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On The Riviera by Colin Milne


by Colin Milne

You’ll have read about it. Old guy hired a Roller for a vacation – with a chauffeuse he had personally selected. They floated through Europe, stopping at five-stars, all the way down to the Riviera, up to Switzerland – and he vanished. The girl got payment in cash – so tax free then. Refused interviews. The media sensed a story; sieved facts, texts, emails till all became clear.

With all the publicity, the girl was not about to repeat the exercise. He’d taken a one-way trip to meet some Swiss folk he’d heard about. Did it in comfort. It’s legal over there. She went to ground somewheres. Hasn’t stopped others from copying such a handy means of avoiding the dreaded Care Home and protracted hospitalisation. Doubt she knew in advance where the trip was heading. Wouldn’t talk about it – to anyone. What’s that? The car? She returned it to the specialist hire company in Kensington.

We’re in this glistening black Rolls Royce. She has pulled off the poplar lined road. The layby doubles as an access for tractors trundling back and forth across a vast field. On my cheek the Sun has the warmth of a lover’s breath. There is a teak lined recess behind her seat, in which nestle chunky little glasses – and Courvoisier. The glasses clink once as our fingers touch. Her smile is warm, natural. The brandy glows in my throat. Aside from the Hôtel bookings, I’ve made all the arrangements. No one is going to lose out – unless it be the Tax Man.

A little luxury is going a long way. Last place we stayed – near Lyons – we were the talk of the Hôtel. “Father and Daughter?” “Mais Non!” they took us for pragmatists who strike a bargain over their disparity in age – and wealth. Almost true, but we take separate rooms and that’s the way of it. Age and medication ensure I’m no longer a threat – to either sex. Comes a time desire recognises this – adjusts accordingly. I battle yet with this spectre.

You’ll be wondering about my driver? She is skilful with the Rolls. You said?… I see. You don’t give a Euro for her driving ability. Sorry. I’m not about to tell you a damn thing – other than that she is lovely and my companion – for the duration. The car? It is everything it should be – even if some foreign concern owns the marque.

Tonight we’ll stop in the Dordogne. Our route, courtesy of the AA is sidestepping frenetic French motorways – in favour of trusty, cosy side roads (where one must ‘Tenir a droite’). A lunch amongst village regulars in a weathered Hôtel is a delight for nose and palate. Try it while you yet may. A friend of a friend left it too late. Sinister diseases conspired to immobilise her with scant warning. Her last brave effort was a taxi ride to her home – to tell it goodbye. Quick ending though – in the Hospice.

I don’t object to Britain’s weather – though France’s – at this season – is, as they say, to die for. The temperature guage on the dashboard creeps ever upward as we journey south. Her money? It’s in a Gladstone bag in the boot. She knows that. I have no fear she will run off with it – yet. We’ve reached Florac. No five-stars in the place. Not needed. We’ll rest up here for a day or so while I catch my breath – savour the familiar fragrances of the place. The river is a mucky brown-green. Could be due to the fact that cattle use it to cool off in the midday sun.

Come sundown we brave insect bites out on the long verandah as we take our evening meal. She has come with a well planned case that has, I see, provided her with a blouse that exposes her shoulders, a pendant cross and – an unusual feature these days – a skirt – which lightly caresses her knees and reaches the floor.

She asks few questions. Words destroy moments. Much is left unsaid. She is tactful, kindly disposed. Are you experiencing a flicker of that green stuff? Envy? You should. Read on. I’ve not done yet. Every tale has to have its ending.

Avignon is a maze of streets. We leave the car, surrounded by urchins, in the shadow of a church; to wander mindless amongst patisseries, shops, cafes, fruit sellers and the obligatory fountain that waters its trough and will provide a cold drink if you press the button – and have handy a flask – or open mouth.

Nearing the coastline there is a palpable sense of anticipation as the car glides up a long incline. From the summit it will be possible to see the Med. Yes, I have been here before. Just this once it is good to go back! I’d feared the magic might have faded.

The road twists this way, that way, as we descend amongst olive groves – and those trees that still seem to be providing corks for the Vignerons. We head for the harbour at St Trop. Brigitte used to take her curly-black-haired squeeze to purchase Brie in the market. They had an olive green mini-moke. My driver is taken with the simple stylish garments fluttering in the breeze. I lack desire for anything but am allowed to buy one for her.

We have a simple lunch, looking over at the big yachts decorated with God’s chosen people; tanned, shoeless amongst white paint, chrome and varnished mahogany.

Time for coffee and then we must leave if we are to revisit Pampelonne beach and reach Cannes in time for supper. It is all too much. I doze off as the car snakes around the coast road above the precipices reaching down to the sea.

I am woken by silence as the Rolls glides to a halt behind a queue of stationary vehicles. We wait for a lengthy age till, moving forward, the cause of delay becomes obvious. The barrier at the roadside has been torn away. A driver lowers his window and advises that some vast transporter has overturned, trying to avoid two parallel oncoming vehicles. Les Gendarmes take their time. You tend to rubberneck such situations, but there’s nothing to see. A few skidmarks. Something eerie to think of – the thing toppling on its side, bouncing down the cliff to vanish in the water.

Neither of us offers comment. She presses on, foot down. We reach Cannes as the street lights are wakening. Later in the evening it is warm enough for a stroll at the edge of the foothills. We wander up a side road. Grapes ripen in the fields. I steal small bunches for us as the light fades. The farmers must hate such acts. Few things though beat the sensual pleasure of sinking your face and mouth into the mauve spheres to bite your way inside.

It has grown dark now. I am dark too. I have changed my mind. I do not wish to face the aseptic sterile Swiss room with its lethal clear liquid – that liquidates. I can’t do it… I am remembering that accident at the cliff top.

The firm she works for? They believe she’s on holiday with a friend. She’s told me her small son is being cared for by her parents, as the father is apparently a distant and unsatisfactory memory. Listening, you could imagine she no longer cares about the split. We all build walls around ourselves when they seem to be needed.

My mind races forward. That accident. I well remember the car in Françoise Sagan’s ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, the terra-cotta cliffs, the wreck of the convertible being winched up, dripping, from the ocean bed.

Pity about the Rolls. I can’t manage without it. I fear heights and always avoid venturing near a clifftop. I don’t intend she is involved in my accident.

The door of her room self-locks. Beyond it I picture her lying half covered by a sheet, the French windows open to her little balcony. Fast asleep? Perhaps it’s as well I can’t see her for real. I might bend to run a hand through that hair of hers. She could waken. Instead I post the note beneath her door:

It’s two years since I drove a Rolls. I’m familiar with their size and abilities. I remember the controls, but it is an effort to remember what to do (and the actual doing of it). I shall probably glance up at your window as I leave. Will your light be on? Has the night porter brought the Gladstone bag up to your room? Did you see the car leave – you’d never have seen me at the wheel.

Twenty minutes will bring me to that gap in the barrier. Memorise (and destroy?) this warning and the pencilled number: 662011. It is now your numbered Swiss account. Maybe you will keep my little diary? It too is in the Gladstone bag. Think of me sometimes, in June, as the man who couldn’t face the Swiss – but is forever ‘On the Riviera’.


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