I’ve swapped my carer’s tray in Devon for a barrow and spade halfway up a cliff in the south of France. Right next door to the modernised, carpeted cave in which we live is a concealed cavern, home for hundreds of years to troglodytes (the ceiling is black with soot from their fires) and their domestic animals. The floor is feet-deep in accumulated manure and debris that has turned over the years to a fine black dust. I’ve dug down to rock and now I’m working forward towards the door with three electric fans at my back directing the rising dust out of the cavern entrance in a stream of smoke.
It’s a filthy business. I spade the black dust into a wheelbarrow, then tip it over the cliff. Occasionally my spade turns up edible snail shells or the delicate skull of a small bird or a knuckle bone that once belonged, I imagine, to an etiolated cow. Once I’ve cleaned out the cavern, I plan to put in a wooden floor, plaster the walls with lime and turn the place into a traditional laser-lit disco and gin bar. Sometimes, coated in dust, I jig about in my hole and throw some shapes to try and get a flavour of the opening night. I’ll be playing a lot of northern soul and French electro-swing. The acoustics will be amazing. You’re all welcome.
I enjoy digging and barrowing. Give me a pick and shovel and a wheelbarrow and say, ‘Right, Clarke, I want a trench from here to here this wide and this deep and I want the spoil put over there,’ and if the digging is relatively easy and it isn’t pelting with rain I’ll enjoy doing it for approximately the first four hours. One reason I like digging is that I can think most clearly when I’m doing something repetitive and fairly energetic out of doors. And with digging a trench you can neatly square off your thoughts with the edge of a spade as you square off the sides and bottom of the trench. Not that my thoughts amount to much. Lately I am seriously convinced, for example, that at 62 years of age the level of my understanding of myself and the world has reached that already comfortably attained by my contemporaries around the time that we were doing our O-levels.
The morning after my return to this honeycombed cliff, here I was, back in my dusty trench with the fans blowing. As I dug, I had a mental review of the year so far. The ten weeks of a sober, Trappist existence, cooking, carrying trays, and helping my mother on and off with her shoes and socks during the day, and goggling at disgraced, between-the-wars French realist novelists such as Paul Morand, Marcel Jouhandeau and Henri de Montherlant in bed at night. No wonder I was unhinged come the end. Then, two days ago, the taxi to the country station, the impulse buy of a three-course silver-service lunch on the train to Paddington, followed by a tackle-out northern Irish booze-up to celebrate the launch of Jenny McCartney’s startlingly excellent thriller The Ghost Factory.
And yesterday: Catriona and I, two forlorn figures, slumped at a bus stop next to Putney Common waiting for the number 170 to Clapham Junction, from where we would catch the Gatwick Express, then our easyJet flight to Nice. We didn’t have long to wait. The bus was nearly full. I sat without a qualm in the front seat reserved for the disabled; Catriona found a seat somewhere in the rear. We’d gone three stops when I noticed that Catriona was doing an extravagant dance routine from one end of the bus to the other and flinging her arms about. Apparently we’d taken our suitcases on board but left her handbag at the bus stop.
The handbag contained her passport, purse, only car key and yes, her phone. We got off the bus. ‘What am I going to do?’ she said, white-lipped and in a state of moral and physical collapse. I took the cases and her coat and she ran ahead the half-mile back along the side of Clapham Common. Small and slender, knock-kneed, head down, hair flying, she ran endearingly, like a child.
The difference between a difficult, earthbound next few days and a gin-and-tonic in the clouds, then Nice aeroport bathed in evening sunshine hung in the balance. The bag was there still. A nice middle-aged man was wearing it like a nose bag to peer inside it. On reaching him, Catriona had kissed him passionately, she told me. ‘Is that all?’ I said.