‘Tis well to be bereft of promised good
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
I descend on the usual hotel, Le Mas Fleuri, a complex of chalets opening on gardens of trees and flowers in the front, and on a green field with goats grazing at the back. No air-conditioning, but it’s not needed if you keep the front and back doors open. We stayed there three times, walking the foothills of Mount Canigou, playing table-tennis in the patio, and sitting in a café in Vernet-Les-Bains watching the English gentlefolk pretending to be Rudyard Kipling, the most famous resident, and speaking impeccable school French, louder and louder, in the face of local incomprehension. In the evening we drove up to the Abbeye St Michel for the concerts.
Entering the hotel the giant lime tree is in full flower, as usual. The musky fragrance is overwhelming. Each year I picked a paper bag of lime blossom to dry out for a tea. According to Elsa Triolet’s Luna-Park it was the only flower to be found on the moon. You carried around a bottle of lime tea to sip when out and about.
Our usual chalet, ‘Mimosa’, is not available. Instead, I’m offered ‘Myosotis’ on level with the field. It is only when I go to bed I realise that the first time at Le Mas we spent the night in ‘Myosotis’ and, as I slept, you saw a kid goat walk through the room and out the front. Next day we moved to ‘Mimosa’, whose flower has a frimousse, a sweet little pout, which belies the fact it traps insects. And so, you said, we wouldn’t be bothered by flies, even though it was grape harvest time.
Walking in the mountains, I take to learning off by heart a poem in French. I start with Baudelaire’s ‘Sois sage, o ma douleur’, the last line of which I recited at your funeral. When I stop at a village for a bite, I mutter ‘Plouc’ at the waitress who is resisting my over-eager French. Unlike the gentlemanly English, when not understood, I tend to hiss. I catch myself in time and repeat my pleasantry more distinctly. I recall that when my beautiful temperament got out of hand, you’d pull me up with ‘Tenus en laisse’, the notice on the gate of the Charles Trenet Park in Vernet. Dogs must be kept on a lead. Now I can roll off L’Albatros without thinking.
Chamber music by Ravel, Schubert and Krzysztof Penderecki. Gerald Poulet, the lyric tenor of French violinists, is the presiding spirit, as usual. Penderecki is there in person, a Polish bear in a white suit. His rousing quintet is dominated by a demonic double-bass from Cracow with a crew-cut. You would have approved. Peter Frankl appears for the Ravel sextet, still pedalling away, tinkling the ivories. I see him next day on the street with his wife, and want to say that ‘only Victoria de Los Angeles made the Wigmore Hall sing more than him’. But hold back. You preferred Melvyn Tan.
When our usual tickets for two concerts arrived, I hadn’t the heart to cancel yours. I place a sprig of lime blossom on the empty seat. The adjacent bourgeois couple give me a wee look as though I had been stood up. Which in a way I have been. After the interval I remove the sprig. The blossom had not retained its fragrance.
For the second concert I scout the field of irises in the grounds of the Abbeye. But this year it’s a shrivelled mess due to a spring drought. Instead, I pick a twig of oak from a tree in the forecourt. The acorns look made to last. I find myself sitting next to the young musicians who traditionally give the final concert. They are easy to talk to. I learn what instruments each plays, and what they think of the performances. I am your port-parole for a change. I even get to say that Ravel is ‘doux comme quelque chose interdit dans la vie, mais qui est permis dans un rêve (sweet like something forbidden in life but permitted in a dream)’. You would have raised an eyebrow, but conceded my French was coming on, I think.
After the interval I notice my oak twig has disappeared, and see it in the fingers of the pretty young violinist as she talks to her boyfriend, an oboist. I insist she keeps it as a lucky charm, telling the young musicians its significance. Being young, they take it in the spirit intended, lightly. I tell the girl, ‘put it in your violin case, and forget it. One day it will do you a good turn.’
When paying the bill I ask what type of flower was a myosotis. I didn’t mind that the receptionist replies to me in English, ‘Forget-me-not’.
I take a bag of lime blossom home. Although some privilege verbena as the tisane at Aunt Leonie’s tea-party in Proust, which scented out ‘involuntary memories’ when a madeleine was dipped in it, I’m sure it’s lime. But so far I’ve only had voluntary memories and, therefore, no ‘mirage of an analogy’ to let me escape the present’, as Proust promised.
I have had a weakness for chrysanthemum tea ever since discovering it in Montpellier in the 1980s. But all that sparkles is not gold. You said it tasted of dead leaves. I did not know then that chrysanthemum in France is the flower of choice to lay on graves, and that twenty years later you would be diagnosed with cancer in Val d’Aurelle clinic, Montpellier.
I have decided to mix the lime blossom with the red afghan poppy that has sprung up all over my jardin sauvage this year. The poppy flower will give the lime a new lease of life. I won’t be adding the opium in the pod. You never liked drugs that made you sleepy. Your dream life was reality. Life can be good as it is. I miss being awake with you.
Memory believes before knowing remembers.