03.09.20

Sunny Ghosts - Ken Duncum

Ken Duncum, 2010 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, shares his memories of Menton with a list of visitors to the Katherine Mansfield Room, 2010.

First came the Fancys

from Ontario

in my first week writing

catching the No. 3 bus every morning

looking at the sea, walking up

Ave. Katherine Mansfield

to the shed of her gardener, my ceiling

her floor, the terrace where she stood

to see the blue sea and the sun

lizards and snakes


The Fancys came to the room

a wedge of Spring sunlight in the door

they were the first

a few days later another Canadian

retired couple, their winters so deep

and dark they said

everyone seizes a chance to get away

Their book on the crowded history

of this coast of poets and playwrights

had led them here to Chekhov

one more on the list

(and didn’t she love old Anton

my neighbour turning the leaves

on the upstairs terrace)


Next was Therese

whose name wasn’t Therese

but finding yourself in France

can do that for you

Michele changed places with me

some afternoons

to listen for her own

sunny ghosts

Now, in her absence

her name everywhere

on the buildings and the streets

she’s more than ever the patron saint

of this town for me


Who knows who else arrived

after the sleepwalking lunch hour

when I had departed and locked the gate

so they had to squint

through the railings

to read the plaques?


The pace picked up

Two women from Wellington

connected city across the sea, an Irish

couple, Sydney-sider Fiona

on a cruise (Masters on Woolf

and Mansfield), two Italian women

and their dog, all of us surprised to see each other

when I stepped out of the toilet

The train stopped every half-hour

going to Ventimille, coming from Ventimiglia

the passengers regarded me, I looked at them

through the open door, the trees

the platform I watched an important-looking pheasant

march the length of not long ago

In April a train leaving the sleepy shimmering gare

killed an old lady

two hundred yards down the track

according to the Nice Matin

Menton edition

I opened the door one day

and a startled lizard dropped his banded tail

hopping

on the doorstep, and dashed behind the chest of drawers

There were cats too, sneaking and slinking

brawling in the lane, and rolling in patches

of the old tiger Mrs Murray’s dust


Leslie from Devonport checks up on the KM Fellow

every year, and checked up on me

strolling down from her usual apartment on Boulevard Garavan

- they downsized in Auckland to make it possible

you have to decide what you want

No visitor knew my name

(more than fine by me)

many thought the lucky Fellow lived

in the Villa Isola Bella and came in hopes

of strolling around that, rather than a peek

in her revamped gardener’s shed

One asked me

‘What time do you open?’


An Italian woman, ex-teacher of literature

was interested (or disappointed) to discover Katherine

married - all the ‘m’s -

Mansfield married Middleton Murray

mmm …


The Italian couple speaking no English

wife translating the plaques for her husband

while a gentle rain falls

and that was the day Jenna rocked up

from WOOFing at Alexandra’s New Zealand garden

high under the cliffs behind us - Jenna

generally worked crewing yachts, but next day for a change

was off to a circus school

in the Pyrenees


An English couple, retired physicist and biochemist

asked me what I was writing and when I told them

recounted a séance where the lights

swung and the table moved

Jane came, since she was staying with us

and all guests had to see the Room

Ron and Judy from Otaki on their way

to Aix knew all about the other KM houses

Karori, Days Bay (collect the set)

they took my photo

Moira, Maeve and Flo – summer girls –

Merrian and Chris from Karehana Bay (throwing

a stone from my old house I could have rattled

their roof) were heading for Tuscany

Bill and Pauline from Christchurch were off to climb

in the Dolomites (after a turn round Serre

La Madone in the searing sun)

one more English couple

she likes to photograph cemeteries

he met the brother of James Joyce in Trieste

in 1947


Charlotte and Paul left their kids on the beach

to look inside the room she hadn’t seen

since her father wrote there

and she lived and went to school just up the rue

in ‘72. It has changed

oh yes


Hannah from the Riviera Times lost her copy

of Katherine’s letters and journals when her bag

was ripped off her arm in a tram

in the Nice projects

she was writing an article on why Menton

had proved so fruitful for la Mansfield

- I hazarded a guess, imagining ‘her upstairs’

flying into a tantrum

if she heard

Petra and Gerard, at their ease in Eze

reported it had been -2 the morning

they left Wellington, Enrico Berra

owned a holiday apartment up the lane

(our little stretch of the Via Julia Augusta

rampant roman road)

and was collecting the history of the neighbourhood

In his perfect English he took my number

said he’d invite me for drinks

I think it’s too wet and cold, and late in the year

for that now, mio amico


A little chocolate-coloured frog on the steps

after the rain, who hoped if he ignored me

I’d do the same

then mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes

the door had to be closed!

hiding in the fluorescent glare of the eaves, sliding down the air the instant

I concentrated on what I should be doing

- watching through the window, or if you were the hustling

bustling woman on the roof opposite

hanging out her washing every morning

you would have thought I’d gone mad

stalking and

clapping

inspecting my palms for satisfying

smears of blood


(And don’t forget

the palm outside the window

its green seedfruit

and fingers fanned against blue sky)


Our friend Anne, on her way back from walking

in William Waterfield’s garden at the Clos du Peyronnet

after I’d missed the bus and missed the garden

English tourists passing in the lane

‘I thought Katherine Mansfield was a movie star’ ‘Yeah, she was’

‘No, she was a writer’


The summer storm that exploded in knuckles of hail

piling like snow in the yard under x-ray flashes

of lightning, driving rain under the door

in a flood that flowed behind the chest of drawers

and would have flushed out the stubby lizard

had he still been crouched there

rewriting his tail


Two couples from Auckland staying in the hills

behind Nice, an English one on their way

to Chateau Vallavieille who look forward to seeing me

in the West End, a soft-spoken Frenchman

and his parents, he more interested in Virginia Woolf

his mother more interested in gardens

- they were going home to google me

a mother and daughter from San Remo who told me

Edward Lear is buried there

as they left, excited chatter by the gate

and a third Italian woman from an apartment above

attracted by the activity

and the over-the-border voices pushes open the door

there are twenty-two apartments in the Villas Louise

and Isola Bella she tells me

pronouncing authoritatively what all we Mentonnais know

already: ‘Italians

like it here’


Beth and Bruce, last guests

of the summer, Merryn who came four days

while we were on holiday - and cleaned my tea-encrusted

cup

We were in Copenhagen when Karl and Kaye

turned up, Karl jumped the fence

to stand where he stood

in the poem he wrote to Katherine – telling us later

over paella in Ave St Michele ‘When I’m too old

to climb over the fence

I’ll stop coming to Menton’


Margaret and Rob from Remuera

also dropped by ‘to pay homage’

2pm 13th Sept – leaving a card

and a kiwi fridge magnet

and on Michele’s last afternoon here

a young Yorkshire couple

who’d never heard of KM

were doing the sights in the guidebook

but knew someone living in Christchurch

who’d been shaken up in the earthquake - always

some connection


A Cambridge foursome had friends

they labeled for convenience

Kiwi1 and Kiwi2

they always come to Menton out of season, asked

my name

forgot it

came back next day

to ask again

Why didn’t I say, just call me

Kiwi3?


A French or German woman too nervous to come inside

(I was more than usually unshaven)

she stared at the plaques –

‘Interested in Katherine Mansfield?’

‘No. ‘

(her only question: Why did she come here? She was ill?)

Later, a couple retired to Menton

from Paris - Isle de France they called it –

‘She wrote Breakfast At Tiffany’s?’


Mark and his wife, New Zealanders

teaching in Saudi, here ahead of a conference

in Nice

November rain pattering down on us

Again that day, the clang of the gate

‘Bonjour’

‘Bonjour’

‘Parlez-vous Anglais peut-etre?’

He shrugs

an eloquent shrug

we stand there a moment, sea sparkling

between the buildings


In the lane, the man from the Otis van:

‘Where’s No. 12?’

‘Je ne le sais’

‘What number is this?‘

I shrug

an eloquent shrug


As the year dwindles down

only the stragglers

shoes rasp in the gravel

I open the door

‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’

‘A little. Un peu de Francais, mais … we are German.’

Defeated

I leave them to it.


And Grace in a hurry – the last –

on her way to Milano

who’s been coming on holiday

here thirty years but only this one time

sees the door open – but she’s leaving

her car is in the lane

I’m lonely now, want her to stay

and talk

she reads Katherine in Italian

but prefers English, more people

know about Gurdjieff than Mansfield now

- he’s kind of a cult -

but nobody in Menton knows about the KM Fellow, nobody

knows this!

She’s headed for her car

parked outside the gate

blocking the lane

Milano-bound, over her shoulder

‘I come back’


It’s raining today

muddy footprints cover the tiles

where I’ve hopped out and back

to the toilet

empty water bottles crowd the corner

the overflow from my upstairs neighbour’s terrace

spatters and splatters on the stones

beside the doorstep

I know, when the sun comes out

it will drip for days

In half an hour I will catch the bus

and here’s the train again

with a screech of brakes

and a whirr of accompanying birds.


I wrote many things here

(this is the last)

I worked well, it suited me

it was mine

for a time

First came the Fancys, and the last to leave

was Grace

flying down the steps

and through the gate to other places

other times

but see, the plant in the fence-corner

I fed soggy bananas to

that looked so amputated when I first arrived

is flowering its white trumpets

for the third time

‘Ma ville est un jardin’

oui, vraiment


Je revien


I come back

if not with the big brass key

to the iron gate,

then scrambling

over the railings


and if too old

for that, well

I can always get Karl Stead

to give me a leg up.


Ken Duncum, Katherine Mansfield Room, Menton, December 6, 2010

Ken Duncum cropped