Home > Sea of Memories(11)

Sea of Memories(11)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘Your eyes are viridian, the colour of the ocean out beyond the point where it deepens suddenly,’ he whispered, for only Ella to hear. ‘Sea-green, flecked with golden sunlight. I would gladly drown myself in them if it meant we could dance like this for evermore.’

She smiled and squeezed his shoulder with the fingers that rested there, and he pulled her a little closer as they waltzed on.

The evening passed all too fast for Ella, intoxicated as she was on happiness, love and a single glass of champagne.

Christophe danced with his sister and his mother, and Monsieur Martet gallantly escorted Ella around the dance-floor in a neatly executed fox-trot, but the whole evening she was aware that Christophe was never far from her and that he reappeared at her side at every available opportunity to dance with her again.

At last the throng of guests began to thin, and Monsieur Martet, consulting his pocket watch, declared it was time to leave.

They were quiet on the drive home, each lost in their own thoughts; memories of the evening, perhaps, and the final plans for packing up for the return to Paris the next day.

‘Goodnight, goodnight, and thank you for a wonderful evening.’ Ella kissed Monsieur and Madame Martet at the foot of the stairs and then glanced about, looking for Christophe so that she could bid him goodnight as well. He was nowhere to be seen, so she climbed, on dance-weary legs, to her bedroom.

She slipped off her shoes with relief, her feet having grown unaccustomed to being so constrained after a summer spent either running barefoot or wearing her soft canvas espadrilles. Still in her evening gown, she picked up her hairbrush and began to smooth the waves out of her hair, which was streaked with pale highlights now after her weeks in the sun.

A rattling sound at the window made her pause and set down her brush. Again, there was a soft clatter against the wood of the shutters, as if someone was throwing pebbles. She pushed them open and looked out. Down below, in the moon’s pale light, Christophe gazed up at her. He held a finger to his lips and then beckoned to her.

Barefoot, she gathered up the skirts of her dress and tiptoed back downstairs. At the door, he caught her hand in his, his eyes shining in the moonlight.

‘It’s our last night, and far too beautiful a one to be asleep in bed. Come to the beach with me!’

Hand in hand, they ran along the sandy path, picking their way through the dunes, to the beach where the dark waves sighed as they cast themselves on to the silver sand.

The moon was full and it lit the ocean with a path of light that shimmered from the far horizon to where the waves bathed their feet on the shore. ‘Look, she’s wearing a sash of white silk tonight,’ Ella pointed. ‘I feel as if we could step out on to it and dance with her all the way to the other side of the world.’

‘I wish we could,’ murmured Christophe. ‘But I’d rather dance with you instead.’

He held out his arms and she stepped into them, letting fall her satin skirt and not caring that the hem trailed on the damp sand and would surely be ruined by the sea-water. They waltzed in the moonlight, serenaded by the hush of the waves and the occasional fluting cry of a curlew, Ella’s head resting on Christophe’s shoulder.

When they finally came to a stand-still, he bent down and picked something up from the sand at their feet.

‘For you,’ he said, handing it to her. The moon’s rays picked out the finely etched lines on the white shell in the palm of her hand, a clam-shell whose two halves were still held together by their central hinge.

They wandered back up the beach on to the drier sand alongside the dunes and sat down. Christophe took off his jacket and draped it over Ella’s shoulders, and she rested against him, his arms around her as he leaned back on to the flank of the dune. His voice was soft, shushed by the waves as they washed on to the sand below them. ‘What is it about you, Ella-from-Edimbourg? Why is it that you make me feel this way? As if, at last, I can see that there is light in the darkness after all. Maybe, even, that my calling in life is to be something more than just a clerk in a bank. You make me believe that I should fight harder for the things I am so passionate about.’

She nodded, her head cradled in the dip between his shoulder and his heart. ‘I feel it too. This summer has made me wake up and open my eyes to all the possibility that there is in this world. Made me realise that I want to live a bigger life than the one I’d imagined up until now . . . up until I came here . . . until I met you.’

Her eyes shone in the moonlight as she tilted her face upwards and they kissed. The softness of his mouth against hers made her head spin and she felt, suddenly, as though they were soaring out over the moonlit ocean, like sea-birds in flight.

The sea-grass whispered as the night breeze brushed through it, and Ella opened her hand to inspect the shell he’d given her again. Christophe touched it gently, turning it over so that the smooth inner surfaces of the shell’s two halves were face up.

‘My mother calls these “Neptune’s lockets”. You see, it is just like a locket you would wear around your neck. I wish I could give you a silver one and then we could put our two likenesses in it and you could keep us together that way, even when we’re apart.’

‘Neptune’s locket. I like that.’ Ella nodded. ‘I shall treasure this one just as though it were made of silver.’

He wound a tendril of her hair around his finger, stroking its silk-smoothness with his thumb.

‘I’ve just realised who it is you remind me of!’ he exclaimed suddenly. ‘From the first moment I saw you on the jetty all those weeks ago it’s been bothering me, something just beyond the reach of my memory that you bear such a likeness to, a quality I’ve been searching for in every sketch I’ve drawn of you . . . And now I’ve remembered. It’s a painting by Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. Have you seen it? The young goddess, born of sea foam, is standing on a shell like this one, being blown on to the shore of a magical island. Just as you were blown here, to the Île de Ré, across the water so that we would find each other. You are my Venus, and one day I will paint a picture of you, just as Botticelli did, a picture that will make people understand that all that really matters on heaven and earth is beauty.’

She smiled. And then lifted her face to his in the moonlight and kissed him again, sealing their hearts together so that, like the shell which she clasped in one hand, they became two halves of a perfect whole.

2014, Edinburgh

It’s been a good day today: a day without tantrums and screaming; a day without Finn’s terrified withdrawal from a world that makes no sense to him, which leaves him tearing at his hair and clawing at his face in a panic, drawing blood sometimes. A normal day, almost, for most other people, but for us, days like this are so few and far between that they become the remarkable ones.

Dan’s found a community project, which he heard about from someone at the allotments one day when he and Finn were working there. It’s council-funded, based on a patch of derelict land just outside the city, building a garden for children with special needs.

‘Finn’s always so much calmer when we’re outdoors,’ Dan enthused as we sat at the kitchen table eating our spaghetti bolognese this evening. ‘Digging and planting seem to steady him; they seem to be activities that make sense, that he can understand. Perhaps working with the earth roots him as well as the plants.’

It’s late now. I’m shuffling through some more of Ella’s letters, as Dan finishes drying the spaghetti pan, wiping his hands on the tea-towel before hanging it over the handle of the oven door.

Beside him, on the kitchen-dresser, alongside a bunch of keys and a pile of bills, there’s a framed photo of my mother with me and Finn shortly after he was born. We’d brought him home from the hospital and within days I was at my wits’ end, trying to get him to eat and sleep. It all sounded so simple and logical in the baby books I’d bought, so why couldn’t I do it? Why did my tiny son scream with pain and rage when I brought him to my breast? Why couldn’t I console him and settle him with my hugs and songs and hours and hours of walking up and down with him held on my shoulder as I gently patted his back? Mum came up on the train straight away when she heard my frustrated, exhausted sobs after I’d called her to admit defeat with my attempts at breast-feeding Finn. And, as usual, her calm presence reassured me as she made up bottles of formula and gently helped me to find ways to soothe my baby boy. She gave me back my confidence, just as she always had done when I was young. From the perspective of being a mother myself now, I remember how she would alternately cajole and cheer me through the soap operas of school friendships and fallings-out, and how she encouraged me, quietly, but firmly, through the awkward, terrifying stage of adolescence and exams. In the photo, I am holding Finn who is, thankfully, asleep. And my mother is perched on the arm of the sofa beside me, a supportive arm around my shoulders. I am smiling – just a little wanly – towards Dan as he takes the picture; but my mother, Rhona, is gazing down at her daughter and her grandson with an expression of utter love.

I find it hard to reconcile the two facets of Mum’s character: how can someone who is so warm and loving have shut her own mother out of her life? As I look at the framed photograph, I realise that she must have been hurt very badly indeed to have resorted to protecting herself in such a drastic way.

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