Returning to La Bégude, Fred’s father’s home in Provence after thirteen years is like returning to a dream you’ve had before. Much is familiar – the tree-lined driveway, Marcia’s welcoming smile, the waft of cigarettes, the swimming pool sparkling like a patchwork piece of the Mediterranean; but much has changed: the hedges are thicker, the vines framing the doorway are more established, Marc is thinner and – holy shit – cute little 5-year-old Antoine is now a handsome young man with perfect stubble and a rosé in hand.
The past and present mingle; younger versions of us slip between the columns around the lunch table and dance up on the grass between the fruit trees. I see Caro gliding across the terrace on the night of her wedding here thirteen years ago, exquisite in a champagne-colored Ralph Lauren gown. I see her then brand-new husband Fred, baby-faced and beaming, holding court with the confidence of one who has known a house since childhood. And I see me, long and lean in an asymmetrical dress with a neck scarf and flicky hair on the arm of a man who meant something at the time. I was twenty-five.
Fred’s father Marc and his gorgeous wife Marcia greet me like an old friend and congratulate us on “les enfants”. The girls stumble over “bonjour” and turn their faces into our legs for a moment before running off to swim. I introduce Jeremy and in that instant I love him more than ever for trying out his (sorry darling) dreadful French. The moment dissolves into laughter and Marcia shoos us outside with a glass of local rosé cooled with an ice-cube.
As old friends do, we turn over our common ground, shocked at how hazy the details have become. The answers to questions don’t really matter; it’s the talking, the re-examining that cements friendships.
“Did you come down to Marseilles on the TGV?” (we think yes).
“What was the name of that little hotel?” (La Griffon, now closed).
We’re in our 30s and 40s now but still feel like we’re twenty-five. Since then, between us, six houses have been bought or sold, Jeremy and I met and married, four children have been born, two cancers diagnosed and survived. We cannot understand how so much time could possibly have passed.
Fred tells me over lunch I should get Botox.
“You cannot do it on zee ‘orizontal lines, just the vertical ones,” he says pointing to lines I’d never even noticed between my eyebrows.
“It is, well, itz-ah, maintenanssse, it’s preventateeve, you know?”
French women are exquisite animals, an entirely unique breed that float through their natural habitat in a waft of perfume and – well, at least the Provence variety – tailored kaftans. It’s no particular surprise to learn that half the women at the table dabble in Botox and more.
Caro grabs my arm and nods her head in Fred’s direction: “He’s French. No filter, remember?”
“I’m not even forty!” I turn to face Fred. “But you’re in the hair industry, darling, surely you have access to a little something that could help here,” I wave my fingers around his hairline.
Fred laughs: “ You got me, Car-ho-leen, you got me. One-all, as they say.”
But seriously, I spent so long in the modeling world where everyone was so beautiful and perfect that ‘the norm’ became distorted. Being over six feet tall myself, for a long time I assumed the average dimensions of a Kiwi woman was at least 5’7” and a size 12, when in reality it is more like 5”2” and size 16. I can still spot a kilo weight gain from a kilometer away and it’s obvious to me when someone has had a ‘freshen up’ at their dermatologist’s. I’m pretty happy with the face I see in the mirror but admit it is a strange metamorphosis to get used to; youth’s elasticity slipping from my skin to reveal the smiling, lined-eyed grown-up staring back at me. At 38 I think about all these things and whilst not ready right now, one day maybe I’ll be ready for ‘a little maintenanssse’.
As if the gods have a wicked sense of humor, Caro’s exquisite-looking almost-12-year-old daughter – my goddaughter Maia – lopes over to the table in her wet swimsuit. She reaches over my shoulder for a hunk of baguette and plonks her skinny bottom on my skinny thigh.
“Tell me again how you and Maman met?” she asks. Caro and I have told this story so many times it’s become an urban legend.
“We both worked at L’Oréal in London, and so did your Dad,” I say.
“She chazzed me for weeks,” says Fred.
“No! You got my number from Izzy, remember?” says Caro.
“Guys, remember I was actually there the night of your first kiss?” I say.
“Ewwwww!” says Maia. “I don’t want to know about that. I want to know how you and Maman actually met.”
“Oh, right. We shared an office, Mum’s a Kiwi, I’m a Kiwi. We just got talking. Sometimes two people just click and voila, you’re friends,” I say. It’s hard to trace the line of a friendship – one day someone is just in your life as if it’s always been that way.
“We had such great times, didn’t we girlfriend,” I say.
Caro nods: “But these are the good times too, right?”
It’s too easy to think of a shiny bright slice of the past as “the good times”. For me it would be those times in London with Caro and Catherine (hey girlfriend) or Nova days with Jarrod and the gang (“we own this town baby”), or the heady, romantic days of first dating Jez. I look at our children playing, our husbands chatting, the sunshine and the feast of creamy foie gras, delicate slices of lamb, tiny potatoes and six kinds of fromage, and the smiling face of my friend of sixteen years and think “yes, these are the good times too”.
And as I write, I also think of the everyday moments around tables, over coffee or wine, in both happiness and life-feels-like-it’s-over-ness with dear friends: Jean, Ruth, Anna, Kim, Andrea, L-J, Katherine, Dee. Girls, life without you would be like leaving the gelatin out of home-made marshmellow.
Maia grins between mouthfuls: “BFFs!”
“Good friends are friends forever.” Help me. I’m slipping into godmother lecture mode. “You might not see a good friend for years, but when you do, it’s just like always”.
Maia gives me a wet hug around the neck and yells to the other children: “Bombs away!” and leaps back into the pool.
New ghosts appear – from another 13 years in the future – drifting between us here in the present and our past selves. The math is too frightening to calculate our ages, but I see Maia, Etienne, Georgia and Hazel at 24, 20, 17 and 15. Perhaps they will travel across the world to stay with each other, branding their friendships more deeply with each passing year.
“Remember when we were kids,” Maia might say, “and you guys came to stay at Castellet and we swam every day in the pool at La Bégude?”
P.S: A huge thank you to Caro and Fred. You betcha these are the good times babes’.