THE THIRD MONK
Chapter One of that somewhat autobiographical novel everyone who writes a bit has in them. Written in 2006.
I'm tired still from yesterday's journey and all that went before. My shoulders ache from the backpack. My knees spent too long bent in the too-small budget plane seat and now they click as they burrow into the unfamiliar, dark-green cushioned mat. My hands, with the marks of heavy handles, curl in my lap. My head nods forward and I straighten up, breathe deeply, swallowing the smell of waxed floor, flesh, hair and wool, savouring the sweet knowledge that finally I'm here.
Here I am safe. Here there are no questions - or rather, many questions, all the questions, but none demanding immediate answers. Here, in the domain of silence, incense and grumbling bellies, no justification is required. Anyone who's been here will recognise the meditation hall, recognise it with your eyes shut if that's how you usually meditate. I do. I've tried to change, to vary, but closing my eyes is restful, calms the constant over-stimulation, the pervasive unfed hunger. Calm, yes. Refuge, yes. But not escape. I won't have you call it that. Safe does not mean easy. This is never easy. This is challenging my deepest-seated habits. This is ploughing across the deep ruts in my character, not along them. Chug. Churn. Block. Grate. I am stony ground.
And now the bell, soft footsteps on bare boards and the swishing of robes. I've heard it said that on a long retreat you come to know the feet, the footfall, of each fellow retreatant - no need to look up. I don't know them yet, but I love them already. The simplicity of this place has entered me. I am so glad to be here, with the former life behind me and the gift of this between-time, not knowing what comes next.
Slowly, I shrug my shoulders, wriggle my shoulder-blades, stretch out my fingers and open my eyes to look out through the tall window at the secret valley of St-Pierre, high in the French alps, once home to medieval Carthusian monks and now to this small Buddhist monastery where the silent three-month winter retreat has just begun.
Slowly, we file out of the meditation hall, my footfalls and swishing robe part now of the whole. Pegs line the wall of the flagstone-floored corridor outside and I shrug out of my strange, heavy robe and hang it carefully, casing myself instead in hooded coat and gloves and scarf and boots. Slow, deliberate. Now there is only here, only now, this action. My work period done for the day, I am free to explore, swing open the heavy wooden door into the cloister.
I'll walk just once round the cloister in ritual greeting, then, before I take the path through the wrought-iron gate to leave the grounds. My feet find smooth, worn-shiny cobblestones, fading here and there into pools of rough poured concrete. In the centre, the fountain is dry and carcasses of summer's planting squat with bent heads, resigned to the coming snow. The enclosing stone walls and pillars are old, plain, flaking and much mended. No carved capitals here - perhaps there never were. The only pattern is the regular perspective of retreating and converging arches. The grey-green cloister exudes age and cold, yet isn't dank and doesn't make me shiver. It breathes an embracing sweetness and holds me as I walk the length of all four arcades, once and again.
A harsh stone under foot evokes for a moment the hard pavements of central London, walking in the Strand, beneath those tall old trees, looking up occasionally and feeling real, but more often than not all texture and detail drowned in cacophony. Here there is no one but me, no noise but my footsteps.
Cloister: all its connotations of closure, confinement. But no, it is not confining. It's a path without end, a bottomless space reaching deep into a long history of pacing feet. Suddenly this is not difficult. I can walk here, happily, joyfully, along and along and along and along, far into wherever I want to go. When the short afternoon darkens, I'm still pacing the cloister - a magical walking meditation. I haven't left the monastery precincts and seen the valley, but I've travelled a long way. Coming in for supper I am full of purpose, eager on my way to me, to here.
For many years I've felt that I was in the wrong place, woken every day and wondered how on earth I landed in this particular life. I've split myself off, settled for a fragmented travesty of presence. But just for now, for this three months' commitment to retreat, I want only to be here. This is the right place. No, simply, this is the place: let the judging, comparing voice be still. And still, stilled within, I follow the other shuffling, smiling feet into the vaulted dining hall and queue to get my soup, served today by one of the monks.
Three monks live here. The first is a wrinkled, glittering Tibetan elf. The second a lanky, red-cheeked young Englishman. The third monk, who silently serves our supper, is a Frenchman, in his sixties I supppose. Small, slim, stoop-shouldered, with a shiny skull that is naturally bald, not shaved, he has one of those rubbery French faces that bend and crack across into wry, quick, clever smiles. He reminds me of someone.
The monk reminds me of Jean-Paul. The same face, both soft and acute. The same forward-leaning, just-alighted-and-about-to-take-off-again stance. The same characteristic flippant gesture, silently, when he puts down the ladle: d-->ésinvolture. Funny if he had the same flat, twangy Marseille accent. Well, I may not know that for three months. Perhaps he'll give a talk. I don't think so: the programme only mentions talks by Rinpoche. He might lead the chanting one day, though - would you detect a Marseille accent in Tibetan chanting? He's the right age. Jean-Paul was 32 or 33 when I knew him thirty years ago (how can anything be thirty years ago? and at the same time just yesterday?). Light, elusive, quicksilver man. Yet it was you who first showed me stillness and contemplation, sitting for hours lost in your music. It's right, somehow, that I should find your double here. I didn't know then what I sought, no idea, but I glimpsed it, in a new country and landscape, a different mentality, and, at its most focused, in you.
More? Alright? Quoi?, the monk's eyes are saying. Standing before him, I have stopped the queue. With an embarrassed smile, I move on and sit down at the table with my bowl, trying to collect myself, breathing, smelling steamy soup-fumes. Leek and potato. Louise, your mother, made it often. Surfacing in this quiet place, in my quieted mind, with unprecedented force and clarity, long-lost feelings from that year in the south of France when I was twenty seize and shake me. Funny thing, the mind in silence. You never know where it's going to go. I shake my head in wonder and savour my soup and feel the old bench under me, and the stone floor, and look at my fellow robed retreatants up and down the long table. It's cold and I'm glad of my big, warm, enveloping robe and the hot soup warming me, cup my hands around the bowl, bend and let the steam flush my cheeks.
A silent retreat is a voyeur's dream - the look our only exchange. I feel bad sometimes about how much I stare, consciously bring metta to it; look, love, don't judge. We are twenty or so around the table, more men than women. Look at them slowly, bit by bit; I have lots of time to see them. And look to myself, try not to devour with my eyes, clutch and spin all your stories - enough stories of my own, if I must, if I can't just be here.
The hot liquid, floury dissolving potato and sour, smooth, finely-chopped green pieces of leek: one of those meals I will remember and invoke when friends ask, "what was your best meal ever?". This, and the robe around me, and the soft, silent bodies around me, and the pale, enclosing walls, limewashed over flaking plaster, and the half-lit, bleached and dusty wooden beams above: these are enough. For once I am not lonely, not bored, not impatient. All this right here would be filling me up, were it not for that shocking blast of memory, stirring my heart still, fluttering my guts, even as the soup warms them.
So I'm not surprised when later, after the last sitting with dark and candles and cold draughts and sweet warmth within, after I drop, so tired, into my still unfamiliar bed and watch the shadows flicker on the low ceiling and the rough curtains stir and quickly fall asleep (when did I last do that?), I dream about unfeasibly bright Riviera sunshine and the high voices and sticky fingers of little girls, and about Marianne and Jean-Paul.
It's a rushed return from a far-off time and climate when the bell rings at 5.30 in the moonless, mysterious valley morning, a cold fumbling into clothes and robe and bewildered, hasty walk down creaking stairs to the meditation hall. Shadowy figures converge and I half expect to hear Matins plainchant, not the sound of my own memories breathing for an hour in silence, broken by the old Tibetan's voice in a different kind of song, dedicating our silence to the good of all beings and then, in fluent French and halting English, announcing the day's schedule.
Today, of course, will be like all the other days: sit, eat, work, and sit, eat, rest, and sit, eat, sit again and sleep. But each long, quiet day will be different.
I'm mopping the flagstoned corridor floor later that morning when a throat is cleared behind me and the third monk puts his hands together and bows slightly and edges past. Leaning in time-honoured fashion on my mop handle, I watch his back recede. Near the end of the corridor, his robe becomes a leather jacket and, looking down, I see not flowing skirts but the suggestion of a tiny girl bobbing and swinging from each of his hands. They turn the corner towards the meditation hall and I blink and laugh and carry on mopping. Later, though, I see them again.
After lunch, when the sun is already quite low over the distant peaks, I make it out of the monastery gate for a short walk into the larger secret domain around our small one. The road winds around and through the high valley, up in one direction to the pass and down in the other to the town a few miles away. I take the path up, slowly, slowly. A week from now my legs, cramped from long hours kneeling, will demand a vigorous hike. For now I only want to wander and absorb the place. So quiet it is. Too high, at this season, for sheep-bells or birdsong. No wind today in the trees and crannies. There is only the almost imperceptible buzz of the town echoing upwards - a feeling, perhaps, more than a sound.
My senses blunted by the city's racket and confusion, I don't know how to look for the creatures I know must be here, even at the start of winter. If I come often and move slowly and look hard, I may begin to see. For the first time in years I have the time.
The valley rolls widely before it rises. The vast sloping pastures, the alpage, will be lush in spring, but are scrubby now in the growing chill. The colours today are all shades of grey, almost a black and white photograph. The air is how it is high up: thin and fierce. Mist hangs in patches and as one of these thins momentarily I can make out, way down the road, a rough building, a storehouse or shepherd's hut, and walking towards it a slight young man in a leather jacket and two very small, long-haired girls clutching his hands and skipping along. As I watch, a slim figure with a big shock of hair and a billowing cloak comes out of the building and runs to meet them. The mist swirls back. The mind in silence does funny things. I don't yet see the creatures of this landscape, but the creatures of my own internal landscape are ever present.
Walking back as the sun sinks lower and watching the monastery reappear around a bend, I learn its contours from a distance - its stones as grey as the fields and peaks on this pale day, a satisfying, complex jumble of slopes and angles with the toy arches of the cloister at one end. I'd count walking back on a cold, darkening day to a welcoming place you're glad to be going to as one of life's greatest joys, especially if your life hasn't featured too much sense of home. This moment joins a precious, to-be-hoarded string of such moments.
The faint smell and hum of habitation come to greet me on the last hundred yards of road back to the gate in the high wall, and as it clangs behind me I see several figures engaged in tasks around the grounds, although the light is fading and an electric lamp shines already above the main door.
In the cloister, Lisanne is sweeping and shovelling the last of the fallen leaves. Lisanne is the only retreatant I've spoken to. We met on the almost empty local train and took an aged taxi together from the town, giggling as it groaned reluctantly up the mountain road. She's about my age, tiny, with close-cropped grey hair and black button eyes and a witchy, good humoured face. She's left a lover and a thriving business, a thriving life, in Lyon to come on retreat for three months - more worthy of respect that I who have fled from a life I didn't want.
We exchange smiles, pleased to see one another's patent happiness with the day. For a moment I regret not having a name and context for each of the others. Silence is a sacrifice, though a beautiful one and a different, powerful way of being together. Several times in London I've met someone deeply familiar, for whom I feel great affection, and I haven't known why, haven't known them from Adam. We've stared and smiled and progressed to embarrassed enquiries and eventually realised that we've been on retreat together. The faces and mannerisms of the people gathered here will likely stay with me for life.
As I walk back into this and the sweet expectation of supper and the candle-lit meditation hall, the images from memory fade, but not for long. That night, less tired than the last, wrapped in a nest of blankets on my bed, I sit for a long time before sleeping and remember.
The year abroad for students of modern languages was just then, in the 1970s, becoming popular, but still frowned upon at my women's college ('Better not to break the rhythm. You'll lose your study habits, forget how to write an essay'). Although several of my closest friends had gone, to France and Spain and Germany and Italy, I'd weakly succombed to pressure and stayed for my third year in Oxford. Lonely and bored without my usual gang, I got into odd company, drank too much and suffered a breakdown of the precious study habits, pretty soon a breakdown of everything. By Christmas I'd been sent home in disgrace to my parents, the notion of a 'year out' suddenly everyone's idea of the best solution, the hope now that this would allow me to reconsider, pull myself together and return respectably for a final year's study and to obtain my degree.
My parents were not sympathetic. In fact they were aghast. On New Year's Eve my mother, after one too many sweet sherries at the neighbours', waved the bread-knife under my nose and screamed that I had shamed her and she would kill us both (astonishing, the emotions that run beneath the thin ice of mild conventionality). I had just enough energy and instinct for self-preservation to get out fast. Too late for a job teaching English, I found an au-pair post with a family in the south of France, the arrière-pays just inland from the Riviera. I arrived in early February as the mimosa was coming into bloom - the first experience, for a very northern young person, of the Sunny South.
I went there with no expectations, wanting only to put a distance between myself and my mother in Manchester, my disappointed and disapproving tutor in Oxford (Dr Hicks. A scholar of French classical theatre; her sarcastic demolition of my essay-writing style has stood me in excellent stead, but she wasn't so good pastorally with tender, neurotic young women).
The journey then from the north of England to the south of France took the best part of two days. The train from Manchester to London, the boat-train from London to Newhaven, the slow ferry crossing with queues and wind and rain and bad food and drink, the longer train ride from Dieppe to Paris - pretty tired of it all by now - and finally the overnight sleeper from Paris to Nice, and the waking early next morning to find the railway line following the coast, and hauling down the window to gaze at the Mediterranean.
It was with a deep sense of unreality that I stumbled onto the station platform at Nice and stood waiting uncertainly until a tall, thin shadow arrived next to mine and a nervous woman's voice said, 'Kathy?', (Kattee, as I'd soon get used to being) 'You come with me. Je suis Marianne'.
I'd never seen anyone quite like her. She was long and skinny and quick, wearing tight high-heeled boots and a long, wide cloak in a dull orange colour which was also the colour of her bush of hair. Her eyes were bright and kind and nervous and young, but great violet half-moon hollows sat beneath them and her pale, freckled face was painfully thin, with lines from nose to chin. Had I not been so tired, I might have been alarmed. This was clearly not the bourgeoise housewife and mother I'd had in mind. I was mostly relieved, though, to be met and recognised and led to a car, a dusty, metallic-blue Renault 4 with a big dent in the passenger side.
I must have dozed, because I only half remember a slippy-slidey drive and glimpsing road signs with words like bretelle and péage that were not in my French vocabulary and hearing other words not in my vocabulary hurled by Marianne at fellow drivers. And words I did know: husband. dentist. daughters. two. mother-in-law. cancer - that made me sit up; we didn't say that at home, so baldly, without prevarication.
I came to again as we bumped through the narrow streets of a village and jerked to a halt in front of a tall stone house right on the square. As we hauled my luggage from the back of the car and up the steep steps, invisible hands opened the front door. Looking up, I saw no one, but looking down saw two small people. They were lined up in the hallway to say hello, miniature but self-possessed. It was probably the only time I saw them both silent.
'C'est Kathy. You can tell her your names.'
'Marielle': a fragile frame and complexion like her mother. Glittering, too-wise eyes.
'Laura': a plump blue-eyed cherub. She was a year younger, I knew, but as tall as her sister. More like twins.
And behind them, smiling but impatient not to be late with the girls to nursery school, 'Mon mari, Jean-Paul': a slight man with fierce eyes and a firm handshake and a wide, slightly rueful grin.
There may have been more talk and a tour of the house, but I only remember seeing it when I woke much later that morning to sunshine on my eyelids and the bedroom wall, and wandered down to the kitchen. Marianne, still in her voluminous orange cloak, was perched like a butterfly at the table and at the stove stood a stocky older woman, badly dressed, with steel-grey wispy hair in a bun and those same fierce eyes and wide grin - this must be Louise, Jean-Paul's mother, who had cancer and not much hope, I'd heard in the car. She had nothing of the invalid, though, solid and lively, talking fast and loudly and cooking up a storm. With a perfunctory wipe of oily, bloody hands on her apron, she wrapped her arms around me, kissing me on both cheeks. From the corner of my eye I saw Marianne smirk, not unkindly, as I winced a little.
'La pauvre petite! Such a long journey! Coffee? Apéro? Well, perhaps not', as I stood silent and awkward, '.... you're English. Sit down, chérie, I've made you my pot-au-feu.'
'Louise is a great cook. You'll love it.' Full on, Marianne's smile transformed her face, no longer unsettlingly wan and nervous, but bright as her hair.
I did. I loved it. Love, in all its varieties, is my prevailing memory of the next nine months. My heart swelling to fill a space in my chest that I hadn't known was empty.
I didn't know, as we sat round the kitchen table, after Jean-Paul and his daughters banged back in again at midday, that I'd come home and would flourish here. But I saw that I'd stepped into a picture with brighter colours, from Lowry to Matisse, that these people were as sad and frail as any, but vivid and warm as the flowers outside in the sunshine and the wonderful food on our plates.
Jean-Paul fired out one funny story after another, I remember, about his patients, to put us at our ease, and then Marielle, in a precocious three-year-old's way, told a long story with gestures about the maîtresse at her nursery school, and Marianne laughed a lot, still with her bright, younger face, and I was hearing the pungent accent of Jean-Paul's home, Marseille, and the endearing convolutions of a talkative young child's French, and feeling the sun on my back through the window, melting me, and hearing myself laugh too, as I hadn't for a while, hearing my own voice find its rhythm in another language - another me.
When the plates were bare and her son had returned to work, Louise looked less stalwart, all of a sudden, her cheeks flushed and papery. Marianne touched her arm and murmured, 'have a rest, dear', and she left us to clear the meal. So Marianne washed and I dried, in the sunshine through the window, and we began the conversation we would continue for the next nine months.
She jangled off in the car again then, with the children, and I walked around the village square, surrounded by old stone house-fronts and yellow blossom on the slopes behind them, and sat down with the old men in the cafe to wait for my new employer. She was back in five minutes and ordering tea, a milkless orange drink with a teabag string protruding from the cup, which I didn't remove that first time until much too late. If I was disturbed and intrigued and charmed, I can't think how she felt. Somewhat daunted, I imagine, by the pale, stolid, rather unforthcoming girl before her.
'You'll take Marielle and Laura to school and fetch them sometimes, I hope. It's very close.'
'Will you be at work?'
'I don't have a job', she looked down, then forced herself to look me in the eye. 'I've been ill, a dépression nerveuse. I'm much better now, but still... Louise has been here on and off for months during her treatment, but she's going home in a few days. She and Antoine retired last year to her village in the Alps, St-... [what was it's name?]. There's a house there - pretty ramshackle, but they don't seem to mind.'
'I don't have all that much experience with children', I faltered (thinking, nor with mental illness).
'Don't worry. We just need another pair of hands, another adult, someone kind in the house. I think you're kind.' Her eyes held mine.
'I don't know if I'm kind. I thought I was clever, but I seem to have screwed that up. I don't know what I am now.' A sense that somehow this halting admission was the right thing to say.
'You seem clever enough to me. Oxford University. And your French is excellent.'
'I'm a good mimic, that's all. if I'm not careful I'll start talking like Jean-Paul.' She giggled. I could make her laugh, make her face light up. 'I love it, though. Speaking another language is magical. I feel like a different person. And I'm so happy to be here', looking around me, 'All this...'.
All this. As we sat through the afternoon, talking of housework and cooking and how Marielle walked in her sleep and Laura, at two-and-a-half, was just getting used to nursery school, and exchanging glances and speculation, weighing one another up, all this - the light, the air, the sun on dust and stone, warm enough to sit out in February without our coats - seeped into me.
On two sides of the square were tall, old, shuttered, flat-fronted stone houses with steep steps up to high front doors and pots that would soon sprout geraniums. One side was the cafe, with chairs and tables scattered across the dusty gravel, and a faded boulangerie, empty by afternoon of all but a few skinny loaves. On the fourth side modernity encroached, with new, square, concrete houses, garage below and stairway to living quarters above - the standard box then just beginning to colonise the south.
When Marianne left at three o'clock to collect the children again, she directed me along one of the narrow, older streets which soon became a path into the hills. I walked slowly, smelling and touching and lifting my face to the sun, and wishing I had worn a lighter sweater. The landscape, crossed by the autoroute, rolled towards distant peaks. Bland villas had only just begun, then, to creep outwards from the edges of the old grey villages that clung to and blended with the rocky slopes. Sand and stones and prickly bushes that, even at that season, breathed out a residue of aromatic oils, birds rising from the scrub, and everywhere great fluffy clouds as golden as the sun - mimosa. The light was brighter and softer than I had ever seen before.
I felt warm, tired and above all astonished that confusion and failure had somehow brought me this reward. It challenged the premise of my whole young life, which had pursued me even to the privilege of Oxford: that life was hard, that I and mine were have-nots, and that we deserved it. We were bitter, we blamed one another, but we deserved and expected no different. I'd fled on instinct, with no thought of finding sanctuary. But perhaps I had. Perhaps the world was much more varied and random, and therefore held more place for hope than I had ever thought.
I remember sitting for a long time on a flat rock, hands clasped around my knees, hugging the landscape to me and thinking: the nightmare is over. For months I'd been seeing myself in a deep hole, my options fast trickling away. The friends who'd quickly become my surrogate family had been the happy side of student life in Oxford, their cheerful sympathy my shelter from an academic stringency I was too immature and unschooled to benefit from. Without them, I'd sunk further and further behind with assignments I either failed to gasp or took too much to heart (it occurred to no one, seemingly, that Existentialists were not the thing for unformed youngsters not yet sure why, or how, or even whether we existed), drifted into drowning my confusion in cheap wine and cider and burying it briefly in the embraces of too many interchangeably crass young men. It was a grim picture, but suddenly, propelled by desperation, here I was out of the hole and standing up in a wide, open place.
I don't remember thinking all this, but seeing it in shapes and light, a new pattern forming around me as I looked out across the sunny hillside. And this, I think as I look back, was why I entered that time so open-hearted, why it proved so formative.
Cradling this incoherent sense of wonder and renewal, I headed nervously back towards the village.
The five-thirty bell and I grope my way out of the nest of blankets - never got into bed last night, but at some point my memories lulled me to sleep. Seated on my cushion, I'm not meditating. Too much in my head, thoughts from long ago, thoughts about now, the parallels. I fled then. I've fled now. How much of my life have I spent, to all intents and purposes, fleeing - fleeing in my mind from everything around me, even if not fleeing in body? This has been my refrain. Did I do wrong to flee from London to this retreat? Or did I do right, and all those times I fled only in my mind, those were wrong? There, I'm doing it again: judging, standing outside myself instead of just being. Be... here... now. Why is it so hard?
Breathe. This is not fleeing. This is to practise being here. Yes, I will slip. I will wander away, to the past, to the future, to thoughts, imaginings and longings. I will wander and return, and wander and return, and eventually wander less and be here more. By the time I leave, I hope to feel more solid and take some of that solidity with me to whatever comes next. That's why I came. But it may not be like that, of course. However it is will be how it is. I want to accept, to be more open. I may turn determinedly in one direction and find myself facing in quite the opposite. Whichever way I end up facing, there I'll be.
Spinning, spinning images and thoughts. Breathe. Here. Now. Tired. Cold. Confused. Here. Now. Here. Now.
So, yes, for the rest of the day, here, now is where I am. I sit and walk and work and eat and sit and breathe and breathe and simplify. But the lure of memory, combined with having the space for it, is too great. Back in my room at night, I'm gone again into the past.
That very first evening I found myself doing what I'm doing now - spinning my own experience into a story. Sitting cross-legged on the floor between Laura's and Marielle's beds, inventing a yarn about a little girl their age who travelled from the north of England to the south of France, and what she saw and what surprised her. The kind of story that they could join in with. You know what else she saw? Did she see a goat? Did she see a 2CV? And did she see those at home? She didn't? Oh, how funny! And so we began to talk to each other. And so I found I could tell stories.
At two and three, they were so endearing and so maddening - just finding themselves as people, defining their edges by pushing hard against everything. I knew nothing, nothing about child development. But I saw how astonishingly just like me they already were, though how astonishingly without my inhibitions. I knew nothing and took them on as small equals, and so, mostly, we got along.
My French vocabulary was somewhat larger than Laura's and somewhat smaller than Marielle's. We all made mistakes, but different ones. My mispronunciation of certain vowel sounds made Laura wince and shake her fist - she'd just learned herself to get them all correct, so how could I, a big person... inexcusable! Once, when she raucously derided me for this, I slapped her and saw the anger and humiliation on her face and never slapped a child again. But that was later. That first evening, we span a story together and thought we might like each other. And their parents must have thought, I think, that, yes, I would be kind.
The light and atmosphere of that old stone house are a vivid memory. The sitting room, a long, bare room with white walls, many bookshelves, bare creaking floorboards and an open hearth in one corner, with its wide windows onto the sunny hills, was the first room, I suppose, that was more than a shell to me, that I found beautiful. Interior decor, aesthetic taste, were not something I'd grown up with. I came to love that room - a big, uncluttered space for sunshine and for feelings. A space for children's games. A space for conversations that twined and intertwined and rippled out in circles. A space for music, pure and strong, from big hi-fi speakers. A space for gathering around the fire, cheering but not stifling, on the occasional chilly evening. A space for air alive with dancing dust, and thoughts and voices taking up the dance. A space for being still and for encountering songs, ideas, so much that was new to me. A space for unfreezing and expanding, slowly, tentatively, into myself, whoever I might be. It was nothing special, that rather bare, modest room, but so special to me.
I can see us sitting there, Marianne and myself, on the first of many mornings, lingering over coffee. Endless legs curled under her, hands tightly wrapped around her cup, head down, blowing on her coffee, she was a corkscrew of nervous tension, flashing warmth and interest then curling back into herself. She fired questions about what brought me there and I squirmed a little before a piercing attention I was unused to, mumbled a story I hadn't really told, even to myself, astonished to be heard with interest and sympathy and emboldened to ask questions in my turn.
My story was common enough. I was too innocent to know if hers was - looking back, it was - and it shocked me. A mother twice within a year, sunk in care for a toddler and a new baby, a miasma of milk and crying and sleepless nights, in love with the babies, but losing herself, and losing her husband.
'I stopped seeing Jean-Paul, I think. I was floating in my own separate space with the girls, just barely aware of him on the edge of us. So tired. All my senses dimmed.' And this was the 1970s, all around them young people in a frenzy of challenging monogamy, experimenting with 'unpossessive' relationships. 'So one day I didn't see him, and realised he hadn't been around much for a while - and started screaming.'
It came out bit by bit, over the first few days. Her favourite chair was the battered bentwood rocker by the window. The morning sun streamed through the cloud of red frizzy hair that obscured her face. 'Irène was a patient. Older than us and well off. An affluent, trendy open marriage. She took a fancy to Jean-Paul and there he was, feeling excluded and bereft.' Marianne showed me a photo one day, rifling through Jean-Paul's sock drawer to find it ineffectually hidden in a corner. I saw a voluptuous blond madonna with long, glossy hair, fashionably hippy long skirts and shawls, a mature, pretty face full of gentle irony.
Marianne and Jean-Paul had been passionately close for ten years, since the first day an impoverished student and a hitch-hiking holiday-maker from Paris met in a Marseille café. 'I felt we were one.', Marianne said, 'Not good, I realise now. I fell apart when I found out, screamed and shook and completely stopped coping. Louise came to take care of the girls and I... I don't know, I stopped existing, fragmented, you can't describe a nervous breakdown. I was half-way there already, I suppose - we'd never heard of post-partum depression.'
She leapt up after she'd told me this and busied herself with sautéing rabbit joints for lunch, banging about and creating sublime smells. I wondered if she'd told me more than she intended and would regret it. But it must have helped to talk because the next day she went on, painfully detailing the day they found her unconscious, full of pills and alcohol, the subsequent stay in a clinic and the painfully slow, not yet completed, journey back to herself.
I can still close my eyes and see my bedroom, too - a small room at the top of the house, next to Marielle and Laura, up a narrow, uncarpeted staircase, the only handrail a rope slanting up the wall. My first room with a double bed. I sprawled in it, expanding limbs and mind, waking to a patch of sunshine on the bedcovers, through the shutters which I left half open, and the children's black cat, Obélix, sunbathing on my feet. Waking to the unfamiliar pleasure of days I didn't dread.
Padding down the stairs to make breakfast, I'd hear small bare feet behind me, more often than not, and they'd dance around me, warm and rumpled and talkative, as I spooned grounds into the cafetière and sliced the baguette into many little round tartines. On the kitchen table, spread with red and white checked oilcloth, they'd trace pictures with sticky fingers of what they'd be doing at school that day - the fizzing energy of little kids, flowing seamlessly from fact to fantasy, daft to deadly serious.
- Joanne's bringing her costume today. The maîtresse said she can show us.
- She's going to be a fairy.
- No, an angel.
- No, a fairy godmother.
- My fairy godmother lives under my bed.
- Mine lives in the bathroom, in the water tank. She's a water..., a water...
- Sprite, sprite, I'm a water sprite! Laura leaps and twirls, with arms outstretched, scattering imaginary water droplets, twirling into a sleepy Jean-Paul rubbing his eyes in the kitchen doorway. He sweeps her up and spins with her
- My little Laura-sprite! So bright, so early in the morning! He pulls a face at me over her head, puts her firmly on her chair, and sits down next to her, groping in the pocket of his threadbare plaid dressing gown for cigarettes and lighter.
Marielle intercepts Jean-Paul's grimace.
- Daddy's laughing at you!, she tells Laura baldly.
Laura's face creases in distress. Jean-Paul puts down his cigarettes, lifts Laura onto his knee and starts gently explaining that he's not laughing at her; he's laughing at how little girls wake up all in one go and start dancing and singing, but grown-ups take longer, need cigarettes and coffee first.
- Why? says Laura.
- This peach jam is PARTICULARLY DISGUSTING!, says Marielle loudly, feeling ignored.
Marianne would appear from her bedroom only when she heard me chase the children back upstairs after breakfast, and we'd take one girl each and chivvy them through washing and dressing.
It was barely fifteen minutes' walk to the maternelle, even at two- and three-year-old, stopping-to-remark-on-everything speed, but often we left too late to walk. After many nervous sessions in the village back-streets, practising driving on the right and the battered Renault's gearstick, uniquely planted in the dashboard, I agreed to venture on the short drive.
Oblivious to my fear of the mountain road, the back-seat passengers yelled 'go faster, we're late!' and competed to distract me.
- Look, there's Cécile's Mummy in a yellow hat!
- Look, there's a baby goat!
- Look, there's a baby... crocodile!
At the school gate they piled out and I'd take deep breaths and eventually stop shaking, make a six-point turn, churning up dust, and drive back uphill even more slowly, allowing myself a glance at the golden hillsides, blinking, the sun in my face.
Marianne would be still in her nightie, almost invariably, still at the kitchen table, crumbling a piece of bread, when I got back. 'Getting used to the car?', she'd murmur wryly. It would take her until ten o'clock or so to face the day. Then she'd leap up and throw on some clothes and dash about with mop and duster, briefly the decisive person she might once have been, but soon tiring. By mid-morning, she's be making more coffee, luring me into the sitting room, wanting to talk or to play me a record.
- Moustaki? You know Moustaki? He was a lover of Edith Piaf's. And this is Serge Reggiani - he's an actor - reading poems by Jacques Prévert...
and the sun would climb over the hill while some dark brown voice and soulful words of gentle disillusion worked their spell on me.
I returned from the perilous school run one day to find a Citroën van, the one with the corrugated body like a garden shed on wheels, parked in my space on the square with its back doors open. I braked rather too close behind it and jumped out right into the path of a short barrel of a man with a red checked belly hanging over his baggy cords and cheeks of the same red, carrying a wooden crate full of vegetables. I didn't know we had a greengrocer who delivered. 'La fameuse Kattee?'. He put down the crate and extended a hand. 'Antoine Polizzi'. Jean-Paul's father. My eyes followed the brown cigarette that stayed between his lips as he spoke. He removed it, puffed on it and looked me up and down, then, since I found nothing to say, picked up the crate again with a grin and followed me into the house.
Louise and Antoine had returned, sooner than they'd hoped, for more visits to the hospital, and would be staying for a week or two. She looked paler, sitting quietly on the sofa, recovering from the early morning hours of jolting over narrow mountain roads in the tin-can van.
Antoine took over the kitchen, puffing on his Gitanes, a tumbler of red wine to hand, selecting delectable leeks and carrots from his garden for our meal. They took turns to cook, vying to make us swoon with ecstasy at perfect peasant feasts. Amidst smiles and anecdotes and bursts of song, the fresh root vegetables and salad greens, the saucisson artisanal and wheels of dense rye bread came out of boxes and sacks, filled up the kitchen cupboards and arrayed themselves beamingly, temptingly, on the table.
Louise and Antoine. Long, long dead, their warmth and verbosity and joie de vivre live in my heart. They were unprepossessing, dirt-poor and prematurely aged, and king and queen of food and drink and laughter and each other. On a shelf in the sitting room was a framed photo of them, sitting on a bench outside their dilapidated house, laughing and talking to the photographer, bathed in evening sunlight, the stones of the house, their hair, their clothes all the same golden grey, and in my mind they always have that aura.
For forty years they'd been newspaper vendors on the poorest streets of Marseille, out in all weathers and barely scraping a living. They'd retired at sixty, not long before. Louise elbowed me: 'We got married last year - to qualify for the pension, you know!'. I gaped. of course, Jean-Paul was not called Polizzi, thought no doubt at all, seeing them together, that he was Antoine's son. It was after just a few months back in the Alpine village of Louise's childhood, happily gardening, cooking and starting to repair the house that had long stood empty, that she found the lump. Bitter luck, but they didn't seem bitter - just... themselves and here, embracing life to the last breath.
Lunch that day became a ceremony, the first of many, with all of us interacting around the table. Hands stretched, mouths filled, talk bounced back and forth. Louise perked up enough to sharply critique the mustard in her husband's salad dressing. Even in the face of Marianne's fluctuating and sometimes frail energy, we always had formal, well cooked meals with courses and conversation. That was still then the French way. But, with Louise and Antoine, meals moved up a key, becoming delicious, riotous rituals which framed the days. The main course would arrive in a massive, two-handled enamel pot with ladle, placed with ceremony in the centre of the long kitchen table. With every meal I discovered some dish that was new to me, and some story. Here was a culture of gourmet sensuality, a great tradition transcending wealth and class - a culture which has since begun to disappear, with Louise and Antoine's generation, but is not yet forgotten.
Food and cooking had been a deep, abiding pleasure of their life together and of Jean-Paul's childhood and still was, for all of them, an obsession. They tasted, murmured, mused over each dish, discussed the tried and true like favourite paintings and each new venture like a newly discovered work whose attribution demanded slow deliberation and debate.
'And is it true, my dear young lady', Antoine asked, twinkling, 'that in England, when you roast a joint of meat, you throw away the juices and make a sauce from a packet, from cornflour and brown dye?!' 'Ssh, Papa, yes, it's true; it's called Bisto.' (Jean-Paul pronounced it 'Beast-oh'). And so I learned, before I'd had a kitchen of my own and really been corrupted by the base cuisine of my own nation, about food as art, as a ritual of long, varied, moderated pleasures; that a meal was at least three courses, that vegetables were cooked to keep their shape and glowing colours and set on a separate plate, that a starter could be just two perfect radishes with a knob of unsalted butter or a spoonful of grated celeriac in strong-tasting mayonnaise, that cheese came in fine, pungent, nutty or creamy slivers, and fruit was sliced too and eaten slowly with a knife and fork - a refinement that didn't need lots of money, a way of passing long, cold evenings inside and long, hot evenings outside when going out was beyond the budget.
I learned too that none of this was innate, for Marielle and Laura had not yet embraced it. Their taste - indulged, but 'try a little of this too, dear, for Mémé', Louise would murmur - ran to fish fingers and alphabetti spaghetti and those little, bright-red, mass-produced globes of mild Edam cheese. 'Plastic cheese', said Jean-Paul disgustedly. Marielle beamed. 'My Daddy calls this plastic cheese', she proudly told the village grocer next day. 'It's my favourite!'.
Delectable though it was, the food was not the best thing around that table. The best things were the conversation and, well, the love.
Here is another day. The midday meal is simple - hard, spicy sausages cooked long and slowly with finely sliced white cabbage and juniper berries. Louise, the cook, her arm pinioned close to her chest by the scars of surgery, asks Antoine to ladle everyone's portion from the deep pot. Steam wafts around the table, the heaps of cabbage glisten damply on our plates, hiding the dark chunks of sausage, nuggets of strong, satisfying taste. It is subtle, not to be hurried. I get lost in the nuance of scent and texture and juices, but surface to notice the nuance of words and looks, how Antoine and Jean-Paul dive into the food, smacking their lips and full of praise, only the edges of their eyes betraying concern for Louise, only the tiniest flicker of fear and dread at seeing her flinch in pain.
Louise is telling Jean-Paul which Alpine foothills farmer made the sausage, debating the merits of various breeds of pig, the hardships of small farmers. They debate everything - pigs, parenting, politics - in the same tone of passionate enjoyment. They care, the thought comes to me - for the food on their plates, for each other, for Marielle and Laura's future and the future of France. Despite their smiling irony, their fierce awareness of how little difference their caring makes, they care. They experience themselves as part of a family, part of a class, a region, a country. In this they are utterly different from the people I grew up with. No wonder their food and their smiles taste so different.
They speak of strikes and factory closures, of protests against nuclear power. Giscard, they spit. Mitterrand, they spit, with a sadder, more intimate anger. The long shadow of 1968, the failed, receding revolution, overlays the shadow of Louise's cancer and the shadows of Marianne's breakdown, Jean-Paul's infidelity and guilt. So many shadows, but so much warmth and light too. Here we are, around the table in my memory, a scene in chiaroscuro.
Here is my own pale, curious face, breaking into indignation as Louise points behind me. While Marielle distracted me with chatter, Laura has been picking out the chunks of sausage from her plate and feeding them to Obélix, the cat. His whiskers shine with grease. He looks over-full and slightly sick. Laura smirks unrepentantly. I am chagrined. I'm a bad child-minder. I didn't see. Louise puts her good arm around me. 'No, chérie, it takes a lifetime to grow eyes in the back of your head. I can see you love my grandchildren. Have some more sausage before that damn cat eats it all. Antoine, give her some more sausage. You like it, huh?'
Marianne is smiling too, one eye on us, one on Jean-Paul and his father who are onto their constant bone of contention. Jean-Paul and Marianne support the mildly trotskyist Unified Socialist Party. Antoine supports no one and nothing but the native cunning of the individual working man and woman. 'Middle-class,' he says. 'sectarian. Even if their hearts are in the right place.'
'Well, some of us are middle-class, yes, Papa. I suppose I'm middle-class now. Middle-class and workers together, and we see the need for organising in the unions, for building consciousness, building a vanguard of support for change, even if it's going to be a long haul now, and perhaps a long haul to nowhere. You're becoming a nihilist in your old age.'
'I'm no nihilist!' Antoine waves his fork with a piece of sausage on it. 'I believe in the hearts of men, the strength and humour I've seen them show in the face of hardship. If you'd seen what I've seen, on the docks in Marseille... ' Louise is nudging him. 'Mm? Yes, yes, have some more sausage.' He puts down his fork to serve more sausage and take a deep draught of wine. 'You must eat, my little Laura, not give it to the cat. Eat and grow big and strong to make a revolution!'
Impossible to know where laughter, pain, sincerity, performance meet and blend.