Our dog started barking. He doesn’t normally bark when visitors arrive. Also he never takes any notice of the postman, simply ignores him, as opposed to the little terrier next door who invariably lets me know when the mail is about to be delivered. Our dog showed signs of upset and we thought he must have spotted a squirrel through the window or heard an unfamiliar noise, we certainly hadn’t heard anything.
And yet, it was Aldous and his wife he had sensed somehow, for it was them who turned up at our backdoor quite unexpectedly to collect their little dog after returning from the Continent. They shouldn’t have come until a day later.
Here they were, now. The whole place suddenly became very noisy, my children told me later. There were ‘hallo’s and ‘how are you’ and ‘how are the dogs’ and ‘lovely to see you’ and ‘did she behave herself’. And they bent down to greet their dog who lay on her back for them to ‘tickle her tummy’. Our dog came up to join the crowd. My attention was taken altogether by the visitors. I could vaguely hear our dog growl and took him by his collar. He kept on growling and Aldous’ wife said, look he’s jealous, and put her hand on him. We rarely hear our dog growl, quite unusual in fact. He does like to claim his share of attention, but we’d never heard him growl on such an occasion. We’ve known him to growl at Aldous’ wife once or twice, we have no idea why. I didn’t pay any attention to him this time and my daughter told me later that he had in fact bared his teeth …
Aldous and his wife looked tired. I made them a cup of tea, not a single cup of decent tea they’d had while away, and they started telling us about their latest Continental experience. How extraordinarily expensive everything was, absolutely horrendous, out of price. They simply hadn’t felt like buying anything, except a bit of chocolate. On their last night there they had been taken out to an extremely posh restaurant, we heard, so many francs a four-course meal. It was incredible by any standards. And the quality of the food so poor. The decorum was nice, the packaging so to speak, but what they got … Little better than what they had had on their night out with their former neighbours. At least the meat wasn’t tepid! There had been huge colour postcards on each table, ready stamped for immediate use. Aldous’ wife had taken one as a souvenir and showed it us. It looked an impressive place. Seeing a large house on top of a green hill reminded me of a composer who had lived and conceived one of his works about a famous pair of lovers in this same area. Of course, his music sends Aldous to sleep, and when I asked, had they come across this house, too, all I had for an answer was a weary smile.
But the generous finance scientists receive over there! All the latest equipment. And they don’t know what to do with it! Aldous had received the information that once the equipment was put into place, the beneficiaries had to think hard how best to use it. Isn’t it incredible! And here, there’s nothing like it! So short of everything.
One big comfort: our houses here were much nicer than the ones on the Continent. For all their money they mainly lived in flats over there. How people could put up with that, Aldous didn’t know. He had the pleasure of hearing his house described by somebody who’d been as a ‘sort of castle’. Just to show the difference.
Aldous’ lectures on ecological subjects had all been very well timed, Aldous said, because of a disaster that had struck the chemical industry of that country, virtually killing off all fish in an important river. There was a big outcry and general pointing of fingers at the scientists of that particular discipline. Of course, what science has to do, Aldous remarked and had been heard, was to criticize itself. This was a case where things had gone wrong and one shouldn’t be afraid of admitting that, he had told his colleagues.
I thought this was a remarkable statement. Obviously the things that had gone wrong had nothing to do with him.
Anyway, they were both satisfied with their Continental excursion, even if they were out of pocket by so many pounds. The expenses hadn’t covered everything, but then you can’t expect them to pay for one’s wife as well. The fee he had received for his lectures was negligible, Aldous said. And what a lot of work involved with it. Any businessman would get more for his efforts. They had finished their cups of tea, looked revived, picked up their dog and prepared to go home. Shall we see you at Paul’s tomorrow night? Aldous’ wife asked. I said, no, we hadn’t been invited, in any case we were going to a concert. She said, see you next week, I’ll bring you some chocolate.