Thursday, May 1, 2008

Marie de la Falaise

Ok. You asked for it. Here comes quite a long post, an abbreviated version of what happened three years ago when I went to a small town along the Normandy coast. They say it sometimes takes three years for an experience to sink in properly.

The hitchiker I mentioned in my previous post had gone there with their horses and home-wagon and had hoped to spend the night there. However they had been equally freaked out by the atmosphere of the place. It is funny, since I now find on internet that two months after I visited that place, the church held a religious ceremony celebrating 50 years of the statue's reinstatement and how it helps people to find their way through difficulties in life. It doesn't mention anyone intending to place fencing. Which would seem to make sense.

This is also the experience that led me to believe that it's always best to travel in good company. And also a lot more fun.

Forgive me if this is too long to read. But there you have the story.
S2

I’d bolted for the sea, taking the quickest route without looking on the map. “The grass is always greener in Normandy” my friend Pierre had written that morning. The seaside town was larger and greyer than I’d expected. As soon as I drove up to the waterfront a car drove away, leaving an ideal parking spot. All I cared about was spending some time by the sea. Even if the sky was foggy. I scrambled down the steep pebble beach, along an edge, which revealed a sheer drop, with huge concrete, cross shaped boulders, overgrown with damp, mossy seaweed. I turned away from it, and climbed down until I reached the water. I called a friend who was happy to hear the sea in a country opposite his own. It has its own cliffs, opposite the white ones of Dover. Here the cliffs are yellow, like an old Frenchman’s teeth stained from smoking too many Gauloises. I filled my pockets with stones as smooth as dinosaurs’ eggs. The wet pebbles in the sand looked like the gems in the fountain of life, in the Ghent altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Or the Virgin Mary’s crown, and her bejewelled, blue robe, which the brothers Van Eyck rendered to such perfection that it looks like they can be picked off the painting. I had taken a friend to see it once. He hadn’t been interested in the least. His pleasure had been my pleasure, a private joy confirmed by the sight later that day of some plastic gems on a lady’s jeans, as if the painting were following me. Now I picked up a red pebble, different from all the rest, and placed it in a larger, unusually shaped stone with a hollow in it that seemed made for it, it was such a perfect fit. I remembered some words in my dream: “Peaceful in thee”. The sea washed over the arrangement and the two stones stayed safely lodged together. At my feet I saw a dead white moth just like the living one that had fluttered down beside my knee a day earlier, as if to show itself to me. This one’s grey spotted markings were the same. Its wings were torn and dry. The healthy moth had fluttered away effortlessly when I had brought it to the doorway. As I ate, I saw in front of me a blue parakeet in a cage tapping its reflection in the mirror it was swinging against. Still, it seemed to be enjoying the breeze; it just kept singing. Two old men beside me were laughing at the decadence of my chocolate pancake. I asked them what that white figure was up on the cliff. I fancied an after dinner walk. There were bunkers too on that cliff, they looked like wounds in the landscape that no-one had bothered to heal. I remembered them saying: “Yes, you can go up there, that’s Mary of the Cliff, a statue of the Virgin Mary; the bunkers are from the wartime, RAF planes used to cross over here, and the bombers that raided London used to take off in a wood near here. It was an awful time. So many people were killed.” The war past seemed to be as much an open wound in their minds as it was in the landscape. “Take the path behind the church, it will take you up there, only don’t go too close to the edge, mind.” They had repeated that last bit several times. Now I found myself face to face with a big seagull standing motionlessly on a car roof. As if time had stood still. I found the way up to the church, walked under an archway, made a wish to be able to sing fearlessly, in front of the sea that lay stretched out below. It felt like a passage of sorts. The sun was a white ball in the pale blue sky, while the sea flickered below. The road went up the hill, with the edge to the left. A fat, neglected cat looked at me from a wall: when I tried to greet it, it hissed and ran away. A man was standing on a rock close to the edge, talking into a mobile phone. A woman ate her dinner on her balcony. She didn’t look up so I couldn’t wish her “bon app├ętit”. At the road’s end I saw a convent or a school building. There were children seated inside, visible behind huge windows. They couldn’t be heard, as if they were in a sealed chamber. The road became a steep path. A sign prohibiting vehicles marked the start to the ascent to the cliff. From a distance it looked like a “Do Not Enter” sign. I wondered what the white statue would have to say, and went on. Passing the bunkers I thought: “this is the sort of place where people get raped”. It looked sordid, uninviting. But I wanted to see the white statue, it was drawing me to it, so I ignored my intuition. Climbing up the path with the sun and the sea and a small stretch of grass to the left, before a great drop, I reached the top of the cliff. The statue was much bigger than it had seemed from below. It wasn’t really beautiful or serene, it was just big. Oversized in a pompous 19th century kind of way, but it possessed a kind of beauty. It had been taken down by the occupation in 1942, and the inscription said the population of the town had followed its descent in an act of quiet resistance. Thirteen years later it had been reinstated. I walked around the statue. A road at its back beckoned me to go down it but still I stayed. I wanted to know what the statue had to say. From the back the statue was ghostly. Her cloak formed a funny shape, not natural at all. Walking round to the front again, I stood with my back to the Madonna: now I had the same view as the statue would, if its metal, white painted eyes could see and if it had the mind to know it. The view, straight ahead, over the grass, reached past the sign which read “beyond this point your life is in your own hands” and over the rising grassy edge beyond which, a sheer drop down, was the sea. I found a spot some metres away from the statue’s base and sat in the grass. I didn’t have a nice feeling. I tried to relax. After a while I still didn’t feel better. So I called my friend, told him “I am so happy to be alive”. The pockets of my jacket were filled with stones I had collected, in my bag a letter to a friend with the attempted description of the resplendence of the sea and thanking him for everything. Had I tripped and fallen over the edge it could have been construed as intentional. I looked up at the statue. I was sitting, I noticed, under its outstretched hand. Its left arm held the baby Jesus. From below the hand it looked as if it were saying: “Get down. Stay down.” We spoke for a good while. When I hung up I became aware of a strange crackling noise I hadn’t noticed before; like an electronic interference, or an inconsistent radio signal. I couldn’t make out where it was coming from. It felt like a Hitchcock movie. I went over to the horse grazing on the grass behind the barbed wire a short distance away. It ignored my grass offering blankly. I became aware that I wasn’t alone, and turned to see a police car coming towards me. I lifted my thick black sunglasses, smiled, walked towards the police car and said: Is there something wrong? Are you here for me? They said “Yes. We were wondering how you got up here, without a car. How did you get up here?” “I took the path” and I pointed towards the edge. They said: “a lot of people throw themselves off the cliff here. But we can see you are smiling so we know you are okay” I thanked them for their concern. “I was just about to leave. Thanks, good evening.” Looking down, the path seemed different; my mind was hazy, it looked narrower than on the way up and the edge seemed a lot closer. I turned to ask them if it was the right way down, and saw one of the policemen had already gotten out of the car and was on his way to stop me as if I needed protecting from myself. I asked: “is this the way?” They said “yes, be careful!” I walked down the hill close to the inner side of the path. I passed the bunkers. In the white building the children were wearing odd white paper hats and were moving in a silent choreography, playing a game I couldn’t know or understand, their top halves showing above the window sill. I still heard the crackling sound. As soon as my feet touched the ground on the road every inch of my being heaved a sigh of relief. I looked at my watch: it was 10 pm. I walked back onto the street where the seagull was still standing on a car rooftop staring out in front of itself. Only it had moved up a car roof or two. Up by the statue the unusual words “I am so happy to be alive” resonated a while. I didn’t sleep that night, and the experience haunted me for weeks. A month later in a singing lesson I learned to sing as if I were flying off the cliff, in full safety, to new heights that I had never reached.

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