The nearest town to here is Montmorillon, 25 kms away. Well known locally for its status as a Cité De L’écrit. One of fifteen such places in Europe dedicated to writing, reading and books in general. Hay-on-Wye being another of the fabled fifteen.
When I first heard about it shortly after moving here, I was naturally delighted. I had a vision you see. A vision that I would ride into Montmorillon on horseback. Gallop through the streets introducing myself to writers and thinkers crammed round small oak tables outside crooked cafes drinking gin and smoking cheroots. Listening to their ideas. Reading their words. Speaking their language. It would be like Paris in the twenties. Glorious glorious Montmorillon.
So you can imagine the crushing disappointment I felt as I rode in on my Honda, to be confronted by a place so utterly dead that the only thing I could hear were my own lungs wheezing from the rare French chest infection I’d recently picked up at a fairground in Civray.
I got out of the car, crossed the river via the old bridge and headed towards the old town. This was where they would all be I told myself. Here in the taverns waiting for my grand appearance.
Yet, as I walked up the hill towards the church I found nothing but more emptiness. Barrels of it. The bars were shut. Bookshops closed. Cafés empty. There wasn’t even a dog pissing against a post.
I was just about to jump in the icy river to finish myself off when I saw two figures walking down the hill swigging beer: Belsen Extra Strength. A classy drink. They said howdy and bonjour. Americans seeking out the ghost of Hemmingway.
‘Got any more of that,’ I asked. ‘I’m dying here. This place is a dump.’
‘Sure, man. Here, take a hit on this,’ said one who looked like Scott Fitzgerald. I pulled hard and again and handed him it back.
‘Thanks man. Say, what are you boys doing here?’ I said.
‘Same as you bud,’ replied the other who looked like Paul Auster in his Paris years. ‘Looking for dead writers.’
I talked to them for a while sharing their beer until they told me they had to go. ‘Where are you going?’ I enquired urgently.
‘Back to Paris,’ said Paul Auster.
‘We live there,’ added Scott Fitzgerald.
My mouth dropped. ‘Oh. Wow. What do you do?’
They laughed. ‘We’re writers,’ said Auster.
I laughed. ‘I’m a writer, too.’
‘Cool,’ said Fitzgerald. ‘Where do you live, not here I hope? Fuck, this place is so dead, even the ghosts have left town.’
‘Ha, good god, no,’ I replied. ‘I live in Queaux.’
‘Cool. Where’s that?’
‘South,’ I said pointing along the river.
‘Cool. What’s it like?’
‘Full of ghosts.’ I grinned.
We said our goodbyes and wished each other luck and promised to keep in touch even though we had never exchanged numbers, addresses, or even our names. On the way back I thought that perhaps they were the ghosts of the writers I had been looking for and maybe the day hadn’t been wasted after all.