‘I had a farm in Africa.’ So begins the first sentence of the memoir ‘Out of Africa,’ that compelling account of Isak Dinsen’s life in Kenya. Soon I will be saying, ‘I had a house in France,’ and that made me think about whether the past tense is correct. I think I will always have a small cottage in the edge of a village near to the town of Uzes in Southern France, because it stays in my memory. Isak Dinsen used her memories to give life to her farm as she wrote about the place and the people. In the book she charts her love affair, not just with Finch-Hatton, but with the experience of living in Africa.
Our house was only a holiday home and there is no novel or memoir to be written about it, but I began to think about the places I have lived over the years and I am suprised about how well I can recall the rooms, the furniture, the sounds and the smells of those houses. In my mind I can walk round them and think of the events that happened in each one. Is that why a sense of place is so important in writing, putting characters into a context of their homes? I wonder.
We are going to France next week to complete the sale of our cottage there. I wrote this piece some time ago after I had seen this girl begging by the expensive chocolatiere. in the square of our nearest town, Uzes.
It was just after four in the afternoon when James strolled into the Place aux Herbes, in the small city of Uzes. The square lay languid under the upturned blue enamelled bowl of the sky. The seventeenth century former silk merchants’ houses were built of topaz coloured stone which glowed in the sun, their olive- green shutters closed to stop it from penetrating the interiors. The same strong light shone through the canopy of the plane trees created patterns across the paving stones, and under the vaulted arcades the shadows were the colour of a raven’s wing.
James felt his shirt sticking to his back and he slid his finger along the neckband of his linen grand-dad shirt. He took a seat at one of the many cafes, whose chairs and tables formed fingers in the open space, stretched his long limbs out in front of him and threw the battered panama he had inherited from his father, onto the table. He ordered a beer in his schoolboy French. It arrived quickly. Condensation on the outside of the glass formed a pool of water on the table. He sipped the cool amber liquid slowly, the antiseptic taste bursting on his tongue.
From behind a pair of sunglasses he settled down to observe the town, as it shook itself awake from its siesta. Tourists, dressed in light loose clothes, wearing sunhats and dark glasses, strolled across the square, the heat a brake on their energy. Children played in the fountain, dabbling their hands in the translucent green water. A golden retriever leapt up into the basin to cool off, and showered them as he jumped out, making them squeal and laugh.
After he had been sat for some time, from between the arches of the arcade, emerged the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had the golden glow that looked like it had been perfected on the beaches of the Cote D’Azur. Her hair was spun gold, pulled back into a bun and held in place by a red ribbon. Her face was long and thin with high cheek bones and a well formed nose above bow-shaped lips. As she passed in front of him she looked directly at him, and he could see her eyes were a startling pale blue framed with long dark lashes. She was tall and slim, almost boyish. Her clothes were shabby chic, cut-off jeans and a tight white T-shirt, and she carried a grubby blue canvas bag. Over her arm hung a red and white beach towel, and by her side trotted a grey-brown shaggy dog.
James watched her amble across the square, the roll of her walk accentuating the slight curve of her hips. He thought she looked like a starlet, what was the French, une vedette, and he imagined her dressed in a clinging white gown, walking along a red carpet with an admiring crowd applauding her. Or perhaps flouncing along a catwalk in Paris, London or Milan, wearing a well cut trouser suit, under the appraising eye of the fashionistas. Then he thought of taking her to his firm’s annual dinner, introducing her to his friends, her smile dazzling them, and he being warmed by their murmurs of approval. Other thoughts, of her naked and in his bed, came as well.
By now she had reached the far side of the square and was about to disappear from view. James dropped some euros onto the table, to pay for his unfinished drink, grabbed his hat, and rushed after her. He rehearsed the words he would need to ask her if she would have a drink with him. ‘Prenez une tasse du café.’ ‘No,’ he thought, ‘une coupe de champagne.’ Surely she only drank champagne.
Back out onto the Boulevard Gambetta, James cast around and saw her to his right, some way ahead, walking purposefully, the dog loping at her side. He hurried to catch up. She stopped in front of Deschamp’s, the chocolatiere, and within a few seconds he was besides her, in front of the large glass window. They stood side by side looking at the tasteful display inside. Chocolates arranged precisely on glass salvers, in pyramids, circles and triangles, a few to each plate. The sort of chocolates his mother would buy to take to a dinner party. They came in a variety of shapes, enrobed in dark and pale brown chocolate, as well as creamy white. By each cluster was a small label written in an elegant script, describing the different flavours, cherry, violet, caramel, apricot and orange. The very sight of them made his mouth water. He looked at the girl, and saw her long dark eye-lashes quiver, as she stared at the chocolate coated candy, as if trying to decide what to buy. He thought he would pre-empt her by purchasing some, then give them to her and ask her to have a drink with him.
Inside the shop he made a small selection, and waited impatiently whilst the ‘vendeuse,’ she was far too elegant to call a sales assistant, put them into a small oblong box of gold coloured cardboard. ‘Pour offrir, Monsieur?’ James kept glancing behind him, making sure the young woman was still outside. ‘Oui,’ he replied abstractedly. The vendeuse placed the box in transparent cellophane, tied it with a long strand of thin gold tape and handed it to James together with a few coins, the change from the ten euro note he had given her. As he turned to leave, the girl moved towards the door. He opened it and held it ajar to allow her to enter and for a moment they stood face to face, looking into each others eyes. He was about to speak when she moved to one side, folded the beach towel carefully, placed it on the ground against the wall, and sat down on it. The dog, which had been stood patiently by her side, flopped down next to her and placed it’s head on her bare knees, paws outstretched. From her bag she took a battered straw sunhat, which, instead of putting on her head, she placed on the ground in front of her. She was very still, leaning slightly against the wall, her long neck bent forward and her head bowed.
James stepped out onto the pavement and stopped next to her, his shadow falling across her face. She didn’t look up, but he could see her blue eyes had lost their liveliness and the pretty lips were turned down. One hand rested in her lap and the other was motionless on the dog’s head. Then he saw, in the hat, a piece of card with the words ‘Pour manger S.V.P.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, before bending down and placing the box of chocolates and the coins he was still holding into the upturned hat, before walking away.