The next day we stepped out of the mid morning heat into the icy interior of the property bureau. A shapely blond had her back to us, head shrouded in cigarette smoke.
‘Madame Souris?” I offered. She turned to reveal a magnificent chest that was responding spectacularly to the air conditioning. The air around her cleared like theatrical dry ice to reveal a withered face. Could this be the Marlborough Man’s mother? It was hard not to stare. She looked like she’d invested heavily in cosmetic surgery from the ground up and had run out of funding after pumping everything into those amazing breasts. From the neck upward, all was not well. Blazing defiantly, stage centre in this aridity, were a pair of beautiful emerald green eyes that squinted at us inquisitively.
“We’d like to see some properties. Do you have properties? Of course you have properties. You do have some properties, don’t you? Perhaps?” Di was nervously caught in the steely stare.
“What is it that you desire?” The squint became a glare and the emeralds blinked; here was the face of excess. Was she sun tanned or nicotine stained?
“We have new developments in Calvi, Lumio, Isle Rouse or you might like a villa in or around one of the nearby villages. You will of course want to be near the sea and have a pool.”
Our hopes were high but our budget rock bottom, a fact revealed as we pointed apologetically to a browning crumpled ad positioned lowly in the window display, just above the dead flies. “Ah, no pool then?” The smell of ash and disappointment was intoxicating. She lit up again as we crammed ourselves into the back of her agency’s tiny Citroen and she proceeded to introduce us to the ‘bargains’ of Calvi. Dump after derelict dump were paraded with indifference, eventually forcing Di and I to doubly exaggerate our budget. Things looked up; we visited the Citadel, wandering the narrow streets until an ancient red wooden door was opened to reveal an opulent hallway leading on to a stone staircase that guided us into the cold, dank grandeur of a lavish living room.
“The walls must be a meter thick. It would be like living in a castle,” muttered Di as Madame Souris eyed her watch.
“It is a castle” I replied, “The whole Citadel is a labyrinth, connected, if not physically, then by its history. There’s been no new development here for centuries. This is as authentic as it gets and Di, and look at the view” I added peering through a slit that was obviously designed for firing arrows out of. I was picturing myself in Noel Coward’s dressing gown, drinking Almanac from a frosted goblet whilst a suckling pig roasted on the open fire. “Four million francs” barked Madame Souris. We left shortly afterwards.
Our next port of call was a pristine, two bedroomed apartment built high above Calvi, a new development with views over the bay. Madame Souris pulled up white plastic shutters and slid back the patio windows.
“Bloodless” whispered Di and asked weakly “Do you have anything with character?”
Lighting another cigarette I could swear I heard the insides of Madame S’s cheeks smacking together as she drew on her latest coffin nail.
“I think with your budget that maybe you should look to the mountains,” she gestured beyond the bay towards white smudges that nestled in the pulsing purple backdrop.
“Good news. I have one last small proposition for you, a charming property has just met the market” she brightened and led us upwards into Calvi’s environs, finally pulling into a communal car park overshadowed by what looked like budget skiing chalets. We were led up a small flight of stairs to meet the owner who waited for us by his front door. It was Smelly Man. Di squeezed my hand, fish cold and clammy. Our buttocks clenched, our hearts sank.
“Ah my friend Tresure” he wheezed, as surprised as us. “Come see my home, entrez vous.”
They say that on its return from that first moon landing, the Apollo 11 was effectively a lunar latrine due to Neil and Buzz’s dubious diet and also as a result, I’m sure, of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere at 24,000 miles an hour with nothing but a ten ton toilet strapped to their arses; the smell of fear indeed. The frogman who opened the hatch was met by a stench so overwhelming, that he apparently threw up in his mask. As Smelly Man threw back his door I was that frogman. Entering the dark dank ripe interior our weeping eyes gradually became accustomed to the creeping light and we took in the view. Cats. Everywhere, cats. Maybe this was where the scent of the maquis originated. Old furniture, heavy velvet curtains and the whiff of decay was everywhere. The cats crouched territorially over plastic bowls containing their morsels. In one corner a kitchenette added the odour of thrice burnt oil to the heady mixture. Next to a tiny fridge was an occupied, heaving litter tray. Di started to convulse. There was a solitary bed in the corner of what was basically a bedsit. From the foot of the bed Tresoire grinned grimly at us, whilst tucked up in the bed was a sleeping woman.
“My Mama” explained Smelly Man. “Don’t worry, she is dead,” he added nonchalantly.
“He means ‘deaf’” interrupted Madame Souris tersely. We weren’t so sure. Breathing through tight lips we asked to see the garden. Stepping down at a pace from the concrete terrace onto a patchy lawn we realized, too late, that we were in a minefield of Tresoire’s turds. Our momentum kept us moving forwards in a blind panic but, where to? The only escape would be back into that house. We proceeded to strut around the walled garden, a couple of horny roosters at a dance off in a chicken farm, until inevitably my foot came down squarely on a sun dried crispy log that readily revealed it’s liquid interior. Di’s shoulders shuddered, her cheeks filled and I started giggling uncontrollably like a nervous nephew at a funeral. With dog do on my shoe, my ‘Randy Rooster’ became that wedding dance done exclusively by middle-aged men; the one that involves pointing your pointy fingers to the sky whilst imagining that you’ve got chewing gum stuck to the bottom of one foot. In a combination of revulsion, hysteria and terror, Di blew a fountain of snot from her nose while Madame Souris, Smelly Man and Tresoir looked down at us from the terrace in bemusement.
“We’d like time to consider” I lied.
Later, back at the hotel we both took long hot showers.
We returned in early September and resumed our search, but there was so little on the market that suited us; it was an expensive little island. Early one gleaming evening, after another fruitless day spent admiring other people’s peeling wallpaper, we fell into Bar de Golfe with knitted brows and heavy hearts. Maurice lightened our load. The sequined pineapple on his purple shirt shimmered in the half-light as he introduced us to a group gathered around the bar’s pool table.
“This is ‘Killer’ night.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder “Do you want to play’?
Holding court was Ben, a handsome dreadlocked midget who explained the rules:
‘Fifty francs to play. After the break we play in order. One shot at a time. If you miss, you are out. Dead! Last man alive wins everything.’
Di was chosen to break and one by one the players fell by the wayside until eventually Ben and I battled it out for the sizeable pot. We were down to the last ball, the black, and it was agreed that whoever potted it would win. I crouched over my shot and caught Ben’s eye just visible over the other end of the table. What’s the difference was between a midget and a dwarf, I wondered. Ben’s eyes narrowed. Had I spoken out loud? Flustered, I pulled my shot. Ben guffawed and stood on tippy toe to attempt an extravagant triple, an impossible shot that he nearly made, the black rattling the jaws of the pocket. We were so amazed by his ambition that we failed to notice that the white roll gently into a corner pocket.
“Yeeees!” bellowed Di “Foul on the black, Yorkshire rules. You win Trev!”
“Yorkshire rules?” said Ben.
“Ah oui, workshy rules” echoed Maurice.
I counted my winnings. 650 francs.
“That’s seventy quid ” crowed Di.
As I stuffed the notes and coins into my pockets I caught Ben’s eye again and he pulled himself up onto a bar stool next to me.
‘Ah, the pool room hustler is now a puppy dog” I laughed “Ok Ben, drinks are on me. A beer or would you prefer a short?”
More narrowing of eyes. Forty minutes later I was penniless.
As Maurice lined up one last drink ‘with the house’ Di’s mobile rang. It was Pat from ‘Cuccarella’.
“There’s an English couple who own a house in one of the nearby villages. Had it years. Seems they want to sell. Interested?’
Having lost enthusiasm for Calvi we were open to suggestion.
“Where are you?” asked Pat.
“Calvi, in Bar de Golfe” Di answered.
“Traitors!’ she barked. ‘OK, go outside and point towards Lumio.”
We both followed her instruction, “Now move your finger a foot and a half to the right.”
We both now pointed at a group of twinkling lights just below the horizon that formed the shape of a ladies necklace.
‘That’ said Pat, ‘is Montemaggiore’.