Home > Sea of Memories(16)

Sea of Memories(16)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘Fortunately, we have rooms for you,’ the innkeeper said, beaming. ‘There’s a nice twin room for the young ladies. I’m afraid the young gentleman will have to make do with the garret, because otherwise we are fully booked. The last week of August is always one of our busiest times, with everyone heading back to Paris from their holidays. But, as it’s an emergency and only for one night . . .’

‘That will be fine, thank you. We’re so grateful to you for your help.’ Caroline pulled herself together.

‘Shall I give you a hand bringing in your luggage?’ The innkeeper took a step towards the boot of the car.

‘Thank you, but no, I think we can manage,’ Christophe laid a restraining hand on his arm. ‘Let’s get the car round to the back and then Grégoire and I will unload a few things from there.’

The two men carried the wooden crate carefully upstairs. ‘Put it in the attic room,’ urged Christophe in a whisper. ‘I’ll guard it with my life! It’ll be safer there, away from the prying eyes of other guests.’

Reluctantly, Caroline agreed that perhaps it would be the safest option, and then they waved Grégoire off as he headed for the railway station.

Caroline only managed to pick at her dinner that evening, toying with the food on the plate in front of her.

‘Relax, ma soeur,’ said Christophe, pouring her another glass of rough vin de pays from the glass pitcher the innkeeper had deposited on their table along with their meal. ‘Grégoire will be back first thing. The best you can do tonight is to get a good night’s sleep so that you are ready for further adventures tomorrow! Now, drink that and then we’ll turn in. I think everyone’s exhausted after today’s excitement.’

Darkness fell, and Ella lay in bed listening to Caroline’s breathing grow slower and deeper as sleep finally claimed her. The noises of the inn’s other inhabitants fell silent at last, and then rays of soft light poured in through the slats of the shutters as the moon rose. She tossed and turned, unable to sleep.

Eventually, she got up and, on silent feet, crept along the corridor and up the narrow stairs that led to the attic. She tried the door, but it was locked. With her heart pounding, she tapped very gently. Immediately, there came a whisper, ‘Ella, is that you?’


The key turned quietly in the lock and Christophe opened the door, ushering her in and immediately locking the door again behind her. Holding a finger to his lips, he pointed, soundlessly, to the mantelpiece in one corner of the tiny garret room. He’d opened the shutters, and moonlight flooded in, illuminating the painting that sat there.

Ella gasped, scarcely able to believe what she saw.

Christophe held a finger against her lips now, so that she wouldn’t say a word. He led her to the single bed, a thin, lumpy mattress on a rusted bedstead. There they sat, side by side, leaning against the over-stuffed bolster, and gazed at the most famous painting in the world, lit by moonshine so that its colours glowed with mysterious depths.

Ella turned and smiled at him, at the wonder of it all, at the sight of such beauty in the poorest and plainest of rooms. She saw, now, that this was all that mattered; that, from here on, there would always be this truth – of finding beauty in the most unlikely places.

Then Christophe took her in his arms and they floated through the night, adrift on a raft in a moonlit ocean, far from the preoccupations of the world beyond, with La Gioconda herself smiling over them in silent benediction.

Ella awoke just as dawn was starting to infuse the little attic room with its soft, grey light. She woke Christophe with a gentle kiss. Still drowsy, he pulled her to him, smiling lazily as he smoothed her hair away from her face. He held her to him in an embrace that she wished would never end.

Returning his smile, she whispered, ‘Christophe, I have to go. I must get back before Caroline wakes up. And you need to pack her away safely,’ she gestured to the painting on the mantel-shelf, ‘before anyone finds out exactly where and how she’s spent her night.’

He nodded. ‘Don’t worry, I memorised precisely how she was packed, all those layers of wrappings. And I’ll screw the crate back together exactly as it was. But we still have a little time. Stay, just for a few minutes more . . .’

Eventually, she tore herself away and crept, on silent feet, back to the bedroom where Caroline was still sunk in a deep sleep. Ella slipped between the sheets of her own bed and lay there as the sun began to rise, watching dust motes dance as the first long beams slid between the gaps in the shutters and remembering the magical night that had gone before. Her memories felt dreamlike, and she hugged herself, knowing that she and Christophe had shared a gift that was precious beyond words.

Ella looked across at Caroline. She was stirring, sighing as she awoke, lying quietly for a minute and then, realising where she was, she sat bolt upright. Ella smiled. ‘Good morning. Did you sleep well?’

‘I rather think I did.’ Caroline stretched and yawned. ‘Though I had the strangest dreams. And you?’

Ella nodded. ‘I had a very strange dream too. And now I’m ready for a large breakfast, before Grégoire returns. Come on, let’s go and see what’s on offer.’

Washed and dressed, they made their way downstairs to the dining-room. ‘Do you think we should go and see if Christophe’s awake?’ Caroline hesitated on the landing, as if to make for the attic stairs.

Ella took her hand. ‘No, let him sleep. We can come and find him after breakfast if he’s still not appeared.’ The last thing she wanted was for Caroline to walk in and find him reassembling the crate.

The innkeeper brought jugs of coffee and warm milk and placed a basket of bread and croissants in front of them. ‘Your young man is back already. Must have had a very early start. He and his cousin are outside now, working on the car. They’ll be in soon, I shouldn’t wonder.’

Caroline smiled with relief and reached for a hunk of golden-crusted baguette.

‘I hope you’ve left me some?’ Christophe ruffled his sister’s hair as he pulled up a chair. ‘Grégoire says they’ve nearly finished. They’ve fixed the car so that it’ll get us to La Pallice and back, and then it can go into the garage to be checked over thoroughly when we get home to Paris. If we take it to his cousin’s garage, he’s promised to give us a good deal on the price.’

After breakfast, Grégoire and Christophe carried the crate down from the attic and stowed it carefully in the trunk once again. Then, waved off by the innkeeper, they set off for Chambord.

Two hours later, Ella pressed her face against the car window as they drove up the long, tree-lined allée that led to the château. The building rose up before them, its towers and turrets dominating the flat plain stretching alongside the river. Grégoire presented some documents to the guard on the gate and he directed them to drive round to a side door, away from the more public visitors’ entrance in the middle of the castle’s keep. Another guard awaited them there, and he and Grégoire carried the crate from the car into the château. They shook hands, and the château guard turned to Caroline. ‘We’ll take good care of this for you, Mademoiselle. And please tell Monsieur le Directeur that we await with pleasure the other deliveries.’

Grégoire consulted his watch. ‘Do you want to spend time visiting the château, or shall we be off? There’s a fast train from Tours back to Paris at midday – I might just make it if you’re happy to press on.’

Reluctantly, Ella tore herself away from the tantalising glimpse of finely carved stonework and a wall hung with rich artworks that she could see down a corridor leading from the dark, cramped office in which they stood.

‘Yes, let’s get off,’ agreed Christophe. ‘We still have a long drive ahead of us and we need to make sure we reach La Pallice before the last ferry departs. We can’t risk missing yet another night of our holiday on the Île de Ré!’

They arrived at the house beside the dunes as the sun was slipping beyond the horizon, sinking into the ocean and painting the sky crimson with its last rays. Clambering out of the car, Ella took a deep breath, drinking in the salted scent of the sea and listening for the hush of the waves from the beach.

Caroline set out the supper that Sandrine had left for them on the terrace, ladling bowls of garbure – a soup thick with chicken and vegetables from Sandrine’s potager – into pottery bowls. Christophe poured the wine and Ella smiled, glad that they would have these few precious days on the island.

The three of them sat, late into the night, watching a million stars appear, sipping the last of their wine and breathing in the sweet scents of jasmine and honeysuckle. Ella spoke again of her dream of moving to Paris just as soon as she’d convinced her parents to let her, and of making enquiries about possible work when they returned to the city, before she set off home to Edinburgh. Christophe talked of promotion within the bank which, he hoped, would hasten his ability to save enough money to be independent of his parents. And Ella wondered whether there were other, as yet unspoken plans to be made for a future together, which might include marriage, and children, and holidays on the Île de Ré filled with sunshine and sea air and love.

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