It’s 9am, and I’m on holiday, sitting alone in the morning stillness, the only sounds being the burbling of the pool filter and the buzzing of the cicadas – rhythmic and relentless, like the shaker part on a disco track. Ben’s gone to the bakery, everyone else is asleep, and it’s a beautiful time of day, haze hanging over the hills, pots full of oleander and hibiscus and plumbago in the garden – everything muted shades of sage and grey, and a piney scent in the air. I’m deeply relaxed and happy.
I pick up my book, one I’ve brought with me to read for the Goldsmiths Prize, the literary award that looks for novels exhibiting “creative daring”, that “extend the possibility for the novel form” and “break the mould”… You know the kind of books I mean.
I’m all for the prize, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the reading so far, but on the other hand, sometimes, on a plane circling the airport after you’ve finished your gin and tonic and stowed away your table, or on a sunbed at 9am, your brain has different requirements. And as I look at this particular book, one with which I’ve been struggling for a few days, my heart sinks. For I have blundered in my holiday choice and brought the one that is all hard work and no fun.
Looking up at me from the table beside my chair is an alternative, the book I brought, “just in case”. It’s To Kill the President by Sam Bourne (pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland).
A little guiltily, I turn to that instead, and within two pages I’m gripped. It slips down as easily and pleasurably as the local rosé and I devour it in two days straight. Fast-paced and exciting, it is perfect holiday reading, though on this particular holiday, perhaps all-too plausible. I’m sure I’m not giving anything away if I reveal that it begins with a Trump-like president attempting to order a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea.
Before we arrived here in the south of France, the wildfires had been raging, tens of thousands of people being evacuated from their tents and holiday homes, forced to spend the night down on the beach at Saint-Tropez. The news had carried images of blazing hillsides, thick smoke hanging over the forests, and so each morning I have been scanning the landscape for plumes spiralling up into the sky, a sight I’ve seen here before.
But by the end of the week, what with the book I’ve just read, and the reckless tweets from You Know Who, and the articles on my phone entitled “How worried should I be about nuclear war with North Korea?” I’m now semi-seriously scanning the horizon for a distant mushroom cloud. Strange times indeed.
Aside from that minor worry, the holiday goes as ever: we laze and eat and do nothing. Much to Ben’s amusement, I’ve brought aqua dumb-bells with me and a book called Make the Pool Your Gym. In an effort to counteract some of the extra cheese calories, I’m marching across the pool for half an hour every day, which is like wading through treacle, or running in a nightmare.
I light anti-mosquito coils wherever I sit, and settle in my own little cloud of smoke, and at 3pm, when it’s too hot to think, I wonder why on earth we didn’t go to the Lake District this year. Then at 9pm, when the air is soft and warm, and the sun is glowing orange behind a cypress tree, and the hills are mauve and charcoal, I wonder why we don’t live here.
On the day we leave, I do a final scoot round the house – one we’ve rented many times over the years – checking for phone chargers and flip-flops. Upstairs I stand for a moment in the largest bedroom, where all three kids used to sleep, and which has now been bagged by my teenage daughter and her boyfriend.
Suddenly I can see them all when they were little, buzzing around me, late baths after a last swim, lying on the bed while I dry their ears out, putting lotion on pink shoulders and bite cream on itchy bumps.
The shutters are closed, and the room is silent and stuffy, but it’s filled with the ghosts of holidays past, every year the same, and always different.
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia