A portrait of perseverance. An aging cellist plays to an empty village in the South of France.
Jerry gives an overview of the book:
I followed an old man who was carrying a cello up the narrow, twisting road leading to Vallauris. The sweet smell of false spring drifted across from nearby woods and the song of a muddy creek rose up from a deep ravine to the left of the roadway as the stream ran swift and dark to the Mediterranean Sea. The road widened at the entrance to the village and he paused to shift the cello from his right shoulder to his left then shuffled into the confines of the village square. He would find warmth here in the hills behind Cannes. His name was Esteban and he was stooped from years of carrying his beloved instrument up and down the steep grade to the village. The dark, full-length topcoat he wore was much too large for him and the frayed hem swept along the dusty mountain road and tattered sleeves partially covered his slender hands. A dark blue scarf shielded his neck and his gray hair stuck out in tufts from beneath a beret.
Bathed in December sunlight the village was whitewashed and glistened against the dark, low scrub of mountain chaparral. The square was dominated by a fountain at its center and small shops with their doors shuttered faced inward toward the fountain that whispered with soft trickles and seeped dark water from algae encrusted pores. The dripping and the shuffle of the old man's shoes were the only sounds to be heard. His destination was a church that faced the square and backed into the mountainside at the eastern edge of the village.
Despite the shuffling step under the weight of the cello his walk was steady and determined. He arrived at the church and released his firm grip on the cello case and eased it into a shallow nook near one of the church columns. The case was scarred and skinned, marked by the bruises of age and travel and was held together with thick twine. After making sure the cello was secure, Esteban sat next to it and straightened his stooped shoulders against the front of the church and let the sunlight warm him.
Out of a side street the hollow echo of a snarling animal shattered the quiet of the square as a loud, barking sound preceded the appearance of a bald man who entered the square in long strides. He was barefoot and barking. His poplin trousers were rolled above his ankles and he wore a plaid shirt that was buttoned haphazardly. As he barked his head snapped forward, yapping at the dust he was kicking up around his bare feet. In a dozen quick steps he was in front of Esteban barking louder than before. Esteban sat motionless and listened. He nodded once in acknowledgment but remained silent. As quickly as he entered, the barking man turned on his bare heels and left the square and disappeared down a side street. The square was silent again and Esteban turned his attention to the tattered cello case.
With great care he began the process of removing the cello, his slender musician's fingers working at the twine that crisscrossed the case in a web. He finished the last knot and slowly pushed the twine away from the lid of the case as he had done hundreds of times before. He carefully lifted back the lid with his right hand and in the same motion, cradled the thin neck of the cello with his left and pulled the instrument up and out. The reddish brown of the fine-grained wood caught the sunlight and reflected sharply into Esteban's eyes. The delicate cello was magnificent and stood nearly as tall as Esteban. He told me the Guarneri family built it in Italy. There was scrollwork above the neck with an ornate carving of a woman's head and bust. Intricate inlay of light and dark woods etched the edges of the top panel in small diamond patterns. Matching wood grains ran the length of the instrument, front and back, and the fingerboard shone like polished black stone.
In the empty silence of the square Esteban tuned the cello and talked of better times; memories of the tourists in Nice and Cannes, pictures of the crowded depots. He spent entire summers playing his cello along the rail lines from St. Tropez to Monte Carlo and the wealthy tourists paid him well to play for them while they waited for their trains. But, the authorities intervened and he was prevented from “bothering” the tourists in the train stations. So, he played here, in the empty village square, in December.
Esteban cradled the cello against his body, pulling it to him as tenderly as a cherished lover. The initial stroke of the bow was a fluid motion and the once silent square was suddenly acoustically alive as the first note lingered and danced around the village riding on a slight, resonant echo. Another note followed, and another, until the white square was teeming with music. Esteban pressed his cheek to the worn right shoulder of his lover as they moved in unison, his eyes moist with passion and concentration. His lover responded as Esteban’s left hand probed and teased along the thin neck, alternating between slow and rapid caresses. The lover answered in sensuous, mellow tones. Love notes filled the air in Vallauris and it didn’t matter that the old man was the only one to hear them, or so he believed.
Esteban and his cello played their piece and when finished he stroked the neck of the cello and draped his left arm around the instrument in an embrace. He looked into the square and sat silently before returning the cello to the threadbare case. Being careful not to scratch it on the frayed edges Esteban placed the instrument in the case and re-tied the knots exactly as they were before. He made sure the cello was settled then turned again to face the vacant square. It was then that he noticed the barking man lying at the base of the church column. He was in a deep sleep with his knees pulled tightly to his chest and his bare feet crossed. Esteban smiled, recalling the snarling vision that had visited earlier.
“You see,” said Esteban, “I’m no different than my barking friend.” He paused as though there would be a response from somewhere. “I just have another way of saying it.”
The smile lingered on the old man’s lips as he closed his eyes to the sunlight and leaned back against the warmth of the church wall. He would wait all afternoon for tourists who would never come and dream of warmer days along the rail line between St. Tropez and Monte Carlo.
The barking man slept at the cellist’s feet until dusk then slipped into the village shadows. The barking began again in the empty, distant back streets as evening closed in on Vallauris.
Beginning In 1957 I was producing commercial and news copy for radio and moved into television news in 1965. During 40-years in journalism and television production I was nominated twice for Emmy Awards for writing and producing news and documentaries for KRON, the NBC...