Anne wasn’t going to arrive for a week, so I made the most of my last days of real holiday. We had the villa for two months, but I knew once Anne arrived I wouldn’t be able to properly relax. Anne gave things an edge, and was pedantic about things me and dad would happily ignore. She decided what counted as good taste, what was worthwhile, and we learned about it from sudden changes in her… wounded silences… expressions… It could be interesting. But it was also tiring and humiliating because in the end she often had a point.
The day of her arrival, Dad and Elsa went to wait for her at the station in Fréjus. I absolutely refused to have anything to do with that. In some kind of panic, Dad 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…
After they’d gone, I went down to the beach. The heat was exhausting. I was lying half-asleep on the sand when Salil’s voice woke me. I opened my eyes – the sky was white, confused out of blue by the heat. I didn’t answer, 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, no, you’ve been shipwrecked, like me.
I smiled. He sat next to me and my heart began to beat with a dull throb, cos as he sat his hand brushed my shoulder. Probably ten times in the last week my awesome skills with the boat had ended up with us being thrown into the deep water, clutching each other, and I was totally fine. But that day the heat and the sleepiness, along with his clumsy hand, all went together and I felt something inside me softly tear. I turned my head towards him. He was watching me.
I’d started to get to know him. He was calm, and more ‘honourable’ than anyone else I knew of his age, and our situation, my strange family of three, shocked him a bit. He was too polite or 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 I wasn’t bothered. The only thing bothering me at that point was my heart going fast in my chest. He leaned in 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 heavy.
– Sal, I said, we’re happy…
He kissed me softly. I stared at the sky – then I saw nothing but the intense red light of my closed eyes. The heat, dizziness, the taste of those first kisses and sighs flowing by for long minutes. Then a loud car horn startled us like thieves. I left him without saying anything and climbed up the cliff to the house. I couldn’t believe how quick they’d got back – Anne’s train wasn’t due in for ages. 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, as she hugged me. You’ve driven all the way from Paris?
– I preferred to drive. I would have been so tired otherwise.
I showed her to her room. Opening the window, I wanted to see Sal’s boat but it had vanished. Anne sat on the bed. I saw faint shadows under her eyes.
– This villa is so beautiful, she said with a sigh. Where’s the lord of the manor?
– 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 open.
– Elsa? 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 impressive, 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 me staring and turned away.
– I did send a message saying I was coming in the car, she said. I was in such a hurry to leave, so tired…
– Dad turned off his phone. I said, mechanically. What should we do now?…
– What do you mean? she said, looking 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 really great.
Mumbling, I left and went downstairs with my thoughts in a mess. Why that face, her troubled voice, almost a breakdown? I sat on a sun lounger and closed my eyes, trying to remember Anne’s strong and reassuring expressions, her irony, ease and authority… Her new vulnerable side was worrying, but also irritating. Did she love my dad? Could she be in love with him? Nothing about him should have appealed to her. He was weak, and unserious, even a coward sometimes. Maybe she was just tired from all the travelling, or it was more of a disapproval thing. I spent an hour trying to explain it to myself.
At five, my dad arrived back with Elsa. I watched him getting out of the car, and wondered again if Anne could be in love with him. He walked quickly towards the house, craning his neck at me, smiling. I thought that it was very possible that Anne was in love with him. Anyone could be.
– Anne wasn’t there, he shouted up at 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 flowers.
– You’ve bought me some flowers? came Anne’s voice. You didn’t have to.
She came down the stairs to meet him, relaxed, smiling, in a dress that didn’t look like it’d just come out of a suitcase. I was sad at the thought that she could’ve come down earlier to talk to me, and only came when she heard the car. Probably she would have started on about the exams I failed. The thought of that made me feel a bit better.
Dad hurried over and kissed her cheek.
– I stood on the platform for a quarter of an hour with these flowers 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 in inviting me, Raymond, I was so exhausted and worried. But you should have kept your phone on. It would have saved you this trouble.
My father nodded and apologised haltingly, staring at her, before he shook himself and set about welcoming her to the villa. From his point of view, everything was going great. He spoke loud, letting her know about the place, and uncorked a few bottles of wine. I couldn’t stop flipping in my head between the lust in Salil’s face, and then Anne’s face, both full of violence or something… And I started wondering if the holiday would be as simple as dad said it would.
The first meal that evening was fun. My dad and Anne talked about their mutual friends. They didn’t have many, but the ones they did have were all legends. I was having a great time until Anne suggested seriously that one of my dad’s friends must have a mental disorder. This was a guy who drank a lot, but was kind, and me and my dad went to dinner with him quite often.
– Lombard’s just a joker, Anne. I think he’s funny.
– But you’ve got to admit there’s something missing. Even his sense of humour’s off…
– Maybe he’s a bit outdated but…
She cut me off as if I was a kid:
– You say he’s outdated, but he’s just getting old.
The snappiness of that and its sureness appealed to 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. It 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 trying to be evil. I think she was basically completely indifferent about these things, her judgements were quite general. There wasn’t a sharp or nasty side. But that just made them worse.
That evening, Anne didn’t seem to notice how distracted Elsa was. She was definitely not all there, but I couldn’t tell if she was putting it on. She left us early and went straight to her and my dad’s room. Anne had brought me down 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, just as I got up to leave.
She matched my gaze without smiling, looking in me for the thoughts she wanted to destroy. She wanted me to forget her slip up earlier in the day.
– Yes, yes, she’s wonderful hmm, young lady… very friendly… I mumbled.
She began to laugh, and I went to bed feeling on edge. I drifted off to sleep thinking of Sal, who I was sure I could hear dancing with his friends across the bay.
I guess I couldn’t really help it but I realise I’ve forgotten the central thing: the constant rhythm of the sea, which was always, always there, and also the sun. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the four lime trees either, from the courtyard of my country school, with their sticky smell – or 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, not-quite-black dress. And then in the car, his sudden explosion of joy when he realised I had his eyes, his mouth, and that I was going to be his special, wonderful new toy. I knew basically nothing – but he showed me Paris, and gave me luxury. The easy life.
From then on, I owed most of my enjoyment to his money I think – the pleasure of speeding along in his car, of getting a brand new dress, or a phone, of buying records, books and flowers. I’m not ashamed of enjoying the simple pleasures, and I probably wouldn’t have called them simple if I hadn’t heard other people saying it first. I would rather give up on sadness, or my mystic side, than those ‘simple’ things. A taste for pleasure and happiness is the only part of me I can understand. Perhaps I haven’t learned enough? At my school, we didn’t read at all unless you count the bible. And in Paris, I had no time to study. When I left my lessons, my friends immediately dragged me to the cinema, and 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, then being with someone who would look me in the eyes, take my hand and take me far away from the crowd. We would walk in the road all the way to my house, where they would pull me into a doorway and kiss me – I learned how good kissing can be. They all blur into one – Jean, Luis, Jacques. In fact, they’re the same names that all those young girls and boys now remember. In the evenings I suddenly had to grow up, went out with my dad to parties I didn’t really care about, big parties where I could mingle and surprise people by being so young. When we left, my father would drop me at the door before driving off with some woman. I never heard him come back.
He didn’t really show off about his 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, and thank god it was only for a few days… Anyway, I really couldn’t ignore the kind of relationship they had, dad and his visitors. In the end I kept quiet about them, instead of trying to come up with some weak explanation for why he did it. He obviously didn’t mind. The only problem was that, thanks to him, I sometimes ended up disappointed about love, which is probably good 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 modeled on this phrase, inspired by it, flow out of it like a big river that goes through a small town. I forgot about the everyday things, the ups and downs of life, the stretches where nothing happens… In my dreams I played the part of the wicked one… the villain.