Whether it had more to do with the attritional effect of constant bad news – the fall-out from the Brexit stupidity; another horrific terrorist attack in France; the relentless slaughter of the world's remaining wildlife; renewed hostilities in Sudan und so weiter – I don't know, but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness the day after the party.
It was a nice party, too. All three of us had been dreading it slightly in the car on the journey up and over the hills to our first French stamping ground. When we arrived at the little station building that was converted into our old commune’s Salle de Fêtes, we were a little reluctant to get out of the car. It was an old friend’s 60th birthday party and we hadn’t seen her and our mutual friends for over a decade. The last time my wife and daughter set foot in the building, they had been pointedly snubbed by the mayor and his entourage. We think it was because someone had worked out that we were the ones who crossed off one of his cronies from our supposedly secret ballot papers.
The match-chewing mayor is still the mayor of the commune and our closest mutual friend is still one of his elected élus. We had been happy to give her our vote and she it was who secured the salle as venue for our friend’s birthday party. She also revealed that the family from hell (who had provoked our electoral displeasure) had moved out of our old village and into the neighbouring commune, no doubt to make other people’s lives miserable. Their son apparently is working his way into politics on the far right.
Everyone we encountered seemed so much older or almost unrecognisably grown-up. The first friendly face we encountered was the birthday girl’s youngest daughter, who used to be Our Kid’s best friend in those far-off days of école maternelle and primaire. The long curly hair I remembered had been shorn. She looked rather chic in her short Jean Seberg gamine style, but I couldn’t help hearing the Brian Wilson song inside my head. Where did your long hair go…?
We had arrived early with the idea of being able to talk to our hostess before all the guests piled in. She looked if anything a little younger and a little happier despite the dispersal of her girls and the break-up of her marriage. We were rather surprised to find her ex there, too, all smiles as usual and busy playing boules with the early-birds. Hopefully, we wished, the breach was in the process of healing.
In fact, our friend kept disappearing – to check on details for the party and a little later to go and change – and we ended up chatting to a couple from the Creuse, who had come to visit our house during construction and gone away and built themselves a straw bale house of their own in the middle of nowhere. We compared satisfaction ratings and happiness evaluations.
French parties continue to unnerve me, partly because of my continual lack of comprehension. I’m just about all right one-to-one or as one of a foursome, say, but anything more than that and I start to drift away and get lost in the general babble. I don’t stray far from my wife or daughter in case I should need their help with a translation or two. Hanging back on the edge of one particular group, I kind of half-understood an anecdote about our daughter making presents to give to fellow children at the party held in our honour the evening before our departure for pastures new. Why, I wondered, would she make a fly for one particular kid? It was only much later that I worked out that the woman had said mouchoir rather than mouche. A handkerchief made more sense than a commemorative fly.
In such circumstances, it can be a lot easier to forego stilted small-talk for some helpful task like washing up or putting food on the table. I hadn’t doubted for one moment that there would be lots of food to take from the kitchen to the table in the party room. The doubt, though, is whether there will be enough of it for vegetarians. Promising looking tarts and savoury cakes are often laced with bacon bits. I suggested to The Daughter that she label our culinary contribution as a tarte végétarienne. That would be sure to put people off and leave sufficient for us.
Quite the contrary. At least four guests asked my wife for the recipe. They might have been queuing up all evening for instructions had not the musicians started their concert. The last time I had seen our hostess’ elder daughter torment her violin had been many years before when she was little more than an earnest tot. It was clear that the years of higher musical education have left their mark. She performed as part of a trio of friends from Poitiers, where she now lives, and they made genuinely beautiful music together.
We all watched with undivided attention, seated at the U-shaped table arrangement that enclosed their temporary stage. It didn’t and couldn’t last too long, because it was already 10 o’clock and the bouffe simply had to begin. I never fail to marvel at the French capacity for food. Foolishly, I had thought that the table full of tarts and nibbles that I had helped to stock would have sufficed. But no. That was just an entrée. There would be a plat principal, a cheese platter and dessert – to be finished no doubt by coffee. Somewhere along the way, there would be champagne to sup, presents to offer and even a little dancing. All of which added up to an exodus in the wee small hours of the morning.
We sat opposite another old friend of our daughter’s from her primary years. Physically, she was not that much taller than she was back then, but in every other way she’d grown astonishingly: smiley, witty, bubbly and charismatic, she had blossomed into a pocket bombshell. If she’d been around in the 1940s, she would be a Forces’ Favourite whose face would have been painted on the sides of tanks and bombers. Now an aesthetician and masseuse, she has built up a clientele within Tulle’s alternative bohemian circle. Her repartee kept us entertained till the moment I whispered to my wife that we really had to leave.
With a couple of dogs to liberate back home, we had a good opportunity to offer our premature excuses. Having slaved away for her guests, the birthday girl was now sitting opposite her two aged parents, which somehow didn’t seem quite right. It was after 11 o’clock by now, so surely it was time to let her hair down. Maybe later – just before she went off to prepare the early-morning French onion soup for stragglers.
It’s about an hour’s drive back home, yet it feels like a journey from one country to another. There was plenty to talk about in the car and we agreed that it hadn’t been the ordeal that we had feared. A swell party indeed.
So why so sad? It wasn’t as if anyone interrogated us on Brexit or made us feel in the slightest bit unwelcome. Maybe it’s not to do with all that bad news from the outside world. Maybe it’s more like waking up after a long, long sleep full of engrossing dreams to look at yourself in the mirror and register the shock of physiological change. So much time has passed and you weren’t even aware of it until this confrontation with the truth. Maybe it’s because it underlines just how firmly a chapter of your life has been closed. A chapter when you were younger and more robust and your child was but a little girl – who was turned into an adult while you were distracted with all the other business of life.