The Good Wife's away in Amsterdam at present, meeting up with a friend and fellow therapist from the U.S. She managed to get tickets for the Vermeer retrospective, which are like gold dust. I suggested that she sell them on the black market and recoup the cost of the sojourn. Once you've seen one Vermeer, you've seen 'em all. The upshot of the matter is that I can suit myself for a week. Wednesday morning, for example, I slipped some clothes on over my pyjamas, the light-blue linen pair that I got for Christmas, in order to walk the dog before breakfast. Anyone who's ever read these despatches will appreciate the extent to which I like to live on the edge. I couldn't be bothered to shower until I got back; that's my excuse. I was late to bed the night before, having done my bit on the door of the cinema association in nearby Vayrac: an avant-premier of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which – much to my horror – was dubbed rather than the version original as billed. A digital mix-up somewhere along the line.
I was out, not quite as bright and early as usual, in my pyjamas on my bike with Daphne trotting along beside me, when we encountered one of the departmental border-mowers, a great big bit of machinery with a prehensile jib that mows down the undergrowth at the side of the road and all that shelter within. While making ourselves small at the edge of the road and breathing in diesel fumes and that great smell of freshly cut grass, I reflected on what someone once told me in our nearest hamlet: how, in the days before these monstrous metal machines, the local peasant farmers would direct their flocks of sheep to keep the roadside vegetation in check. These days, the sheep are kept in sheds and let out only on special occasions. So it goes...
If there's one part of England where things might be done in a more traditional way, it's Cumbria. My increasingly fragile mother-in-law lives in a village on the edge of the Pennine Fells overlooking the Eden Valley. She requires regular visits. This time, as we found reliable house-sitters for the duration, I came along for the ride. This time, we took the car – principally so I could pick up the stuff from my father's now shockingly empty flat that my sisters had boxed up as mine. It was not a prospect I relished. Driving in France is easy, but the idea of going all the way up the west side of England, then down the east side unmanned me.
As it turned out, both the M6 and the A1 proved as gentle as lambs – and there were a lot of them in Cumbria. Nothing like the scraggy Rastafarian sheep around these parts, with their elongated prehistoric-looking profiles, but the white and woolly variety that can stand a long Cumbrian winter. We left my sister's in Romsey on Sunday after lunch to give us a fighting chance of reaching our destination before midnight. The worst that could be said of our drive, this time, was that it was dull. There is no scenery to speak of until after Preston. And then there's lots of it. The Forest of Bowland and the Yorkshire Dales on one side, and the Lake District on the other. The idea of a sheltered settlement like Arnside on Morecambe Bay rather appeals to the pensioner in me.
Mercifully, we didn't have to stay with my mother-in-law in her badly converted chapel. The idea of trying to kip on an air-bed while a restless, sleepless nonagenarian shuffled around on her Zimmer frame in search of a drink, either hot or alcoholic, chattering at top volume because she's as deaf as a Sixties rock star to Omar, her rejuvenated stray cat, was not an enticing one. Our saviours were old friends from Sheffield, who offered us shelter in their re-conditioned stone house in Crosby Ravensworth, a mile or so down the road from Maulds Meaburn, where mother sheep and their lambs wander freely around the green and charming village.
We went to Penrith one morning, the biggest town in the area. It has seen much better days. While Debs shopped for her mum at Booth's in the top end of town, I searched for souvenirs of the coming coronation in the bottom. Not for us, you understand, but for the young girl and her boyfriend who were looking after our dog, cats and house (in roughly that order of priority). I found nothing, not even a mug with Charles' and Camilla's faces thereon. Could they have been so unpopular? My mother-in-law has never forgiven the former for divorcing La Dee-Dee, as the French call her, and hoped that the latter, hussy that she is, would slip on the steps of the abbey. Which is very uncharitable of a self-professed Christian and God-believer. Or... did the better stuff sell out quickly? We will never know.
I delivered the bad news to my wife, whom I found pushing a trolley in a state of near panic because she couldn't find anything that wasn't wrapped in plastic. However, I made quite a nice asparagus risotto later in tricky culinary conditions, served in a neat mound in the manner I've picked up from Masterchef. My mother-in-law has not stopped harping on about my cooking ever since, which is very galling to her daughter, whose own delicious efforts have been systematically spurned in the past simply because a daughter is not allowed to grow up and usurp a mother whose former glory days in the kitchen are now past. Jealousy has ever been her middle name.
Still, my Good Wife, a good and conscientious daughter, managed to sort out her mother's paper work, massage her hands, legs and feet, and – with my assistance – get her out in a wheelchair for her first bit of fresh air since she fell and broke her hip back in Covid times. I pushed her up to the gate at the end of the road that opens onto a path up to Murton Pike and back again, and she waved regally as we went on our merry way to neighbours unseen but imagined behind sitting-room windows. It tickled us both pink because it wasn't done tongue-in-cheek.
Clearly, the woman's been watching royalty throughout her long life. She wasn't going to watch the coronation, though, she announced. An André Rieu concert on Sky Arts is more her thing. Such a nice man; he brings joy and happiness to many, you know. We weren't going to watch it either – not because I've got anything against Charles. He may have outmoded views about architecture, but I commend him for his organic principles (although they're probably reinforced by a lucrative contract with Waitrose, if their Duchy brand has anything to do with a plant-talking monarch). Camilla seems a fairly reasonable old stick and they clearly love each other, so I didn't wish her to trip on the abbey steps. Old age is undignified enough as it is.
We drove home before the collective media madness. Well over a thousand kilometres in two days. We left Cumbria at first light, which was soon obscured by the lowering skies as we crossed the Pennines on the A66. But the A1 was fluid, the M11 just about navigable and even the M25 proved feasible. The M20, to my surprise, was a piece of date and walnut cake. And the biggest plus of all was that we sailed through customs at the Eurotunnel terminal, belying my customarily neurotic fears about having to unload our beautifully packed boot and having to convince a French functionary that the letters, books, records, paintings by my mother, her little oak bookcase and other detritus of former family life had absolutely no value other than the sentimental kind. Yes, I should have filled in a form, but my dad's not long been committed to this mortal soil, so please just gimme a break...
After an overnight stay just south of Rouen in a curious house owned by a couple of musicians that looked like it had been designed by Hergé for one of his peripheral characters, we made it back by four on the Friday. Just in time for the coronation. Our dog and cats were there to greet us and the house was still standing. What more can one ask after a hectic week away?
The car's unloaded now, the books and records put away and my mother's paintings hung on our walls. I haven't yet opened the box full of letters – mine to my parents and grandparents, my mother's from our distant outpost of civilisation in Belfast to her parents – for sentimental reasons. All those painstaking letters, hand-written with feeling in the days before e-mail. We did things differently then. I shall wait to peruse them until such time when I'm feeling less flaky.
We still haven't watched highlights of the coronation on YouTube. My friend Edmond sent me this quietly ironic picture of himself, perhaps taken on the big day itself. Rather than Charles III, I prefer the idea of Edmond I, our first South African monarch. A good king, a noble king. A head of state for our time. Floreat Edmondo!
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