Web Site: Maggie Cobbett
A nameless woman meets the love of her life for the last time.
She saw him once on a campsite in Saint-Palais sur mer.
Of all the resorts in the brochure, how odd that she should have picked that one. That part of France's Atlantic coast was a much longer drive from the Channel ports than they usually considered these days and the journey had been a nightmare.
Eventually, even her husband had to admit that they were not going to arrive at 'Camping de la Plage' before its gates were locked up for the night and they headed for the first small roadside hotel they saw. After a four hour drive the next day, they finally saw the sea, blue and enticing, welcoming them to Saint-Palais.
Disgruntled at having lost a whole day of their seaside holiday, the rest of the family headed straight for the beach as soon as they had parked the car, leaving her to unzip their tent and sort out their home for the next two weeks. It was spacious and immaculately clean, but the smell of plastic was overpowering on that hot afternoon. She made a half hearted attempt to unpack, but it was not long before she could feel rivulets of perspiration trickling down her back. This was not her idea of a holiday. Should she persevere and have the place in perfect order by the time the family arrived back demanding to know what was for dinner?
"Not a chance," she thought, and headed straight for the seventeenth century château which housed all the central facilities of the campsite. Bypassing 'le fast-food' with its long queue of English families, their noisy children getting under everyone's feet whilst a harassed French girl shovelled mountains of 'frites' into paper bags, she was drawn towards the idea of a cool, leisurely drink in civilised surroundings. The unpacking could wait.
The bar was small, dark and almost deserted. A handsome German couple, the sort of instant summer people pallid Brits hate on sight, displayed their perfect tans and sipped their beer at the table by the window. The English barman winked at her and made some comment about towels and sun loungers. If the Germans understood, it did not seem to bother them. A man sitting alone in the corner was drinking Pernod and flicking through a copy of La Stampa.
She settled onto a stool by the bar, ordered a glass of the local Pineau and relaxed, letting the delicious brown liquid trickle down her throat. She was thinking of ordering another when the door opened and a shaft of sunlight heralded some newcomers.
“Ik wil graag een ijs, ” gasped a perspiring blond teenager, whose smooth tan and perfect white teeth completely eclipsed the Germans. "Het is te heet!". Dropping his tennis racket onto a chair, her father ordered ice cream for them all in perfect English as she knew he would and then changed easily into Italian to exchange a few words with the man in the corner.
“We’re all polyglots,” he had said to her once, “because nobody ever sees the point of learning our language.” He had laughed at her pathetic attempts to imitate the throaty sounds only the Dutch can make and told her tales of wartime spies caught because they could not say Scheveningen. He had sailed out of another port though and out of her life. Gone were her dreams of accompanying him round the world as he had promised. He had passed all his exams and his long cherished dream of a life at sea was about to come true . Engineers were allowed to have their wives on board and he had joked that she could give English lessons to the crew and teach the cook how to make Yorkshire pudding whilst he was on duty. The rest of the time would be a permanent honeymoon.
In Rotterdam they had gathered all the things he needed for his first voyage. He looked more handsome than ever in his new uniform, but the regulation boxer shorts, despite the jaunty palm trees, were stiff and uncomfortable. They chafed, he had written to her later, and that was before the cook had bought the cheap soap powder which brought the whole crew out in a rash and caused a stampede to the ship's doctor.
In the end, that was what broke them up. He had been her first lover and she his. They had fumbled and laughed their way to ecstasy, wherever and whenever they could. Conventional parents had prevented them from sharing a room in either country and there had been a lot of tiptoeing about during the night. They knew every creaking floorboard in each other's houses and exactly what time to be back in their own rooms. In Rio, though, he had sampled a more exotic kind of loving and wrote that she should go to a special clinic for a test. By the time the cook’s economy measure came to light it was over. There was a world of women out there and he would have many ports of call.
She turned away from the bar and stared at the group in the corner until she caught his eye. He smiled briefly then looked up again and recognised the girl she had been in the woman she had become. He came across.
“It is you?” His accent was stronger than she remembered, but she would have known his voice anywhere. It had spoken in her dreams for the last twenty years.
“No, with my family.” He considered this for a moment.
“You must come over and meet mine.”
“God, no.” she panicked. In all her dreams and fantasies his wife had been dead and she had stepped in to comfort him and win him back. The last thing she wanted was to meet the woman who had taken her place and given birth to the children who should have been hers.
“We should talk, though, catch up on old times.” He had no idea what her 'old times' had been like, how any mention of Holland or even the sound of his language never failed to open up wounds. Her husband was a good man but the shadow of the Dutchman had always lain between them. She had tried so hard to forget him but the pain never grew any less. She knew now that it would never go away. Her husband was prepared to accept the situation rather than lose her and she was often consumed with guilt over how little she gave him in return. Oh, she made sure that there were always clean shirts and food on the table, but her heart had been given away long before she met him. His sad eyes reproached her each time she turned away from his embrace into her own private world.
"How do you know that you would still feel the same if you saw him again?" she had asked herself more than once, throwing a coin into yet another wishing well. The wish was always the same. "We were only kids. It's just because he was the first. You might not even fancy him if you saw him again."
Perhaps it was true . He could be fat and bald and she might wonder whatever she had seen in him. A reality check might be a very good thing and help her to banish him from her thoughts altogether. Yet the thought of seeing him again was the only thing that held her together.
“I don’t think so,” she said, snapping back to the present, "I can't meet your family. I'm sorry." She ran from the bar leaving him open mouthed behind her. The barman noted that she had forgotten to pay for her drink and shrugged his shoulders.
"What rattled her cage?" he asked nobody in particular.
After a sleepless night, she knew what she had to do. She owed it to herself and even more to her husband. If they were to have any kind of future she had to kill the past. The campsite was small and he was not hard to find. She waited until she saw him set off, a towel slung round his neck, and followed. He came out with his hair dripping just as it had when they had showered together after making love. Sometimes they had made love in the shower too and had to start all over again. She wondered if he remembered.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” she said, “something I want you to do for me.”
“Of course, no problem.” He followed her down to the beach...
Later, in a secluded spot amongst the dunes he rolled and lit a cigarette.
“An old cowboy trick”, he had said years ago, rolling a cigarette with one hand as they rode along the dyke on his bicycle.
“Are you sure that that is what you want - after all these years? Just this one time?”
“Yes." The blue eyes which had haunted her every waking moment and most of her dreams were smiling down at her at last.
He stubbed out his cigarette in the sand. The sun beat down on them as it had in the cornfield in Holland where they had made love, giggling, only yards from the cycle track.
“So?” he asked afterwards. “Has it worked for you? Wasn’t it as good as you remembered? Hey, what’s the matter?”
“It was wonderful,” she said, blinded with tears. “That’s the problem.”
She stumbled back up the path to the campsite and into the privacy of their tent.
“Well?” asked her husband. “Did you lay your ghost?”
“You could say that,” she replied and looked into the empty future.
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|Reviewed by Candace Ho
|Wow, elegant and coy. I really enjoyed this!|