I was serving out dinner on a dark November evening. Marcel burst into the kitchen.
“I’ve done it, sweetheart! I’ve booked the tickets!” he said. “We’re off to Mauritius for six months!”
“Oh wow, that’s amazing,” I said, trying to smile and look enthusiastic. “Really brilliant. I’m thrilled.”
Ah well, I thought, we can always change the tickets.
“January 19th till June 19th! Six whole months!”
“Em, I think you’ll find that’s five months, Marcel,” I pointed out.
“No it’s not! It’s six!”
We did the sums together. I suggested it might be helpful if he used his fingers to count. This gave me a childish satisfaction, as he is very much the self-appointed brainy one between us.
He muttered and counted for a second. Then he said “Oh."
To any potential clients of Marcel’s business (which does extremely complicated numerical calculations on giant computers) he is actually brilliant at sums that you do on the computer, just not ones that you do on your fingers.
Marcel and I had discussed going abroad for a long time. We had bandied about the names of many countries, and indeed many continents. They all made me feel panicky. But Marcel was very persistent and quite obviously wasn’t going to let it drop. There were loads of places he wanted to go and live in, and I fought off each suggestion as best I could.
Our conversations would go something like this:
Marcel: “We could buy a nut farm in Brazil.”
Me: “Are you serious? My god, you are. You’re mental.”
Marcel: “What about Australia? Perth has a nice climate. Or Melbourne...it's supposed to be very European.”
Me: “Too far from my family.”
Marcel: “New Zealand?”
Marcel: “Tanzania then!”
Me: “I’ve heard it’s really boring...where is that anyway?”
Marcel: “How about Chile?”
Me: “Yeah, I could do Chile...I've always wanted to go to South America. But there would probably be an earthquake, or a coup...I suppose Spain's out of the question?”
Marcel: “You know what the unemployment level is in Spain?”
Me: “Yeah, I suppose...then I don't know...why don't we go to Cornwall, or perhaps Provence?”
The countries I wanted to go to were always based on how much craic it would be, or how near to my family, or how much I could see myself sitting outside in the warm evening air with a drink. Marcel's choices were always a long way away, preferably hot (he wouldn't consider Canada) and had to be in a growth economy.
“What about Mauritius?” he said one day.
It was the obvious choice, I suppose. Marcel’s father was Franco-Mauritian and came to Britain when he was just eighteen, to study medicine – Mauritius was a British colony back then. That was more or less that for him, as long-distance travel back then was not what it is now, but he took Marcel over a few times as a child in the sixties, and he fell hopelessly in love with the place from his first visit as a seven-year-old. Marcel still has loads of cousins in Mauritius and even an ancient and very venerable aunt, his father’s only sibling.
My mother-in-law is from Austria, and there are still loads of cousins in Vienna...but Marcel never suggested going there. Too safe, too European...and not enough palm trees, I suspect.
Marcel had been doing a bit of mugging up on Mauritius before his suggestion to me.
“It’s got a great economy, an amazing tax rate, a wonderful climate, a stable and peaceful government...and at the very least, the kids would learn loads of French,” he said.
This last was tempting: I had tried with very little success to teach the kids French for ages. One of my many schemes was to set the table in French fashion (checked tablecloth, bowls of hot chocolate, croissants) and only serve them if they asked for whatever they wanted in French. This was a great idea but emotions often ran high (especially when pain au chocolat was on the menu) and my students often dropped in number as someone would run off in tears. So I knew Marcel was probably right there. But I made the usual arguments against going, which were all shot down, and finally gave it one last, desperate try.
“It’s only the size of Wicklow. There’s no way I’m spending six months stuck on a tiny island the size of Wicklow.”
(Of course, once the decision was made and I was trying to sell it to my family, I told them that Wicklow is actually vast.)
But Marcel sensed my arguments were getting weaker, and he started getting more serious about a contract that he had been discussing with the Mauritian government, to develop the ocean resource around the island.
The Mauritian government danced around committing to anything for months, and Marcel got fed up waiting. Then in November, the Emirates airline opened up a route from Dublin to Mauritius and had a really good special offer to kick it off, so Marcel decided to buy tickets before any contract was formally in place.
So it was that he came skipping joyfully into the kitchen that November evening with his happy announcement and wrong sums. I could have vetoed it beforehand, I suppose, but I felt that a few nerves on my part weren’t really enough of a reason to deny him what was essentially a lifelong dream. Very flipping noble.
Noble or not, we now had €3000 worth of flights, and still no contract, so I sort of held on to the idea that we could change the tickets...to an unspecified time in the future.
Then one day a few days before Christmas, I was sitting in the doctor’s surgery with our youngest child, Olivia, and Marcel phoned, delighted with himself.
“I’ve got the contract!” he said. “It’s really happening! We’re leaving on the nineteenth of January!”
“Terrific!” I said. But what I was thinking was oh dear Lord, that’s in three weeks’ time.