"We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over." James Boswell
A good friend of Pascal Paoli, writer and diarist James Boswell knew a thing or two about the isle. Nick-named ‘Mr. Corsica’ he composed his ‘Account of Corsica’ in 1768, on the islanders’ struggle for liberty against the republic of Genoa. He also clearly knew a thing or two about the value of friendship.
I sat outside Bar Rex on Boulevard Wilson in Calvi, with the perfect breakfast: cappuccino stiffened with an extra shot of espresso, croissant, slightly burnt, served with cold butter and fig jam, and a fresh crisp Sunday Times, opened, of course, to the sports page. I was suddenly aware of the smell of fresh bread and Old Spice after-shave lotion.
“Ah, Topingdon Hopsters. Magnifique!” I turned towards the source of this heady odour, a diminutive man in his early sixties holding a dozen baguettes under each arm.
“I know Hopsters well, my wife is from Hopsters”, he explained nodding at the headline of my back page, ‘Spurs Win Big’.
“Her Papa was the patron of Topingdon.” It was the love child of Bilbo Baggins and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ordering an espresso, he placed his loaves and feet under my table and, sitting down, introduced himself as Antoine Albertini, entrepreneur. In halting English he explained that he had married an English woman whose father was a founding father of Tottenham Hotspurs.
“Janet is now mother to my three children.” A skilled inquisitor, within five minutes he knew my life story and had invited Di and I to dinner that evening.
“Aperitifs at seven thirty. Now, excusez moi Johneee, I must complete my bread delivery” and with that, he was off.
The Albertinis’ house nestled in luxuriant foliage in the hills above Calvi. I rattled the heavy knocker twice and stood back. A shuffling of feet, that familiar ‘Eau de Antoine’ and the door creaked open.
“Ah, Johneee, welcome” I shook his hand and he kissed me. Twice.
“This is Di”, I offered. Antoine swaggered forwards
“Ah, my lurve, bella, bella, bella” he kissed both of her cheeks, several times. A silhouette loomed behind him and Antoine’s head ducked turtle like, into the collar of his shirt.
“And you would be?” purred the shadowy figure stepping out of the darkness. A cigarette in one hand and a cocktail glass in the other only added to a startling resemblance to Lauren Bacall. Antoine had forgotten to inform his beloved the she would be having dinner guests.
“Maybe I should introduce myself” she glowered as Antoine’s head withdrew further still “I am Janet, your host’s wife.”
She regally beckoned us into the dimly lit house and beyond, again into blinding sunlight, onto a garden terrace that revealed a magnificent view of the bay.
“Johneeee, a drink?’ asked Antoine with a bottle in hand.
“Why does he call you ‘Johnny’?” whispered Di.
“Because he cannot pronounce ‘Trevor’ or indeed most rudimentary English words”, answered Janet, “and ‘Johnny’, as in Haliday, the aging French rock star”, she added, eyeing my ripped Levis. Antoine hugged his bottle at a safe distance. “Please excuse my terrible English, but my teacher, she is no good.” His nervous gaze rested affectionately upon Janet who rolled her eyes and groaned. The supper that ensued was a boozy banquet of reheated morsels, presented in no apparent order and quite delicious. As he opened yet another bottle I caught sight of a tattoo on Antoine’s arm.
“That is the mark of my regiment, ‘Le Premier Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine.” No wonder it dominated his bicep.
“As a marine commando I fought in the Algerian war, killed many men and lost many friends. I myself was injured. See here.” Taking off a flimsy tennis shoe and Scooby doo sock he revealed a vivid purple scar across the top of his instep.
“Shrapnel, and here also”, he added, pointing to a crease in his forehead.
“Scars fade, the madness remains”, sighed Janet, “mind you, he never was normal.” She proceeded to relate the story of their meeting. Janet had first visited Calvi as a twenty-year-old tourist and fell for Antoine’s dashing good looks and playful twinkle. They courted and, smitten, she took him home to London to meet her father. The first indication of his maverick character came when Antoine, as with most Corsicans, an avid hunter, was invited to a hunt with Frank, one of Janet’s relations who also happened to be a policemen. The two agreed to separate then rendezvous to compare their ‘kills’. Two hours later, at an agreed spot, Frank proudly displayed a rabbit, a grouse and a brace of pheasant. Antoine himself paraded some small game but beckoned excitedly for Frank to follow him. There in a nearby clearing lay two white swans, dead as dodos. The proud hunter stood over his quarry confused at his comrade’s reaction. “Frank was spitting feathers” laughed Janet “killing the Queen’s swans is worth up to six months in jail. Lucky for Antoine that Frank had a spade in his van!”
“A waste of good meat” muttered Antoine as he left the room. Janet talked affectionately about the rest of her family; Vicki the local tennis coach, Juliette who had married Jose, a Venezuelan, their son Joseph who worked as an air steward for Air France “he looks just like his father did before he became…” the door opened, she paused, glancing over my shoulder “before he became… that.” I turned around and nearly hit the deck. From boots to balaclava Antoine was dressed in full combat gear. Over his shoulder was the biggest rifle I’d ever seen. He carried in his hands a delicate tarte tatin that he proceeded to slice with no mention of his outfit.
“Crème Anglais Johneee?” inquired our deadpan host, sneaking me a wink.
“Ignore him,” growled Janet “but be warned, this is just the beginning.” It was indeed a beginning. There would be many such nights at the Albertinis’, most of them ending with Antoine and I in some form of fancy dress or dishevelment, serenading the moon, howling ‘Nostrovia’ and hurling spent shot glasses into an empty pool. Di always drove home.
All of Us
Don’t give up
Shift the twitching curtain of indifference
Keep eyeing the beckoning horizon
That promises too much
There will be a reckoning
But long after you’re gone
And what will they say?
Absence makes saints of us all
And what would you say of yourself?
Here was a common fool
Fueled by coffee and stars
Or, that was a life well ordered
Held in balance
By the weight of life
A furrowed brow
In search of release
A trained mind in constant remorse
At the loss of wonder
Then, a keening rush of regret
As the untrained eye of a child
Fixes on the delicate relief
Of a salty shell