I had moved away from Boston in 1971, but every Christmas of my adult life had been spent with my family on the South Shore. This streak of thirty-three years was broken in 1985, when n art dealer invited a female French singer and me to his cottage on the Isle of Wight for the holiday.
I phoned my mother to break the news on December 23.
“Oh, really.” The hurt was audible over the trans-Atlantic static. “This will be the first one you’re not home.”
“I know, but I will be flying to Boston on the 26th.” Our club in Paris was closed until after the New Year. My bosses had given me a good bonus. We were more friends than co-workers.
“Where are you going for Christmas?” My mother was worried about her second son. The rest of my brothers and sisters lived within ten miles of our parents.
“The Isle of Wight.”
“Didn’t Queen Victoria have a palace there?” My mother was extraordinarily well read and I had inherited that love. My father liked to travel. I was his son too.
“Yes, and I’m staying at a cottage on the grounds of the former royal residence.”
“Osbourne House.” My mother had a bear trap of a memory for details.
“Yes.” Victoria had lived in Osbourne House with Prince Albert, from where she had ruled the vast British empire. The Italian palazzo was visible from the windows of the cottage.
“Sounds very grand.” My mother had loved visiting the big cottages of Newport, Rhode Island and robber-barons' mansions along the Hudson River. She breathed the history with her senses. “Supposedly when her husband died, the Empress went into mourning at a pavilion on the beach.”
“That’s what I heard too.” I refrained from mentioning that the empire had languished without her participation in its day-to-day governing. Finally Her Majesty’s ministers approached the Scottish gillie, John Brown, to bring Her Majesty out of her grief.
My mother offered no knowledge about the rumors of the Queen’s affair with a common huntsman. Sex was for procreation. She had six children. Queen Victoria had had nine.
“After her death it became a convalescent home for navy officers. They still walk around the grounds.”
“That is so fabulous.”
“I suppose it is.”
“I love you and we’ll spent our Christmas together a day later. They will be plenty of left-overs.” She was succeeding in seeding guilt into my heart.
“I’ll see you on the 26th.” I fought off the urge to take a taxi to Charles De Gaulle Aeroport. There were direct flights to Boston, but the beantown had not been my home for a long time.
I hung up the phone and called the singer.
The singer and I had met at an after-hours club in Lower Manhattan. Her friends were starting a fight in the decorated loft. I was security. Stopping them was a matter of a single punch and bum-rushing them out of the club. Lizzie liked telling her friends about that incident. She really was a punk
We had been having an affair for the past month. Neither of us pretended that we were serious about our time together. She and I were free spirits. Our paths met and joined in many cities. Paris was just one of them.
“I’m ready to go.”
“No more mama and papa.” The petite brunette had a vicious streak tempered by an adoration for danger. She had been the first punk in France and she had scored a # 1 hit in 1984. I had bought her a bottle of Chanel # 5.
“For Christmas." I mentioned the flight leaving Heathrow on the 26th.
“And how do I get back to France?” It was a good question.
“Vonelli will take you back.” It was my only option.
“And is he a gentleman like you who abandon helpless women in a foreign country filled with beef eaters.” She had never met the bearded Floridian.
“Much more of a gentleman than me.” .
“We will see.” The singer could take care of herself. She had lived in the Lower East Side in 1975
"Meet me at the station.” The train left from Gare St. Lazare at 4:45pm. The station was across the Seine from my apartment on Ile St. Louis.
I showed up at the train terminal a good half hour before departure. The holiday queues at the ticket booths were breaking down into mobs. I spotted Vonelli at a news kiosk. He was looked smitten by prosperity in his tan cashmere coat and his beard had been trimmed to a respectable length.
“Where is she?” Vonelli had our tickets. The art dealer was excited to meet the singer. He liked beautiful women.
“Women are always late.” I planned on any female companion to be at least thirty minutes behind schedule. “But not my friend.”
The singer was running through the crowds of homeward-bound travelers to Normandy. A cigarette hung from her mouth. Her unruly hair was wrapped under a scarf. A heavy coat hid her petite body. Doc Martens shielded her feet from the cold. She lifted her head to acknowledge seeing us. A shroud of tangled hair fell onto her face. Her gloved hand pushed away the matted strands and the singer kissed me on the lips and then pecked Vonelli on both cheeks. Other passengers stared at her. She was famous.
“Let’s get on the train before I have to sign an autograph.” The singer dropped her cigarette on the ground. Her left boot extinguished the embers of the discarded butt. She had studied ballet in Lyons and that the gracefulness of that training showed with her most insignificant gestures.
“I saw you sing on TV.” Vonelli offered to carry her bag. It was twice the size of mine and the singer liked to travel with thick books of philosophy. The art dealer grunted , as he hauled the heavily laden bag over his shoulder.
“French pop stars never sing on TV. We lip-synch the words. It’s good for our voices.”
The Paris-born singer handed her bag to Vonelli and lit a cigarette. She was a heavy smoker and her naked skin smelled of tobacco. The Gitanes were hell on her throat and she made no effort to stop. “But I am on holiday and we are taking a big boat. So no more talking about music.”
The three of us boarded the train and Vonelli had commandeered a 1st Class compartment. The singer was very pleased with his arrangements and I noticed the warmth in her smile. The same glow had greeted me the first time that she had seen me in Paris. I thought about whether I should be jealous, then decided that Vonelli and the singer made a good couple.
The train pulled out of Gare St. Lazare on time. The French were very German that way. We were comfortable in our compartment. It was cold outside. Tomorrow would be Christmas.
“Here’s to Noel.” Vonelli poured champagne into three glasses. The bearded art dealer had come prepared for the journey. We ate foie gras on crispy baguettes, as the train rocked on the rails through the night. Vonelli amused us with humorous tales of sales at the Hotel Drouot auction house.
“They have their own Mafia. The cols rouge in the black uniforms with red trim come from the same region of the Alps and nothing gets shipped or stored at the Drouot without their okay. This morning one of them said that he couldn’t transport a painting to London, because it was in violation of Christian holiday traditions. 200 francs converted him to atheism.”
Vonelli fawned on the singer and she adored his manners.
“You know how I met your friend?” She pointed at me.
“I stopped her friends from having a fight at an after-hour club.” I hated people bringing up my past as a bouncer. In Paris I was deemed a physionomiste for my talent to recognize faces as much as my ability to decipher if the person was a welcome addition to the melange of personalities within the club. It was not a skill learned in schools.
“You stopped them and then threw me down the stairs.”
“I didn’t throw you down the stairs.” I couldn’t remember the particulars of that night.
“Yes, you did, but I forgave you.”
Vonelli shook his head.
“Bad boy, but that’s why we like you.”
I sulked in my seat for several minutes. The singer sat at my side and admonished me in baby language.
"You want everyone to love you like your momma loved you, but only one woman can do that."
Vonelli thought that she was very funny and I had to admit that she owned a biting wit. My anger dissipated with another glass of champagne. Snow drifted against the windows. The darkened landscape was covered with white. It was beginning to look like Christmas.
At le Havre Vonelli steered us out of the station. The city had been heavily damaged during the Battle of Normandy and he joked about how the church’s Belgian architect was awarded a medal from his government for his masterful uglification, “Le Havre is the most dreary city in France. Think grey and grim. Concrete and more concrete and no building in the city has more concrete than the Eglise of St. Joseph.”
“But even this city has some charm.”
We ate dinner at a fantastic fish restaurant. Several diners asked Lizzie for autographs. The singer was in a better mood than Gare St. Lazare. She even posed for photos with her fans. Vonelli and the singer engaged in a conversation about Sartre. They ignored my comment about his collaborating with the Nazis. I was becoming the third wheel.
It was a short walk to the ferry.
We boarded the ship. So far neither the singer nor I had put our hands in our pockets. The three of us rendezvoused at the stern railing and watched the ferry slip from the harbor.
“Fuck you, France.” The singer gave her native land the finger.
“Its better than America.”
“But not New York.” The singer had been introduced to the scene at CBGBs by a legendary singer of a punk band. Forkhead had shown her his world. In 1975 the East village was the only place to be in the world for people like us. I got there one year later.
“New York is special.” The veterans at Max’s considered me a late-comer. My pinball play won friends at CBGBs, but no one ever called me ‘Tommy’. I was just me.
“I want to wash up. I’ll meet at the bar.” Vonelli returned to his suite. It was a double.
I stood with both hands on the railing. The singer leaned into me. The ship’s wake glowed with froth and the stars shimmered with increasing numbers, as the ferry left the light of land. Its prow cut through increasingly larger waves. The singer gripped the railing and leaned over to kiss me. I put my arm around her and we walked back inside.
“Your friend is very generous.” The singer shucked her heavy clothing in the cabin and entered the shower room. It was too small for two people, but she left the door open. The ferry was pitching from bow to stern in heavy seas. Tonight’s crossing promised to be a rough one.
“I guess he had a good year at the Drouot.” I had the feeling that his extravagance was aimed at impressing the frail-boned brunette.
“He seems like a nice man.” Her voice was sappy with dreams.
“He is a good friend.”
The singer and I had been on a train to nowhere with our affair. It had just pulled into the station and I was getting off. The singer had a new destination and I asked, “Do you like him?”
“He’s cute.” She lathed her body with soap. It was a show with one purpose.
“Really?” No one had called me cute since I was a kid.
“Almost like a Santa Claus in training.” The singer was my age, but looked much younger in our cabin's dim lighting.
“It must be the beard.”
I reminded myself that she was in my cabin this evening and not his. I took off my clothes and staggered into shower. It was big enough, if you stood close.
Thirty minutes later we went to Vonelli’s cabin. We drank a bottle of wine holding onto the table to stay in the chairs. They had been screwed into the deck for just such weather. This was the Channel. The Spanish Armada had been destroyed by this stretch of water and I was beginning to understand why.
“I suggest that we skip dinner in this weather. Always better for the stomach.”
The singer and I concurred with his suggestion. The uneven motions of up-down-sideways-back was testing my constitution and I put down my glass without finishing the wine. This was going to be a long night.
Vonelli suggested that we visit the midship casino.
I hadn’t gambled since losing big time at Reno in 1974, but we sat at the blackjack table together. Two other players greeted us with green faces. The crossing was not agreeing with their stomachs. The dealer wasn’t much better and our first five hands were winners. The slick-haired pit boss replaced her and succeeded in cooling the table.
Vonelli and the singer were more interested in each other than the cards in their hands. Their inattention gave the pit boss an edge and the odds of the house shifted against the six people at the table. The balance shifted a minute later, as the power of the sea overcame the inescapable grind of blackjack.
Casinos are constantly on the watch for card-counters, but my mind was calculating the time between troughs. The ship rode down one wave and struggled up another for the same length of time. The spray covered the windows with foam, almost as if the ferry was a half-submerged submarine.
The rhythm of the waves stretched into an extra long descent to the bottom of a nautical chasm and the deck shuddered, as the ferry’s engines fought to climb the steepening slope of a ship-crushing wave. Everyone’s eyes went wide and the bow cleared the crest and the ferry dropped into the next trough in a free fall. I grabbed my stack of chips before floating out of my seat. My head grazed the ceiling and then I fell right back into my chair. Vonelli and the singer were also lucky, but the pit boss landed on the table.
“I think it’s time to call it a night.” The pit boss was visibly shaken by his flight. The rest of us nodded assent to his suggestion. “Go to your cabin and we’ll cash you out in the morning.”
He shouted to close the casino and ordered the passengers to their cabins.
“Sorry about this.” Vonelli helped the singer to the door. He had wanted everything to be perfect. We separated to enter our rooms. For a second the singer seemed ready to go with him and if this had been a voyage from Southampton to New York instead of Le Havre to Southampton, then tomorrow night she would have made the move.
“See you two in the morning.”
The singer stripped off her clothing and slipped into bed.
“You like Vonelli?” I asked lying next to her. I hadn’t bothered to take off my clothes. If the ship sank, I wanted to be ready to abandon ship.
“Yes.” This question only needed a one syllable answer.
“I mean more than like.”
“Yes.” At least the singer was honest.
“Then I wish you luck.” Vonelli was a complicated man, then again men are much more simple than women.
“You do?” Her surprise was tempered by relief. No one liked a nasty ending.
“It’s obvious that you two like each other in a way that we would never come close to.”
“I think so. Remember I’m a professional physionomiste.” I could divine everyone’s future, but mine. I caressed her shoulder without daring to touch a more intimate stretch of flesh. This was it. “I’m happy for you. For you both.”
The ferry shuddered with a wave slapping the port-side.
“You think this ship will survive.” She was frightened by the ocean.
“Ships make this trip all the time. They are built for La Manche. Everything will be fine. Go to sleep.”
It was easier sad than done, but after two hours the sea surrendered its fury and the ferry resumed a gentle course to England. The singer kissed me on the cheek and went to sleep. I followed her within seconds. We woke with the announcement that the ferry would soon be docking in Southampton.
“How you sleep?” Vonelli was waiting at the railing. The low coastline lingered under a low grey overcast. We were approaching England.
“Good once the storm ended.” The singer stood between us, although a little closer to Vonelli. She made her choice. I watched the ferry about Southampton at half-speed. The captain had brought his ship to safety. Tonight was Christmas Eve. The day after was Christmas. I would fly home on Boxing Day. My mother would love the Chanel # 5. It was just her style and like all men I loved left-overs.