by Judith Skilleter
a small Calvados
Anna loves Le Touquet. She has been coming for years and in all seasons. She first fell in love with its Victorian and Edwardian grandeur when she did her year abroad for her degree in French. She had the most amazing year in Amiens learning to be a teacher but she lost her heart to the chic seaside resort just up the coast – le Touquet. Don’t get me wrong, Anna loved Amiens – the cathedral, the hortillonages (allotments) the macaroons that are not at all like the sugary macaroons we know and either love or can’t stand. (Anna can’t stand the sugary variety). But the faded grandeur and stylish elegance of Le Touquet drew Anna north time and time again.
After graduation, she achieved a first, of course, Anna is nothing if not thorough and a bit of a perfectionist, she went into teaching. She taught French to GSCE and A Level standard as well as introducing youngsters to this fabulous language. She took full advantage of the long school holidays and would come To Le Touquet at Christmas, Easter, for a month in the summer and if possible there would be short trips during the half-term breaks. She often thought about seeing the world and just checking out other places, even other places in France. She reckoned she would love Avignon and Montpellier but these places although on the agenda were not yet on the calendar. She never tired of Le Touquet – it offered her rest, diversion and a glimpse of a world long ago. It was the perfect holiday.
She enjoyed her teaching years but when her parents died, within weeks of each other, her inheritance enabled her to take early retirement and now she teaches privately, at home, getting youngsters up to scratch for forthcoming exams. And of course, this meant more free time and more trips to le Touquet. She had thought about moving to Le Touquet permanently but where would she then spend her holidays?
Anna had been the only child of only children. She has no family. No sisters, cousins or aunts anywhere. She is entirely alone. She has had lovers and partners, both male and female, all delightful, but there has never been the hint of anything permanent in any of her relationships. This does not distress her unduly. Her relationships have all ended well and she keeps in touch with a good number of them - and not just cards at Christmas. Most of her relationships were ended by the other partner who perhaps sensed that they were not getting enough from Anna, nothing that might suggest permanence or commitment, and with regret they moved on. Neither has Anna ever anted children. She reckons the years in school with other people’s children was quite enough for her. Anna does not want permanence or commitment, she is very happy being alone - and for her being alone does not mean being lonely.
But it is not all of Le Touquet that she loves. Anna hates the sea front, the promenade, where the Edwardian and Victorian villas have been replaced by 10 story apartment blocks; hundreds of glass eyes looking out to sea. Apartments that are probably empty for 6 months of the year because the winter winds coming off the Channel are ferocious. This accommodation is for short term tourists and for permanent residents who get used to having the shutters down. Anna prefers to be a few streets inland where there are remains of le Touquet’s once elegant past, where architecture has run riot but never inelegantly and where delightful villas grace the edge of the “foret”. Anna sometimes wishes that she had been born a century earlier and had enjoyed Le Touquet in its heyday.
Anna is a reader and when in Le Touquet her favourite author, her favourite laugh out loud author, is PG Wodehouse who lived in Le Touquet from 1934 but stayed too long. “The silly clot” (Anna’s words) and was arrested by the Germans when they invaded France. “The silly clot” was interned for a year. Anna quite understands why he stayed longer than he should – Le Touquet is intoxicating – but he was a silly clot nevertheless.
Every day Anna takes a French daily newspaper and the day old Daily Telegraph. She also takes Paris Match; she loves the antics of the Monegasque royals and aging French troubadours. She was sad to learn of the recent death of Jean Paul Belmondo who was “a looker” in his day. Anna remembers all her French crushes of the past – Jean Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon were favourites but never Serge Gainsbourg. He was too craggy.
But sometimes, both in England and in France, she gets a glimpse of what she has missed. In France it is Sunday lunches, “en famille”, the whole family together, sometimes 6 or 8 or 10 people and 3 or 4 generations together. This is a French habit if not commitment. Tables are booked in restaurants well in advance and the lone silent diner stands out amongst these tables filled with noisy, active and usually loving families. Anna avoids Sunday lunches. She would hate it if she was invited to join a loud French family, she would think they were taking pity on her. Eating alone with a book or magazine is, to Anna, a delight and explaining this to over generous and over gregarious French people would not be easy. So on Sundays Anna either goes for a long walk with a picnic or she goes for a day-trip somewhere. She sometimes goes as far as Paris. Anna loves her Paris excursions despite their taking her away from her beloved Le Touquet. She has a routine there; she takes the metro to the left bank, inspects the progress on Notre dame – she cried when it was seriously damaged by fire - a visit to Le Musee d’Orsay when she sits in awe in front of the Impressionist paintings and a long lunch in one of those very Parisian riverbank restaurants. She is always glad to get back to le Touquet though.
This last Sunday she drove north to Ste Cecile (her car is a Renault, of course) and, as the tides were right, she walked to the next resort, Hardelot, and back. A good 3 hour hike. She has done this walk a few times but is very wary of the fast incoming English Channel. More than once her return journey has been a scramble over the dunes and not a gentle stroll along the water’s edge. She has learned her lesson.
But today is midweek, there are few tourists about and no families gathering for lunch and she goes to her favourite café for breakfast. The waiters recognise her and bring her “a grand crème” (white coffee), fresh orange juice, a small baguette with butter and jam and a croissant. She reads as she eats and takes her time.
A gentleman, French she thinks, who she has noticed before approaches the café. He always looks elegant in an unforced way, just like the old le Touquet. In poor weather he wears a suit, three-piece, with a bowtie and a small handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. The bowtie and handkerchief never match, God forbid. In good weather he wears a linen suit, never creased, with a buttonhole, a cornflower if available. And she loves the way he always raises his hat, usually a Panama, to passing ladies. She has never caught his eye but is always aware of his presence.
But today he approaches her table and asks in perfect English but with a French accent if he may join her. She laughs at this and replies “Is it so obvious that I am English?” in her perfect French. She was scanning through the latest Paris Match at the time. “But please do.”
There were plenty of empty tables and she was intrigued by his approach and by the glimpse of elegance that for her characterised the old Le Touquet – here it was in male form.
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