Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 16


In the days before credit cards and instant international money transfers, travellers used traveller's cheques that had to be exchanged at a bank or major international hotel for local currency, using passport ID. Arrive in a country on weekends or after the banks closed and you could be penniless.

Passports and money are a problem if you're on your own and want to swim. My tatty canvas duffel bag probably wouldn't have been any sensible thief's target, but to be on the safe side I left it in a locker at the station, taking only a towel and a bit of cash. I was halfway to the exit when a gendarme directed me to a door where I was herded into a room with several other large-nosed, olive-skinned young men, there to be frisked and asked to show my papers. The others produced Cartes d'identité carefully protected in special wallets, and were released.

My attempt to explain was quenched by a curt, "Fermez la gueule!" Eventually, a solid, perfectly presented officer arrived and demanded my provenance. High school French had not prepared me for either police pressure or the local accent so I gave up stuttering and resorted to mime, eventually gaining permission to lead my inquisitor to the locker and produce my passport.

In exchange, I received some colourful abuse for wasting his time. Didn't I know there was a war on? Fortunately, the question was rhetorical and my ignorance of the Algerian War of Independence that had produced some devastating attacks on French soil wasn't exposed.

Self-confidence waned further as I wandered along Avenue Jean Medécin. Young Frenchmen were dressed impeccably in neat slacks, crisp shirts, and smart shoes. Tourists, in their gaudy shorts, shirts, sun frocks and sandals, offended the eye, clashed with the architecture, and spoiled the ambience. Nice may be a seaside resort, but it is also France's third largest city and possessed glorious avenues, elegant buildings, palaces, and squares that deserve the respect of equally well-presented humans. It was an insult to my hosts to be attired so casually.

Shame led me to pay three times what it would have cost in London for perfectly fitting fawn slacks that could be washed and dried overnight, a cream drip-dry shirt with a modestly embroidered Russian collar, and a pair of tan loafers in woven Spanish leather – airy and not requiring socks. My duffel bag was swapped for an equally inconspicuous, but elegant Italian zipped holdall that lasted the next ten years.

Avenue Jean Médecin opens onto Place Massena, a very grand 'square' surrounded by salmon pink arcades where once was a bridge over the river that meanders into the city from the Alps, and now disappears under a series of magnificent avenues, parks, and boulevards a couple of kilometres before the coast; then slips under the beautiful Gardens of Albert the First and the Promenade des Anglais before finding freedom in the sea.

The seafront is lined with palms, gardens, trees, luxurious hotels, apartments, a couple of casinos, and the Promenade des Anglais: a spectacular, wide esplanade shared between cars and pedestrians who stroll along the balustraded paths, gazing out to sea or down onto acres of almost naked flesh sunning on the pebbles below.

The beach is divided into generous areas for people prepared to pay for sun beds, handsome attendants, sunshades and boardwalks, and slightly less generous stretches for those who are happy to lie on their towels and bring their own food and drink.

I gazed down on the crowded scene, looking for someone I could trust with my bag so I could swim. A lithe, bronzed young man strode purposefully between clumps of sunbathers, arrived at a group of equally beautiful people, shook hands seriously with each in turn, spread his towel, removed his clothes to reveal a blue bikini, folded everything carefully, then sat and spent several minutes massaging oil into his skin.

The perfect formality of the French enthralled me. How I would love to have been part of such a group; to shake hands so courteously with them in greeting, to chat amiably in such perfect French…. Or, like another young man who was leaving – probably to go back to work as it was around two o'clock – kiss each of his companions, both male and female, twice on each cheek before taking his leave.

What would they think of, 'G'day mate, howzitgoin' accompanied by a slap on the back?

A solo male near the water, and a middle-aged couple directly below the promenade, looked like promising bag minders, so I descended.

The single male was not attractive, but looked reliable and there was plenty of space beside him. However, before I had time to spread my towel he muttered, "Va t'en," (piss off ). Hot with embarrassment I pasted a distracted expression to my face and, feeling somewhat foolish as I was passing open spaces, arrived as if by chance about a metre from my prey, spread the towel, stripped to my pouch and sprawled.

There was an audible intake of breath. "Alf! He's naked!"

"Calm down, Hilda – you'll get an asthma attack. His cods are covered."

"Not quite! When he lifted his leg, I could see just about everything."

"Stop staring woman… he'll notice!"

They were in their forties. He, a giant of a man – not fat, but shapelessly huge, extremely hirsute apart from a bald head, in ballooning turquoise boxer shorts that enhanced his bulk. She was large of breast, belly, bottom, and thigh, and exposed far too much flesh in a red bikini that clashed with livid sunburn. I gave Hilda's asthma a few minutes to subside, then asked in French if they knew the time. The question visibly shocked them.

"We only speak English," Alf announced, as if to do otherwise would bring a charge of treason.

In what I hoped was a convincing French accent, I admitted to speaking a few words of their lovely tongue and within minutes knew they came from Leeds, owned a dry-cleaning business, were staying in a bloody expensive hotel, thought the food was airy-fairy, had tried the paying beach but hoped the free one would be more fun, but it wasn't because the French are bloody unfriendly – present company excepted – and everything was too bloody pricey. Next year they'd go somewhere they could speak English, meet friendly people and get a decent fry-up.

Each complaint was underlined by Hilda's laugh, a sort of whinny that sent shivers down my spine and caused heads to turn.

Although uninterested in my origins, they professed themselves delighted to mind my bag while I took a swim. When I returned, mightily refreshed, Alf went in search of ice creams and Hilda cheekily admired my body and 'teensie weensie pouch'. I rewarded her by absent-mindedly lifting my leg as if to inspect the sole of my foot, recreating the gap between fabric and flesh that had so excited her when I arrived. After enjoying the ice creams, I rolled onto my stomach and asked if Hilda would be so kind as to apply sun lotion.

Despite an almost terminal attack of asthma, it was probably the highlight of her holiday. Alf watched for a bit, told her to rub it on the bum as well and not be so namby-pamby, then invited me to join them for dinner. Clearly not the jealous type.

I had nothing planned, but didn't fancy pretending to be French in a French restaurant accompanied by a giant and his whinnying wife, so thanked them graciously, shook hands in the French manner, and watched them waddle off.

As the beach was emptying, I risked leaving my bag down by the water while I swam again, relishing the return to solitude.

After a remarkably fine and cheap meal in a self-service restaurant, I relaxed in the Park of Albert the First, where a parade of handsome young couples looking self-assured and elegant, shook hands, embraced friends, chatted amicably, and strolled arm-in-arm around a more or less oval path that meandered between the trees. The delightful Mediterranean habit of taking an evening promenade is partly the result of the climate and cramped living quarters, but also their natural gregariousness and urge to gossip. It was an ever-changing parade of happy and pleasant couples walking off their evening meal and renewing friendships.

Why hadn't I been born French?

It was still too light to find a place to sleep, so I remained watching. The scene changed. Now it was mainly young men parading and flirting – eyeing the competition, surreptitiously wandering into the shadows with other young men or one of the car-key-toting older men who, like me, were admiring the passing parade. Beside these slim, confident young males I felt gauche, unkempt and ugly.

I caught the eye of a middle-aged man in a suit, considered the idea, then jettisoned it. I wasn't cash-strapped, and sex was not why I was there – casual or otherwise. I wanted to see the cities and countryside, to meet people and take my fill of sun, sea and self-reliance, so I picked up my bag and crossed to the beach. It was flooded with light from the Promenade and would be like that all night.

To the east, Quai des Etats Unis follows the coast below The Chateau on its hill overlooking the Port. I mounted a steep path through relatively wild gardens, found a dense bush, crawled beneath, folded my clothes, stuffed my valuables down the front of my shorts, wrapped myself in my blanket, tied my bag to my arm, rested my head on it, and closed my eyes.

I should have guessed it'd be a cruising spot – so near the port. I'm not a cruiser; there are too many warships out there, and as I've said before, I'm not usually interested in anonymous sex. I like cuddling, chatting, stroking, intimate cosiness with someone I like who likes me. That's a rare sexual mind-set. I have a friend – a wise fellow despite being from the U.S.A., who is the exact opposite. Whereas my body count remains well below a hundred, he has enjoyed sex with over eight thousand different people in his life. The mind boggles.

My primary interest is the pleasure of acquaintance – a chat, swapping ideas, taking pleasure in each other's company. Then, if it happens, sex can be a load of fun. If it doesn't, nothing is lost. It's the same with books – if I don't like the hero, I stop reading. If I'm not attracted to a man, I don't want intimacy – it's simple. Well, usually.

At about two a.m. the whispering, bargaining, shuffling, and grunting in the bushes around me drew to a close and I slept sweetly until path sweepers arrived at eight o'clock.

After breakfast, I set off for Cannes. The heavily trafficked Promenade des Anglais led to the airport and then followed the coast on its way to Cannes, passing restaurants built right on the beach with sexy waiters in bikinis. I decided it would be more pleasant to walk along the shore than the motorway, but this proved next to impossible because most beaches and headlands were private property, often with metal fences jutting into the water to prevent trespass. Sometimes I was shouted at and abused from the owners or guardians of grand residences on the cliffs above.

Rocks and headlands eventually blocked my way, so I was forced to follow the road. Forty-five years ago, it seemed busy and dangerous to cross, but compared to the multi-lane motorways that now hurtle across the Riviera, it was a mere country lane.

Somewhere near Cagnes I came upon a small, perfect little bay enclosed by cliffs. Much of the vegetation on the surrounding hills had been replaced by the grey concrete skeletons of future multi-storied apartment blocks, waiting to be filled in with bricks, windows, balconies, and patios to accommodate the ever-increasing hordes of tourists flocking to the south of France.

The beach was sandy, the turquoise water clear, and the air warm. Out of deference to the half dozen families sprinkled here and there, I took out my Speedos. Just then a group of young people arrived. The boys stripped and played nude beach volleyball watched by their girlfriends, who remained clothed. Then I looked closer and realised most of the family fathers and their children were also naked – only the mothers wore bathing suits, so I too discarded all and watched the young men play, hoping they'd invite me to join. But I didn't exist. They were the beautiful people and I wasn't. At least that's what it felt like.

A few years later in Paris, a friend told me I'd been foolish to be so sensitive. Frenchmen usually make friends at school and keep them for life. They go on holiday together, remain in contact and see no reason to get more friends as they grow older. It would not occur to them to invite a stranger into their circle – nor to be invited had they been in my place. By ignoring me they were granting me the freedom to do as I liked. It wasn't rudeness, merely normal social behaviour.

As the afternoon cooled, the beach emptied and I was wondering where I'd sleep when five young men arrived in dusty overalls. They stripped to their briefs and on their way to the water called to me to join them. Good humour was restored and we had fun splashing around. They were Tunisian labourers with temporary work permits, brought to France because of a labour shortage.

The invitation to eat with them seemed genuine, so I followed to a building site where they'd taken over one of the unfinished but enclosed ground floor rooms as living space. This made them night watchmen as well as labourers, so they lived rent-free and could send more money back to their wives and families.

Couscous cooked on a petrol stove with fresh bread and tomatoes and salad, washed down with mint tea and water was followed by a shower out the back under a hose. Wrapped in towels we sat on our bed rolls and, by the light of a hurricane lamp, listened to a tape of Arab music. At first it seemed to be all on one note, then I began to appreciate the intricacies and subtlety of quarter and even eighth tones. It was mostly songs by a woman who, they assured me, was the most popular singer from Casablanca to Cairo – despite her fifty years.

Ali, the 'leader' – a handsome fellow whose word seemed to be everyone's command, got up and, with his towel slung low on his hips began a sexually suggestive dance. A few years later in Tangiers, I saw dancing boys in cafés, but they were pre-pubescent, dressed as girls and not sexy. This was a similar dance but the dancer was unashamedly masculine.

Compared to his understated subtlety of movement, every dance I'd ever performed seemed, in memory, to have been coarse and clunky. In dancing, as in life itself, more than enough is too much. The uncertain light rendered significant the slightest thrust of hips, flick of head or lowering of eyelashes. Long brown fingers resting lightly on lean belly emphasised the least movement; outrageously sexual but never lewd.

After a last drink of mint tea, blankets were spread and Ali placed his open wallet next to his pillow. It was a sign, and one by one the others placed money in his wallet, then fucked him, doggy style, without embarrassment. Then it was my turn. I was aroused – no doubt about that – but what did I know about these guys? Didn't syphilis come from Arabs sleeping with camels? Desire drained and I shook my head. He shrugged, rolled over, the light was extinguished and a minute later I was the only one awake – relieved at my caution while recalling the previous scene during which I'd noticed a quirk of the men's physiology.

The guys' erections had all stood out at right angles to the body, whereas European penises tend to curve up at an angle approaching forty-five degrees. I'd read that the doggy position is favoured in Arab societies for heterosexual sex, and over the centuries the penis has accommodated. Here was proof.

The following morning I quizzed the men and, bearing in mind my imperfect French, I think I learned that Allah understood they were far from their wives and had need of regular sexual release. Masturbation was frowned upon, so as long as the sexual act was purely commercial and not committed because of lust or desire for the male body, then it was not a sin; more like a visit to the doctor. If they had kissed and cuddled, that would have been a sin.

Ali, realising he was sitting on a gold mine, had set himself up as the reliever of stress. After a breakfast of strong mint tea, bread and boiled eggs, they insisted I note their addresses in Tunisia and visit them should I ever pass that way.

Halfway between Nice and Cannes, Cap d'Antibes juts into the sea. Antibes city, situated on the eastern side of the peninsular, was first a Greek, then a Roman garrison, and on this visit a quiet fishing port with narrow streets, ancient walls, a fortress, and a few yachts.

Today it is the largest port for luxury yachts in the Mediterranean, and the peninsula that I knew as a quiet stretch of rocky land covered in pines and scrub, dotted with hidden private villas, is mostly built-up and boasts the most expensive real estate and the most luxurious residences in France, being the preferred choice of the really wealthy – more prestigious even than Cannes. On the western side of the peninsula is Juan les Pins, a modern seaside resort with a perfect sandy beach, hotels, restaurants; popular with Parisians.

A partially sealed track heading out to the cape hugged the western shore, stopping several hundred metres before the end. I clambered over the rocks until I found a tiny beach that hid a naked, chubby, middle-aged German called Helmut, and his somewhat younger mate, Brunhilde. At least that's what I called the flaxen-haired fräulein with gigantic breasts, a waist you could wrap your hands around, hips you couldn't even wrap your arms around, and legs you could moor a ship to. She was charming nonetheless. As Helmut was in the habit of saying, Nichts ist vollkommen – nothing is perfect.

They were as friendly as only Germans can be; innocently assuming I would be interested in their life, thoughts, dreams, desires, future plans… and that I wanted to do exactly what they were doing. I joined them for a swim.

After a meal of raw sea urchins that a snorkelling Helmut had picked off the rocks, with bread and olives, we wandered around the cape to another small beach that opened onto lawns, gardens, and Eden Roc, a fabulous villa whose wealthy owners owned most of the end of the cape, including this beach. We risked our liberty by trespassing.

Back at our beach we gathered a few sticks and lit a fire. It looked as if it was going to rain, so, accompanied by Helmut on his bongo drums, I performed an 'anti-rain' dance while Brunhilde sang an eerie aria of her own composition. Her voice was pure, yet odd, and raised goose bumps.

They were professional entertainers from Stuttgart, taking a break in the sun. Their specialty was clowning. Helmut could make his drums almost talk and tell jokes, and when Brunhilde joined me in the dance – galumphing around like a clumsy elephant, I collapsed in laughter.

Most evenings, Helmut and Brunhilde busked on the beachfront in Juan les Pins, earning enough to pay for food and modest lodgings. Helmut invited me to join them that evening. I wore my pouch, he provided me with a medallion and a feathered skull cap. He wore a pair of baggy yellow shorts, and Brunhilde swathed herself in a sari, open to expose her magnificent breasts but concealing those legs.

Scores of people were enjoying the last of the sunset. Lights from the promenade spilled onto the beach, the air was warm and balmy, and we were the only outdoors entertainment that night.

Helmut sat cross-legged on the sand; Brunhilde perched on a rock above – a Lorelei; beautiful face framed by long, blonde tresses. The Tunisians' subtlety of movement was not required for the dances dictated by Helmut's bongo drums. I was Jack the giant killer; stealthily approaching and running from the drum-playing giant, then attacked by his 'singing' wife who chased me around, making everyone laugh even harder with her grotesque expressions and gargantuan movements.

Eventually, she cornered and played with me like a cat with a mouse, then 'ate' me. I spent the last minute wrapped in the copious folds of Brunhilde's sari as she stroked her belly and licked her lips, still chanting those weird wordless songs, accompanied by the laughs and screams of excited kids. [A photo of me dancing that night on the beach is on the cover of the eBook of Dancing Bare].

Sounds crappy, but it was very funny and earned us enough to buy a meal at a pleasant restaurant set among trees, overhung by vines, and decorated with urns and statues of pagan gods and goddesses. Kitsch as hell, but I loved it. The owner had been watching us on the beach and offered a free meal the following evening if we'd perform afterwards in the garden restaurant.

I spent the night on the little beach at the end of the cape, lulled to sleep by the gentle swish of waves on pebbles. A perfect night in a perfect spot. I was almost sorry when the others joined me around lunchtime for a rehearsal.

'Liberty, Pursuit and Capture' we called it. Helmut wore a sort of Hindu snake-charmer's loincloth and turban; Brunhilde, a diaphanous sari; and I discarded the medallion and cap. Helmut's drums became a sort of 'Greek Chorus', I was the innocent young traveller, Brunhilde the wicked witch.

It was a sexed-up Grimm's Fairy Tale of the wicked witch trapping passing young men - not too different from the previous night, but with Indian overtones. It earned us a capful of francs and the free meal.

They asked me to return to Stuttgart with them and join their troupe, which I might have done if I hadn't already committed myself. Instead, the following morning I set off to walk the twenty kilometres up to Grasse. A Renault stopped and an attractive woman of around thirty offered me a lift. It was already hot and the road ahead was steep, so, marvelling at the fact that a single woman dared to pick up a male hiker, I accepted her invitation. The road zigzagged up and up between rocky outcrops, through old pine forests, tiny stone villages with views back down to the coast.

Halfway up she drove off the road to a river where we swam. Just before the old town of Grasse, she stopped at her apartment to change her clothes, and invited me in for coffee. While changing, she popped her head around the bedroom door and asked for my help to fasten her bra. She was naked except for lace panties; slim, tanned, and fit.

I fastened the brassiere as I had done on the odd occasion for my mother, without the slightest suspicion that she was offering herself. After all, she was at least thirty. I left her to finish dressing and returned to my coffee. She joined me a few minutes later wearing an odd smile.

"Tu es pédé?" Literally, are you a pederast? – except that pédé is slang for homo. [Today it's been replaced by the less offensive, 'gai'.] There was no menace in her tone, so I shrugged apologetic assent. "Pourquoi les hommes sympas sont toujours pédé?" she sighed, not expecting an answer. To an emancipated French woman it was a mild disappointment – to me it was deeply exciting. I'd admitted I was queer, and she'd reacted as if that was normal. It would be another quarter of a century before I'd have the courage to admit such a thing again to a stranger.

Grasse was beguiling; gardens overflowing with flowers, villas peeping over ancient walls, charming churches, narrow streets, enchanting squares, old men shuffling from café to pétanque and back, women gossiping, their shopping bags sprouting baguettes and melons, garlic and fresh greens. Tourists had discovered Grasse, so it had been cleaned up, prettified and gentrified and land prices had soared beyond the range of the middle classes.

I didn't fancy spending the night there as it would be much colder than the coast due to the altitude, so after a few hours and lunch, I set off on the road to Cannes, arriving in Mougins, another postcard village, about an hour later. It boasted excellent coastal views, a charming church, square and market, and a discreet arrow directing me to Atelier Picasso, which I followed until I encountered a dozen tourists in a queue that snaked into a workshop where an old, shirtless man stood behind a bench with a paint brush in his hand.

An assistant passed him a saucer or ashtray; he dipped his brush in coloured glaze and without stopping his conversation or looking at the thing, made a quick squiggle, eliciting gasps of adulation from his audience. The assistant placed the decorated artefact in a stack to be fired and added to the hundreds already cluttering the walls, together with vastly more complex creations.

Some sycophants bought dozens of the things for about twenty times their real value. You could hear the hysterical cries of delight as they returned to their cars, "Honey! We've got an original Picasso! Wow the folks back home are gonna be green with envy!" I bought nothing – I've never been a fan of the man.

Cannes was still a beautifully dull town bounded by a perfect azure sea bobbing with pleasure boats; perfectly designed to wring as much money out of holidaymakers as possible. The sight of so much wealth and so many 'beautiful' young people threatened to hurl me into depression. Why wasn't I rich? Why was it easy to meet and chat with older men, but attractive guys my age were unapproachable? What was wrong with me?

I was sitting on the beach chatting morosely with an elderly lean and handsome Dane who had paid for the privilege with outrageous but welcome compliments, and mentioned how much I wished I was like the slim, confident, hand-shaking and kissing young French men with their elegant savoir faire.

"They would envy you!" he declared. "They have only these four weeks holiday and then must return to Paris or Lyon to their tiny family apartments and boring jobs in offices, while you are on permanent holiday, doing what they would love to have the courage to do, but daren't. What you see as savoir faire, is merely the following of social rules they daren't ignore. Most French boys could not even dream of taking off for a few years on their own with nothing but their youth as security."

I tried to feel consoled, but decided it was time to return. I wanted to be well prepared for life as a touring actor, and was determined not to let Edgar and Alwyn down.

The daytime express to Paris was a ten-hour delight of charming villages, grand rivers, rolling fields, distant mountains, and forests, with not an arid, desiccated square metre to be seen. Today the TGV does it in about three hours, but it's not so romantic. Two nights in a grotty little hotel near Gare St. Lazare left me feeling suitably bohemian, and in one day I managed to race around all the essential sights, gob-smacked at the beautiful architecture that even layers of soot and scaffolding couldn't hide. Cleaning of that beautiful city was well underway and I was determined to return as soon as it was complete.

Too soon, the train and ferry were carrying me relentlessly north and at five o'clock on a wet, cold and windy August afternoon, I arrived at Alwyn's sad little flat.

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