As the ship skimmed on its way, my only wish was that we would return soon. I had never been to an island before, but I had an idea that it would be cramped, and dull compared to the Continental city life that I was accustomed to. It was partly because of me that we were to spend the summer on Alemmia, although I was not aware of it at the time. I was a particularly particular child. I wanted everything to be just as I pictured, and I was angry when people – my parents, my brother, my relations, or other innocent bystanders – did not cooperate. I don’t know why I was so angry, or why I was so particular, but it made my parents’ work difficult. They were gentle people, artists of loose, vague paintings, and they could no more be harsh and disciplining with me than they could with their paints and paintbrushes. It was simply not in their nature. And if they were surprised that they had produced, out of the blue, a child with a fiery spirit completely unlike their own, of a far deeper passion than any accidental masterpieces that their unconscious had ever forged, they never made me feel anything but welcome in their lives.
It wasn’t their fault that none of the refined Roman hotels that their friends were frequenting would suit me. Not their fault that their child kept them back from the artistic watering holes that might have helped to further their careers. They never reproached me, and even pretended to enjoy the way I continuously changed the course of their lives like an obstinate boulder blocking the road. Who knows, perhaps they did enjoy it, as water enjoys dancing around obstacles in a stream.
Most people who saw the way we lived would not suspect that I was spoiled, but they would be wrong. Having kind and loving parents is the greatest privilege in the world. They are the models from whom we learn the workings of self-love, the pattern on which we base the voice of our inner adorer. And as Graf Tolstoi so rightly observed, they make for an endless variety of happy families. But I am getting ahead of myself. That first summer on Alemmia was all my fault, and all my blessing, as you shall very soon see.
The island was recommended to my parents by a stranger they met at an exhibition, who had been watching, with detached amusement, as I threw a voluble tantrum because my parents would not buy me a lovely — but fiendishly dear — fairy sculpture.
‘I want it,’ I wailed. ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘I know, darling, but I’m afraid we just can’t afford it,’ said my mother, kneeling to speak to me face-to-face. Her voice was calm and reasonable, but I could sense the note of pleading creeping in. She hated scenes.
The fairy-sculptor was standing obsequiously next to his work, and I saw him puff up like a toad when my mother spoke of our financial difficulties.
‘Then he ought to gift it to me,’ I said, pointing at him.
The man smiled, and bending slightly at the waist, said in a sing-song, patronising voice, ‘you know, it really isn’t meant as a toy for little girls, my dear. This sculpture represents a serious socio-anatomical study. It is a museum piece.’
I had stopped crying. Narrowing my eyes, I turned to the pedestal and inspected the fairy carefully for a few moments. In the light of its ugly sculptor, and from my vantage point of gazing at an unattainable item, the flaws in the subject and the execution seemed to swim to the surface. I took my mother’s hand with sudden decisiveness.
‘Come, maman,’ I said. ‘We can return when he is better.’
‘I am frightfully sorry,’ my mother managed to say, as I tugged her towards the door.
While my mother was fretting about the fact that she would never again be able to show her face in one of the most prestigious galleries in the city, my father had been considering the stranger’s suggestion. ‘Alemmia,’ he mused. ‘I feel like I’ve heard that name before.’ The stranger told him of a small villa was to let for the summer months on the quiet Mediterranean island of Alemmia, and later that day, some light research led him to discover that the island was first colonised by a group of artists wishing to leave the real world behind and immerse themselves in their art. This poetic idea of the island retreat appealed to my parents, as it does to so many of us, but what they could not have learned from any guidebook, except perhaps from the book referred to simply as, Alemmia, which was as common in the houses of the islanders as a Baedeker or Bradshaw might have been on the Continent, was that this island had an art all its own…
It was late when our ferry drew in to the port in Magnesia. I was probably asleep, for I don’t remember seeing the great, all-encompassing arm of the Pharos Library, nor the lanterns along the promenade, sparkling in the sea breeze, nor the torches dotting the terraces of La Cigale, nor even the waving street-lamps or the headlights of the cabriolets that whirred up and down those streets. One such cab must have picked us up, along with the Continental cargo we had brought, and whisked us off to our rented villa. Here, the driver must have helped us unload, and someone must have carried me inside and tucked me into a bed with cool, cotton sheets…
For when I woke in the morning, I found myself in a strange space, cocooned by a tulle canopy. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, trying to dispel the white mist that obscured my vision and my awareness. Finally, reaching out a tentative hand, I touched the veil that separated me from the outside world. I rose, tugged one end of the canopy out from under the mattress with growing impatience, and emerged into a small bedroom. Out of the window I could see the slope of the porch gable, pointing towards the trees and the flashing sea. The walls around me were painted with faux panels, each one depicting what looked like scenes from La Fontaine. My case was on the floor. I remember being irritated that no one had attempted to unpack it, because this would have given me an excuse to fly into a fit of passion. I hated having my belongings moved. Still, there would be other opportunities to express my displeasure.
The smell of toast and cocoa drifting in through the open door, accompanied by a low murmur and an occasional clink of crockery, told me that my parents were preparing breakfast. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I hastened to follow the sound. I walked along the upstairs hallway, marvelling at the warmth of the smooth, wooden floorboards under my toes, and the cool walls against my fingers. These walls, like the ones in my bedroom, were painted with various caprices, but instead of being separated by panels, they melted into each other like the visions in a dream. At home, I was used to paintings hung on clearly delineated canvasses, or displayed in frames. Drawing and painting on the walls was strictly forbidden.
At the end of the short corridor was a landing where two bookcases stood tête à tête, the triangular window between them disclosing the same scene as my bedroom, only a little further along. The shelves on the left were crammed full, with books of all sizes fitted into the spaces like a puzzle, so that their weight had bowed the wood. The shelves on the right were also sagging, though they were empty except for a volume on the highest row, which I could not reach, and a thick, leather-bound book lying on the shelf at my eye level. It was too heavy to move, but I remember running a finger along the embossing on its spine, and sounding out the letters one by one. D-E-S-I-D-E-R-A-T-A. I could not make head or tail of this, which disappointed me. My father had assured me that my spelling was improving, but here I was, unable even to decipher a one-word title.
I tiptoed downstairs, my family’s conversation becoming intelligible as I neared the kitchen.
‘… I think it’ll do us good to be away from the beaten path,’ my father was saying.
‘Yes, darling, but the beaten path is where the work is.’
‘But not the art. We didn’t become artists to go the same way as everyone else. Fred, would you mind setting the table? I think the knives and forks are in that drawer over there.’
‘Oh, Yu, not this again. As if artists are so far above the rest of humanity. Art is a business, same as everything else.’
‘Art is the way of life.’
‘Yes, and life requires us to earn our keep.’
‘I’m just afraid that we will one day have to earn our art.’
I entered the kitchen before my mother could respond. My father looked up from the toast he was buttering to beam at me. ‘Good morning, sleepyhead,’ he said. ‘Did you sleep well?’
‘What did you think of your room?’ asked my mother. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ She was watching the milk on the stove, so she didn’t see me shrug.
I slid onto a chair and semi-accidentally pushed my fork off the table as I was helping myself to a slice of apple.
Freddy sighed, picked it up, and placed it back in its place. It always annoyed me to wake up after my brother. I felt as if I was missing out on some secret communion between him and my parents, as I had in the three years before my arrival in the family.
‘It’s dirty,’ I complained. ‘I want a new one.’
‘Then you can get it yourself,’ said Freddy, sitting down opposite me and instantly losing himself in a book.
My father placed the full toast rack next to the fruit and gave me a kiss on top of my head. I held out my fork to him, and he obliged by running it under the tap, drying it, and returning it to me.
My mother poured the cocoa into our cups, and we all sat down to eat.
‘What shall we do today?’ asked my father.
‘We should set up the studio,’ said my mother. ‘We mustn’t get lazy. This isn’t a holiday, after all.’
This plan was unlikely to appeal to my father, for lazing around was his favourite pastime, at least according to my mother. ‘Perhaps we could do some sight-seeing?’ he suggested. ‘We might find some nice views to paint.’
‘I want to go back home,’ I said.
‘You know we can’t, Lucy, not for a few weeks at least,’ said my mother.
‘Why not? You can work at home.’
‘But isn’t it nice to have a change?’ asked my father, hopefully.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I want to go back home.’
‘Maybe Lucy can go home, and we can stay here,’ said my brother.
‘No! I’m not going on my own!’
‘And we’re not coming with you, so there.’
‘What have you got there, Fred?’ asked my father, in an attempt to change the subject.
‘It’s a book of insects. I found it on the shelves upstairs. Look, here’s an entry on pests. Lucia pestilentia —’
‘I am not a pest!’ I shouted.
‘Freddy…’ said my mother, ineffectually.
‘Lucia pestilentia. A rare and deadly species. It latches onto you with its tiny little pincers, and sucks your blood until you’re as shrivelled as a mummy.’ Freddy was enjoying putting his descriptive powers to use. ‘And it screeches the whole time,’ he added, observing my reaction.
‘I am not a pest!’ I screeched. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what a pest was — a sort of insect? — but I knew that it was nothing flattering. ‘Take it back!’ I shouted.
‘Lucy,’ said my father, equally ineffectual. ‘Fred’s only teasing. He doesn’t mean it.’
‘Yes, I do.’
So it went. After breakfast my father thought it wise to take my brother and I outside, while my mother started her work. A low stone wall separated the villa garden from a field where I could see two horses grazing. But what instantly drew Freddy and I was a rose arch that opened onto a path through an argent olive grove. Beyond the trees, the landscape seemed to end abruptly, as if an amateur watercolourist had started with the foreground and realised her mistake too late. This was my first impression of the Mediterranean sea — an overwhelming expanse of empty sky. I had been to the ocean before, on soggy school holidays when the clouds, rather than being lifted with a handkerchief, looked like the abandoned, dirty handkerchiefs themselves. The Mediterranean was of an entirely different disposition. Its surface was an extravagant lapis lazuli, dazzling even under the morning sun, with a hypnotic rhythm that threatened to send me to sleep. I felt like that sometimes, riding in a carriage, with the dappled light racing over my face.
‘Is our home over there?’ I asked my father, pointing straight out to sea.
My father looked around for some clue, scanning the horizon, then the shore, then the sky. ‘I’m not sure, Luce,’ he admitted at last.
‘How am I going to get back home if I don’t know which way it is?’
‘Perhaps you’d better wait until we take the ferry back.’
‘I always have to wait for you.’
While my father and I were looking out to sea, Freddy had picked up a fallen olive branch.
‘Is that a peace offering?’ asked my father.
‘Not likely,’ said Freddy, swishing the branch this way and that so that the silver undersides of the leaves sparkled.
‘I want it!’ I declared, trying to take the branch from my brother. He held it up so I couldn’t reach. ‘Freddy! Give it to me.’
‘No. I want to study it.’
I struggled to tear it from his grasp, but he was too quick.
‘Lucy, stop being a pest,’ he complained. ‘Here, have this other one.’
‘I want your one. It’s nicer.’
Freddy sighed, and handed me the olive branch. I flourished it once or twice, as I had seen him do.
‘Look, it has olives on it,’ said my father.
I inspected the little green fruit he pointed out.
‘Can we eat them?’ I asked, or began to ask, for at that moment I caught sight of a hideous insect, sitting on the twig just inches from my hand. I screamed, and dropped the branch.
Freddy picked it up, excited by the prospect of discovering a new life form. ‘Oh, that’s not even an insect,’ he said. ‘It’s the exuvia. You’re actually scared of something that isn’t even there.’ He shook his head at how pathetic he thought this was.
‘What’s an exuvia?’ asked my father.
‘When the cicada emerges from the ground, it looks like that,’ said Freddy, pointing at the papery insect that clung to the wood. ‘Then it transforms, and comes out looking like a… well, a cicada. With wings and things. It leaves that shell behind.’
‘How interesting,’ said my father.
‘How disgusting!’ said I.
‘Look, it’s the same colour as you, too,’ Freddy observed. He opened his notebook to write. ‘Lucia pestilentia, exuvia, pasty white. Hollow on the inside. I’ll have to look that up in Latin for it to be a proper, scientific description.’
‘I’m not hollow!’
‘How do you know? Let’s cut you open to find out.’ Freddy made as if to slice me in half with his pencil.
I screamed again, and hid behind my father.
‘He’s only joking, Luce. Don’t worry, we won’t let him pin you to a board, either.’ He poked me playfully, but I wasn’t having any of it.
‘I’m not hollow,’ I repeated. ‘Take it back.’ Since I was ever unwilling to chase or hit Freddy, this was my only line of attack.
‘Shan’t,’ said Freddy, simply.
I let out a shriek of pure rage, such as only angry little girls and banshees can produce. Then, defeated, I ran back inside.
When Monsieur Angelo arrived at our villa that afternoon, I was in the middle of another tantrum. In order not to look even more like the pasty exuvia that Freddy had compared me to, I had asked my mother to have my blue dress pressed and ready — something which was perfectly within her purview to do — but she had not done as I asked.
‘I didn’t know you wanted the blue one in particular,’ she said, holding open a white dress for me to step into. Her calm, apologetic tone angered me even more.
‘But I told you specifically,’ I said, stomping my foot to emphasise my point. ‘I even repeated it to make sure you’d heard me. Why do you always do this? Why do you never attend?’
Tears of mingled rage and disappointment rose to my eyes, and I wallowed in the feeling of being ill-treated and ignored, which I knew even then were a sham. I was well aware that compared to many parents, my mother and father were angels, but anger is a singularly usurpatory emotion; even in its mildest form it has the force to jostle aside all other feelings, and to kick reason out all together. As such, it’s the perfect tool for forgetting yourself.
And I was consumed with anger.
I toured the house in a fog of emotion, screaming, crying, and doing my utmost to ensure that no one remained ignorant of my distress. I didn’t hear the front door, and when I finally became aware of an extra spectator to my misfortunes, it was through blurry eyes to which he appeared as a wavering apparition of light and dark. The surprise of seeing a stranger in the house caught me off guard and I forgot what I was feeling. As I sniffed and looked up at the figure, it changed shape and from within its silhouette appeared a smaller, dancing light. For a second I thought it was a fairy, or some sort of small spirit, then, squinting, I realised that the stranger was waving a white handkerchief in front of my eyes. Sometimes, when I have lost myself in anger, I remember that rose-scented flag of surrender, and I can’t keep from laughing.
‘It smells really nice,’ I said, handing the handkerchief back to the stranger.
‘Yes, Alemmian rose water,’ he said. ‘No, no, you may keep it.’
I was pleased with this gift. The handkerchief, apart from smelling sweet, was soft and thin, its edges were embroidered with a simple scallop and an elegant monogram was stitched in one corner: E.A. How grown-up to be given a handkerchief by a gentleman! I folded it carefully into quarters and slipped it into my pocket, at the same time smoothing out the two bunches of crumpled fabric where I had clutched the dress in order to give vent to my anger.
My mother came into the hall just then, drawn by the sudden silence, and greeted the new man with a wide-eyed look of wonder, or gratitude, or alarm, or all of them at once. She was holding my shoes in one hand, and her parasol in the other. It was clear that she didn’t know who he was, but also that she was indebted to the person who had stopped one of her daughter’s tantrums in its tracks. The gentleman bowed and introduced himself.
‘Ernest Angelo, at your service, madame. I believe you were expecting me?’
How often have I heard that innocent phrase since I first landed on this island! ‘I believe you were expecting me.’ Anywhere else it sounds at best rude, at worst manipulative, but on Alemmia it is a common greeting, very much like, ‘how do you do?’
Islanders and littorians are always friendlier and more welcoming than people who live inland, of course, but Alemmians took the idea of the stranger angel a step further than most. To them, no one arrived without reason, and therefore a guest could be nothing but expected. You may not have known, consciously, that they were coming, but unless you were ready to receive them they would not have come, they could not have come. That is how Monsieur Angelo explained it to me when I asked him, but I must admit that it wasn’t until I had been on the island for some time and grown more accustomed to its spirit, that I truly began to understand the meaning of expectancy.
My mother, more out of good breeding than readiness, shook his hand, and said, ‘of course, of course, but I am afraid we were just getting ready to go out.’
Perhaps she thought this would deter him, but it did not.
‘Excellent,’ said Monsieur Angelo. ‘I thought I might guide you to the Ionic shore? It is the place to be, especially for a painter, as I perceive you are. I have asked for a cab to take us.’
‘Oh!’ said my mother. ‘That sounds rather settled. Well, let me see if the boys are ready. Here are your shoes, Lucy.’
‘Did you check them?’
My mother laid her parasol down on an ornate stone box and proceeded to run her hand along the inside of first one, then the other bottine. Then she turned them upside down and shook them out for good measure. I nodded, and allowed her to help me put them on and lace them up.
‘There we go. Lucy’s very particular about her dress,’ she said, standing up. She was turning to go when she realised that she had left Monsieur standing in the hallway. ‘Luce, won’t you show our guest to a chair? We won’t be a minute.’ With this lie, she went back upstairs.
Monsieur and I gave each other a long, evaluating look. I had a peculiar feeling that he knew what I was thinking, which was that he had seen me crying in anger, and even worse, he had seen me forget my anger in the blink of an eye, as though it were nothing serious, as though it did not constitute yet another betrayal of my trust, another frustration of my expectations. I had wanted to wear my blue dress and now I would have to wear this white one, and be hot and uncomfortable and worry about getting it dirty. It wasn’t my fault. I had told my mother. Twice. What more could I have done? Surely she had a duty to deal with the laundry.
‘Shall we sit out on the porch?’ asked Monsieur.
I nodded sullenly, and followed him out.
In front of the house was a shady verandah with a few straw chairs and some tangled potted plants. I picked up one of the cushions and beat some non-existent dust off it before sitting down. This made me feel a bit better. I noticed that Monsieur imitated my actions, which was even more gratifying. He was wearing a crisp, white linen suit, and a dark blue silk cravat.
He noticed me admiring his attire. ‘It is difficult wearing white, don’t you think?’ he asked. ‘One must always be on the alert against all manner of offenders.’
‘Yes!’ I replied, with such passion that Monsieur could not have doubted that he had alighted on a subject close to my heart. ‘That’s why I wanted to wear navy blue. But my mother has no idea how to deal with laundry.’
He might have lectured me on the impropriety of criticising one’s mother in public, but he didn’t. Instead he said, ‘do you know, there is a dyeworks on the other side of the island. I once saw cloth being dyed indigo there. Now, indigo is a tricky colour. It is obtained from certain plants that are not blue themselves, but turn blue when bruised, and the cloth is similar. It is first saturated in what is called, “white indigo”. Have you heard the term?’
I shook my head. Of course I hadn’t heard it.
‘White indigo is a special compound of indigo. Indigo dye doesn’t dissolve in water, so once dyed it is quite permanent. But how to get it onto the cloth in the first instance? That is where white indigo comes in. It is indigo combined with hydrogen and on contact with oxygen, voilà!’
His exclamation was so loud that I jumped.
‘White turns to blue,’ he said. He tucked two fingers into his breast pocket and brought out a navy blue handkerchief which he flourished like a magician.
I was annoyed that he was treating me like a child. Did he think I would be impressed? It was not even a trick. If he wished to conjure something, he ought to have turned the handkerchief in my pocket navy blue. Despite myself I patted the pocket to make sure it was still there.
He smiled, his eyes dancing with mischief.
‘I don’t see how it will help me,’ I said. ‘I’m still wearing this white dress and not the navy blue one I wanted to.’
‘Ah, perhaps, perhaps,’ he said. ‘Or perhaps it is white indigo.’
I was still sullen, but now I was also confused. Was I supposed to draw some moral from this random story?
As we spoke, the voices in the house grew nearer and louder.
‘Freddie, will you fetch my parasol. I think I must have left it on the ottoman… Isn’t it there? Perhaps it’s inside?… Did you find it?… What?… No, no, the one with the malacca handle… Oh, never mind, darling, I’ve found it. It was right in front of me, on the sarcophagus. Right. Are we ready at last?’
If Monsieur had not been keeping me company I would have been bored to tears by this wait, but he had taken my mind off the usual ordeal, and probably averted another tantrum. My mother, father, and brother finally came out of the house.
‘Here we are,’ sang my mother. ‘Monsieur, this is my husband, Yuri, and our son, Freddy.’
‘How do you do?’ said everyone, shaking hands.
‘Lucy, are you ready, darling?’ asked my mother. ‘Aren’t you going to brush your hair?’
I shook my head without looking at her. My father ruffled my head without thinking, and I was just bracing myself to kick up a fuss when the cab rolled into the drive and mercifully saved him.
Alemmian cabriolets are an odd sight. They run with or without horses as required, but what is most remarkable about them, other than their convenience and their ability to be uncannily available whenever they are needed, is the wonderful designs which adorn them. No two are alike. The one that awaited us on that first day was decorated to resemble a castle, with painted stone battlements, and miniature turrets with pennants that streamed with the movement of the carriage.
We piled in. Freddy was carrying the book that he had found in the house, but as it was full of gruesomely detailed illustrations of insects, it held no interest for me. My parents, as always, were carrying their painting equipment, each in their own wooden box. My mother preferred oils, and my father watercolours, and one day, when Freddy remarked that their temperaments were reflected in their choice of medium, I was surprised at his perspicacity, or else at my own failure to notice the correlation. It was true. My mother was slower, and more meticulous; she liked to take her time and place every brushstroke with as much precision as she was able. She was also less likely to shift unexpectedly. My father, on the other hand, was quick and expressive. He liked to do as little work as possible to best effect, and to let nature run its course. Whenever they painted en plein air he would always be finished an hour before my mother, and would sometimes start a second painting, or sit in the shade and take a nap.
In this sense they were very different, however, as anyone who has experience painting with both oils and watercolours will avow, they also embodied the exact opposite of these superficial traits. If you asked them what they loved about their chosen medium, my mother would say that she liked the way that oils allowed her to produce an impression; watercolours required one to be too precise and controlling, and she would always be nervous of making a mistake. My father would say that oils were too difficult to control, and had a tendency to smudge and lose detail because they took so long to dry.
I have since been fascinated by the capacity of substances to contain their opposites. Perhaps this is one reason why we sometimes call to us people, places, objects or experiences that are displeasing to us, but still place us on the right path; because if we look closely and carefully we can find existing in them the things we wanted all along, only in a “misguise”. And who knows, but this may be a way to make us more attentive?
During that first carriage ride none of these things were even vaguely discernible to my mind’s eye, of course, although in hindsight they appear to permeate the story. The landscape was like those paintings which you think you remember distinctly, but which on later examination disclose impressions of unseen, unlooked-for, unsuspected objects. I remember nothing except that I sat next to Monsieur, opposite from my parents and Freddy, that the light filtering through the canopy was a warm orange which made me feel sleepy, that the others all talked about the weather or the island or something, and that the drive seemed to take an age, though it could not have done, since the Ionic Bay is only about twenty minutes’ drive from the villa. Freddy and I have since walked it countless times, and not including adventures it only takes us about an hour.
Monsieur Angelo asked the driver to drop us off at the end of the promenade furthest from the statue that was the island’s symbol. The seats in the cabriolet were arranged sidelong, and when I leaned forward to see past the driver, the waves of the Ionic sea and the rings and buckles of the horse’s bridle glinted as the carriage swept into a tree-lined avenue. When we reached the end of the road, the trees fell away to reveal the entire Bay, with its promenade tucked into a deep U of the cliff, and its boats that cut jagged shapes out of the deep sea. I had seen my father many times lift these white triangles out of his watercolours and I still often think of them as holes in the air or water, showing the white paper of the world through their full sails.
When the cab came to a halt, Monsieur jumped out and held out his hand to help me. ‘Mademoiselle.’
‘Do we have to go down all those steps?’ I asked in dismay, peering down the side of the road and holding my hat against the wind.
‘Do we have to walk up all those steps?’ asked my father, joining me.
‘Ah, no, if you come with me, you will see that there is a very convenient way to avoid tiring ourselves,’ Monsieur assured us.
He led the way, holding aloft his walking stick like a tour guide. Behind a stand of trees, invisible from the road, was a small, sun-powered verticular station, and an attendant ushered us into a cabin that was waiting in readiness to take us down to the promenade. I had never ridden a verticular before, and I watched with fascination as the great engine pumped water into the cabin’s tank and we began our descent. Freddy and I stuck our heads as far out of the railings as we could, so it felt as if we were birds gliding down to the sea. Halfway down we passed the other cabin, and the people inside waved cheerily and one of the women greeted our guide with a cry of, ‘good day, Monsieur! Don’t forget our little party on Saturday! Bring your friends!’
Monsieur responded with equal cheer, taking off his hat to salute the others, and replying in quick communication as the cabin passed inexorably upwards. ‘Yes, yes, Lady Amelia. I look forward to it! Good day, good day!’
We sank to a final stop on the prom and alighted. The scent of roses, which had been increasing as we made our descent, now washed over us in full force. It wasn’t overpowering or fulsome as perfumes tend to be, but it was overwhelming in its deliciousness. I felt as if I wanted to inhale forever, and that the necessity of exhaling kept me from accomplishing a perfect satiation in that blissful scent. Whether from the redolence or from breathing too deeply, I felt dizzy and swayed on my feet. My mother held my hand.
‘Are you well, Lucy?’ she asked, looking down at me and brushing the hair from my forehead.
I turned my head away irritably and wriggled free of her grasp. ‘This dress is too tight,’ I said. ‘I told you I wanted the blue one.’
My mother sighed in defeat, and who could blame her? Here I was on an edenic island, looking for reasons to be grumpy. She left me and walked on to join the others, who were examining the prospect. The promenade was shaded by giant palms planted at intervals, and on either side were a profusion of rose bushes, all in bloom. There were benches set under the trees, some facing out to sea, some towards the prom, and many of them occupied by sets of elegantly-dressed people. Most promenaders, I noticed with annoyance, were wearing blue.
I kicked a pebble out of the way, and followed my family and Monsieur at a sullen distance. I thought about how uncomfortable I was, how the stitching at the waist of my dress scratched at my ribs, how the sleeves pinched my arms and the collar felt as if it kept sliding forward. I revelled in my discomfort because it proved that I was right. This state of things was intolerable and someone ought to pay for ruining my day like this.
We strolled along the bay, with the sea to our right. Monsieur explained the history of the things we saw, but I paid no attention. My mother offered me her parasol but I declined it. I was bent on misery.
Midway along the prom was a latticed archway that ran for about a kilometre and spanned the entire path. That first day we visited, it was hung so thickly with verdure and ponderous rose blossoms that it created an even deeper shade than the palm trees offered. A single step into its shadow encircled me in the embrace of an enchanted new world. The air was a cool solvent that carried both the scent of the flowers, the murmur of voices intermingled with the hum of bees, and the swishing freshness of the close sea. At intervals, tall openings had been cut in the lattice that offered rose-framed views of the sea on one side, and on the other, of gardens subdivided into small, secluded chambers by laurel hedges. It was the loveliest place I had ever been.
My parents hung back to admire one of these doorways, and I could tell from their measuring looks and gestures that they would soon give in to the urge to paint. I crossed my arms and looked the other way. I found myself standing next to a tall marble plinth; from its summit, the bust of a woman was smiling down at me with a gentle, forbearing expression. Her skin, and the hair that curled around her breast was rendered so accurately, and the sunlight that filtered through the arches gave her such a rosy glow, that when I held out my hand to touch her cheek, I almost thought her skin would be warm and soft. As I strained to reach the crown of flowers at the top of her head, her smile grew mischievous, and one lively eye, in the flickering light, winked with shared confederacy. Glancing over her shoulder, I saw a door, not an open doorway like the others, but a heavy wrought-iron gate set in its own frame, moulded into the rest of the archway by the twining branches of the roses.
I was about to slide around the statue to investigate, when two strong arms plucked me from the ground and lifted me. I yelped, but my father only laughed and twirled me around.
‘Isn’t it beautiful, Luce?’ he said. ‘Aren’t you glad we came?’ He held me high above his head so that I could touch the top of the arches if I wanted.
My poor father, mistaking the nature of my high-pitched screams, thought that I was enjoying the experience of suddenly being thrust to the top of the world. ‘Can you smell the roses, Luce?’ he called. ‘How about that big, white one over there?’ He bounced me up and down as though I were a baby.
‘Put me down,’ I screamed.
He lowered me onto his shoulder, still oblivious to my mood, and holding my hands out to the sides, began a strange waltz. Monsieur’s smiling face flew before my eyes as I perched like a sailor high up in the crow’s nest on a stormy sea. A few promenaders stopped to admire our charming family scene.
‘Yuri, put her down, she doesn’t like it,’ said my mother at last.
My father grasped me around the waist, and with an impervious, ‘hup!’ deposited me back on solid ground.
I swayed, and he held onto my shoulder. ‘Wasn’t that fun?’ he asked, but as soon as he saw the tears streaming down my face, his grin vanished, and he looked sheepish. He gave a nervous laugh, and ran a thumb across my wet cheek, but I turned away and hid my face in my mother’s dress.
‘You weren’t scared, were you, Lucy-goosey?’ asked my father.
‘Lucy’s a scaredy-cat,’ sang Freddy. ‘Lift me, lift me!’
This was neither the first, nor the last time such a scenario played out, of course. In time I noticed the lightmotif of people trying to lift me up, and my own unready reluctance to be uplifted. I saw how resisting my own desire to rise was causing me grief, but I also came to understand that there was no shame in being unprepared.
‘I’m not scared,’ I muttered, burrowing into my mother’s lap.
Despite this unexpected upset, as the day progressed it grew harder and harder to maintain my dark mood. I had to puff out my chest and wriggle my arms to remind myself of the annoying dress. It was loosening the more I wore it out. When we came upon an ice cream stand, wreathed in an alluring mist of cool air, I made one last effort at petulance and, ignoring Monsieur’s kind recommendation, I insisted on having strawberry ice cream. The others all chose the island specialty, which was shaped expertly by the vendor into the semblance of a rose blossom, stuck with a pink chocolate rosebud on a stick, and served in a pistachio green cone.
‘Mmm, this is delicious. Would you like to try some, Luce?’ asked my father.
I shook my head. A few moments later, as my mother wiped my sticky face and hands with water from a fountain, she found that I had dribbled pink ice cream on my white dress. I was furious and made such a scene that I had the satisfaction of attracting the notice of several passersby.
‘Ah,’ said Monsieur, philosophically. ‘You are quite right. White is the very worst for attracting stains.’
I noticed that his suit looked as pristine as ever. If anything, the white linen glowed as if with absorbed sunlight against his dark skin.
‘Wipe your nose, Lucia, and stop making such a fuss,’ said my mother, rubbing at the stain. ‘Have you a handkerchief?’
Good, I had riled her at last. Hopefully I could ruin her day as she had ruined mine. But even as I thought this, I knew that my bad mood was waning. The warm air was lulling me to an early defeat. My mother fished in my pocket and took out the handkerchief that Monsieur had given me.
‘What a pretty thing. Where did you find this?’ she asked.
I pointed at Monsieur.
‘It’s rude to point, Lucy. Now, pull yourself together.’
She left me holding the handkerchief. I blew my nose, but as I was putting it back in my pocket, I realised with astonishment that it was dark blue. The stitched edging and monogram now stood out in intricate contrast. I looked up at Monsieur to see if he was watching, but he was gazing with purposeful nonchalance out to sea. I started to ask him how he had made the handkerchief change colour, but I decided not to play into what I suspected was a trick to make me appear childish, or worse, to cheer me up. I waited for the others to start walking again, and dropped the handkerchief surreptitiously on the ground.
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