Somewhere in the sun baked land of Provence, between the obstinately snow- capped Alps and the sparkling blue Mediterranean, stands a large rocky outcrop three kilometres inland from the busy coast.
The hill which juts out so starkly from the alluvial plain has tempted man to take advantage of its heights ever since Neolithic hunters first scratched some shelter there. The conquering Romans installed a military garrison on it and left the gravestones to prove it. A thousand years later in the year 1300 a princely family built a castle to crown the peak by the ancient church, and the little town began to take on its present form.
The narrow cobbled lanes, stone built houses and dark archways, with their mellow colours and irregularly shaped terra cotta roofs and twisted doorways, are splashed in the summertime with purple bougainvillea so bright that it hurts the eye. Pink and yellow and scarlet and blue and white blossoms cover the white walls, and yellow fritillaries as big as butter pats flutter above the green leaves in the heat.
All day long from the little market town at the foot of the steep hill the donkeys trail steadily, wearily resigned to their melancholy fate, carrying fruit, vegetables and gleaming fish from the markets. Up and down they toil, from morning cockcrow until the twilight hour, when at last the house martins begin to swoop and twitter round the eaves of the housetops. It is the time when the old men on the place ever so reluctantly to put away their boules until the next day.
Hugging the hill and dug so deeply into the battlements of the chateau that it is hard to know where the castle ends and the auberge begins, crouch the rambling buildings that make up one of the great hotels of the world. Its fine rooms and Michelin starred restaurant draw the rich and famous from all over le Cote d’Azur.
And tonight there is a banquet to celebrate the ending of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Already the chauffeurs are drawing their limousines up the hill.
So narrow are the lanes that even Hollywood film stars and dollar millionaires must walk the last few hundred yards through the cobbled streets in the evening sunlight, although Brigitte Bardot and Suzi Solidor need only walk from their houses on the place. Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, David Niven, Ingrid Bergman, and a dozen others are strolling towards the chateau and the hotel’s dining room, enjoying the anticipation of the evening to come.
Inside the hotel the atmosphere is intense, as more than thirty waiters and chefs bustle about their business. The great tables are already groaning with the entrees, and a small three-piece band is striking up a Mozart serenade. The rooms are filled now with the beautiful people of the film world, chattering and laughing and clinking champagne glasses, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of Gaulloise tobacco.
The man responsible for all this, the founder and genius of the hotel, is putting the finishing touches to his black bow tie in front of a large gilt mirror in his private suite, and fixing a red carnation to his lapel. He is reflecting with quiet satisfaction on how he bought the hotel as a tiny auberge all those years ago, when he was first married, and gradually acquired the houses on either side to create his cherished dream, this wonderful hotel.
Gaston Lebeq is now the very picture of a handsome dandy, his dark curly hair brilliantined for the occasion, the trademark dazzling white smile setting off his olive skin and sly brown eyes.
“There! How do I look?”
His wife is sitting on her habitual Louis XIV delicately carved oak chair, watching him. Her full-length bright blue silk dress has been artfully arranged so as not to crease. Her coiffure is exquisite. She is smoking a du Maurier cigarette in an elegant holder – no Disque Bleu for her – and looks at him with narrowed eyes. Her expression betrays barely concealed contempt and even loathing, her voice harsh and autocratic.
“You look like a gigolo, comme d’habitude. And which of the little putains are you expecting to seduce tonight? I suppose Giselle will be here?” She nearly spits the name out, tapping the long ash off her cigarette.
“Or is there a new one I don’t know about yet?”
He laughs and turns away from the mirror, wincing as he does so.
“Don’t start that nonsense again, Monique. Aaah!” His smile fades and he grips his stomach. “Ooff – I must have indigestion. What was in that drink you poured me? I thought it tasted bitter.”
She only smiles enigmatically.
He straightens up. “Now, we must go and meet the guests. Come along!”
But somehow his legs won’t carry him, and his complexion has gone a greenish yellowy colour.
“Tu ne te sens pas bien, cheri?” asks his wife. The question is innocuous, but her tone is almost gleeful.
“Aaah! Dieu!” Now he is bending double, reaching his hands out to the mirror to stop himself falling. “What is happening to me?”
Through his blinding pain he stares at his image in the mirror. Incredulously he sees his black hair turning first grey, then only moments later, white. His face is wrinkling up before his eyes. He looks appalled at his yellow teeth. His eyes are staring, and his cheekbones are standing out from his face. He is ageing fifty years before his eyes.
Images of his youth pass before his eyes. He sees the spray following a speedboat on the Mediterranean, the yachts clustering round Cannes gleaming in the distance, a smiling blonde girl pushing the hair out of her eyes as she smiles up at him from the deck.
“My hands! Look at my hands! They’re creased and speckled, like an old hen! And my legs – they’re bending under me! Oh Jesus – what’s happened to me?”
Now he is a baby again, clutching the hem of his mother’s long black skirt. He smells the coarse cotton, feels his throat choking with childish vomit.
Only a cackle comes from his wife, who hasn’t moved.
“It’s you, you bitch… you’ve poisoned me! You’ve put a spell on me!”
Now she stands up slowly. She too has aged, but gracefully. She is still a tall, fine looking woman. But now she is older. Much older.
“Yes, Gaston.” She waves her hand. “ Look around you. It’s all gone – all your precious creation. There are no guests tonight, cheri. Nor ever will there ever be again. You can relax! There is no restaurant. No Michelin stars. The authorities have closed it down. It’s gone, all gone, turned to ashes. But …. you are still here, you see!” She laughed again, almost choking over her cigarette
* * *
He stares about him, aghast. The room is almost the same, but incredibly the tapestries and the wallpaper have faded. It carries the faint odour of decay. He gives a muted cry of terror, and totters to the door to look down on the dining room.
She is right. The great room is empty, though the crystal chandeliers and the painted wooden ceiling are still in place and the tables are all elaborately laid. There are no distinguished diners in evening dress, no busy waiters, no merry chatter, no laden tables or sparkling wine glasses. He cannot believe his senses, and looks again at his wrinkled hands.
He hears in the distance her laughter, gradually fading away. It chills him to the marrow, and he has to clutch the banisters for support. He gazes at the empty dining room. Everything is dingy, dark, uncared for.
But there is someone here…
On the terrace beyond the salle a manger two figures sit hunched over a table. They have a pot of tea beside them, and are studying a board game. A copy of the Daily Telegraph dated July 2014 lies beside them, discarded on a chair.
One of the players raises his head, startled, and glances back to the oak staircase. He sees a very old man in a dinner suit walking painfully slowly downstairs towards them, staring about him.
He comes quite near to their table, but seems unaware of their presence. He is muttering to himself. Blue veins stand out on his forehead, and his skin is parchment yellow. A curious acrid smell comes from him.
“Incroyable.” After a moment he turns and walks unsteadily back upstairs, clutching the stair rails, his mouth agape.
“What was that? Did you see something?”
“Just an old man. He’s gone now.”
“Old man? I didn’t see anyone. Do keep your mind on the game, if you don’t mind. ” The Englishman bangs his silver topped stick irritably on the floor. “I don’t know why we come here, you know. This place gives me the creeps.”
“You know very well we like it because it’s so quiet. And it’s nice that they still do afternoon tea here, if nothing else. Now, be quiet. I’m trying to think. ”
Behind them the hotel is quiet now, and from the terrace they look up from their game for a moment to watch the sea and the mountains as they merge imperceptibly into inky darkness in the distance. A lighthouse flashes rhythmically in the bay beyond Golfe Juan, and the first stars are peeping through the blackness.
The crickets begin to chirp in the gardens of the little houses. Somewhere beneath the castle walls an owl hoots softly, but apart from these sounds, and a curious hoarse long drawn out panting groan from what must be a faulty air conditioning system in the empty kitchens, the old hotel is silent.
I retired to the Cotswolds ten years ago after selling the retail business in North Wales which I had built up over forty long years. Fortunately for my sanity most of my time was spent creating advertising copy and promotions, which dramatically increased the business and taught me the power of words. Being a member of the Chippy Writers’ Group encouraged me to attempt a lifelong ambition to write a novel. Recently published, In the Shadow of Hitler is a romance set in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in 1946.... more