11.06.20

Catherine Chidgey - Memories of Menton

2001 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, Catherine Chidgey, recalls her memories of Menton.

"I still dream about Menton: the old belle époque apartment in the Palais Lutetia, with its cool tiled floors and its views over the glittering Mediterranean; the neighbour who presented me with a sprig of mimosa when I arrived; the portrait of the elderly owner, Madame Lilly, as a dancer in her youth; the little local sweets that looked like beach pebbles. Every week I borrowed books from the English library, which comprised a few shelves and was run by Anglican ladies who approved of my Patricia Highsmiths because “they don’t have any swear words”. I remember visiting Ventimiglia in Italy on one of my first days there – a thrill for an island-dweller, to cross a border so easily – and buying a woven-flax grasshopper from a street vendor. I hung it in the apartment, where it twirled and trembled on its thread when the breeze stirred the thick summer air.

The fellowship came at the perfect time for me, just as I was writing my novel The Transformation – the story of a villainous wigmaker who flees his native France for sultry Florida. In flashbacks to his youth, I sent him to the cliffside villages around Menton to acquire the hair of local women. As soon as I found out about the Procession des Limaces – an annual religious feast in the village of Gorbio – I knew he had to attend. Led by the order of the White Penitents, the procession takes place at nightfall, the curving narrow streets lit by tiny lamps made from oil-filled snail shells. My wigmaker followed in my footsteps, following the trail of little flames.

I remember the kindness of the two Williams. William Rubinstein (French William) collected me from the airport and taught me how to navigate the trains and markets and bakeries as well as the tricky lock on the gate to the Villa Isola Bella, where Mansfield lived. He organised a tour of the upper floor, too, which was unrenovated and off limits at that time, so I could see the terrace on which she had convalesced – or tried to – in the Riviera sun. He made the best ratatouille I have ever tasted, and introduced me to his friends. I still have the antique liqueur glass one of them pressed into my hand when I admired it; it had been in her family for generations, and she insisted I take it even though that would break up the set. William Waterfield (English William) lived in a beautiful old villa with a famous garden in which I was always made welcome. I stayed with him for a week when Madame Lilly used the apartment for her summer holiday, and he told me I was sleeping in the very same bed Julian Barnes occupied whenever he visited.

I remember, too, the kindness of one of my elderly neighbours when I locked myself out of the apartment: he produced one of his chest X-rays and used it to jimmy the lock, credit-card style, then invited me for a glass of pastis with him and his wife on their balcony.

They come to me often, these snatches, these fragments, to remind me of that enchanted time. Shifting and fluttering on the currents of memory, trembling on their threads."

- Catherine Chidgey

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Catherine Chidgey