Dreamscape

The journey to and from the south is gruelling, despite the beauty of the French countryside. Seven hours on the first train, buoyed up by bottles of cheap wine. The sea was so blue, as we rushed past the coast, it felt as though I could have reached through the window glass and come away with paint all over my fingertips.

I miss the sun already; the way it looks slanting through the long pines of the forest. The silence broken only by birdsong; the rush of cool, silky water on my skin. I miss how clean the air feels, wildflowers and tree resin and warm rain, as fresh as Eden. My head is still thrumming with a week of strange dreams; they slumber behind my eyes, serpentine, waiting for analysis.

I dreamed I hired an anonymous room in the city to live out a secret life.

I dreamed my tattoos washed off in the rain.

I dreamed of a woman in a pale wax death mask.

I dreamed the Devil dyed my shoes and hair red.

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This place is an incubator for such things. I said once that this was somewhere full moons bred empty beds, somewhere it’s easy to feel alive. The nights are so clear that the stars are almost shocking; so many and so bright, they seem to rush at you in a dizzying wave, as though the sky were tilting.

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The jasmine flowers are just beginning to open, spilling that distinct, heavy perfume through the kitchen door. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a black, fat-bellied lizard crawling in staccato fits and starts over the walls. Everything in the garden is a startling green, crushed emerald grass freckled with blue and white petals. The roses – soft and full and powder pink – nod their drowsy heads in the breeze, also dreaming.

 

Courageous Life

I say, ‘I’m going to write you a letter, do you mind? I prefer it to emailing, it’s more personal.’ When you write somebody a letter, you give them secrets from within your body; breath, sweat, the outline of your lips, fingerprints. Barely legible.

I am in France at the time; Lorgues to be precise. The scent of wild thyme drifts through the baking air. At night, the croaking of green frogs carries through the garden; in the heat of day, the slithering of black lizards across the yellow stone walls.

Everyone has gone out. It is just me, pen flickering over virgin paper.

Yesterday I saw a woman walking slowly, painfully up a hill to the church. Her footfalls were like a penance, her face was veiled in a red shawl. I wonder if she waits there in the candlelight for the solemn wooden faces of the Saints to part their lips and speak. I wonder if she believes they listen to her. I wonder what she is thinking.

I wish he was here, this man I barely know. This un-stranger. I watch a jade-green mantis slowly climb up a pile of terracotta pots. I take walks in the olive grove. Wild boar lurk in the forest beyond; sometimes in the morning you can catch a glimpse of their thick, iron-grey bodies shouldering through the little trees.

The light this morning was a miraculous pale gold, flowing over the cobbles, illuminating the painted shutters – I wondered what you would think of it. I wanted to hear your opinion, I wondered if we would see the same scene or if you would pick out different shapes and colours.

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It means ‘I miss you,’ but I do not write out those words.

The beauty in the world must be honoured by a courageous life; I worry that I’m falling short.

The smell of the wild herbs is overpowering. I can still taste coarse meat on my tongue. Sweet wine and peach juice.

I pick a sprig of thyme; rosemary; a few olive leaves from the grove. I slip them into the letter in the hope they will carry the scent of this Eden to him across the sea. I summon my courage. The patient mouth of the post box swallows this new piece of me, and I stand there for a while, arms hanging simply, breathing even. The red rooftops scattered through the valley are hazy in the heat, the vast green carpet of the forest stretches away. I am weightless and without form. I am ascending.

Mon seul désir

When I wake, shots are beginning to ring out in the forest in cracking volleys that echo through the slender trees. I hear the jingle of bells on the collars of the hunting hounds as they scout closer and closer to the edges of the olive grove. The sun has been climbing steadily for about an hour, the stones are being bleached the colour of pale sand. Although autumn is breaking over the valley, there are still dusky pink roses wound tightly into their buds. The jasmine rambling around the kitchen door, not in flower, still throws out a pungent, heady scent even as the hot breezes of summer make way for warm rains and the shock of forked lightening over the trees.

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They have killed three boar this morning. I was taken down to the van where the hairy corpses are piled. It saddens me, although I understand it. I wonder aloud if these three are the same little wild pigs we saw eating fallen figs in the garden last night. My host shrugs; the soil here is savage and dry, and land across the globe has always, since time immemorial, required blood sacrifice. The vines have been harvested, and grapes left behind are fair game for passing travellers. They are sweet and soft, crushing easily against the roof of my mouth, flooding my tongue with months of careful sunlight.

We wade across a shallow river on our way to the hilltop chateau, surrounded by a swaying riot of wildflowers. I pick the clinging purple skin of the fruit from my teeth as the river water swirls around my ankles. Somewhere in the woods, the repetitive cough of ravens sounds. This is an easy place to feel alive.

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The town is thrumming with a thousand jostling bodies and voices raised on Market Day. Trekking up a bone-dusty path in the shadow of the church, a carnival of roasting meats and baking flatbreads, amber pendants and cotton clothes. One stall is an explosion of herbs and spices, its wares bulging out of rolled-down sacks. Juniper berries, sprigs of wild thyme and rosemary, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and more mysterious powders from the east; carmine reds and canary yellows. Next to rough blocks of green, hand-made Savon de Marseilles, a little basket is wreathed in a sweet, heavy scent. It is full of dusty squares the colour of whisky, a resinous perfume all the way from Egypt.

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Returning to the Villa, I merrily scuff the brown leather of my shoes swinging in the hammock; kicking up dust as my shadow passes back and forth under the leaves. I look out over the valley, recently freshened by a sudden storm. I think that to live forever in this green, secretive, wild hollow must be Mon seul désir – my only desire. In the kitchen, I can hear the laughter of the older women as they talk around a vast pine table laden with cheeses and thick slices of cold, cured meats. I inhale deeply, watching the delicate mist rising from the drenched soil; the sweet, steaming breath of the olive grove.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws. Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of the wet pavement rises, mingles with frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.

Ghosts of the Olive Grove

The outward train is booked. I am finally going back to the south of France, where the dusty soil, little olive trees and vast, dense forests dotted with red roofs speak of enduring and primitive beauty. There is something savage about this part of the world; bloody and heady and plated gold.

I miss awakening to the birds, and drinking sweet wine at breakfast before the sun climbs to its searing zenith; tearing chunks of bread and smearing them with rough duck pâté . Walking in the dawn at the edges of the forest populated by iron-grey boar; crushing wild Thyme between my fingers.

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Going legend hunting this new year. It is still fairly unusual to meet people here – apart from expats – who aren’t Catholic, in the rich, blood-and-bones way of rural Catholicism. I’m sure the little towns and more isolated villages have tales of vampires and werewolves galore. White-gowned virgins spirited away, returning thirsty; or warding off a risen evil with a litany of prayer spilling from rose-pink lips at the altar.

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The soil strikes me as unquiet. It is too vital, too alive, to hold the damned for long. I watch the bulky bodies of the wild boar shouldering their way through the olive grove. This is a place where full moons breed empty beds.