They’re out to get me. Wherever I go these days outside the UK I am not only followed but somehow expected (and not in a good way). I arrive to find that everything is about to close because it’s suddenly a Covid-19 hot spot. My arrival simply confirms the new restrictions like an inspired hunch becomes a result. I arrived in Brussels on the day that a second wave of restrictions came into force (my arrival last March had caused the first). I passed through Paris as the shops were boarding up for the city-wide confinement, with fall-of-Hanoi style traffic jams, repeated when I came back. I arrived in the south west of France just in time to hear President Macron announce that the Toulouse region must shut down. I was in Mansonville for a couple of days before they discovered me and placed the whole of the Tarn-et-Garonne into a dusk to dawn curfew. My plan to return via Basel was cancelled in case they knew that I might be coming, and I didn’t want to cause or suffer in a Swiss lockdown, known in the 1970s as a weekend. It’s like walking repeatedly into restaurants and bars as they close. I have suffered both scenarios a lot recently, having spent most of October outside the UK. I was in Brussels for a few days, seeing sister-in-law Julia briefly before she left to take the Eurostar to London. I also managed to finish a long and difficult writing commission; had an unsuccessful interview online for a job; and managed to buy prescription medicine for my sky-high blood pressure after leaving my pills in the UK.
While trying to be discrete, I also caught up, where possible, with Brussels friends. These included Brian and his dogs, with whom I walked around the top end of the Foret de Soignes late on a Friday afternoon. He easily won the award of the best news since we last met last Christmas by telling me that he had become a landowner with fishing rights in the west of Ireland. His two golden labradors allowed us to stop and have a distanced vin chaud and then a vin froid together in a muddy sylvan clearing as we swapped all the strangely similar family news that we had been saving up for months. His flow was interrupted by a call from his daughter wanting to know why he was out without a family licence. I also had a relaxing drink and dinner with Belgian friends Sophie, Alexis, Anne and two of their friends in a most pleasant restaurant in Villanelle, about 30 kilometres from the city. The next day I met with my friend Astrid in Brussels. We had a modest but enjoyable and constructive picnic lunch before I packed the car then drove sedately to the deep south west of France, where I arrived after ten hours safe in Mansonville, newly tidy – and about to be locked down. I contented myself with the realisation that the English word ‘curfew’ derives directly from a mispronunciation from the French word couvre-feu.
I left the motorway for the last 50 kilometres of the numinous drive, plunging and bouncing like a lifeboat into the real lives of the villages and towns of Quercy, the Lot, the Tarn, the Gers, and the Garonne. It was like a film reel of highlights from our family holidays since the late 1990s. I kept having flashbacks of treasured moments, extraordinary visits, walks, sights, views, meals we have had in and around remote walled villages, extraordinary personalities, local markets with rich palettes of colours, sights, smells and sounds to enthral us, extreme weather events, moments and whole days of pure wonder and genuine discovery. There were also many incidents of extreme stress and severe pressure. Our Mansonville experience has, I am glad to say, entranced others as well as ourselves along the years. It has always been a house of generosity, company, expanse and plenty, needing lots of people and loads of work.
I found it in need of company but bearing up in the circumstances and looking far more solid and stable than it has for years. The recent comprehensive redecoration has given the house a less ancient and more modern character of permanence. The garden had become wild but there were signs of febrile reparation in the swimming pool. My stay of two weeks occasionally bordered on the absurd as I was unable to get the internet set up quickly and had to resort to increasingly desperate measures to stay online for the work that I still had to do. I could be found at one stage parking my car next to an inexplicably closed telephone shop in a Valence d’Agen back street with the rain pattering down just in order to use the edge of its internet network, contemplating doing a live online presentation to UK civil servants an hour hence from behind my steering wheel. (I didn’t – I found somewhere else at the last gasp). Eventually, after the mairie sorted out the village fibre, Jocelyne of the St Saturnin restaurant kindly let me work at one of her tables happily but anti-socially connected to the network for parts of every day. On another occasion I started out to see my friend Mike in Aigues Vives, wondering why I had not seen him more often in past years as it was only a two hour drive, then realising more than an hour later that I was heading for the wrong Aigues Vives (of no less than five in France) and that getting to the right one would take another four hours. I turned round and carefully drove back, choking back a burning sense of idiocy as the sunset mocked me gloriously in a celestial conflagration of crimson cheeks and good intentions.
I did do some things right. I arranged for an estate agent to look around La Hune and make an estimate of its potential selling price. I bought a winter cover and security for the swimming pool, tidied up the house, checked the insulation in the loft, moved some furniture around, and spent long hours doing some contract writing work. I got the house internet up and running on the day I left. I arranged for the previous tenant’s campervan, maliciously left in the garden without the papers necessary to get it towed away legally, to be towed away and filleted for parts. I scratched our nice new car trying to park in Valence, forgetting about the half-metre high stone bollards scattered around the centre of the town. I managed to bring the last bag of pungent garlic from the region back to the UK. I had asked for tresses but accepted loose gousses – ails éclatés. In the village I chanced on Jacques, newly installed in his parents house with his son Gerard, and the eternal Vivou, a rounder and madder version of Johnny Winter. They were hanging out by the war memorial, looking like elderly hoodlums. I also spent some time with the mayor and his wife, gathering details of how to get the post-Brexit carte de séjour for next year. I ate well, dining one evening on glorious fat cepes with Jacques and another with the family of Alphonse, a local builder who has been helping us with the house. He served up salmon steaks, cuisses de canard, and more cepes (he showed me one he had found that morning, weighing over a kilogram). The weather ranged from high winds, pouring rain, and icy mornings dusted with hoar frost, to balmy autumnal heat, and flickering canicular road mirages midsummer-style.
I drove back to central Brussels, arriving late on an excessively stormy evening where I set off my sister-in-law’s house alarm, waking half the street, before getting in on the second try. I spent a day of mostly uninterrupted work then returned through the channel tunnel (the equivalent of Alice’s looking glass). Once again, my passenger arrival form requirement, apparently essential to the UK test and trace system, was never asked for, let alone mentioned, as I rolled off the train. I started another quatorzaine in Burgess Hill which merged seamlessly into the late Autumn lockdown – late because I’ve been here a week already..
Minding how I go,