Fiction of Menton
The best day was the first day when
an electrician was fixing a new light
in the kitchen and I went to check the mail
because this electrician kept talking about
the All Blacks, Richie McCaw, and I was out
of my depth. The usual bills, but then a letter
that I opened without reading until I saw Congratulations
and remembered the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship.
Or maybe it was the telephone. An electrician was there.
Excuse me, I said, relieved that I did not need to tell him
I’d no idea of the score. This woman whose name
was unfamiliar, whose voice would invent another future
just by dialling my number, by listening to the ring tone,
then speaking my name and saying ‘We’d like to offer etcetera.’
At first I was a mess.
I was blown away.
I was over the moon.
I was gob smacked.
But the wind stopped
my bruised gob recovered
and I came down to earth.
I gathered myself together.
Yippee eye ay,
yippee eye do,
I really want you,
The first name of my travel agent was the same as my own which led to a little confusion but we didn’t let that get us down. I was anxious to get the best deal possible which is never as good as the best deals they advertise in the paper or in their shop front window. I always like the little cut-out man in uniform who stands forever in Lambton Quay offering you cheap deals, but that is an aside. The travel agent insisted on seeing my passport and then insisted I get a new one. With security on airlines such an issue these days, she said, I would have to get a new one because there was a slight problem with the cover. A tiny corner of the blue exterior card had separated from the paper on the inside. The airline would refuse to let me on board with a damaged passport. I was reluctant. I don’t look like a terrorist, I said, but in the end I complied and spent $150 getting a new passport.
An hour out of Auckland when we were over the Pacific on our way to Japan, there was an incident on board. I do not like to mention the name of the airline in case they should read this and feel it gives them a bad image, but let me say it is one of the few airlines that still uses metal cutlery rather than pale plastic implements that bend with any pressure. Over the noise of the plane I heard raised voices just two rows in front of me and across the aisle. A man, very swarthy, complained about something to a seated man and then he stabbed him with his fork. The seated man shouted something, used his arms to defend himself. Two tall male passengers came out of their seats. Because of the vibration of the plane, and that sense of dislocation I always have on long distance flights, I was less troubled than I might have been. It was as if I watched on a film, the injured man standing, holding his neck while the blood stained his comfortable blue sweatshirt. The two big men holding down the attacker until two crew members came and injected him with what must have been a tranquiliser. They held him under his arms and dragged him as if he were a parcel towards the back of the plane. His heels dragged on the carpeted aisle. I did not see him again.
When you are not very well
When you are tired on the beach in Golden Bay
When your heart is a wee bird trapped
in your throat and it cannot settle or be free.
When you eat and eat because you can’t walk far
and being well is on another island.
But that aside, putting that away, what I want to say today is to go back in time and tell you just how glad I was to work in the Villa Isola Bella in Menton. What made the judges look and choose me? What in my nature did they see? What sort of writer would develop in the Villa Isola Bella in Menton?
When I was in Menton
I was near the Italian border. I spoke passable French
though the speed and accent of the local voices made it
difficile. I loved the Villa Isola Bella. Katherine M.
had worked there. I would sit for hours and inspiration.
Doves outside and climbing plants. The plumbing uncertain,
the heating less than, well less than. The long windows.
There was a railway and once a civic reception.
I wrote a complicated piece about isolation, the solitary life.
I thought often about the pâtisserie where each day
I rewarded myself with an almond cake (Miss Brill)
and back in my apartment I made a sandwich
with runny blackish-red jam (see The Dolls’ House).
I remembered Middleton Murray.
That short, querulous, uncertain man.
I remembered D.H. Lawrence,
his bad temper, sickness, anger.
And Virginia Woolf,
luminous and snobbish.
These recollections were
a self-conscious exercise
more than an imperative of the place.
I will never forget this villa, how the shutters for instance, were unwilling to close and be secured. How the concierge looked at me across a broom she held and turned away. And in winter, the clanking of the heater and later the prettiest flowers, a creeper over the verandah. I cannot remember their name but K.M. will be quite sure. Perhaps it is bouganvillia.
Yes I wrote. I wrote each day. I had my notebook (cahier) and my pencil that I called crayon. I observed the passing crowd and once a pigeon in a public lavatory that could be used by men or women. It strutted on the mosaic bench around a hand basin. I wrote a series of observations, the life of a writer.
So I loved Menton, the language, the ambiance, the food. Each little rue as we called the streets. A problem with the bidet once. Some flooding, but I persevered. The damp stain a constant, but mobile on the bathroom floor.
The concierge hand-reared a parrot called Joseph. She had a metal cage for him, but at first she kept him in a slatted wooden box. He was so small he could climb through the slats. She ground up green leafy vegetables, sunflower and other seeds and added water to make a paste which she fed to Joseph. He liked to climb into her pocket and she said he liked best at night to crawl into bed with her and climb under her night dress and between her breasts. She said he was very laid, but also totally charmant. He was hairless then, but very affectionate. When he was still mostly bald, he one day developed intense blue eyebrows. Then more wing feathers. He was so fond and friendly. Shortly before I left to return to New Zealand, Joseph was killed by a falcon. The landlady was distraught. She cried. She said she knew it was her fault because she had not clipped his wings. I tried to write a poem about his death, but it never worked.
As I said, the food in Menton was
a pleasure, Mediterranean cooking,
extra virgin olive oil, olives, wine,
the colour of aubergines and such pendulous tomatoes,
that smell of their leaves on my hands. Also brioche and
crescent-shaped bread, half pastry, so much pleasure.
Sweet black coffee. The sun shone. Sometimes the rain
rained, but I’d prefer to leave that out for now, prefer not
to dwell on rain drops sliding down windows, pooling
on the window sills, the flaw in the guttering, how rain
dripped into the tiled courtyard and the sound
exasperated me, and the three days when we never
saw the sun, though were reliably informed it was still
there in its grey blankets and pillows of wet French cloud.