Sunday, 3 November 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica) 14: In the Village

14: In the Village

We waited for the villagers to reveal themselves and gradually they emerged. I would be lying if I waxed lyrical about open arms and embraces; there was a reticence that was initially unsettling, but we came to sense a proud and private nature, which made the eventual connections more profound. We mirrored their discretion, stepping lightly but hoping to be liked. Titin and Lucie, our elderly neighbours, were ever present and friendly, but their Corsican brogue and hearing difficulties made chitchat difficult, so we gestured and smiled. Robert and Marie Lucie became our touchstones in the village, introducing us to the now familiar faces whenever our paths crossed. There were only two public places in the village, a mill where the locals brought their olives to be pressed and converted to oil and a small bar. Francois owned the bar and we made it our habit to nip in for a drink with him whenever we returned from our daily trips. Each visit would inevitably produce a new introduction; this seemed an exclusively male environment; the women would poke their noses around Francois’ door but seldom enter. Di was always politely offered a chair in the corner but insisted on sitting at the bar. I think that they liked her for that. We met many of the villagers there, characters whose proud and private nature prevent me from detailing too much of that character. The first evening spent Chez Franciose ended with a tasting session of the local eau de vie, firewater flavoured with local berries and herbs. We set Di’s camera on ‘auto’ and took a photo of us all with seaside smiles, leaning heavily on the bar like a bunch of old friends. We still have that picture stuck to our Corsican fridge. Also on that fridge is a picture of Victor Savelli who ran the village mill. We had met him by chance in his wife’s charcuterie shop in nearby Lumio. A local producer (two trees) had made an appointment for the next day and Victor invited us to witness the pressing process. There was nothing modern about the Moulin; an ancient pile, its grand design was a combination of ingenuity and necessity blended with the benefits of the application of gravity and brute strength. Olives were placed between large granite presses that were threaded in turn on a thick metal corkscrew. A bewildering series of cogs, wheels and gears were ultimately connected to a donkey that, upon encouragement, plodded in circles, turning the screw until the presses had squeezed every drop from the fruit. The oil ran luxuriantly into a collecting stone basin where it was filtered and decanted into emerald green bottles. Two small trees had produced a dozen liters of lemony liquid gold. The happy owner of the fresh oil proudly gifted us a tiny bottle ‘not for the pot’. It should be reserved, he said, exclusively for salads and cold preparations. The raw peppery flavour was an initial shock but we learned to love it.


Next to the church was a big pale blue house in glorious disrepair. It always intrigued us and I asked
Robert about the owners.
“This is the house of the family Reese. David and Jan have lived in the village for over 30 years. Their children went to our school and were brought up as Corsican.” He went on to explain that David was Australian and had helped develop tourism in Corsica. He had started out as a simple rep and after much travel had turned his hand to travel writing. He and his English wife Jan (another Janet) now shared their life between winters in Paris and long idyllic summers in the house.
Late one afternoon we received a phone call from Janet Reese to invite us to their home for an aperitif.
“6.30 would be fine. Just knock and come up.”

I knocked and Di sang out ‘cuckoo’.
No answer, I leant on the half open door. A huge stone staircase formed the backbone of the house. As we ascended we peeked into the shadowy rooms; there were no doors, every irregular space lay open, crooked, lopsided interiors beckoned. Furnishings were a sparse clutter of antiques; the peeling walls were covered in gaudy prints and a few vivid oil paintings. The dusty light that crept in through the shutters cast everything in a verdant hue. It felt as if we had been spirited into some secret silent world. This was a house for exploring. I wanted to be six again. Spellbound we whispered and crept higher.
“Cuckoo” tweeted Di again. The door at the top of the stairs flew open bathing everything in impossible sunlight. A man beamed down at us.
“Ah, welcome, welcome, yes, yes, come on in, please, yes.”
He beckoned us into the light with wide-open arms and we entered a large drawing room. This seemed to be the final resting place for the world’s most comfortable chairs. Mismatched sofas and split armchairs all faced inwards towards an unlit fire and begged for our attention. Terra cotta tiles added to an ambience of cool calm, doorways led off in acute angels upwards and downwards into intriguing shadows. There were books everywhere.
“You must be, ah, Kevin and Debby, yes, yes. David. David Reese.
That’s me of course. Yes. Lovely to meet you.”
Shrugging his shoulders he giggled, squeezed our hands and gestured towards the comfy chairs.
“It’s ‘Trevor and Di’, darling, Trevor and Di” sang a warm voice from an adjacent room, the welcoming clink of glass on ice suggested it must be the kitchen. Janet entered with a beatific beam and a tray of cold drinks that she handed to David. He placed the tray on a small camphorwood chest before reaching for his wife and there they stood arm in arm, leaning towards us, smiling. Janet, a slender woman in her early sixties was elegantly swathed in beige linen; a turquoise head scarf accentuated blue eyes that twinkled playfully. David wore a tatty red ‘V’ necked jumper tucked into crumpled khakis that rested a good six inches above his bare boney ankles. He was short and stout, not a hair on his head but a luxuriant bushy white beard split into the sweetest smile. They seemed happiness personified, a perfect ‘odd couple’. As they disappeared into the kitchen Di and I sank further into our enveloping chairs and simultaneously mouthed ‘Father Christmas’.
Reemerging with bowls full of olives and crisps our hosts beckoned us to follow them out onto a balcony that overlooked the church. Looking down onto the village square Jan talked us through the comings and goings of nightfall in La Place, relating the stories of the passing villagers who would occasionally look up and wave, always smiling. David kept our wine glasses full and grimaced as he sipped on a pallid cordial.
“I used to love my wine. Sorry to say that I have recently been forced to banish Bacchus from my life.” he drew a hand across his mouth and eyed my glass nervously.
“I must confess to missing the scoundrel’s company. Good health is such a precious gift”, he added wistfully. He caught Jan’s eye and chuckled. “Now, would you like a slice of Janet’s excellent potato pie?”
The evening was full of easy laughter and stories of travel.
Jan and David had met in Italy as travelers and left as lovers, eventually finding and falling for Corsica in the early seventies. After living their initial years of marriage within Calvi’s Citadel they had thrown all of their savings at this wonderfully decadent pile in Montemaggiore with plans of renovation, before recognizing the peculiar rustic charms of the house and resigning themselves to its dusty magic. Here they had started a family, two boys and two girls.
“The children all grew up in the village.” Jan went into the house and came back with a photo album.
“Here’s Katja, our first born, then Nicholas, Sebastian and our baby, Natasha. Nicco, Seb and Tasha all now live and work in Paris.”
“And Katja, is she still on the island?” asked Di.
“Yes, I suppose she is” Jan looked across at David “We lost her, here in the house. She was fifteen. An accident. She is buried above in the village cemetery.”
“More wine I think”, whispered David.


We came to love David and Janet’s company; their every gesture seemed an invitation toward betterment and that generosity was infectious; we missed them when they were in Paris. In the summer months they now became the centre of the village for us, they discreetly drip-fed stories about the people of Montemaggiore helping us better understand them. Over the course of the ensuing years as we got to know these folk and their ways, we came to think of them as extended family. They rarely reciprocated with any great show of affection; but they did seem to like us, and that was enough. Our visits became regular and eagerly anticipated: early summer, late summer, Christmas and Easter. Family and friends from England visited and we took great pleasure in introducing them to the joys of the Balagne. We often encouraged a houseful, deliberately forcing ourselves out of Chez Diane and onto the road to explore other parts of the island and we learned to love it more; each day always offered up a gift, but wherever we ventured we always looked forward to our return to the house.

And so the years passed. Our plans for developing the two caves of Chez Diane into living spaces were put on the backburner as we came to love the house for what it was. We put in a new bathroom and spruced things up with the occasional lick of paint, but besides a few sticks of furniture and a dishwasher no drastic changes were made. The very thought of radio and television was vetoed by Di, when in Corsica we lived in glorious isolation and came to cherish the detachment, scowling at the phone when it rang. 
The natural rhythm of life ensured the inevitable losses; Marie Lucie’s black Labrador Diane went missing, much to everyone’s distress. She was always a welcoming presence A Cima. Then Lucie died; Titin was heartbroken, weeping openly and often, blowing his big red nose into one of her delicate lace hankies. Retreating into his house he was solemnly tended to by his family and the villagers. For weeks we saw no sign of him until early one morning we were awoken by the tap tap tapping of the artist at work; he had started on a sculpture that we now like to think of as Lucie. He still refuses to acknowledge this but his last and latest work sits sternly on the rock that overlooks Titin’s front door and bears a striking resemblance.
When Victor Savelli passed away the olive mill shut down and sat sadly vacant for a year or two before his son eventually reopened it.
David Reese’s long-term illness finally overcame him, at which point Jan revealed that she too had cancer.
She followed David within months.


A Truth Revealed

She sits grey and golden
Wearing nothing but a smile
Which promises too much

That holy half-light
Softens the facts
Hard and unwholesome

Her face sets like a broken spell
A truth revealed
Milky blue eyes fix me with a question

No one asked me to do this
I chose to

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