BIVOUAC WITH ANGELS

A souvenir of pre-Paget’s syndrome days and a trailer for the serialisation of  The Fading Margin: an autobiography, due to begin here shortly.

I LAY IN THE FIELD IN BRITTANY with angels about my head and half a bottle of cider standing in the grass. The angels had blue wings and golden haloes and flew with their hands in an attitude of prayer. It was night, and a friendly glow came from the embers of the fire.

In the London shop an assistant had said: “The only smaller pillow you’d be likely to get would be in the nursery department, first floor.” The pillow was all right (“scientifically tried and tested to guard against accidents: Baby sleeps safe and sound with …”). But the pillowcases were terrible. The sales lady said: “Well, we usually do have plainer ones, but we just happen to be out of stock.”

It was the angels or nothing at all.

It was a 70-minute flight to Dinard. That I lingered neither there nor in St. Jacut longer than was necessary to buy food and wine is no slight upon either resort: pleasant they are and pleasant they were with the sun breaking through the rain clouds of the night and the waves curling gently over the wide sands; but I was eager for the open road. After a while I left it to rest at the edge of a field where the scent of purple clover was rivalled by that of honeysuckle. When I closed my eyes the two became one, ineffably sweet.

By noon the sun’s victory was complete; I sweated in cotton trousers and shirt and the straps of the rucksack bit into my shoulders. From lanes and tracks that ran above the coasts I descended to the foreshore where the tide was running out, took off my boots and splashed barefoot through cool puddles and salt streams that ran from the rock pools.

I might have walked for miles along that shore, but wished to cross a headland and so sought a way up the cliffs. “There are paths,” said a man who was digging for sandworms,  “but they’re not easy to find.”  I found one, scaled the rocks behind the sands and found a track through the bracken and the brambles. Scratched and dirty, I emerged at last in a field on the cliff top and sprawled on the dry grass, my back against the pack. What a reward was there! To the relief from labour, itself exquisite, was added a soft sea breeze, and there, beyond the green of the bracken and the yellow of the broom, was the blue of the Atlantic; the fleets of white clouds in line astern above it, the tiny white triangles of the sailing boats ranging far out upon it; the little islands, rock-fringed, stranded by the tide’s retreat.

Now from my pack I fetched out the bottle of Muscadet that I had bought cellar cool in Dinard and wrapped in my sleeping bag. Muscadet is a dry white wine of the Loire but now its taste is of that day overlooking that Brittany shore. Before I drank the first glass I made a libation. Before the last I made another; that they were accepted I cannot doubt, for when I took up the pack again its weight was significantly diminished and in spite of the miles behind me I strode the crowded beaches of St. Cast as if the sun had just risen. My goal was the high ground overlooking the Bay de la Frenaye, for I wanted to sleep near the sea; but in fields where new-bailed hay suggested an easy bivouac I was tempted to call an end to the march.

The decision, when it came, was hardly mine. In a hamlet almost overlooking the bay I stopped to fill my water bottle. A young woman came out of the cottage and offered me cider. Her husband appeared and took me into a shed where two glasses full were drawn from the wood. The husband’s father appeared and three glasses were drawn. A man who said he was a sailor joined us and the tap was turned again. It was, as the old man boasted at intervals, “Good cider! Very honest: not doctored in any way.”

By the time the sun had set we had moved from the shed to the kitchen of the old farmhouse and the party had grown to seven; a supply of milk, butter and eggs had been offered for the morning and a debate had begun as to where best I should spend the night. The loft, they suggested. The open air, I countered. A while before darkness fell I was escorted to a corner of a distant field. It was, they said, quite sheltered from the wind; if I heard noises in the night only the pigs on the other side of the hedge would be to blame.

But the night was quiet. When my hosts had gone I collected dead wood from the hedgerow and made a little fire. A bottle had been filled from the barrels in the shed and I had a last glass with the sausages that I had bought in Dinard. I did not sit up long. As I lay in my sleeping bag a very soft breeze touched my face and my head was framed by angels with golden haloes and blue wings.

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