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This new condition


This is not really about truffles, although they come into it. It’s about a man called Luc Lanlo. Ian and I met him in Menton in 2006, that magical year when we lived in the south of France, purring away our days in a Provençal apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. The dream time. The place I wake up some mornings and still see: the blond sand on the seashore; the wild dahlia-red skies of evening; the town pink and gold in the afternoon light.

I was in Menton because New Zealand still honours Katherine Mansfield and sends a writer there every year to live in the south of France, as she did. We had been there just a few days when the deputy mayor held a reception for us. This was Luc, a vivid dark man, born in Madagascar. A man who loved this town and loved literature, and somehow, astonishingly, seemed to love us. The love affair between all of us began the moment we set eyes on one other. When I say all of us, there were Luc and his husband, art historian Michel Imbert, and Michel’s mother Berthe, and Ian and me. Neither Luc nor Berthe spoke English, and Ian spoke no French. My French is halting; Michel and I bridged as many gaps as possible. I think back to the ‘conversations’ we had with Luc when Michel was absent with a kind of wonder. All I can say is that they worked.

That first meeting took place beneath a canopy of Jean Cocteau artwork, the ceiling of La Salle des Mariages, city hall’s official wedding room. There was a small function held to hand over the keys to the Katherine Mansfield room in Villa Isola Bella, near the edge of the Italian border. Then Luc, in a sudden gleeful moment, decided that Ian and I needed a second marriage ceremony and so we were united again, before I could say a word. What followed, during that sojourn on the Côte d’Azur, were concerts with our new friends, beachside dinners, trips to the mountains, conversations in the town square, and surprises sprung upon us in a spirit of merriment.

Luc and Michel and Berthe owned a winter house on the edge of the sea in Menton and a summer house in the medieval village of Gorbio, which nestles among hills, bougainvillea lacing its walls. The people who live there are called Gorbarins. Beneath Gorbio lies Monaco, in one direction, and Italy in the other. Some days we would go to Gorbio on the bus and sit under the shade of a three-hundred-year-old elm tree that spread across the square, or some nights by car with Gordon, a friend from New Zealand.

On the last night ever that the two of us were in Menton, Berthe walked into Italy and gathered truffles. From a market, I supposed. I couldn’t see her digging round the roots of oak trees, surely someone must have done that for her, but the truffles were fresh. I have always been fascinated by truffles, their mysterious underground existence, a fungus latched onto its host. I first saw them at a research station near Invercargill, where a scientist was experimenting to see whether they could be successfully grown in New Zealand. They were nuggety little things in a basin, emitting an odd cloying scent. I couldn’t match them in my mind’s eye with Colette’s famous remark that if she couldn’t ‘have too many truffles’ she would ‘do without truffles’. But they fired something in my imagination. Years later, I wrote a whole novel dedicated to the search for truffles closer to home. Songs from the Violet Café is set in a nameless town, although it’s so clearly Rotorua that I’ve never tried to deny it. There is a lake, an island, purple evenings. The imaginary café stands at the same address where Ian and I lived in the first years of our marriage, a place now occupied by a high-rise motel.

In Gorbio, we feasted on Berthe’s ravioli flecked with white truffe, and it was different from any truffle I have eaten before or since. We ate saffron prawns too, and blancmange, and drank a dark chardonnay. The table was laid with heavy silver cutlery on a crimson cloth; the walls of the dining room were bone-white stone, decorated with dark red paintings by an Indian artist called Raza. And all the while the lights of two countries glimmered beneath us.

When we came to leave, the family showered us with gifts: a small mirror etched with a Cocteau sketch tucked into a red velvet pouch for me; for Ian, whose birthday it was the next day, a white bone-china plate decorated with a Cocteau drawing. It shows a young man with a flaring nose, a curled lip and a fish for an eye. It hangs in my house still. We all wept then, promising that some day we would meet again. We would come back. Or Luc would come to New Zealand. Somehow the magic would go on.

Luc was at the railway station the next morning to say goodbye again. He helped us load our cases aboard the bullet-nosed TVG bound for Paris. He stood on the platform, his arm raised as the train drew away, gathered speed, took us beyond Menton.

I would see him three more times. Ian never did.

A few months later, I returned to France for a writers’ tour. There was a reception at the New Zealand embassy in Paris, hosted by the ambassador, Sarah Dennis. She told me she had a surprise for me – Luc and Michel and Berthe, who had made a special trip to see me. There they were, all lined up, shouting ‘Voilà’, laughing boisterously at my delight.

Years passed. Luc had relinquished his mayoral duties in the year following our departure. At New Year, he and Michel would phone up at midnight, shouting unintelligible greetings down the line. Then, in 2016, I made a trip south while on a visit to Paris, to see a friend in Marseilles. She and her husband were going to a conference close to Menton and volunteered to drop me off for the day. The town was crammed with people. The family were at their winter place and I had trouble finding my way back there, along the seafront.

It was almost like the old days, only Ian was back home in New Zealand, and the household in Menton had expanded to include Majod, whom Luc and Michel had adopted. I can’t remember what we ate that day, but I remember the excitement, the exchange of gifts. One of Majod’s roles in the house was to give massages. When I said lightly that was just what I felt like, I was ushered into their specially set-up massage room, facing the sea. I lay down on the table and was ministered to by Majod. It felt as if I had been re-admitted to the family. The new expanded family. We rang Ian and had a conversation that was sleepy at his end. It hit me then, just how much he had been part of the whole Menton venture.

Now Luc said we must walk through the town together. As we made our way through the crowded streets, I remembered other walks. The daily stroll to get an English-language newspaper at the news stand; the way we would often time this for lunchtime, to eat under a tree in the square. Things were the same but not the same. I bought a tablecloth at my favourite linen shop. Luc bought me a huge bottle of limoncello. Just along the street we came to the flight of stone steps that leads up to the local cemetery, where Ian had spent days admiring the ornate designs of the headstones and mausoleums. Our son-in-law had visited us in 2006 and taken a picture of Ian ascending those steps, wearing his little pack, a slight stoop in his back, heading away from us.

I hadn’t realised that Menton had a new attraction on the seafront, the magnificent Jean Cocteau Museum, housing hundreds of works bequeathed by Séverin Wunderman, a watch manufacturer and philanthropic art collector. It is a white building that sweeps and swoons around the bay, harbouring what must be the largest collection of Cocteau’s works in the world, floor after floor of them. Luc was immensely proud of the building, wanting to show me every inch of it. I had the impression that, while he was still deputy mayor, he had been instrumental in securing funding from a wealthy benefactor. But perhaps I misunderstood: it was a point where language failed us.

I said goodbye to him after the tour. Somewhere in my heart, I was thinking that I would not go back to Menton, that one cannot recreate some of the best days of one’s life when parts of it are missing.

But I did go back.


This last visit was unplanned. It was 2018. I had gone to Europe in haste, trying to shake off some demons. Ian had died a few months earlier. At his funeral, we had had the slideshow that everyone includes these days, and it had ended with that photo of his ascending back, as he trudged up the steps towards the cemetery.

All the same, I hadn’t planned to go to Menton. I had stayed with a grandson and his partner in the village of Bargemon, in the French Alps above St Tropez, where we had hung out at the markets and eaten some fine meals. The partner’s mother owns a splendid house on the perimeter of the village that is said to have been built, at Napoleon’s request, for his doctor. My plan was to head for Nice and catch the train into Italy. But when I reached Nice, there was an Italian train strike, and I was stranded for a day or so. It was not so bad. I booked into a hotel. I had friends in Nice, and we arranged to meet for dinner. There was just the day to fill.

I knew where I must go.

So I caught the 100 route bus that took me past Villefranche and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, past Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, once the home of a distant cousin, the Empress Eugenie (through our common Scottish ancestors, the Kirkpatricks of Dumfries). Past the shining waters and the stone buildings, the unimaginable wealth of Monaco. And in an hour or so I was in Menton, walking the familiar boulevards, until I reached the square and sat beneath the tree that sheltered the lunch table. I phoned Luc and said I was there. I wept uncontrollably while I waited for him. The waiters were bemused. I explained as best I could – ‘Mon mari est mort, mort.’ I rocked back and forth. They brought me wine and small things to eat. They were kind and solicitous as if they understood this crazed woman from the other side of the world.

Luc came and put his arms around me, held my hands, murmured in French. It wasn’t all right, but it was as all right as it could be. Soon Michel arrived too.

It was the best thing I could have done for myself. It was also the hardest. The grief had broken at last.

Now it is the time of Covid.

Luc has died, the first of my friends to be felled by this virus.

Luc est mort.

Adieu, mon ami. Thanks for the memory. Thank you for the laughter.

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