I took the girls to the train station in Brive on Wednesday 7th January 2015, blissfully ignorant of how momentous that date would become. We've been shrouded in a damp cloying mist all week, so the journey took longer than usual. For once, people drove sensibly and didn't attempt any lunatic manoeuvres to shave seconds off their journey time.
Depositing them in good time for the 9 o'clock train to Paris, I told them to take care, as one does. The world, I know only too well, is a dangerous place, but I try not to let it immobilise me as it did my agoraphobic mother. Even so, it's a fairly automatic thing to bid your loved-ones. Unless you live somewhere like Baghdad, you don't really expect the need for vigilance on a train. It's my favourite form of transport, because statistically it's one of the safest. You can let your guard down, relax and sink down into a good book.
After the delivery, I took a cursory look at the official January sales and came home with a couple of new tops and just a clutch of bargain-basement CDs. The house seemed empty, terribly empty on my return. No dog to greet me and convey his relief in discovering that he hadn't been abandoned. The cats were nowhere to be found, as usual. I stoked the fire, made myself some lunch and settled down to read the liner notes of my discs.
The phone rang. It was my wife. They'd got to their destination safely, as I had imagined that they would, but her voice sounded anxious. You haven't seen the news, then? No I hadn't. And she proceeded to tell me how our daughter's Metro station at Richard Lenoir had been closed and someone had told them to take great care, because there were gunmen loose on the streets, shooting people at random. Understandably panicked, they had made it safely to the apartment, where Tilley's landlady told them the terrible emerging truth of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.
I'm getting uncomfortably accustomed to such appalling acts of random violence. Growing up in a troubled Belfast, I remember one trip to the centre of the city with my best friend, Winston. We went to trawl through records at Smyth's and the Gramophone Shop, the two best haunts in town for vinyl junkies. On leaving the former, I still vividly remember, we headed street-wards through a little shopping arcade. Suddenly, there was a distant muffled explosion and we felt the ceiling of the arcade billow. As we emerged from the arcade, the glass front of the shop opposite just sort of fell out of its frame.
It was a day when synchronised explosions went off all over the city centre. If it was a concerted attempt to terrify the population, it certainly worked. The pair of us walked back out of town down the white line in the centre of the main road home. I don't know whose idea it was; we were and are a pair of worry-warts. Anyway, it worked. We made it back in one piece, without being hit by flying glass. Without, for that matter, being hit by a passing car.
Latterly, our stay in Northern Ireland must have brought back painful memories of World War 2 for my mother, so we moved back to the mainland at the end of my schooling. But effectively we've been living ever since the title of that long-running series, The World At War. It didn't become really apparent, though, until the 11th September 2001. I recalled that day this week, because old Madame Paucard, the harbinger of the coming apocalypse, phoned me up: ostensibly to find out how we were, but effectively to talk about her health for nearly half an hour without drawing breath. With the language barrier, I no doubt got several wrong ends of the stick as I frequently do, but my brain switched off after five minutes of her monologue.
It didn't, however, switch off on that beautiful autumnal day when she rung us to relate what was happening in Manhattan. We switched on the telly to see the unmistakeable images that confirmed I didn't get the wrong end of the stick on that occasion. Winston phoned later that day from his basement apartment not far from Central Park, just to reassure me that he wasn't caught up in Dante's Inferno downtown. What we went through in Belfast together was child's play in comparison. No doubt I urged him to take care and I think I suggested that he should keep a journal of those terrible events. I don't believe he did, which is a shame because an expatriate's view on the events surrounding the outbreak of the current War on Terror would have made fascinating reading.
The terror derives from the customary inevitable resistance to a global imperial power. Like the Goths and Vandals in Roman times or the Thuggees during the British Raj who killed in the name of the goddess Kali. Only this time they're better armed and therefore that much more lethal. Their real enemy is probably the filthy god of Lucre – in the form of the relentless march of global commercialism founded on a never-ending supply of artificial money.
Well, that's my simplistic way of looking at it. Even living within rather than outside such a system you have to take care. On Friday I phoned up SFR on behalf of The Daughter. I wanted to see whether they could help her get re-connected to the internet. I spoke to one of those high-pitched female operatives who sound vaguely hysterical. As usual, she regaled me with a whole raft of questions. Eventually, she put me through to someone in technical support who merely reiterated what our kid's been doing anyway throughout her stay in Paris.
An hour or so later, I received an e-mail thanking me for choosing to add – at a cost of €5 per month – unlimited calls to mobile phones to my standard contract. I phoned back immediately, outraged because I had certainly never agreed such a thing. The last thing I would want to do is to alter the contract, because I know the disruptive ramifications only too well. Even so-called customer service is a minefield of sales targets. Sell, sell, sell. The commercial drive is rampant and relentless. You can't be too careful.
I watched a drama the other night of Tommy Cooper's relationship with the two women in his life: his wife, Dove, and his on-the-road 'assistant', Mary. It featured an extraordinary performance by David Threlfall, who actually made you believe the impossible: that there could be more than one Tommy Cooper in this world. It dramatised his sad alcoholic decline and his death on stage. It served to underline just how difficult it is to take care. My mother once phoned me up to warn me about the dangers of kidney beans, but frankly you could even die laughing like Tommy Cooper in this dangerous world.