Dear Mrs. Wynburn, I am sorry that Mark was unable to write his blog last weekend, but he was back home in the UK, celebrating his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. I hope that he will be back in action soon. Yours sincerely, Stella Sampson (Mrs.).
My mum used to write similar notes to my gym teacher at primary school in Belfast, so I wouldn’t have to swim in the outdoor pool. I appreciated it at the time, because the water looked about as uninviting as the mid Atlantic in January. Had she not pandered to my distaste, however, my backbone might have toughened up at an earlier age – and I might even have learnt to swim properly. Our gym teacher, who had the gruff voice of a chain-smoker, employed an interesting education technique: she would lasso you around your middle and kind of tow you along through the icy water. I suppose it was one step up from ‘sink or swim’.
Anyway, now I’m the adult and my parents have reverted to childhood. Both are in their mid 80s and becoming increasingly dependent on their four children. Typically, my sisters bear the brunt of the burden: I live many miles away across the Channel, and my brother – a busy plumber who lives in a flat where the water from the sink drains into an old plastic rubbish bin dubbed ‘The Ganges’ – rarely finds the time to drive the 40 miles or so to my parents’ Southampton home. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
I do my bit whenever I go back home, but it’s little substitute for my sisters’ almost daily drop-in visits. My mum is getting more than a little forgetful these days and it seems that, every time I go home, I have to try to decipher the French national character for her and to pinpoint the main cultural differences between England and France. It does at least make you think about things that you tend to take for granted.
My dad and I can watch Final Score together and moan about what’s gone wrong with Arsenal, the team that he has supported since he was a little boy. With my limited knowledge of computers, I can also make myself useful by trying to fix glitches in his laptop, on which he orders groceries from Asda and talks to me on Skype. This time, for example, I installed about 50 Windows updates that he must have managed to park somewhere in cyberspace.
We gathered on Sunday last to celebrate their Diamond Jubilee. Given that my dad’s culinary repertoire is not wide and cooking for more than four would set his dodgy heart a-fluttering, and given that my mother is one of the worst cooks on earth, God love her, my sisters offered to do the cooking. They also brought with them glasses, plates and cutlery on the basis that home hygiene is suspect. The official line was that my parents wouldn’t have to worry about mess or washing up after we’d gone. They do, in fact, own a dishwasher – it came with the house – but have never used it for anything other than storing rags and shoe-polishing paraphernalia. They prefer to wash up with lukewarm water and ineffectual detergent.
We all clubbed together to buy them the type of present my mother couldn’t file away in her ‘bottom drawer’. (My wife and I gave up trying to come up with practical, thoughtful presents for her after witnessing her converting the winter-weight tights we’d bought her one Christmas into ‘pop-socks’. The French would call it perhaps a ‘re-looking’. It was about as cack-handed as Mickey Rourke’s adventures with Botox.) The younger of my two sisters has an Italian partner and he has been working relentlessly on my father to persuade him that their telly needed updating. So we bought them a 26” Sony FST with stand that would just fit into its allotted space. My dad was very moved, but my mother – with three glasses of pink champagne inside her – was later heard berating the Italian partner, on the grounds that she liked the old telly and found the new one too bright, too loud, too big, too black and too vulgar. As my brother observed, ‘Good to know that the present was a success, then’. By the next day, though, she had tempered her views and the audio-visual re-looking was a fait accompli.
The following evening, I helped the older of my two sisters celebrate 30 years of marriage with her husband. It was a rather more muted affair involving dinner in their local pub, which underlined just how expensive it is now to eat out in the UK. Or the south of England, anyway. I sat opposite my younger sister, who told me all about her new hobby of researching family trees on the internet. My paternal grandfather’s grandfather, it seems, was a detective in Victorian London. I wondered about teaming up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a fabulously successful musical about the man. My sister promised to delve deeper.
After all this socialising, it was a relief to return to the peace and quiet of rural France. Getting back to my sanctuary meant travelling with Ryan (unf)Air. After all my diatribes about Mr. O’Leary’s airline, I found myself meekly checking that my one bag could sit inside one of their intimidating metal ‘guides’. At least the weight of my shame and hypocrisy didn’t tip things over the 10kg allowance. I had remembered not to wear boots for the trip across – so didn’t have to bear the indignity of removing my footwear – but forgot that a jar of aubergine pickle counts as a liquid. With a righteous scowl, I suggested to the customs man that he give it to someone who liked Indian cuisine. His reply that it would be thrown away didn’t improve my mood.
Since the running dogs didn’t confiscate my two packets of crumpets and my one packet of creamed coconut, I gave thanks for small mercies. Later, I gave bigger thanks when we landed safely in Limoges. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which triggered that irritating recorded clarion call, so the airline can crow about its winning percentage of on-time flights. Alas, on queuing up to show our passports, the French officers were nowhere to be seen. We waited patiently, as good Brits do, for 10 minutes before a pair of lugubrious uniformed men showed up for duty. Welcome to France.
My brother and I collect specious strap lines (along the lines of Rotherham – another way of doing things) and it struck me that it’s maybe time for someone to come up with a one-line equivalent of the famous Gallic shrug. How about, for example, France – where we do not give a monkey’s?
Ah, it’s good to be back home again.’