Taking one last look at the place that we are leaving …

28 December 2023

Taking out the recycling in Menton is hardly a chore since it involves the nicest walk ever, a stroll along the Boulevard de Garavan to the recycling station, where we post the cardboard through one slot and the glass through the other. Across the road from the recycling station is a lookout with a panoramic view.

In September, we stood at this lookout in bright broiling heat and uncertainly picked out the major landmarks. Since then, we’ve walked this route many times, and not simply to deal with egg cartons and wine bottles. On writing days, the Boulevard de Garavan has been my favourite commute to the Villa Isola Bella but if, rather than striking off down Rue de Katherine Mansfield you continue along the boulevard, it will take you past lush gardens and frescoed villas all the way to the cedared cemetery atop Menton’s medieval town. It’s a lovely way to get into town.

This evening we walked to the recycling centre in the early evening dark. We posted our cardboard and glass and then we stood at the lookout for a while, saying a quiet farewell to the various places we’ve visited, the people we’ve met. We’ll be leaving Menton in the morning.

When we got back to the apartment we listened to Tom Waits singing ‘Take one last look at the place that you are leaving’. Oh boy, it’s hard to hear that right through tonight without tearing up. So, for sentimental reasons, here’s one last look at an important part of my Menton experience, time spent in the Memorial Room, or writing room, at the Villa Isola Bella. (The following is an extract from a piece first published in the NZ Author magazine in November 2023).


KM’s letters from Menton contain many descriptions of the Isola Bella. The view, she wrote to her husband John Middleton Murry, ‘is surpassingly beautiful’. She loved the garden: the ‘big silver mimosa showering across’ the path, the date palm below her bedroom, a magnolia ‘full of rich buds’. There were artichokes and marrows, all ready to eat, and a tangerine ‘covered in green balls’.

These days the Villa Isola Bella is subdivided into private apartments, but Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellows may use the Memorial Room beneath the house as a writing studio. This room was probably once the gardener’s shed, or perhaps (some say) the lapinière – a room for raising rabbits for the pot.

The first day I come to the Memorial Room intending to write, I can’t unlock the gate, no matter how I jiggle the magic key and no matter what swear words I use. In the end I glance up and down the lane to make sure it’s empty, drop my bag over the fence, hitch up my skirt and climb over. As I half-fall into the courtyard I have a distinct impression of ghost laughter from the vacant terrace above. Spooky! I gather my things and smooth my clothing. The door to the room unlocks easily enough. And whoa, I’m in The Room.

It’s hot, and the room, unoccupied since 2019, is musty. Sweating, I fling the windows wide open. There’s no mimosa showering across the path, no magnolia in bud, no view of the sea, but I can see a date palm on the other side of the railway line. It’s swaying gently, and KM pops into my head again: her love of palm trees; her frailty which meant that (as she described it) she rocked as she walked.

I take the measure of the room. It’s plain – rustic, you could say – and the musty odour is strong. A lingering scent of cage à lapins, perhaps? KM eyes me from a poster on the wall; books by her and books about her are piled on a side table. There are two cabinets with book shelves and drawers. In one, alphabetically arranged, are titles by the 49 previous fellows who have spent time in this room since 1970. When I open the glass door it’s as if all the voices, pent up together (probably squabbling) for the past four years, seize the moment to rush out – still squabbling – for fresh air. They’re all in the room, KM and the 49, a bunch of strong minded writers, all telling me at once how to do it.

The desk. I approach it cautiously. It’s a small desk, but it has a large daunt factor. What if I can’t write a word at this desk? I sit at this little desk of doubt and open my notebook. Hmmm, the desk has a shallow drawer. Perhaps one of the 49 left behind a nicer pen than the one I’m using, which is my back-up biro. I lost my First Favourite Pen and then my Second Favourite Pen somewhere between Dunedin and Menton. And yes, there are pens, but a rag-tag selection, nothing flash. Oddly, most of them are red ink biros. What does this imply? That not one of the previous 49 writers ever made errors, thus simply dropped their red pens in the drawer and forgot them? Or does it mean that every single one of the previous 49 was constantly needing to make red ink corrections, their work going so badly, so mistakenly, and this is the reason that there’s a mountain of red biros in the drawer? I pick one up, put it down again. Is it a good luck symbol or a curse? There are seven pencils of various lengths and states of sharpness. One’s a stub, severely chewed – this is surely a very bad omen. No pencil sharpener, but there’s a miniature red stapler, empty of staples, some paper clips and few brittle rubber bands. Someone has left a couple of notepads with pictures of New Zealand birds on each page. (Mandy, was this you?)

I scribble a few words in my notebook with my back-up biro. Cross them out again. It’s very hot, even with the windows and the door open. I wonder if there’s an electric fan in one of the cabinets. I get up from the desk of doubt to have a look. I’ve stumbled on a midden. On the top layer: a coat hanger and a multi-plug box, two electric jugs and a hand-held electric blender for whizzing soups and sauces. Deeper down: the remainder of two rolls of wallpaper, one blue and white stripes, one cream with sprigs of orange flowers, neither pattern visible on any wall in this room. A plastic box crammed with tea candles. A DVD of Second-hand Wedding – Special Collectors [no apostrophe] Edition, the case illustrated with a Buzzy Bee and a pavlova with kiwi fruit on the cream. ‘A delicious slice of Kiwi life!’ And in all caps: BONUS FEATURE – THE REAL KIWI’S [apostrophe catastrophe] BEHIND THE STORY. Beneath this, on the very bottom layer, a few horizontal books and some maps of European countries. I try to peel A.S. Byatt’s Possession off the cabinet floor, but it’s stuck.

There’s more equipment (but no fan) in the drawers of the second cabinet. An enamel hotplate with a rusty element – hello Janet and hello Jenny B! – an aluminium tray, a yellowed computer keyboard, and below all that two neatly folded tablecloths (for an imaginary table). The next drawer up contains a pot of window putty in a fry pan, an aluminium cooking pot half full of plastic pegs (for the imaginary clothes line), four mis-matched plates, a Pyrex bowl and a wicker fruit basket.

Above that is a drawer with a very worn-looking lavender wool blanket, a remnant piece of flowery upholstery fabric and a mound of bright pink fabric, the latter particularly slimy and gritty to the touch. I extract it carefully, face averted, mindful of mould and Lord knows what else. Turns out I’m holding a bright pink 100 percent Viscose dress. It’s ankle-length and sleeveless, with ruched pockets at the front and some cross-draping going on at the back. It’s from the age of shoulder pads and it’s so very pink – shocking pink, hot pink. Have I stumbled on some esoteric Memorial Room hazing ritual? If so, I’m sorry but I’m not putting that thing on, ever.

I put the dress on the coat hanger, take it outside and hook it on the fence to air in the courtyard. Forget their pens, I’m running images of former fellows through my mind, and trying the dress for size. Marilyn Duckworth, Lauris Edmond, one or both Fionas, Elizabeth Knox, CK Stead, Philip Temple?

I notice that all the voices have gone quiet – no one seems willing to own up to this, even KM. But someone left a pink frock in the Memorial Room. I want it on record that it wasn’t me.


Au revoir et merci Menton! 

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