The Boat Leaves From Denia

The Boat Leaves from Denia

By Lawrence Bohme

Poet and translator Lawrence Bohme reminisces in five essays on the summer of 1960 and his discovery of the Montefrio which became his home. In the last three essays Laurence returns to Montefrio in 1985, this time to live in the idealic 'Cortijo de los Siete Olivos'.

VII. The boat leaves from Denia

It would be two weeks before the workers could begin remodelling my recently acquired cortijo, and what with the fine spring weather, I decided that the time had finally come to visit Lilo. Over the 20-odd years since we last stood face to face in the fresco room of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, I had never lost contact with her entirely. Every time she had an exhibit in Ibiza, where she had been living ever since, she sent a poster to my father's address, with a message written on the back in her big, square handwriting, and from Canada it was forwarded to me in Brazil or Haiti or wherever I was. She knew I was back in Europe, and had even written, two winters back, inviting me to stay with her in her brother's villa, where she was running, in the warmer months, a sort of ashram or cultural centre, with courses in Zen Buddhism, vegetarian cooking, and so forth.

Not being much inclined towards that sort of thing, and feeling some dismay that the fiercely independent Lilo could have finally cast her lot with what I sometimes describe as "the wilting flower generation", I stayed away. Also, I didn't fully trust her mellow, detached tone, and feared being lured into a trap full of recriminations and, even, renewed amorous overtures. But, I hoped, a surprise visit in the summer would catch her off guard and - what with the other people in the house - with her hands tied, so to speak. In any case, she had no phone, and I made my decision one day and left the next.

Planes were fully booked so I had to go by the ferry. I took the bus to Valencia, as in the old days, but when I got to the wharf was informed that the boat now left from Denia, down the coast. A streamlined white ocean cruiser as big as an office building was waiting by the jetty, with the choppy Mediterranean behind it, announcing the new order of things: Ibiza, which I had visited in the early 60's when it was a meeting place for down-and-out bohemians (of which Lilo was one of the last hangers-on), and to which one acceded on a rusty tramp, was now big business.

So, as they say, I was braced for the worst; Montefrio and Ibiza belonged to the same national territory, but otherwise they were in different galaxies. The boat didn't even dock at the charming port any more, but put me and the horde of young sightseers off on the other side of the island, where everything was conveniently laid out, like Florida. A sleek taxi cab swept me up an asphalt road like a black carpet and in a few minutes let me off at the foot of the hill on which stood Lilo's village, Balafi. It was almost dusk but I could recognise, jutting up from the small mound of peasant houses, the two Moorish watchtowers which she and I had discovered in wonderment on our rented bikes in the summer of 1962, and one of which, according to her letters, had been her home almost ever since.

There was a restaurant on the corner, and before setting out on the path which led to the village, I went in to ask about her, thinking that she might even be there, having her dinner. A Spanish man with a black beard was standing alone at the bar, but when I asked him if he knew Lilo Wagner, he stared at me blankly and said "Está muerta". In the next few hundred seconds I had learned from him and the owner of the bar that, 11 days before, she had thrown herself into the well of the villa.

In my confusion and horror, and it being night with - suddenly - nowhere to stay, I shouldered my satchel and set out on foot to Santa Eulalia on the coast, where, I thought, at least there would be lights, life and people who had never known Lilo. It was longer than I remembered, and I stumbled as much because of the darkness as the stampede of thoughts in my mind.

It's a small island, and I was soon having dinner in a tastefully decorated seafood restaurant, of which the owner and customers were all Germans. I slept in a hotel across the road from a butcher shop which, in so far as I could understand from the sign above the door, made authentic bratwurst and leberwurst. Just as they said, it had become a German island in the Mediterranean; I imagined how Lilo must have hated seeing it taken over by the ones she always loathingly called "the pigs". In the morning I went back to find out what I could. Everything looks better in the sunshine, even death.

When I look over all I have written about Lilo Wagner, I wonder for a moment why I ever got involved with her at all, what with her outlandish behaviour and violent nature - of which her suicide at age 45 was the final and (many of her friends opine) logical dénouement. But as I walked up the path to Balafi in the morning sunlight, leaving the car I had rented on the road, I was reminded of the lovely side of Lilo, her adoration of this same land which she had discovered in the Aegean and the frescoes of Giotto, the delicately twisted almond trees of which each tiny leaf was like a miniature painting, the web of rough stone walls dividing ochre-coloured patches of land, each of which somehow gave sustenance to a goat and a sprinkling of bright red poppies. It was the Mediterranean which I had read of as a child in the book The Story of San Michele, with its world of free-flying thought, luminous conversation and open-hearted friendship, which she and I had once idealistically shared.

In the village - really just a cluster of rough white houses scattered along a few paths - I found three peasant women working in a garden, in black dresses and straw hats, and asked them which of the two squat, conical towers Lilo had lived in. They fell silent and one of them pointed to the one closest to us. The door was padlocked but, looking over the gate, I could see the white dome-covered well where she had drawn her water, the ramshackle wooden terrace where she had taken the sun, the rough flagstones of the courtyard which she had crossed to step out into the narrow, whitewashed alley. I went back and spoke to the women, who answered in ibizenco. One of them said they had all thought highly of Lilo - estimava molt - and I explained that I was a very old friend of hers who had come to visit her without knowing she had died.

I asked them to pick me some flowers to put on her grave in the cemetery at the entrance to the village, and, as they instructed, went to the nearby grocery store to get the key. Again, when I mentioned Lilo's name to the storekeeper, her face clouded over; she had known her for many years, and when her daughter was sick Lilo had come to visit her every day. Among the poor, simple people, Lilo's noble side had always shone - it was only her own kind that brought out the rage.

A long white wall broken only by a sun-bleached wooden door in which the ancient key turned and - just as the woman said - immediately to the right a wooden cross with two metal initials fixed to it, "LW". The grave was covered with a great many flowers which had already gone brown in the sun, and to which I added my few fresh ones.

In the afternoon I went back to take photographs of Lilo's tower, and passing in front of its twin, noticed several oil paintings drying in the sun. Another ivory tower, I thought; here, I would learn more.

I stepped through the open door into an artist's studio. Everything resembled my mother's own workplace: the indirect sunlight, the careful disorder, the pastel-coloured flowers, the cautiously abstract paintings. Even the woman who appeared in answer to my call was, curiously, the image of my mother too, when she was a handsome blonde woman roaming the world with her crates of canvases and teenage son...

"So, you are Lawrence", she said, sitting in front me."Every winter I told her, 'Come back to Munich with me' - you know how cold and miserable it gets here in the winter, and she had no proper heating, just the brasero, she didn't even have electricity - but she would always say, 'No, not this winter, this winter Lawrence will come'".

I imagined the rainy months in the primitive tower, going blind reading by the oil lamp and trying to play Bach on the flute - it was Lilo's quest for self-chastisement, atoning for the sins of the world.

"It was the house that ruined her. Before, she was alright, when she just had the tower. Oh, she was crazy of course - her family refused to send her any more money and she tried to get jobs whitewashing walls and gardening, but it was barely enough to survive. But she had her cats and her paintings, and we all loved to talk to her, she was so funny and kind. It was Can Micaeleta that killed her, all those terrible people that came, from all over the world, she thought they were going to help her do something wonderful and beautiful but they only wanted to use her."

Apparently, her brother in Germany gave her the run of the house in exchange for taking care of it, and she had decided to try to both make a little money and Improve Mankind in the process by creating the art-and-philosophy course... But it proved to be a disaster - the fliers she sent out only drew intellectual freeloaders, and many of them spent the summer there studying some esoteric subject, and then said they couldn't pay. One Swedish girl was not only unable to pay, but tried to raise the money to fly back to Sweden by spreading all her tattered belongings on the terrace and waiting, saddhu-like with her legs crossed, for people to buy them... Lilo, horrified, gave her the money she needed out of her own pocket and drove her to the airport.

I asked how she had come to throw herself in the well. "She would go crazy with them all there, like helpless children waiting for her to cook and do things for them; one day the water stopped coming out of the taps and Lilo thought that the pump had broken down, but in fact the well had run completely dry because they had been using so much water. She went to the well-house with a few others to see if they could do something, the pump worked but still there was no water, and she suddenly became hysterical and got up on the edge and jumped in. I got there a few hours after the police removed her; an Englishman who had just arrived on the island and who had seen her jump was still wandering around the house in a daze, mumbling to himself...".

What a way to begin your summer course in transcendental meditation, I thought - but for a long time after that I, too, would find myself mumbling the words of the barman of Es Pins, "treinta metros sin agua".

"I don't know how Lilo knew so many attractive men", she said looking at me, "at her funeral I was amazed by all the impressive, distinguished men, journalists and professors, who came from Madrid, from Barcelona, even from Germany, to bury her". It was simple, I explained: other women used their beauty and charms to attract men, and Lilo used her native wit and brains. But they never loved her, they just wanted to be her friend - as I had.

She wanted to show me Can Micaeleta before it got dark, because they had cut off the electricity. We drove to a pine forest, a padlocked gate, a dirt road, a large, handsome white house standing silently in the dusk, and, on the rambling, weed-covered grounds, the well, made of unfinished cinder blocks...

We walked through the pine trees, past a few dozen immaculate daffodils growing all on their own, as if they were wild, on the beaten earth. Somehow, they looked like people or friends that you could talk to. My guide shook her head and said, "Who will take care of her lovely garden now?". I imagined the proper, well-protected flower beds which would take their place, as soon as her brother in Frankfurt found a buyer. A cat ran across our path; she shrugged and said that there was a whole community of them...

The electricity had been shut off so we had to take the boxes of papers close to the window. There was a photo of Lilo, emaciated and somehow shrunken, laughing clownishly, but otherwise unrecognisable to me; I agreed with what the lady had said earlier, that it was better that I had not had to face her in life. The paintings and drawings had, I was told, become progressively less crafted and representative, ending in shapeless scraps of line and colour, like the botched attempts of a prehistoric cave artist. I chose an elaborately shaded pen-and-ink of a gnarled root, dated 1965, and put it in my satchel as a memento of the woman who made me realise I could draw.

On the way out she waved her hand at the vast wall of book shelves, filled almost to the ceiling with volumes in German, English, French, Spanish, on art, religion, philosophy. I'll never forget her words: "So much knowledge, but she couldn't learn how to live!". Outside, she seemed to want to turn her back on failure and death and smiled at me lovingly, like a sister - or who knows, perhaps as a woman? - as if the fact that we had both been loved by Lilo had created a bond between us. "You don't have to go back tomorrow, you know; you can stay for a few days", she said, almost beseechingly.

But suddenly, all I wanted was to be in Granada, in the house where Rocio lived near the the Puerta de Elvira, the one with the yellow weeds growing on the roof. back to index of Lorenzo's stories

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