Chapter One The first person I met at Eden-Olympia was a psychiatrist, and in many ways it seems only too apt that my guide to this `intelligent' city in the hills above Cannes should have been a specialist in mental disorders. I realize now that a kind of waiting madness, like a state of undeclared war, haunted the office buildings of the business park. For most of us, Dr Wilder Penrose was our amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight. I remember his eager smile when we greeted each other, and the evasive eyes that warned me away from his outstretched hand. Only when I learned to admire this flawed and dangerous man was I able to think of killing him.
Rather than fly from London to Nice, a journey as brief as a plastic-tray lunch, Jane and I decided to drive to the Cote d'Azur and steal a few last days of freedom before we committed ourselves to Eden-Olympia and the disciplines of the Euro-corporate lifestyle. Jane was still unsure about her six-month secondment to the business park's private clinic. Her predecessor, a young English doctor named David Greenwood, had met a tragic and still unexplained death after running amok with a rifle. By chance, Jane had known Greenwood when they worked together at Guy's Hospital, and I often thought of the boyishly handsome doctor who could rouse an entire women's ward with a single smile.
Memories of Greenwood were waiting for us at Boulogne as the
Jaguar left the cross-Channel ferry and rolled its wheels across the quayside. Going into a tabac for a packet of Gitanes - illicit cigarettes had kept both of us sane during my months in hospital Jane bought a copy of Paris Match and found Greenwood's face on the cover, under a headline that referred to the unsolved mystery. As she sat alone on the Jaguar's bonnet, staring at the graphic photographs of murder victims and the grainy maps of the death route, I realized that my spunky but insecure young wife needed to put a few more miles between herself and Eden-Olympia.
Rather than overheat either Jane's imagination or the Jaguar's elderly engine, I decided to avoid the Autoroute du Soleil and take the RN7. We bypassed Paris on the Peripherique, and spent our first evening at a venerable hotel in the forest near Fontainebleau, spelling out the attractions of Eden-Olympia to each other and trying not to notice the antique hunting rifle on the dining-room mantelpiece.
The next day we crossed the olive line, following the long, cicada miles that my mother and father had motored when they first took me to the Mediterranean as a boy. Surprisingly, many of the old landmarks were still there, the family restaurants and literate bookshops, and the light airfields with their casually parked planes that had first made me decide to become a pilot.
Trying to distract Jane, I talked far too much. During the few months of our marriage I had told my doctor-bride almost nothing about myself, and the drive became a mobile autobiography that unwound my earlier life along with the kilometres of dust, insects and sun. My parents had been dead for two decades, but I wanted Jane to meet them, my hard-drinking, womanizing father, a provincial-circuit barrister, and my lonely, daydreaming mother, always getting over yet another doomed affair.
At a hotel in Hauterives, south of Lyons, Jane and I sat in the same high-ceilinged breakfast room, unchanged after thirty-five years, where the stags' heads still gazed over shelves stocked with the least enticing alcohol I had ever seen. My parents, after their usual bickering breakfast of croissants and coffee helped down by slugs of cognac, had dragged me off to the dream palace of the Facteur Cheval, a magical edifice conjured out of pebbles the old postman collected on his rounds. Working tirelessly for thirty years, he created an heroic doll's house that expressed his simple but dignified dreams of the earthly paradise. My mother tipsily climbed the miniature stairs, listening to my father declaim the postman's naive verses in his resonant baritone. All I could think of, with a ten-year-olds curiosity about my parents' sex-lives, was what had passed between them during the night. Now, as I embraced Jane on the parapets of the dream palace, I realized that I would never know.
Cheval might have survived, but the France of the 1960s, with its Routier lunches, anti-CRS slogans and the Citroen DS, had been largely replaced by a new France of high-speed monorails, MacDo's, and the lavish air-shows that my cousin Charles and I would visit in our rented Cessna when we founded our firm of aviation publishers. And Eden-Olympia was the newest of the new France. Ten miles to the north-east of Cannes, in the wooded hills between Valbonne and the coast, it was the latest of the development zones that had begun with Sophia-Antipohs and would soon turn Provence into Europe's silicon valley.
Lured by tax concessions and a climate like northern California's, dozens of multinational companies had moved into the business park that now employed over ten thousand people. The senior managements were the most highly paid professional caste in Europe, a new elite of administrators, <I>enarques</I> and scientific entrepreneurs. The lavish brochure enthused over a vision of glass and titanium straight from the drawing boards of Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry, but softened by landscaped parks and artificial lakes, a humane version of Corbusier's radiant city. Even my sceptical eye was prepared to blink.
Studying the maps, I propped the brochure on my knee-brace as Jane steered the Jaguar through the afternoon traffic on the Grasse road. The stench of raw perfume from a nearby factory filled the car, but Jane wound down her window and inhaled deeply. Our disreputable evening in Arles had revived her, swaying arm in arm with me after a drunken dinner, exploring what I insisted was Van Gogh's canal but turned out to be a stagnant storm-drain behind the archbishop's palace. We had both been eager to get back to our hotel and the well-upholstered bed.
The colour was returning to her face, for almost the first time since our wedding. Her watchful eyes and toneless skin were like those of an over-gifted child. Before meeting me, Jane had spent too many hours in elevators and pathology rooms, and the pallor of strip lighting haunted her like a twelve-year-olds memories of a bad dream. But once we left Arles she rose to the challenge of Eden-Olympia, and I could hear her muttering to herself, rehearsing the risque backchat that so intrigued the younger consultants at Guy's.
`Cheer me up, Paul. How much further?'
`The last mile - always the shortest one. You must be tired.'
`It's been a lot of fun, more than I thought. Why do I feel so nervous?'
`You don't.' I pressed her hand against the wheel, steering the Jaguar around an elderly woman cyclist, panniers filled with baguettes. Jane, you'll be a huge success. You're the youngest doctor on the staff, and the prettiest. You're efficient, hardworking . . . what else?'
`You'll do them good. Anyway, it's only a business park.'
`I can see it - straight ahead. My God, it's the size of Florida . . .'
The first office buildings in the Eden-Olympia complex were emerging from the slopes of along valley filled with eucalyptus trees and umbrella pines. Beyond them were the rooftops of Cannes and the Iles de Lerins, a glimpse of the Mediterranean that never failed to lift my heart.
`Paul, down there . . .' Jane pointed to the hillside, raising a
finger still grimy from changing a spark plug. Hundreds of blue ovals trembled like damaged retinas in the Proven~al sun. `What are they rain-traps? Tanks full of Chanel Number S? And those people. They seem to be naked.'
`They are naked. Or nearly. Swimming pools, Jane. Take a good look at your new patients.' I watched one senior executive in the garden of his villa, a suntanned man in his fifties with a slim, almost adolescent body, springing lightly on his diving board. `A healthy crowd . . . I can't imagine anyone here actually bothering to fall ill.'
`Don't be too sure. I'll be busier than you think. The place is probably riddled with airport TB and the kind of viruses that only breed in executive jets. And as for their minds . . .'
I began to count the pools, each a flare of turquoise light lost behind the high walls of the villas with their screens of cycads and bougainvillaea. Ten thousand years in the future, long after the Cote d'Azur had been abandoned, the first explorers would puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons and stylized fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race of visionary geometers.
We left the Cannes road and turned onto a landscaped avenue that led towards the gates of the business park. The noise from the Jaguar's tyres fell away as they rolled across a more expensive surface material milled ivory, at the very least - that would soothe the stressed wheels of the stretch limousines. A palisade of Canary palms formed an honour guard along the verges, while beds of golden canvas flamed from the central reservation.
Despite this gaudy welcome, wealth at Eden-Olympia displayed the old-money discretion that the mercantile rich of the information age had decided to observe at the start of a new millennium. The glass and gunmetal office blocks were set well apart from each other, separated by artificial lakes and forested traffic islands where a latter-day Crusoe could have found comfortable
refuge. The faint mist over the lakes and the warm sun reflected from the glass curtain-walling seemed to generate an opal haze, as if the entire business park were a mirage, a virtual city conjured into the pine-scented air like a son-et-lumiere vision of a new Versailles.
But work and the realities of corporate life anchored Eden-Olympia to the ground. The buildings wore their ventilation shafts and cable conduits on their external walls, an open reminder of Eden-Olympia's dedication to company profits and the approval of its shareholders. The satellite dishes on the roofs resembled the wimples of an order of computer-literate nuns, committed to the sanctity of the workstation and the pieties of the spreadsheet.
Gravel tore at the Jaguar's tyres. Waking from her reverie, Jane braked sharply before we reached the gatehouse, sending the old sports saloon into a giddy shunt. Two uniformed guards looked up from their electronic screens, but Jane ignored them, readying a two-finger salute that I managed to conceal.
`Jane, they're on our side.'
`Sorry, Paul. I know, we want them to like me. Open your window.' She grimaced at herself in the rear-view mirror. `That cheap perfume. I smell like a tart...'
`The most gorgeous tart on the Cote d'Azur. They're lucky to have you.' I tried to settle her hands as she fretted over her lipstick, obsessively fine-tuning herself. I could feel the perspiration on her wrists, brought out by more than the August sun. `Jane, we don't have to be here. Even now, you can change your mind. We can drive away, cross the border into Italy, spend a week in San Remo...'
`Paul? I'm not your daughter.' Jane frowned at me, as if I were an intruder into her world, then touched my cheek forgivingly. `I signed a six-month contract. Since David died they've had recruitment problems. They need me...'
I watched Jane make a conscious effort to relax, treating herself like an overwrought patient in casualty. She lay against the worn-leather seating, breathing the bright air into her lungs and slowly exhaling. She patted the dark bang that hid her bold forehead and always sprang forward like a coxcomb at the first hint of stress. I remembered the calm and sensible way in which she had helped the trainee nurses who fumbled with my knee-brace. At heart she was the subversive schoolgirl, the awkward-squad recruiter with a primed grenade in her locker, who saw through the stuffy conventions of boarding school and teaching hospital but was always kind enough to rescue a flustered housekeeper or ward orderly.
Now, at Eden-Olympia, it was her turn to be intimidated by the ultra-cerebral French physicians who would soon be her colleagues. She sat forward, chin raised, fingers drumming a threatening tattoo on the steering wheel. Satisfied that she could hold her own, she noticed me massaging my knee.
`Paul, that awful brace...we'll get it off in a few days. You've been in agony and never complained.'
`I'm sorry I couldn't help with the driving. Cannes is a long way from Maida Vale.'
`Everywhere is a long way from Maida Vale. I'm glad we came.' She gazed at the office buildings that climbed the valley slopes, and at the satellite dishes distilling their streams of information from the sky. `It all looks very civilized, in a Euro kind of way. Not a drifting leaf in sight. It's hard to believe anyone would be allowed to go mad here. Poor David...'
David Greenwood's death dominated our time at Eden-Olympia, hovering above the artificial lakes and forests like the ghosts of Princip over Sarajevo and Lee Harvey Oswald over Dallas. Why this dedicated children's doctor should have left his villa on a morning in late May and set out on a murder rampage had never been explained. He had killed seven senior executives at Eden-Olympia, executed his three hostages and then turned his rifle on himself. He had written no suicide note, no defiant last message, and as the police marksmen closed in he had calmly abandoned himself to death.
A week before our wedding, Jane and I had met him at a London reception for Medecins Sans Frontieres. Likeable but a little naive, Greenwood reminded me of an enthusiastic Baptist missionary, telling Jane about the superb facilities at the Eden-Olympia clinic, and the refuge for orphaned children he had set up at La Bocca, the industrial suburb to the west of Cannes. With his uncombed hair and raised eyebrows, he looked as if he had just received an unexpected shock, a revelation of all the injustices in the world, which he had decided to put right. Yet he was no prude, and talked about his six months in Bangladesh, comparing the caste rivalries among the village prostitutes with the status battles of the women executives at Eden-Olympia.
Jane had known him during their internships at Guy's, and often met him after she enrolled with the overseas supply agency that recruited Greenwood to Eden-Olympia. When she first applied for the paediatric vacancy, I had been against her going, remembering her shock on hearing the news of Greenwood's violent death. Although she was off-duty for the day, she had taken a white coat from the wardrobe in our bedroom and buttoned it over her nightdress as she laid the newspapers across my knees.
The entire London press made the tragedy its main story. `Nightmare in Eden' was the repeated headline above photographs of Riviera beaches and bullet-starred doors in the offices of the murdered executives. Jane hardly spoke about Greenwood, but insisted on watching the television coverage of French police holding back the sightseers who invaded Eden-Olympia. Blood-drenched secretaries, too speechless to explain to the cameras how their bosses had been executed, stumbled towards the waiting ambulances, while helicopters ferried the wounded to hospitals in Grasse and Cannes.
The investigating magistrate, judge Michel Terneau, led the inquiry, reconstructing the murders and taking evidence from a host of witnesses, but came up with no convincing explanation. Greenwood's colleagues at the clinic testified to his earnest and intense disposition. An editorial in Le Monde speculated that the contrast between the worldly power of Eden-Olympia and the deprived lives of the Arab immigrants in Cannes La Bocca had driven Greenwood into a frenzy of frustration, a blind rage at inequalities between the first and third worlds. The murders were part political manifesto, so the newspaper believed, and part existential scream.
When the case at last left the headlines Jane never referred to Greenwood again. But when the vacancy was advertised she immediately called the manager of the supply agency. She was the only applicant, and quickly convinced me that a long break in the Mediterranean would do wonders for my knee, injured in a flying accident nine months earlier and still refusing to mend. My cousin Charles agreed to take over the publishing house while I was away, and would e-mail me copy and proof pages of the two aviation magazines that I edited.
Eager to help Jane's career, I was happy to go. At the same time, like any husband from a different generation, I was curious about my young wife's romantic past. Had she and Greenwood once been lovers? The question was not entirely prurient. A mass-murderer had perhaps held her in his arms, and as Jane embraced me the spirit of his death embraced me too. The widows of assassins were forever their armourers.
On our last night in Maida Vale, lying in bed with our packed suitcases in the hall, I asked Jane how closely she had known Greenwood. She was sitting astride me, with the expression of a serious-minded adolescent on her face that she always wore when making love. She drew herself upright, a hand raised to hit me, then solemnly told me that she and Greenwood had never been more than friends. I almost believed her. But some unstated loyalty to Greenwood's memory followed us from Boulogne to the gates of Eden-Olympia.
Baring her teeth, Jane started the engine. `Right...let's take them on. Find the clinic on the map. Someone called Penrose will meet us there. Why they've picked a psychiatrist, I don't know. I told them you hate the entire profession. Apparently, he was hurt in David's shoot-out, so be gentle with him...'
She steered the Jaguar towards the gatehouse, where the guards had already lost interest in their screens, intrigued by this confident young woman at the controls of her antique car.
While they checked our documents and rang the clinic I stared at the nearby office buildings and tried to imagine Greenwood's last desperate hours. He had shot dead one of his colleagues at the clinic. A second physician, a senior surgeon, had suffered a fatal heart attack the next day. A third colleague had been wounded in the arm: Dr Wilder Penrose, the psychiatrist who was about to introduce us to our new Eden.
J. G. Ballard is the author of numerous books, including Empire of the Sun, the underground classic Crash, Concrete Island and The Kindness of Women. He is revered as one of the most important writers of fiction to address the consequences of twentieth-century technology. He passed away in 2009.