Nellcôte Revisited

In the summer of 1971 Clarrie Cooper lived at Villa Nellcote, Keith Richards' fabled mansion in the South of France where The Stones recorded their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Here Clarrie has a chance meeting with her old schoolfriend, Anita Pallenberg.
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In the summer of 1971 Clarrie Cooper lived at Villa Nellcote, Keith Richards' fabled mansion in the South of France where The Stones recorded their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Here Clarrie has a chance meeting with her old schoolfriend, Anita Pallenberg.

404

On my second afternoon in Cannes I was at the Grande Salle, watching a movie like a Clint Eastwood western acted by amputees and dwarves. Everyone was wading around in lakes of gore and shouting at each other in Spanish. Afterwards the bar was loud with acclaim for a new cinematic genius. I realised it had been pointless to fly halfway around the world. When someone asked my opinion I said, 'I don't have the faintest fucking idea what's going on.'

I needed somewhere quiet. Not a place for lunatics or druggies, not so much a commune as a retreat. I had no sense I was going crazy, just that I had been picking up speed all my life without noticing when I was going too fast. I needed to slow down, calm down and collect my thoughts at some place like a monastery for women if such a thing existed. Or an artists colony where you didn't have to do any art.

The next day when my friends were all at screenings I hired a little Renault and drove along the coast then up the dry roads into the hills. Every minute was full of delightful uncertainty - a sheer drop around a curve, a wild stream below, a long tunnel with glistening black walls followed immediately by a bridge. The little car raced from black shadows to dazzling sunlight. At the end of one such tunnel I found Saorge.

I had heard that an old monastery, closed by the atheist republic, had reopened to cater for the souls of disillusioned Maoists. I hoped that in their new dispensation the Franciscans had allowed for a commingling of the sexes, but having climbed in the heat of noon I found the garden terraces tended exclusively by brown-robed males. I made my way back down the penitential slope to the village restaurant where lunch was served to me by a bitter peasant who remembered the Nazis.

At night there were coloured lights between the plane trees in the square and an iron fence like something from a city park along the edge of a stupendous chasm. Young people loafed along the railings watching toy-sized cars wind their way up the pass to Italy. They had come down from shepherds cabins in the mountains or emerged from village cellars to drink wine and beer, smoke caporals and hash and talk about Chairman Mao and Catherine Deneuve, Vietnam, Godard, Derrida, Dylan, Lennon, The Rolling Stones.

I got to enjoy the routine: worn-out Scotty replaced by some drunk but amiable boy making repartee in polished monosyllables whilst trying to manoeuvre his puppy face as close as possible to my breasts.

'You know Jagger is living in Saint Trop now,' A girl informed her boyfriend. ''He got married there two weeks ago.'

'All of the Stones are wanted criminals in Angleterre.' the boy said 'If they go home the fascist British government will put them in prison for the rest of their lives. Jagger may even get...' He drew his finger dramatically across his throat.

'Vraiment?'

'Oh yes. But its okay. They are all in France now and they are recording a new album with Jagger singing in French.'

'Tu dis! Mais non! Il chant en Francais!?'

'Oui!'

'Super!'

That evening I revived one of the signal pleasures of my youth. When I was pregnant in Wellington the doctor had urged me, for the well being of the child in my womb, to quit smoking. Other young mothers said my doctor was a health fanatic and a quack but I obeyed him, just in case, then after Nicholas took up breathing and eating, I reasoned that his air and milk should enjoy the same purity as his amniotic fluid, so I postponed my first ciggie till after he was weaned. By that time, frankly, I had lost the taste for the things.

Sitting outside the Saorge bar-tabac I resolved to get the taste back. Such a thrill to feel the giving firmness of the filter in my lips, to lift the shapely flame - but disgust followed quickly and an unpleasant sensation of spinning. I stubbed it out and didn't think about smoking again all night. But the next morning there was the pack on the bedside table, as it had been for so many carefree years before Nicholas came into the world. To smoke again became a symbol of freedom regained, almost a defiance of the ungrateful child who, when given the choice, had opted to live with his father.

Too weary to drive back to Cannes, I had spent the night at a hotel in Menton. After breakfast I drove along the coast keeping an eye out for somewhere I could stop and sip, along with a good espresso, the first exquisite smoke of my new career. I wanted to smoke like a beautiful woman in an advertisement and at Villefranche I found a little portside café where I could watch the dockside strollers and the boats come and go. Men in yachtie attire were sitting at white tables with girls in short skirts. There were some longhairs around as well. I watched a hippie father playing with his young son, making him giggle. So many months after losing my son, other peoples' children still produced a queer counterbalance of pain and joy. I waited for the mother to come back and complete the happy picture and my torture.

She came from the beach in a maroon bikini, detaching herself from the sauntering crowd and passing behind me so I didn't see her until she threw a little towel over the arm of her chair. When she sat down her back was to me. A hand went up to flick a few drops from the blonde tips – she had taken one of those non-submersive swims that spare the make-up and don't splash the dark glasses. Her other hand reached out to the boy who, having been quite content in the company of his father, used her reappearance to complain about her absence. She laughed at him and the hand moved to take a pack of cigarettes from the table top. As she opened it she looked up and saw me standing by her chair.

'Hello Clarrie,' she said. A slight movement of her knee indicated I could sit with them.

Anita.

'Oh yes. But its okay. They are all in France now and they are recording a new album with Jagger singing in French.'

She was a woman in public with her man and child and her happiness was so great it would have outshone mine at my happiest. Perhaps the quality of the man and what she had gone through to get him accounts for the discrepancy.

'This is our little Marlon', she said. The boy squinted up at me. 'And this is Keith.'

Keith's eyes were concealed by glasses with mirrored lenses. I saw myself in them, receiving a smile made boyish by a sheered-off incisor. Any friend of Anita, the smile said, though the man himself said nothing and turned his attention back to Marlon as if the doubling of the female presence had given him an excuse to forget it.

'What are you doing?' Anita asked the question she had asked once before, three years ago in London. Since then I had perfected the art of evasiveness cloaked in the language of confidences. For the next little while I was reeling out the potted tell-all/ say nothing version of my recent life while my real attention was directed to sneaking little peeks at the pop music Garbo in the chair beside me.

His silence wasn't a pose to make him more interesting, the dark glasses weren't there to make people wonder if he might be Keith Richards. He was so famous he could only hide amongst his own imposters. I wondered if there was some new item of clothing or jewellery, some habit he had just adopted today that his imitators hadn't picked up on yet, something to certify his authenticity. Otherwise how could I know it was really him? How could Anita?

Keith comandeered the cigarettes and got up to take Marlon for a walk. Anita and I watched them amble along the dock, the man's long arm dangling down to meet the child's upstretched fingers. When I looked at her again, the dark glasses were levelled at me and her hands were peeling the cellophane from a new packet of Dunhill. Watching her fingers I remembered how to handle cigarettes. When she inhaled, my synapses latched onto hers, opening the old pathways to addictive pleasure. We smoked as we talked, to illustrate and punctuate and we smoked to fill up the silences. Ah the long and lovely mentholated pleasure of smoking in the seventies.

'You're missing your son,' Anita said with forensic accuracy. From my commonplace tales of Ottawa adulteries she had, after all, extracted the truth. 'And your new man, the one who gave you advice and fucked you. Are you going to meet him in Paris? Is he really coming?'

It was the question I had avoided asking myself. Now Anita had asked it I didn't have the heart to lie, so I said nothing.

'Then you might as well stay in the South, ' she said. 'If your man can't find you in Paris, he will come here. If he doesn't come, we'll find you someone else. It's summer. It's the Cote d'Azur. ' Her mouth stretched in a smile of interestingly uneven teeth.

She thought I was someone she would see from time to time, bump into at parties, involve in some intrigues, invite to dinner. All this as though I had at my disposal an apartment or hotel suite where I could stay indefinitely at my leisure.

Keith and Marlon came back carrying icecreams, Keith sculpting the soft white peak of his cone with his tongue. Marlon rhythmically jammed the whole assemblage into his lips, recoiled at the cold, observed with curiosity this thing which had given him a shock, then tried again to get at all the sweetness at once. At each assault the white juice cascaded down his chin. Anita produced a handkerchief and wiped it off.

'Come and see us at Villa Nellcote' she said, ' No one ever closes the gate. Its just over there.' she waved her hand at the scenery behind me, 'Come to lunch next week.'

Turning in my chair I saw a headland of smooth yellow stone separated from Villefranche by a short stretch of water. At the base of the headland was a small beach with steps going up beneath wind-twisted pines. Three or four white columns were all that was visible of the house.

'Its a lovely spot,' I said, 'But I'm going back to Paris after the festival. Finances dictate.'

More coffees were ordered, though it was getting on for lunch time. The little family seemed reluctant to go home. Anita and I talked about our days in Rome and people we knew there. She said she had stayed on to work in the movies but she didn't tell me how her career was going and I didn't ask. When the party broke up, I decided I must speak to Keith, just to have something to tell my grandchildren.

'Will you be making a record in France?' I asked, thinking of the gossip I heard at Saorge. His reply was a startling five seconds of pre-verbal muttering while his fingers made helpless circles in the air – sounds of despair were freely mixed with accents of derision.

Scotty would see off my latest admirer without causing a fuss, then for thirty minutes we would stoke up the night until he suddenly wilted, then vanished again.

'There are no good studios in France. ' Anita translated. She looked towards Villa Nellcote and laughed. 'So we are building a studio in the basement. We have to come down here to escape the hammering.'

Keith added something I almost understood.

'Carpenters?' I hazarded

'Carpeters' Anita said. 'To make the sound better.'

It seemed too difficult to ask if the next Rolling Stones album was going to be sung in French. In any case, Villa Nellcote didn't sound like the sort of place I'd find the peace I craved, with a rock band making an album in the basement, however much carpet they put down. After their Wellington concert I had a ringing in my ears that lasted for three days and since then, things had only got louder.

Go Ask Alice

At the end of Cannes fortnight, my clothes were all packed for the trip back to Paris, save for one last outfit for a last round of movie people parties. The movies had got better as the festival went on and The Palme D'or ended up going to a lovely film about a boy and some good looking actors doing intriguing things in the English countryside. After the gala screening I drifted out of the cinema feeling my critical standards had been vindicated and the balance restored in my relationship with art.

A warm pink evening and the back seat of a car embraced me, whisking me above the town to a vine-covered terrace where Bertolucci was hosting a faux-rustic dinner. Afterwards, our party joined up with some Americans to go dancing at Monaco. Driving back to Cannes around two o'clock, we passed above Villefranche and saw the normally sleepy resort ablaze with lights and full of people. Someone in the front seat yawned.

'The fleet is in. Welcome to Villevegas-Sur-Mer,'

The scene flashed between the trees and was gone. The man sitting beside me, having somehow missed the speaker's tone of megaphonic ennui, enquired anxiously. 'Well, aren't we going down there?'

'Oh, Scotty,' the first voice sighed, 'are you too high to sleep again? You should lay off the coke.'

'Lay off, lay off? ' Scotty rallied, 'This is the South of France, Dee, not Stockbridge!' Then Scotty told the driver, 'Eddie, take us back to Villefranche'

While Eddie was turning the car, one of the Parisians said to him in French 'And when you've dropped them off, take us to Cannes. We have an early start tomorrow. '

Stepping onto the dock, the first thing I heard was a bass beat booming from some nearby disco. The American ships were well out in the bay with floodlit decks and rows of bright portholes like horizontal skyscrapers, icebergs of city lights that had broken off from Monaco and floated along the coast. The waterfront cafes had transformed themselves into places Yankee sailors might want to spend money. 'Six Shooter' 'Lou's Saloon' 'Ringo's Rodeo.' 'Wild South' 'Jackie K's', were inscribe on hastily erected neons above the awnings. Scotty read them off with glee.

'Ever been to Bangkok?' he asked no one in particular. 'It's like when the GI's come in from the war. Look at that one. 'Ridem Cowboy''.

The Parisians looked tired and unamused but Scotty capered in front of Marc. 'Come on Marc, lets go find us some gals!'

'Shut-up, Scotty,' said the woman called Dee. A sailor detached himself from a drunk group and blew a kiss in her face. 'Lighten up baby, We'll all be dead next month.'

'Let's just get back in the car', Marc said. Scotty, despairing of everyone else, grabbed my arm. ' Clarrie! ' he said, 'You've still got some life in you. Lets go and find us some boys.'

I laughed, which Scotty took as permission to drag me off through the crowd. 'Remember we're leaving at seven, Clarrie, ' Marc called. I tried to get my head far enough over my shoulder to tell him I'd come home by taxi, but a throng of sailors and happy whores had got between us.

The next few hours were spent on high stools at various bars with my legs firmly crossed, waiting for Scotty to come back from the men's room. He seemed to have an abnormally weak bladder since he wasn't drinking beer yet he needed to go every half hour or so. When he came back he was always in such a good mood I forgave him for leaving me at the mercy of the sailors. Scotty would see off my latest admirer without causing a fuss, then for thirty minutes we would stoke up the night until he suddenly wilted, then vanished again.

I got to enjoy the routine: worn-out Scotty replaced by some drunk but amiable boy making repartee in polished monosyllables whilst trying to manoeuvre his puppy face as close as possible to my breasts. Then Scotty, riding to the rescue with fresh reserves of charm and tact. At one point, as we glided arm-in-arm out the door of a hastily improvised cabaret called the Follies Bel-Aire, I noticed that the sky over Villefranche Bay had turned from black to grey.

'It's morning,' I said.

Military launches were setting out into the wan light ferrying doomed and depleted sailors back to their hammocks. The magical electric icebergs had turned to grey and officious transports. Everything said that the party was over, except for the throbbing bass of the disco still booming over the water.

'I don't see any cabs,' I said. Scotty pointed to the stream of launches puttering into the bay. 'Those are the sailors cabs. The whores'll sleep till noon then go back to Nice on the bus.'

'I have to get to Cannes,' I said. 'Marc and the others won't wait for me.'

'You'll be lucky. ' The numbness he had been fighting all night had conquered him and Scotty was suddenly indifferent to my concerns. I swayed a little to the beat from the disco. All night, as we traipsed from bar to bar, it's music had provided continuity. I wondered if there was a men's room there to restore Scotty's humour but when I looked around, I realised there was no disco. The music was coming across the water, from the yellow headland with pine trees and a large white house. It was coming from Villa Nellcote.

'Do you know who that is playing?' I asked.

Scotty squinted sourly and listened. 'Sounds like a bad imitation of the Rolling Stones. ' He turned back to the closing cafés. 'I wonder if we can get a room here, ' he said. 'Otherwise I'm gonna crash on the beach till the bus comes through.'

A few private cars were leaving the bay. I debated whether to stick with Scotty or risk hitching alone. One of the cars slowed down and stopped in front of us. We peered in at shadows. Eyes peered out at us and the front passenger window descended with riveting slowness. The top of a blonde head appeared, then a pale brow, then Anita's eyes, looking as if it was the most natural thing in the world to find me at dawn in the place we had parted a week before.

The music stopped again and my ears readjusted to the tiny twittering in the trees. 'This is the strangest garden I've ever seen,' I said. Branches writhed and twisted skywards like modernist dancers pretending to be trees.

'What incredible luck, ' I said, 'I need to get to Cannes or I'll miss my ride back to Paris. I don't suppose... '

'Cannes!' her eyes expanded as if the very name was preposterous and funny. Behind me, Scotty said, 'Forget it Clarrie, there's no way you can get there in time.' Anita flicked a look in his direction, then back to me. 'You can do it,' she said, 'We have a racing driver staying at the house. He can take you'

Scotty laughed, 'And I suppose there's a Ferrari on the door step revved up and waiting to go.'

Anita nodded. ' I think its a Bugatti. '

' Stop JAWIN and get in,' boomed the unseen figure in the driver's seat. 'I wanna be down in that cellar and BLOWIN, son!'

We got in as ordered and climbed the hill under limp grey trees. The driver was an American in fine but impatient humour. He lowered his window and stuck his head out.

'Can't hear it now,' he said, 'Can't HEAR it!' He thumped the wheel with the palm of his hand. 'Can't wait to get down there and BLOW!'

'BLOW, YES!' Scotty suddenly came to life. The driver looked over his shoulder as we approached a bend at speed.

'You blow son?' he asked.

'Sure I blow.'

'Bobby means blow a horn, ' Anita said. I had no idea what sort of blow any of them were talking about.

We passed the through the gates of the villa without slowing down; the murmur of macadam turned to the roar of outraged gravel, our tires spat stones at the garden. Outside the front door there really was a red sports car waiting to whisk me to Cannes. Anita said, 'I'll find your driver,' and vanished inside. Bobby and Scotty followed her.

I waited by the front door feeling it would be somehow dangerous to enter Anita's home. In Rome her admirers had passed the time speculating about Anita's future – no one doubted it was golden. But her mumbling pop star had taken her higher than even the best expectations of schoolgirl Anita if she was mistress of the world beyond that door. It looked like the entrance to some Napoleonic ministry, high glass panels held in place by arabesques of black iron and flanked by a pair of sphinxes.

I stood between the sphinxes listening to the birds waking up in the grove that concealed the house from the road. The music had stopped but after a while it started again, shaking the ground beneath my feet. Poor shy famous Keith, anonymously serenading the sailors at their revels. Shouldn't someone tell him that the party was over and everyone had gone to bed?

Scotty came back looking as though he'd had eight hours sleep in the five minutes since I saw him. Pink-faced and restored to his former humour, he was bringing me a Martini in a conical glass. 'Anita's still trying to find your driver,' he looked mischievous as if his excursion to the interior had confirmed something suspicious.

'There are a lot of rooms,' he said. 'In the meantime, drink this. I know just how you like it.'

'You should know,' I took the glass and sipped. 'You've heard me telling half a dozen bartenders how to make it.'

The music stopped again and my ears readjusted to the tiny twittering in the trees. 'This is the strangest garden I've ever seen,' I said. Branches writhed and twisted skywards like modernist dancers pretending to be trees. Vegetable introverts curled inwards to their trunks and cloaked themselves with impossibly patterned leaves. The whole garden seemed to be holding its breath as if our arrival had interrrupted a stealthy advance on the house.

'I don't think I could name more than one or two species. ' I said. I thought I was still talking to Scotty, but when I turned around it was Anita standing on the step.

'An English admiral built Nellcote,' she said. 'He brought plants and trees from every country he visited. He was one of those Victorians who were interested in botanical science.

'Now,' she added unnecessarily, 'The place is completely wild.'

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