The following morning a sharp, hot ray of sunlight woke me up, flooding my bed and drawing me from the weird, confused dreams where I struggled. I drowsily tried to shield my face against the heat with my arm but soon gave up. It was ten o’clock. I went down to the terrace in my pajamas and found Anne leafing through the morning’s papers, checking her work phone – her makeup was light and perfectly done. She never let herself have a real holiday. Since she was ignoring me I sat quietly on a step with a coffee and a cold orange, and focused on the joys of the morning. I bit into the orange, its sweet juices rushing into my mouth, then straight away took a gulp of the steaming black coffee, and then again had the coolness of the fruit. The morning sun made my hair hot, and smoothed out the marks of the sheets on my arm. In five minutes I would head down to swim. Then Anne’s voice made me jump.
– Cécile, you’re not eating?
– Oh, I prefer to drink in the morning becau…
– You should eat three meals a day at least so you look presentable. Your jaw is a bit hollow and I can see your ribs. Go get some jam on toast, please.
I was begging her not to force me to eat toast, and she was trying to explain why it was so important when my dad appeared in his silk polka-dot dressing gown.
– What a beautiful thing to see, he said. Two little tanned girls talking about toast.
– There’s only one girl here, Raymond dear. I’m older than you are.
My dad bowed, and took her hand.
– And yet you are still as annoying as ever… he said, sweetly, and I watched Anne blush a little, as if she’d been stroked unexpectedly.
I took the chance to escape. On the stairs, I met Elsa, just out of bed with puffy eyes and pale lips, still red from the harsh sun. I almost stopped her to say that Anne was downstairs with a clean and made up face, to say that she would tan if she just took it a bit easier. I almost warned her. But I figured she would take it the wrong way – she was twenty nine, thirteen years younger than Anne and would think that was an unbeatable advantage. I grabbed my swimsuit and ran down to the cove. I was surprised to see Sal already there, sat on his boat. He came to meet me, looking serious, and then took my hands.
– Listen, I want to apologise for yesterday, he said.
– No, it was my fault, I said.
It wasn’t, and I wasn’t embarrassed at all. He surprised me with how serious he was being.
– I could kick myself… Really… he continued, pushing the boat out into the waves.
– Don’t worry, it’s nothing, I said, laughing.
– It isn’t!
I was already in the rowboat. He was standing with the water up to his thighs, his hands grasping the rim as if he was the defendant in a trial. I understood that he wouldn’t get in the boat before he’d said what he wanted to say, so I looked at him carefully. I knew his face well now, I enjoyed it, I think he must have been about twenty five. The idea that he thought he was some kind of seducer made me chuckle.
– Don’t laugh, he said. I wanted to kick myself last night, you know? No-one is here to defend you against me. Your dad or that woman, for example… Even if I were a total bastard… It would have been the same… You would have thought I was a good man.
He wasn’t being completely ridiculous. But I could see that he was a good person, and also that he was ready to love me, that I would like him to. I put my arms around his neck, and pressed my cheek against his. He had big shoulders, I could feel his body tensing against mine.
– You’re so nice Salil, I murmured. You’ll be a brother to me.
He folded his arms around me with a small angry sound and lifted me from the boat. He held me tight against him, raised up, my head on his shoulder. In that moment, I loved him. In the morning light he was as golden, as kind, as gentle as me, he was protecting me. When his mouth found mine, I began trembling like him, and we kissed without regret or shame. We searched within each other, only stopping to murmur. I broke away to swim towards the boat, which was drifting, plunging my face into the water to refresh it, reset it. The water was green. I felt myself being invaded by happiness, all my worries fleeing to be replaced by a total calm.
At half eleven Sal left, and my father and his women came along the path down the cliffside. He was walking between them, supporting them in turn, politely offering a hand in a way that was just like him. Anne was still wearing her dressing gown – she calmly took it off despite our searching looks and stretched out on the sand. Her waist was slim and her legs perfect, and the slight wrinkles she had only made her more beautiful. All this was probably down to years of care and attention. I automatically sent a disapproving look my dad’s way, eyebrow raised, but really surprisingly he didn’t return it, and instead closed his eyes. Poor Elsa was struggling, layering on the sun-cream. I gave it about a week before my dad would… Anne turned her head towards me.
– Cécile, how is it that you get up so early here? In Paris you lie about until midday.
– I had to work then. I couldn’t be bothered.
She didn’t smile – she never smiled unless she really wanted to. Least of all just to put you at ease, like everyone else did.
– What about your exam?
– I failed! I said, loudly. Really messed it up.
– Then you’ll have to resit in October, of course.
– Oh, why? interrupted my dad. I never graduated, and I live in luxury.
– You’ve been very fortunate from the beginning, she replied.
– Besides, she’ll have no problem finding a guy to support her, said my dad.
I rolled my eyes and she began to laugh, but then stopped when she saw him still staring.
– She has to do some work this holiday, I brought books. she said. Then closed her eyes, ending the conversation.
I sent an exasperated look towards my dad. He responded with an embarrassed smile. I had visions of myself working on philosophy, the black lines of text dancing in front of my eyes while Sal’s laughter echoed up from below. I was horrified… I crawled over to Anne and called her in a low voice. Her eyes opened. I leaned over her and pulled the most worried, good-behaved, face I could, even drawing in my cheeks a bit to try make myself look like an overworked intellectual.
– Anne, I said, you can’t make me do that, make me work in this heat… during my holidays, which could be so good for me!
She fixed her eyes on me for a moment, then smiled mysteriously and turned over.
– I have to make you do it, even in this heat, as you say. You’ll struggle for the first few days, but then you’ll be fine. I know you. And then you can take your exam.
– There are some things you just shouldn’t do, I said, face blank.
She glanced at me, amused and unmoved. I lay back on the sand, full of worries. Elsa began to talk to us about all the attractions up and down the coast, but my dad wasn’t listening. He was sitting at the point of the triangle that their bodies made, sending these familiar intense looks towards Anne’s back, her shoulders. His hand was opening and closing on the sand in a tireless, gentle movement. I ran towards the ocean and dived in, completely submerging myself and groaning at the lost holiday, at what the next weeks could have been. Now we had the makings of a drama – a seducer, his escort and this strong minded woman.
I saw a shell shining in the depths, a brilliant pink and blue jewel – I dove down to bring it up, and kept it in my hand until lunchtime. It was beautifully smooth and worn. I decided it would bring me luck, that with its help, that summer would last forever. I’m surprised I’ve still got it, actually, after losing everything else. It’s here in my hand now. It’s pink and half cold, and it makes me want to cry.