Avignon Summer 1978
First published in Islands (1979) and reprinted in
The Colour of Distance: New Zealand Writers in France, French Writers in New Zealand.
Ed. Jenny Bornholdt & Gregory O’Brien. Wellington: Victoria UP, 2005: 39-47
In our little villa there are three main rooms. And a garden. Outside the kitchen door there is a long terrace shaded by a vine and roses, which make a green leafy roof. There is a long table covered with a cream and red oilcloth, four folding chairs, a hose, rubbish in the corner, boxes and plastic bags, a little carved stone flower trough representing the Nativity. On the outside edge of the terrace grows an old fig tree whose branches stretch out to reach those of an apricot tree at the front of the garden, which has at present a likely harvest of a dozen small apricots. Something has been eating its leaves. Andrea’s tent is pitched beneath it; sagging blue and orange, a bright red and white sun umbrella in front of it—Slavia, La Grande Bière d’Alsace. The part of the lawn between the terrace and the apricot tree is dry grass and woodshavings, the odd molehill. Beyond Andrea’s tent, on the far side of the apricot tree, is Ralph’s domain. He has an old door supported on a plank against the tree where his canvas is spread out on a piece of hardboard, pots of paint, brushes and a cardboard box, bits of wood. A long flex with a naked bulb leads from the house and hangs in the branches. At night the effect is theatrical: Ralph painting under the illuminated apricot. A gravel drive bisects the section. As you enter through the spiked iron gates between their tall concrete posts the house is to your left at the back; the fig tree, the apricot tree, Ralph’s working place and Andrea’s tent all in front of the house. To the right of the driveway at the back between two big trees a washing-line is strung. The ground is covered with ivy in that corner. In front of the washing-line, a line of old irises, then dry grass, a small pear tree, clumps of thyme, rosemary and fennel. Bordering the garden on the right hand side and along the back standing high behind the house are big trees, birch and acacia and cypress. They are always moving and whispering above us.
The Mistral blew for three days last week. We woke up one morning to a fierce rushing sound, like a continuous surf sweeping down over the roof. The Mistral at its height blows continuously, strong and cold, with no change in direction or intensity. The little house feels solid and warm. It is reasonably sheltered as the wind comes from the north, behind us, but as it sweeps down over the roof it nearly pulls to pieces the vine canopy over the terrace. It is almost impossible to hear yourself speak outside as the big trees, bamboo and grasses make a wild rushing and whistling sound constantly. Looking southwards from the kitchen door we watch a line of tall poplars swaying and sweeping, wild and incredibly supple. They don’t break, just give in the wind till they are almost bent double. In front of the poplars and reaching to over half their height are some clumpy leafy trees which are all silver glitter, grey and white, as the undersides of their leaves flicker in the wind, rustling and roaring. And in front of them the tall bamboo shrieks and whistles, wildly tugging itself free of the ground and the moving grasses. Everything is moving to the limit of its capacity, everything is making the loudest possible noise. The trees are clashing furiously, and every other piece of vegetation is making its own particular sound, blending with the snarl of the wind itself as it roars down the Rhône Valley, meeting after miles of water and sparse vegetation our small tree-enshrouded encampment.
After three days of such constant wild effort, the silence is deafening, the sun warm, the air a caress. It stopped in the night, as suddenly as it began, and I woke up to listen for it.
We woke up early this morning. There was a seething and wetly plopping sound of big fat raindrops on to vine and fig leaves—it was raining, gently, heavily, firmly. The oilcloth on the table was shining wet, and the clothes we had left outside were soaking. The vase of sunset-orange roses was overflowing with rain, the roses wide open, brilliant, drinking in all the water. A gentle green watery light filtered through the vines overhead and through the fig leaves; the drops as they fell through the green canopy were like big uncut pale diamonds, or moonstones, reflecting the white sky. All day the sploshing and falling sounds of rain on all surfaces—the hard slap of a big drop on the oilcloth, a hiss on to concrete, a plop on to leaves, a soft swallowing sound on the dry earth.
This morning after the rain it is fresh and sunny. The poplars and the trees in front of them are all clean and winking in the sunlight, the poplars gently swaying out of rhythm. The bamboo is glistening and green, waving majestically like great leafy fans. The light is dappling down through the leaves of the trees and freckling everything with gold moving patches; the shadow of the apricot tree writes hieroglyphics of leaves against the whitewashed wall. The fig tree’s branches loop like thick knotty rope, and the dark shapes of the leaves make sharp-edged silhouettes against the pale, bright sky. All the greens! The dark shadowy green underneath the vine above the terrace, the luminous golden green of the leaves pierced by the sun. The fig leaves are black-green against the sky, the bamboo is silver-and-gold green, the wattles are feathery, the birches glittery, and all the leaves are always gently moving so the colours and shapes change subtly all the time. A brilliant point of sunlight strikes through the vine canopy; the sun has risen above the birch trees. It will be hot today.
Today it is windy and bright. Sitting outside at lunchtime it was like being in a storm of glitter. The sunlight filtering down through the vine above us made points of yellow light which jumped and danced wildly as the wind shook the leaves about.
Maurice from the farm down the road brought us some vegetables today. He has a beautiful brown leathery deeply-lined face, and a bright crinkly smile. He shows me how the stalks of the courgettes are still wet, snaps a bean to show how fresh his vegetables are. He will have no more than one glass of rosé with us, before he shakes hands and goes back to work.
The Mistral blew steadily again today, and we made a kite. In the evening when the wind was starting to drop we took it out beside the river and flew it, but the more it flew the more the wind dropped, and it ended up flopping along the gravel. The sun was like an orange searchlight as it went down behind the violet battlements of the ancient fort across the river, the sky all patches of bruised colour as it set. With it went the wind completely, and the birches suddenly turned bright gold, then black and lacy, and rested from the windy day.
It has been a hot and cloudless day, a breeze only slightly rustling the leaves of the trees above us. Early in the evening we sat in the sun in the garden, and the sun above the fig tree shone through the leaves making them glow brilliant green, and casting big floppy shadows on the ground. Now it is still quiet dark night. The cicadas sing incessantly, the trees are holding still their leaves, the air is warm and dry. We are sitting at the long table on the terrace drinking rosé. The white stucco of the house wall looks like the surface of the moon under the outside light. A young vine dislodged by yesterday’s wind trails down from the canopy and gently sways. There is a crystal clear violin sonata on the radio.
On ne peut jamais boire un seul pastis ici—on dit ‘Tu vas partir en boitant, faut en prendre deux, pour l’equilibre . . .’.
If you only have one pastis you go away with a limp. . .
Andrea was nine today. We gave her a kite for the Mistral, a recorder for fairy music on quiet nights, multi-coloured bubbles to dance with, some tin soldiers and some paper dolls. We took a picnic lunch and went to the little stony beach on the Gardon, where you can look at the Pont du Gard against a backdrop of dark blue-green bush and sky. There are tourists walking along the top like inquisitive ants. It is overcast but warm. Andrea swims her new somewhat stationary breaststroke in the clear dark green water; shoals of little fish flit over the stones. A party of French schoolchildren splash past in brightly coloured canoes, a hearty German family swim about enthusiastically. Four French cars are parked in a line and there is a complicated lunch served; they sit in their canvas chairs at little camping tables and talk and eat vigorously. A fat pink man stands very still holding a huge surfcasting rod over the still water. Ralph is drawing the Pont du Gard, a brilliant blue dragonfly above his head.
Avignon is apricot in the evening. The battlements of the walls and gates are sharply cut out against the sky; warm, battered old stones. The Rhône flows deep and imperturbable past the old Pont St Bénézet. The bell in the tower on the bridge sings out mellow over the old stones and the water.
There is a wind this evening. A huge full moon rose yellow behind the dark sweeping poplars, and now hangs above them, white and shining, enigmatic and unruffled above the swirling masses of the trees below.
Maurice from the farm calls in sometimes about nine or ten in the evening, and we have a glass of wine. The other night he’d been having a few whiskies in town, and he waxed most patriotic. He does very hard physical work from five in the morning till eight or nine at night, and is paid very little. But it is on and for the land that he works, and he loves and belongs to it entirely. Ah, he says, here in France we are free. I would be the first to stand up and be shot for the name of Liberty. Here we have such Liberty, too much even! Life is simple, France is beautiful, the most beautiful country in the world. You should see my peaches! When they are ready I will bring you some. You’ll see. As big as plates! His brown face hatched with wrinkles, checked shirt, bow legs and felt hat ride past during the day as he does errands and delivers vegetables in the basket on the front of his vélo. For outings, he wears a large sports jacket, tie, and slicked-down hair. The first time he appeared in his best clothes, I hardly recognised him. He came to get us on the evening of the 14th July, and took us to watch a magnificent fireworks display over the old Pont St Bénézet and the river. Then he insisted on having several large whiskies in a bar in town. This is my second home, he explained simply as he waved away our money. Everybody knows me here. You’ll see. Everybody knows Maurice.
I went to the farm this morning to buy some vegetables for lunch. Maurice took my bag and came back proudly with about twelve kilos of tomatoes and courgettes. I tried to pay him, but he waved the money away. Pay me next time perhaps, he said. Besides, there are some visitors from Belgium. Ah, they say, does the sun shine like this all the time? I say it does, the Midi is the part of the world where the sun shines the most, the sun always shines. For us, when the sky is overcast, there is gloom all around. It is that one up there, that sun of ours, that makes us live. La fiesta, as they say in Spain! These beautiful vegetables, I’ll give them to you, take them as a gift. You’ll feast like kings. Bon appétit!
We had a picnic on the high rocky white hills near Les Baux, and came home via Arles.
A Turkish-looking blue enamelled dragonfly hovers on a heatwave, shoots backwards, lands momentarily on a sprig of rosemary and disappears, vertical, instantaneous. Behind it the white rocks quiver. The sun rasps down. The cicadas grind it up and leave it to the rocks to throw back again.
Tall black cypresses severely marshal their green and yellow cornfields. The Mistral has made everything lean slightly. Along the road the plane trees stretch their branches out to their partners on the other side, who lean backwards, embarrassed. The trees with little leaves shake and flitter them, throwing the light around.
The sound of the cicadas is the sound the sun makes, ceaselessly grinding out its heat. The dragonflies and butterflies dance, drunkenly, to the rhythm of it.
I walked across the Place du Palais in the mid-afternoon hot sun, the Sunday bells pealing out from Notre Dame des Doms, echoing back and forth between the old stone walls.
Last night I dreamed that we were all three huddled in our bed, listening to screams of children carried on a blast of air down an ancient stone chimney. Someone was roaring and snarling outside and banging on the roof, trying to get in, and the grey ghost of a friend was waiting in the kitchen.
I woke up and went outside. There was thunder, right overhead, and sizzling rain. The trees were thrashing about madly in the wind which swept down from all angles. It was hot. The sky was strangely light. Three o’clock in the morning.
It feels like late summer now. In the morning when I get up there is a mist, and everything is damp from the night’s dew. The sky is white, the trees still and silver-grey. Gradually the sun clears the mist away from the sky until it is huge and blue. All day it is hot, and the cicadas sing. As we drove home from the Fontaine de Vaucluse yesterday evening the light was slanting and golden. The trees and vines in the foreground were crystal clear, fading in the middle distance to a misty blue, and the horizon quite vanished in the haze of dark blues and greens, broken by the dark steeples of the cypresses between the vineyards.
This morning I got up at seven o’clock. When I opened the shutters, everything was quiet and white. I could hardly make out the tall shapes of the poplars through the mist, but as I watched it cleared away, revealing the bamboo grey and silver, its fans of leaves motionless and drooping. The poplars were waiting for the sun, and when it began to filter through the disappearing mist they started to move their leaves and sway, very gently, gaining depth and colour as they came into focus. With the day came a little breeze, and the silent sleep of the early morning gave way to the wakeful bustle of the leaves and branches.
Perhaps it is early autumn already. Perhaps still late summer. The dividing line is somewhere between the ripe purple figs swelling and splitting on the ends of the fig tree branches, and the leaves above us which are turning to orange, pink and scarlet patches against the still predominant green. The canopy is less thick now, and the sky shows through. When the wind blows, big bright blots of sunlight scatter all over us as we sit at the table. The paintings hanging on the outside walls change all the time as the shimmering flickering patches dance over them, or rest in starry patterns of light and shade. In the sun their colours are deep and brilliant, dark and secret in the shadow. Now and again a curly brown leaf drops on to the table, or rustles along the concrete with a dry whisper.
At this end of the arc of summer the mornings are cool. The sun sparkles pale and brilliant through the trees on to last night’s raindrops hanging on the washing-line. The dying leaves hang quietly. We have eaten nearly all the figs.
Mistral Song, for Ralph
The Mistral blows
The Mistral blows
The first day of the Mistral
My true love said to me
Jesus Christ this wind is strong
See those poplars sweeping?
The second day of the Mistral
My true love said to me
Jesus Christ this wind is strong
See those poplars sweeping
Hear the bamboo whistling
Let’s go and look at ancient monuments
But the Mistral followed
The third day of the Mistral
We clenched our eyes and shut our teeth
The branches knocked against the roof
The bamboo whistled
The poplars shrieked
The cypresses rent their branches
We tore our hair out
We let our legs and arms go
And threw our clothes out the windows
We opened the roof and let
The branches take over
The Mistral blows
The Mistral blows
And when we had quite surrendered
It left, nonchalantly,
Whistling vaguely among the grasses.