One night when we had all gone to bed, and I was snuggling under my eiderdown and a pile of coats (the weather was fiercely cold, there was no heating in the room, and I always kept my window wide open), a shower of pebbles suddenly rattled on to the bedroom floor. Then I heard a low whistle.
I struggled into one of the coats and padded over to the window. The night was bright as tempered steel, and the moon, like a white Camembert cheese against the Prussian blue of the sky, gave an eerie light, so diffused that it cast no shadows. Jacques, who had come for a late-night chat, was standing beneath my window all swaddled up in an enormous muffler. I leaned out and said hello, and how nice of him to come, but he mustnâ€™t stay as it was so very cold. This did not go down well, and he went silent, leaning against the wall and scuffing the ground with one foot. I cursed myself, but could find nothing else to say. It was desperately cold, and I longed for him to go. It would only mean another sore throat, a bad chest and a week in bed. Oh, why didnâ€™t he go? A little moan escaped me.
â€˜What did you say?â€™ He looked up sharply.
There was another long silence. Suddenly he said, â€˜Youâ€™ll be ready at six?â€™
â€˜Heavens! Iâ€™ll never manage to wake up. Itâ€™s nearly midnight now.â€™
â€˜So it is. Well, Iâ€™ll come round and throw gravel at your window. Please donâ€™t be late. I donâ€™t want to miss the sunrise!â€™
â€˜Okay. Goodnight,â€™ I said firmly.
â€˜Goodnight, and you will be quick in the morning, wonâ€™t you?â€™
I felt as if Iâ€™d hardly dropped off to sleep when the dreaded shower of gravel was pattering on to my floor again. I struggled into consciousness, scrambled into my clothes and boots, and tried to wash my face, but gave up when I realized that the water was frozen solid in the jug. Quickly brushing my hair, I screwed it into a tight knot which I skewered to my skull with all the pins I could find. As we still had no mirrors in our rooms, there was no point in even trying to titivate. Creeping through the sleeping house, I grabbed my cloak from the coat-stand in the hall and slipped outside, where Jacques was waiting for me.
â€˜Youâ€™ve been ages,â€™ he said. â€˜Weâ€™ll have to hurry if we want to catch the sun before it comes up. Come on, letâ€™s go,â€™ and grabbing my arm, he dragged me through the gate and out on to the cliff path, taking such huge strides that I had to break into a brisk trot to keep up with him.
We covered about five miles at this pace, and by the time we reached the high dune we were making for I was breathless, exhausted, famished and wondering whether it was really worth all the effort. However, we made it in time. The sandy hillock on which we stood was planted with young pines and the tall grass all round, frozen stiff, stuck out of the ground like knife blades. Standing still and puffing out little plumes of frosted air, we stared expectantly at the orange horizon. The colour gradually mounted in the sky, illuminating little specks of cloud and spilling on to the wet sand and mudflats of the bay. The sea was miles out and the tide was still retreating. Flocks of waders picked their way delicately about in the ooze; there were plovers, curlews and avocets, and another flock on tall matchstick legs, as large as storks, which even Jacques could not identify. The sky changed gradually to geranium red, and then deep ox-blood, and the sun rose slowly out of the sea. Jacques heaved a great sigh. It really meant a great deal to him to be present at this daily ascent of the sun, almost as if he didnâ€™t trust it to do the job properly without his personal supervision.
â€˜Better than any painting in the world, isnâ€™t it, little one?â€™ he said. I loathed being called â€˜little oneâ€™, but let it pass.
â€˜Well yes, I suppose so,â€™ I said, but secretly I thought his own creations rather better. He got a great variety of colour into his paintings, and branched out into lovely streaks of lime and primrose which a real sunrise seldom produces. We stood still as the sun slowly climbed out of the sea and the colour faded in the sky.
â€˜One day weâ€™ll build a hut here on this dune, and weâ€™ll live like hermits, right away from the world,â€™ he said. â€˜Iâ€™ll chop down treesâ€™ â€“ he waved at the saplings around us â€“ â€˜and weâ€™ll have huge log fires. Iâ€™ll fish, and shoot rabbits and wild duck, and youâ€™ll make clothes for us out of their skins.â€™
Duck skin? Unnerved by the cold, I felt a ghastly fit of giggles coming on. Mercifully, I managed to suppress it. Carried away by his vision, Jacques put his hand on my hair and started to poke about in it. The pins began to rain down the back of my neck and on to my face, and the wind caught my loosened hair. I gritted my teeth, but said nothing. He saw my expression and looked contrite, but it was too late.
â€˜Letâ€™s go back before you catch cold,â€™ he said solicitously. â€˜Weâ€™ll cut across the fields.â€™
The â€˜fieldsâ€™ â€“ a euphemism for what was normally bog-land into which you sank hip-deep â€“ were now frozen into ruts and troughs over which we staggered and stumbled, disturbing volleys of snipe and flocks of teal and mallard. We crossed a frozen pond, and a slow creaking sound, beginning by the sedges, ran all along the edge and a long crack appeared in the ice.
â€˜Run for it!â€™ shouted Jacques. â€˜Quick, or weâ€™ll sink.â€™ We belted across as the ice slowly began to dip on our side. One enormous leap (M. Dupontâ€™s early training came in useful here) and we were on firm, crusty bog-land again.
â€˜You realize that if weâ€™d gone under we would have drowned, donâ€™t you?â€™ Jacques said, as if I were responsible for our near-miss . . .
* * *
Jacques and I continued our sunrise expeditions, not abandoning them even in gale conditions. One morning, when we reached our sand dune, with the wind lashing around us like a whip, the sun having duly risen, Jacques said: â€˜Letâ€™s get into that hollow. It should be more sheltered there.â€™
We jumped into a kind of sandy bunker at the foot of a great pine tree which creaked and groaned all the way down its trunk like the mast of a ship. Out of the wind it was really quite warm, a real little sun-trap and as cosy as could be.
Woodpigeons, annoyed at being blown out of their trees, complained persistently, while lapwings and plovers pecked around us like domestic fowl.
â€˜Why donâ€™t you lie down?â€™ Jacques said. â€˜We can do a bit of sunbathing,â€™ and we stretched out side by side. It was delicious. I closed my eyes and basked luxuriously.
Suddenly and without warning he bent over and kissed me. I sat up with a jolt, and our foreheads met with a clash, like fighting stags. Taken by surprise, I leapt up. â€˜How dare you trick me like that!â€™ I shouted at him, with tears of rage pouring down my face. â€˜Now youâ€™ve spoilt everything!â€™
It was a very sullen walk home, and I refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. He had indeed spoilt everything.
After that I was on my guard and wouldnâ€™t go for walks with him any more. Poor John, whom he bored to death with his miseries, finally came to me and said, â€˜For Godâ€™s sake, canâ€™t you be decent to him again? Arenâ€™t you making a lot of fuss about nothing? Whatâ€™s wrong with a kiss anyway?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s not the kissing so much as the way he did it. He tricked me. It was a mean thing to do,â€™ I said, still upset. But eventually I allowed him to resume our old companionship â€“ on the absolute condition that there would be no more soppy stuff â€“ and we went on our walks along the sea-shore again.
Â© Suzanne St Albans, 2016