In the south of France, at the edge of a cove that cannot be reached by road, lives an old woman from England. She has been there since the end of the war, when most of the beaches were without roads, and most of the people without cars. She has few friends, and the locals call her ‘the old Englishwoman who swims in winter.’ Every day, winter and summer, she walks across the sand and into the sea, gently treading the water until she is a half mile out, then turning and swimming back. In a white bathing-cap and one-piece suit, she always seems graceful as she floats along. For a few months about four years ago, I was her neighbour. She was eighty then.
I rented the chalet at the end of the garden, where I cooked my own meals and wrote outside on the patio. When I got bored, I would take long swims, much faster and less graceful than Annie’s. In the evenings, Annie would usually invite me for a cup of tea or glass of wine. We would sit at a round table where, in disconnected episodes, she told me the story of her life. Her husband had brought her to the south of France just after the war, following a scandal in which he left his wife of many years. I had never heard a woman speak with such love of a man. He was twenty-five years older than she was, and he had died ten years before my arrival. She was entirely unsentimental. Her husband was a scholar, who spent his days translating Greek and Latin poetry, saving much of it for her, sometimes putting little poems he would write himself in the pages of any book she was reading. Every Wednesday, as I recall, he would leave her flowers and a new poem. And he told her one thing I shall not forget: he said that the light shimmering across the sea on a moonlit night, that reflection of the moon that leads from the shore to the horizon, was ‘Annie’s pathway to the stars.’ They were both atheists.
Sometimes, when we sat and talked, Gérard would join us. Annie had explained to me how she had first met Gérard. One morning, just beyond the wall that enclosed her villa and garden, she had seen the sleeping figure of a man on the beach. She noticed him every day or two for a week, and it was obvious he was not eating. She picked some tomatoes from one of the planted terraces behind the house and took them to the sleeping Gérard. ‘The tomatoes grow so beautifully here.’