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ALSO BY CLAIRE DOYLE

The Artists’ Club on Franz Liszt Square

a Laura McLove novel


Hungarian Folk Dancing For Beginners

A Short Story





The Naked Sommelier

A Laura McLove Novel


by

Claire Doyle



Maybe it’s better to arrive than travel hopelessly.

I first met Leo after my mother died. When the inheritance cheque arrived, I considered my options carefully and decided to visit a psychic.

Maggie Lightly advertised in the Evening Standard and I was not a little intrigued by where she lived: she lived on Abbey Road. She said her flat had a view of the zebra crossing.

Three days later, we sat at a table by her window and I gazed out at the street below. She spread the cards into a Celtic Cross.

“You’re a writer,” she said. I startled. She lifted my left hand, looked at the lifeline and said–damn her!–“You have the line of Mark Twain.” I had never considered such a thing.

“Fiction or non-fiction?” I asked.

“What’s the difference?” she replied. She was shrugging.

“One has a beginning, a middle and an end. The other is about facts …”

“What’s the difference?” she said again.

I stared at her. I had nothing to say. I wasn’t a writer. I didn’t like writing and I didn’t have a story. I looked out the window and thought about that album cover. It was there, that’s where the fab four walked across the zebra crossing. People thought Paul McCartney was dead in 1969.

Who me? A writer? I followed her advice and wrote junk for a year and then I understood why writers shoot themselves, turn to drink and take off on road trips. I cursed that psychic. I’d only gone to see what her flat was like. She lived on Abbey Road.

Jobless, manless, childless and rudderless, I left London to add another to the list— homeless. Failure had been my towering achievement. Real life and its tick-tock lurked in the shadow but—like Morrissey—I’d never had a job because I never wanted one. There was one thing I now could do, however. I could afford to bugger off for a while. I fled London leaving the weary sense that everything in my life was over.Some go to Harvard, some go to Yale. Some go to Oxford or Cambridge. But I’m a mystic of a transcendentalist school.

Hell, I went to Emerson College.


1


Emerson College, Sussex, England, October 2009

It was a Friday morning and I heard the water outside my window. An odd sensation because I lived in the middle of the country, not by the sea. My window faced west from a tiny attic room with sloped roofing that I hit my head on as I opened it, and every morning someone—I never did find out who—switched on the garden water feature before I got up, and switched it off again in the late afternoon.

The sound of running water in the middle of the country was a pleasant sensation where there was no stream, and I imagined the air that came in the open window was energised with negative ions. I needed those energised ions. I had a hangover.

It was raining and, as it was a Friday, I skipped first class. We were reading Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course but it was unstudiable, incomprehensible, supersensible even, as they say here at Emerson, and I’d read it alone once during a long weekend and was none the wiser for my trouble. I sat on the armchair below the window, opened my journal and began to write.

I was forty-six then. Time was running out. Did I have enough of it left to write a novel? Jack Kerouac died at forty-seven from alcohol problems. I might just die with my novel inside me. I had learned about life and love but I couldn’t get it to flow on the page. What did men write about? War. Women. Sex. The Big Issues. What did women write about? Men. Children. Love. That’s what I decided to write about. Love. I opened my journal and began to write. Love. I wrote it again. Love. I deleted it. What is love? I deleted that too. What is sex? Ah! I began thinking about all the men I had ever known. Some nice. Some not so.

Men! Goddammit! The words weren’t flowing, so what could I do? I needed a walk. I needed a holiday. What I had was a notebook and pen. I took my coat, hat, notebook and pen. I put on my boots and left the room. I walked down through Tablehurst farm, past the pigs, the Friday chicken slaughter and the heap of farm junk, on through mud past the apple orchard onto Forest Way and through the woods until the village green, but no-one was there as usual. Oh! Forest Row! You are too small for me! I wondered what to do with my day and as the sun was coming out, I took the bus to the seaside.

By midday I was on Brighton seafront. I bought a hot doughnut at the pier and began walking westwards in the direction of Hove. At least I was having a walk. I had my notebook. I had my pen. I was ready for action. I walked past the derelict West Pier as far as the Peace Angel and sat on a bench. I got out my notebook. I put my notebook back. I decided to walk back towards The Lanes and find a bookshop.

I found a bookshop. In the spiritual section, I picked up a book called a gratitude journal. Apparently by writing out what I wanted every day and feeling the sense of having it already, I could bring it to me. It was too good to be true! I could bring a novel to me! I could bring a man to me! I, Laura McLove will take on The Universe and I shall overcome! I bought the gratitude journal and went to the coffee shop. Now I had two notebooks and one pen. I found a copy of The Guardian, and ordered an Americano with milk. I sat on a sofa, opened the paper at the quick crossword and took out my pen.

The first clue was three across: ‘pining for a loved one, (8)’. I wrote ‘lovesick’ across the boxes as my Americano arrived. I picked up two sugar lumps and plopped them in first, milk second, my spoon stirring last. I was happy. Was there ever a happier moment than a crossword and a coffee in a cafe all alone?

I had a poet friend years back. He spent his days walking and reading and drinking at art shows and we’d often sit in a cafe with a crossword. He didn’t care which newspaper because he never bought one. He got annoyed when I was too quick filling in the answers only to get them wrong and make a mess of the thing. We idled many days together.

He recited a poem about me once at a poetry slam—‘Laura The Tap Breaker’—about the day I broke a tap and the water was everywhere and I yelled at him, “You’re useless!” when he couldn’t help me fix it. He was only good for poetry and drinking. He’d adopted an aristocratic air, although he was from a council estate in Bermondsey. I also had an aristocratic disdain for work, the only decent thing the aristocracy ever gave us.

I was a walker, an idler, a fringe-dweller, a Gypsy and not quite yet but nearly—dare I?—a writer. What the hell was I doing studying biodynamic farming? It was so much hard work. I didn’t want to be a farmer, I wanted to be a peasant.

One down: ‘pining for a loved one, (8)’. I wrote ‘lovelorn’ down the boxes and across the previous entry. I finished up my coffee and left. Maybe today was a bad day for crosswords after all.

Returning through the village later, I came to the recycling centre. There was always something to find in here. I looked at the usual cast-offs and arrived at the bookshelf. I picked up an old paperback and read the whole first page. I was hooked. I had just struck gold in the village dump. The author? John Fante. I bought Ask the Dust for 20 pence and continued my way home.

There were students pruning apple trees in Tablehurst’s orchard now. A French accent drew me up between the tree lines and I stopped in my tracks. “Hello. And what are you doing here pruning our English apple trees?”

“I’m learning biodynamics ’cos I’m gonna make wine back home,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.” His beauty was astonishing. Eyes of cornflowers, hair of flax, lips for kissing. He was younger than me for sure. A beauty. A colt. A star in the night sky. And French. Oh yes. His name was Leo.

“I’ve never heard a French person say ‘gonna’ before–it’s cute.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

Je suis Ecossaise,” I replied, “Scotland.”

“You’re accent is cute too, cest mignon.” He was beyond radiant and I was dazzled and wanting more but it would have to wait. For now, he had work. “I live in one of the attic rooms in the main building. They let me out once a day,” I said as I walked away. “Come and knock on my door sometime.” A French winemaker! Right on my doorstep! He’d got me from the first merlot.

Continuing home, I stood aside for the John Deere tractor to pass and at the top of the hill I turned to see the forest once more with its rain-soaked, blue-green hue. It was stunning. Past the second apple orchard and horses on my right, down another little hill and there’s the pond and uphill again onto Emerson campus until I stood bang in the middle in front of reception. There she was to meet me. Lilly, my one and only friend in the world, all a-blonde and ginger sitting by the puddle. Lilly the college cat.

Lilly was a free range being. Outcast from her former home as there was a new baby in the house, she had found her way up to the attic and so I took her in and fed her. She was very welcome to my little room and was often camped outside the door when I came home. Me and Lilly managed our lives quietly. She was too wet to pick up that day so I let her follow me indoors and up the stairs until we reached the top. I gave her a rub down with a towel and let her settle on the bed. She began purring and cleaning herself and went to sleep.

I lay down next to her and thought about writing but didn’t. One day I would write, but that day wasn’t today. Every day might be that day but somehow that day never became today. The days of waiting were upon me. The days in which nothing very much happened. The days when I didn’t seem to make very much happen. Oh boredom! Walking, writing, coffee, thinking, dreaming of another day when things would happen. I opened the John Fante novel. It was about a young man struggling to be a writer.


2


On Brighton Pier in a dream, the pier sparkling with fairy lights. A happy feeling with fairground music playing. All at once I was standing on my mother’s grave. Still a happy feeling. A scroll on the grave revealed a word: ’pregnancy’. There was a white bird in front of me now, a dove I supposed. The bird split in two as I picked it up becoming an object rather than a living bird now and embarrassed, I placed the broken bird on the grave in two pieces with the thought that I would return to mend it later.

I woke and wondered if I could be pregnant. It was impossible. I got my pen out. I counted up the years I had been coupled. I was thirty years into adulthood, just five years I’d been officially coupled and adding up the long tail-ending of love affairs and the affairs that didn’t work out I could take that to ten years. Twenty years single. That was a lot of acting interested, as Jerry Seinfeld once said. It was also a lot of not having sex to deal with. No wonder I was exhausted—and sexually frustrated. I needed a haircut. That would make me feel better. I needed a man. Maybe like a hole in the head or like a fish needs a bicycle but God! Give me something! I was a seething cauldron of frustration but you would never know it to look at me. Make love, McLove! It’s your name stupid! It’s what you’re supposed to do! Do it! Do something!


3


It was a few days before I met Leo again. It was raining so I couldn’t go for my usual walk, my counterpoint to writing or, in my case, not writing. So this particular day found me in the college library. I decided to bring Lilly with me. She didn’t like the rain much either, being a cat.

An overwhelming odour of old books pervaded the room and I mean old. There was an original copy of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and that other old classic, Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self Defence. The room had the feel of an occultist’s library which, in fact, it was. It had a still and heavy sense and and there was a floor creak from time to time although the verdant surroundings outside pressed in with the light through the high windows.

On the few occasions the librarian was in, you could see books and index cards on her desk piled as high as her bouffant hair and she was surely the only person who understood the borrowing system. She had probably read Psychic Self Defence. She had probably understood it. She spoke with a posh English accent. Someone told me she was ninety years old.

The library had the only campus wireless connection. A Danish student had said he could sense electromagnetic fields and had conducted a full college campaign to disallow its use. He won in the end—except for the library—but left the college as he upset so many people in the process but mainly he upset himself.

Such was life at Emerson—one foot in the modern world and one foot firmly entrenched in the deep, occult past. Yes, Emerson College was a Mystery School. I was lying on the sofa, shoes off, with my back to the high window reading The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. At least I hadn’t been sent to an all-girls school as a child, I thought, although I did spend a year being taught by an Irish nun.

I looked up when I heard the door open. I saw an angel. It was Leo. He broke into a smile and I was sunk and I knew it.

“Is that your cat?” he asked in that gorgeous French voice. Lilly was purring on my lap.

“I’ve adopted her whilst she’s here,” I said. “She belongs to Francis in fact, but the new baby means it’s difficult in the house so, well the truth is, I think she’s adopted me. You know what cats are like. Her name is Lilly.”

“I like cats,” he said. He sat down next to me on the sofa. I sensed his aroma, the smell of his sweater, his shampoo, the rain on him.

“What have you come in for?” I asked.

“I’m looking for the wine directory. D’you know where it is? I haven’t used the library much so far.” I pointed to the agriculture section.

“So tell me about wine,” I said.

“It’s made from grapes,” he replied. I laughed.

“Tell me about you. Tell me about you and wine!”

“I’m a sommelier.”

“How exciting!”

“Yeah, I know all about wine. I worked at The Dorchester once. I was the head wine waiter.”

“Head sommelier at The Dorchester. You must have served some famous people.”

“Yeah, Paul McCartney …”

“God, I love Paul McCartney! What did he drink?”

“He drank a Château Haut Brion 1989.”

“Any other Beatles?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you serve any other Beatles? You know, Ringo Starr, George Harrison?”

“No, I didn’t. But I served Madonna once.”

“God! I love Madonna! What did she drink?”

“Very expensive mineral water!” he said. “I used to work for Gordon Ramsay too.”

“Was he hard to work for?”

“All kitchens are tough and hard work, it’s just the way it is.” He got up from the sofa and went in the direction of the wine directory. I liked his arse. “I’ve found it!” He returned to the sofa. I liked his thighs.

“I wanna make my own wine,” he said. He held the book up to show me. “This lists all the biodynamic winemakers in the world. There’s loads of them in France but most keep quiet about it because they’d be seen as mad. I wanna make a natural wine, you know, without chemicals, and using the yeast in the air and on the surface of the grapes, farm with horses, low impact, no additives.”

“Can you really do that these days?”

“The real good wine comes from a mixed farm with a vineyard. You won’t find it for sale much anywhere, it sells privately. My parents have a farm back in Bordeaux. I remember when they had horses but now it’s all tractors. Do you like wine?” he asked.

“I love wine. Back in London, I hung out with a bunch of artists and poets, freeloaders, big drinking intellectual types and we would go around together in the east end to all the art openings for free drinks. I even learnt something about art. They didn’t seem to mind me hanging on to them, I don’t think they gave a shit.”

“I love the east end,” he said.

“Where are you going to work next summer?” All farming students took work placements on a farm. “I dunno,” he replied. “I gotta bad knee so I don’t know if I can do too much real heavy work. I’m thinking of north America.”

I could go on about our first conversation, a getting to know you thing, but here’s what you need to know—Leo was a traveller and so was I. He was an expert in something with which I had a longstanding, complicated relationship—wine. He knew how to make it, he was here to learn how to do it au naturel. He was a man of the earth. He was a man of the terroir. And he was hot. Hot. HOT. The only men for me are the traveller men and Leo for me will always be the Traveller Man. I was an amateur at love and I was about to learn that I needed to go pro.

Back in the attic later, I tried to remember it all. I was in a deep hypnosis. My mind and hormones had gone into overdrive. Lilly meowed at my feet but I couldn’t think straight to feed her. I had to work something out. How on earth did that gorgeous man get here into this college on his own and still be single? It defied the laws of the Universe. Or did it? I picked up that gratitude journal I bought in Brighton. I picked up my pen. And I wrote.


“I am so happy and grateful Leo and I are spending next summer together and are in love.”


It was done. It was on its way. It was all I had to do so I wrote it again.


“I am so happy and grateful Leo and I are spending next summer together and are in love.”


I laughed aloud then went to the kitchen to find Lilly’s crunchies. I filled her water bowl and her crunchie bowl and she sat munching and crunching on the floor by the door. She had no idea of the spiritual forces I was bringing to bear for us in our little room. She was a cat and I loved her.

I picked up my violin from the bed. It was flawed—I had made it myself—and I’d varnished it a burnt orange colour like my hair. It took me eighteen months to persevere and finish and I’d decorated it with a ruby ribbon around the scroll. A classical musician wouldn’t say so—they’re hard to please aren’t they?—but my one violin was more beautiful than all the violins in all the world because I had made it. I hung it back onto the wall where it lived. I’d placed my name tab inside the soundbox on the wrong side before I glued it over. I was useless at detail but I was good at the bigger picture and I was good at imagining things—like me and Leo in bed. In love. On holiday.

I poured myself a glass of Romanian pinot noir, just one glass, and I turned on my iPlayer. Barry! Yes Barry Manilow, Could It Be Magic? Was there a better pop song ever written? I fell deeper into my reverie. A cyclone was whirling in my mind.


4


The following morning I began a new routine. I had coffee as usual—this one from an Indian elephant farm—brewed it in a little Italian coffee pot, then drank it from my red mug with white dots, together with one tablespoon of single cream and one demerara sugar. I sat on my chair and opened the gratitude journal. I relished moments like this at the beginning of the day.

“I am so happy and grateful that Leo and I are spending next summer together and are in love.”


What did that mean? How would that feel? It seemed ridiculous right now but I cleansed my mind of those thoughts. I was so much older than him, how would that work? He was French of course and French men like older women. I started to wonder what kind of woman Leo would be attracted to. What kind of woman would I need to be to draw him in? I pondered all the actresses I admired, for their acting, intelligence, beauty and general fabulousness until I settled on one and I knew she was the right one: Sharon!


I settled on Sharon Stone.


“I am so happy and grateful now that I am as beautiful and fabulous as Sharon Stone!”


How I laughed! Lilly opened her eyes and stretched out her right paw and yawned. She stood up and arched her back to waken herself. Lilly loved her body.

In retrospect, after the motherf*cker of a trip, I wondered whether the problem wasn’t simply a question of sentence structure—if I had written “I am so happy and grateful now that Leo and I are in love and spending our summer together”—would there have been a different outcome? Could everything be this simple? Well, of course, it could.

Sadly, it wasn’t.

Was I happy? Was I grateful? Hell, no. This is what needed to change. What would Sharon do? Sharon would have a personal trainer, a protein diet, a spiritual counsellor, and zillions in the bank. I could make a start. I could do with losing half a stone. Action stations! I resolved to join the local gym. The thought then came to me—what would Lilly do? I laughed aloud once more. My beautiful pussy cat could teach me a thing or two.

Just then there was a knock on my door. Leo? Alas, it wasn’t but no matter, it was Delphine. My life was manifesting a lot of French people right now. She lived in the next attic room, a farmer’s daughter from Cathar country, south-west France. I took my hat off to Delphine. She had once killed a chicken with her own bare hands. I told her of my plans.

“So this is my plan, Delphine. I’ve got carte blanche come Easter to do what I want. What I want is to travel and I want to be with Leo. I’m asking the Universe to let us spend our summer together. In the meantime, I’ve got to get into his league.”

“How are you going to do that?” she asked.

“I’m going to draw him in with the law of attraction. He is going to ask me to spend the summer with him. I won’t have to push at all,” I said. “That’s how it’s supposed to work anyhow.”

“Good luck Laura. I think you might need it,” said Delphine. “You are always welcome at our place, you know."

I got dressed in my best outfit—remembering Sharon—and went to class. I took Lilly outside and let her go for the day. I still hadn’t written anything but I felt that my life might at last be moving.


5


We were an international group of farmers that year. Half of us were young and half of us were middle aged. Half of us were men and half of us weren’t. It made for a healthy and combustible mix.

Today we were studying earth energy. A Swiss farmer called Dieter, complete in national dress, was taking us around the campus. He rocked the place. He had smoked marijuana once, he said, and it had opened his mind to other realms. From that day onwards, he resolved to expand his consciousness without drugs. He recommended How to Know Higher Worlds by Rudolf Steiner as a handbook for farmers. He had a long, long beard and had training in a counselling that involved exploring past lives and helped young people who had lost their way at his horse farm in Switzerland. We walked to to the top of the vegetable garden together towards the compost heaps.

Biodynamics was a journey and couldn’t be learnt extrinsically. It was practically inexplicable, it seemed to involve everything. It was a crazy wisdom. You didn’t have to believe in it necessarily, but you did need to experience. You had to allow yourself to be changed by it—to put your inner being in the compost, so to speak. In shorthand, it was all about the moon. Wherever the moon is on its journey each month through the twelve constellations of the zodiac, dictates whether it is a good day for sowing, transplanting or harvesting. An old German woman had come up with an almanac, dividing the moon’s cycle into days that were fruit, flower, leaf or root as a quick ready reckoner for the astronomically challenged. Today the moon was in Aries, making it a fruit day.

We stood around the first compost heap and Dieter asked us, “How does the compost feel to you? Does it feel hot? Or cold? Warm? How does it feel?”

I stood with my back straight and centred myself. I felt my inner body and located myself at my solar plexus and tried to feel the compost heap. It was cold. The compost was fully matured and it had no energy. We could all sense it. We moved to another compost heap. “How does this one feel? Active? Hot? How does it feel?” said Dieter. This time the answer was “warm”. The compost heap was still active and breaking down.

We moved on to the flower garden where there were heaps of leaf mold. “How does it feel?” asked Dieter, once more. The answer came again. The leaf mold was cold. It didn’t look fully matured—maybe it had become inactive and needed some extra carbon or nitrogen matter.

The leaves came from the autumn leaf-raking that all students took part in and was a good weeding process in itself as you could see who was capable of physical work or not. Surprisingly, a few gardening and farming students weren’t quite up to it. I was up to it but only in fits and starts as befits someone who wouldn’t want a full-time farmer’s life, maybe more like a full-time farmer’s wife.

I brought an image of Leo up into my mind’s eye, I centred on my solar plexus and tried to see how he felt. The answer came—he was warm. He generated a genuine human warmth, someone who liked other human beings. He was also hot but that feeling was coming from my root chakra. The sexual one.

We were often taken around the grounds on teaching missions to study earth energy. We would be asked to stand in a circle, hold hands and imagine a white protective light surrounding us then attempt to sense how the energy flowed. At times, it was a simple matter to see where the animals gathered or where clutter was dumped. There was often a ton of stuff dumped on big farms. Too many men, not enough flowers would be my usual diagnosis. I enjoyed these classes but drew the line when we were holding hands and asked to sing together. It was an insult to music.

The previous summer, I had gone to study huge mustard plants in a polytunnel late in the afternoon when the sun was at its most intense. I stared and stared at those mustard plants from every angle for a week—they were huge—and sure enough, one night, I had a dream of huge leafy plants but I couldn’t discern any meaning to the dream. I just hadn’t cut the mustard.

I’d camped out that July at the top of the vegetable garden and I would hear the owls twit-twoo at night and the Tablehurst Sussex Browns lowing and shuffling in the darkness in the neighbouring field. I awoke every morning to a line of bright yellow sunflowers and blue cornflowers on my sight horizon before the vegetable terraces slipped down the hill. I tasted raw corn in the morning fresh off the stalk for the first time, sweet and yellow. The gardener was growing the three sisters of squash, corn and beans—companion plants that blossomed together.

I was also one of three sisters. It had taken a lifetime to realise I could never blossom with them around. I often felt out of sync with the world, as if I was prey. It wasn’t the more-than-human world I was afraid of, you understand, it was low grade human beings that frightened me. I didn’t find them phony exactly, I thought of them as matterheads. The ones who think that the physical world is all there is. The trouble with them is this though—being outer directed and terrified of failure, they need a scapegoat. So what if you’re a woman, black, poor, Gypsy even, what if you’re the talented one, or the one who worked so hard to achieve balance? Those matterheads would get you in the end. Worse, now no-one would get the prize. A matterhead aims for lose-lose. It would be true to say that no-one at Emerson was a matterhead. I had found my tribe even if some of them seemed as if they had orbited the planet a few times.

I had discovered a bathroom upstairs in the main building during my summertime camp and I sneaked in and had a hot bath once in awhile because no-one was paying attention. There was a philosophy of freedom here. Freedom to be yourself, to lie to yourself, to turn up to class or not, to turn up late if you wished, no discipline, nobody to blame—a bit Zen, really. Some students had studied for a whole three years including room and board and hadn’t paid a thing and then there was the boomerang effect. People came back again and again over the years to study one subject after another, even—Godforbid—clowning. So, like Hotel California, you might never leave. I now realise why—the real world is hell.

My day took a regular rhythm that summer. I got up at seven and dressed outside my tent, only once having a rambler pass by as I pulled my knickers up one morning. I would see the geese fly over towards the reservoir and make my way indoors to breakfast. We started work at 8 am, twice a week harvesting vegetables for the kitchen, other times planting, weeding and watering. After lunch it was more of the same until a tea break and then stopping at 5 pm. I would nip into the main building again to wash or do a laundry and sometimes I would wander down to the village. I would see—and hear—the geese fly back from the reservoir in the evening in their geese-shaped arrow high above me in the sky.


6


Later that day I was back in my room with Lilly. The phone rang. It was Delphine. She was at the pizza place in the village and asked me to join her. I forgot I was going on a diet for a moment and decided to go out. I left Lilly in my room asleep.

I walked my usual walk to the village although this time when I passed the gym, I went right in and joined then and there and walked out again. I took a shortcut on the path by the business centre, past the bakery then the red post box, up a little steep incline to the village hall. I took a right to Java and Jazz and Delphine. I loved Delphine. She was beautiful and clever and sensible. She didn’t have any characteristics that silly women everywhere seemed to have, the kind that I had. She was still a woman though and not without class. Sharon would approve of her. I approved of her. I wished I could be a bit more like her.

We ordered a margherita pizza each and a bottle of Italian red Cuvée Monferrato between us. I wondered why she had wanted to see me. “Why did you want to see me?” I asked.

“No reason. I thought it might be fun.”

“Do you know anything about Leo?” I enquired. “Come on! You’ve got gossip!”

“You’ve got competition!”

“As if I didn’t know! I’m taking the long road, via stealth,” I replied.

“The whole college is after him. I can’t believe it. I mean, I’m French too so he doesn’t have the same effect on me. He is very good-looking though!”

“Oh don’t tell me you want him too!”

“No! He’s not for me! I want you to have him. But all these women in their twenties are going crazy for him! They follow him around the place!”

“I know, I’ve seen it.” Our wine arrived and I poured us both a glass.

Santé!"

“Cheers, my dear!” We clinked, sipped and huddled towards each other again.

“This wine’s a knockout,” I said, twirling the neck of my glass on the table.

“There’s two of them! Andrea and Suzanne! They talk about him all the time! They’re nuts for him! They look so stupid!”

“He can’t be taken in by it surely?”

“I don’t know. Men don’t think the way we do, they don’t see it,” she said.

“I know. At least there’s pizza,” I said, tearing into mine. “But I’ve got a weapon. The law of attraction. I swear I’ll make it work if it’s the last thing I do.”

“He has a woman!”

“No! Who? Where?”

“In Canada! He fell for her completely. It turns out he only knew her for two days in a youth hostel or something. She’s a lawyer. She went travelling for a year after college and now she’s settled back in Canada.”

“So that’s why he wants to go to north America,” I mused. I tore off a piece of pizza and began to eat. This law of attraction stuff was way more complicated than I thought.

“Did they have an affair?” I asked her.

“No, they didn’t. He’s just nuts about her, that’s all.”

“After two days?”

“Well, how long did it take you to fall for him?”

Touché. Point taken. Drat. When we finish here, shall we go to the pub for a swift half?” I felt like getting drunk.

“Let’s see how it goes … this pizza is good and the wine, as you say, is a knockout.”

“Tell me your other news, Delphine. Cheer me up—how come you know all this anyhow?” I said.

“Everyone knows all this. My mother says you can come to our farm next summer. I’ve told her all about you. They love having visitors and she speaks good English,” she said.

“I have a Plan B! Thank your mother very much. I’d love to visit,” I said. “Is there anyone you like at college?”

“No, I’ve had enough of men for now,” she replied. “I’ll be on the farm next summer too and I’d love you to come. Maybe I can find a job in France, or anywhere for that matter.” We ate up our pizza and finished the wine. Delphine liked to drink too and, as she was French, she remained a keen smoker.

We stopped at the Foresters for a nightcap.

“I’m depressed,” I said. “Bloody men. Bloody women. I’ve decided to take Sharon Stone as my role model. Do you have a role model?” I asked Delphine.

“No, I’ve never thought about it.”

“Every time I’m in a predicament I ask myself this question—what would Sharon do? and wait for the answer.”

“What would Sharon do in the predicament you’re in now?” she asked.

“Bloody Sharon Stone is so bloody gorgeous that no man could look anywhere else. However, bloody Sharon Stone wouldn’t bloody give up now, would she? So neither will I. And that’s final.”


7


“I am so happy and grateful now that Leo and I are spending our summer together and are in love.”

I awoke early the next morning, turfed Lilly off the bed and headed straight for my gratitude journal. I was in a surprisingly good mood, despite the previous evening’s revelations. It had been a good night out with Delphine. We had been so drunk we talked in French on the way home and I had barely understood a word. And I had an invitation to Bellelavie, the family farm, next summer if my Plan A didn’t work out. Things were looking up.

I got back to my Plan A. What would Sharon do? Best foot forward was my guess. I switched on Barry Manilow again, put on my best jeans, purple fitted sweater and tied my hair up. I applied just a little cover-up and blusher and spritzed a spritz of eau de fleur. I skipped the first class due to last night’s dehydration but I climbed downstairs with Lilly to join everyone for the 10 o’clock coffee break. I was as fabulous as Sharon Stone.

The main lobby had dark oak floors and wall panelling with a portrait of college namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson above the staircase. The ceilings were high and the walls were cream where the panelling stopped. The dining rooms—there were three of them on the ground floor—never lost the ooze of a million communal meals absorbed over the years despite doors and windows frequently opened for air.

The college coffee was never as good as my own. Nobody’s coffee was as good as my own. I made mine with single cream and there wasn’t a new fangled American or Italian style coffee place for miles that made coffee with cream. It was skinny this and that, double whipped cream with sprinkles on top, marshmallows, disgusting flavoured syrups. I could start my own coffee shop—simply filtered or brewed, just add cream. College coffee was filtered fair-trade organic from a women’s co-operative in Bolivia. A delicate aroma of oestrogen, just add milk. It would have to do.

I saw Leo. He was a spiritual man but he had two attachments—Andrea and Suzanne. I smiled a ‘hello’ and nodded and left him to it.

Welcome to the Emerson Bubble. If you could handle the dogma—and the lack of men—it was a good place to live. It isn’t only a college you see, it’s also a community. A relic from those revolutionary days of the sixties of which I was a child.

I had never wanted money or property so I hadn’t done the things you have to do to get them. I had never wanted marriage or children. I was a lost generation in a way, all to myself, but there wasn’t anything wrong with me. Far from it, it was everything around me that had changed. I hadn’t shot John Lennon, I hadn’t created MTV, I hadn’t told Dylan go get born again. I was beat, sure, but beat as in beatific. I was sometimes down but never out.

And then there was the Emerson architecture.

Everything had a slope—the roofs, the windows, the windows on the doors. The student houses looked like hobbit homes only bigger. They were named after trees. Oaktree. Birch. Maple.

I shouldn’t have been studying farming—I had no real interest in it at all. I was interested in learning to grow my own food or at least having the skills. I could stay away from the real world if I had those skills, a world as far away from London and stupid modern people as I could get with plenty of time to write, or not write, as seemed to be the case in my new so-called post carbon life. Living in a city was a humiliating experience. Why had I put up with it? Because I knew of nothing else. I had been living in its seamless hologram.

And the beauty of Emerson was, well, the beauty of Emerson.

I left the building to sit outside with the smokers. I took another sip of coffee and said to myself:


“I am so happy and grateful now that Leo and I are travelling together next summer and are in love.”


Later that afternoon I made my first visit to the gym.


8


One Saturday morning I awoke wildly early–an effect of drinking Muscadet the night before - and I collected the college newspapers from the post box. I wasn’t so fussed on the International Herald Tribune but I was fussed on The Guardian with the quick crossword. I sat in the common room on the ground floor, enjoying the late autumn sun streaming through the windows and opened the Review section. Who should walk in but Leo? The Universe was delivering! He looked alluring, dishevelled from getting out of bed, or so my feverish imagination told me.

“What you up to this morning?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to do with myself, I woke early. I can’t meditate any longer.” He flopped himself onto the sofa and there was Lilly following him through the door.

“I thought the point of meditation was to get you at peace with yourself.”

“It doesn’t cure everything.”

“Stroke the cat, it might help.” Lilly had jumped onto his lap. “Do you use a mantra?”

“I love you.” He gave me a wide grin and Lilly began purring loudly.

“I love you too.”

“It’s my mantra. I love you. I say it to everything.”

“Including me.” I smiled.

“I say it to God. I got it from an old Hawaiian guy when I was in India.”

“What was a Hawaiian guy doing in India doling out mantras, pray?”

“We were staying at the same ashram. He told me a lot about Hawaii and said it was a good mantra and it stuck.”

“You say, ‘je t’aime’ though, right?”

“Yeah I say je t’aime.” He was laughing now. “I know it sounds stupid but it works. Any mantra works. How could that one not work?”

“I think the only words I know in different languages are ‘two beers please?’ I wonder what the Divine would say if I offered that as a prayer?”

Deux bières s’il vous plaît! At least you’d make him laugh,” he said, shaking his head. “Why are you up so early?”

“Just one of those things. I like to snatch The Guardian before anyone else does. I’m obsessed with the quick crossword. I’ve been doing it for years. Maybe it’s my meditation.”

We were quiet for a moment as he cuddled Lilly and I stared at the newspaper and turned a page. The only sound was Lilly purring.

“I couldn’t settle in France after all that travelling. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to stay in one place?” he said, breaking the silence.

“Take it as a sign you’re still alive. We were nomads a lot longer than we’ve been settled, you know. Some people can’t imagine life outside of an office, a mortgage and coupledom. Some people think it’s an achievement to get a mortgage! An achievement to be in debt to a bank! And look what a mess the banks have got us in.”

“In French, mortgage means death pledge.”

“God forbid. You’re more alive than other people, that’s all. You’ve not been totally domesticated. Neither have I, for that matter. The restlessness means you’re alive, that’s why you like to travel. Either that, or it’s plain old sexual frustration. Either way, it means you’re alive and not dead. And that’s surely a good thing?”

“That makes me feel better!”

“Settled agriculture was the beginning of the problem if you think about it, and I have thought about it. At length.”

“Yeah, vines are wild and have to be cultivated.”

“The wild must be tamed and controlled.”

“You mean wine?”

“Well it helps. Civilisation needs something to survive it and wine’s as civilised as it gets—in a good way.”

“I really wanna make my wine one day.”

“I really wanna drink it.”

“I just gotta figure out how to travel and do the wine thing too. You can’t tend vines if you’re always moving. You can’t be with the grapes when they’re growing, then harvesting, then fermenting and all the rest.”

“Then move slow. When the oil finally runs out, you’ll have to anyway.”

“When the oil runs out, people will need my wine because I’ll know how to make it naturally and I won’t be using oil.”

“And that’s your answer. Travel ’til the oil runs out. The very act of your travelling will bring the moment closer ’cos you’ll be using up resources, it’s a perfect plan.”

“So there’s nothing to worry about.”

Rien à faire. Nothing to do and nothing to worry about.”


9


The days continued. The sun shone, the rain fell, the water feature trickled its soothing sound in the background, Lilly went out to wander and Lilly came back again. I went to classes. I tried to write, I thought about Leo, I took long walks. I wrote out my gratitude journal. I didn’t go out of my way to try to find him because The Universe would drop him in my lap again, I felt sure.

I read the John Fante novel in astonishment. Such a lightness of touch. He made it all seem so easy. Lilly watched me read with her two lovely eyes. All the time I wanted to write a novel, and I wrote precisely NOTHING. I went for walks, the same walk, the same old walk I walked like other people one hour there, one hour back on the Forest Way to mediocre East Grinstead two or three times a week. I figured it would help with my weight, and balance up the drinking. People thought I walked as some kind of nature trail, or some kind of spiritual practice, but I walked in the same way as Bukowski went to the races—it was something at the other end of the stick to writing, or in my case, not writing.

There was writing and there was not writing. Hemingway had bullfights, Bukowski had the races, I had walking. Walk, walk, walk. I never walked around the place and I never thought about it, I walked the Forest Way to East Grinstead and back over and over to get my mind to shut up. I had to siphon off the energy. I was trying to cut through, to stay sane, to live in nothing and maybe when I returned I would write something. More usual what would happen is I would lie on my bed once more and think about writing. And then I would read awhile, maybe I would play Classic FM on my computer—a way to avoid thinking about music—and then I would cook and eat and open some wine and another day would pass. I wasn’t accumulating pages but I would get up off my bed once in a while and write something in a burst of inspiration. It never added up to much. On the other hand, I seemed to be acquiring a taste for Vivaldi.

I thought about taking them on, you know, the Bukowskis, the Ginsbergs, the Scott Fitzgeralds—no, maybe not Scott F—but the Bukowskis and the Ginsbergs I could have a shot at, I understood them. There was something else I knew about, more than Bukowski, I knew about music. I knew what it meant to be an artist in today’s moneymaking world.

So maybe I should take them on? I could vent my literary gender dysmorphia. I could do a Knut Hamsun and write a novel about nothing in particular. That was it! Nothing in particular! I could write about myself and being a writer! Genius! Why didn’t I think of it before! I knew I was on track. I lifted myself up off my bed along with Lilly and went for a walk. I left Lilly at the door. I had walking and I had wine, I had writing. Halfway through my walk I wondered whether taking long soaks in the bath wouldn’t be better for my knees. I needed writing, goddammit write something!


10


After showering one morning, I noticed a tiny growth on my left breast. It had been there a while but hadn’t caught my attention like it did that day. It was ugly. With the thought in mind that Leo would definitely come my way because of the universal forces I was bringing to bear, I realised that I’d rather live without it, this little tag of skin that occupied an important part of my body. I asked myself, what would Sharon do? And the answer came—surgery.

I went to the doctor. He said, there’s a specialist who comes in once a week, come in on Friday at 9 am.

Friday at 9 am I found myself waiting in the Forest Row doctor’s surgery and who would walk in? Yes! Leo! And on his own!

“Hi Laura, how are you?”

“Hey Leo! I’m good. Fancy meeting you here. I hope you’re OK?”

“I’m OK. I’m gonna get my knee seen to. A doctor in France told me years ago I should get it operated on before I’m thirty. I’m twenty-nine now so I thought it was time.” I noticed he was holding a mobile phone. “I got myself a phone at last. You should give me your number.” So I did.

“Text me so I have yours too,” I said, as I was called into the doctor’s office.

The lovely skin specialist took pity on me and my little nick of skin in such a delicate place and said he would remove it. I lay down on the table and he injected a needle into my breast. My breast was having an anaesthetic. He then took a knife and cut the little thing off and placed paper stitches over the cut. He said to not go to the gym for a week until it had healed. I thanked him and left the surgery a new woman. Leo had already gone but my self-esteem was shooting up. I switched on my phone. I had a text from Leo! “Bonjour Mademoiselle Laura. Leo.” I was ecstatic.

I headed back to my room, fed Lilly as usual, and wrote up an entire essay on dairy that I’d been putting off. I was still listening to Could It Be Magic? and then I remembered—somebody brilliant found a disco version in Could It Be Magic? and that person was Donna Summer. I downloaded an mp3 file from the internet and danced around the room. So much better than Barry. A memory of rainy caravan holidays in Scotland came to mind, eating morning rolls with orange cheese and listening to Radio One, wondering when the rain would ever end.

I had my first glass of verdejo that evening, a Spanish white wine from La Mancha.


11


I was getting cold in my single bed. The temperature was beginning to drop and I was sleeping under a couple of duvets in an old sweater and socks and still the central heating couldn’t come on early enough. Even Lilly could feel the chill. The attic was so quiet.

I looked out the kitchen window as my coffee brewed and saw the Sussex Brown herd out there and a whole lot of tranquility descended on me. And just think! I could be rushing to an office and getting some kids up! There was a certain emptiness being alone in your forties. I had learned to maximise its use, however, and had developed a pretty good relationship with myself over the years and nurtured times alone. It wasn’t that I didn’t need anybody—I did. I liked knowing there were people around but I didn’t necessarily want to talk to any of them. The one I wanted to talk to was proving a tad difficult to access. It reminded me of that old Carpenters’ song Close To You—every woman in the place wanted to be next to Leo. How to get close without anyone noticing my strategy? There were beady, jealous eyes everywhere and like any good predator, I wanted to act alone.

I returned to Lilly in my room with my morning coffee and got going with the gratitude thing. Maybe I could just ask him out?

And still the writing wasn’t coming. I still had a wine habit but I was keeping it in line with the fitness programme. I had a gym habit, a wine habit, a walking habit. At least I’d written my dairy essay, that was progress.

I decided to experiment with Bukowski’s method and let the ‘typer’ do the work. Music, booze and the writing would do itself. I visited the village dump that day and found two chipped champagne glasses for 25p each. I bought a bottle of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine and played Classic FM, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It tasted great but it didn’t work. Two nights later I tried Italian prosecco, and listened to Mantovani but that didn’t work either. Another day, I bought vin mousseux—it was disgusting—and found French rap on the internet. I liked the rap so much I got over involved with it and still the words wouldn’t come. I was becoming a drunk. Strangely though, the walking, the gym and the general physical work of learning farming and gardening was removing the weight anyhow. I realised something else about myself too—I had become a loner. I realised I had been this way for a long time.


12


It was a cold night, the night of the Christmas booze up. Anyone and everyone was going to the Chequers Inn. I met Leo in the college laundry and made sure he knew the details. I showered and lathered and dressed as fabulously as Sharon Stone.

I arrived early and sat on a bench by the window opposite Delphine. I was settling in when Leo came in and, like a miracle, he came around the table and sat beside me.

“Would you like a drink mesdemoiselles Laura and Delphine?”

“Yes.” We replied in unison.

“Guinness for me, probably Guinness for you too, no?” I looked at Delphine.

“Yeah I’ll have a Guinness too.”

Leo went to the bar, ordered the drinks and sat down.

“So how are things with you, Leo? When are you going back to France for Christmas?” I asked.

“Tomorrow on the Eurostar. I’m not looking forward to it much. I’ve got the knee operation before Christmas.”

“Oh, poor you. I’ll be thinking of you,” I said. “How did you damage your knee in the first place?”

“Football.”

“You don’t seem like the kind of guy who’s into le futbol,” I said.

“Not anymore I’m not. I was before I got into wine.”

“Have you decided on where you’ll be working next summer?” asked Delphine. She was steering the conversation. Good old Delphine.

“I bought a return ticket to Canada from France,” he said. “I’ll be leaving college at Easter so I’ll be back in France again for a while beforehand.”

“How come Canada?” I asked, dreading the answer. Delphine and I exchanged a glance.

“I’ve got a friend there I’d like to see and there’s a farm near her in Toronto. They’ve agreed to take me on for a few weeks so that’s my plan.” My heart sank. I was feeling about as fabulous as six feet under. “How about you Laura? You’re finishing aren’t you?” he said.

“Yeah, I think I’m going to spend my summer with Delphine at her parents’ place. I’ve got an open invitation. After that, I dunno,” I replied.

“My mother’s going to love you,” said Delphine. I wished somebody would, I thought.

“I’d like to come and see your farm sometime too,” said Leo. My spirits lifted for a moment and then I thought maybe he likes Delphine? I was confused. I took another sip of Guinness. Delphine’s place did sound amazing. Her parents had farmed biodynamically for forty years and they had a vineyard too. They sold at the market in Cahors and produced a piece of black magic, a black wine, Clos de Bellelavie. I was looking forward to it, my summer in the southwest but it seemed like it would be without the sparkling angel creature, Leo.

I took another sip. I loved Guinness in an authentic Guinness glass. Leo was drinking it too. Suzanne and Andrea arrived but with Delphine as my threshold guardian, they would have to go elsewhere. At least I wouldn’t have to spend my summer with them, I thought. The pub was filling and even tutors showed up along with a few farmers from Tablehurst. Emerson types were none too keen on alcohol in the main because it interfered with your consciousness–which was exactly why I liked it. Who needs reality when a pint of Guinness beckons, especially with a packet of salt ’n’ vinegar crisps? Some of my most spiritual moments have been when I’ve lain in bed alone with a hangover.

No to alcohol but yes to meat–it was a curious set of beliefs. The peasant farmer of Austro-Hungary inspired the biodynamic view on the world, as well as a whole bunch of Hindu thinking–reincarnation, karma, etheric bodies, astral bodies. It involved the sun and the moon and the stars, the heavens, everything visible and invisible, the karma of the earth through birth and rebirth. No wonder it was ignored by scientists. On the other hand, what did they know about lived experience? They had undermined consciousness, therefore love. Dead matter couldn’t process meaning, I could. I had been as intrepid as Columbus on my inner journey.


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