In London, Paul and I worked for three weeks as porters at the Chelsea Hotel and got friendly with the three receptionists, Sabina, Clara and Julie. Before we left, all three receptionists invited us to visit them in their respective countries if we could manage to get there.
I met Maria the first day Paul and I arrived in Baden, Austria, and knocked on Kurt’s door, the address given us by Sabina.
Maria was Kurt’s flatmate. Kurt himself was a huge man, at least seventeen stone. He couldn’t see his own dick save in the mirror, as he told me a couple of months later. Making love was also a bit of an exercise, he reckoned. On the other hand, he had an absolute gift for plucking good times out of the random cosmic fart plasma. That was his mission. Happiness Incorporated. He was chief executive. But for a self-consciousness about his size, Kurt would have been any woman’s dream. Maybe Maria’s. Who knows? There was something special between Maria and Kurt, and he always looked out for her. But Kurtl kept an eye out for a lot of different people.
Maria and I first hit it off one night parked up in the middle of some vineyard along with Paul and Kurt. It was raining, so we just sat in the van talking and drinking. Maria had to have a pee. When she didn’t come back, Kurt suggested I go find her. She wasn’t far away, crying in the rain. She’d banged herself and was bleeding. She hadn’t known what to do and so had just sat there, soaking up the rain and bleeding. For some reason, I found that endearing. I tried to cheer her up, and after a minute got her back in the van. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with Maria. She was beautiful.
Thanks to Kurt, Paul and I stayed for three months working at the international sculpture symposium at Bad Vöslau.
After the symposium Kurt, Maria, Paul and I drove to Clara’s place in Italy. Along the way, in that beautiful, zen-like state where someone is supposedly driving, or else keeping the driver company, passing the wine and rolling smokes, or otherwise cuddled up in the back, Maria and I made love for the first time. After that, supposedly, we fell asleep.
At the border, Paul gave the Italian border guards five passports instead of four (Paul had two passports), and Maria and I were awakened by the uncomfortable absence of movement and the static of uncomprehending border guard brains.
Once at Lerici, Maria and I were somehow allocated a room to ourselves. Ignorant as I was, Maria had a boyfriend in Baden, a doctor. She felt she’d let herself down and resisted my further affections. Even so, I gently persisted. Which, after a day or two, seemed to work.
But a week later, Kurt and Maria drove back to Austria as planned.
Back in 1972, in the fifth form, a bit like when you’re dead, they used to scale the end of year examination results so that no more than half the students would pass. Hence I got 47% in Latin, and still won the languages prize. In reality, I guess I would have got about 65%. And more like 80% instead of 67% in French. Never mind. It was very hard to score well in languages.
Even with a theoretical 80% in High School French I still couldn’t make myself understood in the very first shop I walked into in France. It was a bakery. I wanted a loaf of bread. Behind the shopkeeper and his assistant were racks and racks of loaves, and bread-like things. I pointed and jibbered, generally resembling a character recently emerged from a coffee-pot.
“Which do you want?” I was asked over and over in a pleasant tone. I jabbered and pointed some more.
Incredibly, I managed to walk out of there empty-handed. I had the equivalent of about ten dollars to my name, and nowhere to spend it. Palpably, I was an idiot.
When we left Italy, Paul and I went our own separate ways. As we said goodbye to Clara, she gave us ten dollars each. That was it. We were on our own. We were off to find out what kind of idiocy we were made of.
That was at the motorway on-ramp. As it happened, a number of other hitchhikers were trying to get a ride in the same direction. For whatever reason we all stood there like dummies with our thumbs out and got nowhere. Mid morning, without an invite, another hiker arrived on the scene, an American. Apparently not willing to jump the queue, and realising that unless he did something no one would ever leave the area, he began knocking at the windows of cars stopped at the pay-stations. Within a short time he got all five of us rides out of there. I guess he took a deep breath when he finally got a ride of his own.
After the bakery fiasco, I hitched around the south of France for three or four weeks looking for a job picking grapes. Apparently, the grapes weren’t ready. Except I ate them for myself as I was moving around. Also tomatoes and anything else I could find to eat. It all seemed ready to me. Mostly I lived on water.
One day about lunchtime I stopped in a cemetery. Cemeteries always had water. I filled up my bottle and sat by the side of a grave in the shade. Nearly all the graves had photographs of the deceased in their best Sunday dress. Water swirled inside my empty stomach with an over-loud joy.
I knew that ‘comfort’ was a word. I remembered it from school. But now, otherwise present in the shade of the very same cemetery, that same word, or at least one of its kind, glanced over at my brain. And what with brain and thought both swaying slightly in the heat as we may have been, and “unlikely” being a thought’s middle name, that comfort-word flew right on over.
“Comfort,” I thought.
Perfectly happy, I remained seated thus beside my grave. Half an hour, I have found, is often time enough to process one thought.
Then I got up and refilled my bottle.
Comfort was a grave to keep the corpse from rotting.
At least I was in the right country. A bottle of wine cost one dollar. People were friendly, and spoke such a beautiful language I could sit and listen to it for any amount of time. Nothing was dumb. Not bicycles, nor the dust from a Mercedes Benz. Not even starvation. To be hungry was intelligent. The houses looked like they’d been built by human beings. The people themselves, if they’d ever fucked up, had no memory of it. Life was for the living. I was home. I was swimming naked in a blue-brown pond. I was in aisle four looking for the cream cheese. I was writing letters that made no sense. But I did get sick of lumping my trumpet around.
That very same day, I would leave it all (backpack, tent, clothes, trumpet) in the long grass and head up some dead-end road that, by the signpost, appeared to lead to a vineyard. I’d figure my things should be semi-safe as whoever might pick them up would also end up at the vineyard. Two hundred yards up the way, at the top of the rise, I would realise I was simply following a country lane that probably led all the way to the next village. A scooter would pass me with my pack and trumpet on board. My arms would wave. I would call out at the top of my lungs. Momentarily, I would speak some archaic sort of Greek.
Sometimes it’s only when you run out of options that things start to happen. A couple of weeks in France and I’d managed to ditch nearly everything I had taken for granted my whole life: Food, shelter, family, money, language, work, friends, cigarettes..
But I was happy in a starving kind of way.
And that evening I found a job picking grapes.
Daniel Théberge, Pauline Lavache and I talked and walked all the way from the centre of Nîmes, Daniel and Pauline both wheeling their bikes. We found the house on Rue whatever-it-was, a bungalow, exactly as predicted.
Then I suppose we examined the appointment of the kitchen, or the rooms or something.
Otherwise, arriving early, we’d have looked in through the windows.
Pauline would have pulled out a notebook as Daniel tapped the down-pipe. After some nodding, we’d have taken it.
Quite sensibly, Daniel had bounced right over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and landed straight in the twentieth. In his home town of Val D’Or, Quebec, he was accustomed to speak a dialect of French not heard since before the French Revolution. More than that, he had the air, the skin, the humour and the whistling confidence of a seventeenth century pilgrim.
Now, in the twentieth century, he was looking to find a new country, reversing, or perhaps following on from the path of his forebears. This was pre-emptive action on his and Pauline’s part, as Quebec was shortly to hold a referendum on whether or not it should secede from Canada. If the vote was to stay within the Commonwealth, then Daniel and Pauline were off.
Daniel was also a poet of the first order. Someone who could have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble if only they’d had ears.
On the other hand Pauline had no such pre-revolution airs, and unlike Daniel, spoke French with what seemed very nearly an American accent. She was a teacher.
Once we’d settled in at the house, in between bike rides, discussing books (Daniel was an avid book thief), cooking, and learning how to whistle in harmony, evenings were often taken up with French lessons. If required, lessons might continue into the next day, while picking grapes.
Through all of this, les Quebecois, I came to understand, not only despised the rest of Canada but anything at all to do with the English language, including England, the United States, any number of English colonies (mine included), or any other place where that foul language was spoken. On top of this, France somehow managed to be an object of disapproval as well. And presumably, all her colonies.
I hadn’t before met a type who hated so many places at once.
Miraculously, I was temporarily exempted from this wrath. It probably helped that I was desperate to learn French beyond the disastrous fifth form, bread-buying level.
Or was theirs merely an ideal hate?
I fall asleep in my little room in Nîmes.
I am so happy.
Mostly because I am French.
I dream of another room at Clara’s, at her Dad’s place, above Lerici.
A dark and empty fireplace.
In the sunlight by the windows are so many serious heads reading from a piece of paper, nodding or shaking their heads, saying things like “over-written” and “shhh” and “but why this last word!?”
But I have written a poem, I think.
How do I know it is my poem?
I wonder what it is.
“Can I see it?” I ask.
They hand me the sheet of paper.
On which is no writing at all.
How do I know it is Moses?
A page seems small and two dimensional.
Moses himself is huge, strong, bronzed by the sun, with arms stretched wide and fingers splayed.
How do we know anything?
I watch him breathing.
Below his waist I cannot see.
Instead, where his legs would be, hover a number of fat little cherubs.
All is living. In motion. Breathing. Floating.
I turn the page over.
Roughly scratched out in charcoal is some sort of hill.
Below this, typed, a last and only word
(Now if I were a real poet I would have added “squeezed out like a drop of adenine from an iceberg”)
I wake up and get dressed.
Tomatoes on toast.
I spill the dream to Daniel and Pauline as we converge on the vineyard. As we all converge. On our pushbikes. Our motorbikes. On our legs. On the back of our poor utilities. All drawn like flies to the great, smelly, dark harvest of grapes