In Petrarch’s Time

In the mid-1960s Alonzo Martin and his brother Victor inherited a stony farm in the Luberon from a bachelor uncle, a house and barns in various stages of decay, the miniscule arable surface consisting of a few scraggly apricot trees. Most of the property was a steep incline choked with thorny brush, the perfect grazing ground for goats, but otherwise quite worthless, except for the view, which was breathtaking. Victor settled in Cavillon, where he married, prospered and dropped dead at sixty, leaving three daughters to inherit his share. Alonzo had no wife, no children, no reason to die young. In old age he was land-rich and friendless.

As he made his way along a deserted country road on a brisk November night, he was thinking of a woman who’d knocked on his door that morning. She claimed she was from the government, come to clean his floors. He’d seen right through that ploy, as he’d seen through all the others. Three greedy nieces bent on proving him insane — what more did an old man need to keep him on his toes? Luckily, he had a spare set of keys for his dilapidated 2CV, otherwise they’d have taken that too. Those girls had a hundred devious ways of robbing an old man. They claimed he was blind. They hinted he was senile. Insane, am I? he fumed. Because you’re driving me insane!

The car had holes in the floorboard and issues with the finer gears, but once he got her rolling, she hummed along like a sardine tin on wheels. Whenever he was feeling edgy he’d load his hunting dogs into the back seat and drive. Sometimes he drove all night. It was so peaceful after midnight. Driving calmed his nerves, gave him a sense of purpose. He hummed under his breath to keep himself awake, occasionally blurting the odd phrase out loud, something he’d said or should have said, a few salient bits from the never-ending flow of thoughts uninterrupted by conversation, eruptions from the deep. By the time he came upon a tall man on the side of the road, he’d given the cleaning woman a piece of his mind. Laurent and Julia were used to their master’s arguments. When he slowed down for the man in black, they went right on sleeping, but the smell put them both on alert.

“Shhh! Shut your traps, curs,” Alonzo growled back. “Don’t pay any attention, monsieur. They’re useless beasts. I’d shoot them both, put them out of their misery, but my nieces! Ho! Let me tell you about those bitches. They’re after a man day and night. Where’re you going? Just name your destination. I’d be happy to drop you off. Avignon? Oh, that’s not far at all. Be glad to oblige. Yer car break down? I can go back and take a look. No? No car? All right then, Avignon it is. Get in. Let me move the gun. There you go. Duck down now, mind yer hat. And we’re off.”

Though hardly twenty kilometres as the crow flies, the highway between Isle sur la Sorgue and Avignon is a twisty marathon, a complex network of traffic circles and diversions through connecting towns, a route dating back centuries. After an obligatory exchange of names, Alonzo settled back to enjoy the trip and the sound of his own voice.

“You know, in Petrarch’s time, the trip took a day or more, depending upon the mode of transport. Sometimes walking was quicker in the end than counting on beasts of burden, considering the feeding, watering, ailments and delays. People didn’t zip back and forth between towns in those days, no sir. They set out on carefully planned journeys, often taking every stick of furniture they owned. Those popes and cardinals, they summered in the countryside, built castles. Petrarch himself spent most of his time in Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is a short distance from Isle sur la Sorgue, the fountain in question being the one that feeds the river Sorgue. Take a look at Petrarch’s book about his walk up the Mount Ventoux and you’ll see he never got to the top at all, his philosophical musings refer to a similar trip taken by someone else, most likely his brother.” The last word slipped out. Once he’d said it, Alonzo couldn’t remember whether it was Petrarch’s brother or Victor who’d taken the trip, or rather taken the credit for taking the trip. He personally, Alonzo Martin, definitely had walked up Mount Ventoux, years ago. Or at least up Mount St. Victoire, which amounts to the same thing, as far as foreigners go.

Anyway, Victor told stories about it for years. Victor claimed they’d both gone, which was transparent bullshit. Victor never walked anywhere, but he had a real knack for fabricating details. “It’s a shame to criticize the dead. The truth of the matter is I never had the slightest reason to rebuke a brother. We hardly ever saw each other, which might have given cause for rebuke, had one of us been that kind of man, but we wasn’t. We made our beds and were prepared to lie in it.” Another slip. He hadn’t meant to bring Victor into the conversation at all but it was late and the stranger was interested, at least he seemed to be, or wasn’t in a talking mood. Anyway, the 1900-plus-metre journey up Mount Ventoux was a considerable distance in those days. Still is! He burst into laughter.

Julia and Laurent hated laughter. It was a noise Alonzo only made when strangers were around, and strangers made their teeth hurt. A horse woman who owned their mother had given them pretentious human names and then given them to Alonzo, who was too true or too dumb to think of better. Two lean hounds, their glory years behind, they refused to close an eyelid after Piers Le Gris climbed into the car. The drone of the master’s voice was reassuring. Better steady conversation than explosions from solitary thought, But they didn’t like the smell of the passenger at all. He reeked of women, their soapy, pungent skin and natural secretions that made men’s mouths water. Better women steeped in kitchen smells, fried fat and onions. The lick of a kitchen woman’s hands was a far distant memory, as faint as mother’s milk. Still, they sat up on their haunches, paying strict attention, heads bobbing in the night like oversized car ornaments, which is what they felt like most of the time, forced to jiggle along bumpy country roads full of rain ruts and quick turns. Inevitably Alonzo insisted on a shortcut (or a scenic route or a treacherous farmer’s trail he imagined would take him past some long-forgotten landmark) but as usual the detour petered out and forced them to turn back on themselves. They weren’t surprised. Laurent was fairly sure they had nothing to fear from the man in the hat. He favoured settling back to sleep but Julia was on edge, so they rode like that, bobbing along a moonless country road, oblivious to most of what was going on, except that Alonzo was babbling and lost and the stranger was anxious. They could smell his anxiety. He wanted to be somewhere else.

“Avignon,” he murmured. “I must get you to Avignon!”

The driver roared laughing, and began to sing. “On y danse, on y danse, sur le pont de Avignooooonnn.” His singing voice reminded the dogs of warm gravy. Laurent licked his lips; Julia whimpered painfully. It was years since they’d had a drop of gravy, or anything prepared by women’s hands. They hoped the man would lead them to a kitchen fire. Julia pressed her wet snout against his shoulder but to no avail. On and on Alonzo droned and bellowed. Finally, the jalopy wheeled into a parking lot and stopped. Both men got out and slammed their doors.

The Café Bar Meridian is attached to a small hotel and stays open after midnight, when the owner, Marcel, feels inclined. Even in winter there are people who need rooms suddenly and sometimes late. Marcel had cleaned down the counter and mopped the floor when the travellers walked in.

“I hope you’re looking for a room,” he said to the two who stepped over his slop pail. “Otherwise I’m closed.”

“Two whiskeys,” Alonzo roared. “I’m paying. He’s lost his briefcase. Can you believe it! That’s a good one. Where is it, mon vieux?”

The passenger slid his hat onto the bar, took a seat and muttered a terse reply. Alonzo burst out laughing.

“HAHAHAHA! He says he must ‘a left it at the orgy’!”

Warmed by laughter, Marcel set three glasses on the bar and settled in for a rousing bit of chat.

When they’d gone he wondered who they were. He imagined they had come from far and would still be travelling when dawn broke. Two men on a long journey, one of them was completely mad, the other forgot his hat.

 

After dropping his passenger at the Porte St. Lazare, Alonzo wheeled out into the wide boulevard that circles the city.

“Might as well take time to see the sights,” he shouted over his shoulder. Julia and Laurent whimpered acquiescence. As he drove, he hummed an old familiar tune. It began to rain. The words came back and he belted out the melody, keeping time with the windshield wipers. A hit from his father’s time, it was a love song by Trenet, full of joy and yearning, a memory of a memory. He envied the stranger, a man in his prime, rushing to appointments, facing situations. Though what was the cause of his mad dash back to town, he’d been reluctant to divulge. Naturally a man of his sort would be discreet. There was about him a generous, enveloping spirit. Yes, he decided, an aura. In spite of his obsessions, a man of depth and soul.

“Imagine, leaving a briefcase at an orgy!” he exclaimed out loud. (Convinced they were being spoken to, Julia and Laurent barked agreement.) All very well and good, he thought, but a man like that is facing ordeals. Mustn’t let nostalgia have a go. No, it wouldn’t do to pine after a life like that.

Then, out of nowhere, a thought hit him broadside. As clear and sharp as stone, it woke him up and stung. He pulled the car over on a grassy knoll, with a view of some distant town, and got out.

What if those bitches are right? What if I am going daft?

As soon as the pebble thought hit, another followed. As soft and kind as a blanket, it spoke directly to him: “If you think you might be going mad — then — definitely you are not — yet.”

He laughed out loud. Then, so that anyone who cared could hear, he shouted, Yes, I am on my way mad-crazy-senile-gaga! But not quite there yet!

Looking up at the starlit sky, he vowed to himself he would remember the moment forever.

  • An evocative tale of an eccentric, old man on a short road trip in his car with “holes in the floorboard and issues with the finer gears, but once he got her rolling, she hummed along like a sardine tin on wheels.” In steps a mysterious stranger who keeps the “two lean hounds, their glory years behind,” in the back seat on alert. I loved the way the author presented the situation from the point of view of the dogs. Affectionately told – a warm, funny, enjoyable read.