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Authors: Dahris Martin

Among the Faithful

BOOK: Among the Faithful
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Among the Faithful

DAHRIS MARTIN

For Kalipha ben Kassem, called Courage

T
HE PERFECT RETREAT
from winter weather and worries! That is how the posters described the south of France. They mentioned hyacinths and pomegranates. ‘Escape the winter!’ ‘Luxuriate in tropical sunshine!’ The Riviera enthusiasts – almost everybody I met – spoke about the sun, the beach and winter bathing. The Côte d’Azur, they said, was just one continuous summer. I decided to try it.

October there fulfilled every promise. I knocked pleasantly along the Mediterranean and finally settled in Cavalaire, a village between Saint Raphael and Toulon. The Normandy
pension
was brand new; I was, in fact, the first to sign a name in the virgin ledger. Although the season was scarcely under way, Madame was getting a little anxious and made me a rate warranted to guarantee her at least one winter resident.

The trip south had diminished my funds alarmingly. I found, after paying a month’s pension in advance, that I had almost nothing left. But, like Micawber, I persuaded myself that something was bound to turn up. There were royalties due me, the cheque would certainly come before the last of the month, and there was simply no end to two hundred dollars!

I was idiotically happy and as carefree as a dog. My letters of this period sound a little cracked. Sea, hill-towns, fishermen in striped sweaters and jaunty red pom-poms, ruined castles,
bouillabaise
– I doted on them all, and I simply couldn’t say enough about the climate. ‘This pension boasts of a central heating system,’ I wrote ‘I can’t imagine why because this is “typical winter weather”. Of course the evenings are a little cool.’

About the middle of November the
mistral
sprang upon this idyll. It came from the Alpine snow-fields – an Old Testament wind that called to mind Jeremiah’s stern prophecy. For two weeks ‘the voice of the Lord roared from on high’, the sea thundered, the sleet and the rain came down. During the first few days I waited, from hour to hour, for the reassuring knock of the radiator. Gradually the realization was forced upon me that Madame had no intention of wasting her vaunted central heating on one unprofitable guest. Bereft of hope, I crawled into bed. I could not work, I could not read – I had purposely brought no books with me – so I crawled into bed with a French grammar, the most deluded wretch that had ever been decoyed to the sunny south of France.

I began to entertain serious doubts as to whether I had had any substantial reason for feeling so carefree. My purse contained something less than ten dollars (as a matter of fact I was afraid to count them), there was no certainty that the cheque was on its way and my month would soon be up. What then? I was trying to dismiss all this as a dark surmise to be dissipated by the first hot sun – when the letter arrived. There was no enclosure. The cheque was
not
on its way. Furthermore, I could not expect it until February! I lived through the rest of the
mistral
in a state of complete stupefaction.

The wind blew itself out at last; it remained cold, but the sky had cleared and a watery sun tried its best to shine. The incorrigible optimist in me was beginning to revive when I received word that an acquaintance, an American painter, whom I had met on the boat the year before, had likewise fallen victim to the Riviera myth and, in Saint Tropez a few miles away, was as miserable as I. Her blasphemous harangue against the weather – in letters two inches high – completely restored my soul. A crowded postscript proposed that I join her in a Thanksgiving feast ‘Not that I have any sentimental regard for
Thanksgiving
’, she gave me to understand. ‘The fact is, I have a primitive passion for savoury food which has been suppressed for a whole year, and mashed sweet potatoes, giblet gravy and turkey with sausage dressing are things I couldn’t possibly forget. I can’t cook anything, can you? To-night my meal was spaghetti and potatoes. I didn’t know much about spaghetti so I cooked the whole pound. Well, I’ll be eating
it until you get here – and there may be some left for you. We might get a piece of ham – I don’t think we can hurt that – and potatoes boil themselves. That will be about our limit on a two-burner oil-stove, and I know money means as much to you as it does to me.’

I decided that I wouldn’t worry about money until after
Thanksgiving.
Madame agreed to roast a modest chicken as my contribution to the feast and, on Thursday, I set off for Saint Tropez. I found Beatrice at the top of an ancient building overlooking the harbour. Her studio was a dismal loft, as bleak and bare as a barn. There was a huge fireplace, but with wood at fifty centimes the stick, fires were not to be thought of, while the heat of the little oil-stove in a room of that size was negligible. The place was a tumultuous litter of shoes, palettes, books, canvases, clothes, paint-rags, luggage, fine prints, turpentine, food, brushes, and tubes of colour. An easel stood in the window, but I knew better than to ask about her work. It was said of Monet: ‘He looks, he eats, he smokes, he walks, he drinks, and he listens – the rest of the time he works.’ That was Beatrice. If she could not work she was sunk.

I located the cooking utensils (a misshapen saucepan, a frying-pan, one cup, two plates, a knife, three forks, and a spoon), and set to work on the dinner. It was, as I look back, a pathetic mockery of the
traditional
feast – canned peas, sweet potatoes, a little hard toward the centre, and a chicken that was indeed so ‘modest’ that Beatrice mistook it for a pigeon. Ravenous appetites plus a bottle of wine, however, redeemed all deficiencies. We lit our cigarettes, at last, more nearly warm than we had felt for weeks.

Presently Beatrice announced that we were going to have a fire. I cried out against such extravagance, but she had already bought the wood. ‘Hell, this is an occasion!’ she said, savagely dumping the wood on the hearth. Tonight, at least, we’re going to be comfortable!

The fire was laid and lit, it seemed we could not get close enough to that first beneficent blaze. Then it started smoking. No matter what we did we couldn’t stop it. We struggled until our eyes streamed and we could scarcely see across the room. At the sound of excited voices and running footsteps below we gave up. Beatrice flung open the window in bitter disgust and from the landing I shouted down reassurance.

‘Damn it, I’m through!’ cried Beatrice. Her fingers trembled as she lit a cigarette. ‘I’m going
south
!’

I stared at her, bamboo huts and headhunters flashing through my mind. ‘But that’s
Africa
!’

‘Well?’ Her square jaw was resolute. ‘Maybe you
enjoy
freezing. I’m going to take the next boat for Tunisia. And,’ she eyed me belligerently, ‘you’d better come along.’

‘But I tell you I haven’t any money!’

‘Don’t be an ass. I’ve enough to carry us both until you get your cheque. Living’s cheap down there and we’ll ship steerage. Kairouan should be marvellous!’ Beatrice was pacing up and down, the collar of her cape turned up about her ears. ‘A chaste white city – miles out upon the plain. Talk about your “Mediterranean blue” – they say the sky is pure cobalt squeezed from the tube! And the sun! God, to be able to hold a brush again! To bake in
hot sunshine
!’ That settled it.

On a sombre afternoon two days later we landed in Marseilles swamped with luggage, insufficiently clad against the raw wind that swept across the harbour. A bit uncertain about steerage ‘
accommodations’
we bought a dozen sandwiches and some cheese. Beatrice added to this a bottle of Benedictine and I spent my last cent on a sack of ripe figs. Thus fortified, we followed our porters to a small deck at the very stern of the S.S.
Général Grévy
. They set our things down against the bulkhead. ‘
Voici une jolie petite place!
’ said one, very heartily giving the other a wink. Fourth class, then, meant merely deck space, there was not even anything to sit on!

Sea and sky were grey; the wind cut at us like a scythe. It was only three o’clock and the boat did not leave until five. We were both
panic-stricken.
The harbour was crowded with boats: liners and merchant ships from Barcelona, Bombay, Istanbul, Alexandria, Singapore, and Melbourne. The vast thicket of rigging enmeshed us like flies in a web. Through the serried masts Marseilles was no vivid, impetuous,
warmhearted
city; the gilded figure of Our Lady on the cathedral belfry was no gracious guardian of the ships at sea, but a destroying angel, swift and terrible. The air was a frenzy of flags and infernal noises; shrieks, groans, buzz, bang, clang, roar, and a raucous babble of unknown tongues: our desolation was complete.

We sat on the end of one of the suitcases and began eating figs and speculating as to whether a human being could survive such exposure for two whole nights and a day.

Our fellow-passengers (Colonial soldiers in khaki and red fezzes, several turbaned ‘natives’ presumably, in brown sack-like garments, and a solitary Chinaman) surveyed us with mild uncritical eyes, but we were objects of lively interest for the deckhands as they made the ship ready for sea. ‘
Vous êtes les Américaines?
’ they asked. We admitted that we were. ‘
Évidemment!
’ they told us smiling. Beatrice’s paint-box, however, seemed to give us considerable prestige.

It occurred to us that it might be possible to rent a couple of
deckchairs,
so the next time one of them passed I timidly broached the
question.
Pierre, we had heard him called, was a great, bearded, blue-eyed fellow, as supple as a cat. ‘
Mais oui!
’ he shouted, nothing was simpler.

As soon as the boat left he would fix us up. ‘
Vous verrez!
’ he
promised,
bounding away at a shout from the boatswain.

Above the mast-heads the riding-lights gleamed, the rigging had become a black impenetrable forest, the anchored ships had crowded closer. By the time the boat finally glided out of the harbour and the twinkling shore receded I was perfectly certain that we would perish. Even deckchairs wouldn’t keep us from freezing. Then Pierre appeared like a genie out of the dark, smiling as if he had a secret. He took our luggage to a safe dry place in the stern. A few minutes later he returned, a chair under each arm. ‘Follow me!’ he said mysteriously and led us across the well deck to a sheltered dimly lit passage. Here he set up our chairs with a ‘
Voilà!
’ No wind, no noise, perfect privacy, handy to the W.C.! If he had smuggled us into the glossiest stateroom aloft, Pierre couldn’t have been more pleased with himself. ‘What do you say, my little cat?’ He chucked me under the chin.

There was simply no way to thank our benefactor. Beatrice undoubtedly saved me from embracing him by pressing upon him the Benedictine. He protested gallantly, but we insisted until ‘to satisfy us’ he tipped up the bottle and in a single draught half emptied it. To be out of the wind! There were no words for such relief. We spread out the sandwiches and took turns at the bottle. Decidedly, life was looking up!

We had curled up for the night – which threatened to be very
rough – when Pierre popped in with a blanket. He refused to hear our protests, swearing with the chivalry of a
vicomte
that he had two, one for himself and one expressly ‘for friends’. What with the plunging of the boat, the pounding of machinery in the room adjacent and too many figs we must have looked quite as ghastly as we felt, for when, some time later, I turned over, there, at my elbow, stood a huge, comforting wooden bucket! Such kindness – unsought and
unexpected
– was too much. I began to cry. As Beatrice was asleep, the hood of her cape pulled down over her face, I felt free to indulge my
weakness.
After a while I felt better and went to sleep.

I awoke next morning as someone planted a smacking kiss on my mouth! ‘
Bonjour, mon petit chou-chou!
’ It was Pierre standing over me with a mug of steaming coffee. I suppose I should have been indignant. I should have upbraided him for his impudence, but somehow I could only thank him for that bucket. While I sipped my coffee he crouched on the foot of my chair talking in a low voice so as not to wake Beatrice of whom he seemed to stand a little in awe. He conceded the truth of the saying, a seaman has a girl in every port. But, he went on, it was not true of him, he was
pas le type.
Pierre – not that type. I managed to suppress a smile. He was looking for a wife,
une bonne petite femme
, someone who – At this point, much to my relief, Beatrice, blinking, looking a bit startled, pushed up the hood of her cape and Pierre sped away for another cup of coffee.

The sun was out, the wind was exhilarating, yet mild. Alongside of us, to the left, lay Sardinia, a reef of solid jade and rose-quartz, the sky, only a shade less blue than the sea, was filled with radiant
cloud-galleons
headed for France. We paced the deck, our chins up,
rapturous
with warmth. We felt we were aboard a boat for the first time in our lives, so close to the water we could feel the spray, in the very midst of the ship’s work!

We were evidently the whole crew’s concern, although it seemed to be generally understood that Pierre was our chief custodian. The boatswain put his wash-room at our service and furnished us with a towel and some soap, our chairs were dragged to the sunniest corner of the deck, and before the morning was over we knew all their names and most of their histories. Their French was almost as exiguous as
our own for with the exception of Pierre, who was Marseillais, they were a heterogeneous lot including a Mexican, an Argentinian, several Italians, a Corscian, a Russian, a couple of Spaniards, and a Finn.

By noon we were so famished that we recklessly finished the sandwiches. It amused us that our rations should cause the men such
solicitude.
Nothing but sandwiches? No wine? No salad? They shook their heads. Very bad.

The cheese, which was to have been our last meal, was never eaten for when it came time for supper we were escorted down to the seamen’s mess. The arc-shaped little room was lined with tiers of bunks and our friends were gathered around a deal table in a haze of tobacco smoke. They gave us a clamorous welcome, shoved over to make room for us on the bench and went right on with their
conversation,
all of them shouting at once, gesticulating and swearing – stunning expletives that meant nothing. Their arms were bare, their shirts open upon confounding specimens of the most complex
tattooing.
The soup arrived in great pails and we fell to. The floating
cockroaches
weren’t discouraging Beatrice who kept pace, stroke for stroke, with the men; I determined to eat that soup if I died. I was the only one who was satisfied with one helping. There seemed no end to that soup! Long loaves of bread appeared only to vanish, fresh bottles replaced empties as if
vin ordinaire
could be hauled up from the sea. Tubs of French fried potatoes came next and buckets of salad with enough garlic to sink the ship.

BOOK: Among the Faithful
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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