YESTERDAY EVENING, 11.45PM.
It’s dark. Outside it’s still 32ºC/90ºF, but inside it’s comfortable and pleasant without the need for air-conditioning – a good thing as I am not sure anyone in the village has any. Instead, we rely on old technology, whereby the two foot thick stone walls of our house keep us cool. I’m alone in the kitchen, the windows and doors are still wide open and I’m staring out into the stygian blackness. Roddy has fallen asleep in the sitting room; Bentley is with him as always and Evie is with me. She tried to stay awake to keep an eye on Rory the cat, her greatest mate, but she can’t quite manage it; thick eyelashes, black on one side and white on the other, gently close and she too enters the world of dreams. I’m thinking about the wonderful evening we have just enjoyed. I open my laptop, wondering how I can possibly convey this feeling of pure contentment – how I can explain such simple things which make a night so special?
It’s close to midnight and I think I might go for a swim, the pool looks deliciously inviting and I’m not at all tired – I can almost taste the coolness of the water. The children are all in bed but the sound of music is wafting down through the village on the warm night air. Tonight is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the 21st of June. It is the official start of summer and all over France it is also La Fête de la Musique, the official day to celebrate live-music. Throughout the country there are concerts, large bands in big cities and small local groups in tiny villages; anywhere and everywhere music is enjoyed until the small hours of the morning.
It’s quite difficult keeping a track of time with these long summer evenings, when what seems like 7pm turns out suddenly to be 9pm and the sun is still shining fiercely in the sky. Consequently we seem to eat later; the children are never in bed when they should be and everything takes on a far more casual tone, and this evening has been no exception. The atmosphere was relaxed, a state of mind and body not helped by the fact we are in the midst of a somewhat fierce canicule, an extreme heatwave which tends to slow everyone down. Dogs no longer run, children seem to shriek a little less and even the flies go from A to B in slow motion. Trees flap listlessly in a faint breeze and whenever one can, one slips un-noticed into the pool and out again, to stand dripping in the breeze so the air chills the water on one’s skin. No one is particularly hungry and simple salads accompanied by homemade flatbreads loaded with summer vegetables, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes have become our staple diet. Naturally this is accompanied by a good glass of wine, even in the heat ‘red’ is still my preferred choice, unless someone mentions champagne!
We planned to all wander through the village to listen to music tonight, but we could hear it clearly anyway from the pool, and its watery domain was too much fun on such a hot evening. But at 10.00pm, the night seemed young, and Roddy and I decided to go along, leaving the teenagers in charge we headed out on our own, feeling somewhat like teenagers ourselves. This was much to the excitement of all the children saying we were going on a date, just the two of us! The crowd around the pool was not just our children, but also our neighbour’s – we are frequently a house of many people!
We strolled down the ancient streets, no doubt as thousands have done before us on the evening of the summer solstice. Our way to the music was slow, unhurried, and peaceful. There was no one else on the streets at our end of town and our footsteps echoed off the dusty walls amongst the hollyhocks. Dull lamps glowed behind half-closed shutters, and in the distance we could faintly hear people singing and clapping. The sky was still blue and it was hard to believe it was just an hour and a half shy of midnight. A peal of laughter burst out of a dark house across the road and Roddy and I grinned at each other, suddenly aware that the weather was making fuddled fools of everyone.
The ancient market hall still stands where it has done since the 12th century. Tonight it had become an open-air concert venue, with perhaps a hundred villagers mingling together. There was a small stage on a raised dais of pallets, a table of drinks on offer to all, and all around babies lay sleeping in pushchairs and prams, oblivious to the noise. Their parents were swaying to the music, one hand on the pram, the other holding a drink. Children played in the street and those who we knew from school ran over to offer a kiss and say ‘hello’. We greeted a few friends and then wandered on. The air was getting stiller, and as the breeze died away we realised the sultry heat of the day had dissipated, leaving us with the most perfect evening. We headed down a narrow street towards the Château.
By this stage we were casually sauntering in the middle of the road, it was 10.41pm and there was not a car in sight and yet still it was light. The tarmac was warm under the soles of my shoes as we headed on out of the village and away from the strains of the guitar and the band, away from the sounds of chatter and laughter and singing.
With each step the evening became more and more peaceful; stars began to appear, scattered across the forming night sky, while away to the west a striated sunset was sinking to completion below the horizon, signalling the end of the solstice day.
In the distance the flags were flying on the roof of the Château and we stopped for a quick camera-call. The sunset outlined the building and surrounding trees in a stark shape of silence, as though the landscape was holding its breath, waiting for the sun to finally fall asleep. We were so far from the music that we could barely hear a note, apart from a chorus of cicadas, the perennial sound of summer in hot countries. There was nothing else to break the mood, apart from our gentle footsteps on the road and our own hushed voices, for we found ourselves communicating in soft muted tones, almost as if it would be a shame to talk too loud and break the spell of the oncoming night.
We turned for home, perhaps we would savour another glass of wine on our terrace, looking up at the stars. Roddy nodded in agreement at the suggestion and we quietly hastened on our way. Happy Summer Days.