How Salad should Taste when You are Searching for a Woman

How Salad should Taste when You are Searching for a Woman

Thu 29 Nov

Console toi. Tu ne me chercheraissitu ne m'avaistrouve.

Take comfort. You would not seek me if you had not already found me.

Pascal 

May 1985.

La Mer.

I arrived in Cannes on the Blue Train. This relic from a more gracious age still runs from Paris to the Côte D’Azur, although they don’t bring you dinner in your cabin anymore.

If you time it right, you can leave Victoria station in London after lunch, be in Paris in time for dinner at the restaurant opposite the Gare de Lyon, board the train at ten in the evening, and be in Marseilles by six the next morning. From there the train swerves East along the coast, stopping at each major resort along the way. It goes as far as Ventimiglia on the Italian border, and maybe even further for all I know, but Cannes was the destination I wanted and I got out there at eight in the morning.

I travel by train whenever I can these days, because of an aversion to flying, and because of what happened when I was last on a flight to Japan. The plane fell out of the sky, and while it didn’t hit the ground, I still had night sweats at the memory of floating up until I hit my head on the cabin ceiling. Coming back down was no picnic either. True, this doesn’t happen on every flight. On every flight, the airlines treat you like children, and the food is filthy. 

My fellow passengers on the platform at Cannes were stretching their limbs and rubbing their eyes. My left leg was a rubbery, disjointed mess of loose tendons, and I felt like I was wading through sump oil. This is a normal day for me. I don’t sleep much. And my leg wounds from the last job were still playing up. 

I walked the length of the platform, swinging my old parachute bag, and wondered which way my hotel was. Across from the tracks, there was a row of cafés, all of which looked alike. I went into one, sat down at an aluminium table on the pavement outside, and ordered what I always order for the first meal when I am in the South of France. An omelette, which, when it arrives, tastes like something that recently left a chicken. They still do eggs here that won’t give you a disease.

The coffee was good. The coffee was very good. The coffee was so damn good that it made me feel like Hemingway when he rose early to shoot the geese that he liked to shoot at dawn, when the coffee was good and hot and the eggs were the best that eggs could be.   

It was early May, the sun was up and already warm, and there was a light golden mist above everything. The sky was a porcelain blue, and the air was still. I was on the closest thing I ever took to a holiday. In the normal run of events, I hate holidays. There is never anything to do on them. 

If I am abroad I need to be busy or else I start thinking, and thinking never did me any good at all. Thinking is very bad for me indeed, and if I am not working I tend to sit at a café table all day thinking, and need to be sectioned and put into care by nine in the evening. Thinking is one of the things that leaves me needing a full six months of treatment. Thinking is bad for my mental health. 

I had been in Japan the previous year on a job and had come across a woman called Megumi Shimizu who ran a small bar for film people in Tokyo. I only realised how attracted I was to her when it was time for me to leave. Every year she closed the bar for a fortnight, took some of her profits and spent them on a trip to the Cannes Film Festival. I had promised to meet her here this year, although on the last occasion I had spoken to her she still didn’t know where she was staying. It was all right, I had said, I will find you. It’s what I am good at, I had said. In fact, it is one of the various things I do for a living.

In Japan I had been hired to find the kidnapped grandson of a French movie producer and thanks to Japanese culture, and my inability to fathom it, it had taken me longer than expected. Still the boy had come back in one piece and the producer had been happy. He would certainly be here in Cannes, promoting his film. It would be good to run into him again. I had liked him, and he seemed fond of me.

I paid for the omelette and coffee at the zinc and asked the man behind the bar if he knew where my hotel was. There was a large white cat sleeping with one eye open by the till. I tickled it under one ear, and it fixed me with its open eye, like a pirate. It had a metal disc on its collar, which said “Tonto”. The man behind the counter looked at me, brushed the stubble on his chin with his hand, then wiped his hand on his white apron, and pointed in the direction away from the train station.

“Why are you here, Monsieur? You don’t look like a film person.”

Good to know, I thought. “I am looking for a woman,” I said. And he lifted his chin, and lowered his eyelids in that familiar look between two men, which meant in France, perhaps everywhere, “Well, the best of luck with that, my friend.”

Thanking him, I shouldered my blue canvas bag and walked out and around the café into a network of narrow streets. In the distance I could glimpse the blue of the Mediterranean. I could also see a flagpole with a flag snapping proudly in the sea breeze. I would guess that it would be standing on the main promenade, and beyond that would be the sea.

I crossed several more streets, threading my way between the cars which were parked all over the pavement and the cars which were standing stationary in the jammed traffic. Most of the drivers were reconciled to not moving. They hung their elbows out the window, and chatted to their neighbours, or were reading a paper propped against the steering wheel. Occasionally, with much hooting, a light would change and the cars would inch forward.

I crossed another street which had a central island planted with flowers. They lay in banks of red and yellow, and shone in the morning sun. I could smell the sea by now, and also the aroma of some plant or herb. I could now see the main promenade just one block ahead of me now. There were palm trees waving in the breeze. This last side street had changed now from small shops to the backs of large hotels, with delivery bays and laundry trucks parked outside them.

I walked on and finally hit the main promenade. I looked left and right and wondered which way to take. To my left were a couple of miles of straight road with a narrow grass reservation down its centre, hotels all lining the land-ward side, and a low concrete wall, which shielded the beach from the road. The beaches were invisible, although there were stone stairways cut through the wall at intervals, so the beaches must be lower than the road. And to my right, at the far end of the promenade, I could see a large bunker-like building in vivid red brick, and beyond that a mass of yacht masts swaying in the breeze. There must be some kind of harbour there. I looked around to get my bearings. The nearest road sign said “Croisette”, and the nearest hotel sign said “Hotel de la Gonnet et Reine”.

This was the hotel I had booked from London. It had been the cheapest on the sea front and the pictures that the travel agent had shown me were of a pleasant, down-at-heel Belle Epoque establishment. On either side were modern buildings, with atriums and chrome fittings. My place looked like a poor relation at the wedding, and the right dwelling place on earth for tired private eyes. I shook the bag off my shoulder, and walked across the grassed area with its row of palms, then across a small forecourt with a semi-circular drive for cars, and up the short flight of marble steps into the foyer.

The ancient woman behind the desk took my passport, and made me sign the book.

“Why are you here?” she said, “you don't look like someone in the film world.” Good to know, again. Clearly Clint Eastwood will not be playing me when they make a biopic of my exploits.

“I am searching for a woman,” I said.

“That's easy,” she said. “We have lots of women here.”

“Not like this one,” I said.

She pointed at the ancient caged lift with a brass Otis plaque on it. I said the five flights of stairs would be good for my heart. She went “Boof” and shrugged, and I climbed up to my room, which was on the top floor, looked at the narrow bed, the basin, the bidet, the flowered wall paper from the 1930s, dumped my bag on the bed and went out again in search of la vie en rose.

I crossed through the honking traffic to the pavement next to the sea. The beaches were much lower than the road, and were reached by a steep stairway. Each beach was divided from its neighbour and belonged to a hotel over the road. They were all kitted out with a small restaurant next to the wall, and beyond that with plastic mattresses and parasols for hire. Already, women were getting a tan in the noonday sun. Most were clad only in the bottom half of their bikinis, a sight which tends to make me avert my gaze. It is not that I don’t like looking at naked women, the problem is that I like it too much. And naked flesh at midday is four hours too early for me. I carried on strolling along the pavement, taking in the crowds, who were all talking loudly in English. It was clear that English was the lingua franca of the film world. Which was a relief, given my French.

“Strawn,” said a voice behind me, “the fuck are you doing here?”

I turned around. It was a middle-aged man, clad in a bright Hawaiian shirt, his grey-streaked hair tied back in a ponytail. His acne had not improved since I had last seen him in Soho.

“Jack,” I said, “Might have guessed I’d see you here. Still making dirty pictures?”

“Nah, gone straight now. I’m in the Competition.”

I had first met Jack Cotton a few years previous when I had been doing some work as a bagman for a merchant banker who laundered money. Jack had a company in Soho called Cotton Reel pictures which made short movies of a pornographic nature. I had walked into his studio one night when collecting his money for the week, and had seen a stripper that I knew from a club around the corner engaged in the act of darkness with three men dressed as sailors. It was the first time I had seen such a thing and it was one of the earliest blue movies which had taken advantage of the recent invention of the video machine and its potential for home entertainment.

“Gone straight?” I said.

Debbie Does the Deep Blue Sea made me a pile. I didn’t know what to do with it all. So I had to make a proper film. It’s the quickest way known to man to use up a lot of money. I’ve done three more since then and one of them is here in the competition this year. I am trying to buy the Palme D’Or.”

“What’s that?”

“The main prize in the Competition. Best Picture.”

“What’s the going rate for winning?”

“I’m not sure yet. I have a man on the inside asking around. What are you doing here anyway?”

“I came on holiday.”

“Holiday? You never take holidays, Strawn. You don’t know what a holiday is. Holidays are for other people. You come out at night and carry money around.”

“I am in a different line now.”

“What's that?”

“Finding people.”

“Strawn, you are the only man I know who has killed people. What do you want to find them for?”

“Not now, Jack,” I said, “I am on holiday.”

“OK,” he said and his eyes went beady, “Is there a woman behind this?”

“Yes, I am looking for her.”

“That’s easily fixed. Just come and see me this evening and I’ll…”

“No, a specific one. She’s Japanese, called Megumi Shimizu.”

“I’ve heard of her.”

“She runs a bar in Tokyo.”

“She sometimes turns up at the party thrown by the Japanese Film people. Doesn’t happen till later in the festival but its always one of the best parties.”

“So you don’t know where she is?”

“Not right now, mate, but I’ll keep an eye open.”

He turned to look out to sea again, and took off his dark glasses to get a better look at the topless women. He put them back again before turning back to me.

“I might have some work for you,” he said

“I’m on holiday.”

“Yeah, yeah, it wouldn’t be hard and I can pay well.”

“No, I want a little romance.”

“With a Jap? Forget it. Much too strait-laced. They never do it before marriage.”

“I liked her.”

“OK. As I said, maybe I can help.”

“No, not if it means doing you a favour in return.”

“Such a cynic, Strawn.”

“Still in the dirty picture racket Jack?”

And I left him, his hands in the pockets of his baggy linen trousers looking out to sea, and whistling between his teeth. I didn’t dislike him as much as he thought I did, but then again I wouldn’t go camping with him.

And if I had known the first thing about the movie trade in Cannes, and what it had in store for me, I would have gone back to the hotel, picked up my bag and taken the first train home.

I chose one of the beaches at random and went down the wooden steps from the Croisette and sat at a table on duck-boards next to the sand. The restaurant was behind me, buried under the Croisette, its plate glass frontage cut into the wall which dropped about twelve feet from the promenade. A man on a mattress was rubbing oil into the back of a half-naked woman. I studied the menu with the air of a man with important things to do, and when the waitress came over, ordered a salade niçoise.

“And to drink?” she said. Normally I drink scotch. I looked around. Everyone had a bottle of rosé wine in a bucket on the table. The first time I had tried rosé wine was when I was 16 and that had been the last.

“A bottle of rosé, please” I said.

Un demi,” she said without making it a question.

“A bottle,” I said, and she looked up from under her eyebrows to get a good look at the alcoholic who had turned up in her restaurant. “To start with,” I said.

She turned, went back to the kitchen under the promenade, and started talking to another waitress, while jerking her head in my direction. I wondered when the gendarmes would turn out and drag me off to the drying-out clinic.

I saw the second waitress put the phone down on the table behind the plate glass window, and step out through the double doors, looking straight at me, as if she had a message. Except that she couldn’t do, because no one knew I was here in town. She walked straight over, smiling.

“Are you Monsieur Strawn?” she said.

I looked at her for a second. What now?

“How did you know?”

“Someone just rang, asking if a big man was here. He said to ask you to wait here, and he would be arriving shortly.”

“Who was it?”

“He said it would be a surprise.”

So it was a friend, I thought. If it was someone of evil intent, they would not announce the fact with a phone call.

The salade niçoise arrived, and so did the wine in an ice bucket. The salade nicoise tasted nothing like a niçoise you ever got in London. Maybe the tuna was better hereabouts, maybe the anchovies, or maybe it was the lettuce. The wine went well with it too. Perhaps it was the sun, perhaps it was the sea, perhaps it was because I was on holiday. A half hour passed before I ate the last olive and washed it down with the third glass of rose.

She bought me an espresso. I lit a Dunhill, from the red packet with gold edging. As the sun reached its highest point in the sky, I looked out to sea, inhaled the first fragrant lung-full of the day, and sipped at the sugar-encrusted rim of the Lavazza cup. Of all life’s pleasures, an espresso and a cigarette never failed me. An espresso and a cigarette are as unfailing as the love of Jesus. I turned my white plastic chair towards the sea, and settled down.

The pain in my knee had eased a little, thanks to the rosé. And I was beginning to relax, something which I hadn’t done for two years now. I should have known it couldn’t last, because that was when the bomb went off.

Christopher Peachment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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