Home > Sea of Memories(9)

Sea of Memories(9)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘But Christophe, I asked you to pack just one suit. You know it means so much to Papa to go to the ball. It’s for a very good cause, and so many of his business associates will be there.’

‘But why do I have to go? None of Papa’s business associates will want to talk to me. It’s so stuffy and formal. And it’ll be our last night on the island, so why can’t we choose to spend it as we wish?’

‘You know that this year, of all years, it’s important that you attend. You’ll be joining the bank in a few weeks’ time and those business associates will be useful connections for you to have made. They will expect to see you there with your family. Please, Christophe, for all our sakes, don’t upset Papa on the day of his arrival. He has so few days of holiday anyway, let’s make sure the week is a pleasant one . . .

‘Now,’ Marianne continued, her tone firm, brooking no further argument, ‘I’m sure there’s an old suit of yours hanging in the armoire in my bedroom. I think you probably left it here last summer. I may be able to let the trousers down a little. Hopefully, we can get away with it. You can borrow a shirt and cravat from Papa.’

‘I will look ridiculous, dressed up like a performing monkey!’

‘Well, if you do look ridiculous then that will be entirely your own fault,’ his mother retorted, exasperated.

From out over the ocean, a low rumble of thunder rolled in, soft but threatening.

‘Damn this weather!’ Christophe’s frustration spilled over and he tore angrily at the brioche on his plate, reducing it to a heap of crumbs. ‘We can’t even go out for a sail today.’

‘Why don’t you take the bicycles and a picnic and go to the lighthouse? I don’t think you’ve seen it yet, have you, Ella?’

‘Not from dry land. We’ve glimpsed it in the distance from Bijou. It would be interesting to climb to the top and get a different view of the island.’ Ella seized the opportunity Marianne had created to change the subject, trying to divert Christophe from his ill humour.

They returned late, hot and tired from their lengthy cycle ride, pedalling hard on the journey home, through air that felt, to Ella, as thick as porridge. As they wheeled their bikes around to the back of the house, the smell of cigar smoke met them on the evening air, overpowering the usual evening scents of honeysuckle and jasmine. Monsieur Martet stood on the terrace, formal in his dark suit, an ambassador from the real world, and it seemed to Ella that he had invaded their island idyll, unwittingly bringing with him unwelcome reminders of the world outside.

He turned to survey them, but made no move towards them, preferring to wait while they leaned their bikes up against the wall of the small outbuilding which housed Anaïs’s cart, the oars for Bijou’s tender and a few gardening implements. Under his silent gaze, Ella felt dishevelled and unkempt as she approached the terrace. Nervously, she wiped her dusty hands on the sides of her shorts and then tucked her hair behind her ears in an attempt to make herself a little more presentable. She wished she had been more formally attired for her first encounter with the twins’ father.

Caroline reached him first and stood on tiptoes to kiss him on either cheek. Christophe stood off to one side, awkward and aloof, as his sister made the introductions. ‘Papa, this is Ella.’

Monsieur Martet extended a hand and shook her rather damp one. ‘Je suis ravi de faire votre connaissance, Mademoiselle Ella.’ She noted that he addressed her using the more formal ‘vous’; and yet, at the same time, when he smiled his eyes crinkled in a not unfriendly manner. In fact, she thought, he looked more tired than severe at close quarters.

Marianne appeared from the house behind him. ‘Oh là là, you are so late back. I wondered whether you’d cycled right off the end of the island and into the sea! Go and clean yourselves up for dinner. But before you do, you’d better put those bicycles inside. It looks as though we may be in for a storm tonight.’

As if in agreement, a flicker of lightning licked the sea beyond the dunes, quick as a viper’s tongue, followed a few seconds later by a growl of thunder that seemed to make the sultry evening air tremble.

They ate dinner outside. ‘Let’s risk it,’ Marianne had said, ‘and if the storm arrives we will pick up our plates and make a run for it.’ Darkness fell, but brought with it none of the customary coolness that Ella had come to expect. If anything, the air seemed to grow hotter and heavier, and she found she had little appetite for her plate of bar au beurre blanc.

‘What news is there of cousin Agnès?’ Caroline broke the heavy silence that pressed in on them, adding to the weight of the sultry night air.

Monsieur Martet shook his head, wiping his moustache with his napkin. ‘Nothing more yet. As you know, the French authorities have all but closed the border now. It’s so much harder for refugees to enter the country. But I am still writing letters and am confident that, through some of my contacts at the bank, we will succeed in getting the family to Paris.’ He patted his wife’s hand consolingly.

Caroline turned to Ella to explain: ‘Maman’s cousins from Austria are coming to stay with us for a while. Things in their home country are very difficult now that it is a part of Germany. So they are planning on moving to France.’

Christophe helped himself to another potato from the plate in the middle of the table. ‘It’s so tedious. Cousin Agnès is completely neurotic and her husband is a bore.’

‘Well it’s only until they find a place of their own in Paris. Anyway, the children are very sweet, no matter how annoying their parents may be,’ retorted his sister.

‘And, in any case, you’ll be out at work for most of the time.’ His father’s words fell heavily on to the table, silencing them all once again.

Tentatively, to try to change the subject, Ella ventured, ‘I wish I’d been able to see the World Fair when it was in Paris last year. Did you all visit the Exposition? Was it really as magnificent as they say?’

Monsieur Martet dabbed at his moustache again with his napkin before replying. ‘It was impressive alright. But what a ridiculous edifice the Germans constructed! It sat next to the Eiffel Tower as though trying to dwarf it, in a face-off with the Russian pavilion. Some people thought it elegant and moderne,’ – he pronounced the word with disdain – ‘but I find that grand Nazi architecture inhuman, both in scale and in atmosphere. It was certainly a show of strength, which is what they intended, I suppose.’

‘We visited the Spanish pavilion,’ Christophe chipped in eagerly. ‘There was a painting in it by Pablo Picasso, which was utterly revolutionary.’

His father shook his head. ‘I thought it was awful. It hardly made sense, all angles and barbarism. And I don’t see the point in representing something so horrible in a work of art. A brutal massacre in the Spanish Civil War is hardly a pleasant topic to gaze at.’

Christophe retorted. ‘Surely the point of art is to be able to tell a story when words are not enough? And Monsieur Picasso certainly does so with Guernica.’

A long, low rumble of thunder made the glasses on the table rattle, and Marianne glanced up at the sky apprehensively, raising a hand. ‘Was that a spot of rain?’

Ignoring his wife, the look Monsieur Martet gave his son was reproving. He sighed. ‘We’ve been over this before. A little less time spent thinking about art and a little more reading the business papers would stand you in good stead, mon fils. Your desk awaits you at the bank. Come the autumn, you won’t have time to think about anything other than your career. It’s time you put away your sketch-books and concentrated on more worthwhile pursuits.’

Christophe drew a sharp breath, about to argue back. But suddenly there was an almighty flash and, almost simultaneously, a thunder-crack that made them all jump. Ella spilt the glass of water she’d been holding, dampening the skirt of her dress, and as she tried to dab at it with her napkin she realised more spots were appearing alongside it as fat raindrops began to fall.

‘Vite! Inside!’ Marianne began gathering up plates and the rest followed suit, rushing to escape the downpour which had begun as suddenly as the turning-on of a tap.

As Ella lay in her bed that night, listening to the thunder and the drumming of the rain, which drowned out the roar of the ocean beyond the dunes, a kaleidoscope of thoughts whirled in her head. The summer was drawing to an end. But how could she return to the chill, austere greyness of Edinburgh with its soot-encrusted buildings, where the autumn leaves would already be beginning to fall? All at once, she couldn’t bear the thought of being incarcerated in a fusty room in front of a typewriter. And who would she be when she got back there? Certainly not the same Ella Lennox who had set off from Waverley Station all those weeks before.

At the thought of leaving Christophe, her heart constricted with pain that her slight frame could hardly contain. They’d never really kissed, other than the chaste pecks on the cheeks that the French exchanged simply by way of saying hello. There seemed to be an unspoken promise between them – that tidal flow pulling them inexorably towards one another. And when he’d run his finger along the line of her face that day on the beach, she’d felt a jolt of electricity pass between them, as powerful as a lightning bolt.

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