The snails inhabiting the Willikers mailbox were joined a few days ago by this, the latest manuscript from Harold Hark. According to him, it is the first of three parts that will eventually make one very long story (or a bleeding novella). -- TGW
Vittorio Petrolio did indeed give me some of those old Lire but the exchange rate was pitiful. I won't even tell you how pitiful it was. Needless to say I entered France with little more than I had on me when I left the hospital.
And then it all went haywire.
I arrived in Nice by train around noon on a Tuesday. I set out to find an unpromising street that would lead to the squalid part of town, were such a quartier to exist on the Côte d'Azur. The one-star Hotel Verdier on the nearby Rue de LePante looked the goods. I asked for a room overlooking the street, where I could view the comings and goings of the locals. To my delight such a room was available at a reasonable price. But when I reached for my credit card, it wasn't there. Nor was my keycard. My knees buckled. There is no greater inducement to panic, short of an imminent threat to life, than discovering that you've lost the open sesames to your chosen credit card company of ill repute and/or access to your modest funds, held, in my case, at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. To me it's worse. Life-threatening situations can lift you out of your day-to-day complacence to a level of intense awareness. Unless you freeze, you suddenly find yourself able to make instant judgements on actions that may -- or may not -- save your skin. But lose your money and you become a non-person.
The réceptionniste eyed me with an equal measure of suspicion and boredom; he'd no doubt heard this line before. He told me their EFTPOS line was down anyway and they didn't accept credit cards or traveller's cheques. (I'd decided against using traveller's cheques before leaving Australia. So many places refused them and here was just another.) It would have to be cash. But before any transaction could begin, he would need my passport. My passport? Where was my passport? It was safe; I always kept it in a separate location, in the pocket next to my heart.
I forked over the money. This left me with barely enough to survive on until I could get the cards replaced. And that would have to be by the following Monday or Tuesday at the latest. Fortunately my next stop was a more or less planned visit with old friends who lived on the outskirts of Paris.
I had met Laurent and Julie years before at a Philip Glass concert in Avignon and we'd kept in touch. We exchanged emails before I left Australia, so they knew I was coming, just not exactly when. They had mentioned plans for a two-week trip to London, but I could not now recall in which month. A fresh frisson of anxiety transmogrified into a cold steel ball as it made the rounds in the pinball machine housing my quaking organs: surely, not now? No, I was certain they were going after the new year. I should call. Did I have their phone number? No, I only had their address. I could look them up in the telephone directory. But what if I called and there was no answer? I decided ignorance was bliss and left it up to the gods.
I was in luck with the room. It was spare and a little depressing with its worn bedding and dowdy wallpaper, but it was clean. I wanted to collapse on the bed or sit at the window and regard the passing mademoiselles, but there was no time.
It took the entire afternoon to deal with the cards. I won't bore you with the irritating details. Suffice to say they would be waiting for me at their respective establishments in Paris by the following Tuesday at the latest.
Things would have been looking up if I had had another hundred euros. As it was I barely had the train fare to Paris, let alone enough for food. Where had I lost the damn cards? I had no idea.
I grabbed a bite to eat, a savoury, very thin crêpe called socca, from a street vendor. Made with chick-pea flour and olive oil and cooked in a wood-fired oven, it had a smoky flavour enhanced, at the recommendation of the vendor, by a liberal sprinkling of ground pepper. It was that good I ordered another.
It seemed prudent to buy a ticket to Paris before I spent any more money, so I headed back to the train station. On the way, I heard organ music coming from the Basilique Notre Dame off the avenue Jean Médicin. It was four o'clock and a recital had just begun. I recognised the work, the Suite Médiévale by Jean Langlais. What luck! Was this an intervention by the gods to tell me everything would be all right? I decided not to sit in the pews (the organist was above and behind the few in attendance anyway), but to amble around and examine the stained-glass windows. The second movement, the melancholic Tiento resonated through the church as I wandered into a small alcove. At first all I could see was the brilliant sunlight coming in through a massive stained glass window. Then I saw the outline of a statue. It stood on a pedestal, which made its head level with mine. Moving closer, I beheld the most beautiful face I had ever seen. A plaque noted that here was Sainte Rita, the patron of lost causes. Uh-oh. But that "uh-oh" was quickly shamed by the uh-oh that passed my lips when I realised that Sainte Rita had given me a hardon. Perhaps it wasn't the gods who caused me to enter this church after all.
With my tail wagging in front of me, I quickly removed myself from the room and left the church to the rousing strains of the Suite's final movement, Acclamations. Was I embarrassed? Ashamed? Mortified? All those and more, and to punish myself I went in search of relief.
One of yours truly's defining characteristics is this: When it is of the utmost importance for me to curtail my impulses of the moment to guarantee survival in the future, I give in with the greatest of ease. Some would call me an arrested adolescent. But, as I've said elsewhere), maturity seems "like something a charwoman would do, drudgery without hope of the slightest transgression, a sad line-toeing downhill to a grey death."
A few blocks away I found ma petite pute Méditerranéenne, an erotic wisp of a surrogate for Sainte Rita. She stood in the late afternoon shadows against a wall between shops and I nearly missed her. I thought: Where have I been all her life? Here was a face guaranteed to drive men crazy. She reminded me of the French actress Anna Mouglalis, whom I had only seen once and never forgotten in the film Novo. Like the jelly-boning Anna, her lips invited the shyest percy to step into a phone booth and emerge as a sonorously humming monolith begging for immersion in the gooseneck of love. Her eyes, ardent and fierce, looked out from beginningless time, as if they had witnessed the moment before the big bang. Directed at any man insufficiently authentic, they could easily become weapons of male destruction. They were the gateless gates to everything that is or was or will be. There really was one true religion, and she was it.
While we were discussing the price, I became aware of her fragrance. She used one of those perfumes you've never smelled before and will never smell again but that every smell will forever remind you of. And then, I could smell her skin. Not since I was a teenager in the throes of uncontrollable lust have I been so unable to keep my distance from the beloved. I almost embraced her there on the street as I leaned closer to inhale the aroma of her lightly sweated, salty skin. I smelled her hair. She must have washed it last night; a night's sleep and the shampoo no longer overpowered the natural aroma of her exotic secretions. This was paradise. I gave her all my money.
I emerged from her little room drained of strength and finances. Emotionally, it was even worse. Yes, I had confirmed a longheld belief that Buddha nature could best be attained through dissolution in the pussy of the goddess, and yes, my inner Childe Harold will probably long for this woman for the rest of my life, but the emotions relating to survival now had me lying rigid on my hotel bed, the formerly exuberant Willie Wanka reduced to a microscopic nubble representing my fear. I may have seen the white light for one excruciatingly blissful hour, but now I was dead broke. Well, I had thirty euros and some change. I would have to hitchhike to Paris.
The next morning I bought another socca, devouring it on the spot, then a baguette, half a round of Camembert, a plastic bottle of Orangina, a packet of Ajja tobacco and Riz La Croix rolling papers; no more tailor-mades for me! This left me with the change.
I walked to the railway station, bidding a comfortable ride to Paris au re-fucking-voir, and beyond to what I thought was the beginning of the Voie Rapide, which I hoped would connect me to the Autoroute. I stood for three hours before getting a ride. As karma would have it, my saviour was only going as far as Cannes; at least I was en route. But when he came to his turnoff, there was nowhere for cars to pull over, so I went with him into Cannes-ville.
Not half a year ago and from the comfort of my lounge room in Melbourne, I had watched David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz hob-nobbing with the celebrities at the Cannes Film Festival. Now I was walking along the Croisette as a clochard. Never mind, I was in high spirits. How could I not be, when the breast-worshipping sun shown so brightly on the beach and it's reclining nymphs. Horniness always ready for renewal when travelling, I stood there ogling for the better part of an hour, imagining myself as the announcer for a different sort of Golden Globes, this one dedicated to the perfect pair of hooters.
"My word, but what a talented group we have today," I intoned breathlessly into a discarded ice cream stick pinch hitting for a microphone. "To my left, we have the mighty boswams of Gaspa Lamour, our home-grown entry from right here in Cannes. I'm sure our judges are experiencing significant hoist over Mlle Lamour's attributes, ha-ha, oh yes, indeedy-do. There on a beach blanket near her is the entry from Barthelona, Senorita Gloria Exquisito, whose perfectly formed chichis are rumoured to have launched a thousand chochos the first time she stepped onto Mar Bella Beach. Moving right along, perhaps we can have a word with the entry from Great Britain, Miss Gillian Moist. Miss Moist? Oh, miss Moist? My, isn't she shy. Now then, I believe I see Miss Jennifer Okaybaby, the contestant from America. Miss Okaybaby, may I have a … no? I don't understand, no one wants to be interviewed. No matter, let's try for a chat with our youngest contestant, Puberty Poltergeist. Oh drat, her mother is waving me away in a most irritating fashion. Over there is one of the hot favourites, the entrant from Finland, Miss Palenape Candlelight. Hello, could I … But she won't talk to me, either. Surely the gorgeous Italian Nelle Ruolodi? Oh-oh, the bodyguard of Putupon Rose, the great granddaughter of Pantopon Rose, is heading my way. This doesn't look good."
I moved on.
I walked to the outskirts of Cannes. No one seemed interested in stopping so I walked on to La Napoule. By now it was getting late. Crikey, I was facing a sleepover with things that go sting, prick, nip and pinch in the night. I made my way further to Théoule Sur Mer, a tiny hamlet built around a small harbour full of yachts, with the Esterel mountains behind it. What a fabulous place to be down and out. At the other end of Théoule, at the foot of a giant rock called La Pointe de L'Aiguille I found a spot well used by others in my predicament. It was dark now; I could see the bright lights of Cannes. Mosquitoes swarmed around me as I unpacked my bag. A pleasure yacht sailed idly by; the night was that clear I could hear the clinking of knives and forks as the well-to-do dined with unfurrowed brows. I toasted them with several slugs of Orangina, a chunk of cheese and the rest of the baguette. It was warm but I had to sleep huddled inside my old taped-up rip-stop nylon sleeping bag. I must have wakened ten times during the sweating night, once or twice deliriously wondering where I was.
I awoke at dawn with ants crawling all over and inside my sleeping bag. A weirdly strangled yell -- born from the seepage into consciousness of my newfound status among homo sapiens -- burst forth with epenthetical abandon: "Cock-fucking-sucker, I don't nee-fucking-eed this she-fucking-it! Here was the beginning of a day that could only get worse.
But once I was rid of the ants, with everything packed away, I looked up to see the beauty of my surroundings. I nearly wept. The apoplectic anger had changed into nirvana-summoning joy so quickly that I wondered if I wasn't going mad.
There is no time and place on earth as beautiful as early morning on this part of the French Riviera. There is something about the air: My nostrils twitched as if I were a dog setting out on the day's long anticipated walk. I couldn't help filling my lungs with the scent of pine from the forest and the salty tang of the Mediterranean. With each inhale my troubled mind was cleared, soothed and invigorated. The senses, so often shut down or numbed by the sameness of city and suburban life, are here seduced by nature at its most inspired: innumerable creeks spill from red rock cliffs to partition compact beaches nestled in magic inlets as they empty into the ocean so clear in all its permutations of green and cobalt blue that the only possible comparison is to the Garden of Eden.
I decided to walk instead of looking for a ride. Just as well, the traffic was light; the occasional car punctuating the uninhibited birdsong.
My mind gradually ceased its usual racket of aimless thoughts and random tunes and, for a while, all I heard were the birds. A sublime feeling came over me: I felt weightless, without substance, in the embrace of freedom. This feeling of, what? -- of undifferentiated totality? -- didn't last long. Whatever it was, as soon as I became aware of it, poof, it was gone. I tried to empty my mind again, but the mental noise was back, crowding out the birds. For a split second I had been here now. Perhaps for the first time in my life I was truly present, instead of peering out from behind the shield of my insufferable ego.
I was still on a high when I entered Le Trayas, another tiny village, this one built on the slopes of a hill, the Pic Martin. Le Trayas seemed less busy and touristy than the other villages; a place to come back to ... once I'd won the lottery.
Not far out of Le Trayas, I spotted a small isolated beach from the road. A path led down to it, where a few people were already sunbathing, stark naked. I scrambled down the slope as if the ocean was the first water I'd seen in weeks, dropping everything on the run, including my clothes, and dived in. The water was just that perfect temperature, like adjusting the taps on a 40C day to give you a coolly refreshing, but not cold, shower. I've never felt so clean, even though, after drying in the sun, I was sticky all over from the salt water.
My mission now was to reach the Autoroute near Fréjus, and thence to commence the serious business of autostopping to Aix-en Provence and from there to Paris.
In the small coastal town of Anthéor, I asked a few people for a couple of euros, but they looked at me as if I wasn't there. I talked with a German who was hitchhiking to Cannes. He too was broke, but cheerful. I gave him my last wedge of Camembert.
On the road into Agay, I stopped to talk to a one-armed man in his thirties. He said he was broke and had not eaten for days. He was intensely angry, spitting out merde after merde after merde as the cars passed him by. I had nothing to give him but words, but banter was the last thing he wanted. Survival had him between its teeth and before he got enough to eat or a decent place to rest, it was going to chew him to pieces. I was looking at a man who was about to die.
In Agay, I spotted a Deux Chevaux with an NL sticker. The Dutch are usually generous. I asked the guy sitting behind the steering wheel for a couple of euros. "Sorry," he said, without looking up. "No worries," I said, wondering how many encounters like this the one-armed man had endured before he started going nuts. Once more I walked to the outskirts of the town. I stuck out my thumb on the off-chance … et voilà! -- I scored a ride all the way to Fréjus.
My ride dropped me at the Roman ruins where I encountered an Englishman on his way east. He told me how to connect with the Autoroute, and blew my mind by giving me a couple of euros without my asking. "You look hungry," he said, adding that he was heading for Turkey, to the city of Konya, to look for a Sufi teacher.
I spent the euros on the last baguette in the Fréjus boulangerie. I gobbled down a third of it and shoved the rest in my bag. The Orangina bottle had long since been filled with water.
The trouble now was that it was getting late again. The thought of spending another night on an ant vs mosquito-infested beach, no matter how breathtaking the view, was out of the question. I decided to at least get the trip to Paris started.
An immobilier, content with his holiday house rentals that day, took me to Puget-sur Argens and the A8 onramp. He sped off to his home in Draguignan.
In no time a Mercedes pulled over, the driver heading to Cavaillon to the arms of his lover. Things were indeed looking up. He had just bought a sandwich merguez-frites in Fréjus. He offered me half, but had to pull over and stop to cut it. The thing has to be eaten with great care lest the sauce drip on your clothes and stain them for all eternity. If you've never had this North African-cum-French concoction you haven't lived. Simply put, a merguez sausage (made out of God knows what) and a handful of French fries are dropped into a toasted and sliced half baguette, the lot topped with Harissa Sauce. It is both delicious and deadly. (For more on the subject, clickez-vous ici). He also produced a bottle of Côtes du Rhone and two Duralex glasses, which sat neatly in his drinks tray.
He was suitably impressed with my summary of the last few days. I became downright rhapsodic describing the walk between Théoule and Le Trayas. Just as I was finishing, he opened his glove compartment and pulled out a CD. "Is this what you mean?" For a second I thought he was going to play some spineless New Age crap, but the opening few minutes of Sasha & John Digweed's Renaissance CD 1, a mix of dance, house, and techno music from the nineties, sounded like it was coming directly from heaven to bathe the moonlit beaches I now so badly wanted to call home. After some fifteen minutes, he pulled it out and inserted a CD called Immense Velocity. "This one lasts just over an hour, about how long it will take us to get to Cavaillon. Enjoy!" And did I. All windows down, we boogied on through the evening and into the night to pounding rhythms and lilting Tangerine Dream-like aural planes of melodic ecstasy.
As we neared Cavaillon I realised I was a hop, skip and jump from the town of M., where I had suffered buckshot wounds in the truffle war. Encroyable, non? What, you don't believe me? More incredible than that, the Merguez was starting to percolate in my ravaged stomach. I learned early in my travelling life never to go anywhere without a roll of toilet paper; now I was thanking the Good Lloyd for its presence in my bag. The rumbling was starting to get out of control when my ride dropped me off at the south end of Cavaillon. I scampered down an embankment and under the overpass where I enjoyed (if that's the word) my first fecal relief since leaving Nice. This massive evacuation left me exhausted. There was nothing for it but to get some sleep and head for Paris in the morning. I crawled to the other side of the overpass and lay down. This was no easy feat as the ground was on a nearly 45-degree-angle. Below me I could barely make out a small stream or canal bisecting the highway. I couldn't actually hear it for the roar of cars and camions overhead. I placed myself feet down and prayed I didn't wriggle around. A position-shifting nightmare would see me rolling like a tumbleweed into the wet.
Friday morning found me miraculously alive; I hadn't moved a centimetre. I hobbled sideways down to the stream and found it to be relatively clean. I washed my face and crawled back up to the highway.
A French girl picked me up. Whereas most of my rides to now had relented and spoken some kind of English, she refused, jabbering French like a Mexican on Benzedrine clear to Lyon. I understood next to nothing; in fact I spent most of the time trying to hypnotise my bowels. It finally worked and I heard no more from them.
She dropped me off in Lyon, again on the south side, this time unfortunately. I had to walk about five kilometres to get to the Autoroute leading north, including a half hour's walk through a long tunnel. A sign, "Pietons Interdit" at the entrance should have deterred me, but there was nowhere else to go, without perhaps getting lost for days in parts of Lyon no one, not even the inhabitants, knew were there.
I entered the fume-ridden tunnel on a walkway composed of unconnected metre-long cement slabs laid end to end over a metal grid protecting a huge pipe running underneath. Not once did I wonder about the pipe's function because every skerrick of my attention was on the slabs; they were barely wide enough to accommodate my girth, let alone my bloody bag, which I was forced to hold in front of me in a death grip. Worse, they continually rose and fell beneath my feet, threatening with each step to throw me off balance and into the oncoming path of the traffic whizzing by no less than a metre beyond my elbow. The trucks, in particular the five and six axle rigs, were a worry; I swear I heard maniacal cackles coming from the cabs, with their side mirrors straining to whack off my ear. I walked as fast as I could while sucking in my width to the thinnest possible size. It seemed certain that some protruding item of industrial building material haphazardly placed on the flat bed of a truck would eventually slice my head off, the rest of my twitching body then falling beneath axle after axle to be served up as chunks of horror-film flesh flying through the polluted air to smash through the windshield and into the face of an otherwise innocent but now screaming driver who would then lose control and careen in front of the other oncoming vehicles. Hours later the cleanup crews would stumble over my tyre-trodden bits and assume they were parts of the dozen or so dead drivers. No one would know I was ever there.
Eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel and I emerged into the sunlight, clothes drenched with sweat and several pounds lighter. The only damage was to my lungs from the exhaust of hundreds of cars.
The road divided almost immediately: Paris-Roanne or Paris-Macôn. I chose the latter and landed a ride with three French kids in a van, the driver and his girlfriend up front and the girlfriend's sister in the back. I climbed in with the sister. She was pretty in an uncut way, perhaps because she looked to be no more than fifteen: her face and body, still working their way through adolescence, had yet to decide on the finished product.
They were a strange lot; not much interested in any subject, minds on idle to the point of being neither here nor there. Maybe they were Christians. Our conversation petered out before we left Lyon.
But there was something about the girl…. Of course there is something about every young girl just because they're young. What was it? Was she the type who would try not to notice while you were feeling her up? I had known such girls in secondary school. They just sat there, not stopping you but not responding either. Before I knew it, His Nibs had sprung to attention and she was staring straight at it. Well, not at it, but at its enormous outline under my pants. No, wait, by enormous I mean that somehow it seemed more round, more firm, more fully packed than ever before. What a revoltin' development! Or was it? Shit, the last thing I needed was a moral moment with a moist maiden. Or was it a moist moment with a moral maiden. She wasn't staring because she was fixin' to scream bloody murder, was she? No, no, nothing like that. I tried to look out the window, but every time I looked back her blushing gaze was riveted on my cock, which was now quaking like an adolescent volcano. Good Lloyd, if it blew, a molten wave of spunk would engulf my leg clear to the shores of my knee. If she'd only been older, we could have fucked our brains out and the numb nuts in the front seat would never have noticed.
What should have been a pervert's dream turned out to be just plain uncomfortable. They were going to Auxerre, but I bailed out in Beaune. With, I might add, a pair of gigantic nuts number than the pea-sized bicameral equivalents residing in George W. Bush's skull.
I was just about to hop into the bushes for a relieving wank, when a snazzy Renault Vel Satis pulled over. A buxom woman flung open the passenger door: "Vous allez à Paris?" Like the little piggy who longed to go home, I cried, "Oui, oui, oui."
We spoke French for the first half of the trip and English for the rest. She lived in Dijon, had a son there, and travelled the world -- to Nepal one year, South America the next. This summer she went to Tunisia, always travelling alone. I asked her what she did. She said her work was depressing, "It doesn't matter." I mulled this strange reply over and over, until my blood nearly turned to hot wine. How could a job that required you to travel the world be depressing or of no interest? Especially with destinations like Nepal? She didn't look like a drug dealer. Or a businesswoman or a high class hooker. Maybe she trafficked in body parts. Nah. Child prostitution? Nah. Could she be a guru and too modest to talk about it? She did have a serene face … unlike my own, which was turning into a survivor's twitching mixture of lust and anger. How long before I started firing my own repetitions of merde between terminally clenched teeth?
After awhile I asked again. She sighed heavily. "All right, I work for Nestle. I sell their products to third world countries. Including milk powder for babies. Satisfied?" I should have kept quiet. Nestle's baby formula has been under fire for decades. We lapsed into silence; I took the cue and fell asleep. When I awoke, it was late afternoon. She had pulled over at the L'Hay Les Roses exit, just south of Paris. We shook hands and wished each other well.
I consulted with no less than four elderly gents on the best route to nearby Fontenay-aux-Roses. Each gave slightly different advice, so I made a sort of consensus and struck out. Within an hour I was on the street of the apartment I had been trying to reach for three long days.
At last, the "haywire" sequence of events had come to an end ... to be replaced, I was shortly to discover, by an apocalypse.
To be continued….
My word, but Hark's got himself in a right pickle here. Worse, it appears he's telling the truth for the first time, except for that reference to the village of M. But how could one of Australia's pre-eminent political polemicists have plummeted to such peripatetic penury? Such a miserable fall would never happen to the likes of Tim Blair or Andrew Bolt; it must be his left-wing karma. What on earth can have happened next? Stay tuned. -- TGW