I’m climbing up the steep interminable steps of Positano, panting, to Gillian’s house. She’s someone I met in a café soon after my arrival by car with the two young women. A smiling black man opens the door. Inside there is no furniture. Cushions lie across the floor. The only other furnishings are a twisted rusty cycle wheel and a decrepit chair made of silvery grey driftwood, with a bit of wooden box nailed across it as a back. From another box there springs a twisting plasticine snake supporting an electric light bulb which has been covered with silver paper. There is a large op-art picture of violet and pink spots on the wall.
A book about meditation lies on the floor and I read a few sentences from it, how one should provide a room for oneself and as far as possible keep it for oneself to meditate in. People should get into the habit of calming their minds for ten minutes or so every day. The morning is the best time. The next best time is the sunset. After that the time just before you go to sleep, or failing that any other time that you can fit in.
The blue light bulbs have been made to look like fruit, with pointed metal sprays flaring out from them, giving a lurid sepulchral light to the scene.
Laurie comes in. She’s wearing trousers which splay out wider and wider towards her feet, a triangular blouse with its base at the bottom of her breasts, a little circle of beads hanging from her waist in the shape of pubic hair, a lot of mascara, and huge numbers of rings, a pair of very small spectacles with silver rims and blue glass in them, and her hair tumbled and chaotic.
She says, ‘We’ve been smoking joints as we were dressing. It’s had a fairly strange effect. As soon as you’ve got one outfit on you want to take it off and put on another one, and so it goes on, getting more and more fantastic.’
I get talking to Sean, a young American, who says, ‘I should point out that I’ve been a professional musician for nine years now.’ I ask him about musique concrete. ‘I don’t like to get a machine to make my music for me,’ says Sean.
‘I can tell you this much. I was with Terry Donovan at Yelapa. At one time the hotel at Yelapa was exclusively for hipsters. The owner of the hotel, he every now and again went on his own up the river and slowly got it together to plant five or six hectares with opium. He did it so that when some film director or other celebrity came to stay in the hotel and needed somewhere that they could go to for a freak- out, this would be a good place to go to. But the government got to hear about it, and told him it had got to be an ordinary type of hotel or else they’ll close it. So he made it more ordinary, which is what it is now.
‘Once I lived for eighteen months with my father Terry on Tahiti. People there explain that there are certain currents which will carry you across the ocean to another island. So I made me a raft and launched it into one of these currents and the current began to take me. I cried on that trip. I cried and cried and cried. I really cried. And I saw things as I was carried along on the current that I can’t describe. I saw porpoises playing all the time with each other and huge whales that jumped right out of the water.
‘Sometimes round here I swim underneath the water and see those places where fresh water wells up from the bed of the sea. The effect is quite incredible, I can only describe it by saying that it’s like flames of fire. If you swim down there you can drink the fresh water, even though it’s surrounded by the salt sea.’
Ruth, one of the young women who gave me a lift and who, like me, is a newcomer to Positano, asks, ‘How long is the road to the beach, how many turns are there in it?’
Laurie says ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.’ Then she bursts into laughter and says, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m laughing, but when people first come here they’re on a different wavelength to the people who’ve been here a while. When they first arrive they’re actually looking for Positano. But Positano doesn’t like being looked for. When they’ve been here a bit they stop looking and actually find it.’
‘Do you like it here?’ she asks me.
‘Yes. A lot.’
‘There’s something about my house. Once people arrive here they don’t want to leave. They want to stay here for ever. They seem to feel, “What a nice place, let’s just stay and stay and stay,” which drives me crazy because when people come to see me after a while I want them to get out and do things, not sit around in my house all day.’
Later Gillian says, ‘I’m infected with a sort of rabies. Rabies hang out on your body and then they climb in under your skin, then they make love and soon after that there are lots of little baby rabies.’
Speaking of a hotel that once had been a nobleman’s palace, Gillian says, ‘I spent a couple of nights in there once, it was the weirdest place, I heard the sounds of monks chanting at all times of the night.’
As the night grows quieter, she says, ‘Those islands out there in the ocean are where the sirens sung to Ulysses.’ For a moment I listen intently for the siren’s song, but all I can hear are the mysterious strains of a distant military band.
Of one of their neighbours Laurie says, ‘She has two men to service her by night.’
I am taking Phyllis out to dinner. Sean is to come to the restaurant afterwards to take us to a party. He says, ‘I’ll come at ten.’
Phyllis says, ‘Why don’t you come at nine?’
And Sean says, ‘No, I’ll come at ten.’
Phyllis says, ‘Oh, why don’t you eat with us?’
Sean says, ‘I never refuse an invitation to dinner!’
And I think that I notice Phyllis smiling at him in complicity. He joins us for the meal and the end of dinner comes and the bill arrives, and Sean suddenly gets up and starts marching about and I say, ‘Sean, have you got any bread?’
Sean doesn’t reply. I pay.
Afterwards Phyllis says, ‘Everyone here knows that Sean hasn’t got any money. If you come here then you must follow the customs of this place.’
Describing a party she gave, Laurie says, ‘I gave this party and I thought we were pretty way out until I saw some of our guests! I provided food for fifty people that night, some sat at the table and most sat on the floor. I burnt my hand on a fried chicken.’
Gillian says, ‘It’s amazing how much eye make-up I put on considering I hardly ever take off my glasses. But when I do take them off it slays people.’
Pipette sits, self contained, the complete cat, putting prosciutto in between her red lips and gobbling it up with her mouth open.
Later I see her sitting on the quai with a white spaniel with a red collar round his neck and hung all over with beads, sitting by the water smiling quiet and cat-like from behind her large circular pink spectacles.
Phyllis says she likes playing games with people. ‘I shouldn’t do it really.’
There is talk of someone who lives in a cave. When it rains for a while the inside of the cave is filled with spray. There is also another cave under a church, with many rooms. All damp except in the corner where its owner’s bed is, which is dry.
Now the mist is floating down towards us from the crags far above. ‘There’s an awful lot of mist up there,’ Gillian says, ‘If it comes down this way we’ll have had it.’
Gravity works in a peculiar way here. It seems to draw me upwards. The steps by night are incredible. Hacked out of runnels of rock, they climb far up into the sky.
There are very few street lamps. In the darkness I lose my way and step timidly forward, feeling each step, forward into the extreme darkness and when I’ve gone forty or fifty yards I notice a change in the acoustic and realise that I’ve actually arrived in the living room of someone’s dark house.
Gillian says, ‘When you’ve been here for a while you realise that this place is magnetic. And you realise that perhaps we have all been brought here. We’re in waiting at the moment, but the purpose for which we’re here is not yet apparent.’
There are angry voices coming from Sean’s rented apartment. Gillian explains that it is his landlord who is shouting furiously, words that I can’t understand. Sean is shouting back, ‘Don’t worry, man, just don’t worry, think about the elements! Think about the light and think about the air and the sun.’
Sean wears floppy green bell-bottomed trousers and a brown corduroy waistcoat embroidered with flowers. He is plucking at his black beard. He’s in trouble because, last night, he invited two French girls to stay in his apartment and then came out to dinner with us. When he got back he found eleven people sleeping there. His landlord objected and pointed out he was very behind with his rent. Sean offered to pay him by playing him the raga he was composing.
Phyllis says as she sits outside her white studio on its broad terrace, ‘There is Positano time and everywhere else time and when people first come you have to remember that they’re always saying “meet you at 3” or “what will you be doing in one hour’s time?” and they think you’re dumb if you don’t know. Like lots of people here, I’m trying to slow down all my reactions. The slower you can get, the closer you can be to the speed that things are actually happening. When I was with my husband I was always getting involved in conversations like “Are you going to make me a cup of tea?” Then someone would come in and it would be “My wife won’t even make me a cup of tea” although on a slightly deeper level.’
Laurie, sitting with us, wearing her round purple spectacles says, ‘I’ve sworn not to smoke today, but day finishes at sundown. I’ll be sitting round all day waiting for the sun to set.’
Judith, stolid and sound at the further end of the balcony, says, ‘anyone know where I can get hold of a boiled egg?’
They are discussing a friend, saying that she is a ‘turn-on virgin.’ ‘She gets guys really wild for her and then she gets her kicks by not going to bed with them.’
Phyllis shows me a picture. ‘Here’s my tree. I call it my tree, it’s the tree I used to live in and read the
Bhagavad Gita (in the amended version).’
Judith says, ‘Married people know all the moves from A to Z but they know nothing about the other ones, the moves that come from entirely different alphabets. That’s how they make a balls-up.’
Gillian says, ‘My orgasms are unusual. Often I can achieve them better with a stranger than I can with a friend. The first time I experienced a double orgasm there was this sound of a bell ringing, my friend was trying to pull the telephone out of the room thinking it was on the floor but it wasn’t, it was on the table, so there was this sound of trilling telephone bells. Every time since, when I have an orgasm, I hear trilling bells.’
I call in again at Phyllis’s place. The first room is empty, I go in further and find a dozen people crowded on the black silk bed in the second room.
Laurie is giggling, saying, ‘I say, there are some things you never can have too much of,’ as she reaches out for yet one more smoke. Her pink lips are fleshy, her face is patterned with brown freckles, she is like a ‘smiling cat’, so smiling, so pulled in on herself, so withdrawn. The African called Bill is in a pink silk uniform topped with a beautiful circular Viking helmet.
Phyllis is describing a man who bought her drinks and dinner last night. ‘When we got back to the door of my place, he hoped I was going to ask him in but I acted like a seventeen year old, you know, “oh goodness, what can you be thinking of! Anyway, my mother wouldn’t like it”.’
‘A friend of mine who’s a television news reporter is coming tomorrow. He says his profession requires that he has always to be in the part of the world where the fire is. He has to slow himself down while he is here, consciously. He says, “This place is like fairyland to me, I can’t believe it.”
To a fifteen year old boy called Michael she says, ‘Can you remember the way up into the mountains? Can you show me one day?’ She describes a ‘mature type of man’ who gets his kicks by turning on kid girls of fifteen or sixteen. ‘I know lots who do that,’ she says.
At intervals on the walls of Phyllis’s apartment there are bones tied to the walls on pieces of thread that rattle in the occasional draught.
There are cozze, mussles, their shiny black shells sitting in a great mound on the plate in front of me, and the dog has knocked over the drum in the corner and Judith, the uneasy one, putting it up again, asks, ‘Where is the bread?’ The proprietor and his party are sitting eating their dinner quietly in a corner but she shouts, ‘Where is the bread?’
‘Well, they’re eating. Let them finish their meal.’
‘Yes, but this is a restaurant.’
We go on to Sean’s place, climbing the dark shapes of those strange stairs and Judith is meant to be showing me the way but she’s lost it, she says, ‘A dog brought me here last time,’ and we wander on past the Chiesa Nuova, through this innumerable criss-crossing of tiny little pathways, we go too far, at last even this steep little path has its ending and turns downhill again. Then we go down a crack between two houses.
We pass the formal beautiful façade of an old palazzo just visible in the dusk. Then down beyond where the steps, unlit, again seem to give into a void.
There are wooden steps leading up to a room piled on the roof of other rooms. It has tall glass windows down to the floor and a white fridge and white cooker disguised behind packing cases which have been stacked in front of it. And there is Sean’s sitar in its case, exotically painted. I read a moment from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: ‘At this point you are in great danger. If you fail to realise in this moment that all things are unreal, you will never escape.’
Passing by a group of Roman long-haired fuzzy-headed hippies clustered round a step like proud sad birds, Sean gives a nod to them, a nod of complicity, cool but joyful. ‘Have a smoke,’ says Sean. He hands me the rubber pipe that goes into the glass bottle and the other pipe that comes out of the other end. ‘You have to hold this bit of rubber up.’ Then he stokes the pot in its little receptacle at the top of the bottle and the fiery air goes down past it, and bubbles chaotically in the pot, and we suck, Judith and me, slowly, genteely, Sean violent, a satyr.
Sean says, ‘I’m stoned out of my mind!’ Now he plays the sitar for us, jangling great strange sounds, gorgeous, and then he plays some previous music on the tape recorder and he says, ‘Do you like your music loud, so it stones you even further than you’re stoned already?’
‘Yes, as loud as you can.’
The music is marvellous.
Sean asks, ‘Do you hear that bird singing out the window?’
‘That’s no bird, it’s a tape recording. Yeah, they use it to trap the birds in there, the birds fly in in the night and they hear the tape recording, it’s of the mating call of the female, they fly down to investigate, then they get caught in the cage.’
I am drowsy, drowsy with the warmth and richness of the hubble-bubble and the brightness of innumerable candles.
We go on out, down a passage to Michael’s house. Most of the rooms are empty but there is one, brightly lit, where he has his black and white stately drum set, huge cushions where he sits, and a wild drawing of a ship, done meticulously in ink, sailing through tropical seas. At dinner the long fair-haired disk-changer, quite stoned, is smiling approval at everyone, and giving long happy nods.
‘And in Jerusalem, in the night time the little streets are filled with donkeys moving rubble, there are too many people there during the day.’
Now we are out walking. Some grapes lie on the path. Gillian picks them up and hands some to me, ‘Let’s risk it,’ then hands one to two passing Germans.
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