ROBERT sits beside me sipping an espresso thick with melting sugar. He has come to wish me happy new year, greetings which will continue until the end of January as a small procession of French friends turn up.
Miriam brought me roses; Robert has brought me a packet of Breton biscuits which he eyes until I open them and plonk the shortbread-type rounds in front of him.
For those who don’t already know him from his occasional appearance in this column, Robert is my gentleman caller – in the nicest possible way – and here with full permission from his second, younger wife.
He visits at least twice a month, his gifts varying with the seasons, from fruit to nuts and, in the winter months, biscuits from the local Carrefour Express. Each time, though, he brings me something new to talk and think about.
Today he is reciting a poem in the Occitan language, stumbling over the unfamiliar words in his pure, educated west-coast French. It is one he is discussing with his poetry group, which numbers six and meets in the village hall – the same place he meets his history group.
A retired professor of music, Robert still sings in a choir and in his house a magnificent baby grand piano fronts a breathtaking collection of classical music and opera. Vast paintings, another of his joys, line the walls; some have been done by his wife, who recently had a major exhibition.
They appear to have a marriage filled with shared pleasures and individual pursuits. Who could ask for anything better?
A few years ago I feared Robert was coming to the end of his days. Watching him in a Christmas recital in a viciously cold church I became aware that his clothes seemed suddenly too large. He was like a schoolboy dressed in his big brother’s hand-me-downs. his shirt collar swimming around his neck and his cuffs coming too far down his hands.
His eyes too had taken on that misty grey, far away, slightly opaque look which I’ve noticed in those unknowingly preparing, or being prepared, for the last journey.
It came as no surprise therefore when I heard he’d been rushed into hospital on the verge of a heart attack.
But this is France and stents and other plugs and bolts were put in place and he quickly resumed his daily long walk, adding inclines at first then hills.
He tended his herb garden with renewed vigour and lovingly described the medicinal teas he makes for the blood, the liver and, of course, the heart.
He is disappointed I show no desire to join him in consuming such brews and instead occasionally accepts a whisky, which he relishes with each honeyed sip.
Now his clothes are his own again, fitting perfectly to his form and his careless vanity shows only in the cashmere sweater worn under a loden coat, a scarf wound twice around the firmed-again neck.
His eyes are alive and alight, and gleam when he describes his latest find, be it a new author, an experimental piece of music or another piece in the jigsaw of Roman life in our area.
As usual he’s also brought me flyers for upcoming concerts, art exhibitions or talks he thinks would interest me.
Our conversations range far and wide but rarely go deep into the emotions beyond his sad smile of remembrance when telling me of another friend who has died. He shakes himself, physically and obviously mentally, out of such thoughts, unlike me who far too often wallows in them, making an art form of my introspection.
I’m well aware he’d rather we dissect politics and policies, attempt poetry translations and ponder on that little known life of our Roman outpost, than delve into our fears and hopes.
And so I stifle my questions and my curiosity beyond the permitted “Tell me about your childhood”, which only leads me away from the places I really want to go.
It is a shame for I would love to know what rich seams there are to mine and ultimately to learn from – for that surely is why we ask questions.
When he gets up to leave and walks to the door in the slightly tip-toeing forward gait of a pigeon, he turns, a firm grip on my shoulders, for the farewell bissous it would be rude to refuse. This time, probably to add to his wishes for 2018, he has something more to say.
“Take care of yourself,” he tells me sternly. “Remember to eat. Listen to good music. Find something to excite you every week.
“Eat fresh from the earth and learn to enjoy tisanes. Walk, walk, walk.”
Just before he gets into his car he turns again and winks. “And stop thinking so much. What will be, will be. Just do your best in the meantime.”
He speeds down the drive in his nearly new car and as I wave goodbye I decide I’m going to try to live my life as Robert does. Well, apart from the tisanes. After all, at 90 he seems to have found some sort of answer.