When I had finally finished my newspaper, folded it in my lap and sat comfortably back in my seat, I looked around me at the other passengers in the carriage and noticed that everyone was wearing corduroy: scarves, trousers, waistcoats, even a few shoes. It was disconcerting. I felt as if I had fallen through the back of a multi-dimensional 60’s sofa that had come to life with faces that could have been my friends or my neighbours. I have never worn much corduroy; sometimes on a cold winter day its big soft ridges were my first choice, but the Nerd-u-Like factor usually dissuaded me. Now, there was a rising constriction in my throat. The classic British colour blend of blue and brown, overthrown onto a texture so confronting, so blasé, made me sick. From the middle of me, my juice, coffee and croissant formed a tricolour arc in the still space before me, not so blended yet as to be indistinguishable and still giving off a whiff of original odours amid the bile. My eyes flashed “Don’t touch me” to the passengers around me “I don’t want your solicitude, only your nakedness”. I cleaned myself up. We were coming into a station. It wasn’t mine, but I pushed my way through to the door and disembarked.
It was grey and unwelcoming on the platform, and smelled of formaldehyde mixed with vinegar – spice of life and spice of death. I ran up the one-sided corridor towards the stairway marked Way Out, bounding two steps at a time hard against gravity until I emerged at street level into Chancery Lane. I stood with my hands on my hips and hoovered up some lungfuls of air, aware that my day was already awry. It was time to move some things around. I rang work, told them I was doubled up in bed from eating bad food and wouldn’t be coming in today. I rang my cousin and apologised for not being able to meet him for lunch, could we make it another day? No problem. I hailed a cab and gave very specific instructions for City airport: an adventure, methought, to escape the horror of sartorial London. Style was never its strong point; class, perhaps; content, definitely; character, of course. The English may from time to time elevate these qualities to world-beating effect, but they still do not count as style. Even the words available to use – chic, mode, vogue, elan – are borrowed, from our arch enemies the French. It was clear to me that a day in Nice, by the sea, by the boulevards and the cafes and the current types that one finds there, would be the ticket. The airport, Nice, panache – in that order. By my mark. Allons-y!
I got a ticket at the desk in front of the departure lounge, a place wholly flooded in harsh fluorescent lighting that emphasized the shrillest hues. False marble flooring stretched up to rows of plastic booths where personnel in cardboard outfits modelled on Captain Scarlet worked efficiently about their airlines’ business. I had no luggage and an hour to spare so I decided on some light shopping in a retail hall defunct for tax-free deals but still alluring. However, my wallet stayed pocketed. The stuff was so boring: City stripes and nylon ties, pastel chiffon fripperies and over-priced traditional labels with barely the cachet to help even the most inept dress in fashion. I felt queasy. What was the problem with this place? It’s not so difficult, surely. Is it because we’re mostly pink on this island? Fleshy light brown pink – hard to mix and match, but not impossible.
I found myself fingering some embroidered hosiery in a corner of the Harrods boutique, snorting disdainfully and rubbing the material in my hands. It felt so cheap, so unnatural. A clack of footsteps registered as the sound of marching. The trajectory computed. Someone was approaching me. I swivelled to welcome two stern uniforms into my personal space.
They were sympathetic to my explanation that travellers should be exposed to more than this, that they – We – were going overseas where the sun does shine, where there is culture on the streets, not culture with a spray can or teenage smoking, but culture with elegance and intelligence. Here, the last sight departing and the first sight arriving was Smiths, Boots, the Tie Rack and the Sock Shop, four of the scariest emporiums ever manifested by human consciousness. The two uniforms grunted and agreed that things could be more cheerful. Then their jobsworth agenda kicked in and they remembered I was to be removed physically from the shop at the behest of hall security. The irony of my being manhandled by two squidgy proles wearing brown shoes with their blue uniforms undid my social compliance. I started shouting at them to get fucked and the like, solid stuff, easy to follow.
I was soon travelling suspended between the two of them with my feet off the ground. How appropriate, I thought, in an airport. I had not abandoned my indignation – What starts with D and ends with Y and allows twits like you to vote? – but I was feeling calmer now. We circled round the back of customs and entered a windowless room. The drabness was astonishing. The door shut on rubber seals and it was suddenly silent.
Ordinarily, I would have found this enforced cosiness very uncomfortable, even threatening. But today I didn’t care. Nothing was going to stop me, certainly not Grumble and Grizzle out to vent their frustrated existence on a hapless passer-by, Me.
“Gentlemen, let’s be clear, I don’t want to be here, and you don’t really want to either, do you?”
There was a pause but I didn’t let them in. I went on.
“Do you know what it’s like out there every day, tramping around London like a rocket out of a Christmas tree? It’s humbling. Everyone rushing around all speedy and grimy and sullen. I belong in a different era. It’s not fair. I don’t expect anyone to understand, but fuck I really appreciate being able to talk to you about it now. You’re gifted listeners, you know, hard to find these days. I don’t often get the chance. It’s nourishing. You know, feel free to tell me how you feel about things too. Give it a go.”
They didn’t know what to do with me. They shuffled, said Shit a couple of times, and then one of them opened the door with a limp gesture indicating I should shove off, which I did. I ran like a rabbit straight through to the gate and up the gangway onto the plane.
Business class. It was all they had left. Cost me two weeks’ salary. The up-front benefit is immediate service. I ordered a gin and tonic with lime leaves and it was planted on my tray by the time I’d stowed my jacket and sat down. I marvelled at how quickly fortune can move. Luckily our limbic brains are up to the task. The jungle makes for hardy evolution. I sculled the cocktail, sat back and let a Cheshire grin uncurl across my face. This was my third mode of transport today, not counting security air, and it was still only noon.
The cabin décor was inoffensive, six or seven shades of beige with splashes of puce and marigold, and a large reproduction of some impressionistic mish-mash at the front. Gaugin I think, or Baudelaire. If it’s not the real thing, who cares?
I must have said this aloud, for next to me I heard a voice say, “Baudelaire was a writer, not a painter.” I turned to see a captivating vision dressed in yellow, shades of lemon and jonquil, sitting very straight and with an expression on her face that can only be serendipity.
“He was a writer of formidable depth. He once wrote that Beauty is in the timeless white of my wide eyes. I always remember that. Michelle.” Her slender hand extended out towards me. I took a hold of it for a brief shake.
As you can imagine, the two hours that followed were, as Gump put it, like a box of chocolates. The praline of her smile, the Turkish delight of my wit, the silky milk coating of our flirtatious dance. Each moment was more delicious than the one before. Michelle was a native Nicer and full of the sunny joy of Midi life. Our conversation scattered itself lightly about a half-dozen absorbing topics. I was, truth be told, utterly charmed by her mellifluous accent. Each time she said a word with ‘th’ in it, her lips pursed as if she was blowing me a kiss. I had to stop myself from returning one. Unfortunately, her afternoon was taken up with engagements in Nice that she could not alter so when we landed we bade each other a deep and respectful farewell. I was feeling fully charged and justified, and sauntered gaily out of the terminal building.
Nice, as you may know, is a grand esplanade with a town behind it, not unlike Hove. It is the place where Brigitte Bardot and water-skiing first gained international notice and where Graham Greene penned his famous J’Accuse newspaper article. Nowadays, it remains a superb seaside resort, resplendent in the very best the Mediterranean way of life offers. This last description was advertised inside the cab I took and I found it difficult to contradict. I donned my shades and let the breeze ruffle my arm hairs.
We motored to the seafront, and then I made my way to a prominent free table outside the Café du Maurier where I ordered mineral water and pastis. The view was stunning, pure azure waves dotted with boats. Up and down the promenade young firm flâneurs strolled and bladed and generally locomoted with the improbable, glorious lope humans have. The cut and colour of the outfits was everything I had hoped for; it looked like turquoise was the season’s in-shade, with black for men.
At the table next to mine, two women were deep in conversation in English. A plate of shrimps, two Oranginas and a crumby breadbasket was arranged between them. After a few minutes of conspicuous eavesdropping, I introduced myself. They were sisters, it turned out, holidaying here for a week from London. What a coincidence. I have become a babe magnet, I said to myself. The sisters were of a most positive disposition and full of Nice’s cultural possibilities. I agreed to join them for a walk around the Gaucho gallery, where it is said the ghost of van Gogh’s other, ignored, brother Claus makes a nuisance of himself with the paintings by swapping them around in the middle of the night or unhooking them onto the floor and so on. The staff indulge this tomfoolery, leaving lights on low when they leave to prevent the phantom incidents from becoming more serious. They have heard of the ripped canvases and broken sculptures some galleries experience.
We paid our respective bills and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine, following the Rue de Fruit that threads gently up towards the old town where the gallery is situated. The windows of the shops we passed were full of goods that looked inviting enough to tempt locals and tourists alike, and we decided to stop in at an air-conditioned patisserie for a browse.
At that very moment, a commotion started up behind us near to the western cut of the harbour. We heard shouts that seemed to come at once from each of the roads stretching back down to the beach, and car horns squealing more than just impatience. ‘How easily panic spreads around here,’ I mused.
“It is a shark,” a taxi driver told us. “They have seen a gigantic shark patrolling the lido. Like this.” He pointed to each side of the street. “So big. Like eating Boris Karloff.” He laughed and drove off.
We agreed amongst the three of us that we were not particularly interested to find out any more, and that this tidbit of drama had done for our appetite for going to the gallery. Our nerves, though steel and British, were not unaffected by the vibes in the street. Jollier times could be had over a drink.
Lolly and Pop, for those are the names by which my two newfound companions introduced themselves to me outside the Café du Maurier, said they knew of a place nearby. They tugged my sleeve.
“For the Absinthe,” Pop whispered, “the green master awaits us.”
Lolly made a motion like she was cracking a whip. For the first time, I relished the erotic possibilities of the afternoon.
“To Absinthe friends,” I toasted prematurely, and we strode along arm in arm, and in through the doors of the Gant Desolé bar at the top of the hill.
The interior was a heady mix. Faux baroque iron fittings for the lamps and the heaters and bar apparatus, and very modern seating and decoration. The walls were lime, silk-textured and hung with abstract coloured blobs in brushed aluminium frames. The lighting was low at least and there were enough people sitting around to make for a pleasant atmosphere. We slipped in along a leather booth near the back, Lolly sitting next to me, and Pop sitting across the inlaid, polished table top. It was cosy.
Our waitperson, fully garbed in servile penguin splendour, didn’t seem to mind when I insisted in ordering in English, even though usually they pretend to be morose. What’s the point of being in the European Union, I explained to Pop and Lolly, if we have to learn each other’s languages. Far simpler just to speak our own. It’s the shortest route to the day when we can all speak one and the same language. The words themselves will find their own proper mix.
“Like Yiddish,” said Pop.
“Like Swahili,” said Lolly.
“Like English,” I said.
Our waiter returned with a big silver tray. The mechanics of getting a drink of absinthe are not unfascinating. It’s a dedicated chemistry, or alchemistry perhaps, as what is basically a vegetable juice is turned into a system-altering luminous green goddess. Or so Lolly put it. I had never tried it before, and snapped back the first glass with a distinct lack of restraint. My companions sipped theirs. We were getting along famously, our knees comfortably resting all together under the table. I told them about my experience in Harrods that morning. I had not meant to be critical moving things around on the shelves, I told them. And if I had, it was constructively. I appreciated the staff put their working life into getting it right from their point of view. But to take such exception was too much. Ah, and the zips. Yes, the zips. The camera must have clocked me checking a few as I went. Invariably, at least one breaks. Proof, if any were needed, that you’ve got to get the basics right, or you’ve got crap, whatever your fancy name is.
Pop understood. “A lack of philosophy,” she offered. I liked her very much.
“Yes,” I agreed, “the opposite of humility.” We shone our smiles at each other languidly.
Lolly joined in. “The enemies of art. Flog ‘em!”
Our green goddess betrayed none of our wishes. She swallowed obstacles, and let our sides blur and melt together.
Lolly told us a dream. It was fantastic.
“Last night,” she started, “I went to the expressionists café in Paris, The Exploding Introvert. Jung named it himself when it had opened the previous spring, smashing champagne against the front window that broke in glittering pieces everywhere. The walls were splashed in ink from the nights of exuberance: some set out with skilful displays of texture and brushwork, others so intricately splattered the enthusiasm of the painters seemed to hang in the air. I was at a table with a slim older-looking fellow, I believe called Tyrone, an actor from Portugal. Big moustache. Some people were working furiously between the tables making sculptures out of cutlery and napkins and shoes. Anybody who wanted to sing just stood up and let go. There were lots of waiters bringing food from the kitchen, which was full of chefs preparing what inspired them at that moment with the ingredients to hand. I had a blue pancake with clams and a big mug of tea made from string. At one point, I remember looking down on myself while I was asleep and I was smiling. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew that at the moment of wanting that, it would. The last thing I noticed before waking up was that everybody, including myself and Tyrone, and the waiting staff, were wearing clothes made entirely of corduroy. Which is weird, since I hate the stuff.”
I couldn’t believe it. What a coincidence. I squeezed Lolly’s thigh with both hands. “That is amazing,” I told her. And I just had to kiss her. Her lips were soft and full and minty. There were sparks, I’m sure, from our touching. Then somehow we regained our composure and sat upright. Pop was grinning across the way, enjoying the spectacle. “How romantic,” she cooed. Lolly started giggling. Which set her sister off joining in. I sat, solemn, moved, breathing slowly.
Our waiter reappeared to fix up another set of drinks, adjusting the sugar, tinkering with the glasses and little strainers. Then he winked at me impudently and scurried off. We toasted to passion. Pop said she believed love was everything and everything was love, even the chandeliers, even the mouses, even all our fears and trepidation. She became very excited. “We must become love,” she declared. Lolly was giggling even more. I did not feel inclined to disagree about becoming love, though my face may have betrayed my concern over how exactly this is achieved. Pop took a hold of my chin in one hand and of Lolly’s in the other and brought the three of our faces close together over the middle of the table. Our lips joined in a three-sided kiss that lingered very sweetly. We all sat upright again and were beaming. “Nice, huh?” Pop said. We laughed. I worked the Goddess kit for another round.
“Let’s get a room,” Lolly declared.
//Second half posting soon…