“Impossib!” He shakes his head, shrugs his polo-clad shoulders.
“What are you saying?”
The word ‘saying’ pronounced in French makes it sound lyrical.
“That is ridiculous!”
He turns to me, his grey-green eyes made prominent by his gold horn-rimmed glasses.
“You know, this is difficult to believe.”
He looks heavenward.
His theatrical gestures are those of an irate French diplomat. But he does not lose his Gallic manners. He huffs, puffs and makes a lot of noise. His posturing has little effect on the quiet but determined woman behind the counter. Her cream dress with small floral print is pressed. The white collar sits primly on her angular shoulders. Her body language is of one about to suggest tea to calm the nerves. She exudes an air of controlled calm. The badge of authority.
“I am sorry, Monsieur, but there is nothing I can do.
“You have not made a booking.
“The only car available is a Citroen.
“It is not what you want. But it is the only available car. You understand it is the peak tourist season.
“The Citroen will be available in an hour, if you’re interested.”
The clock ticks. Passengers mill around. The intercom announces the next flight is delayed. We’re at the arrival terminal in Corsica.
Kostas rummages about in his wallet, muttering.
“Impossib! This is so typical.”
He produces a creased form confirming an internet booking of a Land Rover – air-conditioned, the latest mod cons, the type of vehicle suited to the rugged hills of Corsica. He believes this will miraculously change the authoritative attitude of Madame Madeleine.
Madame Madeleine stares at him with icy blue eyes.
“I am sorry, Sir. There is no booking.”
She shrugs her shoulders as if to say these things happen. It is not my problem. She smiles. Her thin lips a glossy burnt orange. Her coiffured hair, immaculately pressed dress and overpowering perfume are redolent of a schoolteacher speaking to a simple child.
“The only car available is the Citroen.
“A Land Rover may be available in two days.”
She glances at us. Her gaze fixes on my brother-in-law Kostas.
I intervene because Kostas is, from the look in his eyes and the audible expletives under his breath, about to burst a blood vessel.
“Bloody English,” he murmurs, “always so correct and so polite.”
Madame Madeleine ignores him, no doubt willing the day to end, perhaps dreaming about doing something wild and adventurous, like shooting irate Frenchmen who refuse to listen. Her voice is treacle, controlled with a hint of threat.
“The Citroen, Sir. Do you want it?”
She is the Iron Lady.
Our catastrophe with the car hire, the million passengers teaming around with unwieldy luggage, tired, waiting to start their dream holiday, or return home, suddenly fill me with a longing to flee into the Corsican countryside. Anything to escape the chaos of a million butterflies all flapping their wings at the same time, creating an earthquake in Peru.
“We’ll take the Citroen. Thank you,” I gush.
I place a conciliatory hand on my brother-in-law.
Kostas takes charge of driving.
My husband David accommodates his six-foot frame to the cramped space of the Citroen, his posture akin to the Crow Asana in Yoga, his knees at his ears, feet perched on luggage. Travelling light, for my sister Angela, translates into two suitcases and innumerable pieces of hand luggage. The blunt edge of a suitcase nudges my ribs.
Kostas takes to the road like a grand-prix driver.
“My childhood is Corsica,” he says, “I’m Corsican.”
I smile and say nothing. I’m sure even Corsica would have changed after a period of thirty years.
“Ah! Don’t worry, Margarit.” He pronounces my name in a lilting French accent, “I grew up in these hills. Nothing’s changed. Maybe the highway.”
He swerves to miss a goat, tourists on bicycles and others who “drive like madman.”
He shakes his head.
“It’s like Paris,” he says, “I remember it when…. ”
He has a brainwave.
“I’ll show you my childhood home.”
“Maybe we should go and see your Aunt, first. Freshen up? Get a map?” I suggest tentatively.
Is he listening? No.
“The English. They are so cautious,” Kostas says, looking at me in the rear-view mirror. “It’s amazing you beat us at Trafalgar, eh! Napoleon was Corsican. Not scared of challenges. Can you imagine what would have happened if Napoleon had waited till he had a map instead of creating one?”
He laughs. “Don’t worry, Margarit, I know the way. It’s OK.”
My husband and sister laugh at his teasing but I sit in the back, unable to share his enthusiasm. It is a beautiful autumn day, the sun an orange glow in the sky, the sea a sparkling Mediterranean turquoise. The rays of light cast a pink tinge on the crimson, rose and violet rocks of LʼÎle-Rousse, the port. But, like a maiden aunt taken out for the day, I am unable to relax and enjoy the scenery. The nagging voice within me worries that we will get lost. I imagine the car-hire agent charging an exorbitant fee for damage done to the car. The scarlet Citroen, gleaming like a showroom model, is not an off-road vehicle. I sit in silence, ruminating on worst-case scenarios.
“This is it.”
Kostas changes gear and makes a sharp turn. He heads down a dirt road into an olive grove. The Citroen, weighted down by four passengers, luggage and other paraphernalia, rattles along the rugged track. My brother-in-law, oblivious to the groans of the car, is a Frenchman in search of his childhood. Nothing is going to stop him.
A loud scraping sound followed by the clunk of the car grazing something solid – a rock perhaps.
“Impossib! What is that?”
I look at the olive tree whose branches almost touch the ground. I see the submerged rock.
We untangle ourselves from the car. The car unburdened of its load regains buoyancy. Chrysalis-like, we free our stiff limbs. Inspect the damage. There is a scratch on the red paint. Kostas inches the car out of the rut. We pile back in.
I assume the incident will deter Kostas. He, however, is more resolute.
“Yes! This way.”
We traverse the rugged Corsican scrub in search of Kostas’s childhood.
“The olive groves! What memories.”
The leaves of the olive trees are a silvery grey, the gnarled and stunted trunks a testimony to history, reassuring symbols in a rapidly changing landscape. The air is filled with the smell of wild fennel, rosemary and other herbs.
“Can you smell it?” Kostas asks.
He’s in the world of his youth.
“The characteristic smell of the maquis. The wild herbs. The maquis,” he reiterates, pointing to the countryside.
“During the resistance Corsican rebels hid in the maquis. Corsicans are a proud people. Patriotic! The villagers used to feed them. The authorities could not find them in this wild country.”
Kostas sits at the wheel, reminiscing about his heritage and his ties to the past.
The brief stop spurs him on. We continue on our diminishing hope of finding Kostas’s family home, desperately seeking the road that will take us to the home by the beach.
My silent mantra is that the Citroen is a sturdy French car. Insurance and legal fees torment my vivid imagination. I visualise the car looking like a casualty of war.
“Where is it?” Kostas scratches his head, “maybe if….”
It is almost dusk. The light is fading.
“Why don’t we ask your aunt?”
Kostas looks at me reluctantly.
“Yes. You’re right. It is somewhere, just here.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. Kostas turns towards the highway.
The following morning we inspect the car. Kostas looks genuinely surprised.
“A scratch. “They don’t’ make cars like they used to,” he mutters.
He has a Corsican solution.
“Tomorrow we buy some polish. No problem. It is only a minor, how you say, hiccup?”
I disappear into the cool of my room with low wooden beams and ochre walls. A large door opens out onto the balcony and beyond it are the hills of Corsica, the olive groves and the sea. The sound of a donkey braying cuts through the countryside, I hear Corsican accents floating up from the courtyard, the clink of glasses, cutlery, tables being set and meals being cooked.
“Margarit, I have cooked a typical Corsican dish. My mother’s recipe,” Kostas calls out.
It is fish baked in fennel, picked during our venture down the dirt track. He serves it with a ruby red Corsican wine, earthy and raw.
We sit on the balcony, eating goat’s cheese and fresh figs, and look out at the silver globe of the moon over the Mediterranean.
Bhama Daly was born in Kuala Lumpur. New horizons beckoned and, in the 1970s, she pursued a career in nursing in London. She migrated to Cairns with her husband Simon in 1978. They have two sons. Bhama’s career has embraced not only nursing but also academic work at the University of Queensland and the James Cook University, Cairns. Her research and writing are informed by stories, myths and legends and the way in which they provide explanations for being in the world. Bhama’s interests include writing, reading, Yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba and, a topic of endless procrastination, how not to write the best-selling novel.