38 – Birthday Fears

Walking down Rue Pierre Goddard yesterday evening looking for the bar I was to meet my friends in, I realised that in two weeks I will be the same age as my mother when she died. Not a typical Friday night thought, like looking forward to the banter, the drink, the women, the pure spirit of the night, but poignant all the same.

The thought lingered for no more than forty seconds and on entering La Montana high up on The Croix Rousse, it was forgotten. I smiled at the bar lady and ordered an aperitif: a Capari and soda. Luckily, this wasn’t true as I don’t have a penchant for Capari and neither am I mad enough to ask for one in a bar like this. My colleague ordered a screwdriver here last week and got one. In the back of the neck. True he’s American but you get the idea to the type of bars I visit. Unsophisticated, base, primitive. Four walls, a bucket for a toilet, a piece of driftwood for a bar, fridges of beer stacked six high towering up to the heavens.

I sat down on a beer crate near the window and opened my book. Not because I wanted to indulge myself in The Mayor of Casterbridge (despite being a shockingly good read) but merely because I was nervous. People seemed to be looking at me. They weren’t, I’m sure, but it felt like they were. Looking over at the strange Englishman by the window. Ridiculous I know, as I looked like everybody else: white European, slightly unhinged. But the anxiety persisted.

I suspect it was in part due to my impending flight. If all goes well, I’ll be in Bristol a week tonight. If all goes bad, my remains will be scattered over the Massif Central along with everybody else’s aboard EasyJet flight number 666. The madness of irrational thought. I watch planes fly over Lyon everyday from my classroom. Calm, perfectly safe flying machines gliding effortlessly through the haze. My brother flies these damn things everyday. He must know what he’s doing.

But the fear lingered as I sat there. All that stopped me from reaching my 38th birthday was that damn flight. Nothing else could prevent me from equalling my mother’s tally of eighteen and one score years. A hot sweat had developed across my forehead, my beer consumed by my thirsty bowels. Where were my friends? I have no aversion to drinking alone, but tonight I craved company. The banter and spirit of a good night out are sometimes the only things worth getting up for. Like the old days of the Vernon Arms: a crowd of good friends looking forward to the debasement and debauchery of the night ahead. Things have changed admittedly, I couldn’t do the thing’s I used to do, I’m older for one, but what is a night if it hasn’t got a degree of trepidation about it? It’s all very easy to watch a film, have a curry and collapse into bed with your loved one. And fun too I imagine. But if that isn’t an option, looking into the dark misty uncertainty of a Bohemian French night is better than sleeping alone.

The bar lady squinted at me as I ordered another drink and I wondered what she was thinking. ‘English most likely, alone, possibly alcoholic, best kick him out after this drink, you never know with these dogs.’

I thanked her and returned to my seat by the window that looked out over the fair city that has accommodated me so kindly for the past eight months and twenty-one days. You never got this view from the rotten Vernon Arms, so I should be grateful. From here I could see my classroom. Not in detail, it was about 5 km away, but La Tour Part Dieu rising up like a thin pencil out of a desolate landscape of Brotteaux, was as visible and clear as the moon rising in the East.

It was surprising to think that each day for the past two hundred I’d marched back and forth to this needle poking out of the landscape. I didn’t know why it seemed strange but looking on from high up in the Croix Rousse with its twisted houses and unusual taverns, the tower I worked in everyday didn’t seem real. A mirage. A charade. A piece of fiction like Lord of the Rings: The Only Tower.

I finished my beer and just as I was about to give the night up as a lost cause, my friends entered. We exchanged handshakes and kisses and headed for the bar, big smiles all round.


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