It’s the morning after our Christmas meal and I’m dashing out to the park for what might be the last run of my life.
Company Christmas meals in France are rare. People like to keep themselves to themselves. Work relationships end when you say bonne soirée at the company gates. Unlike in the UK, where the Christmas party seems almost mandatory. Even if simple logic suggests that the last people you’d want to spend a night with are the people you work with.
At best they’re taut, tense, tedious affairs. At worst ideal opportunities to put ten years of hard work on the line by doing something really really stupid. Like fighting your boss in a poorly lit supermarket carpark over the price of a spring roll.
So it was mildly ironic that I enjoyed mine on Friday night. Instead of being just another yuletide lash-up in a country of a million lash-ups, we were a novelty. An English Christmas meal experience brought to an innocent French restaurant in its own inimitable way: screaming at one another over the onion soup as if we were tasting food for the very first time. Deafening and infuriating the other patrons with our banal predictions about the end of the world and our cruel impressions of Frenchmen holding pint glasses. Tightening the screws on our terrified boss’ thumbs to force him to put more money on the table for more and more wine. Hitting the pub afterwards like a gang of Barbarian invaders swilling back happy-hour-priced pints of strong Belgium lager. Thoughts fading fast…
…Until next morning when I was awoken by the sound of somebody ringing my doorbell.
‘Oui?’ I said opening the door. A girl looked vacantly back at me. I focussed in and out a couple of times. I had no idea who she was. She flicked her cigarette ash onto the cleanly swept landing. Then put it to her mouth. A short quick drag. Followed by an even quicker exhale straight into my face. Oh it’s you. Sorry I forgot. You should have done that sooner. Another late night is it? What was it this time? Coke, acid, pills? All three?
I pointed upstairs with my finger. ‘You’ve got the wrong flat again,’ I finally said, in English.
‘Oh, sorry,’ she apologised giving me a weak smile in payment for waking me up. I closed the door and heard her traipse upstairs. I felt a pang of sympathy for her. I might put a note on the door for next Friday night. Just an arrow. Pointing up to the sky. ‘Watch out! Comet.’
I get to the park and it’s empty save for the marathon runners: those stork framed wraiths we met in Lyon 52. It’s normally busy on a Saturday. Kids, cyclists, runners, drunks, photographers, loners. The walkways crowded with heavily coated weekenders. Today. Deserted.
‘Something’s happening and I don’t know what it is,’ replays in my head and I remember staying awake listening to Highway 61 Revisited after the pub. The weather is unseasonably hot and I’m sweating. Maybe this is it. Everybody knows except me and the weird marathon guys. A comet the size of Bolivia, hurtling towards us and nobody’s bothered to tell us. Leaving us mindlessly running round a gravel track when we should be uttering our last prayer. Or else, getting obliterated on grain spirit. ‘I’ve been had’. Another line. Must have been listening to Blood on the Tracks as well. No wonder I’m so tired.
I look up at the sky checking for signs. Molten lava bombs the size of cars. Solar flares the size of planets. Jupiter falling to the ground. Instead, I see an advertising balloon shaped like a mince pie:
OUVERT LE DIMANCHE. CENTRE DE COMMERCIAL DE LA PART DIEU
0800 – 2000
Of course. How silly of me. Everybody’s gone shopping. Even the winos are treating what friends they have left to a few bottles of white port. A speciality around here at this time of year I’m told for those deprived of cognac.
As I round the last bend of the run, my heart rate monitor reads 190. Nothing drives a hangover into submission more than brutal exercise. As I near the finish line my heart is creeping up to 196, thrashing around my chest like a small animal on something my flatmate takes at the weekend.
I finish and collapse on the wet grass. Minutes later I’m still alive and overjoyed at the sensation. As a kid I was always fascinated by the end of the world. As many people were. It was the ultimate escape. The great leveller. Nothing would survive. Even the Lego bricks I once glued together with superglue. Laying on the grass feeling my heart burrow back into my chest and into hibernation, I realise I don’t think like that anymore. Life’s good. I don’t want it to end. Not yet. Plus it’s Christmas. The balloon says so.
PS. In case it really is all over. Goodbye! (I’d hate not to say anything)