Home > Sea of Memories(5)

Sea of Memories(5)
Author: Fiona Valpy

A delicious scent of something savoury being cooked on the stove downstairs came wafting up into the room.

‘Allons, Christophe. We must leave Ella alone for a few moments to rest and unpack before supper is ready.’ Caroline smiled at Ella. ‘There is no need to change, unless you feel like it after your journey. We will stay as we are. I meant it when I told you we are very relaxed here. If you want to freshen up, the bathroom is the next door on the right, just across the landing there. Come down when you’re ready. We’ll be in the kitchen, or sitting outside on the terrace behind the house. When you come through the kitchen, you’ll see the doors.’

After hastily hanging up her clothes in the tall armoire that stood in one corner of the bedroom, and piling her neatly folded under-garments into a pretty chest of drawers, painted cream and decorated with garlands of pink roses, which was pushed against the far wall, Ella went in search of the bathroom.

She brushed the wind-blown tangles out of her dark blonde hair until it fell in a smooth curtain on either side of the serious, oval face that gazed back at her from the age-misted mirror hanging above the basin. Despite her determined attempt to adhere to her mother’s warning and keep her hat firmly on her head, the sun and wind had evidently still managed to creep in beneath the brim and weather her cheeks with a faint golden glow. Peering a little more closely in the fading evening light, to her dismay she counted at least five freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose. She shook her head at the frown that appeared on the face in the mirror. ‘There’s no point spending the next six weeks worrying about freckles,’ she told her reflection firmly. ‘We are très décontractés here on the Île de Ré.’ She smiled. ‘And your accent Français is already much improved, Mademoiselle Lennox.’

She washed her hands with the small bar of creamy soap that sat beside the basin, drying them on a white linen towel afterwards and noticing how soft they felt. Then, hanging her formal jacket in the armoire back in her room, she draped a soft cotton cardigan over her shoulders, in case the evening air grew chilly, and hurried downstairs, passing through the kitchen to the terrace beyond.

At the back of the house, a generously proportioned garden was enclosed by high whitewashed walls. Honeysuckle, from which she supposed the sprigs in her bedroom had been picked, scrambled up and over them, scenting the air, its perfume mingling with that of the jasmine, which trailed in starry tendrils across a wrought-iron pergola above the terrace. Through an open gate at the far end, Ella glimpsed Anaïs cropping the grass contentedly beneath the trees in a small orchard. Marianne, Caroline and Christophe sat at a broad wooden table, laid with a white cloth and ivory-handled cutlery. Blowzy, deep-pink roses spilled from a painted earthenware jug in the middle of the table, and a cut-glass pitcher of water sat alongside a bottle of red wine. Carrying on the calm evening air, the bell on the clock-tower of the church in Sainte Marie could be heard tolling eight o’clock.

Christophe was leaning on one elbow, his chin cupped in his hand, drawing something in a sketch-book which he shut hastily and pushed to one side as Ella approached.

‘Come.’ Marianne patted the chair next to hers. ‘Sit here, Ella, and tell me all the news of your mother. It’s been many, many years since I last saw her, but having you here brings back happy memories of my stay in Edimbourg when I was about your age. Caroline, pass Ella that bowl of olives. Will you have a glass of wine with us? Perhaps mixed with a little water if you’re not accustomed to drinking it both before the meal and as an accompaniment to the food, as we do?’

The dark wine turned a clear ruby colour in the heavy crystal glass as Madame Martet topped it up with water from the pitcher and handed it to her. Ella sipped it hesitantly, trying at the same time to adopt an air of sophisticated nonchalance, as though every evening the boiled beef or mutton that tended to be the regular fare for suppers at her house, was washed down with a bottle of Château Talbot, the name engraved on the label of the bottle sitting on the table before her. Even watered down, the wine was heady and rich, and Ella felt the last knots of tension, born of her long journey and her even longer anticipation of this summer, dissolve and fade with the last of the light as night fell over the island.

In the glow of the candle lantern that Marianne had brought to the table, along with a platter of blanquette de veau, Ella glanced surreptitiously at Christophe. The shadows played across his features and his eyes seemed to shine with an inner light of their own. He glanced up and met her gaze, and she felt the flicker of a connection between the two of them. To cover her confusion, she turned her attention gratefully to the plate of food in front of her and to Caroline’s questions about life in Scotland.

Finally, a faint chill in the night air made Ella shiver and yawn. Noticing this, Marianne said, with a smile, ‘Come, it is time for bed. I think we are all tired tonight after the excitement of Ella’s arrival. Even you are a bit quiet this evening, my talkative twins. Leave the dishes, Sandrine will be in in the morning. Get a good night’s sleep, my dears. The barometer is set fair, so tomorrow you can take Bijou out for a long sail. I’ll make you a picnic lunch if you like.’

Upstairs, Ella lay between smooth cotton sheets, her eyes wide in the darkness of her room. At the open window, the night air crept in through the shutters, stirring the curtains with its salted breath. Through a gap where the shutters didn’t quite meet, she watched as a full moon rose, casting a beam of silver light across the floorboards and on to the cotton coverlet of her bed. The vast ocean, out there just beyond the dunes, reflected the bright moonbeams, creating a strange twilight, a dream-like dawn at midnight, and the gentle sighing of the waves whispered promises of the summer ahead.

It isn’t really dark at all, was Ella’s last thought before she fell asleep, her mind drifting away on a soft island moored in a sea of light.

She was awoken by the sound of someone – Christophe, she supposed – whistling the Marseillaise as he went downstairs and then being hushed by someone else – Caroline or Marianne, presumably.

A bright line of sunlight, straight as a rule, slanted in through the gap in the shutters, a golden replacement for the moon’s silver beam the night before. She jumped out of bed and crossed the rag rug to pull open the heavy metal arm that held the shutters closed and threw them wide. A warm breeze enveloped her bare arms and made the fine lawn of her nightdress flutter around her ankles. Unimpeded now, the sun’s rays flooded the room with sudden heat.

Ella pulled on a skirt and blouse, brushed her hair, and all but ran downstairs.

The French windows in the kitchen stood open again, as they had last night, and a stout, grey-haired lady wearing a white apron over skirts made of striped cotton ticking came in from the terrace, carrying an empty tray in one hand, her wooden clogs clacking on the terracotta tiles. ‘Bonjour, mademoiselle. Enchantée.’ She shook Ella’s hand formally, with a strong, work-roughened hand, but the broad smile never left her face. Caroline, following in her wake, introduced her as Sandrine, and then the lady turned to busy herself at the sink.

‘Come, Ella, breakfast is on the terrace,’ said Caroline, picking up a pair of broad-lipped pitchers from the kitchen table. As they emerged into the jasmine-shaded daylight, she announced, ‘Voilà, Ella and coffee.’

‘There you are, my dear. Did you sleep?’ Marianne passed Ella a basket of bread, as Caroline did the rounds, pouring treacle-dark coffee into small rounded bowls for each of them and topping up the rich-smelling brew with hot, creamy milk. More accustomed to a bowl of porridge and tea served in genteel cups and saucers, Ella paused, unsure how to proceed. She followed suit, gingerly, as Marianne picked up her bowl with both hands and sipped from it. The coffee was delicious and invigorating, as was eating breakfast outside in the heady sea air. Christophe tore his bread into chunks which he dipped into his coffee bowl, but Ella followed Caroline’s example and spread hers thickly with white butter and cherry jam.

‘So today we’ll take you out in Bijou,’ said Christophe, in between mouthfuls. ‘Have you ever sailed before?’

She shook her head. ‘Never.’

‘Don’t worry. She’s a beauty, and easy to sail. We’ll teach you.’

‘I’m worried that you might spoil your pretty clothes though,’ Marianne said, smiling kindly. ‘Caroline, could you lend Ella something of yours? And we must get you a pair of espadrilles from the market this weekend. They are perfect for the beach and the boat.’

An hour later, Christophe nodded approvingly as he helped Ella climb into the little rowing dinghy which he held steady in the water against the side of a rough slip-way. Bare-footed, holding the sandals that she’d just slipped off, she took the hand he was holding out to her and stepped down into the small wooden tender that would ferry them out to where Bijou, a pretty daysailer, bobbed on her mooring. ‘You look almost French in those clothes,’ he said with a smile, only releasing her hand once she was safely settled on one of the wooden seats. She had changed into a loose navy blue top, striped with white, and a pair of cotton shorts that Caroline had lent her. Her hair was tied back from her face with a navy ribbon, which fluttered in the breeze.

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