On Saturday, my friend Nick took me with him to The Mill – as it has become known over the years – for 'Le Crunch', as the annual Six Nations encounter between England and the old enemy France has become known in recent times. It's a half-hour drive from here, across the Dordogne to the Ouysse, which emerges from underground not too far from Rocamadour to race past our friends' Moulin de Latreille, joining the big river a few kilometres further downstream. The only way by car is to climb the tortuous road up to the pretty village of Calès and then down again, down, down seemingly to the centre of the earth courtesy of a track that each time has been a little more improved with tarmac by a reluctant commune.
We've been going to the watermill at least once and sometimes twice a year for the last 20+ years for some of the best parties or general 'occasions' south of Brive. Fi and Giles seem to know just about everyone in the area that it's possible to know. Because it's so far away from our neck of the rive droite, we get to see people there that we don't normally see around these parts.
Over the years, therefore, you notice how gradually, almost imperceptibly people have changed. It's rather like having children: you don't notice how old you're getting until you see how they've grown. Our hosts' son Felix has grown into a good-looking, charming and sociable young man. In most cases growth is something other than the vertical kind. Some, but not many, have grown paunches, but many have grown well-manicured and trim white beards to match their whitening hair. I've never attempted one myself, because I'm resigned to the fact that it would look as sparse as the grass on our 'lawn'. Having inherited my mother's follicle genes, my own hair has turned progressively more mousey over time, with little patches of grey-turning-white where it's cut closest to the scalp.
Guy, for example, my carpenter friend who came to the rescue here when heavy rain would find its way into the mezzanine level, thus threatening the uppermost straw bales otherwise snug between their enclosing layers of render, has added just a little weight but turned startlingly white. As has Clive, the dependable plasterer who sealed in the bales and gave them the stippled texture that visitors unfailingly admire. David, too, the swimming-pool man, who arrived in an England rugby shirt and beret, much to the worry of Giles, who gave up wearing his own team shirt as a bringer of bad luck.
They drifted in one by one towards the end of the Italy/Wales match in Rome, which we were all hoping Italy would win as they've made so much progress this year, no longer the customary whipping boys. It surprises me that so many of my male friends here are rugby fans. Only Nick, Giles, David and Tim, the biggest (absent) fan of them all, went to posh schools. I'm just about the only one who loves rugby and football; certainly the only one who follows a football team. My love of rugby is more that of a (sometimes) dispassionate observer: someone who played a bit as a boy, who has never understood the rules relating to the pack and penalties and who, as an inveterate historian, loves the traditions and legacy of the past as much as the current game.
Before and after the match itself, we chatted about developments in our lives. Everyone has become increasingly aware of his mortality, drinking far less than we might have done as a group a few years back. It's noticeable that the most popular drink these days is zero-alcohol beer. We are all attempting to wind down and/or retire as a precursor to the final chapter of our lives, however long that will prove. David is cleaning fewer pools these days, and taking it easy during the winter. Guy is nearing the completion of his monumental second self-built house, nearly a decade after starting it and determined that it will be the last, though wondering what he will do with himself once he has finished and stopped working for a living. Already, he is thinking of moving – further south, to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Clive, one of the hardest working men in the business, has done his knee in and has been on crutches for some time, no longer plastering, but still working for others. Giles is still painting and decorating holiday homes and chateaux.
Only Nick has truly managed to retire. He can devote himself to his garden and his boat moored across the Spanish frontier and general management of the quotidian. They asked how I was getting on, what I was up to these days. I had to confess that I have been struggling with the responsibilities of taking over the music editorship of the Sounds and Colours website. Far from being retired and choosing how I spend my time, I've found myself spending far too long in front of a screen, writing and publishing reviews and round-ups and trying to keep up with new releases from around the Latin world. No one asked why, in that case, I was doing it, so I was spared the confession that it was probably for the sake of my ego: a feeling that I was no longer just a pretender, but more of a contender. A man with a role; a player.
I might also have revealed how easy it is, I'm finding, in a position of influence to be swayed by inducements. Since it's an unpaid role, there's a strong temptation to look favourably on a request for a review or some publicity if it's accompanied by an offer of an LP or at the very least a CD. Cross my palms with vinyl. For example, I found a way of including a new compilation of Paco De Lucia's appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, even though he's not strictly speaking a Latin musician. The LP has arrived at my sister's to avoid any post-Brexit postal misunderstandings. I gave it five stars – not because of the vinyl inducement, but because I genuinely believed that it merited five. But how difficult it is to be spotlessly clean and totally true to your principles. How easy it must be as some petty official, say, in some unregulated nation to supplement his or her income with a back-hander or two.
And the Good Wife? Well, I explained, she is not a fan of rugby or many other sports for that matter. And much as she loves to spend time at The Mill, she needed some quiet time to unwind, having spent far too much energy during the week helping clients. So much for the time being for her attempt to cut down to two days per week in Brive at the cabinet. The best-laid plans of mice and therapists. Well, it meant that I could concentrate on the rugby rather than worrying about the dog being on her own for too long.
We all gathered before the big screen in eager anticipation. The volume was raised to drown out the chitter-chatter. The teams were presented and the anthems were sung. The bottle tops of the zero-alcohol beer bottles were snapped off with the aid of a cigarette lighter (not mine). Our fly half kicked off – and the chorus of groans grew louder within minutes of the start as the arrogant English, whom no one likes, not even fellow Brits and least of all the French, were put comprehensively to the sword. At which point, our redeeming self-deprecating sense of humour, nurtured by so many sporting defeats over the decades, kicked in and we all gave up caring how many points the French racked up to simply admire their brilliance.
And after the post-match supper of sweet potato soup, bread and cheese, and dessert tarts made by the rugby-avoiding women folk, we all gradually drifted off into the night for another year. One by one, or two by two in Nick's and my case. He dropped me at the top of our track and I found my way down to our house without the aid of a torch. Daphne leapt out of her basket and barked at me as a potential intruder when I appeared on the front porch. My wife was waiting for me in bed, reading the James Salter novel I've just finished and recovering from another busy week at the coal face. Did you have a nice time? I had a very nice time, thank you.
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