The White Ravine


A few years ago I visited Marseille in the south of France, which I consider a far more interesting holiday destination than the seal-colony Mediterranean beach resorts. My hotel was a small and friendly one, just a few yards from the Vieux Port, which due to advances in sewage technology has no trace of the smell on which Dickens comments. There are fortifications at the mouth of the port which surely had a lot to do with the British navy, and I looked long and covetously at a large, pre-war British-built sailing yacht in the port.

I took two boat-trips, one along the coast past the spectacular limestone ravines, or calanques, of which more later. The other was to the Chateau d’If, the island castle which was the prison of Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. You can still see the hole dug from one cell, or possible cell, to another, although that is known to have been done after the publication of the book. Still, a little tourist fakery doesn’t detract from a largely untouched Renaissance fortress, or the marvellous light of the Midi which has inspired so many artists. The island, following a shipwreck, was also used to confine a rhinoceros which was being sent by King Manoel I of Portugal to the Pope, perhaps because there were no white elephants to be had.

The chambermaids in my hotel were Algerian or Tunisian, and I got on the right side of them by understanding something only mildly scandalous they said about me in Arabic, and replying in the same language. They used to disappear in early afternoon, so finally I invited Samira to lunch, which turned into a delicious and inexpensive Marseilles bouillabaisse or fish stew, just a few yards down the Port. I derived some satisfaction out of eating the vive, or Greater Weever, which has fatally venomous spines, as long as someone else handled the difficult end of the business.

Samira was a very tall, slim Algerian, more Arab than Berber to look at, and I was surprised to find, as with many British Indians, just how westernised she was. She spoke almost no English, but excellent French, with an accent like Mademoiselle from Armentières — whom my great-grandfather, old Andrew the general, knew well, by the way — and her smile cast light into shadowy corners. She was outraged, as any decent person naturally would be, at the idea that the government might ban the Islamic headscarf in schools and public buildings. But she giggled and shook her head when I asked if she would ever wear it herself. Not, it would seem, in France.

Even more surprisingly, she turned out to be a keen rock-climber, which is a major sport on the coast around Marseilles. A long time ago, the month I week I first used the internet, I got a mysterious message out of the blue, from a Russian lady. She was tall, beautiful, sensual, an excellent cook, possessed of all the family virtues, and just about to finish her PhD in thermodynamics. Oh, and she was very truthful too, for she told me so. I’m afraid I wrote back that the hardest concept for the amateur to grasp, in thermodynamics, is the bulk modulus of elasticity. I never got a reply, but it stands to reason that a woman like that is very much in demand.

I may have matured since then, and would never actually ask that nowadays. But Samira undoubtedly knew bursa escort a lot about pitons and chockstones.

She took the rules of her job very seriously, more from principle than from fear, I think, and there could clearly be no question of hanky-panky in the hotel. But in the evening she took me with a band of her French friends, to a dinner in an appalling hot and noisy night-club on the outskirts of the city. I think the choice of place was her friends’, and we spent quite a bit of time talking and holding hands in the cool night air outside. She told me she was a sincere Muslim in her fashion, but when I explained Presbyterianism, agreed that it eliminated most of the things Muslims find objectionable in Christianity. I think my being Dunbar of Arabia’s great-grandson raised my stock a little in her eyes, but I’m used to that, and she was no scalp-hunter. It was no surprise when she redirected our taxi to the flat she shared with some other North African girls, just off the Canebière within a short walk of my hotel.

The room and bed were tiny but scrupulously clean, and took me back in imagination to a railway sleeper compartment of long ago. She actually had a new bottle of whisky to offer me, which I took both as a touching gesture to a Scot, since she didn’t drink it herself, and as evidence that I was intended to be there. I had seen Samira drink wine, with an ability to pace herself which is not always present in male Arabs, but the legend that whisky possesses a potency far exceeding cognac’s, has not quite died out in southern latitudes. I would have to tell her sometime, I realised, that her pronunciation of my name, Colin, had more to do with an Irish country maiden. But that wasn’t the time.

There was just a touch of shyness as her dress slipped from those beautiful shoulders, as close to white as mine but further from pink, and the only trace of her background was when she held her folded bra in front of her lower face for an instant, instead of those small, firm breasts. I have it on hearsay that North African women shave or depilate the body, but if that is so, Samira had gone native in most satisfactory style.

I had to touch her with my fingers for several minutes, before she was ready to be entered. Was that a matter of limited experience? How would I know that? I am only a man. She experienced brief discomfort, but motioned for me not to stop, and then lay back smiling gently for so long that I wondered if she was what used to be called pre-orgasmic. But then her breathing deepened and she held me tighter, her body moving in a rhythm which quickened and intensified mine. She never became vocal, but I saw a deep flush growing in her skin, as surely as I could in the palest European. When the explosion came for both of us, she was gleaming with sweat, and for several minutes she lay so still that only her smile convinced me that she had not fainted.

It was a night of little sleep, for she came back to me time after time, and I responded better than I would ever have thought possible. In the morning she brought me good bacon most tragically charred, with a triumphant smile which only a harder man than I would have dared dispel, although I would rather have stuck to the buttered croissants she had herself. bursa escort bayan There was nothing wrong with the orange juice and coffee, though, served French breakfast-style, weak and milky in large stainless steel bowls. The other North African girls were giggly but friendly, and I thought an overnight guest was exceptional and yet not unheard-of among them.

Afterwards Samira announced that she would take me to one of the calanques, along the coast to the west. If you do the same, bear in mind that they may be closed, due to the fire hazard, in the driest months. We travelled by bus to the stop for the Calanque de Sugiton, which you will easily find on the map. From there it was a longish walk on an increasingly rough path down into the calanque. But our way diverged to the left around the time we saw the little beach at the bottom of the Calanque de Sugiton. I have never been afraid of heights, and climbing was about the only vaguely athletic thing I was good at in my youth. But on that precipitous path round the shoulder of the hill, descending behind the narrow rocky island known as Le Torpilleur, or torpedo-boat, I wondered if Samira should really have taken those things for granted. She, for her part, leapt along that path like a chamois, and I think I did quite well to keep up.

Some even more difficult climbing, but safe climbing at sea-level with the bottom visible a couple of feet down, brought us to a curved beach under a cliff. It was only once on the beach that I saw Samira’s quizzical smile, and noticed some details of the people on the beach, of whom I had only vaguely been aware. She had brought me to the local nudist beach!

We spent some time there, and I now know for a fact that Algerians can get a sun-tan, for I saw the join. Perhaps because it was a secluded and unofficial beach, there was none of the puritanical attitude that pervades British nudism… or so I have heard. Or maybe it was just French. I saw several couples embracing with some enthusiasm, including ourselves, and one gay couple in the surf whose excitement could hardly be hidden. Soon, though, the northern European skin, especially the bits of it usually hidden, could stand no more of the sun, and the Mediterranean is too cold, in June, to spend long in the water. So we retreated to a curious spot behind the beach.

There was a small overhang along most of the cliff, and in places it was cut off by great blocks of limestone which had fallen from the cliff above. We had already seen couples making for these secluded corners, and it suited our purpose well at the time. If you go there, though, you should take mosquito coils or a citronella candle, for a species of tiny black midge bit me infuriatingly, although it seemed satisfactorily deterred by the North African skin. Ah well, we are meant to rise above such minor misfortunes.

As I lay back after our exertions, a stark naked, extremely black African girl bounded over the rock, and landed heavily on my stomach, as her partner came around the corner. For a moment apologies bounced off embarrassed apologies, although in hindsight it seems churlish to object. The feel of those peppercorn curls will live with me forever. It ended with us watching them bursa merkez escort make love within inches of our eyes, and they us. I had never seen a black male in that sort of detail, and yet did not feel altogether humiliated. Although they were quite apologetic about not going in for l’échangisme, I was well content with that. For at the height of our new discovery of one another, I could never have exchanged Samira for anything I would have liked as much.

With the need to make room, something had been digging into my back. It was only when they had gone, that I noticed several plastic supermarket trays of dried-up flowers. Now I’ve worked with Arabs, and they are no more dishonest or deceitful than Europeans. But the signs are different, and you have to know them. When I asked Samira if she knew what these were, and she denied all knowledge, I knew she was hiding something. Ah well, nobody ever took any harm from trays of flowers, and I put it down to some North African superstition she thought too silly to admit, just as you will find bits of ribbon tied to the great Anchorwyke yew-tree, under which the Magna Carta may have been signed. So I put it from my mind.

It was only weeks later, in Scotland, that I tried to find the place on the internet. You can easily find the Calanque de Sugiton on Google Maps, and on satellite view trace that few hundred yards east along the coast, behind the Torpilleur. I think I can make out two tiny pink blobs on our beach, although they wouldn’t have been us. But it was on a Google search for Calanque des Pierres Tombées that I found something which chilled my heart. The calanque had been closed by the authorities just before we went there, because two people had died in a rock-fall. The spot was clearly indicated on aerial photographs, and we had been not merely yard, but feet at the most, of the spot. What’s more Samira, as a rock-climber with a much wider interest in the calanques she loved so much, must surely have known it.

I’m not neurotic about the danger of death. Large boulders can only fall every few decades, or the place would be filled up with them. If Samira had told me that visiting this supremely enjoyable place involved that modest risk, I’m sure I would have gone for it, even with much milder inducements. It wasn’t all on the basis that a swelling organ blinds us to practicalities, either. She was a friend, and I would have been ashamed to back out of something that gave her pleasure.

The point, though, is that she chose not to tell me. What kind of preoccupation with death might have made her bring me there, all unknowing? Was it some residual guilt, in one of her background, over indulging in no-strings sex? How would I know? I’m only a man, and theories come too pat, sometimes.

I don’t know what I might have done about meeting again, which we had intended, or seeing the relationship become more serious, which didn’t get mentioned. After all, a Muslim and a Presbyterian can surely work things out. But the choice was denied me. Soon afterwards the family called her back to Algeria for an arranged marriage.

I doubt very much if I could have persuaded her out of it, and the only choice was between Samira married, and Samira married, bitter and twisted, which would have done nobody any good. Would I have seen it that clearly without knowing she could contemplate our being squashed flat? Probably not. Will I ever hear of an Algerian couple crushed by rocks on a beach near Marseille? It must be long odds against that, but if it happens, I would hope to miss it.

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