Basking in a Gentle Radiance

Author: Jane Shortall

My friend and oracle on all things, Bill, swears the first eye-meet is vital. He is something of an expert and says that the initial eye contact will always indicate the intensity of the relationship to follow. When that first glance is a bit special, well, you just know that the two of you are destined to get togeth

My friend and oracle on all things, Bill, swears the first eye-meet is vital. He is something of an expert and says that the initial eye contact will always indicate the intensity of the relationship to follow.

When that first glance is a bit special, well, you just know that the two of you are destined to get together. Not necessarily for a wild and passionate affair. But a feeling of being simply aware beyond any shadow of a doubt that the two of you will have so much in common that a meeting must happen, and a friendship will develop. It will only be a matter of time. This happened to me last May, when I saw, for the first time, one of the most enchanting men I have ever encountered in my life. A truly mystical character, almost unworldly. Perhaps I should have sensed that, as always, these very special people are destined to leave us prematurely?

In April of last year I came to live in this wild and unspoiled place in Southern France – the bit that joins with Spain, not the yachts and glitzy Mediterranean part. The Couseran Hills, with the backdrop of the mighty Pyrenees, are populated by a vast amount of creative people. The place seems to attract all sorts of marvellously unconventional types. They paint, they sculpt, play music, dance creatively, write, make fantastic jewellery, grow organic food, and some create utterly magical gardens. What are sometimes called ‘alternative’ life-styles are quite normal here. Apparently somebody even lives in a tepee in the hills, although I have not met him yet. Thirty years ago, I suppose they would have been called hippy-ish.

Because the villages and towns are so small, and the area generally is very under populated, I began to quickly recognise faces. The Saturday market in our local town was a trip down memory lane, back to the glorious, grunge days of the Neil Young seventies. Hands up who remembers the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals? The Dandelion Market in Dublin? The hair on some of the men here is wonderful – I had not seen the likes of it since my Friday night club dances as a teenager. Bob Marley is played a lot and Che Guevara posters are still sold here.

At the market one sunny day in May of last year, I saw a new person coming towards me, and he saw me. A stupendous meeting of eyes ensued, and I wrote the following to a friend:

‘If they need someone to play Jesus, today I have seen the very chap. You can see his magnificent blue eyes from the other side of the little square. He is very tall, very still, and has beautiful long light coloured hair.’

And to my cousin in London some weeks later:

‘Some of the people here are amazing. A lot of interesting looking individuals. There is one tall guy who stands out. I see him around quite a lot. Do you remember ‘Jesus of Nazareth‘, when the face of Robert Powell made us all swoon and almost get religion again? I have a new one. You never saw such eyes. Stunning, stunning, stunning.’

And then this piece to someone who announced that I had gone back to being sixteen again:

‘The Saturday outdoor produce market is like stepping back to the seventies in one sense. There‘s this guy, who I have only said hello to, well, what can I say? He has these absolutely amazing eyes and his hair is incredible. There’s a sort of hero look about him, but he seems quiet and mystical at the same time. Think Lord of the Rings.’

I began to run into this charming individual almost every time I went out during summer and autumn. His height, hair and eyes made him stand out. At all the festivals, there we both were. Within five minutes of arriving anywhere, I seemed to find myself beside my new hero and we continued to exchange Bonjour’s.

When winter came and I was still around, it was obvious that I was not a holiday person with a summer house in the area, and I got to know a lot of the stall holders in the market. But not yet my Jesus lookalike. The small town of St. Girons is ancient and is full of little streets and alleyways, with some wrought iron balconies that are pure New Orleans. So it was in the depths of a freezing January when myself and my Guru literally bumped into each other turning a twisty corner in the old centre of town. Both of us laughed, introduced ourselves and that was that. Eric was someone who seemed so perfect he positively radiated a purple aura.

We immediately began to talk, and spoke for ages using a curious mix of broken French and English. Despite this little drawback we seemed to cover a lot of subjects. This superb area of France, the fantastic wild scenery, the Pyrenees, the lack of pollution, traffic and the lack of people. The flora and fauna the flowers here are magnificent and there are bears and possibly wolves in the high mountains, so there was lots to discuss.

In France it is very common to have a garden in a different part of the town to where your house or apartment is. It turned out that Eric was more than happy to see his apartment only occasionally and live close to his exotic flowers, plants and the most beautifully scented Rose in the town, which the other gardeners agreed he grew.

Where he rather eccentrically preferred to live was in a section of the fantastic greenhouse attached to the large garden which three of them shared. In among the tropical ferns were sleeping and cooking facilities arranged exactly as a child would when playing Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. It was like something from a fairy tale, and one of the most peaceful places I have ever been in.

Bartering systems are very popular here. Eric showed me a note one afternoon that had been left pinned to the glass earlier by one of his friends, a cheese maker, who had passed by the garden while he was out. The note said ’there is bread and cheese in your press.’ They all exchange whatever they grow or make and this friend had even supplied the baguette to accompany the cheese.

Eric was so unassuming about his skills, his extraordinary talent for growing exotic blooms, for getting difficult plants to thrive, even for playing the guitar, but most of all for making people feel the better for meeting him, that it was slightly humbling to be in his presence. He boosted confidence by quietly championing people doing their own thing. I had an article on life in this area in one of the big Country Life glossies and when I showed it to him, he pronounced me “Madame La Journalist“ to all and sundry. Even my digital camera provoked a reaction worthy of a brilliant scientist, so impressed was he at my being able to master the thing.

Everyone adored him, and at the market in the town, he was always to be found in the midst of a group of friends. But he also loved to spend hours alone in the garden. I began to wonder what his background was. I knew he was not from this area of France originally. There were musical instruments in his living area and I thought perhaps that he had been a musician who was passing through some years before and simply stayed after a festival. This is not uncommon.

Another thought I had, and this is not an exceptionally wild thought, although it sounds it initially. But when you know this area and the people it attracts, it is not too off the wall. I began to wonder if Eric was an aristocrat, an avant-garde one certainly, who had just chosen an unconventional lifestyle. His height, his build, strong features, good teeth, and general demeanour – his politeness and gentle behaviour was almost from another age – all seemed positively mediaeval. He lived exactly as he pleased. It all suggested a strong streak of individualism, a person totally in charge of themselves and completely at ease with the world around them. But are things ever as they seem?

I hadn’t seen Eric for a few weeks. It was strange for him not to be around. The gate to the garden was locked when I called by. This was very curious as locks and bolts were not his way. He lived the very simplest life – had few possessions. The things he cared about were the tropical flowers and plants he was such a genius at growing, his books, and the diary that he used for everything, based on the cycle of the moon.

I ran into a friend of his, another gardener, and laughingly asked if Eric had run away on us? Michel looked at me very sadly, and as gently as he could, he said ‘you don’t know, do you?’

I froze, because I positively knew that something ghastly was to come. And it did.

Eric had ended his own life. He had hanged himself in the greenhouse where he mostly lived, surrounded by his tropical flowers, plants and books.

Michel and I went to the garden where the two of us sat for absolutely ages talking. Me totally stunned, shocked and utterly unable to cope. I only knew Eric such a short time, but it was as if I had known him forever. Perhaps we had met in another life? Michel assured me that a friendship is a friendship and my shock was very normal.

Eric was one of the most genuine people I ever knew, and in spite of whatever demons haunted him, he always appeared to me a calm and tranquil person. In the garden that day, sitting only a foot from where he had taken such a desperate and final decision, I kept asking why, why, why? Michel gave me a very brief, two sentence history of some deep-rooted troubles, then talked of how Eric had chosen and enjoyed his particular lifestyle, of his love and vast knowledge of the natural world, and left it at that.

He very wisely talked to me at length about how we must now let Eric’s spirit go, because it had been his choice to leave us. And my asking ‘why?’ all the time would not help him take his chosen path. I am indebted to Michel for making that time, in the place where such a horrendous thing happened, so very bearable. So bearable that I have been back, the garden and greenhouse seeming as peaceful now as it was when Eric was there. And of course a huge sense of him remains there.

Now I must accept that my friend of such a short time, who I had truly come to adore, is free of whatever troubles he could not endure in this life. I have to acknowledge his right to choose his death just as he chose how he lived his life.

A thoughtful friend pointed out to me that there are some people in this world that feel things too much. We think they are able to cope with life’s ups and downs as we do, but they are just too sensitive, they feel more pain and anguish than they can or want to bear. She reminded me that I was lucky to have basked in Eric’s gentle radiance. I couldn’t have put it better if I sat here pondering for a month. A gentle radiance sums him up perfectly.

In spite of all the Indian mysticism I have studied over the years and my time spent at the exceptional School of Philosophy in Dublin, coming to terms with this is a thousand times worse than I could have imagined. Perhaps, like it does everything else, time will help.