Memories of childhood come flooding back as JULIAN COLE and his two brothers share with their 84-year-old mother a car trip to lunch in rural France
THE three of us are sitting in the back of the car. Three brothers in a row, eldest on the left, middle one in the centre, youngest on the right. Our mother is in the front passenger seat and the middle brother’s French wife is driving the car.
It occurs to me in the post-lunch wash of cheap food and cheaper wine that we probably haven’t sat in a car like this since we were young, cooped up in the back of a green Mini-van in the Sixties or later in the sky-blue Beetle that someone pranged into while we were on a family holiday in France a lifetime ago.
Three brothers in a row. We are returning from a basic restaurant in Ménéac in Brittany. The day before we’d had slightly expensive plates of steak and frites in Nantes (lovely city, well worth a visit). Today’s lunch was different: four courses and wine for around £10 a head. “It’ll be sociologically interesting,” says the brother who’s a professor. “A bit of real France away from any tourists,” (apart from our party, of course).
The place, in a workaday village, was a workers’ caff that has been smartened up a little lately. A buffet to start, lamb or beef steak and chips, cheese, a dessert, coffee and two carafes of red wine – all for a tenner a head. The place was full of farm workers having a bargain version of the long French lunch.
Some courses were better than others, but the lamb steak was good. The wine was basic but fine, the cheese plate hovered over the table. You had to be quick with that cheese plate, making your choice before it was passed to another table.
We paid at the bar and got into the car. Three middle-aged brothers riding on the back seat, each with different lives; five children and the expected number of wives between us. The eldest – that’ll be me – has been going through a rough patch professionally; the middle one is super-successful and busier than ever; the youngest one is ordinarily successful.
As the presently under-employed sibling, I feel the contrast a little during the four days. As the eldest, shouldn’t I be leading the way or something, not trailing behind? And how did I manage to back myself into this corner? Three brothers in a row, heading for a sleep and then a walk. Or a walk and a sleep. One or the other. Then more wine and food.
We were in Brittany for four days with our mother. Margaret is 84 now and still fit: no pills and few ills and always ready for a walk. If you want to see an example of how to live when you have placed your walking boots on the creaky side of the line, meet Margaret. She did the walks, including a tricky one in a forest; she drank the wine and ate the food. Her only difficulty came from the combined challenge of suitcase and airport stairs, but the eldest of her boys took care of that. Yes, one man and two small suitcases, what manful heroics.
We nearly might not have been here at all. Two years ago, the cottage was burned to the ground after a burglary. This left my brother and his wife with a difficult choice: cash in the insurance money or have the cottage re-built. Eventually they went for the restoration and now the cottage looks more or less the same from the outside, except smarter; while the inside is new and fresh. Painful at the time but, as with those flooded homes in York, at the end you have a new house out of the anguish.
On one of our walks we pass a nearby cottage that was also torched in a similar manner by the same gang. The gable ends remain but everything else is gone, ruined by fire. “That’s what ours looked like,” says the middle brother.
Three brothers in a row but not in a row (confusing language, English), as we all got on. The old sibling rivalries have mostly gone or collapsed into the ashes of age. The brother who habitually refuses to spend more than four pounds on a bottle of wine came in for a bit of stick. And, no, I am not that brother, although perhaps I should be.
It is good to be a brother, to be one of three. Perhaps you appreciate that more with age. Three brothers in a row, two in Yorkshire, one in France and also here, there and everywhere.
Three history boys in the back of a Mini-van, one dark and two blondes. Those boys have gone now and yet here they are again. Three middle-aged boys on the back-seat of a dusty Ford Focus, one bald, two thinner on top than they were, but still with noticeable amounts of hair.
We have our differences and now we have gone our different ways again. But it is good to be one of three.