Sport 6: Autumn 1991
Michael Gifkins — Providing Intelligence
Ascending from sea level to the tiny village of Ste-Agnès takes—what?—perhaps only twenty minutes, half an hour. In this time we travel upwards to a height of some 670 metres, and back into the Maritime Alps surely less than a kilometre in all. The guidebooks place Ste-Agnès as the highest littoral village on the whole of the Mediterranean. If by some feat of celestial engineering a road were to be laid in a straight line to complete the third side of this triangle, from the water's edge at the bottom of avenue Edouard VII to the decaying castle keep a further 90 metres above the village proper, it would be of a gradient to defeat the best efforts of even the most powerful four-wheel-drive. Marauding Saracens in the Middle Ages must have thought twice about subjecting legs and lungs to such a climb, but thanks to a system of hairpins and arrêts which as the snow banks up in the months succeeding Christmas will prove impassable to any vehicle not dressed in chains, the tiny TTC Citroën takes this beginner's course in alpine motoring in its stride.
In the early days of summer, when I first arrived in Menton, I used to sit on my landlady's pocket-handkerchief fifth-floor balcony at 13 av Edouard VII—the back of the building, facing to the Alps—and watch through the heat-haze that blanketed the town from dawn until the dinner hour of nine o'clock as the lights appeared first in the ancient monastery of L'Annonciade in the middle distance and then in tiny montane clusters beyond—and finally, like a beacon surmounting the great bulk of the seaward alps now indistinguishable from the rim of lowering sky above, those of the Logis Sarrasin in Ste-Agnès, the restaurant which is the only village building visible from the town. We sat and drowned our separate sorrows in the litre bottles of icy Foncailleux blanc de blancs (a wine never so impressive as my first night on the balcony, when afterwards I discovered that at seven francs a bottle it was the supermarket's cheapest wine), B.'s lacy knickers (always black) hanging desultorily on the wrought iron railing beside us, the humidity preventing their drying even in the evening's oppressive heat. page 144They were nights of great silences across time and distance, punctuated by bursts of conversation as we chanced on common ground and then returning to the silence and a contemplation of B.'s excellent cuisine—meals which I dealt with heartily but she was generally too upset to eat.
I was taken to Ste-Agnès several times that summer, when it was possible to meander slowly upwards past the isolated and attractive houses set in groves of decaying olive trees. The overplanting of grey-green olives is one of the features of the domestic agrarian landscape on this Mediterranean coast, along with the relaxed yet determined self-sufficiency of its smallholders. At every turn of the road an elbow of cultivated land appears briefly before dipping out of sight—grapes predominate, but there are also courgettes and peppers, lettuce in different shades and colours, plots of flowers . . . a tapestry of backyard horticulture echoed in the colours and profusion of the market in the yellow-ochre building on the waterfront where I saw for the first time the farmed trout which are a feature of fish stalls along the French and Italian Rivieras. Glistening and pink-fleshed, they are surprisingly less in demand than their saltwater cousins—a reversal doubly curious when one considers that the marine environment which sustains such favoured species as sole and dorade is fast approaching the constituency of dishwater.
My friends Henri and Simone had taken me on one such excursion in the hills behind the town to buy eggs from their regular supplier, a squat, moustached bandit whose land—perhaps half a hectare, or even less; it may have amounted to little more than the familiar quarter-acre—nestled at the foot of the one of immense buttresses that supported the corniche supérieure. There, as the gigantic beanstalk of concrete reinforced with steel rose from almost in their garden to some cloud-land far above, where the arterial blood of motorised Europe flowed by unseen above us at upwards of 130 kilometres an hour, the couple and an indeterminate number of swarthy children went noisily about their business. Theirs was a relatively modern single-storey building that would not have been out of place in the better suburbs of a city. It was surrounded by chickens which clucked their way at will through the back door and into the huge kitchen, the floor bearing testimony to their presence undisturbed. The farmer (for that is what he has to be called, given the range and professionalism of his activities), followed his wiry mountain pullets in boots heavy with the pug which lay like a moat around the house, even this late in summer.page 145
His wife had made bread in the woodfired oven which rose complete with chimney from the bank behind the house. (They also had an electric range, but rarely used it.) It was their pleasure to share the loaves new-baked au feu du bois with us: the bread was black with smoke and crusty; not pleasurable, it must be admitted, or even hugely palatable, but certainly an experience eaten with the too-thick slices of tough and salty home-cured ham and a thin, bitter red wine from their cellars, made of grapes grown on the spot. For my friends Henri and Simone, townsfolk, this sharing reinforced memories of their past as children on 'real' farms, for they were raised respectively in Normandy and Alsace. The transaction with the eggs was only a flimsy excuse for a re-enactment of their roots. And then every third week or so Henri would drive westwards past Nice to a vineyard near St Tropez to refill 10-litre plastic containers with the wine which he then bottled and produced with a flourish at each of the day's two meals. Flushed in anticipation and with the pride of even this limited self-sufficiency, 'Voilà!' he would announce unfailingly, eyes gleaming behind powerful lenses which served both as window to, and shield from, the world which had changed about them. 'Nous avons ici le vrai rosé de St Tropez!'
It was on one of my expeditions of that summer, undertaken with B. as her escort and at her request, that I caught the morning autocar (for so buses are surprisingly named) direct to Ste-Agnès. As we drove out the back of town, through long streets lined with the service industries which support the gleaming lifestyle of the seafront casino and the large hotels, B. was unusually optimistic, and not just (I realised later) at the prospect of an outing with yours truly. As the bus edged its way upwards round corners that a geometer would have proved impossible, grinding almost to a standstill in the lowest gearing that its twin-speed axle would allow, she regaled me with horror stories of the autoroute which like a cyclops strode above us. (Some of these urban myths I have used elsewhere in my writing. Readers who scan the front pages of our daily papers for a regular diet of rape and murder have found such simple stories of misadventure not at all to their liking and accuse me of a gratuitous use of violence.) 'Last year there was a truckdriver whose vehicle ran out of essence,' B. clutched my arm, directing my gaze out the window at the sweep of concrete high above us.
'It was night, so he left his lights burning and took a can from the cab, hoping to find a gas station open. Up there, there is no way of telling the page 146different kinds of blackness. He climbed over the steel safety railing and plunged 100 metres to his death.
'The gendarmes were called to the truck in the morning,' she added passionately. 'Its light were still on, but it took them hours to find the body.'
There was also a story of a women hitchhiker picked up by a man who tried to rape her. She managed to escape from the car, only to run into a line of oncoming traffic . . .
Ste-Agnès, the village itself, has a bleak and powerful history. Founded in the ninth century (or even earlier—histories of the area are confusing) as a refuge against Saracen invaders, it nestles behind a massive granite outcrop and so is invisible from the sea. (The Logis Sarrasin is an aberration from the 1950s, sited to take advantage of the views of the Mediterranean upon which the village proper turns its back.) At the back of this natural protection is a tiny cluster of stone buildings and dark and narrow alleys. Behind these again, now in a state of dangerous instability but still accessible to tourists willing to take the risk, are the ruins of the Saracen castle built by the chieftain called Haroun who terrorised the district until converted to Christianity by the young girl from whom the village takes its name. From the castle's highest turret (its seaward aspect is indistinguishable from the rock face it surmounts) sentinels could give warning of the approach of other pirates.
Ste-Agnès also marks the southern extremity of the Maginot Line, a vast and costly white elephant of fortifications and gun emplacements built in the 1930s to keep out the Germans but rapidly bypassed by the events of World War II. The stop for the autocar, and the entrance to the restaurant, are both located beside massive rounded turrets that look like huge dustbins set in solid rock. Even on the sunniest day they greet approaching tourists with the grim face of the warfare provoked by and in its turn redefining the national boundaries of continental Europe. If this (by modern standards) incomprehensible architecture evokes only distant racial memories of steel and high explosive, it serves nonetheless as a spectacular exclamation mark to history on a coastline where lines of demarcation are constantly changing.
For Menton (or Mentone, as older English residents still like to call it) has not always marked, with the adjacent coastal town of Ventimiglia, the location of the French/Italian border. Pawn in the wars of cession which raged along the Riviera (Monaco was taken by stealth from the Genoese by the Grimaldis in 1297, while Nice was founded by the Greeks, annexed by page 147the Romans and then served as a pawn in the struggle between the French and the powerful Dukes of Savoy), the so-called 'new town' of Menton, with its attractive white buildings in constant celebration of the nuptials between sea and mountain, is a product of the reconstruction which followed the devastation of World War II, when the area was overrun by Mussolini in 1940 in his determination to have a foot in the door of Hitler's occupied Europe. And while its French inhabitants speak little or no Italian (more a testimony to lingering resentments than a comment on their facility with language generally), go across the border to the happy bustle of Ventimiglia, and especially to the market, and not only will you spend freely of your francs in lieu of lire, but like as not Italian stallkeepers will harangue you in a highly efficient form of French.
And even as I write this the balance is changing, attention focusing once again not on territory disputed by the mediaeval princes, but offshore, in the direction of the ancient Saracen invasions. Missile transporters rumble through the streets of coastal cities such as Toulon in the small hours of the morning and daybreak sees their ponderous darts aligned on Middle Eastern destinations. Whole airforces, it seems, leave the graffiti of their jetstreams on the canopy of the stratosphere, while the occasional lone jet fighter hotdogs it towards Cyprus, only metres above the waves and providing entertainment for the sunbaked crowds who jam the pebbly beaches.
Ulf and Briti had retired to Ste-Agnès and lived in one of the village's original buildings in the tiny street called El Haroun. Built by twelfth-century peasants of mountain stone that centuries later would be plastered over to a uniform finish, and roofed with the ubiquitous orange clay half-tiles whose strength resists not only the weight of winter snow but also the alpine winds that threaten to tear away whole buildings, the outside of the house (which shares its end walls with those adjacent in the street) had weathered back to stones and boulders, with only patches of the plastered surface still adhering. Inside, it was a different story. Although the low ceilings featured beams of centuries-old and blackened timber, many thousands of dollars had been spent to simulate, insofar as this was possible, the clean planes and lively asceticism of a Scandinavian interior. Even in summer there was a fire burning, while bright rugs and tapestries lined the floors and walls.
Ulf was not well, B. told me, tottering on her ridiculously high heels over page 148the cobbles of the lane. The couple had retired to this mountain fastness because the village had stuck in his memory as a schoolboy, trekking with his scout troop on summer expeditions out of Nice. Though Swedish by birth, and with his French still only a distant second language, he had been brought from Stockholm as a boy, the family following a father whose vision was to bring health and fitness to the sons and daughters of the belle époque. A photo of this stern gentleman held pride of place upon a dresser. Glistening with oil and moustaches waxed, seated for his portrait in a bathing suit representative of the 1920s, he was surrounded by the wood-and-leather apparatus of the system of callisthenics which to that day bore his name. Beside this was another, more candid shot: of the young Ulf and his wife-to-be (Briti was then a recent Swedish import), together with Ulf's brother (almost identical to Ulf in appearance) and the brother's equally stunning fiancée, flanked by the boys' parents, no less tall than their offspring and clearly the models for their sons' lean and sinewy virility, caught by a street photographer as they swung their blazing good health arm-in-arm down the main street in Nice. The men wore striped blazers, the women twitched at skirts that swung free just above the ankle. The year was 1939. They might have all been siblings, and by contrast to the polyglot and dwarfish Mediterraneans of France's eighth largest city, not one of them was less than six feet tall.
B. had warned me of the state of Ulf's decay, but nothing quite prepared me for his appearance at the door. Hands shaking and torso bent towards us, presenting us at close range with an inappropriate, loonish grin, he greeted us first in Swedish and then in stammered English, confused from time to time with his heavily accented French. The once austere and powerful body seemed to be unravelling as he walked—or rather shuffled ahead of us, up three laboured steps and into the bright and forceful colours of the house's main reception area. A wall of glass before us revealed the orange-tiled rooftops of the vestigial streets below, while wisps of mountain cloud shrouded their chimneys and—startlingly—a thicket of television aerials. The landscape—as far as we could see it, and remember we were now out of sight of the blue waters of the Mediterranean—comprised the road falling almost vertically into the folds of the lesser hills below us, and to our right, the giant and rolling landscape of the arrière pays, with the odd farm track like a line described upon a working drawing, ascending at an apparently insurmountable angle to the point of some low stone building page 149then disappearing over the crest as the great hills marched south-westwards in their seven-league boots, back into the interior.
Briti was the exact opposite to her husband as he seemed at that first meeting. Looking a good twenty years younger than her actual age, she glowed with the good health which owed in part to a life of careful self-discipline (and a regular adherence to the exercises in the 10-b-x manual I noted on a table), but more, one suspected, to the kind of resilience which often asserts itself in the face of life's potentially overwhelming sadnesses. Her daughter in Stockholm (and she rang her every evening) was in and out of institutions, isolated in the battle to take responsibility for the life she had no wish to own to. Gerde spent up to 20 hours a day in bed and lasted at a new job little more than a week; she stayed in each of a succession of tiny rented rooms barely a month at a time. (I thought of Janet Frame.) It was winter in the northern hemisphere and Briti feared that she (the daughter) would die of cold. Couldn't they bring her here, to Ste-Agnès? Without pausing in her knitting of the voluminous and colourful garment she was (presumably) making for her daughter, she glanced with loving-kindness at the hulk of her shambling husband.
'Ce n'est pas possible,' she gravely shook her head.
Ulf had suffered for some five years from the Parkinson's which had bedevilled their retirement. Hanging on the wall above the fireplace where a huge log quietly glowed (where did they get the firewood, in this denuded landscape?) was a portrait painted perhaps ten years earlier in an heroic style and rather too dramatic with its skin tones of blue and orange. Nonetheless it was the head of a man of intellect and willpower, clearly in his prime. Parkinson's disease, or Parkinsonism, once known as shaking palsy and named for the English surgeon who identified it and died in 1824, is a grievous and insidious condition of the nervous system marked most usually by uncontrollable tremors, most often in the hands. Always progressive, although in different people at differing rates, it is essentially incurable, though its symptoms can be alleviated by a cluster of powerful drugs such as dopamine, which facilitate within the cerebral cortex the kind of controls that the brain itself no longer naturally provides. (Something of the same effect has been produced in sufferers by the injection of brain tissue from dead children.) Quite distinct from Alzheimer's, which sees the brain turn into a spongy mass resembling cottage cheese, in its later stages it presents in much the same way. There are symptoms of severe memory page 150impairment, hallucination, and extreme difficulty with speech.
Not everyone whose hands are shaking, I hasten to add, is a sufferer from Parkinson's. Even specialists have trouble isolating it from the many conditions that are a product of ageing or determined self-abuse. There is a checklist of perhaps a dozen symptoms which define themselves as Parkinsonism only when the patient can attest to three or four. One of these is weight loss; loss of condition. The flesh seemed to be falling from Ulf's body, even as he talked.
'My disease is of great professional interest to me,' he insisted as we sat rather too close together on a sofa. Of all the people present he seemed the least self-pitying in what was essentially a pitiful situation. Nonetheless I was disturbed at how little he held my interest, at the degree to which his impairment came between us with the force of a defective personality. With the best will in the world I found it difficult to listen, not only because the combination of imperfect English and slurred speech made him hard to understand, but because anything he could lay claim to seemed qualified by his inability to assert a normal presence. Even so, it seemed that no one else there was prepared to take him as seriously as I did.
'In my work,' he continued, 'I have found many similarities between this Parkinson's' (a froth of spittle rested in the corners of his mouth), 'and the effects of weightlessness. Astronauts in their capsules after long periods of zero gravity exhibit similar symptoms.' Was this the same thing as the effects of being at too high an altitude, I wondered? I had read of brain damage to climbers, a cumulative effect that made certain professional alpinists seem from time to time quite drunk and exacerbated the effects of alcohol when they did indulge. Short- and long-term memory could both, it seemed, be impaired. Was the highest littoral village on the Mediterranean the best place then for them to live?
'Come and see my equipment,' Ulf was saying. 'And then you will understand.'
His office—laboratory might be a better word—was the top room in the house, effectively an attic built on for the purpose when they renovated what was essentially a building of two storeys. Climbing the narrow staircase was something he did deliberately, almost triumphantly. In the small room with the spectacular view I saw not one but three telephones, a facsimile machine capable of transmitting and receiving large documents and charts, and amazingly, almost obscenely in the context of this mediaeval village, a bank page 151of what I understood to be radio equipment and among which, Ulf told me later, was a receiver capable of satellite communication. All this was linked to two or possibly three computers, the screens of which glowed amber.
'I have a hotline to NASA,' he told me proudly, straightening his back to give the words their fullest impact, then shuffling over to the computers. Printouts lay like washing, spilling from the desk.
Ulf was a scientist of considerable international reputation, head of the Swedish Academy for Aeronautical Medicine, latterly seconded to NATO and on his retirement retained, or so he claimed, as principal adviser on space medicine by the American administration. From his cockpit in the village of Ste-Agnès in the French Maritime Alps and overlooking the glittering necklace of the Riviera, he could monitor the condition of the astronauts passing overhead in their pale cocoons, winking in the darkness. On this upper level of the house was a tiny deck out onto which, in summer, he would trundle his powerful reflector telescope. The heartbeats of the spacemen bounced across the screens of his computers as he tracked their passage across the heavens while his wife knitted on in bed.
Much as B. revelled in their attention—and they treated her like a daughter, perhaps the daughter of a parallel destiny and not the one that had led to this—my landlady had not, I soon came to see when we returned downstairs, made this excursion either to facilitate the rencontre between myself on the one hand and Ulf and Briti on the other, nor simply to make her own farewells. She was soon to leave the country, but there would be other opportunities to say goodbye when they trundled into Menton in the massive Volvo that seemed armourplated in comparison with the voitures of her neighbours; a car which more than anything else about them proclaimed an undying allegiance to their Scandinavian heartland. 'You see,' Ulf said proudly, fumbling in his wallet, 'I have this insurance.' With the concentration that made acts involving motor skills so painful for the onlooker, he turned over the credit-card sized ID so I could read what was written on the reverse. There was a lot of tiny print but one sentence stood out as slightly larger. 'In the event of death, incapacitation, or terminal illness,' it read, 'the bearer of the card is to be repatriated.'
No, she had come in the knowledge that another of their guests was one of her admirers. Bertil was of an age that placed him in the generation of Ulf and Briti rather than her own, but mourning as B. was for a recently deceased and much older husband, he clearly provided the kind of instant page 152familiarity that she craved. Besides, he too was Scandinavian—Swedish, like our hosts. Given B.'s facility with the phenomenon of languageshe moved like a cat from one syntax to the next—and the lingua franca of the gathering (English in deference to my presence, though otherwise it could equally have been Swedish or even French), this slight variant on her own Norwegian background scarcely mattered.
So they shared a common icy heritage and his seniority was constantly reassuring. As we sat on the terrasse drinking icy schnapps and nibbling on salt herring roe with crackers, the mist swirled in around the buildings, reducing the sun to an apricot ball hanging just above us. Below, in the narrow street, huddled figures would come and go from the tiny bar (apart from the Logis Sarrasin, frequented only by the tourists, there were three other restaurants in Ste-Agnès, an indication of the premium placed on conviviality in the long and snowbound days of winter). Light would show momentarily in the street and we would glimpse a fairy-tale interior of tall stories and disenfranchised princesses, then the door would close and silence fall absolutely in the mountains as the tiles dripped their cargo of condensation on the hobgoblins who now surely roamed below. In the space between one thought and the next we were all a part of Rip Van Winkle's dreaming.
B. had left her home in Trondheim well before she was twenty and married not much later while—on her own admission—still very much a girl. Something of this skittishness showed in her behaviour in the reassuring presence of the three much older people. Each cosseted her for their own good reasons, and B. sparkled with the attention. A woman of great beauty and natural elegance—she worked in fashion in Monte Carlo—she needed also, desperately it seemed, to be held and comforted. In Bertil's case I felt sure I saw the glimmer of a far more carnal intention.
He moved slowly, Bertil, because he was recovering from an operation. (It was cancer, I was told quite openly, and the surgeons had removed his bowel.) But his slowness had no effect on his alertness nor his capacity for enjoyment of the things that none of us at this luncheon seemed permitted wholly to take for granted, something which for me intensified their savour—the fine smorgasbord, the endless bottles of chilled white wine, the relaxation in friendship, the real cold finally descending from the mountain. Later, when we had made our farewells, Ulf led us to the cloud-shrouded parking area and waved distractedly as we began our descent. Through the page 153rear window of Bertil's little Renault he looked like a haggard Odin on the dismantling of Valhalla. As we hurtled downwards from Ste-Agnès to the summer landscape of the Mediterranean, I realised what it was about Bertil that distinguished him from other men of his age I knew. It was for me an insight particularly forceful, given a continuing interest in reading my own father. I was tempted to label this characteristic as European (and almost all the expatriate dwellers on this southern coast become first and foremost Europeans): a sense of the existential irony which empowers its holder to rise above mere force of circumstance.
Two nights later, round midnight, I was returning on foot from a dinner in Garavan. The streets of the old town and of the waterfront were still packed with people, the air alive with the slightly desperate carnival atmosphere that distinguishes the dying days of summer in the South of France. Outside one of the bars known for dancing I saw B. on the arm of Bertil, moving towards the entrance. B. was drunk. (I knew her well enough to say this.) In response to my greeting Bertil was subdued with the natural suspicion of a man involved in the careful engineering of a sexual conquest. They had eaten a superb meal and were now going dancing. The tide of revellers swirled around them, less than half B.'s age and in some cases old enough to be Bertil's grandchildren. B. was throwing back her head and laughing. They did not ask me to join them.
When Ann arrived in Europe it was winter, or at least December—a month particularly mild on that sea-warmed coast. (Later in the season there can be heavy falls of snow. Some years before my time there—and I have a postcard here to prove it—from Nice through to Ventimiglia was almost a metre deep in snow. The clochards, they say, were frozen solid in their doorways under copies of Nice-Matin.) One of the first things I did on our return to Menton was take her to lunch with Simone and Henri, at their apartment. After a pastis or two on the waterfront in sun by which it was still possible to be warmed, we strolled up Edouard VII past restaurant street-front windows packed with Mentonnais busy, in the middle of the day, doing what the French do so well and have persisted in doing throughout contemporary history, even in summer and in their far-flung posts of empire. Although Ann and I had been together for several weeks after nine months of correspondence and the occasional—not wholly satisfactory—phone call, this day was the first since our reunion in London that seemed page 154to me to be quintessential of the experience I had to share.
The day was like a crystal ball around us. Outside the restaurant that bore the name of the street up which we were walking, I paused to show her the poodle sitting up with its ageing owners at the round table in the corner, napkin tucked into its collar and being fed from its own plate with pieces of the chop that each day the waiter would cut up before it. Ann was gratifyingly disgusted. The flowershop was just closing, but I was able to buy for Simone a bunch of out-of-season blooms. As we walked up the street towards the distant mountains I pointed out ahead of us, on the first rise of many that led up to Ste-Agnès, the wonderful façade of the Winter Palace, glistening like a giant cake sculpted in ice and snow. High above the palace, back into the fault line that overhung the whole of the coastline, was the outcrop which concealed the tiny village. I resolved then to take her there as soon as I possibly could.
Although Ann had no French, with Simone and Henri this hardly mattered. A common language arose from their hospitality and an almost gleeful involvement with the presentation of the meal. As if on cue, Henri presented his rosé de St Tropez and a story about Brigitte Bardot and her cats which I translated word for word, but the point of which I haven't yet worked out. After the meal he plied us with calvados from the family farm in Normandy. Large glass flasks of two or three litre capacity but now mostly almost empty were produced from behind the sofa on which Ann and I were sitting. The first contained spirit that was barely twenty years old; the second, fifty; and the third—and I had no reason to disbelieve him—was laid down in the belle époque, almost a hundred years before.
I understand that calvados, once bottled, does not improve with ageing, so was dubious as to the merits of the experience we were about to undertake. But it was true. The most recent distillate was oily to the degree that it was fiery; the second had about it an ethereality that took it from the mouth to the nasal passages where the vapour mingled directly with one's thoughts; but the third . . . it was lighter by far than its cousins, light with the delicacy which we attribute to angels' wings. Older than death, the straw-coloured liquid had a savour as indistinct as racial memory. After lunch I rang Ulf and Briti from the street phone at the corner. Ulf answered the phone. He spoke in barely comprehensible French and did not seem to know who I was. He passed me over to Briti. For the first tentative exchanges she seemed suspicious, but this was perhaps because at my end it was the page 155calvados that was doing the talking. When she realised who it was that wanted to visit, she had no hesitation in inviting us up at once.
We had picked up our tourist Citroën in the Champs de Mars in Paris and driven southwards without mishap through the icy valleys of the Loire and the Dordogne. Even so, the area beneath the Logis Sarrasin was treacherous with snow and slush when we parked there later in the week and I was once more thankful of the comprehensive insurance that came with the car, obviously for the protection of tourists as foolhardy as us. I had no wish to contribute to the town's mythology of disaster. Another week, two at the most, and we would not have made it.
The day was bright and open, the sky clear and blue above us. We slipped and slid towards Ulf and Briti's on the black ice of rue El Haroun. I noticed that the rock wall of the tiny open urinal at the corner was frozen, small stalactites hanging like needles from a surface that in winter never saw the sun.
Something that Briti had not mentioned on the phone was the presence of their two sons from Sweden, down for the Christmas period from the northern fastness where even after global warming, the ambient temperature in December was still many degrees below freezing. Ste-Agnès must have seemed by comparison more like a summer holiday.
What I had not expected was the sense of occasion which surrounded our arrival. Ulf and Briti both greeted us warmly. In what must have been for the assembled family a difficult, if not claustrophobic environment, their sons looked to us as allies, reinforcing their own normalcy with that of the coastal world below. Their English was faultless, their manner grave but charming with a twinkle which hinted that under less trying and familial circumstances a veritable aurora borealis of mirth might well explode. They supported their mother, listened respectfully and even encouragingly to their father's rambling non sequiturs and expressed a quiet but lively interest in whatever it was that Ann and I had to say. The older of the two—perhaps in his early thirties—was a 'struggling artist', while his brother, a few years younger, was an executive in a firm of shippers. If differences in personality had given rise to these disparate callings, they were not at all obvious, for both men moved easily and without hesitation over a range of topics, from aesthetics to world affairs.
Briti had prepared a lavish afternoon tea which we would enjoy after the obligatory toasts in schnapps. But before we did so—perhaps even before page 156we had a drink?—there was something they would like to ask. Our visit was most fortuitous. I was a writer, was I not? Perhaps I would be able to help.
I could see, they said, that the condition of Ulf had worsened. (I watched him shake his head forcefully, though whether in disagreement or in despair at the accuracy of the diagnosis I could not tell, and neither, it seemed, was he able to say.) He had consequently decided he would have to resign from his position with NASA. (Since our first meeting in summer, I had learnt of things that made his contract of employment seem less surprising. Did you know, for example, that in the early days of space launches NASA would request calculations of the trajectories of their rockets and the orbits of their vehicles from eminent mathematicians throughout the Western world? By this means the American administration looked to minimise the likelihood of in-house error. I wondered whether such demonstrably reasonable processes of democratic consultation would prevail at times of international crisis.) With the state-of-the-art electronics available to him in rue El Haroun, Ulf felt nonetheless that he should submit his resignation by letter. I saw immediately the small electric typewriter on the desk in the corner of the room and the half-typed piece of paper. But he had stalled, and although the family were fluent in English, they felt perhaps that their written expression fell short of what was required when it came to such an important document. Would I . . . ?
I felt overwhelmed. This was not the reason that had brought me to the Côte d'Azur, nor one of the many that would lead me to return, but it seemed the point towards which my whole sojourn there had been heading. In short, it was no more and no less than I deserved. It was certainly a request to which there could only be one answer. So while the others moved from schnapps and then on to wine (although they asked me if I would like a drink, I felt I could not join them), and then to the table of delicacies that Briti had prepared, I sat side by side with Ulf less than a room's length beyond their circle, listening with one ear (suddenly my best one) to a conversation become scintillating, mysterious, while with the other I tried to decode meaning from the static of Ulf's inner space.
The letter he had begun made enough sense for me to guess at its direction, but he pulled it from the machine and inserted a fresh sheet of paper. 'I have to warn my boss that it is impossible for me to continue,' I deduced him saying. Surely his Parkinsonism was something that his employers were aware of and had long before written off his contribution page 157to whatever programmes he was involved with? But no. 'Here,' he said with a lopsided grin which conveyed something of the ritual of a boy opening his marble bag to show its contents to a less-endowed companion. He was indicating a second sheet of paper, one which until then I had not noticed. I picked it up and read it, then read it through again. It seemed to be a schedule of troop movements and missile deployments. In the context of the movie of international politics he clearly had no right to be showing me this. I handed it back to him, detaching myself from its obviously classified contents. Ulf was drooling in expectation of my response. 'Idiot,' I thought, although I was not sure to whom I addressed it.
And so it was that for the next ninety minutes I composed, reluctantly, a letter of resignation to a man I would never meet, or wish to, from one I was unlikely ever to see again. Ulf's typing was so laborious that we soon changed seats and I took over. Although I quizzed him on what it was, exactly, that he wished to say, translating the answers into my best officialese and making up whatever it was he failed to communicate to me, it was not easy to announce to the American military machine the withdrawal of their eyes and ears in the Mediterranean in a letter of standard form. France had long before pulled out of NATO and my collusion in this matter seemed to fly in the face of French hospitality. I could see and hear with my good ear the kind of four-way conviviality from which no one, least of all myself, ever likes to be excluded. Ann was relaxed, joyous, expansive at this new attention. I seethed with resentment at my exclusion from an experience I had made the mistake of thinking was mine simply and entirely. And all the while the tight band of the only real headache I have had before or since impressed itself upon me as we shared our uneasy conspiracy. Was this what was meant when people spoke of writer's block?
Eventually it was finished. As I stood up from the table, I realised that in no way had I been excluded from the consciousness of the others; it was their way of providing an environment for me to do whatever I felt was necessary. The letter of resignation was on the table. I drank glass after glass of schnapps and basked in the warmth and gratitude of the sons.
Later, Ulf took Ann and myself climbing; it was something he did every day and the others seemed pleased not to have to accompany him. Exercise, he explained to us (or at least I think this was what he was saying), was the only certain way of keeping the disease at bay. He needed stronger and stronger doses of the dopamine, he told us, and now it was ceasing altogether page 158to be effective. Given his condition, I noticed he was surprisingly surefooted.
We panted along behind him, up the winding track behind the village, through the ruined walls of the castle and past a municipal sign denying responsibility for the foolhardy, to the last ascent and the crumbling highest tower. Ulf indicated that it was too dangerous for him to continue, but that we should go on in his stead. The climb wasn't really all that difficult, since for most of the way a steel handrail gave protection from the sheer drop on the turret's landward side. Right at the end, however, before we turned a corner onto the small platform with its sea views, there was a place where the handrail was bent and twisted and the path for perhaps half a metre was non-existent, wiped out in a recent fall of rock. We are both cowards at the best of times, but pussyfooted forward without discussion.
At the top we leaned for breath on a direction table which shrunk the world's corners to the distances printed on its porcelain surface (New Zealand was not amongst the exotic destinations). Far below us and to our left, just across the border, were the caves that had delivered up their cargo of prehistory in the form of the skull of the Grimaldi Man. Further out again was the grubby tablecloth of the Mediterranean, sullen in the afternoon light. The sweeping carriageway and massive buttresses of the corniche, so gigantic a feat of engineering, from this height looked less impressive than meccano. Just being there seemed an aid to understanding.
As we descended to where Ulf waited for us, a shepherd with the crook of yew that had carried him this far, the screaming passage of a phalanx of military hardware caused the three of us to look up. The identity, even the nationality, of the rapidly diminishing warplanes was beyond me to decipher, but our host raised his staff in a sudden powerful sweep of benediction. He was voluble on our descent and his footsteps never faltered; he seemed pleased with our decision to go all the way to the top.
Later, as we prepared to leave just on darkness, Briti excused herself and then came back to the doorway to shyly offer me a large bottle wrapped in festive paper. I opened it on the way down to the carpark and found that it was a magnum of fine champagne. 'They must have been very grateful,' Ann commented, somewhat drily. In the Logis Sarrasin the celebrations were just beginning. It was the end of Christmas Day.