Saturday, 10 March 2012
Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 16. There Was Always Laughter
We gathered at the village cemetery, standing amongst silent embraces and whispered conversations. The atmosphere was of tenderness, sadness and bitter cigarettes. One of Jan and David’s grandchildren placed wild flowers on a black granite tomb and softened the air. The boy looked up for his father’s eye and Nicholas winked, producing a rogue tear that ran the length of his gaunt unshaven features. He reached out and ruffled his son’s unkempt hair and then gently squeezed his button nose. The child smiled shyly and skipped away happy at this affirmation; he had done well. Nicholas stepped unsteadily towards the gathering and spoke into the space between us, about his parents; their love of the village was with them to the end. In a trembling voice he told us that in Jan’s final moments, family, friends and photographs of Montemaggiore had encircled her. There had already been a funeral in Paris; this ceremony was to see Janet’s ashes interred with those of David and their beloved first-born, Saskia.
“This second ceremony seems so much more difficult than the first”, sighed Nico. In Paris he had felt numb. Here above the village and beneath the mountain, with his grief exposed, he appeared raw and overawed, lost within himself. At the head of the tomb, Saskias’ name and a pale gray photo were hard to see. Below this, freshly painted words and dates had been added along side two vivid colour photos of David and Janet which seemed almost garish in comparison; pictures that we all recognized from their frames in that big blue house. Nico placed two fingers to his lips and gently touched the images of his mother and father. After a shuddering pause, he rested his fingers on the fading face of his sister, as if trying to wipe away a mark or stain. He leant there for a moment and whispered to the departed. Sebastian took his arm from around his trembling sister Natasha and stepped towards the tomb. He paused as if to speak, and then bowed his head; tears flowing freely down the front of his black crumpled shirt. He then placed the tips of his fingers on his mother’s face and touched them to his lips, repeating the gesture with his father and sister. Natasha stood unsteadily, supported now by her two daughters. One of the villagers stepped forward, placing a hand to his ear and sang a verse in Corsican; a psalm I think. One by one the villagers joined his song, producing a moving mournful moan.
After the ceremony we retreated to the family’s house where we drank strong black coffee and bottled water and ate freshly baked bread and cakes; the stuff of life. We were introduced to visiting relations of Jan and David, Australian and British.
“We’ll miss their free spirits”, I muttered awkwardly. “The air was never heavy around them.” Di looked at me and frowned; too many words. The sound of English seemed to clutter the room so we returned to our fumbling French. Later, as we left, we wrote in the visitor’s book for the final time:
“Dear Janet and David, it was a pleasure to know you, and a sadness that we couldn’t get to know you better. We’ll miss our visits to your house. There was always laughter.”
We crept down the stone staircase and stood unsure of ourselves in the village square.
“Let’s go for a drive”, said Di.
It was early evening now and the hills bristled with energy. Just outside of Calanzana we stopped by a small chapel that we’d always thought derelict. It was surrounded by cars and vans and the sound of music came from within. We stepped inside to great applause, although we soon realized that the ovation was not for us. At the alter was a grand piano in front of which stood the soloist, bowing stiffly from the waist; enjoying the acclaim. He had the wild-eyed stare of Marty Feldman, an effect that was magnified by a huge pair of pink plastic glasses, the thick lenses of which could have started a forest fire. He took his seat, adjusted those heavy frames, placed his fingers on the keyboard and, after a prolonged theatrical gaze at the ceiling, he started to play. At transcendent moments his eyes returned to the heavens as if tipping the wink in gratitude for his sublime gift. He offered Chopin, Beethoven and Bach, all for an audience of about forty folk who sat in quiet reverence. As the gentle prodding reverberated, I looked around at the faces in the audience. Next to us an elderly couple sat nursing a baby. The woman was dressed in her sober Sunday best; the old man wore a shabby dressing gown and pyjamas, on his feet a pair of pale pink slippers. His head was down, chin to chest, seemingly asleep. A tear ran down his cheek and gave him away. The child gazed up to the rafters, perhaps seeking the object of the pianist’s wild blissful stare, whilst his grandmother whispered life’s secrets into him.
After the concert we went in search of food and found ourselves at ‘Chez Michele’ in Calanzana. We watched in silence as Michele prepared us his specialty; ‘Agneau de lait au feu de bois’, baby lamb roasted over an open fire, which he would simply serve with garlicky potatoes. His partner Naderge knew our appetites well and placed two demi pichets on the table, red for me, rose for Di, while we watched her beautiful half African, half Corsican child playing with a hula hoop; Naderge smiling at us smiling at her daughter’s delighted dance.