France | Albi, Baby

Nearly killed me, getting to Gatwick. I planned the route carefully-ish and gave myself time. It shouldn’t have been a big deal: the airport is only 22 miles from my house. When I set off, however, I discovered that trains were cancelled all over the shop.

Two trains: it was meant to be two trains to get to the airport. I ended up taking five, zooming off in every sodding direction, sprinting sweatily up stairs and over crowded platforms, cursing the inaccurate platform information on Google pissing Maps. At one point, just 90 minutes before my plane was due to take off, I found myself wandering the streets of Croydon, trying not to stress-cry in front of the gang of hooded youths standing beside me as Uber rejected my bank card. Some thirty minutes and two trains later I boarded a train that was supposed to be for Gatwick to find the tannoy announce ‘Next stop, Bognor Regis’. Horrified, I leapt off the train along with a hundred other bewildered commuters, only to get back on when the tannoy crackled once again: ‘Oh, no, whoops. Sorry. Next stop, Gatwick Airport. Then Bognor Regis.’

When I landed in Toulouse two hours later, I walked through the arrivals gate with the same hyper self-aware faux-confident stride I always do, feeling the eyes of a dozen expectant families briefly flick to me in anticipation that I should be someone they give a shit about. I can’t stand eyes on me: two simultaneous pairs is about the maximum I can handle before I become so painfully conscious of my movements that it’s a miracle I don’t simply collapse.

“Hello mate!” said Seth, emerging from the throng to give me a hug.

He caught me off guard; I’d been too busy pouting guiltily for the assembly of strangers. He looked slim and healthy. It’s funny seeing a friend only once or twice a year; it really puts into perspective how much our haircuts and weights and complexions fluctuate without us realising.

“You look slim!” said Seth, obviously experiencing the same feeling.

“So do you!” I replied, although it sounded a bit less sincere from me because he got in there first.

I noticed he’d recently had a haircut. Like mine, his was cropped close, but unlike mine, he had no wax in his; he’s never cared enough to bother styling it. Not that a casual observer would have been able to tell the difference. For how little hair I have these days, I spend a disproportionate amount of time looking in the mirror, prodding strands in different directions and grimacing. I’ve always considered this habit to stem more from insecurity than vanity, but maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. I’ve always liked the fact that Seth couldn’t give a toss.

“So you had a nightmare getting to the airport, did you?” asked Seth as we walked to the car.

“Yep. Took a good two years off my life, I’d say.”

Seth laughed. He enjoys it when I’m flustered.

“I don’t know if I’m getting older or what,” I told him, “but when I was backpacking I never once stressed about missing a flight. I never cared.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same is it?” said Seth. “You’ve got nowhere to be, doesn’t matter if you miss it. You can just make a new plan.”

That’s another thing I like about Seth: he’s travelled a lot too. He gets it. And he was right: this wasn’t just some throwaway connecting flight to wherever, ‘Reason for visit: dunno’ scrawled on the arrival form, months of free time stretching away to the horizon. Seth is going to be a dad soon: his partner, Blanche, is due at the end of April. I wanted to see him one last time before his responsibilities change forever; one last time when we are still equal in our outlook as clueless young men. In truth, I don’t know what changes with parenthood – I have no idea how my friends might change, only that it’s certain they will. I wanted to one last weekend with them as they are now, ahead of the great unknown that’s rushing to meet them.

Seth drove us to Albi in the van he converted into a travelling home several summers ago. They just use it as a car these days however; they have an apartment in Albi, a pleasant town on the Tarn river in southern France. Blanche was resting at home. I hugged her gently when I arrived, taking great care to not put any pressure on her stomach. It was strange to see her so big. It occurred to me that I’d never before seen one of my friends pregnant. I found myself scared to ask her questions, unsure of the proper etiquette.

“How’s your day been?” I asked.

“Good,” Blanche smiled. “I baked a cake for you.”

I thanked her and hungrily eyeballed the cake cooling on the kitchen table. I knew I should ask baby questions, but had no idea where to begin.

“How’re you feeling?” I ventured.

“I’m okay thank you. A little tired. How was your journey?”

“Oh, it was a nightmare, I took six trains and–”

Nope. I couldn’t possibly begin talking about myself when Blanche was standing there so pregnantly. At this point I looked at Seth and laughed nervously. I decided to face it head-on.

“I’m sorry. I want to ask questions about the baby, but I don’t know where to begin,” I told them. They laughed, understandingly, and I felt relieved.

It was easier after that; we sat down and ate cake and I drank a glass of sparkling water, and they told me everything about how the pregnancy was going. Despite them both admitting to occasional feelings of nervousness, they seemed relaxed and prepared. Although they had declined to know the gender of the baby, they’d noticed a couple of signs: in French, the word ‘baby’ (which, rather adorably, is bébé) is masculine. Le bébé. However, Blanche had noticed on two occasions that doctors had said la bébé instead. This news made me very happy inside. Seth would be a wonderful father to a little girl.

Their apartment was full of baby things I did not know the names of: a little wooden rocker, a lullaby dangly thing, a padded wooden platform for the baby to lie on while being changed. And they’d decorated the spare room in their apartment: a large toy raccoon (the one from Pocahontas, I think) smiled at me from an armchair, while little stars and animals decorated the walls.

Seth told me I could sleep in the baby room – it has an adult bed in it, for now – but I chose instead to sleep on the sofa in the living room because all the cute pictures and tiny baby boots freaked me out a bit. The room belonged to the baby, not a big sweaty adult. I knew we’d be drinking quite a bit over the next two evenings, and I didn’t want to spoil the sweetness of the baby’s bedroom with my farting hungover bulk.

That night, Seth and I went to a pub nearby for a couple of hours. I was a bit worried about whether Blanche would be okay with this, so I was relieved when Seth mentioned that Blanche had encouraged him not to worry for the next couple of nights and to enjoy himself. We sat at the bar and ate a million slices of chewy saucisson, and drank a couple of beers while we caught up on the last few months. I told him my theory that everybody has a castle inside them, but I was tipsy and didn’t articulate it very well.


We got up at 9am the next day, and after a coffee Seth and I went to a local market to buy bacon, fruit, cheese and bread for breakfast. I was amazed at how much Seth’s French has come on. When we worked on the orchard together in Tasmania, five years ago, we used to spend the last half hour of each day lying in our adjacent bunks, with the little pings and boops of Duolingo alternating from our phones. My French is maybe B1 now, very slow and wobbly, but Seth is fluent and relaxed. He chatted to people unconsciously, unbothered, without the slightest flicker of apprehension. He might not sound like a local, but he looks like one.

We ate slowly back at the apartment with Blanche, then Seth and I headed out for the day to walk around Albi. He showed me Albi’s enormous brick cathedral – one of the largest brick buildings in the world – which looks quite odd from the outside because, y’know, it’s made from bricks. Inside we gawped at the unfathomable enormous ceiling. Every surface inside is painted, every nook and cranny, which apparently would make it one of the largest murals on Earth if you flattened it all out like one great sheet of wallpaper. If you look closely at the patterned walls, you can see that the painters, hundreds of years ago, hid little faces and doodles in the frescos. Seth loves this sort of thing, and giddily pointed out about fifty of them as we walked around.

He’s doing a joinery course at the moment. His course seems incredibly complex and French. I don’t know what I thought joinery was – usually the word makes me think of gruff blokes drinking tea and taking fat dumps in the downstairs loo – but the school Seth attends is full of passionate craftsmen who put insane diligence and artistry into their work. It’s clearly made its mark on Seth. We went to an art gallery after the cathedral, one displaying the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and I laughed to see that he was far more interested by the workmanship of the frames than the paintings within them.

I never knew anything about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec before we entered the gallery. I was pleasantly surprised to find a new painter to add to my limited internal roster of artists I like. His style was line-heavy, cartoonish at times, capturing a lot of the life and movement in the prostitutes and horses he loved to draw. Because I sometimes get bored in art galleries, I kept myself entertained by experimenting with ways of looking at paintings: standing very far away from them, and then slowly creeping closer until my nose was almost touching the canvas and I could see every last brush stroke and the overall meaning of the painting was lost. Then I’d zoom back out again and watch the painting reassemble itself. My favourite was a painting of his mother – this one:

We spent a long time in the gallery, and towards the end I felt myself becoming inattentive. Museums, galleries, whatever – I don’t know if it’s my famously shit attention span or just human nature, but their returns always diminish rapidly after the initial half-hour: I start off loving them to bits and by the end I can’t wait to get out.

It became clear it was time to leave when, weary from looking at beautiful paintings, I attempted a lazy forwards roll on a pouffe and a security guard walked past and looked at me like he wanted to shoot me.

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