Nell isn't sure how her family is going to take the news about her and Mick, while their relationship gently starts to blossom in the summertime.
The soundtrack is one of my personal favourite love songs - it has this beautiful feeling of being freshly in love in a wonderful summer; the very thing Mick wasn't sure he'd experience again after the Rosie disaster.
Sixpence None the Richer - Kiss me
Kiss me out of the bearded barley
Nightly, beside the green, green grass
Swing, swing, swing the spinning step
You wear those shoes and I will wear that dress
Oh, kiss me beneath the milky twilight
Lead me out on the moonlit floor,
Lift your open hand
Strike up the band and make the fireflies dance
Silver moon's sparkling
So kiss me
Kiss me down by the broken tree house
Swing me upon its hanging tire
Bring, bring, bring your flowered hat
We'll take the trail marked on your father's map
Oh, kiss me beneath the milky twilight
Lead me out on the moonlit floor,
Lift your open hand
Strike up the band and make the fireflies dance
Silver moon's sparkling
So kiss me
So kiss me
Nell gave a little startled cry when the bell at the nearby chapel began to ring.
"My God, it's six already!" She jumped up frantically. "Mother is going to have a fit if I'm not home at dinnertime!"
"I guess telling her that a pesky American kept talking to you in the ruins for so long won't do much to calm her down, will it?"
"No, I don't think so", she sighed with a somewhat pained smile. After a small pause, she added, determinedly, "Do come home with me and warm up a bit. You must be as cold as I am."
I wasn't actually feeling too cold, and the rain had stopped, but of course I wouldn't decline an invitation like that.
She led the way along a rain-drenched dirt track to her family's modest dwelling in a very small hamlet just a few hundred yards inland from the lighthouse; a low-slung house, not much bigger than Jean-Luc's cottage, built of the same unadorned granite. It was not shabby or derelict, but it had an undefinable air of sadness to it, despite the pristine white lace curtains at the windows and a bunch of neatly arranged wildflowers on one of the windowsills.
Nell pushed open the faded red front door that led directly into a large, dark kitchen which occupied most of the ground floor. A large fireplace to the left of the door gave off a pleasant warmth and the slightly biting smell of wood smoke.
Loïc was stirring a pot on the iron stove at the back of the room. He looked around when the door creaked open. "There you are finally, Gwenna! Oh, and Mick!" His previously surly face lit up as he glimpsed me. "Good to see you!"
"I thought Mick could eat with us tonight", Nell said. "We … met over by the abbey. Can you believe he was taking a walk in that weather, too?"
"No, really?" Loïc's voice didn't betray anything, but his round face cracked into a broad grin. I didn't know whether he had seen right through his sister's words the moment she said them or if had been in on our rendezvous from the beginning, but it was clear that he knew something.
Nell put a finger to her lips as clunking footsteps sounded on the wooden stairs just outside the kitchen. Her brother nodded and winked.
A tiny, tired-looking woman appeared. She wore heavy clogs and thick woolen stockings with her long wool skirt and what looked like a man's heavy cable-knit sweater over a white lace-trimmed blouse.
She didn't seem to take notice of me as she shuffled over to the stove to taste the soup and screwed up her face in disgust. "Too much salt, boy, way too much salt. And where have you been so long, Gwenaëlle? I've been worrying you had got lost in the fog."
"There wasn't any fog, Mother, only rain. I'm perfectly fine, just got a little wet. I ran into Monsieur Carpenter at the abbey. Mick. You know, I told you about him. The friend of Michel Delacourt's who works with Jean-Luc now."
Nell's mother nodded absently, muttering to herself as she cracked an egg into the soup to soak up the excess of salt.
"Do you mind if Mick is having supper with us tonight, Mother?"
"Oh, no, not at all", she said tersely. "Here's hoping he likes his soup very salty." She didn't further acknowledge my presence.
Nell pursed her lips and closed her eyes as if she was biting back a comment.
I squeezed her hand and mouthed, "It's alright."
"Thanks for having me", I said aloud to Madame Kervennec's back. Again, she did not react.
Hardly any words were spoken during the meal. I would have loved to break the silence and ease the tension but couldn't think of anything to say.
I felt honoured that Nell had taken me to her home, but I was feeling quite uneasy. It was as if their mother's arrival downstairs had sucked all their usual liveliness out of Nell and Loïc, and I could only suspect just how difficult and demanding it had to be to live with this hushed shadow of a woman for a mother.
I looked at her again and again over my bowl of soup, but she never lifted her eyes to meet mine and seemed to focus on nothing but her supper. I wondered what she was thinking and if she wished this unbidden intruder would leave rather sooner than later.
One could still guess that she must once have been a pretty girl. The shape and bone structure of her oval face were much like Nell's, but her grey eyes had a dull, lackluster appearance, and while Nell's complexion was rather fair but in a natural, healthy way, her mother's skin was sallow and lined before its time, and there were broad streaks of grey in her brown hair that made her look even more sorrowful.
Her eyes did light up for a moment when I thanked her politely for her hospitality as I said goodbye.
"Do come and visit again, Monsieur Carpenter", she said to my surprise. "It was nice to have you here."
Nell went outside with me when I left. "That was about the greatest praise you could have got", she told me. "And it will make things easier for us ... although we should not tell her more about us quite yet, lest she'd let something slip with Dad. They sometimes talk on the wireless in the evenings, you know, and when she's in her bad state, she may not always be careful about what to say or not to say."
I didn't particularly like the idea of keeping the truth from her parents. I didn't want to do anything clandestinely, I wanted us to be open and honest and straightforward. And I feared that when the truth would finally come out, there would be the more trouble for her the longer we waited. But I didn't want to push matters just yet; we were only just starting out after all.
So I did nothing but take her hands and press them to my chest for a moment before I left instead of kissing her, and I was careful to shield us from view by turning my back towards the window.
I looked back before I rounded the bend of the dirt road and found her still standing in the doorframe, blowing me a kiss.
I smiled to myself quietly. This small stealthy gesture gave me confidence that she'd pluck up the courage to tell her parents some time soon.
Fabulous weather and a heavy workload didn't permit me to see much of Nell during the week, but one evening she had gone to the port under some pretext to wait until we came home.
I waved to her casually as we sailed past, trying not to look too enthusiastic. You never knew who might be watching and go gossiping afterwards.
When we had unloaded the day's catch, I walked over to her, making it look casual. She was smiling broadly and said, "I spoke to my mother about you today. She's having quite a good day, so I decided I'd seize the opportunity, and you know what? She said she'd already guessed there was something on between us."
I was surprised. The withdrawn, silent Madame Kervennec seemed to have been a lot more perceptive than I'd thought.
"So I have passed the test?" I asked airily.
"Oh, yes, you have. I think she really likes you."
"What about your dad?"
"He doesn't know yet. I'll tell him face to face next time he's home", she promised quickly when I raised my eyebrows. "That's not something to talk about on the wireless, especially not with him."
Not having to keep our feelings totally closeted any longer was a big relief for me. I wasn't one for big public displays of affection and certainly wouldn't start kissing her exuberantly here and now, but I had been rather iffy about the idea of deceiving her own parents. It felt a lot better to know that at least her mother was in on, and approved of, what was going on between us. I simply didn't want to live with lies and secrets ever again, not when love was concerned.
When she made to leave, I remembered something and dug into the pocket of my working pants to pull out the beautiful scallop shell I had found lying on the deck of the Sirène this morning. I didn't know how it had come to be there - perhaps a seagull had dropped it – but it seemed like a perfect little gift for Nell.
"I found this in the morning and thought you might like it", I said, feeling myself blush like a silly schoolboy, wondering belatedly if she'd care for a sea shell at all, even if it was pretty, when she had lived right by the ocean all her life.
She accepted the shell gracefully, tracing her fingers along the radiating fluted pattern of the cream- and rose-coloured surface. "What a lovely specimen", she said softly. "Such beautiful colouring, and unbroken, too. Now I have something to remind me of you until Sunday." She tucked the shell cautiously into the little basket she was carrying with her and was gone with a small flutter of her fingers into my direction.
Jean-Luc looked at me with his funny little half-grin when I came bouncing down the stairs. He was sitting at the kitchen table, reading through his stack of the week's newspapers that he always saved to read on Sundays after lunch and a little nap. "Off to see your girl?" he asked, peering at me over his reading glasses that had, as always, slipped halfway down his long nose.
"How'd you guess that?" I grinned back at him.
"She's a lovely girl, Gwenna is. If only her mother wasn't mad and her father wasn't a jerk." Jean-Luc sighed. "But don't let that put you off. She deserves a decent chap like you. And what pretty children you are going to have."
I groaned. "Oh, give it a rest, will you? Listening to you, one could think we were as good as married."
"I do hope to see the two of you walking down the aisle one day", Jean-Luc replied imperturbably. "Needn't be tomorrow, though. Take your time."
I shook my head, half angry, half amused, and left. Why did everyone have to start fantasizing about marriage and kids the moment a new young couple appeared on the scene?
The fragrant beauty of the balmy summer afternoon enveloped me as I walked through the village. Hydrangeas had begun to erupt lavishly into thick clumps of white, blue and pink blossoms, and white and purple lilacs were in full bloom, exuding a heady scent, while the lovely long-stemmed, multicoloured hollyhocks along garden fences and house fronts contended with the elegant beauty of the first roses.
It was not only the village that had exploded in a riot of colour. The vivid yellow of the gorse softened the somber greys and greens of the cliffs, and a few magenta specks of heather were already showing when I looked closely enough.
As I continued along the clifftop path, I couldn't help thinking with a mix of joy and regret how much the landscape reminded me of my native Maine. The ragged, rocky coastline dotted by many lighthouses, the austere grey granite of the little houses mitigated by the gay blues and greens and reds of shutters and front doors, the sea beating relentlessly against the cliffs – was it a kind of sign that I had met Nell here, of all places?
Only that I didn't really believe in signs and omens and such. I wondered where that idea had come from and brushed it aside, a little mortified about myself.
Nell and I had agreed to meet by the chapel. She was leaning on the low stone wall that enclosed the former abbey grounds, looking out over the sea. A few tendrils of her hair had come loose in the breeze, but either she wasn't aware of the fact or she didn't mind.
She had not yet detected me, and I slowed down to sneak up behind her without making a sound and planted a gentle kiss on the nape of her neck.
"Oh!" She spun around and threw her arms around me. Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed me on both cheeks. "I missed you so", she said. "The last few days just didn't seem to want to pass without you. And Mother is having another bad spell. She was truly driving me round the bend yesterday. Loïc is staying at home with her today so that I could go and take my walk with you."
"Good of him", I said, but if I was honest, the thought of a vivacious fifteen-year-old like him locked up at home on such a fine sunny day to look after his mentally disordered mother saddened me. I wished I could do more for Nell and her brother than just listen to their problems and be nice to their mother.
We followed the coastal path until we reached a small fortified peninsula. The remains of the fort were well preserved, and I would have loved to explore them, but Nell led me a few hundred yards further, indicating the narrow bit of sandy beach that lay just behind the fort.
"This is where we used to swim with our cousins when we were younger", she said. "I loved that, but as I grew older and, well, womanly, my father wouldn't allow it any more. Loïc still swims here sometimes, and he keeps telling me I should join him, no one would see us anyway. This was always pretty much our 'family beach', hardly anyone else ever comes here to bathe."
The beach was deserted today, too. I suggested, "Let's stay here for a while. We don't need to swim, though." I winked at her.
I sat cross-legged in the warm sand after taking off my shoes and socks, and she lowered herself beside me, modestly tucking her legs up under the skirt of her blue dress with its pattern of tiny white flowers, leaned against my shoulder, turned her face into the sun and closed her eyes.
I closed mine, too, and inhaled her scent of soap and sun-warmed skin and something faintly flowery. I kissed her on the top of her head, and she reached for my hand, kissed it and ran her thumb over its back.
"I love your hands", she said. "Big and strong. And beautiful. I even love those little cuts and scars you keep getting, like all fishermen and sailors do." She stroked the long, half-healed cut across the back of my left hand I'd given myself with a gaff a few days ago. "It may be a strange thing to say because scars are usually reminders of something unpleasant, but somehow I find them fascinating … the way life leaves its impressions on your body … to show that you have been hurt and that you have survived."
I didn't comment on this. In a way, she was right. Maybe I should adopt this view with regard to the scars I bore myself.
I had learned to ignore the slash through my left eyebrow that had taken very long to fade from an angry red to the rosy-tinged white it was now, as I didn't want to be reminded of my run-in with the tabletop in Harry's bar every time I glanced into the mirror or, what was much worse, of all that had led up to it.
Perhaps it was time to accept this indelible mark left on my face and finally let go of the disappointment and anger about Rosie and her behaviour that still flared up once in a while.
If not for myself, I ought to close that chapter for good for Nell's sake, I thought. Be glad that I'd survived and go on.
While I was still thinking about Nell's words, there was a rustling among the shrubs at the edge of the beach, and a girl of about ten emerged. She had light brown plaits the same colour as Nell's hair, but it was not primarily Nell she reminded me of.
What cut into my heart with a sharp stab of sorrow was the memory of another little girl who'd used to wear her hair like that.
What would she be looking like now, at almost eleven, nearing the border of adolescence, no longer a child?
And Janie, my rotund, blonde, cherub-faced baby sister – would she still have those chubby little hands and cheeks like round red apples? Or had she outgrown her baby fat in a way that would render her unrecognizable to me, her own brother, if I were to meet her now by chance?
I was so transfixed by the girl's appearance that I'd hardly noticed Nell getting up to greet her. They were now talking in rapid French.
I scrambled to my feet and walked over, too. The girl was watching me curiously from a safe distance and demanded to know who I was when I drew nearer.
I hunkered down on my heels to be at eye level with her. "I'm Mick", I said in my badly accented French. "And what's your name?"
"Madeleine", she said with a little chuckle, nodding in affirmation. "You're not from here, are you?" she added. "You have a funny way of speaking!" She giggled again. "Like the Spanish man who works with Papa. He's got black hair like you. Are you from Spain, too, Mick?"
I explained in my "funny" French that I was not Spanish but American, and after Nell had elaborated on where America was, far across the Atlantic Ocean, the little one trudged off, dragging her feet through the fine sand.
I swallowed as several years' worth of missing my girls broke through with all their might.
I had deliberately kept the memories of them under lock and key, but now I was powerless against the force with which my suppressed feelings came surging back.
Nell sensed that something was up and gave me a questioning look.
"I've never told you, but I had two sisters back in the U.S. Have two sisters", I hastened to correct myself when I saw her eyes cloud over at the thought that I'd lost them to some accident or illness. "I haven't heard of them in a long while now", I said. "After my mother died, I wrote to them regularly, and they always replied religiously, but one day my letter came back, marked 'Return to sender'. I tried to find out what had happened, but all I know is that my stepfather moved away with them and didn't leave his new address with any of his old friends or neighbours."
Nell's eyes ran over after all. "That's terrible", she whispered. "I'm so sorry. That's so dreadful."
"Yes, it is … I miss them a lot, but there's not much I can do. Looking for them would mean searching for a needle in a haystack, so I just try not to think of them too much. But the little one here reminded me so much of Jess, the elder of the two. She's got the same plaits, the same eyes and the same perky way of talking."
"She's my eldest cousin's daughter", Nell said proudly. "She's cute. And clever."
"Like my Jessie", I murmured.
Nell gave me a compassionate look. "Shall we go?" she asked. "I mean, if she's reminding you too much of …"
"No, it's alright. I can't spend all my life hiding from little girls with brown hair, can I? I'll get over it eventually. I hope." I made a somewhat unconvincing attempt at a smile and looked away.
She rested her hand on my cheek for a second before she took my hand and held it firmly in both of hers as we watched Madeleine, who had taken off her shoes and thrown them carelessly into the sand, hop around in the shallows, squealing when she got her skirt wet.
She bent repeatedly to pick up little objects, probably sea shells and the like, examined them and threw most of them back into the water.
After a while, she came hurrying towards us. "Look what I've found, Gwenna! And Mick!" she cried and held a small piece of driftwood out to us. "See, it looks a bit like a bird … or a dragon … or maybe it's a … hmmm …" She turned it this way and that and screwed up her face thoughtfully.
"I believe there's something else hiding in there", I said, squinting a bit as I eyed the texture of the wood. "What animals do you like best?"
"Owls", the girl replied.
"Owls", I repeated, surprised, and paused for a moment. "Yes … I think it's a nice little owl that we've got here."
"An owl?" Madeleine said in disbelief, scrutinizing her find. "I can't see an owl."
"It's not visible yet, but I can bring it out. Shall I?"
She frowned at me, obviously wondering if that foreigner with the funny accent had lost his marbles.
Pursing her lips, she finally nodded. "Fine. Although I can't think how. You can't do magic, can you?"
"Wait a bit. You'll see in a minute."
Madeleine and Nell watched me eagerly as I brought out my penknife and began to whittle away at the piece of wood until I had carved the likeness of a barn owl. It wasn't a masterpiece but it was recognizable, and Madeleine beamed when I handed her the animal.
She oohed and aahed and thanked me very politely, then she scurried off to get her shoes and go home.
Nell grabbed my hands again. "So these are the hands of an artist, too", she said. "That was a beautiful thing to do for Madeleine. All little girls love animals and little knickknacks and keepsakes."
"And what about big girls?" I asked, masking my still somewhat shaken state of mind with a pert tone of voice and an impish wink.
"They love their sea shells. And their sailors." She looked up at me with shining eyes and an enchanting lopsided smile.
Without a word, I began to pull the pins from her hair, one by one, and made it tumble over her shoulder, smooth, silky and slightly wavy.
"How beautiful you are with your hair like this", I said. "Even more beautiful than usual."
It was true. She appeared less composed and demure and more sensual and feminine with her hair freed from its usual bounds.
Very carefully, I reached out and ran my hand up her bare arm and on to her neck, tracing the neckline of her dress towards the front.
She gave a little gasp when I let my fingers wander further down to approach her breast, touching it lightly through the fabric of her dress, and I half expected her to shrink back, but she only shut her eyes and leaned into me, her head tucked into the crook of my neck.
I laid her gently down on the fine white sand and stretched myself out beside her.
She moved closer, turning over on her side, and began to cover my face with the lightest kisses, starting with the scar through my eyebrow, brushing back my hair to go on to the temple before she slowly worked her way down to my mouth.
Her arm came around my back while I buried my fingers in her loose hair, and everything except the two of us was forgotten the moment our lips found each other in a long, deep, passionate kiss.