Used to Be
“I have to say – ”
“Then do say it, Mum, by all means,” sighed Judith, shifting her weight to her other leg. She really must do something about her varicose veins.
“ – that air travel is simply not what it used to be.”
“You can say that again.” Judith squinted up the straggle of the Other Queue, noting with dismay that it was infinitely longer than the Priority Queue, and was shuffling forward at the same rate as rush hour traffic on the Kingston Bridge.
“Now in my day, ” her mother leaned close in confidential mode, “it was an occasion! One dressed up to travel. There was a certain – well, glamour, I suppose is the word. The air hostesses were all so beautifully turned out; so well-presented, stylish – high heels and so on – and slim. And,” – she narrowed her eyes at the effete young man making his way down the line, solemnly placing a cardboard box over everyone’s cabin luggage – “female.”
“Welcome to the low-cost twenty-first century, Mum,” Judith smiled pluckily. She was beginning to worry a little about the others: they seemed to have been gone a very long time. In fact, she was beginning to worry a little about this whole idea. She had allowed herself to be swept along on a tide of optimism, or blown by a wind of filial duty, or pushed by an irresistible force of family obligation. Whatever the planetary phenomenon, here they all were now, perched on the edge of the abyss that was The Extended Family Holiday.
Judith knew, of course, that she had simply been too cowardly to resist her brother’s logic.
“Jude, it’ll be fine! Think about it – you, me, all her grandchildren and a place big enough for us all to just chill and take time out if that’s what we want to do. When will we get everyone together again, eh? God knows where the kids’ll all be in a year’s time This is it! A one-off! And she’s made her mind up about not renewing her passport. None of us is getting any younger, least of all Emmy.”
“Did you know she hates you calling her Emmy? She said that to me once.”
( – Judith, I want to thank you. You are the only person who ever calls me Mum. Your brother has called me Emmy since he was about eighteen. And, of course, it used to be the case that one called one’s in-laws mum or dad. So, you know, I always called your father’s mother Mum Galbraith; he called mine Mum Dalgleish. Bill, Lena – they’ve never called me mum. But I quite understand: fashions change. Not always for the better.)
Gordon, unabashed, continued: “She and Dad loved France, and I just think it would be a really great thing to do, just this once, to get us all together out there for her eightieth. Celebrate that, celebrate the family. A family celebration in the south of France! Go on, Judith. Say yes. Say yes quickly before I lose the option on this accommodation!”
It was always impossible to resist Gordon when he cranked up the boyish enthusiasm. Besides, he was right. Their mother would soon be eighty, against all the odds: surely everyone could give two weeks of their lives to make that a very special event.
Giving the glad tidings that evening over dinner had gone as well as could be expected:
“…So Uncle Gordon and I thought, wouldn’t it be just wonderful to have Grandma’s eightieth birthday do in…FRANCE! All of us together. Uncle Gordon, Aunty Lena, Vicky, Valerie and Veronica – ”
This being further than she had expected to get before the collective outburst burst out, Judith felt quite encouraged.
“Come on, team! It’ll be so great – two weeks of sunshine, our own swimming pool, all that fab French food and – ”
“Your mother,” Bill intoned.
“Grandma,” the twins gloomily concurred.
“And,” Mark winced, “The Cousins From Hell.”
And thus it came to pass that the accommodation was confirmed and the low-cost flights along with preferential partnership car rental were finally wrested from the website. Someone somewhere in this tortuous process had decided that there was no need for priority boarding, seat selection, hold baggage, sports equipment, travel insurance, baby seats, winter tyres, special assistance (although that would have useful in terms of navigating the online booking process) or sat nav (ditto).
And now Judith was keeping calm and carrying on in The Other Queue, fretting about where the other others had got to, and which amongst them, brother or husband, or – less likely – sister-in-law, was taking shameless advantage of those ridiculous airport licensing hours. Two of them – i.e. herself and one other – were going to have to drive at the other end.
“…appreciate of course the entire experience has been what you might call democratised,” her mother was saying. Judith put her considerable will (inherited, in truth, from said mother) towards making Emmy the focus of her attention.
“Well, quite, Mum. I mean, flying from Glasgow to Marseille in peak season for eighty quid each return – who could argue with that? Even,” she added hastily, heading her mother off at the rhetorical pass, “if it does mean all this standing in line. Oh, look!” She felt weak with relief. “Here come the troops!”
So relieved was she to espy the missing cohort making their sly way up the queue, she quite neglected her assessment of relative consumption of alcohol. At any rate, everyone was smiling and firm of footfall.
The Other Queue inched infinitesimally towards the aircraft, on the threshold of which there was a slightly undignified scuffle by all four adults to avoid sitting by Grandma. Fortunately this latter individual was so intent on bagging a window seat she did not notice the underhand means by which those seated beside her happened to be Mark and Valerie.
Mark drew the shorter of the short straws, and found himself in the middle seat. Valerie promptly cut herself off from any possible in-flight interaction by inserting her earphones and, for good measure, feigning sleep. As the Boeing 737 picked up speed, Emmy grabbed her grandson’s arm.
“Oh, Mark!” she beamed. “I just love taking off! Isn’t it thrilling? It’s the one thing about air travel that is just as it used to be. That and a smooth landing, of course, let’s hope, hah!”
Taking her eldest grandchild’s polite smile for agreement, she continued, “You know, when your grandfather and I first travelled to France, an aeroplane was completely out of the question. Oh my goodness, yes. Back then, air travel was only for those and such as those. You know, the rich and famous. Our first flight was on a very small propellor plane to the Isle of Man. Yes! But even so, it was a special occasion.” She stole a glance at Mark’s baggy fatigue shorts and crumpled tee shirt. “We all dressed up to travel in those days.”
Mark, ever the diplomat, replied, “Yeah, Grandma, I bet back in the day you had a little pouch in the seat in front of you, am I right? No need to ask for a sicky bag, yeah? And I bet the drinks and snacks were complimentary too.”
Emmy stared back at him aghast. “If you mean we have to pay for refreshments, well…I certainly won’t be having anything!”
Sure enough, she ignored the call to order hot snacks, on principle of course, but also because she had no idea what a panini was. When the bar trolley appeared, however, she ordered a double G & T for herself and an orange juice for Mark, who smiled inwardly that she did not order for his “sleeping” cousin in the aisle seat.
“Hmmm,” she opined after several tentative sips, “I suppose one must be grateful for a decent gin. And at least there’s ice. But I have to tell you, it used to be that the drinks were included. And, of course, they were served with peanuts or the like. On paper doilies. And one would be served breakfast, or a light lunch or supper. And hot scented towels afterwards. It all used to be so much more…special.”
Emmy had a second double in due course. Sipping it with growing contentment, and gazing at the French countryside stitched together below her in hues of gold and green and amber and ochre, torn intermittently by rivers and lakes, she grabbed Mark’s arm again.
“This was such a lovely idea, Mark! All my family together – I really had not dared to dream! I just want you to know that I am so excited. Your grandfather and I travelled all over France, did I ever tell you that? Yes, yes, silly me. Of course I did. Aah. I feel him with us now, I truly do.” Here she paused to wipe with great delicacy an imaginary tear. “Now tell me, dear: do you think there’s any possibility of another wee gin before we land?”
At Marseille, Mark gallantly assumed responsibility for his grandmother’s carry-on suitcase. She grumbled about the inconvenience of having to take charge of one’s own baggage. “It used to be that one could expect a baggage handler to do all that,” she observed. “I cannot see for the life of me how this arrangement constitutes any sort of progress.”
She had a point: at Marseille airport the preferential partnership car hire took over forty minutes to complete, and the porta-cabin office was perfectly airless.
“It used to be,” Emmy confided to her daughter-in-law, Lena, “that one’s onward transportation was included. And that way, one could relax and appreciate the passing scenery. That was the beauty of the package holiday, I suppose.”
It was a three hour drive in two MPVs to their accommodation. The motorway was fast and furious, and Emmy – whose seniority gave her the passenger seat beside Gordon – found to her private dismay that she recognised nothing of this stretch of coastline, the Golfe du Lion she had at one time known so well.
She and Douglas had come here first as students. She had had to lie to her parents, of course, because it used to be that nice girls did not go on holiday with young men. Lying had been so easy then, before all this gadgetry. She stole a glance behind her at her grand-daughters, each of whom was plugged into one of those infernal devices, locked in to a virtual world that shut out the beauty of the real one through which they were now travelling. God help them. This generation could know no real freedom, whereas she and Douglas had been utterly unfettered. The occasional long-distance telephone call had been all that was required, and a post card or letter. They had travelled overnight to London on the sleeper, then taken another train to Dover, then a ferry, then another train to Paris Gare du Nord, and then yet another train…
They had loved the south of France. She could recall with perfect clarity that first train journey to Menton; the starch-stiff couchette sheets with their blue laundry stamps; the coffee and croissants served by a porter at five in the morning, and the absurdly picturesque dawn beauty of the station at Aix-en-Provence. And here, or somewhere close to here, there had been the camargue, and the horses and flamingos and that extraordinary landscape of salty étangs, and endless miles of vineyards. It used to be unspoilt and undeveloped and underpopulated, but of course she knew that could no longer possibly be the case.
She had always felt a great affinity with France. With her first fiancé, she had even talked about moving permanently to this very region. He had been heavily influenced by the Colourists, and waxed lyrical about the light of the Midi. Andrew was five years her senior, a hugely gifted student at the Glasgow School of Art, but oh dear so very earnest: in her heart she knew he was not for her. He was devastated when she broke it off, but she had met Douglas and there was no denying what she felt for him. She smiled to herself at the recollection of herself as quite the femme fatale of the Athenaeum. Judith and Gordon used to roll their eyes when she referred to it as such, but it used to be that everyone called it that. Only those on the outside called it as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. And now, her children informed her, it was a Conservatoire!
At school, Emmy had been gifted not only in music but in languages, excelling in Latin and French. In fact, she still knew the words to La Marseillaise, having been taught them by Killer Dawson in 1946. She cradled within her wired-up, post by-pass breast even now a secret ambition to sing them out loud in France on Bastille Day.
They settled with swift and surprising harmony into their accommodation. The nearest village dated back to pre-Roman times, and lay at a distance of about two miles of vineyards from the property, itself a two hundred year old wine domaine that had been tastefully restored so as to afford just the right level of modernity without losing its rustic charm. There were extensive grounds, where rosemary, iris and lavender sprawled with insouciance. A series of stone-lined terraces led from the living quarters to a large swimming pool, and no matter the time of day, the gardens offered blessed pockets of shade.
Judith joined her mother on the wrought iron bench under the shade of an ancient fig tree.
“Judith, dear, it’s quite, quite perfect. So beautiful, so peaceful. I am truly so grateful to you.”
“Ooft, don’t thank me: it was all Gordon’s idea. I – well, I was worried you’d be forever comparing it to…you know…how it used to be.”
“Ah, well, of course, it’s not quite as it used to be,” Emmy elucidated. “For one thing, there are far more foreigners than before. Far more people in general. And there used to be no supermarkets, you know? One shopped at the boulangerie, at the boucherie, at the épicerie.”
“Ah, come on now, Mum! Isn’t that what we’ve been doing? Apart from the practicalities of catering for the masses, I mean – bog roll and charcoal and Badoit. For that sort of thing I grant you, we’ve gone over to the Dark Side. But in general – ”
“Yes, yes, of course, Judith. I’m not criticising, believe me. It’s just that it used to be that there simply was no supermarket. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Yes, well, okay Mum. But then once there was no running water or electricity either, know what I mean?”
“Oh yes, I do. I do appreciate your point. One must move with the times. And I want you to know that I had the most wonderful day on my birthday. The food, and the bunting and the music – everything was absolutely perfect. I can never thank you all enough. Truly.”
Emmy took her daughter’s hand and squeezed, and they sat in happy silence for several minutes.
“It’s so funny,” Emmy said at last. “In all those years that your father and I came to France, we never once went to a Bastille Day celebration. Isn’t that the oddest thing? I can only imagine that we must have been travelling, or perhaps we were just never here on the fourteenth of July…”
“Well, it should be good for a laugh if nothing else,” smiled Judith.
The oompah band was already in full swing and the plane trees lining the village square had been decked with white fairy lights. They joined the queue – noisily good-natured – for the welcome apéro and hovered a little awkwardly on the fringes of the crowd, sipping from their plastic cups. Four long rows of trestle tables had been dressed with white paper table cloths, on which were written in biro the names of those who had reserved places. Bill went to reconnoitre, and having found their allocated seats beckoned them over. Two-litre plastic bottles of rosé from the cave co-opérative were placed at regular intervals on the tables, along with bowls of potato crisps and olives. Great pungent vats of moules mariniers were placed to one side of the podium, on which the musicians were precariously placed. The air was filled with the scents of the garrigue, garlic, perfume and perspiration. An individual they took to be the mayor signalled for silence and addressed the crowd in an impenetrable Midi accent. There was much cheering, clapping and foot stamping and then the musicians started up La Marseillaise.
Everyone rose to their feet for the national anthem. Suddenly, above the mumbled and muttered and tuneless generality there rose the most astonishing mezzo-soprano:
“Allons, enfants de la patrie…”
Emmy, word-perfect. Emmy, radiant as she used to be.
They all looked at her, not just Judith and Gordon and Bill and Lena and the grandchildren, but the entire assembly. She stood ramrod straight , her gaze fixed on some unidentifiable spot that used to be, her voice pure as a bell, the wires in her chest only very slightly raised, like surface veins.
The burst of applause at the end was entirely for her. She scoffed her moules and frites with relish.
The mayor asked her to dance. She graciously acquiesced.
Her family watched her as she gaily exchanged pleasantries with her dancing partner. Gordon leaned over to Judith.
“That’s it. She can die happy now!”
And that very evening, aged eighty years and four days, that’s exactly what she did.