by Bob Couttie
Many years ago, on another planet, I drank champagne on the French Riviera and bedded a princess. Outside the shuttered windows a clear blue Mediterranean Sea sparkled below the stuccoed wealthy villas of Cap Ferrat and the decaying remains of Victorian grandeur in the backwaters of Antibes. It was here I said ‘No’ to the French Mob.
It would be indelicate to say much about the Princess. She was very tall and English, I was relatively short and English. When we went out she wore high heels and I wore the lowest heeled shoes I could find. We’d go to the Algerian quarter, where the law allowed only the weakest beer, and eat authentic cous-cous surrounded by swarthy, and initially suspicious, North Africans.
It’s unwise to venture into Algerian quarters. They can be dangerous places so our sojourns had much the same thrill for us as that experienced by a Japanese diner tucking into a plate of globefish. It certainly gave extra piquancy to the cous-cous.
The princess helped bring about my fall. She was a secret alcoholic, getting up in the mornings to throw down several “eye-openers” before I woke up. She hid it well. A bill was quietly growing.
We lived in a modest place called the Taverne Nicoise in the Place du Safranier, main square of the Commune Libre Du Safranier – the free commune of the saffron sellers. It was nestled within the larger town of Antibes where in centuries past saffron traders bought and sold their delicate dried flower stigmas to merchants from the nearby port. It remains, nominally at least, an independent town within a town.
It was a place of cobble-stones and maze-like streets lined with the homes of fishermen, artists, sculptors and the occasional writer like Paul Gallico, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess and Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba The Greek. With every step one breathed art and literature.
Awakened by the sound of a carpenter’s buzz saw and the smell of new-cut wood from the shop next to the hotel, I would take coffee and croissants and then make my way up the short tarmacadamed road to the ancient thick stone walls of the ramparts. If I turned right I faced an art gallery, if I turned left I faced the Chateau Grimaldi with its fine collection of Picassos.
It was that sort of place.
A friend and I had started a company selling English specialty beer to sceptical Frenchmen. We had an investor and I was point-man. Things went wrong in short order. The princess’s second ex-husband arrived from Paris and spirited her away to a rather pleasant cottage in Biot up in the mountains behind Antibes. The investor bailed without warning. That left me down and out in a beautiful town on the Riviera.
I wrote a letter to a friend in the UK telling him I needed 50 pounds to get back to what I then still called home. In those pre-electronic days, I would be lucky to receive the money in less than 90 days.
Having pushed my credit as far it would go, and weighted down with the bills from my life with the Princess, I packed my clothes and snuck out of the hotel. These were desperate times requiring desperate measures.
During the days that followed I tried sleeping in the deepset windows of the ramparts. The cockroaches disturbed me.
I moved to the beach below the ramparts. My bag became a pillow but the warm Mediterranean air grew chill at night and the sounds of enthusiastic lovers cavorting on the sands disturbed what little shivering sleep I could get. Antibes, after all, is a place of romance.
There was a public shower on the beach and, within the old town, an ancient public washing shed which I used gratefully.
I coralled what little money I had left, a pitifully small amount but at least enough for food for a few days. I knew it wouldn’t last.
So it was that I became a bar entertainer, doing cards tricks for a few francs and sometimes a beer and the occasional snack. It wasn’t much but it was survival.
Over the course of several days a man I’ll call Frank made my acquaintance. He said he was an engineer and claimed to have worked on Donald Campbell’s final and ill-fated attempt to break the water speed record in his boat Bluebird. He claimed to know why the boat suddenly flipped and tore itself and Donald Campbell into pieces.
Frank had that frayed-at-the-edges-too-much-booze look that one finds among the world’s ex-pats who live on the edge of the illegal and sometimes cross the line.
One day Frank said:
“There’s someone in Nice I think you should meet. He might have some work for you”.
Cabaret, I thought, I can handle that.
This is French Connection country. Starting at Marseille and stretching across the Riviera to the Italian border lives a “fingers-in-every-pie” organised crime syndicate, lesser known than the Mafia, with its roots in Corsica. This is the true-life Union Corse of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Finally we stopped, got out of the car and Frank led me through winding streets, counter-surveillance as if we were trying to avoid a tail. At the bottom of a hill he said: “We have to wait here”.
All I could see were the coloured lights of what looked like a cafe at the top of the hill and the dark shape of a car in front of it.
Minutes later the headlights of the car flashed. It was our signal. Frank said “Let’s go”.
At the top of the hill was, indeed, a cafe, rather rustic, with checkered cloths on the tables. Parked outside it was a white Jaguar, which Frank claimed was the only one in France at the time.
The interior of the cafe was nothing special except for the two large, casually-dressed heavies on either side of the door and a several more lounging along the walls inside.
Sitting at a table, lieutenants on either side of him, was a man I’ll call Jean-Marc. He was not tall but he was heavyset with short curly hair and broad peasant’s shoulders. He wore a white polo shirt and looked as if he’d just consumed an excellent meal, or made someone an offer they could not refuse.
Truly powerful men speak little, are soft-spoken when they do speak, and are very polite. Jean-Marc spoke little, spoke softly and was very polite.
He waved me towards a chair in front of him and I sat down. Frank said: “Show him your stuff.”
I went through my paces, pulling aces out of the deck at will, calling out cards before I displayed them, and on it went. At one point Jean-Marc stopped me and tossed me a fresh deck of his own to me to use. Since I wasn’t using a special deck I completed my routine without difficulty.
When I was finished there was a pause. Jean-Marc was thinking, his fingers rubbed his chin. He nodded at me. Frank said: “Do it again.”
Normally I refuse to repeat a trick but this time obedience seemed the better part of valour. I went back through my stuff routine, throwing in a stunning Paul Curry routine of which I’m very fond and knew was a baffler.
At the end there was a pause. Everyone was silent, their attention on Jean-Marc.
He leaned towards me and spoke. Here was the deal: I would play high stakes poker for him using the skills I’d demonstrated. He would put up 10,000 francs and we’d split the takings 50:50.
10,000 francs was what I owed the Taverne Nicoise.
I thought about the sort of people he’d play poker with. Two immediate thoughts came to mind. First, I had a vision of my dead left hand poking out of the sand holding five forlorn aces. Or possibly a dismembered head with the ace and queen of spades artfully arranged in its mouth.
My second thought was: I don’t know how to play poker. I’d found out early on that a magician playing cards was a lose-lose situation. If I won it was because I’d cheated. If I lost I was a fool. So I’d always stayed away from card games.
But I couldn’t tell him that.
So I explained, in a businesslike way, that the techniques I’d used were convincing in a casual environment but would not stand close scrutiny over long periods of time. If I was caught, or even suspected, it would put him and his reputation at risk, it wouldn’t be fair to him for me to to take him up on his very attractive offer
We shook hands and separated. I made my way back to Antibes, with feelings of relief and regret. I’d said no to the French Mob.
Eventually I got a job as a gardener and cook for a lady who’d been the mistress of the Aga Khan which saw me through until the money arrived three months later. I never saw Jean-Marc or Frank again.
As for the Princess, after I returned to England I had lunch with her first ex-husband. She had given up the booze and had fallen in love with a British sea captain. At the age of 33 she died of heart failure aboard ship on her way to marry him.
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