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Sea of Memories(12)
Author: Fiona Valpy

Dan follows my gaze and reaches out to straighten the photo slightly. I smile at him as I rub the knots of tiredness out of my neck, setting aside the letters I’ve been reading. The paper is yellowed with age, but Christophe’s scrawling handwriting and Caroline’s looping French script are still clear after all these years, their words still communicating the warmth of their love for Ella.


1 September 1938

Ma Chère Ella,

It’s my first day at the bank and I feel I have been put in prison! I’m writing to you, under cover of pretending to take notes on the systems of accounting that we are to use for clients, because I miss you more than ever and it’s the only way I will stay sane enough to be able to come back again tomorrow and do it all again. I cannot bear to think that this could be a life sentence. But the thought of you makes me believe anything is possible: that the day will come when we will be together again, somewhere, somehow, and that I WILL find a way of making a living from my art. The knowledge that you understand, that you believe in me, keeps me going.

In my mind I am out on Bijou, sailing far beyond the point to the place where the ocean is the colour of your eyes. My memories of this past summer will get me through the drab days spent incarcerated in this dull office until I see you again. Work hard in Edinburgh and I shall work hard in Paris, knowing all the while that there is another way of life waiting out there beyond the walls that now confine us. These walls can never confine our hearts, and mine beats a little faster when I remember that night in the dunes and I think how wonderful it will be to kiss you again.

Sorry for the smudging – Monsieur Arnaud, my jailer, came by to enquire whether I required any further explanation of the bookkeeping methods and to give me a copy of the bank’s regulations in case I would like to read through it at home this evening, so I had to hide this letter beneath the ledger tout de suite! I smiled and nodded, although I wanted to tell him that I have not the slightest intention of doing so, since this evening I shall be working on a sketch of the beautiful girl I met on the Île de Ré this summer, who has entirely captured my heart.

We are being released now, allowed out for good behaviour, so I shall hurry to the Poste to send this to you.

It comes with all my love.


A little later as Dan and I make our way along the landing, I pause in the doorway of Finn’s bedroom. Christophe’s letter, filled with dreams of living a different way of life, has reminded me how trapped we are in our own situation. Could we move out to the country, I wonder? Would life be easier there? But the city is where Dan’s work is – or at least will be when he finds a job again – and at the moment my salary is the only way we can pay the bills. And we’ve established a support system now for Finn here; got him a place at the specialist school where he seems to be managing better. So, we can’t afford to risk throwing all of that away. We’re keeping our heads above water. Only just, admittedly, but to make any major changes now would be to risk going under. So, for the moment I’ll settle for the allotment and the gardening project on a scrap of wasteland, and be happy that today was a good day and that Finn is now safely asleep in his bed.

The night light casts its glow into the darkness, keeping the night terrors at bay. In sleep, Finn’s fingers curl open softly, instead of contracting into tight fists as they do for so much of the day when he can’t relax for a second in his fear of whatever incomprehensible terror the next moment might bring. His fingernails are ragged and bitten, engrained with earth from his gardening today which the bath could not soak away and which he wouldn’t let me clean with the nail brush. But tonight, for now, he is sleeping soundly, his habitual twitches stilled. The light plays across his face, picking out the faint blush on his cheeks from being out in the fresh air today, but also darkening the bruised-looking half-moons beneath his eyes. I tiptoe across the rug with its design of smiling elephants and stoop down to kiss his forehead, oh so carefully gentle, a touch as light as a summer breeze, so that I don’t risk waking him. But I treasure this rare opportunity to express my love for him as I never can do when he’s awake, before I creep back out.

Dan, who is watching me from the doorway, takes my hand in his and his strong fingers, calloused these days from digging at the allotment, enfold mine for a fleeting, precious moment before he releases them and walks away down the corridor.

Yes, this has been a good day; we’ll settle for that.

3, rue des Arcades


20 September 1938

Dearest Ella,

We are all missing you terribly! It was good to hear your journey home went smoothly. By now you must have embarked upon the secretarial course, so we look forward to receiving some extremely neat, efficiently typed letters from you in future. I hope your fellow students are all ‘sympas’ (but not so ‘sympas’ that you forget your friends in Paris and your promise to come and visit us next year).

I adore working at the Louvre. Apart from the Director of Picture Conservation, who is strict, forbidding and scares me rigid as he hovers nearby watching my every move, the staff are all very congenial and I am learning lots. They haven’t let me loose on any actual paintings yet, of course, but I am allowed to pass the blades and brushes during the more involved restoration projects (there are some delicate operations: it is not unlike being a surgeon!), and to tidy up the studio. I can’t wait to show you, when you are here, what goes on behind the scenes.

Here are the photographs that Papa took which I promised to send you. Christophe has stolen one of the ones of you in your ball gown and I know he keeps it beneath his pillow! Of all of us, he misses you the most. Maybe he tells you this in the long letters he writes you – he won’t let on what’s in them – or maybe he’s a typical boy who finds it impossible to communicate the truly important things! Don’t tell him I said so: he’s touchy enough on the subject of Ella-from-Edinburgh as it is.

Je t’embrasse, my dear friend.

Bisous, Caroline xx

3 rue des Arcades,


1 January 1939

Dear Ella,

Bonne année! Let us hope that 1939 brings peace and prosperity for all, although Paris is still being flooded with refugees from the east who are worried that Germany is once again getting too big for its boots. Surely, though, no one wants another war and sense will reign before anything serious develops? Christophe is more pessimistic, but then he is constantly in a bad mood these days, as he detests his job at the bank and misses being with the girl he loves.

At least now we have your visit confirmed for August, and that is something we are all looking forward to. And I especially, for three reasons: reason number 1: I will be able to see my darling friend and show her Paris; reason number 2: we will go to the Île de Ré again; reason number 3: my poor brother will stop moping around the house like a lovesick puppy and cheer up at last.

Maman and Papa send you their love, as do I. (I would send you Christophe’s too, but I know he does that himself – and anyway, I don’t think I could find an envelope big enough to hold it all!)

Your friend,

Caroline xx


5 July 1939

Ma Chère Ella,

I’m sending you this postcard of the Mona Lisa to whet your appetite for your visit to Paris, I can’t wait to introduce you to her, the Louvre’s most famous inhabitant with her enigmatic smile . . . I’m allowed to work on real paintings now (nothing as important as this one yet, of course), and when you come I will show you ‘my’ cherub in the bottom corner of a work by an unknown renaissance artist: fame at last!

A bientôt (how happy it makes me to write those words!)

Caroline xx

1939, Paris

Ella felt quite the seasoned traveller as she stepped down from the train on to the platform, carrying her cream leather overnight case once again. She scanned the faces in the crowd that surged past her on all sides, eagerly searching for Christophe and Caroline who had promised they’d be here to meet her.

A porter brought the rest of her luggage and set it down beside her. The early August air was hot and stagnant. She breathed in the smell of Paris – a smell distinctively different from the air of Edinburgh or London, composed of coffee and cigarette smoke mingled with top notes of French perfume and a pungent undercurrent of drains. She shrugged off the cardigan that she’d worn to board the train in Edinburgh and stuffed it into her case.

Seconds passed, each one seeming unbearably long as she stood, a sole still point amidst the milling of the crowd, trying not to listen to the niggling voice of doubt within that murmured, ‘What if he doesn’t come? What if he’s fallen in love with someone else? What if it was only the magic of summer on the island that made him feel that way and it’ll all be different in the clear light of a Paris summer’s day?’

And then she spotted him, pushing his way up the platform towards her, determinedly swimming up-stream to where she stood. She ran to him, letting herself be carried in the flow of the crowd, and flung her arms around his neck. All doubts disappeared, dissolving like sea-mist in the sun’s warmth, as he kissed her. The months apart fell away and memories of their last night on the Île de Ré flooded back as Ella buried her fingers in his hair and felt the heat of his lips on hers. In that moment she knew with complete certainty that space and time could never keep them apart: no matter whether it was on a wind-swept beach, or a city street, or a hot and grimy station platform surrounded by disapproving fellow-passengers, they belonged together, two halves of a perfect whole. She smiled up at him and saw the same absolute certainty written in his eyes too.

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