Me and Michel Chapter Three

‘There is no remedy for love but to love more.’

Henry David Thoreau

Ours is a swish campsite, and we have a spacious tent. We have two ‘bedrooms’ separated by a bit of canvas, a hob to cook on and a fridge. We have our own little concrete terrace outside, and we’re only a few minutes walk from the beach…

The on-site pool where we’re spending most of our time is pristine. Not big, but newly built. Set on a high point of the campsite, there’s a view of our surroundings beyond the green wire fence and the freshly planted grass, turf squares still visible.

We’re in the southern suburbs of Biarritz, with houses around us, hacienda-style, rust-red roofs, staggered in curving rows and tightly packed. We have ventured into the city centre of Biarritz only once. We had to walk for a long time, got lost, and finally called for a cab. When we got to the centre of town, the designer shops were closed, and there were only a couple of bars open that didn’t serve food. We gorged on crackers and cheese when we got back to the tent.

This campsite attracts mostly French visitors, to judge by the snatches of conversation we hear around us, and there is another clue. For a couple of hours at lunchtime, when the French tend to sit down to eat, we’ve often had the pool to ourselves. Our British lunches, prepared and eaten outside the tent, have been quick and dirty – a fresh baguette with a soft cheese or a tuna salad. I’ve had a doze most afternoons, taking advantage of the quiet, listening to the sound of breezes in the trees or the chatter of passers by though the thin canvas. Now I’m older, I’m good at these power naps. Twenty minutes, and I’m up again, and if our chores are done I might read in the shade, only going back up to the pool as the sun begins to sink.

Our days have drifted lazily by, one melding into another, the ritual of swimming and eating, taking a stroll in the evening, sitting until after dark with wine and pasta and chocolate to follow, and citronella candles on the table. We’ve told stories of other holidays we’ve taken together, just the three of us. When my daughters were young, we went to Cornwall for summer holidays, and sometimes in the winter too, donning wetsuits to plunge into the icy sea on New Year’s Day, staying with friends in rented houses, or camping when it was warmer. We had a VW campervan for a while, and thought ourselves très cool, and more recently we went to what the brochure – printed on recycled paper – called an eco-site. It boasted no pool, no shops, and compost toilets. I don’t doubt we did little harm to the environment by staying in an old bell tent from the nineteen-fifties and eating our food cold because lighting a fire was deemed hazardous at every level, from forest fires to ozone. But when I managed to escape the green paradise and buy myself a much needed bacon sandwich on the seafront, a wasp stung me between my fingers and that tipped me over. I suggested we might go home early and let the planet go hang.

“Do you remember the magic pear, Dad?’ Lilly was spitting wine as she tried to speak and laugh.

‘How could I forget? But I still maintain that I did not snore. I am not a snorer, as you know from the past ten days.’

I’d been rudely awakened by the two of them shaking me in the dead of night to tell me I was snoring, I had indeed asked them to hand me a pear, in the hope that eating something might cure a snore I was certain was only happening in their imaginations. The story stuck.

‘You’d had a lot of wine, Dad. We all had. Don’t blame yourself.’

‘I don’t! The wine was entirely necessary to my survival in that gulag!’

Our last day, and it has come around so fast it’s caught us all off-guard. We spent the morning packing and I had wine with lunch as befits my reputation. Keen to avoid an afternoon hangover, I go straight to the pool to swim it off. My daughters are already there, together with a young couple who have two small children of maybe four or five years old. The parents are encouraging, guarding and consoling, as young parents do.

Drying out on a sun lounger after my swim, I watch the couple fussing and think of us, of me, my ex-wife, and of our two daughters when they were young. Did we cluck around ours in the same way? Maybe we did. I don’t remember worrying, though must have worried. Now, there’s the golden glow of nostalgia and a soft focus, slow motion calm to the scenes I conjure, and I can allow myself to pretend that was indeed the way it was.

I close my eyes again, and listen to my grown up daughters in the pool, laughing and caught up in each other, just as they were back in the day, with the soundtra  ck of young parents and young children – albeit in French – and I’m transported to another time and place. I can see them in the back of the car, sitting side by side, chattering, laughing, impatient to get to the beach, because from the cottage, we could be there in thirty-five minutes, and often, we’d go late in the afternoon, straight after school. If I hadn’t made a picnic of stuff from the fridge, we’d stop at the Spar supermarket for a French stick and fizzy drinks and a roast chicken, hot and greasy in its foil-lined bag, and after dunking ourselves, bravely and briefly, in the cool waveless sea, we’d sit on sandy towels and as the sea salt dried on goose-pimpled skin, we’d tear chunks of chicken from the slimy brown carcass, stuffing the warm meat into ripped lengths of bread, chewing hungrily and watching the sun sink over the Isle of Wight and Hayling Island on the other side of the harbour.

And then, to fix the shivers and warm ourselves up, we’d race between pools of seawater abandoned by the receding tide to find the ‘soft sand’ where each footstep sinks six inches and the effect is like moonwalking, and they’d call to me to save them, and I’d pretend I was caught in the same quicksand and wave my arms around shouting for them to help me…help me!

I feel tiny splashes on my legs and open my eyes to find my grown up daughters beside me, squeezing streams of pool water from their hair and reaching for towels baked bone dry in the sun. Here they are, and here am I. The past and the present collide. It’s both wonderful and disorientating. The time slip is strange. More like time travel.

On these trips together, it has always been part of our catching up process that we bare souls, share trials and tribulations, and set out our stall of hopes for the future. Only this time, our talk felt very different from anything I can remember in the past. There were always tales of disappointments and triumphs, break-ups and new loves, but Megs kicked us off, which in itself was odd.

What she said didn’t surprise me, not at first. Her PhD has meant slogging through thousands of academic papers – tens of thousands – testing her natural diligence to the limit, and lockdowns have forced her to work from home in a flat that must feel very like a bunker. As for her dreams of city life, or living abroad and using her languages – she’s fluent in French and Spanish – she said she tries not to think about those things because they make her sad. Then she was quiet for a while, and so were we, waiting for more.

‘Okay. I hate that all around me, friends are having babies and when I look at them, when I hold them, as I have to all the time and let them burp and throw up on me and smile and say how cute they are, I feel I want one too. But I’m just not sure I want to bring children into this world, and I know everyone says that. Then they go ahead and do it anyway. And maybe I will too. But I’m not sure I can…I have literally no idea what I’m saying.’

This was not who she was. Not the Megs we’d all taken for granted; the one who made the calls, who was there, ready to listen, and hiding her own stuff in the shadows so well that we’d all given up looking.

‘I’m just having a wobble. Only it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the whole world’s wobbling, like something’s broken, completely, you know?’

Lilly pulled her chair over to sit beside her sister and put her arm around her. ‘I get it, angel.’

‘Sorry everyone, I didn’t mean to bring us down. It’s so lovely to be here with you guys. I’ve missed you so much. It’s just sometimes…you lose hope.’

No one spoke for a few moments.

‘The world is indeed very fucked up,’ I said, not knowing what else to say. ‘There’s no denying it. Maybe it always was. I guess all you can is try to reframe things and if possible, generate a bit of hope from somewhere. It’s not easy. What about you Lilly? Your turn.’

She shook her head to mean no, not me, not now.

‘How do you do that, Dad?’ Megs asked me, and she was serious.

‘You mean how can any of us do it? Or how do I do it?’

‘You,’ said Lilly with an edge in her voice, ‘how do you do it?’

I thought of saying by being here with you and that would have had more than a grain of truth. I thought of saying I’ve been so bereft of hope for so long I can’t remember what it feels like anymore. Neither would do.

‘With difficulty, though I’ve got some rules I’ve borrowed if you want to hear them.’

My daughters waited. And I wondered if I should go on.

‘Immanuel Kant, no less, not the most handsome man in the world to judge by his portraits, but an eminent philosopher and a very wise man, said this: ‘Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.’ I’ve got a bicycle and a journey ahead, I’ve got you two, and I’ve got a dream that gives me some hope, crazy as it is. Would you like to hear it?’

The story I tell them is of a man who was at war for ten years, lost at sea for another ten years, desperately trying to find his way home and thwarted at every turn; a mythical hero whose name is Odysseus.

Lilly is suddenly engaged. ‘I remember all this from school. My god, Doctor Sturt! I was the only one in his class. He had this little silver Smurf that he used to clatter over the desk to act out the story. There’s a lot of slaughtering in The Odyssey. You will be careful out there on the road!”

‘There’s quite a bit of slaughtering, that’s true, though that’s not the part that interests me. I’m thinking of Laertes, Odysseus’s father, who has withdrawn from life and now spends his time as a hermit, tending his orchard and his garden. Until one day, his son appears, the son he thought was dead, to reclaim his legacy of fruit trees promised to him when he was a boy.”

“Dad, where are you going with this,” Megs asks. “First slaughtering and now dying. Are your trying to cheer us up? If so, don’t, please.”

“Let me explain. The orchard I’m dreaming about will one day be your legacy, and my home, though not in that order now I come to think about it. I’ll build something, or have it built more likely at my age. And because money will be tight, the house will be humble. Maybe not a house at all, a wooden building, a shed, more a shack, but a lovely shack, I don’t know. I haven’t had a home of my own for twenty years, exactly the same time Odysseus is away from his home, presumed dead. And I’ve been looking after mum for seven years, exactly the same length of time that Odysseus was marooned on Calypso’s island. Not that your grandmother is an immortal goddess you understand. Though she’s nearly ninety and going strong, so I might be mistaken. Are you seeing the parallels here?’

Megs is laughing. Lilly is smiling, but it’s the faraway smile I’ve seen a lot recently. Maybe she’ll come back to us if I keep going.

‘Apparently, my mythic quest is amusing. One thing I don’t recall from my reading of Homer is the laughs. Odysseus does enough weeping to cause a rise in sea level, but very little giggling. Mind you, with Poseidon out to kill you, it’s easy to lose your sense of humour. Okay, may I go on?’

I’m wondering if we’re being too loud for the nearby tents, so I lean towards my daughters and lower my voice to the conspiratorial.

‘You see that there bicycle? You see the name emblazoned on the side? And where am I heading? Home. Just like Odysseus. And you know where I’m going to start looking for that orchard? Right here in France, en route, certainement, but I’ve also been reading about a sweet spot, around the Lot-et-Garonne region, in the foothills of the Massif Central. And you know why it’s so sweet? Because that’s where the fruits of the north meet the fruits of the south, where apples and pears meet peaches and walnuts, where vines grow alongside raspberries and blackberries, and that’s where I want my orchard – our orchard – to be.’

I look at Lilly, hoping my mad visions of the future will melt her a little, but I can see she’s not listening. She’s staring at the stars or something over our heads, and is just not present. Nothing about her invites me to come close. She’s been like this a lot in these ten days together.

Then Megs speaks. ‘But Dad, aren’t you cycling in the wrong direction? I mean the Atlantic coast is miles from the Lot, and you’re heading north when you should be going south, no?’

‘Always with the negative vibes! You’re so literal now you’re a scientist. Reaching home wasn’t exactly plain sailing for Odysseus either, you know. You asked me about hope. That’s my answer. I hope to make a home, amongst fruit trees.’

‘With chickens running around?’ says Megs.

‘And here was I thinking you guys were all grown up! How about a donkey or a goat? Lilliana? What do you say?’

She doesn’t catch my eye as she stands and gives a little wave. She goes to the tent only feet away from where we’re sitting, though she might as well be on another continent. I look at Megs to see if I’ve missed something.

‘None of us want to go home, Dad, that’s all.’

I watch Lilly’s silhouette moving beyond the canvas as she prepares for bed. There was a time I could have fixed things with a sticking plaster, or a joke, or a story, and it would have worked. Not anymore.

My daughters are no longer children, but I’m still their dad. To see them suffer is hard. To know I can’t fix things is harder still.