The best of times is now, so let's just go for it
Lessons from a beautiful shawl, a bottle of French wine and a bromance
My friend Henry’s mother died last week, and on the phone last night he kept talking about a shawl he bought her in Egypt.
She had always wanted to go to Egypt. She had seen pictures of the treasures of Tutankhamun when she was a little girl and ever after that she dreamed of sand dunes and palm trees and a wide ribbon of blue water dotted with sailing boats with white sails shaped like swallow’s wings. She wanted to see the pyramids and the temples and spice bazaars. She wanted to see camels and Nubians and the orange disc of the setting sun.
Henry wanted to take her to Egypt but when he could finally afford it she had broken a hip and wasn’t as mobile or as brave as she used to be. He sent her pictures and postcards and brought her back sand from the Giza plateau in a clear glass bottle, and in Aswan at the southern end of the Egyptian Nile he found her a beautiful plain white shawl in glowing Egyptian cotton with lace and embroidery. It was elegant and fine. Even if you didn’t much care for shawls, you knew this was a good shawl.
He knew she would like it and she did. It was lovely, she said. It was too lovely. It lay in its wrapping paper on her lap, and she seemed afraid to touch it in case she tore it or made it dirty. He picked it up and draped it over her shoulders and showed her the reflection in the mirror.
It was lovely, she said again. It was so lovely she didn’t know what to do with it.
Wear it, he said.
Oh, it’s too lovely to wear, she said. She would save it for a special occasion.
I understood his frustration. It runs in my family too. My grandmother was very rich (and very mean, but that’s another story), but when she had new carpets put in she laid down a linoleum runway so that you could walk from the front door to the sitting room, with a side-branch to what she called the downstairs lavatory, without your foot touching any fibre or particle of the floor. When we came to visit her, which fortunately wasn’t very often as she lived on the opposite side of the country, we would have to stick to the linoleum trail through her house, like tourists being herded through one of the Lascaux caves, or one of the stately homes of England. My dad wasn’t allowed into the house at all, because she didn’t trust him not to deliberately step on the carpet when she wasn’t looking, and also because she didn’t like him.
We wondered whether she laid down the linoleum because we were visiting or whether she lived like that herself, and I am inclined to believe the latter, because of a tendency that I’ve noticed in myself.
The first time I visited Paris I went with a girlfriend and we had four splendid days. I was much taken with the quality of the cheap white wine in Paris, and bought a bottle to bring back. The idea was that we would drink it at home and the experience of Paris would come flooding back, like the sound on an autumn afternoon of a piano being practised in an apartment across the way. Of course, the thought of drinking it and then not having it any more was intolerable, so I saved it for a special occasion.
Some years later I was having a terrible quarrel with my girlfriend and we decided to split. Dramatically, I went to the fridge and produced the Paris wine and slammed it on the table with a bitter, French flourish. We may as well drink it, I said. There’ll be no more special occasions for us!
The story ended the way it obviously ends with a special bottle of white wine: it was spoiled and sour. The only part of Paris it recalled was one of those street-corner pissoirs. We laughed about that, and it saved the relationship for a while, even after my girlfriend pointed out that she wasn’t the girlfriend who had been to Paris with me, that was a girlfriend two girlfriends earlier.
I don’t know what instinct it is in some of us to treat things that give us joy as though we don’t deserve them, and as though there’s a scarcity of them and we can use them up. In 1997 someone encouraged me to read the first book in Patrick O’Brien’s series of nautical novels featuring Jack Aubrey, a sea captain in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era, and his good friend, ship’s doctor and undercover intelligence operative Stephen Maturin. Oh, they are magnificent: the thrilling adventures, the joyfully baffling authenticity of detail, and above all the current of warmth and affection and genuine friendship that runs between the two men. Male friendship is a narrative engine that drives surprisingly little art, but it elevates the heart and opens the world and is something to be cherished.
There are 20 books in the series, and the moment I read the first, I began to fret I would finish them too soon, and that too much of my life would have to be lived without another new Aubrey-Maturin novel to read. I placed myself on rations. I would wait for the ideal circumstances to read the next book in the series: a long sea voyage, perhaps, or while in a hospital in Gibraltar, recovering from wounds incurred while repelling a pirate attack.
What I’ve learnt, what we all learn, usually too late, is that you cannot wait for special moments. Not only because we seldom recognise special moments at the time, but because in fact there’s an inexhaustible supply of special moments, but we have to make them ourselves. In the 22 years since I read the first Aubrey-Maturin book, I’ve so far only read the first three.
This week, my friend Henry will bury his mother with the Egyptian shawl around her shoulders, used for the first time. And this afternoon I shall sit down and start on page one of The Mauritius Command, book four of the Aubrey-Maturin series. Tonight will be a special occasion, and so will tomorrow, and every day that comes.