FIDELMA COOK

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

IT IS that time of the year the French call la ren­tree – the re­turn; the re­turn to work­ing life, be it school or govern­ment. It comes af­ter two months – stag­gered – of the sa­cred hol­i­days. These are the wicked months where small shops and ser­vices an­nounce their clo­sure by a large sign in the win­dow.

Civil ser­vants, med­i­cal spe­cial­ists, in­deed all the pro­fes­sions dis­ap­pear to the old fam­ily farm­steads of bu­colic fan­tasy, while politi­cians re­treat to hid­den sea­side vil­las or dis­creet chateaux.

It is when the pave­ment restau­rants flour­ish, the mar­kets swell with tourist dosh and prices sneak­ily rise.

And now, it’s of­fi­cially over. And France will go into its post-sum­mer gloom and the French will re­turn to their favourite pas­time of navel­gaz­ing misery and rev­erie.

Ap­par­ently Septem­ber is the busiest month for ther­a­pists as the blues de­scend. Well, not so much de­scend as re­turn in full bloom in time for la ren­tree.

There are still fetes to come but they’ll soon be edged out to be re­placed by bingo nights or tea danc­ing. The night classes are ready to roll and the chasse guns are blast­ing from fields host­ing cam­ou­flaged small men with big ri­fles.

Even though we’re suf­fer­ing through a seem­ingly end­less heat­wave of tem­per­a­tures in the mid to high 30s, wood is be­ing cut and stacked for the win­ter.

As the hold­ing tanks’ lev­els drop with the drought the tap wa­ter smells and tastes of chlo­rine.

But it doesn’t mat­ter what the ther­mome­ter says, in ru­ral France we stick to an of­fi­cial bred-in-the-bones timetable with the count­down to au­tumn sig­naled by la ren­tree.

Veg­eta­bles and fruits on sale are the earthy stuff of stews or stuff­ings; the trai­teur coun­ters have gone in a blink from lightly poached salmon in le­mon sauce to pur­ple-hued daube de san­glier (boar) or stuffed cab­bage and pep­pers.

Miriam, who is meant to be re­cov­er­ing af­ter a se­ri­ous eye op­er­a­tion, came for cof­fee but had to leave to pot and cook for freez­ing the half of boar Pier­rot had cut up.

As fans pumped in ev­ery room of my house in a bid to cir­cu­late the slug­gish air, she said she needed to get home to stuff pep­pers with boar and pork for Pier­rot’s meal.

She can barely see and, dosed with reg­u­lar eye drops through­out the day, she is not meant to raise her eyes above ground level.

I look at her in as­ton­ish­ment but in truth I am no longer sur­prised at the acts Miriam thinks are nor­mal be­hav­iour. “Tell him to stuff his bloody own,” I tell her.

She finds that so funny she for­gets to keep her eyes down.

I give up on my mis­sion to lib­er­ate the women of a cer­tain age here.

Any­way back to la ren­tree. I love the sec­tions in Le­clerc marked as such for Back to School. I find my­self com­par­ing note­books and ex­er­cise books and dif­fer­ent pens.

My hands stray across them and I watch as mothers con­sult the huge lists they’ve been sent to fur­nish their child’s needs for the term.

It seems pretty strict, for if a lit­tle hand strays next to mine on the snazzy stuff, it’s re­moved and di­rected to­wards the one as listed – the bor­ing one – and an­other line on the list is ticked off.

At the end of the rows are the back­packs in dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties for dif­fer­ent ages. There is no quar­ter given to the age of the chil­dren in ei­ther home­work or the amount of books they must carry back and forth.

One sees them wait­ing for the ru­ral school bus, bowed down, shoul­ders hunched un­der the bur­den.

My hand lingers longer on the writ­ing books. Lines of the al­pha­bet in beau­ti­ful cur­sive script to be copied and re­peated over and over.

I doubt they’re al­lowed in the UK and haven’t been for years. Such in­dul­gent – for­give me – child­cen­tred ed­u­ca­tion does not al­low for rote and rep­e­ti­tion. Or so I’m told. Here it still does but that too is be­ing ques­tioned now. Shame.

But what do I know? I am long past equip­ping a child for school and, strangely, re­mem­ber the sights and smells of my own re­turn to school each Septem­ber more and more vividly.

Even now the month steals upon me with an ur­gency and ag­i­ta­tion to get things ready, to get things done. It is a time for start­ing afresh, for en­ter­ing into new, dreaded but ex­cit­ing ven­tures.

But there is ac­tu­ally noth­ing any longer to get ready, noth­ing to get done.

I want to in­hale the an­tic­i­pa­tion of new text­books, ex­er­cise books. I want to write my name care­fully with a foun­tain pen in black ink on each one and then pack them neatly away for first day open­ing.

I want to run my hands down the hockey stick ly­ing be­side the still un­used black boots; try my Panama on one more time and check the cute an­gles; kick my ugly in­door shoes into a corner and ad­mire the leather writ­ing case with pa­per, en­velopes and stamps for the weekly let­ter home.

I want … I want … to go back. But we can’t, can we? Ever.

Oh bug­ger then … Up­wards and on­wards.

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