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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.

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