Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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I flew back to Menton — well, to Nice — in daylight and had my one experience of seeing France from the air. I was in a window-seat and was struck by the verdancy of the countryside, the neat hedgerows, the lush agricultural look of it all. The green seemed darker than English green, perhaps because of the trees. Now, in midsummer, the Menton authorities could not keep on saying the room was locked up for the winter. So they invited me to look at it and assure them that I wouldn't be wanting to use it. It was small and dark. Two small recessed windows were covered with heavy iron bars that let in almost no light. There was one low-wattage electric light in the ceiling. The floor was slate and covered with plaster grit that had fallen from the ceiling. There was a small table and one rickety kitchen chair on which to sit at it. No heating, no water, no toilet facilities, no equipment of any kind — not even a shelf to put books on. And it was about 10 minutes'page 78walk from where I lived, so I could not conveniently nip home for a cup of coffee. No wonder they had not wanted to open it up! I did once, piously, sit in it and write a letter, but apart from that I made no use of it. I encountered it again a decade later and it had changed completely, but that comes later in my tale.

Owen did come back, briefly, about this time. Although he, himself, had not tried to do any work in Menton the previous year when the Fellowship Committee had sent him some money, he could see how it was for me, but he counselled me not to make a fuss and rock the boat in case that should put the whole fellowship at risk. This went rather against the grain since calling a spade a spade is what comes naturally to me, but I decided to wait until I got home and then answer all the committee's questions fully and honestly. I did not foresee that when I got home no one would ask me anything at all. I was bursting with information but nobody wanted to know. By that time Karl Stead had been appointed for the following year and I had told him plainly, in correspondence from Menton, what to expect — but that was all I could do.

Monsieur Lorenzi had collected and kept my mail for me and seemed pleased to see me back, so I felt marginally less foreign this time. But he did rather concentrate on me. Both his apartment and mine overlooked the sea and he was at his window when I walked on the beach or swam.

Sometimes when I went swimming in the late afternoon or early evening, in the lowering sun, with the cliff faces of Italy pink behind the blue of the sea and the outline of the Menton Old Town black against the pale sky, I had a sense of the patience of the planet: beautiful for centuries. Before-breakfast swims were more bracing, but still too warm to be very reminiscent of the seas of home. When a raft was anchored offshore for the summer tourists, I decided to swim to it but it was further out than I had page 79swum for many years and I wasn't sure I could do it. I thought perhaps I should take the precaution of looking up the word for 'Help!' in case I needed it. The dictionary offered me two: 'Aidez-moi' and 'Au secours!' I couldn't imagine myself shouting either of those, so decided I would jolly well have to get there unaided. All it needed was the decision and the effort. Before breakfast and before anyone else was in the water, the raft was white with birdlime — a bit slippery but otherwise inoffensive — one got used to it.

Lorenzi's apartment had french doors opening onto a balcony perched above the street. He told me one day that there was to be a parade that night and some of his friends were coming to sit on his balcony to watch it. I was welcome to come too. I thanked him and accepted. Checking Nice-Matin that morning I found that there was indeed to be some sort of carnival with a procession of floats in the form of prehistoric animals. He came to collect me, took me through to his place where other people — cloth-capped elderly men, some with wives — were sitting in rows on the balcony. There were nods and smiles all round, though I was not introduced, and he seated me in the middle of the front row. I felt that I was being keenly observed and labelled 'Lorenzi's widow-next-door'. The parade itself was rather tedious and nobody seemed to pay it much attention. Lorenzi escorted me back and attempted to kiss me good night. I changed the subject by giving him a peck on each cheek, and went inside. In the morning there was a brown paper bag hanging from my door knob by a piece of string and containing a peach, a pear, a bread roll and a piece of cardboard on which he had written 'Bonjour. Lorenzi'. This was quite touching; there was certainly nothing sinister about my neighbour.

He was a weight on my mind, nevertheless. He was so ubiquitous, letting nothing escape his attention. I grasped so little of page 80what he said that misunderstandings were inevitable. There was the unbearably hot Sunday afternoon when he turned up at my door and appeared to be expecting me to go out with him for a walk. (Walking out on a Sunday afternoon — what would his cronies have made of that?) He was togged up in a brand-new pearl-grey suit and a splendid wide-brimmed pearl-grey hat — a sort of Al Capone outfit. I was in an old cotton dress and bare feet, trying to cope with the heat. The implications of the invitation washed over me in a rush and I reacted with impatience and irritability, assuring him that I could not possibly go out with him. I still feel sorry when I recall how crushed he looked.

Another time, as I walked down the stairs to the apartment carrying a heavy bag of groceries, he darted out from his door excitedly telling me something about his television. 'En Anglais! En Anglais!' he said, pulling me by the arm into his darkened apartment. There, on the television screen, was Laurence Olivier. For a second I was afraid he might be about to embark on one of the francophobic speeches of Henry the Fifth, but no, he was Mr Darcy, dallying in a garden with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I thanked Monsieur Lorenzi but explained that I had already seen it — déjà vu.

Then there was the afternoon when he came in by arrangement — although the arrangement had seemed complicated and I hadn't understood much of it — for a drink, bringing with him a bottle of pastis and another of grenadine. We had barely sat down when there was a knock at the door and I opened it to his sister whom I had met before and who lived just along the street. She was a solid, hard-headed, middle-aged French matron whose French was more intelligible to me than his was. She joined us in a drink, sitting around the little card table, and proceeded to subject me to an inquisition. How long had I been a widow? Husband's profession? Cause of death? Number of children? Ages? State of health? She didn't ask what must have been the page 81crucial question — whether I was worth anything. If there were things about me that made her dubious they were swept into insignificance when she observed on the table an invitation from the mayor of Menton to be his guest at a concert of my choice during the music festival. This impressed her profoundly and with many nods and becks and wreathed smiles she explicated it to her brother and, I feel sure, gave him the go-ahead on the strength of it. Perhaps she might have viewed it differently if she had known that I naïvely thought that invitation meant I would be joining the mayor's party at the concert and so I splashed out on a Paris gown, but that, in the event, neither the mayor nor any representative of his office appeared and an usher told me to sit anywhere in the two back rows. But that was later, and in the meantime French social mores were not my strong suit. Perhaps there was something I could and should have said right then to end the farce.

When he did ask me to marry him I failed, as usual, to understand most of what he said. I assumed it was a proposal because he said there would be no problem about the children: they could all come to Menton to live with us. I tried to imagine my three bright little Kiwis making that adjustment, and couldn't. I smiled sadly — it did seem sad that he should be so misguided. 'Pas possible?' he said, helpfully putting words into my mouth. 'Pas possible,' I said. He did not seem very dashed or heartbroken; presumably it was no surprise. And when I left Menton he stood out on the street and waved until the taxi turned the corner — the only real friend I made in all my six months in that town. Nearly a year later, back in New Zealand, I had a short letter from him apparently in answer to something I had sent him. It had a sprinkling of Italian words and was not very grammatical. He said, in summary, that he was very glad to hear my news and hoped I would some day return to Menton, and he himself was well. He ended by saying:

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Recevez chère Margaret toutes mes bonne Amitiés et mes bon souvenir, ainsi que de la part de ma soeur. Je vous embrassent ma chère Margaret.

P. Lorenzi.

Interspersed with Lorenzi were other on-going situations. Lesley wrote in August:

Peter is so funny — he does not wish to give me any reviews — I think he is afraid I shall be 'hurt'. He does not know how calm and impersonal I have become. My treasured personal secret is gone — people all talk & talk — till even I feel K.M. has gone too & just become 'a writer Katherine Mansfield'. So I am quite interested to hear if anyone has caught a whisper of what I, nothing to do with 'Jones', may or may not have achieved as regarding a portrait of the writer Katherine Mansfield. do you understand?

Do you think I feel a little bitter? I do feel resentful perhaps at having made my secret K.M. just common property. And when I feel like that the only comfort I get is when I remember that she has left all that behind her & is now perhaps writing all the marvellous things she knew she must write when she was at Fontainebleau — or perhaps even others further on still. Perhaps she is glad to know that even from the few things she left people are learning to See the things which before they only looked at.

Of course, I recognised that in this she was begging me to reassure her that she had done well to give away her secret. But her naïvety was a real stumbling block. Because she had never read The Journal of Katherine Mansfield or any of the many books about her, she was unaware that her secret didn't exist. Everyone already knew everything, although of course Ida Baker's slant on page 83it all was interesting. But it was really more revealing of Lesley than of Katherine, and this I could not tell her. Neither could I comfortingly tell her what she wanted to hear. So we went along until she died, both of us, on the assumption that I was 'on her side', but with no close examination of what that meant.