Two days later, we headed inland towards Calanzana. After a quarter of a mile we looked for a signpost that Pat told us had been used for target practice by the local hunters, a common practice apparently. We found the peppered sign whose death rattle proclaimed ‘Monte Grosso 9’ and, turning left onto a rough tarmac road, we started our gradual ascent. Montemaggiore lay before us, draped over a modest summit but dwarfed by a massive mount that rose up behind the village like a pantomime villain. As we ascended the white lines in the centre of the road disappeared and the route steepened suddenly into a series of sharp hairpin bends that challenged our budget Renault’s first gear. The clutch burned as the village beckoned. Its most striking feature, the church, seemed to perch like a sleepy owl atop the haphazard dwellings, rugged blocks of grey and white.
One last bend, the most challenging, and we entered the village pulling up directly outside the church. It was here that we had agreed to rendezvous with the vendors, Don and Marie Adams. Stepping out of the car the clouds parted to reveal a breathtaking view of Calvi and the bay, sun kissed and glorious. Our spirits lifted.
“Not bad eh?” came a voice from behind us, “a sight for sore eyes eh?” We turned towards a tall sinewy man in his late sixties, dressed in jeans and a ‘Tetley’s’ t-shirt.
“Now then, I’m Don, Don Adams. You must be Trevor and Di” he beamed, squeezing our hands a little too firmly. “Marie’s waiting for us in the house. She gets a bit knackered with all the upping and downing.”
He led us up past the church into a modest square.
‘This is ‘La Place’’ he continued in his broad Lancashire accent “the heart of ‘Monty’ where the village holds its celebrations, fetes, a fire at Christmas, the nerve centre if you like.” The nerve centre currently comprised of a nervous one eared tabby and a shitting dog arching its trembling back and offering an embarrassed stare that begged us to look away. I waited for some tumbleweed to roll through the mordent scene; that would have brightened things up a bit.
‘It’s like ‘Angela’s Ashes’’ whispered Di.
As we continued our climb the village revealed itself in a series of narrow streets and grim fronted houses with no apparent character or style; function was everything. Climbing ancient steps we approached an archway beyond which we glimpsed a sunlit view of the hills behind the village. I felt a little shudder on the back of my neck. Don paused as we walked under the archway, “This is the old entrance to what was the fort, what the locals call ‘A Cima’,” he pointed at a date etched into the brickwork: 1593. “There used to be a bloody big door here that they’d slam shut on all the Romans and Vikings and such when them came up to rape and pillage.” Don’s history was as bad as my golf. “All the villagers would leg it up here until the invaders got bored and buggered off.”
Rounding a corner we climbed some steep stone stairs to a wooden door that Don opened with a flourish and entered a small living room, pink predominated. We were ushered up a rickety wooden staircase, through a small dining room and up another set of wooden stairs.
“Watch your step but whatever you do don’t bloody count ‘em.” said Don. As we stepped out onto a roof terrace the hairs on my neck twitched again. Never before or since have I been so immediately smitten with a view. Over the rooftops we looked towards the now familiar scoop of the bay where the Citadel was perfectly framed against the luxuriant azure of the Lagurian Sea, currently calm as a duck pond. Above and beyond Calvi was the Gulf of Revellata with its lighthouse just visible. My eye worked its way back up the valley following the road that had brought us here and came to rest on the back of the church. Behind its owl like facade a circular red tiled roof rose to a windowed turret. Alongside, twittering swifts frantically circled an elegant bell tower. I turned my back to the now cobalt sea. Three small villages nestled into the hillside. To our right the mountain rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Dominant yet somehow protective, the pantomime villain was in fact a benevolent presence. Beyond were the silhouettes of other distant peaks. I looked back across the valley towards the three villages.
“They form the rest of our commune which is known as ‘Monte Grosso’, named after that mountain”, said Don following my gaze.
“The villages are Luginan, Casane and the biggest there is Zilia. See that long green shed there, just below and to the right, that’s where all the local bottled water comes from. And if you don’t like the taste of the water, just beyond is the vineyard of Alzipratu.”
I could just make out the blue, uniform shadow of vines.
“Good drinking that is, especially the red. Speaking of which, how about a Gin and Tonic?”
Don shuffled back down the stairs whilst Di and I sat at a bench avoiding eye contact and breathing deep.
“You haven’t seen it all yet”
“OK, let’s go gently”
There was the clink of ice on glass and Don reappeared balancing a tray, a lemon under each armpit and a small ivory handled knife clenched, pirate like, between his teeth.
“It’s the Vikings, leg it!” I laughed. Di kicked me under the table. An elegant lady caressing a bottle of Gordon’s gin followed Don out onto the terrace.
“This is my better half, Marie”, said Don putting a heavy arm around her delicate shoulder. “Actually, as she’s half Lancs and half French I’m not sure which is indeed the better half.”
Marie was half his size. She disentangled herself to slice lemons and mix drinks.
“Welcome to our little house, ” she smiled. “Strong, weak or medium?”
We learnt that she and Don had owned the house for fourteen years and stayed every summer for three months during which time their extended family visited at will.
“We’ve had as many as twelve folk sleeping at any one time. We do love it here but the steep stairs are getting too much for us. Don’s nearly seventy and not as fit as he’d have you believe. He gets easily knackered with all the upping and downing.”
Don bristled “I could stay here forever me, it just seems like time for something else. As the wise man said ‘change is good, even if it is from bad to worse,”
Marie chuckled at her husband “Don won’t mind me telling you that he had major heart surgery last year. We need to slow down and simplify.”
“Slow down and simplify! Slow down and simplify!” bellowed Don “you’re a long time bloody dead I say. Slow down and simplify, phfuf!”
As the late afternoon drifted towards early evening, the gun metal sea became an impossible silver. A thin strip of grey suggested the horizon towards which the sun descended for what would surely be a memorable sunset. I found myself entranced by the less obvious view out back. The snow peaked Monte Grosso rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Flowing down from the icy cone of the summit were tiny slivers of light, rivers fed by the snow, which reminded me of one of those lace doilies that my Granny would drape over the sugar bowl, to ward off flies and sticky fingers.
The light was ever changing; liquid hills swelled, shuddered and shifted in texture and hue; bleached orange to bronze, burnt ochre to broccoli green. Rusty reds and woozy purples briefly predominated before somehow, magically, all was golden again. There was no palette could do justice to this delicate cacophony.
“Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patterns of bright gold.” I knew that my ‘O’ level Shakespeare would one day resonate but was unaware that I’d spoken out loud. Don gave me a sideways glance.
‘Ay lad, not too shabby,’
Shapes and shadows revealed themselves in fine detail and would just as suddenly melt back into the balmy canvas. There were sure signs of the years of pastoral endeavour: lazy lines of terracing and stonewalling, the occasional suggestion of old foundations. High on the hill a cemetery beckoned. Beneath shimmering olive trees orange nets blanketed the ground, ready to receive a harvest that would be six months in the coming. A donkey brayed. I could hear the whistling of shepherds as they guided their herds along ancient routes that criss-crossed the hills, down past neglected bergeries, down towards pastures new. The smell was intoxicating; the peppery pungency of the maquis mixed with the earthy odour of the goats and sheep made for a heady combination. Nearby a neighbour was frying onions. I looked across at Di, glowing in the pale pink of a bourbon sky, and I knew. We hadn’t even seen the house properly yet.
We shared the sunset. As that molten orb kissed the horizon a divine half-light descended and the landscape fell into a deep, sonorous silence. We sat blissfully suspended until a dog’s bark broke the spell.
“Like a ref’s whistle,” chortled Don refreshing our glasses, “that dog’s as reliable as the sunset”.
We talked long into the night before agreeing that, as it was too dark, too late and we were too pickled to see straight, we should meet again for breakfast the next day ‘for a right proper viewing’.
As we made our way back down the cobbled stones towards the church, tentative and tipsy in the inky black, Di was strangely silent.
We arrived early the next morning to get a good view of the house’s exterior. What Don had described as ‘A Cima’ was in fact the highest point of the village, a huge outcrop of rock that was home to four privileged dwellings. With our backs to Calvi, the Adams’ house was to the lower left. On three levels, the ground floor remained a mystery, but we could make out the familiar stairway that led up to the front door and the main body of the house, which, in keeping with the character of the village, was grey, square and characterless. Brown shuttered windows mapped out the two upper levels beneath the flat roof terrace where we’d sat the previous evening. Attached and to the right, a small two story house which was itself connected to a taller building made from a type of stone walling known locally as ‘Pierre’. On the highest point of the outcrop was a handsome detached property, modern in design but again made from ‘Pierre’.
“That’s the Parisians’ place. Don’t see ‘em, don’t know ‘em” Don had snuck up on us. “I’ve just been to the local bakery for croissants. Always bloody burnt. Luckily we don’t need bread; Marie bakes it fresh every day. The other tall house belongs to Jean-Jacques, ‘King of the Castle’. Nice enough chap, he does our insurance for us, but never stops tinkering. We were once the tallest house here, a full 360-degree view from the top terrace. He asked me if we minded him building up ‘un petit peu’. Next thing I know we’re living next to a bloody lighthouse,” he jutted his jaw at the recently completed fourth floor. “That little house between him and us belongs to Titin and Lucy. Titin’s a bit of a local celebrity, a sculptor he is, though he’s never sold ‘owt as far as I know. Says he does it for himself; art for arts sake if you like. He keeps his work where he makes it and where he can see it, right outside his front door. Come and have a look.”
We shuffled down from the rock to an open area that served as an outdoor gallery for Titin. There were grim faces everywhere, austere character studies with an almost religious simplicity that was oddly compelling and absolutely in tune with the environs. Some stood alone whilst others were carved into the rock itself. One study bore the title ‘Pasco Pauoli’; only Titin knew the identity of the others.
“The locals call these figures ‘menhirs’, they remind me of gargoyles”, muttered Don, looking over his shoulder.
It did feel like the ancients were leering us at; you could almost hear their voices whispering, “Bugger off and leave us alone.”
Entering the house Don turned on us.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, home made bread and freshly ground coffee; we’re an Estate Agent’s dream. But this isn’t the ‘hard sell’, honest. This is just us, everyday.”
“You’re a lucky man Don,” I ventured.
“Every bloody day” he beamed, putting both thumbs in the air.
“Now then, let me show you around. This is the lounge with two rooms off. This, a bedroom,” he opened a door onto a small room, functionally decorated, “and here’s the bathroom”, pink again.
“And this is where we spend our mornings” he said throwing open French windows. We stepped onto a lower terrace that looked upon the mountains. I strolled to the edge of the terrace. Through the branches of a fig tree I could see a tiny chapel below. Directly to our right was another terrace.
“Neighbours. Never used,”
To our left jasmine grew over scrubland and a tiny old ruin that sat above an archway, the one that had kept the Vikings at bay.
“They say that one of Napoleon’s big knobs used to live there, a General I think,” said Don eyeing the meager pile. “Must’ve all been short arses. That jasmine is Marie’s pride and joy. She planted it when we moved in and tends to it like it was one of her grandchildren. That’s a whiff of heaven.”
Marie drifted out, all chiffon and cheese clothe, bearing a laden tray.
“Come on now, try the bread, Don bakes it fresh every day.”
Next to me Don shifted in obvious embarrassment.
“It’s the only thing he cooks, besides the fish he catches,” that lovely chuckle again.
“Alright, it’s a fair cop, I’m a baker of bread” confessed Don “it’s not bloody easy either. Corsican flour knackers my machine, don’t know why. We have to bring flour in from Lancashire when we drive over. Confuses the hell out of French customs. They’re convinced I’m smuggling some illicit powdered drug. They all get ‘Mothers Pride’ stuck up their know it all noses. Cocaine my arse!”
“Language Don” chided Marie, pouring coffee that looked as strong as her Gin and Tonics. “I’m sure it won’t surprise you that a lot of the flour here is made from chestnuts.”
We glanced up at a pair of squawking hawks that swooped playfully above us.
“Go on my son” shouted Don as one dive-bombed the other.
“I love those birds. Could watch ‘em all day. Go on my son!”
“It’s a quiet life up here,” explained Marie.
After breakfast she gave us the grand tour.
“As Don’s already shown you this floor, I’ll take you up”
In single file we scaled those rickety steps again and walked into the dining room.
“We tend to spend our evenings up here. There’s always a nice breeze” she said opening more French windows that overlooked the lower terrace and that view, again. She pushed herself through swinging galley doors that led onto a tiny but well ordered kitchen.
“Corsicans spend more time eating than cooking, so kitchens tend to be bottom of the totem pole, space wise.”
Back in the dining room a door led into another bedroom, the exact size of the one directly below.
“You’ve seen the top terrace already so why don’t I show you what’s on the ground level.”
We walked out of the front door and down to the street. Marie fumbled with her keys and opened a heavy padlocked door.
“This is cellar number one. We use it for storage; chairs, tables, all our beach stuff and, as you can see, we’ve got another fridge in here for wine and beer”
It was a vaulted ‘Cave’ about ten meters square with a tiny cobwebbed window that looked out onto the street. At the far end a tiny archway led into an even smaller room. “You could just about swing a cat in here” said Marie looking up. “I’ve never worked out what that is” she said pointing to a grisly looking object hanging like a limp dick from a hook on the low ceiling “but it’s been there for at least fourteen years. I refuse to touch it.”
“It’s a bloody sausage!” Don had rejoined us. “Chacuterie. It’s what they put in Corsican ‘Caves’. That and wine.” He swiped out with a handy tennis racket causing the object to swing back and forth causing me to wonder whether they had jock straps in Napoleonic times. Maybe that was their undoing, their ‘Waterloo’. Where we had wellingtons and sandwiches, they didn’t have jockstraps. There must have been quite a bit of chaffing en route to Moscow.
“Are you all right lad?” Don was watching me watching the dangling gristle.
“Hypnotic, isn’t it?” I blushed.
“It’s a bloody sausage! Come on now, we’ve lost the girls.”
Out onto the street again and down to another door that opened onto a shower room.
“I’ve just put this in myself. It’s where we wash the sand off from the beach; useful to have an extra toilet as well.”
Again, we exited onto the street and approached a glass door behind which the ladies rattled like a bag of bones.
“There’s not many can out talk Marie.” Don was impressed.
“We call this room ‘Cell Block H”. It’s a bit grim but sleeps two, comes in useful when the whole clan descends on us at once. It’s also where we send the naughty grandchildren. A bit like room 101, the threat’s enough.” Marie and Di appeared.
“Last and very definitely least, this is cellar number two,” said Marie who led us under an archway bordered by that jasmine. Its dirt floor made me think of it as a stable. There was no electricity.
“Watch your feet.” Don pointed down at scattered margarine tubs. “Rat poison!”
Marie gave him a withering look and continued, “I always thought that, if we did up cellar number one, this would become our storage room. As you can see, our neighbours have had the same idea.”
The cellar seemed to have become a dumping ground for all local bric-a-brac: unused tiles, a sewing machine, a tailor’s dummy, the tireless frame of a bike, a big red plastic fire engine, an old printer and a punch bag, enough to consume anyone on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Back up on the lower terrace Don wrestled with a bottle of rose.
“We’ve softened you up with coffee and cakes, now we’re going to get you legless again”.
Their plan was to sell up in Corsica and throw in with their children on a larger property “somewhere in the south-west of France, Perpignon way. It’s lovely down there.” enthused Marie.
“You get a lot of brick for your buck there” interrupted Don; “we want somewhere where we can spread outwards, not upwards. I must admit Marie’s got me sussed; the upping and downing around here is starting to do for me. Also by throwing our money at a place for our children we can avoid the government’s grabbing mits when we pop our clogs. There’s some good rivers to fish there as well. I love me fishing, want to get back to it, after all this ticker trouble” he tapped his chest. “I loved the early mornings on the river or out on the lake but found it harder and harder to get up and go. My GP had some tests done and the next thing I know I’m in for a bypass.”
“Here we go”, sighed Marie.
“I’m lying on my back with all these masked men and women looking down at me, doctors, nurses, an atheist telling me to count backwards.”
“Anesthetist” interrupted Marie.
“Anyway” he continued “there’s an anesthetist telling me to count backwards. I counted them instead. Eleven of the buggers. I said ‘if you lot get me through this, I’m catching you all a trout’. As you can see I survived and sure enough, when I was up to it... I went fishing.” He took a long sip of his wine.
“I stayed on the river until I’d caught eleven good ‘uns, one of ‘em a corker. I gutted them, froze them overnight, stuck ‘em in a black bin liner the next day and went round to the hospital. Marched into reception and asked to see the surgeon. They made me go round to the back door, but sure enough the doctor came. I shook his hand and thanked him for saving my life, told him I was a man of my word and shoved the bag at him. Should have seen his face; mask askew on his forehead, stethoscope around his neck, dressed up in green robes, his rubber gloves clutching my plastic bag,” he laughed, “I think he was grateful but he didn’t say much. I told that the big ‘un was for him, and to pass the rest on to his team, with thanks from Don Adams, then I turned on my heels and walked away. One of the best things I’ve ever done,” his voice cracked. Marie gently squeezed his knee.
“So” he coughed, “what do you think of our little house?”
I watch you iron my shirts
Wishing that I could give
Such care to my labour
Not a perfect job
But a job well done
Done for the right reasons
Done for love
Done for the love of it
Done for the love of me
I will be creased and crumpled
I love that shirt like no other
Yet I’m fearful of offending
By the wearing of it
When I wear it I am fearless
Out of myself
Like no other
I know it’s there
On a hanger in the wardrobe
The face of Christ
Smelling of mothballs
And promising everything