I sometimes wonder if everything on this earth, tangible or intangible, is in some way connected. But that just shows my ignorance. Of course they are. But when Honeybee fishes in her jewellery box, holds up a tortoise shell earring and says “Shall I wear the Belknap earrings tonight”? I might be excused for wondering what could possibly be the connection between a piece of cosmetic jewellery, a volcano in Oregon, an Assiniboine Indian reservation, a 20th century warship and a young French woman. In point of fact the connections, in my mind anyway, seem endless.

The young French woman was born in Oued Zem in Morocco as had her parents and her grandparents, but they were not Moroccans: they were Pieds Noirs, settlers of French ancestry, bound to the Maghreb but not of it. On the morning of 20th August 1955, soon after the girl’s thirteenth birthday, the family’s Moroccan housemaid, who, until then, had been consistently punctual, failed to appear. In fact, no Moroccan gardener, housemaid, cook or driver reported for work in the European quarter of Oued Zem that day. Just as their absence was being discussed among the French settlers over fences and in cafes, a horde of Berber tribesmen, incensed at the French Government’s deposition of their Sultan, Mohamed Ben Youssef, were swarming down from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, armed to the teeth and intent on mayhem. Although the attack had been long premeditated, the Berbers’ blood was at boiling point when they reached Oued Zem and they tore into the settlers with alarming ferocity. Scores of men, women and children, including patients and staff of the hospital, were killed and mutilated before the French Air Force, elements of the Foreign Legion and the guns of the settlers ended the assault. Seventy Europeans lay dead but the French girl and her family had survived. Fearing further atrocities, the girl’s father sent his whole family to safety in France, while he continued working as an engineer at the nearby phosphate mine in Khouribga. The family’s point of repatriation was Grenoble, where the father had bought the splendidly named Cafe des Abattoirs and the apartment above it, and it was there, in 1961, when I was learning to ski and drink wine at the University, that I first met Monique. She was a fellow student’s girl but our friendship lived on long after their romance was exhausted.

In December of 1989 Monique was married and living in the South of France with her husband Claude, a moody Police Inspector stationed in Toulon and their two daughters. Valerie, the eldest at 17, was a petite, petulant airhead who had reached her cultural and intellectual climax listening to pop music in a pink bedroom full of comic strip romances. Carole, two years younger, was quieter, deeper and cleverer. They lived in the business end of the Azure Coast in a town whose economy, since the sixteenth century, had relied upon ship-building and which was therefore pleasantly free of tourists. At this time Western Europe  was busy handing over ship-building  to the far North and the far East and the little port suffered, but it recovered and is still tourist-free, still a pleasant place to sit and drink a pastis by the little port. Agreeable too to take the ferry out through the mussel beds, past the Charles de Gaulle and her battle fleet anchored in the roads and into the harbour of Toulon, lying under the imposing canopy of Mount Faron where, in 1790, a young artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte halted a British invasion. I’m not going to reveal the name of this oasis of urban normality in the unlikely event this blog goes viral and I can no longer find a place in the café by the port.

I was at work in Verona the day Monique rang to tell me that her eldest daughter had run away to Italy with an American sailor. I would have viewed this as a Godsend but her mother was distraught. Valerie, it seems, was in Gaeta, a port just north of Naples and Monique needed to see for herself that her daughter was safe. Some days later I met her off the train and we set off on the long drive to Calabria during which she explained the events leading to Valerie’s elopement.

That summer the USS Belknap, flagship of the 6th Fleet, had paid a courtesy call on the port of Toulon, staying for nearly two months. Home to France’s navy for centuries, Toulon was used to playing host to sailors and the ship’s crew would have enjoyed the sea-front restaurants and night life. There was also much to see outside of the port. There was the nudist paradise on the Ile du Levant, the ever fashionable St Tropez and Tahiti Beach and the impressive Mont St Valerian where Cezanne received much of his inspiration. Although Toulon itself had no restaurants worthy of even one Michelin star, Bandol’s La Reserve (speciality: gratin de langouste) and La Veille Auberge Saint Nicolas at Hyeres (speciality: Bourride) merited single stars while Les Santons at Grimaud (speciality: goujonettes de St Pierre au Champagne), only a short drive from Toulon, had two. In the late 80’s there were also some more modest establishments that had escaped the excesses of Nouvelle Cuisine and had not been seduced by the prospect of turning themselves into a Pizzeria or taking up a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, places where one could enjoy an assiette de crudites, pied de porc panee and a pichet of Cote de Ventoux. But I know for a fact that two sailors, Craig and his friend Don and most likely many of the Belknap’s crew, preferred to lunch and dine at McDonalds, for this is where Valerie had been working during the summer, there being no universities offering courses in dress designing for Barbie Dolls.

Monique explained to me that the USS Belknap and the rest of the 6th Fleet were permanently based in Gaeta, that the sailors were allowed to rent apartments on land and were not obliged, under normal circumstances, to sleep aboard. A helpful Officer on the Belknap had provided her with the address of the apartment which Valerie was sharing with three members of the Belknap’s crew and, as dusk settled, we arrived at the appointed place. After three sharp knocks and ten seconds of silence, the door was flung wide and we were confronted by a stocky man in vest and shorts, the biceps on his Popeye arms lavishly illustrated in designs that must have taken the tattooist the best part of a day to achieve. Craig, who I later discovered to be Valerie’s abductor, looked inquiringly at Monique and me, but before I could properly explain our mission, a piercing screech echoed down the corridor. I was familiar with this blood-curdling cry; it meant Valerie had seen us and sure enough, restrained by two other young men in vests, she demonstrated her lack of enthusiasm for our visit by directing a flood of high-pitched Gallic abuse at us. Deeply regretting my decision to come to Gaeta and motivated by a cowardly wish to avoid any sort of confrontation, particularly physical, I seized a brief moment of quiet to suggest that Monique and I would go away and come back in an hour. I proposed that on our return I would invite everyone to dinner and hopefully we could all discuss calmly whatever we had to talk about. Happily the Americans, understanding the potential gravity of the situation, quickly agreed to the proposal. Although petite Monique had the cojones to make things difficult for them with their officers on the Belknap. She was also the mother of a teenage daughter that one of them, at least, wished to marry.

And so it was that Monique and I strolled the streets of Gaeta. I believe that wherever you are and in whatever circumstances, there is always an ounce of interest and perhaps even enjoyment to be squeezed out. The delay in the next encounter with Valerie and her sailor friends probably brightened my mood, but even so I remember pleasure in that evening walk, getting a feel for a place that normally one would never have thought of visiting, looking out for a likely restaurant to take Valerie and her matelots. Mercifully, retail in the streets of Gaeta had not yet been confined to real estate, seven-elevens, dentistry, nail-refurbishment and Thai massage and among the hardware, fruit and vegetables, between a café and a salumeria, we came across an interesting looking jewellery shop. As is often the case with a fledgling enterprise where the proprietor manufactures his or her own product, there was a limited stock, but the craftsmanship was evident and I chose a pair of earrings. This was a serendipitous purchase for someone else’s pleasure, the very best kind of shopping. The earrings were tortoiseshell with a silver clasp and had an ancient, perhaps Etruscan look to them. They were also reasonably priced. Any fool with bottomless pockets can acquire exquisite objects.

When we returned to the apartment after an hour or so we found a sullen but calmer Valerie while her American escorts were now smartened up in jeans and T shirts. My suggestion that we eat at one of the restaurants I had recently earmarked (piatto del giorno, spaghetti marinara) was brushed aside in favour of the sailors’ local Pizzeria. There, while Monique and Valerie chattered away in French, Don, the most agreeable of the three sailors, told me about the voyage he had made with the Belknap just two weeks earlier. He told me how they had anchored in heavy seas off the coast of Malta in a rendezvous with the Soviet cruiser Slava, how President of the United States, George Bush, had come aboard and how he and other Belknap sailors had visited the Slava, exchanging Soviet caps and watches for Zippo lighters with the Russian sailors. Don, as it happens, had witnessed a historic moment. Gorge Bush’s meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, taking place just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed the final lifting of the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for 40 years and set in motion the discussions that would deal with the changes it was already triggering. By the end of the meal, Valerie, realising her mother wasn’t dragging her back home, and with five thousand francs in her pocket, was mollified. We said goodbye to Craig and his two shipmates. As I shook hands with Don, he said “Don’t worry, I’ll look after Valerie.” Craig and Valerie announced their engagement and with these assurances Monique and I went back to our hotel and, in the morning, left for Verona.

Valerie never married Craig. She married Don and, when his tour of duty on the Belknap ended, became a Navy wife living in Norfolk, Virginia. Later there was a daughter, Samantha, and then, tragically, Don died in a car accident. After lingering for a while in America Valerie returned to France, settled in Avignon, and found herself a new partner. Monique was pleased to have her daughter near her and she delighted in Samantha. But she had misgivings about Valerie’s new lover who she suspected was abusing her granddaughter. With her characteristic, head-on style Monique weighed in with the accusations, in spite of denials by all concerned, including the child herself. Her next two years were a nightmare. Valerie refused her access to her granddaughter; legal proceedings were instituted. Monique’s very sanity was called into question, aided by statements from her now ex, Claude, whose testimony as a policeman bore considerable weight with the judges. My own testimony formed part of the defence’s effort to prevent Monique spending the rest of her life drowsy with Bromide in some depressing institution. Precious savings were diverted into the pockets of rapacious lawyers. Time was wasted and health jeopardised, but, like many a crisis, it slowly evaporated. It had taken its toll; there was no conclusion, but it was over.


The earrings, the volcano, the Indian reservation and the USS Belknap are all named after Rear Admiral George Eugene Belknap (1832-1903).

The USS Belknap: a guided missile cruiser of 8,957 tons, launched in 1964 was the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean from 1985 to 1994. She returned to her home port of Norfolk, Virginia in 1995 and was destroyed by F-14 bombers as a target ship in 1998. It took 29,000 pounds of bombs to sink her.

Valerie still lives in Avignon with her two children. She now has a new partner. She and Monique are friends again.


It was 1982 with the war in the Falklands in full swing when Honeybee sailed into my life. At the time she was showing Argentinian colours but no sooner were her grappling hooks in place than she ran up and broke out the dreaded skull and cross-bones of her native Sicily. Within a short time of being boarded I had agreed to accompany her to the island to meet her parents. I felt uneasy as we set out – I was already married.

Honeybee’s parents, Giovanni and Liliana lived in Adrano, a small town in the Province of Catania supposedly named after the Emperor Hadrian, better known for his brave but useless attempt to keep the Scots and their dreaded bagpipes walled up in their own land. In a repetition of this folly, Hadrian’s mad architects had perched the town dangerously close to the crater of a bubbling volcano. This fact troubled me less than the knowledge that the town also lay within a “Triangolo della morte” so named when the number of mafia assassinations in an area exceeded the total of World War One casualties in the entire Ypres Salient.  In winter the family lived in a bleak, tiled, modern apartment with AD 138 plumbing.  The summer months they spent at their simple country house in the shadow of Etna and it was there that we stayed the first night.

In the morning I went looking for Honeybee’s father in the garden. As I idled among the olive trees I saw a man, lupara casually slung from his shoulder, approach Giovanni. After five or so minutes of earnest talking the visitor disappeared amongst the trees. Later, wondering whether my future father-in-law was “connected”, I asked him about the visitor. He’s the man from the insurance, said Giovanni, going on to explain that the premium insured his country house against robbery in the winter months when the family lived in town. Keen to demonstrate what a smart Inglese accountant his daughter had found, I pointed out that there wasn’t much to steal so why not cancel the insurance. What could possibly happen if you don’t pay the premium, I asked. He would burn the house down, replied Giovanni, not even bothering to look at me.

Later that day I watched Honeybee and her parents work in the garden, an acre or two of vines, pistacchio and olive trees, tomato plants and herbs. Everything grew well in the rich volcanic soil watered by Giovanni’s elaborate irrigation system, which consisted of a complex network of pipes and cement aqueducts radiating from a huge concrete container. Under Sicilian laws dating back to 10 BC, the water supply was in private hands and Giovanni periodically paid for the tank to be refilled. Contrary to all known laws of sound economics the cost of the supply was based on the amount of time the owner kept his valve open rather than the quantity of water delivered. At those times when drought reduced the flow to a miserable trickle Giovanni was paying at the same rate as for Arabian crude.

It was the time for harvesting Giovanni’s crop of ripe tomatoes and producing the annual stock of passata, a staple of the Southern Italian diet. The whole family helped in this day-long process of pulping and bottling the fruit and boiling the filled bottles in oil drums. As evening approached and the job was complete Giovanni prepared to dispose of the gallons of juice that had been produced from the pulping process. Still eager to impress, I ignored his instructions to dispose of the liquid and set about, straining, bottling and corking the juice.  Giovanni and Liliana had already retired when I set out my twenty or so newly corked bottles of tomato juice on the kitchen table.

I was awake early the next morning and looking forward to pouring out a glass of tomato juice for each member of the family to taste with their small cups of bitter coffee when Cristina came into my bedroom. “I think”, she said “that you should stay in bed for a while. There’s been an accident and Mum wants to clear up before you see it”. With no further elaboration, Cristina went off to help. I lay in bed for ten minutes until, overcome with curiosity, I tiptoed down the corridor and peeped into the kitchen. It was a charnel house: Adrano Incarnadine! It was a scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The ceiling and walls, the furniture and appliances were covered in a red tide of tomato juice. Still standing on the table were the empty silos of the juice bottles, their fermentation-powered corks and contents fired into the four corners of the kitchen. I crept quietly back to bed.

Sunday morning. Time for the dreaded  passeggiata – the weekly ritual stroll through the town after church to collect the cannolis for Sunday lunch, to display a new Borsellino, to exchange gossip and, in our case, for Honeybee’s parents to show off their eldest daughter’s newly acquired fidanzato. The family’s most precious commodity was at stake. I refer of course to their honour not their daughter. The penalty for letting it slip that I was actually already married would be disastrous. I saw my body being spewed in a soup of liquid cement into the foundations of the new football stadium in Catania. I wondered what my mother would make of the mysterious parcel containing a wet mackerel she would find on her doorstep.

Honeybee took her father’s arm and set off across the roasting Piazza. Liliana and I, her hand resting on my arm, followed. Every few minutes we would stop for the family’s friends and relatives to inspect me. Men in oversized caps and polished grey winkle-pickers would size me up. Ladies in black quietly discussed me in Sicilian dialect, glancing at me doubtfully as if seeking confirmation of some outrageous claim my future mother-in-law may have made as to my prospects. As a mature Inglese living on the mainland I was instantly accorded the distinguished title of Dottore. The title of Dottore (or Dottoressa for a lady) is given to anyone in Italy with a university degree. The term can also be used merely out of respect or even as flattery or sarcasm leaving me unsure as to how they were employing the title. “Just call me Doc” I said to one neighbour clutching a parcel of pastries but my attempt at humour was met with stoney-faced incomprehension. Titles being so important in Italy, a person is often addressed solely by the badge of his or her profession. “Buongiorno Ingegnere” – Good morning Engineer, you may hear. The late Gianni Agnelli, President of FIAT and Juventus Football Club, was known simply as “L’Avvocato” – The Lawyer. I savoured the prospects of returning in a few years to be hailed as Commendatore, in Sicily, a title commanding more respect than a Dukedom or a capo di tutti capi.

The next day I was taken to visit Giovanni’s fruit grower friend.  In honour of the Dottore Inglese we were ushered into the salon where dust-sheets were whipped off to reveal a hideous suite of gilt and velvet baroque. Perched on the unforgiving horsehair I savoured bitter coffee and the unbearable sweetness of cannoli. I remembered instantly how Eli Wallach had died in The Godfather Part III. Swooning from the onset of diabetes I was introduced to the youngest member of the family. His mother spoke to me in Sicilian dialect. I looked around for translation. “She asks, said Honeybee, if you will consent to be the child’s Godfather”. I nodded gravely and extended my right hand for the boy’s lips. I was a made man.