During our recent trip to the Yuke, a religious zealot borrowed my little-used Facebook account to send messages of great joy to friends and contacts. I haven't yet seen the offending article, but I'm mystified by his or her faith in a Superior Being when the world He, She or It supposedly created is in such a permanent state of chassis, as Sean O'Casey's character was given to say.
In spite of the current chaos and crises, there was joy a-plenty during our absence from notre petit paradis. Only one argument in the car on the journey north to Dieppe: between Vierzon and Orléans; caused by my inability to remain silent in the face of my cherished co-driver's propensity to chase cars on the autoroute rather than to let 'em go and settle back at a steady, fuel-efficient pace. The car was laden, too, with our daughter's affairs (beautifully arranged, I must say, by my anally-retentive self, since few things please me more than efficient packing of a boot or a dishwasher).
On reaching my sister's house in Romsey many hours after our 5am departure, I then had to transfer the contents of the car to her garage prior to the pre-arranged pick-up by a man named Derek in a big colourful van for delivery to The Kid's new digs in Sarf London. She's just started working in a famous interior design shop in Fulham, where she's required to wear black. Shame that she got rid of all her black clothes from her teenage days, because she's spending her initial wages on a suitable new wardrobe. It won't be coming from Primark.
She looked lovely in red for my nephew's wedding on the Saturday, one of the objects of our visit. The Good Wife looked resplendent in yellow, an echo of her own wedding outfit that caused my mother-in-law such grief at the time. My own echo was even louder, as I wore the same suit, cleaned, pressed and repaired after my daughter used it for dressing up one day in our old house in the Corrèze. It fits me better than it did her at the time.
The wedding went off like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Even the rain that had been forecast for a fortnight held off and the sun emerged intermittently from behind a thick layer of cloud. The happy couple were wed in a beautiful village church with a wooden bell-tower. The jolly vicar arrived on a motorbike in the best modern tradition to officiate with enough jocularity to temper any underlying religious zeal. My wife sang out with such gusto that our daughter had a fit of the giggles. The bride is a twin and she was preceded down the aisle by her sister, dressed in a fetching powder-blue number. I admired the original choice of outfit until the true bride followed a few steps behind in regulation white with a long train that she subsequently pinned up behind her like a Victorian bustle for the reception.
My duty throughout was that of my ancient father's minder. Accustomed to doing most things (apart from driving) at speed, I had to adapt to the pace of a Galapagos tortoise for the rest of the day. Or most of it: After the canapés and drinks with accompaniment by Tilley's musical cousin Jess; after the group photographs; after the speeches (which he couldn't hear, although he did perk up when my nephew, the groom, mentioned his name); and after the meal in a marquee as big as a circus big-top, set up a stone's throw from the bucolic river Test, I drove him back to the quiet of his one-bedroom flat. On return, the party was in full swing. My nephew had paid for an open bar and my daughter and her cousin, re-united after pairing up many years before as young bridesmaids at another nephew's wedding, seemed apparently set on sampling everything on offer in an attempt to drink it dry.
The hired band opted for volume rather than clarity, which was a shame as they offered a repertoire of old soul hits. It didn't stop Zac, one of my younger great-nephews, demonstrating an extraordinary array of James Brown moves that had everyone marvelling at his energy if not his innate sense of rhythm.
Perhaps the band felt it had to play extra loud to compete with the national celebrations for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, or 'Plat-Jub' as it was dubbed. By Saturday night, they were dying down a little – at least in comparison to the previous day, when the bells of Romsey Abbey rang for four hours without a break for drinks. The sound of church bells conjures up emotions like euphoria and nostalgia, but when finally, mercifully, they stopped suddenly, the effect was like cutting the power to a pneumatic drill.
After all the euphoria, the news by text early the next morning that a dear old friend had died after her battle with cancer – and before The Dame could visit her in London, effectively to say goodbye – threw a cold, wet blanket over all that followed. Mother and daughter took the train to the metropolis on Monday, so one could start a new job while the other took the train to the damp north-west, there to sort out her mother's tax papers and find a foldable wheelchair for the poor old dear.
This left me to relieve my sisters – the younger one of whom called in sick with Covid on the Monday morning, which left me fretting that I might catch it again myself and thus fail the test for re-entry to France (while secretly rather gloating that she had succumbed after three vaccinations, having suffered her serious self-righteous wrath due to our non-conformist stance) – by spending some serious time with my own poor old dear. Despite a kiddie-sized fit of pique on the Sunday because the parents of the bride neglected to invite him to an impromptu post-wedding evening get-together, during which he drank all the gin miniatures he had traded for at our allocated table with the great nephews, my father is in truth neither emotionally nor actually poor.
We spent much of our time together watching England and New Zealand play out a pair of gripping test matches. He invested in a Sky contract principally to watch Arsenal play football and England play cricket. It seems that now England are under new management, with a cavalier New Zealand coach and a cavalier new captain, the team is set on entertaining the public.
For the remaining time together, I walked him slowly, very slowly around town, cooked him meals and chatted to him about the past. As he approaches his 95th birthday, he seems as determined as an English cricketer to notch up the century. He's defied all the odds to get this far on heart medication and a fairly unsuitable diet, so he could make it. Equally, he's getting so breathless that he could keel over at any time. Either way, he's having a great knock, showing much of the old élan in the last five years in particular (since my mother packed her paints and her typewriter for her voyage to the Big Beyond).
Our bond, already strengthened by our shared love of music and sport, has been further tightened these last few months of working on my mother's memoir, Make Do And Mend. As each chapter rolls off the press, I've sent it to my father, traditionally not a reader, for comments and feedback. He's risen to the task, with helpful observations and even identification of errors and typos, which suggests that he reads the text quite closely. The task of knitting together the best bits from the various versions my mother left behind has given me a real insight into what shaped the character of someone who was fairly impossible to live with, and an understanding of what made her tick and why our relationship was so problematic. It's a sad irony that it took her death to open the channels of communication. If I believed in the afterlife, I would send her a message to tell her what a genuine talent she was with both brush and pen – and apologise for being so blasé as a youth.
She was, though, an exceptionally bad cook. Cooking proper meals for my father, who thankfully cooked in his time but now depends on salmon steaks from the freezer or cheese and crackers for supper, meant that I often had to nip into town for missing ingredients. Whether the Co-op or Aldi or Waitrose, it was even more evident than it is back home just how much plastic we consume. Everything, even supposedly fresh vegetables, either comes in a plastic container or swaddled in plastic. There's barely an alternative to be found. I took his waste to the communal recycle bin like a dutiful son, knowing damn well that any reassuring figures are massaged to omit the depressing fact that x% of the y% of 'recycled' plastic is sent to some country like Turkey to be dealt with however they see fit.
Being in England is initially thrilling for an exile, but ultimately dispiriting. You see the consumer society in its raw essence and realise that we're never going to change. Or, even if we can change our habits, the process of change will be far too slow to staunch the flow. The damage will have been completed. As usual, by the time we had to leave, we were itching to get out and get back home. There is something about a small market town in a privileged county like Hampshire that seems so divorced from reality, as if sealed in a protective layer of plastic Clingfilm.
We took and scanned our negative tests for legal re-entry to our adoptive country and jettisoned more unnecessary plastic. I packed the car once more with anal precision, hiding any purchases from the motherland in a manner that could be construed as casual rather than deliberate should we be stopped at Customs in Newhaven.
As it was, we slipped through without a hitch. Despite the customary anxieties I share with my mother, God rest her troubled soul, I wasn't frog-marched off to a lock-up to be shackled in chains and fined to within an inch of my life for bringing back five tins of Lakeland Paints' finest lime-wash – and one or two other items, including Sun Ra, a feline gargoyle made on commission by a close friend of my sister's for a pre-Covid birthday present, and a pile of books, CDs and records from the multitude of charity shops in Romsey. We even managed to sleep a few precious hours in our egregiously expensive cabin.We were away and bound for Rouen and all points south by five in the morning. The journey south was a sheer delight; just like the old days, a time when we were bushy-tailed holidaymakers and full of Gallic promise. My speedy wife tried really, really hard to keep her foot light on the accelerator. There were no arguments. After two shifts of two hours each, we were home by two o'clock in the afternoon, very hot but neither shaken nor stirred; glad to be back home in a land where, I suspect, they consume less and recycle more plastic.