The dog finds summer beneath his dignity
I am ambivalent about summer. It's partly a Calvinist sort of belief that life shouldn't be too nice but mainly a Celtic thing, I think. There's the terrible thermic shock to my blue grey skin and the resulting prickly heat rash, followed by a spreading, wonky carpet of freckles that refuse to fade until November. The coarsening triangle of ruddy farmer's tan at my neck, however much sodding factor 50 I plaster on. The weeks of itchy, maddening, snotty hay-fever (stop it, trees, you utter bastards), and the joyous arrival of a single, psychotic mosquito (or is it a series of pyschotic mosquitoes?) in my bedroom. The enforced contemplation of my scaly reptilian ankles and bony, misshapen knees and the ever-present menace of swimwear. You have to put the butter in the fridge too, which is against nature, and all my cheap chocolate - my stockpile of Caramels and KitKats and Dairy Milks - goes soft and melty and unappealing.
But there's also the tendency towards terrifying peaks of estival anxiety: I'm pretty sure Celts were never meant to get this warm and it does bad things to us. My ancestors would have been beating each other around the head. Now, my brain short-circuits and views everything as a threat: the phone, the car, the letterbox. Paper bags and debit cards and the shops. The absence of routine. Sticky, pinchy summer shoes with Compeed plasters half-stuck to them and half-stuck, agonisingly, to my foot. My own face. Mainly my own face. Late at night - I sleep seven heavy dreamless hours in winter - I wake and find things to fret about. That fish-related translation I did in 2009 must have been terrible. Do I still need to pay back any Child Benefit? That email I mistakenly replied to instead of forwarding in 1999. Not having a pension.
But summer is undeniably beautiful and even if it weren't, it comes around every year, so I thought that I should try and identify some things that are lovely about it. Things to hold onto as I dab Biafine onto my many weals (going to France on your holidays? Celtic? Get Biafine).
The swifts - The screaming. The amazing aerial showing-off. The making us wait for them and coming back just when you start to wonder if they're coming at all. They are brilliant bird divas, even better than the shrieking flock of ASBO green parakeets that bomb down the street mid-morning (I have a soft spot for the parakeets too, even though they are an eco-disaster).
Riding pillion on a motorbike - This only works in the city, mind. Motorbike riding on a motorway is no fun at all, it's windy and uncomfortable and terrifying, you'll get conjunctivitis and there's no scope at all for showing off. And obviously, I can't ride one myself. I am the only person in the history of our school who failed the cycling proficiency, so two wheels are out in perpetuity. But for a quick blast of the fantasy that you're twenty years younger with twenty fewer chins, there's nothing like cadging a ride on someone's motorbike (A scooter will do it too: the only thing that really won't do it is one of those ludicrous scooter things with a roof, so you're driving around like a pensioner hermit crab). You can get so far so fast that spontaneous boozing or far flung takeaways (yes, this is my idea of wild spontaneity) become a real possibility in a way they just aren't in winter. Sitting on the back of a motorbike, pretending not to be terrified going round corners, I like to try and ride like the teenage boys I watch in the streets. They lean back, holding onto the bar behind the seat with a single nonchalant hand, feet trailing cavalierly off the footrests, a lazy eye on who they're zooming past. Kings of the road. I don't think my imitation quite comes off, but it feels right.
Mornings - No school doesn't necessarily mean no alarm, but it probably means a little more wriggle room; more put-a-pillow-over-your-head-for-twenty-minutes room. And when we do emerge and it's warm enough for me to open the doors into the garden, to dodge the tortoise and hedgehog shit and sit on the green plastic bench with a cup of tea in a patch of dappled sunlight, while the hens lose their shit at the excitement of seeing someone other than the usual fat pigeon, I get a lovely rush of pure animal contentment.
Evenings - The suburbs go worryingly silent in summer, feeding into my creeping hot weather dread, but when I venture into the city centre, I'm always taken by surprise to realise there are still people in the city. There are plenty of them and they are staying up late and sitting outside, flirting and smoking and getting rolling drunk. There are small children up late because school is out and teenage miscreants blowing off steam and groups of tourists taking pictures of each other in front of the Manneken Pis and eating waffles. When northern European city centres on a summer evening take on that lingering late night warmth their southern counterparts take for granted, when the sky is indigo and the guild houses on the Grand-Place are floodlit, it's a little bit magic.
Ice cream - I can take or leave ice cream, truly. I love a Mr Whippy ("Mr Whippet" L still calls them), but you can't get them here, I don't like lollies and I despise the ubiquitous Magnum with its overly thick and claggy layer of chocolate. Whither the 1980s dark choc ice, the wafer thin, barely-there chocolate (probably 'chocolate flavour') outside, the crisp crunch and the grainy, crap ice cream? But I do love the weird, unapologetic, pleasure-loving Brussels ritual of ice cream. Glacier Zizi at the end of our street is open until eleven on weeknights and midnight at weekends and the benches outside and all the seats inside are full. There are lots of people are sitting in their cars eating ice cream too, a bizarre Belgian custom I just can't fathom. In the queue around the window, couples on dates and elderly ladies in pairs wearing sundresses and cardies and families discuss the relative merits of speculoos and stracciatella and convey complicated, protracted orders to the unsmiling salesgirls, but no one really minds waiting, because it's warm and it's late and we're out. Even in Uccle, with our footballer's knees and angry bands of sunburn, we can pretend, just for the evening, that we live in Naples.
The drinks Iced coffee and Pimms and Aperol spritz, vanilla milkshakes and elderflower cordial and Negronis: summer has all the good drinks.
That's all I've got, so far, and it has to be set against wasps, barbecues, the fetid soup that is summer public transport and prickly heat. What else should I love about summer?