Thursday, March 31, 2011
The hands of the Madonna
"The other afternoon, when at the top of the house in what is known as the Anglo-Indian room - the study in which I work - Emilienne came through on the house phone: the admirable Emilienne who hs been running things for us for the last thirty-five years. I must come down, there was an old lady of ninety-one who wanted to see the garden. Emilienne has an infallible judgement about people, and wouldn't have called had the visitor not passed muster. So I went down, and there at the door stood Madame Delor accompanied by three friends. Impulsively she held out both hands - 'I was born here, grew up in this house, and it is only now I have dared to come back'. She apologised for intruding, and her eyes were misted with tears. Equally moved, I took her arm and we walked off down under the pergola. Excitedly she exclaimed on this and that, and turning into the spring garden she showed me where the family used to play boulles: 'and you know, we could get so worked up that we stuck a candle on the couchonnet and went on playing in the dark'. She carried her years well and there was no faltering or fumbling for words. 'You still have that palm, I see. You know the coastguards were always after my father about cutting it down. They claimed that it made a landmark for the smugglers.' Again the tears of joy behind the glasses: "And the Madonna up there' - she was referring to a twenty-foot Virgin and Child cast in copper which stands next to the King of Sardinia's mortuary chapel capping the head of the point. 'The sculptor was a friend of my father's and he used my hands as his model.' The Madonna is not actually in the garden, but looms over the wall and was originally intended for the tower - all that remains of the original fort. Her role was to be that of guardian angel to the fisherman, but somehow she never quite made her supposed elevation and now dwarfs her surroundings, a miniature Statue of Liberty, an ecclesiastical landmark cradling the Christ Child instead of holding aloft a lamp of liberty.
"Before leaving, I asked Madame Delor to sign the visitors' book: the date is 20 May 1974, and without hesitation she wrote out her piece, ending with a well-turned phrase, thanking me - 'Who has given me today, at the age of ninety-one, the opportunity of reliving my early years'."
There it stands, next to the eleventh-century Chapelle Saint-Hospice, the inordinate bronze statue of the Virgin, overlooking what was Roderick Cameron's garden and, at her feet, the ninety graves in the First World War military cemetery - graves of Belgian soldiers who died at Villa Les Cedres, the house belonging to the Belgian king Leopold II, that had been converted to a hospital.
Occasionally, I think I'm done with Roderick Cameron and his friends, yet each time more connections are made and new ideas present themselves. Nevertheless, for a while at least, I want to move away from Cameron and look in other directions and broaden my theme of circles within circles.
Photo of the Madonna by Eric Hoekszema from Google Maps.
Screen shot from Google Maps.
Quotation from The Golden Riviera, Roderick Cameron, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.