The train from Marseille to Avignon was a pleasant 90 minutes. The south of France looks like Spain, and reminds me of family holidays when I was a kid – walking along in flip flops and baggy shirts down to the beachfront restaurants for an evening meal, the night air warm, crickets chirping in the bushes.
I met Seth at the station. I’d been running late, and when I found him outside he was leaning on a railing, shaven-headed, grinning at me through a pair of dark sunglasses.
“Hello mate,” he said, when I came in for a hug.
It’s always nice to be back.
The past few days have been serene. I’m on a drink-less hype these days, so in a stunning break with tradition we haven’t been getting as drunk as lords each day. We’ve spent a lot of time sitting in bars and cafes in sunny squares, eating food and talking about our lives. One of the reasons I’m so very fond of Seth and Blanche is that I can totally be myself with them. We can chat for hours about anything, from the ethics of the pass sanitaire, to singing Japanese toilets, to the lacklustre volume of my hair.
Shortly before flying to France I found out I wasn’t able to book the whole week off as holiday, only a couple of days. In fact, this worked out excellently, because I’ve been remotely working from my laptop while sitting in the café where Seth works. It’s on the far bank of the river to the city, just downstream from the Pont d’Avignon – the famous broken bridge that leads nowhere – and sitting in the café I’ve felt extremely lucky to be working with a view of the river, the old town, and the Pope’s old palace that rises high above the city, crowned with a golden angel that glitters in the sunshine.
While I was working on Wednesday Seth kept me supplied with a steady flow of ice cream sundaes, bread baskets, and bottles of Coca Cola. Every so often I sat back from my laptop just to gaze around at the trees and the calm blue waters of the Rhône. After the dirt and noise of London, Avignon has an unearthly tranquillity. Seth told me Van Gogh painted The Starry Night in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just fifteen kilometres south of here.
In the evening, when the working day was done, we hired bicycles and crossed the city to drop off our belongings before heading to the climbing gym. Seth has a membership there, and he’s been going several times a week for the past year. I’d been once before, when Jeanne and I visited last September. Those were happy days.
Seth was unsure whether I’d enjoy climbing, as during my previous visit I was extraordinarily hungover and couldn’t grasp in the slightest the mechanics of the ropes and carabiners. As a consequence, while gently winching Seth down to the earth after a successful 12-metre climb, I’d panicked and got the rope jammed half-way, leaving a red-faced Seth swinging helplessly across the climbing gym, barking instructions down to me even as he rotated in large circles and rebounded off the wall like a conker.
But I was not hungover this time, and a far better climber and rope-holder. Seth gave me a memory-freshener about how to tie on safely and how take the slack out of the rope, and showed me how to use my legs to save my arms having to do the heavy lifting. It’s all about leveraging your body effectively, and not, as I previously thought, a case of gurning your way up the wall with great heaves of your biceps.
After climbing we walked home chatting, stopping off at Casino to buy lots of different types of ham and cheese and wine. At home we put a spread on, ready for when Blanche arrived home from work at11pm. We played music, smoked on the terrace, and ate ham. They introduced me to something I’d never tried before: slices of prosciutto wrapped around a piece of melon. The sweetness and the salt make a surprisingly delicious pair, as do the contrasting textures and temperatures. They melt into one another.
In the evening we talked about Australia a lot – we always do when we reunite. Blanche showed me her photos of Toku Iwi, the hostel we spent four months living at in the depths of the forest. It made my heart sing to look at the happy, tanned faces beaming at me from the glossy pictures. Faces filled with so much joy. So very free. Just as those days are all sepia and golden in my memory, so they are in the photographs.
Then I picked up a group photograph. It was of the French fruit pickers who worked on the small farm away down the road from Toku Iwi. And there was Jeanne, her arms around her friends, smiling at me.
All at once I was lost to memory. Evenings in the tent together, listening to the cows mooing outside. Dancing in the kitchen until the small hours. Jeanne was so brave on the climbing wall the first time we came to Avignon together. I stopped halfway up, frozen in fear, and only made it to the top on my second or third attempt. Jeanne went straight up, 12 metres high, without hesitation.
I think Blanche noticed my eye lingering on the photo pile, because she put them back in the shoebox they live in and took it away to her bedroom. I sighed.
“Jeanne was so cool, man.”
Seth nodded. “She really was.”
I always knew it would be hard coming here, in truth. Everything is a reminder of what we used to have together. Shopping in Carrefour reminds me of her, and Jacques Dutronc reminds me of her, and the sight of Seth’s fridge filled with six different kinds of cheese reminds me of her, and bottles of Fischer with pop-off tops remind me of her, and long walks on beautiful days will always remind me of Jeanne.