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Sea of Memories(3)
Author: Fiona Valpy

But Ella, who was used to the silence of her bedroom in the leafy suburbs of South Edinburgh, had hardly slept a wink. Not that she’d cared. She had been too excited, her head too full of the journey before her, the summer abroad stretching in front of her like a promise. So she had lain, swaying in her narrow bed with its stiffly starched cotton sheets and grey woollen blanket with LNER stitched on it in red, and practised French phrases in her head. It was one thing to have been top of her class at school, earning approving nods from Mademoiselle Murray, but Ella suspected that her teacher’s accent had had a strong twang of Morningside about it. French had certainly sounded very different on the gramophone records that Mother used to play, smiling dreamily as she listened to Maurice Renaud sing and reminiscing about the time she’d seen him perform when she’d stayed in Paris as a young girl. ‘You know, Ella, it’s essential to spend time in a country if you really want to be able to speak a foreign language,’ she’d declared. ‘Not to mention being able to understand the culture.’

And so, last Christmas, her mother had written to her old friend Marianne Martet to enquire whether it might be possible for Ella to visit for a week or two.

‘Even better than a fortnight in Paris, she’s inviting you to come and spend the whole summer with them at their holiday house on the Île de Ré! Six whole weeks with the twins! Imagine, you’ll be speaking French like a native.’

Ella was secretly a little disappointed. She’d been looking forward to the promise of the sophistication and elegance that Paris held, having pored over the Picture Post’s feature on the famous World Fair, which the city had hosted the previous year. She’d never even heard of this island. A consultation of the heavy World Atlas showed that it was one of a few tiny slivers of land that looked as if they’d been chipped off France’s Atlantic coastline and fallen into the sea. But still, an adventure was an adventure, especially for a girl who’d never been further than Fife before now.

The planning had taken weeks: visits to Jenners for a holiday wardrobe which included three bathing costumes, a suite of new undergarments, and fittings for several light, cotton dresses, prettier than any she’d owned before.

‘You’ll need to keep well covered up with your fair colouring,’ Mother had fussed. ‘And don’t forget to wear your sun-hat all the time, otherwise you’ll get freckles and then you’ll be sorry!’

Father had presented her with the little travelling case the day before she left. ‘I’m told every young lady who travels to foreign parts needs one of these,’ he’d said with a smile. The key, which she wore now on a ribbon around her neck, unlocked the brass fittings to reveal a shot-silk interior of the deepest cherry red, which held several silver-topped bottles and jars and a brush-set with a little oval mirror, each item held in its place with fine leather straps. There was just room for her night things and the few spare items she’d need for the journey. Everything else had been carefully folded, wrapped in tissue paper and packed into the big suitcase.

The ferry slowed as it neared the jetty and there was a bustle of activity suddenly in the port. A deck-hand carried her suitcase on to the boat for her, giving her an appreciative glance over his shoulder as she picked up her smaller case and followed him on board. A man with a beret settled a crate of clucking chickens in the shade of the wheel-house and smiled at Ella as he sat down on the hard wooden bench that ran around the edge of the boat. And then, with a shout and a wave, the ropes were cast off and the ferry began its return journey to the island, the turnaround fast to make the most of the tide.

Ella went to stand near the prow, looking out towards her destination, a pale smudge of land which lay low amongst the waves. In a storm it must almost get swept away, Ella imagined. Mindful of her mother’s warning words, she clamped one hand firmly on to the straw hat that shaded her face from the sun as the breeze strengthened a little across the water and threatened to snatch it from her head and send it bowling away over the waves. She licked her lips to moisten them and tasted salt.

The sky was a heady blue overhead – very different from the Edinburgh grey that she was used to – and she tipped her head back to follow the trajectory of a sea-gull as it soared high above.

Tilting her head to follow the arc of the gull’s flight, Ella glanced back at the mainland receding steadily beyond the foaming wake of the ferry. For a moment, she had the unnerving impression that she’d stepped off the very edge of the earth, that the bustling staging-posts of her journey – Edinburgh, London, Paris – might still exist back there in some other universe, but now she’d left that world behind.

The boat ploughed its way onwards and the white sands of the Île de Ré drew ever closer, reminding Ella of the paintings by Turner that she’d studied in art lessons at school. In the wash of the light of an early summer’s evening, the sea shimmered with shifting tones of lapis and turquoise and the island seemed forged from white gold beneath its thatch of dense green pine branches. Taking a deep breath of the salt air, Ella suddenly wished the crossing would last forever, that she could live her life in this state of suspension, flying as free as the birds that soared in the dizzyingly blue sky above her.

But then, all too soon, the ferry was drawing alongside the passenger jetty on the edge of a port where the gangling, awkward arm of a crane swung cargo into the hold of a larger ship, to the accompanying cries of men and sea-birds.

The ferry’s passengers surged forwards, gathering up bags and parcels. The man with the beret balanced the crate of chickens on a bicycle and wheeled it down the short gangplank, safely on to dry land.

Ella picked up her cases and made her way, a little lopsidedly, off the boat. Marianne Martet had written that they’d be there to meet her, but Ella had no idea what they looked like. Mother had described her old friend as being very beautiful and vivacious, with big eyes and dark curly hair. And, in her letters, Marianne had said that her twins – Caroline and Christophe – were now eighteen years old and were looking forward to the company of another friend for the summer, especially one so near their own age.

As the crowd cleared and the cars that had driven off the ferry moved away down the dusty road, Ella became aware of a donkey-cart drawn up at the far end of the jetty. Standing on it, so that they could see over the heads of the crowd, and waving their arms in her direction were two young people, a girl with a cascade of auburn curls and a boy whose fringe fell low over his dark eyes. The light caught the planes of his face, high cheek bones casting shadows which emphasised the handsome set of his features. There was a completely unselfconscious and relaxed beauty about the pair, which made her warm to them immediately, dispelling any apprehension she’d had at the thought of spending the summer with strangers. The girl wore a short-sleeved shell top and pedal pushers that left her tanned calves bare, and the boy had on a cotton smock, the sort a fisherman might wear, over loose trousers. All at once she felt constrained and overly prim in her neat, tailored jacket and full-skirted dress.

Christophe and Caroline jumped down from the cart and came to greet her. Ella held out a hand to shake Caroline’s, and blushed awkwardly as Caroline leaned in under the hat at the same time to kiss Ella on both cheeks. Flustered, her hat pushed askew, she turned to Christophe and paused, unsure of the correct etiquette now. And her cheeks flushed an even deeper shade of pink as he, too, planted a kiss on each of them. To cover her embarrassment, Ella clamped the crown of the hat firmly back on to her head, grateful for its wide brim.

‘Eleanor Lennox. You are welcome!’ Christophe’s eyes were alight with amusement as he stooped to pick up her large suitcase.

‘Please, call me Ella, everyone does unless I’m in trouble.’ She was relieved to find she could understand his French and, although she spoke hesitantly at first, she was able to find the words to reply.

‘I don’t believe a girl such as you could ever be in trouble,’ he laughed. ‘You look far too neat and tidy for that! Oh là là, and this case is clearly full of more such costumes. It’s going to be far too heavy for poor Anaïs to pull. We’ll have to walk alongside the cart.’

‘Please don’t listen to him, he’s only teasing.’ Caroline took Ella’s hand in hers. ‘Your dress is beautiful, and so is this travelling case. You must excuse us, we are always so very décontractés, so relaxed, when we’re on the island. It makes such a nice change from life in Paris. We forget what civilised people look like!’

‘Ah yes, but what is civilisation, truly?’ Christophe paused, setting down the heavy suitcase in the dust behind the donkey-cart. ‘I would argue that the way we are on the Île de Ré is how life really should be and the posturing and posing of Paris is the sham. There are plenty of people in the city who could be said to be the very opposite of civilised. And as for the wider world,’ he continued, warming to his theme, his eyes blazing suddenly, ‘we have the Fascists in Spain killing their own brothers and the Germans ignoring every promise they made at Versailles and rearming, then annexing Austria. They are intent on expanding their empire – who knows for what purpose? – but it surely cannot be an innocent one. Refugees are flooding into Paris, our own relations have been displaced through fear of persecution. The whole of Europe is in turmoil! How can any of that be described as “civilised”?’

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