My friend Bret delivered the bombshell when I was in the supermarket, wondering whether to buy crisps for the girls, to sustain them on their long journey the next day. I'd had to come to Brive to look for another cat flap, after Daphne had broken her second this year by thrusting her head through the Perspex door to bark with too much enthusiasm at unseen predators outside.
He asked me first whether I'd seen his orbital sander. I had, but it was in our cave and I wouldn't be back home till lunchtime. And had I heard the news about our mutual friend, Dave? I hadn't, I replied as sotto voce as possible, because I don't like talking on a mobile phone in public places lest someone mistake me for a plonker.
Dave, our friend, was dead. What??! I held onto the trolley and stopped my deliberations about snacks. How could he be dead; we'd both seen him not five or six weeks before at a party? Apparently, Bret told me, it was a para-gliding accident or something. At that party, our friend had in fact even asked me whether I'd like to come along sometime. I told him that I didn't think it was really my thing.
Mr. Lee, as I called him – in honour of that deliciously daft song of 1957 about a 5th grade teacher by the Bobbettes – was a quite delightful man. I don't think he ever got the reference when I would greet him by singing the repetitive chorus, but he always humoured me with his trademark bonhomie.
We were in the middle of constructing this house when he first breezed into my life in a bottle-green Jeep or Land Rover or some vehicle appropriate for someone who'd recently left the army. He arrived with his ex-army buddy and a Dutch acquaintance, who'd told them about a house of straw and brought them along for a look-see.
Dave and Steve had a scheme to start a business over here and always appeared in tandem. We called them 'the Army Boys' – with a nod to the 'soldier boys of Pippin Fort' from the children's programme, Camberwick Green – because they still bantered together like a pair of affectionate former comrades-in-arms. Typically of Dave, he volunteered their services here in return for some publicity that might help their nascent business.
One such publicity stunt we dreamed up together was the painting of the big beams that support the slanting roof of the mezzanine. Dave offered to bring his harness and hang from the highest point with pot and paintbrush in his hands while the camera recorded his gravity-defying manoeuvres. Surely it would have made great television, but the director for some reason didn't seem that keen.
With hindsight now, I realise that his whole life must have been defined by a dare-devil's taste for adventure. I suppose the army would demand nothing less. Coming to a foreign country to start a building business without a word of French and, initially at least, more enthusiasm and bravado than practical know-how took guts. With an ever-present glint in his eye and a clipped Brummie accent that suggested many a bollocking from sergeant majors, he would crack us all up with his early cack-handed attempts to speak the lingo.
He and Steve were there for the final frantic day of building and filming, doing anything useful that they could apply their talents to, like assembling an Ikea kitchen in a new world-record time. It was a time when my stress-level gauge was well into the red and I could feel the steam seeking release through every orifice. Dave was genuinely surprised to hear me confess this. He told me that he'd never worked with anyone who exuded such calm.
Not too long after, Steve and his wife went back to the UK for various reasons. The Army Boys disbanded and Dave became Mr. Lee to me. He knuckled down to the business of conquering French, mastering the multifarious building skills required of a successful sole-trader and, when he found any spare time, doing up his big barn near Beaulieu. It was a source of personal pride that he chose to build his internal walls of straw.
Being an army veteran, his politics were probably some way from mine. It wouldn't have mattered had I known for sure. At my 50th birthday party, I noticed how he jumped a track by Linton Kwesi Johnson: probably one of LKJ's dub-poems about police brutality in Brixton. I made a mental note that maybe Dave care for anything disrespectful about guardians of the law. But maybe he simply couldn't stand reggae. In any case, we both knew enough to steer clear of the subject in conversation. Instead, I learnt about things like his liking for fast cars and his seemingly eternal quest for the love of his life.
I remember when he lost one such love. They say that a dog's character generally reflects that of its master or mistress. It was a testimony to Mr. Lee's genial character that Rosie his Rottweiler was as sweet and gentle as you could imagine. Something of a contradiction in terms to anyone, like myself, who looks upon the breed as one of the most fearsome on earth. Dave was devastated by the loss of his constant companion and would still talk wistfully in later years of how Rosie might have been saved by a more competent vet.
By the time he came to help out with the refurbishment of The Good Wife's clinic, his skills had developed apace. His fame spread as his competence grew and we saw less of him. Others presumably learnt what good company he was to have around and profited from his pragmatic but conscientious approach to his trade.
I hadn't seen him for some time when our paths crossed one evening in a bar in Martel. We'd both come to see our friends the three Steves playing that night as two. Mr. Lee was very much on form and introduced us to the love of his life. He'd found her in Limoges: a public servant named Isabelle with the kind of quirky sense of humour that complemented his own. They were clearly devoted to each other and it was charming to witness how they conversed with a mixture of stilted French and classroom English.
During the night of the party, Mr. Lee spoke to me with almost poetic passion about the thrill of para-gliding. A previous accident had disabled him for several months while Isabelle nursed him back into shape. He told me that he, an ex-soldier, had cried in hospital because the pain was so excruciating. Nevertheless, he was back in the sky at the earliest opportunity. I guess some people crave adventure, while others like myself shy away from anything that puts life or limb in danger.
That same night, I asked him whether we could expect a wedding at some time in the near future. We could, Mark, yes we could. There's nothing I like more in life than a good wedding and I was angling for an invitation. It would have been lovely to see them both wed. But a horribly hot and parched September has just got worse. Our friend has gone in a flash and all I can think of is his betrothed, alone with her grief like a character in a novel by Henry James. That and the words of a particularly dark and ominous song by John Cale from Helen of Troy: 'The last thing they expected to see was sudden death'.