Early on the morning of December 24, 1985 Vonelli, Lizzie and I boarded a train at Gard Du Nord. I could see my breath. The winter damp had a good hold on Paris. Lizzie exhaled a thick cloud of smoke. The singer liked her Gaulloises.
Lord Ventnor had invited us to spend the Christmas Holiday on the Isle of Wight. The train ran straight to Calais. It got to the Channel on time. Hovercraft was running a special holiday service to Portsmouth and I waited the arrival of the PRINCESS MARGARET on the tarmac.
Vonelli and Lizzie were drinking wine in the waiting room. The bearded art dealer must have told the singer a joke. She was laughing with a cigarette between her fingers. Lizzie was a good audience.
The SR.N4 hovercraft hoved into the harbor. The winter morning hummed with the power of the four gas turbine engines. I turned to the terminal. Lizzie came out of the doors. Vonelli followed buttoning up his camel hair coat.
Lizzie and I knew each other from New York. The petite Parisienne had been a hit on the punk scene. Richard Hell was her friend. The two of us had been having 'une affaire' since Armistice Day. Nobody in Paris bet on us lasting out the year. None of my romances seemed destined for forever.
I checked the sky.
The grey clouds bore no threat of snow and we boarded the Hovercraft from the 'flight 'across La Manche.
An hour later we disembarked at Portsmouth and I carried Lizzie's bags over my shoulder. The three of us boarded the ferry to the Isle of Wight. We stood at the stern railing. Portsmouth became small. Lizzie held my hand. Crossing the Solent took less than forty minutes.
Vonelli spoke about our destination.
"Queen Victoria lived at Osbourne House. During her reign The Empire was ruled from this island."
"So the Isle of Wight is like Rome after the Goths burned it." Lizzie was a virulent anti-royalist.
"Only here there are no ruins." Vonelli had left the USA in the early 60s without ever going back to the Land of the Free. Many people suspected that his art dealer calling was a cover for a more clandestine career.
We got off the ferry and walked to the Cowes Floating Bridge. The chain-drawn ferry was idling on the other side of the Medina. Vonelli suggested a drink at the Navy Bar. The narrow drinking establishment had been built to service quick drinkers. The barkeep was a relic of the glory years of the British Empire. Time stopped and we missed two crossings of the Floating Bridge.
The trip across the Medina was quick. Lord Ventnor was waiting on the opposite bank in a red windbreaker. His hair was regally coifed by the wind. He shook my hand and embraced Vonelli.
"Welcome to the Isle of Wight."
Vonelli and he went back twenty years. I knew Bob three.
Aristocrats have good manners and kissed Lizzie's hand. She attracted admirers with ease.
"I love your song OU SONT PASSES LES GAZELLES."
"I am recording a new LP about Soweto" The chanteuse had been in a Paris studio for the last two months.
I saw her a few hours a week.
"Maybe you will sing us a song."
"Only if Vonelli plays piano."
A good left hand on the ivories of one of Vonelli's hidden talents.
Ventnor drove us to his expansive house in Ryde.
Bob's wife installed Lizzie and me in the same room.
She was ancien regime from Sud du Loire. That haute class knew how to read the land when it came to relationship.
I opened the windows. Lizzie didn't mind the cold. That way she could smoke her Gaulloises.
After a long lobster dinner accompanied by a deluge of wine Lizzie entertained us with Vonelli at the piano. They were a good combo and at the end of OU SONT PASSES LES GAZELLES Lord Ventnor announced, "Our Christmas morning tradition is the Tennyson Walk. We're rising bright and early."
"Nous partons vers le 10." Ventnor's elegant wife had a better hand on the time. "A polite hour to be on the Walk, so bonne nuit."
We retreated to our rooms. I shut the windows. They steamed up with the heat generated from Lizzie and me celebrating a XXXmas Eve.
We woke to the tantalizing scent of bacon, beans, mushrooms, eggs, toast, and tea.
"Une petite dejeuner anglais." Bob's wife served us a sumptuous breakfast.
The clatter of knives and forks were not interrupted by conversation. Talking could come later in the day. Lizzie and I helped clear the table. Bob's wife waved us from the sink.
"The faster you reach the Walk, the sooner you will return to dinner."
A roast beef was in the oven. Vegetables cooked on the stove. Bottles of wine were lined up on the table. There was more than enough for everyone and I smelled an apple pie cooling on the window sill.
Lord Ventnor's wife looked at the food and said, "I'll drive you to the trailhead."
She accompanied us outside to the van
Lord Ventnor was in no condition to drive.
I was in no better shape and Vonelli only had eyes for Lizzie.
Lord Ventnor's wife took the keys.
She wasn't taking 'No' for an answer.
She dropped us at the Needles.
Wind-spawn waves crashed on the sandy shore. Atlantic gusts gushed across the gorse.
"I don't see any Needles." Lizzie brushed back her hair. I had never seen her use a comb or brush on her mop. She liked to look natural.
"You can hear them." Ventnor's teenage son, Anthony, was joining us on the walk. He had a favorite Lizzie song, but wouldn't say which one.
"We don't have all day." The savage sea air had revived Ventnor and he tramped up the grassy slope to the edge of a white chalk cliff, as his wife drove away to cook a Christmas dinner of roast beef.
"Tennyson took his walk every day. He said it was worth six pence a pint," Anthony explained, as Lizzie and I reached the edge of the cliff.
"When will you English join the modern world?" Lizzie loved the metric system, since its math was easy for the workers. She was more than a punk.
A sudden gale off Watcombe Bay swept over the rim and Vonelli stood against its force. I could tell that she didn't like heights and held her close, as she used my body to shelter a light for her cigarette.
"Get back, you fool," shouted Lord Ventnor.
We descended to Freshwater Bay. A fox hunt party was gathering for "What Ho' before the pub.F
"The unspeakable chasing the uneatable." Lizzie was familiar with Oscar Wilde's description of The Hunt.
We set off again on the muddy trail. There was no sun in the sky. A raw surf rose over emerald kelp belts.
The previous summer I had swum at Brightstone. The ocean had been calm as a sedated clam.
"Now we are on the Military Trail. Once revenue gangs patrolled these cliffs for smugglers."
Anthony was at Lizzie's side.
"Wine from France. No tax." She was also an anarchist. "Or tobacco."
"Now drugs." Ventnor and Vonelli exchanged a knowing glance.
We tramped along the Military Road and the five of us shifted allegiances in companionship according to the pace.
A little before noon we arrived at Blackgang Chine.
A smugglers' tunnel funneled to the beach.
Lizzie plunged into the darkness.
I followed the cherry of her cigarette.
Wild waves crashed on the rocks to submerge the beach in a frothy surge of sea. Lizzie and I were alone and she said, "I think I like Vonelli."
"What's there not to like?"
Her definition of 'like' differed from mine.
We returned to the trail and the party turned inland from the Atlantic.
"You're not angry?" Lizzie stood an arm's distance from me.
"No." I had lost to the oddsmakers in Paris. "You have my blessing."
"Tonight?" She wasn't wasting time.
"You do what you want. It's my Christmas gift to you."
Lizzie kissed my cheek, then dashed up the trail.
Vonelli watched her approach. He shrugged his shoulders, as she passed him to join Lord Ventnor and his young son.
Vonelli waited for me.
"A rich industrialist built a 'folly' down in that valley."
I spotted a Roman ruin.
"What about you and Lizzie?"
"I can't explain it." Vonelli was contrite, but not sad.
"Boy meets girl is the simplest story in the world." Vonelli and Lizzie were Romeo and Juliette. "Have a Merry Christmas."
Ventnor's wife would accept the change in this evening's sleeping arrangement. Scandals were for the English. Not the French.
I lingered behind my friends and allowed them to walk out of view.
Losing Lizzie didn't seem like a loss, but it wasn't a win either.
And it wasn't anything in between either.
I walked a little faster and spotted Lord Ventnor's son.
I ran to Anthony.
"I think Vonelli has designs on Lizzie." The young teen was astute in the ways of love as would be expected from the son of Lord Ventnor.
"Cut me out like a bird dog."
"Barking at someone else's quail." I sang the chorus of the Everley Brother's BIRD DOG, then clapped Anthony on the shoulder. "It's no big deal. Lizzie and I are just friends."
Anthony was gracious enough to not question the truth of my statement and we sped up our pace.
The path was wet under foot.
We caught up with Ventnor and Vonelli.
"With my son."
"Watch out, Vonelli." My green light to Vonelli had given hope to the teenager. "This is a strange island for romance."
Vonelli was in his thirties. Anthony was a young man. The art dealer hurried to Lizzie. I heard her laughter. His jealousy must have seemed funny to the singer. Vonelli fell back.
"She told me not to worry."
"Then you've eliminated your rivals." I felt drops of rain. "They taught you well."
"They?" Vonelli was a specialist at being visibly perplexed by the simplest accusation.
"Your bosses in Washington." Ventnor smiled at his longtime friend's discomfort.
"You mean Langley." The Agency had a big building on the other side of the Potomac.
"I have no idea what you mean." Vonelli walked onto the grass.
The mud on the trail was too slippery to make good time.
I knew that his ignorance was an act.
"Are you alright?"
"I have some special wine for dinner."
"Great." I had forgotten the date. "Hopefully a lot of special wine."
We had arrived at the end of the trail. Lord Ventnor's wife was waiting in the parking lot.
She looked at the new couple and then at me.
I shrugged with understanding.
It was a Gallic gesture.
Her smiling eyes promised me the best slice of roast beef.
And I couldn't have been happier.
I had no place to go other than to eat a good meal with friends.
Bob's wife had cooked a feast. I filled myself to the brim and ate two slices of apple pie.
Later I danced on the table to Lizzie singing FEVER. Everyone had a good laugh and while Lizzie and Vonelli might not last forever, I wished them luck.
We all drank to that.
After all there is no time for giving like Christmas.
Lord Ventnor aka Bob Souter passed away several years ago.
He remains alive in the hearts of his friends and family.
Lizzie also went to the other side of the Here-Before.
Her music survives her in the Here-Now.
fotos by peter nolan smith