Here´s me reading aloud the short story below – celebrating the fact that I´m all kitted up now for producing audiobooks. I´m sure a BBC engineer would have done it better, but for once I´m celebrating a victory over procrastination and perfectionism. A few stumbles, and thunder in the background – enjoy!
Radio Four aren´t going to use my short story, so here it is:
VISITING THE PAST
Isabel was sure this would be her last visit to France. She felt she was doing something brave. The sand dunes and pines of the Normandy coast she had known as a child hadn´t changed too much. Wooden boardwalks, worn and bleached, led to the beach. She could see from there that to the side of the dune there was still a gap in the paling, so that she could have gone into the grounds of the villa her family had rented for consecutive summers before the war. The first one. Unbelievably it looked much as it had done, apart from having been repainted a slightly different colour.
She wondered if she shouldn´t have left it all alone. At 85, she felt sympathy for her Polish neighbours in London who had no desire to see Europe again. But now that she lived in her memories so much, thinking about people who were gone, of places before they were changed beyond all recognition, she felt impelled to revisit this dear landscape. She couldn´t even phrase the question she was asking it: but she wanted to find out if, in the very place she had last felt carefree, she could track down any harbingers of the ensuing darkness.
That summer when she had just turned 10, in 1914, they had crossed the channel by boat to Le Havre, as usual, and then been met with a car by kind, grave Antoine, who looked after the villa. Ferdinand, her father´s very much younger brother, had gone over in advance to make things ready for them. She remembered the journey, exclaiming at remembered sights, quizzing each other as to how many cats lived next door, wondering if that other family who were such fun would also be there.
Mother insisted they put their sunhats on as soon as they got out of the car, and they jammed them on anyhow and ran towards the house. Out came Ferdinand, grabbing her up and swinging her round, exclaiming that she was too big for this now, her mother protesting, a flurry of bright light, her long frilled skirt swirling, Ferdinand´s lively face inches from hers – and then, not bothering to enter the house, she and her two younger brothers careened straight down to the beach, through the gap in the palings, over the dune, and, their shoes already full of sand, taking them off to let the sea finger their toes. Heaven. The wind carried the cries of their mother “Don´t get your dress wet, Izzy! Roll up your trousers, boys!” The sea, the sound of it, the rhythm of the lazy waves breaking, immediately exercised its enchantment. Journey forgotten they stood still, their feet sinking deeper into the sand, letting the water lap to and fro, trailing a skein of bubbles.
Ferdinand – how clearly and intensely she could still see his face. There was a photo in the old album which caught his likeness: but her mind´s eye held his vigour, his buoyant health, his reddy brown hair and freckled skin, his dancing look. It was as if he lived so easily in his body that it was a temporary shelter for movement and spirit: not a housing hedged about with restrictions and limitations, awkward in unaccustomed movement, to say nothing of corsets, belts, girdles, braces – all the architecture of Edwardian dress. Dress – what was she thinking about?
That wonderful moment of arrival she still remembered clearly. Then it dissolved into a hazy sunny collage, the glow of morning light through the curtains, a breakfast of croissant and hot chocolate taken sitting on the steps from the verandah – a complete contrast to the stiff formality of their London life, where before Father went to work they all breakfasted together at the table, in almost total silence, while he read the paper, and Wilkins was on hand to fetch anything that was necessary. She couldn´t remember any details, just an endless successsion of days spent on the beach, swimming, lying under a sun shade, sometimes returning to the house for lunch, sometimes a picnic on the beach. Her mother, naturally pale and always pretty, didn´t wear her long summer dresses ironed or starched as they would have been in London, and wore espadrilles on her bare feet, instead of shoes and stockings.
Once she and her brothers crept out of the house in the full heat of the sun when the rest of the family were lying down after lunch. Out of earshot of the house they played hide and seek in the dunes, with her brothers disposed to turn it into a fencing match – pouncing and shouting “Have at thee, knave”. She flounced off – but soon they came after her, giggling and slightly red in the face: they wouldn´t say what they wanted to show her, so she followed them, and joined them in crawling up a sand dune till they could see – clearly – in the hollow opposite – she snatched her glance away, and slid back down the dune, heart thumping, feeling like she´d received a blow in the pit of the stomach – Ferdinand´s naked bottom, a sort of whimpering sound, a body beneath his on the travelling rug from the car. She felt fiercely ashamed, assaulted by the sight, excluded by the unconsciousness of the two lovers. When they were distant enough, she turned on her two brothers, who were giggling and speculating – “they´re tickling each other!” Somewhere she understood that this must be what people did when they made babies: but where was the wedding, who was the woman? She fiercely told them that they must never mention it to anyone. They didn´t, but they all three stared at Ferdinand when he came to the supper table having bathed before hand, with a lazy softness about him.
She remembered something else. Her father pointing at a headline in the paper – and mother teasing him because his French wasn´t very good. He looked cross, and mother threw a frightened glance at the children. Now she could put words to the sensation she had felt then – of knowing something her parents didn´t want her to know. Her mother was making her father look ridiculous in front of them. But there was something more. And now she remembered the sudden silence that fell when she entered the dining room that evening, hot, flushed and sandy from the beach. The newspaper was on the table. Ferdinand and her father were frowning, and her mother looked close to tears.
The very next day a telegram came for Ferdinand to rejoin his regiment, and off he went, joking and laughing as ever. Nothing more was said. Once or twice she saw her father looking serious, talking to Antoine. The holiday was nearly over – but it was spoiled. Now the beach seemed to hold them in a sullen trance.The golden sun beating down seemed like a leaden depression. The sand in her shoes irritated – the salt on her skin was sticky. She remembered that Antoine´s daughter, who helped at mealtimes usually, seemed to have lost her lovely looks overnight. Once, going in to the kitchen to fetch some more milk, she heard her wretching outside in the paved yard. Her mother seemed to plead timorously that she enjoy herself – as if only the children held the key to the holiday. Looking back it seemed to her that it was as if the coming war had cast its shadow forward.
It had been in fact a relief when the month was up, when father shut the villa door and they said goodbye to Antoine. But he didn´t reply when she said, in her best French “J´attends avec impatience les vacances de lánnée prochaine.” “ I look forward to seeing you again next summer”.
She had anticipated the excitement of crossing the channel and how her little dog would greet her when she got back. But nothing, except her faithful little dog, was ever as she imagined it, ever again.
They hadn´t been back in London more than a few days when war was declared. Her father sat the children down and tried to explain to them what this meant. But all his talk of treaties, the assassination of the Austrian archduke, didn´t seem to have anything to do with anything they could understand. It was all mood: mother´s pallor and anxiety now become a constant; the muffled look of people in the streets: and a feeling of dread, which seemed like a low lying mist in their house. The patriotic rally they glimpsed when they went to wave Ferdinand off was like an hysterical party. But they couldn´t even get near to see him. That farewell in France was the last time they saw him.
There was a cafe near the main path down to the beach, and she decided to go there and sit dreaming in the sun, a little while. Her coffee ordered, she closed her eyes, and let the memories well up. This was the place where her parents had last been happy. Her father had volunteered, from a grim sense of duty, and been returned to them with his leg shot off, and his mind disordered.
She felt that her own marriage, at 19, to someone she´d known since childhood, a family friend, had been, as well as what they all expected of her, in part an escape from the quiet dark house, and the terrifying sound of her father´s nightmares.
She opened her eyes, to dispel the pricking tears, and let them rest on the old men playing boules at the side of the cafe. One of them snatched up a fallen pine cone from the sand, and hurled it away and in that moment she had a vivid memory of Ferdinand playing cricket. The movement was him to the life. She shook her head, telling herself she was old and silly. And looked again. No, she wasn´t dreaming. She may have been old and silly, but he really did have a family likeness: Ferdinand could well have looked like this in old age. She stared at him now: always hard to tell the age of lean men with short bristly hair: but surely he must be in his seventies?
At that moment, her coffee arrived, and trying to hide her mounting excitement, she detained the waitress a little with questions as to the summer trade, whether it was still popular with the English, how she herself had holidayed here long ago. Gesticulating as she rummaged through her memory for the right words, and trying to appear casual, she pointed out the man playing boules, and asked his name, saying that he looked familiar, though of course it was so long ago that she was probably mistaken.
“Mais oui, Madame. C´est Ferdi,” and, looking closely at her, asked in return “Peut-être vous ayez connu a son grand-père, Antoine?”
Isabel fumbled for a handkerchief, and wanted to mutter something about hayfever, but couldn´t remember the word.
“Do you like I call him, Madame?” asked the waitress, sympathetic and attentive.
“Oh no, let´s not interrupt the game” said Isabel, “I´ll speak to him when it´s over. My French is very rusty, you know.”