We're here on vacation, though leisure was the last thing on the minds of the Genoese warlords who settled Santerre, hewing their towns and villages out of the mountainside into the flinty strongholds that I point out to Jim as we hurtle along the coastal road that hugs the cap. I've made the trip from the airport so often that I've come to enjoy the hairpin turns, the vertiginous drops into the winking sea, the sharp intake of breath as an insane native comes careening around the bend in a beat-up Peugeot, honking too late in warning. The same can't be said for Jim, who stares fixedly ahead, missing all the scenery. By the time we reach the town of Orzo, he has grown unnaturally quiet, his unease betrayed by the overly casual tone in which he asks, "Why are all the road signs painted over?"
"Nationalists," I cheerfully reply.
I swerve to avoid the mournful cow that appears in the middle of the road after the next turn. "They drive around at night with paintbrushes."
"I don't get it."
Sometimes I forget that what passes for local color on Santerre would be viewed by most people as criminal behavior, just as I don't notice anymore the lurid slashes that deface the island's road signs. "Resistance to French cultural imperialism. They blow stuff up too."
"Yeah, right," Jim says wanly.
"Honest," I say, motioning to the charred hulk that once housed the administration of Orzo's defunct asbestos mine, though no one knows for sure how the building reached its present state. Jim, however, is by now entirely focused on not throwing up. Watching him stagger out of the rental car, I can't help but feel a little guilty. Poor Jim: I doubt this was what he had in mind when I proposed a French holiday.
At first sight, the village of Borgolano presents none of the standard Mediterranean charms, especially at dusk, when it takes on a frankly lugubrious aspect, with its tall shuttered houses deep in gloom. Like all Santerran villages, it is carved out of the rock that surrounds it, its four levels connected by a maze of alleys and steep stone stairs patrolled by feral cats, a mangy specimen of which slinks by as we unload our bags. "Where's the beach?" Jim asks, having regained his equilibrium, and I point down, far, far below, to the rocky inlet where sea urchins and jellyfish lie in wait.
Our wheeled cases bumping behind us, we set off down the path, past the Benoîts' and the Paolis', the Perettis' gated compound, and the old Albertoni place, its crumbling stucco baring the stacked stone slabs beneath, until we reach the last bend before the cliff. And there, in the gloaming, awash in purple shadows, rises my family's summer house, the great black oak door flung open to reveal Odette waving in the embrasure.
"Alors, did you have a nice trip?"
Odette used to be a stewardess, and she has retained from those days a brisk social efficiency that I've always found disconcerting but seems to put men at ease. It works on Jim; having ushered us in and installed him in the comfortable chair, she sets about plying him with apéritifs and solicitous chatter, all the while dutifully showcasing me with questions about my exciting life in New York City and my terribly glamorous and important job, the unglamorous nature of which Jim is well acquainted with, since he works with me. I suppose Odette sees this kind of thing as a maternal duty, even though by the time Ross married her I was too old to require a stepmother.
She's done some decorating since I was last here: Lace curtains hang in the windows and a flowered slipcover has been thrown over the couch. Still, the salon, as Odette wishfully calls the big common area on the ground floor, with its refectory table and the picture of General Marconi -- the only local figure ever to have achieved international celebrity, in the eighteenth century -- betrays the fact that Ross was already broke when they moved in.
"Tiens," she now says, "do you know that we had a cambriolage?"
"The house was broken into?"
"Yes, but it is very strange: They took nothing."
"It was probably just kids," I say, "looking for a place to party."
Odette frowns. "I had the lock changed nonetheless."
"They'll just find another way in," I say, glancing at the windows. In daylight they look out on the Mediterranean, but now all you can see is an inky black void.
"So," Odette says when we have finished our drinks, "what room will you take?"
I've been waiting for this.
"The yellow room," I drop casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world -- which it isn't, because the yellow room is the best in the house after Isabelle's, with the firmest mattress and a sea view, and mine to grab since I got here first (before Lucy, that is, who regards it as her birthright). Odette raises an eyebrow but says nothing. With a profound feeling of triumph, I lead the way up, cautioning Jim about the hole in the stairs and showing him the (only) bathroom on the landing. I tell him the house is three hundred years old and used to belong to a pirate, and he says, "Cool."
While we are unpacking -- Jim now rather giddy after two glasses of wine and, I can tell from the way he brushes against me, planning on sex tonight -- I hear voices downstairs, strange since no one else is due until tomorrow. I assume it's Madame Benoît, with whom Odette is friendly in the way the French are, which means that after five years they've moved beyond stiff bonjours on the road to discussions of the weather and finally, last summer, joint outrage at the cacophonous renovation of the Paoli's house, undertaken in July! When I go back down, though, I find not Madame Benoît but a slim, dark-haired Frenchman whom Odette introduces as Yves. An old friend, she explains. He is staying in the attic room, the one no one ever uses because it gets too hot. This Yves, it turns out, on top of being a nervous smoker, speaks good English -- he's some kind of schoolteacher in Paris -- so that when Jim comes down to join us, they shake hands and embark on a conversation about the World Cup. For lack of anything better to do, I follow Odette into the kitchen.
Here, too, improvements have been made: A red and white checked curtain blocks the view of the ruin across the way -- one of Borgolano's many abandoned properties -- and a new light illuminates the stone sink. It's been Odette's long-standing dream to put in new appliances, but for now she's still making do with the original fixtures. Odette takes great pride in her adaptability: As she has often pointed out, if you can cook in a galley you can cook anywhere. Since there are men in the house, she is making a sybaritic feast of lamb in a wine and garlic sauce and even, I notice on the sideboard, cheese and a peach tart.
"Eh bien," she says conspiratorially, "he seems very nice this Jeem, very présentable." She lifts the lid off the stew and gives it a brisk stir, then adds a pinch of salt. It's always amazed me how Odette can cook entirely by smell, undoubtedly the reason she remains a size two despite being nearly fifty.
"Well," I say, chewing on an olive, "he's an investment banker: He has to be presentable."
"Ah, bon," murmurs Odette, who has a healthy respect for power and position and, I can see, is wondering how I managed with my meager charms to snare this prime piece of eligible manhood. I should mention that Jim is good-looking in the square-jawed Brooks Brothers way that appears to be a requisite for a career in corporate finance. Meanwhile, I am wondering exactly what kind of old friend this Yves is. Ross died less than a year ago and Yves seems a bit young for her, not to mention slightly prissy in his ironed jeans and navy blue polo shirt. An odd choice, you would think, after having been married to a dead ringer for Lee Marvin. But Odette doesn't want to talk about Yves, or me, or even her late husband, my father. Now that she's acquitted herself of her stepmotherly duties, her eyes take on the haunted cast that heralds a discussion of what really interests her: the dissolution of my sister Isabelle's marriage to the famous Czech dissident poet and philanderer Jiri Orlik.
"Alors...how does she seem?" she asks, for I am the last one to have seen Isabelle, my former job as an analyst in the emerging markets division of Grohman Brothers having taken me twice to Prague this year.
"The same. It'll take more than a divorce to knock Isabelle down," I reply, helping myself to a gooey wedge of Camembert. Odette, who subscribes to the French canon that cheese is strictly après-dinner, winces. If she could get you into a corner, she would tell you that I am difficile, that she sometimes even finds it hard to believe that Isabelle and I are related.
"Ah, Constance, you don't know what divorce does to a woman," she says, making me wonder how she's so sure since, as far as I know, she's only been married to my father. "And to have to endure it in public!" she adds, for the whole debacle about Jiri abandoning his wife and two daughters for an eighteen-year-old starlet was played out in all the tabloids, since the Czechs take a far greater interest in intellectuals than we do in America. Isabelle even sent me one paper, called Halo, with a picture of Isabelle in a bikini on the cover under the caption, ORLIK DUMPS AMERICAN WIFE!
"If you want my opinion," I offer, chomping on another olive, "Jiri is a jerk and she's well rid of him."
She shoots me one of her How can you be so heartless? looks. Poor Odette: I can't say she hasn't tried hard. It's not her fault that, unlike Isabelle, I didn't need her ministrations. To placate her, I throw her a bone. "So, when are Lucy and Jane arriving?"
It always works: Her preternaturally smooth (collagen injections) brow relaxes as the one bond we share takes hold. Lucy, she informs me with the faintest moue, is arriving from London tomorrow.
Copyright © 2004 by Megan McAndrew