His name was Hilaire and he was my uncle since he married my mother’s sister in the 1950’s. As a math teacher in a strict Jesuit college, he tried to forget about his debacle as a novice. Picture him in a trench coat with black glasses à la Jean Gabin in a film noir from the same époque.
Yet there was one splurge that marked him for the rest of his life: he drove a Peugeot. And it was a dark green 404. It was indeed a calculated splurge because if he really wanted to jump out of the band, he would have bought a DS or Panhard. It was the most acceptable and conventional splurge that a math teacher in a Catholic school could afford.
But admit it: it looked chic, about 404. Those wings at the back and the serene dark green color … Thanks to its French origins, it was a form of hidden enjoyment, due to the standard sliding roof and the scent of the leather interior mixed with that of noble spirit drink, aged in wooden barrels. Uncle Hilaire’s 404 also meant for us the equivalent of a stylish, yet not too mundane movement.
The history of the 404 starts in my earliest memory with the obligatory family celebrations. First Communion, Solemn Communion, Armistice Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve… we were on the lookout to warn Mum with an exuberant “They’re here!” When we saw the chrome-rimmed headlights and the friendly smiling radiator grille turn into the street. Then we heard the slamming of the French doors (at that time the sound could still be confused with that of an iron trash can lid), followed by the ringing of our doorbell.
They were bacchanals, the family celebrations. Wonderful times when the food and drink could not be finished, fathers took an afternoon nap while the nephews raged loudly on the newly acquired table football game. Not once did we eat together that day, no, twice were we obliged to stuff ourselves with all the goodies that the mothers had prepared while chatting in the kitchen. The thought of starving Marigolds was a long way off while working down the last crepe flambée, let alone when the elderly were still able to imagine these world troubles in the misty mind. Because where had the rest of the Grand Marnier gone?
At around midnight, after the last cigar had been extinguished in the stainless steel ashtray, our relatives decided to hoist themselves into their French cans to start their way back, then unhindered by Bob campaigns or frightening thoughts of various forms of checks involving a plastic bag. to be filled with indigestive breath.
In the summer – due to the lack of holidays – we went to visit my uncle and aunt in their “country house” in the countryside. Papa sounded his horn when he reached the green-painted gate. Moments later, we saw feet moving back and forth under the gate, after which it opened with some groans. Papa drove our car deftly and extremely carefully to just behind the 404, so that the gate could close again.
Again, it was a party: I had my children’s bicycle with me, with which I could – shouted after with a “Watch out for my flowers!” – speed along the geometrically laid out paths. The nephews and nieces went on to the more serious work: founding a secret society (The Black Hand) with associated clubhouses in the fruit trees of the orchard, resulting in the necessary bumps and scratches. The free-range chickens were far from safe on such days.
Likewise the 404: satisfied with my last lap time on the path of Hilaire, in all my youthful enthusiasm I overestimated the laws of centrifugal force that I had obviously not mastered as a six-year-old. The last corner had started well, but halfway through I had the choice of ending in a spiky fir or on the resilient French look of the Peugeot.
The choice of the 404 had clearly turned out to be the wrong one, because after a light thump I was still thrown into the spar, albeit at the hands of my frenzied uncle Hilaire, who clearly couldn’t laugh at the scratch in the green paint of the Peugeot.
Unfortunately, in the early 1970’s, my Uncle Hilaire – like the rest of the world economy – fell into a deep depression. Strangely enough this turned out to be the case with the 404. Rust and breakdowns followed each other and as if this were not enough, my cousins forced the poor Frenchman to make several trips (to Scotland! – there is no god for 404s), until my most dynamic cousin Mark had a serious accident with it. The 404 went blind in one eye.
Repair no longer made sense; my uncle had just recovered from his depression and in the same wave of renewal it was decided to buy a new French tin, in the form of a Peugeot 504 TI with automatic gearbox. Needless to say, Hilaire was meanwhile retired and thus withdrawn from the ascetic influence of the Jesuit fathers. Although here I still have doubts about the combination of the words “ascetic” and “Jesuits” in one and the same sentence.
When I think back to Uncle Hilaire, I see Jean Gabin, a trench coat, a cigar in the mouth and the inevitable Peugeot 404. Quelle joie de vivre!
Tekst: J. Stephorst