Home > Sea of Memories(10)

Sea of Memories(10)
Author: Fiona Valpy

She kicked back the thin cotton sheet, her limbs hot and heavy in the storm-filled air.

It seemed impossible to leave. And yet she knew it was impossible to stay. This summer had changed everything, and the safe, certain future that had been mapped out for Ella in Edinburgh had gone with the wind that blew in across the Atlantic, making the sea-grass in the dunes sway and dance.

‘Think about Paris next summer . . . just that and nothing else . . . we will be together again . . .’

The storm seemed to be weakening and, finally, she fell into a hot, restless sleep, tossed on a sea of troubled dreams.

‘Come on, Christophe! Benoît is here!’ Caroline was hopping with excitement, watching at the front door for Sandrine’s husband, who would hail them occasionally from his fishing-boat, while tending his lobster pots when they were out sailing in Bijou; but this evening, at Monsieur Martet’s request, he had hired one of the island’s new rental cars from the local garage and was driving them to the ball. ‘Oh, Ella, you look beautiful!’

‘Thank you. So do you, Caroline.’ The full skirts of the girls’ evening gowns swished about their ankles, emphasising their slender waists as they twirled one another in the narrow hallway, their feet already tracing a few dance steps while they waited impatiently for the party to assemble. Caroline’s dress was a deep coral silk and she had tamed her unruly curls with a pair of tortoiseshell combs. Ella’s frock, in pale eau-de-nil satin, brought out the gold flecks in her eyes – or perhaps it was just the anticipation of the soirée ahead and the chance to dance in Christophe’s arms that made them shine so.

The girls posed, arm in arm, as Monsieur Martet took their photograph with his latest acquisition, a brand new Leica camera that was able to capture pictures in colour.

‘Papa, we must get a copy made for Ella so that I can send it to her when we get back to Paris,’ declared Caroline.

Her father, dashing in his white tie and tails, looked a little more relaxed after his week on the island, and his greying hair contrasted with his face, which was sun-tanned now. But Ella couldn’t help noticing how, as he watched the two girls chatter and laugh in their party finery, his eyes grew sad. Twenty years before, he had witnessed the horrors of a war, the like of which he’d hoped the world would never experience again. She knew that he had seen enough of the darkness of war to know that moments of light and beauty should be treasured; so now he seemed to be engraving this one on his memory, like the photograph he had just captured with his camera, storing it away against the threat of darker times to come.

As the church bell in Sainte Marie could be heard chiming seven o’clock, Ella watched as Marianne descended the stairs with regal grace and, pulling himself together, her husband helped her on with the gold lace cape, which matched her flowing evening gown. With infinite tenderness, he drew aside one of the tendrils of her dark hair, which had escaped from the chignon at her neck, and then bent to kiss the pale skin which lay beneath it. Saying, ‘Come, my beautiful wife, your carriage awaits,’ he offered her his hand.

Picking up their long skirts, Marianne, Caroline and Ella made their way down the sandy path to where Benoît waited.

‘Come on, Christophe!’ Caroline called again, more impatiently this time, glancing back over one shoulder.

Finally, a thundering on the stair heralded the precipitous arrival of her brother. He wore a dark suit, which Marianne had altered so that it fitted him well enough for the evening, but his feet were bare and his shirt was open at the neck. In one hand he carried a pair of black leather shoes and in the other a tie and collar studs. He scrambled in beside the girls and began assembling the final parts of his outfit.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, fumbling to fit the studs into their fiddly openings. ‘I just lost track of time.’

His father frowned.

Marianne took the final stud from him and deftly fastened the wayward shirt-collar, then ran her fingers fondly through her son’s hair to tidy it a little where it fell over his eyes. ‘There. Now tie your shoe-laces before you trip over them and go flying across the dance floor.’

As they drove through the sturdy fortifications that surrounded the town and into the narrow streets of St Martin, the sun lay low in the sky, casting long shadows from the clustered buildings of the port. The late August air was warm and in the silver-blue evening sky above them, swifts darted and whirled in their never-ending summer flight.

They pulled up before a set of handsome gates, through which other elegantly clad guests were hurrying into the grounds of the Palais des Gouverneurs. Ella shook out the folds of her dress, smoothing the delicate green satin and at the same time trying to calm her excitement.

Monsieur Martet took his wife’s arm to lead her up the avenue to where the doors of the mansion stood open. Parodying the grown-ups’ formality, Christophe offered an arm to each of the girls, which they took, laughing at his mock pomposity, and joined the procession of arriving guests.

The white walls of the former Governor’s Palace were offset by dark yew hedges, clipped with precision into geometric topiary, but the formality of the gardens was softened with drifts of lavender and marguerites, whose pale flowers stirred in the evening’s breeze. The building had been sold off by the state some years before, and had been bought by a wealthy family from Champagne, who funded a summer camp here for city children from poor backgrounds whose health benefited hugely from a few weeks’ sea air and sunshine. Its young guests having been returned to their homes now, the building lent itself to one final end-of-season party, the price of the tickets helping to raise funds for the next year’s camp.

Inside, the mansion’s tall windows stood open, to allow the evening air to breathe some coolness into the high-ceilinged ballroom, where a string quartet’s soft strains were in danger of being drowned out by the rising hubbub of chatter as the guests assembled.

Waiters circulated with trays of champagne coupes, whose sparkling contents only served to raise the volume of the laughter still further until it reverberated from the intricate cornicing high above their heads.

Ella leant close to Caroline, straining to make out what she was saying as she pointed out various faces in the crowd whom they knew from Paris. Christophe stifled a yawn. ‘Ah, oui, le Tout-Paris. Why do we have to waste our precious final evening talking to them here when we’re all about to go back to the city where we’ll be seeing them in any case?’

Marianne materialised at his side, just as he was reaching for another glass of champagne from a passing waiter. ‘Put that back, Christophe. I’m sure I’ve counted you drinking at least two already. Papa wants you to come and meet one of the directors of the bank. Allons-y!’ She took his hand firmly in hers and threaded her way back through the throng with her son following meekly in her wake.

Ella gazed about the room, taking in the sumptuous arrangements of white lilies that flanked the great stone fireplace at one end, beyond which could be glimpsed a long table, draped with snowy linen, laden with vast platters of oysters.

‘So much plenty,’ she thought, ‘after all those years of austerity. On a night like this, it’s hard to believe the world could ever know want again.’

Caroline nudged her. ‘Why so serious?’

She laughed, shaking her head. ‘It’s nothing. When do you think the dancing will begin?’

‘Soon. We will listen to the Director of the préventorium making his speech and then, once the proper formalities have been observed, the band can strike up . . .’

Just then, as if on cue, the musicians in the corner fell silent and a ripple of applause spread through the room as their hosts took centre stage and began to welcome their guests.

Ella was gratified to note that she could understand almost every word of the Director’s speech. Her summer on the island had certainly paid off. By next year she should have passed her secretarial diploma. Perhaps she really could try to find work in Paris, find suitable lodgings, somewhere near Caroline and Christophe. She pictured herself walking briskly through Parisian streets, wearing an elegant couture suit, high heels clipping the pavements as she made her way to an important meeting at some embassy or other. She felt a flicker of doubt as she wondered how her parents would greet this suggestion. But that bridge would just have to be crossed once she got back to Edinburgh.

Ella’s attention was brought back to the room by another ripple of applause and she realised that the Director had finished his speech. The ballroom cleared as guests surged towards the buffet of food and out on to the terrace beyond, where little tables had been set for the partygoers to enjoy their supper, washing it down with yet more champagne.

The musicians reassembled, joined by an accordionist, and they struck up a waltz. Suddenly, Christophe appeared at Ella’s side and he slipped a hand around her waist. ‘Let’s dance,’ he said, ‘now, while everyone else is busy filling their plates and we have the floor to ourselves.’

He led her to the centre of the room and, with the scent of lilies mingling with the warm sea-breeze, the two of them floated across the floor in a private dance all of their own. The musicians smiled at one another and played with renewed feeling, moved by the sight of such youthful beauty and grace, and the pure tenderness with which Christophe smiled as he lost himself in Ella’s gaze.

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