There and Back
I haven’t seen you for several months and now we are driving to the cross-channel ferry, on our way to a family wedding in Brittany. We share a rare feeling of being on holiday, together, neither of us knowing what lies ahead.
We board the Condor—a very fast and comfortable hydra-foil—to St Malo.
crossing the water
our double wakes
tip over the edge
We drive on into the night, carrying a can of diesel because there is a tanker drivers’ strike in France. I am hungry and want to stop in a pretty medieval town where late diners are sitting under umbrellas beside a river. You decide that waiting half an hour for a table would make us too late. We find another restaurant but they serve the meal so slowly we begin to think we may have to sleep in the car. We will blame each other for this. When we find somewhere still open the relief is enormous, more so because this journey seems to be a kind of experiment. Can we enjoy it together? After fifty years of marriage we are not sure. Finding somewhere to stay at such a late hour seems to be a good omen. I relax and begin to count every moment as a blessing. We can laugh again.
shutting down the garages
opening up the roads
The next day is as hot as a mediterranean summer. After the marriage in the village church a traditional Breton feast is held in a monastery garden. It is the night of the harvest moon. Trestle tables are laden with fresh sea food and champagne in buckets of ice.
white cotton dress hand-printed
with a blue moon
A suckling pig is barbecued in a stone barn and served by two white-haired women. Their sons, who cooked it, carry it in on their shoulders, accompanied by bagpipes and bombards—an ancient triplet shrill enough to split the scull. We are an international company. The French talk, the Spanish sing and dance, the English eat and drink and the Norwegians watch us sticking together.
when the dancing starts
old legs no longer can obey
the heart beat
This is my second Celtic journey this year, my second visit to a painters’ town. In June I travelled from Wales to St. Ives and now we are in Port Aven, where Gauguin settled with his friends and fell in love with Bretan fishing boats and bonnets. The Celtic saints crossed the water in small
boats from Ireland, Wales and Cornwall to this rocky French coast as pilgrims. My painting pilgrimage included the religious paintings by my Cornish aunt in the little church of St Hilary. Here, in Port Aven, Gauguin had made the famous yellow Christ for the chapel of Tremalo in 1880, the year my aunt was born. Now I see how her work was influenced by his.
painted saints, barefoot
in the daisied grass, hands spread
to hold the birds
I swim in the blue Atlantic, in my clothes, which dry in half an hour. We sit in cafes with friends and relatives, enjoying food and wine and an unexpected late summer. Then we set off again on small roads in a direct line across the country, from Tremalo to San Malo, following limestone ridges for most of the journey, coast to coast. There are Celtic crosses at intersections, Roman and pre-historic remains, and distant horizons on either side. This must have been a pilgrims’ way too.
we come together on the high road, with a clear view both ways My old track-finding excitement returns, but I am no longer sniffing out ancient routes alone, on foot with a rucksack on my back. Now I sit in the car and map read while the driver seems unexpectedly happy to follow directions. We avoid motorways and towns, passing through old villages on empty roads. We stop for pastis and crèpes beside a 15th century covered market.
plane trees at midday
patterning the pavement
our two faces
We find a lake, hidden by rocky hills and forests, deserted and strangely silent. On the shore small stones and tree roots are coated with bright green slime.
we do not linger
by the green polluted lake
where no birds sing
Searching for somewhere to sleep that night, Abbey de Mon Repos sounds more hopeful. At the confluence of two rivers there is a green meadow and a scatter of ruined stone arches. It looks like a dream.
Son et Lumiere
the past shut for the season
rows of up-turned chairs
Madam is taken aback by our arrival; Monsieur, in fringed jeans and stetson hat, is playing old songs on an electric keyboard. Bare bulbs flash on and off—pink and purple—the sky grows dark.
We order beer and sit to drink it under a big umbrella. Lightening is flickering behind the ruined arches, as big drops of water begin to fall from the sky. Thunder rolls over the old stone walls. Tall trees sway and sigh.
Beside us a young girl is playing with leaves and pebbles under an archway, decorating the steps with damp confetti collected from the gravel—another wedding. Her absorbtion is not quite real—she is listening, as we are, to the clashing of saucepans and her parents’ voices raised in anger coming from the kitchen.
Abbey mon Repos
lightning flashes, thunder rolls
disco—“Do it My Way”
The meal, when it arrives eventually, exceeds all expectations.
creations of a stormy cowboy
petals on a plate
In the bedroom under the old clock tower Pierrots cavort across the ceiling and doves coo from their nests in the eaves. I think we are happy. We complete the journey of St. Malo together, over land and water, both ways, there and back. But, the next day, in old, familiar surroundings, what happens? Too much pain remains here. An overheard telephone call—then it is time to catch my train.
holding hands tight
at the edge of the gap
opening between us