Early on St Valentines Day I walked down to the car park where the raindrops were knocking off the young almond blossom petals. The slow-dropping rain was refreshing after the January drought. In the car park the red car was shining wet instead of furry with dust.
I drove for 20 minutes on a winding road through low hills, intensively cultivated since the days of Roger the Norman, but abandoned since the Grande Guerre. My destination was a commercial laboratory in the nearest town for a pre-scan blood test. On the journey I went over in my mind what Catriona had said to me the night before.
Earlier in the week it was my birthday. I’ve never been one for celebrating birthdays. A kipper for breakfast and I’m happy. A fuss embarrasses me. But Catriona is a great one for celebrating birthdays, other people’s as well as her own. She wanted to mark my 65th with a lunch. I said I couldn’t face it. But come the day the refusal felt churlish and I relented. The neighbours, alerted and on their starting blocks, came up for a glass of champagne and a slice of homemade pizza. I put on a clean shirt and enjoyed it.
A few days later Catriona arranged another little birthday celebration, in the evening, at Professor Brian Cox’s house, with the foreign correspondent there, for which she had made a curry. There was absolutely nothing not to like. Owing to Covid restrictions we hadn’t seen the Cox family since last October. We hadn’t seen the foreign correspondent and his wife since Christmas. Catriona’s curries are out of this world. The keynote of any gathering involving Catriona, Mr and Mrs Foreign Correspondent and the Coxes is knocking back the grog and laughing. Very often there is dancing. Last October, for example, the startling news headline from the farthest shores of scientific hypotheses concerning the interiors of black holes was that we are all holograms. So I ask you. Having it from the highest authority over drinks that, yes, we are holograms, what else can you do but put on Chubby Checker, down your drink and twist again like we did last summer?
I can’t account for it, but at the prospect of another birthday do, my inner chimp threw his toys out of the pram. I wasn’t yet up to it, I said. Not an evening do. No, not even with a lot of jovial, undemanding holograms. One birthday party was bad enough. Two was too much. And West Ham were away to Leicester that evening and I wanted to see whether David Moyes had made the right decision by offering Kurt Zouma the captain’s armband. And so on and so forth: a potty existential crisis right out of the terrible twos’ playbook.
Spray-canned on to a pedestrian footbridge over the expressway through the eastern suburbs of Marseille are the words: ‘It’s not funny.’ The congested traffic crawls at a walking pace or slower under this bridge. That it’s not funny might be a comment on the jams, or on the dismal urban overspill stretching away to the mountains. But I like to think it is a typical bit of French political philosophy for the frustrated drivers to mull over as they inch forward, and it makes me laugh every time I see it. A French graffiti artist suggesting to frustrated commuters, in English, that capitalism is not funny is funny.
And in my right mind there is very little that isn’t funny. Catriona, shocked that I find something explosively funny that she doesn’t find remotely funny, says to me, ‘It’s not funny’ quite a lot. Jimmy Carr’s joke made me laugh. Kurt Zouma’s brother filming him kicking his cat and posting the video online made me laugh. Sometimes I look in the bathroom mirror at the condition of my head and body, interior and exterior, and laugh.
But the prospect of a second birthday party caused a sense of humour failure. And reviewing the day’s unhappiness caused by my irrational outbursts, Catriona said that she had noted not only a serious sense of humour failure over the past few months, but also a lot of uncharacteristic ‘negativity’, culminating this week in ‘paranoia’. Earlier that day she’d taken the car to the garage to have new tyres put on. The speechless mechanic is called M. Pravaz. ‘You didn’t tell M. Pravaz I’m paranoid, I hope, did you?’ I said.
Catriona’s perception of time, temperature and colour is different to mine. But her saying that I’d acted as though things weren’t funny over the past six months knocked my petals off. What a way to repay her loving care! So after my blood was taken, I popped into the florist and bought potted daffodils and primroses by way of a sincere apology.
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