Last Saturday, I joined 35 people from around the world (France, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and the USA) for lunch at The Mad Hatter’s kitchen to celebrate my neighbour Gabriella’s 90th birthday.
Gabriella, who is of German-Italian descent, is an extraordinary character. The former wife of a diplomat, she speaks many languages and although she now has problems seeing and hearing, she lives alone and independently, marching on through life with admirable spirit and verve.
She has an incredible network of friends and always knows who to call in any situation. When I was worried about my friend's medical care in the hospital in Lusignan, Gabriella phoned a feisty French friend, who was once married to a politician in the region. The friend - the very incarnation of kindness - met me at the hospital the very next day to investigate the situation.
Gabriella also dictated the supremely graceful thank you note (far better than anything I could have written) that I subsequently sent to the hospital psychiatrist; and suggested I accompany it with a single cellophane-wrapped rose to thank the doctor for her efforts on behalf of my poor friend.
But back to Gabriella’s birthday. From the charismatic speeches (for once the universal language was French!) to the Black Forest birthday gateau dotted with ninety candles, it was a day that few will forget. It’s rare to sit down with strangers and immediately feel like they are old friends.
It all went swimmingly .....until it was time to leave.
‘Could you possibly give some people a lift back to the village?’ Gabriella asked.
‘A lift back?’ I repeated, my horror revealing itself in a strange strangulated voice.
I looked at the smartly dressed guests - at Gabriella’s grandson and his beautiful actress girlfriend from my old West London stomping ground, and the expert in distraction from Denmark and his lovely wife - and thought, ‘OH. MY. GOD,’ while speaking the words ‘no problem.’
My car is what my French friend Delphine euphemistically calls une voiture de campagne (a country car.) By this I think she means, that it’s rusty on the outside and rustic within.
The concept of the hand car wash - where for a nominal fee a team of (probaby illegal) workers swiftly clean your car inside and out - does not exist in rural France.
As a result, my bashed up old bagnole only gets properly cleaned on my annual road trip back to the UK. And since I haven’t driven back in a while, thanks to Biff and his messy paws the interior now boasts enough of my beloved Poitevin countryside for us to grow our own sunflowers in the back.
In a nutshell, the Biffmobile is not suitable for transporting metropolitan folk - especially those dressed in pale colours.
Panicking, I managed to find a blanket to drape over the back seat and asked Delphine if she had anything to cover up the muddy paw imprints on the passenger seat. The best she could offer was her Union Jack umbrella.
The three guests who drew the short straw - the lucky ones went with Delphine in her Rover - assured me that the state of the car wouldn’t be a problem.
They didn’t realise the understatement in ‘my car is a bit of a mess’ until they actually saw it.
‘I get that you’ve got a dog,’ said Nick, Gabriella's youngest son. ‘But seriously, what happened in here? It looks like there’s been an explosion.’
Scarcely where we out of the gates before the oil warning alarm started to ring.
‘What’s that?’ asked the expert in distraction.
‘Nothing really to worry about,’ I said, feeling madly distracted myself and hoping very much the car would make it home.
Inwardly they might have been grimacing as we drove the 40km back to the village, but outwardly my passengers were smiling and had the good grace to laugh and joke all the way.
‘Hope to see you at Gabriella’s next birthday party,’ I said as I dropped them off. And next time the car, I promise, will be sparkingly clean.