In my writing workshops I am perpetually advising writers that , without the use of the senses, what they may see as clever, cunning, wild, or imaginative writing is dead in the water. I tell writers the simplest way to force your senses to the front of your consciousness - instead of leaving them wallowing in the mud of instinct - is to make lists.
Here in Agde any list for sight – colour, shape, light and shade - is easy to generate would be a thousand words long. The sights – a brilliant sunset, pulsing light on the River Herault, a rare cat slinking along the pavement, the sight of medieval Friars of the Sunday of Pentecost – are many and varied.
The list for smell is not always as easy. My list includes honeysuckle, jasmine, cigarette smoke (more than at home), bread, and that tomato-garlicky smell if you are in certain streets. But surprisingly there are not many cooking smells when one considers how many good cafes there are here; almost no fish smells here in the town, although fish are caught and landed here and there are fish recipes on every menu.
Perhaps this strange fact is down to it being so warm. People often eat outside so perhaps the cooking smells are not so compressed and intensified by the cold air outside as they are in England. (This is mere speculation not science, but perhaps some scientist or food expert could enlighten me...)
But for me the strongest sensual memory of this place is sound. Perhaps because of the narrow streets or perhaps because of cultural style, it seems to me that these streets resound with voices – flirting, calling, bellowing, shouting, reprimanding, gossiping, laughing, crying, singing. At first, this may be a bit of an assault on prim ears from England, where emotion is sotto voce, swallowed, expressed behind closed doors, or otherwise under polite wraps.
I like the fact that in the streets loud voices ensure that families are within earshot, parents and children are aware of each others’ presence. The love, the relationship, the blame , the praise, the reprimand is a factor of mutual visibility. Children are most definitely not under wraps. Communication is everything. Here in the old city you sometimes hear it quite late at night. Young women keep their children with them when they have a drink, smoke and chat in the square then walk through the streets home, laughing and chatting and still calling their children to keep up, come here. It may not be our way, but far from being intimidated the children seem confident and secure, right at the heart of their family, right at the heart of their town.
But voice is only one item on my sound list. There is the sound of birds: nightingales by the river, the modest echo of the oreole, the chirping swoops of the swifts around the houses, the offended cry of the seagulls displaced by these dawn and dusk intruders.
We also have the driving noise of the street-cleaning machine – specially designed for narrow streets; the scrape and haul of the large wheelie bins where we all put our black bags. This sometimes generates further noise in terms of shouting,when people try - illegally, it seems to dump - their building waste there (more voices!)
Inside the house there are the clicks and creaks of doors as metal latches close and open again – not in response to ghosts as one might wish, but to the wonderful eccentricities of spaces which were once alleyways, but are now rooms.
But, but for me the most significant sound in this town is the sound of two wheeled machines – bicycles, scooters and motor bikes making their way through the narrow roadways which are just the right scale for them. Girls in high heels and boys in flip flops ride them . I’ve seen young men doing wheelies on a small motorbike in the square. I had the thought that this modern day jousting has some echoes of medieval display, testing and daring as a kind of rite of passage.
Of course, normal sensible people would not particularly notice these sounds in this sunny, picturesque, historic town. But because I’m a writer and my ears are perpetually dialled to receive, for me the most evocative aural memory of this town could be a combination of the human voice on broadcast and the roar of 2cc engines.
These sounds are at the top of my list and both, I feel, will somehow make their way into present-day sequences of my novel.
I get up and prowl around the house . I can’t settle. So I climb up the narrow wooden staircase to the roof and lower myself onto the lilo that lives up there. I can smell Mae’s sun lotion. The night it warm, the sky is dark. Outside a scooter roars its way through the alley. I ignore it as usual and take a very deep breath. I am pleased to be here, along with the sky.
Then I feel a prickle of distaste as I hear someone else come up the wooden staircase. Philip will spoil this, spoil it, I know he will. But it’s not Philip. It’s Olga.
Silently she comes and lies alongside me. I take another very deep breath. Olga, imitating, takes a deep, noisy breath. ‘What are we doing, Auntie Stella?’
‘We’re looking for Virgo. See! Those nine stars? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and that one on the end. Nine.’
Her chuckle warms the air between us. ‘I see it, Auntie Stella! Like a little handbag in the sky. It’s really pretty.’
‘So it is.’
‘What does it mean, the little handbag?’
‘It means a lot of things to a lot of people.’
‘What does it mean to you?’
‘It means a person I once knew.’
I hesitate. ‘A girl. A girl called Siri.’