Low life

My happiness has given way to a paralysing melancholy

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

From our hypothetical drone-mounted camera let us look down into a secluded valley in the same series of valleys as Brad and Angelina’s celebrated Provençal vineyard. Cultivated olives and vines on ancient terraces descend to an English lawn encompassing a pretty stone cottage, formerly a beekeeper’s. The lawn is wide and green and must take an enormous and perhaps illegal amount of water to keep it alive through the scorching summer. Moreover, the smallish blades of grass and the mosses suggest an English species of lawn. There has been no compromising here with a broader-leafed, hardier, uglier, tropical variety. To see an English lawn here, in this harsh climate, coterminous with bushy vines and silver-grey olive trees, is an extraordinary sight.

Zooming our drone camera on the pantiled roof and the rough, sun-baked stone walls, we can see that the front of the cottage is shaded by a bamboo cane awning. Beneath the awning is a long glass-topped table. And seated at the table in the sunshine is a bald, shirtless old man. When he first saw the English lawn he felt faint with nostalgia.

Now he sits very still. If he moves at all it is with the economy of effort of the invalid or depressive. Without the early warning system of his formerly luxurious barnet, his bald head is decorated with wounds where he has frequently bashed it. From his propped iPad comes the tiny sound of a football chant. The away team supporters, as it happens. His team. He listens anxiously to the commentary.

The day is bright, still, cloudless; now hot after a chilly start. This is the tenth day in a row that the weather has been still, bright and cloudless. The marvellous lawn glistens with what looks like a heavy dew, but is more prosaically the result of an overnight soaking by sprinklers fed by underground pipes. Territorial birdsong fills the valley and now and again the echoing gunshot of some local sportsman picking off a migrant.

Baldy is house-sitting. The lady owner lived alone here long after her husband died, then back in the spring she too died. The house and contents, a dog and two cats, have passed to her niece in England. A succession of house-sitters have come and gone and Baldy is filling a week-long gap before the niece finally takes possession. He thought he might enjoy being isolated for an autumnal week deep in the countryside, in a spacious cottage where he might not bump his head as often. But the sadness about the house has got to him. It has invaded even his dreams. Before he came here he was possessed by an almost manic happiness. Inspirited by the house’s melancholy atmosphere, he has given way to paralysing despair.

The dog, Monty, is a Dutch barge dog or Keeshond, a breed the bald man hasn’t encountered before. It’s a sort of fluffy Spitz. The idiotically cheerful monkey face, contrasted with the melancholy atmosphere, is like something out of a horror film. What little intellect there is is devoted entirely to cajoling titbits from humans. The two cats, called Black Cat and Not Black Cat, adore the dog but hate one another and in daylight hours conduct their lives separately, independently and secretively.

Their owner had lived here for 30 years. When young she was a beautiful woman, perhaps even a renowned beauty. Paintings, portraits and photographs on the cottage walls show her with few or no clothes on and posing photogenically and provocatively, or what was thought to be provocatively in her heyday, the 1960s. Hundreds of well-thumbed paperbacks from the same era — John Masters, Peter Ustinov, Barbara Pym, E.M. Delafield, Dirk Bogarde, Lawrence Durrell, Georgette Heyer — testify that she read. Her musical tastes were Chris Barber, Petula Clark and Lena Horne. Thirty years in her pretty stone house, on an English lawn, with a gardener and pool man, fabulous local rosé and 300 days of sunshine a year. Paradise — of a sort. Now she’s gone.

Although he never knew her, the bald man’s shaving brush stands beside her toiletries on the bathroom shelf. She passed from consciousness of the world on these marble tiles. Outside, he sits where she sat, under the bamboo awning, under the same sun, reading Barbara Pym and listening to Chris Barber. In her kitchen he clatters around with her pots and pans and eats with her cutlery. Coming and going, he can’t help looking and admiring the image of her gorgeous pouting face hanging in the hall. The blackbird hops across the lawn. The cats imperiously demand entrance and exit according to the dictates of their mysterious agendas. Her jackanapes dog looks pleadingly into the bald man’s eyes.

The bald man’s team scores the only goal with 15 minutes to go. But even that cannot rouse his mind from the stark, dominating thought: ‘Here today, gone tomorrow.’

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