I have experienced for myself the love of a mother for her child, of a woman for her beloved, but this area of the Mediterranean coast is where, perhaps, the enduring nature of these kinds of love is celebrated most of all.
If one listens to legend and story, some time after the death of Jesus, a boat landed here on this coast with a precious cargo. This cargo is variously described as three Maries – Magdalene, Jacobé, Salomé - as well as their dark Egyptian maid Sarah (later adopted by the Gitan as their own Saint); possibly also a grail or container of some sort; possibly the bones of Jesus the Nazarene; possibly Jesus himself, in the flesh, ready to conquer Europe with love.
In that first century at least, this Gaullish coast might have seemed to be a place of greater safety for the Nazarene travellers. Gaul, like Britain - though still under the sway of pagan Rome - was not so enamoured of the growing official emperor cult as other parts of the empire.
After their long sea journey these Nazarene visitors might be comforted by some similarities of life here, with their lives by the sea of Galilee: shouting sailors, milling fishing boats, women sorting fish, men hauling nets or mending them as they watched the river and considered the wind and the conditions.
I see four cloaked women huddled together on a quayside like that of prosperous Roman Agde, wondering what to do next in their quest for protection and safety. They would have had men with them. Some say Lazarus. Some say Joseph of Aramathea, stricken that his garden was the setting for those last dramas in the life of the charismatic Nazarene.
Towns along this coast abound with stories of these women - from St Maries de la Mere, to Rennes le Chateau all share elements of these legends. Agde has its own Marie story – the little village close by here celebrates a vision of the Virgin Mary whose prayers saved the city from the flooding by the River Herault. Apparently the rock on which she kneeled show marks of her knees. This is an important generic story here in Agde , as the fear of flood – l’inondation - here at the mouth of the River Herault is no mere legend. The town has flooded here more than once in living memory. The fear is very real. That miraculous image of the flood receding must be in everyone’s dreams in this situation.
I came here finally to write a novel which I have planned and thought about for more than two years. I wanted somehow to evoke the timeless and the time-full magic of the place that had first entranced me. But nothing was pre-ordained. And actually living here, digging deeper and deeper into what I feel about the place has made the original ideas evolve and blossom in ways I could not have foretold. This is the outcome of sequestering yourself in a strange place for longer than may seem reasonable.
I have done my reading and thinking. I have two or three people who I know will play some part in the story. I have fragments of truth, fragments of legend and fragments of story in my head. With my character Stella, I am interested in then and there; I am interested in here and now. And I am interested in the layers in between.
And I have discovered a story – not explored before - that connects all of the above. But that’s a secret.
And now today, I have just been exploring part of the old city to use for a scene in the novel. It comes down now to two streets: La rue de L’Amour. (The street of love) and La rue de la Poisononnierie. (The street of the fishermen). I return very excited. This makes a curiously appropriate location for a story which is becoming more magical at every turn.
At The Maison d’Estella Work in Progress Extract.
‘That end of the town is more dilapidated than the rue Haute of the Maison d’Estella. I remember what Madame Patrice said. ‘…the poor gather there, of whom I am one. Bad things are said of them but they are wonderful people.’ I pass a rather grand restored house and then I count the wonderful doors, now battered and broken, that were once portals to grand town houses. Some are patched with plywood. Some are daubed in graffiti. On one door is a white handprint on the faded green paint. I wonder now if this has occult meaning. Perhaps it’s just some playful gesture.
I try to make my way down a side street but two boys playing football, immaculate in a Nike strip, bar my way. Madame had told me ‘…they look after their children, you know. That’s a good sign.’ The boys stand aside politely, football in hand, as I pass them. Then they smile knowingly when I return, having discovered the dead end. And I have to work hard to push to the back of my mind the thought of those other two footballing boys, locked up now in a cold British prison in a town in the north of England.