PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1979 - NOVEMBER
DIARY 13: November 1979 - January 1980
Le soir 20 November, Marseilles
I feel the trickles of self defeat create air bubbles in my nervous system again. I am thrust out into the cold warm air of foreign France, not a dance, not yet. Already old fears create havoc in me. Sitting in cafes, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and writing again. But no excuse this time, remember the clickety clack machine and the solitude of my independence.
I am wrecked, physically crippled by a week of sleepless nights. Spots begin to crawl across my face; hairs on my chest and under my armpits fall out, rotted by fermented sweat; fingernails and cuticles fight for dirt. I dare not take my shoes off. At least my neck remains clean, constantly chaffed by a scarf, like a bicycle wheel hub rubbed by a rolling leather loop. My scalp itches. My legs are heavy plumb lines after one night of walking non-stop to keep off the sea-cold air. My eyes shitter and shutter and my head can only manipulate the simplest of thoughts. Wrecked. A shower and some clean sheets are all I ask. I'm going to Ajaccio. Let's see how things will be.
This is depressing. What a dreamer I am. I taste defeat and cry. I smell it in my nostrils and sadness floods in. I can get no help from the British Council because it's closed, on annual holiday; and the friends of B have moved from the one address I have (which I spent a day trying to find). I alternate between despair and desperation. I just cannot find anywhere to stay.
In the library. Although they say the museum has closed down, I'm sure they closed the library instead. It's warm and musty here. I trip over the walking sticks.
Can it all be so difficult. Can everything really be so difficult. Is the whole island in a plot to send me packing back home. Every alley is blind. I am banging my head on brick walls. I am now so small. Is this what I came for. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would come to Corsica so unprepared as I. French ass holes. A friend, a friend, my poncho for a friend.
Hotel Belvedere. 36 francs from my purse before I've even got through the door. But oh, a writer could make something of Hotel Belvedere. Women's voices echo along the cavernous marble-tiled halls. Whispers take short cuts around corners, a cough thunders, an argument sounds like a hurricane. Even snores march their paces towards me. And who is the other woman, the servant who doesn't know where the keys are, or which douche is to be used by guests. Is she half mad? Is she the unfortunate sister locked in the kitchen at night, sleeping on the tiled floor, and raised with the cats? Is it her wail that wakes me in the night? You never can see her eyes, the corridor is too dark, her head too low. I only know her wail, and the sound of her sister bellowing harsh words. And what about the righteous one, she with the cough and constant moan, who's never been seen out of her dressing gown?
I am in Puerto Veccio. I write a letter of desperation to Harold. Tears form in my eyes, tears of shame, humiliation and loneliness. I am worried that I am in a cycle towards a nervous breakdown. No, that is a too dramatic, but I cannot pull myself out of it. I cannot look at the sea, the trees, the sunset and enjoy them, I cannot face the solitude of three months. Repeating to myself that everything will be all right doesn't help. I wallow in my self pity. I eat little, smoke a lot. I fantasise about the situation getting better but this is crushed at every moment. Soon, I won't even be able to fantasise. I woke up this morning and thought it was all a dream. A bad dream. I hate travelling and that is what I am forced to do. I cannot settle or relax, a quiet evening in the bar, writing. I cannot talk to anybody. I want a letter to arrive saying everything's OK, come home. I'm tired of the struggle, yet I cannot survive without the struggle. I have not been so broken since M left me. Is this all life's lesson. It is too hard. I am weak and how the days go will only make me weaker. The dream of the writer, crashed like bone china on the rocks. A moth frights me white.
What shall I do this night when the cold comes? There is nothing interesting at four in the morning here. Like the tramps, I have cardboard boxes with me. Tragedy. I lost my cigarettes. And there is milk everywhere in my haversack.
Three stories to write when I have my typewriter set up: 'The Book of Words'; 'The Marseilles Fisherman'; 'The Secret Garden', and what about 'The Space Invaders'?
Sunday afternoon, Bastia
The wind rules the street, no-one is about, only I and a black Moroccan going from doorway to doorway trying to sell his beads and carpets. Perhaps he doesn't eat till he has sold something. I wonder where he sleeps. I slept late last night behind a wall in Puerto Veccio. That was after spending six hours in a bar, the local meeting place for hoards of youngsters shaking hands and double kissing. Tonight I have a hotel room. Last night, I could only find one for £5 which was too expensive. I must have walked all around the town a dozen times in search of a place to bed down outside. On the way to my chosen spot, I picked up some cardboard and polystyrene to shield me from the cold earth. I wriggled and wriggled in an attempt to wrap the poncho around every bit of me. Insects echoed below the polystyrene, I thought they would eat through and nibble my ear during the night. I was sure the sound would give me nightmares. And I wasn't comfortable curled up and warm, I had to keep stretching out and laying on my stomach which left bits of me cold. I slept then for a short while, but kept waking. I felt the cold sleeping through me, like wetness to the bones. Eventually, I got up and checked a newbuilding down the road which had shown a promising hallway. Delight of delights the door was open. I brought my cardboard and settled in a part of the building not yet finished. It was much warmer. All for the sake of £5. It was a joy to wake to see light outside and know the night was over, and that I could start walking the streets again.
What do Corsicans do? They go hunting on Sundays or they go to a bar and bet on horses. They pick and sell clementines. The last thing they do is smile at strangers. The only reason I managed to get any lifts at all on my hitch-hiking tour around was because I looked a bit like a Corsican with a knapsack and peaked cap.
As the day goes on so my resolution wanes. I thought to try for accommodation here in Bastia but the wind blows so and the people are no more than villagers. Here in this bar, they want to charge me nine francs for a three minute phone call to Paris. Yet I called London the other night and paid six francs for more than three minutes.
Tuesday night, Porto
I went back to Ajaccio and it seemed like my luck had changed. I had three conversations, three more than I've had so far in my whole time in Corse. First, there was a medical representative for Sandoz, then a teacher, and then, leaning against his car at some crossroads, a fairy godstudent asking me in English where I was going to. He turned out to be an architect from Paris. Christian. We talk. We have things to talk about. I am not mad. He confirms to me that Corsica is difficult, nobody has found any different. I am banging my head against a brick wall. But, my indecision still waver when the sun shines, and the empty beaches parade themselves below the snow-capped mountains, and I experience the maquis, the fir trees, the chestnuts yellowing and the eucalyptus shedding its bark on the sea shore. I still have the romantic ideal of a cottage tucked away, the sound of the typewriter, and clementine stews.
Here in Porto at the Fanfan nightclub, behind red curtains and under a red light, men sit shoulder to shoulder playing rummy for money. A strong yellow light feeds the table, smoke curls up through it. One or two men stand at the door as though gambling is illegal and they are guarding against a raid. The tables, the chairs, the bar, the decor are all mock antique wood. The place stinks of second-hand seediness. Now, a few more men have returned from the hunt, and another table is set up. The Fanfan nightclub is a gaming den, full of long-drawn winter faces, hunting jackets and rummy scowls. Every time someone comes in or goes out, the barman goes to the door and gently closes it more securely. I fancy he looks up and down the street at the same time.
Porto is the most touristy place I have come across. The Lt Colonel Sir Reginald Rankin BT says it is the epitome of all Corsica. I would agree, commenting on the desolation, the laziness, the emptiness, the shutteredness of it all. It is all hotels planted around the outlet of a clear river leading to a pebble beach. Eucalyptus trees frame the dead village and provide camping space for outdoor types in summer. The waves crash in silence. A solitary fisherman circumnavigates round the rocks where his rod is perched. His dog idly waits, knowing there won't be any bones. Four men at the back of the beach incompetently saw a eucalyptus down: the main trunk falls just clear of their truck, a secondary branch falls on one of the huts that serves as a night club in the summer.
Now finally, I think I accept that I have to leave Corsica. Parked on the empty beach, I find a travellers' van with a Norwegian and a French girl. They are likewise disappointed with Corse, the weather, the surliness, the lack of communication of any kind, the lack of anything to do but look at the mountains and the waves. I am just beginning to feel happy with my decision to leave, although I still find it hard to justify my having left England, especially considering the play with E, the homeliness of R, the comfort of D. I can see no other recourse than to retreat to Aix. I sent sob sob notes to D and Leyton and Harold. H, in his infinite wisdom, sent the right words at the right time. He calls my sudden whim 'a sudden whim' and says if I find the beaches too solitary not to forget that doors don't close behind me.
Towers that remind one of look-out forts can be seen all along the coast north near Ajaccio. Reginald Rankin tells me that Pitt built them to keep out Napoleon. He says Corsica was a far more industrious place 50 years ago.
Wednesday 21 November, Porto
Last night I drank wine with the couple. My head became light. I was desperate for company and something to do in the dark cold hours of night. The borrowed sleeping bag was not enough, the night still left me weak. I fear for my old age because I have punished my body so in youth. Now I sit, high up on a rock facing the sun, above the Porto bay, the waves sound loud, crashing on the pebbles below. The tree-cutting men are burning the eucalyptus branches. The smoke stretches across the beach and drifts out to sea. The smell is delightful. Huge black ants attack me across the salmon rocks, pink granite.
Writing is a matter of organising one's thoughts.
The sun just went down, leaving a trail of burnt sienna on the horizon line. This cafe has an arched terrace overlooking the bay. It also has a very passable pin-table machine, on which I am spending more money than I do on food. Today I rested and so did the air. It was a windless hot day. I lay on rocks. I read. I thought. I walked across the pebbles. I felt the light and the warmth give me life again. Vitamin D isn't it.
I've been reading Shaw's Back to Methuselah. He prefaces the play with a long argument concerning Darwin and how his evolution theory affected different stratas of society. In the play he concerns himself with metabiological religion, the will to power, the philosopher's stone and immortality. He uses five different eras: the Garden of Eden, the present day, AD2170, AD3000 and AD31920. While I do not doubt his brilliance nor his his wisdom I do doubt how well the play succeeds. I doubt Shaw was satisfied with it: it is impractical to produce; the acts and time zones don't hold together neatly; and his points are only made through lengthy intellectual arguments between the characters. But how can I criticise Shaw? He talks down to Shakespeare, Ibsen and Darwin in the preface, but reveres Goethe. (There's one idea, in the third act I think, I like: short-lived ones who come to visit the land of the long-lived ones soon die of discouragement if they are not properly shielded.)
I did a lot of thinking today. Having made the decision to go home, I could actually settle and enjoy the stillness, forget my troubles for an hour or two. It's funny about the breaking, it seemed so dramatic, I was so torn in two. I wonder how I'll talk about it back in Paris. But I should have known that to go from so much to so little was bound to cost - I've probably paid lightly.
Friday night, Aix en Provence
I had this dream coming from Ajaccio on the boat [this actually happened, I just wrote about it as a dream]. Deeming it was to take a coffee, I strolled casually into the bar, where I was drawn to someone resembling Marielle. She sat with a friend and the two of them invited me to with them. They were Dutch and had been living for two months in Corsica. They wanted to stay longer, but were finding it too difficult: the Marielle-like lady (she called herself Elizabeth) had broken up with the man (and father of her young son) she'd gone there to be with. She told me they had been living in a fully-equipped studio in Terra-Bella, Porticcio, that cost Fr300 a month. This was the exact figure I'd had in mind to pay for accommodation in Corsica during the winter. I had even been to Terra-Bella (searching for B's friends) but had not asked about flats. In this 'dream', I went on and on about this coincidence, but Elizabeth didn't seem to mind, and she kept her eyes on me the whole time. As she left with her friend, she gave me the warmest of smiles. It had been such an easy meeting between us. I fell asleep on my sleeping bag on the floor. On waking, I was so relieved to find it had all been a 'dream'.
But the 'dream' has taken hold of my imagination. I now remember an inexplicable feeling I had outside of the Terra-Bella office. Something pulled me to enter and ask about flats, but there was a sour-faced Corsican inside, and I'd become so insecure about my inability to speak any French. Also the whole place looked very expensive. So I'm starting to think about going back. I've looked for accommodation here in Aix but it's impossible. There is a boat to Ajaccio tomorrow.
I have succumbed to my own dream. You see, here I am on the boat back to Corsica. I hear the endless tannoy announcements, I feel the hum of the motors beneath, I watch the wretched Corsicans, ever full of sneers, I taste my never-ending meal of bread, pate, cheese and apples. I am headed for Terra-Bella. Funny thing is I've been offered two places to stay temporarily - one was in Aix tonight, but I was already planning to leave; the other is in Ajaccio. My new friend Jose says his boss will be away tomorrow night, and I could stay with him. But I won't need a place then: if I find a studio to rent today then I won't need it, and if I don't then I'll be back on this boat to Marseilles.
Wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing, Elliot says. But I say he should tell us how to wait without hope. And, any way, it would make more sense if he were to say: wait without hope for hope would be hope for the right thing.
Imagine how endlessly right things could go.
Wednesday 28 November, Porticcio
My new home: Studio 110, Terra-Bella, Porticcio 20166, Corse, France.
Where to begin - everything went right. There really were apartments for Fr300 a month (plus a two month deposit), they really were furnished with brooms, knives, pillows, tin-openers. This particular studio doesn't get the sun at this time of year - the sun rises out of and sets into the mountains - but I'll go out to find it. I'll be an outdoor boy. The view from my window is across the gulf to Ajaccio. Aeroplanes come and go, but they can be fun to watch. It is a 20 minute walk to the main road and to the beach, and then a half hour hitch into town. The walls are of rough concrete and painted white; the beds are bright orange; the drawers don't open properly; and now there are decorative scarves everywhere - covering the cushions and the fuse box, long ones dangling, square ones half-mooning from the ceiling, and an arabesque shade for where my head is at night. Ties and hats and dressing gowns also adorn the walls. One blanket carpets the cold tile floor, the other is on my bed. My poncho hides the orange. There is a cooker/fridge sink unit in one corner; a door leads to a shower/washroom/toilet.
This morning Jose brought my things up from Gare Maritime. I spent last night with him. We ate, drank and smoked well. We might have had good music too but Jose's boss, whose house it was, had told him not to touch the records. We talked of life. He said he's glad I came to Corse. We talked very hard at each other, understanding almost everything.
I am determined to live without cigarettes or coffee. I shall run a little along the beach each day, and walk lots. Today, for example, I walked around the beach to a craggy point where a river meets the sea. It was a little magical. A woman told me about a plant, with purple-edge leaves, she was collecting. She said it was good in salads and soups.
I know what day it is, because tonight Jose leaves for Paris, and also I am invited to dinner by Monica and Ange.
My head is heavy this morning. Could this be cigarette or coffee withdrawal symptoms, or did I sleep too long? This morning the sky and sea are the same grey-white, there is no sun. I have already walked down to the high road to buy bread from a man with a van. He says he comes through Terra-Bella at 9 every morning. I should try to catch him next time. Why is brown bread so expensive here. I paid more than 40p for a very small loaf. I've a neighbour. His name is Michel. He's young, male and shaves his head. He drives a fast motorbike which he keeps spotlessly clean. He doesn't work in winter. He has a pleasant smile. Two years ago he was in England.
Yesterday afternoon I walked along the coast south, along small beaches, over rocks, paddling in cold water, collecting coloured glasses and shells. I met no-one, I had no amazing thoughts. I just walked and listened and looked and felt. In the evening, I said goodbye to Jose, he was quite affected by my story about B. Then, I went to dinner at Monica and Ange's flat. Ange's brother, Vincent, was there with his wife. But, until I was told, I had no idea they were married. They said not one word to each other, nor did they even look at each other. Vincent was as delighted as a boy to be practising his English with me. He couldn't stop talking about grammar. The evening went very smoothly. I talked a lot to Monica (Ange's English wife).
This morning, I spent a lot of time thinking about what time it was. I woke up, alert before it was light, but didn't want to start my day so early. Then, when I did get up, I didn't know if it was before or after 9:00 (when the baker was due through Terra-Bella).
The sea and the sun and the beaches were beautiful today. I walked, I swam, I ran, I even took one or two photographs. I saw a girl, like the one from 'Don't Look Now', playing on a huge expanse of deserted beach. She always had her head down, so I couldn't see her face, or guess her age. Also, I watched a bronze-golden horse trotting along the tide line. I am so impressed by the silences and the emptinesses. There is hardly anybody anywhere around.
I have written a letter to Christian. I think of writing a letter to B but tears come to my eyes. What would I say?. I've finished the story 'Marseilles Morning' and am working on another about a mad man and a tower. Perhaps, though, this latter could be a play, with a madman in the tower, a child on an empty beach, a beautiful mother, and a writer. It's possible.
Paul K Lyons
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