I got the job through a French friend, someone I had met at university who spent the previous year studying in Scotland on an Erasmus programme. For the last three years he had worked in his summer holidays as a lifeguard on the Cte d'Azur, near St Tropez, and said he was doing it for one more year. Would I be interested in getting work there also, he suggested. He couldn't promise me a life-guard's job, but believed I could earn good money selling donuts on the beach.
Fabrice arranged things promptly, and phoned to say all I needed was a return flight and a little initial spending money until my pay came through. I could stay cheaply at his parents' holiday home - he had it to himself that summer he insisted. I managed to get an inexpensive flight from Edinburgh to Nice, and saw Fabrice waiting for me at the arrivals lounge. He'd been in the South a couple of weeks and was already tanned, and, as we jumped into his battered Golf Convertible, I noticed striations in his arms and legs that didn't seem so pronounced in Scotland. Was this just the tan, had he been working out especially hard, or was it simply a body consciousness that demanded every movement offer maximum muscle contraction?
His holiday home he said was about two kilometers from the beach, up on the hill and on the edge of an ugly little village called La Croix Valmer. When we arrived it didn't seem so ugly to me. Modern, yes, but the buildings were orange and pink and light purple, and the village gave off an air of a Day-Glo colour scheme that suggested a nursery, or a play park. That night, Fabrice said, he was meeting a couple of friends for something to eat in St Tropez. Would I like to come?
St Tropez was about seven miles from the village, but it took us almost an hour to reach it. Located at the corner of a small cape, Fabrice explained, there was really only one way in and one way out, and that once in the town drivers would sit in their Porsches, jeeps, BMWs, Mercedes, crawling along the roads, bumper to bumper as if on parade. This of course led to a bumper to bumper jam going all the way out of the town for several miles.
When we arrived there at about nine it was already dusky, the streets were hectically busy, and the restaurants full, with tables pouring out on to the pavements. As we made our way to the Crperie, weaving in and out of the diners, they seemed oblivious to our presence as disturbances, and simply aware, I felt, of our presence as objects of various degrees of admiration or disgust.
In which category did I fit, I wondered? Foreign holidays in the past meant visiting a Greek Island once and a Spanish one twice. Mainly the holidaymakers were the working poor and barely comfortable taking a fortnight off from colder and windier climates, looking less for a tan - not much hope of that - than a bit of colour. The bodies seemed to be exposed out of a curious necessity; to allow sunlight to redden their pale bodies and supply evidence for friends and relatives that they had been away - a sort of variation on the postcard.
Here was something else again. It wasn't only that people had money, and that they had tans, it was also that they possessed an effortless body consciousness suggesting the body at ease with itself and the mind chiefly observing the bodies of others.
As Fabrice and I sat waiting for the friends to arrive, he smoked a cigarette, and drank the Pastis he had just ordered. I sipped on my glass of ros and, observing Fabrice observing others, I waited eagerly yet not enthusiastically.
I noticed my fears, prejudices, might I even say my insecurities, became more pronounced as Thierry and Jean-Claude arrived at our table. Thierry was, like Fabrice, tall, lean, and with a narrow chest but even narrower hips, and with small biceps just cut enough, and the tan deep enough, to justify the vest he was wearing. Jean-Claude was stockier, less tanned, but he obviously trained hard and looked as if he'd just come off a work out: the veins on his arms looked recently pumped.
Now all of this observing, all these things I was noticing, was perceived not by somebody who was himself usually unaware of the body, but by someone whose self-consciousness was intrinsically personal; yet here it felt socially acceptable, even necessary. It was a genuine culture of narcissism, a kind of 'consciousness of the beach', where my own was closer to a sort of 'consciousness of the mirror', a solipsistic narcissism. This wasn't so much about being intimidated by beautiful bodies and aware of my own as pale and inadequate, but instead conscious of my own as one amongst many equally self-conscious. As I sat drinking my glass of wine and trying to comprehend the conversation the others were having, I felt curiously, psychologically naked.
How to escape from this curious dilemma; a dilemma that I felt contained a double bind? For had I not come to the South of France to get a tan, to walk miles and miles each day along a sea front and to build up my calves? Wasn't my trip in essence an act of narcissism? And yet over the next few weeks something else seemed to be developing in my mind: perhaps the reverse of vanity. I was working six days a week, and from ten in the morning till six in the evening. The work consisted of taking a large tray from one end of the beach to the other, and then back again, where I replaced the donuts on the tray that I hadn't sold with another fresh tray. The tray was about two feet in length and a foot and a half in diameter, and I had to balance the tray on my head, or attach it to a string around my neck, thus half allowing the tray to be supported by my neck and half by my hands. Either way proved awkward initially, but within a couple of weeks I'd mastered this menial art and I would alter my approach as much out of variety as discomfort.
However, as the job got easier, or the masochism more pleasurable, so staying at Fabrice's proved harder. For if I had decided to see the work as somehow spiritual yet menial, staying at Fabrice's still had the feeling of luxury. His parents' holiday home had three large bedrooms, a couple of bathrooms, a huge sitting room and a swimming pool. How could it feel otherwise? Most evenings there would be a big meal at the house with friends, or we would go out to a pizzeria, crperie or fish restaurant.
One evening Fabrice, Jean-Claude, Thierry and I met three girls in a bar after we'd been for a meal. After a couple of drinks, Fabrice suggested we all go back to the house. After more drinks at the house, he mentioned the idea of strip poker. Only I and one of the girls seemed reluctant to play. This, I think, had nothing to do with our bodily modesty, but to do instead with a certain psychic reserve. However, play we did, though in such a way that I knew I, and I later found out she, cheated ostensibly to protect our modesty, but perhaps really to reveal to each other an aspect of our feelings towards one another. As the others seemed keen both to strip and watch the bodies of others stripping, so Hlne and I did our best to keep our clothes on, as if we were playing our own secret game of stripless poker.
At the end of the game, Fabrice and Jean-Claude were both completely naked, as was one of the girls. The three of them then disappeared out of the house, and went for a skinny dip in the pool. That left Thierry to go off with the other girl, which he promptly did, and left Hlne and me alone in the dining room.
I offered her a cup of herbal tea, searching for a French word in the process, and she asked if I would prefer if we spoke English. Was this an insult to my poor French? No, it was just a respect, she said, for my intelligence, and that she wanted to make contact with it in the least mediated way. For though her English was very good, she spoke it with no hint of arrogance but instead with a sense of urgency. It was as if she wanted to speak English to express what she thought I might not have understood in her language.
What that something was she half-revealed that evening, but revealed less obviously - in the sense of disclosure - but more concretely, and without any language at all, a week or so later. By this stage Thierry and Hlne's friend had started seeing each other, and the two groups began socializing each day. One evening the friend, whose name was Julia, decided to host a party at her parents' holiday home, a holiday home that, as with Fabrice, she had largely to herself for the entire summer.
Hlne was expected to help out - Hlne was Julia's guest - so that when Thierry, Fabrice and I arrived, the pair of them were rearranging furniture and laying out glasses and bottles of beer, pastis and vodka. However, while Julia seemed to be doing so enthusiastically, Hlne looked as if she found it all a chore. Was this a hint of what she was talking about a few days earlier?
It was a couple of hours later, with the party aswarm with bodies and yet the tone still relatively sober, that she more obviously revealed herself. In the large dining-room there was a full length mirror, and Hlne, standing a couple of yards away from it, started to disrobe. First, she removed her short, printed dress, then she removed her flat shoes, after that her white bra, and then finally her white panties. Then she started to look at herself from various angles; sometimes moving closer to the mirror, and sometimes further away. And, whatever the response of others, some looked surprised, others giggled, Julia looked infuriated, my own response was for the first time to be aroused by nakedness in a part of the world that had over the last few weeks not been averse to showing flesh.
Others, I suspected, thought Hlne was mad; and still others perhaps believed she was no more than an exhibitionist. But was it not simply a furnishing of a hypothesis, and a reaction to the game of strip poker we played a week or so before at Fabrice's? That night, after that game where we refused to play by the rules, we discussed why each of us was so reluctant to join in. For me, I explained, it was too close to the 'consciousness of the beach' I had formulated shortly after arriving in the South; too unrevealing in its social revelation. For Hlne it was something similar but not quite the same. If for me it was all about revealing beautiful bodies, Hlne saw it as revealing conventional minds. Everybody she knew showed their body at the beach, in skinny-dipping, in playing strip poker. There was, she said, so little privacy to nudity in the South. How could one give it once again the aura of a private world?
My own problem with beautiful bodies had interestingly manifested itself in a low-key spirituality. I had noticed that Fabrice and his friends saw beauty in isolation, as a presentable object that happened to be their body. I, trying to make it more than that, saw the job as a low-key physical trial, and my stay likewise. I stuck to a rigorous diet: when we went to a pizzeria I ate only pasta; at a crperie, goat's cheese crepes, at a fish restaurant, lightly grilled tuna. The only alcohol I drank was red wine, and my own shopping consisted of buying cereals, whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain rice. To define myself I had retreated into myself, I explained to Hlne, finding, once again, what I described to her as my 'consciousness of the mirror'.
She had wondered that evening whether one had to turn inwards for this type of consciousness. I asked what she was getting at, and she said that one day soon she might be able to explain more clearly.
And so that is exactly what she did when she removed her clothes and stood in front of the dining room mirror, as if there were no one else in the room. Of course, the next morning, Hlne was asked to leave, and later that day she came to say goodbye to me with her rucksack on her back while I stood talking to her as I balanced a box of donuts on my head. Where was she going? I asked. She was going to hitch north, and wait and see. Maybe I would join her if she liked, I said, deciding that perhaps the most comfortable position for a box of donuts was neither on my head nor stretched out in front of my body, but left lying in the sand. Hiking together might be fun, she said, if you think our 'consciousness' of the mirror' approach to life might be compatible. Of that I wasn't sure. For once we start refining our idiosyncrasies who knows where it might end. However, at that moment I felt a compatibility that was physiological, even if it did owe its presence to something more cerebrally worked through both on her part and mine.
© Tony McKibbin