On the first day of November, my true love said to me, 'Fare thee well and see you in a week or so.' I dropped her off at Brive station to catch the 07:52 from Cahors to Paris Austerlitz. Her accountant and partner were travelling to the capital with their grandson on the same train, but The Dame's seat was right at the other end of the train. Quite liderally the last seat. Any further back, and if the train had one, she could stand on the observation platform like Tom Courtenay's Trotsky in Dr. Zhivago, and watch the rails recede.
I left her with my MP3 player, The Poisonwood Bible and a packed breakfast for the 4½-hour trip to Paris and thence to London, where she would be celebrating Our Kid's 29th birthday before heading north to stay uncomfortably once more with her frail and ailing mother. Daphne and I headed for the clinic, where I cut back the plant that's making it hard to open and close the back gates, and then – and only then – did I break my fast in the makeshift kitchen.
I remembered my working wife's cheques in my bag and my promise to pay them in at the central post office. We went there next, my trusty dog and I. The post office, however, was shut. My first thought was another day of national strikes. After all, this was France. But how silly of me! The trains would have been the first to grind to a halt. So perhaps a late opening because of staff training. But there was no notice on the door to that effect. Hmmm. Everything seemed very quiet, come to think of it. Very little traffic and a surfeit of parking slots. This town was coming like a ghost town.
And then I had an aha moment. It was the 1st November. Toussaint. All Saints Day. The Day of the Dead. Of course! The post office and the shops would be shut for the day, so that everyone can go and place chrysanthemums on the graves of their forebears. Sitting there in my car under a dark grey lowering sky, with barely a soul abroad and after all the recent engaging sound and fury of the rugby world cup, it seemed like a veritable day of the dead.
Even after 28 years in France, I still can't remember this public holiday – which only goes to show... something. Maybe how difficult it is to acquire and truly embed a foreign culture. I have no problem remembering the UK's public holidays, and yet it's decades since I've celebrated or enjoyed them. French ones still sneak up on me and catch me unawares. Strange. If ever I were asked a variation on the Enoch Powell question for immigrants about the national cricket team they supported, I would be found out as someone who couldn't remember to buy a pot of chrysanthemums for November 1st. But sir, what would I do with it? Well, don't you have a dog's grave in your back garden? Um, oui, as it happens...
I've certainly never really understood the significance of the lacklustre flowers associated with this day. I remember reading D.H. Lawrence's short story, 'The Odour of Chrysanthemums', as part of 20th Century Short Stories, one of our O-level curriculum books. It was a story about the death of some male member of the household in a Nottinghamshire mining community. The father, perhaps. The odour of the fading flowers, I remember, pervaded the tiny back-to-back house. It was a touching tale, but I can't recall the details. At that age, I was far more interested in Lady Chatterley's Lover.
This rather drab flower, it seems to me, is the perfect accoutrement for the enforced solemnity of the custom here. Death is certainly a solemn business in the West. With little joy in it, small wonder that we all fear it. Certainly it's nothing like the Day of the Dead celebrations in, say, Mexico.
Many, many years ago, I went to a wonderful exhibition in London at the Royal Academy (I believe). It was full of the associated festive artefacts: the painted and decorated papier-mâché skulls and skeletons, the little baskets, animals and other figures made of sugar, the paper skeleton puppets, the brightly coloured Tree of Life candelabra made of pottery, photographs of the superabundant decorative altars and the feasts laid out on tables for the visiting souls of the dead. It was revelatory. Death could be fun! The excuse for a genuine celebration. A million miles from the cursory regimented visits to the orderly little walled graveyards around here and all over France.
It's been raining here for about a week already and the forecast for the next week or so offers little more than rain, rain and more rain. It seems a fairly appropriate backdrop for the Day of the Dead, European style. So... what to do? I couldn't pay my planned visit to Noz, my favourite shop in Brive. It's full of bankrupt stock, customs seizures and stuff that might otherwise be classified as off-the-back-of-a-lorry. You never know what you might find. I bought two rather nice pairs of shorts there over the summer and I've done rather well in recent months for coconut milk.
Never mind. Tomorrow was another day. There was only one thing for it: go to Nazareth. Earlier than scheduled. There to meet my friend David, the Nazarene, with a view to walking our dogs and chatting about the expatriate experience. Perhaps the rain would hold off. Had we not been side-tracked by a slice each of stollen from Lidl, we might have made it. Under umbrellas and a canopy of trees, we followed a track through the woods to a rock face that overlooks the rolling countryside between the outer edge of Brive and distant Turenne on its fortified mound. On rare moments, you might catch sight of our little local train heading for or emerging from the tunnel. Even in the rain, the view stirs the soul. My own was unneasily stirred when I realised that Daphne wasn't with me. With no response to my calls, I worried that she might have plunged over the edge in a moment of misguided enthusiasm. But she reappeared, before running off again with David's dog, Timmy.
I had to get back. I had my own Day of the Dead feast to prepare. Some curries for a musical evening with Dan and Steve. Well you know, when the girl's away... It wasn't meant to be on the first evening of solitude, but the film Summer of Soul waits for no man. The 'Black Woodstock' was even better than I had anticipated. We ate well, too, though I say it myself. If any dead souls came visiting, I wasn't aware of them. My ascetic mother had a very modest appetite, anyway, unlike my father who would have seriously compromised the quantity of food on offer. There was plenty for the three of us, with enough for my lunch the following day. Perhaps when you die, you develop an aversion to spicy food. Maybe even chrysanthemums.