Home > Sea of Memories(7)

Sea of Memories(7)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘Maybe you should think of pursuing it as a career, as I am going to do in Paris. I’m applying to several galleries and museums for a stage next year to learn about picture conservation.’

‘I didn’t know such a thing existed. I wish I had though, it sounds a lot more fun than the course at secretarial college that I’m going to be starting in the autumn. Mother thought it the most suitable qualification. With my French, I might even be able to get a position in the Diplomatic Service. I don’t think I’m good enough at drawing to do anything in the art world though. I’m not sure what my parents would say if I told them I was contemplating a change of tack and a career in picture conservation! And you, Christophe, what will you do? Apart from becoming a famous artist, of course,’ she teased. ‘Are you going to work in a museum like Caroline?’

His eyes darkened, becoming unfathomable. ‘Non,’ his answer was terse, a bitterness that she’d not heard before creeping into his voice. ‘Papa has decreed that art is something for girls to dabble in whilst they are waiting to be snapped up by some eligible man. I have to follow in his footsteps at the bank. It’s already arranged. But anyway,’ he continued, ‘let’s not spoil the day with such thoughts. Back to the boat for lunch. Allons-y!’ and he set off in a fast crawl that made the girls squeal as he splashed them thoroughly, drenching their hair and dispelling the gravity of the moment.

They climbed back into Bijou over her stern, Christophe hauling himself effortlessly out of the water and then reaching back to extend a hand to each of them in turn. As Ella towel-dried her hair, Caroline and Christophe set out a picnic on the fore-deck from the wicker hamper. Suddenly, she discovered she was absolutely ravenous.

The three of them sat in contented silence in the shade of a makeshift awning that Christophe had rigged up over the boom, devouring golden-crusted bread spread thick with soft, pungent cheese and topped off with slices of the reddest, juiciest tomatoes she’d ever seen. Nothing had ever tasted so good, Ella thought.

They washed it all down with cool water from a stoppered earthenware bottle and then Caroline handed them each a sun-warmed peach, with sweet, white flesh so ripe that the juice trickled over Ella’s chin and fingers.

Afterwards, they lay, sated, in the shade, drowsy with sunshine, sea air, the warmth of the afternoon and so much good food. Ella gazed up into the impossible blue of the sky, one arm shielding her eyes against the light, listening to the sound of the waves murmuring quietly against Bijou’s hull. She felt the little boat rocking gently beneath her and closed her eyes for just a moment . . .

She had no idea how long she’d slept, but the sun’s angle had changed and Bijou had swung a little at the end of her anchor so that a ray of light was creeping in beneath the awning, illuminating the strands of hair – still just a little damp from their swim – that fell across one shoulder and twined themselves across the daisies on her costume. She licked her lips, tasting the tang of salt, and turned her head to find the others. Caroline was sleeping too, curled on her side, breathing softly. Christophe sat with his knees bent up, intent upon the sketch-book that he rested against them. His pencil moved rapidly, whispering across the rough paper, drawing lines that were swift and sure. He glanced up and his dark eyes met hers again. He looked startled, as if he had been lost elsewhere while the girls slept, and her awakening had brought him back to the real world with a jerk. Wordlessly, she smiled, bringing one finger to her lips with a glance towards Caroline, and he nodded, smiling back. She held out one hand, silently asking him to pass her the sketch-book. He flushed and shook his head, closing the book’s board cover, but she insisted, her hand still extended, her eyes refusing to leave his. Reluctantly, he handed it over and she held the little book above her face as she began to turn the pages.

The first sketches were of scenes from the island: a sea-scape with dunes and sea-grasses in the foreground; a row of fishermen’s cottages with hollyhocks clustered against the white walls; the orchard at the back of the house, with Anaïs cropping the grass beneath the trees; Christophe’s sister and mother sitting on the terrace, Caroline deep in a book, his mother intent on a piece of sewing in her lap. But then she turned a page and found a sketch of a young girl, standing on a jetty, with one hand holding her wide-brimmed hat on her head, her skirts blown by a sea-breeze. And on each page that followed was another sketch of Ella. Some were just a few simple pencil lines which caught a gesture or expression that she recognised as her own. Others were more detailed where he had evidently spent time working on them.

The final drawing in the book was of her asleep just now, the crook of one arm covering her eyes, her fingers curling open in a gesture of abandonment, innocent and trusting, and so tenderly drawn that it made her catch her breath.

Caroline stirred, waking, and Ella quickly closed the book and handed it back to Christophe. He stood, stretching the cramp out of his legs, and then prodded his sister with his bare toes. ‘Come on, you two sleepy-heads. It’s time we headed for home.’ And with that he busied himself, unfurling the sails and making ready the boat, his movements followed with thoughtful distraction by Ella’s wide-eyed gaze, as she absorbed the truth and the beauty of what she’d just seen.

2014, Edinburgh

‘Are you sure you’re warm enough, Granny?’ I arrange the fine woollen shawl around Ella’s shoulders before sitting down on the bench beside her.

‘I’m fine. Stop fussing, Kendra! This is just lovely, what a good idea.’

On this autumn afternoon there’s still a little gentle warmth in the air and the sky is a surprising deep blue. The yellow-brown leaves that remain on the trees are perfectly still on this rare, wind-free day. I was the one to suggest we venture out into the nursing home’s garden for once, rather than staying inside in the stifling cocoon of Ella’s room, a suggestion which evinced a surprised smile from the receptionist as she dug in a drawer for the key to unlock the back door, but one which Ella accepted with alacrity. We sit with our backs to the grey stone wall that encloses the patch of neatly trimmed lawn and the angular rose beds where one or two late blooms cling on doggedly and raise our faces to the low-angled sunlight.

Ella sighs with pleasure. ‘What a treat. Somehow it seems all the more precious when one knows it won’t last much longer.’

I’m not sure whether she’s referring to the fact that winter’s just around the corner or whether it’s something more final that’s on her mind. I take her hand in mine, meaning to comfort her, but finding that the touch of her gnarled, age-worn fingers gives me reassurance instead. There’s a lump in my throat, all of a sudden, and I’m not sure whether it has more to do with the thought of losing my grandmother or the kindness of her touch. Now I come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time Dan and I held hands or touched each other with anything more than a perfunctory peck on the cheek in passing. Her touch reminds me, too, of how I long to be able to hold Finn’s hand in mine; what it would mean to be able to give him that reassurance of love and support. I swallow hard and squeeze Ella’s hand gently in return.

She smiles, looking down at our clasped fingers. ‘Look at your lovely smooth skin, so unlike mine. These awful age-spots. All that sunshine takes its toll over a lifetime. But, oh, it is so wonderful to feel it again!’

She closes her eyes, and I wonder whether the sensation of the sun’s warmth on her face transports her back to those heady days of her first summer on the Île de Ré.

As if she can read my mind, she says, ‘How is the writing coming along?’

‘Well, I think. Would you like me to bring it with me next time and read you what I’ve written so far?’

She releases my hand with a soft pat and rearranges a fold of the shawl. ‘No, I trust you. And I want you to write the story your way. You can read the whole thing to me once it’s finished. But feel free to ask me any questions. Some of my memories are a bit sketchy these days so I may have missed things out when I’ve been rambling into that machine.’

I shake my head. Her recordings are coherent and fluent, making it easy to weave the threads of her story; and the photos help me to picture it all just as it must have been. In fact, her words on the tapes come across as stronger and more confident than her usual speaking voice, making her memories seem more real, more firmly rooted in her mind, than her life today.

Closing her eyes again, Ella speaks softly now. ‘Sometimes it takes time to get to know people – and some we can never really know. But others you can know in a heartbeat. That’s how it was with Christophe and Caroline. I suppose innocence helps . . . childhood friends, first loves. Life gets a lot more complicated as it goes along. But it was life itself that I fell in love with that summer, Kendra, not just the island and the Martet family, but all the possibilities and the hope that that awakening brought with it. It opened my eyes to what life could be.’ She glances at me, a look that is penetrating, as if she can see beneath the surface and into my soul. ‘Have you ever felt that way?’

In the clear autumn sunlight, her eyes are a vivid green flecked with gold. Just like Finn’s, I think, and I know that she glimpses the sadness that flickers across my own face before I can disguise it beneath another smile.

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