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.