Home > Sea of Memories(13)

Sea of Memories(13)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘Where is Caroline?’ she asked, as he picked up her luggage in one hand and encircled her waist with the other, drawing her close to his side as they walked slowly towards the exit, the last two figures left on the platform.

‘She’s waiting for us in a salon de thé just across the road. She decided to allow me to meet you on my own, as long as I promised to bring you straight there.’ He grinned. ‘She told me I could have the first five minutes of your company to myself, but hereafter I have to share you with her for the remainder of your stay.’

They crossed the busy street, making for the windows of the tea room opposite. Ella pushed open the door and was immediately enveloped by two things: the first was the delicious sugar-and-almond smell of fresh-baked macarons and the second was Caroline, who flung her arms around her long-awaited friend.

Laughing and chatting, breathless with happiness and the need to catch up with so much news immediately – despite having exchanged what Ella’s father referred to as ‘the daily despatches from across the Channel’ – they ordered fresh tea and a plate of cakes and Ella settled herself happily between her beloved friends.

Caroline poured golden Darjeeling tea into a china cup and passed it to Ella. ‘Here, have an éclair. They’re famous for them here. Now, tell us, did you pass the final tests? Are you officially a fully fledged secretary?’

Ella nodded, cutting into the choux pastry with her cake fork. ‘Mmm, you’re right. These are delicious. Yes, I passed. In fact I graduated with the fastest typing times in my class. My shorthand leaves a little to be desired though, but I’ve learnt enough to muddle through. I’ve told Mother that I’ll see about some job applications when I get back from France in the autumn, but I’m also planning on making some enquiries while I’m here, to see whether anything might be available. The British Embassy might have something. My parents don’t want me to venture further from Morningside than the New Town, so I thought I’d find out what the options might be for me in Paris before I break the news to them that I’m planning on coming here to live for a while. They’re worried enough about everything that’s going on in Europe at the moment as it is. Father says Germany makes him nervous, despite the fact that both Britain and France approved the move into Czechoslovakia.’

‘We understand their concerns.’ Caroline sipped her own tea and then carefully replaced her cup on its saucer. ‘Though, of course, you’ll have us here to support you. And you can stay with us for as long as you like. Maman and Papa will be pleased to have you.’

‘Tell me about the Louvre,’ Ella asked Caroline, and her eyes lit up with interest at the prospect of visiting the museum with all its treasures. Beneath the table, Christophe’s hand sought out hers and held it tight.

‘I can’t wait to show you around,’ Caroline replied. ‘The galleries themselves are fascinating, but it’s even more interesting seeing what goes on behind the scenes. Well, I think so, anyway.’

‘What are you working on at the moment?’

‘A small repair to an Italian Madonna by an unknown renaissance artist. At one point there was great excitement as we thought it might be a Fra Angelico, but now it’s merely attributed to his school. It’s still beautiful though.’

‘And the bank?’ Ella turned to Christophe, squeezing his hand beneath the damask tablecloth. ‘Has Monsieur Dupont forgiven you yet for spilling your coffee all over the ledger the other week?’

He sighed, forking another morsel of chocolate and cream into his mouth. ‘Non, he’s not exactly the forgiving type. What’s worse, of course, he told Papa so I got another lecture about my sloppiness and lack of application. But how can I apply myself to something I loathe? And, adding injury to insult, something that keeps me from my painting. How I envy you, Caroline.’

His sister nodded, wiping the corner of her mouth with her napkin. ‘I know. You tell me so every day,’ she sighed. ‘But you know Papa isn’t prepared to fund you as an artist. You need to stick at the bank for the time being, at least until you’ve saved up enough to be independent and then you can do as you wish. For the time being, try not to antagonise Papa even further. You know how worried he is. Let’s forget our woes while we have Ella with us and enjoy every moment of her stay.’

They gathered up their belongings, and Christophe picked up Ella’s cases and pulled open the door to venture out into the August heat once more.

‘Are we going to take a tram?’ Ella asked, noticing the iron tracks laid into the cobbles of the street.

‘No, they’ve mostly been decommissioned now. Everyone uses the Metro nowadays anyway. And of course the future is the automobile.’ Christophe set her cases down on the pavement and raised an arm to hail one of the round-shouldered cabs from the stream of passing traffic.

‘Numéro trois, rue des Arcades, s’il vous plait, monsieur.’

Ella threaded a hand through the arms of each of her two friends and settled back against the smooth leather seat of the taxi, feeling excited, as she peered through the window to try to glimpse passing landmarks, at the prospect of seeing Paris properly for the very first time.

The Martets’ home in the rue des Arcades exuded the same air of serene elegance as the house on the Île de Ré, although with a great deal more formality. The building was a tall townhouse made of biscuit-coloured stone and capped with a mansard roof of grey slates. A long sweep of wrought-iron balconies ran the length of the terrace.

Marianne opened the black front door with its gleaming brass fittings and enfolded Ella in a warm embrace. ‘Come in, dearest Ella. Bienvenue. How was your journey? And how is your dear mamma?’ Her dark curls, which were tamed into the same neat chignon she’d worn for the Governor’s ball, seemed shot through with more fine threads of silver than last summer – or perhaps it was just the Parisian evening light which made them appear so, thought Ella.

In the salon, the sash windows were pushed open to allow the evening air in, cooling the high-ceilinged room. Through the windows, which were framed by long drapes in an exotic sienna-yellow silk embroidered with a design of Chinese birds and flowers, the first lights were coming on in neighbouring drawing-rooms as dusk fell over the city. A vase of long-stemmed lilies, sitting on an oval library table at one end of the drawing-room, filled the warm air with a perfume that transported Ella straight back to the Governor’s mansion on the island and that perfect evening last summer when she and Christophe had waltzed together.

He sat next to her now and smiled as their eyes met. Was he remembering that same evening, she wondered? Their moonlit flight through the dunes? Dancing on the beach? Their kisses amongst the sea-grass? She longed to be alone with him again, craving his touch.

Monsieur Martet bustled in, rubbing his hands. ‘Ah, Ella dear girl, you’ve arrived. Welcome to Paris. We’ve all been looking forward to having you with us again, not least Caroline and Christophe as I’m sure you know. Let me pour you a drink. Marianne’s favourite is a Negroni – would you care to try one?’

Ella wasn’t sure, such a thing being unheard of back in Morningside. What on earth would her parents say if they knew she was drinking cocktails before dinner? But it sounded most sophisticated and, after all, she was now in Paris and ready to sample all that the city had to offer, so she accepted the glass her host held out to her and took a tentative sip of the deep red concoction. It was like nothing she had ever tasted before, an intriguing balance of flavours, sweet, but with a bitter edge, refreshing but potent.

‘Do you like it?’ Monsieur Martet asked, his moustache lifting with the corners of his smile.

‘Yes, I do. Very much in fact. Although I think I’d better only drink one or I very much doubt I’ll be capable of getting up from this sofa.’ He beamed even more broadly at her response, and she sensed the slight tension in the atmosphere, which he had seemed to bring into the room with him, lift slightly. Or perhaps it was just the warmth of the evening, the heady hit of the drink, and her acute awareness of Christophe sitting so close to her that made her limbs relax and her head feel light all of a sudden.

She watched, leaning back against the sofa’s soft cushions, as Monsieur Martet stooped to hand his wife her cocktail, the glass suddenly lit with a rich, carmine glow in the final rays of sunlight that glanced through the windows. Marianne reached to take it from him, and, as she did so, she met her husband’s gaze, the two of them exchanging a smile of such utter love that Ella blushed, surprised at witnessing this moment of intimacy between them. She’d hardly considered Monsieur Martet – so distant and eternally preoccupied – capable of such depths of emotion. But now she looked at Christophe’s parents in a new light, realising there were hidden depths to their relationship. Perhaps their different characters provided the perfect balance: Marianne’s gentle, kindly and artistic nature meeting her husband’s determinedly pragmatic ambition to form a complex but satisfying marriage, not unlike the contrasting ingredients in the glass which Ella held in her hands, the components blending together and complementing one another in a heady cocktail.

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