Home > Sea of Memories(6)

Sea of Memories(6)
Author: Fiona Valpy

Ella smiled back at him, her new outfit lending her a feeling of relaxed confidence. Speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and setting out on an altogether new experience all combined to heighten her new-found sensation of freedom; the liberty to be someone entirely other than her Edinburgh self.

Christophe reached up to take the picnic basket and a capacious, leather-handled straw bag full of towels and jumpers that Caroline was passing down to him. He helped his sister into the dinghy in her turn and then set the oars in the rowlocks, pushed off from the slip-way and turned the bow towards Bijou’s mooring.

Once on board the sailing boat, Ella felt awkward and clumsy. The other two busied themselves with easy assurance, readying the yacht and stowing the picnic in the tiny cabin below decks. Bijou really was a beautiful boat, her lines sleek and elegant, her deck made of oiled teak and the boards of her clinker-built flanks pristine under their coat of white paint.

‘She’s an original, there’s no other boat exactly like her,’ Christophe explained with some pride. ‘Grand-père had her specially built, ten years ago. Maman inherited her, along with the house, when he died. She’s been coming to the Île de Ré since she was an infant. It was Grand-père who taught us all how to sail. But Papa doesn’t really enjoy the sea, and Maman would rather spend her time tending to her beloved garden, so I’m looking after Bijou now.’

Caroline cast off from the mooring buoy and, as Christophe drew the tiller towards him, Bijou turned her bow towards the open sea and the wind caught her sails. They edged out slowly at first, picking their way between the other boats that were moored in the shelter of the harbour, until they were clear. Ella felt the wind pick up suddenly, making her hair-ribbon flutter against the nape of her neck.

Then, all at once, they were flying.

Sparkling wavelets, their crests speckled with white, rose up playfully before them, sending up a shower of fine sea-spray as Bijou’s bow ploughed through them. A kittiwake, white as blown cherry-blossom against the dizzying blue of the sky, soared on an updraught, its ink-tipped wings wide-spread, and Ella felt her heart soar with it, transported by the sense of exhilaration and pure, unadulterated joy that suddenly surged through her body. She tipped her head back to follow the gull’s flight and then closed her eyes for a moment, letting the rays of the sun caress her face, all thoughts of sun-hats and freckles completely forgotten now.

Christophe steered them on a long reach that took them south from the island. Settling back against the transom of the boat, he nudged his sister. ‘Look, Caroline, I think our guest is enjoying herself.’

Ella beamed back at the two of them. ‘It’s terrific! It feels as if we’re flying through the water.’

Christophe nodded. ‘I always think of it as a dance. The ocean is a formidable partner. Today, her mood is gay and upbeat – see, she’s wearing sequins. We’re dancing a quickstep. Some days she’s gentler, more romantic, dressed in silk, and then it’s a waltz. Occasionally, she can be moody though. When she dances a paso doble or a tango, full of anger and passion, we must be careful and use all Bijou’s skills to match her.’

Caroline laughed. ‘And when she turns into a whirling dervish, when it’s really blowing a gale, then we leave her to dance alone. She may be a dancer, but she’s a powerful one. In this case, she is definitely the one who leads.’

‘Get ready to tack,’ ordered Christophe, shading his eyes with one hand.

Caroline loosened the jib sheet and motioned to Ella. ‘When he says “ready about”, we hunker down like this to let the boom swing across. You don’t want to get hit on the head by it.’

Ella followed Caroline’s lead, scrambling under the boom and across to the port side, and Bijou changed direction, pointing landward once more so that the low line of the island’s dunes was ahead of them again. The sun’s rays warmed Ella’s back now, permeating the soft cotton of her top. Her skin glowed with the warmth and the wind and the exhilaration of the sea-spray that filled the air each time another wavelet rose up to meet Bijou’s prow.

Thinking about Caroline’s words, Ella felt a shiver ripple through her, despite the sun’s warmth. The sea was a benign, playful dance partner today, but the small wooden boat seemed suddenly vulnerable as it skimmed across the ocean. Beneath the sparkling surface, the water was mysterious and dark, fathoms deep with powerful, unseen currents.

How silly, she thought, to have such dark thoughts on a day like this. A day filled with sunlight and beauty and youth and freedom. The wind whipped a strand from her long ponytail across her mouth and she shook her head, to shake off both the hair and her thoughts. She stretched one arm out over the side of the boat, extending her fingers towards the waves’ lacy caps, the spray cooling her skin until goose pimples, like grains of golden sand, formed over its smooth surface.

She turned to look back at the frothy white train left by their wake and caught Christophe’s dark gaze fixed upon her. Like the ocean, his eyes seemed to have hidden depths, sparkling with inner light one moment, suddenly stormy the next. She felt her cheeks flush, but met his gaze steadily with her own. In that moment, she sensed something powerful between them, last night’s moment of connection transforming itself into a surge as strong as the pull of the tide. She knew, instinctively, that there could be no point in trying to swim against it. Like a force of nature, it was something far beyond anything she’d experienced before, something she knew she would not have the power to fight even if she’d wanted to. And she discovered she didn’t want to at all.

With a calmness that belied the turmoil she felt inside, she smiled at him and said, ‘Do you think I really could learn to sail Bijou?’

For a long moment he made no reply, his eyes still fixed on her as though mesmerised. Finally, he shifted across on his seat, making space for her to slip in and take hold of the tiller. She was acutely conscious of his strong, brown arm behind her, helping to hold a steady course.

‘Small movements, nothing sudden. She will respond to whatever you ask her to do. Try pushing it slightly away from you – yes, there, you see how she turns into the wind? And we lose a little speed? You need to play it a little, you will feel it when you catch the right spot. Where the wind catches the sails perfectly. Watch that ribbon against the canvas: you want it to blow straight rather than fluttering or flapping. That’s it, good.’

An hour later, they sailed into a bay tucked into the sheltering arms of the dunes, and dropped anchor. Apart from an occasional fishing-boat chugging purposefully about its business in the distance, there was no one else in sight. Bijou, her sails loosely furled, bobbed quietly at the end of her anchor. The breeze seemed to have dropped now and the sun was high above them, almost directly atop the mast.

‘Let’s swim first and then we’ll eat lunch.’ Caroline was already pulling her top over her head to reveal her bathing-costume underneath. Christophe did likewise and, with a whoop, dived from the side of the boat, the line of his body long and lithe as it sliced into the surface of the water with scarcely a splash. Ella wished she’d had the foresight to put on her own bathing-costume beneath her borrowed clothes. She pulled it from the straw bag and stood awkwardly for a moment.

‘You can go down below and change in the cabin.’ Caroline showed her, and Ella clambered down. She changed quickly, and re-emerged moments later, tying the halter-neck of her own costume at the back. It was one of her purchases from Jenner’s, white with yellow daisies, much prettier than the utilitarian navy-blue one that she had worn for her swimming lessons at the Warrender Baths.

She perched on the side of the boat and then swung her legs round so that they dangled over the water. Little waves rose playfully beneath her feet as if trying to catch her toes and pull her in. Whilst she had been one of the best swimmers in her class at school, she felt apprehensive now. There was a great deal more water both around and beneath her, for one thing. And no solid side within easy reach to cling to for a rest if needed. Where was Miss Campbell, the games mistress, when you needed her?

She swivelled round, taking firm hold of the side of Bijou, and lowered herself into the sea. Ella gasped as the chill water enveloped her sun-warmed body, but a moment later she felt nothing but a blissful coolness. She pushed off from the boat and tried a few tentative strokes. The salt water made her strangely buoyant and so, her confidence growing, she struck out towards Christophe and Caroline who were floating a little further out, watching her progress.

‘It’s heavenly!’ she gasped, as she reached them and turned on to her back to float, as they were, looking back towards the land.

A slow smile dawned on her face as she realised what she was looking at. ‘Why,’ she exclaimed, ‘it’s the painting, isn’t it? The one above my bed? I recognise the line of those dunes there and the way the beach curves back on itself.’

Christophe nodded, pleased. ‘It is.’

‘You have a good eye, Ella,’ Caroline said, treading water. ‘Have you studied art?’

‘Only at school. But I enjoy visiting the galleries and exhibitions in Edinburgh.’

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