ONE ENGLISHWOMAN’S MISSION TO SAVE AN ISLAND’S CATS
I am standing in a Sicilian bus park, waiting for a man I have never met before. We are to drive along narrow twisting roads to a small town in the mountains in search of a badly injured cat. It is a balmy evening in June, the air laden with the sensuous scent of jasmine, which steals into my mind and conjures images of my past in this little town of Taormina. A shawl of magenta bougainvillea is slung over the wall to my left, swallows dart through the dusky sky.
There is a voluptuousness of the senses about Sicily; you forget you are no more than a twenty-minute ferry ride from the toe of Italy. Perhaps it is its history of invaders, Arab, Norman and Phoenician to name a few, each leaving their stamp on the landscape, which gives this island its sense of otherness.
From the trattoria a few yards down the road comes the tantalising scents of garlicky tomato and basil. I imagine the tables packed with holidaymakers enjoying their meal. Drunk on sunshine, a day spent basking like lizards on the beach at Isola Bella or Mazzaro, they throw off their Northern reticence, speak in loud voices, call for another carafe of the local wine. Gales of laughter, they haven’t a care in the world. My stomach growls. How I would love to be among them, forking up chunks of aubergine, savouring the rich sauce of pasta alla norma with its sprinkling of smoked ricotta. Or maybe I would choose pasta con le sarde, that dish which derives from Arabic cuisine, with its combination of sultanas, pine nuts and saffron. Yet the ingredients themselves have been native to Sicily since the time when Greeks first landed on Naxos beach and settled there. Wild fennel comes into it and anchovy fillets, as well as the ubiquitous sardines.
Buses roar in and out of this park while I wait, musing on food. The airport coach disgorges new arrivals; a young woman with red hair tears herself from the arms of a young man and boards, waving desperately as the vehicle bears her away. It reminds me that my stay in Taormina, unlike those other times, is limited.
I ask myself: What am I doing here, bound on this mission with only a faint hope of finding the poor creature? Who knows, by now it may have run off to hide and die? Why can’t I simply enjoy this beautiful evening? But that is my nature: always divided by a sense of duty and a rage to live. I am poised between staying and going. If this man doesn’t arrive soon…
A car swings into the bus park. The man at the wheel calls out my name. It is Giulio.
THR CATS OF THE PUBLIC GARDENS
I was sitting in Taormina’s Public Gardens talking to the cats. The gardens house a colony of feral felines, which grows or diminishes depending on the number of animals abandoned and whether someone throws down poisoned meatballs. A lot of Sicilians look upon feral animals as vermin.
Lily was sitting on my lap, her eyes narrowed to slits as I gently scratched under her chin, a favourite place for cats, though each is different. I thought that she must be over eight years old and, unlike some of her companions who ran away, she had worked out it was politic to allow herself to be stroked because then she would get the lion’s share of any titbits.
The afternoon was so hot it seemed to be holding its breath; time was suspended. I’d chosen to come here and sit in this green shade rather than bake on the beach of Isola Bella, hundreds of metres below the town. I couldn’t face being squashed into a bus packed with people: all that tourist panic of where or where not to get off.
As I stroked Lily, I gazed at a truly picture postcard view: huge pots overflowing with geraniums, pink and red, standing on a stone parapet and further beyond grumpy volcano Etna rising against the perfectly blue sky.
Lily purred. It wouldn’t be hard to nod off myself.
‘Sera.’ Rounding a flowerbed, Maria arrived out of breath, carrying two large plastic bags.
She and I had met here too often to stand on ceremony. Besides, it was too hot.
She set the bags down, gathered up the feeding bowls and gave them a rinse in the fountain. Immediately the cats sprang into action. Lily’s eyes widened and she flew from my lap. The air was filled with meows. They milled round Maria, pressing themselves against her legs as she emptied out great mounds of pasta cooked with fish. Then there was a lot of grumbling, a lashing out of paws as they fought for their place. They were a pretty sad bunch, but even when they are starving cats retain their table manners - about 20 of them, ginger, black and tortoiseshell; the big grey tom had a weeping raw patch behind his ear, several were thin and mangy and there was a small white cat with one eye. I knew how he lost that. A vicious infection akin to feline chlamydia which is actually part of a feline upper respiratory disease complex, most often appears in cats as conjunctivitis which is inflammation of the tissues of the eye, also known as pink eye.
Unless it is treated in time with an antibiotic like Pensulvit cream the animal loses its sight. I carried a tube of this cream in my bag but it really needed two people on the job: one to hold the cat, the other to spread the cream. The two sickly ginger kittens I noticed the other day were absent. Theirs is a grim world.
Maria plumped herself down on the bench beside me and began to speak in the Sicilian dialect. She did this in the understandable belief that because we shared a love of cats and the desire to help them, I should be able to understand her. In a way, I suppose I did, at least the gist of what she said. It’s a language packed with guttural sounds, and with only a nodding acquaintance with Italian. Its pronunciation is easier for a Brit because the r isn’t emphatically rolled. At Maria’s age she was no longer jealous of foreign females, thank goodness. I’d often been the subject of a penetrating glare when I’d tried to befriend other Sicilian women.
She was beautiful, not outwardly, I should add. Elderly with a strong-featured face and grey hair, she wore the typical matron’s dark frock. Her varicose veins gave her trouble, she’d often told me about them: ‘Mi fanno morire nel caldo’ they kill me in the hot weather. Without grace, she sat with her legs splayed showing her knee-highs. Maria was beautiful within. She had a generous, loving heart, a childlike simplicity. The several badges of animal welfare associations she wore on her collar announced her devotion. . She was a widow and had moved from a house into an apartment so she couldn’t keep cats of her own. But every day - summer and winter - she bought fish from the market, cooked it up with pasta and brought it here.
She related the trouble she was having with her neighbours who were suspicious of her strange behaviour; this is a society where anything new or unusual is mistrusted and her eccentric feeding of cats was not tolerated. As she described the nasty tricks they played on her like watering their plants just after she has hung out her washing on the balcony below, I gazed round the gardens.
Nearby were some gigantic terracotta pots filled with cascading plants covered with tiny scarlet bells, the label said they came from Mexico. The roses were already in bloom and the bougainvilleas as I always remembered them gaudy and riotous, a clash of magenta and crimson.
‘I worry, I really worry what would happen to these bambini if I couldn’t get here anymore. Sometimes I’ve been ill and missed a few days. I’ve lain in my bed imagining them waiting here for me and I don’t come.’
WE LOVE CATS BUT DO THEY LOVE US?
Do cats love us? Or is this kind of show of affection cupboard love? True they don’t respond with the tail-thumping greeting of a dog when his owner returns. Research has shown canines experience But positive emotions, like love and attachment, meaning that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. Cats are less demonstrative and some people dub them aloof. But surely it follows that if a cat behaves in the same way towards certain human beings as it does towards other cats, then undoubtedly she is showing she is fond of her owner. Domesticated cats take this much further. They use kneading behaviour, the front paws treading on soft surfaces, a hark back to kitten hood. Kitten paws knead against the mother cat’s breasts to induce milk to be released. Adult cats continue this behaviour when they’re feeling most relaxed and content. My cat, Sheba, has a habit of arriving on my pillow and kneading into my bare shoulder, purring loudly in my ear. When a cat throws herself on the ground at your feet and rolls around, she is asking for attention. Presenting her stomach in this way puts a cat in a vulnerable position so cats generally reserve the rolling around for people they trust and maybe love. The thing I love best with Sheba is her sometime slow “eye blink” from across the room; I have been honoured with a cat kiss.
The feral cats surrounding Maria while I mused on this were simply intent on having as much as they could of the pasta and fish mixture she was dispensing. They were silent. In contrast domestic cats can be very talkative. Over time, Sheba has developed a number of meows to suit different occasions. They range from the little chirrup which greets me if I wake her when coming into a room to a plaintive high pitched meow on her arrival in the house and not seeing anyone about. Then there is the quite desperate meow when she sees a packet of her food being opened. And of course there are the purrs. While these are sometimes a signal of comfort and contentment, research has shown that purring is an attempt to get something done. I remember my other cat, Fluffy’s loud and disconcerting purr, which I initially failed to recognise as a cry for help. I was new to the world of felines and unaware that they will purr when stressed or in distress or pain and are trying to attract attention.
THE TALE OF LUCKY STAR
A few days later I went in search of Laura and found she was very upset. Someone had put four kittens into a bag and literally thrown them away into a rubbish bin. Animal-loving friends of Laura noticed a faint meowing and rescued them. They were tiny: probably born only a couple of days ago. Two were dead but the others were blindly searching for food. Their crying was breaking Laura’s heart.
Together we went to the pharmacist to buy the special milk for kittens and a small pipette. It is an onerous task rearing new-born felines: they need to be fed every two or three hours.
‘I don’t know how we’ll manage,’ Laura continued. ‘I’m working all day and my father certainly wouldn’t allow me to nurse kittens in his shop.’
Fortunately her friends, the couple who found the kittens said they would take responsibility.
Once again I was struck by the juxtaposition of peace and violence in this place. Here was a café where people laughed and were tipsy on sun and wine, without a care in the world. I wanted to tell them that a few yards away from this jolly scene, there was a pile of rubbish where some cruel individual, having snatched these mites from their mother, had dumped them here.
I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, and of how suffering takes place in the midst of ordinary, careless life.
Auden visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1938 and viewed Icarus Falling by Brueghel. His poem’s theme is the apathy with which humans view individual suffering. You could say that Breugal’s painting doesn’t take it that seriously: if you look closer at the untroubled ship sailing by, you can see the foolish and drowning son of Dedalus, legs sticking out of the water. Is the artist trying to say that life is absurd, suffering insignificant? Or was it meant to portray the Icarus event as of no consequence in order to make the point of the painting stronger?
Would these happy travellers be shocked by what I told them, or would they resent that I had disturbed the calm surface of their stay? I wondered.
Laura told me that one of the kittens had died but the other was fighting on; however, there was a new problem. Her friends were going on holiday, one that was booked months ago. What was to happen to the kitten? Would violence win after all?
She got out her contact book and we phoned around. A cat lover in a neighbouring village apologised profusely. She had to take her ailing husband to hospital. We sent emails to others and no one bothered to reply.
The best way forward was to pay a vet, the first, a truly caring man was up to his eyes with work and could not take anything more on, he told us.
Meanwhile, the day was approaching when Laura’s friends would depart. I was also on the verge of leaving for England. Laura was becoming desperate. If this tiny scrap of life wasn’t fed, she would die. Laura was in tears.
And then the small miracle occurred: another vet didn’t hesitate. ‘Yes, I will take the kitten. There is a young and newly qualified vet in the surgery. She is willing to help and I will be in attendance to keep my eye on things.’
Time passed and the little feline thrived. She eats like ‘a little pig’, Laura told me, she purrs, she plays. There are some people in this apathetic world who aren’t indifferent to animal suffering.
Laura drove to the surgery to see her. She was now a ball of white with smudges of grey fluff. It was clear the young woman vet had fallen in love with her. The kitten’s miserable past was forgotten and there was no self-pity.
As another poet, D. H. Lawrence commented, he had never seen a wild thing that was sorry for itself. Lawrence lived for nearly three years in this place, a tortured soul forever wandering, but who found a degree of harmony here.
On my return Laura took me to see the kitten. She was back with the animal loving friends and would soon be adopted and have a loving home. She scuttled about our feet, playing with my shoelace and then, like all young things, she suddenly tired. She curled into a ball and went to sleep… and slept with such tranquillity. All was well.
‘What will you call her?’ I asked.
While Laura considered, I looked back over these days and the undertones of cruelty and violence I had witnessed. Certainly there was sunshine here but also a world of shadows.
Laura had been watching as the kitten wakened, yawned and immediately settled to sleep again. ‘Stella Fortunata,’ she said at last.
I translated the word to English. Lucky Star.
Oblivious, the kitten slept on. Suddenly all the questions and imponderables faded and I felt myself in the moment, rejoicing that one small being had been saved. I am not religious in the accepted sense, although I have my own beliefs, but now the words of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ brought tears to my eyes. ‘I once was lost and now am found…’ I smiled at Laura. ‘Oh yes, let’s call her Lucky Star.’
THE GREAY SICILIAN CAT RESCUE is available from bookshops and on Amazon Price £8.99
SEVEN SOME ENCOUNTERS WITH CAT LADIES
Maria’s voice brought me back to myself. She stroked a grey and white cat with blue eyes, surely a touch of the Siamese there and probably abandoned when the novelty of kittenish behaviour wore off.
Maria was a gattara, a woman who feeds cats.
Occasionally I have seen elderly men standing in piazzas or among ancient ruins dishing out food from Whiskas tins but usually the gattare are women. Some people joke about them, sneering that the animals are a child substitute. But they don’t recognise the heroic dedication of the often-elderly woman, dragging her basket on wheels, heavy with cat food towards ‘her’ colony. In Rome, it is these cat ladies who care for many of the estimated 180,000 stray cats prowling the city’s streets. One of the most famous was the beautiful actress Anna Magnani who used to feed the cats at Torre Argentina every day when she was appearing in the theatre nearby. In the UK, Celia Hammond ex-super model whose face once graced the cover of Vogue magazine during her career in the 1960s, is a dedicated gattara. She has been rescuing, neutering and re-homing stray and unwanted animals for decades.
‘It's very hard to do this job and have a normal life,’ she has been quoted as saying. ‘Relationships just fall apart, I’ve had three main ones and I neglected all of them which is why I'm on my own,’
She sometimes ends up working 22 hours a day helping cats and says her modelling days feel so far removed from her life now. It is as if they happened to a different person.
‘You only get one life, you have to do what you feel is right with it. If you have a lifestyle where you have spent your whole life taking drugs, going to parties, flying all over the world and lying on the beach, what would you feel at the end of your life?’
Maria’s fear of letting the cats down is common among these women. Their lives are composed of considerable sacrifices and small gratification. As one of them told me: ‘I’ve sold everything, my rings, my gold, everything but I can’t abandon them.’ She had been feeding them for twenty years.
I wanted to put my arm round my companion, she looked so sad and alone sitting there, but then Lily pushed herself against Maria’s leg. She never missed the chance of a lap to make herself comfortable on.
In a while, Maria heaved herself to her feet, rinsed the bowls that had been licked clean anyway, and filled one with water. She gave me one of her rare smiles. ‘A domani’ she said and trundled off. I could see her legs were troubling her this sultry afternoon.
August and the garden burns with colour. There is a fine show of dahlias: the vibrant vermilion of Bishop of Llandaff, exquisite Clair de Lune with its lemon yellow outer petals and paler inner segments, and the pastel baby pom pom, which always touches his heart. One of his favourite asters is out, a mass of lavender blue; it makes a cool contrast to the hotter shades. Claude walks down the main path, stepping over the carpet of nasturtiums, yellow, red and orange. They sprawl, they creep, invade space wherever they can, clamber over other plants, but he loves their good-natured growing. It is impossible to feel down hearted on a morning such as this, full of activity, demanding his attention.
‘Lovely aren’t they, m’sieur?’ Breuil has come to stand beside him and together the two men share this vision, explosion of colour, array of varieties.
‘No sign of any aphids,’ Claude remarks with satisfaction. ‘Remember last year, the trouble we had. It broke my heart to see the damage those little beasts did.’
‘Ah, you can thank young Michel for that.’
‘Michel? Didn’t know he was an expert on pest control.’
‘You’d be surprised. He’s come up with a wonderful solution, something his father uses on the farm.’
Claude thinks back to the last conversation he had with the young man. Gardening seemed to be the last thing on his mind, boy wanted to travel, he’d said.
‘Saponaria,’ Breuil is saying. ‘Natural and most effective.’
‘The highly invasive rock plant, hmm.’
‘Yes, but that’s the beauty of it. You always have a plentiful supply. What you do is mix up the leaves, or roots for that matter, with water. Sieve to obtain the liquid and
then spray it on the plants.’
‘And it works?’
‘You can see for yourself. Not an aphid in sight, the soapy water kills them.’
Claude beams at the unblemished pompom, its bright cherry red centre, and thinks of Michel with new respect.
‘So you’re pleased with him, are you?’
‘It’s like this: he was eager at the start, interested to learn and he picked things up quickly. I told you myself how promising he was.’
‘And you don’t say those things lightly,’ Claude smiles.
‘I have my standards, m’sieur.’ As if to demonstrate, he leans over and nips off a couple of fading flowers.
‘I know you do and very admirable they are.’
‘Thank you. As I say, he promised well but then, some weeks ago, he began to appear distracted, forgetful. I had to pull him up on several things left undone. I was beginning to think…’ he shrugs. ‘Ah well, as it turns out…’
‘He seems to have come to his senses?’ Claude suggests.
‘Good, I like the young man. He has had the strength to rebel against his family’s wishes.’ Claude remembers the brush he had with Michel’s father when he had the first small pond dug: all that nonsense about his ‘strange plants’ and how they might poison the water. ‘Old man Duval is something of a tyrant. It can’t have been easy for him.’
A breeze stirs the cosmos and sets them aquiver like pale pink and white butterflies.
‘I think he has the makings of a good gardener. Encourage him all you can, Breuil. We’ll none of us be around forever.’
How impossible it seems, to leave all this beauty and step into the void, he has no time for religious hopes of a life hereafter. Nature in all its variety uplifts his soul, astonishes so that the mind is entirely filled with the experience and is the experience. This is the nearest he comes to worship. That time on Belle Isle as he watched the mountainous waves rise and fall, dash themselves furiously against steep cliffs, toss the spray high into the air, what ecstasy to see that sea in fury. Desolation when it calmed too quickly. He sees himself dressed in oilskins, the wind trying to snatch his palette and brushes from his hand, sea soaked, tempest battered in the grip of the sublime. Terror on the edge of beauty. It is foolish to allow himself to think of extinction when he has work to do, important work. Probably my crowning achievement, he tells himself sternly as he leaves Breuil and goes in search of Michel.
He enters the water garden and goes to stand on the Japanese bridge, gazing down into the water where clouds are reflected, so that above and below, sky and water commingle. Near the edge of the pond, the light is dim and the muted surface of the water reflects the dense curtain of foliage that shades its rim. His mind shifts and meditates on the changing light and colour, how he will capture it, how he will present his concept of water without horizon or bank.
On Tuesday of the following week Monet had announced his intention of going into Rouen and she had managed to slip away, unnoticed. She hurried along the street towards the pink washed house, praying he would be there but preparing herself in case he wasn’t. With her heart beating fast, she peered through the foliage into the garden and there he was, seated at his easel, intent on his work. There was no sign of anyone else. She called softly to him and he looked up, grinned and came quickly to the garden gate.
‘Blanche!’ his eyes shone. ‘You’re here.’
‘I had to see you,’ she whispered. ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer.’
‘No need to whisper, there is nobody here. Come in.’
She stepped into the garden and they stood for a moment gazing at each other then he took hold of her hands.
‘I was praying you’d come,’ he said. ‘It’s been such a long time.’
She looked at him, the sun on his dark hair, the sharp curve of his cheekbones, his mouth, the truth of his presence made her catch her breath. Her sense of separateness vanished and she was just Blanche, heart pounding, mouth dry with a mixture of delight and anxiety.
‘It has seemed like forever,’ he said and she saw the longing in his expression.
Maybe people could see what was happening? She felt it was written as clearly on her face as it was on his. Thank God, no-one had said anything at home, not yet…
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come before, I have had to go out painting with Monet, every day,’ she told him. ‘Listen to him going on about haystacks.’
‘It is what he is painting at the moment. You have no idea how difficult it has been for me, out in the fields with him each day, talking about atmosphere and changing light and reflection when all I wanted to speak about was you. And at home, I have to behave as if everything is as usual when the truth is everything is utterly changed.’
He brought her hands to his lips. ‘It is, isn’t it? Everything is changed. I find it hard with my family, too.’
Why should it be a secret? she wondered. Why can’t I share this happiness?
‘I cannot understand his loathing of us Americans, it seems out of all proportion,’ John Leslie said. ‘What have we ever done to him?’
‘It is what you represent,’ she replied. ‘As interlopers in his precious domain. He will tolerate you as painters but apart from Robinson he sees you as a threat to the way things are done at Le Pressoir.’
She looked up and met his gaze. He caressed her face and kissed her gently. ‘The others have gone to Vernon to the market. They went early and I’m not sure how soon they’ll be back.’
Over his shoulder she gazed at the easel. ‘Won’t you show me your painting?’
It was a simple subject of orchard grass and the beauty of apple trees in snowy blossom, the candid promise that spring offers, every year.
‘A Normandy orchard: I came across it a couple of months ago. I thought I’d finished it but when I fetched it out today, I saw there was still work to be done.’ He indicated areas on the canvas. ‘I love that time of year, don’t you, with everything coming to life again.’
Blanche, gazing, wondered but will the promise be fulfilled? What is to happen to us? Spring has gone and summer is passing, when the autumn comes he will be gone. The uncertainty returned.
He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. He looked into her eyes then, it seemed, into her mind. ‘Blanche, don’t worry. I am planning to come back here next summer, only then I’ll stay with the Baudy family. I am trying to persuade them to transform their property into a small hotel. Somewhere where we can create a colony of painters, maybe even build some studios.’
‘You always ask me that. Yes, really. I am attracted to this style of painting. Since I’ve been here my work and my palette have changed radically. Never mind what anyone says, I intend to become an impressionist.’
And you want to be with me? She asked him silently.
As they spoke they were aware of the two levels of dialogue starting again. They avoided the topic of Monet although he was as close as if he were beside them, the threat to their happiness.
‘I don’t want you to go ever,’ she murmured. ‘I will have to for a while, there are my studies to follow.’
She felt a stab of panic. ‘I’m afraid something will happen to prevent your coming back and I won’t ever see you again.’
It was all right while they were here and now and she could feel his solid presence, hear his voice. But she knew, when the moment came to say goodbye, the wrench would be so terrible she didn’t know how she would bear it.
‘Oh darling Blanche, of course you’ll see me again and I’ll write to you, often. Don’t worry it will all turn out just fine. We’ll overcome the problem with Monet, I’m sure.’
They moved into each other’s arms and she clung to him, her face wet with tears, closing her eyes as if to shut out the world.
‘Promise me,’ she whispered. ‘Promise you’ll come back. I think I’d die if you didn’t.’
‘I promise,’ he said.
He saw her before she saw him, indistinct in the smoky atmosphere, and somehow he knew it was the American girl. She was talking to a porter and, as he approached, she raised her voice to compete with the hissing steam.
‘How much? How much?’
Robert stepped forward. ‘Miss Judith Goldstein?’ He lifted his cap. ‘Robert Harrison.’
She whirled round, laughing with pleasure. ‘Oh Mr Harrison, I’m so relieved to see you. When I got off the train there didn’t seem to be anybody waiting for me. I thought perhaps… oh, I don’t know… maybe there’d been some mistake about the day.’
‘Hopeless places for rendezvous, railroad stations. You’d think they’d find a more twentieth century way of stoking trains,’ he grinned.
The blue-smocked porter was hovering.
‘What’s all this about?’ asked Robert, switching easily to the man’s patois.
‘They are big these baggage,’ the man said. ‘Very big.’
‘That is not the point. There is a set rate, we all know that.’
‘Well?’ demanded the young woman.
‘He’s trying to get away with charging you extra.’
‘Oh don’t worry about the money,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t that. It wasn’t that at all, it was… well… I just couldn’t understand him.’
Her voice was low and well modulated with just a hint of Yankee to it, he thought.
‘Don’t you fret. Now you’re here, you’ll be speaking French like a native in no time at all.’
Her dark eyes widened. ‘But I do. I do speak French.’
He wanted to say, yeah, but the French you probably learned in an expensive finishing school is nothing like that spoken in a provincial Normandy town but instead he instructed the porter to bring the trunk and two travelling bags to the front of the station.
‘And do be careful, they are Louis Vuitton,’ she tried in her careful French.
Robert translated and the man grunted and pushed her luggage roughly onto his trolley, jostling it against other more modest items. Robert noticed a brown cardboard-looking case and thought how incongruous it seemed cheek by jowl with the trefoil-patterned trunk. The porter trundled his load towards the exit.
‘Horrible little man, he hasn’t taken the slightest bit of notice. My poor Vuitton.’
‘You seem mighty fond of them,’ Robert smiled. ‘They’ll be fine, I assure you.’
‘Oh, I hope so. I really do.’
She turned to gaze at him and he was startled by her intensity, the inflection of her voice and expression in her eyes. He had a feeling that this defined her whether it was the fate of her baggage, her inability to make herself understood by the porter or something far more profound. He was intrigued.
‘You’re staring, Mr Harrison,’ she commented.
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Goldstein.’
‘No, I like people staring at me. In fact, it’s one of the things I like most in the world. Is it my hair? This is the very latest cut, don’t you know?’
Now that he had been given permission, he did stare. Her hair was bobbed to just below ear level and ended in soft waves. The colour was difficult to define as she wore a simple, narrow-brimmed hat but he judged it to be dark auburn.
‘Or my clothes?’
‘They are rather wonderful.’
‘Guess you’ve never seen any like this before? Madame Chanel paid me a compliment, don’t you know? She said I was just the kind of modern young woman to wear her designs. She hates the way the women dress on vacation and I so agree with her. All those furs and feathers, those silly hobble skirts, how could you dream of playing tennis in them?’
Robert did not remark that he had already seen the long V-necked sweater scandalously made in the same jersey used for men’s underclothes. The fluid skirt had also made its appearance in Giverny. Several of the young ladies who dined at Hotel Baudy were discovering Coco’s boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. However, he had to admit they had rarely been worn with the flair of this young woman.
‘I couldn’t come to Europe and not do a shopping trip in Paris, now could I? I love her designs, don’t you? So easy fitting, so delightful to move in.’
To demonstrate, she executed a few steps of the Turkey Trot, hopping sideways with her feet apart, rising on the ball of her foot, then dropping onto the heel. It startled Robert. Vernon station had certainly never seen anything like this before.
‘Magnifique!’ a voice called out. A man wearing a wide-brimmed hat had stopped to watch her. Others joined him, which encouraged her to continue. She hummed some bars of the Maple Leaf Rag, raised her elbows in a birdy movement and made turkey-like flourishes with her feet. The appreciative males in her audience were urged away by their tutting companions.
‘Disgusting exhibition,’ Robert heard a woman in an enormous feathered hat mutter as she swept her husband away.
‘Enough of that, young lady,’ he called with mock seriousness. ‘Come along, this way.’
Laughing, she followed him outside, into the heat of the June day. The sky was cobalt blue, the air sweet after the grey, smoky station. The lugubrious porter leaned against a wall, smoking. The precious Vuitton cargo was already stowed and the carter sat above his horse, waiting for instructions.
‘Mademoiselle’s baggage was very, very heavy,’ the porter growled. ‘Too heavy.’ He indicated the possibility of a hernia.
‘Desolé,’ murmured Robert and slipped him a twenty franc note. The man brightened.
Judith was staring at the debonair automobile parked by the kerb; its red paint and brasswork gleamed in the sun.
‘Swell, isn’t it?’ Robert said as casually as he could when it came to his pride and joy. ‘De Dion-Bouton. Latest model.’
‘Oh, Mr Harrison, a beautiful French automobile! I’m driving to Giverny in that? This is just so European.’
Her guileless enthusiasm was infectious but she was like a flame burning brightly, too brightly. The thought provoked a startling sense of familiarity and Robert shook his head to clear the unwanted memories.
‘Oh come now, it’s not that special. Nothing like the vehicles you must go about in in New York.’
‘Thank God, it isn’t,’ she laughed. ‘Thank God. I haven’t come all this way to live the American life. I want to be completely and utterly French!’
Again he was amazed by her intensity; she seemed almost feverish. Her eyes glittered, her pale skin glowed as if candlelit from within. She looked boyish and yet tenderly female, young, yet knowing. He felt drawn to her but not at the level she might suppose. There was more a sense of connection between them: visitors from an urban New World in love with the light and colour of rural France.
‘Well come on, Mr Harrison, what are we waiting for?’
Her smile was flirtatious.
He saw her give a last glance at the carter bearing her precious Louis Vuitton away before she let him help her into the two-seater.
‘Hang on to your hat,’ he yelled into the breeze and they shot out of Vernon and started on the road to Giverny.
Robert had travelled this way so many times in the last twenty-odd years he had almost reached the point of not noticing his surroundings, his concentration set on pushing the V8 engine to its limits, revelling in the speed it could achieve. Almost but not quite: there were occasions when the gold and scarlet of a cornfield scattered with poppies made him yearn to paint it yet again. When snow fell, he would stop the automobile to sit and analyse Monet’s technique for The Magpie, how the painter had traded his usual palette for icy colours of white, grey and violet. It was, he thought, more about perception than description, and might explain why the 1869 Paris Salon rejected it.
At his side, Judith kept up a running commentary, barely pausing for breath. ‘Just look at that rolling landscape, the hedgerows, the lines of poplars. And there’s the Seine, isn’t it? Oh my God, I can’t believe it. It’s all so… so impressionist. How I’ve dreamed of it.’
Robert wondered what had brought her to Giverny. He was aware of her expensive scent, its notes of carnation, iris and vanilla, L’Heure Bleue, he guessed. A cross Atlantic voyage on the Mauritania, a Chanel wardrobe, not to mention a lengthy stay at Hotel Baudy must have cost a mint of money. He had read about the Goldstein family in Vogue. The old man was very rich. This girl was what… twenty-three… twenty-four? He would have thought she’d be married by now, not indulged by Papa to run around Europe. There had been speculation in the hotel dining room of the spoilt little rich girl to come amongst them.
‘Curse that son of a gun who told her about this place. Which joker was that? Metcalf?’ Thomas had demanded.
Robert shook his head. ‘I don’t think he’s in Paris right now.’
‘Well, whoever it was, he must have spun her a hell of a yarn. We’re to be lumbered with her for three months. Madame Baudy told me.’
‘I’ll bet she’ll be a little monster,’ David had laughed.
‘Make the most of it before she arrives.’
The wine jugs were passed round the table and everyone refilled their glasses.
Robert glanced across at her as the little car bowled along. She’s nothing like that, he told himself, but there is something about her that is disturbing. This girl knows what she wants and she will go all out to get it. He felt a return of the unsettling sense of déjà vu and tried to push it from his mind. The automobile made a smooth left turn.
‘Giverny,’ Robert said, the pride of ownership in his voice.
Judith let out a long gasp. ‘My God, the roses, I’ve never seen so many and what are those others, those tall ones with the bright flowers?’
‘Hollyhocks, mmm,’ she seemed to savour the word.
Robert saw through her eyes the arbours and covered walls, the flowerbeds, scarlet, cerise and deep cream. There were so many varieties from blowsy apricot roses to neat pink rosettes, swathes and garlands and cascades of them.
‘Giverny is a village of roses,’ he said. ‘Everyone grows them here, they have all copied Monet. Mind you, it took them some time to come round to the idea. When he first arrived, they couldn’t understand why he was growing flowers and not vegetables. At least you can eat cabbages. Then they realised there was something in it for them: having a successful man in their midst, even if he was a painter, meant there was work to be had.’ They came to a halt outside Hotel Baudy. ‘Now it’s roses, roses all the way.’
The girl said quite innocently: ‘Are you a cynic, Mr Harrison?’
‘Do you even know what the word means?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘No, I’m not, not really, a realist I’d say.’
Robert laughed at this. ‘I don’t suppose I’m anything like your father, Miss Goldstein.’ He leapt to the ground. ‘So here we are then and here is Jacques with your precious baggage.’
She stepped down in a fluid movement of jersey cross cut skirt. If he were not so utterly attached, he toldhimself… He admired the way it enhanced her suppleness, her sportiness and approved.
While her baggage was being carried inside, Judith stood and stared at the building. ‘It looks like a store, not a hotel at all.’
‘It was a store,’ he agreed. ‘A grocery store until we Americans came along. The first guy was way back in 1886. He came here, knocking on the door and asked for lodgings. Madame Baudy sent him away; she said he looked more like a tramp than an artist. Obviously, she changed her mind and they have a fine old business here now.’
She stared at the patterned brickwork as if acquainting herself with Normandy architecture. Again he had this sense of her passionate attention to everything. ‘It takes my breath away.’
Robert felt envious of her, of that first impact which can never be repeated. It is an innocent gaze, untainted by memories or comparisons, artless as a fool or baby. It is seeing when you don’t yet understand, just the miracle of being alive. One of his friends called his name. A group of them was sitting on the sun-dappled terrace, still in their tennis whites, glasses of cider on the table. He signalled that he would join them shortly.
His companion turned to look at them, ‘Golly, are those the other painters?’
‘They are indeed.’
‘I must let you go.’ She held out her hand in a gracious gesture. It felt small and warm. ‘Thank you, Mr Harrison, you are very kind.’
Suddenly she looked tired, like a daisy he thought, surprising himself with this poetic image, ready to fold its petals for the night.
‘You’ve had a long journey,’ he said. ‘Go and rest. Dinner’s at eight-thirty.’
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