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“Pebbles”, or how to become a Quarter-Master.

First prize for originality in the international competition for French-speaking writings about the travel and sea.

The head physician was an artist. The officer in charge of the crew was a “good fellow”, paternalistic and gruff, as is expected. And the petty officers were hard drinkers and didn’t try to hide it.

Marin Pompon rouge

photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

And me, just a sailor. The “good fellow” called me “The Professor”. In civvy street, I was a painter and a drawing tutor. Clearly it was the title ‘Professor’ which most impressed the crew’s father figure. Not that this helped me in the least to get a rank, because after all what does one need with an artist on board a ship. But anyway, as I needed a speciality, I became a nurse. A sailor and a nurse – one could hardly dream of better at a time when France was defending its colonies in the Sahara or the Aures Mountains in Algeria. Naval forces were very rarely sent to these zones, apart from perhaps the odd marine commando, but to be one of these you have to be extremely sporty and not too “intellectual”. Sporty? Not me! Intellectual, I’m not sure, but probably not simple enough!

Marin Pompon rouge

 photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

My large white nurse’s smock was more often covered in ‘Linel’ vermillion gouache paint than in the blood of the French Army. Nevertheless, I did have to undertake basic navy training, followed by nursing training, and sometimes I had to take the night shift or the weekend shift in the infirmary. But my main work was decorating the Navy Hospital, as well as the rooms, for the various evening soirées hosted by the Navy, which were frequent.

Whatever the task at hand, the armed forces don’t skimp or hold back resources. I always had sailors at my disposal to clean the brushes, to fill in large boring background areas in the backdrops I was painting for the events, and … to push my scaffolding whilst I held on tight at the top – Michelangelo eat your heart out!

And the lads begged me to take them with me for this type of work, so as to escape other, less fun, chores. Moreover, when with me, they were only answerable to me (remember that I was a simple sailor of the lowest rank like them) and I had all the privileges that they then shared as well.

Among other things, I was charged with the renovation of the hospital foyer. In the middle, a large basin had been built, under a glass canopy, where superb papyrus thrived, an initiative that had obviously come from the artistic head physician. Apart from the plants, the basin was empty, and water was supposed to gush forth and fall back down on the papyrus, creating the pleasant sounds of a fountain in an oriental patio. The final finishing touches would be to add fish, and to deck the bottom of the cement basin in decorative stones.

Les Galets

photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

As we are by the coast, the grand plan of using decorative stones evolves to using pebbles from the beach. The head physician explains the project to the crew officer, who is charged with organising the collection of the pebbles. The paperwork is done, and a list of sailors is drawn up. A truck, a driver requisitioned, a “D-day” decided. Battledress uniform (blue-grey like the Breton sky), a snack and a demijohn of wine (we were only out for the morning, but even a couple of hours in the great outdoors makes one famished).

We set off one morning in a sort of tipper truck, suitable for transporting heavy materials, with the guys sat on top of the canvas at the back, and me riding up front with the Officer. And we left the town, drifting along the Breton coast in search of the most beautiful beach pebbles we could find. During the journey, I pondered. What was I going to do to keep these dozen sailors busy and to make my role sound important. It should last as long as possible in order to justify the snack. What’s more, the diameter of the basin was two metres maximum! Surely I wasn’t going to make them fill the entire tipper truck…

Les Galets

photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

When we arrive at the beach, everyone gets down, shakes and dusts themselves off, puts on their blue jackets and awaits orders. But the Officer is there for discipline, not for choosing pebbles.

- “Professor, tell them what they should do!”

Well, here goes! I have to dive in, take control, and bring this superb strategic organisation to fruition. The pebbles are there at our feet, we only have to bend down and pick them up, what more can I make of it? All these people, all this deployment of machinery (the tipper truck), a leader (the crew officer) and a deputy (me) in order to pick up pebbles that were certainly not going to run away from us…

-“OK, so, split yourselves into four groups” (that sounded more sensible than the chaos of a single group scattered across the beach at their whim). Discussions ensued as to who would go in whose group. I should perhaps have intervened at this point, and not left the choice to them, have found some way to group them, by height or skin colour, or by balancing out physical or intellectual capabilities or I don’t know what criteria…

I could then have divided the beach up strategically, allocating a section to each group, that would also have seemed sensible. However, I quickly opted for a different solution that my flustered brain had just come up with: I was going to classify the pebbles!

Differentiating and classifying an object as primitive as a pebble might seem an impossible task or at least only within the reach of some meticulous mathematician who had analysed, studied and calculated the mathematical arc of its shape, had weighed it, calculated the density of its material, etc…

Les Galets

photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

But I had to stick with what I knew: colour, surface decoration of the object, and I also had to take into account the artistic capabilities of my “men” (who were all without speciality so without recognised intellectual qualifications, nor diploma nor rank).

What is evident when looking at beach pebbles in these parts, is that the main decorative element is a stripe, usually lighter than the greyish colour of the rest of the pebble. As a general rule, this line is white on a grey background, the residue of a geological stratum running through the more abundant grey-coloured stone. A second characteristic can also be easily spotted: an agglomerate or granular kind of pebble in which one can see various tones of grey.

So here was something to occupy two of the groups, one could search for pebbles of a linear design, the other for granular pebbles. But it wasn’t just two groups I had available to me, but four, so I still needed two more specialities. It was difficult to create sub-groups for the granular pebble, but as for the pebbles with a white line around their circumference, there were notable differences from one stone to the next: quite simply the number of lines. The most simple possessed a single understated line like a brush stroke on a piece of Japanese pottery. Here was a task for the third group to do. Finally, the fourth group has only to collect pebbles with multiple lines.

                             Les Galets

                             photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

At the beginning, the work was painstaking, as the “lads” showed themselves highly conscientious and constantly came to show me their chosen stones to get my approval of their selection and classification. They doubted themselves a lot, unused as they were to making choices as subjective as the artistic merit of a pebble.

The morning passed by pleasantly. We were breathing the good sea air, which piqued our appetite and justified the ample 10 o’ clock snack. I made them place the pebbles carefully into the truck in separate little piles heaped into the corners: those with stripes, those without stripes, the granular pebbles, etc…

We returned just in time for the midday meal. And the afternoon was spent arranging pebbles of the same type, and increasing or decreasing in size, in concentric circles in the bottom of the basin.

The head physician was very pleased with our work…

That year, the storms around the equinox battered the French coast for five days and five nights. The beaches were devastated. The marinas saw boats pile up one on top of the other. They were found up on the pavement, their noses through shop windows, run aground on café terraces. When the weather died down, the extent of the damage was estimated and among the surprising, incredible, stupefying things, one that insurance could never cover, was the total disappearance of pebbles from all the beaches which they had previously so beautifully adorned and been the pride and joy. A few were discovered in the streets of the town but the majority had completely vanished. The sea which had fashioned them, and polished them lovingly for centuries, had taken back its property.

I was ashamed… almost thinking that the sea had been outraged by the kidnapping which had taken place a few days earlier, and having seen that we had removed some of its most accomplished masterpieces from one of its shorelines, it had decided to confiscate the rest from us forever.

Personally, I would have preferred to keep quiet about my larceny, but the Navy doesn’t have crises of conscience, or sentimental scruples about nature, and taking the opposite stance they declared that this eleventh hour abduction of a small sample of a masterpiece that had now disappeared, had been a “master” stroke!

Well, there’s a word with a nice ring to it and appropriate because, even if I wouldn’t make it to the gold stripes of a senior officer, I did at least obtain my first red stripe and become a quarter-master!

It may be that other less noteworthy facts were instrumental in bringing about the above achievement, but in my memory, my quarter-master’s stripe was won solely through a sustained battle with a violent sea bent on forbidding me to oppress and exploit its pebble beaches.

Bernard Jund.

Bernard Jund

'Art singulier' artist, painter, writer.

Extract from « Dire », a magazine dedicated to storytelling and the oral tradition, no 12 ; autumn 1990.