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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When my share of his modest estate came through in 1980 Lauris Edmond was about to go to Menton as the 1981 Katherine Mansfield Fellow. She seemed keen that I should visit her in Menton and do a bit of European sightseeing with her. I thought then that I was unlikely to have another chance to go overseas, and now that I had the cash in hand I took the bull by the horns and went. It was a slightly silly and irresponsible thing to do, as the gods were not slow to point out. To begin with, saying goodbye to friends in Auckland the day before I left, I slipped on their wooden spiral staircase, hit my head on the newel post and gave myself a black eye that gradually ripened en voyage to become full-blown by the time I reached Menton. Before getting to France, though, on a Swiss-Air flight bound for a stop in Athens, somewhere in mid-ocean one of the engines caught fire. There was a loud bang and then sheets of flame swept back past page 133the windows on the starboard side. After about a hundred years the pilot said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, as you may have noticed, one of our engines has malfunctioned. We may not be able to reach Athens but I am awaiting instructions from Zurich and will keep you informed.' Eventually he told us that the instructions were to head for Karachi instead of Athens, but to lighten the plane enough to make a landing possible we would spend an hour or so flying around to burn up fuel.

In Karachi we were loaded onto a bus with no sides and no roof, and at two in the morning went hurtling through the hot night to a hotel on the other side of town. The following morning, since Lauris was planning to travel from Menton to Nice to meet my flight, which would now be a day late, I queued for what seemed like hours for permission to send her a telegram. There was a good deal of confusion about feeding us, checking our passports, sorting out who would travel where and, since it was appallingly hot, people became increasingly impatient and unpleasant. On the first flight, even when the engine caught fire, they were quiet, polite, stoical, but in Karachi they turned into a pushing, shoving, argumentative mass.

I found myself at last in Nice, but Lauris was not there, which was hardly surprising, and my suitcase was not on the plane, which was a calamity. I took a bus to Menton with my hand luggage, and walking in the heat with my black eye along the quai towards Garavan I spotted Lauris in sundress and sunhat, strolling along on the other side of the street in the opposite direction. It seemed that she had received my telegram but had misunderstood it. She had thought it was a telegram for me, and although she opened it to make sure it contained nothing urgent or calamitous, she still didn't see that it was a message for her.

I was amazed to find that Lauris was living in 'the room', which had been so hopeless and impossible when I was in Menton page 13410 years earlier. Not only that, but she had an extra mattress on the floor which she was proposing to sleep on while I used her bed. The authorities had built a little shower-room and toilet behind the room, and had made it much lighter and airier. It was still very small, though, and only just habitable, but Lauris was elated at not having to rent accommodation. Her French was better than mine, she made friends more easily than I did and she had much more financial leeway than I had had, so she was really having quite a good time. She introduced me to her friends Dick and Marjorie McMorran, wealthy Canadians living permanently in Menton, and Dick put himself in charge of my lost suitcase problem. He made some phone calls and found eventually that, in Auckland, it had been loaded onto a flight to London. He arranged for it to be flown to Nice from where I was able to uplift it at last.

Lauris and I had each bought a three-week Eurail pass which gave us unlimited European train travel for a period of three weeks, to start whenever we chose. The catch in this was that although we could go vast distances in that time, sitting on a train was no way to explore or become familiar with the places we passed through. We worked out a pretty effective compromise, starting from Menton and going to Venice for about three days. Venice railway station, when we arrived, was littered with the sleeping bodies of summer tourists, mainly students, saving the price of accommodation. We managed to find a double room quite close to the station and from there we were able to confirm that Venice is as picturesque and extraordinary and romantic (if, sometimes, evil-smelling) as the Tv programmes and books had said. From there we went south to Brindisi where we took an alarmingly crowded little ferry across the Ionian Sea to Piraeus, and there boarded a train for Athens. In Athens there was time to pay homage to the Acropolis, glance at a telephone book and eat page 135some interesting and unaccustomed food before I was felled by some sort of gastro-enteritis. I had to leave Lauris sitting alone in a restaurant while I found my way back to the uncomfortable hotel and our room with its mattresses on the floor. In that way, too, I missed out on the planned trip to Delphi. Athens, in my memory, was a boiling hot city with a number of attendant discomforts.

Back on the packed ferry to Brindisi and thence, by train, to Rome. I had been to Rome before with Harry but for Lauris it was new, and it seemed new to me too. I had not seen the Sistine Chapel and we piously went there, walking the miles of corridors to reach it, only to find that the ceiling was nearly invisible behind scaffolding. But we got a good look at St Peter's Square, though we didn't see the Pope, and later we explored Keats's house in which I bought a postcard of Carlino Brown to send to Eric McCormick who was just then writing his superb book about Keats and the New Zealand connection.

Lauris was keen to go to Barcelona, so after Rome we headed for Spain. At the Spanish border we were stopped because New Zealand's trading relationship with Spain was such that New Zealanders were required to have a special visa. We were turned back and directed to Perpignan where we were duly photographed (the most hideous photographs either of us had ever had taken) and then, the following day, issued with our visas. Back to Spain, unhindered this time, and so to Barcelona. We were there for three days, and I mainly remember Gaudi — the Gaudi Cathedral and the other evidences of him about the city. I remember, too, the medieval cathedral where the treasure was guarded by ferocious geese. And I remember that at five o'clock every afternoon there was a thunderstorm. It seemed to me you could pretty well set your clock by it but it always took the hotel people by surprise and there was a great helter-skelter of running page 136feet, slamming doors, banging windows, to secure the building against the storm. Great fun. Lauris had to cut her travels short in order to meet a commitment in London, so we parted in Barcelona and I took the train back to Menton where the McMorrans had kindly offered to put me up for my last few days in France. In the station at Menton I looked up their telephone number, which I had in my handbag, and called them to say I was back. (This use of their telephone number turned out, 24 hours later, to have been a gift from the gods.) The McMorrans had a large apartment in a sort of marble palace. I was impressed by their marble bath with gold taps, and their sun balconies and ocean views.

There was still one day left on my Eurail ticket and I thought I should make use of it because I was unlikely ever to be back there. I decided on a day trip to Genoa, although Marjorie McMorran was dubious. I set off in the train, enjoying being unencumbered by luggage, and shared a compartment with a highly entertaining young Italian who gave me a great deal of advice about travelling in Italy, none of which I remember. In Genoa I left the station, crossed a square and walked down a side-street. There seemed to be no one around and I failed to hear someone in sneakers running up behind me. He snatched my handbag and streaked away with it around a corner and out of sight. I ran after him and shouted, but to no avail. The street was lined with shops but no one responded to my cries.

In the handbag were not only the Eurail ticket to get me back to Menton, but also my passport, all my cash (not much) and all my travellers' cheques and my tickets to England, the United States and home, not to mention my address book with details of people I needed to see on my travels, and some personal items including a packet of cigarettes. It was a Sunday. I was alone in a big city whose language I did not speak. I had not a penny to my name. On the way out of the station I had noticed a room with page 137what I took to be the Italian for 'Police' above the door so I wended my way back there. They found someone with a smattering of English, enough to understand my story, which was probably not exactly unfamiliar anyway. He took me outside into the square and put me on a bus. His instructions to the driver were unintelligible to me but he looked amiable so I decided, as the bus hurtled through the city to an unknown destination, that I probably didn't need to panic.

Eventually, the driver motioned me off the bus and pointed to a large stone building on a street corner with a policeman stationed outside it. I said something to the policeman who took me inside and sat me in a room in front of a desk with no one behind it. He vanished and after a while another young man appeared, sat down behind the desk, leaned forward, smiled and said, 'What's up?' When I had told him my story he said it was unlikely that they would find my bag but there were procedures that had to be gone through. First, after filling in a form or two, I had to list the contents of the bag and their worth. What with the tickets and the travellers' cheques, the total, when he had translated it, came to about six million lira. My moment as a multi-millionaire! He, however, did not seem impressed. He told me that because it was a Sunday he couldn't contact the British consul until the next day and so they would have to keep me overnight, presumably in a cell.

He gave me a copy of my statement to take home with me and give to my local police in case my handbag ever turned up and they needed to trace me. He also said I could make a phone call to Menton. Now here was the miracle. The McMorrans' telephone number had gone with my handbag, but I could remember it from having phoned them the night before. No one answered my call and I remembered that they usually went for a long walk in the afternoon. So I was allowed to try again at intervals. In the page 138meantime, my English-speaker took me to a room buzzing with cops and handed me over to someone who did not speak English, but we didn't have much need for conversation. He offered me a cigarette, which I gratefully accepted, and later in the afternoon when I gratefully accepted a second one he gave me his half full packet. I was touched by this and have had a warm feeling towards Italian cops ever since. At some stage I asked him if there was a toilet I could use. He looked a little uncertain and then took me along a number of corridors, making apologies. I gathered that, because it was a Sunday, there were no public toilets available — only the police ones. He pointed to a door and left me. Inside was a row of holes in the floor, each with a boot-shaped place on either side on which to stand. This, since I was wearing trousers, was a bit of a poser, but I was a Kiwi after all, come from pioneer stock, not gormless even when caught without a piece of number eight wire.

Towards the end of the afternoon I managed to get the McMorrans and tell them what had happened. They, bless their kind hearts, said they had just put their dinner in the oven but they would turn it off, hop in their car and drive to Genoa to get me. My policeman was obviously relieved to hear this news, although it would still be some time before they could get there. I can't remember how I made those endless hours pass — stared at the wall, I suppose; there was nothing to read. There was a telephone book, but like all the telephone books in my recent experience, it was in a foreign language. The McMorrans duly turned up after dark and I was ushered out by my friendly policeman, and off we went on the long drive back. We had a meal on the way (I had had neither lunch nor breakfast) and they managed to smuggle me across the French/Italian border without a passport.

I had obeyed instructions when I was issued with my travellers' cheques and had kept a list of them in a separate place, so in the page 139morning Dick marched me downtown to Barclays Bank, where he was well known, and vouched for me so that I had my travellers' cheques reissued on the spot. I still had an enormous amount of trouble getting new tickets and passport but eventually it was all fixed and I was free again. Well, not quite. I had also had a Britrail pass, and that, too, had gone with my handbag, but in London Peter Day took that matter in hand. When he heard that I had been to the head office and explained my plight, and had been told firmly that British Rail never replaced lost tickets, Peter rang them up and perpetrated a bit of bluster about my being a New Zealand writer whose important engagements up and down the country depended on the Britrail pass I had purchased in New Zealand, and if they really would not replace it there was just time for him to call one of the London dailies with this piece of news for their diary column the next day. He was instructed to tell me to call at the head office again to uplift a replacement ticket. Shades of Alf!

And so I went to Scotland which, though it was the land of my forebears, I had never seen. After that, Lauris and I had some fun in New York, helped by my brother who lived upstate in Syracuse.