Monday, December 26, 2016

THE SEASON FOR GIVING by Peter Nolan Smith

Early on the morning of December 24, 1985 Vonelli, Lizzie and I boarded a train at Gard Du Nord. As we walked down the platform, our breath hung in the air. The winter damp had a good hold on Paris. Lizzie exhaled a thick cloud of smoke. The singer loved her Gaulloises.

"So we go to the Isle of Wight for Christmas?"

"To spend Christmas with Lord Ventnor."

"Will there be snow?"

I turned to Vonelli.

"Probably not, but it will be cold."

"I hate the cold." Lizzie came from Lyon. Winters were winter there. She blew on her fingers and I held her hand.

"It'll be cold, but not like New York."

We knew each other from New York. The petite Parisienne singer 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 our lasting out the year, the again we were more lovers than friends.

"I wish we were n a plane to the Bahamas." She had recorded her LP MAMBO NASSAU there.. It had beaches and warm weather.

"We all do, but we are where we are, besides the Isle of Wight is the Riviera of England," I replied and hurried onto our car, as the conductor called 'tout abord."

"Palm trees?"

"Yes, a few," I answered, since it was almost the truth.

The train ran straight across the northern basin and arrived at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, from which Hovercraft was running a special holiday service to Portsmouth. Everyone at the bar was smoking a cigarette and I waited the arrival of the PRINCESS MARGARET on the tarmac. The cold was even damper on La Manche.

I turned to the waiting room. Lizzie laughed with a cigarette in her hand. The bearded art dealer must have told the singer a joke. Lizzie was a good audience.

At noon the SR.N4 hovercraft hoved into the harbor. The winter air hummed with the power of the four gas turbine engines. Lizzie exited from the terminal. Vonelli followed buttoning up his camel hair coat and said, "The beauty of the modern world."

"This is the modern world," Lizzie quoted the Jam.

"I guess it is." I put an arm around her. She smelled of tobacco.

I checked the sky. There was no sun. Only the damp cold.

"Looking for snow?" asked Lizzie.

I shook my head.

The grey clouds bore no threat of snow and we boarded the Hovercraft for the 'flight 'across La Manche.

An hour later we disembarked at Portsmouth and I carried Lizzie's bag over my shoulder. The three of us boarded the ferry to the Isle of Wight. I told her a story about my Irish grandmother crossing the Atlantic. She laughed at the right moments. Like I said she as a good audience.

The ship pulled out of the harbor past the Round Tower and we stood at the stern railing. Portsmouth became small and Lizzie held my hand. The crossing the Solent took less than forty minutes.

"This doesn't look like Nice," complained Lizzie.

"Wait till you see Cowes. It's the yachting capitol of Europe."

Vonelli extolled our destination's other assets.

"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. Many people suspected that his art dealer calling was a cover for a more clandestine career. No one knew for sure and Vonelli wasn't betraying the truth or the myth.

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 the shortest ferry ride in the world.

Lord Ventnor waited on the opposite bank in a white Irish sweater. 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 Lord Ventnor 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. We slept together whenever it was convenient for us.

"Maybe you will sing us a song."

"Only if Vonelli plays piano."

A good left hand on the ivories was of one of Vonelli's hidden talents. He walked and we walked to a VW camper.

Ventnor drove along the coast to his expansive house in Ryde.

A Christmas tree was in the corner. Logs blazed in the fireplace.

Bob's wife installed Lizzie and me in the same room.

She was ancien regime from Sud du Loire and that haute class knew how to read relationships.

I opened the windows. Lizzie didn't mind the cold as long as 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.

"Your friend Vonelli is funny," she said in bed.

"And a nice man."

"Women like Lizzie didn't like nice." I shut the windows, which quickly steamed up from the heat generated from our lustful celebration of XXXmas Eve, but something was off and I had a fairly good idea what it was.

We woke to the tantalizing scent of bacon, beans, mushrooms, eggs, toast, and tea. Lizzie and I exchanged gifts. I gave her a silver lighter and she reluctantly wrapped a cashmere scarf around my neck.

"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 lined the table. There was more than enough for everyone and I smelled an apple pie cooling on the window sill.

Lord Ventnor was in no condition to drive and his loving wife said, "I'll take you to the trailhead."

None of us were in any condition to handle heavy machinery and we filed out of the house to the VW camper. accompanied us outside to the van

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."

"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 Lizzie didn't like heights and held her close, as she used my body to shelter a light for her cigarette.

"Get back, you fool," I shouted Lord Ventnor.

"This is the life," his other words were lost on the wind.

We descended to Freshwater Bay. A fox hunt party was gathering for "What Ho' before the pub.

"The unspeakable chasing the uneatable." Lizzie was familiar with Oscar Wilde's description of The Hunt.

The horses clopped into the field. They left shitclumps on the parking lot. We stepped inside for a pint. They cost more than six pence.

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." Anthony was at Lizzie's side and explained, "Once revenue gangs patrolled these cliffs for smugglers. But the black gangs knew the coast."

"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.

"Anyone claustrophobic?"

Lizzie plunged into the darkness.

I followed the cherry of her cigarette.

Wild waves crashed on the rocks and submerged the beach in the froth of the sea. Lizzie and I were alone and she said, "I think I like Vonelli."

"What's there not to like?"

"I mean I like him."

"Oh."

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.

"Yea, fantastic. What about you and Lizzie?"

"I can't explain it." Vonelli was contrite, but not sad and he eyed my cashmere scarf.

"Boy meets girl is the simplest story in the world." Vonelli and Lizzie were Romeo and Juliette. I accepted loss better than Romeo Montague and said, "Have a Merry Christmas and by the way you have no chance of getting my scarf."

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 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."

"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 picked up our pace.

The path was wet under foot.

We caught up with Ventnor and Vonelli.

"Where's Lizzie?"

"With my son."

"Watch out, Vonelli." My green light to the arch-CIA agent 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.

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I knew that his ignorance was an act.

Ventnor too.

"Are you alright?"

"Fine."

"I have some special wine for dinner."

"Great." I had forgotten the date. "Hopefully a lot of special wine."

When we arrived at the end of the trail, Lord Ventnor's wife was 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.

That evening 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.

Sadly 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.

For both me and Vonelli.

Merry Christmas to them both and all the rest of the world.

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