Right now my favourite travel memory belongs to someone else. I’m not travelling at the moment, but I wish I was, because the guy across the road is doing building on his house and, as well as dust and noise and men in hard hats, this involves taking down the power lines.
I don’t have electricity, so I mooch around seething, and sometimes I go into the street and do my seething there. My neighbour is shrewd enough not to be at home during the day, so I’ve had to make do with seething at the project manager, a burly old Afrikaans guy with snow-white hair. I swear and threaten him, although I know it’s not really his fault. He doesn’t care.
‘I feel bad for you,’ he told me laconically yesterday, ‘but I also feel bad for me.’
I found that funny, but I couldn’t show him that, so I stomped off to eat lunch at the coffee shop around the corner and enjoy some peace and quiet and electricity. And blow me down, but who should walk in half an hour later, bold as brass, and sit down and order eggs Benedict?
I pointedly ignored him until the lights in the coffee shop coincidentally tripped and then I turned and shook my fist at him and yelled, ‘Stop following me around and ruining my life!’
He must have found that funny because he brought his eggs over to my table and sat down. It’s quite difficult to maintain implacable hatred for a chap who’s determined to be pleasant, so before long we were talking about life and work and suchlike unimportant things. He was 73, he told me, and his wife wanted him to retire. So why didn’t he? I asked. Maybe he could retire that afternoon and take his crew with him.
He can’t, because he needs the money and he needs to keep busy. He has been married for 49 years, but his wife is stricken with osteoporosis and arthritis and a very big disease whose name I don’t like speaking aloud for superstitious reasons. It’s hard on her. He lies awake listening to her breathe, listening to her pain, his heart breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. ‘It’s hard,’ he said. ‘You get married and it’s all sparkling wine and custard, but life is waiting for you, boy.’
I wondered whether sparkling wine and custard was some kind of fancy Afrikaans wedding cocktail.
He has bad thoughts sometimes, he says. He wonders what the point of life is if it’s so hard. His doctor wants him to see a psychologist to try to release the pressure and the anxiety. ‘But I wouldn’t know what to talk to a psychologist about,’ he said. ‘You could talk to him like you’re talking to me,’ I suggested.
‘But you know,’ he said, ‘we raised three children. And we were happy. We did things. We went on the Queen Mary. Once we went skiing in the Alps and we got lost coming down the mountain. We were afraid, but we made it and we came skiing into Zermatt just at dusk, as the lights were coming on. I’ll never forget that. We’ll always have that.’
And for a moment his brow unfurrowed and he looked much younger and I sat with him and tried to picture the blue night falling on the white slopes, and the yellow lights of the welcoming village below, and the tinkling of bells and thin spires of smoke rising from the rooftops and his breath making small puffs of white in the cold air and his wife beside him, smiling, happy because they were together and they were safe and just look how beautiful life is.
Getaway, August 2016