Anne wouldn’t arrive for a week, so I made the most of my last days of real holiday. We’d rented the villa for two months, sure, but I knew that once Anne arrived I wouldn’t be able to properly relax. Anne gave things an edge, and gave words meanings that me and dad would happily ignore. She set down the law of good taste, of good things, and we couldn’t help noticing it in her sudden changes, her wounded silences, her expressions. It could be interesting, but also tiring and humiliating since in the end she often had a point.
The day of her arrival, it was decided that my father and Elsa would go wait for her at the station in Fréjus. I energetically refused to have anything to do with that. In desperation, father picked all of the gladioli in the garden so he could give her to them when she got off the train. All I said to him was – don’t make Elsa carry the bouquet. At three, after they’d gone, I went down to the beach. The heat was exhausting. I was lying on the sand, half asleep, when Salil’s voice woke me. I opened my eyes – the sky was white, confused by the heat. I didn’t respond, I didn’t feel like talking to him, or anyone. I was pinned to the sand by all the force of summer, my arms heavy, my mouth dry.
– You dead? He said. No, you’ve been shipwrecked, like me.
I smiled. He sat next to me, and my heart began to beat strongly, a dull throb, because as he sat his hand had brushed my shoulder. Ten times in the last week my amazing skill with his boat had ended up pitching us into the deep water, holding each other, without me being troubled in the slightest. But that day the heat and the sleepiness, along with his clumsy gesture, all went together and I felt something in me softly tear. I turned my head towards him. He was watching me. I was starting to know him. He was calm, and more honourable than anyone else I knew of his age. That’s why our situation, my strange family of three, shocked him a bit. He was too polite or too shy to tell me, but I could see it in the sideways, bitter way he looked at dad sometimes. He would have liked me to feel a bit worse about it, but it didn’t bother me. The only thing bothering me at that point was my heart battering in my chest. He leant down towards me. I relived the past few days, how confident and calm I’d been, and I hesitated at the approach of his mouth, wide and a bit heavy.
– Sal, I said, weren’t we happy…
He kissed me softly. I looked at the sky – then I saw nothing but the intense red light of my closed eyes. The heat, dizziness, the taste of these first kisses, the sighs flowing by through long minutes. Then a loud car horn startled us like thieves. I left him without a word and climbed the cliff to the house. I couldn’t believe how quick they’d got back – Anne’s train wasn’t due in for a while. Anyway I found her on the terrace, climbing out of her own car.
– It’s like sleeping beauty’s forest home! she said. Wow, you’re so tanned Cécile! It’s so good to see you.
– Me too, I said. You’ve driven all the way from Paris?
– I preferred driving. I would have been so tired otherwise.
I showed her to her room. Opening her window, I hoped to see Sal’s boat but it had vanished. Anne sat on the bed. I noticed that she had faint shadows under her eyes.
– This villa is so beautiful, she said with a sigh. Where’s the master of the house?
– He’s gone to pick you up from the station, with Elsa.
I placed her suitcase on the chair, and then looked back to her. With shock, I saw that her face had abruptly fallen, and her mouth was trembling.
– Elsa Mackenbourg? He’s brought Elsa Mackenbourg here?
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at her, stunned. Her face was always so calm, her self-control so great, and now it’s like she was naked. She was looking towards me, but only seeing the images my words had stirred up in her. Finally she noticed my stare and turned away.
– I would have warned you, she said, but I couldn’t think how. I was in such a hurry to leave, so tired…
– And now… I continued, mechanically.
– What do you mean now? she said. She looked at me suspiciously. As if nothing had happened.
– Now you’re here, I said, stupidly, rubbing my hands together, I am very happy that you are here, you know. I’ll wait for you downstairs – if you’d like a drink, the bar is perfect.
I left, mumbling, and went downstairs with my thoughts in a mess. Why that face, that troubled voice, this breakdown? I sat on a sun lounger and closed my eyes. I tried to remember all Anne’s strong and reassuring expressions, her irony, ease and authority… This new vulnerable face was worrying, but also irritating. Did she love my father? Was it possible that she was in love with him? Nothing about him should have appealed to her. He was weak, and silly, even a coward sometimes. Maybe she was just tired from travelling, and it was more of an ethical thing. I spent an hour thinking up explanations.
At five, my dad arrived back with Elsa. I watched him getting out of the car, and wondered if Anne could love him. He walked quickly towards the house, craning his neck towards me. He smiled. I thought that it was very much possible that Anne was in love with him. Anyone could be.
– Anne wasn’t there, he shouted up to me.
– She’s in her room, I said. She came in her car.
– I don’t believe it. That’s great! All you have to do now is take her up the bouquet.
– You’ve bought me some flowers? came Anne’s voice. You shouldn’t have.
She came down the stairs to meet him, relaxed, smiling, in a dress that didn’t look at all like it had just come out of a suitcase. That made me sad, thinking that she could’ve come down earlier to talk to me, but she only came when she heard the car. Probably she would have just talked about my failed exams. That made me feel a bit better.
My father hurried over and kissed her hand.
– I stood on the platform for a quarter of an hour with this bouquet in my hand and a stupid smile on my face. Thank god you’re here! Do you know Elsa Mackenbourg?
I looked away.
– We must have met at some point, said Anne, unfazed. My room is beautiful, you’ve been so kind to invite me, Raymond, I was so exhausted. But you shouldn’t have left your phone in Paris. It would have saved you this trouble.
My father shook himself and set about welcoming her. In his eyes, everything was going great. He spoke loudly, filling her in, and uncorked a few bottles. But I couldn’t stop flipping in my head between the passion in Salil’s face, and then Anne’s, both full of a kind of violence… And I wondered if the holiday would be as simple as my dad said it would.
The first dinner was great fun. My dad and Anne spoke of their shared friends, who were scarce but always colourful. I was having a great time until Anne suggested seriously that one of my dad’s friends must have a shrunken brain. This was a man who drank a lot, but who was kind, and me and my dad had gone to dinner with him a few times.
– Lombard’s just a joker, Anne. I think he’s very funny.
– But you will admit anyway that there’s something missing, and even his sense of humour…
– Maybe his form of intelligence isn’t very modern but…
She cut me off as if I was a kid:
– What you call a form of intelligence, I would call simply his age.
The snappiness of this phrase and its sureness enchanted me a bit. Some things people say hint at a subtle intellectual world which I find really interesting, even if they aren’t super clear. This one made me wish I had a small notebook and a pencil. I said so to Anne. My dad burst out laughing:
– Well, at least you aren’t bitter.
I couldn’t be, really, Anne wasn’t malicious. I think she was basically completely indifferent about these things, her judgements were quite general, didn’t have a sharp, nasty side. But that just made them more damning.
On her first evening, Anne didn’t seem to notice how distracted Elsa was. She was definitely distracted, but I couldn’t tell if she was putting it on. She left us early and went straight to my dad’s room. Anne had brought me a jumper from her new collection, but wouldn’t let me thank her. Thank-yous bored her, and since mine weren’t ever particularly enthusiastic, I didn’t bother again.
– Elsa’s very nice, she said, as I got up to leave.
She matched my gaze without smiling, looking in me for this idea she wanted to destroy, willing that I should forget her weird moment earlier in the day.
– Yes, yes, she’s a wonderful hmm, young lady… very friendly… I mumbled.
She began to laugh, and I went to bed feeling on edge. I drifted to sleep thinking of Sal, who I imagined I could hear dancing with his friends across the bay.
I realise that I have forgotten, been forced to forget, the central thing: the presence of the sea, it’s constant rhythm, and the sun. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the four lime trees either, in the courtyard of a country school, their sticky smell – and my dad’s smile on the station platform three years ago when I met him, an embarrassed smile since I was in plaits and an ugly nearly-black dress. And in the car, his sudden explosion of joy because I had his eyes, his mouth, and that I was going to be his precious, wonderful new toy. I knew basically nothing – he went about showing me Paris, and luxury. The easy life. I think that from then on, I owed most of my enjoyment to money – the pleasure of speeding along in his car, or getting a brand new dress, or buying records, books and flowers. I’m still not ashamed of the simple pleasures, and I wouldn’t have called them simple if I hadn’t heard other people saying it first. I would sooner give up or deny my sadness, or my mystic side, than those things. A taste for pleasure and happiness is the only part of me I can understand. Perhaps I haven’t read enough? At my school, we didn’t read at all unless you count the bible. And in Paris, I had no time to read. When I left my lessons, my friends immediately dragged me to the cinema – they were amazed I didn’t know the names of all the actors. Or to the café terraces in the sun – I loved being absorbed by the crowd, drinking, being with someone who would look me in the eyes, take my hand and then take me far away from the crowd. We would walk in the road all the way to my house, where he would pull me into a doorway and kiss me – I learned the pleasure of kissing. They all blur into one – Jean, Luis, Jacques. In fact, they’re the same names that all those young girls remember. In the evenings I grew up, went out with my dad to parties I didn’t really care about, big parties where I could mingle and surprise people with my age. When we left my father would drop me at the door before driving off with a woman. I never heard him returning.
I don’t want anyone to think he showed off about these flings. He just didn’t hide them, didn’t tell me any easy lies to explain why he was always having friends round for breakfast at the house, or why they moved in, for a few days only, thankfully! Anyway, I wouldn’t have been able to ignore what kind of relationship they had, father and his ‘guests’. So he trusted that I would keep quiet about them, instead of trying to come up with weak efforts at an explanation. He was pretty much right. The only problem was that, thanks to him, I sometimes ended up disappointed about love, which is probably a welcome thing in someone that age, though it wasn’t much fun at the time. I would repeat to myself this thing I knew from The Portrait of Dorian Grey – ‘sin is the only thing left that gives colour to modern life’. I really convinced myself of it. I was much more certain of it than I would have been if I’d actually put it into practice. I thought that my life could be modelled on this phrase, inspired by it, flow out of it like a big river that’s come through a small town. I forgot about everyday things, the ups and downs of life, the stretches where nothing happens. Ideally, I imagined a life of wickedness and villainy.