, however, Debs started complaining of an excruciating pain in her colon. She went back to work for a day and then took the unprecedented step of cancelling clients. When friends from Sheffield came to stay, she arose from her sick bed to greet them with an exuberant hug – and promptly burst into tears. It turned out, we later learnt, that she had somehow contracted both pneumonia and an E.coli bacterium.
Our local doctor, a homeopath by trade, was seriously concerned. He arranged for blood and urine tests and I was despatched to the local Pharmacie to get what I think was called a USB jar, something anyway in which to collect a sample for an examen urinaire. She didn't let on straight away to her solicitous husband and her anxious daughter, but the readings were off the scale. The equivalent degree of radioactivity would have disabled a Geiger counter.
Stoically, she refused antibiotics in favour of a Rip van Winkle's worth of sleep, essential oils, a single homeopathic remedy and bottles of Vichy water. Within a matter of a few days, she was significantly on the mend and the test readings were back to a level usually associated with human life. The panic was over, but only then did I discover that the mysterious malady was in fact pneumonia, the dread disease that my mother taught me to fear as a child. Wrap up warm of you'll catch pneumonia... (And then you'll die, was the implication.) I guess medicine has moved on apace since I were a lad.
Thus went the end of another summer. A little more dramatic and varied than late summers of yore. Malian music, a Balearic holiday, death-defying disease and visits to and from the homeland. Not to mention an eclipse of a 'blood-moon', which we were roused from our slumbers to witness through our bathroom window by Daphne's barking. Normally she's quiet at night and tucked up tight in her basket, but clearly rare celestial phenomena derange her blithe canine soul.
And then the mornings and the evenings became colder and the leaves on the trees began to yellow and we lit the first fire in our France Turbo. I get the impression these days that I am measuring out my life in scoops of croquettes for the animals. Time to order another 10 kilo sack. And will there be time to order another before Christmas, after which we'll be snuggling into the deep mid-winter? But in a few more sacks' time, the spring will be with us if we're very fortunate and the two kittens will have grown into neutered males, content we hope to stick close to the house instead of wandering off into pastures new where untold dangers await. Life! It's a cycle, eh?