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Below us, the water is the colour of happiness. Everything is in flower. The air is heavy with rosemary, and honey, and pine. A rickety wooden staircase leads down into a hidden cove. The orange rocks come steepily down on both sides. I kick off my sandals and wade in the piercingly cold water. It has the clear blue of expensive crystal. Anemones wave their many arms in my direction, and I stroke them, and the soft sea moss on which I tread. A silvery glint, and I have it, in my hand like a mermaid's ear, mother of pearl.
It is only at lunch that I arrive. Perhaps a proper meal was what I needed to put soul and body together. I wash the buttery fish down with a mouthful of rose. I feel my senses come awake, and my body gain proper, earth-bound weight. The world becomes palpable. Everything slides into place. Forms fill with substance, colours saturate, objects distant and neer slide into proper focus. I feel the air, the sun, the dust. I arrive.
Myman, who felt the same way, claims our sudden departure, a day earlier than anticipated, was the cause of our detachment.
The night settles slowly. In the evening we pick up pinchios from stacked platters, and drink beer in stocky glasses. It is a young, cool bar, the bar staff tatooed, dreadlocked, and pierced. Outside their mates hang out in loose t-shirts, holding shaggy dogs on thick colorful cords. But older couples come and go, and the atmosphere is welcoming in spite of the sometimes heavy music. A fresh batch of pinchos with hot susages, fresh from the pan, is handed around, and red fat drips down our chins. At the end chopsticks are counted, and we pay little.
We end up wandering through the cavernous Juderia, its endless twisting staircases occupied by the young, cool crowd. La scala della gioventu, K calls it. We slide past groups of these kids, not much younger than we are, drinking and chatting and impressing one another. Looking as comfortable and stylish as cats, they are in their element. We look at the city from above, but it is inside which hides endless treasures. In the end we gravitate back to the river, and look back to Saint Feliu church, suddenly noble and grand in its illuminated whiteness against the night sky.
We don't really know what to expect; it was recommended. A quick coffee at our Chinese cafe by the train station, and we're off. Had I known the bus would take so long, and call at all the houses, I may have thought twice. But finally the mountains come into view. They are sandy and green, and look as if someone had crumbled moist golden sugar into precarious piles. We know the sea is near, but can't quite make out where until it suddenly comes into view at Roses, where we drive slowly along a pleasant but bland boulevard.
From there the bus climbs painfully, at every turn threatening to tumble down the steep olive groves and onto the dusty field road, far below. The bay of Costa Brava comes into full view, delineated by the long sweep of the sandy beach, as far as the eye can see. High rise hotels cluster along the shore. One, left behind by the pack, stands awkwardly in the middle of town, looking excluded. We turn, and a rockier coast opens before us. Orange mountains plunge into the open sea, and small towns of pure white cling on at the water's edge.
K says Cadacas is not extraordinary, and he's right. The coast is littered with little white towns like this one. But there is something exceedingly pleasant about this one. We spend a long time wandering along the coast, enjoying the breeze and the colour of the water, looking back often at the changing perspective on the Mexican looking church tower. The volcanic rocks look at us with their beastly faces, and it is clear tome where Dali's surreal rock formations came from. Even the ants look just like the ones he painted, with compact, shiny bodies and long, creeping legs.
Water was cold, but irresistable, and on a small rocky beach local and foregin tourists could be found, standing thigh-deep in the sea, hugging themselves and slowly inching forward, determined. Off towards the open sea, on the far end of the bay, there was a small island, connected with the mainland by a collapsing stone bridge. The shallow inlet it spanned was full of perfectly transparent jellyfish, drifting in slowly with the wind in evil clusters. I kept my eyes for them as I swam off the rocks, delicously cool, the white church lolling gently in front of me.
First impression is to turn back. There are no taxis at the station, so we lug the bags all the way to the dinky hotel. Taken aback by the worn out carpets, the dim lights, the sweaty, ear-picking receptionist, we set out to find a different option. We quickly learn we have actually landed the best of a bad bunch - at one place the receptionist seems honestly amused at the idea of us getting a room on the night, as if this were Kensington at London Fashion Week, not a tiny French town not even at the coast.
But it does grow on me, that place, that landscape of salty marshes and estuaries, separated from the open sea by the white-and-green massif of La Clape hills, all framed in the distance by the blue sentries of the Pyrenees. After the gorgeous greenery of Catalania, and in the colour-sapping light of dusk the scenery seemed dull when we first arrived. But now I can't get enough of the pastel sky and sand, of the irridescent blues and greens of the shutters and wrought-iron balustrades, contrasting with the earthy browns and greys of the town houses.
As we enter Narbonne cathedral my eyes are drawn upwards, to the stone canopy of vaults. Slender columns crowd around the choire. Beyond them, the ceiling of the nave hangs like a tent, light and distant. But the forest of pillars ends prematurely and awkwardly with a huge oak and silver organ. Hanging on a huge wall of smooth stone, the organ comically resembles an oversized cuckoo clock. We wander outside through the gorgeous, shady cloisters, past headless saints mutilated in the Revolution. And there, at the back of the cathedral, we find the white bones of its unfinished form.
Her words turn to ash in my ears. She's making herself feel better by pouring out all this poison, but it does not just wash down my back, it soaks me to the bone. These words about him, about his silence and withdrawal, and his coldness and inability, or unwillingness, to show gratitude - I know they're true. I am reminded of my life before adulthood, and it makes my limbs sag and my heart grow heavy. She feels better, but I walk around with this rotting apple in my belly. When we come back there he is, quiet and distant.
Ultimately, what can we say about them, more than if they were good or bad people? It's we, not the gods, who posthumously weigh their deeds against one another, and cherish the good ones, and try to forget the bad ones. If he were a different man, maybe he would be alone. Compromise is a poisoned solution. "He thinks he can buy anything" - and K's right, to an extent he can. She is still here, the "accompanying person". I feel for her, but I want to believe is that good weighs more than bad, at the end of the day.
Canal du Midi
I can imagine worse ways of spending my time. Perched on a high seat at the front of the cabin, I sip coffee and slowly saviour a bilingual edition of a Chandler novel. In the open hatch above my head the blue sky is opening up. K is asleep in the cabin, the bickerers are gone. There's a sound of birds chirping, traffic going past, and glasses clanking from the neighbouring boat. It's getting hot under the windshield, and I may have to spread myself out on the deck soon, and stare into the incoming weather.
I suppose I coud try and talk her out of it, bring up arguments for staying rather than leaving, in spie of all the coincidences conspiring to the contrary. It wouldd not be good for him to be alone. But at the same time I can see he's not happy. And she's not happy either. And there seems to be no will on either side, and especially on his, to change this toxic dynamic they have going. So perhaps it's for the best that I pour oil on the fire, because something has to give, and why not her indeed.
My sleep is heavy in the early hours, but I keep being woken this morning, and wonder in my drugged tate at the light outside, and at the sound of church bells, suddenly deafening. At one point there is a clanging and a banging, which my earplugs allow me to ignore. I assume it is the neighbours getting ready to leave early. But then I see K get up, and hoist himself up the hatch, talking to someone. I am half surprised to see green branches above his head. I can't remember there being any trees where we moored yesterday.
K lowers himself with an alarmed and amused expression on his face. 'Get dressed and come out, someone has moved us. I'm serious!'. I pull on a skirt and walk past sleeping S to the back doors. Outside, an older man in a stripy jumper, boat hook in his hand, welcomes me with a smile and a wave. He's standing on a small blue boat, to which we are now moored. There's no-one else around, and we're not in the port any more.
I feel like doing a double take. I half expect I had not woken up yet.
I've opened the drapes, and made some tea. There is a faint smell of sewage from the inefficient drains. I burrow my bare feet into the warmth of his side. He's sitting opposite me on the sofa, blinking in a dozy way. A grand sweep of darkness is arriving from over the hills, all blue now with imminent rain. The wind is strong, and the boat jerks hard straining the moorings. The dark blue wing of the cloud draws nearer, and in the brilliant sunshine each blade of grass trembles, golden and heavy with seed, outlined against the dramatic horizon.
I suppose I'm going to have to revise my opinion of the French after this trip. Throughout, we have encountered nothing but friendliness. The lock keepers were always up for a chat. Passers-by, approached, would never leave our poorly articulated direction inquiries unanswered. The waiters did their best to explain obscure culinary terms. The man who saved us from floating down to the sea, well, he was amazing. Generally, the midi French were not the stereotype of aloofness at all, although their unwillingness, or inability, to make allowances for mispronunciations, in spite of their own thick accents, was tiresome.
We were standing on one end of a shallow dip in the hill, covered with a golden meadow on its way down, and with verdant vineyards on the upswell. The two parts were divided by a chalky road, which itself trickled to the left and down, into the wide, green valley below. There, orange roofed houses could be seen, huddling around their church towers, or scattered like so much grain. Above them, the hills rose, their shoulders blue and green, heaving higher and higher with each consecutive row, the final sentiels standing wide and tall, their heads in the clouds.
Everyone seems to think I'll do just fine. They keep saying how it's just a formality for me, how I've got it in the bag, how there's no way I could do badly, and all that. That does make me feel at ease, but also makes me worry I may be underappreciating the difficulties ahead, that my guard may be down, that I may not have put as much work into the prep as I'd have if I really felt under pressure. So it's tomorrow, and I'm nervous, and keep thinking of the walls of Carcassone to calm myself down.
Over the last few days, I have been getting messages of support and good luck from so many people, through facebook, by text, by email, on the phone, and in person. I am overwhelmed by how many friends and acquaintaces think of my viva tomorrow. To me, it's all rather surreal. Can't quite take it seriously.
Went for a run this afternoon, and that seemed to reboot me a bit. My heart was surprised at having to do work after three weeks of idleness. The rest of me seemed to enjoy the ride.
I wish it were over already. Waiting.
I can honestly say I had a great time. From the start I knew it was not a fail; I did not know what the result would be, but was not stressed. Throughout, it felt like a friendly, although challenging conversation. They gave me a right grilling, questioning and unsettling the very basic assumptions on which my thoughts were based and checking if I recover. It really was a defense, but I did not feel under attack, even at the times when I would get myself in a tangle. Ultimately, I was grateful for their insights, and enjoyed the challenge!
I find myself looking at a poster above his little bed. It’s a marketing poster for a company called Perform, featuring a cartoon of a pirate island: “Watch your child shine” is the slogan. There are stickers placed crookedly in appropriate slots in the poster, indicating activities undertaken (“I discovered a castaway”, or “I rapped the Rum Rap”). I think back to the school newsletter I leafed through earlier, with its rows of pictures of kids surfing the web, and learning about Kenya, and comparative religion. And to his browsing Google Earth so expertly this morning on the iPad.
This mediated experience. For the benefit of the absent parents, the kids’ activities are recorded, edited, packaged, and delivered by marketing professionals at schools, entertainment centres, holiday camps. They may be aware of the propaganda, but still seek out those precious action shots. The kids are too young to produce records themselves for now, but how soon will it start? Will this be the generation with two facebook accounts, for the parents and for the mates? Will keeping a popular blog become an obligatory bullet point on their CV, along with gap year volunteering and an impeccable Amazon order record?
People in the queue blink the barbeque smoke away from their eyes. The brass band playing, the union jacks flying. Older gentlemen sit close to the stage and watch the singer’s skirt fly up. Pimms is being sipped under a sky streaming with white clouds, throwing their shadows over the orchestra’s tent, the bouncy castles, the old-fashioned fair games. Teenage girls forget their mature age and screech with delight in the bumper car track. Dogs are drooling, children running around with parents in tow, burdened with scooters and tissues and water bottles and melting ice-cream cones.
I step out of the restaurant and the city is gone. A thick luminescent mist had swallowed the castle and the hill, is nibbling on the roofs and the streetlamps. The statute at the top of the hill has lost its head. It’s warm, and the sounds are muffled. I climb up and walk past the invisible fortress, poking holes in the mist with the sharp turrets. The giant Olympic logo hovers above a flowerbed, floodlights ready to kick in. A couple is kissing on a street corner; he peels off, hard and independent now, disappears in the mist.
Waist deep in the bracken we wade, through the green green sea. How poor was my life before I knew that smell, the smell of bracken, the smell of bracken in the summer. A smell sweet and rich and pure, sweet like spring water, and rich like honey, and pure like mountain air. I fill my lungs with it, I long for it to last. It feels balmy, it feels healthy. If there was a perfume that even came close to it, I would buy out the whole stock, I would bathe in it, I would wake up to it.
It's ten thirty, and we're pulling into a train station. A girl next to me is throwing a beer can into the bin, when an older man, with a beer in his hand, says: "These can be recycled you know." She nods guiltily, but adds there are no recycling bins on-board.
As I'm walking quickly towards the train station, all busy-minded, tired, and flustered, a scrawny looking guy smiles at me, and keeps smiling.
A colleague animately describing a paper he's working on, and then taking a moment to check me out.
Things that made me smile today.
After a long, long walk through the deep gorges and pastureland, through the meadows full of menacing cows, in the sunshine and in the drizzle, till we ached, it was luxurious to spend Sunday dilly-dallying. Slept in, played with the neighbour's kids in the yard, went down to the market with A. Bought some lovely cups, and cheese, and bread, and courgettes, and a load of second hand sf, and a slightly marked hoodie. Played an online game, hoovered the bedroom, watched a documentary on Wainwright, made dinner. The body feels the relaxed, the mind is finally at peace.
The Tip Jar