Breakfast in Cayenne (1974)

Seeing that name on a map of France’s oyster coast,
I had to find out what was there
and if it might have been the spot explorers left
who built a pepper city on the farther shore.

For two days I’d been desperately in search
of work to earn the cash we’d need
to get us through a winter in the Pyrenees,
minding someone else’s farm.

I’d traipsed round every ostréiculteur’s cabin
in Marennes and La Tremblade –
from tin shacks to solid warehouses
they cordoned off the waterfront.

The third night found me outside with no place to stay,
frost was in the air and sharpened stars to needles;
walking on a causeway built of oyster shells, it seemed,
I found the cabin of a boat marooned upon the levee.

With nowhere else to go, I crawled inside this plywood hut,
made a mattress out of mares tails –
all that grew on such a wasteland –
got into my dossbag and gave into fatigue.

I woke up, shivering, well before the dawn,
and carried on my hunt for somewhere warm.
according to the chart, there wasn’t much to find –
a dozen houses at the most – the end of the Atlantic line.

The café was just open – a sort of bungalow
where fishermen would eat and drink –
the woman at the iron stove,
bent over, making up the fire.

She didn’t seem surprised to see
a stranger in her establishment
so early, even one like me,
while, outside, night still hid the sea.

I ordered un petit café – the funds were low –
said I’d been looking for a job;
she asked if there was unemployment back at home
I said there was – in my case, true enough.

She was a while out in the kitchen
but returned with coffee finally,
plus bread and hot milk in a bowl,
and told me that these came for free.

I felt as grateful as it’s possible to be.
She’d clearly known hard times
and what it means to give and to receive.
My shipwreck then began to look like victory.