Disappear to a secluded island with this novel about war, love and loss
Disappear to a secluded island with this novel about war, love and loss
At some point, despite the heave of the sea, I must have nodded off. I was woken by the thump of the side of the boat against a rock. It was dark.
There was an urgent exchange between the pilot and the old woman. We had arrived at a rocky inlet, or calanque as the man called it. He shone a torch on an iron hoop hammered into the reef; through this he secured the painter. The sea was calm enough to allow him to jump out and extend his hand, first to the woman, then to me.
It was an awkward scramble by torchlight before we reached a path. Here the man left us and returned to his boat; I followed the old woman in the dark on an uphill wooded path. I caught the smell of pines and could feel their needles under my feet. Eventually we came to some steps, which after a considerable time – there were perhaps a hundred of them – led to a flat area on what must have been the cliff top. A large rectangular house was now visible, lit only by the moon; I could make out numerous tropical shrubs and trees along its shuttered verandah.
We went in through a side door, into a dark passageway. The old woman told me to wait, while she vanished into the gloom, returning shortly afterwards with a gas lamp. With this, she led the way up a bare staircase and into a long corridor. At the end, we turned at right angles, towards the back of the house, and went up a half-flight of stairs to a door.
‘Isn’t Dr Pereira here?’ I asked in my rough but serviceable French.
‘No. He was called away to the mainland. He’ll be back tomorrow. There’s a bathroom down there. Breakfast will be at eight o’clock.’
I lit a candle and said goodnight as I looked round my room. The bedstead was iron; the mattress was thin, but yielded when I sat down on it. There were clean sheets and a single blanket; the night was warm. Above the bed was a crucifix, a carved figure in soft wood with convincing thorns and drops of gore; on the opposite wall was a painting of a pious-looking man in a robe with a faraway look
The shutters gave way to a hefty push and opened on to the chatter of cicadas. The moon was obscured by loose clouds, but I could make out the shapes of umbrella pines; I thought that over the din of the insects I could hear the distant gasp and slap of sea in the calanque. The shouting of the women in my London flat seemed remote.
Pereira’s island appeared on none of the maps I had flicked through at the airport – being too small, probably, for their tourist scale; yet the size of this house alone argued the presence of running water, labour, human habitation. As if to confirm my guess, a distant church bell struck the hour.
I tried to read by candlelight, but even with two flames the print was hard to make out. I was lucky to suffer few of the indignities of middle age – beer belly, stiff knee or hair loss – but a bright light had become indispensable for reading.
It didn’t matter. When you’ve slept in as many spare rooms and lodgings as I have, there is a comfort in strangeness; the new is always familiar.
A triangle of bright sun on the bedclothes woke me. It was almost seven and I felt well rested as I went down to the bathroom. Its ancient fittings suggested someone had spent money on this house once, long ago. By shaving with abnormal care and completely unpacking my case, I passed the time till eight, when I went down the half-flight and turned into the corridor. I found the main staircase and went down into a tiled hall. It had the feeling of a hydro, the sort of place you’d see a tubercular man or a lady with a lapdog. I followed the smell of coffee into a room with a small table laid for one.
Almost at once, the old woman came in with a tray on which were a boiled egg, baguette, jam, and coffee in a glazed stoneware pot. She ignored my attempts at conversation and urged me to eat. The coffee tasted as strong as it smelled and before long I had cleared the tray. I lit a cigarette and went out on to the verandah. In addition to the tropical species I had made out in the dark the night before, there were smaller shrubs and plants in terracotta pots. The lawn was of an almost English greenness, though the grass was of some coarse, drought-resistant variety.
The most striking thing, however, visible now in daylight, was an enormous greenhouse – almost the size of the main building, attached to it at right angles. It was empty.
‘You’re free to walk where you like,’ said the old woman, appearing at my side. ‘Dr Pereira telephoned to say he will be joining you for lunch.’
‘Is there a town?’ I said. ‘I need to buy a few things.’
‘There’s the port, but it’s too far. You can leave a note of what you want on the table in the hall. The gardener takes the car in later on.’
Gin, two bottles. Cigarettes, two packets. Preferably some Campari or Dubonnet and an orange. Some lemons. A kilo of pistachio or cashew nuts. I wasn’t sure I could leave that note. ‘Where’s the nearest beach? Is it all right to swim?’
‘There are no beaches, just calanques. It’s dangerous to swim. It’s not a holiday island.’
‘Can I borrow the car to go to the port?’
‘No. The car’s out.’
‘I’ll just . . . wander about then.’
‘As you like.’
‘And there are books in the house?’
‘Yes. There are lots of books. The library is the room at the end, the last window there.’
I smiled, thinking it might elicit something similar from the old woman, but there was nothing beyond a wary disdain in her eye as she scuttled off. I resented the way she appeared to view me not as the guest of her employer but as someone who needed watching.
There seemed no point, however, in letting it spoil a sunlit day on what appeared to be a place of rare natural beauty almost unknown to the world. I walked down the driveway, fifty yards or so, and out on to a road. The obvious thing was to try to reach the highest point of the island and get a sense of its size and shape. It was still only nine o’clock; I had a good three hours of rambling ahead of me.
Although it was mid September and the air was misty and regretful, the sun was as hot as on a full August day. I began to sweat a little as I walked. When I’d reached what seemed to be the highest point, I climbed on to a rock and looked about me. The island was perhaps four miles by three, though its steep sides made it hard to be sure. Most of my view was filled with a blue- black sea. To the north I could make out a group of whitewashed houses, a settlement of kinds; it was hard to think the port referred to by the old woman could be much of a town, unless it was built up the sides of the hill.
I was now impatient to meet my host; I felt ready for him. I had just begun the walk back to the house when I thought I heard a female voice. I looked around, but there was no one to be seen. The wind, I thought. A seagull, perhaps.
Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ was deemed “trashy, profane & obscene” upon its publication; now, its famous line is the go-to phrase for expressing the beautiful, desperate contradiction of being human in a digital era.