I have always been drawn to mountains and lakes; to me they represent peace, tranquillity and the numinous. During my stay in Nyon, a former Roman settlement on the edge of Lake Geneva, I liked to walk from the busy centre to a place on the edge of the town. There I could look down over the roof tops, beyond the huddle of yachts moored near the shore and across the water to Mont Blanc.
On this particular day the mountains were just starting to materialize from the mist. It was autumn and yellow ochre, russet and tan mingled with the greens of the taller firs. Two men rowing close to the shore startled a flock of birds who screeched as they skimmed low down over the water before taking flight. I relished the crunch of the horse chestnut leaves beneath my feet as I made my way to my favourite spot. Looking down I noticed a fly crawling over a cluster of leaves sprinkled with discarded filter tips.
Looking up again, I almost stumbled and fell onto a man seated on the iron bench I had come to regard as my own: he wore a mackintosh that was none too clean; a pair of shabby trainers and his grey hair, receding from a high forehead, fell to his shoulders in greasy waves. He was drawing on a cigarette with short, sharp intakes of breath. Although his hand was shaking, I felt irritation rather than pity; he had encroached upon my personal space. I struggled to regain my composure whilst resigning myself to walking further, in search of somewhere more solitary. He must have seen the disappointment on my face. Tossing his cigarette butt to the ground, he was on his feet like a sprung spring. As he placed a hand on my shoulder, I couldn’t help observing the smear of dirt across the back of his hand which and the black wedges under his nails.
‘Madam, s’il vous plaît?’ he said. His voice was deep and melodious but as unsteady as his hand.
‘Anglais… Angleterre…’ I was not going to admit to even a basic understanding of French. French, a language I loved to hear spoken by a native speaker, especially by a man. It appealed to the romantic young girl I used to be.
He released his hold on my shoulder and raised my hand to kiss it. I flinched. He smelt of mould and rancid gorgonzola. Not only could he speak my language he had also foiled my feeble attempt to avoid conversation. When I raised my eyes to speak they met his; brown with unmistakeable sadness. A tiny fissure opened in the fortress I had built to shield my emotions. Here was another victim of psychological scarring, a subject on which I considered myself to be an expert. He dropped my hand and turned away to light another cigarette.