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Sea of Memories(4)
Author: Fiona Valpy

From beneath the brim of her hat, Ella watched his attractive face, which became even more animated with youthful passion as he spoke. He gesticulated with his strong, sun-tanned hands, emphasising the point with sudden force.

‘Come, Christophe,’ Caroline spoke gently, laying her own fine, equally tanned fingers on his arm, ‘now is not the time for a political diatribe. Eleanor must be so tired after her long journey and Maman is expecting us at home.’

With a sigh of resignation, Christophe bent to pick up the suitcase once again and, with some effort, heaved it on to the back of the small wooden cart with a bump that made the fawn-coloured donkey look up from where she was tearing mouthfuls of grass from the side of the road and gaze around at them with dark eyes and a look of dreamy bewilderment.

‘Anaïs, meet Miss Eleanor Lennox and her enormous suitcase,’ Christophe announced with a mock flourish and then went to caress the little donkey’s soft ears and muzzle, gently taking hold of the harness so that he could lead her in a broad circle to turn the cart in a homeward direction.

‘Hello, Anaïs. You’re beautiful.’

‘Climb up, Miss Eleanor Lennox. Your carriage awaits.’ Christophe’s eyes danced, belying the stiffness of his invitation.

‘Please, as I said, it’s Ella. And I think I’d rather walk actually. I’ve been sitting on trains for so long, I’d prefer to stretch my legs.’ Secretly, Ella was anxious that perhaps her suitcase really was too heavy, but she wasn’t about to let this laughing French boy know that his teasing had found its mark.

He was looking at her now with what seemed to be a glimmer of admiration as she stood up to his jesting. She was aware of him taking in the graceful line of her waist and arm as she held her hat firmly on her head, defying the mischievous, snatching breath of the sea-breeze and fixing him with her clear, green-eyed gaze, but she couldn’t know that his fingers were itching for a pencil and a sheet of paper on which to capture those flowing curves and the way the wind blew those strands of her hair. His expression grew serious suddenly and he nodded. ‘Alright then. Ella it is. And Anaïs thanks you for your thoughtfulness.’

As they left the harbour, the road they turned on to was scarcely more than a dirt track, a dusty lane scratched by the wheels of passing carts into the mat of beach-grass that bound together the shifting sands beneath. Ella’s leather shoes pinched her feet and grew dull with the scouring of the sand as she walked. She glanced, enviously, at the soft canvas slippers that Caroline and Christophe were wearing, which left faint imprints of their rope soles in the dust alongside the deeper, more invasive prints of her raised heels. It had seemed so important, back there in that other world, to choose the right wardrobe for this summer’s trip, and Ella had sensed her mother felt so too, as she conceded, perched on a chair in the Morningside Shoe Shop, that the pair with the small heel – a feature normally frowned upon in their Presbyterian family – did look chic enough for France. But already, just minutes after arriving, Ella was realising that this ‘right’ wardrobe was all wrong for the Île de Ré.

The three of them walked alongside the donkey-cart, following the road which ran in a straight line across the island, unhindered by hills or valleys, on the flat, low-lying sliver of land. In the evening light, dusk-softened now, tall spikes of hollyhocks glowed against the white render of the fishermen’s cottages clustered here and there along their way. The colours of the flowers – raspberry pink, lemon yellow, dark plum and soft apricot – seemed particularly vivid, as if there were a clarity in the light here that was lacking on the mainland. Ella tipped the brim of her hat low over her eyes, dazzled by the setting sun ahead of them which, even this late in the day, still bathed the island in far more warmth than she’d experienced on even the most clement summer’s day in Scotland. Her body seemed to be expanding, like a seedling unfurling in a hothouse, in response to this sudden surfeit of heat and light. Again, she felt the sense of constraint in her tailored dress and jacket, her stiff leather shoes, her hat and gloves.

They came to the little town of Sainte Marie de Ré, and Ella began to wonder how much further they had to go. A blister had begun to nip on her heel and she was starting to regret not having taken up the offer of a ride on the cart. Finally, of her own accord, the little donkey turned into an even smaller lane, almost hidden between two whitewashed cottages.

‘What are those plants?’ asked Ella, pointing at the lush greenery which ran in perfectly straight rows to either side of them.

‘They are vines,’ said Christophe. ‘See, the bunches of grapes are just beginning to form.’

‘I didn’t know grapes grew so close to the sea.’

Christophe nodded. ‘Some of the best vineyards in the world are near to the coast-line. The sea-breezes are good for the health of grapes as well as people.’

Ahead of them, beyond the sparse tufts of sea-grass that thatched a low-lying line of dunes, the ocean was suddenly visible again, redoubling the light as the sun’s long rays strewed diamonds across a million tiny wavelets. Off to the right sat a pretty two-storey house, a little larger than most of the cottages they’d passed, rendered the same dazzling white, but with shutters painted the blue of a soft sea-mist, framing tall sash windows that seemed glazed with gold in the light of the setting sun.

Opening a gate in the low wall that surrounded the house’s flower-filled garden, Christophe led Anaïs round to the front door which, like the windows, stood open, allowing the ocean breeze to blow through and gently lift the edges of the fine white muslin curtains that Ella glimpsed through an open doorway inside.

Christophe grunted with the effort of heaving the suitcase from the back of the cart. ‘Leave it there for the time being. I’ll bring it in after I’ve seen to Anaïs. Come on old girl, let’s get you out of this contraption.’

As he led the donkey around to the back of the house, a tall, smiling woman appeared in the open doorway. She had the same warm eyes and cascading curls as Caroline and held out both hands to take Ella’s in hers.

‘Ella, bienvenue. You are most welcome. I’d have recognised you anywhere – you are the spitting image of your mother! Please, call me Marianne, there is no formality here. You must be so tired after your long journey, but now you are here at last and there will be no need to travel much further than the beach or the village for the next six weeks. Caroline will show you to your room and you can freshen up a little before supper.’

Ella followed Caroline down a corridor of bleached oak floorboards, craning her neck to try to take in the rooms that they passed. This house by the sea couldn’t have been more different from her own Morningside home with its heavy velvet curtains and dark mahogany furnishings. The rooms she glimpsed were awash with light, their ceilings lofty with lime-washed beams, and what furniture there was had a rustic simplicity – a disparate collection of unmatched objects, yet the overall effect was one of elegant harmony.

The girls climbed a broad wooden staircase which creaked quietly beneath their feet, and then Caroline flung open a door to the left of the softly lit upper corridor. Another set of white muslin curtains billowed as they entered the room, and Ella had the sudden impression that she was standing on the deck of a boat in full sail as her travel-weary body swayed slightly, still unaccustomed to being back on terra firma.

A faded rag rug softened the wooden floor-boards, adding a splash of colour to the whitewashed room. On the bedside table, a bunch of honeysuckle and roses breathed its sweet scent into the evening air. Ella took off her hat and sank, thankfully, on to the cotton quilt that covered the bed. She eased off her shoes and wriggled her toes, still encased in their white silk stockings, luxuriating in the sudden freedom. Against the far wall of the bedroom, the mirror of a wooden dressing-table reflected the last of the day’s sunlight, making it dance amongst the curtains. Above the wrought-iron bedstead hung a watercolour painting in a fine gilt frame, a sailing boat skimming across an aquamarine sea towards a line of low-lying dunes.

‘That’s wonderful,’ Ella pointed. ‘You can almost feel the wind and the sunlight and smell the sea.’

Caroline nodded, sitting down on the bed alongside her. ‘It’s one of Christophe’s. Combining the two things he loves best, painting and sailing. He’s really getting to be rather good at both these days, only don’t tell him I said so or it’ll go straight to his head.’

The two girls giggled as they heard a loud thumping on the stairs. Christophe pushed the door wide, dragging Ella’s case behind him. ‘Don’t tell who you said what?’ he asked with a broad grin. Without waiting for an answer, he flung himself on to the bed alongside his sister. ‘Phew, well, Anaïs and I are both mightily relieved that that’s the last we’ll see of that thundering great millstone for a few weeks!’

‘Ella was just admiring your painting of Bijou,’ Caroline nodded towards the picture.

‘Tomorrow we’ll take you out in her,’ Christophe smiled. ‘She’s a beauty.’

Ella was struck by the way in which his face seemed to change with each utterance, his emotions writ large across his features. His dark eyes could go from laughing to brooding and back again in the course of just a few sentences, like a squall blowing across the sea, clouds chasing across the sun and then the sky clearing once again. She was accustomed to concealing her feelings, following the lead of her parents in suppressing overt displays of emotion at all times, even within the privacy of the family home. But the twins seemed unfettered by such constraints, and Ella felt her own heart expanding a little, yearning to experience a far greater range of sensation than had hitherto been available to it during her safe – and, she now felt, rather dull and monochrome – Edinburgh childhood. Once again, she had a sensation of expansion, just under her ribcage this time, and was overwhelmed with a sudden urge to unbutton her jacket and loosen her dress to make room for whatever it was that was happening to her heart.

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