This time last year the postman delivered a picture postcard depicting a village square in Provence. The photograph on the front of that postcard was contemporary, but the colours were digitally manipulated to invest the image with a nostalgic, hand-tinted, vintage air. The square was eerily deserted. No customers were seated at the tables under the gay sunshades set out under the trees. Time stood still.
I’d never been there. I hadn’t even heard of the place. And yet the square and its forsaken tables seemed oddly familiar. The photograph transmitted a nostalgic sweetness which was almost sinister. An invitation was implied. ‘Come!’ the picture seemed to be saying. ‘Life! You belong!’
What does one do with a picture postcard that speaks to the imagination as subtly as this? I mounted it. The mount I then put in an ash frame, which I hung above the lavatory exactly at eye level. For a year, each time I stood at the bowl, my mind’s eye contemplated those deserted tables beneath those festive umbrellas. The invitation was patiently insistent. The empty tables and umbrellas, the shops, the fountain, the trees: they were waiting, promising, daring.
Three weeks ago, I went there. I stepped through the magic portal and into the picture. I was there five days and nights and came to know those tables. I lounged and dined and drank and stared and talked and smoked and laughed and laughed and sang and kissed and touched and fondled at several of those café tables. And during the five days, the promise implied by the postcard, perfect worldly happiness, was duly delivered. The place, it turned out, unsurprisingly, was an amalgam of Never Never Land, the Land of Lost Content and the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Every person I met there seemed larger than life. None could believe their luck. Many had burnt their bridges. Only a few were English. I had such a sunny, magical, alive time there, I came home wondering if I hadn’t been given a gift; a gently given, perfectly tailored gift that everyone who goes there gets as a thank you for simply showing up.
And then, foolishly, I came back. I stepped back through the enchanted portal, back to this spiky, British reality, and found, among other certainties blown to smithereens, that my boy and his partner of five years had parted in acrimony, and the shit was flying. Their relationship, once upon a time of a confident, tensile strength, had fallen as flat as a house of cards. Between them they have five children. My boy’s two are the younger ones: aged two and three and a half respectively. And I found that the elder boy, Oscar, the brightest light of his grandad’s life, had already changed from a happy, confident, reckless lad, to a sad, silent little boy.
This is so sad. I had Oscar to myself for a day and a night last week. I found him sitting forlornly on the doorstep. The first thing we did together was to walk to the village shop. He walked slowly, head bowed. Coming slowly towards us was an old man leaning heavily on a stick. As our paths crossed, the old man (a stranger to us) stopped, looked Oscar up and down, and said, ‘My goodness me, what a sad looking little boy!’
For the next 24 hours I did everything I could to lighten his load. I gave a virtuoso performance of the insanely happy grandad who is also a best friend. We bought a football at the shop and belted it around the garden with our shirts off till it got dark. We love to play football with our shirts off. And then we looked under stones with a torch to see if the ants had left him another shiny new pound coin, which they do sometimes, and they had! And then we read the most thrilling story imaginable about a pair of young ducklings who are nearly trampled to death by adult ducks in a bread riot. And at random moments during this non-stop programme of events I kissed and cuddled him half to death.
At night we slept in the same bed and in the morning the first thing we saw was the shy smile on each another’s face. He wanted a poo, he said. When Oscar has a poo, he likes me to stand over him like a foreman and make an inspection afterwards, complimenting him on the shape and amount and buoyancy of the result. So I stood over him, and while he strained, I contemplated my framed photograph of the village square, now deserted and enigmatic again, and wondered if I should go back. Maybe not, I thought. For as everybody knows, there is a universal law concerning magic portals that says that smitten souls foolish enough to step through a second time are usually made to pay heavily for their vulgarity.
‘Finished?’ I said.