The Stranger, The Queen and the Glasgow Garden Festival

2 May

This is a slightly different style of tale for me.

It is far removed from the style and content of Fabulous Harry Maguire and his exploits, and it has a completely different mood.

Hopefully, those who read it will enjoy it and won’t find it too sentimental in tone.

All the characters mentioned in it are ……….. well judge for yourself!

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Caroline stared at her coffee cup and felt a tear roll down her face. She wiped it away and sniffed only to find that she now had tears silently flowing down each cheek.

She tried to shake off the sadness that brought the tears and found that all her attempts were in vain, and despite her best attempts at concentrating on something else she found herself drawn back to that late summer night 12 years ago. It was a night she had almost forgotten about at one time, maybe deliberately forgotten about or put out of her head, but now it loomed large and just would not go away.

Her mind was in Nice, on the Cote D’Azur and the date was Tuesday 31st of August 1982.

There had been seven of them, sitting in a café in a somewhat shabby section of the city, and they were steadily getting drunker as the evening went on. As the alcohol took ever greater effect, so the laughter and the antics had become more and more spontaneous, silly and stupid. She could see that now, but at the time it had all seemed so much of an adventure; a vital part of their rebelliousness and their journey, whereas in reality they had just been seven daft students on holiday getting pissed and no doubt being a pain in the arse as far as everyone else in the vicinity was concerned.

They were just into their second week in France but this was to be their one and only night in Nice, before moving on through Monte Carlo to a brief sojourn into Italy where they would spend two nights in San Remo before starting to head north again to catch the ferry back to Dover.

Of the seven, Simon and Julie were loved up like Romeo and Juliette – everywhere they walked they held hands, constantly kissed and let everyone know they were in love. Of course it hadn’t lasted. He was now working in the city somewhere and Julie was a successful Advocate in Edinburgh, happily married with two small children. There were three other boys, Danny, Joe and Michael who, together with Caroline and Maria, made up the seven.

Maria was her pal, all long dark hair and brown eyes. She had always turned a head. She even turned heads first thing in the morning, when she walked into a lecture when everyone else was half asleep and looking as if they had just fallen out of bed in the clothes they had slept in. While Caroline would accept that she herself was pretty with a good figure, everyone knew that Maria was supermodel stunning – and knew it, sometimes playing on her good looks.

Of the boys, she knew Danny best as he was in some of her classes and generally hung about in the same company. Joe and Michael she knew less well though, as they sort of hung about the edge of her crowd. Throughout the previous week, all three had shown that they could be very funny albeit in a daft immature way at times.

As the week had gone on, Danny and Maria had been flirting with one another more and more until one night they disappeared together leaving Caroline with the ever entwined lovers and the other two boys. For some reason, this made her feel a bit awkward though looking back she did not really know why.

On that Tuesday night, they were all staying in a cheap hostel with the boys in one room and the girls in another according to the rules of the house, and so at the café Caroline had somewhat drunkenly warned the others that there would be no mysterious copping off together for some “hanky panky” that night – or so she thought.

They had been in the café since about 4pm after a day of wandering around Nice, taking in the sites and enjoying the occasional drink as they wandered. Prior to that night, they had spent a few days staying in Frejus just along the coast where they had spent lazy days on the beach, eaten fabulous food and been to an open air Roxy Music concert on the Friday night topping what had been a fabulous few days in the town. Now they were sitting at two tables outside the café door watching the world go by and getting steadily drunker.

Caroline hadn’t taken much notice of the others sitting at the adjacent tables. If she had, she would have seen two elderly men drinking wine and playing chess, a young man sitting on his own reading a book, a middle aged husband and wife sharing coffees in silence, and two men who were in heated debate about……. about something or other. There were others sitting inside the café but they barely registered, if at all, but she was conscious of music coming from a juke box or radio.

The street was not so much a street but a wide alley with old sandstone apartments on the opposite side from the café. Further up, there was a small supermarket, a dry cleaners and a pharmacy, before the alley took a curving bend to the left and disappeared out of sight.

This was the scene that she now looked back on from 1994.

Through her tears, she recalled that they had been playing charades. Maria was standing on the pavement attempting to mime the name of some book or other when there was the sound of glass smashing somewhere behind her.

Caroline was slow to react but the next thing she knew was that the game had stopped and Michael was out of his seat like a flash sprinting across the alley where an old woman had fallen whilst apparently attempting to enter the door of her apartment. It looked as if the old lady had tripped on the step leading to the apartment door and in so doing she had dropped her shopping bag with the result that a bottle of wine and a bottle of water had smashed to the ground.

The woman was half lying in the alley, muttering to herself in French, and struggling to get back to her feet.

Caroline could remember seeing Michael bent over the fallen woman and speaking to her in French, and then with the help of the young man with a book in his hand, who had made his way over just behind Michael, he was trying to get the old lady back to her feet. Whilst the book reader held the old lady’s hand, Michael rather awkwardly and rather forwardly wrapped his arms round the prone woman’s waist and physically lifted her off the ground and set her back up on somewhat unsteady feet.

“Is that what you call picking up a bird, Mick?” Shouted Simon rather boorishly, though the comment did get a laugh “Bet she gives you a knock back!” continued Simon encouraged by his earlier jibe.

As far as she could remember, Caroline and the rest simply carried on drinking while Michael and the book reader helped the old woman into her flat and the entire incident was literally just dismissed and forgotten about ……… until Michael came back and resumed his seat some several minutes later.

“ Poor old dear” he said as he sat back down “ she is a bit wandered. She lives on the top floor and must have real difficulty with the stairs!”.

“ And are you help the aged?” jibed Simon.

“ Naw, he’s grab a granny!” replied Joe which caused a burst of laughter “ I have never seen you move out of your seat that fast in my life “ said Joe grinning “did you think she had money or something? Were you looking for a tip? Did she take her dentures out and give you a snog?”

“Ah Shut it” replied Michael “ She is just a poor old soul. You lot are heartless!”

And with that the group simply continued to slag one another off and resumed their drinking and laughing. The game of charades forgotten, Joe ordered another two bottles of wine and the night continued.

However, about fifteen or twenty minutes later, unobserved by the group, the door of the apartment building opened once again and the young man with the book stepped out into the alley.

The next thing Caroline knew this swarthy good looking man was standing at their table clearly intent on interrupting their merriment.

“ Good Evening.” He said, addressing Michael in particular, “The old lady has asked me to thankyou for your kindness and has asked me to buy you and your friends a drink to show her gratitude.”

“ Oh, there is no need, honestly” said Michael “ is she ok?”

“ Yes, she is fine. A bit shaken, but it is her pride that is hurt more than anything else. She feels she has made a fool of herself in public, and that angers her.”

“Ha, being picked up by Michael would bring shame on any woman!” quipped Simon in his usual mode.

This remark drew a strange look from the young man who continued none the less:

“ She has given me the money to buy a couple of bottles of wine…. It would be…. impolite to refuse.” He said with a little purpose.

“ Oh we will never refuse wine from a handsome stranger, will we Caroline?” said Maria flirting somewhat outrageously which brought a disapproving look from a so far silent Danny.

“ The wine, is not from me, Cheri” said the young man in an accented voice “ It is from, Madam.”

He was somewhat matter of fact in his statement, and without further consultation he walked into the café and returned a few moments later with a carafe of the house red and another carafe of white which he put on the table without saying a further word. From his pocket he drew a solitary glass which he made plain was for himself

When he had put the wine on the table, he stood back, poured some red wine into his glass, turned to Michael and said “On behalf of my friend, Thankyou for your kindness. Merci à tous” and with that, he drank the wine and turned to leave.

“ Thanks” shouted Michael

“ Ha Michael, there is your holiday story” said Simon “ the best you could manage was being bought a drink by some old French bird!”.

There was some laughter at this, but it quickly stopped when the young man with the book turned on his heel and came back to the table fixing Simon, whom he had not addressed before, with a stare for the second time.

Caroline, now looked at this man altogether differently, as he was no longer a passing stranger. He was someone who was clearly annoyed and was intent on making a point. She feared there would be trouble as he had a very intense look on his face. At that moment she would have described him as intriguing, but tense. Very tense.

However, the stranger in their midst then did the most unexpected of things. He simply drew up a chair, picked up his glass, filled it with red wine again, and began to talk. Initially he addressed Simon, but one by one he would stare each of them straight in the eye.

“ Listen, my friends. Your wine does not come from some “old woman”. No, I tell you that this is an act of gratitude from someone I consider to be one of the greatest women on the planet.”

“ Sorry – I didn’t mean to offend your….. mother?” said Simon realising he had gaffed.

“ Oh she is not my mother, nor is she related to me in any way – in fact, I only met her for the first time when I went to help her with your friend here.” Said the stranger nodding towards Michael.

“ What?” exclaimed Julie somewhat drunkenly

“ I only met her for the first time a few moments ago” he repeated “ and I will probably never meet her again.”

The Group looked puzzled.

Caroline was just glad that the trouble she thought was coming appeared to have disappeared, as whatever this guy was about he was not looking for a fight although he still made her uneasy.

“ Sorry Mate, but you have lost me!” said Joe filling his glass.

“ Let me explain then” said the young man tucking his book into the inside pocket of his leather jacket.

“ That “old woman” as you call her was once a famous Parisian dancer, a famous international celebrity who had the world fall at her feet. More importantly she was at one time the fastest and bravest woman in the world. She should be a French national treasure—instead she is living in this cheap and run down area of Nice, living off charity and in the attic apartment of this building.” He said pointing across the alley.

Caroline and her friends looked at the doorway across the road as the young man continued.

“ With no disrespect intended to anyone here, “The Old Woman” was and always will be out of your league guys, I predict that none of you will ever have a woman like her…. Ever!”

This remark drew a narrowing of the eyes from Maria, a drunken shirk from Simon and a giggle from Julie, the rest simply stayed silent.

Caroline, looked at the newcomer again. There was something about him. He was dark haired, dark eyed, clearly foreign, probably French she thought, and very intense but in a sort of charming way.

She estimated that he was about 5’ 9”, slim and looked pretty fit underneath the faded jeans and T shirt housed underneath the leather jacket. On his feet he wore a pair of fashionably scuffed cowboy boots with a pointed toe.

She heard herself saying:

“ Go on. Tell us who she is then, maybe we have heard of her?”

This set the young man off again. He turned and fixed Caroline with the dark eyes.

“ I do not think you will have heard of her, but I will tell you her story. She was born Mariette Hélène Delangle on 15th December 1900 in a small village about 50 miles south west of Paris where her father was the village postman. However she left the village at the age of sixteen and came to Paris where she got a job dancing in cabaret in the music halls. By 18 she was causing a sensation in Paris as she danced naked, not as a cheap stripper you understand, but with feather boas and live birds to accompany her. She posed naked for photographs and generally caused a scandal. At one point she openly shared a house with two men who were both her friends and her lovers. Eventually she was topping the bill in The Casino de Paris dancing naked  before the glitterati of Paris and causing a sensation. The Parisian press loved her.”

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By this time, the group of Scottish students were captivated by the book reader’s tale of the old woman. All their laughter had stopped and they sat quietly, drinking the wine and listening to his tale as he continued.

“ She changed her name to  Hélène Nice although eventually she would further shorten it to Hellé  Nice and it was by this name that she became famous – for her dancing, her devil may care attitude, her fast, racy and scandalous lifestyle and eventually for………. Well we will come to that in a minute.

By the age of 25 she had had enough of being a naked solo act and so she decided to partner a man called Robert Lisset and together they formed a dance partnership which toured Europe. She had her own house, her own yacht and was so famous, so beautiful and so daring that she had an endless procession of rich lovers and suitors, including members of the European nobility and other personalities such as Henri de Courcelles and Count Bruno d’Harcourt.

However, even this fast lifestyle of frivolous fame and fortune did not satisfy her as throughout her life she only really had one true love……. and that was….. speed.

She was a fantastic downhill skier, but even more than skiing she loved to drive very very fast cars. After being injured in a skiing accident, she entered and won a Paris showbiz motor race, and so in 1929 she entered and won her first professional race — an all-female Grand Prix  at Autodrome de Montlhéry and  in the process  she set a new world land speed record for women driving at 197 Kilometres per hour. She was La Femme Rapide!

She won the race in an Omega Six car and more or less immediately gave up dancing to drive professionally. She toured America as the world’s fastest woman, racing on dirt tracks and hard tracks, driving a Miller car but then, on her return to France, she was introduced to Philippe De Rothschild who was to become yet another lover and who was known for racing a certain type of car.

De Rothschild eventually introduced Hellé Nice to the car’s designer –  Ettore Bugatti who immediately wanted her as part of his team of professional drivers. Rumours say she became Bugatti’s lover, and that she also seduced his son Jean Bugatti. From 1931 she was the only female driver who was allowed to compete on equal terms against all the male drivers of the time. She raced Bugatti’s and Alfas, but was mostly famous for her bright blue Bugatti which she personally owned and in which she was photographed often, bringing her huge commercial spin offs and rewards. She raced in the Italian and French grand prix and set many records. Whilst she did not win the races, she beat many of the leading men and had a reputation for being absolutely fearless. The crowds loved her, and it was at this point that her fame and fortune were at their very height. She still loved the fast lifestyle. She partied, drank champagne and had a host of rich and famous lovers yet could often be found sleeping just as easily with mechanics or people who worked at the race tracks because she liked them as people. She loved people and could see inside their skin which is a great talent.

She won the woman’s cup at the Monte Carlo Rally, entered competitive hill climbs and broke records at Le Mans.

She was, ladies and gentlemen, the undoubted Queen of Speed. The Bugatti Queen!

Then, in 1936 she was invited to South America for a series of Races. She was driving in a Grand Prix in Sao Paulo Brazil and was competing for a place in the top three of the race when her car hit a bale of hay which had strayed on to the track. The result was that her car left the track at over 130 miles per hour and launched into the crowd. The car killed 4 people and seriously injured 30 others. Hellé, herself, was thrown clear of the car but was fired into the crowd like a human bullet with her head landing square in the chest of a spectating soldier. The impact of her helmet on the soldier’s chest killed him, but saved her, although she was in a coma for two days and in hospital for three months. When news of her recovery was announced there was great cheering in Brazil as no one believed that she was responsible for the crash. The race organisers even paid her a large sum in compensation for her injuries and the loss of her car which was an Alfa.

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Remarkably, once back in France she decided to get back behind the wheel to race when no one thought she would even drive again. The following year she set 10 world speed records for women. She was all set to rejoin the Bugatti team when Jean Bugatti was killed during practice, and by the time the team recovered from this tragedy the war had started and racing was suspended.

However, it was after the war when real tragedy and hypocrisy struck. Hellé was due to take part in the 1949 Monte Carlo rally but on the eve of the race, right in the grand ballroom in Monaco, she was unfairly denounced as a collaborator during the war. Her accuser was a French driver called Louis Chiron, and despite having no evidence to support his claims, he stated that Hellé Nice had been a Gestapo Agent throughout the war – something that subsequent enquiry proved completely false although that would be many years later.

As a result of these allegations however, all her sponsors and friends deserted her and she never raced again. Her fortune was squandered by a lover who then left her, and for the past 35 years or so she has lived in the attic of the old apartment there, relying on hand outs from a charity called “La Roue Tourne” which means “Things never stay the same” or “ The wheel always turns”.

So that is your old lady – and as I say, with all due respect, you boys will never lay your hands on a woman like that! You are simply not in her league and never will be!”

With that, the stranger drained his glass and made to take his leave.

“ So how do you know her?” asked Maria “ Do you work for La Roue Tourne?”

The man paused and simply stood there: “ No…. I do not work for the charity. I just know her story, and know that she lives here. I decided to come and sit opposite her house for a couple of hours and perhaps catch a glimpse of her. Now, I have actually met her, albeit in slightly unfortunate circumstances. I have helped her up to her shabby apartment, drank her wine and I am delighted simply to be able to say that I made her acquaintance. I have a great story to tell—as have you.”

“ Remember her name, Hellé Nice, the fastest and bravest woman of her day!”

Once again, the young man with the book turned to take his leave.

He wished the somewhat inebriated students farewell and began to walk away. He had gone about 30 yards when Caroline suddenly jumped up from her seat, looked at her friends and said out of the blue “ I am going after him – if I am not back in a minute I will see you tomorrow!” and with that she was off with shouts from Maria, in particular, ringing in her ears.

She had no idea what she was doing or why, she felt she just had to go after this strange young man who had told them the story of Hellé Nice, the dancer and racing driver. She caught up with him just as he turned a corner, and disappeared from the sight of her astonished and alarmed friends.

When she did catch him, the young man was surprised and immediately thought he must have left something at the table, but Caroline was very quick to let him know that was not the case.

“Eh, excuse me but could we go for a drink somewhere… just you and I…. away from the others?” she asked somewhat brazenly.

He looked slightly puzzled at first but eventually smiled and said “ Well it would be impolite to refuse such a charming invitation!” and with that they turned another corner and entered into a small dark bar full of locals drinking strong coffee and various liqueurs.

For the next hour they sat and drank. She told him her name, how she was a student from Glasgow studying accountancy and business studies. In turn he said that his name was “Beco”, that he was only in Nice for the night and that he would be leaving for Paris the following morning. At 22 he was two years older than she was, but he seemed years older and so much more worldly wise than Danny, Simon, Joe and Michael. She asked more about Hellé Nice and her fabulous lifestyle, and how he had come to know her story.

“ It is just something I read” he replied “ Perhaps I am just fascinated by beautiful fast women?” he said looking directly into her eyes with more than a little devilment.

Looking back all these years later, Caroline realised that it was foolish to go back to the small hotel he was staying in. He was a stranger she had never seen or met before. She knew nothing whatsoever about him, yet she was absolutely pulled towards him on that night as if by some magnetic force of nature. She had never done anything so foolish or reckless in her life… and after this night she swore that she never would again.

Once in the room, they had climbed into a creaky bed and made love – awkwardly at first, then with greater familiarity and more confidence before eventually falling asleep in one another’s arms.

The following morning, they made love again before Beco announced that he had to go.

Caroline had known that this moment would come, she had not been that drunk, but all the same she felt awkward when the time came to part. She looked at him and said “ Well, thanks for last night. It was nice to meet you- I’ll just go back to my boring friends”.

As soon as the words left her mouth she felt guilty. Her friends weren’t boring; they just weren’t an exotic stranger with a great tale to tell.

Without any hesitation Beco turned to her and chided her slightly; “ You have good friends, nice friends, count yourself lucky. Think of Hellé Nice- she has no friends.”

“ Apart from you” said Caroline

He stood at the door and turned to her, drawing her close:

“ I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me” he replied “ And if I am a friend of Hellé Nice then your friend Michael is an even greater friend. It was he who was first by her side, helped her to her feet, and helped her up the stairs without even knowing who she was. I had a motive. I knew who she was and wanted to meet her, see inside her apartment, I wanted the story of helping Hellé Nice all for my own purposes. Whereas, your friend Michael just reacted. Just did what seemed right. He didn’t see the once famous racing driver who interested me, he just saw an old woman who fell and who he chose to help. I would think about that if I were you. By the way, Simon is a pain in the ass, tell your friend Julie she can do much better!” and with that he laughed, kissed her on the cheek, and left.

She never saw him again.

When Caroline returned to the hostel she was met with a very mixed reaction.

Maria was furious with her for running off with someone she did not know.

“ What were you thinking about?” she shouted “ He could have been anyone? A rapist or a murderer! You are a selfish cow- I was worried sick. I chased after you with Joe but we couldn’t find you anywhere. Fuck sake – of all the stupid things……… “ she slammed the door of the room and left.

Julie just wanted to know that she was ok, and then wickedly asked “ Well – come on spill the beans—what was he like?” and started laughing.

Later Simon couldn’t resist teasing her and calling her “ The Frenchman’s tart” which Caroline laughed at but inwardly didn’t like. Simon went further and said she had stolen Hellé Nice’s title as the fastest woman on earth which again Caroline didn’t like.

She now regretted the entire episode and wished she had just stayed with her friends rather than face this ridicule.

Maria and Simon later began to discuss whether or not the whole Hellé Nice story was a pile of cobblers designed just to be a good story which the guy told to get one of the girls into bed…. And it had worked!

Eventually Maria calmed down and appeared to forgive her though she was still furious and repeatedly said that she would not have fallen for such a load of baloney.

Caroline inwardly agreed with Beco, Simon was an asshole and Julie could do much better.

She was sort of saved by Joe and Michael who really said nothing and who just got on with the day and started the usual round of jokes between themselves. They were funny those two, but Caroline still thought the jokes and the chat immature and so looked upon them as wee boys in comparison to the mysterious Beco.

As they travelled along the coast through Monte Carlo and on to San Remo, she couldn’t help but think of the night before, the spontaneousness of her actions, the story of Hellé Nice and the dark book reading stranger. She wondered if she had just been caught up in the story? Did she just want to live one night like Hellé Nice—taking a mysterious lover in a devil may care moment?

She would ask herself that question for months afterwards.

The seven finished their holiday, returned to university and the months rolled into years and the next thing Caroline knew she was working for a PLC wearing a smart suit and being every inch the young business woman.

The others all went their separate ways and she lost touch with them all, even Maria – although she did send a card every Christmas.

In the following years, she changed jobs a couple of times, had  a few different boyfriends but never settled down with a steady partner and by 1990 she found herself as a single professional woman with her own apartment and several rungs up the ladder in the world of business. She had a growing reputation in her field and the night in Nice some 8 years before was completely forgotten. She was wrapped up in the corporate world, was successful, financially independent, enjoyed good holidays with professional friends and was as happy as the proverbial pig in shit.

Or so she thought.

Glasgow was in the middle of the year of culture celebrations with the specially built Garden Festival site proving a huge attraction.

She had worked late on into the Friday night on a project she was managing and on Saturday she had gone to visit her parents whom she had not seen in a few weeks. Her dad was forever asking if she had a boyfriend, and he always looked disappointed when she replied “No one special”.

On Sunday 3rd June she had arranged to meet some friends and colleagues at the Garden Festival site for lunch. It was going to be a big day – literally—as it had been dubbed “ The Big Day” Music concert with lots of famous bands and acts performing throughout the day.

She had left the car at home, and so was free to enjoy a few drinks with her meal, and after a couple of hours with her friends she felt a bit like a student again – they had had more than a few drinks and nothing to eat.

They had just sat down to order at one of the open air restaurants, when there was a commotion about thirty feet away. Caroline hadn’t seen what happened, she just heard chairs being knocked over, some glass breaking and some shouts. Someone had fainted, falling on top of a table and knocking over plastic chairs.

As Caroline belatedly looked over at the scene, she saw that someone was now cradling the head of the woman who had fainted—she immediately presumed that it was the woman’s husband or boyfriend. But then another man arrived and he seemed to be the woman’s partner.

As Caroline looked on, she suddenly felt there was something familiar about the guy on the ground holding the distressed woman’s head gently in his hands whilst at the same time speaking to her in a soothing voice. He had asked someone to bring her some water, and now he was putting the glass to the woman’s lips and telling her to drink slowly.

Caroline felt herself rise from her seat and involuntarily walk towards the scene, becoming more and more certain the closer she came to the man on the ground holding the woman’s head.

Now, the man was helping the injured woman to her feet and Caroline knew for sure— it was definitely him.

He had his back to her now, looking down at the woman who had fainted who was now sitting in a chair.

Caroline placed a hand on his shoulder causing him to turn round at exactly the same time as she said his name;

“Michael? Is that you?”

Michael turned to look at who had touched his shoulder and saw a good looking woman in jeans and a fashionable sweat shirt, wearing flat shoes. She had short dark hair, and looked pretty elegant in the sun light. Then he caught her eyes and her face;

“ Caroline! Good God! How are you doing, It’s great to see you!”

Caroline gave him a hug and looked at someone she had not seen in at least 6 years. Yet at the same time she was immediately aware that she was in fact seeing someone for the very first time. Here was goofy Michael, the guy with the immature jokes, but at that moment she knew he was not Michael with the immature jokes at all – this was a different Michael altogether – or later she would reflect that maybe it was a different Caroline.

He explained that he had only been back in Glasgow for a few weeks after spending four years working abroad and had only come down to the Garden Festival site for the music. He was on his own and was just wandering by when he saw the woman faint and obviously just did what he could to help.

He accepted Caroline’s invitation to join her and her friends for lunch and in the course of the afternoon they talked and laughed about days gone by.

Eventually, as the afternoon wore on, they got round to talking about their trip to France.

“ Remember Frejus?” Asked Michael “ Roxy Music in the Ampitheatre?” he went on without waiting for a reply. “ That was brilliant!” he concluded.

She said she did and they talked a little more.

“ And remember the night in Nice?” said Michael “ And the incident with the old woman falling and the handsome stranger coming to tell us all about who she was?” he added and gave Caroline a wicked wink.

She felt herself blushing and defensively added “ Yes, well that was when I was young and foolish. It was a most stupid and uncharacteristic thing to do—I must have been drunk!”

“ Oh give yourself peace, woman,” said Michael sensing her embarrassment and gently teasing her “ If a young woman didn’t fall for a handsome foreigner, personally telling a fantastic tale like that then there must be something wrong with her. Besides you were a grown woman and were capable of looking after yourself- you were just having some fun!”

Caroline was slightly taken aback at even talking about this as the incident had long faded from her mind. However, she felt pleasantly surprised at Michael’s opinion on what had happened that night.

“ Do you think his story was true?” she found herself asking.

“ What?” asked Michael “ You mean you don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“ You don’t know if the story was true? And who your mysterious stranger was?”

“ What do you mean?” asked Caroline now somewhat concerned that somehow she had missed something or had been the butt of some long running joke which only she had not understood.

Michael turned to her and said “ let’s go for a walk – I have something to tell you – though I can’t believe you don’t know!”

They made their excuses and started to walk through the Garden festival site.

As they walked Michael began to talk and as he did so he held her hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It was a gesture that Caroline had not resisted.

“ The fantastic woman known as Hellé Nice died in October 1984. She was 83 years old and until a few months before her death she was still living in that attic apartment.”

“ So the story WAS true?”

“ Oh Yes! She was exactly who we were told she was. But her story does not end there. When she was denounced as a collaborator, her family abandoned her. She was cut out of her parents will and the family house was left to her sister. Apparently, her sister was very jealous of her fame and her fortune and was openly delighted when Hellé was brought down by the false accusations of collaborating with the Germans. When we saw her, she literally did not have a friend in the world, bar the young fella you ran off with for the night.”

Caroline recalled the conversation she had had with Beco about being a friend to Hellé Nice and what he had said about Michael. However before she could say anything Michael continued talking.

“When Hellé died, she was penniless and asked that she be buried in the village where she was born along side her parents. However, the sister, despite promising to fulfil Helle’s last wish, simply buried her in an unmarked grave depriving her of that wish. The sister was a really miserable cow!”

“ How do you know all this?” asked Caroline

“ Because, I was intrigued with the story. We saw an old woman, but that old woman had once been the most fabulous woman on earth and I wanted to know what became of her, and so a couple of years ago I took some time out and went back to Nice on my own to find out what had happened to her. That is when I learned that she had passed away and what had happened with her sister.”

“And how did you find that out?”

“ Simple!” said Michael “ I contacted the charity that had looked after her—La Roué Tourne –and they gave me all the facts. I even went to her burial place in her wee village just to pay my respects.”

Once again Caroline found herself looking at the man talking to her and felt she was seeing him for the first time. He wasn’t interested in the tittle tattle of her night with her mysterious lover, he wasn’t making fun of her, he was just interested in the old woman and her story.

Again she remembered Beco saying to her that Michael had ran to help the old woman for no reason other than…….. other than that is what he did automatically. He had done the same thing just a few hours before with the woman who fainted. How odd was that?

They had reached the bandstand area and a huge crowd had gathered to hear a group performing. Caroline didn’t recognise the musicians on the stage at all but Michael did. They were in the middle of some song or other.

“ Let’s sit down here for a minute” he said.

As she went to sit, Michael suddenly added “ Wait here, I will be back in a minute!”

“ Where are you going?” she asked quizzically- in truth she didn’t want to stop talking, she didn’t want to break the spell that seemed to have been woven in the last couple of hours.

“ I am going to get a couple of drinks—and I am going to ask them to play a song for us—and Hellé Nice!”

And with that he disappeared down the steps.

She watched as he went to the bar and then approached the stage. Amazingly he was able to speak to the girl who was on the stage from the side. He seemed to have some sort of security pass which enabled him to get passed what she presumed were bouncers.

The girl on stage was wearing a black coat and a sort of pill box tri corn hat. Michael, pointed to the others on the stage, said something to her and in return she nodded.

Michael left the stage area and headed back up the stairs.

Caroline watched as the girl on the stage spoke to the other musicians making up the group. They had a quick confab and started playing just as Michael returned.

“ So what are they playing, and who are they?” asked Caroline

“ Ever heard of a guy called John Prine?” asked Michael

“ Never.”

“ Well he wrote this song in 1971, and when I heard it for the very first time, it made me think of Hellé Nice. It’s called Hello in There”

Caroline sat and listened. She was taken by the words and found herself resting her head on Michael’s shoulder while he sang along.

When the number finished the crowd cheered, the group left the stage.

Michael and Caroline got up to leave.

“ How did you manage that?” asked Caroline

“ Oh, I just asked the girl singer if she knew the song and asked her to sing it—and she did!”

Caroline wasn’t too sure about this but let it pass.

“ So “ said Michael “ did you ever hear from the mysterious boy with the book again?”

“ Oh no!” said Caroline “ I knew I never would” she added. “ As I said it was just one of those stupid things that happened and should never have happened.”

“ Do you regret it?” he asked earnestly

“ No… but it never happened again and I wouldn’t dare disappear with someone I don’t know—anyway would you mind if we change the subject? It was years ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then”

“ Ok” said Michael “ But you do know who he was?”

“ Oh I know his name was Beco… but that was it”

“ You don’t know who he really was?” asked Michael with a tone in his voice which was unbelieving.

“ Yes! He was called Beco!” she said forcefully

“Caroline!” exclaimed Michael “ Do you really not know who he was?” said Michael smiling like the Cheshire cat.

He registered the confusion on her face, took both her hands in his and said

“ Look, I am not judging here at all and you have nothing to feel defensive about with me, but the story of that night in Nice does not end with the story of Hellé Nice …. You have your own fantastic story to tell.”

When she continued to look confused, Michael told her that “Beco” was a nickname and went on to reveal the true identity of the man she had chased after and shared a hotel room with for one night only —- and as he did so he had a great big warm reassuring smile on his face.

She was astonished at his news. She wasn’t sure how she felt but she had to admit it was a good story although at the same time she felt stupid for not knowing the boy with the book’s real name.

At the same time, she felt something else. Something weird. Again she felt she saw Michael for the first time and started to remember things.

He had always been kind, always had spare tickets for things so that someone could go along at the last minute. He was always generous with his time and anything else he had. He hadn’t seemed to run with a particular crowd, had never been judgemental and always did his own thing. Yes, his jokes were immature, but he had made her laugh—and she remembered again that he had ran to help Hellé Nice with no motive in mind.

By Christmas 1990 Michael and Caroline were living in the one house.

He made her feel special and she loved him more than anyone else and anything. He always knew just what to say and just what to do – and as she sat with tears strolling down her face on that May afternoon in 1994 she wished that he was here now.

But he wasn’t—he was at his parents house where he had spent the night because his father was ill – and he would not be back till morning so she was on her own.

She gave herself a shake and went to make some fresh coffee and thought about making something for her dinner. She knew it was stupid to feel sad and tearful but she just couldn’t help it. She started to cry again.

She didn’t hear the front door open and Michael walk in.  She turned around and saw him at the precise moment the television screen  changed to show a picture of a young handsome man with dark eyes – the same eyes that had been reading  a book in a Nice café all those years before, and the same eyes she had looked into on a creaky bed in a Nice hotel some 12 years before..

“ I knew you would be upset, so I came home early” said Michael.

Caroline burst into a flood of tears for reasons she really could not explain or understand. She clung to her husband for dear life and sobbed uncontrollably.

The caption on the television simply read.

“ Ayrton Senna pronounced dead.”

images (13)images (14)

THE DATE WAS 1ST MAY 1994.

===============================================================================================

For anyone interested in the fantastic story of Mariette Hélène Delangle; 15 December 1900 – 1 October 1984 otherwise known as Hellé Nice can I recommend a book entitled The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend by Miranda Seymour which was published in 2004.

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——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The Roxy Music Concert performed in Frejus France on August 27th  1982 was recorded on video for posterity:

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

John Prine wrote the words and music to Hello in there in 1971

“Hello In There”

We had an apartment in the city,

Me and Loretta liked living there.

Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,

A life of their own left us alone.

John and Linda live in Omaha,

And Joe is somewhere on the road.

We lost Davy in the Korean war,

And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.

[Chorus:]

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,

And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more,

She sits and stares through the back door screen.

And all the news just repeats itself

Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.

Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy,

We worked together at the factory.

But what could I say if asks “What’s new?”

“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do.”

[Chorus]

So if you’re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes,

Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The impromptu performance of the song for Michael, Caroline and Hellé Nice by Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg took place on the bandstand on the Glasgow Garden Festival site on the afternoon of 3rd June 1990.

It too was recorded for posterity – the trio performed the song again three days later in Prague on 6th June. After that they never performed the song again.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Ayrton Senna da Silva ; 21 March 1960 – 1 May 1994 died while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In 1982, having dropped the da Silva part of his name, he won the British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships  and would go on to be a three time world champion in the Formula One Category.

Senna had been a virtually unknown spectator at the 1982 Swiss Grand Prix which took place in Dijon-Prenois in France on August 29th. This was the only win of the season for eventual World Champion Keke Rosberg. The following year, Senna would complete a test drive for Williams at the Donnington race Track in Rosberg’s formula one car. He drove faster than any other driver including Rosberg.

He commenced his Formula One career on 25th March 1984 when he competed in the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Senna was given the nickname “ Beco” as a child by his family in Brazil.

He remains the last racing driver to have been fatally injured during a Grand Prix.

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7 Responses to “The Stranger, The Queen and the Glasgow Garden Festival”

  1. Sandy May 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Nice story, you are an engaging writer sir ! I kind of guessed the John Prine song would be a part of the tale a few paragraphs in. Natalie, Billy and Michael also performed “Hello in There” in The Czech Republic, I think on 6 June 1990 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByjaqvZCfEA
    Wish I’d been at that event in Glasgow !

    • Brogan Rogan Trevino and Hogan May 2, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

      Cheers for that piece of info — I have amended the comment on the song accordingly. I am impressed that you guessed that the song would feature as the whole story is one that is very new in my head. It is one of my favourite songs.

      • Ulsan / Black Isle Bhoy May 3, 2014 at 6:08 am #

        Enjoyed the story, as soon as the Garden Festival was mentioned I thought of that song (although I didn’t expect it to feature until the description of the girl on stage), I posted a link to it on CQN a couple of years ago. I love Natalie Merchant’s voice and she has a new album to look forward to.

  2. Gerry May 3, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    BRTH
    Needs to be a short story book as part of our CQN series. Can I suggest the story of your Uncle and the car raffle in London along with the fabulous Harry Maguire as the two initial stories in the book.
    Seriously BRTH shake a leg big guy. I would buy a book of short stories and you can hold me to that.
    Gearoid 1998

  3. ronaldopatrizio May 7, 2014 at 9:03 pm #

    Fabulous tale. Utterly engrossing

  4. Numpty May 18, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Love reading your stories. The links to the actual events at the end made the whole thing much more real. Thankyou.

  5. Carol-Ann Cafferty May 22, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

    What an engrossing little tale. I really enjoyed it. I’ll be checking out more!

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