“One had a sense of links fished up into the light which are usually submerged.”
— Virginia Woolf, after visiting Knole, 23 January 1927
There is a window at Knole, a house with three hundred and sixty-five rooms: a room for every day of the year, they say, so many it’s rumoured that some remain unmapped.
This window is not grand. It does not glow with gold-tinted light. Nor does it command a prospect high above gallery or dining hall, presiding over brightly painted rams and leopards, pale gentle-faced courtiers and caryatid Medusæ, all the guardians of this noble house. No, this window nestles in the angle made by the join of landing and wall of a lesser member of Knole’s complement of fifty-two staircases.
I found it behind a door I’m not sure I was supposed to open. Its dove-grey walls came as a relief after the vibrant explosion of colour and texture in the public rooms. Through the window clear sunlight fell so softly that it did not carry any distance, but rather halted just past the frame. In this still place, where even the dust motes fell quietly, as if conscious of making too much noise, I sensed grace waiting for me, patiently but without fanfare, as is its nature. Unsure how much time I had before the inevitable arrival of guard or beadle, I stopped to rest my cheek on the stone sill of the casement.
“Casement.” Here is a word out of Tennyson, belonging to storybook princesses or one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s beleaguered heroines. As is tradition, my casement was narrow, mullioned, the glass within the frame bubbled and puckering. Together we gazed imperfectly out onto an interior courtyard, a view shared by similar casements scattered almost at random across a triangle of walls. Far below me, at the heart of this secret, an ashen figure crouched atop a knotty pedestal. The distorted buckle of the glass kept the image from coalescing into a nameable whole. Fountain, statue, remnants of both, collapsing into each other or propped together for storage, it was impossible to say. What is certain is that the arrangement had been forgotten. Or rather, that it existed out of time.
In my memory there are no doors onto the courtyard. The rational part of my mind lazily insists that there must have been a door somewhere down there, beneath the very window at which I was standing and occluded from my sight being the most logical solution…
Ten years later, stretching out my pen, I flick this thought away, listening instead to the distant sound of a clock ticking, for there is always a clock ticking somewhere, in the rooms at Knole, and I roll my head onto my other cheek on that deep cool sill, continue to wonder when the decaying form in the courtyard below last felt the touch of a human hand.
— amrh / June 2006, Sevenoaks, Kent, and September 2015, Mougins
At this writing, the photos of my visit to Knole are lost: either somewhere in that impossible mound I call “storage” or on a stolen cell phone. A journal entry from 2006 notes that “hardly any of the pictures I took either came out or reflect anything of what I perceived when taking them.” So perhaps their absence is for the best.
One can happily go blind looking at photos of Knole on the Internet. In the interest of preserving your eyesight, I recommend starting with:
the WikiMedia Commons photo set of Knole, several of which, by Nathaniel Lloyd, date to the time of Woolf’s visits in the 1920s;
the beautiful Pinhole camera series from Knole by John Sims from 2012, which comes closest to capturing the light as I remember it, albeit on a more renowned staircase:
and finally, backstage with the Knole Conservation Team, July 2013
The last time I was this cold, I was also in Ireland: in Thomastown, during the late winter of 1994. We were living in an old mill, part of which had been converted into a comfortable family home. The remainder was a craft school and residence for young artists. We slept on the floor of a friend’s studio, one of those random living arrangements we often plucked from the chaos of that time, agreed upon for a month, stretched out until roommate or landlady complained. When it is that cold, and one is that young, days can start late. After delaying hunger and bladder to the last possible moment, one moved quickly down freezing corridors through the cavernous stone-clad house, tracking pockets of warmth from a steamy bathroom, calling up to another studio reached by a wooden ladder let down from a trap door in the ceiling. There was a fairy-tale logic to those passages which suited me. At any time I could open a door and find myself, not in the tumult of the larger world, but in some forgotten glory-hole. A room full of half-finished puppets. A dead-end window festooned with wreaths of drying monkey-puzzle branches, below which a series of abstract watercolours hung drying from an improvised clothesline. I was reading a biography of George Sand, gleaned from T-town’s surprisingly well stocked public library, and my thoughts, when I allowed myself to have them, were full of irregular relationships played out in hidden gardens, of lives devoted to art.
We were all very poor. Other than a celebratory greasy breakfast at the pub on dole day, walking was the only entertainment we could regularly afford. I spent days walking to all the towns within a hand’s breadth circle on my map: Jerpoint, Inistioge, Dysart, the last home to a ruined castle where my puppet-making friend once found a human skull. During that uncommonly frigid winter, the countryside round Thomastown had a beautiful clarity I have yet to see matched. I remember tree branches encased in ice, barren and articulate. In the field across from the apple orchard, sheep huddled in companionable knots, breath rising from their soft noses to hang in the crystalline air. As the frost began to relax its hold, a rich, verdant landscape emerged, so different to my eyes accustomed to the mountainous lunar reaches of Connemara. Closer to the mill, I found a wooded walk by the river, counted every day the heads of cow parsley, snowdrop and fuchsia, all newly arrived and heart-breaking in their fragile promise.
In the evenings, there were communal dinners in the vast high-ceilinged kitchen, mostly vegetarian, always thick with “hunger-plugger” ingredients: marrows, lentils, dried beans two or three years old which required boiling to mush to become edible. We played at down-on-our-luck Bohemia, drinking cheap wine and listening to Tom Waits on a second-hand cassette player. If someone was feeling particularly flush, there might be the luxury of a bottle of Mateus. Surrounded by artists, I suspected this brand was bought for its curved, unusual green bottle, with the swan sailing gracefully across the label….certainly not for its taste, the memory of which even now threatens headache. These bottles were recycled into endless “make-and-do” projects, filled with stones and coloured sand and popped last-minute into a still life for an overdue painting assignment, or quietly repurposed as something to catch and disperse winter sunlight across a deep-set window sill.
I had my own “make and do” that winter. One day I sat down at the living room fireplace and burned all my journals. Five years of effort, in matched red and black cloth bindings, sacrificed systematically, quickly, so as not to admit remorse. There was some practical justification for that little murder. Not for heat. I’d been living in student squats long enough to know that paper may flare up satisfactorily in the grate, but provides no lasting warmth. My rationalisation circled around the need to consolidate boxes of books and lecture notes and unfinished thesis drafts, a burden difficult to transport when your only option is a pilfered shopping cart and you move house every six weeks. Whatever the reasonable impulse, the process rapidly devolved into ritualised exorcism. After six months of being reminded that God or Fate or the universe did not give one damn about what it was that I wanted from my life, I was prime for the easy path. Watching the chemically-tinged sparks flit their merry way up the chimney, I felt relief, tasted a savage joy in the grand gesture I was making.
Alas, grand gestures are almost always hollow. As I scribble this now, in a bland blond-wood coffee shop deep in south Dublin, I can only look back in horror at what I lost. My first kiss with the love of my life. The way I felt the first time his long fingers brushed across my bare skin. Accounts of performances and songs, epiphanies at gravesides, the names of friends. The exact way raindrops hung in the light-brown hair of a boy I met my first day in grad school, as we stood near the vaulted arches of the quadrangle at the university entrance off Newcastle Road.
A storehouse of memory, of tantalising possibility.
Lately, I’ve been hearing the whisper of leaves blowing across a woman’s path in Marlborough Street. Another younger woman is standing in the grounds behind Queen Catherine’s House in Cheyne Walk, her uncrinolined skirts tangled about her long legs. By her side, his great height a match for her own, a deerhound shivers. She bends down, strokes his neck, tells him, “Go on, then,” and he lopes off, down an allée of pleached lime trees leading to a great mulberry tree at the heart of the garden. Here in my double exile, I squat before the shelves of colour-coded folders where these ideas live and think, who will have the dubious honour of throwing all this out when I’m gone? Why should I entail the responsibility for my failure onto others? James burned. Dickens too. Why wait?
Something rustles in the corner of an empty box.
— amrh / January 2015, Milltown Road, Dublin, and Mougins
…is the only game in town, on this late winter Saturday morning. La Fontenoy, my usual haunt when up in the vieux village, has remained resolutely closed for almost a week now. Not even a handwritten sign on the door indicates when Madame might return. Mick is down on the Route Napoléon, getting his hair cut. At my suggestion that I sit and wait for him at the bar two doors down from the barber shop, his eyebrows shoot up in horror: “That’s not a place for ladies.” (How lovely, after all this time, to still be considered one.) And so here I am, huddled over a cup of coffee admittedly superior to what might be had in the mancave on the avenue, grateful for the steady beat of rain drowning out the generic pop music on the radio. I am in sole possession of the terrace, of a view which has grown necessary to me over the last two years. I let my eye be drawn, first to the splash of purple irises bordering the road below, then out and across the valley to where the hills should be. Their incised slopes, so dramatic beneath a surprise blanket of snow last week, have disappeared behind veils of mist and grey rain. Exposed houses dot the hillside; the headlamps of cars flash as they wind their way towards Grasse, Chateauneuf, Opio: villages whose names once seemed alien to me but which now trace the boundaries of my day to day.
A moment of suspension. Unaware of any hook or snag of consciousness, no doubts plague me; my ever-attendant sense of exile stands mercifully apart. There is only the rain, the pen, its movement across the page, and I care little if what spins out is cliché, or even if, on some other page, at a café across some other ocean, I have recorded the sensation before. It is not that there is no past, no future, but rather that both are held in gentle check. My gaze is clear, unimpeded. It delights in the fall of icy water from a drain spout, the artful way in which a copper air vent is framed by bare vine curving against a stone wall. I do dip into the past, for a moment, find Mr. Barnes hanging farm implements with precise care next to a Matisse, a Sisley, a Signac. But the thought simply rises, without the spur of regret. For once there is only pleasure in the fact that these memories go with me, make me who I am.
“Never mind. Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life…”
— Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry for Saturday 5 September 1925.
— amrh / February 2014, Mougins
I was sure to be the youngest person there. So wrong was this supposition that when I arrived up at the place, I thought I had stumbled into a wedding, or a children’s party. Running, shouting, weaving in and out, clambering onto the edge of the fountain and threatening to fish for coins, pulling on parental sleeves, begging for a visit to the café…which, somewhat incongruously, was blaring disco from the depths of the Seventies via an amplifier propped high on the struts of the winter-bare canopy. Breathless after the last savage incline that curves through the cemetery at the edge of the village, I found a bench, collapsed, watched the small insistent souls swirl around me. Outside the mairie early Christmas lights sparkled in twin cypress trees: fingernail-sized, blue-white, rippling out along the feathery branches. Inevitably it came to me, that old cliché, that the path of anti-aircraft fire in a dark sky is like that of fireworks.
It was ten minutes to eleven, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Someone interrupted the disco diva in mid-screech, and put on an equally generic but more patriotic tune. A sudden swell in the crowd, and les anciens combattants began their march, clustered behind a serry of flags: French, British, Australian, others I didn’t recognise and so must hail from far-away places which one had imagined the wars of Europe could not touch. The late morning sun was bright in my eyes and so they faded into view, these ranks of elderly men in dark suits. There were as many varieties of suits as there were men: frayed at cuffs and collar, dusty, stained in odd places; or impeccably pressed with overcoats in rich fabric thrown over an arm. One particularly jaunty type strutted past in a three-piece corduroy suit. Very few were in uniform. But all wore a poppy on their lapel, made of either silk or paper, and many wore red calots, the black braided tassels placed precisely down the centre of the back of their necks. Monsieur le Maire, sturdy, hirsute, brought up the rear, working the crowd like a pro and pausing for a photograph with one of the women handing out stickers in exchange for a donation to the local VA. Simple emotions were on display: pride, gratitude, friendship. I searched in vain for the solemnity I expected. Perhaps that would come later, at the memorial with its attendant wreaths, its spectacular view out over the hills and down towards the Baie des Anges.
One tiny blond girl – there is always a tiny blond girl – twirled along in the wake of the procession. She wore a hooded jacket covered in graffiti-esque writing, candy-striped tights, leopard-print boots. She sang a song of her own devising, to no-one in particular. Flinging out her arms, she spun faster, carving out her own space. Had she an uncle, a grandfather, somewhere in this crowd? Or was there someone asleep further down the hill whose child she might have been? A girl’s ponytail tangled on the wind, a column of smoke rising peaceably from a chimney in the valley: are these the things men and women die for? Or is that too an old lie?
It felt intrusive, dishonest, to impose the complexity of my feelings upon what was taking place before me.
Another sideways lurch, and the procession moved off through the village, trailing dogs, children, latecomers in cars.
I did not follow.
— amrh / November 2013, Mougins
“…the mysterium is experienced…as something that bestows upon man a beatitude beyond compare…one whose real nature he can neither proclaim in speech nor conceive in thought, but may know only by a direct and living experience.”
— Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (1923)
Then somebody says, “Hey, there’s no line.”
So I turn, and sure enough, there is a clear line of sight to the Mona Lisa, framed within the frame of a door. To say there is no line is not entirely accurate. Indeed, there is no scrum of cranky tourists heaving its way down the length of la Grande Galerie, through the Trecento and back towards ancient Egypt. Rather, there is about fifty yards of open pine floor, ending in a gently pulsing mass of people. Fifteen minutes ago, I met the Nike of Samothrace, and the force of her arrival resonates still in my body, my bones. In this heightened state accentuated by a summer cold’s fever, by the anxiety of shepherding my sister and the Sprite through the busiest museum in the world on its busiest day of the week, I believe I can hear currents of air swirling up towards the glass barrelled ceiling, stirred by hurrying feet. Around us, in me, everything is in motion. Every sense I have is extended; my highest level of artistic battle readiness is engaged.
If I was alone, I would have stayed at the feet of the Nike for a long time. Some thoughtful curator caused rough steps to be carved into the walls surrounding her: a place to collapse when trembling knees finally give way. I would have braced my back against that cool stone, looked up, and continued to trace the folds of her chiton, moulded to her body from sea-spray and rippling with her breath. My mind would have pursued the mystery of our encounter far, far down: a stone dropped into deep water.
But I have a flock, who have taken to calling me Tour Guide Barbie, and they are looking to me for our next move. Because we had made a plan, about Miss Mona; we were going to give her a miss. She’s tiny, we said, so you have to get close, and closer in will be crowded, uncomfortably so, and the promise of opportunistic pickpocketry has been drummed into our heads from every available news outlet. We’ll see nothing beyond a forest of arms crowned with iPads and cell phones, and right now we are standing in front of four perfectly serviceable Leonardos, hung at eye level, with no overly vigilant guard looming nearby to disturb our reflections. What more could we possibly want to see?
“Oh, hell,” I hear myself say. “We’re here, I’m going.”
When trying to describe in words an experience which by its nature rebels against such strictures, I fall back on my training as a historian, and start with the simplest of facts. So: the Mona Lisa hangs on a wall in the middle of an enormous room. As we enter this space, we are immediately confronted by a vast painting hanging just to the left of the door. Relying on its own set of facts, the Louvre’s Web site quaintly describes this experience as: “Turn around to admire ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese.” At twenty-two by thirty-three feet, the height of a modest two-story house, we really don’t have much choice. Perhaps that’s why it’s placed here, I think: not as a rival to its most famous neighbour, but as the only thing the Louvre owns that’s large enough to be seen clearly at any point in the room, over any number of heads.
The wedding is a mirage of brilliant pastels and twisting figures, stage-set before an aperture of celestine sky. As we move across that first fifty yards of floor, the Sprite passes the time by walking backwards and zooming her camera in and out of focus on the Veronese, looking for cats. She quickly finds the famous one just at the front of the picture, rolling on its back and doing something rude to a very expensive urn. On the walls around us blaze the bright jewels and generous flesh of sixteenth century Venice. My sister and I turn in little self-contained orbits, mouths open but trying not to point. From all sides now, disparate groups of people are converging, collecting in ranks like silt at the mouth of a river. We drift with them.
And so it is that, almost imperceptibly, we wash up in the tidal eddy of pilgrims in front of the Mona Lisa.
Somewhere I had read that she glows as if lit from within. In this expectation I’m disappointed. There is too much glass in the way, of the same type that fills the windows of armoured limousines, and the mustardy yellow of the walls leeches the colour from her skin. It’s hot and noisy, I’m conscious of losing track of the Sprite, I grow restless. But I’m stuck here now. So I wait, and concentrate on my breath. Amid the susurrus of voices, the click and whirr of devices, I hear the voice of my beloved art history professor. Look at the fall of her hair, he says: how it flows like water, and how that flow echoes throughout the landscape around it. This landscape, at once both real and dreamlike; the patterning found in the movement of water; the easy interplay between the quotidian and the divine…each of these themes will recur in every one of Leonardo’s paintings, Dr. Radan says in his soft burled voice, if we just learn how to look. In that place where the Nike has taken up residence, raising her beautiful arms and calling to me, there is a shuddering, a sudden movement in the air. I lean forward over the head of the re-appeared Sprite, and look.
And despite myself I am taken aback. How calm this woman is. How still. I see now that what Mona Lisa radiates is not light, but rather a bemused serenity in the face of what’s before her. We are a diverse congregation, travellers and strangers mostly, arrived in this secular cathedral for any number of reasons. Yet we are all willing to endure discomfort and a certain amount of bad behaviour in order to participate in a communal, creative act. The two small boys intent on their handhelds, chivvied up through the crowd by their flustered parents; the hipster flashing a peace sign as his girlfriend holds up her cell phone; my failing attempts to remain aloof. These rituals are part of what Mona Lisa is, and she is graciously accepting of all of it.
It’s impossible not to yield to such a benediction, given so freely across time and experience. So I do, and with my acquiescence comes a rush of unexpected peace. Everything else falls away, the smell of bodies in too tight a space, the bumping and jostling, until there is just myself and a woman’s face emerging from darkness. I realise for the first time that she is wearing a veil. Escaping from that veil, just above her right breast, are finely drawn tendrils of hair. I look past her shoulder, into the landscape, and am rewarded by the same tender curves echoed in a road winding through a narrow defile. Further down that path is a lake and a shadowed wood, and around its circumference a route to the bridge on the other side. Later, when poring over one of the glossy reproductions of Mona Lisa that I surprised myself by buying in the gift shop, I’ll surprise myself further by playing an old childhood game. I’ll turn the first two fingers of my right hand into legs, and wander down that road to see where it leads, what adventures I might find.
For now, it is enough to stand quietly in her famous regard, and look back.
— amrh / Summer 2013, Paris and Mougins
** For a thorough introduction to the Nike of Samothrace, see http://musee.louvre.fr/oal/victoiredesamothrace/victoiredesamothrace_acc_en.html (in English)
** One of my favourite rainy day reads is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects: nuggets of Italian Renaissance history and gossip, richly described by a fellow artist of the period. I found a beautifully curated Web site which weaves together selected quotes from the Lives with contextualised images. Here is the Leonardo page: http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/giorgio.vasari/vinci/vinci.htm
** The sheer size of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana made a lot more sense to me after Peter Greenaway got ahold of it: http://places.designobserver.com/feature/the-wedding-at-cana-a-vision-by-peter-greenaway/13198/
Sunlight. Cicadas. Cars, mopeds, the murmur of voices. A milk foam slick floats oilily across my coffee. The new owners here may have raised their prices, but their product has yet to improve. I’m waiting, for the bank across the street to open, for the full force of the morning to break upon me. Lack of sleep and heightened anxiety coalesce just so that if I let my attention waver and unfocus my vision (a bad habit I picked up sometime around 1994, and have yet to discard) I lose the sense of where I am, not who, that always in me, going everywhere with me, now and forever, amen, but rather, where I find my self.
Before my eyes passes a crocodile of children, their heavy backpacks a cruel joke on a summer’s day. From the restaurant across the street sounds the jangle of bottles set out on a counter, the tinny slam of a door. The man at the table next to me eats pastry, intent on his newspaper, on the last few moments left in his morning that are truly his own.
Unmoored I drift in this moment of grace, this quiet sea of unparticularity.
When my eyes refocus on pine scrub, and above them that knife’s edge sky of startling blue, only then am I aware of being set apart.
— amrh / July 2013, Mouans-Sartoux
** For those of you who are curious, “unparticularity” is a word in English, good old blunt American English too, coined by none other than Marianne Moore. Although I don’t recall reading this poem prior to a week ago, I do remember my visit to Mrs. Moore’s living room, which has been beautifully installed at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
By Disposition of Angels
Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it.
Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit?
Something heard most clearly when not near it?
these unparticularities praise cannot violate.
One has seen, in such steadiness never deflected,
how by darkness a star is perfected.
Star that does not ask me if I see it?
Fir that would not wish me to uproot it?
Speech that does not ask me if I hear it
Mysteries expound mysteries.
Steadier than steady, star dazzling me, live and elate,
no need to say, how like some we have known; too like her,
too like him, and a-quiver forever.
— from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (Faber & Faber, 1968, p.50) http://ptchanculto.binhoster.com/books/-Lit-%20Recommended%20Reading/Female%20Writers/Marianne_Moore_Complete_Poems.pdf
With apologies for the long silence, occasioned by family obligations and much travel. In addition to the usual “post-show” round of bronchial woes, I’m deep in the throes of what Big Bill Gibson called “soul delay“: the nagging feeling that you’ve left part of yourself on the other side of the Atlantic, but you’re damned if you can recollect exactly where.
Until I’m back up to speed, I wanted to share with you a better-late-than-never Bloomsday post. To my delight, and with thanks to the University of Adelaide, I was able to keep up my tradition of reading my favorite chapter of Ulysses at the exact time of day it takes place, even while away from my library. People tend to be surprised when they find out which chapter I prefer above all others. Standard guesses include Nausicaa (number thirteen) or Penelope (the last of eighteen, otherwise known as Molly Bloom’s monologue). But no, it’s number four, the humble Calypso, with its lyrical odes to breakfast, domestic felines, and early morning perambulations on the north side of Dublin. I read it this year perched on the least rackety of the kitchen chairs in a splendid flat on the Boulevard Port Royal in Paris. The smell of white wine and mussels drifted up from the Academie de la Bière below, where the chef was getting a head start on the day’s mountain of moules marinières. (For the record, they also serve a mean croque flamand, which is like Welsh rarebit made by enthusiastic Belgians.) In the living room next door, The Sprite stirred briefly in the depths of the sofa and pulled the duvet more securely over her head. Somewhere nearby was a copy of The Odyssey, in Robert Fitzgerald’s masterful translation: a present from me, to mark her first trip across an ocean.
This is the story of a man who was never at a loss. I looked up and saw him stroll past my window, his Latin Quarter hat at its usual angle on his close-cropped head, precise in its carelessness. He swung his ashplant round three times in his hand, dared me to stoop to cliché, to dub him Chaplinesque. I declined; you’ve taught me too well, old artificer, I said. I like to think of him laughing, although I’ve never seen him pictured doing so. And so I watched him laugh his way down the boulevard, disappearing in the shafts of sunlight breaking through the plane trees.
It meant more to me than I could say, to rediscover him in a city where, as a wise man once said, he came to stay for a week and remained for twenty years.
— amrh / June 2013, Paris and Mougins
— for l.m.b. who said, “it just needs to be truthful” —
…for the sun has at last arrived, creeping her way across the roof of the Auberge, brushing shuttered windows, the dirty-winter-white of a pigeon’s wing, finally curling down to touch the branches of the miniature orange trees in their pots on the corner of the square. She teased us last week, with her one sudden flash of brilliance in a chill afternoon sky. We dashed onto balcony or front step, turning our grateful faces upwards over mugs of steaming tea that seemed happily irrelevant. But then followed a week of fitful snow, punctuated by bursts of hail, and we sighed as we disinterred our Wellington boots from the back of the closet, having only yesterday cast them there in happy abandon.
…all forgotten, perhaps even forgiven. We are phototropic beings, we denizens of la Place des Arcades, and we swivel in our chairs in the hopes of the faintest caress. We are all here today, the various blessed souls of the Valbonnaise version of Dante’s Celestial Rose. Below, the first wave of Anglo tourists, all golf shorts and bare shoulders, jockeying for the sunniest tables near the centre of the café. Next, scattered ranks of locals, alighting just for lunch and a half decent glass of wine before heading back to work. And finally, high up in the Empyrean, under the covered terrace closest to the bar, the long-time residents, huddled in their fur-lined parkas and in full rouspétant about everyone sitting on the two tiers below.
…and if I was some other kind of writer, I’d build it all up from there. I’d allow myself to be distracted by the strange German-inflected French coming from the table on my right. Alsatian, I’d think. But then I would detect the irritating sing-song of Dutch winding within it, and I’d turn to see two gentlemen, in tweed jackets and pressed jeans, each with lean, sunburnt faces. There is some essential strangeness in their relationship which, foreigner and female that I am, I cannot run to earth. Sexual, paternal, some interaction of the two. The younger one gestures with his right hand; under the table, out of sight of his companion, he cups his crotch unaffectedly with his left. I see a hardbound project notebook on the table between them, and realize that it’s at least in part a business meeting: an old school one, with neither tablet or smartphone in sight, and that what I’m hearing is French and German and Dutch swirling together, an attempt to find a common language. At the table on my left are a husband, wife, and two sons: the quintessential bourgeois family, out for lunch á la fin des vacances d’hiver. There is not a single part of Maman left unprocessed (hair, breasts, fingernails), and she is smoking so enthusiastically that all I can see of her face is the glint of her large and very expensive gold hoop earrings. She is ignoring Papa, who (it goes without saying, really) is all up in the waiter’s face about the cooking of his magret du canard. The older boy alternates between staring at me and poking the tip of his steak knife between the joints of his fingers, one after the other. Only the youngest member of the party is in any way enjoying his afternoon, dashing in ever decreasing circles around the Place, with the occasional pause to grab a bite of his pizza fromage blanc.
…on and on I could go, spinning it out into an infinite number of pages. The elderly couple with matching bandages on their faces, his near his right eye, hers under the right ear and forward on her cheek, our century’s version of the eighteenth’s black patches. The two young women signing papers in a binder filled with sample packets of tea. The percussive backdrop provided by the toddler behind me, banging his toy off the table despite the pleas of his hassled father. And the phrases would of course come in groups of three, rhetorically perfect and beautifully crafted, each choice harking back to the weather and to the early spring suspended all about me. A little jewel. A real picture.
But fortunately salvation has arrived, in the form of roasted salmon, and so I am saved from either having to write that piece, or tease out why whatever is writerly in me resists doing so.
— amrh / March 2013, Valbonne
** For more of Doré’s engravings for the Divine Comedy, see http://www.worldofdante.org/gallery_dore.html
Just back from a lightning visit to Paris, which happily led to two pieces now in progress. In the interim, here is something I’m posting for a friend who is having a rough time of it. I am astonished to find that the original of the piece below is twelve years old. So much of what it describes no longer exists: the restaurant from which it takes its title, the two relationships it mentions. At the time, I thought I would be trapped forever in that faded room, drowning in memory with no discernible exit. On a recent visit to DC, I walked past to find its outdated gloom replaced with sunny Mediterranean fusion: white walls with dark terra cotta accents, French doors leading onto an outside terrace. The writerly resonance was not lost on me, and I found myself smiling…as I do now, while I rotate through my fingers the cork from that extraordinary bottle of wine.
At approximately nine-thirty last night, I raised a glass of 1983 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape to you, in the silence between the cheese course and the dessert. JB was making his drunken way to the men’s room, leaving me, briefly, by myself. The brightly colored walls of the tiny dining room were discreetly peeling, scattered with stylish black and white photographs which turned out to be magazine illustrations in cheap wooden frames. Service which may have approached amiable in the late eighties was now erratic and surly. Our waiter took it personally that I didn’t like my duck; he kept reminding me about it throughout the cheese course. But I took this to mean that he hadn’t noticed exactly why it was that I didn’t eat it. Said duck, which had arrived underdone and a bit tasteless to begin with, had languished on my plate while I tried to keep JB from crying over his rack of lamb, crying over a teenaged girl from Dublin who died of leukemia ten years ago, who is beyond any hurt or pain but whom he still holds onto as some kind of tragic working-class torch of sensuality and freedom blighted by fate. She is yet another of the hordes of dead, dying, or indifferent women who curl up in the space between him and me when we share a bed, and, for some reason, she decided to make an appearance during my duck. So whatever flavour there was in that poor bird seeped out into its surrounding pool of delicate mint and apricot sauce. I scooped the sauce up with the pureed potatoes beside it, and that was my dinner.
As I sat there, holding the back of JB’s neck in my hand, talking quietly to him as if to a fretful child, I was thankful that the few other people in the dining room were as absorbed in their own lives as we were. The older man with the red-haired girl whom I mistook for his daughter until they flirted over the dessert. The grey-haired woman who made her way anxiously through the dining room, carrying an enormous brown purse and a few garden flowers wrapped in aluminum foil, and disappeared into some private room, never to be seen again. On the opposite side of the room, a young woman in a black dress and a guy in what looked like his father’s Armani suit sat over their champagne. She and I were dressed almost exactly alike: little black dresses, spiky impractical heels, a single strand of pearls, hair slicked back over the left ear. Her date smiled at her toothily, laughed at his own jokes, didn’t watch her walk to the bathroom, slowly, for his benefit. When they left the restaurant and hailed a cab, he got in ahead of her and slammed the door, leaving her to walk around the back of the car, out into the street. There we were, in our Audrey Hepburn best, missing only the impossibly long cigarette holder, and yet the promise had not been fulfilled for us. Women of a certain age, no longer thirty but not yet forty, how had we found ourselves in this shabby ground floor restaurant with its dyed green acoustical tiles and the musty smell of last week’s flood waters seeping out from the carpet?
JB nodded off over his coffee, and further insulted the waiter by finishing only half of his chocolate tart. I bundled him into a cab, and smiled, as I always do, when we passed the arboretum on New York Avenue, its incongruous fog waiting patiently for me in the darkness.
— amrh, 23 August 2001, Washington DC / 15 March 2013, Mougins