The following morning a sharp, hot ray of sunlight woke me up, flooding my bed and drawing me from weird, confused dreams where I was struggling. I sleepily tried to shield my face against the heat 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 benefits of the morning. I bit into the orange, feeling its sweet juices rushing into my mouth, then straight away took a gulp of the steaming black coffee, and then took another bite of the cool fruit. The morning sun made my hair hot, and smoothed out my arms where the sheets had left marks. I was thinking of going down to swim soon. Then Anne’s voice made me jump.
– Cécile, aren’t you going to eat something?
– I had an orange.
– You should eat three proper 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 toast on me, 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, 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, who was just out of bed. Her eyes were puffy, her lips pale, and her skin still red from the harsh sun. I almost stopped her to say that Anne was downstairs already, clean and made up… say that she might 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 probably thought 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 over 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’s not nothing!
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 grin.
– 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 person.
He wasn’t being completely ridiculous. But I could see that he was good, and also that he was ready to love me. I wanted 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 can 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 just loved him. In the morning light he was glowing. He was kind like me, and gentle. He was protecting me. When his mouth found mine, I began trembling with him, and we kissed and I didn’t regret it or feel ashamed. We searched within each other, only stopping to murmur. Then I broke away to swim towards the boat, which had drifted, plunging my face into the water to refresh and 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 cliff side. He was walking between them, taking turns to support them, 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 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, in case he was checking her out, but 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… Anne turned her head towards me.
– Cécile, how do you manage to get up so early here? In Paris you laze around until midday.
– I had work to do back 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 exams?
– I failed! I said, loudly. Really messed it up.
– So you’ll have to resit in October.
– Oh, why? interrupted my dad. I never graduated, and I live in luxury.
– You were 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 nonplussed when she saw him still staring.
– She has to do some work this holiday, I brought the 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 studying philosophy, the black lines of text dancing in front of my eyes while Sal’s laughter echoed up from below. It was horrible… I crawled over to Anne and called her softly. Her eyes opened. I leaned over her and pulled the most worried, well-behaved, face I could, even drawing in my cheeks a bit to try make myself look like an overworked intellectual from TV.
– Anne, I said, you can’t make me do that, study in this heat… during my holidays, which are really going to help me relax!
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. You’ll struggle for the first few days, but then you’ll be fine. I know you. And then you can take your exams.
– There are some things you just shouldn’t do, I said, face blank.
She glanced at me, amused and unmoved. I lay back anxiously on the sand. Elsa began to talk to us about the sights 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, imagining what the next weeks could have been… Now we had the makings of a drama – a seducer, his escort and a strong new 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.