‘Marie, are you ready?’
She could tell Jean was cross by the way he opened the bedroom door. She moved sharply away from the window, pretending to be busy, closing the curtains: ‘Yes, I’m ready . . . best to keep the curtains drawn in this heat.’
‘I’ve been waiting for half an hour, you know.’
She looked at his angry face and followed him out of the room.
Marie hadn’t even done her hair. She’d entered the room, looked through the open window, spotted a boat in the sea. She’d moved forward to see it more clearly and then stayed where she was, resting her head on the window-frame. She’d heard the din of the old bus that ran through the village, the reverberating noise of a motor-boat on its way into port, the cries of a group of children as they ran up to the harbour. The boat that had attracted her attention had long since moved out of sight, and silence had returned. A whiff of resin drifted up from below.
They were the only people on the stairs. She put her arm round his shoulders: ‘Are you cross with me?’
In the ground-floor lobby she stopped for a moment in front of the mirror. ‘Is my hair all right?’ Her chignon needed attention and a dark lock was falling too low over the right side of her forehead, just as it had before she’d gone upstairs.
‘Yes, it’s fine. You took your time, but you look great.’
She didn’t argue. He wasn’t very observant: so keen was he to get off that he must have looked at her without really seeing her at all. And she had made him wait for half an hour, it was true . . .
As they were leaving the house, she said: ‘It’s so hot! You’ll really enjoy your swim.’
‘What about you?’
‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you when I’ve seen the water.’
The road is white, dry, without shade. They enter into the heat, cutting across it without saying a word. Marie’s dress is faintly transparent in the sunlight, and the outline of her long supple legs shows through the cloth; in the shifting light her hair looks chestnut, red, blonde. Head high, she blinks her eyes and wrinkles her forehead; from time to time she raises her big, beautiful hands to shield her face.
They come to a narrower road leading directly to the sea. They walk very close to each other, on the right-hand side of the road, in the partial shade offered by some young cypresses. Marie’s hair returns to a more consistent colour, her face relaxes and her eyes are more clearly visible: those distant eyes that seem to rise up to things with a kind of indifference. Then suddenly the road stops, runs into the beach; the light regains its searing intensity.
As they sat close to each other on the sand, Jean started to remove his sandals.
‘Do wait a little before going in,’ Marie said. ‘It’s too soon since you finished lunch . . .’
Turning towards his wife he looked into her anxious eyes. ‘Two hours – that’s enough! But if you want me to wait I will. I don’t want you to start panicking the moment I walk into the water.’
Marie moved nearer to him and closed her eyes, leaning her head on his shoulder. Jean is right next to me. Jean, the only man I love in the whole world . . . Her heart was drowning in an infinite tenderness, and her mind began to create strange pictures. She was going with Jean into a place full of warm, intimate shadows; he was pushing her gently towards a table. Lightly touching her bare arm with his hand, he held it there for a long time before letting go. ‘Do you want to dance, my darling?’ He took her up to a raised, narrow dance floor, put his arms around her, almost lifting her up, transporting her to the rhythm of some popular, sensual music. (She hesitated: was it mediocre music? Yes – the music has to be sensuous, vulgar, the more mediocre the better.) How well they were dancing; and that loving gesture of his, lightly brushing her forehead with his lips!
Marie, sitting on the beach, snuggled even further into Jean’s shoulder. They were dancing so very close that his happiness must surely equal her own: he too must want their embraces to last forever.
‘It’s so hot, my love . . . don’t cling to me like that!’
Marie disentangled herself. Closing her eyes again, she raised her knees and rested her head upon them. He wanted their embraces to last forever . . . they were still dancing. On the way back to the table he looked at her and said, in a voice sweet with promise: ‘Shall we go home?’
Marie looks up and her eyes rediscover, without actually taking them in, the water, the boats, the sand and the scattering of light on the sea. She remembers the conversations she has had with friends – pointless, irritating conversations that are always the same but in which she participates none the less. She hears Lucy saying: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Smiling, she always replies: ‘Yes, it’s true.’ And now, recalling that exchange, that same mysterious smile returns to her mouth. She turns round and stretches full out, her face towards the ground; the smile has disappeared. ‘What is happiness?’ she asks herself. ‘What does happiness mean?’
‘Whether you want me to or not, it’s time I went for my swim!’ Jean shouts, taking off.
Marie is published June 23rd and is available to buy here.