The most surprising thing over the next few days was how extremely kind Anne was to Elsa. Even with all of the various stupid things Elsa said, Anne never once picked her up on it with one of those short comebacks she had the knack of, which would have really shown her up, poor girl. I silently thanked Anne for her patience and generosity, not realising how closely it was mixed with a kind of manipulation. My dad would have quickly tired of stupid little mind games. Instead he was grateful, and muttered to Anne how he didn’t know how to thank her. But I bet he was starting to get ideas. I thought then that he’d probably start talking to her like a well respected friend, like a second mother to me – and then use this gratitude as a constant excuse to put me under Anne’s care, to make her a bit more responsible for who I was, to bring her closer to him, link her to us more strongly. He had that look, and was behaving towards her like you’d do to someone who you didn’t yet know, but would like to. I mean know in the biblical sense. Like, fucking. The same kind of glance I sometimes caught Salil giving me, which made half made me want to run away, half made me want to tease him. I must have been at a further point than Anne, where I was more easily influenced – she was still reacting to his stare with indifference, with a calm kindness that made me feel a bit better. I began to think that I had just tricked myself back in her room on the first day. What I didn’t see was that this unambiguous kindness just got him going. Just like her silences… Natural and elegant, they were the exact opposite of Elsa’s twittering. It was like day and night. Poor Elsa. She didn’t expect anything, she remained enthusiastic and restless, harassed by the sun.
One day though, I knew Elsa would realise, notice my dad staring… I saw her murmur something in his ear before lunch. For a moment, he had a nonplussed, annoyed look, but then he smiled, nodding. With her coffee, she rose and stood at the door, turning back to us. She looked stunning, like something straight out of Vogue. Channelling ten heavy years of flirting experience, she said:
– Are you coming, Raymond?
My dad rose, blushing slightly, and followed her, speaking loudly about the benefits of a siesta. Anne didn’t move, her cigarette fuming away at the end of her fingers. I felt like I should say something:
– They say that siestas help you relax, but I don’t think that’s true…
I stopped straight away, realising how vague I was being. She’d hate that.
– Please, said Anne dryly.
I didn’t try to make nonsense small talk. I looked at her. She had a deliberately still and relaxed expression, which made me feel for her. Maybe she was consumed with envy of Elsa. I had a cynical idea to console her – I loved having cynical ideas, they made me feel smart, plotting with myself. Like I was drunk with ideas. I couldn’t help saying in a loud voice:
– I have to say that, if you have sunburn as bad as Elsa’s, that type of siesta won’t be much fun for either of them.
I should’ve kept quiet.
– I hate it when you say things like that, said Anne. At your age its worse than stupid, it’s painful.
I got worked up:
– Well excuse me, it was a joke! I’m sure they’ll have a great time, when they get down to it.
She turned towards me, infuriated. I quickly apologised. She closed her eyes again and began to talk in a low, patient tone:
– You have such a basic idea of love. It’s not just a series of sexual encounters independent from each other.
I thought that all my relationships had been like that. A sudden emotion drawn out by someone’s face, or by something they did, or by a kiss. Instants that bloomed like a flower and were gone, without anything to connect them, that was all I could remember.
– But that’s not how it is, she said. There’s constant tenderness… Contentment… And there’s truly missing someone until it breaks you. All things you couldn’t understand.
After waving her hand to dismiss me, she picked up her phone. I would have liked her to get angry, to stop being so resigned and indifferent to my broken view of relationships. I thought she was right, that I was living like an animal, relying on others, that I was poor and weak. I was disappointed in myself, and it was really painful because I wasn’t used to it, cos generally I didn’t judge my own behaviour, good or bad. I went up to my room and began to daydream, my sheets lukewarm under me, and I heard again what she said – ‘that’s not how it is… truly missing someone until it breaks you’. Had anyone ever really missed me?
I don’t remember well the events of that fortnight. I was on holiday. I didn’t want to pay much attention, I didn’t see anything menacing about things. Afterwards was different, obviously. Then I had to remember as much as I could, as accurately as I could, it occupied my whole mind, my whole life. But those three happy weeks, three weeks total… Like which day was it that my dad stared at Anne’s mouth, when he told her off loudly for being so indifferent, and then seemed to laugh it off? Which day did he begin to compare how ‘subtle’ she was with how ‘half-stupid’ Elsa was, with a straight face? My calmness rested on this idiotic idea that they’d known each other for fifteen years and if they were going to fall in love, they would have done it already – and, I said to myself, if it did happen, he’d love her for three months and then leave with a few good memories, but humiliated. Couldn’t I already see that Anne wasn’t the sort of woman you could just abandon? Anyway, Salil was there, and enough to occupy my thoughts. He took me out at night to the clubs in Saint-Tropez, the ones that would let us in, I remember losing myself dancing to Origami, kissing, and shouting in each other’s ears things we’d forgotten by the morning, but which seemed so important at the time. By day we sailed his boat around the coast. Sometimes dad came with us. He liked Sal, mostly because he’d taught dad how to play Ronda, and then let him win. Dad called him ‘Sal kid’ and Salil called him Monsieur, but watching them, it wasn’t really clear who was the adult.
One afternoon we went to have mint tea with Salil’s mum. Sal was out trying to find something to plug a leak in the boat, so we went over. She was an old woman, calm and smiling, and she talked to us about how difficult it was to be widowed, and all the problems of being a mother. My dad listened, sharing some looks of recognition with Anne, and complimented the lady many times at her strength. I should mention that he never once appeared to lose interest. Anne watched with a generous smile, and later said that Sal’s mum was very charming. When we got back, I burst out with my annoyance at ladies like her. Anne and dad turned to me with an amused and indulgent smile that just set me off:
– You don’t realise that she’s self satisfied! I cried. She congratulates herself about her life because she feels like she’s done her duty and…
– But she has, said Anne. She knows she has fulfilled her duties as a wife and mother, as they say.
– What about her duty to fuck?
– Cécile, don’t be so crude, she said. I know it’s a bit paradoxical.
– It’s not paradoxical. She married like everyone marries, for love or because that’s just what she had to do. She’s had a kid. You do know how kids are made, right?
She looked up at the sky. Her reply was scathingly ironic.
– Without a doubt I know less than you, she said, but I might have some idea
– So she’s raised this kid. She’s probably spared all of the trouble of affairs. She’s had the same life as millions of women, and she’s proud of it, don’t you see? She’s in this terrible situation and she hasn’t done anything to really try and get out of it. She’s proud that she never did things rather than being proud of actually doing something.
– Come on, Cécile, my dad said.
– It’s all a big trap! I cried. They say afterwards ‘I’ve done my duty’ after having done nothing! If she’d become a callgirl or something, after being born where she was, now that would be impressive.
– Cécile, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ve absorbed ideas from various places and you don’t understand their origins, or how they apply in the real world.
Maybe it was true. I did believe what I said, but it was true that I was just repeating what I’d heard from some Twitter account or other. But anyway, my life and that of my dad were backed up by these ideas about freedom, and Anne hurt me with such a disdainful take-down. We do often find ourselves attracted to ideas that are easy, rather than anything harder.
So, Anne didn’t see me as a thinking person. It suddenly seemed to me to be extremely important to prove her wrong. I didn’t think that I would get a chance so soon, or that I would know how to take it. Anyway, I freely admit that in a month’s time I would have a completely different opinion on pretty much everything. It would have taken a stronger person than me to remain convinced.