The Tor, Glastonbury
“If you just organise the trip and go there,” said the clairvoyante cartomante in Glastonbury just over six years ago, “just go to France to a spot where you’d like to be, then the earth will tell you where you are meant to be.”
Dreaming of a new home, I believed her. Well, why not? I had no ties, and so little to lose: no job; no home; a little money and plans as yet still in the formulation phase.
Why not take a break, and explore new places and possibilities?
So that is what I did, back in the dark old days when, shuddering with disbelief, we watched our country sleepwalk towards a war that promised nothing but nightmares.
I flew to Toulouse, exchanging the stifling repressed rage of England for the bright, fierce convictions of the Midi.
In flight I watched fascinated as on the other side of the aisle from me a smartly-dressed, middle-aged French husband tenderly cradled his nervous-flier spouse’s face in his hands, distracting her from her fears and soothing her anxiety by planting tiny kisses all over her face. In the arrivals hall the wife turned and, catching my eye, smiled brilliantly, relief writ large on her softly piquant face. For a moment I caught myself measuring her against a joyful, pre-lapsarian Eve, perhaps even one sculpted by the great Ghislebertus himself. A face that belonged on a church tympanum in a period before punishment and sacrifice predominated, stamping out the simple joy of a smiling face and layering it over with guilt.
Wherever that face belonged, I hoped to experience for myself a little of the respite it expressed.
In fact, of course, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was down to research and the testimonials of my star grad trainee of years before. Véro, a clever ariègeoise, shrewd, self-reliant and brimming with ideas and laughter – and proud of her Cathar heritage.
Thanks to the research prior to my departure, I’d identified a potential opportunity and its corollary training requirements. Now I needed – as the nice lady in Glastonbury had suggested – to find where I might hope to live and even settle for the rest of my life.
Toulouse proved an instant hit with its battle-scarred independence and the warmth and humour of its identity. La ville rose, it’s called, due to the soft, rose madder tint of the Roman-style bricks used in most of its construction. La ville rouge, counter the French wits, slyly alluding to Toulouse’s long history of rebellion and passion for social justice. Me, I revelled in the Romanesque of St Sernin, gawped in wonder when the final, lately-constructed storey of the Fondation Bemberg’s beautiful, Renaissance townhouse revealed its treasures: a generous collection of works by Bonnard.I walked around la place de la Capitole, explored the winding streets of the old town and wandered along the banks of the vast and impressive Garonne. I ate cassoulet, drank Fronton and frowned at the analyses of Britain’s behaviour abroad with the sweet-natured and assiduous Maghrebi waitress who unprompted took on the task of making me a fresh cup of
St Sernin, Toulouse
double-expresso. Every morning when I arrived in the breakfast room, reeling with delight and still buzzing with new sights and stimuli, she would serve me my coffee with a flourish before settling down for as long a chat as her boss would permit.
Something told me I was in the right place. But I still had the feeling I wasn’t quite there, yet. Despite its many riches, the city wasn’t for me; I wanted somewhere smaller, closer to the countryside. There was an element in the puzzle that remained hidden, and I had less than a week to find it. Excursions to Cahors, Foix, Carcassonne were all vastly enjoyable; but that errrant piece still refused to reveal its whereabouts.
Then I went to Albi. Having read a little Cathar history I was keen to see the place which lent a name to what was regarded by Rome as the heresy of these Manichaeans with their ancient, zen-like beliefs – a name allotted by the north of France, hostile to all these credentes and perfecti stood for. I also wanted to see the Cathedral – a monument to Catholicism triumphant, dominating the town, the river and the countryside for miles around in terrible warning. Dedicated to St Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians, it looked far more like a fortress than a building devoted to divine harmony.
Tower of St Cecilia’s in middle, with Bishop’s Palace on rhs from across the bridge
Spooked by the size, darkness and grim challenge made by this louring warlike structure, I scuttled off for lunch in one of the many restaurants opposite the Bishop’s Palace. An altogether more welcoming place, I thought to myself as I contemplated the episcopal gaff while chewing my salade de gésiers – and it bloody well would be, wouldn’t it? No austerity for the princes of the increasingly wealthy church, richly rewarding themselves for all the successful carnage carried out against the Cathars. Now, perhaps, the palace has a more suitable and healing function. It houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, a tribute to a misunderstood son of the Albigeois. One who, faced with and by marginality, chose instead tolerance and compassion, contriving even to celebrate its many recompenses while depicting with honesty its equally prevalent pains.
After lunch, I strolled out onto the pavement seeking cool breezes – it was hot everywhere, that week: do you remember? Unseasonally warm for March. I was in cotton trousers and shirt, my pullover relegated to a supporting role around my neck, its stuffy presence resented. Passing through the formal gardens in the Bishop’s Palace, I emerged back on the pavement and noticed ahead of me bouncing and gliding on long legs a pair of children, girls, hand-in-hand.
Both black, they were clearly of different parentage, possibly of different ethnicity. The elder, lighter in colour and impishly pretty, had broad nilotic features and a wide, mischievous smile; the younger one far more serious, dark as the richest of bitter chocolate, with the straight, severe and fine features of Ethiopia – a solemn beauty in the making. They were headed for the river – I caught the word as it flew over the slender shoulders of the elder girl, streaming towards me on her slipstream. I don’t know what made me do so; but I felt compelled to follow.
View over banks & the Tarn towards the bridge, from the Bishop’s Palace gardens
Down the steps they danced, with me in their wake. Once there in the riverside grounds, the two little girls – I’d estimate their ages as around 13 and 8 or 9 respectively – sped over the grass towards a pair of young musicians in process of tuning up. Both white and in their twenties, a young woman with a violin and a young man with a hurdy-gurdy, the musicians welcomed the little girls. The quartet clearly knew each other. Idly, I watched them greet each other. Stopping to seat myself on one of the concrete beches dotting the berges du Tarn, I listened to their music. Somewhere between the fluent improvised intricacies of Blowzabella and the most enlivening syncopations of early music, the sounds they made echoed the sparkling sunlight on the broad, lazy river, the awe inspired by the hilltop buildings towering over us and the enchantment of a sunny day in March, heralding summer and better, longer days to come. Their music rose up in cheerful counterpoint to the morose monotone of that menacing cathedral, giving good old Cecilia the Good Time she truly merits.
I lay back, stretching out full length on the bench, closing my eyes, crossing my arms across my chest and relaxing completely into the moment, the music and the sound of the Tarn a few feet away. A dream had turned into reality, making me part of a scene, welcome even if at random.
After a few minutes, I sensed a presence at my side. Opening an eye, I saw the younger of the two children standing there, her hands cupped and raised towards me. I opened both eyes and half rose. The little girl held out her hands, showing me that they were full of buttercups their colour standing out against the darkness of her skin.
Smiling, I admired the flowers. Her eyes, shimmering black silk on the surface, looked at me from profounder depths than any human could plumb. She was insisting with eyes and hands that I accept the flowers. My hands mirroring hers, I watched as she carefully emptied the flowers into mine.
“Thank you,” I said, her dignity demanding equal formality, “that is so kind of you. I am very pleased to have these lovely flowers. Thank you very much, ma petite.”
Nodding, she turned and ran off back to her group.
I held the flowers in my hands and lay back again to catch the sun, laughing silently at the image I must have formed of some washed-up, superannuated Ophelia, just as crazed and just as unwanted, by the banks of some strange river strewn with wild flowers.
Then it happened again. The child repeated her ceremonious offering, this time with daisies as the music continued to scent the air, taking me and anyone who cared to listen back in time to an age where idylls were harder won.
But the afternoon raced forward in another direction ’till it was time to catch the train back. The musicians, packing up their instruments, were also leaving. The little girls, having danced en rond hands joined with the young violinist while the hurdy-gurdy player serenaded their graceful movements, were tiring, and they too sloped back up the stone steps to the hill. I didn’t see where they went, as my path diverged from theirs.
Boarding the Toulouse-bound train, I noticed the musicians among the other embarking passengers. The little girls had vanished. It was almost as if they hadn’t been there at all. But I knew they had. Of course they had; I had proof: the flowers were enfolded in tissue handkerchiefs in my rucksack.
The earth had spoken, or so it seemed. Returning to England, I applied for training courses and was accepted. My training once completed, I was immediately offered work – indeed, within a few kilometres’ radius of that very spot on the banks of the Tarn in Albi. With such promises granted and sufficient capital remaining to buy a small house, I felt certain that a new start was about to happen. Albeit a little nervous, I was elated by the prospect and looked forward to my return to the Albigeois with impatience. After all, surely this was meant?
Only fate, providence – call it what you will (the Cathars saw human life as subject to Rex Mundi, an evil God whose sphere of malignity was the earth in general and man in particular) – had other ideas. Dead set on me, he nearly succeeded, contenting himself with merely destroying job offers and funds in his fretful, frustrated passing.
Much later I would retrieve the remaining pressed flowers, mount them on card and frame them under glass to prove that the earth had, indeed, called out to me telling me where I should be – just as the clairvoyante cartomante had foreseen.
Now all that remains of that plan, that desire and that happiness is a memory of a picture. One once fresh as one of the wild daisies so gracefully offered by the beautiful child, and as glowing with promise of fulfilment as the unusual sunlight on that day. Having been subjected to the mind’s own oxidisation process the picture is increasingly fissured by cracks as it becomes engulfed by darkness, as are the pressed flowers which will be degrading within their frame – wherever they are, if I have them still. In the end, even dreams of belonging must also fade and vanish. It is a pity, then, that they can never be completely relinquished and persist in haunting us as if they were unquiet souls.
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