Tuesday, December 13

Birthday on a Lake

ROWAN & I WERE not tired of each other’s company but we were still very excited when, in the evening, two men showed up at the door of the cottage. It was dark out, late, and the evening was cool. For the three weeks we had been in Brittany, it had rained almost constantly. The rain ran down the tiny roads and down the hills and darkened the fields around us that stretched as far as we could see.
Even though it was his cottage he knocked on the door. I opened it. The smell of our dinner still lingered. We had just cleared up afterwards and were drinking in the living room. We had never met before. Behind him was his son and in the light cast from the kitchen was their car with its doors open, luggage leaking out, and two canoes on a rack up top. Immediately the cottage was filled with noise and it swam into my organs and replenished them. When all their bags were in and by the dinner table I took them into the living room where a film was playing and drinks were being drunk. There was more than enough booze to go around. Rowan and I made it our business every day to buy two crates of beer, three bottles of wine and at least one bottle of cheap blended whiskey. They each took a beer and we all sat on the sofas. Could they see the stain where I had spilt red wine? No, it was invisible now, I had made sure of that. There was no way they could see it.
They were my sort of people: witty and full of humour. When they entered a room, they entered it like the English workingman should, as if he built it himself out of brick and concrete. The four of us talked and the wind tapped lightly against the windowpanes. They were tired from driving. I went and got them more beer.
I informed them, in my slyly excited way, that tomorrow was my birthday. We all laughed a lot and continued to drink and pay sparse attention to the film that was playing. It served for little more than another light source. There were other bulbs and a host of candles scattered about.
Going for a cigarette, I stared tirelessly at the night sky, the night sky of the French countryside, which, unlike the English, did not leak easily the streetlight of towns. No, the night sky in those Brittany valleys was so pure one could drink it from the bedside table. Nothing gave light to nothing and there was only an abyss of black and distant stars revolving distantly. You could not see your hand before your face when the moon was gone, but the stars. . . the stars shone so feebly after light-years that you were gobsmacked and able to run your hands along the Milky Way.
When it crossed midnight Rowan raised his glass and wished me a happy birthday. He was very punctual. Our two guests did the same.
“Happy birthday, mate!” and they slammed their bottle into mine. I had never met them before but, for once, felt the camaraderie of humanity, the gust of brotherhood, this inexplicable joy of fellowship. I was happy.
Our guests went to bed. They slept where they fell as Rowan and I had done for three weeks. The son fainted behind the sofa and the owner—and old friend of my father’s—petered out in front of me. They snored the good snore.
I awoke to the sound of a frying pan.
The sofa that I had spent so many nights on felt softer that morning. The frying pan noises were a welcome wake-up call. I listened in. Bacon. Sausage. The smells drifted in to the living room. Our guests were not where they had fallen.
Sunlight, for the first time in weeks, streamed warmly through the kitchen windows. The owner of the cottage, our guest, Steve, was cooking a fry-up.
“Good morning, mate. Happy birthday!”
His scouse accent made me happy. I liked him very much. I could understand what my father saw in him.
I went outside and stood on the rough grass between the farm-huts. The sun was shining brightly. It was slowly drying out the land that had been rained upon for three solid weeks. Still I could hear the frying pan. His son was out there smoking, too. We spoke and he wished me happy birthday. I liked him. There was the undercurrent of sadness that is present in all and through him I could see it and could know that we were not so different. I cannot tell you how happy I was. My mother called me and wished me happy birthday as well. I told her what was going on and about the frying pan and about our new guests. She told me to have a lovely day.
“Go wake Rowan. Breakfast is almost ready! I’ve made us a good fry-up.”
Breakfast was laid out on a table on the rough grass between the farm-huts. Out there it smelled delicious. Bacon, sausage, fried bread, tomato, beans and a fried egg. I gobbled it down. I had never tasted anything so good. We sat there in the sun and rested our bellies. I got us all a beer. The beer was a fine send-off. I rolled a cigarette and when I was smoking it I felt the sun beating down on my stomach.
“Let’s get rid of all these bottles!” said Steve, pointing to the empty beer, wine and whiskey bottles that Rowan and I had filled a garage with. I rested my cigarette on the edge of the table and me, Steve, and his son, Gary, piled into the car and set off for a nearby village.
Because we never sorted it out, neither Rowan or I had a car to drive in France. We were bound to how far we could walk. Everything was so spread out it took a long time to walk anywhere and by the time you got anywhere you were soaked through. Being in a car again felt unusual. I wound down the window and poked my head out. We traced back the route that I had walked three weeks previous. The roads did not seem so overbearing this time. The car made light work of the endless hills. Where I had sweated and paused for a smoke, the car just drifted past.
“I saw some farmer wheeling about a dead pig down this lane!” I told them. “Fucking French!” said Steve and we all laughed.
The supermarket was at the back of a big square carpark
that was far too big for the supermarket. It was as if someone had had bigger dreams for what would happen there. We dropped all the bottles, by colour, into the plastic banks and then went shopping. We bought meat & potatoes & beer & coal & bread.
My cigarette had burned a black line down the table. When we got back I had expected Rowan to have cleared-up but he was fast-asleep.
Once everything was cleared away Steve told us about a lake—
“We go there every year.”
“Is it big?”
“It’s big enough!”
Feeling very safe in his company I would follow this man anywhere. Let us get into his car, attach the canoes to the roof and ride off into the hills to find this lake he told us about. I am sure it is a mammoth lake, a lake of indeterminable blue and uncountable fish.
The lake drew together in the middle like a lady’s waist. Over the middle was a stone bridge and the car crossed the bridge without a problem. We parked in the middle of the forest and took the canoes down from the top of the car. The shore of the lake ripped back & forth and was muddy. We clambered down there awkwardly with the canoes rested upon our shoulders and set them in the water. I wanted to see how it was done: our guests set out first, their paddles swishing in the water. Rowan and I watched from the shore. The water was dark and the light from the valley lay upon it. Steadily the sound of their paddles disappeared, and then they vanished underneath the bridge to the other part of the lake. We stood there, motionless. I thought of stripping down and swimming across to the other side. It could be done but the water would be very cold.
Finally the two of them came back under the bridge and into our half of the lake. From the shore I watched them drift closer, their paddles flirting with the water.
They banked and I got in.
The canoe shook under my weight. I thought about falling in. The cold would knock me out. It would be difficult to tread water but I would make it, my limbs freezing up one by one, even in the middle of summer; the rain had made the lakes cold. In the boat my most fragile of movements made the whole thing shake. I rowed out a dozen yards or so before I let the swell of the lake—individual and entitled—motion me along. Rowan was not far from me and I tried to rustle him into a race. The race turned into a series of corrective moves to get us on the right course. The underside of the stone bridge was dappled in the bubbled light of water, it gurgled on the sides of the canoe. The sounds around us were of children playing & the odd car & trees shifting autonomously in the breezes. I could not think—my bum in a wooden stirrup—of anywhere I would rather be. Even the arms of the girl who steered me away from employment & my former life seemed a lesser option at that moment with the waves & the lapping.
The canoes were rowed to the other side of the lake and Steve & Gary met us over there in the car. A small semicircle of sand had dried out in the sunshine. There was a mother and her two children. She divided her time between reading and watching them playing in the water.
A crate of beers was stuck in the sand. We all opened one each, lay back and rested ourselves on elbows. The sun was very strong now. The French children played noisily.
Steve said to his son—“Gary, go bottle those kids.”
We all chuckled.
Time passed. Occasionally one of us would get up and row to the other side of the lake. Trees overhung the water there. It was in shade and the leaves were very green. On our return Steve would run out into the water and make as if he were going to flip the boat. When Steve rowed out his son did the same, only he tipped the boat and Steve fell in. The French children watched us as we rolled around with laughter.
When the crate of beer was finished, we put the canoes on the roof and went back through the hills to the cottage.
Dinner was eaten outside again. A fine meal with everyone chipping in. Rowan & I had missed good, varied food and it went down a treat. There was beer & wine & cheese afterwards. Then Steve came out of the house with a bottle of champagne.
“For your birthday, mate. I picked it up at the store earlier when you weren’t looking.”
It made me very happy: a stranger lending me his cottage and buying me a bottle of champagne! It was opened and we shared it around. We sat there, telling stories and drinking the good champagne and laughing.
“Oh, here comes Clogs!”
Clogs was the name Steve had given to the farmer next door. He was over eighty, carried a scythe with him everywhere he went, and could be heard far away by the sound of his clogs. He said hello to us and Steve spoke to him with hand gestures and smiles. Then Clogs had some champagne, too, and he toasted me. We were all just five gentlemen enjoying the summer and fine wine.
A lady—Clogs’ daughter-in-law—showed up and her English was slightly better. We talked some more and Steve offered her some champagne. She studied the label and turned her nose up.
“I am from Champagne,” she told us. She didn’t drink any.
When they left we all laughed at her and how she did not rate the champagne Steve had bought.
“Fucking French,” Steve laughed. Once the champagne was gone we started back on the beers. The sun had drooped below the level of the farmhouses. It only cast yellow light down the roads. The soil was still black from all the rain but the grass that grew from it was deep green. We still had half-a-fridgeful of beers.

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