Last night all six of us – husband, wife, daughter, dog and two kittens – sat out on the back balcony staring at the heavens. August is the month in which you can catch a shooting star or two, if you've got time on your hands and your wits about you.
We stationed ourselves out there just as day was turning to night, right at the end of another hot day. For once, there was a bit more time than usual. The welcome weekend deluge meant that the watering wasn't quite so extensive. Already the meadows of the plain below look a tad greener. It's probably due to a vigorous growth of weeds, but the landscape no longer resembles the Serengeti like it did, say, two weeks ago.
Two weeks in another town... It's already almost that long ago that I took the Megabus to London to spend some time with my octogenarian father in his new apartment. The skies were largely overcast in Romsey, Hants and the temperature was neutral, so it was a blissful change to wear another layer over my T-shirts. The week away fortified my system and prepared me for more of the same on my return.
In this part of France, the night sky is almost as clear as it is anywhere in the land – except perhaps the Pyrenees, where they've positioned one of the most powerful telescopes known to astronomers (or so I believe). There is little or no light pollution here and when you're lying flat as we were and staring heavenwards, it's easy to imagine that you're in some space pod, off to explore new galaxies and to boldly go where no man – or woman, or dog, or kitten – has gone before...
The feeling of being sucked up into an intergalactic vortex was intensified by the remarkably appropriate music chosen for the voyage of the Star Ship Samponz by The Daughter: Volume 3 of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. And my God, those female Balkan voices are indeed mysterious and elemental and ethereal. Everything in fact that a star-child could wish for.
All this astral travelling got us onto the subject of stars and galaxy. Could I explain the difference between a star and a planet? Not convincingly. Could I explain what a galaxy was? Well, kind of... Could I explain the difference between a meteorite and a shooting star? No, but I knew a man who could. In the absence of my polymathematical friend, Winston, I referred my fellow spectators to the Bill Bryson book that I brought back to France with me, just one of many trophies from my safari around the numerous charity shops of Romsey, Hants. A Short History of Nearly Everything would surely have all the answers, explained what's more in layman's terms of less than seven syllables. Good old Bill Bryson.
Actually, I found that particular book at the Saturday fête organised by the care home where my mother, RIP, passed her final year. Ten pence I think they asked for it. I also found one of those racing-green-coloured coffee cups and saucers for a pound to replace the cup that The Daughter smashed recently. No sooner had I got it back home unscathed than she managed to smash the saucer. Good old Supaglue.
Anyway, it's hopefully just a passing phase. My father had just come round to the idea that we couldn't go that afternoon because of the absence of taxis in Romsey, Hants – there was some big bash going on in the New Forest, which had claimed all available transport for hire – when my brother turned up on the off-chance, as he does every blue moon. He took us there and we watched our old dad in his element, glad-handing the nursing staff and dispensing his customary charm and bonhomie. We call him Mr. Wonderful. Me, I watched a demonstration of canine tricks, as a number of besotted owners put their pooches through their paces. My brother found it all a bit distasteful, but then he's not a dog owner.
We were out there on the balcony, I suppose, for less than an hour and in that time we counted between us seven shooting stars. Blink and they're gone. The tally surpassed our first attempt one memorably pellucid August night way back when we lived among the hill people. The Daughter was just a tot then and Alfred Lord Sampson had not yet come to protect us from hot-air balloons. That night the stars put on a show for free, but I don't remember counting more than five falling stars. The old lady across the road was no doubt peering at us from behind half-closed shutters and wondering what those odd anglais were up to now.
We are not overlooked now, which is a blessing. Nevertheless, the campers from Paris are out in force just down below. Our keen-eared daughter caught the sound of some awful French version of '(Reach Out), I'll BeThere', which offended her notion of good taste and no doubt interfered with the purity of the Balkan voices. She suggested turning ours up, but I was loathe to get into some amplified strife with the neighbours, particularly as they're only temporary.
Our discerning daughter came with us on Saturday night to see the first music concert of this summer. The Mauritanian singer-songwriter, Daby Touré, who has recorded on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, was appearing – incongruously – at a restaurant a mere 15 minutes from here. Beside the river Dordogne and beneath the floodlit village of Montvalent, which looked like a painted backdrop for a Victorian melodrama. As usual, the publicity was last minute and we didn't hear about it till a thoughtful friend sent me a photo of the poster she took on her phone.
It was free to diners and a mere €3,50 to folk like us who came for the music alone. A major artist for a price like that; it didn't make any sense. But he was playing with a personal friend, who played a violin-shaped bass guitar not unlike Paul McCartney's, so I guess he was doing it as a personal favour. The audience was a right motley crew that included one of the women on the cash desks at Intermarché whose name, I now know, is Valérie. But Daby played his heart out until the end, when the heavens opened and a blocked gutter created a puddle on the floor that crept steadily nearer to his equipment.
Before we left, the girls persuaded me to go up and thank him. Which I did. Daby beamed and so did I. His star is probably still rising rather than falling, but one forgets that even people in the public eye can find positive feedback as pleasant to receive as it is to give. We drove home very slowly, partly because of the strength of the downpour and partly to avoid all the frogs.
My sister and her extended family arrive this weekend. There are no concerts scheduled, but the four small boys are going to love the animals and we adults might find some more quiet time to sit out again on the balcony and gape at the firmament. It's recommended.